Tuesday, 31 July 2012

DEAR CRABBIT: market the author or the book

Dear Crabbit
We had a brief Twitter exchange this evening. I asked: " Do you recommend focusing on marketing the writer...or the book? "

A bit more info: for the past 2-3 years, I've been blogging. Firstly as a way of promoting my (very) part-time coaching practice (I have a full time day job as well), and latterly as a way of promoting my writing (I've had a small paid writing gig with PaleoDietNews.com for the past few months).

Long story short....I now want to focus on promoting my writing. I'm going to convert my main site (cormackcarr.com) into an "author" site, and am going to set up two other blogs. One will focus on my coaching/careers/personal effectiveness writing....the other on food/health/fitness. Those are the two areas that my writing to date has tended to cluster around.

My logic (such as it is!) is that I can then promote the two blogs to their respective niche areas, backlinking to my author site (which will also have backlinks to any guest posting and article writing I do) and which will focus more on me...so that there's scope for me to develop my writing in other directions without being tied down.

Consequently, I suspect I'll "market" my blog writing sites, and just let the author site be my online "home".
For what it's worth (and I regard myself more as an experienced bumbling opportunist than a marketing strategist,) I think you are doing the right thing. I think those of us who have several different strands to our work, with different (but sometimes overlapping) audiences, have to keep an eye on what we're doing and adapt as we go.

A year ago, I had my new website designed. My thinking was: some people will come looking for me because they've heard of my children's books (and of those, some will be looking for my brain books and others my teenage novels and yet others my younger fiction, or they may want a school event) and others will come because they've heard of my advice for writers. But I'd like each group to know about the other areas of my work. On the other hand, I want them to know exactly where they are and not struggle to find what they are looking for. So, my website has three sections - "rooms" - and all of them link to each other, except that when you're in the children's area you cannot directly get to the more grown-up area designed for writers. (Though you can get directly from the writers' area to the children's area.)

The rules I feel we (and the questioner) should follow are:
  • We need to be easy to find, when people know they want to find us. So, someone looking for Cormack's coaching should get to it immediately; ditto for someone looking for his writing. They should not have to go searching and make many clicks.
  • We should be possible to find even when people don't know they are looking for us. So, someone looking for particular coaching should ideally come across Cormack's coaching site; and when someone is looking for a writer of the sort of books he writes they should be able to find him. (This is harder to achieve and requires good SEO and google-friendly content, but good linking between sites and other sites is helpful here.)
  • When someone comes to one part of our internet presence, it should be easy for them to see that there are other parts, and to feel inclined to browse.
As to the fundamental question of marketing the writer or the book: I'm a writer. I write books. I write lots of different sorts of books but they are all me. They need me. I need them. We are undisentanglable. So, I don't see an either/or situation here.

If you are marketing your book, you are even more a part of the marketing than if a publisher markets your book. You become part of the marketing, inevitably. A lot of books are bought (or not bought) nowadays because of how a reader feels about the writer. I have absolutely no statistics for that but I feel it deeply, from anecdote and instinct. I've done it myself.

Books are not beans. They hold emotions and histories that are not explicit. Their author is somehow part of that, and this is especially true as soon as we begin to talk about our books. Those authors who wish to separate author from book and distance themselves from how their books reach and touch readers are entitled to try to do so and some will succeed more than others. But I don't believe this is what you (the questioner) want and it's not what I want.

So, books and their authors, music and its composers, art and its creators, are best considered as parts of the whole. And if an author has many separate strands of creation, those strands are, it seems to me, best given separate definition and yet strongly linked.

I don't think you can take the book out of the author or the author out of the book.

Agree? Disagree? Specific exceptions? Anything to add?

[Edited to add: although it's gone off-topic, please see the comments below for a useful discussion about fake accounts to review one's own work. This whole topic makes me feel sick. But I'm grateful to Philip for raising it, especially since there's been discussion about it ever since a certain panel on a certain crime-writing festival...]

