Posts Tagged interview
How to – and how not to – run an online writing community. And publishing post Covid. Interview with literary agent Peter Cox of @Litopia @agentPete
You’ve seen the posts here about Peter Cox’s writing community Litopia – the home of Pop-Up Submissions, where manuscripts are critiqued live on air by writers, readers and a chat room. Sometimes the guest critic is me! I’ve always been impressed with the show. For a start, it looks amazingly slick. But underneath that is a genuine love of books and reading, who value writing that is done well.
On one of our pre-show chats Peter remarked: ‘someone should write a piece about literary communities. I’ve made every mistake in the book.’
Someone definitely should, I said.
So here we are. We also talk about the publishing world post-Covid: what might publishers be looking for? What do readers want? Can that question even be answered yet?
But first, Litopia.
Roz Tell me about Litopia. What is it, how long has it been running, how big is it now? What made you set it up?
Peter Litopia has been going for decades. It’s by far the oldest writers’ community on the net. We’re probably due for our silver anniversary round about now.
Originally, I was an early member of one of the oldest virtual communities online, the WELL. This was an odd collection of folk, many of them connected to The Whole Earth Catalog, who thought it would be fun to set up an intentional community in cyberspace. People such as Stewart Brand, Kevin Kelly, and Howard Rheingold.
Roz I’ve never even heard of that. I just googled it and found it stood for Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link. I love that. It’s so retro-futurist. (Retro-futurism, You heard it here first.)
Peter Looking back, the WELL was always quite cliquey. If you didn’t happen to be in with the cool crowd, who smoked a prodigious amount of dope by the way, then you weren’t really significant in the community.
It was a wildly optimistic time. People naively believed that computers would democratize the world. “Access to tools” was the mantra. “The Future” was an exciting place – and most of us believed we were already living there. The horrors of venture capitalism, Facebook and creeping state surveillance and control weren’t even on the radar.
From my experience on the WELL, I thought it would be exciting to establish a community just for writers. Most writers already had computers. And I felt there was an unmet need for social contact that legacy organisations such as the Society of Authors could not fulfil.
Roz I’ve mainly come across Litopia in the Pop-Up Submissions show. For those who don’t know the format, it’s a Dragons’ Den for writers. Five manuscripts are critiqued on air by you, two guests and the observers in the chat room. It’s a brave thing to do live online. We’ve all encountered the ugly sides of social media, but you’ve managed to create a civilised and constructive tone. At the same time, the show doesn’t pull its punches. Everyone’s there because they want to see honest criticism and they want to learn. How have you achieved this?
Peter Thank you, Roz. That’s the tone we want to strike, and I think we mostly do. Obviously, our choice of guests such as you is important 😊 But seriously, I like writers, always have done. They are unusual people, not always well-suited to the mundane world.
Roz Totally. Writers – and other creatives – look into cracks that others don’t even notice. They ask questions that can’t easily be answered and aren’t necessarily of practical use, but nevertheless seem to make life a little more worthwhile. We often think we’re on our own, too. At school, I was always interested in the wrong things or the unusual angles. I didn’t realise that this was characteristic of a particular profession. I thought I just didn’t fit. (I’ve written about that here – I write because I’m totally unsuited to anything else.)
Peter Writers definitely see things a bit differently, and thank heavens for that. They challenge and expand our own definition of what being human means. A world without writers would not be worth living in. So they need our support and encouragement, but also, our honesty. When you write, you necessarily lose much of your objectivity, and that why (most!) writers need honest feedback during the writing process.
Roz Yes – and I want to briefly talk about that. We lose our objectivity because we have to commit so much to the work. We have to believe in it, spend the time to get it right, often making themselves vulnerable. I never forget this when I’m giving critical feedback to writers. The text they give me represents a huge investment of faith. (I’ve talked about this before: Why your editor admires you.)
