My ex-tutor from the City University course, Emma Sweeney, has been running a blog Something Rhymed, with her colleague Emily Midorikawa. Its theme is the exploration of friendships between pairs of female writers and the support they’ve given each other, often in the face of hostility or exclusiong from a male literary establishment.
The writers are drawn from all eras, including relatively well-known pairings such as Charlotte Brontë and Elizabeth Gaskell to the more unusual like Ruth Rendell and Jeanette Winterson. The blog posts have been written by Emily and Emma themselves and a selection of guest writers.
The initiative has been so successful that a book based on the blog is in the works, A Secret Sisterhood.
Earlier this spring, Emma and Emily organised a series of literary salons based on the blog and Emma invited me to come along. The salons were themed around the under-representation of women ‘s writing, particularly in the ‘serious’ literary establishment (reviews, prizes, reading lists on academic courses, etc). I was only able to make the last of the three salons, which addressed how to effect positive change and improve matters — by encouraging more reading of female writers.
The members of the panel were a fascinating combination: novelists Jill Dawson and Louise Doughty, editor and blogger Varaidzo and literary curator Melanie Abrahams. I’ve lifted those introductions from an excellent account of all the salons by (male) writer, John Forde, which is on the Something Rhymed website. For his comprehensive account, click here.
While the audience was predominantly female, there was a significant number of men in the audience and this provoked a lively discussion when the topic was raised of whether men are as interested in entering into the minds of female characters as women are with men. I guess almost by definition the men who were in the audience for this event were those who were interested in this aspect of literature.
Emma, who was chairing the discussion, was keen to get men’s perspective on the discussion and it was interesting that a few of the men (myself included) weren’t reticent about distancing themselves from some of the criticisms made of the male establishment.
Like panelist Jill Dawson, my undergraduate degree was in American Studies so I had the good fortune to be introduced to authors like Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Willa Cather and many others. I’ve also read many wonderful female authors through writing courses and out of my own choice. The last novel I read was by a woman and I’d guess it’s about 50-50 overall. I love listening to music made by women – some songs provide a wonderfully direct and concise insight into a female perspective of the world.
I’ve been writing fiction is some instances from a female character’s point of view (I’ve had stories read by female actors at Liars’ League London) and so I’m very interested in working hard to try and achieve an authentic female voice.
Listening to the debate I realised there is a way of reconciling the views of some of the participants that men (in general) aren’t interested in understanding women (through fiction anyway) and that there are clearly some men that do.
If you forgive the rather cod psychological approach, I’d suggest that societal attitudes mean that women find that they feel they are obliged to try to understand men more than men feel that it’s in their interests to imagine themselves in the place of women. You might also believe that women naturally have more empathy but, if you think that men hold the power (both politically, culturally and physically) then trying to understand what goes on in their heads may be a beneficial strategy (in as much as what goes on in all men’s heads can ever be generalised).
I’m fascinated as to the extent of gender differences in the way people are ‘hard-wired’ to think (which are possibly less extensive but also more profound than stereotypes might suggest). However, what I also took away from the third salon was that there’s an issue of elitism and class in terms of access that also affects men to some extent. I’m from a relatively working-class, northern background and I feel like I have more in common with many women authors than the usual suspects list of upper-middle class Oxbridge males.
There was also an interesting discussion on ‘quiet books’ and how many of us (not just female readers) like to read subtly, understated novels that don’t fit with the hook-driven, high-concept books that writers are told publishers prefer in the current climate, especially from debut novelists. As an example, I recently read A Spool of Blue Thread, which I thought beautifully written, but like all Anne Tyler’s books it doesn’t start with fireworks and a killer opening paragraph. Much of the first quarter of the book is minutely but brilliantly observed family dynamics. It’s only later in the novel that the reader begins to discover the family’s secrets and this gracefully builds into a work that becomes compelling.
I’m grateful as a reader that Anne Tyler managed to surmount the obstacles that Emma, Emily and the panelists outlined and I’m sure that the Something Rhymed project will make a valuable contribution into helping future female writers do the same.
As a postscript, Emma’s new novel, Owl Song At Dawn, will be published very soon by Legend Press.
The first part of my novel — and some of the later action — is set in Shoreditch. I first got to know the area when I was taking the City University Certificate in Novel Writing (now the Novel Studio). Although City University itself is about a mile or so west of Shoreditch (I know this as I walked the exact journey last week), it led me to start looking around adjacent areas of London.
I can’t remember whether I’d decided to write a novel with an artist as a main protagonist before I came across Village Underground (and its rooftop tube trains) in the Secret London guidebook. However, very shortly after reading about this artistic community space with an events venue underneath, I’d been up on the roof to visit for myself and had the start of a novel set in what was then, despite some creeping commercialism, a part of London that had a genuine alternative and bohemian feel.
What’s most fascinated about Shoreditch, as opposed to further flung artistic enclaves like Hackney Wick, is its location right on the edge of the City of London — in the novel this geographical closeness enables the two characters from completely different world to meet.
Apart from one residential block, the very unironically named Avant Garde tower at the corner of Brick Lane and Bethnal Green Road, there’s been surprisingly little encroachment by property developers exploiting Shoreditch’s position on the City’s northern fringes.
The Broadgate development (seen above) was completed in 2008 and, since then, the City seems to have grown upwards with the likes of the Walkie Talkie, Heron Tower, Cheesegrater and Shard (albeit on the other side of the river).
While the character of Shoreditch has undoubtedly changed with the arrival of the Overground and Shoreditch High Street station plus associated developments like Boxpark, the physical environment has changed little from when I first got to know the area (and probably hasn’t changed that much since the area was first industrialised).
I put this hiatus in development down to the delayed effects of the 2008 credit crunch and its consequences.
This is all about to change and, sadly for the Shoreditch I’ve come to know, I feel that the last few years will come to be seen as a stay of execution for one of London’s most characterful areas. As an example, since the New Year, the car park on waste ground opposite Village Underground seen in the photo above has seen construction activity begin — and it’s deep piling work that’s being carried out — of the type required for the foundations of very tall buildings.
Those who have been on street art tours of Shoreditch will know this car park as one of the areas that featured the most frequently changing graffiti art. Now it’s fenced off and will soon be transformed into a ‘mixed use’ development called Shoreditch Village — the first part of which will be a ten storey Citizen M boutique hotel, due to open by this time next year. For an artist’s impression of the finished site, click on this story.
This development is relatively modest but it will still tower over all the buildings in the immediate area — and will change the character of Village Underground. It used to be a quirk that the tube trains were, ironically, the highest point in the local area and, counter-intuitively, looked down on everything below. Soon all the trendy guests in the hotel will spy on them from above.
For a taste of what the area around Village Underground may look like in a year or two, then take a walk a mile or so to the area to the north and west of Old Street/’Silicon Roundabout’ (known also in the media as the risibly-named Tech City).
The area around the City Road Basin on the Regent’s Canal is undergoing a dramatic change with several huge, upmarket apartment blocks currently being constructed. This is a huge change for an area that, even when I was doing the City University novel-writing course, in 2009-10, was still genuinely down-at-heel and post-industrial, unlike Shoreditch. There’s even a drive-through McDonald’s there — which would be unimaginable down the road in Shoreditch.
Construction on one or two of the tower blocks was started, and then paused, during the recession and, like Shoreditch, the areas of derelict land and waste ground were likely to have been earmarked for development that was put on hold. But no longer. The construction has restarted and the place will soon change forever.
There’s a scene in the novel based in the City Road area, near the canal, as at the start of the book Kim works in a pub that’s based on the Wenlock Arms, which has near-legendary status amongst serious beer drinkers for being one of the very few basic, spit-and-sawdust, unreconstructed back-street boozer that wasn’t too far from a central tube station. in a location.
The Wenlock itself was victim to the gentrification of the area. It was closed a few years ago and was threatened with development into flats. After a landmark local campaign to get the pub protected by Hackney council (of which I was a supporter) it has now been included in a conservation area and has since been rescued and sympathetically refurbished. The holes in floorboards and barely functioning toilets have gone to be replaced by craft beers and trendy square hand-basins but it’s now thriving again.
Shoreditch Village is nothing compared with some new developments that are either in the pipeline or currently going through the planning process. Plans for the Bishopsgate Goods Yard site around Shoreditch High Street station are so dramatic that Hackney’s mayor (Shoreditch is on the fringes of both Hackney and Tower Hamlets) has started a petition on Change.org to protest to Boris Johnson about his decision in principle to approve them.
This is a massive development site, derelict for over fifty years after a fire destroyed the old railways goods yard that previously occupied the site. Shoreditch High Street station has been built on some of the area — and the reason why the railway is enclosed in a concrete box in the station is to allow building work to commence without disrupting the railway that runs through the site.
But the developers plans are equally huge — they include seven tower blocks, with two forty-six storeys high (much bigger than those pictured on City Road above). A little of this will be affordable housing but it’s inconceivable that the character of Shoreditch (and the Brick Lane area to the east) will remain unchanged with development of such scale encroaching almost into the heart of the area.
The likes of Pret a Manger and Pizza Express are one thing but, if the development is anything like One New Change, Cardinal Place in Victoria or the many in Canary Wharf, then there will be less galleries, oddball clothes shops and organic cafes in Shoreditch and many more familiar names from any high street.
It would be somewhere that my artist character Kim would never contemplate living or working in. And so my novel might, perhaps, have captured a particular moment in the development of Shoreditch — when it had established itself as quirky, creative and fascinating and when the hipsters could enjoy the place in almost suspended animation for a few years. Now it’s in danger of the City speculators moved in to kill the goose that laid their golden egg. Let’s hope not. Sign the petition.
As mentioned in the previous post, I’ve been fortunate enough to have another of my short stories selected as a winner by the Liars’ League . Titled Elevator Pitch, it featured in theMay event, themed Beginnings and Ends.
Elevator Pitch was the final story to be performed on the night. This will have been due in no small part to the actor, Sarah Feathers’s, tremendously energetic and humorous performance, which I’m sure will have sent the audience homewards with a real buzz.
As in March, I went to the rehearsals the weekend before the show, met Sarah and sat in on the read-through. The story involves three characters in a confined space and Sarah did a brilliant job of bringing each character to life, using body language, gestures and facial expressions to complement the dialogue.
It’s an incredible privilege to watch a professional lift your words off the page and voice plausible characters that hold an audience’s attention. It feels like alchemy – and, as mentioned in the post after March’s Liars’ League, it’s an invaluable insight into how writing is interpreted by a reader.
It’s fascinating to discover details that an actor has added into the story on their own initiative before the rehearsal – in this story Sarah had some great views on how to deliver the male character’s voice.
Some of the Liars’ League stories tend to focus on narratorial exposition or one character’s internal voice and this can make them extremely compelling (Birth Planby Uschi Gatward in the latest event was a good example). However, my story is quite dialogue heavy, with three very different characters and this can be quite challenging for an actor performing a reading – how many different voices (accents, variations of delivery) can be juggled simultaneously in such a short time?
As did Alex Woodhall with his reading of my previous story, Sarah met the challenge brilliantly — each character has an unmistakable and convincing identity. This shouldn’t be surprising as Sarah is one of Liars’ League’s most regular actors and she’s also narrated many popular audiobooks, including the recent, bestselling Philippa Gregory novel, The White Princess.
Katy and Liam, who run the Liars’ League are also very insightful editors and directors: with their help the story also evolved considerably during the rehearsal – and afterwards. Its many contemporary references – mainly movie actors’ names – were batted around with alternative suggestions offered, even by email on the day of the performance itself.
We found it most difficult to settle on the heroine in Isabel’s pitch: a kick-ass, British submarine commander – you’ll need to watch or read the story before this makes much sense)
After going through countless others, we settled on Kate Winslet. There was something a little surreal — and metafictional — about how we ended up casting an imaginary lead role for a piece of fiction within a piece of fiction that itself was concerned with casting movie stars. Weird – but it didn’t raise any Sunset Boulevard mogul ambitions in me (although I wouldn’t mind living out in Santa Barbara again – the place where I was trained in screenwriting by a genuine Hollywood old-timer).
