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Comment from the book world in January 2018


Television 'hungry for writers' content'

13 August 2018

‘Television is suddenly hungry for writers' content because long-form television is much closer to novels than anything else. A lot of people invested in short stories, things you can read on your phone, all very interesting but putting the technology first. Actually what we've seen is authors like Hanya Yanagihara and Donna Tartt - very long novels (being successful). So something is going on in reading which is much more analogous to long-form television - immersive reading and immersive watching. So there's this hunger for writerly content and story writing skills, which is great for an agency like us who don't do anything but writers...

Personality matters in agenting... I think the personality of the agent informs the way they do the job in a way that can't possibly be true any more in publishing, in the way it was when it was Carmen Callil, Tom Maschler, George Weidenfeld were active - now publishers are part of a corporate entity.'

Clare Alexander of the London literary agency Aitken Alexander AssociatesAccepts fiction and non-fiction. No plays or scripts. in the Bookseller

Switching off the adult editor

6 August 2018

‘I can't stop writing. It's not something I physically enjoy, but I can't switch off the head. There was something else, something I'd lived with all my life - the fear that I wouldn't live to finish a given piece. Having finished Boneland at the age of 77, with no idea in front of me whatever, I thought - that's it. Now, given that it takes me between five and nine years to write a novel, the joke runs a bit sour when you're in your early eighties...

No book of mine has ever had so many drafts. What I had to do was remove myself as an observer and let the voice of me at that age genuinely establish itself. The trouble was that I didn't want to be arch or twee or laced through with dramatic irony. I like technical challenges. I just let it settle and listened, I didn't try to impose anything on that voice as it emerged. It couldn't be infantile, it must be simple. It expresses the complex thought of a child of that age...

There was no research. To a fault, I love the research and it puts off the writing. But with this, I simply had to not interfere. It's not mystical, it was just allowing myself to switch off the adult editor until the words were there.'

Alan Garner, author of just-published Where Shall We Run to? (a wartime childhood memoir), The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, The Stone Book Quartet and many other books for children and adults in the Observer.


The editor’s role

30 July 2018

‘Publishing is all about taste. You have other things, but at the centre of everything you do is your taste - and your trust in your taste and your judgement...

It's such a difficult job - you need to have the big picture and the detail. An editor who is just an editor thinks only about the text and creating a marvellous book and handing it over - whereas one who is also a publisher has a 360 degree view on a book and they are the engine that drives a book and they get involved in all aspects, particularly publicity. So you have to have skills in every bit of a book's life and be there for the author as well.

You have to be prepared to watch and listen and read and get involved and learn. You have to be very patient because it takes a long time to learn it all. The tortoises rather than the hares of the world make the best editors.

I sometimes feel that too much is expected of younger people too quickly and that is why you get some of them burn out. Commissioning editors carry a great load. It induces neuroses in the sanest people because you feel the responsibility for whether a book works or doesn't. Yes, there is a collective responsibility with the company, but in the end it's you as the editor who has said: ‘I love this book and I want to publish it, I want us to publish it.'

Alexandra Pringle, editor-in-chief, Bloomsbury Publishing, in Bookbrunch


Advice to Aspiring Writers

16 July 2018

‘You must dedicate yourself to keeping a journal. When I look into my own journals, what fascinates me most about what was going on in my life 30 years ago are the things that we would consider the most mundane. What was I reading, who was I talking to, what were the main subjects of conversation.

Where you're living, what's on your desk, who do you love, even what you had for breakfast, it doesn't matter. The banalities actually begin to shine after many years have passed. You don't have to write in it every day. Once a week would be fine. 500 words a week doesn't sound much, but it really mounts up. That's 25,000 words a year.

The terrible thing about life is that most of it is forgotten. A lot of it is rich. And a lot of that richness can be retained for future use by an occasional excursion into a notebook.

Ian McEwan, author of 22 books including The Child in Time, Amsterdam and Atonement in an interview in Signature Ian McEwan Offers 3 Pieces of Advice to Aspiring Writers

'A lucky book'

9 July 2018

‘A bestseller might be read by hundreds of thousands of people, but Apple Tree Yard on TV reached 8 million people per episode - one of the few occasions when an author can become part of the national conversation.

But writing a good book on its own is not enough - it needs to be a lucky book. Apple Tree Yard was a lucky book, lucky on several levels. Lucky in being published by Faber & Faber, who did the most amazing job even before the glamour of TV. Then it was lucky again as the rights were optioned by Kudos TV and lucky a third time when they sold the adaptation in a brilliant version by Amanda Coe to BBC1. But the lynch pin of that whole process was being published [and] it's the publisher who takes the risks of the cost of publication. Without proper support for the publishing industry they will not be in a position where they can support authors - and of course the lynch pin of that support is copyright.'

Louise Doughty, author of Apple Tree Yard, Black Water and six other novels in a speech at the UK Publishers Association Summer Reception in the Terrace Pavilion in the House of Commons, London.

'Revision is absolutely necessary'

2 July 2018

‘Revision is absolutely necessary. If something is easily too good to alter, thank the gods, but don't expect it to happen again. Expect, rather, that you will need to improve upon the given, to continue the imperfect formation that your initial work has produced. Which is, after all, what making the poem is all about - to take the passion and, without cooling it, to put it into a form. For such work all the usual assets will help: energy, honesty, patience. But nothing is so helpful as an interest in language that amounts almost to a mania. Indeed, it is essential. For emotion does not elicit feeling. Style elicits feeling.'

Mary Oliver, from Rules for the Dance: A Handbook for Writing and Reading Metrical Verse. This Pulitzer Prize-winning poet has also produced four books of poetry and Devotions, a definitive collection of her work.


