Books and poetry
Jamie Rhodes on his latest work, tips for new writers and why he is a Guild member
“I first realised I wanted to become a writer when I was 11. I went to a fairly rough comprehensive in Bradford and hated music lessons. So I used to sit at the back of the class and read a book. The teacher let me do it as I think he was just happy with one less pupil being disruptive. One day he said to me, ‘Jamie, what happens when you’ve read all the books in the world?’ to which I replied, ‘I will write my own.’
I was lucky in that, even though it wasn't a great school, I had good English teachers who nurtured and supported me. In fact, I have dedicated my first short story collection, Dead Men’s Teeth & Other Stories from Voices Past, to them: Ghislaine Anderton, Terry Binns and Joanna Cowie.
The idea for the collection came about after I started following the British Library’s Untold Lives blog, which features snippets from their vast archives.
I applied for Arts Council funding earlier this year, and was successful. This meant I could devote myself to intensive research and writing for six months. I applied for a British Library reader’s pass (which gives you access to their archives) and spent hours wading through old documents, some of them hundreds of years old.
One of the stories I came across was that of a ship’s surgeon, quarantined for three weeks aboard an indenture vessel stricken with cholera in the 19th century, outside Suriname. I did a degree in philosophy at Manchester Metropolitan University, and in my writing like to explore broader facets of the human condition. So on the surface this is a dark and interesting tale of a man trapped on a ship. On another level it is about the lack of understanding we feel about why we are here, not sure if we are ever going to reach our destination, wherever that is.
I also find inspiration in observing people. One tip I would give emerging writers is get yourself a part-time job that is public-facing in some way. Working in a bar might not be glamorous, but it is a good way to support yourself financially in the early days, and there are lots of opportunities to watch people and notice their mannerisms.
Another tip would be to be open-minded about opportunities that come your way, even if they aren’t what you ultimately want to do. It will gain you experience, and also show agents/publishers that you are serious about your career. My first professional credit was as a screenwriter, on a public service information film. I have also written radio plays, taught screenwriting in schools, worked as a journalist, run career-strategy workshops for writers, and founded the Homeless Film Festival.
I’m passionate about ensuring that marginalised groups are able to benefit from creativity and the arts. Human beings have a unique capacity not only to create, but to appreciate art, and I think everyone should have access to that, whoever they are. It is part of enjoying and exploring the full spectrum of experiences available to us.
Every writer should join the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain, whatever stage they are at in their career. It is the writers' trade union. I joined as soon as I got my first professional credit in 2010, and have been active in the East Midlands and London regions. I’ve been on committees and helped organise events. It’s a great way of meeting other writers, and also the more you put in, the more you get back. And you definitely get taken more seriously by agents and publishers if you are a member.
The London & South East branch of the Guild was with me every step of the way on Dead Men’s Teeth & Other Stories from Voices Past, giving me a letter of support for my application for Arts Council funding, and setting me up with a mentor, writer Caz Moran. She has been fantastic and a huge benefit to my professional development. This really helped me make the leap from writing in script form to writing short stories. It was a big jump but by the end of six months I was producing an average of 8,000 words per week.
The Guild has also helped me promote my short story collection, alongside the British Library, which is keen to show how its archives are far from stuffy. For me, they were a mine of endless fascinating stories, and a seed for my creativity.”
Find out more
Dead Men’s Teeth’s & Other Stories from Voices Past is published by Mardibooks. The collection is published in collaboration with the British Library and is funded as part of an Arts Council programme to support emerging writers.
To book tickets for the launch event at the British Library on 20 October, where there will be readings and dramatic performances, visit the British Library website.
Writers' Guild members are automatically entitled to a British Library reader's pass.
Jamie Rhodes has produced a video on career strategy for writers:
What people are saying about the book
“Jamie Rhodes has mined and minted gold from the British Library Archives. Inspired by sources as various as a ship's surgeon's log, verbatim interviews, diaries or even advertisements for false teeth, Rhodes gives us glimpses into unexpected places, the forgotten corners of history, in stories told with the authentic weirdness of truth; touching, quirky and humane.”
Olivia Hetreed, President of the Writers' Guild of Great Britain
“We are delighted that our Untold Lives blog inspired this set of short stories created from the ‘small but beautiful details of real lives’ in the British Library Archive Collections.”
Margaret Makepeace, British Library Curator, India Office Records
Book cover design above by Christa Leask
Chloe Brookes from The London Library explains what they can offer writers
“An intellectual refuge, essential research centre, treasure-house…” (Andrew Marr).
