Write Advice: Emily Barr on research, rejections and publishing
Bestselling author and Faber Academy tutor Emily Barr takes questions from our Writing a Novel students about her research techniques, what writers can do to deal with rejections by agents, and how the publishing industry really works.
- Spend time on your novel, and get it done
- Fit your writing around your other commitments
- Detailed personal critiques from our tutors
Q – Hi Emily, thank you for coming along! As a successful author, how long did it take before you made a decent living from writing? It seems that there are a lot of hopeful writers out there, but there are only a few household names.
Emily Barr – Pleased to be here! That’s a very tricky and complicated subject. It’s true that it’s hard to make a decent living as a writer. I’ve had a strange curve, as my first book was published in 2000 which was back in the days of the big advance for commercial fiction. I made enough to live off for a few years, but it tailed off. My books weren’t massive sellers, and I was part of what was called the ‘mid list’, which got squeezed out of existence. Then I moved to YA (young adult fiction) – my first of those isn’t out yet – and got a lovely contract with Penguin. This was a total dream come true at that point as I had maxed out many credit cards and was absolutely desperate, financially.
A big bonus is as soon as you have a book published you have other options open to you, like mentoring and working on creative writing courses at universities and elsewhere. Also, any foreign sales are totally money for work you’ve already done.
Q – Roughly how many drafts do you do for each book? Do you keep plugging away and reach the end of the first draft knowing that you’ll amend on the second go, or do you polish as you go along?
EB – I try very hard to keep blasting away and to write a full first draft, which is often littered with notes to myself – like the ever-helpful ‘make this good’. However, I do find myself going back as I go along too. I always, for some reason, stop before the end and go back and polish everything I’ve got. Somehow I can’t write the end without knowing that the book that leads up to it is kind of OK.
I’m not sure who said ‘the first draft is the worst your book is ever going to be’, but I do find it a comforting thought. Once it exists, you’ve got something to build on, and that’s psychologically brilliant. Your book exists!
About a third of the way in is a classic point to feel demoralised. You’re too far from the beginning to be riding that wave of novelty, and not yet close to the end. I always find the middle third just takes a massive slog. As soon as the end is in sight it becomes fun again.
I’m not sure who said ‘the first draft is the worst your book is ever going to be’, but I do find it a comforting thought.
Q – Following on from that, how do you keep the faith as you go along?
EB – I generally find that ‘if I don’t get this done no one but me will really care’ keeps me going! Also a support network like the one you’ve got here at Professional Writing Academy is invaluable.
Q – Do you plan much, or do you dive in and discover your book during the first draft?
EB – I try to plan, but in a way that leaves plenty of room for deviation. I like to know the ending – bitter experience has taught me that if you don’t know the ending you are likely to find yourself deleting many thousands of words when it veers the wrong way – but not exactly how to get there.
Q – You started off as a journalist, but is all your time now devoted to being an author, or do you still juggle being a journalist too?
EB – I did start as a journalist, but I was terrible at it! I worked on the Guardian Diary column many years ago, and it was fun, but not real journalism. I also wrote a fictional column in the sports pages, and various other bits and pieces. Then I managed to get a commission to travel the world for a year and write a travel column and never looked back. I don’t do any journalism now. I used to freelance a bit but it’s become so tough to make money from it that I don’t even try any more.
Q – How long did your first novel take to complete, and did it get many rejections before it was picked up?
EB – I was so lucky with my first book. I wrote the beginning of it when I was travelling. It was the era of Bridget Jones, and the film of The Beach was out – in fact I’m an extra in it – and my agent sold my book Backpack as ‘Bridget Jones goes to the Beach’. It found a publisher quite quickly.
Write a bit every day, even if it’s only a few hundred words, and your book will take shape.
Q – How did you get your first agent? Did it take lots of approaches, or were you lucky with that too?
EB – I approached a few and ended up going to the agent I wanted most, which was obviously, again, extremely lucky. He was a friend of a friend, and took me on because he thought he could sell the backpacking book.
Q – Was it a difficult transition from adult to YA?
EB – It was a lovely transition! I love writing YA. It’s such an interesting thing to do. You can be much less cynical and more sincere.
Q – Are your children of a similar age to your protagonists, giving you a good insight to 17 year olds?
EB – My children are 10, 13 and 15, and sadly my 15 year old, who is obviously YA aged, would not dream of reading anything I’ve written! I mainly use my own memories of what being 17 felt like. Right on the cusp of adulthood.
Q – What advice would you give to people just starting out on a wing and a prayer? I know that people often say you shouldn’t write because you want to be published, but I’m sure that 99% of writers must have it in the back of their heads – or the front!
EB – My advice would be just keep at it. It can be difficult to stay motivated, but you can do it. Write a bit every day, even if it’s only a few hundred words, and your book will take shape. Look at the small picture if the big one makes you panic. Just write that chapter, and close your mind to everything else. It’ll all add up, and then you will have a book.
Q – How do you learn to cope with rejection? Does it get easier?
EB – I don’t think rejection does get easier, really. Also even when you’re published, looking at your Amazon reviews is never fun. The feeling never goes away! Again, a support network is really helpful for dealing with rejection. If you have people whose judgement you trust believing in you, that really helps.
