The submission process: one step forward, three back

February 28, 2018 § Leave a comment


I sent my first, and so far, only postal submission off on 5th February last. The other six submissions I made were by email. A total of seven. Despite this small number, each submission has taken a disproportionate amount of time. It is rather amusing that agents think you might be inundating the Book World with your submissions. If only I could afford staff to help me with the process, then there might be some hope of flooding literary agencies with my work.

Agents appear, or perhaps it is my imagination, to accept that 99 per cent of unsolicited submissions are not rubbish. In fact, some of the younger agents have befriended the slush pile: the slush pile is notional now. By and large, documents sent as an attachment to emails form a ‘slush pile’. Gems have been discovered on the slush pile. The impression these younger agents, almost invariably young women, give is that they are much more open to the unpublished writer, or indeed the debut author. You can’t help but feel that the long established agents do not need to fritter their time away reading unsolicited material when they have a stellar client list. They may, of course, consider a ‘writer’ who has been recommended by another writer. Hard lines on the old unpublished author who has no one influential to recommend her.

Never mind. There are vital young agents ready to go beyond and above calls of duty to rescue the would-be debut author from obscurity. Of course, there is a catch. They have to really like what you send them. Hmm. Don’t despair. Have a look at their client list, the ones whose work fired up the agent. You may find that these novels don’t fire you up. Taste is a strange thing.

Obviously, if I see that agents love books by authors I have never been tempted to read, I conclude those agents are not the ones for me. More difficult are the agents who also like books that I have liked. I might take a chance with them. Why not?

Agents may let you down gently saying they receive a lot of ‘strong’ work but cannot take it on unless they feel ‘passionately’ about it. I am not sure I believe this. I wonder how many agents really trust their own judgement or are that in tune with their feelings. Why do they become judges at writing competitions? Do they prefer to look only at work that has already been ‘vetted’?

My own submission process is slow because I have become caught up in this idea of ‘crafting’ the covering letter. How much can I craft it? I read of one writer who had polished and polished her cover letter until it shone. What does that mean? I cannot spent absurd amounts of time on a letter. The law of diminishing returns applies. Even undistinguished cover letters are hard to write. I print out my cover letter many times. I tweak it here and there, but the letter does not shine. It will have to do. All the same, I never send it off at once. The next day, I read it again and discover (guess what?) a mistake.

We are familiar with that horribly punitive attitude agents have to typos. Would you believe I still managed misspell in the footer, so it appeared on every page, the name of my own novel. I was about to bundle this submission into an envelope when I discovered the mistake. Tempted as I was to leave it, I could not. Would an agent forgive me for misspelling my own novel’s name?

Attaching a document by email is worse: are we really sending the most up-to-date version? Indeed, in two submissions I made, the latest version was saved to a memory stick and not the computer, so I attached an earlier one. With mistakes! On discovery, I re-sent the two submissions a week later. Perhaps, they weren’t mistake-free either. Now I hardly dare to press the send button. Am I going to go mad and blind?

In the month of March, I will relax about sending out submissions. A balance must be struck between my original aim of sending out 100 submissions, and ‘over-crafting’ cover letters. It’s a heart-breaking business. But, ultimately, no matter what little quibbles these agents have, all will be brushed aside if they really like your work. But will they?






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!”

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.

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%.


How can I support my writing habit?

May 2, 2013 § Leave a comment

Tick tock! Tick tock! Over two years have gone by since I started entering writing competitions. About six months ago, I considered giving them up altogether. But I changed my mind and entered three: one in February, and two in March.

I didn’t make the shortlist of either Myriad’s or Cornerstones’. This month, May,  the results of Mslexia’s Short Story Competition will be announced.

When I entered these competitions, I told myself that if I got nowhere in all of them, I would have to change my strategy. I could not continue to enter competitions. Competitions take time, and time, once spent, is gone forever.

