Ten Things I’ve Learned Working in Publishing

As some of you may already know, I am not a full-time blogger. I work in publishing as an editor, mainly for genre fiction. I’ve mentioned my work once or twice before but I haven’t really talked about it in detail, mainly because I’ve been too busy making fun of stuff. But not today! Whether you’re interested in becoming an author, an editor, or are just a bit curious about what working in publishing is actually like, here’s ten things I’ve learned from working as an editor.


  1. Books are a team effort

There are so many people involved in putting a book together. Aside from the author, you’ll also have an agent, an editor or two, a designer, a copyeditor, a typesetter, a proofreader, sales reps, marketing and publicity planners, rights salespeople, and production controllers working on the same book – and that’s all before it actually gets printed. It sounds daft saying it now but when I first started working in publishing I didn’t realise just how many people would be working on the same project. I guess that’s why acknowledgements get so long.


  1. The author has very little control over the process as a whole

When I first started working in publishing I had the idea that an author would have the final say on everything – they’d written the book, after all, so it seemed to make sense. In practice this isn’t really true unless you’re mega famous. An author might write the book but they have very little say on when the publication date will be, what the cover will look like, whether it’ll be hardback or paperback, whether it gets made into an audiobook or not – the list goes on.

This might seem unfair but most of the time this is because of the ‘team effort’ nature of publishing. When a designer draws up a cover, for instance, they do so with a cover brief written by the editor and with input from sales, marketing and publicity – this is to make sure that everyone working on the book has a rough idea of what other titles it’ll be competing against and to signal to readers what kind of book it’s going to be. The author has input at every stage of the process, but so does everyone else working on the book.


  1. Publishing houses run on tea

If you want to bring any given publisher to its knees, just steal their kettle. Editors must have constant access to hot drinks at all times and if we don’t, we turn into a gibbering mess.

giphy tea2
Shut up I NEED IT (image: giphy.com)


  1. Multiple rounds of edits are normal…

Any given manuscript will probably go through four or five rounds of editing before the book gets sent off to press. First, the agent will go through it, making suggestions before sending it on submission to editors. Once it’s been acquired there’ll be a couple of edits from the editor – a structural edit (which looks at the book as a wider whole, working out if the plot makes sense, your characters’ motivations are consistent etc.) and a line edit (which looks at sentence and paragraph-level stuff and focuses more on use of language). Then you have the copyedit, which looks for technical flaws – so spelling, grammar, syntax, consistency, and fact-checking – and after that, the proofread, which focuses more on typos, layout issues etc. The author gets to see these at every stage of the process, but it’s always important to bear in mind that once a publisher agrees to take your manuscript your work is a long way from done.


  1. …but the best edits are the ones you don’t notice

Don’t let the fact that your manuscript is going to go through multiple rounds of editing alarm you. A good editor isn’t going to change what you’ve written – it’s more about bringing out what’s already there. A huge part of the editing process is assessing the author’s style and making sure the editor’s involvement fits with that. It’s like with sewing – the best stitches are the ones that are the hardest to see.

giphy eh
So you’re all aware I’m using this comparison as someone who once sewed a cushion to her leg. (image: giphy.com)


  1. There is always cake

I have never worked in a snackier industry.


  1. Editors have the creepiest search history

A large part of editing is fact-checking. Every detail gets checked to make sure that it holds up – either according to the internal logic of the manuscript or according to real-world facts. The form this takes varies wildly according to genre – editing fantasy often requires a worldbuilding doc so you can make sure the magical elements make sense, whereas sci-fi requires a lot of calls to your science-iest friends. Crime editors are definitely the worst offenders here.

giphy villain
I’m going to make that pun and NONE OF YOU CAN STOP ME (image: giphy.com)

You have to check all the forensic stuff to make sure it’s accurate, as well as the parts of the actual crime, alongside checking the investigative stuff – which means that your search history can get frankly disgusting.


  1. It’s never a nine to five job

In theory most publishing houses keep office hours. In practice, what constitutes ‘work’ in publishing is often a weird grey area that almost never fits into a nine to five day. Editors often don’t have time to read submissions at their desks, so they have to take them home, and sometimes this can bleed over into actual editing work as well. Reading stuff that other publishers put out also kind of counts as work, because if you’re acquiring stuff you have to be aware of the competition, and going to events and ‘making connections’ can count as work too, as it’s a very social industry and you’re likely to do better if people know who you are.

The downside to all of this is that yes, while reading and going to parties can technically count as work, it’s usually not work you get paid for. You can find yourself in work mode for very long periods of time and it’s quite difficult to properly switch off. At every single one of my publishing jobs, I’ve known multiple editors who take their work on holiday with them, and that’s not good for anybody long-term.


  1. Your friends and family will get used to hearing some very unsettling questions

The following is a condensed version of a real conversation I had with my dad, who works in medicine:


Me: So Dad…

Dad: Yes, love?

Me: Hypothetically, if I wanted to keep a grown man unconscious for eighteen hours, how would I do it?

Dad: [very long pause]

Me: It’s for work.


I have lost track of the amount of times I have bombarded my friends and family with incredibly specific questions, most of which are invariably disgusting. But when you’re editing a manuscript and need to check a fact, the Internet doesn’t always have the answers. The best place to go is to people with practical experience, which is why everyone who knows me is constantly prepared to receive a barrage of weird texts at all times.


  1. No two days are the same 

Publishing is a very varied industry to work in. Some days you spend an entire eight hours on data entry, some days you spend working out if this murder makes sense, some days you try and get your head around the physics of space, and some days you will spend darting from one thing to the other like a literary butterfly. More than once I have had to fact-check a fight scene by going through the motions with a willing volunteer. You don’t really know what you’re going to get, but that’s all part of the fun.

giphy dance fight
Fun fact: it’s very easy for fight walkthroughs to turn into a dance party, or a game of Twister. (image: giphy.com)


And there you have it! That’s ten things I’ve learned from working in publishing. Hopefully that’ll give all you hopeful writers a peek behind the curtain and all you hopeful editors an idea of what you’re letting yourselves in for. Whichever one you are, make sure you bring tea. You’ll need it.


Book Recipes: How to Write a Psychological Thriller

Time for another book recipe! This one’s on how to write a psychological thriller and the most important thing you need to know is that you can’t trust ANYONE.



