Tag Archives: novel

Writing – Point of View

When you’re writing a story, you have to ask yourself two questions, says Geraldine Mills, the Irish writer who ran a workshop on point of view (POV) for the Singapore Writers’ Group. ‘Whose story do you want to tell? And who do you want to tell it?’

For those who haven’t previously heard of POV in writing, basically, it’s the decision of whether to write in the first person or the third person along with which character’s POV you’re taking in the telling of your story. So you need to decide who your main character is and the narrative voice.

I know from personal experience that when you first start writing, you can find yourself ‘head-hopping’ from one POV to another, making it difficult for the reader to really engage and sympathise with any one character. This is because you’re preoccupied with the story. It’s only later that you think about who is telling it.

Geraldine says that the character dictates the decision. Sometimes the POV is obvious because a character will talk to you and will have a distinctive voice. In Geraldine’s short story ‘The Weight of Feathers’ in her short story collection of the same title, she said the first line just came to her. ‘A man fell out of the sky and into my garden.’

And she knew she had to tell the story in that voice, in the first person. ‘I found the slump of his body by the pomegranate trees when I went out to water the terraces. The evening burned itself into the mountain. There were feathers all around me, some stuck to his arms, some to his legs, a golden syrup of wax melted on his face. I thought he was dead until I touched some part of his shoulder and a low groan came from his cracked lips.’

I wish characters talked to me like that!

Other times, like in the YA novel Geraldine is currently writing, it is more difficult to decide and she’s experimenting, telling the story from each of her three characters POVs to see which is strongest. She’s finding each of them limiting because there are aspects of the story that can’t be told as a result. It is a comfort that established, published writers wrestle with this stuff too.

Geraldine says you have to look for the conflict and ask yourself, ‘which is the most pressing story? Who has the most to lose? And who has the most to gain from the telling?’ Once you’ve decided, you then have to remain consistent.

So what are the different POVs? We all know the first person, the third person and, more rarely, the second person – ‘you’. But it turns out there are different options among those. Let me summarise Geraldine’s low-down on these.

 

First Person

Writing in the first person can lend an immediacy to the writing. When using ‘I’, it’s usually the main character telling the story from their POV and it’s what they see or hear and you can’t go into anyone else’s head. This can be powerful at one level and limiting at another.

There is also the first person witness / peripheral, where the narrator is not the protagonist. The Great Gatsby could have been told from Gatsby’s POV, but F Scott Fitzgerald chose to tell it from Nick Caraway’s POV, who witnesses what happens. So we only know what Nick sees or what Gatsby or another character tells him. But the reader gets Nicks relationship with Jordan and the Buchanans and an eye on their world that Gatsby doesn’t have.

It is more rare to read the first person omniscient, who is all-knowing, as in The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold, where the main character has been killed and is telling the story from the other side.

And one that had never even crossed my mind before is the first person plural, ‘we’. Geraldine gives the example of Jhumpa Lahiri’s short story The Treatment of Bibi Haldar. A collective, in this case the local people in a community, tell of how they treat a woman who has fits.

In efforts to cure her, concerned members of our town brought her holy water from seven holy rivers. When we heard her screams and throes in the night, when her wrists were bound with ropes and stinging poultices pressed upon her, we named her in our prayers.

It would be difficult to sustain in a novel. It only really works when the collective witnesses something and the conflict has to be outside the ‘we’. While in Lahiri’s story the community are helping Bibi Haldar, the first person plural can have a creepy effect, with people clubbing together, a mob.

You can write in the first person from more than one character’s POV (first person multiple) but you have to be careful to make each of the voices distinctive so the reader knows which character is speaking / whose view we’re getting. You also have to be sure of who the protagonist is and give weight to that character. And make it easier for the reader by using section breaks or chapter breaks when you swap POV.

Second Person

‘You’. Again, this could be hard to sustain over a novel and might grate. It can bring you closer to the narrator if they are talking directly to the reader but it can also be used to distance the narrator from the protagonist.

I thought Mohsin Hamid used it to brilliant effect in ‘How to get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia’, a novel in the style of a self-help book.

This book is a self-help book. Its objective, as it says on the cover, is to show you how to get filthy rich in rising Asia. And to do that it has to find you, huddled, shivering, on the packed earth under your mother’s cot one cold, dewy morning. Your anguish is the anguish of a boy whose chocolate has been thrown away, whose remote controls are out of batteries, whose scooter is busted, whose sneakers have been stolen. This is all the more remarkable since you’ve never in your life seen any of these things.

