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Let Me Tell You About The Creative Writing Gene

Today’s guest post is by author Marianne Wheelaghan, co-founder of the online creative writing school, Writing Classes. She is an informative and supportive voice in the online writing community and I have enjoyed getting to know her over the past few months. I highly recommend her writing blog and her twitter feeds are full of good writing tips.

For the first half of my working life I was a croupier, a Brussels sprouts picker and a marketing manager for a company that sold warm air hand driers and soap dispensers, but most of the time I was an English teacher. Then someone I knew died in a terrible accident. I wanted to write a story about what had happened but I didn’t know how to. Being a big believer in education, I enrolled in a creative writing night class. But when I finished the course I still didn’t know how best to write my story. I asked my tutor for advice. She muttered something about “creativity not being something you can teach.”

I tried another class. Again I struggled to write my story. I asked my new tutor why writing was so difficult?  She smiled kindly and said  “not everyone has a creative writing gene, my dear.”  I was astounded. Could there really be a creative writing gene, and I didn’t have it? I wanted to give up but the stubborn side of me refused.  I carried on writing alone. At some point I saw an advert to do a Masters degree in Creative Writing at Lancaster University. I applied and my portfolio was  accepted. I wrote and studied and learned and was encouraged to take risks. My writing flourished and I learned five very valuable things about writing:

1. There is no creative writing gene. Being successful in creative writing is more to do with an attitude than an attribute: we have to work hard, yep, it’s that thing about 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration; we must not be afraid to take risks and we must have something to say – even if, like Flannery O’Connor, we don’t necessarily know what that is at first.

“I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” Flannery O’Connor

2. While “being creative” is something that cannot be taught, it is something that can be encouraged and nurtured and coaxed – and as the wonderful Maya Angelou said,

“You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have.”

3. A story does not arrive fully formed, like he Goddess of Athena popping out of her father Zeus’s head. A story is created by working out the different ways of telling it by rewriting and cutting and rewriting again – it is often only through the rewriting that we discover what it is we want to say and how we want say it.

4. There are writing techniques you can learn which can help you develop your writing skills.

5. All writers – beginners and experienced writers alike – are nervous about facing the blank page, but for some of us there is nothing more rewarding than creating our very own story from nothing.

When I finished my degree I was determined to share what I knew with others – setting out on the rocky road to becoming a writer requires a big leap of faith, but there are techniques and skills we can learn to help it make it less scary.  I wrote a course for beginners – the kind of course I would have liked to have been able to take. It included lots of advice on writing techniques and lots of writing opportunities for beginners to take risks and make mistakes and learn by them.

Next I sought out some tech support because my new course was going to be all online. I’d studied for my masters degree online. It had meant I could join in from the comfort of my home, at a time that was convenient to me, which was usually late at night after I’d finished work and my children were in bed. There was no time wasted getting to and from classes. No worrying about talking in front of others. No having to get baby sitters. No being late or early or missing classes because the virtual classroom is always open. It was a magical world within a world. I wanted to recreate this world for the beginner writer.

After much research my techy helper found a reliable, affordable, easy-to-use conference programme. I was ready. Armed with a five year business plan and a lot of brass neck, I approached various bodies for funding. And I got some! Writingclasses.co.uk was born. I now have six wonderful, encouraging tutors and offer six courses – including one for experienced writers wanting to finish that novel, and a poetry and magazine article writing course. We have thousands of students pass through our virtual doors and they are all too distracted developing their writing skills, and working around the different ways of telling their story, to worry about whether they have a creative writing gene or not.

‘It may not look like pleasure, because the difficulties can make me morose and distracted, but that’s what it is – the pleasure of telling the story I mean to tell as wholly as I can tell it, of finding out in fact what the story is, by working around the different ways of telling it.’ Alice Munro.

marianne1Marianne left Edinburgh, her home town, when she was 17 and returned after 30 years when she founded the online writing school, www.writingclasses.co.uk. Her first novel, The Blue Suitcase, is based on her mother’s life and tells the disturbing story of a Christian girl growing up in Nazi Germany. Food of Ghosts is her debut crime thriller and features Scottish detective Louisa Townsend – feisty, fearless, vulnerable and on Tarawa, a remote coral atoll, where she has a week to find a serial killer. She is presently working on a sequel to The Blue Suitcase and a second DS Louisa Townsend novel.

You can find her on twitter @MWheelaghan and @sol0vewriting and at http://www.mariannewheelaghan.co.uk

Her books are also available on Amazon.