  • One relatable female protagonist with an edgy flaw
  • A setting your characters can’t easily escape from
  • A selection of suspects/potential victims from the following list:
    • Frenemy
    • Jealous ex
    • Suspiciously clingy
    • Seemingly perfect overachiever
    • Bad boy
    • Domineering boss
  • Power shortages
  • A good dollop of non-specific mistrust
  • Terrible decisions



  1. Your relatable female protagonist has been invited to a setting with no easily-discernible escape route. Oh boy!
  2. Meet your cast of friends/suspects/victims. Have a lovely time getting to know them all before they start to die.
  3. Introduce your protagonist’s edgy flaw that means that a) you can’t believe everything she says or b) she can’t go to the police in case anything happens. BUT THAT’S NO BIG DEAL BECAUSE NOTHING’S GOING TO HAPPEN, RIGHT GUYS?
giphy nah
Seems unlikely. (image: giphy.com)
  1. Your protagonist receives a vaguely threatening message from an anonymous creepo. It’s probably nothing.
  2. Establish some tensions within the group. Sure do hope those tensions don’t boil over into –
  3. Huh, that’s weird. All the lights have gone out for some reason.
  4. Oh no, one of your suspects/potential victims has disappeared! What could possibly have happened to them.
  5. Have a little search party just to 100% clarify for the reader that victim number one hasn’t just popped off to the shops or something.
  6. Uh-oh, protagonist has received another scary message! I’m sure it’s fine.
  7. Just in case it wasn’t absolutely clear that there’s a creepo about, start leaving threatening stuff about the place for the protagonists and her mates to find. You know, anonymous notes, animal skulls, dolls with scribbled-out eyes – that kind of thing.
  8. Try and escape. This is just for form’s sake, we all know they aren’t going to get anywhere.
  9. Share a tender moment with one of the suspects/victims. It’s nice to think that people can bond in the midst of all this –
giphy chipmunk
Dun dun DUUUNNNN. (image: giphy.com)
  1. Things are starting to get pretty tense! Receive another anonymous message that leads the protagonist to discover the body of Victim No. 2.
  2. The group splits off into factions, Lord of the Flies style, because the Internet is down and there’s nothing else to do.
  3. Aaaaand someone else is dead. Woops.
  4. Someone discovers that the protagonist has been receiving anonymous messages and accuses them of being the murderer! Everyone is convinced, because it’s step seventeen and we need a climactic ending.
  5. Our protagonist runs off to try and avoid getting self-defence murdered and runs into the real murderer – Victim No. 1, whose body was never found!
  6. They explain that it was all a plot orchestrated to kill the protagonist for reasons, helpfully going through all the steps in their plan in an extremely thorough monologue.
  7. Fight and defeat the murderer! Fortunately for you, their detailed monologue was overheard by literally everyone else and our protagonist gets off scot-free.

THE END. Serve to someone you really trust. They’d never betray you.



  • Phones should only work as and when it’s convenient for the plot. Last-minute recording device to tape the murderer’s monologue? Absolutely. But calling the police when someone actually goes missing? Pssshhh, don’t be silly.
  • Don’t forget the tragic backstory!
  • Give your protagonist a job that either a) gives her license to be extremely nosy or b) gives her a lot of free time to pursue plot-related stuff. Doctors don’t have time to solve mysteries, they’re too busy.
  • A good way to make everyone look suspicious is to splash the word ‘seemingly’ everywhere you can reach.
Or is it… (image: gifimage.net)
  • Your setting should be remote, but also have a certain amount of glamour to it. It’ll make the pre-murder scenes more fun to read about and it’ll look nice on the book cover.
  • You must accept that all of your characters’ decisions – especially your protagonist’s – are going to make absolutely no sense.
  • Make sure your protagonist’s flaw is the right kind of edgy. You’re allowed to be PG-13 in this one, so it’d be OK to go with something relating to drugs or sex, but don’t take it too far or it’ll turn into a misery memoir.


And here’s one I prepared earlier…


Jane staggered into the living room, tights laddered, hair and glitter plastered to the side of her face, still carrying her heels in one hand. She was not sure what time it was, exactly, but it was definitely too early. She kicked aside a couple of empty tequila bottles and collapsed onto the sofa, accidentally puncturing Bella’s blow-up doll with one of her heels. It was only the first night of Bella’s hen do, but she did not intend to waste any time.

The living room – so pristine and elegant last night – was a mess. The floor was littered with empty bottles, cigarette butts, crisps that had been trodden into the hardwood floors and assorted bits of equipment for ‘grown-up smoking’, as she had never been able to stop calling it. Everything was covered in a fine layer of glitter – including the window. Jane had to squint to see the savagely beautiful mountain scenery, and there was no hope of catching a glimpse of the island’s one and only beach. The luxury mountain cabin on a private island was certainly a beautiful place for a hen do, but right now all that meant to Jane was that a literal ocean was between her and the nearest kebab van.

Still, she thought, at least she was the first one up. She was probably responsible for most of the glitter, and it couldn’t hurt to try and scrape some of it off before –

“Oh. There you are.”

Ah. The second one up, then.

Lily stood in the doorway, dressed in tasteful running gear and with her sleek blonde hair in a ponytail. She wrinkled her perfect nose at the sight of Jane, sitting in the midst of the debris.

“Have you seen Bella?” she asked, rolling her shoulders back and forth. “We were supposed to go for a run this morning.”

“Probably still hungover,” said Jane, lurching to her feet and stubbing her toe on a tequila bottle. “Want me to wake her?”

“No point now,” said Lily, rotating her arms like a windmill, “I’ve already been down the mountain, twice around the bay, and then to the docks and back. And in seven minutes, too – I’m really feeling all that chardonnay from last night. Did you know the boat’s not coming until Tuesday, by the way?”


“Honestly, Janey,” came a voice from the doorway, “what are you like? Do try to keep up.”

Mimi, Jane’s best friend since childhood, had slouched into the room, closely followed by Bella’s friend Stella.

“Morning,” said Jane, tipping the deflated blow-up doll off the sofa.

Afternoon, you mean,” said Mimi, throwing herself into a chair. “Poor old Janey! You do look awful. You ought to take it easy, you know.”

Stella flitted around the living room, piling up empty bottles. “Is Bella up yet? We can’t let her see the state of this place! Her uncle’s boss’s friend let her use it as a personal favour, and if we don’t keep it clean she’ll get into terrible trouble!”

Jane staggered off into the kitchen to find some bin bags, and ended up throwing up in the sink. Stella squealed.

“You vomited! That’s disgusting! I can’t believe you would…you would befoul Bella’s uncle’s boss’s friend’s home like this –”

Lily rolled her eyes and did squats against the kitchen counter. “Oh, leave her be, Estelle. Bella won’t mind. All she needs is something to eat. Here, Jane, I’ll make you a kale and quinoa smoothie. Sebastian makes them for me all the time, they’re a real pick-me-up.”

Jane, who had seen pictures of Lily’s fiancé, suspected that anything would feel like a pick-me-up when it was served by someone who looked like Sebastian. She threw up again and started rinsing the glitter out of the sink.

“You don’t want a smoothie, do you, Janey?” said Mimi. “You want a big, fat, greasy burger, slathered in oily cheese, dripping with –”

Jane threw up again.

“Stop it!” squeaked Stella, “stop messing up Bella’s uncle’s friend’s –”

“Give it a rest!” snapped Lily, who was now doing pull-ups from a light fitting. “Why do you care so much about all this, anyway?”

Stella’s eyes filled with tears. “I…I just think B-Bella’s really sp-special…”

Lily dropped down from the light fitting and started doing star jumps. “All right, all right. There’s no need to get upset. Why don’t you make Bella a cup of tea and the girls and I will start straightening the place up a bit.”

Stella sniffed, nodded, and stuck the kettle on. Lily started picking up empty bottles and putting them into a binbag, touching her toes every time she bent down, Mimi started wiping up the glitter, and Jane sat outside with the deflated blow-up doll. The fresh air was making her feel a bit better.

