Inspiration and Co

There's a company that spoonfeeds authors with plots. Brandon Robshaw has already signed up
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The Independent Culture

What if there was a company which produced novels by committee? Which specialised in genre fiction, aimed with pinpoint accuracy at an identified target audience? Which thrashed out all the details of the plot, even snatches of dialogue, and then hired jobbing writers to join the dots? And then sold the finished product to established publishers?

Well, there is such a company, and its name is Working Partners. Few people outside the publishing trade have heard of it, but it's reasonably certain that if you have children, there are several Working Partners titles on their bookshelves. The 100-plus books in the Animal Ark series, for instance, by "Lucy Daniels", an individual as fictitious as the stories themselves. It has sold over 15 million copies worldwide. Or the Rainbow Magic series (sales five million and counting). Or the Heartland series, or the Sheltie series, or the Secret Unicorn series. For older readers there are the Warriors series, the Special Agents series, a series of vampire books and the Lady Grace Mysteries (one of which I reviewed on these pages a few weeks ago without even knowing that it was a WP title).

Except for a discreet mention on the copyright page, there is no indication of Working Partners' involvement in the finished product. The books are brought out by reputable children's publishers such as Bloomsbury, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Orchard, Oxford, Puffin and Scholastic. They are falling over themselves to sign these titles. Kids love them, and they sell in high volume on both sides of the Atlantic.

The logical next step, of course, is to see if this strategy will work for adult fiction; and that is what Working Partners is looking to do now. In 2006, Working Partners2 was formed with the aim of cracking the adult market. Its first title, a chick-lit novel, has already been sold to a leading UK publisher and will be published with much fanfare (in which Working Partners' role will go unmentioned) later this year.

Many people's immediate reaction would be that this all sounds a bit sinister. It smacks of cynicism and manipulation. This is a knee-jerk response, though. As Charles Nettleton, Managing Director of Working Partners2 says, "Lots of entertainment is produced in this way: sitcoms or films, for instance. Nobody thinks it's sinister when a team of script editors and writers work on a movie script - what's the difference?" At this point I should declare an interest. I am working on a four-book series for Working Partners, to be published by Puffin next year.

This is how it works. You are sent a confidential document with descriptions of all the characters and a detailed synopsis of the plot. That the synopsis for a 20,000-word text runs to some 5,000 words gives some idea of just how detailed.

Nothing is left undecided; as a writer, you're not concerned with what happens but only with how it happens. You write three sample chapters, in competition with other writers (you never find out who or even how many of them there are) and if Working Partners likes your first sample it will ask you to submit a revised version, again in competition with other authors (presumably fewer).

You are given extremely detailed and helpful feedback. Suggestions for revisions range from macro-comments about how such and such a character needs to be made more sympathetic, to micro-comments such as "There are too many g's in this sentence." These criticisms were mingled with enthusiastic praise for the parts that worked - and praise is what all writers crave, even more than money.

You do get money, too: if your sample wins the final round, you'll be offered a modest advance on each book and a percentage of the royalty Working Partners get from the publishers. Signing up for the deal means signing up to a year of tight deadlines: a 20,000-word manuscript every three months for the next year.

Isn't it inhibiting to have to write to someone else's synopsis? In the obvious sense, yes, of course - you are not free to make the story go off in a completely different direction. You can't bring in a new character if it's not in the synopsis. On the other hand, working within constraints is, paradoxically, liberating: the imagination is given the raw material to work with, and turning it into a story that comes off the page is a creative task like any other.

You might be thinking, this is all very well for children's fiction, but surely adult fiction needs to be more inspired?Charles Nettleton observes: "The potential for long series is not so great with adult fiction. We tend to think in terms of short sequences - perhaps three or four novels per sequence. Also, with adult characters, there has to be a lot more background research, in such things as the jobs people do or the period or region they live in; more importantly, you have to fill in the backstories of all the characters - they can't just emerge fully-formed from nowhere. But apart from that, there's no difference in principle. Whether it's children or adults we're aiming at, the challenge is to come up with great stories."

If Working Partners operated in a cynical manner, deliberately writing down for its readership and producing work that its editors despised, it would have zero chance of success. As Colin Watson put it in his critical survey of detective fiction Snobbery with Violence, "The public is remarkably sensitive to 'tongue in cheek' attitudes; it recognises and rejects every attempt to write down by an author who does not himself share the popular ideas he pretends to approve." What makes Working Partners so successful is that the editors genuinely believe in the projects they are working on, and they will not take on writers who don't share their excitement.

This may explain why so far Working Partners have had few imitators. Chris Snowdon, the managing director, says: "There are two companies in America who are doing something similar. Over here we're the only one. And this is because what we do is difficult - you can't just say, 'I know, let's make up ideas for novels that the public will like.' It takes a lot of talent."

Like it or not, this appears to be the future of commercial fiction. It's linked with the growing professionalism of writing, a trend that has seen degree courses in creative writing mushrooming in universities all over the country, with the Open University joining in last year.What is wrong with giving the reading public what it wants? Working Partners isn't perverting or corrupting public taste, but providing well-crafted, popular commercial fiction.

That this approach would not work for literary fiction is agreed. Working Partners is never going to come up with a new Ulysses or Gravity's Rainbow. This is because literary fiction is most successful when it is different from what the reader expects of a novel, whereas commercial fiction is most successful when it satisfies the reader's expectations. So, great literature produced by committee, no. Good popular fiction, yes. It's likely enough that some time in the next few years you'll be enjoying a middlebrow novel on holiday, and it may cross your mind how well put together it is - and it will be a Working Partners title, and you'll never even realise it.

The first book in the 'Tang Shan Tigers' series, 'The Jade Dish', will be published by Puffin in autumn 2007, under a pseudonym, 'with special thanks to Brandon Robshaw'