He Said She Said We Said: simple rules of dialogue attribution

Writing trick: cards

“I love you,” Laura sighed.

Okay, what’s wrong with that sentence? You. Yes, you at the back: you have ten seconds to answer. Come on now, don’t be shy. I’m waiting…

Yes, that’s right. It’s the bit outside the speech marks: the dialogue attribution. I mean, who the hell in the real world ‘sighs’ dialogue? I know I don’t, even if I am in love. Or perhaps Laura has a problem with her lungs?

I see this kind of thing all the time in genre fiction (and also in mainstream or literary fiction, but to a lesser extent). There’s no need for it. What’s wrong with the following?

“I love you,” Laura said.

Nothing. There’s nothing wrong with that. Laura hasn’t sighed the words, or laughed the words, or even (God forbid) breathed the words… she’s said them. Just like I do. Just like you do. We say the words.

So when it comes to dialogue attribution, the worst thing we can do as writers is to insert these pointless melodramatic verbs. Often it’s better if you can leave out the dialogue attribution altogether. Certainly it’s possible to use it sparingly, merely to identify who’s speaking.

This brings us to redundant dialogue attribution.

Here’s an example:

“How are you?” Laura asked.

Do we really need to put “asked” at the end of that sentence? I think not. The question mark at the end of her dialogue tells us that it’s a question, so the attribution is superfluous. It’s just using words for the sake of it rather than using them as tools to convey meaning.

“How are you?” Laura said.

That scans much better. It’s neat and tidy, and it works.

We can go one further with this and use action and dialogue to express what a character means, what they are feeling. The old adage “show not tell” comes into play here.

Laura barged through the crowd, her fists clenched. “I hate you,” she said.

See what I mean? She said. She didn’t shout or yell or snarl or growl. She said. Her actions told us that she was angry. She barged through the crowd. She clenched her fists. That Laura: she’s one angry kid. Her emotions seem to turn on a penny. I’m glad she doesn’t love me. Or hate me.

  • Grumbled
  • Gasped
  • Cautioned
  • Lied

These are all examples of horrible, even silly, dialogue attributions that I’ve seen in books. There’s nothing that can’t be conveyed using other means. If someone’s grumbling, what kind of mood are they in? How can we get that across to the reader without sticking it on the end of a line of dialogue? This sounds like simple stuff – basic stuff – and it is, but it’s amazing how many writers (both established and beginners) forget about the simple rules, the ones we’re first taught at school.

My personal philosophy is that it’s part of my job as a writer to convey complex thoughts, emotions and situations in as simple language as possible. I don’t want to impress a reader with my vocabulary, and I certainly don’t want to jolt them out of the story to go and look for a dictionary. Also, I want my characters to be as believable as I can make them, to speak like real people rather than ciphers. This means that they say words, they don’t sigh them. They speak in a way that’s as close to real speech as I can create.

Writing is like literary sleight of hand. You try to distract the reader so they don’t notice how you do the trick. Simple rules like this one are all part of the craft; they make it easier for a writer to slip one past the reader. Writing isn’t reality, but good, careful writing can echo reality.

Writing is a lie, a cheat that’s used to expose or elucidate some finer truth. And as every good liar knows, you need to make the lie as close as possible to the truth if you want people to believe it.

GARY MCMAHON
PHOTO: KYKNOORD

When the words won’t come (the struggles of writing and editing)

The Wrath of Kerberos by Jonathan OliverI should be writing. Obviously I’m writing this, but I mean writing writing. Fiction writing. Because as well as being an editor, part of what defines me, mostly to myself admittedly, is that I’m a writer.

I’m not a very prolific writer. Over the years I’ve scribbled a bunch of short stories and had two relatively obscure novels published. I’ve never garnered huge critical acclaim, but neither has the criticism been harsh or unpleasant. And I’ve certainly never made bags of money from it. So, why do it at all? And the answer, as corny as this sounds, is that I can’t not.

