Book Review: Barefoot at the Lake, by Bruce Fogle

Barefoot at the lake front coverBarefoot at the Lake: A memoir of summer people and water creatures, by Bruce Fogle (September Publishing)

Along with other city families, the Fogles spent the months from June to August at their Lake Chemong cabin, involved in the local community and wasting days on Swallows-and-Amazons-type summer activities, while father, Morris, commuted to work in his Toronto florist shop. Life followed a familiar pattern: fathers were for day trips, “mothers were for everything else”.

In Barefoot at the Lake Bruce Fogle recalls the events of one summer, aged ten, which sparked his lifelong interest in animal welfare. It is 1954, fields are being cleared for new homes, destroying garter snake habitats, polio is still a worry, a rabid raccoon destroys a milk herd, and the vet discusses promising surgery trials that replace devastating cataracts. Uncle Reub has come to stay. He has abandoned his medical practice and sits outside in his city trousers and shoes, looking across the lake, a large unread book on his lap and tears in his eyes; sometimes he wears his pyjama top all day. Eventually, he leaves his look-out post and joins Bruce. They meander through meadows and sweetgrass, and visit the fort in the woods surrounded by snake skulls, and frogs hanging from the trees. Uncle Reub spins enthralling adventure tales; his probing questions encourage Bruce to wonder whether wildlife is more than a plaything for boyish pranks and experiments.

Everything is coloured through Uncle Reub: ‘It rained that afternoon, the kind of rain that came and went faster than my uncle’s moods.’ Over the summer, Bruce recognises his uncle’s shortcomings, and it stimulates a reconsideration of his silent father.

Nuanced, restrained prose delivers an unsentimental memoir. ‘A single strand of lake weed was as soft and as fragile as a strand of cooked spaghetti but when it was torn by storms from the bed of the lake and twisted and tied by the lake’s waves it became stronger than my father.’ The childlike sensibility and mature storytelling are finely balanced, punctuated with the kind of gentle humour and keen insight that comes with time and distance.

Reviewed in the TLS, 4th November 2015

Book Review: The Lovers of Amherst, by William Nicholson

Amherst US edition  lovers of amherst frontcover UK edition

The Lovers of Amherst (Quercus) £16.99

[Amherst, US edition published by Simon and Schuster, $26]

Wild nights – wild nights!

Were I with thee

Wild nights should be

Our luxury!

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) only published a dozen or so poems in her lifetime, but even before Mabel Todd edited the posthumous slim collection of her poems in 1890, she was known locally as “the Myth”. The afterlife of the secretive recluse still ripples across academic circles and the popular imagination; it is surprising to learn that, as recently as 1984, the details about the illicit love affair between Emily Dickinson’s brother and their Amherst neighbour was first brought to public attention in Polly Longsworth’s sympathetic study, Austin and Mabel. More recently, Lyndall Gordon’s 2010 revisionist biography, Lives Like Loaded Guns, dug deeper into the known facts.

But fiction has a truthful purpose too. William Nicholson’s entertaining, respectful story throws fresh light onto the extraordinary love affair between 55-year-old Austin Dickinson and 24-year-old Mabel Todd. We cannot know for certain what the lovers shared in the privacy of Emily Dickinson’s dining room, where they often met, or what she saw and heard there, or the effect on her poetry. By interspersing his narrative with snippets of extant correspondence, diary entries, and secret notes, drawn, mostly, from Longsworth and his own research in the Sterling Memorial Archives at Yale, alongside some of Emily Dickinson’s passionate poems, Nicholson creates a solid historical foundation from which he imaginatively recreates the time period and personalities involved. Moreover, the physical act of researching “the very notes they sent each other with such secrecy” is an integral part of the story, adding an air of factual realism from which he speculates as plausible as a biographer does.

