Wednesday, 23 May 2018

Who Needs an Editor?

Patricia Jones, author, and Mary Rensten, editor, talk candidly about their Author/Editor relationship.

* * * * *

PATRICIA: When the email arrived there was already champagne in the crystal flutes as a family celebration was in full flow. My glass was refilled and an extra toast proposed: to the success of Threads of Life, my debut novel, which had just been accepted by SCRIPTORA – the publishing branch of the Society of Women Writers & Journalists.

MARY: Yes, definitely time for celebration!

It was three years since Patricia had sent me the original manuscript and a quick look through the 360+pages and the list of 47 characters had told me straight away, that if this novel - about the creation of a small town's Heritage Tapestry and the interwoven stories of the families whose women stitched it - was any good, then Patricia and I could be in for a long haul ... something she did not appreciate at the time.

PATRICIA: Although I had read, re-read, edited and re-edited Threads in the weeks before submitting it to SCRIPTORA in 2015 there followed months of emails and conversations with Mary, followed by critiques – mostly constructive - from Professional Readers, then re-writes and more phone calls and emails resulting in further re-writes.

MARY: And some of it was tedious, even stressful, both for author and editor! (Do have a look on Google at Writing Tips from Stephen King, Helen Dunmore, Zadie Smith and others: they all stress the necessity and importance of re-writing.)

PATRICIA: At times, as the writer who has laboured and sweated, and even had the odd sleepless night, shaping the plot, creating and developing the characters and the novel’s setting until they have become as real as the local high street, the suggestions for alterations to the manuscript can seem rather harsh.

MARY: Of course they can, and I fully understand, but if the writer wants the book to be published, these things have to be done!

PATRICIA: I had devised a kind of who’s-who for the various families as an aide memoire for the prospective readers. Mary wasn’t happy with this, and advised me, in the nicest possible way, to scrap it. This disappointed me; readers within my local writers’ group had appreciated it as it helped them to get to know the characters and their relationships with each other. However, when Mary mentioned the who’s-who to some of her writing friends they approved; it was back in at the start of Threads!

MARY: Yes, I was wrong there. A novel with numerous characters in family groupings does need a cast list. In the end Patricia and I settled for a shorter list, which excluded most of her minor characters.

PATRICIA: Your characters become real friends - even the more dubious or dodgy ones - and you understand and feel for them and go along with their foibles, and having to part with them can be extremely harrying ... and at times maddening and upsetting.

An editor is there to advise and guide the writer, especially with a debut novel, but it was with a feeling of great sadness and a real sense of loss when I was asked to 'lose' a whole family including a newborn baby. And then there was Sheila, a character who was both forthright and practical, but also had to go. The problem was that I needed a down-to-earth character to sort out problems with the stitching and rein in Madam Chairwoman when her ego and her grandiose ideas for fundraising for the Heritage Tapestry were way beyond the committee’s budget. Who was going to fill this function now Sheila had been scrapped? Luckily a rather prissy, headmistressy character stepped forward and to my surprise she turned out to deal with her new role rather well.

MARY: I know that hurt, as did losing several church organists, and your very detailed committee meetings! Also, at the beginning, there was a bit too much history of Wainbridge, your fictional town; it was holding up the telling of the increasingly interesting story.

PATRICIA: Nick Gott, an artist friend, created the cover and it was a useful learning curve as he liaised with Mary and Chris the printer. I had shown the proposed back cover design, which included a heron and a sharp needle, to a friend and, luckily, she spotted something that none of us, including Mary, had noticed. Let us say, that without her comment the heron on the back of Threads would have had a painful and surprised expression on its face!

MARY: It's always good to have another pair of eyes looking at a work in progress.

PATRICIA: One thing that did help me was having the first chapter of Threads read aloud by a professional actor at one of the SWWJ’s drama workshops. I got a real feel of the book's opening and the relationship between the different characters. The response to the chapter from the other writers and actors was reassuring and increased my confidence and pleasure in the novel.

MARY: Oh yes, always try to have your dialogue read aloud, even if it's only you doing it into a recording machine! It helps you to get the speech rhythms right.

PATRICIA: Despite all the to-ing and fro-ing, the hold-ups and the hitches, the proofreading and re-writing, then more proofreading and more re-writes ...

MARY: I know it was a pain ... but they were all needed, even those pernickety punctuation corrections! (The novel would never have reached that stage if I hadn't had faith in it, and seen from my first reading that this was a manuscript well worth developing.)

PATRICIA: Threads of Life was published on 29th March 2018 and so far the comments and reviews have been extremely favourable. As an absolute novice, knowing nothing about the procedure of turning a manuscript into a fully-fledged book, I am more than grateful for all the work and dedication Mary put into Threads, as without her it would be just another document on my computer, rather than, as it is now, both an eBook and a paperback for others to enjoy.

MARY: I am delighted by the five star reviews Patricia's first novel is receiving. She is planning a sequel - her well-drawn characters warrant it - which I look forward to reading.

* * * * *

Want to read more about this author and editor?

Go to and follow the links to SCRIPTORA and Members.

Follow Patricia on @Patricia Jones_1 and Mary on @MaryRensten

To read Threads of Life go to

Wednesday, 16 May 2018

The Long Road to Publication - Part 5

In our regular series The Long Road to Publication, winner of our First Page Competition Andy Smith describes the stages of his journey, the highs, lows and bits where nothing happens. This week, he's taken the brave step of sharing his synopsis.The Triskele Books team went through it in detail and below, we offer some suggestions for improvement. 

Triskele Books

Breaking the Lore synopsis                                                  Andrew Smith
Name: Andrew Smith
Title: Breaking the Lore
Word Length: 90,000
Genre: Crime/Fantasy
Triskele: First things first, add the vital detail in the top right hand corner. Also use Times New Roman and 12pt font. Ideally the synopsis should fit on one page.


A crucified body is discovered. It is fifteen centimetres tall and has wings.
Triskele: This opening is less powerful than the opening of the book. We suggest using your first two lines instead.

Discovering fairies at the bottom of the garden is supposed to be good luck. Except when the fairy’s been crucified.

