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On Receiving Feedback As An Aspiring Novelist, by Gary Worthington

The best thing that happened to me at the beginning of my writing career was being asked to join a local writer’s group. I was lucky in that I was asked to join at just the right stage when I had been writing seriously for a short time and that the group was a good one.

I doubt anyone has the ability to write first or even second drafts of stories that are so perfect they can’t be made better. Usually there are numerous possibilities for improvement, especially if the writer is a beginner. I can’t emphasize enough that you need unbiased, constructive feedback from people who are knowledgeable enough to tell you exactly what’s wrong and give you suggestions on how to improve it.

My wife, who is an English literature teacher, typically reads my initial drafts and provides detailed comments. I’m lucky to have this type of “in-house” help. For most writers it’s not a good idea to have your relatives provide your editorial help. They’re likely biased in that they don’t want to say anything that might hurt your feelings, and even if they read a lot of books, they probably won’t be able to tell you precisely what you need to do to make improvements.

It’s best to join a good writers’ group, either in person or online. It’s crucial that the participants be supportive of each other, and that their critiques be well meant. I’ve heard of groups where the members were competitive with each other and some of the comments tended to be devastating put-downs. You want people who are not only knowledgeable about the basics of writing, but who also genuinely care about each other and sincerely try to be helpful.

At the time I started writing historical fiction, online groups weren’t yet available. Our own group rotated the venue among the members’ homes, usually meeting weekly. Some of the authors wrote fiction and some wrote nonfiction. We took turns reading our current work aloud. When a person finished reading, the others would offer comments and suggestions on the piece.

There were usually anywhere from three to six people at a session, though four was the typical number. The membership changed somewhat over the years, largely because one of the permanent members was an English literature professor who occasionally invited one or two of his more promising students to join us. All of the participants had enough knowledge of the craft of writing to offer constructive suggestions on the others’ work. Almost all, within a few years at the most, found outside publishers for their books, at least one received a significant literary award,and another was later published regularly in the New Yorker.

I was privileged not only to benefit from long term constructive feedback from these talented writers, but I was also fortunate in finding good people to read and comment on my completed manuscripts. Since my novels are set in India it was important to have my work read by people from that country so they could point out any errors in background details, any flaws in my understanding of the culture or any inappropriate depictions of how Indians would be likely to act the situations in my scenes. For each of my books I was able to find willing volunteer readers who had grown up in India and who were highly literate in English and therefore able to provide the useful critiques I needed. I’ve also had friends who were glad to proofread sections of the manuscripts to spot typographical and obvious grammatical errors.

Of course, it’s also possible to hire freelance editorial help. If you aren’t able to find suitable volunteers, then if at all possible you should pay for such a service, after checking references from others the editor has helped, to ensure you’ll get your money’s worth in the type of critique you need.

The main point is that it’s an absolute necessity to obtain good quality editorial assistance in some form before offering your work to the wider public. No exceptions.


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Writing Historical Novels


Life As A Novelist, by William Dietrich

Here’s my Hollywood version of what a novelist’s life should be.

Limousine delivery to the bookstore, after first class travel.

A window dominated completely by one’s books.

Crowded readings and long lines at signings. If a woman, the men want to marry you. If a man, the women want to sleep with you.

Riches. Fame, but only enough to get a good seat at a restaurant, not to be harassed by strangers. A house in the south of France. Long afternoons of wine drinking in the garden with witty literary companions.

The tedium of actual writing? On the cutting room floor of this film.

Bad reviews? Empty readings? Nay, you’re a genius.

Reality, of course, doesn’t match fantasy. I love the independence of the writing life, but the actual work is often seven days a week of solitary confinement in front of a big blank screen. The secret to writing? Long hours of seat time.


Fame? Try reality TV. Fortune? To only a favored few. Happiness? I read John Sutherland’s excellent Lives of the Novelists and was struck by what a miserable, suicidal, alcoholic and penurious lot the literarily famous were.

So why do it? We humans have a natural instinct to express ourselves, which you can see in every toddler’s determination to speak. Writing is a way to explore oneself. It’s at least a try at literary immortality. It can free one from the conventional workplace and imperious bosses. There’s at least the chance of hitting the bestseller jackpot, while regular jobs promise a raise of a few percentage points. It’s a lottery ticket.

Today’s writer is by necessity a small business person. There’s a budget, taxes, a strategic plan and self-promotion in the form of blogs, tweets, readings, talks and teaching. Oh, and your friends will call you ‘retired’.

Few authors have a big success with their first book. To create and sustain any kind of career, you typically need to write many. Words by the million! Best not to think about that.

While self-publishing has confused the options, the usual path is to write and write, attend conferences, take classes and ultimately pitch to an agent who takes you on. Then comes a contract, you hope, with some portion of the promised advance up front upon signing.