 

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Permission To Not Write In A Linear Fashion?

Jigsaw

Following on from my last post about writing styles, plot and structure, I have been wrestling with my next novel. I am 6,000 words into the manuscript but last week I hit a wall. The story refuses to be written in a linear style. It refuses.

I have several key scenes in my mind and have been wanting, itching, to write them but the little voice inside my head says – you’re not there yet, finish the introduction, take your time. So, I struggled on, limping through ways to unfold the characters, their motives, setting the scene for future events. I almost gave up.

Over the weekend, the story – which, let’s face it, becomes your inner world while you write the novel – evolved and wouldn’t let go. I was still faced with the same problem on Monday when I sat down to write. I wanted to keep going and I couldn’t. If you have ever seen a race horse at the start of a race practically ready to storm a building, let alone the track, you’ll know what I mean when I say I wanted to skip the links, the build-up and just cut to the chase, if you’ll excuse the pun.

Animated sequence of a race horse galloping. P...

I did something I haven’t tried before, I gave myself permission to just write the scenes which needed writing and I’m keeping my fingers crossed that I can link them up successfully. This, I suppose, follows the scatter graph model which I talked about. I know that some writers use this method but it is risky and I’ve only ever written one. word. after. the. next. one. chapter. at. a. time.

It does, however, feel a little like constructing a jigsaw in the dark in the hope that when I turn the light on all the pieces will give me one story and that the picture will look good and just as it should.

How do you write? Do share your techniques, methods or tips however strange or unorthodox. It would be really interesting to see how other writers work.


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An interview with author Peggy Riley

Amity & Sorrow HBK dark.indd

In the wake of a suspicious fire, Amaranth gathers her children and flees from the cult where her children were born and raised. Now she is on the run with no one but her barely-teenage daughters, Amity and Sorrow, neither of whom have ever seen the outside world, to help her. After four days of driving without sleep, Amaranth crashes the car, leaving the family stranded at a gas station, unsure of what to do next. Rescue comes in the unlikely form of a downtrodden farmer, a man who offers sanctuary when the women need it most.

I am currently reading this and I highly recommend Peggy’s novel for it’s rich language and high tension. It is an intriguing story which is beautifully written, never missing a single detail.

Your book, Amity and Sorrow, will be released on 28 March. How does it feel to let your first story go out into the world and what are your hopes for the reader?

I’ve been lucky in that Tinder Press has been sending galleys out for quite a while now, and Little, Brown offered 100 copies of the book on Goodreads.  So, I’ve had plenty of feedback from readers, but I suppose they are the kinds of readers who are used to reading and feeding back.  It feels exciting – and scary – to think of the book sitting in shops, spine to spine with all the other books.  I would be very pleased if people saw it, picked it up and thought – hmm, that sounds good – and then took a chance on it.

 Can you tell us about your planning stages of writing and how you put the ideas into a clear succession? 

I don’t know if there is a clear succession!  I start with place first, where the story will take place.  Then I look at the arc of the book, to get a sense of “how long” the story will be, over how many days or months or years.  Then I see what characters emerge from the place and the story and I spend a lot of time writing from their points of view to find out which ones I will follow most closely.  You have to have the right character for the job!  Chapters come from the characters’ choices, of what they need to accomplish to get them to the end of the story – which often turns out not to be the end of the story that will work for the character.  I try to keep it all as open as possible, to see what comes.  And then I rewrite, over and over.  I’m a big rewriter.

You have said that, ‘There is only one way to write a book – your way.’ Can you tell us how your writing process differs from the books of advice that writers keep stacked away on their shelves? 

I mean that advice is great, but it doesn’t do the writing.  All these writing books – and I have a shelf of them, too – are great reminders of the complexity of the process, of how many balls we’re keeping in the air at different stages in the writing.  They remind us that writing is a craft, that there are specific tools for specific jobs.  They offer comfort at dark moments.  But, ultimately, it’s just you and your own blank page.  The choices you make, the impulses of your imagination, the itches your writing wants to scratch – that we have to find and discover for ourselves and to find our own methods, rather than making someone else’s try to fit.

Your writing covers themes of religion. Do you have any religious or spiritual influences which have fed into your writing? 

I was not raised to be religious and I’m still not.  But I am a spiritual querent, a seeker.  I’m interested in how and why we believe, and my writing often goes in that direction.  I’m interested in great believers and handmade faiths, in our impulse to change the world and build new Edens.  I’m interested in how our own humanness gets in the way of our higher ideals.