Inspector Nick Paris INSPECTOR NICK PARIS doesn’t believe in magicfairies. He solves crimes using logic plus management-sponsored drinking. The bizarre This tiny corpse opens up a new world of elves, dwarves and a talking, cigarette-smoking crow. Triskele: These two lines give us all we need to know about cross-genre nature and dry tone. Excellent! They tell him he has indeed found They assure him it is a fairy, killed by demons called The Vanethria THE VANETHRIA. Paris and his hapless deputy BONETTI set out to uncover why, helped and sometimes hindered by with these implausible assistants strange beings helping his investigation – or sometimes hindering it.

The detective’s rational mind struggles to cope with this such an irrational situation. Triskele: That is a great line! When another victim is found – a centaur Triskele: How did it die? A beheaded centaur? A centaur shot through the heart? – he seeks expert advice. Cassandra du Mort CASSANDRA DU MORT is a witch, a free spirit who the stuffy Inspector finds hard to handle. She views the bizarre proceedings as an big Triskele: Pick a word she herself might use enormous/enchanting adventure, to his chagrin.

Faced with conflicting evidence and more weird events, Triskele: Weak filler. Give a couple of examples of weird events? Paris tries to find answers without losing his marbles. until he Finally he pieces everything together. Demons from the mystic realm are planning to invade. want to invade ours.

Triskele: Now we need to up the tension. At the same time he comes to appreciate, and rely upon,  If he is going to repel the demonic invasion, he needs the help of his fantastical friends. the magical creatures he is working with. He is also taking a shine to  Triskele: This is telling. Show us with a hint. Cassandra, even though he still thinks she is bonkers, has quite a nice smile/lovely green eyes. The novel’s underlying theme is how people different from yourself are not always a threat and can actually make a valuable contribution. Paris’ journey takes him to this realisation. And he thought he was simply solving a case. Triskele: This is not the right place or tone for this.*

Demonic activity increases until they launch their main assault. Paris discerns their weakness, allowing the British army to drive them back. As they retreat, they take a hostage Triskele: Who? Why do we care?: his best friend and right-hand man, Bonetti (We added Bonetti in paragraph one so this kidnap makes us care). Accompanied by a motley collection of magical beings, Paris ventures into the mystic world to on a rescue mission him. Cut loose from all he knows, Paris realises people different from himself yourself are not always a threat and can actually make a valuable contribution.. And he thought he was simply solving a case.

Their mission is successful, but the group are betrayed. Captured, they have to face the fearsome demon king, who reveals his . A new plan to conquer mankind is revealed. Paris has to stop it. Triskele: Need something stronger here. The only thing stopping him is Inspector Nick Paris. Realising logic will not help, he opts for the illogical. He challenges : challenging the king to combat. A drinking contest. Paris wins. Humanity is saved by the power of whisky. Triskele: Terrific ending and totally tied to character.

The Vanethria disperse. Liberated magical races celebrate as Paris and Cassandra’s relationship blossoms. A whole new journey awaits. Triskele: Perfect end lines to lead us to the sequel.

In tightening the synopsis, we focused on these things:

  • Hit those dynamic nouns and verbs, cut all the fluff. 
  • End each line on a punchy word.
  • Capitalise names when introducing characters.
  • Try to make sentences active rather than passive. Eg: 'he reveals his plan' not 'his plan is revealed'
  • Avoid repetition, eg: the word ‘bizarre’ twice in two paragraphs.
  • Keep the tone of the novel.
  • Add intriguing details/examples.
  • Vary sentence length and patterns.
  • Stay in the story and don’t be tempted to explain as author.*
  • Ensure the synopsis follows the tension of the novel – set the scene, complicate and all the drama of the final act.

Authors, don't forget! You can win a year's mentoring from the Triskele Books team by entering our Big Five Competition. Deadline is 7th July.

Wednesday, 9 May 2018

The Cabinet Maker

A Short Story from David N Martin, winner of the Words with JAM Short Story Competition 2017

She walked and rode, and walked and rode again, and in three days, the bruise on her cheek yellowed at the edges. But soon her donkey could not bear her weight. It sagged in the heat, smelling of mange and rendered bones. She could not ride, but neither could she leave it to die.

The old women of Jamina’s village described her destination as ‘the valley of grass.’ They had told her whom she must find. Three times they had told her. Twice she ignored them.

“The third time,” the eldest said, “either you go, or live like this forever.”

Walking, her boots split their seams. Walking, her blood stained the leather. Walking, she considered the woman’s advice. She had never learned to count very far. Just far enough and no more.

Now she is here. Stopped on the count of three. Before her lies a flat green valley cut between the arms of towering rock that stretch into a sea: a mile and more across, reaching several miles to the coast. She feels herself breathe.

The only approach is the narrow gorge through which she has come. She listens as water cackles onto rock, some higher world leaking into this one through flaws in its steep sides. Waterfalls form streams. Streams form a river, feeding groves of trees and bushes. Tended crops of banana and aubergine line the wayside. And grass. Knee-high grass, just as they’d said.

The donkey drinks where the river bank is lowest, and she drinks after. Then she moves on downstream, leading the failing beast on its frayed piggin string. Around a bend, she spots a cluster of adobe houses. A handful. She does not bother to count. Her eyes stray to three women washing clothes at the water’s edge. Each is bent to the task in hand, a smooth stone her toolset, a wicker basket at her side. Naked skin-and-bones children run in and out of the river, splashing and playing. As thin as she is hungry. She wishes she had stolen a banana.

She slows as she nears them. If she stops, she has neither courage nor strength to go forward again, but she needs to prepare what she will say.

The first to notice her is the widest of the three women. They all wear billowing cotton tops and skirts to calf length, but this one opens like a bellows around her thighs. She pushes the matted hair off her face and squints with one eye.

“What do you want?” she says. Her companions follow her gaze.

This with no hello or welcome, so Jamina gives none back. “They told me come to the valley of grass.”

“Who told you?”

“Other women. They told me look for the cabinet maker,” she says, careful not to name the tellers.

The woman’s eyeline has dropped and, when Jamina follows it down, she finds she is twisting the wedding ring on her finger. She jerks her hands to her sides.

“The cabinet maker?” she says again.

“He comes here, drinks here sometimes. Takes some food. Takes what he needs. Once a month maybe.”

