For Fellow Aspiring Writers: Advice from the Writers’ & Artists’ Conference

On Saturday I went along to the Writers’ & Artists’ ‘How to Get Published’ conference in Euston. Given my aversion to early rising it was quite a commitment for me to show up at 9.45am on a weekend, but by the end of the day I was so glad I had. I live-tweeted throughout the event but it has since dawned on me that advice drip-fed through Twitter isn’t that easy to come back to afterwards. So for all my fellow aspiring writers I thought I would encapsulate the key learnings in this blog post for reference purposes.

Tom Tivnan from the Bookseller, on self-publishing:

  • 86% of those who have self-published would do so again
  • The print self-publishing market is comprised almost entirely of non-fiction
  • Most self-published e-books retail at around £1
  • 69% of e-books are bought by women and only 11% by men
  • 58% are published by women
  • Crime makes up 50% of the e-book market
  • Amazon controls 75% of the e-book market in the UK
  • The royalty rate of self-published books decreases considerably when the retail price is below £2.49
  • When self-publishing, tweak the price of your book often
  • Remember that people buy e-books for price not content
  • Design matters – it’s all about your brand
  • It’s difficult to get into the print market through self-publishing (Amazon has 20% share)

Stefan Tobler, CEO of And Other Stories, an “unashamedly literary” publishing house:

  • “Think of the publisher as the donkey who will get your riches to the reader”
  • The literary fiction market is in decline

John Mitchinson, founder of Unbound, a ‘new way of bringing authors and readers together’: 

  • The concept of Unbound is “about sharing an idea, sharing the potential of the story and, if there is enough critical mass, it will take off”
  • “Publishing is like agriculture. Retailers want the crops with the highest yield and won’t look at anything else”
  • Authors have a 1 in 5,000 chance of getting in with a big publishing house – but there are other ways to get published
  • It’s been in the news recently that the average author’s salary is as little as £11k per year but, f you take the top 10% of authors out of that, the average author makes less than £3k per year.
  • “We’re fighting to keep people reading”
  • Unbound chooses the projects with the best chance of funding
  • People can then make pledges against a particular project. The average pledge value is £35
  • 92 projects have been launched to date. Of those, only 16 failed to achieve funding
  • Unbound has 48k registered users

Polly Courtney, Author, on self-publishing to a traditional deal – and back again:

  • “Everyone’s got a book inside them, but not everyone should publish it”
  • “Whatever way you’re publishing, be sure to build up your own direct fan base.” e.g. by capturing email addresses through cards slipped into the back of your book at a launch event
  • Re-write extensively
  • Never scrimp on cover design
  • Self-publishing CAN work – but it’s all about collaboration
  • For a lot of people the first book is semi-autobiographical. Once you’ve got that off your chest you’re free to write about something else e.g. a theme you particularly care about
  • “If you do get into a conversation with an agent or publisher, ask what their long-term vision is for you and your book. Make sure you understand one another – it’s not arrogant, it’s sensible. Take control of your destiny”

Alysoun Owen, Editor of the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook, on traditional publishing:

  • “Finding an agent or publisher is like buying a car – you wouldn’t buy one without finding out about it first”
  • “Be yourself and write the book you want to write”
  • Good things CAN happen to first time writers
  • Identify the market and identify your niche
  • If you can’t encapsulate your story in a 200 word pitch, why should anyone else look at it
  • Self-publishing has gone up by 25% but the lion’s share of the (admittedly plateaued) market are traditionally published books
  • Rejection is not an uncommon thing – all the best authors have been rejected (William Golding 21 times!)
  • Things to do to improve your chances:- Read, Read, Read
    – Research / know your competition
    – Join a writer’s group / attend events
    – Practice e.g. by entering competitions
    – Promote yourself e.g. on Twitter, a blog etc.
    – Be patient
    – Be ambitious

Charlie Campbell, Agent:

  • Agents can tell if they’re the first or two hundredth you’ve submitted to, so research carefully before submitting
  • The bar has been raised, so these days agents need to put more editorial work in
  • Having to do too much editorial work limits how much work you can take on
  • When working in a big publishing house out of thousands of submissions each year, only one or two would be taken on
  • “Sending a partial manuscript is almost never the right thing to do”
  • Writers get rejected by agents, agents by publishers, publishers by supermarkets. If Amazon rejects a book, the reader rejects it
  • Successful stories are imitated until they dwindle into nothing. Do what you want but don’t be too out there. It’s the role of the publisher/agent to talk to you about how you can progress

Jo Unwin, Agent:

  • Take care to read submission guidelines and be targeted
  • “You can only be a debut novelist once in your life, so your manuscript needs to be as good as it can be”
  • “I would strongly recommend getting the whole book as perfect as you can before submitting your opening chapters. It’s a different trajectory if you submit a partial manuscript and don’t complete it for another 18 months. The market will be different and the mood of the agent will be different”
  • Whether an agent likes your book or not is a chemical thing. Writing is a craft you have to work on
  • What an agent does in building a writer’s career outside of the UK market is not to be underestimated
  • “In a synopsis I’m looking for storytelling ability, so tell me everything – including the ending”
  • Don’t use the agent as a sounding board – think of them as sales people

Cressida Downing, Editor:

  • Just because you can hit submit doesn’t mean you should, and just because you should doesn’t mean you should now
  • Whether sending to agents or self-publishing make your work the best it can be. People should find your writing frustrating
  • You can’t be a good writer if you’re not a good reader
  • “I read non-stop, all day, every day – and so should you”
  • Self-publishing is ideally suited to people with an entrepreneurial spirit
  • Novels go through 17 edits, on average, before they are successful in being published
  • Good presentation is crucial – get advice but don’t get someone else to re-write it or it will be their work and not yours
  • If you’re interested in money don’t be an author or work in publishing!
  • If you’re self-publishing and can only afford to invest in one thing, make it the cover design
  • When choosing an editor consider their track record, whether you would prefer to be edited by a well-known author or not, whether their style will fit your work, whether they offer a clear explanation of the service they provide, their costs and timings
  • Tips for going it alone: Never publish your first draft, always get someone to have a look, read it out loud and find a peer group
  • Self-publishing is about far more than writing a book and hitting ‘publish’
  • As long as you know what you’re asking and they tell you exactly what they’re providing, paying an editor can be useful
  • If everything in your story is doing it’s job, great. If not, cut it
  • There are four types of edit:

1. Read and Review

“If you pay one industry expert once in your life make it for this.”

Not a line by line edit, help with grammar/spelling or re-write (though they will say if it needs work in those areas).

Does give advice on how to avoid common pitfalls, how well your book is working and what to do to improve it.

2. Deep Structural

Most similar to advice from an agent or editor in a publishing house.

Doesn’t give line by line re-write and won’t correct spelling/grammar.

Does break down and re-build novel – sometimes to extent of changing genre or structure.

3. Copy

Line by line edit looking for continuity and what works to best show off your prose.

Doesn’t look at structural/major changes.

4. Proof

Picks up errors, typos etc. in spelling/grammar.

Doesn’t give advice on writing.

Preena Gadher, Publicist:

  • A publicist’s job is to make your book stand out from the crowd
  • Once you’re published by a house they’re invested in you and can afford a dedicated PR person. That’s the big difference between traditional publishing and self-publishing
  • Promote yourself with a website, on Twitter etc. Always keep sites up to date
  • Read the paper and magazines you want to appear in
  • Work out who your audience is, and what you have to say that would be interesting/relevant to them
  • The relationship with the publicist works both ways
  • It helps to be shortlisted for / win prizes

Laurie Penny, Blogger:

  • Being time-rich and cash-poor is how a lot of creativity comes about
  • Keeping a blog is good training for editing your work

Hope you will find this as useful as I did.

