A second round with the book doctors

February 28, 2017 § Leave a comment

In May 2015, I submitted a novel I had spent nine months writing to a book editor attached to a consultancy. When three weeks or so later, I received the editor’s report, I was pleasantly surprised. Of course, the book was not ready for publication, but a number of good things were therein noted. And my fears as to whether I had managed to maintain a reader’s interest as the book progressed, through different time periods, were allayed. Nor did the book editor take issue with an aspect of the plot which I thought was far-fetched. As my greatest fears proved groundless, I was very receptive to the criticism. The most significant criticism: the “hero” was not sympathetic. A second criticism: there was not enough period detail. These revelations did not disturb me. The editor was right.

I ended up re-writing the entire novel, and, I believed, very much improving it. I made cuts and I made additions. There was a net gain of 20,000 words. I re-submitted the novel to the same consultancy. I was disappointed that the same editor was not available to critique my book. Six weeks or so later, I received the report.  The change of editor was not for the best.

My “hero” had now gone from being unsympathetic to being a cipher. Even I don’t understand how he became fainter, if I had tried to make him more solid. The part of the book I feared to be far-fetched was found to be so. I did not peruse the entire critique; it was long and detailed: too detailed. Wasn’t it enough to say that my hero was a cipher without insulting the hero’s name as well? Did it matter? If the book wasn’t good in its essentials, why gripe about small details? There were positive comments. The book had “promise”. The word promise, I recall, was used in such a way as to indicate that I was not to read too much into the word.

I was not so much back to square one but to a minus square. Was I then to re-write the book a third time and have a third person look it over and find it wanting?

All this happened last April. The book has remained untouched. (I wanted to continue writing so I turned to writing plays.) However, in December I had an epiphany. I rebelled against my dejection. I decided that the editor had gone too far in his criticism. I had handed him too much authority: the authority to tell me my work was not good enough.

My work cannot become something that it is not. Most of the time, it will not be what people want.  The real challenge is not writing a publishable book but discovering the person who will like your book enough to publish it.

Agents advise writers to send in sample chapters and a synopsis. But there are usually restrictions too. For example, you shouldn’t be sending, at the same time, a great many sample chapter out to other agents because you might be wasting agents’ time. Agents might end up reading something that is snapped up by another agent. In whose dreams? Never having had an offer of representaiion by any agent, I think the agents’ fears of having their time wasted are largely unfounded. In truth, only the unpublished writer’s time will be wasted. Some agents do represent unsolicited submissions. But, I think, the odds are 100 to 1.

What do I suggest?  Perhaps you discover a remote connection, amongst your acquaintance, to the publishing industry. Perhaps this remote connection will introduce you to someone more directly connected to publishing and so on. And if you have the time and money to flood the world with your sample chapters, perhaps do that. Make it your aim to collect refusals and rejections. Perhaps, a 100 or 1,000. When the bulky envelope drops through the letter box, you can say: “Success!”


How not to write a novel by David Armstrong

January 31, 2017 § Leave a comment

The essence of David Armstrong’s advice to those who would wish to become writers is: “Don’t”.

He was “lucky” enough to be one of the 1 per cent picked from a slush pile and published. Although his first published book was well-received by critics, this was not the start of a meteoric rise to fame and fortune, but of the more plateau-like career of a midlist writer.

The earnings of a midlist writer are probably less than a steady job working in a supermarket. The midlist writer can, without ceremony, be dropped by his publisher. She might never do better than the sales of her first book. He will never be important. No one will be booking him to talk at important literary festivals. She will never see anyone reading her book on the tube. He will remain not very well-off and obscure.

Some readers may consider David Armstrong’s view of the life of the midlist writer to be depressing and negative. But I found it reassuring. On the contrary, it is the stories of unknown writers coming first in their first literary competition and then signing a three-book contract that depress me.

To know that most writers have to work long and hard for little reward is good news to me.

“When Night’s Black Agents was eventually published, the very things that it had (allegedly) been declined for were exactly the same things that reviewers found to single out for praise.”

For example:

The ‘lack of pace’ that had made the book ‘unsuitable for today’s market’, metamorphosed in the Daily Telegraph into ‘prose with a slow, dark, rhythm’.

In the Guardian the ‘Midlands setting’, frequently cited as an insurmountable barrier to publication, was now, ‘unique and interesting’.




Living the dream: cold calling

November 30, 2016 § Leave a comment


Many years ago a voice coach of mine told me of a man who had spent ten years working as an actor, or trying to work as an actor. An actor prepares for an audition, tries for a part, and is rejected. He may face a total rejection. He doesn’t have the right face for the part. And his acting is not to the director’s taste.

