Zoë Strachan, author and Creative Writing tutor at the University of Glasgow, and agent Jenny Brown answered any and all your questions about writing and publishing as part of our Writer Salon. Read it all here:
HM: 1. (Sorry for a big one to start out with but a murmuring among aspiring writer friends!) More for Jenny, what are the kind of implications Brexit *could* have on authors in terms of rights/selling in Europe and stuff? (Obviously too early, but potential things…)
JB: wow! that’s a whopping question to start the session! and for this I’m leaning on the initial reaction from The Bookseller magazine on Friday. hardly anybody in UK publishing industry supported Brexit as we all depend so much on selling rights and exporting books internationally. UK may become a smaller market. A weak pound will impact on this for everyone, including authors. and leaving the EU might well have implications for our copyright laws, how we deal with Amazon, etc.
But publishing will adapt – it always does. And I know from the colossal outcry from writers, both established and emergent, that the literature sector will be, if anything, even more outward looking and international in the weeks, months and years to come. As The Bookseller says, we should use books to create a better place. amen to that.
HM: 2. A lot of books can be taken on based on potential so I was wondering what are the main things that could influence someone that a story/book is worth taking and working on, even if it’s not there yet?
ZS: I’ve done quite a lot of manuscript appraisals and reader reports over the years, and I think that it’s crucial to research your publisher/agent before submitting. Some agents do not want to spend time working editorially so having a polished draft is a really good idea. Think about what else they represent too. Anyone thinking commercially is looking for a good story that’s easy to sum up in a couple of lines, from what I hear.
HM: 3. And, last one for now… What’s the absolute top tip you would give to someone working on their first book? (Whether it’s just getting it finished, or trying to get it published.) Thanks!
ZS: And the same thing in terms of trying to get it published. Luck is still a big factor – it hitting the desk (or Kindle) of one person who really loves it.
JB: I agree with Zoe, my top tip is to make it as good as you can possibly do before you start to think about submitting to an agent or publisher
FS: For Zoe: there’s a lot of conflicting writing advice out there eg write what you know/DON’T write what you know and even be weary of writing advice as each person has their own approach so no size fits all. What advice would you say is the closest to being applicable to all writers, even if it does risk generalisation?
ZS: I’m quite fond of saying that the only rule about writing is that there are no rules. For every one thing that we’re told we shouldn’t do, there’s an example of another author who has done exactly that and made it work. I think it’s always useful to read what you’ve written out loud, although I know it can be embarrassing/tedious. It’s one of the quickest ways to figure out if you’re using too many words or repeating yourself. Trust your reader too – you probably don’t need to spoonfeed them by explaining things. A little bit of ambiguity can add narrative tension (as long as it isn’t actually confusing!)
FS: For Jenny: What would you say are the easiest and hardest parts of being an agent? Any advice for aspiring literary agents?
JB: The hardest bit is the guilt!! I’m always behind with my reading and I’m aware how frustrating it is for writers who have submitted waiting for a response. It’s also hard when you’ve fallen in love with a manuscript and are just about as excited about it as the author – but then you can’t find an editor who shares your passion. It once took me six years to find the right publisher for a novel – thankfully, it’s usually much quicker….
Advice for aspiring literary agents – work in a bookshop! It gives you such brilliant insights into what’s being published, how books are published, and what readers are looking for. Look out for internship opportunities at agencies and publishing companies, and assistant positions. and keep reading new work…
HA: Jenny/Zoe – Do you have any particular advice for memoir writers? Should memoirs be complete before submitting?
ZS: Memoir is such an exciting form now. I think most agents prefer manuscripts to be complete, but I can see that in particular cases a memoir might not need to be if it can be easily sold because of the story it tells (Jenny will advise on that though, so go with what she says!). It’s a genre with very specific challenges though, and one is structure and chronology – how do you tell the story of a life that doesn’t fit a neat narrative pattern?
I’d advise reading a lot of memoirs, and quite diverse ones too – some work like novels, some take more experimental forms. I really like Vivian Gornick’s book The Situation and the Story. And I’m quite in awe of people who manage to write memoirs at all, due to the complexities of memory, distance etc!
JB: Great advice from Zoe. Don’t start with birth!, plunge into the narrative straightaway. some of the best memoirs can be just about a short period – one lovely book I handled was On The Milk by Willie Robertson about his teenage years when he delivered milk before school in Dundee in the 60s. It’s not essential to write the whole memoir before submitting, but I think it does help if it is complete.
SYP: Hi both, we’ve heard from some people at our events that if you want to work in editorial then doing a creative writing course is the best way to go about it, but others have disagreed. We would love to hear your thoughts.
ZS: Many of our graduates from the Creative Writing programme at Glasgow University have gone on to work in publishing in one way or another, and I hope the course has helped them on their way, but it also often involves gaining other experience e.g. book reviewing, editing a lit mag or zine, and very likely unpaid work experience too. I don’t think a CW course is the only way, but it’s one way of showing your commitment and building your knowledge – all those workshops! And our students also often publish their own anthologies, magazines etc, which make brilliant additions to their CVs. It’s really tough because of course lots of people can’t afford to do unpaid work experience, but making any kind of contacts and building any kind of profile in related fields helps.
