Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Living with Etty

by Catriona Troth
Photo courtesy of Ricardo Barros

Etty Hillesum was a Jewish woman from the Netherlands murdered in Auschwitz. Like Anne Frank, she kept a diary which was found and published after her death. But perhaps because Etty is a more morally complex and ambiguous character, it took 38 years before her diary was published, and even now it is hardly known.

A chance discovery at a yard sale brought Etty into the life of actress and writer Susan Stein. And now, through the one-woman play she wrote based on the diaries, Etty has become her life’s work. Between performances during her latest British tour, Stein explained how the play came about, and how it develops as she travels the world, bringing Etty to an astonishing range of audiences.

I began by asking Stein how she first encountered Etty Hillesum, and why she decided to turn her diaries into a play.

“I first heard of the book from a college roommate’s mother who did not recommend books lightly.
She said it had changed her life. Then a few months later, I found a copy at a yard sale in a little town in Maine for 50 cents. It was the abridged version, “An Interrupted life”. It would fit in your pocket.

“At first didn’t like her at all. Etty seemed self involved. She is sleeping with two different men, trying to figure out who she wants to be with. She has this very odd relationship with her therapist.

“But at some point in my reading something shifted. I am not sure when it happened. I have tried to go back and pinpoint it, but I’ve never been able to find it again. But somehow Etty got under my skin.

“It’s as if she were sitting next to me, whispering her life to me. It’s uncomfortable, awkward. And sometimes friendly. Not precious. Sometimes incredibly poetic. Self conscious. All those things. Sometimes I have the feeling I’m not supposed to be reading this. It’s way too intimate. Too naked.

“I had never experienced a book like this. Never felt someone so raw and vulnerable. Yet at this point, I was still reading the abridged version, which was somewhat sanitised. Not quite her at all. She was a little bit turned into ‘Saint Etty.’

“Even so, her sensibility is remarkable. When she gets to the place where she says, “You cannot help us, God. I shall have to help you,” I stopped breathing. Who is this woman? What does she find deep in herself that she comes to that understanding?

“I had read the book jacket, so I knew she didn’t survive. I didn’t want to let go. An intimacy I’d barely experienced with my closest friends. I am the slowest reader I know, but I could feel myself slowing down even more as I neared the end.

“I couldn’t understand why she wasn’t better known. I remember thinking, ‘I know, I’ll make a play, bring it to people and they will want to read the diaries for themselves.’ (Which is still my goal, by the way.) But I didn’t do it straight away. A few years later, I was in a car accident. That night, in the emergency room, the thought came to into my head, ‘I didn’t do that play.’ Where did that come from?

“I’ve worked on it now for eight years. Now it is a full time job, and it is still evolving.”

Photo courtesy of  Ricardo Barros

As a writer, I was fascinated to know how she went about taking someone’s words and turning them into a play.

“I spent over a year, just distilling it. To begin with I thought I could just take the bits I liked. But then I started working with the director, Austin Pendleton. He made me see that it had no dramatic spine. He started giving me assignments to help me shape it.

“He asked me first to outline, not Etty’s life, but the story of the diary itself. Three weeks later I was still struggling with that. Then someone said to me, ‘Are you reading academic work about the Holocaust? You know more than Etty knows, about what’s happening and what will happen. It’s getting in the way.’

“I was very focused on dates. Austin pushed me to abandon chronology. At first I couldn’t do it. I had dates fixed in my head. ‘On July such and such, 1942, she said this!’

“I remember having coffee with a woman writing her Ph.D. on Etty. She encouraged me to ‘let Etty guide me to the script.’ Then I spent some time with Etty's actual diaries in the Jewish Museum in Amsterdam. I saw how her handwriting evolved over time. It helped me move closer to her words, and the words began to take me to a deeper place.

“Another thing Austin asked me was “Where is her shame?”I had to get underneath her words, figure out what she is NOT saying. I didn’t like where that took me.

“I could deal with certain parts of her shame. I knew she was ashamed of how large her breasts were. I imagine her stripped naked at Auschwitz. I worry about how she felt then, in front of all those people.

“But I had to take Etty off a pedestal. I was protecting her. I was struggling with my relationship with her, and I was also struggling as a Jew, especially about her menial work for the Jewish Council. That’s a thorny piece of the play. A thorny piece of history. It’s been one of the most difficult and time consuming parts of the play to get right.

“At one point, I performed Etty at a Quaker Meeting House in Aberystwyth. After that performance, some people were seeing Etty as a collaborator, which shows how easy it is for people to view victims as collaborators. It made me realise I still had a lot of work to do. By choosing to include the Jewish Councils, I had set myself a difficult task of introducing a complicated piece of history into the play, history most audiences were not familiar with. To clarify the Councils, I had put too much focus on them and the play seemed more about the Councils than about Etty and her remarkable sensibility.

