Manuscript Thefts

An article with the title ‘Hunt for the Book Thief in a literary Whodunnit’ by Anita Singh appeared in the 7 January 2022 issue of The Daily Telegraph.

“It was a mystery which gripped the publishing world: who was the secret fraudster behind a scheme to steal unpublished manuscripts? The scammer targeted hundreds of victims by assuming the identities of editors, agents and literary scouts in a global fraud spanning five years. On Wednesday, the FBI announced it had arrested and charged a suspect – Filippo Bernardini, 29, who had a lowly job in the rights department of the London office of Simon & Schuster.

Filippo Bernardini

“While it had long been suspected that the culprit had links to the publishing industry – they used familiar abbreviations such as ‘ms’ for ‘manuscript’ – the arrest came as a shock. Some of those targeted had dealt with Mr Bernardini on a professional basis. Mr Bernardini, an Italian citizen who studied for a masters degree in publishing at University College London, was arrested at New York’s John F Kennedy Airport. He is charged with wire fraud and aggravated identity theft. Prosecutors allege the Mr Bernardini impersonated, defrauded and attempted to defraud hundreds of individuals. The indictment did not mention the manuscripts in question. However authors who have been targeted by such a scam over the last five years include two of the world’s bestselling novelists – Margaret Atwood and Jo Nesbo and their books The Testaments and Knife – and at least one Pulitzer Prize winner.

“The charges allege that between 2016 and July last year, Mr Bernardini ‘engaged in a scheme to fraudulently obtain valuable prepublication manuscripts of novels and other forthcoming books, as well as synopses and other notes and reports related to unpublished books.’ He allegedly did this by creating lookalike email addresses – for example, replacing the letter ‘m’ in penguinrandomhouse.com with ‘rn’, a tiny, easily overlooked adjustment. According to prosecutors, Mr Benardini registered more than 160 fraudulent internet domains. All would forward to a single email address that he controlled.

The Indictment says Mr Bernardini devised the scheme to obtain ‘money and property by means of false and fraudulent pretenses’. However the motive is obscure, as some of those targeted were little-known novelists. No ransom demands were made, and the manuscripts were never pirated. . . . Michael J Driscoll, of the FBI, said ‘he was allegedly trying to steal others’ literary ideas for himself.'”

It seems to me that Mr Bernardini was indeed trying to steal others’ literary ideas for himself, as he made no apparent attempt to monetise the information he obtained. We authors must be careful in our correspondence with publishers, agents and literary scouts. And the industry needs to tighten its internal controls.

Review: It Can’t Happen Here

This novel by Sinclair Lewis caught my eye at the 30th Street Station in Philadelphia when I was in the States visiting family for Thanksgiving. It was published in 1935 when the US was still in the valley of the Great Depression, and parts of Europe were in the grip of fascism. In his introduction to the book, Michael Meyer, Professor of History at the University of Connecticut, says, “Engulfed by the complexities and vulnerabilities of our post-September 11 world, Americans of nearly all political persuasions are likely to find that It Can’t Happen Here, though firmly anchored in the politics of the 1930s, surfaces as a revealing and disturbing read.”

Harry Sinclair Lewis was born in 1885 in Minnesota. He attended Yale where he was editor of the literary magazine. After graduation in1907, he worked as a reporter and editor of various magazines, newspapers and publishing houses. His first novel, Our Mr Wrenn, was published in 1914, but his first successful novel, Main Street was published in 1920. He won the Pulitzer Prize for Arrowsmith in 1925. In 1930 he became the first American writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. He died in 1951.

