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Friday, 15 February 2013

An Open Letter to Terry Deary

Dear Terry Deary

You don't know me, but I am a Librarian. I have been a librarian for about eight years now, starting in the UK and now working as a library director out in Canada. I have worked in tiny rural libraries and large town libraries, and have long been shouting and advocating for my industry. You see, your comments made one thing very clear to me: Librarians are still not doing a very good job of explaining what, exactly, it is we offer and do. Oh the people who use our services regularly are aware of our function as the heart of the community, know that we offer e-resources, programs, help and advice that they would simply never be able to access anywhere else. Unfortunately we are not so good at advertising this to everyone else – we would rather spend the money on staffing and services.

So, I have decided to go through the points you have made over the last few days and give you the information that any Librarian, had you consulted them, would have been able to provide you with.

Libraries have had their day. They are a Victorian idea and we are in an electronic age.

Although the UK Public Libraries Act was passed in 1850, libraries themselves are not a Victorian idea – they are far older than that. Forms of public libraries have been in existence since antiquity, and the earliest UK public library dates from 1425. They have been a part of civilisation for as long as we have been civilised; people have always needed access to information and literature, and a truly great society has always provided that.
As for us living in an electronic age; well yes, some of us do. However access to electronic information is still dependent on factors such as internet access, the cost of devices, proprietary formats, financial status, physical location, availability of power and language ability. Many people cannot work a device without help – help they often end up getting from the local library staff. Access to electronic information is not equal, nor is it consistent. You cannot charge your e-reader in a blackout. Access is also controlled, ultimately, by the government and by the service providers. It can be taken away at any time if you are deemed to have broken the rules of usage – whatever those rules are and whoever has created them. This, by definition, is not universal access. It does not represent or provide equality for all.

They either have to change and adapt or they have to go.

We have changed, Mr Deary. I am fairly sure that the library at Alexandria did not contain DVDs or CDs. It did not have free internet access. It did not provide e-books that could be downloaded at home. It did not provide digital content for its users. It did not have coffee bars, story-times, ELL classes or workshops on finding jobs.

I know some people like them but fewer and fewer people are using them and these are straightened times.

Roughly half the residents of my town hold library cards. That is more than have memberships at the recreation centre, more than the local gym, more than those who use Community Services and more than those who attend public festivals. We are seeing a steady increase in library usage, and I live in one of the wealthiest provinces in Canada.
Why? Because our libraries are well funded when compared to the UK. In my province we are even allowed to charge for membership. More than that, we are allowed to source funding from the private sector and request charitable donations. Because of this we have the money to improve services instead of being force to cut them because of draconian policies rigidly enforced by a council that does not understand our worth.
Think about it:

Cuts to funding = cuts to services = less reasons for people to access libraries = less customers.

Libraries in the UK have less customers because they have less money to spend on services, and more importantly, on trained staff. If they were well funded and thus well managed by qualified Librarians then usage would increase.  Many well-funded libraries in the USA and Canada can prove this. The key is support, management and funding.

A lot of the gush about libraries is sentimentality.

No Mr Deary, it is not. People gush about libraries because they understand their role in a civilised society. They understand that libraries represent more than free books to read.
Most of the Western world is comprised of democracies. A democracy runs on the simple principle that we are all equal. For us to be equal, we all require equal access to information. He who controls the flow of information, controls how people think. That’s why we fight people like Rupert Murdoch gaining a monopoly on news services. In order to have a body of enlightened, informed voters we need access to all sides of the argument, not just the ones the ruling powers want us to see. Sometimes this information comes in textbooks or non-fiction, sometimes it is presented as stories and literature.

 I am sure you think that the Internet provides this service to people, yet time and again we have seen websites pulled down without warning, people prosecuted for stating their beliefs on the internet and in some countries blanket blocking of sites deemed inappropriate for the masses. The internet is not run by a magnanimous entity that ensures we all have free access to anything that we want. It is run by businesses and corporations with agendas of their own. Behind them, it is controlled by governments who have agendas of their own.

On the other side of the coin the sheer availability of the internet is part of the problem when people are searching for information. Anyone, anywhere can post anything they like on the internet and present it as fact. We regularly see witch-hunts happen online when someone posts something contentious, and the deliberate spread of misinformation is rife where any major political debate is concerned. Although books are not free of this either, most publishers will at least vet the information published under their label for integrity, no matter how controversial it proves to be.  Libraries can then make an effort to ensure all sides of the argument are fairly represented in their collections. In my case, I have to do this or risk losing my job.

Librarians are trained to assess the quality of the information they encounter, and are able to make judgement calls on the quality of the research therein. No other profession is trained to do this. No one else will help you find the truth you are after, free of charge.

The book is old technology and we have to move on.

