Posts Tagged interview
Getting to the truth about strong women and troubled teenhood – novelist, playwright, essayist, writing coach Martha Engber @MarthaEngber
Martha Engber is a wordsmith in multiple ways. You’ve met her briefly – when she asked me to write a piece about my horse. Her most recent release is a YA novel, Winter Light, but that’s just one aspect of Martha’s art and work. So here she is in full – editor, playwright, poet, novelist, essayist, writing coach, journalist.
Roz What’s the core Martha, your recurring themes, the character types you’re most interested in? And where did they come from?
Martha I grew up in a nuclear family of two older sisters, a mom and a dad. My mom strongly believed women should be independent financially and in action, a sentiment with which my dad agreed. As such, my sisters and I mowed lawns, played to win, stood our ground in arguments and otherwise always believed females can do almost everything males can, other than pee standing up, which I’ve since learned females more talented than myself can actually do.
Roz I can see this will be a fun conversation. Sorry, you were saying…
Martha So running through all of my stories are girls and women such as 15-year-old Mary Donahue in Winter Light, i.e., strong in the way of strong females.
Throughout life I’ve been annoyed, no end, by cliched women characters who act like men with boobs. They talk tough, they fight like ninja, they’re brought into stories to be tortured or killed as a means of providing male characters with that final burst of motivation to win the day.
Roz Give me the better version…
Martha Women are awesome at working together. They’re flexible both emotionally and creatively. They’re willing to help one another and ready to try, and try harder, and try harder once again using all available resources and every ounce of passion and intelligence. And no, they don’t hate men. Quite the contrary: they work with males, while at the same time always angling to create new paths for moving forward.
My next book, for which I’m seeking a publisher, is about two young Native American women warriors of opposing tribes. How they challenge one another can only be described as very female.
Roz Tell me about Winter Light.
Martha It’s a story about what I witnessed in high school during the blizzard year of 1978-79. The characters are dealing with alcoholism and addiction.
Martha I used my yearbooks and memories about fashion and music, and research to refresh myself regarding the politics and cultural events of the time.
Martha Actually I had no intention of writing a YA novel. I wrote a literary story.
I grew up when there was no “YA.” My favorite books were those that didn’t pull any punches: To Kill a Mockingbird, Jane Eyre, The Outsiders, Lord of the Flies. Such stories left me with lots to think about and opened my eyes to the strife others suffer.
Both as a teenage reader and as a writer, I hated the idea of an author dumbing down a story for me in order to make parents feel less vulnerable to problems that take place somewhere within all families.
While I didn’t witness alcoholism and abuse in my nuclear family, I heard and could see those harsh stories taking place almost right next to me. Stories that weren’t cute or cliched or focused on a sweet teen romance. Instead, they involved brutal truths about our species, that if we’re abused and unhappy, we pass on that misery and ugliness. Only those who are strong, smart and get a helping hand rise to overcome their lot in life.
Initially I was disconcerted to learn my story would be categorized as YA, just because of Mary’s age. But I’ve since been encouraged by two facts: 50% of YA readers are adults, and many contemporary YA books take on tough topics, such as The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas.
Roz You describe your work as literary. There must be a hundred definitions. What’s yours?
Martha Thank you so much for asking! Over the years, I’ve honed this definition: a story for readers who like to puzzle over human nature.
Roz You have another novel, The Wind Thief.
Martha The story literally arose from the fact I love winds of all kinds: breezes, gusts, headwinds, tailwinds, etc. I began to imagine winds as sentient, with different personalities and motives. I gave that belief to the main character, Medina, who allows that fantasy to envelop her in an emotional cocoon to protect her from a tragedy she suffered when she was a girl.
The research was fascinating, which is one of the reasons the book took me 10 years to write, though honestly, I seem unable to sufficiently plumb the depths of any story in a shorter time period. I typically work on a story until I don’t see even one more connection I make or one more angle from which I can view the characters’ actions.
Roz I love this. I’m also a long-haul writer. You’ve also been a journalist, with hundreds of credits in the Chicago Tribune. Any specialities?
