My review of Christopher Coake’s ‘strong debut’ novel is up at Fiction Uncovered this week.
is an Associate lecturer of creative writing at ChichesterUniversity. Her first novel, The Devil’s Music, was published to critical acclaim in 2009 and was Longlisted for the 2011 International IMPAC Literary Award. Rook is her second novel and one of six titles published this year under the new Bloomsbury Circus imprint.
Q: Music plays a central role in Rook. It’s used to great effect to create atmosphere and it gives an, at times, hypnotic rhythm to the language. In building Nora’s character, why did you decide that her chosen instrument was a cello, rather than, say, a violin or a piano?
JR: The answer to this question reveals something of the randomness and chance involved in my creative process, so I’m glad you asked it.
I knew nothing much about the cello before I wrote Rook. I play the piano, so Nora was going to be a pianist until a chance comment changed my mind. The conversation was about music, the way it speaks directly to the human brain, and someone mentioned that a cello produces the sound closest to the human voice. My ideas for the novel already involved the telling of untold stories, and with that remark something clicked: Nora was a cellist. The decision was that sudden, certain but not at all logical, since even now I don’t know if the statement is accurate.
Q: The setting of Rook is a tightly knit community, in the same area as your first novel, The Devil’s Music. Can you explain what captivates you about the seascapes of West Sussex?
JR: I’ve been reading Simon Schama’s book on landscape and memory. He says ‘landscape is the work of the mind. Its scenery built up as much from the strata of memory as from layers of rock’. And yesterday I learned that the word ‘landscaef’, brought to Britain by Anglo Saxon settlers, meant a clearing in the forest with animals, huts, fields and fences – a place carved out of the wilderness. A place made ‘home’.
My attachment to the seascapes of Sussex is rooted in my childhood and closely bound to my sense of identity. I grew up in Bexhill, East Sussex, where we had a beach hut. Often we’d be there in all weathers, from breakfast until bedtime, and my childhood memories are mostly of being outside, barefoot; of running on pebbles, climbing breakwaters, exploring rock pools, building huge sandcastles with crowds of other children. For me, memories of Sussex beaches are associated with pleasure in the freedom, tempered with safety in familiarity.
Looking back, I’d hazard a guess that’s why, as I began writing my first novel, The Devil’s Music, when everything about the process was unfamiliar and new, I chose to set it on a Sussex beach. Rook ventures a little further inland, along a creek path, across wheat fields. With novel 3, I’m getting adventurous, since it looks as though it might be set in forests on the Downs, and away from the sea.
Q: The story of modern life is interlaced with facts about archaeological digs and historical places and figures, such as the Saxon church at Bosham, King Canute and King Harold, mixed together with legend and scenes from the Bayeux Tapestry. How long did you spend researching the background to the story?
JR: There were a few weeks of intense research near the start of the writing process, when I read church archives and made copious notes. The church archivist took me up the Saxon bell tower, unlocked cupboards and drawers filled with papers, and put into my hand a piece of stone from the coffin thought to belong to a daughter of King Cnut. I read about historical artefacts found in the mud around ChichesterHarbour and the history of the Godwin family; squelched around on the foreshore of Bosham creek; visited The Anchor Bleu and bought ice-cream from the van on the foreshore. It takes a while to discover how or indeed if, any information gathered is relevant to the emerging story, so all this was left to ‘compost’.
Rook took almost 4 years to write, from first inklings, but the total time spent researching is difficult to quantify. For me, it’s an essential and ongoing part of the creative process. I start writing more or less into the dark, imagining scenes to get to know my characters. Being a bit obsessive about detail, I can’t stand being vague, even in first drafts, so I look up specific details if necessary. On tricky days when my imagination is not in gear, is somehow stuck, I switch to reading around the subject to free my mind. This will be when I alight upon the gem, the snippet which has been waiting for me to find it, the vital spark needed to get my imagination rolling once more.
For example, well into the redrafting stage, I ground to a halt. The puzzle of what was to connect the 1066 Edyth sections to the contemporary women’s stories was not yet solved in a satisfying way, and it worried me. Turning idly to Google during a coffee break, I found an article on Harold II’s burial place I hadn’t read before. I traced the author – an academic – emailed him, and in response to my query, received an answer pages long, with some relevant sections of the Waltham Chronicles attached. As I read about the monks at Waltham Abbey, a different version of Edyth’s story sprang to mind, one which tied in with Nora’s storyline. My problem was solved, as if by accident.
Q: Parts of Rook must have been difficult for you, as a mother, to write. Without giving away the storyline, can you say a little about the creative process of writing difficult emotional scenes?
JR: What triggered the idea for Nora’s story was an item in a tabloid newspaper, which got me wondering. By chance, I came across another, very similar case, was niggled by the one-sided telling of both. My sense of a misrepresentation prompted a quick online search, to see what else came up.
