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!

#getpublished – format your script

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy writing!

 

What do publishers do, 1? Before your book launch, 8 things to expect

When a publisher finally says they love your novel, it usually means they love it so much they’ll ask you to revise it another half dozen times under their supervision.

1/ Editorial input

This is editorial input, sometimes called ‘content curation’. It means more rewriting and can involve major changes like cutting out characters, changing from 1st to 3rd person or vice versa, or changing the way your plot unfolds. If you’re the sort of writer whose hackles rise at such interference with your genius, traditional publishing is not for you. If you find it inordinately exciting to have professionals take an interest and can’t wait to let them help you make your book the very best it can be, you’re a natural for it.

When my first novel was being edited, builders were in the throes of replacing just about everything on the ground floor of my home. Having heard nothing from the publisher for months, suddenly I was in the headlights of the editor’s total attention so, with my wi-fi blinking on and off throughout the day as electrics were replaced, I would rewrite each chapter and email the result. With mayhem going on around me, my story kept getting tighter and better and I loved every minute.

IMG_1295

Robert Graves’ desk at home in Mallorca

2/ Cover

That’s the most exhausting bit over. There might be a lull before the publisher’s choice of cover arrives for your approval. Sometimes an in-house designer has produced it, sometimes it comes from a picture library. You should get a veto or at least a chance to point out if something is inappropriate. That first novel of mine was set in a Gothic abbey and the first cover offered by the publisher showed something more like a nineteenth century factory, a square brick box with chimneys. They’re all juggling a number of different books and nobody knows your book as well as you do, so speak up. Mine agreed to get rid of the chimneys.

3/ Blurb, acknowledgements

They will ask you provide the few words that go on the back. Those brief summaries – 10, 20 and 50 words – that kept your through-line on track come in handy here.

4/ Acknowledgements

You will also be asked who you would like to thank in your acknowledgements. Here is the usual pecking order of thanks:

  • Everyone who read and critiqued your book at draft stage, expert or otherwise, while accepting any errors as your own.
  • Any other sources of research such as helpful librarians.
  • Members of your writing group or MA course whose critique has helped.
  • By this time, you and your editor are friends for life so it’s usual to give her/him a glowing mention.
  • Everyone else in the publisher’s offices who has helped you. With luck they are all your friends for life now, even if individuals move on from this publisher to another one.
  • Your agent.
  • Undying love to your other half. My favourite is PG Wodehouse’s thanks in The Heart of a Goof for his daughter Leonora’s tireless sympathy and encouragement without which ‘this book would have been finished in half the time’.
  • Absolutely no need to mention your cat, therapist, masseuse or accountant unless relevant to the content of your book.

5/ Final edit

Edits always produce funny little blips or words in the wrong place. The final read through, for story and proofing, is down to you alone. Everybody will be in a tearing rush by then, but do your utmost to insist on peace for a few days to make sure it’s all finally OK. Otherwise you will open your lovely author copy and see a horror on page 2.

6/ Consents

Have you any extracts from other people’s work in your story? Your chapter headings, for example, are lines from poetry or songs by living writers? Publishing contracts usually make you, the author, responsible for getting and paying for copyright consents for any extracts you have used. It is easy to blink past this in the dizzying joy of signing your contract but it can cost you time and money if you’re not careful. A good publisher may well guide you past the most difficult and expensive options. In my first novel I was set on using extracts from WB Yeats’s poetry. How on earth was I going to get consent to use them? Luckily the publisher knew how and arranged free consent for me in-house.

7/ Make the book available in every possible form

Your traditional publisher will want to spread your marvellous story as thoroughly as possible around the world. You should get paper books and presence in the kindle world and equivalents. What about radio readings, audio books, film deals, telly deals, serialisation in newspapers, translations in a hundred different countries? Well, the budget for a first novel by an unknown writer may well include some of these but be patient. The more books they publish of yours, the more budget the publisher will be prepared to invest.

