An Author’s Complaint

In last Friday’s email, Harry Bingham quoted a disappointed author, Natalie Tay, who wrote:

‘As someone who has experienced endless rejection, frequently accompanied by notes assuring me that it was an “incredibly close call”, I simply can’t sit back and agree that a rejection means “you’re not there yet”.

I’ve spent years and months believing that [but] sometimes you get rejected for reasons that have nothing to do with the quality of your work. I can’t even tell you how many agents I’ve had who have told me that my pitch was intriguing and the quality of my pages was excellent, but this “wasn’t the book for them”. And the thing is, because the world of traditional publishing is so fickle, this happens. Probably all the time.

I’m sure you could argue that my book must have been missing some sort of je ne sais quoi or needed one more draft or who knows what, and with some of my manuscripts I can agree with that assessment. But with others, I can’t. Not to say I’m done learning or above needing help, but at some point when I’ve produced multiple manuscripts that match the quality of existing published novels, I have to believe it’s not me.

So please, for the love of all of the souls who have been crushed one too many times, own up to the fact that luck is involved.’

Natalie Tay

Harry responded:

“And she’s right. Her writing has a crisp professionalism. There’s nothing in the pages I read that gives the book away as unsuitable for Big 5 publication. On the contrary, you could find any number of Big 5 books that are either of the same standard, or a shade less adept. (As a matter of fact, you could probably find some major bestsellers that were less adept. I can think of a few…)

So let me give you a somewhat more detailed view of how Planet Agent makes its decisions. As far as agents are concerned, books fall into roughly the following strata:

Nowhere close to good enough These books have obvious problems on the first page, and probably the query letter too.

Not good enough (manuscript) These books aren’t as bad, but the problems do reveal themselves – and usually on the first page.

Not good enough (synopsis)

A niche category this, and not a much populated one, but you’ll come across some manuscripts where the prose comes across as acceptable, but perhaps not quite compelling. The agent wonders whether to read on and turns to the synopsis. The synopsis, however, fails to deliver a convincing story arc and the agent is left feeling that the book is unsaleable.


Once you’ve discarded the books that are clearly not strong enough, you’re left with maybe 1-2% of the total slushpile, where the reasons for rejecting just aren’t that clear. The prose? It’s fine. The story? All present and correct.

But the agent is only going to take on perhaps 1 in 1000 manuscripts, so just 0.1% of what comes her way. That means she has to discard 9-19 of the 10-20 strong manuscripts she comes across. Some of the reasons for dropping those submissions would include:

  • Too similar to an existing client.
  • Submission comes when the agent is busy or stressed.
  • Submission arrives just when the agent is blown away by a genuinely stunning manuscript.
  • Submission fails for reasons of personal taste, rather than objective critical judgement.
  • Submission fails because when the agent is thinking of who to sell the manuscript to, and how she would pitch the sale, she can’t quite see her way to a compelling strategy.

Luck pretty obviously plays a part here – and for that reason it’s vital that you query 10-12 agents, not merely 3-4. That said, the fifth bullet point on this list is not to do with luck and we’ll talk more about that in a moment. Before that, though, there is a fifth category of manuscript to deal with …

The outright stunning

Any sane agent would pick that book up. Any sane editor would, at the least, be seriously tempted. Yes, there will be some luck-based rejections nevertheless (agent too busy, too stressed, no personal click, etc), but the author’s experience is going to be essentially one of doors flying open, rather than doors slamming shut.”

Harry then lays out three possible options:

1. Query a digital-first publisher.

Those guys accept more like 1 in 100 manuscripts than 1 in 1000. They’re hoovering up the almost-but-not-quite manuscripts from elsewhere. That doesn’t mean they’re second-best as publishers, however. There are some absolutely first-class publishers amongst their number … and I know people who have gone from a print-led Big 5 imprint to a digital-first one, and seen their sales go through the roof. They’ve also, nearly always, had a better outcome in terms of author care. In effect, those guys take some of the luck out of the question. They take the top 1% of manuscripts and let readers choose their favourite. It’s a brilliant model.

2. Self-publish.

I’ve made a more regular, dependable income from self-pub than I ever did from trad. I’ve had stronger relations with readers. I’ve had better marketing, better book covers, more flexibility, more control. As it happens, I made my biggest film and TV sale via self-pub not trad. What’s not to like? Self-publishing is an outstanding route to market and no one should feel embarrassed to take it.

