Thursday, 3 December 2009


A blog-reader commented recently, "The more I read the more confusing it all gets". Yep, there's all this conflicting info about how to write and how to get published when all we really want is the answer to this simple situation: "I've written a book and I'm prepared to do anything to get it published; you publish books  -  so, whaddareyouwaitingfor?"

The commenter's life was simpler when she thought it was simpler, when she didn't know much about how to submit work, or the things that people might complain about, and could just send it off on a wing and a prayer, instead of angsting about all the faux pas she mustn't make and all the invisible boxes she must tick. After all, if you just think, "The agent / publisher wants a great book and I've written one, so I'll send it to her and she'll love it," it's so simple, isn't it?

This situation isn't helped by the fact that you'll read some rules, decide to follow them, and then immediately hear that so-and-so [insert name of extraordinarily successful writer] broke those rules and became an instant best-seller. The bastard.

Nor is it helped by the fact that Agent A thinks a synopsis must be about four pages, with biogs, and Agent B says a synopsis should never be more than two pages and what's with the biogs? And Publisher Q thinks a writer is ignorant if she doesn't understand that a synopsis is not a chronological outline while everyone else seems to say that a synopsis is a chronological outline. [Basically, it is. But with bells on. And some bells removed. See? Meh!]

At this point, you're with my confused commenter who wished she was still in ignorance.

OK, now let's unpick this a bit. It's like physics. [Don't leave me now.] Let me reassure you: I gave up physics and chemistry at the age of 12, after a school report that said, "Nicola has no aptitude for science subjects." Teachers can be wrong: years later, I became fascinated by science, and not only started reading everything I could find about chaos theory, randomness, mathematics, time, quantum theory, brownian motion ... but also ended up writing two books on the human brain.

And what did that mostly teach me? That there was far, far, far more out there than I could ever completely know, and that it was all horribly weird and certainly confusing, but that the more I knew the stronger I felt and the more respect I had for the real experts. I mean, how is a person like me supposed to get her chocolate-filled head around the idea of six dimensions? Or the fact that the faster you move the slower you age? [Or is it the other way round? You know, the physics that says if you took identical twins and put one in a spaceship and sent him as close as possible to the speed of light, and left the other one on Earth, they would be different ages when the first one had finished his journey? WHAT??? Blimey, give me publishing any day.]

Yep, it was all a whole lot less confusing when I didn't know any physics. When I just thought that if the Earth wasn't flat it made a pretty good job of seeming like it, except in Scotland where it's more hilly, especially when I'm cycling. Ignorance wasn't exactly bliss, but it at least wasn't difficult to manage. After all, the world continued to spin without my knowing why or with what effect on my molecules.

The analogy between the science and the writing/publishing knowledge holds in another way, too: even the flipping experts disagree about things. Hell hath no fury like two scientists disagreeing about The Theory of Everything [or TOE, as they quaintly call it]. So, just as the physicists disagree about whether string theory holds the key to Everything, so publishing "experts" will disagree about whether a synopsis should be two pages or one. Or four with biogs.

But the most important way in which this analogy works is this:

It doesn't bloody well MATTER! [Pun intended.] See, whether the physical world has six dimensions or the more visible three, whether string theory explains what Newtonian physics and Einstein's relativity theories couldn't, whether the Hadron collider is going to tell us anything, or not, we ordinary people will carry on waking up and eating breakfast. So will the physicists, actually, and though they may think their cereal is in a different dimension, it still gets soggy when you leave the milk on too long. And whether agents want synopses that fit these rules or those rules, readers [including agents and publishers] still just want great books.

See, the hoops we authors have to jump through are only there to make life easier  -  easier for the agent and publisher to find the books they can sell most happily to the readers who are there waiting for them. Trouble is that the hoops make it all look so damned hard.

Remember how I said earlier in this post:  
After all, if you just think, "The agent / publisher wants a great book and I've written one, so I'll send it to her and she'll love it," it's so simple, isn't it?

Well, it's true. It is simple. If you have written a great book, and if you send it to the right agent or publisher in a sensible way and happen to hit lucky with your timing, it is that simple. There are, amongst all the weird and conflicting advice, only a very few rules that you need:
  1. Be a reader: so that you know how books and readers work.
  2. Write the best book you can. Write it for readers and think about your reader while writing it.
  3. Submit your work sensibly and reasonably. Don't over-analyse or over-complicate the situation: just like any reader, agents and publishers are looking for a great book. They don't really give a damn whether your synopsis is one page or three, as long as it demonstrates that you've written a book that they can sell and enough readers can love. 
  4. But try, please, please, to make it easy for them to like you and the book. Don't do silly things like putting toffees in with the submission. Just be normal, for crying out loud, like the sort of person you'd like to have a business and personal relationship with. Because that's what it will become.
So, do the best you possibly can and keep trying to improve your writing and your pitch, learning as you go along. Meanwhile, hold this thought: the longer you fail to get published, the more practice you are putting in. You'll be brilliant by the time you get there!
    I do have one final piece of advice: read Stephen King's On Writing. I have only recently [er, yesterday] read it and it has confirmed and elucidated so many things I already vaguely believed or intuitively knew but wanted to confirm. I'm going to talk more about this book over the next weeks and months. King is a master story-teller and he has managed to write a book on writing that reads like a story itself. There's nothing he doesn't know about narrative drive, and a whole load more besides. If you only read one book on writing, read On Writing.

