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.

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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 – 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!

What do agents do? #getpublished

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.

What next?

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)IMG_2599At 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.

THE THREE GOLDEN RULES 

It’s time for a refresher.

  1. If the writing is coming to you hot and fast, at all costs catch it. It may not be perfect – you can refine later.
  2. Come hell or high water, always finish your first draft.
  3. 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.

These webpages are worth a look in The Writers & Artists Yearbook  and Writers’ Digest

Many agents’ websites offer helpful pages of advice too. They really do want to help you soar.

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Next week, what are publishers for? Happy writing and good luck

Finding your way around my blog

To help you find posts from the past, I’ve added a guide to my home page, like a long list of contents.

In August and September last year, posts are about getting started (including things not to worry about), from late September to December we look at character, in January this year we started learning plot skills and from April posts are about what Stephen King calls the Box of Tricks: aspects of the writing craft.

This week, we’re busy rewriting, polishing to the highest standard, with a section to follow between now and the summer, about getting your novel out to the public.

Happy writing, everyone! More next week.

Your character interviews all in one place

An external description of your character is not a bad place to start. It’s not essential for your reader to have detail about how your character looks, walks etc. but you should have a pretty clear idea. It’s not just about hair colour, it’s about how they move and speak too.

Most of all, it’s how they feel. Then you know what drives them. Once you know what drives them, they’ll write the story for you.

EXERCISE

You are watching your character from afar as they go to work. Describe them leaving whatever transport they use, walking in the street, moving towards their place of work, taking off their outer garments and taking up their place. If they work at home, describe the move from domesticity into whatever it is they do. Where are the telling details: how they sit, how they feel in their clothes, how aware they are of others around them, how they react to others’ approach?

Try this exercise again, the same place and actions, but this time it’s the character doing the talking. Describe the internal monologue (first person) as this daily process unfolds.

Back to our scribble-chat interviews with our character. To start with, imagine you’re conducting an interview with your fictional character as if you’ve just met. By the end, you’re the very best of friends. Please feel free to fill it out as much as you like with musical tastes, what’s in her/his bag and pockets, where they go on their holidays, favourite biscuits, anything you like:

  • How do you look? To yourself? To other people?
  • What is your name? Who gave it to you? Have you a nickname? Where did it come from? How do you feel about it?
  • Your age? How do you feel about it?
  • Where do you live? Why do you live there? How long have you lived there? Do you like it there? Is it your choice or someone else’s? What would you change if you could? Where would you ideally like to live?
  • Who do you live with? Describe the relationships and how you feel about them? Why do you live with these people, or alone? Is it by choice? Has it always been that way? Will this story change or challenge that?
  • Where were you born? How did you feel about it when you were little? How do you feel about that place now? What accent do you have? Has it always been the same? Are you speaking in your first language?
  • Tell me about the family you were born with: mother, father, siblings and any other family members important to your development and/or the story. Are you youngest or eldest, or where in between? Who is emotionally most remote from you and why? Who worries you most and why? Who do you feel safest with and why? (Yes, this is me up the Cave Hill with my dad!)
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  • What’s your education? How did you feel about it then? How do you feel about it now? What would you change if you could? Do you have ambitions for more education in your life? Why(not)?
  • Do you have a job? Is it your choice? What would be your ideal job? Etc. (Take time to get your character to talk freely about this. We learn a lot about people from their jobs: is it what they want, how did they start there, what was the training, how do they feel about where they work, the people they deal with and the nature of the work itself. There’s an argument that doing a job can fossilise certain aspects of your personality and sometimes that can produce a crisis or neurosis. Whenever you meet people, ask them about their work. People will usually talk about it freely and it’s often where people find life partners. All great material.)
  • What’s your economic situation? Has it always been that way? What would you change about it if you could? What are your hopes for the future? How do you feel about it at night when you can’t sleep?
  • What is the music you love, your favourite art and other artefacts? Your most prized possession – why?
  • What makes you laugh most?
  • Any favourite rants?

It’s time to go deeper:

If it hasn’t happened already, let the character speak from now on (on your page or screen) for as long as she/he wants. Good questions come in pairs. Any one of these answers could take a whole day or even a weekend:

  • What are the early successes you’re most proud of?
  • Your early failures ditto?
  • What makes you cry most? (You never cry? Why? Would like you to?)
  • What for you is perfect happiness? Perfect misery?
  • What is your greatest victory? Greatest defeat?
  • Greatest excitement? Greatest boredom?
  • Greatest trap? Greatest escape?
  • Greatest delight? Greatest fear?
  • Greatest happiness and joy? Greatest sadness? Most painful memory?
  • Greatest achievement? Greatest loss?

You can develop this in whatever way you like, and feel free to keep going after you’ve started writing your draft.

