Tag Archives: non fiction

Are you making the most of your writing?

Last year, I was writing about recycling as part of my new children’s non-fiction work on helping the planet. As we go into this new year, I’m thinking about recycling again, but this time about recycling writing.

There are lots of ways I do this, and if you haven’t been doing it too, you might be missing a trick.

First, there’s recycling rejected manuscripts. Sometimes a book may be rejected simply because the timing isn’t right. One publisher my agent sent a manuscript to turned it down because she had just accepted one on a similar theme. I bumped into her at a conference a few weeks later, and she advised me to send it again in a year or so. I told her I would redraft it and do just that, but she said, ‘No, don’t change it. Send it just as it is.’

Another story I wrote for younger children was about a rabbit. My agent liked it and sent it out, saying that with any luck we might find a publisher that had a ‘rabbit-shaped gap.’ Rejections don’t always indicate that your work is just not good enough.

Then, there’s writing for different readerships. A lot of non-fiction topics can be adapted for children as well as adult readers , and within that for different ages of children. Stories can sometimes be adapted for different kinds of reader by switching the point-of-view character and seeing the situation through their eyes.

You can also write about the same non-fiction topics for different levels of expertise, from beginners to readers with a similar level of knowledge and experience to your own.

Finally, there’s recycling ideas across different genres. When I’m in the zone with a theme, I usually develop fiction and non-fiction around it at the same time. I always submit magazine articles on the themes of my books as well; they’re easy to write, once you’ve got your ideas clear in your mind through writing the book, and they also help to promote it.

Because this has always been my natural approach to writing, I like to mix things up in my workshops too. That’s where the idea for Free-Range Writing: 75 Forays for the Wild Writer’s Soul came from.

free-range writing

To take that book as an example of recycling, I’ve gone on to write articles about free-range writing for several magazines and now I’ve got a regular monthly column in Writing Magazine, called Free-Range Writing Through the Year.

At the time of publication, I issued an ebook taster, with the idea that people might buy and try, and then go on to get the book itself, but that didn’t sell. So I withdrew it from sale, adapted the introduction and end pages, and recycled it into a lovely little stocking filler, A Little Gift of Free-Range Writing.

I’ve also written a talk about being a free-range writer and a free-range writing workshop, that I’ve been touring round the UK.

Manvers Street Baptist Church


A few days ago, someone who came to one of these workshops emailed me to say she had developed a magazine article from the ideas she explored in the group, and asking if she should submit it to Good Housekeeping. I straight away thought of all the other magazines she could also pitch it to, using the same idea but adapting it to different readerships. And then perhaps, a book… And more than one book! It could be memoir, how-to, local interest, short story collection, novel…

If you write about things that matter to you, then once you’re in the zone, you’ll find there are all kinds of possibilities for the themes and stories you are developing. Writing for different readerships will help you build your profile too. For example, one of the things I’m known for is writing about bullying, because I’ve got fiction, non-fiction and articles about bullying out there aimed at children of all ages, teachers and parents.


So whenever you find a subject that engages you enough to write one piece about it, think about how you might develop and recycle your ideas. It makes sense, both economically and creatively.

Are you already recycling writing? If so, I’d love to hear about it in the comments!



I’m giving you four stars, amazon

amazon ****

I’m giving you four stars, amazon. You lose that elusive fifth one because of your  absolute resistance to removing malicious or inaccurate customer reviews, such as the one that appeared in amazon UK on my bullying book for children which called victims ‘pansies’ and said they should get in with the cool kids by smoking and doing whatever it takes.

Or the one you’re currently refusing to take down on the same book in amazon US, which slanders me as an authority on bullying by stating that I advise bullied children to hit back.

Surely this is slander?
Surely this is slander?

But notwithstanding such a serious shortcoming, here’s why this author still thinks you deserve four stars.

* You make all my books readily available

High Street booksellers are great at selling children’s fiction, but before you arrived, I wrote eight fantastically well-reviewed children’s self-help books which proved impossible for them to sell. If they stocked them, they didn’t know where to display them.

There wasn’t such a thing in the UK as a children’s self-help section, indeed in most shops, there wasn’t much children’s non-fiction at all, except school-type books and a handful of tired-looking hard-backs about animals.

Thanks to you, most of my self-help books are still in print and selling well, and they’re finding their way into the hands of children who need them, which is why I wrote them.

* You keep my out-of-print books available too

This is even more important nowadays because the modern publishing world can be brutal, with books going out of print within a few months if they fail to reach their projected sales.

It’s hard to write a book. Not just in terms of work, but in terms of emotional commitment. So it’s simply heart-breaking if the book you’ve taken years to write and months to sell, and then waited eighteen months to see in print, disappears without trace before it’s even had a proper chance, to make way for ever more celebrity memoirs and novelty books.

* You make it possible for me to write what I want to write

When I was first published, authors were barely aware of ‘the market’ at all. Now the decision to publish is made by marketing people who will not even have read the book, so there’s not much point writing anything that hasn’t got a strong ‘hook’ and pound signs all around it.

