This is a longread. Grab your chai, your notebook and settle down for this lovely detailed piece on the process of writing and getting published.
|Series on creative writing for the NEW INDIAN EXPRESS & SUNDAY STANDARD (2011)
ON WRITING 1
DO YOU HAVE IT IN YOU?
How I’ve wanted this column: a fortnightly capsule of information that de-mystifies the business of writing and describes the journey while also offering advice.
At a creative writing lecture in Delhi University, I was asked by one anxious lad, ‘But ma’am, how do I know that I have what it takes?’ I told him about my own first stirrings of recognition. As a Malayali growing up in Delhi, the summer holidays usually involved being dragged to Kerala to spend time with my grandparents who lived in a house so remote you could only get to it by boat. While my brother prepared for our enforced isolation by packing his suitcase full of books, I took pen, paper and a stack of envelopes and aerogrammes, those relics of our pre-internet past.
Sitting on the steps of the kolam, I would proceed to write letter after letter to my friends back in Delhi, fat missives that would take all of two weeks to reach and probably never be replied to. But that didn’t matter. It was not in anticipation of replies that I wrote those letters, it wasn’t even because I thought my very city-fied friends would be impressed by overblown descriptions of dragon flies hovering over the waters of a kolam. I was writing simply because I wanted to write. That was the joy.
I’m afraid this is the kind of madness required to be an author – it’s both an overwhelming urge to write, despite there seeming to be no particular reward, monetary or otherwise, and an ability to write, despite all kinds of odds conspiring to keep you away from it.
An illustration of the latter came in when I was living and working in London, with no domestic or baby-sitting help. I’d somehow lurched through three hundred pages of a manuscript and had only a small section left. Which was when the Christmas holidays rolled around. This was generally a time of both stress and jollity due to the rambunctious full-time presence of my daughter (a child with special needs and an extremely short fuse) and my husband (a fan of very loud rock music). But, while pandemonium raged around me, I wrote. Through the cacophony of the Foo Fighters and incessant demands for cake/coke/crisps/toilet/playground, I wrote. When maternal and spousal duties intervened, I did everything that needed to be done with one eye on the clock, waiting for the world around me to finally, please, go to sleep.
And it was on one such magical night, with London’s stars shining into my window, that I raced through the final few pages of what was to become my debut novel, fingers flying over the keyboard, heart thumping as though in love.
ON WRITING 2
CAN CREATIVE WRITING BE TAUGHT?
So here’s my second column to debunk the myths that surround getting published. The last dealt with recognizing that writerly bug, if indeed it lurks within you, but this time I’ll address a more basic question. One I’m asked every time I deliver a lecture on creative writing. Is this an art that can be taught at all? Or is writing – like musical ability, say, or an aptitude for mathematics – a talent that one is born with?
I recall Khushwant Singh, a cherished long-time supporter of my own writing, telling me once to never forget to be grateful for this gift. ‘It’s an ability one is born with,’ he said, ‘and I am reminded of this every time I read a bad manuscript. It is either something one can do or something one should never, ever foist on other people.’ I laughed – one laughs a lot in Khushwant’s living room, so effortless is his own gift for telling stories. Only later, though, did I reflect on what Khushwant had said, finding myself in partial agreement.
I wouldn’t presume to have a definitive view but my suspicion is that, while writing ability is indeed a gift, it is one that cannot help but benefit from some tutoring. Therefore, seeking guidance would be wise, but only if you have what it takes to be a writer in the first place. Kate Pullinger, the award-winning Canadian novelist who also teaches and mentors aspiring authors, says: ‘Writing is not a state of being but an art, a craft, a set of technical skills’. Note her use of the words ‘art’ and ‘craft’ in the same sentence.
Where these technical skills are most crucial is in the tricky business of editing. Producing what I call ‘wordage’ is the easy bit to most writers (and, yes, the resemblance to ‘garbage’ is deliberate for, sad to say, much of a first draft does often get consigned to a bin). It’s crafting that wordage into a cohesive and well-structured form that will make for a good book. Think of it like a potter and his lump of clay.