Sinclair Lewis

It Can’t Happen Here is more a political commentary than a novel. Set in the mid-1930s it describes how the political climate at the time results in a fascist government taking power in the United States. It is all seen through the eyes of Doremus Jessup, the editor and publisher of a local newspaper in Vermont. Senator Buzz Windrip is elected President, having promised to restore American prominence in the world while providing $5000 per year for each American citizen. Dissent is outlawed by the new Corpo (short for corporate) regime, the American Congress is neutralised, power is removed from the states and given to new, autocratically-run districts. Women are disenfranchised; a. powerful new, savage militia known at the Minute Men is created, justice is administered by military tribunals, dissidents are imprisoned in concentration camps or executed. Doremus joins the New Underground resistance movement, secretly publishing the truth of what is happening. He is imprisoned, is tortured, escapes to Canada, and is assigned the territory of Minnesota to encourage resistance to the Corpos, who have started a diversionary war with Mexico, as the country descends into civil war.

At a personal level, viewed either from a liberal or an authoritarian position, the story has credibility. A gardener becomes a high-ranking Minute Man, with life and death power over his former employer. The motivations and emotions on each side are clear. The book is filled with minor characters, right- and left-leaning, filling many different positions at local, district and national levels, adding credibility to what is happening. The tone of the book is largely neutral: atrocities are reported factually, so that it is not a grand polemic, but a sober report. There are elements of satire and humour in the descriptions of some events, which make it clear whose side the author is on, while preserving his credibility.

The book is a sobering attention-getter without suggesting an action plan. Lewis was not a political thinker; he was an independent liberal who believed in individual rights. He was a reporter of what he saw and could foresee.

It seems unlikely that even with the concerted efforts of group of powerful fanatics America could become fascist as easily as it did in It Can’t Happen Here. It would not be easy to overcome the democratic forces exerted by an aroused US Congress, the US judiciary and the armed forces. But given what happened on January 6 2021, one has to pause for thought.

One-Hit Wonders

The Sunday Telegraph had an article about authors who wrote one brilliant novel and never published another. The article is written by Claire Allfree, who is a freelance writer covering arts and entertainment in the UK. I quote from her article below.

“When the New Zealand novelist Keri Hulme died last week at the age of 74, she joined a venerated group of authors not known for winning the Booker Prize – which she did in 1985 with her Maori magic realistic epic The Bone People – but for the production in her lifetime of only one complete novel. Emily Bronte, Margaret Mitchell, J D Salinger, Ralph Ellison, Harper Lee, Anna Sewell all wrote a single, game-changing, long-form masterpiece. To that list can be added novelists equally or better known for other art forms – the poets Sylvia Plath and Boris Pasternak; the playwright Oscar Wilde; the short story writers Alice Munro and Edgar Allen Poe, although Bronte was also a n accomplished poet and Salinger a revolutionary short story writer. Nonetheless the image of the artist who produces just one perfect piece of work and then lapses into silence, often out of sight of the public view, is seductive. How admirable to leave just a single artistic legacy, its brilliance undimmed by inferior additional works, untainted by the siren call of game or ego.”

“Seductive, but rarely true. Few writers calmly put down their pen after dashing off a fabulous big hit, with the possible exception of Margaret Mitchell, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning Gone with the Wind was published in 1936. Mitchell always insisted she would never write another book, partly out of horror at her new-found celebrity (she expected Gone with the Wind to sell 5000 copies; it sold 50,000 on its first day). But while she refused all interviews, there were rumours she was considering a second, when she was killed in 1949 by a drunk driver at the age of 48.

The writer who comes first to my mind in this category is Harper Lee, whose novel, To Kill a Mockingbird is an American classic. “Lee never wrote another book after To Kill a Mockingbird was published in 1960, but possibly not for want of trying. ‘Success has had a very bad affect on me,’ she later said. ‘I’ve gotten fat – but extremely uncomplacent. I’m running just as scared as before’. “

Harper Lee

Harper Lee’s book, Go Set a Watchman, which was published in 2015, has confirmed to be an early draft of Mockingbird. In my opinion it was not even close to the calibre of Mockingbird.

“No, the messier, more complicated truth would appear to be: once a writer, always a writer. Some radical figures like Hulme, Salinger, Mitchell and Lee do not necessarily believe that everything they write needs to be published, or that writing – that most solitary of forms – should be considered a public spectacle.”

