Friday, 20 July 2007

Shooting Fish

Picking up on yesterday's blog, there's an article in The Independent ( by Andrew Franklin, director of Profile Books, about why publishers miss good books. It's witty, informative and blood-curdling so if you're a wannabee only read it if you can stare truth in the face. He stresses how many submissions are made. Many are made, few are chosen. You knew that, didn't you? He tells us that 'not every manuscript get the careful attention it deserves. It should not come as a shock that many manuscripts are returned unread to the sender. We need to clear our desks in order to look after the authors whom we do sign up, and the unsolicited manuscripts are often a chore to be dealt with at the end of the day by an overworked intern.'

You knew that too, didn't you? Course you did.

He stresses that publishers have to read submissions from the mad, bad and dangerous to know (not you, obviously. You'd never dream of sending in an MS in green ink). That publishers hide behind weasel messages like 'not quite right for our list' because they cannot afford to enter into a dialogue with a needy and hopeless author - they'd never get rid of them (again, not you).

Most importantly, because you knew all the above stuff already, he stresses the importance of having an agent: 'Publishers now rely on specialists - agents, in fact (think of them as the consultants of the publishing profession) - to supply them with novels, though we all still buy some non-fiction directly from authors. To plagiarise, it is a truth universally acknowledged, that the most celebrated fiction houses now only buy fiction from agents. All serious aspiring authors know this and seek out an agent as an essential stage in the process of finding the right publisher, and of course the best contract too.'

So why am I telling you all this when you knew it already? Maybe some things can't be stated too often. Write the book you want to write, polish it until it gleams, get yourself an agent (and no, I'm not on commission from any agency touting for trade), chant the William Goldman mantra 'Nobody knows anything', submit your work with professional clarity, accept rejection with grace and never give up. That's all there is to it. Like shooting fish in a barrel, eh?

Thursday, 19 July 2007

A Rose By Any Other Name ...

It's been done before, goodness knows. Would-be writers, strangely embittered or strangely suspicious (and why would they be?) of publishers, set little tests when they submit their work. Some place a strategic hair between pages 72 and 73 (I'm reminded of children's novels - Famous Five, most probably - where the children sprinkle talc or flour on the floor and check next day for footprints), some place a wodge of blank paper somewhere in the script - then they sit back, lip curling in expectation that the dastardly publishers will fall into their trap (curses, you pesky kids!).

Some take it even further. We seem to have a desperate desire to have our prejudices confirmed - but really, we don't need to go to such lengths. Publishers and agents are swamped with submissions, they don't have time, they've seen a lot a dreadful tosh, they farm stuff out to minor minions while they get on with the important stuff, they don't recognise a gem when it jumps off the page and spits in their eye -these are the common bleats of writers. Sometimes we hear news stories of famous writers sending previously published work off anonymously to see if it would be accepted now - and then being rejected. Ta-ra! Philistine blinkered publishers caught on the hop again! It seems to me to be an awful lot of effort to have jaundiced views confirmed. Literary fashions and fads change, agents and editors are often young, not well-read enough in the view of the would-be or has-been, life's a bitch and so on. Get over it, you might say.

Today, in The Guardian,(,,330220992-99819,00.html) there's a report about a chap who has sent off work originally written by a certain J. Austen, with only very minor changes. He changed Netherfield in 'Pride and Prejudice' to Weatherfield, for example, which I find a real hoot - I think that's got real potential. Coronation St meets Austen - delightful, my dear! 'Miss Mavis first caught sight of Mr Elliot as he graced the elegant bar of that well-frequented hostelry, The Rover's Return, to which so many of the residents of Weatherfield liked to repair at every available juncture, whether their personal funds permitted or not. Later she confessed to her dear friend Rita, as they sipped builder's tea together and indulged in the pleasures of checking out the horse-racing results, that, having long despaired of ever meeting a gentleman with conversational tics that could engage her for a sufficiently-long period during which interest and engagement could develop to a satisfactory degree, that his fascinating tendency to repeat the last clause of every declaration and observation he made, had caught her ear and seduced her heart irrevocably - this said with a shy blush and a very conscious look as she adjusted the decollete neckline of her leopard-skin top, a garment which served to enhance in the most tasteful and delicate manner imaginable, the sweet youthfulness of her surgically-enhanced figure.'

