Writing your first novel

I love books and I enjoy writing. It was this passion that made me embark on a literary adventure and write a book. Here are a few things I learnt as I penned my debut novel, De’Angelo’s Orchestra, which was picked up by a literary agency.

Be yourself

When I first started writing I was unconsciously trying to imitate my favourite authors. However I soon realised how inauthentic that voice sounded when it failed to resonate with me. Then I tried trusting my own voice and the writing began to flow with a natural ease and rhythm.

Hear yourself

I hadn’t noticed how dry and unwieldy some of the writing was until I started reading it out loud – The energy gushed out of the prose like ink from a cracked cartridge. There were two key reasons for this. The writing was predominately passive and there was way too much description. So I switched to active prose and started using adjectives with discernment.

Reading dialogue aloud was particularly helpful. It highlighted stilted and unrealistic conversation.

Speak for yourself

Another challenge with dialogue was making it sound unique to each character. For this I needed to fully develop the characters. Once they had their own individual personalities, backgrounds and belief systems, they were able to speak for themselves in their own particular style.

Trust yourself

After many hours of writing and re-writing the first chapter, I was still dissatisfied. Why? Because I was too preoccupied with what the reader might think of it. After all, the first chapter, not to mention that dreaded first sentence, makes or breaks a novel. Or so I believed…

Eventually I came to the realisation that I will never complete a single page of the book if I continued to second guess the readers. Their preferences, like mine, would be subjective and no one size is ever going to fit all. So I stopped worrying about the readers and just allowed creativity to flow.

Free yourself

I had rammed the original version of the book with plots and twists. However, exhilarating as the novel was, it was also unexpectedly exhausting to read – As plot point followed plot point hard and fast, there was literally no breathing space. Even I was gasping for air. It was clear I had to stop manipulating the pace of the story.

I decided to hand the reins over to the characters and let them drive instead. Lo and behold their story began to flow naturally. Like the waxing and waning of the moon, the arcs built and subsided in very satisfying fashion.

Balance yourself

Another issue I’d found with the original, plot driven approach was that the characters had remained relatively under developed. I had apparently focussed too much on the plot and not enough on the characters themselves. As a result they seemed wooden. I had obviously underestimated the level of detail required to bring a character to life…

I tested giving my conceptual characters free will to be whatever they wanted to be. Like magic the characters morphed into fully fledged beings right before my eyes. Now I was able to resonate with them at an emotional, mental and spiritual level.

Educate yourself

Though I have always written stories, it wasn’t until I did a creative writing course that I learnt to discern between good and great storytelling. Technical and creative rigour are essential to crafting enduring tales. In an attempt to master these disciplines, I practiced, practiced, practiced and then practiced some more.

Ultimately I discovered that one never fully masters creativity – One can only submit to its infinite magnificence and become its pliable instrument so it can work through us.










How to write a cover letter

When it came to querying publishers and literary agencies, I was surprised to discover how specialised they each were – Apparently no one size fits all. Each has areas of focus and preferences for the types of books they represent. Their submission guidelines vary too. However, in general, most publishers and agents require a cover letter, synopsis and sample pages of the manuscript.

A fair amount of preparatory work was required in producing the draft cover letter. Here are a few learnings I picked up:

1. The first step was to clarify the book’s genre. De’Angelo’s Orchestra is a modern love story with a dark, thriller-like edge. So I had to find agents who represented commercial women’s fiction, romance, and cross-genre novels. Based on that search criteria, I drew up a list of agencies to query.

2. The cover letter is the interface between the writer and agent. A positive first impression will encourage the agent to peruse the sample chapters. So it has to look and sound professional and clearly show you’ve done your research. Make it short and to the point allowing the synopsis and sample chapters to do the talking.

3. In the opening line explain why you have chosen to submit to that particular agent and why the novel might appeal to them. Then provide a ‘hook’ or ‘elevator speech’ for the book. This is a very brief synopsis. As a rule of thumb it should be no more than a couple of lines. The purpose of the hook is to entice the agent to read the submission. Too much description is unnecessary in the cover letter if you are submitting a full synopsis as well.

