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Tag: Publishing

Despatch from Capital Crime on what agents and publishers are looking for

I know you’re not reading this for my take on this, but I feel I should start by saying that what agents, in particular, want is not as big a mystery as some think it is. Most agents are very clear about what they are looking for and put the information out on their own websites and on posts and interviews you can find online. They want clients, they want submissions and they want writers to send in the work they want to see in the form they prefer to see it. It would be commercial insanity for them to be secretive about what they want. The problem for writers is delivering it.

Here are some of the points I noted down from the panel at Capital Crime 2019 on the craft of writing that, I hope, offer some insight into how to do this.

The writing

David Headley, an agent at DHH Literary Agency, says that he starts by looking at the writing – the first chapters submitted. He’s looking to see if the story starts in the right place and if there is a ‘voice’ – does the writer know what they’re doing.

The characters

You need characters that readers can engage with, that they care about, whether or not they like them. Vicki Mellor, publishing director at Pan Macmillan, is looking for characters that feel real. ‘The psychology of a character is key,’ she said. She suggested thinking about their back story, such as where they went to school. Adam Hamdy, author and screenwriter, advised making characters dynamic. ‘You need characters that aren’t fully formed. They’re trying to get somewhere and something happens in the book that stops them getting there.’

The synopsis

The writing carries the most weight and, David Headley said, ‘synopses are the hardest thing, so don’t get hung up about it’. In practical terms, a synopsis should be a page long, lay out the bare bones of the story and be engaging. Adam Hamdy said: ‘If you can write a good synopsis, the book is working – you should be able to articulate what your book is about.’

Authenticity

Authenticity was a word that came up multiple times as being a vital ingredient that agents and publishers are looking for. This is a depth of realness that comes from knowing your character and your story backwards.

The pitch

The pitch is not the same as the synopsis and I am hearing it mentioned as a vital ingredient in submissions more and more – perhaps reflecting the increasingly competitive and commercial nature of publishing. The pitch sums up your book in a way that pinpoints what is unique and interesting about it. It should sell your book, rather than simply describe it. Vicki Mellor said that, although it is her job to sell the book, the writer having it easily pitchable in one or two lines is really good.

Getting feedback

You need to get your manuscript to the very best level you can get it before sending it to an agent/publisher. At that point, they will offer you another pair of eyes to look at your book in a new way and identify ways to make it better. Be happy with your book when you share it – and then be open to improvements. Vicki Mellor advised that agents and editors can help you develop plot but, fundamentally, what they can’t change is the voice and the authenticity.

Good luck everybody!

Advice for writers (as garnered at Capital Crime 2019)

Ok, here’s some advice for writers that I picked up at Capital Crime 2019: don’t read while you’re writing; read while you’re writing; plan, especially for crime fiction; don’t plan, especially for crime fiction; write for 15 hours a day; write for three hours a day; get it right first time; write 25 drafts; writing is a hellish job; writing is the best job.

Alongside the readers and published writers at Capital Crime, there were a good few unpublished writers and newly published writers eager to learn from the more experienced authors on the panels. All were generous with their advice and insights into the writing life. However, although some patterns emerged, there were a good number of inconsistencies.

Anthony Horowitz told us that he never reads other people’s books when he’s writing. It’s not that he is afraid of plagiarism – ideas are free for all – but that if he sees a good idea in someone else’s story it will annoy him. Maybe he will see something that is perfect for his story that he might have come up with, but once he’s read it in someone else’s story he won’t feel able to use it.

Ann Cleeves said that she always reads, even when she’s writing.

Both Adam Hamdy and Anthony Horowitz said that they put in long writing days – up to 15 hours. Kate Atkinson, on the other hand, said that it was all about focus and that she could get as much done in three good hours as she could in much longer, less focussed hours of writing. She also isn’t one for sitting around thinking, saying that the story comes to her when she has her fingers on the keyboard. However she did say that you shouldn’t start a book until you’re absolutely ready. She was thinking about the spy story in ‘Transcription’ for three years before she started to write it.

I saw a tweet from Elly Griffiths recently saying that she wrote one draft before sending it off for structural edits. Denise Mina said that she writes multiple drafts – up to 25.

You usually hear how important it is to plan a crime novel. Ann Cleeves told us that she finds out what happened at the same time as the detective and that she writes like a reader. Denise Mina agreed, adding that she’ll find herself three quarters of the way through a novel and completely lost. Where would the fun be, she asked, if I knew how it would end? (Might this be why she does so many drafts after the first?)

There was agreement about location. You need to know the location for your story well. Ann Cleves said, ‘it’s the small details that bring a place to life’. She said that she liked to get under the skin of places people think they know. Kate Atkinson said that she likes writing about places she knows well, so that she doesn’t have to do a lot of research.

