Claire King

Author
Claire King Edited Choices (10 of 10)

Archive for the ‘Novels’ Category

The best thing about publishing a book…

Posted on: April 17th, 2013 by Claire - 10 Comments

Reading a book

…is readers.

Forget the other things you may dream of. Forget the beautiful covers and the thrill of being on the shelves of book shops. Forget the congratulations and the celebrations. Forget royalties and rankings and reviews. Yes, all of these things are good things. But the best thing, the very best thing about publishing a book is readers.

Because you are the storyteller. Your story has been aching to be told. And now by some kind of miracle it is being told far and wide. Being heard. Being appropriated…by readers.

It’s only two months since The Night Rainbow was published, but I’ve heard back already from so many readers, and honestly, every time it makes my heart sing. When readers take the time to write a letter or a tweet or a review to say what they thought about my story, it’s a gift. And this week I had the chance to actually chat with a reading group for the first time. We did it by Skype and although we had a couple of technical issues overall it worked really well. I would love to do it again. I could get hooked.

What surprised me most was the kind of questions that the readers had to ask. In particular:

  • Questions about events that happened before the story starts. What led the characters to the point where the novel opens?
  • Questions about what happens after the book ends. Do I foresee happiness for my characters?
  • Questions about characters’ motivations for certain actions or comments they made. What were they thinking?

Aren’t they amazing questions? Not questions about structure or voice or writing techniques. But questions about the characters. As though they were real. Because just as for the writer, for the reader those characters were real too for a while. Their story was told, and the readers listened.

 

Readers: The absolute best thing about publishing a book.

 

Photo via flickr creative commons (c) Thokrates. Have a look at some of his other beautiful photos too.

Books that make you cry

Posted on: January 13th, 2013 by Claire - 6 Comments

I was sitting on a packed train looking at my smart phone and weeping copiously. I couldn’t help it. I had sunglasses on, but it had gone beyond that and people were staring. It being London, though I was left alone with my pocket tissues and my apparent grief.

But the grief wasn’t real, it had been conjured up in me by the author of the book I was reading. I was slightly embarrassed about the tears, but I couldn’t stop reading, because I had to know what happened next, and because on some level, it felt good to be crying.

Yes really.

Woman reading on train platform.

Sometimes day-to-day life can be routine: Going from one place to the next, dealing with chores and work and the mundane necessities of running a household. Finding time to be interested in and kind to the ones we love. Of course on one level this is great. How lucky I am to be living a life without hunger, suffering or tragedy. And yet it feels good to be reminded of the breadth of feelings that makes me human, and the possible lives that I am not living. It can make me feel more alive to experience something – joy, fear, sadness, anger, the tumultuous experience of falling in love – even if only on behalf of a fictional character. And when I leave the character behind, everything looks a little different. And I count my blessings.

I love books that make me cry. Or laugh, or in fact feel any kind of strong empathetic reaction to the characters. It means I’ve suspended disbelief, it means I care, it means I can have the rush of emotions – and the cocktail of chemicals that accompany them – without any drama in my own actual life.

Ten novels that made me cry (there are many, many more):

1) The Time Travellers Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
2) Whatever you love by Louise Doughty
3) The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak
4) The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
5) Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman
6) Love Story by Erich Segal
7) Captain Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernières
8) To kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
9) Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
10) The Help by Kathryn Stockett

And it’s not limited to adult fiction. Since the startling hormonal uprising that is childbirth I’m now floored at their bedtime by:

- The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams
- The Ugly Duckling (yes, really)

And in the future we can all look forward to tears over Watership Down and The Little Prince… oh yes.

 

Photo (c) Moriza via Flickr creative commons

A writing retreat with the whole family?

Posted on: June 26th, 2012 by Claire - 15 Comments

Our travelling companion  - Jung.

So, I’ve been working away from home a lot for the first six months of this year. It’s my job, it’s a good job, maybe one day it will give way to actual income from writing but for now that’s how it is.

Summer, though, is about spending lots of time with my family. That’s the payback. And summer is here and we are all very happy about that. We never go away on holiday, because summers here are very smashing, so we do things in the region instead: visit places, have day-trips, that kind of thing.

But…summer is also the time when I can really get into the zone with writing. And this year that means editing the manuscript of my second novel – Candice – which I want to have with my agent by autumn.

The Canal du Midi and a houseboat upon it feature prominently in this novel, and whilst I had done plenty of research I had not actually set foot on a houseboat in over 20 years. And never one in the south of France. I was missing something – the smells, the textures, the sounds, the sensations, the peculiarities that an author needs to know about if you are really to transport someone into that world.

So, somehow I had to combine my need to get myself away onto a canal boat for a couple of days (and be inspired and make notes) with my need to spend time with my family (and just having them in proximity while my husband babysits doesn’t count)…

I needed to organise a writing retreat with the whole family.

Cue the Magical Mystery Surprise Family Weekend Away.

List of things required:

  • Internet to find suitable boat owner willing to accommodate leggy, exuberant family of four.
  • Own chequebook and email account for secret booking of smashing weekend on the canal.
  • Teasing build up to surprise trip, including maddening hints and knowing smiles.
  • Something for everyone to do:
  • Claire – Pencil, Paper, 5 senses.
  • Husband – Camera.
  • Small daughters – pencils, paper, puzzle books, reading books, travel board games (draughts, chess, back-gammon, cards etc)

And off we go.

It was brilliant! We had an absolutely wonderful and relaxing weekend, taking the boat down the Midi and onto the étangs (salt-water lakes) of the Mediterranean where we moored in a little port for the night, and back again. We spent much more time with the children than we would on a normal weekend, and yet I got much more writing done too. Our hosts were friendly and laid on wonderful food and good conversation. We all came home inspired, zen and somehow exhausted. I declare a success!

What are you writing about now, and how do you fit in research with your other commitments?

Want to see our photo album?

5km an hour is fast enough. You have to imagine the cicadas and the smell of the pine.


Yes, I am writing.

Like mother, like daughter.

Fresh water on one side, salty water on the other!

Arriving at the étangs.

Moored in a port for the night, playing hangman and drinking aperitifs on deck.

15km of oyster beds on the étangs.

Nothing to see here.