Founded in 1841 by Thomas Carlyle, the London Library in Piccadilly is one of the world’s largest independent libraries, a literary oasis housing a million books in the arts and humanities, all freely available to browse and borrow on 15 miles of open access shelves. With books dating from the 16th century to the latest publications in print and electronic form, throughout its history the Library has sought to be ‘contemporary in every age’ and acquires 8000 new books every year.
The London Library offers an ideal space in which to write, think and discover in the heart of London. Equipped with purpose-built Reading Rooms and numerous quite study areas nestled amongst the book stacks, the Library is a place for serendipitous inspiration.
The Library is Wi-Fi equipped throughout and members enjoy access to an extensive range of online resources including JSTOR and a host of online archives and subscriptions. For those who may not be able to visit the Library in person, there is a postal loans service which will dispatch books and periodical volumes to readers anywhere within the UK and Europe.
‘After day one I realised I was going to come here every day. You have company – you don’t have solitude… It’s extraordinary how comforting it is.’ (Victoria Hislop).
Of the 1 million books in the Library, notable collections include Literature and Fiction with a huge range of novels, poetry, plays, essays and literary criticism. Other notable collections include History, Biography, Topography, Travel and exploration and the Art collection of books on art and architecture. There is fine coverage of the history of science, the social sciences and philosophy, and the Religion collection houses an exceptional range of theological texts and studies in comparative religion. The foreign languages are served with books in over 50 languages, with particular riches in French, German, Italian, Spanish and Russian collection. http://www.londonlibrary.co.uk/index.php?/collections
Membership of the Library is open to all.
'The London Library is my favourite place in the whole of London. A unique resource and a wonderful place in which to read and research.' (John O'Farrell)
- Browse and borrow more than one million books
- Benefit from generous book loan periods and no fines
- Access to 750 magazine & periodical subscriptions
- Free access to electronic resources, from JSTOR to Private Eye and Who’s Who online, wherever you are in the world
- Postal loans service anywhere in the UK & Europe
- Wi-Fi equipped Library & reading rooms
- Membership and discounts to other organisations in the literary community
Annual membership: £475 per annum. (£39.58 a month payable by direct debit)
Young person’s membership (age 16-25): £238 (£19.83 a month payable by direct debit)
Those who cannot meet the membership fee may apply for assisted membership from The London Library Trust.
The London Library, 14 St James’s Square, London SW1Y 4LG
Photo by Paul Raferty
At the latest of the Guild's Off the Shelf events John Crace, writer and journalist, gave a riveting account of himself, both as author (Harry’s Games: Inside the Mind of Harry Redknapp and Vertigo: One Football Fan’s Fear of Success) and his famous Digested Reads, treating us to a stripped-down version of Wolf Hall and Howard’s End. These précised gems are becoming almost as well known as their originals, and it is the literary critic in him as well as the satirist that is at work.
He also gave us some interesting gen’ on his new assignment (following Richard Hoggart) as The Guardian’s Parliamentary sketch writer.
Telling a packed room about how an early fallow time in his life allowed his writing to develop, he emphasised the importance of reflective time in a writer’s life and how vital it was to have lived long enough for real experience to determine content.
Far from being in a hurry in his Digested Reads, he is actually producing distilled Haiku versions of these novels – most famously in Brideshead Abbreviated. This was a serious look at literature and the processes of writing and he fell into easy conversation with the room. We wish him well with his forthcoming publication I Never Promised You a Rose Garden (about politics).
Can you help?
Dean M Drinkel on writing and editing horror
“I’ve seen horrors, horrors that you’ve seen..it’s impossible for words to describe what is necessary to those who do not know what horror means. Horror, horror has a face and you must make a friend of horror. Horror and moral terror are your friends. If they are not, then they are enemies to be feared. They are truly enemies!” – Colonel Kurtz, Apocalypse Now
My love of horror began at an early age. My dad loved thrillers and westerns, my mother loved Stephen King – I was into the old gothic stuff (Poe, Shelley, Walpole, Le Fanu to name but a few) and as I grew older I floundered a bit until I came across Clive Barker and his film Hellraiser. I didn’t realise he was a writer as well as a director, it was only as I’d watched the end-credits and I read ‘based on the book by’ that I sat up and thought hello, that could be interesting.