Friday, 27 July 2012

DEAR CRABBIT - too old to debut?

Dear Crabbit
Is a 79-year-old debutant novelist (but a highly successful writer in other fields) deluding himself and wasting his time trying to get an agent or a publisher interested in his work, even if he’s fit, healthy and energetic, and has one novel completed and two well on the way? Or should he go straight into self-publishing? I’ve said “he” because I’m a man, but obviously it could also apply to a woman. (I’m not talking about vanity-publishing: I first saw my name in print 50 years ago, and have more than 30 books with my name on the cover.)

The short answer is that if the book is good enough and a publisher believes it has a sufficient market and wants to publish it, the publisher will do so. And, for the same reason, an agent could be interested. (It's true that an agent needs a career out of you - but you could have another 20 years or more of writing!)

It's true that it may have to be even better and more marketable than if you were 29 or even 49. On the other hand, at the commissioning stage no one needs necessarily know your age. (Although in your specific case they probably will because you'll be telling them about your previous work.)

There are advantages to being young and fit and having a long career ahead of you, but the absence of those conditions does not create an insurmountable barrier to publication. It does raise the bar, though. With some publishers and agents perhaps more than others.

However, since you don't crave publication for the "having your name on the cover" reason, I also think you should look seriously at self-publishing anyway, depending on the type of novel. You could have a lot of fun and a lot of success. I know you are already active on Twitter and ready to engage in that side of things. And you already have credibility as a published writer. 

You have a choice - and that's good!

Thursday, 26 July 2012

DEAR CRABBIT - what should I pay for in order to become published?

I have had three emails to Dear Crabbit that all follow a theme:

"Is it ok to pay a reading fee to an agent?"
No. In the UK, the Association of Authors' Agents forbids it.

"What should it cost to be published?"
Nothing! (Other than things you might choose to do to push the book. For example, many published writers nowadays hire the services of publicists, order our own promotional materials etc.)

"Is it ok to pay to see the submission guidelines for a publisher?"
*clutches head*
I found this hard to believe. One publisher has a submission guidelines package which you are encouraged to buy, and they say it includes five of their books, "so that you can see what sort of books we publish." Apparently, buying it used to be compulsory but now isn't. However, one of the things writers are asked to say in the initial email/letter is whether they have bought it.

This feels so wrong. To be made to feel you have to pay for submission guidelines? The writer who asked me about this said he had felt that if he didn't do so he would have less chance of  being accepted.

But it would also make me suspicious about the nature of the publisher. (I didn't investigate further.) Trade publishers do not ask the author for any financial contribution towards any aspect of the process.

There are, of course, various ways of going about self-publishing, which obviously incurs costs, but that's a different thing.

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

DEAR CRABBIT: agents recommending paid-for services

Dear Crabbit 
Below I have pasted the rejection I received from literary agent [redacted] yesterday having read my full manuscript. I am not in the slightest bit bothered by the rejection in itself.
What bothers me a great deal is the link she sent me to a service that will edit, provide a cover and convert the whole thing into a Kindle e-book for just under £1000! Surely I could hire a proof-reader and do it myself for far less (or am I being naive?) I have studied their website in depth and it does not inspire confidence. I have no idea who they are or anything that gives me confidence in their abilities. It strikes me as amateurish and maybe even exploitative.

So what do you think? Is this value for money? And what do you think of this growing trend where agents seem to be "monetizing (horrid word) the slush-pile"?

Thank you. Your thoughts based on your experience of e-publishing would be appreciated.

The letter which this writer showed me advised her to self publish on Kindle and recommended a company "who are experienced in providing a fast and first-rate means of self publishing effectively enabling your novel to reach a significant number of readers."