During one of our many head-locking sessions, my editor in the UK – while acknowledging that she herself could never write a book – once declared that there was not a single manuscript that had not been vastly improved by editing. A few rare (and usually experienced) authors get adept at doing this themselves but most rely on their editors to take that long view which Salman Rushdie referred to as ‘stepping out of the frame in order to see the picture better’.
Invariably, I finish the first draft of a manuscript convinced that it is perfect and ready to go to press straightaway. Then I show it to my agent, or one of my ‘honest readers’ (more on that special breed of collaborator in a future column), and find myself reeling from their feedback, however constructive the criticism. It’s always upsetting to have one’s precious baby scoffed at, especially on its first outing into the world.
But the role played by these early readers is crucial because it is their feedback that begins the mental process of editing. Of course, one may be forgiven for muttering, ‘Well, how come they’ve never written a book then.’ But, once I can bear to look at the manuscript again, this time seeing it through the lens of someone less involved with it, the imperfections inevitably become apparent.
Thus begins the careful polishing that will allow the gems to shine through.
ON WRITING 3
PREPARING TO WRITE
Of all the tips I offer people who dream of becoming an author, this one’s undoubtedly the nicest. If your dream is to get published, what’s the most important preparation you can give yourself?
To read, of course.
Sounds easy, doesn’t it? And much of it is: not just easy but about the best job a book-lover can be tasked with. However, this is when my tone starts getting hectoring in those creative writing lectures I sometimes give young aspiring writers in colleges and bookshops. ‘Don’t read lazily,’ I command, sounding every bit the spoilsport I used to think my father was. ‘But think when you read. Observe what the author is doing by using a certain turn of phrase. Or how (s)he may be manipulating your responses. Has the novelist deliberately given you a certain bit of information? If so, how does that decision help pack a stronger emotional punch fifty pages later?’
Even if you have not enjoyed a book, it’s worth questioning why that was the case. For it is in this process of deliberation and analysis that you will begin to form your own future authorly decisions: the genre to pick, the style to employ, the language and voice to use.
When I say this, I hopefully do not need to stress the dangers of plagiarism. This is not about copying ideas but about using other people’s ideas to develop one that is carefully considered, studied and eventually transformed into something unique and entirely your own.
If you’re a fiction writer, examine other forms of story-telling too. Movies and plays and even television. Established authors do this too, often with relief and pleasure, when they sense that their literary well-spring needs replenishing. An anthology called ‘Popcorn Essayists’, to which I recently contributed, has a brilliant essay comparing the languages of film and prose by fellow novelist Kamila Shamsie in which she talks of a fallow period in her writing life when she turned to films. In her own words: ‘So many years of placing the novel at the centre of my life meant I was unable to see its outline. I needed to look at the contrast before I could see the thing itself.’
Incredibly, films and books aside, there’s even more fun to be had during this preparation period because, among other blissful non-activities that fall under Totally Legitimate Authorly Behaviour, are dreaming and thinking. Or what Stephen King in his book on writing describes as his ‘boys in the basement’; that steady hum of mental activity whereby you observe and reflect and store away all sorts of material that will go into your book.
Now, which other profession in the world can claim to have such a pleasurable training period, I ask you? Watch out, however, for having so much fun that you end up staying a trainee all your life because all of the above can be carried out alongside the process of writing too. There’s really no point waiting once an idea starts thrusting away inside you.
I try not to feel impatient with people who say they will start writing once they get that new laptop or desk or similar sundry possession generally perceived as an important writerly accoutrement. If there’s a good story waiting to be told, for heaven’s sake, get on with telling it. Waste no time as there really is only a very limited fund of stories available (seven, precisely, as my agent mournfully pronounced once) and all those have already either been told or are being furiously scrawled in some distant basement even while you’re still gazing dreamily at those irresistible gizmos in the shops.
As a seven-book veteran, I get asked this question a lot. ‘Where on earth does one find material to fill a whole book?’ In my last column, I mentioned my agent’s comment about there being only seven stories in the world. ‘They’ve all been told before,’ she said in a particularly down-beat conversation, ‘and all you writers are doing is hashing and re-hashing the whole time.’ Then she brightened up. ‘The thing to do then is re-hash as bloody well as you can.’