Captain Jean-François allowing a 4 year old to take the wheel.

And the 6 year old!

(In fact, the forty-somethings also got to drive, but we’re not quite so picturesque)…

Thanks to the photographer!

Note: If you’ve come across these photos through a search and would like to use any of them, please ask us via the contact page. Thanks.

Note 2 (tiny plug): If you like the look of our region, come and stay. We run gîtes, excellent for writers wanting to retreat, discounts given to readers of this blog.

Housewife with a Half-Life by A.B.Wells

Posted on: May 8th, 2012 by Claire - 4 Comments

Today’s post  is a blatant promotion for my lovely friend Alison and her newly published novel!

One of the things that goes on behind the scenes of novel writing is ‘Beta-reading.’ This is where you get a writer whose work you admire to read all or part of your work in progress and ask them for specific and honest critique of what you’ve written. These trusted souls are worth their weight in gold, and Alison, who I met via Twitter, was one of the lovely people who took the time and care to read part of an early draft of The Night Rainbow and tell me her thoughts.

In the same spirit I’ve also read extracts from her work, including her brilliant novel Housewife with a Half-Life. When I read it, it made me think immediately of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers books. It’s funny, it’s bizarre…in fact it’s a space romp. Can I call it that, A?

Alison is a superb writer, and has now developed a split personality, keeping her more literary (in genre terms) fiction under her own name, whilst her science-fictiony self is now going by the name of A.B. Wells. She has decided to self-publish this novel, and the paperback will be out in June. Meanwhile for ebook readers, you can find links below and read it right now!

About the book:

Susan Strong is a suburban housewife who is literally disintegrating. When Fairly Dave, a kilt-sporting spaceman arrives through the shower head to warn her, she knows things are serious. When she and her precocious four year old twins, Pluto and Rufus, get sucked through Chilled Foods into another universe it gets even messier. Where household appliances are alive and dangerous, Geezers have Entropy Hoovers and the Spinner’s Cataclysmic convertor could rip reality apart, Susan Strong is all that’s holding the world together.

In this lively space comedy, Susan and Fairly Dave travel alternate universes to find Susan’s many selves, dodge the Geezers and defeat evil memory bankers. From dystopian landscapes and chicken dinners, to Las Vegas and bubble universes, can Susan Strong reintegrate her bits and will it be enough to save us all?

About A.B. Wells, also known as @AlisonWells on Twitter

What is a housewife to do when she becomes 42? Write a book about life, the universe and everything. A.B.Wells is the mother of four children age 11 and under, three of whom are that particularly alien species called boys. As Alison Wells her more literary writing has been shortlisted in the prestigious Bridport, Fish and Hennessy Awards and she’s been published or is about to be in a wide variety of anthologies and e-zines, including the Higgs Boson Anthology by Year Zero, Metazen, The View from HereVoices of Angels by Bridgehouse and National Flash Fiction day’s Jawbreakers. She recently one the fiction category of the Big Book of Hope ebook with a flash fiction medley and has a litfic novel The Book of Remembered Possibilities on submission. She blogs for writing.ie in the guest blog: Random Acts of Optimism. One of the as yet unsolved mysteries of the universe is whether the B in A. B. Wells stands for barmy or brilliant.

In her former life she worked, among other things, as a clerk like Albert Einstein, as a technical writer (and a HR. Manager) and before that studied psychology and communications where, in the college library James Gleick’s book Chaos fell on her head. Her ambitions include a desire to travel to see the Northern Lights and to really travel with Dr Who’s David Tennant in a Tardis.

Download Housewife with a Half-Life…!

Amazon.com

Amazon.co.uk

Smashwords

And if you are waiting for the paperback, or if you are just nosy, stalk the author here: www.abwells.com and here www.facebook.com/abwellswriter or her alter ego blogging on Head Above Water here: www.alisonwells.wordpress.com

Potato, Potato, Tomato, Tomato, Book Covers.

Posted on: April 29th, 2012 by Claire - 21 Comments

Today we’re talking about that Special Relationship….

I’m in the amazing position of having The Night Rainbow being published in several countries, including the U.K. and the U.S.A., where the cover designs have now been developed (I had input into both). I’m delighted with both of them, but they are markedly different (U.K. on the left, U.S.A. on the right):

I’ve asked some very kind booksellers in both countries, and my editor from Bloomsbury U.S.A., to talk about the importance of a book cover, and to try and define what defines the differences in our tastes. Here are some of the first responses:

First, Robert Gray, who from 1992-2005 was a bookseller and buyer for the Northshire Bookstore, Manchester Center, Vermont.

He has also been a contributing editor and columnist at Shelf Awareness since 2006. As a writer, his work has appeared in numerous publications, ranging from Tin House to Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine toPublishers Weekly. He has an MFA in Writing and Literature from Bennington College. Rob tweets as @Fresheyesnow

Rob says:

The cover was always a factor for us when buying in stock, though not the deciding factor (excepting, of course those counter books that could be sold as gift items on strength of their covers or titles alone). If a book with a lousy cover was still something I loved and knew I could handsell, content always trumped art. But if a book wasn’t so great and the cover was irresistible, then the decision came down to a question: “Is this a book I know there are readers for, even if I’m not crazy about it?” Another factor I don’t see discussed often: When booksellers are building displays, a great cover always has a better chance of being showcased.

I do think customers instinctively reach for a book with a great cover if it’s on a display or face-out on the shelves. If it’s spine-out, then the game is over before it starts. Ideally, what a great cover does is get the potential reader to pick up the book, maybe scan blurbs on the back cover, open the book and flip through the first few pages.

Anything that inspires a customer to initiate that ceremony is critical.

Looking at your covers, I do think the U.S. cover will appeal more to American readers. I’m not sure I can be more specific than that. It’s an instinctive reaction for me, since I’m not a graphics or even a particularly visually-oriented person. I’ve just watched thousands of books being sold over the years. 