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Woe is Me / Fat Arses and Cake

I’ll admit it: I’m fed up. It’s been three weeks exactly since my last run – you know, the one that put me firmly out of action for the Rome Marathon 12 days later, and also catalysed the depressing spiral of back-related issues which, over the course of the past 21 days, have included – but not been limited to – the following: General/dull lower back pain/stiffness; acute lower back pain; acute pain in right buttock (particularly uncomfortable when sitting down); shooting pain in right shin (particularly uncomfortable when walking); numbness in lower right leg (problematic when attempting to walk due to tripping over of self); tingling in toes of right foot, inability to walk without being in excruciating pain (especially when involving stairs).

For the past five months I’ve been an exercising powerhouse. Now, all of a sudden, it’s a struggle just to walk around the block (and when I say walk I mean hobble at a woeful pace – put it this way, in a sports day full of geriatrics right now I’m pretty sure I’d come last). The worst thing is not knowing what the problem is – well, I have a fairly good idea it’s something disc-related, but have to wait another fortnight for an NHS physio appointment to establish the root cause of the injury, and thus begin the arduous process of trying to fix it. In the meantime I’m floating on a sea of unease, unsure whether to rest, to exercise, to use heat, to use ice, to take this painkiller or that one – or just to drink copious amounts of wine (always the preferable option). And, as is always the case in these situations, everyone’s an expert, so I’ve been inundated with (mostly very helpful) suggestions about what I should and shouldn’t be doing – my concern being that surely every back injury is different, to some extent, so what works for one person might not work for another (in trying someone’s suggested exercises, therefore, might I not be doing myself more harm than good?).

Since my lowest ebb last Friday I have at least managed to keep away from the Tramadol – a last resort in pain relief (though really floaty light) – although the diazepam’s been making reappearances from time to time when the pain wakes me in the night (as it did last night). In my more positive moments I think it’s getting better and chide myself for being a big baby, but in the lower ones when I’m writhing on the floor with pain or unable to climb the stairs without feeling I might pass out I just want to give in and cry. I’ve been signed off work but my conscience won’t allow me not to work from home, so to add to the frustration there have been repeated attempts to access emails remotely and locate files from the server that I’m sure I’ve sent myself in the event of this eventuality but which seem to have deleted themselves spontaneously upon sending.

Put simply, having a bad back sucks. This experience has been exhausting and depressing in the extreme, and has made me feel enormously sympathetic towards all who suffer chronic back pain every day of their lives. I can at least be fairly confident that with time and patience (the latter sadly not being one of my strong points) I will heal, and that one day (soon? Please God, let it be soon) I’ll be back in the gym and training for my next big challenge, whatever that may be – but not everyone has that luxury. So I will close on a positive note: Normal service will resume shortly. In the meantime I’ll be sitting on my increasingly fat arse eating cake.

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What I may look like soon if I can’t start exercising…

Eight Secrets to Beating the Winter Blues

1. Have friends in far flung places – It might seem counter-intuitive, but sometimes speaking to friends who live in warmer climes conjures up feelings akin to actually being there (plus it’s good to keep in touch should you find yourself with spare holiday to use up before the end of the financial year..)

2. Make homemade soup – It may not have a reputation as being the most exciting type of food, but homemade soup that is bursting to the brim with healthy vegetables is the best body, mind and soul food there is, except, that is, for…..

3. Eat chocolate (in all its glorious forms, but especially Dairy Milk Dime Bar Crunch and dark chocolate Liebniz biscuits) like it’s going out of fashion – Scientists the world over agree that chocolate makes us happy. Not only that, dark chocolate is even good for us. I rest my case, your honour.

