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All about reading groups and writing groups – Ep12 FREE podcast for writers

In this episode we’re spanning the entire spectrum of the book-reader continuum. What makes a good writing group? What makes a good reading group or book club? How do you organise such a group? How do you find a group that suits you? Should authors visit book groups or does it cramp everyone’s style? We have the answers!

Mu co-host is independent bookseller Peter Snell.

Stream from the widget below or go to our Mixcloud page and binge the whole lot.

PS If you’d like more concentrated writing advice, try my Nail Your Novel books. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, find my latest newsletter here and subscribe to future updates here.

 

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Are you a writer? Don’t neglect your reading – guest post at Writers Helping Writers

writershelpingIt’s always a struggle to find time to write. If you’ve got a book in progress, it’s tempting to spend all your free moments on it. But don’t sacrifice time that you would usually spend reading. It’s a false economy.

Similarly, don’t fear that your reading is going to influence your work to a detrimental extent, or that you might end up copying ideas. The chances are you won’t. Your book is much bigger in your mind than anything you read, or watch, or any conversation you overhear. Any influence will be minor by comparison with the huge amount of work you’ve already done.

But if you stop reading while you write your book you might lose touch with the way prose tells stories, and you won’t be using your ideas to their maximum potential. We do many things on instinct, and those instincts are learned unconciously. Reading feeds our muse and our technique.

Today I’m at the wonderful Writers Helping Writers site, run by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi of Emotion Thesaurus fame. They’ve devised a series of writing lectures this year and have invited various coaches to be regular contributors, and I’m honoured to be on their list (note that nice award they have from Writer’s Digest). And because I wrote the piece as the year was turning, my mind was operating in resolution mode. If I was to identify a change that I’d urge writers to make, what should it be? Many of my author clients would do their work a world of good by reading more, but it’s  job to persuade them. So here’s my persuasion. Do hop over.

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Reading vs watching and The Night Manager – why I prefer the book

51qdfvUxcdL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_I recently watched the BBC’s adaptation of John le Carré’s The Night Manager, and of course went straight to the novel afterwards. I thoroughly enjoyed the TV adaptation, but I’m loving the novel more.

You might think that’s an obvious thing for a writer to say. But I’d like to think about why.

Let’s put aside certain practicalities. Obviously the book had to be reshaped to translate it to TV, and updated for 2016 (technology, current world events, making a key character female).

That’s not what I want to talk about; I’m interested here in the medium of delivery. The watching senses compared with the reading ones. Why do I find reading the novel is more special than watching the show?

Books are interior

A key difference is the organisation of Jonathan Pine’s back story. In the TV version this is streamlined into simple chronological order, but the novel shuffles the material to us in digressions. A character makes a remark and Pine is taken back to an earlier event. At first this seems quite digressive, but gradually you’re bedded more deeply into Pine’s buried layers, his stifled memories and his slow awakening into a new man.

415sjZHeUVL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_This interority is something that’s difficult for TV or film to achieve, although Krzysztof Kieślowski is a notable example of a writer-director who does. But usually, watching makes us outsiders. So the BBC’s Night Manager is an adventure story – and a gripping one. The novel is that too, but it’s also more secret, troubled and private.

Characters and reality

Somehow, I’m finding the characters on the page are more tangible than when they are played by actors. Le Carré’s descriptions seem more potent than seeing an actor physically embody a person. In a film, a character comes to you complete – with hands, voice, expression, stance, clothes. In prose, a character usually appears in fragments. Those fragments are the magic.

For instance, describing Richard Roper’s charm. An actor could play charm, but a writer can pinpoint the essence of that charm – and make us notice something about how charm works:

He let you know that you could tell him anything, and he would still be smiling at the end of it.’

The author is not a camera giving head-to-toe details; he is a judging, communicating intelligence who can show us what it’s like to be in a person’s presence, at a given moment. It gives you experience as well as observation. Describing Roper’s girlfriend Jed:

Her wit and language have a hypnotic draw. There is something irresistibly funny to everyone, including herself, about the convent-educated English voice enunciating the vocabulary of a navvy. “Darling, do we actually give a fart about the Donahues?” ’

Could a camera or an actor ever express that, and so precisely? And this, when Jonathan Pine is increasingly troubled by the siren Jed:

He watched her in fragments forced upon him. A chance view of her entire upper body in her bedroom mirror while she was changing…’

How would a camera say ‘forced upon him’?

I find this to be a wonderful paradox. A good writer can make a character more alive in your mind than a flesh-and-blood actor can. An actor seems to give just physicality. No matter how closely a camera observes their face, it’s happening at a distance. But a writer is inside your intellect and your feelings. With a well-turned line they can they give you the experience of being with a person – or indeed of being them. You’re passing a door, arrested by a glimpse of a girl undressing.

Feeling perceptive

The cleverness of a good author makes you feel a bit ennobled, better with words yourself. More intelligent, perceptive. Words are far, far more fun than watching.

Take a bad toupee. (Go on, you know you want to.) Le Carré describes it as ‘like a black bear’s paw’. Isn’t it far more fun to read that description than to see a bad toupee in a picture? In a million years, would you have thought of that line? When you read, you share the mind of someone who does.

And this.

