Pruning Your Work by Storm Constantine

Most writers tend to fall into one of two categories: the under-writer and the over-writer. Let’s call these the starveling and the bloater. The starveling produces bare, stark first drafts; there might only be slashes of dialogue without any ‘stage directions’ to show what the characters are doing, or hardly any description, or scant exposition. Some starvelings I know write first drafts that read like synopses. Their subsequent drafts involve adding all the extras – the ornaments, if you like – to the basic story. But this piece isn’t about starvelings. Their problems will be discussed another time. No, this is for the bloaters among you.

Bloaters are greedy for words. Not for them the crisp-bread and Philadelphia Lite of first drafts. They often say the same thing over and over, but in slightly different ways. The trouble is, when the words are pouring out and some of those sentences are just so tasty, they seem too good to waste. Bloaters might go over the top with description. Disciplined descriptive detail makes for good story-telling, but too much of it gets in the way of the story. Readers get bored and lose interest.

Sometimes, when you’re writing, it’s easy to include dialogue and description – even whole scenes – that have little or no bearing on pushing the story forward. In later drafts, all that can go. But the problem is, when you’re so close to a piece of work, it’s often difficult to determine exactly what’s essential and what isn’t. After all, the story is a virtual living world in your imagination. You know everything about it and you want your readers to share that experience. Cutting too much might damage that vision. In a full length novel, it isn’t always necessary to junk all the sub-plots and ‘asides’. They can enrich the story rather than hamper it. The trick is to achieve a balance.

It’s important to remember that the short story and the novel are very different animals. You have to be much stricter with yourself about extraneous detail in a short story, which should be as polished and perfect as you can get it. Editing and writing are two distinct skills. But despite this, I believe that all writers can train themselves to edit their own work to some extent. So, how do you start learning the skill?

It helps to get other people to look at your work, especially if they read a lot themselves. Tell them what you want them to look for, stressing you want an honest response – you won’t bite their heads off if they come back with negative remarks. (That’s something I could write another whole article on – accepting helpful criticism gracefully!) The main things for them to search for are repeated and unnecessary information. Once your readers have come back with their opinions, take a look at the story again. On your computer, create a copy of the story, make those cuts, print the piece out, and read it once more. Does the story work better now? Has the narrative flow improved without losing any of the atmosphere you set up?

Another helpful practice is to read your story aloud – you can be sure that repetitions and tedious sections will make their presence known. If you can, read to an audience of one or more – their comments will be helpful too.

The object of the exercise is to remove all information from the story that waylays the reader unnecessarily, that does nothing to progress the plot or plump up characterisation. It’s often tempting to keep sections in, because you think they build a character up in the reader’s mind. Pages of personal history about your protagonists might be useful as a reference source for you – but how much does the reader need to know for the story to work for them? Be severe with yourself here. Don’t let your story get drowned by torrents of irrelevant personal detail.

It helps to try out different readers until you come across the one (or more) who seems to give the best advice. If you can join a writers’ workshop or creative writing class, even better. (If there isn’t one in your area, you could start one). This is because another good way to learn how to edit your own work is to edit other people’s. It’s surprising how much you can pick up from their mistakes!

Once you’ve found your unofficial editor, nine times out of ten their suggestions will bring unexpected new life to a story. I’m often amazed at how judicial cutting seems to electrify the prose, bringing everything into focus. Observing what other people regard as non-essential information helps train you to recognise it yourself.

Bloat notoriously shakes the meaning of a piece of text out of focus, such as when a writer says in twenty words what can easily be said in ten. I’m not talking about description here (although that can suffer from this fault), but simple narrative. Most commonly, the problem manifests as an army of words that colonise your sentences, thereby obscuring the meaning and creating an area of mud in which the reader loses their footing.

Here’s an example; a sentence from the original draft of a story, which once appeared in a magazine I edited. The protagonist is just taking a bite from a chicken leg. The original sentence read:

‘Her jaws moved, but as far as she was concerned it was nothing more than an inedible pulp’.

There is a grammatical problem with this sentence too, but after he reworked the story, the author’s final version read:

‘Her jaws moved with effort.’

The reworded sentence conveys all the meaning of the first – she didn’t really enjoy the meat – without all the padding. To keep more description, the sentence could also have been reworded as: ‘Her jaws moved, but the meat was an inedible pulp in her mouth.’ The wording is still more concise than in the original sentence and the meaning is clear.

