Conflict-averse protagonists

It’s been a little while since I wrote about my own writing – sadly that’s because I haven’t been doing a huge amount of it. I’ll get back in the saddle soon I’m sure.

One of the problems is that I’m a little stuck in all of my usual go-to projects, and I don’t want to start something new as I’ve got so many juicy (albeit stalled) things under way already.

I can’t remember what I last posted about my novel A Calling-on Song so I’ll do a quick catch-up: I had it all nice and finished, sent it off to agents with no luck; I paid for a professional critique from one of the market leaders in such things; feedback was very useful and identified a few things which I’d been sort-of aware of and hoped had been buried beneath awesomeness.

The main issue highlighted was my main character, Robin. He still came across as too passive or stand-off-ish. One of the things this meant was that it’s unbelievable that the people who tag along with him and lend assistance would actually bother. This stems from the very initial draft and, rather than pluck the problem out and solve it, I wrote around it. I came up with motivations and reasons to excuse it all that fitted neatly into the narrative. Four drafts on and it’s much more daunting to tackle!

In the mornings before work I watch 20 minutes of a TV show. Over the years its been everything from an episode of The Simpsons or Friends to a smidge of The Wire to a variety of costume dramas. Right now I’m part way through a rewatch of Pushing Daisies, half-episode at a time. If you haven’t seen it I can’t recommend it highly enough – it’s not a big commitment as there were only 2 relatively short series. Just like Firefly it left me wanting much more, and just like Firefly it’s excellent.

The general premise is that the MC, a piemaker by trade, has the power to bring anything back to life with a touch. A second touch will permanently kill what was brought back. If something or someone is brought back for more than 60 seconds then something else close by will die in its place. He uses the power to help a private detective solve murders (obviously). The whole tone borrows very heavily from Amelie and it’s a lovely, romantic, funny and touching confection.

Anyway, the reason I bring it up is that the MC is very risk-averse, both physically and emotionally. He is stand-off-ish and often reactive rather than proactive. He wants, by and large, a normal life and to be left alone. And it works very well. This desire for a smooth ride causes tension among the other characters and, due to his use of his power, leads to secrets and intrigue. The characters that surround him are all very proactive, from the private detective starting new cases to the MC’s brought-back-to-life childhood sweetheart who wants to make the most of her new lease of life.

I’ve tried for a similar set up – my MC keeps the causes of some of his strange behaviour to himself, hoping his life will return to normal. Around him friends and colleagues poke and prod and investigate and suppose as they try to help or further their own agendas (or both). 

So why isn’t it working for me? 

A couple of considerations: maybe the critiquer is ‘wrong’. This is a dangerous door to open – disregarding what someone thinks of my novel is not something I intend to do, particularly if they’re a professional in the field! And it’s something I was deep down aware of to boot!

Perhaps its down to likeability? Despite his stand-off-ishness The Piemaker is very likeable thanks to a combination of both the script and performance. I may need to work on my MC, as I don’t have a top actor to rely on…

Another consideration is that the viewer doesn’t solely follow the Piemaker in Pushing Daisies. My novel is 3rd person, but we only follow the MC. Is this too much of a halfway house? Maybe committing to 1st person or pulling the ‘camera’ back to follow other characters would bring the dynamic that I’m lacking.

The Piemaker is pulled into scrapes partially because of his work with the detective. And he is only useful to the detective because of his power. My MC doesn’t really have a power or useful quality that his friends are lacking. So maybe that’s a key. They should need him for something as much as he ends up needing them…

There’s always the possibilty that it doesn’t work in Pushing Daisies. I mean, I love it of course. But it was cancelled after 2 short seasons so can’t have been wildly popular at the time. Could it be that I have a predilection for these kinds of characters, but popular appeal isn’t there?

And one final thought – maybe these kinds of characters are better suited to a visual medium. Characters who are ‘numb’ generally work better in film than on the page. Perhaps it’s the same for the risk-averse.

If you’ve got any suggestions of books featuring stand-off-ish characters trying desperately to cling to a normal life do let me know.



A Professional Critique of my Novel

This is the latest in my series on trying to get my first novel published.

A little while ago I wrote about sending my manuscript off to a professional critiquing service. I chose one of the most reputable (based on my own research) – Writers’ Workshop.

