CHANGING BLOG ADDRESS

IMPORTANT NOTE TO ALL READERS:

I HAVE MOVED!

I have moved the whole blog to a new address. Please join me over there as no new posts are being added here and I have removed key info from this old version ...


PLEASE GO TO THE NEW ADDRESS:
www.helpineedapublisher.blogspot.com


When you get there, PLEASE rejoin as a "follower" - changing addresses means I lose my 230 lovely friends!



NB also - all comments are intact on the new version.


Monday, 14 September 2009

GONE AWAY .....

PLEASE REMEMBER - I AM NO LONGER HERE! SEE NOTE ABOVE. I do hope you will change your link / bookmark and join me along with everyone else on the new blog

Monday, 31 August 2009

IMPORTANT: TO ALL MY READERS

IF YOU HAVE PREVIOUSLY LINKED TO ME ON YOUR BLOG - please remember that I have MOVED and this means that you need to CHANGE THE LINK on your lovely blog, otherwise you'll never get the auto-updates and you'll think I'm dead.
Rumours of my demise are greatly exaggerated.

If I could send you all chocolate to repay you for your loyalty, I would.

Thank you, Bookmaven (Mary Hoffman) for helping point this out.

What a great bank holiday Monday I'm having. God, it's just like really moving house.


SO, please go to the new address here:

www.helpineedapublisher.blogspot.com

TO ANYONE WHO LINKS TO MY BLOG .... HELP!

NOTICE TO ALL LOVELY PEOPLE WHO LINKED TO ME ON THEIR BLOGS  -  you need to change the address on your link to me, otherwise you'll never get the auto-updates and you'll think I'm dead.
Rumours of my demise are greatly exaggerated.

If I could send you all chocolate to repay you for your loyalty, I would.

Thank you, Bookmaven (Mary Hoffman) for helping point this out.

What a great bank holiday Monday I'm having. God, it's just like really moving house. 


SO, please go to the new address here: 

www.helpineedapublisher.blogspot.com

Saturday, 29 August 2009

YOUR WIP IS DEAD - LONG LIVE YOUR WIP!

After my last post (excuse the pun), you all shared so much about your dead / dying / comatose books (and I loved Donna's image of divorcing her WIP, citing irreconcilable differences!) that I thought I'd reply in a separate post and pick up your points.

First, though, Bookmaven - thank you for your flattering suggestion that I turn the blog into a book. I have sometimes thought about it a bit but have pretty much decided that I love the blog format. (Shame I can't earn any money through it ...) Penny Dolan made the point too. Thing is, I feel that this blog is more than just my words or voice - if this blog is any good at all it's all your voices that have helped make it that way. I think the quality of commenting on this blog is outstanding. I'm delighted to have well-known authors such as yourself (Bookmaven, for those who don't know, is the very successful Mary Hoffman), as well as editors and agents, and a fabulous standard of unpublished authors who seem to be doing all the right things to propel themselves towards publication. I think that blogs sometimes have the edge over books - the sacrilege! - because they are moveable and malleable and mutual. More like a guided group sharing thoughts and knowledge than a figure on a stage lecturing and then disappearing without taking questions.

(Candy - of course I need your comments, and not like a hole in the head! And yes, I know I haven't replied to your email - I'm on the case. Thank you!)

So, no plans for a book (though I wouldn't turn down a fabulous offer ...) but I am thinking of doing some talks around the country. I'd be happy to hear from anyone who'd like to set something up. Crabbit Old Bat on Tour? Crabbit Old Bat Comes to a Town Hall Near You? (Note to self - could be an excuse for serious investment in shoes. Definitely tax-deductible. Note to Penny Dolan - jealousy is an occupational hazard of a writer so if you're only jealous of shoes, you've getting off lightly).

Meanwhile, your excellent comments on 222ing books.

I am in awe of how you've all taken positivity from rejection. (As Caroline said, rejection is information. I like that.) Your thoughts are worth quoting from. And literally everyone was positive.

So, Ebony McKenna (recently published - yay!):
"I finished six manuscripts (and didn't finish others) before I found my groove with Ondine. Two of those manuscripts *might* be fixable, but if they never see the light of day, that's fine with me. They were not a waste of time because I learned so much in the process." Exactly! Blogger Delete
Juliet Boyd:
"I find the best way to deal with it [rejection] is to quickly open the envelope and see reject. Then put it away for a week to let yourself accept the rejection. After that, you can go back and read the feedback given with a rational mind and if you're honest with yourself, you will often agree with what is said." Juliet, If you can put it away for a week, you're a stronger woman than I am ... Delete
Iain Broome said...
"I've been lucky so far and managed to get an agent at the fourth or fifth attempt, but I know plenty of people who have struggled and struggled with their novel. I think it's made all the more difficult because our work came out of our time on a Masters programme (Sheffield Hallam), so the investment, in a sense, has been financial as well as emotional, time-related etc." Iain, I wonder if it's not so much the financial aspect but the fact that going on an MA course is a fairly public statement that "I am going to be a Writer" so any "failure" to achieve that is a more public failure. When I was struggling to get published, I didn't tell many people so the anguish was more private. Delete
Donna expresses it perfectly, even though she hasn't got to the point of submitting, let alone rejection! Great attitude, Donna. She says:
"... I do understand the reality that maybe, just maybe, this best book that's ever been written in the history of the world may not ever be published. Do I have the strength to sign a DNR form? Probably not. But I think I could bring myself to sign divorce papers (citing irreconcilable differences, or course). That way, I can officially move on... but I can entertain the dream that maybe a long way down the road we can reunite. It's a slim-to-none chance, but I'm the kind of person that needs the "slim."
Delete
The important part of Andy Duggan's experience is highlighted in red:
"I've been through all this as well, but maybe I can give some figures that might help: I've got a collection of approx 50 rejections from agents and publishers. In spite of this, my novel 'Scars Beneath The Skin' was eventually published by Flambard Press. There was a major rewrite somewhere amongst those 50 rejections, though - prompted by constructive criticism from a writing group."
Focus on the red high-lighted parts of Suzie F's comment, too. This is what I mean by the quality of comments. Her point about self-doubting voices is crucial - these are the voices we have to learn to listen to. They so often speak sense. (Except that she had doubts about whether to write at all - the more important doubts are the ones about THIS book, Suzie. Always continue writing if you love it enough - though if you're not good enough, you may not be published ...) Suzie says:
"Today's post hit home with me as I'm currently facing the fact that my current WIP isn't going anywhere. Well, maybe somewhere, like a deep, dark desk drawer. This is actually the second time - my first attempt at a novel was dropped at approx. 10,000 words but I was heading into NaNoWriMo with a fresh idea. ... I was infatuated with my two MCs but got myself into a plot jam. I've been stuck ever since. Then the self-doubting voices began whispering in my ear and I struggled with whether or not I should continue writing at all. Instead, I decided to use this WIP as a learning experience. Editing, rewriting, tightening, researching and reading a ton of books in my genre (MG and YA). I love the process so much and am starting to develop two new ideas." Hooray and triple hooray! Delete
David Griffin gives an insight into the anguish of the writer, and many of us will identify:
"I had the services of an agent for just over a year, quite a while back now. And because the agency were unable to place my novels, we parted company. ... Since then I've tried only a handful of agents over the years, in a sort of half-hearted fashion, really. (i.e if one reputable and well-known London agency didn't want to represent me anymore, why would any other? Silly, I know, but it's taken a long time to get over that thought)." David, silly but understandable - thing is, you are probably a better writer now, writing different things - perhaps you are more publishable now. You have to try.
"So in a way, lacking confidence and motivation in trying other agents, I've attempted to "smother my children" by simply not getting them out there." God, we're into murder now! Eeek, what did I start?
"I'm developing habits of a writer who is committed to writing now, writing every day .... I'm going to try agents with determination and give it up to maybe 20 rejections. Only then will I occasionally read from the POD versions of my novels, with the odd sigh, knowing that not many other people will read them; and try the third one (when it's finished). "Grief, who would be a writer? (Millions of us, I know)."
Indeed ...
Delete
DanielB said...
"I have had to "slap a 222" on a novel in the past when the publisher who I thought would be "my publisher" (a reasonable assumption, as they'd published two of my novels) turned it down. ... It's still in cryogenic suspension, awaiting that revolution in medical science. Parts of it have been siphoned off and used for stem cell research to grow bits of other novels." So, not wasted at all. Excellent! And I'm partly including your comment because it's interesting for people to see that even successful writers like you can have temporary probs with publishing and [see next para] with writing ... "That's the second situation Nicola mentions - and I am a little worried that I may also now be facing the first as well! Damn it, I'm supposed to be one of those "experienced writers". It isn't meant to happen to us..." Ah, yes, unfortunately it does, but I am confident that you've spotted it earlier and stopped yourself sooner than if this was your first. For info of others, the second situation Daniel refers to is when you're halfway through a book and you become aware that it's going towards a dead-end fast. Delete
Sue Hyams and Rebecca Knight seem delightfully happy at declaring the deaths of their beloved works. They say, respectively:
"Oh, how timely! Just yesterday I decided that 222 was the only way forward - only I didn't have a name for it then - for the novel I've been working and working and working on for the past 18 months. The decision had been whacking me on the back of the head for some time but I tried to ignore it. Now, it almost feels like a relief. Almost. Great post - thank you!" DeleteAnd:
"This is a fantastic post ... I've had to do this with my book, and it was all for the best :). I received two rejections that got me thinking, stopped querying immediately, and got to work! I can safely say that what I have now is 10 times better than my previous book, and all because of the criticism I received. Thank God for rejection!"
Delete
To be honest, I'd say thanks to the writers who take rejection so constructively and leave God out of it, but I know what you mean ...
I want to finish by referring to Catherine Hughes' comment. I'm not putting it in full here because this post is already long enough. Do go back to it on the post below this and see what you think because she's asking you all a question. My instinct is that she should be writing another book, because she has been told she can definitely write, but this vampire book (even if it is really really really different from other vampire books) has not been taken. I think we deserve better than another vampire book and I think Catherine can do it!

