Isabel Wolff
  • Home
  • Books
  • Short Stories
  • About Isabel

Isabel's Guide to Writing & Getting Published

Isabel Wolff I get a lot of e-mails on the HarperCollins Fire and Water website and a large proportion of them are from people asking me for advice as to how to get published so here, for any apsiring writers out there, is the advice I usually give.

First of all, ask yourself if you really are the sort of person who's going to write. For example, do you have a running commentary going through your head, like a film script, describing what's going on around you? Do you find you're earwigging madly on buses and trains? Do you read a lot, and do you actively analyse what you read? Do you go to lots of films and plays? Have you looked into doing creative writing courses at your local college? Have you ever wanted to work with books, in a bookshop or publishing house?

If you can answer 'yes' to any of the above, then you may well be the sort of person who could write. But when writers laughingly trot out the cliche about it being 99% perspiration and only 1% inspiration, believe me, they are not lying - writing books is a sweat. But it's a hugely enjoyable sweat if you're confident that you have a good story to tell. So if you feel that you do, then crack on and make a start.

Getting Started

How do you get started? Well, you have to have a plan. Some writers just begin their novels without really knowing where they're going - and if it works for them, then fine. But I find I need to have a proper structure. So I decide what the main story line is going to be and this takes no more than three or four sides of typed A4. From that blueprint I then flesh out the synopsis. You may find you're not able to write the full synopsis - after all some of the main ideas will come to you as you write - but I always try and have at least 60 per cent of the story-line there. Once you've done that, divide the synopsis into chapters, each chapter being summarised in no more than half a page of A4 - in other words, you should have about two chapters per page.


I think it's best to have no more than six main characters, as it's difficult for your reader to care about the characters, or follow their progress, if there are too many of them galloping across the page. So decide who the main 'dramatis personae' are, how they are going to interconnect (without relying on coincidence of course - a total yawn), and then make detailed notes about them. Who are they? Where do they live? What sort of problems do they have? What do they do? Who are their friends? What are/were their parents like? What do they wear, smoke, eat and drive? Most importantly, what motivates them?

I often think that being a novelist is like being a shrink - you have to build up a detailed psychological profile of all your main characters - and then stick to it so that they are consistent and credible. And if they do act 'out of character' then you have to give them a clear motivation for doing so. Successful novels contain characters who feel real to the reader and whose behaviour they can understand (even if they don't approve), and sometimes second-guess. By the time the reader turns the last page, they should feel as though they know your characters personally, and have understood them very well, (even if they haven't always liked them that much).

Above all, make your characters rounded, not flat. We are all a mixture of good and bad, so it's a bore if a character is completely 'virtuous' while another is purely 'vicious'. Life is not about 'goodies and baddies', 'nasties and nicies.' Some books - bad ones - read like second rate Westerns - it's all injuns and cowboys. So set out to make your characters a credible mix. If you have a heroine/hero who is flawed, then that flaw should not be too 'unforgivable' (i.e. killing people) otherwise your reader won't like them enough to follow their progress to the end. Equally, if you have a nasty character, then try and make the reader understand what motivates them to be nasty. And try and give them one redeeming quality, or perhaps make them pitiable, rather than wholly unpleasant, as that makes for a more textured, realistic personality.

You may to choose to have your main character an anti-heroine or anti-hero which is fine, so long as they are either very clever/funny/brave or just downright entertaining so that we put up with them behaving in an appalling way. Michael Dibdin's 'Dirty Tricks' (see Highly Recommended) is a good example of this, as is Alexander Portnoy in Philip Roth's hilarious 'Portnoy's Complaint', and also the scheming Becky Sharp in 'Vanity Fair'.