8/ Marketing

A publisher will do its best to market your book:

  • A bona fide review in a main stream newspaper or magazine is gold dust these days and happens very rarely for a first novel. The days of gathering a sheaf of print reviews are gone. Mention in a blog or online magazine is less rare but well worth celebrating. A goodish review is as good as a great one – it’s the mention that matters – and a bad one can do sales a power of good if it’s amusing or by someone high profile.
  • Social media: your publisher will have goblins spreading the word through all the social media outlets. It’s good manners to help along.
  • Events, book groups, book festivals etc. You will be expected to clear your diary for anything your publisher suggests as well as rustling up your own, if you can. Again, try to dredge up all your contacts to get yourself interviewed or otherwise noticed.
  • Your own website. Now is the time if you haven’t done it already. Expect to pay for it yourself.
  • Word of mouth is still the most powerful marketing tool of all. Over to you and your friends!

On Sunday: to your book launch and beyond! 

Happy writing.

2009-06-30 19.00.13

The Most Intimate Place launch 2009

 

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.

IMG_E0087

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

How to avoid painful feedback– losing track of time

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.

IMG_2560

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.)

FLASHBACK EXERCISES

  1. 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.
  2. 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!

Happy writing.

 

FEEDBACK ETIQUETTE – or how to keep your friends

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:

Proof-reading  

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.

General feedback

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?

Experts

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.

FEEDBACK ETIQUETTE

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. IMG_2456This 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. IMG_2457Take 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.*

 

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!

When the writing flow stops – 12 TIPS to keep writing

At our last Churchill Writers session, we started off talking about our perfect writing days, when the muse is our best friend and the writing flows like chilled mojito down Papa Hemingway’s throat. Then, of course, chat turned to how we keep our writing going when things are not so good.

We came up with this list – feel free to add your own:

  • Keeping a journal can limber up the writing muscles and clear the mind before you start on your novel. Liz Lochhead has described it as like skimming the top of a good broth before it’s served.
  • Congratulate yourself as much on a good session of wool-gathering or writing exercises as on producing pages. It’s all needed.

IMG_2388

  • A trick I learned from journalism is to get a rough draft down, quickly, last thing before bed if need be, so that you have something to work on next time. Anything is better than nothing.
  • If you aim to write at a regular time each day or week, the writing begins to flow at that appointed time as if it has a special welcome.
  • Targets (1000 words per day, or a chapter a day, for example) work for some people, less so for others.
  • Going for long, slow walks alone, without (if you can) any thought of fitness or time, helps many writers. Charles Dickens walked huge distances, often through the night. It’s about letting your story and characters settle in the rhythm of your body while your eyes rest on the world around. Take some way of writing down stray thoughts, even if it means scribbling on the back of your hand.
  • Writing buddies. Arrange to meet a writing friend in your favourite café for an hour or so. Say hello, and then sit a good distance away from each other for your writing time. When your words are done, it’s time to have a good old natter together. This can be a happy way to have a regular writing slot but it’s important not to let the chat happen first, OK? #learnedthehardway
  • Some days are fallow, don’t let them worry you. Just pick up and carry on next time. In fact, life has tides, highs and lows, and it’s important not to punish yourself or get demoralised if writing is squeezed out by a crisis. Come back to it when you can.
  • If you don’t have the chance to write for a while, try writing in short bursts of ten or twenty minutes. Forget about quality, let the writing energy take you wherever it likes. You can do this on the bus, in a café, anywhere, and it will remind you how much you can achieve, and how deep you can go, in just ten minutes.
  • Reading good books and blogs about the craft can bring you back into your sense of being a writer after a break away.
  • Remember that, however much you procrastinate, and we all do, once you do give writing your time and attention, the words will come. Every time I used to sit down to write, I would spring off the chair to do something else apparently urgent, maybe about a dozen times. Once I realised that my home was not going to catch fire if I just sat there and wrote, I dubbed it ‘hot chair syndrome’ and recognised that it was part of my run-up to writing. And it went away! I love writing and always feel better if a day has writing in it, and I bet you do too.
  • Keeping work in progress private is, for me, a crucial part of protecting the flow; having to show your workings every day to a well-meaning but critical family member can be death to your progress.

Keep it regular. Keep it to yourself. Keep it fun.

More on Sunday. In the mean time, happy scribbling!

THREE GREAT TRICKS FOR REVISING YOUR DRAFT

Your draft is covered in lines, highlights and lots of great big ticks. What happens next?

