Archive for category How to write a book
Some novels take their time, especially those of a literary hue. We might need to quarry vast amounts of possibilities and storyways, find the book’s particular character, discover what a stubborn idea wants to be. (Here’s a post about it – What takes literary writers so long.)
With all that exploring and uncertainty, it can feel like we’re getting nowhere. Then something will suddenly reveal that we actually have more substance than we suspected. It’s happened to me a few times recently with Ever Rest, so I thought I’d share them here.
1 Conduct a research interview
A few months ago I needed input on the story, so I chatted up an expert and told him the story, from start to finish, checking every development and assumption. As I’d hoped, this clarified vital questions and generated ideas, but I also realised it marked a milestone. This was the first time I’d presented the plot or characters to another living soul, and I found I had a more solid story than I suspected.
2 The like/don’t-like list
Often, when reading through a draft, I notice a lot of wrong notes. So I decided a trouble named was a trouble nailed, and I made two lists. In one, I put the negatives – mostly scenes that pulled the story in a direction that didn’t interest me. On the other list, I wrote all the things I was happy to find – an elegiac mood, a character’s disturbing personality, an atmosphere of guilt and blame.
(It’s similar to a plotting exercise I developed for Nail Your Novel – the wish-not list. If you’re stuck, write down all the developments you don’t want. They’re usually stopping you from finding the ones you do.)
As with the research interview, my lists were a revelation. I’d been too worried by the negatives, which made me feel the whole book was awry. But these lists demonstrated there was plenty on the positive side. Most of the book is heading in the right direction. And the other problems can be stared down.
3 Write a synopsis
This week, I have an opportunity to submit a few chapters of Ever Rest to a literary agent. I hate showing works in progress, but I have a few chapters that I don’t mind revealing in confidence. The bigger problem is this – the agent also wants a synopsis. Like most authors, I loathe writing synopses, but I gritted my teeth and typed. Again, it was a pleasant surprise. I found it a good exercise to present the novel’s main spine in condensed form and I even found I was filling some gaps. I’ve written before about how revision is often a process of understanding as much as of rewriting – aka revision is re-vision.
Psst… the wish-not list is one of the tools in Nail Your Novel
Thanks for the pic El Guanche – originally posted to Flickr as Arbol de Piedra, CC BY 2.0
Over to you. Have you any tips for measuring progress on a slow-burn book, especially if they’ve caught you by surprise? Oh – and wish me luck with the agent.
This week I was pulled into a discussion on Facebook about ghost-writing.
It began when novelist Matt Haig wrote an impassioned opinion in which he lamented the number of books whose true authors were not acknowledged, which kicked off a wide-ranging and emotional debate. One commenter introduced the term ethics and asked me to talk about ghost-writing from that perspective. As that’s far too long and gnarly for a Facebook comment, I thought I’d explore it in a post. Here goes.
What ethical considerations might there be? Looking through the discussion, they seemed to be:
- Is it dishonest to pretend that anybody could write a book?
- Does ghost-writing devalue the contribution of real writers, or appreciation of their skill, especially when so many genuine writers struggle to get published?
I’m going to tackle this in a roundabout way, and first, I think we have to be practical.
Writing is like any other accomplishment you can use commercially. I’ve always earned my living by the word. Long before I dared to be a serious fictioneer, I was writing articles, and editing books and magazines. Just because I can also use writing to make art doesn’t mean I shouldn’t put it to other uses. It’s not sacred and it won’t wear out. If I can write books for myself, why shouldn’t I also write books for others if appropriately rewarded? I don’t have many other options, anyway. I doubt I could even dig roads very well. Anyway, words are a tool of life and we use them for ordering pizza as well as making immortal prose.
What about the sanctity of the byline?
In magazine publishing and non-fiction, you soon learn that the byline hides a lot of other helpers. A person whose name goes on an article – or book – may not be capable of writing to a publishable standard, so an unnamed staffer will lash it into shape. This can frequently be a wholescale rewrite. The originator of the copy still gets the glory, though, because what matters to readers is their knowledge, experience and reputation. That’s the way it goes. The writing/editing staff are technical enablers.
