Gig Review: Novel Nights in Bristol, with guest speaker Nikesh Shukla

Novel Nights is a monthly literary meetup with branches in Bristol and Bath. The aim is to showcase and support excellent writing and writers at all stages of their careers. Last Wednesday evening I travelled to The Square Club in Bristol to listen to four authors read from their work and discuss Writing and Persistence. The event was part of the Bristol Festival of Literature and featured Nikesh Shukla, as headline speaker.

Grace Palmer, who set up Novel Nights five years ago and continues to run it along with a supportive team, opened proceedings by welcoming the audience and introducing Jari Moate, from the festival, as host. Jari told us that the Bristol Festival of Literature is now in its eighth year and receives no outside funding, relying on donations and ticket sales. It is run by volunteers, and it was following one of its events that Grace felt inspired to set up Novel Nights.

Jari then introduced the first reader, Anesu Pswarazayi, who read an extract from his debut story collection The Nomadic Slave. This is a memoir of growing up straddling three continents – Asia, Africa and Europe – and how perspectives are influenced by race, citizenship, and ascribed identity.

  

The second reader was Mike Manson (a last minute replacement for Karla Neblett) who read an excerpt from his latest work, Down in Demerera, which completes a trilogy of humorous novels. Mike also writes history books but likes to think he will return to fiction in the future.

  

The third reader was Sabrin Hasbun who describes herself as an Italian-Palestinian transnational writer. In the last few years she has lived in France, Japan, and the UK. She is currently doing her PhD in Creative Writing – focusing on memory and memoirs – at Bath Spa University. She talked about feeling Arabic in the West and Western when in Arabia. She read from her current work in progress which is based around a family from mixed backgrounds. The excerpt was a fictionalised account of her father’s childhood, exploring the subtle differences in treatment of Christians and Muslims. The religion marked on ID cards creates an invisible border between people who live side by side.

  

Pete from Foyles then drew the first half of the evening to a close by talking about the local branch’s plans for the festive season, their last before being taken over by Waterstones. He spoke of the effect of negative reviews on book sales, such as he has observed with the new Murakami. He also mentioned the recent Booker winner, Milkman, and how it was good to see a paperback scoop the prize as this will be affordable for more readers. He urged the audience to buy the books he had brought along and support our bookshops.

After a short break Grace sat down with Nikesh Shukla and asked him to introduce his work. As well as publishing four novels, Nikesh is: editor of The Good Immigrant, has written regularly for national newspapers, and co-founded The Good Literary Agency. The following is taken from notes I scribbled down during his discussion with Grace.

Nikesh spoke of his journey as a writer, how he started what eventually became The One Who Wrote Destiny when he was nineteen years old as he wanted to tell the story of a court case involving his uncle. Uncle came to the UK in the 1960s to join a friend who had been offered a job juggling in London clubs. Not knowing the UK, Uncle ended up taking digs in Keighley where he met the young girl he would marry. As other family members joined him he tried to buy a house in Huddersfield but was informed by the estate agent that company policy was not to sell to people of colour as they ‘would devalue the area’. This was in 1968 and the Race Relations Act had just been passed. Uncle took the company to court, the first person to do so under the Act. It was clearly discrimination yet he lost the case on a technicality.

Nikesh wished to write this family history into a sort of legal thriller but couldn’t make it work so set it aside, going on to write his first and second novels. Periodically he would retrieve the manuscript and rewrite it. When he showed it to his agent it was still a mess. The structure of the story was unlocked when he realised it could be a humorous family tale – matriarch and patriarch. Sometimes an author’s work is best left to cook for years.

The One Who Wrote Destiny was eventually written from four perspectives, set in different time-frames. It explores: race relations, immigration, illness and grief, destiny, fate, science.

  

Nikesh wants to understand people – his characters and their interior lives. He wrote Destiny in the first person as he felt comfortable with this – earlier versions had been written in the third person but felt messy. He also aimed to provide a positive representation of South Asian women.

Grace asked about rejection and Nikesh explained why he believes this can be healthy if based on writing – not if based on race. He has had work rejected because the submissions reader did not believe it was authentically Asian (from a British perspective) and because the publisher is ‘already publishing an Asian writer this year’.

Nikesh regards ‘literary merit’ as bullshit. He believes rejection is about the tastes of the person reading submissions. Authors may not want to rewrite to suit an editor but can still pick up hints as to what may not be quite working. An editor needs to recognise potential and be passionate about a book. It took him years to realise that rejection wasn’t about him but about whoever was reading. He advised the audience to do their research and seek out that person who will love your work, to submit it to the correct person in an agency who will be hungry to build their lists. This requires persistence – and rejection still stings.

