Useful, if not Uplifting, Advice

Following a few links from links I came across this blog entry from ‘Help I Need A Publisher’ by Nicola Morgan which has some sobering thoughts on the state of the publishing industry.

There’s a very interesting bullet-pointed list of advice for new writers — a group the author feels might be less disadvantaged than published writer.

Our visits from authors, an agent and a publisher seem to have wised our class up to these economic realities — I find it quite encouraging in a way that there still are authors who can write whatever they like and still feel ‘the world owes them a living’ — though I guess they won’t be around for that long.

Fascinating Lessons in Writing and POV

We had a visit from another published course alumnus last night — Penny Rudge, author of ‘Foolish Lessons in Life and Love’, as mentioned in a previous post.

I’ll blog later at more length about what she said about the publishing process in general. I was quite relieved that her book deal didn’t follow as a consequence of the end-of-course reading.

I’m quite inspired by the book and our session yesterday. I was encouraged that she had a similar background to me and, curiously, the style of her novel is probably closer to how I’ve been writing than mine is to anyone else currently on the course — contemporary setting, humorous, lots of dialogue, other gender POV, European leading character (s), etc.

I’m quite gratified that ‘Foolish Lessons in Life and Love’ has probably a higher literary breast count (and other intimate body parts) than my work in progress could be projected to have — there are scenes in a strip club and seedy strippers’ pub.  These descriptions are very well done — very witty and frank but never over-graphic, anatomical or crude. I think I’ll  keep the book handy for my own inspiration — seeing as I’m frequently reminded how sex-obsessed my male character is (wait until Monday’s reading).  Penny’s use of the male point of view in these scenes is also very accurate, at least from my own observation, so maybe there’s hope for me to use POV the other way.

Perhaps it’s because Penny also has a background as a computer programmer. I think I may have blogged on this before but I was a programmer for about 12 years, have worked in IT since and am now doing a dissertation for an MSc. in Software Development. I asked her a question about how she organised the files on the computer, as a writer, and she enthusiastically answered.

Perhaps IT workers are one of those professions, journalism being the most obvious one, that equips people with certain skills — being able to use a keyboard quickly is one but also in novelistic terms, putting together a novel with its themes and planning probably draws a lot on the analytical skills required to put together big systems. And the revision process is similar in that one small change can have very big knock-on consequences throughout the system or novel (name, setting, chronology changes, etc.).

A Meeting with ‘God’

Last Wednesday, as mentioned in a previous post below we had a visit from a real-life commissioning editor — Francesca Main from Simon and Schuster. I think I’d been expecting a visitor from ‘an editor’ so was quite awestruck when Francesca described one large component of her job as being THE person who decided whether to publish a novel or not. I didn’t go quite so far as one of our group who made the blunt, but fairly accurate, observation from our side of the table — ‘You’re like God’.

It turns out that, while aspiring novelists might see the commissioning editor as a deity, that within the publishing house there appears to be a hierarchy of the gods worthy of Greek mythology and that a large part of the editor’s job is to convince the supernatural beings in other departments, notably the marketing department, that a novel is worth taking on.

I won’t go into a great deal of detail about the insights Francesca gave us, fascinating as they were. (I’m conscious these meetings are one of the attractions of the novel writing course so join up for the course next year if you weren’t there and want to find out more). However, I did check with Francesca if it was ok to write up the general drift of her comments on this blog.

There are a few sobering points to mention up front about the commissioning editors job, as it relates to up and coming novelists. Firstly, she almost exclusively deals with agent submissions — and not unsolicited manuscripts. This is an important quality filter that works to the advantage of the writers represented by agents as Francesca will endeavour to make a decision based on the whole of any manuscript that she receives. It’s not judged on the first few pages or chapters — the whole lot is considered. Of course this means the author has to have a completed novel to put forward in the first place — which again is a filter of quality and commitment.

Another sobering aspect is the ratio of novels considered (even those filtered by agents) compared with those published. She receives between two and five novels a day but will tend to only see six to eight novels a year through to publication — which works out at a list of about 25 authors. So in a working year of perhaps 200 days that means she must publish something under 1% of the novels that cross her desk. How much those odds sound depressingly pessimistic depend, I suppose, to the quality of targeting of editors by agents (perhaps some that are rejected are not her genre and so on) and also to the number of other editors also on the lookout for novels (the closer that number gets to 100 then the slightly less glum those odds start to look — once you have an agent).

