The Surprising Benefits of Submitting to Literary Agents

Rejection didn’t break me, but it did chink away at my self-confidence. Not because of what any of the literary agents said about my work, but because I made the mistake of listening to that nagging voice in my head. ‘This is never going to happen for you.’ ‘You’re fooling yourself.’ ‘You’re wasting years of your life doing this.’

This week, 32 copies of my debut novel, The Maid’s Room, arrived by courier. My daughter shunted folders aside on some shelves to make way for them. And as she did, a rejection letter for my very first novel fluttered onto the floor.

The words stared up at me. ‘I read the material with interest but I’m sorry to say that I didn’t fall in love with your book in the way I had hoped to.’

I’ve given away two copies of The Maid’s Room so far, and now have 30 copies left. 30. The number of rejections I received far exceeded that. Most of them arrived in emails which I’ve still got in a file marked, ‘Novel Stuff’. (Perhaps I should print them all out, or maybe I should delete them. What do you reckon?)

Every time, a writer contacts me to say they’ve just been rejected, it throws me right back to that place. God, how it stings. But the arrival of my big box of books this week made me think – even though rejection hurts, it does have some fringe benefits. Here are just five of them:

  • Finding the right agent for you. All of those rejection letters are a way of figuring out which agents to approach again when the book is better. Forget the agents that ignore you, or the stock rejections. Set your sights on the agents that give you great feedback. When you find a brilliant agent, you’ll be glad the others turned you down.
  • Finding writer friends. My family and friends propped me up when my ego was as a saggy as old knicker elastic. But finding people who are going through the same thing as you really helps too. I’m lucky to have met lots of people on Twitter, then in person, who have cheered me on and vice versa.
  • Gaining writing plaudits. If I’d been snapped up within 24 hours of sending my novel to an agent, I might not have entered all those writing competitions. Getting shortlisted in a few was a boon. And I feel lucky to be one of the Bristol Short Story Prize alumni.
  • The larger your pile of rejection letters the more manic your happy dance will be when you get representation. And it’ll be especially pleasing for your friends and family who’ve put up with all your bad moods after reading a rejection letter.
  • Your writing will get better. Yes, rejection is exquisitely painful (tumbler of gin, anyone?). But keep writing and the words you produce will improve.
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What It Was Like to Give my First Author Talk

Today I gave a talk to writers in Singapore via FaceTime and surprisingly, for someone who claims not to like public speaking all that much, I enjoyed it.

Hooking up via a wonky Skype connection, then reverting to FaceTime, there were about fourteen writers in the room making notes while I talked about the long route from starting my very first novel to landing a two-book deal with Hodder & Stoughton. Publication of The Maid’s Room is now only six weeks away and I can’t wait.

Hopefully I managed to relay some tips that the writers will find useful. The word ‘perseverance’ was uttered more than once.

I took me three years, three months and 29 days from receiving my first agent rejection letter to getting representation from my lovely agent Rowan Lawton. During that time I became an expert in rejection, so a large part of my talk was dedicated to surviving the submissions process.

My top survival tips include:

  • Logging onto Paul McVeigh’s brilliant website to keep you going. There were so many times I snivelled over my keyboard as I read one of the author interviews featured to make myself feel just that little bit better about everything.
  • Entering writing competitions. Being shortlisted in the Bristol Short Story Prize for the very first time buoyed me up. Some of the judges and authors who read my story liked my work and encouraged me to keep writing.
  • Watching TED Talks. On the days I felt particularly low, I’d watched a Ted Talk. There’s so much to inspire you here, from writers talking about books, to people who’ve overcome enormous obstacles to achieve their personal bests.
  • Using the anger. I did quite a bit of ranting about rejection, but then somehow I managed to turn that emotion into energy. Try it – you might just end up writing your soul onto the page.

Preparing this talk was a real eye-opener for me. It took quite a few hours to plan what I wanted to say, so a big shout-out to inspirational teachers everywhere. I had no idea teaching involved so much hard graft.

But the biggest revelation for me was just how much I loved doing a spot of public speaking – hopefully I’ll remember that in future.

Huge thank you to author Alice Clark-Platts for inviting me to speak, and the Singapore Writers’ Group, thanks for listening.

Digging Deep for the Second Draft #novel #writing

This next bit’s going to be painful, but it’s my favourite part. I’ve written the first draft of my novel, and am about to embark on my second.

This is when the characters will take shape, but for that to happen, I’m going to have to get into their heads and feel what they’re feeling. Flinging yourself over a six-foot-high wall to save someone’s life? I’m in. Finding out your husband’s told you a huge lie? Yep – here I come.

