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 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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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.

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Do I need an agent?

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

Getting Published

Why publish at all? Most people write because they love it. But if they’re honest, they’d all like as many people as possible to read what they’ve written. To share your work is to allow others into the world you’ve created with words.

That means finding a way to get your book to the public that matches your budget and your aspirations for it.

The traditional route – pitching to agents and publishers, contracts, advances and the whole paraphernalia of marketing, publicity and distribution teams – was never easy. In today’s crowded market a newcomer has a better chance of winning the Lottery. But more of that anon…

So the default choice for many is self-publishing.

In 2012 I helped an elderly friend self-publish a diary of his time working on the Great Northern Railway. The story of the book, Ghosts of Steam, our aspirations for it and how we got it out there, is told here. We used one route. There are others. The WikiHow guide How to Self-Publish a Book is a good starting point.

When looking on the net for guidance, you’ll find the majority of sites are a) American and/or b) thinly-disguised ads for companies that want to ‘help’ you publish your book. For an impartial UK view The Society of Authors has a Quick Guide to Self-Publishing and Print-on-Demand for £7.50 and there’s a useful starter summary on its website.

This must be the way to go for many new and aspiring writers, but my direct experience (with two mega-publishing houses and one small one, so far) is with the traditional route.

If you can get a mainstream publisher – even a small one – there are significant advantages:

  • They pay you to produce your book, not the other way round.
  • A professional team of editors, graphic designers, proofers, marketeers and publicists is at your service.
  • You’ll learn a lot through the attentions of a good editor.
  • In due course your book will appear as if by magic in your local Waterstones.

There are downsides:

  • Although you have copyright, they will retain many of the rights that will restrict what you can do with your own work.
  • You have input but ultimately they will choose the title, cover, look, extent (length), print-run and publication date.
  • They will decide how – and to what extent – it is marketed.
  • Your editor can be a delight. Or not.

Not all publishers are equal, just as not all books are best-sellers. They can do a great job for you or a disappointing one. This may depend on how much faith they have in your book’s sales potential. The editor who commissioned it may love it, but if the marketing team don’t get behind it, it won’t get the push it needs to be noticed in a crowded market.

Want to try the time-honoured route to putting your book before the public?

To get a publisher, first you really need an agent.

The art and craft of writing

Sue Elliott on Writing
Cartoon by my good friend John Byrne, cartoonist and Agony Uncle for ‘The Stage’.

Here you’ll find snippets on different aspects of the art and craft of writing.

This relates to my own experience writing non-fiction, but much of it also applies to fiction too. I’m fascinated by the whole process of getting a book from idea to product, so there will be stuff about that.

The practicalities are easy to pin down. The fluffy stuff is more difficult: inspiration, refining an idea, finding a voice, shaping a narrative, overcoming doubt. Nothing would happen without them. So – over time – they’ll be here too.

They won’t appear in any sensible order but as the fancy takes me. And they aren’t meant to build up into a definitive guide, more a ‘how it works (and sometimes doesn’t) for me’.

It’s also a space for you to share your own thoughts, ideas and experience.