I spent years trying to get both an agent and a publisher - I know the difficulties! I still don't have an agent.
If you are one of those thousands of unpublished authors, I can't tell you how to get published, but I can give you some writing and publishing tips I've gleaned along the way:
Write a good story.
Sounds like stupid advice but let's face it, a lot of people have word processors and a lot of them are writing books. The competition is fierce. Of submitted books, less than 1% will ever be published. Your writinghas to be new, fresh and surprising or else it has to have a new angle on an old story. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of vampire plots out there and most tell exactly the same story. There are just as many serial killer books, which start with a gruesome killing or fantasy stories starting with a 'portal' that opens in someone's bedroom. Similarly, there are plenty of World War 2 books out there. If you were a publisher would you risk money on a jaded story everyone has read before in a different form?
The fact is, the big publishers don't think like authors. They are thinking about how many thousands of copies they can sell, not whether your book is a good read. It might be very good but if it doesn't have popular appeal they won't take it on.
Use a method:
Be clear in your own head what genre you are going to write in and don't mix sci-fi with historical fiction, or you'll find the agent or publisher will throw it out at once. Guess how I know that.
These are not rules, just my personal opinion, not everyone writes 1000,000 word novels.
One method for writing a book involves thinking about your story, then sketching an outline or even a synopsis onto one A4 sheet. Bullet point it, then split the plot up into a beginning (30,000 words), a middle (40,000 words) and an end (up to 30,000 words). Structure your story so it starts with an eye-catching event, which sets your work ahead of the field by being pacy and new. Many writers advise using a story question that makes the reader ask 'who is it' or 'where is it?'. At the end of the first part (30,000), make your main character (MC) be at risk. Risk can mean anything. In romance it could be the risk of losing an emotional relationship. In adventure it might be a risk to life and limb. In a lierary novel it could mean a risk to the MC's goals or path in life.
In the second part, gradually build the suspense until at the end of that section, he/she is about to lose the most precious thing in his/her life or even his/her life. Make it a close thing, make the reader sit on the edge of their seat.
In the last section, show how he/she overcomes this threat and tie up the loose ends, e.g. what happened to the cat in the third chapter? Where has the MC's mother gone?
James Frey (How to Write Damned Good Fiction) makes much of rising tension - an idea he pinched off Lajos Egri. The tension in the story must go up towards the end of the first 30,000 and it has to continue to rise as you put more and more obstacles in the MC's path to the end of the middle section and then...Powie!...the climax then resolution. It's a good method, doesn't suit everyone but it suits me.
You now have a plan. Fill it out with some more details and decide how many chapters you want, then fit the story into that plan. You now have a chapter plan. Get writing! Write with emotion, write with passion. You can do it! A thousand words a day.
Re-writing and Editing:
When you've got your first draft, put it away for a week or so. Then edit it on screen. Then print it off and go through it with a red pen. Then correct and have another on-screen edit, re-writing as you go. If you can't improve on it then I would get a paid-for critique from a reputable company and see what they say. I use Scribendi mostly and I'm very happy with them, but you need to find a company that suits you. Writer's Workshop are very good too but more expensive. I've also used Literary Agent UK who I found very good and very helpful.
It's costing you money, so you must make your critiqueable draft as good as you can possibly make it. When you get the critique, if your book is slated, don't get upset! Take on board what they say and change whatever is wrong. If it's the writing itself then maybe you need to read about how to write tight, easy-to-read English. At the end, I'll suggest three books which helped me considerably. No they aren't sponsoring me!
A few tips on the writing itself:
I gleaned most of this from critiques and from reading 'How to...' books. These are not tablets of stone however and you should select what seems sensible to you. As I said, it won't tell you how to get published, but I hope it will help your writing.
Point of View:
You can tell a story from the main character's point of view in first person Some find this limiting, because you cannot describe events which your character isn't witnessing. It is easier because it brings you closer to the character (narrative distance) and their introspections are clearer and easier to portray. I like first person for that reason, though in my World War 2 trilogy I've used third person.
