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How To Get Published Talk @ Stoke Literary Festival – PART ONE


How to Get Published with literary agent Laura Williams of Peters Fraser & Dunlop, Caroline Lea and Misha Herwin hosted by Stewart Collins.

The big question! So many of have a book in us, but how to get it published; how to become the next J K Rowling!? These and many more questions will be answered by leading literary agent Laura Williams of Peters Fraser & Dunlop, Stoke-on-Trent author Misha Urwin and Leamington based author Caroline Lea who has just had her first novel ‘When the sky fell apart’  published.

I admit from the off. I arrived ten minutes late to the talk because the traffic decided to build up just at the moment I had to get somewhere. I managed to snare a seat at the 2nd row and get out my trusty iPhone to record proceedings but they apparently hadn’t got beyond introductions when I finally arrived.

What followed was an hour of absolute gems of information. The audience was encouraged to pose questions and engage with the panel, if only to settle their own minds about what the process entailed.

The first point?

Some Voices Will Appeal To Editors – Some Won’t – And Different Editors May Disagree Which Ones Work!

After writing a particular POV with first person a majority of feedback for Caroline’s novel was they couldn’t quite connect with one of the characters. However which character this was tended to vary! Eventually it was decided to change a first-person character into Third.  As a result Caroline learned a new skill – third person writing with the personality of first person voices.

This ended up helping her story. The character, a doctor, who was very stoic and mysterious didn’t reveal much in his own voice. When she switched it to third person, she was able to explore his backstory. In fact her editor helped her improve this, the story of which I’ll add in the next section!

Both authors confirmed the editorial process is very rewarding and helps produce the very best novel possible. You need to get your book into the best state you can before you send it ANYWHERE – and even then come with the understanding that it will be ‘mauled’ or ripped to shreds – in order to produce the best possible book you can produce.

Misha raised a point of writers groups being invaluable – enabling writers to revise, revisit things and sound out issues. Other writers’ scrutiny is of amazing editorial value and experience as the variety of comments and feedback enables you to rewrite and improve to the best of your ability.

Let go of the baby and let someone else to reshape it. If someone else is saying this doesn’t work don’t react with a defensive mechanism as that creates barriers to the novel actually improving. They’re seeing something which needs to be there to connect with audiences. Any Editor worth their salt will provide this for you.

In short; the process is brutal but essential to producing the high quality content.

But wait – isn’t there a risk of this ending up as a committee book? Is the editor ever wrong? What if the author feels the integrity of the book has been challenged by all these edits?

Laura was quick to assure the audience member that this isn’t the case. If the author feels the book isn’t theirs any more something has gone terribly wrong. It’s the author’s decision as to what edits they feel mirror their vision and also hone it to the best it can possibly be. The Author has the final say, but of course the Agents and Editors will argue – or “animatedly discuss” – any changes they feel are sincerely necessary to get the book right for the area of the industry it’s targeted for.

Sometimes this means tweaking things to make it more commercial but overall Agents and Editors make a living out of being good at handling books, and it’s their job to ensure they know what the industry is looking for.

The authors at the talk agreed with this. Every comment offered always has a good point. Even if your ‘baby’ has just been dismembered before your eyes you have to have an amazingly thick skin to be able to handle some of the feedback given and accept it as something you can work with. You must be prepared to hear the bad in order to create something wonderful.

Do all authors have to be pretty self-confident to pass over their novel, then? A resounding “No!” say the authors, “we never want to let the book go as we’re so scared that people won’t like it!” Therefore, they appeal to the audience to review, review, review a book if they’ve enjoyed it because what that does for the writer when they’ve been given a good review you can’t believe. Sometimes a good night’s sleep! Which is all it takes to be able to go out and write the next one.

So it’s less about self-confidence in getting books out there and more – as Misha kindly put it – sheer bloody stubbornness. You must be in a certain mindset. Misha talked us through her early thoughts when she was still an aspiring writer –

“Hang on a minute. I’ve got something here. I can do this. There are other people out there doing it and they’re being published – why aren’t I? I’m bloody going to do this. Even if I sweat blood!”

She adds that it’s not a pleasant process but most published authors are the ones who refused to give up and got through the tearing-novel stages without crumbling.

The Relationship Between Agent and Author is Vital – Without Trust You’ll Combust!

As mentioned before, the author/agent Misha mentioned she trusts her agent, editors and writing group implicitly and their critiques are almost always (unfortunately!) right. She always takes a few hours to contemplate the editing notes and on reflection it’s genuinely going to benefit her novel overall. Trust is developed, and long lasting because of this.

So how often do agents and authors argue? – they don’t, according to Laura as she prefers to call such things as ‘considered discussions!’. Authors choose and agree to work with agents based on The Call – where they can chat about the book and offer their thoughts on it to see if they match. If they don’t agree they won’t sign up to the agency in the first place.

Laura mentioned that she braces herself for any negativity thrown at her from the author because of her critiques, but generally it’s positive and most rewrites based on her edits nail the results! Most of all she wants authors to take time for advice to sink in and see if they can commit to the changes.

Caroline mentioned that a good editor or agent will show their worth by asking questions rather than stating what’s wrong which has been a great experience for her. Asking questions stimulates ideas, and encourages the author to find solutions to problems which may not originally be obvious but underlying. For instance, the reason she ended up changing her restrained character’s POV from first person to third was all down to her editor asking “You’ve alluded to an event in five sentences, but what actually happened in his past? What made him move to Jersey?” so Caroline added 5k words about his backstory in third person to add perspective and depth, and the character came alive because of it.

Editors and agents who ask questions work alongside the novel in her opinion. In saying “this doesn’t work” it doesn’t mean it’ll never work. They are talking and commenting because they love things about the book and every question is because they want to make the book better (Note: I personally also attribute this to good CP’s of which I’m proud to say I have a few!) What you end up then is the author’s work, and a better version of it.

The agent, though, sometimes has to play Devil’s Advocate says Laura. Sometimes you have to ask questions you already know the answer to, so the author will realise it’s not quite explained in the novel and will add extra depth.

So Lesson one of How To Get Published seems to be “Stubbornness”.

But not to the extent you can’t see other people’s opinion and certainly not so much that you constantly go against your agent insisting you’re the one that’s right. If you want to get published you have to be able to listen and take in the advice of industry professionals, and respect their opinion! Though admittedly there’s a balance – you mustn’t feel you’re sacrificing your novel for someone else’s vision and be as open as your agent and editors are being when it comes to your point of view.  Discuss, discuss, discuss! And whatever you do, don’t give up.

Here ends the first 15 minutes of the very generous 1 hour panel!

Next time the talk touches upon how many rewrites are expected, how far publishing has come in the last few years, and how authors can prepare themselves for a life of writing! Follow this blog or follow me on Twitter to be informed the moment the next part of the talk is posted 🙂


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