Too much information

If you have ambitions to be a novelist, you need every shred of advice and information you can possibly lay your sticky mitts on, don’t you?

book-2869_1280When you’re trying to figure out about structure and plotting, or how to write a killer opening paragraph or a compelling protagonist, there are myriad sources to go to for help – on the internet, in paperbacks, pdf’s and e-books and of course, all those training courses and seminars I wrote about here.

Ready to launch your manuscript on an unsuspecting literary world, you might want to know how to hook an agent. If you’re a detail person, like me, you’ll want to know what font-size and margins you should choose for your sample, exactly how many paragraphs your query letter should have, what pushes agents’ buttons and what pips them off. There are seminars, dozens of websites and a gazillion blog posts from writers who have hooked their agent and writers who haven’t, and jaded agents who have tired of their expectations not being met. You’ll need to know how to pen the perfect synopsis too; precisely how many words should it have, what you should leave in and what you must take out – and here again there are courses and seminars and a whole slew of paper and web-based pointers to plough through.

Then, when like me, you finally acknowledge that ‘it could be you’ is a lottery slogan, not a promise of literary recognition and riches, you’ll be ready to learn about self-publishing. And here, the volume of advice and information surges skyward like the Himalayas.

It’s fantastic to have so much help and information to draw from, isn’t it? It’s brilliant!

But then again…

Last weekend, embarking on the latest leg of my writer’s journey, I read no less than three e-books on self-publishing, multiple pages on Amazon’s website and in their downloads about e-publishing on Kindle, and an e-book on turning your writing into a business (I have mixed feelings about this incidentally – for another time).

At the end of my marathon, my bum had created a sink-hole in the sofa and my brain was… fried. I had to go and lie down in a dark room with some wind chimes. And a brandy.

I read once that a person alive in the Middle Ages would, in their entire lifetime, need to process about as much information as is found today in an average daily newspaper. I processed twenty times that amount in one weekend. And I’m dazed and confused.

I went into this writing lark because… I wanted to write. I’ve learned some important skills over recent years and now I want to use what I’ve learned to write some more. But in the meantime, unless I simply want to fill my bottom-drawer with unseen manuscripts, I know I need to get a handle on the business of writing.

Over coming weeks, I’ll go back through what I read with a notepad at my side. I’ll filter what I need, and extract useful take-aways from the glut of information and advice.

I don’t want to be negative, because it’s great that we can so readily access so many remarkable sources of help, enabling us to expand our skillset, get a head-start or avoid pitfalls. The writing community is a particularly encouraging and supportive one and that’s part of the joy of writing. And great deal of advice and learning is coherent, wise and worthwhile. And I want to take it, make use of it and be a better and more successful writer as a result. But sometimes it all just feels like…. too much brain-fodder.

I wonder, does the glut of helpful advice and information make you feel like a kid in a candy factory, or, like me, does it sometimes make you feel just a little bit overwhelmed?

When will it ever end

Last September, I dotted the last ‘i’ and crossed the last ‘t’ on my final final final draft of SINGLED OUT. Or so I thought.

murder your darlingsLast September, I believed I’d taken My First Novel as far as I could in drafting and editing terms. I wrote my synopsis (a traumatic experience) and carved off a chunk of text into a sample document. I took a set of fluorescent markers to my copy of ‘Writers’ & Artists’ Year Book 2014′ and lined up a shortlist of lucky, lucky agents who were to be the priority recipients of my masterpiece.

Then I sat back and waited for the offers to flood in. I waited, I blogged about the wait, and I waited some more. Instead of a flood, there was a trickle, and what trickled in was not overawed, enthusiastic ‘oh my word, this is magnificent, send us your full manuscript and come in and see us at once, and by the way don’t talk to any other agents until we’ve explained what we can do for you’ emails. What trickled in was – yes, right first time – a smattering of polite and kindly worded ‘sorry, not for us’ rejection emails.

