Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Susan Hill finds needle

The Literary Saloon drew my attention to an article in the Guardian by Susan Hill. Title: The ultimate needle in a haystack.

If you were here on 19 July you may remember that I wrote a piece about Susan and her small publishing company, Long Barn Books. Susan is a distinguished and successful writer of long standing, and has her feet firmly on the ground, not least because she has discovered, through running her own firm, that it is damn difficult to break even as a publisher, let alone make a decent profit.

For some years, Long Barn Books has dealt exclusively with non-fiction. But a while ago, Susan decided that she would put a foot, carefully, into the fiction pool. She would begin by publishing one novel a year.

To that end, she put out the word that she was prepared to consider submissions from writers and agents. She wrote to every creative-writing course she could find, but only one bothered to reply. Only two agents bothered to submit their clients' work.

However, individual writers were not shy about coming forward. By 19 July she had had 569 submissions. By Saturday last, 1 October, the total was 3,741.

Now remember, before we go any further into Susan Hill's comments on these 3,741 submissions, that Susan is a novelist herself. She began, as we all do, in someone's slush pile. Someone, as she says, took a punt on her first novel. And she was prepared to take a punt on someone else's. If she could find a halfway decent book.

What Susan has to say about searching for a halfway decent book should give pause to us all. And remember, I repeat, that this is a person full of goodwill, with a built-in sympathy for writers and their problems; but she also has a bank account to think of.

Here are some extracts from her article:

Most of the hopefuls ought to be doing anything but try to write. Most seemed to have written the same (bad) novel.

A longing to write is not enough. Ability/talent and some sense of what makes a novel appeal to readers are essential too.

Why would any publisher produce an unsaleable novel? What use would a few thousand copies of it be stacked in my warehouse? If you despise commerce in general or believe literature should be outside and above it, the only thing to do is put up your books to be read free on the internet.
Typically, she says, the worst novels were written in the first person and the present tense. E.g.: 'I open one eye. My eyeball hurts. I look around a dim room strewn with unwashed plates, dirty cups, stained underwear. I feel despair filter through me.'

Well, the first-person narrator is not the only one who feels despair when faced with something like that. What we have in such cases is fiction focused totally on self, the self being the author; and, as like as not, we have fiction viewed not as story-telling but fiction seen as therapy for the author. Which is all very well, but no reasonable person can be surprised if the result is unreadable. Chief problems: lack of any story; absence of memorable characters.

Susan had requested that she be sent the first four chapters only, and given such a mountain of submissions she must surely have exercised some fairly drastic form of triage. Who can blame her. Which just goes to show that the first page is important.

Out of all the submissions, Susan felt that only seven were worth reading in full. The one she chose to publish is called The Extra Large Medium or Unfinished Business, and it's by Helen Slavin. Publication date next May.

Susan Hill will also be looking, in due course, for a novel to publish in 2007. But please, if you're going to enter, provide her with a story and 'characters who walk straight off the page and grab your attention'.

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