Tuesday, 31 March 2009

BOOK LAUNCH TRUTHS

All of you unpublished authors out there are dreaming of your launch party - I know you are. And my expert contact at Publishing Scotland, who has clearly been to a few launches too many, suggested that I should do a blog piece about launches. I think he is hoping that publishers will take note of Rule 3 below and DO SOMETHING TO CHANGE IT. They won't, because they think that you are there for the book, not the wine. Odd people, publishers, and often not in the real world.

So, here are my observations about Launch Parties

The Myth
On publication day, the sun will shine and ostentatious flowers will arrive from your publisher; and a chauffeur will collect you in a limo to take you to your champagne launch at an exclusive hotel / royal palace / hilariously original and wow-factor-inducing venue, a launch which will engender many thousands of book sales and inevitably propel you to world-wide acclaim, perpetual fame and endless wealth.

The Truths
  1. publishers hate launch parties, because they do nothing for sales and cost a packet, and cause the author to think that this is how life will be from now on
  2. authors like them, because their non-author friends believe the above myth
  3. it is an absolute rule that bad, warm white wine and parrot-cage-rough red wine must be served. And orange juice from concentrate. If the wine is fizzy it will be accidentally so. Or it will have been fizzy once. There may be crisps. The invitation may have said canapés, but you won't see any. Or you might see one, but it will not be clear what it is, when it was made or whether it is safe to eat.
  4. the few book-sales that your launch party will create are the ones actually made at the party, which will be very few unless you have guests who understand that No, you don't get all your books free and No, the advance is not enough to cover your chocolate / alcohol / boots bill.
  5. authors should consider having their own launch party - and, as the past mistress of self-organised launch parties, I have generously included my recipe for success below
  6. organising your launch party and then asking your publisher for a contribution is a very good idea. It's not guaranteed to succeed but you can pretty much gauge how much they adore you from the response. They do tend to like this though, as it is a fairly cheap and 100% hassle-free way to be nice to you on your special day, and, being essentially decent and reasonably sensible, they want to do this. After all, it's only one day ...
My tips for organising your own launch party

Funding it / Choosing venue
  • a cheap and simple method is to get a bookshop to hold it. The downside is that Rule 3 absolutely applies (though I must hastily say that the launch I went to at Vanessa's lovely Edinburgh Children's Bookshop broke this rule by supplying, at my request, genuinely fizzy wine and very nice sandwiches. I didn't try the orange juice but I am so not bothered by the orange juice. Also, of course, any bookshop I've ever had my own launches in also had good fizzy wine, largely because I supplied it.) The upsides are that there's no venue cost, all the book selling and ordering is not your problem, they can invite lots of book tradey people if you don't know any, and the venue is usually small so it doesn't take many to fill it. (A downside if you're a greedy and gregarious person like me.) You liaise with them about how many of your friends to invite and eg whether to make it public or private. They'll probably have done it all before loads of times, so you throw yourself on their mercy. Whether you pay / part pay for wine will depend on, eg, how many people may come and how many books you may sell, and how generous the bookshop is.
  • an equally cheap and simple way is to see if a school would like to host it. This only works for children's books - you can't expect them to host your erotic fantasy novel. The way to fund this would be a) ask your publisher if you can buy books at author discount to SELL (most contracts say you can't, but I always ask my lovely publishers and explain why I should and they always say yes), and then b) either offer the school the profit on each book sold, to cover wine+food, or else keep the money and buy the wine yourself c) also ask your publisher for a contribution, explaining how this is going to publicise your book d) let the school use the publicity in lots of ways, and you'll probably find that it won't cost you anything else, especially if you use the school's caterers. Hmm, caution required here: boiled cabbage we do not want. It makes the warm white wine taste too good.
  • what about gimicks? Good idea if you can think of one. Something to make your launch more enjoyable - especially for guests who may not know anyone or may be nervous. When The Highwayman's Curse was launched, I got some young actors from a school I was working with to perform an ancient curse on the audience - it was STUNNING and the audience loved it. At the same party, I was launching Know Your Brain, which includes a chapter about feeding your brain, so we had delicious food with reasons why it would fuel your brain, and there were displays people could look at if they were bored, with photos from previous launches. My next one is Deathwatch, which has beetles on the cover, so we'll do something to do with beetles. Er, don't know what ...
  • more expensive but easier and more upmarket is to have it in a private room in a pub or restaurant. Again, you can recoup some cost by selling books yourself, and asking your publisher to contribute. Lots of venues are free if you use their catering.
Other aspects
  • a cake with the book cover on is a fab centre-piece and needn't cost much - there are companies which will turn your jpeg book cover into an edible cake cover. I use a company called cake-toppers in the UK.
  • you have to make a SHORT speech. Yep, you have to. If you're not the wittiest most confident speaker in the world, it doesn't matter - just thank people for coming and tell them a tiny bit about your book. Read a short bit if you want to - first chapter is the obvious choice. But really, the speaking bit should be short. I have been to one where we had to sit down and listen to a lengthy and not-well-delivered lecture - this is NOT normal or desirable or helpful. Half of us, who were used to normal launches, were struggling to behave respectfully, two women were very drunk and disrupted everything, and a literary reviewer who was there was derisive. A launch is not a lecture, nor is it the chance for the author to bore anyone. How would that sell books?
  • before your short speech, you NEED someone to introduce you. Ideally, your publisher will send your editor or publicist and they can be relied on to say hugely glowing things about you. I personally cringe when this happens to me, so I've stopped allowing them to speak, but you do need someone - book-seller, confident friend, friendly person from book trade, agent, just to intro you briefly.
  • immediately afterwards (well, not literally immediately, but the next day) send a photo - you did nominate a photographer from amongst your friends, didn't you??? - to your local paper and any book trade magazines (The Bookseller in the UK) preferably of you, your book and someone dressed like an absolute idiot in a way that's vaguely relevant to your book. Papers love pics, especially of people looking weird or in severe pain. For my first highwayman book, I got some schoolkids to dress up as highwaypersons and hold me up at gunpoint for the launch pic**. Amazingly, they were encouraged by their school to carry toy guns ... Anyway, great pic, much used.
  • **when I say launch pic, I am lying. Lying is something novelists do. So, you don't actually have to have the pic taken at the launch (though that will be fun too, not for the world, but for you to look back on when you're 95) - you can set it up. Take it a few days before the launch and have it ready to send off with a little caption: "William Blake and a fierce-looking reader at Edinburgh Zoo for the launch of his new poem, Tyger Tyger ...". Even if the launch was actually held in The Lamb and Altar.
  • ONE glass of wine before your speech. More only after ...
  • PS - edited after reading comment from Tom Vowler - YES, definitely a correlation between alcohol consumed by guests and books purchased by them! Good point.
  • Enjoy it! It's not going to make you rich or famous but your friends will be happy. And it gives your mum a chance to boast. Not that she needs one.
I almost forgot - the main reason I have a book launch: I get to buy new boots.

And next time you go to an author's book launch, remember: a) you're meant to be there for the book, not the wine and b) the author probably paid for it. BUY A BOOK!! Meanwhile, get planning your own.

Sunday, 29 March 2009

PS re SYNOPSES

Two PSs, actually, because I can never do one of a thing if two are available.

Or maybe even three, because I am, if nothing else, intemperate and unrestrained. I blame my fantasising about those chocolate martinis that Lynn Price goes on about, even though I still don't quite believe in them, Britishy person that I am. I need to see them and the whites of their eyes.

