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The Story and Stories of Working Class Writers

In November 2017 I cried at the radio. I was listening to Where Are All the Working Class Writers? The show had been put together by Kit de Waal. It featured writers and editors who came from working class backgrounds telling their stories of how they broke into the industry. They talked about libraries as refuges and publishing institutions as gated palaces they didn’t feel they belonged inside. I cried because this was my writing story too, the risks, the highs and the barriers.

So I contacted Kit and asked what needed to be done to get Working Class voices heard. She said people like me should join together to form a collective. Right then! So I floated the idea on Twitter and writers started to show their support. And that’s how it happened – a movement to get Working Class stories heard.

We’re just at the beginning and I’ll be sharing news as we go along. But I thought we could start with a place to hear the stories of how working class writers got their stories out into the wild world: from their first school story to final draft. Who championed these stories and how barriers were overcome? These tales of breaking in are so important as they show it can be done and how, they also reveal where the pitfalls are that our collective needs to address.

I’m Carmen Marcus, a writer from Saltburn by the Sea on the wild North Yorkshire coast. I’m the daughter of a Yorkshire fisherman and an Irish chef. I write performance poetry and have been commissioned by the Royal Festival Hall, BBC Radio and Durham Book Festival. I also write literary fiction and my debut novel HOW SAINTS DIE was published with Harvill Secker in July 2017. It is the story of ten-year-old Ellie Fleck and how she copes with her mother’s mental illness through the power of stories.

If you’d like to know more about the Working Class Writers’ Collective or add your story to this blog please email me at carmenellen@hotmail.co.uk.

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The Writer’s Plan: Step 1

A route-map for underrepresented writers

#thewplan A Route-map for Under-represented first published @The Bookseller 12th February 2019

Carmen Marcus

It’s just over a year since I heard Kit de Waal on Radio 4 asking Where Are All The Working Class Writers? The show so precisely laid bare the two big blocks to working class writers getting their stories told: the internal problem of shame and their invisibility to an elite metropolitan industry. After crying at the radio I got it together enough to float the idea of a working class writers’ collective on Twitter. There was a big electric YES pattering from keyboards across the country and the thing we most talked about was ‘What can we do right now?’ but it’s taken me a year to find the answer:

Make a Plan.

Continue reading “The Writer’s Plan: Step 1”

The Writer’s Plan: A Route-map for Underrepresented Writers

As soon as we say ‘I want’ we’re not just starting to identify our goals as a writer, we’re initiating a battle between the Dreamer and the Doubter inside ourselves.

Step 2: Where Do I Want to Be?

Hopefully you’ve celebrated packing your bag of skills for Step 1 and are all set for the trip. But we’re not heading out yet. Step 2 is all about where you want your writing journey to take you. At this stage it is all about dreaming big. This should be easy for us writers, shouldn’t it? The slight problem is that maybe the act of dreaming up worlds for imaginary people was a way of escaping the limitations of our reality. So how do we dream big for ourselves?

Note: There are 5 tasks in this step so you may wish to spread it over two sessions, especially if you’re working with a writing buddy.

Tell Me What You Want

In writing this I realised that I needed to flip the question because when asked ‘Where do I want to be?’ it’s easy to jump to the predictable writing goals: ‘international mega-book deal, or the more modest n-submissions to competitions; a completed first draft; submit to an agent.’ Great, these are all really valid goals, but this is setting ourselves up to fail if we don’t address the secret wants we daren’t say out loud.  These quiet desires, like ‘I want to believe in my work’, must be heard to make the bigger stuff happen.

The scary thing is that these deeper needs won’t be fixed by getting an agent or publication or competition wins.

Continue reading “The Writer’s Plan: A Route-map for Underrepresented Writers”

Interview with Lorraine Gregory Part 2

In this second instalment middle grade author Lorraine Gregory tells us about the catalyst moment that propelled her into the industry, the journey to getting an agent; how she found her voice and genre and who championed her along the way.

Tell me how important the Golden Egg experience was to your development?

After several years of writing and two manuscripts submitted to agents with good feedback but no deal it seemed like I was getting close but I couldn’t seem to get to the next level with my writing. I thought my latest MS (Mold and the Poison Plot) was good but I wanted professional eyes on it in the hope they could tell me what I was missing. I heard about Golden Egg through Twitter and at the time they were just starting out and offering one to one’s with an editor at a rate I could afford.

It made such a huge difference to my work…Maurice Lyon was my mentor and he showed me what I needed to do to push my writing up a level. Then Imogen Cooper, who set up Golden Egg after working at Chicken House, opened my eyes to the structure of writing and helped me hone my editing abilities before I sent out my reworked MS to Kate Shaw at the Viney-Shaw agency who signed me up as a client a month or so later.

I was very lucky to be able to access Golden Egg on the small budget that I had, to me it felt like a worthwhile investment in something that was very important to me and I’m so glad I did. It was a huge learning experience and also enabled me to meet some of my very best friends through their social events.

I think I could have got to the same stage on my own eventually but it would have taken me much longer and probably been less fun!

If you don’t have the budget for something like Golden Egg then I do recommend getting some chapters critiqued with The Children’s Book Circle – who offer events at reasonable prices with professional editors – also conferences, SCBWI and other writer events often have the opportunity for one to one’s and many of them have scholarships or assisted places. And there’s always the option of using a crit group or partner to help you hone your words. And read, there are some brilliant books out there on writing and masses of stuff on the internet…plus social media is your friend..opportunities, competitions and special offers are often listed on twitter.

