My top three books on writing technique

Ever since I’ve been writing novels I’ve been searching for help with this mammoth task, wanting to steep myself in craft and learn all I can from other writers.   I’ve gained a lot from listening to guests at Novel Nights over the last three years and my writing group, but I’m still hopeful surely, there must be a secret that, once cracked,  could lead to publishing nirvana.

Now  I’m studying on my Creative Writing MA at Bath Spa University our tutors tell us, ‘there are no rules.’ Except for the ones we break, obviously.

Here’s a short round up of my favourite how-to books on technique taken from the many on my shelves.

  1. Monkeys with Typewriters by Scarlett Thomas

This is a dense text that needs to be read slowly, like an essay, with highlighting tabs to hand. Thomas teaches creative writing at the University of Kent and the text is full of helpful advice for writers. The first part of the book is  called theory and will help you understand the difference between narration, plot and story-telling, how events need to be shaped to be compelling and gives examples of how to subvert basic plots.

Thomas references a huge amount of literature to back up her points and questions hypotheses which make Monkeys with Typewriters an intellectually honest read. She  provides a very useful story matrix that she uses with her students to generate ideas for their novels.

The second part of the book deals with practice. There’s a whole chapter devoted to, ‘Writing a good sentence,’ which goes beyond the usual advice of deleting adverbs or weasel words. She discusses the differences between minimalist and ‘expansive writing’ and thoughtfully challenges assumptions on minimalism. I found some of the book’s exercises particularly useful including finding a ‘seed word’ for your novel to energise it.

This book is the sort of thing you can keep at your bedside. It’s thoughtful encouraging style and will help you dive deeper into your writing, and provides gentle encouragement.Solutions for writers by Sol Stein.

2.Solutions for Writers by Sol Stein.

This writer’s handbook gives examples of how you can improve your writing, and starts with questioning your responsibility to your readers. Chapters worth reading include ‘The Secrets of Good Dialogue’,  What is unique about the book is that Stein gives an example of poor writing and then an example of an improved version. Stein has edited authors such as Dylan Thomas, James Baldwin and W.H Auden. The only downside of the book is the tiny font.

3. Write Great Fiction: Revision & Self-Editing & Write Great Fiction: Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell

If you’re looking for something more didactic with easy to follow headings, bullet points, well laid out text and lots of short exercises then try James Scott Bell. He writes Write Great Fiction series of books; useful to have next to your laptop. Whilst most of his examples come from the commercial end of the publishing market there are many basic principles which will be helpful to all writers.

By Grace Palmer who directs Novel Nights.



26th April at Novel Nights Independent Publishing with Tangent Books

This month, Richard Jones from Bristol-based independent publisher, Tangent Books will give an overview of the Independent publishing world.

Fresh from the London Book Fair he’ll also talk about wider trends in publishing and opportunities for writers. He says, ‘there’s never been a better time for writers.’

Get your questions ready. Visit Tangent on

Tangent publish an eclectic mix of books on topics such as street art, Bristol, politics, poetry and fiction. Tangent also publishes short story anthologies including the Bristol Short Story Prize anthologies.

Buy Tickets 

March 29th 2017 Ghostwriting with Tom Henry

Tom Henry is a freelance professional ghostwriter. See his site at

He says, “I help people who have great stories to tell, but don’t always have the time or the capability to tell them. I like working with ‘ordinary’ people whose lives are richer than any fiction.”

Latest books include: Orphans of Islam, The Fight for Fordhall Farm and Three and Out.

Tom has had thirteen books published in ten years. He’s helped tell the stories of a former child refugee, an evacuee and a woman speaking out on the Rotherham child abuse scandal.

At Novel Nights he’ll be talking about

  • how to discover and develop the voice
  • how to get the best from your characters
  • ghostwriting
  • co-authoring stories

As well as this author talk and Q and A there will be readings by local writers in the first half of the evening. Amanda Read, Kate Dunn and Patrick Collins.

Tickets for the event Buy tickets for Ghostwriting with Tom Henry

February 2017 Writing Romantic Fiction

This month the theme is all about love and writing romantic fiction. Guest author, Rosemary Dun ‘s debut novel  The Trouble with Love was published last year by  Sphere. Buy the book on Amazon (Currently just 99p). It’s getting 5 star reviews.

