Wednesday, 9 December 2009


Here I am, keeping my promise to you. I know: I've regularly said that the process of becoming published is simple [not "easy", note: "simple"]. I've said it so many times that some of you are in danger of suffering adage-fatigue. But let's say it one more time, all together now:
"All you have to do is write the right book in the right way and send it to the right publisher at the right time and in the right way."
After a recent post where I'd mentioned this again, it became obvious in the comments that there was some understandable misunderstanding as to what I meant by the most crucial part of this.


First, here's what I do NOT mean:
  • a book which sells your soul, a book in which you have cynically or contrivedly ticked the boxes that you think publisher want you to tick, just to suit a market or gap therein. [You are most welcome to do this, and many people do with great success, but it's not what I do and not what many of you want to do. So, it's not what I mean.]
  • a book which you have written because you have spotted a trend. [NB: the trend while you're planning your book is a bandwagon disappearing into the distance in a cloud of dust by the time your proposed novel is published two years later. So, vampires are out as a viable trend. If you want my opinion, angels are the next trend, but the books with angels in are being delivered to publishers NOW, so you've missed that one already. Maybe it'll be fluffy bunnies next. No, forget predicting trends unless your balls are genuine crystal.]
  • any particular type of book at all. [There is no magic answer. Publishers are not looking for a particular book. So, no single particular book is the right book.]

Oh no, no, no. When did I ever say nothing?

Here are some constructive thoughts about what I do mean by "right book". [When I say "constructive", please don't think that I'm going to tell you what to write, by the way, just how to think about the writing of it].

  • The right book is that simple but elusive thing: a book that readers want to read.
  • Publishers are the ones who have to invest the money into bringing your book to readers, and publishers have a great deal of experience in selling books [though of course they don't always get it right - this is art, not science], so they are the ones who have to make the decision. [Self-publishing is a whole other story  -  and, by the way, should be a choice, not a dump-bin for your sensibly-rejected poor writing].
  • Although publishers need to sell books in order to recover their costs, they do not always look for the next best-seller. Most publishers will aim to have a number of big money-spinners and a whole load of books that break even or don't. Your book must fit somewhere in that range for them, depending on their financial situation, aims, and passion for your sort of book.
  • All readers are different, so what is right for one group is not right for another.
  • So, you might think, surely ANY book will fit into the above argument?
  • No.
  • Readers are a funny bunch. All of them. Even you. And me. A lot of us pretend we're very open-minded, but actually we have high and inherent need for believability, cohesion, patterns, flow - all the things which fire our neurons and allow us to reach the goal of all readers: narrative transportation. [I've written about narrative transportation somewhere  -  ah, here. It's my shortest ever post, I think, mainly because it's a link to some clever people who can tell you all about it properly].
  • And this means we like / need our books to have certain ingredients, in the appropriate measure. [Which I will mention in passing below, though I've covered them all before in posts about voice, pace, structure, beginnings etc].
  • This means that if you were hoping that I would tell you that the right book is, for example, a book about angels, or a historical adventure story set in Siberia, or a feisty chick-lit story with a wheel-chair bound heroine, or a crime noir novel with three disembowelled children in scene one, then I'd have to say: it could be any one of those or it could be any one of a million other possibilities.
  • But that your book must do the following things in order to be the "right book":
  1. Engage the reader from page one and never let him go till long after the book is finished. [Narrative transportation again.] We [all of us except the most desperate cynics or people who are forced to read books not of their choosing] choose to read this novel instead of that one because we hope we will enjoy it, nothing else.
  2. Fit the genre or type of book which the reader expects  -  so it must follow the rules, though not necessarily rigidly, and when it breaks the rules it must do so with reason, confidence and style. Experimental writing is wonderful and commendable, but if the experiment fails, you have to ask yourself why and take responsibility for not having engaged readers.
  3. Have a voice which is consistent, appropriate, genuine - not seeming contrived, never slipping from narrator to author or one character to another except in ways which follow the rules of voice. [And these rules are not arbitrary: they go to make a book, instead of a person putting some pretty words down for their own benefit].
  4. Have something about it which makes it sound like something we'd like to read. This is the "hook" that I've often mentioned. The hook is the brief, fabulously irrestible description of a book which makes everyone want to buy / borrow / read it. Why is this important? Because the right book is not a book which will sit and wait for readers to come to it: in order for it to reach readers at all, in the vast mountain of other books which may also be good, it not only has to BE good, it has to SOUND good. 
Remember: no one is obliged to read your book. You have to make them want to. You think it's hard getting a publisher? You wait till you have to please paying readers, too.