Peter I know. I think it’s a great privilege to work with a writer at that kind of level. What we can do on Pop-Up Submissions is to give some objective feedback, but not in a destructive way.
Roz What mistakes did you make with Litopia in the early days? And even in the later ones?
Peter A great many! A few years ago, HarperCollins set up something called Authonomy, which didn’t last long, and I believe cost them a few million. It really is not nearly as easy to set up an online community as it might appear.
The first I mistake made was not charging anything for it. I carried all the costs. This was a huge mistake, because people expected me to provide more and more – and got angry if they didn’t get what they were expecting. I think people are beginning to understand now that the net has the same economics as any other part of life. If Facebook is free to you the user, that’s only because they are ruthlessly mining your data and selling it at a vast profit to shadowy third parties, including people like Cambridge Analytica and the security services. Are you really comfortable with that? Personally, I’d prefer to pay a modest amount for membership of a site like Litopia, and forgo the creepy surveillance!
Roz So Litopia has evolved into its own beast… How does that compare with your original idea? Would that original intention have been possible, do you think?
Peter We evolve by reaction. Everyone has access to me and can suggest whatever they want. Some things are not going to be technically possible, but many are. We’re quick to seize the technical opportunity. Some technology is surprisingly cheap and under-exploited, that area is always of interest.
Roz I have to mention the technology. This show is seriously sleek. Many video-podcasts are essentially like watching a Skype call – a screen split between two or three speakers. Litopia is like a high-budget TV quiz show. All the presenters appear to be in a studio, behind a massive desk. Scoreboards pop up, manuscript excerpts appear with voice-over readings. There are snapshots of the discussion in the chat room. Drop-ins of writing tips from previous guests. A moody black-and-white section. There’s some serious video-fu in this show.
Peter Pop-Ups is evolving as much as any other part of Litopia. We made the (difficult) transition from audio podcasts to live video a few years ago. The bar for good video is much higher than for decent audio. Increasingly, we rely on our members to keep Pop-Ups going, because it is a complex beast. Our guests are booked from New Zealand. Our live scoreboard is operated from Spain. All our fabulous narrators are scattered over the globe. It all somehow comes together live every Sunday.
We have a strong ethos of mutual help, which is far more important that any single piece of technology. If a suggestion fits with our ethos, and is technically possible, then we’ll do it.
Roz Are you a writer as well? How did you end up as an agent?
Peter I fell into writing when a publisher suggested I should write a book for them. It quickly sold 100k copies and became a UK number one bestseller. That hooked me.
Then I met Linda McCartney and wrote her cookbook, which was also a no 1 bestseller and sold millions of copies worldwide. I was generally dissatisfied with the representation I had, sacked the first agent, got another one, sacked that one, got a third one, sacked them and finally came to the conclusion that I could actually do it better myself. I went to the US in my early days as an agent. New York publishing was far more exciting than here in London.
Roz I’m interested to know how NY publishing was more exciting… And seriously, many of this blog’s readers are in the US. Do you see much difference between the tastes of American and British publishers?
Peter Well rather paradoxically, NY publishing has traditionally been rather more conservative, rather more risk-averse than the Brits. So you often have to sell a project somewhat harder. The upside is that if one publisher wants what you’re selling, others are very likely to, as well.
There is still an insular quality to NY publishing that is rather frustrating. However, the fruits of success are so very much bigger than in the UK. New York is a rather flatter society than London meaning that it’s really not difficult to get a meeting with the top people in a company. Access is a bit easier and doesn’t depend so much on “the network”. Also, there is a real appetite for success, whereas in the UK, some parts of the business are still run on rather old-fashioned lines – I quickly grew fed up of being told rather smugly by certain London publishers that ‘publishing is not like other businesses, you know’. Actually, it is!
Roz Have you noticed any changing trends in the kind of manuscripts people are sending you?