Mavis Loomis Todd (1856-1932) arrived in Amherst in 1881 with her husband, David, who had been appointed director of Amherst College Observatory. Entering into Amherst society, she first struck up a friendship with Susan, Austin’s wife, and thereafter entertained the Dickinson household next door. By then the “Homestead” was occupied by Austin’s sisters, Emily and Lavinia (Vinnie), and their invalid mother. Although Mabel never met Emily (she would listen at the top of the stairs while she played piano and sang), they communicated through notes and gifts.

Running in parallel with the story of Austin and Mabel, is the modern-day story of Alice Dickinson (no relation) who arrives in New England to undertake background research for her screenplay about their affair. Through her lover-turned-friend Jack Broad, Alice gets in touch with Nick Crocker, a visiting professor (with a reputation), and she accepts his offer of temporary accommodation. Alice, Jack, and Nick pull us back to previous books in Nicholson’s interconnected series: in The Secret Intensity of Everyday Life (2009) Nick has an affair with Laura Kinross (Broad), while in All the Hopeful Lovers (2010) Laura’s son Jack is put together with Alice through Facebook in much the same way that his response to her Facebook request for information about Emily Dickinson sends her to Nick’s door.

Rowing in Eden –

Ah, the sea!

Might I but moor tonight

In thee!

As she becomes caught up in an affair of her own, Alice reflects on romantic love and passion, and ponders the “I” in Dickinson’s poems and the poet’s relationship to Mabel. “Something true and powerful is at work here. What if it’s something bigger than love? What is there that’s bigger than love?” In New England for just two weeks, her emotional attachment to Nick is perhaps too quickly established, but is nevertheless a necessary part of the storyline.

Emily Dickinson intrudes into the narrative:

Stand at the top of the stairs. Look down into the dark hallway below. She’s there with him, the one he loves, the one I need. A door opens. The rustle of a dress as a half-glimpsed woman passes quickly down the passage, and out of the back door.

While it is but a step from fictional stage directions and camera angles to thinking about the screen version from the writer of Shadowlands lurking in the background, something deeper is going on. Alice’s problem (aside from the fear of tackling her first screenplay) is how to find a way into a story she doesn’t fully understand. “My story, Alice tells herself, is about Mabel, who chose life in all its mess and hurt, not Emily, who withdrew into the sepulchre of her own room. And yet in every picture she forms of Mabel, Emily is near, the listener behind the closed door.” With Nick, she discusses the process of storytelling; how to frame her fiction, and whether she needs to care about Mabel in order to write her story. The Lovers of Amherst is a rich resource for writers.

Without Mabel Todd, we may never have known about the extent of Dickinson’s creativity. It was Mabel who undertook the task of preserving many of the letters and poems that survive, bringing order to the mass of 1800 poems with painstaking transcription, and pushing forward with publication. Nicholson’s story continues on after the deaths of Emily and Austin to explore Mabel’s motivations. His great achievement, though, in The Lovers of Amherst – is to compel us to read Emily Dickinson’s poetry again, with fresh eyes.

This is my letter to the World

That never wrote to Me –

The simple News that Nature told –

With tender Majesty –

‘Parallel Passion & Poetry’: Independent on Sunday, 14 February 2015

Matt Sumell – on Why Writing is So Hard and How to Write Anyway

Making Nice UK coverUp on Publishers Weekly, Matt Sumell’s piece on Why Writing is So Hard (March 13th) speaks to my inner critic – how do you switch her off? Should I lock her in a cupboard? Sumell skates across American male approaches to writing – Hawthrone, Hemingway, Thompson, Michael Herr’s Dispatches, Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes, – a nod to a couple of women would have widened out his thinking – but this is his experience and it’s insightful and true about the difficulties of writing through yourself.

with writing there’s no formula that makes sense to me, no recipe to follow, no map—at least no map I know how to read—to help me navigate. Every story is different, and every story comes with its own specific difficulties, so every story also comes with its own specific anxiety and panic until it’s done. Only—as they say—it’s never done, just abandoned.

