Spend, Spend, Spend

As you immerse yourself in the world of writing and writerly matters, you realise how many things there are on which to spend your hard-earned cash. I’m not talking notepads and pencils, or even laptops and software. I’m talking learning, skills and knowledge.

pound-414418_1280You have to navigate a landscape of courses lasting from a few hours to several days and even several months, and tutors with varying degrees of experience and personal success. Do you feel you need to gain an MA in Creative Writing? Will your budget permit you to go away for a few days to learn from tutors or authors you respect? Will you sign up for an on-line programme? Do you want a group or a solo learning experience?

There are hundreds of seminars and workshops, forums and discussion sessions too. There are mentoring services, coaching and writer support services offering teaching, guidance and advice. There’s a multitude of editorial services available. You can buy feedback on every aspect of your work – structuring it, drafting it, editing it, proofreading it – then on how to write synopses and query letters to agents. You can even meet real agents and real publishers.

If you’re considering self-publishing there are yet more courses and seminars instructing on design and layout, print versus e-book, marketing and promotion. And don’t forget the literary activities that must complement every writer’s ‘journey’ – retreats in hideaway places and those literary festivals which seem to be springing up in theatres and marquees in every county town across the land. Oh, and the books, the books about everything! From technique to technology, from genre to grammar, from marketing to making your millions.

Some of these things will help you become a better writer. Some will help you develop your creative process, your imagination, your appreciation of character, ear for dialogue, structure or plot. Some could give you a leg-up or a head start in the agenting and publishing stakes (but don’t bank on it). Some will give you vital insight into the business of books and publishing. Some will gain you exposure to successful people within the literary sphere – authors, agents and publishers. Some will simply give you the chance to shake the hand or collect the signature of an author you admire.

I believe this is not in general a cynical industry; but it is one which naturally seeks to capitalise on the novice writer’s desire to become part of it. That’s not surprising, given that the community of would-be authors grows daily and returns from the traditional sources of profit continue to diminish.

Most of the products, activities and services you can purchase will have a value – whether that equates with their cost to you, only you can say. I believe most of the investments I’ve made in developing myself as a writer have been worthwhile, insofar as they’ve helped me learn the skills I needed to write the fiction I’ve always wanted to write. They’ve also, almost universally, been enjoyable experiences – and that’s a not insignificant consideration.

But what of the ultimate commercial payoff? Will these investments have helped me become a successful published author?

I’ll have to get back to you on that.

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.

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.

Where the wind blows…

I feel a little unwell; light-headed and a bit giddy. Random stars and spots drift across my field of vision and I’m in danger of hyperventilating. As the wind whips into a pre-storm outside my door, I’ve had my finger poised over the Big Red Button on my PC so long that it went numb. Eventually I did it. I pressed ‘send’ – twice – and dispatched SINGLED OUT to two agents.

Only two, you say? Yes that’s right, only two; two important agents who’ve been recommended to me, either of whom I would be thrilled to be represented by. This is where it starts. I plan to take things slowly, in case it transpires (imagine!) that I receive any feedback. I might have missed something, or have something to learn, an error to correct, or things to polish, to improve my approach and raise my chances of success in the future. I don’t want to burn all my bridges at once.

It’s also inevitable that, despite having poured over my manuscript sample, synopsis and query emails for the last several days, tweaking this word and that, I will reread these documents in the morning and cringe – or cry. Most likely, I will reread the Nth redraft of my synopsis and want not so much to burn the bridges, but throw myself off one of them.

I’m the first to admit, I made heavy weather of the synopsis thing and I still wasn’t happy with the end result. Happier than I was, but I got nowhere near the smug glow of satisfaction I was hoping for, when I first imagined that if I reworked it diligently enough, I would eventually produce the perfect synopsis. Okay, you can laugh. But that’s the problem when you’re a bit of a perfectionist and your only deadline is self-imposed. Perfection feels tantalisingly within your grasp, so you keep reaching for it. Guess what, it isn’t.

