Taken from Issue 2 in January 2010. Click on the archive link for a full copy.
STOP RIGHT THERE . . . before you begin typing!
Welcome to Edition 2 of Getting Published. This week, we are looking at what a writer should consider before putting the proverbial pen to paper (or plug in socket). Many writers decide to write a book, sit down, and compose quite a few pages without pausing to really think about the task at hand. This edition of our newsletter is aimed at helping you really assess what you are doing, and why.
To this end, we've asked those responsible for two leading online book review sites, Liz de Jager and Chloe Spooner to fill you in on what they believe makes great reading.
And don't forget, as we mentioned on Twitter, that 20 per cent of all proceeds from our online store go to Oxfam for Haiti until the end of the month. Our thoughts here at Prospera are with all those who are suffering as a result of the tragic circumstances there.
Finally, feel free to forward this email to your friends (please use the link below to retain newsletter links to websites etc), and if you'd like to contact us about anything in our newsletter, you can do so via firstname.lastname@example.org and we will be happy to respond as soon as we can.
What makes a great book? We ask two top reviewers to reveal all . . .
We've asked two well-known, online reviewers (many thanks, ladies) to spill the beans on their roles and what impresses or depresses them when it comes to new reads.
LIZ DE JAGER from My Favourite Books writes:
I have to confess that I see myself more as an intense reader than a reviewer these days so when you asked me to write this article my brain went into frazzle-mode. What makes a good book?
A good book is a book that makes you want to ignore the world. It makes you want to ride the Circle line the whole day and finish it. A good book is one you want to shout about to the world. You want to pass it around to friends. You want to hand it to complete strangers in bookshops and say: read it, it's awesome.
Some books have it, some don't. If I knew what that it was I would bottle it and sell it and retire to the Bahamas.
But I have a few ideas on this. Of course I do! Everyone does. For me a good book is one that makes me forget about my Real Life. I want to be swept off my feet to a mysterious unknown locale when I read fantasy. I want to go to Venice, Florence, Tuscany, Peru, Mexico when I read contemporary fiction. I want to read about quirky streets in London and Canterbury. Deduce from this that place is a big factor for me in a story. If I feel I'm there, you've already won. But don't go overboard - the trick to this type of thing is not to throw your reader dead with map-talk, it's more being able to convey a sense of place. Sense of place informs your characters. Setting is important, probably secondary to character.
Naturally I have to like / feel empathy towards the characters I'm reading about. I like to identify with them. Even if they do death-defying stunts that are completely over the top and cinematically ridiculous, it's how humane the writer makes that character that draws a reader in. Characterisation is sometimes something that gets left behind because the writer is so keen to convey the story, the action and the resolution that although you've enjoyed the story, you feel a bit flat, a bit cheated. A fully living breathing character that feels like a friend is hard work to create so it's important for a writer to develop a remarkable voice for their characters. Make them unique, make them believable and you'll have people trooping into bookshops buying your novel. And your next and your next.
The third most important thing is dialogue. Some people have a knack for writing dialogue, others truly struggle. It's important for writers to both listen and hear how people speak in real life. Then they have to take that and condense it, still making it appear a living and breathing thing. I've been to several author talks and conventions and every time a well established author is asked about writing advice they say: Read your writing out loud, read your dialogue out loud. If you stumble, you know you're doing it wrong. Then go back and fix it. Then read it again, until it rings true.
Of course, you need that niggly thing called plot too. Plots can be deceptively simple, they can be wildly improbably. As long as I can suspend my disbelief and somehow believe that the Red Matter can be pumped into the core of planet Vulcan to destroy it, then you've got a winner on your hands. If you have answers clever enough to cover all the plot points and questions asked, and your editor and critique partners will ask them, even if you want them to just shut-up, your readers will be happy.
I'll conclude by saying that if you are a writer you have to be a reader. Don't take my word for it. Stephen King said it in his On Writing. So does practically every book on how to write - being a reader informs you, forms you, lets you know what has gone before, how it was done and how not to do certain things. Not all books that are published are good books, but someone liked them enough to publish them. You don't have to like everything you read but do steal from them. Steal with your eye and mind. Recognise technique and how not to approach subjects and characters. But it's important to be a reader because if you are comfortable reading, it will show in your writing. And your readers will thank you for it.
Trust me. I'm a reviewer.
And from Chloe Spooner at Chicklitreviews:
What makes a good book? That is a question that could take forever to answer simply because it is different for everybody, as not everybody has the same taste. For some, it's a compelling story that keeps you hooked to the very last page, to others it's the happy ending for the characters in the book. But for "chick-lit", I have my own criteria and here's what I look for in a good book when I'm reviewing.