'A memoir that didn't fleece the people I love'

25 June 2018

‘You don't necessarily choose the books you write; they choose you, in a way. Sometimes one arrives when you are least expecting it, a bit like an unplanned pregnancy. This book was very much like that. But I had huge trepidations about publishing it. I only let my publisher give me a £1 advance in case I changed my mind.

I knew because it was so personal that I needed to get it completely right, not just so that I was happy with it but so that my husband and family and anyone else who was in it was happy with it. I love reading memoirs but sometimes I feel viscerally shocked at how exposing they are to people who don't have a right of reply. So, it was a very important to me to write a memoir that didn't fleece the people I love.'

Maggie O'Farrell writing about her latest book, I Am. I Am. I Am in the Observer. Her seven novels include The Hand That First Held Mine and This Must Be the Place.



The impact of success and writing historical novels

18 June 2018

‘I got insomnia because I was so freaked out. Everyone else was delighted for me but it was destabilising. My friends had to process the success for me. I didn't realise writing was not the final stage. You hope the book speaks for you - you write because you want to make sense of the world through your books, so to have to be the representative of it was challenging...

When I started writing it was like I didn't need to ask permission. Unconsciously perhaps, the roles I created in The Miniaturist were dream roles I wanted to play...

I don't aim to give a history lesson. I get flak for intimating that people in the past are just like us. I don't think it's that simple but, as a reader, when I was growing up I was thrilled to think I could have been a Tudor child. I'm fascinated by the social detail: what did they eat, what did they wear, how did they grieve? It's always an exquisite discovery when you realise there are some things that we have in common with people who are no longer there.'

Jessie Burton, author of the bestsellers The Miniaturist and The Muse, in the Evening Standard

'Cold concentrates the mind'

11 June 2018

‘"I'm writing a book." The very phrase seems self-indulgent and strange, more so at a time when we count the words and minutes, even the characters and the seconds. In popular myth, the writer is a mercurial figure, and when I started writing I assumed that the process would consist of long periods of staring at a flashing cursor interrupted by flashes of inspiration which would keep me at the keyboard for 50,000 words. Having heard about all those writers' retreats for novelists, I also assumed that it would help to have a beautiful view to look at. All wrong. In any case, historians don't get retreats, though we do get a muse, Clio. Writing needs routine. I carve out blocks of at least three to five days.

The best writing happens between nine and noon, after plenty of sleep. In the days before starting I often find myself writing in my head, and I am as sure as I can be that similar preparatory work occurs while I am unconscious. My daily target is 2,500 words. I always try to stop in mid flow, knowing what I should start with the following day. But I don't have the discipline. I run on well past my daily target, only to spend most of the next morning staring at the cursor flashing. Surroundings don't matter, although I often seem to write in a room (or, at the moment, a shed) which is so cold I wear a ski jacket and wrap a rug round my legs. Cold concentrates the mind.'

Jonathan Conlin, author of Tales of Two Cities, Evolution and the Victorians and four other books, in agent Andrew Lownie's excellent archive

'It's up to me to tell this or that story'

28 May 2018

'My greatest fear is of suddenly feeling that to devote so much of my life to writing is meaningless. It's a sensation that I've felt very often, and I'm afraid that I will again. I need a lot of determination, a stubborn, passionate adherence to the page, not to feel the urgency of other things to do, a more active way of spending my life. So yes, I'm fragile. It's all too easy for me to notice the other things and feel guilty. And so it's pride that I need, more than strength. While I'm writing, I have to believe that it's up to me to tell this or that story, and that it would be wrong to avoid it or not to complete it to the best of my abilities.'

Elena Ferrante, author of My Brilliant Friend and four other Neapolitan Novels in the Los Angeles Times


'Seventeen overseas trips in a year does not help continuity of concentration'

21 May 2018

‘Amid the avalanche of titles published each year, promoting a book now seems to demand almost as much work as writing it.

The competition is such that publishers offer chains of bookstores ‘special editions' with extra material. All have to be personally signed, with anything up to 5,000 specially printed title pages, ready to be tipped in. It is of course rather repetitive, a bit like doing lines at school.

This may sound a bit spoilt, especially when I know how incredibly lucky I have been, but life is not simple when it comes to promoting foreign translations as well as the British and American editions. For a start you need to banish any hope of working on a future book for at least half a year to nine months. It may be good for your stash of air miles, but some seventeen overseas trips in a year does not help continuity of concentration.

Based on the experience of previous books, I expect that once again I will be giving just about fifty lectures at literary festivals and conferences in different countries. Some other events will be ‘in-conversations', and a few more will be panels, but we all know that you sell fewer and fewer books, the more people there are on stage. Past form also indicates a fairly regular pattern of between 145 and 160 media interviews - press, radio and television. Email Q&As, most often from Spain and South America, take up a lot of time, but at least you are less likely to be misquoted.

Antony Beevor, author of just-published Arnhem - The Battle for the Bridges 1944, Stalingrad, The Second World War and many other distinguished military histories in Bookbrunch

'I will and must be published'

14 May 2018

'I think I am starving for publication: I love to get published; it maddens me not to get published. I feel at times like getting every publisher in the world by the scruff of the neck, forcing his jaws open, and cramming the Mss down his throat -- 'God-damn you, here it is - I will and must be published.

You know what it means - you're a writer and you understand it. It's not just 'the satisfaction of being published.' Great God! It's the satisfaction of getting it out, or having that, so far as you're concerned, gone through with it! That good or ill, for better or for worse, it's over, done with, finished, out of your life forever and that, come what may, you can at least, as far as this thing is concerned, get the merciful damned easement of oblivion and forgetfulness.'

Tom Wolfe, journalist extraordinaire and author of The Right Stuff, From Bauhaus to Our House and The Bonfire of the Vanities, who died this week