"enabling your novel to reach a significant number of readers" sounds as though it's pretty much been taken from an advertising flyer, doesn't it? I suspect the company sent a promotional flyer to the agency, asking them to recommend them, and the agent has done so. This is not breaking any laws, of course. I'm not aware that it contravenes any guidelines but it strikes me as an unusual thing for an agent to do. It strikes me that one should only recommend a company for anything when one has very, very good reason to know that the company does a good job, and not just because the company says so. The writer talks about "monetizing the slush-pile" - but there's no sign that this is what's happening, unless the agent is receiving a commission and there's no suggestion of that.

I want to pick up on the other aspect, though: whether it's better to use a package or to handle each part of the process separately. It is my personal view that a self-publishing author is better served by keeping proper control and separately outsourcing each aspect that he or she cannot or does not wish to handle. I am against the idea of packages as I don't think they usually serve the writer best. I just think that if you're going to self-publish (as I have done) you are better off properly self-publishing, keeping full control and doing as much as possible yourself.

I would always want to commission an editor and proof-reader I trusted (which might be different for each book); a cover designer I trusted; a formatter I trusted (if I couldn't do it myself or didn't want to). I'd definitely insist on writing the product description on Amazon etc myself; and no way is it necessary to get someone else to upload for you - it takes no longer to do it yourself than it would to email the docs to the company. The company in question doesn't offer the marketing - and quite right, too, as this is best done by the writer, perhaps with some paid-for back-up publicity or the assistance of clued-up friends.

[Edited: I previously listed the costs I incur when I've self-published a book, but, following Meg's comment, I realised that because my editing costs are unusually low this was pointless, though it wasn't offered as advice and my advice has always been to get your work properly edited. My editing and proof-reading costs are very low because a) the books are short non-fiction and the final draft by me is clean and accurate and has been through beta-readers b) I have expert friends, including a fully-trained proof-reader who charges me "mates rates". I do not want to suggest that you shouldn't pay a proper rate for editing stages. However, even if you paid a substantial amount of money, I still believe that it is better to choose an editor yourself, rather than taking editing as part of a package from a company, when you haven't seen the editor's work. This is the point of my post - not how much it costs but how you choose who will help you.]

The only two hard bits are a) writing the book and b) selling it, and the company mentioned, and others I've seen, are not offering either. (Thank goodness!)

I would stress that it may well be that the recommended company does a fantastic job. I'm just saying there's nothing on the website that would lead me to think they will do a better job than an author outsourcing the necessary bits. 
I'd be perfectly happy if the agent had said, "I think this is a book that could work well as a self-published novel, but I recommend that you go into this with eyes wide open and get lots of advice on the various parts of the process from those who have done it."

Monday, 23 July 2012

DEAR CRABBIT: how to use my 15 minutes with an agent

Here's a lovely positive question for Dear Crabbit!
Dear Crabbit
I am lucky enough to have bagged a 15-minute session with a literary agent at next month's Edinburgh Book Festival. My question for Dear Crabbit is: how could an aspiring author make best use of this time?

I understand that supplicants will be able to submit work to the agent in advance. I have a WIP but the first chapter won't come right, so there is no point in giving it to him or her. Would another chapter be acceptable? Or should I get advice on my synopsis and cover letter, which haven't been written yet? I also have questions about the subject of my WIP - it has been covered a few times already by high-profile authors and I'm worried it might have gone out of fashion. Would it be better to ask about that?

Any advice would be most gratefully received. Once again, many thanks for the advice which is so generously given on your blog.
Firstly, all credit to you for thinking so carefully about how best to use this opportunity.

I think there are two things you should try to cover in this time, and mostly the first one:

1. The idea and pitch for your book. You are worried that the subject-matter has been "covered" and may be out of fashion. Now, first I'd say that your task (not just for this session but when it comes to pitching properly) is going to be to show that your book takes a new slant. It doesn't matter if the topic has been covered - most have! - you have to have a new slant on it or characters that shine through so strongly that it doesn't matter that the plot is not new. So, first be sure in your own mind that you have a new slant and then write a paragraph-pitch for the book. This is what you can discuss with the agent.

This will be perhaps the most important part of the session. She can highlight possible disadvantages of your story, things that raise flags in her mind. She can advise you what to be careful of and how to proceed.

