Literary Agents

Our final week of How to Write a Book deals with what to some is the best part (completing a work, having it edit ready) or the worst (showing it to others and getting it published). Few publishers have open-submission policies. The slush pile exists, but many agree that to gain access to publishing houses and editors, an agent is hugely useful. It’s tempting for authors to rush their work just to get it to an agent, but this can be counter-productive. Marianne Gunn O’Connor is one of the best-known agents working in Ireland; her clients include Patrick McCabe, Cecilia Ahern and Shane Hegarty. “Editors don’t have the time they used to have to invest in editing a manuscript, so I would suggest getting it into the best possible shape before you submit it.” Sallyanne Sweeney is Irish and works at the London-based Mulcahy Associates. She is well aware that enthusiasm can cloud an author’s judgment when it comes to deciding whether a book is ready to be shown to publishers. “It’s understandable that having finished writing a book, many writers are eager to start submitting, but it can damage your chances of publication if you send it out before it’s ready. “The best writers are rewriters, and, although I love the editorial process of working with an author, I need to see the potential before investing this time, which will be mostly during evenings and weekends. I’d advise submitting only when you can no longer see how to improve your work. It’s also important to learn patience, as the publishing process is slow: even once you have a...

Watch your language (How to Write a Book)

“Works of imagination,” said Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “should be written in very plain language; the more purely imaginative they are, the more necessary it is to be plain.” An author’s sentence length or word order may be the more mechanical aspect of style, but the choice of language is surely the electricity that brings the book monster to life. John Kelly has just published his third novel, a comic dystopian farce, “From Out of the City”. He recalls the importance of listening to stories growing up; of how the aural impacted on the written word when it came to penning his own work. “I remember people in my childhood telling and retelling stories. It was always done with extraordinary skill, and, for its Fermanagh mumble, with an extremely rich use of language. “From a very early age, language and style has always been the turn-on. I know that stories are supposed to have a beginning, a middle and an end, but if the language is stimulating, then I’ll happily take a story with any amount of beginnings, a multitude of middles and perhaps no end at all.” Inventive use of language Eimear McBride has won numerous prizes – including the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction and the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year – for her debut novel, “A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing”. The book was praised for its inventive use of language. Reviewing the novel for this newspaper, I wrote that “she captures each leaping, real-time thought with staccato phrases, half- sentences and perfectly formed rhymes”. McBride, like Kelly, addresses this bond between locale and language....

Kill Your Darlings: The Importance of Editing (How to Write a Book)

To date in this series we have explored the constituent elements of fiction-writing, from plot, tone and language to voice, setting and characters. If you have negotiated those elements and have started or even completed a first draft, the most important task now is editing. Writing, it is often stated, is rewriting. This aspect of your book cannot be understated, says Jonathan Cape editorial director Alex Bowler, who edits the work of Martin Amis, Ian McEwan and Kevin Barry. “For many writers, editing is the period where the crucial improvements are made, and often where the book finds the form that readers will eventually think was intrinsic and there at the point of conception,” he says. “There may be occasions when a book is unimprovable – that is, in its first draft it achieves precisely what it set out to do. But even in those instances, perhaps the knowledge that one can rewrite down the line supplies an essential freedom, removing the stress of weighing and questioning every line before one puts it down.” Faber & Faber creative director Lee Brackstone edits writers such as Edna O’Brien, Teju Cole and DBC Pierre. He offers the example of Akhil Sharma’s novel Family Life, published recently, which had a final word count of just 50,000 words. “This book has been chiselled to perfection from perhaps 20 times that number of words – one million words – and over the course of those many years I read totally different versions of this same novel. “John McGahern’s working methods were the same: write and write, and recast and rewrite, like reducing a fine...

Research (How to Write a Book)

There is a cliche when it comes to writing: if in doubt, leave it out. Or, when it comes to fiction: just do some proper research. Providing an informed basis for your story – especially if it’s historical or grounded in real events – is necessary, but balancing the scales of research and imagination is crucial. Niamh Boyce’s debut novel, The Herbalist, is set in 1940s Ireland. She says it’s important to limit the scope of research. “One thing can lead to another until you’ve strayed out of the territory of your original idea. Research is to help the story come alive, not to weigh it down with facts.” Boyce used a real story, which she discovered via an archived newspaper clipping, as the starting point for The Herbalist. Justin Cartwright, author of Other People’s Money, and more recently Lion Heart, says that doing research on real events can challenge assumptions and turn up surprises. He also believes that physically seeing the place you’re writing about is helpful. “At the moment I’m writing a book which recreates a Boer massacre in 1838. About 100 were murdered by Dingane, the Zulu king, but my research – including a visit to the scene, and documents in Johannesburg’s Brenthurst Library – gives a much more nuanced account of what happened than the story I was brought up on.” Joseph O’Connor’s latest novel is The Thrill of It All, but he went back in time for Star of the Sea, Redemption Falls and Ghost Light. “Whether writing about the past or the present, it’s essential to get the background facts correct because readers...

Tone (How to write a book series)

If character and plot have their own solid, architectural structures, one of the most intangible elements of a story, for many writers, is tone. The chord or mood a novel strikes can be hard to define, but Peter Murphy and Rachel Kushner describe it in very similar terms. Murphy is the author of “John the Revelator”, and his second novel, “Shall We Gather at the River?” has just been published in paperback.“Of all the components of a novel, voice is probably the most mysterious,” he says. “It’s like someone whispering in your ear, and for me it’s the thing that comes first. Voice is character. Character dictates story. I’ve a soft spot for scuffed, idiosyncratic voices. My first book, “John the Revelator”, was all about tone, and the voice-overs in Terrence Malick’s films “Badlands” and “Days of Heaven” were a big influence.” Search for propulsive energy American writer, Rachel Kushner, is the author of “Telex from Cuba” and the award-winning novel “The Flamethrowers”. In the latter, she explores continents, commerce, art and machinery. Tone is what binds this impressive book together. “For me, everything about the telling is guided by tone,” says Kushner. “It’s a bit mysterious, it’s either there or it isn’t. Tone is somewhat totalising, in that once I locate it, it tells me what kind of syntax to use, what word choices to make, how much white space to leave on the page, what sentence length, what the rhythmic patterning will be. If I can’t find the tone, I sometimes try narrating through the point of view of someone else. “I try until I find it,...

Setting (How to Write a Book)

SETTING THE SETTING: Start with a tight focus on one feature before zooming out to reveal characters or setting – or start with landscape, then close in on the character. If you’re in love with a place, that will come across. Distance from a place can help you to reimagine it. Consistency is one of the biggest challenges when writing about place. The humidity of Faulkner’s south; the moors of Wuthering Heights; the leafy lanes of John McGahern’s novels. Reading a story with an ingrained sense of setting is almost like walking its landscape. A novelist who can locate a reader in a very specific place can offer an immersive experience. Like all the components of a story – character, story, tone – it can be difficult to approach place separately. Just how important is setting? Paul Lynch, author of Red Sky in Morning and The Black Snow, offers a test. “Here’s a little thought experiment. Imagine your life, but while doing so, remove entirely where you are now. Tricky, isn’t it? You cannot exist out of context. Why would your characters be any different? In my own writing, I use a sense of place not just to locate the reader in the world I’m writing about, but also to alienate them from the real world they are in.” If place is so central to a story, writers can either stand at page one with a compass in hand or write their way into a landscape of their own imagination. For American writer Willy Vlautin, setting percolates in his mind before any other aspect of the book. “I always have the place in mind...