Tag Archives: literary agents

On writing: some nice news

Not career making, but nice all the same to find out a short story I wrote about a pig in a schoolyard made the Mslexia short story competition shortlist of fifty.

a little happy dance
a little happy dance

It’s given me a boost and I have reworked the opening chapters of my newly named novel ‘The replacement wife’ and posted them on Authonomy. There is a link at the top of the page if you are interested. Now all I’ve got to do is get up the guts to send it out again.

rejection

On Writing: Seven degrees of rejection

snoopy rejection

1) Standard form rejection based on partial, five minutes after you pressed send.

2) Standard form rejection based on partial.

3) Personalised rejection based on partial (you’ve got talent variety).

4) Standard form rejection based on full.

“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Then quit. There’s no point in being a damn fool about it.”  W. C. Fields

5) Personalised rejection based on full (I didn’t buy into this aspect, but it’s a good idea).

6) Personalised rejection based on full (send us your next one).

7) Personalised rejection after you have resubmitted the same novel, which they asked you to edit further.

“You must keep sending work out; you must never let a manuscript do nothing but eat its head off in a drawer. You send that work out again and again, while you’re working on another one. If you have talent, you will receive some measure of success – but only if you persist.”  Isaac Asimov

This time I made no. 5. The higher the number the higher the hurt; 5 hurts pretty bad.

The only way to avoid it is either a) be a genius or b) don’t submit.

I’m working on a) and considering b).

And yes I know, it is only one agent. It doesn’t mean others won’t love it, but my writing ego is soft and easily wounded. I have to learn to toughen up because the alternative is not to write, and I can’t imagine not.

“After rejection – misery, then thoughts of revenge, and finally, oh well, another try elsewhere.”  Mason Cooley

What number have you got to? Do you struggle to send your novel out again?

“If you want the rainbow, you’ve got to put up with the rain.”  Dolly Parton

A review: My top ten for 2013

Time to review my list for 2013, one month in:

  1. Get an agent- well, I jumped. MS is sent.
  2. Get a publisher – depends on 1.
  3. Fast twice a week – yup, still doing it. Still feel great. Husband starts it tomorrow.
  4. Meditate regularly- not once. I really must start doing it again. Make time.
  5. Enjoy the moment (live in the present) – always trying, but would help if I meditated.
  6. Worry less (see no. 5) – nuff said.
  7. Read more books – reading two at once, currently. Spent a great train journey, immersed in Sadie Jones, Small Wars.
  8. Write more (instead of procrastinating on the internet) – well I’ve sent the MS and my friend and I are challenging ourselves to write something new each month and put it in our shared dropbox.
  9. Keep blogging- love my blog.
  10. Accept change is part of being alive and embrace it – I’m getting on a plane to Honduras! And looking forward to it.

Five for writers: How do you make your story unputdownable, (other than putting superglue on the cover)

20130122_172932
my lovely books on writing – the ones not on my Kindle.

I confess. I am procrastinating.  I justify this procrastinating activity as I am studying writing technique rather than randomly surfing the internet (see my post A list: My top ten for 2013). But of course it means I am not doing what I should be doing, namely working through my novel for the final time before sending to ‘THE AGENT’, who has taken on such significance, I can only think of her in capitals. She did say, in our latest correspondence, to take as long as I needed, but I don’t think she meant forever.

Anyway, as I have been doing some reading, I thought I would share a little tip that I have found immensely useful, both when planning a novel and when editing.

It is courtesy of Adam Sexton’s; ‘Master Class in Fiction Writing’, which you can get a copy of on Amazon.

So, to make your novel unputdownable you start with a central character and need.

For example:

odysseus Odysseus needs to return home.

Jane Eyre needs Mr Rochester.

Juliet needs Romeo.

Bridget Jones needs Daniel Cleaver.

These characters needs are concrete in that they are able to be experienced via the senses. These needs are also dramatic. Dramatic means they are performable.

cyclops_poster We can see Odysseus steering his ship towards home and feel his frustration as his ship is driven  backwards, when his sailors release the north, south and east winds, thinking the bag contains gold.  We are there with him, desperate for him to slay the Cyclops so he can return to his beautiful wife on  the island of Ithaca. We are willing him on and we are desperate to find out if he gets there.We couldn’t  possibly put the book down without knowing.We must know.