4. Exercise regularly – yes it’s a royal pain in the backside having to go for a run when you’d rather be in the pub tucking into a roast and some mulled wine, but you know you’ll feel better once those endorphins have kicked in (not to mention less guilty when you do eventually get to the pub…)

5. Wear slipper socks  – There’s nothing nicer than getting in from a long day at the office, kicking off your shoes and transferring your tootsies into a nice toasty pair of slipper socks before you settle onto the sofa for the evening (hot water bottle and hot chocolate optional extras).

6. Have a massage – In the winter time our skin takes a bashing from the cold wind and plummeting temperatures, so why not stimulate it with some warming hands and essential oils? With all the cheap deals floating around on sites like Groupon these days, it’s a justifiable indulgence…

7. Buy some Radox ‘Uplifting’ pink grapefruit and basil shower gel – Once you’ve tried it your morning showers will never be the same again. Trust me.

8. Plan a January get away – The best way to cope with January is, well, to not be here for most of it. So why not book a break somewhere hot to ride out the most miserable month of the year? It’s not like anyone’s doing any work in the office anyway…

Just B

As today is my 32nd (gulp) birthday, I thought I’d entertain the idea that time travel was possible, and write a letter to the ‘Me’ of ten years ago:

Dear 22 year old Belle,

This is your older (and far wiser) self, writing to tell you a few things that might help you in the years to come.

Right now you are happy and believe you have found love, but things will take a turn for the worse four years from now. It will be the toughest time you will have faced up to that point, but it will be the making of you in ways you couldn’t previously conceive. You will find a strength you never knew you possessed, and you will discover what it is to be truly happy in your own skin, without the claustrophobic need for companionship you currently experience. One day, after your fragile heart has healed, you will meet someone with whom you can be entirely yourself, someone who treats you with a level of respect you never thought possible, who will show you what it feels like to be truly and unconditionally loved. Wait for that day in good faith, and trust that you need to experience the hard times to truly appreciate the amazing ones that will follow.

But enough on that, now a few words on your career: As your future self I feel duty-bound to tell you it seems possible you may never know what you want to be when you ‘grow up.’ You’ll drift from job to job and never quite feel you belong. The only constant in your life will be writing, and this is something you must do at every opportunity. Don’t doubt yourself or your ability, simply write and see where it leads you. Never give up, for it is only in persistence that success can be found.

Some general life advice: Don’t have regrets or harbour grudges; all they’ll do is eat you up inside. Instead please trust that things will happen as they should. ‘What’s for you won’t go by you’ is a phrase that you should heed. Love your family and your friends with all your heart. Be honest, open and sincere. Don’t let the bad times cancel out the good. Be adventurous, bold and brave. Love life and live it to the full, for every soul who didn’t have the chance to.

Don’t sweat the small stuff. Help people. Read widely. Travel the world. Make a difference. Believe in yourself. Live. Love. Pray. Be.

Yours,

32 year old Belle.

Letter to A.Chugger

Dear A.Chugger,

Though it breaks my heart to trample your enthusiasm (for which, I must admit, I do admire you) beneath the giant foot of my disinterest, I do believe it’s in your best interest in the long term. I’m guessing by your bright eyes and earnest expression this is new to you and you’ve yet to experience the crushing blow of multiple defeats. But soon I fear this house of cards you’ve built will come crashing down around you and the grim reality will wash over you like a tidal wave, drowning your hopes and aspirations in the torrent.

Let me paint you a picture of your typical client. A frazzled office worker, this person spends their days juggling so many metaphorical balls and treading so many deadline tightropes that they may as well be in the circus. On those rare and precious occasions that they are unshackled from their desks they like to float aloft their glorious daydreams of escape to tropical climes. When faced with the dreadlocked exuberance of youth in human form holding a clipboard, therefore, they are understandably reticent to engage in banter, no matter how jolly that banter might be.

