The Magazine for Crime & Mystery

Have you got what it takes to be a Writer?

Do you want to be a novelist but don’t know what to do with your finished manuscript?
Fiona Shoop speaks to an agent and a publisher to see what appeals and what doesn’t.

and the chance to see your short story on the SHOTS site
No matter how good your book, many publishers will not even put it on the slush pile (as non-requested manuscripts are known – and kept lying for months or even years at a time) but send it straight back to you unless you have one, vital component: an agent. This might sound strange but with thousands of hopeful novels sent out every week, it’s a quick way of seeing what’s hot and what’s not. For many publishers, an agent is there as a filter system, as a quick way of seeing what’s worth reading because they often just don’t have the time or resources to do it all themselves. Kerith Biggs of Darley Anderson Literary Agents is a crime writing agent but what is an agent? ‘It’s lots of things. First of all, we try and sell the actual book to the publisher so that’s the starting point. We work editorially with a lot of our clients so we don’t just get things in and think, ‘Oh, that’s not bad’ and send it out. We think very hard and take on just one or two new clients a year and work on those editorially and then send them out to the publishers. We try to send the book out to the right editor, to the right publisher. That’s the first thing an agent does. Then, hopefully, you go through the contract and see if there are any unfriendly author clauses that have been slipped in, unfriendly royalty clauses. You try and fight for your author that way. After the contract’s signed and sealed, you try to help out the author with cover designs. There’s a battle again on the author’s behalf and then it’s continuing author support, seeing if their career’s doing well, if not, trying to help them organise publicity, that sort of thing. Helping them to know where they can find an accountant to help them out with that sort of thing. Basically, an all-round supporter.
‘What we do is we ask anyone who would like us as their agent to send us the first three chapters (not forgetting to enclose an SAE) and, if we like them, we ask to see more. Then, we generally ask to meet the author because you have to get on as it’s, hopefully, going to be a long-term relationship and both sides have to get on. It depends how much you’ve got on your plate and, if there’s too much, you have to let promising writers try other agents and you know that, somewhere down the line, that person’s going to be published but there just aren’t enough hours in the day sometimes. I’m sure that there will be a big whoops sometime, it happens to all of us. It hasn’t happened to me yet but I’m sure it will sometime! ‘Selling a book is really exciting. We encourage authors to do as much publicity for themselves as they can. We don’t have a publicity arm but there are a lot of books out there and authors have to make their books stand out from all the rest. Some authors haven’t really thought about having to do their own publicity and it’s a bit daunting for them. ‘I like to go to author events and it’s part for the fun of the job. And I like the agency authors. I don’t see them very often so I take the chance when I can. I want to have one or two best sellers on my hands, the agency does have some already, and we do have authors who are doing exceptionally well but I want one of my authors to be on the top ten!’
David Shelley, the Publishing Director at fast growing Allison and Busby, explained that there’s no set formula to getting published but that it helps if you’re writing the ‘right’ type of book. ‘It’s the same as supermodels, one year it will be ones who want to be super thin and then it will be people like Sophie Dahl. Just like crime novels. At the moment it’s the psychological, more character-driven novels that are doing well but these things change so quickly. ‘If it’s a work of genius, it will sell whatever. Assuming that it’s competently written, if it’s a humorous crime novel that stands in its way, a few, such as Peter Guttridge do it well but there seems to be a mood against them. In my own experience, I find it hard to sell them. Partly, people don’t find crime amusing. You have to remember that, for large bookstores, there’s a headquarters where a few people control what gets sorted in large quantities and this is happening more and more. If they decide that’s not where their bookshop wants to go then they won’t buy it and that whole sub-genre will fail.
‘Ghost crime as well is out. Anything with supernatural elements but who knows, next year there could be a huge best-seller that is a supernatural crime book and then suddenly supernatural will be in. Generally, publishing is a very reactive industry rather than proactive so everyone is going after the best-sellers. After Bridget Jones there were lots of similar books, after Andy McNab there were lots of boys’ war SAS books. It’s very, very reactive because it’s not as profitable as the film or music industry and people have to be very careful if they want to carry on with what they’re doing. ‘I think some of the very well written Miss-Marple style books are doing well. If you have a very uncomplicated character, a spinster with a cottage garden . . . I personally won’t want to go anywhere near that. ‘I love authors like Minette Walters who does the psychological thrillers so well. For me, what’s interesting about crime novels is the characters that you go to sleep dreaming about. Especially with series that have about eight or nine books and you feel, after reading those books that you’ve got to know the person. That’s what I’m really after, complexity of characterisation. To be honest, it’s quite lacking in a lot of crime novels. Character, plot and pace are important and dialogue often isn’t done well in crime novels.
‘I’m thinking of someone like Ed McBain who does lines and lines of dialogue and you don’t really need a ‘he said’, ‘she said’ because each voice has its own register, so it’s almost as though you’re listening to each one as they talk, and you don’t have to look at them. You know who’s saying what. It’s hard to do. I don’t actually mind it when it is ‘he said’, ‘she said’. What I object to more is the ‘he declared’ or ‘he proposed’, you know when the author’s obviously making a big effort trying to vary what they say. It’s important for the characters to have a recognisable voice. Dialogue is a difficult thing to do and people can’t always get over what they hear. It’s a very difficult skill to get over, pitch-perfect dialogue.
‘All the authors I particularly like have experience of what they’re writing about. Agatha Christie had experience of upper-middle class life. To be honest, there aren’t many crime authors who try to go outside what they know. I think that it’s totally true that you can’t write things like northern noir if you come form a comfortable, middle-class background. Good writers have an instinctive sense that they must write what they know. Only very bad writers or some on the slush pile tend to write about something that they obviously know nothing about. It’s much more common in bad writers than good writers. ‘What makes a bad writer apart from that? They can write overlong, pretentious sentences or over short, snappy sentences that are actually just short, ridiculous sentences. They can use stock characters. That’s probably the most infuriating thing, straight out of central casting. Flawed but maverick policemen who have a troubled private life. That’s more depressing because it’s not just bad, it’s weak-willed writing. Not trying to do anything new at all and that seems more depressing to me that anyone would actually want to spend their time writing that stuff. ‘Then there are the people who think that they’ll just write about their boring lives and they don’t have the skill of narrative to get behind the emotions or the bland exterior. When I like something, I definitely know it and I’ll be on the phone right away. We take about a month and a half to let people know. We can’t have stuff just sitting around the office so we go through it all about once a week. I read until I’m bored and then I stop. I want to read something that I’d buy myself. If I went into a bookshop and read a bit, then was bored, I’d put it back on the shelf.’
There is no easy way to getting published or maybe there is: perseverance. If you really believe in your book, then rewrite it. As many authors, agents and editors have admitted, there is no such thing as a finished book. Go and get an agent, if you want to be taken seriously but, if the first one doesn’t want your book, then try again and again until you find one who does – and good luck.

