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.
I hope I’ve not embarrassed myself with my dodgy French title but who cares when there’s some good news to celebrate. This week I learned of another book deal for one of my writing friends — this time Isabel Costello of The Literary Sofa blog that’s been mentioned a few times in posts on this blog (it’s linked via the sidebar).
I’ve referred to The Literary Sofa a number of times from here. It’s often been because Isabel hasn’t been afraid to write the sort of posts that many people want to but haven’t quite dared to themselves. She wrote a wonderfully balanced post on sex in fiction which prompted me to post my own thoughts on here and, even more bravely, posted on even more taboo subject of rejection by publishers for writers who’ve achieved that prized agent deal (referred in this post). Her original post generated a phenomenal number of comments, with Isabel opening up the floodgates for a discussion by many people in a similar position.
Having written about the pain of rejection and the effort of maintaining motivation to start all over again with a new novel means it’s especially great news that Isabel has achieved success so soon afterwards with Paris Mon Amour. The deal also shows how well-placed Isabel’s confidence was in her agent, Diana Beaumont.
From my perspective, it’s encouraging to see someone achieve a publishing deal who has followed a similar route to my own — attending creative writing classes, conferences like the York Festival of Writing, writing and networking events such as the Word Factory and the potential ego-shredding experience of submitting your work to writing groups.
Canelo is a digital publisher and Isabel explains what attracted her to them in her post on the Literary Sofa. She writes about the huge amount of support her publishers have for authors and for their enthusiasm for her novel.
Coincidentally, I went to a great event last weekend organised by the London chapter of the RNA (of which perhaps more in another post) at which Lyn Vernham, Managing Director of publisher, Choc-lit made a really informative presentation on the current state of the fiction market. As might be inferred from the name, Choc-lit aims at what’s called the ‘women’s fiction’ market (a term many people feel is problematic but that’s another blog post) and publishes in both in digital and physical format. Lyn’s talk illustrated how the distinction between the two is becoming much more fluid and interrelated.
For example, if a book is bought from a digital platform (i.e. Amazon) then the reader will very often have browsed the first chapter that’s usually available online for free, even if bought physically, so the distinction between the two is becoming much more blurred.
As with my MMU coursemate Kerry’s success with her recent novel, The Black Country, I’m really pleased to be able to report on another person know whose work has gone from idea in progress that I’ve heard about to publication. I can also vouch for Paris Mon Amour being an excellent read and will look forward to purchasing a copy to see the final version in June.
As this post was written on Hallowe’en, it ‘s very appropriate that it’s about a rather flesh-creeping novel.
I’ve previously posted about my fellow MMU MA graduate, Kerry Hadley-Pryce’s, debut novel, The Black Country, when its publication was a few weeks away. Then I wrote about how I’d seen the novel develop during our course’s workshopping sessions in the first two years of the course.
So I couldn’t wait to get hold of the book and read how the final, published version compared with what I’d remembered. Amazingly, those workshop sessions were back in 2011 and 2012 — well over three years ago — the workshopping each others’ writing part of the course being in the spring term of the first two years.
Kerry has had some great reviews for The Black Country, including one in the Independent on Sunday and a piece on the Black Country (the geographical area, not the novel) written by Kerry herself that was published in the Metro — see photo on the left. As I know from observation on the 0744, the Metro shares its readership with many voracious consumers of novels so I hope this was a well-targeted piece of publicity.
I don’t think Kerry is a regular commuter herself, benefiting from what’s possibly a less frenetic working lifestyle in the Black Country. The day the Metro article was published she hadn’t actually managed to get hold of a physical copy of the paper.
Discarded on trains and tubes, copies of the newspaper disappear very quickly indeed, especially in London, where their dispense points are filled in the afternoon by the Evening Standard. However, I managed to save the day by finding a couple of spare copies left over in my local station, which were dispatched, post haste, up to the Black Country. Kerry kindly signed a copy of the novel for me in return.
I read the novel very quickly. That’s partly because it’s very concise (about 170 pages) and also because it’s difficult to put down. Having finished the novel I can’t add much to what I previously posted based on the sections I remembered from the course. To do so would risk giving away too many spoilers to those who take up my recommendation and buy the book.
I did, eventually, discover the identity of the narrator, which had been on of the most intriguing aspects of the novel during the course and one that Kerry had refused to reveal. I was certainly surprised when all became clear — and if I can be surprised after two years of reading and commenting on sections of the novel then I’m sure other readers will find the way the novel develops equally gripping.
As I’d hoped, reading the novel in the light of having read earlier drafts of substantial parts was a fascinating experience. I remembered some sections very clearly while, at least according to my memory, others had been reworked, with familiar passages appearing among what seemed to be new writing. Of course, the various aspects of editing are fundamental to the publishing process but it’s been a unique insight to compare memories of the original text with the printed book. It’s a testament to the quality of Kerry’s writing on the course that there are long passages that appear completely unchanged from the MA workshop sessions. There are many such passages of excellent, evocative prose, particularly describing the uniquely dour, post-industrial landscape of the Black Country itself.
Kerry’s biography states that she’s been teaching creative writing at secondary school level for a number of years and has also been writing herself for a considerable time. On reflection, perhaps The Black Country illustrates the experience she brought along to the MA course.
Whereas others may have started the course with the proverbial blank page and used the workshop sessions to experiment and shape the direction of their novels, I feel Kerry had a good idea at the outset of how and where she wanted to go with The Black Country, perhaps not in mechanical terms, such as the exact plot, but certainly with the tone, the characters of the protagonists and the identity of that narrator.
That confidence certainly seems to be in evidence in the published version of the novel — and was no doubt a major factor in Salt’s when they decision to buy the novel. From a creative writing MA perspective, The Black Country is an admirable piece of work — succinct and focused unerringly on what it wants to say and the innovative way it wants to say it — without a word wasted. I’m sure the MMU MA course and the input of the lecturers and other students was invaluable in helping Kerry hone and test her bold ideas.
I’d like to urge everyone to go out and buy a copy of The Black Country, although I do feel I should point out that, as the title suggests, its contents are rather on the dark side and, while bleak, psychological novels are currently popular, the novel definitely mines the more depraved aspects of the human condition
So many congratulations to Kerry to be the first of my writing friends whose work from a course has made it through to publication. I’m hoping I’ll see plenty more in the future.
The Manchester Metropolitan University MA is apparently ‘the most successful writing programme available in the UK today in terms of students and graduates achieving publication’ (according to the Manchester Writing School website).
And who am I to disagree? Not only am I a graduate of the course but I’m delighted that one of the novels that our group workshopped during the first two years of the course is now almost ready for publication.
While I’ve got to know many published writers, this is the first time I’ll have seen text that was e-mailed around in Word files for us to comment on become transmuted through that still magical process into a ‘proper book’ — and what a fantastic cover Kerry’s publishers, Salt, have come up with.
It’s a while now since those workshopping parts of the course and I’m sure the text has changed substantially through the editing and publication process but I’ve seen and commented on a large part of (what was at the time) the opening of the novel. And on that basis I can thoroughly recommend Kerry’s excellent writing (see this blog post from last year)..
It’s certainly a story that grabs the reader and sucks you in as the events in the novel turn from ordinary to sinister — and I’m as keen to find out how the narrative ends as anyone. Unless the novel has changed substantially then the narrator is as intriguing as any of the other characters.
Kerry lives in the Black Country — I’ve even had a drink with her in one of the area’s legendary pubs, the Vine (or Bull and Bladder in Brierley Hill). As far as I remember the novel was untitled when we first started to workshop it and I’m not even sure if it had a precisely-defined setting at the time.
I went to Birmingham University as an undergraduate and some of Kerry’s writing reminded me of the near apocalyptic, post-industrial landscapes my train used to pass on the way there between Wolverhampton and Birmingham. It’s all been cleaned up now (mostly) but we exchanged comments about how the waterways that thread through the West Midlands still give the area a sense of sinister melancholy — and this seemed to also be captured by Kerry’s writing style.
So for many reasons, The Black Country is an excellent title for the novel — both geographically and psychologically – and I’m really looking forward to reading the end of the story that I was lucky enough to read as it was being developed.
I’d have said that I’d have ordered my copy from a huge, rather market-dominating website (from where it’s listed and available) but I’m hoping to buy a copy and see if I can get Kerry to personalise it, possibly at a launch event.
It’s always fascinated me that one of the fundamental attributes of a book is the immutable, unalterable nature of the words on the page compared to when a draft is sent round for comment on a course or in a writing group when it’s usually in a word-processing file that is fluid and designed to be changed. To go from Word file to typeset book is a the fundamental transition and I can’t wait to see the words printed in finalised form that were once submitted for discussion in our MA workshopping group.
The Black Country is available for pre-order now from all the usual suspects. I’ll update the blog with news of any launch events.
I read a beautifully written guest post recently on Isabel Costello’s blog The Literary Sofa. It was by Antonia Honeywell whose novel The Ship was published earlier this year and was one of Isabel’s picks for 2015.
The post describes her perseverance in continuing to write novels when they failed to find a publisher, even though the second book was picked up by an agent, who also represented the third. She makes the analogy between writing the novels and children’s sandcastles on a beach — impermanent structures that will inevitably be washed away by the tide but we are still somehow compelled to construct them. She makes the point that the enjoyment of the act of creation itself is fulfilling — the results aren’t expected to endure.
One reader commented that after reading the post he was glad he’d stuck to writing short stories and not novels! And the post has been written from a point in time where Antonia has been able to celebrate the publication of her debut novel, although it appears to be the fourth she’s actually completed.
But the post resonated with many others who commented and makes the point that such is the effort and discipline required to achieve publication (with Antonia’s fourth time success being more typical than the lucky first-time novelist) that it’s essential that anyone who sets out on a major writing project enjoys the process of writing itself because that might have to sustain you for a long time. (I’m sure this is a factor behind writers seeking out courses, writing groups and the likes — because these can give affirmation about your writing from a reader’s perspective, albeit a very different one to that of either the book-buying reader or an agent or author.)
As the photograph above suggests, I often apply a more conventional metaphor to the writing process than washed-away sandcastles — long-distance running.
At the weekend I ran the Thame 10k race. It might just be possible to see my not very impressive time of 58 minutes 47 seconds on the timing slip on the photo — but I completed it in under an hour, which was my modest objective. I’m hoping for a similar pace at slightly more than double the distance in ten days time when I enter the Wycombe Half Marathon for about the fifth or six year running (if you excuse the pun).
Earlier in June I competed in the most lunatic and masochistic race — the 6k Coombe Hill run — which is apparently the only fell race in the south of England. Like the Thame and Wycombe races, this isn’t a fun run, it’s officially licenced by UK Athletics and organised by Aylesbury Vale Athletics Club.
The race starts with a solid mile of running up the Ridgeway on a gradient of about one in ten, although it’s steeper in places. Then after a steep descent the runners have to scramble up a 190m near-vertical climb (some people use their hands as well as feet) to the top of the Chiltern Hills highest viewpoint — the war memorial on the top of Coombe Hill. It’s as far removed from a running track as is imaginable and overlooks Chequers.
I once bumped into David Cameron doing the Sport Relief Mile at a local sports club. I’d rather enjoy seeing him huffing and scrambling along if he decided to enter the race held closest to his weekend country pile.
I managed to drag myself around that course, having been persuaded to do it by the postman, who’s involved in the club that organises it! Like a Home Counties Everest, I did it because it was there. It wasn’t quite as gruelling as I expected. Not knowing the course and fearing the worst, I paced myself on the long uphill too cautiously, trying to leave something in reserve. I didn’t need to call on it in the end — but it was still bloody tough. (Is there a writing metaphor in there somewhere?)
I tend to amble along towards the end of the field in these races. I must be reasonably fit to complete the distances but I ‘m not a natural distance runner. Like James in my novel, I’m physically built more like a rugby player (though more of a back than a forward!) than a rival to Mo Farah — and that’s without the evidence of enjoying too much good food and drink that I carry around my waist to a greater or lesser extent depending on how virtuous I’ve been recently. But there’s something about running that seems to resonate with writers.
I’ve read many articles, interviews and blogs where writers reveal that they’re keen runners (Claire King’s blog entry has particularly stuck in my mind).
One thing writers appreciate is the solitude of running (except if, like me, you occasionally scramble up a hill where you almost need to use handholds with a couple of hundred others).
It’s a different solitude to sitting in front of a computer typing away. It engages you with the outside world but in a slightly removed, distant manner that appeals to writers: you’re passing through, observing, watching, experiencing the sounds and smells and, if you’re running at any sort of pace at all, physically connecting with the environment in an intense way.
You’re breathing in huge lungfuls of air, so being at one with the weather (warm, freezing, humid, wet) and acutely aware of the ground under your feet — the sapping hard stone on the Victoria Embankment or the wonderful bounce from the soil on a Chilterns footpath that’s been drying in late Spring.
