I’ll let you know here when my poem is live. Meanwhile here’s one I did earlier…
You can find them on my Events page: Whitstable’s Harbour Books on Thursday 2 August and, with Peter Pegnall’s Bright Scarf poets, at the Poetry Society’s Poetry Cafe in London on Saturday 6 October.
Come and say hello!
You have enjoyed your feedback stage, seen a feedbacker friend in a new light but never mind, got stuck in to your final re-write and now that it is ready, you are heartily sick of the whole thing in mind, body and spirit. Congratulations, all this is as it should be.
Some writers send their draft off too early, are appalled to receive a couple of prompt rejections and decide that self-publishing will form the right bridge between them and their adoring public. Other writers know from the outset, having researched the self-publishing world and the complexities involved, that it is the right route for them. The website of the Alliance of Independent Authors is here.
‘Traditional’ publishing was always a colossal mountain to climb, it still is, and has many advantages if you have the patience to climb it. While self-published writers have the advantage of control and royalties that arrive quickly, they cope with their own editing, formatting, cover design, promotion, distribution etc. or pay others for those skills. There is plenty of help out there but it’s a lot to take on. Traditional publishers demand more promotion than they used to, but generally they give you more time to write and sometimes engage in nurturing your writing career.
But nothing is ever simple in this life. Let’s look first at what agents, editors and publishers do.
AGENTS FIRST – what do they do?
A good agent is a many-splendored thing. A great one could be your friend for life. Scott Fitzgerald’s agent Harold Ober managed the Fitzgerald finances for them, supported the family in all sorts of ways through their troubles and even gave their daughter Scottie away at her wedding. This is probably more than you can expect from an agent these days but you never know.
Agents vary in what they offer but the basic menu is this:
- Knowing the publishing market is their job. We writers study the book shop shelves to see what’s doing well and what shape it takes but agents are experts in what different publishers specialise in and what they are looking for now. Who is after a new Tudor novel with elves? Who wants a Goth crime writer who has travelled solo by sled to the North Pole? It’s the agent’s job to be in the middle of this maelstrom, right up to the minute.
- Agents form links with particular publishers, usually because they like each other and are excited by the same sort of reading. You can find out which agents like your sort of novel by looking at your favourite recent novels in that genre and seeing who the author acknowledges as inspiration and help: you’ll usually find their agent’s name there.
- With all this in mind, an agent can help you reshape your novel to fit. Sorry to break it to you but the rewriting is not over yet. The difference this time is that you’re among professionals and whatever I said before about picking and choosing your feedback, forget it. Professionals know best. Some agents decided some time ago they have no time for new writers or slush piles. I can see their point and respect it. (About twenty years ago I was shown a slush pile in a theatre. Piles of uninvited drafts for only the previous two or three months covered a whole wall up to the ceiling. The temptation to dump the lot must have been overwhelming.) Some agents recognise the need to bring on new talent but prefer to let university courses do the polishing for them. Other agents, and these are our fairy godmothers (usually female), do offer to coach us in improving our drafts before sale, sometimes at a price. (Below: Zaporozh’e Cossacks writing a letter to the Sultan, 1880, by IE Repin)At this stage, it can begin to feel as if everybody including the bus driver is writing your book instead of you. The final decision about changes will always be yours, yes. But you will learn an enormous amount from an experienced agent who is prepared to coach you, even if she does not in the end manage to sell your book.
It’s time for a refresher.
- If the writing is coming to you hot and fast, at all costs catch it. It may not be perfect – you can refine later.
- Come hell or high water, always finish your first draft.
- Golden Rule 3 – ta- dah! – is this. Successful professionals are a joy to be among and they know their job. Listen carefully to them. (I used to say publishers are always right – this is the redraft.)
The publishing world is always uncertain. No-one knows for sure what will be a success; they are all working on calculated guesses, with first books more than any other. What else do agents do for us?
