Editorial critique for #authorsforgrenfell

I’m offering an editorial critique via the online auction Authors For Grenfell Tower. The money raised will be paid to the British Red Cross and will be going to residents affected by the Grenfell Tower fire.

I’ll read and report on up to 15,000 words plus a synopsis or proposal for your novel or work of narrative nonfiction.

More details on this specific offer here, and more info on how to bid here. Bidding is open until Tuesday 27 June, and this particular offer is available to writers worldwide.

And there are many other offers too – critiques from editors, lunches with agents, signed copies from authors, and many bookish giveaways. If you are a writer, these could be excellent opportunities. If you are a reader, you can never have enough books on your shelves, right?! And you might have chance to meet your favourite author in person too.

Bid, and bid generously – on as many bids and as much as you can afford! I can’t think of a better cause than helping people rebuild their lives. And if you’re unable to bid, perhaps circulate on social media to people who can.

Rejected, Or Declined?

Something that all writers have to deal with at some point or other is rejection. Your manuscript gets turned down by that agent who’d expressed such enthusiasm about the opening chapter at a writers’ conference. Or an editor says no, stating that they’ve just taken on a work in the same vein. Or you get a standard rejection letter. Or you wait and wait and wait, but just don’t hear back.

This is going to cause disappointment. Sometimes writers seem to take things personally, and self-pity and blame arise. I’ve heard writers who’ve had dozens of rejections say, ‘It’s not worth bothering – publishing is a closed shop.’ But no, that’s not true. Connections and an established profile can certainly help you get your book read, but I can cite plenty of instances of well-connected writers with profiles who have not got a deal from a publisher. And I can also cite plenty of instances of writers who’ve put in the work (which can include making connections from the ground up), and been discovered via the submission process.

But some reasons given for rejection can feel wrong-headed.

Sorry, there is a glut of Victorian crime fiction. (Until the next one comes along.)

Sorry, there have been a lot of books about witches lately. (Yes, and there always will be.)

Sorry, this subject matter is too American. (Well, maybe it’s time to try this idea in the UK? And maybe this British author might help translate it for the UK readership?!)

Sorry, the author of this book set in Spain isn’t Spanish. (!!!)

Sorry, the writer doesn’t have enough Twitter followers. (Piss off!)

Maybe I underestimate the power of the marketing department (as my friends who work in-house warn). But I know that any editor who loves a book enough, however criminally Victorian, witchy, American, un-Spanish, or tweetless, will make a case for it. So such explanations can seem fundamentally unimaginative, and even a bit hollow. Cue: the frustration of the rejected, whose mind goes into overdrive cursing the dishonesty of the industry.

So let’s be honest with ourselves, and with clear thinking cut through some of the disappointment.

There are tons of manuscripts for Young Adult dystopian fantasies, for example. That glut is not necessarily a cause for despair. This could also be read as a sign that a particular category is popular. A lot of YA fantasy gets published, and read and enjoyed, and new books will continue to be published and read and enjoyed.

But we do have to be sensible, and acknowledge that too much of a good thing often leads to a saturation point. When I attend writers’ events, a large proportion of the audience often seems to be writing YA fantasies. I’m also thinking of the wide eyes and raised eyebrows of a bookseller I know when I asked her about the market for YA dystopian fantasy. Beautifully plucked, but raised very high. Your book might be good, but someone has to sell it to a crowded market.

What this means is that your book has to really stand out, to really click with someone, and in the case of YA dystopian fantasy, the emphasis is on really, as this genuinely does seem to be an oversubscribed category at the moment.

I have seen many writers, through their application in drafting, reach a stage where their craft and technique are highly professional and their manuscripts are publishable and ready to submit. We’ve read books that do get selected; we know that this one is certainly good enough.

Hereon, taste dictates what happens: finding an agent and then a publishing deal and then the success that comes with a readership. Such matters are (thank the god/dess of imagination) unpredictable. Something has to click with the reader, and feel very special, and that comes rarely. There is no blueprint – it really is an X Factor. Professionally produced manuscripts can sometimes still be a bit dull for some readers, and there are a lot (LOT) of manuscripts out there. And if that spark isn’t there for that particular reader, a writer has to move on until that reader is found.