As I’ve said, I’m almost embarrassingly poor as a competitive runner, but I drag myself out in my trainers because some runs can be so pleasurable they verge on transcendent experiences. I remind myself how lucky I am to be able to run through fields full of wildflowers and butterflies, a slog up a steep hill being rewarded with amazing views as far as the Cotswolds.
I try to fix these moment in my memory as a moment to remember, a reminder of how precious it is to be alive in that second and be grateful that I’m fit enough to experience it.
And its not just running through countryside that can be exhilarating. I’ve been fortunate enough to use a gym in the bowels of a prominent building in Westminster. I’ve often emerged from there in my running gear to do circuits of the Royal Parks (from St. James’s via Green to a loop around the Serpentine in Hyde Park and back) and to run along the river from Westminster Bridge up to the Millennium Bridge (or Tower Bridge if I’m really energetic) back along the South Bank. That’s an incredible way to get different, slightly detached perspective on London and an amazingly concentrated piece of sightseeing.
For a writer, running gets you away from the desk and out into a different environment with new stimuli and the thinking time it imposes can be invaluable. Characters, plot ideas, ways of resolving problems can all be reflected on without any feeling of compulsion to get something down on the page.
Sometimes this freedom becomes a bit worrying — when I’ve come up with some idea I like about 3km into a 10km run I become paranoid that by the time I’m out of the shower it’ll have disappeared from my mind.
And sometimes I’ll use the undisturbed time on my own to indulge in something that demands my mental concentration but not any physical presence — listening to The Archers’ omnibus and Desert Island Discs on a Sunday morning run is a particular pleasure.
But above its practical benefits, I’m sure writers appreciate running as a metaphor for the process of creating their work. The analogy works at several levels. Both are usually solitary activities and they need self-discipline and determination to be applied to reach a goal — finishing the section, chapter or book and completing whatever distance you choose to run.
In training you’re usually running against self-imposed targets: try to run under a 10 minute mile or complete a 10k in under an hour is like achieving a target word count (although with writing there’s little danger of being stranded miles from home if you don’t make it). Even in a race, you tend to compete against personal targets (your personal best — PB) rather than try to outrun everyone ahead.
It’s difficult to motivate myself to get going with either writing or running (the infamous displacement activities, like filling the dishwasher, often suddenly demanding priority) but, once started, I realise how much I enjoy both. Writing has the edge here as it’s not quite so physically demanding. (Unlike running, energy can be restored with a cup of strong coffee — as happened last week when I was working to a deadline so intensively that I stayed writing until 4.15am — when I got up from my computer the sky was becoming light.)
Running has its downsides as exercise. While it has cardiovascular benefits (my resting heartbeat is reassuringly low), it hammers other parts of your body. I’ve had tendonitis, an MRI scan on a knee (fortunately revealing nothing worse than normal wear and tear) and a number of accidents. Last autumn I tripped while running the Ridgeway near the Whiteleaf Cross and hurtled into a bed of exposed flint. Fortunately I was able to run home, albeit covered in blood and dirt and nursing a broken thumb, which was in a splint for the next six weeks.
Luckily, writing isn’t so physically dangerous but it can be just as brutal in terms of its demands on free time and the sacrifices required to embark on the huge task of writing a novel — the Coombe Hill race with its ‘climb the biggest hill the hardest way possible’ ethos is an apt comparison.
The different distances in running offer up parallels. Maybe a short poem or a piece of flash fiction is like running the 100m? The short, intense product of a lot of training. A short story might be more middle distance — 800m perhaps — with elements of the long haul but still speedy.
A novel is pure marathon. Metaphors abound. Consider the gruelling preparation, the need to hang in there for long haul when every sensible muscle in your body wants to stop, the inevitability of hitting ‘the wall’ — yet all these masochistic hardships are forgotten in the glow of satisfaction of achieving the goal. (I have to imagine this as, despite entering the ballot for London several times, I’ve never run a marathon but I’ve done several half-marathons, which are pretty tough.)
And the process of getting your writing published stands comparison with running a long, tough race. Some people don’t enter, despite having the ability to complete. Some shoot off ahead: maybe they succeed quickly; maybe they burn out with exhaustion. Others, having started, calculate the effort isn’t worth the reward and withdraw.
Sometimes the course is uneven — a steep downhill slop where you pick up speed and think you’re rushing ahead is followed by a lung-busting, leg-trembling climb that leaves you wondering why on earth you chose to put yourself through this ordeal in the first place. But with friends and bystanders cheering you on, offering moral support, you pace yourself — discover the limits of what you’re able to put into the race, dig deep and realise you’re still enjoying it.
As happens in the Wycombe Half Marathon, you might pass very close to the finishing line but then be directed away for a further agonising stretch before you turn into the last straight but with the finishing line appearing to be way in the distance. But if you keep on moving, you’ll keep on closing in. If you stop you’ll never make it.
Update: 12th July 2015
As mentioned above, I entered the Wycombe Half Marathon this year, as I have for the last five years or so. It’s a course for masochists as it has a huge hill right at the start (up through Wycombe Abbey).
Running the race today, I had plenty of chance to put my ruminations on perseverance into practice. I’d run a relatively comfortable race at a slow(ish) but achievable pace (on course for a finish between 2hrs 10 and 2hrs 15) when at the 8 mile stage I felt a sharp pain on my forehead. I’d been stung by some sort of insect. I tend to react badly and unpredictably to insect stings and bites and I was worried enough about an adverse reaction to run back to the water station and ask a marshal if I could be checked by the first aiders.
At one point they wanted to take me to the minor injuries unit at Wycombe hospital but I managed to get seen by the St. John Ambulance people instead. I didn’t seem to have any bad reaction apart from the sting itself so they gave me an antihistamine tablet. This all took so long (I had to fill in forms and so on) that the last runners were just passing as I finished. I was given the option of a lift back to the finish but I decided I’d carry on running and try to complete the remaining five miles — as the last runner in the race. I managed to catch a few of the other runners so didn’t have the ignominy of finishing last and I even managed a little surge at the finish to beat the 2hr 40 mark by a few seconds. Then it was into the St. John Ambulance medical tent to be checked over by the nurse.
‘Are you feeling short of breath?’
‘Well, no more than usual after running 13 miles!’
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.
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’m able to mention a bit of news about a friend which has the moral that talent combined with self-belief and hard-work eventually gets its reward.
A major advantage of taking creative writing courses, if not the principal benefit, is becoming part of a group of like-minded writers in a similar position. If the course is selective in its entry requirements then you should expect to be in the company of other students who are capable of producing pretty good writing — and know their metaphors from their onomatopoeia.
Another important criterion for selection is an individual’s preparedness to comment on other students’ work and also to be capable of receiving comment on their own writing. The ability to be generous with feedback on others’ writing and to make criticism constructively is probably rarer than the innate ability to write well. The best courses are typified by the amount of interaction between the students – especially if that continues beyond the course.
The City University Certificate in Novel Writing course – now rebranded as The Novel Studio – was extraordinarily effective in that respect. Not a single student dropped out of the course over the ten months that it ran – despite a demanding schedule of two evenings (or one evening and alternate Saturday) a week. Over three years after our year group of fourteen students finished the course, the large majority of us are still in regular contact.
The Novel Studio’s strapline is ‘We spot the talent, you develop your potential’ — which is pretty accurate in my experience. Much credit must be given in retrospect to Alison Burns, who was the course director. She selected a cohort of very capable writers with very differing but complementary styles and interests . Moreover, the feedback sessions were intense and lively – people regularly ran out of time to give verbal comments and we all left the sessions with sheaves of invaluable notes that we’d scribbled on each other’s manuscripts.
As mentioned in previous blog posts, I’ve been part of a group who have met up every month with Emily Pedder, who’s now in charge of the shorter writing courses at City, to continue workshopping extracts from each others’ novels-in-progress.
People have left and rejoined the group – sometimes for practical reasons like having a baby or workload from taking other courses and also, in a couple of cases, because their writing has been picked up by agents or publishers who’ve set exacting deadlines. Jennifer Gray’s children’s books have been very successful – with the Guinea Pigs series for Quercus and Atticus Claw for Faber and Faber. I spotted that she had a session for the books at the Hay Festival earlier this summer and would liked to have gone along. I’ll have to catch up when I next meet Jennifer for a drink.
Partly because we’ve formed a group that’s been supportive and encouraging of each others’ efforts, I’ve hoped that as many of us as possible will go on to achieve success with our novels and build writing careers. There are certainly some excellent novels in the works and nearing completion – and they’re all the better for having received detailed feedback from other members of the group.
Imho all the other students on that course were very capable of producing novels that would be an asset to the shelves of any Waterstones (as have been plenty of other writers I’ve met on the MA course and other courses at the Open University and Lancaster University). However, after observing from the fringes of the publishing industry, it’s sobering to learn that just because a novel is very good there’s no guarantee that it will be published, let alone be a success. Like other creative industries, as far as predicting what’s going to be a big success in the market then, in William Goldman’s words, ‘nobody knows anything’.
I’ve been at question and answer sessions where agents have been asked ‘Can you tell me what to write about from a commercial perspective so I don’t spend three years writing a novel no-one wants to publish or read?’ The question almost answers itself — putting in those three years shows belief in both your idea and yourself as an author — and your writing ought to improve along the way too. And that time and effort is put in without any guarantee of a reward — if you’re lucky enough to get published the chances are you’re not going to be able to live comfortably off the proceeds, at least straight away.
Maybe the second most sobering thing to learn from meeting writers is that it’s a hell of a lot of hard work for a small chance of a reward that is, in all likelihood, to be rather modest. Calculate all the time required to write, edit, revise and polish a novel begun on a creative writing course and divide it by the reported revenue generated by a debut novel and it’s very likely to come out well under the minimum wage (and, for most people, the time is effectively overtime, because it’s fitted around work, family or other responsibilities). However, the figures for average earnings are an example of the infamous long-tail — a small number of writers have very healthy incomes, whereas there’s a large number of published writers who aren’t so fortunate.
Even to make it through an intense course like the City course, it was clear that everyone loved writing with a passion. But I can understand why some very talented writers might have decided it’s not the right time in their lives to make the enormous commitment to complete that novel.
Many of the group – and other writers I’ve met in other ways – are now at a point where their work stands on a boundary. It’s poised to transform from an endeavour that’s been personal, shared privately with friends, and becoming a commercial proposition, something to which rights can be sold to agents and publishers. The wheels of the literary industry can turn very slowly, with decisions taking an agonisingly long time which means that I often hear hints of promising news in the pipeline but is subject to confidences which mean it can’t be mentioned publicly, let alone on a blog.
However, last week we heard some great news from an ex-City student that can be publicly shared. The collective thrill of receiving the news shows that despite all the above, when someone you know is recognised and gets a deserved break the feeling is almost euphoric and makes all the effort seem very worthwhile. Rick Kellum announced that he’d signed as a client of Juliet Mushens at The Agency Group. Rick, one of our three North Americans, has been working hard on his fantasy novel since we finished the City course – he was posting up his word count daily on Facebook at certain stages.
As well as putting in the hours, Rick is a gripping and imaginative writer. He was also one of the students on the course who was most open with his feedback on the course – no-one could nail a lazy adverb more quickly. His scrutiny and attention to detail certainly helped me so I’m particularly pleased about the news.
Rick is also an excellent and entertaining reader of his writing. I imagine he’d go down a storm at author events — which won’t harm his chances of developing a successful writing career. I’ve also met his agent, Juliet, on a couple of occasions and she leaves the impression that she’s very ambitious and will work hard to get the best for her clients. Her Twitter feed is both entertaining and very informative (with regular #askagent sessions held, often on Sunday evenings). I look forward to hearing further good news from both of them.
For anyone wondering why this blog’s been a little more quiet than usual, it’s because I’ve been on holiday and, for the first time in a while, I spent a decent amount of time in the home country of Kim, one of my novel’s principal characters. Some photos of Germany and Berlin may follow.
Ironically, the big literary story of July, and probably of 2013, has been the real-life whodunit over the authorship of a novel about a private detective. Even those who don’t follow book news with my keen interest will know the story of how the sleuthing instigated by India Knight and the Sunday Times uncovered the ‘real’ identity of debut crime novelist, Robert Galbraith as being the phenomenally best-selling J.K. Rowling.
‘Harry Potter Author ‘s Pitiful Sales Figures’ seemed to sum up the tone of much coverage – the implication being that books that Rowling puts her name to sell on reputation rather than merit. However, one of the most sobering facts one learns about the publishing industry from a writer’s perspective is that Galbraith’s hardback sales of 1,500 before the unmasking (as the BBC reported) are relatively impressive for a debut author. The book industry’s sales volumes are very polarised, weighted towards a tiny number of best-selling titles — not so much the 80-20 principle but probably more 99-1.
The story has been well publicised about how a lawyer’s wife’s indiscretion on Twitter caused the secret to be spilled. Yet how Galbraith’s ‘debut’ novel managed to attract enough interest to merit such investigation into the author’s identity is less clear. India Knight’s attention was aroused by a review in the Sunday Times — but it’s a very lucky debut author who gets that kind of coverage from the critics.
