Posts Tagged Unbound
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.
My guest this week might be familiar to you. I featured Claire Scobie a few months ago in a story about crowdfunding, when she was campaigning on Unbound to get her novel The Pagoda Tree published. I’m thrilled to say she hit her targets, and I went to the launch a few weeks ago in the very beautiful Daunt’s Bookshop in Marylebone. While her supporters chatted under its high glass roof, a violinist sat in the gallery and played sweeping, sultry traditional Indian music – the kind of music the novel’s protagonist would have heard as part of her daily life. Needless to say, it’s the kind of music Claire listened to as she wrote the story, about a temple dancer in Tamil Nadu in the 18th century. But Claire’s Undercover Soundtrack also includes some unexpected modern touches from James Blunt and Adele. Anyway, do drop by the Red Blog for her post.
I had been intending to bring you a craft post this week as I’ve written a guide to suspense for Becca Puglisi and Angela Ackerman’s Writers Helping Writers blog. But I mistook the date because I’ve been immersed in my current book, but it should come out in the next few days.
Speaking of which, Not Quite Lost: Travels Without A Sense of Direction is maturing nicely, which means we’ve reached the stage of gentle, hair-tearing chaos. I thought I’d share it with you, in case you’re going through book production chaos too, or to prepare you in case, at some point in the future, you strike an iceberg. And to reassure you that if everyone keeps their heads, it comes out right in the end.
At the moment, I have chaos in two departments. The inside of the book and the outside.
I’ve put the text through a thorough developmental thrashing, had scourging feedback from Dave, and sent it to two trusted readers, who are seeing it for the first time.
You could not receive two more different sets of responses. They both think it’s 90% fine, but their suggestions for tweaks show that they had radically different ideas of what the book would be. Expand the vignettes, said one. I love the vignettes, said the other. Add more of this element to fortify the climax, said one. Add more humour, said the other.
The bottom line: something is slightly off, and I have to figure out which set of comments is most in tune with my vision for the book.
Cover design is under way. I had an initial concept, got favourable feedback, changed my mind, got another concept, got favourable feedback about that, and also now conflicting feedback. (I’m not going to reveal the options here until I’m further along because it’s easy to contaminate a jury … and I might need you guys for a mass vote later!)
Meanwhile, I feel like I’ve got my foot on both the brake and the accelerator at the same time and have to figure out which one to choose. And I’m not a mite frustrated. It’s always the way that the things you thought would be easy are difficult, and the things you thought would be difficult are easy.
But I have to remind myself of this when a comment gives me headaches: everyone involved cares about this book. They have its best interests at heart. And I am lucky to have them.
But wait, I also have chaos in a third department: publicity and marketing. I saw a post this week from Jane Friedman that said: ‘Don’t publish your diaries. You’re not Sedaris.’ Later, it reiterated: ‘Don’t publish essay collections or vignettes. You’re NOT SEDARIS.’
Why this prohibition? Because unless you’re a Person Of Significance, diaries, vignettes etc are impossible to sell. Jane’s advice is commercially sound (and is aimed at writers who are seeking traditional deals).
I already knew diaries etc are hard to sell, which is why I recently embarked on an important task – to find comparison titles.
Which brings me to chaos #3. I can’t find any comparison titles.
Book marketing folk say that there’s no such thing as a book that doesn’t have comparison titles, but so far I haven’t found one that’s a close enough fit, and I have gone cross-eyed browsing the stacks of LibraryThing, Goodreads and Amazon. I don’t think for one nanosecond that that I’ve invented a genre, but I’m feeling, rather like the title of the book, lost.
What did my critiquers say? Um, it’s not really like anything.
But I do understand the market a lot better now. And I know what the book is not. It’s not unified by fashionable issues or whacky modes of travel (bicycle, barge, battered camper van). There are no backpacks. The territories aren’t exotic (jungles, tiny forgotten railway stations). It doesn’t contain wisdom for others, or a journalistic hook (conspiracy theorists, scandalous confessions). It’s not a book about moving to a country where lemons grow, or dragging a fridge there.
That in itself is surprising. In my fiction, I like the extravagant concept. But those stories are also knitted from quieter yarn, and that’s what Not Quite Lost is – the kinds of people I’m curious about, what amuses me or appeals to my sense of whimsy, the scent of the mysterious in an ordinary place. While my novels are the bold performances with proscenium and drama, these are the small details. The props. The originals of the characters and places.