I didn’t want to write about these ‘true life’ events. Sensationalism was a danger. Plus, Nora’s story is not something I have experienced myself. The novel was going to be about the repercussions of a school reunion in middle age, I thought. How did I not know my own process better? Nora was barely more than an image, yet there I was sketching out a plot. That’s never worked for me before, and it didn’t work this time.
So, the creative process began with my resistance, which in the end gave way. One day, I began talking about my preoccupation with these stories to a friend and, in one of those weird moments of synchronicity which happen when you’re writing, I learned she’d recently been involved with something similar, not personally, but observed at close hand. What she recounted moved me. I read seriously around the subject, watched films, bought a specialists’ manual, wept over images and, most importantly, met with women who’d been through at least part of Nora’s experience.
The full stories behind experiences like Nora’s usually remain secret, but I bought an autobiography by a woman who’d done what Nora has done, thinking it would help me get under my character’s skin, to understand. On first reading, her account disappointed me terribly – so little detail was there. Clearly, she had been left too tender to express her emotions fully. Of course she had. That simple realisation of the difficulty of voicing this particular secret was the key to finding the ‘voice’ for Nora’s most distressing scenes.
Q: You don’t include lengthy notes about the historical facts nor include a detailed bibliography of texts consulted while writing Rook, although you mention some books in your ‘Acknowledgement’. Unless the reader is familiar with English history they could easily miss many of the historical resonances and subtleties which texture the story. What’s the reasoning behind this decision?
JR: This is a very interesting question. The books acknowledged are those I relied on most for inspiration and information, but Rook is fiction, an imagined story which grew organically. I made things up, played with time and distance, wanting to open up possibilities, to explore the difference between secrets and mysteries. I hoped to suggest that, in the end, there is very little we actually ‘know’ – about historical events like Harold’s death and burial place, and also about the people we love.
So, although I read many different historical viewpoints, I tried not to allow ‘facts’ to restrict the direction of the novel’s growth. I selected and discarded sources and information in a process very different from the one I’d employ if writing an academic essay. It’s been said before, but it’s relevant here: the ‘truth’ of a piece of fiction is something separate from ‘facts’.
As for missing historical resonances, if that happens I’d hope there’ll be some residual or subliminal effect to enrich the reader’s experience of the novel. However, some details are there simply because knowing them gave me pleasure, and because they belonged.
Q: If you were paper, what would you fold yourself into?
JR: One of those paper fortune-tellers children make, because of all the possibilities they hold, secreted in the folds.
Cross-posted from We Love this Book
What better way to break a blogging hiatus than with Rose Tremain’s newest, wonderfully rich and gloriously intelligent novel – Merivel: A Man of his Time (Chatto & Windus).
Tremain returns to the characters, setting and time period of Restoration, her Booker-Short-listed novel of 1989. Having survived the Great Fire, Sir Robert Merivel lives in ease and relative luxury at Bidnold Manor in Norfolk, the estate gifted to him by King Charles II. It is now 1683 and he is provoked into activity with news that his daughter Margaret is leaving. He realises that life is passing him by.
The novel is shot through with self-deprecating irony and is Bunyanesque in style and structure: the action moves from “The Great Enormity” into “Captivity”, strengthened by the “Great Consolation” and through the “Great Transition”. The discovery of “The Wedge”, Merivel’s autobiography, forgotten beneath his mattress for nearly twenty years, usefully introduces his back story, as well as providing a link to his soul quest. He uses it to reflect on his earlier life of debauchery and deceit and to reveal his self-delusion. He travels to the court of Louis XIV in Versailles in an attempt to bring vitality and interest to his life but ends up living like a pauper within the Royal household. His journey is fraught with real and metaphorical dangers and he returns to London transporting a bear he names Clarendon. He reads Montaigne and Descartes and discusses Newtonian physics, William Harvey, and bemoans his “tendency to hypothesise” with amateur chemist, Madame Louise de Flamanville.
He plans to move to Switzerland but Merivel is drawn back to London to the dying King’s bedside where Time catches up with him. Can he change? The Wheel of Fortune turns full circle. He is older and wiser – Bidnold and the wider social and political climate have changed too.
Funny and wise; humane, Tremain pricks our social conscience as she did in Restoration. Merivel is a joy to read. It’s rich with intelligent insight into seventeenth-century history that gives it a texture beyond mere storytelling.
For Iris Murdoch Day – an interview from The Paris Review on how she writes, why she writes, the process of thinking it up and what she thinks is the purpose of literature – fascinating to learn how she carefully plans the outline of the whole book before the actual writing begins. Pity her poor publisher’s nerves! She wrote long hand and only ever had one copy of her manuscript.
