Frequently Asked Questions
Writing can be the most rewarding, exciting, seat-dampening occupation in the world; that's why so many people want to do it. Those days when it goes right, when your characters get up and walk and talk and take control of their own destinies, when you get just the right phrase, or some knotty problem that's been bugging you for weeks suddenly comes right while you're asleep, are the biggest buzz I know. There are a lot of misconceptions about writing and the world of publishing, though.
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Here's something I've learned: writing is an excellent get-rich-slow scheme. Those occasional news stories about million-dollar advances are not representative of reality for 99.999% of writers (and anyway are usually multiple-book deals payable over several years, which is one of those things they never let on about). Unless you're Katie Price or someone similar, in which case you don't need the money anyway. And also won't have written the book, of course…
Like a single hit record, a bestseller will not make you money overnight. Actually, even less so, because you can, in theory at least, bang out a single overnight, but books take time to write. They really do. You have to allow a year because they just take time . And they take time to start selling, as well. And publishers have "time slots", generally months or even years after submission, which they are unlikely to allocate until they're sure the book is nearing being finished. You don't get royalties for the best part of a year after publication – and then only once you've paid off your advance. Which, what with the twisted accounting that accompanies discounting, three-for-two offers and all the other things that have come with the dismantling of the Net Book Agreement, might well be never.
Scary fact: the average novelist makes £7,000 a year from writing. It isn't the way to make a quick buck. It's possible to make a slow, even a gradually accruing, buck, but the quick ones? Huh-uh. My income has gone up and down at dizzying speed throughout my career. If there was one thing piece of advice I could have given my 1999 self, it would have been SAVE MOST OF IT, STUPID, BECAUSE YOU'LL BE LIVING OFF THIS FOR A LONG, LONG TIME.
The ebook thing is throwing up many intriguing prospects, though, and, despite the predictions of the End of Publishing, I think that many of those possibilities are positive. For the first time ever, for instance, it will be possible that the average writer will be able to continue to earn money from their work long after the original publisher loses interest, and this is a great, great thing.
I've dipped my toe into self-publishing, when I took the rights to my supernatural thriller Hold My Hand back from Constable Robinson, a publisher so incompetent they managed to print someone else's name on the copyright page. I won't say it's turned into gold overnight, but it keeps me in wine and the film rights were bought long after this would have been possible had they kept it in their clutches, which is great. Although handing back the rights didn't seem to stop them from putting out several e-books of my copyrighted work of their own, of course. We'll call that more evidence of incompetence, rather than outright deliberate dishonesty, shall we?Would I suggest self-publishing as a route to riches and glory? Probably not. Though there are many, many faults, in the publishing industry as it stands, the chances are that you won't have the energy or knowledge to market your work well, sell it abroad, package it and, most importantly of all, edit it. I cannot express the importance of good editing enough. I've had good editors and bad editors, and while the bad editors were like fingernails on a blackboard to deal with, the good ones will help you improve your work so much you'll barely recognise it. And that, in itself, is worth a heck of a lot.
Seemingly little-known fact: most writers don't have trust funds. Most writers have to do at least their first, and probably many books after, while also working at least part-time. Writers write. That's what they do. Everything else is excuses. Sorry, but there you go.
Just to labour the point, I wrote The Temp while working full-time as a journalist. I frequently threw up with the stress, but those precious five "damn I'm good" minutes when I'd laid down that final full stop at five o'clock one morning made it all worthwhile. Sort of.
If you find yourself short of time, try:
- sleeping two hours less a night.*
- watching less telly. If you've ever watched all the way through Strictly Come Dancing, you've got time to write. Learn to use your DVD/video recorder/TIVO! That's what they were invented for! TV, by the way, is both a hypnotic and a narcotic, as well as actually being boring at least half the time. It drugs you into thinking you're too tired to do anything else. If you're genuinely tired, go to sleep, whatever time it is. Otherwise, read a book if you're not writing. Using your brain is one of the best ways of fighting fatigue.
- Cutting down/out drinking and drugs. Hangovers are the enemy of creativity.
- Cutting down your social obligations. This is easier than it sounds. Anybody who patronises you / says something snide / grabs something you've written and reads it out loud in a silly voice can be added to your avoid-list. You can always take them back up later when you're able to patronise them back. Also, bores. Really: life's too short for bores. And by bores, I don't mean people who don't live impressive glamorous lives, but people who make you feel as though your energy's been sucked from you. Don't waste your life on bores when you could be wasting it on making up stories.
- Which do you think will last longer once you're dead? Your listings in the British Library, or your Grade A vacuuming / ironing / cushion-plumping?
- Insist on equitable childcare.
- Give up sex.**
- Get Call Minder and unplug the phone.
- if all else fails, biscuits can double the time available. Not recommended as a good long-term stratagem.