You can find out more about The Golden Egg Academy here –

https://www.goldeneggacademy.co.uk

Story

Which writers inspire you? How did you decide to write for middle grade? How do you decide which ideas to grow into a story?What do you do to develop your characters?Tell me about Mold and the Poison Plot and what made you tell this tale?Who have been your champions and what difference did they make?

I’m inspired by Frances Hardinge, Katherine Rundell, Laini Taylor, Leigh Bardugo, Cressida Cowell, Jonathan Stroud and so many more because their books are brim full of imagination and transport me to other worlds that feel entirely real and solid.

I didn’t really DECIDE to write for MG – as I said, I started writing for my son who was around 9 or 10 at the time and I realised it was the PERFECT place for me. That age group is a delight to write for, anything is possible and the stories are full of adventure and heart and while they can be dark there’s usually a positive and uplifting aspect too. Previously I’d always tried to write for teens or adults but they always felt stilted and awkward but writing for children was a natural fit so I’m really glad I found my place there!

It’s not easy deciding which ideas to pursue, often I’ll have a few ideas playing around at the same time and I’ll drift between them making notes and thinking. Usually the thing that will start me writing one particular idea is when I find the voice that works. Some projects do shout louder than others but mostly I think ideas are just waiting their turn…my next book is a fresh version of one of the first manuscripts I wrote…the idea was always good, it just needed to wait for a while before it was ready!

I do quite a lot of work on characters – usually I find I have to draft it out once so the characters can reveal themselves a little on the page, then I’ll dig down into their motivations and make sure they hold their own within the story.

I’ve been known to sketch my characters but I’m a terrible artist so I’d never show them to anyone.

I also often do timelines and histories for my world and how my characters fit into it. I think it’s really worth investing time into characters because nothing works without them – the best plot in the world means nothing if your characters don’t inspire and engage the reader.

The idea for Mold came all of a sudden when I was editing another manuscript and demanded my attention. I plotted it out in a day and drafted it in three months and it was huge fun to write.

There is much of me and my own issues in this book.

Some of which were subconscious – eg Mold lives in the Dregs – a close but deprived community of misfits looked down upon by their richer more privileged neighbours – is a barely disguised reference to the council estate where I grew up.

Some of the issues were conscious though – eg Mold has a big nose as do I. Having been teased and self conscious about it most of my life I realised that the media has always portrayed villains as having big noses, while the heroes, most especially the Disney princesses for example have tiny, perfect little noses. I decided to make Mold’s nose special and give him an amazing sense of smell which he must use to help save his guardian Aggy from the hangman’s noose and discover the truth behind the Poison Plot. To make all heroes handsome and villains ugly or disfigured is lazy, dangerous stereotyping and I think children need to see better from us.

There is also a strong theme of diversity and tolerance in the history of Pellegarno and the different people that lived there – I didn’t plan it necessarily but my own feelings seeped through and it soon became an intrinsic part of the story and Mold himself.

Certain elements snuck in and only after it was written did I realise that Mold feeling different to everyone, out of place, looked down upon and not fitting in was actually how it felt for me growing up as a mixed race girl from a council estate. It made me realise that despite leaving the council estate behind when I was 18, I’d never fully left behind those feelings of inferiority.

My champions have been Imogen Cooper at the Golden Egg Academy who first made me feel that I was good enough to be a published writer and then my agent Kate Shaw whose faith in me and my work has given me the confidence to push on past rejections and setbacks and keep writing regardless.

I’m also hugely lucky to have wonderful writer friends who make me laugh, keep me sane when the strangeness of the publishing world threatens to overwhelm me, and bolster my shaky self confidence as necessary.

I just want to say a huge thank you to Lorraine for sharing her story, for her honesty and the hope she inspires for future writers. Also a big thank you to Em Lynas for introducing us.

Lorraine Gregory is the author of “Mold and the Poison Plot” (OUP 2017) – which won the S.C.B.W.I Crystal Kite award for UK and Ireland in 2018 – and the forthcoming “The Maker of Monsters” (OUP May 2019). She co runs the popular, bi monthly #UKMGCHAT on twitter as @authorontheedge and can often be found procrastinating on there about books, toast and cats! You can find out more at https://www.lorrainegregoryauthor.co.uk

An Interview with Lorraine Gregory Part 1

Lorraine Gregory is the author of Mold and the Poison Plot, a middle-grade novel about being a misfit and finding true friendship. Lorraine is the daughter of an Indian father and an Austrian mother. Raised on an East London Council Estate her local library fed her love of books and though becoming a ‘proper’ author seemed like an impossible dream she started scribbling stories for her son and those tales found their way off the page and into the world.

Having been virtually introduced to Lorraine by my good friend Em Lynas I was keen to find out her writing journey. There is a warmth and honesty in Lorraine’s story that really struck me. I could deeply relate to her description of how disorientating it is to be a working class writer at sea in the social world of publishing. How exhausting it is to try to fake the confidence that is needed to get through events. As well as these intimate glimpses Lorraine’s story is full of uplifting insights into a writing dream made real. It’s incredible and inspiring and Lorraine’s responses to my questions are so generous about the path to becoming a writer, the craft and the industry I’ve split her story into two parts so that you can enjoy over two courses, like a good dinner and pudding, to fill you up ready to set off on your own writing journey in the New Year.