- Agents circulate your book. They do want to make money from it for you both, otherwise they don’t eat. So when the draft is right, they will send it out. That can either be a process of sending it to one to three publishers at a time or by auction, depending on the book. This is the agent’s call, not ours, though (s)he may discuss it with you. Finding a publisher may happen in a flash but it is more likely to take time. It does not always end in success either – it came as a great surprise to me that agents get rejections too. I will discuss the many reasons for rejections that are nothing to do with the quality of your draft in a later post. But many publishers will only take submissions from an agent, not from you direct, however charmingly you ask. Even if they do, a submission via your agent stands a much greater chance of being read. If an agent keeps peddling the same rejected draft without discussing modifications and tactics with you, find someone else. Your agent should field rejections for you and break them to you gently, spotting what is an invitation for further negotiations and what is not. The most wonderful thing is that with a good agent, you are not alone in this minefield. Your agent is your champion.
- Agents help you make contacts. Each time your draft makes a targeted landing on a publisher’s desk, it leaves a calling card about you and your writing. Always be polite, hard-working, committed to a long writing career, easy to deal with. Staff in agents and publishers move from one job to another, and sometimes they live with each other and chat about their work. You want them to remember you positively for next time.
- Agents negotiate and agree your publishing contract. It’s all gone well! You have met your agent, an interested publisher has been found and there is talk of a contract. Agents and publishers do like to meet writers face to face if possible. It’s like any job interview: they want to see if there’s enough in common for this important relationship. It’s about more than what’s on the page. An exception was my first novel (a ghost story for the 10 – 14 year age group published in Dublin, 2005) where I sent off the draft, heard nothing for a year and a half and then a contract arrived in the post out of the blue. I sat on the stairs in shock, convinced it was a mistake. Surely there was some poor darling in Galway opening my rejection. (I was well used to rejections by then: all my thoughts here are hard-earned.) So I rang them up and heard the good news that the contract was valid. There was no agent involved then but I learned later how wonderful it is to have someone on my side who can crack a deal. In the UK, you can also check things yourself with the excellent Society of Authors, through their website or on the phone.
- A warning about contracts. An agent’s contract is likely to come by email pretty soon after you’re being taken on, and can consist of just one clear page. Publishers can take a lot longer to get on with the paperwork, if they get round to it at all. It’s not unusual to be scrabbling around with sub-clauses at the same time as you’re approving your book cover and planning a launch. The reason, as a publisher said to me once, is that a contract for an unknown author’s first book may ‘not be worth the paper it’s written on’. What if the author does not manage to finish the book as wanted? What if the publisher decides not to publish after all, or is taken over by a company with a different agenda? What is anyone going to do about it? The publisher can’t write the book and a first author cannot force publication. Neither party can prove any quantifiable loss as first books rarely make a profit of more than a thousand quid, sometimes less. There, I’ve said it. Your first book is very unlikely to make you rich. It’s the third book your publisher and agent are gambling on.
- Agents know about foreign and translation rights and that is where the money is. Think way beyond where you live to how your book might work in India, China, Africa, Europe and the Americas.
- Advances. I haven’t mentioned these yet because they’re not what they were and for a first-time author, they will probably be negligible. Do you go for the biggest advance anyway? However hungry you are, an independent publisher might serve your book better, give it a longer life and more attention.
Many agents’ websites offer helpful pages of advice too. They really do want to help you soar.
Next week, what are publishers for? Happy writing and good luck
‘Times are bad,’ he said, ‘children don’t obey their parents any more and everyone is writing a book.’ That was Cicero in 43BC. Everyone’s life is full of majestic stories but crafting them into a novel takes skill, perseverance and several rewrites that can tax the brain. That’s why writers need this feedback stage so much.
Feedbackers who give you clear, itemised lists of where you can improve your draft might make your teeth grind but at least they’re useful. It can be hard to know how to react when they are vague, unsure. They say they got lost, couldn’t finish it or, worst of all, they got bored. Bored?!! You think, how can they be bored, you’ve sweated blood over that draft …
Generalised dissatisfaction is often down to plot problems. In other words, does your story arc slacken and need a tweak or two? If you’re sure it’s not that, then it may be your use of time that’s confusing them. Let’s think about how you’re using memory and flashback.
MEMORY EXERCISES: 5 minutes each
- Your main character is telling you in the 1st person about an important memory from early childhood, many years ago.
- Your character is alone, quietly remembering the same event only 5 or 10 years after it happened. This can be in 1st or 3rd person, it’s up to you.
- The day after this event happened, your character is telling someone else in your story about it.
This is about how memory alters with age and distance from the thing remembered. It also shows us that while we remember, however vividly, we stay in the present, aware of who and how we are now, while remembering.