“And the rest of the time?”

“Rest of the time, he doesn’t bother us.”

“I need to see him.”

The woman nods. “Better you don’t never have that kind of need. We all know that, but it can’t always be.” She extends an arm, pointing her finger. “Up that track a way. His place is under the mountain.”

The second woman says, “You ought to water that donkey. It’s fixing to drop.”

Jamina thanks her and tells her the donkey has already drunk its fill.

The woman smiles with crooked teeth. “Not going much further then,” she says. She has skin like a brown-cap mushroom, one eyebrow divided by a scar. The children are swimming. They all look the same. They all look happy.

Jamina heads for the track. No one says good-bye. No doubt they once came here for the same reason.

She follows a grey furrow through trees and bushes, skirting giant rocks as it heads towards the vertical cliff face that bounds the valley. It takes half an hour. The donkey stumbles behind.

The house she comes to is part adobe, part wood, its back swallowed into the rock as if someone has forgotten the difference between a home and a cave. A brush-roofed barn sits in the dirt yard among piles of rough-cut woods. Three axes, arranged by size, are embedded in the pile nearest the door. Chickens roam free. Two horses and several goats graze in a corral.

She does not want to be caught for a trespasser so she shouts. An echo comes and goes. She waits for silence. In it, she hears the muffled rasp of a hand saw. She lets loose the donkey’s string, goes to the barn’s open door and peers inside.

He is not as she imagined. His biceps bulge, but he is smaller than he should be. Older too. Sawdust clings in his hair and beard. He wears a shirt with no sleeves, wet stains extending like brackets under his arms. Around him lie the fruits of his labour: a handsome wardrobe, a half-finished sideboard, three coffins.

He stops when he sees her. He puts down his saw. She feels herself constrict as if all her body is pulling itself smaller. If she did not have bones, maybe she could disappear.

No one can disappear.

“You make cabinets,” she says.

He licks the dryness from his lips. His nod counts off the finished works arranged around the barn as if she might need help to find them. He wipes a bead of sweat from his forehead with the back of his hand.

“I’m a customer,” she says. “I want to be.”

“What do you need?”

“A coffin. They told me ask for a coffin.”

Atop of an upturned barrel sits a clay water jug and a pewter tankard.

“I’ll get another cup,” he says.

He goes to the back of the barn and searches among scattered crates. He returns with a rough wooden cup to add to the tankard and pours water into each. He offers her the tankard. He reaches into his pocket and puts a peach onto the barrel.

“For you,” he says.

“Thank you.”

Her hand shakes. She is unused to kindness. She takes the water, then the peach. The peach tastes like a bursting sun.

He leans his elbows on the barrel and watches her. He has noticed her bruise. He will not let it go.

“A coffin, you say?”


“Where are you from?”

She names her village.

“I know it,” he says. “Must be two days from here.”

“Three,” she says.

“But you come to me?”

“They said you would help me.”

“Who said?”

“The women.”

“Ah, yes, it is always the women.” He sips at his water. “Who is it that died?”

“No one,” she says.

He does not seem surprised. “You have sizes? For this coffin?

“Yes, I have measured.”

“And you can pay?”

She grips her ring with the thumb and two fingers from her opposing hand. She pulls it off, almost drops it, then places it on the barrel before him. She straightens her back and takes the deepest breath of her life.

“And he is not dead?”


He stares at the ring. “Gold?”

“It was my grandmother’s,” she says. “They sent me to you, the women.”

He picks it up, weighs it in his palm. Puts it down and shakes his head.

“Coffins are expensive… for the living.”

The ground seems to crumble beneath her. She looks at the ring. It seems that he’s right. It is so very small to pay for such a large thing.

The donkey has been wandering outside. He can see it through the open door. He takes a moment to think. She knows what he’s thinking.

“A few pots of glue, no more,” he says.

“But that is everything… the ring, my donkey.”

“Sometimes it takes everything and all that is left after as well.”

She stares at the floor. Where shame must look, she knows. Those who sent her have warned her of this.

“What is worse? Ask yourself that,” the eldest women had said. “You submit to a brute again and again, or you submit once to a killer?”

She thinks of the naked children in the river. How they smiled.

Yes, she tells herself. She had decided this was what she could live with. Anything not to count past three.

“Then prepare yourself,” they said. “He’s taken that bargain with others.”

She finds the strength in her backbone. Her knees tremble, but she stiffens herself and reaches for the string at the neck of her dress. Her fingers fumble and fumble. Then she falls out of her clothes, standing naked bar her bloodied boots in a pool of cotton.

He examines her from a distance. At first she thinks he is considering her value against the contract, but soon she realises he is lingering on her damage.

It is not just the cheek. It is the scar over her breasts, the burn on her hip. Her right arm does not hang quite straight. All her beauties stolen.

She catches him as he rubs his finger under one eye, but she is not quick enough to see the reason.

“Put your clothes on,” he says.

It seems she has failed the test. But he shakes his head and looks over at the coffins. “Pick one,” he says.


David N Martin started life as a scientist, having studied Physics at Jesus College, Oxford. He took up creative writing as a hobby in the Nineties while still in his mid-thirties, indulging his passion for Sci-Fi. Several short stories won local competitions and he placed in both the international Fish Prize and the HE Bates Centenary Memorial Competition. Gollancz published two of his novels (The Chessmen and Fatal Climate ) under the pen-name David Hood, scientific thrillers that showed off his technological background and had vaguely Science-Fiction themes as their back drop. ‘The Chessmen’ – described by The Daily Telegraph as a ‘contender for the best first crime novel of the year’, even though it wasn’t a crime novel – went on to be translated into German, Polish and Greek.

A long hiatus of almost twenty years followed as he concentrated on earning money and raising a family, though he has kept up his membership of Leicester Writers Club and been the frequent leader of Creative Writing workshops. He never published novels again. His recent win in the ‘Words With Jam’ Short Story Competition represented a return to serious writing.

David lives in rural Northamptonshire with his wife and two university-bound children. His website can be found at

Wednesday, 2 May 2018

Bookouture - The Inside Story

JJ Marsh talks to Peta Nightingale, Head of Talent at Bookouture.

