Learning at Luath

A week ago I did a one-week placement at Luath Press, an independent Scottish publisher specialising in ‘well written books worth reading’. Here’s what I learnt:

Publishing’s a complex business…

Luath publish approximately 40-50 titles a year, of which only 10-20 are unsolicited manuscripts that come from a large pool of submitted work. They sell to chain and independent bookshops across Scotland, and as they publish many local history and guide books, through tourist gift shops when not in lockdown. They also always push for a UK and international reach for appropriate books; Gavin, the director at Luath showed me several copies of Poverty Safari by Darren McGarvey, one of their most successful recent books, all translated into different languages.  

I really love proofreading

I started off my placement reading through Activism for Life, Angie Zelter’s forthcoming memoir-cum-handbook about her life as a peace activist. Its release date coincides with International Women’s Day, so the team were busy putting the final touches on her manuscript to send it to the printers the following week. Since taking Publishing Writing A last year, I’ve edited and proofread for friends but working on a published book was a step up. I was told the majority of my comments were used, so making an already brilliant book a little bit tidier was immensely satisfying.

It’s all about the audience

After reading Angie’s book, I set about writing an advance information sheet, press release and book blurb. Gavin was on hand to point out that each of these had a different audience and therefore needed to say different things. Sounds obvious, but this helped me to tailor each piece: AIs are for booksellers, so they need to convince them there is an audience out there for the book; a blurb is for the reader so needs to entice them in; a press release is for the media so it needs to be attention-grabbing and relevant to current issues. I worked on these simultaneously, dropping the sentences in the document that most fitted that audience, thinking carefully about what was appropriate where. Of all of these, I found the blurb easiest, which should come as no surprise as I have far more experience browsing bookshelves than I do as a newspaper editor or bookseller. It was a real boost to my confidence when Gavin said he would use some of my words on the real book jacket, but I got some good feedback for the other documents too.

My work is better than I think it is

My work got really positive feedback, and most of it I thought was terrible. I did a recorded zoom interview with Angie and was fretting that I was awkward and the sound was awful but Eilidh, the Sales and Marketing Co-ordinator who would be editing it and posting on social media said I came across well and established great rapport with the author.

Being a beginner is exhausting

I was completely frazzled by Friday. I’d added so much new information into my brain and worked really hard to do a good job with all the work I was set. This realisation helped me to emapthise with the 7 social work students I was to supervise the following Monday at my day job!

Work placements are about balance

I was prepared for the work placement to be more useful to me than it was for Luath, and that it was unlikely that my work would be used. But of course, I secretly hoped that my work would be to a standard that was useable. I was given a range of activities which gave me the benefits of both ends of that scale; writing a reader report for Activism for Life taught me a huge amount about how to assess a book quickly and succinctly, which was great preparation for the other tasks but of course wasn’t useful for a book about to go to the printers. But doing things to a useable standard was a huge boost to my confidence, which is just as important for me at the moment as cold hard knowledge.

I’m really excited for what’s next

My experience at Luath was a fascinating insight into how a manuscript gets from a writer’s desk into a reader’s hands. It also it gave me the confidence and insight to identify where my skills might align with parts of that process, and where I want to go next in my adventures in publishing.

As I type, I am negotiating a second work placement at Peepal Tree Press in Leeds. They are another independent publisher, but specialise in Caribbean and diaspora writers. There’s a real buzz around what they are doing at the moment after one of their books, The Mermaid of Black Conch by Monique Roffey won the Costa book of the year.

Because of my time at Luath, I have a much better idea of what to ask to work on at Peepal Tree. I got a glimpse into the world of book design and production which I am curious about as my first degree was in Graphic Media Communication. It brought back memories of nerding out over tiny typographic decisions. I have also asked Peepal Tree if I can space my placement out over a longer period as one week went by in a flash.

What am I writing right now?

Recently I have been feeling as uninspired to write as ever. After calling some of my friends who are still studying at university, I gathered that it is a very common feeling right now. One of my friends is in the final year of her art degree, with an online degree show approaching – not the way she intended her art to be seen. She was clearly disappointed but said she was happy to still be creating work all the same.

One of my favourite things about this course is that it forces me to write. I have too easily before put my lack of writing down to various circumstances – but I can see now those were merely an assortment of lies. When I have a deadline or a creative writing workshop to write for it always gets done (perhaps slowly and awfully but completed all the same).

The other day I was sitting at my desk racking my brain for anything to put down on paper. I couldn’t help but get distracted by the snow outside my window. It kept stopping and starting but as soon as it started I immediately felt mesmerised by it.

It reminded me of something my sister said about winter: “I prefer cold weather. You can always add on a layer of clothing but you can’t take off your skin.” Then, just like that I felt as if I owed it to her and her wonderful humour to put that in a story. So I did.

Reading Grace Paley

Recently I have been inspired to write straight after I read the works of others and think ‘I wish I wrote that’. I think this the most when I am reading Grace Paley’s work.

When I first starting writing I attempted poetry, but it never really worked in the way I wanted it to. I got very easily frustrated with it. I had too much to say and I felt constrained by the fundamentals of poetry. On the other hand, I always felt like novels were too frightening to begin and attempt – I feared maybe I didn’t have enough to say.

I first came across Grace Paley’s writing at school, during an English exam. We had to write a close reading analysis on Grace Paley’s short story, ‘Wants’. I was completely stunned by how much life she could fit into such a small amount of writing. I think that was when my love of short stories began and I have been writing short stories ever since then.

In ‘Wants’, Grace Paley writes very movingly on bumping into an ex-husband and manages to slip in subtle poignant statements: ‘I don’t argue when there’s real disagreement’. I often think of her combination of both subtlety and boldness when I write – I try to practice the art of bringing both elements into one short piece.

It’s not something I have mastered by any means but something I have been trying more and more. I like reading The Collected Stories of Grace Paley to put me in a more experimental writing mood. Grace Paley gets me to try new things and expands my horizons, does she have that influence on you too?

What Am I Reading Right Now?

This post isn’t actually about what I’m reading right now. Horribly dishonest title, I know. My apologies. No, this post is about the fact that I’m reading at all, and hallelujah for that.

If you’re a bibliophile like me, you probably have at least five books that you’re currently reading, not to mention the fifty you will definitely read as soon as possible.

And the pandemic is a perfect time to finally get through that list, isn’t it?

Not if you’re like me. Somehow books got replaced with Netflix, and in 2020 the most horrendous thing happened – I failed my reading challenge. (Okay, it wasn’t the only horrendous thing to happen in 2020, but let’s focus on the reading for now).

I realised that television had taken over a place in my life that used to belong to literature, so I decided to join an online reading group. It’s actually a pretty simple concept. You meet up online twice a week, read separately for about an hour, and then you talk about what you’ve read.

It was the kick in the balls (though I don’t actually have any balls) that I needed, and I read three books in three days. The first one due to the social pressure of people knowing that you’re supposed to be reading. The following two because the first one reminded me how wonderful it is.

I love to read. To truly subvert myself into another universe, another set of problems, another mindset. But sometimes love isn’t enough.

Sometimes you need a good kick in the balls.

And a little bit of social pressure.

Silver Linings Part Three

When the original lockdown started last year I remember the difficulty I had in completing my undergraduate dissertation – a selection of short stories. I wanted my writing to be full of humour but struggled massively. Life in that moment wasn’t particularly funny.

I tried my best to push past it all those months ago, scribbling notes into a journal. I tried to make notes every single day and sometimes it would only be a line, other times it would be paragraphs. I would try to be inspired by the walks I went on or the irritating traits of my family.

I would never have thought that ten months later I would be in the exact same scenario – uninspired in another lockdown. But I am hoping this blog will force me to keep up with my writing, especially on the days where it feels like I can’t find something to say.

Lydia Davis once said it is important to observe your own feelings (but not at tiresome length). This is definitely something I hadn’t thought too much of until last year. The confinement forces everyone to observe their own feelings, always at a tiresome length.

The silver lining to all of my writing troubles is that I have more time now than ever to write. For now I will go back to the notes I have made in my journal and try to write a story about anything different to what is happening around the world now. I have always loved that part of writing – the escapism.

Lockdown Reading

With our return to ‘normal’ life seeming to stretch out further and further into the distance, our day-to-day life can seem uncertain and often times despondent. I know one thing I have found comfort in during this pandemic is reading literature; fiction or non-fiction, contemporary or historical- just anything that helps me put my phone down for an hour and stop reading every doomsday notification from the perpetual news cycle.  

And I’m not alone, I read an article this week that stated over 200-million print books were sold in the UK in 2020, the first time since 2012. It seems we are all finding some relief in the escapism reading literature offers. More than a simple boredom breaker or a healthier alternative to staring at a screen all day, reading fiction provides respite from our rather surreal reality. 

