Friday, 30 January 2015

Authonomy On Writing: Part 1 - Plot

We’re excited to announce a series of posts on the craft of writing, written by the Authonomy team. These will cover a range of themes, from plot and characterisation, to pacing and narrative mode. They’re not exhaustive guides but hopefully you’ll find them a really helpful resource with lots of tips and tricks, whether you’re completely new to writing or have a bit more experience. We hope these guides will not only help you hone your own writing, but also help when critiquing others’.

We’d love to hear your thoughts on these topics, too, and any suggestions for subjects that you’d like us to cover, so please feel free to comment with your own opinions and advice.

Plot - ‘Chronology and Change’

Plotting was the obvious starting point for this series. It’s often the root of an idea and always the backbone of a story. Of course, you can’t completely separate the different aspects of writing; you can’t talk about plot without touching upon characterisation or pacing. It’s often the characters themselves that seem to dictate the course the story will take and it’s a sign of strong characterisation to have one’s characters rebel against the plot’s predetermined course, so listen to them closely. Your characters and plot should be natural products of each other.

“What is character but the determination of incident? What is incident but the illustration of character?”
Henry James, The Art of Fiction

While flexibility is vital, it’s wise to consider the course the story might take before undertaking too much writing. You might be desperate to get words on the page, but taking the time to plan the story will help prevent pacing issues, aimlessness, and contrivance. (Note that I’m not necessarily suggesting you write a full plan. Too much planning can make the writing stilted and mechanical, where the characters are forced to fit the story.) You also shouldn’t underestimate the work your subconscious does in shaping a narrative. Plans aren’t for sticking to, they’re a means for allowing your subconscious to mull ideas over and gift you those eureka moments. Think of any planning you do as a trellis on which the vine of your story can grow. You don’t set the course of the vine, you merely enable it. Once you have a good situation and setting for a story, you can then set your characters free within it. If those three elements are strong, your story will grow organically and be more authentic for it.

A good story is a significant and coherent series of incidents viewed in isolation of its narrative continuum. That is to say, there is a ‘before’ and often an ‘after’ too, even if they aren’t included in your novel (or whatever it may be). A good writer knows what happened before their story’s beginning and how it has shaped the characters and their contexts. Determining the points on that continuum where your story should begin and end is vital to creating a compelling and cogent read. If you find that your story is getting a little lost or lacks impetus, consider starting or ending it at a different point. There are no rules as to where those points should be but they are often significant events in the narrative or important thematically. A common and effective method is to frame your story with two similar scenes but have them differ in some significant way: two weddings, deaths, journeys. This lends a satisfying sense of closure and fittingness, and highlights the changes that have been wrought in the protagonists or their contexts.

This concept of change is another vital aspect of plot. There needs to be a feeling of progression as the reader is led from one incident to another. A good story will see the protagonist(s), their contexts, or both, change. Stories throughout human history have been about our interactions with change. From ancient biblical narratives and Greek tragedies, to modern day science fiction, the authors are addressing what it means to be human in an ever-shifting world and how that shapes us in turn. Whatever your plot may be, be sure that this sense of transition, this struggle between protagonist and environment, is conveyed to the reader. And be aware that what you’re capturing is a portion of a constant narrative.

Of course, the way you present the story needn’t adhere to its natural chronology. By all means, begin at the end, with a mysterious discovery or a poignant moment. Then give it meaning by stepping back in time and progressing to that point. Or run the stories of two protagonists in parallel and have them intersect down the line. However you choose to present your plot, understand why you’ve done it that way. Has it maximised the drama of the story’s central incidents? Does it give meaning to its messages and themes?

Plot is not a linear march from one point to another, nor simply a series of incidents. It is the meaningful progression of character and subject. Consider the significance of each moment and how it affects the reader’s perception of your characters. After all, it’s the characters we’re interested in. They carry the story and are often the lenses through which we view the world.

Therefore, it’s essential that your characters are convincing and compelling. Which leads nicely on to the next post in the series, where we’ll be exploring characterisation.



Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Virtual Romance Festival - Get Involved!


We have some great news for all you budding romance writers here on Authonomy. Our colleagues in the romance team have announced the new virtual Romance Festival, happening on the 7th & 8th February.

....and they’d love the Authonomy community to get involved.

For those who took part last time, you will know that they have a programme of events on Twitter, Facebook and a few Google Hangouts.

Saturday will centre around a professional development day for authors (at the last festival they had Script Doctor sessions with editors, Goodreads, tips on getting reviews and much more.)

The programme on Sunday will focus on romance fans. Last time this included author interviews, romance in YA, discussion around romantic places, steampunk, the men of romance etc.