Bookouture, as the name suggests, is a bespoke publishing service. Can you elaborate on what that means in practice?

We are proud to put a lot of effort into the relationship with our authors, and work closely with them every step of the way. More than half our authors are un-agented and we feel it's important to offer the support that an agent would, as well as providing a first class publishing model. We see our authors as a family and they are very supportive of each other. We offer a step-by-step journey through the whole publishing process, treating every single title as a potential bestseller.

What are the advantages to the Bookouture route?
Why is it a better choice than a) going with the Big 5 or b) a small press or c) self-publishing?

a) We acquire world all language rights, and publish globally, attracting submissions from authors all over the world. We welcome direct submissions - as well as those from agents.

b) We have a short product cycle, publishing two to three books a year from each author - all with the same quality of editing, packaging and marketing as any traditional publisher.

c) We use dynamic low pricing to maximise a book's ranking and visibility, tracking daily sales data to ensure that we also optimise revenue.

d) We are obsessed with detail and able to make changes throughout a title's life - including to title and packaging - in order to optimise a book's performance. We use iterative data collection to measure performance and make changes to maximise performance and revenue.

e) We treat every title the same, whether from a debut writer or an author who has sold 2 million copies. Every book starts with the same marketing spend, and there are no tiers or 'lead' titles.

f) We pay a high digital royalty rate of 45% of net receipts, and pay royalties quarterly.

g) We publish direct to readers so there are no sales and marketing teams or retailers to convince. We publish across all digital platforms.

Digital publishing is more than ebooks. You offer Print-on-Demand services for those authors who want paperbacks?

We produce a print-on-demand paperback of every title we publish, as well as an audio edition wherever possible.

It seems you began by publishing commercial women's fiction, romance and chicklit, but have now expanded into crime and psychological thrillers. Why is that?
Do you plan to add new genres in the future?

We publish the genres that our readers want to read. Our current ratio of crime and women's fiction is representative of the bestseller lists at the moment, but we are constantly watching the trends and the shifts in reader preference. Our editors are experienced at publishing a number of different genres and we're always on the look-out for great writing, great characters and great stories - whatever the genre. We will be publishing some fantasy romance this year, as well as some up-lit fiction and some more YA.

How do you know if a book/author is a good fit for Bookouture?

Great writing and a willingness and ability to write fast make an author a good fit for Bookouture.

Do they need an established platform?

It is always an advantage if an author has an established, successful platform. But some authors are less comfortable than others at using social media, and we feel that an author's time is best spent writing great books, than struggling with posts and spending too much time on social media. Our two publicity managers, Kim Nash and Noelle Holten, work tirelessly with and for our authors and offer wonderful support to those who have less experience but would still like to have a social media presence.
Is being successfully self-published a red flag or a good sign?

An author who has written and published a bestseller is always a good thing! Successful self-published authors generally understand the way we work as we also use the KDP publishing platform and online marketing. The key to success here is in successfully gathering the available sales and marketing data and using that to drive publishing decisions and promotional tools.

Where do you find your authors?

We have an online submissions platform on which anybody can submit their full-length work of commercial fiction to us. We also have relationships with all the major London agents as well as many others across the world. I and our editorial team also follow the success of self-published authors and approach them directly. We use any means we can to find and attract the best writers out there!

Is Bookouture able to respond quickly to trends in book market?

Our publishing model - speed to market, publishing direct to readers - allows us to be as nimble and flexible as possible. Because we are always looking at and for new trends, we can respond very quickly - including in developing our own IP projects.

For example, the apparent move away from psychological thrillers and towards 'up-lit'?

Indeed, we are publishing some up-lit this year.

What are the rising trends and themes we'll all be reading next year?

Contrary to what many commentators are saying, the appetite for psychological suspense and thrillers seems undimmed with readers. Perhaps it is the traditional publishers who feel a certain ennui?! That's not to say that there isn't also an appetite for fiction that touches the reader in other ways. For us it is always about quality, so provided there are great characters with a tremendous hook, then we'll want to publish it. And of course we are looking at new themes and trends all the time.

Since Bookouture was acquired by Hachette UK, what's changed?

Nothing has changed in terms of our business model. But through print partnership agreements negotiated with Little, Brown Book Group's Sphere imprint in the UK and Grand Central Publishing in the US, we now have the potential to publish a conventional paperback. We have a continuous dialogue with our UK and US colleagues over which titles might go forward into these programmes, but success in ebook (there is no threshold as such) is the first indicator. The Little, Brown rights department now also sell our translation rights, which previously were handled by the Lorella Belli literary agency. We have also recently appointed The Artists Partnership to represent our authors' film, TV and stage rights. We only acquire rights from authors that we can successfully utilise, and we're really pleased to be able to offer this comprehensive package under the Bookouture umbrella.

What's your personal book of the moment?

We are always on the look-out for the sort of emotional storytelling that really tugs at the heartstrings. I recently read Rhiannon Navin's Only Child and can't believe it's a debut novel. Set in the US in the aftermath of a school shooting, it could have been a political and difficult topic. But her telling of the story in the voice of six-year-old Zach whose ten-year-old brother has been killed, together with her handling of his parents' inability to accommodate their own huge emotions with his, has made for an utterly beautiful and hugely accomplished book.

With grateful thanks to Peta and the Bookouture Team

Wednesday, 25 April 2018

In Conversation with John R. McKay

By Gillian Hamer

Hello, John, tell us a little about you and your writing.

I live with my wife, Dawn, in the North West of England in a town called Wigan which is between Manchester and Liverpool. I have two daughters, Jessica and Sophie. I served in the Royal Air Force for seven years before working for seventeen years at the control room of Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service.

I have always been interested in literature and modern history. When I was in the military, I spent time in northern Europe around the battleground areas of the First World War, and this generated a keen interest in that period of history. I also became fascinated with the Second World War and read many books, both factual and fictional based around that period.

When I decided to give writing a go, I used this interest and the knowledge I had gathered over the years to form the basis of my work. There are so many stories to be told about this period and when researching my second novel, ‘The Absolution Of Otto Finkel’ I came across little known incidents that I managed to incorporate into the story.

