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Thursday, November 30, 2006

 

Scammers are clever

(Side-note: my blog isn't showing all the new comments on this page. I did reply to the post yesterday, but the comments don't tell you that. If you're waiting for a reply, click through and there will probably be one.)

I've been thinking and reading around some more on publishing scams, and there's more to add. Because dishonest people are clever, and they adapt. An upfront fee is the traditional method, but there are other ways round it. There is, for example, the author mill - check out the wikipedia article on it http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Author_mill, which also has good links to useful articles. (http://nielsenhayden.com/makinglight/archives/002692.html and http://www.sfwa.org/beware/vanitypublishers.html, in case wikipedia decides to move them.)

Author mills are able to claim that they're not a vanity press because they don't charge money upfront - but that doesn't make them legitimate; instead, they publish as many people as possible, depending on their authors' friends and family to buy enough copies to put them into profit. Which, if they produce books very cheaply and carelessly, is not that big a number. This would be different if they honestly admitted that was how they made their money, but the trouble with them is that they get more people signed up if they insist that they're a legitimate publisher, while refusing to do the things that make up the differences between a publisher and a press. They're cleverer about avoiding easily-identified lies, but they thoroughly mislead people about the likely outcome. And then blame the authors. Many authors believe what they've been told and will defend them, not having the experience of real publishers to compare them with, but be very, very careful of the following things:

Do not trust a company that actively emphasises that it doesn't charge you fees. That's like a surgeon advertising his medical skills by saying that he won't pick your pocket while you're anaesthetised. To a legitimate company, charging fees is so unconscionable that not charging them is nothing to boast of. They don't merit a mention.

Do not trust a company that emphasises that it wants to sell your book to bookshops, not to authors. Again, by real publishers' standards . . . what? They need to tell us this?

Basically, do not ever trust a company that emphasises that it isn't print on demand or a vanity press when promoting itself. That tells you people are calling them that. If someone calls Penguin a vanity press, Penguin looks at them like they're a lunatic and doesn't bother to refute the accusation. If a company feels it has to deny it, something's wrong.

Be very careful of a company that boasts of how many people it publishes. Real publishers boast about the quality and sales of each individual the publish, not the quantity. If a company publishes twenty thousand people and cuts costs in producing and promoting their books, then they don't need to sell that many copies of each author's book to be pocketing a large overall profit. Hence, getting their authors successful isn't necessary.

Do not trust a company that gives you author success stories or testimonials. If they were real author success stories, you'd be reading about them in the review and entertainment pages of the national media, not on the company's merchandising. The company certainly wouldn't make an issue of how they helped the author out. Bloomsbury doesn't go around boasting about what a helping hand they gave to J.K. Rowling; they say 'we publish J.K. Rowling' and leave it at that, because the fact speaks for itself. A dishonest company can always get testimonials from 'satisfied' authors who don't realise how badly they've been scammed, often written in the first flush of excitement before they spot the drawbacks, and if it can't, it can make them up: its business is selling promises, and testimonials can be faked. Testimonials and success stories provided by the company don't mean much. Like wasting advertising space calling for new writers, this demonstrates that it's primarily addressing hopeful writers, not people who might actually buy the books they publish.

Do not trust a company that talks about author services. Services are provided by people you've hired. In legitimate publication, you don't hire a publisher, they buy a product from you. And if they charge you for services, get away from them immediately; a legitimate publisher invests time and money in 'services' like editing and promotion as part of the deal, expecting to recoup the investment by selling the book.

Do not trust a company that tells you it has a higher acceptance rate than most. It aims to sound author friendly, but it actually tells you that authors aren't important to them as authors. 'Acceptance rate' is a meaningless concept with real publication. One month a legitimate publisher might have a hundred applications of which three are great, another month they might have four hundred applications of which none are great. It varies, because it's about the individual books, not about averages. However, if a publisher is assessing itself based on its acceptance rate rather than by the books it publishes, that means its primary interest is not in books. They're definitely not interested in quality: publishers accept books because they've fallen in love with them, and if they accept far more than most other publishers, there's no way of accounting for it except that they've lowered the bar - or more likely, are going purely by numbers rather than actually reading submissions. If a publisher doesn't care whether a book is good, it fundamentally isn't interested in that book as a book. It's out for its own profits.

Be careful of a publisher that compares itself with other companies to bolster its claims of legitimacy. If it's really legitimate, then it can stand on its own merits.

Do not trust a company that offers the author 'control'. That translates thus: they expect you to do more than your share of the work, and are prepared to cut corners. Being properly edited, being publicised by a team, having someone who's actually good at it design your cover, being entered for prizes based on your editor's experience and connections . . . all these things mean you go from the total control of writing to a more collaborative process. Less control, and more benefits. There's a line between not being controlling and not being any actual use, and a publisher offering writers control of the process is much like a porter giving someone control of their luggage by not helping them carry it.

Do not ever trust a company that, for any reason, talks about how central the author and their efforts are to the publicity campaign or how they'll expect you to actively promote your book. This is a particularly pernicious little dodge. They're expecting you to do the work of selling it and refusing to help you, so they can blame you when the book doesn't become a hit. The sting of this one is that can be made to sound reasonable - we all like to feel that we're proactive people who can take charge of their destiny, which is the image they're selling. What they're not telling you is that your chances are next to nil if you do it that way. Bookshops, reviewers and other book workers are already inundated with appeals from legitimate publishers, so many that they can't give space to all of them, even though it'll include the best books in the world, every year; that's what you'll be competing against. And any reviewer or bookshop will only have your word, not the word of a respected judge like a well-known editor, that your book is worth their attention - and every author in the world, even the hopeless ones, thinks that their book is good. Hence, very few people will listen to you. Without a reputable publisher behind them, any author is seriously punching above their weight. Expecting authors to promote their books without the publisher's support is like a bank offering business start-up loans up to a ceiling of ten pounds, and telling the borrowers that it'll work if they're dynamic enough. They're just not giving you enough to make it work, and then telling you that it's your responsibility to get off the ground. The whole difference between a printer and a publisher is that a publisher throws their weight behind the books they publish, rather than just running off copies and leaving them to their own devices.

