Tag Archives: Ian Sansom

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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Ways with Words… Part one

“I think the opportunities for the writer have never been better. All sorts of boundaries have been broken…”

So said former publisher and widely published author/academic, Alison Baverstock at the weekend, when I had the opportunity to attend LitNet NI’s Ways with Words Literature Development Day at the Crescent Arts Centre as part of the Belfast Book Festival 2014. It was a day packed full of tips and advice from those often heard of, seldom seen (unless you’re one of the lucky authors to have secured an agent and publisher!), with professionals flying in from Edinburgh, Manchester, London, Dublin and of course, coming in from Belfast city itself to engage with us local writers.

We enjoyed Q&As with said agents and authors and heard from two successfully self-published authors in the afternoon, but first, it was left to the inimitable Ian Sansom to stir up some lively enthusiasm for the day with his introductory message – entitled: Crusoe’s Reckoning.Flying letters

We had anecdotes! We had tangential side stories! We had facts! History! Research! Opinion!

We had A LOT of stimulating titbits about writing and the heady dynamics it can entail today – via the internet and all that Social Media – but it certainly fired up anyone who wasn’t already on the edge of their seats. If anyone has ever heard Mr Sansom speak, they will know that his passionate addresses flow fast so, in point form, I present a mere few of those literary titbits…

The Digital Revolution is happening and it’s happening via:

  • Text
  • Real-time communication
  • Broadcast and moving pictures
  • Debate and discussion
  • Reference
  • Games

Nothing new there, I hear you say – we know about these things. Yes, but – how do they affect you as a writer and how do you – indeed, do you – harness them effectively to support/publicise your craft?

“We’re in a phase at the moment that we might call the Digital Incunabula – no-one’s seen anything like this before,” explained Sansom. “We haven’t quite worked out what all these things are meant to be… using this digital technology as writers.”

Indeed, even books – bound, printed, basic books – were once an enigma to be mastered. Writing techniques, publishing techniques and publicising techniques have subsequently fragmented with the internet and we’re still muddling our way through the amazon. So to speak.crusoe

“We write/edit/design/publish/print. We’ve gone from needing an agent and publisher to now needing beta readers, brand managers, copy editors, designers and printers…

“How do writers reckon with themselves? We need to reckon with our time… (herego, Crusoe’s Reckoning) It’s to do with how you match your time with what you have available.”

Yes, when Robinson Crusoe was stranded on his island, he realised he needed to seize control of his situation – he had to reckon with himself with regards to how he would take ownership of his time and consciously apply himself in his new environment.

What I think Sansom was asking us writers was – are we doing the same?

It was a good start to the day – a day which had many more insights to come and which, for those who weren’t there, will have to wait for another post…

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JHISS Days 2 & 3!

John Hewitt masthead

Day Two

As a Coleraine Borough Council bursary holder at this year’s JHISS, I was pleased to see many from the borough in attendance throughout the week, although not too surprised, given that the personal library and literary archive of the poet can be found within the John Hewitt Collection at Coleraine’s University of Ulster. Someone who previously spent a lot of time studying this wealth of material was Dr Kelly Matthews, whose Tuesday talk was entitled ‘John Hewitt and The Bell Magazine‘. From her research, Dr Matthews has also compiled an extensive and interactive online index of all the work featured in The Bell during it’s print run (1940-1954), which can be accessed through the link above.

The Bell was, said Dr Matthews, “the most influential literary magazine of the ’40s and ’50s in Ireland. It gave voice to everyday people and to established writers north and south of the border.” It aimed to ‘represent life’ and was a constant attempt at cultural transition and the building of a ‘more liberal vision of Irish identity’. 

John Hewitt’s first published poem in the magazine was ‘The Leaf’ in January 1941 and for it, he was criticized by Frank O’Connor for submitting what was thought at the time to be a much too English piece of work for an Irish writer… Hewitt however, successfully made the transition from literary outsider to respected literary insider throughout his subsequent career and came, said Dr Matthews, “to be one of the most respected writers in the magazine.” Amongst his work were 25 poems published in 14 separate issues of The Bell, along with book reviews, communications and essays. 

There were, Dr Matthews told us, four major points to consider when looking at how The Bell influenced Hewitt’s development as a poet:

  1. Hewitt’s role in The Bell’s continued consideration of urban versus pastoral themes.
  2. His status as an exemplary of northern writing and as a commentator on it.
  3. Fitting his contribution to other magazines.
  4. (Hmm… missed the last point!)

As an avid nature poet, Hewitt’s work in this regard was championed by poetry editor of The Bell, Geoffrey Taylor, in December 1941. He compared Hewitt to the English poet George Crabbe and also to the greats, such as William Wordsworth and John Clare. In the poem ‘Paedar O’Donnell’, it was said there was a much greater sense here than in ‘The Leaf’ of the countryside being Irish – the rhythm was clear and the poem ‘that of the Irish people’.

With Hewitt also publishing short stories in The Bell, most of these, said Dr Matthews, focused on rural life and the poet also used the magazine to look at literary patterns. In July 1941, the first Ulster Number of The Bell was published. Hewitt’s role in establishing other literary journals saw him work as assistant editor of the Lagan, as well as helping edit Rann Magazine – an Ulster quarterly poetry publication (1948-53). Hewitt was also involved with the Belfast Journal and was poetry editor of Threshold, which first published the work of Paul Muldoon and with which Hewitt remained until 1962.