I was happy with my manuscript, but had sent it out to a number of literary agents without luck. During the many drafts I had critiques from a few brave and trusted souls – trusted to give honest feedback rather than glowing praise, that is – but I’d put some money aside and thought a pro critique would be a good idea. After all, this is the first novel I’ve got to a stage that I’d call finished. I’m working on a number of other projects which are at various stages of completion, so if there are important lessons to learn or delusions I’m under then best to find out now.

Writers’ Workshop are frank on their website: they won’t sugarcoat bad news. So it was with some trepidation that I sent my manuscript off. They let me know the name of the chap who would be critiquing the novel. I looked him up (of course) and found out he had a massive number of books published. Most of them are children’s books, but also a fair few that seemed to fit with my novel’s genre and market.

I waited. I held my breath. I twiddled.

An email from my critiquer dropped into my inbox (in very good time, I should point out). Despite being under the weather when the email arrived, I opened it straight away. On a side note, there isn’t a really satisfying way of opening exciting emails. Not like tearing into an envelope or using that weapon of a more civilised age, the letter opener. Oh well, progress.

Now, I knew to keep my expectations in check. I’m self-taught as a writer and haven’t previously had anything looked at by a ‘proper’ author. That said, and if I’m entirely honest, deep down a tiny little part of me really did think the opening sentences were going to be singing the praises of the finest novel of its generation.

Sadly that’s not what awaited me.

First the good bit: he liked my writing style. That’s a biggie. If it turned out that I really can’t write that would be a rather large blow (though not career-ending, judging by a couple of obvious recent bestsellers).

There were major problems though. The critiquer thought the pacing / plotting wasn’t right and, even more crucially, hated the main character – particularly his passivity and refusal to engage. There were other things too (as well as a number of things he really liked), but these seemed to be the biggest issues that will require major work to fix.

Now this is interesting.

Very interesting.

Because after the first draft I noticed these problems myself. Over the following redrafts I tried to fix them with tweaks here and there (alongside other overhauling work), but I never tore out the root of the problem. I thought I could polish the issues away and hoped I’d succeeded. Apparently not.

And this is great news. Not as great as if I’d written the Finest Novel Of Its Generation of course, but great nonetheless.


It means I can trust my instincts. That’s a fantastic position to be in. I may not be hitting the bestseller lists any time soon, but if I can trust my writing, trust my instincts and keep plugging away then who knows where I’ll end up.

If you’ve had any good or bad experiences with pro critiquing then let me know in the comments – it’d be great to compare notes.


Professional Critiquing Services

This one fits into my ongoing series about trying to get published for the first time.

Quick summary of where I’m currently at (though feel free to have a look back at some of previous posts along the way) – I’ve got a novel that, after a lot of redrafting, I’m happy with and have sent out to agents. So far there haven’t been many nibbles, though I haven’t been quite as proactive about sending it out as I possibly could have been.

Something I’ve been thinking about for a while is paying for a professional critique of my novel. Whilst I am hopeful that it’s going to knock the socks off anyone who reads it, I am aware that it’s the first thing I’ve written and polished to this degree and I am entirely self-taught. I’ve been hoping that I might pique an agent’s interest enough to get a little specific feedback but, while I’ve had one little morsel, it’s not really enough to base a further redraft on.

At an earlier stage I got a few trusted friends (trusted also in the sense that I thought their opinions would be honest) to have a read and provide feedback which was invaluable, but now I’d really like something a bit more industry-centric. And that comes with a price tag.

I looked up quite a few different services, and tried to find peoples’ own reviews of them, which proved surprisingly hard. Google something like ‘Novel critique service uk review’, and of course you’re only really going to get links to the services themselves! There were a few that stood out from the pack though, and I’ve ended up going with the Writers’ Workshop. They seem to be at the higher end, both in terms of price (over £500 for my 87,000 word novel) and, hopefully, quality. I figured it’s probably worth going for it though – if it helps get towards publication then it’s money well spent, and any feedback on style/structure etc will be useful for future projects.

They’ve got an impressive list of editors, so I’m looking forward to finding out who’ll be tackling my novel, but what swung it for me were their sample critiques. Loads of detail (one of the sample reports is over 10,000 words!), and looking at things from all angles, including marketability. It looks like there should be the chance to chat with the editor about their feedback, and they have ties to agents and publishers should they think it’s strong enough or close to it. We’ll see.