I kept going, still fairly selectively. But those rejections kept on coming. The current tally is 17 agent submissions and 13 rejection emails. Of the remaining four, three date back to February/March and can thus be regarded as time-expired, rejections by omission. (Happily, the majority of agents have proved to be more courteous than this.) To date one agent, in theory, still has my novel in review, but as this agent accepted it as a courtesy following a seminar, I’m not holding my breath.

There was the odd flicker of interest. Two agents requested the full manuscript on the back of my submission, prompting palpitations and a wave of misplaced optimism in yours truly. Their rejections followed in due course.

But here’s the thing. Pithy though their feedback was, those two agents made broadly similar observations in their rejection emails. Not only that, but a very welcome latecomer to the beta reader party (you know who you are…) and a much loved and valued writing buddy both offered more detailed critique which, blow me down, highlighted the exact same issues.

I went away for a few days last week with these critiques much on my mind. The original plan had been to spend a few days rereading my manuscript and sharpening up a few lines here and there. But I’d begun to realise the ‘problem’ with my story was more fundamental than scrapping yet more surplus adverbs (though the volume of those infectious little critters you have to steel yourself to eliminate across layers of editing is a revelation in itself).

As I grappled with my folder of curiously comparable critique, I confess I grew frustrated. Having been so close to my novel for four years, I just didn’t get it. Intellectually, I could grasp what they were saying were the shortcomings. But when it came to addressing them, I couldn’t see how without throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. Worse still, I couldn’t see why my story seemed to need such fundamental changes. Cue a gnashing of teeth and much grizzling and pouting.

In the still of the night I lay awake, frustrated, fretful. True to form at around 4:00am, my brain at last began to shift into the right gear. I began to get my head around what they’d all been saying. I started to find my way from I can’t towards how can I?

In the morning I got to work, identifying sections which screamed out for more tension and scenes which demanded more mystery; I earmarked pages where the pace dipped, weighted by too much unnecessary detail; I hunted down paragraphs where the language had to be nipped-and-tucked to better fit the character.

I decided two of my main characters will undergo a name change; I’ve finally conceded they have too much of the stereotype about them, and it begins with their names. But that’s mind-bending for me, as I’ve lived with them for upwards of four years. Oh, and talking of characters, I’m introducing a new one.

If this all sounds like a major rewrite, I don’t want to mislead you. This is far more than the tweaking I’d originally planned, but it’s not a rewrite. The story is essentially all there and all the pieces matter. Everything fits together and the plot is – I still believe – strong. What I’m dealing with is tone and pace, adding suspense in places I hadn’t realised it was needed, keeping up the tension instead of allowing it to fade away, injecting moments of uncertainty, deleting yet more extraneous detail – that sort of thing. This means I’m back in murder your darlings territory – not just words and lines, but paragraphs, great chunking paragraphs, sometimes one after another – and it hurts. But I know what I’m doing and at last I can see why it’s needed.

So that’s my job for what remains of the summer – to carry on culling whilst I meld new and modified material seamlessly back into the story. Then the plan is to approach a few more agents in the autumn months. As to what happens after that… Well, without suggesting anything at all about my more grounded expectations for this part of the process, I’m booked into a ‘how to self-publish’ seminar towards the end of the year. So we’ll just have to see.

Mighty oaks from little acorns grow

acorns-57305_1280I thought this Twitter exchange from teatime yesterday might amuse. It just goes to show that (i) as a writer with unrealised ambitions, it’s all too easy to become twisted and cynical about agents and publishers and (ii) plot ideas can pop up anywhere.

(If you’re on a reader, click here to see the full post.)

By the way, if you’re new to my blog and you don’t know Dylan, check out his blog – and his compelling dystopian political thriller Second Chance here.

Twitter Conversation Dylan and Julie 3

Thanks, but no thanks

I received two more email rejections of my SINGLED OUT submission this week.

thumbs downAs always, both literary agencies let me down gently and politely – but both were clearly standard format replies this time. One gets to tell the difference between the standard thanks but no thanks emails and the ones where someone has taken the trouble to insert a personal line or two. You can’t expect it, but it’s nice – even in a rejection – when someone adds a personal touch.

