Friday, 26 June 2009

SUBMISSION SPOTLIGHT 2: younger readers

This is PART TWO of the Submission Spotlight
- Annie's submission for younger readers. To see the rules and understand what on earth I'm on about, please go to the previous post here.

Please comment - on BOTH submissions if you can.

Dear Secret Agent Man (or Woman),

I am seeking representation for RAVENSCOURT MANOR, a Middle Grade fantasy mystery novel that takes place in a pseudo-Victorian setting, borrowing heavily from Gothic literature. Complete at 46,000 words, it is a darker work for young readers.

Abigail Crowe is willing to accept that her father died of natural causes. She's willing to appear proper at the funeral (or at least try). She's even willing to put up with her little brother and his questions about death. But when Abigail's mother whisks them away to the estate of their estranged uncle, Dr. Edward Crowe, Abigail decides she is not willing to put up with the eerie strangeness that surrounds ancient Ravenscourt Manor. Ghastly screams in the night, an insane gardener, and a murder blamed on her late father are only the beginning. In order to prove her father innocent, and perhaps avenge his death, Abigail and her brother must face down their uncle, uncover the clues, and unravel a tragic family secret.

The full or partial manuscript is available upon request. I look forward to hearing from you, and whatever your decision, I thank you for your time.



The first 480 words of Ravenscourt Manor:

As the eldest child of the late Mr. Lewis Crowe, it was, of course, Abigail’s understood duty, as she stood at the foot of her father's grave, to look most properly saddened. Proper sadness, however, proves to be a rather difficult thing to pull off – as you are to shed tears (but not bawl), be respectful (yet not grave), and stand up straight and tall (without being too stiff). While her dress, cut of black crape and horridly uncomfortable, made her, indeed, too stiff, she found the other problems in her proper appearance far more troubling.

For one thing, she could not cry. She did not bawl either; her cheeks remained pale and dry, her eyes distinctly lacking in puffiness. All morning, she had been confronted with the stark reality of her father’s death, and through all of it: through the processions and the prayers and the muted mutterings of the crowd - she had not shed a single tear. It was not that she was unwilling to; even now, she tried her hardest to feel the sadness that she was supposed to be feeling. But for all her trying, the only thing she felt was the very
strong urge to hit things.

Her brother William was an appealing target. Pale from medicines that were always too expensive, with his cherubic blue eyes and blond hair, most people thought him an angel. But he, certainly, was being neither respectful nor grave – fidgeting with his collar in an incessant way most improper for a funeral. Only the presence of their Mother – never mind the Preacher and other mourners! – prevented Abigail from acting on her more vindictive instincts.

Ashes to ashes," droned the preacher in a voice as parched and cracked as the pages of his Book. "Dust to dust..."

A sudden breeze, cold and heavy with the scent of rain, blew over the crowd. It pulled at Abigail's frizzy red hair and rustled the fabric of her skirt, a dull and mournful sound, like the whispers of a dying person. Abigail sighed. Even the weather knew how to act properly at a funeral.

And now William's fidgeting could not be ignored. Along with the Preacher’s ecclesiastical ramblings – as meaningless and frustrating to Abigail as ancient Greek – it made the situation almost impossible to bear. But still, she had no reason to break decorum until:

“Oh!” exclaimed the boy. “When is he going to finish, Abby?”

Abigail kicked him in the shin. And just to show that she was serious, she added a disapproving and very grown-up glare. Tsks and titters came from the other mourners, though the Preacher continued on, and Mother remained oblivious – but the important thing was that William got the message, and remained quiet and still throughout the rest of the Preacher’s prayers.


Well, here we are: Submission Spotlight time! I did find it rather amusing - and sweet and touching - how nervous you all said you were. Some of you said this was worse than submitting to an agent or publisher. Yes, because it's public ... Sorry about that.

I have picked TWO submissions. One, aimed at adults, is in this post; the second, aimed at younger readers, is in the post above. If yours hasn't been picked, fear not (or perhaps do fear ...) I will pick more another day. And anyone else can still send in submissions.

Please remember that I asked participants to write a short letter (like a query letter) and then give us the first c500 words - so this is NOT a normal submission. If you want to remind yourselves of the task, it's here.

