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‘Know your reader’ is a great mantra for any writer, published or unpublished, however, in today’s hugely competitive market, it doesn’t seem to be quite enough anymore. While ‘Know your industry’ is significantly less important, the extra knowledge can be to some extent valuable in an aspiring writer’s quest to getting published.
With a bit of time and patience, you can gain some good market insight, all in your spare time and without spending any money.
Set aside an hour a day for the next five days and follow the step-by-step guide below to increase your awareness of what literary agents, publishers and, ultimately, readers want to read next.
Decide the genre of your book and make a list of the top three all-time bestselling authors in your genre. Find out how they started, who signed them up and who published them when they were just starting out.
Make a list of as many debut writers as you can find, those who have been signed up by agents and published over the last three years, together with their titles. Here you will find the secret of what the industry expects from your book in terms of story, narrative, characters and style. Follow those authors on Twitter. Keep the list of all those agents and editors and follow them too.
Read as many online reviews real readers have left for the titles on your list. See what they loved and what they loathed about the books and imagine what they would pick on in your book.
Visit your local library and borrow one of the titles that look appealing on your list. Make notes as you read. Take a break from creative thinking and read the book through a critical thinking filter, questioning every decision the author made. For example, why would they introduce a character in a particular scene and not in another, or why would they choose a particular word over another?
Find out what’s going to be published in the next eighteen months in your genre by consulting The Bookseller and The Publishers Market and by looking at what the agents on your list sold to the editors.
At the end of the fie days, you’ll have a fairly good idea of what your readers will expect your book to deliver and you’ll also know what agents and editors are going to look for in the next manuscript on their desk.
There will be a lot of activity going on. Don’t let it discourage you and remember that the industry is always on the lookout for the next big book.
Take the weekend off to and on Monday go back to the writing desk with renewed confidence. You are now the fresh pair of eyes your manuscript needs.
While doing your research, why not commission a professional editor to assess your manuscript? When their report is delivered, you can compile their advice with your newly gained knowledge and embark on a major overhaul of your book.
I was so astounded and delighted when Lorena Goldsmith informed me that my novel, ‘The Binding Frame’, had won the 2017 First Novel Prize, that I had to wait until the next day before I could write a proper reply! It was an incredible feeling that the three judges – Lorena Goldsmith, Robin Wade and Darcy Nicholson – had read my work and believed it was something special.
Winning the competition has proved a huge boost to my confidence and has already opened up new opportunities for me as a writer. Three agents contacted me immediately afterwards, as a direct result and I was in the extremely fortunate position to be able to choose from several offers of representation. In the end, I chose to work with the wonderful Sophie Lambert at C+W.
For a new writer, entering a competition such as the First Novel Prize is an invaluable way of getting one’s work noticed and receiving feedback from literary and publishing professionals.
My novel, ‘The Binding Frame,’ is about the true meeting in Palermo in 1624 of two great portraitists: the young Sir Anthony van Dyck, and Sofonisba Anguissola, one of the few professionally trained female painters of her time, who by then was 92 and almost blind.
I am an art historian by training and my passion is bringing the past to life through writing. I became interested in writing art historical fiction as the next creative step after my career writing new media products for The National Gallery in London.
I began writing fiction in 2009. As a mother of three small children, I snatched any moment I could, mainly while my babies were asleep, and wrote notes on everything (even the backs of till receipts!) so as not to forget ideas between their nap times. Writing became a way of keeping my mind going through the exhaustion of new motherhood. Then it became a part of me.
I started the historical research for ‘The Binding Frame’ in 2014 and was very fortunate to write the novel as a student on the MFA in Creative Writing at UEA. Sharing work with tutors and other new writers at UEA accelerated my understanding of the craft of writing and allowed me to test my ideas on critical readers. The novel grew and developed in response to that feedback. Writing can be a lonely pursuit but there are many ways of making contact with other new writers and one can learn a huge amount and receive valuable support from them.
I completed the first draft of ‘The Binding Frame’ in February 2017, only a few months before submitting it to the First Novel Prize. At that point only a handful of people had read the full manuscript. It felt very much my own obscure obsession; but then writing the novel had always been about creating something for myself. I think that must be the case when committing oneself to such a big project over many years, and facing up to the challenges and self-doubt that inevitably entail.