I'd recommend that you register to be kept informed. This event is open and inclusive; everyone is welcome and best of all it's FREE! http://romance15.eventbrite.co.uk/

They are also looking for your suggestions to make this year’s festival even better that the last one. If you are an aspiring or established author and would like to get involved in a live event, then do let them know. Or if you aren't around that weekend, they also have a Q&A you can complete and they'll post your answers on their Wordpress site. (Last year they had 20,000 views in one day!)

If you are a romance blogger and you'd like to host your own event over that weekend, or you work in the publishing industry in some capacity and would like to offer expertise on their professional development day, they would love to hear from you.

They’re very open to your ideas, so why not drop them an email. Last year's event had great engagement with fans and authors alike (reaching 18 million Twitter timelines and had 2000 comments on Facebook), so this will offer you a great audience to connect with.

Spread the word and let them know how you'd like to be involved!

Friday, 23 January 2015

Ask the HarperCollins editor: part 5

The fifth and final in our Ask the HC editor series. We hope you've found these interesting and informative. We'd love to hear your thoughts on these posts so comment below!
Last week we began collecting responses to questions you asked us, from editors from all over the company (and world). Today's answers come from an editor based in our Sydney office. Feel free to leave your thoughts at the bottom.

SUBMISSIONS PROCESS:

I assume that most of the books you first investigate with a view to taking on come to you through the hands of trusted literary agents. What are some other ways you might become aware of a book? (bluestocking/Maria Bustillos)

We all read the paper and various magazines, watch the news and so on, and often these are places where you’ll find your next book – obviously this is more for non-fiction than fiction though. Very occasionally works will come to us from fellow colleagues, ie friend of a friend, but that is rare. I follow the career of short story fantasy writers with interest, sometimes you can see the beginnings of something longer coming from what they have written and published in anthologies and magazines. And, without wanting to sound trite, Authonomy is now another great place to find new writers. I also read a lot of blogs – a large number of bloggers are now published authors, so it’s another good place to spot talent and ideas.


Are you willing to take a chance on a large novel from a new author if the voice and story are good? (Jemstone/ J E Murphy)
Of course, I think this is something that all publishers and commissioning editors hope for! Steve Toltz is a great example of a new author who has written a large first novel – and has found great success so far, so is Gregory David Roberts (with Shantaram). And I know that with fantasy authors, we would prefer to pick up a book that has potential to be a series, rather than stand alone works, so the author can establish themselves.

Are agents worth their cut? (Mardi Johnson)
It depends on the agent – and, of course, a good agent would be worth it, simply because they already have the contacts in the industry needed to get your book on a publisher’s table and the reputation (one hopes) of having a great eye and taste. – which means a publishing house is more likely to look at what they offer. Not all agents are worth their cut, but I think that’s the case in any industry. It’s always good to do your research first, regardless.


EDITORIAL PROCESS:

Which of these would you be prepared to work with an author to get right, and which do you consider a prerequisite: structure, characterisation, pace, voice? (Sandrine/Dan Holloway)

I think we’d be prepared to work with an author on all these fronts to perfect the work, but naturally for a manuscript to attract attention from the initial reader, I’d expect some of these to be captivating already. I dare say that of this list, you’d expect to work on structure and pace most of all these things – because they can be worked on in a logical manner, whereas voice and characterisation are something more innate – these are the things that would make you want to buy the book in the first place.

Is it true that when writing a true life/non-fiction work, it doesn’t have to be complete before a publisher will accept it? (Sue1960/Sue Edwards)
There’s no hard and fast rule about this, it would depend on the writing. If we think the writing is impressive then naturally you encourage the author to finish so you can look at the work as a whole. But you could never say absolutely ‘yes, it’s true’. I think that’s one the main things about publishing – it doesn’t always follow a set of rules.

Is there equal interest from the publishers’ point of view in realistic YA fiction as opposed to that with fantasy elements? (Lallie/Laura Jarratt)
I would say so – there are fans of both out there so likewise there is interest in publishing both. The success of the Twilight series and Harry Potter don’t mean that authors like John Green (author of Paper Towns and Looking for Alaska) or the wonderful Louise Rennison (author of the Georgia Nicolson series) are any less popular. Australian author John Marsden with his Tomorrow series is a great example of realistic YA fiction that has been bestselling and continues to be. Authors like Judy Blume continue to sell too. In the end, it’s about the writing striking a resonance in readers.


AUTHONOMY:

Do you search through books on the site besides simply waiting to see what it kicks out? (Jemstone/ J E Murphy)

Definitely, that’s one of the best parts about Authonomy – being able to look outside of the Editor’s Desk Top Five – when time permits – and getting impressions from people’s reviews and feedback. As everyone knows, sometimes the best books don’t make it to the top of the pile, it’s a fact of life, so it’s always good to have a look through – and it’s also just plain interesting reading the reviews. 