Abstract/ general needs are not performable, therefore not dramatic and therefore not likely to keep your reader turning pages.

For example:

The need to be loved.
The need to survive.
The need for revenge.

We cannot invest in a character, nor care about their fate, if their need is vague,unobtainable, undramatic.

The story arises from making these abstract needs specific and concrete:

For example, how might you ‘show’ the need to be loved? By stalking someone. By proposing to them on live television. By making their dinner every night and listening to them rant about their day, without interrupting. By taking an overdose. These are all dramatic, concrete manifestations of the vague concept ‘to be loved’.

So, now you have your character and their need, the rest is easy (I jest). All you’ve got to do is make sure they don’t get what they need. In fact, you should make sure the need becomes more and more difficult to obtain (it took Odysseus ten years), even seemingly impossible, until the very end, where they either get what they needed; Jane marries Mr Rochester, Odysseus returns home. Or, they don’t – Romeo is dead and Juliet kills herself (OK, well she gets what she needs, but not in the way she intended). Or, the character realises that what they thought they needed, they didn’t after all; Bridget thought she needed Daniel, but realises in the end it was Mark she really loved.

These obstacles to achievement are the conflicts that drive your story. If the character lacks need, or if this need is easily satisfied, there is no conflict. No conflict = no story.conflict

In real life, of course, we have many needs, often competing, but in fiction this would create a diffuse and complex story, one unlikely to entice the reader to keep turning pages. Fiction illuminates one need and in doing so, illuminates all need (the abstract). I may not need Romeo, but I do need to be love and be loved. I may not be miles away from home, but my daughter is and I feel that homesickness to be with her.

What makes a book unputdownable is a great character with a dramatic need that becomes increasingly difficult to obtain. Easy really?!

Questions to ask about your story:

1) What concrete need does your character/s have?

2) What/ who is going to stand in their way? (this could be themselves, like religious belief, or fear of failure, or another character, or situation etc)

In my novel, In-between Us, there are two central characters.

Madeleine needs to keep her husband.
Rebecca needs Madeleine’s husband (uh, oh).

What gets in Madeleine’s way (apart from Rebecca) is the fact she is dying and the subsequent feeling of guilt that arises for ruining her husband’s future.

What gets in Rebecca’s way (apart from Madeleine) is her conscience, which increasingly niggles at her as she becomes embroiled in the lives of her married lover and his wife.

Whether both these characters will get what they need (which seems unlikely considering they both need the same thing), is hopefully what will keep the reader reading until the end, and more importantly (for me, right now) THE AGENT loving the book and making me an offer of representation.

This blog post is done. I ought to return to what I should be doing (editing), but I haven’t checked FB for ages (nearly 30 minutes), and who knows what earth shattering statuses and cat pictures I may have missed.

As always, comments and general chit-chat welcome.

A list: My top ten for 2013

  1. Get an agent
  2. Get a publisher
  3. Fast twice a week
  4. Meditate regularly
  5. Enjoy the moment (live in the present)
  6. Worry less (see no. 5)
  7. Read more books
  8. Write more (instead of procrastinating on the internet)
  9. Keep blogging
  10. Accept change is part of being alive and embrace it

What’s your top ten for 2013? Please share.

Four for writers: How I write a novel (and for anyone who wants to know what I look like without make-up on)

I admit this is a bit of a lazy post this week, but only because I have been spending every spare minute of the day completing the second draft of my novel (the one the agent wants to see). And in penance, I am letting you see me without make-up on, and believe me, it is not pretty.

Sorry you had to see this
Sorry you had to see this

The first draft is rough (see picture). I just write, without censoring my thoughts, or worrying about POV. I write 2000 words a day, every day, until around six weeks later I have 100,000 words. I show no-one this draft.