However, I also want you to notice that Catherine discovered (from the rejections and feedback) that she has a fatal flaw in her writing: not knowing at which point of the action to start the story.

I have two things to say to that:
  1. I'm going to do a post about starting stories. (Catherine, you will have discovered from your search that I haven't talked about this yet). It's a great idea for a topic.
  2. I have good news for the patient: this is not a fatal flaw. There is a cure! Hooray for illnesses with cures!
Catherine (and others who may be tempted) - you want to revoke your 222. I suggest you don't, at least yet, but I do suggest you take DanielB's suggestion and opt for cryogenic suspension. You may still eventually decide to turn off the life-support but on the other hand a) you may find the cure in time and b) vampires may be back once more. Yes, I do think the agent is referring to you writing something else, but yes you should also hang on very tightly to those words of praise. They don't come often or easily.

Meanwhile, you and we all simply need to remember the most important point of my orginal post, and one which none of you commented on substantially: that whether our WIP is curable, mildly rheumatic, terminal, comatose or cryogenically suspended (or awaiting divorce proceedings) we should be doing one thing regardless: writing and falling in love again.

Because that's what being a writer is.

Friday, 28 August 2009

CERTIFYING THE DEATH OF YOUR BOOK

Recently I noticed that my blog has 222 followers (now increased, which slightly spoils the point but please don't go away). I noticed because it's a cute number but then it got me thinking. "Not for 222" is (apparently) the medical code for a hospital patient so close to death that he should not be resuscitated in the event of heart failure.

It got me wondering how a writer decides his beloved book is "not for 222". How many times can you allow it to be rejected? At what point do you decide there's no possibility of life? Is your unpublished book terminally unpublishable?

Strikes me there are two situations where you might have to make the dreaded 222 order on your book.
  1. Your Work in Progress (WIP) is not progressing. It's stuck. What started with an appealing idea and hook has ground to a halt. You have begun to force the plot-line; you know that it all now hangs on an episode which doesn't completely ring true, even to you, but you're determined to make it fit and you pile in more and more things to force the reader to believe in your story. You're starting to bite your nails in your sleep. There are bits of your book that you love and you keep reading them aloud to yourself, marvelling at the gorgeousness of your talent, but you know in a secret and painful part of your heart that your book has been built on sand.
  2. Your finished book has failed (and failed and failed and failed) to find an agent or publisher. Some have given glimmers of hope, which you have clutched at and possibly exaggerated in your mind; your friends and family love your book (duh) but no agent or publisher seems to care about that; your writing group keep telling you to carry on trying - they mop up your tears and tell you you are brilliant and that publishers don't know what they're talking about or are "only in it for the money". (Well, yes, actually, if you mean that they can't afford to make a loss on every book they take on and they do have to eat like the rest of us.)
In each of these cases, a brave decision must be made.

Situation One is an occupational hazard of writing. It's an often fatal illness that happens much more often to books written by inexperienced writers. As you become more experienced, you'll spot the symptoms earlier and treat the cause before it becomes terminal. I have just done this with an idea that I was utterly gripped by until I began to look ahead and think the plot through. I foresaw fundamental problems in motivation and development, so I killed my baby before I'd developed a relationship with it.

(Note: we talk about the importance of "killing our babies" in writing and it strikes me that killing babies is a lot easier than killing adults. Metaphorically, I hasten to add. If you let your book grow and invest huge amounts of time in it, it's much harder to let it go. Whereas, spectacularly unlike real babies, an idea being stillborn is just a pinprick, something you have to get used to. Apologies for the unpleasant analogy.)

Situation Two
"How many rejections should I accept before giving up?" I was recently asked after a talk on how to get published. It's not the first time I've been asked it. Obviously, there is no answer, or not in terms of a number. In theory, you could send it to every agent and publisher who takes that sort of book, which might only be 20 or it might be 100.

But there are two more useful questions you should ask:

1. How many rejections should I accept before doing some radical re-writing of my work?

Answer: not very many, frankly. IF you have submitted your book to the right people (ie you have researched carefully and only sent it to agents and publishers who handle this sort of work) and IF you have followed all the guidelines so far given in this blog and the submission guidelines of the agents and publishers you've approached, and IF your writing is good enough and IF your book is sellable, then it is likely either to have been accepted or to have attracted some specific feedback, even if not an acceptance yet. So, IF the feedback has alerted you to a problem, you should be re-writing now. IF the feedback has either been inconsistent or has suggested nothing, you should consider getting (perhaps paying for) a professional critique of your work. But be careful to research very carefully the "professionalism" of this critiquing ... (Future post topic.)

What do I mean by "not very many"? Well, you ask me for a figure and figures don't really figure in this game. But let's say, for the sake of argument, not more than ten. No, eight. Seven?

"Only seven? Or even ten?" I hear some of you say. Ah, I don't mean you'll only send it to 7-10 agents/publishers; I mean you'll only send it to that many before taking a long hard look at what you've written (another long hard look because of course you've already given it dozens of long hard looks - I mean a long, hard, critical and objective look). Somehow, you must get a good opinion as to what's wrong with your book which means that you haven't yet hooked anyone.

Thing is, if you send it to 25 and they all say "no way" and then you decide you could have written it better, that's 25 publishers you can't really send it to again when you've improved it ... Well, you can, but it's tricky and needs some careful handling.

But I said there were two more useful questions and the second one is even more useful:

2. What should I be doing while my book is out there being read by an agent / publisher / anyone?

And the answer to this is dead easy: you're a writer, aren't you? So you should be writing. You should be throwing yourself into your next idea. If you're not, you're no writer, just a one-book wannabe. And no agent or publisher wants a one-book wannabe. No reader wants a one-book wannabe.

So get writing. Be fickle - turn your back on your beautiful slaved-over book and fall into bed with a new lover.

