Once upon I told you lovely blog readers about a book called How Not To Write a Novel: 200 Mistakes To Avoid at All Costs if You Ever Want to Be Published. In my review of it I expressed my dream that, one day, whenever someone said, “You know, I think I might like to write a book…” a magical lever would depress somewhere in their nearest Amazon fulfillment centre and a copy of How Not… would be automatically sent to them as a kind of Stop sign. But this was really just a Band-Aid, something to temporarily stop yet another bad book from entering the world. Chances are, it wouldn’t even stick, or at least not stick for very long. What was really needed was a book aimed at the aspiring novelist even sooner that the “I’m going to write a book” thought, one that helped them to determine, before they ever put pen to paper, whether writing a book was indeed the job for them and, more importantly, if they had anything worth writing a book about.
Well ladies, gentlemen and spammer bots, I’ve found it. It’s called Is There a Book in You? and it’s by Alison Baverstock. I highly recommend it, and I recommend you read it before you go out and buy things like On Writing or The Writers and Artists Yearbook (or even, if you’re anything like me, a new computer; I once read that Michael Connelly said the best thing for writer’s block was a new computer, and I’ve used it as my excuse ever since). It offers a reality check, not a bleak one but it is realistic, and it will help you figure out if writing is what you were meant to do, or if it’s the thing you were meant to avoid. Are you daydreaming of writing all day everyday come rain or shine, or are you daydreaming about being a writer? It helps you answer this question and as a bonus, has some fantastic writerly quotes on its pages.
Here’s the synopsis:
“For many, the desire to write is very strong. Yet how do you know whether there is a book in you? And do you have what it takes to see it through? At the heart of this book is a questionnaire that helps you discover whether there is a potential writer lurking. The book explores the topics of creativity, motivation, what to write about, the key attributes that all writers must possess to succeed, what you must know about the publishing industry and much more.”
Alison was nice enough to answer a few questions for us here on Catherine, Caffeinated.
Welcome, Alison! What prompted you to write Is There a Book in You…?
I was mulling over the idea of trying to theorise about the competencies and aptitudes that the author needed when the idea for this book came as a flash of inspiration: I would find ten core assets and test why they were important. I can remember when it first occurred to me (I was just preparing to give a talk on publishing in a bookshop) and scuttling across to my briefcase to note down the five or six things that immediately occurred to me! I trialled my ideas with writers, publishers, agents, and all involved with the publishing business. It was the fastest book I ever wrote, which to me is always a good sign – when things are going well I write very quickly.
What is it, in your opinion, makes so many people think they have a novel in them, when nowhere near as many say, “I know if I just had the time, I’d make a film/compose a song/sculpt a piece of art”? What do you think it is about writing books that makes so many people think they can do it?
I think most people have a story inside them, and recording it is important to them – the key issue is whether other people will want to share and read it too. I am a great believer in everyone writing – because I think writing brings with it reflection, self-knowledge and often healing – but that not every story needs to be shared; some may be of interest only to your immediate circle of family and friends, or even just to you (writing things down before you forget them can bring peace of mind).
I suppose people underestimate how difficult writing is because it is on the ‘compulsory’ part of the school curriculum, and so having been forced to do it at school, many think it is achievable by all. And then the kind of good writing studied in school flows so well that the reader is inclined to discount the associated effort, and think ‘how hard can this be?’ The process is also heavily influenced by stories of writers who break through from scribbling at home into huge sales; and this maintains the romance for others who would like to do the same thing. They show it is possible, and prompt the dreams of others.
How can you tell if the book in you is any good?
You can tell quite quickly if the work of other people is what you want to go on reading – does it hold you, does it feel vivid, do you feel carried by the story rather than spotting how it is constructed? It’s much more difficult to do that for your own work. I would advise setting work aside for a couple of months and returning to it with an objective eye; involving critical friends or paying for an expert opinion.
What is the one thing an aspiring writer can do to improve their chances of writing a good book?
Read more. There is nothing that improves your writing skills more than reading what other good writers have written. It doesn’t have to be books, it could be well crafted blogs (such as Catherine’s!) newspaper and magazines – any crafted and edited format over which trouble has been taken. The shape of effective writing will start to impose itself on your brain and have an influence on how you present your own ideas. I like to remind my students of how John McEnroe played tennis – he always walked around the lines of the court as if to impress them on his brain – and hopefully structure his response. Reading does the same for writers.
If an aspiring writer has ascertained that indeed, yes, there is a book in them and they manage to crank out 100,000 words or however many of it, what next steps should they take?
Well firstly congratulate yourself! Getting 100,000 words down is no mean achievement, and even if you do not manage to get a publishing deal, this now exists and can be refined and read by others in future.
Then think about what kind of work it is and who might like to read it (look in bookshops to see how books are categorised and where yours might sit – you do need to do this as any agent or publisher who is interested in you will want to know what your book is like). Edit it and improve it, either on your own or with support, until it is as good as you can make it. Then get hold of a copy of the ‘Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook’ to find out what kind of agents and publishers might be interested. If you want to know how to manage the pitch, then can I humbly recommend ‘Marketing your book: to publishers, agents and readers. An author’s guide’ (also by me, and published by A&C Black)? And if you decide you would rather self-publish then there are lots of ways in which this can be pursued, some of which may lead to a conventional publishing deal. It’s a case of matching what you want to achieve with the resources you have available.
Finally, remember that a journey to publication should not be rushed, and you should not send out work until you are happy to be judged by it. The number of publishers and agents is reducing, there are vast numbers of other writers seeking a contract – and you can only make a first impression once!
Thank you, Alison!
Alison Baverstock is a former publisher, author of 13 titles, a publishing industry consultant, teacher of marketing and publishing studies at Kingston University and advisor to new writers. She appeared as an expert contributor on the Richard and Judy “How To Get a Novel Published” series of programmes. Click here to find out more.