I think I had already developed a sense of this when I studied Greek mythology in college. Every single big human experience had already been not just written about but done to death: love, loss, grief, jealousy, incest, adultery, you name it and there’s already a gripping yarn on the theme written by someone called either Homer or Vyasa.
Yet, far be it for me to suggest that originality is dead. All it takes is to pick up a book like ‘Atonement’ or ‘Disgrace’ to know that the breed of great story-tellers did not, thank goodness, die out in the classical age. More excitingly, surely future writers are being gestated in precious little book-lined chrysalises around the world at this very moment.
So it is to them – young aspiring writers who will hopefully entertain me in my dotage – that I say: live life and embrace all your experiences. For that is where your best stories will come from.
I did not always know this. There was a time when my resume used to embarrass me terribly. Whenever I applied for a job, I worried that potential employees would eye askance the list of scattered and disparate things I’d done in my rather turbulent life. It was only much later, once I’d started to write, that I began to feel more grateful for what I now refer to my ‘Writer’s CV’. I had no idea then but, by the sheer act of stumbling through life’s ups and downs, I was inadvertently gathering together a reservoir of experiences that were to become a useful fund of stories. I wish no misfortune on anyone but it is only as you weep or ache or fill up with joy that you begin to understand the emotions needed to bring your book to life.
Not that every story needs to be autobiographical necessarily. Nor does every book have to be based on a real experience. But, as writer Julia Bell who teaches creative writing at the University of East Anglia, says: ‘Good writers are magpies and they steal huge amounts of general knowledge in order to feather the nests of their writing’.
People imagine wrongly that a writer needs to closet herself away, or be banished to a lonely hill-side, in order to write. Of course, isolation can assist the discipline of writing once the manuscript starts to grow. But, till then, you cannot shut yourself away from life’s rich offerings if you want to be able to write about them.
Instead, observe people all the time, listen to their conversations, eavesdrop shamelessly and store up interesting anecdotes and dialogues. This will put the meat on the bones of your future characters, bringing them to life and making them genuinely memorable. Then allow them to tell their own stories.
ON WRITING 5
CHOOSING A GENRE
By and large, it would seem to make sense to write the kind of book that you have yourself enjoyed as a reader. Not the same book, mind (a previous column has already traversed the tricky matter of plagiarism), but something borne of it for not only would you, as a reader, have understood and researched the genre by default, you’re far more likely to do a better job of ‘relaxing’ into the kind of writing required by your chosen genre if you’re a natural fan of it.
Of course, there are thankfully no straitjackets in this world and many writers have slipped from one sort of genre into another, although some use the safety of pseudonyms to do so. The examples of Lewis Carroll and George Orwell are well known, less so Joanna Trollope who, though best known for her popular fiction stories of contemporary Britain, has a certain following for the historical novels she writes under the name of Caroline Harvey.
What is important to note, however, is that one cannot slip from one genre to another within one book. Don’t laugh – I’ve judged competitions in which entrants don’t seem to have decided which genre they want to write in, doing a weird sideways shift mid-stream. Unless you’re the world’s most innovative creative thinker, this is not a clever thing to do as all that will happen in trying to effect such a trick is that you will flounder and drown, your nascent literary career sinking like a stone to the bottom of publishing’s ruthlessly fast-flowing river.
Yes, the genres can overlap sometimes – for instance, you can have a book of crime fiction that is also extremely literary (think Graham Greene). But what you cannot have is a book that starts off as standard crime fiction and suddenly decides to go all literary on the reader somewhere along the way.
Broadly, the choices in fiction lie between ‘commercial’ and ‘literary’ although all sorts of delights fall under these two umbrellas: crime, thrillers, chick-lit, lad-lit, horror, sci-fi, romances, historical novels, sagas …
Again broadly, the techniques employed within each sub-genre are different, although these too are, thankfully, interchangeable up to a point. So, crime fiction relies heavily on plot and action, sci-fi focuses on imagination and landscape, lit-fic depends almost wholly on style and characterization and chick-lit on humour and romance. Which, confusingly perhaps, is not to say that a lit-fic book cannot contain humour or crime fiction must not be stylish. These are merely the general ground rules and – whenever I’m banging on about this at one of my creative writing lectures – I’m always careful to maintain that some very gifted writer out there might go out and re-write the rule book completely. I personally await that day with pleasure but, in the meantime, it’s best to follow literature’s tried and tested methods.
