Friday, 29 June 2012

DEAR CRABBIT: Can I pitch an unfinished book to an agent?

Thanks for your questions for Dear Crabbit so far. Keep them coming! For guidelines, see the Dear Crabbit page above.

You asked:
"I have read your book (AKA my bible) Write to be Published and I have one small query:
I understand why it is wrong to send a publisher an unfinished book (i.e. you are offering them a product, which may never get off the drawing board and therefore potentially wasting everyone's time.) 
"However, you say - in your book - that it's also 'against the rules' to do so with an agent (although you yourself did it, then didn't write the rest of that particular book).  
"In the case of an agent, though, if they are, as you say, interested in 'you the writer' as well as 'you the book,' are there ever grounds for making overtures towards a possible agent, ahead of completing the MS? 

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

DEAR CRABBIT: how long till I can follow up a query?

Hooray! The very first Dear Crabbit post! (If you don't know what I'm talking about, see this post from last week, in which I announced a change of direction for this blog.) From now on, most posts here will answer YOUR questions, in an agony auntish sort of way.

So, to kick off, you asked:

"I find it so frustrating when submitting work that it takes so long for people to get back to me - if indeed they get back at all. I know agents and editors are really busy people and have lots of manuscripts to consider, but what I would like to know is whether it is acceptable to follow up a submission when you haven't heard for months, and if so, what is the best way of doing it and after what length of time."

Let me first tackle the "I know agents and editors are really busy people and have lots of manuscripts to consider" bit, although I do realise you weren't asking that! I just want to make it absolutely clear.

It's not just that they are really busy and have lots of MSS to consider. It's also that considering an MS takes a long time; giving the feedback for a rejection takes a long time (which is why they usually don't do that) and can be fraught with problems. They may also have to consult someone else - an editor, for example, no longer makes the decision herself; she has to consult with other editors and then, if they all think it's a good idea, take it forward to an acquisitions meeting.

Only a small fraction of an agent or editor's time can be taken up on reading submissions.

But, back to the important questions. First, "whether it is acceptable to follow up a submission when you haven't heard for months" - absolutely.

Second, "after what length of time." It is acceptable to follow up after 4-6 weeks. I'd opt for six. (Unless the submission guidelines for that agent/publisher specifically specify another length of time.) Sometimes, an agency will say "If you haven't heard from us in eight weeks, assume it's a No." I think this is a little unfair because it IS possible that the thing went missing, whether posted or emailed, so I still think it's legitimate to follow up, politely, briefly, and making it very easy for the agent to reply and to know that you will not start being irritating.

Third, "what is the best way of doing it"?

An email, which needs to have the following info: your name, the date you submitted your work, the title of the work, whether you submitted by email or post.

If you submitted by email, I strongly suggest you have your original email below the reminder, so that the agent can easily scroll down and doesn't have to go searching.

An acceptable wording might be, "Sorry to bother you but I'm just checking that you received the synopsis and first three chapters of my YA historical novel, FLESHMARKET, which I emailed on June 3rd. I also know how busy agents are and I realise that it can take longer than six weeks but I just wondered what the situation was. I very much hope that you are interested but if you aren't, I would like to be able to try elsewhere."

It isn't annoying or pushy. It's perfectly reasonable. I also know that the "checking you've received" thing is a bit disingenuous, but it's very human! And emails do go missing.

There are many similar forms of wording that would work. Basically, you're just giving a little nudge without pressurising.

I think it's very important for writers to realise that agents and editors are not ogres or unreasonable. They know how much you want to be published; they know how stressful it is. There is no way that they will think less of you for sending a polite, professional and friendly email.


I have quite a few Dear Crabbit questions from you guys already. Keep them coming! See the Dear Crabbit page above.

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

A non-fiction pitch - Deep Country

Not exactly a pitch paragraph today, but a pitch letter - the covering letter that you'd normally send with your synopsis and sample chapters if fiction, or your proposal+synopsis+sample if non-fiction.

Monday, 25 June 2012

Pitch paragraph - The Internet Revolutionary

Before I start my Crabbit Agony Aunt posts on Wednesday (and I already have several questions from you!), I have two pitches to offer you.

Today's is a self-published book from Beryl Kingston, who has previously had many books successfully published. She also has another publishing deal. But today we are looking at the pitch Beryl sent me.

The Internet Revolutionary by Beryl Kingston described by the author as "modern morality tale", which does not make me want to read it! Sorry... But that may not matter because all readers are different and many people would not be put off by this. I'm just saying what I thought. When we pitch a book, we need to think of our intended readers, not readers who wouldn't read our sort of book; however, it's worth considering that we might unnecessarily put some people off simply by the way we describe a book, and those people might otherwise have wanted to read it. A good book can lose readers if the pitch is wrong.

Beryl's pitch:
This is the fictionalised story of the first internet revolution which took place in 2003. The young man whose life and loves we follow is an idealistic teacher who works in a tough inner city comprehensive and knows what a devastating effect constant examinations are having on his pupils. He is also the great-great nephew of Octavia Smith, suffragette and educational pioneer, whose story is told in 'Octavia' and 'Octavia's War' and inherits her fire. But because he can't see what one person could do against such a heavily entrenched system, he goes on working and enduring it. Then two things happen that change his opinion and his life. First he inherits his great aunt's papers, which are eye-openers, then he discovers that his A-level results have been doctored. The stage is set for revolution.
My comments:
OK, I'm going to hold my hands up and say that, although there are some intriguing elements, I'm confused. The first sentence leaves me in a ball of ignorance as to what this is about and what sort of story it is. The second sentence contains a couple of phrases that feel a little clich├ęd ("life and loves" and "tough inner city comprehensive" - you might decide to keep them, but I think they could be improved) but my main crit is that the point about constant exams, while certainly interesting in real life, doesn't sound compelling as a driving force in this context: it lacks emotional power. The third sentence contains a punctuation error which renders the meaning ambiguous. I've no idea whether Octavia Smith is fictional or not. And by the end, I still don't know what kind of revolution this is going to be.

The final sentence reads oddly after the previous one, which is incongruously light compared to the word "revolution". And if the stage is set at the end, I find that confusing, too, in terms of telling me how this story arc works. I'd rather have the revolution in the book, not at the end. (Which is maybe what happens in fact - perhaps it's only the pitch which makes it sound as though that's the end.)

The Internet Revolutionary sounds like a complex book, rich with possibilities, and those are obviously harder books to pitch. Somehow, as writers of such books, we have to find a way to get at the core and make it clear.

Beryl is a multi-published writer, so I'm sure the story itself is powerful and well-written, but this pitch doesn't do it justice in that case, I feel. Maybe everyone will disagree with me, but I think that a better pitch would create even more sales.

Any helpful comments, anyone? Here is the link to the book on Amazon. And thank you, Beryl, for sending me your pitch for the blog.

Friday, 22 June 2012

This blog it is a-changing

Some recent thoughts and happenings have come together to produce a conclusion. And the conclusion affects the fundamental nature and perhaps existence of this blog. Perhaps the blog is having an existential crisis.

Thoughts and happenings
  • I've been doing this for three and a half years. There are over 600 posts, a million words etc etc. 
  • I've probably said it all. 
  • I'm feeling stale. Less crabbit, more jaded?
  • It takes a huge amount of time. 
  • I've got some writing projects and exciting things on the horizon with my existing books, which badly need my attention.
  • I love helping people and I love teaching, but my energy isn't endless.
  • Although most people are extremely appreciative of the fact that all this advice is free and that all the above is true, I get the occasional spiteful remark. I had a hate email the other day, along the lines of "Who do you think you are giving advice?" (But nastier! Much nastier...)
  • I really really need to write, so, somehow, I have to give less time to the blog.
  • I don't want to stop doing it, but I need it to change, to simplify. And I don't want to bore regular readers.
So, I've had an idea.

You ask me questions (by email). I try to answer them on the blog. Like an agony aunt, but for writers. I would answer them anonymously (unless for a specific reason we agreed that your name/link should appear.) So it could be a general question or one very specific to your situation. I can't promise to answer them all, but there would be a good chance that your question would be answered.

That way, I will be writing about the things YOU want to know about. I will answer as many questions a week as I have time for.

Interested? See the ASK A QUESTION page above. You can start asking me questions as soon as you like - I have a few posts scheduled ahead but I'll start being your crabbit aunt very soon.

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Pitch para - Your Bed of Heather

A pitch paragraph for you this morning.

YOUR BED OF HEATHER by Lorraine Blencoe  – YA historical fiction

Monday, 18 June 2012

"My novel is YA / cross-over" - GAH

The reason for the GAH is that a novel is hardly ever genuinely cross-over and your claim that it is is rather like the claim in my recent post about age ranges. It induces much eye-rolling from the agent you've submitted to.

Friday, 15 June 2012

Pitch para - Witch, Nun, Shaman's Drum

A pitch paragraph for you to consider and comment on.

WITCH, NUN, SHAMAN’S DRUM by Cameron Lawton – fantasy romance, self-published.
I know Cameron via Twitter and she's very serious about getting her work (various genres) published and learning as she goes, so she will welcome your constructive advice. But be gentle - writers bleed!

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Covering letters / query letters / submission letters

*waves to the audience at my Belfast Lit Festival event this evening*

For anyone approaching writing a submission letter for an agent or publisher, here is some basic advice, in advance of my forthcoming book, Dear Agent (scheduled for August 10th and published by the one and only Crabbit Publishing - me).

Monday, 11 June 2012

"My book is suitable for children of all ages"

In other words, you haven't a clue about the needs of specific groups of readers and you have no sense of what sort of book you've written. You need to get reading, get learning, get analysing. Become an expert. It shouldn't be too difficult because you are, are you not, a passionate reader of the sort of books you write? (If you aren't, notice my most crabbit expression looming over you.)

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

A new blog baby - Catriona Child

A blog baby is someone who gets a publishing deal and believes that the advice on my blog helped in some way. It always gives me enormous pleasure when someone contacts me to say this! And today I'm delighted to bring you Catriona Child, to talk about how she got her debut novel, Trackman, published with Luath Press.

This is what Catriona said:
I have followed your blog for a long time and have therefore absorbed a lot of information. For example, I knew the importance of getting submissions to agents/publishers just right, so before I sent anything off I re-read all your posts on submissions, covering letters, writing a synopsis etc and used them to help me. 
My debut novel was published by Luath Press in February of this year and I just wanted to thank you for all the help I feel you have given me through your blog. I regularly recommend it to other writers. As well as this, speaking to you at an Edinburgh Literary Salon night persuaded me of the importance of Twitter. Without Twitter, I would not have received your incredibly reassuring tweet that shaky-leg syndrome is common and happens to everyone!
Bloody shaky-leg syndrome!

Here's something about the book:
Can a song change your life? Can a song bring people, places and moments in time alive again?
Davie Watts is the Trackman. He knows what song to play to you and he knows exactly when you need to hear it. Wandering the streets of Edinburgh, Davie seeks out strangers in need and helps them using the power of music. But why has Davie been chosen as Trackman, and why is he so intent on losing himself in this new identity? Davie is hiding from an event in his past; an event so awful that it continues to haunt him, despite his attempts to move on with his life. Will Davie ever find peace? And who will play Davie the song he needs to hear to help him heal?
And here's my interview:

NM: Briefly tell us your journey to publication.
This is the first novel I’ve had published, although I’ve had a few short stories published prior to the novel. I’ve always written but started taking it seriously about ten years ago. I started going to a writer’s workshop then decided to do a distance learning MA in Creative Writing. My husband had a dream which led to the idea for Trackman and I had the bare bones of it scribbled down which I then developed as my MA project.

Trackman is the first novel I’ve written from start to finish although I have other half-finished novels which never quite made it.