Ghost-writing is not that different. Quite a lot of ghost-writers come from editing and journalism, because they’re already well adapted to this scenario.
Books are rarely solo projects
Here’s another truth. Even where the writer is really the writer, few books are solely the work of one person. Even when we cross from commerce into art.
A quick comparison. Where would musicians be without session players? The Beatles, in their most explorative phase, couldn’t have made their albums without a lot of hired help. And a hefty amount of production from George Martin.
In the book world, agents, MFA tutors, publishers’ editors – and even marketing people – might substantially influence the content. The style and expression may be fine-tuned by the copy editor and even the proof reader. While we would hope that a book with the author’s name on it will substantially be generated and finished by them, there might be a lot of other unsung heroes (or villains) in its genesis. (But lest you think I’m taking too much away from the author, read this – why your editor admires you.)
Art v commerce
Also, consider that not all books are produced from a pure artistic vision. Some are designed from the outset to fit a marketing agenda, and plenty of people seem to like them. Some are adapted to fit a marketing slot (maybe to the dismay of the writer).
Indeed, not all professional writers want to ‘produce art’. They are happy to use their skill and get rewarded, like session musicians. Others have a scorching need to sing their truth. There’s room for both – and some of us do both (in case you think I’m selling my soul, here’s my manifesto for when I write as me) and here’s a piece where three ghost-writers talk about making room for passion projects.
Books are not just books
And books are often used for all sorts of purposes beyond just turning a profit for a publisher. Especially non-fiction, which might be a calling card to further a career.
Which brings me to a major ethical question: making a chump look like a champion. Is that dishonest?
I’m talking, of course, about Tony Schwartz, who wrote The Art of the Deal with Donald Trump. Here’s where he reveals the reality behind the myth. You might ask if he should have quit when he realised how much fabrication he would need to do? Well Schwartz’s experience is definitely extreme, but he wouldn’t be the first ghost-writer who had a very bumpy ride. Sometimes, that’s what it takes to make a competent book.
Since ethics are our subject here, you might ask whether Schwartz was right to speak out. No easy answers, I’m afraid. Opinions in my ghostwriting circle are very divided. Confidentiality is written in our marrow, even without non-disclosure agreements. We’ll all take secrets to our graves, like doctors or priests. One argument is that because Schwartz got a co-credit, he’s at least able to admit the fact of his contribution, if not the extent. Another argument is that even doctors and priests are allowed to break confidentiality if it would prevent serious harm. (Footnote: but see PatriciaRuthSusan’s comment below.)
Publishing is a business
But there’s one more ethical question we have to consider. Publishing is commercial. Most publishers couldn’t survive without blockbusters. Publishers want books they know they can sell, and a writer who already has notoriety seems a safer bet than one who hasn’t. Some of those blockbusters will be written by – or helped significantly by – ghost-writers.
This shadowy art is propping up all those more ‘pure’ books – if not in specific publishers, in the wider publishing ecosystem. Books with a massive turnover keep an entire infrastructure in business – printers, agents, review outlets, warehousing, conferences, industry journals, ancillary services like Nielsen. Ghost-writing helps to create an environment where our genuine work can live. And that goes for the individual ghost-writers too, who can fund their art by hiring out their craft.
‘Let’s not lose the writer’
In his post, Matt Haig said: ‘The essence of so much art starts with words on a page. Writers are not second to reality TV stars and musicians and actors and comedians. We shape thoughts, we provide escapes, we offer comforts just as well as any other art form. So let’s not lose the writer.’
Absolutely. I’ve got obstinate views about artistic integrity. I’m the first to shout for people to write from the heart, guts and soul, and to hell with market fashions. But not everybody fits a publisher’s wish-list and we do have to earn a living. Often, it’s better paid to be a secret pen than to write your own books. And ghost-writing has brought me experiences I would never have had otherwise, privileged insights into the human condition (it’s not all Zoella). It doesn’t have to be cynical.
Matt Haig also said:
‘We want to know Van Gogh painted Van Gogh paintings. But with writers it seems like we are not allowed to care.’