  1. Anyway, yes, as Mary says, once the book is sold to the publisher, the synopsis will never be looked at again by your editor. In other words, you don't actually need to follow it. Follow It??? What an extraordinary idea! However, do beware of this scenario, as I have mentioned before, because lurking somewhere in a cupboard in your putative publisher's place is a frighteningly young person who will READ your synopsis, and nothing else, and she (for it will be a she) will one day write a glorious Amazon blurb based on this synopsis. So, if you have not followed it and have not reminded your editor to tell the child that you did not follow it, your crap synopsis will be There For All To See. And then little old ladies in Frimpton-on-Sea will complain that you said that there was passionate activity on the moonlit beach when in fact it was only in the church hall, which will have disappointed them.
  2. Yes, as Jane says, the synopsis is not the first thing that the editor or agent will read. Nor is it the thing that will draw them in and engage them with an undeniable fervour. Indeed, it's the covering letter that hooks them, and the sample pages that make them salivate, but it is the synopsis which shows them that you do actually have a book that hangs together and doesn't just get off on a stunning beginning and a thrilling concept.
  3. I can't remember what 3 was.
  4. Oh yes - various people on various blogs today have been angsting about the transatlantic divide between blurbs and queries and covering letters and synopses. So, let's get this straightish:
  • blurb - you find it on the back of a book or on a website - it's a teaser, something short and with wow factor, that makes someone (reader/agent/editor, who cares?) drool to read the full book. (In the US a blurb sometimes means what we in the UK call a puff / quote by a respected reviewer, just to be extra confusing ...)
  • query - a letter or email which you send to an agent or publisher on its own, to ask if they'd like to see more. So, it is very blurby, brief and snappy. It entices and teases and inspires and causes unpleasant salivation. In the US this (not salivation, query letters) is common practice; in the UK and elsewhere, it's perfectly acceptable and seems to be growing. Whatever, it means you don't send more at this stage, which is a) good because you don't have to spend on postage/printing etc and you can multi-send easily but b) bad because it's the only chance you'll get with that agent/editor. Do it, but do it brilliantly.
  • covering letter - included with your synopsis + sample chapters. If this is your first approach to that pub/agent, it's your first chance to wow them so do it well, tightly, succintly, blurbily and follow my advice in this post on covering letters.
  • synopsis - much more than a blurb or covering letter, more factual, though still sparky and readable and stylishish and it DOES give the ending. It outlines the plot. Why am I going on about this when I just did a big post (below) on it earlier today?
Jane mentioned Beth Anderson's advice, so, kindly though crabbit old bat that I am, I tracked it down and you will find it here.

And now, frankly, if there's any excuse for not being able to write a brilliant synopsis, I'd like to know it.

WRITING A SYNOPSIS

[See note at end!]

I hate writing synopses. There are two types of synopsis, or reasons you might write one - let's call them Synopsis Situations - and I hate both. Equally. To be honest, I hate them so much that I've even postponed writing this blog post about them. But eventually, we authors have to get tough with ourselves.

Talking about getting tough, someone has told me I go on about chocolate too much. So I won't go on about it at all any more. I will continue to eat it, however, if that's OK with you. Not that you have any say in the matter.

Synopsis Situations
  1. when you've written the book and you're trying to sell it to agent / publisher
  2. when you haven't written the book and you are trying to plot it out, to give yourself something to follow
  3. yes, I know I said two, but this is a minor third, which I'm not going to treat as properly separate, but I want to stop you all piling in and saying, "What about ..., you ignorant woman?" It is: when you're already with a publisher and you're trying to explain your next idea to your friendly editor, hoping for a contract before writing the book.
If you're an unpublished author, or at least you don't have a friendly publisher lined up for your WIP (Work in Progress), you will need to become adept at No.1 so that's what we're going to talk about. No.2 is a very useful tool, one which I should make much greater use of, but there are no special skills involved and no rules to follow. It's just a matter of sitting down at your desk instead of vacuuming behind the fridge.

Trouble with synopses is that they reduce your beautiful words to something much plainer. They can seem stark and reveal all your flaws (which is actually one of the reasons why they are so useful.) They are your glorious self stripped bare and made to stand in front of the cameras in an Edwardian swimming-costume under bright lights with no make-up. You're shuddering, I know you are. It's like being in one of those programmes - you know, How To Look Good Naked (shut your eyes or get drunk?) or Ten Years Younger (and $40,000 of cosmetic and dental surgery later, as well as very clever make-up).

But to continue the anology about as far as it will go, if you were on one of those before and after programmes and had to stand there virtually naked and actually frightening the wood-lice, you would be doing certain things to make sure you looked as OKish as possible, wouldn't you? I mean you would not really be letting your abdominal muscles slide earthwards - you'd be holding them in; you'd put your shoulders back, chin up, lips gently smiling.

Actually, what you'd be doing would be trying to show that IF you had clothes and make-up and corsetry on, you'd look sensational. Your synopsis, despite being your story naked, needs to do this. It needs to stand with confidence, poise, structure and form. Use those muscles - they're in there somewhere. Or they were once.

In a minute I'm going to direct you to some articles and blogs which will give lots of advice. Thing is, some of it conflicts. So, I want to distill the essential points, so that you can then decide what to do with the conflicting stuff.

Essential Rules
  1. It must be short. Some publishers and agents specify either max 1 or max 2 pages. Don't cheat with this - a page, like a page of your actual MS, must be double-spaced, decent sized font, with normal margins. A shorter synopsis is preferable to a longer one, and if it's too long it will really mark you down. So, edit and pare, edit and pare, edit and pare.
  2. It is not a teaser - so, DO say what happens in the end. (But if you are writing a synopsis for your website - Synopsis Situation 4, I guess - do NOT give away the ending. SS4 is entirely different from SS1-3.)
  3. You give, in the order in which they appear in the book, all the main events. Leave out minor characters, and small incidents. Distill to the most important elements of the story.
  4. It should retain a flavour of the book's style and voice. Don't just say "this happened and then that happened and eventually the guy dies."
  5. It should contain no GPS (Grammar, Punctuation and Spelling) errors. It should be nicely laid out and easy to read.
  6. The present tense works well for synopses, but it's not a rule, despite being in a list entitled Essential Rules.
Here are some resources for you.
Sadly, the other day I came across a brilliant blog piece about an author's search for how to write the perfect synopsis, and I a) wrote a comment on it b) made a note of the blog address and c) lost the note. I knew I wasn't eating enough chocolate. (Sorry.) So, if that blogger happens to see this, could she please identify herself by commenting below and I'll add the URL? I have a feeling it was someone who follows this blog, but I'm not sure.

USEFUL RESOURCES

AbsoluteWrite has a very useful piece here by Lee Masterson The only thing I slightly disagree with is the bit about not asking open questions. I agree that they should be under-used rather than over-used, because you are supposed to be explaining your book rather than simply enticing (which a blurb would do), but I don't know of agents / editors who would mark you down for using the odd open question, if that's relevant to the story-line. Lee's point about then needing to answer the open question is a good one though.

A Literary Agent's tips (from the US)
Nathan Bransford seems to have had the same problem as me getting this blog piece done. But he's done it and it's very succinct.

Finally, I came across this one from Marg Gilks and it's excellent. She makes some important distinctions between types of synopsis and strikes the right balance between blurb and outline. (Small warning though - it was written in 2001 and although I hadn't realised that anything much would have changed synopsis-wise in that time, there are two things which I should clarify: first, DEFINITELY double spacing, please, and second, DON'T be tempted to do a ten-pager; two is really the most you should do, unless you've written Anna Karenina, in which case leave out the farming stuff and that should help a lot.)

Anyway, I have to say that Marg Gilks has converted me. I am now positively looking forward to writing a synopsis. In fact, I am am going to engineer a Synopsis Situation. Bring it on.

On another note entirely, since this post has been on the teachy side rather than the chatty side and since you have been working very hard, and since you need an explanation as to why I haven't posted for a few days, I thought you might like another funny story from the mad world of doing author events. So, do read my "My Brain Causes Airport Security Incident" story here.

Meanwhile, the deadline for my Worst Query letter competition is about to close and I am going to spend the afternoon re-reading the entries and trying to decide. You have produced some absolute classics - well done and thank you for some brilliant laughs! I hope to bring you the winning entries in the next few days.

[Edited to add, almost exactly five years later: I now LOVE writing synopses and in fact have written an ebook about it! See here.]

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

PS re MARKETING - REMEMBER YOU'RE A WRITER

Ah, now a comment on the previous post has inspired a little PS ....

