Roz Morris @Roz_Morris

Former ghostwriter coming out of the shadows with books of my own. My Memories of a Future Life. Lifeform Three (longlisted for the World Fantasy Award). Humorous memoir: Not Quite Lost: Travels Without A Sense of Direction. Series for writers: Nail Your Novel.

Homepage: http://rozmorris.wordpress.com

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.

, , , , , , , , , , , ,

4 Comments

What movies get wrong – and right – about authors. And Elizabeth Taylor: Ep47 FREE podcast for writers

Here’s someone you might never have heard of. Elizabeth Taylor. No, not that one. There’s a novelist Elizabeth Taylor.

I discovered her through this book, Angel, which is about a monstrous, astoundingly successful romantic novelist. There’s a movie, too, which misses many of the nuances, but both versions are full of truths about the publishing industry and the world of writers – details that movie makers usually get completely wrong.  See how many you agree with.

That’s what we’re talking about today. My co-host is independent bookseller Peter Snell.

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

If you’d like more concentrated writing advice, my Nail Your Novel books are full of tips like this. 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.

 

, , , , , , , ,

Leave a comment

The panic document – when you fear your book has a major flaw, how to diagnose what’s really wrong

I love systems. And here’s one I developed to help with a knotty aspect of revising a novel – the moment when you suddenly fear you’ve missed something big.

This happened to me with Ever Rest, which I recently finished. I was well advanced in revisions when I read an essay that brought me to a screeching halt.

One of the characters dies tragically young, and the story follows the fall-out of this. So when I saw an essay about young grief on Literary Hub I gave it a read.

It was spellbinding, raw. So unexpected. I finished with sickening anxiety. This was what I wanted for my characters, but I feared I hadn’t done it. My confidence was in tatters.

What now?

This is what might have happened: open the manuscript, flail about in a panic, rewriting stuff. Over-reacting etc etc. Making ill-considered changes. Getting in a big heap of mess.

However, I’ve been here before. I know not to revise in a panic.

Don’t panic

In crises like this, we tend to think everything’s wrong. And it might not be.

Sure, you might be right, you might have missed something big.

Or – it’s probably not as dire as it seems, but something needs to be adjusted.

How do you discover the right thing to do? And how do you remain sober and sensible, and not make edits that mess up everything you’ve already got working well?

In my other life, I edit magazines for doctors. (Very useful when writing characters who are medics.) With my book howling in pain, I decided I’d think like a doctor. If a patient comes to the surgery saying they feel dreadful and they hurt all over, what do you do? Take a history. Ask: where does it hurt? And what causes it to hurt?

Stage 1 – start a panic (document)

I copied the LitHub piece into a textfile. We will call this the panic document.

I read the article again. Every time I came to a sentence that bothered me, I highlighted it. (Find the source of pain.)

Already this was more manageable. Large parts of the article didn’t hurt at all. It was toes and fingers, not the whole arm or leg, not the whole body.

This surprised me. See what I mean about panic?

Some parts were very sore, though.

Stage 2 – where does it hurt?

Find where the pain is coming from. These sentences twinged because they suggested issues I hadn’t paid attention to.

Were they major (arm and leg), or were they just a finger or toe?

When I’m unsure about something in a manuscript, I don’t change the manuscript. I use Word’s comments feature. I did this with the panic document. On each highlighted section, I opened a comment box and discussed the issues it raised. This included:

  • Which of my scenes made me wince with this new insight
  • Which of my characters it affected
  • Which of the characters’ actions it might influence
  • What I might add or adjust.

Soon, a few issues emerged. (In medical parlance, targets for treatment.)

I went through the panic document several times, discussing, re-discussing, reminding myself what I intended for the book, considering how significant these issues were in the overall balance.

Stage 3 – venturing into the manuscript

I opened the manuscript. I went to the scenes I’d earmarked as problems. But I did not change a word!

I now knew the scenes where I might tackle the problem, but I still didn’t know if I should.

Once again, I reread my discussions in the panic document. It was now clear that my notes were all the same solution, in several versions. I probably didn’t need them all.  The revision task was not nearly as large as I first thought.