“In fact Hulme, who when told by telephone that she had won the Booker replied, ‘Oh, bloody hell’, rejected the idea that her writing was for the benefit of other people. A pipe-smoking, white-baiting aficionado who lived alone in a small settlement on New Zealand’s south island, in a house she built herself. Hulme embraced a maverick obscurity, yet she continued to write after her win, producing short stories and two further manuscripts that remained unpublished at her death. ‘It might seem that I’m low in the productive stakes. I don’t think it’s about being a celebrity at all. It’s about creating stories and songs that will last. Otherwise, it’s not worthwhile.”

“Meanwhile Salinger, who in 1953 retreated to a house in New Hampshire where he remained virtually unseen until his death in 2010 following the zeitgeist-defining of 1951’s The Catcher in the Rye told the New York Times in a rare 1974 interview that, ‘There is a marvelous peace in not publishing. It’s peaceful. Still. Publishing is a terrible invasion of my privacy.’ All the same. rumours abound over what manuscripts may be gathering dust: in that same interview he said he continued to write ten hours a day, while his daughter Maureen has spoken of a vault filled with rigorous notes on what was to be published after his death. Nothing has so far materialised, with Salinger’s son and widow, who control his estate, as tightlipped and suspicious of public scrutiny and the publishing machine as Salinger was.”

I remember reading The Catcher in the Rye in 1955 when I was in high school in New Hampshire. At the time is was suggested reading for the senior class.

Ms Allfree goes on to say that “Salinger, Mitchell and Lee all attempted to exert absolute control over their writing, pursuing unscrupulous publishers who tried to produce unlicensed editions of their work.”

This kind of conflict ultimately benefits no one.

Multiple Narrative Forms

Writer’ Digest has an article by Liz Keller Whitehurst, dated 9 November 2012, in which she describes the advantages of using multiple narrative forms, including first and third person narratives, interview transcripts, letters, posts, and journal entries.

Ms Whitehurst is the author of her debut novel, Messenger, and her short stories have appeared in many literary magazines and journals. She earned master’s degree in English from The University of Virginia. In addition to fiction writing, Liz has spent her professional life writing and teaching.  She lives with her husband in Richmond, Virginia.

Liz Keller Whitehurst

Ms Whitehurst says, “My novel tells the story of Messenger, a mysterious older woman who delivers life-changing messages to seemingly random people all over New York City; and Alana, the young journalist who longs to tell Messenger’s story. The use of multiple narrative forms embodies Alana’s journey as she, a sort of detective, seeks to gather information and first-person accounts, to search for clues. Her goal is to track Messenger down, meet and get to know her, then hopefully unravel her mysterious messages and to determine if this story is the big break that will make Alana’s career.

“Being a writer, it’s natural that Alana would keep a journal and would ask Messenger to write down her own thoughts, to explain her process, and to reveal more about herself. The posts Alana receives from people whose lives were changed by Messenger’s messages also works naturally, as do the interview transcripts. And the quick rhythm of switching back and forth between forms mirrors the fast-paced life of one of the other main characters of the novel—New York City.

“Using multiple forms with multiple characters and thus, dividing the novel into shorter sections or bites is a means of addressing readers’ short attention span and the way we tend to read on our computer and phones these days. Just as short stories have seen a new resurgence, these shorter pieces encompass the clarity of that life-changing moment like flash fiction, and can be read in a short period of time and still satisfy.

“I love it when I, the reader, know more than the characters I’m reading about. It’s delicious, builds tension, and moves the dramatic arc along with verve. Creating dramatic irony is another plus of using multiple narrative forms. In my novel, I wanted the reader to know much more about Messenger and the Watchers than Alana has any idea of, both through the action but also through what Messenger reveals in Messenger’s Composition Book. Through Messenger’s entries, the reader gets a glimpse of the greater aim behind Messenger and Alana’s journey together, far beyond the book Alana thinks she’s writing. 

“The editor, publisher, and I had fun choosing just the right fonts for each of the narrative forms, so that Alana’s Journal, Messenger’s Composition Book, the posts, and the traditional narrative chapters each had its own particular font to distinguish them from one another. Using different fonts makes the book more visually appealing and easier to follow as it shifts forms.”

