Being a Fiction Writer
Everyone has a novel in them. The near tidal wave of unsolicited manuscripts which floods the offices of publishers both great and small would certainly seem to bear this out. Becoming a novelist remains an enduringly popular aspiration. Perhaps unsurprising, given the increasingly commercial aspect to the business. Rags to riches fairy tales of writers landing breathtaking deals with the major commercial imprints, the sheer level of arts coverage given over to Fiction in the broadsheets, the near celebrity status of talents such as Zadie Smith…On the face of it, becoming a novelist would seem an ideal career for those seeking a high public profile and potentially huge material rewards.
It would be misleading, however, to suggest that most novelists attain anywhere near the profile or riches that are the good fortune – as well as talent – of the minority. For every star player such as Smith there are many novelists who, even with publication by a major commercial imprint or a very well respected independent, never do make quite that kind of mark in what is now a phenomenally fast-moving market, propped up by media hype and what often seems like an obsession with the newness of the, well…simply new. And where those breathtaking six figure deals are struck, they can sometimes unravel spectacularly, with a novel failing to meet expectations, losing the publisher remarkable amounts of money in the advance - and the novelist any hope of a subsequent novel with the publisher in the process. For most accomplished, successful novelists their literary career is an altogether quieter - and steadier - affair of winning warm critical reception and establishing a much smaller, if no less enthusiastic, following. A very large number of novelists will continue to work their writing life around their day job, be it in a traditional 9 to 5 job or through freelance writing - and possibly for the rest of that writing life.
As a first time novelist, contrary to most people’s elevated expectations, you can most likely expect to receive a modest advance against a two book deal. Advances vary not simply from publisher to publisher but also, of course, according to commercial considerations, such as the nature of your work and what a publisher may reasonably expect to make from it. But advances for the first timer remain generally in the four figures or possibly very low five figures for the overwhelming majority - a far cry from the sums you frequently read about and, some might argue, not much for 3 or often more years’ worth of blood, sweat and tears. Nonetheless, in crude terms, there are apparently more publishing, financial, profile-building and readership opportunities for novelists than for their poet counterparts. After all, fiction remains very firmly on the radar both in the media and for the general public at large.
Literary fiction’s profile is perhaps in no small part buoyed by the gamut of prizes attached to the novel, most famously the Booker. And, then, along with the Booker, there are all those other prizes open to the novelist, with their endless categories: the first novel prizes such as the Betty Trask Award or the Costa, the Sagittarius Prize for the best first novel by a writer over 60, the Orange Prize (exclusively for women novelists), the Orange Futures Award for a first time female novelist, the Commonwealth Writer‘s Prize… The broadsheet reviews are mostly dedicated to literary fiction, alongside biography and history. And, of course, most importantly, there are all those major imprints and distinguished independents always on the lookout for exciting new work with critical and commercial potential. Bookshops are simply bursting with the stuff.
But perspective is important. While the opportunities are there, the competition to be published, then to win the reviews and to be short listed for prizes is astronomically high and to some extent perhaps outweighs the fictioneer’s advantage. Publishing a novel has never been an easy feat. But these days it has perhaps never been harder. Quite simply there are more novels being written than can and - perhaps sometimes ever should - be published. More commercially targeted titles still make up the bulk of Fiction published in the UK and worldwide, from fantasy novels to crime to chick lit. A literary novelist is unlikely to make a publisher the staggering sums that authors such as Dan Brown or Martine Cole can attract in even pre-order sales. Despite the high sums of money that are on the table for the few, commercial publishing of Literary Fiction remains in many ways wary of risk-taking on the majority and occasionally downright conservative, even. In 2005, Macmillan launched its New Writing Ventures imprint, where first time novelists may submit an unsolicited manuscript for consideration and, if successful, receive no advance but instead share in a more substantial cut of the sales (20% or so in comparison to 7% royalties). In 2008, HarperCollins declared its intention to set up a similar operation. These moves have attracted both criticism and praise. Detractors claim a budget approach to publishing novels robs the achievement of its lustre, could prove a turn-off for consumers, necessarily affects marketing and therefore offers little gain - monetary or otherwise - for the new novelist. Its defenders counter that it encourages a climate of openness, putting a wealth of new Fiction on the market that could otherwise not be published in such commercial times and allowing authors to prove themselves on the market before progressing to mainstream publication. Whatever your view, such moves make clear the difficulties now presenting themselves to both author and publisher.