Ground-rules for all commenters:
  • please DO comment - there's no point in this if no one does
  • please imagine that you ARE an agent/editor who accepts this sort of material. In other words, if it's good enough, then it IS up your street
  • be brief - you don't have to write an essay (in fact, please don't). Ideally, you might give one positive and one negative point
  • please be constructive. Although we have to learn to take criticism (which will happen a lot and very publicly when you are published ...), it has to be offered in a considered and careful fashion, in a way that will not overly bruise.
  • try to be specific - for example, don't say "need to tidy up the grammar" without giving some examples
  • please note what type of book the authors claim them to be and judge them accordingly
  • ask yourself some of these questions:
  1. does the idea behind the book grab you (assuming that you would normally go for this genre)? Is it a compelling idea? Exciting, intriguing?
  2. has the author managed to encapsulate the idea in the best way?
  3. does the standard of writing give you confidence that the rest of the work is worth reading?
  4. is there anything that puts you off, and how do you think the author might consider working on it?
  5. are there any habits which, in your opinion, detract from the work?
  6. is this a book that you think could sell? Is this a book that fits easily within an existing successful genre?
  7. how could the work be improved?
Some of you will be commenting as readers; others as agents / editors. It would be helpful if you would start your comment by by indicating which of these applies to you, so that the authors know how to take your comments.

NB - although "Dear Agent" is not normally acceptable, it's fine for this exercise, because it's imaginary.

Finally, please applaud the bravery of these writers! (And the authors can and should respond to comments).

Here goes (and good luck "Yellowstring"!):

Dear Agent,
Please find attached the first five hundred words of my novel, Talking with Kotov, a book on identity and the complexity of truth and fiction. The chapters alternate between two main characters: Ruth, who lives an essentially detached existence, compiling notes on other people, following one woman in particular and documenting her life, and paranoid Melissa (the woman whom Ruth is following) who painted her house with a dead bird, and turned her kitchen into a collage of post-its to try and release her problems into the world. The link between the women is hidden in clues throughout the novel, until revealed two thirds of the way through, however Ruth's narrative is always marred by whatever book she is reading at the time, so much so that the reader is asked to closely engage with what he is reading and decide which parts are true.

When finished, the novel will be between 55,000 and 65,000 words, a literary piece aimed towards an adult audience, especially those who are fans of such authors as Ali Smith or Kate Atkinson. I can send a complete synopsis and further chapters upon request, and look forward to hearing your thoughts on representing my book.

Yours sincerely,


It wasn’t hard to track her down; Ruth etched each of her beelines into the tube map so hard that the whole thing sprang back open as though disemboweled. She'd set her watch three minutes ahead of Big Ben, just to be prepared; she knew never to trust a man with four faces, especially when each of those kept running around in pointless circles, ticking like some sort of bomb. But no, she shouldn't think of bombs.

he, on the other hand, made sure her journey was linear, crossing the town in a perfect square, hopping from bus to bus to avoid the curves, towing the yellow lines right into the groove.She walked the Central line, the red capillary straight, mentally mapping the sixty thousand blood vessels hammering under her own skin: tarmac over live wire. She considered herself a personal navigation system, beeping (internally) with every step she took, honing in with an invisible radar, and her destination overlooked the number seven bus stop, where free newspapers hid worn out faces, and tourists wore rucksacks as fetuses on the outside. They made clothes look like skin, skinny jeans the new answer to anti-wrinkle cream. The handbags gleamed, the oyster cards tapped. Ruth eyed the line-up as she made for the pavement, but each blonde hair was not the right shade.She tried to move quickly, always on the look out for those arty types who liked to freeze in public places, frightened she'd be caught up in the theatrics and then not be able to move.

She had arrived with twenty minutes to spare, but in the mean time there was the bookshop. Ruth thought about those words, ‘mean time,’ and they sounded just right, so she leaned against the window and wrote them down on the back of her tube map. She considered herself a logophile, browsing the market, and she entered the bookshop, heading to the back, for here were the books about everyone’s God. Each day she gave herself a different section, trying to show just how well rounded she was. Religion, romance, and all the way down to history, this was her post. Ruth could sketch the layout in her sleep, and she knew the location of every fire exit; she only ever took calculated risks; she only ever wore flat-soled shoes.