The story appeared to go down well with the audience – Sarah promptedlots of laughs (in the right places) from the audience, which included my friend Fay again plus ex-City University coursemates, Guy and Sue and Alison Burns, who ran the City University Certificate in Novel Writing (now the Novel Studio) at the time Sue, Guy and myself took the course.
The night went far too quickly and it was fantastic to see everyone – and to meet Jim Cogan – whose excellent and poignant story The Memory Man preceded Elevator Pitch. In fact, all the stories were entertaining and captivating and would repay anyone’s time watching, listening or reading them on the website or podcast.
I feel very lucky to have had two stories chosen recently (the selection is done anonymously, by the way) and the quality of the writing on the evening shows how difficult is the Liars task every month — picking from what obviously seems to be a sea of excellent submissions. It’s no wonder the event was recently voted one of the UK’s Top Ten Storytelling Nights by The Guardian.
My short story Do You Dare Me To Cross the Line? was selected as a winner for this month’s Liars’ League London event (see previous post for an account of its selection and the rehearsal).
It was performed last Tuesday evening by Alex Woodhall and, as the Liars video all the stories, the reading is now available on Youtube (along with the other four excellent stories by Ursula Dewey, Kassalina Boto, Philip Suggars and Eleanore Etienne (co-incidentally a fellow graduate of the City University Certificate in Novel Writing — now the Novel Studio).
The video is embedded below. It lasts just over fifteen minutes.
My story was the last on the bill, which meant me enduring an evening of nervous anticipation, although this was eased a little by my consumption of more than a couple of drinks on the house. I made such good use of this unexpected author benefit that I turned up at Marylebone station suddenly realising I’d lost an hour somewhere (chatting to the actors, other writers and organisers I think) so had to get the slow, stopping train and didn’t get home until nearly 1 am. The next day I felt like one of my characters the morning after the story’s night before.
I was very grateful for the company of several friends who came along to support me, including Rachel and Bren Gosling from the City course, my writer friend Fay and Sabina, the street art guru (see previous posts). There were a couple more people from the City course who were intending to come but who were beset by last-minute hold-ups.
It was a fantastic evening — the downstairs bar at the Phoenix was packed-out. I reckon there were well over a hundred people. I needn’t have fretted about the reception for my story — Alex read with such verve and superb comic timing that the audience’s attention seemed to be seized for the whole fifteen minutes it took to reach its climax — and with plenty of laughs heard along the way (thankfully I didn’t imagine them — they’re on the video).
I was flattered afterwards to receive some enthusiastic compliments about the story, not only from friends (Bren wrote me a wonderfully congratulatory email) but also from some encouraging comments made via Twitter and Facebook. And the story’s characters appeared to have been vivid enough to pass the crucial ‘what happened next?’ test. I bumped into one of the other authors on the tube on the way back and she asked me ‘Did they go on to have sex? I think they did.’ If you want to see if you agree with her then listen to the story — I’d be very interested in blog readers’ opinions.
Having a winning story for the Liars League would be great news at any time but it was particularly welcome for me at present — a couple of months after the much-anticipated results of the MA novel dissertation — when I’m still wrestling with a few changes to the end of the novel prompted by the feedback. It’s also been five months since the MA draft of the novel was handed in — so it’s been brilliant to had have this event to give real impetus to my writing.
I can also draw some motivation because, while it’s a self-contained work, Do You Dare Me To Cross The Line? perhaps unsurprisingly shares similarities with the novel: genre, setting, brand of humour. While the narrative perspective is different –it’s first-person, present tense — the dynamics between the characters are reminiscent of some scenes in the novel — the tensions and awkwardness of trying to guess the intentions of others whom one cares about — or wants to. That the story was picked as a winner and enjoyed apparently positive reaction of the audience encourages me to think there’s a market for more — at least a novel’s worth I hope.
Besides the thrill of hearing my words read expertly by a professional, the Liars League experience also allowed me to get some insight into my writing from a refreshing and almost unique perspective. One of the great mysteries of the writing process is that all readers interpret fiction in their own personal way — a skilled author employs words economically enough to communicate the essence of the story’s action while prompting the reader’s imagination to invoke scenery and background.
It’s an exceptionally difficult balancing act: too little exposition and the reader will fail to grasp vital elements of the narrative; too much detail and the pace will falter and the reader will be swamped and bored — and in a short story there are far fewer words than a novel to play with.
Working with the Liars League actor and editors, and also sitting in the audience and observing the reaction of people hearing the story for the first time, provided valuable insights into what worked in my story and what didn’t — and also how the Liars had imagined the action, setting and characters. While the event is a reading, the actors can dress to some degreein costume and their delivery, spoken and non-verbal, projects their own interpretation of character, particularly for first person narratives.
It is, therefore, rather the opposite of the sort of forensic collective copy-edit of prose that risk bogging down Creative Writing workshopping sessions (‘I’m really not convinced by that comma). Nor, because the story has won through the selection procedures, will it be the kind of creative writing workshopping experience when, for the best of intentions, workshoppers’ suggestions extend a little past the scope of a structural edit: it would be great if turned your shy, sensitive artist character into a grizzled Scottish trawlerman possessed by an alien or why not relocate your novel from a Deptford loft apartment to a Roman gladiatorial amphitheatre? ‘It’ll up the conflict and sense of place’.
Slight exaggeration, perhaps, but in a workshop the written text can be seen as something malleable and interactive — when it’s read out loud as a story it seems much more fixed psychologically.
Often writers are asked to read out their own prose in Creative Writing workshops before it is discussed — this was the way the City University Certificate worked, although I don’t know how the Novel Studio handles it. This has its merits — certainly reading out loud exposes clumsiness in phrasing and the rhythm of the prose that often lies undetected when read silently on the page — I always read drafts of my novel out loud for that reason. Reading a piece in a class also ensures that any less conscientious students, who’ve not prepared properly, will know what’s goingabout to be discussed.
Nevertheless, a writer who has an aptitude for reading out loud will always breathe extra life into prose whereas a hesitant, self-conscious monotone will muffle the merits of the word on the page (most writers I know tend slightly towards the latter). Also, a writer will always know his or her own intentions — where to place the emphasis, what type of voice or accent to use for a character or narrator — even if this isn’t evident on the page and, consequently, not communicated to a reader of the written word.
If a piece is to be read out loud in a Creative Writing workshop, I prefer it to be read by another student. This lets the writer hear the words spoken by a reader new to the work and takes away any direction that’s not explicit from the text itself. It gives an insight into how an ordinary reader might encounter the writing on the page.
That’s why Liars League was so illuminating. From my experience at the rehearsal (see previous post) Katy Darby and Liam Hogan, the editors, had clearly made a connection with the voice in the narrative and cast Alex in the part accordingly. It was very satisfying to me, as the writer, that they’d also picked up the subtle dynamics between the three principal characters, even when this was only hinted at with a line or two in the story. The changes they suggested to the text served to increase clarity and remove ambiguity.
Alex also made contributions of the type a reader might unconsciously add to the text. He’d decided the character Anja was Icelandic — which I thought was a great — there’s nothing in the text to suggest any nationality beyond her name and the rhythm of her speech. He also used some great comic timing to emphasise lines that I’d hoped might raise some amusement if read as I’d intended by an ordinary reader but, when spoken to an audience, raised a proper laugh — the ‘distressed [BEAT] brick’ being a great example.
(One of the advantages of writing plays or screenplays is the ability to add in [BEAT]s or other direction that’s not seen by the audience.)
Despite having written the words, it was a process of discovery for me to see how the story came alive in the minds of other people. The imaginary world of the story as viewed through the lens of Alex’s performance was different to what I’d envisaged while writing it — but that’s the magical property of fiction — everyone has their own interpretation.
So while it was an honour and a great pleasure to have my story selected and read by the Liars’ League, I also learned a surprising amount from the experience about my writing, how it’s interpreted by other people and how I can improve it. And it’s for that reason, as well as being a great literary night out in the pub, that I’d wholeheartedly recommend other writers submit their short stories to the Liars — either for truth or dare.
And I’m wondering where on earth did 2013 go? Certainly not writing lots of blog posts — it’s been a very lax six weeks since the last update — but if I get this post published today then I’ll at least have posted a blog entry in each month of the year.
Writing more frequent (and shorter) blog posts will have to be one of 2014’s New Year resolutions. I’ve had several absolutely fascinating (he says) posts mulling in my mind over the past few months but I’ve not found time to commit them to cyberspace.
At this reflective time, it’s tempting to look back and wonder what happened during the preceding 365 days. In many ways I’m doing the same day-to-day as I have for the last few years. I’m still writing, tweeting and doing a day-job. I’ve been enjoying my time in London as much as I did at in 2012 (when I wrote a post last New Year’s Eve celebrating what a remarkable experience 2012 in London had been).
I started this blog in earnest in January 2010 — when its principal purpose was to follow my progress through the City University Certificate in Novel Writing. I doubt that I’d have expected to be still blogging about my continuing development as a fiction writer — three years of an MA following the City course would have seemed a long slog back then.
So, in some ways it seems that little is different but these are probably the most superficial. In a deeper sense this blog has recorded much more profound changes — the huge amount I’ve learned about writing, how the skills I’ve developed have matured and how my perspective is much better aligned to the commercial realities and demands of the publishing world.
I spent time this summer revising some of the first sections of the novel. These were written back in 2010 and, while reading the material was surprisingly pleasurable, I feel I’ve improved as a writer very significantly.
And, as well as learning and honing a craft, I’ve enjoyed some brilliantly sociable and stimulating times with so many other creative people along the way.
I’ve been so busy that it’s easy to lose sight of two major achievements that happened in 2013: I finished my three-year MA Creative Writing course and, in doing so, completed as good a draft of my novel as possible. Sure it would benefit from some more work — I’m sure virtually all writers would like to polish their work were it not for deadlines — but I’ve reached that fundamental milestone.
And it’s a novel that I’m proud of having written — with characters I haven’t tired of in over three years (the emotional wrench of saying goodbye to them is the flip side of this coin) and imho the novel says many things worth saying about life in contemporary Britain. Possibly the best compliment of the 2013 was when one of our ex-City writing group, who’s not afraid to be critical, read the whole manuscript and said it was ‘a terrific read’.
Completing a novel is such a massive undertaking that I have huge respect for anyone else who shows the necessary qualities of perseverance, motivation and self-belief required, especially if fitting it in around work or other commitments. That’s in addition to any innate writing ability. I don’t particularly agree with the aphorisms often tweeted that suggest that talent is commonplace whereas it’s hard work that’s rare but completing a novel is a certainly a slog that requires a lot of sacrifice.
I’ve been careful to say I finished the MA course — another achievement in persistence — but I’m yet to find out if I’ve passed. I’ll get the official results in June so hopefully, this time in 2014 I can say I’m in possession of a Masters degree in Creative Writing.
Now the course is over, it’s probably fair to say that, for all of us, taking a long course like an MA or the year-long City Certificate (now Novel Studio) isn’t the fastest way to write a novel. There’s a lot of time spent on absorbing best practice from established writers’ texts, workshopping and critiquing with other students, engaging in discussion, learning about aspects of the publishing industry, writing in other forms (as I did for my screenplay in the MA) and writing assignments. It’s surprising there’s enough time left to even make a start on the novel. However, all who complete these courses should emerge much better equipped to go on to write more successfully in the long-term.
We’re promised feedback on our completed novels in mid-January. This seemed a rather distant date when I submitted the novel in early October, when my instinct was to try to finish work on it and move on to something new as soon as possible. However, if the forthcoming feedback is as comprehensive as the university have suggested then I guess I ought to be prepared to go back to the manuscript and act on any recommendations. The novel should have been read by at least two markers and also externally moderated so a fresh perspective will be really valuable (especially when compared with the cost of other manuscript appraisal services).