Manet, The Railway: 1873
Flashbacks are different.
First, let’s distinguish psychological flashbacks, where involuntary memories of traumatic experiences can invade a person’s present so vividly that it feels as if they are almost happening afresh, there and then.
Story-telling flashbacks are devices conjured by you, the writer, to bring the story from one of the story’s time zones to another for the reader’s benefit. They are like that bit of old movies where the screen goes wiggly and the characters are twenty years younger, until the screen goes wiggly again and they are back in the harsh, unhappy (or otherwise) present.
Those old films can teach us a thing or two, namely:
- It’s important that readers are clear when you’re going into flashback and coming out again. They often read to relax with a mind full of work stress, children playing close by or with a busload of distracting people around them. If we are going to do something unrealistic like fiddle about in our use of time, we should guide them confidently.
- The shorter your flashbacks, the more easily your reader will keep track of what’s going on. If a flashback goes on too long, you risk losing people. (Unless your whole book is in flashback and your reader knows that.)
- Your character is doing something mundane: cooking, driving, maybe daydreaming at work. What triggers the flashback? Hover there and concentrate on that moment. Then describe to yourself your character’s sensual awareness. Go through the five main senses (sight, sound, taste, smell, touch) and heat and cold, tension and relaxation, readiness or sleepiness and so on. Find one or two predominant ones – if your character is washing up, has he paused to feel the water swoosh around the hands? Noticed an aroma or something out of a window? Now take your character into the flashback and write it. Using that sensual experience, the swoosh of water again, come back out of the flashback and write the character’s reflections on it. Bring the reader securely back to the book’s present world.
- Now, what did you want that flashback to do? Explore this free writing, for yourself.
Lastly today, let’s try a version of our first memory exercise:
- Your character, many years after the incident in a flashback, is telling you (the writer) about it for the first time, in the first person.
- Explore on your page or screen how these exercises have shown you how memory and flashback differ. Both can be exciting, heart-breaking, immediate in their different ways – what do they have to offer in their different ways?
Next week we will start looking at how to send your novel out and get it published. Exciting!
Has a feedback friend pointed out that you’ve written three feet of snow in high summer? Or that a character’s twelfth birthday falls a couple of pages after you’ve said they’re thirteen? You are not alone. If you’ve been moving chunks of your story around or tweaking a character’s history, it’s easily done.
The biggest lesson I learned on my rocky road to getting published is this: resist as long as you possibly can the urge to send your draft out too soon. Check it, check it again and check it again and again. In the heat of finishing a draft, we are convinced it’s not just fine, it’s brilliant (the first draft high) and ready for the world. But there are a million details to knit together when you’re writing a novel and one of the aspects where any writer’s grasp might go astray is time.
You’ve done calendars and timelines before? You’ve been revising here and there in your draft since then? It’s not a waste of energy to have another go from where your draft is standing now:
- Once for your basic story, regardless of your plot and structure: at the very beginning there was this, then this, then that. Bring together your seasons, birth and death dates, holiday times and festivals, when people start jobs and careers, fall in love, move home.
Choose an important scene in your draft and write around how it might work if you put a birthday into it. Any birthday carries with it memories of previous birthdays, echoes of the past, hopes for the future.
The same goes for winter and summer holidays and funerals. Or holding a new baby, getting into a new car for the first time, or opening the door to a new home. How might you use the ‘funnel function’ of these events?
- Next for your plot, in the order you’re telling the story. Are you playing with flashbacks, memories and imaginings of the future? Two or more time-frames? What happens when and at what time of year in each section? If you’re gathering files for each chapter or scene, note somewhere what the light and weather might be like each time. It can add a shine of authenticity and wholeness and might even solve plot problems for you. [link to The weather outside is frightful – post before] (Epistolary novels (told in letters, like Dracula) and ones written in journal or diary form (like the Bridget Jones series) have this built in, where the simple act of having the date itself at the beginning of a chapter can bring the reader’s imagination into play.)
Sometimes we forget seasons altogether and your entire story can happen in eternal summer or winter. Even if this is deliberate, as in CS Lewis’s Narnia, weather is always present, almost a character in itself.
Think of a major weather event (a snow or rain storm, heat wave, gales) and describe it to yourself for a few minutes, first as an observer, then with yourself in the middle of it, taking the brunt. How does the weather affect clothes and mood, what people carry, how they move? How does the light change? How do buildings and infrastructure change?