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Ezine 12 Contents

Val McDermid Interview

Nevada Barr on writing HUNTING SEASON plus an excerpt

Stark Contrasts Michael Carlson examines the pulp fiction of Richard Stark

Have you got what it takes to be a Writer? by Fiona Shoop

It Could Only Happen in Hollywood

To any budding writers out there do you want to see your short story in print in SHOTS? It's easy. Just follow our eleven point plan.
1.Start with a good letter which will convince us that you can write and that we want to read your story. A CV is not necessary but it's always useful to know if you've been published before
2.Stories should be crime-based ones (obvious but needs to be said) about 1,500-3,500 words long.
3.Remember the basic rules of grammar and punctuation. We receive hundreds of manuscripts and don't have time to correct all of them so make it easy for yourself but writing something readable
4.Don't forget to have clear paragraph breaks - it can be off-putting otherwise
5.Always check spellings - too many mistakes can lead to us not reading your work
6.Number pages and use a paperclip to secure them - it makes our life easier
7.Simultaneous submissions will not be considered. Why would we want to print something which another magazine is also publishing at the same time? But be honest and tell us if you have sent it to anyone else. We will consider your work promptly so there is no excuse for sending it to several magazines at once as far as we are concerned - it's bad business
8.Contemporary stories are the most popular with our readers so please don't try to be the new Chandler or base your work in an obscure era. We want to relate to what we're reading - and you'll stand more chance of being published if we do
9.Don't forget to have a strong plot and a strong pace with good characters. Short stories are difficult to write as you have to say so much in such a short space - look at previous examples in the magazine and on our website for ideas of what we expect
10.All work must be typed/printed on one side of the page only with few (if any) mistakes
11.Either e-mail your story to or send it by post to Mike Stotter 189 Snakes Lane East, Woodford Green, Essex IG8 7JH UK enclosing an SAE (or with international reply coupons) - I'm afraid that we can't reply to anyone who doesn't do this

And Good Luck