Posted on Leave a commentPosted in INTERVIEWS WITH WRITERS, THE INDIE PUBLISHING EXPERIMENT, Uncategorized

To you the stars e-book cover

Last week, the Indie Publishing Experiment reached its long-awaited climax with the publication of ‘To You the Stars’ by Wendy Cartwright, now available via Amazon. Wendy and I finally had the chance to sit down together and talk about the whole process…

Jan:  Can you explain how you came to write what is in fact, a very unusual book?

Wendy: That’s quite hard to explain!  TO YOU THE STARS is an unconventional love story based on an experience I had when I researched the grave of a woman buried in my local churchyard at a time when my own life was under an awful lot of stress.  So I decided to research her life as a way of distracting myself from my own problems, and because I’m an historian and an enthusiastic amateur astrologer I decided to write about it as an experiment, monitoring events through Astrology and seeing where it took me.  I ended up with a novel.

Jan:  Did you have a particular reader in mind while you were writing?

Wendy: No, I didn’t have anyone in mind when I wrote, but I would imagine that women would probably enjoy it more than men.  It about relationships, and about love, and has a spiritual theme so it’s likely to be of interest to open-minded people.  More women are interested in Astrology than men, but then again, a few men have read it and have said they really enjoyed it.

Jan: Would you say that Astrology is at the heart of the book or just an element?

Wendy: It’s at the heart of it.  I remember my partner telling me when I was writing it, that I should let Astrology drive the plot.  So I decided that each chapter would be written according to the nature of one of the planets before I wrote it.  That was my structure.  I entered into the spirit of it with a completely open mind.  I was like the Fool in the Tarot Deck, I wanted to leap off the cliff, which is what I did.

Jan: Do you think the book could appeal to readers who know nothing about astrology or are indeed sceptical about it?

Wendy: Yes, because I didn’t write it with the aim of persuading people about the validity of Astrology.  I’d like to think that it’s just a damn good story, and that the Astrology isn’t overdone.  Several people who have read it have said they feel it’s at the right level, and they’ve not been into Astrology themselves.

Jan: And the Philosopher character offers an antidote to the astrology because he’s constantly questioning it.

Wendy:  That’s right.  He’s based on my late partner.  He was a Sceptic, David Hulme was his hero, he was quite interested in my Astrology as long as it wasn’t something I “believed in” and in the novel the Philosopher provides an alternative viewpoint to the narrator.

Jan: Out of which we get a lot of humour.

Wendy:  Yes, we used to argue for hours, until four o’clock in the morning.  He found it all wryly amusing.


Wendy bw photo

Wendy Cartwright

Jan: Obviously, the novel is semi-autobiographical.  How hard is it to know where to draw the line between the truth and fiction?

Wendy: Very difficult.  For a start I didn’t want to upset people that might read it who are still alive. I let the Astrology provide the boundaries – it’s a Saturn thing. The context is autobiographical – I was living in Oxford as a single mother bringing up a child, teaching part time, practising Astrology and in a relationship with a university Philosopher. That was the context in which I researched Dorothy Browning’s life.  But then I allowed the planets to take me on a fun journey.  I said, okay, now I’m going to write a chapter entitled Neptune and I just entered into the spirit of Neptune to write it. So of course that’s then fictionalised.  But the event in each chapter (in the case of Neptune, the dream), that happened at that particular time and the corresponding astrological chart is available for those who are interested.

Jan:  And the charts, which you’ve painted beautifully, are on the TO YOU THE STARS website for anyone who wants to go further down the astrological route.

Wendy:  Yes, we thought it was better to do that, rather than put them in the book itself.

Jan: There are some very sad events in the book and I know that some of them are based on real experiences.  How did you manage dealing with those experiences fictionally when writing?

Wendy:  I’ve always been quite an emotional person anyway, so if I felt inspired to write something, I just wrote it.  And I cried a bit.  But that was good.  I know some people would say that’s writing for therapy, but I don’t think it was in my case.  I was dealing with universal human experiences, particularly loss and grief, and these aren’t things that only apply to me.  Several people who’ve read the book have found it moving.  Well that’s because I’m the same as them – we’ve all get Neptune in us somewhere.

Jan: So would you recommend the life-writing experience to other writers?

Wendy: Oh definitely.  If I’d just been writing it to get it out of my system, it wouldn’t have been relevant to other people.  I could write my journal for example, that’s just for me; that is therapeutic writing.  But if you’re writing a story based on something that happened to you then you’re trusting in the god of storytelling, Mercury.  And you believe there’s a bigger purpose – it’s not just about you.

Jan: You’ve been on a couple of writing courses.  How useful were they in writing this book?

Wendy:  I found the courses useful but they didn’t make much of an impact on writing this novel because I’d already written the first draft.   The courses were really interesting and informative, I learned a lot about the publishing world and techniques of writing, which might influence something I write in future.  If I were to write a more conventional novel, that is.

Jan: So the courses didn’t have any impact on the second, third, fourth drafts?

Wendy: Not really, it was too late by then.  The greatest benefit was working together on the editorial process before publishing.

Jan: Can you talk a bit more about this? It seemed to me to go very smoothly, but were there times when you felt protective and possessive about what you’d written?

Wendy: Definitely.  But this is where having somebody else read your work is so useful, because I’d become attached to particular phrases that I liked and I didn’t want to let them go.  In particular in the Moon chapter, there were little scenes in that that were part of my memory (which is interesting because the Moon rules Memory), but I followed your advice as my Editor and re-wrote.  From the reader’s point of view it makes a lot more sense now, but it wasn’t easy.  It was interesting for me to note that because I’d structured the novel according the planets, the chapters that were most difficult to write are also planets that are not well dignified in my own birth chart.  For example, I’ve got a problematic Moon in my own birth chart and that’s the chapter I ended up having to do the most work on.  Whereas the Sun, which is the strongest planet in my chart, in Aries conjunct the Mid-Heaven, I wrote in one go and had to do very little work on.

Jan: In fact, a lot of the changes you made were related to the experience of the reader, pulling them into the story and enabling them to follow it more easily.

Wendy:  When I was writing, it was very much stream of consciousness because I was going with the flow of the planets.   I took that as my central premise, so this is Mars, events corresponding with the nature of Mars will be in this chapter and I’m going to enter into the Mars feeling, even in my prose, which is all very well for me, having fun writing it, but for someone reading it, there were moments that were confusing.  I needed an Editor to say look, I’ve no idea where we are here.  I was encouraged to do a lot of what you called ‘pinning’ – establishing time and space, or reminding the reader who minor characters were, or explaining a time lapse, that kind of thing.   The book was being ‘earthed’.  By a Virgo!

Jan: The novel is very short, somewhere between a novella and a novel.  Why did it turn out this way and do you think it will be a problem for readers?  It certainly is for traditional publishers!

Wendy: When I was young and started out writing, I wrote poetry.  Then I wrote short stories, some of which were published.  It just feels natural to me, to condense things.  Without wanting to sound pretentious, TO YOU THE STARS is more like a very long poem.  It was never going to be a long novel.  I wrote the first draft of each chapter in one sitting, according to the nature of that planet, and I ended up with just over fifty thousand words.  I can’t imagine ever being able to write a long novel.

Jan: It sounds like you didn’t do very much planning before you started writing.  How aware were you of plot structure, character arcs, that kind of thing?

Wendy: Not aware at all!  Because the book was an experiment.  I’m an Aries with Leo ascendant, so I don’t do a lot of planning.

Jan: Why did you decide to go straight to indie publishing rather than approach agents or traditional publishers?

Wendy:  Actually, I did approach one publisher many years ago with an early draft, and he told me that the relationships with the Philosopher wasn’t properly resolved, and I thought well, fair enough, I’m never going to resolve that one (!).  I put the novel in the cupboard under the stairs.  Then a friend of mine died quite recently which made me start thinking of my own legacy, as it does, and I thought, I wish I’d made more of an effort with TO YOU THE STARS, which was originally called ‘Dorothy’s Grave’.  I chatted to you about it and you said, why don’t you get it out and have another go?  I always knew that it wouldn’t fit in anywhere because it’s not a conventional novel. It’s also not an astrology text book.  Neither is it high-brow literature, although I hope it’s well written.  I just couldn’t think of a market for it and when I get stuck, I tend not to bother, I tend to do just some knitting.  But there are new ways to get novels out to readers these days. It was you that encouraged me and said, it needs to be read.  I always remember my partner saying, “This is not just for you, you know.”  And I thought, actually he was right.

Jan: So now that it’s finally come out of the cupboard under the stairs and is seeing the light of day, has this given you a fresh impetus for more writing, and if so, what other plans have you got?

Wendy: I feel that TO YOU THE STARS was very much a fated thing that I had to do, and I would never be able to write anything like that again.  But I would like to write something else. I’ve got a few ideas for short novels using Astrology in some way that are pure fiction.  It would be nice to do something where I just use my own imagination.  If I can.

Jan: And I would love you to write more comedy.  Because although parts of TO YOU THE STARS are very sad, a lot of it is very funny.

