When your novel is out on submission…
1. Managing your expectations
I find the line between being hopeful and realistic is a difficult one to tread. I would never want to tell an aspiring author that the chances of them publishing their very first novel is slim, because it would discourage them. However, when you have just signed with an agent (and you likely never dared dream this would happen) it’s hard to manage those expectations that naturally tend towards six-figure pre-empts and film deals.
Here’s where the statistics are most helpful, not only to keep your feet on the ground during submission but also to know that there is a safety net beneath you: it doesn’t have to happen now. There will be other books. There will be other chances. And it is also possible to get published without being an overnight sensation, for those of you on week one/two/three/four who have had no news.
I think the statistics would tell you that selling your second novel is more common than selling your debut. They would also tell you that plenty of sales happen after more than 4-6 weeks. Submission can be a long and tricky process (especially so if there is interest in your book: a ‘yes’ takes longer than a ‘no’ in publishing) and it can feel as though hope is diminishing with each day but that’s simply not true.
The best advice I can give is to come to terms – now – with this book not selling. Not a small or an easy task, I know. But try to see a world beyond the book deal for this book. What would it look like? You’d survive it. You’d be okay. It might make you more ready for everything that’s to come, if you have to write two. You might be a better writer having two agented books under your belt by the time you’re under contract to write another. Besides, you’d have to write another whatever the outcome. (Speaking of…)
2. Write your next book
This is the most cliched advice out there but it is the only reliable thing which actually took my mind off submission. Writing is what it’s all about, isn’t it? Writing takes me away from the real world. Creating something that wasn’t there half an hour previously is a very unique and special thing; it cures many ills. Not only that, but getting excited about a second project will make the first feel less important. I know you don’t want your first-born book to feel less important, but it’s necessary to spread the risk, even if it feels like cheating on somebody. What you want, really, is to feel that idea spark, and turn your attention entirely away from book one, and start getting excited about book two, so that when you think of book one, you hope, dispassionately, that it gets a deal, but you secretly feel what you’re writing now is actually much better. That’s the thing that helps. Improving. Writing. Carrying on.
3. Do things you enjoy
While I was on submission, I pretended every evening was my birthday evening. This is very sad, but true. I figured, I had written a whole book, and got an agent, and got an agent who was prepared to send the book out under her name, i.e. she was proud of it: that was an achievement on its own. (If you’re feeling in doubt about this, tell a non-writer you have an agent and observe their interested reaction).
And, while I tried to write on submission, I did also cut myself more slack than usual, as I would do if it were my birthday. I ate a lot of nice food, I took long baths, I read entire books on rainy Sundays. Whatever I wanted to do. Besides, right after delivering a book is when you need to replenish the creative well the most. I watched excellent television shows and read brilliant books and thoroughly enjoyed that. I plotted out a second novel and got excited about it, because I’d been watching so many brilliant things on the television and absorbing so many well-written words.
4. Correlation is not causation
I think, somewhere deep in the writers’ primitive brain, we think that if we check hard enough, something will happen. Likewise, wishing on stars, reading tarot cards (guilty) and looking for ‘signs’ as we walk down the street. I am not remotely mystical in any area of my life and yet on submission I became obsessed.
The reality is that I would still have received the phone call saying Penguin had made me an offer whether or not I had made wishes, pressed the refresh button on my email seventy-five times during my lunch hour or rehearsed The Offer phone call every morning in the shower.
If you’re worried about being reachable, you could give your agent an emergency number they can always get you on (a landline), if possible, so you know you can put that phone away.
5. Stop trying to control it
This is related to number four but is quite distinct from it. Most authors I know tend to a. like to achieve and b. be in control. After all, that is how we finished an entire novel alone: with the grit that’s needed to keep writing (through the bad days and missed social occasions and ferocious winter colds and right up until the deadline), and with the knowledge that we are totally in control of the world we create (nobody else has any real say in my writing until I deliver it to my agent and my publisher, and going from that to someone else submitting your manuscript is bizarre, to say the least). Not only that, but people will be discussing your book without you being there! The book you wrote!
What I tried to tell myself was that this was why I got an agent. I don’t know how to sell a book. I wouldn’t know who to send it to, I don’t understand what happens at an acquisitions meeting and I don’t understand the finances involved in sales and marketing. And if you want somebody to be your agent, you must give them control. You signed with them because you trust them, and so now is the time to trust them.
