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BOOK LOVE: The Midwife’s Confession by Diane Chamberlain

Dear Anna,

What I have to tell you is difficult to write, but I know it will be far more difficult for you to hear, and I’m so sorry…

The unfinished letter is the only clue Tara and Emerson have to the reason behind their close friend Noelle’s suicide. Everything they knew about Noelle—her calling as a midwife, her passion for causes, her love for her friends and family—described a woman who embraced life.

Yet there was so much they didn’t know.

With the discovery of the letter and its heartbreaking secret, Noelle’s friends begin to uncover the truth about this complex woman who touched each of their lives—and the life of a desperate stranger—with love and betrayal, compassion and deceit.

This is a story about friendship, fate, and impossible choices, and it had me ignoring everything I should have been doing until I’d finished. The characters and their circumstances were so vivid (I loved the teenage Grace), and the slow unravelling of the chain of secrets was beautifully crafted. I’m looking forward to reading more by Diane Chamberlain.

(Thanks to my friend Jen for the recommendation!)

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Don’t get rejected before they’ve even read a word…

writing (2) 75 dpiPeople who work in book publishing always have a ridiculous amount of reading to get through. I once worked on what is pejoratively termed the ‘slush pile’ in the HarperCollins fiction department, where I would often be the first reader. As such, I would get to decide if the story was worth further consideration by those higher up the chain. There were so many submissions I don’t think I was ever on top of it.

So, when submitting your work, to give yourself a head start you need to make your book stand out. Why does the publisher HAVE to read it? (If you’re not sure, how can they be?) Why do you believe in what you are doing? What is it about this book that warrants the attention of the book-buying public? If you are able to provide an agent or publisher with this kind of information BEFORE they look at it, then – as long as they are enthusiastic, of course – you’re a step ahead.

How can you make a potential agent or publisher want to read a script? It’s a big question, and you should take your time and consider your approach. First and foremost you need to stop thinking like a writer and start thinking like a marketeer. Can you condense your story down into one or two awesome sentences? If you can, you’ve developed a pitch, and depending on the policy of the publisher/agent in question, you can use this to get people interested – either on the phone or via cover letters/emails. I realise this can be scary, as you might get an immediate no. But the pitch will remain important right through to the book-buying stage, because in this frenetically paced market you never have very long to grab anyone’s attention.  Don’t start pitching until you’re ready, as a publisher isn’t going to take very seriously the person who develops a new pitch every few weeks. They want to know you are focused and serious about what you are doing.

Do you know which market you’re aiming for? Have you thought about how your book will compete with others on the shelves? Why is it different? Why will readers pick up your travel book on Rome rather than the Lonely Planet’s? If you can give a publisher answers to these kinds of questions (without them having to ask), you will pique their interest. Otherwise, if such questions come up and you have no reply, you will look naïve.

Look at submissions policies very carefully and use them to your advantage. A script that comes in clean, tidy, correctly formatted according to guidelines, and with a concise covering letter will get more attention than the dog-eared, single-spaced tome with a rambling two-page explanation. Are there small embellishments you can use to draw people’s attention – artwork, for example? Be careful with using unusual fonts – only attempt it if they fit the kind of book you are working on, and remember they must still be easily readable. If you make the presentation too much of a challenge for a publisher, you are shooting yourself in the foot before you’ve begun.

Can you do anything else differently to get people’s attention? Your ploys need to be subtle, as at this stage a busy agent/publisher is doing you a favour by reading your work. When I worked in-house we would get writers ringing up demanding why we hadn’t yet got to their synopsis and outline, and that didn’t go down well. Never mind the writing, who wants to work on publishing a book with a stroppy, argumentative author. If you haven’t heard anything for a while, keep your inquiry courteous. You can remind them why they really should read your book, but be careful how far you push.

The submissions stage is one where books and dreams are made or broken. Success is a combination of skill, perseverance, patience and good fortune (and much more besides) – but the only way the final line is ever drawn is the moment you give up. Good luck!

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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.