Discovery Day at Foyles

Today was Discovery Day at the Foyles book shop on Charing Cross Road. What that means is that a load of agents from Conville & Walsh and Curtis Brown had foolishly agreed to meet a massive load of authors and listen to hundreds of novel pitches.

I’ve written a fair bit about pitching generally (and specifically) while touting my novel A Calling-on Song (update: it needs a bit of a redraft and is waiting in my queue of projects to work on). What I hadn’t done to date though, was pitch my novel to an agent in person. Bearing that in mind I prepared a pitch for the novel I’m currently working on, which is roughly 50% complete and 50% drafted/plotted.

The Discovery Day Setup


The view from the queue

I had been allotted a time slot, so was allowed into the queue (long, but well managed don’tcherknow). Awaiting me at the top was an agent looking for two things: a 30 second verbal pitch, and the first page of my novel. That’s all they were after.

I heard someone in the queue likening the experience to an X Factor audition. I think that’s a little unfair – X Factor seems predominantly about revelling in other people’s misery, humiliation and lack of self-knowledge (I’m not a fan). This, as the blurb promised, was more like speed dating. No-one would witness my soaring success or crashing failure apart from me and the agent, and maybe, just maybe, a long and fruitful relationship would come out of it all.

30 Seconds Of Glory

I reached the front of the queue, clutching my pitch notes and first page in an increasingly sweaty hand. Then it was time and I was led across the room to sit opposite an agent. Her surname was the same as one of the most famous/infamous magickal figures of the last couple of hundred years, which I took to be a good omen – my novels tend towards magick with a ‘k’ after all. We introduced ourselves and then it was showtime.

As I’ve written before, distilling a novel full of odd characters, weird cults and all sorts of dramatic goings on down into a handful of sentences is both gut-wrenching and necessary. This is what I came up with for this event, though I think it’s a bit on the long side in hindsight:

“When a teenage punk trio sell their souls to the wrong devil, the fate of all music hangs in the balance. Reuben James was the original guitarist with We Are The Scene, back before they were famous. Now he’s the most hated man on the planet. Blamed by tabloids and fans alike after the death of We Are The Scene’s singer, it’s time for Reuben to reveal the truth behind their stratospheric rise and tragic fall. This isn’t sex and drugs and rock and roll; this is small town toilet venues, revenge and ancient magick.”

Once that was done, the agent asked me a few questions: was it my first novel – nope, but would be my first to be published. Did I think it was stronger – yup, a much more active main character for starters. Where did the idea come from – mashing together some of my favourite things, together with a great deal of time spent at the Tunbridge Wells Forum in my youth, both watching and playing. That sort of thing.

And then?

She read the first page. Asked if it was a horror novel (more urban fantasy with horror elements than out and out horror I’d say. So I did). Then told me it wasn’t really her sort of thing and wrote down an agent who was building a SF/F list and bade me farewell.

That was it?

Not quite. I had been hoping for a little feedback on the pitch – was it on point or waffly etc, but there wasn’t any of that. I headed downstairs and joined a table of five other pitchers chatting to a different agent. This was more about the industry and process generally, not specifically about our individual pitches, but was a nice informal group. Following questions, the agent talked about his slush-pile process, trends in literary and women’s fiction and the like.

And that was that. Nerve-wracking and certainly an interesting experience. It was a bit of a shame there wasn’t really any feedback from the agent I pitched to – as with letters of rejection, the more feedback I get from the industry the more I can work out how to approach things in future. But talking about my novel to industry types was great practice which could prove invaluable, and I’ve got the name of an agent to approach once the novel is done. Now to ride up and down in Foyles lifts until one of the agents is trapped in there with me… All I need is 30 seconds!



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.

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!



Urges. How to control them and when not to.

Or, asking the impossible.


Tappity tappity tappity

Tappity tappity tappity

This is the latest in my series on trying to get published for the first time. It’s been going on six weeks since I sent my first few query letters out, and so far I’ve had three rejections with two replies still pending. It’s getting close to time to send out the next batch and I’ve discovered a new step in the process. The urge to fiddle.

It’s impossible to know the definitive reason the three agents so far haven’t wanted to read more – it could be anything from the mood they were in when they read my submission, the fact that they just signed someone with the same basic premise, something specific in the writing, something that didn’t gel in the query letter…. The list goes on. Or, as their letters stated, it could simply be the fact that this is a subjective game. It’s dependent on taste, and for everyone that thinks my book is a masterpiece (that would be, um, me) there are bound to be people who disagree or don’t engage with the subject, setting or characters.

So do I fiddle with it (the novel, I mean. Filth.)? Well without some more comprehensive feedback, I don’t think there’s any point in fiddling with the novel itself. But that’s only part of the package. There’s also the query letter and the full synopsis which give a flavour of the book and the full plot respectively. And if something is amiss in those or could be more gripping then that could potentially be a turn off for the agents.

