HTWAB Week 12

How to Write a Book: In the conclusion to our 12-part series, agents give advice about what they look for in a book and how to attract a publisher. An agent is not the sole route into publishing, but the experience of a good one can be pivotal

Our final week of How to Write a Book deals with what to some is the best part – completing a work – or the worst: showing it to others, and the hard slog of trying to get it published. There is no fast track in publishing, and few publishers have open submission policiies. The mythic slushpile still exists, but some say that to gain access to publishing houses and editors, an intermediary – in the form of an agent – is hugely useful. It’s tempting for a potential author to rush their work just to get it into the hands of an agent, but this can be counter-effective. Marianne Gunn O’Connor is one of the best-known agents working in Ireland today and her clients include Pat McCabe, Cecilia Ahern and Shane Hegarty. “Editors don’t have the time they used to have to invest in editing a manuscript, so I would suggest getting it into the best possible shape before you submit it”. Sallyanne Sweeney is Irish, but works at the London-based Mulcahy Associates. She’s well aware that author enthusiasm can cloud judgement when it comes to deciding whether a book is ready to be shown to potential publishers. “It’s understandable that having finished writing a book, many writers are eager to start submitting, but it can damage your chances of publication if you send it out before it’s ready. The best writers are re-writers, and though I love the editorial process of working with an author, I need to see the potential before investing this time – which will be mostly during evenings and weekends. I’d advise submitting only when you can no longer see how to improve your work. It’s also important to learn patience as the publishing process is slow – even once you have a publishing deal it usually it takes at least a year for your book to hit the shelves.”

Sheila Crowley works at one of the most high profile literary agencies, Curtis Brown, and looks after bestselling author Jojo Moyes. “I always encourage writers to seek feedback, but not from a friend or family member. Some writers are trying the self-publishing route as a way to find an agent or publisher; and for all the success stories we read about, there are many who have not established a sales track record.” Both Sweeney and Crowley point to bvious prerequisites in terms of submission: no typos, a clear outline, pitching your manuscript to the right kind of editor. If in doubt, researching the publisher or agent you plan to approach is crucial. “It’s also difficult when an author doesn’t have a sense of the market or genre in which they’re writing,” says Sallyanne Sweeney. “Your conviction will carry through to your story and if you don’t know what it is you’re writing, it’s harder for an agent to see where they can potentially place it.”

Agents don’t always know what they’re looking for in an ideal manuscript, but it can be instant – for good, or for bad. Lacklustre openings put Sallyanne Sweeney off. “I’ve lost count of the number of submissions I’ve read that begin with an alarm clock going off or descriptions of the weather (if you do begin this way, make sure it has a narrative purpose, as in Jane Eyre). On the flip side, I’ve sometimes known I wanted to represent a writer from the first line (‘To understand what it meant to be a Hathaway you’d first have to see our farm, Aurelia’ in Nelle Davy’s The Legacy of Eden). I’m looking for that magical combination of a strong voice, engaging characters, and a great story. There’s no better feeling, and as agents, it’s our job to make publishers as excited as we are. Most of all, I want to be moved in some way by the writing, or simply being blown away by the prose.”

Marianne Gunn O’Connor likens the experience of finding a dream manuscript as “hard to define, like falling in love”. Plot and characters are important, but it really doesn’t matter what genre you write once you get the voice right.” Sheila Crowley also believes voice is crucial, but so is “great storytelling. When reading, I want to feel I am present in every scene with the characters. Readers today are more discerning as bookclubs have broadened tastes and brought literary work to a mass market; but they are also time poor (and in some cases cash poor), so writers must aim higher with their stories and challenge their readers in some way.”

Francis Bickmore (who we also spoke to last week about editing) describes what, as a publisher, has excited him about work that has come his way. “Like love, the moments of feeling swept away don’t often come according to plan. And without wanting to strain the analogy, the experience of meeting an author does require a similar sense of chemistry, and of falling for someone’s voice and world view. With a writer like Mary Costello, whose debut novel we publish this October, within pages I was reeling from a sense of wonder. How can she cast such strong spells with so few words? With Yann Martel, it was a stay-up-all-night reading experience. The euphoria of finishing a script at 5am that you haven’t been able to put down is exactly the kind of feeling that makes us excited to publish books. Gary Fisketjohn the great American editor had it brilliantly: ‘I’m looking for the thing I don’t know I’m looking for’.”

Agents can’t read every manuscript or agree to represent every writer who approaches them. They’re also not the sole route into publishing – as writers like Donal Ryan or Eimear McBride will attest. Engaging in the act of imagination that is writing and getting the words down are important, but Sheila Crowley warns writers to not forget that it is also a job. “Writing and publishing are a business and authors need to know and understand the amount of hard work it takes to get a book published, be a bestseller or win an award.” Marianne Gunn O’Connor also points out that we are living in very different times, in terms of publishing. “People have so much to entertain them these days that writers are competing with social media and computer games. So when you are starting out, don’t write for critics or to impress a publisher, write to impress the reader. Readers today are time poor, so if you want them to spend their free time with you, entertain them.”

Write regularly, edit, stay focused, find your voice… we’ve had a lot of practical advice from over 40 writers in the last 12 weeks. Sallyanne Sweeney reasserts the idea of taking a break when you finish a manuscript, returning with fresh eyes and being brutal in the editing process. “Work on your pitch – how would you describe your book in one sentence, one paragraph, one page? This is important when submitting to agents, but can also help you to notice plot holes or flaws in your narrative – practise by trying to write a pitch of a book you love. And I love this Philip Pullman quote: ‘Read like a butterfly, write like a bee.’”

This article was originally published in The Irish Times on August 5th, 2014

The full ‘How to Write a Book’ series is here:

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