She was very conscious of where everyone else was, who was looking at her, and what they were thinking. The way heads formed question marks if tilted at the right angle. The way the spine would click in irritation. Ruth had long since concluded that the public is a jury, and that each person walks around with a speech bubble balanced precariously on their head, like those women who carry water. They choose their words carefully, so that the bubble doesn't overflow and soak them to the skin: selected, projected thinking. Ruth flinched and thought hard about timetables, focusing on the 'please pay here' sign. It was the only one that wasn't jeering; there was something reassuring about imperatives, the clarity of fullstops; she pretended to roll one on her tongue like a piece of chiseled tobacco. Roll or spit. Roll or spit.

Wednesday, 24 June 2009


Why do we write fiction?
Why should we? What does it do to the reader? Why? Why is it damned important? What will happen to the human race if we don't do it and if readers don't read it?

These questions and more are the ones I will attempt to answer in a speech next week. You can't come, sorry; but it hardly matters because in the course of my research I came across a wonderful blog, written by scientists/psychologists with an academic and passionate interest in the power of fiction. And their research articles are available on it. Free. Which is incredibly generous.

It's called Onfiction and I've put a link in my blog list, as well as here.

It is fascinating, inspiring and very important. And it even gives us novelists a load of useful pointers about engaging our readers and why some types of story engage more than others. Scientists call it "narrative transportation". I love it the whole concept of narrative transportation. I read an article about it in Scientific American Mind last year and it's stayed with me ever since. What more could a writer want than that the reader be transported into the world we create? (Sarah - many thanks for the link to that! Last time I looked it wasn't on-line and I'm delighted that it now is. Thanks to SciamMind too.)

Go carry your readers away!

Thursday, 18 June 2009


How brave are you? Are you ready to let total strangers comment on your query / synopsis / proposal for your beloved Masterpiece? Because, I am offering you the chance to do just that.

On the basis that I trust that all comments will be given in the spirit of honest opinion with a view to helping rather than hindering or destroying, this is a chance to hold your work up for constructive criticism by your fellows. Many readers of this blog are well-published; some are agents and editors; and some may be deluded idiots who know nothing - I make no guarantees that everyone's opinion is equally valid.

But that is exactly what real readers are like: unpredictable and uncontrollable. Some future readers of your Work in Progress will not understand the depths or subtlety of your intellect or the meaningfulness of your Work. Some of them won't be able to tell the difference between a perfectly pitched voice and the ugly shriek of fighting cats. Get used to it.

Anyway, to the task. When you have fulfilled the criteria (below) for this mini-submission, email it to me at (Please note: fabulously cool though it is, this is not my normal email address and I only look at it when I've got some blog-related competition or other foolishness going on.) Then, every now and then, I will pick one of the submissions and put it, lock, stock and barrel, on the blog. Then everyone will comment on it.

I won't necessarily pick the best or the worst - just one that I think will be interesting to study. It depends what I get from you. (I don't mean money, though that would be lovely: I mean it depends on the nature of your submissions.) And I'll maybe pick one every three weeks or so, so do keep them coming.

NOTE: as you know, there are differences between the US/UK/other countries in terms of what you put in your initial approach to an agent or publisher. In the US, for example, first approach is with a query letter only; and this query letter will therefore be fuller than a UK "covering letter", which would be very short and would accompany a full synopsis and the first pages of the actual work. For the purposes of this exercise, I am queen of my own imaginary country and am making my own rules, so please read them! (And, more importantly, when you actually submit something, please make sure you know what the requirements are in your country, by going onto some agent/publisher websites and reading the "submission guidelines".)

So, here are the criteria:
  1. Unlike previous activities, this is not a joke. Your task is not to write a deliberately useless submission. You may address your submission to either publisher or agent - please make it clear which one.
  2. Please send only the following: a perfectly pitched letter, selling your book and hooking the reader, making clear exactly what sort of book this is and describing it succinctly (something like this would work for both UK and elsewhere without much alteration); and no more than the first 500 words of your book. (You may wish to edit your actual work down so that your first 500 words work well enough.) Edited to add: pasted into body of email, please, NOT attachment.
  3. The whole thing should be as perfect as you would send to a real agent/editor.
  4. Please tell me your full name when you send you submission. However, I will not put your name on the blog, so please also offer a pseudonym. After the process is over and all comments are in, you may reveal your name but you do not have to.
When your fellow blog readers comment, the questions they will ask themselves are:
  • Does this book sound really, really interesting?
  • Does this writer seem to have real control over the written word?
  • Is there something fresh and engaging about this writer's voice?
And now I am going to disappear to London for a few days. (Actually, I've gone already if this post goes out as planned on Thursday.) It's my last ever Society of Authors Management Committee meeting and the lovely Annual Awards Ceremony - introduced by Margaret Drabble and presented by Sebastian Faulks; and I'm seeing my older daughter one evening and my crime-writing friend, Aline Templeton, another evening. It would be entire bliss, except that I also have to prepare a scary radio thing for the weekend and a big speech and some workshops for the following week. So, if I don't reply quickly to your comments, that's why - but I will be watching you.