Part 1

Tell me about where you come from? Were stories told in your house? What did you like to do as a child?

My parents were offered council housing when I was two years old. We moved from the cramped furnished apartment with added mice, to a lovely spacious three bedroomed maisonette on a concrete council estate in East London. My parents who’d struggled to manage were thrilled at their good fortune and continued to work as hard as they could to ensure their children had everything they needed.

My mum was from a poverty stricken home in Austria and took full advantage of the local library to ensure my brother and `I were never short of books.

My dad was from Goa in India and we loved listening to his stories of growing up barefoot, running on the beaches and his crocodile “best friend”.

The first book I remember having a huge affect on me was “When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit” by Judith Kerr. It’s an extraordinary book and it spoke to me on so many levels. As Anna becomes a refugee from her home in Germany her sense of being different and not fitting in resonated with me.

I loved writing from an early age, scribbling huge adventures that sprung out fully formed. When I wasn’t reading or writing I was out playing on our estate with the other children. The estate was a concrete jungle but that only made it perfect for bikes and roller skates and skateboards!

Education

I went to my local primary and comprehensive schools and enjoyed both. I loved reading and writing at primary and teachers were very encouraging there but at secondary school imagination was less valued I felt and there was little time to write creatively.

I didn’t meet any writers, I never expected to, writers were special, amazing people who were far too busy and important to meet mere mortals.

My local library in Fullwell Cross was an oasis of books with a special, separate children’s library. My mum took us every weekend and every summer we did the reading scheme and it was always one of my favourite spaces. Without it I’d never have been able to afford to read as voraciously as I did and without all that reading I doubt I’d have become a writer.

The current trend of closing libraries is going to impact hugely on children from working class backgrounds and limit their potential.

Did you train to become a writer? What jobs do you do or have you done that aren’t related to writing? What skills do you bring from outside writing to the craft of getting it done?

I have no training whatsoever for writing, except all the reading, film/TV watching and story imagining I’ve done over the years.

I worked in catering after I left school, a brief stint as a dinner lady was followed by a year as a catering assistant, a few years as a chef and then catering manager. After I had my son I began a diploma in antenatal education so I could teach at home and choose my hours. Now the teaching fits in well with my writing and means I have enough time for my family and friends too which is a bonus!

Doing my diploma was really helpful because all the essay’s got me back into the habit of writing and fired up my brain.

It also gave me confidence that I could finish things, work to a deadline and gave me some experience of editing. It’s also been useful for enabling me to be confident enough to stand up in front of people and deliver a workshop or author talk.

Writing Journey

I first started writing again properly for my son. He was a reluctant reader and I had to try really hard to find stories for him to engage with. Once we got through Roald Dahl and Mr Gum I struggled to keep him interested so one day I started scribbling a story down just for him.

When I read it to him later he loved it and was so excited and desperate for more. Every day I’d write a chapter for him and then at bedtime I’d read it to him and he would laugh and bounce around on the bed in excitement. Then we’d discuss what might happen next and it really inspired me to keep writing. (Also if I didn’t write any he would be cross with me and insist I write extra the next day!)

The other factor that contributed to me writing was my health issues. I suffered from repeated disc prolapses that caused constant back pain and made it very hard for me to do much at all. My life narrowed to home and occasional days of work for several years and I needed to find something to occupy me…writing filled that gap and I quickly rediscovered my love for it. I was spurred on by my son whose enthusiasm never wavered and he became my sounding board for my ideas and the first reader of all my work.

My husband supports me. I’m lucky and privileged that he can do so and that he sees the value in my work. With his help I can work part time and find the hours I need to write and promote my work.

Once I started writing I found I couldn’t stop. I wrote quickly, completing a full draft of my first MG (middle-grade)novel in three months or so and then moving on to another. But I knew nothing about editing or how to get published. Luckily I found SCBWI ( society for children’s book writers and illustrators) online and through their workshops and talks I gained an understanding of what was involved.

I think my main barrier has been myself to be honest. The publishing industry is almost inherently white middle class and while everyone I’ve ever met has been lovely and welcoming I often feel like I don’t belong there; that I don’t talk “right”, that I’m not educated enough, that I’m wearing the wrong clothes and I’m convinced someone will realise I’m just a jumped up council estate brat and kick me out!

It feels harder, sometimes, to go to social events, to make conversation with professionals when my childhood consisted of being looked down upon, being seen as “lesser” than the middle class children, being labelled and then judged as one of the “council estate kids”.

I possess none of the inbred confidence that is often found in the privileged, privately educated.

I’m not sure that people realise how difficult it can be to enter the publishing world from a working class background. Publishing is a very sociable business, getting to know other writers, agents and publishers is important and I think that part of it can be a barrier to the working class – standing around in bookshops sipping prosecco while chatting about literature doesn’t necessarily come naturally and could certainly put people off.

I manage to come across as confident and sociable but it’s really just an act.

After every social event I’m racked with self doubt and convinced everyone was secretly talking about me…

But I have to say that the children’s book world is one of the friendliest places to be and, I’ve been told, far more generous and forgiving than other sectors of the book world. I’ve made many friends since I started writing and have found a place in the publishing world where I feel comfortable and happy.

There are many working class writers writing for children now and that is a brilliant thing. If we could get more working class people IN to publishing houses as editors then we might find more working class stories and characters being commissioned.

I think it’s of ever more importance that these changes happen – poverty levels are increasing in the UK, more and more children are homeless and hungry – all the while schools are more and more unable to cope with the decreasing budgets given by the government – and lets not forget that more and more libraries are closing.

Books will become a luxury if we’re not careful and the opportunities I had growing up to improve my social status through education could disappear.

I desperately want more books and stories about working class children, children in poverty, BAME children, to be out there so that children will see themselves and engage in reading which we all know is one of the biggest indicators for a child’s future.

Besides that I think seeing different lives is hugely important for ALL children, to increase their empathy levels and make them aware of the diversity of experiences out there.

The other issue that comes up is that many schools can’t afford author visits now and sometimes it might be the one chance a working class child has of seeing that it’s a possible dream for them. I love going into schools and talking about my experiences and watching their faces light up but I’m worried that author visits will soon become a luxury only known to private schools.

Click here to read Part 2 about how Lorraine found her genre, her voice and her story champions.

Lorraine Gregory is the author of “Mold and the Poison Plot” (OUP 2017) – which won the S.C.B.W.I Crystal Kite award for UK and Ireland in 2018 – and the forthcoming “The Maker of Monsters” (OUP May 2019). She co runs the popular, bi monthly #UKMGCHAT on twitter as @authorontheedge and can often be found procrastinating on there about books, toast and cats! You can find out more at https://www.lorrainegregoryauthor.co.uk

Two Places and No Places by Nicolas Obregon

When my mum was 18 she went on a student exchange. Spain was still living under Franco’s shadow and its newfound democracy hung in the balance but my mum had simply made friends with a Spanish girl the summer before, my aunt. Now, a year later, she was waiting for her at the airport. But that was the day of the car crash. My aunt survived but it fell to my father to pick my mum up.

Over the course of that summer she fell in love with him, with Madrid itself: its little bars in belle époque neighbourhoods, its ancient, fragrant bakeries, my father’s weird cast of friends, pausing just long enough from trying to pull women at protests to chuck bricks at the police. Then my mum got pregnant. As she wasn’t married, her parents essentially disowned her.

The first house I can remember was the emergency unit in Swiss Cottage. We lived with an Irish woman who’d had a baby with an abusive Egyptian. I still remember the sound of him, standing outside late at night, screaming. I grew up between Madrid and London, back and forth, new start after new start.

Growing up between two cultures and languages gives you so very much.

But being from two places also means you’re from no places.

When my parents finally couldn’t make it work, my mum took me to live in a council flat in Camden. We survived on John Major’s child benefits, eating rice, tinned tuna, tinned veg. My mum cried a lot. It was all I knew, but looking back I can see how hard it must have been for her: young, alone, raising a kid on just a few quid a week.

As I got older, being poor felt like something I had to hide, an embarrassment I didn’t want to inflict on others.

But our council flat was full of gold. Namely, love and books.

As a shy, quiet kid, I’d retreat into the world my mum cultivated for me: sorcerers, pharaohs, hardboiled detectives. Life in Kiln Place soon taught you why the man down the way turned the TV volume all the way up. Why his wife would be wearing sunglasses the next day, even in winter. Why the older brother downstairs, kicked out by his parents, would mug his younger brother for lunch money. My book world felt like a nicer place to be sometimes.

Course, it wasn’t all bad. The Bengali family next door always shared chapatis and smiles.

In the summer, the local pub would play Boy George and Kate Bush on the jukebox, the music mixing in with the rattle of the Silverlink Train above.

And nearby Hampstead Heath was always a green dreamworld to get lost in, especially with a book. I would sit alone in the Hollow Tree, planning Choose Your Own Adventure books. By Year 7, I was writing short stories about detectives: in space, in the future, in video games.

I loved writing, always had, but it was never something I considered viable after school.

Dropping out of uni, I ended up at a temp agency. Skills? the man asked. Writing, I replied. He shrugged. Somehow, I ended up as an intern at a travel magazine. A few months later there was an opening and I was soon being sent abroad to produce destination reports. That meant I was being sent to the south of France and Venice and being paid to write about it! The job itself wasn’t quite the same as the 007 image it conjures but

seeing my own words in print felt like winning the lottery.

For the first time I realised that being published was as much situational as it was a birthright.

I moved into legal publishing, working my way up to become deputy editor. Editing other people’s work really sharpened my own writing skills, helped me to learn economy of language. On my 30th birthday, I went to Japan. While travelling on a bullet train, I had an idea for a story. I started writing and, for the first time, didn’t give up. I wrote and wrote and wrote some more. Like doors bursting open, I finally felt ready. I looked up agents and told myself that if none replied, I’d suck it up and quit my dream. Least I’d know I’d had a go. Incredibly, one of the agents took me on and it led to book deals across the UK, US, EU, and beyond.

Now I live in Los Angeles and write full-time. I also mentor in youth incarceration trying to champion writing and creative pursuits as a career path.

