Tag Archives: The Society of Authors

Hot, or not

With my very senior witch’s hat on I – erm – signed up for this event twice. Nearly three times, in fact. I’m obviously quite keen. ‘How to Write a Crime Fiction Bestseller’ was the way for some Tuesday morning skiving off work, to hang out with Vaseem Khan on Zoom, courtesy of The Society of Authors. It was really for budding crime writers, but as I have no novel – crime or otherwise – in me, I was able to lean back and enjoy.

With two pointy implements behind him – his Historical Dagger Award, and a cactus – plus a suitably messy bookcase, Vaseem looked the business. Apparently crime pays, or at least, it outsells other genres. Beer helps, if he’s to be believed.

I already loved Vaseem, but to find out he used to be a Terry Pratchett wannabe was a lovely surprise. When that didn’t pay, and didn’t even let him escape getting an education, he went to LSE, became a management consultant and went to India to work for ten years. And for twenty long years he wrote seven novels that all failed to go anywhere, possibly because he wrote what he thought was wanted; white, English books.

Success came when he wrote something much more himself, and then added a baby elephant, and there we were. The hook (he kept mentioning the need for hooks) for him was the first sentence: ‘On the day he was due to retire, Inspector Ashwin Chopra discovered that he had inherited an elephant.’ I remember quite liking that.

You need to flex your writing muscle, and presumably that’s what those seven unwanted novels did. With less expectation when you are a new writer, you have the potential to exceed those expectations and that’s good for numbers, for publishers. You need a theme, as well as a plot and characters. If you can write something that is the same – but different – as some successful books, that would be good. Comping is a thing. You will be compared to others, and hopefully a place will be found for you. Vaseem admitted to borrowing from the da Vinci Code (I will try to forgive him).

Another ‘magic ingredient’ is quality, which in Vaseem’s case is to attempt to write like Hemingway. Study your favourite style. Remember the hooks. Make sure you don’t say the police jeep has windows when it doesn’t, i.e. get your facts right. Ginger is not an ingredient for either Chopra or Vaseem (I might have to disown him after all).

Characters matter more than plot. Make sure you have some secondary characters, who are actually interesting. Consider what’s hot, or not. Psychological thrillers are in, as is cosy crime. Everyone wants to be Richard Osman. Or write Gone Girl. Vaseem loves Michael Connelly, but also admitted to basing Chopra on the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency.

On writing outside one’s own culture, Vaseem is all for it. (His book for next year is a standalone set in small town US…)

After a [very civilised] potty break, it was question time.

In a crime novel, every book plot needs to be finished. The characters can go on. And you should avoid saggy middles, which I gather is easier with an editor because they will catch anything that sags. For us older [sagging] forgetful readers Vaseem suggests adding reminders of what’s happened earlier in the book. (I thank you.) And female detectives are allowed to get things wrong, just like their male counterparts.

Vaseem likes events, both large and smaller ones. Anything that gets him out there to meet readers. You want book charisma to persuade people to want your book. Newsletters are the best way of selling yourself online. You are in control and can talk directly to fans who have chosen to be on your mailing list. Events are outside your control, but very good even so.

And for god’s sake, bring back Ganesh!!! (Those are my words.)


553 names and counting

I do strange things. Or perhaps they are perfectly normal. I do recall my surprise when Mother-of-Witch admitted to her fascination with patterns in floor boards, and the like.

So, I read through the lists of new members who have joined the Society of Authors every quarter. Just to see if there’s anyone I ‘know’. In my most recent copy of The Author. – Winter 2022 – there were 553 new members. I didn’t count them. I’m counting on the Society getting it right. But thereabouts.

This time there was a surprising number of ‘knowns’ plus a couple I feel entitled to call friends. I’m glad they joined. It’s always good to belong to a union. One or two names were pretty well known, and I was surprised they weren’t already members. But better late than never.

Then there’s the Community spotlight where they report on what goes on in various groups within the society. Who has left a committee, and who has joined. Within my own areas of expertise I nearly always know quite a few such names.

What surprised me the most, however, was finding eldest Offspring’s name among the ‘delighted to welcome’ category. I knew he’s joined the Translators Association, and its committee, but it still came as a surprise.

As it was to him when I mentioned it over the weekend. He’d passed on his copy without finding himself first.