Here’s where IM talks about beginning to write a novel:
INTERVIEWER [Jeffrey Meyers]
Could you tell me a little bit about your own method of composition and how you go about writing a novel?
Well, I think it is important to make a detailed plan before you write the first sentence. Some people think one should write, George woke up and knew that something terrible had happened yesterday, and then see what happens. I plan the whole thing in detail before I begin. I have a general scheme and lots of notes. Every chapter is planned. Every conversation is planned. This is, of course, a primary stage, and very frightening because you’ve committed yourself at this point. I mean, a novel is a long job, and if you get it wrong at the start you’re going to be very unhappy later on. The second stage is that one should sit quietly and let the thing invent itself. One piece of imagination leads to another. You think about a certain situation and then some quite extraordinary aspect of it suddenly appears. The deep things that the work is about declare themselves and connect. Somehow things fly together and generate other things, and characters invent other characters, as if they were all doing it themselves. One should be patient and extend this period as far as possible. Of course, actually writing it involves a different kind of imagination and work.
Asked about her ‘ideal reader’, Murdoch say
Those who like a jolly good yarn are welcome and worthy readers. I suppose the idealreader is someone who likes a jolly good yarn and enjoys thinking about the book as well, thinking about the moral issues.
See – Iris Murdoch: The Art of Fiction, no. 117 in The Paris Review, Summer 1990, Issue 115
* BBC Interview – Murdoch discussing character and form, with superb close reading of An Unofficial Rose (1962)
Suzanne Joinson spoke at the W&A conference last week – spoke so engagingly and movingly about the writing process and the process of getting a manuscript into her agent’s hands and then into print, that I needed to read it. Thanks to Bloomsbury for sending on a review copy so promptly.
It answers the question so often asked about why we go to book events – it’s because writers are thinkers. We engage with their thoughts and then want to read and digest how these are manifest on the page.
In this case, the book lives up to expectations and judging by the reviews and ratings on Good Reads it causes readers to think and reflect.
I reviewed it for We Love this Book (below) but the word count limit meant I had to leave out a lot I wanted to say about it – it’s about mothers and daughters, about being lost and finding yourself, about how we make up our lives and ourselves from those around us and from our family. But it also makes political points about cultural tourism and cultural engagements that are little more than surface dressings. Joinson is particularly good at giving her characters strong voices through their language choice, especially Eva, the protagonist, who has a very vivid imagination. Read it, think about it. Even if you hate fractured narratives you can take it apart to see how Joinson cleverly puts it all together.
A flavour of the wonderful imagery:
The girl’s hair was damp and her eyes were panic-filled, like a horse in a thunderstorm. Millicent tipped her own head back so that her eye-glasses retreated along her nose. Then, with quick movement, as if pulling up an anchor, a blue-red creature came slithering out along with a great swill of watery substance and was caught, like a fish, in Millicent’s hands. [p. 5]
As you can tell – it’s highly recommended!
A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar, by Suzanne Joinson (Bloomsbury)
ISBN 9781408825143, Hardback, £12.99
Straddling present-day England and Victorian China, Suzanne Joinson’s glorious debut switches easily between lives and times, between the immediacy of unbelieving missionary Evangeline [Eva] English’s first person journal disguised as ‘Notes’ towards her guidebook for lady travellers, and a third person narrator who charts the journey of another lost soul, Frieda Blakeman, who travels both to uncover the truth of Irene Guy, her mysterious benefactor, and, like Eva, to find herself.
Blind to cultural ‘difference’, zealous Millicent has a method of Christian conversion she calls ‘gossiping the gospel’ which leads Eva and her too-trusting sister Lizzie, who records everything on her Leica camera, into a danger from which neither passages from Bunyan and the Bible, nor unhelpful traveller guides, such as Burton and Shaw, can save them.
Frieda is unhappy with her job of making cultural connections across the globe and of her affair with married bicycle-shop owner Nathaniel. She finds Tayeb, a homeless, jobless, illegal immigrant fromYemen, asleep outside her front door and together they piece together her fragmented life. In their pairing, Joinson adds a further layer of complication to the tale.
A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar is compelling and vividly realised through unforgettable characterisation and skilful plotting. Leitmotifs, such as birds, bones, and milk weave through strong imagery to create an original story about ‘the layering of different selves that create a life.’
*Cross-posted from We Love this Book
A summary of the 2012 Writers’ & Artists’ ‘How to Get Published’ conference, 7th July 2012. A full day is hard to summarise – there were talks, graphs, powerpoint presentations, panels, book signings, coffee and walnut cake…
Bloomsbury’s best selling Christmas book of 2011 was Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s vegetarian cookbook titled River Cottage Veg Every Day which sold over 10000 copies. Impressive. Kerry Wilkinson – self-published author of the hugely popular Jessica Daniel police crime series, sold over 300000 copies of his books, including his debut, Locked In, over the final quarter of 2011, without the benefit or need for a large publicity department, print reviews, agent, or connections across the publishing world.
