I’m so vain, I bet I think that shelf is about me!

26 06 2014

bookshelf
Is it vain? Is it a sin to be proud of your achievements? I go to friends’ houses and see proud displays of the children’s degree certificates, sporting trophies, awful daubs and I wonder if my shelf is viewed as self-promotion, self-obsession or just natural. Should a grown man be proud enough of his achievements to dedicate a shelf or two of a prominent bookcase to his own output?

I don’t think it’s so bad. I am proud and it’s not a sin. Nor is it a ‘vanity bookshelf’ as one journalist once cuttingly called it. I am what I am and what I am is just a writer. I don’t do sport (unless wobbling across Surrey hills trying not to fall over when I can’t loosen the cleats counts), I don’t paint, and education was a long time ago. I write and haven’t done at all badly at it.
I don’t have pictures glad-handing the PM or a B-list celeb on the wall. That puts me one up on some vain sods in my view!

PS Apologies (and credit) to Carly Simon for the title and to Jerry Herman for the steal half way through.






First books – how autobiographical are they?

16 08 2013

First books are autobiographical.

This is something I have always known, both intellectually and anecdotally. The proof sits on the shelves of any bookseller. First novels are where authors pour their naked souls only to edit and rewrite to take some bits back, hide themselves away again, disguise and disfigure to bring new heroes and villains to life.

I have often wondered if I re-read the first novels of each of my series, would I see different facets of the creative mind in each heroine. Does Mrs Vintner hide more darkness than Penny B? Will Mischa give people a view of my lightness of spirit at times?

Or…

Or is the first novel which no-one sees the one where you are most naked? We all have that first book – it may not be finished – it may never have fully left your mind– but we authors all have the first embarrassing secret text where we gave too much and could not edit it enough to hide our true selves from the readers

To quote some advice given in my latest work:

“This is your first novel. There are always autobiographical elements. Don’t worry about it, there has to be. But if you don’t give Mischa her own face, her own voice, she will assume the readers know her as well as you know yourself. You, the writer, are just recording her actions, her thoughts – not your own – no matter how similar you might think she is.”





The blurb – sell yourself in a paragraph!

10 08 2013

A novel’s synopsis is typically expected to be one page long – A4, single spacing sometimes allowed. I’ve seen that some agents and publishers are now looking for the one paragraph synopsis. For me that would be a ‘bah humbug’ moment (see previous blog). But should it be? Can you do an elevator pitch, a Dragon’s Den two minutes, some tell-me-why-I-shouldn’t-kill-you-now final words? In other words, can you quickly justify what you have just spent potentially years putting together? Can you?

The synopsis for a publisher is an art to master so practise on your friends. Then take it one step further because you have the chance to influence another biggie as well!  Assume for a moment that your sample chapters impressed, your synopsis was compelling, your face fitted the current publishing want-list. If you want to live the vision, you can even assume you have an advance in the bank. What else can you do? What else do you need?

How about readers?

If you can do a pitch to sell to a publisher how about having a go at the pitch to sell to the public? You have one paragraph and perhaps a tag line. Think about the back of your book or the flyleaf. What would drag someone in to read your book instead of the new Dan Brown or Booker prize winner? One paragraph. Doesn’t have to tell the ending like your synopsis would – this just has to make your book more interesting than anyone else’s.

Go and stand in the best seller section of Waterstones and read them. Spend hours and just read them. Take notes of what catches your eye and try to ape the style of those that attract you the most. Is it the upbeat sentence endings, the tantalising questions, the possibility of something dark or dirty or kinky or fun? The publisher will know what to write but you should have some control and how better to control than to dictate?





The envelope of doom – part 2

7 08 2013

How do they do it? What do they look for? What makes the next big thing? What do they want to see?

If publishers and agents knew what the next big thing was my guess is they would have hired a ghost writer and already thrown it to the reading wolves. The next big thing isn’t based on a recipe. It isn’t, by definition, formulaic. A sequel can be formulaic, a follow-up can continue a story we know people are interested in – whether messrs Langdon, Potter or Grey – but a first novel has to break new ground to win big.