I’ve been able to ask a few specific questions on areas I’m thinking may need attention (is the first quarter attention-grabbing enough? Is the MC active, or too passive? How the arse do I market it as anything other than UK-centric?!) so hopefully they’ll be addressed in particular detail as well as all the other bits and bobs. It takes a fair few weeks to hear back, but I’ll definitely post about the results.

Have any of you had professional critiques? How useful did you find them?


NaNoWriMo – My Experience

The first of November is rolling around, a date that has indelibly been stamped into my mind for the last five years. Not due to Halloween-induced hangovers or the fact that it marks a fortnight until my Birthday, but because it’s the beginning of National Novel Writing Month. I thought it worth a quick pre-NaNoWriMo post in case I sway one more person into taking part, because (spoilers!) I think it’s awesome.

Picture the scene. It’s September 2009. I’ve written a few short stories. I’ve got the first few thousand words of a couple of different novels languishing a long way short of complete. One of them, at fifteen thousand words, is the longest thing I’ve ever written. And then my wife discovers NaNoWriMo. I grumble that it’ll distract us from finishing what we’re working on, that it’s better to keep our heads down rather than start new projects. She, fortunately, ignores me, and I eventually see sense.

With no planning, and no idea of what I’m trying to say, I write a complete first draft in a month, mainly on my phone on my commute and lunch breaks, and scribbled in notebooks to be typed up later. It’s about 40,000 words, so shy of the 50,000 target, but it’s the longest thing I’ve written and my first attempt to structure a longform story. Unsurprisingly, when I read it a few weeks later, it’s Not Great. Very Not Great. But there are some interesting things in there, and having completed a first draft I begin the process of redrafting for the first time. It’s the obligatory post-apocalyptic coming of age novel, of course.

A year later, and this time I’m a bit more prepared.As well as massive supplies of tea, I have an idea of the general plot and characters for my steampunk opus. I write about 60,000 words in the month and finish it off in December with another 10,000 words or so. Upon reading it, it’s also Not Great. But I have some thoughts on why, and look up more about how to structure a plot. How to plan a novel. How to develop characters.

Next time it rolls around, rather than start a brand new project (which is what NaNoWriMo is supposed to be about – honestly though, who cares as long as it gets you novelling) I turn to the idea that’s been burning at the back of my mind all this time. One of the novels I’d started before NaNoWriMo came into my life. I spend a month plotting and squeezing my brain and then spend November completing the novel. The planning paid off – it’s a lot more coherent than my previous attempts, though needs a lot of work still.

The next year is spent redrafting that novel, A Calling-on Song, and I give NaNoWriMo 2012 a miss, but when the Summer version, Camp NaNoWriMo, approaches in 2013 I decide to take a break from redrafting. I spend a couple of months preparing a new novel, The Lord of The Dance, then kick it’s ass in a month. I write the first three quarters of it, but it’s already 80,000 words. I leave it there, happy to draft the last quarter when I’ve shored up the rest, and return to redrafting A Calling-on Song.

And now, as I’ve been blogging about, A Calling-on Song is being chucked at agents in the hopes they like it and I’m in the process of redrafting The Lord of the Dance. I’ve learnt a hell of a lot about writing, about me as a writer and about what I want out of life along the way.

Will writing a novel in a month make you a successful author? No.

Is it hard work? Yes. Oh god, yes.

Will you have to make changes to your routine to accommodate it? Yes.

Could it be the most awesome thing you ever do and change your life? Yes.

Let me know if you’re tackling it. Good luck!


Where do you get those ideas?

Or, Hal-an-tow, jolly rumbelow.

Some of the books I've stolen from. I mean, 'been influenced by'.

Some of the books I’ve stolen from. I mean, ‘been influenced by’.

Welcome to the latest in my series about trying to get published for the first time.

I’ve been submitting my ‘finished’ novel to a few more agents over the last couple of weeks, and an interesting thing occurred to me. On many submissions advice pages on various agencies’ websites there’s something along the lines of ‘include anything that makes you an expert in what you’re writing about.’