Whatever the genre, there’s one key requirement for any work of fiction – and that is a good story. Very occasionally, the sheer brilliance of style is sufficient to carry a reader through but, generally, this talent is better suited to poetry and prose rather than fiction. I tell aspiring writers to think of a tag-line that will describe their story when journalists come calling and this, in all likelihood, will be that all-important kernel or plot. A book has to become a temporary ‘best friend’ to its reader and, without a cracking story, it will almost certainly struggle to do so.
ON WRITING 6
I find that this word is much misunderstood by non-writers, people invariably thinking you must be a scientist of some sort if you are researching something. But, in the context of creative wiring, ‘research’ essentially means that you are trying in different ways to live the life of your characters and find out as much about them as you possibly can. So, if your protagonist is a cardiac surgeon, say, you really do need to shadow a cardiac surgeon or at least ask a lot of questions about the profession to ensure that your cardiac surgeon does not go and do something that would be totally unthinkable to his many real-life ‘colleagues’ who may read your book and be consumed with hilarity.
I know of writers who even do mini-biographies of their characters before writing their novels but I must admit that sounds too much like hard work to me. I had considered doing it at one point but, seeing that I didn’t need to have four sheets of A4 paper listing the traits of friends or family members to feel I knew them well, I felt I could work the same way with my characters too.
The only time no one seemed puzzled about my research trips was when I was writing my historical fiction book, ‘Rani’. Even my boss stopped arguing and signed my request for a month’s leave when I said that it would take weeks to wade through the seven miles of filing cabinets that the British Library purportedly maintained on the 1857 uprising. Perhaps it’s due to the respect generally enjoyed by academia but spending long hours in a library is considered laudable behaviour on a novelist’s part while learning Bharatnatyam because a character is a classical dancer is plain old quirky.
Of course, a month into my research, I was drowning in archival material: letters, khureetas, official documents, grainy old photographs … it was all very exciting but also overwhelming. And I had absolutely no idea where to begin translating all that into a readable novel. Luckily, I remembered something I’d read once about historical fiction. ‘Lock away all your research into a cupboard before you sit down to write!’ the article had exhorted. In capital letters, I think. The point being that a novelist would, in all likelihood, produce a Very Boring Book if they used it to showcase every bit of material that they had uncovered. And so it was with a sense of immense relief that I shoved all my research aside to begin writing ‘Rani’. Enough knowledge about the Rani of Jhansi had filtered into my brain to allow me to tell her story and I could always sneak a peek into that mental cupboard/Word document if I needed to check any dates or details.
Of course, there were moments of frustration. I’d learnt everything there was to know about the food habits of the 19th century Peshwa court. But, unless I spun out a totally gratuitous feast scene, there was no narrative reason for this information to be in the book. And so – after a protracted struggle with myself – I reluctantly binned that source journal, very sulkily accepting that no one would ever know of the hours I’d spent reading it.
But the role of research is just that – to educate the novelist up to the point that she does not make any glaring errors and to help illuminate the world she is describing. The information that does get passed on to the reader should be fed delicately into the novel, trickling into the interstices of the story, like water giving life to plants.
ON WRITING 7
There is no standard craft. Many writers rely on the forgiving nature of computers and others swear they cannot order their thoughts if not writing long-hand. Some lavish years on a single work and others, in unguarded moments, will admit that they finished a first draft in three months. An ex-colleague who wrote detective novels in his spare time once told me that his bedroom wall was covered in post-it notes that he spent many happy hours moving around depending on the way his plot was shaping up. And he never bothered to plan an ending, convinced it would appear before him by the time he had reached his last post-it. Conversely, Joanna Trollope, the queen of popular fiction in Britain, said recently at the Hay festival that she would not dream of starting a book without having a very good idea of how it was going to end.
