At the end of each of our short online creative writing courses, we allow students to ask CBC director Anna Davis one burning question they have on writing or publishing. The answers are always sparky, informative, and to the point. Here’s a selection of some of the most interesting from the last Write to the End of Your Novel course.
Q: It seems essential to identify a genre for one’s novel. Have you got any advice on how to identify it when your novel has elements of several different genres?
It is indeed useful to identify a genre for your novel – but only if your novel really does clearly fit in a genre. If you find you’re struggling with this, then you might be better off just pitching your story and not getting too embroiled in trying to fit a label to it. If you get interest from an agent, then he/she might be able to help you with the question of which genre it is.
I sometimes get applications to our courses from people who say, for example, “I’m writing a psychological thriller” – but when I read the material, it isn’t actually a thriller at all – it’s perhaps a story of a distressed teenager and her relationship with her parents etc. In that instance, the applicant has tried to label the novel in a way which makes it sound saleable, but the label doesn’t in fact fit the novel being pitched.
A recent student told me her novel was ‘commercial women’s meets science fiction’ – this label in fact showed a problem with the novel itself. People who read commercial women’s novels very rarely also read science fiction – and vice versa. This novel really WAS a mix of the two genres, so the student was producing an inherently unsaleable novel. In that instance we talked about how she needed to consider rewriting the novel to push it in one direction or the other in order that it could feel like one coherent novel rather than a strange fusing of two different sorts of book.
And sometimes I get students who go so far as to actually invent genres in order to be able to put their book into a category(!). Genres are really only useful if they relate to the book trade as it operates and to the way readers buy books.
So – yes – think about whether your book really DOES come under a genre if you’re thinking of putting a label on it. If in doubt, just pitch your particular story.
Q: If an agent asks for a full manuscript, how long should a writer wait to hear back?
If an agent requests your full typescript, that’s a really good sign! I’d say that you should hope to hear back in about 6 weeks. But if you don’t, I’d suggest continuing to send out to others rather than sitting on your hands and getting more and more frustrated. You could follow up after about 8 weeks, but actually I think chasing agents is a bit of a waste of time – they’ll either read it and get back to you or they won’t – and if they don’t, there are plenty of other agents in town.
Q: Must you always have a completed manuscript before contacting an agent?
I would suggest it’s generally best to have your novel completely finished and polished before you start sending it to agents. Agents very rarely take an author on on the basis of anything less than a fully written novel these days. If they like the material you’ve sent them, the first thing they’ll do is to ask to see the rest of it.
There are occasions when an agent will take on an author on the basis of a partial manuscript, such as when the novel being pitched has an amazing ‘high-concept’ which is instantly highly saleable – but they’re still likely to want to see the whole thing unless you’re an already-published writer whose work they like. It’s also the case that publishers, too, will want to see a whole novel before making an offer to publish – so even if you attracted an agent, they’re unlikely to want to send your material out anywhere until you’ve finished.
Q: During the course you advised us to use ‘set pieces’ sparingly (nb: a ‘set piece’ refers to sections in a novel in which a significant event or series of events takes place – often formal and being the culmination of a long build-up in the story, eg. wedding, a funeral, a party – involving lots of characters). Do you have any more advice and caution for us on constructing one?
Set pieces: Well, I think the thing to do is to consider what their purpose is in your story, and make sure they clearly perform that purpose. A set piece can feel really overwhelming to write because you can be intimidated by it – and by the need to make it the best and most powerful bit of your book. Look at it in little sections – eg if you have lots of important bits of the story happening in the scene, break the whole set piece down into a series of plot points and work out how best to dramatise each one of them (considering issues such as the viewpoint of each little section or scene).
As with any other section of your book, see if you can cut out bits which perform no clear plot function, so that the set piece isn’t overburdened and baggy. And if, during the writing, you start to realise that the set piece is less important than you’d thought – don’t be afraid to reduce it or cut it altogether. One shouldn’t treat a set piece with greater reverence than other scenes of your novel.
Q: I know that every industry has its particular “calendar” or rhythm. So my question is: Are there specific times during the year when it is unwise to send in your manuscript, or times where it is more advisable?
There are several big no-no moments for submitting to agents: Just before Christmas is one – because agents, just like everyone else, like to get their desk clear before Christmas and tend to be focused on all that seasonal stuff … Then I would suggest not to send work at the time of the London Book Fair or Frankfurt Book Fair. These are the two big trade fairs in a literary agent’s year. They will be massively busy in the couple of weeks leading up to the 2 fairs through to a couple of weeks afterwards. The London Book fair is in the Spring (usually mid-March but dates vary and you can check online), and the Frankfurt Book Fair is October – again you can check dates online.
Some people would say don’t submit in August because people are on holiday – but actually if the agent is NOT on holiday, they might be having a nice quiet time and be able to read your novel while most of the industry is on leave. So that’s not a hard and fast rule – you could take pot-luck but don’t be surprised if it’s a slow submission time.
Good times to send to agents: all other times are fine really, but I’d say January and February are very good. May and June also good. September’s good, November’s good.
Q: What’s the most important thing that makes an agent press the GO button and take on a writer?
Agents are all very different and respond to very different things – which is great! One agent’s brilliant writing is another agent’s purple prose, and that will always ensure a depth and variety of books being published.
But I think what they’d all say is that they take on the books they feel passionate about – the books they can’t put down – the books they feel unable to say no to. They make decisions with head, heart and gut – and I reckon the heart and the gut are more important than the head.
For more helpful advice from Anna, enrol on our:
Starting to Write Your Novel course (deadline for enrolment is midnight on Mon 11 September).
Write to the End of Your Novel course (deadline for enrolment is midnight on Mon 18 September).
For an in-depth course as part of a group of 15 (in which students are selected on the basis of their submission) with a great tutor and participation from our literary agents, apply for:
Six-Month Online Novel-Writing Course with Lisa O’Donnell (deadline for applications is Sun 2 July).
Six-Month London-Based Novel-Writing Course with Simon Wroe (deadline for applications is Sun 25 June).
For a dedicated online course as part of a group of 15 (in which students are selected on the basis of their submission) for people writing for young adults or children, with a top children’s author, apply for:
Writing YA and Children’s Fiction with Catherine Johnson (deadline for applications is Sun 17 Sept).