Tuesday, 16 June 2009


I have surfaced from the Deathwatch Dash, briefly, before dashing to London tomorrow. Actually, despite my not really being here very much, I have a post half-done for you. Can't remember for the life of me what it's about. But anyway it doesn't matter because here is a very apt post from someone else in the meantime during (any Life of Brian fans will recognise that incongruous phrase ...). Agent Rachelle Gardner (no, not a member of the CIA - or maybe she is? Who knows? Or who would say?) says it absolutely all in this post.

See, really you don't need my whatever-it-was post: because you need to make your book better before you do anything with it. It's such an annoying message, isn't it? Because you think your work is good enough: it's not. I know. I am psychic. It's all this dashing about, gives me extra powers.

Even if you are good enough, think how much better you could be with some more honing. So, get honing.

The biggest mistake of unpublished authors is not being good enough within the genre in which they are writing. Despite the fact that lots of crap is published. But not by any reader of this blog, please.

I wore my turquoise boots yesterday, you'll be glad to know. And I can prove it.

Monday, 15 June 2009


When you read this, I will be exhausting myself on the dreaded Deathwatch Dash - please remind me to shut up next time I have stupid idea. It's not helped by suddenly having an ill daughter at home so I'm full of extra angst and stress, with the pleasures of the weekend rapidly fading.

Anyway, I'm not going to be able to blog particularly usefully or deeply for at least another week, for one reason and another. However, I have a little snippet to draw quickly to your attention.

There's a great magazine for writers, The New Writer, which many of you will know about. If you don't, take a look and do consider subscribing. I used to, years ago when I was trying to get published, and once I'd got published I stopped. (Which I needn't have done, as there's lots of stuff for published writers too, and besides, publication does not guarantee continued success).

I came across it again recently, still with the same hugely expert hands at the helm - Merric Davidson, Suzanne Ruthven and Sarah Jackson. It's full of great advice, lots of outlets for short story writing and poetry, and is an important source of information.

On the website, you'll see that you can ask for a free back issue to see what sort of things it contains. Give it a go. Lots of published writers have been through its pages and gleaned useful tips.

You may detect lack of humour, spark and crabbitness in this post. Sorry about that - I am seriously stressed about the coming week. I have put a note above my desk, saying, "JUST SAY NO".

Friday, 12 June 2009


I am not here.
To all intents and purposes - stupid phrase - I do not exist. I am having a rare weekend off. And when I say "off", boy, do I mean "off"? Indeed I do.

Let me tell you what I am doing. (And there will be a serious point to this post, as ever.) When I say "am", this is confusing, because actually I "am" writing this post in advance of doing the thing that I "am" doing. But, having an imagination, I can tell you what I will be doing when this post automatically wings its way to you. What I am doing is ... prepare yourself ... relaxing.

See, Jane Smith thinks I'm working really really hard promoting
Deathwatch, and she is in awe of my energy. Little does she know that this weekend, from Friday afternoon till Sunday afternoon, I am going to be alternately in states of bliss and euphoria and my only exertion will involve trying to work out if there is any difference. (I will report back.) Two friends are coming to stay, both female, which is important, because otherwise this wouldn't work - hang on: what did you think I meant?? - and we are indulging in a weekend of pure, well, indulgence. This involves, in almost equal measure, chocolate, sparkly wine, laughter, friendship, reminiscences, sparkly wine, chocolate and ... spa treatments. Oh yes! I am having a rejuvenating facial (increasingly necessary, according to a man close to me - too close for comfort if he says that again) and a "sports" massage (the closest I plan to come to "sports" this side of death).

While I am doing this - in preparation, I may say, for a horrendous week of all the things Jane thinks I'm doing - you are going to be doing a very, very simple task. You are going to go on-line and sign an incredibly important petition. I think you have to live in the UK to do this, but if you don't, please cheer us from the side-lines.

