Which 3 writers, living or dead, would you invite to dinner?
Keith Douglas, because he's my writing hero and I would love to ply him with drink until he agreed to teach me everything he knew. Similarly Virginia Woolf, who could do things with words that turn me an envious green. To ensure that the evening didn't get too studious my final guest would be Marco Polo, whose writings I've always found extraordinary. He'd surely have a few good anecdotes to tell us about Kubilai Khan and giant crocodiles.
What's your favourite writing snack?
Longhand or computer?
Longhand, which is exhausting when it has to be typed up but is worth the effort. I think the physical act of making marks on paper helps stimulate the mind far better than staring at a monitor. It also helps prevent the urge to edit as you go along, which means you can better get lost in what you're writing.
Tabloid or broadsheet?
Broadsheet. I have a news addiction so I need the best stuff on the market.
Independent bookshop or Amazon?
I wish I could say I only ever shop in indie bookshops, but the truth is I use Amazon just as much. I used to be a bookseller and know how tough times are, but I still hope there's room for both methods of book buying. Generally if I want something very obscure I'll order it from Amazon. If I want to discover something very obscure, I'll spend a delightful hour browsing in a bookshop.
Hacker or adder?
I do both. I tend to be very hard on myself, but I think you need to be to get anywhere. I tend to handwrite a first draft, type it up, print it out, then go through it by hand savaging what I've already done and scribbling in new paragraphs which at the time I think are better. Then I type up all those changes, print it out again and repeat. When I'm only changing about five or six things a time I know it's nearly finished.
Plotter or pantser? [ie do you plan out all your work first or write by the seat of your pants?]
When writing The Girl with Glass Feet I simply plunged in and tried to discover the story by writing it. A more sensible and less time-consuming approach would be to plan extensively, but that terrifies me because it feels too ordered. I worry that it would suppress creativity. That said, with my new book I have planned far more. You have to find a happy balance, but if you've done all of the creating before you commit a word to paper you might never finish the book. The joy of invention is the joy of writing for me.
You really must read…
The Collected Poems of Keith Douglas. He's coming to the dinner party, after all...
I wish I had written…
The Road, by Cormac McCarthey, which I finished recently. It's exquisitely moving.
I get most excited by…
Indian cooking. New books by authors I love. The sea. Stepping into a dark cinema. Being alone with a pen and paper.
If I wasn’t a writer I would be…
I hope this doesn't sound like a cop out, but I don't think I could be anything else. I don't really think it's healthy to think of writing (at least not the writing of fiction) as a career or profession. Obviously you have to pay bills and so on, but it shouldn't be conceived of as a job because it's a compulsion. If you are compelled to write then you are a writer. Even if something else pays the bills each month, you are just as much a writer as somebody who calls themselves that because they receive their income from doing it. I don't think my book would have ever been published if I hadn't had that attitude. I needed to believe that writing the novel was an experience worth having for itself, regardless of whether anybody ever read it.
An author should never…
Put writing ahead of the people they love.
Ali Shaw's first novel, THE GIRL WITH GLASS FEET, is published by Grove Atlantic. The book won the Desmond Elliott prize 2010 and was shortlisted for the Costa First Book Award 2009. He is currently completing his second novel
Ali's website is here
"While we still share responsibility for this house, you have to. It's not an option."
"You have no idea of the pressure I'm under. It's relentless."
"Most of that pressure is of your own making," I can't help reminding him. I try very hard to be civil but sometimes my composure slips out of gear. "And that doesn't make the problems go away. You need to pull your weight here."
"It'll have to wait."
"It can't wait."
"That's just the way these things go, kitten..." He stops, and I hear him inhale sharply. I imagine his face at the other end of the phone, appalled, defensive; I know him so well.
"God," he says. "I'm sorry."
The word hangs in the ether between us, furry and fluffy and emphatic in its crassness.
"Kitten" is what he calls her. It just slipped out, born of the thoughtless familiarity he has fallen into so readily and without any sign of conscience over the past two months, an endearment that's unlike him and so contrary to his serious-scientist nature; his new screensaver on his mobile phone is a fuzzy, wide-eyed fluffball of a kitten with a big red ribbon, and he's forty, for Christ's sake.
I have the ridiculous and self-defeating urge to laugh, but knowing how quickly my laughter erodes into tears these days, I suppress it. I almost have it in me to feel sorry for him, for his ghastly gaffe, this casual frond of a word, this hacksaw ripping out bits of my soul. But only almost.
"Leigh?" he says.
"Decisions, Carl. Unless you want my solicitor to make them for both of us."
"There's no need to be..." The rest is lost because I've hung up. My voice is falling off its vocal hinges and I don't want him to hear it.
Carl and I have been married for fifteen years. Fifteen good years, or so I believed and I wasn't the only one, friends often told us we were their "pedestal couple" and I thought I knew what that meant, but what it really means is that you fall to earth from a higher point, and all the harder for it. We used to laugh a lot and argue little. Now we rarely ever laugh and every one of our conversations, by phone or otherwise, ends in accusation. There is no such thing as an amicable divorce.
