Bright Scarf at the Poetry Cafe

I risked taking my camera out in yesterday’s downpour to take a picture of our Bright Scarf name ‘in lights’ in Covent Garden, in case that was as good as it got. But people crowded into the Poetry Cafe’s event space downstairs in a wonderful mood with more chairs being found and drinks being bought in the refurbished Cafe bar. Poetry evenings are usually fun, especially for a poetry addict like me, but some events have a synergy which makes them more than usually exciting and this was one of them.IMG_E3719

Huge thanks to the fantastic audience who turned out, old friends and new, and to all the other Bright Scarf poets for their great readings: Dominic James, Colin Pink and Quentin Cowdry. Peter Pegnall, the founder and heart of Bright Scarf, is battling a chest infection and had to stay at home but special thanks to Colin for stepping in at the last minute. IMG_3726

Thanks too to Irena Hill for organising the event so seamlessly and to all the Cafe staff in that great venue. With the wind and rain beating down outside, we felt as if we were sheltering on the high seas so here is my encore from last night, something to take us back to warmer days…IMG_2914

Hurray for independent book shops

like Harbour Books in Whitable, one of my favourite places in all the world. It’s caught the attention of yesterday’s Observer newspaper here:

“We try to bring the community together with our events. We often host book launches and discussions with our wonderful local authors and they support us in turn. We also have a monthly poetry and prose night called Words on Waves,” says bookseller Olivia Rosenthal.

Congratulations to Keith and all his lovely staff – you do a wonderful job.

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An agent or publisher is interested – what happens next? #getpublished

Congratulations. An agent or publisher is showing enough interest to want to speak with you.

There is usually a slow process of meeting each other, to see if you will get along. The agent or publisher will shower your story with praise, then probably suggest changes to your script and see how you respond. Sometimes they are slight tweaks and can be fixed in a week or two. Other times, you can be asked to do substantial redrafts that take months. Throughout all this, they are looking to see how you handle the situation.

They want someone who responds quickly and takes advice well. If you let yourself be distracted by other pressures IMG_3442

or decide now is the time to close your laptop and take a gap year, IMG_3443you risk losing their attention.

Agents first

Do not expect a contract at an early stage although it can happen. Agents are more likely to be prompt about contracts than publishers and will send you a standard form of around a single page. In July we looked in detail at what agents do.

If a contract does come your way, keep breathing and think about it. You do not have to accept it straight away. You can ask for thinking time if there’s another agent/publisher you’re hoping to hear from. And it’s a good idea to consult the UK’s Society of Authors or a lawyer about the legal terms. There’s usually little you can renegotiate in standard provisions but it helps to be clear about what they mean.

As soon as the agent is happy with your script and has taken you on, your script goes out to chosen publishers. It came as a shock to me that agents get rejections too but it does happen. Maybe someone just pipped yours to the post or the heat has gone off a particular genre in the space of weeks. I have met an author whose agent was passionate about his thriller and spent five years hawking it around the world, but could not place it. There is a long history of classic novels being rejected many times. Rejection does not mean your agent is incompetent or that your novel is worthless. Stay calm, polite and positive – and keep writing the next thing.

The upside is that, at this level, you know your work will have been carefully read and that your agent will sift and report on feedback. If not, go elsewhere.

A publisher says yes

With undying thanks to your agent, you are sitting in the offices of a real, live, smiling publisher who has your work on the table. (In July, I posted detail about what publishers can do for us and when. My first post is here, and part 2 is here.) The publisher’s editor has put you through yet more rewrites and has satisfied the marketing and money people at the new acquisitions meeting that this deserves a chance. You’ve got a deal!

Congratulate yourself again – very few new writers reach this stage. Most publishers take at most one first-time novelist a year. A publication date is set and the cover’s agreed. You have more work to do now:

  • Your help will be vital with publicity and this starts before publication. Do not expect to get much of your next book written over the next weeks and months.
  • Prepare your own website if you have not already. Start blogging about your new book and how you came to write it. Podcasts go down well too.
  • It’s never too early to start your social media spinning.
  • Make friends with your local booksellers. They’re lovely and are usually delighted to meet local authors. Your publisher should provide you with some free publicity copies to hand out.
  • Contact local newspapers and blogs to ask for interviews and reviews.
  • Plan your book launch.
  • And try above all to keep writing the next thing. You’ll need it sooner than you think.