I haven’t reached the end of my rainbow and being a full-time author isn’t always a picnic but it’s certainly changed my life and most days I have to pinch myself. There are no absolute truths but I do know this:

nobody will knock on your door and ask you if you want to write.

Nobody is going to give you permission. People will try and discourage you from writing, tell you it won’t lead anywhere, remind you it’s a one in a million. Or, even worse, they will encourage you, even though deep down, you feel they don’t really believe you’ve got a chance in hell. But I want to remind working class writers something: you’ve probably had to be defiant in your life at some point to get where you are today.

Well stay defiant! Bollocks to the doubt.

Doubt is natural but also don’t be afraid of optimism. Feed that hope every day. Listen to advice you get from trusted people but ignore what you need to ignore. Always be yourself, even if you’re not sure you should be. Remember, there isn’t one set path. Above all, never give up. Ever.

If a shit-scared Spanish kid with a cockney accent from Kiln Place can get his name on bookshelves, anyone with a few ideas and some elbow grease can. Write!

Bio: Nicolás is a Londoner, a Madrileño, and an internationally-published author. His first novel, Blue Light Yokohama, was released around the world in 2017 through Penguin Random House, Minotaur/Macmillan, Calmann-Lévy, and Goldmann, among others. The sequel, Sins as Scarlet, will be released in late July 2018 and was declared by New York Times bestselling heavyweight, Jeffery Deaver, as ‘a masterpiece’. He lives in Los Angeles, supports Arsenal (for his sins), and hates writing about himself in the third person.

The Story’s Story – Publicity

The most important stories to tell are the ones that aren’t told enough.

An Interview with Louise Court

Carmen Marcus

A book needs publicity, it needs an introduction to its readers and this is an art and craft in its own right beyond the skill of writing. That said, many writers have to plan and implement their own publicity or if they are lucky enough to have a publicist they have to tell the story of their book in a way that’s quite alien to the writing process. To a new writer like me, with no knowledge of publishing processes, the purpose and practice of publicity was an intimidating mystery. I was very fortunate to be guided through this process by Louise Court, my publicist. So I’ve asked her all of the questions I wish I’d had the courage to ask her during our first meeting to demystify what publicity really is and how it works. I hope this will help you be ready to work effectively with your publicist and / or be more confident and tooled-up to tell the story of your story.

This time last year it was still hard to believe my book was going to be real. I’d just drawn breath after submitting the final amendments and then suddenly I needed to start thinking about my book in a totally new way – as a product – I knew it was coming but I was still caught off guard. When do writers need to start thinking about publicity?

I see this a lot, and it’s not surprising – lots of writers are so absorbed by the process of getting their book shipshape and ready to print that they haven’t had time to get their head around what happens next… and it’s really important that they do. There was a report in 2014 that revealed that

the UK publishes more books per capita than any other country by a huge margin (20 new titles an hour!).

Just think about that. Out of all those many, many books and authors, what will it take to make sure that it’s your book that readers pick up next? In a nutshell, it’s my job and the job of my colleagues in sales and marketing to work closely with authors and come up with a strategy that will get your book into the hands of readers.

The earlier you start thinking about this process, the better.

As a debut author I knew nothing about how my book would meet the world. Can you explain your process when you first receive a book to promote?

This can begin as early as when a book comes in on submission. The manuscripts are circulated not just to editors, but to publicists, marketeers and salespeople, too. It’s so important to have feedback from every department right from the off, to make sure that whatever book we buy, we are all agreed that we know how to sell it to the book trade and to readers. Even at this very early stage we might start thinking of some very top line ideas – for example, I’d be looking to see if the narrative is strong enough for Radio 4 to consider it for a radio reading. If it’s a novel, is it based on personal experience? If so, is it unusual enough that we could pitch some first person written pieces? How would I pitch this book to the literary editor of the Sunday Times to make sure they considered it for a review – what are the different and interesting things about it that will make them sit up and take notice? Where is the author based, and are they an engaging/experienced public speaker? Would they be comfortable and eloquent if we put them on the BBC Breakfast sofa, would they get bums on seats at Edinburgh or Hay literary festivals? Would they be available and keen to do the grassroots stuff of visiting local bookshops and chatting to booksellers? Etcetera.

There are so many things for us to consider, and every author and book is different.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to book publicity, we need to make sure each campaign is tailored to suit the material and the author to a tee.

From then on we’re led by press deadlines. Trade press, radio readings and long lead magazines (glossy monthlies) tend to work furthest out, although in some cases we may have had material out in the world up to a year before publication date to try to whip up buzz. And it’s important to know that, although we plan meticulously, a campaign is a very fluid thing – we have to adapt all the time according to news cycles, to media response, to author availability.

During our first discussion we talked about finding angles within the story. What are you looking for when searching for angles to promote a book?

To be a good publicist, you need to think like a journalist. So what I’m looking for are the same things that journalists are looking for – something timely that speaks to the current news cycle or moves the conversation on (if the media has one obsession, it’s being first!); something that’s relevant to that publication’s specific audience (a Good Housekeeping reader is very different from a Wired reader); something unusual that will stand out; and finally, but very importantly, I’m looking for a good story.

The pitch needs to read like a mini-story – it needs to have a beginning, a middle, an end.

The good news is that, if you’re a writer, the chances are you already know what a good story is and how to write one. Congratulations! You just need to match the right story to the right journalist, and that’s where your publicist comes in.

As a newbie I was stunned by the amount of people who were working to make my book and introduce it to the world. I wanted to help you any way I could but didn’t know how. You guided me through that process so gently. What are your expectations of a writer you are working with, what can they do to help you?

Be as open and honest as possible. It’s so helpful to me to know from the outset what an author is willing to do, and what they’re not comfortable with.

Trust your publicist’s judgement. In a lot of cases, we have been working with certain journalists or outlets for years, and have a sixth sense about what they will and won’t go for.

And – importantly – whatever it is, will it actually sell the book, or is time better spent elsewhere?

I really value when authors are able to get ideas or pieces to me quickly – journalists are often on deadline, or a last-minute opportunity presents itself, and being able to get material to them speedily can make the different between securing a good piece of coverage and missing out.

It’s good to keep in mind that there are always a lot of things going on behind the scenes to help your book on its way that you might not ever see. From proofs being sent to print to coffees with journalists or literary festival organisers, there are a thousand little things happening all the time which contribute to a book’s success. Don’t assume that just because you haven’t heard from your publicist in a few days that they aren’t working on your book. It would be impossible (and very boring, most likely!) for us to keep you informed of everything that we’re doing all the time, especially as we don’t want to get your hopes up if it doesn’t work out.

And always remember, we are all working towards the same end – to get your book into as many hands as possible! It should always feel like a collaborative process. If it doesn’t feel that way, it’s OK to ask your publicist why, and do honestly ask yourself if there is more you think you could do.

When I saw the distribution list for proof copies of HOW SAINTS DIE it was huge: national and local press, authors and reviewers. How do you decide who to send proof copies to? How do you package the work to increase the chances of it getting picked up?

We send copies far and wide to anyone we think may be likely to cover the book in some way. There are certain people we send everything to because their remit is so wide and they cover books constantly (people like Alison Finch at BBC Radio 4). Then we start thinking about more specialist press like gardening, history, sport, animals, etc. If an author lives in the UK then that gives us opportunity to target regional press depending on where they live, or where the book is set.

In terms of packaging, this really depends from book to book. Sometimes you’ll see really over-the-top proof packages, with special jiffy bags or knick-knacks that are relevant to the story to try to make sure that package stands out and to invite readers into that specific world. For example, I have been working on a book set in North Korea, so we sent a Korean snack that is mentioned in the book along with the proofs. Increasingly, sharing on social media is becoming really important, so sending an eye-catching package that makes people want to tweet it can help to create an early buzz around a book, but it’s not always the right strategy. Sometimes we like to let the book speak for itself.

As a debut author from the wild and windy North my literary contacts were quite limited and this inevitably meant I struggled. Contacts are important to get reviews and this is a big barrier for writers who are unfamiliar with the industry and its conventions. For writers outside of the London networks, what can they do to build the contacts that might lead to reviews?

I know that publishing can seem like an exclusive club and quite a daunting thing to try to break into. Firstly, I would say it’s your publicist’s job to have good contacts. We speak to literary media every single day, and our job is to advocate on behalf of you and your book. Just because you live outside of London or don’t know anyone in the ‘Publishing Bubble’, it doesn’t mean that you book won’t get into the hands of the people that matter.

Saying that, there are a few things that I would advise first-time writers do, regardless of where they live, in order to feel more connected to the literary world:

· Join a local writer’s group – they can be a really valuable resource for you and via other people’s experiences you can get insight into the industry
· Joining the Society of Authors can also be a useful introduction to other writers and to how the industry works
· Get active online – start a Twitter profile, find agents, editors, publicists and marketeers and follow them. Then have a look at who they’re following, and start following those people too. Even if you’re not feeling comfortable putting yourself out there and talking to people, simply listening to those conversations will tell you a huge amount about the industry
· Sign up to receive daily newsletters from the key trade news sites like The Bookseller and BookBrunch

Consume as much media as you can get your hands on. Go to the websites of national papers and look at their Culture/Arts/Literary sections. Familiarise yourself with that they’re covering, who they’re interviewing.

Start listening to arts programmes on the radio, like Open Book, Front Row, Free Thinking. This will give you a really great window into the current state of the industry, and will also prepare you a bit for what to expect should your book get reviewed or an interview is confirmed.
· Attend local arts events if you can. The ones that receive funding often offer certain events for free (I believe the York Festival of Ideas programme is entirely free). This is a great way to find out what a book event actually is, and also meet people face to face.

What’s an endorsement? How important are they? How do writers go about getting them?

Endorsements are when other authors or well-known people in the public eye give a quote for your book. Think of them as mini, early reviews. Where possible, editors will try to secure these well in advance of publication so that, if an endorsement does come through, we have time to incorporate this into the jacket design when we go to print.

A good endorsement can be a really powerful way of getting a book noticed. If I am talking to a literary editor and trying to convince them to review a book, then being able to tell them that, say, JK Rowling or Ian Rankin or Toni Morrison is already a big fan is really persuasive, especially if it’s for a new name.

Getting books out there as early as possible helps, but there is no way to guarantee an endorsement. Bear in mind that authors like JK Rowling are sent hundreds of books by hopeful editors and agents and they can only read so many! Some well-known authors refuse to blurb for books at all.

