popular fiction

The Truth About Writing Popular Fiction

I have a friend – a much published, very experienced writer of popular fiction – who is worried about finishing her latest novel. She’s almost 50,000 words in and she knows she has at least another 40 to 50k more to write. Her pre-Christmas deadline is looming and she’s freaking out a little. She has no idea how she’s going to finish it in time as she says it’s like pulling teeth. Plus she’s not enjoying the writing anymore. In the same week, another writer – again, popular fiction - posted her worries about finishing a book in time on Facebook. Both have young children to mind, husbands to listen to, bills to pay, other writing jobs on the side. This is the writing for a living story that often goes untold.

Publishers are under more pressure than ever to produce novels that sell widely. With ebooks starting to make inroads into the market, things are very uncertain at the moment. Writers are under extra pressure to write faster, deliver earlier. Popular fiction writers are expected to produce a book a year without fail. Recently I’ve heard several top authors say they are now being asked to write a book every nine months, or to consider adding a book of short stories to their yearly output.

I believe that putting writers under this sort of pressure is counter productive. I’m lucky - I’m a fairly fast, consistent writer. I write 2,000 words a day, four days a week (five if I have a deadline). I write full time. I can sit down at my desk at 10am and stay there until 2pm which is a great luxury. Some weeks – during the Children’s Book Festival and around book publication time - I have other things on like school visits, shop visits, interviews, and I have to take time off from writing. But generally I’m at my desk. Even so, I still find it stressful sometimes.

Stress is the enemy of the writer. It can physically stop you writing as my friend has found. It can block ideas, it can stifle your flow; it can start making you think ‘I can’t do this/I’m rubbish/I’m not a writer/This is all a joke’. And once you start thinking that you can’t write, then you can’t physically write.

The year before last – 2010 – I had a bit of a writing meltdown. I was working flat out on 2 Amy Green novels and an adult novel (and an early reader in fact) and I just couldn’t keep up the pace. Towards the end of the year, I was trying to finish my adult novel but it just wasn’t happening. I didn’t like the story all that much, the characters weren’t working and I just wanted to crawl into bed and forget about writing ever again. So I called a halt. I told my agent and my publishers that I couldn’t deliver my manuscript, that I needed a lot more time. They weren’t exactly thrilled but they were very understanding and they gave me the time I needed to find my way out of the slump.

I took some time off. I read good fiction. I stopped beating myself up about not being Wonderwoman Writer. And gradually when I got some energy back, I started picking apart the book I had been working on and I pretty much started again. I decided I needed to put everything I had into the book, and everything I’d learned over the years about writing popular fiction – big characters, high stakes, drama, emotion, dealing with subjects that matter both to me and to readers. And the book (The Shoestring Club – out in early 2012) is a far better book because of it. In fact, although it has flaws, I think it’s the best adult novel I’ve written so far. And the next one (the one I’m working on at the moment) is even better. Because I’m enjoying the writing process, I WANT to write and, most importantly, I’m minding my writing energy. If I need a day off writing, I take a day off writing. I’m not agreeing to any deadlines I can’t meet and I’m not saying yes to any projects that take me away from the desk unless they are very special.

Writing is a tough business. I’ve been writing full time for nine years now and it’s not getting any easier. But I still love it. And that’s the truth. It’s still my dream job. So I’ll cling to it tooth and nail. But my life is also important, my kids, my partner, my family, my friends, my health. We all need to mind ourselves as writers AND mind ourselves as mothers, partners, girlfriends, aunties, sisters too.

Will writing popular fiction always be so pressurised? I’m not sure. I’m hoping the market will settle down soon for all our sakes. 

But at the moment if you want to write popular fiction, you need to keep strong, keep mentally and physically fit, and keep writing about things you truly care about.

Yours in writing,

Sarah XXX

A Who's Who of Popular Fiction Agents

Who is Marian Keyes’s agent? Who looks after Cathy Kelly and Sheila O’Flanagan? Who helped Melissa Hill climb to the top? If you write popular fiction, live in Ireland and would like to get published, these are the agents to try first as they have a proven track record with Irish authors. Now, because they have such high flying clients they may not have the time to take on new authors, but if they spot talent, they may pass you on to another agent in their company.