Women with chiselled faces they never had when they were young, and tucked stomachs and tucked bottoms … but no surgery on earth could spare them the manacled slowness of old age as they lowered themselves into the pool…’

A good writer knows how to go ‘straight to the switchboard’.

Stop – isn’t that an excellent line? It’s not mine, it’s le Carré. A phrase used by Roper’s security guard when describing a technique of interrogation.

Interrogation. That’s a difference I should also mention: how you contribute so much of a book’s experience from your own grey matter. The pictures, places, sounds, significance. For Franz Kafka, books were ‘the axe for the frozen sea within us’.

Your own pace

And here’s another difference I like. You take a book at your own speed. Dawdle as long as you like over a page, a paragraph, a phrase. In a movie you obey the director’s clock, or the editor’s. In a book, the author sets the pace, of course, but you can adjust it. Linger over a passage you like. Skim the parts you don’t.

51NAwF7BkIL._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_I hadn’t considered how important that was until Husband Dave and I read the same book simultaneously. We found we had two copies of William Boyd’s Ordinary Thunderstorms so we did them in tandem, like a real-time book club. It was fun. We could say ‘I didn’t like the bit where…’ or ‘I’m hoping the character won’t do such-and-such’. I was aware, though, that I was reading to a schedule, so I didn’t let myself linger or dawdle as usual – and I felt rushed.

Reading a book you enjoy isn’t, actually, a hop from this word to this then this, like watching subtitles on a movie or the lyrics prompt on karaoke. It’s not a linear trot through the page from top to bottom, in order. If you want, it can be more like snakes and ladders. You can check a fact or a character name. Wander back to enjoy a favourite fragment again. You can take a book in your own time, your personal journey.

I love reading Nail Your Novel

Ultimately, a book plays with your mind more, yet belongs to you more as well. Perhaps that’s it.

Tell me your thoughts.

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Reading revolutions: serialising a novel – interview at the Malaysia Star

serialmalayYou really know you’re in a world wide web when an email arrives from a journalist on a newspaper in Malaysia. Elizabeth Tai contacted me for a series she was writing called reading revolutions. She’d seen that I had originally released my first novel, My Memories of a Future Life, as a four-part serial on Kindle, and wanted to ask me how that worked and why I did it. We talk about pros, cons, cautions – and tips I’d give to anyone considering doing the same. Come on over…

And in the meantime, tell me: where’s the furthest-flung place you’ve had a surprise email from about your work?

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The courage to be yourself – help me build my reading list

What novels can you recommend about having the courage to be an individual?

My MC in Life Form 3 is the odd one out. He is in a regimented world that crushes originality. He begins to get an inkling that there is something much better than his monotonous life.

Life Form 3 is the story of his fight to come alive.

(Forgive the vagueness, but I’m keeping the lower-case about under my hat until I’ve got a draft that’s mature. And if those precocious italics are all Greek to you, my previous post explains all.) 

Anyway, I’m trying to read as much as possible that tackles these questions – whether YA, MG or adult fiction. I’m particularly interested in stories that show a boring, grinding world without putting the reader into a coma.

And so I throw the floor open – can you help me build my Life Form 3 reading list? What novels would you recommend?

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How I built my career – writer, typesetter and editor Amie McCracken @amiemccracken

How do you get a career working with words? We all have our own routes. In a new occasional series, I’m interviewing people who’ve turned their wordy bookwormy passions into their profession. Today: Amie McCracken

Roz How did you get here?

Amie In a roundabout way to be honest. Though I have always been obsessed with story and books and reading, I went to college thinking I would become a journalist. I double-majored in creative writing and photojournalism. When college ended, I tried my best to find a job in magazines or a publishing house. Nothing panned out; instead I worked as a veterinary technician for my dad as well as a smattering of other odd jobs until my husband and I moved to Germany.

It was then that I started getting into the freelance editing world. It really is my passion, but it took me a while to figure that out and to find my groove.

Roz What was the first step and how did it lead to paid work?

Amie I have worked my butt off, a lot of it for free.

There really is no clear-cut way to freelancing. It takes a lot of networking (how I met you, Roz!) and putting yourself out there. I worked for a few small presses to begin with, had a few mishaps in working for the wrong people—a vanity press at one point, eek!—but gradually I have built my reputation and now writers come to me.

Roz Same here. I did a lot of things I wasn’t a good fit for, but while doing them I met the right people. It takes years, taking whatever comes along, and also jumping on opportunities.

Sometimes you have to be really cheeky. I became an editor with Cornerstones literary consultancy because I found one of their flyers, advertising their services. I wrote to them and said ‘I want to work for you!’ Fortunately, the cheeky pitch is much less embarrassing on the internet than it is in real life…

Amie I have done everything from editing calendars and textbooks to mentoring authors through the writing process to proofreading magazines. Last year I finally had to create a schedule because I was booking projects a few months in advance. And now I’m full up four months out.

I think I knew I finally made it when I felt comfortable saying no to projects that didn’t interest me. That is a place of power as a small business for sure.

Roz Tell me about the creative writing element of your degree. What foundations did it give you that you still use today? What did you learn about yourself as a writer?

Amie As an author, I still call myself a hobbyist. It has nothing to do with the fact that I don’t have the self-confidence to say I’m a writer or author. It’s purely because editing is my career, but writing is my creative outlet. I do not want to turn that side of my life into a business. Though I am very happy to help other authors do so!

