The Literary Consultancy Comes to Asia

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Rebecca Swift, Director of The Literary Consultancy, will be at the Hong Kong Literary Festival in November this year to talk about how her UK-based consultancy can help writers working outside Britain.

The Literary Consultancy (TLC), begun in 1996, was the world’s first editorial consultancy. Co-founded by writer and editor Rebecca Swift and Hannah Griffiths (now a publisher at Faber & Faber) it has sought to help writers gain in-depth, professional feedback. Some send their work before they submit to agents or publishers, others when they receive rejections and are confused about why. Nowadays, agents and publishers rarely have time to give detailed feedback to writers, so TLC filled in that gap. There are now other similar consultancies and ‘book doctor’ services, some more reputable than others.

Rebecca and her team currently work only in the English language, but they do work with writers outside the UK. They include Neamat Imam, a Bangladeshi-Canadian novelist, who with the help of TLC, signed with top UK agent David Godwin and whose book The Black Coat has been published by both Penguin in India and by Periscope Books in the UK; Damien Brown, whose account of working with Médecins sans Frontières, Band-Aid for a Broken Leg, was published by Allen & Unwin in Australia; Perdita and Honor Cargill, represented by Hannah Sheppard at DHH Literary Agency following a TLC assessment, who have just struck a two-book deal with Simon & Shuster; and Catherine Ferguson, represented by HHB Literary Agency who published her book Humbugs and Heartstrings via Harper Collins’ e-book first imprint Avon.

TLC’s editorial assessment service is suitable for writers who have started a project and would like guidance before continuing; writers working on a first draft; writers wanting an honest assessment of whether the work is ready to submit to an agent/self-publish; writers who are confused by feedback they have had. See the guideline to editorial fees. FEES

Mentoring

The consultancy’s online mentoring scheme, Chapter & Verse, for writers who want to see a book project through to completion; writers who need sustained support, with deadlines, encouragement, and constructive feedback. Chapter & Verse can be accessed from anywhere in the world. This scheme is designed to fit around a writer’s other commitments, providing over the course of a year six email feedback sessions with an experienced writing mentor who helps craft the work, help the writer find his or her voice and complete a full-length work. After the development process, writers receive a full editorial assessment of the whole work by a separate editor. This currently differentiates TLC’s service .

For those of you who can make it to London, TLC offers an Industry Day at its London base, the Free Word Centre, with an agent and editor as guests. Writers have attended from Bangkok, Canada and Europe. Those who can’t make it can access a PDF information pack with a write-up from the day.

Copy Editing and Proofreading

Matching copy-editors and proofreaders to writing projects is an area of our work we have seen increased interest in over the last few years,

As publishing options for writers proliferate and more authors decide to publish independently, TLC has seen increased interest from writers needing copy-editors and proofreaders. They will discuss with a writer whether this kind of editing is suitable before you part with any money. Writers who seek this service include those for whom English is a second language and who want help ‘cleaning up’ their work.

TLC does not advise writers to translate their own work into English unless they are an expert, as often this will result in a text that a copy-editor will have difficulty ‘fixing’. Copy-editing is corrective; not designed to re-write your text. It’s also not cheap, so make sure this is the final stage of editing, or you risk re-introducing errors which may need a further copy-edit to correct.

Who Uses Editorial Services?

‘We find that most of the writers coming to us are first-time or “emerging” writers wanting support to develop their craft and gain a better understanding of where their writing might fit into the market,’ said Swift. ‘But we also have regularly published or contracted writers come to us with books that, increasingly, their agents haven’t the time to help them develop.’

Most of the literary agents TLC works with are UK-based, but they also have contacts in Hong Kong, India, Australia, the USA, the Caribbean, and Africa, and they will do their best to support writers through these networks.

Finding Success as a Writer

Reaching publication success as a writer is in some ways easier than ever (via self-publishing), and in other ways more difficult than it’s ever been (squeezed editorial budgets, more focus on marketing and publicity when commissioning new titles within publishing houses).

