30 September, 2014

Txtlit Again!

I'm pleased to say that I was a runner-up in the August edition of Txtlit.

I've talked about Txtlit before on this blog, but for those who haven't heard of it, it is a monthly competition to write a story in the length of a text message. There is a theme to stick to and entrants must use proper English - no text language. It's so quick to write an entry and only costs £1 to enter so I always intend to enter every month, but so far I average about once a year!

I've been lucky enough to win Txtlit a couple of times before and been a runner-up a few more times. The theme for August was 'The Other Side' and you can read the winning entry and the runners-up here - each story takes about 10 seconds to read!

18 September, 2014

Planet Agent

Despite the massive and fast-moving changes to the world of book publishing, most writers I know still want to go down the traditional route of finding themselves an agent and have that agent fix them a publishing deal. There is tonnes of information out there about how best to approach agents and why having one is both hard to achieve and enormously beneficial for most writers. But how do you know which agents to approach?

The Writers' and Artists' Yearbook has been a valuable resource for a long, long time, but there are more modern ways of finding out which agents represent your genre and are looking for new clients too. Or at least, there should be. Agent Hunter is a brilliant website for UK-based writers looking for representation. It is the brainchild of The Writers' Workshop which is itself a fantastic organisation. But even they can only work with what they've been given. If agents don't provide enough information then it's going to be hard to know whether to submit to them. This is an annoying problem for writers, and Agent Hunter are now fighting back. With statistics.

If you've read my blog more than about three times, you'll know that I love a good bit of data. Agent Hunter has tonnes of it and they've used it all to create this rather lovely infographic about Planet Agent - what does the world of literary agents look like in the UK today? It's an interesting graphic, go and look at it. Right now. I'll wait for you...

Did you look at it? Good. So you'll know then that the most common names for agents are Caroline and John, and that there are 170 agencies in the UK. You'll have also noticed that the major part of this inforgraphic is about transparency. Are agents providing enough information? Agent Hunter have launched their Manifesto for Change, urging agencies to get on top of this problem. How can writers connect with the right agents if they don't know what they want? Why should writers connect with agents when they don't even have a photo or basic preference information? It's a waste of everybody's time.

I won't rehash everything they've said so well here. You can read the manifesto itself (it is, essentially, a longer version of the inforgraphic). But I'd be interested to know what frustrations you've had with approaching agents.

I am fortunate to be represented by David Haviland at the Andrew Lownie Agency, which is one of five picked out by Agent Hunter for having good transparency. (Andrew Lownie himself has the most clients of any UK agent and consistently makes more publishing deals than any other agent in the world). I had my time of frustration though. The thing that used to annoy me most was the widespread advice to address your submissions to a named agent, but then to find that an agency I really wanted to approach had no information on which agent might be interested in the kind of thing I wrote! It felt as if I was on the back foot from the start. What are your experiences of approaching agents?

12 September, 2014

How Long is Too Long?

How long should a book be?

Two articles on book length have recently come to my attention. There was a blog post by the excellent Writers' Workshop giving guidelines for the word counts found in different types of book, and there was this article in The Guardian about the comments Ian McEwan made on how "very few relly long novels earn their length".

The Writers' Workshop recommend most adult fiction books to be between 75 000 and 120 000 words. These are generous boundaries. When I was writing The Art of Letting Go, the guidelines I found suggested 80 000 to 100 000 for general fiction, with the top end of the range more usual for crime, and up to 120 000 for fantasy or history. (The Art of Letting Go is 87 000 words - 250 pages - if you were wondering).

There will always be exceptions, of course. Some of the most famous classics - War and Peace, Ulysses, The Pillars of the Earth - are much longer than this.* One of the top books of the last year, The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt is a whopping 880 pages. A few years ago I read the longest work of fiction ever written in the English language, A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth, and I loved it. But here's the point - an extremely long novel, has to be extremely good. I think this was what Ian McEwan was saying.

I am willing to bet that most agents get regular submissions from people who have written either historical or fantasy books - probably "the first in The Moon Rider Trilogy" or something like that (because everybody seems to want to write a trilogy) - which run to 200 000 words or more. The trouble is they are unlikely to have earned their length. "Epic" should not be a synonym for "badly edited and undisciplined writing". Of course, if you are an amazing writer you will still get a contract, but agents and editors already get 99% more submissions than they are going to take on; they are looking for reasons to reject you.