There are so many respected book bloggers out there doing wonderful things to help books meet the right readers. What is the etiquette when approaching these reviewers to read your book?

Publicists love bloggers! In a world where books and arts coverage in the national press is being squeezed more than ever, bloggers have opened up a whole new world of opportunities for exposure to authors, and particularly for new writers. I would say do some research and follow a few bloggers (and vloggers, and Instagrammers). Get yourself acquainted with their style and the kind of books they enjoy. If you think yours might be their cup of tea, send them a short, polite message introducing yourself and explain why you’re getting in touch. Be mindful that these wonderful, passionate people do what they do for free, often putting in the hours around full-time jobs – they are not duty-bound to review your book, and some may be so busy that they don’t have time to reply to you (even though they’d like to). But if you’ve done your research and matched your book well to the blogger, then they are more likely to want to see a review copy.

Publicists have great connections with bloggers, vloggers and Instagrammers (sometimes called ‘online influencers’) and good publicists maintain and value these relationships in the same way that we would literary editors on national papers. It’s worth consulting with your publicist to check who they are reaching out to, just so you don’t double up.

I really enjoyed going to Ilkley and Durham Book Festival and meeting folk but I did have a minor panic about what I’d be expected to do. How important is face to face contact with your readers, is it essential to attend and / or organise events – schools, bookshops, libraries, festivals? What are writers expected to do when they get there?

If you are in a position to be able to, then I would always advise making as much face to face contact with readers as possible. If I were an author, I’d be so curious to find out what readers want and what they thought of my book! It can be a really rewarding and eye-opening part of the process for writers. After all, this is what it’s all been about, right?

There are lots of different forms this can take – from very informal bookshop visits, saying hello to booksellers and giving them a proof of your book, to talks in thousand-seater theatre venues. Events can involve an author simply giving a talk with or without slides, followed by a Q&A. Or they might prefer a chairperson to sit and ask them questions. Sometimes the event is themed, and will involve a panel of 3 or 4 authors. On the whole, events last one hour and are always followed by a book signing.

In terms of what to expect, I’d advise going into your local bookshop or library and asking whether they have any author events planned. If so, go along to a few and experience them for yourself. Literary festival are of course also great opportunities to see this done on a much larger scale.

If you don’t have access to local events, then you can sometimes find videos of live events online – I believe 5×15 and Intelligence Squared will always upload a video of their events.

We pitched a number of different articles that related to the core themes of HOW SAINTS DIE: mental illness, place, childhood and the writing craft. The Foyles article was very personal and revealed the childhood events that led to the book. I drafted many ideas from all different angles but struggled to anticipate what would appeal. For Writers, like me, without a journalistic background what do they need to know about pitching topic related articles?

I may have answered this in the question above on what I’m looking for in terms of angles. I’d only add that there are so many factors in play here, it can sometimes be hard to know what ideas will stick. Sometimes, really strong story ideas don’t work out for a variety of reasons – maybe that publication already has a piece on a similar topic already commissioned, or they covered it too recently. Maybe they like the idea but would prefer they get an in-house writer to do it instead (always galling…). Maybe the editor has decided to take the publication in a slightly different direction, and has decided that they won’t commission certain kinds of pieces anymore, even though they have done so many times in the past. It can be really frustrating for authors, and us publicists too, because more often than not you won’t get a clear answer on why something didn’t work out.

I think authors would be surprised to know how many emails journalists actually reply to – you can send 20 pitches and it’s not unusual to maybe get two responses back (and even then, those might be ‘thanks but no thanks’).

One of the most frustrating parts of my job is the fact that what you get out of a campaign is only reflective of, maybe, 20-30% of what you put in. To get one review, interview, feature or event confirmed means that there were countless others that didn’t work out. It’s the nature of the business as there is only so much space, but it can be disheartening at times. The only thing you can do is try, and listen to your publicist’s advice.

The Foyles article was deeply personal but I hesitated about talking too explicitly about my working-class background. Even though being a fisherman’s daughter is who I am and so intrinsic to the book there was shame in exposure. How do you counsel authors on what is important to tell about the story of the book and what to hold back? How important is it to tell the story of a book?

So important! There should be no shame in telling your story openly and honestly. In fact, I believe you should feel empowered by it – the most important stories to tell are the ones that aren’t told enough.

I truly believe that the tide is turning that that there is more interest than ever before in underrepresented stories, whether they are from working class, ethnic minority, LGBTQ+ or disability backgrounds.

Although there is still a long way to go, there is a really serious push in publishing at the moment to commission books that give voice to minority groups. Authors must make sure that they are completely comfortable with what they are saying, but I would never counsel an author to hold anything back simply because what they have to say is something that hasn’t been heard much before. In fact, this is what will make your story stand out, and that is exactly what publicists are looking for! Your own, unique voice is what makes you and your story special, and we want to do everything we can to help it get heard by as many people as possible.

Since getting published I’ve tidied up my blog page, dedicated time to Twitter joining and building communities and worked hard to find ways to connect to people on social media. How strategic do writers need to be now about their own social media activity?

Social media can be a real life-line to authors who feel otherwise disconnected from the literary world. Twitter especially can be a really supportive environment for budding writers. I know authors who have formed real and lasting friendships over Twitter, who go there looking for advice, recommendations or maybe just a bit of a pep talk if they’re feeling a bit deflated.

