Some Common Mistakes
When you set out on your adventure, dog-sled harnessed, runners greased and pemmican packed, you may even be heading within a degree or two of true north, skimming over the snow, full of a justified confidence that you’ll wind up within an honourable distance of your target and with every chance of making it there in the end.
In the interests of taking every precaution, you may just wish to check that you haven’t committed any of the following common errors.
✗ Writing a literary novel that isn’t literary. If you want to write a literary novel – the sort of thing that might win a Pulitzer or a Booker, the sort of thing talked about on culture shows and discussed in book groups – then make sure it’s literary. A theme alone doesn’t make a thing literary. If you are planning a novel about the way our society neglects our old folk, you have an important topic to deal with. You and I can both agree that these things matter. But if your prose style is nothing more than competent, if your characters are efficient but nothing more, you have not written a literary novel and it will not sell. What you have is a heap of paper.
✗ Writing a thriller that doesn’t thrill. Equally, if you are writing a thriller, then make sure it thrills. That’s not code for ‘entertains somewhat’. At my editorial consultancy, we quite often receive ‘thrillers’ that are nicely mannered, where fights don’t hurt anyone too much, where the cops are always decent and the villain is always going to get their comeuppance. When we tell their authors that they have written a manuscript that falls way short of commercial accept ability, we’re told, ‘Oh yes, but I hate all that violent stuff.’ Fine, then write a different sort of book. A thriller must thrill. The standard of writing in this area – particularly in the US – is exceptionally high and you cannot fall short of it. A non-thrilling thriller is a contradiction in terms and it cannot sell.
✗ Writing experimental, postmodern literary fiction. Experiment by all means. Then write a book that might actually sell. Experimentalism as a literary fashion is dead.
✗ Rewriting Lord of the Rings. This has already been written. It’s been quite a success, apparently.
✗ Turning your favourite computer game into a novel. A computer game is not a novel and doesn’t want to be one. Or vice versa.
✗ Writing the kind of book you loved as a child or young adult. This is a common problem with writers of children’s fiction who come to the game relatively late in life. But it’s also a problem for anyone whose reading habits are still stuck in the past. At my editorial consultancy, we still receive a trickle of those slightly toe-curling novels about formidable duchesses, blustering majors, randy vicars and dithering postmistresses. Maybe one day there was a market for such things, but there isn’t any more (thank goodness). You must write for the market as it is today. If you don’t like it, feel free to write for yourself and for your friends. Just give up any thought of commercial publication.
✗ Writing a ‘small book’. Often new writers tell us that they realise their book isn’t going to be hugely commercial, but they’d be perfectly happy to see their book published in a small way. That shows a delightful modesty – and a total lack of realism about the economics of publishing. A micro-publisher with any ambitions of launching a novel will need to budget about £15,000/$25,000 to get it off the ground, and that’s excluding any advance to you. Given that launching debut fiction is a desperately uncertain business, no sane publisher will commit that kind of money to any project unless they think it can sell in reasonable volumes. It’s not the extent of your modesty that will determine a publisher’s objectives, it’s whether or not they stand to make money.
✗ Forgetting that a book needs to be marketed. A commissioning editor at any large publishing house will receive dozens of manuscripts,all perfectly competent, all sent in by capable literary agents, every month. If she’s to acquire your book, that editor will need to champion it to others in the firm. She needs to build support across the departments: in editorial, in sales, in marketing. That’s a tough job and you need to do all you can to help her. No sales director is going to go all gooey inside because you’ve got a lovely prose style. Salespeople and marketers require angles. They require a USP (Unique Selling Point). They need something upon which to hang a campaign, something to lead with when it comes to convincing the key retail buyers that they need to take your book. If that’s not lecture enough, then bear in mind that those retail buyers will, more than likely, never read your book. They’ll make the key sales decision with a publisher’s catalogue in front of them and a single page (an ‘advance information sheet’) telling them about your book. That single page is mostly taken up with a cover image and details about recommended retail price, launch date, and so forth. In the little space that remains, the Publishers’ Association recommends including ‘two or three key selling points [and a] brief summary of contents, indicating localities where relevant’. The AI will probably not include a single line of text from your book itself. If you don’t offer a hook that will sell the book, you’ll never sell it at all.
✗ Misjudging the hook. Writers who remember that their book needs a selling point often misjudge what a selling point might be. If your book is about a trip to Europe that went disastrously wrong, don’t kid yourself that your market is ‘all people who have ever been to Europe’. If you’re not sure what a hook might be, go back to the section on the market. You need to read a lot of current debut fiction in your genre and get a feel for what kinds of books are selling. See what those authors are doing to get published. Then do the same – only make it new and different and a pace or two ahead of the pack.