Now, I’d sort-of assumed that was mostly there for non-fiction submissions but now I’m wondering if that’s not the case. Faced with my query letter, synopsis and novel extract, a prospective agent is, I imagine, looking for two things: material they really connect with and a reason to say no (given they’ve got unsolicited submissions coming out of the wazoo, wherever that may be). Or, perhaps it’s a default ‘no’, but they’re looking for a reason to say yes, something they can sell, some nugget they can base a pitch to a publisher around, something that lends credence to a submission.

I’ve not made much of an effort to disguise some of my book’s origins – it’s set in the town I grew up in, and the main characters work in a DVD rental store (possibly the last one!), which plays host to a number of important scenes. I worked in record shops in the town for four years between leaving school and going to drama school, so there are a fair few little quirks and tics that are directly based on those experiences. So far, so not-that-enticing – who hasn’t written something based on a re-imagined version of their home town? It’s far from an original idea.

But that’s just the setting. And there are reasons and ramifications for that setting, but it’s not the juicy part of the novel, it’s not necessarily going to hook anyone in unless they have some kind of affinity for the town. The real meat (or tofu-steak I should say, being a damn hippy) of the novel is in the folk tales that stalk my main character and that besiege him at every turn. It is, when boiled right down, about a young man discovering a deep connection to the traditional stories of these isles. And that’s where I’ve been underselling myself.

When I was 12 I joined a youth theatre, and the first play I performed in was a version of Robin Hood that reconnected the character to traditional folklore. It was an established play co-written (I think) by Toni Arthur, and we were lucky enough to have her directing us. Those of a certain age may remember her from the children’s show Playaway. She taught me most of the swear words I know. But she also, during the course of the play, taught me and the rest of the cast a few folk songs. And I’ve been singing them ever since. A few years later for a different production her ex husband, and former musical partner, Dave Arthur, taught me a few more folk songs. And then, a few years later still, in my mid twenties, I got interested in American folk and made the logical leap back into traditional British folk music. It really did feel like coming home.

Dave and Toni Arthur were part of the 60s/70s British folk revival that spawned the likes of Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span (who, along with Martin Carthy, I’ve been lucky enough to see live a number of times over the last few years). And they taught me folk songs which wormed their way into my bones and have wound up in my novel. So that is where the root of the idea comes from. And I think that’s a much more engaging narrative for my own journey to write the novel than the one I’ve been giving to potential agents.

What do you think? Is it worth letting agents and publishers know the truth behind the novel?

An Agent Replies

Or, Careful What You Wish For.

Pick your ingredients, mash them up, then serve.

Pick your ingredients, mash them up, then serve.

Welcome to the latest in my series on trying to get published for the first time. A little while ago I mentioned in a post that what I really wanted from an agent (other than an offer of representation of course) was feedback. As a rookie writer I sometimes feel like I’m howling into a gale – I’ve got no real way of getting decent impartial feedback without paying a critiquing company. And while I think the novel is good to go, I’m not precious about it – if something isn’t working then I’ll fix it. All I need is some consensus from people in the business to know what needs another draft. And guess what? I finally have a bit of industry feedback!

In a previous post I talked about sending the novel off to a friend of a friend of a friend who works at an agency. He requested the full manuscript and here’s what he had to say, verbatim:

‘Dear Jonathan

Thanks for this, I’ve read a bit more. I think you write really well and there’s some interesting elements in your story but it lacked the pace and edge of your seat thrill that really gets me excited about a novel. I also think it’s hard these days to have adult books which are quite so quintessentially English in there (sic) settings. I enjoy it but publishers tend to shy away as it limits the appeal out of the UK. For that reason I don’t think I’m the right agent for this book. It’s such a fierce market out there that you really need someone who is 100% behind your writing and will champion you with conviction.

Sorry for the disappointing response but it really is just one opinion and you may find other agents who completely disagree.

I wish you all the best with getting the book published.’

Interesting, no? What do I take from this? There are two real issues here and I think they may have very different solutions.

The pace/excitement factor is something I’ve been wondering about myself, so it’s good to have that raised. I think the novel does start as a slow burner and once the strands twist together – about halfway through – momentum gathers and the pace becomes more breathless. But possibly readers are only going to get to that if they are patient for the first half. This gives me a valuable insight to feed into the next redraft, though I will keep pursuing this version for the time being. As he states, it’s all down to personal opinion so I’ll exhaust a few more avenues before picking reaching for the tipp-ex.

