So you've written a lockdown novel . . . what now?
Thriller writer Adam Hamdy on how to get that lockdown novel into shape, and launch it into the world.
Longs months indoors and the WFH revolution have created the perfect opportunity for some hopeful authors to finally write that book. But what comes next for your future bestseller?
Adam Hamdy, Sunday Times best-selling thriller author of seven novels, shares his exclusive tips for publication success and dispels common myths around publishing your first novel.
Some authors have struggled to write during the pandemic, citing headline fatigue, the distraction of social media, illness and increased childcare as reasons for this unique lockdown-induced form of writer’s block. Some writers, however, have taken advantage of months of lockdown and furlough to fulfil their ambition to complete a novel. If you fall into this latter camp, congratulations, you’re a step closer to publication. What comes next? Here, I share some ideas to help ensure your lockdown novel becomes a post-pandemic success.
Become part of the community
When my first book was acquired, no one told me publishing is a social endeavour and that building relationships within the community is an important part of your job. Beneath the veneer, I’m naturally shy, don’t like talking about myself and get nervous around new people, so anyone who struggles with these things has my sympathy. The good news is that a lot of interaction can be done by social media and it’s fairly easy to become quite pally with authors, agents and publishers without ever meeting. There’s a big writing community on Twitter, so sign up and get involved.
If you have strong opinions on things, consider having a personal account and an author account because the book world tends to prefer polite chat rather than the flame wars common to social media. Follow your favourite authors and leading figures in your genre and build your own following by being interesting and entertaining. Easy, huh? I’m kidding. It’s not easy, but whether you’re traditionally or independently published, your social media presence is important. Get a website and start building a mailing list as soon as you can. Direct engagement with readers is extremely important, so start building a fan base of people interested in your work today.
If you can overcome any nerves and get involved in the real world, go to book events at your local bookshop, library and literary festivals and get to know authors. We tend to be an approachable bunch and provided you pick your moment well – not in the signing queue – will usually be happy to chat to a fellow writer who’s at the start of their journey.
Understand your novel
Time is your friend. There can be a temptation to rush and push for publication. Enthusiasm is good, but not if it comes at the cost of quality. Don’t be tempted to submit your first draft. Allow your novel to percolate for a while. I spent four years on my latest novel, but never got it to the point where I considered it finished, because something wasn’t working for me. Then I had a chance encounter with a stranger, and our conversation transformed how I thought about the book. The novel, which publishes in September 2022, is one I’m very proud of, but I had to give it time to develop.
Become a book bore with people you can trust. Talk to them about your story, about the characters. Describe it as though you were talking about real events and people. See where your listeners get bored or ask questions like, ‘I don’t understand. Why did they do that?’
Talking about your book will often help you understand it better. Summarising the story will often help you learn what it’s really about. That might sound strange because you’ve written the book, but I know plenty of authors, myself included, who have only truly figured out what their book is really about when they’ve finished the first draft. I try to avoid that now with better planning, but it’s really worth spending time understanding your book and the issues, themes and people at its core before you go any further. Largely because the next stage is to make changes to your novel, and you won’t know which changes will improve it if you don’t understand it properly.
Edit your novel
Do not submit your first draft to agents or publishers, or if you’re going down the independent publishing route, don’t put it on KDP. Take your time to ensure you’re submitting the best possible work. Editing isn’t simply about spelling corrections, punctuation and grammar. Your job is to make choices about how the story is told. The same story can be told a variety of ways. Has your plot given you the best route through the story? Are your scene choices the ones that will evoke the best reaction from the reader? Have you used point of view effectively? Is there any fat in the book? Is the pacing right? And so on. When you’re published, you will often work on these things with your editor and/or agent, so in some ways the job of the aspiring author is harder. Challenge yourself to test each key element of your book – story, plot, character, emotional impact, point of view, twists – and do a separate read for each to see if there’s room for improvement.
Some authors use beta readers to help guide their edit. If you think this would help, find readers you trust and hone your instincts. Ultimately your instincts as a storyteller will be what enables you to have a career, so while it’s important to take counsel from others, you’ve got to learn when to trust yourself.
Practice and edit your pitch
I used to hate writing pitches or synopses. Now I know they are essential and useful tools. If you can’t say something special in fifty words, you’re unlikely to do so with fifty thousand. Once you’ve truly understood your book, coming up with your pitch should be easier. Your challenge is to articulate what makes your book special in a couple of lines. If you, the first champion of your novel, can’t do that, what chance will an agent with forty clients or an editor with ten authors have?
An important tool for helping hone your pitch is to read extensively in your chosen genre and beyond. See what books are selling, what messages are used to sell them and what hooks authors and publishers use to get readers to pick them up.
Take time over your pitch and submission letter (if you decide to go the agent/traditional publishing route). You will get one chance to make a good first impression.
Test your pitch on friends or maybe even some of the authors and bloggers you’ve got to know through becoming part of the community. Only test it with people you can trust and only with their agreement. Never submit anything to anyone who hasn’t asked for it. Publishing is a small world and it’s relationship-driven, so be polite and don’t take rejection personally, no matter how painful. Everyone gets rejected at some point.
Choose your path
Self or independent publishing now offers a route for authors who don’t want the trappings of traditional publishing. I’m not going to rehearse the pros and cons here, but you need to seek out experts and advocates of both and make your choice. If you want to build a career as a traditionally published author, learn about that world, and if you want to go down the independent route, seek out and learn from people who’ve succeeded. Sam Missingham is a publishing industry expert who offers insight on both and is a good place to start your research journey.
If you’re going down the traditional publishing route, research agents and identify the ones that you feel are a best fit for you and your work. Follow their submission guidelines, and remember a decent agent will receive hundreds of novels a month, so rejection is not personal. It also highlights why it’s so important to ensure you have the best novel, pitch and submission letter possible.
If you’re one of the lucky few who get an agent and sign a publishing deal, or you self-publish and are a runaway success, huge congratulations. If you’re one of the many who don’t achieve success this time around, and you still have a burning passion to be an author, remember the only person who can stop you from being an author is you. If you keep writing, you might make it one day. Stopping ensures you won’t. Most of my author friends didn’t sell the first novel they wrote. I know an author who got published on their eighth attempt. That’s dedication and determination from someone who loves writing. Hold on to the passion that got you started, keep the love you have for the written word and keep going.
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Image credit: Josh Sedgley