From brain to bookshelf

There are many things I am still learning about the path to publication. From what I know so far, it has many twists and turns and there are roadworks and delays at nearly every bend in the road. But, as with all good traffic jams, the road will clear eventually and then my journey to book shop shelf will continue onwards.

To enhance my ever growing fascination with the workings of the literary world I recently signed up for a writer’s workshop. On a rare sunny day in Edinburgh, I found myself in the esteemed company of  Sara O’Connor, Sara Grant, Karen Ball and Jasmine Richards – collectively known as Book Bound.

There are a lot of questions I need to ask myself about my writing. This post contains a lot of them, most without any answers but enough to keep me thinking about where I need to go and what I need to know and do to get there. These are just my thoughts, I don’t expect to know all the answers for a long time yet.

I can never read my notes properly after a brain storm so I apologise now if this only makes sense to me. I’m always too busy listening.

Testing your idea

What is my story all about? Will the reader think the blurb on the back is enough to make them go on to read the first page, the first chapter or even the whole book? What makes my story so different to any others out there? What is my USP (unique selling point)? And more importantly, why should an agent fight in my corner and pitch my idea to the gatekeepers/those in the know?

As with all technical processes there is a formula involved: Concept + Character x Conflict/Problem = story. Simple. Well, when you look at it as a sum, it is. Getting the package all together in one neat bundle is the hard part.

To get there, there are some questions I need to ask myself about my WIP. Is it important to me? What is the heart of my story? What other books have moved me? Why do I love them so much? What makes them so different?

Is my book unique? How is my book different, better than these other books? Is it publishable? Would pocket money, birthday presents from Granny or car-cleaning funds raised by a Brownie pack be well spent on my words?

I was intrigued with the Japanese Haiku method of telling stories. A short synopsis of your book in three lines 5-7-5.

1st line – 5 syllables, 2nd line – 7 syllables and the 3rd line – 5 syllables.

What a difficult task this was to do. Here’s my attempt to do this with my favourite book of the year so far, The Nowhere Emporium by Ross MacKenzie:

Step into the shop (5)

you won’t remember a thing (7)

wonders await you  (5)

Elevator pitch

There are about 20 seconds between doors opening and closing between floors in a lift. What if I stood beside my favoured agent in a clanking tin box? Would I take the opportunity to say hello and tell them my idea? All within 20 seconds? In my dreams I imagine doing just that. I would be cool, calm and collected even windswept and interesting if I dare. In reality though I would probably stammer a bit, wipe sweat from my forehead and take the full 20 seconds conjuring up the bravado to speak. The opportunity might come along one day though and I need to be ready.

25-30 words is a great word count to consider for this task. Think character, genre and hook. In as few words as possible. Be cunning, be resourceful, the last thing I want to see is the glazing over of sympathetic eyes as they politely listen to me. Accept a ‘no thanks’. Sometimes  being in a lift is the only break they will get that morning so be nice to them.

Would I speak to them if there were others in the lift? I’m not sure. I’d like to think my big jessie persona would have stayed at home that day and my She-ra powers were in abundance, usually found in the form of coffee and cake. Maybe I would, maybe I wouldn’t. The Devil on one shoulder would be saying “Go for it! You’ve got them alone. Speak!”. While the angel would say “they look tired, maybe they’ve had enough chat for one day”. My mum on the other hand would be saying “What have you got to lose? Say hello, confirm who they are without making a fool of yourself and go for it!”. I like that third voice the best.

What is the thing/lesson/moral the reader should leave with after finishing my book? What would happen if …? What would the MC do if she was a boy instead, would that change anything? Sometimes looking at your plot can make you see exactly where the concept can be changed to make it more appealing? Why be normal when you can be fantastic?

L.O.C.K – Lead, Objective, Conflict and Knockout. It may appear to be an army slogan to stir up the pride in a platoon but it is a very easy way to remember the main objective of a story. Is the main character likeable? What does the character need? How do they get to that point? Will the ending be a surprise?