One of my standard email rejections advised:

“We receive over 300 manuscripts a week and can only take on a handful of new writers every year. The result is that we have to be incredibly selective, so please do not be too disheartened. Another agent may well feel differently.”

Over 300 manuscripts a week!

I think SINGLED OUT is a solid piece of work – it’s an original setting with distinctive characters and, even if I say so myself, a pretty decent plot. It’s gripping and grizzly in parts and laid-back and sunny in other parts. Perhaps that’s a fault, but if it is, no one has yet homed in on it. It’s not perfect, but that’s because it’s my first attempt at a novel. It’s as good as my (lack of) experience can make it, and I imagine I’ll find I can do better with subsequent manuscripts, given how much I’ve learned through writing this one.

The question for me is, is it good enough to rise to the top of a pile of 300 manuscripts in one week, let alone an annual pile of over 15,000 manuscripts. Is SINGLED OUT good enough, original enough, compelling enough, well-written enough… to rise to the top 5 or 6 in a pile of, what… 15,000 on any literary agent’s desk? Even I have to admit, this seems slightly more unlikely than winning the lottery jackpot whilst being simultaneously struck by lightning – and a meteorite.

I’ve blogged before here about whether I should simply chalk it up to experience and bottom-drawer SINGLED OUT before moving on to the next. But with so many other options available to today’s authors, struggling for recognition through traditional publishing avenues, would it be a waste, simply to bury it?

In truth, I’m coming round to the idea of self-publishing…

How to Hook an Agent Part Two – My Speed-Date with Destiny

I posted yesterday on my Top Five Takeaways from Bloomsbury Publishing’s How to Hook an Agent seminar. Today, I’m sharing what I learned from my agent one-to-one:

How to Hook an AgentThe last part of the day was my speed-date with destiny – the rarest of opportunities to discuss the pitch for my novel with someone who could, potentially, be in a position to bring it to market. In a perfect world.

In those few minutes I learned one particularly critical thing. I’ve thought hard about the genre of my novel – you can see how I rationalised it into the psychological suspense space in my post titled What’s My Genre here. What I didn’t realise was that as soon as I mention psychological suspense in my submission, agents are wont to make a connection with a few very high-profile and successful contemporary psychological thrillers, such as Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn or Apple Tree Yard by Louise Doughty.

The feedback I received was that if I were pitching a book likely to be compared to these, then I could be on to a loser, as it would have to be truly, spectacularly excellent to attract attention alongside these brilliantly crafted stories. And the likelihood of a debut novel even getting close to Gone Girl or Apple Tree Yard was remote.

I get that. I understand.

But… but… but… I’d never envisaged Singled Out to be an also-ran to these stories, not for a minute, M’Lud!  Apart from anything else I began writing my story long before either of these books was published. With a full-time freelance career to maintain, it took over three years to squeeze Singled Out from my keyboard. It’s a different kind of story too. There is a build-up of suspense, but no ‘thriller’ component and essentially, no twist-in-the-tail either – it’s just not that kind of a tale.

Would readers of these stupendous stories (both of which I thoroughly enjoyed) be interested in Singled Out? Possibly they would – if they enjoy stories about twisted, damaged and dangerous characters. But if they were led to expect another Gone Girl I fear they might be disappointed.

I’ve listened to presentations on a few occasions where agents have stressed that there’s no point in trying to hop on to a bandwagon – for example, the oft cited vampire bandwagon or more recently the 50 shades bandwagon.  Because apart from being an also-ran, you’re already too late – the parade is over. I hadn’t realised I might be viewed as having done this.  But now I can see the quagmire I’ve inadvertently stumbled into. So I’m rethinking how I pitch my grizzly psychological story to avoid any sudden-death comparisons which might prematurely consign Singled Out to the reject pile.  It’s enough of a challenge being an everyday would-be debut novelist; I don’t need to be hobbling my own chances.

