Thursday, 2 February 2017

20 Top Tips and Unwritten Rules for Writers

 Welcome to the shadowy and not-so-shadowy space behind Sally's books. If you're not familiar with this blog, scroll down to see what it's all about.

20 Top Tips and Unwritten Rules for Writers (Post 33)

 I'm not sure of the original date of publication for 20 Top Tips and Unwritten Rules for Writers because it started out as a set of essays, then graduated to a PDF and then wound up in paperback in around 2011. I put out a new edition in 2015, and there's a newer one still incorporated into a giant volume which will eventually have a post to itself.

I've been writing writing how-to columns and essays since I worked for a magazine back in the 1980s and I've always enjoyed it. 

One reason is because I find writing things out often shows me aspects of a subject I hadn't considered. Writing, whether fiction or not, is all about exploring to me. I want to know how the story ends. 

Another reason is tied up with what I do under another of my hats.

I found out at some point in the '80s that I had a certain facility for spotting problem areas in manuscripts. This came up almost by accident when someone I knew asked if I'd read a story her friend had written and give an opinion. At that point I'd had twenty or so books published, so I suppose I was the most experienced writer she knew. I read the manuscript and typed out a report and I was surprised at how easily I could slip between reader-for-pleasure and objective assessor. For the first time I not only noted what I liked or didn't like about a book, but I worked out why I did or didn't like it. I then went a step further to move from what I liked on a personal level to what I thought worked or didn't work on an objective level. This was possible partly from years of reading and partly from working with editors who, in those days, wrote reports and letters of advice to authors whether or not they accepted their manuscripts.

A couple of years later, I did some work for an agent, who asked me to read her overflow and tell her whether or not I thought the mss were worth consideration. This was the first time I was ever paid for reading. I didn't feel right about just saying "yes" or "no",  so I took to writing reports so the agent would know why I thought the stories would or wouldn't work. The agent passed these on to the authors who, although they didn't know who had written them, were surprisingly pleased. 

After the agent moved on, that job ended, but by then I was getting phone calls from friends of friends and strangers who just happened to have heard of me. They all wanted advice on getting published, and thought that since I had thirty-plus books out I was a good person to ask. I had a problem with this. First, they wanted to discuss their mss and publication chances with me, and no matter how much I protested that I couldn't possibly advise them when I hadn't read the mss they still didn't seem to understand. Secondly, they tended to telephone in the late afternoon or evening, which was convenient for them but not for me, as I had young children who needed tea, baths and stories. These calls could last an hour or more, which chewed up quite a lot of my time. I came up with an idea which I thought would save me time and help these people.

I advertised an information evening (with supper) costing (I think) $10 or $15. Whenever someone rang at an inconvenient time, I'd say I couldn't talk now, but if s/he really wanted help then come along to my information evening. I thought this a good idea but apparently no one else did, because no one showed up.

The phone calls continued. I'd ask politely if the caller had considered coming to my information evening. Usually s/he would say Oh yes, I saw that advertised but I was busy that evening. Now, if you can just give me a bit of advice now... I'd say civilly that I was busy right now, but I could have another information evening next month if s/he would like to come. What date would be best?

It devolved no date would do. My callers wanted advice now.

It might have ended there, but then someone made a suggestion. Why not resume the assessment service I used to do for the agent? For a moderate charge I would dispense advice but I would do it only if I'd read the manuscript. Originally I called this service Send it to Sally, but later it became Affordable Assessments and, later still, because people assumed I was offering property assessment for real estate, Affordable Manuscript Assessments was born. I was surprised at how quickly this service grew. I never did much paid advertising and still don't, because word of mouth was my best advertisement. I have worked for beginners, mid listers and quite well established authors as well as for the odd publisher or editor. Many of my clients have gone on to become published authors, and some of them have written me unsolicited testimonials.

After a few years, I noticed how many of my clients were making the same errors in their work. In many cases, they had no idea these were errors because no one had ever told them. The reason I knew was because I'd written so many books and worked with so many editors that I'd picked up on things that could be deal-breakers. Often these matters would come up in casual conversation. These were not the things taught in school English classes or even many creative writing classes. In fact, many of them run counter to the things taught because they deal with what is rather than what should be or used to be. Why don't editors routinely state these things? I think it's because they're self-evident to them. We don't routinely warn other adults that the hot water in the tap is... well... hot.

Because I was dispensing the same advice and explanations over and over, I decided to make the pieces of advice/explanation into a resource writers could read before they wrote their manuscripts. This would save them hours and hours of rewriting and much disappointment. Unfortunately, it didn't work out the way I hoped. As with the information evening, most people didn't choose to buy a convenient resource before they started to write. They wanted me to tell them how to fix what they'd written or, better yet, to fix it for them. I suppose that was because they didn't even start thinking about the difference between what they learned at school and what modern editors want until after they'd already written thousands of words. One person who sent me a manuscript had written hundreds of thousands of words and almost every sentence had a structural problem. Reading a 500 word essay from me could have sorted that.

20 Top Tips and Unwritten Rules is, I've always thought, the book I wish I'd had before I got started in this business. It could have saved me so much typing, time and trouble, and probably a good deal of disappointment. I still believe this, and so I've kept it in print, updating it from time to time. It's available HERE in paperback or in PDF ($10.00) by writing to sodgers(AT) Or, you can check out that giant how-to-ery of which is forms just one chapter HERE.


Sally is Sally Odgers; author, manuscript assessor, editor, anthologist and reader. (Sally is me, by the way, and I am lots of other things too, but these are the relevant ones for now.)

The goal for 2017 is to write a post a day profiling the background behind one of my books; how it came to be written, what it's about, and any things of note that happened along the way. If you're an author, an aspiring author, a reader or just someone who enjoys windows into worlds, you might find this fun. This preamble will be pasted to the top of each post, so feel free to skip it in future.

The books are not in any special order, but will be assigned approximate dates, and pictures, where they exist. 


  1. Thank you, Sally! If someone asked me to describe you, I'd say you're a perfect balance of boundless imagination and sound common sense. A storyteller with her head screwed on! :)

  2. Writing is made up of a bundle of contradictory talents, isn't it? Unfortunately, many people have an imbalance.


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