Monday, 30 April 2012

Why Every Self-Publishing Author Needs an Editor - Ali Luke of Aliventures Guest-posts

Why Every Self-Publishing Author Needs an Editor

Over the past couple of years, self-publishing (often called “indie publishing”) has finally become a legitimate option for novelists. With big time authors like Jackie Collins turning to self-publishing – plus previously-unknowns like Amanda Hocking and John Locke becoming hugely successful – you may be making plans to self-publish your own novel.

Inspired by Joanna Penn’s experiences with indie-publishing, in 2011, I brought out my first novel, Lycopolis, as an ebook; I’ve just released it as a print-on-demand paperback too. One critical part of my plan was to get the book professionally edited. (By Lorna, who did a fantastic job; you can find her editing services on her Fictionfire site.)

Here’s why you need an editor if you’re going to self-publish.

You Want Your Novel to Be as Good as Possible

In the fast-paced world of ebooks, print-on-demand, blogs and social media, it might well feel like you’re already behind. Maybe you’ve watched, a little enviously, as other authors have pumped out book after book and found success.

However tempting it is, don’t decide that your manuscript is “good enough” and put it online during a free weekend. You want your novel to be as good as it can possibly be, before you launch it to the world. Yes, it’s relatively easy to update an ebook or print-on-demand book – but you really want those first few readers to love your book. (That way, they’ll write reviews, tell their friends, and help you get the marketing ball rolling.)

I know that Lycopolis wouldn’t be receiving nearly such a good reception without Lorna’s hard work. She suggested cutting the manuscript considerably; in the end, I cut it down from 135,000 words to 85,000. “Fast paced” has come up in a lot of reviews and comments, and I know that’s thanks to her advice – the novel wouldn’t be receiving nearly such good feedback if it had stayed at its original bloated length.

Your Readers Expect High Standards

When you buy a traditionally-published novel, you expect certain standards. If the latest Joanne Harris or Alexander McCall Smith book was full of typos and mistakes, you’d be justifiably annoyed. It’s hard to read through misspelt words, missing quotation marks, or characters whose names change mid-way ... these sorts of slips jolt you out of the story.

As an independent author, you’re in charge of both the writing and the publishing. If you do your job well, many of the readers who buy your book may not even realise it’s been independently published – so don’t expect them to cut you any slack.

I’ve read lots of great self-published novels. I’ve also read a few that could’ve been great, but that had distracting mistakes (from stylistic slips to misspellings). I know how hard it is to get everything right on your own – which is why it makes so much sense to hire an editor.

Beta-Readers (Generally) Aren’t Professionals

You might worry that the investment in editing isn’t going to be worth it: after all, can’t you just get a few friends to look over your manuscript? In the indie publishing world, you’ll often hear authors talk about their “beta-readers”. These people play a role a little like beta-testers in the software industry, checking out a pre-release version of a novel for any problems and offering feedback.

Beta-readers do a fantastic job, and I’ve had hugely valuable feedback from mine (two writing groups). They can usually help you spot any major problems, like plot holes, or inconsistent characterisation and style. On a micro level, eagle-eyed beta readers may well pick up on typos, spelling mistakes, and factual errors.

However ... beta-readers aren’t generally professional authors or editors. It would be unreasonable of you to expect them to spend the same amount of time on your novel as a paid editor would. You may well be showing your novel to them piecemeal, if you belong to a writers’ group, making it hard for them to assess overall issues like structure and pace. While their feedback is very valuable during the drafting process, it doesn’t replace the need for a keen editorial eye once you reach your almost-final draft.

Whatever stage you’re at with your work-in-progress, think about how you might invest in editing. If you can’t afford to pay to have the whole of your magnum opus edited, you could get the first three chapters critiqued. (Even if you don’t decide to go down the self-publishing route, professional editing could make the difference between a polite “no thanks” from an agent and a request for your full manuscript.)

Having my novel edited gave me the confidence to publish it, knowing it was as good as it could be. I’m thrilled now to be getting reviews that make it really clear to me just how valuable that editing was.

Ali Luke is currently on a virtual book tour for her novel Lycopolis, a fast-paced supernatural thriller centred on a group of online role-players who summon a demon into their game ... and into the world. Described by readers as "a fast and furious, addictive piece of escapism" and "absolutely gripping", Lycopolis is available in print and ebook form. Find out more at

Do you want to hear Ali speak in person?