With a knowledge of these commercial pressures, it’s therefore important when you’re starting out as a novelist to be prepared. Forewarned is forearmed. It’s sadly not simply enough to have a good story to tell or to have acquired great skill and technique, be it through workshops, a creative writing degree or through your own self development. Fiction writing is a long haul flight, during which it may - and generally does - take several stalled attempts to get off the runway. Many a successful novelist can recount the two novels they binned before they managed, at last, to find their wings and clinch a deal - and that was just the beginning. Novelists require a good working knowledge of the market in Literary Fiction, along with a thick-skin, unshakeable self-belief, a healthy dose of self-criticism and incredible levels of determination, and today more than ever before.
Wales and the market
What’s the shape of things to come for Welsh novelists? For the novelist in or out of Wales, despite the difficulties relating to all literary publishing in terms of sales and ‘breaking through‘, and a long period of being largely overlooked, it can’t go unmentioned that things have seemed considerably rosier for some time now - particularly over the last decade. While there has been an undeniably remarkable and various upsurge in new writing, particularly from the younger generation and women, this has been matched by a growing commitment on the part of Welsh publishers to get the material out there and read, to allow it to make its way not simply in Wales but all over the UK - and beyond. The growth of Parthian and Seren’s Fiction lists have supported the creative trend of the Welsh and Welsh-based novelists. Both lists have attracted the interest of broadsheet reviewers and prize short listings, and carry eclectic subject matter in their catalogues.
Seren has enjoyed much critical success from novelists such as Lloyd Jones and Richard Collins, Parthian cutting perhaps an edgier figure, collecting talented young guns such as Rachel Trezise, Matthew David Scott and, latterly, Sarah Broughton. With Y Lolfa’s development of an award-winning English language fiction imprint for Welsh novelists, Alcemi, where the accent is very firmly placed on uncovering new talents, things look ever more encouraging. And alongside this growth, attitudes appear to have changed in the metropolis, too. Time was, you’d have a hard time selling a Welsh writer to the major commercial imprints, let alone to an agent. Wales just simply wasn’t considered marketable. But any hostility towards Welsh writers, particularly those locating their work in Wales, appears to be diminishing: Bloomsbury have John Williams, Niall Griffiths and Malcolm Pryce (each of whom has played a pivotal role in tipping the balance in Wales’s favour); Faber has Owen Sheers; Weidenfeld and Nicholson publish Booker shortlisted, Swansea-based novelist Stevie Davies; Picador has latterly acquired the talents of Tristan Hughes, who will join the award-winning Trezza Azzopardi.
Helping to develop your writing
There are a number of practical as well as enjoyable ways to improve your work. Knowing your market is key, so read new as well as established authors widely. Get a feel for what’s being published now. And always, always remember that while reading the classics is undeniably important, it’s vital to have a strong understanding and appreciation of contemporary Fiction if you want to be a part of it. Many novelists - though by no means all - start by writing shorter fiction initially. The Short Story’s demands of developing character and story in such a very concentrated space can really refine your skills and make your writing admirably ‘tight’ and precise - which is just what any editor is after. Joining a workshop, writers’ group or class, either privately organised or run by Local Education Authorities or universities, can be extremely useful in gaining constructive criticism and guidance, particularly when you’re starting out, not to mention fun and sociable. Residential courses offered by providers such as Tŷ Newydd can provide you with the opportunity to work with leading practitioners, taking part in discussions, writing exercises, workshops and get one to one tutorials and feedback. Some novelists choose to undertake creative writing degrees, which provides the opportunity to be taught and supervised by practising writers while engaging in substantial writing projects. Literature Wales offers the inexpensive Critical Service for writers who feel they would benefit from a detailed critical assessment of a sample of their work, along with tips on how to improve, by an established practitioner.