Re-readability – the key to making my kids want to read the same book over and over again …wait a minute come to think of it the list is endless in our house! Fix-It Duck, My Dad, Monkey Puzzle…

Pitching

Is my story big enough for the genre I think I am writing for? Is my picture book really for this age group? Am I pitching to the right audience? Am I the only one that can write my middle grade story? Is the heart of this story only mine to tell? Is it like anything else out there? If I’m not fascinated with my story, then who else will be?

Readers have to relate to the main character, I need them to think that my world could happen to them. Where on the shelf do I think my story should sit? Which famous authors should my book rub spine-shoulders with on my quest to be bought?

Film Comparison

Sometimes you just need a flash of inspiration to send out with your WIP. I had a lot of fun trying to work out two famous films/TV that might resemble the story that lurks within my head. The best I could come up with was The Littlest Hobo meets Lord of the Rings.

Take from that what you will. Hours it took me to get that. Hours.

Emotional Impact

Is there confidence on the page? Do I want to take this journey with the MC? Do I know what my MC wants? Will I be satisfied with the plot? Will it be memorable from the pile of 100-200 subs that my favoured agent/publisher receives every week? Note to self – do not send sweets or home baking along with my MS through the post. Sticky, no-idea-where-they’ve-been bribes are not essential.

Submission Package

There are no rules to what makes an exceptional submission cover letter but try and make it as good as you possibly can. Precise, short, sharp. Give them the information they need without long drawn out paragraphs on how much your kids love it so every other child will want to read it too. This might well be the case but let them decide whether or not it’s good enough to take forward to the next step. My kids are totally biased when I get them to read my latest creation. I feed them, of course they are going to say it’s grand.

Cover letter – this should consist of three things 1. Hook 2. Paragraph summary of WIP –  3.Quick info on you.

Synopsis – one page only unless their guidelines suggest otherwise.  Think of this document as a tool to discover the true flow of your story. It will change with every draft you do. It’s is NOT a plot summary, it’s a work-in-progress just like your MS.

MS – always, always, always check guidelines for length, format and general requirements.

Start with a header. Then add your strapline (less than seven words if possible) eg Skullduggery – kick evil very hard in the face, Percy Jackson – half boy, half god, all hero. My personal favourite – Click, Clack, Moo – cows that type (what’s not to love about that premise)? Or, use a quote from my book that stands out and somehow summarises everything I am trying to convey – the killer scene. Not as easy as it sounds but delve deep and go for instantaneous impact.

Me – what do I write about me that is interesting? Am I interesting? This has to be the worst part of a covering letter. I’m not sure they will want to know that I worked in finance for 18 years before I saw the light or that I can still do the triple time-step after all these years.

Make it agent specific, make it relevant to the literary world and don’t add any hyper-links. How are they going to connect to that link if it’s on a piece of paper and not in an e-mail? Do I honestly think they have time to look at all the links I paste on my letter? No. No they don’t. Keep it short but informative.

What is my motivation for writing? Am I a native of the world I am writing about? Which historical research method did I use?

Do I have any previous publications? Am I on social media? Which apps do I use regularly – Twitter, Instagram, facebook etc. Do I acknowlege follows and RT’s? Yes, it’s time consuming but it proves I care and it’s not about the number of followers I have anyway. If they are even remotely interested in my work they will Google me. Am I convinced that everything I post on all of these sites is done in a professional manner and full of integrity? Yes. But I will check and make a conscious effort going forward to think that every post I now make will be read at some point by my favourite agent.

Agent specific – I WILL research my favourite agent/publisher as if my life depended on it. They are the chosen one and I will let them know that. I will show them that I care who else they have on their books, that I know about recent accolades their clients have been awarded and that I already follow their blog. Make them nod their head and say ‘wow, she’s done her homework. I like her attention to detail’.

