This is the second half of a two-part post covering Derby Writers' Day. The morning's panels are here. As usual, these are my written-up notes; they're not a verbatim record!
1pm: Historical Fiction panel. Panel sponsored by Writing East Midlands. Elizabeth Chadwick, Claire Harvey, James Wilde/Mark Chadbourn (chair)
Question: how did you started?
EC: I was writing from childhood, though not published until my thirties.
CH: 15 years from first starting to be published. As I am newly published, I still feel an imposter.
MC: For me, short story success led to an approach.
EC: I have been with Carole Blake of Blake Friedmann for 25 years. She is especially good for foreign rights.
CH: I’ve had an agent for less than a year.
MC: I’m on my fourth agent, plus an agent for screenwriting.
Question: what makes a good agent?
EC: contacts. Tact. Stickability. Someone who listens and advises.
CH: I sent work out to about seven; my agent is the only one who picked me up, but I am very happy.
MC: much depends on the individual agent’s taste.
EC: I have a good base line of knowledge after 25 years writing. I now work on a need to know basis. I use primary and secondary resources. Plus I am a medieval re-enactor. Research must be used organically in the novel though.
CH: I do it as I go along. As I work in the 20th century, that means there’s an awful lot of audio visual material available, plus I can conduct interviews.
EC: there were doldrums for historical fiction in the mid-1990s. I took a cut in advances to keep published. But there was a renaissance in the genre after the publication of The Other Boleyn Girl. The genre is healthy at present.
MC: Roman fiction is still strong. Also, historical fiction lends itself well to other genres. We have not yet hit peak Roman.
Question: plot or pants?
CH: you have to write the book that you’ve got. You can’t predict the market.
EC: in my biographical historical fiction, you have a map to follow. I write a 16 page synopsis for my agent, and the blurb.
CH: I write a synopsis and a route plan but it’s all subject to change.
Question: what advice would you give your younger self?
EC: Edit! Making the best it can be before it goes out into the world.
MC: I wish I’d learned more about the business side of publishing sooner. Agents, income, genre considerations.
Question: can a writer make a living?
EC: Yes, and a good living too, in time. You’re in it for the long haul. Advances vary, but they are decent for me at present. Some publishers give very small advances though, and poor sales records can haunt you for years.
MC: The trick is staying published. There is a high attrition rate. You have to publicise yourself these days.
EC: You have to offer more than the book. Facebook etc.
MC: You have to treat social media as part of your business. You are the product as much as your books. There is an element of personal branding.
Audience Q and A:
Has steampunk impacted on Victorian? Not sure, it’s just an aspect of Victorian.
Vocabulary? CH: my tip is to read it aloud. EC: use clear straightforward English. The language should be a clear window to the story. MC: As long as it feels right, then the language will be all right.
Are there any publishers to avoid? MC: stick with the big five or six; that you can’t go too far wrong. But be cautious always. Always check out their economic model. EC: you can also check with the Society of Authors who will check a contract for you, as well and good agent. MC: small publishers struggle sometimes to get your books in shops, therefore they might make money but you might not. The basic advance these days is 10 to 15,000. For a big author, perhaps 50,000. Small publishers will offer in the low thousands or perhaps even only a few 100 pounds.
When to stop? After about six drafts. Give yourself time and space between the drafts. Always try to read it aloud. Some use editorial services and get feedback. Don’t rework part drafts; do the whole thing.
2 pm. Literary Fiction panel. Alison McQueen, Alison Moore, Nicola Monaghan (chair).
First, the panel discussed definitional issues. Literary fiction is that which might engage with weighted topics, privilege meaning over entertainment, feature an emotional journey, be judged primarily on the quality of its writing, or just a clever marketing device.
AM: Yes, real-world and online bookshops both love categories.
AMc: I dislike the term. It’s also sexist.
NV: As well as focusing on the middle-class and the white.
AMc: Some so-called literary fiction can be verbose, dense, and portentous in its writing.
NV: Marketing loves categories.
AMc: Yes, there can be an element of snobbery.
NV: Genre fiction can address social topics and be as well written as any literary fiction.
AMc: Does your voice stay the same when writing literary/genre?
AM: Yes, though horror-specific writing will naturally lean towards a darker tone.
AMc: My five Housewife books had some of the darkness toned down by the publisher. You don’t want the reader running for a dictionary. Having a copywriting background helps. I try to be as clear as possible. The industry loves pigeon holes. After the five Housewife books, I was done, and broke my contract.
MV: Voice develops all the time. As does process.
AM: Process stays the same for me, the context changes.
AMc: Writing process is endlessly fascinating; the things that other writers do. I’m always looking for tips.
Some people prefer chaos, whereas other. Others preferred detailed Excel spreadsheets!
Question: how did you get your break?
AM: Through short stories; that's how I met my agent and editor Nicholas Royle.