To many yet-to-be published novelists – from whose ranks Galbraith was meant to have emerged – there seemed to be a red herring in the detective story. It was reported that the unusually high quality of Galbraith’s debut, The Cuckoo’s Calling, had set the antennae twitching of some big name authors and literary establishment figures. In her Sunday Times column India Knight qualified this by pointing out Galbraith made observations she thought would only be perceived by a female writer.
A work by an unknown author has enormous odds stacked against its chances of publication. Accordingly, to mitigate the risk of rejection, much of the most sensible advice to the aspiring novelist is simply to ‘make it the best that it can be’. To ensure that manuscripts are suitably honed and polished there’s a multitude of courses, writing groups, conferences, magazines, mentors, manuscript assessment services. (And that’s before the publisher’s expert professionals get to work on a title.)
To those working on a putative debut novel, it seems that the bar for acceptance of a manuscript is set exceptionally high. A number of unpublished writers I know are also going through the soul-destroying process of submitting the product of their hard work to agents, or through agents to publishers (a process which appears at least equally frustrating as acquiring an agent in the first place, although difficulties at this stage are less well publicised.)
So it seems puzzling that someone might say: ‘We must investigate that Galbraith ex-army chap because his book stands head and shoulders above the rest of those so-so debuts.’ Unsurprisingly, the explanation that The Cuckoo’s Calling was a beacon of assured writing in a sea of emergent mediocrity didn’t go down too well with several first-time novelists I know on Twitter – who ironically began to refer to their work as ‘mere’ debuts.
I was reading Into the Woodsby John Yorke when the controversy erupted, a book recommended to me a fellow student from the City University course who’s been part of my workshopping group for the last year or so. As well as being a fascinating read in its own right, some of the insights in the book may offer a more persuasive explanation of why Rowling’s work – rather than being subjectively better – may have stood out from the crowd because of the its unique path to publication.
Yorke is a TV executive who has been responsible for many of the most successful and innovative programmes of the last decade or two (e.g.Life on Mars). Into the Woods is a book on the fundamental importance of structure in storytelling and to all literary and dramatic forms.
The book references other well-known works on story and plotting, such as Christopher Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots and Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey. At times I found it irritatingly dismissive of others’ theories, with Yorke claiming more fundamental insights.
However, the book is less about originality of analysis than stripping back well-known concepts to expose their basis in some universal truths, common to all humanity. In places this reduction appeared to have been abstracted to a level of almost meaningless generality — every event has a beginning and an end and something happens in between or that things change over time (and Newton’s Third Law is cited as the a root of character interaction).
The structure of the book itself also ignores its own advice. Rather than build revelation of its conclusions over a narrative arc, the main points are stated upfront in the first chapter and to a large extent repeated and refined in later chapters – a fairly common trait in non-fiction books that don’t have the momentum of a plot to carry the reader through to the end.
On the other hand, I was intrigued by the breadth of research. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs was referenced — a psychological model of human motivation that I studied on my MBA and that I’ve used to some extent to explore characters’ motivation in my novel.
The book also touches on the importance of story in non-creative writing and other types of communication. The book has made me realise that the aspects of my ‘day job’ which I gravitate towards usually involve some sort of narrative. Typically, I examine the underlying structure of interactions and consider root causes of conflict and risk. I then create narratives which transforms a situation as is it now into some future current state, breaking it down into sub-components and their impact on individual ‘actors’. Conceptually, it’s not hugely different to novel writing.
When the underlying concepts are interlinked to create the template of a classic three or five act story, the book’s arguments become very persuasive. Most of the many examples Yorke uses to demonstrate his arguments are films or television programmes (Thelma and Louise is a particular favourite) but he also references Shakespeare’s plays and some novels.
The emphasis placed on symmetry throughout a story is fascinating. The mid-point of a well-constructed plot is pinpointed as the pivot at which the most fundamental change occurs. This complements the more traditionally taught theory of a pair of inciting incidents (the call to action and the precipitating crisis) at the ends of acts one and act two/four (depending on whether a three or five act structure is applied).
It’s not just fictional narratives that fit this basic structure. Like me, Yorke has noted the way the classic act structure is ruthlessly applied to reality television. Every episode of The Apprentice is a template of archetypal narrative clarity: the task is set, problems are overcome until a defining moment of crisis, then there’s the reckoning in the board room and the resolution of the firing. Its brilliant and ruthless editing is an example to anyone with an interest in storytelling: every shot and cut has significance and the viewer is challenged to piece together the subtext behind even the most apparently trivial details.
Yorke also argues that story structure exists in fractals — i.e. each larger unit of story is formed of a collection of similar sub-components down to the level of scene (and, arguably of paragraph or sentence). Each of these elements must also conform to the demands of a universal dramatic structure. Like the stunning geometric images that are generated from the aggregation and interaction of repeated fractals, the rich complexity of a great story is also formed out of tiny, similar components.
However, few (if any) writers plot such a low level in deliberate detail (chapters certainly but less so scenes and certainly not paragraphs). So, if the fractal argument holds, then writers must subconsciously arrange these small-scale structural elements. The better storyteller the writer is, then arguably the more innate is their mastery of these fundamental patterns. This aptitude then, perhaps, represents an essential quality that suffuses an author’s writing.
As with natural orators, these qualities might be psychologically rooted in personality, reflecting the way a writer interacts with the world as a whole – or something learned through cultural osmosis — and difficult, if not impossible, to teach.
This leads back to the Galbraith/Rowling identity question. While J.K. Rowling’s prose style attracts criticism – for its unfashionably frequent use of adverbs and adjectives as qualifiers and a tendency to be very heavy on description – it’s commonly agreed that she tells a good story and can handle a large set of characters. Yorke himself uses examples from the narrative arc that spans Harry Potter’s seven volumes.
Rowling’s success managing Harry Potter’s epic narrative may signify an instinctive ability to handle the fundamental building blocks of story. If this talent is combined with the experience of the adaptation of the series over eight films, then it’s hardly unexpected that she could master a highly structured genre, such as detective fiction.
I’ve not read any detailed accounts of the extent to which The Cuckoo’s Calling was offered around other publishers before being taken up by Rowling’s existing imprint. However, the circumstances under which the book was written would have been almost the opposite to those experienced by most debut authors (including Rowling herself in the past). The manuscript was almost certainly assured of publication (revealing the real author’s identity would have done the trick instantly) and the motives for using a pen name may have been to gauge the reception of the work when given a low-key launch without any attendant hype. The text may have been reflected these circumstances.
If you’re not J.K. Rowling or other writer with an established track record, then the first objective is to catch the attention of the professional reader who might give your manuscript little time to make its impact. Much advice to aspiring writers concentrates almost exclusively on perfecting a novel’s opening (I even have a book called The First Five Pages).
This is where the interests of the typical reader diverge from the professional sifter — the agent, editor or review short-lister. Someone who’s made an investment in cash and set time aside to buy and read a book contrast with those under pressure to convert the time they spend reading submissions into money. When we pay money up front for a book it’s after being influenced by factors other than the text itself — and our expectations are set to enjoy the read. It’s also why so many more readers will read The Cuckoo’s Calling now the real author has been identified.
The review by Cathy Rentzenbrink in the Bookseller is honest and very eye-opening for a writer. She quickly skimmed a pre-publication copy of The Cuckoo’s Nest to select titles for a crime ‘best of’ list, reading 18 pages before passing over the book. After Rowling was revealed as the author she read the whole novel and freely admitted that her initial judgement wasn’t able to reflect the quality of the overall book, because the opening hadn’t done it justice. Similarly, other reviews mentioned the slow opening and a ‘gentle pace’. An editor who admitted rejecting the book described it as ‘well-written but quiet’.
It could be argued that Yorke’s approach to structure is at odds with the advice to start in media res that is commonly given to writers. Of course, it should go without saying that a novel ought to open in a way that immediately engages the reader’s interest – every word in a novel should justify its place. Also, if you buy the fractal theory, the opening should be a hook into the first act, which ought to have a narrative arc of its own.
Nevertheless, the model of symmetrical story structure requires that characters, their predicament and the setting be properly established. It sets up the significant action of change or transformation which takes place at the inciting incident at the end of the first act – generally about a fifth to a quarter of the way through the story. This then allows a corresponding period for resolution at the end of the story.
If a writer jumps straight in at the outset with an inciting incident then the reader may become disorientated and to compensate the author may try to shoehorn vital missing information into clunky passages of exposition or the confusing overuse of flashbacks.
The writers and critics who read The Cuckoo’s Calling and formed a favourable impression may have unconsciously identified that it was somehow different to most debut novels. Perhaps debut novelists, assimilating all the advice on how to attract attention to their work, share certain traits — and possibly other authors with a long backlist can identify these. Perhaps Robert Galbraith was a notable exception? The idea might have be more plausible than the notion that debuts are inherently of lower quality.
I’ve spent much time concentrating on the opening of my novel. I know that it’s crucially important in demonstrating the complete manuscript’s potential to the time-pressed readers. The first three chapters have been professionally read twice. But as Yorke’s book argues and, perhaps the Rowling/Galbraith story demonstrates, the rest of the book also needs to perform as a coherent and satisfying whole. And it’s perhaps the writers who also understand and appreciate the fundamentals of storytelling that eventually stand out — once they’ve nailed those first five knockout pages.
One of the questions that recurs in my novel is the importance of location — especially for artists.In my novel Kim is a German artist who has arrived to London from Berlin in the expectation that it’s the place to be to make her name in the world of modern art. During the novel she also experiences the bucolic joys of the rural England that can still can be found, surprisingly, less than forty miles from grungy Shoreditch.
While it could be argued that Dalston, Stoke Newington, Hackney Wick or further flung places are where the artistic action is now happening, the spiritual homeland of contemporary urban art in London (if not the world) is still the Shoreditch/Hoxton/Brick Lane area. It’s been deserted by the Young British Artists (YBAs) of the late 90s (the group that included Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst and the subject of the interestingly titled Lucky Kunsts by Gregor Muir (although there’s a big Hirst formaldehyde thing apparently in the new Tramshed restaurant on Rivington Street). However, the place is becoming more corporatised with the arrival of the likes of Google in ‘Tech City’ at Old Street Roundabout — and endorsements by the likes of Boris Johnson and David Cameron.
As an aside, I met Mat Collishaw (apparently Emin’s ex) in person at a Love Art London event a few weeks ago at Blaine Southern in Hanover Square at his most recent exhibition — where his painting were going for £110,000 a piece.
Nevertheless, the locality still attracts the most infamous graffiti artists and is stuffed with galleries. I recently followed a walk from Hoxton Overground station via Shoreditch to Old Street in Stephen Millar’s London’s Hidden Walks 2 and found plenty of urban grittiness only a street or two away from where the hipsters hang out — at the top of Hoxton Street, for example.
The association of artists with the Shoreditch area suggests that location is an important factor for artists to attract attention from dealers, critics and buyers. It has a long historical precedent: some of the best known painters often made long journeys to their best markets. In Beak Street in Soho a plaque marks the location where Canaletto stayed for two years in the eighteenth century. He came to London to sell his pictures to patrons who liked reminders of the Grand Tour. Appropriately enough, the building now houses the Venetian-inspired restaurant, Polpo.
So having written about an artist who comes from Shoreditch and spends time in the Chilterns, I was fascinated to read a story on my local newspaper’s website about an artist who was was, in a way, doing the opposite.
Alexis Cole is an artist who works from home in Thame (which is a picturesque Oxfordshire market town with a huge main street with many good pubs about 45 miles out of London). Co-incidentally, like Kim, she comes from Europe — Croatia in Alexis’s case, although, when you meet her, it’s obvious she’s lived in this country for a while (she went to university here).
This was the first time Alexis had exhibited her work at a gallery and she chose to do so not in rural Thame but in the heart of the London contemporary art scene — at the Brick Lane Gallery Annexe (on Sclater Street, which connects Brick Lane with Shoreditch High Street Overground station). It’s a location that’s bang in the middle of the arty fringes of the City — close to Redchurch Street.
Alexis exhibited work in three broad genres: papier mache flowers (which were very popular); pastel pictures, generally of animals or geographical destinations; and abstract acrylic paintings that often had objects embedded in the surface. The last style reminded me of a cross between the abstract squares of colour of Mark Rothko and the collages of Kurt Schwitters — the German artist whose work can currently be seen in an an exhibition at Tate Britain (and mentioned previously in this blog post).
I got in touch with Alexis, explaining my interest, and visited her show, Transcendence, at the gallery the day after it opened in March. (It’s probably not giving away any spoilers about the novel to say that it wouldn’t be much of a story involving an artist if she didn’t put on any exhibitions.)
And I was impressed by Alexis’s artwork — as were other visitors. I’ve included a few photos of my favourite examples of Alexis’s artwork with this blog post, along with a photo of the artist herself, although as they were taken with a phone camera, they don’t do justice to the exhibition.