When you do that, you learn several important things:
  • that your first book may not be as good as you thought it was
  • that you can fall in love again
  • that the death of a book is not the end of you as a writer
  • that being a writer is about striving to be better all the time and that this happens with practice
  • that if your first book is not good enough you actually don't want it to be published
  • that actually you can postpone the 222 decision and wait for new technology to come along (in the form of your new knowledge gleaned from writing the second book) which might cure the disease
  • that if at some point you decide to slap a "not for 222" on your first book, this will be a positive moment in your career as a real writer. And that you will (I promise) get over your apparently tragic loss.
Don't get me wrong: it's tough, it hurts, and even grown men cry. But if you have another WIP, it's not so bad. And you will not regret it. Ever. I don't know a published writer who hasn't got unpublished work in a drawer. And I don't know a published writer who really wishes that that unpublished work was published. God, I'm glad mine wasn't.

And a happy corollary that comes from all this is that resurrection and reincarnation both exist in a writer's world: it can sometimes happen that an idea or a book that died can rise again, later, when you are grown as a writer, and become something so much better and stronger and more beautiful than it first was.

We have to love our books with a passion but sometimes we have to let them die; or leave them lying in bed while we look ahead to the next one to love. Call yourself fickle, call yourself callous - it doesn't matter as long as you are writing.

If you have more than one book in you, let's see it. If you don't, give yourself a 222.

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

WANTED: SUBMISSIONS FOR PUBLIC OPINION

Newcomers (and there are many - hello!) to this blog won't know about the occasional Submission Spotlights, so I thought I'd flag up these opportunities to have your Work in Progress mauled in public by readers from all over the world. "Hold me back," I hear you say. Yes, it's a scary thing to do - but here's a thought: getting published is scary too, because then your Work is no longer in Progress but horribly fixed, and real readers will throw eggs and wet sponges at it. So, better get your humiliation in while you've still got a chance to improve the response.

Also, a nice man came up to me after a recent talk I did and was asking about his non-fiction proposal, and I realised that my Sub Spotlights don't give an opportunity for non-fic writers to be abused. This is not right - non-fic writers need to be able face the music too. So, I am going to amend the submission guidelines.

(If you have already sent one in, don't change it. I'm not that much of a bat.)

NEW SUBMISSION SPOTLIGHT GUIDELINES
  • for fiction (whether children's or adult writing): submit your covering letter and the first 500-600 words of your novel / children's story. In other words, submit almost exactly what you would really submit, except omitting a synopsis and ignoring the "3 chapters or 10,000 words rule". Covering letter should aim (as with real covering letters) to hook the agent or editor by encapsulating your book in a succinct but expressive way, following the guidelines in my recent posts on covering letters. See here, here and here. You would normally be enclosing a synopsis (although you are not for the purposes of this exercise) so don't give details of the outcomes of your plot/sub-plots - just give enough so that we can tell just what sort of book this is and why it is so compelling. As with a normal fiction submission, your novel should be finished before you submit.
  • for non-fiction (again, could be for children or adults): I want to see almost the whole proposal that you intend to send to an agent or editor. HOWEVER, please do not enclose your CV - instead, your proposal should include a para showing why you are the person to write this book. Also, for the sample, please only send me the first 250 words, without any intro. We want to get a sense of the writing style, voice and pitch.
  • please email your submission as an email attachment in a Word doc (not pdf) to writingtutor@hotmail.co.uk Make sure it's not read-only. Previously I asked for the submission in the body of the email - I discovered this is more of a nuisance. Again, if you've already sent a submission, don't worry - if I'm going to use it, I will.
Notes to all:
  1. if I don't use your submission, don't take this as a rejection! I'm simply trying to offer a range of different genres
  2. there is no deadline (thanks to Dan H for pointing out that I didn't make this clear) - it's an ongoing thing
  3. please specify if you're contacting agent or editor
  4. you are welcome to use a pseudonym - make it clear what you want me to use

QUESTION - Anyone got any more children's / YA submissions?

Another note for all - do go and read some of the previous Spotlights, for example this one by Jen. Jen was brilliant at working through the feedback and she says she got a huge amount out of it. You'll find the level of commenting very instructional. Remember, some of the commenters are agents or editors in disguise (sometimes not in disguise ...) and others are very astute readers. All have been honest and constructive, even when contradicting each other. They are among the best and most useful readers you'll get withough paying.

Tomorrow is my last day of talks at the Edinburgh Bk Fest - which reminds me, I had better go and prepare them. One is my schools' event - my absolute favourite thing to do on a stage - and one's on Fighting for your Rights as a Writer, which I'm regretting having agreed to. Mainly because I haven't a clue who the audience is. It's a bit like writing a book and not knowing who you're writing it for - a Very Bad Idea.

On the other hand, an even worse idea is going to do a talk without preparing. So, if you'll excuse me ...

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

POINTY THOUGHT FOR THE DAY: 5 - BEING NICE

My daughter is (rather usefully, some might say) working in the children's bookshop in the Edinburgh Book Festival. This in no way explains why my books are so beautifully displayed, of course. But a conversation with her on one of the prep days before the festival opened has engendered this pointful point.

Being nice is a very useful and under-rated quality.

No, I'm not saying I was nice to her. Or that she was nice to me. It was something quite different.

This was how the conversation went:

Rebecca: Recommend me some teenage books to read so that I know a bit more about them. Apart from yours, obviously. I know enough about those.

Me: (showing her the teenage section of my personal library, all in alph order, of course) Well, you could try a David Almond or a Julia Bertagna or a Tim Bowler or a Kevin Brooks or a Cathy Forde or a Keith Gray or an Elizabeth Laird or a ...

Rebecca: Which of them are your friends?

Me: All of them. But that's not why I recommend them, of course.

Rebecca: I'll take this Keith Gray one. He's always nice and friendly to me.


So, she picked Keith Gray because he was nice and friendly to her. The tart. (btw, I'm sure the others would be just as nice but she hasn't met them). So, she read his book and is now very likely to recommend it to teenagers when they or their parents ask for recommendations. His being nice and friendly to her could start a word of mouth Keith Gray-fest.

There's a lesson there. Especially when measured against that crappy author at the launch I told you about recently. We're always being told we have to develop a platform, a profile. If niceness is part of yours, I reckon that will draw people to you. And one good and surprising thing about niceness is that it's hard to fake for longer than five minutes.

It may sound trite but trust me: nice can get you a very long way. It makes the world go round more smoothly. If someone who'd written a book brought me sparkly wine, I'd definitely buy their book. Which is another pointy thought for you.

By the way, you may be wondering why, if niceness is so important, I am still proud of being the "crabbit old bat". My theory is that in fact your own niceness has smoothed all my crabbitness away over the last few months. I am but a shadow of my former self. You have destroyed my persona.

I could hate you if I didn't like you so much.

Monday, 24 August 2009

UNREQUITED COMMENTS

Big apologies to those of you who have left comments recently but not observed me having the decency to reply. I normally do reply, often at length, but I'm not keeping up with myself. Please keep commenting and please keep coming back because I will reply, even to the comments left on last week's posts. I'm still in the middle of book festival madness, still only halfway through my events.

Don't leave me this way.

CONFUSED BY CONFLICTING ADVICE?

You will have noticed that there's often conflicting advice about how to get published. You will be frustrated by this. And confused. And sometimes despairing. Natural responses, but wrong.

Some of you have been talking about tearing your hair out or curling up in little balls of stress at the conflicting advice. Sometimes you'll read something on my blog and it conflicts with advice on a blog I recommend to you, or it's different from advice that someone else equally amazing gave you.