Two posts in one day - it's a record - I must be supposed to be writing: you can just tell from all the WAS (see here if you don't know what a WAS is ...)

Anyway, commenting on the last post, SueG said that she'd suggest adding one more piece of advice. She said, "be prepared to spend a year of your life doing more marketing than writing! I found it very difficult to work on the new novel while I was promoting the old one. It was frustrating but necessary, and now when I'm promoting book 2 (hopefully!) I'll be more prepared for the time commitment."

I completely agree that we may find ourselves doing more marketing than writing. And the comment about finding it hard to work on the second novel while promoting the first one is important, especially for those of you writing in genres which will expect or at least allow a novel a year, and therefore promoting a novel a year. And since I am in that category, let me share my experience and some words of caution about overdoing the marketing stuff:
  • the marketing goes on and on, gets easier and easier, but more productive and effective and therefore more and more tempting because the horrible truth dawns: that marketing is one hell of a lot easier than writing
  • similarly, because we crave feedback and affirmation and because the more marketing we do the more feedback and affirmation we get, it becomes even more tempting to do more and more, and lo and behold the writing becomes EVEN harder
  • we may come to a point (as I did last year) when the ability to write really suffers because of all the other stuff that's so much easier. It's a million times easier for me to fly or train somewhere and stand up for a few hours and speak to quantities of teenagers and then fly and train back to answer all their lovely emails, than it is for me to sit for two hours and WRITE. So we can end up filling our diaries, as I did, with Stuff That Is Not Writing.
So, beware everyone: remember that you are in this to be a writer and don't tangle yourself up too much in the other easier stuff. And one day you will get to the stage when you can say no to things - usually, you won't realise that you have reached that stage until you've said yes to far too much, and the symptom will be that you are suddenly writing less, and perhaps less happily.

And thanks, SueG, for your useful point.

I WROTE IT - YOU MEAN I HAVE TO MARKET IT, TOO?????

A timely post on the behlerblog reminds me of one of the most important things I haven't told you yet (and there are many, but I'm getting there.) See, in all my years of trying to get published, I thought "getting published" was the end result, and that then I'd just sit back and relax in the smug champagne-infused knowledge that I was "An Author".

Oh, how wrong could I have been! Publication is just the start and if you think that all you've then got to do is write, eat chocolate and google yourself every Friday evening, you'll have a major shock.

To illustrate this, here are a few questions that you will be asked / fascinating observations that will be made by your non-writerly friends and relatives (especially relatives, some of whom seem hard-wired to say the most unintentionally annoying things).
  • I haven't seen any reviews yet in the national papers
  • so, doesn't your agent book events for you and do marketing?
  • I went into the bookshop in Pittenweem but I didn't see your book there
  • so, how are sales?
  • my son's teacher hadn't heard of you
  • is this the book signing? So why is no-one here?
Thing is, unless you're very lucky, you are going to have to jump and down and do a bit of marketing. The dreaded self-promotion. Because you can't expect your publisher to do as much as you would like, and with many books there will be zero marketing budget.

You have two choices:
  1. sit around, moan, and wait for the world to come asking you to do huge events / signings / interviews
  2. get out there and be pro-active. Ideally without being obnoxious - there are plenty of authors who break that rule, but I will like you more if you don't. I am also more likely to buy your book if you're not arrogant and don't go about thinking you're the only person who ever wrote a book. In fact I make a distinct point of not buying the book of anyone who I don't like (though I have been sent a few by publishers ...).
So, what can you do?
  • read Marketing Your Book by Alison Baverstock.
  • have a meeting with your publisher to brainstorm ideas - even if there's no budget, there's a huge amount that can be done for nothing (or very little) if you work together. Your publisher will respond well to you having sensible ideas and working with them, and they are then likely to help more. They want to sell copies, too, remember, and they like authors who work with them in this way. (But not unrealistic or pushy ones.)
  • at that meeting, ask them what they plan in terms of sending review copies out. At this point (or earlier, ideally) tell them your relevant contacts, anyone who knows your name and might be willing to do a review or comment for a press release, for example
  • be imaginative - sit down with a sensible friend and work out some ideas. Get his/her help to contact local press and other media - if your friend can be your publicist, so much the better. (But do talk to your publisher about this - if they have a publicity dept doing something for you, they will not take kindly to you announcing that you have your own publicity person. Friction here is a Very Bad Idea.)
  • talking about being imaginative, if you're a children's or teenage author, why not do what I do and work with a school on the publicity? One of the greatest mysteries of the world is why I'm the only author who seems to do this. OK, so it's hard work and you have to start by being trusted by a school, but it's incredibly exciting, very rewarding and it gets a lot of publicity each time. For a bit of detail about the current porject, see the Deathwatch project here or for a previous one, see My Mad Moniave Monday. Between them, those two pages will give you a pretty good idea of the possibilities. I've done things like this with every new book in the last 4 years.
  • contact schools and libraries in your area - but be clear what you are offering. See my website's Inviting me to Speak page for what I offer. Around publication it's acceptable to offer free events but otherwise it's frowned on - you're undermining your art, talent and hard work, not to mention those of other authors. Sorry, I feel a rant coming on and a hobby horse demanding to be ridden - I must control myself. (Events / signings in bookshops are, however, normally free - it's simple economics, but you'd normally do this around publication anyway.)
  • know your strengths and weaknesses - but remember that what you think is a weakness can become a strength if you face it and work at it. Nervous about speaking in public? Two tips: prepare fantastically and just DO it - a few times and you'll be so much better. Expect the first few talks to be less good than later ones.
  • talk to booksellers - often they're very amenable to a lovely author coming in and politely and enthusiastically (and briefly) explaining why their book might usefully be stocked. Sometimes you will come out of the bookshop feeling like a trodden-on slug. Pick yourself up and move on. It's a tough world and people do sometimes step on slugs.
  • have a website - it's your shop window. Readers can send you reviews (and you can select the ones you like ...), you can advertise your events etc etc.
  • and a blog - ditto
  • join one of the many on-line (or other) support groups of writers in every genre - if you don't know of any, your agent or publisher probably does. That way, you'll get ideas for marketing and support from people who know what it all feels like.
Remember that there are VAST numbers of books published every year and even the keenest reader can't read more than the tiniest fraction of them. This means that only the tiniest tiniest fraction will get reviews (other than on Amazon, where reviews are highly unreliable - but let's not go into that right now); the tiniest fraction will be read; and most won't ever appear on general release in bookshops. So, if you want to give your book the best chance, you've got to work at it.

After all, however much your publisher supports you, no one loves and wants your book to succeed more than you.

But do it all nicely, please, unless you're actually happy to have readers but no friends.

Saturday, 21 March 2009

WORST QUERY COMPETITION


How bad could a query be?


Think you've got the hang of how NOT to sell your book idea to an agent or publisher? Think you've absorbed all the cringe-making "don'ts" from the pages of this blog and others? Think you're now so good that you could be really really bad? Want to have a bit of constructive fun?

Well, here's your chance.
The prize (don't get too excited): a signed copy of your choice of one of my books, which I will generously post anywhere in the world. (Note to pedants: by this I mean a book that I wrote, not one that happens to be sitting on my shelves, written by someone else.)
The task: to produce the worst query letter about an imaginary book (as judged by a totally partial committee of my friends).

Now a "query letter" is like a covering letter but shorter. (Common practice in the US and getting more common here, and a topic I need to cover soon.) A query letter is what you would send on its own, to persuade an agent / publisher to agree to receiving a submission from you. So, you won't be including any material such as synopsis or a sample of your writing: you are simply trying to make the recipient desperate to read your masterpiece. So, you will be selling your masterpiece as a masterpiece and yourself as an author of masterpieces.

A good query letter does that, throwing a fabulous hook to catch the person you want to catch. A good query letter is a letter that tantalises and convinces and tempts and produces insane drooling in the receipient. But a bad query letter ... well, there are so many ways it could be bad. But how bad can you be?

