#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!

Ten things to get your novel published

  1. A solid sense of yourself as a writer

You need a solid sense that writing is what you were born for. The good news is that if you are a writer, then writing is what makes you happiest in all the world. Our writing is an essential part of our heart and spirit and the more we honour it, the happier we become. As our writing grows, we grow. If you have not had that experience yet, try writing more every day and see if you feel a difference.

  1. Love of the writing process

One of my earliest childhood memories is of sitting alone with crayons deep in my own writing world. I can still feel the bliss of those crayons in my fingers. Partly it’s the safety of that cocoon, partly the joy of rolling those words into the right order, of producing something new under the sun. The more we write and study the craft, the better we write and with that comes self-assurance that will help through the feedback and criticism stages. This is a long way from arrogance; it comes from the long process of trial and error, above all from the rewriting process. It comes from a sense that writing is always where your time is best spent, regardless of the outcome.

  1. A safe place to write

Virginia Woolf’s extended essay published in October 1929 was famously titled ‘A Room of One’s Own’. Not all of us can afford this and the creeping closure of libraries threatens our writing spaces. However, we are usually not far from a friendly café and all we need is to train our brains to cut out the noise, take from the surrounding company inspiration as we find it and let writing wrap itself around us.

  1. Write loads

We all do, far more than ever gets published. Musicians practise scales and arpeggios daily and play sections of their latest piece till their fingers are numb. Hemingway talked about his published work being ‘the tip of the iceberg’ of his writing. Incidentally, this New Yorker piece about the great man shows that even he was capable of a truly dreadful sentence now and again: In pencil, he added, “Time is the least thing we have of.” All creative work is trial and error. Will this work? Maybe this will work better? Or that? The more you write, the more confident you will become. That is why I am a huge fan of journal writing. Scribbling for the sake of it loosens the writing muscles, clears the fog and can come up with surprisingly useful things. Go for it. Go for everything. Be fearless!

  1. Choose your best ideas

So much for words. Agents and publishers trade in ideas. What are your stories about?

Choose your best ideas and if a story is not working, it may be the central idea that is deficient. Do not be afraid to dump it and move to something more exciting. Our greatest crime is to waste our readers’ time.

  1. Value your craft

Story-telling technique, grammar, spelling – these are our tools and they all matter very much. In creativity, rules are always there to be broken so it helps to know the rules first. For a reader to feel a sense of your authority, they need to know that if you are breaking rules, you know why even if they do not. They need to trust you.

There is an illusion among civilians (non-writers) that to produce a best-seller, all you have to do is knock out a blog at the kitchen table. This has never been true.

IMG_E1806Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters, Wilde and Hemingway all rewrote their masterpieces time and again. Nobody ever said this would be easy.

We are lucky, we can learn by reading great books and by seeing great plays, television and films. Drink up all the best stories you can. Go on all the courses you can afford. Read everything about the craft you can find.

  1. A thick skin

Now I’m talking about the rejection period where doggedness is your best friend. These are your learning years too and a professional standard does not come overnight.

  1. Be ready to be edited

Arrogance stops your writing career dead. Agents and publishers always see your script as work in progress that needs their professional input to suit the market. Writing is about rewriting and we all need it. The trick is to relish the company of these professionals who know what they are doing, to take their interest in your writing as a compliment and to enjoy lifting the quality of your work. The next book(s) should be easier.

  1. Have good people around you

Part of the rejection years is about gathering ‘champions’ of your writing, people who are impressed and will remember you but aren’t quite ready to offer you a contract. These people talk to each other. Sometimes they live with each other. So it’s good to keep sending your best writing out so that the positive vibe around you can grow.

The good people you need most are your agent and publisher. In the best of all possible worlds, you and your agent are friends for life and build your career together for mutual benefit. This means you are honest with each other, listen to each other, both work hard and understand why things might not be perfect during tricky times. Like any relationship really. A solid relationship with a publisher is wonderful too. You might write a variety of things over a lifetime, gathering appropriate publishers as you go.

You need good support at home, or none.

A good other half is a great help. A great other half is often one who takes no interest at all in your writing other than to offer a shoulder when a rejection comes and a hug whenever there’s good news. A bad one is worse than being alone. Beware of hooking up with a frustrated writer (this happens more often than you’d think) who wants to shoehorn in on what you’re writing all the time, trying to push and pull you in different directions that somehow never quite satisfy them. Their well-meaning critiques can shrivel your will to write.

Being alone is not so bad. All writers need access to great big slabs of time alone (Jilly Cooper called it writers’ ‘hermit-itis’) and not all other halves have the self-confidence to live with that.

Finally, you need a good writing group. A band of good-hearted people you trust to understand the writing process and who will help you thrive at your own pace, as you help them thrive at theirs. People who understand that if your genre is not their sort of thing, then their feedback might not be your sort of thing either. People with a positive critique ethos, seeking to tell you what works best in your work because, believe me, by the time you have read your words aloud to any group, your bones know all too well what has not worked. We writers are less good at knowing what we’ve done well – we need to be told.

  1. Luck

Did Thomas Jefferson say that the harder we work, the luckier we get? Actors and musicians joke about how ‘overnight success’ sometimes comes after years of hard graft. This is true of writers too. Hilary Mantel spent ten years writing her first book. The Da Vinci Code was Dan Brown’s fourth novel. Beatrix Potter and William Blake published their own work initially, as did Jane Austen.

If you keep writing, keep learning, keep circulating among writers, publishers and agents, keep sending out your best work in a professional way, keep raising your game, that mysterious ingredient luck has a better chance of finding you.

I wish you all the luck in the world.

Happy writing!