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.

The Pure Pleasure of Books

Writers must read, and read widely, we’re told. Why would anyone not want to read?

Waterstones PiccadillyI’ve always loved reading and was fortunate to be born into a home full of books. I can never understand when I go to somebody’s house and there are no books around. I wonder why? Why would you deprive yourself?

In my childhood and young adult years, I read widely around my O- and A-level set texts and ploughed through school recommended reading lists. I’m a completer, you see; I love nothing more than to see a line of ticks against every single book on a list.

I lost my way fictionally speaking for a few years. Busy with life, a career and weekends full of DIY, I confess (the shame… the shame…) that my reading narrowed to Cosmo and endless sort-your-life-out self-reflection and cod-psychology books. Venus and Mars, several dozen how to be a better woman and even more how to meet the man of your dreams texts all passed through my hands. They didn’t work.

In my late twenties I found my way back to fiction via the Sunday Times book reviews and best seller lists. I own up to occasional forays into chick lit (Bridget Jones had a lot to answer for) uber-commercial (John Grisham and Jeffrey Archer are sneered at by many, but rewarded me with hours of page-turnability) and even the odd few chapters of erotica (Black Lace, the forerunner brand to 50 Shades and all its imitators).  But my pleasure has enduringly come from what might be called mainstream quality fiction – the sort of books which these days get talked about in book clubs and find themselves adorned with Richard & Judy or Costa stickers, and are so often on those 3 for 2 promotional tables at Waterstones.

Today I love reading and listening to these types of books, and I’ll typically have 3 or 4 on the go at once; paperbacks, e-books and audio. I love stories which engage me with the quality of their writing and the depth of their characters, but deliver a great plot and a satisfying ending. And I particularly enjoy stories with a psychological edge.

But I was sorting out my bookshelves the other day and I realised that I’ve enjoyed many different types of books over the years. Just for fun, I thought I’d let you in on a few of my favourites. I’m not trying to be smart or clever – just me – so there are pot-boilers and airport books as well as contemporary literary, funnies and even the odd classic. Whilst I have few favourite authors, I’ve only included one book from any particular author. It’s not an exhaustive list, by any means – it’s really not – just a few notables.

Sizzling Psychological Suspense

  • Gone Girl – Gillian Flynn
  • Blue-Eyed-Boy – Joanne Harris
  • Before I Go to Sleep – S J Watson
  • Room – Emma Donoghue
  • Monster Love – Carol Topolski

Gripping Grizzlies

  • Acts of Violence – Ryan David Jahn
  • A Quiet Belief in Angels – R J Ellory
  • London Fields – Martin Amis

Favourite funnies

  • My Family and Other Animals – Gerald Durrell
  • Notes from a Small Island – Bill Bryson
  • E: A Novel – Matt Beaumont
  • The Hundred-Year-Old-Man Who Jumped out of a Window – Jonas Jonasson

Books I just loved from beginning to end, sometimes without even knowing why

  • A History of the World in 10½ Chapters – Julian Barnes
  • Far From the Madding Crowd – Thomas Hardy
  • Beach Music – Pat Conroy
  • Wild Swans – Jung Chang
  • Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil – John Berendt
  • Alone in Berlin – Hans Fallada
  • One Day – David Nicholls

Books that made me want to give somebody – anybody – a huge hug

  • The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society – Mary Ann Schaffer and Annie Barrows
  • The Time Traveller’s Wife – Audrey Niffenegger
  • The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry – Rachel Joyce
  • Five People You Meet in Heaven – Mitch Albom
  • The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time – Mark Haddon
  • The Shock of the Fall – Nathan Filer

Amazing audiobook narrations

  • The Casual Vacancy – J K Rowling (narrated by Tom Hollander)
  • Dominion – C J Sansom (narrated by Daniel Weyman)
  • The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – Stieg Larsson (narrated by Saul Reichlin)
  • The Help – Kathryn Stockett (narrated by Jenna Lamia, Bahni Turpin, Octavia Spencer, Cassandra Campbell)
  • A Kind of Intimacy – Jenn Ashworth (narrated by Jane Collingwood)

I’d love to know if you have a favourite read, and why. I’m always on the lookout for books that leave their mark on a reader and I’m sure I miss many, many great reads.  So, tell me… what would you recommend?

Light and shade and a Singing Ringing Tree

Once upon a time, in my compact and bijou suburban garden, I planted a tree.

