Rarely can a novel have been so appropriately titled as Isabel Costello’s Paris Mon Amour. The city is so evocatively described it becomes one of the characters (Paris: Mon Amour, perhaps?). Also, the novel explores the contrasting romantic mores of two French men (Paris. Mon Amour, maybe?)
I’ve blogged before about the pleasure of seeing friends’ novels being transformed from Word documents e-mailed around as drafts to professionally published finished article. When Isabel announced that she’d got a publishing deal, I wrote a post about Paris Mon Amour as being one of these deserved successes. Now I’d like to pass on a few thoughts about the novel in a belated review.
First of all, it’s a compelling read. One problem with reviewing the novel is avoiding spoilers and, while the premise of the Paris Mon Amour is well advertised to anyone looking at the blurb, the way the events unfolded towards the end of the novel certainly took me by surprise (in a good way).
As well as an enthralling plot, I loved the quality of the writing. One benefit of being something of a writing workshop veteran (through many course and writing groups) is that I appreciate excellent prose: I was constantly impressed by this novel’s standard.
Isabel’s prose in this novel isn’t the sort that draws attention to itself in a showy way but it possesses a definite elegance — avoiding the repetitions and banalities that subconsciously drag down more workaday novels. It also reflects the restrained but classy character of Paris as a city. There were certain turns of phrase — like “it flipped the catch on my imagination” that I found refreshingly inventive.
As might be inferred from the title, one of the book’s strengths is its depiction of Paris as a city. Alexandra, the half-British, American-raised ex-pat narrator, is a perfect guide to Paris for the non-native. This is a master stroke. Alexandra is as knowledgeable as a Parisian about the city’s geography but she still has the eyes of the outsider, which allows her to provide illuminating descriptions to the reader who’s not quite so familiar.
The novel captures an elusiveness about Paris. I’ve visited the city on numerous occasions but I feel it’s much more inscrutable than most cities. I’m less able to mentally picture how to get from A to B than in many places I’ve visited far less frequently, for example Berlin or San Francisco.
Perhaps it’s those numbered arrondissements — they seem like a code that only seems to yield its secrets to those who’ve lived in the city. With Alexandra, at least from the geographical perspective, the reader feels in safe hands.
Paris could be the only setting for this story as, like the city itself, the plot lies at the intersection of sensuousness and culture.
Paris Mon Amour tells the story of an intense, passionate affair through both the heart (and other more erogenous parts of the body) and the head. Isabel has a degree in modern languages and while, through Alexandra, she wears her erudition lightly, the characters use, for example, the poetry of Baudelaire to articulate their feelings.
Paris is the city of love and French is the de facto language of love. The sprinkling of French language dialogue in the novel (translated where necessary) works well to set the place. Also, as a novel written in English, the French works well to evoke the heightened sexuality th both the principal characters feel once they’ve embarked on their illicit affair.
For those of us lacking fluent French, the odd phrase hints at the exotic and unknown world that Alexandra is entering.
Isabel wrote a much-commented-on post on The Literary Sofa about Sex Scenes in Fiction. It was so thought-provoking I wrote my own my response to it. The careful thinking she put into that post is evident in Isabel’s expert handling of the sexual relationships between the characters in Paris Mon Amour.
What makes the novel feel so authentic is that much of the protagonists’ motivation stems from their mutual unadulterated sexual attraction (or perhaps that should read very adulterated?) .
As in real life, characters in the novel make reckless decisions, often knowingly, because they’re unable to physically resist the object of their desires. To acknowledge that people are subject to such pure, undiluted desire is genuine and realistic. It’s a refreshing change from novels that might try to rationalise attraction by over-compensating with a character’s likeable, non-sexual attributes.
Conversely, a couple can be matched perfectly in social and intellectual terms, but if they’re not getting along physically then all other types of compatibility are in jeopardy.
Sexual motivation is just as important (if not more) than any other driver of a character’s behaviour. The tricky thing is that it’s intrinsically far more difficult for a writer to convey sexual attraction than more rational motivations
Isabel achieves this goal through some impressively economical writing.
(I’m not an enthusiast about borrowing the visual term ‘sex scene’ to describe fiction but there’s not a concise equivalent term that I’m aware of in writing so I’ll bear with it.)