Switch on FaceTime by mistake in the middle of this draft and I’ll see my own brow knitted, or my lip curled into a snarl. It’s not going to be pretty, but it’s essential.

This is method acting for writers. I’m going to be a 43-year-old woman on the edge of a nervous breakdown, an Italian man who’s a cross between Benicio del Toro and my friend’s husband, and an elderly man paralysed down his left side.

I’m going to have to dig deep. Imagination, yes; a bad mood, most probably; yet another frown line, you bet. And masses of research.

This time around I’ll be rewriting and editing with this word on replay: Emotion. Emotion. Emotion.

Why This Writer Needs Other Writers

I spent the first half of last year being cross at my writing. It had taken me away from people and I was beginning to feel quite isolated.

Then something started to change – my writing began to bring connection, people who I could really hear, people who energised me.

It started when an agent put me in touch with an editor. Yeah, yeah – I know lots of us have been through this, and I was cynical but decided to take a leap of faith and pay for my novel to be edited. It was a wise choice. Editor, Sara Sarre, got my book, was enthusiastic about it. Her wisdom gave me a new spark. Suddenly I felt as if I wasn’t in this alone.

And it was a magical moment in June when literary agent Rowan Lawton signed me. My face hurt, my smile was that wide.

Writing has brought me new friends too. In November, I met up with a group of writers who I knew only through Twitter. I stood outside a restaurant in Covent Garden feeling nervous before I opened the door and sat down to lunch with seven complete strangers. It was one of the highlights of my year. Forget nothing conversations about the weather; here we talked openly about our fears, our hopes, our children. And oh how we laughed.

For a long time, I’d wanted to meet gifted writer Joanna Campbell whose work I admire. In December, I got my chance at the launch of her short story collection When Planets Slip Their Tracks. Her nuggets of wisdom have stayed with me. As has her book – it is so well observed and funny and I am enjoying it immensely.

I’m ending the year feeling grateful to my writing. It’s brought me some special personalities, people who have made my life better with their thoughts and funny asides. I’ll be holed up in the writer’s cave again throughout 2017, but I intend to make regular escapes to talk about it all.

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10 Tips to Nail your First Chapter #writing

First chapters count for a lot. Bookshop browsers may start by reading the blurb, but the chances are they’ll dip into the first chapter to see whether they like the writing style. And with book openers available to read on Amazon, your first chapter really needs to impress. That goes for unagented authors too – the submissions package usually involves sending in the first three chapters, so a stunning opener is vital. Here are 10 ideas to make your first chapter sing.

1. Start in the Right Place

Don’t start too early into your story – we don’t want ten meandering chapters of description. Draw your reader in from the beginning with a powerful tipping incident, some terrible dilemma or temptation. If you have a suspicion your novel isn’t quite working, ask yourself this: are you starting in the right place?

2. Introduce Conflict

Conflict can be exciting, and it’s always engaging. Inject conflict into your first chapter and readers won’t be able to resist your work. Joanna Barnard’s Precocious had than effect on me – a married young woman bumps into the teacher she had an affair with when she was a school girl. The same goes for Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney. The mother of a gangster accidentally kills an intruder with a religious ornament. Let me at it!

3. Add Mystery

Throw in some question marks and you’ll get your reader turning the pages to find out what the hell is going on. After all, everyone loves a mystery. Why is your character lying to her husband about where she’s going tonight for instance? What is in that letter marked to be opened only in the event of my death. (The Husband’s Secret) by Liane Moriarty). Mystery rocks however subtle it is.

4. Make the Reader Care about your Characters

Does your character go around killing drug dealers? Does she rescue refugees from overcrowded camps? Is she battling anxiety, but climbs on to stage most nights to do her stand up comedian routine anyway? Make your reader root for your character. Make her quest a major one, invite your reader in for the ride and make her stay for the long haul.

5. Treat it Like a Writing Competition Entry

Edit and then edit some more. Get rid of all your saggy bits. This chapter mustn’t go on for a beat too long, so get busy red-penning. Come back to it at intervals and reread. Kill some more darlings if you have too. Perfect it until you reckon it’s good enough to win a writing competition.

6. Make Your Writing Brilliant

Your writing should pack several punches here. Make it confident, avoid cliche and beautify. Don’t freak out if it’s hitting a few bum notes to start with – go over it, tighten it, change it up.

