Christine Hammacott: Getting to grips with Genre – why understanding your genre is so important

Genre was something set in motion by the ancient Greek playwrights who, followed by Shakespeare, categorised their works into three batches – history, tragedy and comedy. Satire, they used to provide some light relief in the midst of their tragedies. Google will tell us there are five main genres, each with its own rules, for example, length and character types. So, each genre has boundaries, but these are fluid. A story may be set in a dystopian future but have a strong romance at its core.

So, the rules of genre may not be hard and fast, but writers do need to be aware of them.

‘Think of the labels on tinned food,’ Christine Hammacott, graphic design consultant and self-published author of psychological suspense, told the gathered members and guests of the Hampshire Writers’ Society on Tuesday night, ‘you wouldn’t be impressed if you opened what you were eagerly expecting to be your favourite beans or soup, and you got dog food.’

A life-long book lover, Christine worked for a long time in the publishing industry. Determined to be the master on her own skills, she set up THE ART OF COMMUNICATION. Her first book, THE TASTE OF ASH has been a recommendation of the UK Crime Book Club.

‘A crime story can be written in a very light way.’ she points out, ‘Or it can be written in a very dark way.’

Many authors, when asked what their book is about, will launch into a twenty-minute, blow-by-blow account of their entire story. This is not what the question was.

The many writers who announce: their book is unique, doesn’t fit into any genre, need to do some more research – read lots, join Facebook and Twitter groups, sift through Amazon and Goodreads, resort to the Writers and Artists Yearbook and analyse exactly what it is that you have written. You could always talk to Christine at The Art of Communication!

The first thing an agent thinks: Is this sellable? And a publisher? Where does this fit with my current writers? If you’re self-publishing, what words will potential readers use to search for your book on somewhere like Amazon?

‘As writers, we don’t want to be pigeonholed, but we do want to sell our books.’ she reminds us.

Everybody talks about plot, so what is in the content of your book? Think of the theme; the theme being the overriding issue. If you’re not sure, then talk about your book and the theme will soon materialise.

Imagine that you have stepped into an elevator with the agent of your dreams, so you have only until the doors open to pitch your book to them. This elevator pitch is the one sentence that on-line sellers will use in their description of the book. You don’t need to give away the surprise or even the plot. Your pitch just needs to be punchy and promote the hooks, including where and when story is set.

Wherever you pitch your book, reader expectations are likely to be high. Potential readers want to know what they’re getting. You need to get to know the ‘nub’ of your book, talk about what it is ‘about’.

If you are self-publishing, consider your cover. A book’s cover will illustrate the genre to potential sellers and readers. The colour, font, imagery and focal point evoke an emotional response does it make the reader smile or gasp, frown or laugh out loud. For your e-book you can trawl through covers on Amazon, Goodreads, your Facebook and Twitter groups. Browse bookshops, but keep in mind, how your chosen cover will cope as a thumbnail.

Report by L Nightingale.

Glenn Fosbraey

At the last Tuesday night meeting of the Hampshire Writers’ Society, Glenn Fosbraey, the Head of Department for English, Creative Writing and American Studies at the University of Winchester spoke to us about the importance of lyrics. Glenn’s talk proved popular, and, as we’ve had Glenn to talk to use before, I am sure he will come to talk to us again.

“Lyrics enhance our emotional connection to a piece of music.” Glenn Fosbraey, Head of Department for English, Creative Writing and American Studies at the University of Winchester, told the gathered members and guests of the Hampshire Writers’ Society this Tuesday night.

An instrumental can instigate an emotional experience; Lyrics bring on more complex emotions: humour, irony. Glenn played us Paul McCartney’s Yesterday, which everyone knows was composed by McCartney during a dream. However, the song’s working lyrics were about scrambled eggs with bacon.

No real emotions are raised – “Unless you have a thing about eggs.” says Glenn. Lyrics, particularly at the time, seemed largely to be only for commercial use, the band connecting with the girl on the front row and songs were written to a “faceless you.” Neither were the Beatles in the business of producing instrumentals – Yesterday needed some proper lyrics.

