Category Archives: Writing

Choosing a book title

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I have decided to write a few posts about preparing my book Celebrating Grandmothers. First, why the title?

The purpose of a book title

Book titles are supposed to catch the reader’s eye. But they are also supposed to give that reader the flavour of the book and a sense of what is inside. The underlying messages of this book are rich and complex – and hard to communicate in a catchy title.

The working title (what you call a book during the writing process, before you have thought of a good title) was Being a Grandmother, but that sounds exceedingly boring. Out come all the clichés – old, grey, dull! And very static.

So, what to do? Leslie Stahl, who subsequently published a not dissimilar but very successful book, called her book Becoming Grandma. That, rather cleverly, communicates a sense movement.

Communicating enthusiasm

I wanted something positive – but not too much so. Most grandmothers light up when you ask them about their grandchildren – they genuinely sparkle. How to communicate that fact without going over the top? I thought the word ‘celebrating’ would provide a sense of enthusiasm.

But not all grandmothers are happy with their lot. I also had to manage the complexity of family situations. Some grandmothers live far away from their families and ache with longing for their grandchildren. Some have difficulty keeping in touch because of unhappy family relationships. I didn’t want these to feel excluded from the book, as they are very much a part of it as well.

Ambiguity

Finally, I liked the ambiguity of the title. Is ‘celebrating’ a verb or an adjective? Is it the act of celebrating grandmothers or is it about grandmothers who are celebrating something? In fact, no one has ever asked.

Are you a grandmother? Read and find out.

 

For more information or to buy:  http://amzn.to/2ugEZ8t

Getting Back Your Rights to a Trade-published Book

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Do you have a traditionally published book?  Are you unhappy with the publisher and, deep down, would like your rights back so you can self-publish it yourself instead? Read on. You can probably organise this much more easily than you think.

First, Get Angry

In my case, it all started with a royalty statement.

The small but prestigious company that had published my book Life in a Hospice in 2007, had been taken over, and the new company did things somewhat differently. Their statement informed me that they owed me £3.27 ($4.18) but “if the amount due is less than your contractual minimum of £25, the balance will be carried forward to your next statement”.

I got hopping angry.

It wasn’t the money – it was the principle.

Yes, the book was selling only a few books a year, but the meagre royalties belonged to me. And, given my age, I figured I might well be dead before my royalties reached the required sum! I phoned the royalties department and they concurred. My £3.27 turned up on my next bank statement.

But it got me thinking. This book, about the wonderful end-of-life care provided in hospices, was the best I had ever written. The medical publisher had overpriced it for ordinary readers in the first place (over £21 for a paperback and not much less for the ebook) and given it little publicity. This was despite a Foreword by the late Tony Benn, some excellent reviews and being Highly Commended by the British Medical Association.

Why was I putting up with this?

Then, Ask

That was the impetus for doing what I should have done a long time ago. I asked for the contact details of the editor responsible for my book. Having learned how to self-publish, I wanted to gain control over its publication. But I also thought that getting rights back would involve lawyers, contracts, some payment to them and heaven knows how much time and trouble.

I emailed the editor, with a friendly request for my rights. I expected it would be weeks before I heard from her.

In fact, I had an email within two hours saying that they would be happy to revert the rights, with no cost. Indeed, it took less than three weeks for the contractual issues at their end to be sorted and a formal letter to be prepared and signed by the publisher and myself.

Lo and behold, the book was mine.

Moreover, they not only sent me a pdf of the book, but all the spare paperback copies lying around, free of charge. A surprising bonus.

That book has now been re-launched on Amazon  with an updated preface and a new cover, for £2.99. I can happily report that it is selling 3-4 a week, instead of 3-4 a year.

And Ask Again

And this led me to think – why not get my similar book back?

Wise Before their Time was about people with HIV and AIDS back when most people died from the disease. It had been published by one of the Big Five publishers in 1992 and was long out of print. It took me a while to track down the relevant person for reversion rights, but when I did, again there was absolutely no issue from their end. A formal letter returning the rights to me took some time in this case, but sits on my desk as I write.

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So don’t be frightened. If my experience is anything to go by, it is much less of a problem that you think.

And what do you have to lose?

 This was originally published by the Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi) on 27 April 2017.

What is literary fiction anyway?

It’s always good to start the writing week with a lively discussion, and the topic of literary fiction, its definition and purpose, is guaranteed to engage the minds of indie authors everywhere. Ann Richardson, whose non-fiction books marshall opinions and research on various topics, kindly volunteered to summarise a vigorous debate between ALLi authors on our closed Facebook forum (an exclusive benefit for ALLi members).
No attribution is given to individual thoughts or even direct quotations, primarily for brevity but also to preserve anonymity. Necessary apologies to anyone who feels their contribution was ignored or misrepresented.