* Not recommended**Only joking
Bollocks. That's just one of those lies they tell you to try to put you off. Thomas Hardy and D H Lawrence are just two of the "greats" who largely had to scratch a higher education for themselves without any privileges to back them up.
I don't want to slag off other writers (much) but much of the world's dreachiest writing comes from possessors of PhDs.
When I was being interviewed to read English Literature, my lovely tutor asked what I wanted to do when I grew up. "I want to be a writer", I said. "Well, don't read Eng Lit, then," she replied. "It'll take you years to shed everything you've learned and find your own voice again." I ignored her.
She was right.
Get my drift?
Having said that, there are two things you need to do if you really want to write. They are:
It's as simple as that. The best teachers a writer can have are other writers they admire. Read as much as you can, as eclectically as you can. When you think something you've read was good – not just in the genre you want to emulate, anything you thought was good – read it again and really concentrate on how it's been done. How does the writer's technique differ from all those rules they drummed in to you for GCSE essay-writing? Have they gone head-on into their subject-matter, or approached it elliptically? How have they written their dialogue (I cannot stress the importance of dialogue too heavily. It is only through dialogue that your characters can do that essential real-live-walking-and-talking thing that makes a proper book: if you can't get the dialogue right, don't even think of writing a novel)? How do they go about moving characters from one place to another? How do they give their characters their essential humanity? Do they like their characters? And if not, how are they making you want to keep reading about them? Is the end a let-down? How do you think they could have done it differently?
For a crash course in effective "popular" writing (and a brilliant essay on the paranoia, physical discomfort and itchy sense of being "trapped" that descends on you in the difficult "middle" bit of any book), I can't recommend anything more highly than Stephen King's Misery. It's a blinder. That man can write.
Then repeat the exercise with some bits of writing that you think really stink. Jeffrey Archer, for instance. Or E L James. Why do they stink? And how come (this is not a rhetorical question) they've got published and you haven't?
And while you're doing all this, just write, write, write. It doesn't really matter what, though if you want to be a novelist I'd suggest chucking yourself straight into writing a novel. In my pathetic experience, short stories are umpteen times harder to write than books, and the market for them, even with advent of e-readers, isn't great. I've had easier times having root canals than I have had doing short stories, and the pain has lasted a lot less long.
Be your own harshest critic. If you look at everything you've written first time and think it's fabulous, then the chances are it probably isn't (or you're Jeffrey Archer). If you're inclined to go "oh, well, it'll do", then chances are, it won't – though you can always go back and fix that in your second draft. I figure on throwing away roughly three words for every one that makes it through to the page. And then I'll probably knock out about another quarter of the book before submitting it for publication.
Anything else?Yes. Learn to punctuate. You can break pretty much all the rules once you understand them and why they're there, but don't think your hanging apostrophes are going to cut any ice with beady-eyed publishers and agents.
Yup: that's what we writers call "the middle bit". For me, "the middle bit" is roughly everything from chapter two to the penultimate chapter.
Nobody ever said it was going to be easy. There's far more block than writing to writing.
Absolutely not. Having had a couple of goes of block – without a doubt the worst eighteen months of my life – I would never deny that it exists. But there's usually an outside source to real block, as opposed to the "oh, god, what do I say now" stultifications that afflict all writers all the time. Millions of outside influences can smash your creativity to bits. Mine was kicked off by the death of a cat, and didn't let up until I finally knocked a relationship on the head. The day after the breakup, words came gushing from my addled brain as though they'd been under pressure, and didn't stop. The second one didn't sort itself out til I'd parted company with an agent and a publisher, got a new agent and changed my name. So, yes, writer's block exists, but it's worth looking at what's going on in your life if you're suffering from it.
Sometimes none. Those are the bad days. My best day ever was 5,000, but I had got to a point where I knew exactly what I was doing. The point is to try to write something. If you manage 500 words in a day, that adds up to 182,500 in a year, which is the best part of two whole books.
Me, too. I spend roughly twice the amount of time mooching and gossiping on the internet as I spend actually putting words down. But, look: it's all research, one way or another. And these days, we can call it marketing, too!One thing, though: I try to avoid switching from writing mode to talking mode when I'm working. The two are left and right-brain skills and they don't mix. Most of the time, I have the phone switched off. Everyone knows that email is the best way to communicate with me during working hours. Which are anything from four to sixteen hours a day.
The interior of my twisted brain. Most writers are slightly barking. Actually, the older I get the more I realise that most people are slightly barking: the only difference is that writers put their thoughts down on paper, rather than getting embarrassed and pretending they're thinking about the accounts.I also keep a notebook, which in theory goes with me everywhere. This is essential, as is training yourself not to believe that the brilliant idea /joke / plot twist you've come up with in the night will still be there in the morning.
