What’s in a name? Choosing your title

Tricky business, titles. You’re looking for something intriguing that will draw buyers in, but not so obscure as to give no clue as to what’s between the covers. The publisher of my book about adoption, Love Child, thought it might get confused with the Diana Ross song so I came up with 39 crappy alternatives. Possibly the worst was Before I Was Me – which, oh horror, they really liked.  Luckily, common sense prevailed and the vaguely intriguing but otherwise meaningless failed to supplant the perfectly descriptive original.

Ronseal titles (‘It does what it says on the tin’) are still very much in vogue for both fiction and non-fiction but sometimes this can get you into trouble. One reader took The Children Who Fought Hitler so literally he used his (one-star)  Amazon review to complain that there were no 9-year olds grappling hand-to-hand with Der Führer. As writers and publishers know, you have to take some liberties with titles to stand out among so many competing titles. Most – but obviously not all – readers understand this.

I’ve had three of my titles already chosen for me, as they were TV tie-ins. Luckily, I was pretty happy with all of them. But for the most recent I had to think up my own. This was extraordinarily difficult. I wanted something that encapsulated the bravery of my subject, secret agent Elaine Madden, and gave a flavour of the patriotic times she lived in. I just couldn’t get it until Margaret Thatcher – Britain’s first woman Prime Minister loved and hated in equal measure – came unexpectedly to the rescue…

I was watching her funeral on TV where they played the popular patriotic hymn, I Vow To Thee, My Country.  Inspired, I Googled the lyrics and found a little-known middle verse. Its first line was just what I’d been looking for: I Heard My Country Calling.  Bingo!

So, in the absence of a Ronseal solution, I’d say that other people’s words (Shakespeare is the No. 1 choice) are a handy resource for us lesser talents.  So, now the hunt is on for a working title for the next project now in its very earliest gestation…

‘How to write best-selling non-fiction…’

I know I can do the writing bit. It’s the ‘best-selling’ bit I’d like to do better. So I joined a Guardian Masterclass last Sunday afternoon to find out how…

I’d been on a weekend GM course before, so I knew the form. Kings Place is a mightily impressive building but it manages not to be intimidating. On the edge of the wonderful Kings Cross redevelopment, it is both cooly contemporary but also welcoming, so unlike the Step-No-Further newspaper offices of the past.

The course was led by Simon Garfield, who’s written or edited 17 non-fiction titles and whose latest, the edited diaries of an unknown Englishwoman spanning 60 years, is getting admiring reviews. Oh, to be half as creative and successful…

He was a sympathetic and helpful tutor and his unusual speech impediment made me listen to what he was saying more intently, trying to work out what combination of letters tended to trip him up. He did us (about 60 or 70 of us) the very great compliment of treating us all as professional-writers-in-waiting, though probably less than 1 in 10 had actually published anything. No matter. We were there, so we must be serious about our craft.

I’d be putting Guardian Masterclasses out of business if I repeated all his valuable tips – some of which were already painfully familiar to anyone who’d actually been through the professional publishing mill – but two small things did hit home:

  • don’t talk about your book idea or work-in-progress, because every time you do, it tends to die a little for you. How true this is, so I intend to stop immediately. Which is a bit of a bummer for the future of the ‘New Projects’ section of this website…
  • turn off the net when you’re writing. No-one will die if you don’t reply to emails for 24-hours (or even a week).  I can be disciplined once the study door is shut, but this doesn’t stop me reading every interesting-looking email as it pings in. Perhaps I could have finished those books weeks earlier without the pings? So I shall stop that, too.

So, in answer to the question about Masterclasses posed about a dozen posts ago, I’d say that yes, they are worthwhile. Everything you can pick up from published writers, agents and publishing professionals will help you reflect on and improve your craft.  And in the process you’re bound to get chatting to interesting people who share your passion for writing – and, who knows, other things too. What’s not to like?