Asked how to know when a book is ready for submission the advice was to take as much time as was needed, to make the manuscript bullet proof, the best it can be (time is available before first book is published that will no longer exist once under contract). Nikesh suggested sharing work with trusted readers who would be honest in their feedback, then to set it aside before rereading.

Seek out agents who publish the sort of work written. Submit to multiple agents and inform all if full manuscript called in (although don’t say by who). This introduces an element of competition. When your published work appears in a bookshop rejections will be forgotten. Nikesh’s aim was to publish a book, anything after being a bonus. He sometimes needs to remind himself of this.

There must be an element of trust between author, agent and editor – an ability to talk through any issues or concerns. Nikesh was not impressed with the recent comments made by Booker judges about the standard of editing. His experiences have mostly been positive.

Asked about The Good Literary Agency, Nikesh told us they are now signing up writers and have a huge submissions pile. They have just completed their first six figure deal with Transworld, for an author who had spent twenty years on her book.

Not all writers have the time or ability to enroll on creative writing courses, MAs or retreats. The Good Literary Agency aims to offer mentoring and to to nurture its authors.

A member of the audience asked Nikesh about the emotional impact on him as a writer when writing his characters’ emotions. He told us that he has never made himself cry but he has laughed. Destiny did not affect him in this way, perhaps because it was reworked significantly. Nikesh regards writing as therapy so his emotional response is more often one of relief. He spends so long with his characters he comes to know what to expect from them.

Nikesh was asked  how he engages with those who may not see writing as for them, perhaps due to their socio-economic upbringing. He suggested school visits and engaging with whatever makes an author appear accessible to the children. He mentioned one boy who asked him about the hair gel he wore. The teacher was not impressed but Nikesh understood that this was a potential connection that could be built on.

He considers the discussion around Booker winner Anna Burns interesting. She was on benefits because she needed the benefits. The fact that she used some of her time to write was her choice. Making money from writing is a challenge. Nikesh can spend longer each week doing events.

Another question was asked about emotions. Nikesh talked about the importance of keeping the author’s voice off the page – of reactions remaining the characters’. Authorial distance matters.

Asked about what compromises should be made for the reader who may not understand the reality of a culture Nikesh expressed a need to push back against certain attitudes, to use authentic names even if these are not familiar or some may find them hard to remember.

Asked if he had any interest in collaborating, perhaps writing a graphic novel, Nikesh was enthusiastic. He would love to write a Spiderman novel. He reads graphic novels and has recently enjoyed Booker longlisted Sabrina.

As Grace said in her summing up:

“we learned such a lot from Nikesh tonight – about persistence as a writer, the importance of a good editor, ideas on when to push back with an editor, advice on choosing agents”

I enjoy the discussions at Novel Nights for their candid content. The evening was well worth attending.

As an aside, I appreciated the value of having a professional photographer to hand. Compare the somewhat dark and blurry photos above, snapped on my phone throughout the evening, with these taken by Tom Shot Photography, who gave me permission to include a few of his – taken along with several other images that you may wish to check out shared by Grace on the Novel Nights Facebook page.

  

  

The One Who Wrote Destiny is published by Atlantic Books.

You may read my review here.

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Gig Review: Sally Rooney in Bath

The following is taken from notes I jotted down at the event.

Last Sunday evening I attended a packed event at Toppings bookshop in Bath where Sally Rooney gave readings from her latest novel, the Booker longlisted Normal People, and discussed how she approached her writing. She was introduced by Matt, one of the booksellers and an obviously ardent fan. Sally then read from the opening pages of her book.

She told us that she wished to tell the stories of the protagonists, Marianne and Connell, from each of their perspectives. She first started writing about these characters in short stories, set when they were in their twenties. Her first attempt placed them at a political protest but that story didn’t work out. She then wrote a second story about them which was published in The White Review. As the characters kept turning up in her writing she decided to allow them to stay and to develop them further.

At this stage Sally didn’t have a publishing contract. The jumps in time in the novel occurred because she was writing about the stages in the characters’ lives that she was interested in. Normal People was written over a two year period but Marianne and Connell had been with Sally for a year longer than this.

Matt asked about the genesis of her first novel, Conversations With Friends.