Alexis’s website (click here for the link) has much better photographs of the paintings and I’d recommend visiting it, although the three-dimensional works, like the collages and flowers need to be seen properly in person.
As this blog shows, I’ve tried to learn over the past couple of year more about how book publishing operates and I’m also interested how it compares with the market for art — an issue that’s close to the heart of my character, Kim.
As far as I can tell, the art market appears to work in a less structured way because artworks are individual entities (or scarce copies in the case of numbered prints). This means they’re far more expensive to buy than books. For example the Battersea Affordable Art Fair which I attended recently with Love Art London defines ‘affordable’ as anything under £4,000.
By contrast, the written word is, in essence, intangible: like recorded music, once the work has been created it can be copied an infinite number of times. However, in the physical world, the fixed costs of printing a book are high. Aside from editing and marketing a book, publishers provide the large amounts of capital that funds book printing and distribution — a formidable barrier to entry for new writers.
On the other hand, an artist has to spend money on materials, whereas all a novelist needs is, arguably, paper and ink. (A Windows 95 spec computer with a prehistoric version of Word is good enough to write a manuscript — and, as for a fast internet connection, the likes of Twitter probably erodes any of potential productivity gain.)
Yet the artist creates an object that can immediately be sold (unless it’s performance or conceptual art) whereas the writer’s work results in a file on the computer or, without efficient printing technology, a heavy wad of A4 paper wrapped with an elastic band.
Given that, in all but the most extreme cases, a book takes longer to create than a piece of art, the writer needs to sell a substantial number of copies of a work just to cover the cost of its production (let alone make any income from the time spent writing it). Conversely an artist will sell a lesser number of works but they’ll usually be individually created (hence the controversy over the value of works that are very similar, like Damien Hirst’s spot paintings).
To market their work, an artist needs an exhibition space and then a means of attracting potential customers to it. Commercial galleries will often provide these functions in exchange for a substantial cut of the selling price of an artwork (many represent artists exclusively).
However, there are many other ways for artists to engage directly with their customers — it could be as simple as hiring a gallery space, hanging the art on the wall with a price tag and creating as much publicity as possible or maybe just hope for word of mouth to take off. There are also plenty of routes to market outside the traditional gallery channels for artists — for example, I know of a number of pubs that have dedicated art gallery spaces or are keen to showcase local artists’ work for sale.
No one opens a pop-up bookshop to sell their self-published novel — books have tended to be sold through a relatively limited number of outlets. Because of the small absolute profit made on books, they need to be sold in quantity — and in a place where they’re in competition with many other alternative titles.
Amazon is arguably even more dominant of the ebook market than Waterstones or the supermarkets are over the printed book. However, the marginal cost of reproducing ebooks is tiny and it is easy to list an ebook for sale on their site (albeit along with millions of anonymous titles) — and these factors may start to make the book market start to take on more similarities with the art market. For example, intermediaries (publishers, agents, booksellers) might be circumvented by those who can raise their visibility in the market by other means.
How artists measure their own success?
Certainly, as with writers, one substantial achievement would be to make a living from their artwork. Surprisingly few writers are able to survive on income from book royalties alone but there is a fairly well-defined progression of levels through which writers progress — a bit like a computer game. For example, being represented by an agent, getting a publishing deal are daunting hurdles to clear. And once published there are many stark metrics by which publishing is analysed — Nielsen Bookscan figures, Amazon ratings, etc.
It’s true that the art world has many prizes that are keenly contested, as does the literary world. However, there’s no equivalent of the Sunday Times Top Bestseller list for artists — which raises fundamental issues about how much of a commodity books are, as opposed to examples of creative art that can’t be ranked by sales figures.
Alexis was very happy with the exhibition — e-mailing me afterwards to say she was thrilled about how it had gone. She received some useful feedback from viewers of her work, sold several paintings and received some commissions. With a steady stream of inquisitive visitors to the gallery, the Brick Lane location seems to have worked well for Alexis.
Sounds like some kind of Skyfall clone doesn’t it, but Agent Hunter is a new source of information that might be almost as valuable to aspiring authors as state secrets to 007. It’s a new website that has collated a huge amount of information on literary agents, agencies and publishers together in an online database. It also comes with a search facility that’s ingeniously configurable.
Agent Hunter is from the Writers’ Workshop — the people behind the very enjoyable York Festival of Writing that I attended last September. (I posted about the Festival here –and an edited version of the post has been included by Debi Alper in the book of the festival along with many entertaining accounts by other delegates — available for purchase for Kindle on Amazon.)
I ought to declare an interest in Agent Hunter before going on to review it. Harry Bingham, of the Writers’ Workshop, has given me (and other bloggers) a free year’s subscription to the site, in return for a review on the blog but there are no conditions attached on what I write — the comments below are entirely my honest opinion.
Now I’ve mentioned that it’s a subscription site, I’d better mention the cost upfront — £12 per year. You can get on the site to have a look around for free (accessing the database is what you need the subscription for) and also get a try-before-you-buy 7 day period before you get charged.
So, is it worth it?
To answer this question, you need to consider both the quality and organisation of information on the site compared to that available elsewhere on the web — and the value you place on being able to easily access it.
The traditional (pre-internet) method of finding agents’ and publishers’ details was to use a directory like The Writers and Artists’ Yearbook. Harry Bingham hasn’t set up Agent Hunter in competition to the W&A YB as he’s the author of two branded companion volumes — The W&A YB Guide to Getting Published and theirHow to Writeguide. Also, the W&A YB takes a broader and shallower sweep across many creative industries (including journalism, photography and artists’ markets – as the name suggests).
Most crucially, the book is an annual publication (coming out in the summer before the year in its title) and, for prospective authors, only deals with agencies rather than individual agents. As hard-copy submissions (including that infamous SAE requirement) appear to be almost universally being replaced by online alternatives of some form, most writers now probably use the yearbook as a starting point to research agencies’ websites.
Largely being small enterprises (with a few big exceptions), agencies don’t tend to operate whizzy interactive websites full of bells and whistles (and some do have pretty basic sites) but most will at least list their submission guidelines — occasionally with automated ‘click here to attach’ links to make it easy for authors to submit to a central submission clearing system.
As well as lists of their clients, most agencies will also usually provide details of individual agents, maybe with a bit of a bio, along with the genres they’re interested in representing. When speaking to writers at events like conferences or talks to students, agents tend to stress how doing a bit of research on individual agents’ preferences is usually time well spent.
Often agencies are staffed by a mixture of senior agents with relatively full client lists and more junior associate agents who are much keener to trawl through the slush pile to find the Next Big Thing. If the agency’s guidelines allow it, these hungry agents appreciate being treated as individuals and contacted directly.
Conversely, a staggering proportion of agents’ rejections are for material sent to the wrong place — short stories, scripts, poetry, memoirs, sci-fi and fantasy (to a large extent) and so on tend to be handled by specialists and won’t be read by an agent who’s advertised a preference for, say, general fiction or romance.
So with all this information available on agency websites, what’s the advantage of using Agent Hunter? It largely depends on how much you value what else you could be doing with your time. Would you rather be writing your book than compiling a list of agencies and then trawling through the uneven content on agency websites? In monetary terms, the annual subscription, comes to just under two hours work at national minimum wage rates (sadly that’s quite a lot higher than the return on their time many writers achieve).
Agent Hunter also has an advantage that its information is potentially much more up-to-date than traditionally published sources. The database can also be more extensive and personal than the brief corporate CVs that often appear on agency websites. For example, extra biographical information can be added, Twitter names may be included, preferences such as whether agents appear at conferences and so on — see screenshots accompanying this post. (I think this line has convinced me that this particular agent might like my novel: ‘She likes the store Liberty, taxidermy and skulls’!)
Some advice on what an agent would like to see submitted (or not submitted) is also included on some entries, although it can be rather terrifyingly blunt. ‘Whilst we welcome genre fiction…we aren’t fond of writers who do nothing new with the established tropes of their chosen [genre]…We certainly don’t want to see books that we could have, essentially, read already.’
Or ‘Enjoys…stories with an emphasis on plot instead of endless pages of metaphor’. Damn, there I was, ready to submit my manuscript with its endless pages of metaphor until I read that!
There’s also some useful practical tips: ‘Slush Tip: Don’t send fresh produce with your submission. Currently reading a teen fiction manuscript splattered with exploded passion fruit.’
Another bonus is the uniformity of the data — making information from different agents much more easily comparable than with an online search. The database search is handy, for example, if you want to filter out agents who aren’t currently building their list or aren’t interested in your genre. There are many different ways the search can be configured — it’s almost like online dating for writers!
And, perhaps like online dating, the amount of material fluctuates wildly that’s supplied by agents into the public domain to interest possible suitors . Some may as well have written ‘bugger off’ and be done with it, while others have offered information that’s actually quite helpful.
On the other hand, social media may lead to knowing rather too much about an individual. In the few years since large parts of the writing community became some of the most enthusiastic Twitter users, it’s been possible to find out more than it’s probably advisable to know about some agents’ personal likes and dislikes. While it’s often very entertaining, and certainly diverting, to read about what meal an agent is eating, how their football team is doing, what outfit they’re wearing that day or to follow a Twitter gallery of photos of sleeping kittens, this information is likely to be filtered out in the Agent Hunter database.
Agents hate being pitched to on Twitter and some no doubt enjoy a bit of online interaction with potential clients. However, others are probably rightly cynical about the intentions of those who try to build up relationships via Twitter in the hope it might sway representation. At a talk I was at last month, one agent baldly stated that trying to cultivate any sort of relationship with a prospective agent was a waste of time — all they’d be interested in was the quality of a client’s writing, not the quality of their Twitter banter.
Interrogating the database to find an agent who’s right for you (at least theoretically) as an individual writer is a little empowering in a modest way — a welcome change from the ‘I absolutely, really, really must get an agent but how on earth will even one agent possibly read let alone like my writing out of the millions of others on the slush pile’ anxiety of the un-agented author.
As discussed in my MMU Text assignment, agents are now regarded, albeit at times unfairly, as gatekeepers to the traditional publishing word and, while I’ve met plenty of writers with agents who’ve yet to be published, for most types of book, having the representation of an agent is normally a prerequisite to getting a publication deal.
As part of an MBA several years ago, I studied corporate strategy for much less interesting industries than publishing. But publishing isn’t a normal industry. I sometimes try to reconcile the way publishing works with classic models of business theory — like Porter’s Value Chain where the raw material gets shoved in at the start and then everyone involved adds a bit of value and gets a cut of the profit. But at least the acquisition part of publishing (the research and development bit) works so counter to this that I risk getting bewildered into a brain meltdown — and need to remind myself (in the words of Mel and Kim ‘that’s the way it is, that’s just the way it is’).
But it’s interesting theoretically to compare different industry sectors’ attitude to research and development. A pharmaceutical company or IT software company might spend 15-20% of its turnover on research and development (R&D) — on the intellectual property to keep new and innovative products appearing in the future.
The publishing industry arguably has a negative spend on R&D if one includes the market for ‘how-to’ books, literary events, self-publishing fees, courses run by publishers and agencies (and more in the educational institutions that also run courses and the like). The industry (in a broad sense) makes money from people wanting to do its R&D for it, as well as inundating agents and publishers with so much unsolicited material that it’s referred to by terms like ‘the slush pile’.
Publishers and agents may well counter argue that the majority of published books, as well as investment in new authors, should be regarded as R&D or speculative marketing costs because so few sell enough to make a decent return — with the industry kept solvent by bankable blockbuster authors and the rare unknown titles that suddenly take off (either out of the blue or with the support of a prize or similar publicity).
This is probably the case for most of the creative industries — there are legions of musicians, actors, artists, dancers (even chefs, bakers and the like these days) who, like writers, are toiling away for the love of it but also hoping that their talent is validated and recognised (and necessarily risking the investment of that very fragile part of their ego in the judgement of others which is bound up in the endeavour of publicly exposing a creative project).
Even so, those lucky enough to get a lucky break also realistically know that even landing a good part or a recording deal won’t, on the balance of probability, lead to fame and fortune and giving up the day job. As with writers and literary agents, most equivalent creative types are represented by managers or agents who take a percentage of their income as payment.
However, it’s arguably unusual that in publishing the intermediaries that are funded by a cut of the artists’ income also perform the function as gatekeepers for those who risk capital in the enterprise (i.e. the publishers). In other aspects of their job, agents will have a potentially adversarial relationship with a publisher (negotiating a good deal) but, in sifting new talent, they perform a function on the publisher’s behalf.
Actors will audition for directors, musicians will be send in demos to A&R departments or be spotted at concerts or online by record companies — the representation by the agent or manager tends (at least to my incomplete knowledge) to come at the point where the artist has already been offered a commercial deal. Maybe there’s something particularly time consuming about the assessment of a manuscript compared with walking into a bar and hearing next year’s headliners at Glastonbury. (However, agents and publishers often say they can make a decision on the vast majority of submissions by the end of the first paragraph.)