Lyricist, Tim Rice described the song’s biggest success as its relatability. Yet, when you segregate, Yesterday’s lyrics, you find what Glenn calls the “shiver factor.”

“Why she had to go…” McCartney’s mother died suddenly when he was just thirteeen.

And then:

“I said something wrong…” at being given the news of her death, McCartney had blurted, “What will we do without her money?” He had said the “wrong thing” – a thirteen-year old’s way of dealing with grief.

Whether you agree with the way Yesterday was written or, indeed, who it was written for, you cannot deny that when you think of it this way, it gives you a “shiver.” Thus, lyrics also instigate a physical response from the listener. A connection which is impossible without words.

You can find out more about Glenn here.

Report by L Nightingale.

Joel McIver – The Geek Will Inherit the Earth

“The music industry is a place full of damaged people.’ Joel McIver, Bass Player, Editor and Co-writer of autobiographies with such people as Woody Woodmansey, Glenn Hughes and Cannibal Corpse, told the gathered members and guests of the Hampshire Writers’ Society this Tuesday night, ‘Being a geek is a good thing.’

Justice for All: The Truth About Metallica

After acquiring a degree in German, for no other reason than he was good at it, Joel began his career as a journalist on the magazine: The Record Collector. At the time, the publishers wanted a German speaking journalist! The Record Collector gave Joel a platform from which he could pitch book ideas whilst being taken seriously by the publisher. In 2004 his book, Justice for All: The Truth About Metallica, found a niche selling close to 50,000 copies and translating into nine languages. Joel left his job and became a full-time writer.

“It sounds weird,” he confesses, “when, at your writers’ circle, you say you’re writing an autobiography.” But the fact is, Joel’s subjects simply do not have the time to sit and write an 80,000-word memoir.

Co-writing differs from ghost writing in that, the writing and research is all the author’s work. This Joel does, using around 50-60 hours of interview, subsequently crafting it together, with a start and a finish. A ghost writer will receive no credit on the book’s cover.

“To sit in front of a blank screen and fill it with…anything…that’s where the burden comes in.” Joel declares. He has tried writing fiction: “It is bad sixth form!” he admits.

Entirely from the subject’s point of view, an autobiography must, in the same way a fictional character speaks with their own articulation, portray that subject’s voice. Joel conducts his interviews in an informal atmosphere, perhaps in a cottage deep in in the forest, sitting in front of a roaring fire with a bottle of whisky. Thus, the vibe of the interview is one of conversation, which when transcribed, comes through in the writing. Joel recollects writing an autobiography with a Brazilian rock star for whom English was not his first language: with no polishing, the subject’s strong accent was evident in the finished product; his voice was in the writing.

“It is an honour,” Joel announces, “to sit down with these people and talk about their lives.” These are the people whose faces were in the posters on his walls.

Cannibal Corpse – Bible of Butchery: the Official Autobiography

The autobiography writer must exercise judgement, steer the book. When tackling a project, Joel asks not only himself, but the subject as well; “Who wins from telling this story?” To get back at someone or for the money are not good reasons for writing the book.

He also makes a point of avoiding details, too depressing or disgusting; addictions can affect anybody and although this evasive action does not include the ‘sad’, most readers will have experienced bereavement. Not everybody wants to read about misery or debauchery, even for those that do, it will become monotonous, they will tire of it after a few chapters.

Joel went on to explain how he and Woody Woodmansey felt that whilst they were “committing history to paper”, they did so with the intention of surpassing the account that general media will circulate. “It may sound pretentious,” Joel said, appeasing us with: “But you guys will know what I mean…”

With a background in journalism, which is to entertain, Joel sets out to do just this with his writing. When writing an autobiography, you are trying to capture the person’s personality for prosperity.

Joel is currently working on an autobiography of whom he wouldn’t be persuaded to tell; suffice to say that “they” were a phenomenon in the Eighties…and have some juicy stories to tell. “Be patient,” he says, “it takes about a year to produce these books.”

Report by L Nightingale.

 

This is Glenn’s Song – and this is why he loves it.