But the fact of the matter is that right now I’m not. I finished a story recently, one of which I’m very proud – ‘Raise The Beam High’ to appear in the anthology A Town Called Pandemonium this November – and that was nice to do, but I haven’t written any fiction in about a month now.

I know roughly what I want to do. I’ve had this character in my head for at least 8 years and I know roughly the story I want to tell. But will the words come? Will they fuck!

I’ve written about four lines of dialogue and that’s it.

I think that the problem is that this next thing is a novel, and having written two already, I’m well aware of the challenges writing a novel poses. I have a full-time job, a wife and an eighteenth month old daughter. Novels take a long time to write. Finding the time in such circumstances is tricky. And, let’s face it, when I get home from work, having read fiction all day, sometimes I’d rather put on the Xbox or watch a movie than deal with more words. But like I said, I’ve written two novels before. Maia – our daughter – arrived half way through the second and I still managed to write it.

So, why can’t I this time?

The answer, of course, is that I can. The only solution to the problem of not being able to write, is to write. There’s no magic formula, no amount of planning or prevaricating is going to be a substitute for getting words onto the page. That, at its base level, is really all there is to writing.

That’s not to say writing is easy. I’ve never ever found the experience easy, and yet I still do it. If it’s going badly, I convince myself I’m rubbish. If it’s going really well, there’s a part of me that’s saying to myself, “this is coming too easy, there must therefore be something wrong.”

Writers, huh? Neurotic buggers.

This self-doubt, these common concerns experienced by pretty much every writer ever, (although maybe Dan Brown sits typing on his throne of $1000 dollar bills, wildly grinning to himself and cackling, “Solid gold, Brown! Solid Gold!”) are also experienced by the editor.

I would love (absolutely fucking love) to be that ideal of an editor: that suave, slightly academic individual, who chooses his words with care, holds forth with great wit at dinner parties and has absolute confidence in every one of his decisions and knows the formula to success. But that’s the ideal. It doesn’t exist, even though I really really want it to. The truth of the matter is that editors are as neurotic as writers. I worry about every single one of my babies (and by babies, I mean the works I publish [see, I told you I was neurotic, this is all getting disturbingly Freudian]). I commission the books and stories I love and I desperately hope that everybody will love them as much as I do and that they’ll find a place in people’s hearts and make everybody wealthy and happy and artistically fulfilled and… and.. and that truth and justice will prevail…and our children are the future… and

And, relax.

You can see, I’m sure, how difficult it is for me. And I’m sure your heart bleeds. No really.

But none of this changes the fact that I’m not writing.

I guess I’ll take another look at those four lines of dialogue, and maybe, if I’m feeling brave enough, I’ll add four more.

JONATHAN OLIVER

Jonathan OliverJonathan Oliver is the Editor-in-Chief of Solaris and Abaddon Books. He is the author of two novels in the Twilight of Kerberos series, The Call of Kerberos and The Wrath of Kerberos, as well as a bunch of short stories that have appeared in a variety of places.

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Writing about place and setting in genre fiction

Newcastle settingAs always, this article isn’t meant to be a “How to” piece. It’s simply a personal reflection on an element of writing that I think it’s important to focus on. Take it or leave it; read it or ignore it. There’s no right way and no wrong way in writing; there’s only the way that suits you as an individual.

Sometimes a story can be made or broken by how the writer chooses to describe the place or location where the action is taking place. This sense of place often seems particularly important in genre fiction, because of the need to generate a certain atmosphere. To take an obvious example, Stephen King’s novel It wouldn’t have been nearly as effective if he hadn’t conjured the fictional geography of Derry, Maine so skilfully and vividly.

As a writer, I’m always trying to convey a sense of place in my work, especially in my novels. Even if the location is a fictional place, it needs to feel genuine. In terms of the horror genre, one of the most effective methods of disturbing a reader is by creating atmosphere. Place and atmosphere are linked; you can use the setting of a story to convey emotions like dread, terror, or isolation. It’s also possible to show the reader how the characters are feeling by their responses to their surroundings.