I'm delighted that Ali will be joining me, along with Joanna Penn of The Creative Penn, for two information-packed day courses I'm running at Trinity College, Oxford next month. The first is Publish It! on the 26th May - we'll be helping you to set and achieve your publishing goals: do you want to pursue a traditional route to publication or do you want to publish independently? There's never been a more exciting time for writers, with the freedom to choose from a variety of avenues to publication, but this variety can seem overwhelming. I'll be talking about mainstream publishing and Joanna and Ali, as successful independent publishers, will share their personal experiences and the lessons they've learned along the way. We'll  give you a wealth of  practical advice to help you make the right choice for you and to maximise your chances of success. 

On 27th May, the course is titled Market It!: we'll be sharing advice and information about how to publicise your work, whether you've opted for the traditional or independent route. We'll explore all the online and offline opportunities open to you to connect with readers and spread the word. It doesn't matter how wonderful your book is, if no one knows it exists it's going to languish in obscurity. We'll show you how to bring it out into the light.

Trinity College, Oxford
Of course, you can neither publish nor publicise unless you have a book written and in the best, most polished state for bringing to a readership, so during the weekend of 19th and 20th May, I'll be running Write It! and Edit It! which will teach you how to construct your novel and then revise it. Full details of these courses, the speakers and the venue can be found on my website here.

Discounts are available if you book more than one course.

Don't leave it too late to book! Booking for Write It! and Edit It! will close Thursday 17th May and for Publish It! and Market It! on Thursday 24th May. If you have any questions do please contact me at or call 07827 455723. I do hope you can join us!

Friday, 20 April 2012

London Book Fair and the launch of The Alliance of Independent Authors

The publishing industry year is punctuated by various beanfeasts and bonanzas, including the London Book Fair. As a writer, I've always felt that it wouldn't be appropriate or useful to attend, as the Fair is all about wheeling and dealing amongst publishing folks and agents. Strange, though, isn't it, that writers, who produce the material these deals will be based on, feel like interlopers, when it's the products of their imagination and commitment that provide the raw material for the deals?

This, though, is an industry engaged in looking at the future, with a rabbit-caught-in-headlights expression. It's trying to adjust to the speed of change: digital proliferation, digital rights management, the power of Amazon, the influence of Google ...

For writers, there has been change too. In some ways, disastrous change, in that we've seen publishers become more and more risk-averse, more and more governed by sales figures, more and more in thrall to the power of the supermarkets. Writers have been dropped because sales figures are not good enough. Writers are not taken on because the publishing house can't afford to take a punt on them. Writers are dashing their skulls against the barriers of the industry or sitting at home counting their proliferating grey hairs.

Orna Ross
Or are they? The times they are a'changing and no mistake. Reader, I went to the London Book Fair this year, for the very first time. And I had a blast. The trigger for my visit was the official launch of The Alliance of Independent Authors. Now, that's an irony for a start, isn't it? Orna Ross, an award-winning novelist who has set up the Alliance, chose to do so at the heart of the Book Fair: we were in a room that looked down on the vast arena of publishers' stands, with the low buzz of it rising up to us as we celebrated the power of independence and freedom for us, as writers, to bring our words to the public in the manner of our choosing.

Joanna Penn
Orna introduced two panel discussions. The first was chaired by Joanna Penn of The Creative Penn: industry professionals set out their stalls, trying to woo us with the services they can offer. There was a pretty hyped transatlantic tone to this - the verbal equivalent of punching the air. Tom Kephart of Amazon's CreateSpace advised writers to include as much effective metadata in the descriptions of their books as possible, to help with visibility (or that clumsy word 'discoverability'). Teresa Pereira of print-on-demand service Blurb UK stressed that writers often want print versions as well as electronic versions of their books available. She referred to the recent biography of Apple's Steve Jobs and how readers wanted the portability of the e-version but the production values of the hardback too. Michael Tamblyn of Kobo (which supplies its e-readers to WH Smith's), told us that 7-10% of the books they now deliver are self-published. He said they were looking at making it possible for authors to comment on their own books - having marginal notes, for instance, explaining what they were thinking when they wrote a particular paragraph. Hmn. As if writing the bleedin' thing isn't enough, we now have to analyse our meaning and motivation - when probably all we were doing was thinking of when we could justifiably stop for a coffee and a Kit-Kat!

Linda Gillard
A panel discussion of authors, chaired by Sam Missingham of The Bookseller, followed. This featured Scottish writer John Logan, who self-published after far too many years of 'rave rejections', along with Dan Holloway from Oxford, who ploughs a highly-individualistic furrow with his writing, enjoying experimentation, interaction and the 'freedom to fail'. Joni Rodgers, a vibrant Texan, has experienced both traditional publishing and independent publishing. She was amazingly confident, an absolute hoot. She sees the New York publishing industry as being obsessed with celebrity and says the hallmark of self-publishing will be when it becomes 'the high ground of creative risk-takers'. Then there was our own Linda Gillard (I've just featured her on Literascribe): she's making a satisfying living from self-publishing after being dropped as a mid-list author by her traditional publisher. She reinforced the message that indie publishing is ideal if you don't write in a particular genre, if you want to tackle different types of novel. There was a fascinating discussion of pricing strategies and how authors can experiment with different price-points to gain the best returns. Sam Missingham pointed out the irony that people will happily pay £2.50 for a greetings card yet balk at paying that for an entire e-book. Linda reminded us that the royalty rate in traditional publishing is poor.

In the question and answer session afterwards, the panel members were asked about reviews. Linda feels book reviews don't really sell books anyway. Alison Baverstock, course leader for the Master's in Publishing at Kingston University, highlighted that respected book-bloggers can have a huge influence and Amazon's Tom Kephart stressed the importance of good customer reviews. It was agreed that writers have always had to do a lot of heavy lifting in terms of promotion, whether traditionally published or not. The tricky thing, as Joni reminded us, is protecting writing time and resisting the temptation to 'pull the trigger' prematurely when putting work out there.

Some writers have of course made the news by generating enormous income as indie writers and then doing deals with traditional publishers. (You may remember my interviews with Mark Edwards and Louise Voss last year - they e-published their thrillers Catch your Death and Killing Cupid before landing a contract with HarperCollins.) Linda and Joni both want nothing further to do with traditional publishing, and you often hear the question these days - what can publishers offer us that we can't do for ourselves? However, I do think that writers and publishers don't need to hide behind opposing ramparts, firing off pot-shots at one another. We should all be working together to advocate reading and bookselling. Orna says that the Alliance is all about 'collaboration, connection, contact' and that writing books is 'like football. You've got the Premier League - that doesn't stop you kicking a ball about the garden.' Historically, there's been a lot of snootiness with regard to self-publishing and God knows, there's a lot of dross out there and a lot of dross being encouraged by ease of access to publishing services. But there's a lot of great material out there too, material denied a platform because of market/industry dictats and limitations. I have had the experience of traditional publishing with a highly-respected publisher (Bloomsbury) with whom I was proud to be associated. The harsh reality is that any writer's time in the sun is limited because publishers and booksellers produce and display work briefly and then move on. Self-publishing allows you to take advantage of the 'long tail' of possible sales. It gives you freedom, it does away with the agony of waiting for responses, it gives you control over your income. Traditional publishing still gives you validation and kudos and it gives you access to bookshops, and foreign rights deals you might not be able to garner for yourself. Linda finds self-publishing is 'a way of making friends', Dan sees it as a way of being 'true', Joni talks of 'artistic freedom'. But it doesn't have to be a case of either/or. Orna wants writers to be seen as 'partners' in publishing, not as 'a resource to be mined'. If you buy a hybrid car, you can choose to power it with electricity or petrol. What's truly truly exciting for writers now is that we can choose a hybrid career, publishing independently or traditionally as it suits us. As it suits us. Suits me!

If you want to see and hear more about the launch of ALLIA, here's the link to Joanna Penn's video of interviews with those attending.

 Here is the link to a fascinating and lively interview she and Orna took part in on Radio Litopia - and if you want to find out more about the Alliance and how to join, just click on the button in the sidebar of this blog.

Remember, if you're a writer just starting out, you've finished your book and want to edit it or you're ready to take your book to the market, my upcoming Fictionfire courses, two of which I'm running with Joanna Penn, will offer you practical advice and inspiration.

Write It! will cover all the elements of composing your story, from finding ideas to finishing your first draft.

Edit It! will teach you crucial techniques for polishing and presenting your work effectively.

