Mad about manuscripts

Rebecca Swift is director and co-founder of The Literary Consultancy, which provides a manuscript assessment service for writers looking for advice, direction and help with preparing their manuscript for publication. In an interview with Elen Lewis, Rebecca talks about finding your feet as a writer, exploring all the options for publication, and stripping back to the essentials.

Describe The Literary Consultancy in 26 words.
TLC is supported by Arts Council England, and is the UK’s leading manuscript assessment service for writers in any genre, at any level writing in English.

What is your favourite author success story from The Literary Consultancy?
Currently my favourite story is that of Jenny Downham who came to us via Centreprise, a literature development partner in Hackney, working with us on the Arts Council Free Read Scheme. Our reader Brian Keaney immediately spotted an exceptional talent, but it was difficult to sell in her first, brilliant book. So we kept chatting to Jenny and the literary agent who admired her writing, Catherine Clarke of Felicity Bryan, and Jenny’s second novel was published by Transworld as ‘Before I Die’. Fast forward to 2012, and we are celebrating the fact that this novel has been made in to a major feature film which is making lots of teenagers weep with delight and sorrow. The film is called ‘Now is Good’ – and we couldn’t be more pleased that Jenny’s talent is shining through.

What advice would you give 26ers looking to be published for the first time?
If you mean wanting to get a book published, a novel or non-fiction, as opposed to other kinds of writing, then I guess my advice would be don’t expect miracles. It is not easy getting published in today’s commercially anxious publishing climate, but what is important is at some point to decide what kind of writer you want to be. Either you write for yourself primarily, and if you’ve finished something you’re really pleased with that isn’t finding commercial outlets, then explore the plethora of small presses, or self-publishing options out there.

Also it’s worth remembering that non-fiction is always easier to place than fiction – assuming you know your subject, can write, and are plugging a real gap in the market which you can prove to the industry.

What does TLC do that an agent doesn’t?
We are pre-agents, if you like, and don’t sell work directly to publishers, or do any of the other work agents do such as sell on your rights, or manage contracts. In other words we are totally different. We are editorial manuscript assessors – and that’s our passion and focus. TLC’s readers read every word of what is written from beginning to end, regardless of the quality of the manuscript. It is their job to encourage writerly strengths, and point out weaknesses, as well as providing a conclusion about a work’s market chances at the time of submission. Not everyone will get commercially published, but we try to help people think about what they have or haven’t been able to achieve and try to urge them to push harder if they want to. Then, if we really think something has market promise, we’ll represent it to agents on your behalf.

What are the most common mistakes made by first-time authors?
Many people turn to writing to ‘work through’ material from their own lives. This means that material in first novels can often be too autobiographical to make a work of fiction detached enough to interest a large number of readers. I know some great first novels are autobiographical, but in those cases the writer has the skill to combine the facts of their life with a strong story and additional elements. Too often we see people writing about their lives which they don’t realise aren’t interesting enough to outsiders, or rather made sufficiently interesting through their prose or re-telling of their tale.

Also common are over packing too much information, too many characters that don’t play a significant part in the story, and poor pacing of a narrative structure over time. Writing a successful novel is complex, and all writers take time to find their feet trying to have some control over the form.

What do writers have in common?
I think all professional writers of books like to spend hours on their own in their own worlds, and in some cases are seeking some kind of response from a public that they may not have received within their families. They must all have a love of language and reading as well, if they are likely to be really good writers.

What’s your favourite advice for better writing?
I’m not a fan of shorthand advice for writers, as I think everyone must learn the hard way by trial and error if they are to really find their own way and style and that can take years. However, if I had to choose a single piece of advice, I suppose I’d say unless you know exactly why you aren’t doing, then push for economic prose. I say this as most people tend to overwrite, by which I mean they use excessive adjectives and include too much unnecessary information – almost trying too hard. Strip back to the essentials of what you are saying, think about what that is and keep hold of it; then say it as economically as you can – but without your prose being dull.

What skills and expertise do your readers have? And what do they see that the writers miss?
All our readers have excellent editorial skills and come from a range of backgrounds including publishing, agenting, professional writing and teaching of Creative Writing at MA Level or above. We are very choosy about our readers, and their qualifications don’t in themselves enable them to make good assessors; they have also to show diplomacy, a capacity to empathise with their clients, real knowledge of the genres they choose to work in and an understanding of literary markets.

There are a range of things they might see that the writers miss, as with all editors reading on behalf of writers. If you refer to the ‘most common mistakes’ section, I’d say in brief that our readers are excellent at helping people pin-point some of these areas and move the project on with their advice.

If you need help assessing what you’ve written, talk to The Literary Consultancy about receiving a professional report.

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