How do you get your book out into the world? Q&A on getting published: Ep 3 FREE podcast for writers

The book that you created as files on your hard drive… eventually ends up between covers, sitting on a shelf or an e-shelf, perhaps next to other books you admire, ready to be read by strangers. Exciting! But how does it get there?

That’s what we’re discussing today in episode 3 of So You Want To Be A Writer – getting published. Asking the questions is independent bookseller Peter Snell. Answering them is me!

Is self-publishing covered? It is, but obliquely. Self-publishing is such a wide topic that we devoted other episodes to it, but this is a good grounding if you want to go it alone. Good self-publishers follow many of the practices that traditional publishing has honed for, well, aeons.

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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How, exactly, do you learn to write professionally? So You Want To Be A Writer – Ep 2 FREE podcast

This is probably the most F of FAQs – how do you learn the basics for writing professionally. Is it necessary to take courses? What about all the famous writers who we know just did it themselves, made stuff up and wrote it down, following their inner star. Courses are helpful, but the good news is, we mainly teach ourselves. So how? And what should we be doing to do it well?

That’s what we’re discussing today in episode 2 of So You Want To Be A Writer. Asking the questions is independent bookseller Peter Snell. Answering them is 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. 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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Stuck at home? Completely FREE course to help you write your book – Ep 1 Starting writing

Hello! As the world gets strange and uncertain around us, we’re all turning more to creative, imaginative activities. So you might like this completely free resource – So You Want To Be A Writer, a show originally recorded for Surrey Hills Radio about writing, reading, booklife, publishing, self-publishing and everything else wordy.

My co-host is independent bookseller Peter Snell, so between us you get the entire sweep of the books spectrum. From hammering an idea into publishable form (me), to the other end, the person who introduces books to readers who’ll love them. (And knows what they won’t like.)

We had a real blast recording this series, talking about the stuff we love, our lifelong experiences making and selling books, swapping our different perspectives, answering questions from listeners. Above all, we wanted to be helpful and practical – as I’ve always aimed for with this blog and my Nail Your Novel series. You might even like our music choices! (If you do – thank me. If you don’t, blame Peter.) With 52 hour-long episodes of focused advice, the series amounts to a free course in writing a book.

This is episode 1 – starting writing. You can stream it from this widget below, or go to our Mixcloud page and listen there.

 

PS If you like our show, and you’re curious about the book I’m trying to nail now, here’s my newsletter

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Memoir: how we write about ourselves – an interview with Peter Selgin @PeterSelgin

How do we write about ourselves? How do we write a memoir that will have value for others? How do we find the necessary level of truth, empathy and self-examination? How reliably are we remembering and does that even matter? What about the other people who are part of our story – how do we approach writing about them?

I’ve posted before about memoir from various perspectives and of course I’ve had own dabblings, with Not Quite Lost.

For me, the very best memoirs perform a conjuring trick with your mind. Even if the author is nothing like you, they somehow seem to be writing experiences you’ve also had or recognise.

Today I’m thrilled to be talking to such a writer – Peter Selgin, whose memoir The Inventors was one of my favourite books of last year (though it was actually published in 2016, but who cares about that?) Peter is a literary powerhouse – novelist, short story writer, playwright, essayist, editor and associate professor of English at Georgia College & State University.  He’s also an artist, and the gorgeous pictures in this post are by him. (Find more of his art here.)

Roz Your memoir The Inventors is mainly written in second person, with your older self-addressing your younger self. I found this moving and effective; it allowed you to express complex emotions about your illusions and motivations, to bring your younger self alive in all his truth and complexity, while commenting from your perspective now. This is one of the challenges we face with memoir: how to be wiser than we were but also kind to our follies. I think your style choice balances them beautifully. How did you arrive at it? Was it something you’d seen in another book or did it happen for you spontaneously?

Peter My decision to write The Inventors in second person was mostly logical. At some point it became obvious to me that the younger version of myself whose story I was trying to tell, this thirteen-year-old boy, was in many ways a different creature than the fifty-something man I had become. I realized that I couldn’t inhabit that younger self fully or authentically; I couldn’t be him again. But I still wanted to tell his story. So instead of telling a story about him, as him, I told it to him. This gave me the sense of distance and perspective that every memoirist needs.

I think the hardest thing—or one of the hardest things—about writing memoir is how to be objective, honest, and fair, while avoiding all forms of sentimentality, of unearned emotion. I was intent on not romanticizing or glorifying my own past in any way. I didn’t want my younger self to come across as in any way heroic. But I was equally determined not to portray him as a victim (I’m no great fan of victim memoirs). The second person enforces acts as a sort of prophylactic against sentimentality. “You did this; you did that.”  It has—or should have—the objective authority of an instruction manual or a cake recipe.