Initially, when I discovered two afternoons ago, that I had not made the Cornerstones’ shortlist, I remained in a reasonably buoyant mood. That evening, I went to a literary event. There I met a writer who told me that she worked for a literary consultancy. She mentored other writers. In this way, she earned money when writing did not pay. Does it ever?

She talked about writers having sometimes to review their aims, not to make publication their ultimate end. I nodded at this: I was still philosophical. She also said that writers do not always feel as validated by being published as they anticipated. Presumably their sense of validation depends on the critical reception of the book, and its sales. Most writers must feel very validated if their books are critically acclaimed or sell in great numbers.

After returning home, I felt I could not bear the load: the notion that I would write for neither publication nor money. We all have to make adjustments along the way. It is hard enough to accept that writing may not pay as well as stocking shelves in a shop but I could never write for my sole satisfaction. If I wanted to do that, I could keep a diary. I write to be read by other people. For me, a writer or artist must have an audience.

If mentoring were an end in itself, what would I be then? Not a writer but someone with a writing habit. How would I find money to support my habit?

What would Henry James, that most pure artist, say to the idea of writing for writing’s sake? I know of no writer who was hotter after the dollar than James was, or who was more of a conscientious artist. (Flannery O’ Connor, ‘The Nature and Aim of Fiction’). I imagine most writers, great or minor, are with me on this: we want  at the very least to be published, and we would very much like to be paid as well.

All the same, I am going to change my strategy. My next step will be to pay to have my children’s book professionally edited.

Mel Sherratt and Tim Cooke talk about self-publishing on Kindle at the London Book Fair 2013

April 26, 2013 § 1 Comment

Where should we begin Mel Sherratt’s story?

We could start it here. In December 2011, Mel Sherratt published Taunting the Dead on Kindle. In one month, she sold 40,000 at 99p a copy.

It went on to be a number 1 Kindle bestseller, in three different fiction categories, and ultimately a number 3 bestseller in fiction. Not bad at all. However, when this one month comes after 12 years of writing, part time until 2010, it’s not such a great story for those seeking instant success.

Mel Sherratt nearly secured a traditional publishing deal. She had an agent, and her book Taunting the Dead had got to acquisitions stage: then everything fell through. What had she to lose by publishing Taunting the Dead on Kindle?

Publishing on Kindle was not Mel Sherratt’s first choice, nor would it be today. In a way it was a last resort, or perhaps the only way she could see herself being published quickly. And despite her success, she still wants to be published traditionally. Why? Because that was her goal when she set out. All the same, she would rather self-publish on Kindle than not publish at all.

Three books of Mel Sherratt’s ‘Estate’ series (psychological suspense) are also available on Kindle.

Before self-publishing, Tim Cooke wrote for television. Tim Cooke published Kiss and Tell in October 2012, and his second book Defending Elton this month, April 2013. Although Kiss and Tell was the first to be published, it was not the first to be written. Tim Cooke wrote a draft of Defending Elton first. So no, he did not whizz off a complete novel in six months.

Three top literary agents had worked with Tim Cooke. Yet even with their help, Tim Cooke did not secure a publishing deal. His books had been professionally edited (by agents). Like Mel Sherratt, he had gone far down the road to a publishing deal.

We, unpublished writers, know how hard it is to interest agents. Is it comforting to know that getting an agent will not necessarily lead to a publishing deal?

For neither writer did things happen quickly. And it seems likely that neither of them would have been as successful on Kindle if they had got to it sooner. In the time they were waiting to secure publishing deals, they were able, with the help of their agents, to improve their books.

More than once, Tim Cooke said that a book should be as good as it could be, before you self-publish it.

Mel Sherratt found, after hours of searching online, an image, a rose for Taunting the Dead. Before Taunting the Dead was published on Kindle, a writer friend of Mel Sherratt’s put the finishing touches on the cover.

The designer that Tim Cooke asked to do the cover for Defending Elton agreed because he had liked the book. He also designed the cover for Kiss and Tell; he did not charge his usual fee. Tim later learnt that the designer had done covers for Irvine Welsh and Stephen King. (Books will advise you that knowledge is power, but if Tim Cooke had known of the book-cover designer’s prestige, he probably would not have asked for his help.)