And I finally met up with one of my virtual coursemates. About six weeks after the novel submission deadline I was in Birmingham visiting some classic pubs with friends and took a detour to the Black Country to have a very pleasant chat in person with Kerry Hadley. We met, appropriately for my novel, at a famous pub — The Vine in Brierley Hill — otherwise known as the Bull and Bladder. What a spectacular sunset too. I’m sure that during 2014 a publisher would like to snap up Kerry’s excellent novel from the MA course. Maybe I’ll finally get to meet up with Anne in 2014 — another who survived until the bitter end?
So if 2013 was about completing the novel and the MA course. 2014’s resolutions are going to be about trying to get it published — a process that’s probably going to be long, difficult, frustrating — the archetypical emotional roller-coaster. Time to develop a thick, calloused skin? As mentioned previously, I’m not going to catalogue the submission saga on the blog. However, I’ve spent a lot of time researching the process at networking events like the York Festival of Writing (where I received some excellent one-to-one feedback from a couple of agents), London Writers’ Cafe (I slurped a large G&T at the Christmas party) and London Writers’ Club. I’ve also exchanged notes with many other writers over Twitter and email so I have a reasonably informed idea of which agents I perhaps ought to approach. In most cases I’ve seen the agents speak or had short conversations with them myself, which makes the process less daunting (or perhaps more so in some cases).
(Having said that, should an agent I’ve not met or listened to stumble across this blog is interested in reading some of the novel then please get in touch!)
2013 has also been tremendously encouraging for me as several writing friends and acquaintances have achieved success — showing that signing with an agent and getting a book published happens to people who’ve followed a similar route to myself. I wrote a post in the late summer about the great news of Rick Kellum from my City course being signed by Juliet Mushens. I heard recently that Bren Gosling, also from the City course, and who’s often commented on this blog, has also been taken on by a leading literary agency.
Also, Isabel Costello (who I last saw at Anastasia Parkes’s ‘interesting session’ at the York Festival of Writing — see post below) of the excellent On the Literary Sofa blog I’ve mentioned on this site, has also recently been signed by Diana Beaumont of Rupert Heath for her debut novel. In all the above cases, I know the writers have worked extremely hard on revising and reworking their novels over a long period and their achievements are very well deserved.
Talking to Jennifer has given me an insight into the commercial demands of the publishing world — with deadlines for submitting, revising and proofing new titles stretching many months ahead. She’s also a practising barrister and has a family so I’m in awe of her industry — again another example that, in addition to talent, published writers need to put in a lot of hard work. In my case, with course deadlines no longer a factor, I perhaps need that sort of external discipline to give me a kick up the backside every so often (not that Jennifer needs one herself, I’m sure).
Like many other writers, I’ve also been juggling the demands of the ‘day job’ with making time for writing — which often feels like I’m burning the candle at both ends — sometimes trying to eke out time to write from what’s available in the rest of the day, even maybe a token effort of writing a few sentences.
In many ways the writing is like taking on a second job — one with a long, unpaid apprenticeship except with myself as boss to sporadically crack the whip. It often seems I have to snatch time to write: on the train, at lunchtimes (sometimes in St. James’s Park), unearthly hours of the day and night and at the expense of more conventional weekend pursuits (such as the urgent repairs required to my disintegrating garden shed — I’m sure Roald Dahl’s famous writing shed didn’t have a gaping hole in the roof).
Nevertheless, I’ve managed to write tens of thousands of words in 2013 — and also cut several thousand too in the process of editing, revising and proofing a completed draft. I must have found a writing routine that’s sufficiently accommodating. Of course, it remains an ambition to make writing bring in enough income so that I can have some dedicated, professional writing time. On the other hand, I guess putting in so many hours up to this point shows how much I must enjoy writing for its own sake and also my belief that this work will pay off in the long run.
So I start 2014 hoping that this might be the year that all that time writing and studying will pay dividends. Whatever happens I’m looking forward to starting to write the new novel that I’ve been writing in my head and jotting down ideas for while completing The Angel.
But to see in the New Year I’m going to do some well-earned research — and, considering the main setting of the novel, where else to do it but in the local village pub? I even wrote a scene in the summer set at The Angel’s chaotic New Year’s party. I hope no-one’s end of year celebrations are quite as bizarre as my fictional pub’s musical celebration — singer-songwriter Jason’s ‘whiny-voiced set about dusky maidens and mysterious sex beasts’.
So good luck and the best of wishes to everyone who’s read the blog or who whose company I’ve enjoyed in any writing-related (or other) way during the last twelve months. Let’s look forward to 2014 and hope it brings all of us something of what we’re hoping for.
It’s four weeks since the end of my intense period of editing that finished with me frantically e-mailing my novel manuscript to the printers and bookbinders and heading up the Holloway Road to have the satisfaction of picking up my own copies.
The printers sent two bound copies directly to Manchester Metropolitan University — who kept me in suspense a while before acknowledging receipt. I felt relieved when I eventually received a confirmation e-mail, although I now need to wait until late June to hear whether I’ve made the grade.
Many people I’ve spoken to about the course have been quite incredulous about this nine month delay in communicating students’ marks. It’s apparently because the awards committee only sits once a year (in the summer) and, as we part-time students are given until the start of the next academic year to write our novels, we have to wait for our marks to be confirmed when all the conventionally scheduled English and Creative Writing courses are assessed at the end of 2013-4.
(Since submitting the novel I’ve now heard that MMU have changed their schedule so they intend to give us our marks and feedback by mid-January next year — at which point we should know whether we’re going to graduate but will still have to wait until the summer for it to be official.)
While it would be nice to be able to put the letters MA after my name (should I pass) it’s been the process of taking the course that’s been of much more value to me than gaining the qualification.
After all, agents and publishers don’t look at the Creative Writing MA on a graduate’s CV and immediately decide to your manuscript will do the business for them.
But the process of taking the course and sticking with it to the end ought to show evidence of many desirable qualities in a writer. At York Festival of Writing, one agent in particular told me how much she likes Creative Writing MA students and graduates. Other agents have also said that a mention of an MA in a covering letter means that will give a submission more serious consideration on the grounds that the writer has invested time and money in improving their own writing.
Completing an MA course should demonstrate:
The standard of your writing as a whole has met (and maintained) the quality criteria of the course admissions tutor — for the MA I needed to have my own creative writing assessed as well as a piece of criticism
The potential to take a professional attitude towards your writing — motivation and enthusiasm are some of the qualities that are examined in the interview process. Also, students on an MA course have to be able to take and receive criticism and feedback from both students and tutors
An ability to deliver work to deadlines — not only the final novel but several other pieces of academic work must be submitted on time. There are also many other dates that that have to be met — when it’s your turn to distribute a 3,000 word extract for discussion — or to send another writer feedback on their work. The MMU course was structured so that, at times, each student was expected to provide a new section every second or third week — it could be an intense schedule.
You can write a novel! At the end of the course, at least for MMU, you should have a work that’s potentially publishable that can be before an agent — if you don’t you’ll fail.
Unlike the MMU course, not all MA courses insist on a novel length piece of work be submitted as a final assessment. Given that the MMU 60,000 minimum word count is about four times the length of a typical academic Masters level dissertation then some courses might not consider this length of assessment necessary (in terms of course credits the novel forms 60 out of 180 points overall — only 20 more than the much shorter Transmission project).
But it’s been the experience of writing a novel-length piece that’s been the most valuable aspect of the course for me and it’s by completing the draft, going back and revising and altering and grappling with the many tentacled octopus that has taught me lessons that can’t be taught as theory.
I’ll be much better prepared to write the next novel purely by pushing myself through the experience of completing The Angel and, in that regard, MMU’s decision to devote the third year of the course to independent writing with one-to-one support from a tutor might ultimately teach students as much as in the more formally taught sections of the course.
I found an interesting blog post by Andrew Wille, who was a ‘book doctor’ at the York Festival of Writing: Learning And Studying And Writing: A DIY MA In Creative Writing . It’s worth reading the post for his list of recommended writing books, including several I’ve read such as the excellent Francine Prose’s Reading Like A Writer, Harry Bingham’s pragmatic How to Write, the amusing How Not To Write A Noveland the ubiquitous Stephen King book.
Andrew Wille has substantial experience of teaching and studying writing and argues that any novel submitted for a Creative Writing MA will need substantial revision before it’s commercially publishable (and often more than one redrafting).
Having gone through the MA experience I don’t disagree — read the comments after his blog post and you’ll see a conversation between us on the subject.
Despite the apparently leisurely deadline, I’d guess that most of the novels submitted for MA deadlines only come together very near the end of the writing process as long, organic, rich works formed of interdependent strands. Their writers might therefore benefit from a period of reflection at the complexity of the work they’ve created.
And the writers wouldn’t likely to be taking an MA if it wasn’t the first time they’d worked so seriously on a novel to the point of its completion. So any MA novel is likely to undergo plenty of changes if it’s taken up by an agent and publisher — but at least the novel exists.
It’s probably inevitable from workshopping in 3,000 and 5,000 words discrete segments for the MA course and writing groups that the finished work when it’s put together bears a risk of repetition.
When writing sections to be presented out of context, it’s difficult not to anticipate comments and questions from readers who may have last encountered the story weeks or months ago: there’s a temptation (perhaps unconscious) to drop in a piece of exposition or dialogue that illustrates just why a certain character might behave in a particular way or to establish setting or theme.
It’s not too difficult to spot the blatant repetitions but it’s harder to identify actions or dialogue in scenes that perhaps do the same job as examples in other sections but do so in subtly different ways. It’s a tough judgement call to cull these, especially when they might be also serving another purpose in the novel. It’s another example of where workshopping in sections doesn’t recreate the experience of a ‘real world’ reader who’d hopefully have conjured up their own unique interpretation of the novel having read the novel as a continuous whole.
On the other hand, to avoid embarrassing themselves with work littered with typos, clumsy phrasing and bad grammar, I’ve noticed that most students and writing group participants will polish the extracts they present for workshopping to a standard that’s far above first draft.
I tend to write a first draft, print it, revise it on paper, make alterations in the manuscript, then read it aloud again and proof-read before I’ll send the work out for comment. That’s more like third or fourth draft — and still typos creep through. But this ought to mean — in addition to the copy editing and proof reading before the final submission — that novels produced on MA courses are probably presented in a more respectable state than the average manuscript an agent will receive, even if structural changes are required.
I hinted in the last blog post that the location of my novel/dissertation printers on the Holloway Road was a little serendipitous. It’s because the famously grimy, largely down-at-heel north London road was often my route to City University for the Certificate in Novel Writing — and it’s likely many of the ideas that formed the conception of the novel were mulled over while stuck in its traffic jams.
My journey down the Holloway Road started from a grotesquely ugly office block where I was working at the time which was stranded in the middle of a housing estate on the very margins of Luton.
While I’m sure the local area was a perfectly acceptable place to live — it was one of the more desirable areas of Luton — it wasn’t exactly thrilling as a location to spend one’s working day. The only ‘entertainment’ nearby was an Asda and a small parade of local shops containing an Iceland, various takeaways and an estate pub.
Nevertheless, the Asda had quite a sizeable book section and I used to think (and still do) that it would be a great ambition to have a book of mine on sale there. Of course Foyles on Charing Cross Road or Waterstones on Piccadilly would be great, as would all the wonderful independent booksellers, but making it to the shelves of Asda in Luton would make a different sort of statement.
At lunchtimes I escaped by running around the pleasant country lanes that lay beyond the suburban sprawl. I sometimes did a bit of writing in the office and remember getting inspiration for a poem I wrote for an OU course from all the plastic carrier bags being blown into the branches of trees in the scrubby wasteland behind the office — it was that kind of place.
