Indie Publisher or Agent: What’s Best?

production process

Mainstream Publishing -Fiction and Memoirs.

Congratulations on finishing that Manuscript. (MS).

YEY!YEY!YEY!YEY!YEY!YEY!YEY!YEY!YEY!YEY!YEY!YEY!YEY!YEY!!

What’s the next step?

First, decide if you wish to SelfPublish or go Mainstream. If it’s the latter, and it’s fiction, most Mainstream Publishers will not accept unsolicited MS, so do you want an Agent or will you go straight to an Independent Publisher (Indie)?

It’s OK to submit to both categories and to a few agents/Indies at the same time, but keep a record and keep it personal. No-one likes beauty parades and after spending so long writing the novel or memoir, check that you are submitting to people who are going to be interested. Just a little more research can save an awful lot of time and remember, most agents live in and around the publishing hub, London. And yes, of course they talk to each other…

So, who does what?

Agents

Sell and license rights to a variety of media (not just book publishers) at home and abroad on behalf of their client authors with whom they have a contract on each book for the full term of copyright. Agents receive a commission on authors’ earnings, typically 10 to 15 per cent on earnings from home sales but rising to 20 per cent on deals made abroad.

Once an agent has taken on an author, it’s their job to pitch the book to the right editor in the most suitable publishing house. This includes Indies, in fact some smaller publishers do not accept non agented MS and Amazon’s White Glove Program can only be accessed by agents on behalf of their clients.

Publishers

First let’s understand the process. Once a book is acquired from an author, it has to be edited, designed, produced, marketed to the book trade and readers, and sold to bookshops or the end- purchaser. Once the book has been printed, it has to be stored, orders are taken from retailers or consumers, and the book is then dispatched from the warehouse.

What’s Best?

These days it’s a pretty straightforward choice: agents can submit your MS to Major Publishers’ something you alone are not able to do. If you go to an Independent Publisher, you don’t necessarily need an agent, but they can be useful. There’s no harm in trying both options. The main requirement is that you notify those you have applied to if an offer is made to represent you. This is surely common courtesy and can also perhaps persuade others to consider making you an offer, too. An agent manages the commercial aspects, for example by placing the author’s work with the right publisher or fuelling competition between publishers (on major books by holding auctions); negotiating deals to secure the best terms; by submitting their own contracts to licensors weighted in the authors’ favour; checking or querying both publishers’ advance payments against royalties, and royalty statements, and chasing debts. Most authors are unable to market the rights on their work worldwide so they mainly allow publishers to do so on their behalf. An agent representing an author may limit the rights granted to a publisher, and their territorial extent, and license the rights retained on behalf of the author to other firms at home and abroad. But, as with everything, it depends on the individual circumstances. A publisher investing a large amount, for instance in a new writer on a two-book deal, has a strong case for acquiring wide territorial rights and the sharing of other rights.

Going it Alone

Help is always on hand. Once you have received an offer you can, for example, join The Writers’ Guild, or The Society of Authors. Both provide a contract vetting service.

https://www.writersguild.org.uk/join-new/fullmembership
http://www.societyofauthors.org/how-join

How to Find an Agent or Publisher

These options are for agents and publishers within the UK and are no more than a couple of suggestions, they are certainly not an exhaustive list. However, we hope they help.

The Association of Authors’ Agents:

http://agentsassoc.co.uk/members-directory

This has links to the various members’ sites where you can then check their submissions policies. It is more of a starting point than anything, but it is FREE.

The Writers and Artists Yearbook Online Listings Directory (W&A )

https://www.writersandartists.co.uk/listings

According to their website they have: nearly 5,000 contacts for the book publishing industry, over 500 online-only entries, plus 35 literary agents from European and non-English speaking countries.
(It also has 125 self-publishing providers, which may or may not prove useful.)

You can search by name, location and keyword e.g. ‘romance’, by entering your search terms in the boxes;
browse by category on the Explore Categories page e.g. Literary agents UK and Ireland or Literary agents overseas; and save your favourite entries – a great tool for creating a target list for your submissions.

It costs £19.95 for twelve months, but there is no doubt that links are a whole lot easier than typing in the address each time which you had to do with the printed lists.