But I admit it, there’s a nano-hope glinting in the corner of my mind and you must allow me to tease myself with it, at least for now. My nano-hope is that one of these two formidable agents finding my query email in their in-trays tomorrow morning will get a shiver of excitement when they skim through the contents, and I in turn, will get a request to submit my full manuscript. One step, one step at a time. I dare to dream. How about that?

But for now, it’s Sunday evening and there’s some kind of a weather event set to blast across the South East tonight, which will be my excuse if I can’t sleep. Right now, I think brandy is in order. Then at least I’ll be able to breathe again.

Confession (aka Synopsis Crisis 2)

Synopsis crisis 1Forgive me, readers, for I have sinned.  It’s been… aah… sorry about this… 14 days since my last confession blog post.

I hope you don’t mind, but I’ve been committing myself to the task of getting my synopsis written, crafting a persuasive query letter and tweaking my first 10,000 words; all in a dramatic prelude (drum roll please…..) to submitting SINGLED OUT to an initial short list of literary agents.

It’s not quite ready yet, not through want of effort, I assure you. But in my less creatively energetic moments, I’ve also drafted an impressive spreadsheet listing all the agents I plan to contact, with their submission instructions and a few other essential details, all gleaned from agency websites.  Some might accuse me of optimism (oh, go on…), but there are just four agents on the list at this stage, all recommended to me by my mentor, which is a gift for which I’m absurdly grateful. This is where it all begins.

But first, I need the perfect synopsis.  And I’ve discovered that writing the perfect synopsis is a bit like looking for the perfect man. Yes, girls, you get it, don’t you?

So my synopsis is presentable in parts and pretty hopeless in other parts.  I’m trying to change him it but it’s proving a tough job.  There is a wealth of advice on writing synopses in the ranks of ‘how to’ books on my bookshelf and on the internet – and plenty of it is sound, sensible advice too.  I’m trying to follow it – but I think I’m trying too hard.  In all honesty, I’m making a bit of a job of it.

In the process, I’ve drunk my way through two jars of instant and 16 capsules of Tassimo Carte Noire Latte Macciato (yum) and even – the day my stomach became inexplicably crampy, probably due to stress m’lud (or maybe too much caffeine) – three peppermint teabags.  Yes, I know, I told you I hate tea – and I do.  But peppermint tea is more like drinking a Polo Mint and it was good for my withered digestive system, so I suffered it.

But I digress.

Each agent very helpfully puts submission instructions on their websites.  They want a query letter or email – that’s fine.  Actually that wasn’t too hard to write given my [mumble number of] years in sales and marketing work.  It has to be modified for each agent, but it’s as complete as it needs to be for now. They want the first 10,000 words, three chapters or 50 pages – that’s fine too.  It’s all much the same thing and once you’re happy with the content, you just need to cut-and-paste into a document topped with your contact details. But then there’s the synopsis… 300 words… 1,000-1,500 words… one or two pages… ‘brief’…  So, more than one version then.

Taking some good advice and paying a deal of attention to an interesting online workshop in free pdf format from Mslexia here, (for which many thanks sandradan1), I started with a 25-word elevator pitch.  Okay, so it was a scratch over 40 words.  But it fits the bill, and it helped me focus.  I graduated from there to the 300 word version which, with more help than I would have liked to have needed, is now complete.  Next… The Big One – character detail, motivations, inciting incidents, tipping points, trials and tribulations, tension and triumph – phew!  My first draft was a car crash and my second wandered into a maze of detail and never came out.  But, armed with a short version I’m now happy with, I have more confidence in draft number three.  There’s a faint hope that the process will be less like being hung upside down by my fingernails over a pit of vipers, and output more… forthcoming.

If somebody had said that writing a 1,000 word (or thereabouts) synopsis of your work will be harder than writing the 97,000 words itself, I’d probably have laughed confidently in their faces.  I’m a writer after all, aren’t I?  I’ve written dozens of business proposals, white papers and case studies, summarised entanglements of technical hogwash, edited endless articles and cut swathes from wordy websites.  A synopsis is just another job, isn’t it?

Not so, when you want nothing more in your whole life, than to be taken on by an agent, find a publisher for your first novel, and enjoy the privilege of spending the third phase of your working life immersed in fiction.  Not so at all.