So what's going on, I hear you ask? Thing is (and here's some more advice), you need to hang on to some truths.
  • publishing is not an exact science - when an agent or publisher receives your MS, any attempt at science goes out of the window in the face of human emotions and personal response. When an agent or editor tries to decide about your work, he or she is trying to bring objective expertise to bear in order to try to make a commercial decision about something that is personal response and will continue to be personal response right down the line to the customer choosing your book in the bookshop
  • it's all only advice - even when it's couched in words like RULES, it's just designed to give you a better chance, not a perfect certainty. We offer guide-lines, our best recommendations, that's all.
  • in the end, it's the power of your book that counts more than anything, not your perfect covering letter or whether you included congealed toffee in the package. It's just that for 99% of agents and editors, having congealed toffee in the package kind of gets in the way of appreciation of the rest of the contents
  • most importantly, your submission to an unknown agent or editor is a human and personal attempt at communication between two strangers - there is no objective recipe for how this might work. Sometimes, your writing will connect; sometimes it won't. So, what bugs one agent will delight another. What leaves one cold will inspire another. All our advice just tries to steer you in the most-likely-to-be-right direction, but it cannot work every time. Humans aren't consistent like that.
  • so, writers need to focus much more on making their actual writing brilliant than following the devoted advice of people like me, who stupidly spent hours formulating a post about the perfect covering letter and perhaps ended up making some of you more stressed than you were before
Do remember this most important fact: the vast majority of what agents and editors receive is eye-bleedingly awful. And if yours is not, it already stands a huge chance. Hold that thought and believe it, spending most of your time and passion in getting the book right. The rest is easy. (It just makes sense to follow the guidelines, in order that the agent/editor can focus on your writing without unpeeling toffee from the pages.)

Don't get tangled up in negativity. Don't start saying it's a lottery or that agents don't read your work or that you have to be blonde, gorgeous and leggy. (Take a look at most published authors, including me, to know that that's not quite true.) If you write a great book and if an agent or editor loves it enough and believes that enough other people will love it, it will be published. There's not enough out there that deserves to be published and editors and agents are desperate to find the gems.

My over-riding advice for finding your way through the sometimes conflicting messages is this: work out for yourself which is right for you and your book and your dreams for it.

Thing is, you're all individuals. (Cries of, "Yes! We are all individuals ...") You and your book and your background and your future are not the same as anyone else's, and therefore how you pitch those things to an agent or publisher (who are also all different from each other) will have to be slightly different. And this is why every approach to an agent or publisher has to be tailored and personal - personal to them and personal to you.

The way to do this is, for a writer, simple: put yourself in the shoes of the recipient, enter the mind of the person who will read your words. I say "for a writer" because this is what good writers do: they enter the mind of their readers, they listen, they learn, and they tune in. Do that, and you cannot fail.

I now give you two of my favourite quotes, because they're both apt.

F Scott Fitzgerald said, "The sign of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing beliefs at the same time and still retain the ability to function."

And the buddha apparently said, (according to the card that sits above my desk all day, every day):
Believe nothing,
no matter where you read it,
or who has said it,
not even if I have said it,
unless it agrees with your own reason
and your own common sense.
But I really do recommend that you don't put toffees in with your submission. When I find an agent who would look favourably on such stupidity, I'll let you know.

Saturday, 22 August 2009

THE PERFECT BLOG-READER ...


... is one who comes to my workshop, asks no stupid questions (actually, no one did - hooray for sensible workshoppers) and brings me chocolates. And chocolates of a very superior quality, too.

THANK YOU SUZANNE!

Although Toffee is Not a Way to Get Published, chocolate is a way to make me happy. If I were an agent or editor, it would consequently be hard for you to know whether chocolate would be an appropriate thing to send me in a submission, but my advice would be to wait until I've said I love your work and want to agent or publish you.

Since I am not an agent or publisher and never plan to be, chocolate is absolutely a very delightful thiing to bring me. However, please don't feel you have to, or I am going to put on too much weight.

Also, those of you who live too far away to come to Edinburgh, don't worry. I do not think any the less of you. Because really the perfect blog-reader is one who listens, joins in, is engaging and personable, does not leave spam (note to "glovin" - your ill-disguised spam is not appreciated) and then follows all my advice and gets published.

Can anyone bring me that happiest of all presents yet: one of you obtaining a contract?

Well, until then, I am grateful to Suzanne for today's lovely gift! It will certainly keep me going until that wonderful moment.

Meanwhile, please go and read today's main post, below. It's a long one. DOT - you especially should read it ...

THE PERFECT COVERING LETTER

I promised that I'd post this at the exact time of my workshop on the subject at the Edinburgh Book Festival. Think of us, eating chocolate and having fun!

(Btw, sticklers for correct language among you will have noticed that that last sentence can be read in two ways. It's deliberately ambiguous: either you or we are eating chocolate and having fun. And I'm not telling you which. It would be unprofessional.)

Now, those of you who have come late to this blog - where have you been all my life? - will need to go and read two posts first, as today's relates to all the ideas that came from them and also the competition I set up. Here's the first one, and the second is here. Or click the links to Covering Letters Part 1 & 2 on the list of articles on the right.

Your task was to guess what two improvements my agent said could be made to the sample letter. No one got both of them but one clever person got one of them. And the congratulations go to .... DOT! (Another reader, "D", got this later too, but a) it was later and therefore not first and b) he over-analysed the reasons and ended up not pinning it down in an objective, market-led way.)

DOT said "I believe your opening sentence, 'Wasted is a story of love, choice and the science of chance' is the weakest. From the description you write of your book, it is more fraught than that sentence implies." Spot on! It is indeed way more fraught. It's damned knife-edge bone-shivering skin-crawling stuff, with a load of passion thrown in. So, you win the prize - please visit my website and choose a book. Then email me (n@nicolamorgan.co.uk) with an address to send it to and a name to sign it for.

But, let's go through that letter now, because loads of comments came out of it, some of which reveal misconceptions and others which are valid. I'll go through the whole letter, explaining my rationale behind each bit. After that, I'll give a list of MUSTs, MUST NOTs, and MAYBEs.

THE NEAR-PERFECT LETTER

Dear Ms Hathaway,

I enclose the synopsis and sample first chapters of my 67,000 word Young Adult novel, Wasted. I also attach my CV, as requested in your submission guidelines.
It is normal and correct to say what you are enclosing. I am indicating that I have read her submission guidelines. Because she's asked for a CV, I don't have to give details of my pedigree etc in the the letter. I have given the word count, implying that it is complete (which it must be) and showing that it is an appropriate word count so I am not an idiot or ignorant. I have identified the genre /age category, so that she knows immediately what she's about to read. I have given the title. I have not waffled, boasted or been obsequious Yay for me!
----
Wasted
is a story of love, choice and the science of chance. Jack and Jess meet by chance, and fall powerfully in love. Jess - beautiful and talented singer - and Jack - impulsive, fascinating, intense, drummer in his own band, Schrödinger’s Cats - are on the eve of leaving school; freedom beckons. But Jess’s mother is an alcoholic and Jess, only child in a single-parent family, feels responsible. As for Jack: his mother died long ago - twice. After such unlikely bad fortune, he is obsessed by luck, chance, fate - whatever you call it. Jack calls it something to be controlled and so takes deliberate risks, playing a game with a coin, challenging chance to beat him. Chances are that, one day, it must. Events come to a dangerous climax in the heady, alcohol-fuelled beach party after the Leavers’ Prom, when life or death hang on the toss of a coin.
As DOT says, that first sentence is not strong enough. My agent said it's too soft "for the current market". My preferred sentence would be something like: "Wasted is a novel of danger, risk and Fate, entwined in a passionate love story." (But I still haven't quite got it right - luckily I don't need to, as the book is being published anyway, but I'll need to work on it so I can enthuse people easily.) Several people commented on the need for more detail - but this is quite sufficient for a covering** letter. Remember: there is a synopsis in the same envelope, which there would not be in a US-style "query", and therefore a query would need more detail. The covering letter can be intriguing, AS LONG AS you have answered any questions (eg re motivation) properly in the synopsis and as long as the letter sounds confident. So, we don't need to know why Jess feels responsible, or how Jack's mother could have died twice.
----
An unusual voice - present tense, omniscient, vivid - is not the book’s only defining feature. Twice within the story, I write alternative versions of an event, versions which turn on an almost unnoticeable chance difference, but a difference which has vastly different consequences. I then toss a coin and the story continues with one version, depending on the result. Finally, I write two alternative endings and challenge the reader to toss a coin to “choose” the ending. How the coin lands affects which possibility becomes reality. And it’s a life or death difference.
Someone commented on the present tense, saying that many people are put off by it. Yes, this is a risk and one which can only be taken in the covering letter if you feel that the story is so strong and intriguing that the agent (who may also be prejudiced against present tense) will read on. Thing is, in Wasted it absolutely is a defining feature, not just its present-tenseness but other aspects of the voice. By claiming that it is "unusual" and "vivid" I aim actually to draw attention to it and almost challenge the agent to try it. Someone commented on the repeated use of "difference" - it's deliberate and each use is mutually referential. This is an important pargraph, and this feature of alternative versions is crucial.
----
I have worked very hard to make this novel as ready as possible for publication but I am also very used to welcoming editorial guidance.
Interesting points from this. Someone said, "But shouldn't it be perfect?" It's a fine line I'm treading here. I want to convey that yes, I have worked very hard and am not submitting something that is not the best I can make it. At the same time, I want to convey some understanding that whatever I produce will need to go through editing. So, I am being neither arrogant about my work nor ignorant of the process of publishing. At the same time, I have not committed the cardinal sin of saying "I know that an editor will want to work on this, so I have deliberately not made it perfect." DO NOT DO THAT!!! Some writers think that it doesn't matter about grammar/ punctuation etc, because "it will be sorted at editing stage." It DOES matter - because it shows whether you're a good enough writer.