There must be at least a dozen ‘sex scenes’ told from Alexandra’s point of view, both with passionate Jean-Luc and her less pulse-racing husband Philippe. The novel is frank in depicting intimate physical details that would never be seen on post-watershed British TV or in mainstream films. Only a few art-house films, quite often French ones, don’t shy away from depicting the messiness of sex. Thankfully one of the strengths of the written word is its ability to use its direct connection with the mind of the reader to describe and explore personal experiences that get little exposure in other genres.
As an aside, it’s baffling why the mention of even perfectly straightforward sex remains a peculiarly Anglo-Saxon taboo. The reasons why so many people are buttoned up about one of life’s most universal experiences people is a topic for a blog post (or entire blog) of their own.
While Paris Mon Amour is candid, the effect is almost always achieved using one carefully chosen phrase or sentence. I’d guess that the sexually explicit content of the novel would come to no more than a couple of pages, if all cut and pasted into one place.
Erotica this isn’t but the writing is genuinely erotic, through its sparing use of tantalising details — a case of less is more – and every detail advances the plot and revelation of character. Nothing is gratuitous.
While the narration means that sex is described from Alexandra’s first person perspective, I found it engaged me from the perspective of a male reader (particularly as I’ve written similar content myself). Through Alexandra’s narration, Isabel’s writing strikes empathy with her male characters. As I mentioned in this post , in any healthy relationship, it seems vital to try to appreciate the physical enjoyment of one’s partner but there’s also an elusive impossibility about being able to authentically experience what the other feels.
While Alexandra’s physical appearance isn’t described in exhaustive detail, one key question at the heart of the novel is whether Jean-Luc, a good-looking, twenty-three year-old man, who seems to have no problem seducing women of his own age (and younger) would find Alexandra irresistibly attractive. This ties in with a theme in the novel that will inevitable resonate more strongly with women readers – female fertility.
At the opening of the novel, we learn that Alexandra is self-consciously aware that she’s entering her forties — that threshold where she worries that the underlying source of her attractiveness to men (the outward signs of fertility) might be waning. By contrast, her considerably older husband, while not sexually attractive, is still presumably potent in reproductive terms.
I can’t speak for Jean-Luc but I have no problem in finding women over forty to be very attractive and, if I try to cast my mind back to my own early twenties, I think that’s always been the case. There are far more important factors at play than age when it comes to sexual attraction.
The novel has a very stylish cover photograph of a vase of shattered lilies (see above). It complements the classy prose and elegant setting but also, as book covers tend to do, it serves to position the novel in a certain genre. I guess this would be upmarket women’s fiction, although my own enjoyment of the novel suggests it’s capable of appealing well beyond an exclusively female audience. I’d suggest Paris Mon Amour also sits firmly in the ‘book club’ category.
One reason for this is the novel’s subtlety. Plot details that later take on large significance are slipped into the narrative almost (but not quite) without the reader noticing — a skillful technique that repays a second reading. I had that satisfying feeling that I was stealthily picking up subtly buried clues about possible duplicitous behaviour of one of the protagonists and my suspicions were confirmed towards the end of the novel. To say any more would be to give away spoilers.
Finally, it’s ironic that the novel was published in the same month as the EU referendum when certain parties attempted to incite divisions and to assert willfully misleading falsehoods about our European partners .While Paris Mon Amour shines a fascinating light on differences between cultures, it’s a welcome reminder of how a shared appreciation of the love, passion and humanity ought to unite us all.
Paris Mon Amour is published as an ebook by Canelo and is available from all the usual platforms.
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.
My last blog post, about my happy experiences with the Romantic Novelists’ Association (RNA) New Writers’ Scheme (NWS), was read by several of the committee of the RNA itself and they were so interested in the post and my thoughts on the scheme that I was granted the unlikely honour of writing a post for the RNA’s own blog.
The blog is updated twice weekly on a Tuesday and Friday and covers a wide range of topics of interest to the RNA with contributions from many well-known and highly respected writers.
My post, titled ‘Romance — “A Bloke’s Point of View”‘ covers similar points to the one I posted on this blog but the content is completely new — and starts with a little taster of how the characters in my novel might react if I walked into their local pub, The Angel, and announced I was a member of the RNA NWS.
Read it (and all the other fascinating posts) by following this link. If you’d like to add a comment or ask a question on there then that would be great.