It was the safe, uniform suburban location that, for different reasons, would drive both the leading characters in the novel absolutely crazy — and in retrospect the city versus country conflict and the themes of escape and ambition in the novel may well be rooted in the journey from Luton to Islington.
When I was working in the office, I’d leave on Mondays and Wednesdays around five, drive past the airport, barrel down the M1, then take the A1 through Henlys Corner and under the bridge at Archway, from where I had a glimpse of one of those marvellous, tantalising views where London suddenly reveals itself — the Gherkin, Tower 42, Barbican and other City towers (the Shard was yet to be built) rising in the distance.
Then it was a crawl along the Holloway Road, dodging buses and stopping at traffic lights every hundred yards, but I got to know the road well — the tube station, the bizarre architecture of the London Metropolitan University’s new extension, the art deco Odeon and the Wetherspoon conversion of the Coronet cinema.
Holloway Road shares similar characteristics to other areas adjoining large football grounds — a lot of rather folorn looking takeaways and pubs that do most of their business on match-days.
Once I drove obliviously down the road just before an Arsenal Champions’ League game. Even taking my usual shortcut down Liverpool Road to avoid Highbury and Islington roundabout and Upper Street, I was caught between coaches and police vans and ended up a stressed three-quarters of an hour late for the City tutorial.
So the Holloway Road represented the twice-weekly transition I made from the Home Counties to the centre of London — the scruffy but vital artery that connected the inner-city cool of Islington and slightly edgy Finsbury, where City University’s campus is located in the middle of one of the closest pockets of social housing to the centre of London.
Many other routes in and out of London are fast dual-carriageways or even rise on viaducts above the zone two fringes, like the A40 Westway that I normally used to drive home. Unlike these, the traveller on the A1 Holloway Road experiences the grinding pace of city life. While nowhere near as hip, it’s not too unlike the Great Eastern Street/Commercial Street area that features in the novel.
The place also has associations with the City course as one of the students set part of her novel in the area. She wrote beautifully and she described very evocatively the experience of living just off the Holloway Road, albeit a few years ago when it perhaps held its connections with the lost London of the mid-20th century a little more strongly (there was a famous eccentric department store whose name escapes me). But the writing confirmed a sense of latent oddball seediness — an area in a liminal zone between gentrified Islington and Highgate and the grittier localities, generally to the east.
The road does seem to have something of a middle-class foothold amongst the seediness — with even a Waitrose in its smartest sections. However, the Highbury and Islington end is still more kebab house than cup cake.
So it was oddly appropriate that over three years later when the novel was finished (in its MA submission form) that it would be printed right next to the road I’d regularly driven down when I first started writing it. Collis, Bird and Withey, whose service overnight service I’d recommend, are just in the shadow of the Emirates Stadium (and I’ve made James an Arsenal fan in the novel).
And as a further little co-incidence bonus, I walked past this cafe below on the way back to the tube station with my bound manuscripts in hand. Anyone who’s read the start of the novel will spot the reason.
Well, ‘the end’ might be an over-dramatic way of putting it but it does mark a significant watershed: 1st October (tomorrow at the time of writing) marks the end of my Creative Writing MA course. It’s the day that we students have spent just over three years persevering towards — when we hand over the fruits of our labours to the tutors at Manchester Metropolitan University to cast their verdict.
It’s also why, when there are only a couple of hours left in the whole month of September, there have been no updates on this blog during the month. Getting the novel into a decent enough shape to submit as a text for academic assessment has been bloody hard, knackering work — about two months intense effort over and above the normal writing time I try to eke out around the day job and other commitments — so not enough time even to post up the holiday photos I hinted about in the last update (but persevere to the end of this post and any disappointment might be alleviated in that department).
Part of the reason it’s been something of a grind is that I’d not realised, until it was mentioned by fellow students, Kerry and Anne, that we were required to hand in hard copies of the novel — it’s effectively the dissertation component of the Masters degree — and with a dissertation the university requires the document not only to be physically printed but professionally bound like, er, a real book!
Fortunately there’s no additional commentary or analysis required (that tends to come at PhD level) but, with a minimum word count of 60,000, it’s a very weighty document for all students. And, as I have no worries about meeting the minimum word count (thankfully there isn’t maximum), then I’m expecting my dissertation to be something of a bookend when I pick my copy up from the bookbinders.
Interestingly, my MSc dissertation for the OU was a much more manageable 17,500 words — not much of gripping story there, though — and I was able to submit that purely electronically. I later had it printed and bound for my own reference — and it sits doing a bit of bookshelf ego massaging next to the MBA dissertation from years ago that I actually printed on an inkjet printer before having it bound (that would probably cost me about £500 in ink if I tried it now on my current money pit of an HP printer).
It seems ridiculous to have been working on a novel for so long and to have to suddenly shift into a higher gear when the end of the course suddenly creeps up. But I guess that’s the way of deadlines — I know from some of my published and agented friends how they’re often set exacting deadlines. Most published books would probably only live on their authors’ word processors if it wasn’t for that external kick up the backside. But I had a deadline and I made it, however generous it seems in retrospect.
To get the revision process kicked off in earnest, at the start of August I went through the laborious process of printing off my draft and then took it on holiday to France and Germany to read. Relaxing in a lovely tranquil gîte in the Vosges mountains (see picture below) perhaps put me in a similar frame of mind perhaps to an authentic reader. I had the weird experience (a bit like when characters ‘take over’) of looking at the text a little like a reader rather than the person who wrote it — I surprised myself by getting to the end of a chapter and feeling that reader’s compulsion to start straight away on the next one. And I knew the story!
I’ve spent the last six weeks working through the notes that I made — making some very difficult decisions about dropping whole sections (the infamous ‘calendar’ chapters that I workshopped have gone), taking fragments from several chapters and altering them to form completely new scenes (there’s one continuous event in the novel that I constructed from three previously completely separate sections) and trawling through the text for consistency and checking facts (for example, I had to change a child’s age in several places when I realised there was a scene when she was in a pushchair).
Having to hand in hard copies effectively tests your self-publishing skills. I spent hours checking pedantically through the whole manuscript for formatting errors, stray punctuation and the smallest typo (although it’s sod’s law that many will inevitably remain). I had to worry about mirroring the margins for the binding, ensure that sections started on odd pages and lots of other issues that writers who e-mail Word document to a publisher don’t have to pore over.
Once I’d formatted the PDF for the professional printers it was only a few minutes’ work to create a reasonably passable e-book version of the finished MA version of the novel. It’s now on my Kindle and has made me wonder if I should spend a little more time polishing it and take the plunge and properly self-publish it. Maybe.
Certainly, the self-publishing route is becoming a much more common way of getting agent interest — as I discovered in some panel discussions when I made a fleeting visit for the second year to the York Festival of Writing at the beginning of September.
I was also surprised to hear in a session by a couple of literary agents that almost all the manuscripts that they receive as submissions are in need of a thorough line and copy edit.
Moreover they expect this, almost to the point of being a bit wary of the most perfectly edited examples, on the basis that authors are better employed on the more creative tasks of the publishing process — inventing ideas, plots and characters — rather than combing through manuscripts for errors. Proof reading is usually more effective if done by someone new to the text and it’s also a dedicated (and very different) skill in itself.
I may blog later at more length about my visit to York — Isabel Costello has written a very good blog post about the benefits of attending for a second time.
I thought I was being rather brave by attending Anastasia Sparks’s workshop on writing erotica. However, everyone seemed to be surprised that there were more men in the room than women.
However, as might have been anticipated some of the men were much more uncomfortable than the women when asked to do an exercise in erotica and then read out what they’d written — using some of the words written on the blackboard in the photo below (guess which words I volunteered). Two made rather lame excuses and refused to share even a mildly erotic word.
As the novel is going to be academically assessed, I didn’t want to take the risk of submitting something that looked unfinished so I’ve gone through the rather bizarre and very time-consuming process of using Acrobat’s ‘Read Out Loud’ function to speak every line of the novel in its default, robotic American monotone while I’ve read the text on the screen. (It takes about five minutes to read and correct each page this way and it’s not foolproof as corrections have a way of introducing their own typos.)
After working on something for so long, it’s amazing how many errors you can spot just by hearing the words are spoken out loud. There are some sentences in the book that have taken over three years to write — and I was still altering them at the last minute.
The proofing process over the last few days has been exhausting and, in places, very frustrating when I came across something that I wasn’t happy with but which was too complex to fix in the time available.
I’m also greatly indebted to Guy Russell, from the City course who’s very technically knowledgeable and a wonderfully humorous writer himself, for reading through a half-edited version of the manuscript in a week and giving me extremely very helpful and honest feedback.
I also did some very analytical MSc-type things with spreadsheets — making graphs of chapter lengths and finding a Word macro that allowed me to count all the unique instances of words in the novel — the number is easily into five figures. I rather like the fact I got ‘rhombus’ in the book (it’s about plate shape not a treatise on geometry), not so sure about ‘sentient’ though.
So today the novel is hitting the press at a printers and bookbinders just off the Holloway Road in London, in the shadow of the Emirates Stadium — there’s a little serendipity there as I made James an Arsenal fan and the friendly woman I’ve been talking to there is called Magda — like one of my favourite characters in the novel.
Sadly, there will only be a handful of very expensive copies but I’ll pick up a copy for myself tomorrow and it can sit proudly on my shelf — I’ll try and post a photo of it at some point when I’ve recovered from the whole draining process.
There’s still plenty I’d like to change about what I’ve submitted but at least it’s a completed novel with a beginning, middle and end, even I might dare suggest a narrative arc, and no obvious ‘work in progress’ bits of sticking plaster holding it together.
While I was at the Festival of Writing I had two one-to-one meetings with agents who’d read the first 3,000 words of the novel in advance. As with the same sessions last year, they were very positive about the writing and were keen to see more — asking me very practical questions about the novel and how I came to write it — rather than making lists of recommendations to fix faults. I guess that’s a good sign.
However, having gone through the editing process for the MA submission I realise there’s still a little more structural work that needs doing before I start submitting it in earnest, if I decide that’s the route I want to take. I’ll try to address those and then go through the proofing process again. So, the novel hasn’t quite been put to bed yet.
While I’m going to carry on updating the blog with writing and novel-related posts, I’m not intending to chronicle anything about the submission process, should I steel myself to put myself through that agony. I know from my many friends who are excellent writers that it’s a frustrating and painful process and full of raised and dashed hopes and interminable waiting. Better to maybe start talking about the next book instead.
One of the agents said she’d heard good things about the MMU MA Course, which was quite reassuring, but also took me back a little as I’d recently been so focused on completing the novel as an end in itself.
There are quite a few short courses and events now that promise some professional writers’ feedback on aspiring authors’ work, which is always useful, but what I mentioned to the agent in reply was how valuable it had been to have the input over an extended period each year in the course of three authors, each who’d each published many books of their own.
Rather than see the writing as a one-off, they got to know each student’s style and novel-in-progress over an extended period of time. While the feedback could be challenging at times, it was always encouraging.
However, it was a little disconcerting reading the reviews for my tutor in the second year’s recent book. Nick Royle’s First Novel has a protagonist who’s a creative writing lecturer, working with students on their, er, first novels. I’m sure he completely fictionalised everything in there!
I’m feeling a little rudderless and cast out into the wide-world now as I’ve been more or less constantly on writing courses (often more than one simultaneously) for the last six years. It was September 2007 when I started the Open University’s A215 Creative Writing course (highly recommended) and I’ve gone through several more, including the intensive City Certificate in Novel Writing 2009-2010, to the point where I’ve now completed the MA.
It’s taken way longer than I expected to get to the point where I can hand in a novel with which I’m reasonably happy. There was some material that I was pleasantly surprised to rediscover — ‘Did I really write that then?’ — from years ago but plenty of stuff that made me wince (which hopefully has been mostly excised now).
