Tuesday 22 June 2010

I'm Sure You Know This Already, But I've Moved

How Publishing Really Works has now moved to its own domain which you can find here. In order to keep everything tidy I've closed comments on this blog, but the discussions continue at the new location. I look forward to seeing you there.

Thursday 17 June 2010

Following My New Website On Blogger

I've received a few emails over the last couple of weeks from readers who were used to following my this blog from within their own Blogger dashboards, and who now can't tell when I've posted something on my new site because it has no "Follow" widget there.

If you come into this category, and would like to make my blog updates appear in your Blogger reading list, it can be done. You just have to add my new site's address manually to your reading list: it's very easy, and will only take you a minute. Here's how you do it.

First, go to your Blogger dashboard and scroll down until you can see your own reading list. At the bottom of that section you'll see two buttons: "add" and "manage". Click on the "add" button: your screen will go pale and a dialogue box will open which is titled, "Step 1: Add Blogs To Follow".

Make sure the first option, "Add from URL", is selected and then, in the box below it, type in the URL for my new website, which is "http://howpublishingreallyworks.com" (only without the quote-marks). Then click on the "next" button, and you'll be asked if you want to follow publically or anonymously. Then click "finish", and you're done. From then on, all the posts I make at my new address will appear in your reading list, so you need never miss one again.

There. I told you it was easy. Now all I have to do is work out how to work the trick in reverse, so I can follow all of you lot from my nice new Wordpress dashboard. There has to be a way.

(This post is duplicated on my new site: you won't be able to comment on it here as comments are closed here now, but if you would like to say something just follow this link and you land in the right place.)

Friday 7 May 2010

Does Everyone Have All Their Bags?

How Publishing Really Works is moving to its new home! I'm going to start moving things over there tomorrow, so while I do that you should all bookmark our new address. I'll be disabling comments over here to make sure that nothing gets left behind.

I'll see you all at the new place very soon. Bring your party hats.

Monday 3 May 2010

Guest Post: No Idea Is Wasted: Nicola Morgan

I am a big smug show-off because I have lots of writer-friends. But I almost never ask my friends to discuss their own books on my blog because it gets embarrassing when I don't like their books.

There's no danger of that happening today. When the wonderful Nicola Morgan (who we all know, right?) asked me if I'd host one of the stops on her blog tour I was pleased to say yes because I knew it would be a good book; now I've read Wasted, I know that it's a fabulous one. Wasted is one of the best books I've read all year and if you feel even slightly put off by the idea of reading a book for young adults, don't be: if ever there was a crossover title, Wasted is it.

Right. Nicola now owes me at least a tenner. Over to her.

First, thanks so much to Jane for letting me visit her blog! [I should hope so too! -J] I've never done a blog tour and it feels like a lot of fun. Since Jane's blog is about publishing and how it works, I thought I'd say something about ideas and how they work before publication - and if any of you writers are at that horrible stage of feeling that your idea just isn't going to work or isn't going to be published, I hope you'll take heart from what I'm about to tell you.


In theory, I don't believe that "everything has a purpose". In practice, I make damned sure it does.

It was a simple chance event on a London underground station that got me thinking about luck, chance and randomness and led many years later to my new novel, Wasted. It wasn't an earth-shattering event but it got me thinking. Obsessively. So, I began a novel for adults - I'd two unpublished ones languishing already - about chance, quantum mechanics, and unpredictability, involving repeated multiple possibilities. The idea was that if there is a god - which I know there isn't - he will either play dice or at least have a lot of fun observing. But halfway through, a completely different idea hit me, this time for teenagers. I abandoned god and quantum

That new idea became my first published novel, Mondays are Red. And then came others and suddenly I was a YA novelist and left the adult stuff behind. The other book lay half-written somewhere. But ideas are never wasted. They become other things. They strengthen the foundations of our writing lives. Sometimes, later, they seek sunlight. So, after 15 years, thedormant seed sown randomly in a London underground station began to grow and I began to write it. I didn't look at the first version because this one would be different. I was different by then, though still fascinated by chance and luck.