Be very careful of a company that encourages you to be 'realistic' when promoting itself. A real publisher will be ambitious for their authors, just not crazy. It's not unrealistic to expect national distribution involving a presence in the bookshops, for example: every legitimate publisher gives that as a matter of course. A company that says 'obviously you'll have to start small and build up' is covering their backs, so when the book gets tiny sales they can say they never promised otherwise.

Do not, not, not trust a company that speaks slightingly of the need for an agent. An agent is a threat to an illegitimate company, because they'll be able to a) warn the author to keep away from it, b) point them in the direction of proper publishers, and c) get them legal advice if things have gotten out of hand. Therefore, it's in a crook's interests to present agents as inessential at best, a malign barrier between authors and publishers at worst. This is a very bad lie. An agent is there to stop the author getting messed about. Publishers may sometimes grumble that an agent will haggle for bigger advances and more favourable terms, or take the author's side against them (which are good things if it's your book being haggled over), but agents also serve as a facilitator, dealing with the author when they're being temperamental, keeping them organised, and otherwise taking some of the burden off the publishers' shoulders. Publishers prefer agented authors. They're generally less trouble: someone else is looking after them. A publisher saying that they'd certainly publish an unagented book if it was good enough is one thing, but a company that in any way disparages the need for agents per se is trying to ensure that you don't seek out or listen to the people who'd protect you from scammers like them.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

 

How to present a manuscript

Moving on from the theme of self-publishing, though I'm still open to discussion if anyone wants to continue, today we're going to be talking about what your manuscript should look like when you send it off to an agency or publisher. (I'm generally saying 'editor', because that's what I used to do, but the advice applies to agencies as well. I'd always advise people to get an agent before approaching publishers.)

A manuscript submitted for consideration should look like this:

Printed on plain white A4 paper.
Printed in Times New Roman or Times, 12pt in size.
Double spaced.
Numbered pages.
Paragraphs indented rather than separated by a line break.


That's the easiest possible combination on the eye. It means that the format is simple and clean, with nothing standing between the editor's attention and the story.

What you don't need:

Coloured or fancy paper. White is cheaper for you and much easier on the editor's eye, and fancy paper is distracting. The editor doesn't need a beautiful object; after all, the more she's enjoying the story the more likely she is to leave absent-minded coffee stains.

A 'sexy' font. Sexy fonts are hard to read.

A 'mock-up' or 'temporary' piece of cover art. That's getting way ahead of yourself. If they publish it, they'll have excellent people in the art department to handle the cover, who have skills and experience and knowledge of the marketplace that it's probable you won't have. In any case, that's for later on in the process; what they're interested in now is the words on the page.

Gimmicky icons in the text, separating sections or highlighting chapter openings. Unless you're a professional typesetter, the editor (who looks at typeset manuscripts for a living) will find it hard not to notice that they're low quality, especially if you've just pasted them on Word. As with cover art, if they buy the book they'll have it done properly later.


All of those things are trying too hard. If the editor likes your book, you don't need them, and if she doesn't, they won't change her mind. Editors are suspicious of such things; as well as being visually tiring, they look like you're trying to distract her from the text, which risks implying you don't think it's good enough to impress her on its own.


A copyright statement. The manuscript is your copyright whether you state it explicitly or not; the only way it wouldn't be is if you signed away your rights to it, which no reputable publisher or agent will ask for. (If anyone does, run like the wind.) A copyright statement implies you think the publishers or agency might nick your ideas if you don't warn them off, which is not a good way to establish a working relationship.

Any kind of binding. The agent or editor may want to take fifty pages home to read on the train, and she can't do that if you've stuck them together. Folders and files take up limited desk space. Publishing people are well accustomed to handling piles of paper, and binding gets in the way.

Un-numbered pages. Sometimes piles of paper get dropped. Worse, someone may want to make notes about the story, and if they don't have page numbers to navigate by, it's impossible. Unlike you, they don't have the story by heart, so they need page numbers if they're going to refer back. Reading an un-numbered manuscript is like trying to drive through a strange city at night without a map; it's terribly disorientating and makes editors miserable. Either that or they'll start numbering pages themselves, resenting you for making it necessary.

A lot of the overkills are done on the assumption that 'good presentation can't hurt'. It can't. But an editor's idea of well-presented means clear, simple and manageable. Extras are almost always unwelcome; agents and publishers are looking for people who will make professional writers, and bindings, fancy paper and visual gimmicks look amateurish. Trust me: the duller your physical presentation, the more interested people will be.


Tuesday, November 28, 2006

 

More on vanity publishing

Someone who's had a bad run-in with the kind of scammers I was talking about yesterday was helpful enough to write in with an example of his own, which I've pasted here so you can see it, as it's a good example of what kind of bastards we're talking about:

Great post today. Do you think you could publicize this guy? His name is Johnathon Clifford and he gives away a ton of stuff about vanity publishers for free on his website. He certainly helped me last year when, after about 40+ agent rejections, I sent my manuscript in response to an ad (in Private Eye of all places). The company was called "Serendipity" (which it wasn't!); they offered to publish it for GBP 5,500 and claimed they would "market" it. I was just about to send them the cheque when I found his site, and was so glad I did! But you know, I'm sure there must be thousands of budding writers who know almost nothing about the publishing industry, and even less about vanity publishing. This guy really fixes that (well, I for one owe him five and a half grand!).

http://www.vanitypublishing.info/

Do have a look at the site. Thanks for the tip, anon.