My friend Kathy, who I’ve known since the Open University Advanced Creative Writing course and is a Creative Writing MA herself, tells me that my writing has improved considerably since she’s known me — so I guess that’s testament to the courses and all the practice that they’ve forced me to put in. Hopefully, the process of writing the next novel (or completing the one that’s been in abeyance for the last three years) will be consequently speedier.
But at the moment, having had plenty of nights going to bed at two and being up by seven, I’m reminded of Adele Parks’s very entertaining keynote speech at this year’s Festival of Writing.
She explained how she completed her first published novel while working in a demanding day-job — ‘Basically, I gave up sleep’.
I’ll second that but wouldn’t recommend it!
Now for those left on tenterhooks by the lack of holiday photos as tantalisingly promised in the previous post, here’s a few with some relevance to the novel.
This is a wonderful view of a bend in the Rhine, taken near Boppard, a place I last visited on a school trip.
Trabants are now as scarce as the remants of the Berlin Wall.
And this peculiar view is of the ladder used by border guards to climb up a border watchtower. I climbed up and down this watchtower ladder near Potsdamer Platz and it was quite hair-raising but what I love most is how the 1980s East German lino has been preserved.
I didn’t intend to write this post but I was making a comment on Isabel Costello’s blog On The Literary Sofa and it became so long that I thought it would be an imposition to post on her blog in its entirety – hence it’s mutated into a rather long post of its own on this site instead.
Isabel’s blog posts are thought-provoking and well-researched and long enough to develop an interesting argument, which I like (though not quite as long as some of my posts). The title of On the Literary Sofa’s centenary post published this week is Sex Scenes in Fictionand it’s well worth a few minutes of any literary-minded person’s time — as is the rest of the blog, which has barely mentioned the subject of sex before now. (And I should add that I know Isabel — mainly via Twitter although we’ve met a couple of times. I haven’t hit on her blog at random.) Reading Isabel’s original post may also put my arguments below into context: many of the points are direct responses to quotations or points made On The Literary Sofa. I also revisit some views I’ve previously blogged about myself.
It’s a very balanced piece, asking whether it’s desirable (or even feasible) to effectively write good fiction about sex. It covers positions (and I will resist the temptation to highlight double entendres throughout this post or it will be even longer than it currently stands) from the ‘when the bedroom door closes everything should be left to the imagination’ advocates to those who prefer naturalistic no-holds-barred action with explicit vocabulary to match. However, I absolutely agree with Isabel’s observation that ‘it would be to the detriment of literature if nobody wrote sex scenes’.
I find the term ‘sex scene’ a little troubling when it comes to fiction as it echoes the vocabulary of film and television (or even art). The term scene is always coupled with sex but it’s not often used to describe other passages of fiction. It also suggests the visual – that depictions of sex are about what you see – whereas the power of words extends directly into thoughts, emotions and the other senses.
There’s an argument that writers should self-censor because, as these scenes are difficult to write, there’s a lot of bad writing about sex. This view is perpetuated by the likes of the Literary Review’s Bad Sex Awards. I’m sure the Literary Review could find plenty of examples of bad writing about other situations but people wouldn’t find them as amusing, which is probably a symptom of British embarrassment when the subject is discussed in public.
In itself, I can’t believe that sex is an impossible subject to write about. Just because it’s perceived as difficult to get right that’s not an argument to stop trying – more the opposite. If writers retreated from the hidden and potentially uncomfortable then novels would become terribly banal.
Isabel quotes Irish author John Banville on the reason he thinks sex in fiction is so difficult: ‘What people feel they are doing is so discontinuous with what they are actually doing.’
This seems to be a cop out. The differences between a person’s perceptions and the ‘reality’ of what they’re actually doing are a staple of fiction. There are plenty of instances in other fictional situations where feelings are disconnected from actuality – grisly murders, for example.
Discussing Banville, the On The Literary Sofa post argues that ‘sex, which [is described] as this extraordinary act, is one of the few aspects of life to remain private, even in an age when we are surrounded by sexual imagery and so many are hooked on “sharing”‘.
There’s much truth and insight to this argument. It’s a paradox that a behaviour which (for most of us) is private is referenced so heavily in all varieties of culture. A quick glance at the shelves of W.H. Smith also illustrates an insatiable curiosity (for both sexes) in what other people are doing (‘Am I normal?).
Perhaps another interpretation of Banville’s words is that is that sex is much less likely to be an activity to which the author has been a third-party observer (at least at first hand). Although this point is not limited to sex – any fantasy or historical novelist has never witnessed or experienced their topic – it might be unique in that it’s an activity that is so universally practised, albeit in private. However, this should surely make it a much more compelling subject to write about.
I suspect the argument that sex is too hard to write about is a canard used by authors who are simply shy and embarrassed. There’s no reason why writers should write on subjects they’re uncomfortable with but it’s disingenuous to justify that by asserting that it’s impossible for anyone else to succeed.
I’m sure that much of the reason many writers avoid writing about sex (particularly in creative writing classes where they may have to read it out or discuss it in person) is because of the fear that readers will blur the distinction between writer and character/narrator (i.e. if someone writes about being spanked or having sex in a public place or so on then they feel that readers will somehow snigger away, having inferred it must all be autobiographical).
Why? Anyone reader who automatically conflated the author with the protagonists in other genres would be considered unable to understand the basic principles of fiction (‘it’s made up’). Countless thriller writers come up with depraved ideas, the vast majority of whom aren’t considered sick-minded individuals.
Similarly, some writers say they’d be embarrassed on behalf of their partners/parents/children if their sex scenes entered the public domain. Again, that’s their personal call, but readers won’t assume that this writing is any more autobiographical than anything else in a novel. And it’s most likely, as with less sensitive topics, that a writer’s experience will be used to create composites of characters or plot events. (In the novel I’m writing, the sex scenes are more likely to draw on university experiences than anything more recent).
Published writers , no matter how high profile, seem to deal easily with any prurient questioning – take E.L. James’s frank but hardly salacious comments. Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn easily deflected questions in an interview in last weekend’s Sunday Times– stating how happy her own marriage was and that her husband encouraged her to push the boundaries in her writing as far as she felt necessary.
Most creative writing classes and workshops therefore tiptoe around sex scenes at least until participants know each other better (I think the Open University officially cautions against them). But because (rather than in spite) of the difficulty and potential embarrassment I was determined to workshop a sex scene by the end of my City University course. I’m glad I did that as I’m happy to submit my writing about sex to MA tutors, coursemates and anyone else who’ll read it in a mature way (although I sometimes give a polite warning).
Because it was difficult to push myself for the first workshop I’m a fan of the approach that Isabel describes in her blog post about when she attended a creative writing workshop about sex (a Word Factory Masterclass) that was led by literary novelist Michèle Roberts. She asked the writers to ‘asked us to write a sex scene involving something we’d never done. Cue nervous laughter. Twenty minutes later we were listening to some engaging and hilarious stories about threesomes, dogging and a decadent practice someone had just dreamed up.’
It’s an ingenious approach – deliberately avoiding any autobiographical speculation by instructing writers specifically not to use direct experience. It puts everyone in the same position and it sounds like it was very funny. Sex can be a tremendous source of humour in real life but intentionally amusing sex scenes are arguably relatively rare in fiction. Not all funny sex has to be bad sex either. Good humorous writing about sex – as with any subject – means laughing with the characters and the writing, rather than at it.
I suspect there’s also a similar issue with readers. One’s private reaction to an erotic scene in a novel might be much more awkward to admit to others than pretending it’s hilariously funny or marginalising its importance — the reaction ‘less is more’ seems to be useful code for saying ‘Of course I’m not a prude but I’d rather die than admit I got sexually aroused’.
It seems to be motivated from the same discomfort that inspires the Bad Sex Awards – the notion that there’s writing about sex can be classified into either ‘good’ or ‘bad’. I’m sure there are many occasions when less detail is preferable but it shouldn’t be misapplied into a general rule that says all such writing should be brief. In some contexts whole chapters in the bedroom could be necessary or appropriate.
(As an aside, I usually find ‘less is more’ to be a particularly unhelpful comment if used generally in feedback. Without pointing out which of the ‘more’ should be discarded and which of the ‘less’ should be retained, it’s really a cryptic way of saying ‘be more concise’, which is a principle that all writers should use anyway. It’s similar to another bête noire of mine – ‘murder your darlings’. Some misguided people interpret this as advising all writers to delete any writing that they think is good – one of the stupidest pieces of advice ever. What it should mean is ‘don’t be self-indulgent’ but even that apparently sound advice is difficult to apply – one reader’s self-indulgence is another’s literary masterpiece.)
It’s good that someone who writes a popular literary blog that, as is pointed out in the post has hardly mentioned the subject in past, is brave enough to avoid the easy route of trivialising and ridiculing of writing about sex.
It’s not being depraved or perverted or unusual to be aroused (mentally or physically) by well-written writing — it touches what it is to be human and good writing can also evoke physical reactions in other ways — raising heartbeat with suspense stories and so on.
Anyone reading this far might think my novel is stuffed with sex scenes. It’s not — but it’s a modern novel with a male-female relationship at its core and the attraction between the characters is key to driving the plot.
As it stands, the first sex scene is well over a third into the novel and there’s probably no more than half a dozen in total and the narrative is only in flagrante delicto two or three times. It’s much more likely that the writing sets the scene or explores the consequences, particularly through dialogue.
Using all the feedback patiently offered me by my coursemates and writing friends, I’ve worked out the parameters that I feel I’m comfortable with and competent in writing. I find there’s a problem with diction — it’s difficult to tread the line between medical terminology and euphemism (or the overblown imagery that earns a Bad Sex Award).
While words like cock seem to do the job (so to speak) for the male anatomy there doesn’t seem to be a satisfactory word for the female equivalent. (I get puzzled when some writers substitute the abstract noun ‘sex’ for the concrete – as in ‘he touched her sex’.) But words like ‘pussy’ seem either too American-porno (or Mrs Slocombe) and the c word sets off a debate that would take another blog post to discuss.
Similarly with the actual act of sexual intercourse itself — there’s a limit to how much language can enhance the mechanics. But while most sex could be represented as a basic biological transaction, its immediate context could reveal much about the relationship between characters. For example, even in relatively ‘vanilla’ sex, characters might use more anonymising positions in which they don’t see each other’s faces.
While there might be limits to the variety of description of sex itself, assuming the novel or story isn’t purely for titillation, there’s a huge role for fiction to illuminate its anticipation, desires and consequences.
If it’s true to life, it should reflect that it’s part of the human condition to understand that we’re not always motivated by rational, intellectual choices. I’m fascinated by the subconscious, subliminal, instinctive, inexplicable desires that are drivers of our behaviour. And these are universal. While it might be more socially conventional for men to be portrayed as being more driven by sex, it would be an unfortunate (and perhaps incompetent) man who’d never experienced in private the formidably pleasurable force of female sexual desire.
Sometimes we do things we know are wrong and may have catastrophic consequences that are purely based on physical impulses that might come from dark places we don’t understand. That’s surely an incredibly fruitful subject for fiction.
And cultural values change as I was reminded when I visited the Pompeii and Hurculaneum exhibition at the British Museum at the weekend. The Romans would be puzzled that we were having this debate at all. They thought nothing of murals of people having sex or ubiquitous representations of phalluses (wind chimes were a favourite!). And the statue of what Pan was doing with the goat probably was beyond the imaginations of anyone at Isabel’s Word Factory Masterclass.
In the MMU Creative Writing MA we don’t just work on our novels-in-progress. That’s the main body of work but we need to take a broader perspective so we understand the context of Â modern literature and the publishing world.
One significant component is appreciation of established and innovative novelists’ work — in the Reading Novels module — see my post on the Rules of Creative WritingÂ for more about work for that section of the course.
We also have to do something that I’m way behind on and still haven’t fully got my head around — called the Transmission Project. The objective of this is to work in a form that’s different to novel writing. I have a vague idea I might do a screenplay based on the novel.