I used comments again, this time in the manuscript. I began by copying the most useful notes from my panic document. Many of them already seemed unnecessary now I’d calmed down and had a grip of the true problem.

Yes, there was indeed a problem. It was just one scene, actually, where the ending was weak. The character needed to go to a deeper level. To fix it, I needed a few other adjustments in earlier scenes too. But the situation now felt good. (Especially after the aforementioned panic.)

Stage 4 – something else

I went out running. Best to edit with a clear eye.

 

Stage 5 – do what must be done

I opened the manuscript again, looked at the notes. Did I still agree with them? Was this the solution? (Often, a good skip in the outdoors will suggest a different angle.)

It was.

Tis done.

From Stage 1 – panic and disaster – to stage 5 – a detail I was glad to rethink. Phew.

And that, my friends, is the panic document.  I used it to tackle my response to an essay, but it will work for any situation that trashes your confidence in your book. Just write down the problem in detail, cover all the points that triggered your worries, and discuss with yourself what to do about them.

Thanks for the panic and freak out pic, RSNY on Flickr;

If you’d like more concentrated writing advice, my Nail Your Novel books are full of tips like this. 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.

Ever Rest is now complete and is seeking its fortune with literary agents. Here’s a preview. 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.

, , , , , ,

19 Comments

Nanowrimo prep – plan your characters, improvise your plot

Are you planning to take part in National Novel-Writing Month (NaNoWriMo)? Briefly, it’s a worldwide online event where thousands of writers buckle down and steam through a novel. The nominal goal is 50,000 words in November – which might be a whole novel or a good chunk of one. Whichever, it’s a great way to sprint into a first draft because you’ve got a support team of other writers cheering you on, sharing their goals and buddying up to drag you over the finish line. If you’re a first-timer, NaNoWriMo is a great way to have a go and surprise yourself. And many seasoned writers use it as a way to get their first drafts motoring.
November? I’ll wait until then

No, start now. One of the keys to success is preparation. Although you’re not allowed to start the draft until NaNoWriMo month, you can plan beforehand. Research, plot notes and story summaries are all permitted – and serious contenders will be limbering up right now.

Or perhaps planning is the last thing you want to do. Maybe you want to sit down on day 1, summon the muse and channel the voices. Let the novel gush into your head and onto the keys.

Whichever way you work, there’s one kind of planning that will help you steer a steady course – AND write with your gut instincts.

Plan your characters

Indeed, if I had to choose whether to outline plot or characters in detail, I’d spend the time on creating the characters.

Why?

Once I know who my fictional people are, they start acting, talking and steering the show – merely by being themselves. This streamlines the writing process enormously, helps you write in a natural flow. It’s especially useful for project like NaNoWriMo, where you want to get your wordcount done – but still have fun.

Here’s what you need.

Main characters

Work out their central problem The story will come from this. What do they want to achieve or prevent? What makes this problem desperate and ultimately unavoidable? How much of it comes from their personality or life situation? Is it something they have been suppressing or muddling along with? Perhaps they don’t admit to it, because that would open a box they don’t want to look in. The problem might be obviously significant, such as losing a job or discovering a murder. Or it might be apparently trivial – such as buying a puppy that turns nasty or forces the character to face up to responsibility. Whichever it is – whether solving a murder or wrangling with puppy ownership – it will be a big deal for them; and thus will be a landmark episode in their life.

How this generates the plot Devise two scenes. Your climax – the horrible moment near the end where the character confronts the thing they want to avoid. And a scene you can put in early that shows the reader they dread this.

The climax confrontation might be much deeper than the early scene suggests and therefore address a more fundamental problem. These fundamental problems come from a character’s deep needs. So, if your MC is trying to solve a murder, they might ultimately discover that the murderer was their own husband. This might prove that she never really knew him – something she’d always been denying or laughing off. You can still have the plot need – to catch a killer. But the deeper arc that makes it such a landmark will have come from the character’s innermost life.

If you want, you can stop planning there. But if you prefer to build a skeleton story, work out the steps between those points. Especially, concentrate on the ways the characters try to avoid or evade this worst-case scenario. Make those escapades create complications and ensnare them further, taking them down twisted alleyways, so that it seems the universe is conspiring, in sidelong ways, to throw them to that final confrontation.