----
I have had a few pieces published in other fields, as you will see from my CV, but I am ambitious to become a successful author for young people and am prepared to work as hard as necessary to achieve that.
Here, I'm conveying that a) I have some writing experience b) I hope to have a fruitful career ahead of me and c) I know it will take hard work. All of this labels me (I hope!) as someone with whom an agent and editor will enjoy working. Ambition without delusion, confidence without arrogance, and always a determination to do better. What more could anyone want???
----
The high quality YA market may be relatively small, but it’s one I love and would be so proud to work in.
Here, I am indicating a knowledge of the market that I'm aiming to write for. I'm also conveying that the reason I want to write this type of book is that this is the type of book that I love. So, I'm conveying a connection with my intended readers. It shows that I know exactly what I'm doing and why. And that my reasons are good.

But this is where my agent suggested another line should be added. She pointed out that it would be even better if I named a couple of my favourite YA authors, who write in the same sub-genre as Wasted. This would show even greater knowledge of and passion for the genre. I wouldn't say that I am trying to emulate them but I would say something about my respect for their work.

----
I have already submitted Wasted to the Tanya Highbury agency and, although she gave me some very positive feedback, she did not feel that it was right for her at this time. Otherwise, yours is the only agency which I have approached so far.
Several of you were doubtful about this. Why am I admitting that she was not the first agent I approached? It's because you have to be up front - that's being professional and good to work with. An agent is not stupid: think about it - how likely is it that one particular agent was the first one you approached? They don't mind not being the first - though I wouldn't confess if she was the 50th ... - but they do mind very much if you're not up front about sending your submission to others simultaneously. (Some agents specifically ask you not to, in which case you mustn't.) I also have no problem with saying that Tanya Highbury knocked me back for that reason - again, I'm showing honesty and realism; also, by naming the other agency, I'm even giving my potential agent the opportunity to check. (Agents talk ...) By admitting this situation, I reveal that I understand the ins and outs of getting an agent.
----
I know how busy you must be with existing clients but you will understand that I want to approach other agents fairly soon; therefore, I would be most grateful if you could tell me what your position is on my approaching other agents or indeed some publishers.
Ebony pointed out, rightly, that Janet Reid's post, which I'd linked to, said she hated it when an author said something about knowing how busy she was blahdy blah. However, we have to remember that agents are just like other people, ie different and full of individuality. Personally, I believe this sentence of mine shows common courtesy and respect and portrays me as the sensible and aware person that I am. Frankly, if the agent I'm writing to is going to knock me back because of it, I am maybe not suited to her. More importantly, my comment is part of a wider and crucial strategic point: I am asking her to tell me whether she's happy for me to contact other agents. This is a 100% professional attitude that reveals a good understanding of an agent's work. I am also showing that I want to get on quickly and that I am finding a way to do so which does not mess anyone around. Agents understand this.
----
I very much hope that you will like what you read and that you will want to see the rest of Wasted.
I don't think anyone had a comment about this bit. One point though: you should never say, "I know you're going to love what you read..." Because no, you don't know that.
----
Yours sincerely,
Because, obviously, you know about sincerely for letters where you've used the name and faithfully for when you don't know the name. BUT, you should always know the name. Never do a Dear Sir or Madam
Modest confidence, unobsequious respect and clear professionalism - that's what we want to convey. Simple!

So, my trusty lists:

MUSTS
  • be very clear about genre, and age range. If for kids, exactly what age range - 5-7? 12+?
  • give length of book to nearest 100 words
  • follow individual submission guidelines to the letter - and show that you know exactly what THIS agent/editor wants
  • thereby show that this is a personal approach and NOT a mail-shot
  • briefly describe what the book is about, sufficiently for the recipient to know a) that you can write b) that you understand the market and c) that this is a fascinating book that the agent will want to read
  • give the right amount of detail: so, in my letter, I did want to say that Jack's mother has died (twice) but I did not need to say why Jess feels responsible. Becasue the first thing is really important to the book but the second thing isn't (but is answered in the book)
  • show professionalism
  • show knowledge of and passion for the specific market you're aiming for
  • follow the traditional rules of writing letters, including layout, signing off, including date
  • include proper contact details
  • be honest
  • be respectful
  • be 100% accurate grammatically
  • follow manuscript layout guidelines available from many places on the internet - ie A4 white paper, black ink, TNR 12pt, decent margins, double-spacing, one side of paper, page number+name+title on every page

MUST NOTS
  • absolutely no submission services/agencies/companies who claim to send a perfect covering letter to zillions of agents and publishers. See Jane Smith's post on the subject.
  • no typos or crossings out. If you make a mistake and don't notice till after printing it, reprint it
  • if for children, don't say it's for 8-18 year-olds - be precise
  • no sycophancy or creepy compliments
  • no boasting; no value statements such as "exciting" or "brilliant". Things like "fast-moving" are fine.
  • no claims that anyone in your family / circle of friends / acquaintances has read and loved it
  • no comment about how much you love writing and how long you've been writing for - see Rachelle Gardner's post on Aug 11. She's talking about US query letters, but the same principle applies
  • no tacky email address or one borrowed from husband/friend
  • no "extras" - such as toffee or a photo of you dressed as a koala (or even not dressed as a koala)
  • no "I know you're going to love this"
  • no use of the phrase "fiction novel" - what is a non-fiction novel?
POSSIBLY MAYBEs
  • gap in the market - with fiction, don't say there's gap in the market: there isn't. With fiction, all we need is a great story to fit within (even if pushing the boundaries of) an existing area. With non-fiction, gaps in the market are useful - but consider whether there's a gap because there are no readers. So, be careful.
  • mentioning other authors represented by the agent / published by the editor - if relevant
  • length of letter - not too short and not too long. Just say what you feel needs to be said - and hope that the recipient feels the same. Sorry, but there are obviously elements of the "perfect" approach that are subjective. Just follow the all-important rule of making every word count and not putting in anything without first evelauting its effect.
  • future projects - yes, if you're at an interesting stage of a similar project (ie one that could be the second novel orf your two-book deal), mention it briefly. But don't let it get in the way of this submission.
  • comparing your style to another author - this is very tricky to get right and, frankly, I wouldn't do it. It's sometimes a tad arrogant-sounding and risks putting the agent/editor off if they happen not to like that other author (which would be fair enough if your style was really exactly like the other author's, but that is usually not the case). Also, you don't want to sound derivative. But occasionally it can be helpful to mention, done properly.
  • giving reason for writing this book - hmm, well, yes, OK, possibly relevant, in fact often so. BUT be very very careful not to indicate that this novel is overly personal experience, because then I might worry where your second one will come from. So, yes, do it if it's relevant but do it carefully
  • cross-over potential - hmm, tricky one. It's pretty much not for you to say, even though you may think you know. So, be very aware of exactly what it means.
And that's about it. Go write that perfect letter, even though perfect is subjective ...