She went to put the blow-up doll and Lily’s bag of empty bottles in the bin when she saw something that stopped her in her tracks. Painted above the bins in blood-red letters were the words ‘HELLO JANEY’. A naked china doll with all its hair cut off sat on top of one of the bins, a wide smile drawn on its sad face in permanent marker.

Jane stared at it for a moment – the doll seemed oddly familiar – and then threw up, spectacularly. She was entirely too hungover to deal with this nonsense now. She’d go inside, have a cup of tea and maybe a few crackers, and think about this when she’d got all the glitter out of her hair.

A shriek came from inside the house. Jane ran back inside, clapping a hand over her mouth, just in case.

Stella was standing in the door to Bella’s bedroom. It was empty.

“Guys!” she yelled, tears streaming down her face, “Bella’s missing!”


My full book-cookbook can be found here. Let me know what you’d like me to look at next – and as always, take this recipe with a pinch of salt.

Heh heh heh. (image: replycandy.com)

Game of Thrones: Ten Predictions for Season Eight

We interrupt your regular programming to GEEK OUT. No writing advice or musings this week – it’s time to get nerdy. The final season of Game of Thrones is coming up and just like with season seven, I’m going to have a stab at predicting what’s going to happen.

Let’s jump right in!

Just gonna leave the spoiler warning here. (image: memegenerator.com)


  1. Jon will sacrifice himself

I feel like this one doesn’t need much explaining, because Jon Snow – curly-haired darling of the North – is about two steps away from sacrificing himself at any given point. It’s kind of his thing. The show seems to be setting him up for an epic duel with the Night’s King, so I think that’s probably how he’s going to do it.


  1. Dany will go full Mad Queen

Quick recap for those of you that don’t have time for a binge-watch: Danaerys Targaryen is the daughter of the famed Mad King – an insane despot whose penchant for burning people alive eventually cost him his throne and the downfall of the Targaryen dynasty. Speaking of the rest of the Targaryens, they have a strong family history of mental instability, so there’s a decent chance that our girl Dany has inherited this too.

The show has been setting this up for a while now. Aside from the very regular reminders about how bad the Mad King was, several characters have openly discussed the possibility that Dany might follow in her father’s footsteps. As I said in my previous predictions post, the Mad King didn’t start out mad – just like Dany, he seemed brilliant at first, but then got worse as he got older and after a couple of key events pushed him over the edge. We’ve already seen Dany burn people alive – remember poor old Dickon –

giphy snigger
Heh heh heh. (image: giphy.com)

– and that was followed by a scene where Tyrion and Varys discussed Dany’s similarities to her father. She’s already found it much easier to just set people on fire than to resort to more conventional military strategies, so who’s to say that a serious setback – such as discovering that a certain broody Northerner actually has a better claim to the Targaryen throne than her – won’t send her down this path?

If that doesn’t convince you, then look at how Game of Thrones treats its characters’ overall story arcs. As a general rule of thumb, most of the characters start out wanting something, have a serious setback, and reassess their goals and dreams as a result. If they don’t have that moment, they’re usually the ones that get killed off – look at poor Robb Stark, for example. Dany hasn’t really experienced a moment like that, where she’s had to seriously question what she wants. She decided early on in the story that she was going to retake the Iron Throne and so far, everything she’s done to further that end has, by and large, worked. This makes me think that there’s a nasty twist planned for her story arc and that when it ends, Danaerys won’t be sitting on the Iron Throne.


  1. All of Dany’s dragons will end up dead

It’ll save money on CGI.

I’m kidding, but I do think that Drogon and Rhaegal are goners. Realistically, giving Dany two dragons (RIP Viserion) would make things too easy for her, so in order to keep the stakes balanced I don’t think Dany’s lizard-y friends are going to be around for that much longer. I expect they’ll come in handy in the battle against the White Walkers but I doubt they’ll survive it.


  1. Jaime will kill Cersei, then die

After the end of season seven, there’s a massive rift between Jaime and Cersei. She is staying in King’s Landing as Queen of the Seven Kingdoms, and he has betrayed her and gone to fight the undead – despite the fact that Cersei is pregnant with his baby. Regardless of that, I think that this split is going to end very badly for both of them.

This has its roots in both the show and the books – namely in the ‘valonquar’ prophecy that we geeks have been discussing for some time. To summarise: Maggy the Frog predicted that Cersei’s children would all die before her, and then she would be strangled by the ‘valonquar’ – which is High Valyrian for little brother. In the books, Cersei suspects Tyrion will play this role, which goes a long way to explaining their terrible relationship. However, as the eldest sibling, Cersei has two little brothers.

This would also tie into Jaime’s character arc too. Over the course of the show it’s become clear that Jaime is on a long and rather wobbly redemption arc. He started off as a fairly out-and-out villain, but as the series progressed he’s become a more complicated hero. Much has been made of his backstory, too, where it was revealed that his reputation as the Kingslayer only came about through necessity – if he hadn’t killed the Mad King, then the Mad King would have burned the capital city of King’s Landing, and everyone in it. However, he’s still done bad things, and when it’s all over I don’t think he’ll be waltzing off into the sunset for a happily ever after with Brienne.

tenor tormund
GET IN THERE TORMUND (image: tenor.com)

Cersei has already been giving off some pretty strong ‘Mad Queen’ vibes after indirectly causing her son’s death and blowing up part of her own city, so perhaps Jaime will find himself in the position of Kingslayer once again. The show really likes to remind us that Jaime and Cersei came into the world together – perhaps they’re going to leave it together too.


  1. Cleganebowl



  1. Bran will possess a wight

This is actually one of my predictions from season seven, so I won’t go into too much detail – skip down to prediction number eight for the part where I show my working. I still think there’s a decent chance that this might happen, though, and not just because it’d look really cool. The show has gone to great pains to impress the extent of Bran’s powers onto the viewer, but we’ve yet to see him use them on a grand scale. If Bran can do this, he might be able to control multiple wights and turn them on the Night’s King’s own army – and that would just be sweet.


  1. The White Walkers will not be defeated – a truce will be necessary

The White Walkers and their army of wights are a massive threat. Even Dany’s three dragons could only put a dent in their army in season seven – and now, one of those dragons is all zombified. Add to that the fact that the Night’s King can resurrect the dead and turn them into his soldiers, and you’ve got a nigh-on unstoppable army. I don’t think one pitched battle is going to do it.

That’s not to say that the White Walkers are going to win, though – it’d be a really unsatisfying ending to the story. But the show has also made it clear that the White Walkers aren’t just mindless zombies. They are capable of wanting things and honouring agreements – just look at Craster sacrificing his sons to guarantee his own safety. There’s also more than a few hints that the Starks might have intermarried with the White Walkers at some point in the very distant past (check out this video if you want more detail on that). This is significant, because in Game of Thrones one of the surest ways to cement a truce is with a marriage.

Of course, none of this applies to the wights, who are mindless zombies that only the Walkers can control. But this ties into prediction one and my friend Claire’s theory – perhaps Jon will be the one to sacrifice himself so that this truce can happen and the Night’s King will retreat. Perhaps he’ll even become the new Night’s King. Who knows?