The Agent Hunter

http://www.agenthunter.co.uk

Full Disclosure: The Agent Hunter offered us the chance to review the site in exchange for a free subscription and as it is something we had already recommended to some of our members, we decided to check it out.

This is another searchable database which has compiled details of agencies and agents, their likes and dislikes and submission policies. It also offers lists of independent publishers. Provided this is kept up to date it can do a lot of your sifting work for you. Fees start from as little as five pounds, making it better value than the W&A and there are no adverts (or attempts to offer Solutions Providers/Vanity Publishers.)

There is no doubt that the filters available can help narrow the search down quite substantially. Choose from amongst the following:

Genre
AgentExperience
Client List – open to new clients, looking to add to list
Opportunities to meet
Twitter
Blog
Agency
Size
AAA membership
E-mail submissions
Key Entry Search Value

Agent Hunter is new – which means it should be relatively up to date, but as with all databases, there is no guarantee it is error free, something the site acknowledges and is transparent about:

“We do try very hard to stay comprehensive and up to date, but mistakes will creep through. If you spot any omission or error, please let us know. We check/update every entry at least annually, but the key entries are updated more often than that.”

Information is compiled from a number of sources:

“We get our data from agents’ websites, published directories, the Bookseller magazine, the Association of Authors’ Agents, the Publishers’ Association, other public sources of data, our own contacts, and from agents themselves.”

Personally, I’d like an additional filter added: whether they accept submissions from outside the UK, but that aside, I really like it.  Another great feature is the ability to dovetail between agents and agencies and then check out Independent Publishers, too.

This is a great jumping off point before diving into the agencies’ or Publishers’ own websites and, for as little as a fiver, offers great value.

Good Luck!

If you have any comments, please  add them below,

Thanks, Tracy

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Copyright: How Protected is it?

Image taken from http://copyrighttoolkit.com

You already own your own copyright, right? Ever wondered how much of someone else’s work you can fairly copy? What about the other way round, when someone has copied not just the idea, but how you’ve said it?

Copyright regimes in most countries of the world, including the US since 1989, give automatic protection. Most countries have signed either the Berne Convention or Universal Copyright Convention (UCC) or both. In the US and Britain you own the copyright without having to register or comply with formalities. If you don’t want your copyright, opt out. In practice, it is easier to use Larry Lessig’s brainchild, the Creative Commons Licence so others may use your work. Should you not do that, in the UK and the USA copyright lasts for your lifetime plus seventy years. (This is true for literary, dramatic, musical or artistic works. Computer generated work is copyrighted for fifty years from creation.)

It’s not necessary to use the © copyright symbol, year of publication and name of the copyright holder. But it’s a good habit to get into and is needed in those states who are members of the UCC but not of the Berne Convention. It also helps assert your moral rights, which is why book authors add: ‘Writer’s Name. Author asserts his/her moral right to be identified as the author of this book’.

So, what economic rights do you enjoy as a copyright holder? Four.

  • Exclusive right to reproduce the copyrighted work
  • Exclusive right to make modifications of the copyrighted work, commonly known as the right to make derivative works
  • The right to control distribution, exportation and importation of copies of the work
  • The right to control public performances or public displays of the work.

In 1963 a song called, ‘He’s So Fine’ written by Ronald Mack, was performed by The Chiffons. Beatles member, George Harrison, heard the song, but wasn’t aware that it had registered in his creative neurons. Six years later he composed, ‘My Sweet Lord,’ a remarkably similar tune. Bright Tunes Music, Mack’s assignee, sued Harrison and won. It was accepted that Harrison hadn’t copied it deliberately, but he still lost.

It is said that there are only seven themes for novels, so how comes we can copy a theme and get away with it, but not copy a tune and a few lyrics? The short answer is that ideas and facts cannot be protected by copyright. What is protected is their expression.

So, what do you do if you are sure someone has copied your work? Well, you prove it. But Michael Crichton was constantly accused of stealing someone else’s work and, as far as I’m aware, never lost a law suit.

How to prove it: Four techniques, but all must result in a fixed copy of the work being available.

  • Introduce direct evidence of copying.
  • Show how your work was widely available and point out the similarities between your work and the alleged copy of your work, as happened with George Harrison. (Probative similarity.)
  • Striking similarity. Too much to be a coincidence, regardless of how likely it is that lots of people must have heard or read it. This point and the one above are often bundled together.
  • Common Errors. For example, travel guides have been known to deliberately include fictitious hotels that are also copied by the unscrupulous. Sometimes the mistakes and typo’s really are unintentional, but repeated in the copied work and used to show how it must be copied.

Cablevision is a leading case in US law which highlights the differences between digital and hard copy. Where there’s no copy there’s no offence. It seems to work a bit like FilmOn TV, a US registered company which allows viewers in Spain to watch British TV over the internet. The key legal point is that they violate the US Copyright Statute but can be excused under the US Fair Use Doctrine. This is because a single stream of data is split, buffered, reformatted and stored. Data is not kept for longer than 0.1 of a second before sending it to a server which has a further buffer that again does not hold the information for long, never more than 1.2 seconds of programming at any one time. The US Court of Appeal found in the Cablevision case that no copy was ever made, because to do so would require ‘a period of more than transitory duration.’

Hmmm.

Cases like Cablevision are rare. It is much more common to fight over whether the character and amount copied infringes the copyright.

In 1930 a US Judge, Learned Hand, (that really was his name), devised a test to apply when one literary work was too close to that of another. He said, ‘we are rather concerned with the line between expression and what is expressed.’

Fair Use and Fair Dealing

The US has the Fair Use Doctrine, Brits have Fair Dealing and both defences allow research and private study, criticism or review, or news reporting.

But What Isn’t Fair?

Factors that have been identified by the courts as relevant include:

  • does using the work affect the market for the original work? If a use of a work acts as a substitute for it, causing the owner to lose revenue, then it is not likely to be fair
  • is the amount of the work taken reasonable and appropriate? Was it necessary to use the amount that was taken? Usually only part of a work may be used.

Justice Petersen presided over a leading case in England in 1916 and said, ‘what is worth copying is prima facie worth protecting.’ His words have been used ever since.

In Britain, legislators deem less than 400 words of continuous text or 800 non continuous excerpts to be fair. (The 10% rule is more of an urban legend in the UK). Obviously, if someone were to ruin the story  in a whodunnit in just a few words this would not be fair.

Licence to Photocopy

In the UK , the Copyright Licensing Agency sells the right to photocopy parts of a work.

It licenses:

  • Either 5 per cent or one chapter, whichever is greater
  • Periodicals. One article from any one issue
  • A short story or poem not exceeding 10 pages in length.

http://www.cla.co.uk/

An excellent website is http://copyrighttoolkit.com

When permission is required, check out the Writers Artists and Their Copyright Holders database. It can save a lot of time. http://norman.hrc.utexas.edu/watch/

Hope this helps,

Tracy Thomson
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Self-Publishing. A plan means you can.

Mainstream Publishers are more than just middlemen in the contract between author and reader. Publishers take the writer’s work and add to it creating more value in the final book. After all, a large Publisher has to report to shareholders and create profit for everyone involved, including itself- so that it may pay its staff and carry on. Costs include the advance that was given to the author: recouping this is not always possible and where there is a limited number of sales, some published authors receive only their advance.

As Clark and Phillips point out[1], traditionally, a Publisher’s role is all encompassing.

‘The publisher, aiming to make a profit for the owners/shareholders and to carry on publishing:

  • researches the markets in which it specializes and builds contacts,
  • seeks authors (in competition with other publishers) and is sought by them,
  • matches marketable ideas to saleable authors,
  • assesses the quality of the author’s work (sometimes externally refereed), costs of production and sales prospects,
  • decides whether to risk its investment funds in projects to appear under its brand,
  • edits and designs books to meet market needs,
  • specifies, buys and oversees the work of print suppliers (in the UK or abroad) which manufacture the books,
  • exploits new technology to reduce costs and stock levels, develop new products, and expand its sales and marketing techniques,
  • builds a worldwide sales network,
  • promotes and publicizes books to their intended users, the media, and to the intermediaries (retailers, wholesalers, and overseas firms) – the channels through which the books are mainly sold,
  • sells the books face-to-face to intermediaries,
  • holds bulk stock of titles, where necessary, to satisfy demand, and
  • fulfils orders, distributes the books and collects the money, paying royalties to authors on sales made.’

When you are the Publisher you compete, then, against a well-oiled machine and Print on Demand (POD) is often the only feasible option for you. POD costs more per book but is cheaper in the short term for small prints. Off-set is for much larger volumes and the price per unit savings arguably only become worth it when distribution and storage are already part of the printing process.

There is nothing in theory to stop you Self-Publishing and going for, say, a 1,000 book off-set print, but factor in the storing and distributing of those boxes. Don’t let the damp and mildew get at them.

This is not to say you cannot go it alone, but you need to be aware of your aims and the target market before you begin. One business model is to garner sales of an EBook before moving on to the next step, that of ordering and distributing the POD books into book stores.

One major player that still prefers the Mainstream to the Self-Published is the Bookseller. This person also needs to survive and one traditional distribution method involves a ‘sale or return’ policy. Ingram Sparks has tried to plug the ‘delivery and returns’ gap. If you publish with them they operate a distribution and collection policy which can help persuade the Bookseller to stock the book, although a professional cover is also important. Ingram Spark’s ‘sale or return’ works better logistically for US based Self-Publishers, and I’ll explain why. You can opt to have the book physically returned, paying for the price of the book and $2 delivery costs. Or you can have the book returned by the Bookseller, then destroyed, by Ingram Sparks and only pay for the cost of the book printing. In theory the same arrangement exists for non US addresses. But with each book costing $20 return delivery on top of paying the book price, there is really only the option of asking Ingram Sparks to destroy it on return.

Do not despair- should you choose to go it alone build a social media platform, market your book online, show proof of sales, line your pockets and then go for the POD with all its distribution wizardry. And who knows, a Mainstream Publisher may just come a knocking.

When you compete with the professionals make sure your copy is professional too. Don’t invest in a decent cover and opt for a sale or return plan only to get rejected by Booksellers because of grammatical and structural errors. Pay for a copyedit. Or if you can’t afford it, learn how to do it yourself: brush up on grammar rules, understand copyediting conventions and don’t cobble together various parts written at various times in various moods and voices. Not if you want only one voice and for that to come across well to the reader.

By the way,  can you see the ant in the title image?

Copyright 2014 Tracy Thomson

[1] Inside Book Publishing. Fourth edition, Routledge (2008)

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Get On Board the Self Publishing Train.

A station master stands, whistle in hand, ‘This train for e-books and print. Stopping at Amazon, Penguin Random House, Bowker and Ingram. Please check announcements for all other destinations as platforms may change from those advertised.’

First, it was a world where many books on a publishers back list fell out of print because too few could be sold to warrant a costly reprint. Mid-listers used to be carried by the 10% or so of Publishing House successes. Literary Agents almost never had conflicts of interest, because they never involved themselves in the actual publishing. Then things changed.

Lines were drawn in the sand. Short-Run Digital Printing, e‑books, dedicated readers and multi-tasking tablets on the one side. Offset, and later, Print on Demand (POD) on the other. That was back when e‑book sales were still an unknown quantity, when Mid-listers, their Agents and Publishers all remained loyal, when traditional and digital did not talk to each other.

It is no longer believed that the print and digital worlds run on different gauge railway tracks for printing, distribution and marketing and that ne’er the two shall meet. The market has evolved to a more mature one where it is possible to share, now that, best sellers apart, there is more predictability. So who do you opt for?

Certainly, some hybrids are on board the publishing train, they bring with them existing databases and/or distribution channels that seem to offer a better chance to Self-Published writers to grab market share.

Amazon, for one, has a comprehensive business strategy that must be acknowledged. It is the clear digital leader, 67% of e-book buyers go there first according to Book Industry Study Group, (BISG), and it uses its database of purchasers to great effect. Its knowledge is added to by BookScan sending its print data. This is, of course, a non-reciprocal arrangement, but something Amazon authors can access through Author Central. In addition, Amazon even reaches out to agents with its White Glove Program, (WGP). And, as we all know, the Self-Publishing market is definitely expanding – a 59% increase in US sales says Bowker. Newbies can employ Solutions Providers or go it alone as can Mid‑listers, if not lured by their agents to the WGP. More of this, later.

In the ISBN world, Bowker seems ahead of Nielsen in its dash for market share. It has its own self-publishing platform, incorporating, interalia, Vook to publish, an android app offering 50% royalties, and a widget with ‘look inside’ capabilities to rival Amazon.

Penguin Random House also has a self-publishing vehicle: BookCountry. The self-starter pack is free, except the author hands over 15% of online sales; the same percentage applies for $59, $159, and $249 packages, respectively. Interestingly, the service costing $399 does not claw back any percentage from online sales.

Lightning Source, POD, exploits the Ingram Distribution Channel with over 30,000 wholesalers, retailers and booksellers in over 100 countries. It also offers other distribution channels and, like competing platforms, provides clients with a comprehensive portfolio of booksellers.

But Amazon’s WGP seems the only one where authors must be agent assisted. As both co-founder of a writers’ club in Sotogrande and a new novelist looking for an agent, I wanted to know more about WGP. I spoke with Nathan Rosenbaum of WGP in Seattle, ‘This program was designed exclusively for agents… to streamline the publishing process as well as provide access to various merchandising opportunities for specific titles. It allows authors to leverage the rights they control, either on backlist titles where rights have reverted to the author or frontlist titles where rights have not transferred to publishers. The agent chooses the authors and titles to be included.’

Clever. Agents, stuck with dusty Manuscripts can negotiate their own royalties with their clients who are happy and get marketed. Amazon avoids the slush pile and gets guaranteed quality both in editing of form and substance. The WGP can be used for KDP – and/or their POD, CreateSpace.

Rosenbaum continued, ‘The promotions may include targeted e-mails, various campaigns (storefront, category and detail pages) and nomination for daily deals.’

These are shared with other promotions and when asked what the ratio was, Rosenbaum, slickly, replied, ‘I do not have those figures, but clients are typically satisfied.’

Rosenbaum explained that the extent of their marketing investment would be dependent on historical sales, suggesting unpublished authors would have less marketing, but agents could enrol them. Royalties were 35% or 70%, both with one year exclusivity, and for 70% the e‑book would be priced by Amazon for between $2.99 – $9.99 and 20% below print price. It also injects quality control. If you  are with an agent and have not yet had a Publisher take up your book, consider this option.

Not so long ago, Amazon, WH Smith, Barnes & Noble and Nook were red-faced over the sale of digital and print books that contravened their terms and conditions by glorifying rape and extreme violence. Apparently, they slipped through the post publication net. Digital printing allows instantaneous edits after the product is put on sale and after the on-line printers can be reasonably expected to police the quality and content. Another problem is vanity publishing sharks have reinvented themselves as Solutions Providers or POD Independents, making it hard to tell the goodies from the baddies. Readers and authors need protecting, but how?

Literary Agents and Publishing Houses could never provide editing services for Self-Publishers without seeming to promote the books, which is a shame as such edits would provide readers with the confidence to purchase. Readers are drawn to well edited, self-published books, but it takes time to find them. Typos, grammar mistakes and conflicting points of view sometimes make finishing a book impossible. If you Self-Publish, pay for a professional edit and tell your reader who edited it; force the paid editors to shoulder some of the responsibility.

Professional editing can make the difference in the Self‑Publishing world and once the sales show there is money to be made from what you have written, a well edited book can also attract a big Publishing House with deep pockets for marketing that could cover far more than a Self-Publishing/Indie Publishing blog page.

Copyright Tracy Thomson

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‘Fetch, Boy’ How not to lose your VOICE when editing.

Dexter Petley
Take your time

The second blog of the month is by Dexter Petley, a successful author who also works as an editor and adviser for new writers.

