Writing Crumbs: Short Stories

… from the Edinburgh International Book Festival

Short Fiction: Anneliese Mackintosh [AM], Colin Barrett [CB], and Graham Swift [GS]

FB_AOM

Young-Skins

eaosgs

 

 

 

 

Any Other Mouth is ‘A viciously funny and heart-breaking collection of semi-autobiographical short stories from one of the UK’s most exciting new voices.’

‘This is the best thing I’ve read in years. Brutally honest and exquisitely crafted, this is a book that breaks your heart, slowly rebuilds it, only to smash it to pieces again. I’m seething with envy.’ Doug Johnstone

AM‘s collection is gathered around death – a fierce, raw, brutally honest, heart-rending collection of stories that spilled out after her father died. She said his death released her to write what she wanted to write, both physically (an inheritance allowed her time to write) and emotionally (poured out things which she’d always held back from telling). Memoir refashioned into highly original prose. Broke my heart to listen:

  • highly personal; intense
  • punctured with black humour and irony
  • collection isn’t ordered chronologically, but has its own order through the emotional arc
  • 3 months to write a first draft; 2 years to rework them

CB‘s collection is a ‘biography of a small town’ [fictional town named ‘Glanbeigh’ and surrounding area of County Mayo ]:  “My town … is nowhere you have been, but you know its ilk.”  A shy, unassuming writer who surprised me with the emotional maturity and sly humour of ‘The Clancy Kid’; the story he read.

Young Skins is a collection of “stories … set in a familiar emotional landscape, but they give us endings that are new. What seems to be about sorrow and foreboding turns into an adventure, instead, in the tender art of the unexpected.”– Anne Enright

  • paired characters; mostly young men
  • in the tradition of Joyce and Beckett who energised writing about small towns: small town fictions, big ideas
  • reveals the mindset of the place through a timeless representation of those who stay behind
  • four years to write it; edited as he wrote
  • advises writing stuff you don’t publish – write out your experiences
  • read; keep reading new things

GS‘s collection is ‘elegant, humble and humane’: James Kidd. I read the short story called ‘Fusilli’ on the way to the event, and nearly cried on a packed train because of the restrained way it unfolds a story of loss and longing.

‘We are the people of England and we haven’t spoken yet’ – ‘The Secret People’, G. K. Chesterton

  • began his career with short fiction and moved to novels. This is his first collection of short stories for over 30 years – why? short stories ‘departed him’ until 2 years ago and then they ‘happened to come’: ‘a joy’
  • carefully constructed collection: read from first to last, in order, to get the best sense of how it fits together
  • collection of stories ‘about how people who happen to live in England and, through the universal in the local, about the ‘greater republic of humanity’
  • one of the functions of fiction is to tell the stories that don’t get told
  • title has a hint of irony: suggests England is a kind of story – made from the stories we spin for ourselves
  • doesn’t write from his own experience
  • loves the idea that something formed out of nothing, in isolation, forms stories in the reader’s imagination which they read in isolation: the shared connection of storytelling

Tartt[an] Bookishness

Donna Tartt (c. LittleBrownsite)If I was Donna Tartt and I was in Edinburgh for one night, and I’d playfully mentioned ‘Potter’ in my latest novel, I’d stay in the Balmoral Hotel on Princes Street, in the room where JK Rowling completed the final pages of the Harry Potter series. It’s not as fanciful as it seems. Unlike the cold persona she puts out – few interviews – professional photo shoots in an array of serious poses – no blogging or tweeting or facebooking – Donna Tartt is engaging, delightful, entertaining and really rather lovely to listen to for an hour on a grey November night.240px-Balmoral_Hotel

She came on in a bit of a rush, like a rock goddess whooshing through the corridor on the way to an event. Draped in a jaunty tartan scarf (which I’ll come back to later), DT enthused about art, about literature, about the trickery of artifice and how to deceive with truth. She was very good. And it was so appropriate to sit in the nave of a converted church, listening to her evangelise about writing – a religious spectacle where DT explained her reverence for the act of writing as a spiritual act as a form of spiritual connectedness between writer and subject, writer and reader – they [we] engage in a soul exchange; literature is the only medium, she said, where we enter another person and see what they see, feel what they feel, know what they know.