So, have you written the right book? If it sounds good when you describe it to me [or an agent, publisher, bookseller or reviewer] then that is a very good start indeed. But it will also have to be well written, following those rules that are necessary, breaking those which can be gloriously broken with good effect. It has to feel as though it was written by someone who:
  1. has a burning passion to engage the reader from the first word till long after the last word
  2. has the technical skill to do so
In short: the right book is the book a publisher believes he or she can sell to an appropriate number of its intended readers. And that he can have faith in, loving it himself. Faith is pretty much what it boils down to: you have faith, now you have to make the publisher have faith, and the publisher has to make the readers have faith. The book that does that is the right book.

See, it's simple. But it's not easy. Oh no, no, no. And I never said it was. From the very first day of this blog, back on January 11th, this blog has been headed by that quote from Thomas Mann. Go look. Not everyone agrees with me that writing is hard  -  Susan Hill doesn't. Well, she's lucky. I find it hard. I love it, especially when it's been hard and I eventually crack it. Frankly, if it was easy I wouldn't bother to do it.

So many unpublished writers don't focus enough on the fact that their book may not be good enough yet, preferring to blame rejection on the other stuff, such as not having sent the right number of pages, or having put toffees in with the submission without realising that the agent had a toothache.

Remember how I said in my last post that I once write a covering letter in rhyme? Well, it wasn't the covering letter that got me rejected: I hadn't written the right book.


Catherine Hughes said...

Ah, see, I wrote about vampires (different vampires, as I am always swearing to) because I had such a cool idea as to how they came to be and how we have such myths about them.

My first book was about evolved humans, time travel, and alien abduction.

And then I wrote about an angel who wasn't an angel at all, explaining guardian angels as a completely different type of being. Haven't finished that one yet...

My most recent novel, awaiting feedback from beta readers, came out of me trying to re-imagine the three wise monkeys as teenagers. I'm hoping that's a good hook - how do you reckon I did that??

And the novel I have just started is a kind of Beauty and the Beast in space.

I try to do things just a little differently every time.

I know the first two were not the right books, even though I did try very hard with the vampire one. I have high hopes for the third one. But, if I don't succeed with it, I will move on and perhaps the one I am writing now will be the one that gets me noticed.

I suspect that the right book only becomes completely obvious with hindsight!

Jemi Fraser said...

Simple, not easy - love it! Great distinction between the two. I might just have to borrow that and use it in my classroom too :)

Ey Wade said...

So, in actuality the right book is in the mind of the publisher. The author has to put butt to seat,fingers to keys, concentrate and hopefully channel the mind of the right publisher at the right time.

Not a problem. I'm sitting and concentrating as I write.

Unknown said...

I wrote the right book, but then I came back to it and discovered that I'd written the right book in the wrong way.

So here I am, with only the first chapter and my original idea... take two on writing the right book. In the RIGHT way. :P

Thomas Taylor said...

'Frankly, if it was easy I wouldn't bother to do it.'

Yes! Also, if it were easy, everyone would be having a go.

Oh, hold on -- everyone is having a go! or at least, that's how it feels.

Jayne said...
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Jayne said...

Hi Nicola. Your lovely blog post above has been enough to send me into a tail-spin tizzy about my current novel. It has an angel in it. There, I’ve said it! And it is finished. Phew – said that too! The only problem is I am still redrafting, and I have just worked out that if I continue at the current speed then I will not finish it until June, by which time I will have keeled over on a keyboard, and possibly missed the boat.

Even though I know it depends on so many other factors, your words have made me realise I need to step up a gear. I posted more about this on my blog – do feel free to wander across! But I wanted to say thank you for this, and for sharing so much good advice. May I say you are a very nice crabbit old bat? :)

Administrator said...

Ah, well thanks for explaining all that, Nicola. I think i'm beginning to 'get' what my published friends have been saying, about writing the book you want to - but, obviously, within certain boundaries.

