Top ten tips for finding an agent

Despite the availability of free print-on-demand self-publishing services, traditional publishing remains the holy grail for many aspiring authors (me included). It can be frustrating for writers to find a foothold in a hugely competitive market. Publishers want something that will sell, and often they don’t have time to sift through massive slush piles. Enter the agent. The big players in publishing rely heavily on agent recommendations to build their stable of authors. I know some writers resent the gatekeeping aspect of agentship, as, on the surface, it adds another step to the process, another barrier between you and your dream editor and a middleman who’ll want to be paid. But, in reality, a good agent will actually open that gate. So, how do you secure someone who will help you hone and endorse your story? I’ve been trying to work it out, but, honestly, I don’t actually know because I haven’t managed it yet. So it would make sense to ask an actual agent. 

Enter Hope Bolinger, agent and author (so she’s ideally placed to speak about both sides of the process). 

Hope’s novel, Blaze, is out in a matter of days, but she kindly agreed to take time away from her promo schedule to share some top tips for securing an agent. 

Everything from here on in is Hope.

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An agent’s top tips for securing an agent.  

  1. Meet Them at a Conference

An agent loves it when she can put a name to a face. Most likely, an agent will take a longer look at your manuscript or send a personal reply if they know you took the time to go out of your way to meet them.

  1. Work on Platform

As much as possible. Unfortunately, in the publishing world now, you have to have a significant presence for a publisher to take a chance on you. Because of this, agents can only take on those who publishers will not reject right away simply because they don’t have enough followers.

  1. Be Realistic

I would love for Disney to pick up my book. But I don’t know how many arsonist boarding school dramas they would do. The book isn’t exactly family-friendly.

Authors who tell me that their book is the next Harry Potter or will get gobbled up by a big-name studio (unless they have major connections with that studio) aren’t thinking of writing as a business. The more realistically you can look at your book, the more realistically an agent will as well.

  1. Do NOT Stalk Them

Or, please, do it in secret.

It’s good to research your agent beforehand. But if you like every tweet since 2016, they’ll know you dug a little too deep. Also, if you quote their blog back to them in the query, it doesn’t get you bonus points. Sorry.

  1. Have Three (or more) Solid Comp. Titles

Know three books that have sold in the past ten years that your book is comparable to.

Tips for these:

  1. Traditionally published books
  2. More B-list than A-list (don’t just have Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, and Children’s of Blood and Bone on there)
  3. In your genre (it’s great to have a book that sold well like But if it’s a children’s book, you probably don’t want to compare your book with Stephen King)
  4. Please try not to insult them

We have thick skin, but here are some examples of comments I’ve heard over email or in person

  • “You’re way too young to know all of this.”
  • “I see you’re a smaller agency, so I thought I would give you a chance to look at this before querying a larger one.”
  • “Agents are the bane of the publishing world. Oh, by the way, here’s my manuscript.”
  1. Be Honest About Your Publishing History

If you’ve previously self-published, no worries. Some agents may reject you because of that, but better to be honest upfront, then for them to do a Google search and find out differently. We do search the author and have found people who lied about self-published titles, platform numbers, etc.

  1. Be Proud About Your Platform

I’ve had authors shyly tell me, “Oh, my platform isn’t much.” And then I see they have a solid 2,000+ followers on Twitter.

I think authors like to tell me this to set my expectations low, but honestly, I’d rather you own it. Authors have to step out in front of crowds for speaking engagements, talk on podcasts, and do a lot of scary phone calls. We’d rather you be confident than show a false humility.

  1. But again, be realistic

If you say, “I have a 5,000+ platform, so I’m hot stuff,” I will kindly mention that good writing has to play a factor in the submissions process as well. Followers are great, but I need to fall in love with the story.

  1. Stick it Out

Rejection sucks. As someone who has received hundreds (if not thousands at this point) of rejections, I get it. And it never gets easier.

Keep at it. I have clients who queried for six years before landing an agent. Some, longer. Do not give up. Ever.

Hopefully (pun intended), this will help a few more authors launch a relationship that could help them make that difficult break into traditional publishing. Good luck!

Notes: Hope Bolinger is a literary agent at C.Y.L.E. and a recent graduate of Taylor University’s professional writing program. More than 300 of her works have been featured in various publications ranging from Writer’s Digest to Keys for Kids. She has worked for various publishing companies, magazines, newspapers, and literary agencies and has edited the work of authors such as Jerry B. Jenkins and Michelle Medlock Adams. Her column “Hope’s Hacks,” tips and tricks to avoid writer’s block, reaches 2,700+ readers weekly and is featured monthly on Cyle Young’s blog, which receives 63,000+ monthly hits. She is excited for her modern-day Daniel “Blaze” to come out with IlluminateYA (an imprint of Lighthouse Publishing of the Carolinas). She enjoys all things theater, cats, and fire.