“The Nazis were very smart in the way they created the Jewish councils. They put Jews in an untenable situation. Etty is caught in the middle. She refuses to go into hiding and save herself. Yet she accepts a menial role with the Jewish Council, which delays her deportation for several months.

“Where the bind comes, for her, is when her parents and brother get to Westerbork camp. She feels obligated to do everything she can to keep them off the weekly transport to Auschwitz. Yet she knows, if she succeeds in keeping them off the transport, then three other people go in their place. She becomes part of that cat and mouse game.

“Etty is agonized by the privilege her position affords her. But Etty is not corrupt. She is a human being caught in an inhuman situation. When I talk about this to students, I tell them – we are all privileged or we wouldn’t be here today, speaking about this. It’s not wrong to have privilege. Sometimes we earn it; sometimes we just get lucky. So what do we do with that privilege?

“What I have come to realise is that, within 10 days of keeping the diary, something is released in Etty. This is my interpretation, but I believe that force is what she is calling God. I believe that when she gets to Westerbork, she understands that this is the role she has been cast in. She has to be open to it and be present. She wants to ‘pass the test’. I hope she thought she did.

“So the play keeps evolving. It’s like scaffolding – when you move one thing, other things have the change as well. Each stage is different, and I don’t even realise I am in a different stage till I get there.

“The second ‘act’ of the play is now the discussion with the audience. That was something we discouraged at first – we wanted the play to be enough. But people weren’t leaving! Etty starts a conversation. Others want to continue it.”

Stein has performed Etty at an extraordinary range of venues – schools, places of worship, Native American reservations. It’s an intense emotional experience, for Stein as well as for the audience. As a film maker recently described it, ‘It’s as if this woman from 1942 walks into the room, sits down and starts talking to you.’

“I remember, before the first performance, Austin asking me, ‘What’s the worst that can happen?’ I decided it was someone going to sleep. But Austin said, ‘No, going to sleep is a GOOD option. Let’s make it worse. Let’s have them walk out. One at a time, till you are looking at empty chairs where there had been people. What would you do?’ I said, ‘I’d keep talking.’ And he said, ‘Good. If that happens you will get to the place where Etty was when she started writing.’

“The nearest I came to that happening was in a prison in Scotland. They brought men and women brought together when they don’t normally see each other, so it had failed before it had even started. By the time I got to the prayer, they were all but throwing things. The only reason they didn’t walk out was that they weren’t allowed to. And I kept going. I had the experience of staying with her words when no one else cared.

“Despite that, prison performances are some of the most powerful. And I’ve met the most amazing people. A teacher at Shotts prison near Glasgow. Some severely disabled children at Braidburn school in Edinburgh. Etty has brought us together.

“I had no idea the project would have the life that it’s had. I didn’t know I would travel to all these places. Sometimes I have to ask myself, am I doing this right? It’s never had a theatre run. Never reached the point where it has a momentum of its own. Every day, it’s waking up and calling people, trying to let them know about Etty, finding the next venue to do it.

“But maybe travelling round the world with a suitcase and Etty’s words is the venue for this piece. Taking her to those who wouldn’t normally go to the theatre.

“Etty’s feels like a voice we need for our times. She refused to choose the divisive. She refused to 'tilt towards the savage.’ She found another way. She paid a price for it and was willing to do that. But her words and her spirit still live and inspire.”

To find out more visit about Susan Stein and Etty Hillesum, visit

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Stepping into Early Medieval Worlds

By Tracey Warr

When I first set out to write early medieval fiction one of my motivations was to dispel some of the myths about those times, myths which I had believed myself until I started doing some serious research, such as: all medieval people did not wash and were illiterate and women had no power or rights. My historical novels are set across Europe in the 10th-12th centuries and their protagonists are always women: countesses, servants, slaves and female troubadours. Yes, there were real female troubadours in the early Middle Ages. They were called trobairitz and wrote racy, sensual and profoundly moving poetry (see Peter Dronke’s Women Writers of the Middle Ages and Meg Bogin’s The Women Troubadours). There were also female poets, known as skalds, amongst the Vikings. As well as appearing as characters in my novels, the words written by these women are invaluable sources for creating credible, sensory worlds for my readers to step into.

Many of my characters are based on real historical people, including the male characters, some of whom, such as Audebert Count of La Marche, emerge even from dusty, centuries-old chronicles, as rather hot! Just as we know more from the historical evidence about the experiences of noblemen and women than we do about the lives of the peasants and lesser people, we also know much more about the men than about the women. So I am faced with the challenge of how to create a fully sensory world from a range of female perspectives.

