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Tag: The Royal Society of Literature

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Meeting

Another great way to meet book business people is by joining societies and other associations. In the UK there is the brilliant Society of Authors, which champions authors, although there’s quite a steep annual fee. The benefits are The Society makes available free brochures on specific author-related information to members, as well as reading through contracts and answers technical questions. It’s likely that such a society would be able to help make introductions to agents and so forth. There’s also (in the UK) The Royal Society of Literature, which is extremely affordable to join, and is a great forum at which to meet writers, publishers and specialists in the book business. There are similar societies in the US and across the world.

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Reviewing

To get published, a really key thing is to get to know people in the book business. The more people you know in the field, the more your chances increase at finding an agent, a publisher, or a line to get your foot in the door. I have a found that reviewing books is a really good way at meeting editors. The important point here is that all book editors read book reviews, especially of the books they have edited. If you review, and if possibly give favourable reviews, those reviews will be read by the editors you are hoping to meet. They will read your byline, and get a sense that you can write. Just about anyone can write reviews, and it’s pretty easy to pitch to reviewers, partly because they don’t pay well normally, so they want text. And they love it if you are an ‘expert’ in the field of the book. You can also review books on your blogs online. An author will often get sent links to such blogs, and it’s a good way to communicate with writers. If you tell me that you tried to break in to book reviewing and failed, then it’s simple – you didn’t try hard enough.



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Giving Up

It was Winston Churchill who said: Never ever ever give up. And, God, was he right. Remember that the difference between massive success and total failure is no wider than the thickness of a hair. I must have said it before. And I’ll say it again, because it’s the slogan the has taught me more than just about anything else. As you struggle to break in to publishing, or anything, most people are also struggling, and they tend to drop out. Why? Because it’s easier to get an office job or to wait tables instead. With every person who drops out, you are closer to the summit. Never forget that. When you are in the long dark days of drudgery, strain yourself away from the anguish and look at the horizon. Success is there, and it’s really not far. But to reach it you must keep that horizon in your sights.



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Detail

It’s all about detail. Look around you and if you’re lucky you’ll see it. Yet most of the time we’re blind to it. Look at the coffee cup that’s sitting on your desk. You hardly realize it’s there because it’s always there. There’s a few drops of dried coffee on the rim, a hairline crack near the base, a scratch on the inside where a teaspoon was stirred a little too hard. Lift it up and there’s a patch of condensation on the desk, because you forgot to use a coaster, miniature droplets of moist. And on the bottom of the cup there’s the monogram of the company, and a chip almost too insignificant to see. I’m obsessed by detail, and often find myself ruled by it. I have a problem sometimes at seeing the bigger picture, but I value a level of detail that many people miss altogether. A great trick when you are writing is to take a bus ride, and keep a notebook in your lap. Look at the people who come on and off. Study their faces and see how the details of their appearance, their manners, all sync up with the full impression. The first five people who step onto a bus, any bus, are the characters for your novel. 



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Do the Work

There’s a vast abyss between would-be writers, and the ones who are really prepared to do the backbreaking work. I never ever show work in progress to anyone, not even Rachana, my wife… because I don’t like to be judged or critiqued until something is what I would class as very clean. People try and send me bits of books they are writing the entire time. I suppose that all authors get this and I really wish would-be writers would spend their time writing and not sending half-baked material out, hoping for praise. Remember, a book isn’t finished just because you have written a draft. That’s the real starting point. It’s the clay from which you can sculpt a work of genius. Here’s an example that’s stuck in my head. A few days ago a close friend asked if I would read a book that her ex-boyfriend had written, and give him feedback. She added that it was rather good in her opinion. The manuscript was emailed to me. I scanned as much of it that I could endure. It was clear from the start that there were some very serious problems. The first and main one was that as a ‘first book’, the writer was relishing in ever cliché that had ever been invented. The other faults were a total lack of character arc, narrative voice, themes, detail etc. So I wrote to my friend and suggested that she send my comments to her ex boyfriend. I told her that as I didn’t know the man, I hadn’t really got an idea what he wanted. So I wrote two different letters to her, and asked her to judge what he wanted and send on the appropriate one. The first letter was one of unctuous praise. I assumed the man had written the book, and was now showing it to me, because he wanted attention. I raved about his great work, complimented him in the most over the top manner, and wished him luck. The second letter explained that the book was totally flat, a complete heap of nonsense, without hardly any merit at all. BUT, I said, if he worked and worked and worked at it, he would eventually reshape it and could turn it into something worthwhile. If he did that, I explained, he would have what it takes to be a published author. I don’t know which letter she sent on.