Sally was studying at Trinity College Dublin for her Masters. She had a scholarship that covered fees and was working part time in a restaurant. She had no real idea what she would do next. The book was her first attempt at a full length novel. It turned into a long long novel. Once finished she set it aside and wrote the short stories about Marianne and Connell. She worked on both these manuscripts, back and forth, for her own amusement. She knew she wanted to be a writer but with no contract felt under no pressure, enjoying the freedom to write what she wanted. She suspects that there will be pressure with whatever she writes next, that she will feel a need to create something new and different.

Matt asked what it is about the novels that resonates so with readers.

Sally has no idea. When writing she considered her subjects niche and of limited appeal. They are culturally specific, about the life she was living (although not autobiographical). She is grateful that people like her books but has no idea why certain novels work. She now wonders why she thought such specificity would not be liked as many of her favourite novels involve characters that are nothing like her.

Matt asked how she got an agent.

An essay Sally wrote was published in the Dublin Review. This was spotted by an agent who contacted her asking if she had a novel, giving her the motivation to tidy up what became Conversations With Friends.

Sally talked about how strange it feels to see her novels as a product in a bookshop, to see a fixed version of the text. If she wants to she can still go to her laptop, pull up the word document and change it!

She loves writing and feels grateful that she can do this now. It feels incredibly rewarding having this imaginative existence. The pleasure of writing is completely separate from the experience of publishing a book.

Matt asked about the idea of masculinity. He said it blew his mind reading about Connell’s recognition of how he should behave alongside the reality of his behaviour.

Sally explained that during the process of writing she isn’t aware of broader ideas. She writes how characters are and how they act. Later she will think about issues covered more, asking if she is doing the character justice or making him a puppet to express her ideas.

Ideas of gender are a series of cultural texts. Children grow up being exposed to what is regarded as appropriate for a boy and a girl. They absorb this. Navigating expectations as a young person can be difficult and complex.

Sally wishes to be able to sympathise with her protagonists. She wishes to remain optimistic about the possibility of redemption.

The second reading was taken from the chapter in Normal People where Connell has just started at university and attends a party. Sally’s reading brought out the ironic humour of the text.


Photo taken from my seat at the back of a packed bookshop. Sally is there in the distance!

Questions were invited from the audience.

A reader asked about the endings of both novels as she felt they stopped rather abruptly.

The ending was the part of the stories that Sally struggled with most. When writing Conversations With Friends she regarded it as a tapestry in which every loose thread must be tied. She then realised that she could actually just end it if she wanted. This was liberating. She chose to leave the ending open. With Normal People she got to around the tenth draft and saw similarities with a book she was reading, Daniel Deronda by George Eliot. The overlaps may be a byproduct of her total immersion in the text but it helped her understand how her book should end. She believes in ambivalence, inconclusiveness.

Sally was asked what books and authors inspire her.

As well as Daniel Deronda she named Emma by Jane Austin which also has echoes in her writing. Emma is another twenty-something year old woman, with similar problems despite living two hundred years ago. Sally enjoys eighteenth and nineteenth century bourgeoisie novels, the intimate lives of those who have a lot of free time. The Irish experience is, of course, culturally and politically different due to historic land ownership.

She also enjoys reading contemporary short story writers. For better or worse she is influenced by texts and tweets.

Sally was asked about how she handles class, why Connell’s working class background is so integral.

Reading has informed an image of society. It is hard to write without observing the texture of how class structures interactions. Sally came from the West of Ireland to attend Trinity and felt alienated. A much larger proportion of Trinity students than is normal in Irish society come from elite families. She was determined to prove that she could be as good as them.

She feels invested in and wants to be sensitive to class issues.

Sally was asked what sparked Marianne’s submissiveness and power, if she researched these issues.

No, she didn’t research. She doesn’t wish to create a commentary on such issues. She writes about the characters she creates, how they carry past experiences. They will be influenced by trauma but also every other thing – layers of experience. She is not trying to write as an expert. She wants to be politically sensitive but also true to the weirdness of individuals.

In Normal People she was telling one story – the relationship between Marianne and Connell. It was not necessary to include every other detail of their lives.

The third reading concluded the evening. This was a section where Connell attends a literary event. He is suffering depression which perhaps feeds the cynicism expressed. It was amusing, given the venue and audience, that Sally chose this to read.


Photograph Credit: Toppings twitter feed – @ToppingsBath

As staff cleared away the many seats two queues formed: to buy books and have them signed. Despite the length of the queues it was good to see that the author found time to chat to each reader.

It was getting late so I decided against waiting and headed back out into the rain to make my way home. Sally came across as genuine and interesting. I was glad to have attended this event.

