Curtis Brown Creative MD Anna Davis recently answered some of our students’ most burning questions on the publishing industry. We’ve picked out some of the best to share with you here.
Q: When I’m ready to find an agent, is it best to send submissions to a vast number (to boost my chances) or begin with a shortlist and patiently await interest/rejection?
When it comes to submitting to agents, there are various ways of doing it, but this is my advice:
Do your research to target agents carefully, looking both at the agent and at the agency (you can find out a lot online from the agency website, the agent’s social media presence etc, as well as looking at their client lists). It’s a good idea to go with agencies which are in the AAA (Association of Authors’ Agents) as they’ll be reputable companies who adhere to a code of practice.
Personally, I’d recommend targeting about five agents at once. Go first to the ones you’d most like to be represented by then work your way down the list if necessary. The thing is, if you go to a group at a time, then it means you have an opportunity to pause and take stock, and consider doing some rewriting if, for example, several agents reject the novel for the same reason. If you don’t hear back from people or you just get standard rejection letters, then you’ll also know you need to look again at your pitch, your opening and potentially your synopsis.
If you don’t hear from agents after about eight weeks, just move on to the next one on your list (ie. don’t bother chasing up). If you get an offer of representation or a meeting with anyone, contact the other agents you have the book out on submission with and let them know so you can maximise your choices (you’ll find they get moving pretty quickly in those circumstances!).
Q: Could you please comment on ‘head-hopping’? Is it always evidence of poor writing, or are there times when it can be used to good effect?
Yes, I think ‘head-hopping’ (ie moving between different points of view in a scene) CAN work to good effect sometimes. For example, you might use it when dramatising an argument between a husband and wife – so the reader can see all what’s really going on behind the words being spoken on both sides. You could really play with the difference between what’s being said and what’s being thought/felt – eg, a husband and wife are arguing about the terms of a divorce, while actually each is secretly wishing they could just climb down from their moral high ground and re-enter the marriage they’re busily taking apart.
I think you need to be clear of WHY you’re head-hopping – why that’s the best way to tell your story and what effect you’re seeking to create by doing so. And think about it coherently – eg, if you’re showing that husband and wife arguing in a scene that’s predominantly from the husband’s viewpoint, then it might read oddly if there’s just a tiny bit in the middle where we enter the wife’s viewpoint. If the reader feels they’re just slipping about between characters’ viewpoints, that can be disorienting and one can feel the writer is not fully in control. As a reader, you need to trust that you’re in capable hands…
Q: I’ve read lots of research that suggests that male writers, particularly in the submission stages, are favoured more highly than female writers. What are your thoughts on this?
That stuff is interesting, but I’m sceptical about it. I do remember reading a Guardian article on this subject, and raising an eyebrow at it (and indeed many of us at CB had conversations about it). But no – I don’t buy it, and I wouldn’t recommend adopting a male name for submission. Most published writers these days are women, and most readers are also women. There are women who’ve gone with initials because they or their publisher/agent has felt it could potentially be off-putting to male readers that they’re a female writer (eg, JK Rowling) – but equally I’ve seen it in reverse too – there are quite a few men writing psychological suspense under female pseudonyms at the moment because it’s deemed to be such a female genre, and other men writing in that genre have gone with initials to seem less obviously male (eg, SJ Watson).
I’d say write your novel as well as you can and be honest about who you are when it comes to pitching to agents. You can always go with a pseudonym at a later moment if it seems like a good idea.
Q: What are your thoughts on using pop culture and social media references in novels?
I think there’s a delicate balance here. It can be a good idea to avoid references which feel to you as though they’re going to date VERY rapidly – but it depends also what kind of book you’re writing – eg, if there’s a lot of social media in your book, it would read very weirdly if you never named any of it. A book that’s peppered with current cultural references can indeed date fast but on the other hand a book that has no cultural references can feel weirdly anonymous. I would say write it the way it feels right and worry about it later – you can cut or change cultural references right up to publication (and beyond if your book goes into subsequent editions). Also, there’s a moment when a book feels dated then a subsequent point when it just starts to feel ‘retro’ and specific to its time. And really if you get the characters and the story right, will anyone care anyway?
There are books like Microserfs by Douglas Coupland, for example, which SHOULD feel really dated because they’re talking about massively outdated technology and tech culture – but I think that book is still relevant in the KIND of culture its portraying. Also, American Psycho by Brett Easton-Ellis – that book is like the essence of the 1980s – and is arguably retro – but there’s something in what it says overall which is still current.
There are SO many things, beyond tech culture that can date a book anyway irrespective of whether you have iPads etc in it. My first book, The Dinner, is the story of a group of people having a dinner party – there’s not much in the way of tech in the book but it feels very dated anyway because the dinner party menu is so yesteryear, and the topics of dinner party conversation among the diners too. Arguably it doesn’t matter too much though.
Q: What are the most common mistakes (quality of the actual manuscript notwithstanding) in query letters that make agents just chuck the thing in the shredder without turning a page?
Oh goodness, there are SO many.
– Letters which are very long
– Letters which start by apologising for taking up the agent’s time
– Writers who brag about how brilliant they are – the next global bestseller, etc
– Letters which pitch lots of novels (just focus on one)
– Letters which barely conceal the bitterness of the writer (who has been turned down before)
– Badly spelled letters
– Letters which are addressed to Dear Mr Curtis Brown
– Letters which have awful jokes in
– Letters which are just totally cursory – ie, the author hasn’t taken the trouble to really say anything
– Letters which bang on about how much your mum, dad, friend, cat love the book
– Letters which are sent to every agent in the agency at the same time
Q: Being of quite a shy nature, I would like to know how much of themselves published authors are expected to put ‘out there’ in terms of promoting their book.
Publishers are always keen for authors to get out and about publicising their books – this can mean everything from tweeting, blogging, doing blog interviews, radio interviews, giving readings in bookshops, etc. BUT there are some authors who are naturally better than others at this, and publishers understand that. For example, an author who hates social media or just isn’t very good at it isn’t going to be pushed by their publisher into doing it against their will. And actually much of the important stuff that happens in the promotion and marketing of books doesn’t rely on author involvement at all – eg, the publisher has to work hard to convince key retailers to buy the book and give it good positioning in order to sell it well. Getting key retailers on board is the most significant influence on actual book sales.
Q: How important is it to follow publishing trends?
I would say don’t try to chase trends. It’s good to read lots of newly published fiction and to have an awareness of what’s going on in the marketplace in order that you don’t end up writing something that’s going to seem hugely old-fashioned and out of kilter with what’s going on – but don’t absolutely follow trends. Remember that there is 12-18 months between a book being commissioned by a publisher and it landing in the shops – so any trend you may see riding high in the bestseller lists could already have worn itself out at the point of commissioning. If you do write a book which fits with a fashionable genre, try to think about how you can add an extra twist to differentiate it from what’s already out there. But, really, I’d say write the book that you care about. Write from the heart.
For more from Anna on writing and pitching, you can join one of our series of 3 shorter online novel-writing online for only £200: Starting to Write Your Novel, Write to the End of Your Novel and Edit & Pitch Your Novel