Man Booker 50: How to get published

It is no the third session of day I, once again At Royal Festival Hall’s Function room. Outside people wooo and shout both excited and nervously, England is playing against Sweden. The blinds are down and it is hot, yet, the room is practically full and considering both conditions the interview starts with a honest ‘we will have brief breaks to check the score’. And no, she is not joking.

… constitute this promising session’s panel and the advices I am about to share with you are as practical as helpful.

We start with a question: what are agents/publishers looking for?

If you read my second post (link to How to get a literary agent) the following question has already been addressed and thankfully there is coherence in the market and the answer is exactly the same. ‘I’m not looking for anything, I don’t event know what I am looking for until I see it’, shares Claire (another Claire, one of the people behind The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time). Again, all they want is to be surprised. But between hundreds of published and to-be-published voices how can writers fulfil that desire? The advice is simple, at least simple enough for those who enjoy, ‘read loads and voraciously’.

The first publisher is Juliet, responsible for the Man Booker winner in 2015, Marlon James. Agreeing with her colleague she elaborates, ‘setting in any time; good writing; strong and original voices, I like going for a journey as any reader’. As a publisher she is also open to literature in translation.

The third element decided to kindly address all the prospective novelists in the room: ‘Don’t take rejection personally. It’s a strange business. Most of you new ideas are not new’. At this point, some people in the audience feel almost offended. Personally, this reminds me of Shakespeare, whose ideas were not completely original but taken from other famous plays at the time.

Literature throughout times is then on the spot for the interviewer who dares to challenge white patriarchy, ‘in the nineteenth-century all books seemed to be written in Hampstead by middle-class white’. In Claire’s opinion, publishing is trying to be more diverse, adding ‘I say trying because they’re not been doing much’.

After hearing from agents and publishers the audience with their own personal struggles as writers demands to know: ‘Is it better to hand-in a finished manuscript to an agent or a publisher?’

The whole panel agrees it is not crucial to have an agent, but it is helpful. An agent can do the contracts, the writer’s rights… they will take care of the writer. ‘Agents are gate keepers’, Juliet is led to agree with the secret expression that publishers tend not to agree with. It is also important to highlight that agents do not make any money unless they sell your book. So they do have to believe in it. Yet, be aware, agents aren’t really there to help you with the writing of your manuscript. So do not send manuscripts to them before you’re confident about it.

There is one particular advice on Creative Writing courses that pleased me. There has been a long discussion about this courses, mostly because some people do not believe that writing can be taught. Others argue that the narrative voices are becoming less and less unique due to those workshops and writing groups. Although most of these critical voices don’t agree with making writing more accessible and as talent and narrative developer, they do like the idea of having a community of writers who meet and comment critically each others work. As a creative writing student myself, I do believe they are valuable tools, especially to try out new genres and forms which are out of our comfort zone. Also, as Claire shares with the audience, ‘more and more published authors have creative writing groups or courses. It is rare to publish people’s work without them.

Templates are once again one of the many writers’ concerns. In this matter both publishers advise, do send the first three chapters of the novel. About taking chapters from other part of the novel (middle, end…), Juliet firmly responds, ‘no, do not do that’ with no further explanations. Both agents and publishers want to see how the narrative progresses, if the voice and tone are constant, if they as readers would like to read the rest. Some people may ask for the whole thing or 30.000 words and then the rest. Also, do not send your manuscript’s chapters if you haven’t finished the novel yet. If it is accepted, they will need the whole thing right away. For agents, especially, it is almost impossible to sell the book only with three chapters. Avoid unnecessary rejections.

Between all this information we forgot to check how the match was going. Our last minute before we leave the room is festive, England has won.

 

Man Booker 50: How to find a Literary Agent

We are now based on Function room located on the 5th floor of the usual Royal Festival Hall. Two agents and one of their authors sit in front of us.

The first significant difference between the two is their age. While Claire Conville, has been in the publishing world for 35 years, Emma Paterson represents fresh names in the business such as Meghan Hunter, author of The End We Start From as well as the author of ‘Cat-person’ (a successful short-story published in December 2017 by The New Yorker). The other agent is Claire who brings the 2003 Man Booker Prize winner, DBC Pierre.

