In the Second Part of his blog for the Armour Group, journalist Terry Manners, former Editor-in-Chief of Express Newspapers in Scotland and Assistant Editor of the Daily Express in London, explores the world of book writing and the route to getting published … the heartache of rejection, the joy of seeing your work in print and how some best-selling authors did it. Terry, who has written seven books for major British publishers and was a Barker of the Variety Club and Deputy Chairman of its Gold Heart Campaign, takes us through his anecdotes of some famous writers he knew and how to prepare your hopeful best-seller for the literary agents – especially the creation of the all-important synopsis. Perhaps time in lockdown could provide you with the perfect opportunity to achieve your dream.
BLOG 2 - Lockdown pt.2 Write Your Cyber Thriller
24th November 2020
IT WAS a clear and warm summer’s day when I arrived at the gates of horror writer James Herbert’s sprawling mansion on the Sussex Downs in Paparazzi photographer Richard Young’s yellow Porsche sports car. Richard and I were there to take pictures and interview the best-selling author about his new book Creed, based on the newspaper world. James, who gave up his trendy, well-paid ad agency job with Saatchi to write his first book The Rats was the son of a market trader in London’s Brick Lane. He had the idea of writing a novel about man-eating, giant black rats from the London sewers after seeing rodents squeezing out of the drains while working as a boy on his father’s stall.
It had stuck in his mind since childhood. But it was years later, after he became a high-flier at Saatchi that he finally began to write a synopsis for his fantasy … and in the evenings at home, he would work on his manuscript. But he found it difficult to combine his job with his dream of being a writer and finally, he believed in his book so much, he gave up his job in the early 1970s and armed with his synopsis, went out to sell his chilling tale. His boyhood dream paid off. He got a six-figure sum for The Rats and it sold 100,000 copies in three days. New book and film deals followed, and the rest is history.
The point about the tale is that if you have a book bursting to come out of you, do it. Don’t just say you will do it one day ... or you never will. And now lockdown is the perfect opportunity for you to work on the story you have been thinking about for some time. And as I said in my last blog, the key to success is your synopsis to tempt the literary agent.
Perhaps the cyber world, or even sci-fi is your bag and that is the kind of book you want to write. You must decide the genre before you start and have a route map in your head for the plot … like James. He was locked in the world of horror and hauntings. And it paid off. I will never forget the vast hallway in his mansion on the Downs when Richard and I stepped into it that day in the 1990s.
It had just one, huge, central sinister piece … Satanist Aleister Crowley’s hideous armchair. Crowley was a famous Victorian occultist, so cruel that his own mother called him ‘the Great Beast 666’. Horror writer James later told me he would sit in the chair and contemplate life or his next creepy story. I was introduced to him in his study – the entire top floor of his mansion. As I went through the door, I was shocked to see everything in the huge room was white … furniture, walls, flooring – not a single other colour. He was sitting at the far end, dressed completely in black. Within a minute of being introduced, he told me that he was celebrating his new book and had ordered a superb lunch for us on the patio. “Why not? he asked. It’s not every day my publisher sends me a cheque for one million quid.” Wow, eh?
And it all began with a two-page synopsis and a 70,000-word manuscript about a black rat in the London sewers. Now it’s your turn. As I explained in my first blog, publishers no longer take unsolicited manuscripts, unless you are already famous … a fired Prime Minister or premiership Soccer star perhaps. You must find a literary agent. There are many, and they are all powerful. Publishers rely on them to sort the wheat from the chaff. No agent, no book deal. You need to crack one. And they will want the synopsis of your book to see if it is a story worth selling to publishers who want to make money just like car salesmen.
It costs around £20,000 to £50,000 to produce, print, publish and promote a book. And publishers can put out between 200 and 1,000 different books a year.
The average synopsis is two pages and is not an easy task. You have to grab the agent’s interest, make it exciting, perhaps well researched, depending on the genre. It is a brief summary of your story’s main plot and ending. And it should always be written in the Third Person, as if you are orating the entire story to someone else without boring them. And keep it in the present tense. You may of course be narrating your synopsis from a point of view that is not human, something different. So, don’t be afraid to kick off with a sentence like: ‘This book is narrated from the point of view of a giraffe with a short neck.’ Interesting eh?
The reader will immediately know what the story is about. I will give you an example how one famous author started her synopsis in a moment … but first:
REMEMBER: Put the working title of your book at the top of your document, with the genre and the word count. Don’t just put the word SYNOPSIS. All hopeful writers may be using it. You need to stand out for quick headline reference on a computer screen … so if you are writing a cyber thriller called Night of the Hacker make it – Hacker, thriller, 80,000 words. Synopsis.
When and where … be sure to mention the setting for the novel and the period in which it takes place in your synopsis. Don’t include lots of place names and dates, keep it simple. Cover your main plot like a brush stroke – don’t try to include everything, it will become a jumble. The agent does not need all the twists and turns. He/she just wants to know where the story is headed. No need to mention all the characters. Just the hero and the main ones, giving a simple description of them, a few words will do - and feature their names in bold for easy reference back. Build up to the height of the action or climax of your story – it must be the most exciting part of the book – and the synopsis.
And you don’t have to dangle a carrot of an unknown ending to the agent, you must reveal it on these two pages. The agent wants to get the whole picture. But don’t make it read like a car mechanic’s manual.