Two months ago my husband fell suddenly and - for me - catastrophically in love with a woman fourteen years his junior. Since then he's lost a stone in weight because he's been to the gym every day, he's replaced his nerdish specs, which I rather liked, with daily disposable contact lenses, he wears trendy shirts (one of them's orange. Orange!) which he leaves trailing out of his low-slung trousers as though he's twenty-two, he's traded in his Volvo for a snazzy convertible to impress Vicky, who has the intelligence and emotional maturity of a mayfly, and they've set up house together in the next village in a new-build semi, not with a white picket fence but nearly as bad: a neatly trimmed hedge. He said he wants to get back to basics, whatever that means.
I was too unconventional, he says. I didn't understand him, he says. It wouldn't have happened if he'd been happy, he says. He would have left me anyway, regardless of Vicky. He feels like all this time he's been like a hamster in a wheel and the faster he runs, the faster the wheel turns. He's getting nowhere. He wants out.
Is there a script writer who turns out these stock phrases for men starting their mid-life crises? Last year I mopped up my friend Emma's tears when her husband left her, and now I hear echo after tired echo bouncing off my eardrums and making my head hurt.
He's found his soul-mate, he says with a painful lack of tact.
And yes, he calls her kitten. I wouldn't be surprised to hear her call him tiger. Reach for the bucket.
I'm the one left knocking about on my own in our dream house which we now urgently need to sell, a hauntingly gothic cavern of a house which we spent years doing up - well, his dream house, to be strictly accurate. He was the one who fell in love with the decrepit shell and its eerie walled garden while I had my reservations about the size and immensity of the project, but as we spent our weekends working on it together - always together - we both grew to love it.
Or so I thought, until two months ago. It's hard to revise opinions held for years. Now every brick, every paintstroke is suffused with retrospective sadness, grief and betrayal. My eyes are perma-swollen, my face raw meat pickled in tears.
Alarm bells should have started ringing when the text alert on his mobile turned from a basic two tone bing-bong to a cute meow. I thought he was having a playful or ironic phase. More alarm bells should have gone off when a virtual feline started prancing across the screen of the laptop we shared, but perhaps I am exceptionally dense when it comes to trust: I thought trusting is what you do, when you're married. It took a few more unsubtle hints before I got the message. A postcard saying Sweet Dreams, showing a tabby kitten asleep on a pillow, which I found when I took his jacket to the dry cleaners'. Then, a soft-toy kitten keyring: blatant, because he wanted me to notice - he wanted me to confront him, coward that he is - and in the end I did. He admitted everything in relief and in far too painful detail, and two days later he was gone.
The abundance of kittens dumped, unwanted, in my life is what upsets me most, because it is demeaning to keep crying over something so banale. The image of him and her screwing in our bed is not a happy one either. I'm surprised I'm not dehydrated, I had no idea the human body has such limitless capacity for tears.
Carlandvicky (how quickly he has fallen into this new unit!) have moved on, and they want me to snap out of it and move on too, considering it's been over two months and there are - small mercies - no children to muddy the issue. To this end, they've invited me over to their house next week to discuss the sale of the house.
That's what our ill-fated phone conversation was about. We need to get estimates from the estate agents; the cost of the mortgage was crippling when we were together and is even more so now he's moved out. Carl accuses me of being bloody-minded because I asked him to do his share: tidy away some of his things and help with the gardening, so the place looks in good nick for prospective buyers. I don't think this is unreasonable. After all, he wants half the proceeds. But he's too busy, he doesn't have time and that's just the way these things go. Kitten.
I admit that on some self-torturing level I want to see their love nest, to see them diminished for buying so enthusiastically into the suburban bliss scenario. I'm tempted to watch from behind a bush and see Carl wash the his-and-hers cars on a Saturday morning, and equally tempted to find a rent-a-bird to crap on them afterwards.
Carl phones to apologise for his ill-judged remark. It wasn't just the remark that hurt me and he knows it, but it helps him to pretend he has a vestige of decency left.
After prevaricating for the best part of a week, I give in against my better judgment and agree to visit them. If morbid curiosity doesn't kill this cat, remaining entombed in the mausoleum of a house any longer than necessary surely will, and besides, I have an urge - more - an aching need to understand what turned my familiar, reliable, wonderful husband into a stranger overnight. Insensitivity and oafishness never used to be part of his make-up, but perhaps one can acquire them cheaply as part of the adultery package.
Vicky plays the gracious hostess and tries hard to be pleasant, but I think it's a strain because it's against her nature. I sense that beneath the fluffy exterior - blonde, melon-breasted, wasp-waisted, everything I'm not - lurks a hard-nosed bitch. I may be biased. At any rate, she can't be as faultless as Carl claims. In my Book of Judgment she has at least one major flaw: she got involved with a married man.
"Come and meet Fudge and Truffle," she says, and I nearly trip over the two diminutive furballs that have been brought in to make their family happiness complete. It makes me want to throw up on the cream carpet but I restrain myself. We sit down together, and with a gargantuan effort - mostly on my part - we manage to draw up what will be the blueprint for our divorce settlement, while the furballs take turns climbing up my jeans with their sharp little claws.
Post-agreement small talk is stilted, and I'm glad I can make my excuses because Carl is coming down with a cold. Good. Now it's your turn to have the puffy eyes and the red nose for a couple of days, I think nastily. Just so you know what it feels like.
"How are Fudge and Truffle?" I ask a few days later when Carl phones to confirm some details we hacked out. Call me old-fashioned, I still can't bring myself to enquire after Vicky.
