Proceed With Care

The Blogosphere is heaving with writers many of whom are aching to be novelists. A few days ago, over at Purple Coo, I was asked a couple of questions about making submissions. This may possibly have raised a few eyebrows as I’m not exactly bursting with novels but I have plenty of writing experience and a few cautionary tales which may help anyone about to embark on this path.

1. It helps if you can write.
I’ve spent most of my working life as a professional writer. That hasn’t always been my job title, of course, which has been Research Officer or Local Government Officer (of various descriptions) but writing has always been essential to the job description. I’ve written research papers, policy notes, briefing papers and press releases and if you want someone to turn your hesitant speech or venomous rows into concise elegant prose, well, it ain’t me, babe, because I don’t do that anymore.

In addition I’ve been placed in national essay and poetry competitions, I’ve been published in magazines and I’ve sold work to newspapers. Earlier this year I even had the pleasure of seeing my work in a real live book. Last June I picked up a 20,000 word script I’d abandoned and, by January, had turned it into a novel, which, I reckon, also makes me a novelist.

If you have any doubts about your writing ability send it out into the big wide world and test the water.

2. Stop if…
a) You think writing’s a chore – it’s not, it’s a privilege and pleasure. Certainly it requires a lot of effort but sewing garments in a sweatshop is hard work, not writing.
b) You are not completely and utterly in love with your writing. If you don’t love your work why should the reader?
c) You think you’re going to get rich. For every dazzlingly successful novelist there are dozens who get two book deals then disappear off the radar. ‘Cracking it’ isn’t enough. You’ve got to keep turning out page after page of sparkling fiction if you really want to be a success.

4. Recognise help.
When my daughters were little I wrote a Mills & Boon. It came winging back with a very nice letter explaining why it had been rejected (not sticking to formula), suggesting amendments (beef up the hero) and inviting me to resubmit. Did I take this help? No. I saw it as criticism, spent the whole day chucking my toys around and vowed never to give M&B the dubious pleasure of reading my work ever again. This is what is known as a big mistake.

5. Choose your publisher wisely.
I sent my failed M&B to a new publishing company. They asked for some changes (make it less formulaic, make the hero less arrogant, grrr!). I delivered, they sent me a draft contract, I congratulated myself on how easy it had been, they went bust.

6. Don’t forget the rest of the book.
After mucking around with bits of genre romantic fiction it was suggested to me by Hilary Johnson, who has been described as ‘the doyenne of doctoring’ and who, at that time, ran the Romantic Novelists’ Association’s ‘New Writers’ Scheme’ that I should try my hand at contemporary fiction. I duly sent three chapters and a synopsis off to a well-respected agent who phoned me up the minute my script landed on her desk and asked to see the rest of it. My personal life then went into freefall and I failed to deliver the goods. This is what is known as a very big mistake and it’s one I’ve taken ten years to recover from! My advice to you is to write the whole book first, apart from anything else it’ll be good practise and teach you to hone your craft.

7. Listen to Beeny.
If you’ve ever seen ‘Property Ladder’ you’ll know that there’s always a bit where Sarah Beeny tells the would-be developers who intend to turn their wreck into a 6 bedroom, 1 bathroom family home, ‘If I was you I would add an extra bathroom.’ The so-called developers round on Sarah and tell her that the family they’re aiming at are good at crossing their legs and saving water so they don’t need an extra bathroom whilst the rest of us are screaming at the telly, ‘Listen to Beeny!!’

If a professional is good enough to give you their opinion, please act upon it. Please don’t think that she is wrong and that you, your partner, your best friend and your dog know better!

So there we are, a brief guide of the possible pitfalls you may come across on your journey to becoming a novelist. As for me, in July, I heard from the agent who’d read the novel I finished in January. She suggested a number of amendments and this time I’ve listened – there’s absolutely no guarantee that when I’ve finished my rewrite that my novel will be one that she can represent but at least I’ll know that I’ve tried. I would prefer not add to my list of big mistakes.

And finally…
* Clocks played a really tight, professional set at their gig at the Barfly on Tuesday despite Stepson Two’s appalling cold and sore throat.
*I saw my lovely Lily – I am, if you haven’t guessed, completely besotted with my daughters and it’s so good to catch up with either of them.
*The rewrite is going well at last!