How did he do it? Does this mean writers don’t need an agent or a publisher?
Kerry took us through the process of uploading his book to Amazon and shared details of how he maximised sales so that readers read his books and come back for more.
When he’d completed his first novel, Locked In, he ‘couldn’t be bothered’ going through the hoops of the traditional route to publication. He self-edited it. He researched how books are sold and worked out where and when to sell it to maximise sales. Knowing that over the Christmas period new Kindle owners would be looking for books, he chose this time to upload and to promote his books. More than that – he sought out readers and reading groups. He joined reader forums to talk about books – to talk about his books. He knows how to cross-promote and he promoted his upcoming book along with his current title.
Here are Kerry’s Tips for selling books:
Write what you want to write. Kerry writes for himself but he writes what people like to read. He tapped into a ready market with the crime genre.
Don’t bother about other writers – connecting with your reader is the single most important thing that a writer can do.
Pay attention to forward advertising – Kerry promoted his next book in each new book – this is something he thinks traditional publishers should do.
Contrary to ‘received opinion’ on ‘platform building’ and online presence, Kerry doesn’t spend a lot of his time blogging and talking about writing. He does interact with readers on reader forums.
Start your ebook immediately with page one – don’t copy traditionally published books which aren’t designed for ebook reading. A more exciting opening will create a more exciting taster or ‘sample’ that readers can click through on Amazon before buying and lead to more sales.
Get the pricing right. Kerry’s first book sold for £1. His third book sells for £3.
Make a simple cover for your book. Photoshop is easy and makes an effective cover. Don’t overload it with a fussy image or too many words.
Create a simple website that’s uncluttered. Include key information in bold – when the next book is coming out, what it’s about, how much it costs and where to buy it. Include a link to Amazon.
Kerry’s mantra is – Think like a reader.
Kerry told us he writes every day. Interestingly, he still has a day job and more interestingly, he’s signed a publishing contract with a mainstream publisher: see his very frank Q&A with Sam Missingham in FutureBook [29/12/11] where he describes how he was contacted by agents after he’d sold thousands of books and where he also explains why he’s gone down the traditional route.
All agreed it was difficult to get published with an agent, that it was difficult to land an agent but that it was equally difficult to be published without an agent.
Here’s the statistics they shared:
Sayle Literary Agency receives around 60-80 unsolicited submissions a week, from these they will sign up 3 or 4 new writers per year
Lucy Luck receives around 50 unsolicited submissions a week, from these she might sign up ten writers, and from these, 3 or 4 a year will sign a publishing contract
Conville and Walsh receive around 4000 unsolicited manuscripts a year, around 100 are ‘treated’ or developed, and from these, around 7 are sold on to publishers
They talked about how the acquisition process has changed in recent years so that the editorial decisions now include the whole company, including, marketing, publicity and sales departments. Publishers pay less than previous years and the editorial balance has moved to agents who now spend a lot of time developing manuscripts before taking them to market.
Often, a conversation around the edges of a book result in exciting things. All of the agents agreed they will work to develop a manuscript with a writer whose voice they consider has potential. Lucy Luck gave the example of her client, Catherine O’Flynn, with whom she worked to bring out her prize-winning first book, What Was Lost. A willingness to take criticism is a key attribute in an unpublished writer.
– Patrick Walsh is convinced that ‘cream always rises to the top’.
A lively closing Q&A ensued where delegates queried the different agents on the best way of maximising success with their submissions. While they repeated most of what Cressida Downing said in the morning session on how to submit ‘properly’ by following the guidelines on their websites, there were also smaller points worth highlighting:
Don’t call or write in advance of sending a manuscript to query whether they’ll accept it – just submit
Research agents carefully so that your manuscript ‘fits’ their current titles and author list
Your covering letter should be short and to the point and personal to the agent
Never use the term ‘peruse’ and never call your book a ‘fiction novel’
A ‘platform’ or blog can help an agent to decide but on its own it won’t make an agent sign up and is more useful for non-fiction writers and projects
FSG is ‘fantastic for the whole publishing industry’ and shows the disconnect between what people want to read and what agents & publishers want to publish. It’s a ‘win-win’ situation and while writers and literary editors are ‘snotty’ it doesn’t diminish the benefit it has brought to publishing. It’s a ‘black swan’ event.
The main thing all of the agents look for in a manuscript is a strong writing voice.
So there you have it – write what you want to read, take time over your submission package, or self-publish. It’s up to you.
