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Comment from the book world in January 2019


'An overactive imagination'

19 August 2019

‘I was often accused of having an overactive imagination as a child and I was an avid reader. I used to fib to my mum, saying I was going out to play with the other kids and actually having a book in my pocket. I'd built a den on the waste ground at the far end of the housing estate where I grew up and I would hide there and read. I wrote a novel when I was 11; I even cut out cardboard covers because I wanted it to be a hardback. And I spent a lot of time in the local library. It made me into a writer...

I was into fantasy and science fiction. I loved the Ursula K Le Guin Wizard of Earthsea books. Fantasy at that age is about pure imagination, and what those books showed me is that the whole world is at your fingertips if you write. And before that, the Narnia books: I remember spending a fair amount of time in wardrobes hoping to get through and see a talking fawn.'

Louise Doughty, author of just-published Platform Seven, Whatever You Love, Apple Tree Yard and six other novels in the Observer


'It wasn't really writing.'

12 August 2019

‘It wasn't really writing. It was sort of doing something at night, rather than cultivating friendships. I found myself very good company, so I never needed a party or a dinner in order to make me wonder on Saturday night, what are you going to do? And besides I had these little children, so I wrote at night, sporadically, trying to build on a story I had written years before. I liked the authority of being in a place where I was doing it, and I liked how hard it was. And I liked the privacy, the interior world that was all mine, the freedom to explore that in a systematic way...

Piercing knots in language and in ideas, assisting in the discovery of clarity, connections, illustrations, tone are what editing requires. I thrive on the urgency that doing more than one thing provides - on the sense of pressure that I either need or am accustomed to...

People used to say how come you do so many things? It never appeared to me that I was doing very much of anything; really everything I did was always about one thing, which is books. I was either editing them or writing them or reading them or teaching them, so it was very coherent.'

Toni Morrison, author of Beloved, Song of Solomon, Sula, Jazz and 7 other novels, in a 1987 interview with Publishers WeeklyInternational news website of book publishing and bookselling including business news, reviews, bestseller lists, commentaries


'Write great parts for actors.'

5 August 2019

‘The best advice on writing drama was given to me by Barrie Keefe, wondrous playwright and screenwriter of The Long Good Friday. His guidance was simple: "Write great parts for actors." A brilliant actor is a dramatist's strongest weapon. And remember, as you stay at home writing, actors have to be in make-up at 5am, in the pouring rain, miles from home, standing around for twelve hours to shoot three minutes of screen time. Make it worth their while.'

Chris Chibnall, television writer and producer, whose credits include Torchwood, Broadchurch and Doctor Who.

'Publication is not all it is cracked up to be'

29 July 2019

'I still encourage anyone who feels at all compelled to write to do so. I just try to warn people who hope to get published that publication is not all it is cracked up to be. But writing is. Writing has so much to give, so much to teach, so many surprises. That thing you had to force yourself to do - the actual act of writing - turns out to be the best part. It's like discovering that while you thought you needed the tea ceremony for the caffeine, what you really needed was the tea ceremony. The act of writing turns out to be its own reward.'

Anne Lamott, prolific author of 7 novels, including Hard Laughter and Imperfect Birds, several bestselling books of non-fiction and a number of collections of autobiographical essays on faith.

"The perfect word in the perfect place in the perfect time"

22 July 2019

'Poetry is described as heightened speech, as "the perfect word in the perfect place in the perfect time"; the poet Linton Kwesi Johnson says it is "the distillation of human experience through language". It is all these things, but it is also prose that wants to sign, text that operates in the realm of music, where the sound of what is penned entertains as much as its contents.

I write for myself first and foremost, but as I write, I imagine I am speaking to a friend who has just walked in, to whom I'm recounting a story already known, but for whom I am trying to make it worthwhile to listen again. Sometimes the "friend" here is one I have never met, but who I am confident will be cool with me. I write with that assumed familiarity. Sometimes I write song lyrics, sometimes lyric poems, always they are lyrical; and sometimes I write plays.'

Inua Ellams, poet, playwright, author of six poetry pamphlets, including Candy Coated All Stars and Thirteen Fairy Negro Fairy Tales, and seventeen plays, in the Sunday Times Culture

Write from the Inside

15 July 2019

'The best books come from someplace deep inside. You don't write because you want to, but because you have to. Become emotionally involved. If you don't care about your characters, your readers won't either.

Those of us who write do it because there are stories inside us burning to get out. Writing is essential to our well-being. If you're that kind of writer, never give up! If you start a story and it isn't going well, put it aside... You can start as many as you like because you're writing for yourself. With each story you'll learn more. One day it will all come together for you, as it did for me with Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret. I'd published two books and several short stories before Margaret, but I hadn't found my voice yet. I hadn't written from deep inside. With Margaret I found my voice and my audience...'