For the servants and slaves, the labour involved in day to day life in a pre-industrial society is always a significant factor to consider. Whenever I visit one of the glorious medieval bastide towns in France such as Cordes-sur-Ciel or Najac, built atop very steep mounds to give strong defensive positions and views of approaching enemies, I always think about the servants plodding up and down those steep inclines with mules loaded down with wine skins, parchment, spices, whatever the lords and ladies of the castle required. All medieval people were living much more closely with the rhythms of day and night and of the seasons, since they had no electric light and many of the other things we take for granted in modern life. They did not travel or go to war in the winter when seas and rivers were turbulent and roads were muddy morasses. Their day began with sunrise and they ate earlier, went to bed earlier. They grew, hunted and cooked their own food and made their own clothes. We imagine medieval people living narrow existences in one place but some of them were great travellers: pilgrims, traders, vikings of course, and some noble brides went far from the places of their birth for their marriages. Travel was possible, it just took a lot longer.

I use original sources such as The Trotula, a compendium of women’s medicines written in Italy in the 12th century, or Dhoda’s marvellous 9th century handbook written to advise her son, along with medieval handbooks on cooking, hunting, hawking, bee-keeping, and the writings of medieval chroniclers including Ademar de Chabannes, William of Malmesbury and Orderic Vitalis, to help give the world I am creating veracity and bring it to life. A museum in Toulouse gave me a reproduction of an 11th century map of the city to help me recreate that, since modern Toulouse bears little resemblance to the city my 11th century countess rode through.

The protagonist of my first novel, Almodis the Peaceweaver, was the real Countess of Toulouse and Barcelona, my second novel incorporates real historical characters such as the Norse Viking Olafr Tryggvason and the Viscountess of Limoges who was kidnapped by Vikings and held hostage for three years. My new novel published later this year, focusses on the experiences of the real Welsh princess, Nest ferch Rhys, who was held hostage by Norman invaders from a young age. I undertake historical research finding out what happened, when, where, to whom. What did the people wear and eat, what were the places they lived in like, how did they travel, how long did it take to get from one place to another on horseback or on a river boat. I use lots of sources to inspire me aside from literature and historical documentation, including objects in museums that my characters might have handled and owned, my visits to intact medieval sites and Romanesque churches, looking at paintings and manuscript illustrations. The appearance of my character Almodis is based on a beautiful statue of the Virgin in Albi Cathedral in France, but my character Nest ferch Rhys is modelled on a striking black-haired, blue-eyed Welsh girl I saw on a train between Swansea and Carmarthen. Several objects from the British Museum feature in my first novel including the Dunstable Swan Jewel and a delicate pink glass palm cup. A Viking serpent brooch and an exquisite decorated Viking swordhilt found in the sea between Pembrokeshire and Ireland were inspirations for my second novel, as were the Welsh islands of Caldey and Skomer which were occupied and named by Vikings. For my new novel I spent time walking along the cliffs and estuaries of Carmarthen Bay in Wales where a significant part of the story is set. 

The French historian Georges Duby wrote ‘I must never forget the differences, the hundreds of years that separate me from my subject, the great stretch of time that hides almost all I am endeavouring to see behind a veil I cannot pierce.’ Similarly the historian Thomas Asbridge says that ‘The emotional landscape of this era will never be fully recovered’. Some things have not changed much despite the years: landscapes, weather, love, whilst other things do feel significantly alien to us, such as slavery, youthful betrothals and brides and constant childbearing. People lived much shorter lives and had to get on fast with the business of living. From our 21st century perspective it is a stretch to imagine how medieval women really perceived their relationships with men, God, power, and their children. I feel I have a certain freedom to imagine and fictionalise my characters’ experiences as long as I can sustain credibility for my readers – well that is the difference between writing history and writing historical fiction.

About Tracy:
Tracey Warr’s novels Almodis the Peaceweaver and The Viking Hostage are published by Impress Books. Her new novel, Conquest: Daughter of the Last King, will be published in the autumn. You can find out more about her writing at

In June and July Tracey Warr is one of the award-winning authors who are tutoring week-long residential writing courses in south-west France organised by A Chapter Away

Image Captions & Credits

1 The Dunstable Swan Jewel from the British Museum, used in Tracey’s first novel, Almodis the Peaceweaver. Wikimedia photo by Ealdgyth.

2 Print from a Viking serpent brooch in the British Museum. The brooch features in Tracey’s second novel, The Viking Hostage. Print and photo by Tracey Warr.

3 View of the sea and estuary through Llansteffan Castle window, Wales. The castle features in Tracey’s new novel, Conquest: Daughter of the Last King. Wikimedia photo by dwtheprof.

Wednesday, 11 May 2016

In Conversation with Kate Hamer

By Gillian Hamer

Kate Hamer grew up in Pembrokeshire. She did a Creative Writing MA at Aberystwyth University and the Curtis Brown Creative novel-writing course. She won the Rhys Davies short story award in 2011 and her winning story was read out on BBC Radio 4. She lives in Cardiff with her husband. The Girl in the Red Coat (March 2015) is her first novel, recently nominated for the Costa first novel award.