✗ Writing as therapy.Writing is therapy if you are doing it for yourself and for your own healing. It’s a terrific thing to do and the benefits have been clinically proven. But clinical proof has nothing to do with the ways of publishers. Publishers need work they can sell. That means you can’t think about your work as therapy; you have to think about it as a product. If you don’t want to do that, then don’t. Writing is worthwhile, whether or not you ever choose to seek publication.
✗ Writing to please your creative writing teacher. If you’ve studied creative writing to any advanced level, then you’ll have worked through awhole host of exercises about writing with your senses, using memory, individuating dialogue, and much else. You’ll be a better writer as a result. But creative writing teachers have a natural tendency to encourage creativity rather than marketability. If creative writing teachers were in the market for manuscripts, you should bust a gut to please them – but they’re not. Publishers are. If you have to please one or the other, please the one holding the chequebook.
✗ Writing boring non-fiction. There are lots of important and interesting subjects in the world, and perhaps you know a lot about one of them. Perhaps you even have some academic qualifications in the field. If so, you need to choose. You can write a worthy and important book for an academic press, which will quite likely price it at some crazily high price and which will never be widely read or sold. Or you can write an entertaining one for a trade publisher, and see your book priced to sell and actively marketed. Both options have their merits, but you can’t expect to write a boring book and sell it to a trade publisher. They won’t buy it.
✗ Holding something back for the trilogy.Your trilogy will sell if your first book blows people’s minds. If your first book is lacking in any way at all, there’ll never be a third book, or a second, or a first.
There are, on the whole, two threads running through these comments. The first is that, if you want to write for publication, you must write for the market. That should be so obvious as to not need saying, but there’s a persistent belief that somehow the literary world hovers above the world of sordid commerce. It doesn’t. It’s like investment banking, only without the money.
The second thread is that, if you are to write for the market, you have to go for it. You have to make your thriller thrill. Your chick-lit has to be funny and engaging; your weepie has to draw tears; your literary novel has to dazzle. When top agents are taking one in every two thousand manuscripts to come their way, second best isn’t even close to good enough. You have to excel, and you won’t unless you go for it with everything you’ve got.
On a slightly different note, writers sometimes go wrong by misjudging the length their book should be. The only decisive way to know how long your book should be is to go to a bookshop, find some comparable works and estimate their word counts. But for a quick guide, the following rules apply to most authors most of the time.
✗ A typical adult novel is somewhere between 75,000 and 120,000 words in length. If you are writing something with an epic feel, you may certainly go longer than that. My first novel was sold to publishers at 190,00 words and was still over 180,000 when it went to print. My editorial consultancy once helped an author cut her manuscript from 500,000 words to 220,000, then to secure an agent. The book was a fraction under 200,000 words when it was published (and promptly became a best-seller). For normal fiction, however, such large word counts are exceptions. The further you creep above 120,000 words, the more carefully you need to scrutinise your text for excess verbiage. In most cases,there’ll be a lot. At the other end of the scale, it’s rare to see a commercial novel sell if it’s much less than 75,000 words. A literary novel may well be as little as 50,000 or 60,000, but the shorter your book, the better it needs to be. For very short fiction, it’s helpful if you have already won a major literary prize or two.
✗ If you are writing children’s fiction, you need to judge your book as carefully as you can against similar books written for a similar age group. Buy some comparable books. Count the words on an average page, then multiply up to get a total word count.You need to write material that falls in the same sort of range, or you will disqualify yourself from the market. Oh, and don’t use the huge later books of J.K. Rowling to justify some gigantic word count. Once you’re a global best-seller, you can do what you like. Until then, you play by the rules.
✗ If you are writing fantasy fiction, very long word counts are quite common. Even here, however, you need to ask yourself if you really need that 200,001st word. I bet you don’t.If you are writing travel or memoir or inspirational true life story, the standard word count would be somewhere in the 70,000- to 100,000-word range. If your manuscript falls far outside that range, you need to question whether you are correctly understanding the market for such work.
✗ For other narrative non-fiction – history or biography, for example – word counts can vary a fair bit according to topic. Anything much less than 75,000 words is a short book, but books as short as 50,000 words will be published if they’re good enough and on a strongly marketable topic. Equally, very long books –200,000 or more – can sometimes be published if the topic is outstanding and you are superbly qualified to write it. But take care with any unusual word count. Don’t rely on instinct. Go to a bookshop and check.
✗ Finally, and although it falls rather outside the scope of this book, novelty books can, of course, be very short indeed. So can some motivational or ‘how to’ texts. If in doubt, go to a shop.
If you’ve planned your novel properly, you’ve taken care to write for the market, and you’re really going to go for it, you’re set to leave base camp. Pull on your balaclava and hitch up those huskies. It’s time to write the first word.
✗ Check that you’re not about to fall into any of the common traps.
✗ Familiarise yourself with the approximate lengths of books in your market.
✗ Then start mushing.
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