Amelanchier 2014My amelanchier is beautiful, but shy. She blossoms in early April in an incredible gown of a million tiny, delicate white flowers. She parades her splendour for just 3 or 4 days before donning a summer cloak of bronze-green leaves – pretty enough, but no match for the pure abundance of the spring blossom. In the autumn she’ll come into her own again in a spray of blood-red berries, and leaves which turn shades of fiery red, orange and golden umber.

My shy amelanchier boasts a little non-natural adornment. A set of metal wind chimes tinkles almost imperceptibly amidst her leaves and three strands of tiny mirrors drip from her branches. In the evening as they twirl in the setting sun, they cast a shower of light, spinning circles around and around the garden like fireflies or fairies. Even after years, I’m still transfixed by what I have named my Singing Ringing Tree.

My Singing Ringing Tree bears little resemblance to its namesake. Those of you who grew up in the UK in the 1960’s may remember a gruesome Central European fairytale which appeared on our TV screens first in 1964, and popped up once or twice more over the years. ‘The Singing Ringing Tree’ (or ‘Das singende, klingende Bäumchen’) was a product of secret, scary East Germany; a story in three parts in the style of the Brothers Grimm. It was without a doubt, the grimmest, creepiest and above all most disturbing fairy story I’ve ever encountered. And judging by what other people have blogged about this nightmarish narrative, I wasn’t the only one to be utterly terrified at tea-time.

If you’re interested, Wikipedia provides a plot summary here. The story revolves around a cruel and haughty princess, a prince who turns into a bear, a giant fish and – most disturbing of all, an evil dwarf. Yes, the 60’s had little shame when it came to negative stereotyping.

Singing Ringing Tree DwarfCentral to the story is an enchanted tree guarded by the evil dwarf, which will only sing and ring once the princess falls in love with the prince. But all is not well in this dystopian fairytale land. The dwarf cruelly keeps the prince and princess apart with devilish spells and tricks; and the path of true love lies dark and cold until the princess learns to mend her selfish ways.

Old-style fairytales have dark hearts and evil characters. Children live in poverty and get lost in woods; they are lied to and deceived, routinely starved and poisoned – or fattened up to eat. Beautiful girls are abused, locked away in dungeons and towers and forced to sleep for hundreds of years. It is a world beset with nightmares, monsters, evil stepmothers, witches, trolls and goblins. And whilst there are life-lessons within their lines and they usually have a happily ever after ending, fairytales are awash with tragedy and drenched in evil. There is much to unsettle in fairytale land.

But children enjoy being unsettled by stories. In the comfort of their beds, before they’re safely tucked-in for the night, they’re gripped by tales which drip with malevolence – so long as they end with that happily ever after moment allowing a contented slumber and sweet dreams.

Fortunately, as adults we still enjoy being chilled and disturbed from within the pages of a good story. In books, we meet the sort of characters we might hope never to meet in real life. Our nerves are jangled and our emotions and loyalties toyed with. Sometimes we don’t know what’s going on; sometimes we think we do, but then realise we don’t. We are misdirected and misled. We follow trails of breadcrumbs scattered by the author, uncertain what lies at the end of the journey, but excited by a discomforting ride.

I love reading stories like this – and now, I love writing them too. Dark tales by the likes of Joanne Harris, Gillian Flynn, Erin Kelly, S J Watson and Carol Topolski inspire me. I try to imagine my way into sick and damaged psyches and I won’t be burdened to provide a neatly sewn-up resolution or a happily ever after ending.

This summer, I’ll sit under the shade of my beautiful Singing Ringing Tree, as it tinkles gently and showers its dancing light across my garden. But as I push on with Novel Number Two, my thoughts will lean to the mood of the original Singing Ringing Tree and all its perversity, darkness and dread.

What’s my genre?

Notebook 03

One of the things I struggled with when preparing the framework text for query letters/emails, was genre.  I’m a marketer in my current day job, so I understand perfectly well why it’s helpful for agents and publishers to be able to classify a book according to what category or categories it falls within.  Amongst other things, genre (and, by the way, sub-genre and sub-sub-genre) will point to a likely audience, set expectations as to the content and style, and drive decisions on cover design, marketing and promotion.

Knowing your genre means you can pinpoint authors whose books bear similarities to your own – although whether you indicate same to agents in your submission material is a matter of fierce debate here and there on the interweb.  Either (i) do it because it helps the agent figure out where you might sit in their talent stable or (ii) don’t do it because it makes you seem cocky and pretentious and you should let them be the judge. No help there then.