Not Quite Lost is like an artist’s sketchpad. An album of songs. In fact, I find those to be easier comparisons because its most distinctive qualities are not so much its content, but its style – things that are hard to translate into algorithms and categories.
I will continue to search for comparison titles. But in the meantime, if you can suggest any I’d be grateful.
Chaos is the rule
Just last week I went to the launch of The Pagoda Tree by Claire Scobie (you saw her on this blog a few months ago when she was raising funds via Unbound ). Before the launch she confessed to some behind-the-scenes hair-tearing, when some of the book’s files got corrupted, erasing several rounds of refinements and corrections, which meant everybody had to start proof-reading again from scratch, and get it finished in no time whatsoever.
It happens, but we come through in the end.
Thanks for the swan pic USFWS Mountain Prairie on flickr
Are you going through book production chaos? Have you been through it in the past? Let’s swap war stories.
We’re in an age of new publishing models. And two of the emerging trends – crowdfunding and hybrid publishing – seem to meet in the organisation Unbound.
The principle of Unbound is simple. Raise enough money to publish the first print run. After that, the profits of any sales are split equally between the author and Unbound. Two editions of the books are made; a special, higher-spec edition for subscribers, and an edition for the trade.
When my friend Claire Scobie told me she was using Unbound to launch a UK edition of her novel The Pagoda Tree, I decided it was time to dig further. So as well as Claire (an Unbounder in progress), here are two fully graduated Unbounders – and clarifications from Unbound themselves.
Salena Godden @salenagodden is a long-established spoken word artist, poet and memoirist. She tops the bill at literary events nationally and internationally and has numerous credits as a guest and a writer for BBC Radio and Channel 4 arts programmes and documentaries.
Robert Llewellyn @bobbyllew is a writer, presenter and an actor in the cult BBC science fiction show Red Dwarf. He presented Scrapheap Challenge from 1998-2008 and now produces and presents Fully Charged, an online series about the future of energy and transport. He’s the author of 11 books, including non-fiction, humour, memoir and science fiction.
Publishing background and experience
None of my panel are first-time authors (but first-time authors aren’t excluded, so read on). Salena has run the full gamut from indie to traditional. She self-published her own chapbooks in the 1990s, published her Fishing In The Aftermath poetry collection with indie publisher Burning Eye Books. And she crowdfunded her memoir Springfield Road with Unbound.
Robert Llewellyn had 11 books published traditionally and has been with a literary agent since 1990. He said he became frustrated by the restrictions and financial deals in the traditional system, but didn’t want to go it alone entirely. ‘I was very keen to self publish. I knew I had a large enough potential audience to make this viable, but I also knew that I’m not very well organised and would find it a real challenge to do on my own.’
Claire has a literary agent and has been traditionally published. Last Seen in Lhasa was placed with Random House UK. She’s based in Sydney, so she sold publishing rights of The Pagoda Tree to Penguin in Australia and New Zealand in 2013, but is now seeking wider exposure in English-speaking territories.
UPDATE 1 July 2016 – Claire has now hit her funding target – so you can regard her advice as officially tested in battle!
How are books chosen for Unbound?
Here I’ll bring in Georgia Odd @whengoddcries), editorial and marketing assistant with Unbound.
‘We have a team of commissioning editors who both read submissions and scout for books and authors. The main things they are considering is the strength of the pitch – which might be the concept of a book, the writing or the author’s ability to crowdfund. The projects that work best have a great concept that can be easily explained in a line or two, and a clear audience who are already engaged with either the author or the topic.
‘We don’t always require a finished manuscript – particularly in cases where the author has a proven track record of strong writing – but with new authors we always ask for a substantial example of their writing.
‘We have a fairly even spread between fiction and non-fiction, and we accept any genres. If it’s a great book, we’ll take it on.’
Salena says she chose Unbound because: ‘We got on really well. You know the saying “Go where there love is”? There is a lot of love at Unbound.’
Robert says: ‘I loved the business model. I understood crowdfunding and I had enough of a following to launch the books. I don’t know how I got selected, it didn’t feel like being selected. It felt like we agreed to work together which was much nicer.’
Claire said she’d had her eye on Unbound for several years. ‘I like the philosophy of the company and the fact that it was founded by three authors who felt that readers were often left out of the equation. My agent pitched the book to them (although any author can submit directly). One of the co-founders loved it and my crowdfunding journey began.’ And Claire points out that Unbound offers a more equitable arrangement than most publishers. ‘Unbound splits a book’s net profit 50/50 (after costs/retail discounts) with the author. With traditional publishing, an author is lucky to earn 10% of the cover price.’