Normal People is published by Faber & Faber. Signed copies are currently available to buy at Toppings in Bath

Book Review: Self and I

Self & I, by Matthew De Abaitua, is a cautionary yet always engaging tale, ideal for anyone who dreams of becoming a published author. Written in the form of a memoir it recalls true events and interactions from the author’s earlier years. It offers a reflection on a bygone era capturing how life was experienced without the maturity of hindsight. It remains mindful of those involved at the time.

In July 1994, twenty-two year old Matthew Humphreys was employed by Will Self as the newly divorced enfant terrible of the British literary scene’s amanuensis, translated as slave-at-hand. Matthew lived alongside the in-demand author in a remote cottage in Sussex. He was eager to learn from his new employer and develop his own writing. Matthew grew up in a Liverpool dormitory town, took a holiday job as a security guard on the city’s docks, attained an English Literature degree from the University of York, and studied creative writing at the University of East Anglia under the tutelage of Malcolm Bradbury. He was still waiting for his expected coming-of-age moment that would define what he would afterwards be.

1994 was before the internet and social media. Authors expected to be revered, to have readers accept whatever they were given. Writers sought validation from other writers, feeling anger and frustration when readers didn’t pay their work the attention they believed it deserved.

“A sympathetic protagonist, an easy and unassuming prose style, and a strong plot – these were marks of weakness. Signs of pandering to the reader. And who wants to hang out with that loser?”

Matthew was a naive young man full of big words and little understanding. Now a creative writing lecturer at the University of Essex he may well have written this book with his students in mind. It is very funny in places and offers an insight into the mindsets of both an aspiring and an established author. Will Self was well aware of how the world viewed him and worked on maintaining his reputation despite the personal costs. He offered the young Matthew practical help and advice whilst warning him against the excesses in which he himself regularly indulged.

“Play up the vivid persona and use it to smuggle the work into the culture. The side effect of such a public persona is that it becomes the object of other people’s frustrated ambition, and they take out their grievances upon the work.”

In the period covered Matthew is attempting to find his place in the world whilst learning to accept his own inadequacies. At times he struggles with the lonely life in the cottage and his relationships with the people he interacts with, including those from his home town.

“The people you leave behind, the life you reject. Old friends are signposts down an untaken path. Ambition requires betrayal.”

Matthew worked for Will Self for six months although they remained in contact for longer. As well as relating thoughts and incidents from this time he offers the reader pivotal periods from his background, and what came after. He recognises now that he didn’t yet have the lived experiences needed to strengthen his writing. He was impatient for the life he craved to begin.

“I was a young man who compared the books I read with the books in my head, and found them wanting.”

He quotes author Jenny Offill who wrote

“You are not allowed to compare your imagined accomplishments to our actual ones.”

The ups and downs of living with a big personality like Will Self is fascinating but the insights in this book come from the author’s musings on his own thoughts and actions at the time. He has captured the intense certitude of a young person alongside that giddy concern encountered when they realise achievements beyond qualifications do not come with a map. In time Matthew will become a published author. That path is but one in a life chequered by mixed experiences and not coming to an end with the longed for publication.

As a reader with no illusions of ever acquiring the skills needed to write a book I am probably comparable to the nineties authors’ derided fans. I wonder if, in private, we are still thus perceived.

“Novels give us access to other lives, a few of which might be our own. Literary ambition belongs to readers as well as writers.”

An original memoir that is both absorbing and highly entertaining. Recommended to all with an interest in the world of creative writers, their yearnings, perturbations and conceits.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Eye Books.

Gig Review: Novel Nights in Bristol, with guest speaker Sanjida Kay

Novel Nights is a monthly gathering of writers, with groups currently meeting in Bristol and Bath. Co-founded in 2013 by Grace Palmer, who is herself a writer and creative writing teacher, the group offers a platform for up and coming authors who may introduce and read from their work. These readings are followed by a discussion with an invited guest who will offer insight into some aspect of the creative writing process.

I previously attended when Jon Woolcott, from independent publisher Little Toller Books, gave a fascinating talk on The Business of BooksOn Wednesday of this week I returned to Bristol to hear Sanjida Kay discuss How to Plot. This subject was of particular interest as the emphasis was to be on writing commercial fiction – genres that are popular with readers and sell in large numbers. I wished to better understand the perspective of an author who started out writing literary fiction but now writes psychological thrillers.

In preparation for the event I read Sanjida’s latest book, My Mother’s Secret. I have previously read three other of the eleven books she has published (these include non fiction – she has a PhD in Chimpanzees) – Bone by Bone, The Stolen Child, and from her earlier work, Angel Bird.