The agent Jo Unwin expresses it graciously on her website:

Please do remember that the relationship between an author and agent is very personal, so you may write something fantastic that just isn’t for me. There are so many brilliant books that I’ll never read, bookshops are heaving with books that someone loves, but I’ll never get round to. So be as professional as you can, and try not to take rejection personally.

I think that’s a great analogy. My own bookshelves (and floorboards) are heaving with plenty of books waiting for me to read. And there are many I’ve started, and where my bookmark remains at page 10/30/70.

Something that I don’t think that helps the process of submission is the word rejection. (Slush pile is little better: it conjures up a pile of mush.)

Rejection: ‘the dismissal or refusing of a proposal’.

I am just dressing things up, perhaps, but I do prefer the idea of a book being declined. Maybe think in terms of someone declining a request to go on a date, or accompany you to the prom. (But maybe don’t think about declining marriage proposals. A realistic marriage proposal is, after all, made some time after a couple have got together and worked out their compatibility.)

Decline: ‘politely refuse an invitation or offer’.

It’s a subtle matter, but most of us prefer to be politely refused than to be dismissed. And on the whole I think agents and editors do refuse politely, even if it’s a standard letter that comes months and months later.

Some agents never acknowledge or respond, of course, and are clear about that in their submission guidelines. Ideally, I’m sure they would like to answer, and I’d like to think that if I were an agent I’d at least be able to decline a book with an email. But the sheer quantity of submissions and their commitments to ongoing authors mean they have to prioritise, and they really can’t spare the time. They are under no obligation, until a contract is signed.

When, in a century long ago, I was an in-house editor I did sometimes give a sentence or two of feedback to agents (mostly) or authors when I turned down manuscripts. I think I was being dutiful in offering a reason, but, looking back, I’m not sure such explanations are always helpful either. A proper editorial conversation takes time, and, unless the offerings are really shrewd and specific, scraps of advice can confuse as much as help. They can sometimes give false hope, too, in that we latch on to possible fixes. (Perhaps, if I drop the present-tense narration he doesn’t like, he’ll take my book on?)

And besides, someone else might like it, present tense and all, and, sharing your vision, have specific advice that will be more helpful.

If I were an agent or publisher today, I suspect that the best approach to declining a manuscript would be to say some version of: I just didn’t love this enough to want to take it on. Or: I just don’t feel confident/passionate enough about the idea of selling this. Another possible reason: I’ve recently taken on something similar, and I don’t think I can do justice to both books/authors (another version of not being able to sell something, not least as you’d be competing against yourself). Or maybe, and specifically: collections of short stories or essays are a hard sell – at least in book form. (Which is kinda true, and kinda sad, because they are often my favourite books. But at least the writer can try literary journals for individual stories or essay; the book or the collection is always not the ideal receptacle for a short story. If I worked in-house again, I’d like to think I’d put in extra effort for good short fiction, because that is so often what I love.)

But really, these are pretty much the only answers. There are other reasons (like, the writer seems unrealistic, or a bit of an arsehole), but I might keep those to myself, because I’m not sure how that would help.

But if an agent or an editor sees something that they love, even if it’s a hard sell, they will take on a book, and find a way. If they don’t love it enough, that’s that. And if someone sees something that they think is shite, or simply unaccomplished, it’s entirely possible that someone else will love it. Just check out bestsellers on Amazon that get tons of five-star reviews as well as tons of one-stars. (There is a lot of shite on Amazon. But a lot of shiny stuff too.)

Yes, I am probably being pollyanna-ish, or maybe Moomintrolly. Declined or rejected, you end up in the same place. But I do think future success can be helped by the right attitude – or prevented by the wrong attitude. You do have to create your own luck.

If you are in the position of sending out work right now, and not hearing back what you want (or at all): don’t get down-hearted. Maybe replace the idea of rejection with the idea of being declined. Allow yourself a little time, but sometime soon pick yourself up, dust yourself down, make a cup of tea or pour a glass of bubbly, and send the book out again to someone else. Hold on to your own vision. It’s hard to do both things at once, but be hopeful, as well as realistic.

(And try not to be an arsehole. Nobody owes any of us anything that isn’t earned, really. If you act like an arsehole, karmic return may come back and bite your own. Bitterness is unattractive, and rots the soul, and nobody wants to work with an arsehole.)

(And yes, agents and editors as well as writers can be arseholes too. No names, but. They are found in every walk of life.)

Also remember that editing a book until it’s in the best shape for submission is a process that could go on forever. (Here is another post on receiving feedback on your work.) Sometimes it’s a good idea to make a start on a fresh work. 

If you are a writer, don’t be deterred. If you are a writer, you will/should carry on writing anyway. If not right away, later.

But maybe, too, invest some time in doing other things that can raise your chances of success. Network, join genre organisations, continue to improve. Research agents further, perhaps. (I will do another post on submitting writing in the future.)

And there’s always self-publishing, which is not second-best, though it can be a lot of extra work. There are many, many books out there. I think self-publishing authors facing the challenge of getting noticed can start to understand some of the challenges faced by authors and editors selling books – though at least they are taking charge of many of their own decisions.

And also note that a lot of perfectly good books that are published the traditional way disappear from view shortly after publication – or even before, it seems. They are published without trace. Sometimes authors feel that their publishers didn’t do enough marketing, but that sort of resource has real costs, and there are limits to what anyone can do.

Sometimes, if we look at things soberly, it’s just the case that readers didn’t love them enough either. This is a more subtle form of rejection, perhaps – being declined by readers. In the olden days such books would go out of print, or lurk in stacks of remainders in the author’s garage until said author flogs them for a couple of quid at library talks. At least ebooks and print on demand can extend the life of a book now, and perhaps make it easy for the work to be rediscovered. Look at the notice achieved by writers such as Lucia Berlin or John Williams long after they’ve died. Literary immortality is no small achievement.

But many writers will enjoy success in their own lifetimes! Take heart from the advice and real-life examples offered in the following links below. Yes, as one of the links describes, all of those books in the photo above were once upon a time rejected, or should I say declined. Until someone said yes.

Rejection Letters: The Publishers Who Got It Embarrassingly Wrong… (Huffington Post)

How to Survive Rejection (The Review Review)

Best-Sellers Initially Rejected (Lit Rejections)

George Saunders And The Intuitive Swerve

I was very lucky to see George Saunders talking about his first novel Lincoln in the Bardo this week. The man is a true inspiration. His writing is hard to categorise  – good, we say! He’s not a conventional realist, and his stories are these great shots of something we can’t predict – they have strands of the surreal, the hyperreal, the dystopian, the fantastic, the satirical, the gonzo and oddball and geek. Even more impressive is the fact he’s made himself a successful career as a published writer and a highly regarded teacher of creative writing (at Syracuse) on the basis of not publishing a novel, at least till now. Yay for not writing novels yet! If only we all were so patient.

And this novel: worth the wait! It’s quite a feat of the imagination. Many screen inches have been devoted to it already, so I shan’t repeat any of that, but what I shall say is that it contains many of my favourite things in writing: ghosts, the American Civil War, voices, intelligence, daring, swearing, exquisitely carved sentences, great liberties with history, great truths, a big heart.

His talk at Goldsmiths, where he was expertly interviewed by Erica Wagner, featured an enactment of several chapters with himself and several speakers. And, of course, it also featured many nuggets of his teaching and editorial genius, delivered with great wit and warmth and purpose. George Saunders must be a strong candidate for the writers’ writer.

Something I enjoyed in particular in his discussion of writing was this sense of a great writerly intuition uncluttered by self-consciousness or overthinking. As has been reported, this was a book that was a long time in the coming, and it seems to be a book that emerged instinctively. ‘When I wanted to outline, I didn’t,’ he said. He specifically talked about writers cultivating their ‘intuitive swerve’, discussing writing as improv, and letting the ghosts speak – his ghost characters in this book, but too I think that applies to the ghost that is any character we create.