Spooks and Secrets on Halloween

Appropriately enough for October 31st, I spent much of the day talking about spooks and secrets at a special lunch in central London for people interested in or connected to the secret services – especially those active during WW2.

soe1We met at a discreet hotel a stone’s throw from 64 Baker Street – original home of the Special Operations Executive (SOE). These days an anonymous office block, a green plaque betrays its wartime past as the hub of planned sabotage and subversion in Nazi-occupied Europe between 1940 and 1945.

 

soe3A rather unwieldy group of us trooped in and up six flights of stairs to find the rest of the building firmly locked to us. No matter, we made do with the atmospheric staircase, imagining the hands of the brave SOE agents and their bosses on that same polished brass handrail…

Then back to the hotel for lunch and some serious networking. A fascinating range of people were in attendance: a sprinkling of elderly SOE survivors, relatives, experts, academics, writers and knowledgeable amateurs fascinated by this secret world hidden from the public for so many decades.

Here I was able to talk about ‘my’ agent, Elaine Madden to a very receptive audience and make influential new contacts. A great day. I came away buzzing and with a new biography of top woman spook, Daphne Park. My thanks to Jedburgh expert Clive Bassett for introducing me to people – and for taking the photos!

 

Elves in Ealing?

642_Things_to_writeI had a birthday recently and a friend gave me a brilliant present called 642 Things to Write About. At first I thought she’d given me an A4 lined notebook (she’s usually much more imaginative), but then I saw that it really did have 642 ideas of things to write about and the space in which to write them.

A random sample:

 ‘Write a love scene from the point of view of your hands’
‘Fix the plot of the worst movie you’ve ever seen’.
‘Find a photograph. Write the story of what’s happening outside the frame.’
‘Scientists announce they’ve discovered the secret to immortality. Write a petition letter to save the event of death.’

Unsurprisingly, it comes from the US.    Continue reading

Inspirations, Compulsions and Comfort Zones

Gus_with_parents_sister_family
Gus Bialick (centre) featured in ‘Britain’s Greatest Generation’

My inspiration and my comfort zone is The Past. Twentieth century social history to be exact. All my books so far have been, in some way or other, real-life stories about 20th century people. Three have them have a specific focus on WW2.

Perhaps this is less inspiration, more compulsion. Writing for me is a way of understanding the past, how it shaped my parents’ generation and so how it shaped me and mine.

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Those Guardian Masterclasses look good… but do they work?

There’s a debate about whether creative writing can be taught. The demand for courses is steady and the supply apparently limitless, so a lot of people must think it can.

I got a great deal from some of the writing courses I’ve been on. But the best weren’t about the teaching-learning transaction but something much more diffuse, more involving, and ultimately more valuable.

For my money, the oldest-established and by far the best are run by the Arvon Foundation at their three retreats in beautiful places. I only ever went on one and it was years ago, but it had a lasting impact.

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Do I need an agent?

Manuscripts
Slush piles aren’t usually as colourful as this…
  • If you’re self-publishing, no.
  • If you want to approach mainstream publishing houses, then probably yes.

There’s nothing to stop you sending your book to as many publishers as you can think of, but the chances are that your precious manuscript will languish in a toppling slush pile to be read (if you’re lucky) by a bored intern. It is unlikely to reach the attention of anyone who commissions books unless it’s rescued from this pile and thought exceptional. This has been known (cf J K Rowling) but isn’t usual.

The agent is your intermediary. They know the business and will more than likely have worked at a high level in publishing. They have a well-established network of commissioning editors and publishers so they know who is most likely to buy your book.

A good agent will:

  • Take you on if your work is potentially saleable to a publisher.
  • Help you shape your book to make it more so.
  • Check and advise on your proposal (pitch).
  • Know which editors/houses to pitch your book to.
  • Contact them directly on your behalf.
  • Negotiate the best deal for you for e.g. the advance, royalties and rights.
  • Advise on and suggest new ideas and support you ‘between books’.

For this they will take between 10% and 20% of everything you earn from the deals they negotiate for you.

Money well spent, I say.

My agent has sold four books for me so far; two ended up in modest auctions with three publishers bidding. But my chances of grabbing the attention of a single publisher without her would, I suspect, have been close to zero. I owe her a great deal more than the paltry percentages she’s earned from my work over the past decade.