The next day I visited the local bookshop where I lived in Kent and began devouring Barker’s work as greedily as I could get my hands on it: The Books Of Blood, The Damnation Game, The Great & Secret Show, Weaveworld etc etc, until eventually I was able to find The Hellbound Heart which Hellraiser was based upon. (As a side note, I recently read the French version - confusingly called Hellraiser - which was like discovering the story all over again!) From those first words I read of Clive’s I knew what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.
Whilst at University, I wrote for the college magazine and by the time I graduated I had enough stories for a collection, which was subsequently published by a small press (the book was called The Burial, and will be re-released later in 2014 as a redux edition). Once the book had been released, I sat in my hallway waiting for both the phone to ring and for the door to knock in the firm belief that either a major publisher or film producer would get in touch wanting to publish everything that I would ever write or make films of them.
Tom Green introduces a case study from a new book he has co-written with Kevin McCann about authors doing it for themselves
In the time that I have been editing writersguild.org.uk and the Writers’ Guild magazine, one of the biggest changes has been the new technology enabling writers to become increasingly independent. The rise of self-publishing has come on the back of a range of innovations, most notably relating to digital printing, e-books and social media. Whereas once an author’s options outside mainstream publishing houses were almost non-existent, now it’s possible to publish and promote a book with little or no outside assistance.
In writing Getting Started In Self-Publishing (Hodder 2013), Kevin McCann and I have sought to provide practical advice on all aspects of the process. The book also contains a number of case studies; an extract of one, by Guild member Martin Cloake, follows below.
Martin Cloake has self-published two mini-books in a series called Spurs Shorts that he launched with his writing partner Adam Powley. One is about Danny Blanchflower, the other concerns Arthur Rowe. They have also republished the first full-length book they wrote, We Are Tottenham, as an e-book after the rights reverted back to them.
Why did you choose to self-publish?
I'm a journalist and I've worked in production for years. I'm also interested in technology and the media business, an area I covered as a journalist. So I've been interested in and involved with new publishing platforms and methods for years. Digital publishing has changed the game in so many ways, one of which is to change the view of, and the opportunities offered by, the self-publishing route. Essentially, digital makes the whole process more nimble. The idea for the ‘Shorts’ series came from the kind of thing The Atlantic Review was doing in the US, and The Guardian in the UK. Those publications are mining their archives to produce collated volumes on particular subjects.
Mark Tuohy on how self-publishing has helped get his writing back on track
'It's a mighty long way down rock 'n roll… From Top of the Pops to drawing the dole,' as the song says – and that's kind of how its been. My first novel The Tide was published back in 2005 to good reviews and okay not great sales but I kind of thought I'd arrived. I was invited to read from it at the Edinburgh Book Festival and being heralded by some as a great new literary voice. Surely getting the next novel published (assuming I could write one) was going to be fairly straight forward.
Things started well and before I knew it I was writing two very different novels, a literary thriller and Something Brilliant, a challenging but uplifting love story. I even managed to secure a £5,000 grant from the Arts Council. In the meantime I wrote a couple of plays for Radio 4 and then by around 2009 I thought both novels were ready to go.
Well, the good people who published my first novel (Mercat Press) were no longer interested in me and were anyway already headed into the more burly arms of Birlinn. There was to be no place for me there. I wasn't desperately disappointed and was confident I would find a home for my work elsewhere. This was something I'd have to do on my own as my agent, who was more of a theatre person, had already ditched me. But again I felt sure I could stand on my own two feet and that a publishing deal was just around the corner.
Colin Chambers remembers Bob Leeson, children's writer and former Chair of the Guild, who died last month
Not many people, I suspect, have music played at their funeral that moves from The Song Of the Prune to Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs by way of Yes, We Have No Bananas, but for those who knew Bob Leeson, this selection celebrating the serious and the absurd was spot on. For Bob, a former chair of the Guild and a versatile, pioneering children’s author who has died aged 85, was a man of deep commitments and loyalty who always displayed a keen eye for the ridiculous wherever it appeared and turned it to good effect in his writing.
Born in Barnton, Cheshire in 1928 to a working-class family as the youngest of four children, he loved reading and storytelling from an early age, and much of his later writing drew on the experiences of his youth. Although the nearby grammar school, to which he, like his siblings, won a scholarship, had no library, he eagerly looked forward to the arrival of the monthly ‘library box’ from which he was allowed to borrow one title on each of its visits. Ever resourceful, at the local library, which lacked a children’s section, he began to feed his imagination, aged 11, by using his mother’s ticket.
Rosemary Friedman introduces her new collection of short stories, The Man Who Understood Women
On clearing out my attic I discovered a large cardboard box filled with very old magazines, in various stages of desuetude, dating from 1956 until 2013. They were mostly aimed at women and published not only in England but in a dozen languages in as many different countries.
As I turned the fragile pages I was fascinated to find advertisements for `Salon Style Home Hair Dryers’, recipes for `Mutton Saucer Pies’, `Twenty Uses for Vinegar’ and coupons for Vogue Patterns from which the `housewife’ – when she wasn’t trotting down the high street, suitably hatted, her wicker basket over her arm - could create a fashionable `fur fabric jacket’.
Reading through forgotten short fiction which bore my name, in publications such as Housewife, Good Housekeeping and Women’s Realm - titles which in themselves reflected women’s then preoccupations - brought home to me the cataclysmic change in women’s role in society and their burgeoning independence over the past 50 odd years. Might there be some mileage in resurrecting these stories? After 26 full length books, three plays and various screenplays I regarded it both as relaxation from the creative process and as a challenge, not the least part of which was translating the texts from the rapidly fading printed page (no computers then) and digitalising them for which there is a magical program entitled OCR (Optical Character Recognition).
No one was more surprised than I to discover that, read consecutively, the collection comprised a social document which reflected a gradual but heady change over the years in women’s circumstances and provided a picture of inner lives which contemplated a future for women brighter and infinitely more exciting than any they had hitherto imagined. From the spinsterish Miss Phipps, The Magic (1956), with her lending library, who opens the door for her female readers to fulfil their fantasies - through the man whose life is haunted by an adolescent misdemeanour Mea Culpa (1958) and the sad and sexually predatory New York millionairess Southern Comfort 1998) - to the modern divorcée A la Carte (2010) who briskly road-tests her internet date, the stories depicted the changing role of women in a rapidly changing world.
Helena Pielichaty on a campaign to promote reading for pleasure and the value of authors' visits to schools
In April 2011 the Society of Authors’ Children’s Writers and Illustrators Group (CWIG) held a One Day Conference for its members. During the Q & A session, Annemarie Young voiced her concern that many teacher training colleges did not appear to have much in the way of reading for pleasure on their courses - the little time allotted to reading tended to concentrate on synthetic phonics. If newly trained teachers weren’t getting any advice on reading for pleasure, how could they be expected to encourage their pupils to read widely once they were in the classroom, Annemarie wondered.
Other delegates agreed, adding that it wasn’t just new teachers who weren’t aware of the wide range of children’s literature available but many experienced teachers, too. The rigidity of the English National Curriculum was given as one reason for teachers abandoning long-established practices, such as the class reader; Ofsted’s ‘expectations’ were another. I related my anecdote of the teacher who, when I asked why she didn’t have a class reader any more, replied: ‘Can you imagine what Ofsted would say if they caught me reading to my class?’ Caught – as if she were indulging in some deviant act!
After the conference CWIG and the Educational Writers Group (EWG) formed a Campaigns Group to look into this issue. Further research confirmed that within most PGCE courses, reading for pleasure was given a one hour slot, if that, leaving NQTs dependent on their mentors in schools for ideas and inspiration about books. However, a study by Teresa Cremin (2011) highlighted how narrow even established teachers’ knowledge of children’s literature was, with only 10% of those surveyed being able to name 6 poets or 6 illustrators , reiterating what had been said at the One Day Conference.Yet there is some excellent work going on in schools, especially in those with a designated school librarian.
The next event of the Guild's Off the Shelf at Black's event features James Miller who explores extraordinary themes in his writing.
Born in London in 1976 and educated in Oxford and London, Miller is author of the acclaimed novels Lost Boys (Little, Brown 2008) and Sunshine State (Little, Brown 2010). He is currently finishing his third. He has a PhD in African-American literature and civil rights and is particularly interested in experimental and avant-garde literature, critical theory, contemporary American literature, Modernism, the Beat Generation and any work that plays with notions of genre.
Miller’s short stories have been published in various anthologies and he has spoken at numerous festivals, including the Edinburgh Book Festival, Wilderness Festival, Berlin’s Hebbel-Am-Ufer theatre, the Tottenham/ Palestine literature festival, the Festival of Ideas and the Athens Megaron.
If any Guild members would like to present their own 10-minute reading after lunch, please email Jan Woolf.