With such a small percentage selected it’s clear that the editor has to be passionate about the work — something mentioned in the previous post. One comment stuck in my mind — “you must feel you are in good hands” as a reader (i.e. the author has a confident, clear and consistent style and that the reader feels the novel is going somewhere). She also re-iterated the point about avoiding florid prose — the famous over-use of adverbs and adjectives marks out authors trying too hard — but general pretentiousness shows through as well.  Originality and quality of the authorial voice are also clinching factors.

The editor needs to champion the work to the marketers, accountants, publicists, foreign rights department and so on. That’s why throughout the process the people involved have to be completely committed to the novel from the start — author, agent, editor and it helps to have reviewers, booksellers and so on as advocates too.

That’s why the temptation to ask someone like Francesca a question like ‘tell me what I need to write to get published’ needs to be resisted at all costs — not that any of us did — as if we don’t believe in what we’ve written as writers then we can’t expect anyone else to.

And at the end it’s a commercial proposition and it was salutary when the subject of subsequent novels came up. Perhaps surprisingly, debut authors are reasonably attractive to publishers — they’re more newsworthy, possibly more original, perhaps easier to work with and, a factor that seemed surprisingly important, they’re eligible for more literary prizes! There are perhaps as many barriers for the many published authors whose sales figures for their first or second novels haven’t set the world on fire — and they end up dropped from the list. There’s not much an editor can do in that case — even if they have a passion for the works — your books don’t sell and the bookshops won’t buy them. Tough.

The second part of the commissioning editor’s job apart from performing Herculean efforts to get the book published in the first place is to work with the author to improve it. This isn’t a case of checking the spellings — proof readers do that and other readers can also check for continuity and historical consistency and so on. Francesca tends to develop her writers’ novels at a more abstract level. Common issues that might be addressed include the following.

Are the characters real? A writer can write all the great prose in the world but if no-one cares about their characters on an emotional level then they’re in trouble. Structure: writers are ok at beginnings and ends but the middles of novels often need work. It’s also Francesca’s experience that good dialogue is very difficult to write. Also, don’t underestimate the reader — they don’t need every action explaining and, quite often, would err on the side of using their own imaginations where possible — don’t describe everything and every character in great detail.

As for first-time novelists, there’s a temptation to throw everything but the kitchen sink into their debut — the editor will tend to murder quite a few of the debut-novelist’s babies. That’s why the relationship between the editor and author needs to work — good writers will always value constructive feedback.

It was a fascinating hour and Francesca was answered all our questions with a really useful combination of general advice to us and anecdote from her own experience. In the end, as mentioned previously, there’s no magic bullet — at least beyond the one that gets you through the door called ‘getting an agent’ — and we will meet a real one of those tomorrow evening.

No Magic Bullets

Just on the train back after another fascinating visit from a guest speaker in one of our sessions — Francesca Main who’s a commissioning editor at Simon and Schuster — and a very successful one too as one of her books ‘The White Woman on the Green Bicycle’ by Monique Roffey has been shortlisted for this year’s Orange prize. I’ll blog at more length about some of the points she made when I’m not balancing a laptop on my knee going at a rate of knots through the countryside.

One interesting point seems to be, however, that the more insight we get into the processes of the publishing world then the more the simplest, most universal advice rings true: there are no silver bullets and, moreover, trying too hard to write something with the objective of being published as an end it itself is probably the most likely route to failure.

That’s because any agent or editor will only take on a piece of work that makes them passionate enough to champion it against all sorts of obstacles and adversity. The agent needs to have the belief that will sustain getting the novel into a marketable shape and then go through the process of selling it to editors. Then the editor needs to champion the novel within the publishing house — of which more later.

So paradoxically, what probably marks out a novel that’s worth publishing, at least from a new author, is the fact that the writer believes in it so much that he or she complete it as an end in itself — regardless of worrying about its commercial potential.  If an obsessive, compulsive belief in the work itself shines out of the text then it’s that which will convince other people to believe in it and to invest their time and resources in its further development.

Probably the most daunting conclusion of all is that other people’s advice is very helpful but they can’t do the work — it’s all down to yourself.