***

Anna J G-Smith has worked at Stroud Bookshop for the last 15 years.
Stroud Bookshop is an independent book shop, keeping books on the High Street and part of Stroud’s cultural heart. Anna is passionate about her job – even more so since she started writing, and rarely seems to have her bookselling hat off these days. Her writers blog is here and she tweets as @eryth
Anna says:
When ordering a new title in for stock, the most important thing is the write-up, and any advance reviews. Also if we like the premise, and feel it fits with the zeitgeist of the moment in which it is published. BUT, once the new titles arrive, then we can assess how best to display them, depending on jacket design (and heft!). I tend to be the one mostly responsible for the displays, as I am acknowledged to have a good eye for overall balance of colour/design. If I think a book looks particularly beautiful, then I will display it as prominently as possible, and especially if it is a hardback. With paperbacks it is slightly easier, in that the bestsellers tend to be displayed depending on how many we have in stock, and what the prevailing colours/designs in paperbacks are at the time. For example, Julian Barnes and Graham Swift look well next to each other at the moment:
Design is important to customers. Hardback design in particular: if they’re going to shell out on a new title they might not otherwise buy (unless they’re die-hard author-addicts who can’t help themselves!) then they like the idea that they are buying something beautiful. Smaller hardbacks in particular fit this niche, (Julian Barnes – again – was an example last year), as do books that they might like for themselves, but can only justify if buying a gift for someone else. Paperbacks are where the most committed browsing takes place. For backlist/classics it helps to have either a smart and recognisable livery (Oxford, Penguin, faber etc) or something beautiful and striking. Joanne Harris’s Chocolat still stands out years later, because of the rich purple; David Mitchell’s Thousand Autumns Of Jacob de Zoet is another good example.
When a title is new, and selling well, then it is more likely to be displayed face-out. This is where good design comes to the fore.
A good cover helps a book more than a bad cover hinders it. If a customer really wants to read a particular title, then a poorly designed cover will not put them off – though it does cause comment. This does happen a lot, and especially if the design is changed between hardback and paperback, or between trade paperback and A-format. Stephen Kelman’s Pigeon English is a good example here. The original design was very striking in red and yellow. The A-format paperback is less memorable, and especially when there are so many other blue covers around.
Now to your covers. They are BOTH beautiful. I much prefer the English cover for the hardback  - and it will look lovely stacked high in the middle of my hardback display, and in the window! – the U.S. edition is too much like other jackets I have seen, but will look very strong as a paperback cover, whereas I think – lovely though it is – the striking detail on the UK cover will be diminished once it is scaled down. And I’d be very surprised if my customers don’t greatly admire the hardback cover. It is unlike anything I have seen in a very long time, so will stand out well. Bloomsbury do have a knack for GOOD covers that buck the mass market; Susannah Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell being another example.
***

Rachel Mannheimer is my editor at Bloomsbury in the USA

Rachel says:

It’s difficult to pinpoint how important is the cover design for a novel. With the closing of so many bookshops, and the rise of online shopping – for print books and especially for e-books – I think there are fewer face-to-face encounters, as it were, with the book cover. There are new ways to find books, which are great, but it’s rarer for readers to discover books based solely on an eye-catching image. Still, when I’m in a bookshop, it’s definitely still my eyes leading me. (Then I read the blurbs or reviews on the back). And a memorable image still makes an impression if you see it online, in an advertisement, wherever. The cover conveys something about the style of the book before you know anything else.

When you consider the difference between what readers in the U.S.A. like in a cover, compared to the U.K., I think it’s a matter of a slightly different visual language, and just what the customer is accustomed to seeing – what connotations different visual cues have. Successful British book covers look like other successful British book covers, and successful American covers tend to look like other American covers. And I would say, to be supremely reductive, that British covers can look a bit schmaltzy to American eyes, while American covers can look stiff and boring. But sometimes something works perfectly in both markets! It just depends.

I love the cover we came up with for The Night Rainbow; it’s evocative and stylish. There was discussion early on about how difficult it would be to match the title literally (though the UK cover does come close). But it’s also such an interesting phrase, “night rainbow.” The designer had to work with both its sweetness and its mystery. Also, you had been clear about not wanting a straight representation of Pea; you wanted the reader to have space to imagine. This image the designer found, I love that it shows a little girl, but it’s a bit disorienting; you’re not quite sure what you’re looking at. You want to read and learn more.

***

Many thanks to Rachel, Anna and Robert for taking the time to comment.

For more discussion on UK versus US covers:

Here’s a link to a brilliant talk by Chip Kidd on Book Design on Seth Godin’s blog.

Some very interesting comparisons of the last year’s novels on The Millions.

Not just a wildly different cover, but a different title too, from Morag Joss

For more information/to see other work by the designers of my covers:

UK: Holly Macdonald

USA: Jennifer Heuer

Blurby be Kind

Posted on: April 25th, 2012 by Claire - 14 Comments

One of the most re-tweeted comments I ever made on Twitter, a couple of years ago, was this:

“When I’m a successful author, remind me to be kind to those still struggling to make it.”

It encouraged me, then, that Twitter cheered, ‘hear-hear’ed for kindness.

I was reminded of this recently when contemplating the fact that in a few months The Night Rainbow will be heading off to unsuspecting authors whom I admire, with a request to have a look, and  - please, Missus, if you had the time, if you could read it and then, if you like it that is, maybe you could say something positive that we could put on the cover, so that people in bookshops will see that I’m a good bet, what with me being new at this and not known and all…

*author blushes and backs out of room curtseying*

Can you tell I feel a bit bashful about this?

Bashful because I understand that asking (even indirectly via my publisher) for a blurb is asking people to work for free. And since I don’t have many actual real-world friends who are published authors, well then it’s asking someone I don’t know to work for free.

Of course I hope that they will not find it like work, and will really enjoy the read, but that’s not the point.

I also understand that not everyone has the time or inclination to to read a book to provide a blurb. Also that the more successful and respected you become, the more requests you get for blurbs and of course the more people you have to turn down. This brings me back to my question of kindness. Compare these two approaches:

This kind and eloquent approach from Margaret Atwood who explains why she no longer does blurbs. She has already blurbed with the best of them and now her doormat is exhausted. Contrast it with this  New Yorker article, which made me cringe.

So I just want to say this:

Anyone who writes a blurb for my novel will be doing me an enormous favour and I will be thoroughly, genuinely grateful.

What’s more, I promise, here and now, that I will pay it forward with good grace when the time comes. And you can hold me to that.

