Monday, 30 March 2009

Cover Story

One of the first questions people ask you when they find out you're a writer (after 'Ooh! Are you the next J K Rowling?), is whether you get to choose the covers of your books. The way books are packaged in different countries fascinates me - probably because my background is in fine art. Which are the best book covers you've ever seen - what makes a book sexy, memorable, eyecatching? I remember getting on the top deck of the Number 22 when 'Memoirs of a Geisha' had just been published. Among all the dreary business suits, there must have been ten people with their heads buried in copies of the book - all these wonderfully erotic and evocative geisha lips dotted around the dark bus. I loved the UK cover - it's simplicity and beauty, but which do you prefer of the images above?

Books by some authors are instantly recognisable - William Dalrymple's sumptuous books about India, or Alexander McCall Smith's quirky graphics for example. Other publishers have made a virtue of simplicity - who can pass up an old Penguin in a second hand bookstore? Stephenie Meyer's books have been beautifully packaged in the UK - they just jump out at you from the shelves. When you think about your book, how do you imagine it looking?

Maybe some authors are more 'hands on' than others with their covers. I'll never forget a documentary about the publication of 'The Whole Woman' by Germaine Greer. She was filmed bashing a raw and bloody steak to be the background of her cover, then photographing a gold female fertility symbol embedded in it. Doing it yourself - and getting away with it - is an option for someone of Greer's status I guess.

The sheer physical pleasure a beautifully packaged book gives you is the single reason I don't think ebooks will see the end of traditional publishing. We've talked a lot recently about how writers just love everything about books, but which volumes are your favourites? I was flicking through Persephone Books' copy of Judith Viorst's classic 'It's Hard to be Hip Over Thirty' at the weekend (you can probably see how my mind was working ...). Persephone books are gorgeous - exquisitely printed and the grey covers conceal dazzling endpapers. Books are at best the whole package - intelligent, beautiful and sexy, just like Michelle in today's clip. For anyone feeling less slinky this Monday morning, here's an excerpt from Judith:

The honeymoon is over
And he has left for work
Whistling something obvious from La Bohème
And carrying a brown calfskin attaché case
I never dreamed he was capable of owning,
Having started the day
With ten pushups and a cold shower
Followed by a hearty breakfast.
(What do we actually have in common?)
The honeymoon is over
And I am dry-mopping the floor
In a green Dacron dry-mopping outfit from Saks,
Wondering why I'm not dancing in the dark,
Or rejecting princes,
Or hearing people gasp at my one-man show,
My god, so beautiful and so gifted!
(The trouble is I never knew a prince.)

TODAY'S PROMPT: What's the secret of a great cover? Do you care about how your book will look, or is being published enough for you? Why do you think books are packaged differently in different countries - even published under alternate titles? A while ago I worked with a life coach setting up the business. It was a freebie for women entrepreneurs courtesy of Business Link, and a good way to focus your mind. One of his tips was not only to visualise what you want to happen, but to make it concrete. For example - don't just fantasise about that healthy bank account, mock one up with the figure you'd like to see after a year's trading. Similarly mocking up a cover for your book is a great, fun exercise. What do you think would make your book catch people's eye, send it to the top of the pile or the coveted 'face out' position in Waterstones?

Friday, 27 March 2009

Express Yourself

Grrrr ... Some weeks it feels anything, anything at all would be easier than writing. Llama farming in the Andes? Count me in. Galician barnacle picker? Sounds good. How do you deal with the frustrations that come with creative work? In the face of rejection, rewrites, recession do you give as good as you get, or give up? This has been a tough week, but I'm still standing and I've held on to John and Son's excellent zen like advice from the other day - 'leave your mind alone'. When I spoke to the nice man from the Arts Council today about why my literature grant application had been stamped 'not eligible' he said they needed proof that the grant would be invested wisely - ie, a previously published successful novel. Did I bang my head on the table? No. I said politely: 'Well, that's a Catch 22 isn't it? If the first book had already been published I wouldn't need a grant to help research the next one.' He laughed dryly, 'Well, perhaps you would.'

Nothing like looking on the bright side. Strangely having taken the decision to stop looking for solutions - to just let things be and take a break for a few days, ideas for new work have been raining down. Does that happen to you? If you take the pressure off perhaps it gives your mind space to come up with the very things you were looking for. Or maybe it's just one of those strange times. All you can do is run to catch the ideas when they fall. Some of them will take root and some won't. One in particular I'm so excited about I'd love to start work researching straight away instead of hustling for paid editorial work. But that's life - there are bills to pay and work to be juggled. It may be freezing cold, and raining, the oil's run out and Easter hols are looming, but where's that stoical British Blitz spirit?: 'Mustn't grumble', 'It's brightening up later', and 'You've got to laugh' ... especially at yourself.

Q: How many writers does it take to change a lightbulb?
A: Ten. One to change it and nine to say, "I could have done that."

Q: How many poets does it take to change a lightbulb.?
A: Two. One to look at the bulb and think of his mother and one to stand at the window and watch the rain.

Q: How many playwrights does it take to change a light bulb?
A: Change? Change? Why does it have to change? It's perfect just the way it is.

Q: How many actors does it take to change a light bulb?
A: All of them. One to change the bulb, and the rest to talk about how much better they could have done it.