On the one hand, the latest International Publisher’s Association annual report is encouraging; more books are being published than ever before. But this comes with a warning: Canongate Publisher Jamie Byng said in an article in The Guardian last year, ‘I think we publish too many books … and I think this impacts negatively on how well we publish books as an industry. It is very easy to acquire a book. Much harder to publish it successfully.’

There are some notably writers who disagree. Novelist Jenn Ashworth stated in the same article, ‘More books and more people talking about books is always excellent … it is a shame we have fewer and fewer librarians to help readers navigate their way through all this glorious literary chaos and find hidden gems.’

What’s clear is that good writing needs champions; those who can help not only source, but polish these ‘hidden gems’.

Says Swift: ‘When we find a particularly gifted writer, a “hidden gem” from any country, our professional reader or mentor flags the writer up to our in-house team. We will then look at the work, and think about the various pathways open to the writer; so what might be best for the book, according to the genre, the target readership, the market appeal, and so on.’

It’s an exciting time, and there are plenty of options for writers who are serious about writing, getting their work up to standard, and making it available to readers across the English-speaking world. The internet has opened up many possibilities, and it’s a thrill for all at TLC to be working at the intersection between the writing on the one hand, and potential readerships on the other, and finding ways to help writers form relevant links between the two.

By Aki Schilz

AkiSchilzTLCAki Schilz is a writer and poet based in London. She works as Editorial Manager at The Literary Consultancy.

Spinal care for writers

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Developmental editor Laurel Cohn looks at story structure.

No, this column is not about how to maintain correct posture at the computer (are you sitting up straight?). I’m interested here in the notion of the spine of your story.

Just as you can’t function at your optimum if you have spinal issues, your story needs to have a strong and healthy backbone. Think of your story as a creature. It does not need to look realistic – it can have a multitude of limbs and unusual features – but it needs to be able to stand on its own and deliver its creator’s intent.

Being able to identify the backbone of your story is crucial to help you work out whether you have unwanted growths that need to be excised or require additional material needed for balance.

PLANNERS AND PANTSERS

Some writers meticulously plot their story before they begin chapter one. These are the planners. Others just start writing and let the story develop and unfold as they go. These are sometimes referred to as ‘pantsers’, those who write ‘from the seat of their pants’.

There is no right or wrong way; it is totally dependent on the writerly practice that works for the individual author. However, in my experience as a developmental editor, structural issues are common in both fiction and narrative non-fiction book-length works, and while planners do sometimes need to apply structural adjustments to their work, it is the pantsers who usually need to consider significant spinal manipulation.

DIAGNOSIS

The first step is to find out exactly what you’re dealing with. Some writers know there are structural issues in their work, but are not sure how to go about identifying them.

Writing a chapter outline after a completed draft is a good start. It is also useful if you are some way into a work and you feel like the structure eludes you. Some publishers require this as part of the submission (particularly for non-fiction), but even if they don’t, and even if you are a planner, it can be a very illuminating exercise. Using point form or prose, note for each chapter the key event, characters introduced, time covered, themes, plot threads etc. What you put into your chapter outline will depend on the type of manuscript.

You could begin with quite a detailed approach, but see if you can end up with no more than six to eight dot points or two to three short paragraphs for each chapter. The idea is to outline what you have written, not what you intended to write.

You may find that the draft is well-paced and balanced, with no major holes or blips. Or you may find that some chapters don’t seem to have a key dramatic event and others are choc-a-block with action; that a sub-plot seems to disappear from the narrative for over half the book; that a character is redundant; that the pace is uneven. Reviewing your chapter outline will give you ideas on what is working, what is missing and what needs to be rethought.

IDENTIFYING THE SPINE OF THE STORY

Diagnosis is only the first step. In order to fix structural issues, you have to  identify the spine of your story. One strategy is storyboarding.