But the joker in the pack has been a module called The Text, which is basically a piece of work on the publishing industry or something analytical about the way your work-in-progress makes its journey from your computer hard-drive potentially into the hands of paying readers (with the obvious caveats of being lucky and working hard).
Slowly,Â I’m reaching the point where I can no longer procrastinate and fiddle around perfecting my manuscript. The day is going to have to come soon when I settle on a file to attach to an e-mailÂ to literary agents — steel myself toÂ press ‘send’ and see what happens — if anything.
Therefore I decided to kill two birds with one stone and make literary agents the subject of my essay. In doing the work at least I’d get a better idea of what they do, should I get to start engaging with them. (Actually I’ve met a number of agents already and follow many on Twitter. While some of their number only seem to tweet about how wonderful their client’s latest books are, others provide an invaluable insight into the publishing process. Carole Blake’s tweets when ploughing though some of the weird and dire submissions she receives should be mandatory reading for any writer before they press the send button or post the envelope.)
But writing about ‘what a literary agent does’ wouldn’t really be stretching enough for a Masters degree so I tried to combine it with a quick survey of the current upheavals in the publishing marketplace, such as the growth of e-readers and the consequent explosion in self-publishing. Should anyone be interested in reading the essay itself, it can be found by clicking Â on this link:Â Essay on Literary Agents in Changing Publishing Word — April 2012.Â Note that it’s quite and dry and academic, although I do put in some entertaining quotations and it got a decent mark despite my mentioning ofÂ Fifty Shades of Grey.
I’m sure any literary agent who might chance across this post will be extremely re-assured Â that my considered deliberationsÂ (who am I kidding?) were generally positive for their profession. In spite of the new technology-driven opportunities for disintermediation between author and reader (i.e. the ability to go straight to Amazon with an e-book rather than via agent and publisher), the agent still provides value for the author. This is particularly true for their established clients, for whom, undoubtedly, the agent is a tremendous asset — especially for the business-side of things — such as all those translation deals and foreign rights. These are complexities that new writers — focused on their books — will barely consider.
Many of the ‘unexpectedly phenomenally best-selling’ self-published authors tend to be snapped up by agents for this reason, although this has led to suggestions that self-publishing is starting to serve as a ‘crowd-sourced slush pile’.
However, one under-appreciated aspect of traditional publishing is the time and effort spent on perfecting the finished book. Agents will ensure that work they represent is of publishable quality: some will spend considerable time working with the author on a promising manuscript, others will only take on work that’s virtually ready to be submitted to a commissioning editor.
Because of the commission-based model on which they draw their earnings, new writers are always risks for agents — they won’t earn any revenue from new clients until most of the hard work has been done (getting the book into shape to be offered to publishers, selling it, handling rights). Apart from advances (which are getting much smaller), the lead-times of the traditional publishing model mean it might be two years before book starts bringing in revenue (that’s if it does make any money). Â So it’s not surprising that if a novel demonstrates it has a proven market in the e-book charts then an agent will see that as reducing many of these risks.
This development throws up an interesting point as to whether writers who are at the point of submitting novels to agents ought to also throw their work into the morass of self-published e-books. I’ve heard contradictory views from agents on whether they would be interested in representing a book that had already been published in some form.
At the London Writers’ Club, in response to a question, one agent told a writer she wasn’t interested in an already published book (though she would be interested in a follow-up). But I’ve also heard agents and publishers say they thought there was nothing to be lost by writers testing the market in that way.
Until very recently, many self-published e-books were likely to be those that had been rejected by traditional channels with the authors using this route as a last resort but this is no longer true. In fact the economics of publishing at very low cost favour authors who publish using very little outside assistance (maybe a cover designer and, if they’re sensible, copy editing and proof reading). If an e-book is sold at Â£1.99, a self-published author will get the majority of the revenue (depending on the sales channel). Whereas for a paperback discounted to Â£3.99 in Tesco or Amazon, an author isn’t likely to make more than 50p, probably a lot less. Combine this with the ability of writers to get more material out to market more quickly (the compromises in quality control this generates don’t appear to deter a sizeable portion of e-book buyers) and, from a business perspective, an author could make more income selling a smaller number of e-books (especially if they write more titles). Of course these books need to be marketed but some writers’ Â ferocious use of social media can be highly effective.
It’s potentially the role of the agents as gatekeepers of the traditional publishing industry that is most affected by current changes. I know from my experience on the City University Certificate in Novel Writing (now the Novel Studio), which has good links with agents, that ‘getting an agent’ is one of the two indisputable achievements (the other is having your novel published — after that everything is subjective).
The agent is positioned at the ‘this-is-where-the-bullshit-stops’ interface between subjective appreciation of one’s work and the objective, binary ‘yes/no’ judgement of ‘will this sell?’.
If writers believe that getting ‘an agent’ is an achievement in itself then they mayÂ feel impelledÂ to approach the wrong type of agent. It’s often said by agents that it’s far more important to find the right agent for one’s work, rather than find one quickly, but the seal of affirmation of being signed up is something of a creative writing course alumni honour.
Such is the pressure to achieve that affirmation that writers are tempted to be impatient and contact agents before their work is ready — sometimes before much is written at all. At the London Writers’ Club, one writer said to an agent that he had five great concepts for a novel and that if he wrote to her then would she pick the best one out for him so he wouldn’t waste all that time writing a novel that no-one wanted to buy. It seems a reasonable question — and a very sensible one if publishing was an industry that financed its own R&D efforts (because new product development is effectively what new authors are Â doing — unpaid). But, for fiction at least, the answer illustrated the toughness and resilience writers require to stand a chance of being published.
Her response was that he was the writer, he had to decide which of the concepts he believed in most and then he’d keep proving he had faith in his concept by completing the novel. And then he could send it in to agents. It wasn’t the answer that the questioner wanted to hear but that’s how it works — the unsigned author spends large amounts of time and money on the project (if using courses, consultancies, etc) and only at that point might he or she be told the whole premise of the novel is flawed.
It’s not surprising that people feel rejection painfully — and that there’s a lot of manuscripts that never make it to agents’ scrutiny for fear of failure. And this situation shows the imbalance of power to which, perhaps, the e-book explosion is a reaction. I met a writer recently who took eight years to produce his first published book. That effort can be dismissed within a few seconds by an agent who’s always got another manuscript to look at on the pile.
But, on the other hand, it would be more cruel for an agent to encourage a writer in a particular direction only to find that the completed work is unsellable. The truth is that no-one knows what will be popular in the future. Agents can spot good writing but predicting the types of work that will appeal a couple of years in the future is a huge gamble. That’s why one hears of writers being given rejections that are impossible to analyse, such as ‘we really loved the book but we just didn’t love it quite enough’. Â Of course, what the writer then wants to know is how to change the book so it generates the requisite reservoir of love that will increase its chances of being published. But that’s the point — the busy agent doesn’t have the time to get into a dialogue about improving a book they’ve already decided they’re not going to take a punt on. Most of the agents I’ve met have been very pleasant people — but they’re professionals. Such is the potential deluge of requests for feedback and advice, it seems that they collectively cultivate a somewhat forbidding front, when one reads submission guidelines on websites and in the Writers and Artists’ Yearbook and similar directories.
Perhaps it’s because of its brevity and broadcast nature but agents can be quite approachable on Twitter (but never try to pitch a book to them there). I have a reference to Oliver Munson from Blake Friedmann in my essay and he was kind enough to verify the information for me while I was writing the assignment. He’s also taken the trouble to give the OK for me to put the reference on this blog.
Yet we also had a different London agent participate in a really useful on-line chat session during the teaching element of the MMU MA course. I quoted several of his answers in the essay as they were succint and very relevant. I tried e-mailing him to ask if it was OK to have his name in the essay if I put it on this blog but I’ve had no reply. So, not wishing to attribute his comments without permission I’ve made him anonymous. Perhaps the e-mail didn’t get through or, more likely, he had an incredibly busy day and couldn’t get round to reply to a query like mine but it’s still a shame. Google searches for agents by name account for a fair proportion of hits on this site: there’s a modest chance a potential client might have come across his sensible words on here. And if he’s too busy to reply to that sort of e-mail then perhaps he might not be so responsive when I’m thinking of submitting my manuscript.
Mind you, agents are often in the same position themselves .There was a flurry of Twitter activity when an anonymous agent recently posted a blog complaining aboutÂ Â sending out books on submission to publishers and hearing nothing. This drew a sharp retort from the very pleasant Francesca Main (who visited our City university class) who concluded her blog post with a paragraph that started with the re-assuring sentence for those of us writers toiling away in the margins around our day jobs: ‘Authors are at the heart of everything we do, and the reason we all chose to work in publishing.’
One handy aspect of this blog from my own perspective is that I’ve gradually found many other blogs that I’ve linked to and taken RSS and Atom feeds from (see toolbar on the right). Some are those written by friends and others are some really useful sites written by editors, agents and authors.
I was reading a post of NaNoWriMo on How Publishing Really Works which had a link to a page on This Itch of Writing, novelist Emma Darwin’s blog,Â about revising and editing. The article starts off by discussing the semantics of what the words editing and revising actually mean but goes on to make some excellent points about the teaching of writing Â — some which have similarly occurred to me.
Emma Darwin uses some railway and engineering metaphors to argue the logical point that writing a novel is such a huge undertaking that, even with careful planning, it’s usually inevitable that it does (or should) become evident while writing that there are structural issues (plot problems, characters that don’t work) which will need addressing. Rather than give up and start again, she recommends carrying on with a very rough first draft on the basis that, once at the end, it will be easier to address the structure of the novel as a whole.
Interestingly, this was the advice — plough on and finish a rough first draft — that we received from our tutors towards the end of the City Novel Writing course — and that many of us have realised in practice. However, it’s very difficult advice for students on courses to take for a couple of reasons — one internal and one external.
Most people who can write to a reasonable standard, but who haven’t had the experience of producing a work of about 100,000 words plus are probably instinctively unhappy in writing something that they know can be improved without going back to edit it fairly soon afterwards. There are some comments on appended to the post on This Itch of Writing that suggest writers go back and hone recently written prose because it’s a bit of a cop-out — that’s it’s easier than telling oneself it will be sorted out eventually as it’s more important to continue on with a roughly-written draft that will expose plot, setting, character and so on to greater scrutiny.
I think those comments are somewhat self-deprecating — that sort of close line-editing is actually quite hard to do well and very time-consuming in itself. I suspect that one reason why people do it is that they perhaps lack the confidence that they will ever return to re-write it — that the whole enterprise may be abandoned and, therefore, it might be better to produce a well-written chapter partly perhaps to demonstrate that one’s capable of it and maybe to be re-used in the distant future. Perhaps.
However, the external reason that applies to people on Creative Writing courses is all to do with how writing is taught. Â Emma Darwin says in her post ‘I think it’s because so much writing-teaching focuses on the small scale. That’s partly because prose is easier stuff to read and write and teach on in class-sized chunks, than structure is…So writers embarking on their first novel are often quite aware of the micro-work it takes, but much less aware of the macro’. For example, on the City University course the Â workshopping is structured into about six or seven opportunities to read 2,250 words — perhaps not uncoincidentally each about the length of the short stories that are assessed on the OU Creative Writing courses.
I wondered after finishing the course what difference it might have made to have given each writer a couple of slots of about 7,500 words each. I can see that practically it might make some students wait a long time for a workshop and also wouldn’t allow much opportunity to develop the work having received feedback but it would give an experience less like writing a short story — both to the writer but, also more importantly perhaps, to the other students offering feedback.
Someone called Sally Z posted a comment after the Itch of Writing post relating her experiences with a writing group. The members would always ask the ‘big’ questions when asking for criticism on a piece of writing (e.g. do these characters work?). But the sort of feedback that was offered tended to be detailed stuff about punctuation and on the over-use of adverbs. (The ritual slaughter of adverbs is a bÃªte noir of mine that seems to be promoted by people who seem to over-evangelise some of Stephen King’s style advice in ‘On Writing’.)
