Movements, movers and shakers: publishers and authors as literary citizens .. an interview

This week I’m interviewing Laura Stanfill, author, founder of the literary imprint Forest Avenue Pressin Portland, Oregon. Part 1 is here. Part 2 is here. Part 3 is here. This is the final instalment. Find her on Twitter as @ForestAvePress

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

Laura Our submission readers do consider marketing potential, whether the author has relationships with well-known authors who might blurb, and—most importantly—whether the author has built genuine community and relationships with indie bookstores.

We don’t measure social media account followers or anything of that sort, though.

Roz Speaking of which … You’ve built a great relationship with authors and bookshops and a supportive community within the writing world.

Laura I moved to Portland in 2001, founded a writing group at a local bookstore, and then proceeded to watch the literary scene and write fiction for 10 years. I didn’t know how to engage—or that I should engage. I didn’t realize I could speak up, or be part of the community, besides as a witness. When I founded the press, I built on those years of being present on the scene, and that credibility helped me earn respect, blurbs, and consignment deals with local bookstores.

Roz I follow you on Facebook and often see lovely pictures of you at your authors’ readings.

Laura Showing up and listening and supporting others is important, of course, and that’s really how I built my community. I founded my press nearly six years ago now, but I also had that decade of being present, of walking into indie bookstores and listening. Going to other authors’ and presses’ events is still very important to me. I encourage writers not only to show up at events, but to say hi to the people sitting next to them, to introduce themselves to the presenting author(s) when they ask for an autograph, and always bring business cards.

Roz What about the Main St Writers Movement? (Reader, if that’s familiar to you, you might have seen it here.)

Laura I founded Main Street in February 2017 to urge writers to support each other at the local level—and their indie bookstores—as a way to strengthen the literary ecosystem. The movement crystallized out of the core values I have as a publisher. One component of Main Street is amplifying underrepresented voices. If your voice is well represented, or if you have social capital, use your voice to direct attention to stories that need to be heard. Don’t hog the mic; pass it. Don’t take up all the space with your words; leave space for others. We’re in this together; we need to have parades for each other and celebrate each other’s achievements. This is an anti-competition movement, a togetherness movement, and quite frankly, a quest to get writers who want to establish professional careers to actually support publishers, literary magazines, and booksellers, which strengthens the industry and then in theory creates more space for more voices. It’s really, at its most basic level, what I’m doing to fight the erosion of reading culture.

We have a Main Street pledge and newsletter, which is on hiatus right now, because I’m focused on a publishers’ speaking tour. I talk about community at every gig, no matter what the topic. Then I challenge my audience to do something: attend a reading at an indie bookstore, or volunteer at a school, for instance. I’ve been to Pasadena, Tucson, and several Portland events already this spring promoting these values and trying to inspire others to do this work too. Because a movement isn’t about a founder; it takes all of us.

Michael Ferro, author of Title 13 (Harvard Square Editions) has been quoted publicly about reaching out to me for advice, only to have me connect him with publishing community members in his own city, Ann Arbor, Michigan. He’s a great example of what Main Street can be, because he took the example I set and is now passing on what he knows to others. If we all reach out and share what we can, we’re going to uplift each other.

Roz Michael Ferro? Small world. I saw that post, tweeted it, we then got chatting on Twitter and he’s writing a post for The Undercover Soundtrack. I love what we can do simply by saying hello.

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

Laura Figure out your business model, your distribution method, your initial number of titles, and the cost of running the business for the first two years. Don’t forget to factor in printing costs, mailing costs, design software, freelancers, Internet access, and everything else you’ll need to make your business run. You’ll find helpful and accessible information in Joe Biel’s forthcoming People’s Guide to Publishing: Building a Successful, Sustainable, Meaningful Book Business, forthcoming in late 2018 through Microcosm Publishing. If you want to do some reading right now, Thomas Woll’s classic Publishing for Profit is a great resource.

Laura – thanks so much. This has been fascinating, inspiring and empowering. Guys, you can find Laura at the Forest Avenue website, on Twitter @forestavepress, on Facebook and on Instagram

Meanwhile, in my own little literary world, if you’re curious to know what I’m cooking up, here’s my latest newsletter

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A week in the life of a small press .. an interview

Laura Stanfill (left) and designer Gigi Little

This week I’m interviewing Laura Stanfill, author, all-round literary citizen and founder of the literary imprint Forest Avenue Press in Portland, Oregon. Part 1 is here. Part 2 is here. This is Part 3. Find her on Twitter as @ForestAvePress

Roz Do you have staff?

Laura I don’t have a staff, but I have some wonderful editors, advisers, submissions readers, and a top-notch graphic designer, Gigi Little @gigiblittle , who has been with me since the earliest days. She created our gorgeous logo, and I love the aesthetic she brings to our covers. They’re unlike anyone else’s covers, and recognizable as ours. My editor-at-large Liz Prato is an invaluable team member who helps with building camaraderie among our authors as well as with submissions, social media, big-picture decision making, and organizing us to celebrate milestones. Everyone interested in learning more about submissions—and what not to do—should follow her on Twitter @liz_prato .