As part of my membership of the NWS I get sent their newsletter, Romance Matters. The latest issue contains some very intriguing articles based on sessions at the RNA conference.
One considers how effective fiction works by triggering chemical responses in the brain that are identical to those in real, physical situations (e.g. desire, fear) — releasing oxytocin, adrenaline and so on. Another, quoting a session by author and academic Catherine Roach (who writes as Catherine LaRoche), discusses the psychological benefits to the reader of the romance narrative — suggesting that traditional romantic plot types work because of their empowering effect on readers, which, for the purposes of the argument, were assumed to be women. If female readers feel relatively disempowered and disenfranchised in society in comparison to men then the heroine redresses the balance, achieving happiness and fulfillment through risking her vulnerability and being true to herself. ‘The romance story is a woman-centred fantasy about how to make this man’s world work for her.’
It’s all really thought-provoking analysis, and as with my RNA NWS readers’ report, has provided me some with some intriguing insight when I’ve applied it to my own novel. I also found via Google that Catherine Roach has also published a feminist-orientated academic work called Stripping, Sex and Popular Culture(available as a free pdf download) which is very relevant to one plot strand of my novel — not wanting to let slip any spoilers I’ll say no more than that.
I’m thrilled and very excited that a short story of mine (called Do You Dare Me To Cross The Line) has been selected as one of the Liars’ League’s winning entries for their March reading event.
It takes place on Tuesday this week (11th March) at 7.30pm at the Phoenix pub at 37, Cavendish Square, London, near Oxford Circus. There are five stories in the reading and, with a common theme of Truth or Dare, all promise to be extremely entertaining. Please do come along (it’s £5 on the door), listen to some excellent readings and say hello to me. Full details are here on the Liars’ League London website.
For those who aren’t familiar with Liars’ League, it’s a collaboration between authors and actors — a mutually beneficial arrangement which gives each the chance to showcase their skills by making use of the talent of the other. So professional actors bring their training and experience in performing, while the authors provide new and original writing.
Liars’ League is a prestigious and well-known fixture in the London literary circuit (and has associated events elsewhere in the world and the UK). (I was contacted before I’d had chance to email anyone with the news by Emily Pedder, who runs City University’s The Novel Studio course — whose predecessor course I took in 2009/10. One of my fellow graduates described the Liars’ League as ‘really famous’.) I found, via their website, that Katy Darby, who’s organising this month’s event, spoke about the short story as a form on Radio 4’s The World Tonight at the end of last year — pretty authoritative I’d say.
I first encountered the Liars’ League about a year ago when I attended the Writers and Artists’ Yearbook short story competition awards at the Bloomsbury Institute, where the top three prizewinning entries were given readings by members of the League’s company of actors.
Videos of all the performances and texts of the stories are published after each event on the Liars’ League website and I’ll post a link from this blog as soon as Tuesday’s become available.
While I’m relieved it’s not me standing up and reading out loud, I’m still starting to feel nervous about how an audience will respond to the story: will it grab their attention; will they pick up on any hints or clues; will they laugh in the right places? (FYI, if you’re planning on being in the audience there are bits that are deliberately meant to be funny!) They’re the kind of questions about your reader’s response that you wonder about as a fiction writer but you rarely have the opportunity to discover the answers first hand.
By contrast, one of an actor’s core skills is to thrive on live interaction with an audience and to exploit their experience in delivering the material. And having attended the rehearsal for Liars’ League in London last night I’m sure my story’s in excellent hands. It’s being read by actor Alex Woodhall whose interpretation of the story and phrasing of the narrative and dialogue provided a captivating and enthralling perspective.
I was also impressed and flattered by how Katy Darby and the rest of the Liars’ League editorial team perfectly grasped the underlying dynamics between the characters and suggested small but perceptive changes to improve the impact of the story. I’ll say no more because the proof will be on the evening itself and in the subsequent video.
I’ll blog later about the evening’s experience but, despite the nervousness, I’m looking forward to it hugely. I know a number of friends (some of whom have been mentioned on the blog) have said they’ll try to get along and I’d love anyone else to come along who might enjoy a great night of literary entertainment.
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.
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.
Last night I went to my first book launch — Claire King, author of The Night Rainbow (published today by Bloomsbury) was kind enough to invite me to Daunt Books on Marylebone High Street for the event.