    It won't confuse you more, I promise. In fact, the more you read of it, the less confusing the whole thing will be. If someone could do the same for physics...


    Catherine Hughes said...

    I have read 'On Writing' and go back to it every now and again. I particularly love the chpater wherein he describes how he and his wife had their backs against the proverbial financial wall when he sold the rights for Carrie.

    I very much hope to emulate him at some point in the (really) not too distant future!

    One thing I have discovered... Be yourself. I have had far more success with queries that I wrote in a simple honest style than when I tried to be super-professional and la-di-dah.

    Which isn't to say 'don't be professional' but just be yourself.

    Nicola Morgan said...

    Catherine - I actually had tears in my eyes when he described how he and Tabby both looked around their tiny flat at that moment. The great thing about his writing there, as at so many places, is that in simple language he gets you to feel what he feels. He doesn't tell you what to feel, doesn't tell you why Tabby cries, doesn't tell you what they were both thinking. You just know. It's supreme "showing, not telling".

    Queenie said...

    I was reluctant to read On Writing because I don't enjoy Stephen King's novels. It's not any kind of snobby 'ooh he's such a populist writer' thing (I read lots of populist writers), I just don't enjoy going to the places where he takes the reader. But then I read a recommendation much like yours (can't remember who wrote it now) and decided I'd give it a go. And I, too, think it's a terrific book. I was particularly interested in the autobiographical passages that explained why he is so interested in the extreme, the grotesque and the horrific. I vividly remember the scene you both describe, and I also found the section dealing with his accident to be profoundly moving. Ooh... I feel a re-read coming on!

    Sally Zigmond said...

    Once again, Nicola, you shine a bright shaft of light through all the mass of dark matter (science, see?) about how to be published.

    As you say, be professional, be straightforward, listen and learn, don't rely on gimmicks and don't get bogged down in the minutiae.

    It seems to me that this confusion originates with rejected and, naturally, disappointed writers. They scrabble around for the reasons and come up with stuff like: My synopsis was a page too long; I typed my manuscript in Ariel font and not TNR. Too much of this and other writers think there's a magic key that if only they could reach it would miraculously open the door to a magical world--like Alice.

    K M Kelly said...

    I always find that the point at which I realise how little I know about something is the same point at which I'm really starting to make some serious progress.

    Karen Jones Gowen said...

    I have GOT to get this book. I've heard so many good things about it from other writers, and this just clinches the deal.

    Nik Perring said...

    I love your posts, Nicola and probably don't comment enough to tell you, so I am doing now. I couldn't agree more with everything you've said here. And On Writing IS brilliant.

    Excellent stuff.


    Rebecca Knight said...

    Thank you for trying to unravel some of this for us :). It really is simple when you get back to the basics. I think the "be normal" is the best rule of all after you've written something brilliant.

    Don't sabotage yourself with toffee, and the rest will work itself out!

    Marisa Birns said...

    'On Writing' is a book that appears often on must-read-if-you-want-to-learn lists.

    Happily, I received a copy as a gift several years ago. Understood very well Stephen King's belief that the “scariest moment is always just before you start."

    And his formula for success (see? I can bring some math and science here) is something an editor wrote to him after reading one of his submissions.

    “Not bad, but PUFFY. You need to revise for length. Formula: 2nd Draft = 1st Draft – 10%. Good luck.”

    Easy, no?

    catdownunder said...

    I am still confused. Purrhaps it is because I am a cat? I think what you are trying to tell me is that I need to write and then rewrite. In my case this means putting out cat hairs one by one (and you know how small they are and how clumsy my paws are!) Then I need to arrange them. Then I need to remove the extraneous hairs (terribly difficult). Then I need to rearrange the others. When I have tidied up I need to pawse. If it still looks tidy enough (with a twitch here and there) I might, if I am good and sensible be purrmitted to send it off to an appropriate human but I have to make sure that I send a purrlite letter free of all other extraneous hairs furrst? This is on top of learning about humans and physics and any number of other things?
    Miaou! Why do writers bother with all this? :-)

    Donna Gambale said...