Roz What’s a typical day (or week or month)?

Laura Forest Ave is run from my office in the basement and my kitchen table as necessary. Sometimes from the couch. I spend a lot of my time emailing with other publishers and authors, helping them with questions or questions of access. In any given week I:

  • Help other publishers, or other publishers’ authors, because a few minutes of my time can help others succeed
  • Send out ARCs of upcoming titles
  • Communicate with multiple authors about where their titles are in the publishing process
  • Set up interviews, excerpt placements, etc.
  • Reach out to booksellers
  • Design, whether it’s promo materials or upcoming titles
  • Work on backlist titles
  • Work on my own writing

Gigi Little, Forest Avenue’s designer, also performs in opera

Roz How much editorial work do you outsource?

Laura I outsource covers, copy editing, and ebook production; I do the rest in house because of my newspaper background. I used to teach QuarkXpress to newsrooms with a focus on time-saving shortcuts, so it wasn’t too much of a stretch to teach myself InDesign.

I have long lead times for each title because my sales reps want advance copies, marketing data, blurbs, and other metadata nine months before pub date. I also have a higher risk on each title, because distribution is expensive, we need to print a lot more advance copies than pre-distribution, and we have higher print runs than when I was selling books out of the back of my car.

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

Laura I am officially closed year-round except for a period of weeks each year. Our most recent open submission period was four weeks, and it closed in mid-March.

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

Laura We gather a committee of eight (or more) women readers to help us make decisions. We give as much personal feedback as we can, since we gear up for this intense period. Moreover, we only publish two or three titles per year, so it doesn’t make sense to be open when we don’t have any slots in our catalog to fill.

This schedule also allows me to do the volunteer outreach I am so passionate about, helping mentor other presses and answering questions from authors who aren’t mine. That’s time I would otherwise spend combing through manuscripts. Occasionally I take a look at manuscripts when we’re closed—often from agents who have a strong sense of our brand or who have connected with me personally. And I keep a shortlist of possible acquisitions at all times—those books that almost made it, or would have made it if I had more openings.

Roz What’s been been successful for Forest Avenue? I’m thinking many readers here might be prospective Forest Avenue types…

Laura We’ve had success lately with shorter titles with some magical elements—playful, joyfully written manuscripts that don’t fit into a neat literary fiction box. Our bestseller is actually a regional short story anthology, City of Weird: 30 Otherworldly Portland Tales, which received a lot of love from local booksellers and continues to sell to locals and visitors.

My sweet spot for length is 60,000- to 80,000-words. But in 2018, we have two novels that are longer than 100,000 words. Parts per Million is an activist novel, set in Portland, Oregon, and a finalist for the PEN/Bellwether for Socially Engaged Fiction. The Alehouse at the End of the World by Stevan Allred—out in November—is a comic epic set on the Isle of the Dead, which is ruled by six-foot talking birds. It’s the most fantastical of all our fiction to-date, while Parts per Million fits more into the category of recent historical fiction, which we established with Ellen Urbani’s Landfall in 2015. Landfall is set in the South during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and it was our bestseller for quite a while.

Roz Are there any common features of books you reject?

Laura I avoid misogynistic protagonists in fiction, even if the character grows into himself and changes throughout the course of the novel. There’s too much of that material in the world already.

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

Laura We work very closely with our authors over multiple revision passes. That being said, authors have one chance to capture a publisher’s interest, so we highly recommend submitting polished manuscripts. Others’ input, whether it’s from a critique partner, a writing group, a teacher, or a professional editor can help writers put their best work forward.

Recently at a conference, I met a woman whose manuscript came quite far in our recent open submission period; I was astonished that she hadn’t workshopped the book, hired an editor, or worked with beta readers. What she accomplished without that outside perspective was phenomenal, and I immediately started introducing her around to writers so she can start building community. I have no doubt that with some revision, she’s going to find a place for this book in the world. It was so well-written and original.

Roz What’s your view of creative writing courses?

Laura I am a do-it-yourself publisher, and I founded my press without studying publishing or getting my MFA in creative writing. There’s no wrong way to become a writer, but I don’t think there’s one right way, either.

Roz I’m not sure if this will be a welcome subject or not, but 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?

Laura When authors ask me this, I tell them to dig deep into why they want their book out, whether they have a specific timeline, what they want the publishing experience to be like, and if they are comfortable with creating and implementing a comprehensive marketing plan. It’s also important for self-publishing authors to set a timeline that allows for ample pre-publication publicity. All of that is doable.

Author Joyce Cherry Cresswell self-published after we had coffee and talked about her goals. She used Indigo: Editing, Design, and More, which is a Portland-based, woman-owned, full-service editing business, to polish and publish her debut novel. A Great Length of Time became the first self-published book to win the Oregon Book Award in fiction.

Laura and friends – a lot of friends – at the launch of Froelich’s Ladder by Jamie Yourdon

When I publish a book, an author gets years of my dedicated time and attention, developmental editing, a cover by an award-winning designer, hundreds of galleys sent to hundreds of booksellers and reviewers, high-quality photographs of any events I’m near enough to attend, and sometimes snacks from my purse. I also organize launch events, print postcards, advertise, and act as a publicist and author coach, especially for debut titles.

