What the publisher said: how to get published, from the horse’s mouth

As part of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, Edinburgh City of Literature arranged for writers to meet with industry experts – an agent, a publisher, a creative writing coach, a publicist and an Edinburgh literary expert. We got 15 minutes with our chosen expert on a sunny Sunday morning. My expert was Francis Bickmore, Editorial Director at Canongate Books, a well-known Edinburgh publishing house. Francis is an experienced editor and has worked with Nick Cave, Yann Martell and other big names. I’d sent him a 500 word writing sample, a writer’s CV and questions. I also sent him some background: my questions were about making writing into a career. Here’s what I learned:

  • Write, speak and network. Do what you can to get seen.
  • Apply for everything you can to get the time and space to write and get your name out there.
  • Finish a book before even thinking about contacting agents or publishers.
  • Get an agent.
  • Make friends with other writers, especially established ones writing in your genre. They’ll give you access to publishers and agents.
  • Surround yourself with writers. You’ll need the support.
  • Don’t give up the day-job.

I also asked about the size of their slush-pile and how many new writers they take on. The figures were scary and illustrated how important an agent is. They are the first level of quality control. They are your way in, but also a publisher’s way to filter out a lot of the chaff.

It was an encouraging experience. I know that I’m doing the right things, but have realised that it might take a bit longer to get where I wanted to be than I thought. Never mind. Step the first is to finish my first novel. Bring on September.

Standing up for the short novel

A lot of my favourite books are short. Very short.

  • Slaughterhouse five, Kurt Vonnegut
  • We have always lived in the castle, Shirley Jackson
  • Muminpappan och havet (Muminpapa at sea), Tove Jansson
  • The Powerbook, Jeanette Winterson

To name just a few. A lot of the books that I read for literature history were short. (A short novel is somewhere around 65,000 w0rds. That used to be the length of a novel but now, it’s the length of a short novel or a romance novel. most other genre and literary novels are a lot longer.)

The first ever book I read in English was Animal Farm. I’d read articles, bits of plays, chapters and comics but I hadn’t read a full book. So, I picked up Animal Farm. It’s a classic and I was 16. One the first page I underlined and looked up 12 words. Then I got bored with detailed understanding and went for the gist. A year later I we read The Great Gatsby for English. That was followed by The Human Factor by Graham Greene, Winnie the Pooh and several others. All short.

When I left Sweden to go to Scotland, the guys at work gave me a gift. My manager picked out two (short) books in English for me: Tidings by William Wharton and And the Ass Saw the Angel by Nick Cave. At the time, I knew Cave as a song and lyrics writer and I adored him. The book blew me away. It was rich, it was partially phonetic, it was Gothic, it was weird, it was endlessly strange and invigorating. I loved it. It took me a while to get around to reading Tidings but really enjoyed it when I did.

I have a new love story with the short novel. It’s not just because the longest novel I can write at the moment is a short one. It’s also because the longest novel I can read when I’m writing is a short one. I work. I write. I read before I fall asleep. I don’t get through that many pages anymore. It’s a depressing fact, but since I started taking my writing seriously, I read less. There are only so many hours in a day. Sigh.

The short novel, when it’s good, shows mastery of the form and focus of thought. In a long novel – the genre I write in produces novels of between 120,000 and 175,000 words – there’s room for long speeches, long descriptions, long battles, many characters and many asides. You can pad a little bit – not too much or your readers will notice, but you can. There’s no room for padding in flash fiction. There’s no room for padding in a short story. There’s little room for padding in a short novel. There is, no matter how much action, troupe movement and character development, a lot of room for padding in a long novel.

My goal is to write long novels. It has to be: the genre I write in is one of big tomes, it is not one of slim volumes, easy to carry in a back pocket or handbag. I’m working on how to find a balance. Writing what I want to write and at a length I can manage.

Yeah, that’s the wrong way around, isn’t it? Either I write something that fits a shorter form, or I get comfortable with longer stories. I’m working my way up to a longer story and I’m trying to write long without padding. It’s not a small challenge.