In the past few years the second person has become very trendy, which makes me almost wish I hadn’t used it, but it really was necessary for this book. And I think with second person that’s the key: is it necessary? if not, don’t use it.

When your agent disagrees

Roz I saw you remark in a blogpost that your agent advised against second person because it wouldn’t be as commercially appealing.  We tread a fine line with our professional advisers, don’t we? Can you talk about handling advice that may be right in some ways, but wrong for your artistic direction? Your agent suggested a major change. How did you resist and still remain on good terms?

Peter My agent Christopher Rhodes was concerned that the second person would put off editors (this was before it became as trendy as it is now). At one point I rewrote the entire manuscript in the first person, but felt that it lost something crucial in the process. It no longer had that ruthlessly objective tone that had made it not only possible to write, but fun to write. And so I switched it back into second person again.

Ultimately, Christopher arrived at a brilliant solution: break up the second-person voice with another voice, with short intervals or inter-chapters in the first person. I used those intervals as opportunities to comment on the process of writing my own memoir and on memoir in general, little glimpses into the author’s process or notebook. In fact, I raided a few notebooks of mine for reflections to include in them. I’ve long been attracted to the sort of writing where the author’s inner process is exposed to the reader, the way the plumbing, ducts, and other normally hidden features of architecture are externalized at the Centre Pompidou.

Writing about real people

Roz Inevitably when we write memoirs, we involve other people. Many of them haven’t necessarily consented to become part of a book. Even if they do consent, they might not appreciate how we will use the material about them.

An example from my fiction – I have friends who jovially say ‘I’d love a part in your book’. They imagine a cameo where they’re doing something jolly and typical of them, like a special guest in a movie. They think it’s all surface. Instead we might write complex responses to our time with them, responses they might be entirely unaware we had. We cast them as part of our struggle to deal with life. We must write them this way in order to be truthful for the reader, but we also are aware it might create surprising and personal questions for the real people in our orbit. How did you handle this generally?

Peter On one hand, we should always respect the feelings of other people and try not to hurt people or use the medium of memoir irresponsibly or vindictively. But then we also have a responsibility toward telling the truth, or anyway trying to be as truthful and honest as possible. I’m lucky to have been born into a family that tolerates artistic needs and temperaments. While my egocentric father was more-or-less oblivious, my mother has always been supportive of my work as an artist, even when it’s come at her expense. Which isn’t to say that nothing I’ve ever written has given her offense. She was particularly offended by a passage in The Inventors in which I describe the family home as having gone somewhat to seed in the wake of my father’s death (of all the things that could have offended my mother about The Inventors, I never imagined it would be that passage).

The thing is, you can’t predict other people’s responses. It’s probably best not to try. Try to be as fair and objective as possible. Write to understand rather than out of anger, anguish, or self-pity; and never use the medium as an instrument of revenge, judgment, condemnation. The lens of self-righteous indignation is a poor instrument, I think, through which to view one’s life—let alone the world—clearly.

Roz In your book, there are two interesting ways you acknowledge this conundrum. You describe one of the main characters by just a label, ‘the teacher’. And at the end, you invite your brother George to write an afterword and correct anything he likes. He says that several details are wildly inaccurate from his point of view – even the kind of pen he had. This creates a sense of unreliability, but somehow does not undermine the book at all. Perhaps it also resonates neatly with your title, the men who invent themselves. Perhaps it also shows the complexity of reader belief, that what matters to them is inner honesty.

Unreliable narrators?

Peter As I see it, the memoirist’s job isn’t to tell “the truth,” which isn’t always possible. In fact it’s never possible at all, since “the truth” is a moving target that alters with the slightest shift in perspective or time. The memoirist’s job is to remember. And memory is entirely constructed.

Nor is it a stable construct. It keeps amending and refining itself, until finally what we remember isn’t “the truth” or even our own experience, but a story, a fiction based on experience, that we’ve told ourselves over and over again. With each telling the story acquires its own mythic reality independent of the facts, whatever those may have been.

Memory and truth are very different things. When students ask me, “How can I write about X if I don’t remember X?” I remind them that “to remember” is a verb, that there is no such thing as a memory that exists on a shelf in a storage room somewhere in our brains. Memories are like wind; they exist through the process of remembering. Whatever the act of remembering evokes, though it may not be “the truth,” still, it will do for memoir.

Roz You wrote two memoirs and a book of memoir essays. Why did they naturally split into three books?