A good exercise is to take a paragraph from one of your stories and chop it by half. Be harsh with yourself. This is just an exercise. Do it in three or four different ways. Cut different words. Reword sentences more concisely. But notice the effect on the whole.

An excess of unnecessary words might not be the problem. Perhaps you are one of those writers who has to say everything at least twice. You think of one metaphor to describe the moonlight, you think of another. They both make your skin tingle, so both have to go in. As they’re both so evocative and sensual, surely no-one will mind them being there? But there are hundreds of ways to describe something creatively – so why waste them all on one story? Again, learn to recognise when you’re repeating yourself, and keep the repetitions in a separate file or on paper. Use them somewhere else, on their own, where they can shine like gems.

It’s taken me over ten years of professional writing and fourteen novels to train myself to spot occasions of bloat. Even now, I don’t notice them all, especially when I’ve just finished writing a novel or story, and I’m still too close to it. It’s usually after a month or so, when the copy-edited manuscript comes back from the publishers, that the repetitions, over-long descriptions and unnecessary details, scenes and dialogue leap from the page at me. My writing now is a lot more concise than it was. But one thing I have learned over the years: I don’t expect my first, or even my second, drafts to be perfect. Criticising yourself too harshly at this early stage can lead to writer’s block. There’ll be plenty of time later to get out the polishing tools.

Writing can be a difficult process. The stories blossom in our minds, but when we sit down to commit them to screen or paper, the words often don’t come out as scintillating as we imagined them – or worse, they refuse to come out at all. We have the vision in our minds, the essential feeling, but sometimes despair of capturing that in the written word. It’s important to just write. Train yourself to think as you write rather than before you write. Editing a piece of work is the easy part, the enjoyable process of tinkering with the words. Most of us are either starvelings or bloaters. Sometimes I’m one or the other. The main thing is learning the techniques of your craft, so you can polish your stories yourself.



Making Your Writing Live by Storm Constantine

New writers brim over with fantastic ideas for their stories and novels. The images live powerfully in their heads, and their task is to commit that strength and feeling to the printed page. But there can’t be a writer alive who has had to face the fact that their abstract images often lose something in the translation. The most brilliant ideas can seem flat and lifeless once they’re written down. It takes practice and skill for a writer to be able to give the reader their vision, and the most powerful tool they have at their disposal is language itself.

Whole books have been written on the subject of how to write well, so it’s impossible to impart all that information in a small article. However, I’ll try to address some of the most important points.

A book is a form of virtual reality. Good writing carries the reader off into imaginary realms so cleverly that they forget they’re reading. They’re really there in that other world. The last thing a writer wants is for the reader to be jolted back to mundane reality. But this can happen. Awkward phrases can jar. Unlikely actions, reactions or speech from characters can shatter the suspension of disbelief. When you’re reading a book, you don’t have someone speaking aloud to you in a spooky voice. The words alone have to make you feel nervous or scared. I can remember being terrified by Stephen King’s ‘The Shining’ when I first read it. So how does a writer create this effect?

It’s important you don’t worry about syntax, or any other technical problem, until you’ve got your first draft down. Second and subsequent drafts are for grooming. First draft should be pure creativity, whether it’s in good English or apparent Double Dutch.

I believe successful writing is the result of a combination of things, all of which are equally important, but I’ll begin with syntax, or sentence construction. It might seem obvious, but sentences have to make sense. If a reader finds themselves going back to read a sentence again, because they can’t work out what the writer means, they’ll remember they’re only reading. The mood is lost. It’s important to have the words and parts of a sentence in the right order. Again, this might seem obvious, but all too often, when working on novels from new writers, I read sentences along the lines of:

‘Over the lazy dog the quick red fox jumps.’

The images this conjures in the reader’s mind is muddled. Ok, we’ve got a lazy dog, we’ve got a quick red fox, but then the reader has to wait to see what happens.

‘The quick red fox jumps over the lazy dog’ presents the information in the right order. We see the fox, we see him jumping, then we see what he jumps over. We haven’t got the fox at a standstill, next to the dog, waiting to see the jump. The same could be said of the sentence ‘the cow jumped over the moon’, or ‘red sky at night, shepherd’s delight’. ‘Over the moon the cow jumped’ and ‘shepherd’s delight, red sky at night’, don’t convey the information in quite the same precise way.