  1. Something will come out of the crypts at Winterfell

There’s been all sorts of hints in both the books and the show that the crypts at Winterfell contain hidden secrets. Parts of them are completely inaccessible and there’s all sorts of rumours about what could be hidden inside. I reckon this season, we’re going to find out, as so far the crypts have shown up in both the teaser and the show’s first official trailer.

I think this could go in two different ways. The first is that they find something in the crypts that will help the living – like dragon eggs, which were rumoured to be hidden there, or something that could be used to prove Jon’s true parentage. The second is that whatever’s down there will help the dead – whether that’s just something that the Night’s King wants or a spooky spooky monster that he’ll wake up.


  1. A beloved dead character will come back as a wight

This is exactly the sort of really nasty surprise which Game of Thrones just loves to spring on the viewers. Given that the Night’s King can resurrect the dead, I think we’ll definitely see a few familiar zombie faces when he descends on the living. My money is on Stannis or Hodor – not counting Viserion the dragon, of course.


  1. Samwell Tarly will survive and be revealed as ‘the author’ of the history of the series

I think this would be a really nice way to round off the series. We’ve already had a few scenes where it’s been hinted that Sam might record the events of Game of Thrones and it’d be a nice nod to Bilbo Baggins recording his own adventures at the end of The Hobbit. All Sam needs is a catchy title…

GoT book set
HMMM WHAT COULD THAT BE (image: theworks.com)


And now, just to make things interesting…

WILD CARD: The Starks will be remembered as the villains in years to come

Let’s lay out the facts here:

  • Ned Stark: Started the War of the Five Kings by meddling in Robert Baratheon’s succession. Revealing Cersei’s incest wasn’t a bad thing, but if he’d acted quickly and decisively he might have a) survived and b) overseen a smooth transition of power rather than sparking off a civil war.
  • Catelyn Stark: Made the War of the Five Kings worse by a) capturing Tyrion Lannister and b) letting Jaime Lannister go, which eventually led to the decimation of the North’s fighting men.
  • Robb Stark: Fought a protracted war in the Riverlands, laying waste to a vast swathe of the realm when they should have been preparing for winter. People starved because of his actions. Also broke his oath, which is not a good thing in Westeros
  • Sansa Stark: Largely seen as King Joffrey’s ‘poisoner’ after the Purple Wedding. Covered up her involvement in the murder of her aunt. Had her uncle by marriage executed in front of everyone, with no real evidence to back up her charges. (He deserved it though.)
  • Arya Stark: HOO BOY. Literal assassin. Wiped out an entire house (who also kind of deserved it). Carries around a bag of dead people’s magic faces. I MEAN.
  • Bran Stark: Terrifying mind powers. Literally drove the person he depends on mad through time and space (RIP Hodor). Can totally possess people, animals, and hopefully also zombies. Supervillain in the making.
  • Rickon Stark: …okay fine.
The rest of you are NOT OFF THE HOOK (image: fanfest.com)

When you look at what the Starks have done it’s clear that they’ve been making some pretty bad decisions – both for themselves and for the people they rule. They have basically spent the series creating a bunch of really messy drama which has distracted everybody from the much more important task at hand – preparing for winter and the coming of the White Walkers. Under their leadership, the North lost the vast majority of its fighting men, the Riverlands were all but destroyed, two noble houses (who sort of deserved it) have been completely wiped out, the Night’s Watch was deprived of men and supplies, and a massive civil war has wrecked the country. Now the North is facing the worst winter it’s ever seen and nobody is prepared for it, and this is directly because the Starks weren’t there. I expect that how the Starks get remembered will depend on what they do in this final season, but I doubt they’ll be remembered kindly.


And there you have it! My ten best guesses for what’ll happen on the next season of Game of Thrones, plus one rubbish guess thrown in. Let’s see how this plays out.

Book Recipes: How to Write a Children’s Adventure Story

Time for another book recipe! This one’s on children’s adventure stories so pull your socks up and get ready to go exploring. Gosh!



  • A ragtag band of plucky kids. Choose your own flavours from any of the following:
    • The swot
    • The girly girl
    • The coward
    • The tomboy
    • The fighty one
    • ‘I’m the oldest, so I’m the leader’
  • A very vague piece of local history about treasure
  • One disinterested parent or guardian
  • A loyal animal sidekick
  • One dastardly villain, complete with bumbling henchmen
  • School holidays
  • A total lack of adult supervision
  • Good fresh air



  1. Your plucky protagonist has been packed off to Aunt Negligent’s house for the summer holidays.
  2. Assemble your group of equally plucky children and animal sidekick. Run along and play in the fresh country air, isn’t it bracing?
  3. Frolic outside for a bit and uncover your piece of vague treasure-related local history. Gosh!
  4. But what’s this? You have come across the dastardly villain and you just know he’s up to no good.
giphy nosferatu
But he seemed so normal! (image: giphy.com)
  1. Don’t bother the adults with this information, sweetie, the grown-ups are talking.
  2. Go exploring. Bring snacks.
  3. You’ve found something which relates to your vague local treasure story, golly! The old story just might be true after all…
  4. Have some side-shenanigans with a kid you don’t like, because we’ve got to get a whole novel out of this and we’re only on step eight.
  5. Uh-oh, the dastardly villain is hanging around again! He says some vaguely sinister things but your loyal animal sidekick frightens him off.
  6. Steal some food for a midnight feast!
  7. Play outside some more.
giphy skipping
YAAAAAAAAYYYYY (image: tumblr.com)
  1. But wait! You’ve found something which proves that the treasure is real and coincidentally tells you where to find it! Cripes!
  2. In a sudden shock move, your designated responsible adult tells you that you must stay inside, for reasons. How will you find the treasure now?
  3. Via a secret passageway, of course!
  4. Discover the treasure. Hurrah! Now you can afford to go to university!
  5. Oh no! The dastardly villain has captured the most useless member of your group! Whatever will you do?
  6. Hand over the treasure, dejectedly, as the villain gloats for a bit.
  7. But wait! The animal sidekick has gone for help, and/or untied you and your friends somehow! Good old pet of your choice.
  8. Finally, the police arrive and arrest the dastardly villain. They ruffle your hair, call you a scamp, and let you keep the treasure if you promise to be good.
  9. Go home for a slap-up feast.

THE END. Serve with lashings of ginger beer.



  • Your designated parent or guardian should only ever behave like a responsible adult when it is convenient to the plot. The rest of the time, they are there to make dinner, provide clean clothes and disbelieve everything your plucky protagonist says.
  • It’s always sunny, unless your characters need to stay inside for plot reasons.
  • If an adult doesn’t immediately drop everything they’re doing to answer your protagonist’s questions, they are quite clearly a villain and cannot be trusted.
  • Keep the danger level at ‘mild peril’ and all injuries to bruises and minor scrapes.
  • There’s no need to go into detail about your villain’s motivations. Just give him a sinister accent and leave it at that.
giphy dastardly
Or a sinister moustache. (image: giphy.com)
  • Make liberal use of the words ‘jolly’, ‘gosh’, ‘ripper’, ‘cripes’, and ‘golly’.
  • Choose your animal sidekick carefully. They must be cute, intelligent enough to carry messages when you get captured, and scary enough to drive off the villain. Dogs are a reliable choice, as are birds and some monkeys, but a slug will fail on all three counts.