Wendy.  I would love to write a comedy – absolutely.  One of the great things about TO YOU THE STARS is that I had a lot of laughs while I was writing it, especially in the Mercury chapter: Mercury is the Joker in the pack.  I’d like to write idiosyncratic comedy because that’s my voice.  Come to think of it, I found my voice while writing TO YOU THE STARS.

Jan: Which is a great thing to discover…  So what are your hopes for the books now it’s being published?

Wendy:  I would like it to be read by the people who need to read it and I hope they get something out of it.  After I wrote my initial draft I tape-recorded it and played it to an old blind lady I used to visit and she really loved it.  She got a nice read before she died and that meant a lot to me.  A friend once said to me, “Put it on the water, like Moses in the bulrushes and see who picks it up.”  That’s my attitude to it.

Jan: Hopefully lots of people will find it and I’m sure they will enjoy it enormously and get a tremendous amount from it. 

Wendy: Thanks.  Yes, I hope so…. Do you mind if I go out for a cigarette now?


Posted on Leave a commentPosted in THE INDIE PUBLISHING EXPERIMENT

After many months of editorial to-ing and fro-ing, we have our final draft of TO YOU THE STARS.  It has been proof-read.  It has been formatted.  We can’t wait to upload it to Amazon and start spreading the word.  We’ve bought our domain name.  We have our Promotional Video, ready for You Tube.  But there’s a problem.  We still haven’t got a design for the front cover.


We know what the book’s about, we know what are target readership is.  We can come up with dozens of words to describe the style, tone and atmosphere we’d like the cover to suggest.  But that’s where the difficulty lies.  We are Word People.  And although Wendy Cartwright, the author, also happens to be a dab hand with oil paint and even egg tempura, several days of daubing only yield a batch of this year’s Christmas cards.

As always, we know what we DON’T want.   We don’t want a gravestone, even though an inscription on a gravestone is at the heart of the story. In fact, it gives us our title.  ‘To you the stars, narcissi fields and music.’  Beautiful.  But no, we really don’t want a gravestone; that would be morbid, it might even suggest ‘horror’.  But we do like the idea of stars and narcissi fields (at this point, I discover from Wendy, also a keen gardener, that narcissi are daffodils).

We need a photo, we decide.  A photo will look professional.  So I key in ‘Starry night’,  ‘Starry landscape’,  ‘narcissi fields’  ‘stars and daffodils’ and various other word combinations to Google. I start wading through the thousands of images that pop up, most of which are either inappropriate or not available to purchase.  But there is one.  It’s more of a sunset than a night sky, but there are narcissi – they are even described as narcissi.  We all agree that this photo would make an excellent cover.  We even know the name of the photographer, so surely all we have to do is contact her and buy the image, hopefully for a very reasonable, artist-to-artist price.

Now, who would have thought that there could be more than one professional photographer in the world called Katja Rupp?  There seem to be at least two.  One of them is possibly based in the Netherlands.  Another is possibly based in Switzerland.  Do I want the Katja Rupp that mainly photographs ‘rebellious and animated’ performance artists, or the Katja Rupp that seems obsessed with tennis stars?  Is the Katja Rupp that loves photographing weddings a third photographer or is she one of the others?  Am I in fact seeking one and the same Katja, who has fallen out with the rebellious and animated performance artists, become disillusioned with the world of tennis and now finds happiness in taking photographs of girls in white dresses and cake? Surely, a few messages to ‘info@’ will clear up the confusion straightaway.   But no.  Although there are two possible websites, one I can’t enter at all, and the wedding photographer’s Contact Page sends me error messages.  There is a Katja Rupp on Twitter that photographs landscapes but she last tweeted 18 months ago.  I start to imagine the internet as a massive landfill site of careers that never got off the ground.

Facebook, I think.  She MUST have a FB page.  So, using my husband’s password I log into his account and search, eventually finding the landscape-photographing Katja here too.  She could be a fourth Katja, but I’m sure she’s the one I want.  Not wishing to pose as my husband, I finally do the thing I swore I’d never do.  I sign up to Facebook.  My message to her probably sounds a little more desperate than is wise.  While waiting for her reply, I amuse myself by inviting people I haven’t had contact with for thirty years to renew our friendship.  I exchange several warm messages with some lovely people I had almost forgotten about and decide that Facebook is actually quite fun.  But the weeks go by and Katja doesn’t reply.  Either she is over the FB thing or she didn’t like the tone of my message.  So we give up on the beautiful image of sunset over narcissi fields and start again.

On reflection, maybe a landscape would be too stark, we think.  This is a Love Story (of sorts) and it’s written in the First Person, so maybe what we need is a figure of a woman looking up at the stars.  Even better, let’s have her, back to camera (such women always have their back to camera), looking across the iconic Oxford skyline (the book is set in Oxford), up at a night sky.  Yeah, right.  Try searching on Google Images for that.   And anyway, we’re nervous of another internet wild goose chase; we’d quite like to get the book out by the end of the decade.  So we decide to take our own photo.  After all, Wendy’s daughter is a documentary film-maker and has a really expensive stills camera…

So off go Wendy and daughter Ellie to Oxford, snapping away as the sun goes down behind the iconic Oxford skyline.  Wendy obligingly dons a Fair‘isle woolly beret (the book features a woman with eccentric headwear) and stands with her back to camera.  Ellie sends me the results and I dig out a stick of dried-up Pritt and a pad of A4 watercolour paper I bought ten years ago for an art class I gave up on after two sessions, and set to work.  I use up all my printer-ink, jamming the photocopier, trying every font that Word has to offer, and finally producing my rough ‘Mock Up’.  After all the effort, I’m quite pleased with it.  Okay, so there are no stars, too much grass and the Oxford skyline is so distant and hazy you might not recognise it, but we have something.  About bloody time too.  I scan my rough Mock Up and proudly email it to a select number of discerning friends.  The response is universally negative.  My super-insightful mate Karen, always guaranteed to speak her mind, says “I’m expecting to see some kids in football gear come out from behind her and an overweight gym teach puffing behind with a whistle.”


As no football or indeed any kind of physical exercise features in the novel, we go back to searching for an image of stars and narcissi fields on the internet.   Maybe we don’t need a figure after all, we think.  This is not Chick Lit.  This is Accessible Literary Fiction. We find another photo which is even more appropriate than Katja Rupp’s, and discover that this is probably purchasable via a photo library.  But before we commit to the cost, I get out the Pritt stick and the watercolour pad and do rough Mock Up Number 2. This time, I show it to a friend who happens to be a former independent publisher – his publications included a Booker shortlisted novel so he knows his stuff and he understands the agony we’re going through.  Alan doesn’t like the starry sky with daffodils.  The daffs make him think of Marie Curie.  He hates the font I chose for the title.  He thinks we need something more mystical, more arty, preferably with a swirly typeface.  He’s right, of course. Mock Up 2 is so bad I’m too ashamed to share it on this blog.

As my art class didn’t work out and my Word software doesn’t run to swirly typefaces, I give up.  I hand the job over to an experienced marketer.  Within hours, she finds us a proper Book Jacket Designer who offers to do it quickly for a very reasonable fee.  And here it is.  Our book cover.  We love it.  Thank you, Emma and thank you, designer Ana Grigoriu.

To you the stars e-book cover


Why the hell didn’t we do that in the first place?

TO YOU THE STARS will be available on Amazon in December – both as a physical and e-book.


Posted on Leave a commentPosted in INTERVIEWS WITH WRITERS

William has a good, steady job in retail.  He works in the bedlinen department of an Oxford Street store.  He knows everything there is to know about comfy. Lucy has a portfolio career which, in her view, is no kind of career at all.  Her life is a mess, her love life even more unsatisfactory than that.  Unable to sleep, she thinks a new pillow might be the answer. William and Lucy are not connected.  Yet the pair of them share a terrible memory from the past, the sort of joint recollection that changes with the light, depending on who you were and where you were standing at the time.  The question is: what to do with it?

I loved this novel, just as I loved Nick’s non-fiction book The Train in the Night, and I’m not the only one.  Pillow Man has been described as “Sharp, witty and beautifully written” (Cara Fielder, We Love This Book) and “a thoughtful and sensitive dissection of modern lives.” (Leyla Sanai, The Independent).  I met with Nick to talk about his inspiration for the story, the differences between writing fiction and non-fiction and about whether restraint is the key distinguishing factor that distinguishes the commercial from the literary.   But my first question was this:

Jan:  You’re obviously a natural novelist, so why has it taken so long to write your first fiction work?

Nick:  I was a journalist for 25 years and that was running down badly. I had my problem with my ear and health concerns which reduced my output and my ability to go out into the world and I’d always wondered what it must be like to write fiction. I have fiction writing chums, I read a lot of fiction, I love fiction and I’d tried for many, many years to have a great fiction idea.  You know as well as I do, that they don’t always come spangled with bows tied on top – they really don’t.  I’d written a non-fiction first book which had done reasonably well and I really didn’t want to do another one, particularly not in my specialist area, which is music.