Discussing historical fiction, he said emphatically that he doesn’t care what life was like in 1862. That’s my kinda historical fiction.

He also talked about the differences for him between writing a short story and writing a novel. This novel, of serious matters (war, a parent’s grief), required earnest writing, and his short form comes with a ‘tic of humour’ that’s pretty much a hallmark. It makes me think how some of my own short stories, written for workshops and for reading aloud at events, perhaps play a little too easily to the gallery, at the expense of digging deep. I think it’s quite an achievement to have combined humour and earnestness in Lincoln in the Bardo.

George Saunders also stressed the importance of revision – important in so many ways. First (and I think he quoted Einstein here?), he talked about problems needing solutions beyond the plateau of their conception. Of course our first drafts need work, and maybe lots of it! And revision offers so many chances to rework and fix and tweak and polish –  ‘the little move is what distinguishes you’, he said. He parsed the sentence ‘Frank came into the room and sat on the brown couch’, showing how many of those words, or those sorts of words, are superfluous (we ended up with just ‘Frank’). Through pruning away and leaving some work for the reader, we grow a respect for the reader, which creates intimacy.

George Saunders also advocates empathy more broadly as a cure for the tensions of these politically divided times. He describes Trump voters, for example, as including the sort of ordinary people he grew up among, and he met many too in reporting from the 2016 campaign trail, describing them as nice, affable, not angry. ‘How much compassion can you give? An infinite amount.’ And this gets embodied, of course, in the shining example of Lincoln in his book, as he told the Washington Post:

The main thing that I feel is — whatever you want to say about Lincoln — his empathy expanded as he lived. He was probably a typically racist Indiana boy. And then those last three years, his pot of empathy went out to include everybody: his soldiers, of course, these millions of Americans who were being enslaved, even the South. So that’s why we love him, I think because with all that pressure on him and all that hatred coming toward him, he didn’t turn to the haters and disabuse them; he actually tried to include them in his love.

Though too he cautioned about the enabling dangers of what the Tibetan Buddhists call ‘idiot compassion’, something that we perhaps need to hear more often. (I am sick of all the pandering, and I want my country back.)

Finally, Saunders also warned all writers against ego. ‘Don’t get ambitious. Don’t get elated.’

All round, a very brilliant and engaging evening. I am so lazy nowadays, one of those lazy home-working Londoners, and I don’t go out that much. But it was only the next day that I realised I’d schlepped all the way to SE and back (left the house at 4.30, got back at 10.30) without hesitating to think about it, because if you are serious about writing you don’t miss up the chance to listen to someone as brilliant and much loved as George Saunders speak.

A few Saunders links here:

* What Writers Really Do When They Write, by George Saunders – sterling advice

* Powell’s interview with George Saunders, February 2017

George Saunders interviewed in Vanity Fair, March 2017

* Who Are All These Trump Supporters? by George Saunders, from the New Yorker, July 2016

* The Anton Chekhov-George Saunders Humanity Kit: An Introduction – a real treat for syllabus geeks in the form of course paraphernalia from one of the great teacher’s courses at Syracuse

PS Sadly, I didn’t get my book signed. There were a ton of people in the queue, over a hundred surely, and it moved maybe one spot in the fifteen minutes I did wait. But I had a train to catch, and a city to cross! I did of course enter my own imagined space of how to commune with the great man among so many fanboys and -girls, and puzzled about the least smarmy way to ask if, given his interest in Tibetan Buddhism, he’d visited Naropa University during his time at the Colorado School of Mines, where he was an undergraduate. But I’d probably have only got tongue-tied and blushed and blabbed, anyway. Here’s the front of the adoring queue on my way out.

Thank You, Meryl

At the weekend I discovered this extraordinarily rousing speech of Meryl Streep accepting her National Ally For Equality Award from the Human Rights Campaign. Following her Golden Globes speech in January, it’s very stirring, and very moving.

