Short Fiction – Making a Collection Part 1

 

What’s good, what’s bad and how brutal is it out there? Warning – not for the faint-hearted.

At some point most writers of short fiction will amass a sufficient body of material to consider making a collection of their own work, but what makes a good collection? How do you pull your work together in a way that will appeal to publishers and readers alike? How do you select the best stories to create a coherent collection? Is it enough just to put all the best ones together or is it more than that? What order should they go in? There are many questions to ask yourself when you think you’re ready and not many places to get good advice on this aspect of writing short fiction.

I ask advice on these and other related questions from frequent competition judge and founder of the Times EFG Short Story Award and Word Factory Director Cathy Galvin, and Salt Publishing editor Jen Hamilton-Emery – I hope you find their answers enlightening. They are surprisingly different. Some of these questions were recently put to the great short fiction writer Tobias Wolff in an interview for Paris Review (the link to the full article is at the end of this article) so here are some relevant quotes from a master on the importance of getting the order right and what you might be considering:

INTERVIEWER

How do you go about ordering short stories in your collections?

WOLFF

Can you imagine putting “The Dead” at the beginning of Dubliners? No, you wouldn’t do that. You’re conducting movements and moods with the arrangement of a collection. Having said this, if I go back and look at a book two, three years after I’ve published it, I can’t remember exactly why I ordered it that way. And of course, after all the work writers do to organize their collections of stories or their collections of poems, that work is completely undone by the readers—

INTERVIEWER

—who open it in the middle.

WOLFF

Right, open it in the middle because that story has a grabby title, or because they’re tired and about to go to bed and want to read the shortest piece. Readers skip around in collections, in a way they don’t in novels, obviously—except for those creeps who read the endings first. Let’s say I get a new William Trevor collection. I love his stories about schoolboys, and if the collection has one I’ll read that first. I skip around for the usual reasons: my mood, interesting title, length, all kinds of things. And then, eventually, if it’s a collection I really take seriously, I will read it front to back as the writer intended, trying to understand its form. If it seems thrown together, I won’t devote that kind of care to it. But with a writer like Trevor or Grace Paley I would absolutely pay attention to the order of the stories.

INTERVIEWER

I’m glad you skip around sometimes. Glad to hear you don’t always respect the writer’s designs.

WOLFF

Well, writers need to remember that once the book leaves their hands, it’s not theirs anymore. It belongs to its readers, and its readers will make of it what they will.

When I was putting the stories together for my debut collection Shore to Shore, I originally had twelve stories of varying lengths to include. The collection is loosely linked by theme – the mythology of rivers, but the rivers are there to provide both the emotional and physical settings. The final version has eight stories, the others were rejected for departing from the mood of the others and, as it turns out now I look back – not enough death. When I planned the order of the final selection, I had two long pieces – ‘Cenotes’ (Mexican cave diving) at eighteen thousand words and ‘Sand Tranny’ (the Thames – transvestite river) at fifteen thousand. I knew I couldn’t open with these, so I put ‘Cenotes’ in the middle to form a sort of pivot or peak in the rhythm and ‘Sand Tranny’ at the end to end the book on a high as the ending is upbeat in that one. The opener was a hard choice but in the end ‘Hani’s Baby’ went first – a story set in modern day Karnak on the Nile, which I hoped would be an attention grabber. So far the plan seems to have worked. I do wish I’d included a couple of shorter pieces to use at readings though. I can only read extracts as it is – I’ll know better next time.

The wonderful Cathy Galvin would have saved me from such a lack of foresight  ̶  as the director of Word Factory and many time judge she has read more stories and collections than most. She is currently judging this year’s Edge Hill Prize and has previously judged the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered prize and the inaugural short story prizes for The London Magazine and Spread the Word. Her answers are very much from the point of view of pleasing the reader, an important aspect that can be easily lost in the rush to shove our best pieces under one cover.

What do you look for in a good collection of short fiction?

Quality of writing, authenticity and originality, taking emotional or linguistic risks – not what is “on trend” or currently celebrated. Good writing doesn’t need to be perfect and precise but it must be convincing. I confess to a weakness for the poetic in short fiction but not exclusively so.

