writing

Mentoring for the less confident

Everyone has something to teach. Yes, that includes you. It might not be unique to you, it might not be earth-shattering, you might have read it somewhere else in the first place, but you can pass it on and someone else will find it useful (not necessarily the person you’re passing it onto right now, but that’s another story).

Last week a newsletter from writer, editor, mentor, writing coach Rachel Thompson exhorted us all to become mentors, particularly if we’re looking for mentoring ourselves. The point she was making was that even if you’re not doing brilliantly, there will be writers who haven’t reached your level yet who might benefit from a helping hand (or a critical but encouraging word). Even if you’re an absolute beginner, passing useful tips around writers at a similar level is a good thing.

Are you teaching other writers? Rachel Thompson asked. Well, yes I am (and sometimes I chuck out some writing advice in this blog) but I still get the ‘who am I to talk?’ doubts. It’s good to remember that teaching or mentoring doesn’t mean you have to be a superstar in your field, or have all the answers. As long as you’re at least one step ahead of the person (or group) you’re trying to help, they’re going to gain something from you. And you don’t have to be at the same level in every aspect, as this audio diary from Tania Hershman illustrates.

Tania Hershman writes short stories and, more recently, poetry. In the audio diary (a week in the life of a writer who’s not writing much at the moment because her new book’s just come out) she mentions being a mentor for a couple of short story writers, and knowing what she’s looking for, what to suggest, in a way that she wouldn’t have been able to ten years ago. She then says that to do the same for poetry might take her another ten years, because she doesn’t have much experience in it yet. I can immediately see the sense in that, but it was refreshing to hear. Being a novice at novels doesn’t mean I don’t have plenty to offer in flash fiction, for instance.

As if to illustrate this point, up popped an interview at Zero Flash with Chris Drew, a flash fiction writer who’s a well-known name among flash aficionados on Twitter, and hopefully beyond. With the usual drawerful of abandoned novels, he changed writing tack and took off. He’s only been submitting flash fiction for about eighteen months, but he’s already successful and has advice to share with new writers.

So come on, writers (artists, musicians, family historians…) think of something you can do to help the people following you. It might give you some insight into your own work at the same time.

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How to write a query letter for a literary agent

Since I had the benefit of Penguin’s WriteNow insight day in Newcastle last week, including dissecting query/cover letters with literary agents, I thought I’d share what I learnt. I’m not claiming this is a definitive summary but I hope it’s useful.

The biggest lesson to take away was: agents are people too. You might think that’s obvious, but it’s easy to elevate them into some godlike figure in your mind, as you sit there redrafting the synopsis for the eightieth time. They’re gatekeepers, yes, but they’re also dedicated, enthusiastic readers who (bear this in mind as you press send and immediately start getting impatient for a response) read manuscripts in their spare time, at evenings and weekends when they might prefer to be with their family. They have their off-days, they’re subjective, and they respond well to politeness. Don’t be rude, don’t waste their time, and remember that a rejection only means they couldn’t see themselves championing your book in the face of indifference, it doesn’t mean it’s hopeless.

Before you even get as far as writing that letter, you need to have finished your manuscript. If they love those first three chapters and ask for the rest they don’t want to be told they can have it just as soon as you’ve finished. It could take you a year (you might even run out of steam and never get there) and the space in their list has been filled in the meantime, or their needs have moved on.

Take the time and trouble to check the agent’s name, don’t address your letter to the long-deceased person the agency was named after in the fifties. Be polite but (British authors take note) not too humble or self-deprecating; under-selling yourself is as big a turn-off as over-selling and arrogance. Don’t try to be funny, quirky or cute – think of it like a job application.

Write a mini-synopsis like a back-cover blurb in your letter, to hook them into wanting to read your sample chapters. Remember you’re pitching one particular book at them, don’t cloud the issue by listing future/half-baked projects.

Tell them a tiny bit about yourself, particularly anything relevant such as a job that feeds into your novel, or that you’ve had stories published in anthologies or magazines. You can give them your social media and website details, but don’t expect them to go look there (it’s not a substitute for telling them the necessary stuff in the letter) and think about whether you want to point them at a Twitter account full of ranting. If you’ve self-published a book say so, but don’t try and twist it to make it sound like someone else published you.

It’s fine to say you’re approaching a particular agent because of who else they represent, particularly if you can say your novel fits well alongside them. However, be sincere – when you say you love the work of Client X, remember the agent loves the work of Client X so much they took them on and touted their book around editors, so will understandably be cheesed off if they find out you were lying.

Do not stalk the agent on social media.

If you haven’t heard anything after 8 weeks or so, a polite email is acceptable. Agents spend their working lives chasing editors so they understand that authors need to chase them sometimes. Do not phone them, or turn up at their office building.

They expect you to have sent your submission out to a handful of agents at once, but make sure you keep them updated (again, a polite email) if another agent requests the full manuscript or offers representation.

The Penguin WriteNow webpages have got some useful information, including the cover letter that a (now) bestselling author used when she landed herself an agent. An author I spoke to on the day recommended Miss Snark’s blog, discontinued in 2007 but still accessible as a searchable archive, it’s kind of an agony aunt format where the anonymous literary agent Miss Snark answers questions about manuscripts and submissions. This week on Twitter, a couple of useful links have been doing the rounds too: Jessie Burton, author of The Miniaturist, shares her successful cover letter here and her agent Juliet Mushens writes about how to approach an agent here, and why you don’t get an instant response here. There’s another cover letter, from Louise Jensen, here.

Good luck, and thanks to the agents at WriteNow for sharing their time and expertise.

Penguin WriteNow Newcastle – a summary

Yesterday was long and tiring and still slightly unbelievable – I went to Newcastle, got feedback on the semi-rural fantasy from a Penguin Random House editor, then they sent me away with free books.

The books I got from Penguin WriteNow Newcastle

The Pelican book is actually a notebook.

I chatted to Abir Mukherjee and I’m looking forward to reading his historical crime novel, set in India in 1920. I never quite plucked up the courage to speak to Kirsty Logan (whose novel The Gracekeepers I reviewed for Luna Station Quarterly a while ago).

There were talks from literary agents, authors, Claire Malcolm from New Writing North, and Katie Hale who’s currently being mentored via the first WriteNow scheme from earlier this year. I spoke to other writers who’d been chosen for WriteNow (everyone greeting each other with ‘what’s your book about?’) and Penguin Random House staff, including an editor from Penguin Classics who I obviously had to talk to about Morrissey (I reassured him that I’d enjoyed the autobiography but had to admit I couldn’t finish the novel). Realising that I was talking to someone who’d met Morrissey was more exciting than it probably should have been.

I learnt some stuff (enter competitions; agents aren’t scary; it takes at least 13 passes for a good edit), wrote copious notes, and got unreasonably nervous waiting for my one to one with Mikaela Pedlow. I needn’t have worried – she had useful advice and pertinent questions as well as embarrassing praise (I need to learn to accept compliments without getting awkward and fidgety) and I have some ideas for how to improve the novel. Even without getting onto the mentoring scheme (which could still happen, shortlisting is a couple of weeks away) this has been one of the most exciting experiences in my writing life (entire life?). And because I was in Newcastle I got to eat a cheese savoury stottie for my tea.

Signs of age: when even adults are too young to share your past

A few weeks ago I heard a bang outside and thought ‘car back-firing’, then I wondered if that still happens, and if it doesn’t then what do young people attribute unexplained sudden noises in the street to? The more I thought about it, the more I realised how many familiar everyday things from my childhood (though I grant that some of them were already old-fashioned) are completely unknown not only to children but many adults today and would require explanation in a story. Among them are:

  • the long, frustrating search for a working payphone
  • hoarding coins of a particular denomination (10p for the phone, 50p for the electricity meter)
  • crossed wires on the phone
  • older relatives answering the phone using the old 3 or 4 digit version of their phone number
  • people answering the phone by reciting their phone number
  • yellow headlamps on cars that had been to Europe
  • foolscap paper
  • cheap cameras with no focus control, and separate flash cubes
  • having to limit yourself to taking 24 photos on an entire holiday
  • Betamax vs VHS
  • floppy disk drives (particularly five and a quarter inch)
  • only having 4 TV channels to choose from (and they shut down overnight)
  • piling as many kids as possible in the back of an estate car for a day out, sometimes with a couple of dogs too
  • wondering what to do with the (entirely detachable) ring-pull from a can of pop, maybe getting a moment’s entertainment by wearing it as a ring
  • hoping to hear a song on the radio, or searching charity shops, car boot sales and second-hand record shops for years to find it, instead of being able to reach for spotify or YouTube

This undoubtedly happens to everyone as technology and fashions change, but it does give you a realisation of the passing years. Anybody got any more examples to share from their perspective?

Inspired by Eric Clapton: a new story at The RS500

If you’ve been around here a while you’ll have spotted that music is pretty important to me (yes, glam metal counts as music) and you may remember me getting excited about running across a project called The RS500, where each week they’re posting two pieces of fiction or non-fiction in response to Rolling Stone magazine’s top 500 albums. Today my own contribution is up, a short story inspired by John Mayall’s Blues Breakers album with Eric Clapton, which you can read by following this link. But not before you finish reading this post, obviously.