THE RULES
  • all entries should be emailed to me at writingtutor@hotmail.co.uk (How cool is that address? It's the one I created that weekend when I was planning an on-line tuition course.)
  • I will acknowledge receipt of your entry but not enter into any discussion about it. (I have to maintain my crabbit old bat status.)
  • one entry per person. (Do you think I've got nothing else to do?)
  • any comments or questions should go in the normal comments bit below, not emailed.
  • I will not be berated for mistakenly not judging you to be the worst, even if you are really bad.
  • no money instead of glorious prize will be considered - how could you possibly want money instead of one of my books? Unless you've read them all, in which case you've definitely won already.
  • the deadline for entries is 12.00GMT on Sunday 29th March
  • I promise not to do anything nasty with your entry (like pretending it was a real query letter and sending it to the Bookseller with your name).
  • by entering this competition you agree to be bound by the above rules blahdy blahdy blah.
  • oh, and you agree that the three winning entries can be published on this blog, without payment to you (or me, obviously) and without you losing your moral rights and copyright. Though why you'd want moral rights to a piece of rubbish, I have no idea.
  • I think that's about it but I may think of something else while I'm walking the dog.
Have fun!

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

WHY WASN'T I PUBLISHED FOR SO LONG?

What, you mean apart from the fact I wasn't good enough?

Well, time I explained this, I suppose, after several weeks of appearing to know it all. Because the truth is that once I knew a lot less than I do now. Obvious, really.

First, for those of you who have missed the tragic enormity of this failure, it took me twenty-one years of failing to get a novel published. At the time, that was more than half my life, and certainly all of my adult life. Yes, ALL my adult life failing to achieve the one thing I really wanted: to be a novelist. That's some bruising failure. And bruised I was. Badly. It affected my health and happiness and my sense of self. Luckily (for them) few people knew about my constant attempts at fame and fortune. Unluckily (for him) my husband did. He's still here. Still waiting for me to earn a lot of money, I guess. I'm trying.

OK, I did get some "stuff" published during that time, but it wasn't enough. Home learning books (which have done very nicely financially and which allowed me to say I was a published writer) and stacks of magazine articles. Oh, and talking of doing nicely financially: I regularly get money from a magazine I wrote for ten years ago which keeps using my articles and pays me every time, with me sitting at home doing sod all - would you believe that today I actually sold "36th rights" for three articles?? This means they have used them 36, yes 36 times. God, who needs to be a novelist when you get paid 36 times for something you can't even remember writing?

And there was the odd moment of relative success (relative to abject failure), like appearing in Reader's Digest with my photo and actually being recognised on a bus, and a story winning an expensive pen in the Ian St James awards, and a couple of times almost making it through an aquisitions meeting. But almost is not really good enough, is it?

Anyway, reasons for my abject failure:
  1. I thought I was better than I was. I just didn't know what mistakes I was making. This was in pre-blog days, when people like me (as in me now, not me then - me then would have been pretty useless) weren't sharing and there were few relevant books and nice helpful things telling me what a load of shocking errors I was making.
  2. I wasn't thinking of my readers. Couldn't give a toss about them frankly - yep, it was all for me. Moi, moi, moi. Self-indulgent beauteous prose, right up my own backside, just gorgeous (but over-written) plotless stuff that gave me shivers of gratuitous pride, and gave any potential reader a severe case of "where the hell's the plot gone or going and I mean why should we CARE about your drivellingly unlikely character who murdered her husband just because of some arcane psychological problem to do with Samuel Johnson which we are supposed to guess through the boring fog of your however-erudite turgidity?
  3. I hadn't written the right book. As in a book with a concept which would grab the agent / publisher with its stupendous hook, draw them into a tightly-written and either original or genre-specific plot, written by an author exuding wisdom and knowledge of the market. (Actually, I thought woman who murders husband because he's fat was quite good hook-wise, but hey, that was then.) See here for my post on this topic. (Not murders of fat husbands: I mean writing the right book.)
  4. I wasn't even following the rules of submissions to publishers, despite the fact that I roll my eyes at you lot for sending toffees to agents and being similarly foolish. In fact, once I even .... but no, I can't tell you that. It's too embarrassing. (For rules for submission, see the Writers and Artists Yearbook, publishers' websites and relevant labels on this blog. There is no excuse for not following these rules - there wasn't then, and there isn't now. Well, unless you actually want to beat my 21-year record.)
And so followed the rejection letters. Because yes, I've had a few. There were the occasional ones that said lovely things but which gave suggestions contradicting previous ones (like "we feel it's too short" after "we feel it's too long" and "the plot is somewhat avant garde" after "the plot is somewhat traditional"); there were the "not right for our list" ones (unhelpful but true); there was my favourite (though not at the time) which consisted of my rubbish covering letter with the word NO! scrawled across it in pencil and returned to me in an envelope without a stamp even though I HAD included return postage; and there was the one which arrived back the day after I'd posted it, something which defies the laws of both postage and Newtonian motion and I can only assume that the postman was an Orion employee sent to destroy the slush pile before it occurred.

So, if you are now in the position I was in then - one of soul-searing awfulness, when you feel that life will be utterly meaningless if you don't get that contract, when your whole belief in yourself is shaken daily - I feel your pain, I really do.

That not being good enough thing? In a way it's true, I wasn't good enough. And maybe ... sorry ... you aren't either. But maybe, by listening and learning and improving, you can become good enough. But remember too that it's not just about being good enough - it's about writing the right book at the right time and sending it to the right publisher at the right time. I know, I've said it before. I could even become boring. (If you're new to this blog or need a reminder, use the label "right book" on the list of labels to the right.)

The trick, and the one which this blog tries to help with, is to work out whether:
  1. you are good enough but haven't written the right book yet
  2. you are good enough and have written possibly the right book really beautifully but haven't sent it to the right person in the right way
  3. you aren't good enough but could become so, with time, practice and/or help
  4. you aren't good enough and won't ever be published satisfactorily
Thought for the day: actually, a lot of published writers aren't good enough either. Some of you may well be better than some of them. It all boils down to what a publisher thinks will sell. And I've already done a post on Why is crap published? But you're not writing crap, are you? Please say you're not. Though I have to be brutally honest and say that if you ask any agent or editor they will tell you that the vast bulk of the slush pile is absolute utter crap, of a meaningfully finger-in-the-throat boggingness.

After that bit of brutality and after all these weeks of listening to me seem to know it all, you deserve to know that embarrassing thing I did. I think I can trust you now. Please don't laugh.

Here goes. Deep breath. Will you still respect me? I was young then. Young and really stupid.

The thing is ...

I
once
wrote
a
covering
letter
in
rhyme
...

People! Don't do it!

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

PICTURE BOOK PERFECTION

Writers of grown-up books, stay with me: picture books have a lot to teach the adult novelist. They are, when done well, a perfect illustration of structure, pace, voice, word choice and engagement with the reader.

Besides, poor old Bev J has been patiently looking at this blog EVERY day, waiting for me to honour my rash promise to say something about picture books.

And another besides, last night I was at the launch of a new picture book by the wonderful Catherine Rayner, "Sylvia and Bird", and it got me thinking. A couple of glasses of fizz later (well, ok, maybe two and a half but Malcolm was very persuasive and Vanessa had got the sparkly stuff in just for me so I felt obliged) and I was thinking with the extra perception that only comes from sparkly booze.

You should have been there. You'd have seen a room full of adults utterly engaged by a story. We were right back at kindergarten. Honestly, we were asking to sit cross-legged on the floor and I'm sure I saw several people suck their thumbs. Dewy-eyed we all were and if someone had come along with that Valrhona chocolate with the little gold bits that Jane Smith keeps telling me about, we'd have hissed at them to shut up and go away with their boring brown product.

You see, a good picture book has everything that any reader or listener needs:
shape, structure, voice, pace, character, setting, and the reader's desperation to know what's going to happen. And isn't that the point about novels? That the reader must want to know what's going to happen? Must in fact be relentlessly driven on by that urge. Otherwise, why would a sensible person sit around listening to a made-up story?