Plus Forest Avenue has a national and international presence, not to mention full-service distribution, which means we get books on shelves, and we can reach far beyond the author’s personal contacts.

Roz As I said in my comment on the previous post…

But we mustn’t lose sight of the fact that you also write. Tell me about that. Are you working on a book at the moment?

Laura I write literary fiction and am represented by Laurie Fox of the Linda Chester Agency. And yes, I’m always working on a book! Or two. I am polishing the latest draft of my novel, and I earned a residency in September at the Mineral School in Mineral, Washington, to dig into a new project.

Roz You have an agent … is it too obvious to ask whether you’d ever publish your own work?

Laura I get this question all the time! And I’ve thought about it. After all, Forest Ave gets books on the shelves of indie bookstores, and when I break down the writer dream I’ve had my whole life, that’s the key component. Discoverability. Shelf space. Doing events at bookstores.

And I’m ready to step up and promote my work. But I’d rather have someone else choose my manuscript, and let me focus on the author role. I’ve wanted a debut novel out my whole life—since I was writing books in first grade and “publishing” them with staples.

Roz Obviously a press is a vocation as well as an occupation. Most of us in the literary community adore what we do – I simply love making books, so I relish the whole editing and production process. But we’re writers too and we need to protect our creative time. How do you protect yours? 

Creating community – Laura Stanfill

Laura Perhaps I should respond with what I hope to do to create more space for my work!

It’s been a struggle to justify working with my stories, and my voice, when I have advance copies of upcoming releases to come out, another speaking gig to prepare for, or emails from my authors to answer. I do take time off, usually during writing retreats, and I often find 30 minutes or an hour per day to work on a draft of new work. It’s harder for me to revise big novel chunks in compressed time periods.

Before starting Forest Avenue, I woke up early and wrote for an hour or two every day before work; that time these days is often used managing emails and handling kids who wake up too early.

Coming next time: publishers and authors as literary citizens

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Marketing literary fiction – ‘There are readers who need these stories…’ an interview

Laura Stanfill

This week I’m interviewing Laura Stanfill, author, all-round literary citizen and founder of the literary imprint Forest Avenue Press in Portland, Oregon. Part 1 is here. This is Part 2. Find her on Twitter as @ForestAvePress

Roz There’s no getting away from the fact that literary fiction is trickiest to market.

Laura Oh it’s so hard! Every time I create marketing plans and metadata for a new novel, I am envious of publishers putting out subject-based nonfiction books, because it’s so much easier to identify and connect with a target audience.

Novels are tools to build empathy, they are self-care objects, they are escapes and escapades and circuses to entertain your mind. There are readers out there for them, readers who need these stories, who deserve to find themselves in books and those who deserve to escape by reading about people completely unlike them. But if I were doing, say, a paleo cookbook, with a few clicks I could find statistics on the number of people eating that way, do a price comparison and fit my book into a hole I’ve identified in the market.

Literary fiction is trickier. And so many people I meet on my travels say, “How do you find time to read?”

“How can you survive without reading?” I want to ask them, but instead I shrug, and say that I make time.

Roz You’ve found readers, though. I’d guess that’s by building a reputation in the right places?

Laura Yes – the reputation of Forest Ave and our authors. A lot of that, especially after we went national, was connecting with booksellers in other parts of the country, so they could become fans and handsellers of our authors’ titles. Then I started going to national conferences where I could meet more book-related media and other mover-and-shaker types who might choose one of our titles to review, feature, or list in an article.

Forest Ave has gotten a phenomenal amount of press in the past year or two, but we still don’t get a lot of reviews from the established trade journals. That’s frustrating; we make it into these journals as a press, but our books aren’t consistently picked up for reviews.

Roz I’m surprised by that. And I shouldn’t be, if I think about the sheer number of titles being published. I guess this shows how much time it takes to get on reviewers’ radar.

Laura I’m not sure if that’s because we aren’t having New York lunches all the time or if the literary fiction slots are reserved generally for small presses with larger catalogs or what. But I treasure the publications that regularly cover our titles, especially Foreword Reviews, which amplifies new titles by many small presses. And I’m going to keep showing up on the scene and publishing great books.

Roz Slow and steady. Another reminder – as if we needed it – that this is such a long game.

You’ve said that getting word out about your books is essential so that you aren’t swamped with returns and the business remains viable. How do you do that?

Renee Macalino Rutledge launches The Hour of Daydreams

Laura We definitely had a sales lag last year, and in brainstorming with other US fiction publishers, we have theorised it’s due to the 2016 election. Many readers started anxiously following the news instead of picking up another book. Book Riot named one of our titles from 2017, Renee Macalino Rutledge’s The Hour of Daydreams, one of 9 Debut Novels You Might Have Missed Because the World Is on Fire.

Roz You have a distribution deal – how does that work?