The first half of the evening showcased three other writers. First up was Emma Gifford who read from her novel, All Our Possible Futures – a love story with adventure elements that she started on her Creative Writing MA at Bath Spa University. She recently graduated with distinction and has since completed and edited the manuscript. The story is set in the UK and the Amazon rainforest. It explores the effects of the environmental crisis on a young mother’s mental health.

The second reader was Dave Weaver who has had five novels published by speculative fiction publisher, Elsewhen Press. He has also self-published three short story collections. He offered his thoughts on being published by a small press. The main issues appeared to be the problems of promotion and distribution, which he felt were similar to those faced when self publishing. He did, however, enjoy benefits from being a part of a publishing ‘family’ and the personal attention this offered from the team.

Dave read from his novel, The Unseen – a ghost story with an unreliable narrator who has visions and dreams. The latest of these involved the protagonist’s late wife, urging him to buy a cottage she had wished to purchase. He suffers from guilt following her sudden death.

The third reader was Jen Faulkner who was tutored by Fay Weldon on her Creative Writing Masters at Bath Spa University. The manuscript Jen created was shortlisted for the prize for best submission in her year. Following her inclusion in a subsequent anthology she signed with an agent and is now working with an editor. Writing a novel may be a challenge but is only the beginning of a long process involving much editing and then waiting.

Jen mentioned that she watches many films and learns from how stories are developed in this medium to help her balance structure, pace, tension and drama in her writing. She read from her book, provisionally titled The Cuckoo’s Child, whose protagonist suffers from post-natal depression. The woman is concerned that she is losing her mind, and that those close to her are not taking her concerns seriously. She feels trapped in a life she does not want, feels mounting anger at her baby’s crying, and suffers increasing paranoia.

After a short break it was over to Sanjida who was interviewed by Grace before answering questions from the audience. First though she read from the prologue of her recently published novel, My Mother’s Secret. The cliffhanger she left us on generated a collective exhalation from the audience.

Grace asked, do you plot? 

Humans intrinsically have stories. They understand the need for a beginning, middle and end – the essence of plot. Genre fiction, which includes psychological thrillers, requires tight plotting due to deadlines. Sanjida is contracted to submit one book each year. She explained how she achieves this.

Her idea for a next book is submitted as a one line pitch. If accepted she will then turn this into a half page summary, like the blurb on the back of a book but containing spoilers. From here the story is developed into a four or five page document detailing who the characters are, whose point of view the story is told from and what is going to happen to each of them. An 8-10,000 word draft is then produced which includes every scene from the novel but lacking detail, for example from My Mother’s Secret there were several scenes ‘Adam and Stella get closer’ which obviously needed elaboration. Sanjida has six months to complete a manuscript, including her own initial editing. By putting down 2500 words a day this can be achieved but only if structure and content are already clear. There is no time for major plot revisions so advance planning is necessary. After submission she will receive her work back with suggested changes and have a mere three weeks for rewrites before it goes for copy editing, proof reading and printing.

Writing commercial fiction has its constraints.

Psychological thrillers are about the bad thing that might happen. They are about fear and threat internalised. Each story requires an exciting incident at the beginning to draw the reader in. There then need to be crises to maintain interest. There must also be a satisfying ending that offers closure for the reader.

There are certain obligatory scenes – love interests must at some point get together. There must be twists, turns and reversals, progressive complications. These could be small events that create a major crisis for a particular character. Whatever happens leads to an inevitability that must at some point be addressed.

Grace asked, does setting influence plot?

Setting is important as it mirrors the characters and their actions. In Her Mother’s Secret, Lizzie felt safe in the wide open spaces of the Lake District whereas Emma felt safe in the middle class surroundings of Long Ashton and Tyntesfield (a National Trust property).

Grace asked, with three narrators how do you keep track of narrative arcs?

Prior to writing the detail, who exactly will be in each scene is set out. The secret is revealed half way through but not all characters are privy to this, and that must be managed and developed. There is also a big twist at the end which must remain consistent with what has gone before. Emma and Stella are on the same timeline so were written together, from beginning to end. Lizzie’s chapters were then dropped in as required. Graphs were used to chart emotion and action, with plot points marked. Sanjida’s current novel has ten characters and two points of view. She has added index cards to her process to help keep things in order.

Questions were invited from the audience, one of whom asked about reversals.

Scenes require changes in emotion, a reveal or a twist that the reader won’t have seen coming. It is not necessary to write in acts but reveals must move the plot forward.

How does Sanjida lead the reader to a big twist?