AMc: Competitions can be really useful. My original contract didn’t mention ebooks, so I didn’t get paid when Macmillan published ebooks of my first Housewife novels. Rejection is part and parcel of the industry. You have to get on board with the knockbacks. Many authors are increasingly dissatisfied with the publishers. Self-publishing is a real option these days.
NV: Yes, I’m sensing optimism from self-publishing circles.
AM: There are some good independents out there also.
NV: But distribution can be an issue for independents. Also self-publishers may not face rejection and so not learn from it.
Question: what’s your voice?
AM: I’ve never been taught. I’m guided by my characters, plus the time and mood of the piece. Many writers have recurring themes.
AMc: I’ve had no training either. Voice is ½ invisible watermark; it's always there somewhere. Voice is recognisable in good writers. Be honest and authentic and it will come through. Strip away the bullshit.
Question: what about endings? Is literary fiction less plot-driven?
AM: Yes, but if it’s good, there will be all the ingredients there.
NV: Genre doesn’t have to be closed. The good novels carry on inside the readers.
AM: Screenplays need more plot. I’ve supplied additional notes to clarify the ending of the book for the screenplay version of my novel The Lighthouse.
3 pm Keynote panel: Are writers thriving or surviving? Emma Bamford, Elizabeth Chadwick, Alex Davis (chair), Stan Nicholls.
Q: What changes over time have you seen?
EC: The internet, the rise of small press and self-publishing. Also there are more people writing, and being enabled by writing.
SN: Nowadays you get one shot. Talent isn’t nurtured. Also, “bestseller” status has changed; it’s almost a meaningless term nowadays. You have to be versatile and adaptable. There’s a resurgence in short fiction, but there are fewer paying markets.
Q: What qualities do you need to be a writer?
EB: Perseverance, an element of luck. Also, you can’t afford to be precious. Everyone gets edited. Everyone gets rejected. You need marketing skills and a thick skin. You need to be able to operate in both the online and the “real” world.
SN: Publisher support isn’t there to the same extent that it was. Most books don’t turn a profit; it’s a bit of a lottery at times. Also, there are so many books out there. The publisher’s role as gatekeeper is still relevant, but it’s not the whole story.
EB: I agree. You have to give more than just the book these days – such as extras online and via social media. Structured interactivity, especially via Facebook, is important – you can build a community of readers via networking. However, you can’t do this cynically, and you must beware that you don’t oversell your books.
Q: are livelihoods being squeezed?
EB: I recall a 2002 survey that said that average writer earnings were around £10K. A much more recent survey estimated that figure to now be £8K. In other words, you need a day job.
SN: The industry’s always looking for new blood, though, and large advances are out there for newish writers. In many ways publishing is a 19th century industry trying to take on board the 20th century while being in the 21st!
Independent presses are doing as good a job as the majors, but they can struggle to get distribution. I’d like my work to get to a readership, even if it’s not a huge one.
It’s best not to get into writing for the money.
EC: At the end of the day you have to reach your readers, so give yourself the best edge that you can.
What issues should we be wary of as writers?
EB: Always check out publishers that aren’t household names. Check contract terms and conditions carefully.
EC: Both the Society of Authors and any decent literary agent, if you have one, will be able to give contractual guidance. There are also good sites like Predators and Editors.
SN: I’ve seen some shocking contracts being offered to writers. Be wary. There are vanity presses and sharks out there, and they prey on the gullible and the desperate. There are no short cuts.
AD: Also, self-publishing is increasingly an option.
Question: Self-publishing – Yes or No?
EC: I like the idea of mixing and matching. Some of my backlist novels would be ripe for self-publishing, though I probably wouldn’t consider it for new work unless I had no other option.
EB: I like the idea of the control of self-publishing. But one would have to be really brave to walk away from a traditional publishing deal. That said, self-publishing can work really well for genre fiction.
SN: So many self-published books sell under a hundred copies though. I might consider self-publishing passion projects. There is still a stigma to self-publishing in some quarters.
AD: “Hybrid” authors who self-publish and are traditionally published simultaneously are growing in numbers all the time.
Q: What tips have you got for promoting yourself online?
EB: Be authentic
SN: Give bonuses – free shorts and extra chapters, for example. Also, involve people in some way. Devise interesting competitions.
Q: How best to grab readers while they’re young?
SN: Write something good! The challenge in the digital world is copyright protection. A whole generation is used to the idea of free content.
EB: Be cinematic. Jump cuts and short chapters.
EC: Short paragraphs. Be punchy.
Q: What good news is out there for writers?
EB: Writing is rewarding in and of itself. Do it for that reason. Not for fame or riches.
SN: When you get random contact from strangers saying that your writing’s had a positive effect on them or their life in some way. You can’t beat that. Also, you keep learning, so don’t be put off.
And with that, the session and the day ended. Thanks again to the event organisers and sponsors!
My historical thriller The Prospect of This City is out now in paperback from this very website and in Kindle ebook and paperback via Amazon.