The Agony and the Ecstacy…

There’s nothing quite like opening that Jiffy bag and seeing the first copy of your new book, hot(ish) off the press.

I Heard My Country Calling
I Heard My Country Calling

The first thing I do is check they’ve spelled my name right. Yes, I’ve pored over proofs obsessively but the second t in Elliott sometimes inexplicably goes AWOL. Jolly good, all t’s present and correct.

The cover is a strong design and says what it needs to, but the weight and feel of a book is important too. Does it feel good to handle and is the paper a decent gsi? What colour is the hard cover beneath the jacket? A nice cream with gold lettering on the spine, good choice.  How has the plate section come out – are the photos hi-res and glossy and are the captions as I recall writing them?  Like many book-browsers, I always turn to the photographs first to give me a flavour of a non-fiction book.
Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

Choosing a reader

We’re probably not the best judges of our own work. We can be oblivious to our blind-spots (among mine are too liberal use of commas and an annoying addiction to alliteration). It’s almost as bad to be too self-critical.

Having someone else read your work and make constructive comments can save you from grammatical ticks, grave structural misjudgements and unconvincing characters (a just about acceptable level of alliteration there, I think…)     Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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.

Finding an agent

You don’t pick an agent. They pick you.

Their job is to discover and nurture new writing talent, so they’re looking for what you can offer them.

Agents work for literary agencies large and small or operate as sole traders. Each agent can deal with a limited number of clients at any one time and may take on only a handful of new ones a year. So they can afford to be choosy.

Some don’t accept manuscripts unless they’ve been referred by, for example, an existing client. This means that the very best way to find an agent is to have a chum who’s already got one, who can introduce you. This is what happened to me. The result was my first book, Love Child.

I was lucky. Otherwise, research and determination can get you there. Continue reading