When it came to publishing his work, Hewitt was modest, we were told, and it was probably only through the efforts of those like Geoffrey Taylor, who encouraged him to publish, that saw his work see the light of day and not remain hidden in a drawer. The early criticism was also given to him only because it was thought he could ‘handle it’, and his work was shaped as a result…

“I think Hewitt benefited throughout (his career) from critical conversations with other poets writing at the same time,” said Dr Matthews.

Hewitt’s final poem to appear in The Bell was a marked departure from that which had first appeared and was, said Dr Matthews, “much more Irish, albeit Northern Irish, than The Leaf…”

‘Here in the hill-rimmed house

where the Angelus-bell is heard

where the winds from south or west

as clear as the nearest bird…’

All in all, a very concise and interesting talk from the researcher, which shed light for me at least, on Hewitt’s early work and the progression of his writing career and tied in neatly with the theme of the week – ‘Living Among Strangers: the lost meaning of home.

To summarise the remainder of day two concisely will be hard but… we followed next with a double poetry reading from Sandy Palmer and Penelope Shuttle, both of whom were thoroughly enjoyed by the packed audience, although the majority seemed to perhaps connect a little more with Penelope’s poignant poems. These included ‘The Weather House’, Waterfall Tasting’, ‘Redgrove’s Wife’ and Missing You’, whilst Sandy read poems including ‘The Octagonal Tower’, ‘Vivian with Household Gods’ and ‘Against Chaos’.

A lunchtime reading with award-winning author Gavin Corbett followed, who was enjoyed so much that a second reading was called for! He told us that the process behind his writing involved getting completely into character and that “that’s the secret of writing anything.”

“Just a strong voice all the way through. Get that right first. Get a voice that feels really comfortable to write in.”

ImageThe afternoon saw a discussion on the challenges facing the Somali community in NI’s education sector, delivered by Suleiman Abdulahi, co-founder of Horn of Africa People’s Aid NI (HAPANI), followed by two plays in the evening – ‘The Duck Variations’ from The Lurig Drama Group, Cushendall and ‘The Play of the Book’, by Ian Sansom. In a bid to keep this post as short as possible… I will just mention that my personal favourite of the evening was The Play of the Book from the Wireless Mystery Theatre, (picture taken above before it began!) which was a hilarious account of how a book is put together and equally rated by a fellow JHISS bursary holder here.

Day Three

So… onto day three and you see my predicament in trying to be concise! There was so much happening and so many great speakers and Wednesday also saw the day begin with another Coleraine connection – Professor Jan Jedrzejewski from Coleraine’s University of Ulster. This talk was entitled ‘Ulster through Polish Eyes: Reconsidering the Stereotypes’ and showed the similarities and parallels between Ireland and Poland throughout history and how the literary work from both countries were linked and inspired one by the other.

“Irish history closely resembles that of Poland,” we were told and indeed, shown, with the poem ‘Siberia’ by the Dublin Romantic poet, James Clarence Mangan (1846), which was not about the Irish Famine as once thought, but about what it literally said it was about – Eastern Europe and specifically, Poland. Mangan wrote the poem about the Polish exiles who were deported around that time, said the Professor.

“It’s very clearly about the experience of exiles in the world of the Russian Empire,” he said. “The tyrannical government of the Romanov family… But it’s interesting because it’s from an Irish poet…” 

Similarly, the Polish poet, Maria Konopnicka followed later with her poem ‘The Kiss of Robert Emmet’ (1908), which showed parallels with Mangan’s earlier work. “The Polish poet is writing about an Irish revolutionary, while the Irish poet is writing about Poland,” said the Professor.

Other poems used to illustrate the talk included ‘The Rose Tree’ by WB Yeats (1920), about the Easter Rising and similarly, ‘The Red Poppies on Monte Cassino’ (1944) by Feliks Konarski, which may not have been directly influenced by Yeats but was nevertheless showed a historical connection – ‘the association between the two poems immediate.’

More examples were used by the Professor, who said that really, when considering the parallels between Ireland and Britain, we should think about the relationships between Poland and Russia/Lithuania/Ukraine.

“Ireland had to struggle against the more dominant culture of the English language but the Lithuanians had it easier because Polish just wasn’t that dominant,” he said. “But nonetheless, there are parallels and similarities here.”

Again, we followed the morning’s talk with a double poetry reading – this time, with James Byrne and Orfhlaith Foyle – both of whom I think sold out of their books afterwards! They both brought very different styles to the readings, but I think I might just be right in saying that this time, Orfhlaith won the crowd, with her beautiful poems and quiet but increasingly confidant reading manner. I know that the first poem she read to us, ‘Damn Them’, was a favourite with many!

Our lunchtime reading came courtesy of Pat McCabe, who regaled us all with a wonderfully dramatic reading from a short story about a chimney fire…

And then came the portrait painting demo from artist Neil Shawcross, who treated us to a live viewing of him painting one of the John Hewitt Society’s patrons and answered questions throughout.Image

Some words of wisdom from the man himself…“You won’t get anywhere if you don’t do it. And don’t expect success too early – just keep doing it!”

Day three ended with a showcase of the work of nine young American students, who had spent the past month in Armagh as part of the ieiMedia Armagh project. They subsequently performed the plays, poems and other pieces of work they had compiled during that time, which was again, very well received by all.

The night then officially ended with some tunes from The Voice Squad – a new discovery for me, but good fun nonetheless!

Those were the second and third days of my JHISS experience… just a glimpse!


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