Friday, 6 July 2012

‘Beyond Chick Lit’ Part One: Linda Green at Hebden Bridge Library

We set off early but ended up cutting it fine as the event’s timing meant battling through the rush hour traffic. But this time we knew where the venue was and so, once we’d parked, K and I scoffed a quick sandwich in the car before dashing into the library. We needn’t have worried. As we stepped inside we were greeted by a lady who said Jane Green (the ‘headline act’) was running late and offered us a glass of wine. There’s nothing like the offer of a free drink to put a smile back on someone’s face and we helped ourselves; as designated driver, I only had a thimbleful but it still felt somehow wrong to be drinking in a library!

While we waited for Jane, we were treated to a very interesting talk by novelist Linda Green who told us about her route to being published and what led to her decision to change publishing houses. Linda, who is from London but now lives in Hebden Bridge, used to be a newspaper journalist; but it was her life’s ambition to get a novel published. So, she took the brave decision to give up her job and write a book. Five years and 102 rejections later she got her second novel published. In those five years she studied for an MA and rewrote one of her books many times over. Her advice to aspiring writers was that you must learn your craft and remember that “writing fiction is an art and not something you can just do without working hard at it.”

Linda’s first breakthrough came when she attended a writing workshop run by writer Martin Bedford. He agreed to read her first three chapters and synopsis, suggested revisions and asked her to delete a third of the book! She found the latter part really tough having spent so long writing it. After following Martin’s advice she managed to get an agent and thought that was it, but she had to face 12 rejections from publishers and then the agent asked her to write another book instead!

She obliged and was two weeks overdue with her baby son when she finally finished her manuscript and sent it to the agent (she was sure the baby was waiting for her to finish her book). She received a note back saying that they had preferred her first novel!

Once her son was nine months old she rewrote the book and asked Martin to look at it for her again. Then she sent it to two agents who were both interested. After eight more rejections from publishers, she finally landed a book deal with Headline Review and the book went on to sell 75,000 copies.

Her surmise of her experience of getting published is that “talent doesn’t always come through”. In other words, publishers don’t like taking chances – they have to be able to see exactly where the book will sit on the bookshop shelf – so it has to fit into a particular genre. When her first book was marketed they called it ‘Chick Noir’ as it was a lot darker than the average ‘Chick Lit’ book. She thinks that publishing is a strange business and that ‘Chick Lit’ has become a very broad genre – it has grown from a genre aimed at 20-something women to cover books for women of up to age 50!

Linda went on to explain she was no longer with Headline Review as she took issue with them over a few things. Firstly she objected to the ‘Chick Lit’ pigeonhole; she wanted to be more ‘grown up and serious’ but when she broached the subject with her publisher, she was told “You’re not Ian McEwan you know.” Also she was fed up with what she viewed as ‘sexist’ book covers being used i.e. lots of pink, high heels and even a thong on one occasion! She told us that the publisher said they had taken ‘a massive risk’ with her last book by not making the cover pink!

She also explained how a lot of books are rejected by the marketing department, not the editorial team. And she told us that it can take so long to turn a book around that by the time it has come out it will have missed the current trend (so there’s no point jumping on the ‘50 Shades’ bandwagon then!)

She said she thought ebooks were a good thing as they gave authors ‘another path’ to getting published. Linda thought that publishers may have to open their minds and be willing to take more of a risk. She explained every time she tried to do something different she’s had to fight for it. Her new book is heavy going and she had to fight hard to get it published. The publisher wasn’t keen and told her that “women want happy endings”. So she found neither the editorial team nor the marketing team were behind her as it wasn’t ‘happy’ enough.

It was this attitude, coupled with the fact she felt the covers of her books were all wrong, that prompted her to leave Headline and join a smaller publisher, Quercus Books. Since joining Quercus she has been much more involved in consultations about the cover and other parts of the publishing process.

Linda also told us how all book sales were down at the moment, especially for women’s fiction. (It was agreed by all of us how women, especially mothers, were the first to ‘do without’ when times were hard). She also said that had meant that book covers were changing too, from illustrations to photographs, which she considered a good thing. And the advent of ebooks meant that book covers are becoming much less important. For example, her most recent book ‘And Then It Happened’ is told from two points of view (one male, one female) but she is sure that the cover would put off any potential male readers. Thanks to the Kindle (other ereaders are available) people might read things they wouldn’t normally read, as no one knows what they’re reading. She thinks lines will blur and people will just pick and enjoy a good book regardless of author and genre.

Linda said she never set out to write for one particular genre. Her first novel, ‘I Did a Bad Thing’, was set in the world of newspapers as it was a world she knew very well. But she was conscious to make sure that the voice of the novel wasn’t her. In her latest book, she said there is more of her in the male character than the female one (like her, the man is a former journalist).

The idea for her last book came from a story she covered as a journalist where a man had been in a coma for seven years (when she covered the story). His wife took him home from hospital after a year and nursed him for the next 10 years until the strain became too great and she found a suitable home for him. In her book, Linda decided to take a younger couple with a young daughter and throw in a few ‘what ifs’ for good measure.

Her new book (not yet available) is set in Hebden Bridge. It’s about three women who are fed up with the way the country is run. They each have their own cross to bear and they all have children at the same school, which is how they first meet. When local cuts mean that the local lollipop lady is about to lose her job, the three of them successfully campaign against it. It sets them on a path to set up a new political party and run for the next general election. Linda thought ‘what if they used social media to bolster their campaign and what if they were successful?’

As aspiring novelists, K and I found it a highly interesting and informative talk. Linda said she loves to put the ‘what if’ into the situation and she’s not afraid to stick to what she believes in, making her a woman after my own heart. I hope she goes on to push the boundaries of women’s fiction and perhaps even gain a (probably clandestine) male readership. I wonder if it could be the start of a whole new genre? Answers on a (non-girly) postcard…

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