THE WRITING LIFE – a great big scary decision!

So, major decision since my last post. After weeks of being stuck, hours upon hours upon hours of thinking so hard I thought my brain might explode, and more importantly, in-depth discussions with my agent, I have decided to put aside the novel I was working on (my fourth) and start something completely new. Arghhhhhhh!

I feel the need for a calming image here…

That’s better. Now, a few deep breaths…

Okay, so yes, that’s what I’ve decided. Altogether, I’d written about 70,000 words, 45,000 of which I really liked, although after chatting with my agent, I can see now that I’ve not quite shown my character on paper as she is in my head. That can be fixed. But what can’t be fixed without extensive rewriting and rethinking, is the story – or lack of it – which is why I’ve decided to put this one side, possibly for a couple of years.

Those of you who read this blog regularly will know that What She Lost, my third novel which is out in January, caused me some serious problems and it too, required extensive rewriting – I think I rewrote around 75% to 80%, and it’s now much nearer to the novel I had in my head when I started writing it.

Iris Murdoch said, ‘every book is the wreck of the perfect idea’ and that pretty much sums up my experience lately. It’s so frustrating to have an idea that is close to your heart, to have something to say that you feel is important and not be able to say it in a truthful and engaging way. I’m now pleased with What She Lost, but it did require an enormous amount of work, which I was only able to embark on after my editor and agent read the first draft and we had a long, creative meeting to thrash out some of the difficulties.

This time, my agent has read a sizeable chunk of my draft and confirmed my biggest fear – there wasn’t really enough to keep the reader turning the page. There are other problems too, of course, but I know how to fix those. The bigger issue is that my story just isn’t strong enough at the moment. This is partly to do with the structure, the order in which events occur, but I think I’ve maybe come at the whole thing from the wrong angle.

If I’m honest, what I have is interesting characters and an interesting situation – but that ain’t a story! So I need to do a lot more thinking in order to find a new way of approaching this novel. I’ve created a folder on my desktop into which I’ve put all my existing notes and drafts for that novel, and to which I will add whenever thoughts occur to me. In a couple of years from now, I hope to return to this character I love so much – I’ve called her Eunice Shaw – and create a story around her that I’ll be proud of.

In the meantime, I’m in the very early stages of exploring a new idea. This time, on the advice of my agent, I’m going to attempt to write a detailed synopsis before I start writing. It’s something I’ve tried (and failed) to do before, but now, having had the experience of going so massively wrong with two novels, I’m going to do my level best to find a more efficient approach.

I will, as always, keep you posted on my progress (or otherwise…).

In other news:

  • Both my existing novels, The Things We Never Said, and The Secrets We Left Behind, Are on special e-book promotion for the rest of this month (June 2016). The Things We Never Said is less than a bus fare at 99p, and The Secrets We Left Behind is 1.99 – less than a decent coffee! (Click links to buy) 
  • Workshops: the last in the current series of our How to Write a Novel workshops is on 23rd of July and there are still places available. It’s just £40 for the whole day. This workshop will focus on how to get published – writing a synopsis, approaching agents, etc. We’ll also look at traditional versus self-publishing. These workshops have been so popular that we’ve decided to run the whole programme again starting in September. Full details  here

Also, as I say from time to time, it’s great when a reader takes the trouble to leave a review on Amazon or Goodreads – it helps authors enormously, and it really doesn’t have to be very long. In fact, I’ve just received one of the nicest short reviews I’ve ever had:

This book captured the modern day and the 60s beautifully. It captured everything perfectly. I don’t remember many authors names, I will remember Susan Elliot Wright.


Isn’t that lovely? Thank you, dear reader.

THE WRITING LIFE – FACING THE DIFFICULT TRUTH

Following on from my fun post The Home for Redundant Characters last week, I thought I’d tell you a bit about what I’ve been thinking/doing since the wonderfully useful editorial meeting with my editor and agent.

Many of you will know that this novel, my third, has been a struggle from day one. I know there’s something really good in here, but I’m struggling to pin it down and I’d got myself in a bit of a mess. After discussing it in detail at the meeting, I have a clearer idea of what needs to be done. The downside is, it ain’t gonna be easy!

Before I talk about that, it’s worth mentioning an interesting point that was made in the comments on my post on 19th Jan: If I didn’t already have a publishing contract and submitted this draft to an agent,would I be taken on? The honest answer is, I doubt it. The draft shows I can write, but as Ernest Hemingway said, ‘the first draft of anything is shit’. One of the many joys of having an agent and an editor is that I have their support and expert editorial advice on hand to help me make it less shit.

