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Publisher's view 3


The writer’s X-Factor - The view from a publisher's desk No 3

This is the third in a series of articles by Tom Chalmers, MD of Legend Press, giving a publisher's view of the submission process and what a publisher is looking for.


The writer’s X-Factor

In previous articles I provided an overview of what many publishers are looking for followed by a closer look at writing a successful covering letter and synopsis. While I said that if the basics aren’t right it doesn’t matter how good the actual submission is, conversely if the novel doesn’t offer originality and the so-called ‘x-factor’, no amount of fancy packaging is going to save it!

Finding that edge can seem like an impossible task but there are some steps that can be taken and some common pitfalls that can be avoided. While some of the most talented writers have the gift of sitting down with originality immediately flowing through their pen, most put more effort into it than they let on. In actual fact, some of the most important work can take place before the actual novel writing begins.

Firstly, everyone has influences and while it is healthy to take on board what you love most about their writing, there is no point claiming to be the new X, Y or Z, as the original is already out there doing the job fine. Publishers don’t want stories about young wizards going to a magic school as how would they compete against the king boy wizard himself?

This is why it is often useful to write down how you see yourself as an author and what you intend to offer – almost creating your own brand. Think about what you offer that no one else does and concentrate on developing this. New is always interesting as long as it doesn’t go too far for the sake of it.

It is often helpful as well to have a reader in mind – who is going to read your work, who do you think it will appeal to?While there seem to be no set rules when it comes to the planning of the text, if you want to get your novel published it is often useful to have the framework set as regards whom it is aimed at. Then it’s easier to ensure your work offers something new to this audience and therefore also to the publisher. Any link to a particular prevalent fashion, topic or event at the time can also be useful, but is by no means essential.

So once this is all set down, it’s time to start and the first lines are absolutely pivotal. The days of ‘once upon a time’ or endless pages of scene-setting are long over, as in the modern world the reader wants to be grabbed quickly by the novel or they’ll put it down and do something else. Like that old adage of first impressions being made in a few seconds, the start is vital and if it’s not 100% you’ve already lost your reader.

Common tactics in recent times include throwing the reader into the middle of a scene or using a random, abrupt line that is only explained in the following sentences. Whatever the approach, it is vital that some initiative is used. The advantage of the start is that several different beginnings can be tried, just take a step back and make sure yours feels original and capable of drawing in the reader.

However, a few words of caution – don’t try too hard – and this goes for the rest of the novel too. A simple device at the start, as mentioned above, works wonders, but laying it on too thickly with lists of metaphors and complex semantics does not; in fact it only alienates the reader.

Originality isn’t achieved by making things over-complicated and this is a pitfall aspiring writers often fall into. The best novelists have their own clear style and only go into overdrive if a particular scene requires it for a certain effect – usually they make writing appear annoyingly easy. Another, more recent, adage: confidence is attractive, desperation is not. Trying too hard only puts off the reader and is a waste of straining the pen. It goes back to those initial notes – what do you provide in style and content that is unique, what does your writing offer? Once the writer works this out they will be able to find that consistency and individuality of style – often it is found in simplicity and the basics.

Once this is achieved, don’t sit back and bask – submissions can always be made much better when the writer leaves and comes back with a little well-judged pruning. Words like ‘tight’ and ‘edge’ sound like a US high school pep-talk but it is vital to go through the work - neaten up bits that stand out negatively, adjust scenes that slow or spoil the narrative, fine-tune some of the language. If all these bits and pieces are done, the originality will shine through. People tidy their houses before they try to sell them because, even though it shouldn’t really have much effect, it just makes the place look better. Once you’ve read it through and you can’t wait to read it again, it’s time to send it off.

No 1 What a publisher wants from submissions

No 2 Judging a book by its covering letter and synopsis

No 4 The changing face of publishing

Tom Chalmers is the Managing Director of Legend Press, one of the five companies in Legend Times Ltd, which also includes New Generation Publishing.