Ramsey Campbell uses his native Liverpool to superb effect in his work. Stephen King does it with Main. Ian Rankin utilises the distinct geography of Edinburgh to give many of his Rebus novels an almost supernatural edge. In her collection “Close Range”, Annie Proulx evokes the desolate landscape of rural Wyoming with such an unerring eye that the place becomes a character in the stories, haunting the human characters like a ghost.

Recently I read a short ghost novel called Dark Matter by Michelle Paver. In this book the Arctic setting is so beautifully and vividly described that I became immersed in the world of the story. I was right there, with the members of the Polar expedition, and once the supernatural elements kicked in I was genuinely unsettled. I’d invested completely in what was going on, because I believed it. And I believed it because it all seemed so real – the sea, the ice, the cold, the vast Arctic wastes. It was real to me.

But sense of place isn’t necessarily all about the panorama of geography. Sometimes it’s essential to narrow the focus and concentrate on a smaller setting: a warehouse, a bar, an office, a small room. It’s the same thing, only compressed, microscopic rather than macroscopic.

A writing exercise I used to employ many years ago always helped me in my efforts to use surroundings in a story. I’d sit in a room and try to describe a character’s emotional state by using only what was around me: the furniture, the radiators, the windows, the view outside; the sounds, the smells, the feel of the wood grain on the desk…by limiting myself to describing the location I was forced to hone my skills in terms of characterisation.

Describing a location isn’t as easy as it seems. A writer needs to pick out which details are necessary to flesh out the place and which ones to ignore; we need to utilise those unique traits that bring a specific place alive in terms of the prose. As with most aspects of writing, it’s all about making the right choices. This can only hope to be achieved with constant practice – there are no short cuts, there’s no easy way to create the magic.

Read the best, study how they do it. Carry a notebook with you everywhere and write down what it’s like to stand in a certain place: what’s the light doing, what’s around you, how does the earth feel beneath your feet, what can you smell, what does the air taste like? Then find your own way to imbue your story with that essential sense of place.

GARY MCMAHON

How bad editing can affect your sales (and knock your confidence as a writer)

When I went back to my university for the launch of one of their creative writing publications a year after I graduated, I was about a month away from the release of my debut novel Playground. The students in attendance, who were eager and optimistic writers, all had the same deluded belief I shared when I was at Uni; that they would write a book and it would buy them a house and car. But it was refreshing to see just how enthusiastic they were to approach someone like me and ask me for advice. A big circle of them gathered and someone said, “What would you say to someone who wants to publish a book?”

Having not even published my book yet, I was at a loss for something witty to reply. So instead I told them what I did know about, which was the writing process.

“Make sure you edit the Christ out of that manuscript. Make sure you shave that thing down to an inch of its life.” Now, as I hear me saying those words to that bright-eyed group of ambitious students, I can’t help but feel like the world’s biggest hypocrite. I still believe that what I told them was good advice, but it made me look like a complete arsehole for those that read my book when it came out.

I finished the first draft of Playground in July of 2009 and a publisher that I was working for in a nine-month placement asked to see a copy. Of course, I was excited and over the moon, but there was no way I was going to show her the first draft. The first draft of any manuscript is like some disfigured, awkward dungeon freak that slowly learns how to sit and eat dinner with its elbows off the table after lots of editing. That crazy bastard of a first draft will even refrain from burping after the meal if you take care when editing.

The first draft of Playground was a piece of shit. But because I was so desperate for her to read it while she was still interested I rush-edited it in two weeks. The general rule of thumb when editing your own work is that you leave the manuscript for as long as you can before going back to it, the idea being that your eyes will be too adjusted to the text if you just begin chopping once you finish the first draft. Incidentally, I finished the draft and gave it a quick edit straight after.

I got it into something of reasonable shape; the dungeon freak could climb stairs and open doors but wasn’t quite ready to eat in front of guests. Still, the publisher and the test-reader liked it and we signed a contract.