It's worth emphasising that the crooks who almost took in our posting friend advertised in Private Eye, which, for those of you overseas who haven't heard of it, is the foremost satirical magazine in the UK, and about equivalent to a national newspaper in terms of how reputable you'd expect it to be. The fact that a vanity press advertises in a respectable place doesn't mean it's a respectable company. Newspapers and magazines don't vet the credentials of everyone who advertises: if you've got the money, they'll print your ad, and vanity presses do have the money. They get it from hopeful writers. You should always look at what they're offering rather than where they're offering it if you're checking out their trustworthiness.

One point on which I'd differ with Johnathon Clifford, or at least put a caveat, is on the issue of self-publishing. There are vanity presses who will take you for all they can get, who are the real bastards, and there are self-publishing presses who don't pretend to offer more than they do: they'll print your book and after that it's up to you. Now, those guys are at least telling you the truth. If your book is, say, a collection of tutoring tips that you can sell out of your tutorial agency to clients, then that may be useful, but self-published novels are another business.

I wouldn't recommend self-publishing a novel. The bestselling novelist Tess Gerritsen has recently written a couple of articles on her blog about why, which I'd recommend people to have a look at:

http://tessgerritsen.com/blog/2006/11/19/why-self-published-books-fail/
http://tessgerritsen.com/blog/2006/11/25/writers-and-desperation/

Her points, which I agree with, are basically as follows:

There's a business reason why a self-published novel is unlikely to have commercial success. Bookshops buy novels on sale or return; if they can't shift the copies they've bought, they can give them back to the publishers. This ensures that the shop won't go under if an anticipated bestseller falls flat. Nowadays, when the bookselling market is dominated by huge chains, publishers are extremely dependent on those chains: if Waterstone's or Barnes and Noble won't stock your books, then your books are going to fail. And the chains won't stock your books except on sale or return. The shops can set the terms, and sale or return is one of them. Smaller bookshops aren't going to make an exception: they're playing against the big boys in a fragile market, and they can't afford to take any risks. I worked at a publisher that sold books mostly to libraries and as a result wouldn't do sale or return; as a result, no bookshop would buy them, even if they were by a bestselling author. Under such conditions, it's highly unlikely that you can get a self-published book off the ground: the shops simply won't pick it up.

The other point is that if you get a lot of rejections - and boy, do those suck - you basically have two options. You can try to self-publish it, or you can write another one. It's depressing to start another one when the first one didn't sell, but the fact is, there's probably a reason why it didn't. You might have been unlucky and your book really was good - in which case, if you write another, it'll also be good and maybe it'll be luckier. Statistically, it's much likelier that your book wasn't up to the standard it needed to be. If you self-publish it, you're removing the incentive to write another, better book.

Everyone shelves stuff. My first novel to get published was not the first novel I wrote - I had about forty thousand words of another novel I eventually binned, because it wasn't good enough. It was a learning experience, but learning experiences don't get published. I'm saying this not to make people feel bad about their rejections, because rejections feel bad enough as it is, but in the end, you'll be a better writer if you take the knocks, absorb any useful criticism and get back on the horse.

When it comes to novels, I have the feeling that what everyone really wants is publication, by an established publishing company. Self-publishing is a bit of a consolation prize. But you're better off consoling yourself that you're acting like a professional by motoring on.

In the end, it's a personal decision. And it's a big one. But the thing is, most publishers look askance at self-published authors, because self-publication implies that they weren't prepared to work on improving their fiction to bring it up to standard. It may injure your chances in future. Not fatally, if your next book is brilliant, but it will have disadvantages. I'll talk more about this later if people are interested because I've got to go and catch a train now, but I'd think twice before deciding to self-publish. It's not what it seems.

Monday, November 27, 2006

 

Advice week is open

National Novel Writing Month approaches its last week. Hope all of you who have been doing it are happy with your results. However, this might be a good time to give you a warning (Miss Snark's website has already talked about this in recent weeks, so try http://misssnark.blogspot.com/ if you want more on the subject), but in any case: this is something you should think about.

If you're looking to publish your novel, be careful who you try. Situations like these are a golden opportunity for scammers, who are always out there to take advantage of inexperienced writers, and I suspect that in the wake of Nanowrimo they'll be stepping up their self-promotions. Some publishers and agencies are legitimate, and others are con operations that are out to get money from hopeful authors with no intention of actually promoting their books. Avoid the bastards.

To this end, and also just because anyone who's done Nanowrimo has written far more than me this month so hats off, I'm open to any questions or requests for advice this week if you're thinking about going after publication. I can't read anyone's actual stuff because it takes days to give proper feedback, but if you have any questions, post them and I'll try to make sensible suggestions. All comers welcome. (That includes people who didn't do Nanowrimo. Hey, I didn't either.)

When it comes to scammers, here are the basics:

1. Neither a publisher nor an agent should want money from you. The agent should be on a no-win-no-fee basis, getting a cut of whatever you make and nothing if your book doesn't sell. The publishers should be making their profits from selling your book. Any exception to this is self-publishing at best, utter fraud at worst.

2. Do not trust a publisher or agent that advertises for new writers. The reputable ones already have more submissions than they can handle, and there's no way they'd waste their money on an ad.

3. Do not trust a publisher that says they'll sell you copies of your book at a discount. A legitimate publisher should give you anything from four to twenty copies of your book free as part of the package. Once you've had your complimentary copies, then they'll start selling you books at a discount if you want more, but if you have to pay for every single book they print of yours, then it works like this: they produce the book cheaply and sloppily to reduce costs, then sell enough copies to you, your friends and family to put them into profit. Once they're in profit, they don't need to promote your book any further: they've got what they wanted. You'll have your manuscript printed and bound, but no bookshop will ever hear of it. That's not publication, it's packaging - but it'll quite possibly put legitimate publishers off your book if you try to remedy the mistake.

4. Do not trust a publisher whose website or PR uses space that could have been spent advertising newly-published books to talk about how they give new writers a chance. That's a clear warning sign that they're addressing hopeful writers, not the book-buying customer base - which should tell you what their biggest source of income is. Not readers, but writers: you. They're looking to make money from you, not for you. Even if your main concern is love of writing rather than profit, money has to come from somewhere if a business is to keep afloat, and a legitimate publisher will always want that money to come from the people they sell the book to, not the person who wrote it. If you're their source of income, chances are it's your money and not your book that they're interested in.

5. In fact, do not trust anyone who talks about giving new writers a chance period. Legitimate companies all do give new writers a chance - they read their submissions and take them on if they like them; that's what getting a chance is. They don't need to talk about it. If a company actively offers you a chance, they're hustling you. Similarly if they talk about dreams, aspirations, frustrations, the difficulty of getting published, or make any other emotional appeal. There's no reason for someone to talk like that unless they're trying to seduce you. Legitimate companies don't want to seduce you; they have enough applications that you'll need to seduce them. The excellent Making Light has an article here that discusses this and various other points I'm also making here in more detail; read it and believe it. http://nielsenhayden.com/makinglight/archives/005540.html

6. Do not trust anyone who implies it's impossible for new writers to break into the business. Legitimate companies love finding good new writers; it makes their day, and possibly their fortune, when they get a really talented newbie on their books. If a company stopped accepting new writers, it would collapse. Writers aren't invulnerable: sometimes they get sick, or get blocked, or decline in quality, or take sabbaticals, or, you know, die, or do any number of things that mean they don't have a book for you this year. Without a supply of fresh talent, a publisher's days are numbered. To a professional, saying it's impossible to break in sounds ridiculous, because they know from first-hand experience that new writers get published all the time - just not every new writer who wants to be. It's not a closed door, but it is a small one, and you have to charm the guard to get in. A company that suggests the publishing world is closed is looking for people who are anxious or frustrated enough about rejection to grab at a chance of finding another entrance. But if you want in to the real world of publication, there is no back door, and anyone who says the front door is locked is lying.

7. Be very careful of a publisher that contacts you out of the blue. The likeliest explanation is that they've picked up your name from some list of writing groups, competition applicants, writers' websites . . . There are a lot of places dishonest people can cruise to find victims. Occasionally legitimate agents might contact you if they've seen work of yours in an anthology; that happened to me a couple of times. But a publisher generally waits for agents to do the gleaning and bring stuff to them. The agents who approached me only ever promised to look at my work; they didn't promise publication, or even to represent me, and they didn't ask me for anything. If the publisher contacts you without warning and asks for money to help publish your book, then they're definitely criminals.

8. Do not trust a company that calls itself a 'traditional publisher'. Genuine traditional publishers just call themselves 'publishers'. Vanity presses are no competition to them. They have, therefore, no need to compare themselves with such companies when talking about what they do. A company that calls itself 'traditional' is protesting too much and almost certainly up to something.

9. Be very careful of a company that advertises a 'new way of publishing'. If what you want is someone who will take on your book purely because they think it's good and distribute it to bookshops so other people can buy it, you want the old way of publishing. Other methods will, at best, involve a lot more work from you that you should ideally be spending writing; at worst, they'll be scamming you.

10. Do not trust anyone who says your work will be 'professionally edited' with them. To a legitimate publisher, that goes without saying; it's like a laundry saying that if you let them wash your clothes, as an additional benefit your clothes will get washed. There's something shabby going on in a business that makes essentials sound like extras.

11. Do not trust an agency that seems to offer a new or special deal when it comes to commission. Legitimate agency rates are very straightforward: they take a set percentage of any money made by selling your work, usually 10 or 15 per cent. The rates may vary when it comes to the sale of things like foreign rights or movie rights, but they should all be clear and simple. They sell the book, the publisher pays the money to them, they pass it on to you, keeping a contractually agreed percentage for themselves. There's no reason to change that simple and effective system unless they're trying to conceal costs somehow - and it's your pocket those costs will end up coming out of. And run a mile from anyone who says they're currently offering special rates. You do not want an insurance salesman delivering your baby.

12. Do not trust an agency that says they'll promote your book with an e-mail campaign to publishers. No way. I've had experience with such agencies as an editor. What they do is this: they put the e-mail of every publisher they can find on a mailing list, and every time they have a book to 'promote', they'll send it to the entire list of recipients. Very labour-saving from their perspective, because all they have to do is click the 'send' button and they've given you the campaign they promised, but they've totally skipped researching whether the book is appropriate to the recipients. Autobiographies get sent to children's publishers, thrillers to mind-body-spirit publishers, political tracts to erotica publishers . . . I have frustrating memories of working for a company that specialised in popular genre fiction for the UK and US market, and continually getting sent pitches about personal memoirs from some bizarre organisation in the Middle East. And - this is the kicker - I did what every submissions editor ends up doing with such agencies. I deleted the e-mails with barely a glance, knowing they'd almost certainly be unsuitable, sent them form rejections explaining our requirements, and when the e-mails kept coming, sent a sharp e-mail back asking that we be deleted from their address list. If they hadn't complied, the next step would have been to block their address. In the unlikely event they'd sent something that actually was suitable, there's a good chance I wouldn't have paid it much attention, because I had absolutely no respect for the agency's judgement. 'Not these idiots again' is not the reaction you want publishers to have when your agency approaches.

13. Do not trust anyone who makes publication with them sound easier than publication with an established, reputable company. Any legitimate publication is difficult, and easy publication means that they're not legitimate. Easy is bad. In publication-land, the shortcut leads to a dead end, or possibly over the edge of a cliff.

14. Do not, in fact, trust anyone who isn't listed in The Writers' and Artists' Yearbook or an equally reputable directory. I'm not sure what the local equivalents are outside the UK, but any library or big bookshop should be able to tell you; just ask for the publishing and agents standard industry directory and explain why you want it, and you'll get pointed in the right direction. Industry directories contain all the trustworthy companies in the business. If somebody isn't in it, then tread with care.

If it looks too good to be true, it probably is, and I wouldn't like to think of any of you getting taken in.