A storyboard is a series of illustrated panels in a sequence, like a comic book. It is used in film to help plot stories and you can use it to help identify the key structural points in your manuscript: the bones of the spine. Once you understand where the spine lies, you can more readily amputate unnecessary limbs or strange growths that cripple the story. Storyboarding also helps you see your story as more than a collection of words – the individual bones are depictions of characters, their actions, and the consequences of those actions.

To storyboard your plot begin by listing the three main events that take place in your story; not just three random events, but the three things you are most likely to tell a friend when describing what happens in your manuscript. Use the three main events as roughly beginning, middle and end, and turn them into three panels. Now fill in some of the spaces between these main events and storyboard your plot to around 12 or 15 panels. Alternatively, create a single panel that shows the key event of each chapter. You may end up with ten or twenty panels, depending on how you have organised your material. This is a little like a visual version of the chapter outline.

HONING THE STRUCTURE

There are various ways you can play with your storyboard to help you hone your narrative structure. You can cut your panels apart and rearrange them. Storyboarding can help you discover whether you have too much story or too little. It may reveal that your story’s ending is really your beginning or that one character (or more) has no real impact on the core of the story and can be cut. It might show that the sequence of events isn’t as tightly constructed as it should be. It can be a very useful tool in the revision process. You can use storyboarding to plan ahead, and you can also use it as a diagnosis tool for what you have already written.

Different genres and different stories may lend themselves to different types of layouts. For example, in a story where the passage of time is critical (such as a crime story) a spreadsheet may be appropriate so you can chart hours, days or weeks. There is a fascinating sample of J.K. Rowling’s spreadsheet for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix at www.slashfilm.com (search for J.K. Rowling).

There are lots of different ways to represent a structure using shape, colour and space. I have worked with writers who have used mind maps, excel spreadsheets, outlines and index cards. Whatever shape your skeleton takes, and your representation of it, using colour and visual patterning may help you to see your work differently – to identify weaknesses and build on strengths in your story structure. With a strong spine, your story is more likely to fulfill your intentions.

 

Laurel Cohn is an editor and mentor passionate about communication and the power of narrative to engage, inspire and challenge. Since the late 1980s she has been helping writers develop their stories and prepare their work for publication. She is a popular workshop presenter and runs an editing and manuscript development service. 

IN SEARCH OF A GREAT MENTOR

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By Jill Dawson

In the early ’90s, writing my first novel, Trick of the Light, I longed to have some feedback from another novelist.  And not a beginner either, but one who knew what she was doing and would somehow know what I was trying to do and help me to better express it. (My fantasy was Margaret Atwood, but how on earth to get hold of Margaret Atwood? Or ask her to read my novel?)

Popular wisdom is that writing workshops, or writers groups, are the way new writers learn. And at the same time we suspect this wasn’t the route for the writers we admire. Didn’t they simply find the right reader: often a contemporary or a writer trying to do similar things (think Plath and Hughes discussing their poetry, or Virginia Woolf and Katharine Mansfield)?

And after all, what if you are shy (not that unusual a trait in a writer), overly sensitive, or like me – hate groups?
What if you find it bewildering to try to make sense of a cacophony of critical voices and the jostling of egos that inevitably accompany a bunch of people who want to be writers and haven’t yet proved themselves by publishing anything much?

I suspected that my writing desire was to connect in private with the mind of a stranger that I never had to meet; was vaguely conscious that writing fiction was somehow a curious negotiation between the joys of being hidden and the potential disaster of never being found.

At that point in my life I’d never met any published writers. I was on the dole, a single parent of a toddler and living in a council flat: why would I have? What I longed for, was not a group critiquing experience, nor an MA (or MFA) qualification, it was an opportunity to meet and learn from those I thought of as ‘real’ writers: published authors with a body of work, and discover if I really could count myself among them.