Peter I’ve actually published only one memoir and one “memoir in essays.” A third memoir exists. Titled Painting Stories: a Life in Words and Pictures, that focuses on my love affair with those two things, how for many years they were at odds with each other, and how I finally succeeded in reconciling them. It has yet to find a publisher, in part because it needs to be produced in full colour, which is expensive. But everything we write is autobiographical, isn’t it — or rather everything we write is a blend of memory and imagination. But while fiction is driven mainly by the imagination, memoir has memory humming under its hood. It’s a matter of priorities.

The eclectic writer

Roz You have an eclectic mix of output. First of all, you’re an artist and graphic designer as well as writer. But within books you’re also quite diverse.  You have fiction short and long, memoirs and essays, three craft books, five books for children. This is, of course, what a naturally curious, creatively inclined, expressive person does. But commercial folks would say that’s too diffuse. I have a good friend who writes award-winning non-fiction and has also written a novel that is terrifically good, but his agent doesn’t want him to enter that market and won’t attempt to sell it. Have you experienced this kind of obstacle?

Peter The demands of the marketplace are hostile to versatility. If an artist has a successful “product,” the market demands that they produce more of the same. For me that’s always been a problem, since I hate to repeat myself. This was driven home to me many years ago, soon after I published my first book, a children’s book. The book having done well, my editor at Simon & Schuster was eager to see more from me. I met with him several times. At each of those meetings I must have shown him half a dozen ideas I had for more children’s books, each of which was of a completely different order than the one we’d published, none of which appealed to him. It became obvious that what he wanted more of the same. But I just couldn’t get excited by that. I envy artists who, having found a successful style or method, are able to repeat it over and over again with minor variations. That’s a formula for commercial success. But I’m afraid I just don’t have it in me.

Roz Neither do I.

When we teach writing…

Roz New question. You teach a university graduate program in creative writing. What do you think we teach when we teach writers?

Peter Every teacher is different, of course. My focus has always been on craft, and especially on what makes for good storytelling. What information does the reader need, when do they need it, and how should it best be delivered?

Roz That is brilliant. I always think good writing knows exactly how it’s handling the reader. What they’re directing the reader to notice. And to feel.

Peter Of course there’s no single right answer. But those are the kinds of issues I look at when analysing and diagnosing a piece of writing. I see myself as something of a clinician. Of course, when it comes to prescribing, the first question should always be, “What is it that this author has set out to do? How can I help them to write the book that they seem to want to write?” I reject the often-heard accusation that creative writing teachers necessarily mould their students into their own image. Of course it may be true in some cases. But in my experience, the shape of the “mould” is determined by our students’ drafts, by the vision they present me with.

Aside from Roz: You might like Peter’s series on Jane Friedman’s blog, Your First Page , a spin-off of one of his writing craft books.                    

Roz I spotted on Facebook recently that you’ve been revising a novel after feedback from agents and publishers. What kinds of things did you re-examine?

Peter The novel, titled Duplicity, is nominally about twins—but the way Moby Dick is about the whaling industry. It’s really about dualities, opposites, contradictions, and paradoxes of all sorts, including a phenomenon of physics known as “quantum entanglement,” by which a single entity may exist in more than one place at a time. Having had it rejected by nearly every publisher in the country, large and small, I decided to revise it—not heavily, but to get rid of as many of what I call “speed bumps” in the narrative road —words, sentences, paragraphs, in one or two cases whole passages that slowed things down unnecessarily. I like the analogy of a story or narrative as a guided tour with a destination, but also with detours and side trips to interesting sights along the way. Some things are worth pulling over for; others less so. In revising I got rid of a few side trips.

Roz Give me some amazing final words!

Peter The best advice I’ve heard given to a writer is what the titular character tells (actually writes in a note) to Buddy, his fledgling author younger brother in J.D. Salinger’s Seymour: An Introduction. He has Buddy ask himself, as a reader, what piece of writing in all the world would he most want to read if he had his heart’s choice.” Seymour then tells his brother to “sit down shamelessly and write the thing [him]self.”

Find Peter and his books here and connect with him on Twitter @PeterSelgin . Find his beautiful artwork here.

And on that note, of things we’re writing ourselves, here’s my latest news

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Your first pages – 5 more book openings critiqued by a literary agent (and me!) at @Litopia

Last Sunday I guested again at Litopia, an online writers’ colony and community. Every week they have a YouTube show, Pop-Up Submissions, where five manuscripts are read and critiqued live on air by literary agent Peter Cox @agentpete and a guest, or sometimes two (this time we had PR agent Kaylie Finn @kaylie_finn ).

The format is simple. Five manuscripts, each with a short blurb. We hear the opening pages, then talk about how they’re working – exactly as an agent would think about a manuscript that crossed their desk. This time we had YA post-apocalyptic fiction, a World War II spy thriller, a farce set in the world of British TV, a literary post-apocalyptic adult novel and a Cold War memoir. Issues we discussed included introducing a world and characters, stylised language, versatility of tone, orientating the reader so you don’t lose their attention, introducing a character with a peculiar problem, writing comedy, believability of a story concept, what makes a YA novel YA, ingredients for a historical novel, and how to get a toehold in the very competitive market for special forces memoirs.