Joanna Penn of and Ali Luke of will join me for Publish It!, where you'll learn to set and achieve your publishing goals, and Market It!, where we'll show you all the exciting online and offline opportunities for you to publicise and sell your work.

Trinity College
Full details of these courses are on the Course Dates and Details page of my website: and there are discounts if you wish to book more than one course. The courses run on 19th, 20th, 26th and 27th May at Trinity College Oxford - so don't leave it too long to make your booking!

Monday, 16 April 2012

Linda Gillard: Hearts and Crafts and Independence

I've just finished Emotional Geology, the third of Linda Gillard's novels I've read and enjoyed - the others being House of Silence and Untying the Knot. Linda has recently been setting us a fine example as a mid-list novelist who, having been dropped by her publisher, has proved that it's perfectly possible to be a successful indie writer and publisher. Her original publisher was worried when she wanted to experiment with genre: this is a very common problem with publishers who want writers to 'brand' themselves in a limited way. So, if you write thrillers you can't write rom-coms. If you have too many genre-elements in your novel, the bookseller 'won't know where to put you on the shelves' - this was said to me once when a publisher who 'loved' my writing wouldn't buy my book unless I chose to focus on one of the elements she perceived in my story and one only, and revise the book accordingly. I refused to fillet my book in that way. I sold my novel later, all the same.

This attitude is not only galling to writers, but patronising towards readers, as if the poor dears can't cope with too many elements at once. Readers, actually, are often bored out of their minds by the same-old same-old on the tables in bookshops. Readers want to be startled, refreshed, amazed, enraptured. Readers want writers they've fallen in love with to write books which have the capacity to take them by surprise. They want to be gripped: they don't want a rushed pot-boiler written to order, following the same jaded recipe as the previous three, ten or twenty books that novelist has written.

This is not to say that writers can't happily plough the same furrow all their writing career: what this is about is giving writers the freedom to veer off that course if they choose. Linda Gillard has achieved this freedom: her next story will be a supernatural story, because that's what she feels like producing. She's already decided to pull it from submission to traditional publishers. She has a loyal fanbase of readers who will follow her because they like her writing, no matter which nominal genre it seems to fall into.

So what have I enjoyed in Linda's writing? Heart, first of all. She has a warm and vibrant interest in what makes men and women tick. Her heroines are challenged by being outcast or ill, by being middle-aged in a youth-dominated culture. They are highly individual, creative and frequently troubled. They are scarred by memory. They fear but they also risk. They have children, grown up, with whom they conduct a loving war of the generations. They love the colours and tactile joys of textiles: they express imagination and feeling through shape and texture, finding creativity soothing and affirming when life knocks them off their feet. They commune with nature, are uplifted and healed by it in a way that any Romantic poet would relate to. They have men: and I mean it, dear reader - they have men. Linda's heroines are full of passion and longing, yet they fear to trust, because the men who awake that burning lust in them are imperfect. Her men are sexy, they talk a lot, they are strong and weak, they carry baggage from the past and they don't always handle that baggage - or the baggage they fancy - all that well.

Linda writes about imperfection: her characters are always human and frequently haunted (in Untying the Knot literally so). Her writing veers from high comedy to pathos to tragedy and back again. Her stories are sustained by the beauty of the descriptions of the landscapes and by the vigour of the sparky dialogue. She is popular because women, grown-up women, are her focus - and grown-up women are looking for grown-up books which will engage them and satisfy them. Commentators on Facebook even weigh up which of her heroes, her imperfect yet chivalrous heroes, is their favourite.

Calum for me, by the way ...

So far ...

Linda's website(with gorgeous photographs) is here.

If you're a writer and you're considering going indie, The Alliance of Independent Authors is officially launching at the London Book Fair on Wednesday 18th April (check the link button on the sidebar of this blog). I'm going to be there because I'm going to republish my previously traditionally-published novel The Chase in the summer as an ebook and I'm very excited about taking control of my own publishing destiny. Watch this space!

If you want to write and sell your own work, you might also be interested in these upcoming day courses: I'd love it if you could join us!

Do you want to tell a tale? Unlock your writing potential at my upcoming series of four Fictionfire day courses at Trinity College, Oxford in May.

Write It! will cover all the elements of composing your story, from finding ideas to finishing your first draft.

Edit It! will teach you crucial techniques for polishing and presenting your work effectively.

