Claire’s and Tim’s Top 10 Books of 2017

i2017 Top 10 books

It’s that time again when Tim and I debate our top 10 books of the year. This can include any book we read and finished in 2017, no matter when it was published. If you like counting you may have noticed that in the picture we’re both only holding nine books. That’s because Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout was also one of my favourites, and My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent was also one of Tim’s. This year we’ve read less of each other’s than in previous years: I’ve only read two more from Tim’s list (Alice, and A Separation), both of which I loved, but didn’t quite make my ten. And Tim read Life Drawing this year, and Housekeeping a long time ago.

Click on the years if you’re interested in what we rated in 2016, and 2015.

I read 83 books this year. Below are more details about my top 10, starting with my top three (in no order). Click on the title for my full review on Goodreads:

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My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent. This is an amazing debut. Difficult subject, but wonderful writing.

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson. I read Home a while ago, and didn’t love it, but picked this up on a recommendation, and wow! It was the penultimate book I read in 2017, and still made it into my top three.

Good Behaviour by Molly Keane. Another oldie, reminiscent of Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift, and a lot of William Trevor novels.

Dadland by Keggie Carew. This won the Costa Biography Prize in 2016. I was lucky enough to hear Keggie speak at a festival in France. I have to admit I didn’t expect to love this as much as I did, but it made me laugh and it made me cry.

Life Drawing by Robin Black. This had sat on my shelves for a while, and I finally picked it up this year, and loved it.

The Story of Lucy Gault by William Trevor. I read all of Trevor’s short stories this year, and two of his novels. This is the book that came out on top.

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders. When I signed copies of Swimming Lessons in New York in February, in nearly every bookshop Saunders has just been in before me, signing his. This won the Man Booker Prize this year, and deservedly so.

Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout. Olive Kitteridge made my top ten books last year, and this was every bit as good.

The Lonely City by Olivia Laing. I also read To The River by Laing this year, and it was a close thing between that and this book.

The Sparsholt Affair by Alan Hollinghurst. I haven’t read a dud Hollinghurst yet, I loved this.

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And, as always, Tim doesn’t write reviews, but here are his, with links to Goodreads, starting with his top three (in no order):

To the Back of Beyond by Peter Stamm translated by Michael Hofmann

Homesick for Another World by Ottessa Moshfegh

Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout

Alice by Judith Hermann translated by Margot Bettauer Dembo

Both Ways is the Only Way I Want it by Maile Meloy

Lean on Pete by Willy Vlautin

Marlena by Julie Buntin

A Separation by Katie Kitamura

Driftless by David Rhodes

My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent

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Have you read any of the books on our lists? I’d love to know whether you agree or disagree. Let me know in the comments below.

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The paperback of my second novel, Swimming Lessons will be published on 9th of January in the US, and on 1st February in the UK.

 

 

 

What a judge looks for in a short story

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Last week I was invited to the awards ceremony for the Jane Austen Short Story Competition. The event also marked the opening of a Jane Austen exhibition at Winchester Discovery Centre, visited by Prince Edward, Earl of Wessex. I’m not much* of a royalist but it was fascinating to see how these visits work (men in suits and wearing ear-pieces patrolling the library, lots of waiting and chatting with tea and cake, forming a literary ‘horse-shoe’ so the Prince could meet us all easily).

But the real event for me was announcing Sally Tissington as the winner of the short Ingrid HCT_RV_009story competition, and David Constantine announcing Ingrid Jendrzejewski as the runner-up.

Last August I was invited to be a judge of the Jane Austen Short Story Competition, along with David (a writer and poet), but it wasn’t until April this year that we got to see the longlist of 25 entries. (There were almost 300 in total from around the world.) I read the hard-copies I’d been sent many times, each re-read whittling the list down further until I had six that I liked the best. Luckily David had a similar number on his shortlist, and we crossed over with a few. We met (in a stationary cupboard, but with coffee, grapes, and biscuits) IMG_5675to argue our case for those stories we liked best, while understanding that we had to be willing to let some go. It was a difficult decision.

This was my first taste of being a judge and on the other side of the fence (I have won both the BBC Radio 4 Opening Lines short story competition, and the Royal Academy / Pin Drop competition), and I enjoyed it so much I’ve agreed to do it again for another short story competition run by Rye Literature Festival.