A bit of my heart is in all my books, naturally, but Wasted has all of me. When I started it this second time, I didn't care about publication. I decided not to show my editor and or get my agent to ask for a contract. It was a case of, "If you like it, you can have it; if you don't, I'm writing it anyway and sod anyone else." This was my story and no one could stop me writing it.

She loved it, as did my agent. It was a wonderful feeling: writing the book I always wanted to write. And although I want some people, enough people, any people, to love it too, the odd thing is that I slightly don't care if lots of people don't. Obviously, I hope readers don't say horrible things...

I guess you want to know about the incident, the random event on a London Underground station? I had travelled from Edinburgh, where I live, to London for my first ever business-trip, first public-speaking event. (I was a dyslexia specialist then.) I'd done the event and my head was spinning; I was high on adrenaline and seeing things in a brighter light. For some reason which I will never understand, I decided to take a different underground route from the obvious one. So, I was on an escalator at Charing Cross station, when I should have been at Victoria.

What happened was trivial really, the sort of thing that happens all the time: you see someone you know, somewhere they shouldn't be. So, I saw a friend from Edinburgh, on the same escalator. We were both shocked, laughed, and had that "fancy meeting you here, 350 miles from home" conversation. Nothing happened - we didn't have an affair or even a drink!

Now, maybe it was my heightened adrenaline, something getting the creativity going, but I had a light-bulb moment, a kind of "thought experiment" which has absolutely obsessed me ever since. It was: "What if there was something like a god, who could observe every human and know everything about them; and what if he could see everyone passing and meeting and mostly not meeting and weaving unpredictably from place to place, NEVER aware how narrowly they had just missed an important encounter with someone they knew or someone who might influence their lives? What if humans could be tracked like radioactive particles, bobbing around in a kind of Brownian motion, in patterns, and that the god was sitting there cackling at the powerlessness of these poor humans as they went down that street or took that turning or missed that train or smiled at that person or had this thought caused by that sight or sound or breath of air on their face? What if he could show us all that, and we could observe the almost happenings, the near-misses, and if we could, just by observing, change the tiniest things that affect lives invisibly? And what if we could then tell the story of some of those things, show the inner workings of our world?"

And that, essentially, is the idea behind Wasted. And if it hadn't been for that trivial coincidence on a London escalator, in my state of heightened adrenaline, I would never have written it.

To all writers: when you have to give up an idea - if it wasn't working, didn't get published, whatever - it's not wasted. One day, you might see how to write it entirely differently, and better. If not, the seed can lie dormant for as long as it's needed, and when the right time comes you will find a way to grow it. Or if you don't, it will still strengthen you. So, never view an idea as wasted.

Nicola Morgan

Wasted is Nicola Morgan's new young adult novel, published today. She has created a special blog for the book, with competitions and stacks of background information, ideas, snippets and fascinating discussions about chance, risk and luck. Do visit it for some really interesting fun!

Friday 30 April 2010

Five Things Phishing And Literary Scams Have In Common

Today we hear once again from my online writer-friend Marian Perera, who has supported How Publishing Really Works ever since it first appeared, and runs an excellent blog of her own. Her debut novel, Before the Storm, is a fantasy that combines steam engines and a steamier romance. You can read an extract of it here.

A few days ago, I received a message that I thought came from my bank’s security department. The email asked me to verify my account information so that my service would not be interrupted. It provided a link which I could click to enter a few details.

The return email address seemed like my bank’s. I looked closely at the logo in the email, and it was identical to my bank’s.

1. They imitate the real thing.

That reminded me of some literary scams which pass themselves off as legitimate. Fake agents may take kickbacks from vanity presses to make it appear that they have sales, or they claim to have “worked with” commercial publishers. Many vanity presses will say they’re not by any means vanity presses – they’re co-publishers, subsidy publishers, traditional publishers, etc.

2. They rely on social compliance.

Society trains people not to question authority. Hustlers exploit this “suspension of suspiciousness” to make you do what they want.
From a presenter of The Real Hustle (1)

I don’t understand a great deal about banking, so I trust whatever my bank tells me. If they say there’s a security problem, I’ll believe them and do whatever’s necessary to have it fixed.

