With her years as a writer, Storm Constantine knows her trade. In this series of never before seen articles, Storm gives us authors the tools and tricks of writing and publishing. Look for more articles appearing in our blog throughout this year!
I’m sure that every published writer would say that they are asked this question more often than any other. There are plenty of books available that give advice on the subject, including such worthy tomes as The Writers’ Handbook and The Writers and Artists’ Year Book, as well as a multitude of self-help titles. There are also many web sites that will offer you information. But do these guarantee you the ability to write a best-seller?
It has to be said that a lot of it is down to luck. You might have the most saleable idea in the world, but unless it falls on the right desk at the right time, it might as well not exist. Occasionally, the publishing industry tends to get all hysterical about a new manuscript, and whoever ends up buying it will publicise it to the hilt. This is generally necessary, for any auction situation means they probably had to pay big money for it, in which case the only way to recoup is to actually market the product. It’s a well known fact, especially in genre fiction, that the advance directly affects the publicity budget. If you sell your first book for a pittance, you shouldn’t expect to have adverts on the Tube for it. In fact, your publicity budget will be minuscule, if it exists at all. Unfortunately, unless it’s crazy season, you’ll probably get an advance that seems risible in comparison to the amount of work hours that went into the book. It’s tough and demoralising, but you have to remember that publishing is a business and works like any other. The norm is that new writers get small advances, and build up slowly, as they build up their readership. And the majority of promotion will be down to you. Just because you’re a writer, you’re no more privileged or entitled to special treatment than any other person who has a product to sell. That’s point number one. But some authors are still selling their first books for big money, so maybe we have to analyse what gets the industry hot.
(One thing worth mentioning here is that J K Rowling’s first Harry Potter book was turned down by two publishers before being taken on by Bloomsbury. Imagine how she felt when those rejections came in and how she must feel now. Take heart. You can get lucky.)
Agents and editors will tell you that publishers are always looking for new angles on fantasy. It may come as surprise news to most people who browse bookshops, where there is little evidence of originality, but this is what I’m told. And happily there will always be exceptional new books coming out, even if the majority of new titles in shops seem fairly run of the mill. If you’re working on your own first novel, it’s a good idea to read the best of new titles, not just to size up the competition but to analyse what makes the books different from the rest. Point number two. An author should read as a writer not as a reader. There is a difference.
A way to strive for originality is to avoid traditional fantasy tropes. I’ve seen too many manuscripts telling stories about elves and orcs or vampires, which have all been done to death – or undeath as the case may be. What you should seek is a new vein to tap. Every country in the world has a rich, ancient mythology, some of which has barely been acknowledged in fantasy fiction. Celtic and Norse mythology are common, as is Native American, and books influenced by Japanese and Chinese cultures have appeared, but what about the rest of the world? If this approach attracts you, get a good encyclopaedia of mythology and start looking. The myths themselves can generate ideas for novels and stories. If you really must have characters as elves and orcs, at least try to come up with new terms for them, and do something different with them.
The best novels come from intertwining plot strands, so it’s a good idea to jot down several myths, then combine and change them to come up with something unique. For many writers, the first novel derives from a compulsion, so you generally know what you’re going to write from the start, but if you can stand back and regard your idea critically and think it might be a tad derivative, keep the plot and characters, but tinker with the ‘dressing’. Guard against mixing cultures though. I once read a novel that featured deities and beliefs from both Celtic and Egyptian traditions, all mixed up together, and it wasn’t very convincing.
It’s unlikely that a publisher would commission a novel from synopsis by a first time author, so the next thing you need to do is write the bulk of the book. It’s feasible you could sell it with 200 strong pages or so, but I’d recommend getting it all down, at least in first draft.
Despite what I said above about the compulsive nature of writers, some people have asked me: what should I write for my first novel? How can I come up with an idea? If you want to write, but haven’t been ‘possessed’ (and that is what it can feel like) by an idea, the answer is simple. Your first novel should be the book you’ve always wanted to read but have never found. Writing can be an academic exercise, but novels that truly touch the heart of a reader are those with spirit and feeling. That has to come from a kind of love. Your first novel is a love affair with your creativity. Although subsequent books can be equally fulfilling, nothing compares with the first one, the first love. So when the bulk of your book is written, what comes next? The answer is something that many people find difficult to tackle: the synopsis.
