WriteNow applications – some feedback from us

Thank you so much to each and every one of you who applied for WriteNow. We loved reading your stories, and learning more about you and why you write.

We had over 2,000 applications to three events, with 50 places on offer in London, Birmingham and Manchester.

Editors across our business had the difficult task of assessing all your applications. They have given us some feedback to help clarify what it was that made the applications we’re taking through really stand out from the crowd.

Here are a few things we liked most about the submissions we read:

Less is more

Some of the best writers kept it simple. They weren’t overly descriptive with language and didn’t use too many adjectives or adverbs. This made the story feel more natural.

Stand out from the crowd

The best writing had something fresh and new about it – maybe an unusual setting, or a different way of telling a familiar story. The best stories didn’t overdo this, and weren’t too complex. Often the simplest stories with fundamentally human themes are the most engaging.

Work on the pitch

We know that writing a short description or pitch of your book can be really tricky, and this is usually something that literary agents will help you with. The best responses to the question ‘what is your book about?’ were:

  • Concise, clear and to the point.
  • Included the main plot, a summary of themes, a hint of an ending – and no more. Try looking at the back of a few published books in your genre to get a sense of how to structure a synopsis well. It should be a little longer than what you would normally read on the back of a book, but we don’t need to know everything
  • Included a snappy positioning line - for example ‘think GRAVITY meets ONE DAY’.
  • Were confident, but not over-confident (don’t tell us the book is going to be good, just show us).
  • For non-fiction submissions, they included an overview of the key target audience for their particular subject.

Be careful with dialogue

Dialogue can be particularly tricky to write in a way which sounds natural, and can be hard to follow if you’re reading a short extract. To develop your dialogue, try listening to how people talk in real life - notice the rhythm and how people ask questions. 

Show, don’t tell

Aim to create an immersive reading experience, which feels natural and draws the reader in – and leaves them wanting more. Try not to think too much about how you convey the plot or story line in your sample of writing. The best submissions focused first and foremost on creating atmosphere and characters.

Less of the backstory

The best plots don’t need to be over-explained but can be referred to more subtly, which creates more pace and intrigue for the reader. It can be easy to try and pack too much information into a short extract.

Choose the right extract

We particularly liked extracts which were carefully chosen and were representative of the book as a whole. Finding an extract which clearly links to the description of the book worked well.   

 

We hope this post has been helpful, and that it will guide and inform your writing in the future. If you’d like to, you can follow the #WriteNowLive journey on Twitter and keep an eye on this blog for new posts, including videos and content from our WriteNow events.  

Wishing you the best of luck for the future.

Team WriteNow
#WriteNowLive

Author Sufiya Ahmed on discovering new talent through WriteNow

 

This blog was originally published on The Huffington Post

A couple of weeks ago I was a guest on BBC Asian Network radio to talk about Penguin Random House’s new initiative to find, mentor and publish new writers from communities under-represented on the UK’s bookshelves.

The WriteNow scheme aims to find and publish new writers who are “under-represented in books and publishing”. Targeted groups are writers from socio-economically marginalised backgrounds, writers who come from LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, Queer) or BAME (Black, Asian, Minority Ethnic) communities, or writers with a disability.

On the radio show, it was agreed that writers from these backgrounds are under-represented. As they are not being successfully represented by literary agents, the following question popped up: Was WriteNow a form of ‘charity’ on the part of the publisher? Were Penguin Random House planning to publish these writers because they belonged to minority groups, rather than the fact that they were exceptional writers whose work deserved to be published and shared with readers?

The answer is simple. Penguin Random House is not a government body which has a legal requirement to tick equal opportunity boxes. It is a corporate company which is successful purely because it understands profit. They produce books which they believe the market of readers will want to read, and they provide all the support they can to make it a success. The publisher market the book; they send copies to national newspapers/magazines/online media for reviews, arrange for the author to speak at literary festivals and put the title forward for book awards.

What the publisher will not do is publish books which they believe might have even a 1% chance of gathering dust in their warehouse, or ending up in the 50p bargain-bucket in bookshops. If a publisher decides to publish your book it is because they believe their investment will turn a profit in order to keep them in business.

As Tom Weldon, CEO for Penguin Random House UK, says: “Books and publishing simply do not reflect the society we live in. Not only is that bad for the future of books, reading and culture, but it’s also a commercial imperative for us to change. If we don’t, we will become increasingly irrelevant.”

My own publishing deal with Puffin Books, part of Penguin Random House, was also secured outside the traditional route of the literary agent. It was a friend who worked in the publishing industry who advised me to forget the literary agents (after years of rejection letters) and enter writing competitions. His words: “Publishers are always keeping an eye out for new writers through competitions.”

I entered the Muslim Writers Awards, a competition for unpublished writers, and to my absolute surprise and joy my children’s story was shortlisted. It was the most recognition I’d ever had for my writing and although I did not win, I was invited by the MWA organisers to a meeting at Penguin’s offices in the Strand. I still remember walking into that building. This was the place where they had produced my favourite childhood author Roald Dahl’s books. After years of being rejected by lit agents, it felt like I was walking into Charlie’s Chocolate Factory.

I met senior editor of Puffin Books, Shannon Cullen (now Publishing Director at Penguin Random House UK Children’s Books) who had read my story and was interested in my writing style. She asked me if I had any other story, preferably something for teenagers. I pitched an idea that I’d had for a while. I wanted to write a novel about a British Asian girl’s forced marriage but one which was a story about hope and courage, about a teenage girl standing up to a form of bullying which is inflicted in the name of family honour. I wanted my novel to be about hope and empowerment.

Shannon was intrigued and requested to see a draft. This was the part where I wanted the ground to open up to swallow me whole. Here I was in front of a senior editor at one of the leading publishers (one to which I had directly sent my first manuscript at the age of 14) and I had no completed work to show her. Shannon was of course lovely about it, reassuring me that she would look forward to seeing the first draft when it was ready. I spent about a year on that manuscript and it that time Shannon nurtured my work. She advised me how to further develop my characters, and highlighted the parts where I had lapsed into telling the story instead of showing it. It was invaluable advice and made a huge difference to my writing.

About a year after that first meeting, Puffin Books acquired Secrets of the Henna Girl and we launched it on International Women’s Day with the support of the Forced Marriage Unit at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office in London. The novel won a couple of awards and was translated into Arabic, Polish and Spanish. Four years on I’m still earning my living from the book. I now do author visits in schools where I raise awareness of forced marriages, Girls Rights and bullying. As an author there is no better feeling than when a teenager tells me that he/she enjoyed my book or THAT particular chapter made them cry.

If you’re an aspiring writer then you should apply to WriteNow. All you need to do is visit www.write-now.live and submit a sample of your work. 150 writers will then be invited to attend one of the events. Of these, 10 “exceptional” writers will benefit from a year of mentoring with the goal of having their book published.

Tom Weldon adds: “One of the many joys of reading is being able to make a personal connection with an author’s distinctive voice, but we know some voices aren’t yet being heard. Our job at Penguin Random House is to connect the world with the stories, ideas and writing that matter. So if you are sitting on a fantastic manuscript, we want to hear from you.”

Personally, I can’t wait to read the new talented writers which Penguin Random House will discover and publish.

The deadline for the WriteNow scheme is 28 October 2016. 

Sufiya Ahmed is the author of Secrets of the Henna Girl.
You can follow her on twitter @SufiyaAhmed

 

Five things we learned at #WriteNowLive London

We are the ones that need to hack the system

Yes, WriteNow is partly about helping writers better understand the publishing process and industry so they can get published. But that doesn’t mean come February that our job will be done - far from it. We need to think carefully as publishers about what we should be doing differently every day to make publishing more accessible for the long term. The first 50 writers we met with at WriteNow London gave us some great ideas.

Peer support is vital

It’s so important to connect with other writers who share your experiences, understand your motivations and ambitions, and who can give you considered feedback on your work. The 50 writers at WriteNow London got on brilliantly and formed an instant community of like-minded people, and this really shone through as one of the big benefits of the day. We’re working with our partner Spread the Word to facilitate an ongoing support network for all the writers involved with our London event.  

Ask, don’t tell

One of the most valuable parts of WriteNow London was hearing writers tell us what they want us to change. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking we know what the issues around access are and therefore what we should do to address them. We don’t. We need to ask the people who impacted, we need to listen to them, and we need to respond with concerted actions. And then we need to go back and ask how we’re doing.  

We need to reach and inspire new writers even earlier

WriteNow is aimed at supporting writers with an almost complete manuscript. We need to think about how we take this to the next level – how we engage with and support people across the UK who have a story to tell, but haven’t even considered publishing as an option yet.

We just need to do more of this

Publishers simply need to find more ways to connect directly with new writers. After all, we won’t find different stories unless we start looking in new places. The excitement and emotion among our 50 writers after their one-to-one feedback sessions with our editors was tangible – and our editors felt the same. You just can’t beat that human connection.

Alison Barrow on the role of publicity in the publishing process

 
 

1.  You’re a Director of Media Relations. Tell us what that means in one sentence?

I'm responsible for publicising new books and writers across national media, on and offline, for arranging events and creating a promotional strategy which drives book sales.

2.   What is a typical day like for you?

Ha!  There is no typical day!  I could be writing a press release, meeting journalists, creating a pitch for a new book, travelling to literary festivals with writers, setting up an events tour, media training with an author... It is nothing if not varied!

3.  How do you work with authors to make their book a success? 

My involvement can start even before we acquire a book. I am part of a team which determines if a prospective book is promotable, how it will sit within the market or disrupt it, what the pitch would be, evaluating the strengths of a writer and what kind of publicity we will be able to create around a book. My involvement with the writers we publish is personal and bespoke to each one and lasts throughout the publishing process - on acquisition, pre-publication, on launch, afterwards, through to next book and beyond. My day is filled with lively, creative and stimulating conversations with writers.

4.  What’s the most exciting part of your job?

The variety. The privilege of working on the publication journey with a writer and enjoying the success alongside them. That can range from a terrific review in a national paper, through to a successful event, through to major global sales and acclaim - all of it!  I love my job. 

5.  The Girl on the Train gained a huge amount of attention on Twitter. How important is it for new author to be on social media?

Well here's the thing. It's not for everybody. But social media has become a live and immediate way of sharing recommendations, celebrating the good, provoking debate, posting opinion. It took me a long while myself to get to grips with it and I'm still learning, but it has become a vital part of my PR toolbox and I would be always delighted to help any writer navigate their way around it.

6.  What advice would you give to debut authors hoping to spark a lot of interest around their book?

Work out your pitch. What is unique, different about your book? How does it sit within the world of what is selling right now. What is your expertise? Start conversations online. I write this book because... Ask questions. Be curious. Be generous and always, always be kind.

7.  What does the future of publicity look like?

Crikey if I had the definitive answer to that do you think I would tell you?! Well, one of the developments and pleasures for publishers over recent years has been the ability to have direct conversations with readers - not just at live events but via blogs, online, social media and via growing communities of like-minder consumers. We are learning so much about what people want to read, and when, where and how, so we’re able to help our authors find and better understand their audience. This knowledge is hugely significant in enabling us to be more nimble and effective in alerting people to the books they will want to read - and to selling our authors’ books to them.

Thanks for asking.

Alison Barrow is Director of Media Relations at Transworld. 

Meet Ruth Harrison, Director of Spread the Word

 

Ruth, you’re the Director of Spread the Word.  Tell us what that means in one sentence. 

Celebrating, supporting and advocating for London’s writers.

What support does Spread the Word offer writers in London?

Spread the Word is London’s literature development agency, funded by Arts Council England. We’re here to help all London’s writers and especially diverse writers make their mark – on the page, the screen and the world. We work with writers of fiction, poetry, narrative non-fiction, playwrights, short stories – if it is to do with words we’re interested!

We know that becoming or being a writer is not easy and that living and surviving in London as a writer is hard. A major part of our work is providing writers with free or low-cost opportunities that support their craft and career development. We run a regular programme of workshops and masterclasses that take place across London and our professional development one-to-ones give writers the time and space to reflect on their work or to get advice, for example on how to find and approach an agent.

We also work to identify and raise the profile of talented writers and build their engagement with readers and audiences through programmes such as the annual London Short Story Prize and the Young People’s Laureate for London.  We’re just about to launch the London Writers Network, which is focused on career development and will help writers to get informed about and connect to the wider literature and publishing scene.

What qualities do you think make a brilliant writer?

First and foremost talent and real love of what writing can do – whether it’s prose, poetry, drama or any other form –graphic fiction or blogging.  The qualities that we think make a brilliant writer are faith in and commitment to your talent: giving yourself the time to write and develop your craft, being a reader, taking up opportunities not only to get feedback but also to put your work out there.

Writers need to be resilient and determined- writing can be a lonely occupation and developing a career for yourself as a writer can be precarious and hard work. Learning and getting advice about the trade you’re in is essential, and connecting with other writers and agencies such as Spread the Word can help you to feel supported.

What’s your role in WriteNow?

We’re very proud to be one of WriteNow’s charity partners – opening up opportunities to writers underrepresented in publishing and connecting writers to publishers is core to our work. Building on our experience of delivering writer development schemes, we’ve been working closely with Penguin Random House to not only help shape WriteNow but also to promote it through to London’s writers (we hope you’re applying!). We’ll be providing advice to writers participating in WriteNow on how they can take up other opportunities in London. We’re looking forward to meeting you at the WriteNow London insight day on 1 October and to helping to discover some amazing writing talent.

Why is WriteNow important?

We’re based in, and the writers we work with live in, one of the most diverse and creative cities in the world.  Publishing needs to reflect this.

At Spread the Word we want to see more diverse writers being published. We know the writers are out there and that they are writing the stories that readers want to read. In order to do this, publishers need to be engaging with and supporting talented writers from under-represented communities.   WriteNow is important because it is addressing this head on and pro-actively seeking out talented diverse writers, not just in London but across the UK.

 

Editor Joe Marriott on the magic of inclusive publishing

 

This article originally appeared on The Bookseller

"Working with books, we are all familiar with the magic that happens when a story transports us into the mind of a fictional character. But this familiarity can mean we forget the work a reader has to do to make that magic happen.

As a bit of a closet romantic, I’ve spent a good chunk of my life reading, listening to and watching Jane Austen’s stories, empathising merrily with her heroines. But I wasn’t born identifying with characters that were completely different from me in gender, sexuality, race and historic positioning. It’s a stretch.

Being able to do this came with time: I started my reading life with books I could relate to as a child, gradually broadening my range and building an ability to understand and empathise with unfamiliar people and experiences (helped, of course, by some great writing and the encouragement of a bookish family).

Now I take pleasure in seeing aspects of myself in someone very different from me – but this can still feel like hard work. Sometimes I crave characters more like me and experiences I don’t have to reach to ‘get’.

Another kind of magic happens when we recognise ourselves in someone else. Whether it’s someone we admire, a public figure whose achievements we aspire to, or a fictional character we wish we could – in some small, obscure way – be more like. Relatable role models are important for our development at all stages of life and, consciously or unconsciously, we look for these role models all around us.

But finding these role models in life and in fiction can be complex if you’re always reaching beyond your own experience. I may enjoy a bit of vicarious romance through reading about Lizzie Bennet and Mr Darcy – but for me there’s something even more immediate and powerful in watching the romances of, say, the male gay characters in HBO’s "Looking", a series which imagines characters whose relationships and desires feel much closer to my own.

In the real world I feel admiration and inspiration when I see someone very different from me being impressive. But there’s something more exciting and inspiring in seeing, for example, Barack Obama in the White House, because he shares my skin colour.

It has an undeniable magic. I want more of that magic – and I believe everyone should have easy access to it through books and stories.

If I’m honest with myself, I recognise I have some bad habits when it comes to my part in making publishing more inclusive. I find it all too easy to forget to ask myself or my authors and illustrators questions like: Might the family in this picture book be black? Or: Might ‘mum and dad’ be ‘dad and dad’ in this story?  I could make more effort to seek authors, or work with agents to seek authors, whose experiences are outside of a “traditional” picture book mould.

Hearing that some foreign publishers reject books with black characters because their countries don’t have many black people is infuriating, but do I spend enough time thinking about how I could challenge that or creatively work around it? Have I let it discourage me from challenging my authors and illustrators to think outside the box?

Of course not every book needs to have a black main character or a gay relationship or a strong female role model. But if we want to stay relevant as an industry, more books should reflect and celebrate the increasingly diverse world we live in. As publishers we can ensure that some of the very best books do, so that we have more bestsellers that represent communities right across the country.

That’s where WriteNow comes in.

Through WriteNow we’re aiming to find, mentor and publish writers from communities that are currently under-represented on bookshelves. I, together with several colleagues, will be hosting three events in London, Birmingham and Manchester where we’ll give unpublished writers one-to-one critical feedback on their manuscripts, an insight into the publishing process, and the opportunity for long-term mentoring with a Penguin Random House editor. Ultimately, we hope to publish some brilliant new writers.

I’m really excited at the thought of the magic we can unlock by helping to ensure everyone has access to stories that speak directly to them in some way, that make them feel empowered rather than side-lined, and which beguile us all into thinking more broadly.

If we do this well, we can capture the imaginations of new readers, inspire new writers, and open up big new markets. It’s an exciting challenge and one that could really pay, in all senses."

Joe Marriott is commissioning editor for picture books at Penguin Random House Children's.

 

Emad, a Penguin Random House editor, shares his advice for new writers

 

I'm not aiming to get into a technical discussion with this piece around whether to plan or free-flow, or first-person vs. third-person, or anything like that. This is simply some general advice around keeping the faith and telling the story you want to tell – not any of the parts you’re taught to play. 

Write the book you want to read

For me, Clive, this is the best piece of advice. It really does get to the heart of the matter, cuts out all the noise and is kind of an aggregation of all the other advice.

The irony here is that you’ll never be able to truly read this book you want to read, because you’ll have written it and will be able to see every crack, scuff-mark, tear-splash-stain, etc.

Of course, this first piece of advice is much easier said than done – probably best to start just writing ‘a’ book you want to read…

Try to write the best book you can at that moment

Part of the reward – and, to a lesser extent, fun – of writing is aiming for perfection. It doesn’t exist, and most writers will describe every book they’ve ever written as failed attempts in this regard.

But this chasing of the horizon is the challenge, and while at times it can be the reason why no words go on the page, it’s always responsible for the best moments when they do. I feel that this is the writer’s job – whatever area they write in, and whatever they want to achieve with their work – to challenge themselves to do the very best work they can at that moment.

"I feel that this is the writer’s job... to challenge themselves to do the very best work they can at that moment."

Hold yourself to the same standards you hold others

This isn’t moral advice – although it’s probably not a bad shout. Unless those standards, like mine, are incredibly low.

This is sort of double-sided advice. Partly it means that you should try to be as good as your favourite authors, regardless of whether it’s possible and without straight-up imitation once you have found your voice.

But what I really mean here is that if there’s something in your own book which, if you read it in someone else’s book, would cause an impromptu snooze-fest (or stretch credulity, or make you throw the book across the room) then don’t be a hypocrite. If it wouldn’t work for you if you read it elsewhere, be honest with yourself. 

Believe in what you’ve done (not when you’re doing it)

I don’t mean this in an ‘every sentence is a beautiful snowflake’ way – many of them will be awful. In fact, the doubt and self-loathing when you read an irredeemably bad line that you and only you are to blame for is normally the way that things get better.

What I do mean is once you’ve got a first draft you’re happy enough with to send it out there, please remember you were happy enough to do so*. Maybe write yourself a note reminding you what you liked about it to put things in context.

All that’s happened is: you had something to say, and you said it. You had a story to tell, and you told it.

"You had something to say, and you said it.
You had a story to tell, and you told it."

If it doesn’t get picked up by an agent or publisher that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s bad – and certainly shouldn’t take away any of its meaning or value to you – it just means that a bunch of people, usually from a select strata of society didn’t connect with it, or think that they could sell it to other people, also usually from that same background.

Things are, hopefully, getting better in that respect but remember that publishers and agents get it wrong all the time – far more times than they get it right. Don’t let not getting picked up spoil what is desirable, enjoyable or important to you about writing.

If you feel there’s no point to writing if you don’t get published – that there’s no measurable benefit or sanative effect without it – then I would say maybe don’t bother.

(*=provided you didn’t send it out only because you were sick of it – you can definitely be sick and happy-ish, like that level of cold where actually it’s basically fine and you eat and watch telly and everyone’s nice to you.)

Other people don’t matter

That sounds really bad out of context. Allow me to explain. I see a lot  of schadenfreude and jealousy and bad-minding all over the place but I would like to point out the following:

Someone else getting a big deal doesn’t affect you. Someone else finishing a first draft before yours doesn’t affect you. Some other person liking what someone else has written doesn’t affect you. All those things are still possible for you – there is nothing mutually exclusive about these eventualities.

The only thing that directly and significantly affects your work for the better is how much care, attention and effort you put into it.

Worrying about what other people are doing – unless it makes you work and try harder – will only detract from how much care, attention and effort you are putting into the thing itself.

Emad Akhtar is a Senior Commissioning Editor at Michael Joseph, a leading commercial fiction and non-fiction Publishing Division of Penguin Random House UK. 

 

Meet Ella, a literary agent at Diamond Kahn & Woods

 

 

Ella, you’re a literary agent at Diamond Kahn & Woods. Tell us what that means in one sentence.

It means I scout for talented writers and help them get published; working with them to develop their novels, matchmaking them with the right publisher, and supporting their careers as authors in any way I can.

Sum up what it’s like to work in your agency in three words.

Collaborative, creative, and dynamic!

How do you work with authors?

I have a very close working relationship with all my clients – editing a novel to get it ready to sell to publishers can be very intensive. It's important that my authors understand and are happy with every stage of the publication process, so constant communication (and reassurance!) as I guide them through that process is key. And by managing all of the business aspects of getting published (negotiating contracts, dealing with finances etc), I enable my authors to focus on what they do best – being creative and writing incredible books.

What qualities do you look for in the manuscripts you receive?

A strong, pacy plot is the most important quality for me, combined with a confident, distinctive writing voice. A pacy plot doesn’t have to mean constant action and cliffhangers at the end of each chapter – it might be driven by the emotional journey the character goes on, for example – but I want to have a sense of purpose and direction to the story.

"I want to have a sense of purpose and direction to the story."

What makes a brilliant manuscript stand out?

An intriguing concept or ‘hook’ at the heart of the story that’s going to immediately pique my curiosity. Well-rounded, realistic and personable characters who I’m going to care about and want to root for. Authentic dialogue, and vivid, immersive world-building, so I can sink into the world of the story. And a professional, committed author who I know I will enjoy working with!

What common mistakes do you see which could be avoided?

When approaching agents, writers often fail to focus on the most important thing: telling us what their book is about! A cover letter should include a blurb pitching the story in the same style as the blurbs you’ll find on the back of a book in a bookshop.

"A cover letter should include a blurb pitching the story in the same style as the blurbs you’ll find on the back of a book in a bookshop."

I want to know who the main character is, a little bit about the set-up of their world and their situation at the start of the story, what happens to set their story in motion, what their aims and motivations are, and what challenges they’re going to face in trying to achieve their goals.

Something else that is very easy to avoid: not paying attention to detail! It doesn’t give a good impression if I’m sent a novel in a genre I don’t represent, or if there are typos in the text, or if my name is spelt wrong. A little bit of research into which agents might be the best fit for your work, and approaching them with a polished, professional pitch, will go a long way to help a submission stand out.