What works for me is to have a plan of sorts before I start writing, lest I ramble on forever without getting anywhere. But I give myself permission to depart from this whenever necessary, which allows me to take off in all sorts of unforeseen directions; thrilling flights of fancy that can sometimes land me in places that I would have never considered at the planning stage.
It’s probably irritating to hear writers make this process sound so mystical. However, when I heard Vikram Seth say that he too allowed himself to be led by his characters, I felt both kinship and relief. There will be more on this when we come to characterization but every author knows that, as a character grows and develops in a book, he starts to take on a mind of his own. Seriously. There’s nothing mystical about it because, once a character has certain traits, it is those traits and not the novelist (who plays master-puppeteer only upto a point) that will make him take his future decisions. This is why a narrative that is character-driven is so much more convincing than those that rely on outside events and coincidences.
In intricate, multi-character novels, it is important to keep tabs on the points of view of different characters. POVs can (and should) change – just don’t assume too much knowledge on the part of the reader who will be terribly confused if you end up using too many pronouns. Also keep tabs on accidentally shifting tenses which can work well only if it’s a deliberate ploy to move time-frames around. And watch out for disappearing characters! I remember finishing a book once that had conferred the most satisfying ending on the protagonist but I was plagued for weeks afterwards over the unknown fate of some minor character that had not been resolved at all.
It’s best to resign yourself to at least three drafts before being able to show your manuscript around. Get the hard graft done first; what a previous column has already termed the ‘wordage’. Never mind how unreadable. No one else is ever going to lay eyes on this, remember. Draft 1 is your pact with yourself, so try to enjoy its creation as much as possible. Turn off the word count. Nothing can be more defeating than knowing you’ve only moved forward by a few hundred words after a whole day’s effort. The important thing is to keep on at it, one word at a time. Bad writing can be improved and polished but a blank page is every writer’s worst nightmare.
How can I stress the importance of well-rounded and credible characters in fiction? In the end (arguably), it is the people walking around inside books that lift these compact bits of bound and printed paper into becoming possessions treasured forever. Even the best stylists and story-tellers eventually need to have created characters that linger in the mind long after the last page is turned and the covers snapped shut.
They don’t all have to be towering figures. As a general rule, interesting fiction is either when extraordinary events happen to ordinary people or ordinary events happen to extraordinary people. But where do they come from – the Elizabeth Bennetts and Lata Mehras and Shylocks? Authors who claim to have created characters completely from their imaginations are, deliberately or not, being a bit disingenuous. Yes, of course, characters should be fictional (unless you like having lawsuits flying your way) but the best ones are created when a writer is, knowingly or unknowingly, observing and noting and filing away in his/her mental bank the whole business of what people look like, how they talk and comport themselves, the kind of tics and quirks they have and, of course, the characteristics that make them uniquely themselves. Then, rather like a kaleidoscope, the author takes all these disparate elements and shakes them about a bit before creating a fictional ‘person’ who is himself unique and unforgettable. This calls for imagination, especially when really monstrous characters, like Hannibal Lector, are created and, whenever I come across one such, I imagine what fun the author must have had in giving free rein to his worst nightmares.
People ask me all the time if this character or that is autobiographical, or an alter-ego of some sort, and the answer (even where it comes to Janu, my most openly autobiographical character) must sound very wishy-washy when I say, ‘Well, yes and no’. Can anyone have put it better than Milan Kundera: ‘The characters in my novels are my own unrealized possibilities. That is why I am equally fond of them and equally horrified by them.’
Now, in endowing characters with all those little quirks, it’s all too easy to slip into caricature which is best avoided unless there is good (generally, comic) reason for this. It’s also worth remembering how rarely one meets uni-dimensional types in real life, such as ‘the underworld don’ or ‘the whore with a heart of gold’. Such traps, set for us by numerous Bollywood films, must be avoided in novels. However, now that we all know about those compulsory three drafts, flat characters are permissible in Draft 1, as long as they are completely fleshed out by the final version. It’s best not to fill in every last bit of colour, however. Some things actually do benefit by being left to the readers’ imagination for it is into the spaces left by the unspoken that you allow readers to bring in their own experiences.
