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Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Can I Write Just *Part* Of The Book - Or Do I Have To Write It In Full To Get Noticed?

Bang2writer Jason Harrison has a question about novel writing and getting published:

"Is it possible to treat getting published like a business opportunity? I'm thinking that I could write a first chapter or two of my book, get a decent synopsis/covering letter and just send it out to publishers and see what happens – I realise that if there is genuine interest it will be dangerous of me NOT to have completed the book in its entirety – I know this goes against the grain of most books I have read on getting a novel published."

Though I have read MANY spec novels, it should be noted I am not an expert on getting a novel published, especially as I'm only taking my first baby steps into novel writing myself. However, because I am trying for the same goal and because I have spent a lot of time *around* agents and authors, I feel I can offer something here to Jason.

My first advice: when thinking about getting novels published - and if going the traditional, rather than "indie" route - I would target agents FIRST, rather than going direct to publishers. Though there are some publishers who are willing to read unsolicited manuscripts, they are few and far between; agents are your go-to men & women who can get you in front of the majority. Agents are the EXPERTS and have all sorts of kung fu skills in terms of pitching, contacts and trade/book fairs, never mind all the *other* mindboggling stuff like translation rights, e-book sales and the like. But if you've already tried knocking on the doors of various publishers regardless and been given the knock-back, then perhaps you would be less attractive prospect to them? Since so many agents are willing to read novel manuscripts from prospective clients, I think it's a no-brainer to go to them in the first instance, but end of the day you must decide for yourself.

Secondly, when you approach an agent re: getting novels published, you don't *tend* to send the whole novel. Even if you do, the whole thing rarely gets read by the readers and interns anyway. Usually, the first few chapters - three maximum - are considered, along with its synopsis. When Bang2writers come to me and ask *what* they should send, I always recommend this approach. Nothing is more scary than a gigantic novel thudding through the letterbox and to the floor! Far better to send a "taster" that really shows what you can do.

But do note - this is no "easy" approach: the synopsis in particular has got to ROCK. It's your opportunity to "sell" the novel AS A WHOLE - whereas your sample chapters are showcasing what a fab writer you are. So don't think you can rush these things. You need to really INVEST in them. Lots of Bang2writers worry about what *should* be in a synopsis or pitch document for a novel - my advice? It's the same as script pitch stuff - so take a look at all the pitch document stuff in The Required Reading List. There's plenty of articles in there to guide you. But the one BIG thing here: DON'T be mysterious about your plot in the synopsis. I've read so many novel synopses who think that it's "enticing" to be vague. IT'S NOT. Sell us the idea, really make us want to read the whole novel.

So this is the way to go, whether you've actually finished the novel or not. And of course the *ideal* is to have it finished. But that's not always possible, so if you haven't? When you've sent off your AMAZING synopsis and chapters to the agent: KEEP WRITING. It will most likely be months before you hear. Once I waited an entire year. So use this time to finish your book, so hopefully - in the best case scenario - if the agent wants to see the rest of it, you can say: "No problem!"

BUT if life gets in the way and you HAVEN'T managed to finish AND the agent wants to see the rest, DON'T PANIC. It is not necessarily an opportunity wasted. The best selling author Lisa Jewell recounts on her website this EXACT THING happening to her:

"And then, one morning a couple of months later a letter arrived from the last of the ten agents. She liked what she'd read and she wanted to see the rest! After peeling myself off the ceiling I calmed down a bit and then I started panicking. There was no 'rest' of the novel – I'd only written three chapters. I didn't have time to write any more and I couldn't afford to not work. I had rent to pay. What was I going to do?…. "

Lisa goes on to explain how she got the novel finished after all and delivered to the interested agent ONE YEAR AFTER that original letter expressing interest in her sample chapters!!! And of course the rest is history. The moral of the story here is, if someone is interested in your work - deliver the best you can, WHEN you can... And it doesn't have to matter when that is, necessarily. FAR BETTER to give in GOOD WORK than RUSHED WORK. After all, an agent (or producer scriptwriters!!) isn't going to be hanging around *just* waiting to hear from prospective clients anyway... They have other stuff to do!

So in answer to Jason's question, YES: you can treat getting published as a business opportunity, because that is exactly what it is, just like ALL writing-related stuff. We sometimes have this romantic notion of novelists plugging away in their bedrooms in the dark being "artistes" while savvy scriptwriters are out in the field networking and kicking it DIY-style, but in reality novelists should be getting "out there" too to maximise their chances of success.

So go for it!



I'd agree with most of Lucy's post. Submitting to an agent? Brief cover letter [3 paragraphs maximum], one page synopsis [including the ending], and the first 50 pages of manuscript.

But I'd caution against submitting without first completing your manuscript. Every agents visiting the MA Creative Writing course when I teach part-time [Edinburgh Napier University, thanks for asking] has said finish your manuscript first.