I absolutely care. I agree a thousand per cent that the current of connection between writer and reader is special and trusting. And when many folk are breaking their hearts trying to get a book deal, these ghosted celeb books leave them spitting nails (if not nailed novels).
I get it. Really I do. I’ve queried all my books with traditional publishers, and I’ve had the red mist when they tell me ‘it’s very good but nobody knows who you are’. The best was this rejection letter for Lifeform Three: ‘only Michael Morpurgo is allowed to publish unconventional stories about horses’.
It’s sad and wrong that good writers can’t get the breaks they deserve. But if you use writing as a trade as well as an art, that doesn’t make you a lesser artist. Neither writers nor publishing can live on art alone. Publishing needs commercial and ghost-written books as its day job; just as most writers do. That doesn’t mean it’s done without care and professionalism or that it is not rewarding beyond the money; but it is done to make other things possible.
That’s the ethics of ghost-writing.
Thanks for the Superman pic Klobetime on Flickr
And, ahem, if ghost-writing might suit you, I have a professional course.
When I work with a writer on their first serious novel manuscript, there are certain aspects they usually get right on instinct alone. There’s the content – a believable story world, characters with solid backgrounds and stuff to do. They usually write fluently too. But there are other, more hidden levels of craft that they usually haven’t noticed in good books, but will make an immense difference to the quality of their work. So here are a few.
1 Keeping the reader’s curiosity
When we’re kids we’re taught we must finish any book we start. Like eating every morsel on the plate, even the detested Brussels sprouts. But a reader will not persevere with a book out of politeness. So writers have to be relentless showmen (within the expectations of their particular genre, of course). Curiosity is the name of the game. Compelling writers will prime the reader to be curious about everything they show – a character, story development, back story or historical context. How do you learn this? Read with awareness. Analyse what keeps you gripped in books you enjoy. (Often when I point this out, the reply is: ‘I get so swept up that I don’t give it a thought’. QED. I don’t want to spoil your enjoyment, but learn to read with primed antennae.)
2 The beginning has to grab attention …. But it also makes a promise to the reader
Don’t start with a thrilling piece of action if the rest of the book doesn’t contain that kind of action. lf you do, you’re wooing the reader under false pretences. Instead, find an intriguing scene that is representational of the entire tone of the story, its themes and concerns. That’s quite tricky and you might try out many beginnings. Indeed, you often don’t get the beginning just right until you’ve written the end.
3 Descriptions come to life if you add humans
You might describe a tidal wave by saying it was the height of a house. Or the earthquake split the town hall in two. These specifics are good, but they’re lifeless. For real impact, try showing how it affected the people in its midst. Just as photographers or painters might use a figure of a person to show scale, you can convey the power of disasters by including humans – cowering, trying to run away with a cat under their arm, filming it on their phone while a friend yells at them to flee.
4 Show not tell
Show not tell is one of the trickiest storytelling techniques to learn. In a nutshell, it’s about creating the experience for the reader. Instead of writing ‘fear was on everyone’s faces’, show us what the characters did that would make you conclude they were afraid. Here’s a post that explains more and you’ll also find lots more discussion of this concept in the Nail Your Novel books.
5 Decide what you want to emphasise
Sometimes you can tell, not show. If you want the reader to feel the impact of the experience, write it in a way that ‘shows’. If the experience doesn’t really matter, you can ‘tell’. Sometimes you can write ‘She had a terrible voyage’ and that might be enough for the purposes of the story. At other times, you want the reader to share the terrible voyage.
6 Don’t wait too long before telling us your main character’s rough age
You don’t have to state it explicitly or numerically, just give us enough to figure out whether we’re looking at a pre-teen, a teenager, a person in their 20s, 30s, 60s. I read a lot of manuscripts where I can’t fathom that out and it interferes with my ability to interpret the action. A person in their 20s who yearns for adventure or love is very different from a person in their 40s or 70s.
7 Home isn’t just a geographical location
It’s a place that owns us – we want to return to it, escape from it, inherit or disown it. If your characters talk about home, what does it mean to them? Take time to let us know.
