For Writers

I want to write a book. Now what?

Now you write, and more importantly, you finish. A first-time novelist who has a great idea, needs to prove to a publisher and/or an agent, that they can finish. Anyone can start a book, but finishing it is a whole other story entirely.

Although the standard pitch is a cover letter, resume, three chapters and a story outline, far better to send this when you have an entire book already done. That way, when an interested party asks to read the whole thing, you can strike while the iron’s hot and send it off immediately.

Other tips:

Write what you know, not what you think will sell. As tempting as it was to write about wizards a few years ago, and to write about vampires today, writing a book in the hope of commercial success is only going to lead to disaster.

I once read a novel from an aspiring writer, about a Private Investigator living in Los Angeles, chasing cops and robbers, etc etc. Given that the writer in question was a record producer from South West London, it didn’t quite have, erm, how shall I put it, the ring of truth?

This doesn’t mean you need write about your life, but, and nowhere is this more true than of women’s fiction, write about emotions, feelings, issues that are important to you, and that resonate with you. If you keep it real, it will resonate with the reader too.

Should I give the book to everyone I know, because if they love it, surely a publisher will too?

Basically, no. Writing is entirely subjective, and as tempting as it is to give your book to your six best friends, your parents, your siblings, your Great Aunt Sadie, for validation as to how talented you are and to hear how much they love it, too many cooks will spoil your broth, and you will end up with so many opinions, your head will be spinning.

When I wrote Straight Talking, back in 1996, I first sent it to a huge agent, recommended by a friend of mine. I received a letter back from his assistant, saying my characters were immature, the situations unconvincing, and that my book was “frankly unpublishable”. I sank into a deep depression, before a friend suggested I do a mailshot, because I had loved writing it so much, I couldn’t let one person’s opinion put me off.

I then sent it off to thirteen literary agents, fully expecting them to say thanks, but no thanks. Within a week nine of them had come back saying they loved it and could they read the whole thing. That led to a bidding war and a two-book deal.

Remember, all it takes is one person to love it, and that person should work in publishing, preferably an agent.

Do I need an agent?

Yes, yes, and thrice yes. Publishers are inundated with manuscripts, and far better to have a reputable agent who believes in your work, and is able to navigate the minefields and hopefully get you a publishing deal. You also don’t want to disappear into the slush pile at the publishing houses. Better for your agent to be able to phone the editor directly and tell them they have a great book that needs to be seen.

And you need the sort of agent who is going to get through to those editors. Whilst you may think any agent is better than no agent at all, I would advise you doing your research. A lone agent living in a studio apartment in Cleveland may seem like a find, but in truth you’d be better off having someone who has a track record of successes, and who has solid contacts in the New York Publishing houses.

Get hold of a copy of Writer’s Market – there will be a copy in your library – and look for agents who represent writers you know, and writers working in a similar genre.

Another great way of finding an agent is to go through books you love, and read through the acknowledgments – nine times out of ten the agent will be in there.

Does Writer’s Block exist?

Sadly, yes. I have just finished my twelfth novel, and still, after all these years, there are many, many times during the course of writing my novel that I sit there and have no idea what to write.

The greatest discipline I ever had was my training as a journalist. Working on the Daily Express in England, I had an editor standing over my desk every day barking: “Jane! We need a thousand words in an hour!” I couldn’t wipe my hand over my weary brow and say, “I’m so sorry, but I’m not inspired today. I will see if my muse strikes tomorrow, perhaps?” I just wrote, because I had to, and that, I have learnt, is the key to unlocking writer’s block.

Writing requires, more than anything else, tremendous discipline. At the end of the day, whilst there are times when it is wonderfully creative and fun, a lot of the time it is just a job. And that means showing up whether you feel like it or not. It also means you write, whether you are inspired or not, and the only way to unlock your creativity, is to start writing.

You can always go back and edit, craft, change, but more often than not, once you start writing, even though it may feel initially like you’re squeezing blood out of a stone, at some point it suddenly becomes easier, and then easier still, and all of a sudden, the creativity is back.

Finally, the best advice I can give, is to write. Just keep writing. Don’t go to conferences and classes and workshops, because that is just procrastination. A little of that is fine, but the people who become professional conference-goers, are actually procrastinating, and just putting off the actual business of writing.

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