I find continuing delight in the work of Adam Marek and Will Cohu, spotted when I started the Sunday Times EFG award and feel honoured to have been immersed in the work of David Constantine and Carys Davies as a judge.

As a reader, I want to share some of the time I have left on this planet inside the imaginations of writers who remind me about the fragility, despair, humour and beauty of our humanity – including Chekhov, Joyce, Beckett,  some of the authors mentioned already – and  I’m determined now to find more in translation.

What makes a great collection is it more than just a string of good stories, or is that enough?

There’s nothing wrong with a string of unrelated, individual stories appearing in a collection so long as that string is taut and what is suspended between the beginning and end of the book confidently holds the reader. Immersion in a variety of different worlds is one of the joys of short fiction.

There has been a recent vogue for collections of linked stories: we are told they are easier to bring to market. Some collections of this kind, I’m thinking of David Vann’s Legend Of A Suicide, which reads very like a novel. A great book.

Yet stories that seem to have no connecting thread throughout a collection but which plunge readers into a multiplicity of lives, landscapes and time-frames are a delight. Carys Davies recently won the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize – a general fiction prize that includes novels and short stories – with an outstanding and eclectic collection, The Redemption of Galen Pike, with not a link between them. This outstanding book also won the Frank O’Connor.  And who would dare to question the splendidly varied output of the current American master of the short story, Tobias Wolff?

Readers will respond to great writing: it’s as simple as that. I know when a short story writer has me hooked: they leave me wanting more and the stories feel effortless, authentic and emotionally true whether the style is as spare as Raymond Carver or as ornate as Angela Carter.

Many readers may already have had work published in an anthology and may be considering putting a collection together of their own work. How would you describe the differences, or different requirements for an anthology versus a single author collection?

I’ve just been reading Reader I Married Him, an anthology of short stories inspired by Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, edited by Tracy Chevalier. It’s a wonderful example of how one idea can produce a diverse book of stories that circle a theme and inspire radically different pieces. The benefit of such an anthology is that it can offer great writing by authors you have read and others you are new to – in my case, reading the book was my first introduction to Elizabeth McCracken – who took my breath away. The disadvantage is that the logic of such a big project can fray: some stories will seem to have little to do with the theme.

“Best Of” collections offer different rewards and challenges and are as inspiring as the editor who puts them together. In this respect, Salt has been lucky to have Nicholas Royle these past few years and Penguin lucky to have Philip Hensher.

Overall, I favour the single author collection as a way of sharing precious time with a writer whose mind and skill I want to take pleasure from.

Which are your favourite collections of short stories?

This list could change every day but for now.

Helen Simpson: Cockfosters.

Subtle witness to contemporary female life. 

Deborah Levy: Black Vodka

Now labelled a modernist. Whatever the label, she’s one of the best writers of her time. 

David Constantine. In Another Country.

Master of the authentic, of the considered line, of the movement of time.

A.L. Kennedy: All The Rage

The best collection of love stories I have read

Anything by Tobias Wolff – and a lifelong love of Edna O’Brien.

 

Jennifer Hamilton-Emery is a director and fiction editor at Salt Publishing. She was generous enough to share her experience on what an editor will look for and how to approach potential publishers although the list at Salt is currently full.

What do you look for in a good collection of short fiction? What makes a great collection is it more than just a string of good stories?

For me, the important thing is the standard of the stories. Sometimes collections are themed, which is fine, but not essential. It all hinges on the quality of the writing.

Are there differences between flash and longer short story collections?

No, I don’t think so, the same rules apply, but flash more unforgiving. Every word has to work or the story can fail.

How can a writer with a body of work know when their stories work as a collection?

They have to use their own judgement, there are no set criteria. 

How would you advise writers to place stories within a collection – best one first or last?

When I’m reading a submission I read the first, second and last stories. If one of more of these don’t work, then the submission is rejected. If these stories are good, I’ll go on to read more. So my advice is, put your best stories in these positions. People want to start and end their reading on a high.