Another point to bear in mind - awkward but true - is that if you've got a Nanowrimo novel written, you'll almost certainly need to do some reworking on it before it's ready for publication. The reasons for this are twofold:

1. You undoubtedly wrote it in a hurry. Such books need polishing. Often it's good to take a few weeks away from the book to let it settle in your mind before trying to redraft; you'll be coming at it with a clearer head.
2. Unless you're some kind of prodigy, your novel will be around the 50,000 word mark. That's too short for most publishers. Even small presses tend to prefer books to be at least around the 75,000 mark. My first novel was 145,000, and the second novel I'm contracted for is supposed to be 125,000. A Nanowrimo novel will almost certainly need to be revised and expanded before it's a suitable size, or possibly pruned down to short story length.

This should make you doubly wary if someone approaches you offering money to publish it, because the laws of the marketplace lay down that 50k is a difficult size to sell. (Readers generally want to buy something longer.)

So, the first piece of advice this week is be careful of crooks, and think twice about sending out a novel in haste. I'll carry on trying to make useful suggestions over the week. Anything people want to ask about?

Thursday, November 23, 2006

 

Writing equipment

Does anyone else have a set of objects they keep around to help them write? Here's mine:

1. Obviously, my laptop.

2. Whatever notebook I'm currently using. Generally, the more battered it is, the better I feel about it; I've just finished one where the spine was broken and the covering was peeling off all the corners, and I feel quite sorry to stop using it. It had such a functional feel. I haven't yet found another one that'll fall apart quite so satisfyingly.

Those kind of go without saying. More individually:

3. Print-outs from website with useful background information, kept in...

4. A stripy canvas bag big enough to accommodate A4 stuff.Which are either with me or in the cupboard, depending.

And, apart from my laptop, my current essentials:

5. A big squashy cushion my laptop sits on when I'm curled up on the sofa. I made it myself on a dodgy sewing machine, and it's reasonably square. When I'm feeling anxious, I tend to grip it and object if anyone tries to take it away. When I'm writing, it props the laptop up to a lovely comfortable height.

6. A collection of ambient DVDs ine which some helpful fellow has filmed fish in an aquarium and put the footage on a loop. I've got several of them, and I want more. One of them has a fireplace, which I'm saving for a really cold day; one of them has seahorses, one of them has tropical fish... This is really, really sad of me, I know, but I don't care. Writing makes me very nervous, and having little guppies swimming around on the screen while the television makes 'bubblebubblebubble' noises is incredibly soothing. If the writing is going well, then I forget to look at the screen, but if it's not, then I have lovely fish to look at and that makes me feel safe. It's gotten kind of talismanic: I put the fish on, and that means I'm ready to write. Possibly I'll grow out of this, but right now I'm really quite dependent on those DVDs . . . Still, what's a girl to do if she doesn't smoke?

Anyone else got a little cache of non-essential items that they're unreasonably attached to?

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

 

Blog Poster Appreciation Day

. . . because I'm working from home, sometimes browse the Net when I should be writing or doing the laundry, and I've come to a conclusion: you guys are very nice. The Internet seems to be one of those places where, freed from the fear of getting punched, a lot of people display a lot of aggression to each other. Theoretical issues turn personal, disagreement turns into name-calling, and generally speaking, people are unpleasant to each other every which way (and then usually get affronted if someone does it back to them).

You, my friendly blog posters, on the other hand, are all perfectly cordial, amusing and pleasant. I'm particularly tickled to see you supporting each others' work - yay Internet - but just in general, I'd like to thank you all for your good manners. Therefore, today is Poster Appreciation Day, because it's always restful coming back from all those nasty argumentative sites to check on my posts and find everyone there is just being nice, normal and polite.

Take a moment to appreciate yourselves.

Monday, November 20, 2006

 

Final reminder for those in Chester

... that today I am speaking at the Waverton Good Read group, at 7.30 this evening. Details here:

http://www.wavertongoodread.org.uk/

Friday, November 17, 2006

 

Oh, bits and pieces

Another six-word short story from me:

Hated my dad. Then married him.

Do keep 'em coming if you can think of any.


A reminder that I'm going to be giving a talk near Chester on Monday evening; I'll give details on the morning of the day, but anyone in the location do come along and say hello.


And, for your amusement, a link. My friend Joel (http://www.robotichat.blogspot.com/, if you fancy seeing his blog) is writing a Nanowrimo novel about pirates. In honour of this, and because I was watching Pirates of the Carribean the other day, I call to your attention the following scam baiter.

For those of you who aren't familiar with the term, basically, well - you know those e-mails you get saying, in effect, I'M IN NIGERIA AND HAVE TO GET MONEY OUT ILLEGALLY, GIVE ME SOME CASH AND I'LL CUT YOU IN, I'M A MILLIONAIRE, HONESTLY? A modern variant on the Spanish Prisoner con? Some people get mischievous with these bad, fraudulent people, and decide to have a little fun with them. This is a particularly funny example:

http://www.scamorama.com/sparrow_bankole.html

Don't try to scam a rascal, me hearty.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

 

6 word short stories

http://wired.com/wired/archive/14.11/sixwords.html

That's the link to Wired magazine, which had a brilliant idea: get authors to write short stories - as in, six words long. A load of authors responded gallantly, and some of the results are superb.

Would anyone like to play? If so, please post your examples. Here are some of mine:


Wanna break up. Ur 2 emotionl.

Nobody loves a sourpuss. The bastards.

Butler did it. Caught. Cosyness restored.

How hard can it be? Oh.

I'm not repeating my parents' mistakes.

Hello, God. Me again. Still there?

Sunday, November 12, 2006

 

Hmp.

I just went to the cinema, and when I came home, I read some reviews of the film I'd just seen. Naming no names, I'm once again in a bad mood about critics who get over-excited about metafiction.