Unlike many of the people at the launch who’d read preview copies, I bought my copy of The Night Rainbow (plus a gift copy) at Daunt’s on the night (see photos) so I can’t yet give my verdict on Claire’s novel. However, as can be seen on the cover, the book is endorsed by quotations from some very well known authors and every review I’ve read of the novel has been very complimentary, as were people I spoke to last night who’d read The Night Rainbow in advance.
The novel is set where Claire lives, in the south-west of France and tells the story of five year old Pea and her sister Margot. Bloomsbury have produced a charming trailer that also builds on the cover’s distinctive artwork, which can be found here.
I’m very much looking forward to reading my copy.
There was a healthy turnout at Daunt’s for the launch and all evening Claire herself was surrounded by a scrum of people waiting patiently for her to sign their copies. But what was fascinating about many of the guests was that it was the first time that they’d met Claire in person (me included), as the event was a huge literary tweet-up.
I’ve exchanged tweets and comments on Claire’s excellent blog (I can’t remember which came first now) for quite a while now and have gradually come to know many people online who were also invited to the launch. Even though I’d come to know several guests’ virtual selves very well, I’d only actually met one other guest in person before last night — Debi Alper, whom I’d had a chat with at the York Festival of Writing gala dinner.
By the end of the evening, I’d managed to say hello to a number of my most regular Twitter friends — who, in turn, introduced me to several fascinating new people I’m now following. I had a very enjoyable conversation with Isabel Costello, writer of the wonderfully titled Literary Sofa blog. And all evening I’d been hoping to bump into Pete Domican, a fellow Lancastrian, football fan and writer, whom I eventually met when we were both getting our books signed by Claire at the same time.
So thanks again to Claire for inviting me and giving me the opportunity not only to eventually meet her in person but also so many other Twitter friends — and, as we all said to each other, we all seemed to get on just as well in person as online. And it was a pleasure to share in Claire’s obvious pride and pleasure about the book’s publication — clearly the culmination of much perseverance and hard work — and a great example to those of us currently toiling away ourselves.
…but hopefully not with a paddle. I spotted this in W.H.Smith at Northampton services on the M1 last weekend.
I’d realised my novel’s title is a bit of a hostage to fortune. I like it because it works in conjunction with the content of the novel in several different ways — and I like the definite article usage that’s so associated with pub names. But it obviously has many associations that aren’t lost on the publishers of erotica and similar. Therefore I wasn’t too surprised to see one of the heavily promoted titles in the erotica section in the motorway services used the same title — it’s one of the Mills and Boon Spice series. Interestingly, this is the only The Angel I could find on Amazon, although there are loads of Angel and Angels out there — Marian Keyes used the title and Katie Price has ‘written’ one too. As I’m so familiar with this title, I don’t know what I’d think if an agent or publisher wanted me to change it.
Book titles are a bit like song titles — there aren’t enough original ones to go round. At least mine wouldn’t sit on the same section of the bookshelves — barring a commercially focused rewrite and a foxy sounding pen name. Although the novel doesn’t shy away from the characters’ sexual lives, I think anyone looking for a bit of mass-market sado-masochism will be disappointed. Currently there’s no sex until almost half way through — but, of course, that may yet change.
Speaking of sex scenes in novels, I’ve been ‘enjoying’ excerpts from the Literary Review’s Bad Sex Awards (see previous post). Now the shortlist is out, short 140-character bursts have been tweeted using the hashtag #LRBadSex2012.
I’ve had a few Twitter conversations with whoever tweets as @Lit_Review about some of this year’s incredible bunch of finalists — and they’re from largely well-known writers (one of the authors, Nicola Barker, wrote a set text for last year’s MMU second year MA course).
It’s not the flowery, purply-prose passages that I find particularly funny — sometimes you can see what the writer is trying to aim for — but the ones which are the opposite of lyrical. For example: ‘He ejaculates voluminously and with very great force indeed. In fact, he keeps on ejaculating, there’s loads of the stuff’, ‘he began to massage her with a kind of dry pumping action, which reminded her of someone blowing up a lilo’ or, my favourite, ‘his penis was jerking around wildly in her hand now and she began yelping to encourage his flow of thought’. The Literary Review doesn’t officially identify the authors of the tweets but let’s say my flow of thought is never going to be quite the same again when I’m watching a report on the nation’s stagnant GDP on Newsnight.