Peter Very little non-fiction, which is a pity. Powerful non-fiction is the backbone of publishing. I love polemics. Escapist fiction is on the up and up. Depressing teen dystopia is done for the moment, we’re already living that nightmare thank you very much. Anything that gives us hope and inspiration is well received. Big ideas with a strong voice are money-makers.
Roz What changes have you noticed in publishing since the pandemic started? Any words of advice for authors who are hoping to find a publishing deal?
Peter It’s very similar to what happened post 9/11. I happened to be in front of the towers when the second plane hit, although I only saw the fireball, not the plane itself. Immediately, they closed all exits from Manhattan island. Everything went into “lockdown”.
It took many months for publishing to raise its head again and to figure out what sort of books they should be acquiring, and that’s where we’re at now.
Roz Authors wonder about it too. Some of us came to a standstill, wondering what to write, what could possibly be relevant in a world that had changed so much.
Peter Publishers are scratching their heads and wondering what sorts of books readers will be buying in nine months’ time. Any writer who can confidently answer that question will immediately have our attention. Over to you, writers! 😊
PS If you’d like more concentrated writing advice, try my Nail Your Novel books. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. If you’d like to support bricks-and-mortar bookstores (US only at present) use Bookshop.org.. And what have I been writing these past months, indeed years? This.
Where would you most like to go? Underground, overground, back in time, out of this world? I’ll have all of them, please. (That’s the mysterious Down St Tube station in the picture, abandoned and dark since 1932.)
Book blogger Davida Chazan (who you might remember was incredibly nice about Not Quite Lost) has devised this quirky questionnaire for authors she’s reviewed and today it’s my turn. As well as preposterous travel, expect brightest of times, darkest of times. and a book I wish I’d written. She’s also known as The Chocolate Lady, so one of her questions is, of course, answered by this.
And if you’re curious to know more about my weird and wonderful, here’s my latest newsletter.
Writing multiple projects and keeping in touch with a book when you take a break – interview at Joined Up Writing podcast
One of those books is my third novel, Ever Rest, an undertaking that seems as gigantic as the mountain itself, and has to be fitted around other deadlines.
Hopping between projects is a way of life for most writers and is one of the subjects I discuss with Wayne Kelly on this new episode of his podcast. We also talk about ghostwriting (my course on that is here if you’re seriously curious), how we learn as writers, finding our niche, growing up in a landscape full of stories and the new Nail Your Novel Workbook. Do come over.
PS If you’re curious about why Ever Rest is taking so long, and how many other mountains I’m trying to tackle at the same time, there’s more in my newsletter
The publishing world is moving faster than ever. Have creative writing courses kept pace? That’s the angle I’m considering this time in my series of interviews with creative writing professor Garry Craig Powell.
If you want a career in mainstream publishing, will a course equip you for that?
If you want a traditional deal, will a creative writing qualification make that more likely?
What about the indie world – does a creative writing degree confer any benefit, advantage or prestige?
If you decide to be master of your own work, will a degree help you do it more wisely and effectively?
Now that authors have to do so much platform-building for themselves – whether indie or traditional – have the academic departments kept up with these new demands?
As usual, Garry is patient and thoroughly candid and the discussion can be found at Late Last Night Books. It’s part of a longer conversation:
Grab coffee and come over. As always, the comments system at Late Last Night Books is tricky to negotiate, but if you’d like to add to the discussion or ask a question, type it here!
How do we develop a sensitivity to language? Words are more than tools. They beguile, mystify, change hearts, fill the mind with shapes, colours, music.
I’ve written before about honing your prose, according to your genre. The full piece is here, but in brief:
- Strive to be understood
- Develop an ear
- Suit the genre
- Find books whose writing you want to study and savour
- Try many styles
Today I’m going to explore another tip. Read poetry.
My guest today is well qualified to talk about this. Joe Nutt has spent his career teaching English in schools, and is now one of the leading educationalists in the UK. He has written study books on Shakespeare, John Donne and Milton. He writes for the Times Educational Supplement, The Spectator, Spiked and Areo.
