Category Archives: Writing

Understanding publishing jargon

Whether you are self publishing or taking the traditional route, you are likely to come across many words that you haven’t heard before. Here are the meanings of the ones you are most likely to meet.

A payment made by a publisher to an author before the book is published.  It’s an advance on future earnings (royalties) from the book but, provided you keep to the terms of the contract, it’s usually non-returnable, even if the book turn out to flop.  Once the book is on sale, any royalties will be offset against the advance until the full amount has been recouped by the publisher. When this has happened, the book has ‘earned out’

Advance Review Copy (ARC)
A copy of a book sent to reviewers, reporters and other relevant people before the official publication date. This helps build interest and enables reviews to be available when the book launches. Continue reading

Public Lending Right

When a library buys a print book, it can lend it to as many people it likes. The only restriction is the physical strength of the book – lending ends automatically when the pages fall out. To compensate for any resulting loss in sales, the UK government puts aside a chunk of money each year which is divided up amongst the authors whose print books have been borrowed.

This is called Public Lending Right (PLR) and the  system works like this:

  1. Authors register their books with the Public Lending Right office.
  2. The PLR office collects data on loans from a selection of libraries around the country.
  3. The PLR office extrapolates from that data to work out an estimate of how many times each book has been borrowed in the whole country.
  4. They calculate how much they can afford to pay per loan and pay that to every author in the scheme. To stop the most successful authors taking nearly all the money, no one can be paid more than a set maximum. (£6,600 in 2014). There’s also a minimum threshold of £1.

PLR is a great system for authors. It works extremely well and provides a welcome income boost. It’s also very gratifying to see how many times your books have been borrowed, especially those that are long out of print. So make sure you register each edition of your book that’s available in the UK.

The UK isn’t the only country with a PLR system. The Irish system works in a very similar way and is administered by the UK PLR people so you can opt to join that when you register your books in the UK.  Other countries, including Germany and the Netherlands, pay out their PLR money to UK authors through the Authors Licensing and Collecting Society (ALCS).

Diana Kimpton


Ten tips for finding a good ghostwriter

Advice from top ghostwriter, Andrew Crofts

Picture of Andrew Crofts

Photo from Petteri Kokkonen

Ten years ago virtually no-one outside the publishing industry knew that ghostwriters existed. Thanks to Robert Harris’s bestseller, The Ghost, (and the subsequent film starring Ewan McGregor), and thanks to the openness of celebrities like Katie Price, Keith Richards and the Beckhams, a lot of people now know that we exist, but there is still a great deal of confusion about what it is we actually do.

I receive two or three emails or phone calls a day from people who think they might need a ghostwriter, either for fiction or non-fiction, but who aren’t quite sure how the system works. So here are ten tips on finding a good ghostwriter. Continue reading

Planning your non-fiction book

Although some people manage to write novels without advance planning, that approach doesn’t work so well for non-fiction. You need to organise your thoughts before you start writing or you may end up with a jumble of facts that no one wants to read.

Step 1: Choose your subject
The usual advice to authors is “write what you know”, but I’ve successfully written books about topics I knew very little about initially. So I’m amending that advice to say “write what interests you”.  Then your enthusiasm will show in your book and be passed on to your readers.

Once you have decided on a possible subject, do a search on Amazon or Google to find the books that will be competing with yours. How will yours be different and/or better? Can you find a different angle or aim at a different audience. Which brings us to… Continue reading

Using a step outline to create a plot

A step outline is a list of all the steps in a story. It sounds simple, and it is. But it’s also a powerful tool for creating plots. I always use one when I’m writing a novel because it helps me gather my thoughts together and see the shape of my story before I start to write. It’s much easier to sort out potential problems and plot holes at this stage rather than wait until the book is finished. And once the initial plotting is finished, the step outline also provides a guide to the writing process, a bit like a road map. Because I know where I’m going, I can concentrate on the intricacies of the particular scene I’m writing.

I didn’t understand how to use a step outline properly until I read How to Write for Animation where Jeffrey Scott takes the reader step by step through the process he used to develop an episode of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. That opened up a whole new way of working to me and helped turn me into a successful children’s novel writer. So, to pass on that knowledge to you, I’m going to talk you through the process of developing the storyline for one of my children’s novels. But before I do that, I’d better make two things clear:

  1. A step outline is not a chapter list. I don’t worry about chapters at the plotting stage and only put them in during the writing process.
  2. A step outline is not set in stone. I can, and often do, adapt it while I’m writing the book.

You don’t have to write a step outline from beginning to end. You can go from the end to the beginning if you prefer, or jump around putting in steps as you think of them. You can even write different step outlines for different threads of the story and then weave them together. That’s what I did when I developed the plot for Princess Ellie’s Christmas.

Cover of Princess Ellie's ChristmasWarning – spoilers ahead. Stop reading now if you’re under ten, mad about ponies and haven’t already read this book.

When I was commissioned to write this book, I knew it would be the Christmas edition of my Pony-Mad Princess series. That meant readers had expectations I had to fulfill. The story had to feature Princess Ellie and her best friend Kate, the cook’s granddaughter. It had to involve at least one of her ponies and, of course, it had to be about Christmas.

