New Novel Resolutions: Things I’ll never do again

What did I learn about writing a novel last year? Well, quite a few things actually. How to have a normal conversation after writing for eight hours with no human contact whatsoever. A whole heap of responses to rejection letters that didn’t involve screaming expletives. (Deeper frown line accrued.)

But here are the three biggies, things I’m going to try hard not to repeat. I’d already been told these were no-nos, it’s just I chose to ignore the advice. Well not any more.

I’m turning myself into an advice sponge. I’m going to lap it up like a ladyfinger.

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1 Burn the Patois

God, I love Trainspotting. Brought up on a diet of Ayes and Help my Bobs, via The Broons and Oor Wullie, I throw in the old colloquials whenever I can. Well, that’s alright in dialogue, but the whole narrative? An editor from a major publishing company who gave me some fantastic advice a fortnight ago expressed a preference for bog standard English. Okay, so I know some writers do experimental narrative well, but it’s not working for my book. ‘The patois creates a distance between the character and reader,’ one literary agent told me. So adios, patois. Laters. Kapitche.

2. Make sure your characters have an arc

My characters are distinct – that’s one thing that all the agents who’ve read my book have agreed on. It’s just one of my characters has no internal arc. In my head, she was a put-upon angry young thing who’d eventually transform into a formidable business woman. On my computer screen, however, this character was as flat as a chapati with breeze blocks piled on top. Your characters need to change. They need a turning point in which they start to act differently. List the changes. Write them down, pin them to your wall. Your characters need to grow.

3. Start in the right place

My central character, the one that has the sharpest edges and spikiest tongue, her story doesn’t really get going until page 70. Cue major edit. Your character’s story needs to start on page one. There has to be an inciting incident to tip your reader into the narrative. It needs to be powerful enough to keep your reader turning the pages. Magnetize them. Draw them in. To do this, create conflict straightaway, things that are at stake.

So this is it. I’m going in. Here comes my first edit of 2016. And this time my novel’s going to be patois-free, bursting with provocative beginnings. No flatlining allowed.

The number one mistake NOT to make when submitting to literary agents

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So I finish the novel (for the *ahem* fourth time) and send it back to the agent who read the book once and told me that the concept was brilliant and that she loved my writing, but that changes were needed.

She replies. And there it is, that sting, ‘another agent might feel differently.’ Cue re-reading the email four more times (Let’s be honest, it was 10 times, analysing it word by word like Jacques flipping Derrida). It’s definitely a no then….

But this time I was so sure it was ready. The characters had sharp edges and bulgy bits. They smiled; they did the whole dramatic thing better than Sofia Helin. (Okay, so no one does it quite like her.) But they’re good people and I blooming love them, and so do my friends.

I pull off the Kleenex that I’ve Sellotaped to my cheekbones to mop up the tears, and get on with the day job. Besides it’s not that bad; other agents have requested the full novel too. Surely one of those will be The One.

Each of them replies and gives detailed feedback. (One sends me a standard rejection letter, but that’s a small detail.) All of them agree – I need to streamline the narrative; it needs more pace.

One of them suggests an editor. But hang on a minute, I had it edited two years ago, 700 quids worth of edits, I can’t keep throwing money at a project that might never see the light of day, can I?

Something persuades me, some deep belief that this book is beginning to be more than half-decent. Perhaps it just needs a little bit of help. After all, it’s a very different book to the one it was two years ago when it was shortlisted in a competition run by literary consultancy Cornerstones. I contact the agent who’s suggested an edit and she puts me in touch with a trusted editor – a specialist in narrative structure.

The editor reads the book in two days and hacks away at the narrative like it was one of those overgrown lavender bushes in my neglected back garden. Right there in the centre are the bones of the thing, all tangled up in subplot. The pace has been slowed by it, the main drive has been strangled.

Then something magical happens. The editor invites me to meet up. She tells me she likes the book a lot. She agrees to be my mentor while I finish it.

Writing a book is a massive investment – your time, your sanity (occasionally) – but if you really believe you have something that could be good, it’s worth shelling out for an editor. It’s a false economy not to, I reckon. I’d become so embroiled in my novel that I just couldn’t see its faults.

So I may not be finishing the year with a literary agent, but I’m not on my own anymore. I’ve found a mentor who’s in my corner. And, this wannabe debut novelist is back in the ring.