IMG_2377

Have you ever thought of sending your novel to a script agency?* That can be a useful step but writers are sometimes disappointed by the feedback because the agency or editor seems to have misunderstood the book. Script advisors try to find the heart of your story, your main narrative drive. First novels in particular can have everything in them including several kitchen sinks, so the advisor recommends the strongest line that they think will sell. The trouble is, it may not be what the writer had in mind, at all, leaving him or her confused and upset. Some writers then lose faith in critiques and even, sad to say, have a sense that their critiqued story is not worth working on any more. Writers get a better return on their money if they work first on bringing out the essence of what they and their characters want to say.

In other words, your second draft will be much better. Whose first drafts are perfect? Hemmingway knew the answer. The place to start is your through-line.

1st TRICK – ROSIE’S PLOT CLINIC

Summarise your plot roughly and quickly. Approach this like an exercise; there’s no need to be self-conscious or to trim as you go, no-one will see it but you. If you can, do it without looking at the draft itself or your notes. You are after the excitement you get in a writing exercise where the thing takes off and is carried along by the power of its own adventure.

IMG_2372

By Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier (1815-1891)

One or two thousand words should be enough. If your summary wants to go in a new direction, something you haven’t thought of or written yet, that’s fine. Write it anyway. If you end up somewhere you do not want your story to go, never mind. Save it and have another go.

If this exercise does not come to you easily, try this shorter approach:

EXERCISE

Summarise your plot in 10 words, then 20, then 50, then 100.

These little summaries are more difficult than they look but you will need them later:

  • When someone introduces you to a literary agent at a party, you will have about ten seconds to grab her attention – that’s where your 10 words summary comes in handy.
  • If she hasn’t looked behind you for someone more saleable after ten seconds, it’s time to expand into your 20 words.
  • Your 50 words summary can go into your submission to an agent or publisher when the time is right. (Not yet.)
  • Your 100 words summary can be the basis of publicity like the blurb on your book’s jacket.

Doing these little outlines at this stage concentrates you on your story’s gist. Keep them in a file, together with other versions you doodle and rewrite from time to time in idle moments.

WHAT IS YOUR THROUGH-LINE?

Let’s remind ourselves about through-line: the spine of your story, the string that holds your chapter pearls together, the engine of it all. Its elements are these:

  • A question
  • that is specific, emotional and urgent (will Odysseus find home, how does Rose survive the Titanic’s sinking, what will become of Lizzie Bennet)
  • about a particular character or characters (will the Watership Down rabbits find somewhere safe to live),
  • that should, one way or another, be answered by the story.

Toy with discovering and refining your through-line for as long as it takes. Just keep thinking and summarising and scribbling until, click, there it is. The clearer you are about your through-line, the more successful your story will be.

2nd TRICK – CHARACTERS

Now is the time to have another good old chat with your main characters too, so back to the character questionnaire

Some characters arrive fully formed and change very little while you are writing your draft. Others morph as your story develops. In both cases it can be a good idea to revisit your character questionnaire to see what comes forward. If nothing else, it will free up any writing muscles that might have got sluggish during your rest.

If it feels like too much of a chore, so be it. Let’s sit on the sofa with the red pen and read that first draft through again, this time more specifically.

Take one of your main characters at a time, and reread your draft as if you are that character:

  • Summarise that character’s storyline as you go. Is it consistent?
  • Does that single strand feel true in itself? Does it feel true for that character?
  • Are there gaps or jumps, anything that could do with explanation? Any plot holes where for example your character knows something he or she hasn’t been told yet? Be hard on yourself because your readers will be.
  • Is your character’s voice consistent in the dialogue, not only the accent and content (both important) but also the world view, age, ethnicity etc. Does the voice reflect the character’s growth through the story?

By now, you may feel like doing a bit more of the character questionnaire. Time spent that way is never wasted.

3rd TRICK – SLEEPING

Being with your draft every day is crucial now or your energy will drop. My favourite trick is this.

Before you go to sleep, read over what you’ve done with your draft that day. You’re just reading, no need for this to feel like a chore, and make a few short notes for attention next day. Then sleep.

IMG_2378

This does something inexplicably marvellous: it bakes everything together in your brain (or little devils whisper in your sleeping ears, like these around Botticelli’s Mars) so that in the morning you will go happily to your writing again and it will be more alive. If a thought or two wakes you in the night, note it down and go back to sleep. Some of those notes will be great. Not all of them.

Revising your draft can take a while but somehow it can be exhilarating and less exhausting than producing your first draft because the road map is there in front of you.

Next week we’ll look at your plot arc.

*I do not offer a script reading service, by the way.

Happy writing!