Monday, June 26, 2017

RNA Conference: Chatting with Alex Hammond

We’re delighted to welcome Cornerstones’ Alex Hammond today in advance of the RNA Conference where he will be conducting industry appointments with some of our members.

Can you tell us something about your work and your journey to your present job?
Our ethos at Cornerstones is this: if we can help an author in 5 minutes what may take them a year to find out we consider that a good thing. This is why we offer a free advisory assessment of an author’s synopsis and first ten pages when they first approach us. This, and our packages, are focussed on self-editing techniques, be they about working on your structure, characterisation, pace, plot, narrative voice – anything which can make a good story into a great novel. Working with authors on their manuscripts, and helping them develop their potential, is something I’m passionate about. I found it far more enjoyable and productive working with my coursemates on their books during my MA at Lancaster, rather than working on my own writing! The MA led to my first job in publishing, first as the submissions reader at the Literary Agency, Rogers Coleridge & White Ltd, and then as Georgia Garrett’s assistant, working with authors such as Zadie Smith, Hisham Matar, Philip Hensher, Nick Hornby, David Baddiel, Caitlin Moran, India Knight and Ben Masters.

However, my true interests lay in editing, in working with the authors – a lot of working at an agency is in negotiating and redrafting contracts, not helping authors with their redrafts! After a brief stint working at a tech start-up, focussing on books and music promotion, I decided to go back to school, beginning a PhD in Creative Writing through Southampton University. At almost the same time, a serendipitous meeting on a train led me to apply for a role at Cornerstones, and on meeting Helen, Ayisha and Kathryn, I realised I had met kindred spirits - Helen and I have very similar stories about wanting to spend more time with unsolicited submissions (we won’t call them the slush pile, ever); more time than the pace of the industry can allow for!

What is a typical day like for a busy editor – if there is such a thing as a typical day?
That’s a tough one! It’s such a varied and interesting role. There is, of course, plenty of admin to do every day: you need to make sure every stage of the author’s journey with us is smooth. I also tend to take the office phone a lot (we all work remotely so it’s diverted to me), and that’s a real pleasure and one of my favourite roles, talking to new and established authors about their work-in-progress, chatting to them about the feedback they’ve received either on their initial sample material either by myself or from one of our New Author Enquiries reader, Dionne and Natalie, and working to match them with the right editor (though this is mainly my colleague Julie’s responsibility, but we work closely together to ensure the best editorial fit). But as well as this, there are meetings with agents and editors (we always try to forge and maintain relationships across the industry – we’re dedicated to keeping our advice to authors up-to-date!); this week for example I’m writing a report for an author, finishing a manuscript I’m considering scouting to agents, calling another manuscript in that’s been through our process too, and of course Helen and I are chatting about teaching techniques all the time: she and Dionne are off to France to teach at A Chapter Away later this month. I was there in July, and we’re chatting through presentation formats to make sure the authors get the most out of our being there!

You came to the Conference last year. What were the high points for you?
Without a doubt my one-to-one sessions: I just love sitting down with an author, talking to them about their book, seeing ideas come alive and in a small way helping to facilitate that process. Though I tend to get a bit too excited, and my one-to-one sessions have been known to run over-time (sorry!).

How do you anticipate being able to help people this year?
With one-to-one sessions – having someone look over your synopsis and first pages and then brainstorm things with you can really help you avoid writing yourself into a dead-end. Of course, dead-ends are a necessary part of drafting, but if you can get some guidance you’ll find that the way back from the dead-ends isn’t as intimidating! And of course, authors I’ve met with are always welcome to follow up with me afterwards, and if there’s anything Cornerstones can do to help them from that point, all they have to do is call.

We’d like to hear more about Cornerstones. What can you tell us?
Oh I might have answered a lot of this earlier! What I haven’t said is that Cornerstones was founded in 1998, one of the first Literary Consultancies in the UK. Since then, Cornerstones has grown from being Helen and five freelance editors, to a team of five with over 60 editors on our books. And 18 months ago we expanded into the US, making us the first and only transatlantic Literary Consultancy. The US arm is headed up by the wonderful Michele Rubin, who was an agent at Writers’ House in NY for 25 years, and is a fantastic editor herself too!
We work with writers of all abilities, and on MS at varying stages, from brainstorming the plot of an idea, through to structural editing, market reads, copy-editing, and proofing.