Laura Getting distribution totally changed my business—increasing its national and international reach, helping me grow my brand, and allowing me to fulfill my mission of urging readers to buy at indie bookstores. My field sales reps at Publishers Group West do an excellent job getting us shelf space across the US, and that allows me to say ‘find this novel at your local bookstore’. Our titles are also available online, but I want readers to go to their local bookstores, have conversations with authors and other readers, and shop locally. Without distribution, it’d be much harder to make our books available in those channels.

Roz I’m going to say a few words here as an author who’s so far been indie. With Forest Ave you’ve got something that few indie authors can. Availability is one thing – a line in a catalogue, on paper or on line. But you’ve got champions talking about your titles to booksellers, who then recommend them to customers who’ll love them. We’ll talk about this more in later posts, but I wanted to emphasise this. Certain kinds of books thrive with this personal touch; ambassadors do better for them than algorithms.

Coming next time: a week in the life of a small press

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Birth of a press – ‘I knew so many talented authors being turned away…’ an interview

Laura Stanfill

This week I’m interviewing Laura Stanfill, author, all-round literary citizen and founder of the literary imprint Forest Avenue Press in Portland, Oregon. Here’s Part 1. Find her on Twitter as @ForestAvePress

Roz Laura, tell me how Forest Avenue Press started.

Laura It began as a grassroots display of community. And as a way to keep my brain busy while nursing an infant through colic. I knew so many talented, hard-working Oregon authors knocking on doors in New York and being turned away. It made sense to create one more home for literature right here in Oregon, instead of trying to bend our aesthetics to appeal to East Coast tastemakers. Besides, there are so many long-running literary presses in Portland. I was surrounded by willing mentors, who held out their hands to me as a newcomer.

I’ve always had a strong do-it-yourself ethos, probably inspired by my dad, who founded a collector magazine and put issues out for years. That’s how I saw my press—and still do: as a way to bring people together around a common subject matter. His passion was air horns; mine is literary fiction. When we had the opportunity to go national by signing with a distributor, I took it. We do publish authors from all over the US now, but a high percentage of our catalog remains Northwest focused.

Roz Your website sums up the Forest Avenue personality – ‘a fresh, complex, sometimes nutty, and often-wondrous approach to storytelling.’ How did you develop this? How long did it take?

Laura That speaks to my personal taste as a reader, and how I want our readers to be surprised by our books; a lot of readers come up to me and say how refreshing it is to read titles that aren’t predictable. We’ve always wanted to create space for essential voices that weren’t finding homes elsewhere —authors of color, LGBTQ authors, neuroatypical authors, and other underrepresented voices—as well as amplifying other authors and presses who are doing this kind of work in the world.

Roz Was it your intention from the start?

Laura The personality of the press has definitely shifted over the years. One of the things I love to tell new publishers is that it can take some time to get clear—and then clearer—about your mission and goals and taste. And that’s okay.

Roz Did you make any wrong turnings?

Laura When I first started, I wanted quiet novels, because those were the ones New York kept saying won’t sell. Asking for quiet novels seemed like a statement of purpose to take that phrase back, to turn ‘quiet’ from an oft-repeated rejection to a celebration of character-driven fiction.

But after growing into my publisher self more, and really honing in on my reading taste, I realized I love more whimsical, quirky—and dare I say it—loud novels. Boisterous novels—whether through their unusual language, or their humor, or their ambition to say something in a way that nobody has said it before. Novels that carry us someplace else while lodging deep into our hearts.

Many of our releases in the past two years have some genre aspects, like Renee Macalino Rutledge’s The Hour of Daydreams, a lush and poetic evocation of a marriage from the point of view of a village. It’s based on a Filipino fairy tale about star maidens and its mix of gorgeous language and real-world grit is buoyed by the theme of how we as human beings tell stories about each other because we can never really understand each other.

One constant, which I didn’t realize until our readers began telling me that they appreciated it, has been publishing books that aren’t predictable, that don’t fit into a commercial mold. Their stories might go anywhere—and often whirl into surprising territory. Unpredictable territory. I want to believe our readers come to our books and experience wonder and delight, the way we felt as children, when the world of reading opened up.

Roz Wow. It takes a confident, masterful storyteller to pull that off.

Let’s talk more about story. There’s a perception that literary fiction is often disdainful of plot. Clearly some of this is personal taste – a book that is plotless to one reader is an up-all-night page-turner to another. But many of my favourite literary writers are also cracking story writers by anyone’s judgement. Any thoughts on the plot-plotless debate?

Laura After planting my flag on “quiet novels” and receiving submissions where the characters sat around and looked at each other, I realized I needed to retool my thinking. I love deep, introspective, character-driven fiction. I love language that takes chances.

Roz I do too…

Laura But I do love a good plot. And writers who do all of that well end up with not-so-predictable, evocative, and completely fascinating novels. And that’s what makes me happy as a reader and as a publisher. I want it all!

Roz Me too!

Laura There are plenty of small presses pushing experimental work out, and it’s great, but I land in this plot-with-deep-characters-and-cool-language side of the industry, and I’ve cultivated a readership of fans who love these kinds of books.