That's why, in my humble etc, a picture book has such a lot to teach us all.

Here are a few other things to know about picture books.
  • writing a picture book is way way WAY harder than it looks. Why do you think I've never tried? Oh, apart for some Thomas the Tank Engine books, but that was so painfully difficult that I never plan to do it again. Unless I'm tortured and/or paid a lot of money. Which, by the way, a) I was (paid, not tortured, though there was a bit of that) and b) you almost certainly won't be for an original picture book (paid or tortured).
  • do not - oh please please do not EVER - consider writing a picture book because you "want to teach young children" anything - eg "how to share things", as a highly unlikely-ever-to-be-successful aspiring writer said to me recently, shortly before I removed myself from such a pointless conversation. Why? Because there is only one reason to write a picture book:
The Only Reason To Write A Picture Book:

You have a lovely story you want to tell.

Nitty gritty bits:
  • a picture book works to a format of a fixed number of pages - usually 24 or 32. Go and buy / borrow some to see how this works. Once you've decided your format (depending on age - as in age of reader not your own age ... - and bearing in mind that shorter is easier to sell, as it's cheaper), work your story around it, remembering that the number of pages includes the "prelims" (the beginning couple of pages where the title and other info comes).
  • note that the first page and the last page are single pages, with everything in between being called "double spreads". Keep this in mind as you plan how your story will divide over the pages.
  • note how few sentences appear on each page. That's one of the reasons it's so hard - it's incredibly difficult to tell an engaging story in a few words. Even if you start with such a fascinating and engagingly likely character as Thomas the Tank Engine ...
  • a pic book story must have a shape, just like any other story. So you might start gently, build up, have a setback, build up again, build up more, reach an exciting outcome, and settle down into a feeling of satisfaction. It is a rounded whole and creates an expectation of resolution followed by a small flutter of worry about resolution before the resolution arrives.
  • it must have a rhythm and a flow - this story will have to be read by an adult again and again and again. So, read it. Again and again and again.
  • unfortunately, you need to avoid or at least be cautious about rhyme, unless you are someone fabulously successful like Gruffalo creator Julia Donaldson - someone else whose launch I've been to and where I've seen grown adults dribbling. Actually, more than that, we acted it out the story for her, with sounds and silly faces and very embarrassing things and we LOVED it. It was fizzy wine again, I admit, but even so.
  • (btw, the boring reason for avoiding rhyme is that it can't translate easily into foreign languages and publishers usually need to be able to do this.)
Extra nitty gritty bit: Jane Smith just directed me (see comments below) to a REALLY technical and good Editorial Anonymous lesson about pic books here. Way too technical for me but if I was actually writing a pic book ....

What about the pictures?
  • If you are a trained illustrator who has written a story, offer yourself as an illustrator who has written a story. In other words, send text and pics.
  • If you are a writer who happens to be pretty good at drawing, just offer the story - you are welcome to include sketches, just to give an idea, but you are highly unlikely to be taken on as the illustrator. The publisher will find an illustrator - this is not your job and you'll be wasting your time.
  • If you are a writer who can't draw for toffee, don't. Just write the story. The publisher will find the artist.
About the submission:
  • send the whole thing, not just a sample
  • but if you are the illustrator, there'd be nothing wrong with only sending some of the finished artwork (but with complete text), with perhaps some sketches for the rest, as long as your style and consistency are absolutely obvious alongside your incredible talent
  • if sending just text, make sure you indicate how the text will be split between pages
  • you won't usually need a synopsis, as your covering letter should give all that's necessary. But a short (obviously!) synopsis on a separate sheet would not go amiss to show you've understood about structure etc
  • if you are an illustrator, you could send a sample of your work as well as anything you send for this project - you could be taken on as an illustrator for someone else's story
  • whatever, you must show a long-term commitment. Simply having written one pic book story on a whim won't be enough. Mention some other ideas you've had, say whether you've written anything else, and give some idea (eg in a CV / resumĂ©) that you have a relevant background and a future. Too many people think that a pic book is easy and a way to get a foot in the door - it's neither of those things and a publisher or agent needs to know that you are worth investing time and money in. One pic book on its own is harder to sell than a potential pic book star author.
Now, if any of you have any technical questions about submitting artwork, please don't ask me, as I haven't a clue. I'm no artist and have absolutely no technical knowledge of that side of things. And I'd be delighted if any experienced pic book writers would add comments to fill in any gaps or add any insights. As I said, I haven't written any pic books and anything I know comes from being interested in all forms of writing and from listening to other people's experiences, including many Society of Authors members.

All I know, and what I really want to emphasise, is that writing a picture book is a real art in itself and that writers for older readers of all ages should read, analyse, inwardly digest and ultimately respect and learn from the best picture books around. And here are three of my favs to get you started.

Think of an Eel, by Karen Wallace - the most magical writing. Perfection.

The Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson - deservedly a classic



Meanwhile, I'm going back to Vanessa's shop to buy a copy of Sylvia and Bird, because I ... er ... forgot last night. Well, I was having too much fun listening to a story.

Saturday, 14 March 2009

WHY IS CRAP PUBLISHED?

Why do people crochet pink toilet-roll covers? Why do manufacturers produce orange psychadelic wallpaper? Why does anyone bother to grow broad beans? Or make mint-flavoured white chocolate? Or offer holidays on cruise ships with karaoke every evening?

Because there's no accounting for folks and some people actually like that stuff.

Same with books. Publishers produce what they think people will buy and generally-speaking they're right. (Apart from the dolt who paid a fortune for unappealing UK footballer Wayne Rooney's FIVE VOLUME autobiography when the guy was only about 17. Must have been very big print. And probably a load of pictures to help him along, but still ...)

You'll have noticed that the biggest best-sellers can often arguably be categorised as utter drivel. And you may rightly surmise that a lot of people like reading drivel, otherwise they wouldn't have bought it.

And don't go all politically-correct and hit me with, "Who're you to say it's drivel?" Drivel is in the eye of the beholder and in this case the beholder is me. If the reader of Katie Price's autobiog wants to say that Madame Bovary / The Blind Assassin / Atonement / Life of Pi /The Moth Diaries / Silas Marner / The Little White Horse are rubbish, fine. They're wrong, but what do they know? And it's not the point: the point is to answer the question, "Why is crap published?"

It's published because it sells. Blame the readers. Publishers have to make money and all readers are different and are entitled to enjoy and choose whatever rubbish they want and like or dislike it for whatever reason they want.

A much more important question is "Why does great stuff NOT get published?" In other words, why has the genuinely beautiful and wonderful work which I am sure many of you produce not been snapped up?

I've gone a long way to answering aspects of that in other posts, but it boils down to one or more of these reasons:
  • although it's genuinely beautiful in many ways and you are a talented writer, you have not yet crafted a book which is good enough to be in the "great book" category but it is way too great to be read by readers of the crap category
  • it doesn't have an adequate "hook" - a snappy "high-concept" tag that will make sales and marketing people drool. (See Acquisitions meetings.)
  • it's otherwise goodish but falls down in eg voice or structure and the editor isn't sure that you'll be able to improve it enough
  • you haven't written the right book at the right time or sent it to the right publisher at the right time ...
  • ... and in the right way - the submission must be right, especially the covering letter
  • an agent / editor admires it but hasn't fallen in love with it - see the Behler Blog here - possibly because it's neither brilliant nor drivel, but middly
  • for one reason or another, it's simply not sellable in enough quantities, although your mother absolutely loves it (which, as you should know by now, means nothing - unless your mother happens to be accidentally right)
For rubbish to sell, it has to be seriously good rubbish. Your average kind-of-OK book just won't cut the mustard, especially if it's a book which looks as though it could actually be quite good with a bit of work done on it.

Unfortunately, seriously good drivel is what many large publishing houses now need to survive. See - you're just all too good and surely I'm doing you a great disservice in writing a blog designed to make you better. I should be teaching you how to write really bad stuff. Trouble is, I've never quite worked out how to do that myself. I like to think.

Because, of course, rubbish is other people's success.