Knowing more about the process won’t help you stay sane: it’s the opposite. The more you know about where it’s gone and who to and when, the more you will be under the illusion that you can control the process by twitter-stalking the editors, looking up that imprint’s latest acquisitions and googling their average response times.
Far better to channel point four and simply do your best to ignore it. It will feel counter-intuitive and weird at first, as though you must be thinking about it (and wanting it) for it to happen, but I got a pre-empt on the day I was most distracted by something else (food for thought).
On querying agents…
6. Include your word count
I wasn’t aware that the word-count should be included until quite a late stage, but it helps agents to flag at the earliest opportunity whether there is likely to be a problem. While word counts are not strict rules to be obeyed, under 60,000 or over 150,000 is very unusual, and it varies again within those for genre. Fantasy is likely to be longer, but if your crime/rom com/police procedural runs to 150,000 words it might cause an agent concern.
7. Mention whose readership you would like
Do not say your book is ‘the next Harry Potter’, but do feel free to state in whose genre you are writing, particularly if you are working across genres. There are hardly any writers who sit exactly in my genre and, if I were querying now, I would most certainly mention Liane Moriarty’s name.
8. And the age of your protagonist
9. You book’s hook
10. Why that agent
On structural edits …
11. Index cards
The very first thing I do when faced with an edit letter, or when I have come to the end of a first draft and thought “… oh, that’s a bit rubbish,” is get a stack of index cards. Then, I sit down on the floor with them with a pot of tea and read. Depending on which stage I am at, I either read the edit letter, or my manuscript. I’m presuming most people reading this are at the novel-writing stage so I’ll focus on that.
I put my book on my kindle and then I tap through it and write every single major scene on an index card. If I have subplots or dual timelines I use different coloured cards.
And then, I sit and look at the index cards, and I think. Sometimes they stay there for a few days while I talk to my dad and re-visit them at odd times and annotate them. Sometimes my cat walks all over them and messes up the order (numbering them is a good idea).
And then, when I am ready, I start to write on the cards in red pen. What I write is what needs to change. Sometimes it’s crossing out the current scene and replacing it. Sometimes it’s adding something that creates more tension. Sometimes it’s a complete deletion. But by the end of it I have the structure of my novel as I would like it to be, sitting in front of me.
This can also be done on Excel (and, if you use a Mac, Numbers had a very excellent ‘checklist’ layout where you can literally write scenes and then tick them off). It works in the same way. I create a three-act table (so three columns with about nine scenes in each), and then I annotate it in red with how I would like my novel to change.
The point of 11. and 12. is that it’s a (relatively) quick and easy way to visualise your entire novel’s structure, pace and beats. I can’t possibly begin to tackle my structure unless I can actually see it, which is why this works for me: I’m a visual learner. Otherwise, it’s just a formless mess in my mind.
13. To do lists
I use this more often when faced with notes, either from beta readers (currently I am receiving a whole host of notes from my readers of my second book – police officers, a criminal lawyer and a doctor who are all helpfully fact checking for me), my agent or my editor.
I find the best way to distil a scary edit letter is to just write a good, old-fashioned list. The items on it will vary in size (‘sort the structure out,’ for example, verses, ‘delete the line about…’) but then once they’re on the list I work sequentially down it, having good days when I tick off three or four items and bad days when I get hugely embroiled in just one. But the comfort of a list is that you know once you’re at the end of it, you’re done.
I cannot stress enough how important it is to read through your novel again after a structural edit. Even if the structural edit is only on part of the book. Honestly. I have never once read it through and not found a real humdinger. Books are like trees with huge, sprawling roots, and changing something at the beginning almost always impacts on something at the end, even if you’re pretty sure the change is never mentioned again. I have had characters remembering things that no longer happened, bits of dialogue that made no sense after I changed the name of someone’s workplace (even after doing a ‘find and replace’ for the workplace name) and, once, somebody being angry about something that had never occurred in the first place. Read. It. Through. It’s painful, but it’s necessary.
15. Think outside the box
So many times when I have been trying to figure out a plotting problem it’s been solved by thinking of something entirely different. I get a certain feeling when I am trying to shoehorn something in, and now I recognise it, and take a few steps back. Does the scene even need to be there? That’s often the solution, for me.
On editing hacks…
16. Colour code your work
This SAVED me this past year, when I have been (slowly going mad) writing a Sliding-Doors style split narrative. I’ve talked about colour-coding index cards (and Excel boxes), and it’s perhaps even more useful to colour the actual text of your manuscript. This way, when editing, or when simply scrolling back to check something, you can immediately identify which narrative/time period/character you’re in or with. It is weird to write in lime green text sometimes, but it works.