The thing is, I have a track record, so they both know I can do it. If you’re a new author seeking an agent, you may be a far better writer than me, but if you submitted something like this, which really is a first draft, the agent has no evidence that you’ll be able to make a decent novel out of it. Also, of course, you wouldn’t actually send a first draft out to agents (though some people do).

So what does a new author do at this stage? I’d suggest doing what I did with my first novel – pay for professional editorial advice. It wasn’t easy for me to find the money – I was on a low income – but the feedback I received was excellent and I’d say it was money very well-spent. Make sure you check the credentials of any organisation or individual offering this service, though.

On to my writing life: as I’ve said, the editorial meeting was incredibly useful and productive. The biggest problem by far (which I knew) is the structure and timeline, and with three of us discussing it, it became clear just how complicated it’s going to be to sort this out, especially as re-jigging the order in which things happen causes all sorts of other problems to rise to the surface. It also became clear that there were a couple of scenes that weren’t really convincing, and one or two characters that just weren’t pulling their weight.

So, how do I approach this? First, I listed summaries of every single scene in the existing draft. Then I went through with a pen and made notes on which scenes I know will be cut, which need significant changes, and which can stay – with some rewriting.

Next, I moved all the ‘to cut’ scenes to a different list. They need to be cut from this novel, but there might be little character details, little bits of description or something else that will come in useful at some point. Tip: never discard anything completely!

I printed the list of scenes that I’m keeping for the moment. Of course, more may go, and I need quite a few new ones, too, but I’ll worry about that later. Then I gathered the essential equipment: index cards, glue, paper cutter, ready for a ‘sticking’ session.

And then I settled down to stick the scene summaries onto the cards, ready to shuffle into some sort of coherent order. Two things occurred to me: the first is that ‘sticking’ is not as much fun as it sounds, (and it takes a fecking long time). The second is that finding a coherent – that being the operative word – order is going to be, shall we say, challenging.

Still, there’s always coffee, and there’s always cake. (And wine, but I’d better not start on that until later!) I have absolutely no idea how long this is going to take me, and as I write this post, I’m wondering where I’ll be up to when I post again. I’ve booked a few days away at a writing retreat in a couple of weeks, so I’ll do a brief update post next Monday 9th Feb and I’ll post again after the retreat.

Doing a major redraft on a novel is, I imagine, a bit like climbing a mountain in that it’s hard work and it looks insurmountable, but it’s worth it in the end. On that note, I don’t usually talk much about reviews, but I was delighted to see this in an Amazon review of The Secrets We Left Behind: “I fell in love with the character ‘Eve’ – I will miss her now I’ve finished the book.” How lovely. That’s the sort of thing that makes it all worthwhile!

And if you’d like to keep an eye on what I’m up to, visit my website, ‘like’
my Facebook page or follow me on Twitter

I have a book deal!

The Writing Bit

This week, I have some rather wonderful news: I’m delighted to announce that my debut novel, The Things You Didn’t Know, is to be published by Simon & Schuster in 2013 as part of a two-book deal. I am thrilled to bits about this, as I’m sure you can imagine!  So my message this week is, don’t give up! This novel has had long journey, and as the publishing climate has become more and more difficult, I began to wonder if my beloved characters would ever see the light of day.

So I thought it might be interesting if I were to outline this novel’s journey:

After completing the novel, then titled Footsteps, to the best of my ability, I began to seek representation. I was lucky enough to receive an offer very quickly, although I was unable to take it up because the agent concerned was about to go on maternity leave. However, this gave me the confidence to keep approaching agents. I then received a number of rejections and began to wonder if the first offer had been a fluke. But then I received two offers of representation in the same week!

I met both agents, and chose Kate Shaw (then of Alexander Aitken, but now of The Viney Agency)  because she had ideas for the book and suggested revisions – including a major structural change – that I just knew were good.

So, I spent around seven or eight months doing these revisions, and after a bit more tinkering, we felt the novel was ready to go, and it was sent out to several major publishers. It didn’t sell on that occasion, but came very close indeed, with three of the editors saying that they’d been very tempted, four wanting to see my next novel and one – oh joy – actually taking my agent and me out to lunch. This particular editor had reservations about one of the characters, and so I set to work on more revisions, more subtle this time, perhaps rather too subtle, as it would later transpire, because Kate felt I hadn’t quite gone far enough with the changes. We talked about sending the book out with the new title to the smaller publishers, but then decided to put it aside for a while and concentrate on a second book.