Initially the step outline was completely blank. I hadn’t an idea in my head, but I knew this would have to be a little different from the standard Christmas stories. Those always include snow and I’d already written a snowy story that depended on the fact that it never snows where Ellie lives. Also there’s no magic in this series so there was no chance that Santa could fly in with his reindeer.

After a lot of thought about what makes a royal Christmas different, I suddenly remembered the Queen’s Christmas message. Suppose the King, Ellie’s dad, decided to do a Christmas broadcast live from the palace on Christmas Day. That would mean there would be a TV crew that  could trigger lots of humour and story ideas, and maybe I could involve Shadow, the Shetland pony, by making him pull a trap carrying Santa (but not the real one because of the lack of magic). At this point, the step outline for this thread of the story looked like this.

  1. Live Royal Christmas broadcast
  2. Batty TV producer
  3. Final scene with Shadow carrying someone dressed as Santa in his trap.

That was a beginning, but I still needed to involve Ellie. I decided I wanted to make the story about giving rather than receiving presents so I started another step outline for this thread of the plot. It was rather short.

  1. Ellie wants to give Kate the best Christmas present ever.

To turn that into a story, I needed to give Ellie a problem but I wasn’t sure what. So the next version of  the step outline was rather vague.

  1. Ellie wants to give Kate the best Christmas present ever.
  2. Something goes wrong
  3. She manages to do it anyway.

Now I had to play around with various possibilities until I came up with something that worked. To do that, I used the fact that Kate’s parents work abroad so they would have to get home in time for Christmas.

  1. Ellie orders a present for Kate
  2. When it arrives, it’s wrong but it’s too late to change it.
  3. Ellie is distraught. She’s failed
  4. Kate is distraught too – her parents have missed the last plane home. They won’t be back in time for Christmas.
  5. Ellie arranges for them to fly home in the Royal plane
  6. Kate’s parents are the best present ever.

With that thread almost sorted, I went back to the original step outline about the Royal broadcast. I was already fascinated by special effects and had written a book about them. Suppose there was a special effects team with the TV crew. Could they make the story end with a snow scene after all? But for that to make a satisfactory ending, it had to somehow be tied into the story. So I made Ellie wish for a White Christmas – a wish that couldn’t possibly come true completely because of the lack of magic.

  1. Ellie wishes for snow
  2. Batty TV producer finds out
  3. Live Royal Christmas broadcast
  4. Final scene with Shadow and his trap carrying someone dressed as Santa through a winter wonderland created by the special FX team. Surprise for Ellie.

That sort of worked, but it had a flaw. Ellie didn’t solve her own problem (the lack of snow) – the producer did it for her – and that’s a sure fire way to come up an ending that’s not quite as good as it could be. To make it more satisfactory, I needed Ellie to do something to trigger the snowy scene, and I settled on her doing a good turn so the snow was her reward.

  1. Ellie wishes for snow
  2. Rehearsal for Christmas message is boring
  3. Ellie suggests someone dresses up as Santa and arrives in Shadow’s trap – a surprise visit that no one else knows about
  4. Grateful TV producer finds out about Ellie’s wish.
  5. Christmas morning. No snow. Ellie’s wish hasn’t come true.
  6. Live Christmas broadcast.
  7. Final scene with Shadow bringing Santa through a fake winter wonderland. Surprise for Ellie.

Now I was sure both step outlines worked, I had to weave them together. Then, once I had the basic outline of the whole book, I was able to add intermediate steps and extra detail to make the story even stronger until I was finally ready to start writing. (The final version had 48 steps for a 7000 word book.)

Diana Kimpton

Handling backstory

When I was asked to judge a writing competition, I was surprised how easy it was to divide the entries into two groups: the possible winners and the also-rans. So I looked at the entries again to find out why. The task was to write the opening chapter of a novel and what divided the good from the not-so-good entries was the way they handled the background information to the story.

Technically that’s called exposition, but don’t worry about the word if you don’t want to. What matters is the skill involved in telling your readers the information about your setting, your characters and the situation that they need to know in order to understand your story.

NEEDS is the crucial word in that sentence. You may know that your main character is 32 and loves the colour blue, but do your readers need to know that too. If neither of those facts are crucial to the story, the chances are that they don’t.

Only give your readers the background information that is absolutely necessary, and don’t even give them that until you’re sure you have to. The skill is to include just enough facts in your opening chapter to let your readers identify with the main character’s situation while leaving enough intriguing gaps to keep them turning the pages to find out more.

As an example, suppose you start your story with your main character hiding under a hedge from marauding soldiers. The danger will immediately capture your readers’ attention, but you’ll lose it again if you suddenly cut from the action to an info-dump – a section explaining who your character is, who their parents are, where they grew up and why they are in this mess. To keep your reader involved, stick with the action and weave the most vital facts into that.