Julia Stoops

Parts per Million by Julia Stoops, just out from Forest Avenue, is one novel that blends detailed characterizations with a heady, forward-moving plot. Julia worked on the book—about a trio of eco-activists—for 10 years, and it was a finalist for the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction. Three point-of-view characters propel the engine of the plot, which moves inexorably toward a stunning conclusion. Parts per Million is full of protests and environmental activism but it’s also built on the stranger-comes-to-town trope, where a young, sick woman who has nowhere else to go disrupts the household these three characters have built for themselves. We’re super-excited that we have a deal with Blackstone Audio for the audiobook.

Back to personal taste, in our first year as a press, my wise publisher friend Rhonda Hughes of Hawthorne Books told me to publish books I love, because that’s how I would build a brand and a community of readers. We can’t please everyone and shouldn’t try, or we’ll fail. We just have to keep going, one book at a time.

Roz It’s so interesting to hear you describe this process. You’ve built a style for Forest Avenue in the same way as writers build their distinctive identities. We try a few things, find some don’t excite us as much as we thought, then we discover our true calling. Wonderful.

Coming up next time: marketing literary fiction

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Setting up and running a literary imprint – 4 interviews with Laura Stanfill of Forest Avenue Press

If you dig way back in the archives here, you’ll find comments from Laura Stanfill. She was an energetic correspondent in the early years of my blog and we’re both fans of the slow-maturing, carefully built novel.

In 2012 she went quiet and it turned out she’d been brewing an audacious project – her own publishing house, Forest Avenue Press (hence her Twitter name @ForestAvePress). It’s a testament to her energy that I heard plenty about Forest Avenue before I knew Laura was behind it, and once I did, I badgered her for a proper interview.

I’m thrilled that she’s agreed to talk about this pioneering journey, and especially the tricky business of building an imprint in one of the most challenging – and dare I say it, cautious – corners of the literary world. Actually, it doesn’t have to be cautious, as you’ll see.

Once we got talking, we had way too much for one blog post, so the Laura interview will be my theme for this week. Here’s how it will go:

Birth of a press – ‘I knew so many talented authors being turned away…’

Marketing literary fiction – ‘There are readers who need these stories…’

A week in the life of a small press

Movements, movers and shakers – publishers and authors as literary citizens

See you tomorrow!

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What I learned about writing novels by failing at short stories – and how to make a short story into a long one

Lee Martin wrote recently on his blog about how he hadn’t intended to write longform fiction. He started with short stories, and graduated to novels only when an editor suggested it.

I hadn’t thought about it before, but that was also my path. Though I was considerably less masterful at it than Lee, who had a respectable bank of published shorts by the time he began the big one.

I started small, and writerly friends urged me to think bigger, mainly because short stories were a much more difficult sell. At the time, I didn’t think I had a novel in me, though I dearly wanted to find one. And, being a beginner, I had my hands entirely full with the craft basics. I couldn’t control more characters, threads, etc etc.

I also wasn’t good at brevity. This was the first reason I was unsuccessful. Whenever I looked for competitions or magazines, I’d bust the word count by several thousand. Even with strict pruning, I couldn’t bring one in under 5,000 words.

And then there was another problem. I was Miss Misfit. I was complimented for style and originality, but literary folk said I was too fond of plot. It didn’t help that I used concepts from science fiction and suspense. Try genre magazines, they said. ‘Try literary magazines,’ said the genre mags.

Much as I yearned for someone, anywhere, to publish me, I’m glad nobody did because I now see a more fundamental problem, beyond the style and subject matter. Even if I didn’t think I could write a novel, my concepts needed a novel’s scope.

In my work as an editor, I’ve often seen how rushing a powerful idea can make it trivial. Usually it’s most apparent with individual scenes, especially emotional ones – a turning point might look unconvincing if it’s too brief, but becomes a spellbinding showstopper if the writer slows and takes their time over every moment. I think this may be why I never had success with short stories – I was rushing a bigger idea. Blurting it out in a state of panic instead of giving it the space and pace it deserved. So the result was underbaked for literary people, and ungraspably off-beam for genre people. In short, I was shortchanging an idea that needed to be bigger. That’s not to say a big idea can never be a brief story, but I wasn’t suited to that approach.

I’m thinking about this because of Lee Martin’s post and because I’m now putting one of those old stories on a bigger canvas. As you might already know if you saw this recent post about the wondrous paradoxes of a slow writing process, Ever Rest began as 7,000 words and has now grown to around 110,000. You’ll also see from that post that I began with trepidation. In my mind, Ever Rest was frozen in that small space. Was expanding it even possible?

I’m happy to report it was, so in case you’re also in an expanding frame of mind, here’s what I’ve been doing.

Is it still the same story?

Good question. It is because some parts of the core situation are technically the same, like the two Westworlds, Fargos, 2001s, Flowers For Algernons. And here I shall be magnificently vague as I’m not ready to explain more yet.

