Man Booker Prize: What lessons can aspiring writers draw from Alison Moore's progress?
This year's Man Booker Prize has given outsiders and newcomers their strongest showing in years, with first novelist Alison Moore among the contenders.
Saturday 13 October 2012
As every new set of Man Booker judges has their go with the prize train-set, a theme generally emerges. Last year it was "readability"; this year, it might turn out to be the widening of access to this pinnacle of literary prestige. Surely it's significant that five of the six authors on the 2012 shortlist are published by independent publishing houses.
Take Alison Moore, whose first novel The Lighthouse (Salt Publishing) is a strong contender for the award (to be announced on 16 October). Her route to publication feels very current, reflecting a time of huge change within the literary landscape. As she explains, "My dad was a maths lecturer and my mum was an administrator and they were both big readers – there were a lot of books in the house. We used the local library and the mobile library. Each of us three children had our own books in our rooms too. I read a lot of Enid Blyton and I liked [Astrid Lindgren's] Pippi Longstocking. I also remember my dad reading [LM Montgomery's] Anne of Green Gables to me and my sister – I went on to read all the Anne books myself. I sometimes started a diary although I always tailed off, but I still like to keep one when I'm abroad."
For Moore, "Everyone writes at school, of course. I suppose the difference is that I never really stopped." She studied English Literature at Liverpool John Moores University and then did various jobs, mainly admin within arts or education organisations. "For most of my thirties, I was PA to the director of Lakeside Arts Centre at Nottingham University – and I wrote short stories in my spare time."
As we talked, I tried to isolate the patterns of behaviour likely to benefit the would-be published author. I noted down the following points:
1. Access your time. If life-changing events (having a baby) mean that the big chunks of writing time you formerly relied upon (weekends, Christmas, the summer holidays) are no longer routinely available, try to harvest other opportunities. Pick a time you when you can be supported, make it known – and stick to it. The list of credits in The Lighthouse significantly includes a thank-you to "Wheelbarrow Grandma for Arthur's playdates".
2. Give yourself a deadline. It tightens the creative brain and can help promote the heady state of writerly full flow that psychologists call "subliminal uprush" and is lyrically described in Dorothea Brande's Becoming a Writer – although, personally, I have always thought it feels more like a form of projectile vomiting.
For Moore, "Leaving work two weeks before my baby was due, and him being two weeks late, gave me a blissful month of frenzied writing, resulting in a 12,000-word story which won first prize in the novella category of The New Writer Prose and Poetry Prizes 2009."
3. Challenge yourself. Moore entered a series of short story competitions. In 2008, she was shortlisted for the Bridport Prize, and success in the Manchester Fiction Prize followed. "I was starting to wonder whether I was entering too many, but they did encourage me to keep producing and refining stories, and the successful ones gave me a boost."
4. Find an informed encourager. In her case, the generous Nicholas Royle, author, editor and publisher-at-large. He was Manchester's chair of the judges and recommended her to Salt Publishing.
5. Pay attention to rich resources for writing around you. Moore says that "I think that working at 'real' jobs is very valuable for feeding the writing, for taking the writer out of their comfort zone or exposing them to potentially interesting environments.
"The story of mine which was shortlisted for the Manchester Fiction Prize was inspired by a passing comment made by a work colleague some months before I left – the comment and ensuing story idea were noted down at the time but only worked on after leaving. There's some kind of balancing act to be done, I think, between putting yourself out into the real world and withdrawing from it sufficiently to be able to concentrate on the writing."
6. Get your timing right. Long out of favour with traditional publishers, the short story has of late been given a new lease of life through its handily downloadable format and ideal length for the tablet-equipped commuter. Establishing a writing competition is a great way for an organisation – be it city, company or literature festival – to raise awareness and prompt loyalty and affection. Moore benefitted from the Manchester launch, promoted with the city's usual gusto. Salt Publishing was actively seeking literary novels to complement their distinguished poetry list, having established that poetry alone would not keep them going. Moore was one of their first signings.
But is this good timing or being part of the Zeitgeist? For writers to benefit from these opportunities, they have to be brave enough to share their work, which is enormously exposing. What Moore refers to as "putting yourself in a position where things can happen" is nowhere near as straightforward as it sounds. As film producer Samuel Goldwyn commented, "The harder I work the luckier I get."
While many cling to the image of the writer in the garret, there are other sources of inspiration for the aspiring author. Literature and reading festivals, which originally offered the opportunity to hear from admired writers, have been broadened by market forces. Given the regularity with which participants were asked about the process of authorship – what they wrote with, when and how they got started, how they got their first break – it should not be surprising how popular seminars on both the craft of writing and opportunities for publishing have become at festivals.
Self-publishing provides opportunities for authors to develop their work. Many are now using the associated processes as a stage on their creative journey, in particular to share material and receive feedback. A single print-on-demand copy of your work in progress can help you see how it feels in its destined format, and perhaps foster objectivity. Others use social media. While in her recent novel NW, Zadie Smith credited a computer program that limits access to the internet, the historical novelist Harriet Smart comments that Twitter leaves her in a state of bounce, primed for writing.
Some take this further, allowing others to watch them writing "live" on their website, and so garnering active feedback. You could join a creative-writing class, whether at a university, or through local-authority provision. Set one up yourself, either in person or online, if you find criticism and eye contact a difficult combination.
Many literary agents and manuscript advice services now offer feedback on writing, either in groups or individually, and often in a pleasant place – writing courses and Tuscany seem a particularly felicitous mix.
The one thing the author must do is set a boundary to their time. Reading and talking about writing can so easily become displacement activities. As can being nominated for prestigious literary prizes! Moore mentioned that, apart from editing a short story, she has had no quality writing time since the Man Booker shortlist was announced a month ago.
It's been one long adrenalin rush, and she has been forced to adapt quickly to new circumstances – she was on her way to the novel's launch party in London when she found out she was on the list. As the attention increases, it's crucial for the writer to maintain access to whatever hinterland first facilitated their work. For some, this may be a sense of its ordinariness. As my eldest son said on seeing the very first printed copy of my very first book, "That's nice. Can I have some more Rice Krispies please?"
As for the Man Booker judges' extensive selection from the output of independent publishers, this could be very significant. About ten years ago, when Amazon first started to make inroads into the traditional market, there was much discussion at the Booksellers Association conference about the need for a level playing field; the same discount levels for all to ensure equal opportunities.
Since then, the playing surface has expanded greatly. Social media allow competition based on the fascination of the material rather than the size of the publishing house. Independent publishers, which found it difficult to get stocked in bookshops, can compete – and distribute effectively – online.
But the process needs to be financially viable. Now that both publishers and authors have got used to talking directly to readers, can the same media be used to build awareness of the value of effective writing, and the associated pleasures of reading? The downward spiral of book pricing, and altered perceptions of what good content should cost, is helping no one.
Earlier this summer, potter Emma Bridgewater argued for an awareness of "mug miles". In other words, fine quality goods need to cost enough to ensure everyone is being remunerated and can continue. Can we do the same for authorship and reading? Could we have a quality kite mark to show that material has been effectively edited, and that a pleasurable experience is likely ("guaranteed" is impossible, given the great variety in reading tastes)? The greater viability of quality reading materials would be a really good outcome, not just for new authors, publishers, and the Man Booker – but for the future of reading.
Dr Alison Baverstock leads the MA Publishing course at Kingston University; her books include 'Marketing your book: an author's guide' and 'The Naked Author' (Bloomsbury)
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