Tough Loving Care: Q&A
As part of our How To Be Kind season, The Literary Consultancy will be on hand to answer all of your questions about how to get ahead with your writing. Submit your questions on anything writing, editing or publishing related by emailing in here or use the hashtag #ToughLovingCare on Twitter.
Q: I’ve been writing seriously for 10 years. I’m pleased with the progress but I’m looking to take it to the next level. What tips would you give for examining your own writing practice when you’re between projects? How can we get at the truth of what works/doesn’t work? – Andrew
Thank you very much for your excellent question; what a great way to kick off this Tough Loving Care column.
Firstly, let’s start with what you mean by ‘between projects’. Do you mean that one project is complete – behind you, done and dusted – and now it’s on to the next? Or do you mean that you’re feeling a little stuck in no-man’s-land, caught between the one project you haven’t quite finished, and the next that you haven’t quite started?…
Either way, I do feel the key issue is focus. This also ties into your other question: how can we get at the truth of what works/doesn’t work. Really, the question could be shortened even further: how can we get at the truth?
We can’t know what to focus on unless we understand our aim. Our purpose. Our why. If we understand both our why as a writer, and the why of each individual project, we will find ourselves writing with conviction. And the most powerful storytelling is always the storytelling that convinces us to believe in it, completely. That’s the magic page-turnability of every good book.
It’s quite common for writers to have several projects on the boil at once, but it’s easy to run out of steam as well as losing focus, seeking the dopamine-rush of a new project in favour of the half-cooked manuscript with the saggy middle that can probably wait… Here’s the thing, though. It won’t fix itself. And all you’ll end up with is a big mess of not-quite-finished Writing Things that don’t know what they are or what they’re doing. Does this sound familiar at all?
In terms of the ‘does it work’ part. I have to ask you: what exactly do you mean? Have you considered what metrics you are using to measure if something you are writing is ‘good’ or not? Consider, if you will, all of the books and films and artworks we regularly discuss with friends, with big and bold and unimpeachable opinions about this or that being good and this or that being rubbish. We cast these judgements out because they are deeply connected to how these books and films and pieces of art make us feel. Perhaps instead of asking, is this piece of writing any good (by whose standards?), we should be asking, does it achieve what I want it to, and what it sets out to, as a piece of writing?
We need to get specific here. Are you asking, is this publishable by commercial market standards? Are you asking, is this something that I can feel proud of as an artist? Or something else? These are different questions, with potentially very different answers.
Often our anxiety around being ‘good enough’ as an artist is deeply connected to other, more personal anxieties. The problem is that the ‘inner critic’ here is probably a voice from childhood, and what we need is to tell that voice to be quiet. ‘Am I a good enough writer?’ is not a helpful question. (Good enough for what?) ‘Is this piece working in the way I want it to work and in the way it needs to for the context I want it to sit within?’ Now that feels to me a better, and more solid starting point. Don’t you think?
- Examine your why by answering these questions:
Why this project? Why me? Why now?
- Examine the why of each project by answering these questions:
What is happening in this project? To whom? And why should we (the reader) care?
- Focus on one project at a time
This doesn’t mean you can’t have several things on the go, but be mindful of not switching in and out too much; it can be muddling at best, draining at worst
- Finish what you start
It doesn’t have to be perfect; in fact it won’t be. But you can’t edit a blank page.
- Connect with other writers.
You don’t need to share your work until you are ready, but the act of reaching out can boost your confidence, help you learn more about writing, get tips about opportunities out there (courses, workshops, feedback etc), and create vital human connections.
Director, The Literary Consultancy
Q: I am a short story writer and playwright. I have read my stories at many live events, one of which I run (or I suppose with Covid, ran…). My stories have won many competitions, including being shortlisted for this year’s Bridport Prize, and have been widely published. Having been concentrating on performing the stories for some years, I’d now really love to publish a collection. Do you have any advice for me? – Clare
Thank you for your question, and it’s brilliant to hear from someone writing across different formats, especially as a former dabbler in spoken word and performance art myself. I am fascinated by the way performance and text intersect, and equally appalled at how terribly snobby some people can be about the (imagined) division between page and stage. Quite why we are so desperate to keep them separate is a puzzle to me, when performance brings with it so many of the skills of storytelling. And let’s be honest, how often have we had to sit through prose readings that are deathly dull and could have done with just a little more spark?
In terms of short story collections, one thing to say is that they are hard to sell. The form is always experiencing a ‘boom’, which suggests a perpetual industry surprise that people actually like reading them, but in reality you need a good foothold to stand a chance. Often, the most successful short story collections are those by writers whose names mean something to a readership. They might have won prizes, or gone ‘viral’ (think Cat Person), or they might already be a household name. You do already have an advantage here however; a portfolio of work already out in the world. With prize wins behind you and short story publications under your belt, you’re already a step ahead, which is fantastic.
When pitching your collection to a literary agent or a publisher, I’d really focus on a succinct and powerful pitch letter that sums up your greatest achievements and shows how you already have a readership who is interested in your work (through your live work and through your published stories). The Bridport Prize is one of the UK’s biggest and most respected prizes, so being shortlisted is a huge achievement. Just remember, you don’t need a list of every single publication, just a good sense of where your work has reached readers. Your portfolio is a testament to your work and its ability to find readers, and that’s what publishers want. I know of several writers whose work has been picked up by an agent or a publisher after being shortlisted for short story prizes.