The audience just LOVES her. My people do make for good audiences, don’t they? (The HRC is an American civil rights organisation campaigning for LGBTQ equality.) I am reminded how, when I was younger, and closety, I affected a crush on Meryl Streep. I pinned up a newspaper clipping of her above my bed. I don’t think I fooled my family or friends, really – I was just fooling myself. Alternate energies were in truth simultaneously diverted towards Harrison Ford.

Meryl is just marvellous here – an inspiration. She always has been. So big-hearted, so funny, so smart. So many great roles. Holocaust, Kramer vs Kramer, Sophie’s Choice, Out Of Africa. Postcards From The Edge, Mamma Mia, The Hours, The Iron Lady, The Devil Wears Prada. Julie and Julia. Angels In America! Always so fearless and committed.

We are so lucky that we have so many bold, smart, funny women using the power and privilege that they do enjoy to stand up and speak out right now. They could just take the cheque, and smile sweetly, and then fade away with a homily or two. But they don’t, thank goddess. I’m also thinking of JK Rowling – not only does she tell great stories, and give the best commencement addresses, and troll tyrants, but she curates exquisitely too, judging by her retweets. It’s good to have people like this on our side, as allies. As examples of artists committed to the work of the imagination.

So for International Women’s Day, let’s take their example, and be compelled. Stand Up. Speak Up. Act Up.

 

Plotting Workshop

The Writers’ Workshop Getting Publishing Day was great fun. It was good to see some old faces and meet plenty of friendly new ones. I saw some really accomplished writing, a lot of it already at a publishable standard. With the right breaks and a good dose of luck, some of these books could be on the way to finding an agent and publisher – and let’s not forget we can create some of our own luck, too.

It was the first time I’d taught a workshop on plotting in an hour-long slot (though I realise we ran over by fifteen minutes, sorry!). In other contexts I’ve been able to assign reading beforehand, so we’d all be able to discuss the same stories together, but yesterday I fell back on examples such as Pride and Prejudice and The Hobbit. I emphasised that plot is best regarded as a verb rather than a noun: though inspired twists never hurt, plot is not some clever thing we have to conjure up – instead, plotting is an active process that brings together other aspects of craft such as characterisation, structure, narration.

Character is especially important: what are your character’s deepest yearnings, and how might they come into conflict with those of other characters? And how are the events of the book character-building?

I don’t dwell too much on what might be seen as the jargon of structure, but it can be useful to think about inciting incidents and reversals of fortune mounting tension towards a climax as a connected sequence of events. Most of all: don’t be boring! (The only rule in writing.)

I read the opening of Notes On A Scandal not only as an example of a strong narrative voice plotting away but also to point out how Zoe Heller chose to put what might be regarded as the most dramatic revelations of her story right into the first paragraph: the first sentence, in fact! So much about plotting is about the ways a writer chooses to handle time.

And those choices, I suggested, are best handled in drafting. Though some writers, especially more experienced ones, work from detailed plans, I propose that beginning novelists might regard the process of creating a first draft as an active part of plotting. By all means work from an outline – you’ll need one – but be free and easy with yourself in your first draft. Let yourself see what comes up. Have fun, be playful. Perhaps write bits off to the side to see how a different point of view or scene might work. Maybe even write notes to yourself in scenes at challenging points, e.g., ‘I need to work out a way to get A to do B to C in this scene here’ – reaching the end might give you the perspective on what B needs to be.

And when you finish that draft, print it off, and read it through, perhaps making a few notes as you go but mostly just reading through for the experience of reading (using a different typeface can help to make things look different).

Then ask yourself: what plotting can I create from what I have here?

And then – the most important thing I have to say – take that print-out, sit it beside you on your desk, push back your shoulders, and type it out again into a new document.

Terry Pratchett once said something along the lines of the first draft being the writer just telling herself the story. The second and subsequent drafts are there to work out the best way to tell – plot – that story, which might of course change along the way. And liberating yourself from your attachments is much easier when you’re not just tinkering with existing words on a screen. In the golden olden days a writer used to clatter out second drafts on a typewriter or redo them by hand. Some writers even put the print-outs in a drawer and never refer to them again, and write the new draft wholly afresh. You know the story, don’t you?!