After I finished the MA, I spent a few months reading Trackman over and over, cutting bits out, trying to tighten it up, generally editing it, before I felt it was ready to be sent out. I did some research into agents and publishers and chose the ones most likely to be interested in Trackman. I received a few rejections and then luckily for me Luath came back to say they were interested.
NM: Do you have an agent?
I don’t have an agent now but I would not be averse to getting one in the future. 
I approached agents with Trackman as well as relevant publishers who were prepared to accept unsolicited manuscripts. Luath came back to me and I was happy with what they offered. I would say there are advantages and disadvantages with the way I did it. I was dealing directly with the publisher so I think the time between being taken on and having a book in my hands was quicker than if an agent then had to go and find a publisher for me. As Luath are an independent publisher, it also meant that I was more involved with the whole process than I probably would have been if I was going through an agent.
There are disadvantages to this though. It takes up a lot of my time, and I do feel like I don’t have enough time to write. I also have a full-time administration job so my writing is all done in my free time. This is my first novel so having someone knowledgeable to give me advice and explain things would have been helpful. I’m also quite a quiet person by nature and as Luath is an independent publisher they have a lot of books to think about (not just mine), so it would be good to have someone to help fight my corner and help me with events/publicity etc.
NM: How did you learn that you were going to be published?
Luath asked to see the full manuscript, then asked me in for a meeting. The meeting was really positive, however I was very conscious of the word ‘if’ being used. ‘If we publish you,’ ‘if you make these changes’ etc. I came out of the meeting feeling positive, but not letting myself get too carried away. I made the suggested changes, then I got the signed contract from them. Even then I only told close family members in case I jinxed everything.
NM: Did you make any mistakes along the way - anything you cringe about now?
I think in the past I’ve been guilty of writing something and thinking that the first version of it is the finished version. It didn’t happen so much with Trackman, but I know I’ve sent off short stories in the past which were really not ready to go out into the world.
NM: What was the best advice you learnt from my blog? 
I think one of the most important things I’ve taken from your blog is to edit, edit, edit. Make sure your work is as good as you can make it before you send it out. I used a lot of your tips for doing that. I sent it to writer friends to read over, I read each chapter aloud, I read it over and over until I was fed up of reading it.
Another piece of advice I’ve learnt from your blog is getting the submission right. This led me to do a lot of research using the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook initially and then looking up each agent/publisher I submitted to online before I did anything. I made a database of what each one was looking for and made sure I followed the submission guidelines exactly.Then when I was writing my synopsis and cover letters, I re-read your blog posts on these to help me. [FAB!]
NM: Apart from my tweet about shaky leg syndrome, how else has Twitter been helpful to you?
The shaky leg syndrome advice was justification enough for joining Twitter, but apart from that I’ve met a lot of interesting people, created an online writers community for myself which lets me know how other writers are doing but also keeps me up to date with news from the writing world. I’ve also had a few very nice people tell me they liked my book through finding me on Twitter which is lovely. Being able to engage with someone who has read my book is very satisfying.
NM: What thing/things have surprised you most now that you are published? 
I’m a quiet person and quite shy so I am surprised at how much I actually enjoy reading in public. Although I get very nervous beforehand and suffer from afflictions such as shaky leg syndrome, afterwards I get a real buzz from sharing something I’ve written with an audience.
NM: What next?
I’m working on another novel which I hope to finish and I hope Luath will like enough to want to publish.
And that, dear blog-readers, is an absolutely perfect example of a writer who has worked hard, improved herwriting, listened to advice and finally GOT PUBLISHED! Good luck to you Catriona, and may Trackman fly from the shelves.

People, do go and check out Catriona's book on her publisher's page. I'm sure that eventually someone at Luath will correct the spelling on that page... *wags finger, shakes head and despairs*

Monday, 4 June 2012

Pitch paragraph - Death at the Happiness Club

A pitch paragraph for you to consider. Please comment!

DEATH AT THE HAPPINESS CLUB by Cecilia Peartree – a mystery novel
Cecilia points out that this is the actual blurb from her Amazon entry and realizes that it’s therefore not necessarily exactly like a pitch paragraph.

Cecilia’s pitch:
“Death at the Happiness Club is the 4th in a series of quirky mysteries set in a small town in Scotland. When the Happiness Club comes to town, Maisie Sue sees it as an opportunity to rediscover romance, Jock McLean regards it with suspicion, and Jemima and Dave look forward to taking part in new activities with their friends. Amaryllis and Chief Inspector Smith go along to keep an eye on developments on their patch. As for Christopher, he misses the start of the excitement because of a prior engagement - walking the Fife Coastal Path with a figure from his past. But before anyone has had very much fun, it becomes clear that while the Happiness Club brings good times to some, to others it offers only desolation and death.”

My thoughts:
Despite what Cecilia said, I actually think it’s not far off a decent pitch paragraph. I like how the language reflects the “quirky” nature of the books, and quirky is a good word because it’s quite specific. 

My main criticism is that it’s woolly. (To be fair, Cecilia told me I would think that!) 

I feel that the following bits need more oomph and concreteness: “look forward to taking part in new activities with their friends” (such as?); “developments on their patch”; “had very much fun”. 

On the other hand, I feel that “walking the Fife coastal path” is an odd (and boring) detail, especially juxtaposed with “a figure from his past”, which is sinister (which is good) but vague (which is not). 

And I do strongly feel that “desolation and death” don’t fit the “quirky lightness of the rest of the pitch. Now, this could be deliberate, but I still don’t feel it’s right.

I can’t really offer a revision, because it requires knowledge of the details which are missing, but I would like to say that if this pitch were tightened, made more concrete and clear, not only would it do the job of being a decent pitch in a covering letter but also, since it is already published, more readers would buy it.

Please comment, readers! Cecilia is ready...

Friday, 1 June 2012

Don't give up the day job - get stroppy

Nobody explains the numbers as well and clearly as my friend, Stroppy Author, and here is her brilliantly clear explanation of how the money works out for writers.

I would add only that the discounts nowadays are on average painfully high. And most books are not as much as £10 even before the discount. But I appreciate very much that Stroppy was being kind to my poor mathematically-challenged brain by using round numbers as examples.

Thank goodness for Stroppy and Crabbit!