Very often the plot will develop from the characters. Things will happen to the hero/heroine, because of the way they are. So don't just put in a plot development because you want to have a 'wedding scene', or a 'funeral scene' or a 'fight scene' - the action should follow as a direct result of the characters' behaviour, because that is true to life. Things happen to us, or we do certain things, because of who we are. So don't just construct a 'dramatic' plot, and then fit the characters into it because that will probably feel synthetic and fake. The action should flow, to a great extent, from the characterisation.

Equally don't insert scenes just for the fun of it. Set pieces - for example a charity ball, or a football match or an excruciating dinner party - can be fun to write (and read) but they shouldn't be side-shows. They should be there because they are relevant to the story-line. So don't just have your heroine going to Rome for the weekend, for example, unless there's a reason why she should be going there, and because something will happen to her there which connects with the rest of the plot, and moves it on. Everything should add up and make sense, so no sight-seeing. It's self-indulgent and it's frustrating to read, because the reader will rightly think to themselves, 'so what?'

The World of the Book

When you write a novel, you are conjuring a whole world, so it certainly helps to know a lot about that world. It's no good having your main character being a doctor or a vet if you know nothing about it. So the old axiom, 'write about what you know' is true - though not exclusively. Certainly, use your life experience - we all do - as it will feel authentic. Ransack your memory for everything you've ever done and everyone you've ever met - however much you might have hated it/them at the time. If you do stray into 'foreign' territory, then make sure you do thorough research. If your main character's a weather forecaster, for example, as is Faith in 'Out of the Blue', then you have to do extensive reading, interviews and detailed research so that you can convey what a weather forecaster does in a credible way. You don't have to go into grinding detail - which would only hold up the plot (or look as though you're showing off that you've done your research). But do go into enough detail so that the reader knows that it's realistically portrayed.

Writers are always alert to stories. I find that some of my plot lines have come from real life events I've read about in magazines, or newspapers, or stories I've heard on the radio, or seen on TV. These stories are around us all the time and you should be listening, and thinking about how these narrative threads might go into the tapestry of your synopsis. For example, listening to stories about adoption on Radio Four's Home Truths partly inspired one of the main themes in 'Rescuing Rose'. So be alert to stories - they are everywhere you look. Equally keep a notebook in your bag, and by your bed, to jot down any good thoughts you have during the day.

Another important piece of advice is to read around the genre in which you want to write. If you want to write thrillers for example, then read loads of them and consciously dissect them, analysing what makes them work, and why. Equally, work out what bits don't perhaps hang together, or why a particular character lacks credibility. You have to be a good critic before you can become a good writer. Go to thriller films, and plays too. Immerse yourself in your chosen genre and be alert to what is working well, and selling well, within that. Then, without in any way imitating what others are doing, set out to do it as well as they - or even better.

Now Start Writing

Once you've done a substantial part of your planning, and you have your characters, basic plot and background, then you can start to write. Just start. That's what we all have to do. Simply start writing - however bad you may think it - and keep going for at least two or three hours. You'll be surprised to find that it's soon beginning to flow. I find I write all my new material in the mornings, and then revise and edit it in the afternoons. To write new material for even three hours can be very intensive and terribly draining, so I find that I can't usually write anything new after lunch. So that's when I put on the spit and polish.

Some writers try and write an average number of words a day. I aim for 2000 - about 4 pages of one and a half spaced A4 - but sometimes I might only write 200. But then the next day I might get a sudden burst of creativity and do 4000. But basically it averages out at about 2000 words a day. You might average less, or more. Graham Greene only ever wrote 500 words a day, then he'd stop. Jilly Cooper writes 5000 a day. Above all, go at your own natural pace, but just keep covering the paper and keep at it. As P.G. Wodehouse said, successful writing depends on applying 'the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair'. There's a huge amount of truth in that.