Firstly, of course, it's the story. It has to sound interesting for me to want to read it, and I also like a good cover too. Yes, the cover issue is a tough one because we're always told "Don't judge a book by its cover" but so many people do, and therefore it's important for publishers to get their covers right for their authors to entice readers to their books. The blurb also has to be exciting and make me want to read the whole story.
Secondly, it is the writing that can turn a good book into a great book. If it's well written then that gives a book extra brownie points for me. I don't mind what writing style an author uses - a bit of variety is good after all - but it has to be quite easy to read, with language that's easy to understand and it also has to move along at a good pace. There's nothing worse than a book that drags or flies by too fast, it has to be just right for me.
Thirdly, characters are extremely important too because they are what holds the book together for a reader. If you don't care about the characters, especially the leading one, then chances are you aren't going to care about finishing the book and then picking up more books by that author. I like a character to be believable, interesting, and someone I could imagine liking myself, and if you can relate to them all the better!
These are just a few things that I look for when I'm reviewing a book. Of course, these things don't stand alone, it's the combined effort of all of these elements which makes a brilliant book and will cause me to write a great review of it. Every reader has their own criteria for a great book, but for chick lit, I like great characters, a fun looking cover, and a great sounding story... what more could you ask for?!
Chloe Spooner, Chicklitreviews.
The top ten ways to get your novel off to a successful start.
Before you start writing, it's vital that you consider who will eventually read your book.The following is not a complete guide to every aspect an author should address, but it gives you an idea of how to begin writing a novel.
1. Think carefully through your 'novel' idea. Who is it aimed at? Kids, men, girls who read voraciously on the tube to work?
2. Is your idea unique? If so, how unique? So unique that it is too weird to be taken seriously? A serious literary work about an alien encounter in a dream is less likely to become a blockbuster than, say, the poignant, fast-moving story of a girl growing up without a father in Afghanistan.
3. Don't write about what you know, unless you think it will sell (see below for more on this). It's a harsh but true fact that a 100,000 word book on your experiences whilst staring out your bedroom window is unlikely to appeal to anyone except you. Of course, as a writer you incorporate your life experiences into your work, but beware of focusing on yourself as the protagonist and your life as the plot. How many times have you heard someone say about their life/work/family: 'that would make a great novel.' And how many times does the writer of a great novel actually say, 'well, yes, it was based on the hilarious goings on at my one-legged mate Joe's local library.' Not often.
4. When you have a decent idea and a genre, head to your local bookstore or search Amazon to see how your genius stands up to competition. Don't start writing until you have done this. Go straight to the section you feel your own novel might be placed, and start browsing.
5. Look for books that are similar to yours in style. Why? Because they are both your competition and a good marker for what is selling. If you can't find something similar-ish, that's not a bad thing, but it's a mistake to conclude from this exercise that you might have a bestseller on your hands. It's entirely possible you may have, but in terms of style and format, make sure you know what is out there, and what is selling.
6. Imagine someone going into the bookstore and buying your book. Who are they? Old, young, tertiary-educated? Now ask yourself, can you actually write for this market? Watch someone who you feel may be a possible reader of your novel (without being creepy, of course). See what interests them.
7. Now check out that title and see if you could actually write like that. If your command of English isn't the best, perhaps trying to pen the next Booker Prize winner isn't a realistic bar to set yourself. This is not to say you can be a success, you just need to tailor your abilities to the right market (and possibly enhance your education of the English language!)
8. Now back to your book. What's it called? A great title isn't everything in publishing, but without one you are putting yourself at a severe disadvantage in that huge, competitive slush pile at the agencies and publishers. Yes, you haven't actually started work on your book but now that you've seen what's out there, and you've established you've got an idea that might just be worth spending up to a year of your time on, a great title will help you to further hone your idea. Nowadays, with the advent of e-readers and Kindle, a title is more important than ever to catch the imagination of the flighty net surfer. What's a good title? One that makes you want to read the book without knowing anything about it. 'The Devil Wears Prada' is just one example.
9. Run your title and idea through google and see what comes up. It's sad but true that our wonderful ideas are sometimes not as unique as we like to think they are. It goes without saying that if there is a similar title in the same genre you should steer clear. Ditto if someone has already written your story, unless you can put a unique spin on it.
10. Now write out your title, and underneath compose one single sentence that describes your novel. As if you were pitching it as a movie. If you can't do this, your idea isn't strong enough. Keep working it until you get there. Yes, there are many facets to a novel, but it's that one main idea that pulls in those readers, so get it write before you move to your outline.