Amazing what a bit (lot) of foundation can do
Amazing what a bit (lot) of foundation can do

I then begin all over again. Using bits of the first draft, but often rewriting scenes from a different POV to the one I originally chose, and getting rid of the ‘tell’ – usually backstory, so vital to the writer when constructing the novel from scratch, but boring to the reader. It is only once I have a second draft that I can see the full shape of the story. Or using the make-up analogy, foundation is on and the worst cracks and crevices are smoothed away.

The second draft is the first time I show anyone the story (I would never leave the house without at least foundation on). Time to call in all those favours from review groups and writer friends.

Getting there.
Getting there.

Once I have all the feedback in, comes draft three. Strengthening character motivations and themes. It might also involve writing ‘out’ or ‘in’ a character, and even changing the plot. Back to the make-up analogy, still very much reconstructive – creating cheekbones I don’t have and eyelashes I can only dream about.

I feel like me again.
I feel like me again.

Draft four. Close reading of every sentence, often starting from the back and working forward, as it is easier to see each sentence on its own this way. The important thing to do here, is get rid of any lingering cliches or stupid phrasing, and check dialogue sounds natural. Or in make-up terminology, applying eye-shadow, eyeliner and filling in my pale eyebrows, which almost disappear on the outer edge.

20121013_122108

And finally, draft five – Now I can focus on the little things, like typos or missing words and checking the whole thing reads smoothly, and there aren’t any continuity errors. I use a text to speech software programme (this one is free), correcting as I go. Time for lipstick and hair.

Ta da!
Ta da!

Now I am ready to submit! Or in make-up terms; this is as good as it is going get.

Luckily my writing can improve further, even if I can’t!

How do you do it? Write a novel I mean, not apply your make-up. Please share.

Further update: How not to get a literary agent

For those who haven’t been following the story of my attempt to get a ‘literary agent’ you can read it in full here, with an update here.

A quick summary: I sent the opening 3 chapters of my novel to an agent and then fell out of love with it (for a variety of reasons). I realised the ‘other’ story (going around and around in my head) was the one I should’ve written in the first place (a different version of the same idea).  20,000 words into (in my eyes) the far superior story, the agent requested a full of the first novel. I took a gamble and sent a pitch of the second version of the story instead, explaining my reasons for this change of direction. Thankfully, she didn’t tell me to go away (I wouldn’t have blamed her) and agreed the second novel sounded stronger. I promised to send her the opening 3 chapters and a proper synopsis by the end of September and if she liked them as much (or more than) the first novel, she would request the full manuscript.

That was the plan…

I finished the first draft and worked on the opening three chapters. I wrote synopsis after synopsis, with the help of two wonderful writer friends, and enlisted the help of online critique groups to read the chapters. I rewrote, edited and tweaked, panicked quite a lot and put off sending it for a number of days, even though it was ready.

Other unpublished writers will get why I acted like this. Hope is in short supply, whereas hopeful writers are plentiful. Most of the  feedback you receive from industry professionals is of the; ‘I didn’t love it enough’, or ‘we are publishing something similar to this’, or ‘this is just not for us’ variety. In other words: REJECTION. Having an agent interested in your work is such a boost to confidence I didn’t want to burst the one-day-I-will-see-my-book-in-Waterstones bubble.

I finally pressed SEND.

I waited… forgetting every agent worth her salt would be at the Frankfurt book fair.

Every time my phone beeped, I felt sick and clammy. What if the second novel wasn’t as good as I thought it was? Would I still be in love with it (vital if I am to finish) if she said she didn’t want to see it?

And then last night, about ten days after sending it, the email arrived…

What did it say?

“I hate it. Go away.”

No only kidding. She said she enjoyed the chapters and she wants to see the rest as soon as it is ready.

Whoop! Whoop! Happy Dance.

I am no further on than I was in the summer. In fact, I am a few steps behind. In August, I had a completed novel and full request. Today, I have an uncompleted novel and full request, but I couldn’t be happier. She likes it. She wants to read it all.

Of course, liking the opening chapters does not mean she will like the rest, or want to represent me, but I am back on that ladder to publication and I am going to hold on as tightly as I can.

If you want to see the opening chapters; click here. You don’t have to join the site to read.

One more whoop!

