My Writing Journey (part 4): the WSI
Anyone who gets seriously involved in writing (and by that I mean is looking to finish a work and get it published) will fairly soon come across what I have termed the Writers’ Support Industry (WSI). It seems to be mainly associated with fiction, because although I was a publisher of non fiction for ten years I was not at that time aware it existed. Some of what’s offered by the WSI is very helpful, some less so, and some of it is downright dodgy.
Let’s start at the positive end with the helpful services. My first novel was ‘The Poisoner’s Garden’. It’s not been published yet, so don’t rush off to Amazon looking for it! When I’d finished it (or thought I had) my family and a few of my friends read it. They were kind enough to say it was wonderful, brilliant, right up there with Dickens and Tolstoy. Well they would, wouldn’t they? Naturally I was delighted with this response, but I needed an objective view. That’s when I became aware of the WSI, or this aspect of it. There are a number of companies that offer to assess your work. They send it to a reader, who writes a report on it and gives an opinion on its suitability for publication. One of the major players is Writers’ Workshop. They forwarded my ms to a published author in the genre I was aiming for, and a couple of weeks later I got the report. The reviewer (Philip Womack – ‘The Broken King’, ‘The Double Axe’,’The King’s Revenge’) did a brilliant job. I was amazed he came back to me so quickly, because his reading was thorough and sensitive, and his comments and advice extremely useful.
I was so pleased with the help I’d had from Writer’s Workshop, including some thoughtful (and free!) guidance from its boss, Harry Bingham, that I went back to them with a draft of Paradise Girl. This time it was Sarah Vincent (‘The Testament of Vida Tremayne’, ‘The Gingerbread Wife’) who did the review. Her report was superb – thoughtful, sensitive, perceptive, encouraging, and she at once put her finger on what was then a key weakness – which by taking her advice I think I’ve managed to correct. It’s such a help to have terrific authors who have been through the mill themselves assess your work, and I’d certainly recommend this process to anyone, even though it costs.
Writer’s Workshop isn’t the only player in this game. The Literary Consultancy and Cornerstones offer similar services for around the same money, and there are others too. All these companies say that if they think your work good enough they’ll help you find an agent. I took Writer’s Workshop up on this and sent my work to some agents they’d suggested, using their name. To be honest, I don’t think it made much difference. Of the two agents who showed an interest, one was through Writer’s Workshop and the other wasn’t. So being referred by one of these companies might get your work seen by an agent more quickly, but it’s not a guarantee of success.
Another aspect of the WSI, and in my view a slightly exploitive one, is the offering of sessions called ‘Hook an Agent’, or ‘How to Land an Agent’ or similar. Often they involve a one-to-one slot when you can pitch your work to a real, live agent. These affairs tend to be for a whole day and can be expensive, especially if you have to travel to London (where almost invariably they are held) and even more so if you have to stay the night. I’ve been to a couple of them (neither organised by Writer’s Workshop, I hasten to add) and been less than impressed. I met an agent at only one of them, and she obviously hadn’t read the material I’d submitted, but I went on about that in my last blog so enough now. My gripe with offerings like this is that new writers are usually so desperate to sign up with an agent (because that is pretty much the only way to get taken on by a big publisher with the marketing heft to shift their book) that they’re easy prey. There’s a definite gullibility on their part (what Coleridge might have called a ‘willing suspension of disbelief’!) which is taken advantage of by some of the providers in what their advertising implies: come on our course and you’ll be taken up by somebody who’ll get you a book deal. I must be clear that none of the organisations I’ve mentioned above claims that attending one of their courses is guaranteed to get you noticed by an agent.
There are other courses and conferences run for writers, by the above and by Arvon, The Guardian, and more, on writing technique and aspects of publishing. The only one I’ve experienced is a two-day conference on self-publishing run by The Literary Consultancy, which was helpful.
Once you’re published – traditionally, independently or self – you come into contact with other elements of the WSI. Your aim now is to get noticed – on Twitter, Goodreads, Facebook, Amazon, Apple Store, wherever and you’ll be assailed by people offering to help you do that. Some of them are lovely. They give honest reviews and they blog, and if they think your work is worth it they’ll promote it. Some of this is free and sometimes there’s a charge, but it’s all decent and above board. However, there are others, who will sell you good reviews, boost your number of Twitter followers and click you up the Amazon ratings list, all in return for payment. For me, this is the dark side of WSI. I use (and rate) Goodreads and I value the reviews I see from its members, even when I disagree. All right, some of them wouldn’t get many marks as lit. crit. essays, but they are fair and honest and written by enthusiasts. Besides, Goodreads is an excellent place to meet readers and see what interests them. This is what a healthy writing environment should be, not one where your number of 4 or 5 star reviews or your place in the Amazon hierarchy depends on what you pay somebody.
As always, the views expressed here are my own. I’d love to know if you agree or not, whether you’re a reader or a fellow writer. Next month I’ll talk about reviews and reviewers: what’s a helpful review and what isn’t, what’s permissible and what’s not, what’s fair, and try to suggest some basic principles for reviewing.
P.S. In case you’re wondering what happened to ‘The Poisoner’s Garden’, the answer is that I sent it to several agents, and although there was mild interest nobody took it up. It’s a bit ‘Game of Thrones’-ish but I tried to make it different by casting the hero as a wimp who loses his wimpishness as the story progresses. I think he does, but the problem is that at the start he’s not a very attractive character. I decided it needs rewriting but by that time I had got interested in writing something else, so it’s waiting on my back-up drive for the day when I’ll get round to it again.