Fascinating stuff – as ever, I talked loads, and I also learned loads from the responses of Peter and Kaylie. (That’s Kaylie and Peter in the preview pic.)

Enjoy! And if you’ve got a manuscript you’d like critiqued, apply here.

And meanwhile, here’s what’s happening to my own much-edited manuscript, plus a few other writerly tales

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Power stations of the mind – a piece of Not Quite Lost at the Liminal Residency

If you enjoyed my interview with Krishan Coupland of The Liminal Residency, you might like this post by me on their blog. It was inspired by a weird weather effect after a long, long drive in the fog, and perhaps a bit of headlight hypnosis. You can find a longer version in my travel diary Not Quite Lost: Travels Without A Sense of Direction.

Anyway, do hop over … and if you’ve had a similar experience, let’s discuss it in the comments!

PS And here’s my latest creative news, hallucinatory and not, in my newsletter

 

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‘More life is lived in a service station than in a castle…’ – discussing the wonder of abandoned spaces with Krishan Coupland of The Liminal Residency

Where do you write? Somewhere quiet, non-distracting. But how about somewhere unusual, and divinely distracting? If you read my newsletter you’ll have seen my piece about the Liminal Residency, an alternative writers’ retreat that takes place in abandoned, in-between and otherwise overlooked spaces. So far they’ve explored Heathrow Airport, Peterborough Service Area and the Alton Towers amusement park, and then published their writings as limited-edition books. It’s run by Krishan Coupland and Eloise CC Shepherd, both writers of short fiction and poetry, and I’m so pleased that Krishan has agreed to chat with me today.

How did The Liminal Residency start?

Eloise and I share a fascination with derelict or awkward spaces. We find abandoned buildings, service stations, and other liminal spaces endlessly interesting.

Krishan Coupland

So do I!

This is why we found it strange that most writers’ retreats take you away from these spaces, towards somewhere quiet, remote, and separate. The idea to start a retreat that did the opposite arose naturally from this.

We did the pilot by ourselves at Peterborough Service Area, and it was hugely inspiring. Since then TLR has grown steadily. We even managed to get Arts Council England funding for our latest project at Alton Towers.

Personally, I’m a fan of writing in limbo places. In a theatre audience before curtain-up; travelling on the Tube. There’s something inspiring about the sense of being in a between-time, displaced from your usual surroundings, adrift with just a notebook and your eager mind. They feel borrowed and somehow urgent because they won’t last long. When I discovered Liminal Residency, it made me think of that.

That’s a beautiful way of putting it. It reminds me of the Amtrak Residency – an American Residency based on a series of long-distance trains. I often make connections and untangle ideas while travelling. Something about moving through a landscape seems to lead to looser and wilder associations in my brain.

There’s something liberating about the sensation of being carried, being taken somewhere. Especially if you’re not having to drive, you’re in someone else’s hands. It’s a kind of trusting abandoned state, like sleep.

Do you write whilst on the Tube? When I lived in London I found it great for thinking… but often difficult to actually get any writing done!

I think about it. But the journeys I make aren’t long enough for a sustained write. And often, I can’t get a seat.

As means of transport go, it’s quite an intense and stressful one.

Eloise CC Shepherd

Liminal Residency is about overlooked places. Motorway service stations; Heathrow Airport; the theme park at Alton Towers. We’re probably not supposed to give much thought to them; for most people, they’re transit stops on the way to somewhere else. What are you aiming to do when you explore these places?

Part of it is simply recognising the importance of these places. However mundane or disposable they might be to most of the people who visit, they still have a history.

So much history! Think of the number of souls that pass through these places.

We think it’s as important to recognise and record and engage with this history. Why do only some places get to be historically significant? More life is lived in a service station than in a historic castle.

I love that.

We’re also hoping to find something different. Everything you write arises from everything you experience, and so by exploring different places and seeing different things we hope that something new – something which wouldn’t otherwise have arisen – might come to the surface.

You seem to pick urban places, and a particular kind of urban place – they’re sealed off, almost like kingdoms.

That’s a good way of putting it – for Alton Towers in particular, which feels to me like a small city; a place with different districts, different zones. A world comprised of several other smaller worlds. And definitely a kingdom. After all, it has a castle in the middle. Have you ever been to Alton Towers?