I was casting around for ideas and I wanted to write some short stories to see whether I could write with a fictive voice. One day, a good friend was at my kitchen table telling an extraordinary tale about going to buy a pillow in John Lewis.  She spoke about this idiosyncratic salesman she’d met and what she’d discovered about the procedure of buying and selling a pillow.  A character just formed in my head and I thought, at least I could write a nice little short story about a washed-up pillow salesman. I sat down to do it, and after about a week I realised I wanted to write a full length narrative about this individual interacting with another individual in a world that I knew.  I began to invent a hinterland for him and the other central character (Lucy) and I could feel I was using a completely new part of my brain to do it.  The one thing you don’t do as a journalist is make it up.  You can be poetic, but always everything has to be sourced and even if it’s an opinion it has to be grounded in the real world.  Suddenly I had this opportunity to invent.  Okay, I was being slightly conservative because I wanted to write about a world I was familiar with, North London, department stores, and of course music – I seem to find it very difficult not to write about music. But I found I was enjoying myself in a way I’d never enjoyed myself before, writing. I started in about 2011, and although I still wasn’t very well, I was getting through the days much, much better.  Making stuff up.  Lovely.

Jan: Tell us about your journalistic background.  How has that affected the way you write fiction?

Nick: I was a very particular kind of journalist and I although I was a newspaper journalist for 13 years, prior to that I was Music Editor of Time Out and before that a Freelancer at the long-lost, long-regretted NME (New Musical Express).  At the age of 33 I decided I was too old for this malarkey and winkled my way to the Arts Desk of the Independent, where I became Arts Editor and in due course Features Editor. During that time I never swerved from my rather airy-fairy journalistic approach; I’m not a trained journalist, I write not from the heart but from the stomach.  I was kind of addicted to writing about music, even as Arts Editor I still wrote about it almost continually, simply because I loved the way it made me feel.  It’s the subjectivity of music that I find abidingly fascinating.  The part of me that loved writing about music was essentially a frustrated fiction writer.  I think I’d have started writing fiction much earlier if I’d had the right idea.  I kept having little ideas for fiction and kicking them around the corridors of my brain nothing ever really stuck until the idea for Pillow Man came in.  All I had was a character, a situation and an ending.  I knew I had to get to the ending.

Jan: Funnily enough, this is one of my questions – about the ending.  You pull back from the edge at the last minute and I wondered whether that had always been the plan or whether you’d toyed with the idea of going all the way…

Nick: That’s very perceptive.  I had three endings right up to when I was writing the final chapter.  I wanted – as an engine for the novel – for it to be real.  At every turn I wanted the real thing to happen, rather than the thing that would make a grand operatic, dramatic, exciting gesture. I decided I was going to wait until I got to the end and then work out which of my three endings were the most likely, the most real and the most poetically satisfying.

Jan: There’s a lot of restraint in the novel, which is connected to this desire to make things real, I guess.  I’ve been reading a lot of commercial fiction recently and it was very enjoyable to read something that didn’t just go for the jugular.  It made me think about the differences between commercial and literary fiction… Pillow Man is definitely literary fiction –

Nick: But it’s pacey I hope!

Jan: Oh yes, but literary fiction doesn’t mean it can’t be a page-turner…  The novel is beautifully, very precisely written. I particularly liked the internal joke you seemed to be making – when they’re at the gig and there’s a power cut and Lucy wonders whether Johnny’s going to be found murdered with a knife in his chest when the lights come on again.  And of course, that doesn’t happen.

Nick:  I’m glad you got that joke.  Yes, I wanted to write something with a quiet heart and a quiet ending.  I’ve read too many novels over recent years where the shape is just one long climax and I can’t bear it.  I wanted a novel that tapered off into quietude and had an optimistic ending – you still felt something big had happened but your heart wasn’t racing and you weren’t sweating and you hadn’t been manipulated into a climax.  I didn’t want to dramatise the major event in the book that happened 20 years previously, I wanted to report it, so you get it as William’s memory, and then in turn, Lucy’s memory.

Jan: Which is another example of that restraint – you could have very easily done a double-time kind of thing.

Nick: Yes and I didn’t fancy doing that at all.  It would have completely altered the tone of the whole thing.

Jan: The pillow was your starting point and it plays a central role in the story…  Tell us about that.

Nick:  I love the use of objects in stories, like in the films of Robert Bresson for instance. I love the magic of objects that become thematic; they tow the reader along.  The pillow is a big narrative tow, and it has thematic body to it as well.   The main character’s anxieties are governed by his obsession with the pillow; William drones on about Comfort and Convenience, the loss of comfort, the difference between physical and metaphysical comfort, how they relate to each other and what’s more important.  So the object facilitates the revelation of the guy’s character.

Jan:  At the centre of the book there’s this issue of the Past – how we are shaped by events, things we do, things that are done to us, things we witness…  William has this life-changing experience – or does he?  Do you think of him as changed or simply submerged?

Nick: One of the things I like about William is that he is a really principled guy and I don’t think any of his principles would have been changed by the awful experience that happened 20 years ago. But I think his whole emotional address to the world would have been changed.  So although I imagine him being very depressed by the experience and submerging himself, he doesn’t try and change his world.  He simply goes to work in the department store because he thinks he’ll be a better version of himself by doing so.  He doesn’t reject himself but he realises that his contribution to the awful thing that happened was his rage.  I know from my own experience that if you have a short temper, you’ve got to work on it if you want to grow up, and that’s one of the ways – and there aren’t many – in which the novel is autobiographical.

Jan: I’d like to talk about Lucy now, the other main character in the book.  At first I found her difficult to place, she seemed younger to me than 38 but I think that’s because when I was that age I was quite settled, and she isn’t at all.  She seems very strong and perceptive and yet her life is all over the place.  What sort of function does she serve for you in the story?  How does she work as that counterpoint to William?

Nick: They are both self-loathers at different levels and in different ways and I wanted to explore a charitable meeting between self-loathers.  Lucy is partly constructed out of certain things I know about myself.  I’m really interested to hear that she seems a little young, that may well be right, but there is a deliberate immaturity about her…

Jan: And I think that works because it makes you think, hang on, she’s 38.  I don’t think it’s a poor characterisation, I think it makes her really interesting.

Nick: The point about Lucy is that she desperately doesn’t want to be in that unsettled state but she desperately doesn’t want to leave it either.  She’s still stuck in late adolescence.  I don’t think she serves any other structural function except to be a plausible character that William could be attracted to and who could possibly be attracted to William.  It’s the one thing that really, really worries me: is it plausible that this slightly chaotic 38 year-old woman would understand William sufficiently to find him sexually attractive?

Jan: Well, I think they’re a very good characters. They’re 3-dimensional and surprising in different ways.  I think that’s great.

Nick:  Good. I’m really pleased to hear that.

Jan: We’ve already talked a bit about your passion for music, and obviously, we write about what we know. Having read The Train in the Night, I know how incredibly articulate you are about your responses to music.  You’ve given William Carberry this facility as well.   Did you have trouble keeping your voice out of his character?

Nick:  Massively, yes.  A lot of the stuff that ended up on the cutting room floor was when I realised I’d been writing as me, the music critic, and also crucially as the life-long frustrated musician.  And what lies beneath all of it is that I would have loved to have been the serious Rock’n’Roller like William, but I was cursed with the realisation – as with acting – that I didn’t have the talent. So I think there is a level of indulgence in the musician side of William as a projection of myself and there’s no two ways about it.  And the gig is the greatest I ever played at that I never played at!

Jan: Having written a non-fiction book and a novel now, which did you prefer and where do your thoughts lead next?

Nick: I’m writing a non-fiction book, because the publisher expressed an interest in the idea – I’m one of those feeble people who writes better when they know somebody wants something.  I’ve always been a terrible self-motivator and if someone says, ‘please will you do something’ I’m very happy to do it, and my mind comes alive. One of my great failings as a freelance journalist is that I hate rejection and I’m very bad at pitching so I don’t do it anymore.  I would love to have another fiction idea.  My daughter occasionally asks me – because I must have been a nicer Dad when I was writing fiction – “Have you had your idea yet?”  I’ve had lots and lots of half-ideas and you will know very well that a half-idea is almost worse than no idea at all. I was very fortunate that Pillow Man just popped into my head, almost fully formed with the beginning and the ending – I’m kind of expecting it to happen again and it’s just not.   Have you got any tips for having ideas?

Jan: I actually don’t try too hard.  I don’t have an Ideas Day, I find that doesn’t work.  I have my ideas at really inconvenient moments, often when I can’t write them down, but then I think, if it’s a really good idea I’ll remember it.  Sometimes I don’t or it’ll come back to me a week later.  It seems to be totally random.  But I’ve a feeling that readers of Pillow Man are going to be asking to read your next novel, so hopefully that will be the trigger you need for the imaginative sparks to fly… 

Thanks Nick, for a great interview.  I wish you every success with this and future books.

Writers – do you have any tips for generating good fiction ideas? Do you find a good idea is one that develops its own momentum?  Does it keep its original form or does the story change massively as you write?  I’d love to hear your thoughts – on this subject or Nick’s books, or any other aspects of the writing process.  Please leave a comment below.