But what if you want to write the books you want to write, and would be happy with moderate sales so long as you could pay your bills? My most frequent feedback from publishers recently is that the book is ‘too niche for the market’ or ‘too niche to achieve bulk sales.’

This is especially hard when they’re really positive about the quality of the book, like with my most recent submission, which has so far not secured a contract: ‘this is a very fine novel, so subtle, yet sharply observed’, ‘a sensitive subject, delicately and carefully handled’, ‘compelling’, ‘highly readable’, ‘the writing is very strong.’

I would be in despair at this stage if it wasn’t for your kindle and createspace, amazon, which mean that even the most ‘niche’ book can at least find some readers, rather than ending up a typescript on a shelf.

*  You make it easy for me to find any niche or out-of-print book I want to read for research 

I used to rely on the library service years ago. My little local branch sought out all sorts of obscure books on dreaming and psychology for me, but it took a long time and wasn’t always successful. Now, thanks to you, I can get any book I want, delivered to my house the very next day.

I still love High Street booksellers, of course – all authors do. High Street booksellers love and know about books – they are people like us. Whereas you, amazon, love and know about money. I deplore the fact that you don’t pay your fair share of taxes; I’m dismayed by your recently well-publicised poor working conditions.

I hate your attempts to force publishers to accept deep discounting by removing their books from your catalogue, although I don’t think it’s much different from what all the major retailers do.

But I personally forgive you all this, because in a traditional publishing environment that has become increasingly difficult for a non-fiction, non-bestselling, niche author to survive in, you make a creative career feel possible.

How do you feel about amazon and the huge online booksellers? Love, hate… or a bit of both?




How to write an introduction

a) What’s it about? b) Who’s it for? c) Why should they trust me? Writing an introduction should be as easy as abc, but if you get stuck with yours like I did, I think I’ve found the key.


For a while now, I’ve been working on the final draft of ‘Writing in the House of Dreams.’ It took me three weeks to go through the whole text, making tweaks and adjustments, so when I decided to re-write the introduction I thought it would take me a few days at most.

Ten days later, I had a huge and growing heap of notes and a brain like knotted spaghetti.

A growing heap of notes
A growing heap of notes

When I thought about who my book was for, the answer was obvious – dreamers and writers. But what do dreamers and writers want to read about? It seemed to me that the answer to that was interpretations and publishing deals.

When I thought about what my book was about, it certainly wasn’t mainly interpreting and writing techniques, although those did come into it.

What I’m most interested in, what makes my book so ‘niche’, is how dream-awareness and writing can transform your reality, because they both mean learning to come and go easily between the inner and outer world, making ordinary life feel bigger, more exciting, more resonant.

I’m interested in how that ability to come and go across the border can take you ever deeper and wider, because imagination has no limits. I like that the more you understand, the more your sense of mystery grows.

I love the feeling that you can take your explorations as far as you want to go, into layers of myth and beyond, pushing back the limits of your courage, curiosity and skills.

So what is my book about? Adventures in the inner world. Discoveries. Secrets and treasures we can bring back to enrich and inspire our everyday life.

Who is it for? Dreamers and writers, at every level of experience, who are interested in the adventure for its own sake, and not only in writing as a career or dreaming as a source of insights into waking life.

That sounds pretty clear, doesn’t it? That sounds succinct and honest. But I had to come here to my blog, in order to unravel all the strands and identify what the main ones were. On a blog, you haven’t got 75,000 words to explore your themes; you’ve got a few paragraphs to make a point.

When you blog, you’re very conscious of your readers because they’re real people, individuals who might comment on what you’ve written as soon as it goes up.

Yesterday I got the essence of the book by drafting this blog post, and then a happy synchronicity this morning affirmed the focus for the rest of the opening chapter, which is about the leaving the magical world of childhood and learning later to engage with it again.

Someone had posted a comment on my article ‘The dream and the writer’s trance’ which said, ‘I used to slip into the writer’s trance rather easily when I was a child but now I find it harder to get to that state’ (thank-you, Sehena)

So if you know the abc of writing an introduction but you just can’t seem to boil it down, write a blog. That was the key for me.

Thank you for reading and joining in 🙂

Unravelling the mystery of the five-point character sketch

Years ago a tutor on a Society of Authors Arvon residential gave us a five-point character sketch, which I’ve used as a first way in ever since, although the fifth point always puzzled me.

Point 1: Name
Choose a name for your character, bearing in mind that names carry information about, for example, age and social background. They also carry more subtle nuances, suggesting a kind of personality and way of being.