"Well, er, they're no longer with us." He sounds sheepish. "Turns out I'm allergic to cats."
"Really? What a shame. They were so cute. Who took them?"
"What with the holidays coming up, no one wants to be, er, saddled with kittens. So we took them to Wood Green."
"Ah. And how did Vicky feel about that?"
"She was a bit upset, actually." I still know him well enough to hear the magnitude of the understatement.
"Oh dear," I say.
Jasper and Paloma - I renamed them because I couldn't stand the syrupy sweetness of their names - are now three years old. I retrieved them from the Animal Shelter because I couldn't bear the thought that Carl's new-found callousness should have additional victims, and in time the two furballs and I got used to each other. Once Carl and I sold our house, signed the divorce papers and disbanded our joint history, I moved to a small Victorian cottage, and the cats settled in as though it was made for them.
They sleep on my bed every night; they crush their warm little bodies against mine and purr out their unqualified affection for me like miniature engines in overdrive. I never used to be a cat person but these days I couldn't imagine my life without them.
Carl and Vicky lasted barely six months. He's on his third relationship since our divorce came through, he has dark rings under his eyes and he's started smoking again; the slight beer gut testifies that he doesn't see the inside of a gym very often these days. He's gone back to stripy shirts which he tucks in at the waistband, not a trace of orange in sight.
We talk on the phone every now and then. He's intimated more than once that he knows he made a mistake, and would I consider giving him another chance? But even if I wanted to, I could never have him back, because he's allergic to my cats.
Well, that's just the way these things go.
Today I’ve eaten:
3 chocolate biscuits
1 Magnum Classic
1 cream egg
and a handful of licorice
...between lunch and tea-time. Oh, and a bag of cheese and onion crisps.
This is not good.
For a while now, I’ve been struggling to maintain my weight at 9 stone 3lbs. That is, to stop losing any. I only had to get a wee bit stressed and the weight would fall off me. Now, suddenly, I’ve a little beachball for a tummy and am beginning to waddle like a penguin (Note to Self: don’t mention Penguins).
What, you may ask, has this got to do with writing?
The answer is, Everything.
It’s no coincidence that I’ve begun writing properly again. Writing and chocolate seem to go together like…waistband and elasticated. There’s something about the writing process that demands time out. Have a break – have a You Know What. A break! (think I) I'll take an internet break. I fool myself that because such breaks are virtual, they can't lead to calorific indulgence. The slippery slope proceeds like this:
- Yay. I finished a sentence…I’ll just see if anyone’s sent me an email
- Huh. Well someone’s probably posted something interesting on WriteWords
- Just a quick game of word-bubbles then. After all, that’s literary.
- Wonder what Jonathan Cainer’s forecasting for Pisces today?
- Or, for that matter, for this month?
- Someone’ll have sent me an email by now.
- Huh. What’s the latest on Katie Price and Alex Reid?
- No!!! No!!! No!!!
- Who’s eating what on Facebook?
- I need chocolate.
The synapses of my brain have become hard-wired between chocolate and writing. Write, I tell myself. And – zzzzpppp – chocolate’s right there too. I tell myself it’s because there are so many similarities between them. Yes, there are. Really. Chocolate is narrative, innit?
Look at the adverts. Always set in the world of fairy tales – animated bunnies with West Country accents conducting endless flirtations in meadows; young, thin women (always thin women) reclining on moonlit couches or voyaging on chocolate boats through Swiss chocolate landscapes. Of course the writer in me is seduced. This is a story. And I know exactly how it’ll end. But hey, the insidious message goes: Live for the moment.. You’re worth it.
The names of chocolate bars through history have been as carefully considered as the titles of novels: Aero. Flyte. Flake. Wispa. Drifter. Relax, they coo. Let us beguile you. You can come to no harm with us. We’re so…insubstantial. Or, in the case of Mars, so far away. Smarties. Clever you for choosing us. Poppets. Small, cute and innocent, just poppet in.
At least you knew where you were with a Yorkie.
Porkie, that’s where.
And have you noticed how the eating in these adverts is always really slow? Have you noticed the sensual unwrapping, the lingering eye-to-chocolate contact, the holding-it-in-the-mouth-for-eons-with-a-self-satisfied-feline-smile-curling-about-one’s-lips process? With respect, m’lud, these are not Real Women. Real Women grebbit-n’stuffit (apologies, Marina Lewycka).
Darn. I hoped that by writing a Whole Blog about chocolate, I might have indulged my craving by proxy.
Fat chance. I’ve just been working up an appetite.
I attended a workshop recently by a successful author who gave out lots of fine advice along with this: ‘Get rid of all adverbs and adjectives. They are unnecessary. Bad writing.’ (Presumably she should have cut ‘bad’ from that description and we’d be left with the core villany: writing.)
My hackles rise at the suggestion that any word or collection of words must be outlawed. There’s no such thing as a bad word, just poorly judged use of it. Writing without adjectives would be like music without chords. It’s oh so trendy to scorn them right now, so here’s a look at what these underdogs can do for us.
When Nick sees Gatsby standing on the threshold to his mansion, he describes the man’s gorgeous pink rag of a suit. When I first read that – actually every time I read that description still - I get a sting of envy, like an electric shock, that those three ordinary words could be strung together to such effect.