Set in Bristol, the novel’s heroine Polly has her own life set up thank you very much with her own business and house.  She meets the lovely Spike aware that he’s emigrating to Australia. She hadn’t planned on falling in love or falling pregnant… Three years later, the single mum is dating again – she’s just found someone when Spike returns with a new girlfriend by his side …

  • Rosemary will be talking about
  • how she got published (and the prat falls along the way);
  • how it’s never too late to get that publishing deal;
  • whether the romantic comedy is a genre which has had its day, or is still very much alive & kicking?
  • Rosemary will also do a short reading from her debut novel The Trouble With Love, published by Little, Brown, followed by a Q&A.

Buy tickets for Writing Romantic Comedy with Rosemary Dun
During the first half of the evening,  we will hear readings from Kate Dun, Chloe Turner, Judy Darley and Amy Morse

Kate Dunn:  I’ve had five books published, written articles for magazines and contributed poetry to literary journals. I’ve also written travel articles for national newspapers including The Observer and The Daily Telegraph. You can find more information from my website

Chloe Turner (@turnerpen2paper) is a writer from Gloucestershire, whose stories have been published in literary magazines including Hark, Kindred (US), Halo and The Woven Tale Press. InShort Publishing (Aus) released Long-gone Mary as an individual pocketbook in 2015, and Labour of Love was a For Books’ Sake Weekend Read earlier this year. Chloe is seeking representation for her first novel, What Has Fallen From Heaven.

Judy Darley is a fiction writer, poet and journalist whose work appears in magazines, anthologies and in her collection Remember Me To The Bees. She’s read stories on BBC radio, in cafés, caves, an artist’s studio and a disused church. Judy blogs at

Author and entrepreneur,  Amy Morse, writes fiction as Amy C Fitzjohn. Harbouring dreams of being a writer since childhood, she published her first novel, The Bronze Box, in 2013. Since then she has written three further novels, and counting.

Buy tickets for Writing Romantic Comedy with Rosemary Dun

January 2017 Writing Historical Fiction Writer biographies

Historical Fiction: Guest author at Novel Nights in 2017 is Celia Brayfield 

She will talk about writing historical fiction, and there will be a Q&A

Buy tickets 

Writing Historical Fiction
Author, Celia Brayfield talk on Writing Historical Fiction 25th January 2017

Celia has written nine novels and four non-fiction titles.

The latest, Wild Weekend explores the tensions in a Suffolk village in homage to Oliver Goldmsith’s She Stoops to Conquer. To explore suburban living, she created the community of Westwick and explored mid-life manners in Mr Fabulous And Friends, and the environmental implications of urbanisation in Getting Home.

She has often juxtaposed historical and contemporary settings, notably eighteenth century Spain in Sunset, pre-revolutionary St Petersburg in White Ice and Malaysia in the time of World War II in Pearls. F

Her non-fiction titles include two standard works on the art of writing: Arts Reviews (Kamera Books, 2008) and Bestseller (Fourth Estate, 1996.) Her most recent is Deep France (Pan, 2004) a journal of a year she spent writing in south-west France.

She has served on the management committee of The Society of Authors and judged national literary awards including the Betty Trask Award and the Macmillan Silver PEN Prize. A former media columnist, she contributes to The Times, BBC Radio 4 and other national and international media. ”

Writers who will share short extracts of their novels at Novel Nights.


Trevor Coombs graduated from the University of Bristol with a Diploma in Creative Writing, has completed four novels and written and performed a number of monologues. He likes playing with history, where he feels safe.

Katie Munnik is a Canadian writer living in Cardiff. Her prose, poetry and creative non-fiction has appeared in several magazines and anthologies, in newspapers across Canada and on CBC radio. She has recently completed fiction mentorship through the Humber School for Writers in Toronto, and is looking for a home for her first novel, Birthwood

For several years Ali Bacon has been on a mission to tell the story of Scottish artist and photographer David Octavius Hill. Last year she distilled the many thousands of words she had written into an hour’s worth of short stories to be read at a photography festival. She is now adding to these in the hope of completing the collection – and the story – some time soon.

“Lucienne Boyce has published two historical novels: To The Fair Land (SilverWood Books, 2012) andBloodie Bones: A Dan Foster Mystery (SilverWood Books, 2015). Bloodie Bones was winner of the Historical Novel Society Indie Award 2016, and was also a semi finalist for the M M Bennetts Award for Historical Fiction 2016. The Bristol Suffragettes (non fiction) was published in 2013. Lucienne is on the steering committee of the West of England and South Wales Women’s History Network, and is a presenter on BCfm Radio’s Silver Sound show. “

Writing Competitions

Being placed in a writing competition can kick-start your writing career and get you noticed as a writer. Here are a few:
The Bridport Prize Closes 31st May 2017

The Bristol Prize Closes 3rd May 2017

Bath Novel Award Closes 24th April 2017

Fish Publishing Prizes:

  • Flash Fiction Closes 28th February 2017
  • Short Memoir Closes 31st January 2017

Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook Short Story Competition Closes 13th February 2017

Review by Trevor Coombs of Novel Nights talk with literary agent, Carrie Kania

Carrie Kania

Pretend you’re in an elevator and somebody asks, “What’s your novel about?” I had to put aside the obvious question – are we talking two floors in The Galleries, Bristol, or the Sears Tower, Chicago – for fear of missing what was said next. ‘Synopses? Don’t always read them. I go straight for the writing. I look for pace, voice and character.’ ‘Think what’s written on the back of the book.’

Anyone who’s done a creative writing course, read a book or blog on how to get published, or, indeed, attended other how-to-get-an-agent talks, would know that much of the above flies in the face of some accepted wisdom. How long have I agonised over a synopsis? How many times was I told to step away from the commercial language of book blurbs? It’s for your own safety, sir. It was clear from the outset that this would be a refreshing take on how to approach an agent.

Carrie commenced her talk with her top five tips, as follows:

  1. Make sure you’re ready. The novel has to be finished, edited and rewritten however many times, and also to have gone through a period of reflection before you even consider clicking send.
  2. Send it to the right person. Check out who an agent represents. Would your novel look good on the bookshelf next to theirs? Don’t send blanket applications, spend time researching instead.
  3. Be professional but informal in your approach. Mention why you are sending it to them.
  4. Understand your pitch. Compare yourself to great writers, if you have to, but make sure it’s not bullshit.
  5. Summarise your book quickly. See the quote that opened this review, above.
  6. Send out to multiple agents. (An  absolute no no, I was once told – send out and wait, then send out and wait again, ad infinitum, ad nauseum.)

Okay, that was six top tips, but that’s how many I scribbled down. She was breaking the rules already, and my wrist was hurting.

From the Q and A and discussion that followed, it became clear that Carrie is and has to be businesslike –

“You don’t make money – I don’t make money”

but equally important to her is the relationship between agent and writer. You have to get on. You have to share the same outlook. She has to like you and your writing. you have to like her and trust her.

Questions in the Q and A ranged across the whole spectrum of writing. Here are a few with Carrie’s, sometimes very, short answers:

Q: I have a story set in Ireland and have had no luck with English agents. Should I go to an Irish agent? A: Irish writing is hot at the moment and there are some good agents about.

Q: What about non-fiction submissions? A: Carrie outlined the differences between submitting non-fiction and fiction, most notably how the synopsis is much more important, and should therefore be longer. Also, the agent needs to know the ‘treatment’ of the content, particularly as a typical non-fiction submission will not yet have been written.

Q: Any preference for creative writing students? A: Nope

Q: Are multiple viewpoints good to have? A: Difficult to do well.

Q:Should I liken my work to films? A: Not really.

Q: Do you pass any interesting manuscripts if they are not for you? A:Yes, if they are good, either to another agent in the agency, and occasionally to other agencies.

Q: What is the ideal length of a novel? A: 60,000 to 110,000 words.

Q: What about the self-publishing route? A: She shies away from it and doesn’t know many agents who will take something that’s been uploaded to Amazon, no matter how many reader recommendations it’s received.

Q: Do I need to use social media? A: Only if you’re into it.

So, what did I learn? Well, some agents are human – who would have thought it? I sent my last novel forty times, the one before thirty-five times. For those that insisted on hard copy, I received slips, sometimes signed letters and sometimes daggers to the heart –  I made that last bit up. For those that like soft copy, I received emails that felt generated by bot or, more disturbingly, nothing at all. But I did receive three emails from humans, telling me why they couldn’t take me on, and one of these complimented me on my writing. I immediately proposed marriage to her. Still waiting.