Martha I enjoyed writing medical stories, since science is so fascinating. I also enjoyed the features that took me on one adventure after another. I’ve toured a haunted hotel; spent time talking to ice fishermen in sub-zero weather; met Imelda Marcos, the infamous Filipino First Lady who accumulated a vast shoe collection; and witnessed amazing dance and music troupes that include the Kodo Drummers from Japan.
Roz I’m envious of those experiences. What rich ore for your work. Speaking of rich ore, you’ve distilled your editing knowledge into a book on character development. Why characters?
Martha Characters are the story!
If writers develop their characters properly and let those characters lead, those protagonists will write an exciting plot.
Most readers only know if they like your book or not. If you were to question them closely, though, they’ll comment first and foremost about whether they love your characters, meaning they find them consistent, believable and admirable.
Like most writers, I failed at most of my initial characters. Then I realized throwing readers a lot of details about characters tells a lot about them, but doesn’t give readers what they need most, the one detail that explains how a character ticks. And that’s the concept of Growing Great Characters From The Ground Up.
Roz What writing craft question are you most commonly asked?
Martha At the beginning of workshops I ask participants what questions they’d like to have answered, and this is almost always on the list:
How do I find my protagonist’s motivation?
That leads directly into character development, which ends up looking like this:
character’s defining detail —> what they’re most afraid of —> what they’re motivated to do (run away from that fear!)
The plot consists of pushing them toward that greatest fear by placing ever bigger obstacles in front of them until they run straight into their worst fear. Boom!
Roz The arts are something we never truly master. There’s always more to learn. Even if we’re also teachers. Where do you do your learning?
Martha I think creative brains are like bottom-feeding fish: we’re constantly sweeping up every morsel for possible nutrients.
Biggest problem-solving moment: in semi-sleep just before I wake up. Most significant moments of enlightenment: while deep into editing a scene in which the characters are only inches away and I can see and hear and feel them.
Greatest generation of ideas: art museums –
Martha … and the journeys of other creatives, especially podcasts like Hidden Brain and documentaries like My Octopus Teacher that explore how humans think.
Roz So what’s your writing process at the moment? Does it change from book to book?
Martha I continue working until the story gets less terrible.
Seriously, every story begins as a huge pile of dung. Then it’s a matter of using my shovel to find that stupid, irritating, tiny, brilliant gem within.
My writing life would be a lot simpler if I stuck with one style and genre. Instead, I write poetry, experimental short stories, journalistic/opinion/personal essays, historical fiction, etc. But I like that variety, and understand each story deserves its own shape.
Roz What are you working on at the moment?
Martha A memoir. Only within the last few months have I managed to wrestle the damn thing to the ground. What’s emerging is a poetry-prose hybrid that captures my personal upheaval. While not perfect, the story now has its own quirky, appropriate dwelling.
Secondly, I’ve started a book for writers based on my workshop regarding show vs. tell, and what a misconstrued piece of advice that is.
Roz Oh, it is. I explained it in one of my books and an author wrote to me and said: thank goodness, I’ve never understood it before.
With editing, journalism, workshops and running an author career, how do you find time for your own creative writing?
Martha Juggling time commitments is so tough! I want to do everything before I croak, which makes me busy, indeed.
I most likely have undiagnosed Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), which means I have a high need to move. I do so every day: hiking, biking, running, surfing, etc. Energy expended, I can then sit down to think in an orderly manner. I’ve followed that behaviour pattern since I was a kid: dance around, then write.
Creative writing is my zen, meaning the deep place I go to meditate on life. Once I’ve taken in information about the world through my other activities, that writing time is when I get to chew on the ideas and pull out every possible nutrient, whether for a poem, short story, book or other project.
In a good day, I’ll get two hours of creative writing, one-and-a-half hours of marketing and one hour of writing planning (workshops, new story ideas, submissions). That allows me the other hours to work out and train my clients. I’m also a fitness instructor and personal trainer.
Roz Tell me about that. I’m also a gym fiend. (And guys, you can find Martha’s fitness blog here.)
Roz Body Pump, running, dance, horse riding…
Martha It sounds like you and I need to work out together sometime! After this pandemic, come visit.