They’re asking you to buy some of your own books?

Here comes one of the hardest facts about today’s publishing world: your publisher may well require you to buy some copies of your book yourself, at discount. I first encountered it in 2009 when it was described as a contribution to printer’s costs. It’s very common now, the idea being that it encourages you to market it. The discount (paying 40% of the full price is not uncommon) also means that if you sell at 80%, you are still making more profit, more quickly, than waiting for royalties.

Fame and fortune at last?

Most first novels sell fewer than a thousand copies. That’s why the Booker prize was invented, to help literary novels reach a wider audience. Publishers and agents hope that by the time they publish your third or fourth, preferably in a series or the same genre, the public will have noticed you and the whole exercise will become financially worth their while. They are gamblers at heart. You may be one of the lucky ones who has a substantial advance from a big publisher who is going to flog your book with a great big publicity budget. I hope so. IMG_E1806Even if you’re not … You have become a strange new creature, a published author. That can lead you to other ways of making money (coaching, talks, radio and television appearances). It means too that people see you differently. Instead of the friend they are used to, the one who spends most of the time alone and gives a slightly dejected shrug when asked how the writing’s going, they see a confident, new you with a book in your hand. That book has your name printed on it and they are being asked to buy copies. After all the years of lonely scribbling, there is no finer sensation than welcoming friends to your book launch and watching them queue, smiling and laughing, for you to sign copies for them.

Congratulations, you’ve made it. It has all been worthwhile.

I wish you the very best of luck and happy writing!

You’ve sent your submission – what happens next? #getpublished

It’s time to make a diary note about chasing in three to six months’ time. Meanwhile, let’s get busy doing other things.

IMG_3383Waiting by Degas, 1880-2

This will be harder than you think. Our inner writer longs for approbation and needs it fast. Do you remember the feedback stage, how hard it was to let your readers take their time? This sensation can be even more powerful now that your work is in the hands of professionals. Please be patient.

Take a break. Celebrate having reached this stage, you’ve done well! Get out among friends again and enjoy the real world. Then get stuck into writing something else. Make yourself a tight schedule of writing and research and stick to it. If a positive answer does come, they will want to know what you’re working on now.

Sometimes an agent/publisher’s submissions page will let you know how long they usually take. Allow them at least three months anyway – that’s the blink of an eye in publisher/agent time. Then a gentle reminder checking that your submission has reached the right person will be fine. Keep it calm and professional.

In my experience an outright rejection comes pretty swiftly. If they like what they see, they will read and re-read, share it around the office, have a word with marketing and accountancy, and so on. If they’re taking a while, it might be good news…

Rejections first – let’s get them out of the way. Some rejections are about you and some aren’t.

Reasons for rejection you cannot avoid:

  • The agent/publisher is feeling unwell, really tired for other reasons, has a headache or hangover, is about to get the sack. We all have off days.
  • Their office has so many unsolicited submissions stacked up, they have succumbed to temptation (who wouldn’t occasionally) to get rid of some. They all deny it but this does happen. There are many easier ways for publishers and agents to make money and there’ll be another load of talent arriving in the morning.
  • They’ve had too many of your kind of thing and don’t have time to say so.
  • They really like your kind of thing and have one in the pipeline or have recently done one just like it. Sometimes they will say so.
  • They’ve just had a bad experience with a new writer – too much trouble, lost too much money? – and can’t face it again for a while.

Reasons for rejection you can avoid:

When agents and publishers come to the slush pile, what buoys them up is the hope of finding the Next Big Thing and making their fortune. They may not know exactly what they’re looking for but they know what they don’t want. Let’s help them out by avoiding the following:

Rejections take many forms:

IMG_3385Sometimes you will receive no answer at all. Considering how many people are sending out submissions these days, this is understandable. Some websites even declare this is their policy. Never mind. The silence could be for a multitude of reasons that have nothing to do with you.

A standard form reply is common, without your name or a personal signature. Try not to be downhearted, as above.

A personal rejection with your name on it is a big step forward. It might say your submission doesn’t ‘chime’ with what they are looking for but at least they have bothered to look and might well remember what you’ve done. Try to be pleased.