17. Use a local Wiki
This tip is stolen, from Becky Chambers, who I went to see speak at Waterstones recently. This is an especially useful tip if you are world building or writing a series. You can write your own Wikipedia of your character, your planets, your world’s creatures, whatever. It could also, I imagine, be an insane form of procrastination, so don’t let it take over.
18. Teach your Word document that chapters are numbers
Oh, for the love of God, teach Microsoft Word that each chapter number is a number. You need to go into ‘styles’ and mark it as a heading. But then, it does two things: 1. it automatically keeps the page breaks before them so you do not need to hit enter fifty times only to have everything move around in the edit and 2. it will know when you insert another chapter and re-number! And you won’t have to sit and literally count your chapters the day your book is due.
19. Add a comment where you stop editing
Word has a feature where you can navigate through comments and tracked changes, skipping from one to the next. You can leave a comment saying ‘here’ and then you know exactly where you edited to last time.
20. Have a central list
A big part of getting a first draft down, for me, is learning to ignore the self-doubt demons and the rubbish bits and the unfinished parts. So every time I think ‘I need to fix this!’ I write down whatever it is in another, separate, word document, and add to it as I go along. I also use square brackets in my manuscript a lot, so that where I know something is not finalised (such as a specific location I need to look at on Streetview, etc), I can find it easily and fix it.
Before you send off a final draft…
21. A line-by-line edit
I do this just before sending off a final draft and it usually takes me about three to four weeks. It’s an easy enough time; I’m doing nothing structural, and am just reading my draft. I read about 3,000 – 4,000 words per day, every day, and it takes me about an hour, maybe making up some time at the weekends. It’s frustrating to add three weeks onto the end of a draft when you feel ready to send, but this is the most necessary step.
22. A read through
Then, I do a quicker read through, usually on my kindle but sometimes printed. I try and read 20% of my novel per day, usually in bed at night (though it sometimes leads to late-evening crises of confidence…). I always always always find at least ONE HUNDRED typos at this stage, so do not miss it out!
23. A spell check
It is extremely tedious, I know, to be told repeatedly by Microsoft Word that your novel is full of ‘fragments’ or that ‘petrichor’ is not a word, however, the plus points to running a spell check outweigh the bad. I always find something, usually a forgotten space after a speech mark, a double comma or a non-capitalised ‘i’. It’s so worth doing even if it involves clicking ‘ignore all’ for half an hour.
24. CTRL + F is your friend
I always run some strategic searches. If I have deleted a character, I search for their name. If I have changed a character’s name, I search for their old one. I also search for the worsts ‘just’ and ‘seem’ because they tend to water down meanings (and I overuse them in drafts…), ‘ly’ (to catch adverbs) and any other words or phrases I’ve made a note to search for that I felt I was over-using as I drafted.
25. Print preview
The final step is to preview the entire document and scan it. I look for any gaps (page breaks do sometimes produce entire blank pages), any bits of text that aren’t justified, etc. I also press CTRL + A and check that the font is the same (if the font bar goes blank, this means you have a different font somewhere in your manuscript).
Signs your manuscript is ready to go off into the world…
26. Something happens when you read it
The last thing I do before delivering a book – when I was querying agents and also now that I have a publisher – is read it in a different font and in a different form. I usually transfer it to my kindle or print it. I spot a lot of typos that way. But, when undertaking that last read-through, if it’s ready, something happens: you love it, or parts of it. It feels guilty, that frisson of pleasure as you read your own words back to yourself (how narcissistic we are!), but part of you, deep down, thinks: I like this, and, more importantly: I would read this. Because, after all, in all of us there is a voracious reader, with her own tastes and preferences, and (for me) reading it on a different device taps into the reader part of my mind and helps to remove the writer.
27. When you picture it, it’s smooth
This is quite an abstract concept and this might just be me, but, when my novels are ready, I can picture the narrative and it has no hiccups. If there is a problem with it, when I imagine my story, my mind is naturally drawn to the problematic area, the part of it that doesn’t quite sing, chapter nine where that coincidence drives the plot forward which might annoy readers, chapter twenty where it sags. The editing process for me is more about ironing out problems and, once they’re done, I can picture my narrative and it’s smooth.