Drip feed information so that the reader begins to guess, hopefully getting it wrong. Set up red herrings. Add innocent actions that can be deemed incriminating. Introduce diversion tactics.

Did a book deal change how Sanjida plots?

Her first book took ten years to write and involved extensive research, including travelling abroad. She then had a year to write the next book so had to change how she worked. She also had to figure out what her publisher wanted – her second book wasn’t. Now she is more savvy, not so much constrained as writing to meet her readers’ expectations. Her publishers are keen that she deliver what her particular readers want, for example she was advised not to kill a character, although putting him in a coma was fine.

Writing can be character driven (they do something which changes the direction of the plot) or plot driven (work that out first and then create characters to fit). What matters is authenticity.

Sanjida no longer has time for lengthy research but has early reader buddies and brainstorms with a police procedural expert.

Why did she switch to psychological thrillers?

This followed a meeting with her agent. They were discussing an idea (from a dream!) and Sanjida was advised to write it. There is also the financial aspect. She no longer has the luxury of spending two years in a library, she has to make money. Literary fiction gives a warm glow in the heart but won’t pay for the champagne.

How does she stop her day to day mood affecting her writing?

Partly to do with deadlines, which can be stressful, but mostly managed by routine and getting into her writing zone. This is not to say she doesn’t procrastinate…

Sanjida works out in advance what her characters need, what they want, how they will change through the course of the story. She finds pictures on the internet of how she imagines they look and keeps that image in mind as she writes. She does not base them on real people, although aspects are drawn from those she knows, including herself, and these are magnified to make them more extreme. She has done the Myers-Briggs Personality Test on some characters.

And with that, time ran out and Grace had to draw the evening to a close. I was grateful for the candour with which Sanjida spoke. I may no longer read many psychological thrillers but I can understand the reasoning behind writing in that genre, and also, of course, why well written commercial fiction remains popular with so many readers.

 

My Mother’s Secret is published by Corvus Books and is available to buy now.

 

The next Novel Nights gathering in Bristol will be held on 27th June. In this talk and discussion, award-winning author Tyler Keevil will explore how music can influence the way writers work, both as a source of inspiration and as a means to help maintain creative focus, and keep a project on track. Further details may be found here.

Gig Review: Novel Nights in Bristol, with guest speaker Jon Woolcott

“Novel Nights is a monthly literary event in Bristol and Bath showcasing and supporting excellent writing and writers at all stages of their career.”

I am a fan of independent publisher Little Toller which publishes books about nature, rural life, and local history, mainly in the British Isles. As well as being informative and engaging, their books are beautifully presented – high quality and aesthetically pleasing. I am always happy to receive one to review. When I spotted on Twitter that Jon Woolcott was to speak at a writers’ group in Bristol, and that all were welcome, I decided to go along. What an enjoyable evening it turned out to be.

Held in The Square Club, Clifton, this well attended and welcoming group offers creative writers the opportunity to read from their work prior to a talk from an invited guest. Last week we were treated to three excerpts from as yet unpublished novels, all with a nature theme.

Polly Roberts read from the novel she wrote as part of her Creative Writing MA, provisionally titled ‘Animals’ and currently looking for a home. This is a work of fiction and, in the excerpt read, the prose had a poetic quality. It described relationships between otters – the book is set in the English countryside.

Andy Morgan is a writer and journalist. He read from his non fiction work, ‘Sahara Soul Rebels’.

“Self, desert and nature are one and nature is beautiful”

Despite conflicts in the area there is a deep love for the land.

“I’m free in my country”

Grace Palmer, the founder of Novel Nights, read from ‘Cathy’s Field’. The excerpt centred around memories – an attachment to land that was to be sold.

“Time to let it all go”

Although based on a particular landscape on the Staffordshire / Shropshire border, the world and characters are fictional. This was the first chapter in a book Grace is working on.

There followed a short break allowing drinks to be purchased and conversations with other attendees to be enjoyed before Jon took his seat to give his talk on The Business of Books.

Jon has, over the course of his career to date, worked for Waterstones, Ottakars and Stanfords booksellers. He is aware that there can be a disconnect between author, publisher and retailer. In an industry that loves to gossip, where a plethora of information exists, rumours are rife. Jon gave is some facts.

In 2016 (the last year for which figures are available), the total sales from all publishers in the UK amounted to some £3.5 billion, £1.5 billion of which was exported. Around 160,000 individual titles were published. These included technical, academic, self-published and reprints of older books. There were around 60,000 ebooks published, many as co-editions of physical titles. How, in a market awash with books, does a bookseller decide what to stock?