Thursday, 12 March 2009

LITERATURE IS SAFE

Fear not, everyone: I have a new discovery which will save the future of literature.
There's a company called Cocoa Farm (the sort of farm even I could work on) which is based in Australia (PLEASE can I come and visit??) and which makes .... read it and DROOL: "wine chocolate". I have Pinot Noir chocolate in front of me right now but I happen to know that they also do Shiraz flavour. And if Scotland decides to follow that ridiculous doctor's advice and taxes it, I'm going to Australia. Obviously, I'll miss the wind and rain and sleet and nasty cold slushy stuff that we seem to have at the moment, unusually, but hey.

And if anyone from Cocoa Farm is reading this - it was my pleasure. I'm cheap: a year's supply and I'm yours. Mind you, a year's supply is fairly substantial in my case.

To any of you who are wanting my serious publishing advice back:
  1. I apologise - today's news about possible chocolate taxes was a crisis but I'll be back on track next time.
  2. This is serious publishing advice. Chocolate provides the pleasure which offsets and therefore delineates the pain of the artistic struggle. It bridges the existential void betwixt author's angst-ridden mind and the reader's eager heart.
Meanwhile, if you don't mind, I need to sample the pinot noir chocolate. I may be some time.

SHOCKING NEW THREAT TO BOOKS

Please make sure you are sitting down and that medical support is not far away.

You've heard of books being threatened by the internet; you've heard of literature being damaged by cultural dumbing down and obsession with celebrity non-writing; you know that author income is falling in these straitened times. But, fellow-authors, I must warn you of a new and terrifying attack from an unexpected quarter.

Pause for a deep breath.

Yes, it is that bad. And it's starting, I'm ashamed to say, in Scotland. (I may have to disown my adopted country. Adopted, see: I'm not really Scottish, I'll have you know. I don't even have a Celtic fringe. I'll happily take a few bottles of single malt, preferably from Islay, and then leave.)

The shocking news: a Scottish doctor, who is clearly not an author, is proposing a tax on ... chocolate.

In my view, this is the single biggest threat to the future quality of literature since the man from Porlock interrupted Samuel Taylor Coleridge while writing Kubla Khan.

This is nothing but a Tax On Books. It's a short step from such amorality to knocking the feet from under old ladies or removing the brakes from babies' prams.

Writers need chocolate. A writer without chocolate is like a ship without water, a bird without wings. Without it we are but amateurs, struggling in the dark, whistling in the wind. Surely we must see this absurd suggestion as the last straw, the final unacceptable threat to our honourable profession? Rise up, I say, gird up your Lindts, va-voom your Valrhona, gather your Green and Blacks (especially the ones with little bits of orange in them) and go forth and ... er ... eat. You see, this proves it - I haven't had any chocolate this morning and I've totally run out of good words.

I'm not sure if I can write any more at all today after that news with my breakfast. I may have to go shopping instead. First stop, Hotel Chocolat.

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

BEWARE OF PRAISE

Praise is very like chocolate:
  • it tastes great at the time
  • too much of it is (regrettably) bad for you
  • it (regrettably) needs to be balanced with the sensible stuff
  • once tasted, you want more and more of it
  • people give it to each other to show love, to bribe them, to make friends, and because giving and receiving are linked
  • you should sometimes reject it
  • it has been scientifically proven to be beneficial to mood
Pause to go and eat some, just so's I can remember. Method-writing again.

Anyway.

So, we all need it. Praise, I mean. But actually, it's not like chocolate because ALL chocolate is Truth Incarnate (except mint flavoured white chocolate, which is pure evil and doesn't deserve to be called chocolate) but some praise is False and Must Be Rejected Forthwith.

And I don't mean that it's false because the person delivering the praise is lying. Just that they're wrong, irrelevant and not worth listening to. Sorry. No really. I am. I don't like saying this. But believing that sort of praise is the worst favour you can do yourself as a writer. Would I lie to you after all this time?

Praise from someone who doesn't know what the hell they're talking about is worse than mint flavoured white chocolate. Or those pale ones from Marks & Spencer that have absolutely no chocolate in them at all and make me gag. Oh and M&Ms - I nearly walked out of the cinema when my husband was eating M&Ms. All that vacant crunching and crappy plastic smell and not a hint of genuine cocoa. Am I showing myself up as a chocolate snob? Well, in that case I 'm a praise snob too.

You should become a praise snob. If you really want to hone your writing and get published, learn to do two things with praise:
  1. store it in the cosy bit of your brain to boost you when you have no chocolate
  2. analyse it, judge it, assess it, and be HONEST about it (Is that 4 things? Call me generous.) And sometimes, reject it.
Here's my fool-proof guide to assessing praise, in the context of "Is This Praise That Is In The Slightest Bit Relevant To My Getting Published?" Of course, praise about your hair-style, dress sense, new lipstick colour or new car is entirely outwith the remit of this blog, and I would have to charge a fee for such extension of my adjudicatory powers. Essentially, all writing-related praise should be thoroughly discarded (after thanking the kind donor politely and not actually saying that you've been told to ignore them by a crabbit old bat from Scotland) if it emanates from the mouths or keyboards of the following. Oh, and may I say that as individuals these are often perfectly lovely people, just that they're not qualified to praise your writing in any kind of practical sense, though they may be accidentally correct?
  • your parents, grandparents, children - other blood relatives may very occasionally give acceptable advice, but only if they are not:
  • members of your writing group - I'm sorry, now I've really blown it. Sorry, guys: it's that you've got issues that get in the way. Like, you're really wanting to boost the self-esteem of the writer, and it's lovely of you, it really is, but you're psychologically, morally and ethically connected, (and you may be actually in their house and drinking their wine) and it's not possible for you to be objective (unless you're really cool, and I don't mean cool-trendy); OK, I relent: occasionally your writing group may have a point but ... will you know when that point arrives??
  • other unpublished writers, unless they have publishing credentials, in which case listen to them (unless they fall into the blood-relly category)
  • anyone who doesn't have publishing credentials or some other reason to Know
  • especially the above if they're sober - alcohol is a great honesty boost
  • your friend
  • your dog
  • anyone on a blog
  • anyone on Amazon
  • anyone posting an anonymous review, as it's probably your friend, dog, parent, publisher
Look, I know you hate me now - and we were getting along so well. I KNOW praise is important - god, I'm delicate enough that I need it too. I'm absolutely not saying ignore all praise: I'm saying assess it. I'm saying be honest with yourself. Some praise is fab but some is simply air. Poisonous air at that.

Ask yourself two questions:
  1. Does this person actually genuinely know what they're talking about?
  2. Is this person giving the praise entirely out of the blue and not because I happen to have put them on the spot by asking them for an "honest opinion"?

This post has come about because I see people being held back from publishing potential by clutching at empty praise and ignoring the much rarer really constructive criticism, which could actually improve their writing and pull them towards genuine success. Of course I love it when people say nice things to me but I grow much more from the negative points - the girl who asked me why I wrote such long chapters, the comments from readers who didn't like a certain ending - and then the praise from the specific people who I most respect because they KNOW and they are HONEST and I DIDN'T ASK THEM FOR AN OPINION.

There are people I know who are renowned for being honest in their criticism and those are the ones I work hardest to please because I know they won't say it's good if it's not. I so respect people with the guts to be honest - and I admit that I'm not one of them. (You surprised??) I know that occasionally when a friend has written something I didn't really rate, I've said some nice things. That's the problem, it's so hard not to. People say, "Be honest," but they don't mean it ...

The worst places are some online communities and forums. You see people going on-line and off-loading and everyone piles in with all the oh dahlings, and poor you, and don't worry WE know you're fab, dahling. When they haven't even read the thing that's been rejected. And of course it's lovely and kind and generous and right in lots of ways but in terms of becoming published it's so so so detrimental.

I feel really bad after this, but I'll have to steal myself and click "Publish". I really don't mean you to reject all praise but a) don't go seeking it because if you ask for an honest opinion from a friend/colleague/equal it will be highly unlikely to be entirely honest and if not entirely honest then somewhat pointless (except in a chocolately sort of way) and b) when you get praise, consider this: that if you accept praise, logically you should equally accept the negative stuff. Such as the rejections by professionals ...

