Tips for Prospective Writers: From editing your manuscript to finding an agent
It isn’t easy getting published. Hundreds of thousands of books a year are delivered to the doorsteps of publishers and agents, and very few are accepted. To give yourself the best chance of acceptance and eventual publication, it’s a good idea to follow these guidelines.
Short stories, poetry , etc.
I am deliberately not going to discuss poetry or short stories at this stage, as most publishers won’t look twice at either. Many writers are under the misapprehension that “starting small” is a good idea. It really, really isn’t.
Similarly, many first-time writers start off with a children’s book, because they think it will be easier than writing for adults. It isn’t. Children’s literature is very specific, with its own very strict rules, and there is a whole industry to deal with it. Write it, by all means, but it isn’t an easy option.
DO: ask yourself why you’re doing this in the first place.
If the answer includes any of the following: to make lots of money; to give up your job; to be famous; to get girls/boys; to get back at your boyfriend/teacher, etc. then you might want to reconsider. Getting published requires a great deal of time, energy and commitment. You are likely to be rejected many times. You will need to develop a very thick skin. If you are very sensitive, or if you think rejection will upset you too much, then perhaps you should just stick to writing for pleasure – after all, not everyone who plays tennis wants to be a pro.
DO: write what you want to write.
Don’t write what you think you ought to write (or what other people think you should write). No-one really knows what makes a novel successful, and too many people assume that by copying popular trends (eg: The Da Vinci Code, Harry Potter, etc) they will automatically achieve success. The fact is that if a trend has been identified, then it’s probably on the way out already. It’s far better to do what comes naturally to you.
DO: write for pleasure.
If you enjoy your writing, then it’s likely that other people will, too.
DON’T: write as therapy.
Writing can be therapeutic, of course, but no-one really wants to read about your fictional revenge against your ex-boyfriend.
DO: read as much as you can.
No-one ever gets to be a good writer unless they take an interest in what other people are writing.
DON’T: be afraid to experiment.
Nothing you write is ever wasted, so rather than wait for the Muse to inspire you, try different styles and subject matter until you find one that attracts you.
DON’T: pay for someone to read your work.
There are a lot of manuscript-evaluation services out there more than ready to take your money, but most of them aren’t worth it. If you really need objective feedback, consider joining a writers’ group (there are some decent ones online), or going on an Arvon Foundation course. If you want to go on a creative writing course, first check out who’s teaching it. I personally, have my doubts about how qualified someone who has never been in print and doesn’t know the publishing industry is to teach a class of would-be writers.
DO: like your characters.
You need to care about the characters you create, or no-one else will care about them, either.
DO: structure your story.
You don’t have to know every detail, but it’s always a good idea to know where you’re going before you get there.
DO: hone your dialogue.
If necessary, read it aloud until it sounds as natural as possible. Most beginners (me included) tend to have trouble with dialogue. The trick is to remove most (if not all) of the adverbs (which usually tend to slow things down), and keep the “he said, she said” bit down to a minimum without losing track of who’s talking.
DO: know your material.
There’s no point in setting a story in New York if you’ve never been there.
DO: learn to write a synopsis.
It’s the first and most important thing you’re likely to send a prospective agent. Do it properly, learn the technique, and give it the time it deserves.
DO: keep it short.
Agents are busy people, and will appreciate a clear, concise approach.
DO: give only the relevant details.
A synopsis isn’t supposed to contain teasers, autobiographical info, marketing clichés (eg: this is sure to appeal to women of all ages, etc), high-concept pitches (HARRY POTTER meets RAMBO, set in SPACE!), etc. What it should be is a short (1 page) summary of your story, designed to convey what kind of a book it will be, where and when it’s set, who the principal characters are, and how the plot develops.
DON’T: use over-flowery language in your synopsis.
You can prove you’re a stylist later, when you’ve submitted your novel. Cut adjectives down to a minimum, and stick to the facts.
DON’T: try to hustle.
The pushy, Hollywood approach (eg: I am giving YOU, Mr LITERARY AGENT, a unique and tremendous opportunity to read my FANTASTIC book which I know will sell MILLIONS worldwide) only works in bad Eighties movies. Remember: most of these guys have seen it all before.
If you want a better chance of seeing your words in print, if you want to make sure your rights are protected, if you want the best deal, if you want your manuscript delivered onto a real-life editor’s desk and not just dumped straight in the bin with the other unsolicited submissions, then it’s essential for you to get a literary agent. Getting one isn’t easy. At this point it’s up to you to prove that your book has enough literary and commercial potential for someone to take you on as a client.
DON’T: send your unpublished manuscript to an author.
Aat this point I add my heartfelt pleas to those of all other authors out there). Authors have far too much on their plate already to do an editor’s job as well, and they will only accept to quote on manuscripts sent by their agents or their publishers.
DON’T: bother sending out unsolicited manuscripts directly to publishers.
They hardly ever read them.
DON’T: pay to have your work published.
There are a great many vanity presses out there ready to take your money under the guise of “marketing costs”, etc. These vanity publishers may offer attractive-sounding publicity and distribution packages, but beware; most bookshops won’t stock their books, and you may well end up, having paid thousands, with a garage filled with unsold copies. If you want to self-publish cheaply and reliably, go to lulu.com, which provides a cheap and excellent no-frills service, with none of the heartbreak.
DO: join a professional association.
Both PEN and the Society of Authors have special rates for unpublished authors, and they offer useful advice on all kinds of related topics.
DO: approach prospective agents in a professional way.
Send a covering letter, a short (1-2 page) synopsis and a couple of sample chapters of your novel. Don’t send the full manuscript at this stage. A stamped, addressed envelope usually assures a reply. Type on one side of the paper only. Always double-space, and pay attention to spelling and punctuation. These are the basics on which you will be judged (and possibly rejected). If you haven’t received a reply within 6 weeks, it’s okay to follow up with a polite phone call.
DO: choose your agent carefully.
There are lists of agents and agencies in THE WRITER’S HANDBOOK, which should give you some kind of an idea of the type of client your chosen agent represents. There’s no point in sending your sci-fi epic to someone who only deals in literary fiction or scientific journals.
DO: make sure your agent belongs to a professional organization.
The Society of Authors’ Agents has rules by which its members abide. If you choose someone who isn’t a member, you may find yourself paying all kinds of unexpected fees (photocopying, reading fees, postage, etc).
DON’T: send out your manuscript to too many agents at once.
Three is usually enough at a time. If you are lucky enough to have several agents interested in your work at once, make sure that they know this, and make a choice as soon as you can.
DON’T: assume that, having found an agent, it’s going to be plain sailing from now on.
Your problems may just be beginning. Still, it’s a start. Hang in there – keep writing, and good luck!
A SUCCESS STORY: The Doorbells of Florence and lulu.com
One of my talented ex-pupils, Andrew Losowsky has recently had a book published, entitled The Doorbells of Florence.
It began as a series of photographs of doorbells on Flickr and then he self-published an edition with lulu.com (www.lulu.com) and that won the Lulu Blooker Prize online. From that he was “discovered” by Chronicle Books, who have now published the book. It is on sale in the USA and the UK. Check it out. It’s good.
- Read his blog: www.losowsky.com/magtastic
- Read about: www.losowsky.com/doorbells
- Order it from: www.chroniclebooks.com
More ‘How To’ Pages
- How I Write
An account of my own writing processes.