 

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What NOT to Do When A Literary Agent asks for your Whole Novel

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Who wouldn’t be excited when a literary agent asks for a full manuscript? It’s likely to send you into a proof-reading frenzy (comma overdose,,,,,) your fingers wobbling over the keyboard as you finally hit Send. Then just after you do, you’ll spot a typo.

Things go oh-so-quiet after all that frenetic activity. And you wait, your imagination looping UPthe next time the phone rings, it’ll be her – and then whoosh – DOWNIf she rejects me, I’m never going to get another chance like this, never.

It’s going to be a nail-chewing, neck-tensing, grump-inducing time, so here are some tips:

1. Don’t start monitoring the literary agent.

Googling her name, looking up other people who she’s offered representation to. Sound familiar? Force yourself to look away from the screen, and stop logging onto Twitter every five minutes to see if she’s posted. Put your energy into starting something new. A short story. A new novel. Read or collect ideas for future work.

2. Don’t bombard the agent with emails.

Coo-ee, just wondering how you’re getting on with The Masterpiece? Then two days later: Me again. And, don’t phone. That’s the equivalent of repeatedly ding-donging someone’s doorbell when all the lights are on, but no one’s opening up. Reading a full takes time. Some agents take about three months to reply to an initial submission of three chapters and a synopsis, so how long is it going to take to read your 90,000 words? A few weeks ago I read an account by a published author that went something like this. I wrote to a literary agent and 24 hours later she offered me representation. Two days after that, she negotiated me a three book deal with Penguin. I lay my head on the desk and almost muttered the words, I’m unworthy. I ate a scone instead. Thing is, it doesn’t happen like that for most writers. Exercise patience, distract yourself, keep writing. Agents who’ve requested a full can take anything from one month to six to reply.

3. If an agent who requested a full hasn’t replied after three months, do email and say you’d welcome some feedback.

Sometimes when an agent requests a full they don’t reply at all. Yep, this happened to me with an early version of my first book. It’s happened to other writers I know too. Try not to take it personally, it’s more of a reflection on the agent than on your writing. So there!

4.When the agent turns your book down with feedback, don’t do anything apart from flaring your nostrils and swearing.

Don’t bash out an instant reply. ‘Thanks for your patronising comments, but…’ Step away. Go for a run. Punch that pillow. A rejection usually comes with pointers. ‘The narrative wasn’t taut enough,’ for instance. ‘The plot lost direction halfway through.’ File the email somewhere other than in your inbox, so it’s not staring out at you for the next few miserable mornings as your damp cornflakes slap onto your keyboard. When you’ve calmed down, read the email again, process it and adjust your manuscript accordingly. Send it to an editor too – you might think that’s a waste of money, but the fact that anyone has requested your full means that there’s some magic to it. An editor could be just the genie you need.

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5. When the reply doesn’t contain any feedback, write back saying you’d welcome some.

Most agents will be more than happy to give you their thoughts. Don’t expect compliments. Do expect constructive criticism.

6. When an agent reads a full, and asks for a second read once you’ve made changes, definitely send it back to her.

Once you’ve made changes, you could send out more submissions too – to up to six agents at a time – after all, by the time your MS has risen to the top of the slush pile, your almost-agent might have signed or rejected you anyway. Alternatively, you could stop sending your book out. But remember, this is limbo land – an exciting yet anxiety-ridden place. Do whatever feels right for you. But whatever you do, eat scones, don’t cyber-stalk, and keep writing.

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Fiona Mitchell’s second novel, The Swap, will be published by Hodder & Stoughton on 18 April 2019.

 

 

How to Stay Sane When Submitting Your Novel

How NOT to lose the plot when submitting your book

Recently literary agent Juliet Mushens suggested in a Tweet that it’s a good idea to submit to eight to ten agents at a time rather than blanket submitting. Brilliant advice, I reckon. If your book’s got some kind of magic to it, you might just get some agent feedback. Even if the book gets rejected, you could still come away more clued-up about what’s not right with it, bruised ego aside. You might then choose to rework it before submitting to other agents.