Gorgeous. Nick says elsewhere that there is something ‘gorgeous’ about Gatsby. The word hints that Nick might have some desire for the man – if not explicitly erotic then at least they explain his adamance at siding with Gatsby against Tom Buchanan’s fortress of wealth and class that first casts Gastby aside as worthless, then allows him to shoulder blame for a death he caused. Nick admires the man for who he is and has chosen to become despite starting out in life with so much less than Nick's set.
Pink is genius here. Not a manly word. Not a worldly man, Gatsby. There is something naïve about him to the end, in his desire to retrieve Daisy, to be accepted by such a brutish ruling class. Pink makes him vulnerable, like scrubbed and naked flesh, but it has the suggestion also of a character stain – bit pink that Gatsby – a commie or a sissy – something one ought not be.
Rag. OK, not strictly an adjective but used here as a description – again – the word works so hard but looks effortless, like the finest acrobats. It reminds us that Jay Gatsby is common lad James Gatz – penniless and aspirant. But it also suggests the carelessness with which he now holds his wealth – oh this old rag, that probably cost the average annual wage of his blue collar family. And it finally echoes ragtime which fell out of favour at the outset of the jazz era, in which Fitzgerald writes. Gatsby is out of place.
Guest Spot: Novelist Christina Courtenay explains how it's not always as simple as we'd like it to be...
I sent them one manuscript a year for critique and eventually learned where I’d been going wrong. There are so many beginners’ mistakes, very easy to correct if only you know about them, and as I started to attend the RNA’s talks and conferences, my writing improved. The other good thing about joining an organisation like that is that you get to meet people – especially other writers. Networking is not something I’m good at, but it’s not as daunting to chat to agents and editors at a party for instance, rather than in a formal situation, and eventually you might strike lucky.
I'd received a pre-meeting email from my new publicist, Jamie, asking me to consider the PR campaign for Dishonour.
I looked over what I'd done for my previous books, and what I could add to the mix.
Well, I've now had the meeting and thought I'd share with you the nuggets of wisdom Jamie passed along.
First up, it's worth mentioning that Jamie turned out to be a woman. A young woman at that. Loud, funny, with a slash of scarlet lipstick. She talked ten to the dozen, one hand grasped around a perpetually winking blackberry, the other around a chilled glass of wine.
Over mussels, chips, and more wine, she told me about the current state of the industry.
In a word, it's quiet.
Many publishing houses are cutting their staff and dumping authors whose sales are less than sparkling. Those not dumped can expect low advances.
The good news is everyone is looking for debut authors. The Holy Grail being the book acquired for a song that goes on to do some serious commercial business.
Many houses are also slashing their publicity budgets.
'Big mistake,' Jamie announced.
Well, in the words of Mandy Rice Davis, she would say that wouldn't she, I hear you cry.
Actually though, I agree with her. There seems to me to be little point in buying a book, editing it and launching it, with all the concurrent costs, only to release it into the wild with little more than a pat on the back and fingers crossed all round.
But what do I know?
Anyways, we then discussed what we both thought were the best ways to help a book sell. Jamie's view is that first and foremost you have to concentrate on the brand. And the brand is the author. Writers, says Jamie, have to accept that selling ourselves is part and parcel of the job.
But, but, but...I hear you say, it's not what we're about. We're about words, and craft and creativity.
Jamie told me that she understands that, even has sympathy with it, but when a writer is reluctant to join the publicity junk, her heart sinks.
When I explained that I see publicity as imperative and ultimately my responsibility, she beamed.
And so to business...she pulled out a typed document detailing everything she'd already done for May's launch, and everything she was going to do. Much of it involved her 'contacts'. Another reason, if you needed one, why good PRs earn their keep. They eat, breathe and sleep this stuff. Jamie tells me she is out at industry functions most evenings, that she lunches her contacts several times a week, and that she spends 'hours' on internet social media.
It's an exhausting schedule that most of us couldn't keep up.
As lunch drew to a close, I made a note of those things I needed to do.
1. Get back in contact with anyone and everyone who has 'helped' me when I launched my last three books. Note to self, keep records in future.
2. Suggest some feature ideas to sell me in. Hard sells don't work. Think of the non fiction hook that can give me my in.
3. Networking. Apparently I need to Twitter.
4. Be available. There will, hopefully, be an onslaught of interest around launch and through the Summer. I need to prioritise publicity during this period.
With that, Jamie drained her Tia Maria coffee and headed off for cocktails with a well known blogger and Mark Billingham.
I stumbled back home and tried to work out how the hell one sends a tweet.
Suffice to say the poor man sat beside me was straining to see what title made me chuckle for most of the long journey. I LOVED it. Really, anyone who has ever struggled to think of a present for a girlfriend, buy her a copy of this book . It reminded me that when I started to write I really wanted to write a funny novel. Somehow, somewhere along the line, I seem to have lost sight of this? Possibly because since I started to write I’ve submerged myself in several ‘how to’ books and read more of everything from literary to vampirical sagas.
So, it’s a précis, right? A condensed version of that book you’ve just written. And what could be easier than just saying in 500 words what you’ve already said in nearly 100,000? I mean, if you’d thought at the very outset of this whole ‘writing a book’ kerfuffle that all you had to do was deliver a nicely-rounded 500 words story, then you could have done it, right? Right! So then – tah-daaaaahhh!