Trinity College
Joanna Penn of and Ali Luke of will join me for Publish It!, where you'll learn to set and achieve your publishing goals, and Market It!, where we'll show you all the exciting online and offline opportunities for you to publicise your work.

Full details of these courses are on the Course Dates and Details page of my website: and there are discounts if you wish to book more than one course!

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Oxford Literary Festival 2012: If It Isn't Dickens, it's the Titanic ...

We all know by now that mass hysteria has taken hold and the country has reached saturation point when it comes to dear old Dickens and the tragic old Titanic. That didn't stop me, during the Oxford Literary Festival, from attending more than one talk on each. I've already reported on the discussion of Dickens' legacy at the Sheldonian, featuring Philip Pullman, J.D. Sharpe and Christopher Edge. On Thursday 29th March, I went to hear Claire Tomalin talk about her biography of Dickens. This was one of the sell-out, high-profile events of the Festival: the giant marquee at Christ Church was packed. I've read her biographies of Jane Austen and Thomas Hardy, her books on Mary Wollstonecraft and Nelly Ternan, so I knew her talk would be wise, informed, spirited and sharp. It was all of those. She put in an extremely professional performance. She discussed the maverick 'dandy' Dickens in all his familiar energy and complexity. His philanthropic activities, his endless walks and wearing, hyper-charged lifestyle. Lionel Trilling had said 'the mere record of his conviviality is exhausting' - Claire said it felt as if she were writing about five people, not one. Discussing his habit of writing novels in serial chunks, she told us he felt February was a bad month because there were fewer days in which to produce the instalment. She talked of his deep friendship with John Forster, telling us that Forster had suggested killing off Little Nell and writing David Copperfield in the first person (excellent suggestions both), but that he had failed to prevent Dickens following Bulwer-Lytton's sentimental notion that Great Expectations should have a happier ending than the one originally intended. There was some very brief discussion of his atrocious treatment of his wife, Catherine - Claire felt he needed to feel that he was in the right: 'It's not unknown for middle aged men ...' Noise of collective laughter from Garden Marquee audience.

Moving on to the ship of dreams. Now, none of that Kate and Leo nonsense here. The talks I attended turned out to be absolutely fascinating explorations of communication, really. First, on Sunday 25th March, two archivists discussed, in Titanic Calling, the radio communications on that fateful night. This sounds a dry subject but really wasn't. We were left with a sense of the paradox of it all - what went wrong, what went right. What went wrong? Well, the iceberg warnings: did they reach the captain's bridge, were they given sufficient attention? The Marconi Company wireless operators were, after all, working in a commercial capacity. One of them snarled over the airwaves telling one of the ships to shut up because their signals were getting in the way of his contact with Cape Race, the land station to which he was sending the light, frothy society messages of people on board the greatest ship in the world on its first voyage. Secondly, when disaster happened, the nearest ship, the Californian, a mere 10 miles away, did not hear the Titanic's calls for help because it had switched its wireless off and the operator had gone to bed - leaving the much more distant Carpathia to react and to come, much later, to save those who could be saved. What went right is that there was radio contact at all - radio communications were still in their infancy. The idea of calling for help via a CDQ or SOS signal was new. The strange fact that radio waves travel better at night than during daytime also helped. The operators on the Titanic, Harold Bride and Jack Philips, were heroic - they kept sending messages as long as they could. Philips lost his life in the disaster.

After such a catastrophe, there follows the inquiry. To this day we're still trying to understand the fatal blend of human hubris and sheer bloody bad luck that sank the ship. I attended a panel discussion on Thursday 29th March called Titanic Voices, which featured three writers who've written books which in their different ways analyse the significance of the event. Dr John Welshman in his brilliantly-titled Titanic: Last Night of a Small Town, picks a selection of passengers to illustrate the interaction of social class which is so powerful a part of our fascination with the ship as a microcosm of Edwardian society (see Julian Fellowes for extreme obsession with that in the current TV series...). He does this in order to explore not only class but migration, money, ideas of nationality.

Nic Compton's Titanic on Trial examines the witness statements given at the inquiries held in America and Britain. This is a very moving book, in that he presents those accounts starkly: the people describe what happened in their own words - and what is very intriguing is that sometimes in the British inquiry they contradicted what they'd said in the American one, demonstrating how unreliable memory is, how we shape our own personal myths into a structure we can feel safe with. History is nothing but a game of Chinese whispers, after all, and you see that process at work here. Nic highlights the myths that have grown up - the officer who shoots himself, the steerage passengers being locked up ... Frances Wilson called it 'unconscious fabrication' and quoted Primo Levi as having once said that 'the problem with witnesses is that they were there'.

