Getting Published

It’s not easy to get a book deal. I had 102 rejections from agents before I was successful. But if you’re determined to do it, I hope the following advice helps.

Learn your craft

Don’t be complacent or believe the saying that ‘everyone has a novel in them’. They don’t. To decide to write a novel without learning the craft of fiction writing first is a bit like trying to perform open heart surgery without any medical training (except that no one should die as a result, of course). Re-read favourite books and bestsellers looking carefully at the characters, plot and conflict to see how they were constructed, join a writers circle (the good ones encourage constructive criticism), enrol on a creative writing course or at the very least read as many books on creative writing as you can. Here are the ones I recommend:

Solutions for Writers Sol Stein Souvenir Press
Solutions for Novelists Sol Stein Souvenir Press
How to Write a Damn Good Novel James Frey St Martin’s Press
The Craft of Novel Writing Dianne Doubtfire Allison and Busby

Mainstream publisher or self-publishing?

Finding a mainstream publisher is the best way forward if you want to forge a career as an author. But be realistic, very few authors earn enough to live on, most have to supplement their income with other work.

There are many more opportunities to self-publish nowadays. You need to be realistic about the number of copies you will sell. Occasionally a self-published book will break through and hit the bestseller lists and perhaps be snapped up by a big publisher but it is still relatively rare.

Different types of novels

Most adult novels are categorised into two main areas, commercial and literary. Commercial novels are the best-sellers and blockbusters that appeal to a large number of people and sell a lot of copies. They tend to have a fast-paced plot.
Literary novels tend to be more character-driven with more emphasis on fine prose. Characters are explored in greater depth, there may be little action but big issues and themes are explored.
Some novels cross-over or fall between the two categories.
There are then different genres of novels such as psychological thrillers, crime, historical, science fiction/fantasy, thrillers and sagas.

The market for your novel

At any given time different genres may be fashionable or unfashionable. However be wary about following a fashion/trend because it may take several years to write your novel, several to find and agent and publisher and another year before it hits the bookshelves, by which time trends will have changed. Do try to have a clear idea about who your readers will be, an agent and publisher will need to be able to see this.

What should I write about?

If you want to get a novel published you have to write a book readers will want to read but it should still be something you want to write. The saying ‘write about what you know’ is misleading. That will only work if what you know is interesting. By all means choose a setting or location which is familiar to you but think of it more about writing about emotions which you have experienced. Try to pick a theme that a lot of people can relate to. The novel needs to be about something which fascinates you, which you will not get bored with. And most importantly, don’t forget the conflict. It won’t work without it.

How long should a novel be?

Somewhere in the region of 80-100,000 words is a good average. Anything less than 65,000 words probably wouldn’t be considered long enough for an adult novel.

Ingredients for a novel

Novels require the following basic ingredients:
A strong PLOT and potential for sub-plots.
Lots of CONFLICT, both internal and external.
A strong central CHARACTER who captures the reader’s imagination and will need to change and grow during the course of the novel.
Strong supporting characters and an interesting SETTING.
A THEME/PREMISE which will be explored during your novel.

If you haven’t got any of all of these don’t try to force them. Ideally they will come to you, things you think about, people you have met, emotions you have experienced, situations you find fascinating, themes that keep you awake at night.

When you have got all of the basic ingredients (or as many as possible) do the equivalent of putting the dough in the airing cupboard and leaving it to rise. To do this you don’t need to write a word – you simply need to let whatever you have grow in your head. Think about whether the original idea is strong enough to sustain a novel, whether a new character or plot needs to be developed, whether good parts can be kept, bad parts thrown away.

Think about the idea for the novel in any spare moment. If it is a good one it will keep you awake at night, it will interrupt your thoughts and leave you with no option but to work on it. If you lose interest, so will the potential readers.

Checklist

Before you go any further, ask yourself some fundamental questions about your novel:
Is the idea original and attention-grabbing?
Do I have an interesting central character for my readers to identify with?
What does the character want? What obstacles are in their way? Are the stakes high enough?
Where is the conflict coming from?
Whose story is it? Will I have one point of view (PoV) character or several? Why? Will I write in first or third person for each PoV character?
Is my plot strong, progressive but not too complicated?
Where would be the best place to start? Why?
What time span does this novel cover? Should I tell the story chronologically in a traditional linear way or might I want to jump about in time, use flashbacks, several parts etc?
Do I have some idea about where I am going with this story?
What is the premise/theme?
Is there a big dramatic question at the heart of the book?
Will the ending be sufficiently satisfying?
Only when you are happy that the novel idea is strong enough should you continue.

How much preparation do I need to do before I start writing?

There are two schools of thought on this. Some authors swear they do very little plotting before they start writing and have no idea how the novel is going to end. Other authors spend a long time plotting and planning before they write anything and have a clear idea about how characters are going to develop and how the novel will end (I fall into the second camp). Certainly if you are a beginner it makes sense to spend time plotting and planning to ensure that you don’t take a wrong turn half way through and end up with a huge rewrite job on your hands.

Only when you are sure the idea has potential should you allow yourself to write anything. But don’t start writing the story – start by making notes. In a notebook write any details, reminders or facts you want to remember. You might just want to write a paragraph synopsis of the plot at this stage, or maybe background details or a character profile.

Divide the notebook into different sections, one for characters, one for plot, one for any research you need. You might have ideas for a few scenes or even lines of dialogue, if so jot them down.

How to plot chapters and scenes

Examine the plot and try to break it down on a 1-10 list, if you know where you want to start put it at number 1, if you know how it ends put that as number 10 and try to fill in the gaps in between.

When you have filled in all the numbers see if you can expand it to 1-20 or 1-30. This may go on to form the basis of your chapters. You need to work out roughly how many chapters you will need of approx how many words, bearing in mind that the average novel is around the 80-90,000 word mark.