Here's the thing. The film had a twisty plot, and also elements of performance that gave the critic the chance to talk about the artificiality of film as a medium. Guess which one he decided to go on about? That's right: film. He got so worked up about it that he pretty much neglected to wonder whether or not the twisty plot, which was what the performance parts of the story were there to drive forward, was actually well rendered. Which is to say that, as a reviewer, he stopped doing his job. Was the film worth seeing? Based on what he had to say, who knows? He got a sniff of metafictional abstraction, and, like an addled bloodhound, dashed away to track something totally off the point.

The closest he got to talking about it, and thing that really rang the bell, was the following remark: he said, in effect, that audiences want to feel neither patronised, nor outwitted by a superior intelligence.

But that's exactly what I do want. I don't want to be patronised, but I do want to be outwitted, especially when I'm watching a film or reading a book that depends on a twisty plot. I like plots that lead me astray and then startle me by being cleverer than I was. If the author can't stay ahead of me, then there's no point: why pay to be surprised by something that isn't surprising?

My critic friend, on the other hand, didn't seem to like the idea that anyone might be cleverer than him. His ideal seemed to be an erudite discourse between film-maker and audience as to the nature of the medium they were partaking of. If I wind up watching films like that, I want my money back.

Not all critics take this line. I hasten to point out that I'm not railing against critics en masse - there's a lot of intelligent people writing criticism and reviews, and I enjoy reading good ones - but it's a pretty reliable indicator that, if a reviewer gets worked up about the abstract implications as to art in a particular piece, they won't tell you anything helpful about whether it's actually good or not - or if they do, it'll be hard to judge whether their enthusiasm is proportional to the work reviewed, or to the ideas they had when starting to write about it. Possibly it's a good film, or possibly they just liked the opportunites it gave them to talk about film; it's hard to tell. And that's neglecting to do your job in favour of mulling about it, like an actor who comes on-stage and starts talking to you about the Method instead of delivering his lines. I like reviewers who actually review. Go to www.rottentomatoes.com and find the sensible-sounding ones, is my advice.

 

Eeevil editing

I went to visit my old writing class yesterday and talk about getting published, which was fun - lots of nice people and a cheerful drink afterwards, which has to be good. I noticed something interesting in the questions they were asking me. While there was a fairly wide range, only one question kept coming back in other forms. It was, basically, 'How much of your book did editors/agents/publishing people force you to change?'

Well, I think I should answer that question in case anyone reading this blog is wondering the same thing, because it seems to be a recurring rumour: the idea that the minute a publishing professional gets her mitts on your book, she starts trying to change it all around. The reassuring answer, based on my own experience, is that this just doesn't happen.

I'm sure there have been clashes between established authors and editors - I suspect big egos may have been involved on one or both sides, which might lead to people complaining vehemently and getting rumours going. But if you're starting out, at least, there's a very simple reason why this wouldn't happen: if they don't like your book as it stands, they don't have to buy it. An agent or editor who didn't like, say, the ending of your book, wouldn't take you on and try to make you change it, they'd say, 'There's a lot of good things here, but I don't think the ending works; try rewriting it and I'll look at it again.' At which point, it's up to you whether you want to or not. But nobody would take on a new author whose book might be to their satisfaction if they can make them change it: there are too many other books competing for the slot that they like as they stand.

Here's my experience of getting edited. My first draft was much too long, and the editorial consultant at my agency (not a common institution, most agencies don't have one) sat me down, showed me a sample page of my book she'd cut extraneous sentences from and said, 'Why don't you try that for the rest of the book?' Which I did, much improving the style. Once being edited by Random House, the changes fell into four basic divisions:

1. General questions. 'What would happen with your set-up if the following happened?' 'You might want to resolve the relationship between this character and that one a bit more.' These were the most major changes, but they still pretty minor in terms of how much rewriting was called for, and were to do with tying off loose ends and making everything flow rather than working against how the book was supposed to go - and I had complete freedom of movement as to how I answered the questions raised. As long as I resolved an unresolved incident somehow, the way I resolved it was up to me.

2. Inconsistencies pointed out - 'what you say here contradicts what you say later', or 'you say a month has passed but I think it can't be more than two weeks'. Stuff I'd lost track of, because it takes a long time to write a book.

3. Pointing out unclear to incomprehensible sentences. While I object to having my stuff rewritten for me (not politically object, it just never feels right if somebody else tries to match my style - not that anybody really tried), I believe writers ought to be cooperative if somebody asks them to rewrite an unclear phrase. The person who doesn't understand your sentences is a cross-section of your readership, and if they don't understand it, chances are a lot of other people won't either. Because of the Overhead Projector effect (mentioned earlier, http://www.kitwhitfield.com/2006/08/more-lexicon-terms.html), it's easy to think you've written more clearly than you have, so it's good to listen if people are confused.

4. Minor slips in spelling, tone, accuracy and other general mistakes.

See? Nothing to be worried about. Editors generally aren't tyrants who are dying to get into competition with authors about how a book ought to be written; as long as the book is working, they tend to let the author get on with it.

Friday, November 10, 2006

 

Art

The other day I saw Eva Cassidy singing on television. Well, I was mesmerised, a new CD is mine, inseparable my iPod and ears. It also reminded me of something I've thought for a long time: the best art is produced by people who love the form.

That sounds obvious, but it's not always there. For example, it's perfectly possible that a singer sings for the love of performance. They may sing and perform well, but it's not the same thing as hearing a singer who sings for the love of music. There was something about Eva Cassidy: the egoless concentration, the ... oh, it's hard to describe. I remember someone telling me at school that anything done with total concentration was an act of prayer; she made me think of that.

Something else: it was like she was singing a duet with the music, like she was listening to something I couldn't hear and talking back to it, and you could sort of understand what it was by hearing her replies. I suspect it's from performances like that that people got the idea of the Muse, the grace that whispers in your ear. Her whole performance was just lit with sheer love of music. Ella Fitzgerald does that in a different style: every note she sings rings with joyous love of music, music in itself.