Blaze is available to preorder here, but hurry, it launches on June 3. 

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Literature Obscura Review – Critical Revelations in the Realm of Contemporary Spirituality

Critical Revelations in the Realm of Contemporary Spirituality by Ceejae Devine. 20/10 – rounded up to 3* in fairness (as spiritual and self/help books are not my kind of thing).

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This is how much self-help and spirituality is not my thing. A few years ago, I went to Glastonbury for the summer Solstice. I was determined to keep an open mind, but after humming at a bowl of water to implant positive vibes into it, after walking past “crystal healing” chairs that cost £20 to sit in for half an hour, being offered expensive “activated almond” smoothies and seeing “wands” for sale (sticks with amethyst tips, also priced about £20), I had to fight down the urge to scream. One of the most egregious profit-making enterprises was the possibility of becoming a priestess in a pagan priesthood by shelling out several thousand pounds for a week-long course.

No thanks.

I have absolutely no problem with people pursuing their own path, whatever that might be, as long as they don’t use it to look down on other people or profit from them. I have a problem with people who claim to be experts in something that’s generally unqualifiable and definitely unquantifiable.

With this in mind, I am fairly suspicious of spirituality-based self-help books when I worked in a little book shop, though I picked a few up out of curiosity. While I believe I can be somewhat objective in reviewing (e.g., I’m not a fan of romance, but I can spot well-written language and an intelligent plot, even if the love story driving it is of less interest to me), I decided to introduce a counter-bias here, to balance out my general dislike for the genre.

On to Ceejae Devine.

Critical Revelations in the Realm of Contemporary Spirituality is, in some ways, an anti self-help book. It doesn’t offer guidelines for behaviour (phew), it casts a critical eye over practices espoused in books like The Secret (phew!) and by authors like Ekhart Tolle (double phew!) and over potentially problematic notions like positive thinking and, frankly, wishful thinking. In that sense, it’s a tonic.

Devine points out some of the key contradictions inherent on some of these quasi-philosophies and plucks out some of the wooly thinking and logical inconsistencies evident in the vlogging and writing done by everyone from buddhism-influenced “spiritual” thinkers to self-confessed satanists. These were the sections I enjoyed the most.

It spans quite a few interesting concepts, like the nature of self-hood, God, happiness and spirituality itself. Devine’s voice is generally clear and personable, although I don’t think we need to be told that she Googled one thing or another. Drawing attention to methods of research and writing tends to have the effect of revealing the scaffolding beneath. That distracts from the message and, frankly, there are deeper ways of doing this than Googling keywords.

On the other hand, the text itself is simultaneously hyperbolic and strangely imprecise in places. Devine overuses phrases like: “I was amazed to find (insert fairly mundane fact here)”. She generalises that “most people” think this and that. And, while it’s refreshing not to be told how to live your life to have a good and happy existence, I’m not entirely sure what Devine’s spirituality entails, other than the fact that she identifies as spiritual. She doesn’t espouse a need for good works, for tithing (thankfully) or for anything else other than recognising things that other people might put down to coincidence as somehow directed by God. Devine is adept at tearing through the tissue-paper of modern “spiritual” writing, but she offers very little that is constructive, and takes other debatable concepts, like the Myers-Briggs personality test at face value (There are many, many different interpretations of the test results, most of which are uniformly complimentary. For me, the system smacks of the Barnum/Forer effect, and I’m not so sure a personality is a fixed form. I’ve taken the test many times and the results seem to depend on my mood). Having said that, the concept of personality-driven spirituality is an interesting one, and it’s over-looked by a lot of writers who espouse a kind of sausage-factory uniformity of thought and practice.

She gives a couple of examples of her experiences, but, while describing them as “mind-blowing”, they remain frustratingly vague. At one point she finds a small fossil which reminds her of a phrase spoken by someone else. At another, her daughter wins a raffle at an event they arrived late at. In another, she is recommended a book, reads it and discovers that the book was published that month. To her, these events carry huge significance. To me, they do not. I’m not doubting that Devine felt something of great personal magnitude (the book itself is subtitled “A personal journey of discovery”) – it’s just that the writing is not strong or evocative enough to transfer that sense of wonder across to me. It remains personal to Devine herself. And, while I’m not in the business of trashing anyone’s beliefs, it’s entirely probable that someone who knows their friend is interested in spirituality might want to read a recently-published book (and new books tend to be the ones with the most hype and advertising budget).