And here’s one I made earlier…


“Well,” said Pip, checking the map again, “it looks like this should be the place.”

All four children crowded round the old map. It was difficult to read, because it was really very old, and had some funny brown staining in the top-right corner. They had followed the map all afternoon, stopping only for one quick scones-and-lemonade break, paying special attention to the twists and turns of the trail. But the path had led them to the remains of old Creepstone Manor, which had been there for years, and nothing exciting had ever happened there.

Jonty snatched the map out of Pip’s hand. “Creepstone Manor isn’t even marked on here. You’ve read it wrong, Pip.”

Pip drew herself up to her full height. “I most certainly have not!”

“You have. We’ve already looked for the treasure here and we didn’t find anything!”

“Well, excuse me if you didn’t look properly the first time…”

The argument was cut short by a low, soft growl. It came from Tarquin, Pip’s beloved Sabre-Toothed Tiger. Tarquin had been a present from Uncle Victor, who was a very clever man who worked in a laboratory. Pip didn’t quite know how Uncle Victor had found Tarquin, but she didn’t let that worry her.

Gladys cast a worried look at the sky. It was starting to grow cloudy and none of them had brought their mackintoshes. “Perhaps we should go back,” she said. “You know what Mr Slythe said, it’s not safe out here after dark.”

Pip threw an arm around Tarquin. “You know Mr Slythe only said that to stop us getting to Captain Vaguebeard’s treasure first. Besides, Tarquin won’t let anything hurt us. Will you, boy?”

“Grar,” said Tarquin.

Charlie took the map from Jonty, adjusting his glasses. “I say,” he said, “when was old Vaguebeard supposed to have buried his treasure?”

Pip sighed. They had all heard the story before. Captain Vaguebeard, scourge of some of the seas, had come to their sleepy coastal village and buried mountains of treasure three hundred years ago. The treasure had never been found, largely owing to the very imprecise directions he gave to his first mate.

“You know that, Charlie,” said Pip, “it’s three hundred years ago. You made us look it up this morning.”

“Well,” said Charlie, pointing at a piece of rubble, “it looks like Creepstone Manor was built two hundred years ago. And if you look at the forest –” He pointed. “ – and the cliffs – ” He pointed again. “ – then it looks like we might be in the right place after all.”

“Good show, old man!” said Jonty, clapping Charlie on the shoulder. Gladys grinned and Pip let out a whoop of victory. Tarquin sat and watched Charlie’s pointing finger, licking his enormous chops.

“Well then,” said Pip, “let’s jolly well find some treasure!”

The children looked all over the ruins of Creepstone Manor. Gladys picked her way through the old kitchen, trying not to get her dress dirty. Jonty climbed on top of the tallest pile of rubbish and stared around impressively. Charlie peered at hunks of rock and started pacing around the site, counting to himself. Pip followed Tarquin, who was snuffling his way through the ruins. He had an excellent sense of smell. He also had very good night vision. His only drawback as a pet was his occasional tendency to maul people – that and the fact that he always got into her tuck box.

Tarquin stopped, sniffing intently. “Mrowl,” he went.

“Chaps!” yelled Pip, “Tarquin’s found something!”

They all piled over to Tarquin, who was pawing at something on the ground. Pip soon saw what he had found – the outline of an enormous trapdoor.

“Cripes, this is heavy! Help me shift some of this rubble,” Pip said, straining at the lump of rock. They all worked together and very soon, they had moved several chunks of masonry away from the rickety old trapdoor. They heaved it open and peered inside.

“Gosh,” breathed Charlie, “this must be older than Creepstone Manor! Look, the passage leads into some kind of cave. It must have been here before the manor was built…”

“Maybe old Vaguebeard put his treasure down there!” said Pip, excitedly.

Obviously not,” said Jonty, “and if he did it probably wouldn’t even be here. I bet you that passage goes right down to the cliffs – all the treasure would’ve been washed out to sea.”

Tarquin started growling again and Jonty went quiet. Pip stroked Tarquin’s fur and decided to write another thank-you letter to Uncle Victor.

“It’s awfully dark,” said Gladys. “Do we really have to go down there?”

“Of course we do,” said Pip, “it’ll lead us to the treasure.”

“But we don’t know how far the drop goes,” said Gladys. “There might be sharp rocks at the bottom, or seawater, and we might break something. And how will we get back up again? There’s no ladder, or rope, and there’s no-one nearby who might hear us calling for help and –”

“Don’t talk rot,” Pip said. “We’ve got Tarquin.”

“Yes, but Tarquin hasn’t got a stepladder…”

Pip ignored her. It would be an adventure. “Come on everyone. We’re going in.”


My full book-cookbook can be found here. Let me know what you’d like me to look at next – and as always, take this recipe with a pinch of salt.

Heh heh heh. (image: replycandy.com)

Everyone’s a Critic: How to Take and Apply Useful Criticism

I believe in two things: that Sour Cream and Onion is the best flavour of Pringles and that constructive criticism is the most useful thing a writer can receive. I will go to the barricades for both of these opinions but for now, let’s put the crisps aside.

tenor crisps
Haha I’m NEVER letting go of those bad boys (image: tenor.com)

There comes a point in every writer’s trajectory where you want to start sharing your work with other people. People reach this point in a variety of different ways – you might have some nagging doubts, or you might be considering sending something out on submission, or you might just want an objective opinion – but sooner or later everyone ends up getting there. But when it’s time to start asking other people what they think of your work, you’re opening yourself up to criticism. Let’s face it, it’s not usually a nice experience to send something out into the world and have a bunch of people tell you that it’s not working. It can be a real blow to a fledgling writer’s confidence. But there’s nothing like good criticism for improving your technical skills as a writer – it all depends on how you apply it.


The first thing to clarify is what counts as good (i.e. helpful) criticism and what doesn’t. Not all types of criticism are helpful, and it’s important to learn which criticism you should pay attention to and which criticism you can ignore. Everybody is going to have an opinion about the things you write, but you won’t be able to turn everybody’s opinion into a teachable moment.

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Just look at how much energy that takes. (image: giphy.com)

The basic rule of thumb I use is that the more detail, the better. Look at it like this: if somebody tells you that they thought your story was great, what has that actually told you about the way that you write? They enjoyed it, and maybe it’s boosted your confidence, but could you identify your strengths as a writer from that comment alone? No. Whereas if somebody told you that they were really invested in the relationship between two characters, or they really thought your final confrontation scene was really exciting, that tells you a lot more – you’ve identified two different parts of your writing that other people think you’re good at.

This is really important for negative criticism, too. Anyone who says “yeah, this was rubbish” isn’t going to be able to help you grow as a writer. However, people who take the time to break down the parts of your writing that aren’t working – even if it’s just identifying them by name and not going into further detail – are going to be much more useful. Basically, if you can find a critiquing partner who is willing to use the PEE method (that’s Point, Evidence, Explanation, what did you think it was) then they’re gold dust and you should treasure them forever.