Roz Was your degree useful for your editing work?

Amie The act of writing, and having studied it in college, has of course taught me a lot of skills as an editor. I think the simple act of immersing oneself in story, via writing, editing or critiquing others’ work, and reading, is one of the best methods of improving your own storytelling. In the same way that language is best learned by immersion, taking in the language through as many forms as possible, writing skills improve the more time you spend with stories.

There are skills I have built upon that continually add to who I am as a writer and editor. I believe that the voice of a story develops as you write it (and then is improved upon rewriting), and the same goes for your voice as a writer. It is like a fine whiskey, improving with age and as you learn to savour.

Roz You’ve published in a variety of niches. Sometimes you’re in science fiction territory with Devolution and Emotionless. Sometimes you’re overlapping with contemporary real life (Blink and your latest release, Leaning Into the Abyss).

Amie My novels Blink and Leaning Into the Abyss cross into the magical realism genre, and I would say that is actually my bent. Both Emotionless and Devolution dig deeper into the sci-fi worlds, but are very light sci-fi as I don’t explain complex technology or math like other true science fiction does. So for the most part I am a magical realism author.

Roz Tell me more about your affinity with magical realism. What magical realism novels first made you feel at home there?

Amie Alice Hoffman is my idol. If I could write as many varied characters and as prolifically as she does, I would be proud. Her writing is something to dive into and get lost in. Every sentence is crafted beautifully, and the magic is utterly subtle but permeates every moment.

Robin McKinley writes farther on the fantasy side, but the gentle build of her plots and the beauty of the magic involved always entrances me.

The same goes for Erin Morgenstern. Her stories are much more fantastical than I will ever write, but the depth and emotional pull of her characters always has me in pieces.

Roz What makes an Amie book? Do you have any recurring themes, character types you’re most interested in?

Amie My books tend to ask a major question. Emotionless questions what would happen if we could remove hormones from our bodies (I am type 1 diabetic and insulin is a hormone, so I wondered what would happen if I could remove the problem instead of fixing it).

Roz Ah, much SF comes from our own personal experience of science!

Amie My novel Devolution asks what would happen if humans stopped evolving and we had to rely on genetically modified babies to kick-start evolution again. Leaning Into the Abyss asks what life would look like with a major shift via a catastrophic event (the death of a groom just before his wedding). So my writing is heavy on theme and is brought to life by the characters.

Roz You also have a non-fiction book, Giving Birth To Motherhood.

Amie Yes, Giving Birth to Motherhood exists because I am a mother and went through a traumatic birth. It helps other mothers write their birth story while looking at it from a psychological perspective for the motivations behind actions and reactions. It is intended to teach mothers to heal themselves and find catharsis through intentional journaling.

Roz And you have a bootcamp for writers… Six-Month Novel.

Amie I started Six-Month Novel with a business partner (Charlie at Urban Writers’ Retreat) because we both felt there was a hole in the offerings. Charlie runs writing retreats, both for a day and residential, and I work directly with authors, but we wanted something longer term that allowed writers (and us!) to focus on completing an entire novel. We didn’t want it to be the same as normal writing courses; we had heard of too many people completing MFAs and then getting stuck. So we don’t teach how to write, we simply help you find the habits that work for you and then keep you accountable so that you can complete that novel you’ve been wanting to write for ages. It’s a programme that is intended for seasoned writers who feel stagnated or afraid to jump into their next project.

Roz How do you find time for your own creative writing? Do you have a routine or timetable?

Amie I’m a very self-motivated person. I was homeschooled, which for me bred ambition and taught me to get shit done. So when I have a project ready and waiting, I jump on it every moment I have. I do tend to work better with larger chunks of time, and my husband is amazing at giving me entire weekend days or even writing retreats that last a week or so.

Roz That’s a great idea. And a great husband…

Amie I make sure and schedule things like that into my calendar. I’ve gotten very good at time-blocking since my son came along—when he is at kindergarten during the day, I focus on work; when he is home, I focus on him; and when he’s asleep, I focus on writing. I don’t really know how I’ve managed to get so much done. I’ve only published books since having my son five years ago. I often wonder what I did with all that free time before I had him! And really wish I hadn’t wasted it… Though I was building my business and travelled a ton and learned a new language and wrote a few first drafts and ok, I guess I wasn’t that lazy.

Roz I recognise what you’ve identified here. If I’ve spent days or weeks thinking or researching, I feel like I didn’t get anything done. But that time is necessary. Especially in the early stages of a book. It’s discovering the territory.

Amie One of the best things I’ve done for my writing in recent years was to learn a second language (German) and try to write in that language. It has opened up a whole other set of books to me, but has also pushed me to realize what language does on a fundamental, sentence-by-sentence level. I’m much more picky with my words now that I understand the impact language has on meaning and intention.

Roz Do give examples! I have a smattering of school French and German. While learning them, I was intrigued by the things they have words for that we don’t. Both languages have separate words for the two connotations of ‘know’. They feel that distinction is important, whereas we don’t. And genders – if you’re of a poetic bent, linguistic gender must add another dimension to your work.