Add other character details Once you have this core, fill in other details. Early life, job history, interests, relationship status. These will almost write themselves because you’ll have an instinct for what fits.

Add complicating factors These might be a wish to protect someone, a job that drains their energy or makes life difficult. If you’re writing historical fiction, look at constraints from social position or the characters’ way of life.

Respite You might also want to give your main characters some respite – a hobby they retreat to, a way they regroup to feel more like themselves and demonstrate a lighter side. Or maybe they need a dark release, an obliterating escape – an addiction, an illicit love affair, a dangerous sport.

Antagonist or antagonists

Their central problem. For the protagonist we asked ‘what’s wrong’ and ‘who are they’. For the antagonist we begin with ‘why’.

Why do they cause trouble? Is it their personality, a need to cause mischief or take revenge? Are they the protagonist’s opponents in a competition? Do they have a duty to uphold a law of the land or some other obligation that pits them against the protagonist?

Here’s another why: why are they a serious threat rather than something the protagonist can shrug off?

If the antagonist is an entity (such as society or an organisation), considering creating a character who embodies its role. Or perhaps this could be several characters. Faceless organisations are not as interesting to read about as characters who act for them. And characters are more interesting to write about because of their humanity. They will act unpredictably – get tired, bad tempered, unreasonable. They will perhaps feel the voice of conscience, or be in conflict themselves. They might make us laugh.

How this generates the story. Once you know these essentials, you will find it easier to decide how they’ll intrude on and threaten the protagonist.

Lastly, if you need to, develop some background details as for your main characters.

Other characters

You need a few significant others – your supporting and secondary characters. Add the people who will regularly interact with your protagonist and antagonist (although they don’t necessarily have to belong to both).

You might want to start with just a handful – perhaps a colleague, romantic partner, close friend, henchman – and add others as new roles become necessary. Or you might sketch out a complete network of people who your leads will regularly see.

Focus on relationships As these characters are secondary, focus on their relationships with the principals. Are they willing participants, wise observers, moral support, meddling do-gooders? Do they have needs of their own that could help or hinder the main characters?

Some salt and sugar in everyone

Protagonists will be tedious if they’re thoroughly good. Antagonists will be pantomimish (and wearisome) if thoroughly evil. Give each of your nice people a dash of vinegar, and each antagonist something good (even if it’s only the conviction that they’re right).

Relationships – again

Now you have a rough cast list, take another look at how they feel about each other. If you do this, you’ll never be at a loss when you wriggle inside a scene with them. You’ll know how to make them distinct in their dialogue because you’ll understand their hidden agendas and individual voices. If one of them needs a favour from the other, you know how easy (or otherwise) it will be to get it. If one of them tells the other off, you know whether they gloated about it or found it extremely uncomfortable; whether it drew them closer or drove them apart.

If you know your characters, you’ll want to tell their stories.

There’s a lot more advice on developing characters – and detailed questionnaires to help you create distinctive people – in Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel.

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.

 

, , , , , , ,

10 Comments

What to call your characters and places – Ep 46 FREE podcast for writers

What’s in a name? Sometimes, a lot of agonising. A lot of mind-changing. A name in a work of fiction is never random. It hits the reader with meaning. Overtones. The sound in the reader’s mind-ear, the shape it makes on a page. Sometimes a name has associations for the writer too, associations that help us envisage the character more vividly and truthfully. Or help us empathise. Or not. Sometimes, a name outstays its welcome and needs to be changed.

That’s what we’re talking about today. My co-host is independent bookseller Peter Snell.

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

BTW, if you like this subject, you might like this post on naming your characters and settings.

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 (difficult) third novel, find my latest newsletter here and subscribe to future updates here.

, , , , , , , , ,

6 Comments

How to write the difficult second novel. And why it’s difficult. Ep 45 FREE podcast for writers

The difficult second novel. Why might it be difficult? Does it have to be? Are there ways you could make it, well, easier? Indeed, we contend there are ways in which your second novel will be much easier to write than the first.

We are, of course, Peter Snell, a bookseller, and me!

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, including my own (difficult) third novel, find my latest newsletter here and subscribe to future updates here.