This is the Fifth time I’ve been faced with a Synopsis. And although it doesn’t feel any easier and I still get a severe attack of the Dreads, I have to admit the way I handle them IS slightly less traumatic. Like everything else I do, if I think about it too much I prevaricate until it starts to grow green mould, so I bash it out feverishly and then sit back, exhausted. If it goes over to a 2nd page (single-line spaced) then I change the margins by 1cm. Oh, I’m a master of illusion, me! Then I read it through again. And if it's STILL too wordy, then...
Well, this is where cunning comes into play. If I’ve used two or three words, where ONE has to exist, then that’s used instead. And, using another little trick I like to call ‘Extreme Hyphenation’ -if it can be, then it is. Hyphenated I mean. And now a hyphenated word eludes me. Bugger examples…
And then I let some other nice person(s) read it. Someone who doesn’t actually know what the story is about, and if they get to the end and it all makes sense then that’s basically that. BUT if they start to turn the paper over looking for more information on the other side, then scratch their heads AND frown, there’s going to be a bit more editing to do.
‘So why did she go to the graveyard and what happened to the guy who got shot in the street?’ you might be asked. And that’s when you have to start deciding what’s important and what’s not. Does an Agent really need to know that the MC mistakenly went to the graveyard (like you do) – even if it DID turn out to be one of the funniest/heart-wrenching/prosaic scenes of your whole novel… well, do they? Is it really integral to the plot? And why on earth haven’t you mentioned the really important part when the anti-hero gets what he deserves?
This is SO not a time to protect either your darlings OR your ‘little darlings’. There must be no airs of mystery about your synopsis. You can't be shrouding it in silk and fine, tempting danglies. This is where Gok Wan would have you stripped to your cellulite with a mirror at angles you didn’t even know you needed angled mirrors for; where your bottom lip starts quivering and you know you need to start shaving – words off I mean. It’s cold turkey time and there’s no getting out of it.
I leave mine to simmer for 24 hours. Seriously, when I came back to my Synopsis earlier on, after my own day of rest, I was deleting darlings, adding flashes of brilliance and even started to realise the whole story had deeper meanings and sub-texts I never even noticed before.
That’s either what a crap night’s sleep will do for you; a day spent doing paid non-rocket-science-based work (aha… Extreme Hyphenation!) or angrily making pastry using the rubbing-in method when it’s flippin’ well Valentines Day!
But you get the idea. Right?
Being between houses is proving to be an enlightening experience. Did you watch Mary Portas on estate agents the other night?
Prospective Purchaser: 'Which direction does the house face?'
Indifferent Estate Agent with Provocatively Spiked Hair: 'West. Of course, West is the new South.'
Like 50 is the the new 30. Grey is the new Black. Going out is the new Staying In. Rejection is the new Acceptance...?
It's no coincidence, I think, that estate agents are the keyholders to prospective houses, just as literary agents are the gatekeepers for publishing houses.
A friend gave me some very good advice. 'Choose a flat,' she said, 'that will encourage your creative self to grow.'
Which put a whole new slant on my flat-hunting. Yesterday, I got very excited about an immaculate looking flat, minutes from the river. I made an appointment to see it. It was very...nice. Spacious, well proportioned, with a view over palm trees and gardens at the back. Brand-new bathroom and kitchen. Just the one patch of damp. Within my budget. What wasn't to like? I was enthusiastic, spoke of coming back to see it in the daylight. And yet there was a curious emptiness in my heart. You see, it didn't speak to me. It didn't respond. It didn't say: Yes! You're the one that I want. I found myself trying to fit my creative life into it, and my heart didn't sing at the prospect. I won't, after all, be going back.
A few days earlier, I saw another. Smaller, infinitely mankier, full of a jumble of wires and extension leads and tenant's clothes. Mould on the bathroom tiles, leaking Velux windows, sloping attic walls. Way over my budget. And yet... I think my creative spirit might flourish there. The place said 'hello' and smiled.
It brings to mind a line from the I Ching, the Chinese Book Of Change: Nurture an atmosphere in which things can grow. Such an atmosphere, for me, is one of responsiveness. I love places that speak to me, people who I respond freely and warmly to and who respond to me: people with ideas, enthusiasm, passion and depth. People who, as my friend said, encourage my creative spirit to grow.
It was this sense of reponsiveness and enthusiasm that Mary Portas was attempting to foster in the estate agents, and by the end of the programme they were models of the breed - especially the spiky-haired one. They listened to their clients and generally behaved in a very human way.
One of the most challenging things about the writing process is living with a longing for response, yet knowing that this isn't the way the publishing industry works. The submission process can be like having a conversation with a person who ignores what you say, makes you wait so long for an answer that you've forgotten the question and who is continually looking over your shoulder for someone more interesting to talk to.
A three month wait in the publishing world is nothing. A writing friend recently followed up the progress of his manuscript with a publisher to whom he'd submitted a year ago, and was told that, whilst his manuscript was still in the system, they had a large backlog of manuscripts ahead of his, so could not give an estimate of when it would be evaluated. They did apologise for the delay and inconvenience, but it's hardly the ideal scenario. Writers write because we want to communicate. We want a response. We feel happy when an agent or editor acknowledges our entry to a competition or submission with an automated reply. Even a rapid no - painful as it is - can sometimes be better than a long-drawn-out one.