Old does not mean defunct. Pen and paper are comparatively old technology, yet we still use them alongside our laptops and tablets. Print books and E-books can happily co-exist, with most readers flitting between various formats depending on their situation, their preferences and the availability of the text they are after. I for one tend to borrow e-books from the library, but buy books from my local store to go on my bookshelves.

This is not the Victorian age, when we wanted to allow the impoverished access to literature. We pay for compulsory schooling to do that.

Compulsory schooling in the UK ends at 16. Where do you go if you want to learn about books and literature after you leave, or do you feel that if people have not absorbed every published book by their mid-teens then they do not deserve anything else? What about works published after they hit adulthood – are they to be denied those as well?

Compulsory schooling in the UK is determined by the government, who set the curriculum. This means they get to say what children learn, what books they read and what they should learn from them. Without libraries and Librarians, who exactly is going to show these children and teenagers the wealth of literature and books out there? Why would they take a chance on a new author? Why would they read anything that wasn’t on a set list given to them by a teacher?  Why would a child, or their parents for that matter, take a risk and buy a book on a topic not covered by the curriculum? You underestimate the number of people out there who discovered a new author, a new genre or a whole new subject of interest thanks to a member of staff at a library taking the time to chat to a family and say “here, I think you might like this.”

In 2012, less than 60% of those children in compulsory education left with 5 GCSEs grade A*-C. Many will not make it to any further education courses. If any of those children decide, a few years later, that they would like to improve their literacy and expand their minds, where would they go? Compulsory education failed them, and they cannot go back. They are unlikely to have large sums of disposable income, Mr Deary. Do they not deserve to access literature, information and knowledge? Do they not deserve the help and guidance of a trained information professional to help them access appropriate resources?

Add to that the fact that 5.1 million adults in the UK cannot read at the levels expected of your average 11 year old, according to the Literacy Trust. How do expect them to improve their skills and access information if there is no institution there to serve them, no person there to guide them or help them find appropriate materials? More than once I have had to help an engaging, intelligent adult fill out a form, find a book for their child or explain a document to them because they could not adequately read or write. Please explain to me where you expect these people to go for the help they receive from me?

The libraries are doing nothing for the book industry. They give nothing back, whereas bookshops are selling the book, and the author and the publisher get paid, which is as it should be.

And yet a recent study by Booknet Canada shows that almost 60% of book buyers have visited the library in the last 12 months. One of the main reasons cited for the purchase of books was that they had enjoyed that title when they borrowed it from the library – particularly when buying books for children or grandchildren. Since 55% of all books purchased as gifts are for children, perhaps you owe a great number of your sales to the legitimately purchased copy of your book borrowed from the library.

Anecdotally speaking, I can tell you that many of my customers use the library to test-drive an author they would not otherwise consider buying. Why? Books cost money, and people will always stick to trusted names if their budget is limited. Recently I introduced a Romance fan to a writer called Gena Showalter. A couple of months later she told me that she has bought every book in that author’s latest series, and could I recommend something else for her to read while she waited for the next book to be published? Ms Showalter got paid, the bookstore got paid and I got a happy customer. An all around win, wouldn't you say?

Another fact for you. There are roughly 22,000 public libraries spread between the USA, Canada and the UK. Now think about every single one of those libraries buying at least one copy of every one of your books in print. There is no evidence that a book borrowed from a library equals a lost sale. Quite the opposite, in fact. You are effectively complaining that we buy your books, encourage people to read them, and if those people love your books we encourage people to buy them.

Librarians are lovely people and libraries are lovely places,

Yes we are, thank you very much. Don’t you think the world needs more lovely places?

 but they are damaging the book industry.

No, they are not. There is no evidence for this at all.

They are putting bookshops out of business, and I'm afraid we have to look at what place they have in the 21st century

If this were true, Mr Deary, bookshops would never have existed in the first place. As you yourself point out, the UK Public Library Act was passed in 1850, although lending libraries have existed much longer. How are libraries damaging the book industry if they managed to co-exist for hundreds of years?  Suely bookshops would have disappeared by 1900 if this were the case?

Bookshops are being put out of business by aggressive marketing and sales from online retailers – you know, the people you think should replace public libraries. I am 100% certain that any bookstore manager or owner you ask would far rather triple the number of public libraries in operation that see Amazon continue running at its current pace. Other than the owners of Amazon, of course. They would just laugh at you if you suggested libraries were a threat to them.

What other entertainment do we expect to get for free?

Sometimes I borrow films and music from the library (free), or I borrow them from friends (free). Some of my favourite bands put up their music on the internet for free. I watch a lot of music videos on Youtube (free). I downloaded it (free). Sometimes I'll catch my favourite shows online (free) and I also listen to the radio a lot (free). I like to attend local festivals (free) and outdoor concerts (free) whenever they are on. I go to the museum (free) and art gallery (free). I visit the local parks (free) and spend time in the playground with my children (also free).

