I posted briefly, about a month ago on our final visit from Â figure from the publishing industry — one of our course’s published alumni, Penny Rudge. She came to see us on 9th June and I’ll try to summarise the many interesting points below that she made in her hour or so with us.
(I’ve been very slow in writing up this and a few things from the course as I’ve been so busy with the reading and also the writing of the commentary and submission of chapters two to four (or three to five in my case — about 11,500 words)).
With our reading only three weeks away, many of the class were interested to know if Penny’s book deal for ‘Foolish Lessons in Life and Love’ had been precipitated by her year’s equivalent event (as had been the case with Kirstan Hawkins). A few of us were relieved when Penny said that, while one agent showed interest at the time and a couple asked to see the final book, that this wasn’t out of the ordinary for her cohort and that the novel, while started on the Certificate course, had largely been written when she moved on to do an MA (I think this was at Royal Holloway — and she later went on to do a PhDÂ ).
(The further study yielded an endorsement from Andrew Motion for the novel which can’t have harmed its marketing.)
Penny’s agent (Caroline Wood at Felicity Byron) picked up ‘Foolish Tales in Life and Love’ from the anthology that was produced at the end of the MA course. Â So no short cut from the CertificateÂ course reading but Penny said that it was all valuable experience, a nice night — and a well-organised event.
It was also Penny’s view that the City course was more appropriate for the focused development of the novel — the MA being better for experimentation. Practically the whole novel had been workshopped chapter-by-chapter with ex-students from City University because they continued to meet after the course had ended. Penny puts down the fact that the manuscript required fairly little editing once accepted for publication to the feedback received in this way.
As well as the academic courses, Penny had biological deadlines to meet when completing the novel: finishing it just before the birth of her second child. The overall chronology was graduating from the City course in 2007, completing the novel in 2008 and then receiving the final proofs of the novel in the summer of 2009 — for publication in trade paperback in April 2010. A mass market paperback format is due for publication in June 2011.
A combination of managing to get a grant for full-time study and the need to take time off to start a family led Penny to give up her previous job in IT and become a full-time writer — or at least as much as child-care commitments would allow. In this sense the City University course was part of a life-changing experience. Aspiring writers might be well advised to look into Arts Council grants and similar (but don’t expect a champagne lifestyle from one).
Once the novel had been sold, there were a few changes made in response to the publisher’s feedback:
- A character’s nationality was changed as it was too reminiscent of a recent best-seller
- The publisher came up with the title of the book — Penny had a different one while she was writing it but was happy to take on the publisher’s suggestion of Â ‘Foolish Lessons in Life and Love’ as she thought it summed the book up well
- Historical anachronisms, particularly indoor smoking, had to be removed (how the world changed during the gestation of the book!)
- Quotations from pop songs and films were removed — not at the insistence of the publisher but because it was pointed out that getting the permissions costs a not insignificant amount of money
- The ending of the book was made a bit more hopeful than it was originally — apparently readers like that (I shall have to remember this advice myself if and when I get to the end of mine)
Nevertheless, the novel remained remarkably unchanged from the original synopsis.
One point that intrigued some of us was that Taras, the main character in the novel, was male — and a number of our class were narrating from the point of view (at least partially) of someone from the opposite gender. Â In Penny’s case that was quite helpful for the first novel as it dispensed with any obvious autobiographical parallels and allowed her imagination to be more free. Her second novel is likely to have more autobiographical components. In the end, it was her view that imagination is at the core of fiction — an author must be able to enter a character’s thoughts (or at least give a convincing illusion of doing so).
I’ve touched in previous posts about how Penny has demonstrated a knack for marketing her work — such as providing material for publicists to try and place in a newspaper (as happened with an article in ‘The Independent’). Â Publicists tend to have bigger clients than debut novelists so they are not likely to spend a huge amount of time generating this kind of story but, if the author takes the initiative, publicists can be quite effective in finding the best outlet to take it.
Self-promotion is probably something that doesn’t come easily to most writers but it’s something that authors increasingly need to do. As well as thinking of good stories to prime publicists, events like signings in bookshops are ways of increasing profile and flogging the copies of books that need to be sold to increase the chances of getting subsequent publishing deals. The author has to take the initiative in arranging book signings, doing readings at festivals, walking into bookshops and trying to sell them your book (this seemed to have worked for Penny in Waterstone’s in Piccadilly as the novel had been spotted on the shelves near the door by one of the class) — and so on. Lots of support from literary friends also pays dividends.
All the marketing, while hard work, tends to have a snowball effect. For example, a when a book crosses a threshold of something like twenty reviews then Amazon then it becomes more prominent on Amazon.
Cyberspace promotion is also now expected — Penny is intending to start up a web page or blog when she has time (in between all the readings, signings — with a bit of writing squeezed in as well). In the meantime, there’s a Facebook page that publicises the book and allows readers interaction with the author.
Penny has now sat in enough bookshops to be able to observe buyer behaviour — which includes the surprising revelation that hardly anyone browses the fiction shelves. They probably never get past the infamous 3 for 2 table!