I love hearing from my readers and always appreciate it when someone takes the time to write an email or letter to me. I am often asked the same questions, so thought it might be a good idea to list them, and my answers here.
Do you have any advice for wannabe writers?
If you feel the burning desire to write a novel yourself, all I can say is – GO FOR IT! And make sure you’ve got a comfortable chair.
Some people have iron will and amazing self-discipline and can get up two hours early every day in order to write their novel before going off to work. I am not (and never will be) one of those people. What encouraged me to eventually write my first full-length novel was joining a writing evening class where we read each other’s work and gave one another feedback (yikes) – as well as checking in, progress-wise, every week. I no longer had merely my own guilty conscience to answer to if I hadn’t written a new word all week, I had a whole group of people I had to fess up to. Knowing this, and fearing their disapproval, definitely spurred me on.
If there’s no writing group or class near you, there are lots of great internet writing communities you can join. Or try setting yourself realistic weekly goals – and then stick to them. The average novel is 100,000 words so if you aim for 2,000 words a week, that’s a novel in a year. If you push yourself to do 5,000 words a week, you could have a first draft in a matter of months! The hard bit is sitting down in that chair and getting the words out, sentence by sentence, chapter by chapter. Sometimes you simply have to force yourself to keep on writing.
I’ve finished my first draft. Now what?
First of all – hurrah! And huge congratulations. At this point, I like to print out the whole thing and then put it away under my desk, out of sight for a few weeks, and try not to think about it. Get on with your next novel instead!
A bit of distance means that when you go back to your work, you can read it with fresh eyes, and you will see all sorts of things you might not have noticed before. While you read it through, keep in mind a few pertinent questions for every scene. Ask yourself – is this scene driving the plot along? Is this character adding something unique to the story? Does the novel feel balanced, or is it weighed down by a slow middle bit where not much happens?
I try to be completely ruthless in this part of the process. Get yourself a red pen and use it. Cut out any repetition, any dull bits, and read your dialogue aloud, removing each line that don’t sound realistic. Scissor away all the deadwood of the novel that is holding back the narrative. As well as cutting, this is also the time to add in nuances and layers, to give your characters depth and complexity. Add in sensory details to make scenes vivid and alive. And try to end your chapters on a dramatic note so that a reader feels compelled to keep reading.
For me, this is the most important part of writing and absolutely not to be rushed, however desperate you may be to show it off to an agent or editor. It is really worth taking your time over the edit to make it as good as it can be. I could go on tinkering and tweaking for ever with my novels (just ask my poor copy-editors and proofreaders) but there will come a time when you are satisfied that your work is polished and gleaming, and ready to be sent off and judged…
How can I get published?
A really great book to read on this subject is ‘From Pitch to Publication’ by Carole Blake. As a top literary agent herself, she knows what she’s talking about, and guides you through the process concisely and with lots of advice.
The publishing industry has changed a great deal since I started out, but I would still advise anyone to find a literary agent who will represent you and your work. Many editors simply won’t read anything that hasn’t been sent to them by an agent.
Don’t be put off by the fact that agents will take 10-15% of any advance you might receive – they absolutely earn every penny and more. A good agent knows all the editors in the business, and what kind of book they might be looking for at any one time. A good agent can also work with you editorially to hone your novel and discuss how best to pitch it. But it’s not only about getting you an introduction to a publisher and (hopefully) a great deal. My agent works with me on every aspect of the book – she has insightful opinions on the cover treatment and blurb, she will push for better marketing and publicity where possible, and she is always on the end of the phone if I am having a wobble during the writing progress. An agent is your closest ally in the business – so it’s important to really take the time to do your research and investigate who might be right for you.
If you are interested in teaming up with an agent, I recommend a first look in The Writer’s And Artist’s Yearbook (it will be in your nearest library) where all the literary agents are listed, along with a brief description of the kind of authors they are interested in and the fees they charge. You can also find much of this information online. It’s important that you like and trust each other, and that you feel the agent ‘gets’ you and your work.
I am sometimes asked about self-publishing but I’m afraid I know nothing much about this subject, having never ventured down this path myself. Again, there is a lot of good advice online if you feel this may be the way for you. Whichever you decide, good luck!