I normally tend to stick to this genre, but I have dabbled in contemporary fiction also, for my novel ‘Mosquitoes’, which tells the story of a man who cannot deal with major changes to his life which results in a nervous breakdown. This is a black comedy of sorts and I had a lot of fun writing it, as the research was quite minimal and it was completed in a very short time.

I am always looking for new ideas to write about and my latest novel, ‘The Worst Journey In The World’, originated at a presentation I attended at my local museum, which my ex-high school English teacher had arranged. There I met a gentleman by the name of Bill Halliwell who gave an excellent talk about his life in the Royal Navy during the war and his voyages escorting merchant ships to the Soviet Union. I interviewed him a couple of times and he also gave me lot of reference material. I would never have written this novel if it hadn’t been for him.

Where do you find your plot ideas?

I like my novels to have some substance to them rather than just a story about ‘what happens’. I like to use events that actually happened and then put my characters into them and develop how they think and feel, and how this determines their ultimate fate. I always need a plot before I start and this usually comes about when I carry out the research for the novel. For example, for ‘The Worst Journey In The World’ I knew I wanted to write about the Arctic Convoys and so decided to base the central character around a young man from Liverpool. As my family are from that region, I knew a little of what was happening in the city around that time and so was able to bring that into the story to develop the character.

Sometimes sub-plots develop themselves. What I mean by this is that I could be writing a piece of dialogue and by changing the response of one of the characters, it can give me another idea of ‘somewhere else to go’ within the novel. This then gets my creative juices flowing and before you know it, I have a new sub-plot or maybe even a complete change in direction to where I originally intended. In a pivotal scene in ‘The Sun Will Always Shine’ I was about to write an important sentence but then suddenly thought ‘what if I flip this around?… what if I write the total opposite of what I intended?… where would that lead?’ I was bold and did it, and it changed the whole direction of the book, which I believe made the whole thing better and a book that I am very proud of.

Any other genres you fancy trying one day?

I love watching science fiction films but have never read any books of that genre, oddly enough (apart from a short Edgar Rice Burroughs novella when I was younger). I think there is so much you could do with science fiction as you can pretty much make it up as you go along. If you want to create a character with two heads who can read people's thoughts then you can have one and nobody will think you odd for doing so. I might give this some thought in the future but will probably stick to what I know for the time being.

Research – which camp are you? Love or loathe?

I love it. I see research as a part of the whole project and enjoy it almost as much as the writing process. First I get a basic idea or theme for a story, then I think about the plot and how to develop that idea. Next I look to research the parts that I don’t know about. I like my novels to be as historically accurate as possible right down to what the characters would have eaten and especially getting dates right. Sometimes research can lead to new ideas to include within the plot. For Marco’s story in ‘The Absolution Of Otto Finkel’ he was originally going to be an officer in the Italian army. However, once I became aware of what happened in Rome during the Nazi occupation, my whole original idea for him was scrapped completely and instead he became an Italian priest.
I have read so many great books for the novel I have just started and broadening my knowledge on the subject has been a great experience.

What’s the best thing about being a writer?

The sense of achievement when you write the words ‘The End’ at the bottom of the first draft. The sense of self-pride is unbelievable and I remember dancing around my living room when it first happened. ‘Look at me’, I thought. ‘I’ve written a book… I’ve actually written a book!’ However, it took many, many edits before I was happy with the final product.

And the worst?

Reading the first draft and realising it’s probably a load of old tosh! The editing process is not half as enjoyable as writing it fresh. I also find the promotion and marketing of my work a bit of a challenge.

I’ve read two of your books now, both with war themes, why does that period of history interest you?

When I was a young boy I watched many old black and white war films on the TV and with my father’s tales of what he got up to when he served in the British Army, my interest in military history developed. I also used to like reading the old ‘Commando’ and ‘Battle’ comic books and this also added to my interest.

I am also totally fascinated with how Germany allowed the Nazis to take over their country and how they caused such utter devastation and horror throughout Europe, particularly when it all happened not long before I was born. It all seems so unreal.

I still believe that there are stories to be told from that period of history and have tried to pay homage to some of those involved. This is why I was so happy to meet Mr Halliwell and write a novel based on his experiences during the Arctic Convoys of World War Two.

(I have also very recently visited Auschwitz/Birkenau and even though I have read so much about what happened there, it now just seems like they were just words on paper. You have to actually be there, to see it, to have a full appreciation of the magnitude of the horrors that happened in those places. I had a small scene there in ‘The Absolution Of Otto Finkel’ and am pleased that I got that part historically accurate.)

Which 3 books would you take to a desert island?

It is very difficult to choose only three books to take with me but I have finally narrowed it down to the following three.

Les Miserables by Victor Hugo - probably the best piece of literature I have ever read. I read the unabridged version a few years ago and once you get used to the ‘style’ of the writing it was very hard to put down. Very moving story and just utterly brilliant. No other way to describe it!

The Shadow of The Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon - again a wonderfully written book. Set in Barcelona (the home of Zafon) it tells the story of a father who takes his young son to the ‘Cemetery of Forgotten Books’ where he is allowed to pick any book he wishes to take away with him. It then follows what happens when he tries to find out about the writer of the book he has chosen. Not long after reading it I had a trip to Barcelona and visited all the locations of the book. It has to be one of my all time favourites and I have read it more than once, which is not something I normally do. No doubt I will revisit it again in the future.

Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks - probably the most beautiful book ever to be written about war. I am a huge fan of Faulks but this has to be his finest work and will no doubt be regarded as a classic in years to come.

What are your future writing plans?

I have just started writing my sixth novel which is as yet untitled. This book will be linked to ‘The Absolution Of Otto Finkel’ and will tell the story of the fifth child from the boat and what happened to him during the war and beyond. Not wishing to give any spoilers away, I have again gone into extensive research to ensure that the historical aspects of the story are correct.

I also have ideas for two more novels, one being another historical fiction story set around a Spitfire squadron during the Battle of Britain and the other a contemporary spy thriller.

However, once my current project is finished I am thinking of adapting one of my novels, the World War One drama ‘The Sun Will Always Shine’ into a screenplay. This is something new to me and so I will have to make sure that I know what I’m doing before I begin.

What important piece of advice do you live by now that you wish you had known before your debut novel was published?