Christine Glover has just taken up a new post as Media Agent at Film and TV agency, Casarotto Ramsey and Associates.  Christine has been my Media Agent for many years and I really don’t know what I’d do without her.  We met at Clifton Nurseries, Little Venice for a chat about being an agent, becoming an agent, and how the client-agent relationship works in today’s film and television industry.

Christine Glover image

Christine Glover

Jan:  Why did you decide to become an agent?

Christine: It’s not the sort of job you normally hear about at the School’s Career Service.  I studied Law and although I enjoyed my course academically I knew I didn’t really want to be a lawyer.  I was exploring different options, one of which was volunteering in the law courts working with victims of crime, and I started doing some part-time work at a literary agency called AP Watt at the same time.  My duties were very basic – franking the post and filing contracts – but I really loved it and they seemed to like me too. So as soon as an opportunity came up I was offered the job and I leapt at the chance to work there.

Jan:  Why did you decide to specialise in Film and TV?

I’ve worked at literary agencies up to now where the focus has been more on books, but I really like the energy and vibrancy of the television world – it moves so quickly.  From reading the treatment to watching it on TV doesn’t take long at all these days and I really love the medium. I love working with the writers and I love watching television for a living!

Jan: Can you explain how your career has progressed?  Was your route typical?

Christine: It was typical fifteen years ago, but the situation has changed.  Nowadays people start off on unpaid internships and with a lot more competition, whereas the route for me was fairly easy and I was actually paid for my first job even though it was just part-time admin.   So, you’ll start in a very junior role, work up to being a Second Assistant, then a First Assistant, then an Associate Agent.  At this point you start taking clients of your own and eventually become an agent.

Jan: Was that scary? Taking on your first client?

Christine: Not really, I’d been pushing for it for quite a while.  It takes a long time to build a client list and that just doesn’t happen in the space of a few months.  An Associate Agent is a good way of the agency hedging its bets – you’re still working with a Senior Agent, helping them, doing admin and learning from them, but at the same time you’ve got a bit of leeway and freedom to take on some clients of your own.  Hopefully, over two or three years the balance will change from mostly admin support to mostly working with your clients and then you’re in a position to take that leap to becoming an agent. But it’s a big risk for the agency to promote a new agent.  A new agent isn’t going to attract big clients right away, they need to work hard and prove themselves.  The more they learn about how the industry works and how to sell their clients’ work and negotiate the best deals for them, the better chance they’ll have of taking on more established clients.   If the Senior Agent retires or moves out of the industry then there’s a good chance the agency will want to retain their clients, and it’s good for them to have somebody there to provide continuity.

Jan:  Which was what happened with us!

Christine: Exactly.  That transition was very easy.

Jan: What advice would you give to anyone interested in becoming a media agent?

Christine: Get as much experience as possible before you apply for a job.  Having a relevant degree is helpful but not essential – anything to do with Drama, English, Law, Languages.  The most important thing is a passion and you need to demonstrate that by undertaking work experience or internships at a variety of companies, including production companies, just to see how the other side works and to have a rounder experience of the industry.  The job’s not particularly well paid at the very early stages, so you need to really want to work in the industry in order to jump through all these hoops.

Jan: Can you give us some idea of how you work with a client?

Christine: A big part of what I do is providing moral support and career guidance and that’s what I find very satisfying about the job.  Every writer needs a different type of support from their agent, every agent has different strengths and different ways of liking to work with their clients so it has to be a good fit.  Every agent-client relationship is different.  If you’re in a position to interview several agents, then I think it’s important to do so. I always say the agent-client relationship is like a marriage; you mustn’t marry the first person you meet!

For me, it’s about being there when things aren’t going well and celebrating success when they are; providing feedback on ideas, having regular contact and talking through what the writer wants to do next, discussing ideas and deciding which ones are the best ones to pursue. I meet with producers all the time and I try to guide writers to produce the kind of work that the industry’s looking for. I like to get a lot of interest in the project, guide the offers in and then be in a position to negotiate the best possible deal.

Jan: How proactive does a writer have to be, and has this changed over the years?

Christine: There are many more opportunities than there were in the past – more channels, the advent of multimedia, so I think writers have the opportunity to be more proactive these days.  Screenwriters have always have had to be more proactive than authors because it’s a business that’s built on relationships; you have to get out there and meet lots of producers and figure out who’s the best fit for you and your work.  Sometimes you might be having a conversation with a producer for a couple of years before you find the right project to work on together.  And that might be either the writer coming up with a pitch that’s right for the producer or the producer approaching the writer – so it works both ways.

Jan: Do you encourage writers to go out there and make those relationships?

Christine:  They have to.  Obviously the agent is talking to people and submitting scripts, making sure they get read and getting feedback, but at the same time the writer has to follow up on these opportunities.  The agent creates the opportunities but the writer has to take over the baton and maintain that relationship with the producer.  It’s a personality thing – some people will click with each other and some won’t.  It’s about finding that unique chemistry, a bit like matchmaking.

Jan: What qualities does your ideal client have?

Christine: First and foremost they have to be talented. They need to be tenacious but also realistic.  And they have to have good people skills.  It makes a big difference if a writer can pitch well at meetings, if they’re approachable and can take feedback on board.  Sometimes a writer whose personality is more open and engaging can get further ahead than another who finds it difficult to do meetings or to take notes on their work.   It’s hard, because it shouldn’t necessarily be that way – ultimately everyone should be judged on the quality of their work, but the creative process in film and TV is a very collaborative one, so personality is a factor.

Jan: There is some talk in the industry of book agents ultimately becoming redundant. Would you say the media agent is also under threat?

Christine:  I’m not really in a position to comment about book agents because it’s a very different world from Film and TV.  Self-publishing has brought about a lot of changes – a writer can probably start their career without an agent but once it starts to take off they often need help to explore the various opportunities, especially in film and TV and overseas markets.  A lot of expertise is required to sell those rights, unless the author is prepared to immerse themselves in learning about twenty different markets!  Also in terms of negotiating contracts, unlike agents who charge a percentage of the fee as their commission, a lawyer charges flat fees and often the sums involved in options or translation deals are not very big to start off with, so a whole advance or option fee could be taken up by, or even exceeded by, a lawyer’s fee.

It’s a full time job for an agent scouting opportunities for their clients and submitting their work – a writer wouldn’t have much time to write if they were constantly researching the hundreds of production companies and submitting work to producers.  Also producers use agents as a filter, it’s that stamp of approval from an agent which will get a script read much faster than if it arrives unsolicited from a writer. Many production companies don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts from un-agented writers at all. If a producer trusts that agent’s judgement and knows that they usually come up with good suggestions and send them good scripts, they are more likely to take the writer seriously.  They will read the material and often meet the writer to get a sense of what else they might be able to work on with them in the future, even if that particular script doesn’t sell.  An agent can help build relationships with producers that open doors to other paid work.  Producers are so busy, they need that filtering process.

Jan: What part of the job do you like best – the creative involvement with writers or doing the deals?

Christine: I like them both, they’re exciting in different ways.  It’s a real privilege to see work at an early stage and to feel part of that creative process.  I never give very detailed script notes but I do make broad brush stroke comments.  If I don’t think the script is what the market is looking for at the moment, I might suggest the writer concentrate on another idea.  But no script is filmed the way it’s first written anyway, so I think all you need is a strong script that shows potential.  Once I put them together, I leave it up to the writer and producer to work in a proper development process.

Jan: How would you describe the current climate for TV and Film and how do you see the future for screenwriters?

Christine: I think it’s definitely a very exciting time for television – more opportunities, higher budgets, more ambitious projects on a bigger scale.  When I started out 15 years ago every screenwriter wanted to write for Film – TV was looked down upon and was very much a second choice, whereas now film writers are working very happily in television.  In a way the reverse seems to have happened: it’s Film that’s now very safe and not taking creative risks.  There are a lot of sequels, big brand franchises and major literary adaptations backed by BBC Films, the BFI and Film Four and then there’s a very tiny indie market of films that are made on shoestring budgets and often don’t get any distribution. In TV there’s room for all sorts of exciting and innovative storytelling.  Early on in my career, the aim was to get a film deal for a book, but now everyone has realised that Film has to make so many compromises and so much has to be cut out.  But with a television adaptation you can tell the story over a number of hours and really do justice to it.  And there’s potential for further series too – if the writer’s in agreement.  That’s why crime and thrillers do so well on TV.

Jan: And finally… You’ve just moved from Blake Friedmann to Casarotto – do you have any particular plans and what are you most looking forward to in the new job?

Christine: I’ve got a remit to take on writers of TV drama, as it’s an area I’ve had quite a lot of success with up to now.  So that will be my focus.  I’m excited about working in a larger agency and working with an old colleague again too.

Jan: And I’m looking forward to moving with you!  Thanks so much, Christine – that was really fascinating.  I wish you every success in the new job.