SYP: Thank you for the detailed answer. Following on from that, could you take us through a rough overview of how you go from an idea to a manuscript that’s polished enough to send to agents? How long could something like that take? What are the main sort of stages?
ZS: Ah, that could take anything from two years to eight for me – but I’m usually working as well and doing other projects. Some writers work much more quickly than me. It’s very hard to predict how long an idea will take to germinate – sometimes I start with just an image, or a place, or a scrap of dialogue, and it all spins out form there. I have one trusted reader who kindly looks at my work when it’s finished or in progress (Louise!) and I really value that reassurance or criticism – you can get too close to your work to see it quite clearly sometimes.
MM: Hi Zoe, what’s it like to work with an editor? Is it difficult to compromise on your work?
ZS: I have to say that I find it an incredible privilege. I tend to keep my work pretty close to my heart while it’s in progress, but once I’m finished it’s another matter. It’s much nicer to edit when you have a complete manuscript – a thing that you can only make better, not break, if you see what I mean – so I tend to enjoy it (with perhaps a few tricky moments!) It’s unlikely that anyone else will read your work as closely as an editor, so if they’re constructive (or buy you a glass of wine before giving you the criticism) it can be a real pleasure. But I do think you need to have some confidence in what you’ve done, and whether it’s what you want it to be.
CC: It’s so clear that many writers are undervalued as very few make a living wholly from their writing. Where can writers go to get support from the government and other organisations? Also, do we need a wider conversation about cultural value that could improve this situation?
ZS: Oh goodness, yes. This is a good question. So in Scotland you’d look to Creative Scotland and Scottish Book Trust first, probably, or WoMentoring. Deciding what kind of support you need is important – for a lot of people it’s the time that a bursary might buy them away from their day job. But I do think we need to think more about cultural value. Books are a strange kind of art form in a way because they take lots of different forms, but the model is that they should work as a commercial product in a marketplace.
That just isn’t going to be the case for a lot of really excellent and maybe challenging art. I think we should value bookshops more too, in the way we would art galleries (and libraries, of course). I’d like bookshops to receive the same incentives that charity shops do, because of their role in promoting culture.
JB: We are lucky in Scotland as there are great organisations to support writing – and I include the literature festivals, esp Edinburgh book Festival, as well as the work of SBT, poetry Library etc. I’m a firm believer in the role Society of Authors plays in campaigning for authors too. But we all have an individual responsibility to make our voices heard about a range of issues, like safeguarding the role of libraries in our communities, the essential role of school librarians in developing young readers.
I sometimes think we (and I include myself) spend too much time talking to each other, the converted, via social media rather than making our views known nationally.
SdBP: Jenny: what is your process when you take on an author? What does that look like? How do you pick how to bring on board?
JB: When my list is open for submissions, I can receive up to 2000 emailed submissions in a month. The ones which immediately catch my eye are those which have been carefully targeted to me, those writers who are looking for an agent in Scotland, who are writing in the fields I represent – literary fiction, narrative non-fiction and crime writing. On the whole I’m looking for writers who want to develop their careers rather than only write one book.
It’s worth spending time writing a really fabulous letter, tailored to each agent/editor you’re approaching. And never ever copy in every other UK agent into your email (you would be amazed how many submissions we receive who do just that). If I read work which I really like, and am still thinking about it a week or two weeks later, then that’s generally a sign that I’d like to meet the writer and talk about their work.
SLF: We’ve got one! We had a Twitter chat yesterday featuring some of Scotland’s lit mags to what they look for, and the ins and outs of how they run. How important are lit mags for bridging the gap between writing and having a full novel (which can take years!)? Is that something you would recommend aiming for before/alongside writing a novel?
ZS: Oh yes, definitely. First of all, I think they’re a really important part of a vibrant writing culture. But the very process of finishing and editing something and sending it off is a crucial step for new writers. You can also build a profile, boost your confidence, get opportunities to perform – and most importantly, have that great feeling of somebody liking and getting what you do! I’ve sometimes placed extracts from novels in magazines before I’ve finished, as a kind of commitment pact . . . It is worth remembering too though that often lit mags have one editor, or a very small team. If they reject your work it might not actually be because it’s terrible!
KR: Zoe: When writing characters how you make them well rounded and relatable with out just basing them on people in your life- or is that the trick?
ZS: I think each writer is different. Some people do just fine basing characters on people they know. I like making people up – in fact creating characters is probably my favourite part of writing. I love that feeling of being able to see inside someone’s head, if that doesn’t sound too creepy. Usually I have an idea of what they look like, and where they grew up and in what circumstances, but very often that’s just background for me and doesn’t even get mentioned.
I like thinking about what they keep secret, and what they’d hate people to know about them – and again, that might not be mentioned either unless it was related to the story, but it helps me round them out. And I always try them out in first person first too – just their POV, walking along the street or something relatively mundane like that – so that I get a sense of how they think and speak. Changing point of view (e.g. to third person) can be a good way of brightening things up, and it’s also quite handy to stop sometimes and ask what it is your character wants: in life, or in the next two minutes in a scene.