Frances' book How to Survive the Titanic or the Sinking of J. Bruce Ismay, explores how Ismay (not in the least a likeable or admirable person) carries the collective can for bullying the captain into racing across the Atlantic and for the cowardice of his stepping into a lifeboat, leaving worthier people to die. How ever afterwards he had to bear the public opprobrium of that guilt, that permanent loss of honour. He seems to have been a wiggly worm always trying to justify his actions in an entirely self-serving manner. He seems to have put pressure on witnesses not to reveal just how slimy his behaviour had been. Not a hero - a character appropriate for the modern era, though. I was fascinated to hear that Joseph Conrad had been very interested in the Titanic and started a story about it. Frances drew compelling comparisons and contrasts between Ismay and the hero of Conrad's earlier novel, Lord Jim - a hero, like Ismay, who makes a disastrous choice in a situation of great drama and urgency. A choice that later persecutes him. The difference is that Jim does all he can to redeem himself and ultimately achieves a degree of redemption through headstrong and determined self-sacrifice.

So, a memorial cruise ship is currently steaming towards the fatal spot in the Atlantic. Wreaths will be laid, no doubt. Nearer my God to Thee will be played, no doubt. That poor ship on the seabed will in time be consumed by the iron-munching, rust-excreting bacteria which have clothed her outline with 'rusticles' . like metal wax. Will we ever stop harassing the shades of the dead? Will we ever stop romanticising the story? Probably not. Two moving thoughts: to commemorate her sailing one hundred years ago, in Southampton, they blew Titanic's deep and mighty whistle - it was a recording of it made after it had been salvaged from the seabed. Spooky. Secondly, another great ship, the Lusitania, also sank in the Atlantic, during the First World War. Similar numbers died. She went down in 18 minutes. Yet, her demise was thanks to an act of war. Somehow it's Titanic, always Titanic, that catches our collective imagination, steaming away over the horizon to her rendezvous with disaster.

Whether inspired by Dickens or not, do you want to tell a tale? Unlock your writing potential at my upcoming series of four Fictionfire day courses at Trinity College, Oxford in May.

Write It! will cover all the elements of composing your story, from finding ideas to finishing your first draft.

Edit It! will teach you crucial techniques for polishing and presenting your work effectively.

Trinity College
Joanna Penn of and Ali Luke of will join me for Publish It!, where you'll learn to set and achieve your publishing goals, and Market It!, where we'll show you all the exciting online and offline opportunities for you to publicise your work.

Full details of these courses are on the Course Dates and Details page of my website: and there are discounts if you wish to book more than one course.

Friday, 6 April 2012

Oxford Literary Festival 2012: Women of a Certain Age - Edith Wharton and Jane Shilling

My second report on this year's festival focuses on women writers. I love Edith Wharton for her irony, for the pathos of the situations her characters find themselves in, for her acute social observation, so I attended a talk given by Professor Janet Beer and Professor Avril Horner at Corpus Christi  last Tuesday. They performed an interesting double act, taking turns to read from and analyse some of Wharton's later work. In terms of women's history this was compelling: I already knew about Edith's privileged upbringing and disastrous marriage to Teddy, the end of that marriage and the way she relocated herself in France. I knew she was extremely knowledgeable, but not that she annotated her books in French, Italian and German (now that's just showing off). I'd forgotten, though, that she didn't publish until she was forty (she was born in 1862) and that her later works, from 1925 onwards, are often dismissed by critics as pot-boilers - it was these works the speakers wanted to draw our attention to.

