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On pursuing publication

Book pages 1This blog also appeared on the Random House ‘Random Blogs’ website on 9th April 2010

I was recently asked advice on how to become a published writer.

Here’s my take on what it takes:

Originality
In general, the more original your concept, the better. But originality must still be able to be placed within the market. Sometimes what’s original to one person can be just a bit too way out to the next reader, so don’t go too far. Alternatively, you may want to follow a trend – vampires, anyone? – but you still need an original take on it. And you need to get the timing right, so the market isn’t oversaturated by the time you finish your book.

Determination
You have to really want to succeed, be prepared for knockbacks, not get bogged down in them but use them to make you stronger.

Stamina
First of all to finish the book. An enormous feat. Then to go over and over it yourself, figuring out how you can make it better. Then to allow other people to do the same.

Enthusiasm
To learn from those who have been there. Listen to published writers. They can give you so many ideas, and to hear them talk is often inspirational. No one begins life as a published writer, they were all once in unpublished shoes, without exception. Read lots of books. They all have something to inspire you – even if it’s only, ‘I could do better than this!’

Listening skills
Listen to critique. While it’s great to wholly believe in what you have written, it’s also good to remember that your readers might just have a point. Try to look dispassionately at your writing, and pay particular attention if you hear the same comment more than once, even if it’s not what you want to hear.

Insight
Put yourself in a busy publisher’s shoes. They have thirty manuscripts. Four meetings that morning. Which should they pick up? I can guarantee you that it will usually be the one sent with a bit of razzmatazz from an agent. So then perhaps you should find an agent. If you decide to go this route, put yourself in their shoes. They have thirty manuscripts. Four meetings that morning. Which should they pick up? The one that’s double-line spaced, interestingly presented, with a quick-to-grasp concept. And a covering letter that stands out. From someone who phoned or emailed first with a great, succinct pitch (although do check what type of contact each agent prefers before doing this)? Or the single-spaced scruffy sheaf of papers, appended to a meandering cover letter, from a person they’ve never heard of or from. I know which I would choose.

And finally: Passion
For the written word. For writing for writing’s sake, not just for publishing’s sake. Because that joy and commitment will be immediately recognisable to the reader, and there is little more compelling than that.

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Your editor is on your side

Book pages 2This blog also appeared on the Random House ‘Random Blogs’ website on 6th April 2010

It is always interesting to see how writers respond to editorial guidance. Some are completely open to suggestions, others are not, and there’s a third category who seem to be keen for a critique, but then either don’t like the reality, or don’t seem to alter anything much as a result. What many writers appear to get stuck on is the ‘Well, I like it’, or ‘It has to happen because…’ response. A writer becomes so attached to a piece of writing, or a certain event in their plot, that they will hold on to it come hell or high water. But I believe that the more malleable you see your work, right up to the point it becomes set in print, then the more likely you are to create a better book. This doesn’t mean you have to follow any or all editorial suggestions, because ultimately, and quite rightly, the author has the final say. However, it is worth remembering that editors are there to help you produce the best finished product you can, not to ruin your treasured script! Therefore their comments should not be dismissed too lightly.

That’s the theory, anyway, coming from an editor’s perspective. But how did I go as a writer? Well, I had this experience with Come Back to Me. The book had a prologue, which was the very first thing I wrote for the novel, and I loved it. Every time I reread the prologue, it made me think that maybe, just maybe, I could get this thing published. So when the script came back with a big pencil line streaking across the first page, I did have a bit of a gulp. And, if I hadn’t had an editing background, I would have probably argued passionately for it to remain – because I loved it. However, the thing is, while I felt it was a fine piece of writing, it interfered with something more important: it delayed the real start to my story. So when I’d had a few minutes to think about it, I knew the editor was right. The prologue was a personally beloved part of an earlier draft, but it didn’t belong in the finished piece. So out it went. And the book is better for it.