Amongst his acclaimed works are a literary noir whodunnit, Little Nineveh (Polygon 1995), Joyride (Fourth Estate, 1999), and White Lies (Fourth Estate 2003). He’s a regular on the cult website www.caughtbytheriver.com

TIME AND MOTION

Time is the novel’s greatest enemy.  The time it takes, the time it occupies and even the time it represents.  We often read that so and so is a “full-time” writer.  And then we read their novels and wonder why, therefore, they didn’t take that luxury of available time to get it right instead of rushing it out.  I don’t know if it’s rat-race ethics or just the cruise control on the Microsoft treadmill, but when I urge clients to take their time on the re-write they seem to hear a starting pistol.  Three weeks later, whizz-bang-pop, they send me a wonky new version that’s still smoking.

There are very understandable reasons for attempting to write faster than your own shadow.  Encouragement is a wonderful thing.  It’s a life-saver to the struggling writer.  When it appears, we tend to think of it as fickle, ephemeral, a light which will fade.  Struggling writers are not used to attention.  So when we get it, we act like dogs chasing a stick.

In my own apprentice days I too was eager and trigger happy.  I can categorically say it got me nowhere.  It merely rejected the encouragement given by ignoring the details, the small print, the wisdom.  I had all the time in the world too; in the 1980s you wrote novels on the dole, hammering holes in scrap-paper on great iron framed machines. 

Time has not changed; the time a novel needs to be written doesn’t change.  Whatever you hear, the ability to rattle off twenty-thousand words a day is no more useful than being a pie eating champion.   What may have changed is that today we can write at miraculous, reckless speeds.   But it’s like writing on a simulator.  Cut and paste is an illusion.  When I say re-write, I mean word by word, sentence by sentence.

Why, when much of the novel might remain unaltered?

Well, the same reason a singer performs the whole song night after night.  Voice, and because there is no short cut to the whole story.

In the typewriter age we had no choice.  It was an honest job, typing; we sculpted those damned novels with bleeding fingers.  But the beauty of it was the focus and concentration to be had; the intimacy we had with our text.  The tactile engagement we had with our craft.  We felt like writers, not IT users.  That craft, the progress of it, was visible and satisfying.  I fear that’s missing these days.  You’re supposed to be writing, but between sentences there’s shopping on Ebay, someone’s cursed Youtube link, an email to read…  In other words, it’s not just distraction, it’s squandering the writing time.  It shows up in the finished work.  Making up time with cut and paste or a few days spilling the midnight oil is no substitute for the slow fuse, the whole song. 

Re-writing a novel from scratch is to reclaim it.  Just fixing the leaks doesn’t prevent it caving in later.  In typewriter mode (unplug the bloody modem at least) you recover the voice, and control the dogs pulling at your leash.  Suddenly a year is well spent.  And it should be a year at least.  Good fiction needs time in the bottle before drinking.  That time includes, just as essentially, time off; time for gaining distance and a cold heart, or just forgetting.  It takes me between 5-10 years to write a novel.  In that time there might be 14 drafts of the word for word kind.  Each novel leapfrogs over the other, so one novel finally come out every four years. 

The simplest advice is often the best: don’t ignore professional advice for a start.  Take your time.  If you haven’t time, all the more reason.  I know many writers have full-time jobs or demanding commitments which make writing time a rare luxury.  The temptation to be over-productive is an attractive one.  It so easily becomes a race with time.  When a novel is finished, no one will praise it because you bashed out the first draft in 3 months and the re-write in a week.  Remember, a novel is a two headed monster.  The first breathes white heat, sleepless nights, death-pacts with the muse.  The second is a cold blooded surgeon, a waiting game, the playing hard to get.  Successful writers have two heads; they’re the difference between interesting and great.

Dexter Petley

Reblogged from http://www.writersworkshop.co.uk/blog/time-motion-by-dexter-petley/
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“She’s not a stranger; I’ve read her book.”

She's not a stranger; I've read her book
She’s not a stranger; I’ve read her book

Our guest blog this month comes from Caro Clarke, author of ‘Furry Dice Chewing Gum’. She reflects upon the writer’s voice and what makes us who we are. As they say in Thailand, ‘Same, same but different…’

Writing: It’s Personal

‘When I was a girl, back in the time of cave painting and discovering fire, I learned penmanship, and the teacher expected all of us to write our letters exactly the same. And yet, graphologists say that our handwriting reveals who we are, the aspects about ourselves that we know and don’t want to tell, or aspects we might not even know. We cannot help revealing ourselves in what we shape with our hands and minds, and why shouldn’t we? Isn’t penmanship the way we communicate ourselves to the world?