You were a writer-in-residence at a young offender prison. It must have been an interesting time for you as a writer, can you tell us a little about your experiences with this and what you learned? What were the challenges and the high points?

It was the very best job and I am grateful to have had the support of the Arts Council, Writers in Prison, and the Prison Service over four years.  Prisons are hard, grim places, but every morning, stepping through the main gate, I just got this overwhelming wash of love and compassion.  I can’t explain it – that isn’t the kind of person I am.  I just felt overwhelmed by the enormity of the task inside, for the offenders and for the officers, to find new ways of working together and to change.  The purpose of prison now is to rehabilitate and to cut down reoffending.  I learned a few tactics for working with challenging behavior and within the strict structure of a big system like a prison.  I learned that a lot of people don’t want to write or to read, that you can only offer what you do and see who responds.  I learned to carry a sound system up and down the stairs on old Victorian wings, so that I could work with the men in their own environment on days when they were in lock down.

I was let into their lives, their hearts and minds.  I was able to assist their attempts to communicate and to be honest with themselves.  I witnessed the birth of a lot of very tender, very heartfelt poetry and lyrics, and learning that they could communicate in that way was very empowering for the men – and for me.  Mostly, I learned how human we all are, how very fragile, how very hurt we are.  Any one of us could make a series of disastrous and dangerous mistakes and end up in prison.

You are also a playwright. How do you find that writing scripts differs from writing novels and short stories

I received some great training as a playwright and I probably still plan all my writing as a playwright, whether I’m writing drama or not. The forms have quite a lot in common, actually.  There isn’t much “telling” in a play and relationships are revealed through dialogue and conflict, as we seek to do in fiction.  All characters have their own stories, their own sense of themselves, so that at any moment any character could rush downstage and say, “Everyone here is a liar.  Listen to me.”

There are some drawbacks to fiction.  Fiction narrows story through point of view, usually conveying story through a character’s eyes or mind.  Fiction isn’t as democratic as a play.  You can choose, as an audient, where to look on stage, no matter what the director lights.  As a reader, you can only look where the writer lets you.  You can’t look inside the book or behind the book unless the writer lets you.

A novel affords a writer (and reader) the luxury of time and possibility.  A novel can go anywhere at any moment, whereas drama is often limited by its own physical environment, its rules and expectations, its budgetary constraints in terms of how many characters you can have, how many locations.  Of course, there are always exceptions.  Epic plays and theatre marathons seek to create the immersion that readers experience, but these often feel “narrated”; it is much harder to slip under the skin of a character you watch rather than read.  And as novels are longer, they have the space and time to allow stories and characters to go deeper, to allow their changes to occur more subtly.

By and large, plays run under two hours with an interval.  A play is usually 85 – 120 pages.  When I wrote my first draft of Amity & Sorrow, I didn’t know if I had 300 pages in me.  I’d never had the luxury of so much paper, so many words.  Lastly, it’s very hard to put a bed onstage; being flat, it’s hard for an audience, and I seem to like writing scenes in bedrooms.  (You can stand the bed up on its end, of course, and staple the pillows down, but gimmicks are rather distracting for an audience.  They might spend all their time worrying about the pillows or looking for the wires and miss a character’s crisis.  Gimmicks are fun, though.)

 What have you taken away with you from your days as a festival producer and as a bookseller?

As a producer, I often included talks and readings in my programming.  I am aware that people want to connect with writers and with the books they love.  Writing and reading are solitary activities and festivals allow us to interact communally and spontaneously.  As a bookseller, I arranged many signings and readings in my family’s shop.  I’ve seen huge queues and great excitement for visiting writers.  I’ve stood in an empty shop with a stack of books and a disappointed writer, when no one came.  Being a bookseller reminds me how many books there are in the world and how many writers, hoping to be read.  And I’ll never forget the thrill of finding the perfect book to hand sell, being able to pop it into a customer’s hand and say, “You’ll love this.  Trust me.”  But woe betide you if they don’t – they’ll never trust you again.

 What do you enjoy most outside your writing time? 

Taking a chair and a bottle of wine down to the beach with husband to watch the sun go down.  I also quite like pulling weeds.

 And, lastly, you are currently working on editing your next novel, can you tells us about the book? 

Of course!  It’s set in the women’s internment camp on the Isle of Man during WW2.  I was commissioned to write a play there about eight years ago now, and the story stayed with me.  The play I wrote was site-specific and promenade, moving through the village with a series of scenes before real locations.  As a novel, I’m focusing on fewer characters and the story has become deeper and richer, much, much darker.