Our special guest at the next meeting of the Hampshire Writer’s Society will be Head of Department for English, Creative Writing and American Studies at the University of Winchester, Glenn Fosbraey. You may remember that Glenn spoke to us back in 2016 when he waxed lyrical about his latest addition to the University – the degree on Popular Music. A month or so later, Glenn very kindly sent us his top five favourite song lyrics, explaining, in his very poetical way, why he liked and valued them so much. Still a huge fan of The Smiths, this is his favourite song of all and he tells us why.

‘There is a Light That Never Goes Out’ – The Smiths

It was on a gloomy winter’s afternoon at the age of fifteen, teenage angst and unrequited love in full-force, that I had my best Smiths experience. I had been infatuated with the band for a month or so by this point, started via a random purchase of Greatest Hits album Best 1 from the bargain bin at Woolworths, and I was ready to graduate to their masterpiece The Queen Is Dead. As I start the long walk back from HMV in town, I read the lyrics from the CD brochure and savour the anticipation of those words being set to music; hearing those first sounds coming out of the speakers; feeling the irresistible mixture of nerves and excitement as I get ever-closer to my house and CD player. At home, I close the bedroom door behind me and turn the lights off, cutting myself off from the bustle of family and TV downstairs, creating perfect Smiths-listening conditions. About half an hour in, I arrive at the penultimate track. ‘There Is a Light That Never Goes Out’. I fall in love. The mixture of the everyday (‘driving in your car…’) with the philosophical (‘…a heavenly way to die’); the way Morrissey is able, in a couple of lines, to demonstrate the shyness, frustration, and confusion many teens encounter when faced with the objects of their desire (‘…and then a strange fear gripped me and I just couldn’t ask’); the mixture of the ugly (‘and if a ten tonne truck kills the both of us…’) and the beautiful (‘…to die by your side, well the pleasure, the privilege is mine’); it’s the slight pauses before the choruses kick in; the swirl of the strings in the choruses themselves; it’s Morrissey not quite being able to reach the highest note but not re-recording it, making the listener feel at one with him, as if it could be them in that vocal booth instead of him, missing perfection but making it somehow more perfect because of this; it’s the repetition of the title again and again in the outro. Love and loss, hope and despair, alienation and belonging, all crammed into four life-changing and life-affirming minutes. There is, indeed, a Light That Never Goes Out, and for me, it will always be this song, in that moment, on that CD player.

Beyond the Creativity Bit

Paul Newsome

“What do The Martian by Andy Weir, 50 Shades of Grey by E. L. James and Eragon by Christopher Paolini have in common?” Paul Newsome, writer and founder of The Self Publishing Studio asked the gathered members and guests of the Hampshire Writers’ Society this Tuesday night.

The answer is that they were all self published.

Paul’s story begins the same way as that of many writers. He’d written a book and he had a dream of becoming a published author. Naturally excited, he embarked on the next step — find an agent. He set about writing the perfect enquiry letter along with the perfect synopsis. Those were sent off and Paul waited for the replies. He waited…and he waited. Every now and then he received a rejection email, two or three lines long saying nothing more than thanks, but no thanks. Often, he heard nothing at all.

The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook! The almanack recommended by the agents themselves, the enchanted book of publishing spells. Now he was really excited – “What could possibly go wrong?”

Indeed, the Writers’ and Artists’ yearbook is crammed full of contact details, advice and useful articles.

Paul looked into using ‘Other Publishers’. “Confusion!” he recollects, “If you get an agent, they do it all for you. But some ‘Other Publishers’ do nothing.”

By now, Paul knew enough about” the publishing industry to smell a rat with the publisher who wrote to him, loving his work, promising bountiful opportunities and in the small print asking for a mammoth fee.

There are some genuinely helpful independent publishers. The list of things that they couldn’t do however, was too large.

Using the DIY approach, Paul published his book, Hamish. Followed by Hamish and the Vegetarian Crow. “Definitely,” he says, “publishing is 1% Inspiration and 99% Perspiration.”

Amazon is a minefield. There are many opt-outs within its obstructive contracts, an author just needs to find them.