As an aside, and nothing to do with bad sex or erotica, I went to the Made In Germany exhibition in Shoreditch on Thursday — a show by six young or emerging German artists. I’d unreservedly recommend anyone else to visit — except that it finished last Friday (another show with different artists is probably planned). I particularly liked the young people nightlife pieces by Nadine Wölk (the only solo female artist) and the odd landscapes by duo Mike MacKeldey & Ellen DeElaine (possibly the same sort of landscapes Kim might paint).
I chatted with the representative from the German gallery who’d organised the show — and told him about my novel. Although I think he’d rather I wanted to buy one of the pictures, he told me a fair amount about how German artists trained and where they tended to live and work (mostly Berlin, as I’d imagined). Kim’s backstory in the novel is fortunately quite plausible — she trained at theUniversität der Künste. And it would be quite feasible that she’d come to London, although as the chap from the gallery said he though that Shoreditch High Street was starting to look like Kensington, that she’d find it hard going financially.
On another tangential note, I listened to Dustin Hoffman on Desert Island Discs this morning and the section where he talked about being a young, unknown actor, trying to get parts at auditions was fascinating. His life at that time was all about coping with almost continual rejection.
He still seems to feel the pain in some ways and made a very telling point about how people in the acting industry judge talent. It’s his view that the worst actors often got hired, mentioning that his friend Gene Hackman, also then unknown, was such a good, naturalistic actor that it didn’t look like he was acting when he auditioned — which is what directors at that time wanted to see.
It’s Hoffman’s theory that casting directors are terrified of making a mistake and this leads them into usually preferring someone who’s derivative — who reminds them of a known quantity. Because of this, the original talents are often overlooked.
His story sounds reminiscent of the struggle for recognition of many writers — and how it’s easier to market work that fits a known niche. The photo above of all the Fifty Shades derivatives on the shelves at Northampton services makes the point. Twelve Shades of Submission even re-uses the s word in addition to the ‘number of [insert your kink here]’ formula.
But Dustin Hoffman is a salutary example of persistence. He kept on auditioning, got his break and he’s now received the ultimate honour even in this country — Desert Island Discs.
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.
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.’
There’s a lot of discussion in creative writing courses about how authors can find their voice. It’s quite a difficult concept to articulate — most simplistically it’s what defines the distinctiveness of an author’s style. This may, depending on the author, be generic to all their output or restricted to a subset of their work. Also there is debate about how some authors use a consistent voice whereas others vary their narrative voice according to the tone of different parts of a book. In this post I’m mainly concerned with the sort of authorial voice that suffuses most of a writer’s work.
Maybe one of the best ways of capturing an author’s voice was to do what we did in the most recent term of the MMU MA course — when every week a couple of us would contribute a short piece of original writing ‘in the style of’ whichever author we’d discussed the previous week in the Reading Novels module.
So I contributed short pieces inspired by Vladmir Nabokov, Margaret Drabble and John Banville (in the guise of Benjamin Black). I couldn’t help my examples of writing go beyond even pastiche and into the territory of parody — but with different degrees of subtlety they seemed to work.
It was fascinating to see how the other students tackled the exercises too. Who were the literary chameleons who could identify the elements that made another writer’s work distinctive and impose these on their pieces — and who were the types who would nod in the direction of the writer’s style but still make the piece recognisably theirs. Sometimes there were students who alchemically combined the two — both embracing the writer who inspired the piece and also making it unerringly their own.
Writing parodies or pastiches is an incredibly useful exercise — according to one of my friends at Metroland Poets, W.H.Auden said that if he was to teach poetry then he’d restrict it to parodies only.
But imitating other writers, even if it gives a fascinating insight into their techniques, isn’t going to establish a new writer with an unmistakeable voice – the sort of semi-mythical, startling new voice that agents say leaps off the slush pile and transfixes their attention for hours. I guess agents spend enough time reading submissions that they’re the experts at spotting voice leaping from the written page. I tend towards the romantic notion that your writing personality is like a fingerprint or indelible watermark: uncontrollably unique like your spoken voice and the result of hundreds of thousands of experiences and encounters as well as reflecting your genetic personality. How it’s formed must be the subject of many literary PhDs –also witness the popularity of books like Claire Tomalin’s biography of Charles Dickens.