What do you enjoy reading and why?

I have my old favourites, of course, and I love to find new writers.  I’m looking to get lost in a book, same as everyone.  I find it hard to read while I’m writing, so I’m hoping to have a bit sprint of reading in the summer, once my own book is done.

Peggy Hi Res Color-6Peggy Riley is a writer and playwright. She won a Highly Commended prize in the 2011 Bridport Prize and was published in their anthology. Her short fiction has been broadcast on BBC Radio and published in Mslexia Magazine and as an app on Ether Books. Her plays have been commissioned and produced off-West End, regionally, and on tour. She has been a festival producer, a bookseller, and writer-in-residence at a young offender prison. Peggy also runs workshops for writers and readings with authors. Originally from LA, Peggy now lives in Kent.

 


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A Library Snapshot

I have been reading a mixture of books recently and many of them are too good not to share, so I’d like to dip into each one and give you a glimpse of what makes the books stand out in a crowded bookshelf. I haven’t finished all of them so these are just outlines and glimpses.

101 days            orkney       amity and sorrow    first-light-charles-baxter-paperback-cover-art     irish short story

A Hundred and One Days by Åsne Seierstad

Author Åsne Seierstad is a freelance journalist and who writes about everyday life in war zones. From her first hand experiences, she has written about Kabul, Baghdad and Grozny. I particularly enjoyed The Bookseller of Kabul, so I have finally picked up this gem, A Hundred and One Days, set in Baghdad during the US invasion of Iraq. I enjoy non-fiction and stories set in conflict areas so her books appeal to me. Seierstad focuses on the lives of Iraqi citizens, providing an insight into their days lived under the constant threat of attack, first from the Iraqi government and later from American bombs. She also describes in vivid detail the frustration felt by journalists in their attempts to sort truth from propadanda. The book looks at the ‘before,’ ‘during,’ and ‘after,’ of the war without casting moral judgement on the situation, and looks at everyday lives with a sharp understanding of human nature, a trait in her writing which I have enjoyed in her other books.

Orkney by Amy Sackville

Amy Sackville is a creative writing teacher at Kent University, and this is her second novel, set on a remote island in Orkney. It is a poetic and lyrical story of an unusual couple: a 61 year old literature professor and his pupil who is never actually named. The  book spans their fortnight honeymoon in this barren landscape and, as she spends an obsessive amount of time by the sea, he realises how little he knows her. We don’t know why his wife is so obsessed by the sea, but it has something to do with her father, who disappeared when she was young. The language of the book is beautiful and intriguing, and I couldn’t put it down.

Amity and Sorrow by Peggy Riley

Riley is a writer and a playwright. There is so much to say about her but I’ll save it for my upcoming author interview next week. Released on March 28, this book is shocking and gripping story of a mother who rescues her daughters from a cult, their father and a fire,  driving for days without sleep until they crash their car in rural Oklahoma. The girls, Amity and Sorrow, can’t imagine what the world holds outside their father’s polygamous compound. Rescue comes in the unlikely form of Bradley, a farmer grieving the loss of his wife. This is an unforgettable story which I was fortunate enough to receive as an advanced reader copy. I would recommend picking it up when it is released in the next few weeks. It has already had some wonderful reviews.

First Light by Charles Baxter

I discovered this out of print gem and managed to find a second hand copy. Charles Baxter’s short stories have appeared in the Best American Short Stories and in two of his own collections. This novel, his first, was supported by a Guggenheim Foundation grant. He takes us backwards through the lives of Hugh and Dorsey Welch who are brother and sister. We meet them as adults, while Hugh is a Buick salesman and Dorsey is an astrophysicist, and discover their dark and difficult pasts. The author traces their paths back to the day of Dorsey’s birth with an unusual subtlety. His opening paragraph includes this vivid description: ‘Hugh keeps both hands near the top of the steering wheel the way cautious men often do, and he does not turn to argue with her, not at first.’

The Grant Book of the Irish Short Story

I am reading both the Irish Short Story collection and the Best American Short Stories, but I wanted to focus on this collection in particular, edited by Anne Enright. Ireland has produced some of the world’s most celebrated short story writers and this, a collection of the best works of contemporary Irish short fiction writers, includes works by  Roddy Doyle, William Trevor, Colm Toibin and Kevin Barry. It  begins and ends with a road accident. The first, which proves fortuitous, involves an out-of-work labourer and a carload of nuns; the second – which is fatal – occurs when a mechanic decides to earn a few extra euros ferrying tourists to a shrine where a statue of Mary is said to weep. Between these two tales we meet a mother who finds her son suspected of abuse and we glimpse the consequences of Irish abortion law. The subjects are heavy and, sometimes dark, but the writing is tight and distinctive. My favourite story so far is John Banville’s Summer Voices. His book, The Sea, won the Man Booker Prize in 2005 and his short story is carried off with the same elegance of style with phrases such as these: ‘The radiance of the summer afternoon wove shadows about him.’ The story follows a young boy and girl who discover a body in amongst an almost eerie description of the landscape.


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Warning: Structural Work Needed – Plotting Your Novel

Dilapidated Room

I drove past a beautiful old building this morning with incredible detail around the windows. When I looked again, the inside had been completely demolished and was being gutted and restored. From the outside it was a beautiful picture of fine architecture and decadence, an eye-catching building which stood out from the rest, but from the inside there was nothing, just rubble and empty space.

It was a strange sight in some ways and it reminded me of building a novel and the differences in how writers construct their work. I have spoken to people who work in any one of the following ways:

Inside Out Model – Beginning with the bare bones, getting the story down onto paper, and then going back and layering it with detail and links, flashbacks and subtle hints of what is to follow.

Outside In Model – Constructing the outside, the look and feel, the genre, narrator, tense, style and character of the novel, and then working inwards to develop the structure, the chapters and the story arc.

Scatter Graph Model – Starting to write chapters, in no particular order, filling in the gaps as and when the inspiration strikes. This method is often discouraged by agents and editors as it is less structured but some of the most creative writers work this way.

Sprint Runner Model – Beginning in great detail with a clear idea of your central character, racing through the first 1,000 words or so and then drifting as you get further into the plot, not being sure where the novel will end. Instead of it being a slower and more steady pace throughout, the writing decreases in speed as the ideas thin out. 

Foregone Conclusion Model – Knowing exactly how the novel will end, much like a science experiment with an expected outcome, but struggling to begin or sagging  in the middle.

These are just some of the many ways in which authors work and there are many cross-overs in their method. I was impressed by Will Self’s ability to do away with chapters completely in his Booker Prize Shortlisted novel, Umbrella. He is not the first author to do this and I am sure he won’t be the last. Some authors prefer fine structure, plotting meticulously before beginning a single sentence, then there are those who are somewhere in between.

There is no right or wrong way to plot a novel and to construct a story, although there are books which tell you otherwise. You have to experiment with what works. Every writer has a preferred way of working and it changes and develops with time.

I’ll leave you with some interesting quotes from the various writing handbooks:

“A basic structural design underlies every kind of writing. Writers will in part follow this design, in part deviate from it, according to their skills, their needs, and the unexpected events that accompany the act of composition. Writing, to be effective, must follow closely the thoughts of the writer, but not necessarily in the order in which those thoughts occur.”  The Elements of Style, Strunk and White

“Very few writers really know what they are doing until they’ve done it. Nor do they go about their business feeling dewy and thrilled. They do not type a few stiff warm-up sentences and then find themselves bounding along like huskies across the snow.”  Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott

“Writers of literary and much mainstream fiction usually begin by imagining a character…some writers can’t help starting out with a theme that obsesses them. They imagine characters whose lives might involve the theme, or they work out a plot first. If their allegiance is to character, their theme-based story has a better chance of survival.”  Stein On Writing, Sol Stein

“If there are no rules, or none worth [the writer’s] attention, where is the beginning writer to begin?”  The Art of Fiction, John Gardner


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The Fine Art of Bookselling

Christina James is a crime thriller writer of the literary variety. Her novel In the Family was published in November 2012 and her next DI Yates novel is due to be released in June 2013. She has written a guest blog post today on her experiences as a bookseller. Thank you, Christina.

 9781844718771frcvr.indd                              9781907773464frcvr.indd

You might think that bookselling is like any other retail activity and, up to a point, you would be correct.  Bookselling consists of acquiring the right ‘product’, setting it out in an attractive manner and making sure that people who are interested in it are able to find and purchase it – and that throughout the process they are treated with unfailing helpfulness and courtesy from the moment that they walk into the shop.  You could say the same of selling cheese or hats or computer games.