Close attention to the text is certainly necessary before a novel is submitted to a publisher or agent but Emma Darwin argues that a writer who has polished up a section of a novel to publishable standard may be much more reluctant to subsequently make wholesale changes that may be necessary to improve the structure of the entire novel. However, if you participate in a writing course then it’s almost unavoidable that you will sweat hard to make your prose as good as possible as you won’t want your precious feedback to solely consist of other students pointing out passive sentences, repeated words, too many adverbs and similar textual elements. And it would also seem a bit perverse on any writing course to ask someone to circulate first draft work without worrying about typos and errors as other people will get distracted by them whatever — it’s a bit like walking down the street with your flies open.
However, if one does feel capable of creating reasonably good prose given the opportunity to edit later, what’s most important is to discover how the novel works as a whole — which is fairly tough when readers are exposed to small chapter-length chunks, especially if not in sequence, as I tend to have presented mine. I have a slightly perverse theory that if a 2,250 word extract of a novel works perfectly as a self-contained piece and doesn’t raise any questions of context with the rest of the novel then the writer isn’t really producing a novel — because a novel must necessarily have strands and elements that only make sense when read in its entirety.
Another unintended side-effect of over-examining the prose style is that writers may be tempted to concentrate on a sort of Â literary ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ — it’s much easier to praise someone’s brilliant imagery or use of metaphor because examples can be cited from the text than it is to praise something more abstract — such as empathy with an emotion or resonance of setting. Of course there’s nothing wrong with some competition spurring people on to better writing but some genres are more suited to the sort of writing that’s easily praised than others.
For various practical reasons, it might be impossible to teach the more structural aspects of novel-writing in a course or to offer feedback in most writers group — mainly because of the investment in time required. What might be better is for novelists to learn from the examples from the canon of literature — this ties back into the much repeated recommendation that ‘writers have to be readers’ (more Stephen King advice like over adverbs that’s sensible in itself but not when mis-applied in extreme). I know one person from the City course who’s considering doing his next course not in creative writing but in English Literature — and this may be a very astute choice.
The Manchester Metropolitan University MA course has so far taken a similar path — we’ve been studying one novel a week from a brilliantly varied and idiosyncratic list but together by the tutor Dr Jenny Mayhew. When we’ve come to discuss the texts, rather than a loose ‘book-club’ type discussion, we’ve largely concentrated on the ‘big’ questions — like structure, character, narration, use of time and so on. The discussion on these points has the benefit of being able to examine finished, published works.
Personally I’ve done something of a mixture of the rough and (hopefully) more polished. I have quite a bit of rough draft that I’ve produced with the aim of ploughing on and just getting it done but, because of the workshopping and, also because I like to get feedback in other ways, I’ve gone back and spent a long time re-working certain sections for the benefit of other readers — partly with the objective of pleasing the adverb police and also a bit of vanity in fishing for compliments on phrases, metaphors or imagery — which is dangerous as it’s an encouragement to over-write.
As is mentioned in the original blog posts, there are two sorts of professional attitude required by successful novel writers — the discipline to plough ahead and get a first-draft finished and then the maturity to realise how much revision and re-drafting that draft needs before you even think about line-editing.
Does anyone else have any thoughts about how to address the ‘big’ issues in a novel while mired in the middle of writing it?
Not satisfied with having recently finished the City University Certificate in Novel Writing while also doing the dissertation of an MSc in Software Development at the Open University, I’ve now taken the plunge and started an MA in Creative Writing. This is with Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU), although I’m doing the online route which can be done entirely remotely (they do offer some campus based activities and priority on their courses in association with the Arvon Foundation but they’re not compulsory). Due to my personal circumstances I can’t commit to physically travel to any particular place over the next year, let alone the two years a campus based MA would involve (the online route is three years).
Also, having travelled into central London two nights a week (or the weekend equivalent) for the City course during the last academic year, I think I pushed past the limits (in various senses) of physical course attendance, so won’t do more, at least for the time being. However, I will be meeting with most of the City cohort every month in London to continue workshopping — so that will mean some welcome human face-to-face interaction in addition to being a virtual student — and also, hopefully, a few sessions in the pub afterwards.
Ideally I might have taken more time out between courses but various doom-laden predictions of the axe currently being taken to higher and further education put a doubt in my mind about whether there would be the same level of choice of course available this time next year. I read a headline in the Times Education Supplement that a third of further education jobs would be cut. (Of course, this has the knock-on effect of reducing the usefulness of an MA in Creative Writing as one of its benefits over and above courses like the City Certificate and Arvon-style courses is that it increases one’s employability in the academic sector — something that would be figuratively academic were there a lot of unemployed creative writing teachers.)
There are a few online courses available but I liked the description of the MMU course as, for two terms a year, it employs as a teaching method a virtual chat room teaching method at set times with a tutorial led by a tutor. I was interested to see how this would work and, last Monday, I found out.
For the first term we look at examples of other novels, starting with ‘Old School’ by Tobias Woolff. This book is so well written that it has thoroughly depressed me, especially when at the same time as reading it I’ve been trying to revise some of my own first draft material, which seems so pedestrian and uninspired by comparison. However, it’s a very concise book (under 200 pages) and I suspect that Woolff’s superb prose was assisted by countless revisions and re-draftings.
The online tutorial seemed to work really well. It was led by Dr Jenny Mayhew, who’s the tutor of this module. The novel ‘route’ of the MA appears to be fully subscribed — with 12 students. (The selection process for the course was quite rigorous — with references required, a submission of both critical and creative work and an interview.) I was pleased to see a couple of students are based near me — in Berkhamsted and Hemel Hempstead — ironically places that I drove past on the way to Finsbury for the City course. There are people based in Spain and the Czech republic as well as elsewhere in the country. I’ve picked up a new blog reader already — Anne who’s from Denmark but lives in the UK and writes flawless English as far as I can tell. (I’ve already told her about having a fluent European ex-pat as a character in my novel.)
As well as criticism of a novel each week, we are expected to do a creative writing task inspired by the text — and I’ve got until Sunday to do one. I was pleased to discover this aspect as I enjoy writing exercises.
So now I can add Manchester Writing School (comprising the MMU department and its associated activities) to the lengthening list of universities where I’ve done creative writing — Open University, City and Lancaster. In case it appears that I’ll just end up with a bunch of certificates rather than a novel at the end of all this, the Manchester novel route carries something of a big stick that appeals in a masochistic way– you don’t pass until you’ve finished the bloody thing.
Autumn seems to have crept upon us — it’s grey, drizzly and windy outside — and I’m facing the realisation Â that I’ve not written half as much as I hoped over the summer. I made some amends last week by bashing out about 15,000 words. I deliberately just sat down and wrote and didn’t go back and revise anything methodically — and I know some of it is very bad.
I’ve developed a pattern of writing a first draft, printing it out and making corrections on the paper (they seem easier to spot), then printing it again and reading the whole piece out loud (not just the dialogue). After that process I’m usually reasonably happy with it but if I give it someone else to read I then tend to identify a whole slew of other mistakes. I guess this is the basis of the ‘put it in a drawer for a couple of weeks (or months) before looking at it again’ school of advice. This is all very time consuming — but necessary.
I found some sections quite easy and enjoyable to write and I’m still struggling on others. In fact, I may try writing some poetry to describe some of the natural features of the Chiltern landscape I’ve been trying to portray and then cannibalise it.
One good thing about grinding out the words is that I can suddenly take off in unexpected directions and I’ve come up with more ideas for plot and character later in the novel than if I’d just considered them in my head. But that also has the disadvantage of bringing in diversions and new directions in the material I’d originally intended to write.
So while it’s gratifying to have 15,000 more words (probably a sixth of a novel) more than I had ten days ago, I’m also a little exasperated that it’s going to need maybe twice or three times as much time again to revise and that, as with my opening chapters, not a lot seems to have happened in a large number of words. However, my intention was in this section to deliberately slow the pace almost to the point where the reader becomes impatient for fireworks to start exploding and I’ve tried to weave a lot of plot background and backstory into these sections.
Overall I think what I’ve written is good and that I definitely believe in it — and I often surprise myself at how much the novel reflects me personally — which shows that at a deep psychological level I’m probably impelled on an irreversible course to write this. However, Iâ€™m probably both a bit of a â€˜needyâ€™ writer and one who tends to write for an audience rather than just please myself so that’s why it’s a good thing that in less than four weeks I’ll be workshopping some of this material with the majority of the City novel-writing group. We’re meeting monthly on an extra-curricular basis.
Penny Rudge, when she visited the course, said that virtually every chapter of â€˜Foolish Lessons in Life and Loveâ€™ had been through a post-course workshopping process with her peers. I tend to want to make use of peer feedback to a similar extent â€“ while I could plough on independently Â it will be fascinating to meet up with everyone to see how people are getting on.
As mentioned in a previous post we have at least one person whose work on the course has led to being signed by an agent and I know that a few people sent work out to agents after the reading, although I know of only the person whoâ€™s actually finished the novel — and he’s now redrafting.Â In my case it would probably instill some discipline by having an agentâ€™s validation, encouragement and deadline setting. Yet agents can only make active progress when they have a full novel manuscript to work with and I don’t have anything yet in a shape I’d be happy to send out. The way I write means itâ€™s not going to be a quick process for me to get the material into the shape that most advice tends to emphasise before oneâ€™s work goes near an agent or publisher â€“ for it to be â€˜the best it can possibly beâ€™. Â My tendency, mentioned above, to branch off tangentially in a random or arbitrary direction as Iâ€™ve been writing is sometimes good and serendipitous but means everything will need to be looked at again i.e.Â once I get to the end of the novel then Iâ€™ll want to make some significant changes to the start.
As an example, I had some very useful feedback from Guy and Charlotte on the course to chapters six and seven and, even though Iâ€™d spent a lot of time writing the chapters, Guy pointed out lots of â€˜noise wordsâ€™ like â€˜justâ€™, â€˜perhapsâ€™, â€˜maybeâ€™, â€˜a littleâ€™ and so on that seem to become invisible on the page if youâ€™ve stared at it too long in one session.
I also posted a reference to a recently written part of the novel a fellow student’s wall on Facebook and the brief exchange of comments that followed opened up a new aspect to Kim and Jamesâ€™ long, drawn-out first day that Iâ€™d failed to explore. That accounted for the rather meagre 300 words I managed on holiday.
There will also be a need to maintain consistency, particularly in dialogue. As mentioned in previous postings, Kim will be fluent in English but will perhaps have some transatlantic turns of phrase plus perhaps a tendency to construct sentences grammatically as they would be in German.Â I think Iâ€™ve largely achieved this as Iâ€™ve gone along and she speaks little phrases in her first language from time to time. I’ve been dropping these in with increasing frequency making use of my limited German. Â Kim’s English is described by another character (I’m told that this is grammatically correct, which surprised me): â€˜Dein Englisch ist sehr flÃ¼ssig, aber Sie sprechen mit einem leichten deutschen Akzent â€“ sehr Hochdeutsche.â€™
After our reading at the Art Workersâ€™ Guild, Alison was very forthright in her collective praise of the class and she seems to be expecting some big things from us as a year group, although she might perhaps have been surprised at the progress of at least one of our number over the six weeks or so after the event.
I looked at Facebook page a couple of weeks ago to see a picture of Michael Braga, one of my coursemates from the City Novel Writing course holding a sheaf of papers with a very satisfied expression on his face. In an incredible burst of productivity, heâ€™s finished his novel already â€“ achieving an incredibly impressive 93,000 words â€“ and all this while doing a demanding, full-time job. Amazing.
