Thursday, 29 January 2015

Telling Tales: How to become a better storyteller by Lynne Barrett-Lee

Lynne Barrett-Lee’s ten steps to short story writing success

Humans have always told stories. It’s one of the best ways we have of communicating with one another, without the often boring and frequently inconvenient constraints of having to stick to real situations and people. Fiction reminds us that we are not alone. That the truths in our souls are much the same for everyone. That we love, admire, covet, hate and grieve in the same fashion. That we are unique but of like mind, more or less. Fiction allows us to re-write our pasts, understand ourselves better, vanquish our enemies and hope for happier endings. And if it’s not too fanciful a notion, I’ve a theory about why we read and write it; it’s because, outside of religion, our response to fiction is perhaps the closest thing we have to a group consciousness. 

I started my career as an author as a short story writer and have written a huge number of them; for the small press, for creative writing competitions, for pretty much every magazine on the high street, for commissions, and also for myself. What follows is a distillation of what I’ve learned along the way; advice honed over a couple of decades with a lot of trial and error. Hence it’s with a ‘do as I say rather than what I used to do’ caveat that I give you my ten tips for crafting short fiction. Other techniques are, of course, available…

1. Consider what your story is about and what it hopes to achieve. Plan before you start. And always start with the basics. Take your initial idea and then think ‘conflict’ and ‘change’. Without conflict (physical, emotional, moral, whatever) you don’t have story, and if, as a result of it, your character doesn’t undergo change, you won’t have a compelling one either. Note the non-negotiable nature of the relationship between the two. 

2. Plan further. Compile a checklist following the journalist’s credo. You already know why you chose your subject matter; now you need to decide how to turn it into fiction, by asking who, what, when, where, and why. Who is your character? What is your theme? When and where are you setting it? The why is shorthand, if you like, for your story’s raison d’etre. If you don’t yet have one, go back to step one.

3. Consider more Cs. Create compelling characters by giving them a half-decent backstory. You won’t use it, but you need it to understand their motivations. Another C; don’t crowd your story with too many characters. Simplify, always. Curtail the urge to cram too much in generally. Oh, and if you struggle with reining in your bulging imagination, consider become a novelist instead.

4. Arrive late and leave early. (To misquote the playwright David Mamet.) Start in the middle of the action, to grab the reader’s attention, then fill in your backstory discreetly and in small chunks, like vegetables into a fussy child’s bolognaise sauce. At the end, don’t be tempted to elaborate on your punchline, not even a little. Leave the reader to embellish the dot dot dot bit themselves…

5. Let your characters get a word in. Don’t keep muscling in, sounding all bossy and authorial. Let your characters come to life on the page. Dialogue, remember, is a brilliant multi-tasker; to create drama, to display relationships (rather than you having to explain them), to scene set, to heighten tension, to move the plot forward faster, and – see point 4 above – to carry backstory without you having to tell it.

6. Play with style. You have a voice in there. And the only way to find it is to write. Write a lot, and write unselfconsciously. But also test yourself by setting challenges. Try writing in different genres. Try writing a pastiche of favourite author’s style. Try a parody of another you like less. Try writing to order, with a specific readership in mind. You’ll be amazed at how it makes you think about structure and word-choice. You’ll be amazed at how well it makes you focus on what comes most naturally for you.

7. Pay attention to detail. Don’t guess facts or make do. Things I hate: Phonetic dialogue to denote regional accents. Over-egging the pudding, and other icky types of euphemistic sex. Rampant modifiers and adverbs. Big blue skies. Dark brown eyes. Tall dark handsome strangers. Indeed, all collections of lazy, pointless, hitch-a-ride adjectives. Use less. Use more thoughtfully.

8. Develop self-awareness. Decide who it is you are writing for. Some people write for the sheer pleasure of creation, and wholly for themselves. If you’re not one of them it pays to think about your readers. The widest audience will always be achieved by being inclusive rather than exclusive. The most literary might be smaller, but will appreciate the nuances of wordcraft more. Neither is better than the other. Story reigns supreme in both.

9. Don’t edit when your fiction is hot off the press. Edit with a cold eye, by taking your finished masterpiece and hiding it. For as long as possible. Think bolognaise sauce again. When you put the lid on it, it looks like one thing. When you return to it, it will be quite another. An objective editing eye is always best obtained by putting distance between your creative self and what you’ve created.

10. Feel the fear and do it anyway. Start more. Finish more. Send out more stories. Many will come back. Many will never reappear. Most will be unlikely to garner much in the way of glittering prizes. This is normal. You are entering a competitive environment, so it’s not just about talent. It’s about shortening the odds by being more productive than the competition. The phrase ‘writers write’ is not a truism by accident.

So write.

Lynne Barrett-Lee
December 2014

For more advice - Telling Tales: How to Write Sensational Short Stories is available to buy now!
Novel: Plan it. Write it. Sell it is also available for 99p from February 3rd 2015 for a limited time only.

Monday, 26 January 2015

Dr Ivan’s Guide to Writing Like a Real Writer: Part Four: How to Write a Column

by Derek Duggan

Everybody does lots of writing every day. We post on social media sites to let people know that we have something to sell, or that we’ve just seen a cute cat by the road in Winterbourne, or that we caused a huge pile up on the M32 while typing that last post. LOL. Then there are the recipes we jot down, the notes to teachers and the ‘Sorry I Caused a Crash that Left You in Traction For Six Months’ cards that are such a feature of modern life (and which we looked at extensively in Dr Ivan’s Guide to Writing Like a Real Writer: Part Three: Keeping it Light When Apologising for Causing a Massive Motorway Pile Up Near Winterbourne – which I’m sure we’ll all agree was hilarious).

Now that we’ve mastered these skills it’s time to look at writing for magazines, and in particular, that most difficult of pieces, the column. Before we get into the mechanics of it let’s take a moment to think about research. One of the main mistakes that newbies make is that they spend an awful lot of time doing research. You don’t have to do any. At all. Seriously. You’d be surprised at just how easy it is to get people to believe shit that is completely unsubstantiated. In fact, people actively don’t want to read about facts as it just gets in the way of them being wrong. For example - The Paleo Diet – it makes you live much longer as is evidenced by all the cavemen still around and despite what actual research or logic might show up, nobody wants to know. So don’t waste your time.

You may have written some articles already, but you could be doing it wrong. Here is the timeline you absolutely have to follow if you want to write like a real writer and not just be pretentious. We’ll be using the bi-monthly magazine model.

1. Two months before deadline and immediately after you have written the previous article
No sooner will you have hit the send button on the email with your article for the previous edition than five amazing ideas will pop into your head – not just ideas, but pretty much complete articles. So complete are they that you could probably type all five of them into your computer in an hour. The idea that you should actually write them down will cross your mind, but you must never do this. That is not the way of Real Writers. You must instead convince yourself that you’ll be able to improve on these ideas greatly by mulling them over for the next few weeks before writing a single word. If you write even one word at this point I’m sorry, but it means you’re a bit of a dick. Them’s the rules.

2. Three weeks before deadline
At this point you will receive an email from your editor reminding you that it is three weeks to the deadline. You remember that you had five ideas that were essentially ready to go and at this point you may even have a vague recollection of what one of them was. You might think it would be prudent to write the article then and there before the memory of it fades completely, but the mantra of the Real Writer is – Fuck Prudence. Fuck it up its stupid ass.