Lifeform Three by Roz MorrisI’ve been several times. I first went as a kid, before the theme park was installed. There was a ruined house and a garden. My parents were interested in the gardens. I only had eyes for the soot-blackened walls, the empty window holes, the sense of collapsed grandeur. I was miffed that we didn’t explore that, but had to look at flowers and greenhouses. I wanted to see the traces of the life that were lived there, the fireplaces half-way up the walls, the panelling in the rooms, to imagine the people who walked on the floors that had now fallen in. I was very young but it made a powerful impression.  Derelict country houses feature strongly in my work – in my novel Lifeform Three and my travel memoir Not Quite Lost.

I’m always fascinated by the different stories and experiences people have of it.

In your Alton Towers book, my favourite part was the Park Map Errata, where you listed features that had been forgotten. Some would have been handsome and noteworthy in their day, such as the Victorian bathing pool or the stately home ruins. Others were less so, such as the disused toilet block, but still would, when they were used, have seen heavy human traffic, stories, brief encounters. Their empty state seems so elegaic and resonant. I’m not sure I have a question about this, I simply liked that you documented them!

The derelict toilet block is almost mythic to me. I worked at the park for several seasons and thought that I knew it well. I imagine that guests who go to the park every year believe that they know Alton Towers well too – to discover that there are abandoned portions of it lurking just out of sight is as exciting as finding a sealed room or a forgotten city… even if it is just a toilet block in the end!

‘As exciting as a sealed room or forgotten city…’ That’s exactly how I feel. It’s the sense that everything can change. As if time is a curtain. Pull back ten years and a place is lively and thriving; an essential hub. Close those ten years and nothing is there but brambles.

I also feel as though things become invested with a kind of importance by being neglected. The gardens and the Towers are vital, if only because so few people care about them. They are, in a sense, an endangered species of place – something that to me makes them compelling and urgent.

The goodies that came with my copy of the Alton Towers report – pictures and a piece of pink flamingo

Let’s talk practicalities. Do you run into problems with security on these premises or do you make special arrangements? I’m thinking particularly of Heathrow Airport, where you walked the perimeter and got lost in the internal transport network. How did you get access?

We always try to make arrangements and let the places we’ll be visiting know what we’re doing. This usually doesn’t work. Heathrow, for example, is such a vast place – a collection of a thousand different interlocking organisations. Unless you have exactly the right contact, a lot of money, or a lot of good will, it’s near enough impossible to get permission to do anything. Which isn’t, of course, a reason not to do something.

We had a little luck with Alton Towers – and hopefully as we grow people might start returning our emails. You never know; we’d love to be invited somewhere one day.

How does the residency work? Can any writer take part or do you choose participants with particular aims or attributes?

We try to be as open as possible, but having a limited budget means that we can only take along a few people to each Residency. We try to pick writers and artists who have a connection with the place… or whose work might lead to an interesting interpretation of it.

It’s also pretty important that someone is on board with the whole idea. Engaging with a place in this way is sometime uncomfortable, sometimes tiring, sometimes weird. You might not get much work done during the period of the Residency. You might end up skulking around an abandoned toilet block or going on a vision quest in a theme park. It requires, I guess, at least a bit of a sense of humour.

Or curiosity and wonder!

For each location, can you pick out a magical or unexpected highlight?

At Peterborough Service Area that would definitely be the tiny, hand-built church made of wood and corrugated metal in the field behind the service station. It was a surprise find, and strangely remote, utterly beautiful. I don’t know how many of the thousands of people who stop there each day have ever discovered it.

Alton Towers – we weren’t expecting to be able to get into the Towers themselves, but there’s a curtained off archway on the exit line from Hex, and through there we had access to the whole building. It’s gorgeous, empty and echoing, filled with balls of insulation fluff and piped-in music for the benefit of the (zero) guests who go there every day.

At Heathrow… probably the old pub on the boundary. It’s hundreds of years old, and has remained stubbornly in place despite numerous attempts to destroy it. It feels completely out of place, but it’s gorgeous; once upon a time it was a refuge from highwaymen and robbers.

I have a friend who used to work in border force at Heathrow. He’s fascinated by the echoes of ancient places and has a collection of news cuttings about the villages that pre-dated the airport. He’s also an author, more famously known for his alternate history novels, but one of his preoccupations is liminal spaces. He wrote a haunting short story about people lost in the no-man’s land at the edge of a motorway. (In case you’re interested, search for John Whitbourn’s Binscombe Tales.)

If practicalities were no object, what would your ideal residency location be?

We’d love to do something in an abandoned building, possibly even an abandoned theme park. There are a few in the UK, including Loudon Castle and the old Camelot amusement park. Practically, it’s tricky, but it’s something that would be wonderful if it came together.

How does the residency work feed back into your own art?