Tips: Don’t boast to the agent that your story could be a huge international best seller, or even say it is gripping or moving. He or she will decide. And choose an agent who deals in your genre. Some want crime fiction, others sea adventures and some sci-fi. Don’t go to the wrong one. Check out their websites. Near the top of your synopsis use your pitch line – the driving force behind the novel, something to make the agent sit up and take notice. It needs to be the heart of your story. And you must not waffle in your words – you have only got two pages to outline the whole book. Make them count. You are not writing a school essay. For example:
Too wordy: ‘Elizabeth is at work and searching for John through-out the department store and finally finds him checking stocks in the supply room, where she tells him she resents the remarks he made about her at the morning Board meeting. They could get her fired.
Better: At work, Elizabeth confronts Peter over his remarks to the Board which could get her fired. (Get it?)
An example for you. The start of J.K.Rowlings’ own synopsis for Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone: ‘Harry Potter lives with his aunt, uncle and cousins because his parents died in a car crash – or so he has always been told. The Dursleys don’t like Harry asking questions, in fact they don’t seem to like anything about him, especially odd things that happen around him which he can’t explain. The Dursleys greatest fear is that Harry will discover the truth about himself, so when letters start arriving for him near his 11th birthday, he isn’t allowed to read them. However, the Dursleys aren’t dealing with an ordinary postman, and at midnight on his birthday, the gigantic Rubeus Hagrid breaks down the door to make sure Harry gets to read his post at last. Ignoring the horrified Dursleys, Hagrid informs Harry that he is a wizard and the letter he gives him explains he is expected at Hogwart’s School of Witchcraft in a month’s time …
Intriguing eh? Just two paragraphs and we find ourselves already hooked at the start – or at least the agent and publisher did. So, as an experiment, read some short book reviews in say, The Sunday Times or magazines. They often summarise plots of new hardbacks and paperbacks.
Then, read the book and write an overview of the plot yourself. That’s good practise. And it is also a good tip to write down bullet points about your own book … the main events and scenes that you need to cover in the synopsis. It is a good route to follow. Writing is a slog but don’t make the mistake of rushing things. You might have to completely rewrite your book two or three times over a year or so. The agent, or a publisher may insist on it over things they think don’t work. And always read your wonderful tome back … everyone makes mistakes from typos and name spelling to the colour of a character’s hair or eyes. And words have a domino effect. Take out 300 words from Chapter 28 … and it might affect references and sentences in Chapters 10 and 15.
And be prepared for heartbreak. You and your mum might love your book, but agents probably won’t. Prepare for rejection. Some won’t even give you the courtesy of a reply; others send a standard rejection letter and yet more will offer you courses on how to write. That will hurt you, especially when you feel you have written the next blockbuster.
Writing a book is hard work. Some famous authors find it a slog. And most people want to write one but never do. As comedian Peter Cook famously said: “I met a man at a party and he said, ‘I’m writing a novel,’ I said, ‘really? Neither am I.’” However, let’s be positive and focus on some rewarding success stories. A close writer friend of mine Robin McGibbon, who has written the life stories of the Krays (brothers Ronnie and Reggie); actress Barbara Windsor and boxer Billy Walker, is also a friend of millionaire, best-selling author Ken Follet who wrote Pillars of the Earth; World without End and Eye of the Needle, among many others. Follett was a reporter on the Evening News in London when Robin new him first but he had managed to get a literary agent in America named Albert Zuckerman, who was interested in the spy thriller book he had written called Storm Island. The book centres on allied plans for the WW11 invasion of Normandy and a Nazi spy who pitches up on a remote Scottish island where he meets a young wife living in a loveless marriage because her bitter RAF pilot husband has lost his legs.
Robin tells the story how Zuckerman loved Follett’s book and the outline and synopsis, taking the writer under his wing to rewrite and improve many of the book’s chapters. They even changed the title to Eye of the Needle. Many months had gone by, says Robin, when one night at home, Follett and his wife were just preparing to go out to dinner as the phone rang. It was Zuckerman in New York.
“What are you doing Ken?” he asked.
“We’re about to go out to dinner Albert,” Follett replied.
“I don’t think you should,” the agent went on, “I’ve put your book up for auction to some publishers here who seem interested and I might want your OK if we get an offer.”
Follett spent the next three hours nervously waiting by the telephone, hoping he would get his book published in America at last. Finally, Zuckerman rang back. He had sold the book and film rights to Eye of the Needle … for $800,000 (and that was in 1978). Worth $3.3million today. Soon Follett was being offered publishing deals across the world and Eye of the Needle became a major movie starring Donald Sutherland as the lovestruck spy. How’s that eh? Sadly Zuckerman passed away in 2011 but he left a lasting legacy … his own book on how to write a blockbuster. If you are serious about your idea for a novel, you must buy it on Amazon … it’s called, appropriately: Writing the Blockbuster Novel by Albert Zuckerman and is full of tips and advice.
Just remember how important your synopsis is. And also remember to start it by setting the scene and introducing the main character if you can. As an example, this is my own introduction to a synopsis for my new horror thriller book I am planning to sell next year called Anastasia’s Veil.
After his wife and son die in a car crash caused by a drugged boy racer, reporter Jonathan Bright has only two reasons to live – drink and work. He never expects to fall in love again - especially with a female serial killer from the past.
Now I can move on to the development of my plot in chronological order. One last thing for you to remember: The word synopsis comes from the Greek prefix ‘syn’ (meaning together) and ‘opsis’ (meaning ‘seeing’. So, synopsis is really a way of seeing your story all together.
Next time we take a look at selling your book idea to America; how to write non-fiction and get a deal; and self-publishing – the pros and cons.