Most don’t.

First novels can be launched to great fanfare and perhaps they are the Great British Novel awaiting only time to bring awards and accolades to your door. Most aren’t.  Most fit a genre, have a bit of a twist or are penned by an author with potential to produce more and the face to fit on a breakfast telly sofa and pull readers in. Most do OK. Only OK. Some a bit better, some a bit worse, but OK.

But back to the point of this blog. What do they look for? They are looking for you. They want you to have written something good, something readable, saleable, promotable and ultimately, just plain interesting. Write your best, edit it to hell and back, then have friends and family do the same.

If you want specifics on what they look for, you’ve come to the wrong place. Speculation is all very well, it has its place, but why not look at the website, look in one of the Writers’ yearbooks/guides etc. Don’t speculate – do some research. They want to waste their time even less than you want to waste it so DON’T. Give them what they ask for in a format they want to see it. The contents, the story, then has a chance to shine through.

And please do a final spell-check before you send it! I’d be disheartened at finding typos on the first page – your target might not even get to the excellent third sequence before it is on the slush pile!





The envelope of doom!

6 08 2013

So here it is. That time of trial, of testing. The torment of a wait begun.

Your first manuscript, in a big brown envelope. Just three paragraphs, the synopsis, CV, covering letter and self-addressed envelope. A recipe followed, with the secret ingredient being your talent to turn a great story idea into a great story.

You don’t trust the postbox – obviously. Post office only. Main branch, for preference. Registered or just first class?

“Are the contents worth more than £20, sir?”

Stupid question – I always hope so anyway.

Then it’s gone. Vanished. In the system. Flying through the ether with a sparking thread latched back onto your heart.  The one big hope is that you never, ever see that self-addressed envelope again! You hope against hope that those stamps on the SAE never fulfil their potential.

But it is gone from you, to another. It appears on a desk, in a tray, probably with a score of other hopefuls. Whose desk? A name from a website, perhaps a face found on the t’interweb – a kind face, one that beams hope to all who see it. You could marry that face if it smiled back at you. Is it an agent or have you, a new author, dared to go straight to a publisher. You interloper, you!

But it is on the desk, in the office. Waiting a letter-opener, the sigh of a bored reader expecting paste but hoping for diamonds. Third cold-read of the day. Have they had a good night’s sleep? Are they full of caffeine, hyped on sugar? Do they even like the title?

Perhaps I will rename the blog.  Is ‘The envelope of hope!’ more appropriate? I do hope so.





The synopsis

5 08 2013

If I could fit my story into a page I wouldn’t have needed the other 300+ would I? A synopsis! Bah humbug. How the hell does anyone craft a synopsis for the first time?

It’s never that hard actually. I always rant at the request but then fall back on reality.  It should be the easiest thing in the world because most authors explain their latest pet to anyone who will listen – friends, at family gatherings, at parties. Just writing down that normal patter had a synopsis ready to go in half an hour. The elevator pitch!

It wasn’t that hard – but nor was it that easy. The premise is fine, one paragraph, one edit and done. But an author never tells random people the ending. Never reveals the key twists, the characters’ difficult relationships. But a publisher only wants to read three full chapters and then expects to know how the rest of the book develops in only one page more. Completely. Utterly. Conclusively.

That’s usually more tricky. Five pages long. First edit down to four. Then three (and a half, unfortunately).

I mentioned my professional life in a previous blog. Another role with writing at its heart. Reports, reviews, succinct summaries of complex issues for the time-poor. I’d been so busy focussing on my writing life I felt like a Homer ‘Doh!’ moment was appropriate. I stopped looking at my synopsis as a book and saw it as a report to be summarised. Extraneous text vanished, pared to the bone. Whole paragraphs fell beneath my professional sword.

And there it was. A story on a page.