Good dialogue is crucial to creating characters so eavesdrop shamelessly on all the conversations going on around you and please note, for heaven’s sake, that nobody, nobody, speaks in paragraphs. It’s also very important to be true to one’s characters. So if, for instance, one of them is a hard-drinking, tough-talking man, his language probably needs scattering with profanity to be realistic. Even if your mother has brought you up to never, ever use bad language, this would be a good time to make an exception and start having fun using expletives like never before. Sorry mum!
STYLE, PLACE & VOICE
Like a shopper in a store, you can choose your writing style or, like a fashion designer, even create one all of your own. You can be all minimalist and pared down, like Hemingway, that master of concision, or overblown and heavily descriptive like Arundhati Roy in her stunning ‘God of Small Things’. Perhaps even go crazy with the magic realism that Salman Rushdie popularized so effectively. There will be different tranches of readers who will enjoy each of these styles and, seeing that you’re never going to be able to please all readers all the time, you may as well choose what you want to be.
Best of all, you can change your style with each new book. A worthy exercise as different stories do call for different voices and styles that a skilled writer will pull off with ease. Peter Carey, writer of numerous fine novels, adopted a dense vernacular style voice, poor in grammar and punctuation and lacking commas altogether, to tell in first person the story of the notorious criminal Ned Kelly in ‘The True History of the Kelly gang’. Unusual and difficult and totally unlike any of Carey’s previous works, this book went on to win Carey his second Booker, and the Commonwealth Prize too.
By and large, the style of writing that’s currently in vogue in the British and American literary establishments (I’m talking about those all-important agents and commissioning editors here) is a simple and straightforward one which, when employed skillfully, can be extremely evocative.
As with characters’ back-stories, it’s useful to set the scene or give the reader an idea of where the action is taking place but do go easy where it comes to descriptions. Less is definitely more in this matter. Unless you are a master writer, few editors want to see page after page of adjective-laden prose where a few well-chosen words or a really clever and original metaphor will do the job just as well.
One of the best examples of a seemingly effortless creation of atmosphere lie in the first few pages of ‘The Great Gatsby’, where, with a few deft strokes, we find ourselves in a prosperous house on the East Coast of America, with an expanse of green lawn running down to the sea, a ‘snub-nosed motor-boat that bumped the tide off-shore’ and ‘a line of French windows, glowing with reflected gold and wide open to the warm windy afternoon.’ No fancy words but, by the time we glimpse the shadow of Gatsby standing in the dark and ‘regarding the silver pepper of the stars’, we have a clear sense of not just location but landscape, history, community and character too.
Historical fiction writers need to work even harder to create that sense of place and time. When I wrote ‘Rani’, I had to be wary not just of inadvertently having Rani Lakshmibai stroll into a room and flick the light switches on, but had also to avoid expressions like ‘the dunes stretched around her like an endless brown sea’ simply because Lakshmibai, as a girl brought up on the plains, would most likely have never laid eyes on the sea. Noisy, crowded modern day Jhansi was nothing like the elegant city Lakshmibai ruled over but I took heart from that master of historical fiction, Robert Harris, who – when writing ‘Pompeii’ – pointed out that, even back in Roman times, it was the same sun that shone and the same sea that sparkled beneath.
ON WRITING 10
You are coming up now to the most important and – to me – most exciting part of the process. The story is done, the cast of characters (albeit a little flat) all in place, and the manuscript flabby with fat. As you would by now have very likely spent many months beavering away at this project, I would highly recommend a holiday. I don’t necessarily mean, treat yourself to some place nice because, as a born writer, the very process of writing Draft 1 would have been your best trip away! But I do mean, in all seriousness, that it’s well worth taking time away from the manuscript so that, by the time you return to it, you come to it as fresh as you possibly can and therefore as close in attitude as the typical reader. Use your break to do things that take you mentally as far away from your story and characters as possible and for as long as you can bear it.