Two for writers: My method for writing a synopsis

For those who have been following my literary journey, One for writers: how not to get a literary agent, you’ll remember I promised ‘The Agent’ the opening chapters of the novel by the end of the month. The chapters are going really well and I have posted the first four on Authonomy for feedback. I reckon I will have the first draft completed in a couple of weeks, if I stick to 2000 words a day (the schedule has slipped a little, but essentially I am on target).

So the time has come to write the ‘dreaded’ synopsis. Nothing is likely to strike fear into a writer more than a request for a one-page synopsis. You want to shout: “If I could have told the story in one page, and not three hundred, I would have.” 

But shouting is not going to get the darn thing written. Nor is hoping it will magically appear on your laptop one morning. The only thing you can do is sit down and write it and hope you survive to send it.

So what is a synopsis?

Essentially it is what the story is about. What happens (to the character/s)? What are the major plot points; the highs and lows, twists and turns. It must include the ending, cliff hangers are a ‘no,no’. The agent wants to know if the story holds together. If the conclusion is – if not expected- then plausible and satisfying. But, and this relates more to general fiction than genre, the synopsis  also needs to convey the themes of the novel, or in other words, it must answer the why questions. Why does the character/s react like that? What is their motivation? What is their goal?

A novel’s readability is all about the tension you create. A character wants something and spends the whole novel trying to get it. The plot derives from their attempts being thwarted (what happens). And also, and more importantly, how they react to those events (why it happens). This is what drives the story and the reader forward. The ending should either give the character what they want or not (with the attendant nuances, such as they didn’t want it in the end anyway, or they got something different and better, or they got something worse).

There is plenty of advice out there, but if you try to follow all of it, your synopsis will be as long, if not longer, than the novel itself. 

However, I have come up with method that is relatively painless and seems to work (i.e. I’ve had full requests).

It came about after reading about surface and story-worthy problems. A detailed explanation can be found in Les Edgerton’s book on writing craft, called Hooked, and a summarised version can be found on his blog, here.

Essentially, he shows, through the example of the film, ‘Thelma and Louise’ – how the two levels work. 

The surface problem is what is happening (the plot). What?

The story-worthy problem is what drives the surface problem. Why?

Louise wants to go on a road trip with Thelma, but she knows her husband is likely to say no. As she begins to ask him, he brushes her off. Louise decides to go without telling him. This out of character behaviour already indicates that the story-worthy problem will involve Louise, but as yet the reader, nor Louise, knows what it is.

Emboldened by standing up to her husband, Louise persuades Thelma to stop at a bar. Initially Louise is happy to be chatted up by a man (Harlan), but outside in the car park, he won’t accept ‘no’. This shows Louise is not only under her husband’s thumb, but generally unable to stand up against men (story-worthy problem). Thelma ends up shooting Harlan (melodrama/action). Louise urges Thelma to call the police, but in the end decides to go on the run with her, which kicks off the plot proper.

The surface problem gets bigger and bigger; disobeying her husband, which leads to them being in the bar, and Thelma shooting Harlan, which leads to them running from the law. This relates to the story-worthy problem, which is, Louise is finally standing up to all the men who have abused and dominated her all her life (but again she and the reader do  not see this clearly until the end scene). Ideally, the protagonist and the reader need to discover the story-worthy problem at the same time.

The road chase is not only about whether they will get caught or not, but it is also a metaphor for Louise’s emergence from the shadow of men (the cop chasing them represents men’s oppression of women in general). This is what makes this film enduring.

So how does this help with synopsis writing?

I start with the surface problem. What is the inciting incident that kicks the story off? Sometimes it comes right at the beginning and sometimes a little way in. It is not always the most dramatic event. It can be something quite small and seemingly insignificant, but it’s repercussions are far reaching.

In Thelma and Louise, it is when Louise disobeys her husband, and not when Thelma shoots Harlan. Even though the plot-action results from the shooting, it’s because Louise stood up to her husband that they end up in the bar, and because she stood up to her husband,  she refuses to let Harlan bully her into submission.

Once I have identified the inciting incident (it is not always what I think it is when I begin writing), then I consider what the story-worthy problem is in relation to this. Why did the character do that? What’s going on subconsciously?