Many writers do the same thing with people or companies whom they perceive to be in a position of authority over them. Literary scammers play on that. They know that many writers find publishing complex at best, and trust their publishers and agents to deal with the intricacies of the business on their behalf. So they’re likely to comply even when faced with requests for money, as this writer did:

…soon after I signed the contract, they called me home and wanted me to pay with my credit card the sum of $49 saying it was necessary to cover the cost for priority production.

3. They cast their nets far, wide and indiscriminately.

I read through the email a second time (it was pretty short) and noticed that it wasn’t addressed to me.

Oh, it began with “Dear my-email-address”, but that’s not my name. Could whoever sent it have just used a mail merge program and a database of email addresses?

There are phishing scams which target specific victims (spear phishing), but many of them will send out such mass, impersonal emails. It provides the maximum return for the minimum effort. The same thing applies to author mills, which rely on churning out content for the least amount of work… on their part, not on the writers’ part. So they accept almost anything, and their correspondence tends to be form-letters or copy-and-paste.

4. They make it easy for you to comply.

To verify my account’s security measures the hard way, I would have had to look up my bank’s phone number, call them and then wait on the line for someone to answer. On the other hand, there was a convenient, clickable link in the body of the email…

If you want a real agent or a real publisher, you may need to spend years honing your skills and more time undergoing the grueling process of submissions and rejections. It can be difficult and disheartening. And even after the book is accepted, the work is by no means over. I spent most of my Christmas break struggling with edits.

But a fake agent or publisher will be more than happy to accept your manuscript as-is, and will do so quickly. They’re unlikely to ask for edits or changes. They will make it very easy for you to be maneuvered into a situation where you end up paying them.

5. They can be defeated with a little research.

I don’t remember where I first read of phishing scams, but I was pretty sure that banks don’t ask you to provide details of your accounts in emails, just as legitimate agents and publishers don’t ask you for money.

So I called my bank and spoke to a nice customer service agent who confirmed that the email was a scam and suggested I forward it to the bank’s actual security department. He also persuaded me to open another account with them, the smooth talker. But on the whole, this story has a happy ending and I hope any writer faced with a literary scam will also deal appropriately with the scammer.

1. Stajano F, Wilson P. Understanding scam victims: seven principles for systems security. 2009 (retrieved April 3, 2010). University of Cambridge. Available at: http://www.cl.cam.ac.uk/techreports/UCAM-CL-TR-754.pdf

Tuesday 27 April 2010

Will I Get Published Any Other Way?

A few weeks ago I corresponded with a frustrated writer who was considering vanity publication. When I advised her against it she replied with words to this effect:
“I can see why you don’t like it. But I can’t get my book published any other way. There are millions of writers out there, and only a few of them get a publishing deal. It’s luck more than talent these days.”
It saddened me that she considered publication some sort of lottery, rather than the meritocracy it really (mostly) is. It also saddened me to think that she valued her work so little that not only was she prepared to give it away, she was also prepared to pay someone to take it off her hands. This has to be wrong: we all work hard at our writing, and we should recognise its true worth. Even if our work is not appropriate for mainstream publication it still has value, which can be measured by the efforts we’ve put into it and the satisfaction we’ve derived from writing it: why hand it over to a company which is only interested in how much money you give it, and not how well your book reads, looks or sells?

There will always be books which are not appropriate for mainstream publication, because of their subject matter or their writer’s lack of experience or talent. I would never recommend that the authors of these books use a vanity press: such presses are almost always exploitative, costly and ineffectual when it comes down to producing a high-quality book and then selling those books to anyone but their authors. So what alternatives are out there for writers who are desperate for publication, but who are not likely to attract the attentions of the mainstream press?

This is where self-publication comes into its own. It is available to everyone and needn’t cost a penny if you choose a POD provider like Lulu, CreateSpace or Lightning Source (and yes, I’m well aware that there are other options out there and I hope you’ll suggest a few which aren't vanity publishers in disguise). POD providers allow you to download your text into a book template and add your own cover art or image (or they provide you with stock images which are copyright-cleared). The book will be available for sale through the POD provider’s website, and if you pay for an ISBN to add to the package you can also get it listed on Amazon and other online retailers. You’ll be able to correct or amend the book at any time, without paying any extra cost (although substantial alterations require a new ISBN, which you will have to pay for). But doing that will give you everything that a vanity publisher will give you, at a far lower cost.

