Seperating the wheat from the chaff

Posted on: 4th June, 2014

Category: Arts & Entertainment

Contributor: West Cork People

Louise O' Neill is from Clonakilty. Her debut novel, ‘Only Ever Your’s, will be published by Quercus in July and has been described by Marian Keyes as “Utterly Magnificent”. She will be reading at the West Cork Literary Festival on July 10, and will be launching ‘Only Ever Your’s in Tadgh an Astna square, Clonakilty on July 12 at 6.30pm.


So, you’ve managed to finish your novel. Kudos. Now it’s time for the fun part. Editing! And when I say ‘fun’, I mean soul-destroying. If you’re anything like me this is the part of the writing process where you’ve now decided that it’s terrible, it should never see the light of day, and that you’re basically a worthless human being. (I have issues.)


Hemingway may have been a misogynistic alcoholic but he was spot on when he said, ‘the first draft of anything is s**t.’ Of course there are some writers who edit as they go along, and don’t have to face the shame of seeing that they’ve used the word ‘slowly’ four times in one sentence. I hate those writers. For the rest of us, editing takes at least two to three months, so much caffeine that your eyeballs start twitching, and an unlimited supply of red pen with which to scrawl helpful notes to yourself like, THIS IS CRAP. ??? WHAT WERE YOU THINKING?

I jest, but really, it’s only safe to self-flagellate like this when you actually have a finished draft to work with. One of the main reasons why frustrated writers never manage to finish a novel is because they are perfectionists – and perfectionism is, as Julia Cameron says, the very enemy of creativity. When I was in the middle of that first draft, I never re-read what I had written the day before, I never even stopped to re-read sentence I had just written. I had to keep the momentum going forward, out of blind terror that if I stopped to think about what I was doing, that little voice in my head would start, it’s not perfect, it’s not good enough, no one will ever read it, and I would never finish the story. Thus, when it came to editing, a lot of the material needed to be re-written, and – this was painful – cut out completely.

I did the first edit. And then the second, and the third, and one more time for good luck. Most authors would recommend that you show the manuscript to someone you trust at this stage, preferably someone who is an avid reader, is honest but tactful, and who can make suggestions for changes that will transform your novel into the next Booker prize winner. If you know such a paragon, please send them my way once you’re finished. Immediately.

Once you’re happy with your edited manuscript – or you’d rather stab yourself in the eyes than read it again, whichever comes first – it’s time to send your baby out to the literary agencies. I think a few of the publishing houses in Ireland still accept unsolicited manuscripts, but in the UK and the US, the big publishers refuse to read anything that hasn’t been submitted to them by an agent. An agent will take a proportion of your earnings (generally around 15 per cent) but are invaluable. My agent is like a mix between a nanny, a therapist and Sheryl Sandberg, and does all the arguing and dirty work on behalf so that I can maintain my reputation as a semi-pleasant human being.

While The Writers’ and Artists’ Handbook was traditionally the place to find names and addresses of agencies, in today’s world, Google is your best new friend. Choose an agent who has authors you admire on their roster or who represents authors writing in a similar genre to you. Look at the acknowledgments at the back of your favourite book, authors tend to have thanked their agent. When submitting to an agency, they usually want to see the first three chapters of your novel, a covering letter and your CV but check their websites for individual guidelines. Make sure your covering letter is engaging – unfortunately, while I’d love to tell you that all that matters is the quality of the book, the truth is that the increasingly challenging literary marketplace means that an author is going to have to be able to sell themselves in order to be an appealing prospect to both the agent, and the future publisher.

Lastly, expect to receive rejection letters.  While I was lucky, and had offers from five agents who represented authors such as JK Rowling and John Banville, I also had my fair share of agents tell me that they thought the market was too saturated for ‘yet another dystopian novel’. I tried not to take it personally, and when I was choosing which agent to sign with, I ultimately decided to pick the person who was the most passionate about my book. You want your agent to fight for your book when they’re trying to sell it to a publisher. If they don’t ‘get’ it, then they’re not the right agent for you anyway.


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