31 January, 2014

On Titles - Advice Needed!

A short post today with a request for your advice...

My soon-to-be-published novel currently sports the title The Art of Letting Go. I love this title. It fits the themes of the book not just well, but on a couple of different levels. I thought of it when my original title - Thousand-Word Things - was vetoed by my agent as not being commercial enough (though he did quite like it and so did some of my readers). I've been very happy at the thought of my book being published as The Art of Letting Go, and now it will be! Except...

Mariah Carey's new album is going to be released this spring. The title? Why, The Art of Letting Go, of course. I can't quite believe the coincidence - that a global superstar (whatever you think of her music!) should happen on the same title as me for a piece of work to be released at roughly the same time. It's not fair - I chose this title well over a year ago!

Perhaps it doesn't matter. It's not as if she's releasing another novel - I'm not going to lose out on sales because somebody who intended to buy my book accidentally bought a Mariah Carey CD instead. But I'm wondering whether I should change my title after all. The album has been eagerly anticipated for a long time now and she released a single of the same name, from the album, last November. Maybe it could work in my favour, but maybe it will mean that anybody searching for my book will never find it among pages and pages of search results relating to Mariah. What do you think? To change or to stick to my guns?

My agent did suggest Mariah and I should hook up for a joint stadium tour or something, but I don't want to show her up when we're both prancing around in skimpy costumes...

Image from Wikipedia

29 January, 2014

Does Talent Always Tell?

The winner of the Costa Short Story Award was announced last night. The Costa Book Awards always cause much excitement, and the short story category is particularly interesting as the shortlisted stories are voted for by the public. I voted for Clare Chandler's The Gun Shearer. The winner was Angela Readman with her story The Keeper of the Jackalopes. (This was my least favourite actually, but what do I know?!)

The stories are shortlisted and voted for anonymously, but once voting has closed, the names of the shortlisted authors are revealed in advance of the final result. This year, the announcement caused an extra stir because TWO of the authors (including the eventual winner) - selected anonymously, remember - were also shortlisted last year. There were more than 1400 stories submitted this year, and I imagine a similar number last year. To be shortlisted both years is an amazing achievement. I think if I was shortlisted once I'd be tempted to think I'd got lucky. Twice, and you know you're a pretty special short story writer.

So, does talent always tell? I don't suppose there's a successful writer - however we count success - in the world who doesn't know it takes a healthy dose of luck/blessing to achieve that success. There must be many writers who never get the big publishing deal, top-class agent or prestigious prize they deserve, as well some less talented writers who get the break they needed. BUT I know a lot of people believe that, in the end, talent will prove itself. If you are a good writer, then you will have some confirmation of it - even if it's not the confirmation you most wanted. You might want a three-book publishing deal and only get second-prize in a short story competition - but that is at least some acknowledgement that you're not wasting your time.

I think I agree, though I also think it can take time and wisdom. You can be a really good short story writer, but if you only ever enter Costa and Bridport you might never get any recognition. Whereas, if you enter a slightly smaller, but still quality competition, you might win a prize. I know some writers I think are talented, but who wrote for years before getting that first shortlisting or full manuscript request. It took perseverence but they got there and continue to get there - after all, we are all hopefully improving as writers all the time.

It seems tough to suggest that somebody who has been writing for years without any positive acknowledgement and with loads of rejections just isn't a good writer. But, in the end, I do believe talent will tell. The only question is: when is "the end"? If you are a good writer - subjectively, not on the word of the friend who bought your self-published book -  you will find out somehow. You might not find out you are the next John Steinbeck, but you may be a decent flash fiction writer or column writer. What do you think?

24 January, 2014

Quotable Friday (21)

 Rather than one quotation this week, I've plumped for a small collection. Ever since coming across one of my favourite CS Lewis quotations (of which there are many!), I've loved finding new quotations that deal with what stories actually mean to us as humans. Here is my favourite and some of my latest finds...

"Since it is so likely that children will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage." CS Lewis

"Stories were wild, wild animals and went off in directions you couldn't expect." ... "Stories are important... They can be more important than anything. If they carry the truth." Patrick Ness (both quotations from, A Monster Calls)

And finally, a quotation from a book that isn't even published yet. An exclusive for you! Eren, by Simon P Clark, is a children's book due for publication by Constable and Robinson later this year. Ever since I heard it was a story about a monster who eats stories, I've wanted to read it, so I'm glad Simon has allowed me to reproduce a line or two from it here.