Photo (c)

Now in Paperback! Interview with Vanessa Gebbie & Bloomsbury’s paperback editor.

Posted on: March 28th, 2012 by Claire - 15 Comments

As some of you will have noticed, Vanessa Gebbie is a little like my Moses. She is busy parting the Red Sea of debut-novelling in Bloomsbury, and I am standing a year behind her peering over her shoulder. March sees the launch of her novel The Coward’s Tale in paperback, so I have invited Vanessa back along with her (and my!) paperback editor from Bloomsbury, Trâm-Anh Doan, to see what it’s all about.
Vanessa Gebbie (Photograph by Andrew Hasson)

CK: How has life been since the launch of your novel last November?

VG: Well, apart from the joy of knowing my novel is ‘out there’, nothing has changed. I am not doing anything different – still working hard at a hundred and one different things.

CK: What have been your highs and lows?

VG: Highs have been seeing some lovely reviews in the newspapers – especially the glowing reviews from A N Wilson. But the best thing? Getting letters and emails from complete strangers to say how much they have been moved by the book. And even better – when those come from Wales!

Of course there are lows, but it is really important to put these in context – I am delighted and very lucky to be with Bloomsbury, am learning such a lot, and enjoying working with everyone.  But it would be an unusual journey if there were absolutely no shades of light and dark.  The most surprising low is the discovery that if I want to support publicity, marketing and selling The Coward’s Tale,  I have to forget my professional rule of sticking to Society of Authors’ minimum earnings guidelines.I’m also downhearted at the lack of interest in ‘The Cowards Tale’ from lit fests – I love these, and was greatly looking forward to mingling with readers, writers, picking readings to intrigue, raise a smile – but it obviously ain’t to be. If Bloomsbury can’t get the book in, no one can.I suspect it is a vote less against the book, more against the older female author. If I was younger, the story would be different, judging from the authors’ events info on the website – I’m caught somewhere in the no man’s land between glamour and gravitas. (V shuffles off to spinning wheel, sucking her one remaining tooth)

CK: Wait, come back! What else have you learnt?
VG: A lot. That it is not an end, but just another beginning. That your book jostles for attention with a whole raft of brilliant books. Yours is just one of many.

 

CK: The Cowards Tale is getting a new boost this month with the launch of the paperback edition. What is significant about this for you?

VG: It has happened very quickly; I think usually, there is a greater distance between hardback and paperback publication. But for this writer, the daughter of a librarian, and a person who adores books as lovely things, I was delighted to have a few months in hardback, and having now got my hands on my gorgeous paperback, I am as nuts about that book as I was about the hardback.

 

CK: What has it been like working with Trâm-Anh as your paperback editor?

VG: Lovely. All I ask is that there is communication – because I care enormously about my book and need to know what’s happening, or not. And Trâm-Anh is wonderful…she seems to understand that. Thank you Trâm-Anh

 

Trâm-Anh (“This photo makes me look like Head Girl”)

CK: Could you tell us a little about your job as a paperback editor? 

TD: I oversee all paperbacks on our trade list, fiction and non-fiction. I brief our in-house designers for all paperback covers after discussing with our marketing and sales teams which direction we want to take the paperback. I then work closely with our designers as they progress their visuals and, alongside the commissioning editor and our marketing and sales directors, make the final decision on which cover we will have. I also put the book through press, selecting the best press reviews for the cover, making any corrections that need to be made to the main text, and making sure the costs for the book work. Then, in the run-up to a paperback being published, I work with marketing and publicity on their campaigns. It’s a very varied job, and I love the different aspects to it, but the best part is helping an author bring their book into the world.

 

CK: What is the usual time difference between the launch of a hardback and the paperback version? What are the reasons it might vary?

TD: It depends on the book and the time of year that we publish the original edition. In general there’s roughly a year between hardback and paperback, but with Vanessa’s book it made sense to publish in the spring, quite soon after the hardback. Spring and summer are our busiest times of the year for paperbacks as people tend to buy them when they’re off on their holidays, while the autumn market tends to be geared towards Christmas gifts, which suits higher priced books like hardbacks (publishers will almost always save their big cookbooks for October publication). So, of the 120 paperbacks we will publish this year, over two thirds of them are published between January to July. We look at our schedule carefully to make sure we’ve spread out our titles so that similar titles aren’t competing with each other.

CK: Why do paperbacks tend to have different covers from hardbacks? What were your thoughts when preparing The Coward’s Tale?

TD: The market for paperbacks is different from hardbacks – it tends to be a younger, much broader market for the paperback which is why we often go for different covers as we’re trying to reach a bigger readership with the paperback. The gorgeous, illustrated cover for the hardback of The Coward’s Tale (designed by our very talented designer Holly Macdonald) was perfect for making a statement to the trade and literary editors that this is an important literary novel that people need to take notice of. When it came to the paperback, Helen Garnons Williams (Vanessa’s editor) and I both agreed the cover should be photographic, concentrating on the boy Laddy Merridew, with a real sense of south Wales’s sweeping valleys. I have a close friend who grew up in Caerphilly and she helped me find the right kind of photographs of the Rhymney Valley to show our designer, Sarah Greeno. Here are some of the options that we initially looked at but subsequently discarded – we all wanted the cover to be more uplifting, and these designs weren’t quite strong enough (though the feather design is a beautiful and clever idea). As soon as we saw the vibrant orange sky, we knew it was perfect, and the image of the boy running down an empty street was so poignant. There was a collective, simultaneous sigh of ‘Ahhhh’ when everyone saw this cover. We later realized it’s uncannily similar to the cover for one of Vanessa’s previous books, but this was a pure coincidence!

 

CK; Books published under Bloomsbury’s new imprint, Bloomsbury Circus, will launch as ‘unusually sized’ trade paperbacks. When the paperback editions of these books launch, will there a be a difference in how you work versus one that launches in hardback?

TD: No, Bloomsbury Circus books will still be published in paperback in the same way as books that were originally launched as hardbacks.

 

CK: How do you see the share of sales changing between hardbacks, paperbacks and electronic books?

