This weekend was spent at the Faber Academy’s two-day course, After the End. Since one of the things I learned there was the importance of a good title, I thought I’d play it safe and stick with their example…
The “end” in question, as anyone else out there desperately trying to finish their first novel will already have deduced, is the end of the manuscript. In other words, how do you know when it’s ready to send out, and what should you do to maximise your chances of success with an agent or editor.
Two days of information and discussion on those questions were led by Sarah Savitt, an editor at Faber & Faber, and Nicola Barr, a literary agent at Greene & Heaton.
They were both brilliant. Honest, open, empathetic and immensely knowledgeable. For anyone at this stage of their writing, if you can get along to a future course I’d highly recommend it. (And I’m not on commission.)
At £275, though, it’s a lot of money. So here are a few of the things that I took away from the discussions:
Good writing is the single most important thing. Both Sarah and Nicola described the feeling they get as they’re reading a first page and their shoulders drop as they relax because the author knows what he/she is doing. Having said that…
…there are a lot of people out there who know how to write. That’s not necessarily the same thing as being able to tell a story. No matter how beautifully written something is, it’s going to lose the reader if it’s not taking them on a journey, and if they don’t care about the characters. Sarah said, “If I’ve read 50 pages and I can’t see what the story is, I’ll be impatient.”
Think about your “hook”. In other words, how would you describe your story in a way that would make someone interested to read it. That might be because it’s high concept, like the Time Travellers’ Wife; or perhaps something distinctive about the story telling.
Trends are important to publishers. The reality is that a publisher doesn’t just need to love your book, they need to believe there are enough people out there who are going to be prepared to shell out their hard-earned cash to buy it. We talked about the success of Gillian Flynn’s brilliant “Gone Girl” and the trend that set for smart, psychological thrillers aimed at twenty- to forty-something women. Publishers will, though, get twitchy if they think readers may be on the verge of getting bored of something – so timing will be important to the appetite for your book. Given how long it takes to write and publish a novel, the conclusion I took away from this is that there’s little point trying to write in order to jump on a bandwagon (and if that’s the only reason for writing your story, your readers will probably see through it anyway); just be aware of the market and realistic about what this might mean for your book.
Both the market and the relationship between the industry and readers is changing. Self-publishing and new ways of communicating, particularly social media, are having a massive impact. Agents and editors are recognising that they are “no longer the sole arbiters of taste” and, encouragingly, both Nicola and Sara said they’d be completely open to writers bringing them previously self-published work. Recognising what a difficult process self-publishing is, they also said that not having sold many copies wouldn’t be an automatic turn-off. We talked a lot about social media, but the basic message was: get on Twitter, participate in things like #pitmad, and don’t be shy about approaching people in the industry through that route. (My own observation on this would be that some agents are more responsive to this than others, so you might want to follow them for a while to see their response to new contacts before deciding to get in touch this way.)
The editing process can mean big changes. I’d somehow imagined this to be a case of cutting an adverb here, or changing the sentence structure there. Not so. Perhaps the single most useful part of the day for me was seeing two examples of first pages that had been submitted by authors who now have publication deals, before and after editing. This really brought home the importance of focussing on the action to keep people reading. The realisation that your material can be good, and can fit well at other points in the book, just not at the beginning, was a real light bulb moment for me. Seeing those examples alone was worth the course fee.
Of course, the other great thing about the course was meeting other writers, all at a similar stage. What a genuinely lovely group of people they were. Here’s hoping we see our names on bookshelves one day.