Hello and welcome, Kate. Can you tell us a little about you and your writing?
Thanks! I live and work in Cardiff though I was brought up in the countryside in rural Pembrokeshire. I’ve written, essentially, since I was a child. I used to write stories, illustrate them and staple them together in books. I’m a voracious reader too. I guess I write in a similar vein to the books I love to read which are nearly always dark twisty stories which hopefully take you somewhere unexpected.

Novelist is quite a new career for you. Was taking an MA at Aberystwyth Uni the catalyst to that career change or something you’d been planning for a long time?
Writing was always there in my life, always incredibly important but for a long time something I did mainly for myself. Attending the MA was an big step, apart from anything else it was me making a commitment to writing whatever happened. Another huge moment for me was winning the Rhys Davies short story prize. Winning that was a huge boost and told me possibly I might be going along the right lines.

TGiTRC has been called a 21st Century version of Little Red Riding Hood. Did that ever occur to you whilst writing and how do you feel about the comparison?
It comparison didn’t occur to me whilst writing but it hit me between the eyes with a whack after I’d finished the first draft. I read fairy tales avidly as a child and after I realized Carmel is very much the figure of Riding Hood who has strayed off the path and who is threatened by wolves. It was only after coming to the end of that first draft that I raised my eyes to the old Victorian print of Red Riding Hood (yes, it was hanging in my hallway all along!) and thought – ‘of course! She was there all the time.’

And then the book was shortlisted for the Costa First Novel prize! How did that feel?
Absolutely one of the most incredible, stand out moments of my life. I think I stood speechless for about ten minutes after I put the phone down. It’s something I couldn’t have begun to imagine when I was writing the book. I didn’t even know if it would get published then!

There’s a lot of attention on the complexities of mother/daughter relationships in the book, is this something that’s important to you?
I think it’s a rich and interesting relationship that’s surprisingly rare in novels. When the book was published I wrote an article for The Independent newspaper about mothers and daughters in literature and I had to really hunt to find examples. It’s a great thing to write about because it’s close yet complex. Eight year old Carmel in the book is already beginning to test the boundaries with her mother. It’s a loving relationship but scratchy at the same time, sort of ‘push me, pull you.’ The bond between Beth and Carmel is absolutely the beating heart of the book.

You’re based in Wales, where I also set all of my novels, is location and setting something you consider important in your writing?
Location is a lovely thing to write about. It’s a really strange one though – I’ve tried to write about Cardiff where I live and I’ve found it really difficult. I read Maggie O’Farrell once saying something like – I don’t write about places I’ve lived because I can’t imagine them - and I totally understand what that means. It’s almost like I need to be a little bit outside of a place to write about it. I feel particularly drawn to placing narratives in the countryside too – perhaps because that’s where I was brought up. 

Do you have your own special writing place?
I work at home in one of the bedrooms. Sometimes I think it’s good to refresh things though. Part of ‘The Girl in the Red Coat’ was written in Cardiff library because I felt the need for a change of gear and sometimes changing the place I write seems to do the trick. I recently heard of someone who changes where he works with each new project – I can relate to that.

What attracts you to psychological thrillers?
I’m really interested in people and the workings of the human mind and that’s where the psych thriller squarely sits. Their own peculiarities and motivations drive the narrative. It’s what I love to read – and such a hugely broad category, Hamlet to my mind is a psych thriller – so it seems a natural place to go when I come to write. 

Would you ever like to write in a completely different genre? If so what would it be and why?
I have a plot idea for a sci-fi novel though whether I’ll ever write it I don’t know. It appeals to me because you can really push the boundaries with sci-fi. Having said that it’s the relationships that would still propel the story forward. I don’t think it matters what time you’re in, for me that’s always going to be the case. Maybe one day…!

Are you a regimented plotter or do you go where the story takes you?
A bit of both. With ‘The Girl in the Red Coat’ I wrote the beginning and then very soon after the last few paragraphs so I always knew where I was heading although there were twists and turns along the way. I did the same with my second novel that I’ve just finished the first draft of and I’ve just started a third with the same method, so it seems to be a bit of a pattern!

If you could give three top tips to newbie writers – what would they be?Trust your instincts with the story. If you feel that excitement in your gut then go with that.

Read everything you can lay your hands on. Read your fellow contemporary authors. It lets you know what’s current but it also supports real living writers too.

If you feel a bit stuck don’t sit there staring at the screen. Take your characters for a walk. Chances are with them strolling alongside you they’ll start speaking to you again and you’ll soon be racing back to the computer to get it all down.

Finally, how is the ‘difficult second book’ coming along – and has it been more difficult than the first to write or not?
I’ve finished the first draft. It’s a dark coming of age tale about family secrets. It’s been a very different experience writing it. With your debut nobody has a clue (or cares) what you are doing. With the second one that’s obviously not the case but I just decided to forget everything and concentrate on the page every day. I think that’s all you can do as a writer. Each new page is a new journey.