I also learned that the one-page synopsis + the obligatory bio + the three chapters of fifty pages + the covering letter, add up to a system that does for most, but its rigidity is there to be tested.

Carrie is a human, and humans create their own systems or adapt the ones in place. She wants to find good writing and she doesn’t care how she achieves it. Which is why she won’t always read a synopsis, which is why she’ll welcome an approach over cocktails at her Soho bar, and which is why perhaps she’ll get out to the provinces now and then.

Oh, and for the whingers who moaned about the twelve quid admission to Novel Nights this time, and here I include myself, this was worth every penny.



Q and A with Carrie Kania, literary agent, Conville & Walsh

Carrie Kania from Conville & Walsh Literary Agency is guest speaker at Novel Nights on October 27th 2016. We asked her some questions ahead of her talk.

What do you love about being a literary agent?

What I really love is working directly with the author and developing an idea to a full-fledged published book.   It’s a wonderful feeling when you walk into a bookstore and see a book that you have had a hand in.   Or seeing a stranger reading a book you worked on.     There’s also a wonderful joy in seeing the progress of a title as the book develops from an idea or first draft to the finished product.   Agents are there to help the writer; we’re the cheerleader, editor, helper, lawyer, bookseller, publicist, advisor for all things.    And that close relationship can also lead to develop life-long friendships.

Q: What advice do you have for unpublished authors who want to find a literary agent?

When you spend months, years, decades writing your book, you should spend some time when looking for a literary agent.  I receive too many ‘mass emails’ addressed to ‘Sir/Madam’ or ‘To Whom It May Concern’ – I even received a ‘Dead Mr. Agent’ once!   This tells me that person just emailing every-single-email they can find.   It’s best to research the agent, know what they work on, understand what they are looking for – and then if you think it’s a match, reach out using specifics.  Tell me why you think I would work best for you.    Agents receive hundreds of submissions a week – hundreds!  There is no way we can read everything that comes in and do our day-to-day jobs.   So if a manuscript comes to me and it is clear it’s a group-submission, it doesn’t go to the ‘to read’ pile.

We are all on-line and many agents participate at conferences, festivals, writing workshops etc.   Most agents have profiles and biographies – so have a look at what we do (and who we represent) before sending your book out to us.

Still stuck?   Have a look at the books that you think would sit happily next to yours.  Most authors will thank their agents in the acknowledgements – that’s a good way to find out who is representing books that are similar to yours.

If that doesn’t work – attend festivals and conferences where you know agents are scheduled to talk or be on panels.  There are some excellent festivals and conferences happening – as a writer, attend!   At the very least, you’ll meet some wonderful people.

Q: Tell me three things you look for when you see a manuscript for the first time

I look for and read for (in order!)

Voice.   Does the author’s voice on-the-page work and capture my interest.   The twist of phrase, sentence structure, looking at things in a new way.

Pace.     In any book – fiction to non-fiction – you want to read something that ‘keeps you turning the pages’.   So pace is very important to me.    I once spoke to someone who wanted to send me a script to look at and they said ‘it’s a little slow in the beginning, but really picks up around page 100.’

Story.    The story!   Try hard not to complicate things and include a huge cast of characters.  Make sure everyone is there for a reason.   If there are two characters in your book who are doing the same thing – and sound the same – then maybe those two people should be edited down to one.    Make sure the story is exactly that – tell me a story.   Keep that in mind as you write – ‘am I telling a story’ and you’ll find yourself self-editing, thereby quickening the pace and bringing your voice out even more.

Q: Is the book ‘concept’ as important as the quality of the writing when you are considering working with a writer?

For non-fiction, concept is key.    And making sure that whatever your non-fiction concept is, you are the most qualified to tell it.    For fiction, concept is certainly wonderful – but it is not the most important factor when I read.  A ‘coming of age’ novel is certainly not a unique concept, but when told in the right voice with pace and story – then it can be quite special.

Q: Tell me about publishing trends at the moment

The trend is never pay attention to trends.   Because once a trend hits, the market will be flooded with ‘like’ titles.   If you are brave enough and fast enough to get into trend publishing, and make it work, then that’s a skill.     At the end of the day, the best trend is a great book.  So publishing needs to and has to always pay attention to the quality of the title – whether that’s a full-color fashion book or a debut novel.   The trend that will never go away is quality.