Even more important is getting yourself into the right frame of mind to receive criticism. The first thing you have to accept is that if you put stuff out into the real world – whether that’s asking your friends to read through a manuscript, putting your fanfiction online, or actually starting the process of getting your book published – then you have to confront the possibility that not everyone is going to like it. People have a right to share their opinions, after all – it’s a big part of the literary tradition.

There’s two things you need to do here. The first: brace yourself. I’ve never met a writer who has only ever received positive feedback and I work in publishing, so I talk to writers pretty much every day. You’re going to hear some stuff which might knock your confidence, and even if it’s the helpful criticism I discussed above it still might hurt to hear it. With this in mind, it’s important to remember that good criticism is not an attack – and interestingly, this can apply to some really hilarious literary reviews as well. Scathing put-downs are meant for the reader, not the writer, so try not to take these to heart. Even with your loins successfully girded, it can still be pretty disheartening, so just remember that it’s completely OK to put off reading criticism of your stuff if you feel you aren’t in the right frame of mind to hear it. You’ll have to pay attention to it eventually, so don’t put it off forever, but if you’ve had a bad day it’s completely fine to just mooch about with a cup of tea instead of listening to someone list all the ways you’re doing it wrong. If you feel you don’t have the energy to stop yourself getting resentful, maybe just have a quick nap instead.

giphy dont wanna
It’s the modern way. (image: giphy.com)

The second thing you need to accept is this: you can’t please everybody. It is quite literally impossible to write a book that everyone and their mother is going to love. People have different tastes, different expectations, and what will work for one audience will not work for another. That’s completely fine. Most audiences – whether they’re readers, moviegoers or telly-watchers – can usually pick up on pandering, and you don’t want people to come away from your book feeling like it’s been designed by committee. Keep an open mind to what people are saying, sure, but you have to accept that you can’t please everyone. It’d be exhausting.

So. You have successfully sorted the helpful criticism from the kinds you can ignore. Your mind is open, your loins are girded, and you have listened to the criticism you have received. How, then, do you apply it?

The first thing I always do is to go over the criticism again and try and see where it’s come from. Are there any points in the story that I can think of (just off the top of my head) where I could see this criticism applying? Most of the time, the answer’s yes. Then, I go through the whole story again, bearing the criticism in mind, and see if I can identify a few more places where the criticism is justified. The important thing is to look at your work with an objective eye – you’ve got to see what’s actually there, rather than what you hoped you’d written down. If you can put some time between finishing your first draft and your critical read-through, this will really help.

OK not that long. (image: imgur.com)

The next step is to consider the type of criticism you’ve received. Different problems require different solutions, and writing advice is no exception. There’s a few broad areas that keep popping up in most writing advice, and they all need to be fixed in different ways:

  • Setting: If your critiquing partner is telling you your setting isn’t working there’s two things you can do: background research and working it into the story. It’s important to bear in mind that setting isn’t just a description of the scenery – it’s food, it’s clothing, it’s speech patterns, it’s jobs. It’s everywhere. For example, if your characters are having a scene in a mine, you should know what is being mined, who did the mining, whether it’s still being used, how many people are working there. How many details you work into the story is up to you, but you need to know the answers to these questions even if you don’t spell it out for the reader.
  • Plot holes: Every editor’s nightmare. If your critiquing partner has found a plot hole then you need to patch it up. Depending on the size and seriousness of the plot hole you may want to rewrite sections completely, but I’d only recommend this if you’ve got a plot hole that completely wrecks the internal logic of your story. If you don’t agree that it is a plot hole, that’s fine, but you need to make sure that comes across to the reader. Even if you have an airtight justification and it makes total sense to you, you have to make sure that’s clear.
  • Characters: If your critiquing partner is telling you that your characters aren’t believable you’ve got a serious problem. Most readers will accept outlandish situations if characters react to them in believable ways, but if they don’t, then suspension of disbelief goes right out the window. There’s two broad-strokes ways to fix this: background information (that, like with settings, doesn’t always need to be conveyed to the reader) and keeping them consistent. Always bear their motivations in mind and make sure they match up to their actions, and you’ll be on the right track.
  • Pacing: This is making sure that your story moves along at the right speed at the right moments. Make sure background information is being delivered at the right time – you shouldn’t be giving your reader a bunch of basic background information about a character right before the big climax, for example. Look at sentence length and structure, keep an eye on what information is being conveyed, and you’ll soon be able to spot the parts where you’re going wrong.
  • Beginnings and endings: The alpha and omega of writing criticism – literally, because I make great They’re some of the most important parts of a story: your beginning draws the reader in, and your ending sends them on their way. Both should be memorable in different ways. There’s a few different things to bear in mind here, such as genre conventions, pacing, and character arcs, so it can be quite tricky to get these right.

Fortunately, there’s loads of very detailed online resources to help you get the tools you need to fix any issues with your writing. I’ve even done a few blog posts on some of these myself, but even though my writing advice is obviously the bestest and most attractive writing advice, I’d recommend casting your net a little wider and looking at a wide range of resources. Here’s a few I’ve used in the past:

Online resources aren’t going to cut it on their own, though. I’ve very rarely found a blog post that I can read that will magically turn me into a better writer (and I definitely haven’t written one). This is where writing exercises come in. If your critiquing partner has identified a few consistent weak spots, such as setting or character, then try a couple of short writing exercises that focus on these. It can be helpful to try working on something completely new  when you’re trying to work on your weaknesses as a writer. It’s like warming up before a big sports thing – you need to make sure all the right muscles have been loosened up before you really go for it.

A much more fun way of working on your weak spots is to read stuff by writers who make them their strengths, and see if you can spot them in action. If you have trouble with believable worldbuilding, why not read some Tolkien? If you have trouble with providing a satisfying end to your detective story, why not read some Conan Doyle or Christie? As you read, try and identify the parts where your chosen writer is showing off their skills – there’s nothing like a masterclass to show you how it’s done.

It’s a lot of stuff. Brushing up on your weaknesses as a writer can be very time-consuming, but it’s time well spent. When you’ve done all your writing exercises, read around your weaknesses and used all the resources you can shake a stick at, you’ll have a much stronger grasp of what you need to do to make your writing work. Come back to your original project when you feel like you have a stronger grasp on what you need to improve on, and you’ll smash it.

Criticism can be very hard to hear. But sometimes the most difficult writing advice is the one you need to hear the most. If you have a critiquing partner whose advice you trust and you keep an open mind, it can be one of the best things you can receive as a writer. With a little time and effort spent working on your weaknesses, good criticism can completely transform the way you work as a writer. You’ll never be able to please everyone, of course, but you’ll have improved your skills – and that in itself is valuable.

giphy pup
And with the Learning Puppy’s blessing, you may go forth into the world and write. (image: giphy.com)

Book Recipes: How to Write Dark Academia

Time for another book recipe! This one’s on how to write dark academia, which is a fancy term for nerd murder. Put on your most pretentious scarf and let’s get started!