Following on from syntax is pace, which we can regard as the partner of the former, because neither feels right unless they’re together. The pace of your sentence does much to create a mood. You might use longer, more rambling sentences, with a string of sub-clauses, to describe an initial scene, or action when there’s no particular sense of urgency or danger.

As an example, I’ll quote from my novel ‘Scenting Hallowed Blood’. This is the beginning of the first paragraph of the book:

‘He was little more than a boy, gleaming in the candle-light like an icon, while the night wind cleared its throat in the long, narrow chimneys of stone that threaded down from the cliff-top to the cave. Candles were set at his feet in a ring; rough wax obelisks, ill-formed as if shaped by hasty hands.’

I wanted the words to have a lilting rhythm, almost like poetry, to lull the reader. I didn’t want their hearts beating faster at that point, although I planted narrative clues that something odd is about to happen with how I described the candles ‘ill-formed as if shaped by hasty hands’. This was an urgent ritual. I wanted the reader to ask immediately: ‘why?’

The sentence construction should become snappier, more abrupt, once the action begins to start. Here is a later extract from ‘Scenting’ to illustrate the point:

‘The ground rushed up to meet him, each detail of the rocks below brought into sharp focus. Nano-seconds stretched into eternity. He knew he was falling fast, yet it seemed to take forever to reach the ground. I was tricked! I am dying! The scapegoat. Pushed from the cliff. Panic surged through his body. Then the ground disappeared. He fell into a black abyss. Down. Down. Through time.

Another thing I did here was break a grammatical rule in using little bits of sentences called fragments, as in ‘Down. Down. Through time’ and ‘Pushed from the cliff’.

Fragments can be used for dramatic effect in certain scenes.

Also, the choice of tenses and verb forms adds to the drama. For example, ‘she was sitting on the battlements and she was howling’, has far less drama and impact than the simple ‘she sat on the battlements and howled.’ A horror writer might even be tempted to use the construction of ‘She sat on the battlements. She howled.’

Every word we know has associations connected with it. Even down to simple colours. For example, if someone says the word ‘red’, people might say it made them think of blood or danger. Similarly, blue might invoke the response of sea, sky or sadness. Therefore the words a writer chooses to use are very important. You want to invoke the right response in the reader. Good writing is precise and clear. Compare:

‘It was a noise made by someone who was extremely frightened.’


‘It was a scream.’


Generally, in a piece of horror writing, you’d avoid soft, fluffy words. If you were describing a monster, for example, you might not want to say, ‘It waddled towards me, a huge, pillowy mass…’ The word ‘waddle’ conjures an image of something rather ludicrous and cumbersome, while ‘pillowy’ sounds like marshmallow. The reader might think ‘that’s not very scary. It wouldn’t take much to run away from that’. Therefore, it might be better to say something like ‘It lumbered towards me, a hideous amorphous mass…’ Now a reader might worry about that creature.


Punctuation is also vitally important. It is the tool writers use to guide their reader’s eyes along the text. If the sentences are badly constructed and punctuated, the reader might get confused as to the meaning, and then they’re back in mundane reality with a bump. You’ve lost them.

Self Publishing: the Pitfalls and the Promise by Storm Constantine

As it becomes ever more difficult to get a foothold in the writing world, never mind sustain a comfortable living from it, many more young or novice writers are turning to self-publishing, so that their work can reach an audience. In some ways, this echoes the rebellious stance of the Punk era in the late Seventies, when a deluge of new bands – all attitude and safety pins – burst onto the scene, and small record labels sprouted up all over the place, eager to disseminate this snarling, spitting music around the country. That happened because the big labels had a stranglehold on music, and popular music itself had suffered for it, becoming largely stale and predictable.