The Girl in the Red Coat by Kate Hamer is out now (Faber & Faber, £6.99)

Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Prime Writers

Antonia Honeywell
by Catriona Troth

Soon after she’d signed the publication deal for her first novel, The Ship, Antonia Honeywell realised the people around her had other preoccupations.

She had four small children, and in the lead up to Christmas, they were more interested in turkey, mince pies and what was under the Christmas tree than the imminent publication of their mother’s book. Other debut authors were tweeting about writing residencies they’d been offered, but such opportunities were out of the reach of a forty-something mother.

So in the midst of putting the children to bed on night, and with Joanna Walsh’s Guardian article, 'Why must the best new writers’ always be under 40?' on her mind, Honeywell tweeted a plea:

Is anyone else out there publishing their debut novel over the age of 40?

Claire Fuller tweeted back:

I'll be debut-ing at 43. Let's meet and drink champagne in celebratory protest.

That was the start of a string of responses. Before long, Honeywell was compiling a growing list of debut authors over the age of 40, all eager for someone to share their experience with. And that first champagne meet up happened only a few weeks later, in Browns in Covent Garden.

Thus were The Prime Writers born.

The Prime Writers on their 1st Birthday

That was in January 2015. The original group of 35 authors at that first meet up has now expanded to over 60.

“We completely underestimated the impact we would have. So much emphasis is placed on supporting young writers. But we are at a different life stage, and that puts us in a different space, with different needs. We are more likely to have an existing career, a family, elderly parents to care for.”

The group is specifically for trade published authors who brought out their debut novel over the age of 40. The restriction to trade publishing does not arise out of snobbery, but because the issues that dominate their writing lives do tend to be different to those facing self-published authors.

“It’s about finding your tribe. Writing can be very lonely. Publication isn’t a set route, and no two authors have the same post-publication story. We have different support networks – someone might have a brilliant agent, or an editor, or a writing group they rely on.

“We end up discussing the pressures of delivering that second novel under contract, or issues with advances, or the difficulty of selling a second novel that doesn’t fit a publisher’s expectations - things that arise because we are trade published. A forum in which you can discuss these things openly is without price.”

As with any community like this, sustaining it takes a huge amount of work. Three of the group, Clare Fuller, Vanessa Lafaye and Sarah Jasmon, set up their website, with its closed discussion forum. And the group have a rota for curating material on the website and managing their Twitter feed, @ThePrimeWriters.

“We need people who will engage actively in what we do, and embrace the opportunity to influence and contribute to the group’s identity. That is one reason why we are limiting numbers now. It has to stay manageable.”

Honeywell admits that the group is largely white, middle class and female. “I am not sure what to make of that. We are not trying to shut anyone out. The original invitation was completely open, and the people who responded were self selecting. It’s certainly something we’re very aware of.”

1st Birthday Cake (by Antonia)
The Prime Writers have recently had a first anniversary lunch (with cake) after which they held a meeting to decide what direction they wanted to group to take. And there is plenty on the horizon. Some of the group will be taking part in the Hillingdon Literary Festival in October. And nine of the authors are going away together on a writing retreat later in the year. Two other festivals have approached the group, and discussions are afoot about how best to share their wealth of experience and expertise with their biggest audience – aspiring writers.


Antonia Honeywell’s first novel, The Ship, was published in February 2015. She says wrote her first ‘novel’ at the age of 8, and has always kept diaries and written letters. But after a difficult childhood, which included a period of homelessness, she put writing on the back burner to prioritise, “safety and security, home, having a front door key.”

After a period as education officer for the Natural History Museum, she became a teacher and was Head of English in a large comprehensive in a deprived area of London.

“I knew I was going to have to write that novel. But I knew nothing about how to begin to be a published writer. I had a romantic notion that someone would just catch sight of me writing on a train and that would be that. I didn’t know you had to work hard to even get your work considered. I didn’t know how to read rejection letters, and to understand they were being encouraging. I learnt slowly and the hard way that what matters is your willingness to work at it.”

Books by Prime Writers

Other Prime Writers include Claire Fuller (Our Endless Numbered Days) Laline Paull (The Bees) Kate Hamer (The Girl in the Red Coat). Explore the full list here.

Wednesday, 20 April 2016

The Industry View - Creative Writing MA

The Creative Writing MA by distance learning, and why I have no regrets

By Liz Monument

A Creative Writing MA is a notoriously expensive investment and, in terms of distance learning, it’s also a relatively new phenomenon. When I began mine at Lancaster in 2011, it was one of only two on-line courses available. Now, in 2016, a google search brings up so many options that they run to several pages.