A few months ago, I got a request for the full manuscript of my second book. Ultimately the agent turned it down saying she didn’t find the characters likeable enough and she wasn’t sure what was driving the story. I’ve stopped sending it out and am halfway through a rewrite. I think the characters are more sympathetic now, with meatier back stories; I might just have a better book on my hands.

 

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That brings me back to my first book. I had some encouraging agent interest in it two months ago and ended up rewriting it. The book is stronger now and I’ve sent the first three chapters to several agents. So here’s how to hold onto your sanity while waiting for a reply.

1. Don’t refresh your email account every five minutes.

Turn it off. Turn off social media too. Do not allow yourself to look at the Twitter accounts of the eight agents on your list. God, she’s reading Goddamn Marlon James when she should be reading my MS…. Look away. Log off. Go and do something less boring instead.

2. Don’t be tempted to send out to more than ten agents at a time.

Remember, you might just learn something. So you’ve written the whole thing in patois and the agent who loved your concept absolutely hated the Gads instead of Gods, the me sandals instead of my sandals. Okay, admittedly there might be those of you who love that kind of thang (sic), but if more than one agent says it doesn’t work, it could be time to take notice. If after the first few submissions, you learn two things about how to improve your book, you’ll be well pleased you didn’t do multiple submissions.

3. Do not delete the rejection emails.

Your lips may bulge with that silent F, so let them, but do not let your fingers smash that delete box. It’s very useful to keep a log of who’s rejected you. That doesn’t mean you can’t contact them again when the book is better, or when you’ve penned your second masterpiece. And just because you’ve got a rejection from one person at a big agency doesn’t mean to say someone else at that agency won’t fall in love with your writing. Also, think about how much fun it’s going to be counting up all those rejection letters when you’re finally published. Yeah, put that in your pipe and smoke it, Mrs/Mr ‘I’m going to pass….’

4. When an agent asks to see the full manuscript, don’t stand in front of the mirror practising what you’re going to say if she/he offers you representation.

‘I’d just like to thank my husband for his attention to apostrophes, my friend Jill who was there from the start….’ Waste of time! Chances are you might have a long wait for representation, so instead of risking your family banging on the bathroom door – ‘Is everything alright in there?’ – just get back to writing, or reading, or thinking up new ideas. Preferably all three.

5. Do not put your writing on hold.

If anything write more. Discarding all of the above, this is one thing I have managed to do. I’ve always got a short story on the go. Just write something, anything, write rubbish then rework it, edit it, perfect it. For me, short stories silence the self-doubt. I love them. They’re a rejection letter quick fix. So keeeeeeep writing!

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6. Do not burn your book.

So you’ve now got 30 rejections in the bag, but don’t start carping. ‘That’s it, I’m finished.’ Last year an agent who I met at a literary event talked about how a novelist’s first novel often becomes her second or third published novel. And since I know a couple of best-selling authors, I can vouch for that. Keep searching for ideas, maybe even start book two. Keep trying. Things can only get better, right?

Sending out to Agents – Three at a time or Scattergun?

When I ‘finished’ my first novel (I use the word ‘finished’ because it sure as hell isn’t – that’s all too clear to me now), I sent the book out to three agents at a time. Standard rejection letters came back.

One competition shortlisting later, one agent liked it enough to meet me and talk through changes. She didn’t take me on, so I made further changes and scattergunned loads of other agents with it. One of them requested the whole book, but I didn’t hear from her again. Ouch!

More rejections piled up, this time with compliments thrown in. ‘It rose to the top of the pile.’ ‘You’re talented’, that kind of thing. But it was a bit like someone finishing with you. ‘I like you; it’s just I’m not in love with you.’ I emailed my friend and soon-to-be published author who’d read the first chapters of the book and loved them. (Believe me, she’s not a good liar). ‘Maybe it’s a bit crap,’ I said. ‘Because I just don’t get why no one’s taken it on.’

Then last week, my answer arrived. I emailed an agent who seemed to be looking for just my kind of book: a moral dilemma in an unusual setting. Fifteen minutes later, the agent requested the entire book then contacted me to say she was ‘really enjoying it.’ She hasn’t taken me on. However, she does want to read it again if I’m able to transform it.