7. Include Dialogue

Give your characters a voice. Making them speak tells your reader a lot about their personalities, and dialogue is super easy to read. Reams of prose on a page can be off-putting, but put some dialogue in, and the text looks as if it’s going to give you space to breathe.

8. Banish Backstory

Don’t give us 1,000 words on how your character was brought up in the suburbs of London and was bullied at school. Zzzzzzzzz. We want immediacy. Back story comes later in your book.

9. Show your Theme

Your theme should be evident somewhere in this first chapter: grief; a haunting; motherhood; the pursuit of joy. And don’t forget mood either. What do you want your reader to feel – is it a funny book with a huge moral centre? Is it glossy and feel-good? What kind of writer are you? Let your reader know.

10. Write a Killer First Line

For a reader, a killer first line is like an itch; you can’t ignore it. It might be an odd idea, a question or a weird situation.

The first line of Claire Fuller’s forthcoming Swimming Lessons, ‘Gil Coleman looked down from the window and saw his dead wife standing on the pavement below,’ makes me want to buy it as soon as it’s published in January 2017. And I just knew I was going to love The Other Me by Saskia Sarginson when I read the opening line, ‘I have no experience of killing anything.’ Sometimes it’s simpler though: a quiet line of beauty which gives such a strong sense of mood, it makes me want to keep reading.

I wrote this post after spending a lot of time re-editing the first chapter of my novel. It had got a bit loose around the edges, so the action took too long to start. I’ve tidied and titivated and slashed out superfluous words. My first chapter has gone under the knife more than any other part of my book. #KeepWriting.

Should You Write the Synopsis BEFORE You Write the Book?

I’m about to start writing book two. The characters are churning in my subconscious and I’m storing up real-life personalities and moments to be regurgitated later.

My story’s come from sticking two ideas together – one, taken from a newspaper cutting, the other, something that a friend is going through. The subjects fascinate me and have the potential to keep me gripped for the year it’s going to take to write the book.

A year?!  Who am I kidding, right? My first novel, The Maid’s Room, has taken me five years to finish – (it was abandoned on the laptop for a lot of that time, mind you). Three weeks ago, I started submitting it again. (Fingers, toes and other relevant parts of anatomy are well and truly crossed.)

One of the reasons my first novel took so long to write is that I was a greenhorn – I had no idea what my writing style was. And when a helpful literary agent met up with me and said, ‘You need to show not tell,’ I replied, ‘Oh, of course!’ a disguise of a smile wiped across my face; I hadn’t the foggiest what she was talking about.

I’m no expert now, but I do know more.

And one mistake I’m not going to repeat is leaving the synopsis to the end. I’ve already written it for my second novel. I know I’ll veer off it, that I’ll change my mind about things. But setting the story within the framework of a synopsis is a reassurance that this new book might just work.

It contains the following three features that are essential for any book:

1 The story starts in the right place.

Put your characters in an inciting incident in your opening scenes. That way, you’ll reduce the chances of a literary agent telling you, ‘I didn’t fall into your narrative.’ Writer: Take hold of the agent’s ear and drag her over the story’s precipice.

2 Characters have arcs.

By the end of your novel, your main characters should have gone through a change. They should be different at the end to the way they were at the beginning.

3 Characters are at risk.

How are your characters in jeopardy? Show how great the risks are. Don’t let the tension and drive go slack.

15 Surefire Ways to Beat Writer’s Block

You know those days – the ones when you’ve set aside a stretch of time to write, but the words won’t come. You type The, then press the delete button and start riffling through your cupboard for a biscuit to dunk in your tea. The muse isn’t striking and no amount of Googling your own name or scrolling through Twitter is going to urge it in your direction.

Sweep away the crumbs from your keyboard and stop listening to that deranged voice inside your head saying I JUST CAN’T DO THIS ANYMORE!!!! because here’s how to reboot your creative streak.

 

1 Write Crap

Everything’s a bit rubbish to start with isn’t it? It’s the editing that polishes it up and turns it into a thing of beauty. Even if you’ve spent three hours on something that reads like a legal contract, hunker down because magic could be about to fly your way. Take it from Maya Angelou. ‘What I try to do is write. I may write for two weeks “the cat sat on the mat, that is that, not a rat.” And it might be just the most boring and awful stuff. But I try. When I’m writing, I write. And then it’s as if the muse is convinced that I’m serious and says, “Okay. Okay. I’ll come.”’

2 Stop Worrying

Okay, so it’s awful, but chill, no one apart from you is ever going to see this first attempt. ‘All writing problems are psychological problems,’ says novelist Erica Jong. ‘Blocks usually stem from the fear of being judged. If you imagine the world listening, you’ll never write a line.’ So write your first draft as if no one will ever see it.