Or… they could be fine and just waiting to get in front of someone who really engages with them. For this next batch I’m going to keep everything the same (unless any of the agents have particular stipulations of course) and then ponder anew in about eight weeks. And I shall take heart from hearing that the author of The Help, Kathryn Stockett, faced 61 rejections and three years from first submitting to getting picked up. For her it was apparently rejection number fourteen that almost broke her. I’ll let you know which number it is for me.

That’s all well and good, but what to do in the interim? I can’t just twiddle my thumbs and hope for the best, that’s no way to get anywhere. I’ve dusted off the novel (or the three-quarters-of-a-novel) I wrote the first draft of for last year’s NaNoWriMo – The Lord of the Dance – and have got well and truly stuck into the redrafting. One of the major elements that need some TLC are the characters. Perhaps because of the time constraints that NaNoWriMo brings, the characters all start fairly strong then become a bit wishy washy. I’ve decided to borrow a trick from my other half (also a writer) and try casting the novel. Alongside doing a load of other character development bits and bobs, it’ll help me get back on track if I feel them drifting again. That and, if you cast them with actors who make interesting or bold character choices then maybe some surprises will pop up. So who is in the cast? My main five are:

Shia Labeouf (that breakdown has made him so much more interesting!), Cillian Murphy, Mia Wasikowska, Ellen Paige and Adrien Brody

I’ve cast this lot based on the character elements that I’d already come up with and written 80,000 words about, but it’s made me ponder what would happen if you approached it the other way around, if you used actors as your first stepping stone into characters’ heads. And more importantly, if you could pick any five actors to sling together in a cast, who would it be?

Rejection and Joy

Or, The Search For Silver Linings

Welcome to the latest in my series following my attempt to get published for the first time. I come with Big News. Not the Big News that causes champagne corks to pop, sadly, but Big News nonetheless: I have received my first rejection.

When I started this series I said that I would share any triumphs or failures, and do you know what? I’m undecided as to which this is. Obviously it’s not the kind of triumph I’m after, but it does give me a sense that I am ‘in the club’. From my research for preparing to approach agents, I reinforced the knowledge that there aren’t many published authors who haven’t faced between one and a gazillion rejections (see J K Rowling for details), so in a way, if you squint really hard, I’m actually closer to being published.

For those trying the same thing as me, and for those with no intention of ever writing anything, I thought you might find it interesting to see what rejection looks like, so, with the agent’s name removed, here we are:

‘Dear Jonathan,

Thank you for submitting your work entitled A Calling-On Song to this agency.  Unfortunately, I’m afraid I didn’t respond warmly enough to the story to be able to fully engage with it. As I’m sure you know, the publishing business is fiercely competitive and in order to represent a writer effectively, we do need to be one hundred percent convinced by their work.

I wish you best of luck in finding representation.

Best wishes,

So, what to take from this? I’m sure there’s a bit of cut-and-pasting in the reply, but that’s fair enough given the volume of submissions they look at. The fact that they’ve highlighted the story as what didn’t grab them is (again, squint a bit) a sort of positive. Not every story will appeal to everyone and agents have to be an author’s number one fan to give them the support needed. That said, my novel is the definitive British novel of this generation, or so I’ve almost convinced myself. But I’ll let you all be the judge of that when it’s published!

From my days plugging away as an actor, I’ve received many different forms of rejection, both polite and preposterous, and this definitely sits near the top of the list. It further confirms that publishing is a far more pleasant industry than performance and do you know what? A literary agent has at least glanced at my novel. That makes me happy, regardless of the outcome.

Have any of you lot had rejections from literary agents (or anyone else for that matter)? How do you think this compares to your experience? And how did you stop obsessing over analysing every word of the reply?!



Everything Crossed

You make your own luck. But just in case…

No idea who these people are. That's how good my schmoozing was.

No idea who these people were. That’s how good my schmoozing was.

It’s been a pretty big week, so welcome to the latest in my series on trying to get published. Last time I talked about researching agents, and I have news: my aim when I started this series was to get my novel sent off to a batch of agents before Easter, and guess what? Success!

I realised on Wednesday night last week that I could poke and tweak and re-poke and re-tweak my query letter forever and still not send it off. All it’s supposed to do is introduce agents to the novel (and author) – when push comes to shove, the novel needs to speak for itself. And so I stopped poking and re-poking and instead sent my first batch of query letters out. And now I’m checking my emails every five minutes. No news yet.

One of the reasons I was so keen to get things out was that I was paranoid about sending things in during Easter week when agents might be off on their hols, so I successfully accomplished that. Unfortunately what I should have realised is that this week is the London Book Fair, so I’m pretty sure everyone in the entire industry is swamped. Oh well. There’ll always be a reason not to send something in and the agents I’ve picked all sound like they do, eventually, check all submissions. So we shall see.