I decided to enter competitions, such as the First Novel Prize, as a public sounding board for my work, and to always actively seek out feedback from the judges. The moment of pressing the submit button is both exhilarating and terrifying. One of the most wonderful aspects of these competitions though is the supportive online community of other new writers who enter them. So even when the news is not good, the blow is lessened by knowing there are others who will also be returning to their manuscripts to make them better and try again. Writing a novel is a long journey. It has been, and is still, a long journey for me. The most important thing is to enjoy the writing for everything it gives you and not to give up.
Winning this competition means that the world and characters I created have come to life in the imaginations of my readers, and I cannot ask for a better prize than that. I am immensely grateful to Robin Wade, Lorena Goldsmith and Darcy Nicholson for their belief in ‘The Binding Frame’ and for their kindness to me. I would strongly encourage other new writers to enter the First Novel Prize in 2018, and I wish them every success.
Follow Annetta Berry on Twitter at @AnnettaBerry
Entries in the The First Novel Prize are open between February and May of every year. The Prize is judged by a panel comprising a literary agent and a fiction commissioning editor. The First Prize is £1,000, Second Prize is £250 and Third Prize is £100. Full terms and conditions at www.firstnovel.co.uk
Young Adult (YA) fiction is limitless. It possesses a unique fluidity that is often absent in the world of adult fiction. Adult fiction restricts you to writing within a genre: crime, women’s fiction, literary etc. ‘Cross-genre’, though increasingly popular, is dubbed a ‘hard sell’. The writer of YA fiction, however, is free from these constraints. Genre suddenly becomes a much more fluid term. YA fiction still has genres, of course: fantasy, historical, magical realism; but anything falling in between is welcomed and celebrated in equal measure. YA fiction writers have the creative freedom to mix, say, a little bit of magic with a little bit of history and produce something entirely new. YA fiction is about setting trends, not following a well-trodden path. It is about exploration and expression.
It is, perhaps, because of all of this that YA fiction has transposed any concept of age and is read widely by adults, as well as teenagers. A quick glance around the ever-popular Young Adult Literature Convention (YALC) – hosted in conjunction with London Film and Comic Con (LFCC) – shows both parents and their children bustling around for signatures, carrying tote bags, and adorned with badges. YA fiction has become a movement, a community – it has developed a life of its own.
And why not? After all, YA is at the forefront of political and social thought. It allows the writer to introduce and tackle adult themes in a dynamic and accessible manner. Holly Bourne artfully tackles OCD, feminism, and friendship in The Spinster Club series. Louise O’Neill’s Asking For It questions society’s reactions to rape in Ireland, whilst Non Pratt addresses disability in Truth or Dare. Each of these authors have one thing in common: they devote themselves to the themes in their books beyond the written word. Non recently shaved her head after raising money for the Royal Hospital of Neuro-Disability. In her novel, her protagonist is dared to do the same. YA fiction is vocal, personal, challenging and tough.
YA fiction is all about invoking real change. Admittedly, it still has work to do regarding diversity and representation but, as a fledgling mixed-race author, I’ve been welcomed with open arms and I am wonderfully optimistic about the future of YA. Young adults are a remarkably forgiving, progressive and open-minded audience, and thus they pave the way for the consumption of progressive and open-minded literature.
So, what actually makes a book YA? It often features an adolescent protagonist who faces some sort of crisis. Alwyn Hamilton (bestselling author of Rebel of the Sands) summed it up perfectly when she spoke at the Heroines panel at 2017’s YALC. “If you put the same character in the same situation at different points, hopefully they react differently.” At its core, YA is about change, personal progression, and growth.
My experience as a reader, a writer, and through my work with literary agencies has allowed me to immerse myself in the world of YA fiction, from page to publisher. As a result I understand what it is that can help an author succeed, from searching for an agent, right through to securing a publishing deal.
A great hook: If you can pitch your novel in a sentence, chances are both editors and agents will pay attention to your story early on. You need to follow through with the quality of the writing and storytelling, but it’s important to try and stand out amongst the many submissions in the dreaded ‘slush pile’. YA fiction has the ability to offer new, bold and exciting genres and themes to agents and publishers; make sure your pitch expresses this.