For the opening of a novel, the vital facts are the ones that help the readers know enough about the setting to start making pictures in their heads.  If that character under the hedge hears horses’ hooves, we’ve probably got a historical drama. If he hears the shrill cry of a dragon, it’s fantasy and if the ground shakes with the pounding feet of robot warriors, you’ve got sci-fi.

If you want to see how the experts do it, I recommend that you read the first few pages of Back Home by Michelle Magorian and Wolf Brother by Michelle Paver. If you haven’t got those books to hand, follow the links to and use Look Inside to read the openings. You may even get hooked enough to read the rest of the stories. 

Aim to use the same degree of skill in your writing, weaving the background information into your story so subtly that it’s almost invisible. If you need to get over a fact, try to work it into a scene that also moves the story forward.

 I stood on tiptoe, struggling to reach the diamond.

“Let me help” said Dave. He stepped forward and pulled the diamond from the statue without having to stretch and without checking for trip wires.

“Idiot!” I hissed as the high-pitched shrill of an alarm cut through the still night air.  

We know both characters are in trouble. But we’ve also learned that Dave is the tallest of the two.

Dialogue is a useful way to impart information, but it must sound natural and it shouldn’t involve one character telling another something they already know.  So avoid speeches like:

 “Well, my son. As you know, you have an older sister and I enjoy woodwork.”

Make a scene instead.

“Let me do that,” said Dad, reaching out to rescue his best saw.

Sam tightened his grip on the handle. “I can manage. I’m not a baby.” He hated being the youngest in the family. Even Emily tried to mother him, and she was only two years older than him.

That scene gives us the same information more subtly and also helps build Sam’s character.

The temptation to include more information than necessary is particularly strong if you’ve done a large amount of research into the background of your story. But your readers have chosen to read a story, not a textbook, so don’t bombard them with facts about oil exploration, strain gauges or nuclear energy just because you’ve made the effort to learn them. As with all other information, only include it if it’s crucial to the plot.

Pace your information and work it into the story at the speed your reader needs to have it. But don’t hold it back too long. Your reader might feel cheated if your character only reveals he’s a black belt karate expert in the final fight. It’s better to introduce that idea earlier without making a big deal of it.

The reverse can be true too. If you give your readers what sounds like an important piece of information early on, they will assume it has something to do with the plot and expect you to use it. So, if you do tell them the main character loves blue, they’re likely to want to know why that matters.

Which brings us neatly back to only giving readers the information they actually need.

Diana Kimpton

Books about writing

Success at self-publishing fiction depends on having a good novel to sell and that, in turn, depends on the quality of both the story and the storytelling. Here are some books to help you create and tell stories that people want to read.

Story Engineering
by Larry Brooks
(Writers Digest Books)
I love this book because it helped lift my storytelling to a new level. Larry Brooks concentrates on what he calls the 6 core competencies of successful writing: concept, character, theme, story structure, scene execution and writing voice. He doesn’t lay down prescriptive rules. Instead he helps you understand the reasons why some stories work better than others and apply the same principles to improving your own books.
Buy paperback from Amazon
Buy ebook from Amazon

Plot and Structure
by James Scott Bell
(Writers Digest Books)
There are quite a few books that try to explain how plot works, but this is one of the few that really show you how to tackle the process of plotting. My own copy is dog-eared from frequent use, and it has definitely helped to improve my writing. Starting with a quick look at plot structure, James Scott Bell rapidly moves on to ways to find ideas and develop them into a strong story. The book is packed with useful advice and exercises to trigger your creativity and help you find ways to strengthen your plots. Highly recommended, whether you like to plot in detail before you start writing or prefer to dive straight in and see where your characters lead you.
Buy paperback from Amazon
Buy ebook from Amazon

Description and Setting
by Ron Rozelle
(Writers Digest Books)
Don’t be fooled by the title of this book. It’s not about poetic descriptions of sunsets. It’s about drawing your readers into your story and bringing your characters alive. Using well-chosen examples, the author explains how to cut the clutter from your story, explores the issue of showing rather than telling and shows how to use all your senses while creating scenes. She also looks critically at the tools you can use – including adverbs, metaphors, cadence and punctuation – and shows how to use them for best effect.This is a useful book for writers who are just getting started and for the more experienced. I found it helped me see what I was doing right as well as showing me ways to improve.
Buy paperback from Amazon
Buy ebook from Amazon

The Writer’s Journey
by Christopher Vogler
(Michael Wise Productions)
Some of the most enduring stories are the ancient myths so it’s sensible to try to learn from their success. Christopher Vogler classic book looks at the structure of mythical tales and how we can use that structure to add strength to your own plots. He uses screenwriting to illustrate his points, but these are equally applicable to novels.
Buy paperback from Amazon

Writing picture books

Do you want to write a picture book? Are you tempted by only having to produce a few hundred words instead of the thousands required for a full-length novel? Well, don’t be fooled. Successful picture book writing is far more difficult than it looks. Continue reading

Writing a series

There is no doubt that series sell. Once readers have enjoyed one book about a character, they are likely to want another, and ebooks make that next book just a click away.

Before you can create a series, you need a really strong idea. Take time to get this right and make sure you have the two essentials: Continue reading