It was enthralling. I have to admit that this year’s literary events have seemed to me to be a bit jaded, as if the writers I’d listened to had dragged themselves out to speak to us because they had to, it was just another part of their job. I didn’t get that at all last night from Donna Tartt. For the first time in a long time (Margaret Atwood and Edna O’Brien excepted) I felt I was listening to a writer who really cared about her art as art, not just as a means of making a living; as if she wanted to make us care, searching for the right word, the exact metaphor to explain or describe what she was attempting to do in The Goldfinch and in her writing.

The Goldfinch is the best book I’ve read this year. Everything about it is perfect: characterisation, narrative drive, pacing, dialogue, cultural references, setting – it’s a superb achievement and well worth the eleven years it took to bring it into print. I only finished reading it a couple of nights ago and I’m still in that ‘it’s a great book’ phase you get after reading a great book and I have nothing to say about it, except telling everyone ‘it’s a great book’. (I’ll try and write something more meaningful by the end of the year.)
Goldfinch cover (c.) LittleBrown

On the tartan – when she came in draped in a tartan scarf and laughing about buying a vintage kilt, I was disappointed. Typical, I thought, an American coming to Scotland thinking that tartanry is our culture and we’d love her for ‘joining in’. Oh I was wrong – happily. She explained, when I asked about it at the book signing, that it was a bit of fun – she knew it was all phoney but she was passing the vintage tartan shop on the Royal Mile (that shop and the one down the Grassmarket are tourist magnets) and felt a piece of tartan from there was appropriate to the idea of fakery and authenticity in The Goldfinch. She was right, I do love her for buying it because she understands (more than many Scots) about the fakery we accept as our past.

On Writing: Crumbs from the Tartt table

  • DT has kept a writing notebook for decades, she owns piles of them where she writes snippets of conversations, descriptions, ‘bits and pieces of the mind’, she said, quoting Didion
  • she writes and writes to hone her talent, as a pianist or a dancer, writing yards to get a sentence just right
  • DT builds her scenes through small brushstrokes to perfect the texture of a character and a scene, building them up and going over and over, adding little telling details to bring them to life; make them authentic
  • there’s a little bit of every writer in all their characters – which is not the same as saying ‘it’s about themselves’ (which is reductive)
  • the opening of The Goldfinch is deliberately leisurely – like Hitchcock, DT builds the tension by looking away from the moment of high drama that’s just around the corner, drawing the reader in with lengthy description, exposition and dialogue
  • writers should write for themselves
  • there’s no ‘readership’ to write for but an ideal reader – one true person who ‘gets’ what you’re trying to say
  • tragedy, cruelty, horror and outrage are ‘sweetened’ by the act of writing – it can be cathartic for both the writer and the reader

**With thanks to Waterstones and Little Brown for bringing Donna Tartt up to Edinburgh and hosting a highly enjoyable evening.

*** Isabel Costello has reviewed both The Goldfinch and the London event on The Literary Sofa  << well worth a read

 

<meta name="norton-safeweb-site-verification" content="bqdf30mlrg7iakoxeydi3ei4nakehhhp9tybhp6zb-kadezkgq06-b1d9s3q6e5mrohpyhm6utezsxpiza3huvzvcv1in4s65f3fty6qzlsn9wa05qvmw3b6i8kvg92v" />

 

Golden Nuggets – last words on writing, from EIBF 2013

Edna O’Brien [EO] and Margaret Atwood [MA] are so different in the books they write that it’s hard to convey how alike they are, in their professional approach to writing that is. Each spoke of the struggle to find the right form to tell their stories and each conveyed something of the magic of writing through the little golden nuggets they dropped into their talks. Both were gracious too about other writers and were generous in sharing a life-time experience of writing.

EO

  • On writing memoir – it’s crucial that you place the memory in a place, its correct setting, you need to ‘ground it, give it physicality’ (Proustian qualities).
    Country Girl. A Memoir, Edna O'Brien [Faber, 2013] - pb
    Country Girl. A Memoir, Edna O’Brien [Faber, 2013] – pb
  • On setting the scene – don’t write a catalogue of description – ‘unless it has emotional relevance it’s no good’: writing is about detail
  • Ignore inane clichés like post modern etc. – don’t pigeonhole your book
  • On story: stories are essential to any book – hook the reader into what will happen next; stories are about how to live, how to be – about the characters’ inner lives
  • Baudelaire changed the way she writes
  • She is annoyed by the current vogue for limiting writing into genre and category.

The Love Object: Selected Short Stories by Edna O'Brien [Faber, 2013]
The Love Object: Selected Short Stories by Edna O’Brien [Faber, 2013]
An anecdote Edna O’Brien shared reveals the hunger that exists for writing and character, for setting and descriptive writing as well as the story. She told us how her village had few books, the Bible was most prominent. But someone had a copy of Rebecca and its pages were shared around from house to house and hand to hand, but out of sequence, out of order.