Third Person

There’s more freedom writing in the third person and it can be easier to create tone and atmosphere. With the third person limited, the narrator hones in on one character and can get inside his or her head and is privy to their thoughts and feelings. J.K Rowling does this in Harry Potter. We can see and hear all the other characters but we see and understand the action from Harry’s POV, following him like a camera is on his shoulder.

More old-fashioned, is the third person omniscient, as Charles Dickens or Jane Austen would use, where the narrator can take a wide-angle view of events or close in on one character or another and can even draw moral thoughts or judgments.

There’s also the objective narrator, relating what he sees or hears, which Raymond Carver uses skilfully in Little Things.

You can have multiple narrators in the third person. In Capital by John Lanchester, you get the POVs of 15 to 20 characters. Geraldine says that while the writing is superb and humorous, ‘there was no one character I could have sympathy with. I’d just get into one person’s story and it would move on to another POV.’

During the workshop we did an exercise writing from a particular POV. As we read them out, it was interesting hearing the different effects gained by simply replacing ‘I’ with ‘she’ or ‘you’. Geraldine suggests playing with different POVs and to move out of our comfort zones in order to grow as writers. And it’s important to know the rules before bending them. You can use POV to create an effect structurally across a book. For instance, Alice Clark-Platts, in her debut novel Bitter Fruits, due out on July 2, deliberately swaps between the third person for the police investigation and the first person for a particular character and you don’t know who that person is until the end.

 

So take Geraldine’s advice and play with POV. Challenge yourself with new narrative voices. Happy writing.

 

 

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The call of the wild

At a meeting of The Singapore Writer’s Group this week, I was reminded of the importance of playing and experimenting with language. When you’re busy learning the craft of writing a novel, as I am, there’s a tendency to focus on the mechanics – character development, dialogue, structuring a plot.

I think carefully about the words I use because I want to achieve an economy of language and capture exactly the right metaphor and so on. Mastering all this brings great satisfaction, but in this pursuit of writing a well-crafted book that will sell, have I forgotten to play? I mean really revel in words and let the imagination run wild.

Authors do play with language but then they tame it, discipline it, strap it down and, after a while, it comes out walking to heel. This is part of learning your craft. You learn to use language effectively to create story, suspense, subtext and to make your reader fully believe in your world.

Then a song-writer called Parijat Mishra read a short piece to our writers’ group that was like a wolf howl to my urban fox brain. He had wanted to write something like a dream, a piece of art, a painting with words. And so he read us Tough Syrup, (it’s the second story in his blog) which we decided was a ‘prose poem’. Me included. The automatic reflex to put it in a box. We loved it, were confused and impressed by it in equal measure and called for story, discipline. And that is what his work needs if his intention is to write a short story or a novel. But I don’t think this is his aim. Not with that piece, anyway. He’s an artist at play. He achieved what he wanted and created a piece of art. His imagery was disturbing, surreal and extraordinary. It was an outpouring of imagination, a dreamscape painted with words.

One writer saw it as a comment on the emasculated male in a female world, I saw it as a comment on living in Singapore where everything is made safe and how suffocating that can be. It provoked thought and we brought our own interpretations to it. And that, I think, makes it art. We recognised that it was raw and wild and ugly and beautiful.

I hope Parijat does develop and apply discipline to his writing because his work reminded me of Kurt Vonnegurt and that kind of talent should be recognised. And at the same time, I like that it’s wild. I like that it roams the boundaries. So thank you, Parijat, and thank you to The Singapore Writers’ Group and all who shared their work, for the inspiration.

Where do ideas come from?

The idea of this blog was to bring you on the journey with me as I wrote a book. And after about 20 posts about writer’s block and procrastination, I finally got writing but stopped blogging. So I feel I owe you a couple of retrospective posts.

Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start . When you read you begin with ABC, when you sing you begin with … Excuse me, no idea why I was suddenly chanelling Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music. Actually, I do know. It started with the words: ‘Let’s start at the very beginning’ and the tune came into my head. It started with the WORDS…

So many ideas come as you write. It’s the magic, the very essence of creativity. So don’t sit there waiting for a great idea. Write and the ideas will follow and then you can shape them.