4. Then in a sentence or two provide the background and setting of the novel and explain why you wrote it. Here it is useful to include your inspiration for the story and personal experience of the subject matter.

5. Mention your educational background, particularly courses/qualifications relevant to writing. Any previous publications would also be beneficial in building credibility.

6. Clarify whether the manuscript is complete and the total number of words. Do also mention whether the book is a one-off or part of a series.

7. It is helpful to outline the target audience of the book. One can also mention similar books in the market to indicate potential readership.

8. I was asked by a couple of agents where I saw De’Angelo’s Orchestra sitting on the shelves in the book stores. It is important to clarify this point when dealing with cross genres.

9. And finally, don’t forget to provide your contact details.

Once the draft cover letter is done it is simply a matter of tailoring it according to the submission guidelines of the target agencies/publishers.



When to submit to literary agents

I discovered there are two schools of thought on when to submit the book to agencies. One can either start querying agents very early on in the writing process i.e., when the book is around thirty thousand words or, hold fire until after the novel is completed and polished to perfection.

As a debut writer I knew there was an extremely low likelihood of my novel getting picked up by an agency on the basis of the first 30K words… However, being an eternal optimist I went for it anyway. My rationale was simple – If I get an agent, great. If not, I’ll get some much needed experience in writing cover letters and synopses.

Using the Writers’ & Artists’ Handbook as my starting point, I searched for literary agents who specialise in dark, edgy, love stories. There are also numerous websites that list agencies and their preferences so pulling together a target list was straightforward.

I sent off sample chapters of De’Angelo’s Orchestra to a few agencies and unsurprisingly received form rejections from all, except three. These wonderful individuals had taken the time from their busy schedules to provide me with some very helpful feedback. Interestingly, they had all made similar observations as follows:

“Strong writing and I like the story but for me it’s overwritten.”

“You are a strong writer but your characters need further development.”

“You have a strong voice but too much detail slows down the pace.”

I cannot stress enough how valuable and timely their comments were at that early stage of the book. I took them on board and re-wrote the novel from scratch. And what a difference it made – The writing began to flow at a natural pace and the characters sprang to life.

So, back to the question of when to submit to literary agents – In my experience, sooner rather than later.






Empowering creativity

There were some days when I was writing De’Angelo’s Orchestra where I just couldn’t complete a sentence without censoring myself. Either the structure would be all wrong or the words didn’t sound right… Anyway, a few frustrating hours later all I would have produced was a mess – Scrunched up paper strewn all over the floor.

I needed to do something to stop my over-critical self getting in the way of the creative process. Here are two useful tricks I discovered that helped me get back on the productive track on those dreadful days.

Quick Relaxation Exercise

I would sit up straight in the chair with my feet firmly planted on the floor. Then I would focus on my breath – In and out, until I felt centred. This could take 5 – 10 minutes depending on how restless my mind was.

Free Writing

This is a great way to silence the inner editor and get the creative juices flowing. It’s a timed exercise – I usually do it for 15 minutes. Here are the main steps.

1 Make up a random statement or phrase, e.g.,

  • The toy robot was _ _ _ _
  • The pigeon flew _ _ _ _
  • It was a cold _ _ _ _
  • Today is _ _ _ _

2 Then simply write down what happens next using these rules:

  • Write fast
  • Write the first thing that comes to mind
  • Do not take the pen away from the paper
  • No crossing out of words even if they are spelt incorrectly
  • No re-reading what has been written – Just keep on writing
  • No editing of any kind is allowed even if you think you’re writting rubbish
  • Do not stop writing until the 15 minutes are up

It’s amazing how many pages I’ve filled up with total gibberish whilst doing this exercise. But each time, as I persist with it, something miraculous happens – Inspiration starts to flow and really good stuff begins to pour out of the pen.