Monday, 24 September 2012

Under the wide and starry sky....

On Friday night I drove 105 miles to the North and West, from autumnal, dreich Edinburgh to the wide black and starry skies of Argyllshire and specifically the townlet of Strontian in Ardnamurchan for the small but perfectly- formed Book & Arts festival of the Three Lochs(patron Sandy McCall Smith). This was my first visit – only it’s second year. One of the highlights of the weekend is the local produce available for hungry 3-lochers – smoked salmon, cheese, bread and more – for which I was very grateful after the long drive through Glencoe, and an hour spent driving up and down a single track road looking for my lodgings. I’d forgotten that the evening falls early in the highlands and the night is very very dark. Helpful to remember when you are trying to reverse down a steep unsurfaced track, hoping not to hit a sheep or drop into a ravine.

We were a small but eager group at the 11.30 am How to get Published workshop on Saturday.  I got about 10 minutes into my talk when the questions overcame me. Interestingly, most of the talk was about writers becoming publishers rather than finding publishers – reflecting a change in perceptions in general, I thought. We spoke for some time about this change of focus, and just touched on the other related change – i.e. not only has the new technology (and the recession) changed the way writers find readers, but it may also be changing the kind of books that readers want from writers.

We talked about the pros and cons of publishing yourself – being in control, a larger share of the takings on the one side and the scary business of self-promotion on the other. And we talked about the perceived advantages of the conventional route to publication – the publisher bearing the cost, managing the marketing and selling, in exchange for a bigger share of the takings (most unjustifiable in relation to the eBook).

I think at the end of our discussion we had reached a consensus – a consensus for a compromise. Somewhere between conventional paternalistic publishing  and going it alone. Do writers have the time and skills needed to both write the books and bring them to market? Some do, undoubtedly, many/most do not. Independent publishing, with a minimal selection procedure, where the writer can buy the support he or she needs while staying in control of the process, and of their destiny. That would be the ideal. 

I think we might need another post to do this subject justice. I'm only sorry I missed the barbeque on Saturday night. Food, film, books. A perfect little festival.

Thursday, 21 June 2012

What happens when you send us your manuscript?

"A rare, lucky chance to get my work read by professional, experienced editors who would give the manuscript a proper appraisal."

We're really grateful that Saudha Kasim, who won our Bursary Competition earlier this year, has written a little bit about the Writing Room editorial process, and the feedback we gave her.

Saudha's prize was a full Writing Room editorial report on her novel In the Medinah, worth around £1000.

Read her full piece on the editorial process below, thanks Saudha! 

Midway through the movie Clueless, the heroine Cher (played by Alicia Silverstone) engages in the following dialogue with her friend (and makeover project) Tai:

    Tai Fraiser: Do you think she's pretty?
    Cher Horowitz: No, she's a full-on Monet.
    Tai Fraiser: What's a Monet?
    Cher Horowitz: It's like a painting, see? From far away, it's OK, but up close, it's a big old mess.

Creative writing courses should instill the above as a kind of mantra for aspiring writers: yes, it reads well on the surface, but you really have to dig deeper and find the stuff that isn’t working well. The things that compromise the quality of your work.

I’m not part of a writing group nor do I have access to any kind of professional writer-mentor. So my struggle with my first novel, In The Medinah, has made that hoary cliché about writing – it’s the loneliest profession, ever – a real experience.  The Writing Room bursary was me getting a rare, lucky chance to get my work read by professional, experienced editors who would give the manuscript a proper appraisal.

The feedback I received from The Writing Room was clear eyed, going deep into the structural faults, picking out the plot holes, the weaknesses in character development and the need to cut down on so many competing storylines. The report suggested I had enough stories for more than one novel and it would need some paring down.

The strengths of the novel were picked out too – and suggestions on ideas to keep and those to discard. Plus, the report also seeded new ideas which could improve the novel, giving it a greater chance of being published.

I am glad that Maggie and Rosie read my work and gave their professional opinion of it. I’d always been afraid of submitting shoddy work to agents and publishers, but since the appraisal’s been done, I have a clear idea of what needs to be improved and the revision is going to be easier to handle.

The Writing Room appraisal has acted as a sort of validation for this project of mine – I now know that two years of effort have not been a complete waste. But there’s still work to be done before it goes from being a Monet to a Titian. 

~ Saudha Kasim,  May 2012

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Author Sara Levine answers your questions about writing

In addition to giving you some great tips (see previous post) Sara Levine has very kindly answered some questions posted by Writing Roomers on facebook and twitter.

Sara is the author of Treasure Island!!!, one of our favourite reads of recent months (The New York Times, amongst others, thought that the novel was pretty good too).

We're so grateful to Sara, and hope you find her answers useful.

You can follow Sara on twitter, @levinehere 

• "As soon as the book starts your protagonist comes across as opinionated and gutsy, did you have to think long and hard about getting her voice right or did it come naturally?"

Thanks. I got her voice early on; the tone, the syntactical habits, the lusty if half-crazed attention to metaphor—that came on pretty much the same moment I got the idea for the novel.

But it was work to sustain the voice over the course of a novel so I don't know if I can claim the voice came "naturally."

• "Is there a particular genre you want to leave your stamp on?"

No, I don't think of leaving a stamp on anything.

If I come into your house, I worry about leaving footprints on your carpet.

But there are two genres I was consciously playing with: boy adventure fiction and chick lit. Each one provided me with conventions to write against and gave me questions to chew on: What is adventure? What constitutes a modern heroine? etc.

• "Did being a writing teacher encourage or discourage you to write books yourself?"

I love teaching.

I usually teach seven students one-on-one in a tutorial situation, and I also teach workshops and seminars.

I've learned a lot—I've basically used teaching as a way to pursue my own apprenticeship—but the course load at my particular school is heavy.

It can be a challenge to find the time to get writing done, especially since, unlike with the teaching, there won't be fifteen students saying, "Hey, why didn't you pass that back yet?" Here's how I console myself: it would be a challenge to get my writing done even if you put me on a desert island.

I have to have some kind of job so this particular problem—how to balance writing with teaching—is one I'm happy to struggle with.

• "What are the worst and the best parts of being a writer?"

Best: how writing sharpens my consciousness and makes something solid out of the inchoate mental vapor in which I live.

Worst: I need to be alone, which often means saying no or no, not now to the people I love.

• "Once you had the idea and started writing how did you push through to the end? Was it a strict routine or a lot of noodling? Or somewhere in between?"

A lot of noodling with some long stretches of ass-kicking discipline.

'Treasure Island !!!' author Sara Levine's advice for writers

Our Spare Room writers' group takes a bit of a different form this month...

When it comes to sharing writing advice, Sara Levine is someone you want to listen to.

Currently the chair of the Writing Programme at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Sara previously taught in the MFA in NonFiction Writing Programme at the University of Iowa -  and holds a PhD in English from Brown.

This teacher knows how it feels on the other side of the desk too: Sara is a critically acclaimed short story writer ("This book is a wonder"- Matthea Harvey) and her first novel, Treasure Island!!!, was published earlier this year to rave reviews on both sides of the Atlantic ("a remarkable debut" - Toronto Globe).

So read on... and in the next blog check out Sara's answers to some of the questions you posted (we got a lot of questions for Sara, sorry she couldn't answer them all!).

You can follow Sara on twitter, @levinehere

Three small pieces of advice about writing

1. Understand and accept your failure rate

The poet Eavan Boland describes this idea by likening the writing process to "working at a rock face. Ninety days out of ninety-five, it's just a rock face. The other five days, there's a bit of silver, a bit of base metal in it."

I'm not sure when exactly I learned this (maybe yesterday), but it was important for me to understand that not every writing session was going to find me sitting there like Flaubert, weeping over Madame Bovary.

If you're realistic about how many bad paragraphs you need to write before you manage a good one, you can finish a work day in a pretty good mental state, which makes it easier to go back to work tomorrow.

Tell yourself that you're doing your job just by showing up at the rock face.

2. Learn how to goad yourself into writing

I think a lot of so-called committed writers don't always feel like doing it.

Rather than spiral into agonies of self-doubt ("Wow, do I really want to do this? Maybe I'm not committed enough; I bet Hemingway never felt this way…") figure out what helps you get started and do it.

I have a friend who always reads a page of a great writer before she begins - "but only a page," she warns, "or you lose the morning."

I have another friend who, when she feels stuck, buys herself a new pen and begins writing by hand. (She has three books now and great collection of felt-tips.)

The point is everybody feels resistance to writing sometimes, and the most helpful course is to expect that resistance - maybe even greet it like an old friend - and cheerfully strategize against it. 

Here is Virginia Woolf talking to herself in her diary in 1922:
"The way to rock oneself back into writing is this. First, gentle exercise in the air. Second the reading of good literature."

I love reading Virginia Woolf's diary for many reasons, not least of which is she is always coming up with "game plans."