8 Don’t accidentally create a passive main character
A lot of writers fall into this trap. They create a central character who is thrown into trouble by the actions of other people. They are pushed from one crisis to the next. The pressures mount, they get a bit anguished, but do they do anything about it? No, they wait for the next piece of trouble. That might be lifelike – many of us would prefer to avoid difficult situations. But it makes for a frustrating read (unless the passiveness is a deliberate choice). Otherwise, readers prefer a character who in some ways creates their difficulties and adventures – perhaps because they are restless, or a control freak, or because they succumb to temptation or yearn for something new.
9 Don’t forget to conjure the set-up at the start of each scene
Many writers forget these essential orientating details at the start of a scene – where we are, who is there. Indeed, they often don’t realise an author is doing it every time they load a new location. Even if it’s an ordinary room or an ordinary street – although once you’ve made an environment very familiar to the reader you can use shorthand such as ‘I sat at Mary’s battered piano’.
10 You can’t set the scene through dialogue alone
Although dialogue can help establish the scene, it can’t do it all. Often writers try to, and end up with artificial-sounding lines such as ‘Hand me that glass from the mahogany table’. But prose is a medium of description as well as dialogue (unless you’re aiming for a deliberately abbreviated style). It’s an environment and you want the reader to experience your scenes with all their reading senses. Include the last rays of sun slanting over the roofs. The family unloading children and picnic hampers into a cluttered hallway. The tinkling of crockery as a meal is prepared.
Would you add any? What eye-opening tips have you been given by editors or beta readers?
If you’re exploring characters for your story, this exercise might help. Triskele Books is holding a creative writing summer school and I’ve contributed this snippet to uncover interesting tensions that make a scene sizzle. And once you’re there, you’ll find several other storybending assignments from seasoned fictioneers. Step this way.
Some of you know that I began my writing career incognito, as a ghost-writer. It gave me certain habits and approaches that I still use to this day, and I’m sure they were a head start for productive writing processes. Today I’m talking about those habits at Jo Malby’s blog. (And as I’ve had two guest posts this week, I hope you’ll forgive me for taking the rest of the weekend off. There is bank holidaying to do, as well as a spot of writing.)
And if you’re wondering about ghost-writing yourself, let me clear my throat discreetly and point you to this…
Have you ever had this type of comment in feedback?
‘You’re grasping for a strong thematic purpose. The characters’ actions and the plot are full of significance. Somewhere there’s a strong message. But it’s too abstract or muddied to come through.’
If so, this concept might help. It’s borrowed from writing instructor Lynn Steger Strong, and described in this article in Catapult. Think of your work in two phases – the writer phase and the reader phase.
What might that mean and how might it be useful?
First, an interpretation.
The writer phase
This is the dreaming draft, the phase where you splurge everything you have, go exploring, invent your socks off, have dinner with your characters, test their mettle, immerse in your settings and themes, storm your brains. You figure out what you mean, what you’ll have happen, what you understand.
The reader phase
This second half is where you sell it to the reader. If the first phase took place behind closed doors, here’s where you think about all those eyes and brains seeking a connection with you and your work. For this, you need to make a mental shift. Get ruthless and assess every moment of the story on its own terms. For you, the text is already thrumming with meaning and richness. But will the reader get it?
In the reader phase, that is your quest.
Again, how might it be useful?
You need both phases. Why? Because you can’t explore and refine at the same time. If you do, you’ll shortchange the book. You won’t mine its full potential because you’ll be thinking with your critical hat, wondering what a reader would make of it. And if you don’t switch the other way and ask yourself, am I making sense, you might have a muddled mess. One mode is the accelerator and one is the brake. And we all know not to press both at the same time.
So that means there are a few crucial differences in how you approach the two halves.
Mindset for writer phase
Be fearlessly inventive. Every idea is precious, rich and worth exploring.
Don’t invite critical feedback except on isolated points. Eg to solve specific plot problems, or to find story models that suggest useful structures or character functions. For instance, if you want a downbeat ending, you might want to look for other books that made it work. Meanwhile, keep the bulk of the book to yourself. Lock the doors and simmer.