  • One insecure yet prone-to-monologuing protagonist
  • A really solid aesthetic
  • One twinkly-eyed academic
  • An elite group of attractive yet pretentious students
  • A really, really nice university campus
  • Old books
  • A bunch of well-meaning background characters there to misunderstand the protagonists
  • So much booze



  1. Start with a sinister prologue where your main character monologues about a murder that they may or may not have committed as a student.
  2. Aaaaaaaand flashback!
giphy dr who
OOO-WEEEEE-OOOOOOOHHH (image: giphy.com)
  1. Your insecure yet prone-to-monologuing protagonist has just arrived at a fancy university. Try and make some friends with the well-meaning background characters but don’t worry, it won’t stick.
  2. Monologue about how no-one understands you.
  3. Introduce your attractive yet pretentious students! They’re all studying the same thing, taught by a twinkly-eyed academic who almost always drinks tea.
  4. Join the cool kids’ class!
  5. Attend the twinkly-eyed professor’s lectures. Describe them as transcendent, while sober.
  6. Fall in love with one of the pretentiously attractive students, but don’t do anything about it. Who wants to go on a date when you can yearn?
  7. Get so drunk with the pretentious students. It’s not like a normal college party, this one is special.
  8. Uh-oh, there’s tensions within the group! Sure hope nothing goes wrong that would provide some material for a sinister prologue…
  9. Remind your protagonist how boring interacting with normal people is. Good thing we’ve got those pretentious friends to rely on! Nothing could ever go…
giphy chipmunk
Dun dun DUUHHHH. (image: giphy.com)
  1. The pretentious students decide to make it look like an accident, possibly because they are still drunk. Never ever entertain the possibility that you might actually get caught.
  2. Attend a lecture because WHAT NOTHING’S WRONG PSSHHH WHY DO YOU ASK
  3. Come up with some vague artistic/literary reason for covering up a murder, or possibly committing more.
  4. An authority figure starts sniffing around. Of course, you might get arrested, but talk about how this has affected tensions within the group instead.
  5. Uh-oh, looks like the least pretentious student is cracking up…
  6. Your tutor has realised what’s going on and they are, understandably, disgusted! No academic justification for your bad deeds for you, monologuing protagonist.
  7. Have a final confrontation with your pretentious friends! Fight! Kiss! Swear! Drink! The important thing is that it ends with another pretentious student dying and the irrevocable break-up of your friendship group, which is obviously more important than murder number two.
  8. Reflect on your youthful idiocy in the epilogue, now that the monologuing protagonist is older and wiser, and mope in a nostalgic yet sinister way.

THE END. Serve drenched in all the alcohol you can find.



  • Your protagonists should spend 85% of the novel drunk, high, or hungover, but make sure they judge everybody else for doing the same. They’re too classy to be trashy – it’s decadent when they do it.
  • Pick an aesthetic and commit to it. I’m talking colour schemes, uniforms, specific kinds of weather, maybe even themed food. Cram it all in there!
  • Always make sure that your campus is suitably posh, and that your protagonist is not.
  • It’s safer to pick a humanities subject for the cool kids’ class. It’s pretty tricky to get pretentious about numbers.
Screen Shot 2019-02-09 at 08.43.00
Best leave that to the Numberwang Institute. (screenshot: youtube.com)
  • Always include some stuff in foreign languages that is not translated for the readers’ benefit.
  • Make sure to spend at least a chapter just talking about sexual frustration.
  • Always, always, always include a needlessly opulent fancy party – preferably a masked ball – which your protagonists will judge but then go to anyway. Because c’mon. Of course you’d go.


And here’s one I made earlier…


It was when we were all sprawling on the grass in the Cloisters that the idea of murder first came up.

We had strewn ourselves across the grass, draping our legs over each other and passing around a bottle of Veuve Cliquot that Bastien had purloined from his stepmother. I was propped up on an elbow and trying to read Derrida, in the vague hope that it would make more sense when I was drunk. Theo had slung a possessive arm around Ophelia’s shoulders as her head drooped against his chest. Aubrey had propped her feet up on the picnic basket, an inch of slim ankle peeking out from between her brogues and the cuffs of her suit trousers. Bastien was opening another bottle and swearing; Perry was asleep.

I looked up from my book and took in the stone walls of Pumdringham Academy, the rolling lawns, the view down to the lake through the colonnade, and tried to seem as if it were not all new to me. The past few weeks had been a dream of dappled sunlight, leather-bound books and afternoons gone in a haze of brandy and champagne. It was a far cry from home. At Pumdringham I was Edmund: the scholar, the poet, the dreamer. At home, I was Ed, and my brother Jimmy would make farting noises whenever I tried to talk to him about syntax.

Bastien finally got the cork out of the next bottle and cheered. It fizzed over Perry and he woke up, spluttering.

“Good God,” he groaned, pushing his floppy hair out of his eyes, “how am I hungover already?”

“Come, gentlemen, and drink down all unkindness…”


“You’re misquoting,” said Aubrey, lighting a cigarette.

“D’you want another glass or not?”

Aubrey flicked her cigarette ash at him and stuck out her tongue. Ophelia took the bottle from Bastien and poured out another glass for her and Theo.

“Has anyone done the reading for Madame yet?” she asked, tucking a long curl of hair behind her ear.

Perry fell back on the grass and groaned. I wasn’t surprised. Sévérine de Compte au Lagneaulais – simply known to us as Madame – was our lecturer. She only dressed in black, kept rare butterflies and regularly set us punishing amounts of background reading for our French literature class. This week’s attempt to make sophisticates of we uncultured swine was Derrida, Sartre and Foucault, for Camus’ L’Etranger.

Bastien let out a snort of laughter. “La belle dame sans merci,” he said.

I nodded, to show that I definitely got the reference, but I didn’t want to show off about it.

Theo leaned back on his elbows. “I don’t see why we have to do all this extra reading,” he drawled, “nothing can compare to the real experience. When I was living in Montmartre…”

Bastien groaned. Aubrey rolled her eyes and winked at me. I blushed, and wondered if she could tell she was starting to look a bit blurry for me. I blinked, hard, as Theo steamed ahead with one of his stories about his ‘transformative experience’ buying baguettes and sneering at tourists on the bus to Disneyland Paris. Aubrey snapped back into focus, but by then she was looking at Theo and frowning.

“But if living through something is the only true test of the human experience, then what’s the point of literature?” she asked, pointing her cigarette at him. Even when she was arguing she was pretty. I wondered, briefly, if she would be impressed if I got her name tattooed on my chest, or whether she would think it was gauche. Maybe if I told her I did it as a satirical swipe at the gradual consumerisation of romance, she might make out with me in a corner of the library…

“There is no point to literature,” Theo scoffed, “nothing has a point. Meaning has no meaning unless it’s overturned, which is why it’s so important that we sit out here getting drunk at eleven am on a Wednesday.”

“Typical! That’s a typical misuse of the nihilist philosophy to justify decadence, and a wilful misunderstanding of the –”

I briefly tried to remember what nihilism was. Things were definitely getting fuzzy for me, and all I could say for certain was that it involved a lot of dressing in black, getting drunk and having a lot of casual sex, but in a transgressive kind of way. Actually, it sounded quite appealing.

“If you’d ever been to Montmartre, Aubs, you might actually –”

“But there are some experiences which only literature can illuminate for the decent human being! Surely you aren’t suggesting that to properly understand L’Etranger, the reader should go out and kill someone, are you?”