Publishers and Agents
If you’re looking to proceed with publication through one of the large commercial imprints then an agent is not just advisable, but entirely necessary. Due to the sheer amount of unsolicited manuscripts and speculation from new novelists, most of the leading houses will automatically bin any unsolicited manuscripts or related correspondence. Even Faber, one of the smaller – but nonetheless more prestigious metropolitan publishers – will now only accept Fiction submissions strictly via agents. The only exception to this rule is if you are submitting to the Macmillan New Writing imprint.
If this seems rather unjust, consider the time it would take to read the thousands of synopses and extracts that publishers receive in a given week. It would simply prove impossible to run a business in this way. You must first present yourself to an agent, who will then do the rounds of courting publishers and eventually making the big sell on your behalf. They will broker the deal and manage the all-important legal matters surrounding your contract with the publisher. If you are intending to send a manuscript to an independent publisher, then you will not necessarily need an agent - at least, initially. Smaller publishers generally remain very open to unsolicited manuscripts (although during periods of particularly high submission, moratoria on submissions, where publishers refuse unsolicited manuscripts, may be temporarily introduced) so you will not require any representation by an agent to come under their consideration. There are no agents based in Wales – you’ll find them all in London. For further details on the work of agents and whether or not you need one click here.
Whatever you do, before you approach an agent or publisher, you will need to get the basics of presentation right and exceptional care needs to be taken with matters of grammar and spelling. Clumsy mistakes or shoddy submission will immediately alienate a potentially interested reader. For more information on publishing and how to best present your work for unsolicited submission or consideration by agents click here.
As the difficulties of breaking through into mainstream publishing have increased, some authors have chosen to publish themselves and e-publishing, in particular, is proving ever more popular. For more information on self-publishing in print or online click here. Important information on the pitfalls of vanity publishing can be found here.
A novelist‘s career will of course be dependent on how successfully their work fares in terms of both sales and critical reception. The average UK novelist will earn less than £10,000 a year directly from a work or works. But with additional and indirect activity, this figure can grow. A well-received novel can prompt invitations to read or join panels at literary festivals, as well as reviewing and feature writing opportunities. This all contributes to the coffers, of course, but it’s also true that the more well known you become as a name the more this impacts on those sales figures, which will then mean you become even more well known, which will then…and so on it goes.
Long shots though they admittedly remain, shortlistings for major prizes - or a win - can turn a respected ’sleeper’ novel into a minor or major 'hit'. A quite considerable readership seems to be influenced by prizes in their purchasing habits, and broadsheet reviewers will almost always give space to those on the literary lists. Welsh novelist Richard Collins received well deserved attention in precisely this way. More recently, the Richard and Judy Book Club modelled on the Oprah Book Club in the US, has also significantly heightened the profile of featured books – and their authors.
Few novelists, if any, can lead a successful life under the radar. Self-promotion and developing a profile remains absolutely vital, and most publishers will expect you to promote yourself and your book as actively and positively as possible as a matter of course. For more information on promoting yourself and your work click here.
Respected writers in Wales and the UK often supplement their income by running workshops for adults and children in schools or in evening adult education settings. As is the case for other practitioners in the fields of creative writing, such as poets or Creative Non-Fiction writers, regarded novelists with an acclaimed body of work behind them may take up fellowships, lectureships or residencies at those higher education establishments with ever-growing Creative Writing degree programmes. In general, novelists work terrifically hard to build their profile and to make money from their art, but it can also be terrifically rewarding in both personal and career terms.
Literature Wales support for novelists
Literatre Wales recognises the difficulties facing both new and established writers in balancing major writing projects with financial commitments whether they are in full employment or work in a freelance capacity. The Literature Wales Bursaries Scheme offers opportunities for novelists based in Wales to buy time to develop and complete work, and can also offer financial support towards associated costs, such as research. The Bursaries Scheme can also provide support for disabled writers with travel costs or specialist equipment through its Enabling Bursary.
