What I Learned from Famous Writers at London Book Fair

IMG_4276 (1)London Book Fair always buzzes with big names and LBF16 was no exception. Meg Rosoff, Deborah Levy and Judith Kerr were all interviewed at the English PEN Literary Salon (a designated area away from the publishers’ stands). Sadly, I missed all of the above but I did manage to catch appearances from other successful writers: Jeffrey, Peter and Jeanette. But can you learn anything useful by listening to a half-hour slot from an established name?

First up, I happened to be sitting in the PEN Literary Salon area (meeting a friend) when who should show up behind a wall of press photographers than Jeffrey Archer in a novelty tie (it may have had books on it, but I wasn’t close enough to see).

Archer is brash (often dismissive of press and underlings) and irrepressible. He talked about book promotion rather than writing, and declared himself a “storyteller” rather than a writer. He produces about 14 drafts of each novel.

Peter James is the antithesis of Archer. Where Archer is loud, larger than life with an ego that fills the room (Olympia), Peter James is quieter, considered and calm. Whether or not this is due to the amount of time he spends with dead bodies I don’t know, but this unassuming man certainly sees the darker side of life firsthand as he often accompanies police on various raids and has lost count of how many autopsies he has attended.

James offered sound advice, saying character is key, followed by research (to ensure accuracy) and finally plot. ‘You’ve got to surprise yourself as a writer or you won’t surprise the reader.’

Jeanette Winterson was both formidable and passionate as she regaled the audience with her Version 3thoughts on Shakespeare, theatre, and the London he knew – a young city where everything was urgent and people lived life to the full.

Winterson’s latest novel, The Gap of Time, is a reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. ‘I am a foundling,’ Winterson said, ‘it has an abandoned baby at its centre and I used to read it looking for clues.’

She went on to say that there are three available endings: revenge, tragedy and forgiveness, and that as she gets older she is more interested in forgiveness.

Impassioned and inspiring, Winterson followed her dynamic reading by sharing her view that creativity is at the centre of everything. ‘Creativity is a birthright. Never doubt that what you’re doing is at the centre of life. Money is not the heart of life, it’s creativity.’

 

Room at the Top

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This is a photo of the house I rented with five other students in Nottingham. It was rundown and in a rough area, not that we cared at the time as it was more important to be near the college and city centre.

My room was at the top. It provided a fascinating window on our street that happened to be in the red-light area of the city.

Watching from that window provided the inspiration for my novel I Came to Find a Girl.

This extract forms the end of the first chapter (after a woman’s body has been found nearby).

 

Back in my room at the top, I looked out the window to see if there were any girls out on the corner at the crossroads. The wall where they liked to sit was empty but I sketched it anyway – the waiting-for-a-trick wall with its bricks falling from one end.

I reapplied my eyeliner and pinned up my hair, gathered my uniform together, and raced down the two flights of shag-pile carpeted stairs. “Seeya,” I shouted out in the greying light of the hallway, and slammed the front door behind me, pressing my fingers against it to check.

Two women with bare legs were sitting on the wall opposite. It’s too cold to dress like that, I thought. What are they doing there? Have they not seen the news? I wondered if Mum and Dad had. Probably not, this was local stuff. They didn’t even know I was living in the red-light area.

As I turned onto the main road, I saw the police cordon further up the hill by The Vine, our local pub. Nottingham and particularly our scrappy corner of the city suddenly seemed more dangerous, and yet nothing had changed. The threat of a madman roaming the streets had always been there. It’s probably safer than normal – police everywhere, I thought. But still, to make the twenty-minute trek across town to Saviour’s Bar and Restaurant, I slipped my keys between my fingers. The sharpest, jagged-edged Yale was between my index and middle finger, and gripped discreetly by my side. Everyone needs keys.

Stickers on Book Covers

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Stickers (or more likely pretend stickers) are all the rage on book covers. Those little bright circles used to contain important additional information, such as a shortlisting for a literary prize, but now it can be almost anything including frequent claims that the latest release is the new Gone Girl or for fans of The Girl on the Train or Stieg Larsson.

Anyway, I can hardly complain since I have joined in with my own circular cry for attention, but why stop at one? Perhaps I could coat my entire book cover in circles filled with the best and most exciting quotes?

Book Cover Design: the Golden Rule

A well designed book cover will certainly improve a book’s chances in today’s crowded market, so what are the secrets of successful book cover design?

At the recent London Book Fair I attended a talk by Damian Horner, brand development director at Hachette, and this is a brief summary of his advice for authors:

1 Membership – look at the genre rules for book covers and ask, am I a member of that group?

2 Lust Factor – you have to look at it and love it. Does it stand out? If it’s fresh, you’ll look again.

3 Blink Test – is there one stand out thing that people will take away if they look quickly?

4 Title – Important for search engine optimisation and for design. Is your title strong and memorable?

LONDON TSUNAMI5 Straplines – these can explain the title but they can be messy and are not always necessary.

6 Retailer – think about how the thumbnail sized version works, important for Amazon etc, and also think of how your book will sit spine out in a bookshop such as Waterstones.

7 Hierarchy – Title or author? It’s best to choose one or the other.

GOLDEN RULE – BE CLEAR BEFORE YOU’RE CLEVER

With all this in mind I got to work on my cover for LONDON TSUNAMI & OTHER STORIES which is a collection of 21 contemporary stories set in London.

After initially going in the wrong direction with several ideas (including a linocut that took me at least a week), I settled on a photograph of some flats that I have been fascinated by for years. By day the building looks drab while by night it’s transformed by its central pillar of glowing windows. There are so many different and equally vibrant lives being lived in that one building and my collection is a bit like that – 21 stories of different people, of different ages, leading different lives in west London.