Thursday, 26 April 2012

Getting Published Today

No, I'm not actually getting published today - that's the title of an interesting event I went to a few weekends ago as part of Cambridge Wordfest.

Three experts were lined up to speak on the challenges facing aspiring authors:

Jill Dawson, acclaimed author of seven novels, and founder of Gold Dust, a mentoring scheme pairing new writers with established ones.

Nicola Morgan, author of many fiction books and the blog ‘Help I Need a Publisher’, which is crammed full of useful information, plus the odd bit of ‘crabbit’ advice.

Rebecca Swift, a former editor at Virago, now director of Arts Council-funded leading manuscript assessment service, The Literary Consultancy.

The three speakers knew their stuff, and the audience befitted from ten minute slots by each of them, followed by a question and answer session.

Much as you would expect, there were no miracle answers provided. Publishers will only takes books if they think they will sell. They are, after all, businesses and about making money. That’s not to say they don’t love books. They do, but sometimes they will take on the ‘right’ book, as opposed to a ‘good’ book, which is how all those celebs get their ghost written books out there. For more on that read this article by Danuta Kean about why those not so good books can become best-sellers (with some interesting comments).

Publishers dream of a book coming along which is both right for the market and good writing. We all know that great books do get published and the message from the three experts was to make your writing the best it can be, with the hook to convince the sales and marketing team at an acquisitions meeting that your sales will top the charts, or least make their advance back. Nicola Morgan has lots of this in her book 'Write to be Published'. Buy it, it makes enlightening reading for someone new to the game, as does this article on howpublishers make decisions.

I found it heartening that they all maintained that good writing is always going to be important and Jill Dawson said that rewriting is an essential part of getting there and should be looked forward to. Rebecca Swift advised writing from the heart, but all three speakers said that if you engage your head at the same time, there are things writers can do to improve their chances of finding an agent and getting published.

Knowing your genre was seen as vital. Knowing who is writing what for your target audience will make sure you don’t try to pitch your novel only to be met with publishers telling you they have exactly that out there already. It will also help you find the focussed insight that makes your book different from all the others in the genre, while walking along the fine tight rope of keeping it similar enough, since publishers apparently want same but different.

Linked to knowing your genre, was the advice to research who and what agents are representing before sending your manuscript to them. Nicola Morgan warned the assembled audience to ‘beware crappy agents’ and to find out about what clients they have, how successful they are and what experience they have of the publishing industry.

There was a great deal of advice about pitching, and since Wordfest I have spent time working on how to pitch my novel in 25 words, in a short paragraph and in a 2 page synopsis. Indeed, immediately after the event I purchased Nicola Morgan’s book and downloaded her ebook - 'Write a Great Synopsis'. Trying to showcase your writing in this way in not easy and needs to be given as much care as writing your novel. The aim is to achieve something functional enough to show what happens in the story, but with just the right amount about your characters, their flaws, motivations and goals, to make someone want to read about them.

A few words of warning were given to those tempted to self-publish via digital means. While no-one said ‘don’t do it’, they did say that careful preparation and sound editing were required. It was suggested that the time might come when publishers would look for an author having an ebook platform before they would consider them for mainstream publishing. Having the ‘right’ book out there in a digitally self-published form could improve your chances with mainstream publishers, but having something poorly produced, with lots of mistakes, could harm your potential success. Rebecca Swift, will be running a conference in early June about Writing in a Digital Age, which will cover the pitfalls of self-publishing ebooks.

All three speakers mentioned the dreaded rejection letters, saying it is going to happen and you just have to develop thicker skins to that and after, if you do strike gold and get published, to critical reviews.

So a big pat on the back to Cambridge Wordfest for organising such an interesting event. It’s proving to be a joy moving to an area of the country with so much going on for writers. All I need to do now is find the perfect writing group and the perfect critical partner. I’m sure they are out there somewhere round here.