Books are part of the entertainment industry

Some books are, Mr Deary. Personally I would not call Advanced Mathematics Volume X entertaining, nor would I put the Oxford English Dictionary up there on my list of things to do when bored. Textbooks, collector’s guides, academic non-fiction, how-to guides,  and repair manuals all have a home in our library and are all popular with customers.  They are not used for entertainment, but for reference and for help. They are borrowed so people can learn new skills and aspire to achieve greater things in their lives.

We also have an extensive dual language collection. These are books and guides to help those people who have moved to this country, but whose English may need improving. Trust me, the people borrowing this material are not doing so for entertainment, although we try to get the most interesting materials for them that we can. They are using these books to improve their skills, and thus improve their lives.

I never attacked libraries

Yes you did, Mr Deary. You said that “Libraries have had their day. They are a Victorian idea and we are in an electronic age”, that “they are damaging the book industry” and “fewer and fewer people are using them”. These would be attacks on libraries.

 I said we need to think about people’s access to literature.

That is a major part of what Librarians think about. That’s why we have to manage our spaces to include not just literature but media, community space and programming room. The one group of people who really, really think about people’s access to literature are LIBRARIANS. We think about it just as much as we think about access to information, intellectual freedom, whether we can justify the expense of replacing our computers and whether we should allocate our collections budget to the latest best sellers or replacing some much loved classics.

I don’t see poor people in libraries, I see middle class people with their arms stuffed like looters.

Really, Mr Deary? This statement is rather baffling to me. How can you tell if someone is poor or middle class just by looking at them? I have been both of these things, and I’m fairly certain that I didn’t walk around with a billboard announcing my yearly earnings or financial position. If I’m honest, I was probably better dressed when I was poor, but I didn’t have kids then.  I had  a Master’s degree when I was poor, too. In fact the degree was part of what caused my financial distress. I doubt you could have guessed that by looking at me.

My library is located in a relatively wealthy community in a very wealthy province in a wealthy country. People of all backgrounds use our facility, and I honestly could not tell you which patrons where in which economic strata based on their appearance, usage, intellect, age, gender, race or possessions. I was once told that you can judge a person by their shoes, but since one of the wealthiest people I have ever met clomps around in a battered pair of sneakers I am not convinced of this.

However, let us pretend that you are correct and the majority of users are middle class. The thing is, Mr Deary, libraries are for everyone, not just the poor. The middle class and the super wealthy have just as much right to use the library as the poorest of the poor. It does not mean that they do not need the library. Did you know that middle class kids in Canada are the most at-risk of falling behind with early literacy? Did you know that middle class families don’t always have a disposable income, either? Did you think that maybe some middle class people have lost their jobs and are now on the breadline, in fact rendering them “poor”? Did you think that some poor people might use the library not for the books, but for the courses, help and social interaction they get there instead? What makes you think that the middle class have any better access to information than the poor do?

To conclude, Mr Deary, libraries are not just about literature and books. Sure, this is a fundamental part of the service we offer, but we are so much more than that. We represent the best of civilisation – a civilisation that believes everyone, regardless of their background, has a right to access information and ideas. We believe in sharing, in inclusiveness, in not leaving anyone behind. We are not just here to give children a boost with their literacy or let those who cannot afford books borrow them; we are here to help anyone who wants to explore ideas and worlds that would not otherwise be accessible to them. We are here to guide people to things they might like – and not to judge them for those tastes. We are here to build strong community ties and links, to allow different people to interact in a neutral setting, when they might not otherwise meet. We represent democratic ideals and love for the arts. We are a place for ideas, for critical thinking, for fun and for enjoyment.

To steal the tagline from my own library, Mr Deary, you need to “Think Outside The Books”. Libraries are worth so much more than you realise, and it pains me to see people as educated and successful as yourself happy to watch such a shining institution condemned to obscurity because you have not properly researched the benefits a library brings to the community it serves.

Kindest regards,

Gemma Noon

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Apologies for the radio silence

Dear all,

I am so sorry I haven't been here to update for the longest time.

Basically the real world got in the way. I have been fortunate enough to secure my dream job as a the Director of Library Services for a small town in Alberta called Chestermere. It is a beautiful, vibrant community that I am happy and proud to serve.

As many of you know, I am actually from the UK, so taking up this job meant packing up the family and moving to the otherside of the world on short notice. It meant wading through the soup of immigration and culture shocks (we still are). It was a small price to pay for the chance to live in my dream place and do my dream job, but it also meant I had to let a couple of things slide - including the Project.

I will get back to the Project, although it is looking as though it will be in the New Year. Yes I know that is forever away, but my goal is to get this right, rather than doing a half-job at it.

In the meantime feel free to drop me some emails if you have people you would like me to approach for interview. I'll get on with next year's list and I promise to get this site back off the ground.

