Wednesday, 27 February 2008

Agent insights

This morning, I was lucky enough to spend forty minutes picking the brains of a leading U.K. literary agent about what's right and wrong with the current manuscript of my crime novel. Absolutely invaluable, not least because she said many positive things about my writing while being brutally (her word) candid about the problems with plot and structure. She was keen to stress that this was a subjective, personal response to the ms, but honestly? Everything she said resonated with me. And a lot of it fell under the general heading of Gems for the Aspiring (Crime) Writer. So I'm going to share an edited version of her insights, in the hope it will be of value to others. Indulge me as I record the good stuff, personal to me, by way of an investment in my self-confidence. And bear in mind that some of the negative stuff may be things with which another writer is lucky enough never to struggle.

Keys to good crime writing

“Crime is a brutally rational genre with an almost Puritanical discipline in terms of plot, motivation, evidence, reasoning and conclusion. At the same time, it has the potential for the most gothic exploration of the inner reaches of the soul.

“What makes a good crime novel is the contrast, and the tension, between the creepy and the mundane.

“Narrative tension is crucial but good plot is more important than too much plot – lose the codes and complications.

“Settle on a single strand of story and go deep – dig down into the psychology.

“The more gothic the ingredients (and gothic is good – we all love gothic), the greater the need for logic and resolution. The premise, the core of the story, has to work in these terms.

“You need to plot out a very very tight story. Take away all the trappings and work out which story makes psychological sense – focus on that story.”

Specific problems with the ms

“It was as if you’d thought what are the ingredients for a crime novel? A bit of Da Vinci Code, a bit of police procedural, a bit of Michael Connelly? Then you put them all in. There was no air to breathe.

Note: Interestingly, I didn't think this; I've never read the Da Vinci Code, or any Michael Connelly, but I will confess readily to trying too hard to deliver what I thought crime readers wanted to read, rather than focusing on the story I had to tell

“There were too many strands and every strand was twisted – I stopped believing it because of this 'clottedness'. There was too much plot and drama; just as we were settling into one strand, there are questions raised about another.

“Your mistake in trying to make it plot-driven was to introduce more plot when what you need is less but better plot. You need to slim down the many elements, tease out a simpler but deeper story.”

The bright side

“You write really really well, with genuine wit, originality and charm. Straightaway there is the sense of feeling relaxed with the text that comes with confidence in the author.

“You have the potential to write with real depth, no doubt about it – you have created great characters and dynamics between them.

“With your ability to write, and the ideas here, you have the makings of a really really impressive novel.”

Last but not least

“Revision can be harder than starting over. If you do decide to rework this story, it might be best to show the revision to someone who hasn't seen the original, but I’d be very pleased to see a new story from you.”


MG said...

Woo...awesome comments...extremely helpful! It reminds me a bit of Peter telling me - give me a simple story.

It really does help to have a single POV and a single emotional driver. I'm not saying that you have to write all your novels that way but as a place to start, to explore possibilities and structure, I can highly recommend it.

This is really powerful helpful stuff! I'm sure you'll be able to use it.

Sarah Hilary said...

Hello! And yes - great stuff. I really felt I'd turned a corner during the conversation with her, because although I have a long way to go I could suddenly see the path, very clearly. I am using it like whoa (as the young people say) and it's very exciting. It's not the story I thought I was going to tell but it's much better, far stronger and tighter. Catch you soon, I hope. I see from your blog you're incredibly busy!

MG said...

I'm not incredibly busy, I'm so lazy it's incredible. Luckily I ask so little of myself during plotting. One useful thought per day is an accomplishment.

WONDERFUL to hear how excited you are after talking to the agent! But her advice to you is some of the best and most specific I have seen. And you should now have the confidence to not worry about writing prose or characters - you have all that stuff down pat!

Sarah Hilary said...

It was really generous of SL to give me so much of her time, although she was kind enough to keep repeating that she wouldn't have done so if she didn't believe I could make it all the way. Bless her.

A useful idea a day is a good bar - I'm at a similar level myself right now, although trying to make it two or three. *g*

Anonymous said...

Hi there Sarah

Sounds like you're just a magical step away from being there, right in the zone. I wonder if the existing MS was the book they say a writer has to write before they can write the one they want to write... It's terrific being able to follow events like this, thanks.

Sarah Hilary said...

Hi Pete, thanks for dropping by with such kind words of encouragement. I do indeed feel like I'm on the verge of the zone, finally. I just wish I had the time to write! I'm managing a little every day, which is great, but I'd like to be doing else now that I can finally see the light, so to speak.