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Cat Hellisen

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE


Writers vs Reviewers. If you spend any time on social media following authors and book bloggers, you see this cropping up. The most recent in a long string of us vs them is here at Booksmugglers but it’s certainly not the first and will more than likely not be the last.

I have problems with all of it, but most specifically the divide. We’ve set up an online narrative where book bloggers and reviewers are in one corner, and the authors are in the other, both of them ready to duke it out at the slightest hint of provocation.

See. I don’t think the divide is that simple. We are all of us at the end readers (and if you’re a writer who doesn’t read than please consider a new career). More importantly, we are all of us at the beginning, readers. This is why we are here – we love words and stories and characters and language. We immerse ourselves in fictional worlds and lives. We have a common ground.

And I think this is where it becomes hard as a writer to separate that love of reading from ourselves as producers of art. We are no longer just consumers. The review becomes personal to us, even though it shouldn’t be. It’s hard not to see a negative review of your work as not being about *you* personally. I have often sat and torn books to pieces with my friends, both before and after taking up writing. I meant no malice to the authors themselves – in a sense, they didn’t exist. The author was an abstract. The book was the thing. If a plot was dumb, a character too stupid to live, the language dreadful, my friends and I would discuss these without thought to the person behind them.

Suddenly, I’m that abstract, that author, and you know what? It’s hard to pretend that the author doesn’t exist as a human when you know they do. I still love and hate books, but I’m a lot more comfortable discussing online the books I love, than harping on about the ones that annoyed me.

So what does this have to do with book blogging – am I saying that all reviews should be nice? That criticism must be couched in hearts and flowers? Not at all, but that we all need to remember that there are humans on the other side of the divide we’ve drawn. And sometimes you just hate a book because it pings every button on the OMG HATE THIS list, but there’s a way to say that which isn’t mean girl posturing.

The same goes for writers – this isn’t about YOU any more. If a book blogger lists every flaw they found in your book, they’re not making a comment on you as a person (although sometimes they might be – but then you have to ask why you’re being called a misogynist or a racist.)  They are critiquing your art. They are saying, I HATE THIS. And you know what, they’re totally entitled to it. It’s not as though because you’re a writer everyone has to love what you make.

As a writer, you get to deal with this in different ways – you can have a conversation, but going to a negative review and telling the reviewer they’re wrong wrong wrong and here’s why is probably not a good way to start a dialogue. You can pretend all reviews don’t exist and not read them at all (often the best and safest choice), or you can engage in a non-confrontational way, you can talk outside of the context of reviews, you can learn from what reviewers post and ignore them if they are nonsensical (and some really are :) )

However you choose to deal with the weirdness that is reading reviews of your own work, and even if you feel slighted and hurt by what is said, you still need to remember that reviewers are also humans. They have tastes, loves and hates, personal experiences that inform their reading – all of which are different to yours. Think of those times you’ve eviscerated a book you can’t believe actually got published, think about how many people love that book and what aspect of it is connecting with readers. And then think of the human faces behind this reviewer/writer divide.

We can still have critique, analysis, discussion, reviews. We just need to learn to navigate this online, where the temptation to lash out at a perceived insult is so easily enabled by the wonder of social media.

Anyway, I’m interested to see how you cope with the open conversation that’s come up with book blogging, tweeting and goodreads. As reviewers, as writers, and sometimes as both. Is there a way we should be behaving, or is all this prescriptive social guidelines thing just nonsense?

aargh aargh aargh is a valid human emotion


Success, it’s this thing, right? I mean, most of us want it, in some form or another. Success has different meanings – it could be having more sales than the Holy Bible, or being a household name, or winning a prestigious lit award, or yanno, making enough money that you can write full time.

I think the closer you are to the start of your career, the smaller your vision of success might be. I remember when getting an agent felt like I’d freaking won the lottery, when selling my first book was finding oil in the back yard.

The thing with success is that it never stays in one place, it’s always relative. And there is ALWAYS someone more successful than you. Someone else is writing more popular novels, or seems to write fifty novels that all sell in the time-frame that you write one and your agent responds to it with “do you have some other projects you could focus on because well, this one…”

You can drive yourself insane playing the comparison game, and I will not pretend I’ve not done it, that I still don’t have moments of why them and not me? I’m human. In theory, if you’re reading this, so are you (unless you are a highly intelligent hamster) and those feelings of jealousy and self-pity and argh argh argh are human emotions. The trick is to let them go.

If you hang on to them they are going to control you. They’re going to control me if I spend the rest of my life not writing because nothing I write is good as that other person’s book.