On the other hand, Devine is clearly a fan of critical thinking (good), and of sensible advice (she advises people to seek qualified help from medical professionals rather than relying solely on a one-size-fits-all spiritual doctrines, which may, in the case of positive thinking and gifting-to-receive, may be unsuitable to particular personalities and, actually be harmful).

I sense that there’s more to come from Ceejae Devine.

 

Literature Obscura Review – Solomon’s Exile

Solomon’s Exile by James Maxstead. 11/20 – 3*

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Solomon awakens in a city in the US. He is taller, leaner and stronger than the humans inhabiting Earth, but he can’t remember who he is, where he’s from or how he got there. He wanders into a community under attack from a strange and frightening spectral creature. Slowly, his memories return. The creature is a Soul Gaunt, and its arrival on Earth might mean his own world faces a terrible threat. Weaponless, Solomon must find a way to defeat the creature, find a way home and save the squabbling Houses from the horror which threatens to cross their borders.

There are quite a few things I like about this book. It has quite a bit in common with traditional, legendary fantasy, but Maxstead hasn’t inherited the old tendency to exclude women from the story. Willow, Shireen and Lacey all get a moment in the limelight.

I enjoy two-world fantasy, and I liked the fact that not much of the action takes place in our world (I always feel a bit cheated when a fantasy story lingers on Earth for too long. That’s not what I read two-world fantasy for). I also enjoyed the soft transfer from one world to another: no portals required. This is not Narnia.

Maxstead has thought about his world. The tree-themed holds and their power-struggles and politics have the potential to be intriguing. Having said that, I would like more of a sense of the landscape of the Greenweald. Oddly, the best described and explored House is the one that has the least important role in the story.

There are clear thematic motifs: oaks for strength and military might, whispering pines for subtle politicking, spying and magic and glittering beeches for the ostentatious ruling House. This works well, though the woods seem curiously uninhabited by anything other than the Folk. I’d like a sense of closer connection with the trees – such as the trees fuelling the magic and strength of the Folk, of the Folk giving something back to the plants. I liked Daisy the Hunting Hound, and the hints of other supernatural influences on the Greenweald.

The writing is fairly error-free, with the exception of a few missing apostrophes. However, it would benefit from the injection of some artistry. The descriptions are repetitive and so is the plot. We are repeatedly reminded that the Soul Gaunts are all claws and coldness, characters are captured, released and recaptured, and scenes are described in bare-bones terms, or are vaguely drawn. For instance, in the grand, climactic battle, we are given no indication of numbers, archers fire “rounds” of arrows over and over (even varying the wording a bit would help – volleys of arrows, for instance), and at points the narrative suddenly pulls away and shifts into telling (they were being overwhelmed/they were winning) rather than showing (throwing the reader into the thick of the battle).

This tendency toward repetition goes beyond syntax and vocabulary. Throughout the book, scenes are told and retold from the perspective of different characters. This doesn’t add much, except to hint at their motivations. It’s unnecessary to do this, in most cases. Readers shouldn’t be underestimated, and often it’s entirely possible to infer what’s gone on from subtler hints. For instance, Luke’s flashback is filler. Beyond his capture capture, the reader could piece the rest together themselves. There is also a lot of dialogue between characters wrangling with each other, much of which could be shortened. I think each scene should move the plot forward or offer something dramatic or revelatory about a character, place or society. This is not the case here.

Talking of characters, there’s quite a big cast, but, for the most part, they speak the same way, argue the same way and they all come across as quite one or two-dimensional. For instance, the Folk of the Greenweald fall into US colloquialisms, like “This is crap”, and “feel him out”. It would be nice if there was something that linguistically differentiated the Folk from humans.

In terms of individual personalities, Florian is proud and initially vengeful, Jediah is wise, Luke is weak but loves Lacey, Lacey likes gardening and is brave, Shireen is hot-headed and her lover Orlando is more measured, and Solomon is almost ridiculously good – the perfect soldier/leader/friend, the “best of all of us”, as his compatriots keep saying. He faces a minor trial (being tempted by a Weapon of Great Powertm), but I don’t get much sense of a real struggle. He is Good with a capital G, and the baddies are Bad with a capital B. That’s fine, if you aren’t after complexity, but it gets a bit tropey at times. I did roll my eyes when Solomon trots out the “I need to do this alone” line – and everyone else just accepts it.