Publisher Vicki Mellor and agent David Headley explained the importance of getting good feedback from people you trust. Then, in the bar, a writer I shall keep anonymous told me very firmly that it was important to ignore all advice and follow your own instincts. I suspect the answer lies somewhere between the two – listen and then decide for yourself. Someone – I can’t remember who – told me that if someone gives you editorial feedback, you should believe them if they tell you that something isn’t working, but not if they tell you how to fix it.

Although I heard it said that writing could be hell and that it’s very tough to make a career as a published author, especially in today’s market, there was a clear consensus that the writing life is a joy. ‘For people who love to write, it’s the best life in the world,’ Adam Hamdy said. For Denise Mina the joy was centred around ‘sitting at your desk making up lies’, but included the added bonuses of not having to commute, or get dressed to go to work.

Neither Denise Mina nor Ann Cleeves were immediate commercial successes and, realistically, some of us never will be. This means that the writing itself has to be the primary source of enjoyment and satisfaction. You don’t have to be making millions to have this. You do have to write. As Don Winslow said, ‘writers write; it’s a verb before it’s a noun’.

Adam Hamdy suggested thinking hard about what you wanted from your writing – a published book or a writing career. The first is easily achieved through self publishing; the second is much, much harder and you need to be prepared to work at it like a business, because publishing is a business, a very demanding one. There are long waits and strict deadlines (covers for novels are briefed 13 months in advance of publication), it is highly competitive (more and more people are writing and David Headley alone receives 400 manuscripts a month), you are constantly exposed to criticism and maintaining profile is almost like having another job.

So, whatever you want from your writing, do the writing, do the best work you can and enjoy it.

My publication story

If you’ve looked at this blog before, or you look back at the dates on previous posts, you will see that there are major gaps and there has been a long hiatus when I’ve posted nothing. Stuff happened – and didn’t happen.

I started the blog because I wanted to get into the habit of writing and sharing what I had written. Even when you know you want to be published, putting your words out in front of people can be difficult and scary. However, consistency, in good habits at least, is not one of my strengths. I’d get into whatever fiction I was working on and stop writing blog posts. I’d get despondent about writing and stop. I started another, secret, blog. Life would get good or bad and the blogging would be abandoned. I’m back to it now because I’m excited that my book is being published and not yet back into writing the work in progress – I find it difficult during school holidays.

So, although you can see some of the journey through the blog, I thought I should share an overview of how I got to this – exciting – place.

Like most people who write as adults, I loved writing, and reading, as a child. There were reasons I didn’t start writing fiction seriously until my forties, and I might share those another day. For now, we’ll skip forwards…

I was the mother of a difficult young child, work as a freelance communication consultant and business writer was difficult, I was stressed and needed to do something creative. Unable to find an appropriate creative writing evening class, I signed myself up to do a part-time Masters course in the evening at my local university. I tried different writing forms, started to find my voice and found a novel I wanted to write. I finished the course with an MA, some lovely writing pals, a half-written novel and writing as part of my daily life.

I finished the novel and entered it into a competition, the Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize. It was shortlisted and one of the judges, Allison Pearson, said some very encouraging things about it. I submitted it to agents and found no takers.

I wrote two more novels, was shortlisted in the Good Housekeeping novel competition, got an agent, broke up, amicably, with the agent, and did some more work on my first novel (and it’s pitch) before sending it to a publisher inviting open submissions for a new digital imprint. Ta-dah! (That sounds much easier and quicker and less soul destroying than it was.)

The editor, Victoria Oundjian, loved Beverley from the outset and was amazingly positive. I couldn’t believe it when I received her email saying she was interested in my book and I couldn’t believe how lovely she was. I was used to rejection (that’s a lie, I don’t think you ever get used to rejection) and re-read the email many, many times looking for the ‘but’. With Victoria’s gentle encouragement, I made some more edits and came up with a new title. (I am terrible at titles. I use obscure cultural references that mean something to me and about 12 other people in the world. I fear it reflects the fact that I am not naturally aligned with commercial realities and, you know, other people. I think I got there in the end with ‘The Busy Mum’s Guide to Murder’.)

The thing with digital publishing is that the turnaround is incredibly quick. I signed the contract about a month ago, did my copy edits last week and the book is published in 30 days’ time. I haven’t met any of the people involved in person and I even signed the contract electronically. It took years to get to this point and now it’s all happening in weeks!

