Those 1st three chapters – what works best? #getpublished

You’ve prepared your email/letter and synopsis – what next? Some agents and publishers ask for a chosen number of chapters, others for the first X thousand words. A few want a submission summary about you and your book with no chapters at all. As ever, comb through the websites carefully.

  • They want three chapters? In the fiction world, that means your first three chapters in sequence. They want to see how you set the story up, your style and tone, and above all how you reveal your characters. They are particularly interested in your stakes: what your characters want and need, what stops them getting it and why we care.
  • How long is a chapter? George RR Martin’s chapters can be over 20 pages each. Many other writers work in short, choppy chunks with no chapter breaks at all. Do not be tempted to blend some of your chapters together and send half the novel. You want three distinct scenes or sections that establish and build your story.
  • Your scenes or chapters should flow into one another in a way that keeps the reader engaged. That means careful thought about your hooks and links.
  • Try to close with a cliff hanger that encapsulates your book. If your chapter three is a dreamy non-event chapter, change it or move it to later in your story. Now is the time to be as compelling as you can.IMG_2372
  • Your main throughline question should ring like a bell from the first line.
  • It’s first line time. Some books begin with setting the scene or theme (‘It was the worst of times, it was the best of times’), others with a character revealing or denying a problem, others with dialogue. Sam Goldwyn (the G of MGM) said his films should start with an earthquake and work up to a crisis. Your first line should be memorable, balanced and above all it should hook us right and tight into your second, fourth and two-hundredth lines too.
  • The first page. Come with me into an ideal world. Not entirely ideal because it’s a world where people pick up a book, look at the first page and judge by a line or two whether it’s for them. In this ideal world, that first page flows from the wonderful first line with two or three paragraphs that settle us nicely alongside the main character (who is this person and why do we care?) using a clear point of view. We should have some sense of the essence of the situation and why we give a damn. (What are the stakes?) And a sense of place. All with a thumping hook or hint about what is about to unfold. It is a lot to convey – preferably not told but shown ‘slant’ – and it may take several revisions before you are happy. All this in a shorter page than usual – 150-200 words – because chapters are usually laid out with space to breathe at the top. IMG_2994a Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, Marina Lewycka (2005) – a perfect first page. Hone till your fingers and heart are weak with exhaustion. Have a look in a book shop or library at some published first pages for inspiration.
  • Your third chapter may be the one where, having set up your earthquake, you are relaxing out a bit, indulging in some info dump about the back story, letting your lovers stare at a sunset, glad they’ve survived. It’s time to rewrite that, I’m afraid. This submission is a sprint to grab attention and by the end of it you should have two main things in play. First, your readers should have a firm grasp of what the story is about and why they like it. (This includes your style as well as your characters and where they are heading.) Second, they should be desperate to read more. Sometimes this means rearranging things, calling high stakes from later chapters forward to help. The third chapter of your submission should end on a cliff.
  • The final hunt for spellings, typos, grammar errors and clichés is a must.

It’s time to congratulate yourself. You have prepared a professional book submission and I wish it the very best luck in the world.

There is though one other thing to do before you click and send.

Some agents read quickly and could ask you for the rest of your typescript in days or weeks. Try and have your whole novel up to the same professional standard, ready to go when it’s called for.

How long will you have before your precious acceptance arrives? That’s for next time.

Happy writing!

Sending your synopsis #getpublished

Picture the agent or publisher arriving for work on a Monday morning. Their slush pile is the least attractive part of the week but today just might deliver that career-changing, elusive gem. Let’s make their lives easier:

  • Your synopsis should look professional. If they don’t specify on their website, then go for 12-point in one of the usual business-like fonts on one-sided A4 with broad margins. Single or 1.5 spacing is fine.
  • Make sure your book’s title and total word count are clear, with your name and contact details.
  • In around 500 words sum up your story. This exercise is excellent for the health of your story and may well take you some time. It can reveal flaws in your plot and character work that need to be fixed in your script before your submission goes out. You wouldn’t be the first writer this has happened to.
  • A synopsis is not about every turn in the plot. Go for the narrative drive of your main events without slabs of back story. You are after the essence of the story’s conflict, the main flight of your story arc with a clear idea of what the stakes are on every level. If you have several plots, pick one thread to expand from.
  • Your tone should be engaging and give a sense of your fiction style. Funny, if that’s appropriate. Tell it like a story, not a washing machine manual.
  • Try to give an idea what kind of book it is, even if it does not fit a genre.
  • Start with your main character: ‘Jane is a governess who falls in love with her employer…’ IMG_2431Give vivid, short descriptions of your other main characters as they appear. Each time you move to a different character, start the sentence with the name so that the reader knows who you’re on about.
  • Include your ending. It’s tempting to leave it open but they want to see how you handle your story’s finish. Do you deliver the combination of surprise and inevitability that readers love?
  • Weed out the typos, spelling, grammar and syntax problems, and above all clichés. This exercise might also make you aware of clichéd situations in your plot as well as your use of language. Remember that your respected agent/publisher reads very widely and can spot clichés in their sleep.

What is a chapter summary?

Your synopsis (above) is a broad summary of your novel, told as if you are talking to a friend who has pressing things to do elsewhere.

A chapter summary is what it says: a brief description of each chapter as it comes, from beginning to end. Some agents and publishers prefer this as it discloses how the story unfolds, who drives it, how sub-plots knit and how the arc rises and falls to the end. In short, it is more unsparing about your handling of plot than a synopsis. The good news is, it can be a bit longer.

Summarise each chapter in just two or three lines (making it clear whose point of view we are in by starting with the relevant character’s name) and work up to a maximum of about one thousand to twelve thousand words. Again, don’t be coy about the ending; you are showcasing how you wind up your marvellous story.

Tomorrow we’ll look at polishing up your chapters for submission.

Happy writing!

Sending it out – 5 best tips #getpublished

Publishers or agents?

An agent told me once that if you take independent publishers into account, more publishers are accepting direct submissions than agencies. It’s hard to say whether luck will favour you starting with agents or publishers, so it’s a good idea to try a mixture of both.

1/ Who do I try first?

Make a longlist of your best targets in order of preference, remembering that a rejection means you cannot approach them again with a later version of your novel unless you ask you to.

Do I try one at a time or several?

Publishers and agents like to feel that they are the first and only readers of your proposal, of course they do. On the other hand, each one can take three to six months to say it’s not for them. So, it’s not unreasonable for your first shortlist to be around three publishers – one big and well established, one medium sized and one tiny – and the same for three agencies. You’re looking for a spread of size, experience and sense of novelty. Within a well-established agency, their new young adventurous agent might be a good idea, for example. Or not. Much depends on how the wind is blowing and we won’t know until we’ve tried.

The more websites you scroll through, the more of a feel you will get for each firm’s ‘personality’. Have you noticed how kind they tend to be? They really do want to find our best new stories and sell them for us.

2/ What do I send?

Always send precisely what the submission guidelines ask for. This sounds obvious but if you’re sending more than one at a time, details can slip and overlap. Best to concentrate on one submission at a time.

Usually they ask for three things:

  • Your cover letter or email. Some are happy with emails, others (still) specify hard copy only.
  • A synopsis and/or chapter summary.
  • Sample chapters. Usually for fiction it’s the first three.

Many agents and publishers like email and often have an online submissions process on the website to help you out. A letter can feel like a slog these days but it will give you the satisfaction of feeling the physical weight of what you send. Always do your best to make sure your submission is complete in one go. Sending follow-ups with additions or corrections will not gain you extra attention – you risk being seen as annoying.

3/ What goes in the email/letter?

If your submission coincides with a busy agent or publisher having an off day, sorry to say it but your email/letter may be the only part of your submission that will be read, so take time to make it as engaging as possible.

Your tone is important. This is a business communication and you need to be professional. On the other hand, don’t be too formal and dry. Agents and publishers love a good story well told and your words should carry that.

There’s no point in being showy either. The days of pinning a Monopoly fiver to the front page are gone, as are dubious jokes.