We, unpublished writers, can empathise. We too have experienced rather more rejection than we would wish. But only our work is rejected. Our humiliation is private. From the comfort of our own home, we see the bulky return envelope. Of course, we hoped someone wanted what we sent. But really we should know better than to think anyone would want it. We feel like Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie. What did he have to do to get an acting part? Dress up as a woman. What do we have to do to get published?

We may console ourselves with this thought: the publisher/literary agent who rejected out work has made a life-defining mistake. However, we don’t really believe that. It is hard to believe in yourself when no one else is showing a glimmer of interest in your work.

We read of writers who paste rejection slips on their walls. Perhaps they do this when they have become successful. But one failure after another does rather deflate our sense of humour. And we certainly do not want to have to confront rejection slips every time we walk into a room

Back to the actor: he was getting married. His new father-in-law owned an entity that sold pensions. He offered his son-in-law a job: cold calling people to sell them a pension. After acting, it was the dream job.

The invisible writers

June 30, 2016 § Leave a comment

We hear all too often of the express way to success taken by some writers. We have read of people who have written some little story or perhaps poem of which they have no great opinion. Nevertheless, they go to the trouble of printing it off and finding an envelope and posting it off to a competition. They forget all about their entry. But they are reminded of it, soon enough, when they are told that they have come first.

We, on the other hand, only have stories that we have tried very hard to write as well as we can. Then we go almost mad and blind proofreading our story. We know what a dim view these judges take of typographical errors. How quick they might be to tell you of your sloppiness.

We are never sloppy. We briefly contemplate amending a  mistake in our printed copy in handwritng. But we can’t because we might be viewed as careless. We have to  print the story again, and again.  We cannot recycle an old envelope, lest the competition organisers hold that against us. Once we have posted off our entry, we do not forget all about it. We have high hopes of our story.

But the judges never get in touch. And we almost gnash our teeth when we read of yet another writer who, having toyed with the idea of writing, gives up a lucrative career to go on a writers’ course. Do you know the rest of the story? As soon as they stop toying and become serious, they are picked up by talent spotters. Of course, rarely does success come so easily. We have to remind ourselves of that. We have to remind ourselves of that.

Yesterday, a man told me of his brother-in-law who had taken time off his work to do a year’s full-time creative writing course. On the course, he was not lifted out of obscurity by a literary agent. Since he has finished the course, he has had to return to the IT work he knows best, and dislikes.  He needs the money. All the same, he is working on the third draft of his novel. I found it very refreshing to hear of someone who was working hard, had yet to have a big break but was showing impressive dedication.  Such stories are so much more uplifting than those of people taking to writing in January and becoming a publishing sensation by July.

I wish him luck. I wish all writers who plod away luck.

The golden age of publishing: when was it?

April 30, 2016 § Leave a comment

Unpublished writers, who attempt to be published, are quickly put in their place.  Publishers must tire of having to repeat the same things. Manuscripts are rejected because they do not reach the ever-increasing high standards:  the bar is always being raised.

Judges of writing competitions must be worn out too repeating that the entrants for a particular competition were of an unusually high standard and therefore many of the entrants have not made the longlist.  Such a pity that those unpublished writers do not enter the year the competing novels are of an unusually low standard.

And literary agents have their share of repetitions too to endure. Literary agents have to thrill with excitement when they read your manuscript; they only seek to have novels published that they love, that set them afire with enthusiasm, that they are (that much overused word) passionate about. We are unfortunate. Our manuscripts thrill no one.

Are unpublished writers to infer that there was once a time, a golden age, when the public were so hungry for novels that publishers did not have to concern themselves overmuch with quality? Were notices placed in the windows of publishing houses saying: Manuscripts in any condition urgently needed?

In my local library, there is a book sale. Books for adults fetch 40p, and books for children fetch 10p. Presumably these books are not being borrowed, and the library must purge its shelves of them to make way for more attractive novels. Were these discarded books once manuscripts that sent thrills through literary agents? Were these books once the subject of editorial conferences? Did the writers wrangle with the publishers about the kind of book jacket they wanted?  And after all these baptisms of fire they are now cast aside.

What of the public who go out and buy the books? What say do they have? Should the publishing industry have sneak previews of books so the ultimate readers can tell them where they are going wrong before they print thousands of copies? (Like sneak previews in the film industry.)

By the time the reader comes into the picture, it is too late. Despite the high standards of the publishing industry, a book club member told me last Saturday that sometimes the only discussion a book can provoke is the one entitled: How did this book get published?

A long night’s journey to success: getting published

September 30, 2015 § Leave a comment

People often illustrate, with a view to encouraging, the difficulties of getting published by citing JK Rowling’s fourteen or so attempts to interest agents/publishers in what was later to be the first of the Harry Potter series. What people don’t realise: if most unpublished writers succeeded in getting published on the strength of sending out their manuscript fourteen times, they would think they had no cause for complaint.