From there, I had one of my friends go over the manuscript to see if she could help the freak with its knife and fork and some general table manners. I was flabbergasted at the amount of mistakes she spotted; things that were so painfully obvious and hideously vulgar. I was feeling less like an author and more like some silly prick that has written a story for a laugh. So I went through the manuscript again after that and noticed even more mistakes. Then I got an unedited proof copy to go through and yes, there were more flabby bits hanging off the pages.

Eventually, I had something that I thought was decent and the editor at the publishers had presented me with a dossier that said what she thought needed changing and punctual mishaps I had encountered.

On the night of my launch (which was held at The Big Green Bookshop in Wood Green), I was afforded my first glimpse of the copies that would be sold to my family, friends and the general public. With excited fingers I flicked through the pages and… Oh dear God, more mistakes. I don’t know how it happened, but my theory is that somehow, the unedited proof copy went to print instead of the version that both myself and the editor had made amendments to. I wanted to cry. I told my publisher on the night that I’d spotted mistakes but there was nothing that could be done. How embarrassing. Both me and the publisher were baffled, and I can only assume that there was a mix-up somewhere and that is just the way the cookie crumbles.

Playground gained generally favourable reviews. Critics praised it for being edgy, controversial, gritty (although I now can’t stand that word), and all the rest of the clichés associated with kitchen sink fiction. And what were the detracting factors? To give you an idea, a lot of people illustrated the numerous editing mistakes to me in polite emails. I also had friends coming up to me saying “How come you got all these spelling errors? Didn’t you have an editor?” to which I replied (through gritted teeth), “Yeah I did, but can you shut up please?”

The moral of this particular rant is that meticulous editing is crucial to your credibility as an author and can make the difference between gaining a great review and a polite one. A badly edited book can cause someone who may have been otherwise enjoying the read, to throw your novel in the bin and slate you off on internet forums.

So take pride in your writing, and be paranoid with your editing. Get as many people that love you enough to read your book to go through it and highlight anything they see that may cause you to get a rejection slip from an agent or publisher (a stack of which I have accumulated, as most authors probably have). Mistakes hide in plain sight. It takes professionals to exterminate them.

As a general after note, I should mention that I feel Playground is a good attempt at a first novel by a young author that wasn’t quite sure what he was doing, and it had enough sparkle to allow me a second crack at the whip. That being said, the spelling mistakes, punctuation and general lack of continuity in the initial print run really knocked my confidence.

Saying that, a lot of people have said they thought Playground was a good read (including a TV producer whom I nearly sold the rights over to). If I haven’t put you off my work, and I hope to God I haven’t, give Playground a shot; Kindle edition is dirt cheap.

Samuel BonnerSam works as a marketing manager for Indepenpress and has written novels such as Playground and Someone’s in the House.

Writers and filmmakers: movie option rights

filmmakers

Lets’s say you’re a published author who has just had a stroke of luck; someone wants to buy the rights and turn your humble little book into a film. Now if you’re playing with one of the big boys, Bloomsbury, Random House, or Penguin, you don’t have to worry about a thing. There are highly trained professionals dealing with that side of things, preventing you from getting shafted and ensuring that you make a tonne of money.

But let’s say you were like me. 23 years old (at the time), with about 300 sales through a small publishing house. How do you then deal with film people, who show a sudden interest in your book?

I still don’t know. But here’s what happened to me:

About six months after the release of my debut novel, Playground, my publisher was able to bring it to the attention of a small TV production company. My publisher’s idea was to get me interviewed on one of the TV shows so I could promote my book. But what happened was the producer’s wife gave a copy to the director of the company, who read it and liked it. He then gave the book to a film director, who also happened to think it was pretty good. For the purpose of this article, the director of the company will be called Steve, and the film director will be called Mike.

Then I get a phone call from my publisher that went something like this:

Me: Hey, how are you?

Publisher: Yeah, I’m fine. Listen, Steve really likes your book.

Me: That’s good.

Publisher: In fact, he wants to turn it into a film.

Me: Jesus Christ! That’s great. Make it happen.