I put the manuscript away for a whole year, during which time I wrote a radio play (currently under consideration with the BBC) and played around with a few different ideas for my second novel.  When I looked at The Things You Didn’t Know again, I saw things I hadn’t seen before, and did yet more rewriting. I was still unsure about a particular section, so I sent that section to a freelance editor for some professional feedback. Getting a fresh pair of eyes on your ms can be invaluable – you become far too close to it after a while. The editor made a brilliant observation about the order of events – by rearranging things slightly, that character’s story would be much clearer and more logical. Hurrah! I knew this was the right thing to do, and I spent the whole weekend busily re-ordering and rewriting, then rereading for ‘continuity’ errors.

The novel went out again, and bingo, a two-book deal with the wonderful Simon & Schuster! I couldn’t be more thrilled and excited!

So, if you’re trying to get your novel published, my advice is: don’t be in too much of a hurry – if a major revision will improve your novel, take the time and do it. Consider putting your work aside for several months so you can view it more objectively. Consider obtaining professional  feedback on your work and be open to suggestions, (only if they chime with you, though) even if it means a lot of work, and finally, don’t give up!

The Reading Bit

No reading bit, this week, I’m afraid. We’ve been busy and preoccupied with a family bereavement – my father-in-law died rather suddenly earlier in the week following a fall just a week before. This has obviously had a huge impact on the family, and things are in a state of flux at the moment.  It’s very strange to have had the good news about the book deal in the same week as this very sad news about my father-in-law.  
 

Next week’s blog will appear a little earlier than usual – hopefully midweek – with The Reading Bit covering  my ‘Top Reads of 2011’.


The Food Bit

No food bit either for the same reason (see above). However, watch this space for some gorgeous, vegan-friendly Christmas recipes in the next few days – it’ll be a bumper crop: a wonderful nut roast, some apricot and walnut stuffing and the nicest and most festive red cabbage with apple you have ever tasted!  Trust me!

For more about me and my work, check out my website: http://www.susanelliotwright.co.uk

What makes a good query letter?

The Writing Bit

So, assuming your novel’s ready to go out into the world and you’ve identified the agents you want to approach,  (see last week’s Tips on finding an agent   you’ll need a query letter that’ll make them want to read your work. I’m not saying my way’s definitely the best way, but I had a response from every one of the fifteen agents I queried and three offers of representation,  so I must have done something right! For what it’s worth, here’s how I approached it:

Initially, I sent out five query letters by snail mail, asking if the agent would like to see the first three chapters and a synopsis. I didn’t send the chapters at this stage because I’d been advised that if the agent then said, yes, please send your work, it would no longer be ‘unsolicited’ and would be likely to  be read sooner than unsolicited submissions.  They all wanted to see the opening chapters, and all responded within five weeks of me sending the chapters – three ‘liked it but didn’t love it’ and two requested the whole novel. By the second round of queries, it was seeming like a bit off a faff, so I started sending the chapters with the query. The response was maybe a little slower, but not much.

So, the letter should be short, no more than a page. In that one page you’re selling your book and yourself.  Obviously you need to interest the agent in your story and characters, but you also need to demonstrate your professionalism and your writing ability.


Address the agent politely and formally, using both first and last names. Dear Jane Agent is more professional than ‘Hi Jane’, and it doesn’t run the risk of irritating her with it’s bezzy-mates assumption.  It shouldn’t need saying, but make sure you spell her name correctly.  

I started my queries by saying I’d  recently completed my novel as part of an MA. If I hadn’t only just completed the MA, I’d probably have simply included this information in my writing biography (see below). Then I let her know I’d done my homework by telling her I was approaching her because she represented an author I admired. So you could say something like, ‘I see that you represent Jane Author, a writer I admire enormously. I think my novel would appeal to a similar readership.’  Or if you’re lucky enough to have a recommendation, this is where you can say, ‘Jane Austen suggested I contact you.’

Say what genre your novel fits into. If it’s not as clear cut as ‘romance’, western’, ‘historical’, could it be ‘commercial literary fiction?’  Or ‘contemporary women’s fiction’? Then pitch your novel. You have a paragraph in which to do this, so you’re not looking at a full synopsis, but something similar to the blurb you read on the back cover of a book.  Ideally, you should say who the main characters are, what the main thread of the story is, and when and where the story is set.  If you’ve room, you could comment on the structure, e.g. ‘The two characters’ stories are intercut throughout the novel’.