Mindset for reader phase
Playtime is over. You have a duty to your audience. In phase 1 you were fearlessly inventive. Now you must be fearlessly adapatable. The more you question what serves the reader, the better your book will be. Do you have enough context? Often a manuscript is obscure because the writer hasn’t let us understand why certain plot events are important.
Here’s another essential of the reader phase. You must be prepared to make drastic change. Think like a vandal. The lines you gave to one character might be much better if said by another. A scene might be better in another point of view, or later in the book, or used as back story.
This means a lot of precious material might have to die, and you’ll find yourself resisting. If so, examine why. There are usually two reasons-
- You’ll steer the book wrong, perhaps with a tone you don’t want or an issue you’re not interested in. (This is a good reason to reject a change.)
- The change will cause a lot of difficult unpicking, or stop you using other fascinating bits. Ahem. In the reader phase, nothing is sacred. All is material.
This is the stage where you seek critical feedback. Indeed, if you’ve successfully switched to the reader mindset, you’ll welcome every glitch they find – because it supports your mission to find everything that doesn’t work. And here’s the real strength of this approach – switching to the reader mindset makes revision much more positive.
The writer’s journey and the reader’s journey
Lynn Steger Strong talks about the length of a journey. The writer takes a long journey to create the book. We’re inventing, looking for sense, patterns, resonance, pivot moments, grace and charm. The reader, though, needs to get there instantly. Taking them there is the challenge.
Thanks for the pic Joao Trindade
Let’s discuss! Do you find your mind works differently when writing and revising? Have you received feedback that said your book was too muddled or obscure? How did you tackle it?
This week Joanna Penn invited me to her podcast to talk about writing style and voice, which you can see in a few weeks’ time. We got so involved in the subject that we didn’t finish her question list and this point didn’t make the cut. So I thought it would make a useful post.
Joanna asked me to pinpoint a few easy style fixes – so here they are.
1 Ditch the filler words
Look at this:
Paul had told me on the phone during our initial contact that he had been swindled several years before by a man who he had considered to be a friend.
Quite a mouthful for such a simple point. Give me my red pen.
What worries me here is the number of syllables. They slow the sentence in the reader’s mind. Sometimes that’s good, but sometimes those syllables are unnecessary speed bumps. Here goes.
Paul had [told me] said
Yes, there’s a difference between ‘told me’ and ‘said’. But is it important here? I don’t think it is, and I want to get to the main meat about the swindling friend. ‘Said’ will do that faster.
No need to say ‘during’. ‘At’ is fine. One syllable saved.
our [initial] first contact
Wow, three syllables in ‘initial’. ‘First’ is just one. But ‘initial’ might fit better with the personality of the writer, character or narrative, so that’s an optional change.
that [he had] he’d been swindled several years before
Your high school English teacher probably told you contractions had no place in printable English. Ignore her.
by a man [who] he had considered [to be] a friend.
Two more little words that didn’t have to be there.
2 Prune unnecessary detail
[on the phone]
Does it matter whether the statement was made on the phone or in person? Probably not. In any case, this detail is not really noticed when handled like this. If it’s important that the conversation was on the phone, I’d make the point in a separate sentence. So I’m stripping it out of here.
And so we have:
Paul had said at our first contact that he’d been swindled several years before by a man he had considered a friend.
What didn’t I get rid of? The first ‘had’ – as the tense might be relevant. And the ‘that’. Although you can often remove a ‘that’, sometimes they are necessary for the sense. As this one is.
Paul had said at our first contact that he’d been swindled several years before by a man he had considered a friend.
See how much smoother it is? Now you can see the important stuff – about Paul being swindled.
Step 3 –jazz up your verbs
Verbs are your propellant. I was coaching a thriller writer and his main style problem was slow sentences. I showed him this passage from one of his favourite writers, Stephen White. This is from Kill Me. (I’ve emphasised the verbs):
He was leaning forward and gazing over the westbound lanes, his elbows resting on a fence, his right hand pressing a mobile phone to his ear….
Slick verbs can make a long sentence effortless…
I downshifted into third as I zoomed past him and shot toward the upcoming climb with a fresh boost of torque and enough raw power and confidence to soar past anybody or anything that might be blocking my way on the curving ascent ahead.
