Category: Notes on Publishing

Spring 2019 Masterclasses: Character & Setting, Prose Style

After a successful masterclass on the Craft of Voice at the end of November, Kellie Jackson of Words Away and I are continuing this series, which began with Plotting in September, with two more masterclasses for the spring term:

Crafting Character & Setting

Crafting Your Prose

Character and setting are the foundations of our narrative content, and on 26 January we shall be exploring ways in which they can be brought to life in ways that propel our stories forward. And the masterclass devoted to prose style on 30 March will look not only at important aspects of grammar and usage (verbs! nouns! the evils of fronted adverbials!), but also explore ways to refine and adapt our voices in writing for a variety of purposes and effects.

More info including booking details at the links above. I have listed provisional schedules for the day as well as some suggestions of readings we might use to bring to life our discussions about craft; we usually email delegates a few weeks in advance with further reading recommendations as well as any other preparations for the class. We shall make time for some short writing exercises in class too, and you’ll also be given handouts and resources so that you can continue your lessons and explorations in craft at home afterwards.

And each day will close with an informal Q&A with an industry professional. This is designed to demystify the publishing industry, and offer practical insights into the business, giving you chance to ask your own questions. Our guest speaker on 26 January is Christina Macphail of Agatha Christie Limited, who has a great range and depth of experience in selling books and rights in both adult and children’s publishing – intellectual properties she has sold include many much-loved characters, so it will be interesting to place our creative conversations about character and world-building into this wider commercial context.

The last masterclass filled up in about ten days, and we had a long waiting list, so if you are interested I suggest you book in advance. We hope to continue with a couple of other classes in the summer term, and should there be interest to repeat this sequence in 2019/2020 too.

The Craft of Revising, 23 June 2018

I really enjoyed Saturday’s workshop on The Craft of Revising – a lovely group of writers came along, and we left energised and enthusiastic to return to writing projects, seeing them in new ways and ready to try out fresh things with them.

We talked about Buddhism and drag queens and different types of editing, and taste and technique, and intention. We asked ourselves what genres we are writing in, and how our books might be positioned to readers by publishers. We thought about our characters and their yearnings, and discussed how specific slants or perspectives on our material can not only create a stronger focus for our stories but also lift their telling. I stressed the importance of not only verbs but also paginating your manuscripts, and we sought gifts and questions in each other’s writing. We talked about shitty first drafts, and I suggested lots of practical tips for self-editing and looking at your work in a fresh light. We also discussed working with feedback.

A serious aim for the day: the idea of listening to your writing. Listen by reading it aloud, listen by hearing it read aloud, and most of all listen with your eyes: hear what’s there on the page or the screen. Let your material make itself known.

We were lucky to have novelist Michelle Lovric come along to give an inspiring talk on tackling ambitious and challenging projects, and also provide useful and most intelligent guidance on creating voices for your narrators.

I think it’s important that the publishing business is demystified for writers, and we ended the day with a Q&A with Lennie Goodings, Chair of Virago Press, who gave many practical insights into the work of editors and what happens within a publishing house: when to stop editing, being an advocate for your authors with your colleagues, the importance of good booksellers. Lennie brought further inspiration with her good humour and absolute passion for books and writers.

Given I was the only man in the room, it also seemed relevant to touch on the subject of gender in the crowd at creative writing events. Do women writers like coming to workshops, while men writers prefer to attend masterclasses?! Or maybe they just go it alone?! ‘Discuss …’

As usually happens when energetic writers get together, we had far more content to share than we had time to cover. (I want a time-turner!) Everyone in the group had skills and expertise of their own, and there’s so much to learn from each other.

Follow-up notes are being emailed, and lots of handouts were provided (unpaginated … but they are individual, one-page handouts … though please please add page numbers to your own manuscripts!).

Kellie and I hope to run further workshops-slash-masterclasses in the autumn on voice and plotting (dates to come, maybe along with some men?!), and I am planning other workshops in other places too. Do register your interest by contacting me or Kellie.

Thanks to Kellie for a wonderful day, and to Michelle and Lennie for their generosity in joining in, and to everyone for coming.

* Interview on The Craft of Revising

* A post on feedback

* A post on being declined (aka rejection!)

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Listen to your writing!

Thanks to Kellie and Rebecca for photos.