3. Nail the elevator pitch.

The trouble with most strong manuscripts – the ones that get rejected – is that they ask, politely, to be admitted to Publishing Towers. The stunning manuscripts don’t ask: they kick the doors down.

Competent writing + a workmanlike premise = a book that might or might not get published

Competent writing + a stunning premise = a book that can’t be ignored.

The elevator pitch essentially does the agent’s work for them. How do I pitch this to publishers? How do I set out the path to sales?

With a book that’s merely strong, those questions have fiddly, failure-prone answers. With a kick-the-doors-down book (Crawdads, Gone Girl, Light We Cannot See), those questions have answers that are blazingly obvious.

That’s where luck stops being a factor, or almost. Yes, you might hit an agent who’s too busy or stressed or drunk to notice the bar of gold that’s just struck their toe. But go to more than a handful of agents, and one of them is bound to pick it up – and be delighted that they have.

I think Harry makes some very good points.

Amazing Story

The BBC ran an amazing story on September 19 about a young English woman who gave up a career in financial law for crime writing; she decided to go down the self-publishing path and has sold seven million copies.

Louise Ross
Louise Ross

Duncan Leatherdale of the BBC wrote:

A young woman brutally slaughtered in a ritualistic killing on Holy Island. A skeleton concealed by a murderer in Hadrian’s Wall. A robbery of ancient artefacts from Durham Cathedral.

“Once you get bitten by the writing bug it’s hard to shake it,” Louise says.

“Everywhere we go I find little bits of inspiration from the landscape, although I’m not always looking for places to commit crimes.

“That only really happened once when I was on Hadrian’s Wall and I did think, ‘hmm, you could hide a body here’.”

Since 2015, Louise has written 18 books in the DCI Ryan series, four novels chronicling the exploits of forensic psychologist Dr Alexander Gregory, a short story anthology and the Cornish cove crime thriller.

For the previous 10 years, she had been a financial services lawyer in London which involved tackling white collar criminals and “trying to stop people perpetuating fraud”.

“I found after a few years I was not loving it and I could not say my heart was fully in it.”

Deciding to take a sabbatical, Louise, who by this time was married to a barrister called James, set her sights on studying forensic psychology.

But her work-break soon became a “lovely surprise” maternity leave as she discovered she was pregnant with the couple’s first child.

At around the same time, the couple were on a train bound for Edinburgh when, travelling up the Northumberland coast, she had a flash of an idea that went on to change her life.

“We saw Holy Island,” Louise says.

“It was miserable weather but so atmospheric and I remember looking at the island and thinking it would be a great place to set a story.”

Inspired by her love of the “golden age of crime writing” encapsulated by the likes of Agatha Christie, as well as her childhood passion for the good versus evil narratives of the Christopher Reeve Superman films and Star Wars saga, Louise found herself creating a new detective – Det Ch Insp Maxwell Finlay-Ryan.

His first adventure is on Holy Island, where he has gone to recover from his own recent trauma when he is confronted by the gruesome murder of a young woman whose remains are found in the priory ruins.

Louise spent 18 months writing it around getting to grips with motherhood, before starting the hunt for an agent and publisher.

“With breath-taking naivety I sent it to 12 or 14 agents and publishers thinking that would be enough. I only later learnt JK Rowling sent Harry Potter to hundreds.

“I did have one offer from what I would call a midsize publishing house which was exciting, but when the contract came through and I was supposed to feel elated, I just didn’t.

“I thought, ‘I’m handing over an awful lot here, my intellectual property in perpetuity’.

Holy Island was published by Amazon as an e-book on 1 January 2015 and sold 25 copies, all to family and friends, while Louise also printed a few copies to sell in local bookshops.

But by May it was number one in the Kindle store, knocking Paula Hawkins’ Girl On A Train off top spot, with daily sales of about 4,500 for which Louise credits “word of mouth”.

The majority of her seven million plus sales have been e-books although printed copies produced by Dark Skies Publishing, the firm run by her and her husband, can be found in mainstream and independent bookshops with audio books also available.

Louise acknowledges she is in a fortunate position to be able to have the time and support of her family to write and publish her books, with James effectively operating as the publishing director.

“Independent publishing is not for everyone, it does depend on what your support network is like,” she says.

In November Dark Skies Publishing will publish its first book not written solely by Louise – an anthology from more than 50 authors to raise money for homelessness charity Shelter.

