Editing the Mechanics’ Institute Review 11

This post was contributed by Kieran Falconer, an alumnus of Birkbeck’s MA Creative Writing and an editor of The Mechanics’ Institute Review 11You can follow the MIR editors on Facebook and Twitter.

MIR11 coverLast week saw the publication of Issue 11 of The Mechanics’ Institute Review (MIR), an anthology of short stories showcasing the best work from Birkbeck’s creative writing students. Teeming with life and energy, this collection offers a remarkable range of styles, themes and settings. But as one of the co-editors, I’m often asked, how does it come about?

At the beginning of the academic year – for the past 11 years – there has been a call for short story submissions from students on Birkbeck’s BA and MA in Creative Writing or alumni. Once all the stories are in – usually numbering around 100 – a group of students who have volunteered to be editors are locked in a room and forced to choose the best stories. The hundred stories are whittled down to a manageable collection of around 20 over a six-week period of meetings. This year’s editors are Alison Hitchcock, Rebekah Lin, Luke Terry, Heidi Midtun Larsen, Erica Duggan, Kate Ellis and myself.

As in any collection of short stories, the first consideration is what the vision or manifesto for the volume should be. Discussions on “What do we want to say about contemporary short fiction?” or “Are we reflecting what’s out there or should we reflect the diversity and liveliness of Birkbeck?” might seem on the surface liberal copy for Pseud’s Corner, but for many who read fiction seriously, avidly and regularly the question is always, “what are the stories that are appropriate for our time and all time?”

On subsequent sessions we had to shed a lot of stories which were written by good friends of ours. It was a fairly brutal experience because friendship borne out of university, particularly at Birkbeck, has a special familial feel to it. Going to the George Bar after these sessions and then meeting up with the bright-eyed writers we’d just culled was particularly draining.

As the choice of stories narrowed so the decisions became harder. There was no crockery thrown but you had to stand up for a story that you believed in, with reasons, invoking style, characterisation and topicality. Diamonds in the rough that could be improved by editing needed more justification.

While this culling went on, other considerations had to be taken into account. MIR is a proper book, it’s professionally copy-edited and proofread, professionally typeset and printed and is on sale on Amazon and in bookshops. A whole raft of bureaucratic paperwork ensues, the ISBN is registered for both book and ebook, forms to be filled for wholesalers so that books can appear on screen in bookshops, and of course there’s the cover!

People do choose books by the cover, that’s why designers, artists and publishers spend so much time mulling over them, and writers spend so much time moaning about them. So we spent a lot of time deliberating over ours. In the past there have been some hugely evocative covers, both colourful and emotive, but after ten years of publication, the MIR cover needed refreshing. So it was down to our co-editor Kate Ellis to come up with a new concept and after a few attempts our brilliant typesetter Raffaele Teo refined it into a winning, bold cover that both looked back at our roots but also forward to current design. The Mechanics’ Institute was the first name given to Birkbeck back in 1823 when it was dedicated to the education of working people, so our new cover shows a period printing press with a very contemporary slash of blood red.

Once the design has been set and the lucky authors have been told who they are, and the unlucky authors are commiserated with (usually in the George Bar), there comes the process of editing the short stories. This might surprise people not used to the fiction process but any story, novel or poetry is apt to be edited, rearranged, the ending tinkered with, the value of a character questioned, until it is finished to the editors’ and authors’ satisfaction. Even for students used to a workshop setting – stories presented and critiqued by the class – this can be quite an intimidating experience but good writers are often both humble and confident, and ours got on with the job in hand.

Each of the seven co-editors was assigned a handful of stories to edit, working closely with the authors in several one-to-one sessions over the course of a few weeks. Some needed cosmetic touches, others needed a small transplant – importantly they all had the promise to begin with that made all the editors agree they were worth editing and worth being in the collection. A professional copy-edit by Sue Tyley, to polish the text before it was sent to the typesetter, was followed by a final proofread before it was sent to the printer.