If you are submitting to a publisher who specialises in the short form, that’s one thing, but if you’re submitting to a literary agent, you might want to mention if you have anything else on the boil. Do also remember that even collections of seemingly unlinked stories tend to need some kind of cohesive theme. You might want to start with a three-sentence ‘pitch’ right at the top of the letter that sums up the collection as a whole (what’s going on in this collection? What are the linking themes or preoccupations? The predominant style?). Think about contemporary comparisons, too; what other writers might your work sit next to on a bookshelf in terms of your style and voice? This gives the publisher/agent an idea of what readership they would pitch to. Don’t forget your USP too. What makes this collection uniquely yours?…
Good luck, Clare!
Five tips for short story writers:
- Get your work out there
Be brave and send your work out! You can’t succeed if you don’t try. Have faith in yourself and your writing
- Be careful with your time (and energy)
It can be easy to spend your time, energy and money submitting to a million competitions and magazines. It’s better to have a couple of listings with bigger prizes, a few smaller ones, and a mix of print and online publications, than to boast that you have hundreds of publications in zines that don’t have a wide readership
- Check the terms and conditions
Look out in particular for copyright clauses that restrict your use of the stories in future – you should make sure wherever possible copyright remains with you
- Find a suitable publisher
Not every publisher is a good choice for a collection of short stories. Check backlists and current titles to find a good fit for you and your work. And don’t forget smaller independent publishers
- Write a brilliant cover letter
Be professional, to the point, and make sure you let the publisher know you have a good idea of the market your work is suited to
Working class writers who don’t live in London are still ignored by the industry as a whole. How can we change that? Given that the opening up of the internet should theoretically [make it] easier? – Desiree
Thank you very much for such a pertinent question. Historically, the publishing industry has not only been monopolised by the white upper classes, but it has been in active denial of its exclusivity. Studies show that 86% of the publishing workforce in the UK is white, for example. This impacts directly on the kinds of books we are publishing. But while it’s fairly common to measure demographic markers like ethnicity, asking about socio-economic status is not as straightforward, and we have much less data on how many working class people work in publishing, and how many working class writers are being published.
One thing to note is that class is intersectional, and it’s not always ‘obvious’ what someone’s socio-economic status is. In genre fiction, particularly crime and thrillers, there is a large and thriving community of working class writers. But there hasn’t been the same drive to think about class as much as other areas, where activism is more longstanding. It has only recently been introduced, for example, through questions about social status in national surveys, which reveal that at least 8% of the workforce attended a fee-paying school; almost three times higher than the UK average. And more than a quarter grew up in the (statistically more affluent) south east.*
Happily, things are changing. I’m not sure it’s just the internet that is making things possible, but it’s obvious that a lot of the things that disabled writers have been telling us for years they need to gain access to literary opportunities can be made available more easily than we had thought. It’s a shame it’s taken a global pandemic to get there, but it’s good to see that we are beginning now to normalise things like remote working and remote access to events or opportunities that have often only been available in big cities, most often in London and the South East. This is obviously a huge step towards better access to those on low income or facing socio-economic barriers, too. It also means there’s more opportunity to make connections with others, through digital networks and literary events with more diverse, national, and international audiences.
I often think that publishing is an industry full of under-paid, over-worked, well-meaning Humanities degree graduates, full of passion but stretched to their limit, and that this brittle privilege makes challenging the status quo almost impossible; because challenge feels bizarrely personal in this pressure cooker environment. I call it toxic martyrdom. But challenge to the status quo is happening – assumptions about who reads, who writes, who publishes – and as an industry, it feels like we’re more ready and willing to respond. Not with lip service, but with a kind of active listening that focuses on how we can make practical, positive change at a fundamental level. Exclusion of working class and other marginalised writers has been systemic; and so it’s the system we need to change. That kind of change takes time, and it can be painful, but I feel hopeful, and excited at the sense of willingness from the industry to usher in this change in the long term.
We know that the readers are out there. We know that the writers are out there. So if we aren’t seeing them on our shelves, it’s because we haven’t yet built the right bridges to these audiences and writers. That’s on us. So let’s build together. Let’s build a literary culture we can be proud truly reflects the lived experiences of the people in the world that our books seek to reflect.
As Natasha Carthew, novelist and director of the Working Class Writers Festival, says:
“We need more compelling and believable stories with true representations of different economic backgrounds, because our stories matter. Class matters.”
And with people like her championing the cause, shoulder to shoulder with all of the other excellent inclusive, intersectional movements, programmes and initiatives in the industry that are finally recognising that our readerships are already diverse, and our literature should be too, I feel like we have a chance.
Power to the people.
With best wishes,
*UK Diversity Report, the Publishers’ Association
Stories matter. Class Matters. Natasha Carthew in BookBrunch on why she set up the Working Class Writers’ Festival, coming October 2021.
Panic! Social Class, Taste and Inequalities in the Creative Industries
The first sociological study on social mobility in the cultural industries, released by Create London and Arts Emergency on April 16th, 2018.
Common People Report
Part of the Common People project, launched in 2018 by New Writing North in partnership with the UK’s regional literature organisations to identify new unpublished working class writers and create opportunities for them, through publication in an anthology, and through professional development.
A toolkit from Jerwood Arts and the Bridge Group to support long-term change across the arts sector by sharing knowledge, providing expert support, and encouraging take-up of an intersectional approach to equality, diversity and inclusion.