Review: A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar by Suzanne Joinson

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

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!

BookRambler’s Q&A with Children’s Author, Lari Don

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?

LDI’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?

LDI 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?

LDGetting 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?

LDGood 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?

LDOh. 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?

LDInitially 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!  

26Treasures at the NMS

What can you say about a rock in 62 words?

That was the challenge set by the 26 Treasures Scotland project, a collaboration between the National Museum of Scotland and 26, a not-for-profit group that champions the cause of better writing in all areas of life. The creative response was to an object included in a treasure trail (of 26 objects)

that span Scotland’s story, from its geological roots to its technological future, taking in iconic objects and hidden gems along the way.

The plan is that visitors will use the 26 Treasures as a guide to wind their way around and through the museum galleries. Beside each object and interpretation panel a QR code plays an audio clip of the writer reading their creation piece. My object was the Lewisian Gneiss, the oldest treasure in the collections of NMS, Edinburgh.

On Saturday we went ‘live’ with performances and readings. Listening to each writer introduce their creative pieces and say a bit about their creative process brought another dimension to the project. It was like looking at a painting for the thirtieth time and finding something new. Some of the creative pieces had interesting back-stories, some of the writers made emotional connections to their objects – sometimes, both. It wasn’t so much a case of bringing history alive, but rendering Scottish history anew – looking at it through a fresh angle of perspective and revealing ideas and information long known yet little discussed.

So. Thank you Sara Sheridan, for introducing me to 26 and, with Jamie Jauncey, for sorting out the Scottish strand; thanks also to the NMS staff who worked hard to pull it all together, especially to Claire Allan for ensuring a smooth and well-planned day.

  • You can read the blogposts and listen to readings on the 26 Treasures section of the main NMS website.
The 26 Treasures project this year involved three museums – National Museum of Scotland, the National Museum of Wales and the Ulster Museum in Northern Ireland – together they appear on the 26 Treasures Website.

What has this to do with books, dear Bookrambler, I hear you say…

Breaking News! An exciting development is the proposal to publish all the creation pieces from 26 Treasures 2011 as a collection with Unbound. John Simmons introduces the proposal and the project on the  Unbound website where you’ll also find details about how to vote and lend your support.