Monday, 1 August 2011


After the 2002 version of Africa Reich was rejected I wrote another two novels (one on Barbary pirates, the other a dark love story about forgery) neither of which found any success. Every time I looked around for a new project, however, I kept coming back to TAR. Should I rewrite it as a thriller? Surely the idea was full of potential? In the end, the impetus to start again came from a totally unexpected event.

YOUWRITEON.COM (YWO) was set up in 2006. Funded by the Arts Council, it was the first of the peer-review sites for writers. The idea was (indeed still is) that you upload the first 10 000 words of your novel for others to review and score. The top five rated chapters of each month then receive a critique from an industry professional as well as being selected for the ‘Book of the Year’ award.

I joined YWO a few months after it started. I didn’t have a WIP at the time (sorry about all these acronyms!) so thought I’d upload TAR just to get a sense of the site and see what others thought. To my surprise it made the top five books of the month and then, to my even greater surprise, won ‘Book of the Year’. Some publicity followed, including a piece on the BBC for which I garnered additional notoriety due to a penchant for sunglasses, wide-brimmed hats and jungle backgrounds (see photo).

Then something strange happened: a rare occurrence in the world of publishing. An editor at Orion came to me. She read the book and although her response was the same as those who had rejected it in 2002, she thought the idea was strong and that I should re-write the book as a straight thriller: i.e exactly what had been in the back of my mind for the past four years. I talked it over with my agent but with the interest of a major publisher it seemed a no brainer.

My original idea was to turn it around quickly: take the existing manuscript, cut out the literary elements, beef up the thriller bits and have it read for submission in a couple of months. I soon hit a snag, however, what I came to describe as the apricot-and-peach-lattice-pie conundrum.

Imagine you serve a beautiful apricot and peach lattice pie to someone only to be told they don’t like apricots. You head back to the kitchen, thinking it will be no problem to remove the apricot pieces and then you can get on with dessert. The problem is that to get at the apricot you have to break through the lattice pastry – and by time you’re finished all you’ve got is a mess. So it was with the book. I couldn’t remove the literary elements without damaging the rest. I struggled for a month before realising it was hopeless. Then I took a brave decision. I decided to start again. From scratch...

PS – when I said A-Z, I hope you didn’t think I meant in order.


  1. Ah, YWO, where I learned to write. You post 6,000 words now, I believe.

    Just discovered you have a blog, Guy. Don't know how I missed it.

  2. Oh you rebel! A-Z- pah! LOL!

    Awwww YWO - such fond memories!! I thought it was such a great place in the early days when we were young(er)!

    Was switching from one genre to the next cathartic? Do you plan to stick to writing thrillers once your books are made into films and you are lounging away in some beach house in Bora Bora island?

    I'd love to know what your X post will be..!

    Take care

  3. I met some interesting people on YWO...


  4. Lexi - welcome and sorry not to have replied to your comment before. As you may have seen I've been having problems replying. Hopefully it's all sorted now.

    Kitty - if ever any of my books are made into films I'm going to stop writing altogether and just live off the interest!

    K - it's occurred to me that all the comments I'm replying to here are from people I meet on YWO!

  5. YWO was an interesting experience for me too. The Baptist sneaked in at number 4 adult book this year, not sure how I will capitalise upon that.

  6. Ruby - Good to hear from another YWOer and congratulations on the Number 4 spot! Hope it propels you on to other successes. Let me know.


  7. Hi Guy I've just started using YouWriteOn a few weeks ago. Already had some good crits and freewills(4s and 5s) and hoping to get a Professional one and get my book published. I read about you and wanted to ask some questions if you had the time.Did yr sucess on the site make the difference to getting published? I see you got you got taken on by Curtis Brown after winning. Other winners like Katherine Webb and Douglas Jackson and Bob Buerke have also got big deals. Do you all know each other? Are their winner's parties? LOL. I bought all of yr books to see if I can see what the winning formula is, yr all writing in such different genres! Do you know what happened to winners in other years? I mailed Edward for more information but never got any. Any advice on how to improve my chances on the site and getting published? I'd love to follow in yr footsteps. Do agents and editors check the site looking for talent? Congratulations on Afrikan Reich!!! Look forward to reading it. Deedee

  8. Deedee – thanks for dropping by and your comment. Lots of questions here so I’ll try to answer them all.

    Glad you’ve been doing well on YWO. I have to say that although winning the Book of the Year was a boost, and some good news to tell my agent, it didn’t make much difference in getting published. I’m afraid to say publishers are a bit more hard-nosed than that and mostly make decisions on whether a book can sell or not. As for Curtis Brown, YWO were always a bit disingenuous about that, making it look as if I got taken on by them as a consequence of winning the prize; I’d actually be represented by CB for years beforehand.