Twenty or so years ago, an agent would pick up a new writer and would be prepared to work with that writer for up to two years in order to produce a polished debut novel. Then a couple of serious recessions impacted the publishing industry, and the internet altered the nature of publishing. Publishers became more risk averse, and agents had no choice but to follow suit. Today, agents will only take on a novelist who is virtually ready to be put straight out into the public arena. Authors still have to do their training somewhere, but the system has conspired to ensure this is at the author’s cost and not the publisher’s, both in terms of time and money.

Enter the education system, sometimes with seductive promises that ‘anybody can write’ (I have known at least one well-known University use this slogan in its advertising campaign), effectively offering to sell any paying member of the public the dreamed-of chance to find themselves on the other side of a signing table. The truth is that education is now an industry, and universities are smart enough to cash in on your dreams, because like it or not, writing is just like any other job out there: not everybody can do it.

My own distance learning MA experience was brilliant, and a choice I will never regret having made. I’d reached a glass ceiling in my writing where, after several novels, my enthusiasm repeatedly fell flat as they reached their final stages. I knew something wasn’t right, but I couldn’t work out what. Enrolling on the MA to sort out this dilemma wasn’t a decision I took lightly. I didn’t have the £6,000 fee, so after four years of telling myself no, you can’t do this, I finally re-mortgaged my house to find the money, and took the plunge. My biggest fear was discovering that I simply didn’t make the grade and that I’d better give up and start origami or flower arranging instead. I knew the MA was, in a way, my dreaded watershed moment.

My tutors were all published novelists, poets and short story writers with a plethora of industry awards to their names. Between them, they had a huge amount of educational experience. Just because you write doesn’t mean that you can teach people to write, so both publication and teaching experience are essential for good tutors. Before I joined the course, I thought I had a handle on the basic differences between genres. I followed various literary agents and read authors’ blogs, and I had a general understanding of how the publishing industry works. It took my MA to teach me that there are many more styles of novel out there than I’d realised, and that there are good, mediocre and pretty poor examples of each on the bookshelves. With some guided reading suggestions from a tutor and a wider selection of book reviews offered by my MA cohort, the reading I amassed proved a positive influence on my prose.

Nothing makes you perform like a date in the diary. Rather than winging it alone, the MA provides along-the-way critiquing which shapes your work as you go. This means that you’re constantly refining both your prose and your intentions, rather than tackling 80,000 words plus before anybody else gets to tell you what they think. The submissions for MA prose samples vary between 1,000 words and 3,000 words. At Lancaster, these submissions go alternately to your tutor, and to your conference group. Fortunately, there are several members in each group, so any weaker links (in the form of people who either rip your work to shreds for the fun of it, or are just plain nice because they can’t be bothered to be constructive) shouldn’t ruin your experience of the course. I was lucky: both my tutor Sarah and my conference group Dee, Ericka and Olivia were amazingly supportive, and have remained firm friends.

Two years of part-time study later, my MA novel Frozen was shortlisted for Mslexia’s unpublished novel competition (2013), and signed by The Viney Agency (2014). Frozen was re-named The Eternity Fund (the Disney musical Frozen saw to that!) and was subsequently published as a talking book by in 2015.

I was so impressed by the MA system that I’m now a part-time PhD Creative Writing student, distance learning again at Lancaster. The fees are more manageable for PhD (at the time of writing, £2,000 per annum), and the regular tutor contact keeps me focussed and broadens my exposure to critical work and contemporary fiction. I can’t imagine detaching my writing from the academic process, simply because it has transformed me from an eager student into a published novelist. I may have got there on my own eventually, but I’m sure it would’ve taken much longer. However, the fact remains that the MA isn’t for everyone, as reflected by literary agent Charlie Viney, who notes that: ‘Creative Writing MAs have proliferated over the last 20 years and offer clear advantages to would-be writers, not least the process of peer group review. Do all courses realistically reflect the challenging climate for debut novelists with British and American publishers? I’m far from sure.’

If your concerns are financial, and you simply can’t afford to enrol on an MA, there are plenty of excellent short writing courses staffed by published authors who are also experienced teachers. Many take place in retreats where you will have the delight of switching off daily life to focus purely on your art.

Liz Monument’s second novel Jennifer’s Garden is currently being read by publishers in the UK and US; her third novel Ring-O-Thorns is in progress. Liz taught music for 20 years before becoming a full-time writer; to read fiction extracts, visit

Liz is represented by Charlie Viney at The Viney Agency, Telegraph Hill, London

Wednesday, 13 April 2016

Inside Ingram

By Catriona Troth

Many of you who have your paperback books printed by the Ingram Content Group – whether through Lightning Source or Ingram Spark – might be surprised to realise that on any given day your book might be printed alongside a best seller from Penguin Random House, an academic text book from Oxford University Press, or even an indie published book from Amazon’s Createspace!