Judy Blume, author of Are You there, God? It's Me, Margaret, Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great, Forever, Wifey and 25 other books, which have sold over 85 million copies worldwide, but often been banned. From her column On Writing

'Different voices'

1 July 2019

‘There's been a great democratisation of the world of poetry, In the past, it was seen as only certain kinds of people wrote poems, but now there isn't that same divide. There's all sorts of different forms: spoken-word poetry, Instagram poetry... Poets like Hollie McNish have taken off and are selling lots. But the average poet is not selling lots, that's a bit of a press distortion; poetry is only selling more for these internet sensations. The average poet sells fewer than 200 books. But it is exciting that these different voices are coming into the world of poetry and making it more varied, more various.'

Jackie Kay, Scottish Makar (Poet Laureate) and author of nine books of poetry, including Fiere and The Empathetic Store, as well as fiction and memoirs, in the Observer

The first draft

24 June 2019

The toughest part of the whole process is going from the outline to the first draft.

When you are writing the outline you can do anything from changing the gender of a character to reseting the whole thing in Egypt. You are all-powerful. After you have made those decisions, you come to the stage where each sentence in our outline has to be turned into four or five pages of prose. This is where the real imaginative work comes in. You have to take your ideas and you have to walk people in and out of the room, you have to describe the room and the clothes they are wearing and you have to make the reader share their anxieties, hopes, triumphs and their romantic feelings.

Ken Follett, author of The Kingsbridge Series and The Century Trilogy from the Masterclass on his website.

'Starving for publication'

17 June 2019

'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 and author of several novels and works of non-fiction, including The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, the Right Stuff and The Bonfire of the Vanities.


Writing your first non-fiction book

10 June 2019

‘First the length. In an age of ever-shortening attention spans, you have to have a pretty powerful message to keep anyone's interest for much over 75,000 words (about 300 pages). In fact, if you can't present your proposition in 300 pages, then you may have a problem with excessive verbiage you should deal with.

Then structure: as my background was working as a management consultant running organisational efficiency projects, I approached my first book like I would a project. I broke the book down into easily manageable pieces of work. If I was going to write about 75,000 words, then that meant around fourteen or fifteen chapters of around 5,000 words each. This hugely simplified the task of writing a book because now all I had to do was write fourteen or fifteen 5,000-word essays. By splitting the book into these fourteen or fifteen easily digestible chapters, the task of writing a book somehow seemed easier than when being faced with the need to produce 75,000 words. Moreover, to make the book even more digestible for readers, I split these fourteen or fifteen chapters into three to four sections of just a few chapters each...'

David Craig, management consultant and author of The Great Charity Scandal and Don't Buy It! in an article on the Andrew Lownie Agency website


'A massive world for our books'

3 June 2019

‘When...I started, there was the hardback and the paperback. Then there was the hardback, the trade paperback, and the paperback. Then there was the hardback, the trade paperback, the paperback, and the ebook. Then there was all that plus audio. Then all that plus podcasts; and, with the likes of Apple and Amazon involved, more places than ever before for serialisations and dramatisations; and more places than ever before for film and TV adaptations; and more markets than ever before opening up for deals.

The book is the perfect starting place for any kind of platform for a story. And the literary agency should be the place where all these deals begin...

There is a massive world for our books. China has opened up, just in the last 10 years: we've sold 14 million books by Bear Grylls there. Jeanette's [Winterson's] Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal sold 50,000 copies in China in two months. Regularly, Lynda Gratton's books sell over 350,000 copies in Japan. And we're doing deals in new countries all the time. Vietnam is starting to buy books. We did a deal in Azerbaijan the other day.'

Caroline Michel, literary agent and CEO at London literary agency Peters, Fraser & Dunlop, in Bookbrunch

'85% of crime readers are women'

13 May 2019

‘I get gendered questions about the violence. I'll give you a case study: a few years back, I got an email from Lee Child - who I love - saying he just read my recent book and he had just finished writing something with a similar theme. When I was doing press for that book, I got a lot of questions about the violence; Lee didn't get any. And there's Jack Reacher, going around killing around 3,000 people and beating everybody up...

With Reacher, you're never really scared he's going to get hurt. My characters are more vulnerable, so if I kill one person in a horrible way, it resonates. Keep in mind that 85% of crime readers are women. It makes sense that women reading about women being murdered is going to resonate more, probably because the real world is a very dangerous place...

I love character-driven books but hate when the crime is almost secondary. But I never want to go the opposite way. I think James Patterson does a really great job at what he does, but you're never going to close a book of his and wonder what's happening with those characters a week later. I want my characters to be strong enough that they live on in readers' heads for a while.'

Karin Slaughter, author of The Last Widow (to be published in June), Fractured, Faithless, Pretty Girls and 15 other novels in the Bookseller.