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?


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?

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?

Feeling Claustrophobic?

Time for the elevator pitch.

Technical Diagram

Technical Diagram

This is the latest in my series on trying to get published for the first time. The last post covered how long, how ice-agingly long, it’s taken to get to the point where I’m nearly ready to send my novel off to agents for the first time – summary (spoiler alert): seven years.

But, quick redraft aside, I’m nearly there, so the hard work is over, right?


Ah. Not quite. Not by a long shot actually. You see, it’s not just your novel you need to send to agents to attract their attention. In fact you shouldn’t send them your novel, not the whole of it. Which is an arse because my epilogue is killer. For most agents the form seems to be a brief covering letter, a brief synopsis and the first three chapters. And what’s the crucial part of all of this? The elevator pitch. Or lift pitch if we’re being properly British about this. The novel in 25 words or thereabouts.

25 words.

The novel I’ve spent seven years (more off than on, to be fair) getting to a perfect no-word-wasted 90,000 words, all crunched up into one little bite-size morsel. It’s horrendous torture! And also strangely fun…

The trouble is, there’s so much of it that feels important, that needs to be highlighted to any potentially interested party, that I don’t quite know what to omit. Every little twist and turn, all the little asides, every minor character is the product of blood, sweat and coffee. How could I not include the terse security guard who turns up in the background of two scenes? I count him as a close friend, so what if he’s imaginary – I’ve known him longer than anyone I work with!

What’s the trick? Buggered if I know. Is it best to lead with character or with setting? Goals or obstacles? The literal or metaphorical interpretations? Seeing as there are so few words and so many crucial details, it seems like the best thing to do is include the absolute dramatic crux of the novel. Who is it about? What do they want? What’s stopping them?

So bearing that in mind, here we go. This is, so far at least, the elevator pitch for A Calling-on Song:

‘Robin is a reclusive university dropout whose attempt to rebuild his identity is derailed when dying folk tales choose him as their next custodian’

I’ve still got one word to play with, so I’m not done tinkering yet. What I really want to do is somehow get an idea of the setting in there too (a dying high street in small-town England) but I haven’t found a satisfactory way of shoe-horning it in. Yet.

Hold up, I’ve come up with an alternative. Here’s attempt two with a bit of scene setting and hint of things to come:

‘On a dying high street, reclusive shop-boy Robin tries to rebuild his identity but is assailed by sentient folk-tales desperate to outrun Oblivion.’

There’ll be more on covering letters and the dreaded synopsis soon, but in the mean time let me know which one you prefer (and why) and try breaking some of your favourite books down into a 25 word pitch and letting me know how you get on!