Edna O'Brien [author photo from Faber (c.)]
Edna O’Brien [author photo from Faber (c.)]
On Feminism

EO also spoke about feminism during the Q&A in response to a question about how she saw herself in the trajectory of modern feminism and whether she saw herself as a role model.

[in summary – not verbatim]

In some ways, every woman must thank the movement and recognise their work and question why it took so long. She was lucky enough to be living through the time when it emerged. She is grateful and proud. She’s wary of ‘isms’. ‘Most importantly, we must remember that the root and intent of feminism is about freedom of intellect, not about being superhuman or trivialising it’. She’s wary of those who reduce the seriousness of it – ‘it’s so important’ –‘ we mustn’t allow it to be reduced to being about being audacious but about being deep, which is much harder’. She’s drawn to women because of their psyche and the tragedy of women’s lives; pregnancy and marriage and losing the self; feminism is about being a person and deep rootedness. Above all, she doesn’t write under the banner of feminism but writes what most affects her about the condition of women.

MA

[On writing The Blind Assassin]

  • The story preceded the form in which it unfolds.
  • MA had several false starts before she found the right form – starting with death of central character and a found cache of letters; started again with an elderly relative and two journalists; finally found the form to tell her story. The newspapers contradict the story; the story contradicts the story
  • a framing narrative structure is hard to sustain. MA wrote as far as she could in one section and then took up another section but she wrote in sequence
  • Research, research, research – go to the places in your book to add authenticity and realism
  • Part of the struggle to find the right form was resolved when she asked ‘who is Iris’s reader – who is reading the story?’
  • When asked during the Q&A about writing, she said: Plunge in, write what you need to write, then go back and fix it  – and
  • Write 200 words a day, whether good or bad, matters less than getting into the mindset of being a writer
  • Get ‘the look of an age’ from old newspapers and ads in old magazines, such as, Good Housekeeping
The Blind Assassin, by Margaret Atwood (Bloomsbury 2009)
The Blind Assassin, by Margaret Atwood (Bloomsbury 2009)

MA commented on how to write, mostly, these were summarised from her excellent [and highly recommended] book about writing, Negotiating with the Dead. Here’s what she has to say on being a writer:

There’s one characteristic that sets writing apart from most of the other arts – its apparent democracy, by which I mean its availability to almost everyone as a medium of expression. As a recurring newspaper advertisement puts it, “Why Not Be A Writer?…No previous experience or special education required.” […]

To be an opera singer you not only have to have a voice, you have to

train for years; to be a composer you have to have an ear, to be a dancer you have to have a fit body, to act on the stage you have to be able to remember your lines, and so on. Being a visual artist now approaches writing, as regards its apparent easiness – when you hear remarks like “My four-year-old could do better,” you know that envy and contempt are setting in, of the kind that stem from the belief that the artist in question is not really talented, only lucky or a slick operator, and probably a fraud as well. This is likely to happen when people can no longer see what gift or unusual ability sets an artist apart.

As for writing, most people secretly believe they themselves have a book in them, which they would write if they could only find the time. And there’s some truth to this notion. A lot of people do have a book in them – that is, they have had an experience that other people might want to read about. But this is not the same thing as “being a writer.”

Or, to put it in a more sinister way: everyone can dig a hole in a cemetery, but not everyone is a grave-digger. – /

Negotiating with the Dead (CUP, 2002)
Negotiating with the Dead (CUP, 2002)

 

Special Edition Hardback Version of The Blind Assassin (2013)
Special Edition Hardback Version of The Blind Assassin (2013)

A Handful of Writing Crumbs

a few writing crumbs from the women’s table … from Evie Wyld [EW], Amy Sackville [AS], Jane Gardam [JG], and Maggie O’Farrell [MO] at this year’s EIBF.

All the Birds Singing, by Evie Wyld
All the Birds Singing, by Evie Wyld

“You need to write the books you have to write”, EW said [I’m paraphrasing], but she could have been speaking for everyone I’ve heard at this year’s EIBF who has attempted to explain why they write and how they write and what they write about.

