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.

Wednesday, 30 March 2016

Inside the Mind of an Author: with Richard Beard, Emma Healey and the National Academy of Writing

by Catriona Troth

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I attended my first Public Edit with the National Academy of Writing (NAW).

NAW was set up to give writers the chance to learn directly from other writers. It is not linked to any university, and does not issue degrees or certificates. But it does offer an exciting range of events and courses of varying lengths. This particular event – run in conjunction with Writers & Artists and held at the London offices of Bloomsbury Publishing – was my first taste of what they had to offer.

NAW Public Edit

We had been invited to submit short pieces of writing, of which two would be selected at random for editing. But what sort of editing were we in for? Presumably it would be more than just an exercise in proofreading, but would we just be given a lecture of the overuse of adverbs, or would this go deeper?

We had all been sent the selected texts in advance, so we could read them through and form our own ideas. The person guiding us through the edits that evening was novelist and Director of NAW, Richard Beard. I was impressed that he immediately focused on the type of work it was – its genre, in the most specific sense – and then examined the issues that arose from that, with concrete examples from the texts presented.

The first text selected was the opening chapter of an intriguing piece of speculative fiction by Felicia Yap – whose book I am now eagerly awaiting.

Beard identified two key issues for speculative fiction. First you have isolate the essential difference between your world and the normal world, push the consequences of that difference to the limits, drilling down and asking all the questions a reader might ask. Secondly you must be wary of raising other types of questions, especially early on, because the reader will have enough uncertainty to deal adjusting to this new world. If you achieve both things, the reader will sense your confidence in your world and trust you to lead them through it.

The second piece was a more straightforward contemporary short story, written in reportage style. Here the issue Beard skewered was the danger of letting a character, ‘look away,’ ‘say nothing,’ or ‘have no idea.’ All of those, he said, are lazy writing that make a character look weak or passive. Much better to get inside the character's head and work out what idea they DO have.

POSTSCRIPT: Very excited to hear that the UK and Commonwealth rights to Felicia Yap's book have been snapped up by Headline’s Alex Clarke ahead of LBF2016. Not a bit surprised, after reading the 'taster' here.

A Glimpse inside Emma Healey’s Notebooks

The second part of the evening was truly fascinating. How much would you give to have a peek inside the notebooks of one of your favourite writers? Well, that was that opportunity we had, as Emma Healey, author of last year’s Costa First Novel Award winner Elizabeth is Missing, opened the doors to her writing process.

And yes, I do mean a literal peek inside her notebooks. Despite what you might expect of today’s computer born generation, 23 year old Healey is still wedded to physical notebooks, for collecting notes, for sketching drafts, and for organising her editing. She showed us snapshots from those treasures, and even handed round copies of her colour-coded and hand-annotated planning charts for Elizabeth’s dual timeline.

Intriguingly, those notebooks included plans of Maud’s house, in the present and during the war, and a town plan made, apparently, from cutting and pasting a map of Bournemouth to bring things closer together.

Plans of Maud's House (photo oourtesy of Clare Povey)

Healey confessed to being a disorganised writer, whose daily writing routine rarely matched the idealised one she set herself. She is also clearly a very visual writer, who uses pinboards full of pictures to inspire her and give depth to her descriptions.

“The picture might have nothing to do with your story, but they might suggest colours or textures or the way someone sits ...”

She is a squirrel, keeping a ‘commonplace book’ of photos, newspaper articles and other things that have caught her attention, and writing down snatches of overheard dialogue wherever she goes. And she is also a great believer in physical research. For Elizabeth, she not only spent time talking to people in care homes, but with impressive attention to detail, also put an advert in the Bournemouth local paper to make sure that she knew both the process and the physical surroundings.

When it came to editing, Healey described her processes, which included:
  • Reading it over and over
  • Reading out loud
  • Reading it at one sitting (even if it takes all night)
  • Printing it out so you’re not just reading on the screen
  • Asking questions
  • Creating timelines and checking against them
And then, of course:
  • Independent proofreading and copy editing
Inside the cover of one of her ‘editing’ notebooks, she had pinned a list of things to check for.

  • Prepositions (something she is inclined to overuse, apparently)
  • Repetition
  • Texture (how to add it)
  • Observation (ditto)
  • Linking back (to earlier scenes via objects etc)
  • Misremembering (Elizabeth’s)
  • Uncanniness
  • Physicality
  • Progression of symptoms (of Alzheimer's)

Healey’s willingness to reveal herself was refreshing and inspiring. If other guest authors are as frank and entertaining, I can highly recommend booking yourself onto another of these events, should the opportunity come your way.

Wednesday, 23 March 2016

Weaving Stories with Just Write

Just Write at the launch of their second anthology
by Catriona Troth

Many writing groups have produced anthologies of short stories, and many of those have had common themes running through them. But the members of the Just Write group, based in Amersham, Buckinghamshire, set themselves a far more intriguing challenge.