He’s now on a mission to open poetry to everyone, not just academic students, and is about to release The Point of Poetry, published by Unbound.
And since he’s raised the question with his title, I’ll ask that first – Joe, what is the point of poetry?
Joe There is something honest and pure about poetry. It’s as though there is almost nothing between you and the poet’s mind, just this thin piece of paper. They let you into their thoughts and their thoughts make you think for yourself.
Roz You certainly don’t have to convince me; I never think I’m writing well enough, so I have a row of poetry books beside my desk that I dip into when I’m working.
For the purposes of this discussion, I’ve figured out a list of qualities for good prose and I’m going to ask Joe to prescribe a poet or poem for each.
First of all, the visual shape of words… A word that is perfectly shaped for its context
Joe There are some poets who seem to care deeply about the look of a poem on the page and that visual awareness can sometimes be seen on a much smaller scale, within individual lines or even just phrases. When you look at a poem by Thomas Hardy the neatness and order of its visual pattern is often striking. But ironically, perhaps the easiest poet where you can see the visual shape of words playing a part is Gerard Manley Hopkins.
Part of the reason is his extraordinary appreciation of the sounds words make when they combine. In his poem Inversnaid, for example, you have the line
Dagged with dew, dappled with dew’
where the letters themselves, the way they look, seem to demand your attention.
Roz The letters demand your attention… the shape of a letter, or the combination of letters.
One of my favourite examples is the word ‘feral’, which jumps into your eye as ‘fear’ and ‘snarl’. Words contain emotional shapes.
I’m especially aware of this when I’m editing another writer’s manuscript. A writer might choose a word that’s correct in literal meaning, but inappropriate in that other, visceral register, and usually in a comic way – they might describe a loud and sudden sound in a way that ruins the mood of their piece.
Joe That’s so true of such a lot of mediocre writing I see. One of the great advantages of teaching English, as I did for 20 years, and to many remarkably intelligent children, is you get to see the most common mistakes. You become extraordinarily familiar with people who are naturally struggling to express themselves. I think literary agents could learn a lot from experienced English teachers.
Roz Well that’s a discussion I’d like to have some day! For now, though, let’s discuss my next poetic essential: the fall of a line, word positioning for emphasis.
Joe Hopkins again offers a great window into this meticulous use of structure in a poem. He often repeats words in close proximity or uses words that are just one vowel change off. In the final verse of Inversnaid, which is only four lines long, he uses wet and let twice each, but ends the verse and poem with yet. Small shifts in sound but complete shifts in sense.
Roz Repetition: it’s a powerful device because it’s so noticeable.
Here’s another careful kind of structuring – the sentence that is oddly, but perfectly worded. Look at the delicacy of these lines in Philip Larkin’s poem Broadcast:
Leaving me desperate to pick out
Your hands, tiny in all that air, applauding.’
Now to my third point. What about metaphor? Nominate an example of an arresting metaphor?
Joe It’s difficult to think any poem beautiful without discussing metaphor and poets like John Milton erect monumental metaphors that can waylay an inattentive reader. But a much simpler one from The Point of Poetry would be from George Mackay Brown’s poem The Hawk. The poem is a little diary of one hawk’s eating habits and one of its victims is a chicken which dies,
Lost in its own little snowstorm’.
I once saw a sparrowhawk strike a pigeon in full flight, only a few feet in front of my windscreen, so I know exactly how that metaphor works.
Roz This leads me, so neatly, to my fourth point… The particular moment that seems to illuminate a truth about the bigger human experience…
Joe Lots of poets start with the natural world. Poets like Ted Hughes or Seamus Heaney, and when you become familiar with their work they frequently start with the local and specific, but move towards the universal.
Heaney’s poem Blackberry-Picking, which is in the book, takes what was certainly a common feature of my childhood, scavenging hedgerows for blackberries, and turns it into a powerful observation about how we yearn for things to stay as they are, but learn to appreciate the transience of pretty much everything.