"‘Why do we tell stories?’ he asks.
It’s not a test, but he wants me to give him the answer. No. He wants me to give him his answer. But I don’t know. He shakes his head and smiles his devil smile at me.
‘We tell stories,’ he says, ‘because we know no other ways to fly.’"

22 January, 2014

Publication with Thistle Publishing

I’m pleased to be able to announce that my first novel TheArt of Letting Go is very shortly to be published by Thistle Publishing.

Thistle are a new digital publishing press. They are not a traditional publisher and this is not a traditional publishing deal. Let me explain...

I am represented by The Andrew Lownie Literary Agency. This is one of the UK’s leading agencies (Andrew himself was the top agent in the world last year in terms of the number of deals made on behalf of his authors) and they often seem to lead the way in terms of adapting to the changing world of publishing. Last year, Andrew and my agent, David, launched Thistle Publishing, primarily as a way of promoting the books of debut authors in a increasingly tough industry to break into.The idea of Thistle was to publish new novels through Amazon, while the books were being submitted to publishers (although they do publish other books for other reasons now too). This is essentially what is happening with my novel.

As you can imagine, this new trend in publishing had me very wary. So I thought I’d put together a guide for you on this method and why I have decided to give it a go. Please forgive the long post - I've split it into headings so you can find the bits that interest you!

What’s the difference between self-publishing on Amazon and publishing on Amazon this way?
The chief difference is having an agent. Amazon’s White Glove Program is only available for agented books. It provides assistance with cover design and allows access to different kinds of promotions on site. For me, having an agent is crucial for my own peace of mind as well. I didn’t want to self-publish from the start because I wanted to know that my book was good enough, and I wasn’t deluding myself. Being signed to a reputable agency who would champion my book to traditional publishers was very important to me.

So you’re trying to pretend you don’t care about traditional deals now and this is what you wanted?
No. This wasn’t the dream. I wanted publishers to fight over giving me a three-book, six-figure deal without experiencing a single rejection first. The fight hasn't kicked off yet. Remember, my novel is still on submission. I still want that deal, and so does my agent. If he didn’t, I’d have no confidence in him. I have had amazing feedback from big publishers, but no offer yet. This was not first choice but it is a choice.

Surely, once you’re published this way, no traditional publisher will touch you?
I thought so, but apparently it’s not true. Publishers are beginning to see presses like Thistle as a good proof-of-concept. Getting a deal this way is by no means guaranteed but it does happen. After only launching last year, Thistle have novels that have sold in their tens of thousands and have gone on to get foreign rights deals as well as traditional UK deals. They even have authors who have refused traditional deals because they loved the process of being published by Thistle and have found great success through it.

What are the downsides for you?
Pride for one thing. People can be very condescending about new ventures such as this. If my book was any good at all, surely it would’ve been snapped up? I know people who have signed traditional deals in the last year or so and it stings that I haven’t yet.
Editing is where the biggest difference is. The editing and proof-reading of the book will be down to my agent and me. This actually scares me less than it might as David was an author and book editor for a long time before becoming an agent. When he took me on, he sent me a detailed letter which has led to a couple of rounds of revisions already. So for me, the main difference is not have a final copy edit to polish the manuscript. However, I’ve been surprised to learn that although I know many authors who have a great relationship with their publishing editor, increasingly traditional publishing houses aren’t providing detailed editing services either.
Marketing is the other thing. Obviously having access to certain Amazon promotions will be helpful, and my agency will do all they can, but a lot of it will be down to me. I find this quite daunting and will be grateful for any help or advice you can give me! Again though, this appears to increasingly be the case with traditional publishing houses too. New books by unknown authors do not always get promoted. I’ve even found out that some UK publishers are effectively doing print-on-demand without telling their authors, so an author is giving away most of the cover price of a book to a publisher who isn’t even distributing it for them properly.

(There are some fabulous publishers and publishing deals still out there to be had - I'm not trying to do them down. I'd love to have a Book Deal Moment, I'm just aware that some publishing deals are not as beneficial to the authors as they should be and some well-known authors are begining to leave them behind.)