The family-owned firm, Ingram, which started in Tennessee, is now the major provider of Print on Demand services in the UK, US, Australia, France, and through its various Global Connect Partners, in many other parts of the world too. Italy is coming on stream soon, then India. South Africa is over the horizon. Ingram currently boasts 39,000 retail partners around the world, and that is growing constantly.

I was privileged, just before Easter this year, to have a chance to view the printing process for myself, at their UK base in Milton Keynes. I wasn’t allowed to take photographs (apparently there have been some suspected cases of industrial espionage in the past) but Ingram have kindly provided some stock photos to give you a flavour of the process.

The whole operation takes place in a large, brightly lit warehouse-like building. For the amount of heavy machinery they use, it is surprisingly quiet. It’s also temperature and humidity controlled. On the day we were there, the atmosphere was quite dry; so, high in the rafters, we could see jets of steam being sprayed into the air.

From all the orders that have been received, they ‘draw down’ approximately ten thousand pages at a time, of books that are to be printed on the same type of paper (either cream or white). This might represent ‘n’ copies of one book, or one copy each of ‘n’ different books – or more often a mixture of many different books and many different sizes of print run.

That set of books is then sorted by size, to minimise the number of times the machines have to adjust themselves. Covers and interiors are printed on different machines, but in parallel and in the same sequence.

Three main types of printers are currently in use. Printers using gel inks are used for all covers, as well as for premium quality coloured interiors. Then there are the toner-based printers, once used for most of the standard interiors. These, however, are gradually being phased out and replaced with newer ink jet printers, which can now match them for quality. The old toner based printers needed to heat the paper up in order to set the ink and then cool it again. Not only did this expend a lot of energy, but it also meant that the paper would shrink, as it dried out with the heat, then expand again, sometimes causing it to warp. The newer printers are thus both faster and more energy efficient.

It is amazing to see the half-ton rolls of paper being fed into the presses, which print continuously without pausing to take breath. Systems of rollers take up the slack and feed it out again, to allow for any changes of speed. One machine prints one side, before the paper is fed seamlessly into another to print the other side. Pages are printed either two or three abreast, depending on the size of the final book, and a machine called a plough folds the pages as they pass through, ready for cutting.

Out of this sequence of machines come stacks of pages forming each book’s interior. At the binding machine, these are matched up with the corresponding printed and laminated covers, using bar codes. If the bar code on the interior doesn’t match the bar code on the cover, the binding machine will simply refuse to proceed! If all is well, though, the machine cuts the pages (thus removing all the codes and markers using in the process) then folds and glues the cover to the interior. A separate process, requiring slightly more manual intervention, produces the ‘case bindings’ for hardback books.

It’s a system that never stops. They operate a day and a night shift, and print thousands of books a day. Already, the whole process works with surprisingly little human interaction, but that is set to be reduced even further, as robot technology from Germany is introduced.

Next time I place an order for one of my books with Ingram, I’ll picture it on its journey through that warehouse, from digital file to great rolls of paper, unfurling, printing, folding, stacking, then cut, glued and bound, and finally boxed, labelled and packaged – all in the matter of a few hours.

Wednesday, 6 April 2016

Working with a Book Cover Designer

I've covered various topics on the subject of book cover design over the years, from How to Sell More Books with Great Book Cover Design, to giving talks on the design process. 

What follows are a series of case studies by authors who I have had the great pleasure to work with on their books, to give an insight and flavour into the relationship between author and designer from a writers' point of view.

Rohan Quine

Of the five titles by Rohan Quine so far, The Imagination Thief was the first to be published, by EC1 Digital and the Firsty Group. Its cover was designed by Andi Rivers at Firsty. The novel is essentially literary fiction, but with a touch of magical realism and a dusting of horror; and since the secret  of how to market even “pure” literary fiction has always been more elusive than most secrets, it was decided the cover should tend more in the direction of the novel’s magical realism and horror credentials instead. 

Then when Jane at JD Smith Design designed the covers for The Platinum Raven, The Host in the Attic, Apricot Eyes and Hallucination in Hong Kong, the brief included ensuring a continuity of branding, to match the same cross-genre categories. The branding elements that all five covers share in common include the use of Rockwell font in a consistent layout, along with imagery themed around eyes, faces and skyscrapers at night. The depicted locations relate to the five tales’ urban settings around the globe – as will be the case when Jane is most enthusiastically brought back on board (subject to her availability, of course) to design tale number six, which is provisionally being referred to as the Hollywood canyons novel, to be published later in 2016. A prequel to the existing five, this title will feature the same branding elements, including the Los Angeles skyline. It’s been a pleasure to see these publications adorned by Jane’s and Andi’s brilliant work, large-format displays of which are at


Gabriela Harding

I didn't fully appreciate the importance of a cover designer until I started working with Jane. At that point, what I had in my hands was a rough, editable manuscript (in fact, she was the one to put me in touch with a great editor, so never underestimate an artist's web of contacts) which I hoped to publish traditionally. With several positive responses from agents under my belt, I suppose creating a cover was more of a caprice - something I had to do for myself, to give my work 'a face' or identity. Or maybe I knew, deep down, that I would self-publish (which I did, using the cover Jane and I worked on, which everyone loved - in fact, it's the first thing they say about my book: 'Wow, the cover!')

