Doing the Literary Headless Chicken – new title, dark days, Curtis Brown/ Joanna Brown

Just about half way through the Curtis Brown course.

If I thought I’d be half way through my novel, and I kind of did think I’d have made big inroads into draft 1 – I was v illusioned, now dis-illusioned. I still don’t have the full plot worked out yet, I don’t know what kind of book I’m writing – thought I did but I was wrong about that too, and I’m still re-working the first chapter. Naturally that will all change once I know what the hell I’m doing with this novel. So I’ll write the first chapter all over again, and almost certainly yet again, once I am vouchsafed that epiphany or rather – once I’ve actioned the AGENCY of my own epiphany and not been at all passive about it  (topical joke). I’m not calling the book Joanna Brown any more, it’s too Fay Weldon apparently, so that’s been strangled even before birth. I’ve got a new working title but I’m not ready to share that with the world just yet.

Touch of defensive hysteria – definitely.

Nanowrimo – oh please! Yes I wrote 30k words. Yes they were the wrong words.

Back to the drawing board – actually I’m getting a REALLY BIG drawing board, but more of that another time.

Calming/ helpful words of wisdom from visiting speakers and teachers – oh yes, thankfully. Here’s a pocket-sized summary of phrases that have reached me through the fug of panic, in the hope that it helps other doing the literary headless chicken:

Kate Hamer – The Girl in the Red Coat, Costa shortlist

Totally relaxed and charming. Waiting til later in life is not a complete disaster, letting the children grow up first and putting other things first before doing what you really want to do is alright because in publishing (unlike in television) it’s all about the book. The agency / passivity thing was the big one Kate had to crack too. Her agent, Alice Lutyens, had one big piece of advice- make sure you’ve got a really good plot. Well, I’m working on it.

Jeffrey Archer

It’s all hard work, nothing but hard work, e.g. it took 14 hours to write ten pages of draft 1 on one occasion, which is not uncommon. Also he does loads of edits and rewrites, up to 14. He has written 18#No1 bestsellers, out of a total of 24 novels – that’s a lot of rewrites.

The thing he’s most proud of is being thought of as an ace storyteller. Many writers concentrate on the craft of writing at the expense of the storytelling. (ie plot again)

Julia Rochester – The House at the Edge of the World

Don’t give up – Julia’s path to publication has been a long one, including publishers taking her book then going into liquidation.

Don’t run with an agent who doesn’t really like your book or who wants to change something fundamental about it.

From tutors:

Read scripts

I’m putting Caryl Churchill on my reading list right now. I will also frolic in the BBC Writer’s Room Script Library asap


Take The English Patient apart to see how the setting empowers the themes of the novel. This task will be v enjoyable, possibly ear-marked for Christmas.

Can’t wait.

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.)

Agent and Editor talk #1 at CB Creative – Sophie Lambert and Alexa von Hirschberg

Last night was the first talk of six by visiting speakers, which should be one of the main real joys of the course – access to professionals in the industry. Sophie Lambert from CB’s sister agency Conville and Walsh came in with Alexa von Hirschberg, commissioning editor at Bloomsbury. They were pretty relaxed with each other, having collaborated on a couple of projects . This relationship was the interesting point or at least the new angle for me as I haven’t seen such a relaxed double act speak before, about what is a pretty fraught and aggressive industry according to the general hype.

This charming duo, paragons of publishing went into some detail about how they both work intensively to ‘grow’ their authors and are not put off by anything except excessive arrogance AS LONG AS THE WRITING IS GOOD – THE STORY IS EVERYTHING. Neither of them reject a manuscript from the first page (speak not of rejection from the first paragraph), Sophie reads at least 25 pages and Alexa up to 40 pages, although it must be said they both receive their diet pre-filtered by in-house readers. In fact Alexa credits the readers at Bloomsbury with discovering several of their big talents and calls them ‘the cleverest people I know’.  No need to differentiate your manuscript with anything wacky AS LONG AS THE WRITING IS GOOD, it will get the recognition it deserves.  Before rushing to apply for a job as a reader – apparently the CB/ C & W agents have received some outlandish submissions in the past, memorably one with the manuscript nailed to a sheep’s head and another one with dead rats, which, no surprises, didn’t get them an agent.

Both women are highly professional so maybe they were going easy on us since we’re vulnerable newbies, or maybe there really is humanity out there. Most comforting was the way Alexa talked about writers finding a home.  Anyway – Please God, let us all be blessed with agents and publishers like them.