Friday 16 April 2010

How I got published: Marian Perera

I am very fond of Marian Perera: she is a knowledgeable and prolific member of Absolute Write, has supported How Publishing Really Works ever since it first appeared, and runs an excellent blog of her own. She studies medical laboratory technology when she isn’t writing, or blogging about writing. Her debut novel, Before the Storm, is a fantasy that combines steam engines and a steamier romance. You can read an extract of it here.

She works tirelessly at her writing, and puts a huge amount of effort into helping other writers improve. I was so glad when I learned that she'd sold her first book: here's how it came about.

170,000 words.

That was roughly the length of my first manuscript, and it was the first in a projected four-book series. Even for fantasy, it was… ambitious.

I’d meant it to be a grand Tolkienesque epic: traditional in story, sweeping in scope. Selling such an opus would not be easy, but among the polite rejections was a request for a full from Tor.

That turned out to be a mixed blessing. It kept me persevering through more rejections, but I also took it as a sign that the epic was good. Even when the full was rejected I kept writing sequels – sequels which, of course, couldn’t be submitted anywhere.

It was disappointing and began to wear down my interest in the epic. So I started playing with a quirky idea for an unrelated fantasy. Since that wasn’t the start of a doorstopper series, I thought of it as a small, self-contained story that took second place to the epic.

But it was surprisingly fun to write. Because it wasn’t a strict fantasy in the tradition of Tolkien, it could involve science as well as magic. I’ve always been interested in chemistry – well, in blowing things up – so the characters used calcium carbide cannons and steam engines in a battle. And there were also some steamy encounters that didn’t involve the engines.

At that point, I realized the little project had grown into a standalone novel. Leaner and better-written than the epic, it stood more of a chance of meeting agents’ and publishers’ submission guidelines as well.

So I sent it out, revised, resubmitted and signed up with an agent.

That turned out to be a mixed blessing too. The agent’s advice improved my manuscript, and I learned something else in the process – what writers should and shouldn’t do when searching for representation. But in the end, the steam engines were spinning their wheels in that particular situation.

By then I’d also learned to reconsider anything that didn’t further my career, whether that was a grand epic or an agent. It helped that steampunk was increasingly popular, and I decided to submit the manuscript myself. I looked for a publisher that didn’t require representation, such as a small press.

This time around, I did the research before submission, rather than after acceptance. Some writers recommended Samhain Publishing for speculative fiction with romantic elements, and there are independently compiled sales stats and royalty figures on Samhain and other romance e-publishers at Show Me The Money and EREC.

Samhain had a thread over twenty pages long
on the Absolute Write forums and I read through that. Given the choice of sending a manuscript to a general submissions address and targeting someone in particular, I picked an editor who said she liked strong worldbuilding and characters from different cultures. She responded a month later, accepting the manuscript.

There isn’t too much mixed about this blessing, maybe because I finally started doing things right. My first novel, Before the Storm, has just been released by Samhain and I’m very pleased with its design and production. My editor expressed interest in a sequel, but while I’ll start that very soon, I’ll also query agents about another standalone fantasy with a scientific twist. This time it’s dragons and clinical psychology.

Yes, I figured out what I do best – which isn’t to write like Tolkien, it’s to write like me.

Sunday 4 April 2010

You Can Judge A Book By Its Cover

A book jacket has a lot to achieve.

It has to be eye-catching enough to stand out from all the other books on bookshop shelves, but not so different that it scares off its book’s potential readers.

It has to provide information on several levels: the title and author name must be clearly legible; the book’s genre has to be immediately apparent; the illustration or design used has to do have some connection with the book’s plot, or central theme, without giving away any essential plot points; the jacket has to make it clear if the book is part of a series by conforming to certain design elements of previous books in that same series while also distinguishing the book from others in the series; and the jacket also has to establish or continue to uphold the style for its author, in order to help promote future sales.

There’s a fascinating discussion of the psychology of cover design in Lynn Price’s book, The Writer’s Tackle Box, which I urge everyone to read: it's already available in America from Behler Publications, and will be available in the UK at the end of May, published by Snowbooks.