  • ‘Dear [first name and surname, spelt correctly]’ usually works these days.
  • In your first line, drop the name of your recommendation by one of their authors if you have one. Likewise, mention where you met, if you have, such as an event where the agent was speaking. Best not to be over-friendly: ‘You might remember me’ is plenty.
  • Why is your work apt for them and for the particular person you are writing to? Which aspect of their author list or particular publications of theirs do you admire? Try to be specific without grovelling. (Saying they are a ‘leading’ publisher or agent is not enough; they know that.)
  • No negativity: ‘This must be your worst nightmare’ or ‘sorry to be boring but’ just puts ideas into heads and stops them reading.
  • Describe your book in one paragraph, not forgetting the title, genre and total word count. This is your sales pitch and needs to be the most arresting part of your submission. Agents and publishers are looking for narrative drive, a good strong story. Above all, be clear. This is harder than it sounds.
  • Characters first: who do we care about most in your story? Another way to put that might be, whose story is it. Focus on that character: what does s/he want, what stops him/her getting it, why do we care? If you have several main characters, keep to two or three at this stage; more are confusing.
  • What is the gist of your story arc and why is it vital? Be specific: a character ‘has many other adventures’ is not enough.
  • Between the lines is a sense of why your book should sell while others do not.
  • In another short paragraph, give your writing CV. This should be two or three sentences about the 3 to 5 main places you have been professionally published or are in the pipeline, any prizes in recent writing competitions or your completion of a university creative writing course (though this is not essential). People with most to brag about tend to have short, plain bios. If you are a first-timer, do convey that you are a committed writer keen to improve your craft and output. Show that you are enthusiastic about the revision process by briefly mentioning your writing group and circle of critical readers. However hard you toil at producing reports at work, they do not count. Nor do unpublished scripts. Saying that your mum loves your story will not help.
  • Why are you the person to write this book? This is what they mean by ‘anything relevant about the author’. For example, if your romantic lead is a fire fighter, it will help to know that you are one. Why did you come to write this book? If there is an interesting story there, give it a line or two. Do not waste their time saying that you’ve loved reading and writing since an early age, that is taken for granted.IMG_2930Still Life with Books and Candle, Matisse (1890)
  • Who is likely to buy your book? Here is where you describe how your book fits with the book market (which shelf in the shop, which age range for children) and how yours stands out from the others available. Are there other markets besides bookshops that might welcome yours?
  • How would you help to sell? Are you happy with giving public readings and talks, being interviewed, writing journalism and blogging? Any other ideas? Summarise your online and social media prowess – you will be expected to have some.
  • If your submission is with other publishers or agents at the same time, it is polite to say so without detail or appearing to pressurise.
  • Do not forget (even though they are also on your script’s cover page) to provide your name and contact details, and your website if you have one.

4/ Things not to include:

  • Full CVs of you and your family with or without holiday snaps of pets etc.
  • CDs and tapes.
  • Artwork unless specifically asked for.
  • Marketing plans – let them deal with that.
  • Extracts from rejections from other agents and publishers. However tempted you are to mention the ‘This looked OK but…’ part of a rejection, it is irrelevant here.
  • Confirmation postcards. A waste of time, they just get lost.

5/ Is your submission email/letter ready?

You know by now that writing is about rewriting. Let’s look at this first draft of your submission again:

  • Is it too long? How much is too much? Aim for one side or equivalent of 12-point A4, or slightly more. More than two pages are unlikely to be read.
  • Read it aloud to yourself. Does it feel easy, relaxed? What jars or feels repetitive?
  • Is the tone right? Friendly and professional, hard-working but easy to get along with. Have another look at the publisher/agent’s website to see how formal their tone is and follow their lead. Is there room for wit without being cringe-worthy?
  • Typos, spelling, grammar, cliché check: there’s always time for a last careful look, by somebody else if you are sick of it. You don’t want a hilarious typo to mar the whole thing.

Well done! That’s the first thing. Next time, we’ll look at your synopsis.

Happy writing!

Choosing your trad publisher and agent

Before your novel goes out to find its ideal agent or publisher, let’s take time to visit book shops and up-to- date libraries. E-readers can help but are less easy to browse.

What sort of book have you written? Is it in a genre? If it’s crime, for example, settle into the crime sections of as many different bookshops as you can and really look at what’s there. However much you admire Conan Doyle, it’s recent publications you’re after:

  • Who are the main publishers of books like (or a bit like) yours? Make a list – you’ll look them up in detail shortly.
  • Who are your favourite living authors in this section? Living because that will give you an idea what publishers and agents are looking for now.
  • Who are those authors’ agents? You can sometimes find out from the author’s website or by looking in the acknowledgement sections of their books.
  • Who were those author’s editors? You might find an independent mentor or editor mentioned in the acknowledgements. More often it’s effusive thanks to the publisher’s editor who helped pull the book together just before publication. Both are useful to know.