One idea I had stemmed from an image in Vogue magazine of a model on the Mongolian steppes with an eagle. Woman and bird were in profile, gazing into the distance. It was beautiful, striking. I decided to do an exercise with her as a character. I’d been playing around with a parallel world idea but as I started to write, the photo gave me a new beginning, actually a a whole new incarnation of the book, starting in the parallel world and having the character from our world fall into it.

The book I’m currently working on started because of news articles and TV programmes about the pressures on girls to be skinny, pretty and sexy. I was horrified that girls as  young as seven were worrying about their body image! In one programme girls were shown photos of themselves along with images photoshopped so they looked skinnier and fatter. In almost every case, the girls picked the skinniest version of themselves as being the best. I’d also read about teenagers aspiring to be models or wives of footballers, or just to be on the latest reality TV programme.

Then I heard the crime author PD James talking on Radio 4. She’s in her nineties and that got me thinking about what she must have seen and experienced in her lifetime and how it couldn’t have been easy for a female crime writer early in her career, then, BAM, suffragettes popped into my head. What would the suffragettes make of the world today? What if a modern day teenager met one? That was the genesis of my book.

So the media seems to be a big source of inspiration for me. Looking at the obituaries might seem morbid but they feature interesting lives and that gets you thinking. Or a crime report might give you a plot idea. Overheard snippets of conversation on a bus can spark an idea or a character’s voice, people-watching in cafes is endlessly fascinating, making up lives for them. Putting down your phone so that you’re not picking up emails and posting on twitter but actually observing the world helps a lot. Just asking the question: What if…? Your dreams could give you an idea. Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight came from a dream. According to wikipedia, it led to Meyer writing a draft of what became chapter 13 of the book.

Travelling is good. Anything that makes you an outsider, that gets you looking at the world differently can trigger creativity. I recently went to an amazing hot spring in Malaysia with a big pool of geothermic water  surrounded by towering verdant limestone karsts with caves beneath. I felt humbled and inspired by those great architects, nature and time. It could have been another world. It could have been Eden.

The magnificent cavern with stalagtites and stalagmites that had been turned into a wine bar, was quite spectacular. A brilliant setting for a book. Something gothic, perhaps. If Stephanie Meyer had been to this place, Edward Cullen would have taken Bella on a date there.

Your own lives and experiences will give you ideas  – you may not write about them directly but they will certainly inform your writing. And once you’re writing, you start to think like a writer and notice things that you didn’t before. I will hear someone’s name and I’ll think, that’s a great name for a character and off I go. In short, ideas are all around you and you shouldn’t worry about the idea, just the sitting on your bum to write.

Whether it’s a commercial idea is another matter. What publishers are looking for is a good concept that will sell. This often comes from two ideas coming together. Vampirates, for example. Suzanne Collins is reported to have got the idea for the Hunger Games  while channel surfing. On one station was a reality TV show and on another was the invasion of Iraq and the two began to blur in her mind and she ended up with the idea of a dysptopian world where there’s an annual, televised, gladiatorial fight to the death.

I find thinking too much about commerciality blocks my writing, so I’m not going to put too much emphasis on this. The most important thing is to have something that you are compelled to write. If you have something special you can bring to it, you are an immigrant writing about the immigrant experience for example, all the better. You become commercial. The publisher can market you and you will sell your book. My friend Liz Trenow wrote The Last Telegram, which is set in the second world war – always popular– but she had a unique selling point. She comes from a family of silk weavers and she set her novel in a silk factory making parachutes for the RAF with her heroine running the factory.  As well as going to book fairs she goes to textile fairs to give readings. She knows her stuff and the sensuality the silk weaves through her story made it something that no one else could have written.

Write for yourself first but have your reader in mind. Be aware of trends but don’t try to follow them or predict them. You can help a publisher if you can give them a way to market it, something to peg it on. But underneath all that, they need a strong voice, a brilliantly evoked world, great characters and a cracking story.

How to chip away at the block

I know, it’s been ages. My apologies. You see, I’ve actually started writing. Yay! hang out the bunting, do a happy dance and eat cake (not necessarily in that order). The thing is, my writer’s block had taken such a hold that even when I started writing, I thought it may be another false start. I didn’t want to blog about it for fear of jinxing it.

The problem was I had two ideas and kept swinging from one to the other. I’d have a crisis of confidence about whether one was a good, marketable idea and then,  like a sailing boat adrift, bang! An ill wind would catch the mainsail and go swinging across my boat, often knocking me overboard in the process, before I got going on the other idea.