And now I really am going to wimp out: you're all fabulous, dahlings. Think about it - how does that sound?

Perhaps I should more constructively say: hold all praise briefly to your heart and then let it go and focus on improving your writing.

Before I go, I should also pass you over to a post on How Publishing Really Works a while back, which illustrates this very beautifully and much more pithily than my typically over-long rant has. (Oops, Jane, that sounds like praise.)

Sunday, 8 March 2009

HOW TO BE A REALLY NICE PUBLISHABLE AUTHOR

I'm assuming, of course, that you've already written a wonderful book, perfectly pitched in terms of what the market wants (supposing the market knows what it wants), and that it has a fabulous "hook" which will engage the attention of the most slushed-out editor or agent. I'm assuming, too, that your covering letter is honed, your synopsis crystalline, and that you have diligently researched the best publishers or agents to approach. Oh, and that you are an expert in your genre, and can reel off a dozen current authors whom you admire in that genre. I know I can rely on you ...

At this point, you might understandably be saying, "What?? Isn't my great submission enough? I've got to be NICE too?? What the hell has being nice ever had to do with being an author? I know horrible ones, dirty ones, drunk ones, boring and arrogant ones. God, I even know one so objectionable that no half-decent book festival wants to invite him EVER again." (I do, by the way, but if I tell you I will have to kill you.)

Yes, patently, not all authors are nice. However, they will have pretended to be until they signed the contract and if you are not nice then I recommend you disguise yourself until then.

But "really nice and publishable" is different from being merely nice, which sounds a bit boring. On the other hand, I'm a sucker for nice people and do tend to think they're under-rated. I'm even quite nice myself, not that you'd know it. But I digress.

Here are my almost fail-safe rules for being "really nice and publishable":
  1. Do not include any little extras in your submission: no toffees (see here), no photographs (even or especially of you naked, as poor Jane Smith has had to experience) or any of the weird items mentioned on Editorial Anonymous. These things do not amuse the recipient - trust me. They mark you out as an idiot, albeit possibly a nice one, but an idiot all the same. Many idiots are published, I admit, but it's not a good strategy.
  2. Follow the submission guidelines of each publisher or agent. If they say they want 5,000 words, don't send 10,000. If they want you to hang upside-down for half an hour before breakfast, do it - don't ask why: there will be a reason. It's like your parents saying "because we say so." Reprehensible but the real world.
  3. Don't phone a self-employed person at the weekend or evening, "because I thought I'd catch you." I prefer not to phone strangers, and I certainly prefer not to be phoned by one. If you phone, do ask if this is a convenient time to call. And if it isn't, piss politely off.
  4. Always assume that those you are contacting will think you are the least important and most irritating thing that has happened all year. You may ultimately turn out to be the most wonderful author ever but you cannot force them to believe this yet. Essentially, you have interrupted them doing something which probably IS bringing an income and you must understand that, even if you are brilliant, they are more used to being contacted by idiots / nasty people / useless ignoramuses and they just think you are another one.
  5. Do not argue. Ever. The unpublished author is, unlike "the customer", always wrong, until published, and from that point on is still very often wrong but can afford more chocolate to compensate. Humility is the only answer. That and secretly sticking pins in wax models of everyone who has rejected you, given you a negative review or otherwise destroyed your self-esteem.
  6. And on that subject, don't be rude. This may seem obvious but I don't know an agent who has not been nastily abused by someone wishing to be taken on as a client. One was recently told to "rot in hell". It's not the way to get them to say yes.
  7. Be professional at all times: do what you say you will when you say you will. Unless it's illegal.
  8. Understand the publishing process, by reading expert blogs (many of which are listed to the right). Your understanding will shine through, and it will be noticed. Publishers and agents prefer to deal with people who understand what's going on. They're too busy to educate you.
  9. Ignore the gushing praise of your friends and family. Store it in a cosy bit of your brain and do not a) tell your prospective agent / publisher or b) believe it unreservedly. I'm so drained by the way that some people only listen to the many people blindly praising them and don't listen to the rare people giving constructive criticism, that I'm planning a post on "dealing with positivity".
  10. Be realistic. In the UK alone there are around 120,000 books published every year; granted that some of these are maps or re-issues of long dead books, or series of home learning workbooks that take about 3 hours to write (I'm not exaggerating - I've written them), but that's a hell of a lot of books that publishers and agents are working on. Yes, working on. So the time they have for reading submissions from agents, let alone the slush-pile, is small. And there are vast numbers of unsolicited MSS landing on their desks all the time. If they can't get round to reading your book within a few weeks or months, it's hardly surprising. You can't condemn them for this but you can offer your work to other publishers while you're waiting for Godot; so do.
  11. Understand why books are rejected - it's not necessarily that your book is rubbish. (It might be rubbish, and my agent and publisher friends say that the majority of what they get IS appalling drivel. And badly written drivel at that. But of course, there are gems in there, including very possibly by you and other readers of this blog.) I've talked before about why books are rejected, and will do so again, but meanwhile see a previous post here and also Lynn Price's post here. There's so much more to it than being a good writer - it's got to be the right book at the right time and sent to the right publisher. Which reminds me of an early post on this blog, which I suggest you read if you haven't already.
More about niceness
I haven't talked nearly enough about niceness, other than telling you not to be nasty and rude. Which is a start. But niceness is more important than you think and it's not as fluffy and vapid and boring as it sounds. (Would I be fluffy and vapid and boring?) Humans are social creatures; we react to chemistry; we need to get along. When we work together (as agent / author / publisher) the ability to get along is crucial and can affect the end product. So cultivate a kind of professional niceness, a human integrity and decency, and an understanding of the business you want to enter and of the people within it (including your future readers). Open your mind to the possibility that the way you conduct yourself and interact with people will make a difference to your future, your success and your happiness.

Crikey - at this rate I'll be writing a self-help book. I'd call it "Professional niceness - your journey to personal success." No one would publish it, but so what's new? Which just goes to show that being a really nice and publishable author (which I like to hope that I usually am) is not enough: you've still got to write the right book. And that's the hard bit.

Friday, 6 March 2009

DEFINE A TEENAGE NOVEL

OK, so two posts in a row about teenage fiction is hardly balanced, but then I never made any claim to be balanced and any time I'm asked to walk along a white line I find myself becoming suspiciously unbalanced. Besides, your comments and interest in the subject were really all the excuse I needed, if I needed any excuse to talk about one of my pet subjects, which I don't.

Do we need to define a teenage novel in order to write one?
Some teenage authors whom I respect claim not to be able or wish to define or even particularly think about what a teenage novel is when they write one. Others are with me, enjoying trying to pin it down without restricting it, and trying to reach a level of understanding that helps us identify with our readers as perfectly as possible. The former authors prove that you don't have to. But I think those authors are very few and far between and happen to write books which happen to be teenage in tone simply because those happen to be the books they want to write.

For the rest of us who dare to tread the tight-rope between writing a great story from the heart and writing a great story that will hit specific readers in the heart, and for those of us who want to understand our market, we need some analysis and some knowledge.

PLEASE NOTE: a teenager, like any other reader, is perfectly entitled to read and enjoy ANY book. When I talk about "teenage novels" I don't mean "novels that teenagers often enjoy". I mean "novels aimed specifically at teenagers" (but which other readers may indeed enjoy).

It would help if you first read my last post - COMMON MISTAKES WHEN WRITING FOR TEENAGERS. In fact, without it you won't understand what I'm about to say, especially about safety-nets. Yes, safety-nets - essential tools for writing for young people.