3. Three days before deadline
You receive another email from your editor to remind you that the article is due in three days. You can’t remember what your idea for an article was, but it’s OK because you have a full three days to play with. You can resist the temptation to sit down and make a few notes and maybe even do a couple of drafts as you will be fully confident that one of the five absolutely brilliant ideas will come back at any moment. Nothing can go wrong.

4.  Deadline
Sit down at your computer and open a blank word document. Then, just to save a bit of time, open the internet. You should definitely have a quick look at Facebook at this point, just to get it out of the way and maybe, just to get the juices flowing, you should find someone who has posted something mental about how drinking three bottles of wine a day is good for you or something. The right thing to do here is to spend the next three or four hours looking up all the research you can find which disproves this and post it on their wall. You’ll be tired after that and will need a rest and there’s always something good on the telly on Deadline Day and it’s not going to watch itself. Anyway, it might give you a good idea for your article. Watch it. Watch the fuck out of it.

5. Two days after deadline
You receive a polite email from your editor inquiring as to the whereabouts of your piece. The Real Writer will say they're just doing a bit of editing and then gik their kaks as they realise they don’t have a fucking clue what they’re going to write about. Open a new word document and spend twenty minutes looking at the blank screen. Amuse yourself during this period by seeing if you can synchronise saying things like Holy-fucking-wankbasket-but-I-haven’t-got-a-fucking-notion-what-I’m-going-to-write-about with the flashing cursor. After this loses its charm you realise that it’s time to bring out the big writery guns: the custard creams. Eat the full packet at breakneck speed which will, obviously, make you lose consciousness, but in a good way. And when you open your eyes there it is! A complete article has magically appeared and you’re safe.
Send it off immediately and then have five brilliant ideas… See step 1.

And that’s it – there’s nothing mysterious about it at all.

Glad I could help.

Sunday, 25 January 2015

SCRIPTS: Fall Down Seven Times, Stand Up Eight

by Ola Zaltin

"So your mother thinks you're a screenwriter; what does Hollywood think?" 

I honestly don't remember where I heard this line the first time, but I know it was a long time ago. Mid-nineties, perhaps, when I was just starting out at as a screenwriter. At the time when all was wonderful, twinkly shiny perfect and new. When the world was wide open and the possibilities were limitless. When I thought I'd have Sharon Stone on speed-dial within the year (yes, that long ago) and rent a modest apartment in Westwood, L.A. and go to meetings with my CAA agent in a not too distant future. I thought Hollywood was just waiting for me to enter center stage, and what my mother thought, well, that didn't really matter that much. When you're 25 you really do know it all.

Alas, this did - for reasons inexplicable - not happen.  Yes, I wrote a handful of short films that film students and film-critics saw. I wrote one feature film, that 7534 people saw. I wrote for an early Danish crime series, and later on for Wallander in Sweden. Meanwhile, some of my friends and former film school mates are making big dollar and working for international shows (Homeland, House of Cards, Wayward Pines, etc). Me, I've been struggling creatively and economically for the last six years. Yes, six (6) years.

So why do I keep doing it, trying to live that writing life?

Well, the easy answer is, of course, that I don't know how to do naught else. I don't even have a license to drive a bus (though I have been checking out what a license costs). I can't teach, coach, draw, interview, delegate, supervise or take memos. Nominally, yes, I could do all of that. But in today's world, I'd need at least a 3-year diploma from university, a fat CV and heavy recommendations just to get me through the door at a job-interview, never mind the gig itself.
That being said, there's another deeper reason to why I'm not quitting this writing life just yet. I'm stubborn and I love it: I'm addicted.

I'm addicted in the worst way. I'm addicted to not knowing how to pay the rent next month (pondering this as I write). I'm addicted to worrying when the next gig will come along. I'm addicted to the next, unknown challenge. I'm addicted to unexpected stuff landing in my lap; a sudden pay-check, a quick translating gig, mentoring a young unknown. Addicted to the idea that pops into my head so hard and immediate that I have to jump off the bus and get out pen and paper and jot it down before I travel on. I'm addicted to pitching crazy stories to bored producers, dreaming up wild new TV series to directors already busy and lying awake at night plotting and planning my next stratagem to resuscitate my so-called career. Sometimes this game is shit, truly really deeply horribly gut-wrenching shit. But when it's brilliant, it outshines everything else. That's why I'm still at it.

As long as you keep going, you haven't failed yet.
Fall down seven times, stand up eight.
Mistakes are proof that you are trying.
Do it now - "one day" is just another word for "never".  

The motivational bullshit is endless.
That being said, there's something to it. We all make mistakes, we all want to give up, we all dream. Hopefully, you keep going.  Myself, I often think of a snippet of dialogue from James Cameron's The Abyss. Hardcore engineer, queen-bitch of the universe Lindsey Brigman, upon starting her descent into the deep is wished 'good luck' by the guys on the surface. Without batting an eye-lid, she responds: "Luck is not a factor."

And it’s the same with many things. Luck isn't a factor, unless you're playing the lotto. Success with writing is keeping at it, day after day, rejection after rejection, year after year. I know some quite successful authors; men, women, Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, Irish, Dutch. They come from different backgrounds, write different genres and styles. But the successful ones have one trait in common: they produce text, non-stop. They are disciplined, they don't give up and they keep at it.

Rejection, failure and adversity comes to all of us. I once met Ed Saxon (long-time producer for Jonathan Demme) who introduced himself to us - this was 1994 - as "Who am I? I'm the guy who said no to producing Jurassic Park. I said to Steven, 'who the hell wants to see a movie about dinosaurs?!'" (See how I get to name-drop and quote someone doing it? Sleekit me.) Anyway, Mr. Saxon was somewhat miffed, given the box-office numbers that movie about dinos achieved.

Thing is, we all go up and we all go down, law of physics. But in the end it's not about luck, it's about stamina, the pure will to persevere. Here's another classic bullshit motivational line: "Success is 90% hard work and 10% talent." The worst part is, it's true.

Win some, lose some: keep at it.
I, for one, shall keep on keeping at it.
And screw Hollywood -  my mother still thinks I'm a screenwriter.

The Industry View - Sam Jordison

Sam Jordison is the author of seven non-fiction books, several of them bestsellers in the UK, and has helped several other writers to publication as an editorial consultant. He is a co-director of an award-winning publishing company, Galley Beggar Press. He is also a journalist who writes for The Guardian and Independent newspapers about books and publishing. He teaches regular workshops on modern fiction at Kingston University.

As a journalist, author and publisher, you’ve been involved in UK book publishing for a long time. What’s your assessment of its current state of health?

Since 2003. Oh God. I'm no longer young.

My view of the state of health of publishing is hard to sum up in a few words. It's complicated and ever changing. In some ways, times are very hard. There's the cancer of Amazon, of course, and all the destruction that has caused. There are the mergers and the slashing of the midlist... But then again, people are still reading and enjoying books. Publishers are still selling them. I like to hope that the loss of independent booksellers has slowed down now and that Waterstones will continue to grow stronger.

I also feel that small scale independent publishers have done a great job of taking the risks that big publishers can't take so easily at the moment. The situation seems to me to be very similar to that of the other pub industry in the UK, the one selling beer. While too many pubs are closing, too many people are losing their jobs and pubcos are doing terrible things to landlords, it's also a golden age for small independents and for people who enjoy drinking quality real ale...

I think the prognosis is okay. I hope it is. But I'm very wary that things are in a state of flux and forever changing and confusing. I'm wary of making predictions.

Do you feel the same way about other media, such as newspapers?