The first question is clearly directed to their daily life and if the first impression I get is that they don’t have much space nor time for personal life, the second, coming from Claire’s perspective gets even worse.

For those who are interested in the profession or are still waiting for an agent’s reply, this next part is elucidating. Most of their time is spent reading… e-mails. Claires wakes up at 4/5 am in the morning to start reading her inbox before heading to the office. As she says, ‘it’s a 24 hours cycle. Loads of e-mails and phone calls, looking after my authors, meetings with the team…’. Evenings are reserved for readings and launches, as for the weekends more work and reading.

By now heart-shaped balloons from Pride Parade fly all over the sky, passing London Eye and mixing themselves with the planes on their way to Heathrow Airport. The flag from Underbelly Festival dancing with the far away songs from the parade. And while I distract myself with the outside world, Claire’s list finally finishes with ‘loads of editorial work’. She believes that 80% of the manuscript should be ready to be published before being given to the publisher. And at this moment, right before the story that unites this agent and the writer, a question is raised: ‘What do you (agents) look for in a book?’

The answer is not helpful, but full of promise. To be honest, they do not know. In the end, they both agree that they want to be surprised. In addition, there is another factor involved, the first encounter with the narrative is told to be important, unforgettable and personal. Claire, advancing on the other agent’s silence explains: ‘I didn’t know [Pierre’s book] would win a Man Booker Prize, but I knew it could’.

When asked about the feeling on being chosen by an agent, Pierre laments ‘not everyone understood the book. Some readers still don’t. The good thing about being published is they will still read it’.

About his own process of writing Pierre’s reflection is distorted and well-known for those who put their stories into paper. ‘The minute you start think who the audience/reader will be you compromise. And so I tried to take that out of my head and wrote whatever I wanted, believing no one was ever going to read the book’. But when the work is finished that is a whole other story, ‘when I finished, there was fume coming out of the page, such was the energy I had put into it; when I finished I was happy so I sent it’.

Yet, leaving the author’s solitude was hard for this Man Booker winner, ‘by writing completely by myself I did not have anyone to understand it. We were completely alone. Me and my book. My book and me. It’s more difficult to find an agent than a publisher’.

Sympathetic with the writers who listen his words carefully he exclaims: ‘There are always people who want to write stories, and people who want to read stories’. He also adds, ‘there is something incredibly human under writing, the story has to tell the truth even if it offends someone. And that story connects people’.

There is yet another important note to take into account, agents will not send a novel out to publishers because it is talented. It has to be distinctive, word of advice?

‘The only thing we have is our unique self’.

On Q&A time, agents guarantee that all the manuscripts on their desks and computers are read and the writer usually gets an answer six weeks to two months after submission.

First step, finding the right agent. Do read acknowledgements on other books of the genre, most writers mention them. It is also advisable to write on the letter who inspire you as a writer, the courses you’ve done… everything related to the area you’re writing about because selling the manuscripts also means selling the writer authenticity and background.

In terms of presentation, it might differ from company to company/agent to agent but the submission details will be detailed on their websites. No manuscript will be rejected due to its presentation, yet those rules should be followed. And please, Claire personally asks, ‘don’t sent presents’.

In the very end, I finally follow the staff advice and go to the balcony to write. The sun is hiding and now there is no need for me to hid from it. The view is freely opened to seagulls and planes and children shouting and splash on the water fountain downstairs. It is noisy, it is full of life, it is central London.

Man Booker 50: Why the novel matters

The tickets were bought months ago and maybe that’s why when the day comes I do not know what to expect. Yet, the names ‘Man Booker 50’ does not promise less than great expectations.

I booked the first event at 10:30am on a Saturday more due to its name than to the author in question. If I aim to be totally honest, I did not know him by his name. It had escaped me even from my recently pursue for Man Booker prize winners. How? I am still not sure.

Winner of that same prize in 2010 and author of one of the most famous books about the T-word, everyone acclaims him for his sense of humor on this satire Pussy.

As I said, my tickets have been bought months ago and only then, entering the room five minutes after the starting time, I understand how close I am.