I think your best strategy here is to write a paragraph-pitch in advance and bring it with you or send it as part of the sample. This is what would sell a book's idea to an agent and is a crucially important part of the process of attracting one. See my blog posts about pitches.

You mentioned the possibility of discussing the synopsis - to be honest, this is pretty much the same as what I've just said. Discussing how the story proceeds and what elements are important is a good use of this time.

2. Your writing. You want to know which bit of writing you should send in advance, as the first chapter "won't come right". Well, if you were at the stage of actually pitching the book, that would matter - a lot! - but you're not. So, whether you show her the first chapter or another one depends on why it is not right.

If it's just that the wrong things happen in it, this doesn't matter at this stage because you're not actually pitching the book, just getting advice. The agent won't mind if the wrong things are in it or it starts in the wrong place - especially if you explain. If it's that you haven't found the voice, that's more critical, though I suspect it's not that because you say a later chapter might be better. 

So, you could send her the first chapter. Tell her that it's not "right" yet - and tell her briefly why - but explain that you just want her to see the voice and judge whether your writing is appropriate for the genre (or something suitable to your concerns).

Or, if you don't want to do that, send another chapter but explain that your book is very much in progress and your first chapter isn't "ready". Explain that you're sending it so that she can see the voice and the "type" of writing you use.

In summary
I think you should focus on the pitch and a mini-synopsis/extended paragraph. Not the covering letter - that's looking too far ahead. Besides, Dear Agent will tell you how to do that!

If the agent feels that the idea and pitch are a no-go area, this is when you need to find out, and she might well have advice on how to keep your book fresh and up-to-date. 

And do tell her that you follow my blog etc! I probably know the agent - do tell me (privately, if you wish) who it is. 

Your best chance of creating a good impression is to sound realistic and hard-working, tapped into all the good advice out there, determined to work hard to achieve your goals, and with an open mind and heart about the whole thing.

Finally, breathe deeply, smile, don't speak too fast. Write down your questions in advance and prioritise them so that if you're running out of time you can omit the least important.

Enjoy! And wave at me if you see me!

Friday, 20 July 2012

Dear silly writer

At least once a week, I get an email from someone asking for free advice. I don't just mean someone asking a favour; or someone asking a simple question; I mean someone saying, for example, "Hi! I've written a book. Can you give me some advice about getting published?" Bearing in mind that this blog and my books are FULL of such advice, my internal responses to these emails are not really fit for publication. My actual response is usually something hopelessly mild, usually written after half an hour of redrafting so that I don't upset the irritating person.

These people make me crabbit.

This is a message for all of them, specifically the one who just emailed me.

Dear Silly Person Who Really Has Not Thought,
Thank you for your rambling email telling me the inspiration for your book of poems (complete with 79 photos) and for so fully appraising me of your life story. You ask whether I have any advice for you about getting published.

In fact, yes, I do. I have this blog, where, for well over three years, I have slaved and sweated, bringing advice about every single aspect of publishing and writing. All the advice is free. I have written Write to be Published, over which I slaved and sweated for more hours than you can imagine and for which I received no advance. The price is £8.99 but you can even get it cheaper than that in certain places, and nine months later I will receive around 35p. I have also written Write a Great Synopsis, although frankly it does not sound as though you are quite at that stage yet. And in a couple of weeks you will even be able to buy Dear Agent, which will give you even more detail about approaching agents and publishers.

Oh, you mean, of course, that you want individual advice? Advice that will take me several hours to prepare, not including reading your waffly email before we even get started.

The thing is, you are entirely wrapped up in yourself. You have not properly looked at my blog, although I know that's how you found me. You have not taken the trouble to discover how phenomenally busy I am. You have not stopped to consider how exactly I am supposed to give you my individual time and my knowledge and not be paid.

And more importantly than that, you have not realised that the world will not stop spinning if your book never gets published. The world won't stop spinning if my next book never gets published, either. We are all dispensible. There are plenty more writers where you and I came from. Being published is not a right.

