A Rallying Call for Writers
Today, I was talking to someone who’s just starting out as a writer, working on a series of stories for children.
‘When I first started writing I really loved it,’ she told me. ‘But now I’m terrified they won’t be any good.’
The fear she’s experiencing is affecting her enjoyment of the process and this in turn, is taking its toll on her writing.
Even though I’ve been a professional writer for 20 years now, I could still really relate to what she was saying.
I remember being wracked with fear and self-doubt when I wrote my first novel. I was a university drop-out, with no money for fancy creative writing courses, effectively having to teach myself as I went along, and it was a torturous stop-start process.
I (wrongly) assumed that ‘proper writers’ ie; those who had book deals, effortlessly produced perfectly polished manuscripts first time round – all whilst chain-smoking Marlboros and downing bottles of Jim Beam.
My reality – hunched over a word processor at my dining room table, covered in baby puke (my son’s, not some random fashion accessory) felt world’s away from what I believed a ‘real’ writer’s should be.
By constantly refocusing on the fire in my belly I felt for my story, and giving myself permission to write badly (I kept a piece of paper on the table next to me with ‘IT’S OK TO WRITE A CRAP FIRST DRAFT’ written on it) I ended up landing a literary agent and a publisher for my extremely rough-around-the-edges manuscript.
As well as now being the author of 26 books I’ve also worked for many years as an editorial consultant.
I’ve seen the publishing industry from the other side of the editor’s table and I can tell you that every publisher I know would rather commission a rough diamond than a polished turd.
When I wrote my book, Dare to Write a Novel, I asked some publishers and literary agents what they were looking for in new writers. Here’s what some of them told me…
Sara Starbuck, former editor at Hodder & Stoughton and PFD and United Literary Agencies
A strong first sentence always pulls me in. It’s like the first impression when you meet a new person. Equally, the first chapter must set the course for somewhere I want to go. It doesn’t matter where or even if I hadn’t planned on going, it’s up to the author to make me want to follow them into their story world. So even if the subject matter is quiet, there must still be a sense of simmering tension, like something is going to blow. And right from the outset I want to care about the protagonist. Why should I go with them? What is it about them that will keep me turning the pages, desperate that they prevail? But above all, I look for the magic; that special something that makes a story sing. Not all writers have it, some are academically brilliant and know all the literary tricks but their prose is like wading through sinking mud. Give me a rough diamond with magic any day. Everything else can be taught.
Mara Bergman, Senior Commissioning Editor, Walker Books
What makes a manuscript stand out for me? I have to say it’s the voice. Often I will know from the first paragraph – sometimes from the first couple of sentences – whether a certain script is for me and it’s always down to the voice. It’s what keeps me wanting to read and when I don’t connect with it, it’s what stops me from reading on. I have to be able to relate to a certain style of writing (though exactly what that is, and what makes it special, is somewhat elusive, though it often comes down to a certain honesty). A strong voice creates strong character and a strong character makes the story.
My advice to aspiring authors is to write, no matter what and to be persistent. It’s very easy to become distracted and to procrastinate but in the end the act of writing is the one thing that matters. Write and everything else will follow. Even if what you write is not especially good, it is all good practice and, like anything else, the more you write, the better your writing will be. Be bold; dare to experiment; bare your soul. You must also be persistent and develop a hard skin because your work will be scrutinised and, chances are, will not be accepted the first time round. Or the second. Maybe not even the third or fourth. Get used to the rejections and have a back-up plan; know where you’re going to submit your work next. Believe in your writing, keep writing and keep going.
Leah Thaxton, Publisher, Faber & Faber
What makes a manuscript stand out for me is voice, voice, voice. It almost doesn’t matter what you’re saying if you’re saying it in a way that feels true, and fresh to the ear.
My advice to aspiring authors is to just be you – don’t try and ape someone else. Find your voice, identify what makes it unique, mine it, strengthen it, then trust that it and your characters can tell your – no their story.
Ali Dougal, Editorial Director, Egmont UK
A strong opening pitch that crystallises an exciting / intriguing / fun / original concept helps a submission to stand out for me, as well as a fresh, distinctive voice. I’m always looking for something that moves me to laughter or tears or has me on the edge of my seat.
Think beyond that first book. What comes next? What sort of writer do you want to be? What are you trying to say and who do you hope your writing will resonate with?
Erzsi Deak, Agent, Hen & Ink Literary Studio
I can usually tell within the first few pages if I want to keep on reading – that means that the hook is strong and the characters are engaging and I want to follow them through the next XXX pages to figure out with them how they will achieve their goals. I’m pretty traditional in wanting to know (clearly) who the protagonist is; what s/he wants; why s/he can’t have it; and who the antagonist is. I need to see humour and levity amid any heavy subjects and hear the character’s VOICE and experience the author’s VOICE (subtly with a strong hand, if that makes any sense!) In the end, it comes down to VOICE and HOOK (especially in today’s market).
Channel your characters’ stories. Avoid pushing your agenda in your work. Let the characters’ voices lead the way. Be brave. Stay in your chair. Keep writing. Do not edit as you go.
Sarah Leonard, Commissioning Editor, Orchard Books
The first paragraph is key. I want to sink into a good book like a hot, deep bath. I want to give out a little sigh at the end of the first paragraph, thinking, this is going to be good. Remember that in all likelihood your reader is a tired editor on her commute home from a busy day. She’s on the train, there’s probably an elbow in her ear and an umbrella poking into her back. Rain is pounding against the window, the carriage smells like damp coats and she could be planning what to have for dinner or checking Facebook on her phone. But instead she opens her e-reader and looks at your book. From that first paragraph, she needs to be transported into the world of your book – whether that’s Grandma’s house, or a planet seven million miles from home, or a rabbit warren or the old, peeling classroom of a rundown school in an ex-mining town. Wherever it is, she needs to be there so that she’s not on the train anymore, so that she forgets the elbow and the umbrella, so she forgets her stop. So that when she gets home she doesn’t want to make the dinner, she ignores her family and she curls up on the sofa and keeps reading. That’s what editors want, that’s how we know when we’ve found something special.
Write about what you love – if your world is a place that you want to spend time in, the likelihood is that it’s somewhere other people will want to hang out, too.
If you’re a writer yet to be published I hope you find this encouraging.
Writing freely, with a fire in your belly about the things that really matter to you, will all help hugely where it counts the most – in creating your own unique voice and stories and characters that leap from the page.
Please don’t be disheartened if you feel out of your depth or not entirely sure of what you’re doing. Keep returning to the real reason you write – because you love it – and trust that your passion for your story will shine, diamond-bright, through your writing.
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