I had my doubts then about how seriously I should take Steve’s proposal; after all it was only worth the paper it was written on, and as there was no contract as of yet, I didn’t get too excited. I only had one major issue – I knew nothing about what I should expect, money-wise, and neither did my publisher as Playground was, from what I understand, the first book published by her company that had been considered for adaptation. I later learned it was to be the TV company’s first feature film.

At the time I was interning at a traditional publishing house (who I later edited for), and I told the director about the situation. He said, “photocopy one of our film contracts and take that to the meeting with you,” and so I did.

First of all though, I met the film director who would have the job of turning my book into a film. We met in a cinema bar in the west end and talked for two hours about how the film should be made. He was completely enthusiastic and loved the book and knew it probably better than I did, which made me feel great as you can imagine.

In the meantime, my publisher was getting her lawyer to model a contract for us based upon the contract the director at the publishing house I was interning at allowed me to photocopy.

Eventually, we went for the meeting in the bar above the big Waterstones in Piccadilly Circus: Me, my publisher, Mike, Steve, and a woman who was apparently a script supervisor and a casting agent. It was all very nice.

Steve, the TV producer and director of the company said, “We want to turn Playground into a horror film. Do you have any objections against us choosing someone else to write the script?”

I didn’t actually want to write the script because all I wanted to do was work on my novels. So I told him, “Get the better man to do it. My job is done.”

We all had beers and wine, shook hands, and went our separate ways. We were to get a contract over to them in a few days regarding us selling the film rights, and then they would get the funding.

Initially, the production company tried to give me a contract that we felt was slightly unfair. I got a staggering £1.00 for the option rights (you read it correctly, ONE POUND) so they could work on it for a year. After that, I got a percentage of box office and DVD sales. There were other technical bits and pieces but I can’t really remember them all as I write this. It was mostly percentages of things.

When we saw the £1.00 option fee, we felt it wasn’t quite right and then sent a reviewed contract to them. The new contract that we worked on basically gave us everything we believed we were entitled to based upon an existing book adaptation contract. They said their reason for the £1.00 option fee was “just to make it legally binding,” but I felt that it was just a cheaper way for them to have my work.

We wanted a proper option fee of £1000.00 for the duration of one year, 5% of all box office receipts and DVD sales, and the legal right to have my name featured on anything tied in with Playground. Also, they would be buying the rights to make a film only and no sequels without my consent.

Upon seeing the new contract we presented with them, they felt that our new terms swayed the contract too much in our favour and weren’t willing to sign. So we reached a stalemate. Nothing moves for almost a year.

During that year, though, I happen to get lucky again, because a film agent reads my book and wants me to sign a six-month contract for her to work on selling the rights on my behalf, for a ridiculously cheap cut of 12.5% of the total option fee. I jump at the chance and want to sign it, but then something interesting happens.

The original production company got in touch with my publisher and said something like: “Hey! Long time no speak. We still didn’t sign any contracts so I’m hoping we can do that and begin filming soon.”

No problem, I say. Sign the contract we proposed and you have a deal.

Their response was something along the lines of: “No this isn’t a fair contract. Everything is in your favour. We were thinking more along the lines of simply making a film and giving Sam a percentage of DVD sales.”

By this time I was angry and frustrated with the whole process. Of course I was thrilled at the idea of having my book turned into a film, which is surely every author’s dream, but the contractual details were so draining.

To cut a long story short, the film didn’t get made and the rights were never sold. I signed the contract with the film agent, but despite her efforts, nobody was biting. Perhaps we left it too late, or perhaps we were the only ones that thought it might make a decent film. In any case, I’m no better off now than when I started the whole affair. Except I now know how to handle this kind of thing in the future, should the opportunity present itself again.

Moral of the story, take everything with a pinch of salt and don’t start writing things on Facebook like “oh my god I’m so happy my book is being turned into a film!” until the ink is dry otherwise you end up looking like a complete loser.

Like me.

SAMUEL BONNER

Samuel BonnerSam works as a marketing manager for Indepenpress and has written novels such as Playground and Someone’s in the House.