Launch party large

Kate Smalley Ellis, Alison Hitchcock, Julia Bell, Julia Gray at the launch party


Antonia Reed, Angela Shoosmith, Dave Wakely

But this isn’t all there is to the anthology. Rather excitingly, well-known writers join the anthology to complete the real experience of publication. Secret soundings are taken from the scented rolodexes of our lecturers and every year a couple of famous eagles join the fledgling chicks. In the past these have included David Foster Wallace, Ali Smith, Rose Tremain, Evie Wyld and Joyce Carol Oates, and this year is no exception, with award-winning writers Hari Kunzru and Alex Preston joining the collection. (You can see interviews with both Hari and Alex on the Writers’ Hub.)

The overall process, guided by project director (and Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at Birkbeck) Julia Bell (who started the publication 11 years ago), is also overseen by Sue Tyley (an excellent editor, who we came to regard with increasing fondness as the mother hen gathering the chicks of grammar and meaning into neat coops).

In her introduction, Julia Bell celebrates the protean wildness of the short story and its ability to conjure lived existence, to stir, affect and challenge. The Birkbeck mission statement hopes “that all may develop to their full potential” and these stories from writers starting out on a career, struggling, like many of us, to find the right words to talk about their experience today, are part of that journey to “full potential”. We hope you enjoy the book!

If you want to hear some of our authors reading their work from the anthology there is a Hubbub reading on Monday 13 October at 7:30 for 8pm in the basement of The Harrison (28 Harrison Street, Kings Cross, WC1h 8JF)

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Portfolio careers: author and lawyer

Amy Bird, creative writing student and author

Amy Bird, creative writing student and author

Amy Bird, Birkbeck creative writing student and author of Yours is Mine, discusses how her studies at Birkbeck helped her achieve a three-book publishing deal.

I decided to do an MA in Creative Writing to boost my prospects of getting published, both by honing my craft and making connections. The extra-curricular activities on offer, including public readings and the chance to review books, also excited me. Birkbeck was the perfect choice as I could study part-time. Even with an existing career as a lawyer, one evening a week for two years was eminently doable.

As my MA finishes, I have a three-book deal with Harlequin, through their new digital imprint Carina UK. My first novel, psychological thriller Yours is Mine, is out now.

The journey to publication with Birkbeck

Excerpts of Yours is Mine were what got me a place at Birkbeck. I remember sitting in Professor Celyn Jones’ study, being asked to defend the book, particularly the two female voices in the novel.  Were they actually just the same voice? Could I go further to differentiate them? And how?

Yours Is Mine by Amy BirdOver the two years at Birkbeck, I’ve re-worked the novel.  I didn’t use it for assignments, as Birkbeck encourage you to develop new work, but in the background I was tightening Yours is Mine, applying the tips I was learning from my tutors and classmates. That meant that when two opportunities came up through Birkbeck, I was ready for them. The first was the Hookline Novel Award, only open to MA students. I submitted Yours is Mine (under the title Identity Crisis) and it was one of five shortlisted. The second was a call for submissions from new digital imprint of Harlequin, Carina UK, which came through our course administrator. Carina UK loved my novel, and, to my delight, they offered me a three-book deal, which I accepted.

Applying the skills Birkbeck taught me

My first novel was published as direct result of opportunities that came to me at Birkbeck. I also believe that Birkbeck helped me make the most of those opportunities through the skills I learnt there. I spent two years having my work critiqued, analysed and vetted. For the first six months of this, I was also doing a course at Faber Academy. You get a lot of feedback and your skin thickens. I’d also had a short story selected for MIR10, the anthology written, edited and published by students on the Birkbeck creative writing MA, where I worked with the student editors. They were only student in name – uncompromising and very professional. This meant that when I started work with my editor at Carina UK, I knew how to respond to feedback and make appropriate changes swiftly and effectively.  The opportunities to do public readings and contribute reviews and blogs to Birkbeck Writers’ Hub also prepared me for the wider ways in which authors engage with readers.

Beyond Birkbeck

I started at Birkbeck with a career as a lawyer and aspirations to write. I leave it with a portfolio career as a lawyer and author. With my firm’s blessing, I’ve moved to a four-day week so that I can pursue both these avenues at a professional level. So, here’s to the next two books in the deal that I got through Birkbeck!