I have been frustrated this time around, because - as i've mentioned - my book is inbetween genres. I wrote it because i realized i'd been cynically trying to write for the market, so i thought i'd swing the other way. Looks like i might have swung too far.

Barb said...

Fairies - that's what is coming after angels.

Great post. Thank you for these insights. I'm just writing what I want to write. If I try and write what I think I should be writing it all goes liquid by chapter three.

Administrator said...

I remember the first time an agent ever requested the full, one of her comments afterwards was that it was too 'derivative'. I had to ask writing friends what that meant:)
And it was, as i had tried my best, consciously, to write something that would sell.

HOwever much as i agree with and appreciate your advice though, Nicola, i am interested - how do you explain the books that set new trends! You know, the first ever vampire book, the first granny-lit, the first misery memoir.. are they just exceedingly well written or have they just happened to stumble into the hands of a publisher willing to take a chance??

Nicola Morgan said...

Sam - how do I explain books that set new trends? Easy: it's publishers and readers that set trends. The Twilight books were not the first vampire books. Harry Potter wasn't the first wizard. If angels become a trend are we going to forget Miss Garnet's Angel or any number of other angel books that came before? No, it's a when a book hits the sweet spot, marketing-wise (and for that you have to a) tick some commercial and fairly predictable boxes AND b) have unpredictable luck, and then others that happen to be on a same theme swarm towards it and suddenly you have a trend. It's not something that you can set out to create (except with huge cynicism, enormous marketing power and budget, and massive luck as well).

Please forget trends - just go and write a great book and it doesn't matter if it's about angels or what. We have to stop thinking like that. You can't/shouldn't think about creating a trend - only ride one that's there, by accidentally (usually) leaping on it at the beginning.

Donna Gambale said...

Congrats on answering a nearly unanswerable question!

Administrator said...

Why is your advice always so annoyingly sound, Nicola?:)

Great post and comments, anyway. Lots of food for thought.

Rebecca Knight said...

It's very true that writers like to blame someone else for their rejections when it really all comes down to whether or not we've done "it" well enough :). It's all a process, and when we have to keep improving throughout all of it.

Once we've gotten good enough to be published, we must strive to have an even better 2nd, 3rd, and 4th books. This is one of those jobs where you just can't be satisfied with "good enough." That's why I love it!

catdownunder said...

Write the right book. Write the right book. Write the right...just go and write it you foolish cat. Get on with it. No I will not self publish. Yes it will be good enough. Write the right book!
Think purrsitive. Write the right book.

David John Griffin said...
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David John Griffin said...

Excellent post as always, Nicola. While finding an agent/getting published seems like throwing darts at a moving dartboard, with a blindfold on; your posts help us to remove the blindfold, at least!

Nicola Morgan said...

Sam - sorreee!!

Others - precisely.

Though Catherine, I think the right book should be fairly clear beforehand. (The best-selling mega-weird best-seller may be only obviousl with hindsight but the right book has certain qualities that are what make the publisher say YESSSSSS.

* said...

Vampires, check. Angels, check. Here's to investing my last $$ in a solid crystal ball.

{Just kidding.}

Witty, helpful post per usual. Thanks for that, I like to smile while I learn!

emmadarwin said...

Great post, Nicola.

Can we extend Thomas Mann? I think you and Susan Hill are both right, in a sense.

"An author is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people. But an author is also someone for whom writing well is easier than it is for other people.'


catdownunder said...

And then Emma there is Richard Hughes, "Writing is a life sentence."

Nicola Morgan said...

Emma - I like that a LOT! Brilliant.

Harry Markov said...

I think that the right books comes, when at first draft level you make wild, senseless sex without protection with your idea and just put your soul into it [I am quoting Lady Gaga and her understanding of how to write songs. A bit irrelevant, but can be applied to writing in general].

When it does happen on that primal subconscious level and then revise thinking of your readers [as I think you have talked about] then I think the right book is in the making.

Since we are all sharing project ideas I have a few books one about blood magic and a war between dimensions, one about a boy who grows to be an air elemental, one about an utopian future where magic and mythology have conquered technology and one about vices and values living among humans, influencing them to change history as part of their silent war against each other.