Are actors turned down for audition because they don’t have agents or bands not signed because they don’t have managers (real bands, not ones put together by the likes of Simon Cowell and Louis Walsh)?
Bearing this model in mind, and knowing how most agents, even those who work closely editing their clients’ work, thrive on the deal-making side of their business, it’s perhaps not surprising that some agents are a little ambivalent about the talent-spotting role that publishers seem to have thrust upon them. This may be why agents are now quite enthusiastic about taking on authors who have a decent self-publishing track record — they’ve proved there’s a demand for their work and the agent can maximise the commercials. There’s a growing body of opinion that argues that a track record of self-publishing may replace the slush pile as a means of identifying new authors.
Certainly online communities that feature new writing (such as Novelicious) are attracting a lot of agent attention. I met a writer recently who was signed up by an agent on the basis of a serialised novel that she’d published for free on her blog (Emily Benet Spray Painted Bananas). And agents also keep a close an eye on other, more traditional, avenues, such as short story competitions.
But will I use Agent Hunter? Certainly. Although I have a good idea of the first few I’ll approach alreadyIt will be one of the resources I’ll use to draw up a list of likely targets once I’m finally there with a decent draft of the novel — and I’m not too far off — today I got some encouraging feedback from my MA supervisor on one of the last sections I decided to completely rewrite. Watch this space for details.
Apologies for the absence of recent updates: writing time has recently become increasingly hard to come by, although mostly in a good way, via holidays and other enjoyable events that I have hopes of getting around to writing blog posts about eventually â€“ Iâ€™ve got a nice batch of photos to upload, if nothing else.
In addition to this summer activity, the MMU MA has crept up on me. The enigmaticÂ Transmission Project needs to be submitted very soon (perhaps more of this in another blog post). As far as the MA course goes, once that project has been completed then itâ€™s just a case of completing The Big OneÂ â€“ handing in a 60,000 word minimum manuscript of a novel. Â Regular followers of this blog will know that hitting that word limit isnâ€™t likely to pose me any problems in itself as I already have a completed manuscript that comfortably exceeds that length (rather too comfortably as it currently stands).
Despite my best intentions, however, the novel still needs a degree honing and polishing before itâ€™s ready to submit to anyone â€“ a tutor for assessment for an MA or an agent or publisher. Itâ€™s frustrating but thatâ€™s where I am, even though back in March, I wrote a post with great expectation that the professional feedback Iâ€™d had on my manuscript had suggested that that it was only a couple of weeks or so’s hard work away from being a respectable manuscript.
The problem has been finding thatâ€™s two weeksâ€™ worth of extra time in this Olympic summer when Iâ€™ve not only been doing the MA but finding all kinds of loosely novel-related but fascinating research in London (mainly art-related with plenty of visits to Shoreditch). I know from having taken an MSc with the Open University that took over six years that Iâ€™m much more productive in the darker months â€“ I like getting out in the sun too much.
Nevertheless, with springtime optimism, I booked myself a place at the York Festival of Writing. Amongst its literary attractions, I anticipated the event would be a perfectlyâ€“timed opportunity to advance my path to publication. With my long-completed manuscript under my arm and more agents attending than you could shake a Kindle at, Iâ€™d be able to immediately hand my over my burnished tome or send it speeding within minutes into the lucky agent’s inbox.Â After all the Festival was in September â€“ six months in the future.
Unfortunately, September sneaked up on me much more quickly than anticipated â€“ immediately after my spontaneous sabbatical over the late summer â€“ of London 2012, holidays and even a little bit of decent weather. As mentioned in a weary-sounding blog post in July as well as reaching â€˜the endâ€™ Iâ€™d also done a fair bit of work on a submissions package (a polishing the first three chapters, writing a synopsis and covering letter). Itâ€™s just that Iâ€™ve finished knocking the rest of the manuscript into similar shape â€“ and Iâ€™d learned enough about agents to know that if theyâ€™re interested in a novel that they immediately want to read the manuscript in its entirety â€“ not several months later. (That didnâ€™t stop me hopefully printing off a few hard copies of my first three chapters to take to York, just in case.)
When I booked the festival I didnâ€™t really think about York (itâ€™s held at the attractive York University campus) being rather a long way away from here in the Chilterns. Having done nearly 2,000 miles of driving around Europe in late August, it was inevitable that my journey north would provide another horrendous example for my 2012 collection of summer traffic jams (after some nightmarish examples on Italian autostrade). I was held up for over an hour on the M62 — the kind of jam where the cars come to a total standstill and after a certain point their occupants emerge gingerly and start to colonise the alien carriageway, exchange a few words of exasperation with their normally faceless neighbours — and then suddenly run back from the hard shoulder or central reservation and jump back in when the traffic unexpectedly starts to move. Maybe thereâ€™s a germ of an idea for a novel in that? Maybe not!
So I arrived late at the conference, almost at lunchtime on the Saturday, not in Â the most positive frame of mind: why have I driven 200 miles north to spend the my weekend with a bunch of people Iâ€™ve never met â€“ and I haven’t even finished the novel? Shouldnâ€™t I be spending the time more productively at home finishing the book? Or, more likely, enjoying the last throes of this meagre summer, enjoying the sunshine in a deck chair rather than sitting in windowless lecture theatres?
But I left the conference on Sunday afternoon feeling remarkably upbeat and happily kickâ€“started out of my summer writing hiatus. Iâ€™d not been able to pitch a completed novel but Iâ€™d come away uplifted by all the other benefits of spending the best part of a weekend in a community of writers.
For anyone whoâ€™s curious about the York Festival of Writing, itâ€™s organised by theÂ Writers’ Workshop, a literary consultancy. The conference, held over a weekend, is structured around a programme of seminars, workshops and plenary ‘keynote’ sessions (similar to dayâ€“job related conferences Iâ€™ve been on). Sadly the traffic trouble meant I missed the Jojo Moyes keynote on Saturday morning).
But, as with most worthwhile conferences, itâ€™s the intangible elements rather than the programme itself that were most inspiring. Writing is (usually) a solitary experience but a weekend that gathered hundreds of writers together in the same place â€“ most with very similar shared ambitions, interests, questions and anxieties â€“ seemed to prove an affirmatory experience for those involved.
Committing the time (and money) to attending a writing conference means all participants had made the psychological step of regarding themselves as ‘a writer’. You chat to and exchange experiences with others working towards the same goal and come away feeling validated â€“ that your aspiration to become a published writer isnâ€™t futile self-delusion because so many other people are working towards the same â€“ and agents and editors have made efforts to come and meet us all.
Thereâ€™s camaraderie in numbers but the number of people there (at least a couple of hundred Iâ€™d guess) makes a sobering point. After an agent discussion, one panellist, who is a full-time reader of unsolicited manuscripts for a leading agency, said informally that heâ€™d estimate that perhaps only one or two of the delegates might end up being successfully traditionally published novelists.
Despite (or maybe because of) these odds, the event wasnâ€™t in the slightest cutâ€“throat and competitive â€“ everyone was unfailingly open and keen to ask others about their writing. I suspect that most people felt, like me, a little daunted about walking into the dining room for a formal dinner without really knowing anyone else there, having not met anyone else in the room before that weekend but it was a very friendly and sociable event. Happily, there wasnâ€™t the chestâ€“beating atmosphere of a sales conference â€“ with backs being knifed in pursuit of the deal (well, not on my table at least!). Perhaps writers, almost by definition, tend to congregate at the quieter end of the introvertâ€“extrovert spectrum, preferring to commit our ideas to paper or on screen?
(A tutor on a short course I took at City University had a theory that all writers were â€˜damagedâ€™ in some way â€“ creating a compulsion to write â€“ a view which I think has more than a grain of truth but is no reflection on the nice people I met at York!)
The welcoming atmosphere may have been connected with the number of northerners among the delegates (I can happily suggest this as an exiled northerner myself). My â€˜day jobâ€™ is currently bang in the centre of London and one of the consolations of toiling away there is a feeling that Iâ€™m not too far away from the literary London of agents and publishers (being able to see the London Eye, Gherkin, BT Tower and Buckingham Palace from the window,Â as well as being convenient for too many cultural distractions to complete a novel).Â Itâ€™s not very logical but Iâ€™ve recently quite enjoyed walking past Random House’s HQ onÂ Vauxhall Bridge Road on the way to work meetings. And Iâ€™ve idled away the odd lunchtime following literary walks past Londonâ€™s numerous writerâ€“inspired blue plaques.
At the conference I met writers from places like Durham, Lincoln, Doncaster, Nottingham and quite a contingent few from York itself â€“ all places where it doesnâ€™t take an Olympic Games for people to be friendly to strangers. Obviously, writers can work virtually anywhere but being in central London most days means itâ€™s easy to believe the outer limits of the publishing world coincide with the Zone Two and Three boundary. So credit to the Writersâ€™ Workshop for travelling up to York, reinforcing that there are thriving writing communities all over the country.
As an aside, the inspiration provided by the British landscape to writers over the last thousand years is the subject of an engrossing exhibition at the British Library. Iâ€™m aiming to blog, eventually, about visitingÂ Writing Britain: Wastelands to WonderlandÂ but, in the meantime, Iâ€™d recommend anyone to visit in its final week and be as awestruck as I was in seeing original manuscripts by Hardy, George Eliot, James Joyce, Charlotte BrontÃ« and countless others. And, speaking of the wily, windy moors, thereâ€™s a series of photographs of the Pennine area where I grew up, which gave inspiration Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath.
Back to the less gritty setting of the Vale of York and, having made the generalisation that writers might be quiet sorts, it certainly doesnâ€™t mean theyâ€™re not sociable creatures. In my own case, one of the reasons why my novel prominently features the fortunes of a pub is because I like to spend so much time there â€“ another reason why my manuscript still isnâ€™t quiteÂ ready to set before an agent.Â The speed with which the (sadly limited) complimentary wine was downed and replacement bottles ordered at the dinner tables, the York festival showed many writers are similarly sociably minded.
And, because writers are normally scattered working in solitude all over the country this sociability has found an enthusiastic, virtual outlet in blogging and Twitter. It was probably via Twitter that I learned about the conference in the first place. Iâ€™d certainly come across some of the agents attending and some very helpful blogging book doctors via Twitter â€“ and one of my objectives was to hunt these down, in the nicest possible way, so I could say â€˜helloâ€™ in person rather than online.
My Big Two, in terms of tweeters I wanted to track down, were Debi Alper and Emma Darwin. I managed to buttonhole Debi after dinner and she introduced to me to Emma. Theyâ€™re both successful authors and had a long day bookâ€“doctoring (as well as running workshops, about which other delegates were very complimentary) but they were both very friendly and approachable. Emmaâ€™s blog,Â This Itch of WritingÂ (see sidebar) is an antidote to all the â€˜Follow My Ten Rules and Write a Bestsellerâ€™ sites and, Â now having met Emma in person, I can understand why it’s one of the most intelligent and practical resources on writing that Iâ€™ve found on the web.
The role of literary agents in the traditional publishing process is often described as that of gatekeepers â€“ itâ€™s said that finding representation by an agent is frequently the biggest obstacle a writer has to overcome on the road to publication. So when they emerge out of hiding behind website submission guidelines and laconic Writers and Artistsâ€™ Yearbook entries, one might imagine agents to seem as unyielding as doctorsâ€™ receptionists from hell.
The great benefit of a conference like the Festival of Writing is to allow writers to discover that theyâ€™re not. At least the many that decamped out of their normal habitat to spend the weekend in York, make strenuous efforts to seek out new talent (seeing halfâ€“aâ€“dozen writers backâ€“toâ€“back for the intensive ten minute oneâ€“toâ€“one sessions must be exhausting work â€“ like speed-dating with reams of A4). Beyond the scheduled oneâ€“toâ€“one sessions most agents seemed perfectly approachable although the Festival Handbook reminds overâ€“zealous delegates of protocol â€“ donâ€™t try to subject your selected agent/victim to your carefully honed threeâ€“hour elevator pitch over dinner or try and open (and close) a deal in the queue for the toilets.
Given the unagented, aspiring writerâ€™s curiosity about agents and how best to make an approach, it doesnâ€™t take much of a leap of imagination to imagine a David Attenboroughâ€“style whispered commentary: â€˜Here we see the literary agent species drawn out of its usual habitat of secluded offices in Camden, Bloomsbury and Notting Hill to gather around this alluring watering hole. And contrary to the species’ forbidding reputation, they can be observed to be a remarkably sociable group.â€™
If anything, the experience of meeting agents, listening to their views on panel discussions and the like, shows they are remarkably diverse bunch: talkative extroverts, intense bibliophiles (not a reference to the festival bar), laidâ€“back â€˜regular guyâ€™ types and one who, oddly, reminded me of Malcolm Tucker fromÂ The Thick of It.