To go on being unpublished for the length of a doctor’s training is, perhaps, not as uncommon as some people think.

Then there is the celebrated story of Mary Wesley (The Camomile Lawn 1984). On a number of occasions, I have read that Mary wrote this novel by hand at the age of seventy and sent it off to be published. The agent/publisher was not put off by the handwriting and accepted the manuscript without changing a word. But the fuller story is that Mary Wesley had been interested in writing for many decades and had, I believe, novels published in 1960s which sank without trace. Success came, but success came very late and after much ‘failure’. Would we prefer to read of an elderly woman who pens a novel and secures a publishing contract on her first attempt or of an elderly woman who succeeds in having a book published, and acclaimed, after thirty-five years of trying?

People do write for many years without success. And the ‘failure’ is not easy to explain or understand. Writers might accept slowness in success, but doesn’t the prospect of no success at all loom large in their fears?

The following letter was sent by email to the magazine Mslexia:

I first found an agent 40 years ago, but after she failed to place my novel, she was not interested in anything else I wrote. My second agent was enthusiastic, but retired soon after. My third only liked my nonfiction. My fourth persuaded me to rewrite and rewrite until he hated the result. My fifth ‘loved’ my writing but couldn’t see how to sell in the current market. My last repeated what I have heard so often: ‘Beautiful writing, but we can’t sell these quiet physiological novels’. No surprise, then, that I have given up submitting. I am now 78.


Call the doctor: time for the literary editor

June 26, 2015 § Leave a comment

Books about ‘getting published’ will usually outline the steps to getting an agent. Although the process is not simple, it appears straightforward. The aspiring writer should write well enough for the genre and submit the sample writing required to an agent. Of course your book, however good, may be rejected because it is not to the agent’s taste.

Some writers, despite refusal, keep applying to agents. Marjorie Blackman, I believe, submitted to about 83 agents before one of them agreed to represent her. Perhaps Marjorie Blackman received some encouraging responses along the way, and such encouragement was the reason for her doggedness. If we look, however, at the figures the odds against succeeding by direct application to agents are very high.

Thousands of unsolicited submissions are made a year to literary agents and only a handful of clients are taken on, and these clients are not all necessarily from the unsolicited submissions. Ahead of the unsolicited submissions will be the writing-competition-winners, and unpublished writers that other agents have recommended.

My view now is that most unpublished writers don’t have a chance because there are far more writers than there are places on agents’ lists.

Of course, if your book is BRILLIANT, you may triumph. But, more likely than not, your book is not up to scratch. This is a conclusion I have reached about my recently finished manuscript. I did not arrive at this conclusion unaided. I arrived at it because of a critique I received from TLC (The Literary Consultancy). Yet when I received that critique I was delighted. I had been afraid that my astute editor (or reader) would give me to understand that what I sent in was neither a ‘book’ nor a ‘book in progress’ but ‘convoluted mush’.

My editor did not think the book was ready to publish. She advised me in what ways I might improve the book. Oddly enough, she did not attack the book in any of its fundamentals. I had been afraid that she would say, “That’s a far-fetched plot you’ve dreamed up, change it.”

Before the report, I was like a person afloat on a sea, surrounded by fog, not knowing if I ever would reach land. Then I got my report: the fog lifted a little, land was in sight, and I had been given a compass. I know my novel is not ready for publication and I also know what I must work on to make my novel ‘publishable’.

I have begun the revisions, recommended by my editor. The revisions turn out to be much more extensive than I had realised. But I believe the book will be far better than my original conception. Now I begin to understand why agents take on writers and then spend two years working on the draft novel.

I would recommend that an unwaged unpublished writer consults a literary editor, but only where:

1. She has already worked hard on her manuscript, and has either finished it or needs guidance before she can confidently proceed further.

2. She is committed to making it the best she can: she is open to taking the advice of an expert*.

And finally a word of warning: don’t be in a hurry to send unsolicited submissions to literary agents as their responses may be brutal. In the past, I received two devastating criticisms from literary agents. These “ladies” undermined me. Their advice was freely (without tact and without charge) given. Advice one might pay not to have had.


*One writer told me that she got two lots of advice, from the same editor, about her memoir. The writer found the advice excellent, and agreed with 70% of it (I don’t know if this was on the first or second round). However, she balked at emphasizing too much the ‘poor girl made good’ element of the memoir which her editor had recommended. This was not the direction the writer wanted to take. She didn’t. I, on the other hand, believe I am adopting my editor’s advice 100%.


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