To help with reading your draft, I also distributed a plotting analysis worksheet, and suggested that writers complete it in different ways, e.g., with reference to: a favourite book of childhood (done from memory); a book you’ve recently read and admired in a genre you’re working in (done with close reading of that book); and for drafts of your own work-in-progress (again, done from memory at least to start – what you contain within you is most important).

I shall be running an expanded version of this workshop as a plotting masterclass at the York Festival of Writing on 8 September.

Here are some other resources from my site on self-editing and revising.

And here are other links to further information on plotting, as well as quotes offering thought-provoking opinions:

* Dramatic Structure (including Freytag’s Triangle)

* Michael Hauge, ‘The Five Key Turning Points Of All Successful Screenplays’

* Ronald Tobias, 20 Master Plots – for a checklist of the 20 plots, follow the link here

* The site of Christopher Vogler, author of The Writer’s Journey (follow the link Hero’s Journey on the left-hand side), plus Vogler on YouTube talking about the Hero’s Journey and discussing it using the example of The Matrix

* From my own blog: Tell Me A Story and A Book Is Not A Film

* Online Etymology Dictionary

* Someone asked for a good recommendation on grammar – I always suggest Constance Hale’s Sin and Syntax.

* EM Forster defined story as ‘a narrative of events arranged in their time-sequence’: The king died, and then the queen died. And plot as ‘also a narrative of events, the emphasis falling on causality’: The king died, and then the queen died of grief.

* Ursula Le Guin on change as the driver of plot:

Conflict is one kind of behavior. There are others, equally important in any human life, such as relating, finding, losing, bearing, discovering, parting, changing. Change is the universal aspect of all these sources of story. Story is something moving, something happening, something or somebody changing.

* Stephen King on plot in On Writing:

I distrust plot for two reasons: first, because our lives are largely plotless, even when you add in all our reasonable precautions and careful planning; and second, because I believe plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible. It’s best that I be as clear about this as I can – I want you to understand that my basic belief about the making of stories is that they pretty much make themselves. The job of a writer is to give them a place to grow (and to transcribe them, of course) …

Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered pre-existing world. The writer’s job is to use the tools in his or her toolbox to get as much of each one out of the ground as possible. Sometimes the fossil you uncover is small; a seashell. Sometimes it’s enormous, a Tyrannosaurus Rex with all those gigantic ribs and grinning teeth. Either way, short story or thousand-page whopper of a novel, the techniques of excavation remain basically the same.

Plot is … the writer’s jackhammer. You can liberate a fossil from hard ground with a jackhammer, no argument there, but you are going to break almost as much stuff as it liberates. It’s clumsy, mechanical, anticreative. Plot is, I think, the good writer’s last resort, and the dullard’s last choice. The story which results from it is apt to feel artificial and laboured.

I lean more heavily on intuition, and have been able to do that because my books tend to be based on situation rather than story … The situation comes first …

A strong enough situation renders the whole question of plot moot, which is fine with me. The most interesting situations can usually be expressed as a What-if question:

What if vampires invaded a small New England village? (‘Salem’s Lot)

What if a policeman in a remote Nevada town went berserk and started killing everyone in sight? (Desperation)

What if a cleaning woman suspected of a murder she got away with (her husband) fell under suspicion for a murder she did not commit (her employer)? (Dolores Claiborne)

* And some of the books whose plots I often find myself discussing:

* Zoe Heller, Notes On A Scandal – read the opening chapter here
* Sarah Waters, Fingersmith (Best. Plot. Ever.)
* Annie Proulx, Brokeback Mountain
* JRR Tolkien, The Hobbit and The Lord Of The Rings
* Nina Stibbe, Man At The Helm
* Christos Tsiolkas, The Slap
* George RR Martin, Game Of Thrones
* Angela Carter, ‘The Werewolf’
* Paula Hawkins, The Girl On The Train
* Kent Haruf, Our Souls At Night
* Jack Kerouac, On The Road
* Jane Austen, Pride And Prejudice
* Mark Twain, Huckleberry Finn
* Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary