Tag Archives: Blackstaff Press

Ways with Words (part two): Agents & publishers

After a whirlwind introduction into the, quite frankly, heady world of modern-day writing and publishing from Ian Sansom, the next part of our Belfast Book Festival event  – LitNetNI’s Ways with Words – saw some of the key players take to the stage. The agents and the publishers.

So, those who are more usually just a name on a website, an entry in the good old Writers & Artists Yearbook, took form and sat in front of a collection of us writers to dispense advice, answer questions and no doubt, hope not to be mobbed at the end…

We had Clare Alexander of Aitken Alexander, Lindsey Fraser of Fraser Ross Associates and representatives from Blackstaff Press, Carcanet Press and Liberties Press. In short, as pretty impressive line-up.

The question is… just what did they say?Q

Well, unsurprisingly, they were fairly straight-talking and clear on what they wanted and ultimately, that is Good Writing. Sorry, Great Writing. Not rocket science, no, but then again, when there’s so much emphasis on marketing these days and getting attention, it’s important to remember that without fantastic words, nothing’s ever going to happen.

Below are their responses to three key questions put to the panel:

1) What can writers do to attract the attention of an agent or publisher?

Carcanet Press (who have TS Eliot winner Sinead Morrissey in their stables) use their PN review journal as a sort of vetting for authors. That is, we were told, it is often used as a “test for publication”, with writers published here more likely to go on and get a book published with them.

Blackstaff Press meanwhile, are big on social media and how much reaction writers are getting to their work online – do they have a huge amount of followers (and therefore potential buyers?) – are they attracting attention? Blackstaff have already used this method to publish authors, e.g. Lessa Harker’s Maggie Muff trilogy gained a very healthy following online and subsequently brought her to the publisher’s attention.

London agent, Clare Alexander, was very forthright in saying that for her, she jumps straight into the writing when she gets hold of a submission, bypassing the synopsis (that thorn in every writer’s side!) so it doesn’t spoil what’s to come. She also advised in sending to about three agents at the same time, as waiting for a response can, of course, take months… And if you are so lucky as to find someone expressing an interest in your work, she added: “Go and see them. See how they describe the book to you. If they describe a different book, then they’re not for you.” (How disappointing if you were to find an agent who liked your work but completely misrepresented it? The only thing to do is wait it out for someone who ‘gets’ your work.) Clare also said to look out for that up-and-coming agent building their client list – someone who will be keen to recruit new writers.

Lindsey Fraser added that most of the Fraser Ross Associates authors write for children and that, yes , wait for it – a great number of their submissions are rejected. Why? Because the writer has just “made attempts at a story” but hasn’t gone into a bookstore or library to see what the competition is. “We turn down some because they’re quite similar to what we’re representing,” she said. “But we don’t get it right all the time.”IMG_1982

2) How much of a package should we be offering? For example, should writers have a blog and be on Twitter?

“Particularly with children’s writing, authors are expected to get out there to do their stuff,” Lindsey told us. “Public persona has become more important. Blogs about children’s writing… some are great. Some are not.”

Clare advised us that all writers should do what’s natural to them but that for her, she didn’t care very much about ‘the package’.

It was a mixed bad of responses to this one but, suffice it to say, whatever works for you, although each genre has its own ‘best way’ perhaps of raising awareness of its particular brand.

3) Genre: should we be fully formed in this?

Clare’s advice was that, ultimately, no – writers do not need to be fully formed in their particular genre, but they do need to clarify a genre. Writers who approach her with a crime novel or ‘a rom-com if you prefer that’, or a kid’s book, a historical fiction book (you get the picture), will get an automatic ‘no’ from her, as “they need to know what they’re offering me.”

Blackstaff agreed on writers not having to be ‘fully formed’ and even said that feedback sometimes can be given to see work improved. (Feedback may be rare but it does happen!)

I’ve focused on the main responses to these key questions and it should be pointed out that all of the panel were agreed on one thing (put into words quite succinctly by Blackstaff Press!): If you’re not reading – what are you doing??reuben reading

You have been warned! Readers make writers. Readers write and writers read.

Carcanet added that for them, they want “something that’s surprising in sound and form as opposed to the content”.

Our advice to take away was:

  • Find your own way of writing and being a success (it’s different for everyone – publication? Simply completing a story? You decide.)
  • It’s never really finished – keep going! Write on!
  • If you’re not reading, what are you doing?
  • Do your homework before submitting

And ultimately – they may not know what they want – but they’ll know it when they see it….

Next week: Self-publishing revelations!

Post Script

This week I am pleased to say I attended the Reading and Writing for Peace: A Poetic Celebration performance event in Belfast, where my peace poem was performed by an actor alongside a collection of the other project participants’ work. Details of how this went coming soon…




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Exchange Place Review

Exchange Web Unfolding in the shifting streets of Paris and  the familiar backdrop of Belfast, ‘Exchange Place’ nips neatly between the two capitals in this intricately written story.

With short, punchy chapters and precise, beautifully crafted prose, Ciaran Carson delivers a well paced and intriguing novel which weaves deftly together the tales of John Kilfeather and John Kilpatrick.

They are two of a fair few Johns who creep up in the novel, although clarity comes as to who the reader is with on any one occasion through the use of first and third person narrative. The book’s format works cleverly, each chapter hopping from Kilfeather to Kilpatrick, loosely linking both men by way of a mysterious friend who has long since disappeared. Add in a missing notebook, strange sightings and encounters and Exchange Place quickly becomes a melting pot of questions clamouring for the flavour of answers.

For me, the turning point in the book occurred, rather neatly, more or less slap bang in the novel’s middle.

At the very end of chapters 17/18 the reader, who has until now been cheerfully following the two narrative streams in parallel fashion, is delivered some interesting news on the mystery of Kilfeather and Kilpatrick’s absent friend.

From here on in, the novel subsequently hurtles on towards its rather unexpected and therefore, expertly crafted, denouement, each scene with Kilfeather and Kirkpatrick like a series of snapshots taken in quick succession by an enthusiastic photographer.

Of course, all along, Exchange Place has maintained its compelling narrative but this second half most definitely feels like the roller coaster tipping over its highest slope and racing, with a few more twists and turns, to the end of the line.

What the reader may have supposed to be the case is, well, very likely to require a re-think, as we visit Memory Palace for a deft description of just what has been going on – identities unhooked and laid bare.

Exchange Place will make you wonder, make you sit up, make you want to read on and then… it will very possibly make you want to re-visit the roller coaster.

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Glorious Gulls


A little nature writing piece on Sky Pen about gulls

[pic by Robert Eliassen]

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‘Words’ & ‘why’

Image The sun blinked on and off, misty rain came and went and this Bank Holiday weekend I managed to finish putting all my corrections and revisions of The Draft (from at least two previous read-throughs) onto the computer. The perils of working old-skool! I did essentially double my work time but I also feel that it perhaps let me perform this part of the process more thoroughly. Maybe in the future though I’ll stick with typing all the way through!

Anyway, my ‘final’ (can they ever really be final?) revisions are done and now, I have to take a step back from it all for at least a week, despite wanting to press on with things, and give myself time to clear my head enough so I can return for another read-through and see if there’s anything I missed.

I’m also to hear back from Damian Gorman this week about my first chapter and depending on what he says, there may be more suggestions to take on board. It’s great though to have talented local writers, already flourishing in the business, taking the time to give me feedback on my work.

I’m also currently reading ‘Exchange Place’ by Ciaran Carson, which I’ll be reviewing here soon for Blackstaff Press, although I may throw in a few thoughts about it along the way…

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Workshops galore!


This week, I have been keeping myself busy with not one, but two writing workshops, so I will begin with the most recent, which took place at the Roe Valley Arts & Cultural Centre in Limavady yesterday morning. The class (which focused on poetry!!) was led by Irish News columnist and BBC Radio Ulster broadcaster, Anita Robinson and included myself and members of the Jane Ross Writers Group. We subsequently enjoyed a very lively session of composition!