Somewhere in all this, I figured out that both were good ideas, it was more a matter of which to write first? I plumped for the one with the more developed plot. It was also more time sensitive because I could peg it on the anniversary of the death of suffragette Emily Wilding Davison who threw herself under the king’s horse at the 1913 Derby.

However, with all my prevaricating, I have missed that deadline by a mile. I should have been submitting it to agents last year. But on a positive note, the suffragette movement carried on well after that so I reckon it’s still marketable. Plus, I think the book will appeal to teenage girls because it’s about all kinds of issues affecting them. The pressures that they come under to be academic, pretty, sexy, skinny and, above all, to fit in, when hormones are raging and your mind is on boys and the whole world should be opening up for you but actually, the expectations are overwhelming and in some cases crippling.

My  ‘lift pitch’ – in case I meet an agent in a lift and I have 10 seconds to pitch it – is: Modern-day girl meets a suffragette. A contemporary story with an historical twist.

Wordism: It’s important you can summarise your book in a couple of sentences. It means it has a strong concept and publishers are looking for ‘high concept’ books.

Anyway, while I’m hoping that I can sell my book, the most important thing is I’m back writing and seven chapters in.

So, advice on how to break writer’s block? Actually, there wasn’t a big breakthrough moment, the muse didn’t show up one day and suddenly I could write. No, I just kept chipping away at it. I got to the point of nearly giving up, which I found frightening. Writing is such a big part of my identity that it felt like giving up on myself. And then what became important was just writing. Not selling it, not the vagaries of the market, just the act of writing. A little bit here, a little bit there until you’re writing everyday, which develops into a compulsion to write rather than procrastinate, at which point, you start living your characters, inhabiting their world, thinking about it all the time.

Wordism: Don’t give up, keep going. Just a few words is better than nothing. Write a journal if the book isn’t coming. Don’t judge what you write. Just write. Observations, what you’re feeling… Write in a stream of consciousness. Read The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron – it’s a bit spiritual, which isn’t for everyone, but it’s also practical.

I explored my main character by letting her vent what was on her mind without worrying about story or plot. Her character developed around her voice, a plot emerged from her character. And also from thinking about the suffragette and what part she would play. I have to be careful that Emily plays at least an equal part to the romance in the novel. Feminists may not approve of what I do with the romance but then they’re not my audience. Teenage girls are my readers. And if I can get one teenage girl to google ‘suffragette’ or ‘Emily Wilding Davison’, I’ll be happy with that.

Something to try: If you have a character in mind, allow them to vent on the page. Write whatever’s on their mind in the first person. If you’re not working on a project right now but want to get the creative juices flowing, find a picture of a person in a magazine, a newspaper or in a work of art (as Tracy Chevalier did in Girl with a Pearl Earring) and imagine what they are thinking. What is their world like? Then give them a voice. Who knows where it will lead.

Green nail polish, new horizons.

Today I am 43. It’s the beginning of the rest of my life. It starts with green nail polish. Then I’m going to become the greatest writer of my time.

In small steps, of course. A word at a time, a book at a time. But the new reinvented 43-year-old me is thinking big. Somebody’s going to be remembered as a great 21st century writer. Why the heck shouldn’t it be me?

The green nail polish is a celebration of my quirkiness; it’s saying it’s ok to buck trends, to wade against the flow, to take risks. I am letting out my inner fabulousness.

Here’s how this surge of energy and statement of ambition came about:

Yesterday, I went to a creative part of town. I know Singapore is not the most creative place in the world, but there are pockets of creativity and new ideas. Tiong Bharu is one of them. I was in a cafe with my laptop, slowly and painfully writing. Starting a book is the most difficult bit. I have not yet hit ‘flow’, that magical point when the characters come alive and start doing unexpected things and you’re living the story with them. Anyway, in the scene I was writing I referred to Alice in Wonderland.

After I was done, I went to my favourite indie bookstore Books Actually. In the window was a copy of Alice in Wonderland, with artwork by the brilliantly bonkers Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama. I bought it as a birthday treat to myself.

At the cash till, I flicked through a little book It’s Not How Good You Are, It’s How Good You Want to Be by the advertising guru Paul Arden (click for inspirational quotes). I read it first thing this morning and it was the perfect hit of positivity. It’s about thinking big, having vision and laughing in the face of failure along the way. It’s about thinking differently, turning things on their head, taking risks, thinking beyond what’s fashionable or acceptable and making things happen. It’s about putting a new spin on things.