I have limited control over my career. I can write to the best of my ability, I can edit the shit out of that work, I can be wise in my choice of business assosciates (agents, editors, writer friends) but I cannot trap an editor and keep them hostage until they buy my book. I cannot hold readers at gun point and tell them that actually they do like this damn book and they will give it five stars and tell all their friends. I cannot make B&N stock my books in huge piles at the front of the shop with big signs saying THIS IS ACTUALLY THE BEST BOOK YOU WILL EVER READ.

There are thousands of books coming out all the time, and quite a few of those are much better than mine.

It’s always going to be like that. I bet even Stephen King has days where he wakes up and cries into his Hello Kitty pillow and wishes he could write like someone else.



It has to become something only you can control, or else you will always be a failure to yourself. Set the goals for success to be the ones you have power over. And you have power over your words.

I will be a success if I finish this YA necromancer book and make it Cat-awesome and send it in to my agent and then get started on my next book.

The rest can deal with itself.



Submitting to Agents

I don’t normally do “how-to” posts because my way is not your way etc, but I’m putting this little agent-getting-of post up about my experiences (which even by now may be a little dated :P) because I’ve been noticing a few posts here and there that have set off alarm bells.

So okay, my credentials. Um, I’ve had two agents. I’ve done the query mill with a host of books and learned something from my experience. And here’s what I know.


Have a Finished Book.

This might seem like a no-brainer but uh…you’d be surprised. Because wait times on queries can be months, people sometimes think they will have finished the book by the time the agent responds. Heard of Murphy’s Law? Yeah. Don’t do this, it just makes you look like a tit, it’s unprofessional, and WHY WHY WHY if you have an opening good enough to interest an agent, would you squander that golden opportunity by having the rest of the book be a rush-written pile of shite?

Also, finished book means not just first-drafted. it means rewritten, revised, polished and ready to go.


Do Your Homework.

Some people like to skip the agent hunt and submit straight to editors. You *can* do this, but I’d recommend against it. First off, you are limited in who you can send to – many publishing houses don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts, and the ones that do are certainly not putting you on a priority list.

Some other things to consider – you can submit a query to more than one agent at a time (and I strongly recommend you do – wait times being what they are) but editors in general only want you to be on sub to one place at a time. Also, agents will have more contacts within the industry, can get you a better deal than you can yourself, and are well-versed on Contract-Speak.

When you do go agent hunting, make sure you are querying the correct agent for your genre, in the format they prefer. I tend to keep a bunch of varied queries and sample pages and synopses lengths to cater for the different agents. This is the main website I used for agent-information when I was querying; Agent Query.


Queries Are Professional Letters.

Follow formatting guides like a boss. You do not want to get cutesy here. Keep your query professional in tone, fulfill the requirements, and make sure that you have some help with getting this one right. You have 250 words to catch someone’s interest, out of a pile of 300 other similar 250-word pitches. (I’m going to include an example of a very early query letter of mine that garnered good results. Not saying it’s a perfect query, but that it gives you an idea of what does/did work)*


A Good Agent Has Nothing To Hide.

This goes hand in hand with do your research. An agent (especially when you have multiple offers) understands when you ask to speak to other clients, when you ask questions about how they work, their communication style, their approach to editing manuscripts (some agents are very hands-on, other do not want to be involved in the process). Any agent that is unwilling to answer basic questions about how they work, and discourages you from speaking to other clients is raising red flags.

Research agents at places like Preditors and Editors and AbsoluteWrite’s Bewares and Background Checks. The entire forum at Absolute Write is a wealth of publishing information and I recommend reading through at least some of the stickied threads.


Sometimes We Divorce.

Now, I’m not saying the agent/client relationship is a marriage because that would be weird and awkward…..but, it is a relationship, and sometimes Things Just Don’t Work Out. And it’s nobody’s fault. Shit Happens. If you part ways with your agent, be upfront about it when you hit the query-rounds again, and be aware new agents are going to ask why. No matter what, don’t slag off your old agent to the ones you are querying. It’s a) plain bad form, and b) stupid. You have no idea who is friends with whom in this world.

If you have any questions that I haven’t covered here, you can ask in comments or drop me an email and I’ll add it to the post.


* Sample query for a very old book that while it did get me agents, never sold (and has been significantly rewritten). It’s here simply as an example of what worked in terms of layout and style and voice. I’ve removed names etc:


Dear [agent person]

I am seeking representation for BLACK WINGS, my completed 62,000 word
urban fantasy novel aimed at the older YA reader.

It’s Irene Kerry’s gap year and while almost all her classmates have
swanned off to Europe, she’s stuck working a sucky bar job. The only
thing that keeps her serving suburban socialites is her desire to put
herself through art school. She’s also in love with her best friend
Rain, despite knowing that he only likes boys.