Think of a scene/chapter of yours and write it afresh with that weather. It’s only an exercise so try writing quickly and loosely, to see what happens.
- Finally the trickiest and most important of all: each main character needs a simple A – Z timeline marking various important stages. The more complex your use of multiple time-frames, or flashbacks, memories and future thoughts, the more vital this is. Your character may have memory problems but you as author should be rock solid.
Plot structures that use time
In David Nicholls’ One Day a couple who met at university continue to keep up over a number of years, always on St Swithin’s Day. the plot of Martin Amis’s Time’s Arrow goes backwards in time and Amis uses this in his usual darkly hilarious way having characters going around supermarkets with full baskets, for example, putting everything back.
JB Priestley’s play Time & the Conways (1937) starts with the Conway family at the birthday party of one of the daughters in 1919, after the close of the 1st World War. The second act shows them at the same event in 1937, when the world was skidding towards the 2nd World War. Then in the final act, we’re back to 1919 seconds after the first act’s end. Priestley was a master of manipulating time like this and the reversion to 1919 could not be more poignant, for the nation as well as for those few characters.
The second biggest lesson I learned on my hard road to getting published was to treasure positive feedback of any kind, especially from professionals. I hope you’re basking in plenty of it.
You’ve revised your novel until your fingers are numb and you can’t wait to show it to a grateful world. Here is some advice, learned the hard way, about feedback.
There are three main kinds of feedback:
By this I mean the whole caboodle that includes spelling, grammar, plurals where they shouldn’t be, and muddled tenses. Re-arranging your story during edits inevitably brings the need for these and we weed them out the best we can before we show our work to anyone else. But they are tenacious. Don’t blame yourself, it’s normal.
Proof-reading is best handled separately from the larger story aspects as our brains can only do one or the other well at a time. Ask a trusted friend (or pay an expert) to proof-read for you. Check it yourself several times. Do this before it goes to your feedbackers as mistakes will deflect them from what you want them to do.
Do people engage with your writing, your characters, your story? In other words, does your book work? If so, what works best about it? Which characters sing out most? If something feels not quite right, where does an off-kilter feeling start? Is your plot arc working? Where do readers feel able to leave your story down and perhaps forget to come back?
Have you written about jobs or conditions you have not experienced yourself? Research is great but now is the time to ask for a reading by people who have lived it, if you possibly can.
Does your story take place somewhere you have never been? If you cannot afford to go there, find somebody who knows the place.
Do you feel pretty confident with your early research or your experience in a job years ago? It’s always worth bringing it up to date. Most people are more than happy to talk about their work.
Your book is set, say, in the 1960s and you’ve spent months researching – but have you spoken to people who lived then? You could find your whole perspective tilted and enriched.
Courtesy to your reader:
It really is best not to part with your draft too soon. It’s a draft and your reader will know that but:
- Have a final proof-read. It’s extraordinary how excited readers can be about mistakes in the draft, and how deeply it distracts them from the qualities in your story.
- Is your reader ready for it? S/he has said yes in principle but please check before you send it that now is a good time. Otherwise days and weeks might pass before the reader gets around to it, you’ll be agonised waiting and it’ll get embarrassing.
- Ask whether your reader would like a typescript (paper copy, at your expense, for the reader to keep) or a screen download. This is their choice: you want your reader to be as comfortable with the experience as possible.
- If it’s paper, make sure it looks clean and smart. Something that has another reader’s coffee stains and scribblings will not get you the attention you need.
- Do NOT pester your reader during the reading time. If you see her/him regularly, try really hard not to bring it up. Readers will do the job when they’re ready and badgering them will not help them do a better job.
- Thank your reader afterwards: tea/drink/lunch/dinner, whatever you can afford, PLUS an invitation as an honoured guest to your launch when the time comes, an acknowledgment (properly spelt) in the published book and a free (at your expense) signed copy.
- Don’t ask your reader to read a subsequent draft unless they offer. It’s time-consuming so once is enough – and you want fresh eyes to help you each time.
- If your reader doesn’t finish your draft, don’t be upset. We can’t please everyone. Just thank them for their time and generosity and ask where s/he stopped reading. S/he may have stopped for many reasons which are nothing to do with your writing but finding out where a reader felt able to abandon the story can help you fix a weak spot.