Wake up and smell the coffee.

Go away and read and write and think and engage your brain. The advice is all here for you.

And leave me alone. I'm trying to write and I'm trying to help sensible people.

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

DEAR CRABBIT: rejections again :((

Another question about rejections for Dear Crabbit. Oh dear, it's a stressful life being a writer! (Not meaning to sound glib - remember, I had years and flipping years of this.)
Dear Crabbit,
I read your post last week, (DEAR CRABBIT: encouragement from this rejection?) with interest. I am also in the process of submitting my first book, targeted to 7-9 year olds, to agents. So far, I've sent it to 4 agents and for a writing competition. All have been rejections. Two were standard 'form' rejections, but 3 of the rejections (two of which were from agents who had asked to look at the full manuscript) contained some feedback on the work.

I've had some really positive feedback; Agent 1 said: 'Your tone is very sparky and enjoyable, and it's very fun'. Agent 2 said: 'It’s fun and charming'. The Competition Judges said: 'this was a very enjoyable piece... funny, with great warmth'. So there seems to be general agreement about what is good about my book...

...but there's absolutely no consensus about what's wrong with it. The reasons why my work was rejected were all different. The problems cited are:
  • Theme: Agent 1 said that they already had a picturebook on a similar theme and they 'would struggle to give the book the 'push' it needs'. 
  • Plot: Agent 2 said: 'I couldn’t get to grips with the story here. It feels like it pulls in quite a few directions and I found myself not really knowing where it was going'. 
  • Language/Style: The Competition Judges said they thought that the vocabulary and sentence structure used was too advanced for the target age group. 
As there's no consistency in the feedback, I'm struggling to work out what I need to do to make my manuscript better. If the Competition Judges are right and it's pitched too high, why didn't the agents mention it? Agent 1 liked the plot, but Agent 2 couldn't get to grips with it. The 'subjectivity' of these readings of my work means I'm unclear as to what my next steps should be.

Is your advice to me the same as the previous writer? Should I submit to a few more agents and see if the same concerns crop up? Or should I try and address the criticisms before I submit the manuscript to others?
I'm really sorry but my answer is going to be short and not what you want to hear. The most likely reason for the differing reasons for rejection is simple: there are probably many or several reasons for rejection and each agent has picked one to mention. If they mention any more than one, a) it will take them too long, b) you are more likely to come back to them with a response (which they don't want) and c) if they are the only ones who give you detailed feedback the risk is that you then go and re-write to their specifications but other agents still don't take it.

So, if you get any feedback at all, it is likely to be one or two comments only. And they are pretty much a courtesy by the agent. Not meaningless, but hard to derive meaning from.

What about the competition judges' comments about age-range and vocab? Well, there are a few possibilities:
  1. They are right but the agents chose not to mention it, because it wasn't the one crit they happened to pick as the easiest one to offer or the one that first came to mind.
  2. They are right but the agents chose not to mention it because if it's only the language (rather than content) then you would simply need to say it was pitched at 8-10 instead of 7-9. Problem solved.
  3. They are wrong. Competition judges a) often know less about the markets and possibilities than agents and b) are usually appallingly over-worked and underpaid for the task. (I will never do comp judging again - recently I did this, spent a vast number of hours giving detailed written feedback on every entry, was paid a tiny fee, had to travel and stay overnight to deliver the adjudication and got not one single word of thanks from any of the writers.)
So, I'm afraid that there's very little concrete that you can take from these rejections. My strong advice is that, if you can, you get a professional to read the first three chapters or so and see in detail what may be going wrong. I think that could be incredibly helpful to you, rather than floundering trying to make sense of contradictory comments. (I realise that getting a professional critique is outside the budget of many. There are other ways of getting good feedback. I thought I'd blogged about it but I can't actually find where; I do talk about it in Write to be Published, though. Could be the subject of another question to Dear Crabbit? In your hands...) 

I'm sorry I couldn't be more positive. There's no doubt that deciphering rejections is tough.

Monday, 16 July 2012

Winners of Dear Agent giveaway!

And the two lucky winners of the first free giveaway of Dear Agent on this blog, chosen by random.org, the random integer generator, are... tarantara... Lisa Shambrook and Vee Frier!

Congratulations to you! I will need email addresses for the winners - please email me (n@nicolamorgan.co.uk).

And to the others: commiserations - but look out for more giveaways in the lead up to publication on Aug 10th! Thank you all for your interest.

Don't forget to "Like" and keep an eye on my Facebook Author page in order to have more chances to enter giveaways and hear any news. I will also post Edinburgh International Book Festival pictures there.

DEAR CRABBIT: agent touting on Twitter?

An interesting question has come from one of you.
Dear Crabbit
We hear all the time about how enormous agents’ slushpiles are. So am I right to view with suspicion an agent who uses Twitter to invite submissions, and/or one who is running a competition where the prize is representation? I don’t want my cynicism to stop me from pursuing a genuine opportunity but I’d hate to think I’m wasting valuable writing time and energy. And the competition, by the way, requires entries to be made on an exclusive basis, i.e. novels are not to be on submission to any other agency. Which doesn't sound much like a competition to me, more like a normal submission.

Friday, 13 July 2012

Dear Agent - FREE copies for you!

I'm delighted to reveal the cover of Dear Agent. *dances*

I hope you like it. Publication date is Aug 10th. And the only industry expert to have read it already has given ACE feedback - part of which you'll see if you squint at the cover.

Dear Agent is going to be the partner in crime to Write a Great Synopsis, and between them I hope they'll cover everything you need to submit a novel to an agent or publisher. Dear Agent also focuses heavily on how to pitch your book in a paragraph, so will be very useful for self-publishers trying to write the blurb for their books.

To celebrate, today I am offering two blog readers a free copy in advance of publication! (More chances later, here, on Twitter, and FB.) All you have to do is leave a "pick me!" style comment below and I will pick two names after the deadline of midday on Monday 16th.
And there are THREE MORE chances on my Facebook Author page right now - try for both! That's five free copies today, and more to follow later.

Winners will receive their copy (it's an ebook - and you do NOT need an ebook reader to read it) at the end of July, all being well.

Obviously, I'm hoping that some people will like it and say so on Amazon or Twitter or a blog - or ANYWHERE! Pretty please with sparkly bells on. I'm not very good at asking for Amazon reviews, but they are all I have in my quest to make this work. If I can get it to shoot up the rankings at the beginning, it really helps.

I will be blogging some free extracts and offering other giveaways here, on Facebook and on Twitter up until the day before publication. And when it's published it will be STUPID cheap for one weekend only so keep your eyes open! The best place to keep on top of any news will from now on be my Facebook Author Page. Please wave at me there.

Please, if you value the advice here on this blog and in the books, do shout about it in the right places. I will love you forever.

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

What does a proof-reader do?

What does a proof-reader do? You might think it's obvious: finds typos. And that's true. But it is also more complicated and more technical than that. After all, while some typos are clearly typos, others are stylistic traits and others are not typos at all but do require consistency.

