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Writer's Jungle

Writer's Jungle by Steve Smith©2001

The Writer's Jungle
A personal guide to stumbling through the publishing undergrowth

So, you've just finished your epic novel, complete with a full revision and two re-writes. It's time to pick a few agents from the pages of the Writers' and Artists' Yearbook, send off a query letter along with a few pages and wait for the offers to roll in. The job is done, now it's time to think about the next masterpiece.


These were my naïve thoughts 5 years ago when I finally finished my thriller 'Southern Belle', was I about to learn some harsh facts about the real world of publishing.

Over the course of the next few months, I hope to share with you the learning curve that I've experienced, covering such areas as agents, publishers, alternative publishing methods, marketing, promotion and subsidiary rights - and I just wanted to be a writer!

I should impress at this point, that the views throughout this short series are purely personal. The thought processes I followed (as a total beginner) and the solutions I decided upon may or may not be for you - but if they give you any guidance, alternative ideas or just some good old amusement at my lumbering progress, then it's time well spent.

I could write a book.

How many times have you heard someone come out with this threat? In ascending order, the speaker follows this up by writing:

1. Nothing

2. A few lines of ideas.

3. A few pages.

4. A few chapters

- and in a comparatively few cases -

5. A whole manuscript.

For those of us that toil long into the night wrestling with the interaction of character, plot and prose, the reward is likely to remain the self satisfaction of a manuscript that only a few treasured friends may read. At least that was the case until the Internet and easier access to technology came along, but technology and the options it gives the aspiring author come much later.

The beginning of this trek through the mysteries and dangers of the Writer's Jungle starts at Base Camp. What and how shall I write? A question that is not as obvious as it appears.  At the time I began writing 'Southern Belle', the outline story was already swirling inside my head, just waiting to be thrust into the word processor, and I set off without a second thought.  In most cases, we write because we have a story to tell. We want to entertain. We want other people to enjoy our words. I gave no thought to publishing genre, what was currently selling in the marketplace or where I could sell the manuscript after it was finished.

The one area that I did consciously think about was the type of read I wanted 'Southern Belle' to be. An 'easy on the eye' style but with enough meat to entice the reader into that 'just one more page&ldots;' mentality. I knew that if I could achieve that end goal, then by definition, the book could also be a saleable commodity within the film market.

If you're looking to write purely for profit then fiction is not a good bet. Marketing a well written 'How To&ldots;' manual for a specific marketplace has more chance of making money for the author than the cut-throat world of fiction. One of the biggest sellers at the moment is a small pocket dictionary for words and phrases used in mobile phone text messaging. So, do you want to pour your soul into character creation or is it to be a case of 'C U 2nite 4 a drink'?

Personally, I enjoy drifting into the fantasy world of creation and although we can all dream of becoming the next Grisham or J K Rowling, you have to balance personal expectation with realism throughout the processes that follow the completion of a manuscript. There are many decision points throughout the post manuscript completion phase where realism must be faced head on, kicked around a few times and finally befriended. There will be more on this area when we get to the densest part of the jungle - Agents and Publication.

The 'How shall I write' can move in several directions. If you're a hardened veteran then you already have your own style. If you are floundering in the same position that I found myself in all those years ago, then you'll be looking for tips and guidance. Before writing a word, I delved into the 'How to be a successful writer' book market (no doubt putting money into the coffers of those people who wanted to write for profit). I don't intend to give a writing course here, but the following books were extremely helpful to me:

Writing a Novel by John Braine (ISBN 0-413-31540-1) - A sensible and practical approach from the man who wrote Room at the Top.

Writing the Blockbuster Novel by Albert Zuckerman (ISBN 0-316-91042-2) - A step by step process that draws on the thinking processes behind The Man from St. Petersburg by Ken Follett.

Well, this gentle introduction is nearly over. Our journey has been mapped out and the first steps from Base Camp to the edge of the jungle have been taken. The manuscript is finished, but the real work for an aspiring author starts here. Next time I will be looking at the submission process and how to keep sane, along with the lateral thinking approach to publishing, and how my great idea failed to cut the ice with Richard Branson (although I did get a very nice letter from him).

Keep Writing

Steve M. Smith©2001  

Writer's Jungle by Steve Smith©2001

The Writer's Jungle - Part 2
A personal guide to stumbling through the publishing undergrowth
Agents, Publishers and Rejection - They'll drive you to drink.

Here we are on the second leg of our mammoth journey to the fabled city of 'MyBux-Published' - a place where all of your dreams and aspirations could possibly come true. It is at this stage of the journey where the writer comes face to face with the spoilsport of all spoilsports - REALITY.