I think that if you’re using a real place as a setting, and want it to be realistic then you have to go there.
Q – Was there a point when you realised that you could write, and that it wasn’t just a fluke? Do you ever fear you’ll lose it?
EB – I’ve always written, ever since I was a child, and I wrote lots of truly terrible poetry as a teen. When I started out in journalism I suppose I was surprised whenever it seemed I could do it OK. My huge learning curve was with my first book. Back then you could sell it on a few chapters, and I got a deal with Headline on the basis of 6 chapters and a synopsis, and then had about 6 months to write the rest of the book. I had no idea at all whether I could do it, as I had never written anything long and sustained before. I just had to get my head down and do it.
I think every writer constantly fears they’ll lose their knack. I do feel, though, that as I get older – I was in my 20s when I wrote my first, and I’m in my 40s now – I have much more life experience, and so much more I want to write about and explore.
Q – Most of your books have an element of travel. Have you been to all these places, or do you have to research them?
EB – I do go to the places, and I think that if you’re using a real place as a setting, and want it to be realistic (i.e. not magic realism or anything), then you have to go there. My YA book, The One Memory of Flora Banks, is partly set in Svalbard in the Arctic. I went there on my own for 6 days, and found out all kinds of details about what it’s actually like. If I’d tried to do it without going there, however much I read up on it, I don’t think it would have worked.
However, I have used places as settings that I haven’t been to for ages, and I think you can do that with research, street view etc.
Q – Are you contracted to do a certain number of novels in a certain timeframe? Also, have you found that your writing pace has increased over the years?
EB – I’ve always been contracted for two books at a time, which I think is standard. Publishers want to make sure they’ve got your next book in case the first one does well, but they don’t want to be committed to loads of them if it doesn’t. I’ve generally worked at the pace of a book a year, though with a gap recently as I switched to YA. And yes, I find I can write much faster now, and that I can have more than one book on the go without getting them confused as I once did!
Q – How can you make your submission to agents stand out?
EB – This is an easy and annoying thing to say, but the real way to make it stand out is to write a brilliant book. However, it’s important to get the letter right. Being clear about why you’re sending it to that person, referencing other authors they represent, and also having a brilliant pitch in your submission letter are all good. My old agent, Jonny Geller, has some horror stories about submissions he received on scented paper etc. He remembers them for the wrong reasons. Straightforward, polite and clear is the way to go.
There really is a temptation to tinker forever, but at the same time you kind of know when you have to get it off your desk.
Q – Have you got a favourite book of your own, and if so, why is this?
EB – My favourite book of my own is always the most recent one. Right now it’s my second YA book, set in Rio, which no one has read apart from a few people at Penguin. I think you have to have the excitement for your current book, and I always have. However, there are a few on my backlist that I would happily delete forever, though I probably shouldn’t say that.
Q – Would you advise letting my third novel rest for a while before editing it? I’m thinking of going back and trying to knock my second into shape in the meantime.
EB – Congratulations on finishing your third novel! That’s brilliant. I would always advise leaving it to rest for a bit, as you see it with much fresher eyes when you go back to it. I do that every time. It sounds like a very good idea to go back to your second one and have another look at that, too.
Q – I haven’t actually read any of your work – sorry! – but I’ve been trying to decide which book to start off with. Have you got any you would recommend?
EB – Firstly, thank you! I would go for The Sleeper. Possibly, because it’s my most recent one that’s currently published, I like it the best. I live in Cornwall, and when I moved here it took me ages to discover that you can travel between here and London by sleeper train. Then a friend told me about a friend of hers who was commuting to London on the sleeper and having a train affair with a man who did the same commute. That was one of those ‘that’s my next book’ moments.
Q – How long do you leave between drafts, and how do you know when a book’s ready to submit? There must a be a temptation to tinker forever!
EB – I think you have to submit when you cannot bear the sight of it any longer! There really is a temptation to tinker forever, but at the same time you kind of know when you have to get it off your desk. I try to leave a week or two between drafts – sometimes I work on another book at that point, and sometimes I just do other things.
Q – Are there any mistakes made or lessons learnt along the way that you wish someone had told you before?
EB – Great question. One is that you have to learn to let go and be very un-precious about your book once it gets into the system. People will be wanting you to edit it in ways you don’t, and it’s really important both to take their critiques on board, and also to fight to keep things you really feel passionate about. My YA book came back from the US editor with more than 5,000 suggested edits on it! Some of them were pavements into sidewalks etc but most weren’t. That was demoralising, but we compromised on lots of it and got through it in a way that everyone was happy with. In the end…
Q – Are there standard royalty agreements between publishers and authors, or does it differ depending on the publishing house and how much they like your book?
EB – It does differ hugely. I’m not au fait with the detail really, as I just sign contracts that arrive – very enthusiastically. But, I know that the percentages are different each time. It’s a complicated thing.
Q – Thank you, Emily, for all your great advice, and taking the time to talk to us!
EB – Thank you all! It’s been lovely, and remember that you can do it, and you’re in the right place to do so here.