Why do it?
Mostly because I trust David (and Andrew) to know what they’re doing. If the agency was not so well-thought of or established I would be much more wary. There will always be scornful people, but I am more inclined to listen to the stories of authors who have actually done it. Such as this one. It’s also an approach that other big agencies, such as Curtis Brown, are taking too. I am not expecting miracles. I wasn’t expecting miracles when I wrote the book, or when I got an agent, or when I started receiving positive feedback from publishers. Some of Thistle’s authors have sold many times the number of books they would’ve sold through a traditional publishing deal and made far more money already, but I’m not relying on it!
A big issue for me is having a sense of moving forward. 2013 wasn’t a great year for my writing and a lot of that – not all – was about decision-making. I didn’t make lots of bad decisions, I just didn’t make decisions at all. I missed competition deadlines while I couldn’t decide whether to work on novels or short stories; I wasted hours not committing to any project but half-thinking about many different things. I promised myself 2014 is not going to be the same.  

The short answer is I have written a book I’m proud of, it got an agent who really believes it deserves to be published, and it will soon be available to buy. And I’m excited about that.

Are you sure?
I’ve thought about it for a long time now and it seems a good option. Not for everyone, and not for every situation, but for me, in my situation, now. In two months I’m having a baby – I have no idea what the rest of 2014 will be like. I want to kick-start something while I have the time and energy. If the publishing industry is going to change, I want to change with it. This is just my first book and this doesn’t tie me into a contract forever. I believe in this book and so does my agent. The feedback we’ve been getting is good. But there will be other books too and this book can be re-published in the future if my later books prove to have a smoother journey to publication.

What advice would you give to other authors interested in this route?
Don’t trust anybody who offers this to you as a first, best or ideal option. It has been a good option for many people already, but you want an agent – from an established agency – who truly believes your book should be published for the world to read.
The publishing industry may be changing rapidly, but the advice to writers remains the same: write a good book, get a good agent.

What now?
We are already most of the way through the editing stages and so there’s little left to do except finish that off and get a cover design sorted etc. It could be only a matter of weeks, until The Art of Letting Go can be ordered, or it could be a few months – the baby will decide!

How can I help?
Thanks for asking! The chief way you can help is by buying my book and reviewing it. I know you are inundated with requests to buy books, but if you were able to get hold of a copy it would be marvellous. If you like it, leave me a review. If it’s not for you, maybe pass it on to somebody who you think might enjoy it more. You can also of course share my journey on social media networks, or consider hosting me on your blog for an interview or guest post - I'm sure that will help too. More on this to come I’m sure as the publication process continues...

Please do ask questions below. I’ve always said I want to be honest about my writing journey; it’s up to you to make me stick to it!

17 January, 2014

Quotable Friday (20)

Welcome to my occasional Friday series of quotations from and about books and authors. When I stumble across something that tickles my fancy, I post it here. Think of it as lazy blogging. Contributions are always welcome so if there's a quotation you think should be shared, get in touch (details on 'About Me' page).

This week I came across the Buzzfeed Post displaying 20 quotations from authors, illustrated by Lisa Congdon. They are not strictly quotations about writing, more about life, but some of them are rather lovely and this one from Jack London made me smile. I suspect anybody doing anything creative could do with this reminder sometimes:

"You can't wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club."

And because it's still sort of New Year, I'll give you a bonus one from the list too. This one is from Alfred Tennyson:

"Hope smiles from the threshold of the year to come, whispering, "It will be happier..."

May it happen for you!

14 January, 2014

You're Sure You've Finished, Right?

One of the hardest things for a writer is to know when to finish. Even with flash fiction it can be hard to know when you've worked on something enough; with a novel it's almost impossible. Only the deluded will ever believe there is not a single word to be improved in a 80 000-word (or more) book. At some point though, you have to let go - submit to agents, send to competition judges or press the publish button.

That's why I was tickled to come across this great poster, created by Anna Hurley "Are You Absolutely, Positively, And Wholeheartedly Ready to Publish Your Novel?". You can view the image properly on Buzzfeed, or you can buy it from its creators at 826 National. It's meant to be tongue-in-cheek, and all profits from 826 National go towards writing programs for students who might not otherwise have the opportunity to release their creativity through writing. You can find out about their great work here.

The poster contains loads of fun flow diagrams and charts to help you decide if you really are ready. Including: a spinning wheel to help you choose a title, a space for your author photograph, graphs of adversity and a list of people you've shown your novel to who are not worthy critics (one point each!).