Her email was a turning point because she was so honest, so detailed and so helpful. And boy, am I grateful because there’s not that many people who’ll be honest about your book. ‘That’s lovely, darling.’ (Your parents.) ‘You want me to read it again?!’ (Your husband.) ‘Oh it’s brilliant, just brilliant.’ (Your friends, who’re actually thinking, Jesus, that was hardgoing.)

So why has no one taken my little book on yet? Because it’s too blooming bleak. But it does have ‘ENORMOUS POTENTIAL.’ Yes, ‘ENORMOUS POTENTIAL!’

I’m mulling again, researching, thinking, planning, locating my funny bone. And then ding-ding, there will be a Round Four to this book. There’s just a small matter of fine-tuning my second book, oh, and earning a living. And as for firing your manuscript off to loads of agents at the same time, I wouldn’t bother. Do some careful research on what agents are looking for then send out to your chosen few, I reckon. If they give you some helpful feedback, act on it and send it out again.

* Post Script: I wrote a third book and this time, I got an agent and a publishing deal. My debut novel The Maid’s Room was published in hardback by Hodder & Stoughton on 16th November 2017.

What NOT to do when a literary agent reads your book

Three years ago, I finished my first book. I entered it into a competition and although it didn’t win, it was among the final three on the shortlist. A literary agent liked it enough to meet me and ran through the things I should change. One thing I needed to do was big up one of my main characters.

I patted and shaped, tore the book to pieces and put it back together again. And in the middle of all this, I ended up on the shortlist of another major competition. Yes, I clenched my fists and jumped up and down. This is it: signing with an agent, here I come. Except, it didn’t quite go like that.

The agent enjoyed the first half of The Maid’s Room, but didn’t fall in love with it. Oh I admit it, I snivelled.

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But not for long. The next day, I started my second novel and spent three months bashing away at the keyboard until it was finished. (It’s now in the polishing stages.)

Something unexpected happened then. I started to think about my first book. I tried not to, I really did, but there it was – with its underground car parks, its jackfruit and its rambutans. There it was, with its swimming pools and shopping malls. I could see suddenly how everything in the story connected. I hadn’t seen it back then when I’d been so close to landing an agent. When she’d asked me to rewrite a third of the book and give that character new life, what I’d done was create someone flat and unbelievable, someone dull, not the feisty, clever, tactless woman she is now, not the woman with three dimensions instead of just two. Worse than that though, I’d written the whole damn soul out of the book.

Well, now, I’ve put the soul back in. I’m proud of it, really proud, in a way that I wasn’t before. Best make a start on sending it out then……

* Thirteen months after writing this post, literary agent Rowan Lawton signed me. My debut novel The Maid’s Room will be published by Hodder & Stoughton on 16th November 2017.

 

What it’s like to attend an Awards Ceremony for Writers

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Bristol Prize writers, judges, speakers and co-ordinator Joe Melia

I had no idea what I’d let myself in for when I accepted my invitation to the Bristol Prize Awards Ceremony. What would the atmosphere be like? Would we have to stand on a stage with shining spotlights turned off one by one until the winner was announced?

Inside the vast space of Bristol’s Spike Island gallery last night, the air was fat with nerves – or maybe that was just me. I picked up a glass of wine from the table and hand aquiver, I just about baptized myself with Sauvignon Blanc.

Sip. Slurp. Gulp.

Bristol Prize co-ordinator Joe Melia talked us writers through what was about to happen.

‘This is all about celebrating your writing,’ he said. Some of the tension fell away.

Here was a bunch of writers at different stages in their careers – a published novelist, a creative writing tutor and others who, like me, are just at the beginning.

So much to talk about. Do you ask friends to read your work? Have you got an agent? And, and, and….

And then it was time for the show.

Images of the stunning designs submitted for the anthology cover flashed onto the wall. The Mayor of Bristol stood up to speak, followed by novelist Patricia Ferguson.

And then came the moment of judgement. Would my name be in the winning three? Hands white-tight on the side of the chair, breath held, the names of the runners up were read out. Three, four, five. I heard my name. I hadn’t won. Was I upset? Disappointed? No way – at last I could breathe again, high on my prize – my first ever piece of published fiction – The Colour of Mud.

Big congratulations to winner Mahsuda Snaith and to all the other writers in the anthology. Didn’t we have some party?!

The evening was a highlight of my year – inspiring chats with authors, an agent, and all the lovely people at the Bristol Prize.