 

Writers: Shatter your dreams and don’t give up the day job

The Elements of Style by Strunk and WhiteI’ll begin by giving you my résumé, and then we can tie up all that other stuff later. After all, if you don’t think I’m qualified to give you advice there’s no point in reading, is there?

My name’s Samuel Bonner and my writing career began when I graduated from London Metropolitan University in 2008 with a creative writing and film studies degree. I’d like to add at this point that a creative writing degree doesn’t mean jack shit as far as being a writer goes; it just means I have a degree in the easiest thing to get a degree in.

I’ve gone on to publish two novels, neither of which were self-published (although both were published by self-publishing houses, which is ironic – I’ll explain that later), and my debut novel, Playground has been considered for adaptation by a few film companies (at a later date I’ll tell you how convoluted that whole process was for me). In addition to that, I’ve won short story competitions, worked for both traditional and self-publishing houses, written and edited content for a fashion magazine sold globally, been a freelance editor, a content editor, and currently work as the marketing manager for Indepenpress. I’ve also had a few dealings with film companies for screenplays I’ve written.

Calling yourself a writer, and why I have a problem with it.

 

First of all, if you’re serious about eventually becoming a (good) writer, you should own two very important books. The books I am about to mention, have been more valuable to me than my entire university education studying the craft. They are:

  • The Elements of Style, Strunk, William, JR
  • On Writing: Memoirs of the Craft, King, Stephen

Don’t be a snob about it just buy them. Stephen King is one of the most successful American authors of all time, so even if you don’t like his books, read what he has to say. Trust me. The Elements of Style is a tiny little pocket book with everything you need to know about grammar, structure, vocabulary and language. This will make you a slicker, tighter, deadlier writer.

To use a horrible, cliché of an analogy, being a writer is a lot like being a professional athlete (I know, I nearly threw up writing that but stay with me). No professional athlete is simply brilliant at what they do, although they may have had some natural knack for it before taking it to the next level. That’s like writing. You may enjoy writing and may even think you’re good at it, but you probably suck. If you like writing for a hobby (and I can see why you would; it has a certain therapeutic quality), and you don’t want to take it any further than your laptop, then that’s fine. But don’t call yourself a writer. Because you’re not.

The writer, like the aspiring athlete, must toil at their chosen subject, dedicating themselves wholly to it until they are seasoned enough to ascend the ranks of their field, in our case, publication. You need to know the fundamentals, the tricks of the trade – in short, you need to be able to identify good writing from the retarded ramblings of a daydreamer. There’s a lot to learn, and it can only be done through reading a lot, and writing a lot.

The thing about writing is you need a great deal of discipline to be good at it. You must write volumes before you are worthy enough to be read by anyone apart from a family member or friend that loves you. You need to be a monk – enveloping yourself in your writing, getting into a regime, consuming as many books as you can, until all you think about is writing and what you’ll write next.

It’s for this reason that there is a stigma with self-publishing, simply because it suggests that the person has written a book and paid to have it published, without going through the grinder to obtain the acceptance of a traditional publisher (for the sake of this article, the grinder is a literary agent, rejection, and misery). This also suggests that they are not worthy of being read because they aren’t proper writers, which is not necessarily true.

When I was doing a nine-month work placement for a vanity press, I had to sift through a lot of the submissions and write a report on which ones I thought were good enough for self-publication (as there must be a standard, even when a person is paying the publisher for their services). Well I got pissed off with that chore really quickly. For every good manuscript I read, there were ten dreadful ones. And I mean dreadful. They weren’t formatted properly, single spaced with ridiculous fonts and tonnes of spelling mistakes – and all of this was before you even got to the story itself. Now the reason for this was because people weren’t taking their writing seriously. Editing, is as integral, if not more so, than the writing process. The would-be authors who sent in those hideous manuscripts didn’t give their craft the time and respect that it deserved, and you can spot that kind of car crash a mile off.