His observation about the quintessential Englishness of the novel is very interesting. The novel is, when you get right down to it, about a young man in small-town England discovering the English folk tradition and folk stories, so making it less quintessentially English would be either tricky or diminishing to what I’m trying to do. I’d be lying if I hadn’t thought of the Englishness being a limiting factor myself, so I wasn’t altogether surprised it was raised. However it got me thinking about other novels and films that are quintessentially English in some way and yet have managed to transcend into international appeal. Richard Curtis films are a good example, I think. Bridget Jones too. Where these work is that the setting is picture-postcard enough (in a way) to be an unthreatening window into the culture for those outside and yet well-observed enough to appeal to the culture itself. Add to that dealing with universal themes and it’s a good combo.

Now, I think I’ve got that balance to a degree. The story distils into a coming-of-age tale when you strip everything else away. The setting is, I suppose, a scratch down below the chocolate-boxiness of some fluffier versions of England, but it’s not exactly gritty. There are a lot of references to geeky cultural touchstones from both the UK and America to broaden the appeal, but also my own observations of day to day life in high-street shops. And when things really get going there are weird, ooky, odd planes of existence with giant spider-monsters. Those are universal, right?

So what does that mean? I think (and I could be wrong – I may need to redraft to broaden the appeal, but as with the pacing I shall seek further feedback ahead of that) that I need to sell the book differently. I need to manage the expectations of the agents I’m writing to and join the dots for them. Effectively I need to tell them why this has more broad appeal than they may think at first glance. Because if I was told about a book set in an English high street about English folk tales then I too would assume it would appeal primarily to the English. Maybe that is the case, but I think I’ve got something more here. I’m going back to my query letter to see if I can work something in to highlight this as a positive rather than let agents think of it as a negative. In a strange way it gives me an aspiration. I want to be the Richard Curtis of the weird.

More soon!




Or, making an example of myself…

Probably not the best opening gambit...

Probably not the best opening gambit…

Welcome to the latest in my series on trying to get published for the first time. As promised in my last post, this time I’m going to post the query letter I’ve been sending out to agents.

Before I do, I thought I’d share just a few of the basics of querying – I’m no expert, as this blog attests to, but I did a fair bit of research before writing mine, and a fair bit of redrafting before sending it. Also, those of you who aren’t trying to (or succeeding at) getting published may be interested in the background.

As I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned in a previous post, by and large there are three things that should be sent to agents. The first is a query letter, the second is the first three chapters of the novel and the third is a synopsis of the rest of the novel. And that’s most likely the order they’ll be read in. Query letter first, if that piques their interest then they’ll have a read of the goods, and if they’re intrigued by that then they’ll have a look at the synopsis to see if your grasp of plotting is as hot as your writing voice.

The query letter itself has (and again, I’m basing this on a load of research rather than any actual expertise) three jobs: introduce the novel, sell the novel, introduce the author. And all of that in somewhere between 150 and 350 words depending on which source you follow. The ‘selling the novel’ aspect can cover anything from who it’s aimed at, why it’s culturally relevant now, anything that could be used as PR, authors it may sit alongside (opinion is divided on this – it can sound egotistical, but if it comes across as if you’re giving a clue as to the audience that may be interested rather than saying you’re as good as a master of the genre then it’s a good shorthand) and all manner of other bits and bobs. The other two parts – introducing the novel and introducing the author – are a bit more self explanatory and it’s the former of the two that is more important than the latter.

I’m posting this both to see what you think (having not read the novel you won’t know whether it’s an accurate intro to it, of course) and as another example people can stumble across online – the more examples the merrier, I discovered while I was scouring t’interweb for hints. So, enough waffle. The only thing to be aware of is that I would add a sentence in to explain why I’ve specifically targeted the agent I’ve sent it to. Here it is:

Dear xxxx

I’d like to introduce you to A Calling-on Song, an urban fantasy novel set in modern day small town England and complete at 87,000 words.
Reclusive university drop-out Robin is back in the town he loves, desperate to rebuild his identity. Pursued by a mysterious vagrant and haunted by strange visions, he’s determined to carry on as normal. When injuries transfer from vision to reality and he discovers the vagrant knows more than he should, Robin finally turns to his fellow drop-outs for help. Drawn into a group of self-professed wizards and dream readers, the battle is on for his sanity, his life and the soul of the small town he can’t leave behind. Oblivion is calling and not everything can survive.
Centred on a dying high street and filled with British folk-tales, the novel is a timely look at the importance of celebrating what you love. Fans of Neil Gaiman and China Miéville will enjoy the blend of myth and reality.
I’m a 33 year-old Londoner and based elements of the novel on my experiences working in now-extinct record shops in Tunbridge Wells. Since then I’ve trained as an actor and, after a few years leaping out at people while covered in fake blood, given it all up to watch adverts for a living. I’ve written copy for websites, had a short story published in the Mosaic anthology by Bridge House and an introduction to a Grant Morrison graphic novel published by Hachette.
The full manuscript or a more detailed synopsis are available on request. Thanks very much for your time.
Kind regards,
Blah blah blah.
Any thoughts welcome. Another post will follow in the not-too distant future with a bit of industry feedback.

It’s Not Who You Know…

… it’s who who you know knows.


Welcome to the latest in my series following my progress trying to get published for the first time. Frequent fliers might note it’s been a little while since my last post and that’s because, rather plainly, there’s been no news! But things are stirring, finally. As to how far they’ll stir, well I don’t think there’s any point in thinking they won’t shortly go back to their natural slumbering state, but we can hope. As for what’s stirring, read on…

As with all the creative (and uncreative, for that matter) industries, one of the most often espoused bits of advice is to use your contacts. It’s not rocket science – if you’ve written something and you know an agent or publisher personally then it’s not hard to imagine shoe-horning it into conversation and seeing if anything happens. But for those of us (and as writers I imagine I’m not the only one who prefers sitting in a dark room muttering about the outside world to actually engaging with it) who don’t happen to know the CEO of Harper Collins, how can this work?

I try not to bore my friends and colleagues to tears with tales of my writing exploits, but I have mentioned it a few times. And, long before my novel was ready to be seen by anyone in the industry, someone mentioned that their wife happened to work in publishing, though in a slightly different area to the stuff I was writing. I filed the knowledge away in my brain for future reference and got on with the redrafting. Flash forward in time (you can imagine the wibbly wobbly effects yourself) and I bump into said friend, adjourning to a café for a coffee and chat. We discuss my novel, he tells me to send the query letter and sample chapters over to his wife because, even though she won’t be able to do anything with it herself, she may be able to give some kind of feedback or recommend a contact. Keen, but not hopeful, I dutifully send the documents over.

Now it gets a little better. Firstly, as surmised, it’s not really suitable for her – she’s involved in ‘Women’s Fiction’ and I’ve written a male-dominated urban fantasy novel. However, not only does she say some nice things about the sample chapters (‘strong voice’) she also confirms that the query letter seems to do what it should (promise I’ll post it soon so you can see it for yourself, honest). Specifically, she cites the examples of comparative authors as accurate. More on that in a future post, but it’s a fine tightrope to walk – I used the comparison as a short-hand for giving agents an idea of the market I was aiming for rather than comparing my ability to that of the masters of the genre I cited (Neil Gaiman and China Mieville).

Most usefully though, she recommended an agent who may be into the kind of oddness I’m peddling and rather kindly said she’d give him a heads-up to expect contact from me. I gave it a few days, emailed the agent, and he’s now requested the full manuscript having enjoyed the first three chapters. So, even if this doesn’t lead to representation (which it probably won’t) I may get a few words of feedback on the whole shebang.

But it doesn’t stop there. I sent queries out to four agents about eight weeks ago and hadn’t heard back (they generally say to allow anywhere from 5 to 10 weeks for a response) so, following a little bit of advice I’d spotted on one agent’s website, I let the four agents know this new agent had requested the full manuscript. Lo and behold, I had a quick, very friendly reply from one of the agents saying something along the lines of ‘Well he’s got good taste so I’d better have a look.’

The lesson to be learned from all this? Keep going! And mention your novel to everyone you can within reason, because they may be up for helping out. Publishing is a pretty small world by all accounts, and if you can drop a name in or someone can recommend you it will give more credence than an unsolicited approach.

