Sunday, 13 November 2011

The Book Slog Blog

Broken typeImage by vial3tt3r via FlickrActually writing a book is easy as pie. You just take 75-100,000 words or so and put them down on paper. The order in which you place them can be a bit of a bugger, but the principle’s simple enough.

Most writers will knock up an average of around 1,000 words a day, so that’s a good three months to crack off a novel. Allow for procrastination, cunctation and a few other ations and you could easily (and advisedly) take 5-6 months to finish the first draft of a manuscript. You can work faster than that – I wrote the original MS of Olives in just over four weeks, but I’ve been seven years in editing it. Some people will write their book in four weeks and create a work of tear-jerking genius without having invested a second more. These are not, you understand, people to whom I talk.

Having finished the MS, in my case usually with the reward of a snappy Martini or two, you can breathe a sigh of relief before getting down to the real work. Because actually spending months writing a book is nothing. The real work starts when you’ve finished the damn thing.

First off is the editing. Dashing down 80,000 words of story is all great fun, but then you have to review it and make sure you’ve spelled everything right, avoided awful continuity errors, remained consistent to your characters, maintained your storyline and honed your writing so that the dialogue works, the action fizzles and the moments when two people go ‘ping’ actually go ‘ping’ and not ‘splot’. There have been whole books – a great deal of them, in fact – written on this subject. Writer’s forums constantly buzz to questions of POV (point of view), the passive and active voice (oh, puhlease!), characterisation, plot elements and all that sort of stuff. And we haven’t even started talking about sentence structure, ‘showing rather than telling’ and the myriad elements that stalk the furrowed brow of the harried writer editing his/her manuscript (or MS, if you want to use ‘the lingo’).

Now, don’t forget, you’ve just written tens of thousands of words – editing them all over again is a real trial. By the time you finish, you sort of hate those words. The bastards have no right to be so demanding, so imperfect. But finally you’re done. The MS looks good to go. (It rarely is at this point, but let’s not pee in the firework box too early, hey?)

Now you have to write a synopsis of your book. This is a one or (at most) two-page summation of what your book’s about, what actually happens in the thing. Any agent or editor wants to see a synopsis to find out if the thing makes sense as a whole. So your synopsis not only has to represent the key movements of the plot, it should ideally show your ability to write as well. This is a hellish thing to ask someone who has just written a book, then edited it to shining perfection, to do.

But it must be done.

What happens to your character? Who influences the development of the storyline and who is just there for colour? Chances are, by the way, if you can cut a character out of your synopsis, you can cut him/her out of the story and are better off doing so. The synopsis is a straight story-line, a compelling narrative from a to c that validates quite why b was ever involved. Take your story down to five pages, then halve the word count, take it down to a little over two pages. And then you can start playing hardball with those cowering little words. Eliminate, and do it like a Dalek with a really bad hangover.

It’s like swimming through molasses with 10lb weights tied to your bits. It’s an awful, sorry slog of a task.

And we’re not done with you yet, matey. Now we want a ‘blurb’.

A ‘blurb’ takes your synopsis and hones it down to under 400 words or thereabouts. Here’s the blurb for Olives:


When Paul Stokes runs out of choices, his only path is betrayal. 

The fragile peace is holding. Behind the scenes, the Israelis are competing for dwindling water resources as Jordan and Palestine face drought. Daoud Dajani has the solution to Jordan’s water problems and is bidding against the British for the privatisation of Jordan’s water network. 

When journalist Paul Stokes befriends Dajani’s sister, Aisha, British intelligence agent Gerald Lynch realises Paul offers access to Dajani - the man threatening to drain Israel’s water supply and snatch the bid from the British. Blackmailed by Lynch into spying on Dajani, his movements seemingly linked to a series of bombings, Paul is pitched into a terrifying fight for survival that will force him to betray everyone around him. Even the woman he loves.


That’s not the only blurb for Olives, but let’s not complicate things. Note it’s not a contiguous description of events in the book – it’s a summation of the action and points of action that are intended to evoke interest in what the work’s about. (You can judge whether it works in the comments, and please be my guest!)

Now you have a ‘blurb’ you can work it into your ‘pitch’. A blurb and pitch are two different things, although they are necessarily interrelated. The blurb is the text you’d slap on the back of a book. A pitch is what you’d say to a top London literary agent if you got one minute of his/her attention. The best way to do this is crash their lunch at the Athenaeum holding a Scalectrix controller wired to a lumpy belt around your waist and screaming ‘I’ll take you bastards all with me’ before you start pitching. This might seem extreme, but don’t worry. Agents are used to authors doing this. The worrying trend emerging is agents are now doing this to editors as the world of conventional publishing slowly collapses into itself like Michael Moorcock's Biloxi Fault.

Not even the Athenaeum, it must be said, is a safe haven these days...

Anyway, now you have a book, a synopsis, a blurb and a pitch. You've also likely got RSI and a rocky relationship. Next comes the hard bit. I'll come on to that tomorrow...
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Macthomson said...

Following the slog with bated breath. Good luck with the Sharja initiative!

Devina Divecha said...

Useful info for those of us who might want to take the plunge in a few years :) Thanks for posting.

Cathenia said...

This is an awesome post, hilarious and informative. Thank you.

Oussama said...

Great, now I am thinking several times about writing a book and it is non fiction.

Katie said...

I'm quite late to this party, but as a copy editor myself, I have to point out that I think you'd much rather have your action sizzle than fizzle.

alexander... said...


And you would be quite right in that, too, Katie...

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