The article coincides with publication of Sumell’s “novel-in-stories” Making Nice (Harvil Secker [UK]; Henry Holt [US]). Publishers Weekly think

it’s one of the funniest (and best) books of the year, featuring the self-destructive but well-meaning Alby–a “loser,” according to his sister.Making Nice cover

Good enough praise for it to slip into the tbr pile

>>Link to full article on PW Why Writing is So Hard

Book Review: A Spool of Blue Thread, by Anne Tyler

A Spool of Blue Thread

I’ve read and enjoyed Anne Tyler’s writing since her first novella – A Slipping Down Life (1969; reissued by Vintage, 1990). Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant (1998) is one of the best books ever written. Her latest, A Spool of Blue Thread is a richly textured story about a Baltimore house and the Whitshank family who have lived there for two generations. Tyler spools back and forth between the present and the past, unpicking the “embroidered” truth of family legend – the Whitshanks “had a talent for pretending everything was fine” – to reveal self-delusion and disappointment. Junior Whitshank relates how this son of “poor white trash” in the Appalachian Mountains came to live in the house he built for someone else, while his daughter Merrick is proud to tell how she married her best friend’s boyfriend; in the present, Abby Dalton is married to Junior’s son, Redcliffe (Red) and they are living in the house. She loves to reminisce about her romanticized memories of the day in 1959 they fell in love, while forgetting to mention that she was with another boy that day. Theirs are the Tyleresque lives of “unremarkable people”. As accomplished as her 1988 Pulitzer Prize-winning Breathing Lessons, it is the best novel Anne Tyler has published in decades.

Three of Abby and Red’s four children have married and left home, but Denny, their estranged eldest son, is unsettled, often arriving unannounced and departing just as abruptly, often in a huff. It is a masterclass of restrained writing, lightened with gentle comedy and pitch-perfect dialogue, revealing characters and their motivations slowly, through sibling rivalry and a rising tension that finally overspills in a punch-up in the kitchen.

‘Who said, “You’re only as happy as your least happy child?”’ she’d [Abby] asked Ree in last week’s pottery class.

‘Socrates,’ Ree answered promptly.

‘Really? I was thinking more along the lines of Michelle Obama.’

The complex narrative has more layers than Merrick Whitshank’s wedding cake, held together by recurring motifs and repeated images. Abby, out in her nightgown and slippers during a “derecho”, or fierce storm, to gaze at the “giant tree . . . like a huge stalk of broccoli lying on its side, only with roots”, links the Wizard of Oz, Hurricane Sandy, and the rings on the tulip poplar felled for a wedding photograph. It also resonates with the destructive tree of The Beginner’s Goodbye.

Tyler’s twentieth novel in her fifth decade of writing has playful, knowing nods to previous books: a company for travellers who dislike travelling (The Accidental Tourist); a restaurant named Thanksgiving (Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant); Abby feels that life is “slipping through her fingers” (A Slipping Down Life), memory loss (Noah’s Compass), and more. It is as if she has gathered together the threads of her entire oeuvre as an added reward for her attentive, loyal readers.

[Reviewed in the Independent on Sunday, 8 February 2015]

Anne Tyler was interviewed for the BBC World Service this week – listen in to the wonderful discussion of Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, which offers a glimpse into her writing and ideas.

A Tale for the Time Being, by Ruth Ozeki

A Tale for the Time BeingA Tale for the Time Being, by Ruth Ozeki (Canongate)

A tiny sparkle caught Ruth’s eye, a small glint of refracted sunlight angling out from beneath a massive tangle of drying bull kelp, which the sea had heaved up onto the sand at full tide. She mistook it for the sheen of a dying jellyfish and almost walked right by it. The beaches were overrun with jellyfish these days, the monstrous red stinging kind that looked like wounds along the shoreline.