Roz I used to suffer from RSI but discovered that the more exercise I do, the fewer problems I have with shoulder, wrist and back pain. Also, it’s an utterly necessary complement to the world of imagination and words. Of course, I think about work while exercising. Nothing stops me thinking. But the thoughts come differently when my blood’s up. If I’m chewing on a story problem, I take it for a run and I find a solution that’s more aggressive and daring than if I sat at a desk… I found the midpoint of my last novel that way. (Here I wrote about writing and exercise.)
How about you? How does fitness professional Martha merge with writer-journalist-editor Martha and how are they different?
Martha The beauty of a creative brain type is that creativity sweeps across every moment of my day. Every choice I make, whether going for a run, making chocolate cake or mapping out a story, are all just variations on the need to squeeze out every possible moment of enlightenment.
The trick to accomplishing that goal is to daily move amongst a healthy swirl of activities, because each feeds the other.
The body is very much a chemical lab, and each body represents a unique mix of chemicals. No matter your capacity for movement — people are different in what they can do — some type of movement is necessary to circulate blood and oxygen to the brain so we think better and have the energy to create.
And when we create, we make the world a better place.
Roz We do. Thank you, Martha.
If you’d like more concentrated writing advice, my Nail Your Novel books are full of tips. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. If you’d like to support bricks-and-mortar bookstores use Bookshop.org. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, find my latest newsletter here and subscribe to future updates here.
Actually, it’s not at all about writing, though it is on the blog of a fellow writer.
That writer is Martha Engber, best described as a words everyperson. Editor, playwright, novelist, essayist, writing coach journalist… the full (extensive) credentials are here, along with a link to her latest novel, Winter Light.
Martha asked me to contribute to a series she runs about pets. I think she was anticipating a cat or a dog. But readers of my newsletter will know my pet is somewhat larger…
No problem, said Martha, sportingly. Write about his quirks.
What emerged was a story about his quirks and mine, how they nearly undid us, and how… well, you’ll have to read it. As I said, it’s rather light on writing advice. But it’s super-strong on perseverence advice. And horses. Do drop in.
PS If you’d like 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 use Bookshop.org. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, find my latest newsletter here (where you could win Martha’s latest novel, among many other beautiful books) and subscribe to future updates here.
From literary journal to 10 books a year – interview with Jessica Bell @msbessiebell of Vine Leaves Press @VineLeavesPress
If you’ve been with this blog for a while, you’ll know the name Jessica Bell. We’ve discussed everything bookish – cover design, fiction writing, poetry and memoir. She’s guested multiple times on The Undercover Soundtrack, and gone the extra mile by writing the music as well as the books (she’s also a musician). As if this polyphonic creativity isn’t enough, she has her own publishing imprint, Vine Leaves Press. I’ve never interviewed her about that, and it’s high time I did. Let’s go.
Roz Tell me how Vine Leaves Press got started.
Jessica Vine Leaves started as a literary journal in 2011. It was a LOT of work to maintain, but we were lucky to have some fabulous volunteers working for us, and so we stayed on our feet until 2017. In 2014, we started the Vine Leaves Vignette Collection Award, and that’s how we published our first book, the winner of the competition, Harvest by Amanya Maloba. So becoming a book publisher felt like a natural progression.
Roz How many titles do you have now?
Jessica To date we have 82 titles published and 15 forthcoming. We publish at least 10 books a year. Sometimes we might slip in one or two more.
Roz Ten a year! I’ve interviewed other small presses and they don’t manage even five a year. Did you make any wrong turnings?
Jessica Depends what you consider wrong turnings. A really amazing project that made us, and a lot of writers and artists happy, but almost bankrupted us, was the final instalment of the journal, which we published as a hardcover coffee table book in full colour. It cost us 5000 Euros to make, because, of course, we sent every contributor a free copy, and they were not cheap! I am so extremely proud of that collection of vignettes, but it almost killed the business. Thankfully in those days I was single and childless and only risking my own wellbeing, so I bounced back by working a lot of overtime.
Roz How much time do you devote to looking for new material? How many submissions do you get a month?