Q: How many visitors to an Art Gallery does it take to change a light bulb?
A: Two. One to do it and one to say "Huh! My four-year old could've done that!"

Q: How many editors does it take to change a lightbulb?
A: Editors aren't supposed to change lightbulbs. They should just query them.

Q. How many publishers does it take to change a light bulb?
A. Three. One to make the change, two to hold down the author.

Q. How many cover-blurb writers does it take to screw in a light bulb?

Q: How many literary agents does it take to change a light bulb?
A: None; agents don't make changes for you. If you make the change, though, I think we can sell this sucker.

Q: How many magical realist writers does it take to change a light bulb?
A: None: the light bulb just changes, for no apparent reason, into a baby. The baby is calling your name. It's still snowing.

Q: How many thriller writers does it take to change a light bulb?
A: Stop! Don't touch the lightbulb! It's wired to a bomb! And my god: it's ticking! Duck, they're shooting at us for no apparent reason! It's a good thing they always miss!

Q: How many critics does it take to change a light bulb?
A: One to be highly critical of the design elements, one to express contempt for the glow of the lamp, one to lambaste the wattage used, one to discuss at length his interpretation of wattage used, one to observe how trite the use of a light bulb was, one to critique the performance of the bulb itself, one to recall superb light bulbs of past seasons and lament how this one fails to measure up, and all to join in the refrain, reflecting on how they could build a better light bulb in their sleep.

Q. How many mystery writers does it take to screw in a light bulb?
A: Two, one to screw it almost all the way in and the other to give it a surprising twist at the end.

TODAY'S PROMPT: Take a leaf out of lovely Audrey's book and express yourself. Why not share your favourite jokes or funny stories about writing in the comments and cheer everyone up? Enjoy the weekend ...

Thursday, 26 March 2009

Speak to Me

Do you think parents don't read to their kids anymore? It was interesting to see on Bookseller this morning that the titles chosen by Bookaboo have seen a rise in sales. Bookaboo is like a rock'n'roll Jackanory - celebrities reading picture books for children, but this time there's a sad puppy drummer who won't play without a story. He's lost his 'bojo' but books get it back.

As a parent you're glad for anything watchable - it's been rather funny watching Meatloaf cosying up to a depressed canine Axl Rose lookalike. I still associate him with 'Bat Out of Hell' - ever present in Dad's thundering old Cherokee in the 80's, but apparently he's a big advocate of reading to kids.

Maybe the household of a writer isn't typical but ours are read to - and read - every day. Sharing stories is one of the great pleasures - our little one still has a bedtime story and there is nothing like that combination of clean baby smell, glowstars and a quiet book to melt your heart. It's not going to last long, and I'm making the most of every moment. Maybe you remember being read to as a child? I recall winter evenings curled up on the floor of the library at school being read the Hobbit by our English teacher as completely spellbinding. Maybe it was that sense of magic - realising how much pleasure books can bring people, that made me want to be a writer.

A few of you have done book readings of your own work recently, and it would be interesting to hear more about how they went. Hearing prose or poetry read by the author is maybe the adult equivalent of Jackanory? Audio tapes, recitals, Radio 4 book readings - without distracting imagery all of these bring an extra dimension to the enjoyment of the written word. The amount of time I spend on the road ferrying the children around is made bearable by Stephen Fry's recording of Winnie the Pooh and a near worn-out copy of The Little Prince. To be honest, I don't know who enjoys them more ...

TODAY'S PROMPT: What are your memories of being read to? Which are your favourite books to share with your children? Is there really a problem with children not being read to enough? Storytelling is where writing and acting cross over. I remember a great poetry reading in the old gothic library at school during a power cut - the candlelight only added to the drama. Perhaps you read to your wife/husband/partner? Wouldn't that be a treat. Reading any work aloud changes it - have you tried reciting what you are working on at the moment? If not, why don't you try that today - you'll pick up glitches in rhythm, improved phrases will jump out at you. Reading books aloud is a pleasure that's not only for the kids.

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Mad, Bad and Dangerous?

'A family into which a writer is born is a ruined family. That, or words to that effect is something Philip Roth said many years ago ... It captured mercilessly the problem of being ... a writer. Writing is about betrayal. Betrayal is what writers do'. The pilot shoved Minette Marin's column in the Times under my nose as I was working the other day. A not too subtle hint? Marin was writing with reference to the recent brouhaha surrounding Julie Myerson's 'The Lost Child' (she's a UK writer who graphically documented her son's drug addiction). The article concluded to throw out an adolescent, and then to write a novel about it 'is a betrayal not just of love ... but of motherhood itself'. Myerson called writing the book 'a guilty impulse'. The words 'dirty laundry' and 'public' come to mind. The press reactions have been vitriolic - there's even a hilarious Twitter thread by Julie MeMeSon.

It comes back to that splinter of ice we writers are supposed to have in our hearts. So what do you think? What's off limits for writers? If you've been kind enough to hang around here for a while you already know my views - as a reader I have no interest in sleb books or the rash of vile exploitative abuse memoirs. As a writer my work is, (of course) grounded in my experience - but it comes down to the clause you seem to see less these days - 'these characters are not based on real people'. I have no interest in pimping my family or friends, but surely every writer fictionalises their own experience? Today's video clips from 'Postcards from the Edge' - the 'semi-autobiographical' novel by Carrie Fisher are a case in point. I loved the book - and the film; it was a great story, well written, but do you think knowing Fisher's background gave the whole thing an extra frisson?