Festival of Writing 2017

The 2017 Festival of Writing in York was great fun – it’s always lovely to end the summer seeing old friends and meeting new ones. I’ve already posted my I Remember for the weekend. I was only sorry that timings meant I missed Sam Jordison’s industry panel, as I really love the work of Galley Beggar Press. But overall I had a (slightly) easier schedule this year, too, which meant I felt less rushed and had more energy and felt more relaxed. Thanks to everyone at the Writers’ Workshop for once again inviting me.

Here are a few notes and links following up from workshops and talking to writers.

BOOK DOCTOR SESSIONS
The book doctor sessions were probably the highlight, as I love nothing more than that one-on-one interaction of working with writers, saying what is working well and asking questions that invite them to dig deeper, often into unexpected places. Sometimes I sense that writers aren’t confident about where to take their work, and an outside prod is what’s needed. I am a prodder.

In terms of craft, I often found myself asking for more MOOD or EDGE in the writing (often a matter of working on VOICE, PACE, or TENSION), or a clearer FOCUS on EXTERNAL ACTION: every chapter, every page, every paragraph should have a gift for the readers, and many of those gifts will involve changes in the outside world that actively move the story forward. We also have to make allowances for giving the reader a breather, of course, e.g., fantasy novels may indulge in a fat paragraph of description here or there, if they bring that world to life.

Here is a link to an older blog post on getting feedback on your work.

WORKSHOPS
My workshops followed a sequence, I realised, from the bigger picture of story (plotting) to the craft of telling a story (showing and telling) to the nuts and bolts of voice and style (nouns and verbs).

Plotting mini-course
Story is what it’s all about for me, and plotting is what makes stories come alive.

I really enjoyed leading this longer version of a workshop I first did at this year’s Getting Published Day, though it was a bigger room and a slightly larger group and I wasn’t really able to find out what everyone was working on this year.

The biggest take from this class, I feel: the active engagement of plot as a verb rather than a noun, which is why I prefer to think about plotting rather than plot. One of my favourite plots comes from Fingersmith, whose scheming characters use or are described with variations of the word plot 37 times. Let your characters plot, and let their plottings arise from their yearnings.

We looked at: character as the heart of plotting and your stories; structure and time; conventions and types of story; and outlining and drafting as a means of extracting symbol and theme. Along the way we discussed why change is probably a more important driver for story than conflict, and how Dolores Umbridge in her pink jacket and Cersei Lannister in her Shame! Shame! Shame! are more engaging antagonists than Voldemort and the Night King.

To create some rising action of our own through the push and pull of hope and despair, we did a Fortunately/Unfortunately exercise as a pass-around. I wish we’d had chairs in a big circle so our creative collaborations could logistically have been a bit easier! But I was impressed how some mini epics were cooked out of the given constraints (a genre; a positive or negative change; continuing what someone else had written).

I also suggested a number of exercises for people to try at home, as well as prompts for reflection in their writing journals (you do keep one, don’t you?!).

There are a lot of books on structure and plot, and some that shall remain unnamed are rather, um, mansplainy. You have to know this stuff, but I find they often overegg things.

Here are the ones I like, along with other relevant links from our discussion, as well as a few extras I couldn’t shoehorn in:

* Stephen King, On Writing (I just got the audio version, read by the man himself – fab)

* Francine Prose, Reading Like A Writer

* Albert Zuckerman, Writing the Blockbuster Novel

* Patricia Highsmith’s Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction

* Benjamin Percy, Thrill Me

* Ronald Tobias, 20 Master Plots – for a checklist of the 20 plots, follow the link here

* University of British Columbia/edX, How To Write A Novel – an excellent course I reviewed here

* Michael Hauge, ‘The Five Key Turning Points Of All Successful Screenplays’

* The site of Christopher Vogler, author of The Writer’s Journey (follow the link Hero’s Journey on the left-hand side), plus Vogler on YouTube talking about the Hero’s Journey and discussing it using the example of The Matrix

* What makes a hero? from TedEd – as well as watching the film, be sure to check out further resources under Dig Deeper

* Sophie Hannah, Top Ten Twists in Fiction

* And for taking some of your work deeper: Friday Writing Experiment: Word Power

Showing & Telling & Storytelling
We deconstructed the creative writing myth Show Don’t Tell, making a case for storytelling and a narrator, and using an Ernest Hemingway short story and the opening of Annie Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain to identify some of the techniques that help create the mood necessary for emotional engagement with a story. Here are some links to posts I mentioned:

* Tell Me A Story (my own blog)

* A Book Is Not A Film (my own blog)

* Psychic Distance: What It Is And How To Use It (from Emma Darwin’s blog)

* The Ultimate Description Toolkit (some excellent tools to help with showing from Angela Ackerman)

* Is ‘Show Don’t Tell’ A Universal Truth Or A Colonial Relic?