Luke and Thaddeus are probably the only characters that grow. Having said that, Thaddeus is a bit of a pantomime villain. There would be more tension if his inner monologue wasn’t quite so blatant, and his betrayal would be more of a surprise if he was a subtle influencer.

There are also some inconsistencies:
Solomon spoke up for the first time. “I agree,” he said. “But they have a saying on that other earth. Hope for the best, but plan for the worst. And that’s exactly what we’re going to do.”

How does Solomon know this? He’s only been there five days. Perhaps if he overhears another character saying it, that would make sense. There’s also a moment where he passes between the worlds without magic or any other means, and while leaving the one creature who could help him do so behind.

In addition, Justice, his sword, is described as being 100lbs (maybe 200). Even the biggest ceremonial swords we have weigh only about 14lb. As with Bait, where the protagonist does a catwalk display with a sword more than two metres long, there is a clear disproportionality.  Justice would weigh as anything from a tweenage girl to a full-grown man.  Could you imagine waving one of those around? Solomon is big, but he’s not a giant (the 10ft Guardian is stated to be bigger than him). This is the kind of thing a hardcore fantasy or SF fan would pick at.

If I was editing Maxstead’s work, I’d encourage him either to streamline this into a shorter story, retaining the easy-to-follow, straightforward style, or to really dive into it, deepen the detail and try to evoke more psychological nuance and depth and a more textured and fully realised world.

If the story had less repetition, but more detail and texture, as well as more differentiated characters, it might have the makings of something special.

Brain to Book: Derailed

Sometimes a story occurs to you with such clarity and such burning immediacy that you have to write it down fast before it flies away.

Well, that happened to me over the bank holiday.

I’m putting Reality Code and Polly the Kangaroo Kitten on hiatus because a book with no name has come along.

It’s a tween novel featuring a 12-year-old girl who lives in Whitby and who can see ghosts. A lot of ghost stories focus on human spirits, but this one’s a bit different. I’m of the opinion that ghost-hood isn’t the preserve of people. Why can’t we have ghost-worms, ghost-sheep and, most importantly, ghost-dinosaurs?

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Imagine them all! Herds of them stamping through our cities, staring confusedly at their own skeletons in the Natural History Museum, or gazing up at the sky and thinking: “oh, no, not another meteor”, every time a plane flies over.

What would they make of us?

All I know, so far, is that this is going to involve graveyards, school angst, a wander around the Pannett Park Museum where there’s a stuffed crocodile called Charlie, dangerous cliff-edges, phoney fortune-tellers, fracking and one very worried mum.

Here’s a ghost triceratops stuck in a yard.

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I wrote a third of the story and then, because I had to go back to work and do things, production slowed down. But as a large chunk of it is done, I hope it will be ready for editing by summer. That’ll speed up the From Brain to Book thing because then I can get on with describing the technical parts of self-pubbing.

Literature Obscura Review: Bait

Bait by Helen Mathey-Horn. 13/20 – 3*

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Lawran is a member of CONTROL, a time-spanning secret society dedicated to setting history right. Sometimes that involves assassination. Although Lawren is an accomplished fighter, her passive telepathic abilities make her unsuited to covert work. Her brand of innate charisma draws attention wherever she goes. But that level of attention makes her ideal for a role as bait.

She is duly shipped off to Welstar, a dusty rock where the main export is drugs, some legal, others less so. Women are in short supply, particularly tall, white-skinned, red-haired women with green eyes. In a way, Lawren’s looks are an asset and a liability. She has to draw out a target with no name while dodging “baggers” who kidnap women for collectors (take your pick out of slavery and taxidermy) and rival drug barons who are armed to the teeth, all while pretending to be an archeology student.

Bait is an interesting premise and it plays with lots of ideas, some of which are stronger than others. The time-travel framing device beds everything in together, but the book seems to have distinct phases. The first act is an archeo-drama, the second is a descent into a not-very-well-hidden underworld and the third spirals into telepathic combat action set-pieces.

Welstar is a wretched hive of scum and villainy, and this is established very quickly when Lawren finds herself stranded at the space station. There’s a fair bit of action and some tension, but I’m not sure the mystery of who Lawren is supposed to be drawing out quite works. It adds a bit of drama, particularly toward the end, but it also leaves the main character muddling around without direction for much of the story.