Each Residency has sparked off new interests – new things that I want to write about. It’s changed the way I feel about space as well. The number one positive thing that being involved with TLR has done for me is to enhance my ability to notice things – see stuff that I wouldn’t before. Once you start you can’t stop. I have an appreciation now for hidden detail that I didn’t have before – and I constantly see that coming through in my writing.

Thank you so much! I’ve loved this interview. 

Meanwhile, in the dustiest corners of my mind, here’s what’s been brewing

 

 

 

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Hit the ground running with your first pages – 5 book openings critiqued by a literary agent (and me!) at Litopia

Phew, this blog has been busy this week! Last Sunday I was the guest of Litopia, an online writers’ colony and community. Every week they have a YouTube show, Pop-Up Submissions, where five submissions are read and critiqued live on air by literary agent Peter Cox and a guest. This week, that guest was me!

The genres can be absolutely anything, so I found myself assessing a young adult fantasy, an urban American thriller, a travel memoir, an Irish literary character piece (aka ‘upmarket fiction’) and a humorous fantasy crime. We picked out issues such as where to put back story, establishing the tone with the writing style and the choice of events, trying to make a character too likeable… and lots more. It was a fun challenge, and also fascinating to see Peter’s commercial instincts in action. While I concentrated on elements craft, he was asking: ‘Are there too many of this kind of book already? How do you stand out in today’s market? Or is it right on trend?’

We had some technical difficulties, so for some reason the video is a whopping two hours long, even though the show was only one hour. I’ve set it up to start when we actually start talking…

Enjoy! And if you’ve got a manuscript you’d like critiqued, apply here.

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Story as metaphor – talking to Ann Napolitano, author of Dear Edward

As you might know, I’m fond of novels that are bold metaphorical concepts and haunting stories. A few months ago I came across an advance copy of Dear Edward by Ann Napolitano, the story of a 12-year-old boy who is the only survivor of a plane crash. He struggles to find a way to live, having lost everything, including his brother, mother and father. The narrative of his present life is intercut with the hours of the flight, the people whose last hours he shared, who will stay with him for ever. It’s a spellbinding read and I’m thrilled to be able to talk to Ann, keyboard to keyboard, today.

Vital statistics for Ann: she’s the author of the novels A Good Hard Look and Within Arm’s Reach. She’s also Associate Editor of One Story magazine, has an MFA from New York University; has taught fiction writing for Brooklyn College’s MFA program, New York University’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies and for Gotham Writers’ Workshop.

Ann, how would you classify Dear Edward? At face value, it’s a great contemporary story, but we’re often asked to find more exact definitions.

I’ve seen this kind of fiction classified as metaphysical, because the idea reaches beyond the literal, a poetic environment as much as a story event. I’d also say it’s half-way to magic realism.

I’m terrible with classifying literature—in some ways I wish we could do away with most terms. For instance, I know the label of magical realism turns some people off, and that means they’ll never read Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (to name just one example) and that’s such a shame, as they would probably love the book.

 I see similarities between Dear Edward and Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto, which doesn’t have magic events, but creates a kind of weather where emotional magic happens. Real magic realism?

I see what you’re saying about Dear Edward existing in the same kind of universe as Bel Canto, but I would prefer not to have that universe labelled.

I also object to women’s fiction as a term, since there is no equivalent for men.

I so agree! The term ‘women’s fiction’ annoys me intensely. It’s all fiction. For people.

Moving on, what gave you the initial idea?

There was a real plane crash in 2010 in which everyone died except one nine-year-old Dutch boy named Ruben VanAssouw. The flight took off in South Africa and crashed in Libya. The boy’s parents and brother died in the crash, and his aunt and uncle adopted him. The story was big news at the time, and I was immediately obsessed with it. I wanted to know how this little boy could possibly walk away from this level of loss and tragedy. And obviously this obsession became Dear Edward.

How long did it take for you to arrive at the final treatment? I’m just finishing a novel that’s taken me five years and 16 drafts. What’s your process? 

I feel for you – Dear Edward took eight years to finish. I spent the first year taking notes and doing research (I don’t let myself write scenes or even pretty sentences during that period) and then I spend years writing and re-writing the first half of the book. In this novel, the plane sections came fairly easily, but I re-wrote Edward’s storyline countless times.

Your main character, Edward, experiences an extreme trauma. His interior experience is so unique, but also so relatable. How did you create this emotional truth? Did you use sensitivity readers?

No – I only just heard this term this year! I have two writers who I met in graduate school—Hannah Tinti and Helen Ellis—and they are my first readers. My husband read the final draft, too, as did my amazing agent. They operated as my sensitivity readers, I suppose?

Dear Edward also contains many technicalities about air travel and flight, especially in the crash sequences. How did you devise the fatal accident? And how did you approach educating the reader so they would understand it? Did you have expert readers to check it?