Posted on Leave a commentPosted in THE INDIE PUBLISHING EXPERIMENT

Last Saturday, we got up at the crack of dawn and headed to Oxford.  The car boot was crammed with props, costumes, bottles of water, a box of tea-bags, gaffer tape and bin liners. The sky was blue, the sun was shining, our lead actor’s train had arrived on time and the car-park at the back of Tescos was empty – the gods were on our side.   It’d had been a while since I’d been actively involved in a shoot (apart from being an incognito Extra in my son Harry’s latest short-film) and it felt good to be holding a Call Sheet again.  I’d not been sure what title to give myself when typing it up a few days earlier – Scriptwriter? Production Manager? Production Co-ordinator? 1st AD? Stand-by Props? Caterer? Runner?  All seemed appropriate in their way, but in the end I went grandiose and opted for Producer.  The only thing I wasn’t doing was operating the camera – anyone reading this who knows me will sigh with relief and think, maybe the quality of this thing isn’t going to be so bad, after all…


Trying to avoid the stinging nettles… 

We were shooting a promotional video trailer for Wendy Cartwright’s new novel, TO YOU THE STARS, part of my Indie Publishing Experiment (see earlier Blogs).  The idea came out of a brainstorming session we had a few months ago – you know, sitting around with a bottle of wine, letting our imagination, bank balance and naivety run free, saying: “and we could do THIS”, “and we could do THAT” (filling our glasses) and “wouldn’t it be brilliant IF…”  I love those conversations, but I hate it when they remain just words in the air.  So I was determined to follow through.   Hence the boot full of stuff and the Call Sheet.

To be fair, it’s a lot easier to mount a project like this if you and your family happen to work in film and television.  And your husband used to be a professional actor.  And the writer’s daughter is a shooting-director with prime time TV credits.  And you either own or can borrow free of charge a decent HD camera and panel lights and have access to an Edit Suite and – well, you get the picture.  We did the whole thing – including paying two professional actors (not including my husband obviously) for about £300.    It would have cost a little more if the amazing host of the house we were using to shoot the internal and external scenes hadn’t laid on a buffet and wine for lunch! (Thanks, Glynis and we hope the smell of cigarette smoke has faded.)

Okay so we’re jammy buggers.  But it got me thinking…  If you’re self-publishing and don’t have these kind of resources to hand, how cheaply could you make something of decent quality?  And it really does have to be of decent quality, otherwise it’ll put people off buying your book rather than encourage them.

So I started scouring the internet for companies offering to make book trailers for self-publishing authors.  Maybe I’m googling with the wrong search words or maybe I’ve found a gap in the market.  A GAP in this incredibly crowded market?  Surely not.    I found Circle of Seven Productions, essentially a US outfit, who specialise in making book trailers and reputedly have a London base.  I say reputedly, because it’s hard to find out any more information about their UK operations.  Hmmm, perhaps they need a promotional trailer…  Anyway, in the US they produce trailers according to your budget, quoting between $2000 and $5000.  The package also includes distribution via social media, particular websites and even libraries.  Knowing industry-standard rates for crew and cast, let alone the cost of prop and costume hire and location fees, that price doesn’t seem unrealistic to me.  But given that a serious self-published author has probably already shelled out for an Editor and a Book Jacket Designer, is a one-minute promotional video really worth it?  Is it not the icing on the cake, but the glace cherry on top?  And will it sell any books?


Careful, David!  No budget for Stunt Doubles…

Presumably, trailers do help with sales, otherwise traditional publishers wouldn’t be bothering.  Go on the website of any big publisher and you can watch promotional videos to your heart’s content.  Commercial thrillers get a sort of pseudo feature film treatment – cross-dissolving stills of dead bodies and knives dripping with blood, with melodramatic, deep-throated voiceovers giving out apocalyptic warnings and generally trying to give us nightmares.  There are some lovely, quirky animations but also some very boring ‘interviews’ with shy, awkward authors, usually surrounded by a pile of their latest unsold hardbacks.  The deathly-dull approach seems to be reserved for Literary Fiction.

Okay, so anyone can stick themselves in front of their webcam, drone on about why they decided to write the book and upload it to their Author Page on Amazon.  But say you have an idea for a trailer that’s witty, intriguing, engaging and fun to watch, but have hardly any budget.  Here’s my idea.  There are Film and TV Production courses in universities all over the country.   Arts University Bournemouth, Westminster, Edinburgh, University of the Arts London, to name but a few – here’s a list.  They are bursting with creative young people who have access to free, good quality equipment and who are constantly looking for interesting projects to do in their spare time.  They are tomorrow’s industry professionals but right now they need to gain experience and build up their CVs.   And you will definitely be able to find your cast via a service like Casting Call Pro, good actors who will work for modest fees and/or expenses and will appreciate footage for their Showreel.  Then all you have to do is write your script, raid your house and the local charity shop for props and costume and you can turn that drunken brainstorming session into a reality.  It just takes a bit of Get-Up-And-Go.   Usually at about five o’clock in the morning, but that’s half the fun.

Our shoot last Saturday went incredibly well and was a hoot.  Our talented cast were a joy to work with and I didn’t fall out with my husband once.  We managed five “set-ups” in the day – Magdalen Bridge, punting on the river (thankfully nobody fell in as we didn’t have duplicate costumes), the outside of Glynis’ house, the inside of Glynis’ house, and the adjacent churchyard.  We didn’t have to worry about the Vicar as we’d already got permission to film, but keeping Ellie’s expensive camera out of sight of the drug addicts communing around the war memorial was a bit of a challenge.  Wendy got her Hitchcock moment, I took some fuzzy Behind-the-Scenes stills on my ancient I-phone, and we ate some remarkably tasty sausage rolls.  Can’t wait to see the finished product and share it in all the appropriate places.  And if we don’t sell a single extra copy of TO YOU THE STARS as a result, at least we’ll have had a good day out.


Still smiling, after all those hours…

L to R – Actors Hester Ruoff, Abigail Hopkins and David Kendall with Shooting Director Ellie Cartwright



Posted on Leave a commentPosted in THE INDIE PUBLISHING EXPERIMENT

You only have to look at the Acknowledgements at the end of a novel to see that there are usually a lot of people to thank.  Spouses, children, friends, teachers, agents and of course – editors.   They can be a powerful force, changing the direction of a book and taking it from good to great.  Think of Max Perkins for example, literary editor for F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and Thomas Wolfe – a fascinating story set to hit our screens next year in the American-British feature Genius with Colin Firth in the title roleWho was the real genius, we are invited to ask – author or editor?

Sadly, most of us don’t have a Genius of Max Perkin’s calibre in our pocket.  We don’t have someone who will politely but firmly curb our enthusiasm; who has the guts to tell us that the novel isn’t finished at all, not by a long way; that the hard work has only just begun.   Writing a novel is such a life-dominating, time-consuming enterprise, there’s a huge temptation to whack it off as soon as we reach the last page.  Done and Dusted.  Phew.  We’re still in love at this point, we haven’t yet seen the flaws and failings.  We might have a vague inkling that it’s not perfect; that it might need a bit of work, but that’s what Editors are for, isn’t it?  Yes, but will they want to work with you?


Of course, there are still some fantastic, dare I say “genius” editors working in traditional publishing houses, but they are very busy working with their established authors. A new book by a debut writer has got to be fully formed and almost ready to go – if it’s not, it’ll never make it out of the Slush Pile in the first place.  So there’s no point in sending something you think’s got potential but know needs editorial help.   You’re unlikely to get it here.


If you already have an agent who is committed to working with you on the development of your career, you could be in luck.   When I was represented by the AP Watt agency, Caradoc King helped me enormously, particularly with my novel Selina Penaluna.  The book went through various incarnations and Caradoc read every one, giving me insightful comments along the way.  When the book was ready, he had no trouble placing it with Random House and then I got to work with the fantastic editor Kelly Hurst.  But not all agents have that editorial skillset.  Some are better with a contract in their hand, or at negotiating a deal.  And if you don’t already have an agent, then I’m afraid – as with publishers – your book needs to be in very good shape before they’ll agree to represent you.  It stands to reason: an agent earns nothing until they sell your book so they have to be certain that their time and energy is going to be a sound investment.


The trouble with hawking an unready novel around lots of agents and/or publishers, is that you’re in danger of driving yourself mad.  If they reject it, they’re unlikely to ask you to re-submit with a subsequent draft.  They might, but it’s unlikely.  You usually have to move on to someone else.  A couple of years ago I sent the first draft of a novel to an agent who rejected it, recommending I made some fundamental changes to the concept and story.  I obediently made these adjustments, sent it to another agent and was told exactly the opposite.  In fact, the first agent should have read the second draft and the second agent the first.    AAAARGH!   The truth of the matter was that the novel wasn’t working in either version but at the time I became very confused.  So it’s important to be careful about chopping and changing to please people who’ve already said no.  By the end of a year you could have ten different versions of the book and be hiding in the attic with a bag on your head.