Hugs to all,

Gem x

Friday, 6 May 2011

Gueat Post By Helen Hunt

The Women's Magazine Market

Helen M Hunt

Gemma has asked me to share some thoughts about the women's magazine short story market and give some advice to anyone hoping to break into it.

First, a bit about me. I write short stories, book reviews and features for magazines. My short stories have appeared in Woman's Weekly, My Weekly, The Weekly News and Take A Break Fiction Feast in the UK, and That's Life Fast Fiction in Australia. I have also had real life stories published by My Weekly, This England and Evergreen magazine, and articles in Writers' Forum and The New Writer magazine. You can find my writing blog at http://fictionisstrangerthanfact.blogspot.comand my book review blog at

One of the first things that you need to be aware of is that, sadly, the women's magazine market for short stories has shrunk over the last few years. Many magazines which used to take fiction, such as Woman and Woman's Own, no longer do so.

Add to this the fact that there are a large numbers of writers trying to break through, and it makes for a challenging and competitive market. Having said that, it would be wrong to assume that it's impossible to break into it. I have read comments in various places that suggest that women's magazines are a bit of a 'closed shop' and only established writers can get published. Happily this isn't the case.

When you look at the magazines you will find the same names coming up on lots of short stories, but that is because those are the writers who are consistently sending out a high volume of good quality stories carefully targeted to their chosen publications, not because there is an embargo on new writers.

If I can do it, then anyone can, but patience is the key. I went on a short story writing course at my local adult education college in September 2005 and wrote my first ever short story. I carried on writing and eventually my story 'Shredding The Label' was published by Momaya Press in 2007 – my first fiction publication. My first commercial publication wasn't until the beginning of 2009 when Woman's Weekly published my story 'Dandelion Clocks'.

Since that first publication, I have continued to write short stories and I have been fortunate to be published quite a bit by My Weekly, Woman's Weekly, and The Weekly News and have also had stories accepted by Take A Break Fiction Feast, People's Friend and a couple of non-UK magazines.

So for those who do want to write for this market, where do you start?

I'm not going to go into a lot of detail here about submission guidelines for specific magazines. Instead I will direct you to Womagwriter's Blog. ( This blog has all the guidelines and contact details for the relevant magazines with regular updates and also blog posts discussing various aspects of writing for this market. If you don't already follow Womagwriter I strongly recommend that you should.

My main advice to anyone who wants to start sending short stories to magazines is to initially concentrate on targeting one or two of them. All magazines have different requirements and like slightly different types of story so it's more manageable if you look at a limited number of magazines in great depth at a time. Always remember that magazines are looking for stories that are similar in style and tone to the ones they are currently using, but at the same time they need to be different enough to catch an editor's eye.

The key markets in the UK at the moment are:

Woman's Weekly – they take two stories and a serial every week in the magazine and also have regular fiction specials containing twenty or so stories. They are a good strong market that likes unusual stories and they are lovely to write for.

Take A Break Fiction Feast – this is a monthly fiction special which carries about fifteen stories each time. They like a variety of stories and take anything from romance to crime in a variety of word lengths.

The Weekly News – this is a newspaper rather than a magazine but also carries two or three short stories every week. Because the publication is aimed equally at men and women they like stories with male characters, are strong on crime and mystery and not keen on romance.

The People's Friend – this magazine is very much focussed on fiction, and carries six or seven stories and also a couple of serials each week. They like a gentle upbeat type of story and steer clear of anything too depressing or contentious.

My Weekly publishes fiction regularly in the weekly magazine and occasional specials. However, at the moment they aren't taking stories from people they haven't published before so they're not currently one for beginners to target.

Other magazines such as Candis and Yours take a limited amount of fiction, and there are a few overseas markets. All have their own particular requirements, and full details can be found on the Womagwriter blog.

So, choose a market and immerse yourself in it. It's probably best initially to go for the publication which carries the stories which most strongly appeal to you as a reader. Really study the stories carefully and concentrate on why they work and what it is about them that made the editor say yes. And don't give up!

For further information and advice, as well as Womagwriter's blog, I highly recommend Teresa Ashby's blog ( and Della Galton's website (

I am intending to run some short courses and workshops on breaking into the women's magazine market later this year, so if you're interested please feel free to email me at helen-hunt1(at) I'll add you to a mailing list to be sent details of the courses once they are up and running.

Thanks very much to Gemma for inviting me to do this guest post, and do feel free to leave a comment if you have any questions.

Helen M Hunt

Friday, 29 April 2011

An Interview with Bernard Cornwell - REPOST


Hi all, I'm running around like a headless chicken at the moment preparing for some pretty big changes in my life. As such i didn't want to post a half-finished interview (not fair on author or on you), so instead I have decided to repost an old interview with one of my all time fave writers, because reading it once just isn't enough.

Normal service will be resumed soon!