Who Writes Literary Fiction?

The discussion began with the seemingly innocent question from one member asking which others identified themselves as writers of literary fiction. Surprisingly few put themselves wholeheartedly in this camp.

Many members suggested that their books were difficult to classify (“I know what they’re not, but struggle to give them a label”). A considerable number claimed that their writing displayed key elements of literary fiction (“I’m a lit-ficish writer”), particularly good writing (“I like to think of my work as “literary” in the best sense”).

Some felt their writing, although potentially literary fiction, was more usefully described as historical or contemporary fiction. Others created their own dual categories: literary horror, literary fantasy. literary suspense and even “litfic with a touch of magical realism and a dusting of horror”. One offered literary fiction with a plot.

Nonetheless, a few ALLi members were mentioned by others as belonging firmly in the realm of writers of literary fiction: Jane Davis, Dan Holloway, Roz Morris, Rohan Quine, Philippa Rees and Orna Ross (alphabetising intentional).

What is Literary Fiction?

This led to the much more troubling question of what literary fiction is. There was some interest in finding an intrinsic definition, but also a focus on comparing it to more traditional genre fiction.

Some saw literary fiction as writing with great attention to language and style. Sentences would be expected to be carefully crafted, metaphors fresh and clichés avoided, striving for precision. It might also involve experimentation.

Others stressed that literary fiction is more character-driven, with an interest in character development, motivation and complex relationships: “I’m enthralled by the inner worlds and hinterlands of my character’s personalities”. Additionally, one might expect less focus on plot, and certainly less reliance on formulaic plotting.

Yet others focused on the impact of literary fiction on the reader. Its pages may not turn quickly, but the writing makes readers look inward and recognise something in themselves:

“reflect depths beyond itself to reach echoes in the mind, reflections in the heart”.

Or it might challenge the reader in some fundamental way: “books that give me something I have never seen before…it turns the world on its head”.

A number of contributors aimed to define literary fiction in relation to well-known writers, naming too many to be repeated here, from classics to many modern writers.

In the final analysis, many argued that a clear definition was both impossible and inappropriate:

‘the taxonomy of ‘literary’ and ‘genre’ fiction is misleading”

Any definition was likely to ignore or diminish the many accomplishments of the best genre writers,. for instance, a note of the “wonderful prose, dynamic plots and superb characterisation” of some crime novels. If the aim was to tell a good story, many books were both literary and genre, and some of the latter might one day prove to be classics.

Indeed, the label was unhelpful, set up for marketing purposes, and most readers were unlikely to care.

Very little attention was given to the concept of literary non-fiction, aside from noting that some narrative non-fiction books might be included here.

Some Reflections

Overall, there was a considerable dislike for the term literary fiction.  It was seen to have pejorative overtones, too often implying a boring and/or pretentious work (“doorstep-long triumphs of the beautiful sentence and painstaking research over ideas and innovation”), with a poor or non-existent plot and little good reason to read it (“low or negative payoff”). Indeed, a few saw the broad label as a warning: “if a book is described as literary, I’m inclined to look elsewhere”. Moreover, some noted, it could prove difficult to sell.

Much of the heat in the discussion arose from the feeling that literary fiction was sometimes deemed to be more worthy than other genres: better written, more thought-provoking, altogether a higher art. It was important to recognise the many exceptions, although it was also inappropriate to compare the best of one genre with the worst of another.

With respect to their own writing, many members agreed that their main aim was to write what they chose and “not feel trammelled by genre”. This led to another discussion about the potential conflict between following one’s own muse and selling well. Any summary of this issue must await another day.

There could never be a simple conclusion to such a discussion, but in short, literary fiction means different things to different people. What does it mean to you?

Postscript

On the day I began this post, my husband and I discussed it briefly. That evening, he read me a passage from the book he happened to be reading. It was a talk by William Waldegrave at a dinner to honour the novelist Patrick O’Brian. We are here, he began:

to celebrate and to honour one of the greatest storytellers in the English language. I start with that word – storyteller – designedly. There are, or used to be, some in the world of English literary studies who regard the capacity to tell a story as being a most deadly disqualification from serious consideration. Only if a book proceeded in a properly inconsequential manner, only if the naïve could be trapped into the ultimate solecism of enquiring what it might be about, only if the pages might be bound up in all manner of different orders without difference to the sense – only then could the thing be taken as high art.