The synopsis is effectively the advert for your book. It’s what potential publishers look at first and they have to be intrigued enough by it to want to read some of the actual manuscript. The problem is that all the complexities of plot and characterisation are very difficult to capture in a short précis. When the story is set down in its bare bones, so to speak, it can appear flat and uninspiring compared with the real thing. So you have to go for a punchy approach, writing the synopsis as if it was the one thing that will attract people to buy and read your book. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it should be like an extended cover blurb, but it should have the same direct and immediate feel. There should be no flab or extended rambling, just get to the point. It’s not an exercise to prove to publishers that you can write beautifully. It’s a sales device. Really, it requires a distinctly separate skill to that of writing fiction, so if you know anyone in the advertising industry, who can give you a hand, ask them for help. Remember that editors receive hundreds of submissions a week, so what’s important is that you convince them your book is much better and more original than anything else coming their way.
Another problem with this is that many writers are naturally self-effacing and it really makes them squirm to promote themselves in a self-aggrandising manner. That’s why it often helps to get someone else to assist you, who you can trust. They won’t be as sensitive about it as you are.
Once you have a synopsis that you think does the business, start sending it out to publishers with a covering letter, about a page of biographical material (again, punchy and interesting), and a chunk of manuscript. It hardly needs to be said, but it does help if your work is nicely presented. The manuscript should always be double line spaced, with 1” margins all round, and the pages should be numbered.
There are arguments for and against trying to secure an agent before you send work to publishers. Obviously, an agent will represent you better than you can represent yourself, and they lend the work an air of respectability, in that it has already passed some kind of test for them to want to represent it. However, one editor of mine said she thought that if authors are sending work to agents they might as well be sending it to editors. The main concern with this is the aforementioned glut of unsolicited (i.e. unrepresented) manuscripts with which editors are deluged continually. Perhaps it is better to give your book the best possible chance and try to get an agent first. It is really up to you.
It can help if you’ve already made forays into the genre by selling short stories to magazines or having them accepted for fantasy web zines. This gives you a kind of writing CV.
So, if you’re lucky enough to find a home for your masterwork, what can you expect? At first, it’s a dizzying experience. Suddenly, you’re a kind of celebrity and that can feel extremely strange. However, once the champagne’s finished and you’ve fluttered back down to earth, you have to carry on working. It’s unlikely (unless you’re a literary genius) that you won’t have to make amendments to your novel once it’s been accepted. If you get a good editor – and thankfully there are still many good editors out there – they’ll help you craft your work to make it better and stronger. One thing I can’t stress too strongly: don’t be precious about what you write. If you’re prepared to accept constructive criticism, your life will be a lot easier. Just remember that editors aren’t trying to attack you personally: they simply want the best for your book. So it’s pointless getting upset and annoyed when they suggest changes, even if those changes seem radical. You have to trust that they know what they’re talking about. It would only reflect badly on them if a book they’ve promoted as the next big thing is savaged by critics. I know the arguments. As an editor myself, I’ve heard them a hundred times. ‘This is my work, my lifeblood, the outpourings of my soul! How can you want to change it? This is what I’ve written. This is how it is!’
Well, all right, but do you actually want to sell the book? If you feel a word of it can’t be touched, perhaps it belongs in your diary rather than a bookshop. As I said before, writing is an industry and temperament can’t come into it.
Hard as it sounds, you should look upon your novel as a product. To be a professional writer, your product has to sell. Aside, perhaps, from independent publishers like Immanion Press and our kind, the people who run publishing (as opposed to editors) aren’t in it solely for love of books. In the case of big publishers especially, they’re in it to make profits. If they didn’t make profits, they couldn’t publish books. When you’ve got the writing bug, and stories seem to flow through your very veins, so that your only purpose in life is to express them, this hard, unpalatable truth can come like a punch to the gut. But you can’t ignore it. Once you’ve accepted it and thought, ‘Oh well, that’s just the way it is’, you can shrug it off and get on with being creative. In real terms, the only time you have to deal with it is when you’re actually selling new work or when your book comes out. The rest of the time you can forget about it, write and be happy.
The marvellous thing at the end of all this is that your book will eventually reach readers, and they care about books very much. Their support restores your faith in what you’re doing. It’s really sad that publishing has had to change from the gentle, scholarly profession it used to be, but we should look on the bright side and at least be grateful that it’s still thriving.