28. When the editing you’re doing is only tinkering
Let’s be real: agents (and publishers) are going to offer to represent (or publish) your book if they love it. A few misplaced commas are not going to change that. Really, they’re not. I would never advise not proofreading a novel before sending it out into the world, but it has to end somewhere and so many writers I know get stuck in this tinkering stage. I think it is a manifestation of fear, but fear is rubbish and useless and all it does is stop us doing things. So, be a little reckless at this stage. You’ve proofread it, you’re pretty sure you’ve found most of the errors, now press send.
29. When you feel like you could bump into your characters in the street and know them
The two biggest elements of a novel for me are plot and characterisation. If they’re not right, the prose hardly matters. And so a large part of editing my work is making sure the plot makes sense and is paced correctly, and making sure the characters are fleshed out and real (even the characters who only have two scenes). I spend a lot of time getting to know my characters. My process begins with mind-maps and character questionnaires. I then try to make my characters behave consistently in line with those traits (which usually directly contradicts what I want my plot to do, of course…) but then in the later drafts, I try to layer them, like onions. What does this tall, serious man like to do? Perhaps he plays the piano? Ah – and perhaps he’s embarrassed by it, finds it too theatrical? And maybe he feels inadequate compared to his brother? And maybe his brother plays on that? And so on. And so by the end of the last draft, I feel like I know them. A small test is pretending that they are standing next to you in conversation with people: what would they say? How would they react to what just happened? How do they look? Once you know this, and could pick them out of a line-up, you’re there.
30. You are quite sick of it
I’m trying to make these articles not be cliched or untrue, and I’m not a perfect writer. It’s true for me that when I am absolutely sick of my novel, that usually means it’s done. Or perhaps it means that I have done all I can. Or perhaps it is just the unconscious mind’s way of telling me we’re at the end of the road and it’s time for somebody else to read it. Whatever it is, I reach a point with most novels when I would rather do anything but continue to edit them. If there was a huge plot problem (see number two, above), I wouldn’t feel this way (indeed, I feel very frightened when I know I have a huge plot problem). So, this stage is probably a symptom of it being ready. It’s fine to think: do you know what, I like it, and it’s good enough.
On finding time to write…
31. Get a portable laptop
32. Learn to be in the zone wherever you can
33. Bump it up the list
I spent much of my twenties – probably about seven years, in total, writing quite often but never finishing anything. It all changed for me when I – very luckily – had some agent interest. It became second on my list (work is top). And so, after I have done my work, I have to do my writing, and everything else falls behind it. There are some days where social stuff crops up, or whatever, but generally that’s a priority system I work within. Similarly, I set myself word count targets when writing a first draft and editing targets when editing. So I won’t go to bed until they’re done, and it works because I don’t often let myself off the hook. Otherwise, I’d simply think, ‘I’ll do that tomorrow!’ which was pretty much what I did with writing during my twenties. It finds a way through, when you put it nearer the top of the list, and you know it simply has to be done, more important than stacking the dishwasher or watching that new Netflix drama. I have never looked back on this system with regret, because at the end of every year, I have had a novel (and I just watch Netflix after I’ve hit my word count, anyway).
Similar to the above, I think part of becoming a writer with a job is simply learning to accept that a sacrifice has to be made. There will be television you miss out on, exercise you don’t do, sleep you don’t snatch (though I personally only cut into sleep time when very pushed by deadlines). But where there is sacrifice, there are gains, too. Writing is incredibly enjoyable, and enjoyable in that deep satisfying, way that reading is (and scrolling through the internet is NOT). Sure, it’s easier to do other things but writing brings about a real, complete sense of fulfillment, for me. Likewise, you may be tired and otherwise hobby-less, you may have a messier house, but at the end of a chunk of time you will have a novel. It’s all about putting the long-term ahead of the short-term goals. If you can do that, you’re on your way.
35. Accept some degree of rubbish-ness in your writing
On creating vivid characters…
36. What do they actually like?
I am drawn to characters with foibles. I don’t really mean giving your heroine a quirky job or making her clumsy. I cast characters who have foibles because I observe in every day life that everybody has them, specifically, they have things that they like. A good friend of mine likes Coke, and he always has a bottle with him – without fail – wherever he goes. He is often trying to quit. A friend of my father’s loves going to Legoland Windsor – he goes every year. But the brilliant thing about fiction is that you can use a quirk to tap into something else entirely. A woman who makes people take their shoes off as soon as they walk in the door. An elderly man who likes to walk the neighbourhood alone, late at night. These characteristics tap into other things: orderliness, eccentricity, loneliness. Sometimes I read books in which the characters do not have any likes of their own (and indeed dislikes). Give them some! Think of how many things you like.