Bringing History to Life

An Interview with Bernard Cornwell

photograph (c) Chris Clarke

It was my dad who first introduced me to the works of Bernard Cornwell, long before I fell in love with Richard Sharpe (well, okay, Sean Bean) as he strode around on TV looking very fetching with a rifle and a green jacket. I was a history buff as a kid, but that love had not crossed over into my reading habits. Until I read Sharpe’s Rifles. From that day on, Bernard Cornwell has featured very high on my list of favourite authors. I love it when he releases a new book. It means I don’t have to think of a present to buy Dad for his birthday.

Of course, it isn’t just the Sharpe books, based around the Napoleonic Wars, that Mr. Cornwell is famous for. The Starbuck Chronicles are set in the American Civil War, the Winter King Trilogy tell the tale of King Arthur, and his latest offering, The Burning Land, is book five of the Viking Saga, which are based in the times of Alfred the Great. Then there are his stand alone novels, like Gallows Thief and Azincourt. In terms of historical fiction, Bernard Cornwell writes incredibly well in a diverse range of periods.

So when I got the email back from Mr. Cornwell’s assistant saying that he was happy to answer my questions, you can forgive me for jumping up and down for a solid five minutes while squealing incoherently. Then I phoned my dad. He didn’t squeal, but I like to think he was as chuffed as me.

Thank you very much for taking the time to answer my questions. You are widely regarded as the greatest writer of historical adventure books of our time; how do you feel about this label? Did you set out to be the “best”?

I don't believe it! There's Robert Harris writing his trilogy on Cicero, C J Sanson's wonderful books about Matthew Shardlake, and let's not forget Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall! Wow, I'm way down the list. I simply set out to write entertaining books!

Most people know that they want to write long before they actually start; was this the case for you? What made you put pen to paper and begin writing?

I wanted to write from way back, probably from when I was a teenager (oh god, so long ago). I'm not sure I ever would have taken the plunge - I had a perfectly respectable job with BBC TV, but then I met an American blonde and she couldn't live in Britain for family reasons, and I had no strong ties so decided to emigrate. The US Government, in its wisdom, denied me a Green Card (work permit), so I airily told her I'd write a book. Which I did, and thirty years later I'm still writing books and, much more important, still married to the blonde.

Out of all the books you have written, do you have a favourite? If so, what makes that one stand out above the others?

This feels rather like being asked 'do you have a favourite child', a question which probably has the answer 'yes', but everyone denies anyway. My favourites are the three Arthurian books - starting with The Winter King. They were simply a joy to write . . . at the time it felt as though they were writing themselves. I've enjoyed writing most of the books (why do it if it isn't enjoyable?), but those three stand out.

Your latest book, The Burning Land, has just been published and is the latest in the Alfred Series. How does writing in this period differ from the Sharpe books? What period is your favourite to research / write in?

I suppose the main difference is that the real history is so obscure. We have an enormous amount of material on the Napoleonic era, and know a vast amount about what really happened, but the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle can be maddeningly obscure . . . events are mentioned, but without any details. So I'm freer to use imagination (good), but more likely to get things wrong (bad).

What are you working on now?

A book set in the summer of 1779, during the American Revolution, when the British established an outpost on the coast of what is now Maine and the State of Massachusetts sent a large fleet and a militia force to dislodge them. The campaign is very little known, but curiously features two men who became very famous. On the British side a very young John Moore fought his first action, while Paul Revere was in charge of the American artillery. It's a fascinating tale, and you'll have to wait to find out more.

How long into your career was it before you could effectively write full time? What advice do you have for anyone who aspires to be a full time writer?

I started writing full time the moment I emigrated to the States - I really had no choice! Advice? Just do it! I do have a real mistrust of writing groups, which a lot of people join thinking, maybe, they'll find encouragement. The only opinion that matters in the first place is your own, and then that of an agent or publisher, and finally the reader, but writing is a solitary vice, so my recommendation is to sit down, shut the door, threaten the kids with blue murder if they interrupt you, and get on with it.

Historical fiction is a popular genre but, as with everything, is subject to changes and trends in the market. What advice would you give to someone trying to break into the historical fiction market?

I'd tell them to ignore the trends and write what they want to read themselves!

New writers can struggle to get the balance between historical fact and the actual story right. How do you approach this problem?

By refusing to see it as a problem. My job is to be a story-teller. I'm not an historian. If someone wants to know about the Peninsular War, then I'd recommend Professor Charles Esdaile's brilliant book, but I'd venture to suggest that his book doesn't have the same suspense as, say, Sharpe's Company? I do try to get the history right, but if there's a conflict between history and story, story always wins.

You are definitely one of the more accessible authors out there; do you think that it is important for writers to engage with their audience beyond their actual books?

I guess that's up to the author? I like doing it, but I can quite imagine that some people don't, and their first job is to write the books. Nothing is really important beyond that!

