Is it possible for an unknown author to grab a six-figure publishing deal and a top agent in the middle of a recession? Those in the book trade say no way! Even the top authors are facing cut-backs. With no novel outline, no plot, no title, no genre, no word count and no contacts in the business, Anu Novelist sets out to achieve the seemingly impossible. Credit crunch . . . what credit crunch?

Friday, May 15, 2009

Planning our assault on the literary marketplace . . .

The prolific military thriller writer James Barrington has been in touch with some top tips for Yours Truly (and any of you considering following in my footsteps, you mad things you). James tells me that as well as his latest action-packed tome (my words), he has two more novels to pen this year and another three planned for next year. Phew! any chance of borrowing a plot or two, mate?

James has kindly agreed to share his formula for publishing success with us. This is the advice he would give to any aspiring author and I quote:

· Write the novel to completion.
· Stick it away in a drawer somewhere and come back to it after a couple of weeks.
· Read it as critically as you can, just as if it was a book you’d bought in a shop.
· Re-write those bits you didn’t like.
· Read it again.
· Get somebody else who likes that kind of book – not a friend or family member, because they’ll invariably be either kind or spiteful – to read it and comment on it.
· Even if you don’t like what’s been said about it, very strongly consider incorporating those changes.
· Go over the entire work to eliminate every single typo, spelling or grammatical error – the tool of your trade is the English language. If you don’t know how to use it properly, no agent or publisher will take you seriously.
· Study the first line of the first page. Does it set a hook – does it ask a question or make a statement or do anything else that will make the reader want to look at the next sentence? If it doesn’t, rewrite it until it does.
· Do the same with the rest of the first page, and the first chapter. Your first reader is going to be a literary agent – if he or she isn’t interested enough to read more, nobody else will be either.
· Prepare a package to send out. This should contain a covering letter, the synopsis and the first three chapters of the novel.
· Address the letter personally to the agent and explain why you believe his or her agency is the right one to handle your work. Explain why you think your novel has commercial appeal, and where it will fit into the present market. Which books will be next to it on the shelves in Smiths? Explain what there is in your background or experience which means you’re the ideal person to write the book. But, above all in this letter, emphasise your likeability factor. The agent really has to put down the letter and believe that you’d be an interesting and pleasant person to have lunch with. That may sound shallow, but it’s a perfectly viable and accurate piece of advice. Never, ever, be arrogant or appear to be intractable. One of my publishers is not renewing the contract of a very successful author simply because he’s a nightmare to work with. You have to be amenable to editorial changes. You have to be polite and considerate in all your dealings with the agency and publishing house. And you have to stick to deadlines – no exceptions, ever.
· Use the trade guides and submit the package to several agents at the same time – if you don’t, you’ll die of old age long before the last one’s replied. I’m still waiting to hear back from two about Overkill, and the book was published in 2004!
· You’ll get numerous rejections. Ignore the standard ‘not for us – good luck elsewhere’ types, but take careful note of any that make concrete suggestions, and incorporate those suggestions if you possibly can.
· Keep trying. The most important quality today for any writer isn’t talent – it’s persistence.

Love that last bit, James, it confirms exactly what I've thought all along! And I have persistence, stickability, or whatever you want to call it in droves. I can roll with the punches . . . rejections, ha! Who cares? Actually, let's cross that bridge when we come to it, shall we?

Didn't James's first point knock you for six? You mean, I really do have to write the whole darn blockbuster thing before I start approaching agents? Ouch. Serious reality check, Anu.

And James has some advice about plotting. Do you, or don't you?:

Wood versus Tree

It’s said there are two kind of writers – ‘wood’ and ‘tree’. A ‘tree’ writer sees his story like looking at a tree. He starts from the base of the trunk and before he starts writing he can see the precise path the story will take, from that point all the way up to the tip of the highest branch. A ‘wood’ writer, in contrast, starts the story like somebody walking into a wood. They know they’ll reach the other side of the wood, and exactly where they’ll emerge, but they have no idea what path they’ll follow to get there.

I’m definitely in the latter group. When I start a new book, I always know where it will start, and precisely what the end will be, but throughout the writing I frequently find the story taking entirely unexpected twists and turns as various characters dictate what’s happening. So I do write a synopsis for every book, but I always emphasise to my editors that it’s a ‘working’ synopsis – i.e. one subject to changes – though the overall shape of the story will follow the synopsis reasonably closely.

More from James about how we deal with the dreaded synopsis later (actually, he makes the whole thing sound so simple and idiot-proof, I can't believe there's much to fear - says Anu, reaching for the decanter.)

OK then, there we have it. Wood or Tree? You're expecting me to say I can't see the wood for the trees, aren't you? I hate to disappoint. I can't see the wood for the trees.

I'm a 'wood' person. Yes, wood, definitely. You're thinking I'm only saying that so I can get away with a minimum of plotting before I start penning my masterpiece.

Already you know me too well.

See ya later!

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