Thursday, 22 January 2015

Ask the HarperCollins editor: part 4

Today's 'Ask the Editor' answers come from an editor based in our New York office, who works on an adult fiction list. 


Are you more biased towards British authors? (Jemstone/ J E Murphy)
As an American editor, I'm not biased towards certain authors, but I do know that stories not set in America have to be pretty exceptional to succeed in the U.S. market. People like reading about what they're familiar with.

How do you feel about books that have already been self-published? (Jemstone/ J E Murphy)
Depends. Self-publishing definitely has a stigma attached to it, but there have been great books that were originally self-published. If an author is talented, it won't matter if he was self-published first. 

How long does the acquisition process for fiction take and at what point is the author contacted? (Anthony Saunders)
It varies. Sometimes it can be a day or two if the submission is read right away and the editor likes it. But it's normally pretty slow. Editors get a staggering amount of submissions, at a faster rate than they can read them, so manuscripts can sit on a desk for up to a year before they're read. If something is deemed worthy of publishing, though, contact will occur right away. Agents definitely help with this process.

Is there still room in the market for Frontier Literary Fiction or have Proulx and McCarthy got it wrapped up? (Windy Two Rivers/Christy Jordan) 
This is a tough area. It has to be brilliant. A book in this area would probably have to be good enough to be a publisher's lead title for it to work.

How do you approach novels with controversial topical themes – or do you prefer to avoid them? (Freddie Omm)
If it's controversial for the sake of being controversial or to be sensational, it's a tougher sell. But if it's thoughtful/meaningful/has a point, it's definitely worth considering. Stepping on toes isn't bad; spitting in someone's face is.

Do you agree that it is the role of the literary agent to perform, or demand, substantive market-oriented editing of the book before the publisher’s editor has seen the manuscript? (Seamus33/George LeCas)
It definitely helps. It's only good for the author if the manuscript is in the best possible shape when it lands on the editor's desk.

Is it true that when writing a true life/non-fiction work, it doesn’t have to be complete before a publisher will accept it? (Sue1960/Sue Edwards)
Yes

There is a great deal of rumour flying around in the current economic climate. In your opinion, will it be harder for unknown authors to get published before the economy picks up again? (Lallie/Laura Jarrett) 
Yep. Publishers are taking a much more limited approach these days. There's just not the money to throw around that there has been in the past, so we're taking fewer chances.

Would you ever take the risk of publishing a work you loved but that did not fit a pre-existing marketing niche? (Lord Biro/Kevin Lester)
As an editor, I love these types of books. It's hard to convince the publisher, though. This is a business, after all, and the bottom line rules all. It takes a big vision and a lot of passion to sell these types of books to publishers.

Could you try to pin down what you mean by ‘voice’? (Freddie Omm) 
"Voice" is the tone/feeling/sensibilities that emerge from a narrative and hold it together.

(This post originally ran 4th June 2009)

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Ask the HarperCollins editor: part 3

The latest editor to answer a selection of your questions (compiled over on the forum) works up in Nottingham on one of HarperCollins' latest impints: Angry Robot. 


SUBMISSIONS PROCESS:

I assume that most of the books you first investigate with a view to taking on come to you through the hands of trusted literary agents. What are some other ways you might become aware of a book? (bluestocking/Maria Bustillos)

I’m a big fan of the small press, and every now and then we find a book there that seems to have slipped through the fingers of the bigger publishers. Sometimes we don’t find a book we particularly like, but if a writer shows promise we will sometimes contact them and enquire about their future plans.

Do you ever take a book from any source and tell the author to make specific changes in order to get a contract? (Jemstone/J E Murphy)
Absolutely, No matter how good the book, if it doesn’t meet the imprint’s criteria, it’s never going to get published by that particular imprint.

Will you only consider completed MSS – or, if the author has a strong ‘voice’, would you consider a work in progress? (Ali Mair)
We will only commission on an uncompleted manuscript if the author has a very strong track record, but if we find a new writer whose style we think suits the imprint, we might help and encourage them through the process. In this instance, though, there is no guarantee of publication, and it’s also very difficult for an unpublished writer to have an unfinished manuscript read by an editor, as the editor has so many finished ones to read.

Are you willing to take a chance on a large novel from a new author if the voice and story are good? (Jemstone/ J E Murphy)
Absolutely.