Jessica On average around 100. As we only publish 10 books a year, I’m extremely picky with query letters now. If someone hasn’t followed guidelines (query letter and first 10 pages), or has zero online presence, or doesn’t intrigue me before I finish the first sentence, I won’t even read the submission and it will be rejected right away. As much as I hate to say it, this is a business, not a hobby, and we need to sell books to continue to publish the writing of great writers.
Some may say I will miss the diamonds in the rough by doing this, but I’m okay with that, because I find the diamonds out of the rough! There are only so many books we can accept. Currently our publishing schedule is full until mid-2022!
Roz If there’s a Vine Leaves style, what is it?
Jessica Character-driven works that straddle the line between literary and mainstream.
Roz Do you read all the submissions yourself or do you have a team?
Jessica I have a team. I will read all the submissions, and request the full manuscripts I want to consider for publication. I will then send those full manuscripts to the appropriate staff member (dependent on reading tastes), and they will respond with a one- or two-page evaluation outlining the book’s strengths and weaknesses, if they’d recommend the book to others to read, if it would suit our list, and if they think it would sell and why.
I accept or reject most books based on those evaluations. But I’m very careful to send them to readers who I am certain will enjoy to the content.
(Aside from Roz: you might recognise this bearded chap. My bookseller friend Peter Snell, of the So You Want To Be A Writer podcast, is one of the VLP readers.)
Roz What’s been successful for Vine Leaves Press? I’m thinking many readers of this blog might be Vine Leaves types…
Jessica Interestingly, poetry that is a bit daring in content, or has a unique theme, has been soaring lately! Also, our memoirs are very popular, and a few select novels also do well. But we are even more selective with poetry, so a note to poets: unless you think you have a collection that is extremely off-beat, or you have an extensive and interactive following online, please don’t query us with your poetry.
How to impress Jessica
Roz Are there any common features of books you reject?
Jessica No plots, rushed endings, lacking hooks, too much purple prose, stream of consciousness.
Roz Should an author get their book professionally edited before submitting to you?
Jessica Definitely. Despite all books going through three different edits (development edit, copy edit and multiple proofreads), we want to be reading the best product possible right off the bat. If a book is poorly edited, it’s going to distract us from seeing and understanding what is the most important—story and voice.
Roz How much do you consider an author’s platform when deciding whether to offer on a manuscript?
Jessica Oh, in this day and age it’s everything. It’s actually the first thing I look at before reading a submission in full. A small press cannot survive without active authors.
Roz What’s your view of creative writing courses?
Jessica They are great fun, and refine skills, but don’t expect them to suddenly make you a brilliant writer. They are for practice and discovery. Not miracle-makers. But yes, take them! But only for the pure enjoyment of it.
Strength in numbers
Roz Many fine authors are now selfpublishing. The tools are mature and sophisticated, and some beautiful books are being produced. What do you think a publisher does that authors can’t do by themselves?
Jessica I can only speak for us as I don’t know what other small presses offer their authors. But we produce a professionally edited manuscript and designed cover and interior and incur all the costs.
We connect them with like-minded authors from our list in a private and very supportive Facebook group. This is a great cross-promotion tool. We do online promotion that they might not be able to do themselves. We steer them in the right direction regarding their online presence if necessary and offer ongoing support and guidance for their writing career.
If an author can do all the above on their own, then I urge them to self-publish. We are not necessary! Also, not every publisher will do the above, so choose wisely.
Roz Many indie authors will know you for your beautiful and quirky cover designs. When you’re working on a cover with an indie author, they clearly have the final say, with your guidance of course. But when you design for Vine Leaves Press, do other people give feedback on the suitability of a cover?
Jessica We will listen to all feedback, and if we agree we will revise. But ultimately, we have the final say and that is stated in our contract.
Roz How much of the publishing work do you outsource and how much is done personally by you? Do you have staff?
Jessica I now have a partner, Amie McCracken. I sold half the company to her a couple of years ago, as it was getting too big for my own boots. So we make all decisions together now. I am the go-to for all things related to submissions, design, bookkeeping, our SPILL IT! column, the new 50 Give or Take flash fiction newsletter, general admin and upkeep, and Amie is the go-to for all things related to editing, typesetting/ebook formatting, contracts and the publishing schedule, and our author liaison. We share social media responsibilities, and outsource some marketing video production, some newsletter composing, most editing and all manuscript evaluations.