It is Louise’s attempt to assert herself against the way men have treated her, which drives her to go on the run with Thelma, rather than handing herself in. The police are a metaphor for men in general.  Legitimate but unjust power.

After you’ve  identified the inciting incident and the story-worthy problem, the rest of the synopsis is easy (honest). You pick out the next big thing that happens (which should be a worsening of the original surface problem)? How does this event, drive the story-worthy problem?  And so on, until you reach the end, where the surface problem and story-worthy problem come together.

If Thelma and Louise hand themselves in, they have not achieved freedom from male domination, and they will be back where they’ve started. For Louise, now she has had freedom, going back is not an option, so plausibly if dramatically, there can be only one outcome – to drive over the edge of the cliff.

I find thinking of my story using these two layers, helps me to pick out what is important for both plot and character motivation in the synopsis. I still need to cut and trim. The first draft or three are always too long, but essentially this approach has saved me hours of frustration and helps when I am writing the novel too. Keeping the story-worthy problem in your head as you write, helps to ensure scenes evolve from the character’s internal motivation, giving the scenes depth (layered).

Synopses will never be fun things to write, but hopefully they will be less distressing if you stick to the above method. Unless you’ve got a better one to share? How do you do it without tearing your hair out, or your manuscript up? Do you write it at the beginning, or leave it until the end? What’s the best advice you’ve found on synopsis writing? Please share.

Update: How not to get a literary agent

For those who followed my novel saga on the previous post. The agent got back to me. She said…  

Dear Juliet,

You are quite possibly unhinged, but version 2 (based on the measly pitch you sent me) does sound stronger. Do send the opening three chapters and synopsis. 

Yours expectantly, 

Ms Literary agent

OK, well maybe she didn’t word it exactly like that, but she did want to see version 2. This is great news. I have a goal to aim for, which is always useful when you are 40,00 words in and wondering why you started the flippin’ thing in the first place.

One for writers: How not to get a literary agent

This week is the first of my posts about writing (which I plan to make a regular monthly feature), but it is not the first post I intended to write.

I was all set to write a post about something I am struggling with, like over-writing or balancing show and tell (clicking on the links will take you to Emma Darwin’s marvellous blog about these ‘writerly’ issues).

Then, on Saturday morning (which happened to be my birthday), I got an email from an agent requesting a full MS. For my non-writing readers, this means that a literary agent (who is the gatekeeper between writers and publishers) liked the opening three chapters of my novel and would like to read the rest of  the manuscript (MS).

This has happened to me before. The first time, I’d already cast the film adaptation – I was thinking Nicole for the lead – before even sending the MS.

The me today, several rejections later, recognises this request is but a teeny, tiny step on the stairway to publication,  and that the majority of full request do not end up in anything other than, a polite ‘thanks, but no thanks.’

“Rejection slips, or form letters, however tactfully phrased, are lacerations of the soul, if not quite inventions of the devil – but there is no way around them.”  Isaac Asminov

For an agent to take on a novel, they have to really, really love it. After all, they are going to have to convince commissioning editors to throw money at it (printing, cover art, advertising, ISBN) before it makes a penny.

However, as this request is all that is on my mind at the moment (the writer portion of it at least), I decided I would write about the dilemma I now find myself in – purely self-inflicted, I’d like to add.

So, as you will have gathered, I sent the opening three chapters of my completed novel to some literary agents (three in total).

“Finishing a book is just like you took a child out in the back yard and shot it.” Truman Capote

This was mistake no.1 because although the novel was finished. It wasn’t finished.

“Manuscript: something submitted in haste and returned at leisure.”  Oliver Herford

I know why I did it, but psychological insight is of little use if it doesn’t actually alter behaviour. My daughter was about to launch herself into the world, leaving behind a gaping hole, shaped like me. At a subconscious level, I was feeling rejected by my daughter so thought I’d go the whole hog and have my heart stamped on as well.

“That’s the essential goal of the writer: you slice out a piece of yourself and slap it down on the desk in front of you. You try to put it on paper, try to describe it in a way that the reader can see and feel and touch. You paste all your nerve endings into it and then give it out to strangers who don’t know you or understand you.” Stephen Leigh

Almost immediately, I got a request for the full MS from one agent. This led to a mad panic of final editing for typos and punctuation. I also didn’t have any feedback on the plot from my trusted reader/writer friends (mainly because I hadn’t actually sent it to them). Finished and finished are not the same thing.

Too late now. I stalled for a week and then sent it. Those pesky day dreams started all over again. This time I chose Kiera as the lead, but made a note to remind her to pout a little less.

Three days later. REJECTION. 

“Engrave this in your brain: EVERY WRITER GETS REJECTED. You will be no different.” John Scalzi

In one line of type, the agent decimated my plot – though she liked the writing and the idea. Hmmm.

“There is no mistaking the dismay on the face of a writer who has just heard that his brain child is a deformed idiot.”  L. Sprague de Camp

I spent the rest of the day vowing I would never write again, chastising myself for my arrogance in thinking I could write a publishable novel, and general self-flagellation about the wasted years of my life.

That evening, I met up with a dear friend (who writes), who wisely moved our planned  get together from later in the week to ‘right then’. My anguished text: she rejected ME, may have had something to do with it. Three hours and a bottle of red (between us) later, I’d gone from devastation to inspiration. Although, I recognised it was only one agent’s opinion, I’d had a sneaking suspicion the plot was a little too quiet. I’d been toying with another way of telling the same story for months, but you get so far into the book that sometimes it is easier to ignore the ‘little voice’. Anyway, that ‘little voice’ is sometimes just plain nasty and if you listened to it all the time, you’d never write anything, ever.

“I love being a writer. What I can’t stand is the paperwork.” Peter de Vries

 I went home that night and wrote 10,000 words of the ‘new’ novel (now called version 2), and I haven’t stopped since. It’s a mess and will need rewriting and rewriting and… but it’s working. I am in love. 

“Books aren’t written, they’re rewritten. Including your own. It is one of the hardest things to accept, especially after the seventh rewrite hasn’t quite done it… ” Michael Crichton

I wish I’d done it months ago.

“If you write one story, it may be bad; if you write a hundred, you have the odds in your favor.” Edgar Rice Burroughs

However… Remember I said I’d sent it to three agents. Guess what? I got a second full request (the Saturday morning one), which leads me to mistake no. 2; maybe I should’ve waited a bit longer before deciding the novel, in its present state, was unpublishable. How many times was Harry Potter rejected? And how about Lord of the Flies and Catch 22?

Which brings me to the dilemma. What to do next?

Both novels are essentially the same idea told in a different way. It is either one or the other, there’s no way both could be published. They have the same characters doing different things. As of right now, most of version 2 is still in my head where, of course, it is perfect.

“The work never matches the dream of perfection the artist has to start with.” William Faulkner

Do I want to send the first novel, when I think I am writing something much better?

“The measure of artistic merit is the length to which a writer is willing to go in following his own compulsions.” John Updike

Or am I being blinded by new love and rejecting a perfectly publishable novel, which took years to get right?

“Writing is easy; all you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until the drops of blood form on your forehead.” Gene Fowler

In love with my new baby and contemptuous of my ugly older child, I replied to the agent by asking her to consider my second novel instead. As it isn’t written yet, I was only able to send her the briefest of pitches (like the blurb on the back of a book). I then went onto to explain that I didn’t want to send her the first novel (although I would if she insisted), which I had waxed lyrical about only two weeks before; and could she possibly wait until Christmas, when I promised her version 2 would be finished.

This leads me to mistake no. 3. I pressed SEND!

I await the inevitable reply, which I think will go something like this.

Dear Juliet,

If you don’t love your work, how can you expect me to? No, I do not want to the see the full of the novel, you are now disowning. And no, I do not want to see the full of the novel you haven’t even written yet, because:

1) it is not written yet; and,

2) who’s to say you won’t reject it like you did the first one.

I wish you luck in finding your misplaced sanity, please don’t contact me again.

Ms Literary Agent

Anyone else shot themselves in the foot recently? It doesn’t have to be writing related.