Full speech published in Patrick O’Brian, The Yellow Admiral, HarperCollins, 1997

This was originally published by the Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi) on 17 October 2016. (http://selfpublishingadvice.org/opinion-what-is-literary-fiction-anyway/#comment-633037)

Taking qualitative research to its logical conclusion

I have been doing qualitative research most of my working life and I enjoy it immensely. There is something very satisfying about capturing people’s views about a topic – often an issue of some importance to them – in their own words. Most of my paid work has focused on experiences of the health service, such as patients’ views about their treatment and care for coronary heart disease, cancer, diabetes and so forth. Some has concerned experiences of social care, such as parents’ views about the appropriate future care of their adult sons or daughters with learning disabilities. Such research may not answer statistical questions, but it gets to the heart of how people feel.

The writing-up of qualitative research traditionally involves some explication of the issues by the researcher and some quotations from those interviewed, to show how they expressed themselves in their own words. Over the years, I became interested in exploring whether one could omit the researcher almost entirely and allow those interviewed to tell their stories – and explain the issues – themselves. Much too often, it was their words which were most alive or moving and the researcher simply paraphrased them for explanation, but without a great gain in understanding. My reports became increasingly quotation-based, with some tentative analysis offered by myself. Whether this was a style that was seen to be better or worse than a more traditional one I never knew.

Over twenty years ago, I took this position to its logical conclusion. Having interviewed 21 men and women with HIV and AIDS, I wrote a book, Wise Before their Time: People with HIV and AIDS Talk about their Lives, which set out their views with only minor interjections from myself. This was a time when there was little treatment for AIDS and most were dying, so their experiences were very moving. Sir Ian McKellan wrote a short Foreword in which he said ‘This collection of true stories is as powerful as any classic of fiction.’ It was published by Harper Collins (1992), aimed at a popular audience, and sold quite well, around 7,000 copies.

About seven years ago, I repeated the exercise with people who worked in hospice care. I was interested in understanding how it felt to go to work every day to work with dying people ­– and interviewed 31 staff in two hospices, including health care assistants, doctors, nurses, managers and even one chef. Again, I pared down my contribution to a minimum, so that the reader essentially ‘heard from’ the people involved. The book, Life in a Hospice: Reflections on Caring for the Dying, was published by Radcliffe (2007), had a Foreword by Tony Benn and was ‘highly commended’ by the British Medical Association. Again, it was aimed at a popular audience, but it was read primarily by a professional one. Commercially, it did not do well at all. I found that most people do not share my fascination with dying.

And now, I have tried again but on a subject of even less social policy interest (albeit growing), namely grandmothers. Called CelebratingGrandmothers: Grandmothers Talk about their Lives, it is in its very early days. It explores a wide range of issues of concern to grandmothers, such as the pleasures of revisiting childcare, how they cope with offering advice to their children, how it affects their feelings about themselves and the considerable pain experienced when they are unable to see their grandchildren due to distance or strained family relationships. Again, the voices in this book are very much those of the grandmothers themselves, with my interjections kept at a minimum.

What does one gain by omitting the researcher? One answer is that one gains time and space, allowing the people interviewed to be quoted at greater length (although there is much to be said for being as spare as possible). It enables them to tell a story or develop the complexities of an argument for which there is less space in a more conventional report. Perhaps it will help to provide some examples. All of these are taken from my recent book on grandmothers.

Here is one grandmother explaining how she saw the role of grandmother at the outset:

I was 50 and kind of astonished to find myself being a grandmother. One doesn’t see oneself in that role, really. I went out and bought myself a suit and when I got home, I realised in the back of my mind that it was a suit that grandmothers would wear. I was never able to wear it. It was a kind of heather-coloured tweed. And it immediately ‘grandmothered’ me.

Then I thought, no, no, I don’t have to do this! I hung on to the suit for quite a time, because it was quite nice, but every time I put it on, it felt completely wrong – I didn’t feel I was that person. Of course, I hadn’t changed, I was still the person I was, so there was no need to change the way I thought about clothes. I expect it went to Oxfam eventually and some other grandmother picked it up.

And here is another describing the sheer joy of being with her grandchildren:

They stay with me a lot and like to sleep with me. I love it. When they are lying in bed with me in the morning – that’s the happiest time. We’ll talk about anything, what should we do, what we are having for breakfast. But what makes me so happy is that they are sharing their time with me. One is lying on my leg, one is lying on my hair, one is putting the fingers on my head – it’s like a joyful current going all around my body. You can’t buy that happiness anywhere.

The book is riddled with the complexities of family relationships. Here is one grandmother explaining how her status created problems with her son:

My relationship with my son has become more distant since his second child was born. It feels sad. This could be that in order to be close to his wife, he has to be distant from me, because she seems to feel there’s some rivalry between us, which I think creates rivalry between us. I think he found it very stressful doing his job and becoming a father. His wife had enormous expectations of sharing the children with him, she felt he wasn’t doing enough.