So let’s put Publishers and Agents aside for a moment.  And indeed, some very successful authors have done precisely that.  You still need an editor.  Every self-publishing guru will tell you to invest in one and not just for typos and grammatical errors.  There are plenty of professional resources available and I recommend reading Joanna Penn’s blog on Editing.  It’s packed with detailed advice, together with contact details of freelance editors and an idea of prices.  Doing the job properly isn’t cheap, it could cost you a couple of thousand pounds and that’s just for one detailed critique and proof-reading.  Can you afford it?  Do you want to afford it?


Say you commit £1500- £2000 to the editing: if you put your e-book on Amazon at £1.99 and go for the 70% royalty deal, you will receive £1.39 per copy downloaded.   So you’ve got to sell well over a thousand copies to break even, and that’s without factoring in the money you’ve probably spent on the book jacket design and maybe some marketing.  Yes, yes, I know a few self-published authors have sold over a million copies, so maybe I’m being over-pessimistic here.  It’s just worth thinking about.  Are you doing this as a business venture or for the love of it?  What if it only sells a few copies to friends and family? Does it matter if you lose money? At least you’ve written something that was properly edited and is of a quality you’re proud of.  What might you spend on a holiday?  Or going on a writing course?  Now there’s an idea.  Maybe going on a course would help.


The “best” Creative Writing M.A. is offered by the University of East Anglia.  It’s incredibly difficult to get onto; they have hundreds and hundreds of applications including some by writers who have already been published. If you manage to get accepted you’re a real talent and your novel was probably going to get published anyway.  It will cost you several thousand pounds but you’ll learn stuff, you’ll make great industry contacts and probably end up with a top agent and a publishing deal.  Oh and a Masters Degree. Some amazing, prize-winning novelists have come out of UEA.  If you’re deeply serious about being a proper novelist, it’s worth a punt.  There are plenty of other Creative Writing M.A.s of course – I’d be interested to hear comments from anyone who’s taken this route to see if they feel it was worth it.

If you just fancy a week in beautiful countryside communing with other writers, it’s hard to beat the Arvon Foundation. They offer a wide variety of courses and have resident experts to guide you along the way.   There are all manner of other short courses you can go on – from writing retreats to long weekends; you can write Romantic Fiction in Tuscany and Crime in the South or France.  I expect they are of varying quality, but you might get some useful feedback on your work and at least make some new friends.

But maybe you simply haven’t got that kind of cash to invest.  Maybe you daren’t take the financial risk.  That’s perfectly understandable: you need money to make money and we’re not all entrepreneurs.  But you still need an Editor.  Or at least feedback from someone who isn’t your mum.


Here are some ideas for getting help.  Join a local Writing Group.  You might have to shop around a bit before you find one that suits.  Writers share their work, offer critiques and discuss elements of the writing process.  Particularly look for groups led by experienced authors.  If a local group doesn’t exist, start one.  Or join one that meets online.

Approach a Book Group to see if they would be interested in reading your draft and discussing it at their next meeting. There are some very intelligent readers out there with informed opinions and they might be really interested to be involved in such a project.  You could give them specific questions that you’d like them to consider and if there’s a consistent message coming through that could be extremely useful.  Remember you can send the manuscript directly to people’s Kindles via email so you don’t have to do loads of photocopying.  Put all the chapters into one file and make sure it’s single spaced, then it will look very similar to a published e-book.

Or create an online Reading Group through social media.   There’s a huge community out there writing, reading, reviewing, wanting to communicate and keen to help.  The self-publishing community seems to be one of the most transparent and generous out there – there is lots of free advice about editing your own work.


Because ultimately, we have to be our own Genius.  We have to learn to take criticism, assess its value to us, and make decisions about whether we’re going to implement suggestions.  I’ve suffered from listening too much to other people as well as not listening enough.  It’s very hard to strike the right balance and easy to lose sight of your original vision.  Not everyone is a good critic – sometimes they try to make you write the novel they’d like to write – and that’s a danger always to be avoided.

I’m currently editing To You The Stars by Wendy Cartwright and thoroughly enjoying the process (see my earlier Indie Publishing Experiment Blogs).  Wendy sent me the first draft months ago; I read it twice and made lots of notes.  We met and talked it through for hours.  Wendy didn’t agree with everything I said but fortunately, a lot of it made sense to her.  Now we’re working chapter by chapter, sending the script back and forth, back and forth. When we reach the end I’ll read it through in one chunk again, and we’ll probably do more work.  Then we’re going to ask a few trusted readers to give us some feedback, because by then I’m going to be too close to it too. We’ll take those thoughts on board for another rewrite.  And eventually, hopefully, we will have polished it up to a shine.  One day, Wendy Cartwright will decide for herself that her novel is ready.  Then Amazon, here we come!


Posted on 1 CommentPosted in INTERVIEWS WITH WRITERS


Mary Cutler, longest-serving scriptwriter on BBC Radio 4’s The Archers

JAN: Hello, Mary.  Lovely to be talking to you today in your sitting room in Birmingham, with your beautiful cat on my lap…  Let’s start… I know you’ve dipped into other media during your long writing career – prose fiction, theatre and television – but your heart clearly belongs to radio drama and particularly, The Archers.  Why is that? 

MARY: The thing that I find easiest in the world is writing dialogue, I could write it forever; it’s the structuring that becomes the interesting part of it. Radio’s a very free medium for a writer who enjoys writing dialogue.  The Archers is a very good example of this because, although it’s natural dialogue, all these people are so much more articulate than they would be in real life and yet it doesn’t sound odd.  The first television I wrote was awful from that point of view – it sounded stagey, because I hadn’t learnt how you do that in television.  It’s a great skill, I have a huge admiration for television writers.

I also love radio because I like what’s happening to the audience.  It’s going straight into their ears and into their brain and they’re very close to it.  The listener has to do a lot of the work and in that way it’s more like reading a book.  I like to think of listeners in their cars or doing their ironing, I like the domesticity of it.  Sometimes it makes me angry that radio writers don’t get anything like the credit other writers do, but on the other hand the anonymity of it is quite nice. I like credit and fame as much as the next writer but to think that The Archers means so much to people, does it matter that they haven’t heard your name?   That’s what you want as a writer isn’t it, for your work to move people, to be important to people? I’m very lucky, I seriously mean that, I’m very lucky.

JAN: Everyone will want to hear more about The Archers, but first I want to talk about ‘Falco’, the Roman detective series.  How did you approach adapting these books for radio drama?  Were you given free rein or did you work closely with the author, Lindsey Davis?

MARY:  I had a great advantage because Lindsey is a very old friend of mine from schooldays.  We’re both Brummies and share a lot of the same sense of humour.  She’s a wonderful novelist, but she was very generous in saying, “this is not my medium”, so yes, I had an absolutely free hand in it.  I approached it in a very practical way.  I worked out how many pages there were in the book, divided it by the number of episodes and basically looked around about that page number for a cliff-hanger and I have to say, it seemed to work out quite well.  The only thing that was very funny from a dramatist’s point of view, was finding all these stories that went nowhere.   But of course it’s a detective story, those are the red herrings.  That was difficult from a drama point of view because you don’t really do that on the whole, you have subplots but you don’t really do the blind alley.

The other thing that was really interesting was Falco voice – the story’s told in the first person which is in modern English, but Lindsey uses her dialogue to point out that you’re in ancient Rome; it’s sort of more formal.   But I couldn’t do that, the dialogue had to be in the same style as Falco’s voice. So actually I had a freer hand with the dialogue than I thought I would. I had to cut so much to get it to fit, and it was very upsetting because some of them were favourite bits of mine.   But it was a wonderful thing to do, because Lindsey had done all the hard work and I was just doing the fun bits.

JAN: Are there any other books you’d love to adapt? What about original radio plays?  Anything brewing or do you just not have the time?

MARY: I’ve been doing The Archers for such a long time, I get a bit cross when people say, “But what about your own work?”  What do you think this is?  This is my own work.  I’ve had the opportunity to write about everything I would ever had wanted to write within it.  I’ve certainly had the opportunity to explore most dramatic and emotional situations that I might have wanted to write, and there are some things you can only do in the long form.

JAN: At the Hay Festival recently, listeners were invited to ask Editor Sean O’Connor about The Archers.  Surprisingly, I thought, given it was a literary event, the questions were things like, “Why did Matt go to Costa Rica?” or, “Will you ever let Jill retire?” as if the place and characters are real. There’s a huge sense of public ownership of the show.  How do you deal with that in the context of your own voice, your own work which the Archers clearly is?

MARY: I feel the same as the listeners.  They are in some alternative universe.  Even though I’ve sat in the script conference so I know we’ve made this up, when I’m writing my scripts it’s real and I’m eavesdropping on what they’re saying and what they’re going to do.

JAN: So you’re channelling them.

MARY: Yes, I’m channelling them, I’m giving them voice.  I remember my very first script conference – I said nothing because I was terrified – and the other writers were saying things like, “But Shula would never do such a thing!”  And I did think they were round the bend, but actually they were right.    They are incredibly strong characters.  If a soap gives up character for a plot line they do it at their peril.  We’ve all seen soaps do it, and I regret to say on occasions The Archers has done it, but it’s a big mistake.  Not that people don’t do unexpected things because they do that in life, but the character must be your main concern because you’re making drama out of character.

I will give Nigel as an example, he’s exactly the kind of idiot that would climb onto a roof – you wouldn’t do that with someone prudent…   It’s a little hard because I was the writer that pushed Nigel off – when I’ve said this at talks, people have hissed me.  As if it was solely my decision!

JAN: What do you find the main challenge now writing the show and is it a different challenge to what it was when you first started?

I’d be the first person to say I’ve never found the Agriculture easy.  I’ve become much more knowledgeable, but I’m a very urban person, I don’t want to go and live in a little village in the country.  That’s always been a personal challenge to me because I don’t share that vision of The Archers with some of the audience and I can get impatient with it.  This very morning there was a very interesting piece about how there aren’t as many women in agriculture as there are on The Archers, so good for us, but the entire farming population is so tiny – only 23,000 women and 120,000 men.  It’s very interesting that we give it so much importance – we should because it’s about food, the most basic thing in the world, but it isn’t my natural bent, it never has been. I’m not going to say I’ve been in the wrong job for such a long time because to me The Archers is about a community and everyone lives in little communities – their suburbs, their work communities, their families – so in that sense it doesn’t matter that it’s farming.

JAN: I’ve worked on lots of scriptwriting teams in children’s television.  It’s hard sometimes to write in ‘one voice’ and it doesn’t suit everyone.   How does it work on The Archers?

MARY:  In The Archers we completely work as a team on the story and the plot and that’s so lovely… I don’t think I have particularly have good original ideas for plots but I can help them along.  I get quite cross – normally with writers who’ve left – who say “that was my story” because it’s never their story.  They can legitimately say, “I had the original idea for X” but after that it’s not their story, it’s everybody’s because we work on the plot together.

The other good thing about The Archers is that the writers can have their own voice.  If you listen it’s perfectly clear that different people are writing it but it doesn’t take away from the validity of the programme, it doesn’t make you think, well this is weird.  I think you can also see it on Corrie.  It’s because the characters are so strong.  Writers give you different views of the characters which is fine.

JAN: And listeners certainly can distinguish between writers.  How do you think they might guess it’s a Mary Cutler week?

MARY:  (laughs) I’d like to think that it’s funny, witty, verbally witty…  And I’d like to think, without pushing any line, that women play quite a prominent part in it.  Because I’m one of five, I love writing anything to do with siblings so they might guess from that.  But they might know from the dark stuff – I’ve had some early bereavements and I think I do death quite well; I’ve often done funerals.  Ironically, because I wouldn’t have said this was my strong suit, I wouldn’t expect them to turn on waiting for a romance but I just did Ed and Emma’s wedding and was quite pleased with it.

JAN: Can you briefly take us through the process of writing a week of episodes?

MARY: This has changed recently but this is how it’s going to work in future.  You will be given a storyline before the weekend and you’ve got till Tuesday to write a pitch.  There are five writers, it’s just changed from four, but now there are five writers that are going to write five weeks.  All the writers will come to the Wednesday script meeting (not just those five) and the writers will give their pitch.  We’ll all make suggestions and adjustments and we might talk about what’s going on in the next month.  The writers then have till the following Monday or Tuesday to write a scene-by-scene breakdown of the entire week in great detail.   It was the hardest thing to do when I first started, I now love it because actually that’s all the hard work done and then you just write the dialogue.  We have to do that because we’re all writing at once, and we also have to cast the actors.  And then you’ve got about ten days to write the scripts.  People who come from telly soaps are knocked out by how quickly you’re supposed to do things.  You get some rewrites which again are not like the telly soaps because they don’t tend to be extensive.  You have a few days to deliver the final draft and then you’re back at the script conference on Wednesday. It never stops.

JAN: There are many examples of Archers writers going on to write other things, take Sally Wainwright (Scott and Bailey, Last Tango in Halifax, Happy Valley) for example.  What does writing on a radio soap teach you about writing for other media? 

MARY: I think you learn from the other writers, it’s very good to be on a team.  Because even if they do things you’d never do in a million years it’s very interesting to see how they do it and maybe it can improve some of things you do – I think Sally has said that.  I also think there’s a kind of freedom about being in a team, there’s less responsibility, you can probably play around more…. And therefore you can find yourself… it’s a very good thing to do for somebody starting out and you can experiment.  You’ll be given lots of things you’ve got to do, if you were just alone in your garage you might never try them.  There are also these very strong limits and you learn to work within them, which is what good writing comes out of.

JAN: Thinking about somebody interested in writing radio drama – what would you suggest they do in order to knock at this door?

MARY: That’s a very hard question because it’s become a harder and harder door to get through I’m afraid to say. It’s currently a big problem that radio drama is very centralized and that didn’t use to be the case.  In the old days I’d have said, listen to lots of radio plays, find the producers and directors that you think are on your wavelength and send stuff to them.  It’s still worth doing that, but the producers don’t have that power anymore.  It’s very London-centric; there’s also Manchester and Bristol, but it’s not particularly great in the Midlands which I’m very sad about.

The good thing is, there’s now the possibility of Independent Radio and internet radio. I’ve very recently been working with someone who is doing a drama for a community radio in Birmingham set in a hostel with local actors.  There’s no money of course, but she’s learning things about radio and she’ll get it on and it’s a calling card.  There are many more courses for people to go on that there ever were and it’s easier now to do it yourself…   Like self-publishing or music or podcasts.  I’m now really quite old and I’m not in the mind-set but these days there are possibilities that I would never think about.  It’s a bit doom and gloom on the traditional side but on the other hand, people are always writing off radio and it hasn’t died yet. I don’t think it ever well, so if you want to write for radio, don’t give up, find a new way.

JAN: Thanks so much Mary – that was fascinating.

You can listen to The Archers on BBC Radio 4 every weekday afternoon (2pm) and evening (7pm).  Omnibus edition every Sunday morning at 10am.  And of course, you can catch up on BBC I-Player Radio.







Posted on Leave a commentPosted in THE INDIE PUBLISHING EXPERIMENT


I will never forget dancing around the kitchen after my agent called to tell me that my first book (Dog on a Broomstick, Corgi Pups) was going to be published.  When it came out in 1997 I went into bookshops and gazed at it on the shelves, sneakily pulling it forward or resting it face up in the hope that sales would correspondingly soar.  The book was a real thing I could hold in my hands and at last, I felt like a proper author.

Back then, e-publishing didn’t exist; but Vanity Publishing did.  Not only was it costly to produce your own books, it was very much frowned upon: a pathetic last resort for an author who refused to believe what all their rejection letters were screaming at them.  But things have changed.  For a start we don’t call it Vanity Publishing anymore – it’s been re-branded as self-publishing or indie-publishing.   And quite right too: elitist sneering is something we can all do without.  Self-publishing is a growing hobby, if not an industry.  A few people are making a lot of money out of it.   If you judge success on the number of units sold, as Ben Galley seemed to be arguing recently in The Guardian, then self-publishing has got to be a Good Thing.

Yet most writers would still rather be traditionally published, and who would blame them?  Who wouldn’t want the industry endorsement of their talent, their new baby sitting resplendent in bookshops, a glitzy launch, glowing reviews; their hand aching at book-signings? Who in their right mind would say no to a funded marketing campaign and a team of professionals tweeting and blogging away on their behalf? And let’s not forget the big fat advance and the feature film option.  Well, we can all dream…  Even among traditionally published authors, that’s only going to happen to a lucky few.

So, back to reality.  You’ve spent months, maybe years (don’t even think about the minimum wage) writing a novel that you really believe in; friends and family tell you it’s wonderful and you feel optimistic about your chances.  You send it to dozens of agents and/or publishers, wait for months for responses, receive a load of negative feedback and eventually give up.  It’s easy to despair and feel you’ve wasted your time.  Even easier to rail against those who failed to recognise your talent.

A stack of rejections doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ve written a pile of rubbish.  If you don’t have a literary agent, your novel will land on the slush pile.  It will have to be absolutely brilliant to be picked out and put on a Commissioning Editor’s desk.  Your book may be too similar to something else that’s about to come out, it may not fit into that particular publisher’s list, it may fall into the black hole between literary and genre fiction and therefore not tick enough boxes for the marketing department. If a novel can’t easily be categorised on Amazon then nobody will come across it by chance, which means publicists will have to devote extra resources to bring the book to the public’s attention; in these lean times that’s just not going to happen.

Or maybe, just maybe, your novel simply wasn’t good enough.

Yes, I know how bad that can feel.  But thinking more positively (and more professionally) what can you learn from the rejections you’ve received?  Are your characters two-dimensional?  Is the plot riddled with logic flaws? Is it unclear what it’s about? Maybe the novel needs another draft, or two or three.  Maybe it needs re-thinking completely.    If you’re going to go to all the bother of self-publishing and then promoting your book, you might as well make sure the content is the very best that it can be.

As a television scriptwriter, I was horrified when an editor came back with virtually no notes on my first draft of a thirty minute drama script.  It didn’t mean I’d produced a work of genius, it meant she was too busy and stressed to spend time helping me make it better.  Criticism is valuable, it’s a gift, a tool that you can use.  So treasure those rejection emails, even if they’re contradictory, which they might well be.   This is all subjective, after all.