Well! I have similarly confused feelings about the press. I hope that quality papers like The Guardian will start making more money soon. And there are a few good signs among the omens of misery...

In addition to the monthly Reading Group at The Guardian, you run Not the Booker Prize, always interesting and occasionally explosive. Can you explain a little about its origins and pinpoint some of your favourite moments?

The Not The Booker Prize came out of a desire to give Guardian readers some insight and input into the prize giving process. It was meant to be a warts and all exposure of the judgement process - and also an investigation into social media, online campaigning and everything else. Importantly it was also meant to be a good way to find new writers and give them some exposure. The idea was that we'd open up the whole process to readers on our website and see what happened. It's developed a lot over the years and become enjoyably involved as we've done our best to prevent too much funny voting and ensuring that it isn't just the writers with the most twitter followers who triumph.

My favourite moments tend to be reading superb books like Lars Iyers' Spurious or Benjamin Myers' Pig Iron or Simon Crump's Neverland - but there have been plenty of other memorable occurrences. The bad books sometimes stand out almost as much as the good ones (early on a book by James Palumbo managed to find its way into our shortlist, which remains one of the worst things I've ever read). We've also had author meltdowns, crazy things happening on facebook, threats, tears, joy, laughter... It gets quite emotional really.

Galley Beggar Press has published some extraordinary works in the last two years – Simon Gough, Eimear McBride and Jonathan Gibbs were real finds for me – what’s the philosophy behind the company?

Thank you! Our hope is to publish the best quality books that we can find. We believe in good books and good readers. If something is high quality, we believe and hope that people will want to buy it and enjoy reading it. Our tagline is that we're an old fashioned publisher for the 21st century. We're old fashioned because we believe in well-produced print books and taking risks on debut authors. But we also believe in harnessing social media, and digital platforms to enable to do a few different innovative things as well.

And the short story initiative? Another route to discoveries?

Exactly. We've always loved short stories - and early on we set up something called the Singles Club, where we release a short story by a different author as a £1 digital ebook every month. That's helped us launch and work with some fantastic new talents - and hook up with some wonderful readers too. In launching a print line of short stories we're hoping to continue this work.

That said, our first collection is by D.J. Taylor who is already nicely established. Our other feeling is that the short story itself doesn't get enough exposure. We hope to show that we can make a collection like this work.

Galley Beggar first published A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing which went to win The Baileys Women’s Prize last year. Opinions differ on having a prize exclusive to women. What’s your view?

I'm all for it. Partly because I'm all for anything that brings attention to good books, wherever they come from. The more high profile prizes, the better as far as I'm concerned. And the bottom line is that this prize consistently champions fine books.

In case you were hoping for a more political answer, I'd say, the prize does also correct an imbalance. When Angela Carter's Nights At The Circus was published it didn't even get longlisted for the Booker. Something had to be done... Philosophically, I would have no objection to people setting up a bloke's prize as well. But the idea sounds daft doesn't it? And that's very telling...

Let’s talk about your own books. Crap Towns I & II are already favourites, but I’m now curious about Bad Dates and Annus Horribilis. Do you have a fascination with failure?

Yes, I suppose I do. I think failure is very human. There are far more failures in the world than successes, after all... I also enjoy self-deprecating humour. And I suppose writing about other people's failures makes me feel better about my own. Especially when I wrote those two books, I'd spent quite a lot of time failing to make a go of things and being based around by life and circumstances. So it was quite cathartic. (I'm trying to write a book about HG Wells now - he, of course, was the opposite of failure. In fact, funnily enough, I've just written a chapter complaining about how sickeningly successful he was...)

Tell us what you’re looking forward to in 2015 in the world of books.

Is it too glib to say I'm looking forward to being surprised? Obviously I want to read the new Denis Johnson, and Kazuo Ishiguro and I'm over the moon about the Galley Beggar releases we've got lined up. But I'm also hoping for something special that comes out of the blue...

Anything that worries you?

 Amazon worry me.

Reading, writing, publishing, reviewing – surely you have to write a novel? Or perhaps a screenplay?

Ha! I have a few first chapters tucked away. And half a novel that I hope to finish one day. The thing is that reading, writing, publishing and reviewing take up a lot of time. As does writing badly. Maybe if I both win the lottery and get a bit better at not writing badly you'll see a novel...

More from Galley Beggar Press

Guardian Books 

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

60 Seconds with Alison Morton

Alison Morton writes Roman-themed alternate history thrillers with strong heroines. She grabbed a first degree in French, German and Economics in the mid-70s and went back to school for a masters’ in history thirty years later. A ‘Roman nut’ since age 11, she has clambered over sites throughout Europe including the alma mater, Rome.

INCEPTIO, the first Roma Nova thriller, which was also shortlisted for the 2013 International Rubery Book Award, and PERFIDITAS, the second in series, have been honoured with the B.R.A.G. Medallion, an award for independent fiction that rejects 90% of its applicants. Both were finalists in Writing Magazine’s 2014 Self-Published Book of the Year Award.

Alison’s third book, SUCCESSIO, which came out in June 2014, was also awarded the B.R.A.G. Medallion and selected as the Historical Novel Society’s indie Editor’s Choice for Autumn 2014 and Editor’s Choice in The Bookseller’s inaugural Indie Preview, December 2014.

Tell us what genre you write in and why?

Alternative history thrillers. I love thrillers with more than the simple smash-and-chase, and I love historical fiction. I didn’t know you could change or ‘alternate’ the historical narrative until I read Robert Harris’ political detective thriller, Fatherland. So then I turned my idea of a women-led modern Roman society into real stories of action and adventure…

Where do you write?

In an office I designed with my husband. We converted part of the huge basement under our house into a snug working area.

What location most inspires your writing?

Juno! *thinks* The essence of every Roman site I’ve visited since I was 11 years old has embedded itself in my brain, but my favourite is Ostia Antica, Rome’s ancient seaport, because it’s human rather than grandiose.

Which of your books are you most proud of - and why?

Although SUCCESSIO, my latest, has gathered prestigious mentions – Historical Novel Society indie Editor’s Choice and The Bookseller inaugural indie preview Editor’s Choice – INCEPTIO, the first in the series, is the book of my heart. Like its heroine, its journey to publication has stumbled from ignorance via hard work, persistence and overcoming obstacles to reach its goal.

Tell us why you chose to write 'Roma Nova' series?

 The story had been bubbling away in my brain since I was fascinated by my first Roman mosaic pavement at age 11 in north-east Spain. I asked my father, “What would it be like if Roman women were in charge, instead of the men?” Maybe it was the fierce sun boiling my brain, maybe early feminism peeping out or maybe just a precocious kid asking a smartarse question. But clever man and senior ‘Roman nut’, my father replied, “What do you think it would be like?”

How did you handle the research?

In my stories, the standard timeline had diverged 1600 years previously in AD 395. This gave me a known baseline of the end of the fourth century so I researched the social, economic and political conditions of that time. By then, much had changed, even the everyday symbolic, yet practical, things like coinage; solidi had replaced sestertii and denarii, for instance. Regional government was localising with ‘barbarian’ warlords acting less like client kings of Rome and more like autonomous chiefs. The late fourth century was much less secure and prosperous than in the golden years of Vespasian’s or Trajan’s rule.
                     The families who would become Roma Novans held fast to traditional Roman values and religion – a conflict with the eastern, bureaucratic and Christian nature of the empire in AD 395. For a writer, such conflict is delicious!
                     I had to consider what would seem important to the Roma Nova colonists in those transitional times: security, food, and hope, ultimately survival. Their core Roman values would have bolstered them and formed a social glue while they struggled for existence. Next, I had to project the alternative timeline forward in a historically logical way but always with the 21st century in sight. A good general knowledge of/addiction to European history came in very handy!

What has been your proudest writing moment?

Unpacking the first ever box of INCEPTIO paperbacks. My book was real!

What book has most impressed you over the past year?

Okay, I’m going to cheat. Fiction: Lavinia by Ursula K. Le Guin. Non-fiction: Altered Pasts: Counterfactuals in History by Richard J. Evans

Give us a potted history of your route to publication.

When I was watching a terrible film in 2009 and realised even I could write a better story than the one on the screen, Roma Nova poured out of me. My now critique partner made me read aloud to her writing group and encouraged me to join the Romantic Novelists’ Association New Writers’ Scheme.
                   My first book, INCEPTIO, went through the scheme as well as through other professional assessments. I was getting full reads and ‘good’ rejections from agents and small publishers; “fresh, intelligent writing”, " tight dialogue”, “good action sequences”. I even had a full read from a US agent! Most of their concerns were about how to market “such innovative, high concept stories”.
                   I was burning to get my stories in front of readers - they are the ultimate arbiters - so I investigated self-publishing. I wanted my books to have the highest possible production values and in October 2012 opted for assisted publishing with SilverWood Books. In summer 2014, I decided to sign with an agent for subsidiary and foreign rights as feel under-qualified to optimise these. I prefer to spend my time writing!

What are your future writing plans?

Roma Nova book 4, AURELIA, is with my structural editor, who will no doubt have revisions for me, then it goes to the copy editor in late January, with a target publication of May 2015. Meanwhile, on with drafting book 5. Books 6 and 7 are swirling around in my head as I answer this question…

Alison’s web/blogsite:
Twitter: @alison-morton

Crime novelist Nick Stone on winning the Crime Writers’Association’s prestigious Steel Dagger and why he ripped up the rule book for his latest novel: The Verdict.

Interview by Harry Cunningham.

‘The best lawyers are verbal magicians, the second best become politicians,’ says Nick Stone. He is in the middle of telling me what inspired his latest novel The Verdict, a gritty legal thriller set in London. ‘The law is language – words.  As we well know, words can be twisted, and they always are, in every trial.’

The book revolves around a high profile murder case: a woman is found murdered in the hotel suite of multi-millionaire businessman Vernon James. James protests his innocence and in steps Terry Flynt, a junior legal clerk at the firm tasked with representing James. But Flynt hates James’ guts: they were childhood friends until an incident at university destroyed their relationship for good.

It is a major departure from Nick’s previous work: his three part Max Mingus series set mainly in Haiti and Florida.

‘I was determined to make The Verdict as different from the previous three books as possible,’ he explains. ‘Everything had to go, from the Americanised narrative voice, to the setting, to the tense.  That was liberating.  Rip it up and start again. Change is evolution.’

We are e-mailing today, rather than meeting face to face for an interview. His publicist tells me he is too busy even for a quick coffee and it is not hard to see why. Nick has bags of ideas for novels. So much so that he is actually working through a backlog. Book two in in the Terry Flynt series is in the works and he’s already plotting books three and four as well as a standalone set in Haiti and Detroit. It’s no surprise then that though Nick had already planned The Verdict as early as 2005, it would be a further eight years – not until December 2013 – that it was finally published.

‘My initial career plan was to write one book set in the Caribbean, and one set in London – so alternate between noir and legal thrillers – basically an Anglo-Caribbean take on what Michael Connelly’s currently doing. My publisher at the time wanted a Max Mingus series to establish me as a “brand”, so The Verdict went on the backboiler.’  

Indeed the idea initially came to Nick whilst he was working as a legal clerk – like Terry Flynt – at The Old Bailey. ‘The experience of working murder trials on behalf of the defence had a profound effect on me, both as an education and an inspiration. It shattered every single preconception I’d had about the legal system, good and bad. I saw all the wheeling and dealing, the cynicism, the plotting, the primping narcissism of certain barristers (all men), and a wry smile spread across my face, as I thought ‘material!

 ‘The Terry Flynt character wasn’t much of a stretch, because you don’t need any knowledge of the law to be a clerk.  All you basically do is take notes in trials and client meetings – which was my job. Terry is very much an outsider, a layman in a profession very akin to a religion, with its oaths and rituals. 

‘Also, those working at the lower end of the justice system are quasi-invisible. And no one sees more and goes further than someone you don’t notice, and therefore don’t see coming.’

But though Terry Flynt might have been conceived entirely from Nick’s imagination, the character of Flynt’s nemesis – Vernon James – was actually born out of a chance encounter Nick had with an old friend on his way home from work at The Old Bailey  

‘We’d been close as teenagers,’ Nick explains, ‘and I’d been in awe of him because, although we were the same age, he was a good ten years ahead of anybody else I knew in terms of the music he liked, the books he read and the films he watched. He was an individual, an outsider when everyone else was desperate to fit in. I’d only ever wanted to write, but I could see him doing anything – film, music, books, photography – and stamping uniqueness on whatever he chose. 

‘Anyway we went for a drink, and it gradually dawned on me that I was addressing a near stranger. He’d become a rigid conformist. There wasn’t even a hint of the person he’d once been. The brilliance was gone, the edges all blunt. We talked about kids, homes, jobs. And then I told him I was waiting to hear back from publishers about my first book. “I’m glad one of us never gave up,” he said. That made me very sad. Where did it all go?’

Nick was very lucky; he was in the right place at the right time as he already had a job in the law when he decided on writing a legal thriller. But how should as yet unpublished writers go about researching and fact checking their crime novels if they have no experience in either the police or the legal system? I joke about hanging about police stations or courts, badgering barristers and officers with questions!

‘Good luck with that. You’ll either get bollocked or nicked, if it’s a slow day. You can always write to your local constabulary’s press office. Or you could do what I came very close to doing, and volunteering to be a Special Constable. My wife talked me out of it. Fast.  

‘It’s slightly harder if you want to find out about the legal system, because lawyers have to be discreet, for obvious reasons. This is why all legal thriller writers either come from the legal profession, or had some exposure to it. 

‘The law’s a closed society. You have to know – or get to know someone – who’ll take you in.'  

Perhaps one of the most striking things about The Verdict is the setting. Not just The Old Bailey but the whole of London. What is it about the city that compelled Nick to write about it?

‘Location has always been a character in all my books. London’s gone from being bland with pretensions to being the new Manchester (the cradle of modern British civilization), to a fascinating and utterly dysfunctional place in the midst of change. It’s turning into a more polite, slower, less malevolent version of what New York was like in the mid to late 1980s. All the traditional communities like the East End and even Brixton are either gone or on the verge of extinction. 

'The media call it “gentrification”, but it’s really social cleansing. It’s happening by stealth. Estates are being demolished and replaced with private housing. Former residents are offered a chance to buy their way back in, but it’s at prices they can’t afford, so they get relocated out of town. 

'I didn’t consciously set out to write about London’s growing socio-economic divide, but it’s unavoidable because it’s in your face and all around you. Before long this place will be like Blade Runner by Dickens.’ 