Becoming consumed by a narrative has helped me recover a sense of continuity when I’ve felt adrift, provided a space to become mindful and reflect on the issues or topics raised in the text, and often just provided a much-needed laugh. I think this is a unique ability of literature, and the arts- they help to heal culture. We look to literature and the arts to reflect on what it means to be human, and in these bizarre times this function is of particular significance. Literature and the arts provide an antidote to the isolation and hopelessness we can all relate to nowadays, ultimately helping us reconnect with ourselves and one another. For me, more time to read over this past year has been my silver lining. 

Silver Linings, Part One

I’m from a part of Denmark with a deep fondness for understatements.

Did you just have the best night of your life? Then it was fine.

Are you convinced that you got an A+ on your latest exam? Then it went okay.

Is there a world-wide pandemic, killing thousands of innocent people? Then it’s træls.

“A bit of an annoyance” might be how you’d put it in English.

But it’s okay to think that this pandemic is more than just træls. It’s okay to hate it, to complain until your face turns red, to reach out for help. It’s okay if you have trouble seeing any silver lining.

That is, however, what I will focus on for the moment – my personal silver lining.

Covid took the freedom to travel away from me, and boy, did I feel it.

But it also reprioritized my time. I was in Indonesia when the pandemic hit. My mother asked me to come home, and I did. Once there, I had two options.

I could either move into a friend’s empty apartment (she’d just moved in with her boyfriend), or I could rent a room at my brother’s. I picked the latter. An empty apartment sounded lonely in the midst of a national lockdown.

Moving in with my brother also meant moving in with his girlfriend and their two sons. My nephews, whom I’d rarely seen – I’d been too busy seeing Spain, Singapore, Australia. But now I had plenty of time to spare, and I wasn’t going to waste it.

Okay, that’s a lie. I wasted a lot of time. Mostly on Netflix.

But I wasn’t going to waste all of it. I was going to learn Spanish and the piano. I was going to write my own book and translate others. And I was going to spend some quality time with my nephews.

Of course, nothing ever goes entirely according to schedule. I didn’t write that book, and both my Spanish and piano play is… let’s go with rudimentary.

But spending quality time with my nephews was the most important thing anyway.

I have a relationship with them that didn’t exist a year ago. They ask their parents to call me. I know that the oldest loves dinosaurs and that the youngest loves to get into trouble.

I didn’t know that a year ago. They didn’t ask after me a year ago.

And that’s my silver lining.

Jessica Stevenson

Currently racking my brain for something witty to start this introduction and failing miserably. The truth is writing under strict time restraints is not my forte, but it is my hope that this blog will shake things up from my usual academic essay writing as part of the English Studies masters and help me evolve into a more varied writer, here’s hoping.

My literary journey began at a very young age, writing stories about princesses and ponies. This cringeworthy start to my oeuvre is thankfully contained to a box of old belongings stashed away in my parents attic to be forgotten until such a time as they feel fit to embarrass me at family gatherings.

Thankfully my writing has evolved since then, and my preferred topics now cover contemporary British literature, culture and visual art. My research often explores the function of literature as a means of social or cultural activism. My hope is that these research interests will blend with topical content to create an interesting addition to this blog!

Maria Sjöstrand

I don’t remember a time where fiction wasn’t part of my life. I used to swallow books like Johnny Fox would swallow swords. Except, you know, metaphorically rather than literally. I read Jane Austen and Neil Gaiman and everything in between, and writing was a natural extension of this.

I set off to write fantasy, but I quickly discovered that fantasy was only a way to get to my actual goal – humour. Sure, it’d be nice if I could make people think about life’s big questions, and it would be lovely if I could make them fall in love or even shed a tear or two.

But ultimately, I just want to make them laugh. A slight snicker. A full-blown seizure.

And that’s why I’m here, I guess. I’ve figured out what I want to do.

Now, I just need to learn how to do it.

Mhari Aitchison

I started to miss studying creative writing the moment I finished my undergraduate course. I have always loved reading what someone else is thinking and feeling – the moment you find someone else is describing perfectly how you feel in that given moment.

I grew up in London, moved briefly to Scotland, then to Switzerland. I was happy to return to Scotland for my undergraduate studies, and definitely don’t plan on leaving Scotland anytime soon.

My writing is usually inspired by the people around me. I am fascinated by the human experience and the relationships we form with one another. I always aim to write with wit and sensitive observation. I find short stories work well for what I have to say. I love reading poetry but have never had much luck with writing it.