Marin concluded 'Writers may not always be wreckers, but I think people should be very wary of them. Of us'. Do you feel dangerous? I get some fabulous gossip from the cockpit (lately the pilot's flown with Gordon Ramsay's brother-in-law, Fred 'Slasher' RBS's wife's best friend's husband, and a captain with some very juicy stories about a certain airline boss). I'm saving them up for a future novel but have no interest in exposing these people in real life. Now if I could just get the pilot to land on the Hudson we'd be laughing (good old Cap'n Sully's $3.2m book deal) ...

TODAY'S PROMPT: What do you think of the writers you've met and worked with? Continuing the 'humility of genius' theme, I was researching an article about big book deals for the Bookseller this weekend and mailed a query to Audrey Niffenegger. Amazingly she replied the same day. This professionalism, helpfulness and simple good manners are - to me at least - the hallmark of successful writers. Maybe there's a reason for their success beyond being able to write well. Thinking back everyone I've asked for advice over the years from A S Byatt to George Melly have been incredibly kind and helpful. Maybe I've just been lucky - but I know I'd do the same to try and help someone just starting out. Today, why not have a think about the media's attitude to writers and your own. Are we all 'mad, bad and dangerous'? Do we betray confidence and trust? Or are we simply professional people making sense of the world around us in the most creative way we know how?

Friday, 20 March 2009

Go Fish

When you're waiting for news about your submissions, discovering this week that even Paris Hilton's chihuahua has landed a book deal is 'interesting'. Sometimes as a new writer you feel like you are a very little fish in a big pond. I've heard from a few of you that your recent rejections have been along the lines of 'great work - if only you were X celebrity'. So what do you make of all the celebrity books out there? Is it all harmless fun or is it pushing new and midlist authors out of the market? Do you think good books will get published anyway? Misssy suggested watching Stewart Lee's recent comedy show on the state of the publishing industry, and for anyone in need of a good laugh this weekend I'd second that recommendation.

Big fish - names, celebrities, brands seem like a sure bet in uncertain times. There's a hook, a USP to build sales around. Does it matter if they haven't read a book let alone written one? People are curious about people - I've read biographies about most of the authors and artists I love, enjoy a sneaky copy of Hello as much as the next person but has it all gone too far? I'd be curious to know when this whole phenomenon started. The old way of doing things was - as Marilyn sings in today's video clip - to specialise. People became famous because they were good at something. The 'special ones that all of us defer to' were exactly that - special. The song namechecks Maria Callas, Elvis, Darwin, Carnegie. When did we get so interested in ordinary?

The flip side of this is the attention a real 'writer's writer' gets for a surprise hit. 'The Time Traveller's Wife' was a brilliant book that justly achieved huge sales, a heartening example of a small publisher whose literary gem became a bestseller. Now Audrey Niffenegger has landed a $5m contract. What do you make of that? Just rewards? Or do huge deals stop publishers taking a chance on new writers? Personally, I can't wait to read 'Her Fearful Symmetry' - and any good news about a great writer is pretty heartening in this climate.

TODAY'S PROMPT: I've just read Stefan Zweig's brilliant 'Beware of Pity' for our next book club. He's now a 'forgotten' author, but at the time he was so famous and revered that readers besieged his home. It is an incredible book - so why has he fallen out of fashion? Why do you think that some books endure while others don't? Would you want the kind of adulation Zweig endured in his lifetime? Have you ever bought a celeb book - or would you buy a book 'written' by a chihuahua? Writing through the eyes of an animal is a great creative exercise - if you've never tried it, why not have a go this weekend? Some of the best children's literature is imagined from the point of view of animals - maybe you can think of a few favourites? Why not take a fresh look at the world from the perspective of your animal companions and see if you can give Tinkerbell Hilton a run for her money?

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Juggling for Beginners

Today's video clip from the love god who is Jools Holland embodies for me the reality of juggling work, home and creative life. You have the solid bass line part of the duet, (housekeeping, caring for family, earning a living), and you have the free-form line that makes you want to get up and dance, (writing, painting, acting, loving - whatever your passion is). They are part and parcel of the same melody - it's life, but some days it feels like you need four hands to juggle it. The pay off is that when it's in synch it is sublime.

There's an interesting post over at Tessa's place today about Neanderthal attitudes to working women. Perhaps I am feeling under more pressure than usual but OMG are there still men out there who think it is easy juggling work and family life? If the women out there are anything like me it is a constant case of feeling you are not enough - not a good enough mother, not a good enough wife, not a good enough businesswoman - and not nearly as good a writer as you would be if you could actually carve out time for yourself to work on what you love rather than dealing with, oh, you know - living.