And boy does Lawren muddle around. She does everything we’re told not to do as children – she accepts a lift from a stranger, walks into shady alleys and even takes sweets from an untrustworthy man. She’s a six-foot tall warrior telepath, and therefore you’d assume she could take care of herself, but even so, the naivety eventually grates. She’s supposed to be competent, but a lot of the plot revolves around things being done to her or around her, and she repeatedly spends time with someone who puts her at risk over and over and over again, despite her better judgment. There is a sliver of a reason for this (no spoilers) and perhaps the murky nature of the mission puts her in a position where she can’t know how to do the right thing, but the end result is frustrating. I’m not sure I want to read a heroine who, despite being an Amazonian ace blade-fighter, repeatedly gets knocked out, drugged, bamboozled and, ultimately, hasn’t got much influence over the way things turn out. This is despite the fact she is invested with an eleventh hour super power.

Lawran’s lack of autonomy extends to her role. She never questions the rightness or ethics of CONTROL and the way it manipulates history – at least not until things go wrong, and even then it’s more about the impact on her and someone close to her. It’s a big question; who, exactly, gets to choose what’s right and what’s wrong?

I may have missed something, as the narrative references several destroyed planets and civilisations, but I’m not sure what the “bad” outcome would have been. Perhaps if the future of a planet was at stake, I’d be more inclined to invest in her mission and the work of CONTROL.

The editing chips away at this, though. There are frequent typos and grammar errors, for example: “He wanted her to believe there were no snakes So Lawran decided she would pretend with him. She sat up.  The snakes came a little closer but they still kept disappeared.” 

This desperately needs to be addressed because it makes an otherwise promising story slip into amateurism. Several improbabilities also need to be considered, too.

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At one point Lawren effortlessly waves a two-metre-long sword around while walking down a stage. She’s tall, yes, but for reference, this is what a two-metre-long weapon looks like in the hands of a typical man.

Although plenty is made of her size and strength, no one makes enough of it to suggest that she’s of proportions capable engaging in figure-of-eight fancy swordplay with something three times as long as the weapons typically used for this.

These, by the way, are about a metre long. Imagine someone waving something twice the length of this around. Unless Lawran is an actual giant, it just wouldn’t be possible.

 

Aside from this, the writing style is reasonable, though some of the combat scenes fall flat. The display at the start is particularly unengaging, though some of the later scenes are more kinetic. The big strength of Bait is the worldbuilding: the desert planet is like Dune mixed with the worst areas of a deprived US city. It’s a hot and inhospitable place and everyone’s scrabbling to get up or out, however they can. There are glimpses of a wider universe as well as telepathic genetics, both of which tie into the story. Some of the descriptions, like an opulent room featuring fish swimming around beneath transparent floor tiles, work well. I’d just like to see the same sort of attention applied to textures, sounds, smells and scenes elsewhere.

Overall, there is a fair bit to commend here, but grammar and spelling issues, a main character who is forced into passivity and occasionally flat writing pull the standard down.

 

Literature Obscura Review: What is There in the Dark

What is There in the Dark by Florence Mercer. 8/20 – 2*.

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A little boy is excited about having a sleep-over at his grandparent’s house. He gets to do all his favourite things, like play with his toys, enjoy a snack and listen to his grandmother’s bedtime stories. But then, inevitably, he has to go to sleep.

Like many small children, this kid has a vivid imagination. Left alone in the darkness of the bedroom, he starts to worry about what might be lurking in the shadows. What’s making all the spooky, scratchy, squeaky sounds? There’s only one way to find out…

This has the makings of a very sweet children’s book. The story is simple, but it has a good message running all the way through it. The little boy finds out that all the noises are harmless and that he has nothing to fear as he settles down to sleep. It’s perfect for any parent looking to calm a jittery youngster.

The core of the story is solid, but it’s let down by poor production.

Minor grammar errors crop up in all sorts of books, traditionally published and indie-published and, when it’s just the odd one, I tend to give the book the benefit of the doubt. But picture books don’t have many words and that makes errors stand out starkly. I also think it’s particularly important to introduce good grammar and smooth syntax to children’s books because kids are only just learning how to read and write. They need accessible writing and to have the best examples possible.

The grammar issues start with the title. It should end with a question mark.

The dedication is to: “those hesitant in discovery of the unknown and what may be in the dark.”.

It’s just sort of off. 

The second problem is the artwork by Thomas Wilder. It’s wildly inconsistent. Some of it is very detailed, other parts are simplistic. Some images are outlined in black, others are not. Some pictures are realistic, others are cartoonish. Some images are almost photo-like and sharp, others are pixilated. It’s as though it was pulled together from lots of different work by lots of different people. The front cover, in particular, needs attention.