Then comes your writing biography. If you have a writing MA or have done a few courses, say so. It doesn’t mean your novel will be brilliant, but it’ll tell the agent that you’re a serious writer. (That doesn’t mean  you’re not a serious writer if you don’t have an MA!) Include anything you’ve had published, and any competition placings. Even if your previously published work isn’t fiction, it shows that you can write, and it shows a level of professionalism.  If your publishing history takes up too much room in your query letter, put it on a separate sheet.  I’d written a number of non-fiction books and also had a few short story successes, so I listed these on a separate sheet and said on the letter, ‘I enclose a brief writing biography’ (brief being the important word!) 


I ended by asking if they’d like to see the opening section and a synopsis, (or ‘I enclose the first 50 pages’)and I told them the full novel was around 80,000 words.  You should always tell them if you’re approaching several agents at a time, something like,  ‘I am actively seeking representation and so am approaching a number of agents.’  Sign off with a simple  ‘yours sincerely’. Make sure you include full  contact details and a stamped, self-addressed envelope.  And then you wait…

This was my approach, and it seemed to work well  – what’s your experience?

 

The Reading Bit

I haven’t finished the book I’m reading this week yet, so will tell you instead about Amy Sackville’s The Still Point. Some weeks after finishing this novel, I’m still not sure. There are two stories here: a hundred years ago, Edward Mackley sets out for the North pole but then disappears, leaving his new bride Emily to wait in vain for his return. In the present day, Edward’s great-great niece, Julia, is archiving the family’s inherited belongings and in doing so, makes a discovery that shatters her somewhat idealistically romantic view of Edward and Emily’s relationship. The past story is engaging and beautifully written – exquisitely so in places. But I found the present day story of Julia and her husband Simon slow, ponderous and rather pointless. Julia and Simon’s marriage is fragile, though not quite broken. Not only were they distanced from each other, but I felt they were distanced from the reader as well, possibly because of the ubiquitous omniscient narrator, constantly reminding us that we are observing them from afar. I never felt close enough to Julia or Simon to care whether their marriage survived or failed. As I read, I kept waiting for something to happen, and I frequently considered abandoning the novel; and yet, somehow, I did keep picking it up, and when I finished it, I was glad that I’d read it. Also, I have found my thoughts returning to it even though I finished it weeks ago. A strange book, but I do recommend it – I think!

The Food Bit

This week, it’s going to be more of a vegan recommendation rather than a recipe. We recently had the fancies for ‘dirty food’ – you know, of the ‘burger and chips’ variety; the sort of thing you never admit to your friends. I should point out here that himself is a vegan mainly for  ethical reasons, not because he dislikes meat. Anyway, having found that most veggie burgers are either bean-based (not what we were after for this particular meal) or contain egg and are therefore not suitable for vegans, I discovered the Granose Burger Mix. You just mix it with water, leave for ten minutes, then form into burgers and fry for a minute or two each side.  I served them in wholemeal buns with a slice of soya cheese, dijon mustard (me) vegan mayo (him), plus sliced cucumber and tomatoes and some shredded lettuce.  I then whacked on a portion of oven chips and hey presto, guilt free ‘dirty food’. Just the thing on a weeknight when you’re trying not to drink wine! Even my son – and this is a young man who is no stranger to the Real Burger – said, ‘I’m quite impressed with those.’ Blimey!

For more about me and my work, check out my website: http://www.susanelliotwright.co.uk

Tips on finding an agent

The Writing Bit
Ok, so you’ve finished your novel, written ‘THE END’ in big letters and poured yourself a  large drink. Now you just need to find an agent…
First, don’t even think about trying to get an agent with a first draft.  I’ve heard writers say they know their novel isn’t really ready, but ‘the agent can tell me what else I need to do’. NO!! True, most agents will give you editorial advice , but you are the author, and it’s your job to make the novel as  near-perfect as you possibly can before approaching an agent.  If you’ve just completed a first draft, put it away for a few months and get on with something else, then  go back to it with fresh eyes (see earlier blog – What to do with a novel that’s ‘almost there’) and you’ll be amazed at how the flaws will leap out at you. You’ll almost certainly need to  do some significant editing and redrafting before it’s actually ready. When it’s as polished as can be, it’s the time to start looking for an agent.
First, identify agents who represent authors writing  for a similar market. Check out novels that would sit happily alongside yours and look at the acknowledgements page where authors usually thank their agents by name.  You can then look up those agents and send them a query letter (more about query letters in next week’s blog) saying, ‘I see that you represent Jane Bloggs, whose work I admire. I feel my novel will appeal to a similar readership.’ It’s better to send to a named agent if you can, otherwise, your   work may end up languishing for months in the ‘submissions department’.
When I was seeking representation, a successful writer friend advised me to send a query letter before sending the submission; the agent will hopefully write back saying, ‘yes, please do send me your three chapters’, and hey presto, your submission is no longer ‘unsolicited’!
So, here are a few more tips:
  • Make sure you’re sending to agents who are likely to be interested – no point in sending sci-fi to an agent who only represents romantic fiction, or a children’s novel to one who represents adult fiction.
  • Send to five at a time, and make clear that you’re approaching other agents. As each ‘no’ comes in – and there will be some ‘no’s – send out another query. Keep things moving.
  • Send only what they ask for, i.e. First three chapters, first 50 pages etc. (although if there’s a sensible break on p53, it’s probably ok to send 53 pages.)
  • Check whether it’s ok to send by email, or whether they want hard copy.
  • Make sure you include a synopsis, and again, send what they ask for. Check guidelines on the agency website. Some want one page; some want three.
  • Don’t pester! Give them at least a couple of weeks before you follow up a query letter, and at least four weeks before you follow up a submission.  Do so by email and be brief and polite. If you still get no response, it’s probably best to move on.
  • Be grateful for any feedback and consider carefully what they say.
  • Don’t be disheartened – lots of successful novelists were rejected many times before finding an agent!
See next week’s blog: how to write a query letter

