Timing is everything

I spent seven months writing a book about the world 100 years after it has recovered from a pandemic virus, rising sea levels and massive solar storms and what happens?

The same month I started sending my manuscript out to agents, we get a pandemic corona virus and a threat that the western Antarctic ice sheet may fail (that alone would raise sea levels by an estimated three metres). All we need now is a repeat of the Carrington Event of 1859 (now overdue) and I’m three for three.

As my son put it. “Who will want a book that anticipates disasters that are actually happening? That’s too bloody scary.”

How not to get a Literary Agent?

illustration of literary agents

Before submitting any material I read through the profiles of some 150 agents. But I didn’t only read their profiles, I read their twitter feeds, watched their video posts, read about their likes and dislikes and checked the authors they represent.

illustration of literary agents

I’ve failed so far, but what have I learned?
I submitted the first three chapters of Life After Alison, a query letter and a synopsis (at the requested length) to a number of agents. So far I have had only rejections – polite, formulaic, friendly, but still rejections.

As this is my third novel I have been searching for where the disconnect lies and I think I’ve identified a problem with my writing. I have concentrated on storytelling, not to the detriment of everything else, but storytelling has been my focus. My readers like my style, but it doesn’t grab the attention of agents.

So the novel I’m now working on, with the working title of Hannah’s Island, is addressing that perceived weakness. The first five hundred words immerse you in the character, the place, the time and how it feels to be Hannah, but without my usual driven storytelling (the story does evolve). We will see what happens when I’ve finished the novel, but I’m quite pleased with the new direction.

illustration of literary agents

The main thing to remember is…
Literary agents stand shoulder to shoulder in wanting to like your novel. It’s not their fault if you’ve written something dull or riddled with literals or derivative (I don’t think I have but… who knows). And they’re all different. Just because one is unimpressed, it doesn’t mean another will not turn out to be your champion.

I will be posting occasionally about how Hannah’s Island is progressing and probably post those first five hundred words, with notes, on how I think I’ve adjusted my style and content.

It may appear to be about ‘who you know’, but in the end it’s about what you’ve written.

ps editing
I have since had my manuscript professionally edited – I really should have done that first. No wonder I had no success with agents.

Does the world need another novel?

my desk with scraps of writing on it

Probably not, and yet I’m writing my fourth novel. So why?

I still don’t have a simple, single sentence answer to that question of why I do it – but here are some of the excuses I’ve used when I don’t feel people want the full answer.

I wanted to see if I could write 90,000 words
There was this idea for a story that I had to write down
It’s fun, I do it as a hobby really
I hope to find fame and fortune by writing a bestseller

The real reason is… I don’t always understand people in real life (ref sub clinical autism – whatever that means). In a creating a story I get to invent the character’s and their motivation. I am inside the head of every character. I know why they do what they do, what they mean when say something and what they want.

When I’m submerged in writing is the only time I am confident that I know what’s happening. The rest of my life is spent muddling through with guesswork and I often misunderstand what’s said to me.

So, what’s your excuse?

Publishing and printing jargon

Publishing and printing jargon

These are some of the more common terms you may encounter.

A term used for an illustration or image which extends beyond the trimmed page. It bleeds off and will be trimmed off.

Bulk or book block
This is the term used to to describe how thick the book is before it is bound. It’s simply the number of leaves multiplied by the thickness of each sheet of paper – remember that each leaf of a book consists of two pages called the recto and verso.

The brief description of a book which appears on the back of a paperback or on the inside front flap of a hardback.

The paper cover wrapped around a hardback book, and normally the publisher’s main marketing tool; frequently film laminated for durability in handling.

The small icon on the spine designating the imprint (not necessarily the publisher) under which the book is published.

Double line spacing
This is a specification that comes from typewriters (I loved typewriters). You could set the spacing to be ‘normal’ or a multiple of x1.5 or x2 or x3 (it rather depended on your typewriter).
Microsoft in their infinite wisdom decided that their standard line spacing in MS Word would be somewhere between 110% and 120%, depending on which typeface you used.
If you want to control the line space MS Word you will have to go into the paragraph controls. I would usually start with 10/12pt for a book, then see what it looks like in the typeface you’ve chosen and adjust it accordingly. There are no golden rules other than Don’t use Comic Sans for anything.

A term covering all those pages in a book that come after the end of the novel. Those that come before Chapter 1 are called prelims.

Refers to a sheet of paper folded once to make four pages. It is also used to refer to the page numbers at the foot of each page.

Font or typeface?
Font is term that relates to the size of the typeface. In a specification like ’12pt Times New Roman’, the 12 pt refers to the font or size and Times New Roman refers to the typeface. Common usage means that many people think that font is synonymous with typeface – not a battle I will bother to fight too hard as we have to accept that language changes over time.

The size of a book. Publishers use different formats  but the most common are ‘trade format’ and ‘B format’ which are the size of most small paperback novels.

The space to the side of the text that allows the book to be bound without the text ‘falling’ into the binding. Also known as the inside margin because its the page margin on the inside edge of a text page.

ISBN number
The unique identifying number for a particular book. It’s the barcode on the back of the book

Leading or line spacing
When type was ‘set’ with tiny slugs for each letter the space between each line of type was adjusted by sliding in a thin sheet of lead. So the distance between each line of a book was known as the leading.
If the type was ‘set solid’ there would be no lead and it might be specified as 12/12pt (a 12pt font with no leading so a 12pt set) if there was 2pts of leading the specification would be 12/14pt (a 12pt font with an extra 2pt of leading)

pica em
A typographical measurement, consisting of 12 points (approximately 5 mm).

Print on demand. Each book is printed only when ordered.

A term covering all those pages in a book that come before Chapter 1. Those that come after the end of the novel are called endmatter.

Print run
The number of copies printed in a single impression.

Recto and verso
The right hand page of a spread (recto) and the left hand page (verso).

Serif or Sans (meaning without)
The serif is the little flicked out ends of the bars of a letter.
I was taught by my typography professor that this was a hangover from letters being chiselled into stone; the serif making the end of the letter form much cleaner.
However, a year or two later (in 1968) a  Father Edward Catich proposed a theory that the stone carvers were following the flick of a brush made when the letters were first drafted onto the stone. I would disopute that theory as I’ve tried and the brush doesn’t naturally make the same pattern to the left and right. Study the Trajan Column and make up your own mind.

I was born in black and white

Bruce Aiken aged 4 or 5

I am a part of that post war, baby boom, privileged generation – except it wasn’t quite like that for everyone.

Silver spoons from which to sup were few and far between in the suburban hinterland between North Kent and London. The most common weed on our pavements was wheat, still trying to break through the asphalt from the corn fields our suburb replaced. Prefabricated building littered the area for those who had lost their homes in the WW2 air raids of London and half ruined buildings and bomb sites were our adventure playgrounds.

They were a lot of children. That meant many potential friends and about twice as many potential enemies for an isolated kid who didn’t understand social interactions (many, many years later I was diagnosed as sub clinically autistic (what was Aspergers) and not even my GP can explain exactly what that means.

I was educated at a now vanished Grammar School and subsequently at the University of the Arts, London. At my graduation show I was recruited by Pearson Longman, after a cursory interview in a room with no windows (it might have been a cupboard).

A few years later I founded an advertising agency in Bristol with a business partner as equally confused by life as I was, but that was all a bit too serious and it only lasted three years. Since then I have worked on freelance commissions from publishers, book packagers, corporations, manufacturers, tourism boards, charities, theatres, the NHS, car manufacturers, various museums and several festivals – I’ve lost track of the complete list.

Interspersed with this work I have lectured, drawn humorous postcards, worked in youth theatre and educational storytelling groups. Amidst all this I managed to marry, stay married, raise two children, two cats, several fish and, of course, I write.