The how-to bit: making the story bigger

Find the other characters who have a story arc

My original story was a single viewpoint, first person. I looked for other souls who had a significant experience triggered by the core event. Gradually the cast list grew. The original character became two and they are now such distinct people that I can’t believe it wasn’t always thus. The story is now third person, six narrators.

Go beyond the original timescale

Ever Rest original had a timescale of a few days, with flashbacks to childhood and teen years. Gosh, didn’t I stuff a lot into 7,000 words? What if I spent longer in those years? I free-wrote in the characters’ viewpoints, not planning anything, shooting footage until they did something surprising or moving.

Look for missing moments

As I pieced my footage together, I found a pattern of situations that were always worth writing. When character A first met character B, what made them interested in each other? When character X started to change their mind about situation Y, what was that moment? Sometimes it was apparent that key conversations were missing. I didn’t know how those conversations would go; it was more that I knew the opposite – the characters would not be able to keep quiet.

Brief moments become major turning points

This is one of the joys of the bigger canvas. Moments that the original story glided through – or never even looked at – can become turning points, or even twists.

The end of exploration

Some of my explorations went to dead ends. I had plenty of footage that was ultimately dull, though nothing’s ever wasted. Even if a piece of text doesn’t stay in the manuscript, it helps with your own knowledge of the book. There were also plot directions that felt forced, so I took them out again. (Hint: keep all your versions so you can undo.)

The big question is this. With so many possibilities, how do you know when you’ve got an idea to keep? I always found the answer was this.

When it felt like it had been there all along.  

If you want to know more about Ever Rest, and anything else I’m working on, sign up for my newsletter!

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4 Cs – a plotting formula for writers who hate the formulaic – guest post at Ingram Spark

How do we tease a bunch of ideas into a plot? How much notice should we take of common plot shapes such as the Hero’s Journey? Are they worn to death now? If we get creative and throw the rules out of the window, how do we ensure we don’t end up with an unreadable mess? IngramSpark noticed I have a book about plot, so they asked me over to their blog to write a quick guide to plotting with pizzazz, panache and unpredictability. (I realise that’s 3 Ps, but my post is actually about Cs. Oh well. All will be explained.) Do come over.

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Handling real-life disasters sensitively in fiction – an interview

Novelists are sculptors of real-life, but some have to be particularly sensitive to their raw materials. Especially when that material is events that have made headlines in the news – natural disasters, wars, or terrorist incidents.

That’s what I want to explore today. You might recognise my interviewee – Jane Davis, who has hosted me on her Book Club series and was one of my co-conspirators in the Women Writing Women box set. In her eighth novel, Smash All The Windows, she tackles the aftermath of a fictional disaster, for which she drew on the Hillsborough football stadium disaster in 1989.

In this interview we talk about

  • Why the story’s time period was an important choice
  • Why she created a fictional situation instead of writing about an actual event
  • How she created an authentic experience
  • Sensitivity issues

Roz Your novel was sparked by the second inquest into the Hillsborough disaster. What was it that grabbed your attention?

Jane It was the press’s treatment of the families. They thrust microphones at family members as they emerged from the courtroom and put it to them that, now the original ruling had been overturned, they could finally get on with their lives. What lives? Were these the lives that the families enjoyed before the tragedy? Or the lives that they might have been entitled to expect?

[For those who don’t know about the Hillsborough disaster, a crush occurred during the 1989 FA Cup semi-final, killing 96 fans. Live commentary informed television viewers that Liverpool fans were to blame, and victims became scapegoats. It would be 27 years before the record was set straight.]

Roz But you didn’t end up writing about Hillsborough. You created your own fictional incident. Why was that?

Jane You have to treat recent history with respect, especially in cases where the survivors and relatives and partners of the victims are still alive. Twenty-seven years after the disaster, the pain on their faces was still so raw. My gut feeling was that I didn’t want to add to that. And what could I add to the material that’s already been produced? Jimmy McGovern’s powerful 1996 TV dramatisation formed part of the protest before the original verdict was overturned. McGovern based his script almost entirely on court transcripts and eye-witness reports. And he had blessing of the families. You have to ask yourself, would a fictional account be welcomed? Would it be disrespectful to add a fictional character to the storyline? And what right do I have to tell this story?

Actually, have you tackled recent history in your own writing?

Roz I use a recent disaster in Ever Rest. In 2014 there was an avalanche that killed 28 people and caused lasting ripples through the climbing community. It’s actually not the focus of my story; it happens on the periphery. Even so, I was careful to research every detail. I read the eyewitness accounts, watched real-time footage and interviews. Much of the information I gathered wasn’t needed for the book, but it allowed me to write with confidence and respect.

Avalanche in the Himalayas – pic by Chagai at English Wikipedia

Jane And that’s why researching your subject matter and timeline is so important. Even if you only touch on it briefly, it would be a crime not to be aware of it.

Roz In my ghostwriting days I went much further. I created earthquakes and mass floods, and it’s a huge undertaking. The amount of factual research is enormous. First there’s the event itself, the special responses of bodies like the police, ambulance and fire brigade; then all the other surprising possibilities that make a gripping story well beyond the obvious. I’ve seen you remark on Facebook that this book darn near killed you and I can well believe it. Tell me about creating your disaster in logistical and practical terms. What did you draw on?