While I was reading the 25, I jotted down some of the things that made me put a story on the reject pile. This is not a definitive list of what to avoid when writing a short story (even our winners may include some things that made me reject others) – it’s just some subjective observations from those I read, which might be helpful:

  • Many stories were lacking enough forward motion (too much internal thought), especially at the start.
  • Many stories began with an event in the future and then spooled back, resulting in a pluperfect tense (eg – she had arrived), which meant that the forward motion of the story wasn’t as strong.
  • Lots spent too long on the backstory and justifying the actions of the characters. Have I mentioned forward motion?
  • Some stories were too big for the word limit, which meant characters, plot and location were skimmed. (Although our runner-up breaks this ‘rule’ to great effect.) Covering a lifetime in 2000 words is tricky to pull off well.
  • Nearly all the stories had a cliché or two (or a few more).
  • Sometimes the characters didn’t feel real. (This also comes back to avoiding clichés.) Real people have quirks, and ticks, and odd thoughts and mannerisms. I wanted to see these.
  • Too many stories had too many typos.
  • There were quite a few exclamation marks. And adverbs.
  • The majority of the stories were written in the first person. (Third person will open up more possibilities.) But if the writer had decided first person was best, it was those with a really strong narrative voice that worked well for me.
  • Many stories didn’t have a powerful enough opening. They lacked the ‘story questions’ I was looking for. I wanted to be intrigued, beguiled, puzzled and above all to have to read on.
  • Some endings were lacklustre. I wasn’t looking for things to be tied up neatly, but I wanted some logic and satisfaction.
  • A few stories started in the middle of a scene or with dialogue, and this is difficult to get right. It made me think, ‘who are these people, where are they, what’s their relationship?’ rather than paying attention to what was being said.
  • And finally – this didn’t make me discard a story but it did niggle – even if the competition didn’t specify layout requirements I saw too many stories with a confusing layout. I would have liked: double-spaced, no extra gaps between paragraphs unless it’s a change of scene, Courier, 12 point, first lines indented unless they were the very beginning or the start of a new section, etc.

Both the winning story, and the runner-up are available to read online here.

I hope this post has been helpful if you write short stories and enter competitions. Do let me know in the comments below.

(*Not a royalist at all in fact.)

Swimming Lessons Animation

This is a video that I produced for the US launch of Swimming Lessons, which I forgot to put up here when the book came out. My daughter helped with the animation, and my son wrote and performed the music. He is available for commissions for videos or short films, and also for bookings for launches, openings, private views and other events (he’s based in Oxford, but can travel). Henry’s website.

 

Watch another drawing video I created for Swimming Lessons.

Watch a drawing video I created for Our Endless Numbered Days.

Ephemera

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I have been busy doing events and signing copies of my second novel, Swimming Lessons. There are signed books in New York, and Philadelphia, and many in bookshops in the UK. One of the themes of the novel is the things that people leave behind in books, and so in the books I’ve been signing I’ve also inserted a piece of ephemera – a receipt, an old letter, a photograph. My friend, Bridget said it would be nice to have a place where I can show some of the things that readers find. So, here is that page.  Continue reading

Publishing Interviews: The Publicist

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This is the last in my series of publishing interviews. I’ve discovered so many things about how this world works including answers from a publishing director, to an art director to a literary agent, and many roles in between. And of course there are a lot more people who help get a book written, published and on the shelves that I haven’t managed to talk to: booksellers, writing course teachers, sales reps, editorial assistants, and many more. But I need to take a break because I have lots of Swimming Lessons events coming up; if there are any roles in particular you would like me to interview, just drop me a line, or comment below, and I’ll store up the suggestions for later in the year.

Continue reading

Publishing Interviews: The Copy-editor

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I’m a little nervous about today’s publishing interview; what if there are any mistakes? An unwanted comma, a typo? This interview is with my copy-editor, Caroline Pretty. Penguin and other publishers use her to check manuscripts before they go to print, and I asked her a few questions about exactly how that works.

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Claire: How would you describe the role of a copy-editor?

Caroline: Once a manuscript’s been typeset, it’s expensive for publishers to correct mistakes, so the main focus of my job is a close reading of the manuscript before it gets typeset. I’m editing primarily for sense and consistency. Sense is about making sure the author has conveyed what they intend, without repetition or ambiguity (unless this is deliberate). Consistency involves checking spellings and punctuation, following a publisher’s house style or an author’s preferred style; in fiction, it also includes checking plots for any holes, making sure the action can realistically take place in the time the author has outlined, and character details such as names, ages and eye colour. There’s often a lot of fact-checking too, and I also mark up the typescript for the typesetter – coding headings and different design features. So it’s very much a technical process as well as a creative one.

Claire: What’s your copy-editing process from when you receive a book from a publisher, and do you work on paper or onscreen? Continue reading

Publishing Interviews: Head of Sales

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This week I’ve been asking questions of Samantha Fanaken, Head of Sales at Penguin General. Penguin General is a publishing division of Penguin Random House, dealing with the imprints Fig Tree, Hamish Hamilton, Penguin Ireland, Penguin Life, Portfolio and Viking. Read on to find out how many meetings Samantha has to cram into a day, and whether she reads all the books.

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Claire: It seems to me that Head of Sales in a publishing house sits right in the middle of things: talking to editors, marketing and booksellers. Is that how you see it? Can you give a job description of your role? Continue reading