Why, when an author has researched the huge potential market for a book (mine has 1 million at least in UK CCs alone) do they still completely ignore it? (hallyally/Allie Sommerville)
The size of the potential market is only one consideration when buying a book. Others are: is the book any good? Is the author someone we can work with? Does the author have other books in them? Do we have anything else on our list that may be too similar? Also, it is easy to overestimate the potential market for a book, which is why publishers subscribe to specialist services that tell them how many books were sold by similar authors/similar titles.

Are agents worth their cut? (Mardi Johnson)
Bad agents are not; average ones, maybe; good ones are worth more.

Are you more biased towards British authors? (Jemstone/ J E Murphy) 
No. Indeed, of Angry Robot’s first six titles, for instance, only one of the authors is British.

Does HC (UK) publish American books? (RobRow/Robert P Rowley)
Yes.

How do you feel about books that have already been self-published? (Jemstone/ J E Murphy)
Warm and fuzzy. It is an amazing achievement to sit down and write 100,000 words of fiction, to actually complete a novel. It is true that self-published books are generally – though not always – of a lesser quality, but that isn’t necessarily due to a lack of talent by the writer, but self-published books rarely get the full editorial treatment that is applied to books published by traditional publishers.

EDITORIAL PROCESS:

Do you agree that it is the role of the literary agent to perform, or demand, substantive market-oriented editing of the book before the publisher’s editor has seen the manuscript? (Seamus33/George LeCas)

Agents should – in my opinion – not perform or demand anything regarding the text. It doesn’t belong to them, and remember, they work for you, not the other way around. A good editor will make suggestions as to how you might be able to improve your manuscript’s chances with a publisher, and ideally this should be done before it gets to the editor’s desk.

CURRENT ECONOMIC CLIMATE:

There is a great deal of rumour flying around in the current economic climate. In your opinion, will it be harder for unknown authors to get published before the economy picks up again? (Lallie/Laura Jarrett)

That will vary considerably from imprint to imprint. At Angry Robot, for instance, our first two titles (which launch next month) are by first-time novelists, and they have both been contracted for multi-book deals. At the start of 2010 we have another 3 authors publishing their first novels with us. Talent will out.

WHAT IS HARPERCOLLINS LOOKING FOR?

What are you actively looking for at the moment? (Jemstone/ J E Murphy)

Good ideas, supported by excellent writing from writers with more good ideas for their next books, and (preferably) with the knack of self-promotion.

How much is your present catalogue of authors and books an indication of what you’re looking for in new submissions? (Alexandra Marell)
It’s a very good indication, but lists evolve.

Would you ever take the risk of publishing a work you loved but that did not fit a pre-existing marketing niche? (Lord Biro/Kevin Lester)
Yes, but it would have to be exceptional. As well as loving the book, we have to convince the retailers to sell it, so a book that doesn’t have a natural home in the bookshop takes a lot more work to sell (both to the bookshops, and to the book-buying public).

(This post originally ran 5th June 2009)

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Ask the HarperCollins editor: part 2

You asked the questions, we passed 'em on and nudged gently until we got some answers. This set come from a Senior Editor who works for Press Books, based in our UK office...


SUBMISSIONS PROCESS:

I assume that most of the books you first investigate with a view to taking on come to you through the hands of trusted literary agents. What are some other ways you might become aware of a book? (bluestocking/Maria Bustillos)
We look at journalists who are writing well about interesting subjects, at blogs, at writers' festivals and creative writing programs, at possible TV tie-ins and at recommendations.

Do you ever take a book from any source and tell the author to make specific changes in order to get a contract? (Jemstone/J E Murphy)
Yes, we do. We often suggest changes to proposals - either 'beefing them up' or adding elements that will make the book more saleable.

Will you only consider completed MSS – or, if the author has a strong ‘voice’, would you consider a work in progress? (Ali Mair)

For a first time author and a work of fiction, I would definitely want to see the full MSS. We need a guarantee that the author can actually follow through and deliver, completing the character and narrative arcs, tying up any plot threads that need to be resolved and leaving the reader satisfied. 

Are you willing to take a chance on a large novel from a new author if the voice and story are good? (Jemstone/ J E Murphy)

Yes, as long as it's compelling throughout and the pace is sufficiently well-judged that it doesn't drag.

Why, when an author has researched the huge potential market for a book (mine has 1 million at least in UK CCs alone) do they still completely ignore it? (hallyally/Allie Sommerville)
Not sure who 'they' is but, if it's editors, we don't ignore potential markets if these are presented to us. Unfortunately, though, the existence of a large group of people with an interest in a particular subject is no guarantee that they'll actually buy a book on said subject. We have experience of buying books where the potential market was demonstrably huge, and where sales have failed to reach even a fraction of this.