Amie Most definitely! One oft quoted source is German fairy tales. In German, a girl is called das Mädchen. Das is the neutral gender, so technically a girl is it and in the case of ownership, you would use the equivalent of his with that noun. For example with Cinderella, “Es war einmal ein hübsches Mädchen, das war sehr traurig, den seine Mutter war vor Kurzem gestorben.” Literally: “Once upon a time there was a girl, it was very sad, because his mother was recently deceased.” This example, and other gendered nouns for humans, has led to some frustration in recent days when equality comes into the conversation. But it has me wanting to see if I can play with my English and really pinpoint the intention behind a sentence using the vocabulary while also keeping the implication instead of stating things baldly—showing not telling.

Roz Speaking of endless quests of learning, the arts are something we never truly master. There’s always more to work on. Even if we’re also teachers. Where do you do your learning?

Amie Books! I read widely, including non-fiction books about writing, but I love dissecting classics as well as contemporary novels.

Roz Me too. I learn far more from novels than from craft books.

Amie I read for pleasure, but also to understand story on every level possible.

Roz Sometimes people ask me if reading analytically spoils the pleasure. I find it doesn’t. It’s part of the pleasure, the appreciation. I can analyse at the same time as enjoying. That means I’m a very slow reader. I can be trapped by a paragraph, perhaps because of its imagery or because of the way it delivers an emotion that’s been carefully set up earlier.

Amie I inhale the written word.

Roz I love the intimacy of it. Print into eye, into brain, into heart. A remarkable process.

Find Amie’s books here and her editing services here. Get her newsletter here and tweet her at @amiemccracken

PS If you’re looking for writing advice, try my Nail Your Novel books. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. If you’d like to support bricks-and-mortar bookstores use Bookshop.org. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, find my latest newsletter here (where you could win many beautiful books) and subscribe to future updates here.

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From literary journal to 10 books a year – interview with Jessica Bell @msbessiebell of Vine Leaves Press @VineLeavesPress

If you’ve been with this blog for a while, you’ll know the name Jessica Bell. We’ve discussed everything bookish – cover design, fiction writing, poetry and memoir. She’s guested multiple times on The Undercover Soundtrack, and gone the extra mile by writing the music as well as the books (she’s also a musician). As if this polyphonic creativity isn’t enough, she has her own publishing imprint, Vine Leaves Press. I’ve never interviewed her about that, and it’s high time I did. Let’s go.

Beginnings

Roz Tell me how Vine Leaves Press got started.

Jessica Vine Leaves started as a literary journal in 2011. It was a LOT of work to maintain, but we were lucky to have some fabulous volunteers working for us, and so we stayed on our feet until 2017. In 2014, we started the Vine Leaves Vignette Collection Award, and that’s how we published our first book, the winner of the competition, Harvest by Amanya Maloba. So becoming a book publisher felt like a natural progression.

Roz How many titles do you have now?

Jessica To date we have 82 titles published and 15 forthcoming. We publish at least 10 books a year. Sometimes we might slip in one or two more.

Roz Ten a year! I’ve interviewed other small presses and they don’t manage even five a year. Did you make any wrong turnings?

Jessica Depends what you consider wrong turnings. A really amazing project that made us, and a lot of writers and artists happy, but almost bankrupted us, was the final instalment of the journal, which we published as a hardcover coffee table book in full colour. It cost us 5000 Euros to make, because, of course, we sent every contributor a free copy, and they were not cheap! I am so extremely proud of that collection of vignettes, but it almost killed the business. Thankfully in those days I was single and childless and only risking my own wellbeing, so I bounced back by working a lot of overtime.

New titles

Roz How much time do you devote to looking for new material? How many submissions do you get a month?

Jessica On average around 100. As we only publish 10 books a year, I’m extremely picky with query letters now. If someone hasn’t followed guidelines (query letter and first 10 pages), or has zero online presence, or doesn’t intrigue me before I finish the first sentence, I won’t even read the submission and it will be rejected right away. As much as I hate to say it, this is a business, not a hobby, and we need to sell books to continue to publish the writing of great writers.

Some may say I will miss the diamonds in the rough by doing this, but I’m okay with that, because I find the diamonds out of the rough! There are only so many books we can accept. Currently our publishing schedule is full until mid-2022!

The style

Roz If there’s a Vine Leaves style, what is it?

Jessica Character-driven works that straddle the line between literary and mainstream.

Roz Do you read all the submissions yourself or do you have a team?

Jessica I have a team. I will read all the submissions, and request the full manuscripts I want to consider for publication. I will then send those full manuscripts to the appropriate staff member (dependent on reading tastes), and they will respond with a one- or two-page evaluation outlining the book’s strengths and weaknesses, if they’d recommend the book to others to read, if it would suit our list, and if they think it would sell and why.

I accept or reject most books based on those evaluations. But I’m very careful to send them to readers who I am certain will enjoy to the content.

(Aside from Roz: you might recognise this bearded chap. My bookseller friend Peter Snell, of the So You Want To Be A Writer podcast, is one of the VLP readers.)

Roz What’s been successful for Vine Leaves Press? I’m thinking many readers of this blog might be Vine Leaves types…

Jessica Interestingly, poetry that is a bit daring in content, or has a unique theme, has been soaring lately! Also, our memoirs are very popular, and a few select novels also do well. But we are even more selective with poetry, so a note to poets: unless you think you have a collection that is extremely off-beat, or you have an extensive and interactive following online, please don’t query us with your poetry.