As above, I’d join the platform if you’re not on there already, and just start following authors, agents, publishing people and key arts media.

A word of warning: please bear in mind that a social media account can be seen by anybody. Your Twitter account is your shop window. Of course, you should feel free to be yourself, but also be aware that you can’t control who is reading what you’re putting out there.

Also, remember that media can freely quote what is put in the public domain!

A huge thanks to Louise Court for taking the time to shed light on the fascinating process of publicity.

Louise Court is Acting Publicity Director at Vintage, where she has worked for five years, creating campaigns for authors including Margaret Atwood, Jo Nesbo, Imogen Hermes Gowar, Toni Morrison and Judy Murray. In March 2018 she will start in a new role as Publicity Director at Sceptre. Louise started her publishing career as Publicity Assistant at Orion Books in 2010. Twitter @louisecc

Libraries Gave Us Power by Alan Devey

When the need to create becomes impossible to suppress a writer will do whatever it takes to satisfy the compulsion

To believe you could build some kind of career in the arts, growing up working class in England during the 80s and 90s, you may as well have aspired to become an astronaut or Chancellor of the Exchequer. Such careers weren’t so much unlikely, as not even possible to imagine. There were teenage kids around my neighbourhood who tried to form a band, one girl in class who could draw better than the rest of us, but without any examples of artistic success or the right kind of encouragement, this was generally where the dabbling ended, all creative pursuits abandoned amid looming financial prerogatives. When all your adult role models are van drivers, army lifers or work at the local Asda (my home town’s biggest employer), making any kind of living from the written word feels about as likely as discovering a cure for cancer.

But the urge to create was always there, and I was fortunate in many ways.

My parents encouraged my reading habit, my mother taking me to the town’s well-stocked library every Saturday where I soon became engrossed in the adventures of Asterix and Obelix and the fiction of Roald Dahl.

From a young age I escaped into invented worlds while my coming of age coincided with the tail end of student maintenance grants. My family situation back then meant I was eligible for the full amount which, back in the mid-90s, was around £2000 per annum; sufficient to cover my basic living expenses.

Being lucky enough to get the funding for an arts degree was key, not so much because of what I learned on it, but because this course gave me three years to work out what I wanted to do with my life. By undertaking part-time and holiday work, I managed to graduate without debt, something that’s drilled into people like us as vital.

The spectre of money owed prevents many working class youngsters from pursuing higher education these days, and without familial or state support debt can become a matter of crisis; of bailiffs and evictions.

I had the opportunity to understand writing fiction was something I could do, even if it took me a long time to become accomplished at it.

That’s what I’ve been engaged in over the last twenty years, funding my endeavours through temporary clerical work. I would write through my spare time or save up enough to immerse myself in a first draft for a few months. In terms of maximising my income, this was the worst choice I could have made, but when the need to create becomes impossible to suppress a writer will do whatever it takes to satisfy the compulsion. Nothing would make me miserable like having an idea I was unable to follow through, simply because I didn’t have the time.

But the legacy of our working class upbringing lingers for writers who put the work out there, who attempt to gain recognition. A lack of entitlement and social capital hurts us, the absence of connections dispirits and it’s impossible to get noticed when all an agent’s clients come by personal referral. This isn’t unique to publishing of course; rather it’s indicative of a general failing within the collective culture. Ordinary people will never harness the confidence that propels Eton-educated boys into positions of wealth and success, whether the privileged are qualified or not. Nowadays the working class are taught a sense of their own powerlessness early on. The world owes us nothing and, however hard we work, we’ll never bend the establishment to our will. I’ve been trying to interest the literary world in my work for two decades and I must be up to a thousand rejections by now, ever since I sent out samples from my first book, back in 1998.

But that’s the thing about the working classes, we’re stubborn. From day one we had to develop thick hides, to deal with the bullying and chaotic home lives and constant threats to our physical well-being, from others on our estate and elsewhere; those people who would rather our voices weren’t heard. One way to escape the endless cycle of write-submit-reject is to embrace print on demand and digital publishing so that’s what I did, putting out my debut and other works, most recently a collection of short stories inspired by the experiences of individuals around Austerity Britain called ‘Outside The Comfort Zone’, more details of which can be found on my blog.

Self-publishing gave me a readership, however small, and the kind of validation I was never going to receive from the literary industry, as an outsider looking in. I could sell the work to people directly, market it online, show my dear mother this wasn’t all talk; there was something behind the ten thousand hours I had put into developing my craft.

By the time she died in 2015, I think mum was at ease with who I was. She no longer wanted me to follow her advice, to get on the ground floor of a corporation then work my way up. I couldn’t suppress my creative self like that: I was a writer, and a writer writes, even when the gatekeepers of the industry aren’t willing to listen. The joy was in the creativity and the results would have to be enough. It took a while for me to save up and self-finance a Masters in Creative Writing at the London Met but, since completing this course in 2015, I’ve been up to a hundred submissions a year and I’ll continue to seek out rejection. These knock-backs don’t penetrate my carapace any more, I’m beyond that. Besides, I have other outlets for my work, places where it will be appreciated.

That’s my advice to writers from humble backgrounds: don’t stop working towards the goal, but try to understand there are levels of success apart from the conventional ones. Like the man says: when you feel like you can’t go on, keep going.