Much the same could be said of standard publishing nowadays. Editors, seemingly held at gunpoint by paranoid accountants, are even less willing to take risks on new talent than in the past. Generally, the new writer finds themselves, armed only with their manuscripts, facing what appears to be a cyclopean, impregnable citadel, whose drawbridge is truly up. The other side of the coin is that new writers also come cheap. Suppose the drawbridge is lowered, and the author is taken into the citadel? All too often, they are grateful beyond words just to see their novels and stories in print, and any money earned from it seems like an unexpected bonus. It’s great to be paid a little bit for indulging a hobby. Most of us would continue to write regardless of whether we’re published or not. However, the low advances offered for novels – and not just first novels nowadays – does nothing to help the situation for authors who see their writing as their vocation in life, and not just something they do in their spare time after work. In addition, the advance of computer technology has made it far easier for people to produce manuscripts, regardless of talent and skill. Consequently, there is a never-ending supply of hopeful authors, few of whom can expect to find a publisher who is willing, if not able, to support and evolve their career in writing. It all comes down to commitment, and unfortunately even when an editor is committed to your work, those who control the purse strings might not be quite so accommodating. To become a big name, you have to be promoted and, as far as the accountants who now run publishing are concerned, to be promoted, you have to be a big name. Is it any wonder, then, that writers are sick of the situation, and think, ‘stuff it, I’m going to do it myself’?

The relative cheapness of self-publishing via the internet has enabled many people to start their careers independent of a professional publisher. All you need is a decent understanding of basic book formatting and access to a cheap printing company (usually print on demand nowadays). You can try to get your book reviewed on any suitable web site or blog, persuade amenable local or specialist book shop proprietors to stock it, or advertise it on your personal web site, complete with text extracts and a glam author photo. In fact, you might not even bother with the hard copy printing stage, preferring to see your work as an electronic book, existing only in cyber-space. It’s not the same as a printed artefact in your hand (that’s irreplaceable!), but you might earn a little money from it, and at least people will have easy access to your work. So as you can see, it’s not that difficult to become a published writer. Is this a good thing or a bad thing?

It has to be seen as beneficial for literature as a whole that new writers can find an outlet for their work, and that readers can have access to new talent and ideas they might otherwise we denied. Books that might never otherwise see the light of day, being indefinable in terms of genre, or too experimental in form, can reach an audience. I support self-publishing whole-heartedly in this respect, but just one thing niggles me, and it’s quite a big ‘one thing’.

The major benefit of being published by a professional publisher is that your work will be edited, polished to its (hopefully) full potential. An experienced editor can guide and teach new writers, pointing out the weaknesses in their work, playing up the strengths. All too often, the books I see that have been produced by enterprising free spirits fall down because the quality of the writing simply isn’t good enough.

You make a decision to write a novel and turn on your computer. Your monitor blooms with a blank page on your word processor, the cursor is blinking expectantly, waiting for you to begin. Your head is full of ideas, characters are straining at the leash to be released onto the page, plots twirl and plait in your mind, landscapes are ready to pour out of your fingers. So, you crack your knuckles and you’re off.

In the fullness of time, you will have completed your opus, and will be ready to have it printed, one way or another. Of course, for most of us, the process isn’t quite that painless, but sooner or later, the book or stories will be finished. You might have rewritten it/them several times, or given copies to your friends to read and criticise. Some people might have come back with helpful comments, which you may or may not have taken on board. But ultimately, only you decide when that work is ready to be printed, and from what I’ve seen from self-published authors, this is sometimes too soon. And this is a shame, because in all too many instances, the problem isn’t lack of talent, but lack of skill and experience.

As writers, we have to develop an ‘ear’: for words, for meaning, for the music and colour of our prose. We have to learn when to rein in our muse and when to let it go at a full gallop. We have to understand about narrative structure – what might seem the most basic of principles; a story has to have a beginning, a middle and an end. We have to control our readers’ eyes with the rhythm of our sentences, which involves knowing about good syntax, and pacing. This makes the difference between an easy read, when we’re carried along by the fluidity of the prose, and a stultifying wade through a chaotic swamp of words. Too much exposition in the wrong place and readers get bored; too little and they feel short-changed in background and setting. Our characters have to be convincing, so that readers empathise with them. Our plot-lines must be trimmed of cliché. Dialogue should perform the dual task of expanding upon characterisation as well as move the story along. We also have to concern ourselves with viewpoint, and keep it consistent. The story itself should be credible and intriguing, so that our readers want to keep turning the page. Plot holes should be filled, chronology accurate. All loose ends have to be tied by the last page, and narrative clues inserted expertly and unobtrusively along the way. Writing and editing are often seen as two separate skills, but a self-published author has to be proficient at both.