So yeah, that’s slightly over 553 names. I hope it’s not too pathetic that I sit here and peer at the columns of names. After all, I used to practically read the telephone directory, back in the day. The Swedish one, which was a lot more readable than BT’s offerings.

Last night’s dream

People’s dreams are rarely worth hearing about, second hand and jumbled as they often are. So last night I immediately came to the conclusion that you wouldn’t hear mine. Yet, here we are.

In fact, I don’t know where I was, except it was bookish, and I’d temporarily left one room to go somewhere else, when I spied Philip Pullman sitting where he had been sitting last time I saw him as well. Decided to go in and speak to him. Then decided not to, because what could I say, except maybe to hurry up with the last Book of Dust? Then decided I would walk up to him anyway and I was sure something would come to me during those ten seconds.

And when I got to his seat, he was no longer there.

(So far, so fascinating?)

Then I woke up ‘properly’ and started the day with some small screen time, aka looking at emails on my phone. There was one [forwarded] from the Society of Authors, telling me Philip had just resigned as its president.

So that’s clearly what the dream meant. He was there, and then he wasn’t. And it would have been rude for me to have chased him about Dust.

It was probably a wise decision to resign, all things considered. But wrong all the same. He shouldn’t have to. Philip wasn’t running the Society; he was ‘merely’ its figurehead. But it seems – like the Queen – that he’s not meant to have own opinions. Or at least, not to voice them.

I would like to think that his resignation will feel like freedom from being the face of writing and books. Even a presidential role must take its toll. He’s now looking forward to being allowed opinions again.

That set me thinking, because I was especially disturbed by the hounding of their president by a large group of society members, back when it all ‘went wrong’ last year. And although I ‘know’ quite a few of them, there is only one face I see when I think back to this ‘we’ll show him he’s wrong and force him out’ mentality. Sort of the ‘poster person’ for the attack on someone who believed he was entitled to say what he said (and entitled to be wrong, too).

The writers who fought to get rid of Philip, were obviously entitled to say what they thought (even if it was a bit too much playground baying for blood for my liking). But then, why wasn’t he? Those who went on the attack were doing it for the good reputation of their society. It seems that such behaviour could be excused on those grounds.

But I know that my ‘poster person’ has ruined my opinion of them for a very long time to come. And I’d have liked for the society to distance itself from this campaign, too, just as it was forced to step away from Philip after his tweets.

Tea with Danny, OBE

OK, so the Society of Authors’ afternoon tea with Daniel Hahn might have been more like him wielding a mug – though not a Moomin one – of coffee. But it was nice anyway. He might be busy, but it never shows. Danny always seems very cool and calm, and that rubs off on the rest of us. It was good to have an event ‘to go to’ even if it was no further than our own screens and our own mugs of tea/coffee/wine. And this was last week, so I offer my apologies for the late report. Stuff happens.

There he was, and there we were, and there was Antonia Lloyd-Jones, his translator colleague. (I have it on good authority that she is nice.) They discussed translating, as you do. And no, Daniel does not have a chimpanzee in the basement. He does all the work himself.

We discovered to our great delight that he has a ladder – for his library – when he walked us from one room to another, in order to find the thing he’s working on now, so he could read to us. It had been printed out and he read it with red pen in hand for any necessary corrections that might make themselves known to him. And he did, indeed, note down something that was wrong, meaning we were sort of useful.

The reason Danny doesn’t read the books before he translates, is that he hates first drafts and the payoff is the discovery of reading something for the first time. ‘There is nothing like it.’

And the reason he translates what he does, is that you can only choose the opportunities that exist. And there is the mortgage that wants paying. To help with that are the several translations at different stages, because he needs to work on different things; not just the first draft. He works fast, which is his good fortune, and he’s good at multitasking. Moving between translations is energising.

Danny enjoyed cooperating with a recent author, being able to ask her questions. His current author is long dead, which is not terribly practical. And he’d have liked hanging out with this man who died 114 years ago.

Co-translating is great, and tends to make for a better book, because two people have looked at everything, and thought about it, and discovered the mistakes. He’s doing something with palindromes and anagrams, which seems not to be as hard as his audience felt it must be.

For pleasure Daniel reads mostly the same as when he works, but he also reads a lot of children’s books. He tries to engineer things so that he can do some interviews or festival work, chatting to authors, and being allowed to ‘deduct it off his taxes.’