All twenty stories in Spilling the Beans take place in a single day in the same coffee shop. And each one, from 'Ristretto' to 'Hazelnut Steamer', has the title of a drink served in the shop. More than that, the same characters weave in and out of the stories, brushing up against one another’s lives – sometimes colliding, sometimes barely noticed.

In many ways, this anthology has more in common with serial novels such as Alexander McCall Smith’s 44 Scotland Street. Many of the stories are not self contained. They leave tantalising loose threads, some of which are picked up later, while others trail out of the coffee shop into a future we are invited to imagine. Taken singly, this might make for frustrating reading, but the pleasure in this anthology comes from the way the stories weave together into a satisfying whole.

Their second anthology, Delayed Reaction, based on the same principle of interlocking stories (this time focused on passengers trapped on a delayed train) was published in November 2015. And they are now in the process of planning a third. I joined them to find out how the original concept was born, and how they go about planning and executing such a complex project.

The germ of the idea came from the creative writing class (led by author Sally Norton) where the Just Write group all met, explains Lesley Close.

“Sally had given us an exercise to write about one scenario – a theft – but from the point of view of different witnesses. We thought this would be a fun idea to recreate during the first long summer holiday out of class.”

The idea for a subject to tackle then grew out of a story by group member, Liz Losty.

“Liz wrote a great story about an elderly woman coming into a coffee shop, asking for ‘a cup of coffee’ and then being bamboozled by the array of strange sounding options she was confronted with.”

That seemed to spark something. That same day, the group came up with a list of drinks you could buy at a coffee shop and divvied them up between them. As all the stories would take place in one day, moving from opening to closing, they also worked out a timetable for when the drinks would be ordered.

After that, each writer was free to decide what sort of character might order that drink, and to develop their stories wherever their imaginations led. A certain amount of back story was permitted, but as little as possible outside the door of the cafe, and nothing beyond the single day. Once the stories were written, they were submitted to the group for critiquing and to ensure that the stories all work together.

“You must be flexible,” author Emma Dark says. “There has to be a willingness to tweak your story to fit in with others.”

Even with so much preparation, they soon realised even more advance brainstorming could have helped.

“One author came up with a vivid description of the shop, which then had to be incorporated, to a greater or lesser extent in all the other stories.”

That was a lesson they took to heart when it came to planning Delayed Reaction. Before starting to write, they fixed the day and date for the event, chose a genuine train service (15:08 from King’s Cross to York), and decided exactly where the train would stop. Close did a recce to provide a description of the train and of the landscape through which it would pass. They even spoke to a railway engineer to iron out technical details.

From brainstorm to publication, each anthology takes many months in development. After brainstorming, they write their stories through the winter, giving themselves a final deadline in May. The combined manuscript is then edited over the summer, and with the first manuscript proof delivered in September. They then go to press in October, ready for Christmas sales.

When it came to the publication of Spilling the Beans, they wanted to raise money for charity, and a close connection of one of the writers to a patient at Royal Marsden Hospital made it the obvious choice. This undoubtedly opened a lot of doors for them and the anthology is now stocked in various locations (including two local hotels, who keep copies in every bedroom). As a result they have, to date, raised £1k for Royal Marsden, and helped to purchase a special ultraviolet room steriliser for the hospital. That connection has continued with Delayed Reaction.

For their paperback copies, the group has chosen to use short-run printing, rather than print-on-demand. Short-run printing is often out of the reach of a solo self-published author, but as a team, they can split the cost, and know that they can each shift a certain number of books themselves.

One of the strengths of both the anthologies has been the unified design of the books, the work of group member Stuart Tennant, who has a background in design, and his colleague Oliver Payne. It shows in details such as the line drawing of a cup or glass that opens each story in Spilling the Beans, and the little pattern of coffee beans that closes them. That book even finishes with a ‘Closed’ sign rather than ‘The End.’

It is this sort of attention to detail, together with impressive planning and organisation and a willingness to cooperate and function as a team, that has led to Spilling the Beans winning Writing Magazine’s Writers’ Circle Anthology Award 2014.

Read my review of Spilling the Beans on Book Muse UK.

Wednesday, 16 March 2016

Snapshots from... Jerusalem

By JJ Marsh

In our regular series, international writers share some snapshots from their part of the world. This issue, Gali-Dana Singer shows us around Jerusalem. All images courtesy of Gali-Dana Singer.

What’s so great about Jerusalem?

That’s a difficult question. The answer seems so obvious and yet it is not the right answer, or, let us say, for the very reason of its obviousness it’s not the right one. And yet everyone living here is obliged to answer this question time after time. Perhaps, that’s what is so great about Jerusalem. It’s forever residing in an eternal state of self-doubt that’s not exactly bliss, yet all the more is a thing of existential value. Although I can’t prove it, I believe it utterly that all the city dwellers and even all the city guests have a complete picture in their heads of a ‘proper’ Jerusalem, ‘true’ Jerusalem, even ‘real’ Jerusalem that is constantly shattered by Jerusalem herself (cities are feminine in Hebrew and as it so perfectly suits the city of Jerusalem, I would like to keep the gender intact in English also), and all the city’s horses (we have quite a few here, and not only police) and all the city’s men can’t put these lovely images together again. Strangely enough, no city dweller and no city guest can wholeheartedly put these broken images to rest, they are nursing them as tenderly as the greatest of their grievances, they are prepared to guard them with their lives and keep them in mind always, once and again trying to prove one shred or other comparing it with what their senses can sense and their memories remember. And yes, we are all unproportionally attached to the tangible city of our sensations and to the intangible city of our recollections.