Though The Verdict has done well, it was Nick’s debut Mr Clarinet that really launched him into the crime-writing stratosphere. It was awarded the Crime Writers’ Association’s most prestigious award: the Ian Fleming Steel dagger. ‘It was amazing,’ he said. ‘Unfortunately, I didn’t appreciate it as much as I should have done because I had nothing to compare the experience to. It was my first book and I was just starting out. And I also didn’t – couldn’t – realise that that was as good as things were going to get for me for a good long while. 

But The Verdict got nominated for a Gold Dagger this year, and that – if anything – was even better.  I got a couple of good weeks out of the news, took time to cherish the moment, so to speak (in other words, I went to the pub).’

This breakthrough was a long time coming. Nick had known he’d wanted to be a writer since he was twelve years old. Christmas 1978, he writes, recalling watching the TV adaption of The Dain Curse by Dashiell Hammett and being befriended by an assistant who was into crime fiction when he went to buy the book from Heffers in Trinity Street Cambridge the next day. After his first attempt at a novel about a private investigator who battled vampires, he then wrote a novel or a screenplay every eighteen months but always gave up ‘around page 100’.

‘Then in 1994, I met a work colleague on the train on the way to one of those horrible office jobs I told you about,’ Nick explains. He’d worked several jobs before becoming a legal clerk, and all of them, he said had ‘an undercurrent of unpleasantness under the buttoned-down civility…

‘Anyway…I was reading Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish.  My colleague – a bloke with a pony tail called Eric – asked me if it was about S & M. That cracked me up. Then he started telling about this writer he’d been to see at Murder One bookshop the night before. The writer was called James Ellroy. Eric was impressed because Ellroy drew a big dick in his book instead of an autograph.  To shut him up, I asked him which Ellroy book I should start with. “The Black Dahlia”.

‘And I did …

‘And promptly gave up writing altogether. The book was a shock. It completely redefined not just my ideas about crime fiction, but about writing in general. I’d never read anything like it. 

‘I started writing again in 1999, after I’d got back from a year in Haiti, where my mum’s from, and where I grew up until I was 4. I had the idea for what became Mr Clarinet while I was there. 

Despite not having written too much of anything over a three year period, the stuff was just pouring out of me, and my style had completely changed too. But then in May 1999 I met the woman who would become my wife, and just … stopped. I couldn’t write when I was busy falling in love ... It took another four years before I settled down and started work on Mr Clarinet.

Even when he’d finished it though Nick still had to deal with years of rejection like any other writer.

‘In the summer of 1999, I’d sent out a synopsis for the first version of Mr Clarinet and the opening chapters to a variety of agents. I remember waking up the next morning to the sound of about twelve rejection slips hitting the front mat simultaneously. Quite a sound they made too, like a gigantic raw egg smashing. 

I read that RJ Ellory wrote something like ten books before he got published, so perseverance is the key. In fact writing is perseverance.’ It was May 2003 before Nick secured an agent and a further year before he got a publisher.  

Ending the interview, I asked what a bestselling crime author reads in his spare time: ‘My nephew’s just started A-Level History, so I’ve got him reading AJP Taylor’s books on the First and Second World War. And I’m re-reading them so he has a sounding board when or if he ever needs one. AJP Taylor was that rare thing – an academic who could write. And he could be very very funny. 

‘I rate John Grisham very highly, so being compared to him [by fellow crime novelist Mark Billingham] was a real compliment, even if I don’t think I’m in his league – not even close. He’s an underrated stylist. Writing about legal process isn’t easy to begin with, and turning it into the stuff of compelling page-turners is even harder. Yet he pulls it off book after book.

‘Otherwise, I think Gone Girl is the greatest thriller of the 21st Century. All of Gillian Flynn’s books are exceptional, but Gone Girl is a masterpiece.

‘I also rate Cathi Unsworth very highly. Laura Lippmann too.   

‘And, finally, I’m looking forward to the new James Ellroy novel, Perfidia. Ellroy is one of the very few writers whose books I get the day they come out and start reading immediately. Simple reason: he is why I turned to crime (writing). So it’s my way of saying thanks, and keeping in touch with what set on the path I’m on.’

The Verdict (Sphere, £6.99) by Nick Stone is out now in paperback from all good bookstores.

Harry Cunningham is a Freelance Writer and Student. He has written for The GuardianThe Independent The Leicester MercuryWriters’ Forum Magazine and Media MagazineHe is a third year English Undergraduate at Loughborough University where he is a proud member of the Harry Potter society and Trips Chaperone for the Students' Union.

60 Seconds with Kim Hood

KIM HOOD grew up in British Columbia, Canada. After earning degrees in psychology, history and education, she wandered through a few countries before making the west coast of Ireland home.

Her eclectic work experience in education, therapy and community services has presented endless opportunity to observe a world of interesting characters. She has always had a passion for trying to understand life from the perspective of those on the fringes of society.

Her first novel, Finding A Voice, was published by O'Brien Press in 2014 and was nominated for the Guardian YA Prize.    

Tell us what genre you write in and why?

I have stories up my sleeve in quite a few genres, because I read many different genres and ultimately I’ve always written to entertain myself. Technically, Young Adult is not a genre—but that is the age range I am writing for, and both Finding a Voice and the book I am working on now are realistic fiction. For some reason I’m not sure of, the stories I want to tell are about teens.

Where do you write?

Can I tell you where I wish I could write? At this time of year, I dream of a cosy room, penned in by bookshelves on every wall, with the fireplace (which magically never needs to be lit or cleaned). In reality, we have squeezed in a desk beside the bed. I have a heater under the desk instead of a fire, and the books are all over the desk rather than the walls, but it’s grand. I can write anywhere if I need to.

What’s the best thing about being a writer?

The best thing about being a writer are those infrequent times when everything flows and words, sentences, scenes just happen without seeming to have any input from me. That buzz is exactly the same now as it was when I started writing as a child.

And the worst?

While the best part of writing has never changed, the worst part is changing. The worst part about being a writer for me at the moment is the frustration of wanting so badly to do nothing but write, but financially, still needing to work a job that drains me of thoughts.

Tell us why you wrote Finding A Voice?

I know this is going to sound ridiculous, but I wrote this particular book because I couldn’t not write it. I was working on another novel at the time but it wasn’t going well and Jo, the main character in Finding a Voice, was very persistent in insisting that she had something to say. So I decided to stop writing the other novel and give her one month to say it. It took longer than that to write the book obviously, but after a month I was hooked.

What’s your biggest writing nemesis?

The 24 hour clock, or maybe it is not that, but the need to sleep. Trying to balance work, a farm, a family, a new business and writing is proving tricky. Something has to go soon. Not that sleep wouldn’t be replaced by another nemesis! TV is always lurking in the background, threatening to eat up hours.

Which of your books are you most proud of - and why?

Well I guess I have to say Finding a Voice, since it is my only fully-formed, published book! I am proud of it though. It’s a simple story, but in its little way, I think it has quite a lot to say about some of the issues I am passionate about. I love the characters and I am so thankful that other people love them too.

Which YA book do you wish you had written – and why?

I had to think about this question for some time. There are so many YA books that I love to read, or loved to read as a teen, but I don’t wish I had written them. I couldn’t have written them; they were not my stories to tell. In fact, I love those books because they changed me in some way by showing me something I didn’t know (or did know, but needed to know that someone else felt that way too).

Tell us how you heard about you’d been shortlisted for the YA Book Prize?

I got a tiny heads up from O’Brien’s Press about an hour before the announcement and was told I could not say a word. It was torture, as I was starting a 19 hour shift at work exactly when the announcement was to be made! I never use roaming data on my phone, but that day I did. Despite my phone beeping constantly to reiterate that the news was indeed true, I didn’t really believe it for days.

What are your future writing plans?

I am working on a book right now—another YA realism. After that, I have a couple more ideas lurking. All I want to do is write! I am so incredibly thankful for being shortlisted for the YA Book Prize because that boost in profile means so many more people know about Finding a Voice, and the dream of writing full time is becoming a little more possible. For now, I’ll steal any second I have and keep writing.

In Conversation with Sheila Bugler

Sheila Bugler grew up in a small town in the west of Ireland. After studying Psychology at University College Galway, she left Ireland and worked in Italy, Spain, Germany, Holland and Argentina. She now lives in Eastbourne with her husband and two children.

Sheila’s first crime novel, Hunting Shadows, was published in 2013 to widespread acclaim and was the first in a series featuring DI Ellen Kelly. The sequel, The Waiting Game, was published in 2014 and a further four Ellen Kelly books are planned. The novels are set amongst the first- and second-generation Irish community in south east London.

Warm welcome back to Words with Jam, Sheila, and congratulations on the publication of your second novel!
Does it feel different now you have two published novels under your belt? Do you feel like a ‘proper’ established author?

Thank you! I’m not sure how different it feels, really. Of course, it is wonderful and exciting to see my books ‘out there’ and I do love it when I get feedback from complete strangers, telling me how much they’ve loved the books.
         So in that sense, I do feel like an established author. On the other hand, at the risk of sounding a bit pretentious, I started to feel like a ‘proper’ writer before I was ever published.
          I started writing after my second child was born (2006). Like all writers, it took time for me to find my voice and to know what – exactly – I wanted to write about. Once that came together, I really began to believe in myself. I realised this was it: the ‘thing’ I was meant to do with my life. That was the real moment I felt like a ‘proper’ writer.

What have you learned in the journey you’ve taken since the publication of your first book?

Oh… SO much. First, I’ve learned that the hard work and early morning starts and lack of a social life are all worth it. Holding a published copy of a book you’ve written for the first time is a very special moment for every writer.
          Second, before my first book was published, I didn’t properly understand what an immense privilege it is to be where I am right now. Being a published author has enriched my life in ways I’d never have expected. I’ve been overwhelmed by the love and support I’ve had from friends and family. I’ve met a huge number of new people and had experiences I’d never have otherwise had: I’ve been on the radio; I’ve given talks at book clubs, to writers’ groups, at literary events; I’ve met lots of new people and made some great new friends; people I haven’t heard from in years have got in touch; I’ve travelled to places I’d never otherwise have visited. It really has been great fun.
          Finally, I’ve realised your life doesn’t change just because you’ve had a book published. Yes, it’s a thrill. Yes, I’ve met new people and done new things. Apart from that, life goes on pretty much the same. I still have a family who need looking after. I’m still working. And, of course, there’s always another book to write!

Are you learning more about DI Ellen Kelly as the series progresses? Do you see her character developing differently than you first imagined or has she stuck to type?

Her character is developing more or less as I first imagined but I’m also learning more about her as well. I thought I knew Ellen pretty well from the outset, but like all good relationships, ours is developing and I’m finding out new things about her all the time. I still love her, though, and think she’s the sort of woman I’d like as a friend.

Do you know how many books there will be in the series and how the final one ends?

Yes. I’ve planned six Ellen books. I already know what happens in the final book and I am very clear about Ellen’s journey. I know what happens with her search to find her birth mother, I know how Ellen’s sister really died and I know whether or not Ellen finally finds love again. It’s all there in my head waiting to be put into later books.

Having left The Waiting Game on such a knife edge, are you excited about book three and do you know a title or when it will be out?

I’m very excited about the third book. It’s almost finished and I hope to send it to my agent later this month. The working title is All Things Nice but that is subject to change. My publishers always have a strong opinion on book titles.
          The knife edge ending is a difficult act to follow. Like I’ve already said, I know exactly what happens with Ellen and her birth mother. One of the problems I’ve had with all the books is finding enough room in each one to fit that story alongside the ‘main’ story (the crime to be solved).
          I can promise readers that the whole backstory about Ellen’s early life will be resolved by the end of book six. But you may not get all the answers in the third book.

Is there anything you know now that you wish you had known right at the start of your journey as a writer, or anything you wish you’d done differently?

Hmm… good question. I maybe wish I’d known how difficult it is! Is there anything I wish I’d done differently? No, not really. Writing keeps me sane. I never, ever take for granted how lucky I am to be doing this, no matter how difficult it is sometimes.

Which crime fiction novel do you wish you had written – and why?

So many! I am an avid reader of crime fiction and am amazed at the sheer range and quantity of talented authors writing in this genre. Of course, as someone with a particular interest in flawed female characters, I’d love to have written any one of Gillian Flynn’s marvellous novels. Or anything by Megan Abbott – I am a huge fan of her work. I recently read This Dark Road to Mercy by Wiley Cash and was in awe for days afterwards. It’s a stunning novel. Tana French’s latest The Secret Place is another brilliant piece of crime fiction. If I could ever write a book that compares to any of those authors, I’d be really happy.

A lot of your story involves the nitty gritty procedures of police work. How do you handle research?

I don’t really enjoy the research part of crime writing. I have stories banging around inside my head, demanding to be written. For me, research gets in the way of writing. What usually happens is this: I get my story written, it goes to my agent first and then my publisher. Everyone seems pretty happy with it until Rachel Pierce, my lovely editor, gets involved. She is always quick to point out that I have failed terribly on the nitty gritty procedural side of things.
          At that point, I take another look, realise she is right and go about fixing things as best I can. I use the internet a lot and, from time to time, I’ve sent emails to different police stations asking for their advice on particular issues. I also hope that immersing myself in the world of crime fiction (books and TV) might rub off a little bit.

Who is your favourite of your own characters – and why?

Monica Telford in The Waiting Game. I really have no idea where Monica came from. She arrived in my head fully formed and I’ve had more fun writing her than any other character I’ve written.
          I’ve been asked a lot about Monica by people who’ve read the book. The two most frequent questions I’m asked are: is she based on anyone and will she appear in any further books? The answer to the second question is: I don’t know. She’s such a strong presence I can see her demanding to come back at some stage. I always give the same answer to the first question: I couldn’t possibly say!
          There’s a character called Charlotte Gleeson in the new novel and I like her a lot too. Like Monica, she’s terribly flawed but for very different reasons. She’s a failed mother with a drink problem trying desperately to hold onto her crumbling marriage. I’m looking forward to seeing what people think of her.
          Like a lot of crime writers, I had a very happy childhood. I have no idea what draws me to explore the darker sides of the human psyche but I am endlessly fascinated by it.

Do you think you may ever step away from crime fiction one day and write in a different genre? If so, what would you like to write and why?

I can’t ever see myself writing a novel that isn’t crime fiction at some level. I do dabble with short stories, however, and – apart from one – the stories I’ve written so far are not crime fiction. Although they do all have a darkly damaged woman at the heart of each one…

What books are in your ‘to-be-read’ pile at the moment?

So much! Home by Marilynne Robinson, another Wiley Cash novel, anything I haven’t yet read by Denise Mina, Seamus Heaney poetry, The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, are a few that are currently sitting in my to-be-read pile.

What three pieces of advice would you offer to up-and-coming writers today?

--Set yourself a daily word count and stick to it. No matter what.
--Write every day. Don’t use a job or kids or anything else as an excuse. If you try hard enough, you can find the time to do this. I wrote my first novel by getting up at five o’clock each morning. It was hell, but I did it.
--Do listen to feedback from people you respect. No matter how much raw talent you have, you can always do better. If people don’t like what you’re writing, listen to them, take their feedback on board and use it to improve your writing.
--Read On Writing by Stephen King and How to Write a Novel by John Braine. They’re the two best books you’ll ever read about the craft of writing.
--Read widely. You can’t be a good writer unless you’re a good reader.
--Don’t give up. Overnight success is an illusion. Keep going, keep writing no matter how many rejections and setbacks you get.

Can you tell us your future writing plans?

So many plans, so little time…
          There will definitely be two further Ellen books. The third is almost written and I’ll be starting the fourth one straight after that. I have the first six books already mapped out so, fingers crossed, someone will also want to publish the final two. After that, who knows?
          As well as the Ellen series, I’ve written two stand-alone crime novels and I’m putting together ideas for a new crime series too, set on the south coast. I’ve got some ideas for YA crime novels too. 
          The problem for me is a head bursting with ideas and no time to get them all down on paper. I’m dreaming of the day that will change and I’ll be able to write full time. It may never happen but I have to believe it will. For now, at least!

Prize Idiocy by Sarah Bower

The culture of literary prizes

There are many oddities and anomalies in the writer’s life, not least the seemingly unbridgeable gulf between the gibbering lunatic hunched over her keyboard in her pyjamas at three in the afternoon, surrounded by mugs of cold tea and biscuit crumbs (oh, and don’t you just yearn for the days when it was whisky dregs and fag ends!), and that poised person in front of the microphone at some awards dinner, clutching flowers and svelte in her little black dress and kitten heels. Of course, the writer’s life is much like anyone else’s in many ways. Writers pay taxes, go to the supermarket, forget to feed the cat, struggle with their children’s maths homework, put up shelves, bake cakes, blow up car tyres… You get the picture. But the gibbering in pyjamas and the whole flowers/podium/ little black dress thing are the extremes, and, as a fiction writer, I deal in extremes, even when they are of the silent screaming kind.

Silent screaming might be said to epitomise my attitude to literary prizes. There will be those among you who will attribute this to the taste of sour grapes in my mouth. I have not won any literary prizes of note, and I am under no illusions about my chances of doing so – I’m a woman, for starters, and I didn’t go to Oxbridge. But you would be wrong. I would not want to win a major literary prize. In fact, I would like to think I would have the strength of mind to put my money where my mouth is and refuse to allow my books to be submitted to any prize committees. This is not to imply criticism of those writers whose books do win prizes. I count several among my acquaintance who have won major prizes, and I am delighted for them. It brings them deserved recognition and even more deserved boosts to their bank balances. Their success, however, and my friendship, do nothing to diminish my profound discomfort with this particular aspect of the writer’s life.

I happened to be brunching recently with a group of friends from various walks of literary life and mentioned my intention to write about the ‘problem’ of literary prizes. Immediately, an enthusiastic debate developed – about the traditional profile of the Man Booker winner (white, male, middle class, privately educated, Oxbridge), about whether or not the Baileys still has a place in the world now Hilary Mantel wins the Man Booker every other year, the effects on the prize-winning demographic of American and post-colonial writers (whom some might see as one and the same…) A crime writer among us stuck in her Golden Dagger on behalf of prizes for genre novels. Another parried with the suggestion that literary fiction is surely just another genre and that anyway, it’s all meaningless and imposed on the amorphous population of bookshops by publishers’ marketing departments, not to mention by Amazon and whatever terrifyingly hilarious algorithm ‘personalises’ purchasers’ pages. ‘if you liked The Luminaries, you might enjoy Astrology, Karma and Transformation: Inner Dimensions of the Birth Chart . It was with some relief we shifted to less controversial topics like Islamic extremism and freedom of speech.

Our conversation both missed my point entirely and reinforced it. Literary prizes are divisive and misleading. Their existence promotes not so much the joys of fiction and poetry as the horrors of literary prizes. You have only to look at the eligibility criteria for the Man Booker or the Baileys to understand how the prize culture perpetuates itself. In both cases, if your publishing house has had previous winners, you can submit more titles for consideration in subsequent years. According to figures compiled by The Guardian in 2014, if you have been a Man Booker judge, your chances of nomination increase significantly. Literary prizes have a tendency to swallow their own tails.

Does this matter? On the limited evidence I have assembled here, you might legitimately argue that it doesn’t, that the world of literary prizes is so closed, so arcane, that it can be ignored with impunity. But that argument quickly falls apart when you pause to consider the effect of longlists and shortlists on readers. Books which are listed for, or win, prizes are peddled furiously by their publishers and by booksellers. This feeds an idle, uncritical tendency in some readers who, bewildered by the array of books now available to them, in print or electronic format, plan their reading around prize lists. According to the Guardian piece to which I referred above, sales of prize-winning and listed books invariably enjoy massive increases and, although I doubt it would be possible to obtain anything more than anecdotal evidence for this, the increase is very likely at the expense of sales of books outside the golden circle created by the self-consuming serpent. The prize system manipulates readers in ways which can narrow their experience, limit their enjoyment and stunt their critical faculties. Surely, whatever goes on inside the circle, this fall-out is a troubling pollutant.

As a writer, and thus with at least a toe inside the circle, my discomfort also has other sources. Although prizes for generic fiction are less tainted in this way than others (but not, in my view, entirely untainted), looking at the big prize shortlists for 2014, it’s impossible to avoid the conclusion that they are trying to compare apples and pears. Exactly what can Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North, winner of the 2014 Man Booker Prize, have in common with its fellow shortlistee, The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer? One is an account of the experience of prisoners of war on the Burma Railroad, the other the story of a mentally ill teenager in contemporary Britain. Flanagan is one of Australia’s foremost novelists, with a string of substantial successes behind him. Filer is a British newcomer. Likewise, Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing shares hardly any points of comparison with Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, except that both are conventionally defined as novels and both were shortlisted for the Baileys Prize in 2014 (but not for the Man Booker. Evidence of continuing male bias? Or does the very existence of the Baileys mean that publishers don’t push books by women authors to the Man Booker judges?) McBride’s pared-down, almost pre-conscious voice also shares little or nothing with the mad, rococo exuberance of Sergio De La Pava’s A Naked Singularity, even though both appeared on the inaugural Folio Prize shortlist. (Do they breed, these prizes, in their foetid, incestuous golden circle?) It is, as far as I can see, utterly meaningless to lump a group of books together on the spurious basis that they are the ‘best’ novels published in a particular year.

At least the Costa has the decency to offer prizes in different categories: best novel, best first novel, best poetry book, best children’s book, best biography. In 2013, incidentally, Nathan Filer won the best first novel award. In 2014, Helen McDonald’s – admittedly utterly wonderful – H is for Hawk won both the Costa Best Biography and the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction. Does literary incest raise its head again here? But I digress. The point I wanted to make is this. Having helpfully categorised its submissions for us, the Costa then goes on to pick, from its five incomparable and un-comparable winners, a Book of the Year! How? I, for one, have no idea.