Yes, for real. This was said to me by the literary editor of the Spectator at a party. Which qualified him for the Arsewipe of the Year Award that year, no competition.
The Great Dorothy Parker: "I don't like writing. I like the state of having written."
I don't enjoy it. I really don't. It's more of an obsessive-compulsive thing. There's a fabulous five minutes once you really know you're finished, when you can crack a bottle of fizz and light a fag (Stephen King chronicles this perfectly in Misery ) and sit back and go "damn, I'm good".This usually happens at seven in the morning. By noon I'll be fretting again.
I didn't, or if I did, you won't be the character you think you've recognised / Probably not, although that thing that happened to your auntie in the Strip club in Stockport might well be / No you bleeding well don't.
Please don't. Books are books and the plot is less than thirty per cent of the whole, even in plot-heavy genre novels of the sort I write: and blow-by-blows of plots are usually as interesting as other people's holiday snaps. It's very unlikely that any writer will jump on you and offer to pay you for your brilliant idea / write it for you. Believe me, we've got quite enough trouble concentrating on our own lame ideas.
Grim truth: writers are at the bottom of the food chain in the publishing world. No-one listens to us. They listen to agents, marketing people, sales people, previous sales and marketing feedback… they don't give a toot about writers' opinions. The only thing other writers are fit for is giving you quotes to put on the backs of your jackets once you are published, which your publisher will probably forget to put on anyway, and giving you someone nice to hide in corners at literary events with.A writer friend far more successful than me (and far more dedicated and professional) once received a letter from her publishers (to whom she had just submitted her tenth book) which began "Dear Supplier". She now introduces herself at parties as "a bottom-end supplier to the publishing industry".
You'd be a fool if this wasn't your first port of call. Even if you manage to sell in your idea by yourself, you would be extremely well-advised to have someone else to fight your corner, and they will inevitably get you more money for you than you could ever negotiate for yourself. Even if you have a background in sales. Because they know the market and what it will stand, and how to ask for enough without pricing you out of it. They are also the people who will, hopefully, get you all those essential foreign sales, TV deals, film rights, pies in the sky and castles in Spain…
And besides, your chances of selling a book in without an agent are about 0.000001%. Publishers generally use agents as their first line of defence these days – most of them don't even have in house-readers any more – on the assumption that, unless someone else thinks they can make money off you, then they're not going to.
Um… sort of. The point being that the what is what gets you to the who. And all the people who know people now generally know them because they've been working their way up the greasy pole with them, just like in any other field of endeavour. Really: nepotism is infinitely less prevalent than people think it is in industries that can't afford to lose money.
An annual publication called the Writer's and Artist's Yearbook lists all the literary agents in the country. Read their details carefully and identify agents who specialise in the sort of book you're working on. DON'T waste your time and money sending things on spec to random agents. Send an agent who specialises in historical romance your Chronicles of the Planet Tharg and they will return it unread. It's dispiriting enough going through the rejection process without setting yourself up for failure.
A useful hint: most authors are grovellingly grateful to their agents and make a point of thanking them in their acknowledgements. If there's a writer you admire/think you're in a similar market to, check out who their agent is in the front of their most recent book (make sure it's the most recent one: agents change and there can be reasons for that!) and mention the fact that you have approached them because you know they handle said writer. Even hard-nosed businesspeople like a bit of flattery.
If you want to write novels, it's best, really, to have written a whole book before you start making initial approaches. Many people can manage three opening chapters, but actually finishing is another thing altogether. You don't want to get a reputation as a timewaster at the beginning of your career, and most agents will probably tell you to come back when you've done the whole thing if they don't know you. I did sell The Temp in without having written the whole thing, but I had two years' worth of copy that had already made a mark by running weekly in a national newspaper.
Once you have identified an agent/agents, send them (if you email, it's best to check whether the agency opens attachments from strangers before you send one):
a) A legible, clear and concise covering letter containing, BRIEFLY, what your book is about, BRIEFLY who you are and how you found them and some BRIEF biographical details. When I say brief, I mean a single page altogether; less if possible. DO NOT EVEN THINK about trying eye-catching gimmicks, cutesy tricks or bullish approaches. All agents have seen it all, believe me, are only interested in whether you can write or not and how much effort it's going to take to sell and handle you. If they think you might be a pain, a nuisance, a primadonna or a bore, they will most likely pass on you.
b) A synopsis. Here is where you can show off a bit. It's also the thing I find most difficult to write myself. Include: a single-sentence summary, if you can manage it (I usually use a quote from the text); a brief – no more than two paras – summary of the opening "situation" or "set-up"; a BRIEF summary – again, blow-by-blows don't actually make good reading – of your plot and where it's going to go (personally, I like to take it to roughly half-way through and leave it all on a bit of a cliffhanger to encourage, if I've managed to whet someone's appetite, them to read the whole thing to find out what happens – but that's how my books work. If you're, say, Andy McNab and your plot is your USP, you probably need to go into more detail, especially about your big slotting scenes); some suggestion as to what market, roughly, you're aiming at; some brief – no more than three lines – biographical stuff: how old you are, what you do/have done in the past/where you live, that sort of thing.