Many readers may already have had work published in an anthology and may be considering putting a collection together of their own work. How would you describe the differences or different requirements for an anthology versus a single author collection?

Anthologies are often themed, so the editor has specific criteria in mind when selecting stories, but single-author collections needn’t be; they can be as eclectic as the author wishes them to be. It is always good to include stories that have been included in previous anthologies or magazines, or won prizes. This shows potential publishers that you have a track record of publishing and that someone else regards your work highly enough to include it in their book.

What are the reader expectations a writer should take into account when selecting and collating work of their own?

People want to read stories that are interesting – strong interesting characters and a compelling story line. Some people like twists in the endings, others don’t. Some like enigmatic endings, others don’t. I’d say the key is to have variety, but underpinned by a high standard of writing.

What are the mistakes you have seen in collections submitted to you?

The most common is having a small number of good stories propping up too many bad ones.

How can a writer know when he/she is ready to make a collection of their own work?

They have amassed a body of work that they believe is good.

How should writers go about approaching editors with their collections? Should they send in a selection or the whole thing? Do you like to have the collection pitched first?

Editors work if different ways. Some want to see the whole thing, but others want a sample.

What other advice can you give to writers trying to bring their work to publication?

Be aware many publishers struggle to sell short story collections and many don’t accept submissions except through an agent or personal recommendation, so always read publishers’ websites to find out if and how they receive submissions. Having your manuscript instantly rejected without being looked at can be disheartening

A word from the author on expectations and submitting a collection:

It was very difficult to get a publisher to contribute to this article and the author is very grateful to Jen Hamilton Emery for sharing her insights with us although Salt take very few collections and are not looking for unsolicited work.

My own collection Shore to Shore was accepted by Cinnamon Press for an available slot three years into the future. Also, I have recently interviewed Louis de Bernières for an article to be published later in the summer, and he says he has material for two short story collections for which he can’t find publishers. The old ‘story’ – they only want his novels. I feel the seed germinating of another article entitled Why the hell are we doing this?

Maybe that’s one for the autumn.

(This is the link to the fabulous Tobias Wolff interview):

http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/5391/the-art-of-fiction-no-183-tobias-wolff

 

 

This article was first published on The Short Story website

Short Fiction: Making a Collection, Part I

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ideas and Inspiration

Shore to Shore author Tamsin Hopkins discusses her own writing practice and asks three emerging short fiction writers how they approach catching and keeping the best ideas.

Featuring:

Emily Devane

Sarah Hegarty     www.sarahhegarty.co.uk

Stuart North        www.stuartnorth1.wordpress.com

Now up on The Short Story website:

Ideas and Inspiration, an Article on Short Story Writing by Tamsin Hopkins

 

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

http://www.bbc.co.uk/writersroom/scripts/

Settings

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.

The Multitasking Opener

The Multitasking Opener – focus on Carys Davies

 

If, like me, you keep a notebook just for recording the beginnings of stories you read, after a while you begin to notice just how much some writers can get into the first line or two. Some go for the grab and hook the reader’s attention with an arresting first line, others go for a slower burn. Recently I have recently been amazed at the increased sophistication of some openers which really do seem to accomplish more than should be possible in such a short space.

It could be that the normal requirements for the opening few lines just work harder in the hands of a master but by comparing a few beginnings, it becomes possible to see the difference in technique between authors who hook the reader and draw them in, and the stories where the reader is immediately placed in the middle of everything, the performance has begun, we are beamed onto planet story and we hardly notice the Gs.

The well tested techniques of beginning in media res, having an arresting first line, using the title to launch the reader into the story, all these things have not gone away and they are not new. Consider Chekhov and ‘The Lady with the Little Dog’:

People said that there was a new arrival on the Promenade: a lady with a little dog. Dmitry Dmitrich Gurov, who had already spent a fortnight in Yalta and who was by now used to the life there, had also begun to take an interest in new arrivals.

Here is that arresting first line, a visual image (not very strongly drawn), the physical setting and the main protagonist. The title gives us a massive clue and after these two sentences there is some momentum, but not much colour. Modern writers are doing much more than this, but not all of them.

In her collection Other Stories and other stories, Ali Smith uses the opening paragraph of her story ‘Small Deaths’ to set a languid tone through a text rich with assonance and alliteration, but withholds much else:

Halfway through the summer the weather suddenly got better, hotter. For nearly a week the air was hot, hanging in the house as thick as smoke, hanging around the garden curling and deadening the leaves. I love it, you said. I love this weather. I love you.

Seen in isolation, it would be possible to think the reader knows very little indeed at this point, but there are other cues. The title is one. The light bulb motif is another – each story has a line sketch of a modern light bulb, echoing the cover, reminiscent of the lightbulb in Picasso’s Guernica. The story also come a third of the way into the collection, so the reader has already formed some expectations.

In a couple of punchy sentences, Jhumpa Lahiri takes it up a step. She lets you know exactly what’s going on, what the dilemma is, although in her stories the setting and characters usually take form a few lines further on. Here’s the opening of ‘Sexy’ :

It was a wife’s worst nightmare. After nine years of marriage, Laxmi told Miranda, her cousin’s husband had fallen in love with another woman. He sat next to her on a plane, on a flight from Delhi to Montreal, and instead of flying home to his wife and son, he got off with the woman at Heathrow.

I definitely do want to know the gossip, and somehow this opening feels colourful and full but all we really know about the characters so far, is a little about their attitudes and their social class. In other words, we have been treated to some characterisation as well that first powerful sentence. There is also a strong sense of the tone of the story, which serves in lieu of setting in these few sentences. Clever isn’t it? And so natural sounding.

In the first story to his collection Young Skins, Colin Barrett sets out his stall more fully. The opening paragraph gives insights in to the character of the first person narrator and raises expectations of a dystopian, dysfunctional Irvine Welsh-like set up whilst playing with associations to Clockwork Orange, Catch 22 and I challenge anybody not to read on. The Clancy Kid begins like this:

My town is nowhere you have been, but you know its ilk. A roundabout off a national road, an industrial estate, a five-screen Cineplex, a century of pubs packed inside the square mile of the town’s limits. The Atlantic is near; the gnarled jawbone of the coastline with its full-infested promontories is near. Summer evenings, and in the manure-scented pastures of the satellite parishes the Zen bovines lift their heads to contemplate the V8 howls of the boy racers tearing through the back lanes.

 

For understated beginnings that operate on many different levels, it is Carys Davies that the quiet master. The opening of ‘The Redemption of Galen Pike’ (winner of the RSL VS Pritchett prize 2011) gives us mood, tone, setting (geographical and historical) and two characters. The scene is also highly filmic:

They’d all seen Sheriff Nye bringing Pike into town: the two shapes snaking down the path off the mountain through the patches of melting snow and over the green showing beneath, each of them growing bigger as they moved across the rocky pasture and came down into North Street to the jail-house  ̶  Nye on his horse, the tall gaunt figure of Galen Pike following behind on the rope.

There is a whole community in the two words ‘They’d all’ – rustic American townsfolk who watched what the reader sees when this prisoner is brought down from the mountain by the sheriff and we fully expect that the protagonist, Patience Haig, was watching with them. The pace of the words suggests the plod of the horse’s hooves coming down the hill, all told in a slow country drawl.

The second paragraph adds specificity, saying there were a hundred and ninety-three inhabitants of this town in the foothills of the Colorado Mountains, but we almost already know that from the opening paragraph, it is so rich in meaning:

The current Piper City jailhouse was a low cramped brick building containing a single square cell, Piper City being at this time, in spite of the pretensions of its name, a small and thinly populated town of a hundred and ninety-three souls in the foothills of the Colorado mountains. Aside from the cell, there was a scrubby yard behind, where the hangings took place, a front office with a table, a chair and a broom; 

By the time we get to the scrubby yard where the hangings take place, we have the whole story in microcosm and sit back to watch how it’s done.