Visit from Kirstan Hawkins

On Wednesday evening we had a visit from an author who has just had her first novel published — Kirstan Hawkins whose book is ‘Doña Nicanora’s Hat Shop’. What was particularly special about this author visit is that Kirstan is an ex-student from the course, having been on the course two years ago. (I think this is correct as she said her novel was published 18 months after it was finished.) I guess that most of us chose to do this course because of its focus on the novel form and because of its links with the publishing industry (which will be concentrated on next term). Kirstan, therefore, was an ideal person for us to talk to because she’d been in exactly our position a couple of years ago and had gone on to do extremely well once the course had finished.

It was an absolutely fascinating and engaging hour in which Kirstan started by giving us some very relevant information about her own experiences and then answered some of our questions. I can’t possibly note down all the useful and thought-provoking answers that were discussed but a few points stood out from my own perspective.

One interesting point was that Kirstan said she’d never really set out to write a novel at first or overtly tried to set out on a career as a writer. Instead, she’d suddenly been grabbed by a series of ideas that were to later develop into the novel. While working on these ideas she’d enrolled in various creative writing courses, including a couple of Arvon foundation residential ones,  and had spent about five years through courses and writers’ groups developing her craft, so to speak, before using the opportunities at the end of the City course to submit the novel for publication. I particularly noted her advice to let publishers and agents know what courses you’ve done as a writer. I guess I’d had a misconception myself that publishers had a masochistically romantic notion about fantastic writing being honed more by enduring the privations of some freezing, rat-infested squat and not venturing into the outside world for six months. I now realise what rubbish this is (mind you, this sort of exaggeration is probably routinely used to hype authors) — an agent or publisher is much more likely to realise an author is serious if he or she has spent several years and thousands of pounds on courses interacting with other writers and tutors, reading other quality fiction out there in the market and learning from criticism and being aware of theory. So doing courses like the first presentation of the OU Advanced Creative Writing course is more of an asset than I previously realised.

We focused quite a bit on agents as Kirstan managed to get signed up by hers remarkably quickly after the reading event for her year. (From looking on the internet her agent is Judith Murray at Greene and Heaton.) It sounds as if Kirstan found a really good agent and they have a very amicable and supportive relationship. However, Kirstan was careful to point out that the agent is principally someone who believes in the author and the novel with a passion — but that passion has to be passed on to a publisher (and not just a commissioning editor but various people like a marketing director) before a novel will stand a chance of publication. (There can be circumstances when editors leave publishers through redundancy and similar when a book in progress might be dropped if the new editor is not so keen on it.) So getting an agent is a vital step — but an agent can never guarantee anything to the new author. In financial terms both the agent and author are working out of love of the novel, rather than any monetary reward until an advance is paid — and, for a new author, that might cover some expenses but it’s not likely to be anything to swing from the chandeliers over.

What Kirstan said was most valuable about her agent was the editorial support. Some agents will not get particularly involved in the development of the novel and will expend their efforts on selling to publishers whatever is delivered by the author. As a new author, Kirstan was able to draw on her agent for advice in revising the manuscript. I was particularly interested in whether the sort of editorial advice from an agent was similar to that given by participants in writers’ groups or course workshops. Kirstan said that largely it was — although the advice from the professionals tended to be more definitive and assertive. She thought that the City group tended to be a little too polite and nice to each other and when there was a change to be made, for example if the leading character was introduced too late, then the other students would suggest bringing it forward a chapter or two whereas the editor and agent would say it had to be on the first or second page. Doña Nicanora’s Hat Shop’ is written in an extremely approachable and fluent prose style so I guess Kirstan wouldn’t find too much conflict with publishers in her genre but I’d be interested if writers who were on the more experimental end of the scale were ever pulled in opposite directions by peers who might love esoteric writing and perhaps agents who wanted something more commercial. I guess this is why choosing the right agent is so important. One point that certainly came over strongly is that Alison and Emily have very sound instincts in predicting what works and what doesn’t.