The petition is simple. It calls for school libraries to be statutory.

Now, OK, so I am children's author and perhaps therefore care more than some about school libraries. But every author should care equally. Because school libraries create the readers of the future. The readers of your books.
Without readers we can no more than whisper in a storm.

Every children's author knows the wonderful work that school librarians do. They inspire reading; they have myriad ways to entice even the reluctant or afraid into the magical world of books. They can, quite frankly, save people. We, keen readers, take reading for granted. We assume that reading is an optional hobby, just because you don't die if you don't do it. But we forget that you don't live if you don't do it. Or not properly, not fully.

Only someone who takes for granted the pleasure and power of reading, or someone of extreme callousness, could not want to support something which offers that power and opens that world to all. Without the reader paying anything.

In a couple of weeks' time, I'm doing a key-note speech at a librarians' conference and I plan to show them what goes on in the human brain when we read fiction, why it is necessary for our soul and our humanity, our health, our decision-making, our morality. I'll be preaching to the converted, but I want them to understand and value the immense importance of what they do. I want them to go away knowing that they are doing one of the most relevant jobs possible and one that is needed more than ever in our fast-paced digital world, where we are bombarded with data too quickly to process it properly, too quickly to generate wisdom.

Please, please sign this petition. Your future readers depend on it. You depend on it.

Meanwhile, I've signed it, so I am allowed to have rejuvenating collagen facials and relaxing sports massages. But I will not be so relaxed that I won't be absolutely furious if lots of you haven't signed it.

Listen, someone told me I was scary the other day. Hooray for scary. I can be even scarier if called upon.

Just sign, OK?

I'm even going to harangue the masseuse into signing.

Thursday, 11 June 2009


I now bring you a heartening school story.

Message from an English teacher to me today: "Some of my pupils were reading Deathwatch under the desks last lesson as they needed to find out what was happening next - very gripped! (No I didn't tell them off!)"

Hooray for teachers who so much like the fact that their pupils read that they turn a blind eye when they read in the wrong place!

But it leads me to ask you: what books did you risk punishment to read when you were young? What stories helped turn you into the readers and writers you now are? What exactly was it about those books that tranpsorted you to a place where detentions were worth courting?

One of my favourite reads, which I read over and over again and would certainly have gone to many detentions for, was The Black Tulip, by Alexandre Dumas. Oh, the romance, the swords, the horrible torture, the blood-curdling pain, the honour and bravery and all that bejewelled swash-buckling!

So go on, share your favourite books from your youth, if you can remember that far - and maybe jog our memories so that all those illicit moments of dangerous reading come flooding deliciously back.

Whatever it is that you identify as the must-read factor, I bet you that if we all put a bit more of it into our own writing, we'd end up writing stories that more people would want to read. And publish.

Because it is my firm belief that it's not just kids who want to be gripped by a book, gripped so that the real world fades away for a while.

Wednesday, 10 June 2009


Sometimes I bring you stories of the things that happen to me as a writer. Sometimes these stories are funny. Sometimes they are not. This one is not.

Yesterday, I was happy until approximately 4.15pm. From 4.15pm onwards, I was not.

Until 4.15pm, I had been doing some lovely events in Dyce Academy near Aberdeen (yay for Dyce Academy, home to many people of taste and intelligence and general excellence in education). Then I got on my train at about 4pm, satisfied with a good day's work. After I had moved from my designated seat in order not to spend the journey sitting next to two men each with a six-pack of Special Brew (for transatlantic readers, this is not tea, but strong lager), I ensconced myself in a carriage the peace of which was spoiled only briefly by the extraordinarily loud voice of a man from Yorkshire (like Porlock but further north and with fewer palm trees), who felt it necessary that everyone in the carriage should hear him phone his secretary to ask how many loads of shingle they had sold that day and whether his wife had phoned to say that the plumber had come to fix the leaking tap yet.

Then, at 4.15, I opened an email. From a school which I was supposed to be visiting with a free visit.

The school has suggested cancelling because they feel the event is "commercial". If losing money is commercial, remind me not to apply for The Apprentice. Why have they decided it's commercial? Because book-buying is (always was) on offer - with fun activities provided for those who don't want to buy books. Fun activities with prizes paid for by me. Because I can't stand the thought that anyone should feel left out if they don't buy a book. I could weep. Actually, I pretty nearly did.