Get Help

If at this stage you don't have an agent or an editor (don't worry, you will!) then ask someone who knows you very well, and whose judgement you trust, to read what you've done so far. Alternatively, sign up for a creative writing course, and get the tutor to read your synopsis or your first few chapters. Not only will this make you feel that you now do have a proper 'reader', you may well find their insights helpful and encouraging. Writing a book is like climbing a mountain, and it's nice to have someone giving you a hand up along the way. But equally, don't show your material to everyone and don't talk about it until you're confident that you're well on the way. Keep it to yourself. And above all, don't give away your plot.

How to Find a Publisher

So you've got your synopsis and you've written the first three chapters, so you're ready for it to be sent out (many novels are sold on that basis). But don't bother sending it direct to the publishers. Publishers used to have 'slush piles' - skyscrapers of unsolicited manuscripts, (approximately 0.1% of which would get published), but no longer. In these more ruthless times publishers will not read any manuscripts that do not come from an agent. So how do you find an agent?

Isabel Wolff
With my Agent Clare Conville at the launch of 'A Question of Love'

How to Find an Agent

Buy the Artists' and Writers' Yearbook (buy it online at Amazon) - an industry Bible - in which are listed the names and contact details for all the literary agents. Make a few phone calls first to establish that they do represent novelists (some agents only do non-fiction) and then find out who the relevant person is, and send them your material. This can be quite time-consuming because what you mustn't do is to approach more than one agent at a time. It's insulting, if you're an agent, to know that a synopsis is out with ten other agents. It can also get very murky if more than one of them are interested. So keep life simple. One agent at a time, and if you want the material back, enclose a large s.a.e.. If an agent says that they are not right for you, then get back to them and ask them who they think might be right. A lot of them know each other - by reputation if not personally - and the vast majority would make a helpful recommendation as to whom you might approach next.

Dealing with Rejection

Don't worry if you get fifteen rejection letters. There are lots of very successful authors who only got lucky after months and months of trying. J.K. Rowling famously got loads of rejection slips from publishers (who are all still busy kicking themselves). Other writers are fortunate and find one straight away.

Take Advice

If you have a friend of a friend of a friend of a friend whose girlfriend works for a publishing house or a literary agency, then phone them up, and ask them for advice. People don't mind - in fact they quite often like it because it makes them feel important. And it's only five minutes on the phone and they might well give you a very helpful lead.

What to do when you've got an Agent

Once you have an agent, then it's up to them to find you the right publisher. Don't tell them that you want to be published by Faber for example. Your agent will naturally know which is the right publishing house for you, and they will do their very best to get you there. In return for their efforts, you will pay them between 10 and 15% of what the deal is worth. If they sell foreign rights, then they'll charge 20% as there is usually a sub-agent whom they have to pay.

The relationship between a writer and an agent is vital - it's almost like a professional marriage. You write the best books you can for your agent, who in turn, gets the best deal he or she can for you. You can also bounce ideas off your agent, if they have the time and inclination, as many agents like to be involved in some way, with the creative process. This is because an increasing number of editors are becoming agents - for example Clare Conville, Alexandra Pringle, Peter Strauss - and so they're quite pleased to have a small editorial role.

Once your agent has struck the deal then it's time for a glass of Champagne to celebrate - and then your real work begins. Your new editor will then give you the deadline by which you must complete the book and it's best not to miss it. Publishing a book is like a wedding - the wheels start to turn months in advance. I remember when I was only half way through 'The Making of Minty Malone' seeing a full page ad for The Making of Minty Malone on the front cover of The Bookseller. This was terrifying - and also quite stimulating. My fingers flew across the keyboard that day.

In Conclusion

The fact is that anyone can write a book. And you don't have to have been a journalist first, like I was, and like many novelists were (Helen Fielding, Wendy Holden and Kate Saunders for example). Yes, you have to be able to write well, and to write in your own, distinctive voice, in the genre which suits you best. But you have, above all, to have a good, strong story line which will keep your reader turning the pages. But the fact is that if do you have that, you can - and you will - write a book. But only if you want to do it enough. So good luck and crack on with it and I'm looking forward to reading it soon! yourselves!


back to TOP