I don’t know how it’s going to go from here. I fear everyone will hate my book – well, the three people outside of my friends who read it. I want to publish more novels, but am concerned that I won’t be able to deliver what the market wants. (And now I feel like I have to be funny. I’ve never tried to be funny before. I think life and politics may have sucked me dry of humour.) I’d like an agent who has the time to help me develop a career. None of this might happen. I have to keep the insecurities at bay, enjoy this moment of success and hold on to my love of writing, whatever comes next. So, for now, cheers!If you’ve looked at this blog before, or you look back at the dates on previous posts, you will see that there are major gaps and there has been a long hiatus when I’ve posted nothing. Stuff happened – and didn’t happen.

I started the blog because I wanted to get into the habit of writing and sharing what I had written. Even when you know you want to be published, putting your words out in front of people can be difficult and scary. However, consistency, in good habits at least, is not one of my strengths. I’d get into whatever fiction I was working on and stop writing blog posts. I’d get despondent about writing and stop. I started another, secret, blog. Life would get good or bad and the blogging would be abandoned. I’m back to it now because I’m excited that my book is being published and not yet back into writing the work in progress – I find it difficult during school holidays.

So, although you can see some of the journey through the blog, I thought I should share an overview of how I got to this – exciting – place.

Like most people who write as adults, I loved writing, and reading, as a child. There were reasons I didn’t start writing fiction seriously until my forties, and I might share those another day. For now, we’ll skip forwards…

I was the mother of a difficult young child, work as a freelance communication consultant and business writer was difficult, I was stressed and needed to do something creative. Unable to find an appropriate creative writing evening class, I signed myself up to do a part-time Masters course in the evening at my local university. I tried different writing forms, started to find my voice and found a novel I wanted to write. I finished the course with an MA, some lovely writing pals, a half-written novel and writing as part of my daily life.

I finished the novel and entered it into a competition, the Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize. It was shortlisted and one of the judges, Allison Pearson, said some very encouraging things about it. I submitted it to agents and found no takers.

I wrote two more novels, was shortlisted in the Good Housekeeping novel competition, got an agent, broke up, amicably, with the agent, and did some more work on my first novel (and it’s pitch) before sending it to a publisher inviting open submissions for a new digital imprint. Ta-dah! (That sounds much easier and quicker and less soul destroying than it was.)

The editor, Victoria Oundjian, loved Beverley from the outset and was amazingly positive. I couldn’t believe it when I received her email saying she was interested in my book and I couldn’t believe how lovely she was. I was used to rejection (that’s a lie, I don’t think you ever get used to rejection) and re-read the email many, many times looking for the ‘but’. With Victoria’s gentle encouragement, I made some more edits and came up with a new title. (I am terrible at titles. I use obscure cultural references that mean something to me and about 12 other people in the world. I fear it reflects the fact that I am not naturally aligned with commercial realities and, you know, other people. I think I got there in the end with ‘The Busy Mum’s Guide to Murder’.)

The thing with digital publishing is that the turnaround is incredibly quick. I signed the contract about a month ago, did my copy edits last week and the book is published in 30 days’ time. I haven’t met any of the people involved in person and I even signed the contract electronically. It took years to get to this point and now it’s all happening in weeks!

I don’t know how it’s going to go from here. I fear everyone will hate my book – well, the three people outside of my friends who read it. I want to publish more novels, but am concerned that I won’t be able to deliver what the market wants. (And now I feel like I have to be funny. I’ve never tried to be funny before. I think life and politics may have sucked me dry of humour.) I’d like an agent who has the time to help me develop a career. None of this might happen. I have to keep the insecurities at bay, enjoy this moment of success and hold on to my love of writing, whatever comes next. So, for now, cheers!

A rage against Ratners fiction

11220095_10153209597673333_1041411994538382439_nI do not believe that real people think about moves to the country in the form of extended metaphors involving concrete floors slippery with fear. Not unless they are certain types of poet. So when a character in a novel is clearly not this type of poet, or any type of poet, why do I have to endure close third person accounts of such thoughts, page after fucking page? I find it a tiny bit annoying.
Don’t get me wrong, I love a good metaphor, but they have to know their place. I have very slightly had it with self-indulgent pseudo literary crap being peddled as quality fiction. I love the sea as much as the next person. And, yep, I’ve been writing about it for years. But I don’t really expect anyone to want to read it, not on and off for a whole 60,000 words! Does the world really need another extended sea metaphor as novel? And the scent of lemons. More? Really? And don’t get me started on dust motes. It’s the same brand of crap Ratners offered. But they got found out.
I know what you’re thinking, sour grapes. Fuck, yes! I may not be George Eliot, but I can write something direct and authentic – I think (I write therefore I insecure). I’m sure I could do better. But where is my model, my inspiration, where do I look for the standard to meet if I aspire to publication. I want to get published. It is objective, ambition, dream. But there are places to which I will not go in pursuit of this. If this crap is where it’s at, I cannot and will not go there.
Let me give you an example. When I eat a croissant, flakes of soft, buttery pastry do not melt on my tongue reminding me of some fuckwit’s kiss or my childhood breakfasts with mother. My croissant gets dunked in hot chocolate that drips down my t-shirt leaving crumb-stuck stains that look a bit too much like dried breast milk. My croissant is from Pret and is eaten at the bus stop. (There is a bus stop theme in these posts. I’ll explain why one day, when I know you better.) My croissant contains calories that come to rest on my over plump belly. My croissant eating is just not… twinkly.