37. Give them one physical trait
As a reader, I find it easier to know somebody’s unusual eye colour or their slim frame. I find it harder when the author is more prescriptive about face shapes and hooked noses and hair colour. A pale, freckled man is far more vivid, to me, than a woman with a heart-shaped face and a cupid’s bow lip.
38. Avoid tropes
On that note… it’s very easy in fiction to tap into tropes. (And it can be useful, too. Dumbledore, for example, is a classic archetype of Jung’s wise old man, and as such the reader places their trust in him, and Dumbledore turning up to conclude each book feels natural). But tropes are well-worn paths and books with them in feel less vivid. The characters could be plucked from other books – the alcoholic maverick detective who gets thrown off the case and solves it anyway. The ditsy female lead who teaches the stoic hero how to have fun again. They worked once – like cliches – but now they are faded and worn, and make our writing so if we use them. If you struggle, start with a stereotypical character, and then change them, or give them a motivation for being the way it is. Look at Dr House. He began, I imagine, as somebody like Sherlock Holmes. But things were added, and taken away, and made more flawed.
Sometimes, when I am really struggling with characterisation, I go on a walk with my characters. I have a conversation with them, as if I were walking with a friend, but all in my head. I ask them about their childhood. Their histories. Their first girlfriends. I find out so much. Not only (see above) the motivation for why they are the way they are, but the incidental stuff, too. The stuff that doesn’t create a plot, and doesn’t need to. A character in my current book is adopted. It’s not a plot point. There’s no big revelation about it. He’s just adopted, and it affects some of the things that he does.
Ah, the big one. Character flaws can be a plotting device, but I’m talking about the regular kind of flaws. They often do lead to the character’s downfall, but they don’t have to. What are your own flaws? And those of the people close to you? I have a hero who is anxious, in Everything But The Truth, and a judgmental hero in my second book (Anything You Do Say). They are traits I’ve observed in people before; traits I’m interested in. Anything to make them seem real. That, after all, is the aim. A character you could bump into in the street, and know them, instantly.
On creating tension in your story…
41. Ask a question and don’t answer it
I like to raise the question on the first page and answer it on the last. To me, this is what forms the structure of a novel, whether the question is ‘what secret is this character keeping?’ or ‘how is this character going to resolve their tricky situation?’ If you can figure out your novel’s central question, you have figured out its hook. Then, do everything you can not to answer it until the closing pages, be that placing obstacles in the way of the solution or problems that make it worse.
42. Figure out what the worst possible thing to happen to your main character is
As I learnt during my edits, you need to use a light hand with foreshadowing. Too much of it gets frustrating, and can actually reduce the tension as it spoils the novel. But a dash here and there is perfect. Just enough to let your reader know that something bad is coming. And, indeed, it helps to let them know what sort of action to expect. If you don’t foreshadow at all, action can come as a surprise and wrong-foot the reader, which is one reason why I might discard a book.
44. Create an impossible situation
45. Answer some questions along the way
There has to be give and take when reading a novel. It’s not fair on the reader to ask one question and answer it at the end (contrary to what I say above) because they will have to read four hundred pages otherwise before getting any answers. I liken it to Hansel and Gretel. You need to breadcrumb the reader to the ending, leaving little clues and little pieces of information to keep them reading.
On things I didn’t understand before I got my publishing deal…
46. I still have problems
47. Finances? No idea
48. What are editors/publishers/copy editors?
49. What are the timescales like?
50. Life stays much the same
It was almost as though I thought the curtains might go down on my life as I knew it and the words “happy ever after” would be written across them when I got my book deal. I wanted it so badly. But, not to repeat point one too much, life is much the same. Work. Writing. Stacking the dishwasher inadequately. The occasional French double taxation form, quite a lot more writing an editing than before and, of course, the bit we’re all waiting for: holding my book in my hands.
GILLIAN McALLISTER‘s debut novel, Everything But The Truth (Penguin, 9th March 2017) follows newly-pregnant Rachel, who slowly begins to realise that her boyfriend Jack is hiding a huge secret about his past.
Gillian graduated with an English degree in 2006 and is now a lawyer with a large law firm. Her blog has been featured in various publications including Company magazine and Gillian is represented by literary agent Clare Wallace at Darley Anderson. Gillian tweets @GillianMAuthor and blogs at www.gillianmcallister.com