Paul’s gap in the market gaped – the writer’s dream on one side and the reality on the other.

He set up the Self Publishing Studio offering the author all the publishing processes without the stress over the perfect enquiry letter. Paul knows his authors have passion, they must have, to have got this far.

“Think about your goals,” he tells us, “keep it simple, keep realistic and have clarity.”

It is up to the writer to cherry pick their requirements. The Self Publishing Studio will work to the author’s budget.

An editor can be found, one who will read your story and comment on flow, plausibility. They expect the author to return their comments, and they understand that they will have to explain themselves.

Assistance with marketing will be given too, advising the writer to find something different e.g. Andy Weir published The Martian chapter by chapter on a blog until he had such a large following who were all telling him to publish professionally.

“Not all writers want to be the next JK Rowling, it is perfectly fine to want nothing more than to see your manuscript, turned into book form, adorning your coffee table.”

 

Report by L Nightingale

What Editors Want!

“Editors are often thought of as gatekeepers, holding back the masses from Mount Olympus.” Caroline Wintersgill, editor for thirty years told the members and guests gathered for the December meeting of the Hampshire Writers’ Society.

Caroline Wintersgill

An editor, specialising in non-fiction, for publishers large and small, corporate and independent, including Bloomsbury, Cassell, Routledge and now Biteback, Caroline sees herself more as a curator. A “snapper up of unconsidered titles”. One of the first books she snapped up, the uninteresting sounding ALMANAC OF BRITISH POLITICS was given an illustrator whose caricatures bordered on rude, along with scurrilous, unheard excerpts from the Alan Clark diaries. The Almanac became fun to work with. “We worked on the knowledge that MPs rarely sue”, Caroline smiles, “they look too silly.”

Publishing a book is a process, a honing of skills, developing of a craft and it will pass through many hands before it comes to publication day. The editor’s appraisal will be based, using their experience of similar works, on the authors’ use of their artistic craft.

Publishers tend to problematise taste, turning it into a literary issue. It is the story that counts. Like all other readers, an editor desires an emotional sometimes visceral response to the proposed book. This is where the author needs to start. “When the book makes them shake,” Caroline laughs, “then the editor wants to work with it.”

With a non-fiction book, the chance of publicity is higher. Non-fiction books are much more likely to be included in the review sections of magazines and newspapers.

Perhaps for some nature, art, music, current events or cookery books, Caroline points out, it is necessary for the author to have an agent. But, in general it is possible for non-fiction authors to settle a good publishing deal without an agent. The life of a non-fiction book being longer than that of a fiction, the author may only write one or two books; this may not be the length of career that an agent is looking for.

For a non-fiction author, media platform is important. Your platform may start small, but it will expand. “Consider the CHEESE MONGER’S HISTORY OF THE BRITISH ISLES; the author had little more than his being a cheese monger that ran tasting events to go on. When published, the book outsold the popular fiction titles.

The author should know their audience, where to reach them and what they are looking for. Taking a risk, Caroline used previously unrecognised language in THE PRECARIAT, this catapulted the book into the limelight. Then, recognising that the book’s audience was not likely to buy it, she took a leap of faith and made chapters freely available to read on the internet. The book became a best seller rocketing the author to two four-figure deals with Bloomsbury.

Non-fiction authors do not need to wait until the manuscript is finished to submit it. A proposal of the work will do; an editor will be looking for a chance to shape the book for the correct market. Also included must be your title; it must be clear and memorable and the contents page which needs an outline of each section. The author still needs to be able to write, so also include a chapter or two. “It is difficult,” Caroline agrees, the sample chapters should show your distinctive voice but also the book’s similarity to the editor’s list.

Site your book, know the editor’s list, motivate them too. With the growth and ease of on-line shopping, readers can buy any or every book on earth; so why should they choose yours? Think of the best-known person in your field; this is your competitor.

Often working against a deadline, time constraints on the editor are tighter. The non-fiction publishing process is “old fashioned” with salespeople touring the booksellers roughly twelve months in advance. Remember, that salesperson will have only thirty seconds to sell your book to busy booksellers.