Sorry for the lack of my normal crabbit humour in this post. I'm writing it a couple of weeks before posting and I'm feeling serious because I'm surrounded by lists and lists of lists. I have also lost (temporarily, I hope!) my creative spark, as I have put novel-writing aside to prepare for Edinburgh Book Festival stuff. As well as six events and a few chairings, I've got the Soc of Authors in Scotland AGM and summer party for 200 in a marquee to organise and it's slightly doing my head in. I am feeling like an event manager, not a writer. (But by the time you read this, the event will be over, which is a strange concept for me right now.)

One day, I will be properly back. meanwhile, please don't go away.

Friday, 21 August 2009

WELCOME TO ALL NEW READERS


I have been overwhelmed (in a good way) by the huge increase in followers and page hits in the last few days, presumably because of Edinburgh book festival activity. The downside to this is that, because I'm not even halfway through my events yet, I am getting behind on replying to your comments and also to the many lovely emails you've sent me.

Be patient - I will be back! Of course, I haven't physically gone away, but I am not at my desk enough to reply at the moment. I tend to read your messages on my iphone while reclining on carpeted sofas in the famous Yurt, but then someone comes along and I get talking and never manage to reply. (Want to see pics of said Yurt? See here.)

Just to give you a sense of what's to come:
  • tomorrow, (Sat 22nd Aug) I'll be posting the results of the covering letter competition and you'll get the Definitive Guide to Covering letters. This will happen while I am giving a workshop at the book festival on "The Perfect Approach", and I know that some of you will be there. Hello in advance!
  • on Mon 24th, I have a fairly trenchant Pointy Thought for you
  • and crabbit old bat will be going into full rant mode about something that Really Bugs Me. Not sure when but as soon as possible. It's something I need to get off my chest and which I know most of you will agree with but some may not ...
  • we need a Submission Spotlight soon - do keep your entries coming. There's no deadline for these - I just put one up every now and then. If you've already sent me one and I haven't used it, DON'T take this as a rejection or criticism. It's not a sign of anything at all except that there was one that I thought would work better on public display than yours. And I may use it yet anyway. (See here for the rules.)
Meanwhile, keep writing and keep reading. And I'm back to the Yurt today, but NOT doing any events - hooray for a day off and the sun's shining! - just some meetings with lovely people, including coffee with my great friend Lindsey Fraser (Fraser Ross Associates, lit agents), to tell her all about the fascinating dinner I had last night with the Minister for Culture and some seriously famous authors - I kept looking round and thinking, How did this happen? When you think how long it took me to get published, how many years of failure I had to endure, and I end up in this company, in the same week that I hosted a huge party with guests like Margaret Drabble, James Naughtie, Ian Rankin and many many others - you should take heart: there's hope for everyone!

Luckily, I have enough fabulous shoes to cope with all these sparkly eventualities. Yesterday was the turn of the turquoise boots.

Thursday, 20 August 2009

WRITING FOR TEENAGERS

I did a talk at the Edinburgh Book Festival today about writing for teenagers and I promised** the participants that I'd put a fuller version of my notes here on my blog. Of course, devoted as I am to you all, I have not actually rushed back from Charlotte Square to do this - by the wonders of modern technology and forward-planning, I scheduled this post back when I wrote my notes. God, I'm clever. (PS - and, unlike other times, blogger graciously allowed me to do this.)

(** Actually, I forgot to promise this. But the intention was there.)

Anyway. Here's what I planned to say. Of course, it may have come out quite differently, since I tend to ignore my notes. Also, because my actual notes are just bullet-points, I have fleshed them out and turned them into sense. In fact, frankly, these are not really my notes at all. These are simply the words I imagine I might say if things go according to plan.

(Vivian French will have spoken before me, about writing for older children, ie 9-11s. I have no doubt she was brilliant - she's written enough books for kids of all ages and no one knows more than her.)

WRITING FOR TEENAGERS
The best way to understand how to write for them is to understand who they are. And who they are as readers. (Yes, they do read! In fact, those who read do so avidly and deeply, and want as wide a range of books as adults do.) Some successful authors say they don't particularly need to think about their readers when they write - Tim Bowler is a great example. He seems to have the perfect voice and interest-level for teenagers, without thinking about it. I suspect with him that it's all subconscious, and actually he's a big kid himself (he's a friend, so I can say that) so it comes naturally.

But the reason I think it's important is that, as the writer, you must know exactly what your teenage character would do /think / feel, otherwise you risk your story not ringing true. And teenagers can spot things that don't ring true a mile off - and will tell you about them. Ruthlessly.

ABOUT TEENAGERS:
Not children, not adults - so books are different from children's and adults'
  • How are they different from children (and therefore books are different from children’s books)
  1. Teenagers are (and should be) less protected - so we can’t pretend the world is rosy
  2. They are interested in different things - different things affect, worry, intrigue them, especially the things they may have to deal with now or soon
  3. They have a need for risk-taking / need to break rules - including reading books their parents don't like!
  4. They hate moral messages, hate to be preached at
  5. They can spot middle-aged voice - esp a m-aged voice pretending to be teenage
  • How different from adults (and therefore adult books)
  1. Teenagers are less patient, less forgiving of waffle; story must get straight to the point
  2. They have some different interests (eg don't care about menopause/surviving on pension). remember that we have been teeangers and so are more naturally interested in them than they are in us
  3. Teenage viewpoint essential to main character - and this MUST be an actual teenage viewpoint, not that of an adult looking back and remembering being a teenager
MUST CONSIDER THE GATE-KEEPERS - adults who buy the books and who choose what gets published and what goes in the shops / schools / libraries.

I believe anyone should read any book, whatever their age, but this is a genre, and you have to know the rules for that genre. There are boundaries you can’t cross, but it's hard to pin them down - you just know when you crossed them. If you're unpublished, it's your crossing of the boundaries which may raise alarm bells with an agent/editor that you don't know the market.
  • Eg Deathwatch - this was always going to be about a stalker but I needed to nail right from the start that this was not paedophilia and had no sexual connotations at all.
  • Eg my current planned WIP - about a celebrity-obsessed girl: I'm having trouble with the potential outcome because if she comes a cropper then the story is too trite and moral, but if (as I want) she gives two fingers to everyone's boring opinions, where’s my moral stance? I'm trying to find a way to be radical yet get past the gate-keepers. PS - I've now moved on a long way from this potential WIP and it's all completely different from how I started out.
  • So, nothing can be gratuitous. Violence needs a context, a moral position; certain topics would be very hard to handle** - eg incest, paedophilia.
  • Where you show any characters using eg violence or drug-taking, the outcome for those characters would need to be carefully handled.
  • Certain elements may make your book regarded as a no-go by schools: Eg guns, swearing, sex, drugs - yet these are all topics are of interest to teenagers and therefore legitimately covered - but beware.
Extra point about these boundaries - the fact that a topic is hard to handle (eg incest /paedophilia) does not mean you can't handle it. It means you have to know exactly what you're doing. Read Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan if you want to see what I mean! It is (in my view) utterly brilliant. It's the work of a phenomenal imagination and brilliantly handled.

The real point to hang onto is that everything has to be about the story. So, you don't write "about" eg violence - you tell a story, and if violence has to be in it, then it has to be in it. But the reader should never think you simply set out to ram violence at them to shock them.