Recently, as I mentioned in my last post, I had the good fortune to submit to a small, independent publisher. Since doing so, they've responded to my emails in a manner which is welcoming, friendly and encouraging. This is a publishing house where, I think, my creative spirit could grow.
So don't give up. You can walk into many, many houses and receive no response. You can be cold-shouldered by the agents and the houses may not speak to you. And then, if you're really lucky, you may find an open door, a warm fire, the smell of baking bread and a feeling that you've come home.
Can I be somewhere-in-the-middle please? Because although there is NO WAY on earth that I am ever going to be able to formulate a plan, much less write one down and stick to it, I would likewise be very scared to Fly by the seat of my Pants (as the latter label infers). I'd be an OCD Pantser and require some kind of safety net; a parachute maybe. I’m not fond of heights, lifts or flying - having only JUST been able to stomach the occasional aeronautical dream, so long as they’re lucid and I’m in total control of course.
Which, you’d think, would make me more of a Plotter. But no. In fact at the start of every English essay at school, I’d always leave a half-page gap at the beginning of my work where I could write my ‘Plan’ AFTER I’d written the story. Little did I know this was the start of my Synopsis training. Also I don’t like being tied down. (No sniggering at the back please). I don’t like restrictions of any sort to be honest, and I don’t like HAVING to stick to a plan – okay, I know it’d be different if I was, say an Architect or a Surgeon, but I’m not - anyway, restrictions just make me more rebellious and desirous to buck the trend. And trends are so ‘last season’ aren’t they?
I put it down to a cautious childhood where I had to conform to everything and where having an imagination was neither allowed nor tolerated. Freud could’ve based a whole new dissertation on my childhood, but I won’t go into that.
So if I’m a Somewhere In The Middle-type person, would that make me a ‘Potter’ or a ‘Plantser’? Hmmm… I’m getting definite Alan Tichmarsh-ian whiffs now. You see, I know precisely HOW I want to start and I know exactly WHERE I want it to end, but other than that, I give free rein to characters and any situation they decide to place themselves in. And if they’re silly enough to get themselves into a tight squeeze, well then they can jolly well get themselves out, can’t they? And it’s so much fun seeing how they do it.
Of course I know how far I will allow a character to go. Before the whole thing starts teetering like a pyramid of baked beans, I mean. For instance I wouldn’t launch my lovely delicate female lead from the relative safety of a leafy London suburb to the wilds of Minnesota on a drug-hustle or anything. And equally I wouldn’t kill off my mysterious, brooding hero simply because he won’t get round to fancying aforementioned female lead and has his wandering eyes set on Denise at the Bookies instead.
So I rein in the absurd. After I’ve seen what it looks like written down of course. Have you ever done that? Written something so far-fetched simply because you CAN (a bit like God creating the Duck-Billed-Platypus -what was all THAT about? Thank goodness He also invented the 'delete' button).
Athough having said all this, if I find myself halfway round Sainsbury’s, realise I’ve forgotten my shopping list and I’ve merely been running on autopilot as far as the soft cheeses, then I have been known to flee and leave the half-filled trolley in a blind panic at not knowing which aisle I need next.
Luckily my characters have no such qualms. They’re made of sterner stuff; crammed full of promise and endless possibilities.
These days it’s a rare publisher who shells out for a lavish venue and flowing drinks to celebrate a debut author’s book. (And even if they do, the money’s usually clawed back from the author’s earning’s.) It’s increasingly common for authors to hold their own launches or not to launch at all.
It can be a horrific expense – unjustifiable if your advance is tiny or non-existent. It’s a lot of work – time which could be spent on the next book, or earning the money elsewhere to fund that writing habit. But it can also be done on a shoestring for excellent reasons, and this blog is a shameless low-budget launch-plug. I love a party.
What’s a launch for? To raise the author’s media profile and rake in some precious reviews? Perhaps but probably not.
Even the local gazette hacks may have five invites that night and recoil from the non-story that yet another unknown has written yet another book. You can of course drum up a fabulous true-story of how your book came into being for the press to lap up. If you have the natural verve and chutzpah of Jane Wenham Jones, you must! But you don’t have to. Not yet. All that shoving your face into the limelight to up your Amazon ratings can come later. Tonight is your night. Your launch is your book’s only birthday party. If you want to enjoy it without busting your purse strings, here’s how:
Invite friends and family first. They’ll a) come, b) buy your book – often in bulk c) enjoy themselves because they don’t get invited to fifty launches a month.
Memories of a few flushed aunts getting spritely on the free fizz are worth more than those of a handful of jaded meedja bods looking over your shoulder for someone more famous to talk to. And loved ones are just the people with whom to scale that almighty obstacle: reading aloud to an audience. They’ll be kind when you lose your place. Or realise you do need reading glasses after all. Or stammer. And blush. And stumble on your words. When you’re out there flogging your book in the long year ahead, these amateur traits aren’t cute. Better to learn how nerves attack you and learn to control them amongst friends.
