#LBF17: Fortunately… Unfortunately…

I don’t often post twice in a day, but am afraid by next week all this will feel sadly out of date. Do you know the children’s storytelling game of ‘Fortunately Unfortunately’ (or at least that’s the name we used in our house)? The first person starts off with a story and after a few sentences ends on a cliffhanger ‘but unfortunately then…’. The next person picks up the baton and carries on for a few more sentences, ending with ‘but fortunately then…’. And so on. One positive for every negative development in the storyline. That’s very much how it felt to me yesterday at the London Book Fair.

Fortunately, I was wearing sensible walking shoes, so I could face the acres of books, stands, events with standing room only, frantic searches for toilets and venues. I’d been advised by the brilliantly-organised Twitter friend Estelle to bring a back-pack and a tote, as well as my own snacks and drinks, so I was able to carry the heavy burden of cultural enlightenment. Unfortunately, I kept losing my map and so missed out on dozens of publishers I was interested in meeting.

What I came away with…

Unfortunately, being a Book Fair novice, I did not make any formal appointments or arrangements beforehand to meet people, especially since I felt I did not want to waste anyone’s time. Fortunately, I got to informally see and hug people I knew from beforehand: Karen Sullivan from Orenda Books¬†and Susan from the wonderful website and blog The Book Trail , literary agent Jo Unwin, author and translator Michelle Bailat Jones¬†, Polish language translator Antonia Lloyd Jones.

Fortunately, as I found out at the conference on Translated Children’s Books, there are some great initiatives in place to¬†make it easier for publishers to take the risk on translated fiction, of which Booktrust’s In Other Words, Reading the Way ¬†and Riveting Reads recommendations for school libraries,¬†and the Hay Festival/Aarhus joint initiative of selecting 39 best European children and YA authors¬†under the age of 40. Unfortunately, when I briefly spoke to writer, translator and cultural agitator¬†Daniel Hahn, who has been involved in most of these initiatives, I realised that it was too late to champion the cause for Romanian literature, as the selections have already been made. Let’s hope that this is not just a one-off project, and there will be updates and potential to develop it further in the future. Although I would agree with Hahn that it would be nice to think that such initiatives will no longer be required in the future, because translation will have become mainstream.

Translated Children’s Literature Panel (from l.): Nicky Harman from Society of Authors, Laura Davies from OutsideIn World,Emma Lidbury from Walker Books, Daniel Hahn.

Fortunately, I got a lot of information and reading suggestions for Malta, Latvia and Lithuania, which were missing on my #EU27Project list. I also found out about possible funding for translation projects from Romanian into English. Unfortunately, I managed to gather so many materials (see above), that the handle on my sturdy tote bag broke.

Unfortunately, the Careers Fair for jobs in publishing was extremely crowded and I felt like I was the donkey among sheep (good old Romanian saying, meaning I was the ‘biggest’, i.e. oldest, one there). Fortunately, the recruitment agencies did not seem to think I was a complete waste of space if I fancied a career change (possibly in academic publishing rather than mainstream fiction).

Fortunately, my day did not end there. I met a friend at the Wellcome Collection and then attended a poetry reading at the Bookmarks bookshop in Bloomsbury. The poets reading from their new collections were American poet Michael Waters , Roy Marshall (whom I knew from his wonderful blog) and Mihaela Moscaliuc, whose debut collection Father Dirt I had absolutely loved. Three very different kinds of poets, with a bouquet of poems at once sad and touching, funny and wry, thoughtful and provocative. I got all three books and look forward to reading them at leisure.