Roz Any advice for an author thinking of setting up a publishing house?
Jessica Be a patient and understanding person. If you’re not, you will run into trouble and conflict with your authors. Be ambitious and have the ability to look into the future regarding expectation. You will not make money straight away. Up until last year, we were just breaking even every year; sometimes we would have a loss, and that was with volunteers on our team! We are finally starting to make some money. That took six years.
Marketing … the literary way
Roz There’s no getting away from the fact that literary fiction, poetry and vignettes are trickiest to market… any thoughts? What’s your approach?
Jessica Don’t settle for the same-old. Be as innovative as you can. Post something on social media EVERY DAY. Build a mailing list. Approach publishing like a self-publisher. Traditional methods used by the Big Five do not work for a small press. You will end up bankrupt. One of our biggest sellers is a vignette collection (The Walmart Book of the Dead by Lucy Biederman). It sells because it really is unique and intriguing. Market to niche audiences, not the world.
Roz Approach publishing like a self-publisher? I want that on a T-shirt. That’s a great insight.
Many publishers have reps who sell into bookshops. And distribution deals. Do you have anything like that?
Jessica No we don’t have reps. All our sales are online, unless an author has managed to get their book stocked somewhere on consignment.
Roz I’m on the Vine Leaves mailing list and you work hard to establish a vibrant and provocative presence in your newsletters. There’s very much a feeling of a Vine Leaves family.
Jessica I am a hands-on team member that nurtures our authors as much as humanly possible. Being an author and all-round creative person myself, I understand the needs of my kind. This is why I started the private VLP group on Facebook where members (authors and staff only) can support each other and their work. I have worked years to establish an extremely friendly and happy environment at Vine Leaves Press in order to motivate creativity and productivity. If you become a VLP author, you become a part of a loyal and enthusiastic family of book lovers that will bend over backwards to help you out.
Roz Is that your primary source of marketing?
Jessica Yes, that is our primary source of marketing. Next in line are the videos we post daily on social media, and we are also trying our hand at a few Facebook ads (after very expensive training!) and have joined Goodreads as a publisher so that we can issue giveaways. We are always looking for new ways to promote the press and our authors. Oh! We’ve also just added the ability to buy a Vine Leaves Press gift card.
Roz I notice you get amazing reviews for your titles! Are those Vine Leaves contacts or are they the authors’ own contacts?
Jessica Generally, they are no-one’s contacts. They are true fans! 😊 Cool, huh?
Roz So cool I am frozen with envy. You also have a full creative life yourself, indeed several. Not only do you write, you’re a musician with two identities – vocalist with Keep Shelly In Athens @keepshellyinath and solo artist Bruno. You design covers. And you run Vine Leaves Press. How do you get time for all this – and a full family life which we haven’t even mentioned… do you protect your creative time? What’s a typical day, or week, or month?
Jessica Sometimes I don’t even know how I do it. And somehow everything seems to get done. The only schedules I keep are for Vine Leaves and for my book design, because there are other people relying on me to get things done. All the rest I do when I can spare a moment. I don’t know when. Sometimes I feel like I’ve travelled to a parallel universe to get my creative time, and then return a little dazed and confused.
And of course, for the last 14 months, a lot of my time has been spent nurturing my son. I don’t think I’ve had much sleep in that time, but I am still functioning! There is no typical day here. I do what I can when I can. With a toddler in the house, winging it is the only option.
Roz What are you working on at the moment?
Jessica We’ve started the 50 Give or Take newsletter, a Vine Leaves project which will deliver stories of 50 words or less daily to your inbox in an attempt to expose great writing and great writers without chewing up too much of a reader’s time. Subscribe here!
Also a new music project is under way. It’s called Mongoa.
Finally I’m getting stuck into editing my long-lost novel (last touched in 2016!) How Icasia Bloom Touched Happiness.
Roz And where can readers find Vine Leaves Press – and you – on line?
Jessica You can find all of my projects at iamjessicabell.com.
Roz again: My Nail Your Novel books are full of tips to help you avoid plotlessness, hooklessness and associated prose horrors, purple and otherwise.
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.