So, are you ready to publish (or submit) your novel? If you'll excuse me, I think I have a little work to do...

10 January, 2014

How to Write a Bestseller - the Science!

I found this article in the Telegraph yesterday fascinating. Scientists in New York have used a technique called statistical stylometry to mathematically analyse the words and grammar used in popular novels to determine what makes them stand out.

Most analysis of what makes a bestseller focuses on the qualitative - themes and character-type for example. This study is purely statistical and it has an alarming accuracy. After using 800 books to create an algorithm they then used that algorithm to predict the popularity of other books. Prediction matched popularity 84% of the time.

I recommend you read the article (it's short!), but here are the common characteristics of successful and not-so-successful books.

Less successful: cliches, heavy uses of verbs and adverbs, descriptions of emotions and actions (e.g. 'wanted' or 'promised')

More successful: heavier use of nouns and adjectives, verbs more likely to describe thought processes (e.g. 'remembered' or 'recognised'), heavy use of conjunctions (and/but etc.)

On the whole this doesn't surprise me - describing actions and emotions is "showing not telling", and we must all know by now that heavy use of adverbs is bad form (and genuinely (adverb!) annoying to read). Although the study did take into account a wide range of genres - so this can be thought of as a list of general characteristics of good writing - I imagine there would be slight changes if it had focussed on one particular style. Thrillers, for example, I might expect to have more descriptions of actions.

The one thing that I wouldn't have guessed at is the use of conjunctions in successful books. Although we know we should vary sentence length for effect, in general it seems that longer sentences are preferable. I think I understand this. Short sentences for impact can be great, but can be tiring to read for more than a paragraph or two. Longer sentences makes for a smoother read, allowing the reader to become more engrossed.

I'm sure there will be some people who find it distasteful to analyse something creative in this way. What does success mean, anyway? Personally however, I find it fascinating at how accurate the predictions are from this analysis. It confirms something that we all know deep down. There will always be badly-written publishing sensations, and beautiful neglected masterpieces, but if we want to maximise our chances of writing something successful then the best thing we can do is work on those basics of writing style. Luck and contacts come into it, but first and foremost we've got to write good books. Nobody wants to live a beautifully-designed house built from shoddy materials!

03 January, 2014

Over-used Words of 2013

On New Year's Day the BBC online magazine ran this article listing the 20 words they think were most over-used last year. These are the words some people would probably be quite happy to see left behind us as we stride into 2014. Take a look at the list and see what you think.

There were some popular words with specific meanings - 'twerk' and 'selfie', for example (although selfie was also the Oxford English Dictionary's Word of the Year). However, lots of the words on the list are not "bad" in themselves, rather, it's the context they are used in which irritates people.

Some of these words definitely irritate me. The way politicians use 'look' to emphasise what they're saying - e.g. "Now look, I'm completely clear on this..." - I find mildly annoying (not as annoying as someone telling me that they've been clear on a subject, however. If you've been clear you don't need to tell me you've been clear, thank-you!) Ditto, the use of the words 'passionate' and 'robust' to describe any and every action. Other entries I have no objection to - I don't mind the use of hashtags (though I draw the line at saying the word 'hashtag' in conversation) or the use of 'doing' in contexts where it's not standard English (e.g. "Let's do lunch sometime.") In fact, for the most part, none of these 20 make my blood boil.

Perhaps my least favourite is the word 'amazeballs'. I dislike it and wouldn't use it. There are others however, which I am guilty of using all the time - some of which I didn't realise annoyed other people! I am sure I use 'absolutely' too much and I definitely start sentences with 'anyway' or 'so'. I suppose starting sentences that way is similar to starting lines of dialogue in fiction writing with 'Well...'. Early on in my writing life I read somewhere that you should try to cut every 'well' from the start of lines - only leaving in the ones that are completely necessary - and it was a very valuable piece of advice. It does make writing so much smoother; one of those situations where you need to make your dialogue less realistic in order to make it more readable!

The picture I've used for this post I also used for one of the most popular posts of all time on this blog - a discussion about whether good grammar matters. How much should we defend it versus how much should we move with the times? So here is another chance for you to rant as you did then. Which words would you happily leave behind in 2013, or claim back in 2014? I'm still on a mission to see the abolition of 'myself' when the speaker/writer actually means 'me', but I fear it is a losing battle...

Anyway... Happy New Year to you!