    Do I know the other winners? YWO was certainly a good forum for meeting like minded people. I have lunch with Katherine a few times a year and occasionally bump into Doug at literary events; Bob I know but have never met as he’s based in Ireland… but we certainly never have organised get-togethers! Thanks for buying my book (and I’m sure the others would send their thanks too). As for previous winners, others have had success too, including Charlotte Betts (a friend of Katherine’s) and Trilby Kent who won the year after me and was eventually published by Random House.

    As for a winning formula, I can only repeat what I wrote above. You need to write something that publishers believe will sell; you need a book that has a strong, marketable angle. Doug's book is the perfect example of that.

    I don’t know whether agents still scout YWO for talent. I have to say, and I hope I don’t sound negative in this, that YWO came along at just the right time (2006-07) for me and lots of other writers. Since then, however, the publishing world has moved on, especially with developments like Kindle etc. One of the most successful writers the site produced was Lexi Revellian who gave up on the traditional approach, did everything herself, and has sold in huge numbers. YWO bridged those years between the current self-publishing revolution and a time when the only way to get into print was with an old fashioned publishing house. There are more opportunities now, so sites like YWO less important.

    Nevertheless, I hope you do well on the site and get a professional critique: they can be a real psychological boost. Continued success with your writing.


  9. Deedee, I learnt to write on YWO. But I agree with Guy about the hard-nosed attitude of publishers today. Unless you get a big advance as Guy did, which guarantees the publishers will market the socks off your book, there is little to be said for traditional publishing.

    Let me quote Hugh Howey, an indie star whose novel, Wool, is to be made into a film by Ridley Scott: "I suggest that self-pubbing is always the best way to begin one's career, no matter the quality of the work. My argument is that flawed works are better off published at all rather than in slush piles; mid-list quality work is better off with a lifetime trickle rather than a few months spine-out in crumbling bookstores; and stellar work is better off in the author's possession when it makes it big with readers. There's no work of any quality that is better served on the traditional route, not with the disparity in rights and royalties."

    1. Lexi - thanks for your comment and advice, I'm sure others will find it useful.

      Lexi really is a self-publishing star and shows what can be done with a good book and lots of hard work, even if a traditional publisher passes on it. In fact, given her success I'm sure there must be several publishers that rue their decisions!

    2. Guy,Lexi, Douglas, THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU!!! I wasn’t expecting so many replies and such great advice! Thanks for taking the time to do this and write so much. It’s given me such a boost and great to know that you don’t ignore the little people once you’re rich and famous. Will definitely think about the whole marketing bit and if I get any advice from a publisher will absolutely consider it carefully. I love the Hugh Howy quote! Got to admit I’ve been a bit sniffy about self-pubbing but am thinking it might be a good opening step if the traditional route doesn’t work for me. Lexi, I’ve also downloaded yr book to add to my reading list! Thank you all agin so very much. Deedee :o)

    3. Deedee - glad we could help! Good luck with your writing and fingers crossed for a professional critique and then who knows... Meantime I'm back to working on the 'rich and famous' bit. :o)

  10. Deedee - Doug tried to post a comment on here but for some reason the system wouldn't let him. He wanted to pass on a word of advice, so I hope he won't mind me paraphrasing him here.

    Doug says: if you get any advice from a publisher [esp if you get one of the free professional crits] you should consider it carefully, no matter how outrageous it seems. He continues, and I quote: 'Taking the first 40,000 words of The Emperor's Elephant and turning it into a 100,000+ novel about Caligula's assassination was the making of me as a writer. The editor at Orion [who gave advice via YWO] didn't guarantee anything, which in hindsight was just as well, but it was the right thing for the book.'

    Hope that helps!