Let me list some of the things my expert proof-reader found in Dear Agent (coming on Aug 10th!):
  • Places where I'd got a very slightly different wording in the contents from the actual wording in the heading, because I'd changed my mind about the heading but not the contents list.
  • I'd used the word blind-folded with a hyphen twice and without twice - the examples were far apart and to notice I'd have to remember to write down every single word that could have two forms as I came to them, so that I could check each one. There are LOADS of words that can be hyphenated or not, equally correctly, but you should do it the same each time.
  • I use British spellings (eg realised not realized) but sometimes my computer auto-Americanises - my proof-reader had to notice.
  • There were some things the meaning of which she wanted to check, because she wasn't sure it would be clear to everyone - this is a crucial task for a proof-reader and requires intelligence.
  • She noticed a couple of bolds or italics which she questioned.
  • She noticed that I seemed to have contradicted myself at one point. I hadn't, but I agreed it wasn't clear, so I adjusted.
  • I'd capitalised something in one place but not another.
Other things a proof-reader must notice:
  • I might have used curly quotes in one place and straight ones in another.
  • Spelling and punctuation errors, of course.
  • Wrong layout or line-spacing.*
  • Inconsistent font/size in headings.
  • Places where headings appear at the bottom of a page, or other uglinesses of layout.
[*Edited to add: layout requirements are different between ebooks and print books. The proof-reader would be told which he or she is doing, but would usually be required to be proofing according to print requirements, which means layout is for a page view and must avoid widows and orphans. Then it would be the job of the formatter to alter to suit the ebook format.

For example, too much white space is a nightmare in some ebook formats. And, as Dan points out in the comments below, widows and orphans are irrelevant because each reader/device can be set up differently. When we read ebooks, we have to accept that sometimes a heading, for example, will appear at the bottom of the "page", ie screen.

I told my proof-reader to ignore widows and orphans and line spacing. I then put in my instructions for the formatter, and I always give her discretion about line spacing, within reason. The formatter is not only a highly expert ebook formatter, using full html, but she was also a trained type-setter. So, I have all bases covered! And there will doubtless still be something that slips through!)]

It's a skilled task. It requires patience, knowledge of correct and varied uses, and a very meticulous way of working. 

The fact that my proof-reader for Dear Agent was my sister probably adds to the pressure! 

Monday, 9 July 2012

DEAR CRABBIT: synopsis for a trilogy?

Dear Crabbit
I read 'Write A Great Synopsis' ( which I thoroughly enjoyed). I have a question regarding the submission. 
What of a trilogy? Do I include the synopsis for all three books and take three times the length to give the full outcome of the novel, or do I simply give the synopsis to the first book and no conclusion?

Is it presumptious to give the synopsis for all three books, will it be thrown away immediatley since I did not adhere to the rules on the website for synopsis length or will it help the agent to see how all three books pan out to its conclusion? 
A submission should be for this book. You may well have plans for (or indeed written or drafted) a sequel, trilogy, series or whatever, but you are first pitching this book.

So do a proper synopsis for this book.

If you definitely plan for this to be a trilogy, send a shorter, separate synopsis (e.g. half a page) for each of the other two. (Remember, if the agent doesn't want to read them, she needn't.) Do say what stage they are at. And remember that a trilogy must have a whole arc, as well as the arc within each book.

If you are proposing that there might be scope for follow-up books (whether one or more), but that this is not an essential part of the offer, by all means add a paragraph to this effect, perhaps identifying some directions the series might take or some ideas you have. 

Certainly the agent would be interested to know whether you have an idea for a follow-up, but she really does not need to see anything other than the idea at this stage.

Your submission should focus exclusively or almost exclusively on this novel. Because if it's not up to scratch, nothing else matters. The agent is not going to say, "Well, this is pretty mediocre but I'd love it if there were two more mediocre ones to go with it..."

Friday, 6 July 2012

How To Write - by Harry Bingham

Harry Bingham knows his onions when it comes to writing and publishing. Actually, for all I know he knows his onions when it comes to onions, too.

Recently, he proved his utter good sense by giving my Write to be Published a lovely write-up on his blog. And he's invited me back to the Festival of Writing in York to deliver some more crabbit advice - even more advice than last year. In fact, I'm going to have to go into stamina training for all the book doctor sessions and the mini-course and three other events. *flexes muscles*

But, Harry doesn't only run the Writers' Workshop (events, tutoring, mentoring, critiques), he also writes books himself. He has a new novel, Talking to the Dead, and, crucially for you, a new book on how to write called, er, How to Write. And it's a remarkably excellent book. Basically, I think How to Write and my own Write to be Published make a perfect couple. I think the two books should probably get married. Because I'm pretty sure they're going to bring into existence a whole load more books. Not that I have anything against books born out of wedlock, you understand.