To assist with his tax paying, you could always look into his new book about translating, Catching Fire: a Translation Diary. It’s both fun and interesting. As was this event. We want more, please.

Time travel

I’ve revisited the past. Some time ago four copies of The Author arrived chez Bookwitch. It’s the journal of the Society of Authors, and I suspect Son of having posted them on to me.

They are good journals. And the thing about publishing once a quarter means it takes time to ‘get out there.’

The first one was Spring. It was a world without Covid. It was like some other place completely. I’d almost forgotten I’d been somewhere like that. OK, there was a brief mention of the postponing of Bologna. Remember that? People believed it’d soon be back to normal.

The articles written by a number of authors mentioned their plans for the coming year. It’s perfectly normal, and they were modest plans. But, you know, it felt a bit weird.

I’ve now moved on to Summer and it’s more realistic, albeit still expecting normality to kick back in.

I enjoy them. They are well written, as you’d expect from professionals of this kind. There are also quite a few names of people I know or have met, making it more personal than, say, Good Housekeeping.

And this time effect is the strangest thing. Who’d have thought?


From what I understand it’s something that takes most [new] authors by surprise. They thought it was enough to write the book, enough to get enough professions interested in the book, and enough for it to be published and enough for people to buy the book. And then we start the whole process all over again for the next book.

Well, after a few years of stalking authors.., I mean going to lots of author events, I knew I didn’t want to be one of them. I did not want to get the call from the Edinburgh International Book Festival to come and talk about my new book. It’s enough to make me not even consider writing, other than this drivel, in case it turned out better than expected.

And I have looked at them. Many are extroverts. Quite a few are [ex]-teachers, and I have assumed standing in front of rooms full of people is fine if that’s what you’re like. I gather some make use of the wine in the green room, just to feel braver. But I’d like to think that a good number simply say ‘no thanks.’

I saw this article in The Bookseller a while back. Couldn’t actually read it, as I seem to have clicked on too many articles recently. But it sort of says what it’s about. Benjamin Myers, whom I don’t know at all, and the Society of Authors are critical of the pressure to be[come] a ‘personality’ in order to sell your book, when writing it in the first place ought to be enough.

And then we have the personalities who take to writing. One assumes they at least relish the performing. Maybe that’s why we have so many? Publishers get fed up with authors hiding in garrets, so go in search of new ones from the stage and the screen?


How would you feel about having a luxurious weekend at a hotel in the Scottish countryside, hanging out not only with likeminded people who want to learn to write better, but with the authors who are there to give talks on how to learn?

Yeah, I know. Me too. It sounds lovely.

The Society of Authors is organising a weekend at the end of September, at a hotel not too far from me. ScotsWrite at the Westerwood Hotel seems like a most worthwhile couple of days.

You know how it is. You read the programme and you try to decide what you’d choose if you were going. Well, I’ve done that. Tried, I mean.

Joanne Harris as keynote speaker with dinner the first night… In fact, when I’d got that far I wasn’t sure how they could better that offer.

But Saturday manages to look pretty good too. Denise Mina for a session in the morning. Except, well, at the same time there is Daniel Hahn and Ruth Martin talking translations. So that would have to be me.

Then another keynote talk just before lunch from Charlie Higson. They know how to keep those ravenous writers under control. And after lunch the not so easy choice of science fiction, how to charm a publisher, or ergonomic workspaces with Caro Ramsay. I’m so charming already, that it’d be a toss-up between sitting nicely or hearing about science fiction.

Before coffee there is no question but going for Emily Dodd and Celia Rees. For me, I mean. If I go. If I can. And between the coffee and the gin tasting (yes, really) a debate with Joanne Harris, Sam Eades and John Jarrold.

After which free time might well be required as there is dinner and a ceilidh before the day is over.

Sunday morning – after breakfast and Tai Chi – we have Joanna Penn talking about How to Make a Living with your Writing, followed by mental health for writers, graphic novels, commissioning, writing for radio and television, children’s books, poetry, plus some insider secrets before you go home.

Well, that sounds all right, doesn’t it?

‘Extraordinary tellers of stories’

Daniel Hahn had trouble getting his tongue round the above words, but as he said, it might have been worth the wait. It was.