Knowing your agent: It’s more important to spend your time trying to find the right agent than it is to search for any agent. Whilst, of course, you want to give yourself the best chance at representation, it’s worth considering your long-term career prospects, instead of just focusing on the current book you’re querying. I would recommend researching a select group of agents you admire, over sending dozens of blanket emails in the hope that one will request your full manuscript. Find an agent who works primarily with YA fiction. An agent who specialises in, say, adult literary fiction is less likely to pay attention to your submission and you risk your manuscript being needlessly overlooked. Agents who work with YA fiction are primed to venture into new and exciting territory and are more likely to take a risk and read your work! You want the agent reading your book to have appreciation for the medium, and YA fiction agents are among some of the most passionate and enthusiastic agents out there!
Understanding the difference between a covering letter and a synopsis: A covering letter should contain details about what attracted you to the agent and their agency, along with your personal accolades. It should also present a blurb-style paragraph about the novel – something enticing that advertises the atmosphere, key themes and protagonist of your book. This should be no more than three lines in length. The synopsis, on the other hand, should really be no longer than a page and contain the novel’s main events including spoilers. This last point is especially important as it can be frustrating, from an agent’s perspective, when a writer hasn’t told your how their book will end.
Editing: Once you’ve queried and secured an agent you’ll likely have already spent a lot of time, and occasionally money, editing your novel. However, this is simply the beginning of your book’s journey. Your agent may want to work on major edits with you which can involve some significant structural changes. It’s understandable that you might want to rush to submit to publishers, but just remember that editors have very few slots to fill and a lot of manuscripts to read. Often they are looking for something polished, even if it means they want to do edits themselves. Dedicating yourself to edits with your agent can be the make or break of your book deal, so consider the changes carefully and always try and be patient – a writing career is the ultimate slow burn.
YA is an appealing age category to write for in many ways, but don’t fret if you don’t secure yourself an agent or a book deal with your first novel. A lot of published writers have a novel or two hidden away somewhere. For some, you just need to get the first one out of the way to feel your way through the process, to learn your style and figure out the best way to edit. Then, the real fun can begin.
One of the most exciting parts of being an editor is receiving a brilliant pitch from an agent. For the most part, agents submit manuscripts via email. These emails vary widely from agent to agent – each one has their own style. But the intention of the email is always the same: to set up the manuscript in the best and most appealing way to the editor. This usually entails a brief, yet enticing synopsis (think cover copy on a book jacket rather than a blow-by-blow plot summary) as well as where they see the submission sitting in the market and what well-known or successful books they would compare it to. The agent also usually gives a bit of information about the author, highlighting any accolades such as awards or prizes won, as well as any writing courses completed, to give the editor an idea of the person behind the manuscript.
Email pitches can vary drastically in length and depth, but it’s amazing when you can feel an agent’s genuine love and passion for the manuscript they’re submitting, as this can be contagious and a real inceptive to read the manuscript sooner rather than later!
Depending on the agent, and how excited they are about a specific manuscript, they will call an editor to pitch over the phone. This is a really effective style, as it gives the editor a chance to literally hear the agent’s enthusiasm for what is being submitted. A phone call is then followed up with a brief email, with the submission attached.
Except in very rare occasions where an agent does an ‘exclusive’ submission to one particular editor, agents will submit a manuscript to a significant number of editors at different publishing houses simultaneously. Agents and editors network constantly, so the agent will have a good sense of which editors at which publishing houses might be right for each submission. In this way, crime novels will go to the crime editors, literary fiction to literary editors, science fiction to SF editors, and so on.
