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How not to serial


This is the first excerpt from David Armstrong's wry and entertaining How not to Write a Novel: Confessions of a Midlist Author

An excerpt was posted in the Magazine for 12 months (04/05)


The list of books rejected by publishers is one of the few things in a writer's life to give him real joy.

There's hardly a title that hasn't been turned down repeatedly... before going on to sell in millions.

Just like the A & R man at Decca who turned down The Beatles, and the comedy executive at the BBC who claimed that no one in Britain was going to find a sitcom about an irascible hotelier in Torquay funny, there are literary agents and editors who go to bed each night knowing that it was they who said that Harry Potter just would not sell.

And these weren't shoestring operations trying to publish half a dozen titles a year from a back garden shed. No, J K Rowling's 1997 Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone - translated into forty-seven languages, total Harry Potter sales over 130 million copies - was turned down by nine publishers, including Transworld, HarperCollins and Penguin, before Bloomsbury signed it up.

John Creasey, founder of the Crime Writers' AssociationA networking society for some 400 British crime writers (widely defined) and links to their sites. Membership for published writers only, but award a Debut Dagger for the best unpublished crime novel. Some articles from their magazine Red Herrings are posted on the site and there are links to many individual crime writers' websites., wrote more than six hundred mystery novels under a plethora of pseudonyms, but only after collecting several hundred rejection slips.

Frederick Forsyth's 1971 Day of the Jackal- worldwide sales to date, over nine million, was rejected by four British publishers (before it found a home at Hutchinson, and Erich Segal's 1970 Love Story (21 million copies sold) was rejected by any number of publishers before making a mint for Bantam.

Are these not stories to ease the pain of any writer as he hears his manuscript thud back through the letterbox?


I spent eighteen months writing my first book, Night's Black Agents.

Shortly after I'd finished it, I wanted to send it out to a publisher.

There's a very strong temptation to do this. But be aware: high on the adrenaline of a sustained period of writing, one's judgement is often less than reliable, one's critical faculties less than fully engaged.

Of course, it feels very good to have begun the work, and to have actually finished it. After all, it requires a tremendous amount of commitment and determination to complete 70,000 or 80,000 words of even a bad book. Not surprisingly, therefore, you are likely to assume that you've done something pretty good. It's in this state of near-euphoria that you might be inclined to send the book out the very next day.

And ironically, it's just this sense of belief in your book that you will need to convey to a publisher or agent. But don't squander that enthusiasm. Do nothing. Don't, under any circumstances, send your manuscript out. Put it aside and leave it alone for a while. I'd suggest - if you can bear it - a few days; preferably a week, even two. After this interval, get it out, and read it again.

Re-reading it, you may still feel that there are good things there; you'll probably experience that glow that every writer feels when he comes upon a pleasing phrase that he has written.

The plot may still make sense, the pace feel right according to the action, the characters appear well-delineated and particular.

In fact, if all of these things pertain, and you cannot make any structural improvements, nor smooth the prose, excise a repetition or two, delete a redundant adjective, then certainly, send it off possibly to Faber and FaberClick for Faber and Faber Publishers References listing - because truly, they are awaiting your manuscript, and you are almost certainly a genius.

If, on the other hand, you are like the rest of us, and you are able to make further improvements, then do them now.

Because now's the time - not for you to send the book to an agent or publisher - but for you to try and recruit an intelligent, disinterested reader to look at it for you.

Your choice of this reader is very important. You must, of course, choose someone whose judgement you respect - a 'reader', obviously - and preferably a reader who is familiar with the genre of your book.

Yes, she needs to be able to tell you the truth - that's the whole point of the exercise - and yes, you have to be able to listen to what she has to say without rejecting it out of hand.

You are very deeply involved with your book and you are likely to be very protective of it: but if your reader doesn't understand the plot, somehow feels that things don't add up, or that the prose sounds clunky to her ear, it is probably she who is right, and you would be well advised to heed her.

But whilst you need to be prepared for criticism, try to recruit someone who will be sensitive to the importance of this thing to you, and who will not ride unnecessarily roughshod over your feelings.


Tips and Summary:

1) Don't be a writer.

2) Your book may well be good enough to be published. It may well be better than any number of books that are published. But as well as the many poor books that are published, and the good ones that are rejected, remember that a lot of thoroughly bad books are rejected too. And for the very best of reasons: they really are not any good.

3) Get as much feedback on your novel as you possibly can from informed readers. In this way, although you probably need to be obsessive about your book, you won't be obsessive, as well as megalomaniacal and deluded.

The next excerpt from How not to Write a Novel will be in the May Magazine.

About How Not to Write a Novel

The first excerpt
The second excerpt
The third excerpt
The fourth excerpt
The fifth excerpt
The sixth excerpt
The seventh excerpt
The eighth excerpt
The ninth excerpt
The tenth excerpt
The eleventh excerpt
The twelfth excerpt


© David Armstrong 2003

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