Clubbing and work are slowly destroying her passion for art as Irene’s
life spirals into a crazy merry-go-round of drinking and drugging with

Then Rain meets Caleb at their dealer’s house, and Irene watches as
she loses her best friend to an ageing goth who looks like he should
be buried at a crossroad with a stake through his heart. Knowing that
Rain is not the most emotionally stable emo-waif out there, Irene
worries that Caleb is only going to end up hurting him. What she
doesn’t know is that her friend’s new lover is a dead man; Caleb is a
trickster looking for someone to take his place in the afterlife, and
Rain is his perfect mark.

I’ve included the first five pages below as a sample, as per your guidelines.

My short story This Reflection Of Me appears in the anthology
Jabberwocky 3.

Thank you for your time.


Contact details:





A Most Excellent News Kinda Day

Lots of suhweet things happening.

Firstly, the audio book for When the Sea is Rising Red is now out. The voice artist, Gemma Dawson, is absolutely perfect – I can’t explain my happiness when I heard her audition.

People are also looking forward to a companion novel to WtSiRR, and there’s no maybes about its existence. It is real, and called House of Sand and Secrets.

Sometimes playing to lose is the only way to survive the game of Houses

Trapped in an arranged marriage to lower-caste Jannik and trying to make the best of her fall from grace, Felicita is immersed in the machinations of powerful families. MallenIve is worlds apart from Felicita’s native Pelimburg, and her family name and standing will not help her here. Haunted by her past and those who died because of her, she attempts to regain her status as the scion of a once-great house.

If MallenIve’s leaders have their way, Jannik will soon have no more rights than an animal, and a union that once seemed to offer a solution to Felicita’s problems is now a liability. Felicita’s feelings are conflicted and it is all too easy to fall into the prejudiced mindset of the higher castes … until faceless corpses begin turning up on the rubbish tips, and Felicita might be the only hope Jannik’s people have.


And I’m going to be at Open Book Cape Town. I’ll be hosting a YA Masterclass with S.A. Partridge and Sarah Lotz (who writes YA with her daughter, as Lily Herne). I’m also going to be included in the Fox and Raven: Readings From the Dark Side with a bunch of very cool names.






It’s happened before.

When I first started writing, I was so bad that it would have been more than a little pathetic if I hadn’t shown some fast improvement (and even then I doubt it was fast enough). After getting my dreadful fantasy trilogy out of my system it seemed I had acquired slightly better grammar, the ability to use spellcheck, and my words began to flow in ways that could be quite pleasing.

I was learning. I could put a story together and create characters who were slowly shedding their cloaks of mary-sueness. I worked on critique for other writers and had my own work critiqued in return. And probably learned more from the former than the latter.

It was a pretty good feeling to be able to look from my then-WiPS and back to my first attempts and see just how far I’d come. There was a definite, discernible difference. I took out writing books that talked about structure, layering, dialogue and characterisation. I learned to edit myself and break out of some truly appalling habits. Well, except the abuse of commas but I’m always working on that. :P

And then I stalled.

Utterly. Completely. My work plodded forward at the same dull rate, the words were no better. Which made them feel worse. I should have been learning, after all. I was writing all the time, I had managed to get an agent. I lost my agent. Got a new one with a new book. I was doing okay – the book sold.

But I was learning nothing. I threw myself into what I felt was my absolute weakest point – plotting. I inched up a little there, but it was hardly a spectacular improvement. Still, it was enough to make me feel like maybe I wasn’t a failure. I wrote a book I loved. No-one wanted it.

For a while after The Book I Love, I felt like I was finally making some progress again even though it was in tiny hesitant steps, rather than the leaps and bounds I wanted.

And then the steps dawdled to nothing and here I am again, looking at what I’m writing now and wondering why I bother if I’m not getting better. Is there any point in carrying on working at something if you’ve reached the highest level you seem to be able to achieve and it’s still not bloody good enough? What if no matter how much more I write, anything I produce is going to be a slightly sharper facsimile of what I’ve done before?

What is the fucking point then?

I don’t know.

When I lived in Joburg, there was a cheetah enclosure in the Joburg zoo, with a well-worn path where one cheetah walked over and over and over. What was it thinking as it wore that red path down between the tussocks? Did it think at all, was it even aware that it had probably gone mad, or was it like a machine and there was no questioning beyond one paw then the next, meals at set times, sleep, one paw then the next.

Now I’m that cheetah and I don’t know what I can do apart from putting the animal out of its misery.