Unfortunately, the poetic evening had to come to an end with a mad dash for the train, crying children all the way home and some forgotten school uniforms to sort out for my sons. Fortunately, I have the memories…

Feeling Grateful for Bookish People…

It’s events like these, Geneva Writers’ Group Meet the Agent and Publisher weekend¬†, and people like these

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From left to right: Jo Unwin, Joelle Delbourgo, Kathy Bijleveld, Karen Sullivan, Eric Ruben, Christine Breede-Schechter and Susan Tiberghien.

who make me happy to be alive and talking about books. I have tweeted some of the pearls of wisdom these guests have shared with us under #GWGlit, but my favourite insight – manifesto, almost – comes from Joelle Delbourgo: ‘We are not just sellers of books, we are purveyors of culture.’ Thoughtful words and diversity of points of view are more important than ever nowadays, so a huge thanks to these wonderful people who keep the passion and the flame alive.

And. of course, the backdrop couldn’t have been lovelier. The place I called home for 7 of the past ten years does not disappoint.

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But there were some important lessons I learnt too as an organiser and writer:

  1. You have to be present yourself professionally as a writer, not just as a creative individual. That means respecting the publisher or agent’s time, following guidelines, meeting deadlines and keeping your appointments. It also means not changing your mind several times about what you are submitting and then expecting them to read the latest version overnight. It might mean not signing up for one-to-one feedback sessions in the first place if you think there is a chance you might not be able to attend, since there is a long waiting-list of participants who have been turned down because you took that place. I know life gets in the way at times, but would I dare to behave like that with my corporate clients? No. So why should I behave like that with literary people, just because I assume they are nicer and more forgiving on the whole?
  2. It isn’t easy to write a great first page, but it is far easier to write a great first page than to write a whole novel. And it really helps if you do have the whole novel to send to the agent when they get excited about your first page, otherwise the magic might be gone by the time you finally finish your manuscript… (this one reeks of bitter experience)
  3. We all secretly hope they will love our writing, recognise us for the geniuses which our families don’t think (or do think) we are, but in most cases there is still work to be done. Even if you get accepted by an agent or publisher, there is still work to be done. Don’t get so defensive that you refuse to listen to any advice or feedback that these busy, busy people are giving you with the best of intentions. Writing is a life-time job of learning and self-improvement. You have to be humble and willing to learn, even as we all admit that no single person has all the answers or God-given right to judge. We are unlikely to please all people all of the time, but when more than one person tells us we are over-writing or trying too hard to be literary, maybe we should listen.
  4. There is no point in complaining, sighing and fretting that it’s all about commercial interest nowadays. Of course it is, it always has been. Agents want to sell your oeuvre – otherwise they don’t make any money. The commissioning editor then needs to sell it to the marketing and finance team, the publisher then needs to sell it to the media and booksellers, the bookshops need to sell it to the readers. It is impossible to win literary prizes until you have jumped through a few of these hoops. You don’t have to write genre or sell hugely, but someone at some point in the process must have been ‘sold’ on your idea. Don’t make it too hard for them to pass on this vision – you are planting the seed of something which they and others can get excited about. We can have debates about just how diverse publishing is and how many mediocre books are getting published, while more worthy ones are sinking without a trace, but… that’s the game. Harsh but true: if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen, but don’t lament that cooking is all fast food these days. You can only change things from within.
Gratuitous shot of the Jura Mountains, just in case they were feeling neglected...
Gratuitous shot of the Jura Mountains, just in case they were feeling neglected…

The Lure of London’s Literary Links

I tried to find more ‘l’ words to add to the alliteration, but this will have to do for now.

Petina Gappah in The Independent.
Petina Gappah in The Independent.

One of the advantages of moving back to the UK and living just a short train hop from London is that I can now attend some of the bookish events which I could previously only dream about and retweet enviously. Let me tell you about a couple I’ve attended and some which I won’t be able to attend, but which sound intriguing.

The Word Factory Salon: Sex and Death and Anais Nin (Waterstones Piccadilly, 10th Sept.)

Michele Roberts in Aesthetica Magazine.
Michele Roberts in Aesthetica Magazine.