Another disturbing trend I found was people submitting autobiographies. Now, I don’t necessarily believe you have to have been famous to write an autobiography (although it helps), but you have to have done something with your life to warrant writing a collection of memoirs. And the majority of ones that I had the misfortune of sampling were diabolical. One guy, who was some transsexual dude that married a Muslim woman and had kids with her (or some shit like that), sent in his manuscript and had a covering note that said this book will sell well over as million copies.  The nerve of some people still astounds me.

I’m getting sidetracked.

The point I’m trying to make, is that simply writing doesn’t make you a writer. It makes you someone that writes.

I was in my final year of uni when I decided I was going to try and become a writer (pay attention to the way that was worded), and I knew if I was going to seriously do it, then I would have to step my game up. I did a bit of writing, mostly short stories and a bit of poetry, but it was always a hobby. I wanted to try and exploit the only thing I felt I was reasonably good at, and see if I could make it lucrative because in my mind, I was like “fuck working a regular 9 to 5. I began reading like a demon, book after book, writing furiously – different stories, novellas, and in truth it took me a good two years of doing that on a daily basis to get enough confidence to think of myself as a writer.

Then I got the best bit of advice ever. A publisher once told me, “Sam, don’t think you’re going to pay the bills with writing stories. You won’t be JK Rowling, even if you think you will be.” Now, despite that being true and the realisation that I will probably never be up on the bestseller list with a nice middle-class literary bore and some woman that bakes cakes, I have been able to make a living out of the skills that I acquired whilst becoming a writer (namely editing and marketing books). I wouldn’t say I’m lucky to be in that position because I’ve worked like a bastard to acquire those skills and learn a trade – because that’s exactly what writing is. It takes time, dedication, effort, and blind perseverance to become a professional. If you have enough love for what you’re doing, it’ll be a fun ride.  

 

Set realistic targets; anything worth having is worth working hard at.

 

The chances of your debut novel being picked up by a mainstream publisher and selling millions of copies are about the same as getting struck by lightning twice while a hurricane blows your house down and takes your winning lottery ticket with it. The sooner you realise that, the sooner you can dispel the ugly dream and get your hands dirty.

While some people are fortunate enough to have their books published by one of the big boys, perhaps even their first novel, I can tell you that even then the majority of the publicity work is left up to the author. I was once a guest panellist at a crime writing convention along with two other authors, whose publishers were far more prestigious than Empiricus who published my debut Playground. For the record, Empiricus is the traditional offprint of Janus Publishing, which is a self-publishing press.

So these other two authors, published by really great publishers, were sat with me in a gloomy church hall (I don’t know why that was the venue but it hardly seemed appropriate considering I began talking about my book which contained rape, drug abuse, and some satanic shit), and we were talking to a staggering crowd of about seven people. I’ve been to a few of these events and I fucking hate them. They embarrass me to death and they just aren’t worth the hassle. I’d rather watch Loose Women for three hours than do one of those things. Funny thing is, you always go there thinking there will be a crowd and you’ll shift all the books you brought with you, but the truth is it’s a hustle. Anyway, these other two guys, let’s call them Bob and Amy, they were late thirties (at the time I was 25), and they were really trying to sell their book to this massive crowd during this Q and A session. It might be worth mentioning that the audience hardly asked any questions and I got the vibe they were there out of some kind of obligation to the organiser. So whatever. I didn’t really give much of a shit because even if I sold all ten copies of the books I brought it still wouldn’t be worth me sitting through that kind of awkward bullshit.

Bob and Amy weren’t exactly loving it either, but I got the impression they liked the whole author role, as though that made them somehow exceptional to the congregation. Me, I seriously wanted to get it over with. Anyway, here’s Bob and Amy, with big publishers behind them, sitting in a decrepit church hall on a Sunday afternoon, talking about their books. Since then, I vowed not to do another one of those cringe fests ever again. Ironically, I saw stacks of Bob’s books in a Waterstones’ sale last Christmas, but he gave me a free one at the discussion so I wasn’t gonna waste the £2.99.