I approached the ‘How to Get Published’ conference with scepticism – was it a way of making money from writers who haven’t yet landed a publishing contract or agent? Will I learn anything useful I can pass on to writers and that I can use when submitting my own writing? Is there any point in listening to a different writer’s journey to publication which will probably not replicate mine? On balance, yes, it was really useful and worth the round-trip from Scotland to London. There are countless self-help books on creative writing and how to submit your manuscript – you’ve read them all and so have I, but nothing quite matches hearing it first hand combined with the opportunity of speaking directly to experts and those who work in the industry – especially when that advice is realistic and backed by evidence.
With thanks to Bloomsbury for conference hosting and organising.
A summary of the 2012 Writers’ & Artists’ ‘How to Get Published’ conference, 7th July 2012. A full day is hard to summarise – there were talks, graphs, powerpoint presentations, panels, book signings, coffee and walnut cake…
Setting a serious, workmanlike tone, was Richard Charkin, Exec. Director of Bloomsbury Publishing, who gave a frighteningly realistic insight into the current state of publishing. So you want to be published? Well, here’s the facts, was how he kicked off the conference. Using statistics and graph charts, Richard showed how the market in adult fiction had declined -11% in the last year, how independent bookshops sold just 5% of books [UK], supermarkets 10%, and book chains and online combined sold over 60%; how FSG was good for trade, selling 95000 copies in Asda on one Thursday alone compared to 7000 copies of the ‘100th’ best seller; how sales of digital books are up and good for author back lists; and how children’s books is ‘the best performing category’.
Although the news on sales and bookshops was gloomy there was also a positive side to all the facts and figures. For example, there are over 10000 publishers in the UK – more choice = more opportunities for writers to find the right publisher for their book. Good publishers look after their writers and help them to develop their career. And digital books and self-publishing have opened up new avenues for writers who can’t wait or don’t want to go through the lengthy process of bringing their book to market.
Taking a traditional route to publication means traversing the land of gatekeepers (agents/publishers/editors). Cressida Downing regaled us with funny examples of some very bad submission letters and synopses she’d received over the years from writers seeking publication. Apparently, between 70% and 80% of all submissions were wrong, badly written and didn’t follow the correct guidelines. Why are writers so bad at selling their writing or book idea or even themselves? Why do they rush at the end after spending such care and attention on their manuscripts?
Getting the covering letter right, according to CD, was the single most important thing for a writer to pay attention to when they were seeking an agent. Get it right and the chances of attracting an agent’s attention were raised. Get it wrong and it headed into the bin – even if the book and synopsis were wonderful – a bad covering letter would probably turn an agent off reading the rest of the submission. CD’s main advice was:
- don’t rush to submit
- use an editor to make sure your manuscript is the best it can be
- take time to research agents to find the right ‘fit’
- follow submission guidelines precisely
- spend a long time on your covering letter and make sure it’s perfect before sending it off
Suzanne Joinson’s début novel, A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar caused a stir when her agent, Rachel Calder of Sayle Literary Agency, took it to the publishing marketplace and it was really interesting to learn from both the journey of getting it there.
In a wide-ranging and informative discussion, Suzy talked about how she was approached by agents after winning a short story competition while she was reading for a creative writing MA. They approached her – which seems like a very good place to be in. She then worked to bring the partially completed book to submission standard, working with a mentor and with her agent. Over the process from signing with RC and RC selling the book to a publisher, the manuscript went through around 15 FULL DRAFTS and took around seven years to ‘get it right’.
Even with a publishing contract, the manuscript was further refined to get the pacing and narrative tension just right before it was ready for publication.
Writers who don’t or can’t wait for an agent or publisher to decide when the manuscript is ready for publication can choose to self-publish.
Kerry Wilkinson and Phillip Jones of the Bookseller and FutureBook, discussed the digital revolution in bookselling, and Kerry talked about his publication journey from self-published writer to signing a publishing contract with a traditional publisher.
Phillip talked about how traditional gatekeepers, such as agents and publishers, were now taking on the role of curators and of the long trajectory of publishing innovation that led from Dickens’ weekly numbers to ebooks.
While we think about a split between traditional and digital publishing – publishing is publishing. Publishers are risk takers, he said, and he didn’t diminish their important and continuing role in the crucial areas of exploiting, promoting and distributing books.
The publishing landscape has changed dramatically and quickly, though, and writers don’t need publishers – or do they?
In part two, I’ll report on Kerry Wilkinson’s talk on how he self-published and sold over 300,000 copies of his books via Amazon, with 98% of sales on Kindle and give a summary of the final agent panel discussion on the ‘perfect submission’ and more [ depressing/realistic] statistics on how many new authors they sign from their stack of unsolicited manuscripts.
to be continued….