THE SAFETY NET FACTOR - this is my little analogy to define a difference between writing for young children, older children, teenagers and adults;
  • young children - barely any need for a safety-net , as you know nothing bad will happen. Safety-net more like soft-play ball-park
  • older children - safety-net there: reader knows that even though it feels scary, nothing terrible will happen even if it seems as though it might as you slip off the rope
  • teenagers - no visible safety-net: the reader feels that something terrible could happen. But, in fact, the safety-net is there because, even if the reader doesn't know it, the author cares. hope will not be destroyed.
  • adults - no safety-net necessary, especially in some genres. The reader knows that anything could happen.
The skill of writing for teenagers is keeping the safety-net invisible.

SUGGESTED ROLE MODELS - because you MUST read the best in current successful fiction
  • for the dark, deep and dangerous side: Kevin Brooks, Keith Gray, Catherine Forde
  • two books that handle dangerous topics but get away with it because of the writers' skill: Looking for JJ (Anne Cassidy), Killing God (Kevin Brooks)
  • gripping and fast: Ally Kennen, Catherine MacPhail
  • fab for girls: Cathy Cassidy
  • the epitome of boundary-breaking - Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan
TIPS:
  • Every sentence has one aim: to stop them going off to listen to their ipods
  • Never sound like an adult telling them a story
  • Never sound like an adult pretending to be a teenager telling them a story
  • Avoid teenspeak - a) it'll be out of fashion next year and b) teenagers will laugh you out of town
  • Get the practical details of teen life spot-on - account for mobile phones / internet etc
  • Never preach or patronise
  • Keep that safety-net invisible
  • Get rid of the parents
That's it! No idea how I'm going to round it off but I've got some time yet ...

And do check out how I Define A Teenage Novel here and finally some Common Mistakes When Writing For Teenagers.

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

HOW TO MAKE A PUBLISHER SAY YES

This evening, in the Edinburgh Book Fest, I'm doing my talk on "how to make a publisher say yes". And I decided to put the bare bones of it below, or at least to try to decipher my notes and then turn them into something that will make sense to you.

I've done the apparently same talk for four years now, but each time I say it differently. Each time, I guess I've learnt more in the meantime. Each year, I throw my notes away because I know I'll do it differently next time.

So, this was how I structured my talk for this evening. I'm sorry you're not there, but you at least have the luxury of being able to relax with wine / chocolate while you're reading it. On the other hand, you don't get to experience my shoes. And, writing this as I am a week ago, I can't predict which shoes they'll be, so spontaneous am I.

WHY DOES CRAP GET PUBLISHED? (I won't use the word crap, because you can't do that in front of a captive audience, some of whom have only come in out of the rain and weren't expect the crabbit old bat to be so rude).

This is the question that frustrated aspiring authors ask. Understandably. The answer is simple: crap sells. Every published book is a book the publisher thought would sell. And, since crap sells in shedloads, you have to admit they were very often right.

Getting angry about why crap sells will get you nowhere. Besides, you're not here because you write crap and want to sell it. You're here because you think you've written something damned good and you're wondering what on earth you have to do to sell it.

I can't (or not here) teach you how to write, but I can show you the most common things people do wrong.

TWO COMFORTING THOUGHTS
The awfulness of the slush pile is reassuring - it means that good stuff shines. When an agent or publisher sees a jewel in a pile of crap, he will leap on it with enthusiasm and is quite happy to get his hands dirty in his efforts to retrieve that shiny jewel and clean it up so that the world can see its beauty.

Because the second comforting thought is: publishers and agents are desperate to find good books, great books, books that readers will love. If your book is good, they want you.

A SLIGHTLY COMFORTING THOUGHT
It's easy to get published: you just have to write the right book at the right time and send it to the right publisher at ther ight time in the right way.

BUT, in order to do that
  • you must understand what makes a right book
  • you must understand how publishing works, how commercial decisions are made
  • you must know (and obey) the rules for submitting your work

TO THE POINT
"How to make a publisher say yes" is not the best question.
The best question is "why do publishers usually say no?"

WHY DO THEY SAY NO?
One reason only: they think they can't sell it. (If your rejected book goes on to be published elsewhere and even be a huge success, that does not mean that the rejectors were wrong. They may well not have been able to sell it, for reasons which you'll find below.)

Before we proceed, you need to understand about the ACQUISITIONS MEETING (AM). (Blog-readers, go here; people in audience, sit back and listen.)

REASONS TO SAY NO
These fall in two categories.
  1. Publisher-related - not in your power to fix
  2. Book / author-related - your job to fix
1. PUBLISHER-RELATED (If even one of these three things applies to your book, it will not get through the AM.
  1. book doesn't fit their list or their publishing schedule is genuinely too full. It might not fit their list because they've already contracted something too similar; or they've decided not to handle fairy books any more (thank the Lord). If it doesn't fit the list because they don't handle this stuff, that's your silly fault for not researching, but there are many other reasons that you had no way of knowing
  2. the necessary investment is too great. Publishers have to pay a load of money months and years before they have a chance of recouping it. They have to budget and if your fabulous wizard series comes along when they don't have the required budget to invest in it over many years, they should not take it on and you would not (should not) want them too
  3. the editor is not in love with your book. This may be because the book isn't good enough (in which case it's your problem) but it may be simply personal taste. Don't underestimate the importance of that. Liking or admiring a book is not an exact science. Hell, it's not even a science at all. And the editor must love your book otherwise she/he won't fight for it.
2. BOOK / AUTHOR-RELATED
  1. The writing is not good enough - punctuation, grammar and basic techniques mark you as someone in control of words or not; you cannot expect the editor to overlook these; voice, pace and structure are essential to powerful story-telling and readable non-fiction; are you thinking of your reader at all times and have you avoided over-writing? (Those are the commonest faults which will make the publisher / agent say no)
  2. Book is not marketable, even though the writing may be good enough - publishers have to make money (they may make mistakes but they are doing it with their money); you need a HOOK - the hook needs to grab the Sales and Marketing team at the AM; you must understand the current market - read current successes in your genre and read them analytically. This does not mean selling out; it does not mean putting commericality before art: it means thinking of your readers
  3. Your submission is faulty - (there are loads of posts on this blog about submissions, so I won't go on about it here too much but here are the absolute bare bones and most common errors:
  • obey guidelines for each individual agent / publisher
  • write the perfect covering letter (a new post is coming up on 22nd August, during my workshop on The Perfect Approach) - you have 15 seconds to sell yourself
  • don't do anything wacky or cool
  • don't boast; don't say your kids / friends love it
  • show knowledge of the market and willingness to work hard for long term career
TOP TIPS
  1. every sentence counts and every word within that sentence must earn its place
  2. think of your reader
  3. read within your genre - but read like a writer
  4. miss no opportunity to improve your knowledge of the industry
  5. be very careful whose feedback you believe and whose you ignore. Believe experts before friends and writing group members
MOST TOP OF TOP TIPS
Instead of believing that you are hard-done-by and wrongly ignored or that publishers are stupid, accept that the likely reason is that you haven't yet written the right book well enough. Yet ...

FINALLY - regard the rejection of your book as the rejection of your book. Not the rejection of you. Write another one. Because if you can't write another one, you can't be a writer anyway.

(And then, after illuminating questions from the audience, the event chairperson thanks me for being so interesting and everyone flocks to the signing tent where they buy copious quantities of my book and we staying signing and chatting and generally bonding for about half an hour. Then, the chairperson escorts me across the summer evening grass towards the calming cavern of the Yurt, where I strengthen myself with a glass of wine and some dinky sandwiches and pastries. I then go out to dinner with my husband, older daughter and her French boyfriend and younger daughter who is working in the bookshop [putting my books face-out] and I tell them how a very kind blog-reader brought me chocolate and that three people commented on my shoes.)

I'll tell you if it happens like that.

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

POINTY THOUGHT FOR THE DAY: 4

Today I'm mostly going to be stressed. In a good way. I'm writing a week in advance of posting it but when you read this it will be the day of my very last AGM of the Soc of Authors in Scotland, and also our party for 200 which I've been organising with military precision. (Last email document to the committee was headed "The Micro-Manager Strikes Again"). The sun will be shining and I will be welcoming well-known faces to the glorious tent that is the Party Pavilion. I'll post you some pics if I remember to get my camera out of my bag.