Third person POV (point of view), is trickier because often you end up distancing your narrative voice and you also have to be a better writer. It is possible to adjust your narrative distance using appropriate prose to focus in on the characters internalisations.
Omnipotent POV allows you to jump from one person's head to another but beware of that if you are a new author, publishers don't like it in debut novels.
The past-master of POV was Graham Greene - he stuck rigidly to one POV, everything that happens is through his MC's perspective. It's what makes his books so gripping - you really don't know what's going to happen next any more than the character does.
Show and tell:
A lot of books talk about this.
The basic idea is to create a scene in which events occur that lead to a progression of the plot without you telling what's happening. Here's an example:
‘He was anxious’
‘He was sweating. Small beads of perspiration shone like tiny dewdrops on his furrowed forehead as he drummed his fingers on the phonebook. His collar felt tight, so he stretched it with damp and tremulous fingers. He stood up, glancing at his watch. He jumped when a soft tapping on the door revealed the time had come.
– shows; we can feel what the man feels.
Write in scenes:
Don't lapse into telling everything to the reader in back-story. Set the scene - where, when, sights, sounds, smells. Then paint your character, then make them do something, then add dialogue and finally, end with the effects of the action and maybe introspection on the part of the main character. The progression of the plot should be obvious to the reader because they can see it developing in their mind's eye.
There is nothing wrong with a simple ‘he said’, ‘she said’. Readers see it almost like punctuation. Use them just enough to tell the reader who is talking. Break up the speech only when you really need to indicate a significant change of posture, position or action. Each time you do, you interrupt the flow of the dialogue and what is said between the characters loses cohesion.
Don’t modify your dialogue with adverbs, particularly those ending in –ly. Trust your reader to understand the tone of the dialogue and what the character is expressing. If you feel insecure about the words used or you feel the reader won’t know the person is angry, anxious, snappy etc, then you need to re-write the dialogue, because it isn’t strong enough. He said pointedly.
Don’t make your characters do the impossible. You can’t chortle, giggle, choke etc, as you speak. Doing so is the sign of a rank amateur, whether Ludlum gets away with it or not!
Use short sentences and short paragraphs.
Look carefully at the verbs. Pierce, cut, thrust, parry, slash, stab are words that can make a whole sentence in an action sequence:
“They were both advancing again. I was retreating in the long yellow grass. It is hard to describe what goes through your head during a fight. I looked and listened as if my senses were more acute.
My heart thumped, my mouth was dry. Anticipation is all in a sword fight. Maybe that helped me. A blur to my right as the assailant struck. A parry and curl of my blade. Bringing it up in a short circle to contact the man's face. Blood spilled, pain given.
The other man striking. Sword flying and falling, parry, strike, parry, strike and fall back. Assess the damage. Am I wounded? Attack, opponents weakened, limping, bleeding. A stab to the chest but parried.
A slash at chest height, a return at leg level, a man down, attack again, swinging blade, forceful contact, second man down. Blood, moans, death. Another killing stroke.”
Choreograph. Tell the reader what’s left and what’s right. Which foot? Which hand? Draw the picture fast. Don’t give 'em time to sip their coffee!
Cut all the –ly adverbs you can everywhere in the text. It will strengthen the writing.
Words like: ‘little’, ‘just’, ‘that’, need to be edited out.
Sentences should seldom begin with the words Thereis/was or It is/was
Rewrite passive sentences. Use the active voice instead of passive voice. (Compare: Is passive voice being used? Put it in active voice.)
Avoid fillers like of its, and so it, well, sometimes, some of the time, perhaps, quite possibly, or similar phrases.
Quite is bad, don’t use it.
Don’t start sentences with ‘As’.
You've written a damned good story. Now What?
You'll probably need an agent. Now it gets tricky!
The big advantage in having an agent is that they can place your book with a publisher and have the ear of the publishers too, if they're any good.
Most publishers won't even look at an unsolicited or un-agented manuscript. They get reams of paper sent to them by would-be authors and most are thrown away after the opening lines of the submission letter are inspected.