I would add that using multiple narrative forms with multiple characters gives the writer the advantage of several sources of information to develop each individual. One can use different sources offering divergent view of a character, so that the reader gets an in-depth view of a complex person.

Turning Reality into Fiction

Writer’s Online has a piece on December 10 this year written by Lori Ann Stevens about how to capture a real, frightening event in prose. It’s not easy. It can seem dry, exaggerated, stilted or difficult to believe. But Ms Stevens has some tips on how to make the terrible event real for the reader.

Lori Ann Stevens

Ms Stevens is the author of Blue Running, published by Moonflower Books. She said, “My sister’s boyfriend was fourteen years old when he accidentally shot himself in the stomach while cleaning his hunting rifle. He was alone, and the wound was fatal. His sudden death left everyone shaken and horrified. I hoped that the school counsellors would help my little sister heal from the trauma. I’d recently had a baby, so I acknowledged and then buried the image as quickly as possible. It wasn’t until decades later that I realized how profoundly this boy’s death had settled into my consciousness. In Blue Running, my new novel set in Texas, a similar accident occurs. I relived the accident as I typed the scene, watching quite helplessly as this girl – filled with dreams and imagination – bled out on the floor. In spite of her friend’s screams for help, in spite of a desperate race to find a phone, to flag down a car, the girl dies. Her best friend could only witness the horror, hold the girl in her arms, feel every moment. Like me, the writer who was finally reckoning with the memory.

“It was my imagination that had made the real event so long ago unbearable: what had gone through his head as he lost his grip on consciousness? To die violently and alone – I can’t imagine a more terrifying event. It’s this capacity for imagination, and the willingness to step through those doors, that makes us empathetic humans… and makes writers create believable scenes for their readers.

“But it’s not easy, writing out terrifying, real-life events. Robin Hemley in Turning Life into Fiction, puts it this way: “‘But it really happened!’ is such a lame defense for a story you’ve written. If it doesn’t seem believable, forget it.” It doesn’t matter that a scene is based on real events if the narrative choices aren’t authentic. Here are a couple of tips to make these terrifying scenes credible in fiction. Rather than describing the blind flight of adrenaline blurred by mayhem, try to capture the crystal clear moments that imprint on the brain in the midst of the event.

“It probably won’t come as a surprise that slowing the pacing of the story allows the reader to experience the event, moment by moment. On the one hand, it’s counterintuitive, because terrifying events are often experienced as a blur – a rush of adrenaline sending you into survival mode. On the other hand, it’s also the exact inverse: a slowing of time and space. Who’s been in a car wreck and doesn’t have a terrifying, slow-motion memory imprinted on the backs of their eyelids? The car fishtailing on the icy road, the classic music on the radio echoing like a phantom, your tight grip on the steering wheel, the car jumping the curb like a fledgling bird and plummeting down the frost-covered grassy knoll.

“In this ironic slowing of time, my characters notice things we don’t register in our everyday lives. Their frame or focus might be more limited in a frightening situation as they  fixate on one thing and store it in their memory: the buzz of a fly on the windowsill or the odd swish of an overcoat. Sensorial details like the cold tip of your nose, the sand grabbing onto your feet, or the smell of burnt hair. If your character is frightened and alone, forget the heartbeat racing and focus on the sound of his breath whistling, giving his hiding spot away. One benefit of staying in the moment like this instead of rushing the narrative is that your sentences might stretch out, compound the images, keep the readers moving from detail to detail, phrase to phrase. Or use shorter sentences.”

I tend to agree with Ms Stevens that it is most effective to use short, graphic, incoherent details in brief sentences to convey the feelings of a frightening event. Trying to capture the event in all its horror comes across as false. We need a sense of time moving quickly, of snapshots of consciousness. Short sentences and phrases pick up the pace. Onomatopoeia can be useful. For example, if sliding is the issue, using many words with an ‘S’ sound can convey the feeling. Effective horror scenes tend to show, rather than tell. It is often more powerful not to deal directly with the central horror threat. For instance, rather than describing the site of a broken bone, show that the limb seems to be at an odd angle.