Orkeny, by Amy Sackville
Orkney, by Amy Sackville

Both EW’s and AS’s latest books are set on islands, so it probably seemed natural to pair them in an event. Probably: in style and tone both books are worlds apart – as far apart as Australia, the Isle of Wight and Orkney, where their books are [partly] set. Yet this was one of the most interesting events. EW’s book follows a double patterning, sliding between the past and the present, as it builds the character of Jake – a female sheep-shearer living on an unnamed British island who battles an unknown destructive force. AS’s book follows an unnamed woman who moves to Orkney with her professor-cum-new husband.

EW didn’t write the sections alternately, in order, but followed each part to its conclusion and then sewed them together once she knew the pattern the book ought to take.

AS was intrigued by answering “who would gets to tell the story”?

Both chose islands for different reasons:

EW- islands as prisons, for example, Bass Rock; outsiders are more visible

AS – an island provided the perfect setting for using “classic Aristotelian restrictions”  and to play with perception and reality.

On research, both agreed they could spend too much time, yet not enough. AS researched a way to think about folklore and culture and researched for as long as it took her to write the book. EW researched sheep and shearing (but didn’t shear a sheep).

Both agreed that the way they wrote made the reader work hard – in such a way that each reader takes something different from their books – and both were interested in the form and shape of their books.

Last Friends by Jane Gardam
Last Friends by Jane Gardam

The spark for JG’s trilogy about the end of Empire was a vision of a man stepping out of a London hotel. We weren’t sure whether she had seen him or imagined him, but whatever it was, he stayed in her imagination until she imagined him into print. In her latest book, Last Friends, she returns to minor characters because, “we all know someone in their background who is always there” – all are important, all have interesting features and stories to tell. She begins by wondering about voice – whose voice should tell the story? JG is interested in the way she can use fiction and her characters’ ability to “surprise themselves … in real time”, for her, “there’s no such thing as coincidence”.

Instructions for a Heatwave, by Maggie O'Farrell
Instructions for a Heatwave, by Maggie O’Farrell

MO

  • writes about twenty drafts of her novels
  • never writes the beginning first because she’d be forever working on it, revising and rewriting it to make it perfect and would never get to the end of the story
  • writes scene by scene and then puts it all together when it’s finished
  • never reads reviews [whether good or bad]
  • is never happy with the finished book – it could always be better

Maj Sjöwall at the Edinburgh Int. Book Festival

I’m reposting my piece on the Martin Beck series because this afternoon Maj Sjöwall is visiting EIBF for the very first time. I wrote about seven out of the ten books although I finished the series and re-read them last year. What I love about them is the incremental way the characters develop within the context of historical detailing so that I found myself looking out for individuals and thinking, where’s Beck, where’s Larsson, as if they were real, as if the situation was real, as if they could do something real. Writing one book is highly satisfying, but what Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö achieved with the whole series is a towering accomplishment: the Martin Beck Series is a masterpiece.

[repost] This series of crime books are police procedurals set in Sweden; a Decalogue of crime books by the Swedish writers, Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. Subtitled, The Story of a Crime, Sjöwall and Wahlöö set out to show that ‘under the official image of welfare-state Sweden there was another layer where poverty, criminality and brutality existed beneath the glossy surface.’ The characters develop from book to book, adopting new characteristics and habits, or deepening collegial relationships. These are tightly plotted police procedurals that follow the investigation from grisly discovery to final solution. Each one is completely different and yet the same. Each one follows the same characters uncovering secrets and following dead-ends, but each too uncovers another aspect of the characters, develops Beck’s personal life, and reveals how Swedish society is sliding away from the welfare ideal.

Each of the books is its own individual story but I probably wouldn’t have read beyond Roseanna if I hadn’t received the first three together from ‘InsideBooks’. Roseanna builds slowly, plodding procedurally from the discovery of a woman’s body to resolution of the crime. Looking back at the first in the series from where I am now with no. 7: The Abominable Man, it takes on a whole new aspect. The characters, the murder squad, their families and relationships are introduced but not fully formed. In fact, they’re not all there yet. It’s clear, though, that this isn’t just about Beck but about his team and the individual characters. Lennart Kollberg, Frederik Melander, Gunnar Ahlberg, Gunvald Larsson, Einar Ronn, and the comic double act of Kristiansson and Kvant, all play important individual and integral roles in various novels in the series. Some, like Beck and Kollberg feature in them all, while others, like Gunvald Larsson aren’t introduced until no. 3. Åke Stenström is an important character, both for his own sake and for introducing his wife to the group.

