I was once an illiterate Irish street kid so I came to reading and writing late. 2009 was when I started writing down my first sentences. I desperately wanted to write out my own poetry and my wife Lee became bored of helping me. Since then I’ve become a total convert to writing. It’s such an amazing invention! It still blows me away that only 26 letters can create so many books out there.
As Australia’s top dog whisperer, I’ve written three books on dog language in Australia called ‘The Dog Man’, ‘What’s Your Dog Telling You?’ and ‘What’s Your Dog Teaching You?’ Two were runaway bestsellers. Last year I wanted to put my complicated childhood to rest so I wrote my memoir, ‘The Boy Who Talked To Dogs’ and submitted it online to a lot of agents around the world. I’d never had an agent before and somehow had this idea they were scary ogres who despised authors and enjoyed humiliating them. I was shocked at how easy it was to pick up an agent. Eleven in two weeks. I didn’t meet any scary ones at all. Here’s some things I got right and some I didn’t, but learned along the way.
Get ready to grab your reader by the scruff of the neck.
Stop your book being tossed away with a yawn. You need your reader to be falling through the pages, so learn how to write smooth and fast. Grab your reader’s wrist or pick them up by the scruff of the neck and whizz them through your pages so fast their feet barely touch the ground. Only pull up every now and again for a brief moment to let them catch their breath. Then fearlessly plunge them straight back into your pages till the next tiny pause. This is the only way writers can compete with the visual storytellers of movies and TV. Even if you’re writing non-fiction – you’re still a storyteller.
At this sort of speed keep your writing simple and very, very clear. Keep the boring, trudging sections of your story to one sentence before ruthlessly grabbing your reader’s hand and yanking them back into your story. We want the readers hearts pounding non-stop from start to finish. They’ll pay money to escape dreary reality – but nowadays they demand faster bangs for their buck. I naturally write like this and I think it was a big part of why I got signed. I might have been rough – but I was jet-fast – and interesting.
The two drugs every reader is demanding…
Two drugs readers crave and aren’t getting enough of are unpredictability and surprises. Movies and TV are toughening up on delivering plenty and now writers have to catch up. Non-stop unpredictability and surprises are the magic glue that keeps readers holding your book in their hand and their eyes moving from page to page. Your magic has to be strong enough to withstand any distraction.
So stop thinking 3 unpredictable moments and surprises per book – and deliver 3 per page! Yep, it’s hard – but guess what – you want to be a professional storyteller and this is part of the job description. Learn every storytelling trick you can about being unpredictable and throwing surprises at your reader’s face. Become a writer who delivers these two essential drugs non-stop. I’m lucky I’ve lived a pretty wild, unpredictable life and strange things tend to explode all around me so I had plenty of real life experience to draw upon. I’m also easily bored so I like shaking things up constantly on the page.
The third drug every reader craves (and why they picked up your book in the first place)
Wish fulfillment. This is why your poor, desperate reader picked up your book. You promised them escape into a certain type of world – so make sure you give them a powerful hit of wish fulfillment on every single page. Action. Romance. Fantasy. Mystery. Murder. Unicorns. Eroticism. A glimpse into an Irish street kid’s life who is hanging out with a pack of motley strays. Whatever it is you promised – don’t irritate your reader by being stingy with your wish fulfillment ingredient.
This means you have to pack exactly what your demanding reader wants into every sentence, paragraph and page till your reader is heady with your world. When your reader finishes, he or she will put down your book down in a daze and then blink and look around and say, ‘Oh no – I want to go back. I need to go back there.’ Ha! Now you have a helpless fan.
The new world of publishing is looking for authors who create rabid, foaming-at-the-mouth fans who demand your next book. On-line pre-ordering is the new golden goose. It reassures publishers and their company shareholders that they’re not making an expensive mistake investing in you. I’ve had readers contact me on Facebook before they finished Chapter 3 and it’s a real thrill. That’s when you know you’re doing your job.
Take a razorblade to your sentences.
To write smooth and fast, become ruthless at cutting the sagging fat off your sentences. Read something you’ve written and force yourself to go and cut at least ¼ off all your sentences. Hopefully even more. I’m not joking. Every single sentence. No excuses – just do it. Put it away and re-read in a week. See how fast and easily it flows now? The new editing style in publishing houses can only be described as ‘razor blade ruthless’. Get rid of everything you possibly can. Leave only the bare minimum so your story makes sense. Jump from exciting scene to exciting scene. Remove any unnecessary comma, word, sentence or scene. Readers have amazing imaginations and they’ll fill in the blanks themselves. Most readers are champing at the bit, annoyed with the writer for holding them up with ponderous descriptions or explanations. They really don’t care! Stop holding them up and get their heart pumping instead.