Agents tend to be regarded with mixed feelings by new writers. What are your experiences of literary agents? Do you think that they are worth having?

If a new writer can understand the complexities of a publishing contract and negotiate like a junkyard dog, then of course they don't need an agent. But I do, and I like mine and I'd recommend that every writer has an agent. I don't understand 'mixed feelings'. The agent is on your side!

And finally, can you sum up a key piece of advice for new writers in one sentence?

Everyone who is on the best-seller list was a scared new writer once. So just do it!

Many thanks to Mr. Cornwell for getting the Literary Project’s new year off to a fantastic start! Bernard Cornwell’s website can be accessed here, and for those of you obsessed by all things Sharpe, there is a great fansite accessible at this address. Bernard Cornwell’s newest novel, The Burning Land, is out now.

I have finally stopped jumping excitedly up and down in my seat long enough to get this post uploaded and the links sorted out; but for those of you that follow me on twitter, I really am sorry. I promise I’ll stop bragging now.

Just after I’ve gone and phoned my dad.

Friday, 22 April 2011

An Interview with David Hewson

When In Rome....

An Interview with David Hewson

photo by Mark Bothwell

David Hewson is good with words. He started out in journalism, working his way up from a local paper in Scarborough up to the big London broadsheets. He has also penned over sixteen novels, including the fabulous Nic Costa modern crime series, all set in the atmospheric city of Rome. Even his tweets are well constructed, which makes error-prone amateurs like myself sigh and think, "I wish I could write like that." I am impressed by the way he paints Rome, a city and culture he is not actively part of, yet constructs like a native. It is a writing benchmark that I am aiming for, so naturally I could not resist asking David to answer a few questions for me here at the Literary Project.

Hello David! Have you always wanted to be a writer?

I always wanted to write because it seemed the one thing I was half good at. But the only writing job I could find at seventeen was working on a tiny local newspaper in Yorkshire. So I took it. It seemed better than school, even at £5 a week back in 1970.

How do you think your background in journalism influences your writing? Do you think it has been a help or a hindrance?

Helps and hinders. Journalism teaches you research, editing and not to be too precious with your words. But it also relies absolutely on fact, which fiction doesn't. There's an Italian expression, 'Better a beautiful lie than an ugly truth'. Fiction is about telling beautiful lies, and to do that properly a journalist has to kill the reporter inside him.

Why crime?

Do I write crime? Yes, the stories involve cops and crimes. But I don't think I fall into the usual procedural template. My stories tend to be about justice, about relationships, about living in a fractured society. All narratives need a problem. Crime stories simply use a crime as the starting point of that problem. I don't really do whodunits. More whydunits and they've been around for ages, in all sorts of forms.

Writing novels based in a different country and culture to your own must be difficult – how do you go about getting the "feel" right?

I'm not a fan of the idea that you should write about what you know. Writing about what you don't know makes you work harder. You have to create that world from scratch which renders it more vivid and 'real'. I did it the only way I could. I moved to Rome, studied Italian, invested in myself and my ideas. Luckily it's paid off so far.

How did you get your agent? Any advice for aspiring writers looking for representation?

Everyone asks that and there's no secret answer. It really is the way it tells you in the Writers' Handbook. Go through the motions, send out the letters, keep your fingers crossed. No short cuts I'm afraid. My principal advice in this area is: for pity's sake read the submission guidelines and follow them to the letter. Be professional, not a jerk. Accept rejection and learn from it.

What is your proudest moment to date, writing-wise?

Seeing all eleven of my Italian books bought for TV movies in one swoop -- and from an Italian-based production outfit, Bavaria's Rome arm (though they will be made in English).

If you could change one thing about the publishing industry, what would it be?

The gap between delivering a book and seeing it on the shelf. It's sometimes nearly two years for me and that's just too long

Can you tell us about The Fallen Angel?

The Fallen Angel comes from a real-life tragedy from 16th century Rome, the case of a young noblewoman Beatrice Cenci. She and her family were convicted of the murder of her father who was reputedly abusing her. They were savagely executed in front of the Ponte Sant'Angelo. Beatrice became in icon for the virtuous criminal, defending her own virtue. In the book we find a young Englishwoman facing what appears to be a rerun of the Cenci case. Is this coincidence or a deliberate echo? So my Roman cops set out to find the awkward truth.

What are you working on right now?

A standalone book set in Florence in 1986. I felt the need to write something that didn't have the constrictions of the 21st century. No DNA, no science, no internet, no mobile phones. Makes for a very interesting environment in which to set a narrative.

And finally, if you could sum up a key piece of writing advice for aspiring crime writers in one sentence, what would it be?

Read lots of books and try to understand what makes the ones that work for you pull of that trick.

The Fallen Angel is available to buy here, and you can learn more about David and his books at his website over here.