Kirstan told us about the huge amount of work that is involved with the publication of the novel — not just the various redrafts and proofs that need to be worked over but also the many different people in a publisher with whom a writer needs to meet. Then there’s also the expectation that a writer will self-generate at least some ideas for publicity (see other post mentioning Penny Rudge). All this work is done without any guarantee of financial reward, apart from the normally meagre advance, so the novelist also has to carry on as normal with the ‘day-job’. And then there’s the matter of trying to get round to writing a second novel. Kirstan came out with an amusing anecdote, saying that she’d been  in an interview with an agent about the content of her second novel, which she’d not really considered, and made up something on the spot. This spontaneous idea really did become the basis of the next novel — perhaps illustrating the suggestion that these ideas tend to stay just under the waterline in a writer’s subconscious but sometimes surface unexpectedly almost fully formed. Kirstan started to work on the second novel to relieve the moments of frustration and despair when the manuscript for Doña Nicanora’s Hat Shop’ was considered and passed over by various publishers but, paradoxically, once the novel was accepted then time to work on the next novel became at a premium.

One thing I didn’t realise is that the current edition of Doña Nicanora’s Hat Shop’ is what’s called a ‘trade paperback’ — which effectively seems to be a hardback sized paperback that’s relatively expensive. The idea is that trade paperbacks serve a similar purpose to hardbacks in terms of testing the market and being sent out for review. Fortunately Waterstone’s picked up on Doña Nicanora’s Hat Shop’ and included it briefly in their 3 or 2 offers — which is great exposure for a first novel. It is planned to publish the novel in a traditional paperback version when the comments from reviews can be printed on the cover and the price will be lower. I guess the publishers in the case of this novel would be keen to get it in the promotion for holiday reading — for which it would be very suitable, being set in an exotic Latin American location.

Emily and Kirstan talked about the present difficulties in the UK book retailing market — with Borders having closed down then Waterstones is really the only specialist national bookseller and it’s vital for publishers to try and get their books on the tables near the entrance to the shops. If a book isn’t going to sell in volume then it won’t get into the shop — they tend not to stock the odd two or three copies on the alphabetical shelves just to see if it will sell. Everything needs an angle which will help its marketing.

What Kirstan didn’t make too big a play of, but which seemed apparent to me, was how much hard work it takes to get a novel published and into bookshops and I really admire her dedication in having achieved it. It helps, of course, to have written a very good book. I was one of the people who brought in our copies of the novel. I’ve not finished it so far but I’ve enjoyed what I’ve read. What was most interesting, though, is that knowing she’d been on the same course as myself, I didn’t consider the text to be as inviolable as I normally would in a published book. I occasionally found myself in feedback mode thinking ‘I wonder why that exposition has gone there’ or ‘that’s a nice simile/metaphor’ or whatever.

So I think that meeting Kirstan and reading her book helps mentally bridge the conceptual gap between being the sort of creative writing student that she was herself and the prospect of seeing a book physically realised. However, there’s such a lot of work involved that all of us on the course must be a little mad for having this aspiration. I suppose that’s a test of having something you feel impelled to write about, even though it might make little logical sense, and that one’s belief in that may eventually manifest itself as a unique and original voice, which is what Emily emphasised agents and publishers are searching for and need to feel passionately about themselves.

Crises of Confidence

One of our course (see the links to Bren Gosling’s blog on the sidebar) prompted an interesting e-mail exchange between several of us when he asked if anyone else had crises of confidence, particularly once they’d read a passage from a great novel which they’d compared with their own work.

I guess this is pretty universal. Almost everyone agreed that they had similar bouts of self-doubt. Rick made some good points: don’t compare your early drafts of your novel with the polished final draft of a master; anyone who thinks they’re a pretty cool writer when they’re only at an early draft stage is almost certainly not.

My own contributions to the debate were:

‘Paranoia, self-doubt and angst’ — sounds like the sort of job description that’s written for me. I must be aspiring to do the right thing — I’ve yet to experience that much despair yet but I’m sure I will.  I agree with everyone else’s comments about the ups and downs and the difficulties of the writing process. One paradox that several writers that I’ve read have commented upon, and that I also find myself, is that while you know the actual process of writing can be very stimulating and rewarding once you’ve started, that there’s a massive reluctance to begin and almost any other activity is used to displace starting it. In the end, once I make myself do it, I enjoy it to the extent that I often completely lose track of time and get completely drawn in to the process. I was flicking through the Carole Blake book ‘From Pitch to Publication’ that’s on the reading list and she makes a point about the importance of positive feedback. She’s a literary agent and she says she’s full of admiration for writers who plug away in a fairly anti-social job for completely unpredictable rewards — something she says she could never do. She then admits to occasionally feeling hugely guilty, mainly due to time pressure, for giving her authors feedback that sums up the positives in a couple of sentences and then goes on to list several pages of corrections or suggestions for improvement (this is for established authors with books that are very likely to be published). She recognises that good writers are self-critical to the extent that the deficiencies in their own work leap out far more than the positives. However, often people (maybe this is a British thing in particular) tend to hold back on positive feedback, which they may feel is self-evident, when in fact the writer, suffering from self-doubt, would greatly benefit from the encouragement it gives. After all, what most writers are aiming for is to engage with and entertain people and any validation that this is being achieved must be welcomed. We can’t expect that sort of encouragement from literary agents but, as Nick mentioned last week, it’s good to try and find readers for what we’re doing, such as writing groups, etc and I’ve certainly found motivation from the comments that I’ve had back on the readings I’ve done so far.’