I suppose it would be not to get too downhearted when you hit a mental block. When writing my first novel, I remember sitting there for ages looking at my computer screen, typing a paragraph then immediately deleting the lot… over and over again. I got to the point where I thought, ‘What’s the point? I can’t do this!’.

I realise now that I have to be in the mood to write. Some say that you should ‘write your way through’ writers’ block but I believe the opposite works for me. If I don’t feel it, then I don’t bother. I put the computer away and go and do something else. By writing rubbish it only makes me worse. However, I look back at my first book and see that, yes, in fact I can do this. I’ve done it before after all.

Eventually, sometimes in the middle of the night or when I least expect it, a phrase, or a bit of dialogue will hit me and then I will write it down quickly before it leaves my head. Before you know it, I am back at the computer, my mojo has returned and all is well again!

Wednesday, 18 April 2018

The Long Road to Publication - Part 4

By Andy Smith

All quiet on the western front at the moment as I am in ‘waiting to hear back from agents’ mode. Again. Had some rejections, sent it off to some others, still waiting to hear back from others. Have also sent it off to some publishers. Yes, there are still some who will accept un-agented submissions, but it takes them just as long to get back to you.

At this point we should insert Standard Rant Number 642, including “why does it take so long?”, “every agent and publisher wants things in a slightly different format”, “the whole process is completely demoralising”, etc. I doubt there’s much I could add which everyone in the same boat hasn’t already thought!

I’ve also been looking at some of the submissions I sent off a while back (before the First Page competition). I can see that some of my earlier submissions are basically not as good as the things I’m sending out now, in terms of the cover letter, the synopsis and getting the novel as polished as it can be.

The obvious question is: “If what you’re sending now is better than what you sent originally, how come you’re still not getting anywhere?” To which I would reply that I’m getting more agents considering what I send now rather than rejecting me out of hand, and some agents are asking to see the whole MS; but that still doesn’t properly answer the question. (Doesn’t answer it for me either.)

There might be a bit of a problem with running out of agents who deal in the sort of stuff I’m writing. I started off sending it to those agents who I thought were most likely to be interested, but that means they got the not-so-good submission. Now I’ve refined and improved everything, I’m having to send it off to agents who might not be into my sort of writing. So they get this wonderful submission which isn’t really for them.

Obviously my current situation doesn’t put me in any position to comment, but I’m going to anyway. I’ve seen lots of articles and posts saying things like ‘when you’ve got your novel finished, don’t submit it straight away. Leave it for a while. Then go back to it, re-edit it, get it proof read, re-edit it again; and make sure it’s as good as it can be.’ I think I would add ‘make sure the rest of your submission package is as good as it can be too.’ We live and learn.

I will press on. Having realised that I may have shot myself in the foot early on, I’m still hoping to find an agent who does appreciate what I’m writing, and will also get the benefit of the new improved submission. We shall see.

WWJ NOTE: Andy has agreed to let The WWJ Clinic look at and suggest improvements to his cover letter and synopsis - stand by for next time.

Wednesday, 11 April 2018

A Day in the Life of ... A Proofreader

Next in our series of nosing into the life of a publishing professional, Julia Gibbs shares the secrets of a proofreader.

If you’re thinking of engaging a proofreader to work on your book, or you’ve seen one advertising their services, do you wonder what they do, and how they do it? Sometimes people think we’re like school teachers, marking work out of 10, with critical comments in the margins. But we’re not – we know that everyone, including us, needs a proofreader for their written work, and we're not going to make you stand in the corner for making too many typos! We love what we do, whatever genre the book we’re currently working on, and we take pride in giving your work that final polish.

I started working as a proofreader simply because I find the English language (and what I know of one or two others!) absolutely fascinating. If you have a minute, let me share with you what a normal working day might be for me.

7am: Get up, make cup of tea, look at emails. At least 90 minutes of my regular day is admin – sending work to clients, answering queries from possible new clients, scheduling future work, advertising my services and clients’ books on Twitter. It’s not until around 9am that I can start on whatever book I’m currently working on. I’m not going to tell you I must have classical music playing in the background or fresh flowers on my desk, etc – I don’t need anything apart from my laptop, in fact when I’m working I shut out everything else. I can work on a train or in a bus station waiting room.

10am: I try, at least 4 days a week, to go to my local dance school, where I attend Fitsteps and ballet classes. This is essential because my work is sedentary – not only is it not healthy for me to sit on the sofa practically all day, but also I find I work better if I take a breather.

1pm – stop for lunch. I give myself a proper lunch hour like I had when I worked in an office, although unlike when I worked in an office, I watch TV! At the moment I’m hooked on Homicide Hunter and White Collar.

2pm (latest) – back to work! I pretty much work through until 5.15pm. It’s a fact that you can’t concentrate for more than 90 minutes, so it’s important to know when the brain needs a break. I’ll either get up and do something like hoovering or putting the washing on, or phone my writer sister (author Terry Tyler,; mind you, when I do this she normally effectively tells me to clear off because she’s redrafting/on a creative roll/in the throes of working out plot points etc. I should know better, I know what authors are like!

5.15 pm – Everything stops for Pointless on BBC1. Having been a big fan of this programme for ages, I was lucky enough to appear on it a couple of years ago. Here’s the link to my blog post with all the inside info on what it’s like behind the scenes, for fellow aficionados!

8pm – after dinner, if I’m spending the evening on my own, I will usually work for at least another hour. I go to bed no later than 10.30pm, because I’m by nature a morning person and like to hit the ground running early.

The books I work on vary enormously. There’s no such thing as a writer who doesn’t make mistakes (this includes me – imagine how circumspect I have to be in my Twitter or Facebook posts!)

The reason for this is that when we read our own work, we see what we expect to see. Unless we are reading slowly and really concentrating on a sentence of, for example, 10 words, we only actually read the 1st, 5th and 10th word, and our brain fills in the blanks to make sense of it.

In an average book of, say, 80,000 words I can find anything from 400 to 10,000 corrections that need making. The advantage of hiring a proofreader to look at your work is that they are a fresh pair of eyes, and have no preconceived ideas about what you’ve written.