Publishing is in flux – this we know. So how do we navigate this new, post-apocalyptic, grey-shaded landscape? Fifty-Shades of naughtiness has smashed the idea that fanfiction is a sub of a sub-genre and only for the select few and has destroyed any notion that only ‘‘good writing’ sells. It’s bad. It’s not even so bad it’s good; it’s just bad writing. All previous advice now seems like empty air. So what is a writer to do with their new-born typescript now ?
- Does this mean writers ought to shun the traditional route to publication?
- Does this mean writers ought to forget editing, polishing and fine tuning and go straight from first draft to e-book?
And what of literary consultants? Me?
- How do I advise writers who are looking for guidance on the best route to publication?
- Has the publishing landscape changed completely?
- Or has the ground shifted ever so slightly to allow for light relief? In which case, will things return to normality soon?
With perfect timing, the team behind the writer’s bible – The Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook – have put together a one-day conference that seeks to address all these questions and many more I haven’t thought of yet.
The line-up of ‘those in the know’ includes respected agents, leading publishers, and self-published self-taught experts.
The conference takes place in an ideal central London location – easily accessible from Euston/KingsX in the Wellcome Centre, which is why I’m heading down there on Friday night.
I’ve copied in the programme below – I’ll be there. Will you?
I’ll post a full report on Monday.
Date & Time -7th July 2012: 9.30am-4.30pm
Place: Wellcome Collection, 183 Euston Road, London, NW1 2BE
The How to Get Published conference provides an invaluable opportunity to gather tips and advice from some of the most respected and reputable names in the industry, meet and exchange ideas with other writers and put your publishing questions to a panel of literary agents.
The How to Get Published conference will provide expert advice on:
- Choosing which publishing route
- Knowing when your manuscript is ready
- Getting your submission package in shape
- Targeting agents or publishers
- Understanding what agents are looking for in a submission
- Handling rejection
- The next step- working with your agent or publisher
With a stunning line-up of speakers, the How to Get Published conference offers an indispensable insight to the publishing industry.
Speakers include; Richard Charkin, Executive Director of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, offering an introduction to the current book market and publishing trends.
Editorial Consultant Cressida Downing, on the practical dos and don’ts of submitting a manuscript.
Kerry Wilkinson, the self-published author who was ranked as one of Amazon’s top 10UK authors within 5 months of releasing his book. With over 250,000 e-book sales, Kerry is uniquely positioned to discuss the self-publishing experience.
See the Writers’ & Arists’ Year Book website for full details – hope to see you there!
Finding Soutbek, by Karen Jennings (Holland Park Press) ISBN: 978-1-907320-20-0
Finding Soutbek is a wise and troubling story about the burden of history that asks whether it’s possible for a nation to transition from social, political and cultural separation into a democratic and fair society. In this debut novel, Karen Jennings merges diverse voices representing the ‘Rainbow Nation’ to expose the stark contrasts and divisions of the post-Apartheid generation living on South Africa’s western coast.
The setting is a fictional town split into two communities separated by a dry riverbed, separated geographically but also by race (the lower towners are white), by class (the upper towners are fishermen – the lower towners are wealthy farmers and city workers), and by wealth (the lower town is filled with holiday homes and “retired couples come to live out their days with a sea view”). As the story begins, fire sweeps through the upper town, destroying homes and possessions. A storm sweeps in behind, leaving the upper towners homeless and destitute, reliant on the goodwill and kindness of the lower towners. Cape Town is too far away; the government will only send food when they have none. With much hand-wringing, and after a week of families sleeping on the beach and in the abandoned fish factory, the town’s first “colored mayor”, Pieter Fortuin, provides temporary shelter in the “brand new” town hall in lower town.
Jennings draws out the inequalities and injustices subtly, with quiet power and deep humanity through an assured control of the narrative. Structured in layers, the story of contemporary Soutbek is related in parallel with extracts from its past through lengthy quotations from New Monomotapa: The History of the Soutbek Region, recently published in a flurry of media attention. The mayor had collaborated with retired academic Terence Pearson to compile the book from recently discovered diaries of a seventeenth-century Dutch explorer named Pieter van Meerman, in which he suggests that the early settlers founded a utopian society at Soutbek; “the birthplace of assimilation and integration”. Fortuin hopes that “The History” will bring prosperity back to Soutbek and provide an inheritance that his son will be proud of, while “the Professor,” as Pearson is known, hopes to rebuild his career.
Deft characterisation reveals their personal burdens. There is the mayor’s wife, Anna, rescued from a life of poverty and beatings; Sara, an orphan the mayor brings home to care for Anna; “the Professor”, nesting like a destitute in the detritus of his unwritten magnum opus; Willem, the mayor’s nephew, living in poverty in upper town; David, the mayor’s boarding-school-educated son ill at ease in his hometown -“The History”, it seems, will solve all their problems. As Jennings shows, it is a burden too large to bear.