How to impress Jessica

Roz Are there any common features of books you reject?

Jessica No plots, rushed endings, lacking hooks, too much purple prose, stream of consciousness.

Roz Should an author get their book professionally edited before submitting to you?

Jessica Definitely. Despite all books going through three different edits (development edit, copy edit and multiple proofreads), we want to be reading the best product possible right off the bat. If a book is poorly edited, it’s going to distract us from seeing and understanding what is the most important—story and voice.

Roz How much do you consider an author’s platform when deciding whether to offer on a manuscript?

Jessica Oh, in this day and age it’s everything. It’s actually the first thing I look at before reading a submission in full. A small press cannot survive without active authors.

Roz What’s your view of creative writing courses?

Jessica They are great fun, and refine skills, but don’t expect them to suddenly make you a brilliant writer. They are for practice and discovery. Not miracle-makers. But yes, take them! But only for the pure enjoyment of it.

Strength in numbers

Roz Many fine authors are now selfpublishing. The tools are mature and sophisticated, and some beautiful books are being produced. What do you think a publisher does that authors can’t do by themselves?

Jessica I can only speak for us as I don’t know what other small presses offer their authors. But we produce a professionally edited manuscript and designed cover and interior and incur all the costs.

We connect them with like-minded authors from our list in a private and very supportive Facebook group. This is a great cross-promotion tool. We do online promotion that they might not be able to do themselves. We steer them in the right direction regarding their online presence if necessary and offer ongoing support and guidance for their writing career.

If an author can do all the above on their own, then I urge them to self-publish. We are not necessary! Also, not every publisher will do the above, so choose wisely.

Roz Many indie authors will know you for your beautiful and quirky cover designs. When you’re working on a cover with an indie author, they clearly have the final say, with your guidance of course. But when you design for Vine Leaves Press, do other people give feedback on the suitability of a cover?

Jessica We will listen to all feedback, and if we agree we will revise. But ultimately, we have the final say and that is stated in our contract.

Roz How much of the publishing work do you outsource and how much is done personally by you? Do you have staff?

Jessica (left) and VLP partner Amie McCracken

Jessica I now have a partner, Amie McCracken. I sold half the company to her a couple of years ago, as it was getting too big for my own boots. So we make all decisions together now. I am the go-to for all things related to submissions, design, bookkeeping, our SPILL IT! column, the new 50 Give or Take flash fiction newsletter, general admin and upkeep, and Amie is the go-to for all things related to editing, typesetting/ebook formatting, contracts and the publishing schedule, and our author liaison. We share social media responsibilities, and outsource some marketing video production, some newsletter composing, most editing and all manuscript evaluations.

Roz Any advice for an author thinking of setting up a publishing house?

Jessica Be a patient and understanding person. If you’re not, you will run into trouble and conflict with your authors. Be ambitious and have the ability to look into the future regarding expectation. You will not make money straight away. Up until last year, we were just breaking even every year; sometimes we would have a loss, and that was with volunteers on our team! We are finally starting to make some money. That took six years.

Marketing … the literary way

Roz There’s no getting away from the fact that literary fiction, poetry and vignettes are trickiest to market… any thoughts? What’s your approach?

Jessica Don’t settle for the same-old. Be as innovative as you can. Post something on social media EVERY DAY. Build a mailing list. Approach publishing like a self-publisher. Traditional methods used by the Big Five do not work for a small press. You will end up bankrupt. One of our biggest sellers is a vignette collection (The Walmart Book of the Dead by Lucy Biederman). It sells because it really is unique and intriguing. Market to niche audiences, not the world.

Roz Approach publishing like a self-publisher? I want that on a T-shirt. That’s a great insight.

Many publishers have reps who sell into bookshops. And distribution deals. Do you have anything like that?

Jessica No we don’t have reps. All our sales are online, unless an author has managed to get their book stocked somewhere on consignment.

Roz I’m on the Vine Leaves mailing list and you work hard to establish a vibrant and provocative presence in your newsletters. There’s very much a feeling of a Vine Leaves family.

Jessica I am a hands-on team member that nurtures our authors as much as humanly possible. Being an author and all-round creative person myself, I understand the needs of my kind. This is why I started the private VLP group on Facebook where members (authors and staff only) can support each other and their work. I have worked years to establish an extremely friendly and happy environment at Vine Leaves Press in order to motivate creativity and productivity. If you become a VLP author, you become a part of a loyal and enthusiastic family of book lovers that will bend over backwards to help you out.

Roz Is that your primary source of marketing?

Jessica Yes, that is our primary source of marketing. Next in line are the videos we post daily on social media, and we are also trying our hand at a few Facebook ads (after very expensive training!) and have joined Goodreads as a publisher so that we can issue giveaways. We are always looking for new ways to promote the press and our authors. Oh! We’ve also just added the ability to buy a Vine Leaves Press gift card.

Roz I notice you get amazing reviews for your titles! Are those Vine Leaves contacts or are they the authors’ own contacts?

Jessica Generally, they are no-one’s contacts. They are true fans! 😊 Cool, huh?

Roz So cool I am frozen with envy. You also have a full creative life yourself, indeed several. Not only do you write, you’re a musician with two identities – vocalist with Keep Shelly In Athens @keepshellyinath and solo artist Bruno. You design covers. And you run Vine Leaves Press. How do you get time for all this – and a full family life which we haven’t even mentioned… do you protect your creative time? What’s a typical day, or week, or month?