c) Three chapters. Not necessarily the first three, though this is usual and generally a good idea as the opening chapters are, after all, what will make your readers read on. But if you've got a couple of blinding chapters from the middle (which don't require a lot of prior explanation) then you could use those. Use double-line-spacing, wide margins (for notes), easy-to-read fonts, pagination.
d) Return postage. You're sending the stuff unsolicited, remember; if your want to see those pages back it's only fair to pay for it.
TWO REALLY IMPORTANT THINGS: your synopsis will probably be the document that goes out to the publishers, so
i) Keep it all concise. No more than two pages. They don't have time to wade through reams of irrelevance.
ii) Your synopsis is your calling card. It will be read before they ever get on to your actual writing and they will be gauging from it whether you can write or not. They will not be looking for flashiness, or marketing-speak: they'll be looking for clarity, punctuation, good use of language and some signs of self-control. A badly-written synopsis will probably mean that your opus will never be read at all.
iii) The most common mistake people make with a book synopsis is flatly recounting a blow-by-blow of the plot. This is common practice for film treatments, where the reader needs to be able to gauge roughly how expensive (in terms of locations, explosions etc) a film will be to produce, but they read like tax documents, and won't do you any favours. To sell a book, you need to give a flavour of your writing, a feel for the characters and an idea of the essential dilemma at the heart of the story. You should put a lot of time and energy into your synopsis, even though doing so will make your head hurt.
There are two schools of thought as to whether one should approach more than one agent at once. I'd say don't worry about it. If more than one agent likes your work, it gives you more chance of ending up with someone who you can work with.On which note, a warning: while there are plenty of terrific agents out there, there are also plenty who are, frankly, a bit rubbish. This is not helped by the fact that it's really the only relationship where you get interviewed about whether you're going to employ someone. Be really careful. Ask a lot of questions, and if the agent you're talking to is evasive, or if you don't like them, or they won't tell you which other authors they have on their books, you would be well advised to smell a rat. A good agen is worth far more than their cut. A bad agent is honestly worse than no agent at all.
Depends on your personality. Some people enjoy being deconstructed by a random group of others who feels themselves, however unconsciously, to be in competition with each other. I'd sooner bang nails into my head. I never show anyone anything that isn't completed, and then it's my agent, who's got a vested interest in keeping my morale high even if she does have to tell me it's crap and needs reworking. In fact, I never show anything to anyone who doesn't have a vested interest in making money from my work.
Courses can be better, partly because the tutors also have a vested interest in helping their charges make the most of their abilities. Problem is, though, that everyone has their own opinions as to what is, and isn't a "good" book. Take your bodice-ripper to a tutor whose own ambitions revolve around being the next James Joyce, and it'll probably set your confidence back by years. And again: the value of courses varies enormously and you really need to check out the results they've had before. I know of at least one university course where at least one of the tutors' only qualification is having scored well on that same course themselves – they have not been published at all.
I do have two web-boards, though, with other writers – one with UK writers and one with Americans, for the insomniac hours. They're remarkably essential to all of our wellbeing. We spend most of our time talking about what was on the telly last night / shamelessly gossiping / organising the next jolly / telling jokes. We hardly ever actually talk about writing, and never show each other works-in-progress. But in terms of being a writer and coping with the isolation and the sense that spiteful Amazon reviews, jacketing cock-ups and an indifferent marketplace are things that only happen to oneself, they're a life-saver. Try and find yourself a gang. It'll keep you from going mad.
Ditto Facebook. Here are lots of lovely writers on Facebook and most of them are friendly and fun. Unless you 'friend' them and immediately bombard them with demands, without making any effort to let them get to know your first. This, more than anything else, is the key to speed-unfriending, and don't think they won't remember your name/tell other writers about you, either. It's a small world.The bottom line, though, is, that if you can't cope with loneliness and long periods without feedback, you're possibly not the personality type best suited to writing.
No, I love it. It's how I define myself, above anything else. I get twitchy if I haven't written for a while. Every day I see something, hear something, read something which makes me want to write. Writing has often been the one thing that's stood between me and giving up altogether, on everything. If you feel you've got it in you, go ahead and give it a burl. The sense of achievement when you get to the end, when you see your baby on the shelves in a bookshop, when some stranger suddenly tells you they loved your work, is like nothing else on earth. And, as Robert Mitchum said when someone asked him what made him want to become an actor: "It sure beats working for a living".