Cross-posted from Fiction Uncovered:
a community website at http://www.fictionuncovered.co.uk which offers eight selected writers – and an even broader group of writers through recommendation and endorsement – a chance to reach readers. The website also encourages contributors to uncover lost or forgotten fiction as well as new fiction.
Lari Don is an award-winning children’s author of ten books and a further four books out this year.
Maze Running and other Magical Missions, published by Floris Books this month, is the last in the popular ‘First Aid for Fairies’ series for older children.
Lari also writes picture books for younger readers.
Lari graciously agreed to a Q&A by email before the launch of her latest title – Maze Running …, which I devoured in one sitting. It’s pacy and exciting – a really good traditional story for children and a fitting climax to the series:
One of Helen’s friends is dying, stabbed in the heart by the Master, and this life-threatening injury needs a magical remedy. Helen and her fabled-beast friends unite, with the help of the dragons, to find a magical token with the power to cure. But they only have until tomorrow night…
[from the publisher’s tempting blurb]
Lari regularly updates her blog with information for writers looking for tips and inspiration and with reflective posts that examine the writing life. And in her email responses she gives thoughtful answers that let us into some of the decisions and strategies she adopts when writing for children.
Q1. In Maze Running, as in all your books, you create a real page turner. From the first page the pace flies along and doesn’t flag. New writers often struggle with their openings –either they begin too dramatically and then fizzle out or build to the drama but fizzle out quickly. You keep the pace moving forwards. How do you do work it out? Do you write individual scenes and connect them together or work out the cliff-hangers at the end of each chapter and write up to it?
LD: I’m glad you thought the story kept on moving! I like to keep the pace up, so I try to put any description or necessary information amongst the action, rather than stopping the action. And I don’t plan the plot carefully beforehand; I just let the story carry me along. I tend to write chronologically, rather than writing individual scenes then moving them around, and I use cliff-hangers as signposts to aim for, but really, I just sprint ahead with the characters and record what happens! However I do edit very carefully afterwards, to cut out all the bits I needed to work out the story, but which the reader doesn’t want to slog through. I hope that’s why it’s pacy!
Q2. You don’t shy away from writing about dark things that happen. Do you worry that this might be too frightening for your readers? How do you know when you’ve got it right?
LD: I don’t ever know if I’ve got it right.
I did once read a draft chapter of Rocking Horse War to my own kids, and as I got to the dark distressing bit, I thought “Oh dear, this might make them upset.” Then I thought, “If this makes them cry, then I’ve written it right.” It made them cry. And I was very pleased. Which probably makes me a conscientious writer, and a terrible mother!
When I write picture books for wee ones, they are not dark or scary. There will be a problem, but it will be solved in daylight, with adults in the background.
But Rocking Horse War and the First Aid for Fairies books are for older kids. I wouldn’t be able to sustain their interest over 20plus chapters if there wasn’t some danger, and as a writer I wouldn’t want to live in that world for a year if there weren’t some difficult decisions and dark characters to challenge me. It’s what makes the story worth writing, and reading. But these are books for primary kids, mainly, and I do always want to end on a positive note. So there will be a bit of worry and fear (and tears, sorry…) as well as a few painful injuries on the way, but I can usually promise, if not a totally happy ending, then at least a hopeful one.
And maybe I can tell if I get it right. If kids want to read the next one…
Q3: Do you have an ideal reader you write for?
LD: Me, when I was 10. I write for the girl who loved horses and climbing trees and getting wet in rivers, but who also loved reading Diana Wynne Jones and CS Lewis books. I really do wish a centaur had turned up on my doorstep!
Q4: The names of your fantastical and fabled creatures seem to fit them so well: Yann, Lavender, Sapphire, Lee, Helen, Catesby, Rona… How do you know when you’ve got the right name? Do you ever change a character’s name at the draft stage?
LD: Getting the right name is really hard, and involves scribbling lots of lists and testing lots of names. Helen was Anne or Anna for a wee while, then Irene, but she didn’t convince me at all until she became Helen. That fitted her immediately. There is a meaning or a reason behind every name (Rona for example is from the Gaelic for seal; Sapphire is a blue dragon who likes jewellery, hence a gem name) but I very rarely explain the name in the book, it’s mostly just for my own satisfaction! Yann however turned up with his own name. I didn’t choose it! I don’t much like arguing with him…
And yes, I have changed names late on, if they haven’t fitted, or if I have realised they are too close to other potentially confusing names. That can be hard, as it takes a while to get to know the character again.