Jessica Sometimes I don’t even know how I do it. And somehow everything seems to get done. The only schedules I keep are for Vine Leaves and for my book design, because there are other people relying on me to get things done. All the rest I do when I can spare a moment. I don’t know when. Sometimes I feel like I’ve travelled to a parallel universe to get my creative time, and then return a little dazed and confused.

And of course, for the last 14 months, a lot of my time has been spent nurturing my son. I don’t think I’ve had much sleep in that time, but I am still functioning! There is no typical day here. I do what I can when I can. With a toddler in the house, winging it is the only option.

Roz What are you working on at the moment?

Jessica We’ve started the 50 Give or Take newsletter, a Vine Leaves project which will deliver stories of 50 words or less daily to your inbox in an attempt to expose great writing and great writers without chewing up too much of a reader’s time. Subscribe here!

Also a new music project is under way. It’s called Mongoa.

Finally I’m getting stuck into editing my long-lost novel (last touched in 2016!) How Icasia Bloom Touched Happiness.

Roz And where can readers find Vine Leaves Press – and you – on line?

Jessica You can find all of my projects at iamjessicabell.com.

Roz again: My Nail Your Novel books are full of tips to help you avoid plotlessness, hooklessness and associated prose horrors, purple and otherwise.

And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, find my latest newsletter here and subscribe to future updates here.

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Critiquing a friend’s book… how do you tell them it doesn’t work?

I’ve had this interesting question from Jan.

A friend has finished drafting her first novel. She asked me to proofread before she sends it to agents. I explained she would up her chances if she got it edited too, so she asked if I could do that.

I’m reading the manuscript and have found what I feel are fundamental issues. For instance, I’m 57 pages in and nothing dramatic has happened, I still don’t know the theme of the book, or what any of the characters are driving towards. There is a lot of description, but I haven’t been able to discern its purpose.

I really want her to have the best chance, so how do I essentially ask her to rewrite from scratch? She’s proud of the manuscript; (she should be, she wrote 92,000 words and had the dedication to stick to it). I’m trying to work out the best way to approach the things that need fixing without making her feel like I’ve torn down her baby. What should I do?

Ahhhhhh, Jan.

I sense you feel this is an unusual situation. It is not.

With developmental editing, especially of a first novel, it’s not unusual for me to (gently) tell the writer they need to completely redraft.

First, let’s assume your friend chose you because you like her kind of book. That’s important. A reader who loves a racy plot in a weird special world won’t want the same things as a reader who loves the quiet ordinary, told in poetic clarity. One person’s paint drying is another person’s delight. So let’s assume she knows your tastes, and you know hers, and all is aligned.

Assuming that, you’re looking for exactly the right things. You’ve responded as a reader who should like the book. You don’t think she intends you to feel that nothing has happened, and that it seems to be aimless. You’re not engaged or curious, though you are eager to be.

Still, she’s written 92,000 words. And now you’re going to tell her to do it all again. How do you do that without apparently dismissing her achievement?

Writing is rewriting

Tell her that rewriting is normal. If she hadn’t heard of editing, she probably doesn’t know this. First-time writers are often so relieved – and rightly so – when they type ‘the end’ that they think the work is done. If they have heard of editing, they imagine a brief tidying of spelling and grammar, and perhaps a nifty rewording along the way. Far from it.

Jan, tell your friend it’s not unusual to need several goes at a manuscript before it’s ready for readers or an agent. Most first drafts are rough. Here are posts about a slow, multidrafting writing process. Some books need to find themselves as we write. I did 23 drafts of the novel I’ve just finished… Sometimes we add layers as we understand better what we’re trying to do – and that polishing is part of the joy. Sometimes, though, it streams out fast. We’re all different. Sometimes, we’re even different from book to book.

Writing is many skills

Here’s another thing to tell your friend. Writing is many skills and you can’t learn it all at once. Tell her she’s taught herself some excellent lessons already – persistence, finishing, a routine that allowed her to complete the book. Also description. Even if the description is not effectively used, she’s had to vividly imagine the scenes and the story world, and that’s a necessary skill.

But there are numerous other aspects to a good novel and now she has to learn those. How to structure a plot. How to create characters who are individual and filled with life. How to give information without beating the reader around the head. How to direct the reader’s attention and emotions.

Some are reasonably obvious. Some are so subtle that you don’t notice them unless you know to look for them. And they all have to work together, all at once. See my previous point about layering and redrafts. Those are the arts she now needs to learn.

Her book is not rubbish

Might she think you’re telling her to abandon that book? Not at all. Until she knows about these craft points, she doesn’t know the potential that’s in her idea. She doesn’t have to ditch this story; she now has to learn how to do it justice. To write the same book, but much better. Maybe it will work, maybe it won’t, but she won’t know that until she tries.

Also, she’s not the first person who’s had to be told this.

We’ve all been through it. See How exactly do you learn to write professionally. Is she missing these craft skills because she’s never taken a course? See Can writing be taught. And should she feel foolish because she wrote a book without knowing how to? An editor wouldn’t think that. Look at Why your editor admires you, and why you might not realise this.

Oh yes. And we all get nervous about feedback. How to prepare for comments on your book manuscript.