Hwyl fawr

Comments

Exmoorjane said…
What a great blog, Chris. Excellent advice indeed. Didn't you mention that you were going to write about structure somewhere? Did I miss that? Would love to read it.
Very glad the rewrite is going well now. All power to your laptop! Now there's a reminder of something an editor once told me
'Exclamation marks are the most over-used and under-needed form of punctuation. Cut them out. Brutally!' Aaagh, can't help myself.
countrymousie said…
Great advice - you have such knowledge - I am trying to soak it up. You are so right about taking advice from the right people. They are successful because they know! So many people think they do.
I too use far too many exclamation marks. Thank you for your kind thoughts on my blog - love mousie
Milla said…
Great advice Chris, I so admire your *um on seat and your ability to get on with it. I think, echoing Jane really, that weekly tutorials should be set. I sobbed when the Times "turned me down", later when I met the Editor, or an Editor or deputy Editor (cut to the chase, Milla) that what I had been told had been incredibly encouraging and not a rejection per se at all. Instead it had deterred me from putting paw to keyboard for 3 years. But do I do anything about it even now? I do not. And Jane, one uses !!! in these comments to convey cheerfulness or good intent. Agree that in prose it's irritating, but please say we can still do it on here???!! Pleasey!!!
Flowerpot said…
I'd agree with every word Chris - and would also add go to reputable courses and join a writing group. Also (she says, grimacing as printer spits out sheet after sheet of paper) get a decent printer! Am so glad rewrite is going well. Best of luck with it all.
muddyboots said…
what a good piece blogging. sound practical advice for all those wold be authors out there.
Pondside said…
I hope your very good advice is heeded! I love to read and like to encourage all would-be authors to keep at it for the sake of all the readers out there!
Hannah Velten said…
That was really interesting reading your hints and comments...I agree with them all especially having to love writing (and being good at it!!!). I have a question relating to professional advice: I've had conflicting advice from my agent and a publisher - who would you believe about the commercial value of a book proposal, I wonder?
Agent says 'yeah' and agent
says 'non'.....keep up with the re-write and fingers crossed for you.
Mootia x
elizabethm said…
really interesting stuff Chris and comes hurtling off the page with the sound of truth. I'm still hanging around on the edge wondering about whether I could possibly write (not fiction, something about gardens and gardening) but seems stupid with one successful career to abandon if for something so precarious without any sense of whether i can get to first base: ie write! still thinking.
Hannah Velten said…
Thanks for the comment Chris...will mull this relationship question over...apologies but I had to remove the comment from my blog - agent reads it!!! Ops....
LittleBrownDog said…
Thank you so much, Chrish, for sharing your valuable advice and experience with us all, and I'm pleased to hear the re-write is coming along. I have to say, I'm sometimes astonished at some of the stuff that gets published (not yours, obviously!) There are a lot of mediocre books out there, and I'm sure many more excellent ones that never see the light of day. I was in the library just the other day, and on the display table was a book entitled "Making the most of your teeth", and another called "The sensible alcohol-drinker's handbook". Honestly - and they weren't even trying to be ironic! I sometimes think there's a lot of luck and being in the right place at the right time. And having a well known name or good connections I'm sure often helps, too - I've just finished a dreary book with a paper-thin plot by a well known newspaper journalist. I'm sure you have to be pretty resilient to be a successful author, too. I can't wait to see the finished FTT on the bookshelves.
Lane said…
Very well put Chris and 'ouch' at number 6!
We have to live and learn don't we:))
x
LittleBrownDog said…
Just re-read my comment, and thought it sounds as though I'm disagreeing with you - I'm not at all. Just want to convey to those of us (myself included) who have tried and failed, it's probably not because you're rubbish - it's because you were unlucky that particular time. Some very famous names have been turned down by dozens of publishers, many of whom will have been kicking themselves after the event.

Having said that, yes, of course it's important to listen to and heed professional advice. Oh dear, I'm drivelling now. I'll shut up.
vic said…
I admire anyone that can sit can write. I could never write stories at school, no imagination for that at all. Good luck with the rewrite.
Suffolkmum said…
I've printed this out Chris! Fantastic advice. Was squirming on your behalf at the 'mistakes' - too much like something I would do. I honestly don't think I would ever cut it - far too likely to fall in a heap at the merest criticism. Great blog though.
Crystal Jigsaw said…
Excellent! Advice received and mostly understood. This is a blog I shall keep coming back to. Thank you.

Crystal xx
Elizabethd said…
Well said Chris. It's as well to listen to the Beenys of this world, she always knows best!
Fantastic. Thank you for this . . .will print it out and pin it on my door as I do my re-write . . .
Written from the heart I reckon...get that *um back on the seat and carry on with the re write.
Re our respective ailing limbs have sent you a pm
Pipany said…
What a brill piece Chris. You point out the pitfalls perfectly and are very honest about your own mistakes too. Know what Jane means about exclamation marks but can't help myself either!!!!! xx
CAMILLA said…
Good luck with the Re-write Chris, you have given so much good advice about writing a novel.

Camilla.x
Cait O'Connor said…
It is very good of you Chris to give of your valuable time and pass on your very useful tips on writing and getting published and the pitfalls along the way.
Woozle1967 said…
Hi Chris - just popping in to say hello and thinking of you all.x
Livvy U. said…
Thank you for these wise words, and written in such an honest, self-deprecating way - sounds like quite a journey and I'm so glad for you now.
Helen said…
as everyone else has said this is great advice Chris. Thanks.
liz fenwick said…
Fantastic and I will link it tomorrow :-)
Lisa said…
...and I followed Liz Fenwick's link over here and I am so glad I did. Wonderful post. Thank you for sharing your advice and experiences.
Cathy said…
Wonderful advice, Chris. Thanks.
Rebecca Burgess said…
Thanks to Liz for sending me here. What wonderful advice.
hesitant scribe said…
Thank you for this post - some real home truths there as well as making me laugh!

My only issue would be that you say stop writing if it is a chore... writing is something I have to do, and I struggle with it. I can't not write - it's part of who I am, but there are times I loathe the fact that I am driven to do it! Having said that - when it's going well, when people read work and enjoy it, when I manage to get it right - then it becomes a real privilege and a joy.
Zinnia Cyclamen said…
Fascinating post. Glad the rewrite is going well, too. (Sorry I haven't been around much, but I'm immersed in mine, you know how it is!)

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