If you missed the first part of this short series, then I should explain that this is one writer's ramblings along the path to publication. A personal view based upon my own experiences.

Back to reality. So far, your skilfully crafted epic has probably been read by your spouse and a few selected friends. Criticism has (almost certainly) been kept to a minimum so as not to bruise any feelings or dampen enthusiasm and, as the author, you have lived with your masterpiece so long that it's hard to be objective. This is the time to grow rhino skin because the people who are going to read your work from now on will pull no punches.

From this point onwards, you are going to be dealing with hard-edged professionals whose time is a valuable commodity, and so initial preparation for the submission process is an absolute necessity.

First things first, just who are we submitting to. Gone are the days when publishing houses ploughed through the 'slush pile' (unsolicited manuscripts submitted by aspiring hopefuls). Most publishers currently deal exclusively with submissions from literary agents. It's back to a question of time, and agents do provide an initial level of editing for the publisher, so the first priority is to find an agent.

The bible as far as the UK is concerned is the Writers' and Artists' Yearbook, a perennial favourite that not only lists all the contacts you need to start your submission process, but contains guidelines and articles to help you structure your submission. The other areas to consider at this time are overseas agents. I recognised that my own novel, 'Southern Belle', was largely set in American locations and could appeal to the US market, so I also obtained a copy of The Guide to Literary Agents (Donya Dickerson ISBN 1-58297-011-4), an excellent resource for agents in the USA which contains very detailed listings.

In addition to these books we are back to the Internet, a rich vein of information, and the following sites are likely to yield further information concerning the structure of your submission as well as more detailed contacts:

Of course, there is always the exception, and publishers will occasionally turn to the slush piles, but an agent is still the best route. A good agent is going to criticise your work, guide you through the editing process (yes, there will be more re-writes) and generally nurture your project to a profitable fruition, and there is the key word. Profit.

When all's said and done, an agent will look professionally at your work and view it with one question only. Will it sell? If they think it will, then you have taken an enormous step towards that fabled city. Unfortunately, the way is likely to be strewn with disappointment, and many prospective authors will be lost forever in the dense undergrowth.

I have clocked up in excess of 50 rejection slips for Southern Belle. Many of these were standard letters, occasionally sprinkled with a personal comment of encouragement. It's these nuggets of encouragement that you must hang on to for dear life. Do not dismiss them lightly, they are from professionals in the publishing marketplace and you should use them to spur yourself forward along the path to publication. Since the release of 'Southern Belle', I have received several excellent professional reviews along with terrific feedback from readers who have enjoyed the book - rejection slips are not the end of the world.

Of all the advice you will find concerning the submission process, one piece stands proud and is ignored at your peril. Ensure the work you send to an agent is the very best you can achieve. Half-finished ideas and slipshod presentation will GUARANTEE rejection. Be professional at all times.

If you manage to sell yourself to an agent - Congratulations, you've taken a massive step towards your end goal. If not, do not despair there are other paths to follow and next month we'll be looking at Print on Demand publication.

Finally, a word on lateral thinking. It's quite possible that ideas outside of the normal publishing route could pay dividends. My own experience was triggered when yet another rejection slip dropped through the letterbox. A hand-written note on a compliments slip stated:

'Unless you are a known name, the thriller market is almost impossible to break into.'

My 'lateral thought' was quite simply this: 

How do you create a market for unknown authors?

My solution followed the thought process that, generally, people tend to read more on holiday than at any other time. One organisation stood out as being involved in both high street book sales and holidays - Virgin.

And it came to pass, that after much burning of midnight oil and heavy use of the grey matter, a letter winged its way to Richard Branson (first class post, of course).

The cunning plan was as follows:

Virgin to launch a new range of books by previously unpublished authors (entitled Virgin Authors). The book covers would be heavily emblazoned with the Virgin logo, and older titles that were not selling well would be given away on Virgin holiday flights as gifts to customers.

Some plus points being:

Positive publicity for Richard Branson as he championed the underdog authors.

Positive publicity in giving away reading material at the very point where most people want it - on holiday.

Even more publicity with books sporting the Virgin logo being read in worldwide resorts.

The whole package was put together with much more detail concerning cost analysis and film rights percentages. I did indeed receive a personal response from RB.  He thought the scheme was interesting and liked the idea of 'Virgin Authors', in turn he put me in touch with his projects office.

Unfortunately, after further correspondence, the idea went no further - even though everyone liked the name. This was to do with some round the world balloon trip that appeared to be taking up most of their time. Personally, I think that 'Virgin Authors' had a better chance of success - but hey, I'm biased. You never know where lateral thinking may take you.

Keep Writing

Author of the thriller 'Southern Belle' - Could you guess the ending?

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