For those writers of great promise in whom publishers have expressed an interest, Literature Wales can offer practical help through its Mentoring Scheme, offering one to one sessions with established novelists to help improve and refine work. Click here for further details on criteria and how to apply.
The Short Story
The short story is too often regarded as simply a training ground for the meaty, large scale novel or as the type of thing novelists get up to when they‘re not, well, writing novels. And while it’s certainly true that many writers of long Fiction cut their teeth on the short story and that many established novelists do also to continue to write short stories, this does little justice to the beauty and precision of the form in its own right - or the exceptional skill of its finest practitioners. Nonetheless, in Fiction, the short story is these days very much the second class citizen. Commercial publishers rarely handle short stories - unless they come from an already very well established author - because agents won’t. They simply don’t generate significant enough sales in the bookshops.
At the same time, magazine outlets for Literary Short Fiction have diminished considerably throughout the UK, with the bulk of short stories now coming though many of the smaller magazines, and many of the larger UK-wide magazines who still do publish short fiction – such as Granta, Prospect or the London Magazine – are largely dominated by very familiar names. Wales has two very highly regarded forums for short story publication, New Welsh Review and Planet - both pay good rates, enjoy wide readerships and are well produced. But it is of course in the nature of things, the sheer amount of strong new writing around, that there is never enough space to publish as much as credibly might be. Following the demise of Cambrensis, Blue Tattoo is a recently established smaller independent in Wales, dedicated exclusively to short fiction. All three are strongly recommended magazines to see and to be seen in if you‘re a short story writer in Wales, and all provide a well judged balance between known and less familiar names.
Partly because of the limited outlets available, competitions remain increasingly attractive to many short fictioneers these days. And certainly, the most reputable of these offer artistic credibility and profile-building opportunities - as well as sometimes significant sums of money. Competitions such as the BBC National Short Story Award, the Bridport Prize, the Asham Award, for short stories written by women, and Academi’s Rhys Davies Competition all carry respectable clout. Literature Wales regularly carries listings for short story competitions click here.
If commercial publishing seems to offer very little for the short story writer, then the short story writer in Wales needn’t give up hope. Wales has a distinguished history in the genre of short fiction in the twentieth century from Caradoc Evans to Dylan Thomas and in recent years the short story is making something of a comeback. Wales’ clutch of fine independent presses - free of many of the financial considerations that face commercial publishers in the metropolis - such as Parthian, Seren, Gomer and Honno continue to support our talents in short fiction, through anthologies as well as collections by individual authors. And there really is a wealth of talent to promote. Nam Le won the EDS/Dylan Thomas Prize in 2008 on the merit of his collection of short stories, The Boat. Welsh based Catherine Merriman is a highly regarded practitioner of the form. Jo Mazelis was nominated for the Wales Book of the Year for her widely acclaimed collection from Parthian, Circle Games. Penny Simpson, published by Gomer and winner of the 2007 Rhys Davies Competition, and Imogen Herrad who debuted with her unique The Woman who Loved an Octopus and Other Saints’ Tales from Seren, are also making waves. John Williams, Jon Gower, Lloyd Robson and Lewis Davies are some of the foremost practitioners. Times may be tough, but talent is high.
The Story campaign, which promotes the appreciation and readership for the short story across the UK, offers a comprehensive and up to date website, providing invaluable listings for competitions, magazines, online discussion groups, handy tips and a useful reading list for writers new to the genre. Story also carries detailed information on the BBC National Short Story Award.
For more information on writers’ workshops, groups and courses to help develop your skills click here.
For more information on publishing and how to submit your work to a publisher click here.
For more information on how Literature Wales can provide assistance in buying time to complete a collection of short stories through its Bursaries Scheme click here.
Literature Wales can also help develop Welsh-based short story writers of promise who have attracted interest from a publisher through its Mentoring Scheme. Click here for further details on eligibility criteria and how to apply.