Anyway, that is so irrelevant to this post. On the other hand, bearing in mind that this post is about being irrelevant, that is perhaps relevant in itself.

Pointy Thought 4 is: Do not tell your potential agent/editor how much you love writing. It is so not relevant to her / him, though it is to you.

Fabulous blogger Rachelle Gardner prompted this thought. See her post from last week here. It's also very relevant to the conversations (here and here)I've been having with you on covering letters and will be mentioned in my post on Aug 22nd when you get the results of that exercise while I am doing the accompanying workshop in the book festival.

She's absolutely right. The fact that you just love writing and have been indulging your passion since you were two is the sort of detail you can keep for your memoirs or for a talk you do to the Women's Guild. In other words, AFTER you've been successfully published.

When, as an unpublished writer, you tell a writing professional that you've always loved writing, you are prompting all sorts of reactions in the professional's mind:
  • loser alert
  • where's the emergency exit?
  • tell me your name so that I can remember not to read anything you ever send me
  • another one for the wood-burning-stove
Well-known fact: all agents and editors have wood-burning stoves for exactly this purpose.

Monday, 17 August 2009

POINTY THOUGHT FOR THE DAY: 3 - SANITY (and book fest pics)

Continuing in my series of Pointy Thoughts, I bring you a thought of extreme importance. This has been engendered by correspondence from an agent friend of mine.

It is simple: do not submit any work to an agent or publisher when you are high on hallucinatory drugs. Ever.

That is the only explanation for the extraordinary example of mania that an agent has shown me.

No, let me be fair. I am going to think about this more carefully. There are some other feasible explanations, and I offer them all to you here:
  • the writer was in the grips of a quasi-religious seizure - this could be the right explanation, as it did contain references to the notion that God had called him to a writing career. Well, I think it did, but it was a bit hard to make sense of. God did come into it anyway. (And please don't tell me God comes into everything and that God is everywhere. God was definitely not with this guy when he wrote the letter, unless He wished to knacker the guy's career before it started. Which is actually not a bad idea. So, maybe it was a religious seizure...)
  • the writer was at a particularly difficult and intransigent stage of severe mental illness. Now, this I am very sympathetic to (not through personal experience, but through general human sympathy) and such situations are very tragic. However, this is really not the time to submit work to an agent. Or anyone at all.
  • a mad axe-man had burst into the writer's garret and was threatening to cut his head off unless the writer submitted the work right NOW and under conditions of extreme stress.
There are no other explanations.

People, submit your work when sober, clean and stable. Do it only of your own volition, not because forced to by either God or an axe-man.

And now, unconnectedly, I bring you some photos of the first couple of days of the Edinburgh Book Fest, including, by popular demand, some never-yet-seen photos of The Yurt.

Day One and Two of the festival, and the sun shines. See!

Now (below) we approach that glory of glories, the Yurt. First, the peaceful bit outside, with authors relaxing in the sun:



And here the entrance, which is deceptive, revealing none of its hidden mysteries.

In the background is the Press Pod.

Below is the entrance again, at a busy time, with Roland, the programme manager, looking important. Which he is. He looks as though he's smoking a pipe, but of course he's not: he's saying "over and out", or something equally technical, into his radio thing.


Here is the hospitality table, with, remarkably, no one there.

The roof of the Yurt, which never leaks.


And the carpet of the Yurt, with some rather fetching shoes.

The children's book tent

A shelf of my books, the non-fiction ones. Sadly, I could not photograph my daughter's handiwork in giving me prominence in the fiction section, because there were too many people in the way. What nuisances readers are.



And the tail end of some party or other - can't remember which. They blur ...


And just to show you that the sun always shines on my blog: Not a drop of rain or gust of wind have we had. Trust me, I'm a novelist.

Saturday, 15 August 2009

CRAPPY AUTHOR BEHAVIOUR: THE LAUNCH

It's a while since you've had a full-scale rant from me and I feel it's been too long. How you have managed, I have no idea. Wait no more: I feel the need to share a little thing that has been bugging me since a book launch I went to a while ago. Let's not be precise about the exact date and let's not go anywhere with the name or genre, because I do not wish publicly to embarrass the author, who should be embarrased enough all by herself. I'll just say that once I was in London and found myself persuaded.

Tomorrow evening, I am going to a launch which will not be crappy. Lin Anderson, gruesome crime-writer par excellence (gruesome crime, not gruesome writer) is launching her new book in the Edinburgh Book Festival and I am going. Partly to cast my eagle eye over the tent because that's where the Soc of Authors party is being held and I need to forestall any glitches which would otherwise come back to haunt me. Partly because I've been asked to another party immediately after it (God, my life is dull) in the same venue so I won't even have to damage my pink suede shoes by walking anywhere. But mainly because it will be a good do and Lin is the consummate professional.

Unlike the author whose launch I took time out of my day to support. Little did she care. I tried to talk to her and say well done but I just got a slit-eyed glare and a miraculous disappearing act. Had my reputation preceded me? Did I kick her with my pointy shoes? No, I missed that chance. Next time, next time ...

Now, when it's your first book, there are lots of things that you can do wrong at your launch and get away with, like being nervous and shy. Nervous and shy can be very endearing. I remember a debut author's launch when there was barely a dry eye in the house, so endearingly nervous and shy was she. You could tell that she had really taken trouble - she'd spent time working out something nice to say and how to thank the various people "without whose help and support" etc etc. Yes, she was shaking with nerves, but she looked at us. Yep and yay, she looked at us. And smiled. Even one of those two would have been enough.

But rude author did neither of those things.

See, there are crappy things that no one should ever do at one's own launch (or in fact anyone's). A sensible publisher should never let a new author loose on a book launch without some timely advice.

Now rather than personalise this, because I really don't want to, let me stop talking about that launch and just talk about launchy mistakes in general, mistakes that can be made and indeed have been made at book launches. In the spirit of helping you achieve a happy launch when your time comes, I give you my simple guide to:

"How to make a good impression at your first book launch."
  • of course you will invite lots of your own friends: lovely! But please ask them not to be rude to the staff or to the established authors there, who have come to support you, and who may well have better things to do. Those authors wish you well - usually - but you won't get many chances. Earn your place; earn your friendships. Or live to rue the day you were so frigging rude.
  • prepare something to say - you don't have to be a stand-up comic: just say a few words about how happy and how grateful you are. Because you should be.
  • prepare a little bit to read; and damned well practise it, often, until you can actually read it in a way that people will listen to while they're standing up with warm wine in their hands (it's always warm, even when it starts cold - it's not the host's fault ...). And, while, you are reading, look up.
  • smile modestly, occasionally. Or even often.
  • don't drink too much wine before you speak
  • if anyone from your publishing company comes, show gratitude. If two people come, be seriously flattered.
  • when your editor says fabulous things and compares you to JK Rowling, realise that this is what editors do. It means sod all**. It does not mean you're going to be really really successful, or even a bit. It means they're living on dreams and couldn't think of anything else to say. And it also means that everyone in the room who actually knows about publishing is trying not to laugh. (**For Lynn's sake, I should stress that it's only the JKR bit that means sod all - all the other lovely things your editor says are most likely true. Even when they are being paid to say it.)
  • if anyone buys your books, be grateful; spare them some time to chat and SMILE; thank them for coming
  • and never, ever, ever play the prima donna. You've got to be stupendously good to get away with it. Actually, to be honest, you'll never get away with it. No one ever does. You may sell books but people will say crappy things behind your back and then blog about you.
The people you meet at your launch are people who gave up some time to support you. They did not come for the free drink and pretzels.

Thing is - back to that launch ... - I had a look at the book, read a few sentences. But all I heard when I tried to read a few words was the author's voice.

And I didn't buy it. Frankly, I wouldn't read it if you gave it to me.