Nouns & Verbs
The simple message of this workshop is: choose the best subjects for your sentences, and then choose the best verbs to power what they do, and probably pick as few verbs as you can get away with, else they’ll be cluttering or confusing your writing.

Also: be specific when necessary, but you can sometimes leave something to the reader’s imagination.

And: adverbs and adjectives are fine – but as Ursula Le Guin says, they add fat, and stories need muscle. I mentioned Nabokov’s Favourite Word Is Mauve, by Ben Blatt, whose statistical survey of classic and bestselling books does in fact prove that what are commonly regarded as the best books have the fewest adverbs.

Adverbs and adjectives tell. Nouns and verbs show. What balance is required for your writing?

Recommended resources:

*  Nuts and Bolts: ‘Thought’ Verbs, from Chuck Paluhniak

* Anyone who wants a lively and informative guide to grammar could take a look at Constance Hale’s brilliant Sin and Syntax.

* And Steering the Craft contains much crisp advice and wisdom from Ursula Le Guin, as well as plenty of exercises. Really, you have to try all this out by putting some of it into practice.

AND COMING SOON …
The workshops I ran at York this year were craft-based, with a bit of motivational pep talk in the delivery, I hope.

If you’re interested in something a little different, and are available and close to London, on Saturday 18 November I’m leading a one-day workshop on creativity in collaboration with Kellie Jackson, who runs the Words Away salon series. You can read a little more about my inspirations for this workshop in this interview with Kellie.

Editorial critique for #authorsforgrenfell

I’m offering an editorial critique via the online auction Authors For Grenfell Tower. The money raised will be paid to the British Red Cross and will be going to residents affected by the Grenfell Tower fire.

I’ll read and report on up to 15,000 words plus a synopsis or proposal for your novel or work of narrative nonfiction.

More details on this specific offer here, and more info on how to bid here. Bidding is open until Tuesday 27 June, and this particular offer is available to writers worldwide.

And there are many other offers too – critiques from editors, lunches with agents, signed copies from authors, and many bookish giveaways. If you are a writer, these could be excellent opportunities. If you are a reader, you can never have enough books on your shelves, right?! And you might have chance to meet your favourite author in person too.

Bid, and bid generously – on as many bids and as much as you can afford! I can’t think of a better cause than helping people rebuild their lives. And if you’re unable to bid, perhaps circulate on social media to people who can.

Rejected, Or Declined?

Something that all writers have to deal with at some point or other is rejection. Your manuscript gets turned down by that agent who’d expressed such enthusiasm about the opening chapter at a writers’ conference. Or an editor says no, stating that they’ve just taken on a work in the same vein. Or you get a standard rejection letter. Or you wait and wait and wait, but just don’t hear back.

This is going to cause disappointment. Sometimes writers seem to take things personally, and self-pity and blame arise. I’ve heard writers who’ve had dozens of rejections say, ‘It’s not worth bothering – publishing is a closed shop.’ But no, that’s not true. Connections and an established profile can certainly help you get your book read, but I can cite plenty of instances of well-connected writers with profiles who have not got a deal from a publisher. And I can also cite plenty of instances of writers who’ve put in the work (which can include making connections from the ground up), and been discovered via the submission process.

But some reasons given for rejection can feel wrong-headed.

Sorry, there is a glut of Victorian crime fiction. (Until the next one comes along.)

Sorry, there have been a lot of books about witches lately. (Yes, and there always will be.)

Sorry, but publishers aren’t buying thrillers from debut novelists right now. (Like, really?! Have you been in a bookshop lately?!)

Sorry, but in the current climate we don’t feel that the public want to read about the problems of members of the aristocracy. (Like, really?! One could argue that in the current climate we need to get to grips with them!)

Sorry, there’s no appetite for books about mermaids right now. (Ahem!)