Think of top 3 things about yourself.

It’s hard isn’t it. I don’t know what they want to know. I don’t think of myself in that way so how I do ‘sell’ myself to them. Here goes, Top 3 things about me…

1. Member of SCBWI South East Scotland where I run the middle grade and picture book crit groups (and annoy fellow members on facebook with my incessant postings of exciting literary news and the odd photo of my cats. Maybe worded a bit differently).

2. I am versatile – I write for different age groups and have even tried crime, poetry and short stories.

3. I am conscientious and loyal and will try my best at whatever you need me to do to promote my work.

What else? I have no idea. But I found that quite difficult and deleted many options as I started to sound like a stalker.

Submitting a potential series – try not to say you have seven books that follow this submission. Maybe re-word it to say it could be part of a sequence or I have a few ideas for other books that are relevant? I am not the same as ‘the latest best selling author’. I am me.

Avoid being crazy. Keep things simple and precise. ALWAYS check the submission guidelines. This is my new motto “I’m not crazy. I’m professional.”

I couldn’t have put it better myself.

Titles

Try and keep your title to a maximum of five words, three preferably. Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive The Bus? – a fantastic title that makes me wonder about the story straight away. Why should the pigeon not drive the bus? Does he have only one wing? Is he blind/hungry/psychotic? Who else is on the bus? All these questions and I haven’t even opened the first page! That’s what I need to aim for.

To be honest, I know that publishers will probably change my title. My little words that I have wrapped up warm each night and sang lullabies too. Embrace change – they know what they are talking about.

The power of 3. Not three biscuits with every cuppa (well, maybe) but a simple way to look at a story. Start, beginning, end.

Some great advice given was to read out loud the whole of my submission package. From the covering letter to the MS. Can I breathe easily when I read it? Am I stumbling across any words or sayings? Is the punctuation helping or slowing the pace of the letter/story?

My cats are particularly useful for this exercise. Maybe it’s because they don’t answer back.

What happens next?

They like my work (if this happens to me it will be screamed at the top of my lungs but I am being professional here so it’s to be said in a calm and collected way). Where does it go next? The editor loves it, my strapline/headline/paragraph/synopsis are just what they are looking for so it goes on its merry way to the Editorial meeting. The editor then talks to all the other departments (Head of marketing, Head of Rights, Rights Director, Head of Sales, Finance Director) before a decision to buy is made.

I have a vision of a large round table and the conversation much like Twelve Angry Men. Although I hope there is no anger involved and I’m not in the slightest concerned about the gender of the gatekeepers. I just hope they all like it enough to carry it on. I suppose it’s the equivalent of the editorial Dragon’s Den. They are selling your product from one department to another. The mind boggles.

What will be the initial print run? Cost per book? Length? Rights? Format? All this and much more are discussed while the author sits at home trying to peel themselves from the ceiling because someone has actually shown an interest in their work. The ‘Dear Mrs B, We like it.Please send us your full MS’ letter is now pinned to the fridge/in a silver photo frame at your bedside/on the wall of my writing cave.

I can dream.

Translation rights, colour of paper, glossy or matt, full cover on cover or not? Aggghhh, I scream (or is that just me? Are you all crispy cool cucumbers and this happens to you all the time?), it will all work out in the end.

I came away from this wonderful day with the following nuggets of gold:

  • The way you behave is just as important as how you write.
  • No ‘i’ in team – work hard with everyone involved in the publication of your book.
  • Give everyone you meet along the way the same respect you expect.
  • There’s no formula for success, sometimes the quiet ones become big stars.
  • Stay true to your story but accept advice from those in the know. You’re the only one who can write it but they will help you get it out there.

I write because I believe it is a great story. It’s a story that keeps me awake in the wee small hours. It rests on my spoon when I eat my cereal and it appears in the frothy bubbles of my coffee.

I just need to finish it. And I will.