Courtesy to your writer:
- When a friend sends you a draft for your feedback, please do your utmost to read it as soon as you can. Every minute will be agony for the writer while s/he waits.
- Useful feedback comes from reading the draft twice: once for the buzz (allowing yourself to be carried along by it) and secondly to make deeper observations, connections and suggestions.
- Keep the writer posted of progress, saying for example that you’ve finished the first reading and will be starting the second the weekend after next. You do not have to make comments at this stage as you may revise your views.
- When giving your feedback, the usual rules apply: praise first, then points of criticism and an overall view. You do not have to suggest improvements: it’s not your book.
- Don’t expect lunch, dinner, acknowledgements etc., even though it’s in the advice to writers above.
- If the book is not your sort of thing, don’t be afraid to say so. If you can’t stand elves and your best friend wants you to read their Middle Earth spin-off, it’s best by far just to hand it back and say you can’t wait for the launch and will read it then. There is no point in struggling with a book that doesn’t suit you and your feedback will not be as useful as you think.
- Don’t forget that your carefully considered feedback is only advice. The writer may well ignore it. Try not to notice – and stay friends.
- You can keep the typescript.
How to use feedback:
Feedback can feel like evisceration of you and your book. All too many feedbackers will give some brief, dilute praise followed by yards of detailed criticism. It is entirely normal for a writer to blink away the compliments and take each word of the criticism as a personal wound. So –
- Always be grateful. Your reader has taken time and care and some of what they say might help you.
- If the feedback is in writing, leave it for a while before you look. When you feel ready take your time going through it, marking what you think might be useful, what less so.
- There is no need to comment on the feedback when you thank your reader.
- If your feedback session is in person, resist the urge to argue the toss. Take full notes. A lot of what is said will whoosh past your ears, gone for ever, and some of it could be invaluable.
- Look after yourself during this phase, it can be more wearying than you think.
- Ask questions wherever you need more information, especially of your expert readers.
- Say you are consulting a number of people and will think carefully about all views. Make no promises: it will be your decision where you choose to go with your feedback.
- There is no need to rush into your response. You can put it all away for a while until your head clears.
- Re-read the compliments often, you need them.
You might well find that your readers disagree: it’s not at all unusual to find that one feedbacker can’t stand a scene and another says that’s their favourite bit. You might also find that some critique produces a knot in your guts of protest or outrage. Maybe your book has been misunderstood. All this is useful to know. My practice is to pot-hole about it all – to chat with myself on the page or screen about what I want out of the book, out of a character or a chapter – until things settle into clarity.
It is your book and no-one else’s. Can you think of any classic novel that is universally loved? Exactly, and yours won’t please everybody either so let’s crack on.
My feedback practice is to gather up all the feedback of all kinds, making no comments at the time. I like hard copy for this stage so I print it all out with the names removed and put it into one of those cardboard A4 boxes. Then I have a great big session where I look at it all and mark up what I think works. I ditch the rest and get to work.
Here is the hard part: the most difficult criticism to hear may well be what you need to hear most. It can take time to sink in – there’s no rush.
There is absolutely no need to promise anyone that you are changing your book at their behest. In fact, a feedbacker who wants to railroad you is not your best help. They are often other writers or would-be writers who want you to write their book for them. Feel free to ignore. By the time your book is published, your feedbackers will probably have forgotten what they said.
You have the last word, enjoy it.*
- Feedback from agents and publishers is a different matter and we’ll be looking at that in coming weeks. As Charlotte Bronte described so beautifully, positive attention from professionals (even in the form of a rejection) is invaluable and gives the writing its future.
In keeping with my new snappy style, I’m allowing myself 999 words max for this post. Most bloggers manage with much less; my problem is, I like wordy writers (Dickens, Balzac, Woolf) and my models have made me wordy myself. I’ve learnt that to write well in a spare elegant style, much as I admire it (Stoner, My name is Lucy Barton), you have to write better than I can. I bury infelicities in my forest of verbiage, but would be rumbled if every word stood out clear from the page. A writer with six hundred plus pages to fill can explore their own meaning aloud. It must be nailed first time in a novella.
What I produce currently is somewhere in between. My beginnings are strongish and longish but not defined enough; they show just enough promise to keep readers on board. My middles are saggy, pushed…
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