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Honing

Read the great Georgian and Victorian novelists and you see that they were writing the same book over and over: almost identical plots, characters and themes, just honing the work a little each time. I’m not saying it’s good to churn out meaningless twaddle on the same blueprint. But there is merit in understanding what works and using it repeatedly, refining the way you tell the tale. You find it with modern writers too. Don’t tell me that an analysis of Stephen King finds his books are radically different. They get better and better as he has learned to hone, to become ever more refined. Like a master fencer who can make a strike by the most subtle twist of the wrist. Find a way of telling a story that works for you, get comfortable with it, and allow yourself to develop your storytelling capability through the genre or medium you have chosen.



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The Craft

OK. I’m going to state the obvious but please give me a break. If you want to get good at something — just about anything — you have to work at it. And it goes for writing more than just about anything I know. Here’s a trick that I learned. You give yourself half an hour. Put a clock on the table if necessary. And write a short paragraph. Describe something. Anything — just a jug of flowers on the window ledge, or your favourite painting, or a person you know. When you have written it, turn the paper over, or away from the computer screen for three minutes. Then read what you’ve written. Can you add to it? Can you make it flow a little better. Does it need chopping about? If so, work on it. Then turn away for another three minutes and, again, read through and rework. When I have written something (except this blog, so forgive me for that), I constantly re-read and rework. I substitute words, tenses, and lots of little things with the aim of creating a product that’s easy to read. In my opinion, it’s far better to write a paragraph that’s blindingly clean than pages of stuff which are full of mistakes.



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Open Arms

I have always found that one of the great joys in life is how one thing links to another, or how one person will take you to another, who passes you on, and on… Sometimes I come across someone who prices himself out of the initial steps of progression, and thereby never receives opportunities that would have flooded in if the person had not been so mercenary at the start point. I usually have a lot of stuff on the boil, partly because I like to work that way, as I find it stimulating, but partly too because I find that one small project may lead to something later – possibly something very large. I do projects when they are paid well, of course, but I often take on work that pays very little, or nothing at all, if I can spare the time. This open arms approach works well for me, and reminds me constantly about the interrelated nature of our world.



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Linking Work

My father would always counsel me to link all projects together, so as to form a kind of spearhead. By doing this you achieve a momentum that’s lost when spreading thin. In the 1990s I spent a year in Japan and bought dozens of books on Japanese culture, language and history. Many of these books were written by an author (I assume he was American). His output was astonishing. There were all sorts of titles under his name. Some were works of fiction, others business books, guides, reference volumes, and even titles about the sleazy side of the Japanese water trade. I was a fan of the man’s work, and always impressed that he was so prolific. But the problem for him was that no one took him seriously. He was giving all sorts of mixed messages. The business readers didn’t like it that he’d written about Sex in Japan, and the people who bought the Sex in Japan books didn’t appreciate that he had written business books. So he reached a point at which, despite huge output, he stagnated. I always remember his example, and the fact that linking work together strengthens the value and appeal of that work.



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Specialization

I am a huge fan of polymathy: the ability to master several subjects and use strengths in one to further understand and master another. But within our society it’s all about specialization. Despite my championing a polymathic approach, I do see the benefits of being a specialist, at least for breaking in. Turn on the BBC World news after a crisis and they will have some obscure professor or expert from a think tank sitting on a chair, spouting his ideas on how the crisis is going to play itself out. Why’s he there? – because he’s the one guy who’s perceived to be the expert. It’s all baloney of course. He’s really there because the TV producer needed a bum on a seat attached to a mouth that was capable of filling five minutes of silence with what sounds like shrewd analysis. Watch the media and the world of publishing, especially in the light of the internet and the growth it’s allowed in niche culture, and you see that specialization is on the up. Again, look at cycles and areas that are going to come to the fore, and throw yourself into that. The one thing to avoid, of course, is getting painted into a corner. Always be ready to sidestep into another related niche when the time comes.



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