Sorry, this subject matter is too American. (Well, maybe it’s time to try this idea in the UK? And maybe this British author might help translate it for the UK readership?!)

Sorry, the author of this book set in Spain isn’t Spanish. (!!!)

Sorry, the writer doesn’t have enough Twitter followers. (Piss off!)

Maybe I underestimate the power of the marketing department (as my friends who work in-house warn). But I know that any editor who loves a book enough, however criminally Victorian, witchy,  debut-thrilling, aristocratic, mermaidy, American, un-Spanish, or tweetless, will make a case for it. So such explanations can seem fundamentally unimaginative, and even a bit hollow. Cue: the frustration of the rejected, whose mind goes into overdrive cursing the dishonesty of the industry.

So let’s be honest with ourselves, and with clear thinking cut through some of the disappointment.

There are tons of manuscripts for Young Adult dystopian fantasies, for example. That glut is not necessarily a cause for despair. This could also be read as a sign that a particular category is popular. A lot of YA fantasy gets published, and read and enjoyed, and new books will continue to be published and read and enjoyed.

But we do have to be sensible, and acknowledge that too much of a good thing often leads to a saturation point. When I attend writers’ events, a large proportion of the audience often seems to be writing YA fantasies. I’m also thinking of the wide eyes and raised eyebrows of a bookseller I know when I asked her about the market for YA dystopian fantasy. Beautifully plucked, but raised very high. Your book might be good, but someone has to sell it to a crowded market.

What this means is that your book has to really stand out, to really click with someone, and in the case of YA dystopian fantasy, the emphasis is on really, as this genuinely does seem to be an oversubscribed category at the moment.

I have seen many writers, through their application in drafting, reach a stage where their craft and technique are highly professional and their manuscripts are publishable and ready to submit. We’ve read books that do get selected; we know that this one is certainly good enough.

Hereon, taste dictates what happens: finding an agent and then a publishing deal and then the success that comes with a readership. Such matters are (thank the god/dess of imagination) unpredictable. Something has to click with the reader, and feel very special, and that comes rarely. There is no blueprint – it really is an X Factor. Professionally produced manuscripts can sometimes still be a bit dull for some readers, and there are a lot (LOT) of manuscripts out there. And if that spark isn’t there for that particular reader, a writer has to move on until that reader is found.

The agent Jo Unwin expresses it graciously on her website:

Please do remember that the relationship between an author and agent is very personal, so you may write something fantastic that just isn’t for me. There are so many brilliant books that I’ll never read, bookshops are heaving with books that someone loves, but I’ll never get round to. So be as professional as you can, and try not to take rejection personally.

I think that’s a great analogy. My own bookshelves (and floorboards) are heaving with plenty of books waiting for me to read. And there are many I’ve started, and where my bookmark remains at page 10/30/70.

Something that I don’t think that helps the process of submission is the word rejection. (Slush pile is little better: it conjures up a pile of mush.)

Rejection: ‘the dismissal or refusing of a proposal’.

I am just dressing things up, perhaps, but I do prefer the idea of a book being declined. Maybe think in terms of someone declining a request to go on a date, or accompany you to the prom. (But maybe don’t think about declining marriage proposals. A realistic marriage proposal is, after all, made some time after a couple have got together and worked out their compatibility.)

Decline: ‘politely refuse an invitation or offer’.

It’s a subtle matter, but most of us prefer to be politely refused than to be dismissed. And on the whole I think agents and editors do refuse politely, even if it’s a standard letter that comes months and months later.

Some agents never acknowledge or respond, of course, and are clear about that in their submission guidelines. Ideally, I’m sure they would like to answer, and I’d like to think that if I were an agent I’d at least be able to decline a book with an email. But the sheer quantity of submissions and their commitments to ongoing authors mean they have to prioritise, and they really can’t spare the time. They are under no obligation, until a contract is signed.

When, in a century long ago, I was an in-house editor I did sometimes give a sentence or two of feedback to agents (mostly) or authors when I turned down manuscripts. I think I was being dutiful in offering a reason, but, looking back, I’m not sure such explanations are always helpful either. A proper editorial conversation takes time, and, unless the offerings are really shrewd and specific, scraps of advice can confuse as much as help. They can sometimes give false hope, too, in that we latch on to possible fixes. (Perhaps, if I drop the present-tense narration he doesn’t like, he’ll take my book on?)