What are your character’s places:

Home, travel, work, hobbies, favourite place in all the world etc.

Secrets:

Again give your character as long as he or she wants to answer:

  • What is your sexual orientation? How do you feel about it?
  • Are you now or have you ever been in love?
  • What was your first sexual experience?
  • What is your most painful memory?
  • Your happiest memory?
  • Do you have any secrets?
  • Do you have someone else’s secret?
  • Have you ever been betrayed?
  • Have you ever betrayed someone close to you? How do you justify this to yourself?
  • What do you most regret NOT having done?
  • What would you say is your world view?

SHORTCUT

Let your character finish these sentences in her/his own words:

  • I want …
  • I need …
  • I regret …
  • I love …
  • I hate …

Though you might not know it yet, these answers form the engine of your story. Short, snappy answers are truest.

A little objectivity …

Sleep on what you’ve done so far. Have a walk, coffee, spend time with friends.

When you’ve left your interviews behind enough to be objective about this person you’ve created, ask yourself these important questions:

  • What do I (as author) like about this character?
  • What do I (as author) dislike about this character?

The Big Ones:

Now, having taken a dispassionate look at your character as author, ask yourself:

  • What is this character’s greatest anguish, their most significant pain? Expand. This may take you a few long walks to discover, or you may know it in the snap of your fingers.
  • Whatever it is, does it explain the aspect you don’t like?
  • What does this character actively want in this story?
  • What does she/he actually need?

The answers to these last questions help your plot to come together. Don’t bother to be conscious about this – just keep walking and pondering and what you need will come to you.

Incidentally, I found this on twitter – scientists have proved what we writers have known all along: writing is good for us. Have a happy writing week!

Let’s find your plot’s engine

Quentin Crisp said, ‘Other people? They are usually a mistake.’ Sartre agreed: ‘Hell is other people’, he said, though he might have meant other French people. Yet here we are absorbed in making people up and getting to know them better than we know some of the humans we live and work with.

What’s a scribble-chat?

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As usual, settle yourself somewhere comfortable in as close to peace and solitude as you can find, with your favourite writing materials, whatever suits you, and invite your main character to come forward. You know each other pretty well now. Maybe you can hear the tone and lilt of the character’s voice, the accent, age and ethnicity in it, the education, traces of life past and present. Start to engage your character in ‘conversation’ with some chitchat and, like a loving friend, listen and encourage. Keep writing as you go – nobody needs to see it but you and it frees up channels in your writing that go way beyond day-dreaming and conscious planning.

Stage 4

When the time is right, let your character finish these sentences in her/his own words:

  • I regret …
  • I don’t regret though maybe I should …
  • I love most of all …
  • I hate …
  • I’m most afraid of …
  • I want …
  • I need …

Go for short, snappy answers this time, the ones that bypass inner barriers. Don’t think – just write what comes and be ready for surprises. You might not know it yet but these answers drive your story. This disentangling of what we want and really need is at the heart of self-knowledge whoever we are, wherever and whenever we live.

Let’s look at two or three classic stories to explore what I mean.

Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge is a good example of a man passionately pursuing commercial success to find respect; what he really needs (and tragically does not get it until after his death) is steady family love, the very thing he ditched so controversially in the book’s famous opening chapter when he ‘sells’ his own wife and baby.

In Willy Russell’s marvellous Educating Rita, first a play, then a film starring Julie Walters and Michael Caine, Rita longs to be educated, more specifically to be confident among educated people chatting about Blake and Shakespeare. What she needs is to make her own choices about her life. I love the moment in the closing credits where Rita, having said goodbye to the teacher who brought her so much, is walking along the corridor out of the airport, shoulders slumped, missing him – then she straightens, her step quickens and she’s off into a new life that we know she’ll handle beautifully.

Similarly in Titanic. The tension in this story is not about whether Rose survives the wreck or not – we know that early on – though the film has much to say about what makes a survivor. What Rose wants from the start is to escape her gilded cage (later into lifelong love with Jack); what she needs, like Rita, is to take charge of her own life.

Does your main character want money and need love? Need safety rather than what looks like love?

In a complex story, it can take time to bring your character to the clarity you’re after, so – if you are not sure which way to turn –

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you may find it helps to come back to this. Today is more about thinking and feeling your way to answers rather than merrily writing thousands of words, though that’s still a great idea too. It’s about leading your character to insight.

Phew. Stand back for a moment and congratulate yourself. It’s time to treat yourself to a walk or a coffee with a friend and clear your mind. Sleep on what you’ve done so far and praise yourself. You’ve worked hard.

Next week we’ll stand back from your characters for a change, bring a little objectivity to what we’ve done and make sure they can come across as rounded people.

Have a happy writing week!