You might want to try breaking your chapter plan down into scenes. This helps it to seem less daunting and keeps it on track lengthwise. Use a separate bit of paper for each scene, keep them small so you can’t write too much. Write the setting in one corner, the time or date in another, whose PoV it is in another and then write no more than two sentences describing what happens.

Keep doing this for every scene, start trying to put them in order, maybe even grouping them into chapters. When you’ve written as many as you can think o,f go through and ask yourself why each scene is there. If it doesn’t satisfy the purpose of characterisation, moving the plot forward or adding conflict, scrap it or combine anything you want to keep with another scene. Keep doing this, taking the weakest scene out until you are convinced you only have strong scenes left.

Remember the importance of plot being a chain of linked events and that it should be led by the characters. Start asking tough questions. Why would the character do that? What is their motivation? How would other characters react? What if?

Characterisation

Before you start writing you need to know your main characters inside out. Write character studies and profiles of them. The psychiatrist’s couch style questionnaires in some of the Sunday newspaper magazines are a useful way of getting to know a character. Keep a diary written in their ‘voice’. You may want to cut photos of anonymous people out of catalogues and magazines and use them to put a face to your characters and help them come alive. Stick it on the wall next to your computer.

 

WRITING A NOVEL

The first draft

Now, and only now should you think about starting to write your first draft. It usually helps to start at the beginning. The first paragraph is crucial but don’t get too bogged down with it. If you can’t get it right first time carry on in the knowledge you can come back to it when you rewrite.

Set yourself a word target every time you sit down to write and try not to get up until you have met it. Always stop writing for the day at a point where you know what comes next. It makes it easier to get started the next day.

You might want to re-read your work from your last session but don’t go any further back than that. Only rewrite anything which is threatening to throw you off track. Now is not the time to rewrite. Keep writing.

If you do get stuck on one particular scene, move on and go back to it later rather than letting it hold you back.

When you have finished the first draft put it away for as long as possible. You will need a fresh pair of eyes and greater objectivity before rewriting.

Rewriting

When you do start rewriting think of it as if you were renovating a house; there is no point decorating a room until you are sure the foundations and structure are sound.

When rewriting you need to look for any big problems before getting down to smaller alterations. If you can’t see the wood for the trees, use the COPPICE AIDS guide below as a checklist to see where you can improve your writing.

CONFLICT Does the main character want something but there are obstacles in the way? Do they have a problem to solve or some internal conflict to resolve?
OPENING Does it grab your attention, leave you asking questions?
POINT OF VIEW Is it the most effective point of view to tell the story? Is it consistent?
PLOT Beginning, middle, end. Does it keep your interest all the way through?

INDIVIDUAL STYLE Good words, phrases and images. Varied sentence structure.
CHARACTERS Are they characters? Are they believable? Do they provoke strong emotions?
ENDING Is it satisfying? Is it credible? Is there a surprise, a twist in the tail?

ATMOSPHERE Have you created a sense of ‘being there’? Used five senses?
IDEA Is it original, full of potential?

DIALOGUE Does it develop the characters? Does it sound realistic? Does it contain conflict?
SHOW DON’T TELL Have you told the reader how a character feels rather than shown them through character’s eyes?
Rewrite, concentrating on those big issues first. When you have finished read it through again thinking about smaller matters, areas you could cut, improve, line-editing. A good target is to cut ten per cent of your first draft while editing.

Critiques

If you can afford it, get a critique from a literary critique service. You pay to have your work critiqued by professional writers/editors who will give you a written report on your novel. There are many critique services out there, I would recommend The Literary Consultancy.

The Literary Consultancy www.literaryconsultancy.co.uk

When you receive their report back use it a basis to rewrite again.

How do I get my novel published?

Very few publishers accept unsolicited adult fiction manuscripts now. You will be better off getting an agent first.

How do I get an agent?

The Writers’ and Artists Yearbook and the Writer’s Handbook have a list of agents in them. Go through it and pick out agents who deal with the sort of book you have written. Or check in the acknowledgements section in similar style novels. It’s a good idea to pick an agent who is a member of the Association of Authors’ Agents and to avoid those who charge a reading fee or any upfront fee. Follow their preferred method of submission. Often they will ask for an introductory letter, a synopsis and the first three chapters with an SAE. Your manuscript should be typed on one-side of A4 paper only, in double line spacing with wide margins.
Be prepared to wait, be prepared for rejections, be prepared to rewrite.

Writing a synopsis

A synopsis is an overview of your novel, an outline of what happens in your book, what the story is about. It should very simply tell the outline of the plot, avoiding too much detail. It should make clear who the main characters are, where/when it is set and what the theme/premise is. It should not include dialogue or extracts from the story. It should be no more than two sides of A4 paper, less if possible, a dozen paragraphs is ideal.

Will I get rejections?

Yes, almost certainly. Big literary agencies receive more than 13,000 unsolicited manuscripts a year but may take on no more than five authors. But don’t worry, virtually all of the top published authors have been rejected, some of them dozens of times.

Getting a publisher

If you are lucky enough to be taken on by an agent, they will then try to sell your book to a publisher. However, getting an agent is not a guarantee that you will get published.

How much will I earn?

If you are lucky enough to get a publishing deal you are unlikely to be in a financial position to give up the day job. Author earnings have fallen in recent years. A realistic figure for an advance for a first novel is £5,000-£15,000. You will only get royalties if you ‘earn-out’ your advance. If your book sells at £6.99 the publisher and retailer will take most of this, leaving you with around 7.5 per cent of the cover price. Your agent will then take 10-15 per cent of this. You will be left with less than 50p for each book sold so don’t make the mistake of writing a novel to try to make some money! Do it because you simply have to.

Good luck!