Q5: I love the way you thread well-known traditional folktales into your stories. The Scottish folk-tale of Thomas the Rhymer is an important element in Maze Running, how did this come about? Have you always known this tale or did you research ballads?
LD: I am inspired by a lot of myths and legends. The main injury in Maze Running (but I won’t say what that injury is!) was partly inspired by a Viking god myth for example, and the Borders tale of Tam Linn was a huge influence on the Carterhaugh section of First Aid for Fairies, and on the whole plot of Wolf Notes. I have known of Thomas Rhymer, and the story of his reappearance at the Eildons, for a long long time. My family come from the Borders, and I went to school there for a while! And I once told Thomas Rhymer in a forest, as part of an art exhibition with students putting their visual interpretations of the old legends in the trees, as storytellers told the tales below. It was a lovely night, apart from the midgies…
I love the idea of introducing kids to the old stories in my new books.
Q6: Setting is very important in all of your books. In Maze Running it’s the Eildon Hills. Why here for the last in the series?
LD: The settings are vital. I find the landscape and legends of Scotland very inspiring. Maze Running is set partly in the Borders (Traquair and the Eildons) but also much further north at Cromarty, and further west at Kilmartin. I wanted to go back to the Borders because that’s Helen’s home, so I wanted to tie the story up there.
And the Eildons are very magical hills. I walked up them one day last autumn to research the quest at the Lucken Howe, with a notebook and pen in my hand, as always. I could actually HEAR Helen and Lee arguing in my head as I walked from Melrose up to the reservoir. So that scene almost wrote itself, in a way which would never have happened if I’d been sitting at home looking at pictures of the Eildons online. Walking is a great way of hearing the right words!
Q7: Your books appeal to both male and female readers and you’ve got really strong female characters – I’m thinking of Helen and her vet mother. How important is it to you that you give out a positive message in your books? Or do you just concentrate on writing a good story with universal appeal? Why is “The Master” – the baddie – a male character?
LD: Good question. I’m a girl, and I have two daughters, so I tend to think of girl characters first. But I hope I write strong boy characters too, and I certainly know that boys and girls enjoy my books.
When I was growing up I used to get slightly annoyed at all the excellent books with main characters who were boys who had sidekicks who were girls. And that’s still a tendency in kids’ books. So far I’ve tended to do it the other way round! Helen is the main character, and Yann and Lee are often her sidekicks. And in Rocking Horse War, my other novel, Pearl is the main character, but is accompanied by (and either helped or hindered by) the mysterious Thomas.
However as far as my baddies go I am an equal opportunities employer… The Faery Queen in Wolf Notes is a girl! And I would suggest (without spoiling the plot) that there are several other characters in Maze Running who are definitely female and definitely not goodies!
Q8: If you were magically transformed into a fabled beast, what would it be?
LD: Oh. I don’t know. I’d like to be a centaur because I like to run. But perhaps I’d like to be fully human some of the time. So maybe a selkie? But they are usually a bit wet, and I’m not as much of a fan of swimming as I am of running. So perhaps a wolfgirl like Sylvie, who can be human or wolf, and can chase down deer. But I’m a vegetarian, so I’m not sure that would work. I think I like being that most magical creation – a writer, because then I can be anything I like, every time I write !
Q9: Maze Running is the last in the series of ‘First Aid for Fairies’ – sadly. Did you always plan to write four or did they evolve out of each other? Did the characters demand more stories?
LD: Initially I only planned to write one. There would have been no point in writing more if no-one had published it! But when I was editing First Aid for Fairies for publication, I came up with the idea for Wolf Notes, and when I was editing Wolf Notes, I came up with the idea for Maze Running (which right from the first moment was clearly going to be the last book), and when I got feedback from readers that they missed Rona in Wolf Notes, that cemented the idea for Storm Singing. So each new book came out of the previous books. But four is enough, for now, even though I had lots more ideas when I was editing the last two! I have to stop now, partly because Helen and her friends are getting older – they’ll be wanting Young Adult plot lines next, and I’m not ready to write those! – and partly because I want to explore other ideas, characters and worlds.
Q10: If you were paper, what would you fold yourself into? Ian Rankin said ‘a book’ in his Q&A, – so what else?
LD: A boat. There is a boat in Viking mythology which can be folded up and put in a pocket, and I’ve always thought that would be very handy. Especially round Scotland’s wild and wonderful coastline.
Thanks Lari, for taking the time to answer my questions –
…And finally…. what’s next on the writing front? More fabulous creatures or something different altogether?
LD: Not another fabled beast book yet, if at all. I have a few other totally different ideas racing around in my head, but I’m not sure which one I will go for first. It’s a difficult decision, choosing which characters and story you’ll spend the next few months or years with. I think I will have to choose the questions which I’m most keen to answer, the story which just won’t leave me alone!