BLOG 1 - Lockdown... Write Your Book at Last (and the cyber world could be part of your plot).

BLOG 1 - Lockdown... Write Your Book at Last (and the cyber world could be part of your plot).

3rd November 2020

Our guest blogger this month is journalist Terry Manners, former Editor-in-Chief of Express Newspapers in Scotland and Assistant Editor of the Daily Express in London. He was also Editor of the Western Daily Press in Bristol, has written seven books for major publishers and was a Barker of the Variety Club of Great Britain before being appointed Deputy Chairman of its Gold Heart campaign. Here he takes us through some of the joys and pitfalls of writing your own book … something so many of us want to do. And now Lockdown could be the perfect time.


AS WE lurch through this Covid-19 crisis and the country is torn apart by conflicting views and politics this could be the right time for you to take stock and finally give birth to the book you always promised yourself you would write one day. A close friend of mine has done just that. The result is a hardback called Toto & Coco, published by Kelvin House. It tells the incredible stories of bisexual fashion designer Coco Chanel and 1920s cover girl, lesbian Toto Koopman. Both, he reveals, were World War Two spies. Toto for the British working with the Italian Resistance and Coco a Nazi agent living in the Paris Ritz.

Journalist Alan Frame was at a party some months ago when he was told of the existence of secret letters between the two women who worked together, attended the same glittering parties and even shared friends and lovers. Alan tracked the letters down and spent the first virus lockdown on the internet and telephone putting the story together. Wonderful eh? The Daily Mail has featured a centre spread on it and so too has the New York Post. Now a TV series is planned. So, what about your ideas? Perhaps a novel; or a life story on someone famous; or a subject close to your heart. Maybe a gripping thriller about cyber spies? But just how easy is it to write a book and get it published? What are the pitfalls? Where do you begin? You might say ‘with the first sentence’. But it is more than that.

The first thing to remember is that today publishers do not accept unsolicited manuscripts from hopeful writers … unless of course you are a famous footballer like David Beckham, an A-list star or top politician or your name is a guaranteed sale. The days of Dickens and Hemingway penning their novels in front of a log fire as a publisher nervously waits for their tomes are long gone. It is now all about big money newspaper serialisation; film rights and international sales. Publishers are looking for the new Stephanie Meyer who gave us Twilight or Paula Hawkins who wrote Girl on a Train. Young writers they can promote and follow up with a series of books for their eager fans. Writers like Lee Child who created Jack Reacher and Dan Brown with his Da Vinci Code.

Around 120,000 fiction and non-fiction books are published in the UK every year. But publishers will usually not read your manuscript unless it comes through an agent, whose job is to sort out the wheat from the chaff. And the agent may want your book rewritten several times before submitting it to a publisher. Bear in mind that there are over 100 literary agencies in London alone and each one can have up to 10 agents. And each agent can receive up to 15,000 manuscripts a year to consider. Reality is that only one fifth of these ever get published. Tough eh? That’s not all. Getting your manuscript read by the agent is a task in itself. You have to tempt them with a taste of your idea before they agree to turn the pages. They know what different publishers are looking for. They also know the trends in the current market. If you can bash your way through this Hadrian’s Wall of vetting, you are on your way … but don’t be put off, remember that JK Rowling’s idea for the Harry Potter book was turned down 12 times before it was finally published.

There are many types of book. Not everyone wants to write a Harry Potter novel or Lord of the Rings. They range from children’s’ books and tomes on tank battles to galactic wars, life stories and detective novels. But whatever you write, each road to publication can be hard, no matter what genre. You might write 100,000 words, then throw most of it away and start again, or rewrite your story six times to get it into shape to be accepted. Even ‘ghosting’ a book on someone else’s story can be tough. Some years ago, I ghosted the life story of millionaire gambler Alex Bird, which did very well in the hardback and paperback charts.

Ghosting is writing the book on someone in the first person, as if your subject is doing the talking. Alex was a larger than life, a cigar-smoking, multi-millionaire who had a personal betting turnover of £70million a year during his life. In the 1950s he had a private plane, his own boxes at Aintree and Old Trafford football ground; a fleet of Rolls-Royce cars; a string of racehorses; lived in a mansion surrounded by a moat, drank champagne from breakfast to dinner and would invite leading orchestras back to his home to play for late night guests.