    I loved 'On Writing' - it totally inspired me! And I remember that the only reason I ever read it because one summer, when I worked at a swim club, someone left a couple books saying, "I'm done with these if anyone wants them." And presto! On Writing came into my life.

    Sarah said...

    Great post, Nicola. We need to be reminded to keep it simple every now and then.

    And the bit with it not mattering really made me laugh. I love puns.

    Stroppy Author said...

    I heartily endorse this, Nicola - all good, sound advice as usual. I get so fidgety when people angst about which font to use and whether the paper is the right weight. It really does't matter - ok it matters if you do it all in Crazy Killer or something, but any sensible choice is fine. No agent will turn down something decent because the wrong info was in the footer, etc...

    I sent in a MS this morning and for the first time EVER I actually put [END] where it finished, and some of those other fiddly things. And the only reason I put END is because it was a really short pb MS and I wanted the extra word to make it look longer, and I only did the fiddling because I felt guilty about how quickly I'd written it and wanted to take longer ;-)

    * said...

    While I don't care much for physics, this post is great! :) Thanks for the tips about toffee. Next time I'll keep 'em for myself.

    And I'm adding that Stephen King book to my writerly reading list. It'd been mentioned quite a few times before but now I'm sitting up and listening. Just need to finish reading "Bird by bird" now...

    Jemi Fraser said...

    King's book is certainly one of the best :) From the agent blogs I've read, most agents seem pretty normal - they just don't want to be insulted or have their time wasted. Who can blame them?

    Bethany Wiggins said...

    Thank you for a beautiful post that really summed up a lot of my inner turmoil.

    As for King's "On Writing," I listened to it on CD while I did the dishes. I'd laugh and cry all at the same time. That man could make physics interesting!

    Nicola Morgan said...

    Catdownunder - I think you would be less confused if you came out of your cat character and started thinking like a human! As everyone else has noticed, it actually IS simple.

    Sally sums it up "As you say, be professional, be straightforward, listen and learn, don't rely on gimmicks and don't get bogged down in the minutiae." And Sally I think you're absolutely right about unpubbed writers using the minutiae as excuses [very understandable ones] for rejection.

    Nik - thank you for that lovely comment!

    Glad so many of you already use and have loved "On Writing2 and glad if I've persuaded a few more to read it. It really is a cracking read and the great thing is that you will not find yourself forgetting what he says, unlike the words of many writers.

    Marisa - I agree that King's story of “Not bad, but PUFFY. You need to revise for length. Formula: 2nd Draft = 1st Draft – 10%. Good luck.” is a good one - but I've seen things where the 10% was an underestimate!

    Bethany, Terresa, Stroppy and others - really glad you liked the post and thank you for your comments.

    Jemi - I agree re most agents etc - they are just normal decent people looking for a good book written by an author they can work with.

    Administrator said...

    I am presently reading (and am impressed by) On Writing, (although nothing for me beats Wannabe a Writer by Jane Wenham-Jones).

    I find one of the hardest things is making myself attractive to agents, in that i find it very very hard not to nudge. One of the very simple rules of being published to me, is BE PATIENT. I have just nudged the agent who's got my full after hearing nothing for one month(she's had it 3 now) and have heard nothing. Why did i not leave the nudge until after Xmas. Aargghhh.

    Great post, as always, Nicola.

    Catherine Hughes said...

    I also found Jane's book very inspiring, funny and helpful. especially the bit on how NOT to get an agent.

    Administrator said...

    I like the bits about writer's bottom and being vile to live with - makes me feel human:)

    Delia Lloyd said...

    I think King's book is masterful (even though I've never read his fiction). It's the first thing I recommend to anyone interested in writing fiction.

    Delia Lloyd

    Lauri said...

    Of course no toffees, everyone knows that- it's butterscotch sweets, you silly! Two per envelope. A few smiley faces should help too.

    Yes to On Writing.

    I absolutely agree over thinking can get you into some terrible messes. Don't do it.
    Nicola has warned you.

    catdownunder said...

    Sorry Nicola. I was having a bit of fun - although I really do not believe there are any simple answers to being published. It is like everything else in my life - hard work. (That's okay. Nothing worthwhile ever came easily and it never will.) I will however confess that, having read your blog all year, I have pretty much given up on the idea of getting anything published. It's not going to happen - and no, that is not being defeatist, it is being realistic. Perhaps I should just stop torturing myself by reading about other people actually doing it.

    Nicola Morgan said...

    Samantha - writer's bottom is NOT essential. I don't have one (or if I have, I can't see it, and you know what "they" say about what the eye doesn't see? Being vile to live with probably is, though.