When I contacted Jane I had no idea what to expect. I thought Jane was some sort of a magician and that it would be dead easy to make something that will stand the test of time, or maybe even outlive me. I was right, in a way. Jane was a magician - but even a design god needs to know what is the exact wish they are expected to fulfil. I was in trouble. I was a writer, not a designer. As I flicked through the images Jane sent me, I started having cold sweats, already suspecting that I was as wrong about cover designing being easy as I was about book writing being a walk in the park. Writing is hard, editing is harder, marketing while competing with so many good books, a team of sharp warrior publishers behind them, gives you a real taste of the big bad D. You taste blood, but you carry on. And the cover is the first thing you have - the one thing people see even before reading the blurb. Unknown to me, I would find the cover design the most difficult part of writing and producing a book.

That's where Jane's role was crucial. I've lost count of the many combinations we tried. We put pictures together, and they made sense, but they just weren't MY BOOK. I started to get a little taste of the agony writers experience when the cover is being done for them by traditional publishers ( something my traditionally published friends complain about, not having a say about the cover). The agony, but also the relief. They didn't have to feel like attempting a million combinations to a stubborn safe. When Jane produced the image that would become my cover, I knew straight away it was 'the one.' And having gone through the labour of choosing got me closer to my book. It was the magic touch that changed a manuscript into a real book.

Ian Atkinson

The suggestion to write my first book, actually came from my mother. I had previously mentioned that leaving the Royal Navy after more than 32 years was going to leave me tinged with sadness and hopefully I wouldn’t forget it. Mum simply said, “Why don’t you write all your adventures down, so you can look back on it.”

Taking her advice for once, I had been doing this for about 2 years, on and off, before I even realised that I might just finish it. Up to this point, I didn’t even have a title or a cover and the prose was in a very rough, unedited format on my word processor. Having never published anything before, I didn’t know what to do and always considered publishing a book to be an expensive luxury. I simply didn’t have thousands of pounds to waste on the vain publication of my ramblings.

A chance e-mail from indie author Cathy Kirby to the Submariner’s Association wishing to research life on board a submarine was the key to the advice and the assistance that would finally see my work in print. It also served to give me a richly deserved kick in the pants and reignited my motivation to get it finished.

Cathy belonged to an on-line forum of writers who freely offered advice, support and recommendation on the writing, publication and advertising of the finished work. Amongst others, she pointed me in the direction of Editor, John Hudspith and the talented and very lovely cover designer, Jane Dixon-Smith.

After some thought, I had a cover idea formulating in my head. The title was still a work in progress, but I wanted to convey that the content covered my service on both ships and submarines. I am also intensely proud of the submariner’s ‘Dolphins’ and also the White Ensign. This seemed a tall order to include all of this and well outside of my skill set.

An e-mail to Jane followed by a phone call, trying to convey my ideas, set the ball in motion. Jane then asked for some decent quality images that she could try to work her wizardry with.

The first draft was always going to be a starting point as I couldn’t actually see what I wanted in my mind. I knew I wanted colour, it to look eye-catching and to really convey the contents. I pointed Jane in the direction of a list of already published covers to gain an idea of the sort of thing I was looking for.

This prompted an exchange of e-mails between us over the coming weeks with me providing honest feedback and Jane trying her hardest to interpret my vague description and turn it into art.

I am sure Jane was getting fed up with me nit-picking in the end, but maintained cheerful and helpful. It was as if she really cared about the cover as much as I did. Perhaps she did, after all, it would become an advertisement for her work after it had been published.

Finally, the front cover was everything and more than I could have hoped for. All of my wishes for images had been encompassed. Some of my suggestions, were tried, but they didn’t look right, on reflection, so Jane tried something else.

This email exchange continued until I was delighted with the result.

Now I needed the back cover, as the book was intended as paperback. I fudged together a blurb (yes, that’s really what it’s called) and allowed John, the Editor, to tinker with it slightly and then it was a simple matter for Jane to format it into the back cover design. I can’t remember whose idea it was to incorporate a photograph of young me, but I like it and the finished cover and the ramblings within are something that I will always be proud of.

For an in-depth look at the design process including:

- How to select and work with a designer
- What works and why
- Where to find images
- How to make informed decisions
- Why formatting matters
- What branding means to you
- How to give your book the best chance of success 

The Importance of Book Cover Design is available on Amazon.