First up, was a group effort to produce a ‘Kenning poem’, something I’d never heard of, but which is apparently a poem composed of two-word phrases which describes something using a metaphor. We came up with:


Door slammer / Mood swinger / Tantrum thrower / Ghetto blaster / Mischief maker / Biscuit burglar / Duvet snuggler / Bear hugger / Heart warmer / Teen!

As Anita said – ‘Poetry is the music of being human’ and ‘the distillation of an idea’.

We moved onto Haiku next, something I’ve become more familiar with recently thanks to El’s writing classes. The simple three-line / 5-7-5 syllable format sounds easy, but can often be more tricky to write than you think! Anyway, the subject was Spring and my effort produced…


Shadows softly fade

Tentative twitterings sound

Nature now stretches

Moving swiftly on to the next challenge and I was greeted with the friendly Cinquain, which I became acquainted with during NaPoWriMo. This, for those who er, ‘forget’, is a five-line poem with the syllable structure 2-4-6-8-2 and our topic was May Day (something I have to confess I know little about!) However…


Dancing children

Peals of joyful laughter

Weaving in and out to music

May Day

Our penultimate exercise was to compose a three-verse piece beginning with variations of ‘I’ e.g. ‘I am…’/ ‘I wonder…’ / ‘I hear…’ etc. I came up with:


I am a writer

I wonder about the thoughts growing in people’s minds

I hear life and want to write it down

I see hope and follow it

I want to inspire

I am a writer.

I pretend that it’s just for fun

I feel though, that with words I’ve won

I touch paper, soft and smooth

I worry about not writing ‘right’

I cry only if it goes terribly wrong

I am a writer.

I understand not everything works

I say it doesn’t matter 

I dream of creating magic

I try to pin it down

I hope and hope and hope

I am a writer.

That was my effort on the hoof yesterday anyway! It could maybe be tweaked a bit but, as Anita said, it probably does tell a lot about me!

Our final exercise (after some tea and biscuits of course!) was to pick an object from a variety set out on the table and then write something about it. I chose an old, chipped metal toy figure of Red Riding Hood… (I don’t know what it is with me and figurines.. I chose a similar object when El did this exercise!)


She reaches, beckons

cloaked in red,


Forgotten, discarded

or lost?

Age etched on her chipped paint

Owner unknown.

So, all in all, it was a busy enough morning but great to meet the Jane Ross writers and Anita – who takes ‘a poem with her pills’ before bed every night! A recommendation for everyone indeed, although maybe not necessarily with pills!


On to El’s class then from Tuesday night! As you can see, I was joined by a little stowaway, but he lay peacefully at my feet throughout the entire session and was good as gold! (Except when it came to looking at the camera!)

We were joined this week with a few new and much welcomed members and kicked off as we did last week, writing in a stream of consciousness for 13 minutes. It’s something I’m beginning to like I think!

Next, it was onto some ‘Mind Mapping’. El dispensed various titles and we had to decide if we thought they would work best as a novel, poem, short story etc and how that would look. There were quite a few interesting ideas for ‘The Following’ – including a cult, a familial tree and an X-Factor-type show for voting who gets to live – Jesus or Barabas! I of course, read out my ‘Chicken and Eggs’ rhyme which er… I ‘forget’!

Characterisation was next and answering a series of questions about two different people linked to an old tennis racquet. Again, lots of different scenarios here! From there, it was onto ‘Voice and the consistency of voice‘ and for this, we wrote a journal entry from the perspective of a 59 year-old man who had just been told his wife had drowned. It was a really good way to create something in a completely different voice to your own and great practice for getting ‘in character’!

I can see this post is getting ever longer so I’ll leave it at that for now!

Well, almost… I had a lovely piece of news yesterday afternoon when I found out that I’d come second in the Blackstaff Press Skypen short story competition! I’m very chuffed indeed and my story will now appear on the Blackstaff Press blog AND I got to pick a free book from their online store. Brilliant!

For those who are interested, you can read it here on Sky Pen 🙂


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