3 Start in the Middle

Don’t fret over an opening paragraph, start in the middle instead. Write any scene or moment that comes to you. Keep doing that and the beginning and end will arrive. The same goes with plans. Start typing down ideas and plot lines will start sewing together on that previously-blank page.

4 Put Pen to Paper

So the bright, white Word document looks deadlier than a black hole? So get your old notebook out, or even better, a new one. ‘Writing on a computer can be terribly distracting,’ says Zadie Smith. ‘So sometimes I like to use a pencil and paper to jot down ideas.’

5 Create a Space

Nope, it’s still not happening for you. So step away from the screen. ‘Take a walk, take a bath, go to sleep, make a pie, draw, listen to ­music, meditate, exercise,’ says Hilary Mantel. ‘Whatever you do, don’t just stick there scowling at the problem. But don’t make telephone calls or go to a party; if you do, other people’s words will pour in where your lost words should be. Open a gap for them, create a space. Be patient.’ Go refresh that cold cup of tea and dunk another biscuit.

6 Be Inspired by Photographs

Take a look at Pinterest and Unsplash for beautiful imagery that might just spark off an idea. Try creating a mood board for your story or novel on Pinterest. Then write a small descriptive piece about one of the photographs as a way into your story.

7 Go on a Journey

That’s what travel writer and novelist Paul Theroux did when he ran out of ideas for novels. ‘I recommend to people, if you’re out of ideas, go away. Go somewhere. Go look for a story.’ Walk, get on a train, go for a bike ride.

8 Get some Cafe Culture

Get away from your desk, and take up residence in your local cafe. Novelist Elizabeth Day loves going to cafes to write fiction. ‘I find it really helpful to be surrounded by the buzz of other people,’ she told Mslexia.

9 Watch a Documentary

If you’re trudge to the high street hasn’t inspired you, switch on the television and watch something factual. Even if you don’t find a subject you want to write about, you might spot something in the margins of that programme – a person, a feeling, something unexplored.

10 Work on an Ideas File

Read news and features. If a story resonates with you, rip it out and push it into an ideas file. Note down interesting situations or conversations and pop them in there too. Then whenever you’re floundering, you’ll have ideas on tap.

11 Match Ideas

So you want to write about a Chilean fire brigade, but can’t think of where to go with it. Get reading and searching for a second idea and combine the two. That’s what writer Tania Hershman does. ‘What I actively do now is collide two ideas together, very often a scientific one with something else I have been thinking about, and see what results,’ she says.

‘I have been known to read two things at the same time—say, a New Scientist article and an article on something entirely different in another magazine—just to mess with my head and produce something new. Messing with my own head is an intrinsic part of my process!’

12 Read an Excerpt from your Favourite Book

Open a beloved book on a random page and read. Read the opening chapters of a handful of other books too. I keep seven favourite books beside my computer, so I can dip in when I’m stuck.

13 Do Fake Research

For inspiration, Evie Wyld reads up on something that interests her like ghosts. ‘I love real life ghost stories,’ she told Mslexia. ‘I suppose I am trying to understand something primal, what makes us afraid, fall in love, unkind; what makes us human.’

14 Read obituaries

A history of someone’s incredible life? Let it absorb you. Sadly, there’s been all too many of those this year. 2016 has not been kind…..

15 Google

(But not your own name. OBVI) If you have a vague idea turn it into an informed one by reading as much as you can about the subject. Immerse yourself in it then give writing another go.

 

Meet the Writer: Fiona Mitchell

So enjoyed being interviewed by Grab the Lapels this week:

Grab the Lapels

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Fiona Mitchell is an author and journalist. She is the winner of the 2015 Frome Short Story Competition and has work published in the Bristol Short Story Prize Anthology for the second year running. She is the author of the blog Writing Mad. All links below take you to various posts on Writing Mad. You can also socialize with Fiona on Twitter and Facebook.

In one of your blog posts you mention writing many drafts—five, in fact—as the result of input from others. Do you ever get to the point when you feel like the novel isn’t even yours anymore?

Now I’ve gotten to the stage where I feel my book The Maid’s Room is the very best it can be. I recently opened up my first draft and took a look. There is a hell of a lot of waffle in it and the plot goes off on…

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Should you base your characters on real-life people?