Have you ever wanted to write a book?
I have! My PhD novel is still the same novel I was working on for my MA, though it’s advanced considerably. I was struggling with the academic tone of it, the purpose of it being about exploring themes and expanding on scholarly research. And I could not, for the life of me, get past 52,000 words. Eventually, Helen and Dionne had had enough of listening to me moan about it, so they read over my synopsis and spent a lunchtime on Skype with me, brainstorming the plot. Since then, the novel is nearly complete (well, nearly complete in draft form, anyway), and now stands at a little over 76,000 words. In one year, thanks to twenty minutes with Helen and Dionne, I wrote more than I had done in the previous 6 years combined.

When not surrounded by books in your job what do you like to read for leisure?
I am a huge historical fiction reader – particularly anything military. But really, I want to learn about the past, and be entertained at the same time. I’m also a big reader of Vietnam War-era American fiction: partly because that’s the focus of my PhD, but also because there is a very interesting literary voice in soldier’s narratives that just hooks me. I’m also a big reader of non-fiction history books. And it’s rare I’ll go a year without rereading a Terry Pratchett novel, and I reread Hemingway’s THE SUN ALSO RISES every January…

What does the future hold for you as an editor?
Who knows? One of the most exciting things about working for Cornerstones is that I never know when I’m going to read a book that will change my life! I have been, over the last year, increasingly on the lookout for novels that speak to me so irresistibly that I have to help it succeed, so I’ve been doing a lot more scouting alongside Helen. Long may it continue!

If you have one piece of advice to give to anyone submitting a manuscript, what would it be?
Do your research: if you’re submitting to an agent, read as much as you can about that agent, and tailor your submission to be personal. And check the spelling! Nothing sends a submission straight into the bin quicker than misspelling an agent’s name – or addressing them by the wrong gender!

So much useful information for our readers, Alex. I’m sure we are all looking forward to meeting you at Harper Adams. Thank you.

Questions compiled by Natalie Kleinman

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Saturday, June 24, 2017

Festivals and Workshops: Festival of Writing

Welcome to Elaine Roberts with another in her interesting series about literary festivals and workshops.

This month I have interviewed Laura Burson from the Festival of Writing. Welcome to the RNA blog, Laura. Can you tell us something about your festival, how it came about and how long its been running?
The Festival of Writing takes place annually in York. Now in its seventh year the festival has gained
an outstanding reputation for helping unpublished authors on their writing careers. Its many notable success stories including Joanna Cannon, Tor Udall, Deborah Install and Shelley Harris. It is the biggest creative writing weekend in the UK.

Who are your main speakers this year?
This year we have two hugely successful self-published authors to join traditionally published names in speaking at the festival. Mark Edwards and Rachel Abbot, who have each sold more than two million copies of their books and are now published by Amazon’s Thomas & Mercer imprint, will address hundreds of aspiring writers about the different routes to publication, sharing their experiences.

As our blog is for writers can you tell me how your festival would benefit our members?
The Festival of Writing is one of the most influential and highly regarded creative gatherings in the publishing calendar. It attracts hundreds of aspiring authors from across the UK who gather each year to meet agents and publishers to pitch their ideas, attend creative workshop and benefit from one-to-one tutorials with editors and industry experts, honing their craft and helping them on the path to publication.

Is there anything to enter (maybe a writing competition), if so could details be provided?
Yes, one of the highlights of the weekend is the now famous ‘Friday Night Live’ competition (often described as the literary X Factor) when delegates read 500 words of their manuscript to be critiqued by a panel of experts. Previous winners have gone on to great success with bestselling novels and six-figure book deals. The 2014 winner Joanna Cannon read from her future bestseller THE TROUBLE WITH GOATS AND SHEEP. Within 48 hours of leaving York she had seven offers from book agents and went on to become a Sunday Times bestseller in hardback and paperback.
We have a host of other exciting comps too, with great agent judges on the panel.

How about staying over for the whole event. Where can people stay?
Those booking weekend tickets get accommodation included. It's on campus so close to all the workshops, talks, all the meals and all the other evening events. Everybody stays on campus, so you'll be sharing food, drink & accommodation with the editors, agents and authors present.

What does it cost to attend?
Day tickets start at £185 (including two agent one-to-one meetings).
Weekend tickets start at £395. With these weekend options you get accommodation included. All meals, inc gala dinner. Refreshments. All talks & workshops. Plus 2 one-to-one sessions (with agents / publishers / book doctors).
Although day tickets are available to the event, we do urge people to stay the Friday and (especially) the Saturday night, as many of the most important connections will take place 'out of hours'.