Booksellers, however, have always known themselves to be special.  There are numerous reasons for this, some of them valid.  Booksellers are part of that small, select band – its other members include jewellers, posh dress-shop proprietors and some other sellers of luxury products – commonly classified by marketing gurus as ‘high-end retailers’.  It is not unknown for some booksellers to consider themselves a cut above even these illustrious peer-group members, on the grounds that what they sell feeds the mind.  Therefore, the argument runs, their customer service aspirations are of a different order from those of a jeweller who seeks to make a couple happy by conjuring up the perfect engagement ring or the chocolatier who provides the crowning accompaniment to a romantic date.

So far, so bad.  I am a great fan of booksellers in general – I do believe that they are among the great unsung heroes of civilisation – and probably of 95% of booksellers in particular.  But it is true that there is an annoying minority of booksellers who ponce around giving themselves airs, thus ensuring that all but the most erudite and determined customer is either too scared to enter the shop in the first place or, faced with silence or a supercilious greeting, beats a hasty retreat.  It’s amazing how every fresh generation of booksellers seems to breed a few of these – and how, against all odds, on the whole they manage to survive.

Anyway, back to what booksellers do.  Acquiring the right product is not as easy as it sounds when there are more than a million items to choose from UK publishers alone.  No bookshop can stock more than a fraction of these.  An average bookshop may hold 25,000 titles, a large one twice this figure.  ‘So what,’ you might think, ‘I can’t get every brand of T-shirt in Debenhams or even every brand of deodorant in Boots.’  That’s true, but the difference is that a bookseller’s customers expect to be able to find every book that they want in their local bookshop.  Of course, it’s not possible for the bookseller to fulfil all their expectations, however obscure, but he or she does have to get to know the (constantly-changing) preferences of the local community well enough to be able to score a good hit-rate and also to have an efficient, speedy ordering service in place for the titles that, inevitably, aren’t in stock.

Making the product look attractive is what retailing is all about.  No room for special pleading there, perhaps; except that a bookshop contains hundreds of items that have been arranged according to a system (by category, alphabetical order, Dewey decimal, whatever) and the more successful the shop is in attracting customers, the more likely it is that these items will be lifted out for inspection and returned to the wrong place.  The staff of a sizeable bookshop spends a large percentage of its time just tidying up the shelves.  Then there is the risk of damage.  No bookseller wants to stop a customer from browsing – it is what gives bookshops their unique feel; what makes them, in jargon parlance, ‘destination stores’ – but at the same time repeated handling is bound to leave some of the stock grubby, dog-eared or broken-backed. (One of my pet hates is to see someone callously ‘back’ a paperback.  The screeching of gum and binding as this evil act is perpetrated and the resulting mutilation is as hard to bear as watching a butterfly being broken on a wheel.)  Finally, there is the problem of outright theft – again, the curse of all retailers, but particularly difficult to control when the items being pilfered will slip easily into a bag or pocket.  Security systems help, but they are not infallible.  Bookselling margins are already tiny before being further eroded by ‘shrinkage’.

Finally, there is the challenge of making sure that the customer finds the book that she or he wants, or is even surprised and delighted by being offered a book that pleases but of whose existence s/he has been previously unaware.  In order to achieve this, a bookseller needs not just to understand  the local market, as already mentioned, but to have an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of both backlist and forthcoming titles, along with a highly-developed power of recall.  This is much more difficult than it sounds and is where the bookselling profession really comes into its own.  Booksellers make serendipitous links between what the customer likes and what is on the shelves, dozens of times a day.  Unfortunately, you only get to hear about the times when they drop the occasional stitch.  For example, one of the national newspapers once ran a prominent story on how its reporter had gone into a well-known bookshop and asked for Amsterdam, the novel by Ian McEwan, only to be directed to the travel section.  The member of staff in question was a Saturday girl and, needless to say, she was mortified.

Apart from the three great planks upon which bookselling is constructed – getting the books, displaying them, connecting them with the right customers – there is a myriad of other tasks associated with running a good bookshop, from handling goods-in and returns to keeping the shop floor areas clean and hazard-free to managing complex staff rotas, meeting publishers’ representatives and organising events.

I think that I have just proved the case that good booksellers are special.  And the real crème de la crème of the bookselling industry reinforce their specialness by keeping this to themselves.  They take a modest delight in practising their skills in an understated way, knowing full well that the best way to win and keep customers is by understanding that ars est celare artem.

Christina James Gravatar (1)Christina James was born in Spalding and sets her novels in the evocative Fenland countryside of South Lincolnshire.  She works as a bookseller, researcher and teacher.  She has a lifelong fascination with crime fiction and its history.  She is also a well-established non-fiction writer, under a separate name. You can follow Christina on her blog at www.christinajamesblog.com and on twitter @CAJamesWriter.