“See, there you go again with your crass limitations of so-called ‘morality’, but what even are these? Who decided what is moral and what is not? Camus didn’t –”

Bastien took a swig of champagne straight from the bottle and pointed at the pair of them. “Look,” he slurred, “unless killing someone is actually going to help me write my essay on French existentialism, you can both shut up. Now Aubs, darling, can I be a scab and scrounge one of your ciggies?”

Aubrey handed over a small leather pouch. “They’re not cigarettes.”

Bastien brightened up. “Even better.”


My full book-cookbook can be found here. Let me know what you’d like me to look at next – and as always, take this recipe with a pinch of salt.

Heh heh heh. (image: replycandy.com)

Write What You Know: How to Research for a Book

There’s an old saying that you should write what you know. This is kind of true – or rather, it’s true that you should know about what you write. Readers can always tell when a writer isn’t familiar with what they’re writing about, and if something doesn’t feel authentic then it can turn a lot of people off your work very quickly.

However, this doesn’t mean that everything you write should be a thinly-veiled autobiography. If everyone did that, most books would be about people sitting down trying to decide where to put the commas. All it means is that before you start to write, you should make sure you know about your subject.


WOO YEAH (image: tumblr.com)

Sitting down to research a book can feel like a very daunting task. If you think about it in the abstract it can start to feel much bigger than it really is, and it can be quite difficult to know where to start. However, it doesn’t have to be.

The best way to work out what you’re going to need to know is to look at your idea in more detail. Your story is going to dictate what you need to know in order to write it well, so before you start plan things out about your plot, your setting, and your characters to help you identify where to start. Your research will shape this in turn, and you may find a few of these details change along the way, but that’s just going to make the story feel more believable as a whole.

A couple of things are always going to be important: character details and setting always need to be authentic, otherwise people won’t believe what you’ve written. If your character has a certain job, then you are going to need to know how having that job affects them – particularly if it’s something intense like a doctor or a policeman or whatever. The same goes for setting, even if it’s completely fictional – even fantasy societies still need things like food and clothes to keep them running, and you are going to need to know how that society produces them.

But the genre of your story is going to affect the knowledge you need to write it well too. For example, hard sci-fi usually needs a good working knowledge of physics, technology and other scientific concepts, and if you don’t understand that when you write then all your fictional technology is going to feel a little hollow. You want your fictional spaceship or time machine or whatever to feel real – not like a cardboard box painted silver that occasionally goes ‘bleep bloop’.

giphy dino
Such realism! (image: giphy.com)

How much this technical knowledge shows up in the book is also going to depend on the genre. To go back to the previous example – in hard sci-fi, where the focus is on how the science is possible, your reader is going to expect a certain amount of technical knowledge from the off. In this particular subgenre, the science takes an important role. But for something like space opera, where the focus is more on the stories that play out, you aren’t actually going to need to explain the physics of how the technology works. In this case, broad strokes work a lot better than fine detail. It’s enough to know that it’s there and that it works in certain conditions – your readers aren’t going to expect you to get down to the physics of it. Likewise, if you’re writing a police procedural you should be reasonably aware of what it’s like to be a police offer – which covers all sorts of things including standard procedure, forensic science and the limits of police powers in wherever your story is set. But if you’re writing an amateur detective story, you won’t need to know all that, although you will need to know the basics of forensic science to make it credible.

But once you’ve decided what you need to know, what’s the best way to find it out?

Fortunately, the Internet.

Blog post over, everyone go home. (image: medium.com)

It’s a godsend. The Internet is an excellent place to start, but as always, take what you read with a pinch of salt. As a general rule of thumb, if the site you’re referencing lists its sources and they seem legit, then it’s probably fine for you to use it. But there’s lots of other ways to find what you need as well:

  • Libraries and archives: Extremely reliable for anyone writing historical fiction, particularly anything that’s not set in the most popular historical periods (Ancient Rome, Tudors, Regency/Victorian England, and World War Two). Comes with the added bonus of lovely archivists and librarians who will answer your questions, or at least point you in the right direction. Also, sometimes they have cafes.
  • Field trips: Very useful if you are writing something that’s set in or inspired by a place where you haven’t been before, as you’ll pick up on a lot of really small details that don’t always get written about. Also you’ll get to eat lots of interesting new food. It’s not the most affordable option, however, so if that’s out of your budget I’d recommend reading through as many travel books as you can get your hands on and killing some time on Google Street View.
  • Similar fiction: This one’s great, because what do writers love more than reading? Reading well-researched fiction that draws on similar concepts to your own idea is a great way to get into the right mindset, but make sure you steer well clear of any plagiarism. Always make sure to pay attention to the endmatter, as sometimes authors will list the research books they used there, which is always helpful.
  • Speaking to people: My least favourite research tool, because it means I have to change out of my PJs, but by far one of the best. Nobody can give you better info about something than someone who’s lived through it. They’ll be able to tell you details which you might have never even thought of, so if you get the opportunity to actually chat to someone about your chosen topic, grab it with both hands. Don’t grab them though.
You must reach Santiago levels. (image: tumblr.com)

Basically, there’s loads of different places to find the information you need to make your book good and it’s not all online. There’s only one golden rule, and it is this: never rely on only one source. You wouldn’t do it for an essay, so don’t do it here.

So you’ve found out what you need to know and you’ve hit the books. Congrats on becoming best pals with all the librarians, but what do you do next? What is the most useful way of getting this information across?

Most of the research that you’ve done probably won’t make it into the final book. It’s like an iceberg – 90% of it is below the surface. So while you’ve got extensive notes and long lists of facts, your next task should be to pick out which are the ones you’re going to use. Certain basics are always going to be in there – such as food, clothing, transportation etc. – and getting these little details right is going to make your work feel a lot more authentic. If you’re writing historical fiction, for example, it’d feel a lot more authentic to get the characters’ clothes and food right than to have them stand around talking about relevant historical events. You might have researched every detail of the Battle of Hastings down to the minute, but if your characters are looking forward to a lovely baked potato when it’s all over, anyone who knows the first thing about history is going to think you’re an idiot.

Historians will put on their feathery hats and laugh and laugh. (image: pirates-corsaires.com)

Once you’ve done your research, it can be very tempting to wedge it all into your manuscript. After all, you’ve done all that work, and it’s nice to have it recognised. However, I don’t think this is usually a good thing. Of course there are certain times in any novel where you do need to impart facts to your reader – any type of hard sci-fi, for instance – but for me, I think the better way of doing it is to use the facts to create a feeling of authenticity. When your research informs your writing rather than dominating it, it feels genuine without being dry. It’s like a really good bra: most of the stuff it does is structural support, it makes you feel more confident, and you don’t have to show it if you don’t want someone else to see it.

I always think that research is an important skill for any writer to have. ‘Write what you know’ is good advice, yes, but if you followed it to the letter you’d end up writing the same things again and again. Don’t let the idea of it put you off – if you work out what you need before you start, and don’t put it all into your finished manuscript, it’ll be one of the most valuable tools you have.

Time to hit the books!