Borrow and buy as many of your favourites as you can afford, to study at home.

IMG_2889

Mrs Cassatt Reading to her Grandchildren by Mary Cassatt, 1880

And a whopping great copy of the latest Writers & Artists Yearbook will pay its way time and again.

When you want to learn from a book, the same approach works as for giving feedback to your writer friend: read once for the thrill and gist of it, a second time more slowly, deeply, on the lookout for technical detail:

  • How long is the standard book in your genre these days? 400pp for novels? 200 for some children’s age groups?
  • How long are the chapters? Are there always chapters? How are books usually divided up?
  • What shape and tone does the first chapter take? Is it mostly action, dialogue, description or backstory? Study the proportions of these in the last chapter too.
  • As you read, develop a feel for the balance of action, dialogue and description. How much is there of show or tell? What does the writer achieve and how?
  • What is the through-line of what you’re reading? Notice what techniques the author uses to keep bringing you back to it. How else does the author keep you on edge or hold your attention?
  • Notice places where you see two or even three things going on at once, winding together. What does this add to the pace and mystery?
  • Do you find your attention wandering? Why?
  • Is there anything you would improve? Be bold.
  • Characters: how many are there? Are they all actively needed in the story? What are the proportions, male/female, old/young, interests, ethnicities etc? Does this make you realise that your own characters are too like each other? (Unless that is deliberate to make a social or other point, as in Lord of the Flies.)
  • Notice other techniques like use of tenses, POV, flashbacks, memory and other use of time. In Young Adult novels, for example, using the first person is very common. Can you see why? How are writers in your genre using point of view to serve a story these days?

Am I suggesting another rewrite of your book?

I am not suggesting, now or ever, that you write to a formula. The fact is though that, for your first book at least, when you’re trying to step forward from the crowd, it’s best to offer publisher something close to what they know works well. It’s not too late for you to make adjustments. It is at this stage in writing my second novel that I realised division into chapters was holding the story back; it could flow better without them.

The Writers & Artists Yearbook

By now you have a short list of publishers, agents and editorial staff who favour your kind of thing.

There is absolutely no point in sending your love story to publishers who want horror fantasy set on Mars. The scattergun approach will only produce rejections you don’t need and you will get demoralised. There is no point either in sending your precious words to publishers and agents who have closed their inboxes to unsolicited submissions. They expect you to know this.

You are hunting for publishers and agents who are a) suitable and b) available and it’s time to take a fine-toothed comb to the Yearbook.

IMG_2888I have no shares or stake in Writers & Artists. I just know it to be unrivalled as a resource for writers, not only for the lists but for its excellent articles about the business. The moment you open it, you will see what I mean. The sections of agents and publishers in various countries are what you are looking for at this stage. You will find short descriptions of what each one does and is looking for, with author lists and contact details.

Agents’ and publishers’ websites

By the time any physical book exists, it has been superseded by events and people do move around in the publishing and literary agency worlds. Besides, you will find much more detail on the companies’ websites. So use the Yearbook to produce your list of best targets and then browse their websites in detail. Sometimes you will come upon a submission window (of a week, month or even a day) in an otherwise closed publisher.

Events, courses, social media

How do publishers and agents find us? They lead events and tuition courses, talk at conferences, Book Fairs and literary festivals, and usually publicise what they’re doing on social media.

Go to as many events in your genre as you can and don’t be afraid to ask a question or strike up a chat afterwards. Your research in book shops will come in handy – it’s time to explore with them some technical aspect of one of their books or authors you like.

Publishers and agents are looking for good writers with great stories but the world is full of talent and that means they are free to choose to work with the ones they like, the ones who are easy to get along with. Try not to mention your ornamental stacks of rejections, your overdraft or how little you think of the work of some famous authors. Be professional, pleasant, kind and have plain no-nonsense business cards ready.

Follow up on any good contact promptly and professionally. Do not ever assume they’ll remember you; just mention that you enjoyed meeting whoever it was at whatever event it was and, if they asked to see some of your work, thank them and send it.

What do you send? Next week we’ll look at submission guidelines.

Happy writing!

