Monday, June 16, 2014

My First Novel - Panel Discussion

I don't know how I have so little time to write posts at the moment given that I'm not working but I guess it's because I'm spending most of my free time writing my novel or playing the guitar and my blogging time just... gets away from me.

Anyway, I've been meaning to write this post for a while as I thought it might be of use to some people.
At the start of June I went to a panel discussion at the Southbank Centre in London called 'My First Novel'. It was a really great event and focused a lot of writing techniques, plot creation, query letters and the publishing industry as a whole.

The panel was led by novelist Kate Mosse (Labyrinth and The Winter Ghostsand she was joined by Felicity Blunt, an agent with Curtis Brown; Emma Healey a debut novelist whose first book Elizabeth is Missing was released a week and a half ago (and before that sparked a bidding war with publishing houses at London's book fair); Charlotte Mendelson a novelist (Daughters of Jerusalem and When We Were Badand publisher and finally novelist Sarah Waters (Fingersmith, Tipping the Velvet and The Night Watch among others),

Each person had something really worthwhile and significant to contribute to the discussion and there was a time for audiences to ask questions afterwards. I made really quick notes during the evening so the following will probably run a little like a commentary.... Much of it i'm sure you know, but nevertheless I hope it will be useful to some....

I was a little jealous of Emma. She originally began writing her book a few years back, writing little snippets here and there but wouldn't admit to being a writer or that she was writing a book for a long time. In the end she signed up to do her masters in Creative Writing at UEA and Elizabeth is Missing began to take shape. During her masters she met an agent from Curtis Brown who asked her to send her MS in once it was ready. So she did, and the rest is history. She said one thing that was important to her is that she always thought about the reader when she was writing. I thought that was a really interesting point. While I do often think about the reader and what they'll think when I'm writing, I mostly concentrate on the story and let the story go where it wants to go rather than worrying about what the reader might think. 

Felicity then piped up about what she looks for when she is reading a manuscript. She looks for something what leaps out at her. A large part of that is the title of the book. It needs to be interesting and a little mysterious. It needs to make the reader ask what the story might be about, and a book, when being queried, needs to have a title. There's no point in sending in 'untitled MS'. She said the cover letter also must be interesting, it must have a great synopsis and book description with a book but it mustn't be too long. She has emails coming in constantly and the phone rings and there's hundreds on manuscripts to look at, her interest needs to be grabbed almost instantly. Your pitch must be interesting. She advises not rushing your cover letter. Take your time with it, ensure it's brief and professional.

The best way to know that your title is catchy and your synopsis is right is to ask someone you trust to read it and be honest. Agents choose what they'll invest their time in initially with the some method we choose a book we're going to read - good title, pick up the book, turn it over and read the synopsis. Then if that sounds good, we're ready to read the book. A good way to develop the synopsis is by remembering what inspired you to write the book initially. What did that feel like when the idea came to you? Bring the passion back but keep it compact. What is inspiring to you is likely to be inspiring to the author. Remember, they want you too. Without writers there is no publishing! 

So query letters - short and professional, a short bit about your book and the synopsis, don't send a headshot (more on that soon), and they don't want to scroll through a long email given they're sent around 1000 queries a day! Look for an agent that represents your genre, don't waste your time (or their time) on an adult fiction crime agent if your book is YA fantasy. Find an agent near you. If you find one overseas it might be harder to make it work given time zones and whatnot. You want to be able to meet with them. Most agents have partners in different companies anyway to help sell your book in different places.

It was then Charlotte's turn to take the mic. First and foremost she wanted everyone to know that if you're finding your book hard to write, that doesn't make you special. This is always what it's like. It's hard. It's always going to be hard, whether it's your first book of your 21st book. You need to endure and keep going. Just because you think it's rubbish, it doesn't mean that it actually is rubbish. (cue laughter from the audience).

Sarah, who I might add had a number of fans in the audience who called her an absolute genius, they were ready to bow down and kiss her feet, had some advise about the process of writing. She's written 5 novels now and she said her process of writing is essentially the same as it always has been. It's the spirit of exploration that changes. She often does 2-3 months of pure research first (she writes historical novels), and through that research she finds her plots and her characters and then develops fiction out of that. She also works regular hours - Monday - Friday and it works for her. She said each book presents a different challenge and her most recent book took almost 5 years to write and perfect. Sometimes, she said, you just have to go over and over. Sarah did mention that chapter four is always the hardest to write as that's when there's a true change of pace in the novels. 

The audience were then invited to ask questions.

Emma was asked if she found the editing process, someone ripping her work to shreds, hard. She responded by saying that she was used to it after doing the masters, but it can still be frustrating at times. She said she self edited a lot and then would hand it to the editor who would rip it apart. However she said that everything someone could say that might help the book is good. Editors will be honest and that's important. Relish it and have a positive attitude. 

Sarah added that the editing process makes the book better but you may feel tired about it. Negative comments can be most useful though. Copy editing is so important and makes such a difference. She mentioned she had two editors, one in the UK and one in the USA for different audiences, that must be hard!

Charlotte mentioned that everyone needs editors so if you have someone who is intelligent and read books, then trust them. You may not agree but it may help you see something differently. Editors are great at pointing out the weak parts. 