Luckily, one of my parents’ best friends is a retired commercial pilot, so I interviewed him extensively, and then he read the plane crash sections when I was done writing, to make sure they were accurate. I also read many transcripts of the National Transportation Safety Board hearings after major crashes. And I ended up choosing to model the reasons for Dear Edward’s crash on a particular Air France crash. There was a wonderful Popular Mechanics article about this crash that included the dialogue between the pilots from the flight’s black box.

Tell me about your other novels – how did they come about? Are there any similarities with Dear Edward? What would you say your literary signatures are – any themes, types of character, types of situation?

Ostensibly, my three novels are very different. My first, Within Arm’s Reach, is based on my mother’s large Irish Catholic family in New Jersey. A Good Hard Look takes place in the state of Georgia in the 1960s and features the short story writer Flannery O’Connor as one of the characters. But all three books share a theme: how to live a meaningful life.

You have an MFA. What did it do for you?

It did two things:

1) It gave me what felt like a legitimate excuse to focus on my fiction writing for two years

2) I met two writers, Helen Ellis and Hannah Tinti, in the programme, and we have been each other’s first readers ever since.

I often tell young writers that they don’t need an MFA, but if they can get one without going into any debt, it can be a great way to find your tribe and invest in their own work.

[Side note: if you’re seriously considering whether to do a creative writing degree, read my interview series with creative writing professor Garry Craig Powell. Should you take a creative writing degree? How to choose a creative writing degree. Are creative writing degrees relevant today? ]

Ann, you teach creative writing. How did that come about?

I started teaching intentionally, when my youngest son was about one years old. I hoped, as many writers do, to teach in order to make some income while writing novels.

How does your students’ work feed back into or nurture your own? Personally I find mentoring and coaching is a surprising learning experience of my own. The work in progress is a privileged place.

I love teaching—as you said, I find I learn at least as much as I teach in any classroom. And it feels wonderful to be in a space where writing, and therefore the stuff of life, is discussed seriously.

You also edit a literary magazine. How did it come about?

One of my best friends, the aforementioned Hannah Tinti, co-founded One Story magazine shortly after we finished graduate school. About five years ago I moved to Brooklyn, and around the corner from the magazine’s office, and almost as a matter of course started working there one day per week. I love working there for much the same reason I love teaching—it feels very nourishing to sit and argue the merits of short stories all day with likeminded writer-editors.

Do you have any advice for writers who would like to submit?

My best advice for submitting to any magazine is to make sure you follow the magazine’s guidelines, and don’t submit a story until it’s truly done. Finish the story and put it in a drawer for two weeks, then read it again and if you still feel like it’s everything you want it to be, then submit.

Thank you! It’s been great to talk to you.

No, thank you for your thoughtful questions.

Thanks for the plane pic, David Spinks on Flickr.

Find Ann’s website here, with all her novels. Find her on Twitter @NapolitanoAnn One Story Magazine is @OneStoryMag  Helen Ellis is @WhatIDoAllDay and Hannah Tinti is @HannahTinti

And if you’re curious about how my own slow-growing novel is going, here’s my latest newsletter

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Is it cheating to use a ghostwriter?

A few months ago, a blogger challenged me with this question. Is it cheating to use a ghostwriter? (Why would anyone ask me this? I have a secret past.)

And just this week, John Doppler of the Alliance of Independent Authors wrote about the ethics of ghostwriting, how he was initially doubtful but is now using a ghostwriter for books of his own.

So here’s the short answer. It’s complicated.

Who wrote that book? Maybe more people than you think.  

Publishing has always been a team effort. This is often a surprise to readers, and also to inexperienced writers. There’s a belief that the published book is exactly what the author first sent to the publisher.

The reality is different. Your manuscript is only the start. It becomes a patient in a long and intricate operation. It will have editors, of several varieties – some for the big picture, some for the detail goofs you didn’t know were possible (how many Tuesdays did you put in one week?).  There are also designers, marketers and publicity folk.

Your book may have germinated from just you, but by the time it greets the world, it’s had many midwives.

With ghostwriting, you add one more midwife. The writer splits into two people – the person with the life, ideas and experience, and the person who crafts that into text.

But… (I hear you say…) all those editors, designers etc are assistants. It’s the writer who’s at the helm, who ‘invents’ the book. The writer might have guidance, sometimes heavy guidance, but they do the most work.

Up to a point, yes. But sometimes a person has the raw materials but can’t turn them into a book. Maybe they could learn; maybe that would be impossible. Maybe they could write but don’t have enough time. But when publishers spot a commercial opportunity, they are chasing an immediate market. They need it done fast.