Unsurprisingly, authors rarely get any say in the design of their book jackets (although some independent presses are fantastic about listening to their authors when it comes to jacket design). The major retailers will have more say in the design of the book jacket than an individual author will: if a senior book buyer doesn’t like a jacket it will almost always be redesigned.

Some designs break the rules: Scarlett Thomas's novel The End of Mr Y had a jacket design that rendered its title almost unreadable, but its striking design and original oversized format more than compensated for that (even though the ink from the gorgeous matt-black edges rubbed off all over me as I read it).

Let’s put this to the test. Sally Zigmond is a good friend of mine and she comments regularly on this blog. Her first novel, Hope Against Hope, is published today by Myrmidon Books and its cover appears at the top of this article. What I’d like you to do is suggest what genre Sally writes in, and hazard a guess about her novel's subject-matter, just by looking at the cover. You're not allowed to look it up on Amazon, because that would be cheating. And no, Mrs Zigmond, while you’re allowed to comment you’re not allowed to play because you already know all the answers!

Monday 29 March 2010

Guest Review: The Anatomy Of Prose, By Marjorie Boulton

The Anatomy of Prose is a rigorous 1950s analysis of prose, seeking to classify different elements of prose as you would classify insects or flowers. From the broad divisions of types of prose (narrative, argumentative, dramatic, informative, contemplative), Boulton proceeds to smaller divisions and sub-divisions, for example listing and defining 36 different rhetorical devices. Despite the intense detail, it was an easy read—the writing, as you’d expect from an anatomist of prose, was quite stylish and always very clear.

The part I found most interesting and useful was the chapter on prose rhythm. Boulton explains how to scan prose in the same way as poetry, breaking it down into “feet” and then analysing where the stress falls within each foot. For example “become” is an iambic foot, because the stress falls on the second syllable, whereas “outcome” is a spondee, because both syllables are stressed. There’s a great listing of all possible combinations up to the five-syllable dochmiac, and then examples of passages scanned for rhythm. For example in a Bible passage (Psalm 90, v1-9), she shows how the rhythm builds up to climaxes such as the molossus (three syllables, all stressed)—“Thou art God”. Important parts like this are surrounded by weaker stresses to highlight them. When the passage speaks of man’s weakness, the rhythm is faltering, using weaker paeons (four syllables with only one syllable stressed). The rhythm, in other words, reflects and amplifies the content.

I don’t think I’ll spend much time analysing the rhythm of my prose, or anyone else’s, in that much detail, but it’s wonderful to have that knowledge in the back of my head, as a way of understanding why a particular passage may or may not work.

The explanations throughout are clear and well illustrated with examples, mostly from older literature like the Bible and 18th century writers, but also some more contemporary (for 1954) writers like Hemingway, Steinbeck and Woolf. I’ve never seen writing analysed so scientifically before. I’ve noticed that a sentence can sound immeasurably better when the order is altered a little or a word is taken out, but never knew why. This book helped me to understand it much better, and I think it will make me a better writer and reader.

Andrew Blackman's debut novel, On The Holloway Road, won the Luke Bitmead Writer's Bursary and was shortlisted for the Dundee International Book Prize. He recently moved back to the UK after living for six years in New York, where he worked as a staff reporter for the Wall Street Journal.

Friday 19 March 2010

How I Got Published: Karen Schwabach

Today Karen Schwaback explains how a combination of her membership of a professional writers' association and a very sensible sister led to her eventual publication despite her efforts to scupper her own success.

My middle-grades historical fiction manuscript, A Pickpocket's Tale, won the Sydney Taylor Manuscript contest, which is open only to unpublished writers and is free to enter. There's a nice prize, but it doesn't include publication.

Then I joined SCBWI (Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators). They have a bimonthly journal which lists market updates at the end—often the contact information for editors who are reading. In one 2002 issue, a young editor at Random House was listed as interested in middle-grades historical fiction, so I sent her Pickpocket.

It was a year before she contacted me—via my yahoo email address, because by that time I'd moved from Alaska to North Carolina and had completely forgotten having submitted to her. She said she liked the story but wanted to see revisions. When I sent those, she sent them back with what I now recognize was an editorial letter (a detailed request for revisions)—but at the time I thought it was a rejection. Now I wonder how many writers receive such letters and go off in a huff as I almost did.