I secured my first agent (who was with Curtis Brown at the time) via a recommendation by Cathy Kelly. This agent and I have since amicably parted ways, but I found my new agent via another writer friend, the wonderful ‘Vampirate’ Justin Somper. I’m currently represented by Peta Nightingale in Lucas Alexander Whitley on the adult side (I also write for children). I’m her only Irish popular fiction client, but many of the other agents on my list have several ‘Irish girls’ in their stable, such as Sheila Crowley in Curtis Brown.

Peta has been a wonderful asset in many different ways. She worked as an editor for many years and has a brilliant eye for plot and character. She’s very honest and she pushes me, makes me want to be a better writer, which is vital at this stage of my career. When it came to writing my new book, The Shoestring Club (due early 2012), her help was invaluable.

These days having ‘potential’ isn’t enough, your manuscript must be as perfect as you can make it before it goes anywhere near an editor – this especially goes for popular fiction. A good agents can play a vital role in this process.

If you are looking for an agent, Godspeed. Hopefully this list may help you in some small way.

Yours in writing,

Sarah XXX

Who Represents Who? Irish Popular Fiction Writers and Their Agents with Contact Details c/o Sarah Webb www.sarahwebb.ie

Remember to check each agent’s website before you send anything out for submission guidelines.

Maeve Binchy is represented by Christine Green

Tel. 020 7401 8844 info@christinegreen.co.uk Christine Green Authors' Agent 6 Whitehorse Mews Westminster Bridge Road London SE1 7QD

Marian Keyes Cathy Kelly Monica McInerney are all represented by Jonathan Lloyd (also CEO of Curtis Brown)

0044 (0)20 7393 4418 lucia@curtisbrown.co.uk

Sheila O’Flanagan is represented by Carole Blake

Blake Friedmann Literary, Film & TV Agency 122 Arlington Road London NW1 7HP

Telephone: 020 7284 0408 Fax: 020 7284 0442 email: info@blakefriedmann.co.uk

Cecelia Ahern is represented by Marianne Gunn O’Connor Marianne represents Claudia Carroll, Anita Notaro and Sinead Moriarty

Marianne Gunn O'Connor Literary Agency Morrison Chambers, Suite 17 32 Nassau Street, Dublin 2 mgoclitagency@eircom.net

Melissa Hill is represented by Sheila Crowley Sheila also represents Emma Hannigan, Sarah Harte

00 44 (0)20 7393 4492 crowleyoffice@curtisbrown.co.uk

Sarah Webb is represented by Peta Nightingale at LAW (LAW also represent Sophie Kinsella – Irish name, but not actually Irish!)

All submissions should be sent, in hard copy, by post to: LAW, 14 Vernon Street, London, W14 0RJ www.lawagency.co.uk

Clare Dowling is represented by Darley Anderson

Darley Anderson Literary, TV and Film Agency Estelle House 11 Eustace Road London SW6 1JB Tel: 020 7385 6652 Fax: 020 7386 5571 Email: enquiries@darleyanderson.com

Marita Conlon McKenna is represented by Caroline Sheldon

www.carolinesheldon.co.uk 71 Hillgate Place, London W8 7SS

Patricia Scanlan is represented by Lutyens & Rubenstein Literary Agency

www.lutyensrubinstein.co.uk 21 Kensington Park Road, London W11 2EU

Other Recommended Popular Fiction Agents:

Madeleine Buston at Darley Anderson

Darley Anderson Literary, TV and Film Agency Estelle House 11 Eustace Road London SW6 1JB Tel: 020 7385 6652 Fax: 020 7386 5571 Email: enquiries@darleyanderson.com

Lizzie Kremer at David Higham David Higham Associates 5–8 Lower John Street Golden Square London W1F 9HA Switchboard: 020 7434 5900 Fax: 020 7437 1072 E-mail: dha@davidhigham.co.uk