His friends were the rich and famous back in the day, like Manchester United boss Sir Matt Busby; Hollywood stars like Stewart Granger and even the bookies themselves like William Hill. It took me two years to write his story, living in his mansion every weekend. But the pitfalls were huge. Alex would recall a memory and take two minutes to tell me … then I would have to make 3,000 words out of it … and time and again the setting was wrong. On Saturday it was a tale about jockey Lester Pigott at Epsom but by Monday it could change as he remembered it was Scobie Beasley at Newmarket. Ughh! Research was huge. Not to mention the legal problems. But Alex became a great friend … and I would often watch him put £1,000 on a horse just to win a few hundred quid to pay for lunch, that was how good he was. He couldn’t be seen to bet himself on the racecourse because his bets would be refused or the odds would crash. He would just stand in his box and touch his panama hat as a signal for his team to go into the ring and flood the bookies with his money.

But back to your book. Take some time to do research. Visit book shops and supermarket book displays to see what the genre of the current best sellers is in fiction and non-fiction. Life stories of actors might be in vogue, or sci fi … or political thrillers. If you are in lockdown you can do this in newspapers and on websites. If you are writing a cyber spy thriller, has a similar plot been done before? If so, get another one. Are cyber thrillers still selling? Look at the book charts, read the reviews and the plots and blurbs. See what the critics are saying. Read a couple of best sellers with the writing style nearest to yours that you like and note the construction of the story, the characters, the pace and how the main players are described. This is important. In books you do not have to describe in detail every character – or set the knives and forks out on every table. And in 100,000 words beware that the colour of your hero’s eyes doesn’t change from blue in the first chapter to brown in the tenth. So many things to look out for, but more of those another time.

The important thing is to prepare your package for the agent you are approaching. You do not send him or her the completed manuscript. Not yet anyway. You have to tempt them into asking for it. The guidelines differ a bit from fiction to non-fiction but not much. In general, you need to electronically send The Pitch; a two or three-page Synopsis and the first three Chapters of your book, or perhaps 10,000 words. The Pitch and the Synopsis are the key to your success. The Pitch should be around 20-30 words and is part of a short letter to the agent that presents your work. It is called a ‘query’ letter. This is hugely important. It is your first shot. Research literary agency websites and pick agents who are clearly interested in the kind of book you have written – and are looking for new writers. Keep the letter short – one page if possible. Agents have different interests and publicise what they are looking for - thrillers, sci-fi, romance, historical, non-fiction, biographies etc. Kick off with your book title, length (word count), genre, completion date and then introduce yourself.

Next comes your pitch of around 20-30 words on what your book is about. Remember the agent will be thinking about how to sell your title to a publisher. The Pitch will outline the heart of the novel and is meant just to sell it to the agent. It is not a synopsis, just a broad, brush stroke. Include in your letter, a short background about yourself and why you have written the book. You may be a cyber protection expert or IT director which they will like if your book is about a gang of hackers. Knowledge is all. Let them know where you think it sits in the market and why it could be successful. Mention any writing experience … winning a short story competition for example. Some agents will have an online form for you to fill in about yourself. Do not brag or say your wife or husband loves your book or what you write. Agents hate it.

Here are a couple of examples of quick pitches. Americans call these ‘the elevator pitch’. You ask yourself the question: ‘If I found myself in an elevator with a publisher between floors, how would I quickly outline my book and make it sound exciting before the doors open.’

So, my book is about:-

  • A young FBI cadet who must confide in a manipulative convicted killer to get help catch another serial killer who skins his victims. (Pitch for Silence of the Lambs).
  • A teen romance between an ordinary girl – and a boy who is a real vampire. (Twilight).
  • The aging patriarch of a crime dynasty transfers control of his clandestine empire to his reluctant son. (The Godfather).

A professor of symbology unlocks codes buried in ancient works of art as he hunts for the Holy Grail. (The Da Vinci Code).

It may look easy, but it’s not. Try it with your book. In fact, take some of the books you have read and write pitches for them, or even the cover lines and blurbs that sum them up on the front - and make them thrilling.

The next document in your submission to the agent is the synopsis. This is a short, lively overview of your book and lays out the complete narrative of your plot from beginning to end. Most agents will read it before even looking at your chapters and writing style. Some might not move on from it and you will get a polite rejection letter. Others you might never hear from again. In any case, it will take 10-12 weeks to hear anything at all. You will need a thick skin. But remember there are more fish in the pond - Decca Records turned down The Beatles.

NEXT TIME: Writing your synopsis; editing; manuscript pitfalls; how to prepare an outline; legal problems; contracts and more.

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Terry Manners