Thursday, 17 December 2009

Writing advice and new fictionfire courses

Christmas madness prevails, so I'm a bit behind with blogging. Was downtown today and found the state of the imminently-closing Borders branch terribly depressing. I know that some branches of Borders may find buyers and wonder if the Oxford branch will be one of them: on the plus side, Oxford is a bookish city, on the negative, the shop is a huge retail space so must cost a fortune and it's very close indeed to the local Waterstone's, Blackwells and W.H. Smiths. Sad lines of beaten-up bookshelves and trolleys were for sale (none too cheaply, I thought, given the state of them) and garish discount posters everywhere. Made The Works look classy in comparison.

Borders is certainly not going out of business through any fault of mine! Its disappearance may actually be good for my bank account.

Second item on the agenda - pop over to Tess Gerritsen's blog (listed on my blogroll on the right): having sent off her latest novel to her publishers she writes about the process of writing a novel from idea to final draft. Twenty two novels in, she's knows what she's talking about. Of particular significance is her advice that what matters is not so much idea/theme as the situation/crisis you put the character in. She's right: readers need to be emotionally engaged, they need the human dimension, however worthy or high-concept the notion/message behind the story. Secondly (and I stress this all the time, dear ex-students of mine!) she recommends that at first draft stage you do nothing but write that first draft: you push on regardless until the thing is done. There will be time enough at the redrafting stage to fuss and reorganise, smooth out the prose, enrich the characters, sharpen up the dialogue, tidy up the plot. Don't try to be all things at the same time: just write. Then edit.

Which brings us, happily, to my preparations for fictionfire courses, one of which will definitely be on editing. I intend running them again at Trinity College and they'll be in early May - a time when Oxford looks particularly gorgeous. I hope you'll be able to come! I know some of you were interested in my November courses and couldn't make it, so I hope I'll get the chance to meet you this time. Likely dates are the 1st, 8th or 15th May. If you would like to come, you can always register your interest by popping over to the fictionfire site or contacting me at

Friday, 11 December 2009

What about the writing?

First of all, thanks to all those who attended my second fictionfire course a couple of weeks ago - I really enjoyed it and am now planning new courses. It looks like I'll be running them in May next year, so if there are any creative writing subjects that interest you, do get in touch at Also, do keep popping over to the fictionfire site because I'm having fun with the Quote of the Week section, where I write a little riff on a writing-related quotation that's caught my attention.

What caught my attention today on the Bookseller website was an article describing how Waterstone's Piccadilly held a seminar for agents late last month, at which agents were introduced to the chain's buying team and informed about the firm's buying 'hub'. One of the useful pieces of information they were given was that there are, apparently, four key considerations when it comes to ordering in books for the stores. Here they are, with my understanding of what each means in brackets: track record (i.e. has the author written before, what sort of sales did they achieve?), support from the publisher (is there going to be any sort of marketing spend, the sort of thing where publishers pay for books to go in the window displays, join the 3 for 2s, etc),  market context (is the subject of the book 'hot' just now, is it in a clearly defined genre, does it have a clearly defined readership, is it like anything else that's popular at present?) and pricing/cover (no need to explain).

Now, dear readers, you may be feeling there's one other important consideration missing from this list - and the agents, bless them, were alive to this. 'What about the writing?' they asked. One attendee said, 'They reassured us but for Waterstone's not to mention content as a key consideration was a shock. They are not Tesco.'

No, but getting there.

Here, it seems, is how the book industry works: judgement is from the outside in. EPOS sales records, celebrities famous for something else, genre bandwagons etc. As writers who produce, mad obsessional fools that we are, the 'product' for the market, we in our innocence tend to make judgement calls from the inside out: is the writing any good? Have I seduced the reader with gorgeous language, compelling characters, a gripping yarn? Have I expressed my deepest emotions, interests and concerns? Have I actually managed to generate 80,000 words of logical, coherent prose? Yay me! Have I revised and polished that prose so it gleams? It's hard for us to be as hard-nosed as the chain buyers. So, keep on writing what you want to write, keep on caring about its quality - but when you come to send it out, try to define your 'market context' and pray for a publisher prepared to support it so that you get the chance to establish that track record.