As for the agent who enlightened me, I’m properly grateful for the insight, and I don’t think I would ever have got it without that one-to-one moment. This particular agent requested and now has my submission, and along with it the benefit of knowing I’m not trying to be the next Gillian Flynn, or the next anyone else for that matter.  Whether this makes a difference to their perception of my story, I’ll find out soon enough.

Talking of suspense then, I’m holding my breath.

How to Hook an Agent: Part One – My Top Five Takeaways

What I learned at Bloomsbury Publishing’s invaluable seminar last Saturday.

How to Hook an AgentLast Saturday I went along to Bloomsbury Publishing’s offices in London for a seminar entitled How to Hook an Agent. Along with 27 other budding writers I listened attentively to presentations given by four agents, enjoyed a delicious lunch whilst precariously perched at a small circular table, and then had the privilege of a speed networking one-to-one session with one of the agents, to seek specific help with my pitch for Singled Out.

It was a well run event, the ambience both professional and pleasantly informal. Listening to Real Live Agents explain what they liked to read in a submission and what excited and engaged them (and what turned them off), was enlightening. Had I heard some of it before? Yes. If you read around the various agency websites and countless other sources of advice, you get the broad picture. But the opportunity to hear the individual perspectives of four quite different agents was well worth the investment of time and money.

Without giving away everyone’s presentations, I thought I’d share a few of the observations that were most pertinent to me. So here are my Top Five Takeaways:

  1. Get people who aren’t family or friends to read your manuscript. Whilst they might do wonders for our egos, family and friends do not make the best critics. I’ve been thinking hard about this one since Saturday. My mentor read and critiqued a substantial proportion of my manuscript whilst we were working together. But the whole thing, beginning-to-end, has been read only by a handful of friends. I have to admit, I’ve fought shy of sharing Singled Out with anyone beyond my close circle. Mea culpa.
  2. A synopsis should describe who, what, where and when, but not why. Synopsis writing, as anyone who reads this blog regularly will know, is my personal bête noir. It’s harder by a mile than writing the actual novel. Most agents want no more than 1.5 pages of spaced A4 – that’s less than 750 words. The more you can leave out, the better – not only the why, but adverbs, adjectives, sub-plots and back-story. Easy then.
  3. One good way to craft a synopsis is to write the numbers 1-10 down the side of the page, then fill in the ten most important events in your story in chronological order. That beats a lot of the more complex advice I’ve seen around. Having stepped away from my various synopses in recent weeks, I gave my shortest version another going over using this structure and I have to say, I felt happier with it afterwards.
  4. Should you compare yourself with well-known novelists in your query letter? Interesting, this one, and I’ve been in two minds. Clearly there’s a risk it sounds pretentious or arrogant. So how do you help the agent to understand where you see your novel without saying you’re the next JK Rowling or Stephen King? Rather than saying, ‘I write like JK Rowling/Stephen King’ and risk being swatted from your perch, try saying, ‘my novel will appeal to readers who enjoy…’ or ‘my novel is aimed at a similar readership to…’, or even, ‘my novel might sit on the same shelves in the bookshop as…’
  5. Your book in a Tweet – this is a superb and scary exercise at the extreme end of honing your pitch. Can you distil the essence of your book down to the length of a single Tweet – 140 characters? I failed miserably in the limited time allowed. Later that evening I got to: Singles on holiday; sun, sea and… secrets; hedonism, mind-games and a boat. The truth hurts when bad stuff happens in a beautiful place. That’s just 138 characters even with the grammatically precise (for a Tweet) final full stop. Whether it’s the essence of Singled Out or not, may you all be the judges one day.

Check in again tomorrow for Part Two – my speed-date with destiny.

Submissions Update – Scores on the Doors

I’ve been submitting Singled Out to literary agents for the last few weeks. I promised I would share my experience.

2014-04-24 16.32.37There are, as far as I can tell from the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook (UK), around 60-70 UK-based literary agencies where one or more agents handle books like mine – that is, quality general fiction/women’s fiction.   I’ve been taking things steadily on the basis that if I learn anything from any one submission or agent or from the various seminars I’m attending, which might help improve my chances, I don’t want to have burned all the bridges. Also, it seems unprofessional to me to fire off my work to dozens of random agents at once, so I restrict my open submissions to 4 or 5 at any one time.