I’ll keep you posted with any developments and will stick my query letter up for dissection in a week or so.



Fastest Rejection in the West

Or, how to learn a lesson

But only, y'know, the good stuff

But only, y’know, the good stuff

This is the latest in my series on trying to get published for the first time. In the last post I talked about changing the synopsis and query letters ahead of sending out a second batch of letters to agents… Was it time well spent? Not in one case…

As I’ve already mentioned elsewhere, the turnaround times for expecting a reply from an agent is something like 6 – 8 weeks which, given the number of unsolicited submissions they receive each week, doesn’t seem too unreasonable (though it is of course nerve-shredding). I just received a reply, or should I say rejection, in under twelve hours – query sent at 9:30pm, rejection received at 9:01am. Do I take from this that the agency are very quick at reading submissions, or is there something else? Was there something in the initial few sentences of my query that put them off? I think it was the latter, and I’m going to tell you why. I promised at the beginning I’d share my blunders with you, so here’s a good one.

My novel is set in a real small town in the UK. It’s the one I grew up in, though these days I live in London. When researching agents I discovered that one agency is based in a village just outside this small town. The only trouble is that they specify on their website that they don’t normally handle sci-fi or fantasy. While my novel (and general taste) isn’t out-and-out high fantasy, it’s definitely closer to fantasy than any other genre. ‘Urban fantasy’ is how I’m describing it genre-wise in my query letters, though I do make it clear it’s set predominantly in the real world. So I weighed up the pros and cons, and decided it was worth a go. I submitted my novel to this particular agency, mentioning in the first couple of sentences that it was set in this particular small town and may therefore be of specific interest. But it seems not.

While I don’t think it was a mistake to send it to them per se, I do think it’s worth me remembering that primarily agents need to engage with the characters and story. The rest is glorified set dressing, in effect (though of course I’d argue it’s absolutely integral). I’m not a fan of gritty crime drama and while a gritty crime drama set in my home town would pique my interest slightly more, it’s unlikely it would make me suddenly fall in love with the rest of the trappings of the genre. And I want/need an agent who’ll fall in love with my story just as much as I love it. That’s what my novel deserves and I’d do well to remember not to undersell it on a gimmick.



Lies, Hypocrisy and Brevity

Or, the realities of uncertainty.

This is the latest in my series following my misadventures while trying to get published for the first time. And don’t worry, the title doesn’t betray the fraying of my previously sanguine attitude towards the industry I’m trying to inveigle my way into. It’s about me.

You may or may not have read the last post – amongst its blather was a declaration that I wasn’t going to tweak my synopsis/query letter beyond what was necessary for each agency (following any specific guidelines/adding something personal in relevant to that agency). Well… One of the agencies did have a different requirement and it kind of started a ball rolling.

I posted a little while back about writing the synopsis, the brief summation of the plot which needs to include characters, setting, theme and plot from beginning to end. I was pretty pleased with what I ended up with, a taut 800 word synopsis that rattled along and yet still imparted something of the atmosphere and tone of my writing. Well, this particular agency specified that they want a 300 word synopsis. Yup, that’s right. 300 words to sum up over 300 pages. And not just sum it up, but sell it! Sheer utter hell, I thought. An once again it turned out to be fun, paring it down to the absolute skin and bone of the story. I think what made it possible was that I had a bit more distance from the novel than when I tried before – I’ve been immersing myself in a different project, so I had a fresh perspective which helped me really get to the root of my plot. In fact, I like what I came up with so much (okay, it’s actually ended up at 320 words, but even so, not bad!) that it’s what I’ve sent out to all of the next batch of agents on my list, consigning my longer synopsis to the bench.

But it didn’t stop there. Once I had the shorter synopsis, I realised I could probably also tighten up my query letter, so out came the scissors and I had another go at that too. So. For all my talk of trusting my initial attempt, I think I’ve now very much improved upon it. The question is, in six weeks’ time when I send out the next batch (unless I get some very good news) will I look it all over and poke it again? I hope not – I think it’s pretty damn solid now, and tweaking it has completely distracted me from the redraft I’m working on. But I don’t think I’ll rule it completely out of the equation.

Either way, another four agents have been emailed and a fifth will have a package sent through the post tomorrow. Wish me luck chaps!