Do workshops/talks fill up quickly?
We still have tickets left for 2017 but encourage folk to book soon to get choice agent slots.

How much time does it take to organise the festival?
It takes a year in the making, with planning for the next usually starting just as we've tidied up that year's event.

Dates for this year and possibly next.
The Festival of Writing takes place 8-10 September 2017 in York.

For more information and the full programme visit:

Email for queries:

Thank you for taking the time to talk to me, Laura,  and we wish the festival every success.

***STOP PRESS: RNA members who wish to attend can type RNA into the relevant box to receive 15% off any ticket option***

Friday, June 23, 2017

Karen Aldous: Under a Tuscan Sun

We welcome Karen Aldous to the RNA blog as she celebrates publication of her fifth book.

Karen this is your fifth novel. Can you tell us something about your path to publication?
Number five, since 2014. I still can’t believe it! My path to publication however began in 2012. I’d
begun The Vineyard, the novel that had been in my head for years, whilst I was sat with Mum during her chemo in 2011 when she would nod off, and with that time, I began the first chapters. As it grew, I made a conscious decision to attempt the RNA New Writer’s Scheme which luckily I got on to in January 2012; a great impetus! The following day, I saw in Writer’s News, a local creative writing class, The Write Place, and immediately phoned and joined. Both organisations provided so much expertise and encouragement, perfectly syncing with my journey, that it wasn’t long before I found the confidence to start sending my work out. At the same time I sent my partial for critique with the RNA NWS, I also sent it to a novel competition, and although I didn’t win, I was contacted and got the opportunity to meet an editor who asked me to send it once complete. I did so a year later and eight weeks later, received a two-book contract. Mum had passed three months earlier to that offer, but having the chance to chat about the fact that she had followed her passion for dancing, I’m so grateful that she inspired me to follow mine.

You have such beautiful settings for your books. Are these based on your holidays or your dreams?
Both actually! I absolutely adore Europe and travel inspires me enormously. The stunningly beautiful French Riviera, and Provence inspired both the first The Vineyard, and third, which is titled, The Riviera, but in-between, I wrote The Chateau, which was inspired by a dream. I saw a woman repeatedly being dunked in deep water by a guard in a medieval doorway. Although the dream didn’t indicate the actual location, I instinctively knew why Montreux in Switzerland was constantly calling me. The Chateau de Chillon was the perfect setting for Agnes-Francescia, the unsettled spirit.
The main character in One Moment at Sunrise I met when I arrived at a beautiful villa close to the Canal du Midi, again in southern France. Her sadness prompted me to ask her questions and her story tumbled from her mouth and into my notebook. And, similarly with Under a Tuscan Sky, Elena, my main character’s nonna, voiced her troubles to me when I was on a recce for my daughter’s wedding - we stayed at a medieval farm with a beautiful villa and, the character Elena introduced me to her daughter Roz and her abandoned granddaughter, Olivia. Imagination is a wonderful tool that can take you anywhere, I happen to love immersing myself in beautiful locations – as long as I have a notebook in my hand!

How do you plan your books? Do you start with your characters or the plot?
Definitely characters - as you gather from the last answer, but once I have that character’s problem firmly fixed in my head, the other characters emerge to help and I begin to get create the outline. Once I’m happy that I have an interesting story, or plot if you prefer, I begin my character profiles and plan my scenes.

Tell us about your writing day.
Rarely do I have a typical writing day. I run a small business which I mainly only service now, but am blessed to be in a position to also care for my grandchildren, so my writing gets done on my days off mainly. If I’m not planning or researching, I like to shut myself away to get into the zone, starting early and walking the dog in-between which is great thinking time as well as much needed exercise when sitting all day.

Have you thought about writing in a different genre?
I’ve begun two dual-timeline novels which I’ve researched and aim to pursue, I love reading this genre and the way two lives can become so interwoven. It’s a difficult genre to do because you want your reader to fall in love with both characters from two eras, so yes, it’s my new challenge.

Have your readers met the character’s from Under a Tuscan Sky before and can you see yourself returning to this lovely part of the world in your writing?
Some readers may have met a few of the characters in a short-story I wrote recently for My Weekly magazine. It was published at the beginning of June. However, Under a Tuscan Sky is a stand-alone book. Having said that, I would love to write another story set in Tuscany, it’s such a beautiful region.

