"All you have to do is write the right book in the right way and send it to the right publisher at the right time and in the right way."After a recent post where I'd mentioned this again, it became obvious in the comments that there was some understandable misunderstanding as to what I meant by the most crucial part of this.
- a book which sells your soul, a book in which you have cynically or contrivedly ticked the boxes that you think publisher want you to tick, just to suit a market or gap therein. [You are most welcome to do this, and many people do with great success, but it's not what I do and not what many of you want to do. So, it's not what I mean.]
- a book which you have written because you have spotted a trend. [NB: the trend while you're planning your book is a bandwagon disappearing into the distance in a cloud of dust by the time your proposed novel is published two years later. So, vampires are out as a viable trend. If you want my opinion, angels are the next trend, but the books with angels in are being delivered to publishers NOW, so you've missed that one already. Maybe it'll be fluffy bunnies next. No, forget predicting trends unless your balls are genuine crystal.]
- any particular type of book at all. [There is no magic answer. Publishers are not looking for a particular book. So, no single particular book is the right book.]
Oh no, no, no. When did I ever say nothing?
Here are some constructive thoughts about what I do mean by "right book". [When I say "constructive", please don't think that I'm going to tell you what to write, by the way, just how to think about the writing of it].
- The right book is that simple but elusive thing: a book that readers want to read.
- Publishers are the ones who have to invest the money into bringing your book to readers, and publishers have a great deal of experience in selling books [though of course they don't always get it right - this is art, not science], so they are the ones who have to make the decision. [Self-publishing is a whole other story - and, by the way, should be a choice, not a dump-bin for your sensibly-rejected poor writing].
- Although publishers need to sell books in order to recover their costs, they do not always look for the next best-seller. Most publishers will aim to have a number of big money-spinners and a whole load of books that break even or don't. Your book must fit somewhere in that range for them, depending on their financial situation, aims, and passion for your sort of book.
- All readers are different, so what is right for one group is not right for another.
- So, you might think, surely ANY book will fit into the above argument?
- Readers are a funny bunch. All of them. Even you. And me. A lot of us pretend we're very open-minded, but actually we have high and inherent need for believability, cohesion, patterns, flow - all the things which fire our neurons and allow us to reach the goal of all readers: narrative transportation. [I've written about narrative transportation somewhere - ah, here. It's my shortest ever post, I think, mainly because it's a link to some clever people who can tell you all about it properly].
- And this means we like / need our books to have certain ingredients, in the appropriate measure. [Which I will mention in passing below, though I've covered them all before in posts about voice, pace, structure, beginnings etc].
- This means that if you were hoping that I would tell you that the right book is, for example, a book about angels, or a historical adventure story set in Siberia, or a feisty chick-lit story with a wheel-chair bound heroine, or a crime noir novel with three disembowelled children in scene one, then I'd have to say: it could be any one of those or it could be any one of a million other possibilities.
- But that your book must do the following things in order to be the "right book":
- Engage the reader from page one and never let him go till long after the book is finished. [Narrative transportation again.] We [all of us except the most desperate cynics or people who are forced to read books not of their choosing] choose to read this novel instead of that one because we hope we will enjoy it, nothing else.
- Fit the genre or type of book which the reader expects - so it must follow the rules, though not necessarily rigidly, and when it breaks the rules it must do so with reason, confidence and style. Experimental writing is wonderful and commendable, but if the experiment fails, you have to ask yourself why and take responsibility for not having engaged readers.
- Have a voice which is consistent, appropriate, genuine - not seeming contrived, never slipping from narrator to author or one character to another except in ways which follow the rules of voice. [And these rules are not arbitrary: they go to make a book, instead of a person putting some pretty words down for their own benefit].
- Have something about it which makes it sound like something we'd like to read. This is the "hook" that I've often mentioned. The hook is the brief, fabulously irrestible description of a book which makes everyone want to buy / borrow / read it. Why is this important? Because the right book is not a book which will sit and wait for readers to come to it: in order for it to reach readers at all, in the vast mountain of other books which may also be good, it not only has to BE good, it has to SOUND good.
So, have you written the right book? If it sounds good when you describe it to me [or an agent, publisher, bookseller or reviewer] then that is a very good start indeed. But it will also have to be well written, following those rules that are necessary, breaking those which can be gloriously broken with good effect. It has to feel as though it was written by someone who:
- has a burning passion to engage the reader from the first word till long after the last word
- has the technical skill to do so
See, it's simple. But it's not easy. Oh no, no, no. And I never said it was. From the very first day of this blog, back on January 11th, this blog has been headed by that quote from Thomas Mann. Go look. Not everyone agrees with me that writing is hard - Susan Hill doesn't. Well, she's lucky. I find it hard. I love it, especially when it's been hard and I eventually crack it. Frankly, if it was easy I wouldn't bother to do it.
So many unpublished writers don't focus enough on the fact that their book may not be good enough yet, preferring to blame rejection on the other stuff, such as not having sent the right number of pages, or having put toffees in with the submission without realising that the agent had a toothache.
Remember how I said in my last post that I once write a covering letter in rhyme? Well, it wasn't the covering letter that got me rejected: I hadn't written the right book.