I noticed in my research that one agent was only expecting a paragraph of synopsis. ONE paragraph!

Bah humbug!





Writer’s CV

3 08 2013

I need to be creative. Focused and creative. It’s strange, but I thought this would be easy. I’ve never been asked before but for an upcoming event they want my “writer’s CV”. They asked in the expectation I would have it ready to hand. But I don’t. I’ve never had to do one before.

I remember when I was in the job market, a salary-man, I could craft a mean CV. My friends’ job interview hit rates improved massively when I let my English teacher skills loose to roam across the job experience of the under-qualified.  But this is different. This is about the inner me.

I’ve done it – written it. An unfinished symphony. My writing life (to date only, I hope) on a page. Long on writing experience, long on life experience.

But I ask myself – how would someone short on both fill even a single page? Tell me, dear reader, what makes you interested in reading a new book? Which snippets of a life will draw you beyond the first words of the blurb?

Would their job do it? That the writer has the swearword ‘banker’ on the CV or would you prefer a crusty marine archaeologist or a youthful ballet dancer? Do you laugh out loud and take the book to the till just because the author’s young son amusingly shouted – out of the blue at the swimming pool, say – that he no longer wanted to grow up to be an ice-cream man, but instead an author?

That’s your problem to solve. I think my CV reads well. I’d give me an interview!





That first manuscript

31 07 2013

Then it happens.  Years have passed, hours of solitude beyond measure, living in your own head.  You have tied off the final loose end, your (anti) heroine has achieved her aims, the final fact has been checked against more than one reference source. It’s finished.  A full draft of your first book.  You’ve proof read it again and again and it looks fine.  You know there will be oodles more typos to spot but this is it.  Add the header detail and page numbers, do a final spell check, open the window and set preferences.

Then. Press. Print.

Go boil a kettle – your home printer always takes longer than the one at work or down at the printers.

Then you have it in your hand. Your first manuscript. What the hell do you do now?

I remember doing all that. I printed it. It just sat there on the table I used as a desk back then, with a bulldog clip holding it together.  It was bigger than I’d expected and that was before I printed it single sided for sending off my publisher. I remembered exactly how I felt.

I ignored it. So I could pretend it wasn’t there I put a copy of the newspaper over it. It became a newsprint lump to try to ignore. I was pretending I didn’t have a piece of life, of mind hiding in those pages.

Who to read it first? I didn’t let anyone see it, not even a page. A big part of me was tempted to send it off before I even let my friends read it – is it right that I should prefer scorn and rejection from a stranger than from those closest to me?

But it wasn’t mine any more. That’s the point. Give birth and let it find its own place in the world. It really was an education, long sought.





Pigeonholing

29 07 2013

Take a book.  A new book by an untried author.  I read one the other day – I won’t give away the title now because it still needs a bit of work – let’s give it a pen-name “ GW”. GW is a book that could be slotted into a number of different genres, sitting in the gray borders of thriller, crime, psychological suspense.  But for an agent or a publisher it is useful to package it up for a specific market.  Should a new author be worried about this?  Should he (for it is a he) look at the finished whole and think it needs improving so it better fits into the world’s view or, more to the point, finds the right shelf in Waterstones?

If he is writing just for fun, for himself, then no!  If he’s written the book he wanted to write then the world can like it or lump it!  However, if he is writing for profit, for recognition, for accolades then he should listen to all the professional advice he can get.  The key word there is professional.  He’s been hot-housed with that novel for years, he’s pruned it, nurtured it, loved it as much as any pigeon-fancier has his birds. Can he see what an outsider sees, does he have the experience to see what else can be done to give it a better start in life? 

Professionally recommended edits do not detract from his worth as a writer.  Yes, the book may be different as a result but it will hit the audience harder from a clearer direction and achieve its results.  If he wants to retain a ‘director’s cut’ in his cloud he can always do a retrospective on the 20th anniversary of publication but for now he should be grateful that there’s airspace for his pet to thrive within.