TD: Over the past year or so we’ve seen a marked increase in the sales of electronic books but so far it’s difficult to tell how much they’ve impacted on sales of print books. Sales overall for publishers are down (hardback and paperback), but we’re yet to see if the rise of eBooks has compensated for this downturn, as unfortunately the sales data for eBooks isn’t quite accurate enough for us to get a clear idea of how they’re doing.

Traditionally, the paperback is the main life of the book and 9 out of 10 print books purchased are paperbacks. In America, eBook sales of big, commercial titles have been known to outsell the print edition. We haven’t quite seen that level here, but I suspect it’s just a matter of time.

 

CK: What has it been like working with Vanessa?

TD: Vanessa is an incredibly warm, intelligent and passionate author and it’s genuinely a pleasure to work with her. I remember first meeting her on our editor-in-chief’s houseboat last summer and having a lovely chat with her about books, families, life and everything. It’s also brilliant to work with authors who are clued up about using social networking sites: I cannot count the number of times our marketing and publicity teams ask editors if their author is active on Twitter! Via her blog, website and Twitter feed, Vanessa clearly works hard to promote the book, and it’s increasingly important to have authors as pro-active as her. More than anything, we’ve all found Vanessa to be a very gracious author, thanking everyone involved in every stage of her book (marketing, publicity, production, design, etc).

 

CK: How early on in the life of a book do you get involved? OK, I admit that’s a slightly loaded question…so have you been having thoughts about The Night Rainbow yet?!

TD: Ha, good question! Well, I’m very much involved in the acquisition process here at Bloomsbury and try to read as much as I can of the books that the commissioning editors are considering. It’s impossible to read everything (especially when you have over one hundred paperbacks a year!) of course, but I try to get a feel for as much of our list as possible. So, I normally start thinking about a paperback as soon as the commissioning editor has bought it, and the editor also talks to me about their thoughts on the paperback at a very early stage. Helen Garnons Williams is such a passionate advocate of all her authors and is constantly checking on the progress of all her paperbacks.

And to answer the question about your book: as you know, I’m a huge fan of The Night Rainbow (I almost cried when Helen was launching it at the marketing meeting recently) and have some thoughts on the paperback cover but you’ll have to wait and see!

 

Vanessa

CK: So, Vanessa, now you’ve seen the alternative covers to the one you were proposed and ultimately ended up with, what are your impressions?*

VG: I am struck by the sombreness of the palette used in firstly the cover showing the close rows of houses – and secondly the boy on the hilltop overlooking the town.  And, although I prefer the third concept – the colours in the ‘feather’ cover have the same effect on me. The Coward’s Tale is not a gloomy book – it is about healing, at base – the meta-nattative is about the healing power of story, the way repeated telling of the same tales  finally  helps the community to acknowledge the past and move on.  And frees the teller.  

If I tried consciously to do anything at all, I tried to make the story sing. So when Trâm-Anh’s note, in with the paperbacks, said ‘Doesn’t the orange sky sing?” that felt absolutely right!

I know colourways can be tweaked. But the first (hilltop) holds no intimacy, whichever colour it is. The second (close up houses) is too ‘house-orientated’ – it’s muddly as an image, and I don’t really like it as a cover.  The feather idea is better, it is clever,  but it kind of misses the point – the boy is not the coward,  and it leads the reader to expect him to be.

The chosen cover works so very well – and one of the most resonant things for me,  apart from the street being ‘right’, the Cat public house, the mine in the distance…the flame-colour of the sky – is the shadows. Or not. When I was sent that cover I liked it immediately. It has very close echoes with the cover of my first book – a red-haired child walking away from the onlooker. So there was a synchronicity about it. It is a more commercial cover than the hardback, and that has to be a good thing, for sales.

The most important thing for me in all this was that I was in the hands of professionals who know the market, who know what works and what doesn’t. It would seem silly to impose my likes and dislikes onto that, as they ought to be irrelevant. Besides, Trâm-Anh told me that some important book buyers liked the cover we ended up with – and that was key. It’s just a product, in the end.

So, on to a cover I like came the fabulous quote from A N Wilson when he made ‘The Coward’s Tale’ his novel of 2011 – saying the book is lyrical, moving and funny. You can’t get better than that, and coupled with an engaging, eye-catching image, more than that we cannot do!

 

CK: Vanessa, you said at the start that you’re ‘working hard at a hundred and one different things’! What are you up to now/next?

VG: Top of the list would of course be anything needed for ‘The Coward’s Tale’. Thus far, there has not been much to do apart from a few visits to read/talk/record video etc at Bloomsbury. But I’m not twiddling my thumbs doing nothing, I hate not having lots of things on the go! While I was writing The Coward I also wrote two collections of short stories, pitched, organised, edited and contributed a chapter to ‘Short Circuit, a Guide to the Art of the Short Story’, wrote an as-yet-unpublished flash collection, did masses of teaching, and started to learn about poetry.

1. Next Novel! Yes! The working title is ‘Kit’, and it will be a prequel/sequel to The Coward. I started it in Ireland back in Jan/Feb and came back with 40,000 words to play with. Early days, and it’s going to be a rather tough call to make this work - but I will give it a good go. I’ve got a Hawthornden Fellowship for November/December, a period of four blissful weeks in a drafty Scottish castle, with no internet, no phone signal. HO HO! Hot water bottles, blankets, laptop. Imagination. Hopefully ‘Kit’ will start taking shape…. at the moment, it is shut away and I won’t look at it for a few months. Already I know I went down completely the wrong road with one character, and he has to come out.

2. Planning the most exciting thing – a residency on the island of St Helena for 2013. For anything up to six weeks/two months I would like to be on this
fascinating island, responding to the place and the people, somehow, in writing. Whatever comes. Stories, hopefully, then it becomes a third collection. If not, a travelogue with a twist. We’ll see. I’m also hoping to work with the schools, and other plans up the sleeves. And of course, it will be a suitably remote place to work on ‘Kit’.

3. Second edition of ‘Short Circuit,’ for Salt Publishing. You can’t let a great ‘how-to’ book go stale – so I’m making it bigger – adding new stuff – and working with writers like Scott Pack, Stuart Evers, Tom Vowler, Nicholas Royle, either on new interview-based chapters or they are going off and writing their own. It begs the question why am I doing this – I won’t earn much from it – but it’s a good thing, a great book, and I love the thought that it is helping new writers, inspiring tired ones. Passing this thing called writing on to the next generation is very important to me. Many of the original Short Circuit writers, whose chapters will remain an important part of the book, have blossommed even more in the last couple of years – Alison MacLeod, Graham Mort for example – both finding success in national competitions – and Carys Davies – winning the Society of Authors’ Olive Cook award. We have a strong strong team, giving insights and practical advice.