The setting plays a crucial role in each of the novels, while the period detailing enables Sjöwall and Wahlöö to inject cutting social commentary. For example, mention of a Vientamese tourist in Roseanna is a not too subtle reminder of international politics. Christmas, for the Marxist authors, is like the ‘Black Death’, the consumer ‘epidemic swept all before it and there was no escape. It ate its way into houses and flats, poisoning and breaking down everything and everyone in its path… The gigantic legalized confidence trick claimed victims everywhere’ (The Laughing Policeman, p. 119).

In discussing how they planned the series, Sjöwall and Wahlöö describe how they wrote the books one at a time, each writing a chapter after the other. Writing one book on your own is hard, so how much planning must have gone into deciding who would write which scene, what to leave out and what to add, when to change a character (as Beck does in no. 6, Murder at the Savoy) without alienating the reader? There’s also the stringent planning and organisation of material; sorting out the intricate details for ten interconnected books is a feat of great ingenuity. The Martin Beck series is, rightly, an acclaimed landmark in European crime fiction. Here’s a link to an interview with Maj Sjöwall inThe Observer, November 2009.

Originally published in Sweden in the 1960s and early 70s, the edition I’m reading through is reprinted by Harper Perennial (2006-07) from English translations (of mixed success, I hate to report), with an introduced to each provided by a contemporary crime writer, such as Colin Dexter, Val McDermid, and Henning Mankell, who introduces the first, Roseanna.

Martin Beck Series, No 1: Roseanna (1965)

“On a July afternoon, the body of a young woman is dredged from beautiful Lake Vatern”.

The first book of the series is slowly paced but skilfully plotted. The investigation into the brutal rape and murder of Roseanna McGraw stutters from dead-end to dead-end until a final flurry of activity in the closing chapters brings a resolution. In this first book we are introduced to Martin Beck and the team of detectives and to the Swedish landscape and society.

Martin Beck Series, No. 2, The Man Who Went Up in Smoke (1966)

Beck travels to Prague to track down a missing journalist. Alone and abroad, he muses on his failing marriage. A moody, broody book that builds Beck’s character.

Martin Beck Series, No. 3, The Man on the Balcony (1967)

An uncomfortable and disconcerting read. Someone is attacking and killing young girls in Stockholm and leaving their bodies in “once-peaceful parks”. No. 3 is when the detective characters begin to gel as a team and Larsson is introduced to upset the balance.  Kristiansson and Kvant bring comic relief to a very dark tale.

Martin Beck Series, No. 4, The Laughing Policeman (1968)

Someone murders eight people on a Stockholm bus, including one of Beck’s team. For me, this is where the whole series begins to make sense. If you get this far, read the first one again. What strikes is Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s restraint. They hold back so much from the first three which makes the action of the fourth so affecting and effective. Brilliantly done. The Vietnam War looms again in anti-war protests while Beck’s character deepens at the same time as his relationship with Kollberg and Larsson intensifies.

Martin Beck Series, No. 5, The Fire Engine that Disappeared (1969)

Larsson takes centre stage as hero in a house-fire; there’s a double meaning to the Fire Engine and black-marketeering; social injustice and politicalisation of the police add to the mix to give one of the best plotted books of the series. The action moves from Stockholm to Malmö. Incisive social commentary cuts through the fiction:

“Students put on their white caps and trade union leaders get their red flags out from the moth-balls and try to remember the text of Sons of Labour. It will soon be May Day and time to pretend to be socialist for a short while again, and during the symbolic demonstration march even the police stand to attention when the brass bands play the Internationale. For the only tasks the police have are the redirection of traffic and ensuring that no-one spits on the American flag, or that no one who really wants to say anything has got in amongst the demonstrators.” (pp. 182-83)

Martin Beck Series, No. 5, Murder at the Savoy (1970)

Again set between Stockholm and Malmö. The murder of a businessman during his after-dinner speech at an hotel takes Beck and Larsson into an investigation of seedy corruption. We learn more of Larsson’s background, while Beck lightens up. Kristiansson and Kvant are their usual bumbling inept selves – it’s their unprofessional actions that hinder the whole investigation.

No. 7, The Abominable Man (1971).

Originally published by consistently in print and, as the latest version by Fourth Estate screams from the front cover – with over ten million copies sold worldwide – it’s not hard to see why.

Vintage edition earlier this year [2012]

 

Let Them Eat [Sumptuous] Cake

Writing Crumbs 2

EIBF Sunday : Sarah Dunant [SD]

cake (c) Italian Cake Shop LeithAccording to tradition tiered wedding cakes date back to the Renaissance when guests brought individual cakes and piled them on top of each other – which is a roundabout way of introducing the sumptuous literary feast of writing advice that SD served up at her EIBF event on Sunday evening.