Find a willing bookshop as a venue. They have many virtues over a wine bar or club, not least being that they’ll handle the ordering and selling of your stock - leaving you free to greet and sign and enjoy the night. Daunt’s on Holland Park Avenue, where I held the launch of Hot Kitchen Snow, even laid on staff to pour wine at no extra charge. The atmosphere is just right – you’re not competing with unbooky fellow boozers or music that can’t be turned down. There’s an apt and picturesque photo opp of you against built-in shelves of neatly stacked books. And because you can provide your own wine, rather than pay hiked up bar prices, you can make sure your favourite tipple is flowing all night, free of charge. This was important to me. I didn’t fancy asking friends to schlep into London and then expect them to cough up for their own Pinot. I wanted champagne on tap.
Allow time for finding this venue – it’s harder to get the right place than you might think. Some don’t do launches or can’t stay open late. Others are too tiny. Some charge an astronomical fee. Some inexplicably seem to loathe authors and books and will harangue you that no one reads anymore. Others are absolutely perfect but involve six buses and three train changes. And have no parking for two miles.
Get out there and visit them in person. A local or central indie bookstore is a godsend. Once you’ve found them, do be nice. Hold back some wine for staff. Don’t forget to say thank you. Tell them how many are coming to help them gauge how many books to order. At Daunt’s they underestimated what a supportive bunch of friends I had and scaled down my suggested order. They had to climb into the window to undo the stunning display they’d set up. But it was good to sell out at a launch. That was a mini story in itself.
Most important of all, it’s your launch in your chosen place, surrounded by your friends, clutching your book and your favourite wine in their hands. You’ll have a great night. You worked hard, unpaid, for years to get to this point. So when the time comes, relish it.
'Write me a letter, and tell me when you're better, and don't forget your good friend Pat.'
The song has stuck in my head ever since, as if it were there already, and watching the video made me think about people's approach to the past and how I want to approach historical fiction.
I don't think there is much room for nostalgia in histfic, because it seems to me that it's not really about the past. It's about the present - just a different present from the one in which we happen to live. Historical fiction is about the here and now that belongs to individuals - not 'Victorians' or 'Georgians' or 1950s Liverpudlians, but people with a story to be told.
Why is self-publishing being called ‘indie publishing' by some now?
There has been a stigma around the word self-publishing for many years, and although that is lessening, it's still out there. Indie or independent publishing is the kind of self-publishing where you organize everything yourself. You might engage freelancers but you don't use any of the assisted models that are out there. It's almost a badge of pride for authors who are treating publishing as an entrepreneurial business and making a success out of their books without using the more traditional models. Indie publishers will publish on the Kindle and ebook readers like the Nook and iPad. They will also use print on demand services for their print books and will sell and distribute online. Amazon.com is the biggest bookstore in the world and we can all publish there ourselves.
Can books published this way really compete with those from traditional publishers in today’s market?
Clearly indie publishers can't compete with the brand name authors like Stephen King or Lee Child. These are mainstream, big budget superstar writers. But indies are doing very well. Check out the top Kindle 100 and you'll find most of the books priced $2.99 or under are indie authors. Amanda Hocking currently has 6 in the top 100 and check out this article for the thousands of books authors like this are selling. If you could sell 10,000 or 100,000 books per month at that price - why would you want a publisher? Clearly not all indies are selling this well but you might be surprised how many are. The main aspects of success in ebook sales seems to be a good cover, lots of books, a great book so people want more and a low price i.e. under $2.99. Follow JA Konrath's blog for more of these success stories.
I'm counting on an author platform to get my sales kickstarted and then the Kindle sales seem to pick up anyway. So the competition is all online these days. Clearly indies are not competing in physical bookstores.
What are the advantages for authors to go the indie route?
Control and speed to market are two big reasons. As an indie you control how much the book will cost and that makes a huge difference to sales. You also control how you market, who you give the book away to. You can also have your book published on Kindle within 24 hours and as a print on demand book in under 3 weeks. Traditional publishing takes 18 months even after you have a book deal. As above, some indie authors are also making a lot more money going indie. It won't happen for all but ebooks are now 11% of the market and growing so it is now a viable business model.
Any advice on common mistakes and pitfalls, and how to avoid them?
It definitely suits a personality that likes to multi-task as well as write! So make sure you understand how you like to work. You also need to treat it like a business, so budget for professional editing and cover design. You receive income from sales, not an advance with this model. Really look at what you need to spend money on. You don't need all the packages that some vendors will sell you. You can publish on Kindle for free, and although you need to pay some setup costs for print on demand physical books, it shouldn't be too expensive. I think people shouldn't have stock of more than 15 books in their house for anything that comes up locally. Why hold stock when you can use print on demand!
Finally, tell us a bit about the road to publishing Pentecost...
I should say after the above that I still want a print book deal with a big name publisher! But I'd rather attract a deal with great sales and a fantastic author platform. I can't stand the negative energy of rejection and waiting. I like to act. So I'm going to write, indie publish, sell my books and make money and if a deal comes along, then I'll have a look at it. But for now, indie is great for me!
For Pentecost, I engaged a professional editor as well as a book designer in order to create a professional product so I worked with them through the process of cover design, interior layout and several rounds of editing. I only finished the book just before new year so it's brilliant to be launching it 7 Feb and then start the next one in the series. I'm very proud of the finished product.