I have enjoyed many long books, but in most there have been sections I could've done without - battle plans in War and Peace, parliamentary debates in A Suitable Boy. On the whole, if books are going to break the word count "rules", I prefer them to be shorter.

What do you think? Are big books going out of fashion except as The Great American Novel, as Ian McEwan says? Do they put you off? Or do you like to get your teeth into something epic?

*There are exceptions the other way too. The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes won the Booker Prize despite being only 150 pages.

08 September, 2014

Goodreads Giveaway!

You can now enter to win one of ten signed copies of my novel on Goodreads. If you've been following this blog and liked the sound of my book and/or wanted to support me, but also been inundated with other books you've been meaning to buy, now's your chance to get a copy of The Art of Letting Go for free! Alternatively, if you've stumbled across this blog by accident, you can read more about the novel here... and then enter!

Goodreads Book Giveaway

The Art of Letting Go by Chloe Banks

The Art of Letting Go

by Chloe Banks

Giveaway ends October 05, 2014.

See the giveaway details at Goodreads.

Enter to win

05 September, 2014

Quotable Friday (36)

A last-minute Quotable Friday this week, in honour of the book I'm reading. The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce was a huge hit a couple of years ago and, with a title like that, I've been meaning to read it for ages. When I saw it on the library shelf last week I couldn't resist. It's marvellous. I haven't finished yet, but I adore it and I what I love most about the writing is the way she has of describing things. Her descriptions of weather, locations, people or events are so simple and yet they are so fresh too. There is not the whiff of a cliche in this book.

I am fortunate enough never to have experienced the death of somebody very close to me, but I was still moved by her description of grief (in what is an uplifting book in general!). It shows perfectly what I mean about her writing...

"I know in my head that she has gone, but I still keep looking. The only difference is that I am getting used to the pain. It's like discovering a great hole in the ground. To begin with, you forget it's there and you keep falling in. After a while, it's still there, but you learn to walk round it."

03 September, 2014

Recommended Writing Competitions

Are there any short story or flash fiction competitions you would recommend?

I'm a big fan of having a go at short stories, even if it's not your main form of writing. In writing short stories, not only do you learn about the art of characterisation, backstory without waffle, and beautiful, effective descriptions, but you also have to learn how to be economical with your prose - something a lot of novelists could learn from! The other huge benefit is the shorter form gives you more opportunity to go wrong. It might take you a year to write a terrible first draft of a novel and be ready to start again; it might only take you a few days or weeks to do the same with a short story. You can go through the editing and refining process - and all it teaches you - much quicker.

I'm also a big fan of competitions. They are a great way of helping you to assess your own writing. A story that gets ignored in a massive competition might get shortlisted in a smaller one; a story that didn't win on draft three might only need one more re-write to claim a prize in another competition a month later.

When I first started writing I entered a lot of short story competitions. In recent years, focussing on novel-writing and having a baby have reduced my short fiction output dramatically, but I still try to keep my hand in and I am looking for recommendations of good competitons to try. So what makes a good competition?

The answer is probably different for different writers, but for me a competition needs to...
  • Have good communication with the entrants. This means a definite deadline not only for the entries but also for the results. There is nothing more maddening than entering a short story competition and still having no idea when you might find out if you've won something three months later. 
  • Publish shortlists and/or longlists. This isn't an absolute necessity, but I think it's a good thing to do. There will be writers (such as me) who get a huge boost from knowing they nearly got a prize, even when they didn't win.
  • Have entry fees that are in proportion to the prize money. This isn't so much about value for money as knowing the organisers actually value what the writers are doing and aren't just out to make some dosh. £10 entry fees for a total prize fund of £50 is not cool.

I like to mix and match entering big, prestigious competitions - Fish, Bridport, Costa, Bath, Bristol etc. - with smaller local ones, open theme with set themes, and flash fiction with full short stories. This way I can work on different aspects of my writing and work out what level my writing is at. What do you look for?

After writing the opening to this blog post I went to pick up the actual post from the doormat only to find that Writing Magazine have their competition special this month. I'm obviously on trend with my blog posts for once! If you fancy a go at some competitions now is the time to grab a copy of WM. I shall be perusing the listings as soon as I can, but I'd love your input too. Which competitions would you recommend that I either enter or avoid?