Thanks for the end credits pic fliegender and the burning page pic ubhape2.com

If you’d like more concentrated writing advice, try my Nail Your Novel books. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. If you’d like to support bricks-and-mortar bookstores (US only at present) use Bookshop.org. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, including my own (much drafted) third novel, find my latest newsletter here and subscribe to future updates here.

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How to – and how not to – run an online writing community. And publishing post Covid. Interview with literary agent Peter Cox of @Litopia @agentPete

You’ve seen the posts here about Peter Cox’s writing community Litopia – the home of Pop-Up Submissions, where manuscripts are critiqued live on air by writers, readers and a chat room. Sometimes the guest critic is me! I’ve always been impressed with the show. For a start, it looks amazingly slick. But underneath that is a genuine love of books and reading, who value writing that is done well.

On one of our pre-show chats Peter remarked: ‘someone should write a piece about literary communities. I’ve made every mistake in the book.’

Someone definitely should, I said.

So here we are. We also talk about the publishing world post-Covid: what might publishers be looking for? What do readers want? Can that question even be answered yet?

But first, Litopia.

Roz Tell me about Litopia. What is it, how long has it been running, how big is it now? What made you set it up?

Peter Litopia has been going for decades.  It’s by far the oldest writers’ community on the net.  We’re probably due for our silver anniversary round about now.

Originally, I was an early member of one of the oldest virtual communities online, the WELL.  This was an odd collection of folk, many of them connected to The Whole Earth Catalog, who thought it would be fun to set up an intentional community in cyberspace.  People such as Stewart Brand, Kevin Kelly, and Howard Rheingold.

Roz I’ve never even heard of that. I just googled it and found it stood for Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link. I love that. It’s so retro-futurist. (Retro-futurism, You heard it here first.)

Peter Looking back, the WELL was always quite cliquey.  If you didn’t happen to be in with the cool crowd, who smoked a prodigious amount of dope by the way, then you weren’t really significant in the community.

It was a wildly optimistic time.  People naively believed that computers would democratize the world.  “Access to tools” was the mantra.  “The Future” was an exciting place – and most of us believed we were already living there.  The horrors of venture capitalism, Facebook and creeping state surveillance and control weren’t even on the radar.

From my experience on the WELL, I thought it would be exciting to establish a community just for writers.  Most writers already had computers.  And I felt there was an unmet need for social contact that legacy organisations such as the Society of Authors could not fulfil.

Roz I’ve mainly come across Litopia in the Pop-Up Submissions show. For those who don’t know the format, it’s a Dragons’ Den for writers. Five manuscripts are critiqued on air by you, two guests and the observers in the chat room. It’s a brave thing to do live online. We’ve all encountered the ugly sides of social media, but you’ve managed to create a civilised and constructive tone. At the same time, the show doesn’t pull its punches. Everyone’s there because they want to see honest criticism and they want to learn. How have you achieved this?

Peter Thank you, Roz.  That’s the tone we want to strike, and I think we mostly do.  Obviously, our choice of guests such as you is important 😊  But seriously, I like writers, always have done.  They are unusual people, not always well-suited to the mundane world.

Roz Totally. Writers – and other creatives – look into cracks that others don’t even notice. They ask questions that can’t easily be answered and aren’t necessarily of practical use, but nevertheless seem to make life a little more worthwhile. We often think we’re on our own, too. At school, I was always interested in the wrong things or the unusual angles. I didn’t realise that this was characteristic of a particular profession. I thought I just didn’t fit. (I’ve written about that here – I write because I’m totally unsuited to anything else.)

Peter Writers definitely see things a bit differently, and thank heavens for that.  They challenge and expand our own definition of what being human means.  A world without writers would not be worth living in.  So they need our support and encouragement, but also, our honesty.  When you write, you necessarily lose much of your objectivity, and that why (most!) writers need honest feedback during the writing process.

Roz Yes – and I want to briefly talk about that. We lose our objectivity because we have to commit so much to the work. We have to believe in it, spend the time to get it right, often making themselves vulnerable. I never forget this when I’m giving critical feedback to writers. The text they give me represents a huge investment of faith. (I’ve talked about this before: Why your editor admires you.)

Peter I know.  I think it’s a great privilege to work with a writer at that kind of level.  What we can do on Pop-Up Submissions is to give some objective feedback, but not in a destructive way.

Roz What mistakes did you make with Litopia in the early days? And even in the later ones?

Peter A great many!  A few years ago, HarperCollins set up something called Authonomy, which didn’t last long, and I believe cost them a few million.  It really is not nearly as easy to set up an online community as it might appear.

The first I mistake made was not charging anything for it.  I carried all the costs.  This was a huge mistake, because people expected me to provide more and more – and got angry if they didn’t get what they were expecting.  I think people are beginning to understand now that the net has the same economics as any other part of life.  If Facebook is free to you the user, that’s only because they are ruthlessly mining your data and selling it at a vast profit to shadowy third parties, including people like Cambridge Analytica and the security services.  Are you really comfortable with that?  Personally, I’d prefer to pay a modest amount for membership of a site like Litopia, and forgo the creepy surveillance!

Roz So Litopia has evolved into its own beast… How does that compare with your original idea? Would that original intention have been possible, do you think?