The meters that separate me from Howard Jacobson are not more than 5. And when he stands to read his talk, his mastery and love for words and language are notable. It seems I am even closer, metaphysically speaking.

I would not say he is indistinguishable, but I have to admit his sense of humour is beyond undeniable and his arguments find -the truth. The truth that, as Jacobson says at some point, no one knows what is. Questioning the truth, the writing, the arguments or the value of the novel leads us to an interesting pint about the artist’s will on his own creation. For Jacobson, the best novels are the ones and set away from the writer, where the author asks himself, ‘Where the hell did that come from?’. Being creative or creativity in general simply means doing stuff. Because again, the truth is,  and probably the only one authors can agree with and believe to be truly true, ‘it is not art we’re interested in, it’s ourselves’.

But if it is notorious how novels matter, it is also visible the format is in a fight. As Jacobson highlights several times in his talk, ‘not in danger, in a fight. The novel is in good health, what is not in good health is the reader’, a matter that Jacobson believes social media is to blame for. Blaming mainly twitter, for being T-word’s weapon, this argument comes back to the stage in the Q&A, when editors and publishers demand a page.turner manuscript to those who pursue publication. The fight plot vs language can be considered an academic discussion, especially by comparison studies. Page-turners are a virus which may be considered guilty for the lack of literacy today. They are the demand of generations who are now used to instant reactions due to our relationship with the green. There is a lack of patience on the reader who is not able to enjoy a book where the pleasure is mainly on its language.

If the most obvious solution is stepping away from the screen, the most obvious answer is a massive social and emphatic ‘NO’. Even if it is literacy and our own concentration the ones on jeopardy. In Jacobson opinion readers need than to be educated in schools and universities. Which makes me wonder, could that really work when most young people hate the English Literature classes? This is all connected, after all.

The interviewer, a literature teacher herself, defends twitter at least for the possibility of contact between reader and author. As you can probably tell, Twitter has now turned into a joke between stage and audience. To the argument presented he answers: ‘I have never wanted to be in contact with an author in my life. You want to be in contact with me, read my novels’.

During the talk, there are amazing mentions to Dickens, DW Lawrence, Kundera, Henry James and a few to Jane Austen and George Elliot. The interview question is predictable in the 21st century. He admits to admire them, especially Austen for her mastery in comedy and knowledge on women.

In the end there is time to ask about Orwell and politics. Jacobson believes a writer should not be judged for not writing about misogyny or colonialism. In fact, he believes they shouldn’t even be judged by the place they take when they do include them in their novels. If there is something to judge is their choice on using it on the narrative.

And of course there are questions about Pussy, which the author explains can not be considered a novel. Mainly because on novels, people tend to sympathise to the main character and he did not wish that with a person as Trump.

Yet, Trump seemed to opened an exception in Howard Jacobson writing. He admits that when asked if a certain character is a real person he always say ‘no’, hoping that the person is not annoyed with fictional features. Nowadays, people are more offended when ‘no’ is the answer. Which is directly connected to an endless discussion on autobiography and fiction to which he easily, and even beautifully, responds: ‘The moment you put punctuation in your own life it’s not life, it’s art’.

And speaking of endless discussions, literary translation is not forgotten, appearing at the end of Q&A.

Relying on his passion for language, Howards is a believer that a good writer teamed up with a good translator prove his argument. If it is good, if it is well written (especially within the European literature) the particularities of the author’s voice and language  will get through.

As I sit now, hiding on the shadow of Queen Elizabeth Hall, I face my notebook’s page hardly without touching my phone to check time or answer some messages. From this exact spot, again meters away from Howard Jacobson giving autographs and making a few more jokes I imagine, I look around. Famous Man booker winners walk up and down  Southbank like any other human being. Most of them strangers to the common and non-reading souls. And near the margins of river Thames all the winner novelists blend perfectly with the novelists- to-be.

 

*The podcast of this amazing talk will be available Tuesday 12th July at 10pm on BBC3*

 

London Lit Fest VI

Everyone reenters the room with Foyles bags. The visual message of how good the first session was. The natural day light is disappearing and I decide to take a photo of the background that have been placing us in these conversations. I also come prepared after buying a pin to support women writers. Not because they need financial support, but because they need people to believe in them. In the UK, a high percentage of men do not read novels written by women. The question is: Do women write as women or do they write as writers? The Swedish guest replies ‘being a woman is too confined’, but then it is also true that most times women are giving voice to those who silence themselves, other women.