Authors need to be proactive but it takes courage and energy. While I sit here telling you how awful those kinds of author talks are, please note I’m not trying to deter you. What I’m actually trying to say is that to get recognised, to get to a stage where you’re talking to maybe two hundred people as opposed to two, you need to set realistic goals. Success comes with hard work. I’ve published two novels, none of which have made me rich, but slowly I’m building up a body of work. In four years when I hit thirty, that body of work should be substantial and I should have enough experience and publication history to get me ready for the mainstream. But even then I’ll probably end up doing another talk in another empty church filled with cobwebs, so swings and roundabouts.

Mister Optimist says always aim high. I say fine, just don’t give up the day job.

SAMUEL BONNER

Samuel BonnerSam works as a marketing manager for Indepenpress and has written novels such as Playground and Someone’s in the House.

How to find the right literary agent

Looking for an agent? There are five basic rules to finding the right agent for your work. There are no cast-iron guarantees that following them will land you an agent, but what they can guarantee is that paying attention to them means you’re giving your work the best possible chance to be noticed.

Keyboard typing1. Do your research

It used to be you could just pick up a copy of The Writer’s Handbook and research potential agents that way. Times change and one of your best research tools is now the internet. Agents have websites, Twitter and LinkedIn accounts, Facebook profiles: all of these are avenues for you to explore, to get a glimpse at who this agent represents, to discover what interests them, and to learn how best to approach them.

Take your time with this stage. There’s no point querying an agent whose clients are all crime writers when you write historical romances. There’s no point querying the first agent who takes your fancy without first finding out their guidelines for submission. Do your research. Do it well.

2. The query letter

Once you’ve found an agent or two that you think would be the right match for your work the next stage is to get in touch. Do NOT go wild and rush into contacting them. You need to ensure that you know exactly what they wish to receive in an initial query letter or email. Check their guidelines first and stick to them. Keep your cover letter brief and professional. Say a little about yourself without going into your life story. Never send your synopsis and sample chapters within the body of the email: these should always be separate attachments. If you have an online presence provide links to where the agent can look you up; if an agent’s in the least bit interested in taking you on as a client you can guarantee they’ll be Googling you at some point. Save them some time and show them the way.

3. The synopsis

As with your query letter check the agent’s guidelines on synopses. Generally agents don’t want to see more than 2-3 pages for a synopsis, though this can vary. Make sure all the relevant plotlines and characters are included and ALWAYS reveal the ending. Give it a final proofing before sending it off, then proof it again. If you’re making basic mistakes with your own plot and characters in the synopsis, if you’re not paying attention to basic grammar and punctuation, you’re on a fast-track to rejection.

manuscript4. Sample chapters

Check those guidelines again. What does your potential want to receive with regard to sample chapters? Some ask for the first three chapters, some ask for the first fifty pages. Send the agent what he or she has asked for. Never send random chapters or more than has been asked for in the guidelines. As with your synopsis, make sure you are sending in the best possible copy. Check and double check for errors in formatting, spelling, grammar and punctuation. It could just be you’ve written the next big thing to hit the publishing world, but don’t bank on that possibility making up for shoddy craftsmanship. Make every word and page count.

5. Patience is a virtue

So, that’s it then. You’ve done your research, found your potential agent, and sent off the best possible query according to his or her guidelines. What comes next? You wait. You may receive an acknowledgement of receipt, but don’t expect one. You may receive a reply within a week, but don’t expect one. Every agent is different, with varying workloads and schedules, and you must respect professional boundaries. If an agent states on their website that responses can be expected within a certain time frame, always leave it until after that date before getting in touch with a polite query about your submission. Pestering and stalking (yes, it does happen) will get you nowhere other than on a blacklist. Stay positive and continue to write while you wait for a response.

Good luck!

SHARON RING

Sharon RingSharon Ring is a literary agent and freelance editor. She currently represents Simon Bestwick and Gary McMahon. She can be found on Twitter as @AgentRing

Sharon Ring Website