John Mayall's Blues Breakers album with Eric Clapton

My dad’s actual 51-year-old copy of the LP

It’s quite a melancholy story which, as the editor said, kind of fits with the tone of the record so that’s ok. I listened to the album on repeat on Spotify while I was writing it, mainly because the LP was miles away in my dad’s record stash (and I wouldn’t dare touch it – look at how pristine it is! Zoom in and you can see one small crease). The aim was to infuse the story with some of the feeling of the album but I did keep getting lost in the music and downing tools for a while. I thought back to my early encounters with this LP as a child in the eighties, and then thought about the context of my dad buying the album twenty years previously (1966, though apparently he saw them perform in ’67 or ’68, which I guess was post-Clapton). If you want to look back on the era of peace and love with a sort of melancholy nostalgia, I can think of no better vantage point than the Thatcher years, and slap bang in the middle of the Falklands war seemed particularly suitable. Hence the story is set in 1982 (not explicitly stated but Falklands and Fun Boy Three references are there for the sharp-eyed).

I confess I did steal the non-anecdote (and family legend) of seeing Eric Clapton in a bar from my dad (“And?” “And he was probably buying a drink”). However, regulars here will also know that he did read to me a lot so there’s not much crossover with the main character. I should also thank him for taking a photo of the record sleeve and emailing it to me as though that was a perfectly normal thing for me to request.

So, now you know the background, and I bet you’re dying to read the only story you’ll encounter this week (probably) with the word ‘antimacassar’ in it, so for ease of clicking, here’s the link again. Enjoy.

A blurring of poetry and prose

I read a few pieces of flash fiction in the pub last night and they seemed to go down well. I don’t mean I had one too many shandies and jumped on a table with a sheaf of paper in my hand, this was an event I’d jointly organised on behalf of Ilkley Writers, with the Wharfedale Poets. Between us we’ve got a clutch of published writers (of novels, short stories, poetry and non-fiction), and the talent on show reflected that. A reasonable audience turned out on a Sunday night for us, and I think everyone enjoyed themselves. We had poetry from Tony Barringer, Jenny Dixon, Yvette Huddleston, Colin Speakman, Mike Farren, Dave Hesmondhalgh and Fiona Williams, with prose from Mandy Sutter (a Wharfedale Poet with a short story collection out soon), Emily Devane, Fleur Speakman, Rachel Hagan, Andrea Hardaker, and me. I re-used the fab performance book I made a couple of years ago, which is ok as long as I don’t turn over two pages and start reading a story from some previous event.

Afterwards, I ended up talking to a couple of the poets about the blurred boundary between flash fiction and less structured poetry. I’m not keen on labels, as a rule – I just write stuff and see what happens. Admittedly I have trouble finding where to submit some of it…

I have, however, submitted a story inspired by John Mayall’s Blues Breakers album with Eric Clapton to The RS500, where they’re slowly releasing writing inspired by each of Rolling Stone’s top 500 albums, and it’s due out this week. I’ll put the link here when it’s available.

Speech from the dead

Back in June I caught the first half of the first one of Hilary Mantel’s Reith lectures on Radio 4. As one of Britain’s best known writers of historical fiction, naturally she was talking about what we can know about the past. She talked about phrases passing down the family and in a sense keeping someone alive and it made me think about the time-spans word of mouth can cover and how immediate it makes the past feel.

I remember my Nana (born 1918) telling me anecdotes her grandma (born 1870) had told her about her younger days, which made my Nana’s grandma (and her dad, born 1832) more real to me than many a second cousin who lived nearby but never crossed my radar.

I have been known to refer to someone as an ‘Aunt Sarah Ann’ because they started clearing the dinner table before everyone had finished eating. The original Aunt Sarah Ann who had this mildly irritating habit was born in 1860 and was my great-grandmother’s aunt. Both of them died in the 1950s but the phrase persists in its fourth generation. It is slightly unfortunate for poor old Sarah Ann that this is the one trait that’s been remembered by the family, other than her short stature.

Whenever I’m full of cold I think of the phrase ‘poorly sick with a shawl on’, which my Nana’s friend Alice told me was what her grandmother (born 1860s I think, a friend of Nana’s grandma) always said in similar circumstances. I heard stories of Alice’s grandmother from my Nana too and I’ve had her described to me, so again she feels quite real to me though I’ve never even seen a picture of her.

I spent a lot of time as a child talking to Nana and Alice (hence the dedication in The Little Book of Northern Women) and the stories I heard about growing up in the 1920s and 1930s were full of detail as they relived their memories for me. I can still picture vividly many of the things they described – it helps that I spent part of my childhood in the same village, I guess. There’s a story in The Little Book of Northern Women called The Silent Witness which grew out of Nana’s childhood in particular (not the violent bit, I hasten to add) and I’d love to think that when I’m old I might tell a child born more than 100 years after my Nana some phrase or anecdote that they’ll remember, to keep the connection going.