Your First Novel – Purcell Room, Southbank Centre London 02/06/14

 

I went to to the Writing Your Novel talk/discussion last night as part of the Literature Festival that is currently running on London’s Southbank.  I didn’t realise when buying tickets that it was also the lead up to the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for writing and event sponsored by Grazia, who would have thought it would have such a female-dominated attendance?  I was about one of five blokes in the whole room! Gender is obviously irelevant, it’s about the skill and expertise of the writer in such matters. The five women on stage, chaired by Kate Mosse and featuring writers Emma Healey, Charlotte Mendelson and Sarah Waters and literary agent, Felicity Blunt – gave some insightful advice to any would be novelist, regardless of gender or experience. I will bullet point the gist of the talk at the end of this blog.

The panel encompassed some important components of the publishing trade and it also managed to span the spectrum of experience – Healey with her debut novel is currently making waves;  Waters is about to publish her 6th novel, as well as Mendelson, who works as an editor and a writer and Blunt who is an agent. Their advice was insightful if not perspective changing; clearly anyone who has decided to sit down and write a book has done the research and is aware that this is a tough gig to choose as one’s life devotion and career, but it gave a better understanding of how those who have achieved the allusive publishing deal work and what they have done.

Every writer has their own habit and way of approaching a writing task and there are only so many ‘tips of successful writers’ article a writer can read. I’m not interested in what writers do, but in how methodical they are and more important what those who have the final say on publication want. But everyone comes to these type of events seeking something different.

I was interested in what Felicity Blunt had to say as an agent, although  Charlotte Mendelson as an editor, had some good advice to consider too. The talk, chaired ably by Kate Mosse covered the writing process and how different writers approach and deal with the mechanics of writing., although it over-ran slightly and could’ve given a little more time to the fielding of questions from the audience. This section of the event veered into the banal with only five or so questions asked due to time constraints.

Of these we traversed the banal –  one woman asked if there should be more of a market for lesbian writers – from which the obvious and resounding response from the panel came that sexuality was a secondary factor to the quality of writing (obviously!). Another question came in asking about ‘a friend’ (oh yeah?) who was considering plastic surgery after seeing so many pretty female writers being shortlisted for a literary prize last year – and the genuinely interesting:  a woman asked about the advantages or disadvantages of self-publishing, which really wasn’t given enough time and perhaps elicited a rather curt response as the panel dealt with the traditional route. This route offers it’s own pitfalls and advantages and I think it would’ve been good to allocate a chunk of time to this angle.

The toils 0f writing a novel are so broad and myriad that a 90 minute session will never do it justice, but then, it is a subject that could be discussed for hours without covering all the facets of the challenges a writer faces. What was discussed was generally insightful and gave me a clearer idea of what I have to do to get my book published – and these are:

* The writing process takes as long as it takes – but the key is to keep writing every day

* The drafting process is important and second, third or fifteenth drafts are necessary if you think they are necessary.

– Emma Waters said it took 4 years to write her last novel and there were some/large parts of it that she had edited 34 times. Getting it exactly how you want it is essential. If you put out something sub-standard then it will get a sub-standard response.

* Grammar, syntax and punctuation are important  – demonstrate that you are a master of the language without having to be a literary genius.

* Give yourself distance between drafts to allow for objectivity – one or two weeks should occur before going back for re-writes or edits (depending on the stage).

* When editing be rigorous with every sentence, make every word count. Don’t waste words on adjectives and descriptive scenes unless absolutely necessary.

* If you have doubts about anything in the book – change it before submitting to agents and publishers – they will only highlight them later and the doubts show in the writing.

* Make sure that you have a title and that the title is interesting and leads the reader on – a very important point made by Blunt was that she receives a huge number of books with no title. It is important to give your story a title to initiate curiosity within the reader.

* Your 3 components of the finished book are: Your book (with title), a cover letter and a synopsis.

* Spend time and care with the cover letter and synopsis to make sure they sparkle.

* The best synopses are one page – write the idea that inspired you to write the book rather than explaining the plot to ruin the effect for the reader.

* Believe in what you write. The publishing industry relies on writers and the work they produce – so keep writing!

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