Getting back to the point (reluctantly), what amazes me is that David Lassman, when he submitted the opening chapter of P and P and its synopsis, didn't change the opening sentence! Only the most famous opening sentence in Eng Lit, innit? He submitted it under the title of 'First Impressions' (which was indeed its original title) and he also submitted Northanger Abbey and Persuasion with similarly minor changes. You've guessed it - very few people twigged and he received the kind of standard rejection verbiage one expects: it was of 'interest', 'a really original and interesting read' and so on but 'not suited to our list'.

I leave you to ponder that. And as I've said before - laugh or cry. You choose.

By the way, yes, I know Mavis left Coro years ago and she was never one for leopard-skin tops. Regard her as an amalgam. And yes, I know Fred Elliot is dead. Sadly missed, too. I say, sadly missed.

Monday, 16 July 2007

School's Out

Well, I've survived the summer school for another year - and so did my students, just about! I had an incredibly nice group of people to deal with, so although the week was frantic and intense, it was also purposeful, positive and fun. We shared a lot of laughs. Well done to them for being so productive too - and so timely with their assignments so that I could get the marking and reports done by 5.30 Friday, when they were required by the admin staff. The one to one tutorials went well - and many students find them the most valuable part of courses like this. When you're on your own with the challenge of writing a novel it really helps to have direct editorial advice and support. Also, there seemed to be particular appreciation of the plotting aspect of the course this year - and it was good to see new stories forming and gelling in people's minds as the week progressed.

Could have done with a solid weekend in bed after that, but it was not to be. The house looked more than ordinarily tip-like, elder son had an end-or-term music concert on Saturday morning and yesterday we went to Thorpe Park as a belated birthday treat for younger son!

Now I need to address the problem of filing away all the notes, lectures, examples and handouts I used last week, the dregs of which were just dumped at the end of each day. Plus there's the aftermath of my normal teaching year. Plus the many off-the-net printouts - things I think may interest students, book news, popular science and astronomy for my book etc etc. All in utter chaos at present. After a major sort-out, when things are in neat files and wallets all labelled, a semblance of order lasts for, oh, about a week, after which the smug grin on my face is replaced by the more familiar drowning-in-sea-of-info expression.

This week we're going to hear nothing but Harry Potter, Harry Potter - an article in the Observer yesterday highlighted the contribution JKR's agent, Christopher Little, has made to her success (and the benefits, of course, he's derived from having seen her potential). And what we all long for is an agent who will be full of critical and commercial acumen, who will drive a gimlet-eyed deal for us while being our biggest fan and support. As Ed Victor says in the article: 'He was the luckiest agent ever - when something like that falls in your lap it is luck, but he made the most of it. He has run the brand admirably. ... He's a charming and affable fellow, but made of steel underneath.'

Note the word 'brand', by the way.

Friday, 6 July 2007

Does your face fit? Or does it make people throw a fit?

I may well be silent for the next week because I start teaching a summer school in novel writing tomorrow and it runs till next Friday, by which time my brain will be mush. I've been spending ages getting my handouts and exercises in order: as with all teaching, it's not the teaching itself that takes the time, it's the preparation - and I very strongly believe that you can be a confident public speaker only if you're fully prepared and have mapped everything out properly. This doesn't mean there isn't room for class input, discussion and diversions - it just means that I need to have in my head a clear idea of the overall shape of the lecture or seminar and I need to have my back-up material carefully marshalled.

So, folks, you're on your own for a few days - just hope it'll make you miss me!

In the meantime, a couple of items: J.K. Rowling will be appearing on the Jonathan Ross show tonight (does this mean that for once he'll turn off the lech/prurient/shock the interviewee with blatant sex-talk and frequent use of the F word/ twitch the tie, eye the camera and look smug technique? I think not. No doubt he'll say to her 'I'm such a great fan of yours ...')
Back to the point - apparently she describes her feelings on finishing the last Harry Potter as a mixture of euphoria and being 'devastated'. Coming to the end of a book is hard enough, and switching off from the characters you've obsessed about for so long feels strange and unnerving in the extreme. It is a mixture of triumph and dislocation. After seven books, she's going to feel very dislocated indeed. The question is, whither now? She doesn't ever have to write to earn a crust again - so will she still write at all? Will she write something completely different in genre under a pen name? Will she, ten years down the line, be a Spice Girl and reconvene her characters because of a desire to recapture the magic that was. (And if she does, is she likely to have more luck than the Spice Girls will? Hush your mouth, Lorna - look at Take That!)

