Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Learning to sit on your hands

I have sent my first novel to four publishers, and had encouraging feedback from all of them, but not to the extent that they want to publish my book! So I was advised to try to get an agent. A published writer friend sent a very nice introductory letter about me to a well-known Sydney agency (several chapters of the novel have won prizes in short story competitions, and one has been published in Island) but three weeks later we have had no response at all. Is this normal? Do you have any recommendations/suggestions/advice on how I might proceed? (The novel is not a collection of short stories as such, but the story/chapters are closely linked, and there is an overall narrative.)

Three weeks! This is but a nanosecond in reading-manuscript time. Well, a bit more than a nanosecond. But definitely not a minute. In order for a well-known agency to read a submission in three weeks, they would had to have lost 75% of their clients and all other submissions. There's a sort of formula for reading manuscripts that has as its result that the number of clients an agent has is in inverse proportion to the amount of time they have available to read submissions. As mentioned elsewhere in this blog, it's not because we don't want to read submissions, but it has to be done around our existing business. If the agency got back to you within three weeks, you should be worrying about how successful they really are. And I'm sorry to so that a letter of recommendation from a published writer won't speed things up - if they're a client of the agency it will get you read faster than other submissions, but it won't mean they drop everything to read it.

Three months is actually more feasible, and that's the point at which you can drop them a line and enquire about what's going on. If you feel that's too long, send out the submission to other agents - but let the first agency know that you're doing it. Email this information to them, rather than calling. And whatever you do, if it's before the three-month mark don't ask if they've read it yet.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Answers coming soon ...

Thanks to those of you who have submitted questions in the last three weeks, and apologies for not responding sooner - I did a forum for the Queensland Writers' Centre and then felt all answered out. But your answers are forthcoming ... probably this week. Unless one of the dead tree piles on my desk falls on my head.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Common writing mistakes #2 – What is the narrative voice?

A big question for any writer is: who is my narrator? And are they talking in the first or third person? Or, sometimes, second person (but make sure you can carry it off à la Jay McInerney in Bright Lights, Big City or don’t even bother attempting it)?

In first novels the narrator – whether in first or third person - is often the novelist, and this is understandable but it’s usually a mistake, because it means the writer ends up producing something for an audience of one: him- or herself (see Common writing mistakes #1).

The narrative voice needs to be immediately engaging and consistent throughout – although that doesn’t mean you can’t have an unreliable narrator (i.e. one who is concealing things from the reader, like Lionel Shriver’s Eva in We Need to Talk About Kevin). It just means that the unreliable narrator’s voice needs to be reliable. We need to trust that, when we open that book up after a three-day absence, we’re being told the story by the same person who was telling it to us three days ago.

A consistent, appealing voice is difficult to attain and takes practice, and yet more practice. Quite often it helps to read your work aloud – humans were originally oral storytellers, so a good story should always be read-aloudable, and difficulties with the narrative voice may be revealed by a read-aloud exercise. But once you’ve got the voice – once you can hear the narrator chattering away in your head – then you can tell your reader anything. Plot is important, characters are important, but that narrator … well, there’s no story without them.