Friday, 15 April 2011

Lesley Cookman Guest Post

Lesley Cookman Takes Over The Literary Project

Gemma has very kindly invited me to contribute a guest blog for The Literary Project, which is a great honour when I see the other prolific and august authors who have preceded me, and whom she has interviewed.

Thinking about what might be of use to pre-published writers, whether novelists, short story or non-fiction writers, my first piece of advice would be, as it always was when I was teaching creative writing, to READ. It's amazing how many people say "Oh, I'm definitely going to write a book, but I simply haven't got time to read." Well, if everyone was like them, there would be a lot of books out there with no-one to read them. And the industry would grind to a halt.

So - READ. Particularly in your own genre. It tells you what the public wants, or at least, what the publishers and editors think the public want. And that isn't always the same. For instance, my "cosy" crime series is the direct descendent of the Golden Age detective fiction and the large publishing houses don't think there is a public for them. However, the smaller independent publishers know a thing or two about what the public really want, and my own, Accent Press (long may they rule) took a punt on the Libby Sarjeant series and here we are, eight books in and with two more on the stocks.

Anyway, back to the advice. Read to find out how to write. How to write dialogue, to see how things look on the page (not too many long paragraphs, for instance) and how to plot. There are many, many books out there that will tell you how to do this, but you can't do better than to read and compare other people's books and work out why they work - or don't, more importantly. This is not to say you must slavishly copy the style of your favourite author or journalist but to learn what has got them published.

Write what you know - well, not necessarily. SF, fantasy, horror and crime - most of us haven't experienced them, have we? I haven't murdered anyone yet, although give me time, neither have I investigated a crime, other than trying to discover which of my four children perpetrated the latest domestic incident. Your imagination provides everything you need to start, and with the enormous resources of the internet research is available to confirm any detail of which you aren't sure.

Network. Yes, a rather naff late 20th/21st century term, but very necessary. When I started as a features writer with Which Computer some time before Adam got his fig leaf, we didn't, strangely, have the internet or social networking sites, and we had to Go Out And Talk To People. Most of us who worked in that kind of environment latched on to the internet very early on, but as so few others did, it didn't do us a lot of good. I began going to events such as the RNA (Romantic Novelists' Association) meetings and got to know a few people in the industry. Nowadays, you can connect with your favourite authors, make friends with agents - only don't pitch to them on Twitter! - and research opportunities easier than ever before. And still go to the real life events, too, if there are any appropriate to your particular fancy and if you can afford to.

Have I said anything helpful? I'm probably only reiterating what many others have said before. There are many how to sites and blogs out there, and I expect Gemma knows all of them. One thing we will all say, though, is to repeat the old adage: 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration. It's hard work, but persistence and dogged stubbornness will win the coconut. (Mostly.)

All the best,

Lesley Cookman

The latest Libby Sarjeant novel, Murder to Music, is out now and can be ordered here.

Friday, 8 April 2011

Interview with Russ Litten

All the Fun of the Fair

An Interview with Russ Litten

I am not a native of Hull, and didn't move here until was in my mid twenties. As such, my first trip to Hull Fair – the largest travelling fair in Europe – was a memorable experience. Every year in mid October, Walton Street is taken over by old style fairground games; hair-raising, ultra-modern rides and more sweet & food stalls thank you can shake a plastic light sabre at. By the time night falls your senses are assaulted with neon lights, screams of laughter and blaring music. I remember thinking, "this is an amazing location for a novel," just before I took out a load of my aggression on the Whack-a-frog stall.

It turns out, however, that I was right. Russ Litten's debut novel, Scream If You Want To Go Faster, is based around the weekend of Hull Fair, just after the floods that caused havoc in the city back in 2007. Russ took some time out of his busy schedule to chat to the project about his debut novel, and his experiences of the writing and publishing industry.

Hello Russ! Have you always wanted to be a writer? What stopped you dreaming about it and actually put pen to paper?

I think my desire to be a writer stemmed from having a short story published in The Yorkshire Post when I was seven. The paper asked local school children to write something about Christmas and I wrote a short thing about an angel losing his halo and Santa finding it for him.

After seeing my story in print that was it for me, there was nothing else that I wanted to do. Which was fortunate really, because as I made my way through school it became very apparent that writing was my only real talent. I was useless at maths and couldn't kick a football, so putting words together was my only option. As I got into my teens I started reading about the Beats and that seemed like the very life for me - running around and having mad adventures and avoiding any form of responsibility. So when I was sixteen I joined a rock and roll band and volunteered for the job of lyric writer. That was when I started to really become conscious of my writing and tried to shape it for maximum effect.

You've worked a range of writing gigs prior to completing your debut novel, can you tell us a bit about those?