Writers who desperately want to get â€˜an agentâ€™ are sometimes advised that itâ€™s not â€˜an agentâ€™ they need but the right agent and, having seen more agents together in one place at the Festival than I ever have before, this would appear to be sound advice (see this guest blog post I found via Twitter from A.P.Watt agent Juliet Pickering). Accordingly, theyâ€™re all so different that not all are going to like your book â€“ but you hope that, with so many different personalities, eventually one will. That is unless you happen to have selfâ€“published and have sold tens of thousands of eâ€“books already, in which case, itâ€™s likely most agents will want to shove a contract in your direction.
That last point was made in one of the panel discussions on the future of publishing â€“ a topic noâ€“one seems to be able to agree on. Attitudes do seem to have recently changed to suggest that it does an author no harm to selfâ€“publish, if itâ€™s done properly.Â David Gaughran, a selfâ€“published writer whoâ€™s also written about the subject, stressed in response to a concern about the overall quality of selfâ€“published books, that he has access to the same freelance copy editors as used by large publishing houses.Â Similarly, selfâ€“published authors can also pay for the services of other professionals in the publishing process, such as PR agents. While this breaks the maxim of â€˜money flows to the writerâ€™ itâ€™s argued that the much higher royalty rate on selfâ€“published eâ€“books can be more financially rewarding overall, even on lower net sales, for an author even when such expenditure is incurred upfront.
At its most basic, an authorâ€™s journey for publication is a search for people prepared to invest money and time (and a professionalâ€™s time means money) in editing, printing, distributing and publicising your work. Each link in the chain is like a pitch fromÂ Dragonâ€™s Den to persuade someone to commit resources: author to agent; agent to commissioning editor; publisher to bookseller and so on.
Thatâ€™s why I found one of the most informative workshops at the Festival was The Acquisitions MeetingÂ with Gillian Green and Michael Rowley, both editors at Random House, who are currently building a fiction list for Ebury Press.
They gave an intriguing insight into the business side of publishing a novel. They explained how nonâ€“editorial staff, like the production director, who counts the cost of shiny covers and different grades of paper, have a vital say in whether a title will be acquired or not. Itâ€™s the antithesis of the literary agent’s unquantifiable ‘I just loved it’ reaction to a text â€“ where calculations about breakâ€“even print runs in a spreadsheet determine the final publication decision.
Forecasts of sales are much more rigorous than fingerâ€“inâ€“theâ€“air. For debut authors, analysis will be made of the sales of comparable writers’ titles and existing authors will have their Nielsen Bookscan figures scrutinised. If an author’s sales have been on a declining trend then this can be a deal breaker, no matter how great their new book. A debut authorâ€™s lack of a track-record can paradoxically work in their favour.
Iâ€™ve dwelt on those elements of the conference that were particularly relevant to where I am now with my writing but, as well as content on the process of publishing, there were plenty of sessions and workshops on writing technique (voice, character, editing and so on). And probably having already written my longest post on the festival (ridiculously long for a blog) I guess Iâ€™ve proved I found plenty to interest me in York.
Oh, and how did I get on in my one-to-ones with literary agents, bearing in mind my initial frustration that with no finished manuscript to offer, I worried theyâ€™d be wasted opportunities? (You submit the first chapter and an â€˜introductionâ€™ in advance so the agent can arrive prepared.) Well, I got some very useful feedback on how to describe the novel in a covering letter and comments on extra angles I might consider in the first chapter. Â (Itâ€™s always really valuable to get a readerâ€™s initial reaction to the novel â€“ bearing in mind that most people who are kind enough to give me feedback have seen it develop as a work-in-progress.)
The agents seemed to like the writing and thought it fitted the type of genre that I was aiming at (note that both asked me which writersâ€™ novels I thought might be similar to my own). I was given positive comments on the structure of the novel, the dialogue and the writing about food (the first chapter is very culinary â€“ it would be interesting to find out what theyâ€™d think about themes in later chapters).
Iâ€™m told that agents, while being polite people, donâ€™t want to waste their own future time by giving false encouragement which would leading writers to inundate their inboxes with further material the agent knows from the initial reading that that theyâ€™d never represent anyway. So I guess it must be encouraging that both agents said theyâ€™d like to read more of my novel when itâ€™s all ready.
The agents also, perhaps most importantly, seemed to have thought carefully about whether there was a market for the novel â€“ and they both thought that there was, although admittedly from reading only that rather foodie first chapter. Â I was also asked by one agent if Iâ€™d had direct experience of the dramatic predicament that opens the novel. Apparently sheâ€™d had approaches from a couple of people whoâ€™d been in that situation in real life and she found my description (which Iâ€™d largely imagined) very realistic and compelling, which can only be good.
So no being signed up on the strength of the opening 2,700 words but I think their collective reaction was quietly encouraging.
But, to underline the points about informality and networking, I stayed behind after an agent panel debate with the intention of saying hello to an agent whoâ€™d read some of my novelâ€™s very early material at another conference a couple of years ago. I’d talked to her once since at an event at the start of the year (when Iâ€™d said the novel wasnâ€™t too far off). I was pleasantly surprised that she recognised me at York and was the first to strike up a short conversation. She might have been being terribly polite but itâ€™s still a good piece of motivation to have a literary agent say goodbye to you with the words ‘Iâ€™ll look forward to getting the book’.
Now that might go a long way to towards explaining my uplifted mood as I drove back down the motorway.
Last Saturday morning five of us ex of the City course met for our last workshopping session of the current year (although it’s two years since we finished the course we’re still loosely following the Sep-June academic year). I sent out the last ‘proper’ chapter of The Angel for discussion. There’s an epilogue that follows but this chapter brings many of the novels threads together and concludes the narrative arc. In the hope that one day the novel might find a wider public I’ll declare a spoiler alert and avoid any more discussion of the ending.
Sue wrote at the top of her comments ‘Congratulations Mike on reaching the end. Yes, you should be celebratingâ€™. She recommended that I ‘open a bottle’. It’s lovely to be reminded of the achievement by someone else who knows exactly how difficult an undertaking it is and it comes at an opportune time because, rather than feeling celebratory, my current attitudes towards the novel are characterised by frustration and borderline despair.
I’m probably at the place thatâ€™s the most infuriating — having reached the end of the writing of a novel, I’m almost desperate to walk away from it but also, paradoxically, reluctant to let go.
I have a draft that I’m happy with — it tells the story that I planned when I set out and has evolved and developed along the way, although that’s resulted in the manuscript still being too long, even after I’ve taken out the most easily removable parts. In terms of loading in the extra material Delia Smithâ€™s re-assuring advice comes to mind from the Christmas cake recipeÂ that I’ve been following for more years than I’d like to admit. ‘If you add the eggs slowly by degrees like this the mixture won’t curdle. If it does, don’t worry, any cake full of such beautiful things can’t fail to taste good!’ It’s also had a pretty positive critique by a professional reader but my dilemma is how much more effort I should expend on polishing and editing it further.
At essence it boils down to a test of faith in my own writing against many obstacles and anxieties.
I’m very tempted to send a submission off to agents straight away. Even though I know there’s likely to be more work needed, it would be enormously encouraging to have an agent say that they liked the writing and the concept and with a bit more work they’d take the manuscript on. There would clearly be a reward for the remaining effort in this case. I know of one other writer from the City course who’s that type of position.
Alternatively, it could be argued that I should first complete all the work that I think might need doing anyway before submitting anything to agents at all. The advantage of this approach would be that a tighter, better edited manuscript would be more impressive, giving me a better chance overall of being represented by an agent and potentially leading to a quicker submission to publishers.
But spending a lot of time buffing and polishing the manuscript would be pointless if, for example, the whole concept of the novel isn’t distinctive enough or doesn’t show any commercial appeal. In that case, perhaps the sooner I stick the manuscript in the proverbial desk drawer the quicker I can employ my writing skills on a project that may be more attractive — treating the development of this novel as a long (and expensive) creative writing exercise.
And there’s no doubt that my writing has improved. Ironically, the ending of the novel that I workshopped on Saturday was based on one of the first sections I wrote — nearly two and a half years ago. It contained some good material but I think I now write to a consistently higher standard. This is a view endorsed by Eileen from the City course who joined the workshop after an absence of a year or so when she compared the latest extract with what she remembered from before.
Another weight on my mind is that a moment of opportunity may be passing. Agents will now be taking summer holidays (and sod’s law says my submission would hit their inbox just after they left the office for a fortnight). Additionally, as any reader of this blog’s past posts will realise, London plays such a prominent role in the novel that it could almost be a character itself — and it’s the east London of Hackney, Shoreditch and environs that will be a worldwide focus of attention in under four weeks — not just through the Olympics themselves but with all the attendant cultural events (such as the Cultural Olympiad and the Mayor of London Presents series). I know there’s no way that my novel could be published until probably two years after the London 2012 events but I wonder if there will be a London hangover effect on the people who’ll (hopefully) read the manuscript ‘Not another novel with London in! I’d rather read something set in the Arctic tundra.’
But if the Olympics create the lasting buzz and change in perceptions that rubbed off on Beijing or Barcelona then it may be a good thing that my characters are roaming around Shoreditch and St. Paulâ€™s. After all, the 2012 logo looks like a slightly sanitised version of something that could be on a wall on the Regents Canal, Redchurch Street or Village Underground.
Perhaps the factor that’s stopping me racing to the finishing line is physical tiredness. Having almost achieved it myself, I now admire anyone who’s completed a reasonable length, coherent novel regardless of its quality or published status — and especially so if that person has grabbed time around the margins of doing a full time job, fitting in the demands of studying for a course, having family responsibilities and so on.
I’ve burnt the candle at both ends — routinely staying up past midnight to carve out a little bit of time to demonstrate I’m still making progress on the novel but then getting up at half-past six in the morning to get the train into London (I’ve developed an aptitude for being able to easily drop off to sleep in my seat).
This perhaps shows how almost insane the determination to finish the novel can become â€“ an obsessive quest like Captain Ahabâ€™s in Moby Dick. Iâ€™d have to be very lucky author to bring in an income from writing comparable with the income from how I currently make a living â€“ the best I could probably hope for is enough to afford to reduce my hours a bit.
Iâ€™ve studied part-time for both an MBA and MSc and found the work involved for both to be significantly less than this novel — itâ€™s almost like doing two jobs.
I’ve not yet repeated before a working day what I did one Friday night before a workshopping tutorial when I wrote from about 10pm until 6.45am, went to bed for an hour and then caught the train into London at 8am.
This tiredness is largely my own doing. If I was sensible Iâ€™d work away every lunchtime (rather than a couple of times a week) and return home every night and lock myself away with the computer. But instead I go to the pub, started to visit a lot of art galleries (and events like Love Art London), go running (good for thinking about the novel, if not actually writing it), get tempted by all the Olympic-inspired events like Poetry Parnassus, go to the theatre and music concerts (I had a brilliant time watching the Pierces at the Union Chapel in Islington last week) and, the ultimate displacement activity, writing this blog (although there havenâ€™t been many posts recently I have a couple lined up in draft).
I guess itâ€™s not surprising that the home straight is going slowly. Perhaps Iâ€™m subconsciously hanging on â€“ not wanting to send the novel and the characters Iâ€™ve lived with for so long out to fend for themselves in the world outside?
Yet Iâ€™m going to have to part company with them soon, if only because thereâ€™s only so long that the long list of important but non-urgent activities canâ€™t be put off forever: the house is slowly falling to pieces; the garden is turning into a nature reserve; the room where I’m writing from is an absolute tip; thereâ€™s a pile of books about three feet high that I want to read and so on.
Theyâ€™re all evidence of what Iâ€™ve increasingly neglected while writing the novel and make me wonder whether Iâ€™d have thought it was would be worth it had I realised just under five years ago what enrolling on the Open University Creative Writing course would lead me to in terms of disrupting the rest of my life â€“ sometimes making me feel guilty and anxious for not doing the things I ought to do in favour of writing and then, in turn, feeling guilty and anxious about writing or not writing. I guess one answer to that question will depend to a large extent on whether the investment of time and money leads to anything tangible â€“ although I realise that being represented by an agent and getting a publishing deal are just the start of another huge slog.
But Sue is right, whatever happens, I should be celebrating in some way having almost got to the end as when I finally get down to the writing I enjoy it immensely and for its own sake â€“ the satisfaction of coming up with a particular phrase or thinking of an intriguing situation for my characters. And those characters have potentially kept me sane through some of the events Iâ€™ve been through in their company.
A look through the eclectic topics covered in this blog also shows how much Iâ€™ve learned through writing â€“ not just about writing itself but about art, London and many other things and met some fascinating people in the course of doing so. (Iâ€™ve been flattered that two people from the London art world have read extracts from the novel and have said theyâ€™d like to read some more.) If a reader finds a fraction of enjoyment in the novel that I’ve experienced while writing and researching it then it ought to be a pleasurable and thought-provoking read.
So now I need to do the whole project justice and make it, as writers are often advised, â€˜as good as it can beâ€™ which, sadly, means chopping bits out rather than writing anything new, however, tempting.
