Dear new and budding women writers,
To kick off, here are some heart-warming and encouraging or (depending on your frame of mind) utterly depressing and discouraging statistics:
- Marlon James, the Jamaican winner of the 2016 Man booker prize for fiction, said in an interview that he briefly abandoned writing after his first novel, John Crow’s Devil, was rejected nearly 80 times.
- Eimear McBride, whose debut novel, A Girl is a Half Formed Thing, won the Bailey’s Prize in 2014, persevered through nine years of rejections from publishers.
- Sylvia Plath was an established poet when she sent out The Bell Jar under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas. An editor at Knopf rejected it twice: once under the pseudonym, and again when he knew her identity. The editor wrote: “it still is not much of a novel.”
So if you are getting rejections, you are in good company. I have quite a collection myself so I truly understand the disappointment. But let me explain how things work on the other side of the curtain and what you’re up against. Linen Press receives between 10 and 20 submissions a week, each with a brief author profile, a synopsis and the first 1000 words. Until very recently, we replied to each one personally, and to those rejected – regrettably, the majority – we sent an email with comments explaining why. But given that we are looking for a very sharp needle in a tottering literary haystack, and given how much time the scanning of submissions eats up, it’s no longer possible for our small, but intrepid team to offer feedback to everyone. We still read every submission, but we can only guarantee you’ll hear from us if you have aroused our curiosity and we want to read more.
So what makes us want to read more? First up is the synopsis. Your synopsis is your calling card. It tells us a great deal about your style and skills and it has to be tempting, exciting and appealing. I want to say here, in capital letters, that writing a good synopsis is no mean feat. You’re summarising a 60,000 or 100,000 novel in a page or less and at the same time selling your writing and yourself. You have one chance. Your synopsis has to stand head and shoulders above the other fifteen I’ve read the same day, and I can get tired and grumpy!
And you need to persuade us that it is right for our list. Linen Press publishes mainly literary fiction and very top end contemporary fiction, which rather narrows down our options. There are worrying murmurings of a decline in both the writing and reading of literary novels to the point where they’ll soon be defined as just another genre like crime or fantasy. Will Self goes further and says in this digital era of blink-and-you-miss-it communication, ‘The literary novel as an art work and a narrative art form central to our culture is indeed dying before our eyes.’. Maybe this explains the current trend for short stories, novellas and colouring books for adults. We don’t have the time, concentration or patience for Tolstoy.
So what is a literary novel? The Huffington Post makes a distinction between novels of ideas and novels that entertain. It’s a somewhat simplistic divide, but it gives you the gist. Jane Friedmann says a literary novel has to have four ingredients: ideas and themes that run like leitmotifs through the pages; depth; characters who drive the plot, and finally “such beautiful prose it makes you want to weep, pause and stare at the sky”.
I digress, but my wandering is relevant because it reveals a fair bit about what we are looking for at Linen Press.
So to get back to the nuts and bolts, or preferably the finely built, over-arching structural and thematic summary, this next section is about the kind of synopsis we want to read and which will gladded our hearts and make us wildly enthusiastic: The synopsis.
Here is a short extract from a three page synopsis that came in recently (I’ve shortened it!!):
My novel is set in a small town in Dorset. Dan, an alcoholic, is married to Clare who is trying to have a baby. Next door is Ben who is noticing the first signs of senility in his wife, Sally, who is friends with a lonely woman, Jane, at the writing group. Jane’s ex has married a young therapist, Zoe, with emotional problems of her own but Sally is persuaded to have sessions with her. The sessions allow Zoe to talk about her own past and the two women form a close bond. Finally Sally expresses her wish to swim the channel before her mind clouds over……
AH – apple on head moment. At last we have it – the theme at the novel’s centre. But this synopsis is so disappointing and long-winded that I don’t want to read the chapters. So what would I have liked to see instead?