There seemed no way to find that, so I signed up for an MA in writing anyway, aware that a novelist I admired (Jane Rogers) ran it, and hoping for her input.  That was many years and eight novels ago but it is still quite difficult for unpublished writers to gain access to published ones.

So, in 2007, I set up a mentoring program, Gold Dust, to provide an alternative to the group workshop model. This is a scheme that offers sixteen hours of input from a mentor selected for his or her experience and exceptional gifts as writers.

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Romesh Gunesekera.

We have 14 in total, including me. Some of the others are Louise Doughty, ex-Booker judge and author of seven novels; Australian author Kathryn Heyman; Romesh Gunesekera, whose novel Reef was shortlisted for the Booker; Andrew Miller, winner of the IMPAC for his first novel and the Costa Prize for his novel Pure; and Kate Pullinger, author of eight novels and winner of the Governor General Award, Canada’s most prestigious prize.

‘Gold Dust is for people who take their writing seriously,’ wrote Cherise Saywell, one of the writers mentored under the program. She went on to publish two novels. For her, the program was worth the investment.

Alexandra Cameron, whom I mentored, is about to publish her first novel in Australia, Rachael’s Gift.  Jane Rusbridge, whom I taught on one of the well-respected, long-established Arvon courses in the UK and who was mentored by Kathryn Heyman has become a well established author, published by Bloomsbury. Ruth Dugdall, mentored by Michelle Spring, has become an established author of crime novels. Rosie Rowell, mentored by Sally Cline has published two young adult novels since joining the scheme. Sally has an extraordinary success rate in getting her ‘mentees’ onto the Tony Lothian prize shortlist for first-time biographers and memoirists. Gold Dust’s website shows other authors we have helped to publish.

It’s satisfying to have dreamed up and created the scheme I wanted to find, years ago.  I also love the process of match-making: putting applicants together with potential mentors, which I do with the help of others in the scheme, based on the sample of work sent in. Not everyone is accepted; it is competitive, but then not everyone can write a novel or memoir and we are trying to discover and help those who can.

The cost of a mentorship with Gold Dust is £3,000 (around US$4,880). It is only for writers who are serious and able to afford to work with the mentors, all of whom are serious authors paid for their time and input.

Jill DawsonJill Dawson is the author of eight novels, including Fred and Edie (shortlisted for the Orange and Costa Prize), The Great Lover (a Richard and Judy choice and best-seller) Watch Me Disappear (long-listed for the Orange Prize) and her most recent The Tell-Tale Heart. In addition, she has edited six collections of short stories and poetry and won prizes for poetry and short stories. Jill was an early supporter of the APWT and hopes to join more of the APWT’s annual conferences.

 

THE MAGIC OF MENTORING

Writer Kathryn Heyman, who is also the fiction program director for the Faber Academy in Australia, writes of the pleasure involved in mentoring a writer on to his or her own excellence.

She’s waiting in the corner of the cafe, head down, scribbling notes in the corner of the page, the picture of creative industry as the traffic hums past. We order coffee, pull out pens, and dive into her writing. We meet each month, and each month I’m more excited by what I read.

I’m not her editor, and I am not her teacher. She is a blossoming writer, and I am her mentor. Each month, she sends me several chapters of her novel-in-progress. Several days later, we meet and – amidst much laughter – we talk through what she’s written.

Sometimes, she is stuck for what to do next. On those days, we pull out index cards, write down chapter titles, shuffle them around, discuss and debate. We talk about her fictional characters intently, moving them from place to place. In that hour or so in the cafe, they are real people. When she leaves, she will be alone with them again.

Some months, I take the role of an editor – other months, I am a cheerleader, calling her on to the glorious end that I can see. I can see it and believe it because I have been in her chair. I’ve been the one struggling to believe that I can complete that first book, or that anyone will care if I do.