    Cat - oh. Gulp. Thing is, for a writer, it is simple - it doesn't mean it's easy, because easy is not the same as simple. It's certainly hard but it's not complicated - right book, right way, right time etc. It's all about the writing and if you write well enough you'll be published. Writing well enough means, simply, writing what enough people want to read. And that's as it should be. Enough doesn't mean gazillions, but more than two. Just enough. Enough for their to be any point. Sorry, I can't say fairer. I'm really sorry if I've disheartened you, but it's all about the writing, and I have no idea whether you could be published or not.

    I'm interested to know what about my blog has made you think you won't be published. If it's true,,'s done you a favour? Gulp. Can you cope with that? Or maybe (very likely) you need to take a break and maybe come back to writing refreshed and with a new aim? Thing is, you could be right or wrong, and i haven't a clue. I'm not going to say you're wrong, when I don't know, but you could be...

    David John Griffin said...

    I really enjoyed reading this post, Nicola (well, I enjoy all of them actually!); I thought this one was particularly entertaining as well as informative.

    I bought On Writing by Stephen King about six months ago and think it's an excellent read. the first half is his biography and in the second half there are many invaluable nuggets for any writer.

    I know where catdownunder's "ambience of mood" very well (as I'm certain you do as well, Nicola); this strikes me every few months (or should that be weeks?). It's the constant varnishing over the cracks of a thin veneer I call my writer's confidence. And even now that I personally have "convinced" myself that my writing is good enough, there still leaves the waiting for agents' replies, which for me, drags me down every time.

    "I AM good enough, but will I ever find an agent to agree?" "I WILL be a full-time - or at least, a serious author, when I have agent representation". "I've tried and tried to get an agent without success, despite still being convinced my writing is "worthy" of publication, so what's the point?" "My previous novels are, in my opinion, more than good enough for publication, but without an agent, what's the point in writing any more?" etc, etc, etc. I guess there's a thousand more such thoughts from those of us who struggle to be professionally published.

    But...I've trained myself (it's only taken mnmnmnm years) that the answer to any of the above, or any depression caused by any other similar thought, is to simply say: OK, give up. Or don't. For me, it just comes down to that really. Personally, I'll plod on, and even if it takes another 25 years to get another agent (if I live that long!) I might as well carry on. And if I'm never published, I guess i can say "at least I tried."

    SF said...

    Thanks Nicola for this post - and all your others as well. In the short time I've been following them I've found them very informative AND interesting.

    But is it really really as simple as 'if you write well enough you will get published'? Really? I'm just starting out, and a loooong way from submitting anything, but I've already heard so many theories on what leads to publication and most of them involve 'luck', 'timing' and 'who you know'. I like your theory the best so far.

    Harry Markov said...

    Read "On Writing" and loved it and I think it's time to reread as I start edits on a WIP.

    As far as physics go, I was ready to close the browser, when I read that analogy. They gave me a heck of a problem in school... I have another example that has to do with that analogy as far as the String Theory goes. Back in my high school days [sadly not nearly far away as I would wish them to be], we watched a movie that supposedly explained the String Theory and not once in the whole movie did anybody went to core of it. Just compared it to Einstein and other theories, but no in-depth explanation as to what it was. And sometimes the same can be said about all the advices on the Internet, huge word counts per post about some aspect in the industry and then at the end of it, nothing helpful...

    Not that I am implying the same here, just an observation and yeah it's all both as simple and complicated as it sounds. :)

    catdownunder said...

    I am going to totally human for a moment...if anyone is still reading this... and say two things. One, I replied to Nicola off list and, despite asking her not to bother, she sent a reply. Thanks again Nicola.
    Now I am going to throw something in. This is my personal view. "Everyone has a right to a means of communication. We do not have the right to communicate. Communication is a two way process. It involves the sender and the receiver. The sender has the responsibility of doing the very best they can to get their message across. If someone chooses to receive it then they also have a duty to try and understand it." (There are also good manners, but that is another story.)
    I hope it is not inappropriate to say that here. If anyone wants to disagree or discuss then please come and visit me and do not clutter up Nicola's excellent work.

    Daniel Blythe said...

    I like Jane W-J's book too. I recommend it to students. But then I would say that, as I'm one of the people she quotes in it! Seriously, though, it's very good and down-to-earth advice.

    Jo Franklin said...

    Talk about syncronicity - I've been reading Stephen King's book this week as well. I'm not a horror fan myself so have never picked up one of his books, but I will now. I found his writing honest and compelling.
    Great advice but the only problem is - it's one thing knowing the rules but sometimes you don't realise you are breaking them. I crave professional feedback.

    And I would really like to know how to write a snappy synopsis when the story is multi layered and has a slow reveal like a murder mystery.
    If I don't crack this problem I guess no professional will ever be bothered to read the book that goes with the badly written synopsis.

    Jesse Owen said...

    Yay for On Writing, I bought it following a recommendation on the BBC website last year (can't find the link now).

    Very good book.