While questioning if there is a sense of entrapment in women’s mind, the opinions vary. And the tension vanishes when the author of ‘Butterflies in November’ says she gives recipes at the end of her book, apparently her editor said there was food in every page and with her characteristic humour she highlighted ‘you have to feed your characters, it’s a long novel!’. We do get trap in the conversation, ‘I never met any ordinary person, sorry’, one says. ‘We say love so easily, but what is love? Do we feel it?’ other wonders, gesturing around in order to get understood. And discussing a theme as real as ‘Equal women’, I get trap in time again. Since both the novels here, today, were both published twenty years ago. Why did it take all this time to have these women at a huge festival like this? It is something we can think about for awhile. After all, they are right ‘language has been used to get power and justify it, instead of building bridges’. I look outside, to what I photographed before. There, are bridges everywhere.

 

London Lit Fest V

It is now week 2. It is also ten past. Brian storm is here, and so am I. As I ran the slippery stairs with my shinny shoes a man crosses my path, a duvet around his shoulders. It is windy. And cold. And for the second time in this festival, I am late.

This time the weekend pass bracelet is bright yellow, as the one I once wore at the hospital. It seems like ages ago. With the help of my fingers I realize it was ages ago. Entering this room I am getting so used to while heading to my favourite and only seat, helps to smooth my uncanny notion of time and how it flies. Also, how ironical and annoying time does not seem to fly when I’m on a plane. These are the kind of things that crush my mind in those twenty minutes of waiting until the marvellous session.

I’ve been waiting with expectancy this talk: Home is elsewhere. Perhaps, since I first saw the festival’s program. The first readings were terrific. The best so far, I dare to admit. One of the stories remind me of myself and my life in London. One of the Nordic writers was talking about how one of his friends used to drive a touristic train in Stockholm, while a recording told the tourists how beautiful the city they were seeing was. And every time he heard that voice playing over and over the same compliments he thought about kidnapping the guests, breaking the radio. ‘yeah, it is true. It is a beautiful city. But there are other streets not as polished, like the one I grew up at’. Those are the ones he wanted them to see, with or without a recording. Those streets are also part of the city. I smile, wondering how this can be perfectly applied to London. Or any other city really. But we can not explain it to others, in fact those streets are a secret we are expected to keep.

During the readings there is space for everything. Especially, fear and loneliness. We hear about a boy who have lived in Finland, since the age of two. But who is asked about his home country even though all he remembers is actually Finland. Feeling an outsider, he decides to buy a snake even though he is terrified of it. Because just like him, it is misplaced between the animals, even if they never get to bite anyone. After that, whenever he had guests they simply ran away with excuses and questions, ‘what if it hides in your toilet?’ or ‘what if it chokes you during the night?’. But his answer remained open ‘what if it doesn’t?’. ‘What if it starts using the toilet as a cat uses a box?’. Just like that, he said everything.

The last reading is about a British woman who wants to leave her home. However, at the airport she is strangely and strongly interrogated about her nationality, simply because she is muslim. Within the serious subject we laugh with each other. Especially after this particular story, we discuss how books can easily become our home, our escape from the world. Or simply feel home for retaining a reality that only we know of. Most times we become refugees of ourselves and libraries can protect us better than a single dominant definition of home.

I think about it again and again, since in libraries we do keep secrets as well. ‘You never control how people read you’, ‘belong is complicated’, ‘Literature is dangerous, books changed me. I saw the darkness in me’. And all of these small bits of information are whispered between the panel and the audience. It is a secret none of us can keep. It is scary, and with words we can cope with the reality of being ourselves. At the end, I did want to question them, but thankfully there was no time. Now I can carry on smiling, and holding the secret for it. Walking away with an advice, ‘if people try to fit you in a box or put you out of it, bring up the snake’.