4. ‘Ed’s Wife and Other Creatures’. I am working with a fantastic illustrator on a mad collection of flash, subtitled ‘Portrait of a Marriage’. We are planning to publish this as a gift book with a tiny tiny press, planning, funding, designing, sorting all the stages of the production process ourselves – and that will be a fab experience. Sales, marketing, distribution – ask me later! All I’d like to do is break even at this point, so it is an interesting project.

5. Learning! Poetry. I am loving learning about poetry, and maybe uncovering a small talent for this slippery thing. As I write, I am in the middle of a series of wonderful poetry workshops tutored by Pascale Petit. She is poet in residence at The Tate, and we meet every Monday after Tate Modern has closed, in
whichever exhibition she has chosen that day – just us, a group of twenty or so - and we respond to the art. Yesterday, we were with Boetti and his world maps sewn by Afghan women who didnt know what the sea was, so coloured it with what silks whatever they fancied, and sometimes filled it with patterns. Amazing.

6. Teaching! Invitations so far this year to take workshops for Spread the Word in London, New Writing South in Brighton, Wellington College, University Campus Ipswich, Claremont School, The Winchester Writers’ Conference Pitstop, Hope and Anchor Writing School in Whitstable, a week on the short story at Anam Cara Writers and Artists Retreat in Ireland – and I’m in discussion about another week at a Spanish writers’ retreat. I love teaching – and besides, it pays. That is very necessary now, the combination of husband retiring a while back, our youngest son in his first year at university and the recession has done its worst in our household – I am seeing Toby through uni on what I earn as a writer… go figure!

***

Thank you to Vanessa for coming by to give us an update, and especially to Trâm-Ahn for taking the time to be interviewed and providing us with the ‘rejected’ covers!

***

Vanessa’s wacky website is www.vanessagebbie.com and her blog is www.morenewsfromvg.blogspot.com and here’s a quick link to Amazon…

Finally, it’s Bloomsbury’s Year of the Short Story. Vanessa’s ‘unofficial’ contribution is to read and record for posterity what she thinks is one of the most powerful short stories ever written. ‘The Ledge’, by Lawrence Sargeant Hall. Here it is – interspersed with a bit of natter – in two sections. It’s long… http://readmesomethingyoulove.com/?cat=110

The Night Rainbow – Hardback Jacket

Posted on: March 19th, 2012 by Claire - 54 Comments

It’s something I’ve waited over a year for. Wondering what, having read my novel, will the designer come up with? Will it capture the spirit of the story? If the characters are represented, will they be as I imagined them? I tried not to engage in picturing what I would do for the cover art, so as not to be disappointed. I’ve seen many of the beautiful jackets Bloomsbury design, and I put my trust in them that they’d ‘get it.’

Still, when I the jacket proposal was emailed to me it made me cry. In a good way.

Since then, in the last two weeks, we’ve bounced ideas backwards on forwards with my editor, my agent and the designer on possible teaks or changes, but in the end we’ve ended up very close to the original proposal. Here is the final jacket, and huge thanks to Holly Macdonald, for taking good care of Margot & Pea:

 

Publication has come forward slightly, so The Night Rainbow will be out in hardback next February. I may have to go and have a lie down now.

 

The Novel Edits (Part 2)

Posted on: January 25th, 2012 by Claire - 24 Comments

In September I met my editor, Helen, to go through the structural edits for The Night Rainbow. If you missed it, you can read about that here. The next part of the editing process, which happened in quite a whirl last week, was the copyedits.

I thought that the copyeditor was there to ‘correct my mistakes’. I was really looking forward to what she would find, because before submitting I’d already done many passes of edits for typos, punctuation, and grammatical errors. I’d also paid attention to ‘continuity’, drawing up detailed maps of locations and timelines with character clothing, mealtimes etc. I didn’t go so far as a style sheet, but I’d thought about it.

Last week was quite an education…

My copyeditor got in touch and she said my book was ‘astonishing’. I loved her immediately. She said she was sending over the queries, and that there ‘weren’t many’. There were, in fact, 10 pages of them. 175 in total. And these were just the queries – obvious typos and missing punctuation had already been corrected without bothering me.

The copyedit was much more than ‘just’ about correcting mistakes. Yes there were some, but attention was also paid to to smoothing out inconsistencies in style, for example where I had used ‘grownup’ vs ‘grown up’. My editor also checked facts, questioning things as odd as ‘are puffballs safe to eat?’ and the correct references made to music. Despite my best efforts there were still ‘continuity’ queries - one minute a door was closed, the next it was open…

Responding to the queries took hours and hours. Agreeing that I should change from one kind of punctuation to another was an easy one. But where the suggestion was to choose a different word or re-phrase something it was much harder. Even though I could agree that it was necessary, working within the vocabulary limits of the narrator took a lot of thought and deliberation.

By the time I reached the end of the query list I was feeling quite anxious. Had I managed to get back into the ‘voice’ of the book seamlessly? Had I made the ‘right’ changes? And what about all the mistakes? As soon as a query drew my attention to something I then spotted the same mistake over and over in the text. Even though my editor had told me that she only queried something once and then it would apply throughout, it was very unnerving to see the repeated mistakes and inconsistencies cropping up again and again.

But the biggest revelation for me last week was that my copyeditor not only understood the rules of spelling, grammar and punctuation (of course), she also understood where I had intentionally broken the rules to use punctuation or rythym creatively. She understood my intention.

Then she worked with that intention, with my rules, to make the writing more elegant, so the words didn’t get in the way of the story.

The whole experience was really impressive, and I found myself enormously grateful that such painstaking attention is being lavished on my book.

