I often get letters from writers who have finished their
first book. Thrilling for them, and thrilling for me to
hear from them. They'll often ask for advice on what to
do with the manuscript now.
recently wrote back to a young woman who'd written her
first book - literary fiction - and wanted to know about
writing a synopsis. I thought it was a good question,
and while my answer isn't exactly definitive I hoped
it might help her - and perhaps you ... Here is an edited
version of my reply...
Congratulations!!!! That is just fabulous! Oh, I remember
that feeling - exhaustion, amazement, fear, thrill.
- the next stage. The pitch.
or borrow from your library, a reference book called
The Writer's Guide to Editors and Agents. It lists people
in both the US and Canada, and often has very helpful
chapters on getting published. Writing synopsis etc.
suggestion is a) make sure your book isn't just written,
but polished. You won't get a second chance with these
people. b) spend time trying to find an agent first
- an agent will get you a better deal, find a good fit
for your book with the right publisher, get foreign
synopsis are about 500 words. And they're serious. No
exceptions. An agent gets hundred and hundreds of submissions
a week. They might read the first line of your synopsis.
You have a split second to grab them. The reality is,
they're looking for reasons to put it in the garbage
can and move on. Do not give them that reason. Make
make it short, make it personal.
want to know they aren't dealing with a flake. (There
are a few around, apparently!)
yourself every chance to succeed. Now is not the time
for impatience. Edit, polish, do your homework, prepare
- plan as though the rest of your life depend on it.
Because it does.
remember why you wanted to do this. It's so easy to
be caught up in the task and forget yourself. Now is
a time to remember who you are, and this magnificent
thing you've done for yourself. And not ever sell it
again, I'm thrilled for you. Good luck!
Like most writers I was turned down more often than
I care to remember, or cared to admit to my agent. Now,
when it's too late for her to dump me, I might as well
admit it. A few things would have helped had I known
them earlier. This is a small attempt to make your life
a little easier, if you're an unpublished author.
- finish the book. Most people who start books never
finish them. Don't be one of those. Do it, for God's
sake. You have nothing to fear - it won't kill you.
It won't even bite you. This is your dream - this is
your chance. You sure don't want to be lying on your
death bed regretting you didn't finish the book.
books on writing and getting published. I read "Writing
Mysteries", edited by Sue Grafton and published
by Writers Digest. I also read "Bestseller"
by Celia Brayfield and a bunch of other books including
'The Idiot's Guide to Getting Published".
this is your first time writing a book why would you
assume you know what you're doing? Why put that sort
of pressure and expectation on yourself? You might very
well have an innate appreciation of character and structure
and pacing. Some people do, and don't need these books.
Frankly, I'm not totally sure how much good they did
me. But I know for sure they did no harm. And it was
comforting to 'listen' to other writers and know they
struggled with the same things. I felt much less alone
cure for writer's cramp is writer's block.'
I suffered from writer's block for many years. Terror
had taken hold. I was afraid that, once tested, I'd
prove my worst fear true - I was a terrible writer.
What cured me was a sudden realization I was taking
myself way too seriously. And that I was trying to write
the best book ever published in the history of the world.
And if I didn't, I was a failure.
decided instead to just have fun with it. To write what
I loved to read. And to people the book with characters
I'd want as friends. Clearly we all choose our own characters
- but make sure you're going to want to spend lots of
time with them. They don't have to be attractive, kind,
thoughtful. But they do need to be compelling. Look
at Scarlet O'Hara. A petty, jealous, willful, vindictive
character, almost without redeeming traits, whose tragedy
is her failure to change. But she's riveting.
'Better to write for yourself and have no public, than
to write for the public and have no self.'
Be true to yourself.
what you want even if friends and relatives think you're
nuts. And, be very careful who you show the first draft
to. Once finished I'd strongly suggest you make a list
of 'readers', friends, acquaintances, friends of friends,
who'll read your work and critique it. This is a crucial
stage. But remember, your 'baby' is fragile as is your
ego at this stage. Mine certainly was. I'd invested
so much of myself a too harsh criticism or cruel critique
(always said with a knowing smile) could have made me
toss the whole thing away. I wish I could sit here and
tell you I was strong and determined and centred and
courageous about the first draft of STILL LIFE, but
I wasn't. And you're probably not absolutely sure your
first book is any good either.
the trick. You need to get it into the hands of other
people. You need to be open to criticism and guidance
and suggestions. But you need to choose those people
wisely. Some people are simply petty. Some people see
it as their God-given purpose to find fault. This process
isn't about finding fault. Frankly anyone can do that.
It's facile. No book is perfect. It's about making the
book even stronger. You need supportive, encouraging,
thoughtful readers. People who'll offer critiques in
a kind and constructive way and who understand the difference
between truth and opinion.
'A good writer must be willing to kill her young.'
A novel should be more than 70,000 words in length.