Are agents worth their cut? (Mardi Johnson)

Yes, I think so, particularly for newer writers. They search out exciting new material, they represent authors through the often torturous process of negotiation and make sure that they are getting the best possible deal, and they step in repeatedly throughout the publishing process to make sure the author's views are being sufficiently represented, to confirm that the publisher is continuing to invest in the project as promised and to help explain the publishing process to the author where necessary. Good agents make the whole process smoother, more professional, more productive and more enjoyable.

Are you more biased towards British authors? (Jemstone/ J E Murphy)
Yes, I'm afraid so. It is much easier to publish and publicize books that are recognizable to a UK readership. It is also much easier to generate publicity for a book in the UK if the author is available for interviews, feature articles, etc.

Does HC (UK) publish American books? (RobRow/Robert P Rowley)
Yes, we do. We publish books from all over the world.

How do you feel about books that have already been self-published? (Jemstone/ J E Murphy)
Some are terrific success stories - e.g. Brunonia Barry's The Lace Reader which was self-published, had terrific reviews, went on to be picked up by HarperCollins in the US and the UK, and was a New York Times bestseller. Others can tend more towards vanity publishing, which obviously has a smaller potential readership and is of less interest to publishers.

How long does the acquisition process for fiction take and at what point is the author contacted? (Anthony Saunders)

Totally depends on the book, the author, the agent and the editor. Some books take months, others take days. It varies wildly.

Publishers tend to (traditionally) offer extremely succinct letters of rejection which are usually no help to the author at all. In cases where the manuscript has been received by a publisher and then been sent to the readers for assessment, is it true that the readers provide a report to the publisher/editor? If so, why can this report not be passed onto the author? (JamesG/James Guiney)
We sometimes commission readers' reports, though we mostly try to read everything ourselves (which is why it sometimes takes a while to get a response as we chew our way through our reading piles). The readers' reports are written for the publisher, rather than the author, so they don't usually contain editorial advice. They should point out strengths and weaknesses of the submission, in which case we try to convey these to the author with our rejection letter - but for the most part readers' reports would be of little use to authors looking to improve their MSS.

How do you approach novels with controversial topical themes – or do you prefer to avoid them? (Freddie Omm)

A little bit of controversy is never a bad thing if it's going to inspire debate or create publicity. This can backfire, of course, but if the editor believes strongly enough in the book he or she will usually be prepared to take the risk. It depends very much on the topic or theme and how solid the book's argument is.

EDITORIAL PROCESS:

Do you agree that it is the role of the literary agent to perform, or demand, substantive market-oriented editing of the book before the publisher’s editor has seen the manuscript? (Seamus33/George LeCas)

I think any work the agent can do or encourage to facilitate a sale is to the author's advantage. Editors have a lot of books on their plates and are less likely to commission something that is going to need substantive reworking. There can be a fine line, though, between editing the work in good conscience and reworking it to such an extent that it could be construed as a misrepresentation of the author's actual abilities. This I am very much against, and I think does no one any favours.

Which of these would you be prepared to work with an author to get right, and which do you consider a prerequisite: structure, characterisation, pace, voice? (Sandrine/Dan Holloway)

I'd be prepared to work with an author on all four, but the one I think is hardest to 'fix' is voice, so if that wasn't there from the outset I'd be less inclined to take the book on.

Why does HC not take up many manuscripts on Authonomy that, whilst full of colour and great ideas, still need a polish? Why do they have to be perfect to be considered? I thought that was part of an editor’s job, to knock a good book into a great one? (Mechanical/R L Jones)
They don't need to be perfect to be considered and yes, an editor does work with his or her authors to polish any elements that need improving. But we simply don't have time to spend days and weeks working on books that may or may not work out - though I am always happy to reread something if the author has taken editorial suggestions on board and reworked an MS.

Will you simply bin my book because I cannot polish it to your standards or do you genuinely look for potential and advise? (Patrick Barrett)

We genuinely look for potential. As an editor, there is nothing more frustrating that finding a book that you're keen on then being denied the chance to try to address the editorial issues that you have with it. There is a limit, obviously, to the amount of time we can invest in uncommissioned manuscripts, and we are more likely to advise more fully on books that are closer to what we're looking for, but we all want to find great books - whether they're ready-made or diamonds in the rough.

Is it true that when writing a true life/non-fiction work, it doesn’t have to be complete before a publisher will accept it? (Sue1960/Sue Edwards)
We often buy non-fiction books on proposal and sample chapters, the assumption being that the author needs the advance at an earlier stage than a novelist would, in order to fund his or her research.