Just thought too – we don’t necessarily have to like characters, just find them interesting enough to spend time with . . . although that can depend on your genre!
LJ: What were some of the most important lessons you learned as a writer on persevering until the finished draft?
ZS: This is a great question, and I’m going to have trouble answering it. At the moment I’m really close to the end of a novel, and I keep thinking of it being a whole thing – because an unfinished novel isn’t a novel at all, really, even if it’s great. I mentioned already that I like editing, and I can’t wait to have a complete manuscript to get my hands dirty in. In a really practical sense, being very disciplined about writing when I can set aside time to do it, and sometimes going for a daily word count, have helped me. I also use that program Freedom to keep me off the internet, and I love going away to write. One more wee note on that – I really find that if I’m away from my novel for a week, it’ll take me a week to get back into it. And if it’s longer, it’ll take longer. I don’t write every day, or sometimes even every week, but when I do I really try to immerse myself.
JE: Is there any crossover in advice you can give for someone who’s not wanting to do fiction, but perhaps journalism or magazines?
ZS: I’m not sure I’m the best person to ask this. I used to do quite a bit of freelance journalism, but it’s such a fragile industry now. And it’s always a bit of a chicken and egg situation – you need to be published to get published. I’d look at contributing to good blogs, or at starting your own. Perhaps doing reviews as well, so you have something on your CV before you try to pitch bigger articles. Student magazines are still a good place to start too, if possible. Good luck with it!
KL: Jenny: How closely do you work with an author on a text before it is submitted to a publisher? As an agent, do you find yourself acting more as ‘editor’ now than you would have in the past? Is that a good or bad thing?
JB: The agent’s role in relation to editing has changed a lot in the 14 years since I started. I now do much more so that we can be sure the manuscript is polished before submission as, with greater time constraints, editors are more reluctant to take on writing which needs a lot of work . I can read and comment on three or four versions of a manuscript before both author and I are happy with it. The downside is that I’m aware the writer will the have to go through another editorial process with a publisher, and maybe a further set of edits from a US editor.
MM: Hi Jenny, how can writers make sure they’re submitting to the right agents?
JB: I’ve heard a fellow agent say that it could take up to 2 months for a writer to research the right agents to approach… take advantage of events/festivals at which agents are speaking – and make a point of meeting them afterwards! , read acknowledgements in work a bit like yours – writers generally thank their agents/editors, visit their websites and get to know the kind of writers they represent. Often when an assistant is promoted to being full agent they are looking for new clients. Think about whether you want to be represented by a big agency or you’d rather deal with a smaller one. Research is everything here – and of course talking to fellow writers about their recommendations.
SYP: Jenny: Can you recommend courses, awards, lit mags that new writers can submit to/for?
JB: Definitely New Writers Awards offered by Scottish Book Trust. I think Moniack Mhor’s courses are terrific. Lots of great resources and opportunities out there – I was really impressed by the Writing Like A Grrrl conference two weeks ago – such a positive buzzy atmosphere. Literary magazines like New Writing Scotland, Gutter, NorthWords are all good platforms.
MW: Hi Jenny – What are your thoughts on submitting to more than one agent at a time or is it better to wait for a response from one before going to the next on the (researched) short list? Thanks.
JB: I think approach four or five carefully targeted agents simultaneously. as soon as you get interest from one, let the others know- it makes us all hurry up if we think we are about to miss out. always try to meet an agent who is offering representation – your relationship with your agent is likely to be longstanding and you want to ensure that you like and respect each other.
MW: Thanks – one more quick Q. As matter of courtesy, I would want to mention in submission letter that I have approached other agents – is that acceptable or seen as an attempt to speed up the process?
JB: No, fine to mention that, but make it clear you’re not making a blanket submission to lots of agents
CJ: Hi Jenny, I guess you work pretty closely with a variety of publishers, and collaborate with their different departments – I wondered how those relationships work, and which parts of a publishing business are your favourite to work with.
JB: My first relationship is with editors and I try to meet up with them regularly at book fairs, and I travel to London regularly to see those based there too. Once a book is acquired then I work with other departments, like publicity, marketing and foreign rights, if the publisher has world rights. It’s a great industry to work in as you encounter so many talented, creative energetic people in all parts of publishing.
DR: Ladies: who invented the Edinburgh (Book) Festival? What have been its history highlights in both of your opinions? Dx
JB: The Book Festival was an idea dreamt up by Scottish Arts Council and National Book League (now Scottish Book Trust) to give a platform to books and writing at the world’s largest arts festival. It was only ever meant to be a wonderful one-off celebration in 1983- but it went so well and there was such demand from readers, writers & publishers that it was then established on a biennial, then annual basis. So many highlights to choose from! James Baldwin’s appearance in 1985 when people without a ticket were caught crawling under the tent flaps to get in? Garrison Keiller in the Spiegeltent? Roald Dahl’s speech when he opened the 1989 festival? everyone will have their own favourite moments in the festival’s 33 year history!