That’s interesting, isn’t it? Many writers think a fast style comes from short sentences. But long sentences can read speedily too. The verbs drive it.
Notice also that there aren’t any adverbs in these passages. Adverbs aren’t forbidden, but there’s usually a slicker way. If you use an adverb, you add a second step to the thought. Sometimes you want that emphasis, but usually you’re better finding a dynamite verb.
Those 3 steps in summary
1 Cut the unnecessary syllables. Listen to the beat of the sentence. Make every syllable count.
2 Remove unnecessary detail so the point of the sentence can shine.
3 Rock your verbs.
Thanks for the pic, Nicholas A Tonelli on Flickr
Anything to add? Are there any style ‘rules’ you think are useful and any you think are questionable? Are there any you’ve had to ‘unlearn’?
I’ve had an interesting question from Ben Collins.
I have read that each part of a novel should contain a ‘disaster’ and that every scene should either contain conflict or be deleted. Is this too rigid a formula, or do you think it is correct?
That’s a good question with a lot of answers.
So let’s take it apart.
‘Every scene should either contain conflict or be deleted’
I certainly subscribe to the view that every scene should feel like it’s moving forwards. Something should change, and in a way that keeps the reader curious.
In my plot book I talk about the 4 Cs of a plot – crescendo, curiosity, coherence and change. You can hear me discuss it here with Joanna Penn on her podcast. Three of those Cs are relevant to this question – curiosity change, and crescendo. Crescendo is a sense that the pressure is building – which, if we’re thinking in terms of formulas, comes from a constant state of change.
So what about that other C, conflict? Well, plots come from unstable situations. They can be epic scale – character flaws, character clashes, impossible choices, regrets in the deepest recesses of the soul, attacks from outer space. They can be tiny – two protagonists who irritate the hell out of each other. Good storytellers will sniff out every possible opportunity to add conflict to a scene.
But do you need conflict in every scene? It depends what you’re writing. In a high octane thriller, you need to pack in the punches. If your book is quieter, your developments might be sotto voce. Nevertheless, it’s good to think of keeping the story bounding forwards, in whatever steps would be suitable for your readers.
Beware of overdoing it, though. Even the fastest-paced thriller or suspense novel needs downtime scenes or you’ll wear the reader out. Relentless conflict is exhausting after a while. The most famous illustration of this in action is the campfire scene in an action movie. Usually before a climax, there’s a quiet scene where the characters get some personal time, in a safe place away from the main action. This is a great time for a romance to blossom. Or to drop in a personal piece of back story – a character can finally tell their life story. It lets the tension settle so that the audience is ready for the final big reckoning.
Is it keeping up the sense of change? Well yes it is, because it usually deepens the stakes. The characters might grow to like each other more. It might add an extra moral dimension, so there’s a deeper reason to right a wrong. And the reader will feel more strongly bonded to the characters, so it becomes more important that they succeed – which is onward movement in the pace of the story.
Remember I said earlier on that a change in a scene might be a change in the reader’s understanding? This is an example.
So your scene should definitely contain a change. But there’s a wide definition of what that might be. Each scene should deepen the sense of instability and trouble. It should have something that makes the reader think – that’s not what I expected, or this is now a bit more perilous.
And now to part 2 of the question:
First, let’s define what might be meant by parts. I’m guessing this will be the major phases of the story, or acts. If you’ve seen my posts on story structure you’ll already know what that means. You’ve already got a steady pace of change, with each scene adding something to keep the reader curious. As well as this, you need bigger changes. Something that breaks the pattern and punts everything off in a different direction.
And yes, it might be a disaster. It’s usually something that makes the situation much worse, and sends the story off in a new direction. The murderer strikes again. The Twin Towers fall. The husband begins an affair. It’s a point of no return. a one-way threshold.
So Ben asked: Each part of a novel should contain a ‘disaster’ and every scene should either contain conflict or be deleted.
Let’s amend that statement: each act of a novel should contain something that propels the story into a new, more serious direction; a point of no return. And every individual scene should contain a change, whether big or small.