As we commented the other night, those of us re-reading Clarissa Pinkola Estes feel like we are being given a kick up our creative backsides. It's what you need once in a while. It's what keeps you moving forward. Everyone's favourite blogging agent Nathan Bransford from Curtis Brown San Fran has recently had a Positivity Week which has had a similar effect on a lot of people. He came up with ten commandments for a Happy Writer:

1. Enjoy the present
2. Maintain your integrity
3. Recognize the forces that are outside of your control
4. Don’t neglect your friends and family
5. Don't Quit Your Day Job
6. Keep up with publishing industry news.
7. Reach out to fellow writers
8. Park your jealousy at the door
9. Be thankful for what you have
10. Keep writing

Keep writing - keep playing - keep juggling. That sense of forward momentum is what's going to get us through all this. I named my protagonist in 'All the Lovely Ruined Things' Maya because I had just read several of Maya Angelou's books, and I sensed she was a survivor, someone on the move, just like her. 'Still I Rise' is as much a poem for today as when it was written - enjoy (and here's one in the eye for the Neanderthals):

Still I Rise

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I'll rise.

Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?'
Cause I walk like I've got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.

Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I'll rise.

Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops.
Weakened by my soulful cries.

Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don't you take it awful hard
'Cause I laugh like I've got gold mines
Diggin' in my own back yard.

You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I'll rise.

Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I've got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?

Out of the huts of history's shame
I rise
Up from a past that's rooted in pain
I rise
I'm a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that's wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.

Maya Angelou

TODAY'S PROMPT: There was a great book recently called 'Things I Wish My Mother Had Told Me' by Lucia Van der Post. Her focus was 'grace and elegance', but what do you wish your mother or father had told you? What was the hardest lesson you have learnt? What single piece of advice would you pass on to the next generation to save them learning it the hard way? I hope that a long and successful career writing lies ahead for me but if I do nothing else in this life than nurture a girl and boy who believe they can both rise while loving, respecting and working equally with the men and women around them then that will have been a good life. What do you think the secret of being a happy writer, or good parent is? Can we - do you want - to have it all?

Monday, 16 March 2009

Still Life

Learning to look - to really observe things closely, is one of the great skills you pick up studying art. I had a very 'old school' academic training - hours spent studying still life, drawing teacups, mannequins, perfecting the drape of fabric, how to render the luminosity of glass or the structure (on one mind numbing occasion), of a complete engine. I was - still am - impatient, mentally restless and have a very low boredom threshold. During a free session I launched into an abstract piece - my teacher memorably said 'Don't rush. Simplicity is deceptively difficult. You need to learn to look, to master representation before you can handle abstraction'.

Looking closely at what is around you grounds you. Just as studying still life or the human form in life drawing gives your work 'bones' and structure, slowing down and describing what you see in words is a useful exercise for writers who spend most of their time roaming in the imaginary. Our choices are infinite - our books and stories can be about anything and anybody. Something it took me a while to figure out is the importance of detail. The things you may skip over as a writer have significance to your reader. If a character drops a key on the pavement as they leave home, your reader will expect it to play a pivotal part in the story not just lie there. An object can be a concrete focus in a story, giving your reader tantalising clues to what's going on behind the scene.

The ability to show what people have seen or thought a million times but never really noticed is a tremendous skill for a writer to have. I happened on Willy Russel's brilliant Shirley Valentine the other night. I hadn't seen it for years - the film seems dated, but the sentiment isn't. When it was released, it was the first time people talked about escaping the confines of a little, still life to follow their dreams. As Shirley says at one point: "I have led such a little life, I have allowed myself to lead this little life when inside there is so much more. And it has all gone unused, and now it never will be. Why do we get all these feelings and dreams and hopes if we don't ever use them? That is how Shirley Valentine disappeared, she got lost in all this unused life." It's a beautifully written film - funny, resonant and true. It spoke to people, made them look at what was under their noses. Maybe that skill and humility only comes with age - the realisation of our commonality. The experiences and thoughts you have are yours - but it's likely hundreds, if not thousands of potential readers have been through similar situations or thought the same things but never expressed it. As Lindsay said about YA theatre scripts the other day, the 'me too!' reaction is a fantastic one. As writers if we can show people they are not alone, and help them see what's before their eyes with beautifully crafted words then that is something worth slowing down for and doing well.

TODAY'S PROMPT: If you're anything like me it feels like time is running away with you. There's not enough hours in the day and a relentless momentum juggling work/family/bureaucracy. As 'doing a Shirley Valentine' and running off to a Greek island isn't an option for most of us, why not take a break today and look around. Take a coffee and a notebook out in the sun and really look - the artists among you why not sketch what you can see instead of what's in your mind, the writers describe the scene? One of the most interesting still life classes I took was when we were told to draw the shapes between things rather than the things themselves. Drawing the voids and shadows instead of the chair teaches you a great deal about the article itself. In the same way today why don't you have a think about the shapes and spaces between your characters - what's left unsaid, or undone? What can you show or say about them without putting it down in black and white? Don't rely on what you think is going on, or have just accepted is there. Show people what they know but have never really noticed before. Why not slow down, and really look at what's in front of you?

Thursday, 12 March 2009

What's the Story?

'The Wonder Boys' has to be one of the best films about writing ever made. Michael Douglas in his lucky pink dressing gown grappling with 'the difficult second book' is pure genius. 'Wow ... that's a big book you're writing ...' Toby McGuire says at one stage eyeing the teetering piles of manuscript.