A book was sent to me a while ago by a young writer, who had done an impressive job on the appearance of his first, self-published novel. The book was beautifully put together and, as an artefact, would shame no book shelf, but once I began to read it, discomfort slowly spread through me. Meaningless dialogue went on for pages at a time, and great clumps of extremely detailed description detracted from the thrust of the story. The grammar and punctuation wasn’t that brilliant, which impeded easy reading, and the characterisation was hackneyed. The text was peppered with repetitious words and phrases. The novel just wasn’t a page-turner; my interest quickly flagged. I could see that if an editor had worked with this writer, together they would have crafted a good first novel.

Copy editors are employed by publishers to polish up grammar and syntax in manuscripts, so some writers don’t concern themselves greatly with this aspect. (Not an attitude I’d advocate, by the way!) But when you’re self-publishing, it becomes of prime importance. The subject matter of the book I’ve just mentioned – vampires – was popular, and so was the style in which it had been written or, more accurately, the style its author had striven for. But the execution of the idea let it down. That this novel was clearly a labour of love, into which its author had invested copious amounts of time, energy and money, made it difficult for me to criticise him. But this was not the worst example of a self-published novel I’ve ever seen.

There are many ways in which new writers can avoid some of the pitfalls of the self-published first novel or collection of stories. First, I would recommend joining a writers’ workshop or creative writing course. The stereotype of this kind of group conjures images of elderly people who write twee poetry. I know that because it was an opinion I once held myself. Then I ended up teaching a creative writing course at the local college. The students came from a wide range of backgrounds and ages. Some were into genre fiction, some not, but on the whole, they all worked well together, pooling their strengths and learning from each other’s mistakes and successes. However, if you really can’t find a suitable group, start your own. I ran my class for several years, with new faces turning up every term, so I can promise you that you won’t run out of candidates.

The most helpful groups are those where work is swapped between members for critical appraisal. You learn as much from editing someone else’s work as you do from their editorials of yours. Somehow, it’s always easier to spot mistakes and weaknesses in someone else’s story. It’s actually quite a big responsibility to heap onto a friend or family member when you ask them to read your manuscript for you. Are they really qualified to criticise constructively? The last thing you want is someone just handing it back to you with a nervous smile, saying, ‘Yeah, that’s great.’ If they say that, you should want to know why it’s great. Then ask about the weaknesses. Again, your volunteer might not have the terminology to explain what worked best for them and what didn’t. They might also be worried about upsetting you. It’s always preferable to get other writers to look at your work. You can guarantee you won’t get a lukewarm response, even if they don’t come out with what you want to hear.

Secondly, don’t underestimate the worth of self-help books about writing. Some of them are extremely well-written, by successful authors, who pass on tips of the trade. Take time to learn about the technicalities of your craft – get a good book on grammar and punctuation. When you read other people’s fiction, read it as a writer, not as a reader. Think about what made the book work for you, or why you didn’t like it. Read lots. I used to be astounded when students turned up at my class and told me they didn’t read much.

Of course, if you want to make a decent living from writing, it’s unlikely self-publishing will answer your prayers. However, a well-crafted, self-published first novel can only help you to sell future work to a big publisher, especially if you can collect a few favourable reviews from magazines and review sites. Review copies are very important – send out as many as you can, especially to the bigger magazines like SFX or Interzone. Send copies to the British Science Fiction Association and The British Fantasy Society for their review magazines. (These examples, of course, are all UK-based genre publications concerned with fantasy, horror and sf. I’m sure every country has their equivalent.) In all cases, make it clear how much your publication costs (including post and packing) and how people can order it. Design a page of biographical material, with an author photo. This is your self-promotion. Send it out with every book. One friend of mine self-published to start with, and through sheer back-breaking effort shifted 20,000 copies of his first full-length book. (He’d already published quite a few pamphlets and chap-books.) It’s a phenomenal amount, as most first authors could expect to feel inordinately successful if their book sold between 5,000 – 10,000. My friend sold so many copies because he drove around the country with his car full of books, persuading shops to stock it. This was way back before there was the internet to publicise your work. But it paid off for him and he eventually got contracts from big publishers and made a solid career from writing.

Persistence and determination are all-important, but so is talent and skill. Take the time to hone your work and learn about your craft. There are few easy routes to success, but if you give it your best, you’ll get there in the end.

How Do I Get a Fantasy Book Published? by Storm Constantine

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.