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Editing my Novel

I have been editing my first novel since moving from a village just east of Leicester, to a village just south of Cambridge at the end of August 2011. I am about three-quarters of the way through, which is behind the deadline I set myself when I had my last mentoring session with the author, Kathryn Heyman, in January 2012. Family and friends keep asking me why I am still editing, why haven’t I managed to finish it, they were expecting it to be published by now… How to explain to them? Anyone who has been there, writing their first novel, knows only too well how long it takes, and that it is just one rung up the long ladder towards maybe, just maybe, being published.
I don’t think I’ve been overly slow with the editing. Not when you consider that at the same time I’ve moved into a new home and trained a new puppy. I started off really well, since the first few chapters had gone through the mentoring process twice, which is probably better than going through an editor.
Pommie the puppy has consumed some of my editing time
Being mentored, having my writing looked at and commented on by someone who is highly accomplished and whose opinion I trust, has been so worthwhile. Kathryn Heyman, part of the Gold Dust mentoring scheme, is both supportive and enthusiastic, constantly urging me towards better writing as she pours her treasures into my lap, gently addressing issues such as pacing, structure, characterisation and using passive constructions. I know that using her detailed notes as I edit has lifted my writing. It hasn’t helped speed me up though.
Okay - it’s my fault that I chose to completely rewrite some chapters. For me that meant writing in longhand in my notebook, in first person, present tense, and then typing it all up in third person, past tense. Don’t ask why! I must just be a masochist. It was something I started doing with Kathryn, to help me keep close in on the main character’s point of view, while at the same time keeping the action immediate. The writing in longhand developed because we were travelling round Europe in a small van as I wrote and didn’t always have electricity, and I found that writing in my notebook made me get on with producing the first draft without constantly stopping to rework it. All of this worked for me, and I kept it up for the rest of the book. Around chapter 30 I stumbled across a section that was still in the first person present that I’d sent to Kathryn. I’d somehow missed that bit.
Checking and rechecking historical details has delayed me somewhat, and I am now debating whether or not to have an author’s ‘historical note’ at the end. I think I will, if only to point out that I know Waltham lock was destroyed in 1592, when I have it in use in 1594. What can I say? I wanted to have my characters go through the first pound lock in England, and they had to do it after the death of Christopher Marlow, for reasons I might explain in the sequel.
I have also got delayed through looking at the etymology of some word choices. It’s not that I’m trying to write in ‘Tudor speak’, but sometimes I’ve had a character use an unusual word in dialogue, and my husband, who’s proof-reading for me, has made a comment about whether the word existed or not. I was traipsing into central Cambridge to check out words in the Oxford English Dictionary, until I made the discovery that a Cambridgeshire library card allows you to use the online OED for free. What a valuable resource that has proved to be!
Most days I have got stuck in to editing, working my way through 4 or 5 chapters in a good week. There have been slack days too. One of those, when I felt as if every creative bone had been plucked from my body, I slumped over the keyboard and just edited my use of commas in dialogue. I know, it’s riveting stuff this editing, isn’t it?
I am through the trickiest parts of the editing now, so hopefully, even with the constant banging of builders in the house, I should make good progress towards the end. I am troubled by still not having a title though. The one I thought of early on in the writing process keeps coming back to me. It’s just a pity that it was used for a children’s historical novel set in the reign of Elizabeth I, written by Geoffrey Trease in 1940. 
Guess what? Same genre, same period, same target audience.
In between ploughing on with the editing I have also been seduced into some ‘now the end is in sight’ activities, such as compiling lists of agents who might accept an author aiming at the young adult market, and composing a letter to those agents. I’ve also got my eye on the synopsis, and have been doing some Googling around the issue of how long it should be, what sort of style to go for etc.
It can be quite a lonely task, sitting here, writing or editing, and not knowing whether I’m doing it ‘right’, so it was lovely to meet up with some of the good folk I met on the Arvon course three years ago, which started me out on this novel writing lark and introduced me to Kathryn Heyman. I was pleased to find out that my fellow ‘Arvonites’ were in much the same boat, a few were further ahead having got published or bagged themselves agents, but most were still editing, or in one case rewriting their novel as a screenplay. It was all somehow reassuring and refreshed my determination to keep at it.
I haven’t yet typed ‘The End’ at the bottom of the manuscript, but I’m close to taking that deep breath before starting on the round of letters to agents. Oh, I tell you what I have been doing though – making notes for the sequel. Yes, it’s true. Well, you’ve got to chase that two-book deal, haven’t you?