Blood & Beauty cover image uk editionSD gave a warm, bubbly, yet forensically detailed, insight into her writing and the research process that went into the creation of her latest novel, Blood & Beauty (Virago).

  • research, research, research: immerse yourself in the period and then drip it lightly into the text to add authenticity; don’t layer your research too thickly but serve it in slices, slid in without the reader realising you are teaching them something new
  • do the work and be confident in your knowledge of the period
  • Blood & Beauty is a campaign, written to correct the gossip and slander around the Borgias, especially, Lucretia
  • history is written by the victors and until recently women were left out of official history. With new developments in archival research and feminism, Dunant could redraw these characters with historical truth and depth
  • she must be truthful to history – can’t make it up- except when it comes to interiority, where fiction is key to unlocking thoughts left unwritten and to explain recorded acts
  • scientific and medical advances aid our understanding of events as they unfold – make sure you remain truthful to what the characters would know about their situation [diseases etc]
  • be aware of changing metaphors over the ages, be period-specific and contextual in prose and style; historical fiction mustn’t sound modern

    Sarah Dunant at EIBF 2013
    Sarah Dunant at EIBF 2013

SD’s website is packed with information about writing as well as topical commentary on her blog and twitter feed.

**I think what impresses me the most about SD is the way she has managed her writing career. She stepped effortlessly from writing serial crime fiction to historical novels and changed her career from criticism and presenting [radio and tv] to writing full time and continues to find new things to say and new ways to say them.

Writing Crumbs

EIBF Saturday: Kate Atkinson [KA] and Salman Rushdie [SR]

KA

speaking on Life After Life as part of the ‘Memory and Imagination’ theme

Kate Atkinson (c.) EIBF
Kate Atkinson (c.) EIBF
  • rarely has the ending planned out
  • writes a ‘symphonic crescendo of endings’ until it emerges
  • Life After Life isn’t about living over and over to get it right
  • doesn’t think the narrator is unreliable
  • Life After Life doesn’t have psychic moments but some things ‘leak through’ into another time
  • felt a responsibility when writing about wartime experiences to get it right
  • different novels have different shapes: – Life After Life is a wave, written sequentially whereas the Jackson Brodie crime novels are carefully plotted pyramids
  • KA doesn’t think of the Jackson Brodie novels as crime novels so much as novels
  • enjoyed the freedom from thinking about plot when writing Life After Life

SR

speaking as part of the ‘Best of Young British Novelists’ theme & interviewed by John Freeman [formerly of Granta]

Salman Rushdie at EIBF 2013

  • wrote Joseph Anton in third person because a) gave a different dimension b) it felt right c) he is a different person now d) it’s about ‘making the self’
  • the novel is a vulgar medium, by which he takes the Latin to mean ‘of the people’
  • enjoyed writing a novel set in 16C as readers/critics tend to ignore the incorrect facts; amused that things he made up were taken as reliable
  • writers need to be ‘fully engaged in life’ to write; ‘go there’
  • prose needs to match the context of the time – read the books your characters would be reading to situate tone and style of prose [syntax and sentient]
  • when asked ‘how new writers develop a voice’ – ‘should they read?’ – he said, ‘real writers have an interesting relationship to language’. SR was reading Zadie Smith’s NW before he came on and used it as an example of how her life experience seeps into the text; from life to page

Writers’ & Artists’: How to Get Published Conference 2012 – [pt. 1]

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’.

Suzy Joinson and Rachel Calder [with Eela Devani]
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.

Rachel told us she’d approached Suzy because of her writing voice and style and admitted she was happy to work with writers to develop their writing.
Suzy’s advice to writers was – ‘keep writing’, write, even when you don’t feel like writing, write something. Add to the word count and then refine and self-edit and it will eventually take shape. And enter writing competitions as a way of stretching yourself and working towards a deadline and of fine-tuning your writing.

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…. 

How to get Published Conference – London

 

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

Programme:

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.

Suzanne Joinson, author of A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar, and her agent Rachel Calder, of The Sayle Literary Agency, who will be discussing the relationship between author and agent.

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.

Finally, we have a panel of top literary agents, including Patrick Walsh, of Conville and Walsh, and Madeleine Milburn from the recently opened The Madeleine Milburn Literary, TV & Film Agency.

See the Writers’ & Arists’ Year Book website for full details – hope to see you there!