I detected some bitterness towards me. I don’t know whether that was, ‘You didn’t mother me like this’ or ‘I’m finding this role really difficult, trying to be a good father and my partner’s expecting far too much of me and I can’t do it.’ If he hadn’t had children, I think I would be closer to him. I’m valued as a grandmother, but I think the mother-son relationship has suffered.

And finally, here is one thinking about her own life:

Both becoming a grandmother and retiring – the two things at different times – each time you question the fragility of your life. You feel you are moving up, passing on. It makes you question things about life and how long you have to live. There’s another generation that has come up – and you belong to the one who would have to leave to make room. And you think, am I going to see them as adults? I’m not eternal. I’d just like to see what’s going to happen.

Now, PSSRU – where I am a Visiting Fellow – is an academic institution and you might be wondering whether such books come under the heading of ‘academic research’. I tend to argue that they don’t, because I don’t want to be criticised for pretending to do something I am not. On the one hand, they are all presented in a logical, analytical fashion – they are not simply a set of stories in no particular order. The research has been undertaken as rigorously as any academic study. But, on the other, I do not try to fit the findings into the existing literature in their respective fields. Nor do I offer a clear analysis of what kind of people have what kind of view, i.e. are people’s views different if they are a young grandmother or an impoverished grandmother or a Jewish grandmother, although all are represented among those interviewed. What a reader comes away with, I hope, is a strong sense of what it feels like to be a grandmother (or, in the other books, what it feels like to have HIV or to work in a hospice). It puts the reader into the texture of their lives – what the issues are for them, the considerations they take into account when addressing such issues and some of the different ways they respond. In sum, all such studies should progress understanding. They are clearly a kind of research, but is it academic? I do not know, but it is a lot of fun to do.

This was originally posted in a blog of the Personal Social Services Research Unit at the London School of Economics, where I was a Visiting Fellow       http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/healthandsocialcare/2014/10/28/taking-qualitative-research-to-its-logical-conclusion/

Interview with Book Goodies

I am semi-retired, having worked as a researcher concerned with health issues during my working life. I wrote many books for health and social care professionals, but my real passion is writing narrative non-fiction, books using direct quotations from interviews to bring people’s views and experiences ‘alive’ on the page. My most recent book is about what it is like being a grandmother (Celebrating Grandmothers), but I have also written books on people with HIV/AIDS (Wise before their Time: Foreword by Sir Ian McKellen) and on people working with the dying (Life in a Hospice: Foreword by Tony Benn, MP). The latter was Highly Commended by the British Medical Association.

I am American born, but have lived in London for nearly fifty years with my English husband. We have two grown up children and two grandsons.

What inspires you to write?
I have always loved to write, from when I was a young girl, and am very interested in what makes people ‘tick’. At one point, I thought I would be a novelist, but I felt I lacked the necessary imagination. In my work, I used a lot of quotations from interviews and I learned that a good interview, undertaken confidentially, elicits the same kind of ‘inner view’ than one gets from a novel. I therefore love writing narrative fiction, as the resulting book reads like a novel, although based on actual people. I love the creative process of bringing the interviews together into a coherent whole.

Tell us about your writing process.
I start with an outline of my book (just a page, in Word) and some of the subheadings of chapters. I then do my interviews, based on these ideas, but always allow for new ideas to emerge. The interviews are transcribed verbatim (word for word) and I go through them to pick up all key points made and edit, for instance, incomplete sentences. After that, it is a matter of finding a logical sequence and choosing which quotations to use.

What advice would you give other writers?
Follow your instincts when writing. Check with others before publishing, to ensure that the book flows smoothly and, of course, is properly copy-edited.

How did you decide how to publish your books?
All my books were published traditionally with well-known publishers, but for my last book (Celebrating Grandmothers), it was a very simple decision: I couldn’t find an interested publisher, much to the surprise of my agent.

I would advise writers to look to traditional publishing to see how they respond, but not to be upset if they get refusals. There are many benefits in self-publishing, as you have control over the contents, the cover and the later marketing. You also get higher royalties. The main downside is the prejudice that still exists in getting your book reviewed and into bookstores, although it is possible.

What do you think about the future of book publishing?
I think traditional publishing is digging itself into a hole, as self-publishers invent all kinds of ways to attract readers, such as amending the price or selling one book free in a series. Traditional publishers may eventually learn such new tricks, but otherwise they will retreat into publishing fewer and fewer books that feel like a ‘safe’ bet.

What do you use?: Professional Cover Designer, Beta Readers

What genres do you write?: Narrative non-fiction

What formats are your books in?: Both eBook and Print