What I love about being a proofreader:

· Never knowing what book I’m going to discover next

· The challenge of finding errors and explaining what I’ve changed and why

· Occasional hilarious typos – I wrote a blog post about this

· Sometimes actually meeting the people I work for and with – a bit of a shock to those of us who work from home, alone on their computer. I have a tendency to overcompensate for the declining sartorial standards this involves, by getting all gussied up like the Duchess of Windsor if I ever go to meet clients – as in this photo of me preparing to address Wokingham Writers’ Group! See photo, me with the lovely Rosie Amber, who oversees an enormously successful review team -

· Pretty much everything really

I’d like to thank all of my clients, past present and future, for making my waking hours so varied and interesting. I never know what world I’m going to step into next.

Julia Gibbs




Wednesday, 4 April 2018

Unsilenced - In Conversation with Preti Taneja

Preti Taneja - photo by Louise Haywood-Schiefer
We That Are Young is a darkly comic study of a monstrously dysfunctional family that is also so much more. Directors of Shakespeare’s plays can suggest settings in time and place the give context to the drama. But in transporting the story of King Lear to India and fleshing out the location through the rich medium of the novel, Preti Taneja has at once breathed entirely new life into a classic text, held a mirror held up to the faults and frailties of modern India, and created a powerful metaphor for greed, cruelty and corruption everywhere.

We That Are Young has been longlisted for the Jhalak Prize and shortlisted for the Republic of Consciousness Prize. Here, Catriona Troth talks to the author, Preti Taneja, about the writing of the book.

Hi, Preti. Thank you for talking to Words with Jam. You have a background is in film-making, and We That Are Young is a very visual book. Can you tell us first about your work with Ben Crowe at ERA Films? And how would you say that film-making has influenced your writing?

ERA Films was Ben’s idea - he’s a self-taught filmmaker from Whitely Bay, in the North East and he’s from a family of grassroots educators and political activists in Labour and the Co-op party. He began the collective in 2008 because he could see that small and medium sized NGOs and education organisations could use film for advocacy, but didn’t always have the in-house knowledge or capacity. We had worked together on his first short fiction film, the man who met himself, and I’d always worked in the charity sector – first at Children’s Express, (now called Headliners) training young people from disadvantaged backgrounds across the UK and Northern Ireland in media skills, where I made participatory films, and then as a journalist and editor for an NGO. One of our first commissions as ERA Films had us following the journey of books donated by publishers in the UK to libraries in Kenya, including one in a vast slum that provided a safe space for children of all communities during violent clashes in the 2009 elections. I was always a writer first but maybe filmmaking as a practice and with its own ethics made me want to write about, and in the style of the powerful, persuasive and all consuming nature of visual media, with its influence on our perceptions of the world.

It was to India that you turned for this novel based on Shakespeare’s play. Why King Lear and
why this very specific point in modern Indian history? 

I was born in the UK – my parents came here in the late 1960s and the state classifies me as ‘British Asian (Indian)’. I grew up on the white side of a small town in Hertfordshire. I did Shakespeare at school, and at home we had this other life: language, attitudes to family and money were different to my friends’. We had Indian family in different parts of the UK and went to India for holidays to see family as well. Sometimes it felt like navigating many worlds and trying to pass in each one; like putting on a uniform or costume according to what place I was in or language I was speaking. I always wanted to be a mix of all my identities, in any way I chose to express that. Don’t we all? I remember challenging my school uniform policy to be able to wear a navy blue salwar kameez instead of skirt, and having fights over being allowed to wear denim at home. They were small battles then, but they meant a lot.
Shakespeare was part of the Empire’s arsenal of cultural colonialism; Empire is at the root of why Asians live in the UK. Bringing Lear to bear on India is my way of bringing those two sides together and showing what comes out now: hybridity of people, language, attitudes. It’s a critique of how dominance impacts all of us, but out of that a literature can emerge and grow. I’m writing from the UK about India – both are part of who I am; and that can stand alongside writing about diaspora experience, alongside Indian writing from India. It’s a hybrid literature in response to UK/Indian colonial history. It’s made through syntax, aural puns, language, play between myths: by bringing different perspectives and identities together in one story. 

Once you’ve read the book, the pairing of Lear with modern India seems pre-ordained. But I am sure a great deal of craft went into making it look so inevitable. Can you tell us something about the process of creating that fit?

I’ve always read a lot about India in fiction and non fiction I got in India and in the UK, as well as different magazines and so on, online. All of that went towards my research. Some of the novel is based on childhood impressions of Delhi – a certain critique of nostalgia is there. I went to Delhi and Kashmir in 2012 to work specifically on the novel, and that involved going to as many marches and slum areas as I could to meet people, and to as many elite events as I could wangle invites into. I eavesdropped, I interviewed people in hotels at all levels of society. In Kashmir, people shared their homes and took me around some of the parts of the city hardest hit by the long conflict, which began with Partition in 1947. Everyone I spoke to was so generous with their insights. I was also able to pick up books in Srinagar I couldn’t get anywhere else, and all that went into the novel. It took about seven full drafts and infinite work on each sentence until I ran out of time and had to give the manuscript up to the publisher – about two weeks before it was actually published!

The novel format gives you space to explore the points of view of the five members of the younger generation. To begin with the novel gives a voice to, and elicits sympathy for, Gargi and Radha and Jivan – the counterparts to Shakespeare’s villains, Goneril, Regan and Edmund. But then, superficially, the narrative appears to turn against the two women in particular. Did you intend this as a way of showing how society turns on women as soon as they begin to exercise power or agency?

You’ve put it so well – that the narrative turns against the women. I wanted to tell to the story as a social tragedy, impacting all of us. You’re right - I wanted to stick to seeing the horror of patriarchal capitalism, and neo-colonialism, and the price it exacts against those trying to simultaneously conform and to escape. I couldn’t change Shakespeare’s ending – how could I when in 2012 we could see where we were heading: that there was a rise of toxic masculinity in power, and of religious fascism across the world? My experience of being silenced and watching my mother’s struggle, and my grandmother’s pain from her losses in Partition went into my decisions about the ending too.