Jane Research – obviously – but also personal experience. The previous year, travelling by Tube to a book-reading in Covent Garden, I’d suffered a fall. Already overloaded from a day’s work in the city, I also had a suitcase full of books in tow. I was totally unprepared for how fast the escalator was. When I pushed my suitcase in front of me, it literally dragged me off balance. Fortunately, there was no one directly in front. A few bruises and a pair of laddered lights aside, I escaped unscathed. But the day could have ended very differently.

In terms of research, as I’m sure you’re aware, creating a fictional disaster doubles your workload. Firstly I researched Hillsborough and unpicked the elements that led to the tragedy. Facilities which dated from a time when the relationship between pedestrian traffic-flow and human space requirements wasn’t understood. Someone in management who was new to the job. Elements of institutionalised complacency. (‘We’ve always done things that way.’) Risk assessments that failed to consider that several things might go wrong at the same time and how multiple casualties might be dealt with. I also wanted to reflect the extraordinary pressure endured by the Hillsborough families following their appalling treatment as they searched for loved ones, and then as lies were spread.

Then, having chosen my setting, I set about researching how an accident might happen in an Underground Station, and the difficulties that the emergency services would encounter, which meant looking at accident investigations from Kings Cross and London terrorist attacks. I documented everything I could about the vulnerabilities of the system and weak spots, and that meant tracking down reports on transport policy, overcrowding, the impact on health, recommendations that have not been implemented… the list goes on.

Roz So you created a story about a disaster on an escalator in a London Tube station? What then?

Jane After that, I plotted my timeline. It took over a decade of legal wranglings before the Hillsborough families even managed to get their hands on paperwork to help them build their case, but I didn’t want the timeframe to be as long as 27 years. Somehow, to suggest my fictional characters suffered as much as the Hillsborough families seemed disrespectful. But to reflect the issues that existed at the time of Hillsborough, the story had to happen before the explosion of the internet, when voices weren’t heard as they would be today and photographs wouldn’t be posted on Twitter.

Roz The expanding internet. A boon for research; a bane for plotting. How many storytellers have wound their timelines back for that very reason? But I digress. You then created a character to personify the fight…

Jane Yes. When most injustices are overturned, there’s usually an individual who worked away tirelessly to construct a case. With Hillsborough, it was Phil Scraton, a professor of criminology. With the disaster in my book, it was Eric, a law student. He’s the outsider, someone who arrives at a point when the families have all but given up. His conviction reminds the families that they still have a little fight in them.

Roz You also have to grapple with a lot of human stories – and in a sensitive way. You create characters who experience the worst because that makes the most drama, but you must handle everything with respect and not appear to exploit it. Can you talk about that?

Jane The question of whether it’s possible to exploit a fictional character is such an interesting one! But yes, the human drama is what’s going to grip the reader, so characterisation is crucial. You have to translate the emotional fallout with delicacy and honesty, allowing your characters to retain their dignity. I wanted to show the terror and the horror of the disaster, without making anything gratuitous. So how do you go about that? I write in close third person from multiple viewpoints and I think this lends itself to a very personal relationship with my characters. I also do a little of what I call ‘method writing’. If I need to write a tired and emotional scene, I try to write the first draft when I’m tired and emotional. If my character has had a drink or two, you get the picture…

Roz That’s not unlike the ‘musical method writing’ used by many of the guests on my Undercover Soundtrack series. We’re all searching for the truth in these emotional scenes. What about the scenes of the actual disaster?

Jane My choice of setting was deliberate. I suffer from claustrophobia and anxiety and so travelling in rush hour on a Tube train is something I have to do, but I struggle with. I hope that I’ve managed to translate my feelings of claustrophobia onto the page. As for the disaster itself, I show the various characters travelling towards it, and so we see the build-up from different angles, but I tend to cut away from the disaster itself quite suddenly. If you create the right atmosphere and rack up the tension, the reader is perfectly capable of imagining what happened next.

In the book, I have my character Maggie ask my character Jules, who is a sculptor, if the work they are planning to make for his art exhibition is going to be too shocking, and he says, ‘It is going to be just shocking enough. You cannot make art and then apologise for it.’ So I suppose my question to you would be where would you draw the line? What would be too shocking?

Roz A good question. Sometimes understatement is beautifully devastating. Graham Greene described a shooting as ‘a thud like a gloved hand striking a door’. I think you have to do what is true to your style.

On the subject of shock, it’s now not unusual for authors to have a sensitivity edit, done by a person with more direct experience of the issue or that kind of event. Did you have a reader who performed this for you? Maybe more than one because you’ll have several human issues like post-traumatic stress, depression, anxiety, marital difficulties… The human fallout of such an event is endless. How did you get to the stage where you felt confident you’d appreciated the situation fully and been fair?

Jane I hadn’t heard the term ‘sensitivity edit’ until a few weeks ago, when I shared an interview on Twitter from a sensitivity editor, so no, I haven’t sought out that kind of professional help. But you’re so right. Many lives are blighted by an incident on this scale. I chose to focus on five key characters and the people they lost.