Inevitably for every mainstream genre, there are gazillions of sub-genres, and sub-sub genres, and it’s up to you how far you navigate the tributaries, to arrive at a label which adequately categorises the novel you’re writing.

What follows here is not some great rambling on the whys and wherefores of genre – if you’re looking for guidance in categorising your own writing, Google is your friend.  There is already more help out there than you can possibly need in an entire literary lifetime.  This is about me and my genre, and how I got there.

The first issue was the question of literary vs commercial.  Commercial books – apparently – sell in large volumes to an audience which may not be sufficiently discerning – apparently – to mind that books in this category may – apparently – not be all that well written.  In commercial fiction – apparently – the plot is the only thing that matters. Everything else (characterisation, setting, sensory detail, realistic dialogue, linguistic style, grammar…) is inconsequential relative to the plot.  It may therefore have been thrown together and served up as a literary and linguistic dog’s dinner – and – apparently – nobody minds.

Literary fiction, on the other hand, is all about the quality of the writing, and how poetic, evocative or mesmerising it is.  And the plot?  Who needs plotting when the writing, line by line, word by beautiful, witty, well-chosen word, is such a sublime joy to read.  Apparently.

For those of us who fall somewhere between the sublime and the ridiculous (no, I’m not getting drawn on which is which, thank you very much) there is a wealth of options for that first level categorisation, amongst which Quality Commercial, Mainstream Literary, Literary-Commercial Crossover, Book Club, or even more specifically, ‘Richard & Judy’, and my personal bête noir, LitLite.

I vacillate between Quality Commercial and Book Club for Singled Out.  Books which end up on book club reading lists tend to offer plenty of scope for discussion around moral dilemmas, character qualities or shortcomings and so on – and I like that.  And Quality Commercial?  I don’t see what’s wrong with cherishing the vision that I’ve written something which might be simultaneously popular/saleable and well-written.  An agent or publisher will probably put me straight one of these days.

Next, there’s the subject and content of the story.  At the high level, is it a romance or a thriller?  Is it science fiction or magic realism, chic-lit or crime?  Is it humorous or historical, fantasy or satire, politics or parody? Is it erotic, domestic or dynastic?  And… breathe.  Yes, if you’ve looked into this, you’ll realise as I did, there are myriad ways to slice-and-dice for genre.  There’s a crime in my story, but it’s not, technically speaking, a crime novel – there’s no mystery (well, not much mystery) and no police (ah, almost no police).  There is a little romance and an erotic moment or two (no sniggering at the back please), but not enough to make it a romance and certainly not enough to position it on the same shelf as Fifty Shades of Naughty.

Having read several (too many?) blog posts and articles, I think I’ve got there.  The genre I’ve concluded best fits Singled Out is Psychological Suspense. Theoretically this is a crime fiction sub-genre – but that’s as close as it’s going to get to crime.

The elements which characterise psychological suspense include the following:

  • Psychological suspense may use crime as a pretext for investigating psyche and personality, but the story is about the context of the crime, rather than the crime itself.
  • There’s often no mystery as to who committed the crime – what psychological suspense is interested in is not whodunnit, but whydunnit.
  • Psychological suspense is about the mind of a criminal – and the other people involved.  There will be insights, observations and reflection, from all sides of the house.
  • Psychological suspense stories are often told from multiple points of view – from inside the minds of protagonist and antagonist alike.
  • The overarching mood is one of dread or malignity – a sustained suspense embedded with moments of heightened tension, rather than a build-up to one massive peak.
  • Psychological suspense stories often feature psychologically damaged central characters such as sociopaths, or people with weaknesses, phobias, a tragic past, the weight of guilt or shame bearing down.
  • The reader can see what’s happening before it happens – they watch, seemingly helpless.  I liken it to the reader banging soundlessly on a window, trying to attract the attention of a character, who walks innocently towards some terrible scenario or event, content in the company of the person the reader knows to be dangerous.
  • Interestingly, psychological suspense is often ambivalent when it comes to ethics and justice.  There are moral ambiguities, few happy endings or easy solutions; and the baddies don’t always get what they deserve.

I’m fascinated by stories like this – they’re the ones I go to when I’m looking for a good read, and so it felt good to be writing one, even though it’s not what I set out to write.  I started out to pen a wry dissection of the comings and goings on a singles holiday. But when I realised this amounted to not very much and would bore a readership to tears, the landscape shifted.  And that’s when I begun to learn how much I loved writing about bad stuff happening and dark, damaged psyches.

Hey ho, happy days.