As women we can exercise power and we have agency; some do that by fighting for space and then replicating existing structural violence and racial or class discrimination when they get through. The real threat in Lear is the idea we can join together and not do that. That sisterhood across all of that is actually possible. It’s the most terrifying thing to Lear. And so he perpetrates a ‘divide and rule’ strategy on his daughters at the beginning of the play. In the novel they are always trying to reach each other - the social world prevents them. To me, that’s where the real struggle is. There’s an awesome power rising in the world now, calling out misogyny and sexual violence – I hope the choices I make at the end of the novel – showing the danger rising – fuel readers to action, towards that.

Clever and unexpected to have Bapuji’s mother, Nanu, take on the role of Lear’s Fool – the one person who can speak truth to him. How did that choice come about?

I was actually worried it would be too obvious! Indian grandmothers are the centre of many families – and yet remain curiously invisible within and outside the home. They are expected to be the carriers of culture, expected to pass down morality in traditional families – and police other women’s moral goodness. But without any economic or reproductive value they are treated as beings to respect, then ignore. She’s the only character who could speak to the patriarch that way; he has to seem to listen, at least.

The one character you did dispose of from the play was the King of France. Did you ever toy with the idea of keeping him in the narrative, or was it always clear that he needed to go, in order to give Sita (Cordelia) autonomy and a voice of her own.

Yes, there is an early draft in which the King of France and Duke of Burgundy make an appearance. In that, Jivan watches the love test from the bunker in real time hours after he arrives in Delhi. But structurally that wasn’t working – and then Sita developed into more of an activist and the myth of her sexuality, the other characters’ fear of it; became more powerful to explore and the suitors had to go.

The Company is surely richer and more powerful than any actual company or family. Is that intended as a metaphor for the role of private wealth and power – in India and in the world at large?

It’s so fascinating to me that in the UK some readers have found the wealth outlandish – when all you have to do is think about the Ambani family, the Tata family – they are just as wealthy and have a much bigger reach than my Company – because they own international interests in petroleum, steel and manufacturing; they influence and work within political and cultural elites across the world, from the USA to the UK and Russia. The level of wealth implied in We That Are Young is real and exists – but I actually held back quite a lot – you know – there’s no gold plated elevators etc - remember Nigel Farage at Trump Towers? Except for Jivan– he’s the character who provides the Western gaze – I didn’t want the text to gawp at this wealth because it’s written from insider points of view. The metaphor of the Company is easy to track back to Empire, the British East India Company. Here it is in its latest iteration – capitalism unchecked in its power to own everything and everyone; (the word also has theatre references) so in that sense it’s a comment on the rich owning the rest of us, it’s a comment on freedom.

You keep many of the iconic plot points from King Lear – e.g. the chaining up of Kent, the blinding of Gloucester. How did you manage to use them in such a way that they retain their shock value?

It took a lot of drafts to get away from Shakespeare’s text, and yet stay near enough to suggest how that influence operates in culture. With the violence, I think it’s about building enough of a world around the characters so those moments seem organic. It’s a brutal society. Radha for example – she’s violent because she’s learned to be from her husband and father and ‘Uncle’ – she’s learned violence to survive. And she’s had great violence done to her.

The real social world seems a violent place to me though it certainly contains absolute kindness and community. What we see on the outside – who we think we know, and how people behave – what shocks us about others, and what we are capable of ourselves – and what the roots of that are in our literature, culture and mythology – that’s what I wanted to explore. 

I loved the ‘take it or leave it’ way you sprinkled the text with untranslated Hindi and other languages. Were you ever tempted to go soft on your monoglot readers and offer in-text translations or a glossary, or did you always intend them to make to work at it?

Explanations wouldn’t work in a world where multilingual Indian characters are speaking to each other and I had to be true to that. The main languages in the novel are Sanskrit, Hindi, English, Hinglish and Napurthali (which is made up). I love that you use the word ‘monoglot’ rather than ‘English’ or ‘Western’ like some have – because of course a lot of ‘English’ and ‘Western’ readers are Hindi speakers too. Lots of monoglot readers have told me, like you, that they love this aspect of the book because its so immersive, and others who speak both languages have said how glad they are to see it written like this, the way they speak, without that sense of having to explain themselves.

I’m OK with readers having to ‘work at it’ and it certainly was a political and aesthetic decision. There are so many registers of language in English – for example – a kind of dialect code that if you don’t know it, you won’t get it. I’ve had to navigate that all my life. We all do. Language and the way we use it makes us both familiar and strange to each other, and we have to be alive to that hybridity – it’s exciting and I think not knowing makes us honestly more equal.

Doubt - especially about what we think we know is fundamental to my work. That’s what I want to get to on the page and into the reading experience. Self-doubt is such a powerful emotion since it’s based in fear of our own mortality. We have to embrace it – it makes us braver, more willing and able to work things out for ourselves and find empathy for what we don’t understand.

In addition to your writing and film making, you are also the founder of Visual Verse – can you tell us a bit more about that?

Kristen Harrison and I started Visual Verse in 2013 – she knew I needed a project to get me out of a creative slump. She runs The Curved House, a small publishing and digital media company; she came up with the concept and brought in the wonderful designer Mr Pete Lewis who contributed his skills for free. Visual Verse is an ekphrastic writing prompt site – people submit 50-500 words, written in the space of an hour, in response to an image we post. We change the image each month, and kick start things with three or four pieces by lead writers I commission beforehand. Then we open it up to the public – and that means writers from all over the world. We read every submission, and post the ones we like best: we run it around our jobs, we publish writers of all ages and backgrounds, and it’s totally free. It’s four years old now and it’s gone from 30 subs a month to over 250. We’ve had kids, written books, changed countries, had health issues, got dogs, lost them – and yet it keeps going – because the community of writers is so fantastic. We publish big names, emerging voices and first-timers together. The site makes me happy every day! 

You must be still in a whirl of activity round the publishing of We That Are Young. But do you know where you might venture next?

It’s been brilliant to publish We That Are Young with such an avant garde press in the UK as Galley Beggar Press. The book has now been picked up by some incredible editors and publishers in different parts of the world. The next thing is going to be set in the UK; that’s all I can say. I’m very glad to be working on it while We That Are Young makes it’s voyage out.

Thank you, Preti.

Thank you!

You can read Catriona Troth’s review of  We That Are Young on Bookmuse here.