To attract an agent or to submit your work to a publisher, you will have to write a submission letter. All authors find this hard.
The people who are receiving these submission letters are often stressed, over-worked and tetchy. They believe that if you can't write a business letter properly, you won't be able to write a book.
Use a serious letter template from your word processor. Make sure it contains your address, phone number and name so they can contact you if you drop lucky. Your relationship with the agent or publisher is a professional one. Keep it serious - they don't like jokes.
Your letter needs to start with the editor's name or the agent's name. If it just starts with 'Dear Sir or Madam' they know you haven't researched who they are, to see if they deal with your kind of book and your communication could be one of a hundred mass-mailed letters.
Find out which publisher will look at your book. Who publishes your kind of fiction? (Writer's and Artist's Year Book). Ring them, get a name. Google the name. Find out everything there is to know about the prospective agent or the publisher. Don't send a thriller to a children's book publisher - they won't read it! (and yes, I've done that too).
The letter starts with why you picked this agent / publisher. Make it a plausible reason. Don't flatter but be positive and don't crawl but be humble and polite.
Then describe your book, including the number of words, the style of the book (is it like Graham Greene or like Enid Blyton?) [some agents don't like you to suggest look-alikes so always check their websites to see if they have particular gripes] Is it character-driven or is it plot-driven?
Give a one-line pitch. I usually also give a three-line or four-line synopsis below that. Not a cover blurb, but an overview of the story including how it ends.
End that part with who it's intended to target and what you think the market is like for this kind of book, but make sure you've researched that too!
Then describe yourself. No they don't want to know your hair-colour. Tell them what publishing credits you have (if any). Tell them why you write and what makes you the expert on this story. Don't tell them your friends or your mum or the dog liked the book. Don't say you got a critique and they told you the book needed.... Don't make jokes. This is a serious business letter and you have to demonstrate that you are a serious author, not a flake and that you know how to be brief, to the point, and businesslike.
End by explaining what you are enclosing. It should include:
- A short (prferably one page) synopsis.
- The first ten thousand words of the manuscript or the first three consecutive chapters, A4, unfolded, double spaced, Times New Roman, 12pt, printed clearly on clean white paper, each page numbered top right, header to contain the name of the book and the author's name.
- A stamped, self-addressed envelope,"for the convenience of your reply".
At the end of that, you should have confined your letter to one or at most, one-and-a-half sides of A4. No more. They don't have the time to read long letters and the whole lot will go in the bin if you lose their attention for a second.
I didn't know all that four years ago and I did almost all of it wrong at one time or another. I learned a lot from reading about how to do it and had my submission vetted by Gary Smailes of 'Bubblecow', who said my submission letter was one of the strongest he'd seen in a long time.
How long to wait for your rejection? I say "rejection" because most unsolicited submissions get only a slip of paper saying they are sorry but your work 'doesn't fit their list' or 'is not their type of book' or they just 'didn't love the writing and I have to love the writing to consider it'.
I would give it three months then send a polite email asking whether you should submit elsewhere.
If as seems likely, you are rejected, pick another agent. Submit to three or four at a time, but for heaven's sake, keep a careful record of who you've contacted. I had an agent come back to me for a manuscript once and couldn't recall which book I'd poked them with. Needless to say, they dropped me!. Tell the agent you have submitted elsewhere if they ask you. Be honest and show you have integrity.
By the time you've had a lot of rejections, and you feel like quitting, don't give up. Few people finish a book, so you already belong to an elite society. The first book you write might only be a dress-rehearsal for the next or the next, just don't give up. Hemingway (?misquote) reckoned you have to write a million words before you produce a good book. I suspect he was right!
Try these books:
- 'How to Write a Damned Good Novel' by James Frey.
- 'Solutions for Writers' by Sol Stein.
- 'Self-editing for Fiction Writers' by Renni Browne and Dave King.
There are stunning articles on Dave King's website:
especially for historical writers.
If those don't sort you out with your writing, let me know!