So I will no longer worry about the market or concern myself with whether it’s what agents or publishers are interested in. I will be the best writer I can in aiming to be the greatest. Past failures are my path to success.

As Winston Churchill said: ‘Success is going from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.’

Although, I admit, I did have a wobble on the enthusiasm front. To the extent that I gave up, threw my toys out of the pram and decided to do a course to teach English as a Foreign Language. (Turned out to be the creative equivalent of joining the Foreign Legion.) This was a good thing because it so clearly wasn’t me, it reaffirmed my belief in myself as a writer.

When I write, I am most myself. So I’m not so much reinventing myself, as my ambitions. Paul Arden says: ‘You need to aim beyond what you are capable of.’ At first, that seems like a contradiction. But, giving it more thought, it makes perfect sense. How else do we grow?

Then you have to make the vision of yourself reality. You learn to do this through experience and mistakes. Excellent. I’m on the right track then. Talent helps, of course, but it’s the desire to be the best that counts, he says. ‘Everybody wants to be good, but not many are prepared to make the sacrifices it takes to be great.’ (See YouTube link of Yayoi Kusama showing what it takes.)

He also talks about promoting yourself, putting yourself out there. This is more difficult for me. We, girls especially and English girls possibly more so, are taught not to show-off, gloat, crow, or otherwise talk ourselves up. We can quietly know we’re great, but it is not demure, lady like, or appropriate to sing about it. This attitude gets you absolutely nowhere. It may get you liked but it does not bring you success or wealth. So I need to cultivate this along with my writing. Ego. It’s not a bad thing.

Sparkly green nails

Green nails look great flashing across my keyboard.

So I’m here, me with the sparkly green nail polish that is part Wicked Witch of the East, part Absinthe fairy and a lot Cabaret. Me, failing extravagantly and learning from mistakes on the path to success. No more Mrs Nice Girl. This time I am, to coin Justine Musk’s  phrase, bad-ass. And I’m on my way to becoming the greatest writer of my time. (How am I doing on the ego front?)

Going for gold.

What a change to have role models like Jessica Ennis for the next generation of young women. What a change to see triumph born of hard work, grit and determination rather than talentless celebrity born of reality TV shows. What a change to see that beauty is  strength of spirit and a radiant smile rather than an inch of make-up and a pair of fake boobs. Perhaps now girls will aspire to be sportswomen rather than WAGs?

The likes of Jess Ennis and the female rowing team have certainly been an inspiration to me. They have rolled with life’s knocks and gone on to win gold. Jess Ennis suffered a setback in 2008 because of stress fractures to her right foot and missed the Beijing Olympics as a result. This meant switching her take-off leg in the long jump from her right to her left, retraining the neurological pathways until her weaker, less favoured leg was of Olympic gold standard. That takes guts.

Rower Katherine Grainger is an inspiration for keeping her eye on the prize and pursuing gold at the age of 36. Having won silver three times, and at an age when many would have considered it less likely she could do it, she won through.

And Helen Glover, whom with Captain Heather Stanning, won Team GB’s first gold medal in the women’s pairs, having started rowing only four years ago. Glover said: ‘If I can do it so can you. Take the chance to do something, do anything. Work hard and do your best and you can achieve anything.’

My something is writing. And I will work hard to write a brilliant novel and get it published. The world owes me nothing. It’s no use licking my wounds and sulking. I can do better than my last book. And I will. I am taking on this Olympic spirit.

I’ve highlighted three women at the Games but all the athletes put in time and effort day after day with relentless focus. Many medal winners talked of picturing or planning their race in their heads, of not thinking about others in the race because it would divert them from their goal. It was about the vision, deciding that the gold medal would be theirs.

I am focusing on writing, I am envisioning my idea coming together, of achieving flow and working day after day to finish my novel. I will write word after word, paragraph after paragraph, scene after scene and keep going until my book is finished. Then I will get the best agent to help me get it published, I will do whatever redrafts are necessary to make it perfect, I will roll with the knocks and I will not give up. I am not in control of the reviews or the sales. All I can do is write the best book I can, although I’m also envisioning rave reviews and high sales, and dammit, why not go the whole hog and envision the film too. I am going for gold.

How about you?

