When it's all gone quiet, I'm thinking about writing. When it's all gone really quiet, I'm writing. When it's all gone really, really quiet - I'm asleep! At the moment I'm just over 30,000 words into novel number two, and that's why I've gone really quiet. It's the novel version of one of my theatre plays, and it's really interesting (and a little bit tricky) to take a piece of theatre and write it as prose. The two 'disciplines' (that word is deliberately in quotes, because I don't have much of it!) are completely different and it feels like I'm meeting the characters for the first time, and it's fascinating to discover more about their lives. Just thought I'd let you know where I've been. Now, back to the writing - shhhh!
Musings and mind leaks...
Category: Confessions of a First-Time Novelist
Now that novel number one (Sleeping Through War) has flown the nest, I find myself musing on thoughts of possession and freedom. The feeling of creating anything - a book, a song, a knitted scarf - is absorbing and exhilirating, but when it's finished I realise how important it is to let it go. Only that way will our creations have a chance to live, although nothing is ever guaranteed of course. The alternative is to be so in love with the results of our labours that we build cages to keep them in so that we may look at them for our own satisfaction, like butterflies under glass. Sleeping Through War is complete. I will not go back and polish or re-write. It's been released into the world to fend for itself, as all grown-up things must. It's sitting on the shelves of bookshops, it's being borrowed from public libraries, and complete strangers now have it in their hands to make of it what they will. I understand now that it's no longer mine, and mine alone. Its characters and voices are coming to life inside other people's minds and I will never know what they look like as they grow. Does it matter? Only if I choose to possess and imprison that which I created. I see that we do it with so many things: My book, my garden, my child... getting so stuck on the ownership of things that we don't notice that our lives are being owned by that which we possess. Too deep for a Thursday morning? Okay, so here's a way to free ourselves from the shackles of what we have created: Create something else! Let go of what you've done, wish it well on its journey out into the world, and make something new. And on that note, I'm 30,000 words into novel number two. Because, let's face it, the best part of it all is being in the process of creation. The end result is for others, should it be their pleasure to share it.
It’s fair to say that most people who work in bookshops primarily do so for one reason. It’s not for the glamour, or the adrenalin rush, and it’s certainly not for the wages! It’s because they love books. That’s it. I know, because I was a bookseller for Waterstones for almost ten years.
In my humble opinion, booksellers are often the most over-qualified and arguably some of the most passionate people you’ll meet in retail. They know their stuff and they read an awful lot of books. If a bookseller likes a book, they will tell their customers all about it – they can’t help it! – and their recommendations will certainly help to sell your book. When you see a ‘bookseller review’ online or in store, it means they actually read it and enjoyed it; not because they’re the authors’ best friend, but because it was a good read. Customers will trust that.
I left Waterstones a couple of years ago to pursue my writing career full-time. I must confess that I’d looked along the fiction shelves more than once to see where my novel might sit (usually between John Le Carré and Angela Carter, to my delight). So, when I chose to publish my debut novel, Sleeping Through War, with Matador, I couldn’t imagine a better place for my first book launch than my old shop. The manager was more than encouraging and we fixed up a date for the launch to coincide with the official publication date. We planned it together and she was as enthusiastic as I was. She’d already read Sleeping Through War after I’d dropped a copy in for her and, to my relief, she loved it! Even before the launch, Matador were ready with finished copies and the next time I popped into the shop, there it was – right next to Angela Carter!
Planning a book launch as an author was a new experience for me. I’d worked at book launches, signings and author talks behind the scenes, but thrusting myself centre stage was pretty daunting. Where do I start? What do I say when all those eyes are looking at me? Then an American author friend of mine gave me the best advice ever about self-marketing. She said: “Don’t try to be clever. All you have to do is share your love for your book with other people.” Read that sentence again…it’s simple but it relieves stress massively.
Think about your book, where it’s set, what the subject matter is, and plan your launch around it. Sleeping Through War is set during 1968, so I trawled the internet for images from that year because I wanted a context for the book that people could see when they walked in. I found lots of amazing pictures and prepared boards around the shop, which worked really well. It brought people into the world of the story as soon as they arrived. There are three narrators in the novel, so I asked two other people to read short extracts with me, which really brought the words to life. I’ve been a playwright and theatre director for some years, so it was natural for me to want to ‘animate’ the words with real people.
At 6pm the doors opened and both friends and strangers started to arrive. Even more people than I expected. I’d made posters for the event, had bookmarks printed that people could take away with them, publicised the event on social media and local radio, and it worked. After all, you only get out what you put in, like everything else in life. We had glasses of wine and nibbles ready, and somebody even made delicious, book-themed cupcakes. After a short introduction, some readings and time for a couple of questions, people actually started buying the book and I happily signed copy after copy. The atmosphere was relaxed, people were happy and I was in my element; surrounded by books.
One person that I’d never met before told me that she’d come along because she saw it advertised on Waterstones’ facebook page. She said she’d made a bucket list and ‘going to a book launch’ was on it. She’d never been to one before but enjoyed it so much that she planned to go to many more. And that’s what it’s all about. Book launches should be enjoyable, interesting and, above all, inspiring. They should inspire readers to read and writers to write.
Of course, a bookshop is not the only place to hold a book launch. What about an autobiography at your old school; a book about fishing by a riverbank; a historical novel in a museum…? You can be as inventive as you like. However, for an old bookseller like me, there’s nothing more rewarding than seeing a pile of my paperbacks in a bookshop.
So, next time you’re in a bookshop, look along the shelves to find where your book might be sitting one day. It can happen.
I'm at that tricky time in a debut novelist's career when the subject of 'agents' looms up on the horizon. "You need an agent," they say. And then it gets scary. Do I need one? Aren't they just for the big guys? Where do they hang out? How do I go about snaring one? And it goes on. Like most writers at all levels of their careers, I have a well-thumbed copy of the Writers' & Artists' Yearbook sitting on my shelf. I buy one every two years, but it's impossible for a printed list to remain up to date when human beings will insist on changing jobs, closing lists, etc. It's so selfish of them! So while the Yearbook is great for contact details and a rough idea of what agents don't want, you still have to look up each individual website searching for the right info and (if you'll excuse my language) it takes flipping ages! Then a friend said, "try Agent Hunter." "Who?" I said. "www.agenthunter.co.uk" they said! So I did. And here's my review: Curated by the folk at Writers' Workshop, Agent Hunter is the most useful resource I've found so far and would recommend it to anyone seriously looking for an agent. The search filters are really useful, enabling the hunter to select by genre, size of agency and (most useful of all) whether their lists are actually open! Every literary agent in the UK is covered, and for each agent and/or agency there is lots of information on what they're interested in, tips and guidelines for submissions, contact details, personal background and history or (and equally useful) they even tell you if they know very little info about that agent...honesty, how refreshing! You can then save searches, build a favourites list and find up-to-date info, which the Writers' & Artists' Yearbook - while it's an essential guide - can't really compete with. In many cases, I found there was even more info about an individual on Agent Hunter than there was on their own company website. It's not a free service, but subscriptions start at only £6 for 1 month or you can go right up to the most expensive Platinum package for 12 months where you can even get your cover letter, synopsis and the opening chunk of your novel reviewed. I went for the Gold Package; the most popular one costing £27 for 12 months. I found it very user friendly and have been able to easily put together a list of half a dozen agents that I might have half a chance with. It's saved me days of work. Of course, Agent Hunter can't guarantee to secure you that elusive deal, but they've saved me hours and hours of hair-pulling stress and wasted submissions. Try them for yourself. I'll let you know if one of them agents bites!