Once the queries were dealt with and the TS returned to Bloomsbury,  I asked my lovely copyeditor, Sarah-Jane Forder, if she wouldn’t mind answering a few questions:

1) I edited The Night Rainbow many times before I submitted it. I would have said I went through it with a fine toothed comb. And yet I had 175 queries in total, which you described as ‘very few’! If we imagine I’m towards one end of the spectrum, what does the other end look like?

It was obvious to me when I first read your TS that I was dealing with a very meticulous author. Yes, there were odd things you’d missed in however many edits but that is always the way. I missed things too, which you picked up: remember? My point about the relatively few number of queries, and the absolute ease of my job, was that they were minor things: the odd bit of punctuation here, a tiny bit of garbled text there. Nothing major whatsoever. Many authors, believe me, have neither your eye nor your ear. When you answered my queries you did so with confidence, saying no when you knew absolutely what you wanted. Which is a wordy way of saying that the other end of the spectrum might have multiple typing errors and inconsistencies as well as careless repetition, holes in the plot and characters whose eyes change from blue to brown according to the weather.

2) Many of your queries represented changes that needed applying several times through the book and after you’d mentioned something once I came across dozens of subsequent errors that I’d made (consistency of spellings etc.) Do authors get ‘better’ at noticing these, the more books they write? So fewer slip through to copyedit stage?
I think, the more they write, authors do become aware of certain tics in their writing: words and phrases they perhaps rely on; that sort of thing. It’s great if an author can get it near on 100 per cent accurate (Anita Brookner, whom I copyedited at Cape, was one), but they are rare.
I have to say that I don’t regard picking up spelling mistakes or typos necessarily as part of writing: you can be dyslexic and still express yourself fluently and vividly and with originality, which is the really important thing. If writers made no errors whatsoever, what about us poor copyeditors? You’d be doing us out of a job!

 

3) In terms of your process – do you read the book first as a ‘reader’, or immediately with an editor’s eye?

I always do a first read as a reader, or as near as I can get to a reader when I’m working (you’ve sussed that in my leisure time I read in an entirely different way), with an eye out for plot, pacing, characterisation and so on. I will also at that point make a note of any inconsistencies of style (‘girl-nest’!) and make a ‘style chart’ to follow for the edit proper. The edit proper is slower, and usually said out loud in my head. I find it helps to hear the words – you yourself mentioned rhythm and I think that’s really important.

 

4) How did you become a copyeditor? What do you like about the job?

 

I fell into copyediting! I graduated in English with a vague idea of going into publishing: no more than that. I was lucky enough to be appointed at Jonathan Cape as an editorial assistant working with Liz Calder, one of the top literary fiction editors at that time. Salman Rushdie, Julian Barnes, Martin Amis, John Fowles, Anita Brookner, Ian McEwan: they were all Cape authors. Later, when Liz went to set up Bloomsbury, I followed her. 

I’ll be honest: the job can be extremely tedious (depends what you’re working on!) but it’s always fascinating to work one to one with authors; it can feel like a real privilege, in fact. There’s the satisfaction of making a difference, however small. The devil’s in the detail! Having been freelance now for about 15 years, one of the things I love about my job is being able to work from home, at no one’s beck and call. I like the freedom, I like the quiet! The money sucks: you don’t go into it expecting to become rich. But I specialise in editing literary fiction, and how can you put a price on the pleasure of being paid to read wonderful writing?

 

Huge thanks to Sarah-Jane for taking the time to answer these questions in her busy schedule. I hope you find them as illuminating as I did.

Next steps for The Night Rainbow? First Pages for proofreading in a few weeks, and the cover! It’s also off for translation. Still a year to go until publication, but we’re well on our way!

The Coward’s Tale – Interview with Vanessa Gebbie

Posted on: November 10th, 2011 by Claire - 18 Comments

Today I’m thrilled to welcome Vanessa Gebbie to my blog, to talk about her novel The Coward’s Tale, which launched officially three days ago  (7th November 2011). I was lucky enough to have an advance copy to read, and it’s an absolute treasure. The writing is so lyrical I felt as though it was being read out loud to me, the storytelling so thoughtful…

Claire King: Vanessa, first I have to tell you how much I loved The Coward’s Tale. So many novels these days play on our worst fears, make readers anxious and immerse us in the trauma of the characters. Your story was like a breath of fresh air: a careful untangling of cause and effect, written with great generosity and respect. How did you know that this was the story you wanted to tell?

Vanessa Gebbie: I can’t tell you what it’s like hearing those words, Claire. Thank you.  When a reader gives up a few hours of their life to read a book when they could have been doing a zillion other things, that’s always great. But the reader who does that and ‘gets’ it – that’s rather special.

The honest answer to ‘how did I know this was the story I wanted to tell’ is this –I didn’t!  I was hijacked, and it happened like this. I wrote the first section with no thought as to what it was saying, other than the surface story. I was playing with the character of Tommo Price, the Clerk at the Savings Bank, and the story that unfolds in the narrative ‘now’. I’ve always been hugely interested what makes characters who they are, and most of that has no place in the story – but here, there needed to be a bit of his history. I’d already written much of that backstory, but when I came to ‘cut n paste’ it, I couldn’t make it ‘fit’.  Not until a completely new character wandered into the piece, uninvited, and started telling the backstory himself, in a first person narrative.  That was the beggar, Ianto Jenkins. I had no idea who he was, or why I was going along with this (this is where non-writers shake their heads and think we are nuts!) but it worked so well, I let him get on with it.

It wasn’t until I’d written perhaps half the novel that I tumbled to the importance of what was happening… Ianto’s narratives were revealing a rather important backstory, not only for each character, but for the community.  A single event was common to all of them, however peripheral it seemed. And there was a switch – some time towards the end of writing it all – where his stories took on a much greater significance than the bits I’d been creating deliberately.  The novel should really be ‘by Ianto Jenkins with a bit of help from Vanessa G’!

CK: The Coward’s Tale appears to be a collection of short stories that are all intertwined. How did they grow together under your pen?

VG: I’m a story writer by trade, Ma’am. I approached the novel as a series of stories with the same cast of characters, each with a backstory that made up another strand.  I wasn’t satisfied with a book of linked short stories that could be called a novel for marketing purposes. It needed to be something else – and after a year of editing and rewriting, the backbone of the book is a now a quadruple strand weave (I think) – made up of Laddy’s story now, Ianto’s own story then, the gradual reveal of what happened at Kindly Light then, and the separate character tales. Never been one to tackle simple things, me.