Just checked my emails again. Nothing.

On the other hand, seeing as this week is the London Book Fair and I just happen to have a novel to a publishable (so says I) state, I booked a last-minute day off work and pootled along. With a stash of query letters in my bag, of course.

I’ve not been to one before and a lot of the really exciting things – pitch competitions and the like – need to be booked far in advance. There was however a dedicated authors’ area with a programme of brief panel discussions about the industry. That’s where I toddled off to for the first talk of the day, an intro to the publishing process with speakers from a bookseller, a big publishing house, an independent publishing house and, rather enticingly, an agent. Lots of handy things were discussed and I asked a question about simultaneous submission etiquette to the agent, Camilla Wray from Darley Anderson (answer: it’s fine, but let agents know what you’re up to). And right at the end as everyone was leaving, I pulled myself up by my bootstraps, introduced myself to Camilla and proffered her a copy of my query letter, synopsis and first three chapters. Which she took. It was busy, and many others were waiting to pounce after me, so I didn’t really say a massive amount, but hopefully the face-to-face contact will be a helpful reminder. I was wearing a distinctive stripy jumper and have ludicrous facial hair, so I’ll stick in her mind for better or worse!

I didn’t achieve much with the rest of my time there, but I was thinking of it in terms of a fact-finding mission ahead of going to more such events. Working out what goes on, what the etiquette is and so forth. Also, couple of free glasses of wine right at the end, so score!

And as of right now, five agents, all of whom I’m specifically excited about, have copies of my query letter, synopsis and first three chapters. Hopefully someone will ask for more of the manuscript but if not, in about five weeks time I’ll send the next batch of letters out.

So. Wish me luck. More soon.



The Dreaded Synopsis

Or, how I learned to stopped worrying and love the process.

This chap may be better at jumping through hoops than me. His name is Humperdink.

This chap may be better at jumping through hoops than me. His name is Humperdink.

This is the latest in my series on trying to get published for the first time. As promised, this post is about the synopsis which will accompany my covering letter and first three chapters when I submit to agents. The most important thing, for all of these bits that agents will see, is to work out why they want it. What are they hoping to gain from its inclusion (other than see that I’m willing to jump through a big scary hoop)?

As far as I can work out, they want the synopsis to tell them what happens. And when it happens. Sounds pretty obvious right? They might get blown away by the writing style of my three chapters (here’s hoping), but if they then look at the synopsis and realise it all becomes a rambling mess half way through, they may think twice. To my mind, they want to see that I understand commercial story structure (because I am aiming for commercial appeal rather than those new forms Konstantin bemoans the need for in Chekhov’s The Seagull) and, of course, see whether it gets (more) exciting.

Now, in my Elevator Pitch post, one of my discoveries was that, as well as being a nightmarish prospect, it was quite a lot of fun trimming 90,000 words down to 25 words. And that’s what I found with the synopsis as well. This time I had in the region of 800 words to play with so, y’know, par-tay.

If you’ve been reading all these and the comments, you will know that I fall firmly in the planning category of writer (though I was a die-hard pantser when I started), so what I’ve realised is that getting to this stage in the process is kind of cyclical. When I start writing something these days I’ll get some idea of the basic set up, work on the characters, expand the plot outline, back to the characters, back to the outline and so on. For bringing it all back down to a synopsis, it was essentially the same in reverse.

Things that need to be included: the plot from beginning to end in the order it happens; a little about each of the major characters. Simple.

My first attempt was a rambling 3,000 word monstrosity that tried to address every little twist and turn. I swiftly realised that wasn’t the right approach. Sub-plots and lesser characters be damned! My novel is very much my main character’s story and so I went back to the keyboard and tried again focusing solely on what happens to him, what he does about it and what knock-on effect that has. Because it all needs to be cause-and-effect or the novel will feel very episodic. As I carried on and honed the synopsis I was also able to spot any points in the novel where things either didn’t quite make logical sense or characters were solely reacting to outside influences and not becoming an influence in themselves. I’m pleased to say there weren’t many points like that, but as I did it when gearing up for a swift final draft it both bolstered my confidence and gave me a few extra ideas for areas that needed attention.

So there we have it, my synopsis discoveries. Rather than being a big scary hoop that needs to be jumped through, it’s a really useful tool for making sure novels are on track. Who knew!

Progress update: I’m now just about three quarters of the way through the redraft, but just coming up to a section that needs a bit of TLC. Still aiming for the end of the month, so wish me luck!

Hopefully my next post will be about researching agents, but I might get distracted by something shiny and write about that instead, we shall see. In the meantime, have you had an experience like mine – a big scary necessity that actually turns into something really useful?