Kate Harrison’s advice

Kate Harrison

I always loved reading – and writing. My childhood favourites included Roald Dahl, Susan Cooper, Helen Cresswell and especially Noel Streatfield. I skipped university and went straight into journalism. First of all, I worked for a news agency, reporting mainly for the national tabloids, then moved to the BBC. I worked as a reporter in regional news in Bristol and Birmingham, before moving behind the camera as a producer on Newsround in London. Later I worked on Panorama and other investigative/consumer shows, using the same secret cameras used in my Secret Shopper books. Old School Ties was published in 2003 and was picked for WH Smith Fresh Talent. In 2007, I left the BBC to write full-time. The Secret Shopper’s Revenge was nominated for the Melissa Nathan Award for Comedy Romance in 2009. My books have been published in a dozen countries, and my first young adult novel, Soul Beach, will be published in the UK by Orion Children’s Books in autumn 2011.

Kate’s Advice on Writing

English: Specimen of Times New Roman. SVG
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Write what you believe in… not what you think will sell. If your heart isn’t in it, or you’re doing it just for the money, a reader will be able to tell. Lots of people told me my book was ‘chick lit’ and the market was overcrowded, but I persevered because I cared about what I’d written. Ten years on, the ‘chick lit’ sector has changed, but women are still reading books that are relevant to their lives.

Experiment before committing yourself to a genre. Be playful and try to find your voice and your passion and the themes that inspire you. The last thing you want is to write one crime book, for example, get a book deal and then realise with book two that your heart lies in Regency romance. Commercial authors have to be aware that the market is so huge that you will be marketed as a ‘brand’ so you need to know exactly what it is that makes your stories special and unique – and be able to deliver that four, eight, twelve books down the line.

Little and often. I try to write every day, and set myself a goal. When you begin a novel, it can seem incredibly daunting. But if you want to write a novel in six months, break your task down into manageable chunks. Most popular fiction books weigh in at 75-100,000 words. So that’s just over 400 words a day…

Incentivise… horrible word, good ideaReward yourself with coffee or even a Hob Nob when you finish a chapter/paragraph/sentence (though if you do it every sentence, you might not be able to get through the front door by the time you get to chapter 3). Or perhaps you need to be inspired by watching a movie or reading a book in your genre, or visiting where your book is set: treats can be useful as well as enjoyable. The fact is that however much you want to be a writer, there are times when it’s difficult or frustrating, so find out ways of motivating yourself. Whatever you need to do to motivate yourself, … remember Rome wasn’t built in a day. Neither was Wigan.

Never trust a relativeYour friends and family know how much work you’ve put into your book. Don’t believe it when they say you’re the next Helen Fielding or Charles Dickens. They might be right, but they might also be trying to spare your feelings… instead…

Ask a stranger join a writers’ group. Or if you’re not good at evening classes, there are lots of great websites and online forums where you could find a ‘writing buddy.’ Look for someone honest but supportive, who understands and likes your genre and who’ll nag you when you’re slacking. But make sure you’re willing to do critiques for them too…

Too busy or too lazy? If you can’t make a regular commitment to critique someone else’s work … pay! There are some good critique services around which can pinpoint where you’re going wrong – and if you’re good, they can even put you in touch with an agent. They don’t come cheap, and check their credentials before you pay up – the good ones have numerous quotes from published authors on their websites.


Kate on Agents

For what it’s worth, I think finding an agent is a bit like dating – you want to find people you click with… in writing, it’s about finding people who believe in your work, and that when that happens it’s worth the flirtations (or rejections) you’ve had before you meet the ‘real thing.’ To help you find your literary soul mate, I’ve put together some advice.

Do your research

• Look at books that are similar in style or genre to yours, or at the books of authors you admire. Their websites or acknowledgements pages will often name their agents, so that’s one source of names or details.

• Most agencies now have websites giving full details of their exact submission requirements and client lists, helping you to choose which agent might be right for you.

• Attend or research writers’ conferences, where agents often offer one-to-one appointments. Even if you can’t attend the conferences, you can usually find out the names of the agents attending by reading the programmes -agents who turn up at conferences are generally actively seeking clients, so they’re worth targeting.

• Weigh up pros and cons: an experienced agent will have a large list and lots of knowledge, but may not have much time -a newer agent may have more time for you, but fewer contacts.

Get your packaging right!

• To submit work, you need a ‘submission package’ -an excerpt from the book, a covering letter, plus some form of synopsis of the entire book (agents often ask for different lengths of synopses so check their websites or the Writers’ Handbook [or the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook] for the exact specification.

• Make sure each element is perfectly formatted, has no spelling or grammatical mistakes, and reads elegantly and well. The more professional you are, the more seriously your agent will take you. Fundamentally, this is like applying for a job, so avoid gimmicks or gifts, for example.

• Your covering letter should be addressed to a specific person -NOT Sir/Madam -and will include the title and genre of your book, a short blurb, and perhaps a note on where your book fits into the marketplace e.g. Jaws meets The Time Traveller’s Wife, or a note of the genre. One of most common reasons for rejection of an otherwise good book is ‘I don’t know where we’d place it.’

• Don’t mention in pitch letter other novels you have written and not had published –agents want focus.

• Add in a short biographical note about yourself, but keep it relevant -only mention your hobbies or your career if the book touches on them. Do include details of any prizes won if they are well-known but don’t boast in your letter –keep it factual. If you have an endorsement from anyone famous/successful/known to the agent, do mention it -but saying your mum or kids love it does not count!

• For the manuscript itself, double space it and include page numbers, wide margins and a cover page with your name and title. Use a simple font e.g. Times New Roman or Arial, and only print on one side of the paper.

• Some agents will accept email submissions -if so, follow the instructions on their website to the letter! Many will not read attachments so want the material pasted into the body of the email.
• There is a huge debate around whether you should only submit to one agent at a time. I would suggest submitting to four or five in batches, and not mentioning the other agents in your letter UNLESS an agent asks to be notified if it’s a multiple submission.

A word on the importance of the right title!

These days, titles are more important than ever -I know of books being sold almost on the title alone. So do give lots of thought to it -brainstorm with friends or other readers, until you have the right one. And accept that even if you sell your project, the publisher may want to change the title again.

After the submission…

• Don’t hassle for an answer. If you’ve not heard anything within 3 months, it’s OK to call and enquire. It can take up to 6 months for your work to be read!

• Have a list of more agents to submit to if your latest batch come back with rejections.
• If you are rejected, remember that most authors have been through it -and if your rejection letter is personalised, it means you almost got there -so see that as encouraging.

• Join online groups of writers, to help you deal with any rejections but also celebrate your achievements.

• If you’ve submitted to more than 20 agents with nothing but form rejections, it may be time to review your book. You can also pay for advice from literary consultancies, though such advice doesn’t come cheap. Do check them out before paying for a reading, and NEVER pay an agent for representation.

And finally…

Most important of all, start on your NEXT project: if you’re signed up, they will want you to write more than one book. Plus it takes your mind off waiting for the responses.

Read more from Kate on her website.


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