Like a lot of people, when I started writing I began with short stories thinking they were easier. Not true. The difference between a novel (let alone a mammoth 2611 page opus like Douglas'), and a short story is that everything has to count with a short. You have maybe 800 - 5000 words to tell your whole tale. Your beginning. middle and end stack up very quickly. The story needs a point, a strong informed idea, and you need to hit the ground running. Short stories and novels are like sprints and marathons - both take dedication, training, but they are different disciplines entirely. Writing a novel, it's always seemed to me you go through several 'walls' - points where it seems impossible to go on, you doubt your ability, your endurance. Writing a short story you have to get off the blocks fast, and pace the story perfectly through to a satisfying finish.

Hanif Kureishi once said that with a short story idea you immediately sense that you have the whole picture. Hopper's paintings always remind me of short stories. They're vignettes, snapshots - isolated moments of action or inaction. It's been ten years since I wrote a short story, but I'm planning a new one for the Bridport Prize this year. This is one of the biggest literary prizes for short stories and poems in the world - why not have a go?

There must be something in the air, because I was introduced to Shortbread last week. It's a fabulous new site for short stories. Once registered for free, you can upload stories, read hundreds of new tales, rate them, comment, write a response and even recommend them for audio recording. I've uploaded 'Company', (you'll find it under new stories) - and would welcome your comments and rating! One reader said she could imagine Michael Douglas as the jaded narrator - see what you think. This was the last short story I had published in 2000 before concentrating on novels, and the clearest indicator of the way my work was heading. The great thing about short stories is their brevity - they give you a chance to experiment, to try different voices until you find one that is 'just right'. If you enjoy short stories, do visit the site - there's some fabulous work on there, and maybe you'd like to submit some of your own for consideration.

TODAY'S PROMPT: Mum rang this morning and told me to turn on the TV. Phil and Fearne on daytime TV were talking about writing and she thought I could pick up a few tips ... It turns out Dame Jaqueline Wilson was giving advice on how to write, and launching a short story competition (see If a writer's retreat in Istanbul sounds appealing, why don't you try submitting a 1500 - 2000 word story? Short stories are satisfying little jewels - bite sized treats like shortbread. They are also a great way in to writing long fiction both in a creative and practical sense. Many women's and literary magazines publish short fiction, and as Dame Jaqueline said today 'we fed our families on short stories'. Why not give it a go?

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

The Professionals

Next month we have the London Book Fair coming up (20 - 22 April). 'Be there when the market springs to life!' is this year's tagline. The big fairs are like the catwalk shows of the book trade - huge deals, the sexy supermodels of the writing world on parade, but are they a place for new writers? I remember reading an interview with an agent who advised writers to give them a wide berth - he described how tough it can be for authors to see books traded 'like sides of bacon'. However, one element of the show is designed for writers - I'm hoping to attend the Publishing Masterclass on Saturday 18th. For anyone else in London, here are the details:

The London Book Fair Masterclass sessions have established themselves as must-attend events for the public and are designed to place a focus on creative writing and provide invaluable tips for aspiring authors to get their work published.

Saturday 18th April from 11.00am – 1.00pm

Chaired by Danuta Kean - Freelance Journalist and Publishing Commentator; Simon Trewin co-head of the books department at United Agents, will speak about the role of an agent and what they look for in a prospective new author. He is joined by Bill Swainson, Senior Commissioning Editor, Bloomsbury who will speak on what a publisher looks for and what goes into making a new author known. Bestselling authors Kate Mosse (Orion) and Andrew Miller (Hodder) will talk about their traditional publishing experience and author Gareth Sibson will talk about self-publishing and offer top tips to the audience. The cost of a Masterclass ticket for the public is £30.00 (incl VAT), to book tickets they need to telephone the LBF booking line 020 8271 2421

Several of you already writing professionally have been good enough to share your experiences about getting published on WKDN. Others have been asking recently for advice about approaching agents and publishers. An excellent starting point is the series of Video Jug clips from Jonny Geller, MD of Curtis Brown (Books) in London. The clips are brilliant - they cover everything from approaching an agent to contracts.

The time honoured advice is to arm yourself with an up to date copy of the Writer & Artists' Yearbook (or the Writer's Handbook in the US), and draw up a wishlist of your dream agents. You can also look through the 'acknowledgements' pages of books you have loved - authors often credit their agents by name, and if you love the work of one of their clients and write in the same genre it's a safe bet that if it's good enough, your work is suitable for their list.

Above all, be professional, and follow the agent's (or publisher's) submission guidelines to the letter. This morning's headlines from included the cautionary tale of the agents who have been Twittering about how NOT to get published. '#Queryfail' saw agents and editors sharing the worst queries from their slush piles. Jacketflap has helpfully gathered together the worst - read and learn, (or weep - pity the soul who included whisky and a 'cammo fanny pack' in his agent query).

As Pat commented yesterday, it's important to remember that editors, agents and publishers are human too - and just as un-godlike and fallible as us. They are snowed under with work - just like us. They make mistakes - like us. Yes, writers screw up, (I cringe to think of some of the mistakes I made starting out ten years ago), but so do the professionals. If it makes anyone feel any better, in the past I've had other people's queries returned to me, articles sent back with readers' notes still stuffed in the middle, and confidential emails designed for a celeb's PA also called Kate sent to me with details about fees and contract wrangles. It happens. There are good agents and bad agents - as Kathleen said yesterday, it's a learning process. I'm overjoyed to be working at last with an agent who is incredibly professional and a pleasure to work with, and will do everything I can to make her job easier. We said the other day - writing is the best job in the world, and if we're lucky enough to get a shot at doing it professionally it's a dream come true.