My 70,000 word novel, Drowning, is a poignant and blackly funny account of one woman’s unusual response to a diagnosis of Alzheimers. Those close to Sally, including a young woman coming to terms with infertility, rally round to support her in her wish to go where her encroaching confusion plays no part – the sea. Her element. The novel moves through tragicomic episodes of training on a bleak English beach towards an emotional climax in which Sally steps into the water to swim the channel as her personal retort to a savage illness. And maybe as a last goodbye.
Do I want to read the chapters? Yes, I do! So what makes a good synopsis?
- Tell me what kind of a book you are pitching. Which themes and ideas does it explore – loneliness, the mountains, roots, an Indian woman’s bid for freedom? How are these ideas developed? How does your exploration of these ideas differ from authors who have gone before you?
- Does your fiction lean towards an established genre? Magic realism? Fictionalised biography? A thriller featuring a feminist cop? I want a clue or two please.
- Describe your style. Poetic and lyrical with breath-taking imagery? Bare, tense, terse to suit the fast pace of a plot driven novel? Innovative with a mix of emails, phone calls and monologue? Even one single sentence like Goldsmiths prize winner Solar Bones by Mike McCormack.
- What makes your project different, special and marketable? In these stunted times dominated by crowd pleasers from The Big Five, Amazon, Waterstones and Tesco (now the largest retailer of books), I need to know if we can sell it – for your sake and for mine. As a small press, getting visibility and sales for an unknown author is very very tough unless she comes ready decorated with a major award or is married to a famous footballer. Only kidding.
- What makes it suitable for our list? I know you hate that question, and for a large press with a broad list, it can be infuriating and puzzling, but not for us. We are the only independent women’s press in the UK and we take on books by women, for women, though we are delighted that men read and appreciate them too. Your novel must have at its heart ideas that will interest and appeal to women. Far from a constraint, I see this as a pretty empty canvas.
Let me give you a couple of examples of real synopses that immediately grabbed our attention. Both authors told us about their key themes, the historical and geographical context behind their stories, their style, as well as their credentials as authors. The first is our latest publication, Sometimes A River Song by Avril Joy. The second is our next publication, The Dancing Girl and the Turtle by Karen Kao.
Sometimes A River Song
Sometimes a River Song is a literary novel, inspired by my short story Eating Words. When this story was shortlisted for the Manchester Prize for Fiction 2014 it gave me the impetus and courage to continue writing the story of Aiyana Weir, age 15, in her own distinct voice.
Sometimes a River Song is set in a houseboat community on the White River in Arkansas 1935 and told in two voices, Aiyana’s and the man to whom she is given, Silas’s.
The novel deals with violence against women both physical and sexual which I believe are relevant today. Women are still sold and trafficked as goods. The problem of illiteracy is an issue I’ve encountered many times through women I’ve worked with in prison; bright, clever women who have missed out on learning to read. Like Aiyana, they too have a great desire to learn and the determination and will to survive against the odds.
Woven into the novel is the landscape, the river and the natural world, our connection to it and the way it shapes who we are.
You can read more about Avril Joy on her website.
The Dancing Girl and the Turtle
This 80,000 word work of literary fiction traces the journey of Song An-Yong, a rebellious young woman determined to live on her own terms. She is thwarted by her family, the social mores of the day and the war with the Japanese that is about to engulf China.
A word of warning: there is violence in this novel, just as there is violence in the lives of more women than we’d like to think. Some of it is self-inflicted; very little is deserved. But An-Yong is more than a mere victim or a decor piece in a tale of colonial decadence. Hers is the voice of every woman ever denied a place at the table and every girl who turned to self-harm as a means to survive shame.
My publishing credits include: “Moon Cakes”, a short story published last June in Cha: An Asian Literary Journal; “A View from Backstage”, an article on the TedXAmsterdam 2015 website; “Words Fly By”, a short story in Jabberwock Review (2014) and subsequently featured in a review of that journal posted on NewPages.com; as well as poems that were published in the 1980’s by Yusef Komunyakaa.
You can read more about Karen Kao at inkstonepress.com/about-karen-kao
Next time, I’ll be more specific about what I look for in the first 1000 words you send us. Maybe the manuscript on your desk or in your drawer is the very one we’re looking for.
Until then, happy writing!