The first real writing job I had was in commercial radio. I used to write the adverts. At the time there was a concerted effort by people in the industry to raise the bar, both in terms of writing and production values. It was a good time to get involved and I got the chance to travel around a bit and meet some inspiring people. After that I became a freelance writer. I did stuff for magazines and newspapers, web-sites and other bits and bobs, including music festival brochures and cable TV publications. I used to write those things you saw in WH Smith where you buy the first issue and get issue two free, "The World's Most Famous Murderers" and stuff like that. It was all good practice for writing fiction because it equipped me with valuable editing techniques. And I was writing constantly on a wide variety of subjects. Somewhere along the line I got introduced to a film director and I went down to London to write film scripts.

So why the decision to write a novel?

My novel started off as a short film about a lad who got talked out of a suicide attempt by a taxi driver. I was told this story by the actual taxi driver in question. I thought it was a brilliant tale, and set about writing the dialogue and searching out people to put it together on film. I quickly found this to be logistically tricky, so I decided to re-write it as a short story. Impatience, really. And then I started wondering why the lad in this story would want to end his own life. So I put together another short piece along these lines. My original intention was to write a short story collection around a central theme, but I wasn't sure what the theme would be. Then I met up with my brother in law around the Christmas holidays and he told me his neighbour was a writer and if I was agreeable he'd show this fellow my stories. A couple of weeks later I got a phone call from this writer and he told me that in his opinion I was good enough to get published. And he also told me that I should write a novel, not a short story collection, the former being notoriously hard to sell for a first time writer. That was when I started to think of my stuff in terms of a thematic whole and started looking at ways of spinning all the stories together.

What type of writer are you?

I try to do at least two thousand words a day. I find the best routine for me is to get on the keyboard very early in the morning and just keep at it until mid afternoon. I have a rough outline of where it's going, but am always prepared to be led up various side streets and detours. Which is actually part of the joy of the process for me. I find I often think in terms of scenes rather than chapters. That helps me break it down into more manageable chunks. If I get stuck or stymied in any way I tend to go for a run in the park. That usually helps. And I like to write to music, although it's usually instrumental or ambient stuff. Lyrics get in the way. Or lyrics sung in discernible English, at any rate.

How long between starting your novel and seeing it hit the shelves?

I started the novel in the summer of 2008 and it came out in the January of this year. So that's about two and a half years. Although it seemed like several lifetimes longer.

Do you have an agent?

Yes, my agent is Jon Elek at AP Watt, and he's a thoroughly splendid fellow. I got an agent because I was told I needed one, basically. Your chances of having your manuscript read by a publishing house escalate noticeably if you are represented by someone with credibility and contacts. It's a simple matter of maths. They get flooded with stuff, so a recommendation from a trusted source tends to jump the queue.

Tell us a bit about Scream if you want to go faster

It's ten intertwining tales set in and around Hull Fair, in the aftermath of the floods that struck Hull in 2007. It's about ordinary people living under extraordinary circumstances and pressures. A lot of it is semi-autobiograpical. It's been described as "gritty", which is usually applied to most stuff that comes out of the North of England. But that's fair enough. I tried to give it a real human heart, because it's essentially a book about people and how they interact with each other. It is written in the present tense and the action all takes place over a single weekend. I had the idea that it would be rather like the police helicopter that flies over the city, picking out people below in the spotlight then swooping over to the next situation. I wanted it to be an accessible book and I wanted it to be very vivid and cinematic.

Has anything about the publishing industry surprised you? Is there anything you know now that you wish someone had told you right at the start?

I was initially surprised at the slow pace at which everything operates. I was used to fast moving commercial environments. But I've come to appreciate this way of working, because it's all about making sure every single detail is right, as painstaking as that can be sometimes. And I was very pleasantly surprised at how thoroughly decent and ego-free the vast majority of people I've met in publishing are. One thing that has surprised me is the lack of heavy marketing or publicity they do. I suppose this is because I'm a first time author. But I quite like this aspect as well. I'm all for letting things grow organically and I think at the end of the day a book will always find its natural audience.

What are you working on right now?

I'm on with my second novel as well as messing about with the odd short story and stage script. I also work in a prison two days a week helping people with their creative writing. The novel is the main event though. It's about two men who confess to the same murder. They're both unreliable narrators. One of them is an eighteen year old kid off an estate in Hackney. The other is a seventy year old ex-sailor who likes to gamble on horses and get drunk. The working title is Captain Jack & The Rocksteady Kid.

Have you got a long term writing goal that you're willing to share with us?

I'd like to write a novel every year and make enough money to keep going, feed the kids etc. And to help people feel less alone. That's the only ambition, really.

And finally, can you sum up a key piece of advice for aspiring writers in one sentence?

Don't think of yourself as an aspiring writer. Just be a writer. With the emphasis on be.

Thanks to Russ for talking to us about his debut novel. For those of you who have not experienced the heady insanity that is Hull Fair, Russ explains some of the draw over here, and you can read some of his articles over here. Scream If You Want to Go Faster is available now from Amazon.