From barnacle-encrusted jetsam that washes up on a beach in Desolation Sound, British Columbia, Ruth Ozeki weaves together a highly innovative tale about time and the self. Ruth the narrator, like Ozeki (is Ozeki), is an American writer with Japanese ancestry; a novelist. For ten years Ruth has worked on a memoir which she began as a way to record both her mother’s decline into Alzheimer’s and also “her own feelings and reactions”. Suffering from writer’s block and unable to contemplate reading over what she has written to “consolidate the structure” of the “ungainly heap” she turns to the diary inside the Hello Kitty lunch-box she has found on the beach.

Ruth goes in search of sixteen-year old Nao, both in the literal purple prose of the handwritten diary and online for traces of evidence that she was a ‘real’ person. She looks everywhere and anywhere across time where Nao has left her mark. So far, so normal.

What raises this novel from good to dazzling is the way that Ozeki draws attention to the creative process and blurs the division between teller and tale, reader and writer. Ruth the novelist writes a tale about a novelist-turned-memoirist called Ruth who turns from writing herself into being to reading another self into being – that of a teenager called Nao (pronounced Now) who has written herself and her great-grandmother into being – and the whole is written into existence by Ruth (the narrator) who annotates the tale. At a further step, Ozeki as creator brings the reader into existence to read a tale formed out of the “gyre memory” of oceanic drift.

If all of this sounds pretentious it most definitely is not. A Tale for the Time Being is highly engaging, thoughtful rather than didactic. Nao’s diary is concealed within the covers of a “hacked” copy of In Search of Lost Time. Alongside her record of peer-bullying, a depressed father and decent to the darker side of life (she writes her diary in a “French” café in ElectricTown, Tokyo) she relates part of her great-grandmother’s autobiography. Jiko is a 104 year old feminist–radical-Buddhist nun who lives in a remote temple. Nao visits her for part of the novel and gains insight and solace but not enlightenment. Back at home her life is still tortuous. Also within Nao’s diary are pages from a family “secret French diary”: stories within stories.

Strong narrative voices add authenticity to the parallel narratives. Nao’s forced jollity grates at times, after all, there’s only so much teen angst anyone can take.

I had to look on the bright side and try to make the best of things. At least Dad hadn’t hijacked the bus and driven it off the side of the mountain. At least he was still here with me, and maybe- maybe he wouldn’t leave. Maybe I could do something to make him stay. Because even though he promised to come back and pick me up at the end of my vacation and take me to Disneyland, what if he didn’t? What if the special doctors couldn’t fix him? Or what if, on the way home, the urge to die got too intense, and he suddenly had to hurl himself onto the tracks in front of the oncoming Disneyland Super Express? He didn’t really care about shaking hands with Mickey-chan after all.

Ozeki peels back the emoticons and exclamatory tone and injects pathos and compels us to sympathise with Nao as much as we want to tell her to take it down a notch or two. Ruth adds scholarly footnotes to Nao’s diary where she explains references to complex theories, unfamiliar concepts and contextual material (quantum physics, Zen Buddhism, WWII kamikaze pilots) and these are further cross-referenced to appendices that expand on specific topics, such as Schrödinger’s cat and Hugh Everett’s theory of “many worlds”. The effect of Ruth’s writing in the margins of Nao’s diary draws attention to both the tale and its telling.

An outsider in Whaletown, a “spectre of the past” (“whales are time beings”), Ruth shares a wooden house outside of town with her ecologically-aware husband Oliver, who teaches permaculture. Oliver considers that the lunch-box has probably broken off from one of the “eleven great planetary gyres”, a “drifter” from the wreckage of the Japanese tsunami. In the forest, he observes “time unfolding … history embedded in the whorls and fractal forms of nature”.

Anticipating the effects of global warming on the native trees, he was working to create a climate-change forest on a hundred acres of clear-cut … He planted groves of ancient natives- metasequoia, giant sequoia, coast redwoods, Juglans, Ulmus, and ginkgo- species that had been indigenous to the area during the Eocene Thermal Maximum, some 55 million years ago.