Everybody can tell you where to find the best of everything, the nicest cafes, the quietest bookshops, the most original taxi drivers and the most friendly souk sellers. The funniest thing is that it is already here, not in imagination.
Everybody who lived long enough myself included can tell you stories about Jerusalem ten or twenty or hundred years ago, Jerusalem’s tradesmen and craftsmen, tastes and smells, riches and rich, homes and homeless.

Everybody or everybody whom I know is complaining about the changes Jerusalem goes through and for a good reason. Once I became too depressed by the ruination of the so called New Jerusalem, the part of the city built in the second half of the nineteenth century, where I live together with an artist and writer Nekoda Singer and our two dogs Deca and Basho; so we decided (Deca and Basho were not involved in this decision) to send a questionnaire to different people from all over the world who have some connection to our city asking them what they feel about this ‘new destruction of Jerusalem’ and then published their answers in our bi-lingual Russian and Hebrew e-zine.

Contrary to my expectations, we got less elegiac responses and more stoic ones. One of the apparent things that I overlooked before and got straight thanks to this questionnaire was the sad fact that this process is going everywhere. Nevertheless, when all is said and done, Jerusalemites tend to think that Jerusalem is somewhat special and in my heart of hearts where I store the shreds of my ‘true’ Jerusalem I cherish the slightly grotesque picture where all those responsible in their future reincarnations will faithfully rebuilt with their own bare hands and according to the old plans and photos the buildings and streets they annihilated.

In spite of this spiteful vision of mine, I must tell that there is a strange harmony between these two cities that we can continue to name traditionally the earthly Jerusalem and the heavenly Jerusalem, even if the heavenly one is crushed to pieces.

“There is nothing so whole as a broken heart...” told Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk and I choose to hope that it is also true for broken cities and dreams.

Tell us a bit about the cultural life of the place.

It’s many-layered. Of course, like everywhere else in the big cities there are many different festivals, art festivals, writers' festivals, music and theater festivals and we have our Light Festival, the novelty that became very popular over the world in the last decade. On a smaller scale and I would say on a deeper one there are poetry and prose readings in little bookshops, cafes and galleries, home concerts, street performances, intimate gatherings when people meet each other to talk about Greek poetry or I Ch’ing or some other equally exciting stuff .

What’s hot? What are people reading?

I have an on-going photo-series that is called ‘People of the Book(let)’, it includes hundreds of images of readers in parks, cafes, at bus stops and on the go. Sometimes I use zoom to find the titles of the books they are reading, so I’m well prepared to give you the list. You can find anything from Maimonides to The Master and Margarita’ by Bulgakov, from fathers of Church to ‘Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell’ by Susan Clark, from ‘Romeo and Juliet’ to ‘A Tale of Love and Darkness’ by Amos Oz, from ‘Pamela’ by Samuel Richardson to ‘Dancing arabs’ by Sayed Kashua, and so on. You can also be sure to meet many prayer books and Talmud volumes even on the streets.

I have another series ‘Books found and lost’ that shows which books people don’t read anymore and throw away. But luckily, there is nearly always somebody willing to give them a good home.

Can you recommend any books/poems set in Jerusalem?

My favourite ones are ‘Summer in the Street of the Prophets’ by David Shachar and other novels from his eight-novel sequence ‘The Palace of Shattered Vessels’, ‘The Name’ by Michal Govrin, short prose by Else Lasker-Schuler, Dennis Silk and Gabriel Levin, ‘The Drafts of Jerusalem’ by Nekoda Singer, poems by Dan Pagis, Harold Schimmel, Israel Eliraz.

Who are the best known local writers?

Shall I say King David? or his son Solomon? or the prophets? It’s hard to decide.

Is the location an inspiration or distraction for you?

Both. It’s just my life.

What are you writing?

Just now I’m more translating than writing. I’m working on two poetry books to be published soon in Russia, one by Yona Wallach and the other one by Hezi Leskli. And moving in the different direction i.e. translating from Russian into Hebrew I’m working also on two different projects, but as they are at earlier stages of preparation I don’t want to mention the names yet.

Sum up life in Jerusalem in three words.

Everything. Nothing. Anything. In that order.

Bi-lingual e-zine edited by Gali-Dana and Nekoda Singer (in Hebrew) (in Russian)

Gali-Dana Singer’s poetry book in English

Gali-Dana’s page on Flickr

Nekoda Singer’s web gallery

The story from ‘The Drafts of Jerusalem’ by Nekoda Singer