William Blake also searches for significant truths in his verse, even when he starts with just a single rose or a tiger.
Roz For my fifth point, I want to talk about economy. I love this poem by Simon Armitage, which plunges you into the middle of a conversation with the writer’s thoughts…
Before you cut loose, put dogs on the list of difficult things to lose….’
It’s so bold, so colloquial, so conversationally crafted. It’s also so macroscopically true, but that’s not what I want to discuss in this point. I want to talk about how swiftly it gets to the point. Do you have a favourite example of a poem that hits the ground running?
Joe Economy is the perfect word for poetry. The cost is low but the return is just huge. That’s really what distinguishes it from all other types of writing. Poets pare everything down to the absolute essentials.
I’m a great fan of John Donne and his love poem, The Feaver, is an absolute gem. You can’t read Donne’s poetry without feeling he was a man who lived a life of extremes. A brilliant apostate whose career and financial security were destroyed after he was imprisoned for falling in love with his boss’s young daughter. Who then married and brought up a large family with her, before losing her to death in childbirth and finally joining the Anglican priesthood, more or less at the command of his king. The Feaver begins with this dramatic plea
O ! Do not die, for I shall hate
All women so, when thou art gone.’
Roz Tell me what I’ve missed.
Joe I think one of the often undervalued joys of poetry is how much we gain from rereading it. I love rereading favourite novels but only after I’ve let years pass between readings. Poetry you can return to the next day and feel differently about it, still find something new.
Roz Your book is obviously a personal crusade. Tell me what made you write it?
Joe It came about as a result of my changing career. After almost 20 years teaching English I moved into business and was struck by how limited conversations are in that world. People often ask me if I miss teaching and I always say no, but there is one thing I really do miss, the quality of the conversation. The people were just as varied and interesting as those I had found as a teacher, but conversations in the hotel bar after a day’s work stuck to a few, narrow subjects. Work, occasionally politics, sport, films and TV – and if you were really lucky the odd book, but mentioning poetry was almost social suicide.
I realised then that the world was full of perfectly well-educated adults, who bought books and even read them, but who would never even think to glance at the poetry shelf in Waterstones. Somehow, even though their schooling had included verse, it had completely passed them by as something to read later in life. If they remembered anything at all from their school experience it was probably with regret or confusion. That seemed such a waste to me, so I set about writing a book specifically for metrophobes, to show them what they’ve been missing.
Roz I wonder why that is? I have a theory, though I can’t know if it applies to anyone but me. Here goes. I might be about to make an idiot of myself.
At school I studied TS Eliot and although I found his work haunting, it was more because of its linguistic novelty than its meaning. It was like breathing an unusual kind of air, but not something that spoke deeply to me. Now I’m much older, I feel I understand more of it – and I’m probably closer to the life experiences that brought it out of Eliot in the first place. At the age of 15, though, I couldn’t possibly be.
I think there’s a lot of poetry that comes from an older place that we maybe need to catch up to. Perhaps that’s also a case for giving poetry a second try when we’ve lived a little.
Joe As I was writing the book, I realised that it was also culturally very timely. I think we’re still barely coming to terms with the devastating impact technology has had on the way we now use language, in every area of cultural life. If I was teaching English today I would be very concerned to study the way technology has changed language use. It’s a bit like a binary weapon. The screen or the phone by itself is perfectly harmless, but combine it with a bit of social media software and all hell breaks loose. When you know a lot about poetry, at least you know how to defend yourself.
Roz Some examples?
