Imagine your place on the bookshelf of the future

Paul Engles, Editor, Quercus

There is no better feeling as an editor than being completely swept away by a submission, losing the rest of the working day, the evening, the weekend or even the holiday to it. And nothing arrests an editor like a strong, original opening that demonstrates that the writer is playing the game on his or her own terms, and is ready to defy convention and expectations. I’ll never forget, for example, the bravura, ventriloquist magic of the opening scene of Sergio De La Pava’s A Naked Singularity – it was like nothing I had read before. It stood up on its hind legs and punched me in the nose like a March hare with ADHD.

With some books it’s not so much the raw pyrotechnics of the prose that hooks you, but the ingenuity behind the premise. The Girl Before by J.P. Delaney (published this month) is a great example of this. The set-up is so slick that the novel was sold on the strength of the first fifty pages alone. It tapped into a publishing trend (psychological thrillers) and a wider concern (the housing crisis) and offered a clear and enticing pitch:

Jane stumbles on the rental opportunity of a lifetime: the chance to live in a beautiful ultra-minimalist house designed by an enigmatic architect, on condition she abides by a long list of exacting rules. After moving in, she discovers that a previous tenant, Emma, met a mysterious death there – and starts to wonder if her own story will be a re-run of the girl before.

When you’re getting started perhaps you could say there are two broad ways of going about your business. You can study the market, consider the zeitgeist, hone and polish your premise, and keep your reader firmly in mind. Or you just write what you want to write, follow your voice and see where it takes you. Both approaches work equally well and there are editors out there looking for both kinds of books. And though it might seem like following the market is the key to success, some of the most outrageously popular books come completely out of leftfield. Publishing is weird like that. There are no safe bets and no no-hopers.

But course the most important thing about getting started is to GET STARTED. However much you turn something over in your head, it will never really start developing until you start writing. There’s a curious alchemy in writing – the act itself feeds inspiration, solutions to problems present themselves as if by magic, characters start thinking for themselves and before you know it . . . (well maybe not that fast, but one day, one fine day).

One more thing. Remember that editors want to read your book, we want to be wowed by it, devoured by it, we are dreaming of your book, we can’t wait to start living and breathing it and helping you take it as far as it can go. We are like vampires, skulking in our garrets poised to feed off your inspiration (but in a good way!).

So what are you waiting for?