The spoken voice analogy is where the horribly blurry photo comes in at the top of this post. It shows books on promotion as Christmas presents at a local W.H.Smith branch. Â It’s a collection mainly of celebrity memoirs and TV cookery tie-ins — which as the Guardian’s round up of Nielsen’s Bookscan sales figures shows comprised the bulk of the top sellers this year (apart from David Nicholls’s ‘One Day‘).
My wife was reading the Michael McIntyre book and said ‘You can imagine him speaking every single line of this’ Â and then I realised the stunningly obvious fact about the whole selection: the common factor shared by virtually every single one of these books is that they are purportedly written by (or about) people whose spoken voices are very familiar to the reading public — clearly McIntyre, the Hairy Bikers, James Corden, Lee Evans, Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall but also, in the collective memory, Steve Jobs and Jonny Wilkinson.
Knowing the public persona of the (supposed) author immediately changes the way a book is read. There’s no discovery process about the author (or the voice of the author) — if the author’s meant to be a celebrity then it immediately contextualises the words on the page for the reader.
I was flicking through Alison Baverstock’s ‘Marketing Your Book’Â and noted another glaringly obvious (but revelatory) point she made: unlike repeatable commodities such as bread or milk or shoes, books aren’t bought more than once (except on occasion for presents and the like). That’s why publishers must love franchises. Readers might spend ages deliberating and prevaricating about trying something new but once they know they like an author then they’re hopeful of the same pleasurable experience again and will repeat purchase — part of the reason why book series are so attractive to publishers. It’s also inherent in the behaviour of book buyers — people go out to get the new Terry Pratchett, Lee Child, Sophie Kinsella and so on because they know they’ll encounter something familiar — if not the same characters then certainly the authorial voice.
Perhaps what’s most terrifying for putative writers who aren’t celebrities is the question of whether theirs is a voice that people want to hear? For a comedian or celebrity chef their written voice is something they don’t need to worry about making their own — the cover page and their TV appearance should see to that. But if it’s a first novel then the authorial voice will be new and unfamiliar (unless it’s an attempt at bandwagon-jumping and imitating someone else). That’s why activities that promote new writers, such as literary prizes and competitions, are so important. (Speaking of which, one of my ex-City coursemates — Bren Gosling whose blog is linked in the sidebar — has had the great news that the manuscript of his recently finished novel — ‘Sweeping Up the Village’ has been put on the longlist for the Harry Bowling prize 2011.)
A final point on the W.H.Smith display is to note how little fiction it contains — only the Martina Cole and theÂ ChristopherÂ Paolini — and the Wimpy Kid book (if that counts). Perhaps that’s a little unfair as next to the shelves was a rack containing Richard and Judy’s latest seasonal selections — all recently-published fiction. What’s also startling is the predominance of books about sportsmen, comedians and cookery.
I guess a humorous novel about an ex-rugby-playing, TV cookery show contestant who leaves an IT job to run a gastropub might have a bit of appeal to a publisher’s marketing department at least. Let’s hope 2012 at least sees it finished.
Happy new year everyone — I’m hoping the next 12 months will see the publication of some of the great writing that’s been produced by my coursemates and other writing friends.
Following various tweets and retweets I came across a great blog posting from the US by writer J.M. Tohline about approaching agents via query letters and submitting manuscripts.
There was a response from an agent called Amy Boggs that not only identified what should go in an agent query letter but neatly summed up the dynamics of virtually any novel (if you substitute ‘novel’ for ‘query’).
The bulk of a query should consist of 1) the main character, 2) what happens to complicate their life, 3) what goals they now have in response to that complication, and 4) the main obstacle between them and their goal. That is the cake of the query; everything else is just frosting and sprinkles.
Of course there’s an awful lot that needs to go into the writing of a novel that is just frosting and sprinkles but the cake is what most readers really want.
Click here to read the full, comprehensive posting.
‘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.
No, it’s not a piece of George Dubya Bush street-slang (as in ‘Yo Blair’) but the pen name of one of the leading Chinese authors whose novel, ‘Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out’ is one of the books we’re due to discuss in a couple of weeks on the creative writing MA course.