3. Understand that patience doesn't make you a pansy

For me, the writing always takes a longer time than I think it will. And that's okay. You don't take a cake out of the oven early just because you want to eat it.

The world isn't knocking on the door saying, "Hey? Where's that novel?" Only your ego is saying that. Writing goes much better when you forget about your ego. Just relax and take your time.

Don't look at the clock; look at the technical problems on your page, which are so much more interesting.

Monday, 23 April 2012

London Book Fair 2012 | Part Four

Grey books give a girl a red face

And, of course, there was much digital chat. 

Two highlights being the announcement that Amazon Publishing's imprint Thomas & Mercer has snapped up a 10-year license for North American rights to the entire series of Ian Fleming's James Bond books (in both print and e-book form).  All titles to be reissued for this summer.

And...over in soft porn....the fan-fiction self-publishing selling sensation that is Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy continues to grab headlines. The title has topped the New York Times Best-seller list without ever appearing in print.  UK rights have now been bought by Random House Cornerstone in the UK and Random House Vintage in the US, foreign publishers are in a buying frenzy and according to the Hollywood reporter, Universal has bought film rights...

Publishing is surely shifting, without the anonymity of e-readers Fifty Shades of Grey would never have achieved these sales figures (250,000+) or such word-of-mouth can you make use of the evolving landscape?

Keep us posted Writing Roomers...I'm going to lie down.

Sunday, 22 April 2012

London Book Fair 2012 | Part Three

The un-dead stay cool, as Spain takes the tiger by the tail

Many of the exciting sales this year were in the foreign and translation markets.

Here's a taster:
  • In an unprecedented move the Barcelona literary agency who represent Gabriel Garcia Marquez auctioned a two-year license to publish A Hundred Years of Solitude in China.
  • The title has previously been widely pirated in the country. The agent Carmen Balcells, widely thought to be the most powerful figure in Spanish publishing, opened the auction at $1,000,000, within hours of the fair opening on Monday bidding had already passed the $1.5million mark...
  • Faber pre-empted World English Language rights in Stallo, a Swedish tale of the supernatural featuring trolls. The acquiring editor has compared it to Let The Right One In and Stephen King's Salem's Lot - apparently it's "very creepy".
  • Keeping with the undead-types, Constable & Robinson imprint Corsair bought UK and Commonwealth rights in the first two books in the Deadlands  series by Lily Herne (the series is published in South Africa by Penguin).
  • Swedish super-agency Salomonsson, who represent internationally-known Scandinavian writers such as Jo Nesbo, had a big trilogy by Anders de la Motte at the fair.  Ten foreign deals were closed in the lead up to the fair, and the agency conducted a heated auction between UK publishers for the work in the UK
  • US agency Foundry did a bit of creative deal making...they received a submission with a split narrative - an adult and teenage voice. Realising the potential, they asked the writer to split the book in two and develop both voices further...and at the fair they sold two books out of the original manuscript:  Cain's Blood.  One Young Adult title to Simon & Schuster and the adult title to Touchstone. *Ker-ching*!

Saturday, 21 April 2012

London Book Fair 2012 | Part Two: China & delayed gratification

The sun rises in the East

Each year the London Book Fair has a focus and this year it was China. Thought-provoking talks were dedicated to exploring the developing tastes and buying patterns of this huge market, alongside the movement of Chinese literature into other languages and cultures, and vice versa.

Rising literary star Sheng Keyi, who's Northern Girls is soon to be published by Penguin Asia, spoke of the clash between old and new China and reflected on how "in most of [my work] I am trying to reflect the life and fate of the small villages".

We also particularly enjoyed Tuesday's author of the day Bi Feiyu - a prolific author and screenwriter with over 50 short stories, 10 medium-length novels and 4 full-length novels to his name.  Bi was in conversation with Rosie Goldsmith on the Pen stand. We learned that he achieved much of that extraordinary output by writing through the night, when he was working as a teacher!

Behind Bars & learning from failure

Another great lecture on the Pen stand, though not about China, was given by Anthony Horowitz who talked about his work with Prison Literacy and Reading schemes.

This is a cause I've got a bee in my bonnet about anyway... statistics vary, but it is estimated that 2/3 of UK prisoners are functionally illiterate.

BUT the good news is that Horowitz also spoke about his journey to publication - it took 30 years and a variety of media before the first Alex Rider book got a big reception. He said that he had benefited from this "failure" - he learned new skills, got to try out different ideas, and hone his craft. Worth bearing in mind when freaking out you haven't written a best-seller over the weekend ;)