Bookshops are businesses. Their primary priority is to remain solvent. They will therefore stock what sells, including cookbooks, celebrity memoirs and best-selling authors. Deciding what units of stock will shift can be tricky and there have been some notable disasters in the past twenty or so years.

The first of these was the end of the net book agreement. This led to retailers offering discounts on premium authors, the very titles that would sell anyway, to get customers through the door. Supermarkets wanted a slice of the action – Asda offered one of the new Harry Potter titles for a fiver. Waterstones introduced its 3 for 2 multibuys.

Then there was Amazon. The use of the ISBN enabled the online retailer to easily catalogue available books. In response to Amazon’s success several bricks and mortar chains abandoned their ecommerce operations, although many of these have since been reinstated. Amazon was accepted as the go to on line shop.

Next came the Richard and Judy Book Club. Their first title was expected to sell perhaps twenty thousand units. It sold ten times this amount. In response, publishing focused on that market. It influenced commissioning decisions, packaging and price. Publishers tried to produce books more cheaply, affecting quality and creating generic designs.

Soon after came ebooks. For certain genres this caused a 20% drop in sales, badly affecting bookshops. Books are, after all, discretionary purchases. Attempts to copy the success of the Kindle failed.

Then, in 2011 the Booker Prize winner, Julian Barnes, praised the design of his novel. He stated that if physical books were to have a life in the world of ebooks they must be beautiful, that the product must be created to gain attention. Jon equated this to the plumage on birds.

The race to the bottom ceased.

Around the same time Waterstones was sold to a Russian billionaire who simplified the business. A centralised buying structure was introduced, stores were refurbished and many of the price promotions removed. As a result sales fell but so did returns. Publishers grew used to selling books over a longer period rather than simply around initial publication.

Book tables are now less likely to hold only the latest best sellers. Curation has grown in importance. The shortcomings of the Kindle have been recognised – they have a place but not a monopoly. The landscape of bookselling is as stable today as it has been for some time.

The invisible giant, Amazon, remains with its poor pay and ability to avoid tax. However, readers are aware of this and can make informed choices. Many bookshops, including the independents, will take on line orders and post direct to readers.

Although the big publishers are still mainly London based there has been a notable growth in the small presses. They are willing to take risks on what they believe in, and most bookshops are willing to stock their titles. Social media offers access to readers. Although still tiny, managing to survive month by month, they offer authors greater flexibility and a beautiful end product.

So, how does this affect writers?

Firstly, bookshops matter. Forge relationships with booksellers early on. Seek advice on what sells. Make friends but don’t make it all about your book. Be realistic in expectations – bookshops are commercial enterprises. Offer to sign books (there is no truth in the rumour that signed books cannot be returned). Offer to do events, then provide the audience by inviting friends. Generate interest by joining up with another writer to offer a Q&A and help sell their books as well as your own.

Other aspects that matter are a good AI sheet – offer to meet the publisher’s sales rep. Use social media – The Big Green Bookshop is a fine example of how this can work. Provide content for the local newspaper, perhaps the story behind the book. Invest time in creating an author website or blog – and sing the praises of your local bookshop. Encourage readers to use their library too.

Jon was asked about the recent growth of interest in nature writing. He suggested this could be partly nostalgia but also an increase in awareness of the planet. Little Toller started out republishing nature classics but now publishes more contemporary works, some from commissions and others from submissions. It remains small, operating out of a converted cow byre on its founders’ farm.

With that the evening was drawn to a close and the audience were able to browse and buy from a tempting range of Little Toller books. As anticipated, this had proved a truly fascinating evening.

Little Toller Books will publish the latest in their Monograph Series, Eagle Country by Seán Lysaght, in April 2018. It is available to buy now if ordered direct – click on the cover below.

You may keep up with events organised by Novel Nights on their website and by following them on Twitter: NovelNights (@novelnightsuk)

You may follow Jon Woolcott on Twitter (@jonwoolcott) and also Little Toller Books (@LittleToller)

Book Review: Tinderbox

Tinderbox, by Megan Dunn, is a book about the author’s failure to write a book, and how this led to her writing this one. It provides a window into the creative process and much else besides.

In November 2013 Dunn set out to participate in NaNoWriMo. The premise for her novel was a rewrite of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 from the perspective of Clarisse McClellan, the teenager who befriends the fireman in Bradbury’s work. Dunn intended to produce a homage to the book, which she had studied in High School. Things didn’t quite go to plan.