Joanna Penn is the author of Pentecost, a thriller novel, out now on Amazon.com. Joanna is also a blogger at TheCreativePenn.com : Adventures in Writing, Publishing and Book Marketing. Connect on Twitter @thecreativepenn
Which 3 writers, living or dead, would you invite to dinner?
Antonia Forest, Noel Streatfeild, Mara Kay - so I can ask them about my favourite childhood books and characters.
What's your favourite writing snack?
A nice cup of tea
Longhand or computer?
Win Booker prize or land Hollywood film deal?
Hollywood - I have a family to feed.
Tabloid or broadsheet?
I've worked for both - longest at a broadsheet - and I read both, but if I had to choose then broadsheet.
Independent bookshop or Amazon?
Specialist independents are the best.
Hacker or adder?
Plotter or panter? [ie do you plan out all your work first or write by the seat of your pants?]
Leave on a cliffhanger or tell all?
You really must read…
The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler.
I get most excited by…
Thinking up plot twists. And hearing from readers.
If I wasn’t a writer I would be…
Well, I am also a journalist, and my favourite job in journalism is news editing, but maybe that's too similar to being a writer. I'd love to be an art therapist.
An author should always...
Strive for truthfulness.
Keren David began her career in journalism as a teenager, starting out as messenger girl and then becoming a junior reporter at the Jewish Chronicle. She worked as a reporter for the Sunday Times and the Daily Express in Scotland and then as a news editor at the Independent, later becoming a commissioning editor on the Comment pages. She lived and worked in Amsterdam for eight years, returning to London in 2007. Since then Keren has written two books for teenagers, the contemporary thrillers When I Was Joe and Almost True both published in 2010. Drawing on her background in news, they tell the story of a boy taken into police protection after witnessing a murder. When I was Joe has been nominated for the Carnegie Medal and last week won the North East Teenage Book Award 2010. Keren's next book Lia's Guide to Winning the Lottery will be published in August 2011.
I've always loved poetry and grew up on Charles Causley, W H Auden, T S Eliot and others, but until the Arvon course I was a little out of touch with contemporary stuff. That seemed remiss if I wanted to publish any more poems and I set out to rectify it. I subscribed to a mass of magazines and bought piles of poetry books. The advantage of heaping verse on your bedside table is that you can stack up a long list of poets before they topple. When you are gorging on novels, if you get up in the night for a pee and blunder against the unread pile you are likely to be killed by falling books, like felling a tree on top of yourself. Poetry is admirably slimline.
I've also engaged in poetry critting, both online and live. Now, there's a big difference between critting poetry and critting prose. Gathering criticism of poetry is easier because the critters can read the whole piece. Assuming you haven't written something the length of Don Juan, you can quickly amass twenty or thirty responses to your poem. Conversely, there's a limit to how many people are willing to read your entire unpublished novel, and you need to choose those people carefully. By the way, I'm trying to use the lovely word crit (and its variations) as much as possible today.
The quality of criticism I've been fortunate enough to find, is high, and the depth of analysis people are prepared to offer is astounding. But the thing it highlights for me is the oh-so-obvious-and-oh-so-easy-to-forget truth that so much is a matter of taste. When people criticise fragments of a novel that truth is obscured: the comments can usually only stretch to whether a scene works or how language is employed, rather than a holistic impression of the work. But with poetry, critters respond emotionally/aesthetically to the impact of the poem, as well as offering technical insights. And highly experienced and talented people have completely opposing views of the same poem.
I've noticed how different the comments are when one reads and critiques an entire novel - when you are able to make big points like, "I loathed your main character." I'm not certain whether this is an advantage or disadvantage for poets versus novelists, and I'd be interested to know what others think. It does mean that you can roadtest a poem to the point where you have a pretty clear view of what people make of it before you submit it to those who will ultimately decide its fate. That's much harder with the novel.
Do you listen to music while you write? Some people can't concentrate at all with music playing in the background [including my husband who I sometimes have to share an office with....]but I am increasingly finding it essential to help get me in the right frame of mind to write. Susannah Rickards posted recently on ‘writing the mind alive’ and how Bach’s Goldberg Variations was integral to a certain kind of inspired writing, so I know I’m not alone.
My YA novel Dark Ride, to be published in May, was actually semi inspired by the Morrissey song Every Day is Like Sunday [yeah, OK, not quite Bach, but whatever floats your creative boat]. The song is about a grotty seaside town ‘that they forgot to close down’. Whenever I needed a little inspiration, I’d bang it on and picture this unloved town in my mind. I’d have gone slightly nuts listening to one song over and over again and luckily I found more for my playlist. I’m a huge fan of US band The National and something about their moody, melodic songs seemed to fit this atmosphere perfectly, even though they have nothing to do with the English seaside.
The book I am writing now is a very different beast, being set 12 years in the future, where human rights have gone to the dogs and all sorts of nasty things are done to the population. In this case, I have found the band Muse to be well, my muse. Yes, they can be a bit overblown but as their last album revolved around the idea of a dystopian future, certain songs just instantly get the creative bit of my brain buzzing and get me in the right mood for writing.
Here are a few links to the songs that have helped inspire me. I hope you like them too and I’d love to know how others feel about having a soundtrack to their writing...
Every day is like Sunday by Morrissey [check out those 80s ‘dos’]
Apartment Story by The National [gorgeous acoustic version]
Uprising by Muse