 

#getpublished – format your script

Before your script leaves home, let’s make sure it’s in the right shape. What do publishers and agents expect to see on your page, apart from your undiluted genius?

In today’s competitive world, having your precious words in the wrong font and size might well mean they will be binned unseen. Writers are expected to provide what is asked for and to the kind people who are reading the right format all day, any variation will leap out.

You will find submission guidelines on agents’ and publishers’ websites. It may seem obvious but please read the submission guidelines of each agent and publisher you try, with your very best attention to detail. That way you’re already a leap ahead of the thousands of writers who don’t. Sometimes they have a submissions template or proposal form for you to complete.

If they spell out their requirements, this is the sort of thing you will find:

  • Printed submissions only. No beautiful calligraphy or hand written exercise books. We are after a clean, professional look.
  • 12-point.
  • Double-spacing.
  • A plain, simple font like Times New Roman, Calibri or Arial. Your friends might be panting for something off a Whitby headstone IMG_E1877 or a squillionaire’s signature but professionals do not have the time to fight their way through it.
  • Wide margins, about one inch to the left, two to the right.
  • One page per sheet, one side only.
  • In a header show the title of your book, your name and a contact email or phone number, all in small capitals or italics to distinguish from the text.
  • Number your pages as you would a book, running through the whole book, not chapter by chapter.
  • Start each chapter on its own page, about a third of the way down that page.
  • No justification – rough edges on the right are fine.
  • On your un-numbered front page, the title appears centred half way down with your name/pseudonym, and in the lower right corner your name appears again with your contact details.
  • Some aspects of layout are down to each publisher’s house style. Publishers vary in how they deal with dialogue, paragraph indents and spacing, and new chapter layout. They probably won’t notice if you follow their usual practice; they will if you don’t.
  • There is no need to plaster your work with statements protecting your copyright in the UK. You keep it automatically.
  • No need to bind your pages as if the book has already been published. In fact, it can be a bad idea: some agents and publishers see it as a suggestion that you’re not as open to improvement as they’d like you to be. All submissions are seen as work in progress. It’s best though to make sure your pages will not fall on the floor the minute they’re touched. Michael Legat suggests a ‘wallet-style folder’.
  • Your biography need not go in the typescript – its correct place is an economical paragraph in your email or letter of submission.

This is only a guide – please check through the submission guidelines of each agent and publisher you try, while you’re putting your submission together.

You may well think you’ve been attending to formatting as you go but it’s amazing how often word-processing software falters, allowing fonts, margins and type sizes to jump and slip. It makes sense to give it that final check all the way through before it goes.

It also gives you a sense of the enormity of what you’ve achieved, that you are scrolling through something that looks more and more like a professionally written book. Congratulations on getting this far! It’s time (again) for the hillside exercise – let’s call it the mountainside exercise now.

Now that your novel is ready to go,  we’ll look next week at finding your ideal agent or publisher.

Happy writing!

 

#getpublished – 7 things agents and publishers take for granted

Before you send out your draft, let’s take a moment to step inside the minds of professional agents and publishers. Imagine them on their Monday morning commute hoping that today maybe … maybe … they’ll find the Next Big Thing in the book world.

They know what they’re looking for and in a way they don’t. So, let’s look first at what they take for granted:

  1. Spelling, grammar and syntax

Agents and publishers have usually spent most of their years in the company of wonderful writing and have often studied English literature in one form or another. They tend to see competence with spelling, grammar and syntax as the first skill of anyone who wants to be published.

You can feel cross-eyed by the time you’ve checked your submission a dozen times, but another time might make all the difference. Spellcheck has its pits and traps, and sometimes a shady sense of humour.

Grammar and syntax are about the subtle business of putting your words in the right order and making sure, for example, that your sentences have a verb and subject that match. It’s our job to play with all this and make the language dance but we need to judge when and how much we can bend the rules, and above all we should be clear.

There are plenty of resources to help you, including a wonderful section in Stephen King’s On Writing. This is our Highway Code and to get anywhere on the publishing industry’s map, we need to know our stuff.

Haven’t there been classic writers who couldn’t spell their own names? Stand up, Mr Shakespeare? Who twisted the language like a rambling rose, especially in the voice of a first person narrator? Stand up for applause, Mark Twain and Huck Finn. Of-course there have but if you are a so-far unknown writer trying to break in, it’s wise to make it easy for yourself. Agents and publishers used to take time to correct and upgrade a writer’s text but they can’t afford it these days and since the proliferation of university courses, they are used to work that’s polished and honed.