Publishers and agents judge length not by the number
of pages, but by the number of words. Your computer
will have a 'word count' option. In Microsoft Word it's
under the 'tools' heading. You might aim for between
60 and 90-thousand words for a first book. There are
always exceptions - some very successful debuts are
mammoth, but you're simply making it more difficult
to find a publisher. Still, more than anything, you
need to be true to yourself. If it needs to be 150,000
words then go for it. But my first draft was 168,000
words. I cut it in half , and it made the book much
stronger. Once my ego and pride was set aside I was
able to 'kill my young.'
must keep sending work out; you must never let a manuscript
do nothing but eat its head off in a drawer. You send
that work out again and again, while you're working
on another one. If you have talent you'll receive some
measure of success - but only if you persist.'
Persevere. Believe in yourself.
you've actually finished your first book - well, you're
AMAZING! You're already so far ahead of the pack they
can barely see your dust! Most people never even start
that first book. Of the few that do, most never finish.
If you've actually finished, well done! Frankly, as
far as I'm concerned, the pact you made with yourself,
probably as a child, is complete. You wrote the book.
You did it. And, if it's never published you should
have no regrets. I'm serious. You've accomplished something
most people only dream of.
chances are, you want to get it out there, and why not.
Here's how I did it, and my suggestions - remembering
that every writer has their own story and no one of
us is 'right' - it's just our opinion and experience.
sure your manuscript is as good as you can get it. Edit,
use words too big for the subject. Don't say 'infinitely'
when you mean 'very', otherwise you'll have no word
left when you want to talk about something really infinite.'
Print out a copy for yourself. When you think you've
finished set it aside for a few weeks then sit down
and read the hardcopy. For convenience sake I print
it out single-spaced, double sided and get it bound.
Much easier to hold, and it feels like a real book!
it's time to send it out, print double spaced, in 12-point,
on white paper, single sided.
not bind the manuscript.
your name and a key word from the title on the top of
each page, in a corner. Eg. Penny/Still. There's an
automatic function for that on your computer as well.
You don't have to do it manually.
the pages from the first page to the last. Don't start
the numbering fresh with each chapter.
worry that the manuscript will appear to be huge. Always
scares me when I see it at first. Looks like a dog house.
high. Might as well be turned down by the best. Buy
those huge thumpin' bricks of Guides to agents and publishers
in your country - read them carefully. There will be
essays on writing query letters, and each listing will
tell you what the agent/publisher specializes in. Don't
waste your time or theirs by sending them a mystery
when they only deal with non-fiction.
multiple queries. It takes a long time for them to get
to conventions and network.
here it is. This is how I got a leading London literary
agent and three-book deals with Hodder/Headline in the
UK and St. Martin's Minotaur in the US. Ready?
entered a contest.
was surfing the web and came across the Crime Writers
Association in Great Britain and noticed their Debut
Dagger contest.The Debut
is open to anyone who has not had a novel published
commercially. Click here to view the official CWA
were 800 entries worldwide in my year (2004). They shortlisted
14, and I was one. I knew then my life had changed.
As a reward for being shortlisted we were all invited
to the awards lunch in London. Michael and I went.
came in second - and networked like mad. I cannot overstate
the importance that award has had on my career. I met
Teresa a couple of nights later, actually at a private
party - but she knew my name and my submission. All
good London agents who deal with mysteries read all
the shortlisted CWA submissions.
'There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately,
no one knows what they are.'
W. Somerset Maugham
- I did something else that was crucial to my success.
Before the awards I did my homework and found out who
were considered the top agents in London. When Teresa
introduced herself at the party I was able to look her
in the eyes and truthfully tell her I'd heard of her
and she was considered a top agent. I think that made
an impression. If nothing else it showed a degree of
work and commitment on my part. In my experience you
get out what you put in. The harder you work, the more
research you do, the more knowledge you have, the better
your chances of success. Which isn't to say some people
don't walk in totally unprepared and have great success.
And why not? I have no problem with that at all. Anyway
that works is fine with me. But for myself, the more
prepared I am, the calmer I am, the better my brain
works. Again, it's giving myself every chance of success,
instead of handicapping myself through either fear or
are other awards out there. The Crime Writers of Canada
has just started a new Arthur Ellis Award for Best Unpublished
Mystery. It's very exciting. The website for more information
Another important and exciting one for writers of traditional
mysteries, like STILL LIFE, is given out by St. Martin's
Press and Malice Domestic, which is a fan run convention
in Washington. Very prestigious, very knowledgeable
and sophisticated people. The great thing about this
prize is that St. Martin's agrees to publish your book
if you win. You'll find information on it at: www.minotaurbooks.com You have to kind of root around in the site to find
it, but it's there.
- my brain is empty.
any of you have other suggestions for unpublished writers,
please go to the 'contact me' page and send them to me.
For instance, Elizabeth Kimmel, a very successful writer
of children's books wrote with a fabulous tip. She suggested
that after you send out your first book to agents and
publishers, while you are waiting for their response,
instead of fretting you might consider starting your
second book. That way you pass the time doing something
constructive and creative. Elizabeth did exactly that,
and while her first book actually didn't sell, her second
- the one she wrote while waiting - did! And launched
Brilliant idea, Elizabeth. Thank you.
We need to support each other. Isabelle Allende once
said that the end doesn't justify the means, the end
is decided by the means. If we're petty and greedy and
shallow and put our need to win ahead of our humanity,
then nothing good will come of our careers.
have helped me, and I'd consider it a real privilege
to help you.