Create a buzz! If there’s a society that appreciates your subject, then you should join it. Do this prior to publication. “Have a go,” Caroline urges; write your blurb and an elevator sales pitch, gain a clear insight into the selling of your book and go some way to showing you what the editor is looking for.

Report by Lisa Nightingale

Myth-busting the Publications Industry; Laura Williams, Literary Agent

“It’s the best job in the world,” Laura Williams, Literary Agent for Greene & Heaton told the members and guests gathered at the Hampshire Writers’ Society November meeting, “I get to work with authors, from day one of their career, until the end of their career.”

“Agents are not out there to take the author’s money,” she says, “and neither are they there to crash your dreams.” Outside the agency, they are super competitive. But, inside they are very forgiving. They talk books all day, swap manuscripts and read unbelievably fast. As agents for authors, they need to get to know all the publishers and booksellers in the industry. They go to book fairs and carry out a huge amount of editing. Laura’s message is that; if her author isn’t happy, she isn’t happy. Myth numbers one and two — busted!

Myth number three: your submission needs to be perfect? No. A bad synopsis will not preclude your submission. Your synopsis should be like a “greatest hits of your book.” The end MUST BE INCLUDED. Your covering letter needs to be polite, to the point and endorse that you know your book thoroughly. Also include a little about yourself. It doesn’t matter that you might have your genre wrong, that is fixable.

It also doesn’t matter who, in the industry, that you know. Laura is keen for us to understand that “It is all about the book.” Myth number 4 — busted!

Until she reads it, Laura sometimes doesn’t know exactly what it is that she is looking for in a manuscript. Her list varies from horror to big love stories that make her cry. As for timing and luck of your submission? The year’s two biggest book fairs take place in March and December. Do not expect an expedient reply if you submit at those times. Also, manuscripts submitted on Christmas Day are not likely to be read until the New Year! “Try three pm on a Thursday in August.” Laura says in jest. But yes, Agents really do read every submission that they receive.

On to myth number six – no, you do not need to live in London. Perhaps this was partly true in times of posting hard-copy manuscripts. Agents travel well and they are eager to try out all other cities. Laura even has clients in Canada.

Myth number seven: it’s about the prizes that you’ve won. It isn’t! A list of the competitions in which you’ve been successful, and your membership of societies (Hampshire Writers’ Society for one) in your covering letter shows that you are serious about your craft. Again, Laura is keen to advise that; “It’s all about the book.”

The same answer shot down myth number eight: it’s essential to have an MA in Creative Writing. There is a plethora of websites offering free advice. The Writers and Artists’ Yearbook is another free resource readily at hand.

Find the “essence” of your book and use that to pitch it in answer to the question, What’s it about? The essence is not always what the book says. All books can be pitched in this way.

Do not write for the market or the current trend. Some trends pass by very quickly, going right out of fashion. It may well be that by the time your novel is to come to fruition, the trend will be long gone. Always write the story that you want to write. If the agent picks it up and the genre isn’t clear; they’ll just “make it up”. And that takes care of myth number nine.

Ten: it’s all in the great writing? It’s a great story that is necessary. If, however the agent suggests a change, it is a good idea to listen. Again, here the agent supports their author. Laura once spent a Sunday afternoon re-writing half of a future client’s manuscript in order to change the point of view; the author did the other half.

What about social media? The agent and the publisher are there to help you through social media. Even if you have no presence on social media at all, it doesn’t matter.

Finally, to number twelve: once you have an agent, you’re set for life! Laura wishes that were true, but unfortunately it is not. Not all books are sold. However, many authors debut is not their first book. In the rare event that the agent is unable to sell your book, they will talk this through with you and together you’ll work out a way forward.

“Carpet bombing may not be quite the right phrase.” Laura says, “But, you get the idea. Send your manuscript to everyone that you want to read it. That’s what she does.”

Report by Lisa Nightingale

‘A Journey to Self-Publishing’ Emma-Nicole Lewis, supernatural historical fiction author of three self-published novels, business strategist and Hampshire Writers’ Society member.