Cancel Culture Hits Publishing

There is an article in the Daily Telegraph two days ago written by Ella Whelan titled ‘Twitter is the last place writers should go if they want a debate’. The article centres on Kate Clanchy and her 2019 award-winning book, Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me. The author used the phrases ‘chocolate-coloured skin’, ‘almond-shaped eyes’, a ‘fine Ashkenazi nose’, a ‘narrow skull’ for an Ethiopian boy, and ‘flirty hijabs’ for Muslin girls. Clanchy also described one of her students as “African Jonathon” and another being “so small and square and Afghan with his big nose and premature moustache”. Two autistic children were described as “unselfconsciously odd” and “jarring company”. 

In a separate article, The Guardian said, “Clanchy has taught in state schools for more than 30 years. In 2018, she published an anthology of pupils’ poetry and was awarded an MBE for services to literature. In 2020, a panel of independent Orwell prize judges described her memoir as “moving, funny and full of life”, offering “sparkling insights into modern British society”, and awarded the book the prize for political writing.

Kate Clanchy
Kate Clanchy

This summer, reviewers on Goodreads pointed out the ‘unsavoury descriptions’ and critics in the world of publishing raised the alarm not only about the book, but what is said about the world of publishing that such passages would go uncut.

Ella Whelan said, “Anyone who knows the industry will tell you that it is elitist and exclusive. A recent survey revealed that 90 percent of the publishing world is white. On top of that, it is also a profit-driven market, in which social media trends are consulted more often that artistic judgements about which stories or writers deserve to enter print.”

Three writers, Monisha Rajesh, Sunny Singh, Chimene Suleyman, the Society of Authors,, Philip Gwyn Jones (a Picador publisher), Picador, Pan Macmillan (Picador’s owner), and Kate Clanchy went on Twitter to express their various views that:

  • British publishing must do better
  • preventing authors writing about people different to themselves would be a death knell to literature
  • vigorously condemn online bullying
  • appalled by the suffering experienced
  • welcome the chance to write better, more lovingly

My reaction to this bruhaha is that first of all, British publishing must do better in selecting books and authors more on artistic value and less on what the loudest British culture does or doesn’t want to hear. Given its white elitist nature, British publishing needs to be more sensitive to the feelings of minorities. Fighting culture wars on the Internet with personal condemnations is unethical and counter-productive.

What bothers me more about some of the descriptions in Ms Clanchy’s book is not the alleged racism. (What’s pejorative about the adjectives ‘chocolate-coloured’ or ‘almond-shaped’ or ‘flirty’? In fact, ‘flirty hajib’ is a playful description. Are we not permitted to identify a character as a member of a minority group except by writing ‘black’ and ‘Asian’ and ‘Muslim’?) I am more concerned about Ms Clanchy’s apparent unease as a teacher with the disabilities of her pupils.

The 27 Best Opening Lines

Ellie Harrison has an article on this subject in the 17 October 2019 issue of the Independent. She said,

“The first sentence of any piece of writing is arguably the most important – both in terms of hooking the reader in and of doing justice to the body of work that it is introducing. Our attempt, here, is perhaps a little on-the-nose and definitely overestimates the quality of the copy that follows but, hey, it caught your attention and demonstrated our point.”

Ellie Harrison

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” – Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.” – Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

“The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.” – The Secret History by Donna Tartt

“It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.” – The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

“I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.” – I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” – Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

“When he woke in the woods in the dark and cold of the night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him.” – The Road by Cormac McCarthy

“It was love at first sight.” – Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

“Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the previous three months.” – High-Rise by JG Ballard

“There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.” – Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

“We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.” – Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S Thompson

“Mother died today. Or maybe, yesterday; I can’t be sure.” – The Stranger by Albert Camus

“124 was spiteful.” – Beloved by Toni Morrison

“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.” – Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.” – The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger

“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” – The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien

“All this happened, more or less.” – Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

“All children, except one, grow up.” – Peter Pan by JM Barrie

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.” – A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” – The Go-Between by LP Hartley

“In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone, he told me, just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.” – The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald

“It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love.” – Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez

“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” – Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier

“Mr. and Mrs. Dursley of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.” – Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by JK Rowling

“Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.” – David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

“It was the day my grandmother exploded.” – The Crow Road by Iain Banks

“The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new.” – Murphy by Samuel Beckett

While I agree with Ms Harrison that the role of a first line is to capture the reader’s attention and to introduce the story which is to come, I don’t feel that some of these opening lines do the job. Some seem annoying and untruthful, like the exploding grandmother and writing in the sink. But others, like the first line of David Copperfield, are quite catchy.

Well, here’s my latest first line: “I’m not sure I should have accepted this assignment.” Granduncle Bertie will be out early next year.

Review: The Tattooist of Auschwitz

This novel was first published in 2018, but I don’t remember hearing about it at the time. The title caught my attention, particularly when the cover says it is based on the true story of Lale Sokolov.

The author is Heather Morris, a New Zealander now living in Australia. While working in a large hospital in Melbourne, she studied and wrote screenplays. She was introduced to Lale Sokolov in 2003, and she originally wrote Lale’s story as a screenplay before reshaping it into her debut novel.

Heather Morris

Lale was born Ludwig Eisenberg in 1916 in Krompachy, Slovakia. He was Jewish and was transported to Auschwitz in April 1942, where he was tattooed with the number 32407. Lale’s parents were transported to Auschwitz in March 1942, while Lale was still in Prague. They were murdered on arrival in Auschwitz. In early 1945, Lale is herded on a train which takes him to Austria where he is made to work as a pimp in a German officers’ quarters. In April he escapes and boards a train to Bratislava, where, eventually he meets Gita, proposes and they marry. Lale changes his name to Sokolov. In 1949 they move to Australia, where Gita became a dress designer and Lale was in the textile trade. Their son, Gary, was born in 1961. Gita died in 2003 and Lale in 2006.

Most of the novel concerns Lale’s experiences in Auschwitz, where he was selected to be a tattooist, placing the required numbers on the arms of new arrivals. As a tattooist, he had an improved living status, and access to staff working in the office, as well as to the female barracks, where he meets and falls in love with Gita. His female friends provide him with jewellery, which has been confiscated from the arriving Jews, in exchange for additional food, and in Gita’s case live saving medication. Lale is able to exchange the jewels for food and medicine with Polish workmen in Auschwitz. Lale meets the infamous Dr Mengele, and is tortured when his cache of jewellery is discovered.

The novel faces a difficult task balancing the unethical work which Lale performs as a tattooist and a pimp against his good deeds of providing extra food and medicine with the additional weight of necessary survival. While the book is presented as a novel, it is really a biography of Ludwig Eisenberg, and, as such it is a powerful, well-told story. I felt that sometimes there was not sufficient clarity in the contrast between Lale’s dedicated optimism and the grim pessimism which must have prevailed throughout the camp. Sometimes, the dialogue does not ring true, in the sense that it is tasked with carrying the story further rather than expressing the emotions of the characters.

Overall, a very good read.

An Author’s Complaint

In last Friday’s email, Harry Bingham quoted a disappointed author, Natalie Tay, who wrote:

‘As someone who has experienced endless rejection, frequently accompanied by notes assuring me that it was an “incredibly close call”, I simply can’t sit back and agree that a rejection means “you’re not there yet”.

I’ve spent years and months believing that [but] sometimes you get rejected for reasons that have nothing to do with the quality of your work. I can’t even tell you how many agents I’ve had who have told me that my pitch was intriguing and the quality of my pages was excellent, but this “wasn’t the book for them”. And the thing is, because the world of traditional publishing is so fickle, this happens. Probably all the time.