Second item to catch my eye - you may well have heard of the site Meet the Author, ( founded by David Freeman, where you can catch interviews with authors (though I can't - when I click onto an interview, it just endlessly tries to load and gets me nowhere - very frustrating.) He has started a new section called Marketplace to give unpublished authors the chance to pitch their work. Pitches will be rated by viewers and it is hoped publishers will source new material from the site. All very admirable and worth a look. However, the pitch involves uploading a video of yourself giving your spiel, at a cost of £35. This is all well and good if you are of the generation of 'digital natives' and comfortable with this. It seems very Hollywood to me (have you seen the film 'The Player'?) What happened to the written pitch as opposed to the audio-visual one? Is everything to be audio-visual-digital these days? And what if you've got a face like a slapped arse? Will this not detract from the power of your presentation? Claire Armistead, literary editor of the Guardian says: 'Faces sell books - a theme that's been taken up and whacked for all it's worth. Which is perverse, because there's no reason why writers should be good-looking. But that's the world we live in.' Faces sell books - and there was me thinking it was words.

Freeman also predicts that publishers will use the site to 'test the public's appetite for some topics before expensive publication decisions are taken.' I see. We're back to focus groups (see Wanna Bet? earlier post). The thing is, the public doesn't often know what it wants until it gets it. Give editors some autonomy, for Godsake!

Monday, 2 July 2007

Winchester report

Well, I'm back, after, as expected, a truly hectic weekend. Sad that the weather was so wretched - and it didn't help that in the Hall of Residence there was no hot water - glad to come back to my creature comforts. It's weird being in a student environment like a single room in a hall - memories of long ago at university and a time when trolling down a corridor just to get to a loo fine by me. Now, it very definitely isn't. Strange also to experience silence and alone-time - apart from the relentless thump thump of footsteps along aforesaid corridor and the swish-thunk of firedoors. I might have done some writing - I certainly got some thinking done - if I hadn't been so damn tired. Even fell asleep over the indulgence-read I'd brought with me, C.J. Sanson's 'Dark Fire'. This is no reflection on the quality of his writing, even though it was a story that took a while to heat up (sorry) - just the aforesaid knackeredness.

I taught a day course in plotting to a very nice group and we had a fun time, but it's frustrating to try to cram so much into so little time. It's impossible to be comprehensive, but I will insist on trying. On Friday evening I felt absolutely braindead and as if I was coming down with flu, so went to bed early. Saturday started (after a shower so tepid I really regretted having long hair which took ages to rinse) with an opening speech by Jacqueline Wilson who daunted all of us by explaining she spends 90% of her time now just being a professional author, which means not writing but travelling around giving talks, doing booksignings, school visits and so on. Her early training as a journalist for DC Thompson means she has the ability to write in very short bursts, anywhere, anytime, and then she 'stitches together the patchwork' of little bits she has created. I wish I could just turn the flow off and on at will like that but can't. I was able to have a brief chat with her at lunchtime - she is friendly and positive, with as she said herself, something of the ten year old about her still. Never was an ex-journalist less hardbitten.

I gave a lecture on editing in the morning and one on characterisation in the afternoon and then I was done - so could enjoy a stint in the bar after the Saturday dinner with a clear conscience. I met the novelist Kate Harrison, author of 'The Starter Marriage, 'Old School Ties' and now 'The Self Preservation Society', who was great fun - see her website,, especially if you're a chick-lit writer. Also my longterm friends Mike Greenhough, ace of haibuns, and the novelist Sally Spedding, whose novels are dark and supernatural, and who specialises in threatening and mysterious landscapes. Sally spends part of her time in France, in Cathar country, lucky thing. See her website Finally, Crysse Morrison, author of 'Frozen Summer' and 'Sleeping in Sand' was there. She teaches novel writing, amongst other things, including on the island of Skyros and she was sporting a wonderful tan, having just come back from Crete. Her website is at

Arriving at Winchester station yesterday to catch the train to Oxford, I was bemused to see a large police presence there and had no idea why until I got home and had the use of a telly again, and discovered the latest terrorist activities.

Now I'm in for another busy week as I get ready to start teaching a summer school on novel-writing for the university's summer school programme. This will be intense stuff! I should really be tucked up in bed trying to get ahead with my sleep quotas, not blogging to you lot!