I have to say I didn't find these examples all that appealing, published in magazines with melodramatic illustrations, but I did respond to what she was trying to do, which was to explore the position of the 'mature woman', the woman who Wharton felt was not properly represented in fiction except as a parent-figure, the woman who is supposed to be beyond romantic passion and yearnings, who is supposed to make way gracefully for her daughter or the young woman with innocence, bloom and potential. She had written an extraordinary story called 'The Mother's Recompense' - her heroine deserts her husband and child for a younger lover, and later discovers after the affair is over that her lover has now courted her daughter. This had all the potential of Greek tragedy, but written in a style that evoked bobbed hair and long strings of pearls. She wrote a Gothic story called 'Miss Mary Pask' in which the hero talks to the heroine, thinking she is dead, not having been told she's recovered from a catatonic trance (as you do). Wharton said she wrote this for 'the fun of the shudder' which is as fine a description of the appeal of Gothic as I've ever heard. In 1928, she wrote a novel about Americans at play in Europe, 'The Children', in which male attitudes towards extremely young girls are singularly inappropriate - so she's well ahead of Nabokov there, striking uneasy echoes of the distasteful obsessions of Victorian gentlemen with anorexic teenage misses (Rose la Touche, anyone?). Profs Beer and Horner reminded us that in the 1920s there was a vogue for 'nymphs' and that Charlie Chaplin made a fourteen year-old girl pregnant.

I have to say that I didn't feel like rushing out to read any of these works but I think it's admirable that she was playing with genres as a way to explore what we would nowadays call 'women's issues', timeless questions of female status in society, how society defines the worth of women, how women relate to one another and to the men in their lives. In addition, I came away with an extreme case of library-envy: she had a sequence of mansions in America and France - and each house had to have its library. Now that's style!

On Friday, instead of a female writer being discussed, that writer was very much discussing herself, in front of a packed lecture theatre in Christ Church. Jane Shilling's memoir The Stranger in the Mirror is  a very honest, non-sentimental exploration of what it means to reach middle age as a woman. She was sparky, confident, witty. She is very upfront about the way women have to adjust to physical change and to the way society regards them. She highlighted the problems, for instance, of dressing appropriately - how when we were young there was a very clear demarcation in terms of how to present yourself at different ages. Women were, of course, middle aged earlier then: I remember my mother in the twinset brigade in her thirties. My Granny was a 'Granny' by her fifties, no doubt about it. No dyed hair, no botox, no jeans, no fillers - bodies were allowed to sag and crease, disciplined only by Playtex bondage-corsetry. Nowadays, we middle-aged women sail between the Scylla of looking like mutton-dressed-as and the Charybdis of looking 'tired' and old. Jane highlighted how newspaper and magazine articles crow when some poor celebrity is caught actually looking their age - but equally how vile it is when we are conditioned to admire the likes of Helen Mirren,  held up as a role-model and inspiration for looking so good 'for her age'. She said there's no 'sartorial caesura' marking the transition between what you should and shouldn't wear. This is so true - yet I find the range of shops I feel comfortable shopping in narrows and narrows, until shopping for clothes, one of the utter joys of my life, has become a burden, a task, a pressure which I'll do anything to avoid.

Jane talks of 'the diminishing of physical daring', of the joys of the menopause, which is viewed in society as 'a curable deficiency', about loss of confidence, of encroaching 'invisibility'. Ah, how the audience nodded! A fine Oxford audience of women of a certain age (and a few men), well-dressed, well turned-out, with their good leather bags and their good haircuts (whether the hair is dyed or not). Jane insisted she hasn't written a misery memoir and certainly she has not: she's far too confident for that - anybody who is brave enough to put a back view of themselves totally naked on the cover of their book cannot be lacking in the confidence department. I bought - and am enjoying - the book: there's much to recognise there. Yet, I don't know - she was so well-groomed, so eye-wateringly explicit, so bloody-yet-unbowed, so preaching to the converted, that I found my response was strangely ambivalent. I felt somehow as if she'd led a golden, exalted life, where 'off' is pronounced 'orf', where your trips to the stables are a necessary part of your life and where you measure your new fragility by bruising terribly when you fall orf your horse. It was all a bit Hampstead chattering classes, I feel - which meant that it appealed to the North Oxford chattering classes too. That said, the book is extremely well written and observed, often very funny and I do recommend it.

Do you want to tell a tale? Unlock your writing potential at my upcoming series of four Fictionfire day courses at Trinity College, Oxford in May.

Write It! will cover all the elements of composing your story, from finding ideas to finishing your first draft.

Edit It! will teach you crucial techniques for polishing and presenting your work effectively.

Trinity College
Joanna Penn of and Ali Luke of will join me for Publish It!, where you'll learn to set and achieve your publishing goals, and Market It!, where we'll show you all the exciting online and offline opportunities for you to publicise your work.

Full details of these courses are on the Course Dates and Details page of my website: and there are discounts if you wish to book more than one course!