Aberfan cemetery – pic by Stephen McKay

Hillsborough had already given me long-term view, but while I was writing the book, the 50-year anniversary of Aberfan took place. Aberfan was a Welsh mining village where a slag heap collapsed on the village school. Because the world’s media descended on this small community, there’s a wealth of photographic evidence – it’s almost obscene. And if we measure the long-term impact of large-scale disaster in terms of medical records, we see it all here. Alcoholism, addiction to prescription drugs, a rate of minor ailments that far exceeds the norm, mental health issues, suicide, premature death. I actually wonder if I have gone far enough, but then you return to that question of exploitation.

I also use a team of about 35 beta readers who come from wide circles. They always surprise me but, unbeknown to me, one of my team had survived the Hatfield rail crash. That discovery led to a valuable exchange about survivor guilt and flashbacks. Particularly pertinent were the what ifs? ‘If I’d asked him to get me a coffee, he wouldn’t be here.’

Another beta reader had suffered a fall down the escalators at Euston Station two years ago and is still walking with a stick (in fact, I’m gathering a file of escalator incidents – falls seem extremely common). She found my descriptions of the fall terrifying because, of course, she superimposed her own experience over what she read on the page.

Roz Add me to your list of escalator casualties. I have a triangular hole in my shin from a mishap at Knightsbridge Tube.

Jane Another one! And I’m hearing about them all the time.

But another beta reader thought that the way I depicted a pregnant woman was too generic. She exercised right up to the birth of her first child – she had climbed a mountain two weeks beforehand and had been jogging a couple of days before the birth. Of course, pregnancy is something I have no experience of, so her input was extremely helpful.

My choice of Dan Holloway as a structural editor also served me well. He asked probing questions like, ‘Is that really the first thing you want your readers to know about this character’?

Wearing your editor hat, I assume authenticity is something you comment on?

Roz I do! I’ve developed a nose for authenticity, or rather, its opposite. Sometimes I can comment from my own knowledge – for years I’ve done editing shifts on medical magazines, so I have a wide experience of mental and physical health issues, and also of the professionals who treat them. Also, ghostwriting gave me other surprising life-skills because I had to write convincingly about things I hadn’t ever done. That’s made me an obsessive checker. When I’m editing a manuscript, even if I don’t know the subject, I can usually tell if it has been researched thoroughly. Of course, it’s harder to know if a writer has made a wrong assumption, so there’s no substitute for befriending an actual expert.

What other obstacles did you encounter?

Jane The main problem was that time refused to stand still. While I was writing my book, disasters kept on happening. News broadcasts and front pages of newspapers were dominated by terrorist attacks. Paris was already on my mind, but Nice, Berlin, Manchester… Then in May 2017, the London Bridge attack happened. Would it be insensitive to continue to write about an incident that took place within a real life disaster? Part of me said yes. On the other hand, I saw the aftermath. The cars parked diagonally across city streets, the bouquets of red roses propped up against the bridge. The messages written to loved ones. And the photographs of the victims, all those devastating, beautiful obituaries. I had to make conscious decisions about whether I should let this disaster shape the story I was writing.

Roz That’s a perennial problem – the book that keeps growing in scope. Life keeps adding possibilities. You have to decide when you’ve got enough. Which seems a good place to end!

You can tweet Jane @janedavisauthor , find her website and blog here https://jane-davis.co.uk , find her books here      , connect with her on Facebook here. Smash all the Windows Universal Link is here.

And if that snippet about Ever Rest piqued your interest, you can find out more in my newsletter, including adventures like this:

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The secret life of the book ghostwriter – podcast at The Bestseller Experiment

What’s it like writing books that other people put their names on? How do you get this kind of work? What makes a good ghostwriter?

I recently recorded this interview at The Bestseller Experiment, and I’m hugely flattered because their guest hotseat has held some pretty famous bottoms.  Bryan Cranston has sat there. Richard Morgan who writes Altered Carbon has sat there. Tad Williams and Michelle Paver have sat there (and Michelle and I share a liking for Everest so I made sure I listened to that one). Anyway, it’s my turn. You can find the others if you dig around their vaults.

And if my interview has made you seriously consider ghostwriting, don’t forget to check out my course.

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3 creative writing exercises to help you read like an author – at Reedsy

Want to learn some ninja plotting skills? Try these exercises at Reedsy.

Reedsy is principally known as a marketplace for authors and publishers, but it also offers a range of useful lists, from review sites to writing tips. It’s just compiled a set of 100 creative writing exercises from its favourite bloggers (thanks, guys!).

I was invited to contribute three short exercises and I’ve chosen subjects that help you read with a writer’s mindset. They are:

1 Foreshadowing plot twists so they are surprising and fair (the clue hunt)

2  How to keep the reader gripped (the page-turner)

3 Using your material with economy and elegance (the observant writer)

And psst … there are plenty more insider plotting tips in Writing Plots With Drama, Depth & Heart: Nail Your Novel 3

 

 

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