My final, and most serious reservation about the culture of literary prizes is that it creates an unhealthy environment for writers. Yes, of course, the prize money and increased sales figures can transform the lives of winners by giving them a big enough financial cushion to pursue their craft without having to work in the local pub or (in my case, at one point) on a market stall. But this good fortune can also have the effect of setting writers against each other. It breeds resentment. I am not suggesting that writers, as a community, are any more or less prone to mealy-mouthed envy than any other group in which there is a hierarchy of reward. Bankers may be worse, clergy better. Or it could be the other way round. Writers, however, like all artists, but especially those who pursue a solitary creative process, live, I believe, with a particular precariousness and frailty. Up to a point, this may be a prerequisite for creativity. Beyond that point, however, it can induce creative paralysis and a crippling lack of self-esteem. If we are condemned to live and work in a world in which recognition is only granted to the golden – and perhaps quite random – few who win prizes, I do not believe most of us can function at our best.

Now,  I do not inhabit cloud cuckoo land. Like Sir Thomas More (reputation dismantled by the Man Booker-festooned Hilary Mantel), I may write about Utopia and still end up with my head cut off. I am fully aware that human beings are by nature competitive, and wouldn’t have achieved our domination of this planet if we weren’t. I doubt very much that any literary prize administrator happening across this article will be overcome by a bout of self-flagellation and call for the banishment of literary prizes. But a cat may look at a king, and every now and again it does the king no harm if she growls and flexes her claws a little.

Sarah Bower won a national children’s short story competition when she was nine. She blames her parents. She never would have entered the competition off her own bat. Oh no.

Monday, 19 January 2015

Word on the Water - London's unique book barge

by Catriona Troth

It sounds like something from Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere – a floating bookshop run by the ‘Professor’, the ‘Doctor’ and a mysterious French ‘Captain’. But you don’t have to fall through a door into London Below in order to find Word on the Water. It is moored, currently, in Granary Square, the recently developed space between the Regents Canal and Central St Martin’s University of the Arts, a short stroll from King’s Cross and the British Library.

Word on the Water is a small but eclectic second-hand bookshop whose home is a 1920s Dutch barge. One of its three co-owners, Jon Privett (‘The Professor’) has been selling books on a stall at Archway Market, called Word on the Street, for 23 years.

Five years ago, he and Paddy Screech (‘The Doctor’)were both living on the canals. Paddy was looking for a way to escape from his 9-5 office job, while Jon was looking for a way to expand his market stall. Between them they came up with the idea of a book barge.

By chance, at the right time, they spotted a ‘for sale’ sign on an old Dutch barge. They approached someone for a loan to buy it and were refused. But the suggestion was made that they ask the owner if they might rent the barge.

This turned out to be an inspired idea. The owner was a Frenchman, Noye (‘The Captain’). He was willing to rent them the boat – provided he could be a silent partner in the business. Noye’s artistic and mechanical flair allowed them to refit the whole boat, equip it with shelves inside and out, and fill it with small delights – like the insides of a grand piano that form a sail-like backdrop to one of the boat’s external displays of books.

Word on the Water opened on 14th July, 2011, at the Shoreditch Festival. For the first three years of its existence, it moved around from location to location, including spending time at the Olympic Floating Market at Mile End during 2012. But, as Jon tells me, it was getting harder and harder to find places to moor. The canals were becoming more and more crowded, and they were spending more time mending and moving than they were selling.

Then they stumbled on a spot outside Paddington Station. It was ideal – too industrial to be attractive as a residential mooring, but perfect for trade, with plenty of footfall from people coming to and from Paddington station.

The partners made a proposal to London’s Canal and River Trust (CaRT), asking them for a permanent mooring at Paddington and suggesting that they set up a floating market. CaRT gave them permission to stay while they considered their idea. But then, towards the end of 2014, they decided to put the concept out to tender, and asked Word on the Water to bid at auction for their own idea. As it happened, they were outbid by a major property company, British Land, which already owns several development sites around Paddington.

And this was when Word on the Water really hit the headlines. Signatures were collected on a petition protesting the decision. The story was covered by, among others, Ham and High, Private Eye, London Live and BBC London, and it began to look as if the protest might succeed. After all, CaRT is a charity and needs public support. However, although they agreed to meet Word on the Water when the petition reached five thousand signatures, CaRT stood by their decision.

So for the moment, Word on the Water have been offered this mooring at Granary Square. However, there is, as yet, no guarantee that this will be allowed to become permanent either. Meanwhile, the partners are also talking to CF Commercial about a possible role in the Here East development at the Olympic Park. In a few months time, the book barge might have a choice between of two permanent moorings. Or it might again be homeless.

On the day I visit, the present temporary mooring at Granary Square seems idyllic. It is cold, but the sun is shining on the concrete steps leading down to the canal, giving it the feel of an amphitheatre. The speakers on top of the barge are playing Edith Piaf – a small tribute to Paris in the week after the Charlie Hebdo murders.

I am greeted first by Star, a friendly collie-cross determined to get in on the action, and then by Jon Privett, who leads me through to the children’s section in the bows, where there is a comfortable bench seat and a woodburning fire keeping the place cosy. As he settles down to tell me the history of the barge, I can feel the boat moving very gently underneath us.

Following the furore over the Paddington mooring, Word on the Water has become the centre of an online community of support, and Jon is enjoying it.

“I’d never even been online before I started this. But now, I can post a picture about a book that’s just come in, make some comment about it, and before I know it, there’s a hundred ‘likes’ and a dozen comments. People know about the barge who'd never have heard of it before.”

In spite of everything, Jon is clearly an optimist. “A few years ago, it was all doom and gloom. It was all Amazon this and ebooks that, and people predicting the end of the industry. But that’s changing. People are starting to value books that are beautiful and well made.

“Bookselling used to be a lazy job,” he tells me. “You set out some books and people came and bought them. It’s not like that any more. You have to offer people something different. An experience.”

Word on the Water is certainly an experience. The small space is packed with treats for the eye. The crimson upholstered armchair. The tiny, exquisite model of a library, sculpted from paper and mounted in a book ancient Olivetti typewriter. And the stock is a treasure trove. Apart from the children’s section, it’s kept in no particular order.

“We used to keep everything organised. But customers would move things. You could have everything laid out from A-Z in the morning, and by the end of the day it would be a shambles again. So now we don’t bother.”

Keeping a bookshop on a barge has its own unique problems. Halfway through our interview there’s a shout from a passing boat - a book has been spotted in the water. Jon rushes up on deck to fish it out and brings it back down to dry by the stove.

The books comes from a mixture of direct donations and books that come via charity shops. “Some shops let us have first pickings of any new donations.” And their pricing system is simple - £5 for a hardback and £3 for a paperback. But don’t be fooled into thinking that means the books are any old rubbish. A quick browse and I’ve snatched up three – a beautiful hardback called Writers in Black and White, featuring contributions from authors such as Alex Wheatle, Joanne Harris, Hanif Kureishi and Jim Crace, and paperback copies of Monique Roffey’s White Woman on a Green Bicycle and Jane Harris’s Gillespie and I – and I have to tear myself away before I spend any more.

“What is the most exciting book you ever found in a box of donations?” I ask. Jon cites a first edition Gormenghast, “in such perfect condition it looked like a fake.” And a beautiful Art Deco Madame Bovary he has kept for himself. “But I love them all,” he says. “Often it’s the combinations,when I can’t believe I found this with that.”

Which sounds like a perfect description of the experience of browsing Word on the Water’s stock. So if you are in the neighbourhood of King’s Cross, give it a try while you still can. Because despite Jon’s optimism, the book barge’s future is not yet secure.

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