The hook and the heart: pitching a novel to publishers and agents

Don’t worry, I’m not dead. The past few months of silence here on when paper met pen was just me finishing my novel.

(CUE TRUMPETS CHAMPAGNE FIREWORKS ETC)

And boy was it intense.

I went through about eight major drafts, each of which included significant revisions to the plot, characters, or structure. I did three rounds of reader feedback each with approximately 3 readers. I had a lot of REALLY CONFUSING DREAMS.

Now it’s all done, and I’ve started the bit that I have always simultaneously dreaded and longed for: the pitch.

Just as there are many valid parallels between writing a book and going through the process of pregnancy and childbirth, so it has started to seem to me that attempting to send your novel out into the world is a lot like the early years of parenting: everybody has a view about how best to do it and how you’re doing it wrong. And lots of people want to sell you stuff. Books. Courses. Advice.

Here are three pieces of advice I’ve come across repeatedly that are simple yet helpful:

Know where you sit in the market

The good one about this one is, as well as sometimes being terrifying and nauseating, it is also really fun! Because why are you writing if not because you absolutely love books, and think that reading is possibly the best way you could spend your life?

So one of the wonderful things about finishing my revisions is that I’ve literally drowned myself in celebratory reading (for research purposes) of other novels that sit alongside mine in terms of their theme and audience. And I’ve made so many great discoveries. I’ve mostly been reading Australian young adult authors (Trinity Doyle, Rebecca James, Claire Zorn, Fiona Wood, Fleur Ferris) with a few other books thrown in that I’d been saving up for myself. (I read Patrick Ness’s incredible A Monster Calls and it made me sob those deep, gut wrenching sobs that you save up for very rare desperately sad occasions. A truly heartbreaking and incredibly beautiful story). Lots of Goodreads reviews coming up!

Follow the guidelines

I’ve written a short synopsis and a long synopsis. I’ve written a bunch of query letters. I’ve sent the first ten pages, the first fifty pages, the whole damn thing. I’ve tried desperately to follow the extremely detailed guidelines that publishers set for making submissions, which can only be their attempt to deter or weed out those not capable of reading and doing what they’re told, which is fair enough I guess. Though sometimes it feels a bit like:

“We only accept manuscripts in 11.5 point Candara font on the third Wednesday of every month starting with S when the date is a prime number and only between 10.15am and 2pm”

Sometimes things have to be in the body of the email. Sometimes they have to be in attachments. Sometimes separate attachments. Sometimes all in one. Sometimes it doesn’t matter.

Do what they ask you to do. There’s really no other option.

Be prepared for deafening silence

I’ve submitted to publishers. I’ve emailed agents. I’ve entered a competition. And guess what I’ve heard back?

NOT A SINGLE DAMN THING!!!

But that doesn’t surprise me in the least. It’s been less than a month, and this could take years. I am fully prepared for rejection. I know that it is incredibly hard as a new author to even get an agent or publisher to look at your work. And I’m aiming to be a professional. I’m in for the long haul. I’ve started working on my next book (20,000 words in and I’m really happy with how it’s going and loving having new characters and setting and theme to play with). But still – it’s kind of hard.

The image I keep seeing in my mind that perfectly represents this experience is a bloody, throbbing, torn-out heart impaled on a big steel hook being dangled on the ground in the hope that something will come and eat it.

That’s my heart. Right there. Out for everyone to see, sniff, nudge at disdainfully.

It’s a really raw feeling – another parallel with childbirth and the early years of parenthood.

And the thing I’m struggling with in writing my synopses and query letters and all the rest, other than how hard it is to prove you can do something that you haven’t really done before, is exactly that.

The hook.

Because I know it’s not enough just to write a really good book, a book that moves and engages and challenges and transports readers. To get considered by an agent or a publisher, you need something extra – something so clearly different or intriguing in the characters or in how the story is told – that it demands to be read. Because they need to know that it will sell.

And in all honesty, I don’t know if I have that.

That isn’t to say I don’t believe in my story. I absolutely do. I’ve worked incredibly hard on it. I’ve lived with these characters for years. I’ve had readers (well one at least!) tell me they stayed up all night to finish it and cried through the last three chapters (thus helping me achieve two of my life-goals as a writer!)

I think my new project will have a clearer hook, but for my current completed manuscript, there’s not so much hook, but lots and lots of heart.

It’s early days. I’m going to keep doing what I’m doing, which is pitching, writing, reading, researching, dreaming. But I’m also thinking about my options. In particular, I’m weighing up the option of self-publishing.

More on that next time…

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