An unusual evening, as it covered multiple topics: the launch of a short story anthology Sex and Death, edited by Peter Hobbs and Sarah Hall, with readings from the book;¬†reading from a previously unpublished story by Anais Nin (which caused¬†a little bit of embarrassment); and a lively, informal¬†literary debate about Jane Eyre, squirmishness¬†in writing about sex, and cultural approaches to death.¬†I had the pleasure of seeing two writers formerly associated with the Geneva Writers’ Group at this event: Petina Gappah has lived and worked in Geneva for a number of years, while Mich√®le Roberts was an unforgettable guest instructor. Petina is one of the funniest panelists I’ve had the pleasure of seeing, while Mich√®le is thoughtful and perfectly candid at all times.

I have made a note of Word Factory, a national organisation dedicated to studying and celebrating the short story form, and hope to attend more of their events.

Lunch with Zygmunt MiŇāoszewski (19th Sept.)

Zygmunt explaining to English speakers how to pronounce his surname.
Zygmunt explaining to English speakers how to pronounce his surname.

One of the most promising Polish authors of recent years, MiŇāoszewski is best known for his gritty crime fiction trilogy featuring prosecutor Teodor Szacki, but he has explored other genres (horror, young adult fantasy) and is currently writing a literary novel about an old couple who get the chance to relive their lives in an alternative post-war¬†Poland. I love the way Zygmunt discusses¬†insidious problems in contemporary Polish society via his crime novels, and getting a chance to talk to him about the ways in which our respective countries have changed since ‘opening up to the West’ was enlightening. This was also an opportunity to meet¬†Zygmunt’s translator, the ebullient Antonia Lloyd-Jones, who taught herself Polish (after studying Russian at university), and several reviewers whose knowledge I hugely admire, such as Barry Forshaw (of Brit Noir and Nordic Noir fame), Karen Robinson from the Sunday Times and Boyd Tonkin, great supporter of translated fiction and founder of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.

In case you are wondering what on earth I was doing in such elevated company РI was representing the Crime Fiction Lover website (our editor Garrick Webster lives a bit further away from London and passed on his invitation to me). Thank you, Midas PR, for my first literary lunch!

Launch of Louise Beech’s second book (Waterstones Piccadilly, 22nd Sept.)

I wasn’t actually aware that the launch of Louise Beech’s novel The Mountain in My Shoe¬†was happening that very evening, but I was going to London anyway to attend the event just below. Karen Sullivan of Orenda Books told me about it on Twitter, so I couldn’t resist. Where would I be without my Twitter recommendations?

Crime in the Court (Goldsboro Books, 22nd Sept.)

Did you know that the very first trip I made when I came to London to study was to Cecil Court to see the (now-defunct) Dance Bookshop and leaf through the books at all the other glorious bookshops on that hidden corner of central London? It’s a very special place to me, and so I can’t think of a better venue for a crime writing¬†mingle with many of my favourite authors attending: Sarah Hilary,¬†Alex Marwood, Kate Medina, Stav Sherez, Sarah Ward, Belinda Bauer and many more.

Pictures from last year's event, from Goldsboro Books website.
Pictures from last year’s event, from Goldsboro Books website.

Below are events which I¬†sadly won’t¬†be able to attend, as I also have to earn a living rather than just spend money on train tickets:

First Monday for Crime (City University, 3rd Oct.)

SJ Watson, Antonia Hodgson, Stuart Neville and William Ryan will talk about their books and crime in general, in a panel moderated by Karen Robinson.

London Literature Festival (South Bank, 5-16 October)

In a world which is starting to be frighteningly close to the realm of science fiction, how can the imagination give us access to other worlds which cast light back on our own? And what role can writers play in showing us better worlds to come? That’s the theme of this year’s festival in and around the South Bank, where writers, futurologists and transhumanists (whatever that might be) will come together¬†to celebrate the power of the imagination to take us beyond our expectations as a species. I am trying to convince my older son that he would love the Young Adult Weekender event.