A perfect illustration
If you are prepared to borrow or buy three books, I can show you with absolute clarity what makes a teenage book a teenage book. A quick read of the first few chapters of these three books will illustrate all I am about to say. Without reading the books, however, you'll still get a pretty good gist of what I mean from what follows. All three start with a young person being bullied or set upon at or near school, which is one reason they make a great comparison:

Bad Girls by Jacqueline Wilson
Malarkey by Keith Gray
The Illumination of Merton Browne by JM Shaw

Bad Girls is not a teenage book - for a start, the protagonist is too young. The language is simplifed, with short sentences and gentle vocabulary, and there is a great deal of protection by adults. You can see the mesh of the safety-net. It's not particularly relevant to our topic except that it's when you then read Malarkey that you see the great leap that the reader must take, both in terms of topic and safety-net distance, to go from one book to the next. Bearing in mind that the reader of Bad Girls may well be 10 or 11 but that an 11/12 year old could easily be reading and enjoying Malarkey, and you see the leap the reader has made in a very short theoretical time. The main character in Malarkey is 16ish, which, according to the "rules" of writing for young people means that our intended readership is up to 14/15.

But then consider The Illumination of Merton Browne. There is a level of violence (extreme domestic abuse) which goes beyond what we'd be able or probably want to offer teenagers. There's a total absence of safety net. There is a great deal of swearing. The age of the character is interesting too - at the time of writing he has left school and is thinking back to his childhood, relating events which happened mostly around his eleventh birthday, and much of the initial action takes place as he arrives at secondary school, aged eleven. A teenage book would not normally be this retrospective: it would normally take place during the relevant teenage years of the reader (although earlier episodes might well be related) and in fact cover a very small part of those years. So, by having the main character an adult looking back to being mostly eleven, we already skew it for the teenage reader and make it not a teenage book.

However, it's a book which many older teenagers might like - if they could get their hands on it, which they won't in a school library in the UK or US or Australia or anywhere else I can think of. unless the librarian really wants to lose his/her job.

Why have teenage books anyway?
Ooh, I could write a whole post on this, and have already written about it in the Scotsman, but I see they have put it very annoyingly onto their "premium pages" and I'm sure you don't want to pay for it. Anyway, maybe another day. Consider simply that some people still argue that teenage books are unnecessary because readers should do what "we always did", ie go straight from kids' books to adult books. Thing is, (amongst other things), adult books have changed in the last 20-30 years and you simply cannot go from Bad Girls to Merton Browne. Or at least not without experiencing severe trauma on the way.

What you said
Some of you posted comments about eg whether Terry Pratchett's Tiffany Aching books were teenage or not. DanielB and anonymous / tbrosz were talking about whether something was "quite right" / felt properly teenage in those and other stories which we might have thought were teenage. I haven't read those Pratchett books but I have always thought of him as one of those writers who isn't a teenage writer but who writes books that many teenagers love. I'm guessing that it's the "adult perspective" of the story that you are referring to and have noticed. Yes, in my view this would be something which would make them "not deliberately teenage books". And it's once you've identifued the "teenageness" or otherwise that (I think) you can fully understand what teenage really is. And you clearly have!

Another one to think about is perhaps Doctor Who - much loved by teenagers for generations but (you'd agree??) not exactly "teenage"? Like Pratchett? And Children of the Stones?

Which I guess brings me to my attempt at a definition, granted that all definitions break down when you start to pick at their edges, and that there will be exceptions, and that books are just books forchristsake and why should they have to be pigeon-holed ...

The "definition"
I see a teenage novel as a story with a teenage character(s) at the centre, written from a teenage viewpoint, which explores a situation which teenage readers often fear, aspire to, dream about or experience, and which provides an emotional connection to themselves as teenagers now. It has no visible boundaries or safety-nets and may be frightening, cutting-edge, brutally honest, shocking or sad, (but doesn't have to be) but in fact there are boundaries of acceptability and hope:

"it takes them to the edge but will not throw them over."
That's my definition anyway.

Of course, I can't shut up when I should so I feel obliged to give a few extra "rules", some of which I touched on in the previous article but which bear repeating:
  • the teenage characters find their own solutions because the story is about them and not the adult secondary characters. Get the adults out of the way. Kill them if necessary (preferably before the book starts, or at least before we get to care)
  • though some teenage novels are deep and some are shallow (as with adult books), the language does not patronise by trying to be simple
  • although the voice is teenage, this does not mean you have to sound like a teenager - see my post on voice. The voice has to be appropriate, a voice they'd like to listen to. ie not a teacher, parent, middle-aged person, sad git, kid
  • the protagonist is usually a bit older than the intended readership (this applies to writing for younger children too)
  • no message, remember - or at least not an in your face one. You're a writer not a teacher.
  • the pace is likely to be faster and tighter than in adult writing
  • a teenager (see my book Blame My Brain for a defence and explanation of the details of this, and for an entertaining read, and to save your sanity if you happen to share your living quarters with a teenage specimen) may be 11 years old, but by the age of 15/16 is off your readership radar
  • the writer must be aware that the level of literary criticism of plot, structure, language, themes to which the book will be subjected by the young reader will be intense - if you think you're writing for kids and that kids don't know how to tell you what's wrong with your book, you're in for a big shock!
So, Amy-Jane, I don't know if this answers your questions, and the others who contacted me off-blog! In my opinion, yes, you do need to know whether your book is for teenagers or not, but you could be lucky and have pitched it perfectly anyway ...

Daniel and Jane - re the 70s series the Children of the Stones, it's worth remembering too that teenage fiction really had only just got going at this time, all in the US - with SE Hinton's The Outsiders and Paul Zindell's The Pigman (God, that's brilliant and devastating in a simple way that only teenage writing can be) both in the late 60s, and then the fabulously dark Robert Cormier - OMG I am The Cheese* - from the 70s. He, incidentally, was edited by my main editor. (Main? See, I'm so rubbish I need more than one ...). Anyway, I guess the rules and possibilities of teenage / YA fiction were so new by that time that adults still very much ruled the roost. Whereas now, we know who's in charge, don't we?

*title of book, not an existential statement

One other point - teenage or YA? YA is more a US term, though we often use it in the UK too. To be honest, no difference is usually implied between the two terms, though sometimes YA refers to a slightly older teenager, but I think this distinction makes it too complicated and unnecessarily pigeon-holey. Outside the book world, young adult refers to 18-25s (eg in medical terminology) so it can be confusing for people outside when we talk about YA.

In the last post I said you had to be able to reel off at least ten favourite teenage authors or books and some of you enthusiastically came up with your own lists (full marks to you). Well, of course, I have a few more because you can't keep a keen reader down:
  • John Marsden's Letters from the Inside
  • Alice Kuipers' Life on the Refrigerator Door (though you'll need a lot of chocolate to get your life back on track after either of those)
  • Adele Geras' Ithaka - nothing to do with the fact that she reads this blog; I'd just forgotten how much I'd liked it and it's very different from the dark cold ones on my previous list. Adele writes books for many different ages but Troy and Ithaka, which fit my criteria for teenage novels, are my favourite.
And now I'd probably better stop talking about teenage books before the rest of you disappear. Next, we'll have How To Be a Lovely Publishable Author. Or something. And relatively soon I'll be able to tell you what topics and dates I'm doing talks on in the Edinburgh Book Festival. You never know, I might just be doing one on teenage writing, so then I'll be able to rabbit on for a whole hour. And there'll certainly be one on How To Make a Publisher Say Yes ... Just think, you could actually come and see my boots in real life.

Have a lovely weekend. I had a near death (not exaggerating) incident on the motorway yesterday and made my first ever 999 call, from a stationary and exceptionally vulnerable position in the middle of an intersection between the UK's two biggest motorways (yes, I know, nothing compared with US motorways but they are Big To Us), having been hit by a lorry which didn't stop to see that it had knocked us off the road. So I am planning to count my blessings for being alive. I think wine and chocolate may well be necessary in extra quantities to get me back to a normal mental place.

By the way, if you ever see a car stopped in an incredibly stupid place, risking being smashed to pieces by speeding cars from six lanes of two motorways, I would ask you to consider that it might not be there on purpose. Some of the drivers that passed us clearly had not worked this out, judging from the way they hooted their horns at us and shook their fists.

Pah! Give me teenagers any day.