I asked Carys about her writing, in particular about her recent collection The Redemption of Galen Pike, including the title story. Her answers were characteristically rich and layered. Because it takes her such a long time to write the stories, they are so thoroughly distilled. By the time the finished article is published, she has lived with them for so long that she really knows what they are saying. One phrase particularly struck me and this must be the key to why the openings of her stories are able to multitask so effectively:  ‘Every paragraph in a story should in some way have something of the whole story inside it.

What draws you to short fiction as a form?

 

Their intensity, their capacity to take my breath away – to conjure an almost unbearable image or moment or feeling that burns, in the heart and in the mind, long after I’ve finished reading. All my favourite short stories do that  –  whether it’s the man and his two boys in Lawrence Sargent Hall’s The Ledge waiting, in the rising water, to die; or John Cheever’s lonesome swimmer wandering through the gardens of his suburban neighbours until he reaches his own abandoned house; or the nightmarish half-skinned steer stalking the old man through the wilds of Wyoming in one of Annie Proulx’s greatest stories; or the moment when someone picks up the first stone in Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery – or when Joyce’s Eveline pulls backs from the barrier and from her young man and from an entire future to stay home in Dublin. I could go on and on! These moments or images are freighted with such extraordinary power and resonance they seem to drop like stones straight into your heart, the ripples spreading outward as the reverberations and implications of the moment begin to take hold.

With a short story, this effect is so, so important. There are so many ways to write a short story, as many ways are there are stories, each one has its own form and I think that with a story you can do anything as long as you can pull it off, as long as it has an effect – if it delivers this pulse to the heart or the head or both, it’s almost certainly doing its job. Even if – in fact especially if – you can’t explain how it’s done it.

 

   

      Can you say how you approach your stories please – do you have a whole story arc worked out before you embark on a story? At what point do you write the opening of a story?

 

 

I never know where a story is going when I begin. Even the word ‘begin’ is a bit of a misnomer because I almost never start with what ends up as the beginning of the story.

The tile story, The Redemption of Galen Pike, for example, was written over a period of about ten years. All I had in the beginning was a man in a cell. I didn’t even know what he’d done wrong. Later, I began writing about another man who came to visit him and they talked. And much later, that male visitor turned into a woman, Patience, and she and the prisoner hardly spoke at all….for me it’s always a long, long process and for a great part of the time, as I write, I have no idea what the beginning or the middle and certainly not the end, are.

I certainly never set out to write about anything.

The opening emerges as I write. It takes a long time for the beginning to emerge – the exact moment when the story I’m telling should begin, because of course any story reaches back before the first word on the page. It’s a very important step for me, finding that moment.

 

Do you know the ending before you start out?

 

Absolutely not. I love what Nell Freudenberger says, that ‘a story begins as a blind groping in the dark for something, both resonant and concrete’

 

      You have a particular gift for using the opening to do so many things at once. 

      What do you start with when you write such layered openings? 

      How do you add the layers?

 

I think the answer is that by the time I have what will become the opening of a story, I’ve been writing the story for a long time. I think it’s all the earlier writing that allows you to bring together things like mood, tone, character, setting. Every paragraph in a story should in some way have something of the whole story inside it.

 

                  The second paragraph of Galen Pike is fantastic in the way it shows so much of the town in such a distilled and small amount of text as we are led into the story.

Although the short story form is always tight, this level of distillation suggests something akin to extended flash perhaps, and there are a couple of flash-length stories in the collection. Is this something you would recognise or are conscious of as you write?

 

Yes – inasmuch as what I said in my last answer is true. A short story is made up of sentences and paragraphs, all of which are doing their job of advancing and deepening the story. Individual paragraphs, or groups of paragraphs, will often grow and build and end in the same way that a whole story does. This gives a story its shape, its ebb and flow, its drama – it’s how it exerts its effect upon the reader.

 

The author is grateful to Carys Davies and Salt Publishing for their help with this article.

http://www.carys-davies.co.uk/

http://www.saltpublishing.com/

This article was originally commissioned by The Short Story

http://www.theshortstory.co.uk/

 

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:

Tamsin,

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.)

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.