Then sit down and re-read the whole thing with a red pen in hand and as hard a heart as you can manage. Whenever you find yourself speed-reading or skipping a para, it’s a good sign that it needs excising. As I do my writing on a computer, I tend to save all the bits I remove into a separate folder on a ‘you never know’ basis. Occasionally, this has paid off with deleted bits coming in handy elsewhere in the manuscript, one even turning into a short story for a glossy magazine a whole year later!
The main job in Drafts 2 and 3 is to cut ruthlessly, to remove all that needless ‘show offy’ research that plays no real part in the story, to look out for changing POVs and disappearing characters and sub-plots that trail off without conclusion. Check every little bit of sloppy grammar and punctuation and remove all those irritating adjectives and adverbs. Lazy prose and tired old metaphors must come out too, as also repeating words, unless they are a character’s tic.
It isn’t all about removal. Often Draft 2 is when a great number of gems get added too as this process is a lot less frantic than the crazy ‘wordage production’ of Draft 1 (perhaps that’s what Wordworth was referring to when he talked of ‘emotion recollected in tranquility’). It is, in fact, while finishing Draft 2 that I often write the beginning of the book because, with the middle and ending now firmly in place, I’m in a much stronger position to create a really punchy beginning that will hopefully suck the reader right in.
It is while you are working on Drafts 2 and 3, that your first outside ‘readers’ can be brought into play too. Some writers use book groups although I have always shied away from these as, I suspect, they tend to be a little over-earnest and end up contributing too much; this is a confusing time for even experienced authors and it is all too easy to get clogged up with too much well-meaning advice. Equally, it would be wise to refrain from asking boyfriend/girlfriend/anyone with a vested interest in making you ‘feel good’. What you need your reader to be is an honest friend and a voracious reader and, if he/she is has a PhD in Literature, that would sure be a handy extra qualification too.
ON WRITING 11
You’re now on the home straight of your marathon and, as you approach the finish line, you need to think up a really good sound-bite to describe the book you’re writing. Now rehearse it for all those occasions when someone asks you what your book is about. This question will come to you both pre and post publication and, if on being asked, you begin to ramble aimlessly, humming and hawing and saying things like, ‘It’s not about much really, just the story of an ordinary guy … a bit like me, you know …’ you will see your listener’s face glaze over in instant boredom and, not only have you just lost your first sale, you will soon find your own confidence begin to shrink and wither away. And confidence is what you will need oodles of as you start approaching literary agents to help you sell your book.
If your big sister isn’t a famous author and you don’t have a million writer friends (which is true of most potential writers and certainly was of me) then look up the Writer’s Handbook for all sorts of terrific advice on locating an agent and, subsequently, a publisher. There are now many variations of the WH, with similar self-explanatory names, available in all libraries and bookshops. To choose an agent, think of the kinds of books that yours most resembles, locate the agent(s) who represented these books and try approaching them first with an old-fashioned postal submission.
This, typically, comprises three sample chapters (choose the best ones, not necessarily the first three or even contiguous ones), a brief synopsis (no more than two A4 pages) and a covering letter that tells them about you. Even if you are Miss India, please do not send a photograph. Instead, elaborate on anything that poses as a writing career/interest (a track record in magazine, print journalism or script writing is often hugely advantageous here). Also include an SAE if you are rejected and want your pack returned for the next agent on your list. Most good agents refuse to read emailed manuscripts but I can assure you that all submissions do get looked at.
It is the quality of the manuscript that will do most of the speaking but the covering letter is important too. Your deep insight into human nature (which, in fact, has helped you create your unique bunch of life-like and engaging characters) should be used in understanding what it is that agents need to hear from you. Sell yourself and your book as interestingly as possible – without showing off and while being as honest as possible – and please don’t describe yourself as the next Hemingway or Shakespeare, you’ll only have agents falling on the floor in paroxysms of mirth. However, if you’ve written a good book (which by now, of course, you have), you do need to let them know this in as many subtle and unusual ways as possible.
Remember, all agents are always on the look-out for the Next Big Thing so don’t be too shy. That NBT could well be you, and I certainly hope it is, not least so that my columns have not all been hot air dissipating in the wind. Do let me know when you get that phone call/email/bunch of flowers from a publisher keen to court you. It will be one of the best moments of your life.
I wish you lots and lots of luck.