I always found his readings to be tremendously entertaining, humorous and colourful and the excerpt he read at the Art Workersâ€™ Guild showcased these qualities very well. I look forward to following the progress of the novel and wish him the best of luck with it. Heâ€™s set up a blog recently, which is another testament to his productivity â€“ it can be accessed from the sidebar.
Alison sent out a news update to all course alumni a couple of weeks ago mentioning that Simon Holmes from the course had been taken on my Simon Trewin, an agent at United Artists, whom Alison previously described as â€˜a big cheeseâ€™. Â (His photo is now on the agencyâ€™s web page.) Simonâ€™s writing is very intelligent; in passages it can be quite beautiful, creating a highly imaginative surreal world with a most intriguing central character. I wouldnâ€™t be surprised to see his novel in the running for a literary prize in the near future.
A few students from the course have taken interesting initiatives. A couple of people have been on an Arvon foundation retreat up in the Black Isle near Inverness â€“ something Iâ€™d like to do but for various reasons probably wonâ€™t get the opportunity for a few years. Iâ€™ll be looking forward to hearing how that went.
Another route is one-on-one mentoring, something that Bren Gosling, has taken up. Heâ€™s talked positively in his blog (linked to from the sidebar) about his sessions with Emma Sweeney â€“ who stepped in as a very capable substitute for Emily at the end of the course and helped us with our readings.
Emma marked our last assignments for the course â€“ our reflective commentary and blurb â€“ and made some nice comments on mine. She also gave some very helpful feedback on material for my tutorial in the last term â€“ which was the bulk of chapter five.
Iâ€™m mulling over another course of action that I might undertake this autumn in relation to keeping the writing momentum going â€“ if I make a decision to then watch this space and all may be revealed.
I’m currently trying to write the part of the novel that follows on from what I submitted at the end of the City course. I’ve approached it in an odd way as I’ve written mainly dialogue for about six different scenes — all on in the afternoon and evening continuing on from the same day as the first five chapters. I’m already up to about 4,500 words so, once I’ve added in more description and context I guess I’m going to get at least two chapters of 3,500-4,000 words out of the material — but at the moment it’s slow going and without a deadline for workshopping I’m able to flit from one scene to the next adding a bit in here and there.
I would like to get this finished asap though as I’d like to send it out to get a couple of well-respected opinions on it — but I’m also up against a deadline in just over a week to do a literature review for my MSc project.
Perhaps all this is churning round in my subconscious as I had a rather strange dream. I dreamt for some reason I had gone back to our old house in Twickenham and the postman arrived with some ridiculously huge parcels — I think one may have been a bed all wrapped up. Among these pieces of post was an envelope with my marked assignments from the last term at City University (which I’m yet to receive) — chapters 3 to 5 in my case and a commentary and blurb.
As well as the marked assignments the package from City also contained a pepperoni pizza (rectangular shape like the envelope) and two garlic baguettes.
I had great difficulty reading the marked assignments for some reason — perhaps my contact lenses wouldn’t focus?. They were covered in remarks written in large green felt tip pen. Somehow I ended up trying to read the feedback in a car near my old dentists in the terraced houses on the edge of Rochdale town centre. Eventually I made out the words ‘poor’ and I turned over a page of my writing to see that the marker had written ‘KILL’ in huge great letters right across the whole page — the letters were filled in with fluorescent stripes from different coloured highlighter pens and were rounded — rather like psychedelic worms. Obviously that passage of description hadn’t gone down well.
I saw on a cover sheet that I’d been given 60% — and that’s when I started to wake up a realise it a dream as we’re not given any quantitative marking like that on the course.
If anyone is good at dream interpretation I’d be intrigued to know what this might mean — especially the pizza and the odd locations.
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!
One benefit of writing this blog is that I thought it would be useful to use to look back on and chart the progress of the writing over the course — and part of the course assessment is for us to write a 2,000 word commentary on exactly that.
This has to be done by Wednesday — pretty easy I smugly thought — I’ll just cut and paste the writing-related entries into a document and edit them a bit. I just did this, along with the content of a couple of e-mails I’ve sent the tutors with my expostulations, and found the document is a mere 24,790 words long.
There’s extra stuff we need to put in the commentary as well that’s not covered in the blog (like consider in depth which authors are in our genre and who publishes them) so it looks like I’m going to have to edit 95% of the words away — probably harder than writing it from scratch. However, it’s useful to go back and have dates associated with feelings of satisfaction and frustration.
I need a blurb too…maybe I’ll post that on here to see if anyone might think it sells the novel.
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.Â 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. Â These descriptions are very well done — very witty and frank but never over-graphic, anatomical or crude. I think I’ll Â 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). Â 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.).
One of London’s leading literary agents,Â Judith Murray from Greene and Heaton paid our group a visit on Wednesday night. She has a number notable authors on her list, perhaps the best known being Sarah Waters.
Judith mentioned at one point that the part of the role of an agent was to be an author’s advisor and advocate — and she spoke with such enthusiasm and showed such huge knowledge of the publishing business that it wasn’t hard to imagine the excellent job she would perform looking after her clients. I’d be tempted to say the authors on her list are a lucky bunch but that would belie the huge amount of effort that we learned is involved from both writer and agent before Judith represents a writer.
That said, sometimes there has been an element of serendipity in the way that Judith has come across authors — Sarah Waters had been sending off her manuscripts to publishers’ slush piles without success until she mentioned in passing to her neighbour that she was looking for a publisher — the neighbour happened to be a colleague of Judith’s at the time who suggested that Sarah sent the book to Judith — and it all went from there. Apparently the first few chapters of ‘Tipping the Velvet’ were published virtually unchanged from how they’d appeared in the first manuscript — requiring next to no editing. That the novel went on to great success makes a couple of related points: firstly, the opening pages of ‘Tipping the Velvet’ Â must have languished unnoticed on various publishers’ slush piles; secondly, the later success of both novel and author show the value of an agent who is passionate about the work.
This need for the professionals in publishing to be passionate about a novel was also emphasised by our visitor last week, Francesca Main. Judith receives about Â 20-25 unsolicited submissionsÂ a day — and she reads them all — but is likely take on a smaller number of authors than that in a whole year — less than half a percent.
Clearly, to have a chance of making it into that small number of acceptances, the novel will need to immediately engage her interest. Moreover, she reads the submissions from a necessarily commercial angle — if she can’t immediately think of three or four editors (out of the large number she knows) who would also be interested in that type of novel then it would be uneconomic to progress any further. The book might be a great piece of work but if thereâ€™s no market for it then it’s a tough fact of life.
Judith was candid enough to admit that she has passes over books that have later gone on to be published with success — she turned down at least one novel that went on to win a literary prize. However, that book that wasn’t to her personal taste and an agent really has to love a writer’s work for the relationship to be a success.
As we find with our own readings in the class, everyone has different literary preferences, and being rejected by an agent is not necessarily a reflection on the quality of the work. Writers need to develop a thick skin to cope with rejection — a quality that might count as much as many facets of literary ability but, given how novel writing is often so bound up with one’s own personality, then such persistence and self-belief are probably some of the most difficult personal qualities that writers need to develop.
Judith’s tastes, incidentally, tend towards good literary writing — but of the sort that has a strong narrative and engaging characters.Â She’s not a fan of intentionally self-conscious, experimental writing, which she enjoys intellectually but she says there are other agents whoÂ specialise in such genres.
As Francesca mentioned the previous weeks, Judith also re-inforced the tough conditions in the publishing market at the moment — since September 2008 publishers have become much more risk adverse and have erred on the side of safe bets — principally established authors with a good sales track record or the amazingly talented and disciplined celebrity novelists who somehow manage to dash off a novel while appearing in their soap operas or reality TV series. That said, Greene and Heaton had a particularly good year in 2009.
Nevertheless, the marketÂ is verytough and publishers won’t invest in a new author unless they’re confident that booksellers will promote it — the 3 for 2 table at Waterstone’s or its equivalent in Amazon. And the publishers are expected to contribute to those promotion so there goesÂ anyÂ hope of an advertising budget.
The need to drum up interest in a new author in these straitened times also explains the long lead time often experienced byÂ aÂ novelÂ from a newÂ writer. Any promising work that lands on Judith’s desk now might not be published until early 2012. This is because the publishers will try to create a ‘buzz’ about the author — try to get good word of mouth recommendation, or endorsement by influential bloggers, solicit favourable reviews and so on. There’s a lot of work goes on to attract interest and raise the novel’s profile — and often the author’s personalityÂ can make a big contribution to this effort (again, it’s becoming less of a world for shrinking violets).Â Literary prizes are particularly important inÂ boosting reputations.
Bearing in mind the long lead time, I asked a question about whether contemporaneously-set novels might be seen to date very quickly. Mine is set around now, or maybe in the last year, but would an agent think that in 2012 or 2013 that readers would think ‘Oh that’s so 2009’? On the other hand historical novels wouldn’t have that issue. The answer was not to worry — the main criterion is the quality of the writing by far.
All the work an agent does for an author was comprehensively outlined — including many aspects that most of us have hardly given a thought to, such as foreign rights. Essentially the agent is the author’s first professional reader and, as such, a good agent can use experience and contacts to guide anÂ author right the way through the publishing process.Â An agent will offer sound adviceÂ throughout a writer’s career –Â and, given the investment in development of a new author, agentsÂ are interested in writers who offer the prospect of a long career (I hope that doesn’t mean that if you’re over 30 you’ve got no chance — let alone over 40).
One thing that authors in our position can’t expect, though, is a large amount of editorial intervention. While Judith really enjoys the process of working with an author to identify what might need to be improved in a novel,Â time-management pressures mean that she can’t help to substantially rewrite a novel.Â The writing has to be good in the first place. If it’s not then an agentÂ won’t have the resources toÂ turnÂ prose that’s just OK into something better.
One piece of very useful advice, therefore, is don’t send work out to agents before it’s ready. The novel should be ‘good to go’ before it goes before an agent’s eyes. An agent generally won’t be able to give detailed feedback on novels that are rejected so it would be futile to send a first draft out and expect it to be returned with lots of detailed annotations on how it might be made better. Instead you’ll get a rejection but you’re not likely to know whether it was because the book as a concept was not commercial or because it was just sloppily written. At least ifÂ an authorÂ sends the best, most complete version of a novel then the chances of it being rejected on pure quality grounds are much reduced.
Similarly, there’s not much point sending in the first three chapters and a synopsis if the novel’s not complete. The agent might love it but won’t sign you up until he or she has read the whole novel — an agent needs to know if the writing can be sustained and developed over the course of a longer work.Â We might get some useful encouragement but no deal until the book’s completed. That said, Judith is very enthusiastic about spotting new talent and supports events such as our course reading evening and she encouraged us all to contact her with our work.
So how to contact an agent? The covering letter is important and is the first thing that is read. The quality of the letter will say a lot about the quality of the submitted novel. It should be concise — but should give an idea of what the novel is — just something like ‘thriller’ will often be sufficient. Information about the author is important — and we shouldn’t underestimate the value of writing courses such as ours — saying you’ve written the novel during the City University Novel Writing Certificate course will definitely make an agent take the submission a lot more seriously. Judith will then read the first part of the novel and only if she’s interested will she then read the synopsis — any decision will be made primarily on the writing itself.
So many writers don’t do research on which agents to contact — and the result is that much effort is wasted when agents receive work in unsuitable genres and the like.Â So how do you find an agent who will love your work? Apart from the Writers and Artists Yearbook, one clever trick is to find a book by an author whose work is similar to your own and then look in the acknowledgement pages — so long as the relationship hasn’t exploded there should be some thanks givenÂ by the author to an agent.
Or you could sign up to the City University course and have a few of them come along to listen toÂ you giving aÂ personal reading of your work — more scary than puttingÂ an envelope in theÂ post but, fingers crossed, more effective: Judith represents Kirstan Hawkins, a course alumnus, who spoke to us last term after the reading event a couple of years ago.
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. Â 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.
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. Â 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.