[Obviously, there are exceptions to every guideline and rule of thumb - and Lucy cites one in her post.]

Unless your prose is pure genius, most agents aren't going to wait a year for the rest of your novel.

Lucy V said...

Yep, agree with David - the ideal is to have it finished, of course. But agents have SO many submissions from prospective clients, I'd wager it takes at LEAST 3 mths for them to get back to you... If disciplined, you can defo finish it in time. The issue is, whether you want or feel the need to take the risk. After all, they may get back to you right away... And they may not want to wait the year like they did for Lisa Jewell.

But in a land of "maybes", I'd say anything is possible.

Eighthours said...

Hey Lucy,

I'm going through the submissions process at the moment and can offer a bit of advice.

Submission guidelines for most agencies can be found on their websites. Always adhere to these guidelines if they exist - it's usually an insta-reject if you don't (after all, would you want to take on a writer who can't even be bothered to read the agency's website properly? No).

The standard UK submission is a cover letter, 3 chapters and a synopsis by post. A few literary agencies accept submissions by email, most still don't.

The standard US submission is a query letter (not exactly the same as a cover letter - check out sites like QueryShark for details) and the first 5 pages of the novel pasted to the bottom of the email. Yes, the email - 99% of US agencies now encourage e-queries.

There are many UK writers with US agents, so don't think you can't approach them.

Again, check the guidelines for what to submit!

On the "do you finish your novel before querying?" question - yes. Always, always yes. This is a pre-requisite, NEVER EVER query without a finished novel. (Unless you're Lucy, of course, and already have an agent!) And don't submit a first draft unless you're a nutter.

Oh, and one last thing: never cold-call an agent to introduce yourself. It isn't appreciated. :)

Lucy V said...

Eighthours: Sure - unless you're me... or Lisa Jewell! ; )

I can't believe Lisa's the only one in the ENTIRE UNIVERSE who's managed to pull it off. In fact, I know full well she isn't, but it's up to those authors to comment on *how* they got their deals (like Lisa has on her website), not me.

Thanks for the comments on submission guidelines/process though, good stuff... Defo with you on the "never submit a first draft" - yikes!

Lucy V said...

PS. Fellas - Have noticed I didn't actually write that the **ideal** situation is to have it finished in the actual post, as I have mentioned in the comments (and believe), so have updated accordingly.

Anton said...

My Mum got commissioned by Random House to write a novel based on one chapter she wrote as spec. In the end she didn't even use that chapter and they still published it a year later! That's not my advice, just a variation of the reality.

Lucy V said...

Love it! And mega congrats to your Mum, Anton. Do you have a link to her book?

Eighthours said...

Oh, on response times:

The UK rounds can range from a couple of hours (had that over email before now) to 3 months before more material is hopefully requested, but I've found that they average out at about a month.

In the US, it's anything from 5 minutes to 2 months for the initial query, and up to 3 months for requested "partials" (first 3 chapters). But you can easily jump straight from a query letter to a full manuscript request without the partial stage inbetween. Imagine getting such an email only an hour after you submitted, when you haven't finished the book yet! Disaster!

I mention these response times because, as Lucy has said, some people have been fortunate enough to query before a novel is finished and managed to complete it before hearing back. But you'd have to be seriously uber-talented to knock up a first draft that anyone would want to represent. Think of the revision pain you go through with your scripts, people! Would you sell a first draft of a screenplay?

Read any literary agent's blog and they will say to finish the novel before even thinking about querying, and how much it annoys them when this isn't done. :) And I think it's very good advice, unless you really crave the most insane of mad rushes!

Lucy V said...

I haven't sent a novel out for years without an agent, perhaps it's changed radically in the last few... But when I was first trying to get a novel published [yonks ago - perhaps 2003?], I never had a request that got back to me asking me for more as quickly as Eighthours says. I'd say the avg was 8-10 weeks. And surely there are more submissions nowadays with all these blogs and websites, etc?

Whatever the case though, I wouldn't say there is a "definite" standard for hearing back (or not), so I don't think it's wise to stick a figure on it. End of the day, you just don't know and yes, it probably is a bit annoying for an agent if they like your manuscript and you haven't finished. Is it a **complete** deal/career-breaker though? I'm unconvinced.

On this basis then, I guess it's about whether you're a gambling man or woman or not -- and how stressed you would be if you got asked for more when you haven't finished. If the answer is "very", then it's best to finish before sending, for sure.

As for being "uber-talented" enough to "knock up" a draft someone might want to represent... stranger things happen. Don't forget, if your synopsis and sample chapters are *that* good the agent is GAGGING for the rest, then there has to be *something* there. And the role of the book editor is somewhat different to the script editor or the producer's. Scripts, no matter the genre or story, all have one thing in common: structure - and the way it is used can break or make a spec in terms of selling it. Novels however are much more "free" in terms of structure and I would argue this changes everything. On this basis then, I'd venture you're selling the "idea" and your "talent" more with a novel than with a spec script, hence the notion of the multiple of book deals based on one sample. Wouldn't that be great if it were the same with scripts too!

