Thursday, 4 May 2017

Pitching your story, by Annie Burrows

On the first Friday of each month, Novelista Annie Burrows will be drawing a question out of the jar where we've been putting all the questions about the writing process posed by readers –

This month, the question is...

What are the differences between pitches?
For your book?
Elevator pitch, etc.

Annie's reply:

Elevator pitch?  Oh, yes, I’ve heard of them.  That’s when you go to a conference, and stalk an agent until she gets into an elevator (or a lift as we say in the UK) then jump in after her and rapidly tell her all about your book and why you should buy it before she manages to escape at her floor.

I’ve never tried one of those.  I have a sneaking suspicion that if I attempted one, the agent would not only not want to buy my book, but may never look favourably on anything I attempted to submit in future, either.

But then I’ve never managed to get an agent, no matter what I submitted, or how.  Instead, I kept on submitting first chapters to Mills & Boon, until eventually I’d learned to write well enough for them to ask to read the rest of the story, and then, when I’d done the few revisions they requested, offered me a contract.

For subsequent books, I’ve had to submit synopses for any new stories I wanted to write for them, before I start work on the story itself.  Which is a form of “making a pitch.”

And I’ve got to admit, it’s a process that I dread.  How can I condense all the twists and turns that my protagonists will go through before they reach their happy ever after, in the two pages that seem to be what writing gurus tell us is what we should be sending?  How can I make the characters come to life in so short a time?  How, in short, can I persuade the editorial and marketing teams that I have an idea that will turn into a story that lots and lots of people will enjoy reading?

Most of the time, my lovely editors give me the benefit of the doubt after reading the brief outline, containing the protagonists motivation, the rough idea of how I’m going to get them together, tangle them up, then bring them through to their happy-ever-after.  I’ve only had one or two story proposals rejected when I’ve pitched them.

But last year, I pitched ideas for a full length story, and a novella, and the team came back with the offer of a 4 book contract.  Which was rather worrying, since I didn’t have ideas for another two stories.  Only vague scenarios, a couple of characters I thought would be interesting to work with, and one opening scene.  So I owned up to my editor at the time, and she volunteered to have a brainstorming session with me.  From that lunchtime session, we hammered out a series of three books with linked heroes, who are each on the trail of a criminal and come across their heroines in their pursuit of him (or her).  I then came home and wrote out a synopsis for each story, as well as the over arching story that runs through all three books, and a trilogy was born!

Book 1 will be out in August/September, under the title “The Major Meets His Match”, and I’m in the process of writing the second of the trilogy.

So…pitching books?  In my experience, it’s different for every book, every editor, and every contract I’ve had.

One thing I do know, though, I am far too diffident to ever pin an agent into the wall of an elevator until I’ve told them all about my latest brilliant idea!

If you can't wait until August to read the first of that trilogy Annie was telling us about, look out for "The Debutante's Daring Proposal" which will be out in the UK, US, and Australia in June.

Sunday, 23 April 2017

A Marathon or a Sprint? by Beth Francis

Every marathon runner who completes the course will have a medal, only a few who complete a book will get published, but for both the finish line marks a great achievement to be celebrated with friends.

I spent my birthday cheering my daughter on as she ran her first marathon. After months of training she was ready, but as she set off with the other 10,000 plus runners I felt sick with apprehension for her.

Why a marathon? Why not another half marathon, or a 10k?

For the first ten miles her times showed she was running steadily, then nearing half way she slowed, the doubts set in, she knew, in spite of all the training, she could never reach the finish.

But her friends had come to support her, the route was lined with spectators encouraging the runners on. She kept going. Her pace picked up. She began to count the miles down. Then there was the finish line, the cheering of the crowds, the medal.

Waiting at the finish line, I was thinking about the novel I was about to start writing. 

Why a novel? Why not another pocket novel or a short story?

I know I’ll start off enthusiastically; the characters are already in my head clamouring for their story to be told. Words will flow freely; until I’ve written around ten chapters and doubts will crowd in. The plot is too thin, the characters unconvincing, others have already written this sort of story better than I ever could.

This is where I need friends who understand to support me, to encourage me to plod on, keep typing through the sticky patch. Once those middle chapters are written, the pace picks up. I begin to count the chapters down. Until I can type The End.

Time for celebrations!

My daughter said, 'Never again!' I said, 'Never again!' But if you run, you go on running. If you write, you keep on writing.

Next time I watch my daughter run a marathon, I hope to be well on my way to finishing another novel.

Beth Francis writes short stories and pocket novels, and has twice been shortlisted for the Harry Bowling Award.

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Northern Lights Writers' Conference 2017 by Sophie Claire

It's always difficult to report back on a conference because there's so much valuable information and advice to be gleaned from the speakers, and #NLWC2017 was no exception. The day's agenda was packed full with guest workshops and panel discussions with writers, agents and editors, as well as a keynote speech given by historical writer, Sarah Dunant.

Kicking off the day was a panel discussion on Genre Writing with Julie Crisp (agent & editor), John Jarrold (agent) and Cath Staincliffe (crime writer & scriptwriter). The discussion centred mostly around science ficiton, fantasy and crime (sadly, no romance/women's fiction), and I've listed below some of the nuggets of advice which came out of the discussion:

“Don’t write what’s current. Write what moves you.” (John Jarrold)

Be aware of the market but write what gets you in the gut.

Cath Staincliffe researched the crime genre after being told by an editor that the issues and themes in her sci-fi novel would lend themselves to crime. She read everything in the library’s crime section then put her own bent on the genre by setting her novels in her home town of Manchester, and featuring a single parent protagonist working as a private investigator (rather than the more commonly used detective or police professional).

“If it’s a good book it doesn’t matter what (genre) label is attached to it.” (Julie Crisp)

Readers are drawn to a writer’s voice.

What is the next big thing (in terms of genre)? – Nobody knows. Everyone’s hoping the Psychological Thriller will soon have run its course, but it still featured prominently at London Book Fair last week.


Later in the day Sarah Dunant gave an entertaining and thought-provoking keynote speech. Here are some of the highlights:

Sarah Dunant
Sarah considered the differences between literary fiction and all the other genres. Literary fiction’s first love is language. For Sarah, however, narrative drive is paramount. 
But this doesn’t mean she doesn’t love language too, and in her own work she uses the engine of the story to convey this as well as philosophical and political themes.

“Story is incredibly important.” It’s inbuilt in humans to tell stories. They help us make sense of life and our fears about the future.

Writing is hard, no matter how experienced or successful you are, and as a writer you need to constantly challenge yourself.
Sarah recounted how she had to pause from writing one book (60,000 words into it) and take a 5 month break because she felt it wasn’t working. However, the break gave her perspective and room to relax, and she was able to complete it later.

Sarah sometimes shows her critical voice out of the room (literally – she gets up, opens the door, ushers it out, then closes the door!) if she feels it’s not helping the writing process. Later, she allows it to re-enter, usually when she needs to analyse the shape or structure of the book.
Kate Feld with Sarah Dunant

Asked about plotting, she said; “If you plot too tightly there’s no room for the unexpected.”
Characters sometimes take over, but they can also lead you into dead ends. As a writer, you must strike a balance between the technical and imaginative, and know when to use which.

The Northern Lights Writers' Conference is held annually at the Waterside Arts Centre in Sale, Manchester and you can find more information here.