One woman asked is looks have any bearing as to whether an author gets a book deal or not. She mentioned her friend was considering plastic surgery after seeing all the beautiful authors on latest release book covers. I think the jaws of everyone in the panel dropped about as far as they could. Every single one of them said 'no no no, do not let your friend get plastic surgery.' Looks have absolutely no bearing on whether or not a book is picked up. It's purely about the writing. Felicity even mentioned she finds it weird when authors send a head shot as when she's reading the MS she usually forgets the author exists and gets wrapped up in the story (mental note: don't send headshot.) So just in case you were wondering, what you look like does not matter at all. (and don't even think about plastic surgery. We are all who we are meant to be.)

The entire panel were asked about their thoughts on planning the book. Felicity straight away told the audience not to send an agent an outline of a book. They don't want that (obviously), they want the MS, or at least the first 3 chapters. 

Emma said she wrote a 15,000 word novel plan. She doesn't write in sequence so it was helpful. She colour coded it and wrote in different fonts... on reflection she's pretty sure that was just procrastination. However she has friends who write chronologically and only have a basic outline or a plan in their heads and it's totally fine. It's up to the individual.

Charlotte said her plans are a constantly evolving nightmare. She squishes it all together and works out where all the characters are and goes from there whereas Sarah said the novels she has had the least trouble with she's always had a plan. It's always basic and there is a lot in between she didn't know but she said she needs to know what she needs to say and how to say it. Kate contributed to this question by advising to choose the tools that are right for you. Perhaps writing chapter one is better than writing an outline. Agents and publishers don't buy an outline. Some writers prefer to have a total outline and some don't. There's no right way, just go with what works for you.

Another audience members asked why gay and lesbian characters are always secondary, not the main character. If we have gay marriage, why can't we have gay publication. This question took the panel by surprise but mentioned there were a number of books with gay characters and more coming out with central LGBT characters. They also mentioned the number of LGBT authors now, however not all of them write about gay or lesbian characters, but there certainly is some out there (maybe the market for this is growing, if anyone wants to pick it up?!)

Another audience member said her agent started sending out her MS in January yet it was now June and she hadn't heard a word from him. The book was part of a planned series and she wasn't sure what to do. Carry on with the series or start new? This confused Felicity and Charlotte who said she certainly should have heard by now either way. They said your agent should always be keeping you in the loop and that you have a right to bad news and to see the responses. There needs to be good communication between the agent and the author and if there's not maybe the relationship isn't working.

There was some talk about self-publishing, which I'm sure was a little awkward given they're all in the publishing industry in some way but Felicity said self publishing has had a huge effect on the industry in general and the reputation of it has changed a lot too, especially since 50 Shades of Grey. Some publishers do look at self-published authors and many authors have been picked up this way. Great success has been proven so there's definitely merit to it. They reminded the audience as a self-published author you're responsible for everything - price setting, marketing etc.

The panel were then asked how they transform good ideas into a plot.
Sarah said you can't not put a plot in a novel so you really need to find it. She always finds the characterisation harder and can find plots anywhere. She see's people at a bus stop and wonders about their story, for her it often goes from there.

Charlotte says she's the opposite. She finds characterisation harder. She said she finds her plot by looking at the interaction of people and what comes out of that. She also believes you don't have to start with a plot but it will appear to you.

Emma said if you have a good idea, the plot will reveal itself to you but if you can't see past the first scene it probably won't grow. Kate added to this by saying that things have to happen. Anything that isn't serving the plot should go. What is happening in each chapter? Write yourself into the plot but once you've found it, delete the unnecessary stuff. 

Someone asked Emma if she thought creative writing courses were useful and Emma said they're definitely more constructive than sharing your writing with friends and family who just want the best for you. You have to know why you're going though. It will help you to grow as a writer and will give you a lot of tips. It's also great if you just want a year to purely be a writer. 

Key Tips
  • Hard work is important
  • You need to have passion. You have got to want to do it. Finish it. Publish it etc.
  • Conserve your willpower. Sit down and write. Self motivation is vital. Other things you're doing - joining a gym, going on a diet, learning an instrument, it might cut into your willpower. If you can juggle it al that's fine, if not maybe wait until your first draft at least is written!
  • Once you've finished the first draft, leave it for a few weeks and then go back and look at everythign - character, plot, writing. If something bugs you, it will bug the agent and the publisher and the reader. Don't make an agent read something if you're not sold on it.
  • Be disciplined. Ask yourself, does that really work? Is that really what would happen? Is that really what it would sound like or feel like? Check your spelling and grammar.
  • You may be squeemish about someone seeing your writing, your precious baby you've been working so hard on... publishers and agents see manuscripts daily. They're not squeemish.
  • Don't be alarmed if you feel afraid. Just go with it.
  • It's difficult at times. Just try and be open with yourself
  • Be proud. Guard against cynicism. This is your path
  • Show your work to someone else. Don't fear their comments - it's all helpful!
  • Write for one minute. It's better than zero minutes.
And that's all! A long and length post, I know, and I apologise. I thought about splitting them up to make it easier for you all, but I thought having it all in one post will be helpful for referring back to it in the future. I hope this has helped somewhat. It was a really great panel discussion, and as soon as I left the auditorium I signed up for a few creative writing courses - really looking forward to them and grabbing some more helpful tips!

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