, , , , , , ,

4 Comments

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.

, , , , , , , , , , ,

7 Comments

How to write a synopsis if you hate writing synopses

Spoilers! Just one reason to hate synopses. But I rather like this T-shirt, and I should mention it’s from Threadless.

I just finished the manuscript of my third novel, Ever Rest, and am now querying agents. So I’ve had to write a synopsis.

I don’t know any writer who relishes the synopsis. Essentially, you take 100,000 words (103,000, in my case) and boil it down, spoilers and all, to 500. And hate every moment.

But we have to do it. And this time, I came to an important realisation, one that made the process so much easier.

First, you need to get it down.

Phase 1 – outline the story

  1. Start with the protagonist. Introduce them and the status quo.
  2. Describe the incident that kicks off the main action and how it affects the main character.
  3. Describe how everything becomes complicated, the main plot turns, how they test the protagonist and make them change their goals.
  4. Mention any traditions and tropes of your genre that will appeal to your ideal readers. Amazing settings, outlandish murders etc.
  5. Describe the protagonist’s lowest point.
  6. Add the ultimate crisis or confrontation, and how the protagonist faces it.
  7. Finish with the resolution – how the protagonist is changed (or not), whether they’re wiser, happier, sadder, more true to themselves etc.
  8. Now consider other characters, if you haven’t already. Who else should you add so the synopsis makes sense? Choose the most important characters.
  9. How do those main relationships develop? Add that.
  10. Also add themes and issues.
  11. And lastly, what’s your most original and exciting idea? Make sure you’ve showcased that.
  12. Splice it all together, so it flows as a story in its own right.

Broad strokes

You’ll have to fit it into just one page. There’s a lot you might have to leave out. In Ever Rest, I have four main characters, but there wasn’t room in the synopsis to explain all their arcs. So I left one out. My synopsis is a version of the story with just three of the main characters.

So you now have a document that makes sense but probably looks entirely soulless, compared with the rich experience it is derived from.

Hold that thought.

The conversation

Here, we eavesdrop on writerly life.

Husband Dave is also a writer (here’s a post about the two-writer household). It’s useful for support and also for tough love.

Dave: ‘Have you got your synopsis ready?’

Me: ‘Yes. I hope nobody reads it.’

Dave: a severe look.

I realised. That would not do.

I searched my soul. I had written the synopsis in a state of frustration and rebellion. This is stupid. Why do I have to write this? I’d prefer you read the whole book instead.

Does that sound familiar?

Phase 2

So here’s the biggest secret.

I decided I had to stop hating that document.

Writers are creatures of expressive emotion, and that emotion shines through our work. The reader can tell which characters we’re most committed to, which situations arouse our deepest curiosity, which ideas we love. We draw on our most genuine parts to write a story. We believe in it. We need to bring that belief to the synopsis too.

I read my synopsis and saw it had no soul. It was just a series of events. I rewrote those events, concentrating instead on the characters’ emotions. The rage, the hope, the fear, the distress, the dread, the yearning. Suddenly, I was enjoying it. I still loved telling the story the long way, the proper way. But now, I loved this new way to tell it.

That’s what you’re looking for. If someone reads your synopsis, you want them to crave the full-length experience, not to shrug and move on.

So set yourself a challenge. You know you’ve got a fine book, full of emotion, jeopardy and your own genius originality. For your second phase of synopsising, write with that spirit. Don’t write it with disdain. Write it with love.

(There’s a lot more about writing synopses in my Nail Your Novel workbook.)

Oh, and what’s Ever Rest? And why, if I can self-publish, am I looking for an agent? All discussed here

, , , , , ,

29 Comments

I’ve written a book – what now? Ep44 FREE podcast for authors

You spend all that time on the manuscript. Polishing, honing, changing your mind. But eventually, you’re satisfied with it. What then? Send it to a literary agent, a publisher, explore self-publishing? What do all those entail? Is there anything else you should to do ensure your book is really ready?

That’s the topic we’re discussing today. And we have a special guest, David Beecroft, who asks all the things that we might not have thought to raise, because we don’t have the beginner’s eye-view. 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.

, , , , , , ,

1 Comment