Earlier this year, the best-selling British crime author, Mark Billingham (left), caused a little controversy at the Times Cheltenham Literary Festival when he said that if a novel does not grip him after twenty pages he “throws it away angrily”. He reckons that he does this with 50% of the books he starts to read. “Life’s too short,” he says, “and there are so many great books out there.”
This is an opinion that has divided readers, but it’s one that will be familiar to anybody who has tried to submit a manuscript to publishers or agents, and it’s very much in line with their thinking. You know the drill: submission guidelines that specify the first three chapters in the initial submission. The publishing and self-publishing industry is a growth area of one thing above all else. And its not new novelists. No, it’s companies largely inhabited by people who have fallen foul of those same submission guidelines and can’t get published. What’s the next best thing to do? Why, advise other wannabe authors of course. Look through the individual agent pages of literary agencies, where each agent is desperately trying to pitch themselves and their own USP. “I’m looking for submissions that grab me immediately, that make me desperate for the rest of the manuscript. I immediately know that the novel is going to be amazing from the way it gripped me relentlessly from the start.”
Oh dear. Really? This is as hackneyed and depressing as the relentless mantra, “Show Not Tell” or the terribly modern obsession with writing in the first person or (but usually “and”) writing in the present tense because it makes the novel so much more immediate and engaging. Whenever I see that I have to suppress a yawn, knowing that I’m going to be reading an identikit novel that is indistinguishable from all the others. Don’t get me wrong. In the hands of a skilful practitioner, the first person does all that the gurus promise. It’s just that it’s not often in those hands, and the voice of this first person, unless the character is meant to be a wannabe novelist with a penchant for purple prose, is all too often crashingly inauthentic.
But I digress. Iain Banks (below), the brilliant Scottish writer, has a lot to answer for. Ever since his wonderful novel, “The Crow Road” began with the immortal first line, “It was the day my grandmother exploded”, critics, publishers and agents have demanded fireworks right from the off. In that book, it was bold, refreshing, innovative and exhilarating. In the hands of lesser exponents it is simply cliched and desperate. Everyone has been told they have to do it. The first 3 chapter submission requirement underlines that. And so, all books have to follow the same pattern.
How sad! How reductive! How depressing! Like virtually all rules of writing, it’s unhelpful and misleading. If that’s what your book needs, then go for it. But don’t do it because some guide to writing told you to. And if your book needs an opening that is a leisurely unfolding, with space to breathe and think, then be brave enough to do that. The real fireworks are those that aggregate from your deliberate, mindful laying out of a setting, a situation, characters and a dilemma and then, come with a joyful rush at the end.
The real dilemma here is that this approach takes us perilously close to a knee jerk dismissal of all advice, all criticism, all agents. And in the relentless pursuit of publication, it is all too easy to fall into the trap of thinking that agents are just cynical manipulators, who care nothing for fiction or creativity, and are simply obsessed with the question, “Can I see this book selling shedloads of copies?” One of the key lessons to learn when dipping your toe into the shark-infested waters of publishing, is that to stand any chance of being recognised, you have to develop the capacity to take criticism with good grace. Ninety percent of it is accurate and helpful, no matter how sharp the sting.
But sometimes, you have to say no. It may not get you past an agent’s rejection pile, but if you don’t believe in the text, then it won’t go much further than the second hurdle. If you think your book needs a leisurely unfolding, it probably does. Sometimes, the budding writer knows more than the established agent. But only sometimes.