If we could jump forward five years where would you like to see your writing life?
Bearing in mind just how quickly the last five years have flown, five years are not so far away in the publishing industry. Of course I would love to keep writing, improving as I go and entertaining readers. I would love to hold my own paperback in my hand, but if I wrote a novel that readers loved and recommended to friends and, more ambitiously, it hit the Sunday Times Bestseller List, that’s where I’d love to be in five years.

Twitter: KarenAldous_

Book blurb:
When Olivia Montague’s grandmother passes away, she decides it’s finally time to make some changes in her own life. So she breaks up with her ‘going nowhere’ boyfriend and embarks on a journey to her nonna’s home in Tuscany.
Until now, Olivia has always believed that she’s incapable of love, after being abandoned by her parents as a baby. But with each day spent at the gorgeous villa nestled in the rolling Italian hills, she feels her heart begin to flutter …
And when handsome antiques dealer Hugh St. James arrives on the scene, she realizes things might be about to change forever!

About Karen:

Karen Aldous enjoys village life on the edge of the north-downs in Kent with easy access to the buzz of London. Not only does she love the passive pleasures of reading and writing, she also craves the more active pursuits with her family and friends such as walking, cycling and skiing especially when they involve food and wine!

Thank you, Karen and good luck with your book.

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Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Liz Fenwick: Finding ideas...

We are delighted to welcome Liz Fenwick to the blog today. Liz writes about unlocking ideas for our novels - something we all need  help with at times.

One question that writers are frequently asked is where do their ideas come from? The creation of stories is a mystery to many - even writers but is never a mystery to any child I have ever met. Those wonderful days creating magical worlds in the woods or playground. It's as if once you learn to drive a car a switch in the brain is flicked and the magic is gone. That switch seems to remain 'on' for writers. However, even their ideas can sometimes become exhausted and too stretched to let their own 'magic' imagination work.

As writers, we observe the world, notice and store things that interest us, or simply catch our attention. Most of the time we don’t even realise we are doing it. That overheard conversation of the woman snapping into the phone; ‘That’s a decision for your wife to make’ leads the brain onto many scenarios.

1.     Is she the mistress?
2.     Is she the PA?
3.     Is she the daughter talking to wife number two or three…

Why not play with that to encourage your writer’s brain to work…ask why, ask what if? Take a snippet of overheard conversation…my mother never wore knickers…write for ten or twenty minutes and allow yourself to be surprised.

With each of my books it took one idea to unlock all the other saved gems I had collected. For my latest novel, The Returning Tide, it was my mother-in-law’s experience during WW2. That became the key event around which I built the story. My mother-in-law, June, had been a telegraphist working with Morse Code transmissions to and from boats. She never spoke about it in any detail until one night over dinner we were discussing Exercise Tiger, aka the Slapton Sands incident. There had been something in the paper that morning. June suddenly said; ‘I was working that night with the Americans. It was awful. The men on the boats went from using code to plain language. I heard them die.’ I shivered then and I still do now. I pressed June for more details and she said she would write them down, but never did. She was still under the Official Secrets Act.

So when brainstorming with my editor for book five that moment returned and it pulled out my fascination with sisters - that love and hate that binds them. Putting the two together, The Returning Tide was born.

If stuck for an idea think of things that have intrigued you. The young lovers in the park with matching tattoos, that article you read, the news item that stayed with you… they can all be the starting point. Frequently while researching something else I discover the ‘seed’ for my next book. With A Cornish Stranger, it was finding the old Cornish saying, ‘Save a stranger from the sea, he’ll turn your enemy.’ It was like lightning had struck. I knew the location - the cabin at the mouth of Frenchman’s Creek, and I knew it would be about a grandmother and granddaughter. Until the saying arrived I had no idea that I wanted to write a story set there about a reclusive artist.

Taking time away from actual writing to fill the ‘well of creativity’ with listening, reading, looking and researching means that ideas will always be waiting for the writer who is open and always asking what if. That and remaining an adult child who still likes to create magic worlds. Children know that stories are everywhere, even under the bed. Where will you look for your next story?

About Liz
Writer, ex-pat expert, wife, mother of three, and dreamer turned doer....
Award winning author of The Cornish House, A Cornish Affair, A Cornish Stranger, Under A Cornish Sky, A Cornish Christmas Carol (a novella) and The Returning Tide. After nine international moves, I'm a bit of a global nomad. It's no wonder my heart remains in Cornwall.


Thank you, Liz. We all love your books and hope you never run out of ideas.

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