Virginia Woolf’s Thoughts on Characters

The Writers Write website has a post by Freddie Moore has excerpted ten points about writing characters from Virginia Woolf’s essay ‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown’. In the essay Virginia Woolf is responding to an article by English writer Arnold Bennett who argued that 20th century authors were failing to write good novels because they did not write good characters. (Freddie Moore is a Brooklyn-based writer. Her full name is Winifred, and her writing has appeared in The Paris Review Daily and The Huffington Post.)

Virginia Woolf

Ms Woolf’s comments were:

  1. Practice character-reading until you can ‘live a single year of life without disaster’. (Character-reading is Woolf’s term for people-watching for the sake of constructing fictional characters. I think her point was that when you’re a good character-reader you won’t have any disasters.)
  2. Observe strangers. Let your own version of their life story shoot through your head — how they got where they are now, where they might be going — and fill in the blanks for yourself. (This is a favourite pastime of mine when I’m in a restaurant, watching other people, particularly those having intense discussions.)
  3.  Listen to the way people speak, but pay special attention to their silence. (The silences may be more meaningful than the dialogue.)
  4. Write characters who are both ‘very small and very tenacious; at once very frail and very heroic’. Let them have contradictions.
  5. Write about people who make an overwhelming impression on you. Let yourself be obsessed.
  6. A believable character is never just a list of traits or biographical facts. (Because traits and facts don’t define character.)
  7. Illustrate your characters outside of the superficial standards of their time. Let them be complex.
  8. Any captivating protagonist should be someone you can imagine in “the centre of all sorts of scenes.”
  9. Find a common ground between you and your characters — “steep yourself in their atmosphere.” Learn to empathise. (A writer needs to feel what the character is feeling.)
  10. Describe your characters ‘beautifully if possible, and truthfully at any rate’.

How to Write a Synopsis

There is an article on the Writer’s Digest website by Courtney Carpenter on synopsis writing that I thought contained some very good advice. I have struggled writing synopses ever since I started writing novels. My instinct was to write a brief summary of the book – much as I did in my high school English class, when I was writing a book report. But invariably, it came out rather bland, instead of catching and exciting the reader’s interest. Even the advice I had from and editor didn’t include a useful template, and focused on cutting out the non-essentials.

My search for a bio of Courtney Carpenter drew a blank. She has written dozens of articles for Writer’s Digest, so she was probably a member of WD’s staff. Her broad knowledge of writing skills led me to search Amazon for the books she may have written. No luck.

In her article on Synopsis writing, she says,” Before sending your book proposal out to potential literary agents, here are some suggested elements you should include while writing a synopsis:

  • Narrative Arc. A synopsis conveys the narrative arc, an explanation of the problem or plot, the characters, and how the book or novel ends. It ensures character actions and motivations are realistic and make sense. It summarizes what happens and who changes from beginning to end of the story. It gives agents a good and reliable preview of your writing skills.
  • Active Voice. Agents look for good writing skills. Let yours shine in your synopsis by using active voice and third person.
  • Unique Point of View. An agent is usually looking for an idea of fresh or unique elements. Is your plot cliche or predictable? Have elements that set your story apart from other things they have seen.
  • Story Advancement. A synopsis should include the characters’ feelings and emotions. Use these elements to advance your plot and story.
  • Write Clearly. Focus on clarity in your writing and avoid wordiness. Remember, less is more.

“Here are some tips on what to avoid when writing a synopsis:

  • Mentioning too many characters or events.
  • Including too much detail about plot twists and turns. You don’t want to tell the entire story. What you want to do is write a book summary with enough detail about the plot to intrigue the reader or agent.
  • Unnecessary detail, description, or explanation. Make each word in your synopsis count.
  • Editorializing your novel or book. Don’t use “…in a flashback,” or “…in a poignant scene.” If you have a confusing series of events and character interactions, not only will your reader be confused, but a potential agent will be too.
  • Writing back cover copy instead of a synopsis. Don’t go astray and write a hook to intrigue a reader to buy a book or an agent to request a manuscript. Focus on summarizing your novel or book.

“Jane Friedman gives some of the best tips for formatting a synopsis. She recommends beginning with a strong paragraph identifying your protagonist, problem or conflict, and setting. The next paragraph should convey any major plot turns or conflicts necessary and any characters that should be mentioned in order for your book summary to make sense to whomever is reading it. 

“Lastly, she recommends indicating how major conflicts are resolved in the last paragraph. This ensures a clear presentation of your book or novel and doesn’t leave the reader confused.

For me, Ms Carpenter’s quotation of Jane Friedman makes a lot of sense. It is: 1. What’s this story about? 2. What major events happen? And 3. How are the problems resolved?