It was pretty hard to get hold of and I prevaricated for a while because Amazon offered me some bizarre buying options — either about Â£50 for a copy sent from somewhere in the UK or a more reasonable price if it was shipped from the US. (They didn’t have the book in stock nor gave a date when they expected it to be.) Waterstones didn’t have it either — whose website I try to support in preference to the Amazon behemoth, so long as it’s competitive and has the book in stock. (Unfortunately the Waterstone’s site has had more technical problems in my experience than almost any other web-site I’ve recently used — I had a short twitter exchange with the agent Carole Blake about this.)
But I took the risk in ordering it for about Â£10 from the US (the risk being that it might take so long to arrive that we’d already have had the discussion) and today it arrived. It took a fortnight to come across the Atlantic, which isn’t too bad considering the shipping was about Â£2.75.
I knew nothing about Mo Yan until I read the book jacket and then looked him up on Wikipedia (for some reason I thought he was a woman). The book itself is apparently in a magical realist genre — something Kirstan Hawkins, one of the City course alumni who spoke to us, uses in her novel. It’s a big thick hardback of about 540 pages but I was sobered to read that Mo Yan (not his real name — it means ‘Don’t Speak’) wrote it in 43 days. In case anyone reading is impressed by my ability to read a Chinese book of that length then I must sadly point out that it’s a translation and the 540 pages apparently correspond to 500,000 Chinese characters (interesting to equate that with our word count concept).
I shall blog further once I get into reading the book — it seems to have quite a clever premise — but first I need to turn my attention for next Monday to Winifred Watson’s ‘Miss Petigrew Lives For A Day’. (This is a book written in the 1930s, which is about as far away in style from our last novel, Martin Amis’s ‘The Information’, Â as it’s possible to get. (It was adapted into a film a couple of years ago with Amy Adams who’s another actress who looks like my imagination’s version of one of my characters — Sally who will probably turn up in ‘The Angel’ but is a principal character in ‘Burying Bad News’).
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 Richard and Judy book club is back — albeit in an online manifestation (in conjunction with W.H.Smith) rather than via broadcasting. Seeing as their old ‘This Morning’ book club seemed to have transformed into generic ‘TV Book Club’, which continues on Channel 4, it will be interesting to see how the two fare against each other — although there’s surely room for both to co-exist. (I have a soft spot for W.H.Smith as I worked there as a sixth-former and every Christmas as a student, although, curiously I worked on every department and did almost every conceivable jobÂ in the Oldham storeÂ — including security guard when the takings were taken in a briefcase to the bank — Â except work on books.)
I know there’s more involvement from Richard and Judy themselves than just being figureheads as I follow Richard Madeley’s very entertaining tweets, which have proved a source of inspiration for characterisation on occasions. He has updated his Twitter followers with behind-the-scenes Â information about the selection of the books — they retreated to the south of France to read their way through the longlist but this wasn’t as idyllic as it sounds as Richard kept being stung by wasps. Some of his many Twitter followers ensured he countered the wasps with an electrified tennis-racket device which, ironically for me, I’d been introduced to earlier in the summer by my dad.
The wasps are mentioned again in the blog on their website which also has the happy news that Richard Madeley will be guest presenting some more shows on Radio Two in the near future. Previous stints have introduced the world to the recipe for his infamous tuna bake (topped with crushed packets of crisps).
I’m fascinated to see what sort of books (they’re not all fiction nor English language originals) are chosen for this sort of promotion. One thing about following Richard Madeley’s tweets is that his candid, gaffe-prone persona gives the impression that these books are all chosen objectively on merit and not due to publisher lobbying.
It’s interesting that the previous post was on Jonathan Franzen as ‘The Corrections’ came to prominence partly because he was reportedly dismissive about Oprah Winfrey selecting the book for her club — and then she apparently deselected it when informed.
I can see from the writers’ and publishers’ perspective that these sort of book clubs wield a huge amount of promotional power and that it might seem like something of a lottery to have their titles promoted. On the other hand, these clubs must certainly expand the quantitative size of the book market and, because they have had a track record of picking some innovative and challenging books, they probably improve the market in qualitative terms too.
Jonathan Franzen’s new novel ‘Freedom’ has been causing a stir among reviewers — one Guardian Books blogger is already calling it the novel of the century.