Words at King’s Place

I once attended an excellent event on translation here, during one of my multiple business trips to London. It’s a new cultural venue and has a varied and extremely tempting programme of classical music, jazz and spoken word events. I’ve been wistfully¬†eyeing the Poetry London Autumn Launch, the homage to John Berger, and ‘Up at a Villa’ – about that fateful summer of 1816 when Frankenstein and other monsters were unleashed on the world. And all from the shores of placid Lake Geneva! [This is the next best thing to actually staying in the villa itself.]

Villa Diodati, Geneva
Villa Diodati, Geneva

The Golden Cold Shower of Literary Agents

No mythological puns intended here. No, let’s just say it like it is: I had the good fortune to attend a meeting with literary agents this weekend, an event organised by the indefatigable Geneva Writers’ Group. And while the agents’ advice is worth its weight in gold, they also injected a note of cold realism into our starstruck writerly eyes and egos.

It started off gently enough with sensible, if rather well-known statements such as:

1) Don’t try to second-guess trends or formulas which will help your book to sell. ¬†Write the kind of novel you want to read, have a story you are dying to tell. ¬†Yes, publishing does tend to be trend-driven, but there’s no point trying to write ‘100 Shades of Grey’. By the time you have written and published it, fashion will have moved on.

2) There is a false dichotomy between literary and commercial fiction. ¬†It’s wrong to believe that if a book is well-written it will not sell, or that if it sells, it can’t possibly be well written.

3) Authors can no longer afford to be the talent sitting in their ivory towers in front of their keyboard: they need to be the best ambassadors for their own novels. ¬†Writing is such a privilege: it’s not that much of a hardship or outrageous demand that authors should be responsible for their own careers and at least partly involved in promoting their book.

4) Yes, publishing is an industry in flux, but so are a lot of other industries (both creative and non-creative) at the moment. Some doors close, other doors open, new opportunities appear.

5) Agents are people too, with personal likes and dislikes. ¬†What may be a no-go area for one might work for another. ¬†So don’t get discouraged by rejection and try someone else.

But then surprises started popping up unruly heads:

  • Amazon is the Beast – but it’s a complex beast.¬†It appears that agents and publishers hate the suffocating closeness of the relationship with Amazon, although they try hard to see its positives too.
  • Who wants to read the book you’re writing?¬†If the answer is ‘no one’, then write a different kind of book. ¬†Or make your peace with the not-being-read scenario.
  • It’s all about being in the right place at the right time.¬†The very same book may be impossible to sell one year and then do very well the following year. ¬†You cannot predict or follow fashion, but you may be subjected to its tyranny anyway.
  • Agents rarely take on more than 3 writers per year.¬†You don’t want to know the number of queries they get every day. ¬†They are looking for excuses to press the ‘delete’ button. ¬†Literally. Because most queries are now sent via email and they will scan through the email, perhaps open the attachment, and if it doesn’t intrigue them within the first few sentences, they will delete that entire email. ¬†No explanations, no apologies
  • I would rather take on one author I can sell in 35 countries than 35 authors I can sell in one country.¬†Agents need to make money. ¬†They don’t want their hearts broken by beautiful writing which they cannot place.
  • Yet, at the same time, agents live in fear of missing the next J.K. Rowling.¬† In spite of never running short of unsolicited manuscripts, they still look occasionally at self-published titles or go scouting for talent at creative writing courses or conferences.¬†
  • The best sign of a good writer: persistence. ¬†That doesn’t mean becoming a stalker or being oblivious to constructive criticism. What it does mean is picking yourself up after you have been rejected, repeatedly, and starting on your next novel. Improve your craft all the time and never stop knocking on doors.

Finally, how did my own meeting with the agent go? ¬†Ummm… next question please…! ¬†I think he was disappointed by my first 15 pages and felt that it didn’t do justice to my story. ‘Get to the point’ ¬†and ‘clunky dialogue’ comes to mind here. ¬†He also encouraged me to make some changes I was considering but wasn’t sure they would work. ¬†Finally, he told me to start writing my next book (see last bulletin point above).

So I won’t be signing any contracts any time soon. ¬†I feel flattened but grateful. ¬†Back to the drawing board. ¬†I’m going to show them all!