Editors often receive many submissions in a single week, so it can take a while to read and get back to agents with their thoughts. Because of the sheer amount of submissions received, an editor will have to turn them down far more often than not. An editor will reject an agent’s submission for countless reasons, ranging from not engaging with the writing to not having space on the list at the moment. But if an editor does fall in love with a submission, it’s still a long path to acquiring the book…
Editors always need to keep in mind where a book will sit in the market and who will buy it – because much like an agent pitches a manuscript to an editor, an editor must pitch it to the sales and marketing teams at their publishing house. The editor’s passion for the book does go very far, as the editor will be the main champion of the book from acquiring it to publishing it, a process that lasts around 18 months. But the sales and marketing team need to feel confident that they can position the book strongly and sell it well – as for better or worse, publishing is a business. However, it is a business made up of people who love books – and when all the stars align and the right agent has the right manuscript that is submitted to the right editor, it can be the best business in the world.
All agencies are run differently, and may attend to submissions in different ways. This can make it hard to know exactly how to pitch a manuscript.
In general terms, it is always wise to research the agent, their list and signs of preferred works or genres. Using sites (although some limited by subscription-only) such as The Bookseller or BookBrunch can provide a wider indication of industry trends, news and personnel. Within an agency of multiple agents, ensure that your submission is addressed to the agent whose tastes you think will most suit your work – misdirecting your enquiry may mean rejection from one, where another may have responded more positively.
In submitting, look to ensure that the following three points are attended to:
1. The Subject Line – The subject line of an email submission may seem trivial, but when a reader is presented with columns of unread emails, this can have significant bearing on which he or she is drawn to. Of course, most agencies will attend to emails in order – but drawing attention to your submission may lead the reader to open it out of curiosity. Vital in doing this is to include the relevant information: title, author, genre and word count. Genre should suggest whether the work is fiction or non-fiction, but include this if not clear. Any unpublished work should be placed within single quotation marks, e.g. ‘The Submission’. If to a general inbox, but aimed at a specific agent, include attn: NAME. Remember that the subject line of an email is the first impression given to the reader: the clearer and more straightforward this is, the easier the reader’s job is. The point here is that the reader’s eye is drawn not by broad statements or all-caps, but by a clear and concise demonstration of ability and understanding.
2. The Email – The email itself should be direct and simple in address, stating the details given in the subject line and briefly introducing yourself as an author – with any experience or information you feel relevant. Again, the more to-the-point this is, the more the reader’s interest will be maintained; stream-of-consciousness style addresses quickly lose the reader’s attention. Three short paragraphs would be an ideal length: the first stating the details about the manuscript (title, genre, word count) and a brief pitch (two or three lines); the second giving your information as an author (including experiences); the third signing off, i.e. ‘Thank you for your consideration, I hope you share my enthusiasm…’).
3. The Attachments – The standard when submitting to an agent is to attach a synopsis and first three chapters as Word documents. This is typically for ease of reading, so that documents (in my own experience) can be read as previews without having to be downloaded. To this end, it is helpful for the reader to have attachments as Word documents – endearingly so. The synopsis (and this is a debated issue) should be no more than a page in length. Its style is debated even more-so, with some preferring a cliff-hanger blurb-style and others opting for a direct beginning-middle-end. Try to strike a balance here, in giving a clear, causal structure of the plot whilst demonstrating its dramatic qualities.
In looking for an agent, you can use the Association of Authors’ Agents site and The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook as directories. In submitting, the main point to remember is that the reader is doing a job – likely, the easier it is for them to review your submission, the more disposed they’ll be to a reading.
Following on from the post on the action-consequence principle in building a strong narrative plot, in this post I’ll illustrate how to build a narrative mini-arc, by using one of the greatest examples of accomplished narrative structure, Ken Follett’s masterpiece, The Pillars of the Earth.
According to the action-consequence principle, every event in a story has to be either the cause or the effect of another event. Events can’t take place randomly, in the shape Character X did Action A, then he did B, then C and so on. A story is stronger when events are arranged in such a way that Character X does Action A either because of a previous Action Z or in order for a later Action B to become possible.
This might sound confusing, so I’ll use an example.
Towards the end of Chapter 9 in Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth, there is a battle scene of crucial significance in the story: Lord William Hamleigh’s army attacks the small village of Kingsbridge causing devastating harm and human damage.
It is essential that Kingsbridge villagers find out about the imminent attack before it occurs.
However, they don’t just happen to find out about it by chance. The episode is masterfully built using the technique of the narrative mini-arc and forms part of the larger structure of the story arc.
The mini-arc starts with a reflection scene from Tom Builder, one of the main characters, in which he looks back over the last few years, what he had achieved, how he had overcome the loss of his wife, found love again and how content he now was with his life, especially for having his little son, Jonathan, around every day.
This short episode of reflection brings the reader into the first action scene of this mini-arc: Tom seeks out Jonathan to take him out to a fair in the village. Note that even the small detail of bringing the child into the scene is not random. The author could have chosen to say, ‘Mid-morning, Tom sought out Jonathan to go out to a fair in the village,’ but why tell when you can show?
At the fair, during a rather gruesome bear-baiting scene, Jonathan gets lost. Tom starts looking for him and spots him high up on the scaffolding of the cathedral they are building. He climbs the scaffolding and in a painstakingly slow and tense scene, he brings the little boy down safely.
And then, while climbing down the scaffolding, Tom notices the approaching army. ‘There was a cloud of dust on the road leading to Kingsbridge, about half a mile away. After a moment, he realised he was looking at a large troop of men on horseback, approaching the town at a smart trot.’ (The Pillars of the Earth, Macmillan, 2009, p. 484).
From here on, we are thrown into a fierce action scene that lasts for the rest of the chapter.
Note how the author builds momentum through a series of action-consequence episodes to bring us to the climax of this mini-arc, which is the battle scene. The battle scene is a major event in so far that it acts as the cause that sets in motion a series of consequence-events, which all form part of the overall story arc.
After reading The Pillars of the Earth, one could easily liken storytelling and page-turning narratives to the construction of a cathedral: brick by brick, wall by wall, arc by arc.
When writing fiction, countless hours are put into characters, scenes and a storyline and it would be surprising if an author did not become completely immersed in their work. As a result, it is normal for writers to fail to notice even the most obvious flaws in their writing.
As you have found this article, you have most likely already finished a piece of fiction writing. You should therefore look at the following advice with an aim of reviewing and self-editing your work. However, if you are in the process of writing, or simply contemplating about starting a piece of fiction, the following tips will still be useful for you to keep in mind as you write.
Plot and structure
As a basic rule, your story should have a strong beginning, middle and end with each chapter clearly moving the plotline forwards. The start of your novel should place the reader directly within the action and leave them eager to continue reading. Similarly, the pace of the book should keep the reader interested with a balance of dialogue and description, cliffhangers, and a build of tension. The ending of your novel is equally important and should be poignant, leaving the reader moved but also satisfied, with all of their questions being answered.
Characters are crucial to maintaining the interest of your reader, yet new writers often struggle to balance character development. Small characters with no real part in the plot are regularly examined in too much detail, being given a name and a background when it is not needed. Conversely, new writers regularly fall short on developing a main character. Whether through a physical description, through their dialogue and actions, or through flashback scenes, the reader should be able to picture key characters in their minds, what they look like, their mannerisms, and have some knowledge on the character’s background.
Narrative Voice and Point of View
The narrative voice of your novel is something that will primarily attract your reader, so make sure that it is strong and consistent, with a clear distinction against the character’s voice. Similarly, whether you are writing in the first or third person, the point of view must also remain consistent. If there is a change in point of view through your novel, make sure that this is marked with a new chapter or an asterisk.
Showing and Telling
Report-style writing is extremely common amongst new writers. Instead of telling the reader how a character is feeling e.g. “He was disappointed”, show it through their actions, what they say, or their face expressions. It may be worthwhile to go through your manuscript and spot all of the generic adjectives and adverbs that you have used, either exchanging them for a detailed description or for a more appropriate word choice e.g. “He stormed off”, rather than “He walked off sulkily”.
Dialogue within a piece of fiction is important, often being an extremely effective method of showing certain personality traits of a character, or filling the reader in on some background information. However, dialogue must always contribute something to the story so try to avoid unnecessary greetings or small talk.
With these tips, you should have a clear indication of where you are in the process of writing your novel, perhaps you require a little more time to review your writing and work on these points. However, it is important to note that although the guidelines above are referring to the most common flaws found in unpublished fiction manuscripts, there are many other aspects of writing that an author should reassess.
This blog should help self-editors along the way.