But can you bring your indie team?
It’s likely, of course, that authors who’ve already published their own work might want to bring their own editors or designers. Georgia from Unbound says: If an author does have an illustrator or editor they have in mind, we always have discussions about this, and the best route to take.
The campaign trail
Clearly, everything hinges on how much the author can raise awareness. And this effort shouldn’t be underestimated. I’ve been watching Claire on Facebook and she’s tirelessly producing interviews, posts and following up any lead that might create more exposure. ‘I’ve run a focused Facebook campaign on my author page, sent out a lot of emails to family, friends, friends of friends, written blogs on various sites such as FB historical fiction sites or indie publishing sites, made contact with my old school and university and contacted former work colleagues. As I am based in Australia, I’ve received a lot of support from students who’ve done my writing courses and writers I’ve worked with professionally. It’s been harder to tap into some of those networks in the UK.’
Salena says she was already well versed in selling and promoting her work. ‘I was in a band called SaltPeter for over a decade and we used to put out our own music, so I applied those cottage industry skills to the book, booking radio and gigs and promoting things.’ All the same, she says she remembers her funding campaign as full-on effort. ‘I worked my arse off. I hustled up hundreds of radio slots and gigs and events and festivals and talks and blog tours until I was sick of myself. When the book arrived I remember spending afternoons walking around book shops asking for it to be stocked; both indie shops and big chain stores too.’
Robert has managed to be more laid back, and says he mainly raised awareness through Twitter. ‘None of my Unbound books have had traditional reviews. They’ve not been featured in the traditional press in any way I’m aware of. I do a great deal of public speaking and sell books after these events.’ Reality check: he has 130,000 Twitter followers.
So it has to be asked: what proportion of projects fail to reach their funding target? Georgia says: ‘The success rate is 66%. There isn’t an obvious difference in the success rates between fiction and non-fiction; it depends on how active the author has been throughout their campaign, and how effective they are at communicating directly with their audience.’
With knobs on
One of the features of a crowdfunding campaign is the extra rewards for higher pledges. So what do authors offer? And when they have to fulfil them, are they worth the effort?
‘This was a steep learning curve. My assumption was that everyone would go for the cheapest option and no one would go for the most expensive. The most expensive options (tickets to exclusive events) were sold out within a couple of days. These involved complex and costly arrangements that were very stressful although we managed to fill 90% of our obligations to supporters. For instance, a picnic at William Morris’s house – there were so many takers we had to do it over two days. Since this experience we have wound down the top-level promises to events that are a little easier to set up.
Claire’s offering a range of goodies. ‘For readers I offer a double whammy of my first book and the novel for £75; for writers, I offer professional one-on-one mentoring sessions and a creative writing workshop in London; for general supporters, I offer the novel + a beautiful handmade Indian journal (which has been really popular.) I also offer ‘the story behind the book’ for £100 and some bigger pledges at £1000 for someone to be a patron. I think it’s important to have a range of pledges at different prices and for different sectors of your audience.’
All the same, Georgia confirms that some authors can be uncomfortable with the amount of self-promotion. But she provides some figures to help make the job more manageable. ‘The average book needs about 300 supporters. Authors have to be able to confidently pitch their book to their networks, including friends, family and colleagues. Some find it daunting to ask people they know to pledge money, so that’s something they have to really think about, and overcome if they’re to have a strong campaign.
‘The most effective way of driving pledges is through personalised one-to-one communication, usually via email. This does take a lot of time and effort, so authors find it helpful to create a plan and schedule. They then have to stick to it. It’s all about engagement, rather than broadcasting. If authors aren’t engaged with their fans, then they are less likely to see those fans pledging.
‘The campaign process has to be led by the author, as they are the best advocate for the book, and it is their network that will support the book in the early stages. But we do have resources we offer to authors as guidance and support throughout their campaign.’
Have you considered – or even tried – crowdfunding? Any thoughts to add? Questions? The floor is yours.
And finally, here’s where to find our people again. Unbound is here and is on Twitter as @Unbounders. Robert Llewellyn is most at home on Twitter where he’s @bobbyllew . Salena Godden is @salenagodden and her website is www.salenagodden.com . And Claire Scobie is, at the time of writing, in full campaign swing. You can find her on Twitter at @clairescobie and her Unbound campaign is here https://unbound.co.uk/books/the-pagoda-tree/