James Miller: Off the Shelf at Blacks
11am-4pm, 18 November Blacks,
67 Dean Street, Soho, London
Price: £30 (includes coffee and a two-course lunch with wine)
Next Guild literary event - 16 September in London
The next Writers' Guild Off the Shelf event at Black's in Soho is a special day with Unthank Books and its writers. Guild members and othersd are invited to hear readings by the chosen authors, followed by a delicious two-course lunch at Blacks members’ club in London’s Soho. The featured writers are: lecturer in creative writing at the Open University Ashley Stokes (Touching the starfish, Unthank’s launch publication, and The Syllabus of Errors); musician, editor and writer Nick Sweeney (Laikonik Express), and writer and lecturer in creative writing in the North West of England Sarah Dobbs (Killing Daniel).
Unthank Books was launched in early 2010 in response to what it saw as a “particularly egregious spell of awful or no literary fiction being published by the mainstream houses and its concomitant deleterious effect on aspiring literary authors”. Since then, it has published 15 books, including its annual Unthology of shorter prose, twice-staged UnLit, The Unthank Literary Festival, and delivered numerous courses in poetry, prose and screenwriting through the Unthank School of Writing.
11am-2.30pm, 16 September
Blacks, 67 Dean Street, Soho, London
Price: £25 (includes two-course lunch, tea/coffee)
Abigail Tarttelin explains how she found the space and the passion to write Golden Boy
I have been told that second novels are the hardest to write. Perhaps it’s the expectation that you, the writer, will make huge leaps forward in ability. Perhaps it’s because you worry the genre and message of the new novel should complement the first. Perhaps you think: what do I want my oeuvre to say? Will my agent like it?
I came to writing from outside the literary world. In Grimsby, my hometown, I had never met anyone involved with the business of books. In fact, when I was first published, I felt foolish telling people what I did. Even to me, it sounded a bit unrealistic.
Writing has always been a compulsion for me rather than a passion. It has reared its head from time to time, between badly paid acting jobs, grueling night shifts in a Leicester Square casino and a short, greasy stint in a chippie. A voice would arrive in my brain; my fingers would act as conduit, and I would bang out the thoughts of an imaginary someone.
When I was 19, the voice of Flick, an angry, intelligent 15-year-old boy, arrived to rant, or amuse, or philosophise in my ear. Flick would describe scenes from his life, and sometimes they would be scenes from my life. Gradually, a story formed, and in it were themes that had been brewing in my mind for a long time: frustration at the lack of a decent education, first love, the selfishness of drug dependency.
Eventually I had over 20,000 words on my laptop. I wanted to finish it, but I didn’t consider myself a writer. I thought being a novelist was something you did when you were 50 and had useful knowledge to impart. Two years went by. Then one night, the compulsion returned. I suddenly knew how to structure the book. It would be in short, punchy chapters and would be aimed at contemporary teenagers, particularly boys; a group I felt was under-represented by current fiction. It would be realistic and not fantastical, with useful thoughts and advice for adolescent readers. I realized although I didn’t know much about the world, I knew more about being 15 than any 50-year-old could claim. I had a mission and because of that I felt I had a right to be a writer.
Review of Public Lending Right Scheme results in few changes
After two years of dithering and a desultory consultation process, the Government has finally decided the fate of the Public Lending Right scheme – it will cease to be an independent agency and come under the wing of the British Library, but the office and staff in Stockton-on-Tees will carry on as before.
PLR – which pays authors 6p each time one of their books is borrowed from a public library – was an unfortunate victim of the incoming coalition government’s 'bonfire of the quangos' (which also cooked the goose of the UK Film Council, only to transfer most of its functions to the British Film Institute).
PLR Registrar Jim Parker welcomed the announcement: 'The Government realises staff here do a great job and we have had tremendous support from authors from all over the UK.' In fact the overwhelming outcome of the consultation was opposition to any change at all.
According to Culture Minister Ed Vaizey, authors should notice no change to PLR. He claimed that transferring management to the British Library will save £750,000 over 10 years.
Writers’ Guild general secretary Bernie Corbett commented: 'This whole affair has been an unnecessary charade, wasting the time and resources of authors’ organisations and the government to achieve a purely cosmetic change and a saving too small to be measurable – all for the sake of one headline over two years ago.
'In the meantime the government has done precisely nothing to extend the PLR scheme to ebooks and audiobooks, as legislated by the previous government just before the 2010 general election.'