The Reading Bit
I found The Devil’s Music by Jane Rusbridge immediately engaging for three main reasons: the subject matter (I’m a sucker for a tragedy that blows a family apart)  the coastal setting, which is strikingly evoked  in all its weather-beaten savagery, and the language, which is consistently assured and  precise. 
Andy’s story is narrated in the first person, both as a child and as an adult, and his mother’s story is told in the less common second person. I’ve only come across straight second person narration a few times before, and it hasn’t always worked, but here the  mother’s second person voice is haunting and incredibly affecting. I remember once hearing a woman being interviewed about her experience of domestic abuse. I was struck by the fact that she referred to herself constantly in the second person, and I wondered if it was because  she couldn’t bear to inhabit the ‘self’ that had experienced such trauma; I wondered the same about this character, who has also had her share of trauma. Whether it was the author’s intention to suggest this distancing from the traumatised self, I don’t know, but it worked for me! 
The story centres around Andy, who, following his father’s death, returns to the family’s seaside holiday home to prepare it for sale.  Andy has been living in Crete, working in a taverna and trying to erase the sad life he left behind in England. When he returns to the very beach where, as a young child, he’d been left in charge of his baby sister Elaine, he is forced to face the memories that he’s been trying to escape: memories of Elaine, labelled ‘Mentally Deficient’ soon after her birth, of his abusive father, Michael, and of his depressed and grief-stricken mother who abandoned him and his other sister Susie when they were children. There are happier memories of his rope-maker grandfather, who taught the young Andy how to make rope and tie knots, an activity in which Andy still finds comfort, as well as a means of artistic expression. As the story moves towards its climax, there’s a truly surprising revelation, followed by a postscript in which we learn more about Andy’s mother, this time from a third person viewpoint. I found the ending both satisfying and moving.
Jane Rusbridge’s writing is vivid and controlled, and her attention to detail is meticulous, particularly the period detail, which was so subtly done that it felt effortless.  I enjoyed this book immensely!
The Food Bit
This week, it’s a non-vegan suggestion (back to vegan/veggie next week). Recently, Woman’s Hour ran a feature on ‘the perfect fish pie’. Well, I’m sorry Woman’s Hour, no disrespect,  but this is the perfect fish pie!
Smoked haddock pie (serves two)
Place half a small onion, one clove, and a bay leaf into a pan with 150ml milk. Bring to the boil, then lower heat and add about 350g undyed smoked haddock. Poach for about 5 minutes or until the fish is just cooked. Remove the fish, strain the hot milk and use it to make a white sauce: melt about 15g of butter and stir in enough flour to make a roux. Cook for a minute or two, then gradually add the hot milk, stirring all time. Simmer for about 10 mins, stirring often. Add 50ml single cream and a splash or two of white wine, then taste and season. While the sauce is cooking, boil about 350g floury potatoes for the topping. Flake the fish into a pie dish, chop one hard-boiled egg and add to the fish along with a handful of peas. Pour the white sauce over the fish mixture. When the potatoes are cooked, mash with 50g strong cheddar cheese and a dollop of Dijon mustard. Season to taste. Spread topping over the fish base and make a nice pattern with a fork. Brush with melted butter and cook at gas mark 6 (440F/200C) for about 30-40 minutes. Serve with a green vegetable and some grilled or roasted tomatoes.

For more about me and my work, check out my website: http://www.susanelliotwright.co.uk