Time magazine a couple of weeks ago gave Franzen the honour of being on its cover — something achieved by very few authors and was the magazine’s gesture towards placing him in the canon of ‘The Great American Novelists’.
The accompanying article was, compared to most of these profile pieces, long and thoughtful and had some comment on where novel writing might be heading in the future:
‘Early readers ofÂ Freedom, including this one, have found that the book has an addictive quality, the kind one usually associates with mysteries or thrillers. This isn’t by accident. Franzen is very conscious that people are freer than ever â€” that word again â€” to spend their time and attention being entertained by things that aren’t books. That awareness has changed the way he writes.’
Franzen, suggests the profile’s author, Levi Grossman, argues that this need to work to engage harder with the reader by implication means that to avoid becoming an obsolete and arcane art form the novel needs to avoid intellectualÂ novelty-seeking and boundary stretching. Perhaps the self-indulgent aspect of literary fiction might finally be exhausted:
‘A lot of literary fiction strikes a bargain with the reader: you suck up a certain amount of difficulty, of resistance and interpretive work and even boredom, and then you get the payoff. This arrangement, which feels necessary and permanent to us, is primarily a creation of the 20th century.Â Freedom works on something more akin to a 19th century model, like Dickens or Tolstoy: characters you care about, a story that hooks you. Franzen has given up trying to impress with his scintillating prose (which he admits he was still doing inÂ The Corrections). “It seems all the more imperative, nowadays, to fashion books that are compelling, because there is so much more distraction they have to resist,” he says. “To me, now, to do something new is not to develop a form for the novel that has never been seen on earth before. It means to try to come to terms as a person and a citizen with what’s happening in the world now and to do it in some comprehensible, coherent way.”‘
I’ve just had an e-mail from Amazon asking me if I’d be interested in a certain selection of titles by one of their best-selling authors. The titles include: ‘Crystal’, ‘Sapphire’, ‘Paradise’ and, oh this is a bit worrying, ‘Angel’ and, even more so, ‘Angel Uncovered’. The author concerned, as probably 95% of the book-buying population knows (the exception being the sort of people who are enrolled on, or maybe otherwise involved with, university creative writing classes), is Katie Price (aka brand Jordan).
I had actually recently become aware of this unfortunate co-incidence Â — but only several weeks after our course reading had touted the title of my novel to the great and good of the London literary agency world as ‘THE Angel’.
I was pulling up weeds in the vegetable patch when I was listening to Dale Winton on Radio Two — who was making a more entertaining stand-in turn than Steve Wright normally manages (why is it that EVERYONE Steve Wright mentions always ‘Loves the Show’ — and that Steve Wright feels it necessary to tell us that?).
Dale Winton was interviewing Katie Price — as one can imagine it wasn’t really a Jeremy Paxman style grilling. After they exhausted the topic of how the media were for some inexplicable reason always invading her privacy (she’s only done three interviews all year so who on earth is promoting the constant coverage of her in the tabloids?) they discussed her writing career. I was mildly interested until I heard the name of the main character of the series — Angel –who’s oddly enough a glamour model.
I was pretty mortified by this at the time. Partly it was because I’d not done my research on names and, had I done so, then I may have avoided using any angelic references in my title. That said, many books have similar titles and Katie Price is the kind of author (if that’s the right word) whose name is in far bigger type on the book cover than the title, which is almost incidental. However, even though the literary agents we invited to the reading would certainly not have expected me to launch into a carbon-copy bonkbuster (I hope) then they may have been unfortunately reminded, even subliminally, of the connection.
I still like my title, though, as it has a lot of meanings and connotations — apart from the religious guidance, protection and revelatory aspects it’s also the name of the nearest tube to City University — it just has an extra association now.
What I’m a bit more unsettled about is Amazon sending me an e-mail suggesting I might want to buy the whole Katie Price canon. I may once have browsed briefly at her book after I heard the Dale Winton interview although I remember more clearly flicking through the new one (‘Paradise’ I think in W.H.Smith) and having to wait as long as page five to get to a sex scene. I can understand them sending me mails about creative writing books or boring IT strategy texts that I buy for my MSc in Software development but I’ve hardly, if ever, looked at the sexy adventures of Angel. I do have a lot of files on my computer’s hard disk with Angel in the title, though, and I may have sent a lot of e-mails with Angel in the subject line. Makes you wonder.