Helpful things that have stuck – advice from Kamila Shamsie, Toby Litt, Diriye Osman

I’m not talking about all the ‘How to’ books I’ve read that all give great advice, the Sol Steins, Stephen Kings and A.L Kennedys who have entered my subconscious and are deeply embedded (or should be) in the general hum of accepted creative writing teaching, but something else. Those writers have undoubtedly given me confidence but as I embark on my new, scary writing project which is the novel Joanna Brown, I realise that I am carrying 3 things with me that I actually hear in my head as I write.

All from other writers, this is what has stuck :

I was fortunate enough to hear Kamila Shamsie speak some years ago and if I can ever get on a course where she’s the teacher, I’ll be taking planet apart to get there. I remember clearly that she talked about the ‘connective tissue’ that exists in the creative process and hangs in a sort of void between the handholds that you already have. She painted a picture of swinging from bar to bar in the dark, towards these almost known locations – having to release hold of the last one behind you before you can catch hold of the next one in front – it is having the faith that you will find the connective tissue that will sustain you and allow your work to have spontaneity and freshness. Of course it was beautifully expressed and has often translated in my terms into something more like – ‘carry on regardless’, or ‘what could happen’, ‘can it get worse’ and even at times ‘feel the force, Luke’, but that image has become a mechanism for allowing myself to finish something, to achieve a body of material a chapter or a story that I can go back to and re-write. It helps me avoid the panic in the dark.

Toby Litt is a great teacher and if I ever do an MA, I’d love to study under him at Birkbeck, although I’d probably want to do a poetry MA, but then again wouldn’t it be wonderful to do a fiction one, and so goes one of my favourite little daydreams. Before I eddy round in that little pool again, l will get to the point and say that Toby Litt’s advice on first drafts is an absolute goldmine. Here it si in a nutshell – he tells his students not to start at draft #1 but to have a DRAFT #0 – simple enough, but it’s DYNAMITE. Gone is all the pressure to achieve, to fill the page, to adhere to some sort of pre-imagined requirement. With Draft 0, I just go for it, I am playing, doodling, allowing the ideas to come… Then I tweak that a bit, cut it up, move bits around, big up this, play down that and Bingo – I’m already at draft 2 or 3 without ever having had the fear of starting off. Toby Litt has set me free.

The third thing is a little different – not very long ago I met the most wonderful person. He treated me like a writer, a real one. I have my first collection coming out in February/ March 2016. It’s been in the pipeline for three years and all that time I have asked myself  am I a writer yet or not?, am I ‘out’ as a writer yet? I know it’s something people often struggle with at the tender early stages. When do you tell people you’re a writer? When do you think you are?

Diriye Osman is a gay Somali man, he’s exactly 20 years younger than me. His collection Fairy Tales for Lost Children is deeply personal and has won the Polaris Prize for LGBT fiction; he says he uses his writing as a way to humanize himself, to counteract the malevolence directed at him. I’m not saying I can get anywhere near to knowing what he’s been through or that my life is anything like his (although I get my share of shit) – what I AM saying is that this man reached out to me with acceptance, and that was a profoundly moving thing. Oh yes Tamsin, we’re all in the same boat, we’re all trying to find our way. You just keep going, keep putting yourself out there. So if he can put himself on the line like that, so can I.

I bought his book, of course I did, and this is what he wrote in it for me:


Good luck with your book and Stay Excellent.

So lovely. Nobody else says anything that kind, so of course I keep that in my head when I write now too.

(Just for the record – if anybody wants to tell me Diriye writes that in everybody’s copy, I’m not listening)

Visiting speakers #2 Publisher Lisa Highton from Two Roads and CB Agent Gordon Wise

This week’s paragons of publishing were another charming publisher full of nurturing zeal, Lisa Highton of Two Roads, presenting with Literary Agent of the Year, Gordon Wise.

It was apparent from everything about her that Miss Highton is one of those dedicated people to whom their clients and their books are everything, and for whom there are no boundaries. She describes her imprint, Two Roads, as a tiny Russian doll inside the lager Hachette shell. She appears to have been given the space to do what she loves to the best of her ability, which is clearly formidable – so well done to the creative person who actioned that blue sky thinking because hearing her speak,  you just know that if she loves your book, there are no limits to what she would do to help you. That much dedication can be scary stuff, yet as a speaker Lisa Highton is hilarious if you are on her wave length. She describes her process of selecting books to publish as a sort of mutual heat-seeking process, there is a feeling of having found one another when editor and author are right for each other.

One of the most interesting things that came out of the agent editor double act last night was an insight into the agent’s pitch letter to a editor. As agent of the Year, Gordon is of course a superstar at the pitch letter, giving a flavour of the book akin to the blurb on a book jacket, but sprinkled with signals to the editor about the kind of work and author he is presenting. Both Miss Highton and Gordon Wise referred somewhat coyly to these signals as ‘little tweaks’, but did not give any real examples. My imagination was instantly bombarded with hideous possibilities, which I don’t intend to share here.

As an editor, the agent’s pitch letter is particularly valuable if it shows that the author has understood what her work is about, something not as easy to achieve as you might expect, according to Lisa Highton. That has certainly been the case with my own jottings. Plan as I might, I have to follow the path before me all the way to the end to really know where I am going. The letter will also tell the editor if the agent has understood what the book is about, which is just as important.

Shockingly,not all agents send pitch letters. I don’t know what they do – just lob the proof out of a passing vehicle and hope it lands on the right person’s desk? Ping it off into the ether and go down the pub. Possibly. Some letters are appallingly generic apparently, not having been properly updated since the previous mass-mailing or correctly tailored to a specific person. Although they didn’t say so specifically, the hot tip in the subtext here, is to try and find out if an agent does proper pitch letters during your preliminary discussions with him or her. Now I’ll be racking my brain to think of subtle ways to ask that question without exploding a relationship before it’s started.

And while we’re on tips, the parting messages from both speakers were:

Lisa Highton- Be yourself. Nobody can fake a voice.

Gordon Wise- Although it’s a learning process, try to write something other people will want to read or else you’re just writing for the bottom drawer.


(The course includes six weeks of visiting speakers spread over six months. The next one isn’t for a few weeks.)