My role is to pass on my experience and hope that she can learn from my mistakes as well as my successes.
Although I am often speaking to writers around the world via the wonders of modern technology, mentoring is an ancient practice, dating back to the early Greeks and to the very first mentor.

Calling you on to your own excellence

In Homer’s tale The Odyssey, King Odysseus has left his son, Telemachus, in Ithaca while Odysseus spent years fighting the Trojan War and more years trying to return. So who will young Telemachus find as his role model? Who will help him navigate the treacherous path to manhood? Telemachus needs someone wise to guide him. An elder, a trusted friend, Mentor, takes up the role of guide for Telemachus. At a crucial moment in the narrative, the goddess Athene disguises herself as Mentor and steps in to give crucial advice to the young prince. Go and ask King Nestor for some information, she says. What will I say? Telemachus asks. According to Homer, ‘the goddess, grey-eyed Athene, encouraged him; the right words, she said, would come.’

Athene, in disguise as Mentor, does not instruct Telemachus. She doesn’t give him her own words. She doesn’t hand him a script. She simply points him to his own wisdom and reminds him of the skills which he has been taught by Mentor. The moment Athene disguises herself in this way, Mentor is no longer a person, but a role.

In working with Athene as his mentor, Telemachus doesn’t want to become like Athene. Instead he understands that he needs help to become a better version of himself.

That’s the role of the mentor, the calling you on to your own excellence. As a writing mentor, I’ve worked with writers across a range of genres, each with their own voice and a vision that I help them coax to life.

Bestselling writer and founder of London publishing house, The Women’s Press, Stephanie Dowrick is someone who knows a thing or two about excellence. On her role as a Writers’ Mentor, she says:

I am inviting the new writer to be the best they can be, to be rigorous and truthful and I bring everything to that partnership that I took to all my roles as editor and publisher. It’s a pleasure and a privilege.

The Greek philosopher Aristotle observed three forms of knowledge: techne, practical skill; episteme, intellectual knowledge; and phronesis, perhaps most closely described as practical wisdom. It is a balance of craft or technical skills with deep knowledge that leads to this deepest form of wisdom. That’s what mentoring aims for.

Let’s say you’re trying to write your first novel, or a memoir. You tap away at the keyboard, with only the sound of your own breath to keep you company, and every so often you read the words out to your writing group over cups of tea. They adore it. You’re brilliant, they glow. Yet, you know the book isn’t ready, that something is missing.

You can almost imagine it, can almost see yourself standing with the published book in your hands. If only you could get from here to there. But how? A mentor takes on the role of practised guide, passing on the practical wisdom that he or she has acquired through thousands of hours of flying time.

Mentors don’t necessarily offer intellectual knowledge of critical work, though they may. Nor do they instruct in the detailed technical capabilities of craftwork, though they may. What mentorship offers, above all, is this practical wisdom, this phronesis, which may well be unavailable by other means.

Mentoring assumes that there is a gap between where you are and where you want to be. In that way, it’s similar to therapy, or teaching. Unlike therapy, though, in mentoring there is an assumption that the mentee can see what’s on the other side of the gap. I want to be a successful screenwriter. I want to publish a novel. I want to run my own company. Mentoring is aspirational, in that it acknowledges a desire to move forward. It’s a model of learning which works for teenagers and octogenarians, for creatives and corporates alike.

Last year I attended launch parties for three writers I’d mentored, and applauded wildly as another was shortlisted for a national award. I held each of those books in my hands and understood, for a moment, how Athene must have felt cheering Telemachus on to his best, true self. A pleasure and a privilege indeed.

Kathryn Heyman’s fifth novel, Floodline, was published in September 2013. Her first novel, The Breaking, was shortlisted for the Stakis Award for the Scottish Writer of the Year and longlisted for the Orange Prize. She has judged several literary awards, including serving as the senior judge for all panels of the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards. She is now fiction program director for the Faber Academy in Australia and is the director of the Australian Writers Mentoring Program.