Thanks for the pic KIm Stovring on Flickr
Clear as mud? Let’s discuss. What would you say?
We’re in an age of new publishing models. And two of the emerging trends – crowdfunding and hybrid publishing – seem to meet in the organisation Unbound.
The principle of Unbound is simple. Raise enough money to publish the first print run. After that, the profits of any sales are split equally between the author and Unbound. Two editions of the books are made; a special, higher-spec edition for subscribers, and an edition for the trade.
When my friend Claire Scobie told me she was using Unbound to launch a UK edition of her novel The Pagoda Tree, I decided it was time to dig further. So as well as Claire (an Unbounder in progress), here are two fully graduated Unbounders – and clarifications from Unbound themselves.
Salena Godden @salenagodden is a long-established spoken word artist, poet and memoirist. She tops the bill at literary events nationally and internationally and has numerous credits as a guest and a writer for BBC Radio and Channel 4 arts programmes and documentaries.
Robert Llewellyn @bobbyllew is a writer, presenter and an actor in the cult BBC science fiction show Red Dwarf. He presented Scrapheap Challenge from 1998-2008 and now produces and presents Fully Charged, an online series about the future of energy and transport. He’s the author of 11 books, including non-fiction, humour, memoir and science fiction.
Publishing background and experience
None of my panel are first-time authors (but first-time authors aren’t excluded, so read on). Salena has run the full gamut from indie to traditional. She self-published her own chapbooks in the 1990s, published her Fishing In The Aftermath poetry collection with indie publisher Burning Eye Books. And she crowdfunded her memoir Springfield Road with Unbound.
Robert Llewellyn had 11 books published traditionally and has been with a literary agent since 1990. He said he became frustrated by the restrictions and financial deals in the traditional system, but didn’t want to go it alone entirely. ‘I was very keen to self publish. I knew I had a large enough potential audience to make this viable, but I also knew that I’m not very well organised and would find it a real challenge to do on my own.’
Claire has a literary agent and has been traditionally published. Last Seen in Lhasa was placed with Random House UK. She’s based in Sydney, so she sold publishing rights of The Pagoda Tree to Penguin in Australia and New Zealand in 2013, but is now seeking wider exposure in English-speaking territories.
UPDATE 1 July 2016 – Claire has now hit her funding target – so you can regard her advice as officially tested in battle!
How are books chosen for Unbound?
Here I’ll bring in Georgia Odd @whengoddcries), editorial and marketing assistant with Unbound.
‘We have a team of commissioning editors who both read submissions and scout for books and authors. The main things they are considering is the strength of the pitch – which might be the concept of a book, the writing or the author’s ability to crowdfund. The projects that work best have a great concept that can be easily explained in a line or two, and a clear audience who are already engaged with either the author or the topic.
‘We don’t always require a finished manuscript – particularly in cases where the author has a proven track record of strong writing – but with new authors we always ask for a substantial example of their writing.
‘We have a fairly even spread between fiction and non-fiction, and we accept any genres. If it’s a great book, we’ll take it on.’
Salena says she chose Unbound because: ‘We got on really well. You know the saying “Go where there love is”? There is a lot of love at Unbound.’
Robert says: ‘I loved the business model. I understood crowdfunding and I had enough of a following to launch the books. I don’t know how I got selected, it didn’t feel like being selected. It felt like we agreed to work together which was much nicer.’
Claire said she’d had her eye on Unbound for several years. ‘I like the philosophy of the company and the fact that it was founded by three authors who felt that readers were often left out of the equation. My agent pitched the book to them (although any author can submit directly). One of the co-founders loved it and my crowdfunding journey began.’ And Claire points out that Unbound offers a more equitable arrangement than most publishers. ‘Unbound splits a book’s net profit 50/50 (after costs/retail discounts) with the author. With traditional publishing, an author is lucky to earn 10% of the cover price.’
But can you bring your indie team?
It’s likely, of course, that authors who’ve already published their own work might want to bring their own editors or designers. Georgia from Unbound says: If an author does have an illustrator or editor they have in mind, we always have discussions about this, and the best route to take.