Your new best friend, an editor, is as smitten as you are, but tells you a shocking thing. The manuscript you’ve labored on in secret these many years not only is not perfect but perhaps doesn’t work at all. Rewrite time!

The exquisite descriptions of my first novel? Slows the story, I was told. My plot? Doesn’t work.

It typically takes a year to publication, which can be an anticlimax. Don’t believe your best and worst reviews, and don’t be surprised when there are almost no reviews at all. Can’t get a waiter’s attention? Chances are you won’t get the literary community’s either, unless you’re a prodigy or connected.

The publicist may send you out on a modest schedule of local readings to which few show up. The royalty statement may be embarrassing. The message you so wisely delivered in your masterpiece may be missed.

So what. You write another book, and another. You can’t help yourself, you’re an author! You know you have something to say and an entertaining way of saying it. You have faith that readers will discover you.

Here’s the miracle. They will.


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Writing Historical Novels

A Day In My Life As A Historical Novelist, by Ben Kane

I chose this topic of a day in the life of a writer because I thought it might provide an interesting insight into how I write my books, and also provide a platform for readers of this blog to share how they spend their days writing.

I could start by saying that I spend a lot of time prevaricating, networking on social media and being very inefficient, but that would only be 50% true. Yet my writing time is now totally different to what it was even twelve months ago, and that was different to how I wrote five years ago. I’ll start at the beginning and describe how it evolved.

When I started writing, I was working full-time as a veterinarian in a small animal practice. I did this job for sixteen years in total. Once I got into a writing routine, which did take a while, I would use all my spare time to write. I wrote in my car during my lunch break, in the office above the surgery or even on the operating table sometimes (not at the same time as I was operating!). I spent any spare time during my weekends reading textbooks about Ancient Rome, or writing.

After about three years writing, I began submitting my manuscript to literary agents. Three refusals were disheartening, but then I got the lucky break of a personal introduction to one Charlie Viney, the man who is still my agent today. Once I signed up with him, my amount of time that I spent writing increased further. Still working as a veterinarian, I got married and we had our first child. During the subsequent eighteen months, I easily notched up 80-90 hours’ work per week between my veterinary job and writing. Monday to Friday, I would get up at 4.45 a.m. and write for two hours before I went to work. I wrote at the end of each day, between the last operation and the start of evening consultations. I’d write for ten to twelve hours a day on weekends.

In August 2007, I landed a three book deal with Random House, the largest publisher in the world. Life changed again and I had to write a book every twelve months – as well as work full-time. It was really hard work, working the same sort of hours as I had for the previous year and a half but with the pressure of a deadline added in. When my first novel, The Forgotten Legion, was published, I made the concession of going part-time as a veterinarian. I couldn’t keep working those insane hours forever. My second book was difficult, as it is for many writers. I ended up rewriting 25% of it – twice! The time that took meant that I went over my deadline, and I took the mad leap of faith of giving up my job as a veterinarian. We couldn’t really afford to do it, but I was no longer able to do two jobs full time and have any quality time with my family.

It was the best decision I’ve ever made. At last I was free to write every day, to immerse myself in the ancient world and to do something that I absolutely adored. I am lucky enough to have an office in our wooden garage, and that has been where I have written my last four books. Once I started doing it full time, I developed a routine of having breakfast and getting out to my office by 9 a.m. at the latest. I would write until 11 a.m., have a coffee, continue until 1 p.m., break for lunch and then continue until maybe 6 p.m. That worked fine until my son started walking and talking. When my daughter came along in 2009, life got even busier. This also coincided with my career starting to take off. Suddenly, I was getting emails from readers all over the world, requests from my publisher for extra material, or to appear at library or bookshop signings. I also managed to get myself into events at Roman sites all over Britain where I could sell my books and raise my profile. These were all the things I had dreamed of as an aspiring writer, but they ate and ate into my writing time. In addition, in late 2010, I got involved in setting up of The Historical Writers’ Association ( and my writing time took a further nose dive. Last year, my daily word count was suffering badly. I had to become even more disciplined about taking time to write – with no electronic interruptions. I also discovered the Pomodoro Technique, which has been the salvation of my writing. It’s really simple: write for 25 minutes, with no interruptions at all; take 5 minutes break, in which you can do what you wish; repeat.

Currently, that’s working well, but given the way my writing time has changed in just five years, I wouldn’t be surprised if I have to find another method at some stage in the future.


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The Forgotten Legion (Forgotten Legion Chronicles)The Silver Eagle: (The Forgotten Legion Chronicles No. 2) (Forgotten Legion Chronicles)Hannibal: Enemy of RomeSpartacus: Rebellion    The Leopard Sword (Empire)Marrying MozartThe Medici Secret

Writing Historical Novels

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