Overall, the impression is amateurish. I’m being a bit harsh, I know, but I think indie books can be professional and picture book readers deserve beautiful images and good prose just as much as any other readers.

The message is good. The ideas are lovely. The book could be a cute and reassuring bed-time read. But it really needs some polish and a good edit to make the story truly come alive.

The Adventures of Polly the Kangaroo Kitten Chapter 3: Polly Makes a Friend

Polly wanted to curl into a little ball in the carry-cage and close her eyes. Instead, she ventured out, one paw at a time, into the strange new place.

She was as tense as a spring in a trap, her ears twitching, her eyes wide.

Nothing bad happened.

Jainy ignored her. Polly looked up at the girl. She didn’t smell scary.

The kitten decided to try to make friends. She crossed the carpet. Her crooked front legs made her move in a strange, lollopy way, but she was determined to reach her goal.
She stopped at Jainy’s feet, which were almost as big as Polly herself.

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The kitten looked up.

“Mew!” she said.

“Huh,” said Jainy, but she didn’t look down.

Polly summoned all her courage and stretched up to touch Jainy’s knee with her extra-wide paw.

Tap-tap.

Finally, Jainy noticed her.

“What do you want?” she asked the kitten.

Polly looked up at her hopefully.

“I gave you food and water.”

“Mew!”

She stretched up again and dabbed at Jainy’s jeans.

“Oh, okay then. Stop patting at me with your weird feet. I’ll pick you up.”

Polly could tell that the girl hadn’t spent much time with cats. She felt fingers grip around her middle. Jainy held her like she was a bottle of pop. It wasn’t very comfortable, and it left her back legs and bum dangling down, but then she was sitting on the girl’s lap. That was better.

She nuzzled Jainy’s belly.

“Hmm. I suppose you aren’t so bad, for a weird little kitten,” Jainy said, grudgingly. “Don’t bite me.”

Polly felt a nervous hand press against the top of her head. She purred.

“Okay, now you’re here, let’s take a selfie,” said Jainy. She twisted around, lifted her phone and pouted. Polly saw the phone, sat on her back legs and tried to bat at it, just as Jainy pressed the shutter button.

The girl gave the photo a critical glance.

“Okay, actually you’re kind of cute for a little weirdo,” said Jainy.

The doorbell went.

“Oh, that’s my friend.”

Jainy stood up, gently tipping the kitten onto the floor. She ran out of the room. Polly struggled up onto the chair to sit in Jainy’s warm spot. The girl had forgotten her phone. It lay face-up, still in selfie mode.

Polly plopped over to it and sniffed the screen.

This cuboid thing must be very important to the girl, but Polly couldn’t see why. It wasn’t making any noises and it didn’t smell very appetising. Polly turned away and a flicker of movement caught her eyes. She sat, kangaroo-style, and leaned over to look.

Another cat stared back up at her.

How strange! This cat had no smell, either, but it touched its nose to hers when she checked. Was it trapped?

“Mew?” said Polly.

The tiny phone cat also cocked its head and opened its mouth, but no sound came out. Polly decided it probably wasn’t a cat after all, but she was still curious.

What should she do:

  • Touch the screen like a curious kitten?

or

  • Knock the phone off the chair like a naughty kitten?

You can vote on social media HERE or just leave a comment.

The Adventures of Polly the Kangaroo Kitten is an interactive children’s story. Every week a new chapter is posted and every week you get to vote on what happens next.

You can find the earlier chapters and info about the story HERE.

You can find out what would have happened if the vote had gone the other way HERE.

Also, here’s a bonus video of a very cute real-life kangaroo kitten called Roo. The condition is caused by a mutation. It isn’t selectively bred for. Kangaroo cats can live full lives as long as they get the right kind of loving care.

 

Polly the Kangaroo Kitten third vote results

I’ve counted up the votes for the last Polly the Kangaroo Kitten story poll, and you decided! Polly is going to try to make friends with Jhanya, a grumpy teenage girl. About 120 people voted.

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It’s a bit difficult to explain what would have happened, as it’s a bit spoilery, so I’ll have to keep it vague.

If Polly had decided to go to sleep: she would not have bonded with Jainy, and there would have been no photo of them together. Then, when something happened to Polly later on, it would have been very difficult for Jainy to prove she was Polly’s real owner.

Anyway, thank you for voting. You can find the latest chapter HERE.