Back to my Indie Publishing Experiment.  As it happens, Wendy Cartwright hasn’t sent TO YOU THE STARS… to any agents or publishers.  I’m editing it at the moment and every time I finish a chapter, I say to myself, there’s something about this book, I can’t put my finger on it, but I just love it.  So if it’s so good, why isn’t Wendy touting it around all the big fancy publishers before letting me get my grubby, inexperienced hands on it?


In 1982 (yes, that’s 33 years ago), Wendy Cartwright completed her first novel called ‘Spilt Milk.’  She sent it to one publisher – Heinemann.  David Godwin, who is now a top-flight literary agent at DGA Associates sent her this reply:

cropped David Godwin Letter

Now a thick-skinned old hack like me would have been jumping for joy to get such a fantastic rejection letter, but Wendy wilted like spinach.  She didn’t send “Spilt Milk” to any other publishers or literary agents.  She packed the manuscript into a box and put it in the cupboard under the stairs.   And even worse, she didn’t write another novel.  Until now that is.

Like a lot of very talented people, Wendy’s self-confidence is a fragile thing.  She doesn’t have the stomach for digesting rejection emails and would rather be digging her garden than spending the day nervously eyeing her inbox.  And that’s fair enough.   Because to be honest, as good as I believe the book is, I suspect TO YOU THE STARS… would receive a load of “sorry not for us” replies from traditional publishers.  These are some of the reasons why:


It’s the wrong length.  Just over 50k words. Too long for a novella but not long enough for a novel.

It doesn’t fit neatly into a genre.  Romance? Possibly…  There is a love affair, between an Astrologer and an Oxford Philosopher but it’s not all the book’s about.  And there are no sex scenes.

It’s witty and funny, but not a comedy.  In fact, some of it might make you cry.

There are no dramatic twists or end of chapter cliff-hangers.  Nor does the Astrologer find herself in jeopardy (unless you count Saturn opposing Mars in Scorpio).  It’s not a plot driven novel.  Hmmm… it might not really be a novel at all.


Well sort of, but not quite.   It’s quirky – beautifully, lyrically written but I wouldn’t call it literary fiction as such.  Good luck with that then, I hear you say.   ‘Sort-of-Literary-Fiction-But-Not-Quite’ isn’t exactly a genre and Amazon’s e-bestsellers are all Mystery/Thriller, Science Fiction/Fantasy or Romance.  But we’re not aiming to join the Kindle Million ClubTO YOU THE STARS… is unlikely to make Wendy Cartwright a lot of money – that’s not why we’re publishing it.  The book deserves to be shared with a wider audience.  And what better reason to indie-publish could there be than that?

Next INDIE PUBLISHING EXPERIMENT Blog: PREPARATION #2 Editing.  Resources for self-publishers and ways you can DIY.


Posted on Leave a commentPosted in BOOK REVIEW

Let’s Twist Again…

These days, if you want to write a bestselling thriller you need a great twist. It puts your readers in an exclusive club; they talk in hushed, excited tones among themselves and refuse to divulge the secret to anyone else.  Nobody likes feeling left out, so what do they do?  Buy the book.  Think of Gone Girl, Before I Go to Sleep or S.J. Watson’s latest novel, Second LifeI’d read some of the publicity surrounding I Let You Go so I knew there was a twist and was ready for it.  I put my writer’s hard-hat on and looked under the bonnet of the narrative, determined to spot it in advance.  And I failed.  This is Premier League twisting.  It reminded me of the twist in Sarah Waters’ wonderful novel Fingersmith, which shocked me so much I forgot to pick up my son from his guitar lesson.

The Twist

Clare Macintosh shows us how to do The Twist

I love being wrong-footed by an author; I admire the skill it requires.   Because although the principles behind writing a good twist are simple, it’s an extremely difficult thing to pull off.  You don’t write a good twist by lying to your reader or making your characters behave at odds with the given circumstances – you’ll be found out and readers will feel cheated and annoyed.  Great twists are achieved by saying less rather than more, so that the reader has to fill in the gaps and start making their own assumptions, which are of course false.  Then confirmation bias kicks in; the more we read the more convinced we are of who’s who and what’s what.   Off we go, wandering happily down the wrong path, blissfully unaware of our mistakes.   Then all the writer has to do is tap us on the shoulder, alert us to the real situation and BANG. How the hell did that happen, we wonder?  Where did I go so wrong?  Timing is crucial.  Twist too early and it will lack impact.  Hang on for too long and you will have probably over-stretched the credibility of your plot and characters.  If you’re a writer and want a Masterclass in how to write a Plot Twist, when you’ve finished I Let You Go, go back to the beginning and analyse how Clare Macintosh does it.   It’s very clever.

Once we’ve twisted, the story really starts to take off.  And actually, I was ready for an acceleration of pace.  Although I was enjoying all the stuff about the burgeoning relationship with the local vet at times I wondered if we were genre hopping, and had jumped out of Thriller into Romance.  I was also becoming less and less interested in the police detectives back in Bristol, lumbering through a case that had clearly ground to a halt.  Then I clicked onto the next page and hit the twist.  From that moment on, I couldn’t put the book down and it turned into a very late night.

Even though much of the subsequent narrative covers events in the past, Macintosh sustains a remarkable sense of danger and urgency.   As we discover more about what happened before we become increasingly concerned that it’s going to happen again, in fact we know it will – the only issue is when?  Because Macintosh plays with us, ratcheting up the jeopardy and building the suspense, then ‘letting us go’ and releasing the tension, only to wind it up again till all hell breaks loose in a climactic scene on the Welsh cliff top.  Even when we think the ordeal is finally over, we are left with a slight nagging suspicion that the Evil hasn’t entirely gone away.  And we really are talking Evil.  I found some of the violence a bit much for my delicate stomach, but I understood why it had to be there and that it was important not to shy away from it.

I Let You Go is essentially a psychological thriller, but it’s also a crime story.  It’s not surprising to discover that Macintosh used to work on CID.  Her police characters are authentically drawn and there’s an interesting sub-narrative about DI Ray Stevens who struggles to be an effective husband and father and ultimately has to decide between promotion and family life.  But this plot isn’t just “something to cut away to”; it provides a thoughtful, thematic foil to the other dark and corrupted relationship that dominates the latter half of the book.

Highly recommended.

Can you think of any other thrillers with a fantastic twist?  Please leave a comment here or tweet #plottwist



Self-Publishing, Indie Publishing… There’s an awful lot of it about.  You can spend all day every day reading self-published author blogs, visiting self-publishing websites, downloading free guides, buying How To books, or watching interviews and webinars by gurus such as Joanna Penn, Ben Galley or Joel Friedlander.  And that’s before you get round to reading the books all these self-published authors are trying to promote.  I wonder how they ever find the time…

And yet I’m about to join this massive, global movement.  What’s slightly unusual here is that I’m not publishing one of my own books, I’m publishing somebody else’s, so strictly speaking I’m not self-publishing, I’m indie-publishing.  It feels more comfortable, to be honest.  One thinks of the Hitchcock movie ‘Strangers on a Train’ – two writers randomly meet and agree to publish each other’s novel on Amazon.

Strangers on a Train

“I’ll publish yours if you publish mine…”

Only my novelist is a dear friend I met at a Writing Group over thirty years ago.  Her name is Wendy Cartwright and her novel is called TO YOU THE STARS… .  I’ve been lucky enough to have had several books published myself, but I’ve never self-published before so I’m not exactly an expert.  Why, you might ask, is Wendy Cartwright trusting me with her precious novel?  Well, hopefully she’ll be starting her own author blog soon so you might find out.

I’ve got masses to learn and I’m keen to share the process with you.  The aim is to be completely transparent, so when I make mistakes you’ll know about them.  Hopefully, there will be some breakthroughs too.   I’m going to be highlighting helpful blogs and websites that I discover along the way.  I’d love you to get involved, send me tips, tell me about your self-publishing experiences, share online resources, and ultimately of course I’d love you to take a small, inexpensive punt on TO YOU THE STARS… and see what all the fuss is about.

But that’s not for now.  That’s for much further on down the line.  Because if there’s one thing I’ve learnt from all my recent research, there’s no need to rush.  Just think, if Wendy Cartwright had just signed a book deal with a traditional publisher, she’d probably be waiting about a year to see TO YOU THE STARS… on the shelves.  I’m hoping it won’t take as long as that or we’re all going to get rather bored.  I’m thinking a few months. But who knows? There’s ever such a lot to do…

Now, I am not a scientist.  I only took Biology O’ level and it was my worst result. But I’m going to try and take a vaguely scientific approach to this process.  I have vague memories of writing up school lab experiments under the headings, Preparation, Method and Result, so that’s how I’m going to blog. Starting with Preparation. Obviously.   So please, get your lab coat on and join me in THE INDIE PUBLISHING EXPERIMENT.

Next Blog:  Preparation #1 WHY SELF-PUBLISH?