Amy’s short story, “The Upstairs Room”, is published in issue 10 of the Mechanic’s Institute Reveiw, launched yesterday (26 September 2010) and available from Amazon, local independent bookshops throughout the London area and from selected branches of Waterstones, and in e-book format from Amazon.

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Arts degrees and employability: a career in publishing

Sarah Cumming, MA Creative Writing student

Sarah Cumming, MA Creative Writing student

Creative writing MA student, Sarah Cumming, explains how her studies at Birkbeck helped her launch a career in publishing.

I chose to study creative writing for two reasons: the more obvious reason for studying creative writing – to become a better writer, but also because the course contained an optional publishing module – an opportunity to become one of a team of editors on a short fiction anthology. With a love of language and a slightly pedantic nature, I was always interested in the editing side of writing and I hoped to get an insight into the book business (where I hoped my future career might lie) from both a writer’s and an editor’s perspective.

The business of books

The publishing module began with choosing themes and artwork for the book and most importantly, the content. Along with the other editors, I read hundreds of submissions and once the short list had been whittled down to the final selection of stories, the editors and authors worked together to get the stories ready for publication. I had some experience of editing stories already because a huge part of this MA involves critiquing fellow students’ creative work. In groups of ten to fifteen, we sit in circles and unpick the author’s work and then try and put it back together again. As well as learning from my own experiences, I learn just as much from other people’s mistakes and triumphs. It’s a great way of picking up diplomacy skills too. The discussions can be intense with lots of different views, so I’ve also become better at articulating myself vocally.

The module included a copy-editing workshop, where I learned that the editing process involves two steps: the first, to stand back and look at the bigger picture – the overall structure and how a reader might receive it; the second, to hone in and look at the smaller details – consistency, sense and language use. The key to a successful edit is keeping these processes separate.

My learning curve did not end once the content was ready.  We then started work on marketing, distribution, pricing and organising launch parties and reading events. Social media was a key part of our marketing campaign and helped us reach a wider audience outside the college environment.  I thought I was quite clued up about social networking but I discovered plenty of new ways to reach people. We got our authors involved in interviews and podcasts and we wrote blogs on The Writers’ Hub. We also sent out hundreds of press releases covering every inch of the industry. One of my responsibilities was to oversee the whole process of producing the eBook, from formatting to actually pressing the ‘publish’ button on Amazon. I learnt a great deal about the digital side of publishing and how important it is in today’s ever-changing digital world. Nowadays, they are numerous ways for writers to publish their work and being on top of any new developments is vital. Things can change on a daily basis, especially with new business start-ups and publishing houses introducing digital imprints.  It was a proud moment for the whole team when the months of hard work turned into a finished product – a print run of 500 copies and an eBook in two different formats. This is what it looks like.

In the real world

During the second year of my MA, which I’m studying part time, I started a job as a digital editor for an educational publisher. My role involves developing online learning material for English language learners, from initial ideas to publication. It’s not just about checking for spelling and grammar errors, although this is important, it’s also about supporting authors and helping them shape their material so it becomes suitable for learners. Providing feedback for my peers at Birkbeck put me in good stead for this but it’s also shown me what’s like to be on the receiving end of an editor’s red pen – an important insight when looking after authors.

Although the compulsory lectures and seminars I’ve attended have been informative and helpful, I’ve gained the most from the ‘optional extras’ that the course offers. My advice would be to dive in head first and grab all opportunities. Since starting this course, I’ve introduced guest speakers at launch parties and readers’ events, negotiated with booksellers, written blogs for various publications, helped out on other anthologies and volunteered as a mentor on an adult literacy course. My student status gives me the chance to attend many other arts-based talks for free so I’m continually learning new things. Although I’m coming to the end of my course, the opportunities to get involved will still be there and I feel like completing my MA is really only the start of how it will benefit me in the future.

Sarah’s short story “Paradise”, is published in issue 10 of the Mechanic’s Institute Reveiw, launched yesterday (26 September 2010) and available from Amazon, local independent bookshops throughout the London area and from selected branches of Waterstones, and in e-book format from Amazon.

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