Back in 1990, I wanted to write the type of book I wanted to read but couldn’t seem to find in the shops and – though I started my second novel (Chloe) once I’d finished my first (Sally), and though I didn’t have an agent, let alone a deal – publication was of course my ultimate goal. I made a lot of careless mistakes when I first started submitting my manuscript; here’s my advice to help you bypass them!
You don’t need to have written the entire book when you tout it around - but you must feel confident that there is a whole book in you, not just a killer opening chapter!
Don’t approach a publisher directly. Yes, it worked for Roddy Doyle - but he was lucky. If you send your work direct to a publisher, it’ll be plonked on the slush pile. If a publisher is sent your work with an agent’s seal of approval, they sit up and take notice.
Do seek out a copy of The Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook as this lists all literary agents. Choose an agency who represents authors you like. Find out which agents there represent which authors and then approach them with your synopsis and three chapters.
When you submit material, either enclose a stamped address envelope, or make it known you don’t need your submission returned.
Keep your synopsis to one side of A4.
Send in your three best chapters (they needn’t necessarily be chapters1 to 3). The idea is to have the agent gagging for more...
SPELL CHECK SPELL CHECK SPELL CHECK
Use line spacing of 1.5.
It took 4 long hard years before I had a contract, hideous waiting time only for rejection to follow rejection, and I had to confront much negativity and really tactless comments from people who did not enjoy my work. Just keep thinking horses for courses. Make it your mantra when you receive yet another ‘thanks but no thanks’.
I hated the current hot literary books at the time – Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow and I couldn’t even make it through the first third of Captain Correlli and I gave up half way through Love in the Time of Cholera. That might make me sound like a completely uneducated lazy lump – but I’m not. Often, it’s simply down to taste. What you like to write might not be what someone else wants to read. But I promise you, for every one who says “don’t like it”, there’s another who’ll say “bloody love it”. One publisher who rejected my first novel, Sally, actually wrote to me saying “You can’t start a book like that…” And yet another publisher obviously thought, oh yes she can! – because Sally was published to great acclaim!
It’s very important not to become demoralized or complacent – but that’s easier said than done. Just try not to let it affect your writing. Keep writing. Just keep writing.
I have found that it is a good idea not to become too bogged down with structure and plot – it is far more important to have colourful, 3D characters. Not a lot need happen in a book if the characters leap of the page - on the other hand, who gives a toss about the most intricate plot if the characters don’t breathe? When you know your characters, the plot seems to follow - then there’s ample opportunity to shape it when you have momentum. A regular paperback book is anywhere between 100/120 thousand words. I tend to write about 40 chapters of around 3,000 words. But different writers go for different chapter lengths. Again, no rules on that. However, one rule that cannot be bent let alone broken is that which our English teachers used to hammer home – all good stories MUST have a Beginning (introduction), Middle (plot thickens), and End (issues resolved).
Early in my career, I met an author who told me he’d been “working on dialogue” that day. I was beside myself with insecurity – and panicked that I should make Mondays my dialogue day, have Tuesdays for landscape and backdrop, Wednesdays for character description….until I thought hey! I LIKE the way I write, because it WORKS FOR ME.
Perhaps the greatest encouragement I can give you is that there really is NO RIGHT OR WRONG WAY TO WRITE! And that’s a fact. Most authors would agree. Check out my writer-chum Mike Gayle’s website - he has loads to say too! Initially, I assumed I was doing it all wrong... because I was quite happy to work a 9-5 day on my book, I was never awoken by the fabled muse at some ungodly hour and I didn’t require copious amounts of gin, fags and a drafty garret to write.
I don’t write to a plan – but I know authors who plan their books methodically. I start with Chapter One and I just beaver away until I hit The End - but I also know of authors who don’t write sequentially.
I don’t edit – I prefer to let the story tumble out and I then shape it and tweak it once it’s written, but I know writers who will edit and rewrite each chapter before they are happy to start the next one.
I take 18 months to write a novel – 2 months or so for research, a year or so for the book itself, a couple more months to smarten it into the draft I then submit to my publisher. I know an author who is given the same amount of time…but crams the entire writing of the book into the 3 months before the delivery date, working day and night!
You WILL find the way that works for you. Immerse yourself in that sacred ‘zone’ - your characters are depending on you to tell their tales for them because no one else can!
People often ask about Writer’s Block. I’m sure it does exist, but (contentious this) I feel it’s a little like claiming to have double pneumonia when actually you have a head-cold.
Writing is a job, not an indulgence.
Of course there are days - weeks even, when you’re not in the mood. However, you have to perform. There are times when it’s very easy to veer away from actually WRITING THE DAMNED THING to ruminate instead on “where the plot’s going” or to re-read ad nauseum what you’ve already written and fiddle constantly with adjectives and semi-colons. Or to tell yourself you can’t possibly write because ‘the muse has not alighted’. The muse? What - some little good fairy who floats down and sits on top of your screen sprinkling magic glitter at you? Sometimes, I sit at my laptop, staring vacantly, wishing I had a ‘normal’ job which entailed filing, or phonecalls or general fannying about… Sometimes I feel so TIRED, tired enough to put my head down on the library table even if the people around me think I’m a loon. Sometimes, I desperately want to write - I know it’s all stored up somewhere in my head - but I can’t access it. At such times, I ignore the little voice that says bugger it! shut down for the day! go to Brent Cross shopping centre! go to the cafe! you know you want to! Instead, I simply place my fingers on the home-keys and I type a single letter. Then another. Then another. Then I’ll look at the screen and perhaps I’ve written ‘the’ or ‘and’ or ‘she’. And then I’ll start another word. I’ll squeeze them out of me. Soon enough there’s a sentence. Then a paragraph. Half a chapter. A little more. Against the odds - a good day’s work.
Don’t despair - and don’t provide yourself with excuses.