CURRENT ECONOMIC CLIMATE:

There is a great deal of rumour flying around in the current economic climate. In your opinion, will it be harder for unknown authors to get published before the economy picks up again? (Lallie/Laura Jarrett)

I'm afraid I think it will... Debuts are not easy to publish - it's hard to get reviews and it's tough to get unproven authors into retailers in any real quantity or in the promotions that drive sales. That said, if we can see real commercial potential, or a possible award-winner, or if we believe very strongly in the quality of the writing and the author's future, then we're still going to go for it. Publishing is an optimist's game.

The media stated that during the last economic recession, book purchases did not suffer. Why are publishers insisting that they cannot take on new writers in light of this fact? (hallyally/Allie Sommerville)
Books sales are already suffering in the current recession. Most of the big publishers have lost market share (see http://www.thebookseller.com/news/86954-first-quarter-hitting-the-big-publishers-hardest.html) and have had to make several people redundant.

WHAT IS HARPERCOLLINS LOOKING FOR?

What are you actively looking for at the moment? (Jemstone/ J E Murphy)

Great fiction with a strong voice and compelling storyline that either has obvious commercial potential or is of a high literary calibre. Non-fiction that is contemporary, intelligent and engaging - books to appeal to smart young things who want to be entertained and educated on their tube rides home.

How much is your present catalogue of authors and books an indication of what you’re looking for in new submissions? (Alexandra Marell)
Our catalogue reflects the breadth of our list, as well as our historic strengths. However it's always useful, too, to look at the gaps in publishers lists - if a non-fiction list is very heavy in military history by established authors, e.g., they probably don't need to commission another five books on WWII from first-time writers.

Would you ever take the risk of publishing a work you loved but that did not fit a pre-existing marketing niche? (Lord Biro/Kevin Lester)
We do it fairly frequently, but it's tough. It means arguing passionately in house for a tiny advance, then trying to squeeze it into a marketable category so that the retailers are prepared to take it on, then clamouring for the next year to make sure the book gets the attention you think it deserves.

How do you feel about books that do not fit any genre? (Jemstone/ J E Murphy)

I love to read them, but they can be very difficult to publish. Books get presented to buyers at book retailers on a monthly basis, and it's terrifying to see how quickly decisions are made. If a book is difficult to communicate, it makes getting retailers on board that much harder.

VOICE:
What does a ‘fresh voice’ mean to you? (And is this really THE one thing you look for?). Please could you illustrate with an example – by that I mean could you tell us someone who’s burst onto the scene as being fresh and new, and explain, by referring to what was around at the time, why they are fresh and new. The example we hear so often is Zadie Smith – could you say WHY she was fresh? Was it her style, her subject matter, her slant on things? (Sandrine/Dan Holloway)

It's one of the main things I look for, along with great characterization and a compelling plotline. I guess what is meant is a voice that rings true from the first page, that reads unlike anything else either because of the voice itself (its cadences, accents, idioms, etc) or because it provides a new viewpoint on a subject that previously seemed familiar. I loved Ross Raisin's book, God's Own Country, for this reason. The narrator's voice is different from anything else I've read, the idiom totally idiosyncratic, and his point of view very, very different (thank god) from those we're usually presented with.

Could you try to pin down what you mean by ‘voice’? (Freddie Omm)
To me, it's the voice you hear in your head as you're reading. It sets the tone for the book, establishes the truth of the characters and is, I think, the backbone of any good story.

POD:

I know academic presses like OUP use POD because they can keep manuscripts constantly updated with new references etc. As an editor, do you think the possibility of updating a manuscript as easily as POD allows an exciting new development because a book can grow and change and evolve, or do you think it squeezes/changes your role because publishers will be more tempted to let a book through with less editing on the grounds it can easily be fixed? (Sandrine/Dan Holloway)

I think it's a real opportunity for publishers. It means, as you say, we can continually update our more topical books, we can keep books in print, and we can print quickly and efficiently when orders come in. However although technically we could alter the files every time we print, we certainly wouldn't want to - every change to the text costs money and takes time, so unless changes materially add to the value of the book or are absolutely vital to correct an egregious error, we try to avoid this. In any case, we can't afford to be any less rigorous with our editorial process not only because we have a reputation to uphold, but also because the books that we send out for reviews have to be the best we can make them, or they're not going to get the reception they deserve.

AUTHONOMY:

Do HC editors have input into how Authonomy works? (Jemstone/ J E Murphy)

Yes, we were consulted at the early stages while Authonomy was being built, and continue to feed back to the Authonomy team.

How well do you think it is working for you? (Jemstone/ J E Murphy)
I have yet to commission a book from Authonomy but I know others have and I'm continually impressed by the calibre of work up there. The main difficulty for editors is finding the time to read as much as we want to, so the fact that Authonomy 'pre-filters' submissions for us is enormously useful and, to be honest, a great relief.