I’m sure you could argue that my book must have been missing some sort of je ne sais quoi or needed one more draft or who knows what, and with some of my manuscripts I can agree with that assessment. But with others, I can’t. Not to say I’m done learning or above needing help, but at some point when I’ve produced multiple manuscripts that match the quality of existing published novels, I have to believe it’s not me.

So please, for the love of all of the souls who have been crushed one too many times, own up to the fact that luck is involved.’

Natalie Tay

Harry responded:

“And she’s right. Her writing has a crisp professionalism. There’s nothing in the pages I read that gives the book away as unsuitable for Big 5 publication. On the contrary, you could find any number of Big 5 books that are either of the same standard, or a shade less adept. (As a matter of fact, you could probably find some major bestsellers that were less adept. I can think of a few…)

So let me give you a somewhat more detailed view of how Planet Agent makes its decisions. As far as agents are concerned, books fall into roughly the following strata:

Nowhere close to good enough These books have obvious problems on the first page, and probably the query letter too.

Not good enough (manuscript) These books aren’t as bad, but the problems do reveal themselves – and usually on the first page.

Not good enough (synopsis)

A niche category this, and not a much populated one, but you’ll come across some manuscripts where the prose comes across as acceptable, but perhaps not quite compelling. The agent wonders whether to read on and turns to the synopsis. The synopsis, however, fails to deliver a convincing story arc and the agent is left feeling that the book is unsaleable.

Strong

Once you’ve discarded the books that are clearly not strong enough, you’re left with maybe 1-2% of the total slushpile, where the reasons for rejecting just aren’t that clear. The prose? It’s fine. The story? All present and correct.

But the agent is only going to take on perhaps 1 in 1000 manuscripts, so just 0.1% of what comes her way. That means she has to discard 9-19 of the 10-20 strong manuscripts she comes across. Some of the reasons for dropping those submissions would include:

  • Too similar to an existing client.
  • Submission comes when the agent is busy or stressed.
  • Submission arrives just when the agent is blown away by a genuinely stunning manuscript.
  • Submission fails for reasons of personal taste, rather than objective critical judgement.
  • Submission fails because when the agent is thinking of who to sell the manuscript to, and how she would pitch the sale, she can’t quite see her way to a compelling strategy.

Luck pretty obviously plays a part here – and for that reason it’s vital that you query 10-12 agents, not merely 3-4. That said, the fifth bullet point on this list is not to do with luck and we’ll talk more about that in a moment. Before that, though, there is a fifth category of manuscript to deal with …

The outright stunning

Any sane agent would pick that book up. Any sane editor would, at the least, be seriously tempted. Yes, there will be some luck-based rejections nevertheless (agent too busy, too stressed, no personal click, etc), but the author’s experience is going to be essentially one of doors flying open, rather than doors slamming shut.”

Harry then lays out three possible options:

1. Query a digital-first publisher.

Those guys accept more like 1 in 100 manuscripts than 1 in 1000. They’re hoovering up the almost-but-not-quite manuscripts from elsewhere. That doesn’t mean they’re second-best as publishers, however. There are some absolutely first-class publishers amongst their number … and I know people who have gone from a print-led Big 5 imprint to a digital-first one, and seen their sales go through the roof. They’ve also, nearly always, had a better outcome in terms of author care. In effect, those guys take some of the luck out of the question. They take the top 1% of manuscripts and let readers choose their favourite. It’s a brilliant model.

2. Self-publish.

I’ve made a more regular, dependable income from self-pub than I ever did from trad. I’ve had stronger relations with readers. I’ve had better marketing, better book covers, more flexibility, more control. As it happens, I made my biggest film and TV sale via self-pub not trad. What’s not to like? Self-publishing is an outstanding route to market and no one should feel embarrassed to take it.

3. Nail the elevator pitch.

The trouble with most strong manuscripts – the ones that get rejected – is that they ask, politely, to be admitted to Publishing Towers. The stunning manuscripts don’t ask: they kick the doors down.

Competent writing + a workmanlike premise = a book that might or might not get published

Competent writing + a stunning premise = a book that can’t be ignored.