I would guess all writers get the up and down feelings you describe. I’ve just written another 3,000 words (see future post) and it was a real uphill slog — and without the prospect of reading it out on Saturday to get feedback then I’m wondering whether it’s any good or not.

I remember reading the time before last and thinking while I was reading that parts of it were rubbish — then I was pleasantly surprised when I got favourable feedback.

I tend to be of the opinion that I’m self-critical enough about my own work to be able to correct a lot of things given time so positive feedback is probably much more important than critical readers realise. I guess being self-critical is an important thing for being a writer and you tend to see the deficiencies more clearly in your own work than the strengths — which is why it’s nice to have a supportive group of readers to remind you about the good things when they give feedback.

Overall, however, I think when I read something good — or quite often experience some other art form that’s outstanding — then I feel it more inspiring than intimidating and it spurs me on to try and improve what I’m doing myself.

There were some curious comments made in the debate which were in the vein of  ‘artist be true to thineself’ and probably contradicted my comments about searching out an audience. The importance of plugging away in something you believe in — that you feel compelled to write — was mentioned and I guess that this is almost a given when you start to put in a lot of time to your writing before receiving any professional recognition — the position that this novel writing course assumes us to be in  Someone said that all art was subjective and there was no measure of what’s good and bad. I think there’s a lot in this viewpoint and its associated comments that you can put anything in front of a group of people and some people will like it and some won’t — regardless of what it is. I’ve had plenty of experience of Open University courses where people are graded in percentage terms for their creative writing and I still feel aggrieved that I lost possibly five percent on one assignment, missing out on a distinction, purely because the rather prim female tutor refused to believe my urban female character in her twenties would say the word ‘twat’ — even though I got feedback from a woman in the same age group telling me that line was ‘great’. I tend to think that that sort of marking should have a margin of error of around 20%. I remember another OU course member striking a rich seam of ironic eco-comedy (a little bit like Guy’s although this was a radio play) that the tutor loved and gave her 85% for. While this was well-deserved as it was well-written and observant, the writer unsurprisingly then repeated the same formula for every assignment possible thereafter and didn’t develop writing in any other forms.

However, I do think there’s a general assumption that if someone will publish something then that’s an affirmation of its quality and that courses like ours aim to equip us with the skills and knowledge to get to that fairly arbitrary level of quality. Of course it all depends whether the writer’s main objective is primarily internal (to express him or herself) or external (to engage with an audience). In my case I definitely tend to the latter but certainly have aspects of the former. For others it may be more extreme.

Encouraging Alumnus

Later this term we’re having a visit from a ‘real-life’ author but, as an encouraging testament, she is an alumnus of the Certificate in Novel Writing course itself. It is Kirstan Hawkins whose novel, Doña Nicanora’s Hat Shop, is being published around now. There’s a short biography on what seems to be her agent’s page and it’s quite re-assuring to see that she’s a veteran of various creative writing courses as well as having quite an extensive writing history related to her academic career.

Best New Novelists of 2010

I came across a couple of interesting articles on the Telegraph website that may be of interest to some.
The first is one of these predictive pieces that tips the ‘next big thing’ — in this case new novelists. It’s interesting to see what type of novels are due for publication (and, perhaps, more importantly, promotion). Charlotte’s friend Simon Lelic is in the list. I saw his book being promoted in the window of Foyle’s at St. Pancras station last week.
The other one is a top 20 books of the decade thing (not just novels). Quite a few of the novels and authors we discussed last term are featured, including interesting choice like Persepolis. 
Now to try and work on something to send out for reading over the weekend.