The thing is this: We understand you’re raising money for the kids/dolphins/blind one eyed tree frogs, and it’s not that we’re cold-hearted bastards who don’t care a jot for the future of this planet we live on. It’s just that our time is short, and those of us who are of a philanthropic persuasion will mostly already be signed up to a two pound a month direct debit scheme to help our chosen cause. We are not, therefore, about to waste your time and effort by listening to you touting your cause.

I don’t mean to be cruel, you really do seem nice, but why not take that sunny disposition somewhere where it’s appreciated, before it gets ground out of you by the army of grim-faced commuters who pass by you, unseeingly, each day? Put your clipboard down, son, and get a job on the frontline of Greenpeace, if you must, or maybe in a bar in Ibiza or a theatre school in west London? The world is your Oyster, so step aside and let us Oyster card holders be.

Yours,

A.Commuter

Want to be a columnist? Then read this.

It’s difficult to sit in a room with Guardian columnist and features writer Hadley Freeman, author of the soon to be published ‘Be Awesome,’ without feeling somewhat inferior. Hadley is, after all, what so many women – and men – of her generation aspire to be; a celebrated writer. But one thing Hadley is not is intimidating; in fact she’s both naturally funny and utterly charming, which makes it impossible to dislike her. Is there anything this American in London can’t do?

The event Hadley is speaking at is the Guardian Masterclass on column writing. She begins by telling the audience how she got into writing for a newspaper. Her “pushy Jewish mother” entered her in a competition whilst she was at university which, unbeknownst to her, she went on to win. Her mother duly collected her award and she was none the wiser, until an editor spotted her writing and approached her – and the rest, as they say, is history.

What would Hadley’s top tips be to succeed in column writing? Firstly, she says, write as widely as possible. Be funny if you can, and write for yourself rather than your audience. Don’t feel locked in by your voice; change it as appropriate, for example when writing about something outside of your comfort zone. Don’t feel pressure to always write news-reactive copy. Be careful how much of yourself you reveal to the reader. And, above all else, only write what you feel strongly about – if you don’t care then why should the reader?

After imparting her words of wisdom Hadley dashes off home (to write a feature, she tells us, somewhat appropriately). Replacing her at the front of the room is Michael Hodges, who writes for Time Out magazine. His advice to aspiring columnists is to be forceful and willing not only to be knocked back but also to write about things you don’t necessarily want to write about. He stresses the importance of being concise (“cut, cut, cut,” he says, “like sharpening a sword. It’s always better afterwards.”)

Michael’s style of journalism differs from Hadley’s, he says, because he waits for things to happen rather than seeking them out. He believes that “the weird is in the every day,” and that “there’s nothing more rewarding than observing your fellow human beings.” Ultimately, he says, it comes down to discipline. If you practice anything let it be producing clean copy that is well paced and holds the reader’s attention.

After the break Guardian columnist Marina Hyde takes to the stage. Marina has such presence that she wins over the audience immediately. Her chatty style, relaxed demeanour and her ability to laugh at herself make her approachable and real. She begins by warning the audience against using the word “I” – “know the rules before you break them,” she says, giving the example of Caitlin Moran as someone who has earned the right to use the word.

Comments, Marina says, should be largely ignored. And she agrees with Michael that being concise is vital: “If you can’t say what you want to say in 750 words you’re going wrong.” The best things she has written were completed in under an hour; the worst took three or more. “Sometimes I put the brakes on the word count and accept it’s a piece that has to go stillborn into the world,” she says, to laughs from the crowd.

Always be honest when you make a mistake, says Marina. And don’t assume that even if you put links in your stories people will know what you are referring to, because, she says, “It’s courtesy to explain.” Keep anger out of your writing because “it makes people switch off.” Be careful of your tone, and always try to get a joke in early to win over your audience. It’s also important to be able to write about a broad range of subjects, she says – and if anyone’s got that down to a fine art it’s Marina herself, writing three columns each week on completely different themes.

Marina closes with one final piece of advice: “Be someone people want to have a pint with.” Looking around the room it’s clear she’s easily achieved that goal.