Point 2: Their appearance
Age, hair colour, eyes, build, style… one or two points that give you a glimpse of your character

Point 3: Something they love
This might be any kind of thing, from dishonesty to travel, from football to cottage pie. Just the first thing that comes into your head

Point 4: Something they hate
As above

So far, so straightforward, but then there’s Point 5…

Point 5: Their special object
I interpreted this as meaning something you would always associate with them – maybe a physical mannerism such as a limp or an affectation of speech, or something they usually had with them like a dog or cat, or favourite piece of jewellery. But I don’t think most people have a special object such as that, so I always struggled to find one for my characters.

Then when I was tidying up after Christmas I was putting a fallen angel back into my fireplace wall when I suddenly thought, all these objects are special to me.

The angel that fell
The angel that fell

There’s the penny-size Thomas the Tank Engine I found in the edge of the sea the summer I spent in the beach cafe writing Peony Pinker. The Christmas cracker car one of my kids gave me when I was writing Car-mad Jack. The champagne bottle candle from a twenty-first birthday cake. The Incredible Hulk who was here in the house when I arrived, and the angel I found in a drawer in an empty house once when I was close to despair. The sewn heart a sweet friend I’ve never met sent to me last year. The teddy-bear my daughter won at the amusements arcade on a family day down at Looe. To mention but a few.

The little teddy bear from Looe
The little teddy bear from Looe

And I suddenly thought of the five-point character sketch, realising that it doesn’t have to be one definitive special object. It can be any object at all that has emotional resonance and meaning for you.

Any object my character feels is special to them will do for point number 5. Or a scattering of small objects like the ones in my fireplace wall, which tell so much of the story of me.

Are you a proper writer?

Years ago, I was on a Society of Authors retreat at Totleigh Barton, the Arvon centre in Devon. It wasn’t a taught course, but an opportunity to explore our writing ambitions as a group and with individual tutors.

Totleigh Barton

The group was made up of successful authors from every area of writing – medical books, Black Lace, children’s fiction, ELT, poetry… Without exception – well, except me, because I wanted to have a go at poetry – they all harboured a secret ambition to write a literary novel. They said they wouldn’t feel like a proper writer unless they could achieve it.

I was struck by this hierarchical view of writing. It reminded me of a conversation I’d had with a prominent commentator in the children’s book world at a conference, which went:

Him: So what are you working on at the moment?

Me: I’m mostly writing for educational publishers

He gives me a disparaging look. I give him an enquiring frown. 

Him: Well, it’s second grade, isn’t it? Educational books are never so good.

I was cross and astonished. I’d written for both trade and education, and had always given both my absolute best. I was the same writer, whatever I was writing.

Until that moment, it had not occurred to me that mainstream authors might look down their noses at educational writers; they were just different kinds of writing, and demanded different skills.

I had taken, and still take, a holistic view of writing, rather than a hierarchical one. I write all kinds of things for publication and for my own entertainment, including childrens’s and adults’ fiction and non-fiction, educational books, self-help, poetry, magazine articles and blog posts, and every single line I write feels fruitful and worthwhile, whether it finds a publisher or not, because it is helping to develop the writer that I am.

Of course, you could say I simply lack focus!

The holistic approach makes for a joyful writing life. You aren’t trying to hit goals set by the market, or other people’s judgements. You’re open to experiment because the goal is self-discovery, and every new discovery involves an element of adventure.

That’s how I view my writing life –  I’m a proper writer simply by virtue of the fact that I write, as are all the people who gather round my table for writing workshops.

How about you? Are you a proper writer, and if not, what would make you feel as if you were?

Does every writer have a dream book?

An early version was called 'The pink jacket'
An early version of my dream book was called 'The Pink Jacket'

When I came to writing after my last child started school, I experienced a sense of homecoming, as if this was the thing I had been born to do.

My first goal was to be a jobbing writer, someone who could turn their hand to anything, and I found the ideal place to learn that in educational writing, because there the brand was the publisher rather than the author, which meant I was free to try my hand at lots of different kinds of writing, both fiction and non fiction.

The two or three years I spent writing full-time for various educational publishers felt like a brilliant apprenticeship, and I carried the things I had learnt there into the next stage of my writing career, moving back into the high street as a children’s self-help author.

My 8 children’s self-help books were a mix of stories, jokes, quizzes, activities and ideas. They have all received 5-star reviews and enthusiastic reader-feedback. However, I soon learnt that earning your living from non fiction was even harder than from fiction.

So I wrote two children’s fiction series, the 6-book ‘Car-mad Jack’ and my new series, ‘By Peony Pinker.’ I feel very lucky to have had such a long, happy and varied writing career.

But underneath it all, from way back before I was ever published, I’ve always known I wanted to write an adult book about dreams, and for a couple of months in every year, before the latest advance runs out, I have returned to this labour-of-love book, experimenting with it at different times as a novel, workbook, memoir and non-fiction.

This year, I decided to finally put everything else on hold, and actually commit to finishing my dream book. I am experiencing even more of a sense of homecoming than when I first began to write. Not only, ‘Writing is what I was born to do,’ but also, ‘This is the book I was born to write.’

I wonder, does every author have a dream book – the special one they feel they were born to write?