Through Oliver’s battles against misinformation and fierce local opposition to his planting scheme Ozeki examines the connectedness of life across time. On a trip to a secret clam garden they consider the irony of “native” Pacific oysters, which originated from Japan: “ ‘You used to be able to walk barefoot on the beaches’ ”, Oliver says, as they look over a landscape of razor-sharp oyster shells, and Ruth wonders “when the last oyster was harvested in the beds around Manhattan ”.

A time being is someone who lives in time, and that means you, and me, and every one of us who is, or was, or ever will be …

You wonder about me.

I wonder about you.

Who are you and what are you doing?

What are you doing now?

I have only scratched the surface of this heartbreaking, uplifting novel. A Tale for the Time Being is a testament to the power of words – a tale whose ideas and characters resonate long after the final page.

Note -I read the paperback version which comes with a ‘fully interactive paperback jacket’. It’s also available in a hardback and eBook bundle.

Do check out Ruth Ozeki’s website: Ozekieland – webworld, for more details and information.

A Tale for the Time Being is on the shortlist of the 2013 ManBooker Prize, announced tonight (Tuesday) – I do hope she wins.

[reposted from EarthLines Review]

Book Review -Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson

US ed. LifeAfterLifeLife After Life cover image“One wonders about the divine plan and so on.”

“More of a shambles than a plan,” Ursula agreed.

What if you could live your life again? What if you could revisit those small moments when seemingly inconsequential decisions led you down the wrong path. What if you were given the opportunity to live your life over and over again and again … until you got it right?

This is the premise behind Kate Atkinson’s widely lauded new book, Life After Life. It begins with a scene in a cafe in November 1930. A woman draws out “her father’s old service revolver from the Great War” and takes aim. The narrative leads away from and up to this point. Ursula Todd is born, dies and is reborn. Again and again from 11 February 1910 to 11 February 1910, Ursula Todd lives and dies over and over. She lives through the ‘Great War’, the inter-war years, the blitz, post-war rationing, the misery and tedium of an abusive marriage, Germany in the 1930s. She lives right up to retirement from the civil service in 1967 until she finally has the strength of will to carry out the deed she comes to realise she is born to do.

For me, three things stand out:

1- three-dimensional characters whose names and lives evoke the time periods they live through – names, such as, Ursula, Teddy, Sylvie, Hugh, Izzie, Bridget the housekeeper and Mrs Haddock the midwife- even Maurice is a name perfectly suited to the brother whom no one likes. They live and breath each era through the particularity of things, from the idea of Englishness in the family home, “Fox Corner”, “jam roly poly and custard” for pudding, “a Radiant” gas fire, “Sam Brown … singing ‘The Sun Has Got His Hat On’ “, “a good woollen frock for eight pounds”, a solitary supper of “Welsh rarebit – off a tray on her knee” , the blitz:

a figure in the dark who went with her as far as Hyde Park. Before the war you would never have dreamed of hooking arms with a complete stranger – particularly a man – but now the danger from the skies seemed much greater than anything that could befall you from this odd intimacy.

2- rich with descriptive imagery and quotations from (amongst many) Shakespeare, Donne, Marvell, and Stevenson, that add texture and philosophical depth to the story. “the headache that had begun before dinner as a dull ache was a crown of thorns by now”, “Ursula’s lungs felt as if they were full of custard, she imagined it thick and yellow and sweet”. Miss Woolf, the leader of a London air-warden rescue group, midst the horror of the blitz looks beyond the war, and wonders about “how much German music we listen to” which leads her to conclude that “great beauty transcends all.” Ursula reflects on life, her life, and the meaning of life.

A buttery, unseasonal sun was trying hard to nudge its way through the thick velvet curtains. Why dost though thus,/Through windows, and through curtains, call on us? she thought. If she could go back in time and take a lover from history it would be Donne. Not Keats, the knowledge of his untimely death would colour everything quite wretchedly. That was the problem with time travel, of course (apart from the impossibility)- one would always be a Cassandra, spreading doom with one’s foreknowledge of events. It was quite wearyingly relentless but the only way that one could go was forward.