TODAY'S PROMPT: So how do you turn your query model from average to Super? Tara Lazar helpfully rounded up the good advice to come out of the Twitter feeding frenzy. Here's the summary of what your query letter should include:

First sentence hook
One- or two-paragraph blurb
Relevant writing credits/background
Polite closing
Solid writing sample

If you've been sending queries out and getting rejections, why not have a look today at how you are presenting yourself, and the people or publications you have been targeting. It's a tough and competitive market out there - if you want your book to be the next big thing, a great query letter is the first step, and you need to tailor it precisely before hitting the catwalk.

Monday, 9 March 2009

Can We Fix It?

'A good writer always works at the impossible' Steinbeck wrote in his Journal of a Novel. It's one of the great books about writing, by one of the great writers of all time. I've been re-reading it, and seeing someone this good struggling to find the right words, to hold onto them once he has them is as inspiring as ever. 'I have a good feeling about this book now and I hope I can keep it' - maybe you've felt like that too? It's precisely how I'm feeling at the moment. Somewhere else this weekend I read that the process of creating something - whether it's a story, book, painting or piece of music, is like balancing a house of cards on a single fingertip.

It feels like a lot of things are in the balance at the moment, up in the air, on a personal and global level. I wonder how we'll look back at this time? Obama's defiant 'Yes We Can!' is a rallying cry familiar to anyone who spends a lot of time writing with cartoons playing in the background (Bob the Builder: 'Can we fix it? Yes we can!'). Good role models, mentors - whether cartoon, political or creative show us the way. I was lucky enough to get this sense that you can do anything if you put your mind to it instilled early on. I was awarded a painting scholarship to a boy's public school in Devon, and my tutor was like the love child of Mr Chips and Alfred E Neumann - all flapping academic gown and cheeky gap-toothed grin as he swept down the stone corridors. It was a bonkers place - the hunting parson Jack Russell (as in the dogs) was an old boy, and while I was there Christopher Ondaatje (philanthropist, adventurer, writer, Olympian and brother of Michael 'The English Patient' Ondaatje), bestowed a theatre on the school. Because of the large purple turret at the centre of the new building it became known as 'the purple condom'. When you are one of a handful of girls in a resolutely masculine environment like this, where even the buildings are phallic it's sink or swim. As a teacher, my lovely old tutor gave me the greatest gift you can give anyone - the sense that no matter how hard things get you can work through it. No matter what you are up against, you can survive. No matter how impossible the task you've set yourself seems, you can do it. The question is not 'what's going to happen to me?' but 'what can I make of this?' Can we fix it? Yes we can.

TODAY'S PROMPT: Steinbeck said: 'This book will be the most difficult of all I have ever attempted. Whether I am good enough or gifted enough remains to be seen. I do have a good background. I have love and I have had pain'. These words were written - literally - in parallel with 'East of Eden' in a single journal. That sense of not knowing if you are good enough is what stops a lot of creative acts before they begin. It's the fear of not being good enough. Today, why not have a think about your attitude to fear? What's stopping you? What's to lose? Maybe you've been lucky enough to come across some real life mentors, or found writers whose stories have inspired you? Diving into it, free falling into the words and images none of us ever knows how good the end work will be. Every writer and artist alive, I think, feels this uncertainty. Writing is a very isolated job and it's good to remind yourself of this - we're all as scared as each other. I very much feel this as I return to book three - am I good enough or gifted enough to tell the story? Since planning the book it has changed - and I've changed a great deal in the last few months. Steinbeck talked about love, pain, anger - I'm going back to the next draft with altered perceptions of all of these. It's going to make it a better book, that's my gut instinct, but right now the task, balancing the house of cards feels 'impossible'. As Annie Dillard said, leave a manuscript alone for a while and it goes feral - you had better go back to it wielding a chair and cracking a whip - bring on the lions.

Friday, 6 March 2009

Happily Ever After

The last line of my first book is: 'The end is never the end, it's always the beginning of something'. Out of everything that changed in the numerous drafts of 'All the Lovely Ruined Things', the first and last lines stayed the same - they were like bookends containing the shifting stories. Interestingly, the editor cut the whole 'happily ever after' wedding chapter - it felt better to leave the story - Maya's future, open but full of hope. Why aren't books with happy endings taken seriously? Are they too neat? Too unlike real life? I was interested to see a new group on Facebook, the New Romantics. Just as I was getting ready to dust off my pirate shirt and pedalpushers I realised it was a group of our best loved writers of commercial fiction who have joined together to promote feel good books exploring the ups and downs of life and love. It's a brilliant idea. People need a sense of hope, now more than ever.

I was quite relieved when my work was described as 'not Booker, but not chick-lit either' a while ago. I've always hoped my books will give people escape, catharsis, pleasure. Flicking through a new reference book 'How Not to Write a Novel' the other day, I read: 'as a writer you have one job: to make the reader turn the page'. They also said: 'Know what the chase is - and cut to it'. These are good, basic thoughts to keep in mind as you are writing and editing. I read a lot of literature, but I don't write it. Hopefully each book will get better and better - who knows where the work will be in twenty, thirty years' time. Right now, I'm aiming to write the best page-turning commercial fiction I can.