Peter We evolve by reaction.  Everyone has access to me and can suggest whatever they want.  Some things are not going to be technically possible, but many are.  We’re quick to seize the technical opportunity.  Some technology is surprisingly cheap and under-exploited, that area is always of interest.

Roz I have to mention the technology. This show is seriously sleek. Many video-podcasts are essentially like watching a Skype call – a screen split between two or three speakers. Litopia is like a high-budget TV quiz show. All the presenters appear to be in a studio, behind a massive desk. Scoreboards pop up, manuscript excerpts appear with voice-over readings. There are snapshots of the discussion in the chat room. Drop-ins of writing tips from previous guests. A moody black-and-white section. There’s some serious video-fu in this show.

Peter Pop-Ups is evolving as much as any other part of Litopia.  We made the (difficult) transition from audio podcasts to live video a few years ago.  The bar for good video is much higher than for decent audio.  Increasingly, we rely on our members to keep Pop-Ups going, because it is a complex beast.  Our guests are booked from New Zealand.  Our live scoreboard is operated from Spain.  All our fabulous narrators are scattered over the globe.  It all somehow comes together live every Sunday.

We have a strong ethos of mutual help, which is far more important that any single piece of technology.  If a suggestion fits with our ethos, and is technically possible, then we’ll do it.

Roz Are you a writer as well? How did you end up as an agent?

Peter I fell into writing when a publisher suggested I should write a book for them.  It quickly sold 100k copies and became a UK number one bestseller. That hooked me.

Then I met Linda McCartney and wrote her cookbook, which was also a no 1 bestseller and sold millions of copies worldwide. I was generally dissatisfied with the representation I had, sacked the first agent, got another one, sacked that one, got a third one, sacked them and finally came to the conclusion that I could actually do it better myself.  I went to the US in my early days as an agent. New York publishing was far more exciting than here in London.

Roz I’m interested to know how NY publishing was more exciting… And seriously, many of this blog’s readers are in the US. Do you see much difference between the tastes of American and British publishers?

Peter Well rather paradoxically, NY publishing has traditionally been rather more conservative, rather more risk-averse than the Brits.  So you often have to sell a project somewhat harder.  The upside is that if one publisher wants what you’re selling, others are very likely to, as well.

There is still an insular quality to NY publishing that is rather frustrating.  However, the fruits of success are so very much bigger than in the UK.  New York is a rather flatter society than London meaning that it’s really not difficult to get a meeting with the top people in a company.  Access is a bit easier and doesn’t depend so much on “the network”.  Also, there is a real appetite for success, whereas in the UK, some parts of the business are still run on rather old-fashioned lines – I quickly grew fed up of being told rather smugly by certain London publishers that ‘publishing is not like other businesses, you know’.  Actually, it is!

Roz Have you noticed any changing trends in the kind of manuscripts people are sending you?

Peter Very little non-fiction, which is a pity.  Powerful non-fiction is the backbone of publishing.  I love polemics.  Escapist fiction is on the up and up.  Depressing teen dystopia is done for the moment, we’re already living that nightmare thank you very much.  Anything that gives us hope and inspiration is well received.  Big ideas with a strong voice are money-makers.

Roz What changes have you noticed in publishing since the pandemic started? Any words of advice for authors who are hoping to find a publishing deal?

Peter It’s very similar to what happened post 9/11.  I happened to be in front of the towers when the second plane hit, although I only saw the fireball, not the plane itself.  Immediately, they closed all exits from Manhattan island.  Everything went into “lockdown”.

It took many months for publishing to raise its head again and to figure out what sort of books they should be acquiring, and that’s where we’re at now.

Roz Authors wonder about it too. Some of us came to a standstill, wondering what to write, what could possibly be relevant in a world that had changed so much.

Peter Publishers are scratching their heads and wondering what sorts of books readers will be buying in nine months’ time. Any writer who can confidently answer that question will immediately have our attention.  Over to you, writers!  😊

Find Litopia’s site here, submit your own manuscript here, follow Litopia on Twitter @Litopia and follow Peter on Twitter @AgentPete

PS If you’d like more concentrated writing advice, try my Nail Your Novel books. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. If you’d like to support bricks-and-mortar bookstores (US only at present) use Bookshop.org.. And what have I been writing these past months, indeed years? This.

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How to write a sequel – and when not to. Ep 40 FREE podcast for authors

When we recorded this, sequels were a hot topic in bookworld. Go Set A Watchman, a sequel to Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mocking Bird, had just been released. Many people were curious but also dubious. The top FAQ on Google is ‘Is Go Set A Watchman worth reading?’

So when does a book deserve a sequel? When is one book enough? When do you add something worthwhile and when do you outstay your welcome? And actually, if you’re au fait with Ms Lee, you’ll know that the Watchman/Mockingbird situation isn’t as straightforward as book/sequel. Mockingbird was originally created from the back story of Watchman, at a publisher’s suggestion. Complicated. But one book is still derived from the other, so as far as we’re concerned, that counts.

My co-host is independent bookseller Peter Snell. Stream from the widget below or go to our Mixcloud page and binge the whole lot.

PS If you’d like more concentrated writing advice, try my Nail Your Novel books. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. If you’d like to support bricks-and-mortar bookstores (US only at present) use Bookshop.org. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, find my latest newsletter here and subscribe to future updates here.

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