And besides, someone else might like it, present tense and all, and, sharing your vision, have specific advice that will be more helpful.

If I were an agent or publisher today, I suspect that the best approach to declining a manuscript would be to say some version of: I just didn’t love this enough to want to take it on. Or: I just don’t feel confident/passionate enough about the idea of selling this. Another possible reason: I’ve recently taken on something similar, and I don’t think I can do justice to both books/authors (another version of not being able to sell something, not least as you’d be competing against yourself). Or maybe, and specifically: collections of short stories or essays are a hard sell – at least in book form. (Which is kinda true, and kinda sad, because they are often my favourite books. But at least the writer can try literary journals for individual stories or essay; the book or the collection is always not the ideal receptacle for a short story. If I worked in-house again, I’d like to think I’d put in extra effort for good short fiction, because that is so often what I love.)

But really, these are pretty much the only answers. There are other reasons (like, the writer seems unrealistic, or a bit of an arsehole), but I might keep those to myself, because I’m not sure how that would help.

But if an agent or an editor sees something that they love, even if it’s a hard sell, they will take on a book, and find a way. If they don’t love it enough, that’s that. And if someone sees something that they think is shite, or simply unaccomplished, it’s entirely possible that someone else will love it. Just check out bestsellers on Amazon that get tons of five-star reviews as well as tons of one-stars. (There is a lot of shite on Amazon. But a lot of shiny stuff too.)

Yes, I am probably being pollyanna-ish, or maybe Moomintrolly. Declined or rejected, you end up in the same place. But I do think future success can be helped by the right attitude – or prevented by the wrong attitude. You do have to create your own luck.

If you are in the position of sending out work right now, and not hearing back what you want (or at all): don’t get down-hearted. Maybe replace the idea of rejection with the idea of being declined. Allow yourself a little time, but sometime soon pick yourself up, dust yourself down, make a cup of tea or pour a glass of bubbly, and send the book out again to someone else. Hold on to your own vision. It’s hard to do both things at once, but be hopeful, as well as realistic.

(And try not to be an arsehole. Nobody owes any of us anything that isn’t earned, really. If you act like an arsehole, karmic return may come back and bite your own. Bitterness is unattractive, and rots the soul, and nobody wants to work with an arsehole.)

(And yes, agents and editors as well as writers can be arseholes too. No names, but. They are found in every walk of life.)

Also remember that editing a book until it’s in the best shape for submission is a process that could go on forever. (Here is another post on receiving feedback on your work.) Sometimes it’s a good idea to make a start on a fresh work.

If you are a writer, don’t be deterred. If you are a writer, you will/should carry on writing anyway. If not right away, later.

But maybe, too, invest some time in doing other things that can raise your chances of success. Network, join genre organisations, continue to improve. Research agents further, perhaps. (I will do another post on submitting writing in the future.)

And there’s always self-publishing, which is not second-best, though it can be a lot of extra work. There are many, many books out there. I think self-publishing authors facing the challenge of getting noticed can start to understand some of the challenges faced by authors and editors selling books – though at least they are taking charge of many of their own decisions.

And also note that a lot of perfectly good books that are published the traditional way disappear from view shortly after publication – or even before, it seems. They are published without trace. Sometimes authors feel that their publishers didn’t do enough marketing, but that sort of resource has real costs, and there are limits to what anyone can do.

Sometimes, if we look at things soberly, it’s just the case that readers didn’t love them enough either. This is a more subtle form of rejection, perhaps – being declined by readers. In the olden days such books would go out of print, or lurk in stacks of remainders in the author’s garage until said author flogs them for a couple of quid at library talks. At least ebooks and print on demand can extend the life of a book now, and perhaps make it easy for the work to be rediscovered. Look at the notice achieved by writers such as Lucia Berlin or John Williams long after they’ve died. Literary immortality is no small achievement.

But many writers will enjoy success in their own lifetimes! Take heart from the advice and real-life examples offered in the following links below. Yes, as one of the links describes, all of those books in the photo above were once upon a time rejected, or should I say declined. Until someone said yes.

Rejection Letters: The Publishers Who Got It Embarrassingly Wrong… (Huffington Post)

How to Survive Rejection (The Review Review)

Best-Sellers Initially Rejected (Lit Rejections)

[Post updated with additional feeble reasons for rejection in March 2018.]