Books, creeks and paddles

I haven’t posted recently about the process of writing my book, (which was supposed to be the point of this blog) or even about the process of not writing. This is because I’ve been in a strop.

I had started on the Suffragette idea and had some joyful moments of ‘flow’ before losing my paddle. Not only that but I started to question whether I was writing the right book. Up the creek. Again.

I got to the same place with the last idea – my Inca adventure / romance – and bailed out because it just wasn’t coming to me. I lost faith in it. And here I was in the same situation.

But then Lee Weatherly, a writer friend and mentor, got me thinking about what I wanted to write rather than what I thought would sell. I loved writing my last book, The Smuggler’s Daughter, but I’d not got a book deal. So this time I’d been focusing on getting the right idea. A marketable idea. But perhaps I was focusing too much on the goal of getting published.

Wordism: Focus on the process of writing and the joy of that rather than on the end product.

So, I thought, what do I want to write? What do I enjoy? I like writing YA fiction. I enjoy adventure stories. And love stories. I like strong female characters. This led me back to my Inca idea. Is that my paddle over there?

I made a foray into a possible first chapter and had some fun, before getting stuck. But this time, rather than feeling blocked, I recognised that the idea needed work.

I hold on to the paddle, I don’t jump ship (or canoe), I think about how to find my way out. I stop thinking and notice the creek is pretty, even if it doesn’t go anywhere. Ideas begin to rain. I could develop the fantasy element. Maybe it’s set in the future. Or an alternative present. I can feel the boat shifting. Pretty soon I’ll be off the mud flats and into the stream of a first chapter and, I hope, swept into the exhilarating white waters of a novel.

Getting to the top of the slush pile

Yesterday evening I was out celebrating with some writing buddies from my old creative writing MA class because one of our number has got a book deal with HarperCollins in the US. A big cheer for David John. Well done, mate and well deserved.

It gives me hope because it’s tough out there for new writers. David hasn’t got a UK deal yet, which is bizarre as his book is a thriller set around the 1936 Berlin Olympics and, with London hosting the 2012 Olympics, you’d think UK publishers would be snapping it up. I expect a UK deal will follow soon but publishers do seem to be risk averse at the moment. And new writers are a risk. It’s understandable, I guess, in the current economic climate, but not helpful to those of us trying to get our first publishing deal.

So how do you get to the top of the slush pile? How do you differentiate yourself?

1. First off, it helps to have a high concept idea or a unique selling point. By high concept I mean like Vampirates. (This is particularly the case with children’s or YA novels.) You need a strong, marketable idea with a plot you can sum up in a sentence or two. Another writer friend Liz Trenow comes from a silk-weaving family and her book, currently being pitched, is set in a factory manufacturing parachute silk during the second world war. It’s a quirky take on the genre and her knowledge of silk is a great USP. It makes her, the author, marketable as well as the book.

2. You need a brilliantly written, well structured novel. That means sympathetic characters, page-turning plot and a strong voice. Get feedback from other writers before you send it out to an agent. This could be through an online community like Writewords, people you’ve met on a writing course or a professional literary consultancy like Cornerstones. Criticism, when it’s constructive, can be enormously helpful. There will be some criticism that you just don’t agree with but often people will pick up on something that you’ve felt unsure about yourself. Listen to that. Sometimes you’ll know there’s a problem in your work but you can’t quite pinpoint it. That’s when you need a fresh pair of eyes to look at it. Your book needs to be the best it can be before you send it out.

3. When approaching an agent, presentation is important. (Read the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook for guidance.) Check for spelling mistakes and make sure it’s in the format that a particular agent or publisher prefers – usually three chapters, a synopsis and a covering letter.

4. But for an agent to get to the book, you need to stand out in that covering letter. Showing professionalism, that you take your craft seriously, will get them to sit up and take notice. Having done creative writing courses / retreats / an MA will help. If you’ve won or been short-listed for a writing competition, mention that. (Writing magazines often run such competitions.)

5. Belonging to a writing organisation will also help distinguish yourself from the crowd. For instance, I belong to the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. Such organisations are great for networking with other writers. But often they’ll get agents / publishers/ published authors to give talks. And if you’re approaching an agent or editor, having met them or having heard them speak somewhere is going to get their attention. It means you can say: ‘At the SCBWI conference this year, you said you’d be interested in seeing a good ghost story…’ That kind of personal connection is invaluable.

Good luck!