Fortunately my sister talked sense into me, I did the revisions, and they made an offer for A Pickpocket's Tale, which was published in 2006, and was followed by The Hope Chest two years later. I definitely had no connections, but did have two important assets that I recommend to anyone trying to break in:

1. Join your genre's professional organization if there is one, so that you can get constant market updates

2. Enter contests, including those open only to unpublished writers, so that you can get credentials

Good luck!

Wednesday 17 March 2010

How Books Are Sold

Commercial publishers achieve their high sales levels by ensuring that they have a good stock of books and an efficient distribution system which will get their titles from warehouse to bookshop shelves as quickly and as cheaply as possible.

This backs up the efforts of their sales teams, which use a combination of telesales calls and store visits to take orders from booksellers across the country.

The sales staff are supported by the publisher's marketing staff, who produce full-colour catalogues for the sales teams to refer to. These catalogues list all titles from backlist to front runners, including books planned for publication in the future, and are sent free of charge to distributors, wholesalers, bookshops and anyone else in between. The marketing staff advertise books to the book industry via the trade press, and promote the books to potential readers by buying advertising in national and niche publications; by producing promotional goods like posters, postcards and dump-bins; and by arranging special promotions and book signings. On top of that, the marketing staff also supply all and any relevant publications with advanced reading copies (ARCs) months before each title is published, in order to tie in with the periodicals’ own publication schedules and allow the reviewers plenty of reading time.

Together, the sales and marketing teams operate a double-sided attack which ensures that just as a book becomes available in bookshops across the country, its potential readers will become aware of it, it so maximising its sales.

When I consider the huge orchestrated efforts that commercial publishers make to promote and sell their titles, and compare their sales figures to those of most self-published books, I am surprised: not by the gulf between the two different levels of sales, but by the fact that so many self-published books, none of which have anything like the same level of support that commercially-published titles receive, manage to sell more than five or ten books each. Such sales figures are a testament to the cleverness, creativity and determination of those self-publishers, and should be applauded.

Monday 15 March 2010

How To Win Your Arguments

There are several strategies which can be employed in order to win your arguments.

One is to state your view then immediately run in circles with your fingers in your ears while shouting "la la la, not listening!" This can be very effective if you can sing very loudly (as can I), or you have plenty of stamina and a higher boredom threshold than those you are arguing against.

Another is to state that there's no point trying to discuss something with someone whose mind is so obviously closed. This tactic provides no substance but is a useful exercise in meaningless point-scoring, and can sometimes lend an air of superiority to a stance which only really deserves attention from The Point And Laugh Brigade.

A better strategy is to ensure that your argument has a substantial logical basis and is presented in an appropriate way, and there are some books which can help you with this.

For a gently humorous exploration of the subject, you'll not find better than Madsen Pirie’s How to Win Every Argument: The Use and Abuse of Logic. It's an easy read; it's entertaining, well-written, and witty; and it's very informative.

Anthony Weston’s Rulebook for Arguments is a slim book which provides a slightly more serious read and discusses the various forms an argument can take.

If, however, you're prepared to go really hard-core then The Trivium: The Liberal Arts of Logic, Grammar and Rhetoric by Sister Miriam Joseph is the book for you. It is dry and dense and at times almost impenetrable: I doubt it contains a single joke. But it's rock-solid, rigorous, and absolutely reliable and if you're brave enough to tackle it, it is a fascinating and transforming read.

What do any of these books have to do with publishing? Not much. But if a writer cannot formulate a coherent and logical argument then at best they're going to make themselves look foolish and at worst they're going to fail, no matter which genre they favour.

Friday 12 March 2010

How I Got Published: Lesley Cookman

Today we hear how Lesley Cookman got herself into print while not really trying, and realise how working at our craft can bring far bigger results than expected.

When I was young, I had a vision of how and where a lady writer would work. In a dark panelled room, with french windows hung with yellow patterned chintz and a desk, unaccountably in the middle of the room, with, naturally, not even a typewriter, let alone a computer (a what?). This owed a great deal to dear Dr Brewster’s surgery in a grand Edwardian house, where I was taken for the usual childhood ailments after the passing of even dearer Dr Patel, with his tiny shopfront surgery in Trinity Road. Gosh, we were ahead of our time.