Dunn decides to reread the novel but ends up taking much of her material from Sparks Notes (a study guide) and the 1966 film version of the book, featuring Julie Christie. Dunn admires how Christie dresses and looks. She is also fascinated by the film making process detailed in the DVD extras. She is easily distracted when writing which provides for entertaining asides.

By 2013 Dunn had left behind her career as a bookseller at Borders, a chain of bookshops that went into administration in the UK in 2009. She recounts episodes from her experiences in the various branches where she worked, and of being made redundant. Her recollections are honest and lacking the usual sentiment book lovers apply to booksellers. As an aspiring author she had hoped that inspiration would seep from the pages of the stock she handled but this wasn’t to be.

Dunn struggles to churn out the words required to meet the NaNoWriMo target. She ponders Bradbury’s creative process, how he wrote Fahrenheit 451 on a library typewriter hired by the hour, completing the first draft in nine days. Her own writing refuses to flow.

Dunn reflects on the books that sell well; on culture snobs and the popularity of reality TV; on the rise of Amazon and growth of on-line retail; on Kindles and other eReaders. She studies the future as imagined by Bradbury and observes the habits and technology of today.

The writing is sharp and contemporary. There is no shying away from such issues as the prevalence of downloading digital content illegally. Dunn admits to drug taking and reflects on the breakup of her marriage. She mentions the large number of creative writing courses she enrolled in over the years. It is refreshing to find an autobiographical account of failure that is unapologetic and makes no attempt to garner pity.

I haven’t read Fahrenheit 451 or watched the film referenced but this didn’t detract from my enjoyment. Dunn’s portrayal of book selling was of particular interest. The writing throughout is droll and pithy, the existence of this book an against the odds achievement. It should be recommended reading for aspiring authors everywhere.

Tinderbox is published by Galley Beggar Press.

How to be an author – Guest post by Brad Parks

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Today I am delighted to welcome Brad Parks, author of Say Nothing, to my blog. In this guest post Brad shares his thoughts on what it takes to write a book. 

 

Having lurked around this blog, I’m aware that Jackie, my gracious host at Never Imitate, Jackie, is a woman interested in all things writing.

And given that I’m the new guy here – Say Nothing is my first book to release in the UK – I probably ought to just shove my hands deep in my pockets, mumble something nice about how you should write what you know, and call it a guest blog post.

Yeah, to hell with that.

I’m here. I’m going to rant. Because while I may be new around here, I’m not new to the writing community. I’ve hung around the bars, the conferences – and, most importantly, the bars at the conferences – long enough. I hear people talk about “talent” (such a misleading word), or “genius” (oh, please) or, worse, “inspiration” (I’ve got your muse right here in my pocket, pal).

And I feel like there’s one thing writers never talk about enough:

Stubbornness.

By stubbornness, I mean gamely bashing your head against the laptop screen – repeatedly and without letting up – until the words come out right; and then keeping at it, day after tormenting/boring/seemingly pointless day, until the whole manuscript comes out right.

And that has nothing to do with talent; or some kind of God-given genius; or, most of all, some blasted muse that will fly down on gossamer wings and alight on your shoulder.

It has to do with grit. And tenacity. And deciding you are simply going to be tougher than everyone else alive.

And you don’t have to be smart to do that. You just have to be breathing.

A small anecdote to illustrate what I’m talking about:

When my wife was in grad school, she had to learn how to administer intelligence tests and I served as her test dummy. Literally. There was one test – I think it was for seven-year- olds – where you had to rearrange blocks.

The scoring was a sliding scale based on how quickly you could complete the task. You didn’t get any points if it took longer than two minutes, but the catch was the test administrator couldn’t tell you to stop.

I kept fumbling with those stupid blocks for twenty-six minutes before I finally solved a problem that slightly-above- average seven-year- olds could do in a fraction of that time.

But that’s the great thing about writing. There’s no stopwatch on you. And you don’t have to be the brightest seven-year- old – or even a dumb forty-two- year-old. You just have to be willing to do the work.

So, yes, my UK debut, Say Nothing, released last week. And maybe the publisher would like you to believe I am just some supremely talented – God, I hate that word – scribbler who was gifted this amazing story one day. But I know better.

And now so do you.

 

Brad Parks is the only author to have won the Shamus, Nero, and Lefty Awards, three of American crime fiction’s most prestigious prizes. Say Nothing is his UK debut.

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Say Nothing is published by Faber and Faber and is available to buy now.

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This post is a stop on the Say Nothing Blog Tour. Do check out the other posts, detailed above.