I already have my synopsis drafted â€“ using Nicola Morganâ€™s e-book â€“ and an introductory letter and had them both critiqued â€“ twice. Iâ€™ve also revised again the all-important first three chapters and sent them to be critiqued a second time â€“ producing the hopefully prophetic comment from my reader â€˜so much to keep a reader turning the pageâ€™. Iâ€™m hoping that Iâ€™ll soon move on to the next page myself.
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.’
A week last Saturday there was a documentary on BBC2 that was ostensibly about the sorry state of the world of books (riven as it’s meant to be by factionalism between literary and genre) but I found that, ironically, the programme itself served as an example of the inherent problems of a whole genre of television documentaries.
I’ve been meaning to blog about the three documentaries about books that were broadcast to co-incide with World Book Night and the Sebastian Faulkes series on the novel on the preceding four Saturday nights. Unfortunately I’ve had three pieces of writing to send out for tutorials or workshops in the meantime and had to submit my 118-page MSc dissertation at the start of last week.
Even so, Sue Perkins’ s programme ‘The Books We Really Read‘ Â was responsible for a minor fire-storm of tweets and provoked enough subsequent comment that its memory has maybe not yet totally escaped away into the ether.
Creative writing courses and their alleged ‘writing-by-numbers’ approach to novel writing came in for a bit of stick both in the Perkins programme and the following documentary, which profiled 12 ‘important’ debut novelists. Curiously, it seemed to me that it was the misapplication of a key creative writing class concept — plot — to ‘The Books We Really Read’ that made it grate far more it probably intended to.
One of the basic plots found across all fiction and drama is the quest whereby the hero sets out to achieve something, overcoming fear and obstacles on the way and thereby changing by gaining some self-knowledge.
It’s an archetype that’s been applied recently to documentaries, particularly the celebrity-led. This person is sent on aÂ ‘personal journey’ which, naturally, progresses in true classic narrative plot style, from wariness or cynicism to growing familiarity, experiences a few challenges along the way, and ends with something of an epiphany. The Jamie Oliver school dinner documentaries were much in this vein as are the ‘Who Do You Think You Are’ documentaries where invariably something unusual or emotional is uncovered in the subject’s past.
This concept has been broadened into subjects where there is less personal involvement by the presenter and the concept is that the celebrity mediates between the subject and the viewer — the viewer gets signals of how we’re meant to react. This risks being patronising but can come off is the presenter is aimiable and sympathetic enough — the Al Murray documentaries on Germany were structured something like this.
This style of documentary making seems to have been what the makers of ‘The Books We Really Read’ had in mind but they appeared to spectacularly misapply the formula. The logic seemed to have gone: let’s do a documentary about how some books are considered easy to read and some scarily hard but it would be too patronising to have a presenter who was scared of literary fiction and was ‘improved’, Educating Rita style, into eventually enjoying it. Why not do it the other way round and have a presenter who affects only to enjoy literary fiction and expresses almost a fear of popular fiction — and in the course of the journey we learn that genre fiction isn’t all bad. Ironic and post-modern, huh?
This probably seemed a cleverly subversive idea but it also subverts the basics of the classic plot device it tries to exploit to the point where it worked against the programme. For the quest plot to work the reader (or viewer) must accept that the quest is credible and the hero must engender some sympathy or identification.
So to compare ‘The Books We Really Read’ with a similar, recent quest documentary — the Comic Relief documentary about Helen Skelton’s high-wire walking, we had Skelton working towards overcoming the fear ofÂ walking 60 metres in the air on a rope slung between two of Battersea Power Station’s chimneys whereas Sue Perkins was forced to read thrillers, crime fiction and romances. It might actually have worked had they approached the subject the other way round and followed an ‘ordinary’ reader’s apprehensions about tackling Perkins’s favourite author, Dostoyevsky — but that wouldn’t have been very innovative.
It was also inevitable that starting from a position of ostensible ignorance about popular fiction would portray the presenter as unavoidably snobbish. So we learned very early on that Â Sue Perkins read English Literature at university and, inevitably (though I don’t see why), she had never read the type of dross that people choose take on holiday with them (cue interviewing people in an airport) but she’d judged the Man Booker prize instead.
This was obviously meant to set out the starting position from which she would mellow and ‘learn’ by the end of the programme but it sent the message that she’d be metaphorically holding her nose until persuaded otherwise. This wasn’t the best way of gaining sympathy for the hero’s quest and raised the question of what audience the programme was made for — maybe just fellow Oxbridge English graduates and probably not even the majority of those. (I’m not sure whether she mentioned it was Cambridge where she read English — sadly the programme is no longer available on iPlayer — but Â somehow that fact has lodged in my brain, as probably was the intention.)
This positioning of the presenter took up a good five or ten minutes at the start of the documentary and it was entirely irrelevant to the subject. It’s a shame as the underlying hypothesis is fascinating and topical– is there a meaningful distinction between the sort of literary fiction studied at Cambridge and the type of books sold by the yard at the local Asda?
Perhaps trying to analyse popular taste in the arts using a highly personalised approach is inevitably flawed — it seemed to be at the root of the unsatisfactory aspects of ‘Faulkes on Fiction’.
The programme wasn’t above using a few documentary makers’ tricks to advance its agenda. We saw many of Lee Child’s fans queuing for his signature in a bookshop and many were asked about how they pictured his thrillers’ hero, Jack Reacher, who’s a rugged type, not unlike how Child himself appears in person. The implication seemed to be that his readers were like the sort of soap opera fans who run up to an actor in the street to berate the character they play’s actions — ‘How could you swap the baby?’
As always, ‘ordinary’ people were shown jostling in the public space of a shop whereas ‘the experts’ always sit in a quiet room with a nice table lamp in the background — or on the solitude of a park bench.
Child made a feisty contribution, his revelling in the ‘us and them’ divide between his genre and literary fiction seemed to fit the documentary’s pseudo-narrative opening chapter. He made the inflammatory assertion that literary fiction writers are unable to write genre fiction and the snobbishness of the literary establishment is because they know that bestselling authors could write literary fiction as easily as dropping off a log.
This claim could have been exploited better in a traditional documentary — by introducing counter arguments.Â Instead his arguments were apparently undermined simply by Perkins reading out passages of his prose in a silly voice. This is something she did for the work of several other authors.
Maybe Child’s arguments have already been discussed to death in various versions of the ‘is Dylan better than Keats’ debate on the likes of Newsnight Review?
But no doubt many of the readers of genre fiction agree with straightforward proposition that the writers who Perkins investigated have the talent to identify what the majority of readers want from a book and are rewarded by selling a lot of books and, presumably, making money whereas many literary fiction writers scrape by on Arts Council grants and the proceeds of prizes allocated by the literary establishment.
There’s always also a widespread suspicion of claims made about a work’s intellectual or aesthetic pedigree when the acclaim comes from a closed, elite group of arbiters. This is the classic ’emperor’s’ new clothes’ situation that applies even more to modern art, modern classical music and various other art forms where there’s a suspicion that reputations can be determined by a small number of influential critics who may be motivated by political or social factors.
The tone of the interviews followed the narrative arc of the programme — Child was confrontational, then Ian Rankin was emollient on crime fiction (conceding that armies of 70-year old detective spinsters stretched credibility). Sophie Kinsella, sitting agreeably in her pyjamas, was then able to make the assertion that allowed the self-knowledge aspect of the documentary’s ‘plot’ to reach its conclusion: Jane Austen wrote on subjects that are staples of modern chick-lit.
The logic of this argument was about the universality of human experience: one of the English language’s greatest novelists wrote about the difficulty for women of finding a good man — and so, for that matter, did Charlotte BrontÃ«. This is very true but it’s also true that many of Shakespeare’s plays could be considered thrillers or fantasies and that, even, Austen’s Emma could be argued to be the first detective novel.
It’s not really an argument that equates a bit of Jilly Cooper with literary fiction but it seemed that the programme had come so far in its journey that it ended up arguing for the values of relativism that it had held in contempt at the outset.
The mention of the universal appeal of the basic romance story of the search for the perfect partner allowed the programme to reach its rather unconvincing — but inevitable conclusion — people liked bestsellers because they have a plot, which is something that, as everyone knows, literary fiction books don’t.
So in the end, the programme concluded that there were some good things about literary stuff — like the enjoyment of beautiful prose — and good things about thrillers, crime fiction and romances (well, perhaps, just one albeit the most important in any narrative work) and, actually, maybe they’re not too different after all and wouldn’t it be nice if they could, maybe, learn a bit from each other? Now that sounds like the basis for a programme I’d really like to watch.
‘One Day’ by David Nicholls won the Sainsbury’s Popular Fiction prize at the Galaxy National Book Awards last week. I’ve mentioned this book in passing a couple of times on this blog since I read it in the summer.
I’ve found the book interesting for a number of reasons. It has quite an interesting cover and this is also plastered with all sorts of endorsements which largely serve to position it in the market: ‘big, absorbing, smart’ (Nick Hornby); ‘incredibly moving’ (Marian Keyes); ‘totally brilliant’ (Tony Parsons); ‘fantastic Labour boom years comedy’ (the Guardian) (although less than half the relationship occurs under Blair); ‘you really do put the book down with the hallucinatory feeling that they’ve become as well known to you as your closest friends’ (Jonathan Coe). That’s just the covers, there’s plenty more epithets in the first two pages inside.
One clever thing about having these quotations on the cover is that it makes it look like a film poster. And the book is very cinematic — so much so that a film is already in production. (The author wrote some of one of the series of ‘Cold Feet’ — and this book has many echoes of that TV series.)
These endorsements are very accurate as they position the book into a sweet spot that sits between the lad-lit of Parsons and Hornby, chick-lit with a dark touch of Keyes and the modern comedy of Coe — and with a ‘bit of politics’ thrown in by the Guardian. And that’s exactly the genre — a funny book written by a man that also appeals very much to women. A look at the 262 (at time of blogging) 5 star reviews on Amazon appears to show they are predominantly penned by female names (although, of course, women do read more book than men overall).
I have a feeling that this book is significant because this genre may well be something of a new phenomenon — non-gender specific and a synthesis of lad-lit and chick-lit — whereas previously these commercial social comedy novels have tended to have been aimed at either gender. Again, the cover is significant — two silhouettes — each of a man and a woman. I has the mark of very careful marketing as if the publishers had taken a punt on a book that didn’t ‘fit’ directly into any neat category. And, if so, I’m very glad this has worked because one of the other reasons I bought and read the book is because it seemed to fit the genre I’m writing in.
The book follows two characters, Dexter and Emma, and switches between their points of view. However, my reading is that Emma is the character the author is most attached to, as I find her more realistically drawn and complex (but that might be my male POV). And I think this may tap into something mentioned by Graeme A. Thomson in his analysis of Kate Bush that I blogged on a few months ago — an innate curiosity about how the other half feels (either as intimate lover or as gender in general). I’ve noticed recently in women’s magazines how they often have a ‘typical’ man writing a column that is meant to give the readers some idea of a male perspective on an issue (although I’ve been fairly infuriated by the views of most of these supposed representative men in the few I’ve read). But I think that Nicholls has shown there’s quite a sizable market for novels written by men that perhaps don’t achieve the ultimate insight of providing an authentically female point-of-view (although if you want that authenticity then there’s plenty of female writers to pick from) but are actually more interesting and enlightening by presenting a sympathetic interpretation of what a male author considers to be a female perspective.
Actually I find that women writers are a lot less neurotic about writing from a male point-of-view — they just get on with it — but perhaps that’s maybe because they’re less likely to be challenged over its authenticity by men.
Going back to the Amazon reviews, I’m not sure if I’ve seen a novel like this that has polarised opinions so much — not so much in the star ratings but in the comments that accompany them. Many of the five star reviews say it’s one of the reader’s favourite ever books while the one-star reviewers completely damn it on many different aspects, predominantly technical.
Having come out of the City University course where I’d spent six months reading other students’ writing with a very critical eye, I’ve started to read published novels with the same perspective and, in many, I have a mental pencil which strikes out words and makes notional comments in the margins.
Reading ‘One Day’ was oddly both infuriating and quite affirming because there were passages where I thought ‘if I’d have brought that to the City workshops I’d be slagged off mercilessly’. There were the dreaded adverbs (particularly hated when applied at the end of speech tags), long passages of dialogue where despite it being between two characters (male and female) it became unclear who was speaking, some occasionally very stilted dialogue (Dexter’s mother) and in some passages the POV kept leaping all over the place (sometimes within the same paragraph) — although there were amusing occasions when I was reminded of Douglas Adams when the POV suddenly switched to a minor character.
Also, and I’ll try not to spoil the story, there’s a massive twist to the plot that relies completely on a co-incidental, totally random event — which is something all the how-to advice tells writers never to do because the plot should derive from character. However, I actually liked that twist because it was genuinely surprising and it does throw the reader — I’m not sure that it helps the remainder of the book that much but it did pack an emotional punch and that part was well-written.