I cannot express how much of my time, effort and money has gone into this series of events. But I was enjoying the whole idea until 4.15 yesterday and saw no downside, except that I'll be exhausted. But exhausted and happy, I thought.

You know me well enough to know that there will be a learning point to this. Indeed. The clue is in the mysterious heading to this post.

That phrase about editing destroying the cathartic blah blah refers to an oft-derided (by me and others) view held by misguided vanity publishers and some self-publishers - anyone in fact who hasn't got the knowledge, wisdom or literary insight to understand the utter essentiality of a good editor for EVERY writer.

Well, you know, they're right after all: editing does wreck the cathartic creativity and all that stuff. I know. Because after I'd spent some time feeling upset and being completely unable to concentrate on the thing that I was supposed to be doing on that train journey, and knowing that it would be a bad idea to reply to the email immediately (not least because I can't type on my horrible little netbook), I took pen and paper and spewed it all out into the written word. My letter was eloquent and beautiful and free-flowing and incredibly cathartic and creative. Unedited. Yay! But completely unpublishable. And unsendable. And needing to be kept private. Frankly, the equivalent of bulimia for writers?

Anyway, it cleared my head and I was then able to focus on the thing that I was supposed to be doing instead. Which is the point of catharsis.

The point being that yes, editing does impede catharsis etc, and so thank goodness for editing. Because without it it's all just spew.

Sunday, 7 June 2009


As you may know, hell hath no fury like me when I see inexcusable ignorance. When people don't know something, that's fine: I am happy to elucidate. Even when people think they know everything but in fact only know a small proportion of everything, I can cope: acerbic elucidation is called for, and acerbic elucidation is my forte. But when someone thinks he/she knows enough about the writing world actually to call himself an AGENT, when that person knows less than mouse-droppings about it, then I get angry. My mouth begins to resemble a guppy's as I struggle to produce any lucid words.

See, I thought an agent was someone who knew about publishing. Like, even anything. Because the ones I know are incredibly knowledgeable about it. (As you'd, er, expect??) Mine, for example, knows exactly to whom anything should be sent and exactly what rights should and shouldn't be offered for exactly what dosh. I ask her a question and she tells me the truth. She knows the ins and outs and the ups and downs and can guide me through minefields and extract the best deal from the situation. It's what she's there for and why I'm delighted to hand over her percentage.

Yay for such agents! They are worth their weight in commission. Even if they are very large. Which mine isn't. (Despite the meal I gave her after the launch party, which included meringues and cream and cheese and voluminous sparkly wine. But I accidentally forgot to offer the chocolates round and so, sadly, must eat them all myself.)

But news has come to me of horrible things that worse-than-useless pseudo-agents can do. Thing is, anyone can be an agent. There's no exam or anything. In recent months, I've heard the occasional story of surprising lack of knowledge on the part of some people who call themselves agents. And I've chosen to ignore it.

Until now. Exercise your imagination for a moment. Suppose there was a vanity published author who was ignorant of every aspect of publishing; suppose that "author" then called himself an agent. To be clear, let's imagine that this is someone who doesn't realise that an author is supposed to be allowed to earn money from writing, who hasn't heard of rights and doesn't know the first thing about even the tiniest part of the publishing process, and who will swallow the line that books shouldn't be edited because "editing diminishes the creative and cathartic flow necessary to the transportation of the real writer" (my arse) - and he thinks he can agent someone else? And now imagine that this was not imaginary ...

Since such crappiness could happen, I need you to know how to choose a proper agent. Believe nothing if you don't believe this: a bad agent is worse than useless and certainly much worse than no agent. A bad agent will destroy your career before it has started and will leave you more stressed than you can imagine an unpublished writer can be. And, as you've probably already discovered, being unpublished is stressful enough.

So, before getting into bed with an agent (do I need to specify that I am not being literal?), ask some questions:

  • what other authors does the agent represent?Investigate how well the books have done.
  • what previous experience of publishing led to him becoming an agent?
  • is this the agent's full-time / only job? If not, why not and how much time and energy will the agent have for you?
  • how does the agent sell foreign rights? For example, they might use sub-agents or scouts - but there should be some clear answer to the question. Ask what countries any other clients have been sold into. (Similar question for TV/film rights.)
  • what professional bodies is the agent a member of? Investigate them.
  • can you see the contract that you would sign with the agent? Get it checked by someone who understands - perhaps another agented author, or the Society of Authors if you are a member, or any other body that you belong to.
  • what would be the agent's plan for your career?
  • is the agent asking for any money up front? NO! The agent should earn commission - ie a % of your writing income from any work which falls within the scope of the above contract. So, the agent doesn't earn from you before you earn yourself. An agent will not charge a reading fee.