Which raises the question of writing, of course. If the Muse did just whisper in my ear, it would make my life a whole lot easier: I could just take dictation. But in another way, there's something in the idea. Different writers have entirely different methods - any posts on yours welcome. I kind of have a zone. If I'm having a bad day, I can't get into it, I have to lay the words out like bricks, hoisting them to and fro and dithering about what to place where. If I'm having a good day, words just unfold in sequence, I get my mood on, things flow. And I have to be sort of enchanted. There's no way to do it except to try to seduce myself with a sentence, a tricky business - but in Classical terms, you could say I try to raise my Muse, and if I can't find the right incantation, the right sentence to spark it off, the Muse doesn't visit that day.

(Interesting side-note: proof-reading is never, never, never fun, but for some reason, even if there isn't much difference in writing quality, the sections of prose I've written when in the Muse-Zone are never quite as revolting on seventh rereading. The bits I wrote out of the zone become absolutely loathsome; the zonies, merely repetitious. Not sure why, except possibly a little trace of zone still lingers on them in my mind and improves my mood when reading them.)

And how do people love the form when they're writers? There are different aspects. One of the things I keep saying when people call me science-fiction, crime, literary or whatever is that I'm not a fan of a particular genre, I just love books. I love language, but I particularly love prose - I like poetry, but I seldom read it, certainly not as much as I read prose; there are a few favourite poets on my shelves, but they're vastly outnumbered by novelists. There's language, and there's storytelling, and different authors can love them in different proportions, though all my favourites love both. And possibly other things as well, who knows? I think some people love elements in a form that other people can't see - I'm sure it's the case with music, for example, otherwise I'd enjoy a wider variety of stuff than I do.

So, love for the form, Muses, writing zones ... I'm sure there was a better-reasoned post on these subjects somewhere, probably tending to a definitive theory of art, but the telephone woke me up too early this morning. What do you think about any and all of this?

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

 

Anyone live in or near Chester?

... Because if you do, I'm going to be there giving a talk on Monday 20th November, so do come along.

The talk will be hosted by the Waverton Good Read Award group, starts at 7.30pm, and is going to be in Waverton Primary School, which is apparently 4 miles outside Chester. Their website is here http://www.wavertongoodread.org.uk/. I'm fairly sure that this is the location, http://www.waverton.cheshire.sch.uk/, but I'll confirm nearer the time.

Monday, November 06, 2006

 

Books that change your life

Well hey, there are some interesting remarks on the previous post that I'm enjoying reading, so everyone do please keep commenting on it - you don't have to stop commenting on a post just because I've added another one...

And someone made a remark that got me to thinking. They mentioned The Shape of Things To Come by HG Wells as a book that had changed their life (so I should probably read it; HG Wells kicks booty anyway). But what books have changed your lives? And, just as interestingly, how?

Thinking about it, I'm not sure what I'd say changed my life in terms of books. (Well, getting my own book published meant I could quit my job, so technically that's the one that changed it the most, but I don't need to plug it because you've all read it now, right? Buddies? Right?) I can think of books that changed my reading life. The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison and The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood got to me when I was a teenager and had a huge impact on my imagination and reading habits; Edward Gorey got under my skin unforgettably the first time I saw his stuff - it took me a while to get to like it, but I couldn't stop thinking about it from the first moment. A Clockwork Orange, something similar; because of the controversy of the story, and also the effort required to get a handle on the slang, I remember reading with a tremendous earnestness when I was sixteen or seventeen. But would I have lived differently if I hadn't read them? I really can't say.

So, thinking about it, I've boiled it down to three things. First, Dr Seuss when I was five, particularly Thidwick the Big-Hearted Moose. If I hadn't loved books, I wouldn't have kept reading, and I wouldn't be a writer: Thidwick was my first love. I can still remember the joy of getting the big old hardback out of the library again and again, the hilarious twists of logic, the bounding rhymes, the triumphant ending. The book is a small masterpiece, and I stand by my early worship of it. It's glorious.

Second, Antonia White's Frost In May, which I keep mentioning when asked about favourites. I first read it when I was twelve. As both of my parents are lapsed Catholics, my dad educated by monks and my mum by nuns as children, I was interested in reading about a convent school. (It turns out that my grandmother actually had three sisters who were sent to the school White's story is based on. Two liked it, and one hated it so badly she ran away.) I have, in later life, what I refer to as 'osteo-Catholicism' - secular head, Catholic bones, meaning some instinctively guilty reflexes and a smells-and-bells aesthetic, and I think a lot of it comes back to this book. From an entirely secular perspective, you could say that Nanda's education by the nuns amounts to spiritual child abuse - but somehow, it's hard to say that from where I stand. I wasn't given much religious education by my parents, but I think I picked up a fair bit by osmosis, and Frost In May formalised it. Since then I've read all White's books repeatedly and identified with the heroine more than with any other character in my adult life. Frost In May still frightens me.

Third, The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf, picked up second hand in a book market when I was twenty. Nine years later I think some of her statistics sound a little doubtful, and there are times when I think the case a bit over-stated - but I don't think it matters. It's the book of an angry young woman - she was younger than I am now when it was published - and in terms of speaking to female experience, which Wolf excels at, it's indispensable. What she has a gift for is saying with clarity and dignity things that lots of women feel, but generally consider a shameful secret - until she points out that it's not. The Beauty Myth, which is about how insecurity over your looks is, for women, cataclysmic, is a great book to read when you're young and not completely secure. I gather that Wolf has copped a lot of controversy, but I'm not going to stop being grateful. I respect her opinions.

So, that's me. How have books changed things for you?

Friday, November 03, 2006

 

Important subjects

I've just been reading Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey. Great book, lots of fun, some very fine character writing. But the introduction I have is the biggest pile of nonsense I've ever heard.