I began with the agents my mentor recommended I contact. I had dared to hope for success with this short list of personal contacts, but it was not to be. I’ve since moved on to a few more agents where I can cite some kind of a relevant connection. I’m using the Yearbook directory and agency websites to learn more about individual agents, what they want to know and who they represent, so I can make my submissions as relevant as possible. Many agents specify what sort of stories they like to see, what characteristics a book might need to posses in order to catch their interest, and so on. Most list the authors they represent.

Each submission is slightly different; it’s a painstaking process, definitely not a factory assembly line thing. The query letter or email is personalised of course. I always say why I’ve picked the agent in question and mention if there’s a personal or professional connection. If they already look after any psychological suspense writers, I make reference. The jury’s out on whether one should compare ones work to that of established authors. All I can say is that sometimes I do, and sometimes I don’t. I say a little about Singled Out, point to one or two relevant career details, writing courses I’ve attended and so on. And, in a couple of lines, I highlight some reasons why this book at this time could be marketable.

I enclose sample chapters of course. Most request a sample of 10,000 words or 3 chapters or 50 pages and this generally equates to much the same thing. But some are more specific, insisting on a strict limit. I presume one does well to follow instructions, so I do, as far as possible.

Then there’s the synopsis, and I continue to find this aspect of submissions the most troublesome (as I’ve blogged about before here and again here). Even now, every time I read through my synopsis, I find things I want to change; things I’ve skimmed over or omitted which should be included; sentences which groan under the weight of spurious adverbs and adjectives. I now have a long version, a medium-sized version and a short version, and I tamper with them as little as possible because apart from anything else, it tends to turn me just a bit paranoid. After a while synopsis editing becomes a bit like Whack-A-Mole; you hit one problem on the head, but another one pops up elsewhere, and it never ends, never. So, as far as synopses are concerned at least, I’ve stepped away from the keyboard.

So, how’s it gone so far, Julie? Go on, tell us. Okay… here are the numbers: I’ve made just 12 submissions so far. This morning, I received my 7th rejection. That means there are 5 open submissions.

A couple of these have been open since January, but I have good reasons for not chasing either of them. They’re probably closed/rejected, but… but… As I said, I have reasons for keeping the flames alive. And then there are 3 more, submitted in the last 6 or 7 weeks.

All rejections so far have been courteous and not at all discouraging. I know it’s a numbers game. I understand the degree to which a debut novel must stand out, to make it into the literary universe. What surprises me is that I’ve had a few personal rather than standard format notes. Bizarrely, that’s been an encouraging thing and I’ve been touched that busy agents have taken the time to do more than press the ‘send reject email’ button.

When a rejection comes in, you have no idea what aspect of your submission has failed to connect – and of course, you can’t refer back, it’s simply not done. You won’t know if an agent (or an agent’s assistant) is getting bogged down in your synopsis, or bored by your first few pages, or worse still, has not managed to make it past your query letter.  Of course if you’ve written it in green ink on fluorescent paper you can stop wondering. But most of us – I presume – manage to keep the lid on that sort of self-expression.

This morning’s rejection was particularly interesting. The agent remarked that my writing has ‘a lot of energy and verve’ – I liked that. They then suggested the decision not to move forward with Singled Out had more to do with their lack of courage, or their faint-heartedness (the exact word was pusillanimity – I am embarrassed to admit I had to look it up), than the quality of the work itself. And it left me wondering, what is it about my book that requires courage to promote? I wondered if it was the subject matter, which is undeniably gritty. Or perhaps an agent requires a degree of courage to go forward with any debut novel. I will likely never know. But this is, to date, my most thought-provoking rejection email.

I’d like to think I won’t see too many more of these. But is that me being over-optimistic again? I do understand the numbers, I do. So I’m greeting those rejections with equanimity. I’m in this for the long-haul, if need be.