CK: There are so many strange and yet believable idiosyncrasies in The Coward’s Tale – the wooden feathers, the  search for a straight line through the town, the fish in the river, the annual bread ritual…did you find all this in your imagination?

VG:  Aye. I’ve always preferred being in my own head to being out on the street…it’s much more fun.  Refused to go out and play as a kid, always nose in a book, or dreaming. But when you do eventually get out there, people are endlessly interesting, aren’t they? There is no such thing as a ‘normal’ person, a mon avis.  Long live not being normal, I say!

CK: I’d seen on your blog that there is a map of the town, which I love. (For the musical version click here - although if like me you’re the child of a mining community, beware the colliery brass band, which made me a bit teary) I’d expected the map to appear in the book, why did you decide not to include it?

VG: I didn’t. I was kind of hoping a place might be found for it. I love novels with maps in the endpapers – can you imagine The Hobbit or Lord of the Rings without?  It adds another element that smoothes the reader’s initial experience, I think. But Bloomsbury have created the most beautiful book – initially a stunning hardback with gorgeous foil-blocked jacket by designer Holly MacDonald, and the paperback out next March in the UK is equally great.  The US version, also coming out in March has yet another cover – again, absolutely stunning.  I love them all. And you have to draw the line somewhere, I understand that – it’s tough times for publishing, innit?

CK: It is, and we have to count our blessings! What has been your favourite or most memorable part of bringing The Coward’s Tale to life (either in the writing, the research, the road to publication etc)?

Vanessa Gebbie:

Favourite: The realization a while back (its taken over 5 years!) that this was a novel, not a short story, and that I was in for the long haul. I had something that would last, a world to which I would return over and over again, whilst also working on the other short stories that became my two collections.  It was very grounding.

Memorable:  The research – I left it until the book was finished to first draft stage. I didn’t want the temptation to cram the work with research detail just because I had it in a file. I had to make sure each detail really earned its place in the story. I needed to check some technicalities of coal mining, to check what I’d written from imagination and memory was correct. I will never forget reading the reports of so many mining disasters in the Welsh valleys, especially the 1913 Senghennydd disaster.  I needed to get it right, hard as it was to revisit some of the tougher passages in the novel to make my characters go through their experiences again.

Memorable: My visit to Big Pit at Blaenavon, where I had to remove mobile phone, watch, don a hard hat with light fitment and an incredibly heavy battery round my middle, before dropping what seemed like miles down the shaft in the cage, and spending abut an hour walking in the tunnels beneath the ground.  Unforgettable, really.  All that massy rock above you. How little the spaces are where the work got done.  The sense that we are absolutely insignificant…

I’d like to pause a minute and remember the recent Gleision colliery disaster here, if I may.  Men who work in mines are among the bravest souls.

Memorable: My visit to Bloomsbury to meet the team, and seeing the boardroom table awash with bags of toffees! (As you know, Ianto Jenkins only tells his stories if he is fed toffees…) next time I shall write a novel about gold mining, in the hopes of taking away bags of gold – although actually, sitting on the train home, chomping toffees, knowing this was the team I wanted to look after my book, was rather lovely!  (If terrible for teeth and now non-existent waistline.)

CK: OK. The toffees just gave me such a frisson I welled up! Aaaanyhowz…Charles Lambert described your book as “The unlikely but entirely legitimate child of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Dylan Thomas” and I’ve seen you’ve already had a number of reviews on Waterstones. How does it feel, seeing your work through the eyes of the readers? Is it different for your novel than for your short story collections?

VG: I love that description from Charles. DT and GGM are two writers whose work I admire hugely, and I count them among the best writing tutors! I am delighted that The Coward is in some way descended from them. Isn’t that perfect? And it is just great to read reviews from readers. As I said above, I am always aware that readers give us a few hours of their lives when they read our ‘stuff’ – I am hugely grateful both for that and for their comments. There’s nothing better, really.

The Waterstones page is here, the reviews now number 13 – and are simply lovely.

CK: In the town you wrote, I could picture the echoes of ancestors wandering around in borrowed clothes, mingling amongst those they left behind, and the new generations. We all carry the echoes of the past with us, to some extent. What are your strongest childhood memories of Wales, and where do you call ‘home’?

VG: ‘Home’ is a difficult word for me, for personal reasons. I’m never sure where it is, but that’s a legacy from my adoption, I suppose. I know lots of adopted adults – many of them, like me, never quite know where they belong. Spend our days looking for it.

But what a gift for a writer, huh?!

I loved staying with my grandmother in Merthyr Tydfil with a passion – never wanted to leave.  Both my lovely parents (adoptive, if we must…) came from Merthyr, so both grandmothers and respective families were there. Some still are. Every setting in The Coward’s Tale is based on somewhere I knew as a child. The kitchens where most of the gossiping got done, where the mantels were hung with gas brackets and carried brass plates and candlesticks and broken cups with spare change for the meter.

I used to play on the tip – the old slag heap at the end of the road, where wild ponies came to graze. We used to try to catch them. Fat chance!

I could ramble on for hours, I’m afraid..

CK: Many of your characters have names that have been bestowed on them by the townsfolk in some way, that have become more than nicknames. How important do you think are the names that others give us?

VG: Oh hugely important. A name holds so much more than the sound, don’t you think? And of course the tradition of linking name to occupation is immensely powerful, if a bit of a cliché. Must be careful with these things…

CK: If you were a character in The Coward’s Tale, what would your given name be, and why?

VG: What a brilliant question. Hmm. I’d be an old bat who wanders the streets with a notebook, her hair in curlers, who sometimes forget she’s still wearing her dressing gown. I’d appear in a line or two in most stories and Laddy would pick up a notebook after I’d left it on the bench in the park…what would my name be?  ‘Imagination’ Ellis, I expect.

CK: I love it! Vanessa, thank you so much for your time, and here’s hoping Ianto Jenkins finds his way into the hands (and hearts) of many, many readers.

Vanessa’s wacky website is www.vanessagebbie.com and her blog is www.morenewsfromvg.blogspot.com and here’s a quick link to Amazon…

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