Now, for those of you who haven't read Northanger Abbey, it's a early work that Austen rewrote later in her life, and, like much juvenilia, has flashes of brilliance and moments of poverty - particularly a dreadfully rushed ending in which she sets up a complicated plot scenario, then tops it off with a chapter saying, basically, 'And then some good things happened so everyone sorted out their problems.' Because of this, most people view it as one of her weaker novels, if still very good.

But not so my critic friend who wrote this intro. No, he had a new theory: it's one of her best. And why? Because unlike her other books, Northanger Abbey takes on the question of what it means to be a novel.

Which it does, of course. There are sections written entirely in defence of the novel as a form - it was a new thing back then and got unreasonably sneered at. It's also heavily influenced by the Gothic novels that were popular back then, and plays around with them in the latter half of its plot in a very funny way. Does that mean the ending isn't rushed? Of course not. But that's not the point, according to our critic. He thinks that - and this is the reason I'm getting irritable about it, because I have an English degree and listened to far too much of this stupid theory - the highest aim for a literary work is to 'interrogate' or 'challenge' or otherwise make you think about the form it's written in. Not just a legitimate aim, but the highest.

Let me say that again: he thinks that fiction that questions the nature of fiction is better than any other kind.

Why? Novels can talk about anything. Let's take a few examples from among my personal favourites. Beloved, Toni Morrison: primarily about the problems of slavery and recovery from slavery in America. Frost In May, Antonia White: about the spiritual survival of a child in an intense religious atmosphere. Middlemarch, George Eliot: about the life of an entire town, and particularly about the possibility of achieving exceptional goodness or worth in relentlessly unexceptional circumstances. Slavery, spiritual surival, goodness - more or less important than how to write a book? Feel free to post and add favourites of your own, because I have the very definite conviction that everyone can, off the top of their heads, think of novels that tackle questions that are more important to most people than 'what makes a novel?'

But it really gets me that so many critics take it for granted that the best works of art interrogate their form. Novels speak, they have personality. Is a person automatically brilliant if his chief topic of conversation is himself?

This is a theory that's bad for writers. Naming no names, I've read novels reduced from interesting tales of psychological friction to pointless babbling about the nature of novelhood, and it ruins them.

More than that, it shows a fatal misunderstanding of how writing works. Jane Austen wrote an early work that dealt with the question of novels. Why? Or to put it another way, if the nature of novel-writing is the biggest question a novelist can answer, why isn't Northanger Abbey a mature work that she decided to tackle once she got some experience under her belt and felt ready to do something really important? Why, after Northanger Abbey, did one of the greatest writers of the English language move on to writing stories about people and skip the theory section?

Because novels are an image of the heart and mind of the author. And when you first pick up the pen, the desire to be a writer looms very large in both. A lot of early work begins by being stories about other stories. It's not because that's the highest calling, it's because it's the first step. If you begin writing when you're young, often your reading experience outstrips your life experience. If you want to write, you love to read, and your favourite authors will be casting their shadows over your desk. Your mind is crowded with the writers that you want to measure up to, and that comes out in your work. 'How can I be a writer?' is an early question; once you get some experience, you answer it and move on to more interesting ones. Interrogating other works is very often the leaf litter on top of the rich soil, which you have to sweep up in before you can bed down and get to the real stuff. This isn't the case with all writers - some of them continue to do reference and metafiction after they've got experience - but it's a very common pattern. Northanger Abbey wasn't Austen pursuing her highest calling by challenging other writers, it was Austen getting those other writers out of her system.

Critics assume it's otherwise because they, of course, spend their days interrogating novels. I'm sure if a coal-miner was a critic, the books that spoke to him most would be about mining. But for a writer, stories about stories are frequently juvenilia, a kind of shake of the head to swing all your influences into their proper places and clear them from the deck.

I am so bored with this theory. There were so many seminars where my interest in the discussion, previously keen, suddenly flagged when we moved on to the question of 'how is the writer interrogating this form'? Do they have to interrogate it? Does every valid person in the world have to be in analysis? Do snakes tapdance?

Sometimes, I wish the form would just confess so we could get all the interrogations over with. It's only suffering unnecessarily in the meantime.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

 

Told you I didn't speak Dutch

... but fortunately for me, other people do. The nice translator of Bareback (who's asked me not to mention her name, so I won't) in the Netherlands has most helpfully e-mailed me, giving a better rendition of the title:

"De uitzonderlijke belevenissen' means 'the exceptional experiences' or 'adventures'. It reminds me a bit of an old-fashioned title, picaresque novel. But I like it. And it has a nice blurb on the back: " a novel that makes you shiver... with pleasure".

Sounds good, no?

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

 

The Netherlands

Here's something interesting: the Dutch cover of my book.

http://lolagalley.jot.com/WikiHome

I had a long and interesting correspondence with the translator on this version, who was intelligent and delightful, so I'm assuming that it's a good translation. I don't think I'll ever be sure, because, of course, I don't understand Dutch, so I can't check . . . But the thing that's interesting in particular, as you'll see from the page, is that they couldn't find a one-word title. 'Bareback', which is the title it's being sold under for foreign rights (stop sniggering, Yanks, the rest of the world is managing to keep a straight face), turned out to be untranslatable. We discussed it, and she said she'd think about it. Next thing I know, here's the new title:

De uitzonderlijke belevenissen van Lola Galley

- which I'm told translates roughly as 'The exceptional life of Lola Galley'. I rather like it.

I rather like the cover, too; in the meeting with the foreign rights agents, we had an running debate as to whether the figure in it was a child or an adult (majority view went with child). The Dutch publishers apparently want to market it as capital-L Literature, and I'm told that the style is appropriate to that market. Suits me fine; it's preeetty . . . I'm not quite sure how the cover relates to the book, though. Evokes an atmosphere? Refers to the parks in the book? Picture of lost innocence? Just looks attractive and suits the market so get a grip, Whitfield, you said you liked it so what are you quibbling about? As I said, I do like the cover a lot, but if anyone's closer than me to working out what it signifies, I'd love to hear from them.

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