Joe I think the entire concept of a ‘hate’ crime has come about this way. People have learned that technology allows them to weaponise individual words and that’s much more powerful than debate and argument which takes time, effort and intelligence. Politicians have weaponised that word ‘hate’. One of the things I was surprised by when I first left teaching for business (and a lot of my work was with technology) was the way some people genuinely thought less always means more. I’d find myself quietly thinking, ‘But some ideas actually require quite a lot of words, in quite complex structures’. I’ve done a lot of commercial bid writing for businesses and it’s funny how few realise it’s all about the quality of the writing. I once scored 7 marks for a question with a maximum possible score of 6. A US business employed me as ‘lead writer’ a few months ago because they actually got that.
It would be easy to embark on a list of examples from the murky world of identity and gender politics, but politics has never interested me; words do. Not only are they our only internal means of understanding anything, apart from touch and maybe music, they are our only external form of human currency. Everything we exchange with others, our closest family members and our fiercest public opponents, is priced in words.
Examples aren’t difficult to find. Choose the wrong word as an academic and you may find yourself denied both your right to free speech and a speaking engagement. Tweet or post one wrong word on Instagram or Facebook, even if you’re a teenager just getting to grips with the world and with words, and you may find yourself being interviewed by the police and banned from a platform, accused, tried and found guilty in not much longer than it took to type the offending word. Never mind that you sincerely thought you knew what the word means, or that the employee of the social media business who has to make the decision to ban you, will themselves have the reading age of a 12-year-old and be working from a checklist. Use a wrong word about your latest young adult novel and it will never see the light of day and fans will be demanding your apology. Reading poetry prepares and protects you from this. You know all the tricks, or at least many of them, because great poets are also great inventors.
Roz Final question. Do you write poetry yourself?
Joe Definitely not. I experimented a little when I was a lot younger but quickly recognised this was a skill I simply didn’t possess. I did once successfully write a few poems which you could read left to right or right to left, thinking that was really original and clever. A few years ago I came across a small modern volume of verse by a little-known poet, in which every poem could be read in either direction. They weren’t much good.
PS If you’re curious about what I’ve been up to, while furrowing my brow over volumes of poetry, here’s the latest edition of my newsletter.
Also… my Nail Your Novel Workbook is now available as an ebook! Meanwhile, do you have any questions you’d like to ask Joe or favourite poems to share? Let’s discuss.
We all find our own paths when learning to write. For some, a creative writing degree is the right one. Last year, when I fell into an email correspondence with creative writing professor Garry Craig Powell, I couldn’t resist asking some cheeky questions about his corner of the literary world – and he was game to answer them. I thought it was a conversation that would be useful to you guys… hence this series. We’re publishing it in parts at Late Last Night Books.
Last time, we discussed who might get real value from a creative writing degree (and, by extension, who wouldn’t).
This time, we weigh up how to choose a course. Including:
How to make meaningful comparisons between courses at different institutions.
Famous tutors – how much of their time will you get?
How much might the course cost you?
How are students selected – are you sure you’ll get in?
What are most students writing …
… and a few other things!
Grab a beverage and come on over.
And if you’ve taken a creative writing degree yourself – or considered it and decided not to – do share your experiences in the comments here. Also, post any questions you’d like us to tackle. If they’re not in one of the interviews, we can gather them into a special at the end.
Last year I got in conversation about this with creative writing professor Garry Craig Powell – you might recognise him because he’s been an Undercover Soundtrack guest and interviewed me about Not Quite Lost. So I thought it would be good to write a proper, in-depth interview about it – and it turned out to be very long!
We’re publishing it in parts at Late Last Night Books. In part 1, we chew over the following questions, with actionable points at the end –
What are the benefits and limitations of creative writing degrees?
What experience level should a writer have so their work is enhanced rather than forced into a standard mould (the often-derided MFA novel)?
As writing is largely self-taught, do writers need formal teachers?
Misconceptions about creative writing teachers!
Thanks for the pic, Pixabay
And if you’ve taken a creative writing degree yourself – or considered it and decided not to – do share your experiences in the comments here. Also, post any questions you’d like us to tackle. If they’re not in one of the interviews, we can gather them into a special at the end.
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.