Dealing With Negative Reviews

A few weeks ago, I went on an epic rant about reviewing after having an uncomfortable experience with a review site.

Now, reviews are useful as a marketing tool, and for triggering that magical Amazon algorithm that none of us really understand (if you like this, you’ll also like this!). But that’s just a happy side-effect of the process.

I argued, and I still believe, that reviews are for readers, not for the author. I’ve gone over why unfavourable reviews are important to readers, rather than writers.

Since then, I’ve seen more and more stuff like this, where authors have actively threatened reviewers. This isn’t new. Angry authors have been actioning (mostly unsuccessful) legal threats against reviewers in the US for years. This is ridiculous, unfair and makes life more difficult for everyone – including other authors.

So I’m going to set out here how to a) deal with negative reviews and b) why they’re useful and c) the ways in which they don’t really matter anyway.

Dealing with negative reviews.

Negative reviews are not fun. These are the reviews that are fair but unflattering (as opposed to bad reviews, which are unfair: “I tried reading this book but I don’t like fantasy anyway, so have one star” or factually inaccurate).

DNF (did not finish) reviews can be either of those things. If the book is simply appalling and incoherent, than a DNF after a worthy attempt at reading the whole thing might be fair. We only live so many hours, after all. I feel less charitably towards reviews that go: “I didn’t think I’d like it, I didn’t like it, dropped it after a page, gave it one star”.

The first thing to do when dealing with a negative review is nothing.

Yup. Don’t respond. Take a second, lean back and go: oh. And then still don’t respond.

I have responded to a review precisely once. It was actually a positive review with a factual inaccuracy in it. Nothing to do with the story: it mis-identified the not-for-profit I was fundraising for. I didn’t want it to mislead other readers, so I thanked them and then politely gave them the correct name and purpose of the organisation.

I have never, ever responded to a negative review rudely in any direct or indirect way. It would have made me look petty and vindictive. Don’t look petty and vindictive. It isn’t a great advertisement for yourself as an author.

What about the cognitive side of things?

Okay, well, someone didn’t like your book (or perhaps they were just indifferent to it). No one wants that. We don’t write our books to bore people. We want to entertain.

So just indulge in the totally understandable feelings of hurt pride, the feeling of being misunderstood or the feeling that you are useless and rubbish at writing for a bit. Take a break from whatever you are doing. Go on a walk. Wallow and stew for twenty minutes. Then turn your hand to something less ephemeral, something you know you can do competently and get on with it. Like go on a zip-line, or take a really, really long walk, or, I don’t know, do angry ceramic painting or something.

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Eventually the sting will fade.

There’s one other thing I did once. I wouldn’t recommend it for everyone, and it’s probably not always possible or appropriate. I received a one-star review from a reader who hated my book. It remains one of my favourite reviews. Here it is in all its glory:

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It’s wonderful. Someone loathed my book enough that they took the time to write a review! Suddenly I felt like a proper writer.

One of the things that made me feel even better was having a look at the reviewer’s review history. They liked Dan Brown and disliked Jean Rhys and Kazuo Ishiguro. Without making any judgements about the value of certain literary works over others, I felt my book was keeping the right kind of company. This isn’t a cure-all, though.

Why Negative Reviews are Useful

Negative (and bad) reviews are useful to you. Firstly, they bump you up to that magic invisible line (if you’re interested in selling on Amazon). Amazon doesn’t care if your reviews are all five stars. It works with raw numbers. If enough people two-star your book and five-star, say, Harry Potter, then people buying Harry Potter will get a link saying: “people who read this also read [your book]”.

No books have universally good ratings. They can’t, because we all come to books from different subjective positions, even when we try not to.

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Behold: a quarter of readers downrated one of the most celebrated pieces of Western literature. At least they aren’t throwing hazelnut shells at the actors…

I recently reviewed a (very decent) children’s book by Tonya Duncan Ellis. This was the second book of hers I’d reviewed, and while I gave the first five stars, I gave the newer one four. The quality of writing hadn’t diminished. It was just because I crave freshness, and the later book had a lot in common with the first. If I’d read it in isolation, it might have got five stars (PS – four and five star reviews = very good. Check her work out).

If I come across a book with thirty five-star reviews and nothing else, I don’t think: “Oh, that must be a great book”. I think “who did they pay?”

I might be a horrible sceptic, but I doubt I’m alone in this.

Why Negative Reviews Don’t Matter Anyway

The reason we react so profoundly, so viscerally, to negative reviews is because they trigger the same part of our brain that feels shame when we do something embarrassing or if we put ourselves in danger.

