Ready, fire, aim! Something to check before you write a novel

Remember that book I was writing? I thought I’d post an update.

After a lot of work, eight drafts and two printers I’ve sent it out to some people, and I’ve had loads of feedback about it from agents and other publishing insiders. The dialogue is great. It’s really atmospheric. The characters are fun. The book is variously “quite funny”, “funny”, “very funny” and “extremely funny”.

Nobody wants to take it on.

Apparently it’s not the writing, but the genre*. It’s a comic thriller, and comic thrillers are the red-headed stepchild of the mainstream fiction business. Everyone knows they exist, but nobody wants them in their publishing house.

If I’d known that two years ago it might have saved me quite a bit of effort.

So here’s a top tip. If you want to write novels – that is, if you want to write novels that get published – then it might be an idea to do what Ian Rankin did before you start plotting. Rankin looked at what sold, and concluded that Books With Cops In was the genre for him.

As for me, I’m starting another one. I’ll tell you about it when there’s something worth saying.

* In most cases, anyway. A few agents told me that at 67,000 words it’s just too short; for mainstream fiction publishers apparently expect 80,000 words plus or they won’t even look at it. Unfortunately for me 67K is the right length for the story, and any more would make the story sag.

Update, June 2011: I decided to publish the book myself on Kindle, iBooks and so on. It’s called Coffin Dodgers, it’s doing quite well, and you can find out more about it here, if you like.

29 thoughts on “Ready, fire, aim! Something to check before you write a novel”

  1. Arses.

    Still, if no-one will publish it you could always do it yourself. Might be worth paying for an editor though, or you could release it free when your second one comes out to generate some publicity for it?

    Or wait until comedy thrillers comes into vogue?

    1. I don’t think they’re arses – they’re in business to sell books, and if I’m pitching something they can’t sell they’d be demented to take it on :) I’ll hold on to the first one just now, because I’m quite fond of it. See what happens.

  2. Well Iain Banks started writing literary fiction because he thought it would be easier to sell than SF, and ended up being famous for both. So fingers crossed!

  3. Thanks for the support, and for not mentioning that everyone might just have been kind because my book was shite :)

  4. Next time you’re on the toilet, look in front of you – the answer could be right there in your own hands (iPad, Kindle).

    You don’t need a publisher these days any more than you need pulped up trees to print on. iBookstore, Kindle store?

    You might have to edit out the extreme filth, do lots of marketing, etc. but you’re almost in control. That’s got to be better than sitting on it and wondering what might have been…

    1. You’ll be shocked – shocked! – to discover that I have some strong opinions on that. One blog post coming up :)

  5. >>and for not mentioning that everyone might just have been kind because my book was shite

    You seem to have gotten a lot more feedback than I imagine most stuff gets. So surely not the case?

  6. > Rankin looked at what sold, and concluded that Books With Cops In was the genre for him.

    Your book has cops in already. Maybe you could add more. And make them get bitter divorces.

  7. Sorry to hear that the publishers won’t take it on. At least if you write another and it gets picked up, you have the basis for your second novel already prepped if needed.

    Keep going, and keep visualising that poster with your name on it in the window of Waterstones :)

  8. Getting back to the original point: by finding what sells, I presume you mean to look at what’s already on the shelves. Also, did you know you were writing a comic thriller when you started out?

    1. I did, yeah, it was the story I wanted to tell at the time. The one I’m working on – very slowly – now is much more serious, but it’s not something I’d have been able to write about a couple of years ago.

      The problem with seeing what’s on the shelves is that to an extent you’re looking at historical data, because realistically if you start writing *today* it’ll be two years plus before your one is published. So it’s a safe bet that, say, vampires won’t be the big deal they were six months ago.

      Depends on the shelves too. If you want to be rich, the shelves you need to watch are the ones in Tesco and ASDA.

  9. So if it’s not that easy to pick the winning genre, and since it seems you needed to write this book to get going as a novelist, it seems that you did the right thing anyway! I’m writing a young adult novel, which obviously seems to be a winning genre these days, but I didn’t pick the story for that reason; in fact it almost seems like a story that picked me, and I’m having fun working it out and telling it. If it turns out that young adult novels are last year’s news when I start hawking it around the agents, I will still be glad that I took the time to tell it, and I will probably be very happy that I managed to write an entire novel too!

    1. Sounds like you’ve got the right idea. There’s so much work in writing a novel that if you’re not into the story and not going to enjoy its twists and turns as you write it, you’re crazy.

      Good luck :)

  10. Thanks! I am enjoying writing it, but it would obviously be super-great to get it sold as well.

    I have to also say that the reason I’ve finally got going with this is the iPhone: I’m writing mostly on my morning commute on the train, using Elements on my iPhone. It’s surprisingly easy with the iPhone’s great predictive text, and Elements backs it up instantly on my Dropbox. (Or as soon as I emerge from underground.)

    In a couple of months I’ve done about 30k words of the first draft, so it seems to work pretty well. Assuming it’s any good of course!

    1. Are you using the virtual keyboard? I must say I don’t fancy using a phone for protracted typing; I’ve used writeroom for a bit of outlining but even that was painful after a couple of minutes.

      30K’s great progress. Well done :)

  11. Yes, the virtual keyboard. No room on the tube for a proper keyboard and anyway the “typing on lap” thing kills my wrists, but holding the phone is pretty natural. I never would have thought it would work but decided to try it out of desperation at never having time to sit and write, and it’s OK. For 30 to 40 minutes a day, that is.

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