 

London Lit Fest IV

Due to my recent adoration for Anne Carson I believe my last day dedicated to Poetry started with viewing her, walking hand in hand with her husband. Certainly happy with the lack of recognition that London mostly gives. It is incredible how these poets let themselves go by the river and it is even funnier how someone from yesterday’s panel saying ‘we do not arrived here floating in the river Thames’ can be found contemplating it as if it was a mirror of the soul.

My thoughts are gathered. One of the poets recognises me, I can see it in her face. She is one of my favourites too, for her wonderful readings. Her published book is designed in a way that looks exactly like the traces of the personality she gives away. It is in fact a mirror. In a silvery physical sense, in a inner and metaphorical way. Today, her poem talks about big themes: war, migration, family. It was a continuous narrative of ‘My mother said…’, ‘my father said…’, ‘my brother said…’ and ‘my grandmother said’. I struggled with it. It was poetical, but one could easily give away his own attention to the green jeans of the poet beside her. Mine drifted to the youngest poet trying not to burst into laugh. Fo that reason only, I looked away. It is his turn after. He asks for a moment before he starts. ‘I am very touched’, but still he wanted to laugh. And I with him. Not because the theme was funny, not because it was said with a Mexican accent. Only because it was contagious. It was poetry without words.

It is said that the biggest problem of our society is the human ming and ignorance. Which to a certain extent everyone should agree. Entering someone’s mind, poetry and literature in general are changing it, influencing it, developing it. Acknowledging this ignorance and this “treatment” could be the reason why we love reading. But it is not. In fact, the reader believes in the timelessness of poetry because he strives towards timelessness himself. In fact, we, readers, follow the poetical lines of words steadier than a train in its track because in other place, some other time another mind is describing what we feel, as a character, as a person. Sometimes even better than if we wrote it ourselves. And without saying a word, we find comfort from words. We fit in to a world that only writers talk about.

There is a big discussion in the room, this time about collective emotions, a poet relate it to propaganda. The filthiest word of the last seminars. Of the world really. While another one believes that collective emotions should exist. Both are right. Not only because a single truth does not exist, but also because it is easily understandable that both feel the expression in different ways. And for that, I’m grateful. Because I agree with both. The session finishes with an interesting and powerful point, ‘all kinds of language are a potential work material, it depends how it is used’. To which the last poet simple replies ‘No’.

We finally allow ourselves to freely laugh.

 

London Lit Fest III

It was the last talk of the first day. I had an headache and reddish eyes. But the theme was interesting enough: ‘Home is the Mouth of a Shark’. And yes, it was about refugees.

Roughly an hour before I had listened poetry from women who had arrived to this country without their children, their parents, their lovers. People who had their family killed, who can not cook dishes from their countries. People who preferred to die trying to save themselves than to fear their last days alive. And these people dream awake more than we do asleep. ‘I dream’ became the motto to launch a wall of dreams in Southbank. I have them all in a newspaper. More than six hundred. I cherish them and touch the paper carefully, every sentence is meaningful. It belongs to someone. And I know that like Patti Smith I will use this in my art.

Before we enter this next session, a lady is sitting on the floor, the newspaper largely opened before her crossed legs. I can not help but smile towards the match. As if her posture was as rough and primal as the dreams before her and their poetry.

My neck is sore and I do not seem able to focus. I suddenly forget it when we listen poetry in my favourite way, in the poet’s mother language. No translation. It finishes in a strong and familiar way: ‘I want to die in a country where they know how to pronounce my name’ (from what I understood, but the message I got it right).

One more time I find it interesting how the real life assembles the metaphorical meaning of poetry. The poet Hardy could not be present, due to political reasons no one was allowed to leave the country. Still, there she is. Trespassing the physical borders of her country with her poetry and her fears and dreams being read by the rest of the panel. What a magical moment, hearing those voices taking ownership of this meaning with no credits.

Once again, the theme was hard to discuss. ‘Everything written is political’ since it is written in a certain time. Poets were expressing how happy they were now that poetry was not as reviewed as before. However, people do expect them to say the right thing and talk about those themes. Readers have hope. And they put that hope on the writers and the poets in order to be heard. After all, ‘power structures enable your power’. And at the end of a discussion as intense and in such a tense subject a writer shouldn’t have to say ‘Sorry, I swear I hadn’t anything more than coffee’, as they did.