I thought I wrote pretty lean ’till my agent Daniel Lazar of the Writers House showed me some pretty crazy razor-blading. Strangely, once you’ve been shown how to do it, you’ll get addicted. Now I razor every possible thing out of my sentences like a pirate swinging a cutlass.
Slow moments can never be dull moments
If you have a slower than ‘Thrill Pace’ moment – make it either so emotionally moving your jaded reader cries – and I mean really shocks themselves by getting teary. Or make the moment humorous. Never leave anywhere in your story just ‘dull ordinary’. If you can spot dull patches in your writing, either razor blade them out or transform them into incredibly emotional moments or humorous moments. This is actually fun to do – have a go.
Agents need your manuscript!
Agents only make 10 – to 15 % of what a writer makes so they need you desperately. Forget being missed in a slush pile of emails. Agents and their assistants troll ceaselessly through their email boxes looking for treasure – so it’s simple – deliver that treasure! Don’t be scared of agents because fear will make you write in a boring, safe way. Instead, write bold. Write confident. Write to thrill. Take your agent on a ride right inside your head they’ll never forget. Exactly how thrilling do you have to be? Be the most amazing storyteller possible. You’re competing against 500 other wannabe-writers’ imaginations per week, 52 weeks per year – so concentrate on being the most incredible storyteller rather than the best writer.
Excite. Enthrall. Hook. Thrill. Shock. Surprise. Tease. Amaze. Be 1000 times better than this week’s, this month’s, this year’s competition. You can do it. Here’s a tip – make your agent laugh. Agents are stressed creatures. Humor of all types will go a long way in helping your cause. Add about 30 % more humour than you think you need.
How long before agents become difficult to reach?
Be excited and grateful you can still reach agents easily via email – and that it’s free. I’m guessing this luxury won’t last much longer so jump in and start submitting now before it’s too late.
You need to be a thousand times more exciting than you think you do.
Write a blurb about your book. Writing this will show how boring your idea is. If it’s not getting the hairs standing up on the back of your neck with anticipation then you need to re-write your story. Boring books only worked when there were no alternatives. You’re now competing with millions of other books – as well as fighting against TV, movies and the Internet. Dullness is your deadly enemy. It’s the evil enemy of all books – so stamp it out!
The ‘subject box’ on your email is your new secret weapon.
Agents love email submissions because they’re easy, fast and organized. Now when you submit your query email to your agent, learn to make the most of your subject box. Try this: ‘Query.’ Then the unforgettable title of your story. Now write a single sentence that grabs your agent by the eyeballs and starts their heart pumping with excitement.
Have it explain your story and sound sensational. Make your agent so fascinated they start to salivate as they open your email. We want them thinking, ‘Aha! Maybe here’s where I’ll find treasure!’ Do not disappoint them with your letter. Be fascinating yet professional. Don’t be dull in any part of your submission. This whole package has to be true storytelling treasure. You can’t fake this part. True quality storytelling will get you through any obstacle. Notice I said storytelling, not writing. Writing can be edited and fixed. But incredible storytellers are the rarest of creatures instantly spotted by agents and publishers. I was told I’m a great storyteller.
Stop worrying, start submitting.
I fell into getting published. It happened like this. I’m Australia’s top dog whisperer. My wife Lee and I got so sick of explaining everything we knew about dog language to people over and over again that I wrote some books on dog language and behaviour. These were the bestselling ‘The Dog Man’ and ‘What’s Your Dog Telling You?’ They sold through the radio shows I was invited on. Because I did so many radio shows they became bestsellers. So I was very spoilt to be published and promoted so easily. I realize that now. I was also a bit naïve. I had no idea how many people wanted to be published.
Over the years, I’ve travelled to a few different countries and in every place I’ve mentioned my book, publisher and agent (Ha! Welcome to the world of selling books – unless you’re a mega-star author, it’s like selling raffle tickets for two bucks every single day of your life. It’s fun but very unglamorous.) A surprisingly large number of people said they’d researched agents and knew all about my agent, Daniel Lazar of the Writers House in New York. Before I’d signed with him, I had no idea who he was. I didn’t even know you needed an agent to get published in America.