The witch travelled yesterday. Remind me not to do that again. Ever. There was a major IT hitch on almost all fronts on arrival in London, but if you are reading this, then it ‘solved itself.’ You know, sort of putting petrol in your mobile phone kind of thing.

OK, so you’re at Waterstones piccalilli (I thought Anne Rooney was being funny, but it seems she just suffered predictive texting) and you’re there to hear Penelope Lively and Philip Pullman tell Daniel Hahn anything he asks. Who – apart from your good self – will be in the audience? Anne Rooney was there, and so was Celia Rees, without whom I wouldn’t have known this was even on. Thank you! And then there was the lady in the row in front of me (i.e. second from the back), Judith Kerr. That’s what I call class.

Philip Pullman and Penelope Lively

(And before I forget, please let me mention how friendly and helpful the organisers were. They were friendly and helpful. I was trying to do really weird things with tickets and then it turned out to be dead easy, and they were pleased that my friend was Anne Rooney.)

I very nearly sat down on the chairs where Penelope and Philip went to sit before going ‘on stage’ so it was lucky I didn’t. I’ve not seen Philip for almost three years. I’d hazard a guess that he hasn’t seen his barber since then either. Very cool.

In his introduction Daniel Hahn reflected that when he grows up he will become Penelope Lively. I think this was based on the fact that all three of them either are or have been something great in the Society of Authors. And he listed their books, making a wild guess that if we wanted to buy any, then Waterstones probably had them somewhere in their shop.

Philip Pullman, Penelope Lively and Daniel Hahn

Penelope seems to be proof that home education works, since that’s what she got as a child in Egypt. She read a lot. By WWII, Arthur Ransome’s books had arrived in Cairo, and all those lakes and all that rain seemed like fantasy. Later on she was sent to boarding school, where punishment for bad behaviour was an hour’s reading in the library. Both she and Philip are of the opinion that the kind of reading you do as a child is something you’ll never get back.

Philip learned how big the world is on his many trips round the globe by boat. He read the Just So stories, Noddy and comics (they were allowed in Australia, apparently), and he read Moomin in Battersea library. He needs the rythm of words, and when he’s writing he can’t tolerate music. Penelope agreed about rythm, and often reads her writing out loud to see if it works.

Penelope Lively

Her writing career came from her obsessive reading. She writes less these days, but always writes something. Philip compared the early days when he worked as a teacher all day, and still was able to write at night. Now he manages his three pages per day, but that’s it. (And no, no one asked about the Book of Dust.)

While Penelope generally knows what is going to happen in a book, Philip writes ‘in the dark’ and is quite opposed to planning. Daniel wanted to know if they are optimists, despite last week’s [political] results, and they are. Both agreed that stories are a human necessity and always will be. Both prefer paper books, and Philip pointed out it’s so difficult to dry your Kindle if you drop it in the bath, with thousands of books on it.

Philip Pullman and Penelope Lively

Philip reckons that the good thing about the very large publishing companies we have today, is that their sheer size means there is room for smaller publishers in the holes between them. And that’s good.

Philip Pullman

Book festivals and book groups are new concepts for authors, and Philip likened author events to a roadshow, but without the possibility of filling large arenas or selling any merchandising. Although Daniel tried to suggest we could buy some HDM hats afterwards…

A book that really affected them when they were young, was a version of Robin Hood where Robin dies, for Philip, and Nicholas Nickleby for Penelope. The reason Philip introduced daemons in HDM was to make it easier to write; it was his version of Raymond Chandler’s idea of introducing a man with a gun whenever necessary.

Diversity is obviously important; it’s what you seek in books. Both to find yourself in the book, as well as learning about others. Neither of them writes a last page or chapter to use as a goal for their writing. Penelope might have an important scene, whereas Philip writes in the order you read, and he knows when he gets to the end.

He is superstitious and prefers to write at his own table, with all his ‘lucky’ things around him, although he has written in many different places too. Except in a concert hall. Penelope can write anywhere and often has done, including in airports. She quite likes to write in the garden.

Philip Pullman and Penelope Lively

Daniel Hahn

And on that note Daniel brought things to a close, which meant that the audience got wine and an opportunity to chat with the two Ps and to have books signed. And Daniel also had his book there (which I should have thought of!) to be bought and signed.

Before returning to my temporary home to face my IT woes, I had a nice chat with Celia Rees, thanking her for her part in this evening, and saying how this is the way we like our events.