Thursday, 19 April 2007

How To Get Published - According to the London Book Fair Masterclass

The Masterclass “How To get Published”, held as part of this year’s London Book Fair, was a bit of an eye opener. Much of what was discussed I already knew, which boosted my confidence, but there were one or two pieces of information that I felt contradicted general received wisdom.

The class was attended in the hundreds, and the four speakers formed a panel on the stage, each giving a talk and taking questions from the floor.

First up was literary agent Simon Trewin. A lot of what he had to say was standard stuff – treat your approach like a job interview, list your previous successes, demonstrate that you really want to write (he even advised listing any writers courses you have been on), really sell yourself, present your work on one side of A4 with double line spacing and number the pages. It was refreshing to hear him say he would consider anyone from any background provided their writing is exceptional.

Something that had been bothering me for a good while was having to submit my work to agents and publishers one at a time because it’s considered bad form to pitch to a few in one go (in case they ring up saying they want to publish and you say you’ve already got a deal thanks). I learned from Simon that you can pitch to four or five agents at once, provided you tell them that that’s what you have done. It was such a relief to hear it, because the commonly accepted method would mean having to wait weeks and months just to hear from one organisation, and it would take a great many years to approach them all.

Another encouraging piece of advice (for me, anyway) was to send off your already published book to the agent and explain what your game plan is for sequels or your next book. Needless to say, Anne Droyd and Century Lodge will be going in the post to him and a handful of others this week!

My good friend and fellow author, Darryl Sloan, might be surprised to know that Mr Trewin cast publish-on-demand companies in a highly favourable light and specifically named as a good example. He also welcomed the idea of self-published authors who have had modest success backed up by sales and reviews sending in their POD book. He said they are easier to read on the tube than a lot of loose paper (i.e. manuscript). So, Darryl, my advice to you is stick a copy of Chion in the post as soon as you can.

Another thing I learned was that “no unsolicited manuscripts” does not mean you shouldn’t bother trying at all. It simply means don’t send in your submission. However, you may write the agent/publisher a one page letter describing your novel and ask if they would like to see it.

Following Simon Trewin was a representative from publisher Little, Brown, a lady called Antonia Hodgson. The most memorable thing she said (from my perspective) was that publishers tend not to look at unsolicited manuscripts. They use the agencies as a filtering system and consider what the agents pitch to them. And not everything pitched is taken on. So, for me, the focus really should be agents rather than publishers.

Tim Lott, author of The Scent of Dried Roses and The Seymour Tapes, was quite a dour fellow, but amusingly so. He said he didn’t enjoy writing at all (picking up on what Simon had said earlier – “Do it because you enjoy it”). He said having to sit down for four, five, six hours a day and try to write thousands of words is not enjoyable – it is work.

I was also surprised to find that even a successful author with a few well received books under his belt and a reputable literary agent plugging his work could still have a proposal rejected. The Strange and Somewhat Sad Story of Sadie Strongheart, a novel developed from a story he told his god daughter was turned down by several publishers before Walker Books took it on and published it as Fearless.

He was refreshingly honest and said that when his first novel was repeatedly turned down he did consider giving up and focusing on a different avenue of his life. I took some comfort from this, as I too have often seriously considered giving up. Trouble is, it only takes me to have a great idea while soaking in the bath, and then I’m saying, “I really must write that down. It would make a great book!” So, I guess I’m a real writer – I cannot stop.

Mr Lott made an interesting distinction between genre writers and original storytellers. He said if you want to make a lot of money become a genre author and just mimic whatever is popular at the moment.

He told a funny story about a well known genre writer who admitted that all he does is buy the Top Ten books on the current New York Times bestseller list, read them all, and then take the best bits an amalgamate them into a plot of his own. It’s downright plagiarism, but he gets away with it. He’s writing pap for the masses and earning a fortune from it.

But if you want to tell a story that means something special, if you want to make a point about something you see in the world, or make your reader think in a profound way, you may not make a lot of money at all. Most novelists who are committed to telling original stories never give up the day job.

The final speaker was bestselling writer Joanne Harris, known largely for authoring Chocolat. As with Tim Lott, that book was not her first venture into publishing. She had done a couple of other projects; she had a mainstream publisher and an agent to help place her work. And yet Chocolat was rejected by several companies on the grounds that British readers won’t want a book set in France. Of course, eventually it was published, and was then optioned as a movie. The movie actually got made and various aspects of the film were nominated for the prestigious Oscar award. The work is now world famous, much loved, and Joanne Harris is a household name.

She said she felt obliged to challenge Tim’s view, that writing is not enjoyable, that it is just hard work. Harris said that to her it is very enjoyable indeed. She loves it.

A point that came over quite forcefully from all four speakers is that the publishing world cannot predict trends (although they do often capitalise on existing trends). They advised prospective authors to just work hard on their books. An agent/publisher will often make their decision based on the strength of the opening paragraph. Simon Trewin said that if he reads beyond the first paragraph, he carries on until either there comes a point that he’s lost interest, or he gets so lost in the story he forgets where he is. Naturally, if your submission induces the latter frame of mind, you might well receive that much anticipated phone call.

I came out of the class with a clear plan. I will try to cultivate interest with literary agents by sending off Anne Droyd and Century Lodge, and in the interim continue with my plan to self-publish Anne Droyd and the House of Shadows if no one takes me up. There are too many people out there asking when the next one’s coming out for me to stop. And Anne is not the only card up my sleeve. There are other projects that simply must be put in the hands of the reading public.

So it’s onward and upward.