‘If they’re based on somebody else, in a funny way it’s an infringement of a copyright. That person owns his life, has a patent on it. It shouldn’t be available for fiction,’ said author Toni Morrison in a recent interview with The Paris Review.

Which got me thinking, do I ever copy from life?

I use aspects of things – situations, people’s personality quirks, the way they look. I apply a heavy dose of imagination then write.

To put it the Maggie O’Farrell way: ‘I think all fiction is a patchwork of things you borrow, things you lift from real life and others you simply make up.’

To copy directly would be plagiarism, right? And a tad risky. I mean look what happened to novelist Gregoire Delacourt when a court ordered him to pay actress Scarlett Johansson 2,500 euros for his ‘demeaning’ depiction of a female lookalike in his book The First Thing We Look At.

And although few of these cases get as far as court, writing is a risk. Ablene Cooper, a housekeeper for the family of the brother of The Help author Kathryn Stockett filed a suit. Cooper claimed that her image and likeness had been used without permission for one of the main characters, Abileen Clark. The case was dismissed because the one-year statute of limitations had elapsed.

If my book ever makes it into print, I wonder who’ll be looking for themselves in the margins. My mum is convinced I’ve used her personality for my central character. ‘I haven’t,’ I said. ‘Ya wee devil,’ she replied. I might add that not once does my main woman say ya wee devil. Hailing as she does from the Philippines, it’d be completely out of character. She does however give everyone nicknames (like my mum). A work colleague of my mum’s whose wayward hair failed to stay in a daily chignon became Bird’s Nest. A neighbour became Margaret with the Dug, to distinguish her from the five other Margarets living on the street. Probably best not to mention The Space Cadet or Whhhhhhhy Me????? at this juncture, but the point is, my mum can see herself in my main character.

Some of the people who’ve read earlier versions of the book, reckon my other main character, Juliet, is me. But a couple of months ago, a literary agent, who was admittedly giving me positive feedback at the time, confessed, ‘Juliet’s too wet for me to really care about her.’ Ouch. Out came the drying-up cloth, and in went optimism and some classic lines delivered by one of my best friends. (She’s bound to recognise them). For the record though, Juliet isn’t my friend, neither is she me. I haven’t ever given anyone mouth to mouth resuscitation like Juliet although I did practise on a plastic model when St John Ambulance came to our school once. There was dribble involved.

The few times I’ve tried to write a character based entirely on a person I’ve known, it simply hasn’t worked. Writing like this is a dead end (for me). Copying people is like trying to copy another writer’s style – it just leads to bad writing – oh, and lawsuits.

So best stick to the tried and tested method. Let real events and people send your imagination into a spin, then invention will do the rest of work.

How NOT to write a synopsis

Writing a synopsis is variously described as ‘synopsis hell’ and ‘the most difficult 500 words you’ll ever write’ – in my case, the most difficult 800.

I’ve just written a new synopsis for my first novel, so thought I’d share my pain, ahem, I mean pointers.

Is a synopsis going to land you an literary agent?

Most submissions require a covering letter, the first three chapters of your book and a synopsis. An agent will read your covering letter, take a look at the first few pages of your novel and if they like what they see, they’ll want to know where the story is going; does it have enough meat on it; will it sell? Move over chapters; make way for the synopsis.

What is a synopsis?

It’s not the blurb on the back of the book; it’s the nuts and bolts of your story. What happens; what’s at stake and how does the jeopardy rise? Is the ending a satisfying one?

Here are some other essential ingredients:

  • Hit the highlights – the bones of the story – beginning, middle and end.
  • Make sure the plot has a true arc – are the conflicts of the main characters clear, and the resolutions to those conflicts?
  • Mention the genre of your book – commercial, YA, book group fiction etc.
  • Include setting – what country, what year?
  • Highlight the main characters. Put their names in capital letters or embolden them when you first introduce them.
  • Include the unique selling point of your book.
  • Make the synopsis 500 to 800 words, and when you get an agent who wants a synopsis of 300 words instead, put your head into your hands and blub loudly. Then dab yourself down. You can do this! Chop, chop – take out another subplot or two and get rid of superfluous spiel.
  • Spoilers – Do include the final plot twist.

What shouldn’t you include?

  • A detailed account of the characters’ personalities. A quick character sketch is enough. Disillusioned science teacher Walter White. The unmarried Frances with an interesting past etc.
  • A blow-by-blow account of every single subplot. Be lean; you don’t have the space for this.

Finally, let other people read your synopsis because if Great Aunt Iris can’t make sense of it, you can bet your life a literary agent will chuck it into the bin faster than you can say Trash.