EMMA-NICOLE LEWIS appeared last month on the HWS blog featuring in the trailer for a mini-documentary about, Eyam the town where her latest novel, A SHADOW BEYOND, is set. The documentary, for which she sought permission from the museum and church used, took her only a week or so to make and has brought interest in her from as far away as Russia.

“Making yourself visible is now what it is all about.” she told the meeting last night, “Amazon has done wonders, but for the writer, it has saturated their market.”

Writing has been a passion of Emma’s since a young age and following the success of her first novel, THE WISHING HOUSE, she made the decision to swap her career in business strategy for full time novelist.

“Define your reader,” she says. It is something that can be done within your other research. As an unknown, new to the market, you won’t be selling books on your name alone. Think about how your story might fit with your reader. Consider the sort of book clubs that they might belong to, what are their interests, their hobbies, where do they go for leisure time and what are the websites that they might visit. By pin-pointing your readers, you’ll find it easier to market your book. Emma’s stories are historical; many of her readers will be interested in history, so she made good contacts with the museum and coffee shops in the town where A Shadow Beyond is set, leaving advertising leaflets there for readers to pick up.

Have your marketing plan in place before publication day. “Getting those pre-orders in to Amazon will raise your stakes in their best-seller lists.” she tells us. This in turn encourages them to spend their advertising space on you. “So, line up your reviewers and bloggers before you go live.”

Establish a PR hook. Find a story within your story. When Emma told the story of how her first novel was written whilst she was on maternity leave (she still doesn’t know how she did it), the local press bit quickly. Interest seems to be on the person who wrote the story almost as much as the story itself, so Emma’s social media pages are peppered with pictures of her and her family on her latest research expedition. It brings out either the Aaah! or the humorous side of your readers.

“Love your readers.” she urges, “It might sound soppy but, if you love them, they’ll love you back.” Reply to contacts and comments when appropriate (DO NOT RESPOND TO REVIEWS; ITS NOT THE DONE THING) your readers will talk positively about you, share your work and comments. A sort of virtual marketing team.

Finally, what is it that you want to see from your favourite writer? An avid reader, Emma often gets to the end of which ever book she is reading, wondering about what that author will do next. She often looks into it. If that author is not doing what she wanted – she does it herself!

Get on the Customer’s Shelf

“Booksellers are Pragmatists,” says Crispin Drummond, proprietor of P&G Wells independent booksellers in Winchester, “not Romanticists.”

The Shop at College Street

P&G Wells have been in the business of selling books for over 200 years. Crispin was sold the shop on College Street after one too many glasses of wine. His only credentials — he liked to read. A year of learning on the job followed. He learned that the horror stories are true; there are too many books, chain-stores are closing and yes, authors are getting a bad deal from publishers.

The bookseller is firmly on the side of the customer and P&G Wells’ first policy is to give thoughtful customers a wide choice. So, when looking at new titles, deciding what to stock, he considers the customer and listens to their wavelength. The bookseller will think on over 50,000 titles, of those they will stock roughly 8,000. For a pragmatist, choosing those titles is blissfully free of the sentimentalities suffered by the romanticist. Of course, he doesn’t do “blissfully”.

“The average British reader only buys 3 books a year.” Crispin reports, “5 at most.”

The bookseller’s customers will not be swayed by the Best Seller label, they can get those anywhere. It is the fresh books that sell. P&G Wells supports a far larger number of authors than any of the chain stores, regardless of who publishes them.

To get your book on the P&G Wells customers’ shelves, it must be well-written, it needs to have something new, bring something special to the shelf. The customers would not forgive the bookseller for offering them something that was run-of-the-mill. They do not buy the same-old, same-old.

“Obviously, the booksellers’ best time of the year is Christmas.” Crispin told the members and guests gathered, “When the ideal customer is the one who wants to buy presents for every member of their family. And P&G Wells has just the book for each of them.”

Crispin is the Hampshire Writers’ Society treasurer. He is the bookseller in the foyer at every Tuesday night meeting.

Report by Lisa Nightingale