Having finished and reflected on the book, I think that all of the above are perhaps why readers like it — it’s not too perfect, the imperfections perhaps bring the reader closer to the characters in an informal way. And also it shows that many creative writing class shibboleths are quite over-pedantic anyway.
I liked the book even though the characters aren’t particularly likeable — often people will criticise books by saying they need to ‘like’ the characters — but I’m not sure whether this is mainly a defensive reaction that a reader likes to use to make a statement about how they’d like to be perceived themselves.
Overall, the book succeeds because it does something that, in my experience, creative writing courses fail to emphasise — perhaps because it’s so fundamental — it makes the reader want to know what happened next. By taking a clever device of basing the action every day on 15th July from 1988 to 2007, Nicholls has (most of) the readers hooked — and it’s a life experience saga too — the characters will be just about 40 by the end of the period.
Almost all popular fiction (which is the category of award ‘One Day’ won) succeeds because readers want to find out what happened next. I find it quite odd sometimes when someone writes on my drafts (‘looking forward to what happens next time’ or ‘always like yours as it has me turning the pages’) because sometimes it seems like the readers have more interest in the events in the story than you do as a writer (perhaps because you have the burden of inventing them?) but in a workshopping session one is more likely to be praised to the skies for a nice sounding phrase or a piece of imagery.
It’s good to have this counterbalanced every so often by reading warm and funny novels like ‘One Day’ and also appreciate the genuineness of many readers’ reaction to it — and good that there are awards that recognise this too.
I also liked the use of pop music in the book too. The book’s website had a lovely feature where it listed the tracks Emma had put on compilation tapes to give to Dexter. I e-mailed the author to discuss the relative absence of Smiths’ tracks and he was a nice enough chap to send me a quick reply on the subject.
Interesting blog on the Guardian Books website today by Robert McCrum. He talks about Ford Madox Ford’s advice that the literary quality or narrative power of a novel should never be judged by the opening alone but by reading a random page from within the book — which has been called the page 99 test Â (i.e. open any book at page 99 and see that is comparable with the opening).
He quotes Philip Larkin’s observation after being a Booker prize judge that modern novelists concentrate far too much on grabbing a reader’s attention with the opening — the books had ‘a beginning, a muddle and an end’.
I guess no-one would say they would want to buy and read a book that had a stunning first few pages but which proved to be unrepresentative of the rest of the book. However, experience on the City University course suggests that novelists, particularly debut novelists, need to concentrate intensely on those first pages to have any hope of attracting an agent’s attention.
At the end of June, as mentioned at the time, we had an evening where we all read extracts from our novels to an invited audience of literary agents and other industry people. Because we had an hour for the reading, we each had four minutes each, which was rigorously enforced. For most of us that worked out about 600 words — or about two pages of a novel. Mostly we all chose the opening of our novels — or, if not, something that would work well as one.
It was interesting to listen to people’s polished four minute extracts. We workshopped them over the course of a few weeks and they were all excellent and sounded great when read on the night — it was fascinating to see the improvement as some took shape. It was also interesting to see how much the extract reflected what we knew of the rest of the novel in progress.
My own reading was, I think, fairly unrepresentative of the rest of what I’d written. The style was fairly typical — quite a lot of dialogue, not much exposition, although I’d edited out a lot of the more ‘literary’ description for timing purposes.
However, it may have misrepresented the genre as it was a firing scene set in a City office block — a corporate location that’s never returned to after the first few pages. The rest of the novel is about alternative lifestyles, art, beer, food, wine, dissolute afternoons spent drinking in pubs, relationships that break down, others that simmer, communities and sex is a recurrent theme, as I was reminded by Jennifer more than once.
So a scene in a modern office block meeting room with people sat behind desks talking corporate speak is very atypical of the novel — but it’s important as it’s a starting point that the characters react against and that drives the rest of the novel.
Just before the reading I got some advice from an agent to reverse my first two scenes and start the novel referring to the artistic elements rather than corporate. That was my initial instinct and it was very satisfying that she’d picked up the tone and theme of the novel from the few thousand words she’d read. (Obviously it’s her job to do that but my writing must have had enough quality for her to engage with it.)
But it was too late to change my extract for the reading — which I’d chosen after much indecision on the basis of its conflict and dramatic impact. So I’d have failed the page 99 test myself — at least on genre expectations.
However, the way novels and novelists are judged by agents and publishers Â is on the first few pages — at least to determine whether they want to read more or reject the work. And that might be pragmatic because that’s what readers have traditionally done when browsing novels in a bookshop.
I read a worrying report in the Wall Street journal via a retweet from City coursemate Michael Braga about how e-books and the dire economy are making it virtually impossible for literary writers in the US to make a living — even if they’re published their advances are pitiful.
This is partly blamed on the effect Â of e-books. These cost the customer less and publishers are proportionately reducing the income to the author. This seems unfair as its the publisher who’s saving the costs of printing and distribution. The writer still has to do the same amount of work as with a physical book.
Another effect of e-books is that they tend not to be browsed, as are physical books. Readers are said to be more likely to buy an e-book based on marketing (like film and TV tie-ins, Richard and Judy and so on) or from recommendations (such as published reviews, reader reviews on Amazon, word of mouth and so on).
This has led to fears that the reading market will concentrate more on blockbuster fiction and there will be much less opportunity for authors to grow into a career over the course of three, four or five books. Currently the view seems to be that a new author has to sell a lot of copies of their debut and, if they get the chance, second novel or else they will be dropped.
There is a counter view in the WSJ article that e-books, because they’re cheaper, will expand the market and, because they require much less capital investment in the product, will change the publishing industry from being largely controlled by huge multi-nationals to one that has many more independent small publishers. My own guess is that it may polarise the market at either end — a few mega-publishers and a lot of small ones. The fate of the literary writer is likely to be to start off at the small scale end and perhaps move across to big publishers once they’ve established a track record.
If the market changes like this then it means the role of the agent may also change. I’d guess they will still be as important to writers as ever but their skill may be required more to get a writer noticed and to build a reputation. There may be a situation where fewer and fewer publishers are willing to take chances on unknown writers but technology such as e-books and print-on-demand may mean it’s not as difficult as in the past for authors to be published.
The investment involved previously in getting a book onto a bookshop shelf has been a quality filter in itself and, to return to the original point, a reader might feel that if the first few pages are good then it’s likely that the rest of the book won’t be too dire, having been through a professional production process. If e-books are the future then covers and opening pages may play a lesser role than the general ‘buzz’ that gets book noticed in the first place.
I guess what the conscientious writer should do is to write the whole novel to the best of their ability and then go back to the beginning and work on that again once the book has been finished. This is what I’m planning to do and I’m not intending send anything to an agent until I have something that’s as good as I can make it all the way through.
This is a bit Catch-22 as it would be helpful to have some professional feedback to both motivate and give a realistic assessment of the whole endeavour. And I’m finding it’s taking forever. However, I wouldn’t want to end up with one of Philip Larkin’s muddled middle books.
The Guardian reports today that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport is preparing to inflict cuts on itself of up to 50% as part of the forthcoming government spending clampdown.
This reduction in its own staff is in keeping with the cuts it is anticipated the department will make in its funding of the arts and sport. With the big expense of the Olympics relatively protected and big tourist draws relatively safe (such as free entry to major art galleries and museums) then the axe is going to fall particularly savagely on less high-profile spending. Â Bodies such as the Arts Council in England, which funds 850 organisations, are going to find they have a lot less money to give out in grants. I know of many small enterprises, such as poetry magazines, that struggle along even with the help of a small amount of money from the Arts Council. Similarly, this is the source of the already meagre funding for many students who study arts or creative writing at postgraduate level.
The government has expressed what seems like a somewhat naive hope that private benefactors will step in and plug the funding gaps — as happens in America. I remember when I lived in the US for a year in the mid-80s how mystified I was to see the PBS channel regularly soliciting its viewers for donations — something at the time I found quite shocking but, like TV sponsorship, would not be quite so alien in the UK nowadays.
One of the governments other big targets for expenditure cuts is higher education so it’s not difficult to predict what’s likely to happen to the arts in education over the next few years. I would expect creative writing courses to be put under very tight scrutiny. One point in the courses’ favour is that they’re popular and accessible — people are quite willing to pay to do postgraduate and continuing education courses in writing. They also don’t involve much capital spending on the part of the university — just a room to sit in — unlike courses that require neutron colliders that cost billions, as at Oxford. However, as Emma, who taught us briefly at the end of last term, pointed out — to teach creative writing properly there needs to be a fairly low student to staff ratio — the teaching is interactive. I remember when I was doing my MBA at Kingston being quite astonished at the size of the audience for the undergraduate business course lectures — there were hundreds of them to one lecturer.
Also, a school leaver is going to have to be pretty confident of their future ability as a writer to do creative writing at undergraduate level — passing up the opportunity to get a more ‘marketable’ qualification.
One consequence is that I’d suggest anyone who wants to get a creative writing qualification, like an MA for example, might be better applying sooner rather than later. It’s too late for universities to cancel courses for the next academic year but they will certainly review them carefully for the year afterwards. I can’t see them disappearing but there may be fewer to choose from and perhaps the teaching will be less individual. However, it was Emma’s view that the standard on our City Novel Writing course was MA standard anyway and that the only reason that any of us would find it advisable to take an MA would be if we wanted to teach — and perhaps having a published novel would be more credible in that case anyway.
What might have more lasting consequences is that universities will cut staff in creative writing departments and postgraduate and doctoral students will find it a lot more difficult to gain funding. Many university courses, such as those at City, are taught by lecturers who aren’t full time academic staff (at least at that university anyway) and are working themselves on PhDs and the like while also working on their own novels, poetry or other writing. I guess this route into getting some financial support while developing a writing career is now going to be pretty difficult to follow. These people also give time and support to the large network of ‘underground’ publishing, such as e-zines and small circulation magazines, that nurture the careers of more experimental and literary writers.
With government grants drying up and a major source of financial security (in higher education teaching) likely to wither away then both writers and the outlets they currently use are going to feel the pinch with disproportionate severity unless some private funding can replace that cut by the government. With some exceptions, commercial funding is not likely to support writing that is experimental or provocative. This might have a peculiar knock-on effect as the pursuit of literary prizes might take on even more prominence. Perhaps a new author with literary ambitions might be taken on by a publisher with the sole intention of being submitted for a prize — and if the author doesn’t win or get shortlisted then they could be dumped straight away?
The effect of the ‘new austerity’ is going to be pretty bleak right across the writing spectrum. While the more commercial genres tend to have no need of government subsidy, new authors in these genres may well have benefited from some subsidised support. Also, any author with a literary bent who finds the traditional means of support to be dwindling may decide to switch into a commercial genre, at least temporarily, in an attempt to pay the bills by publishing a work that will sell in large numbers — thus making that market more crowded?
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!
I’ve been so busy preparing for Wednesday’s reading that I haven’t had time to blog about other events that may have more eventual significance.
I went to the Winchester Writers’ Conference last Friday and had three appointments — two with agents and one with a publisher.
The agents had both read work that I’d supplied in advance and gave me useful feedback. I sent the first fifteen pages of The Angel (about 5,000-6,000 words) to someone from one of the biggest literary agencies in London (A.P. Watt). She was very complimentary about what she read — said she’d ‘really enjoyed it. She praised the evocation in the sense of place as she lives in the Hackney/Shoreditch area herself. She gave some constructive comments about perhaps changing the opening around a bit — which were quite intuitive in a way as what she suggested was the original way I’d opened the novel before changing it to reflect what I read at our showcase on Wednesday. It was a bit too late for me to change the reading. The two points of view worked well for her and also the genre — which she described as on ‘the border between literary and commercial fiction’ which is a good place to be apparently. I asked if this was the type of novel that she would represent and she said that it was. I seem to remember her complementing me by saying I ‘could write’.
I also pitched the novel completely cold to an editor from a huge publisher (I happened to get a spare slot in her schedule on the day). I had to show her my blurb and my reading for the City reading as that was all I had available. But she was also very encouraging — saying it was ‘funny’ and something that people would definitely want to read. In the end she took away all the improvised material I showed her and it’s now at the publishers.
The other agent I saw only asked for the first ten pages and he had a different take on the novel which, I suspect, might have been influenced by not seeing the missing five pages that the other agent had read. While she thought it would appeal very widely as it was, at heart, a love story I think that’s because the extra part had a lot of Kim and her interior. The first agent complemented the quality of the writing but wasn’t sure where it would be positioned in the market — although one of the other delegates later told me that this agent wasn’t a fiction specialist — but perhaps that was because he hadn’t seen enough of the book? Certainly, the majority opinion out of the three was that it was very marketable.
After these sort of events, it’s probably natural to wonder if the agents really meant what they said or were they just being polite but it’s not really in their interest to say something’s good if they don’t like it — it just means wasted time for them in the office. So I think that’s pretty encouraging — everything was read and submitted as it would be for a proper agent submission when a novel’s finally ready and they were quite lengthy samples of the book so weren’t taken out of context.