Lucy V said...

Anton's Mum's book!

Rach said...

Currently working through 2nd draft on my novel.

One question, I'd got the impression that not only did agents want the submission finished but they wanted to see you had moved onto the next novel and were not a one-hit-wonder?

No expert mind so could have got hold of the wrong end of the stick.

Rach said...

But that it was OK to submit ideas for non-fiction/reference books rather than the complete works?

Lucy V said...

Rach - I've never written a non-fiction or ref book, so not sure on that one, however I have heard from Bang2writers who have who've said in the past they've pitched stuff like you say... Though whether that means they then have to write some sample chapters to "seal the deal" I don't know I'm afraid. I would like to write a non-fiction book at some point though, so will be looking into it.

As for not being a "one hit wonder" I would certainly say it NEVER hurts to have pitches etc ready for people - be it scriptwriting or novels. But I don't think new novelists get asked **as standard** to have 2 finished books ready to go. I hope not, anyway! ; )

Rach said...

Phew, that's a relief. Though mine is part 1 of a trilogy so maybe I'd have got away with it.

Back to the re-writes.

Eighthours said...

"But when I was first trying to get a novel published [yonks ago - perhaps 2003?], I never had a request that got back to me asking me for more as quickly as Eighthours says. I'd say the avg was 8-10 weeks. And surely there are more submissions nowadays with all these blogs and websites, etc?"

From what I've heard, the larger agencies are set up differently now compared to back in the day, doubtless in response to the issues you mention. Many of them have a team of readers (interns who want to get into the industry, for example) whose role is to delve into the slush pile and try to pick out goodness. Often you have to get past that first hurdle before the agent you wrote to will get anywhere near your submission. It all depends on the agency setup - some still have the agent reading everything, in others the readers pass on promising material to the agent concerned and send out rejections for all the rest. And then there are ones where there's a "query afternoon", where all the agents gather together and collectively go through submissions that haven't immediately been dismissed as awful (some of the big New York agencies really like this approach).

So that's how the slush pile can go down, even though the number of submissions are shooting up. (Actually, the slow take-up of e-queries in the UK is likely directly related to how much more of an effort it is for someone to stick 3 chapters in the post rather than attach them to a mass-marketed email.) Either that, or we have to face the fact that today's literary agents are superhuman.

Anecdotally, I can count on one hand the number of agents who haven't got back to me before 2 months are up, whether it's a rejection or a request to see more.

And doubtless in 5 years' time everything will have changed again, and when I'm offering aspiring authors advice, it'll be as out of date as those folk who still think that ringing up the agency to introduce yourself is THE thing to do.

Fast-moving industry, this, and the rise of e-books is sure to shake it up still further. You should ask Julian about how the industry has changed in the past few years when it comes to handling the increase in submissions. Maybe he'll write a guest post! :)

Lucy V said...

Thanks Eighthours... I think we're destined not to see eye to eye on this though! : ) As mentioned my own personal experiences might be out of date, but if I thought they were wildly out, I wouldn't have written the post. I have worked with lots of writers in preparing their sample chapters in recent years to show agents and not one has reported as fast a turnaround as you have in either getting rejected or being asked for more material. In fact, I can think of several writers whose work I've read or heard from in the last year whose work got sent off six months ago who have told me they're STILL waiting, one of whom is already a published author. I've also heard recent anecdotal evidence on turnarounds and the slush pile from fellow readers and interns, but this time contrary to your experience. Perhaps it's UK vs US; perhaps it small agency vs big agency; perhaps you've been lucky and my writers have been unlucky; perhaps it's any number of things versus loads of others.

In other words though, we CAN'T know for sure, not even people on the frontline, since one agency operates very differently to another, as do the individuals within them. On this basis then, I don't think we can say anything *is* a certain way or necessarily *should* be. For example, cold calling - *really* that big a deal? Maybe for the agent, I would imagine it's tedious being asked for all the time. But for the agent's assistant? I wonder how many calls they get a day asking SPECIFICALLY for them... Not many I'm betting! Must be nice for them to have a conversation with someone from *their* POV (as long as said caller is not a nutter!). And of course agents' assistants grow up to be agents themselves. And I'd argue good contact making is about "catching" people on the way up, rather than targetting those already more established.

salrowb said...

Would have to fall down on your side here Lucy. I worked in a literary agency last summer (as one of those interns who is trying to get into the industry) and the notion of someone hearing back in a matter of hours is ridiculous. I don't have any US experience but if they turn around in that kind of time then they must employ speed readers. I think often, sample chapters are read by several interns over the course of a few days or weeks and then if they get a good review then they get attention from someone higher up in the ranks. 5 minutes though?! Eeeeek, I think that's a little far fetched!