And here are three questions to test the alleged agent's knowledge:
  • can the agent explain in clear terms the difference between vanity publishing, self-publishing and mainstream publishing?
  • can the agent answer the question: what trends do you see in publishers' attitudes towards this particular genre at the moment?
  • how can an agent help an author exploit IPR?
That should sort the cream from the rancid yogurt!

If you happen to have a friend or acquaintance who is offering to be your agent in an amateur way, be very cautious. If I were you, I'd think barge-pole, frankly. This could be the end of a beautiful friendship and is unlikely to be the start of a glittering career. Being an agent is not a job for amateurs. Obviously, every agent must start somewhere and acquire a first client - but this can only work if that agent already has substantial experience of dealing with publishing rights in another professional capacity. For example, many agents were publishers / editors for years before they became agents - a very good way into the business.

So, please be very astute and cautious, walking onto an agent's list with eyes wide open. Do not be so desperate or flattered that you leap into a relationship immediately - a bad agent is worse than no agent and much more stressful.

I think I've been pretty calm about all this, in the circs. My first draft included phrases like cockroach vomit but I decided to leave that out, so as not to spoil your breakfast. Ever caring, that's me.

Thursday, 4 June 2009


Thank you to so many of you for good wishes yesterday. Here's my impression of the evening.

Normally, I find a "learning" for any picture or anecdote, but I confess that today's link is a bit tenuous. It is that I wish Vanity publishers would be as up front about their vanity as I am about mine. I keep hearing stories of people being sucked in and not having a clue what's going on.

Remember Golden Rule number one: the person entitled to earn money from your writing is a) you (first) and b) the people who work to help make your book into a proper book that anyone might want to read. If the so-called "publisher" offers you neither advance, royalty nor fee, EVER, it is not a publisher and you will not be published. You will simply be wrapped in a tacky cover that people will be amazed at for all the wrong reasons. (Oh, and btw, the fact that it's "Arts Council funded" doesn't tell you anything relevant.)

Edited to add: I just came across a very informative site by Johnathon Clifford, who gives a lot of pretty clear advice about how to tell what's a Vanity press or not (including how to spot the GOOD ones, for there are good ones and perfectly valid reasons why you might choose this method for certain books that could not be commercially published.)

Lynn Price and Jane Smith (through her guest blogger, David L. Kusminski) have also been thinking about the ways that unwary authors can be deceived by various scams and promises. As always, they bring you important insights. In fact, it was reading Jane's guest post that reminded me how annoyed I am by the traps that catch unwary authors.

So - cue learning point - keep on your toes: even if they are pointy and pink and somewhat decadent.

Wednesday, 3 June 2009


Of all the questions to ask yourself, this is The One.
Much of what I say in this blog is designed to get you looking ultra-critically at your work to see whether it is good enough to present to a publisher. I have said many times, and will no doubt say many times again, that many unpublished authors spend far too much time worrying about how many pages to include in their submissions and far too little time worrying about the brilliance of the words in the submission.

And so, in the spirit of being a bit busy today because of a certain launch party and the need to go and decide which shoes I'm going to wear, I bring you this very useful post from Jane Friedman.

And while the writing method/aim/vision of Tim Ferris is not necessarily one that will wow all of you - it doesn't appeal to me either, but he's at least done what he set out to do - a professional approach to making sure your book is publishable is the right one.

In other words, if you want your writing to be read, you have to write something that enough people want to read and you have to write it well enough for them to stay with you for thousands and thousands of words instead of going down to the pub or into the garden with a sudoku puzzle and one of Lynn Price's chocolate margharitas that she still hasn't given me. That's the only way to be published. Do it any other way and you're just writing for yourself. Which is fine, if that's what you want. Interestingly, I read that Kate Atkinson wishes she could write without being read. I'm a big admirer of her work, so I'm very glad she hasn't achieved her aim.

Tomorrow, I bring you nothing but a headache (from relief and tiredness, I hasten to add) and perhaps the following day I will bring you shoes.