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The Literary Consultancy Interview

Posted on 27 July 2005. © Copyright 2004-2024 WriteWords
A longer version of this interview is available to WriteWords Full and Community Members.
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WriteWords talks to ex-publisher Rebecca Swift of The Literary Consultancy about their work, how writers on low incomes can benefit from a free service and why new writers should make a mess.

Tell us all about TLC...how things got started, who’s who, ethos etc

The Literary Consultancy was founded in 1996 by myself and Hannah Griffiths who is currently an editor at Faber & Faber. Hannah and I met at Virago Press where we learned about the world of publishing. I was a junior editor and introduced to the ‘slush pile’ – the small mountain of work that had been submitted to Virago on spec without being agented. Following the sale of the company to the conglomerate Littlebrown, I felt the industry had become
too little interested in editing and nurturing writers – and that as so many of the editorial skills were now on the outside of publishing houses – it was time to found the first large scale fee paying manuscript assessment for fiction, non-fiction and poetry. I believed that people would benefit creatively from detailed, professional advice however tough – as long as it sought to help them understand their own creative undertaking and its relationship to the commercial industry. That was how it started. Hannah and I gave it a go and now ten years on TLC is going strong and the grateful recipients of an Arts Council grant that helps us run a small office and fund a quota of free reads for low income writers (would there were more money for that!)

What kind of writers do you work with?

We work with anyone writing at any level in the genres of fiction, non fiction and poetry who seriously wants an honest, informed and detailed opinion about their work from people who know the industry well.

How do you find your readers?

Our readers – an exceptional group of people in my books – have tended to emerge organically as our company has developed. In the beginning we largely employed editors who we knew from publishing, but we were also approached by readers from, for example, U.E.A. Creative Writing School, and other creative writing institutions such as The Open College for the Arts. Some of these have proved to be invaluable readers for TLC. I should say that we are very tough on how we select readers as they have to have both creative skills as well as vast reserves of empathy and on top of all that – market knowledge. Having the qualifications on paper does not always mean the reader will be sympathetic or detailed enough in our view and we do keep an eye closely on their work. Quality control is vital. For readers’ details see the website. (details below)

Who are your favourite writers/writing and why?

That is a big question. In short ….
Personally I am a great fan of American author Michael Cunningham who wrote The Hours and two other brilliant novels, Flesh and Blood and A Home at the end of the World. He writes with exceptional empathy and vigour about the modern world as I genuinely experience it – and is effortlessly (apparently!) inclusive of all sexualities and view points with equal compassion. Amazing.
I also love poetry – particularly Emily Dickinson – who writes about extreme states of mind in such a contained way. She employs language in a totally unique manner to gain precise and unexpected effects which never cease to excite me. Also, Gerard Manley Hopkins whose Terrible Sonnets also are – to my mind - amongst the most powerful and cathartic poems written in the English language.
Essentially however I am eclectic. I do not espouse any one form of literature. There are surprises everywhere. One other work worth a mention as something that affected me strongly recently is best-selling author Martina Cole’s novel Faceless. This is a gripping and painful book about prostitution in Kings Cross. I wanted to kill the pimp character. I haven’t felt so inflamed by a novel in a long time.

Who is a typical client?

I wouldn’t say we had one. People come to us from everywhere and anywhere –including overseas, sometimes from remote quarters such as villages in Venezuela. To give an idea of range we have worked with a young man on a psychiatric ward who later got his memoir published to established ‘names’ such as Prue Leith, the cookery writer turned novelist. Sometimes agents recommend us to work with their already published writers because they know we can do the detailed work.

What excites you about a piece of writing- what keeps you interested?

I get excited when I feel I am in the hands of a confident voice. Personally I love writing that displays an immediate passion for and sensitivity to language so any kind of ploddy or derivative opening line puts me off. I need to feel somebody has taken care to choose a scene that draws me in either on grounds of intellectual or emotional curiosity. Our readers all have different tastes and areas of expertise however … They might have different things that attract them.

And what makes your heart sink?

To be honest not much makes my heart sink as I view a manuscript as an offering from one mind to another. Somebody has made the effort to write words on paper and that is always moving to me. It is our job to try to work out if the writer has most effectively said what they meant to say. There is always a story there to come out – usually of some human interest. The question of whether a writer has achieved what they hoped or indeed ever can do is a different question – and one we try to think about with them …

Why should people get a critique/appraisal of their writing and at what stage?

I think an in-depth critique from someone who is not known to the writer is invaluable when a writer is ready to show the outside world what he or she has done. This is usually after the early stages of ‘creative play’ during which the writer can be particularly vulnerable. I think a writer who is seriously interested to know how their work chimes in an editors’ ears should get detailed feedback. Many writers will know that if you send work to a publisher or agent and are not saleable at first glance you will not get the kind of feedback you need. The industry is rarely honest about why it turns a book down. It does not have the time to spell it out. Therefore a writer who has received rejections and is confused might also find TLC extremely valuable in helping them understand why the book hasn’t been taken on. With our publishing backgrounds we can help decode what an editor or agent might have said. With any luck after a detailed, engaged read a writer can move on with their life and work – either in continuing to develop the project they have sent in, starting something new or in some cases laying a ghost to rest and putting their energy in to other areas of life and work.

A longer version of this interview is available to WriteWords Full and Community Members.
Click here to learn more about becoming a member.

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