Is there a future for The Cowbridge Slasher?

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The dark nights are here, which can mean only one thing: it must be time for another series of the BBC Radio Wales book programme, Phil The Shelf.

It starts on 13 November, to be exact, in the run-up to Christmas - on the basis that one of the great festive traditions is sitting down with a good book, preferably in front of a log fire with no carbon emissions.

We're not quite sure who we're having on the programme yet, but definitely a few Christmas crackers... and possibly a few turkeys. And, as usual, we'll be hoping for a little Christmas magic for at least one contestant in the literary lottery that is our Shelfstarters spot.

As regular listeners know, The Shelf is probably the only book programme in the world that actually gives listeners a chance to get published. You send us the first 25 pages of your unpublished novel, plus a one or two page synopsis of the plot, and if we think it has a chance we'll send it to a publisher or literary agent for an opinion... or even a future contract. Yes, at least three of our Shelfstarters have actually gone on to get published.

OK, why is this better than sending it yourself?

Well, if you submit a manuscript or a sample direct to a publisher or agent you'll normally receive what's known as a rejection slip. This is a very brief response which normally says something like, "Thank you for offering us The Cowbridge Slasher, which unfortunately, we do not consider suitable for our lists at the present time."

What it will not say is: your story is ludicrous, your characterisation flimsy at best and we might have felt slightly more charitable if you hadn't printed it single-spaced on both sides of the paper.

However, if Phil The Shelf sends your work to a publisher or agent, it's part of the deal that the publisher or agent comes on the programme to explain exactly why he or she is turning it down and what you could do to make it a better publishing proposition. If their reasoning doesn't make sense, we tell them. If we think another publisher might be more likely to accept your book, we'll tell you afterwards. You have nothing to lose except your illusions, and, in most cases, it's proved to be a worthwhile exercise.

So... what are we looking for?

Essentially, new novels, as there's not much of a market for short stories and non-fiction can depend more on the subject matter than the writer's abilities.

What kind of novels, then?

Anything from pulp fiction to serious literature, from macho-thrillers to chick-lit. Children's books are also a possibility. And the ground rules are the same: you send us the first 25 pages and a synopsis of the plot and agree to spend a few minutes on the radio discussing them.

Why the first 25 pages?

Because that's as far as most publishers bother to read before rejecting a book. We've had writers who've said, "Oh, if only he'd read the next hundred pages he'd have seen exactly where the story was going." Maybe he would, but he knows that a reader who isn't hooked by page 25 is very unlikely to want to find out.

What do we mean by a synopsis?

What we don't mean is a chapter-by-chapter outline of the entire story. A good piece of advice is to pretend you're writing the blurb - that's the bit inside the front flap designed to seduce the reader. You know the kind of thing: In the prosperous country town of Cowbridge, 12 people have been hacked to death by a killer with a bizarre trademark...

Give it a big build-up, but make it clear that you're in control and know exactly how the plot develops.

If the publisher likes it, what happens next?

Well, it would be nice to say you'd have a contract in the post by the end of the week, together with £50,000 cheque. But these are uncertain times for publishers; they rarely make snap decisions and they hardly ever offer anywhere near that much for a first novel.

First of all, they'll want to see the entire manuscript, which they'll then run past the Sales and Marketing department. Publishing is an industry, and it doesn't matter how beautifully-written it is - if S&M don't think it's going to shift enough copies, it's no deal. But at least you'll know at that stage that you've got what it takes and all you need is the right formula.

What are you waiting for? Twenty five pages and a synopsis, please, to:

BBC Wales Wrexham
Creative Industries Building
Glyndwr University
LL11 2AW

The sooner you send it, the more likely it is to get into the autumn series. And this time next year you could be a millionaire.


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