A lot of you have said recently it feels like a lot is ending in your lives. Everyone is reassessing things. I've taken a big decision based largely on gut feeling - the art company is closing, and I'm going to concentrate on writing full time. (Deep breath). It's a new beginning. We talked about Gertrude Stein the other day, and the sense that at a certain point in your life all your experience and abilities focus on a single goal. That time is now. The goal is straightforward - to be a professional writer, hold up my end of the family income and put the kids through school. I'd love to write a book a year, and admire someone like Maeve Binchy who combines great success with a professional reputation, (a pleasure to work with, and a generous spirit who is kind to everyone from publishers to book store shelf stackers). I've spent my whole professional life promoting and selling other artists' work, and hopefully that experience will be useful now with my own. Happily ever after? Let's hope so. In the meantime if you know anyone who needs any jingles or editorial for 'Tractors Weekly', you know where I am ...

TODAY'S PROMPT: Do you write with a reader in mind? Can you imagine someone reading your book, or story? Where do you read for that matter? After living in London for so many years, I've always imagined my reader crammed on a tube, or snatching a quick sandwich at lunch in the park with his/her nose buried in the book. I've always wanted to write the kind of books you can't wait to get alone with, the kind you have to read 'just a few more pages' at night, then eke out the last few because you don't want your time in that world to end just yet. Which books have affected you like that? Are there particular authors where you have read everything they've ever written? Today, why don't you have a think about where you want your writing to take you - and your readers. How can you cut to the chase? Get those pages turning? How do you want your readers to feel? I'm declaring WKDN a re/depression free zone. Life's full of ups and downs, but maybe - like me - you want to give your readers escape, beauty, pleasure and leave them (like Nina Simone), Feeling Good.

Wednesday, 4 March 2009

We Love Richard & Judy

Browsing the bestsellers in Waterstone's yesterday it struck me that if you aren't yet a fabulous brand name (King, Cooper, Binchy, Grisham), haven't snogged a rock star, bagged a footballer, or suffered horrible abuse as a child how on earth do you make it onto those magic numbered shelves? Fortunately we have the patron saints of book clubs - Oprah in the US and our very own Richard & Judy in the UK. Their shows have worked wonders for many new authors, and now there's an additional reason to love R&J - they inspired today's guest blogger to get writing. It has been a joy following Caroline Smailes' success over the last year, and I'm delighted to welcome her here today with her top tips for people juggling work and family. Caroline has just signed with her dream agent, so I look forward to seeing her books on the bestseller lists soon. Over to Caroline:

My writing career was kicked into life in 2005, thanks to Richard and Judy. It was lunchtime, my daughter was toddling around and I was listening to Richard calling someone a ‘nearly woman’, saying that they nearly did something but never quite managed to pull it off. At that time I was in my second year of a PhD study and lecturing in Linguistics. I was juggling part-time work, part-time study and three young children. And, somehow, in my spare time I had written a really really rubbish novel (that no one will ever see). I didn’t finish my lunch and instead I emailed a colleague telling her that I was a ‘nearly’ woman and that I didn’t want to be an academic, that I really really wanted to write novels.

Two weeks later, I had given up my PhD and enrolled in an MA in Creative Writing.
A year later, I had finished my first real novel (In Search of Adam), had a website, had an extract from my novel on that website and had started a blog. I’d been blogging for three weeks when Clare from The Friday Project stumbled across my blog and then my website. She asked to see the full manuscript and three days later, I was offered a publishing contract.
And now, In Search of Adam and my second novel Black Boxes have been published by The Friday Project. The journey has been bumpy, as I have seen The Friday Project liquidated and then rising again as an imprint of Harper Collins. I have juggled children, cats, a husband, goldfish, tears, laughter, anxiety and Calpol. And, very very recently, I have managed to find an agent who ‘gets’ my writing and all that I want to do with it.

Throughout the ups and the downs, I have blogged and I have written. So, my top ten tips for writing, juggling work and coping with a family are:

1. Set a daily/weekly word count, but be realistic in your expectations for the amount of words that you will be able to write each day. Some days will be harder than others. If you don’t make your word count, pour yourself a huge glass of wine and start again the next day.
2. Set aside some time specifically for writing. Then be sure to use it for writing!
3. Try and write when family will not intervene - when the children are in bed is a good time. But accept that you’ll feel tired and will probably go to bed with characters bouncing around inside your head.
4. Try and designate a particular part of your house as your writing zone. Pick an area where you can leave notes and papers and books open, ready for your next session. And remove all distractions from that area.
5. Try and fit in what you can when you can. Ten minutes in the car waiting for your children might be just long enough to jot down a few notes on your next chapter. So, always carry around a notebook and pen.
6. Always leave your writing knowing what you will write next. I often force myself to stop and leave a little note to myself with details for the next writing session.
7. Sometimes it is best that only your nearest and dearest know that you are writing a novel. The last thing you want is the a playground mum asking you (weekly) if you’re published yet.
8. Remember some days will be better than others. Take the rough with the smooth - every word you write is a victory.
9. If you are struggling for time, then try replacing Coronation Street or vacuuming with half an hour writing instead - the time and the words soon add up.
10. Never ever ever give up!