Why are we bigging up each other's books, when you might think they are in competition? Does he actually plan to poison my coffee at the Festival of Writing? (Not if I can kick him somewhere with my pointy boots first.) No, the thing is our books are not in competition. His focuses on the writing - and in wonderful detail. Mine takes an overview of the whole process from idea through writing and to submission. I give nutshell advice about the important aspects of writing, too, but there's no doubt that How to Write is a real manual of writing.

He has detailed advice (with copious fascinating examples) on prose style, character, point(s) of view, structures, dialogue and pace; he shows you how to analyse plot problems and choose the right tense. To be honest, I don't think there's a single thing about how to write a novel that How to Write doesn't cover. I am in awe of the detail and the depth.

So, his or mine? Well, duh, both. I think you should read mine first - it will get you in the mood, set the scene, make sure you understand the background to what you're setting out to do and what publishers and agents need from you if they are to give you a deal. And then you'll be ready for Harry's fabulous book.

If Mr Bingham promises not to poison my coffee, I promise not to damage my pointy boots on his shins. And our books can live forever in perfect harmony.

Monday, 2 July 2012

DEAR CRABBIT: encouragement from this rejection?

The latest question for Dear Crabbit is a tricky one:

Hi Nicola
I am currently submitting my first novel to literary agents and have had four standard rejections. The other day I received a personalised rejection from a prominent agent in one of the big agencies, enthusiastic about the premise of my book but briefly explaining why she didn't quite warm enough to the writing to represent me - and to quote her: 'I am sure another agent will feel differently, given how subjective reading is.' 
Am I right to take any encouragement from this, given that she did not ask to read the rest of the book? Or am I clutching at straws?
The unattractive core answer to this is: a) it depends what you mean by encouragement and b) it's impossible to say for sure.

On the one hand, certainly you should take encouragement from a personal rejection. It's good that the premise of your book is exciting, because that's a very important start. So, please do be encouraged by this.

On the other hand, "I am sure another agent will feel differently, given how subjective reading is" is somewhat trickier to take encouragement from, because it's too bland. It's also so common as almost to be a form rejection. Rather obviously, also, she can't really be sure another agent will feel differently enough to say yes; and rather obviously reading is subjective. You need to realise that this "reading is subjective" thing is one of the most common phrases used to soften a rejection. Yes, it does mean "I didn't like it enough" but it doesn't mean "I'm the only agent in the world who won't like it enough."

The real problem you have is that this answer cannot tell you whether the "didn't warm to the writing" bit is because it genuinely wasn't to her taste or because the writing simply and more profoundly doesn't do justice to the premise.

So, should you re-write or just submit to others?

Impossible to be sure. I think you need objective feedback as to what might be "wrong" with or lacking in the writing. You might consider paying for it - but be careful who you use. You might use your writing group of you have one - but be very careful who you ask to read it because you need to know what's wrong, not what's right. If you don't have a writing group, you could ask three friends for comments - but make sure they really do know what they're looking for and that they know you want to know what's wrong. And even then, you can only revise if you agree.

Or you might hope that another agent will tell you more. But, if it's the writing (as opposed to a character or plotline) then you need more than brief feedback from an agent.

I recommend you
a) send to two or three* more agents or publishers, in case it really was subjectivity that got you the rejection in the first place, and
b) get good quality feedback at least on the first three chapters and
c) see if you can work out for yourself where the writing might be lacking.

[*Edited to add: in response to a suggestion in the comments below of sending to many more agents, no, I don't advocate sending to too many all at the same time because what if the first three all give you the same piece of advice and you decide they are right and you want to make the suggested change? You've then got a problem because all the others have still got your first version. Yes, I certainly recommend sending your MS to loads of agents, but not all at the same time.]

I'm sorry that doesn't give you a yes or no answer - but I don't think you expected one, did you?!

Any more questions for Dear Crabbit? See here for details.