House of Sand and Secrets update

I have just sent in the final draft of House of Sand and Secrets. Final being a relative thing in publishing.


I have two more Hobverse books ready to go into edits, it’s just a matter of deciding which to concentrate on. Because the Hobverse books are meant to be stand alone but appreciated as part of a bigger picture, there is no rigid order they need to be read in.

So we have Bones Like Bridges, which takes place ten years after When the Sea is Rising Red and has Felicita as a minor character; or Empty Monsters, set twenty years before When the Sea is Rising Red, which explains something about Lilya’s roots.

Much pondering to do on my side. Until then, I shall watch this gif over and over.

The Problem With Owning Only One Net

How do you catch a shape-shifting animal if you only have one net? What if you start out catching butterflies and end up hunting a bear?

This is a terrible metaphor but I’m going to use it anyway because I think it gets the point across.

Novels are shapeshifting beasties. Just when you think you know what it is and you’ve picked up your net and run after it, it turns around and bites your head off.

Because you see, the last time, right, the last time you wrote a novel, it trotted neatly along in a linear fashion, and there were exactly two points of view and it had a comfy 3rd person voice and well, it was easy. You bagged that sucker, revisions were a doddle and now you know *exactly* how to write a novel.

No. You know exactly how to write that novel. (Kinda, maybe, depends. You may be wrong about that too.)

You do not know how to write the next novel, because even though you had a perfectly well-planned outline and you thought you knew what you were doing because LAST TIME, RIGHT, LAST TIME this worked. And now it appears to have mutated into I have no fucking clue what and where did this extra character voice come from and that was not supposed to happen and these scenes are all out of order and what the HELL happened to that ending I had all worked out, dammit THIS IS UNACCEPTABLE AND I GIVE UP THIS BOOK IS BROKEN.


And maybe you just need to accept that this is not the novel you thought you were writing, and you need to go home and get a bigger net.
*I should probably add that the you in every post I write is me, because really, I’m just talking to myself.


I have five scenes left to write in Three Dog Dreaming. (Well, five-ish, things are pretty fluid here). The end is nigh! So naturally I am doing everything I can to avoid actually working on it.

Yesterday I asked twitter if anyone wanted doodles, and it seemed they did.

So here are my collected doodles from yesterday, to prove that when it comes to work avoidance strategies, I can get pretty desperate.

Now, I should probably at least open this document and pretend to write.


Eddie Izzard, Performance, And Typos.

Last night The Boy took me out to go see Eddie Izzard on the Cape Town leg of his Force Majeure tour. Was a fantastic night out, with much fun had.

But it got me thinking a little about performers and artists who produce live shows. I can write my little books and then hole up when they go out into the world. Sure, I can get shitty reviews that make me want to slit my own throat, but I don’t have to know about them if I don’t go looking for them. I can, if I choose, live in a little Bubble of Happy.

Performers don’t have that luxury. They are in the face of your love, your boredom, your contempt, your adulation. They have to be “on” at all times.

I get tired just from socialising at a party and being in extrovert mode for a few hours every month or so. These people are on for two solid hours at a go, with no-one else to pick up the slack if they get bored or tired or are just having a shit night. And they’re doing it in front of thousands of people.

Massive respect.

I’m supposed to be working but I have a headache (there is news about this, but it makes me sad so I’m burying it here where no-one will read it: optometrist says I am left with 50% vision, so I’m kinda depressed about it but oh well such is life.)

So instead of working I doodled about Tyops, who live in your manuscripts and eat your vowels and steal your plot threads to line their nests.




That’s what readers always say after finishing an amazing book. Trufact.

You know that’s not true. Or at least, it shouldn’t be. Every time I finish a book that made me happy, I go hunt down all the writer’s other titles, stalk them to find out what books they’re reading*, and look for recs for similar titles.

Because here’s the big truth: OTHER WRITERS ARE NOT THE ENEMY. So That Writer You Vaguely Know Online sold 60 000 books and you sold 6? She’s not the reason your book tanked.

Reading an amazing book and then keeping quiet about it in case she/he gets more sales while you cry into your cereal-spattered dressing-gown is not the solution. Tell people about the books you enjoyed, and be supportive of other writers in the industry. This doesn’t mean promoting books you think were great steaming piles of dung in the hopes that the author will promote you back. Inauthenticity is lame. I can smell it on you like the stink of yesterday’s vodka tears.

Be genuinely enthusiastic and supportive of work you think is good. Because I find it hard to believe that by supporting other writers you are somehow “losing” readers to them. Readers are voracious. You should know – you are one.

* Hush. I can’t be the only one who does this.