The campaign trail
Clearly, everything hinges on how much the author can raise awareness. And this effort shouldn’t be underestimated. I’ve been watching Claire on Facebook and she’s tirelessly producing interviews, posts and following up any lead that might create more exposure. ‘I’ve run a focused Facebook campaign on my author page, sent out a lot of emails to family, friends, friends of friends, written blogs on various sites such as FB historical fiction sites or indie publishing sites, made contact with my old school and university and contacted former work colleagues. As I am based in Australia, I’ve received a lot of support from students who’ve done my writing courses and writers I’ve worked with professionally. It’s been harder to tap into some of those networks in the UK.’
Salena says she was already well versed in selling and promoting her work. ‘I was in a band called SaltPeter for over a decade and we used to put out our own music, so I applied those cottage industry skills to the book, booking radio and gigs and promoting things.’ All the same, she says she remembers her funding campaign as full-on effort. ‘I worked my arse off. I hustled up hundreds of radio slots and gigs and events and festivals and talks and blog tours until I was sick of myself. When the book arrived I remember spending afternoons walking around book shops asking for it to be stocked; both indie shops and big chain stores too.’
Robert has managed to be more laid back, and says he mainly raised awareness through Twitter. ‘None of my Unbound books have had traditional reviews. They’ve not been featured in the traditional press in any way I’m aware of. I do a great deal of public speaking and sell books after these events.’ Reality check: he has 130,000 Twitter followers.
So it has to be asked: what proportion of projects fail to reach their funding target? Georgia says: ‘The success rate is 66%. There isn’t an obvious difference in the success rates between fiction and non-fiction; it depends on how active the author has been throughout their campaign, and how effective they are at communicating directly with their audience.’
With knobs on
One of the features of a crowdfunding campaign is the extra rewards for higher pledges. So what do authors offer? And when they have to fulfil them, are they worth the effort?
‘This was a steep learning curve. My assumption was that everyone would go for the cheapest option and no one would go for the most expensive. The most expensive options (tickets to exclusive events) were sold out within a couple of days. These involved complex and costly arrangements that were very stressful although we managed to fill 90% of our obligations to supporters. For instance, a picnic at William Morris’s house – there were so many takers we had to do it over two days. Since this experience we have wound down the top-level promises to events that are a little easier to set up.
Claire’s offering a range of goodies. ‘For readers I offer a double whammy of my first book and the novel for £75; for writers, I offer professional one-on-one mentoring sessions and a creative writing workshop in London; for general supporters, I offer the novel + a beautiful handmade Indian journal (which has been really popular.) I also offer ‘the story behind the book’ for £100 and some bigger pledges at £1000 for someone to be a patron. I think it’s important to have a range of pledges at different prices and for different sectors of your audience.’
All the same, Georgia confirms that some authors can be uncomfortable with the amount of self-promotion. But she provides some figures to help make the job more manageable. ‘The average book needs about 300 supporters. Authors have to be able to confidently pitch their book to their networks, including friends, family and colleagues. Some find it daunting to ask people they know to pledge money, so that’s something they have to really think about, and overcome if they’re to have a strong campaign.
‘The most effective way of driving pledges is through personalised one-to-one communication, usually via email. This does take a lot of time and effort, so authors find it helpful to create a plan and schedule. They then have to stick to it. It’s all about engagement, rather than broadcasting. If authors aren’t engaged with their fans, then they are less likely to see those fans pledging.
‘The campaign process has to be led by the author, as they are the best advocate for the book, and it is their network that will support the book in the early stages. But we do have resources we offer to authors as guidance and support throughout their campaign.’
Have you considered – or even tried – crowdfunding? Any thoughts to add? Questions? The floor is yours.
And finally, here’s where to find our people again. Unbound is here and is on Twitter as @Unbounders. Robert Llewellyn is most at home on Twitter where he’s @bobbyllew . Salena Godden is @salenagodden and her website is www.salenagodden.com . And Claire Scobie is, at the time of writing, in full campaign swing. You can find her on Twitter at @clairescobie and her Unbound campaign is here https://unbound.co.uk/books/the-pagoda-tree/