The elevator pitch essentially does the agent’s work for them. How do I pitch this to publishers? How do I set out the path to sales?

With a book that’s merely strong, those questions have fiddly, failure-prone answers. With a kick-the-doors-down book (Crawdads, Gone Girl, Light We Cannot See), those questions have answers that are blazingly obvious.

That’s where luck stops being a factor, or almost. Yes, you might hit an agent who’s too busy or stressed or drunk to notice the bar of gold that’s just struck their toe. But go to more than a handful of agents, and one of them is bound to pick it up – and be delighted that they have.

I think Harry makes some very good points.

Amazing Story

The BBC ran an amazing story on September 19 about a young English woman who gave up a career in financial law for crime writing; she decided to go down the self-publishing path and has sold seven million copies.

Louise Ross
Louise Ross

Duncan Leatherdale of the BBC wrote:

A young woman brutally slaughtered in a ritualistic killing on Holy Island. A skeleton concealed by a murderer in Hadrian’s Wall. A robbery of ancient artefacts from Durham Cathedral.

“Once you get bitten by the writing bug it’s hard to shake it,” Louise says.

“Everywhere we go I find little bits of inspiration from the landscape, although I’m not always looking for places to commit crimes.

“That only really happened once when I was on Hadrian’s Wall and I did think, ‘hmm, you could hide a body here’.”

Since 2015, Louise has written 18 books in the DCI Ryan series, four novels chronicling the exploits of forensic psychologist Dr Alexander Gregory, a short story anthology and the Cornish cove crime thriller.

For the previous 10 years, she had been a financial services lawyer in London which involved tackling white collar criminals and “trying to stop people perpetuating fraud”.

“I found after a few years I was not loving it and I could not say my heart was fully in it.”

Deciding to take a sabbatical, Louise, who by this time was married to a barrister called James, set her sights on studying forensic psychology.

But her work-break soon became a “lovely surprise” maternity leave as she discovered she was pregnant with the couple’s first child.

At around the same time, the couple were on a train bound for Edinburgh when, travelling up the Northumberland coast, she had a flash of an idea that went on to change her life.

“We saw Holy Island,” Louise says.

“It was miserable weather but so atmospheric and I remember looking at the island and thinking it would be a great place to set a story.”

Inspired by her love of the “golden age of crime writing” encapsulated by the likes of Agatha Christie, as well as her childhood passion for the good versus evil narratives of the Christopher Reeve Superman films and Star Wars saga, Louise found herself creating a new detective – Det Ch Insp Maxwell Finlay-Ryan.

His first adventure is on Holy Island, where he has gone to recover from his own recent trauma when he is confronted by the gruesome murder of a young woman whose remains are found in the priory ruins.

Louise spent 18 months writing it around getting to grips with motherhood, before starting the hunt for an agent and publisher.

“With breath-taking naivety I sent it to 12 or 14 agents and publishers thinking that would be enough. I only later learnt JK Rowling sent Harry Potter to hundreds.

“I did have one offer from what I would call a midsize publishing house which was exciting, but when the contract came through and I was supposed to feel elated, I just didn’t.

“I thought, ‘I’m handing over an awful lot here, my intellectual property in perpetuity’.

Holy Island was published by Amazon as an e-book on 1 January 2015 and sold 25 copies, all to family and friends, while Louise also printed a few copies to sell in local bookshops.

But by May it was number one in the Kindle store, knocking Paula Hawkins’ Girl On A Train off top spot, with daily sales of about 4,500 for which Louise credits “word of mouth”.

The majority of her seven million plus sales have been e-books although printed copies produced by Dark Skies Publishing, the firm run by her and her husband, can be found in mainstream and independent bookshops with audio books also available.

Louise acknowledges she is in a fortunate position to be able to have the time and support of her family to write and publish her books, with James effectively operating as the publishing director.

“Independent publishing is not for everyone, it does depend on what your support network is like,” she says.

In November Dark Skies Publishing will publish its first book not written solely by Louise – an anthology from more than 50 authors to raise money for homelessness charity Shelter.