However, my bank manager knew about him. My daughter’s schoolteacher knew all about him. Countless numbers of backpacking university students I met revered him. Local writers in my village talked excitedly about him. A TV host had heard of him. All of them had secret manuscripts rotting away in a drawer somewhere. You name it – it felt like everyone had heard about my agent except me. Yet not one of those people I spoke to had ever submitted anything to Daniel or any other agent. They were too scared of being rejected.
This is why I wanted to write this article. I want to encourage you to stop being afraid. Have a go at submitting your story. Agents aren’t nasty ogres who enjoy making people feel terrible. They believe passionately in storytelling. They’re also frantically trying to make a living by finding more storytelling treasures. If they could submit lots of great manuscripts to publishers each week they’d be ecstatic. But they can’t waste the publisher’s time with material that’s boring. It’s that simple. They’d lose their contacts. They’d lose their reputation. They’d lose their job. The secret for you is this. Just be an incredible storyteller. That’s all that’s required.
As I showed, it’s not about being a clever writer at all. So don’t be a scaredy cat. Start submitting right now. The worst that can happen is you’ll get a polite email knock-back – but so what? You won’t die. It just shows you aren’t the best storyteller you can be yet. I submitted my memoir on a whim after featuring in a radio documentary in Ireland on RTE ONE. I was more surprised than anyone by how easy it was to get an international agent. I thought it would be impossible. Best of all, submitting costs nothing. What have you got to lose? If you’re still holding back, then toss out your ego – it’s the real monster holding you back from submitting. Stop blaming poor agents.
Still not convinced? Publishers aren’t picky ogres either. All publishers have one fear once they decide a story is good enough to publish and it’s this: how the hell am I going to publicize this story enough to get enough sales so I keep my job?
As I’ve discovered the hard way with my memoir, getting people to notice your story once it’s published is the hardest thing you’ll have to do in your life. It’s probably a hundred thousand times more difficult than you think it is. Getting people to promote your book for free is even harder. There just isn’t much room in the media to discuss books. I get the idea that publishers knock back a lot of books not because they’re badly written or boring. They’re simply too difficult to promote. In my case I had a very unusual author hook. This helped me get an agent and a publisher. When I was 13, I ran away to escape bullying and ended up an Irish street kid, living with a pack of stray dogs for 3 years. This got me quite a bit of invaluable media attention – but it still wasn’t enough! Every interview and article was a big success I had to claw out of sending away hundreds of emails.
So right from the start, create an author hook about yourself and say why you felt compelled to write your book. Remember it only has to appeal to your own readers. Compress it into one sensational hook sentence that leaps out and grabs people even when they’re half asleep with boredom. Wake them up with a bounce! Your readers have to be able to repeat this sentence to other people, so keep it simple and snappy.
Don’t underestimate social media like I did.
Here’s something I failed to do – and failed spectacularly. I didn’t invest enough pre-publishing time in building up my social media. So don’t make the same mistake. Start building up your social media followers asap so you’ll be able to sell out your first print run super fast and get word of mouth selling your book straight away in the first two months. There’s plenty of advice on the Internet for authors on how to do this so don’t be scared but definitely start right now! You’ll be building this audience of supporters for the rest of your writing life so get a head start on your competitors.
What agents, editors and readers hate to smell in your writing.
Writing that doesn’t feel authentic turns everyone off. It just smells wrong. There’s no magic there. It’s boring and irritating. It makes agents angry for wasting their time. So stick to writing about a world that you’re addicted to. Now become a champion of some sort of belief you feel passionately about. Think of all your favorite authors. I bet you can pinpoint what each writer feels passionately about. It always shines like a beacon in their pages.
Writers are storytellers who remind the world what civilization is and why we need it. If you want to win over an agent – and a large following of readers – be a worthy storyteller with something important to say to your fellow humans. I had my agent, Daniel and editor, Holly Rubino at Skyhorse Publishing fight really hard for my book because they genuinely believed my story should be shared with a wider audience. Be a storyteller the publishing professionals pick up a sword to fight for.
Finally – unleash your extraordinary secret self on the world.
Forget the very ordinary self you present to the world. It’s not enough if you’re a writer. Agents only want to hear extraordinary voices. They want to see the world in a new thrilling way. So bring out your secret voice. The one your parents, teachers and friends always said was too vain. Too loud. Too weird. Too over-dramatic. Be a courageous writer. Let us share your secret fantasies, your secret fears and your darkest thoughts. Now you’re finding your true authentic voice as a writer. Your honesty and true feelings will shine through. It’s like magic and it’s extremely rare. It’s what agents and publishers get extremely turned on by. Never hold back in your writing. Be 70% more courageous than you think you have to be.
(c) Martin McKenna