If you write well but need help with these basics, please find a way to get it before your work goes out. Pay if you have to: it’ll pay off.

  1. Formatting and layout

In short, obey all submission guidelines first, last and always. You can find these on a publisher’s or agent’s website. There will be more about this in tomorrow’s post.

  1. Articulacy

You have the power of conveying things well in words. A clear, simple, uncluttered style will be your friend. This is why professional journalists often transfer successfully to fiction; they are trained in cutting superfluous words like adjectives and adverbs and getting quickly to the point.

  1. A positive, life-enhancing vibe

I’m being controversial here. Aren’t writers entitled to write whatever they want? Isn’t negativity as much part of life as positivity? True, but I beg you to pity the poor agent or sifter who trudges through the unsolicited pile. Even if you’re describing life’s direst circle of hell, please manage to give a sense in your submission that, one way or another, your characters will learn that life is worth living. Not only is this kind to agents and publishers, optimism sells better. For those of you who disagree, stay true to your inner light. Here is my favourite cartoon – behind me as I type:

Golding cartoon

  1. Storytelling skills

Agents and publishers have hawk-like focus for who has good storytelling skills when they’re scanning a submission. They can tell within a paragraph or two.

Low patches in your writing energy can be an opportunity to freshen up your skills and get a new perspective on how your story might work best. Writing exercises and morning pages or journal are like scales and arpeggios for musicians – they keep you limber. Keep reading and learning, seeking out advice and help in as many places as you can. Keep editing and rewriting, cranking up the quality of your script.

And, as Elmore Leonard said, don’t bother to write the bits readers skip.

  1. Talent

What’s ‘talent’ doing here? How can agents and publishers take talent for granted? Because if they get distracted from your script and forget to pick it up again, another dozen or more talented submissions are waiting for them that day. Because if talent is there without all these other elements, it won’t be able to shine.

  1. The secret ingredient

Agents and publishers make most of their money from their existing clients and backlists of deceased classic writers. It’s amazing in tough times that they bother with unknown writers at all and many are choosy about when they open a submissions window. They know however that new writers are the life blood of the industry.

So, when they pick up a new, unsolicited typescript, what are they looking for?

  • A strong, unusual voice in
  • a cracking story
  • of high importance featuring
  • great, memorable characters and
  • drama (plausible high stakes, conflict, plenty of dilemmas). And
  • if possible, a powerful, enduring truth told in a new, exciting way.

These are what make agents and publishers lean forward, exhale with relief and turn more of your pages. They are what every post in this blog has been about and I put it here free to do what I can to help great new writers who don’t have the money or opportunity for a creative writing university degree.

I’ll leave you with Stephen King’s lessons on how to be a great writer. Turning off the television and picking up a book instead is in there, yes 🙂

More tomorrow. Happy writing!

OYSTERS on the north Kent coast

by Rosie Johnston

Sapphires in a hurry-flutter:

two dozen starlings

rush to Sheppey.

 

Seaweed garlands roll on the high

tide, full

moon’s tangle of jet and jade.

 

The sea cradles me; my

best mother.

I roll and kick like a baby.

 

Ripples brush your naked shoulder,

a sibilance,

a sparrow’s whisper.

 

My skin, dulled under hospital lights,

exults

in blustery sunshine.

 

Twilight wraps blankets of

crimson glory

around this evening’s shoulders.

 

Sky is honeyed mango slivers,

dark rum-soaked,

with pomegranate seeds.

 

Laughter waltzes with garlic prawns,

jives with olives,

pirouettes with wine.

 

Between the bowls and candlelight

stretch moments

of perfect contentment.

 

Low tide takes its muted leave –

soft pools

marooned while oystercatchers play.

 

Whitstable, harbour of tangible

happiness:

peace glides into dock.

 

Where sea and sky merge in a

thousand pinks

aligns the mind’s horizon.

 

This fresh day. Let’s shuck it

open, feel

gusto pour between our fingers.

 

I read this in Harbour Books, Whitstable at our first Words on Waves event last month. It’s had such lovely feedback that it’s here for you to enjoy too.

We’re meeting again tonight at 6.45pm.

Happy writing!