3. a complex yet soothing narrative structure. I normally can’t follow stories that rely on flash back and dual or parallel stories – I get bored when structure gets in the way of story, but the way Life After Life is constructed is very readable, easy to follow, compelling and yet highly complex. The structure is the story. The story returns again and again to November 1910 so that it becomes a touchstone. We know that life begins again for Ursula, that she will have the chance to live past the event which closed her immediate past life -that moment when “the black bat unfolded his wings”, “when darkness falls” is not an ending but a beginning. Atkinson leads us through the story with dated chapter headings and section titles, such as,”A Lovely Day Tomorrow” and “Armistice”, “A Long Hard War” and “The End of the Beginning”, and these act as flagposts to the way the story develops and prevents us from getting lost in the circular story.

Life After Life is really good. It’s a story to return to as a writer as well as a reader – to learn from as well as to enjoy.

Become such as you are, having learned what is

… Life wasn’t about becoming was it? It was about being.

Life After Life is out now everywhere- Kate Atkinson’s website is the best place to find details of how and where to buy a copy.

She’s got a very interesting Pinterest for Life After Life on the go that’s worth a look too.

Quilt, by Nicholas Royle

Quilt by Nicholas Royle (Myriad Editions)

[ – an open letter of appreciation -]

Dear Professor Royle

I’d like to apologise for not paying attention in class. Had I done so, I would be able to appreciate your debut novel, Quilt. It’s a story about death and grief and ghosts and Socrates and stingrays – I think. I find myself unable to review it or talk about it coherently, knowledgeably. I know I really enjoyed reading it – I love the playfulness and energy and above all, the serious purposefulness of the prose. The imagery made me laugh out loud and to nod in agreement at the connections you made. I’m sorry, but I can’t tell you why, I don’t have the language to properly express what is so good about this book or why I tell everyone I know that they must read it – it will change their view of literature, of story-telling, of writing.

You won’t remember me – one of eight that dwindled to six in your Wallace Stevens seminar in the spring (or was it autumn?) of 1995 (or was it 1994?) at Stirling. Ten weeks of intensive study of one American poet – what luxury now!; spoilt we were but we didn’t know it. We began in earnest we eight. After week one we started to loiter in the café for longer than the allotted ten minute break. It seemed to make sense to extend the time  – to draw breath – for relief after the tortuous first hour. ‘What is this poem about – do you think?’ you asked – dropped it into the seminar where we looked at each other, the desk, out at the solitary tree in the courtyard, which now I can’t recall whether it was bare or in full leaf, anywhere; we looked, but at the page, at you. We worked together, we eight become six, to ‘get through’ our Wallace ‘bloody’ Stevens Honours course.

I can’t get back time once it’s gone, can I? Once glimpsed, once I recognised the peacock/poem [for he was a peacock, not a stingray] sliding around the corner – he came into full view, there, concrete and real – just that one time. The peacock/poem in full focus – bare, literal. And then the devastating truth – this reality was a lie! A trick of the individual imagination. There is no single meaning, you helped us to understand. We see the peacock/poem, but in our own image. That same moment re-run won’t bring the same peacock/poem back into focus. He is a ghost – or the past calling the future. Did he telephone ahead to tell us he was coming?

Uncanny, is poetry – as all language. I think.

Kind regards

Janette

The Art of Fiction – Iris Murdoch

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?

MURDOCH

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

MURDOCH

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

*See also the Centre for Iris Murdoch Studies at Kingston University, London

* BBC Interview – Murdoch discussing character and form, with superb close reading of An Unofficial Rose (1962)

Writers’ & Artists’: How to Get Published Conference 2012 [pt. 2]

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… 

Part 2

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.

The final session of the day was an agent panel. Rachel Calder was joined by Patrick Walsh of Conville and Walsh and Lucy Luck of Lucy Luck Associates.

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.

Confused?

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.

– link back to Pt.1

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….