 

As with handwriting, so with fiction writing. When we tell stories, we are not just telling a story, we are telling our readers about ourselves. One of the reviewers of my first novel let me stay in her house while she was away. She had never met me (we arranged it via email) and, when her friends said, scandalised, “You’re letting a stranger stay at your house?!?” she replied “She’s not a stranger; I’ve read her book.”

 

When we find out that the author of a particularly beloved novel was not, in fact, a lovely person, I think we sometimes question our faith, but often we decide that the author’s “better angel” did exist, but only existed when he or she was writing. I have known writers of very moving or funny books who were dull or morose in real life — until they did something (shelter a moth from harm’s way, suddenly cap a joke) that revealed the secret angel of their nature, that wellspring from which their books flowed.

 

We write who we are. What we choose to write is shaped by more than the specific inspiration (that headline, that family myth, that half-memory), but by the complete connection of ourselves to our world. This is something that we can’t help doing and what we must do. We must be ourselves, must be true to ourselves. The world doesn’t want another Atwood or Patterson or Lethem, it wants something new — and we are that something new.

 

What we bring to a story no one else will bring. We are each of us unique, and unique always sells. As a former fiction editor, and as someone who has worked with literary agents, I constantly said, and heard said, “What’s different about this? What’s its USP (unique selling point)?” It was never just the amazing plot-twist or the unusual setting or the brilliant evocation of time, but what I can only call “personality”. The book “had” something. It wasn’t a pile of paper, it was a creation.

 

I am not convinced by software programmes that will “teach you to write.” They might teach you to structure and improve sentences, but they can’t bring creation to a story. They can’t make the best-structured narrative come alive. Only your mind can do that. Only your heart can do that. How you write might be unusual. I know an author who writes on sticky notes in very tiny letters. He finds it easier to do micro-writing and then use a wall to assemble his book. I know another author who plots for two years, and then writes one single finished draft in three months. A friend of mine will only write in certain kinds of notebooks (unfortunately, these come from France, so how lucky that his books sell well).

 

I would worry if there was only one way to write. That isn’t how anything works, except perhaps for robots putting silicon chips into a hard drive. There might be a “best way” to brush your teeth or to apply bathroom tiles, but not when it comes to tapping into the mysteries of creation. I have mentioned wellsprings. I believe that we each have our own depth of wisdom, joy, anger, bitterness and fear that we draw on, only half-consciously, when in the grip of our story. How can that ever come forth in the same way from every heart and mind?

 

How we write is an expression of what our books will be. I myself write my first two or three drafts in pen in notebooks. I then type in, amending as I go, and then grind through a number of drafts either on-screen, or in print-out, hand-writing changes and typing them in after every go-through. I have done as few as four drafts, and as many as fourteen. Whatever it takes to make it right. And I think my stories reflect this. They are considered. They are (I hope) thought through. They are certainly felt through. They might not be great stories, but I have had readers’ comments back, and it seems that I connect in a particular way with particular people. That’s all I ask.

 

Would my way of writing work for anyone else? Yes, I’ve met many writers who find that the book becomes itself, creates itself, only in the last few of its many rewrites, but this is because that’s who we are. Our books are good on the little details, the small touches, because we work at that level. Others don’t sweat that small stuff; they do the sweeping narratives, the sagas, the larger-than-life characters, because that’s who they are. Even if they seem small on the outside.

 

Nobody is small who wants to write. Nobody can be small when they want to reach out to the world with a story in their hands, that thing that might become eternal, as Homer’s stories, as Shakespeare’s as Twain’s, have become immortal. How can it be taught, this impulse, this need to create? Like water from a high source, it will come down the mountain and cross the valley by the path it wants to take, must take, to reach its sea.

 

Who are you? What makes you write what you write? What makes you write how you write? Whatever it is, if you are producing living creations, then it is right for you.

 

And who cares about your penmanship.

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