Do you search through books on the site besides simply waiting to see what it kicks out? (Jemstone/ J E Murphy)
Yes, I do, although not as much as I should or would like to.

PROMOTION & MARKETING

Given that personality (or maybe public persona) counts towards an author's success, and therefore attractiveness to a publisher; do editors want a chance to edit that public persona (e.g. encourage more outspokenness or confrontation)? (Robin Helweg-Larson)

I don't think most editors are that calculated, to be honest. Obviously it is a boon if an author is happy to publicize his or her book and confident doing so - but the main thing is the book.

Where on the scale from philosophical discussion to obnoxious confrontation does a publisher want an author to be? (Robin Helweg-Larson)
Definitely not obnoxious! As with any colleague, I'm sure most editors hope that their authors are intelligent, amenable, courteous and engaging, not merely in terms of publicity but because we work closely together over the course of the publication

How much is a book tour expected to be a flamboyant act? (Robin Helweg-Larson)
I think intelligence and genuine charm win out over flamboyance any day.

(This post originally ran 4th June 2009)

Monday, 19 January 2015

Ask the HarperCollins editor: part 1

A few years ago we did an 'Ask the HarperCollins editor' series where you got to pose questions to the HC experts. We think the Q&A is as relevant now as it was then, so we wanted to share it with you again now as we think there's some brilliant advice and insight. What do you think? We'll be posting the rest every day this week.

Ask the HarperCollins editor: part 1

A couple of months ago, authonomist Sandie Dent compiled a list of your questions on the theme of ‘ask the HC editor’. She then approached us to see if we could find anyone to get some answers. We sent them out far and wide, and sure enough, we’ve started to get some responses back. We’ll start with a set answered by a Senior Editor based in our Sydney office. I should add that there is no single ‘HarperCollins’ stance on any of these questions. The opinions expressed are of the individual editors, who will each have different experiences and different thoughts to bring to the table.

SUBMISSIONS PROCESS:

Do you ever take a book from any source and tell the author to make specific changes in order to get a contract? (Jemstone/J E Murphy)

‘in order to’ is perhaps the wrong phrase. There are certainly authors whose MSS are substantially revised prior to acquisition, with guidance from publishers and editors. Sometimes this revision process leads to a contract and sometimes it doesn’t; and sometimes the decision not to publish is influenced by the author’s ability to revise and more often it’s the result of other factors entirely.

Will you only consider completed MSS – or, if the author has a strong ‘voice’, would you consider a work in progress? (Ali Mair)
No, I wouldn’t consider an incomplete novel for publication, though I do read fragments and (if they’re interesting) encourage authors to send the rest when its written. Are you willing to take a chance on a large novel from a new author if the voice and story are good? (Jemstone/ J E Murphy)
Of course.

Why, when an author has researched the huge potential market for a book (mine has 1 million at least in UK CCs alone) do they still completely ignore it? (hallyally/Allie Sommerville)
Do you ask why publishers ignore the research, or why consumers ignore the book? If you ask why publishers ignore your research when considering your proposal, it’s because books are not the same as other commodities. A ‘potential’ market is in no way an actual market. It is much more difficult than you think to predict book buyers’ behaviour.

Are agents worth their cut? (Mardi Johnson)
Good ones are.

How do you feel about books that have already been self-published? (Jemstone/ J E Murphy)
I read them for quality, in exactly the same way I read Word document MSS.

How long does the acquisition process for fiction take and at what point is the author contacted? (Anthony Saunders)

It depends. Sorry; I know that’s not helpful! Some books are picked up quickly, and others sit on a pile for a while before being considered. And when they’ve been considered, some are rejected immediately, others are mulled over for longer. Some authors are contacted quickly because there’s a sense of urgency around the submission (other publishers have it too, or the book slots neatly into a looming hole in the list). Others are contacted when we have time, because we’re interested in the revision process I mention above, rather than in immediate acquisition.

Publishers tend to (traditionally) offer extremely succinct letters of rejection which are usually no help to the author at all. In cases where the manuscript has been received by a publisher and then been sent to the readers for assessment, is it true that the readers provide a report to the publisher/editor? If so, why can this report not be passed onto the author?(JamesG/James Guiney)
In many cases, because the report has not been written for the author, and he or she is unlikely to enjoy reading it. These are not constructive structural reports aimed at improving the work. They are sometimes brutal assessments of the quality and saleability of the MSS. No one in publishing is interested in hurting people unnecessarily.

How do you approach novels with controversial topical themes – or do you prefer to avoid them? (Freddie Omm)
Much the same way as I do any other MS.

EDITORIAL PROCESS:


Do you agree that it is the role of the literary agent to perform, or demand, substantive market-oriented editing of the book before the publisher’s editor has seen the manuscript? (Seamus33/George LeCas)
That’s up to the agent.