Rage against the grey

IMG_2598Trees are bloody lucky. Far from fading as they get old, they blaze. Streaks of yellow, patches of orange, tendrils of red. All the heat of the summer chucked back at yer with attitude.
But us, we fade til we disappear. And the hair is only the start. Mine’s going white. The hair thing matters to me because I’m a red head. People don’t even believe me when I say that now. ‘Oh, no, more strawberry blonde, I’d say’. ‘It’s not really that bright, is it?’ No, that’s because I am fucking old, alright! But it was orange and bright and loud. And I was characterised by my ginger-ness. It was what made me different, made me me. People assumed I had passion and a temper because I had fiery hair. Now, they assume that I am fading, like my hair.
But inside I have stored up fire, burning coals of thoughts and feelings, opinions and insights, and stories.
I’ll never be a bright, young debut. I’ll never be one to look out for in the future. I’ll never make one of those up and coming lists of writers under 30. I had neither the time nor the resources to write properly formed things when I was young. I was too busy being fucked up and insecure and in love with the wrong men and trying to make a living and learning to fit in. It took til now for me to be ready.
But why should that make me lesser? We oldies used to be the storytellers. And not just tellers of soft and dismal tales that drop like ash from the end of a forgotten fag. I don’t want to tell stories about middle-aged ladies pondering their pasts on the shores of an Italian lake. I don’t have racy tales from a war torn youth to tickle the fancy of babyboomers agog to discover that they didn’t invent sexual intercourse. In my head there are many different ages and many different selves.
I’m not a late bloomer. They haven’t bloomed yet. They’re lovely buds but they’re still green. I don’t want to be a ‘mature’ writer, equally indulged and ignored like some feeble-minded hobbyist. Cheese matures! Fruit ripens. I am ripe and I want to tell ripe stories. Despite my fading hair, I can still blaze.

Wannabe?

Rock petSome people, other people, cool people, like Debbie Harry, lean in corners, or they lounge – probably louchely – but whatever they do, they do it effortlessly and everybody is impressed. They are the in-crowd and they go where the in-crowd go.

I’m not like that. I’ve tried the ‘I’m so uncool, I’m cool’ thing, but no one believes it, not even me. The cool people are slim, taut of buttock and chisel-cheeked. They smoke. Their clothes are elegantly understated or kookily creative. There will be leather involved somewhere. Even when they flout society’s rules, they do it in just the right way. It’s what makes them Cool.

This is the thinking that preoccupied me as a sat at the bus stop the other day. (Yes, I catch the bus. I know. There are no members of any in-crowd at the bus stop for the number 6.) I wasn’t leaning, rather i was perched on the ledge thing they provide instead of a seat. It was raining, obviously. I was wearing a coat that fits neatly into the genus cagoule, but less outdoorsy and more mumsy. I’d just retrieved my bag and its spilt contents from the (wet) ground: notebooks, unposted birthday cards, laminated (yep) quotes, tissues, Co-op receipts and the googly eye from a rock pet I forgot to take out of my bag (no wonder it was so heavy). And to complete this portrait of uncool, I’d just picked a spot on my nose and the blood was welling out like a oil strike in old time Texas. One of the slightly damp tissues was handy for dabbing at it.

And as my brain wandered over to the writing ambitions represented by the (damp) notebooks, I despaired. I was doomed (doomed, I tell you). According to the last rejection I received before I entered my latest long, unproductive period of pout (no coincidence), I need to be ‘fashionable’ to be publishable. That means I need to be part of some recognised in-crowd. And I’m not. I’m out of fashion or just not in fashion. Bugger.

And yes, I know, my bitterness is blatant. I’m so uncool that it matters.

But – there’s a but – I am not just uncool, I am also old(ish) and, quite slowly, as the years pass, a cloud of fuck-it is blooming in my head. I am unique and what I write is unique. And that is cool. And one day, someone will want to publish my uniqueness. And if they don’t, fuck it.
Ly