Of course, I eventually learnt that this was not How Publishing Really Works. Or even writing. I scribbled away as a young person, mainly pony stories, in brown covered Woolworth’s exercise books, narrow-feint (lines close together, in case you didn’t know). Then I grew up, realised that writing was not what I could do as a living and embarked on a varied, if not variegated, career, encompassing modelling, acting, DJ-ing, being a cabin crew member with BA and, after marriage, a personnel consultant (Brook Street Bureau) and lowly minion at The Observer.

Then I had two children. At this stage of my life my late husband was still a professional musician and we were very poor, a state to which I have become accustomed. When he gave up the business – or rather, it gave him up – he returned to the career for which he was trained and became an art director with a magazine publishing company. One day, when I was pregnant with our third child, he came home with a very large cardboard box and said “There you are. Open it, put it together and write an article on it.” It was one of the very first personal desktop computers, and I did as I was told. The subsequent article was a commission from Which Computer and it started me on a new career.

Over the next twenty years I wrote pieces on science parks, computers for the disabled, computers for the classroom and new water sports. I edited Poultry Farmers’ Weekly. I wrote pantomimes, (luckily still performed across the British Isles, and, occasionally, The World) and a commissioned book on how to do it: How To Write A Pantomime, now in its third edition. A friend at a conference pressed a copy of her new book on how to write twist in the tail short stories into my hands and, having had no previous interest in weekly magazines or, indeed, short stories, I wrote one. Hey Presto! Another string to the writing bow. I was now that familiar thing, a writing whore.

Then, for no other reason than I wanted to prove something to myself, I decided to do an MA in Creative Writing in Wales. These were still newish, in that there weren’t many of them. Now you can find one on every corner above the newsagents. It turned out that I knew far more about the publishing world than any of the tutors, and even gave the class a lecture on the Romantic Novelists’ Association, of which they had never heard (!) and of which I had been a member for some years. However, at the end of the course, a fellow course member had the idea of producing a book of short stories in aid of Breast Cancer. This too was still a newish idea, and we did the whole thing between us. It was called Sexy Shorts for Christmas, and the company was called Accent Press. I asked all my friends in the RNA to contribute a story, and bless them, they did. My husband designed the cover and we had a fabulous launch at The Groucho, followed by a mini-tour of venues in Wales, including the National Library in Aberystwyth.

I then sank into obscurity once more until, shortly after the death of my husband, my friend from college asked me if I had done any more to the mystery novel of which the first twenty thousand words had been my dissertation. She had seen and liked it. I hadn’t done any more, of course, but I hastened to do so, and after another few thousand words, she offered for it. And so Libby Sarjeant and her less-than-believable adventures was born, with the publication of Murder in Steeple Martin.

Libby is about to appear in her sixth adventure (Murder in the Green will be published in early April), with her seventh, Murder Imperfect, in October and her eighth next year. Accent Press, under the aegis of my friend Hazel Cushion, has gone from strength to strength, I’m glad to say: so, in a way, that MA in Wales did us both some good.

I do not work in a panelled room, I stare at a blank wall and I write straight onto a Mac G5. My hair, as once I had envisaged, is not in a neat and classy French pleat, my clothes not beautifully tailored Chanel. I am a scruffy, slapdash individual who never ceases, not for a day, not for a moment, to be glad and grateful that I have this new career at a time of my life when other people are beginning to think about the funeral plan and the bus pass.

And this is not How Publishing Really Works for everybody. But it was for me, and if Libby’s first book hadn’t been received well by a certain section of the reading public, then there would never have been any more, so all the honing of the craft over the previous twenty-odd years was necessary. It always is. Good luck!

Wednesday 10 March 2010

How Writers Could Effect Real Change

Last spring, a writer called Mary Walters suggested that literary agents are killing literature by rejecting work which they consider unmarketable (she provided a nice piece of meta-analysis by simultaneously discussing the discussion which followed over at Authonomy*). Mary proposed that as the work that agents reject doesn't get seen by editors, it doesn't get published; from this, she concluded that literary agents are preventing all sorts of talented writers from reaching their potential readers. Her blog post notched up hundreds of replies and, according to Mary, several thousand views. Several agents and editors linked to her post and she was interviewed by UK literary agent and head honcho at Litopia, Peter Cox.