Taunting the Dead had been structurally edited but not copy edited when it was first published. So there were mistakes. Mel Sherratt has had her other books copy edited as they were published (she’s since had Taunting the Dead copy edited too). She wouldn’t recommend that any writer omitted this step. You can’t copy edit yourself, she told us.

Publishing on Kindle appears easy. You can self-publish, but will your book sell? Buyers of ebooks seem to look for the same things as buyers of hard copy books, a well written book, and a good cover.

We hear great success stories in self-publishing, of ebooks that have not been edited and of readers who (happily?) point out all sorts of mistakes to the writer so that she can correct them. Collaborations between readers and writers? How long can that last for? We can only presume that such writers are lucky. If becoming an ebook bestseller were that easy, who could resist self-publishing a book?

I heard Mel Sherratt and Tim Cooke speak at the Authorlounge  (The London Book Fair on 15th April 2013).

The Authorlounge in Earls Court 2 at the London Book Fair

April 16, 2013 § Leave a comment

My first taste of the London Book Fair, yesterday, 15th April 2013 was the wrong one; I went in the Earls Court Entrance that was visible from West Brompton tube station (there was no train going to Olympia that morning). I went up the escalator into an area that was largely filled with rows of tables. Was this the extent of the London Book Fair? It was a little dim and bleak. Of course it wasn’t! I was soon looking down on the illuminated ground floor, filled with hundreds of stands.

As a visitor, I should have gone through the West Brompton Entrance which is just a hundred metres or so up from the Earls Court Entrance. Then I would have orientated myself better. Of course, you can plan your day in advance by looking at the London Book Fair site. I had done a little of that but not enough; I never thought there would be so much.

The London Book Fair is divided into Earls Court 1 and Earls Court 2. If you have navigation skills like mine, you may well find that your allegiance to one of them proves to be permanent. If you start out living in North London, you may never venture to live in South London.

For a first-time visitor the London Book Fair is overwhelming. What business does an unpublished writer have at it? Where is she to spend her time? She has no need yet for international distribution solutions or much to say to the hundreds of stand holders.

Having been given The Love Learning Onsite Guide by the London Book Fair team, I thought I would start the day attending seminars. As seminars were being given in the AuthorLounge (Earls Court 2) that lasted for three quarters of an hour and, with fifteen minute intervals, went on throughout the day that seemed a good place to start.

I was there before ten and was able to secure a seat in the second row easily enough. But by the time the first seminar was underway, the lounge was filling up and there was soon only standing room. If you wanted to keep your seat, you needed to stay on it. The audience overflowed the lounge. Some had to be content with standing outside the booth.

There were other events at the Pen Literary Café (Earls Court 2), and other seminars too in Earls Court 1 that I would have like to have attended. However, unless you are blessed with powers of bi- or tri-location, you have to plump for something and hope it is the right thing. Do you really want to stand outside the AuthorLounge when you can sit at the front and ask questions? At the end of each seminar was a question and answer session.

The seat, after three hours, became increasingly uncomfortable. When I left it at lunchtime, I lost it and had to be content to listen to some parts of seminars from without.

For the seminar on ‘How to Get a Literary Agent’, I was back in the lounge but not on a seat; my seat was on the floor which I discovered was more uncomfortable than the seat I had deserted. People hovered, ready to pounce when a seat became vacant.

For authors of any kind, published and unpublished, who want to find out what is happening at the moment in the world of books, the AuthorLounge is the place to be.

One attendee commented that even as recently as two years ago the AuthorLounge was not much of a draw. It was evident to her that authors were more important today.

All speakers at the AuthorLounge made it clear that there is a revolution or renaissance (as one speaker called it) in the world of books, and no one quite knows the direction to take. But few would deny that all concerned must adapt, change, and evolve to survive.

Authoright is curating the Authorlounge at the London Book Fair.

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