Which of these would you be prepared to work with an author to get right, and which do you consider a prerequisite: structure, characterisation, pace, voice? (Sandrine/Dan Holloway)
If the MS has a couple of those right, or one of them outstandingly right, and the author is a hard worker who is open to editorial guidance, any of the others can be improved. This applies more to structure and pace, obviously: solid characterisation and an arresting voice are more necessary, though even they are eligible for further work in the editorial process.

Why does HC not take up many manuscripts on Authonomy that, whilst full of colour and great ideas, still need a polish? Why do they have to be perfect to be considered? I thought that was part of an editor’s job, to knock a good book into a great one? (Mechanical/R L Jones)
The publisher’s list only has room for so many books. Why not choose the best? And a MS might have potential, but there is always the risk that this draft is the best this author can do. Editors won’t (or shouldn’t) rewrite your work. We can guide and suggest, but the writing itself has to come from you.

Will you simply bin my book because I cannot polish it to your standards or do you genuinely look for potential and advise? (Patrick Barrett)

You must be able to achieve the final polish yourself, though that usually happens with editorial assistance. Not being able to polish it to publication standard prior to submission doesn’t mean your book’ll be binned.

Is it true that when writing a true life/non-fiction work, it doesn’t have to be complete before a publisher will accept it? (Sue1960/Sue Edwards)
In some cases.

WHAT IS HARPERCOLLINS LOOKING FOR?

Would you ever take the risk of publishing a work you loved but that did not fit a pre-existing marketing niche? (Lord Biro/Kevin Lester)

Yes.

How do you feel about books that do not fit any genre? (Jemstone/ J E Murphy)

I confess I’m yet to encounter one.

Is there equal interest from the publishers’ point of view in realistic YA fiction as opposed to that with fantasy elements? (Lallie/Laura Jarratt)
I think so.

VOICE:

What does a ‘fresh voice’ mean to you? (And is this really THE one thing you look for?). Please could you illustrate with an example – by that I mean could you tell us someone who’s burst onto the scene as being fresh and new, and explain, by referring to what was around at the time, why they are fresh and new. The example we hear so often is Zadie Smith – could you say WHY she was fresh? Was it her style, her subject matter, her slant on things? (Sandrine/Dan Holloway)
Could you try to pin down what you mean by ‘voice’? (Freddie Omm)

Gosh! They teach whole degrees on this!
Voice is narration, where story is narrative. It’s definitely about how the story is being told, rather than about the story itself. If you think of even an omniscient third-person narrative as having a narrator (which it does, even if the narrator is not a definable character), then you might start to ‘hear’ the voice as you read.
Sometimes a distinctive voice is required; it’s most easily achieved with first-person narratives — think The Color Purple, Raymond Chandler’s laconic Philip Marlowe, or Louise Rennison’s neologising Georgia Nicolson. (You can definitely do this with third-person narratives too, you’re just less likely to be able to rely on patois or personality quirks. For some such authors, distinction comes from lyricism, beauty or brutality. Think Winterson, McCarthy, Morrison, Winton, Coetzee. Or a writer of historical fiction can inventively use period language to distinguish his or her work.)
On the other hand, the Harry Potter novels succeed in part because the voice is comfortable and unchallenging. We all know exactly where we are with the way the story was being told, so we can dive right in knowing that nothing about the writing would distract from the plot points. This applies to a lot of commercial fiction.
And that’s the most important thing about voice. It can definitely add to the story, but it must not distract from the story. Inconsistency, self-consciousness and cliché are three of the many flaws an inadequate voice might display.

POD:

I know academic presses like OUP use POD because they can keep manuscripts constantly updated with new references etc. As an editor, do you think the possibility of updating a manuscript as easily as POD allows an exciting new development because a book can grow and change and evolve, or do you think it squeezes/changes your role because publishers will be more tempted to let a book through with less editing on the grounds it can easily be fixed? (Sandrine/Dan Holloway)
I hope not. And I don’t know that a book can be changed more easily/less expensively with POD. It is, nevertheless, exciting, because it means keeping niche books in print.

PROMOTION & MARKETING

Given that personality (or maybe public persona) counts towards an author's success, and therefore attractiveness to a publisher; do editors want a chance to edit that public persona (e.g. encourage more outspokenness or confrontation)? (Robin Helweg-Larson)
Not to my knowledge.

Where on the scale from philosophical discussion to obnoxious confrontation does a publisher want an author to be? (Robin Helweg-Larson)

That’s the scale?

How much is a book tour expected to be a flamboyant act? (Robin Helweg-Larson)
That would depend on the author


(This post originally ran 4th June 2009)