Guest authors 2016

Biographies of writers

In January Dr Mimi Thebo inspired our audience with her talk, Finding Your Voice. Mimi has had seven books published in the last ten years and lectures on the BA and MA in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University.  Her latest work, DREAMING THE BEAR was published on the 1st February 2016 and is set in Yellowstone Park, aimed at young readers. She blogs on writing at My Glamorous Literary Life and her author site aimed at a young audience is

Also readings by Judy Darley, Catherine Bell, Alison Powell and Paul McIntyre, of Bristol Novelists.

Tobias Jones joined us in February. Tobias is an author, broadcaster and Observer columnist and spoke about   “Inventing your own Language – how to make-up new words and mine old ones”. He  has published three novels and four works of non-fiction. He has been a columnist for the Observer and for Internazionale, and has made documentaries for the BBC and for RAI. His next book is set in 1549.

Writer and broadcaster Sanjida Kay discussed writing and psychological thrillers at Novel Nights in March. Her  fifth novel, and her first thriller, Bone by Bone,  was published by Corvus Books on 3rd March 2016.

Lucy Robinson is the best-selling author of four critically-acclaimed novels: The Day We Disappeared, The Unfinished Symphony of You and Me, A Passionate Love Affair with a Total Stranger and The Greatest Love Story of All Time, all of which are published by Penguin.  Prior to writing Lucy worked in theatre production and then factual television, working on documentaries for all of the UK’s major broadcasters. Her writing career began when she started a blog for Marie Clare.

In May we had a panel discussion on marketing your books with three independently-published authors. Debbie Young is the author of warm, funny fiction and helpful, friendly non-fiction, including how-to books for self-published authors. She is the Commissioning Editor of the Alliance of Independent Authors‘ Advice Centre blog, a speaker on self-publishing and book marketing, and a regular panellist of BBC Radio Gloucestershire’s Book Club. She founded and directs the Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival ( and runs author groups in Bristol and Cheltenham. She is never bored. Twitter:@DebbieYoungBN

Dan Jeffries was born with an incredibly rare vascular condition that left him blind in one eye from birth, ‘Me, Myself & Eye’ explores what it’s like living with one of the world’s rarest medical conditions — and then finding out you have another one. Set in Bristol,  Dan recounts school, University, love, creativity and everything in-between. Always willing to embrace new technology, Dan’s story encourages the reader to use their mobile device whilst reading to view images, documents, video and more, all designed to enhance the reading experience. Published by Tangent Books, available as iBook, eBook and Audio Book coming soon.

Fraud, blackmail, murder and cocaine habits feature in Up In Smoke, After The Interview, and (most recently) The Bride’s Trail, published by Perfect City Press. She’s also contributed short stories to anthologies, like A Dark Imagined Bristol by the Bristol Fiction Writers’ Group. All books are available as paperbacks and e-books. Find out more at, read her blogs, and subscribe to her newsletter to receive a free e-book of short stories, which isn’t available anywhere else.”

Babs Horton
Babs Horton

Babs Horton is an award winning novelist. Her first book, A Jarful of Angels, ( Simon and Schuster, 2003) won the Pendleton May prize and was short-listed for the Authors’ Club ‘First novel’ award. Dandelion Soup was published in 2004,Wildcat Moon (2006.) Recipes for Cherubs (2009) and Holy Mackerel (2014). She was a contributor to Beryl Cook (UPP, 2009) and her short stories have appeared in magazines and anthologies worldwide.

Babs was born in Tredegar, South Wales, and brought up in London in a variety of pubs and attended seven different schools eventually moving to Plymouth where she graduated from the College of St Mark & St John. She was a teacher for many years, working with children with behaviour problems and for 10 years taught English in an adolescent unit for students with mental health problems and is a firm believer in the power of literature in soothing the troubled mind. She is an RLF fellow at the University of Plymouth, Learning Development Advisor and consultant fellow. She regularly visits schools, universities and libraries giving lively workshops on creative writing, literacy and essay writing. Last year she was involved in the Immersive Writing pilot scheme at the University of Plymouth.

Coming soon