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2017 in review: Interview with Holly Harley

Holly Harley is a senior editor at Weidenfeld & Nicolson, where she works on literary non-fiction including history, science, memoir and current affairs. She joined W&N in 2012 as an editorial assistant, prior to working for Gwyneth Paltrow’s website goop. Norah Myers interviews her here.

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Abbie Headon interviews Julia Kingsford, literary agent and marketing consultant at Kingsford Campbell, about her new project, The Good Journal.

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Talking Podcasts: Standard Issue

Ariella Feiner started working at PFD in 2006 before moving to United Agents and is now nurturing her own client list which includes many bestselling, critically acclaimed and award winning authors across fiction and non-fiction, including a million-copy selling author and ground-breaking non-fiction. In 2017, The Bookseller named her as a Rising Star. Here, Norah Myers interviews her about being included in that list.

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The Windham-Campbell Prizes were recently awarded to lucky novelists, playwrights, and poets. Norah Myers interviews one winner, Ashleigh Young, here.

1) Huge congratulations on winning a Windham-Campbell Prize. What does it mean to you?

Thank you very much, and it’s hard to sum up what this means for me, because truly, it means everything. I always knew I would write, because that’s when I felt most like myself, but I knew I would need to do it on the sidelines. My mother had this phrase she’d often shout to get my brothers and me off to school in the mornings: ‘Time is marching on!’ I always got morose when I heard it, because it meant there would never be enough time for the things I really wanted to do. And now, suddenly, I can pause for a moment. I can write out in the open, while time marches on all around me, and it will be OK. Nothing will be lost. That permission is pretty extraordinary.

2) How will this help your writing?

Mostly, the permission to write will help me to focus, because my concentration will not be splintered by all of the things I should be doing instead. It will remind me: this is the right thing; this is something you can do with your full self.

I think also this prize will help me to be a little more ambitious in the subjects I choose to write about. If I ever decide to write about those huge terrifying robot dogs or about the giant w?t? that live in caves in New Zealand (w?t? have been described as ‘like crickets, but steampunk’), I can take the time to do some research so that I can write about them.

3) Money aside, how is this prize different from others you could win?

It celebrates writers without bringing along all the usual baggage of prizes – the longlisting and shortlisting, the sleepless nights, the teeth-grinding. The prize circumnavigates all of that and leaps straight into the moment of celebration. There’s a scene in The Simpsons where Lisa wakes up to find a pony sleeping in the bed beside her, and she lets out a huge scream but then embraces the pony. It’s a bit like that. It genuinely changes the lives of writers. I think also it must be the only literary prize that recipients regularly confuse for phishing or spam – but, I mean, it’s understandable.

4) What do you look forward to most when writing your next books?

Mostly, the pure fun of it. I look forward to that moment when you know you have found the right thread of the story and you feel sure that you’ve managed to articulate or evoke something that you just couldn’t before now. It’s that feeling of optimism that you’ll reach your reader. I’m working on a poetry collection right now, and another essay collection will follow after that, and I’m really excited about both.

5) What advice would you give your younger self when you were just starting out as an author?

Don’t try to be certain about anything yet. Be uncertain for just a bit longer. Don’t be afraid of having questions about everything, especially about things you’re supposed to already know. The longer you can ask questions, the more interesting the answers might be later.

Also, stop sending your stories to real writers and asking for their advice. They’re busy.

Born and raised in Te Kuiti, New Zealand, Ashleigh Young is the author of the critically acclaimed book of poetry Magnificent Moon (2012), as well as the essay collection Can You Tolerate This? (2016), which is a finalist for the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards. An editor at Victoria University Press, Young is also a creative writing tutor at the International Institute of Modern Letters, Victoria University of Wellington.

Norah Myers recently interviewed Curtis Brown Creative’s Rufus Purdy about Curtis Brown Creative, the writing school led by the team at Curtis Brown. Here, she follows that by interviewing Curtis Brown’s managing director, Anna Davis, about a new course from Curtis Brown Creative: Write to the End of Your Novel.

1) How does Write To The End Of Your Novel build on Starting To Write Your Novel?

Write to the End of Your Novel is the second in a series of three short online courses which aim to help new writers get all the way from an initial idea for a novel to having a complete, polished novel ready to pitch to agents/publishers. This second course follows on from the first – so we expect that participants will already have their idea and their opening and will be trying to write their way through to the end of the first draft.

In a series of six modules (which we open up week by week) I try to say everything I can think of that could be useful – including my advice on pacing, building suspense, what to do when you’re stuck in the middle, how to write a good ending – and much more. The course makes use of teaching videos (from me), notes and tasks. Students will be able to share their work in a secure forum on our purpose-built learning platform.

We’ll be following on with a third course later in the Autumn called Edit and Pitch Your Novel. Students who come on each of these courses get continued access to all the materials so that they’ll have a set of resources they can make use of long after the course ends.

2) Why do you feel it was important to add this course to your offerings?

What I wanted to do – with the three short courses I’m talking about above, including Write to the End of Your Novel – was to offer great content at a much cheaper price than our ‘main’ 3 and 6-month courses (the selective courses we run for groups of 15 students in London and online). I wanted to provide something for people who can’t afford our main courses but who nonetheless want to study with us and get help with their novels. I also wanted to offer courses which would allow people to just pay-and-enrol (rather than go through the selective process we have for our main courses) so that they could have a go – it’s a chance to try your hand at novel-writing without making the bigger financial commitment that’s needed for our main courses.

These 6-week online courses can act as ‘tasters’ for our high end courses – our hope is that people who get a lot out of the 6-week courses might then feel they want to join a course where they will get intensive individual tuition and workshopping with a small group of students who’ve been selected on the basis of ability, in order to really make their novel as good as it can possibly be. Obviously not everyone who takes the 6-week courses will succeed in getting a place on our main courses (the places are quite heavily competed over) but we already have quite a few students on the longer novel-writing courses who came to us through studying on Starting to Write Your Novel.

However I also wanted the 6-week courses to cover the complete journey of writing and pitching a novel: Not everyone needs a longer course and individual tuition – for many people writing a novel, it’s useful just to have good, constructive advice, a group of other writers to share work with and a metaphorical shot in the arm. That’s what we’re offering.

3) Tell us about an applicant you recently turned down. What could aspiring applicants learn from an unsuccessful submission?

So – yes – for our ‘main’ 3 and 6 month novel-writing courses, in London or online, we do operate a selection process. We ask people to fill in a form on our website and to send us the one-page synopsis and opening 3000 words of the novel they want to work on with us. Rather than talk about one individual applicant (because I think it wouldn’t be fair to do so), I’ll tell you about some of the features we frequently see in unsuccessful applications. Here goes:

  • Don’t open your book with someone waking up in the morning and looking out of the window at the sun/rain etc. This is THE most common way to start a novel and so we’re very bored of seeing it. We’re also not keen on openings which feature characters staggering around with a hangover, treading in pizza boxes etc – or visceral scenes of vomiting and other bodily fluids (I don’t want to be fighting revulsion when I start to read a novel!) – or indeed long descriptions of the weather.
  • Get your story going from the off. We want to see STUFF HAPPENING long before the end of that first 3000 words – it doesn’t need to be explosive or shouty – but we do want story to be happening. Writers often think they need to spend a long time ‘setting up’ characters before they get them into action – that’s really not necessary.
  • Give us scenes which are dramatized – ie enter right into the moment of your story, showing us your characters in action and making use of dialogue. If I flick through an application and don’t see any dialogue, I know I’m unlikely to end up offering the writer a place. Invariably these novel-openings will be endless ‘telling’ (explanatory material) which leave the reader feeling like they’re skating across the surface of a story without getting properly into it.

4) What do you teach students about foreign rights?

Our team of literary agents at Curtis Brown and C&W contribute very generously to our 3-and-6 month courses. On the London courses, the agents come in as guest speakers, partnering with publishers and/or with authors they represent. On the 3-and-month online courses the agents take part in special ‘Q&A days’ where they answer all the students’ questions online. Our agents will talk about foreign rights – and indeed other rights such as film and TV rights – when they speak to the students about how they work with their clients to make the work available in all possible forms and formats and to maximise all avenues of income for the client.

Foreign rights are a very big part of what we do at Curtis Brown and C&W, and many of our authors have their work available many languages across the world. Having said all that, the most important way we work with our students is in helping them to write their novels as well as they possibly can. Foreign rights won’t feature in their lives at all unless they write a really great novel – and it’s our mission to help them to do that.

5) What do literary agents look for in a client, especially ones writing their first books?

Agents want to find great novels – it’s as simple as that. We have a big team of agents here, all of whom have different interests and tastes – but I think they’d all agree that they want to find great stories and writing that really leaps off the page. Obviously it’s great if a writer also has a professional attitude, is open to working editorially on their novel to get it as good as it can possibly be, and is intending to go on to write more compelling novels (not just one). And yes, the agent/author relationship is a close and potentially long-lived one so it’s important that each likes and respects the other. But really the most important thing is the book.

6) What do you look forward to most as the course progresses?

I love getting to know the students (and their work) individually and collectively, and seeing how the groups of 15 shape up and bond with each other. Even as I’m typing this, now, I can hear laughter coming from the board room – it’s our current 6-Month London-based course, with tutor Louise Wener. They’re getting toward the end of their course now so they all know each other and each other’s writing really well. I’m certain that all or most of them will go on meeting up and giving each other support with their novels long after the course has finished. This camaraderie happens in our 3 and 6 month online courses too – and even on the 6-week Starting to Write Your Novel courses we’re seeing writers bonding and forming little groups and keeping in touch. Yes, I do think that’s what I like best. Writing is something you do alone, but it doesn’t need to be lonely.

Check out Curtis Brown Creative’s site for more information on all of their courses.

Anna is the founder and Director of the Curtis Brown Creative writing school. She is the author of five novels, published around the world in 20 languages: The Dinner, Melting, Cheet, The Shoe Queen and, most recently, The Jewel Box. She is currently working on her sixth. Anna has worked for Curtis Brown for more than a decade as a literary agent and has served on the management committee of the Association of Authors’ Agents. Previously she was a lecturer on Manchester University’s MA in Novel-Writing, and has also led many other writing workshops for organisations such as the Cheltenham Literary Festival and Ty Newydd. A former Guardian columnist, Anna has been the recipient of the Arts Council of England’s Clarissa Luard Award (2001) and an h.Club 100 award – presented to the most influential, innovative and interesting people in the creative and media industries.

Many writers work other jobs in order to afford to write. The Windham-Campbell Literature Prizes are designed to give writers of all kinds the financial freedom to focus on the writing that matters the most to them. Michael Kelleher is a poet and the founding director of the Windham-Campbell Literature Prizes at Yale University. Norah Myers interviews Michael to find out more.

1) The Windham Campbell prize is in its fifth year. How has the prize helped its recipients?

I think the prize can help the prize recipients in several significant ways. First, obviously, there is the money. $165,000 can buy a writer a lot of time — even in London or New York. There is nothing more precious to a writer than time to write. All of the writers have told me that they feel free to write what they want with the money, rather than what is expected of them.

Second, it calls attention to the writer and to the work. In some instances, it might shine a spotlight on a writer who deserves a wider audience. In others, it might be the cause a subtle shift in the way the critics receive their work. Readers often need a reason to pick up a literary work, and sometimes the recognition of a prize like the Windham-Campbell Prize will be the difference in selecting one book over another.

2) Why is it important for the prize to recognize playwrights?

Well, playwrights are writers, too. Plays are a significant part of our literature. So that is one reason. Another is that Donald Windham was himself a sometime playwright (who once co-authored a play with his close friend, Tennessee Williams), while Sandy Campbell was an actor. It was they who made the decision to award playwrights, based on their mutual love of theater.

3) What’s the most exciting part of the prize’s accompanying festival?

The festival is a chance to bring a group of great writers together and to hear them speak about themselves, about their writing, about the various things they like to think about. And we, the audience, are given the opportunity to think along with them in a warm public setting. I am especially fond of the group reading on the final night, when everyone gets ten minutes to show off their writing to the crowd. These have been some of the best moments of the festival. Of course, the prize ceremony is also fantastic. Each year we invite someone to give a lecture on why they write. This year it was Patti Smith. Next year it will be Karl Ove Knausgaard. All of them are different, all of them profound.

4) How have publishers benefited from their authors winning the prize?

Judging by the fact that many publishers have started writing “Winner of the Windham-Campbell Literature Prize” across the covers of their books, I would say that they see an opportunity to promote their authors by calling attention to the prize.

5) How do you see the prize evolving in the next few years?

Two major changes are occurring with the March 1 announcement. We are adding poets for the first time, and we are increasing the prize value from $150,000 to $165,000. We are very excited to include poets among the winners. Over the next five years, we plan to keep developing our public programming to include literary festivals and other events that will help make audience engagement and interest in the prize a a year-round affair.

Lara Borlenghi has been Finance Director at Pan Macmillan for five years. Prior to this, Lara worked for 15 years in a variety of finance roles for different media companies, including Warner Music, Grazia magazine, Magic Radio and BBC Worldwide. Norah Myers interviews her here. 

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Jeremy Trevathan is the Publisher at Pan Macmillan in the UK, responsible for the adult division, which publishes authors as diverse as Ken Follett, Jeffrey Archer, Danielle Steel, Alan Hollinghurst, Cormac McCarthy, Nelson Mandela and Joe Wicks. Here, Norah Myers chats with him about the progression of his career.

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Francesca Main is Publishing Director at Picador, where her authors include Jessie Burton, Cathy Rentzenbrink, Emma Flint, Mark Watson and Adam Kay. She was named Editor of the Year at the Bookseller Industry Awards in 2015. Previously, she worked at Simon & Schuster, Hamish Hamilton and Penguin and has also taught creative writing and editing for the Arvon Foundation.

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WriteNow, Penguin Random House UK’s programme to find, mentor and publish new writers currently under-represented on the nation’s bookshelves, is back for 2017. The world’s number-one publisher is looking for new writers from a socio-economically marginalised background, LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, Queer) and BAME (Black, Asian, Minority Ethnic) writers, or writers with a disability, to make books and publishing more representative of the society we live in. Find out more and apply at www.write-now.live. Applications close on 16 July 2017. Join the conversation using #WriteNowLive @PenguinRHUK. 

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Lucy-Anne Holmes is a writer and campaigner. Her last novel Just a Girl Standing In Front of a Boy won the Romantic Novelists Association ‘Rom Com of the Year 2015’ and she founded the successful No More Page 3 campaign. She is currently raising funds for her book Don’t Hold My Head Down with Unbound here.

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Curtis Brown Creative offers in-person courses and online courses for students interested in writing fiction and nonfiction. Norah Myers wanted to know more from a student who successfully completed an online course. Here, she interviews author Jane Harper.

1) What motivated you to sign up for an online writing course with Curtis Brown Creative?

I wanted to take a writing course because I felt I needed some external motivation to focus seriously on writing a novel. I was attracted to the Curtis Brown Creative online course because it offered good opportunity for feedback and discussion, and a Q&A day with the agents. I was also able to take part in the online course while continuing to work full-time.

2) You wrote your first full draft of your novel in just three months. How did the course help that happen?

I’ve always worked best to deadlines, and being on the course encouraged me to concentrate on writing and made me realise that I actually could finish the first draft of a novel if I focused. I found the group feedback very useful, and the discussions with course tutor Lisa O’Donnell and the other students motivated me to continue writing and to try to improve.

3) What advice would you give anyone who wishes to take a Curtis Brown online course?

Come prepared to take your writing seriously and be willing to take the feedback on board. I learned so much from the group and one-on-one discussions, but it is only valuable if you are willing to act on it and make changes and do rewrites as necessary. It takes work to improve but it is worth it if you end up with a novel you are proud of. The online course is also a lot of fun and I really enjoyed getting to know other writers from around the world and seeing the work they produced.

4) How did you land your agent?

My debut novel The Dry won the Victorian Premier’s Award for an Unpublished Manuscript in May 2015 before I had submitted it to any agents. I very quickly had discussions with Curtis Brown as the Australian company approached me upon winning the prize, and I’d had that contact with the agency during the course.

I am now lucky enough to be represented by lead agent Clare Forster from Curtis Brown Australia, Alice Lutyens from Curtis Brown in London, along with Kate Cooper and Eva Papastratis managing foreign rights. With feedback from my agent, I worked up another, longer draft of the manuscript, and this was the one we submitted to publishers worldwide, selling first in Australia, then around the world.

5) What are your plans for your second book?

My next book is another mystery set in isolated regional Australia. It will be out in October 2017 in Australia and early in 2018 in the UK and US. It’s not a direct sequel to The Dry, but the main character, Aaron Falk, returns — a little bruised but a little wiser. The novel is similar to The Dry in tone and feel, with a few twists and turns along the way!

Jane Harper studied the Curtis Brown Creative three-month online novel writing course in October 2014. During the course she wrote her first novel, The Dry, an atmospheric thriller set in a drought-stricken Australian community.

The Dry won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript in 2015. Rights have since been sold in more than 20 territories and been optioned for a film by Reese Witherspoon and Bruna Papandrea’s production company, Pacific Standard. Jane lives in Melbourne and worked as a print journalist for 13 years on newspapers in the UK and Australia. 

Feature image credit: Nicholas Purcell

Curtis Brown Creative is the only writing school to be run by a literary agency, and offers selective novel-writing courses in London and online. Here, its editor, Rufus Purdy, tells Norah Myers what sets CBC apart, and how 27 of its former students have gone on to get book deals.

1) What was the inspiration behind starting Curtis Brown Creative?

My colleague Anna Davis – then a literary agent at Curtis Brown, as well as a novelist – launched Curtis Brown Creative in 2011 when she realised a lot of people were looking for novel-writing courses as an alternative to expensive Masters Degrees. She felt we were in the unusual position of having both a good understanding of the market and the expertise to help authors write and edit their work to give it the best possible opportunity of attracting an agent then a publisher.

2) What makes Curtis Brown Creative different from other writing courses?

We’re industry-focused. We’re the only creative-writing school to be run by a literary agency – and the agents at Curtis Brown and our sister agency C&W are closely involved with our novel-writing courses. So, unlike any other writing course out there, Curtis Brown Creative gives writers expert tuition and the opportunity to forge links with industry ‘gatekeepers’. We’re also selective. For each course, we’ll offer places to the 15 strongest applicants – as we believe it’s essential that the standard of peer feedback is set as high as possible.

3) What’s been the most challenging part of running the course?

Managing the expansion! Curtis Brown Creative is a very different company to the one I joined in 2012, when we ran just two three-month novel-writing courses in our office each year. Now, each year, we run four three-month courses, two six-month courses and a summer school – and that’s just in our London office.

We also run six online novel-writing courses, four online Writing for Children courses, and two new, six-week short courses, which are open to everyone – Starting to Write Your Novel and Write to the End of Your Novel. And, until last September, Curtis Brown Creative was just Anna and I. Thankfully our staff level has now grown to an impressive three.

4) Does the publishing knowledge that students gain in the course help their writing?

Absolutely. Though Curtis Brown Creative isn’t prescriptive about writing, we do feel that our unique position in the book industry means we’re aware of what will and won’t work in the market.

A talented student pouring their efforts into an experimental novella based on the life of a famously litigious celebrity, for example, would be encouraged to put their energy into something that the book-buying public might want to read. And we think it’s essential aspiring authors understand the industry they want to be a part of. They may be brilliant writers, but how are they going to make their work stand out in a hugely crowded market?

5) Have any of your graduates been published?

Twenty-seven of our former students have gone on to get book deals after doing our courses – most notably Jessie Burton (The Miniaturist and The Muse), Jane Harper (The Dry), Nicholas Searle (The Good Liar) and Lisa Williamson (The Art of Being Normal and All About Mia). We’re very proud of them all.

6) What advice would you give anyone who would like to gain a place with Curtis Brown Creative?

The main things we look for in a candidate are writing talent and a good story, so if you’ve got those, we’d love to hear from you! We tend to avoid people who clearly feel they’ve ‘completed’ their novel, and just want to do the course to meet our literary agents – we’re dedicated to helping writers improve their work, and there’s nothing more offputting than someone who already thinks they’re the finished article.

And if I have to read another submission involving a young man waking up with an erection, and musing about what he drunkenly did last night, I’ll personally track down the author and batter them around the head with their laptop.

For more information on CBC and the courses they have open at the moment, please visit: http://www.curtisbrowncreative.co.uk/

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