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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