The human mind is built to learn from its mistakes, and it reads a negative review as a kind of rebuke. Don’t touch fire: it burns. Don’t be rude to your boss: you get sacked. Don’t write this way: your reader won’t like it.

Unfortunately, by putting our book out there, we subject it to all sorts of people coming from all sorts of positions. They might be a hungry reader of your genre – and therefore very aware of when a book is re-treading old ground. They might dislike your genre or not really be into the literary level you are trying to reach. Each reader will have different memories and impressions, and if you try to take everything they say on board, this can lead to a very jumbled view of your own work.

So thank them for their input and carry on.

Critiques are important when it comes to improving your work, but reviews are not critiques (though they may contain elements of useful critique, if you can sieve it out from the less useful stuff).

For instance, one of the most frequent criticisms of Ship Rats was that the language and syntax is too difficult for young readers (it isn’t – it’s deliberately challenging). My most recent feedback for the follow-up, Spy Rats, was a very gentle (and slightly nostalgic) review that, while positive overall, bemoaned the lack of mysterious words.

You can’t please all the people all the time.

If I tried to reconcile these viewpoints, I’d end up tearing my hair out. So I’m not even going to try.

I’m grateful to all of my reviewers, whether negative or positive. Please keep reviewing, whether you love, hate or are just okay with the books. The most valuable thing about reviews is not their content but that they show the book is being read.

The Adventures of Polly the Kangaroo Kitten. Chapter 2: Polly’s New Home

The Adventures of Polly the Kitten: Chapter 2

Polly looked at Mr Leon. He made a chuch-chuch noise with his tongue and rubbed his thumb and forefinger together to call her over. There was something about him that made Polly’s fur lift. She did not trust him.

Instead, she bounced over to the woman.

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“Oh, look, Jainy! She chose us! She chose you!”

Jhanya grunted, but her mother scooped the kitten up. Polly was wrapped in a warm hug. She snuggled into the woman’s woolly jumper.

I like you, she thought.

“I think she’s decided. We do have other cats you can look at,” Lizzie said to the man. For an instant, a deep frown crossed his face. He shook his head.

“Maybe another day,” he said.

“I’m sorry,” said Lizzie.

But Polly wasn’t sad to see him go. She purred as the woman, Mrs Bell, tickled her chin. They popped the kitten into a carry-case. Lizzie signed the paperwork to sign Polly out of the rescue centre. Even from the cage, Polly could tell her friend was half-way between happy and sad.

“Goodbye, Polly,” said Lizzie. “I hope you have a great life with Mrs Bell and Jhanya.

“She will,” said Mrs Bell. “We will keep in touch.”

They drove Polly to a big, square house built of red bricks. Polly caught sight of green lawns and she sniffed fresh air as they carried her up the garden path. They only let her out once they reached a small room and closed the door.

Suddenly, Polly felt shy. The towel in the cat carrier was warm and it smelled familiar. The idea of wandering around the room, with its towering furniture and strange scents, was overwhelming.

“Come on, little one,” coaxed Mrs Bell, but Polly shrank back.

It’s too big and too different, the kitten thought.

The woman looked at the mantelpiece clock.

“Jainy, I have to get ready for work. Can you stay here with the cat? Just keep an eye on her. She’s a bit scared, so don’t try to make her come out yet, but she’ll need water and she might like some biscuits. Be gentle if you try to pet her.”

“Mum,” Jhanya said, putting down her phone for the first time. “Louise is coming round for a makeover in a bit. Why are you leaving me to babysit the weirdest kitten in the world?”

“Because I think it would be good for you to look after someone else for a change. Don’t you think it’ll be nice to have another living creature in this big old house?”
“You can’t replace Dad with a cat, Mum.”

Polly felt the atmosphere in the room grow chilly.

“Water, biscuits, attention,” said Mrs Bell, her lips in a flat line. “You can tear yourself away from Instagram for a few minutes to manage that.”

Then she was gone.

Jhanya huffed and went back to her phone. Polly heard the click-click of a photo being taken.  She put one paw out of the cage, then another. Her short front legs made her look as though she was bowing. She wanted to go up to Jhanya and rub against her to ask if they could be friends, but she did not know if the girl would welcome her. The girl was a stranger and she seemed grumpy.

Polly yawned. A lot had happened. She was tired.

Should she do it? Should she try to make friends with Jhanya, or should she stay where she and go to sleep? Vote by leaving a comment below!

The Adventures of Polly the Kangaroo Kitten archive is HERE.