With all of the above, there is no need to respond. Be patient and detached about these rejections and keep studying your craft, looking for ways your submission and script might be improved. This ‘rejection stage’ is your most important learning stage too.

Hard as it is not to take a rejection as a personal slight, it is vital that you stay professional and do not bother anyone who has sent you a rejection. At all costs do not telephone to argue the toss and above all do not call on them in person in their offices. Not only will you ensure that they never look at your work again, neither will their friends and loved ones who may well work in the business.

 Buoying up the spirits

This stage can take years and leave you feeling low from time to time. This is normal. So in one of my writing groups we found ourselves talking about how to keep the spirits buoyed up through rejection times.

  • Repeated rejections of the same piece of work just might mean it still needs fixing. Keep trying to improve.
  • Take up something really good fun that gets you out among non-writers. Dancing or playing a musical instrument can work, whatever you enjoy most. It’s all material.
  • Keep catching those inspired patches of writing, whatever they’re about. Keep flexing happy writing muscles in your journal, or with poetry, flash fiction or whatever else suits you. Remind yourself that this is not peacekeeping in a war zone or fostering orphans, it’s only putting words on pages. If you keep crafting, it will come good.

Good rejections

Are there such things? Oh yes, and if I can do one thing to help you through this stage, it is to lift your spirits when you receive a good rejection and see it for the gold dust it is.

  • A personal rejection with your name on it that gives feedback and some positive comments – well, it’s time for celebration. You have no idea how rarely this happens! IMG_3387It means you have been noticed. It’s time for a kindly thank you and a close look at the feedback. Your inner writer might feel rejected but to have professional advice at this level is a huge step forward.
  • A personal reply makes no promises but compliments some aspects of your writing and recommends a manuscript advisor, perhaps giving a contact. This means that your script has been read and appreciated but needs help. Instead of working with you in-house, as used to happen, you are asked to pay. A manuscript advisor that works closely with your chosen agent might be the best thing for you chances of publication. Maybe not. See how you and your bank balance feel.
  • A personal rejection with feedback, some compliments and an invitation to send your next script – it’s time for celebration. This is great news! Reply warmly with thanks but please do not be tempted to send something until it is ready, even if it takes time. Ask if they might be prepared to consider an idea in principle.
  • A personal reply asking for your full manuscript. It’s time for celebration with fireworks. But before the rest of your script leaves home, have a final check through to make sure everything is on its toes. All too often agents and publishers are hooked by the first three chapters and find that, with the rest, the quality goes swiftly downhill. Take time to make sure all is well first. Then congratulate yourself, you have come a very long way. Fingers crossed.
  • The personal reply asking you to call to make an appointment to meet or speak on the phone. This is the big one. It can be the beginning of one of the most valuable and rewarding relationships of your life.

Next time we’ll look at why agents and publishers reject. Meanwhile, I wish you the very best of luck and happy writing. Good luck!

Words on Waves at Harbour Books

Harbour Books is a fantastic independent book shop in Whitstable and it gave us writers space for something magical last night. Since July, the shop’s monthly Words on Waves events have given local writers a place to read their work in progress as well as published work, with a broad range of subject matter and styles of writing.

Last night it was mostly the poets’ turn and the air hummed with marvellous words from all over the world. An accidental common theme emerged about the roots of our upbringing and the considerable pleasures of living where we choose.

Mostly that was (of course) Kent. Our magnificent line-up included The Scatterlings (Sue Rose from Herne Bay, Mark Holihan, a Californian now settled in Broadstairs and Geraldine Paine from Ospringe, near Faversham), novelist Malcom Walton, prize-winning poet Christopher Hopkins (from Wales, now living in Kent), Annie Harrison, Clair Meyrick and, from London, Nancy Mattson (originally Canadian) and Mike Bartholomew-Biggs.

The combination was outstanding and, as host, I had the pleasure of watching waves of hilarity, excitement and shared grief sweep over us all. The evening was a sell-out so if you’d like to join us next month – Thursday 4 October – it would be wise to contact the shop to save your place. Please call 01227 264011 or drop by.

Enormous thanks to everyone at Harbour Books – Keith, Olivia, Arthur – for everything they do to make these events such a pleasure and success. It’s a privilege for me to be involved.

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!