TODAY'S PROMPT: For any of us juggling like crazy, Caroline is an inspiring example. With hard work and passion it is possible. Books are being published, agents are signing good authors. These tips are great - you can have it all, but be realistic (and kind to yourself). 'Every word is a victory' is something we should have pinned above our desks. Today, why not have a think about the way you use your time - when you are swept away in the daily chaos of home, family, work, it is all too easy to find excuses ('I haven't got time to write'/'I'm too tired'/'Countdown is on ...) Boondoggling is a writer's worst enemy. Carve out a space for yourself, claw back even half an hour a day for your writing and I guarantee it will become something you look forward to every single day.

Monday, 2 March 2009

Mr Sun

Vilhelm Hammershoi 'Sunbeams' 1900

Spring is in the air - a two hour walk through the hangars this morning with a jubilant hound has put the world to rights. Everything looks better in the sun, and I un-knotted a lot of things that had been on my mind as we walked through rutted paths bursting with snowdrops, crocuses, daffodils. A couple of weeks ago I found a lovely sepia pen and ink drawing of a high banked lane by PRS Haigh in a junk shop - the frame was falling apart but the drawing was unfoxed and somehow made it's way home ... It was a couple of pounds, but when I looked him up, his work fetches good prices at auction. It's hanging above the computer now - it reminds me of the walks around Petersfield and to me it is 'The Road Home'.

Aren't you getting bored with the constant doom-mongering? For writers at least, previous recessions have not seen people deserting their books. The reports of a recent publishing party at the V&A were upbeat, and Jeanette Winterson wrote recently in the Times: 'We don't stop reading because we are poor.' Equally, we don't stop writing because we are poor. A recent article estimated that if you were going to pay a full time mother in the US the going rate for her 92 hour week as cook, cleaner, chauffeur, nanny, psychologist and all round Wonder Woman her salary would be $200,000 pa. Something to bear in mind if, as in many families, the necessity of a second income is becoming an issue. Comparing notes with friends recently a lot of our other halves are making noises about us 'doing something useful' now that last of the little ones are heading to school in the autumn. Like running a family home unaided, keeping a company ticking over and writing isn't useful - but they don't bring home the big bacon like a grown-up professional full time job do they? At least not yet.

The thing is, I love it here, I love the school our children are at. To keep these balls in the air over the next few years we need two solid incomes. House prices have been crazy, and now the market is crashing - hey presto no good mortgage deals for first time buyers. But we'll get there. We very nearly ended up on 'Location Location' - Kirsty and Phil's TV show about buying property last year which would have been a hoot. They were looking for first time buyers affected by the credit crunch, and I thought 'why not'? Possibly we were too optimistic about mucking in and making the best of it - the couples chosen all had a 'glass half full' approach and no one bought a house. Right now I'd settle for a chicken shed if it was peaceful, I can choose the decor and it has room for bookshelves. If we're going to make this area home (and I hope we will), 'something' has to change - and that 'something' is me the pilot has made clear. He's already been talking about Tokyo, Abu Dhabi, Dubai ... Is it too much to ask, just somewhere to settle down finally and write these books I have waiting to be written?

I worked out this morning I have a book a year ready to go until 2015 - without factoring in new ideas, which will come, for the books to follow. Then there's articles, film scripts, another six years of blog posts ... Commenting on the last post, Emily mentioned Gertrude Stein as an example of genius, and I remembered how she talked about once you hit your thirties you marshall all your forces - it's like your powers align and you focus resolutely on work you love. For me, it's writing professionally, commercially - and I'm going to figure out a way to keep the balls in the air, the family happy and make it all come right somehow. Maybe Mary Poppins is coming into town ...

TODAY'S PROMPT: Friends and family have taken to asking about 'The Book' in hushed tones as if discussing someone whose life hangs in the balance: 'Any news yet?' (sympathetic smile). Sometimes you wish you hadn't told a soul. I overheard a couple of dandy old guys in Cafe Nero today discussing a mutual writer friend: 'Haven't heard a word about the novel,' one said. 'It's as if it's died!' the other agreed. 'He went from talking about it non-stop to pffft' he waved his hand). It made me laugh the way they talked reverently about the novel as a living, breathing thing. One of the many things motherhood has taught me is patience - perhaps in my case it's more of the 'wild patience' Estes says Adrienne Roth talked about. Patience with a purpose is a very, very good skill to learn as a writer. The pilot, as a 'normal' person - fairly (some might even say 'sanely') - has run out of patience with waiting. The best things take time. Good news is all around us - it just gets drowned out by banner headlines. Today, why not keep a conscious eye and ear out for the good stuff on a personal and global level. Cheer everyone up and share it in the comments box. Rowena made a very good point on the last post that paying attention to your ideas regularly brings forward a flow of inspiration. Julia Cameron talked about the necessity of 'filling the creative well', where you set out to do something you enjoy that supports your creativity. Whether it's a walk in the sun that leaves you exhilarated, or a visit to your favourite cafe with a pen and paper and an hour or so making like Baudelaire's flaneur people-watching, what can you do today to get out of a rut and focus on the bright side?
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