Commercial

This is a crucial word: commercial. Ghostwriters are generally used in the high-volume sectors of publishing, The books are usually fronted by a person who is marketable because of fame or life or expertise, but doesn’t have writing-fu. Or perhaps they’re too busy running businesses, winning grand slams or saving the world. So a ghostwriter is brought in – who can write exactly what’s needed and in a timely way. If all goes well, everyone benefits.

But.. (I hear you say…) isn’t it a cheat? To imply that a person can write a book when they can’t?

Qualms

I agree with your qualms. Morally it is questionable. It might undermine the skills of real writers. We have a myth that anyone can write a book, probably because everyone seems to. Mumble-minded sports stars can do it, so it cannot be very difficult. Indeed, they apparently dash off a memoir or tome of life advice without pausing their all-consuming day job.

Thus the use of ghostwriters might make the public (and your aunt) assume that anyone can toss off a book. In their spare time, indeed.

There’s also an issue of trust. The byline is sacred, isn’t it? It’s the promise on the tin. It should be the name of the person who sweated the book personally onto the page.

Well, the ghostwriter’s sweat doesn’t go unacknowledged. Money is a good acknowledgement. Ghostwriting is paid at a commercial rate and there might be royalties.

Ghostwriters aren’t always invisible. Sometimes we get a co-credit. That depends on the individual deal and whether it looks ‘bad’ for the ‘author’ to have had help. Getting murky again…

Murk

Oh yes, there is murk. Sometimes the ‘author’ isn’t co-operative, or isn’t as interesting as the publisher hoped, or some of their content can’t be used because of legal issues. The publishing team must salvage what they can to get a book on the shelves. Usually no harm is done. Usually.

I can see you’re itching to mention Donald Trump’s Art of the Deal. Its ghostwriter has gone on record to say the book contained hardly any Trump, yet helped create his reputation (full story here ).

What other murk is lurking? Oh yes, the kinds of books you think should not be ghostwritten.

But surely not novels…

Do you assume ghostwriting is only for non-fiction? Memoirs, business books, self-help, autobiographies? You’d better sit down. A sizeable amount of fiction is ghostwritten too. (Writing fiction for others used to be my speciality.  Shhh.)

Remember: in commercial publishing, books are sold by names and notoriety. Verily, even in fiction. Put another way, if a celeb needed help to write their memoir, they’ll sure need help with their novel. Some are entirely up front about this.

Even among the ‘genuine’ authors, there are books that have many midwives. James Patterson makes no secret of using other writers to help him meet demand. Others keep their ‘assistants’ a secret, or possibly don’t realise how much is done to make their book respectable. Many editorial staff in big publishing imprints have had to rewrite a manuscript because the author reached the limit of their craft or the clock was running down. Editing and ghostwriting are two ends of a long and blurred spectrum.

Does that worry me? Yes and no. As a writer who works hard at their craft, I’m not thrilled if a book that needed substantial rescuing gets a good reputation it doesn’t deserve. But that is commercial publishing.

If that irks you too, you’d better sit down, because I’m about to reveal something bad. No, lie down; it’s thoroughly grubby.

Are you lying comfortably?

There are authors who are offered novel deals with en-suite ghostwriters because they are distinguished in other areas of life. If those novels do well, those authors become literary pundits, judge literary prizes etc.

With most ghostwritten books, the deception is largely harmless, because the writing is not the chief draw. The content is. But where the writing is the thing… Any writer who is struggling to be recognised for their skill and quality will find that hard to stomach.

And breathe.

But…

Before we write ghosting off as evil and underhand, we should consider one defining factor. For the writer (the actual wordsmith writer) a ghostwritten book isn’t the same as your own.

The ghostwriter creates a book that someone else would write…. If they could. They don’t write a book and have it torn from their hands. They create a book to a contract, for a purpose. They apply their craft and skill to raw material from another person – a life story, technical or business expertise, a special world. In that respect, the name on the cover and the face in the author pic are honest. They are the true soul of the book. (Though see the caveats above.)

Perhaps ‘ghost’ is the wrong term. Perhaps it should be ‘medium’.

Business

Ghostwriting is also a business arrangement, like any professional service. It has to be, in order to pay both ‘author’ and ghost – and at a decent market rate. Ghostwriters are hired by publishers or by people who’ll get a good return on their investment, and many writers use it as a second line to help fund their ‘real’ books.

Which means that, amid the chicanery and shadows, there is an honest living to be made by the ghostwriter.

Thanks for Venice carnival mask picture, Sweetaholic on Pixaby. Thanks Olivander on Flickr for the monkey. Thanks Actualitte on Flickr for the London Book Fair.

If you’re interested to know more about how to break in and how the industry works, I have a professional ghostwriting course.

And if you’re curious to know what I’ve been up to in my genuine writing life, here’s my latest newsletter

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