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LBF Masterclasses Part 1 – 17th April 2010

I rarely start my days at 5am. In fact, I’m much more likely to be finishing them at that time. However, for my second trip to the London Book Fair Masterclasses (the first was in 2006) I decided to make the effort, get up at Stupid o’clock (that’s 5am to you) and sleep on the Megabus from Cardiff – if need be all the way down to London. (Apologies to my fellow passengers if I snored and/or dribbled but, let’s face it, you probably did as well. We all slept on the way down to London.)

The first session of the day was How to Get Published. Journalist Danuta Keane chaired a panel of Mark Booth (Publisher, Hodder & Stoughton), Carole Blake (Agent, Blake Friedman) and authors Lionel Shriver, Meg Rosoff and Siobhan Curham (who is also Self Publishing Editor for Writers’ Forum magazine). The first heartening news came from Carole Blake when she said that, contrary to popular belief, she wanted to find success stories and every time she approached the slush pile, she hoped there might be gold in it. Everyone on the panel agreed that the term ‘slush pile’ was a dire name and it should be called something else, although no one knew what exactly. However, both Carole and Mark felt that a lot of what was in the slush pile was actually slush and should either never have been sent in or not sent in as early as it had been. Most submissions aren’t worked on nearly enough by their authors, so if you think you’re ready to submit, have a good long look at your manuscript again and ask yourself if that’s the case with yours. Authors have such a small window of opportunity to interest agents and publishers, it’s a shame to throw that away with a rushed or ill-prepared submission.

Mark Booth had prepared some notes on what steps a writer could take to help themselves break out of the slush pile:

  1. When writing be as subjective as you like. However, when writing a submission or trying to self publish, you have to be as objective as possible about your work.
  2. In order to sell your book  you need to make a very good and very quick pitch which then hopefully starts a chain reaction of people reading it and pitching it on until eventually it reaches the bookseller’s rep.
  3. Title of Pitch – make this as memorable, punchy and unusual as possible.
  4. Subtitle or Strapline – for non-fiction, this needs to do the work of telling the story to the reader. For fiction, it conveys the high-concept content of the book as unique and exciting. Alternatively, use the ‘meets’ convention – for example, my book is Jane Austen meets the living dead. (It’s not, that was the example quoted.)
  5. Write a blurb of no more than 400 words and make it the one you dream of reading on your book cover. Your prose should reflect the style of your book and, if your book is funny, it should contain at least one joke that’s actually funny.
  6. Compare your book with similar books or books in the same genre which have been successful in the last four years or so.
  7. Include relevant details about you and your life.

Carole Blake urged us not to overthink the pitch letter or spend months on it because we risk taking our own excitement about the book out of the pitch letter in the process. This excitement is something which needs to be there and would hopefully be magnified by others reading it down the line. She added that the best submission letter she had ever received had been from an author (now on her books), who had written a one-page letter in which he told her that he’d written the book he wanted to read himself and he’d already read everything already published on the area he was writing about. Carole went on to say that traditional publishers were still necessary in this time of blogs and ebooks, otherwise the entire slush pile would be published without editing or vetting.

When the panel started taking questions, one of the first of these was from a member of the audience who was writing a book on Positive Psychology and who felt that the panel were not putting across a positive enough message. Do you ever get the feeling that you’re not at the same event as other people? We all know that it’s not easy getting published, especially if you’re not a celebrity and have no desire to sleep with a footballer, but I’d felt up until this point that the message had been more than positive, especially considering the current state of the economy. I have to hand it to Meg Rosoff for her excellent response. Very succinctly, she said that to get published you have to “Write a f**king great novel!”

Someone else said that she had a novel that she’d submitted to a number of agents all of whom had rejected it as they couldn’t classify it and therefore wouldn’t know how to sell it on. Meg again responded with “Write another one!” When the woman in question said that she was rather attached to the current novel, Meg repeated what she had said and Carole backed her up by saying that the problem would be in trying to sell it on to the whole chain of people involved in getting a book onto your local bookshop shelf. Lionel Shriver added that, in her experience, once you have a successful novel out there, and that means one that sells well not simply one that is critically acclaimed, you are much more likely to be allowed to publish something different and/or difficult to place.

I was surprised by these questions as well as some others which seemed to be questions that could have been answered by a quick search on Google or an agent/publisher’s website or by reading The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook or The Writer’s Handbook or any one of a number of similar books out there. I also came away with the impression that some people had expected to come away with a failsafe 5-point checklist that would help them get published. No such thing exists but you could do a lot worse than start by putting Meg Rosoff’s advice at #1 on that list!

I came away from that first morning session buoyed up the fact that these are exciting times for writers and that things are not all bleak. People – those who write great books – do get published. It is happening. And there are any number of ways in which we can help ourselves to get there. The panel’s suggestions included subscribing to The Bookseller (both online and in print); gleaning information from publishers’ and agents’ websites on submission guidelines and their lists; taking time to get to know your market; making sure that you’re ready to submit and being professional and personal in your approach when you do take that step. Lionel Shriver also made a valid point that a writer who doesn’t read is a hypocrite because you’re not buying and reading what it is you’d not only like to write but that you’d like someone else to buy and read. There are a myriad other ways in which we can help get our presence and potential readership established as well, by having a blog and a website, using Facebook or tweeting. As Twitter is increasingly becoming the place to get news before it is announced anywhere else, it is a great place for a writer to be and an invaluable resource, especially given the potential support network of other writers on there, as well as the great number of people involved in publishing and the book trade, such as The Bookseller and Carole Blake.

Part 2: My write-up of the afternoon Masterclass session, How to Write for Screen, is here.

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