Good for Mary, I say: she got herself noticed, albeit not entirely in a positive way.

The problem is that her argument about literary agencies is based on a misunderstanding of how the publishing business works: and so when you begin to strip it down and look for solutions you get tangled in a maze of assumption and confusion: there is no clear resolution to her problem because (with all due respect to Mary) her argument was flawed.

Mary is not alone in her reliance on fallacy to prove her point. If you care to indulge in a little light Googling, I’m sure you’ll be able to find plenty more similar articles which insist that mainstream publishing is failing and suggest ways in which it could be made to succeed.

It seems to me that those suggestions focus primarily on the commentators’ own agendas. Often, the publishing failures they report aren't failures at all—just a misunderstanding on their part, or a feeling that publishing has somehow failed them, often by simply rejecting their work.

Almost all of these articles are eloquently written, passionately argued and contain a good few useful ideas, and some of them make suggestions of staggering brilliance; but they also demonstrate a huge misunderstanding of how publishing really works. Consequently, the few people who read these pieces and who work in publishing and who therefore have the access and contacts required to change things are likely to dismiss the articles as ill-informed nonsense; the good points are lost with the bad. The doubly-rejected writers will have their cynicism reinforced and nothing will change.

I urge anyone who considers that publishing is broken to do their best to first understand the business properly before announcing how it should be fixed. If you're convinced you know how it could be changed for the better then make sure you understand the full implications of that change; because that way you might get listened to by the people with the power to make those changes, and you could make a truly significant difference.

*I can't find a link to that Authonomy discussion now but if anyone knows where it is, do please add a link to it to the comments and I'll edit it in--thank you.

Monday 8 March 2010

Guest Review: Bird By Bird, By Anne Lamott

The final semester of my senior year had come, and one thing stood between me and a Bachelor of Arts in English—the dreaded capstone course. Part thesis, part professor’s pet project, the capstone centred on a theme such as “The Role of the Fool in Shakespeare” or “Archetypal Literary Theory.” Sometimes it proved interested; often it did not. I ended up with one of the latter, a nebulously named course titled “Life Writing” that was helmed by a professor who refused to define the topic (“Life Writing is whatever you want it to be”), had more ambition than sense (“If you don’t read every word of the twenty-three assigned books, you cannot expect a good grade”), and possessed an ego to match (“I am the god of this class”). Not exactly enjoyable. But somewhere in the middle of it, I found something that was: Anne Lamott’s delightfully messy writing manual Bird by Bird: Instructions on Writing and Life.

If it sounds strange to have read a book about writing narratives in a course that dealt with autobiography, well, join the club. But Bird By Bird fit the bill in that it intersperses Lamott’s literary dictums with bits about her own life. Well, more than just bits, really. Lamott lays on the personal detail pretty thick. Page after page can pass before she breaks away from discussing the execrable psychological short story she penned as a child or how she trained her toddler to recite anti-war chants on cue or her cancer-stricken friend Pammy’s final days and gets back to the practical stuff.

This will annoy those who want technical details on the finer points of plotting or easily avoided grammatical errors. Two things, though, keep the book from becoming an exercise in self-indulgence, the first being that the stories usually relate quite well to whatever Lamott wants to expound. Take the chapter “Short Assignments,” for example. To illustrate how writers need to tackle tiny tasks, she relates how her then-ten-year-old brother was trying to complete a humongous report on birds in a single evening. Panic threatened, but her father sat down, “put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.’”
The second is Lamott’s delightfully screwball sense of humor. “The very first thing I tell my new students on the first day of a workshop is that good writing is about telling the truth,” she says. “We are a species that needs and wants to understand who we are. Sheep lice do not seem to share this longing, which is one reason they write very little.” Rare is the volume on writing that can wring a smile from you. Bird By Bird squeezes out belly laughs, and in doing so, reminds us that writing involves more than toil and tedium. It contains joy, too.

My thanks to Loren Eaton for his review: this is of one of my favourite writing books. There is also an audio version of the book called Word by Word, a pun which doesn't quite work for me but which fills me with delight, nevertheless.