Wednesday, 4 April 2007

Will Aspie: "Is It Me?" (A trip to the recording studio)

Those of you who have read The Feeling’s Unmutual will know that I tried my hand at song writing during the mid-1990s. Inspired by the music and lyrics of Hue & Cry, the Moody Blues and Gary Numan, I began writing personalised verses and set them to simple but catchy synthesiser chords. Heavily into early-to-mid Gary Numan at the time, I reasoned that with a keyboard, an acoustic guitar, live drums and a girl backing vocalist, I would be able to knock out something half decent.

Unfortunately, all I had access to at that time was my own abilities as a writer, my voice, and a cheap synthesiser which I could barely play. Between 1992 and 1996 I wrote about twenty songs. My method of recording was to learn the chord patterns on the keyboard and play them with a selected sound (say piano or synth-strings) onto a cassette, play the cassette through a karaoke machine, and sing the vocal over it into a tape recorder placed by the loud speaker. The result was a very rough recording of the bare bones of a song.

While most said my lyrics were rather obvious and juvenile (and I concede that some were), there were people who actually appreciated what I was doing. The latter were usually musicians themselves.

For example, I attended a radio course, and the tutors, who loved mucking about with sound and played in a band, were very enthused by my attempts.

A few musical types on my wife’s side of the family were also motivated by them. A nephew asked if he could make the songs available to friends who would respect what I was trying to do, while another told me, “You can’t read or write music, you can’t play a keyboard properly, and you have no gear to do a decent recording. But you did it anyway. And that’s what we love about it.”

Personally, though, I was disillusioned. It aggravated me that I couldn’t even achieve what I knew were only the basic ingredients, namely keyboards, a bit of guitar, drums, a backing vocal, and a decent mix. And so, when, in October 1997, I wrote Is It Me?, I decided I wouldn’t record it until I had the means to do a good job.

Ten years elapsed before I saw a flyer on the notice board in the office where I work advertising the Quax Studios in Huddersfield, north of England. Consisting of Stuart Comins on guitars, Gary Collins on keyboards and associated electronic tricks, and Phil Brown on drums, Quax toured the local pubs playing a live set, and offered their talents for a fee in the recording studio. Bands were invited to go along and record their demo, folk singers could make a CD to distribute at their gigs, and singer-songwriters could go in with little more than a lyric and a melody, and the band would create it from scratch, layer by layer.

I sent Stuart a very rough copy of Is It Me? to give him some idea of what I wanted to do, and told him I imagined synthesisers, an acoustic guitar, live drums and a girl backing vocal. He said it could be done for £120.00 (a day’s session with musicians supplied – a day with your own band being mixed by Stuart is £80.00), but I would have to provide the girl backing vocalist. And I knew immediately who it should be.

Kelly Fry worked for a few months on my team in the office, and I discovered that she used to be the lead singer in a local band. Then one day I heard her singing to herself as she passed me on her way to the photocopier – and I knew instinctively that she would be the person I would approach, should I ever be able to record my songs properly.

She jumped at the chance, she having missed singing generally, and being more than a little curious about the recording process. I gave her the very rough demo on CD and indicated which bits needed the backing. We actually worked out the details over the phone.

Saturday the 24th of March 2007 was the big day. I arrived at the studio in Huddersfield at 9 am to find Phil Brown setting up his drum kit. He had been listening to Gary Numan’s 1980 Top Ten hit We Are Glass to get an idea of what I might want. Stuart Comins arrived at 9.30, followed by Gary Collins, his keyboards and box of tricks, at 10. Again, Gary Numan was the template for the style, but after a little experimentation it became clear that what suited the song was more New Order than Gary Numan.

I stuck to my remit of electronics and acoustic sounds blended together. Sadly we didn’t have time to put on some acoustic guitar. However, the rest of the piece was in place by midday. Phil had created a very catchy beat on the drums, and Gary had found the chords of the song, supplied a funky synth-strings sound (a combination of sounds he had programmed the night before) and even created an extra little melody to make the melody a bit more varied.

Then Kelly Fry arrived. The afternoon was spent going over and over the vocals until we got them as good as possible. Stuart was concerned that I was concentrating too much on the words and not enough on the tune. Phil agreed, observing that I was virtually talking the vocal. Favourable comparisons were made with Leonard Cohen.

As recording was finalised, Gary said it didn’t sound like anything else around. It was a bizarre mishmash of electronic music, folk lyrics, and Leonard Cohen vocals. He also felt it was unusual to have a pop/rock song in the key of C. For better or worse, I was pleased that the band thought it odd, because that meant it was uniquely mine.

When I got home I suffered a bit of self-confidence failure, believing that my contribution as singer ruined the excellent job everyone else had done. The following morning, though (after a good night’s sleep, the session was great fun but very hard work), I decided it wasn’t half bad, and by the third day I was prone to playing the record nice and loud whenever I was left alone.

A friend of mine emailed to say he had played his copy several times over, and my step-daughter liked it straight off.

For anyone interested in music and song writing, and who lives within reasonable distance of Huddersfield (and especially if you’re in a band – it will be significantly cheaper if you share the fee among yourselves), I would recommend that you spend a day with Quax.

I went in at 9 am with little more than a melody and some lyrics, and came out at 6 pm with a record. I consider it £120.00 well spent. I’ve just got to find a way of doing the rest of the album now!

Is It Me?

Written and sung by Will Aspie
Keyboards by Gary Collins
Drums by Phil Brown
Backing Vocals by Kelly Fry

Hand claps by Will Aspie, Phil Brown and Shirley Ridings

Produced by Stuart Comins

Recorded at Quax Studios, Huddersfield. 24 March 2007.

You can download the track from the Quax web site here: