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Icebergs Groan When They Die

Posted by @Publishing_talk on May 17, 2015 at 4:25 PM Comments comments (2)

We invited prizewinning writer, Joanna Campbell to tell us about research in fiction, with reference to Hemingway's Iceberg Theory and how it applied to her new book, Tying Down The Lion. Only a fraction of what she learnt is actually used in the narrative. Here she explains why.

As I am not Ernest Hemingway, my version of his theory of omission is far less majestic. He called in the iceberg to demonstrate the writerly principle of storing unseen accumulated knowledge. My modification of the concept has produced the more prosaic Branston Pickle System. The root of this is that my husband loathes root vegetables, but enjoys pickle, provided I promise not to regale him with the list of frightening ingredients. As long as the presence of swede and rutabaga is kept under wraps, Branston Pickle can pervade his cheese sandwich.

Likewise, as part of the endeavour to entertain their readers, the inky blood, sweat and tears of an author shape thousands of words that never see the light of day, yet nevertheless remain vital components. Endless research might be carried out, but only a fraction of that is incorporated into the finished novel.

However, the unwritten stack of words, although it may never be seen again, is not discarded, to be set adrift like the massive blocks that fracture from icebergs in the process known as calving.

Icebergs groan when they calve, a trembling lament under the sea. To avoid this desolate lowing as the ice mass glides away, the writer’s bulk of residual material should form a solid, hidden base supporting and strengthening the beautiful ten percent that stands proud and prominent. Fiction can have a substantial foundation of truth, but the writer’s imagination should filter the salient points with the aim of creating something even more truthful than the author’s experience or memory allows.

With his Iceberg Theory, Ernest Hemingway believed the significant essence of a story—its kernel of candour—should not manifest itself within the words, but instead should be tucked inside, well below the surface, for the reader to discover. The author should exclude some of his knowledge from the story, yet still write from the heart, with a sincerity that allows the reader to experience his insight as acutely as if the words were actually on the page. In 'Death in the Afternoon' Hemingway stated:

"The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing."

The hidden base of the iceberg holds the symbolism of a story, while the tip contains the basic essentials. This way, the characters’ exploits can be plainly described in the narrative while their understated significance shimmers through it. It is vital, however, for the author to be well-acquainted with the particulars he chooses to leave out and not skip them because he lacks that knowledge. As a result, the story should become weighted and grounded by its own omissions.

Piles of papers, yellowing magazines dating from over forty years ago, ring-binders stuffed with notes and reference books bristling with bookmarks provide the underpinning that shores up Tying Down the Lion. Only fragments of this material are included in the novel, but all of it facilitated my understanding of Berlin in 1967. More importantly, this mountain of facts—and more accurately, this unique setting—helped to fashion the book’s protagonists, the Bishop family.

As a would-be novelist setting out from the safe harbour of a short story about the Bishops’ impending trip to Berlin, I was unaware that the characters were suffering divisions among each other, nor that some of them had built their own internal ‘walls’. It was only after completing later drafts that I could see how the setting of the uniquely split city expressed implicit truths about its small party of travellers. On the surface, they are tourists taking in the two halves of Berlin, but just as a peach sliced in two discloses its requisite stressed-looking stone, the sawn-up city reveals the troubled hearts of its visitors.

Hemingway told Time magazine:  "No good book has ever been written that has in it symbols arrived at beforehand and stuck in."

When I reached the end of writing Tying Down The Lion, I had built an entire iceberg, the vast majority of its magnitude concealed and protected from calving. Only the details which amplify the characters, propel the action and strengthen the narrative appear in the pages.

I found out that the mileage of the Berlin Wall was 155 kilometres and that it had 259 dog runs. I learnt that when Khrushchev’s grandson was asked how the former premier was spending his retirement years, he replied, “Grandfather cries.” However, none of this information is included in the book. It is part of the foundations on which the story rests, with the aim of allowing the fictional characters to be authentic people, while the allusions and metaphor develop beneath.

If my iceberg is soundly composed, the reader, like my anti-rutabaga husband, will see—I hope—only its elegance, but discover for themselves the natural layers that wait to be found.


Joanna Campbell is author of Tying Down The Lion, published 15 June, 2015 by

Brick Lane Publishing


Books & Writing: Summer News

Posted by @Publishing_talk on July 19, 2014 at 6:05 AM Comments comments (0)

Summer is the perfect time for relaxing outdoors with a good book and an ice-cold beverage. We've given it some thought and concluded that there are, in fact, pros and cons to this...



Good for you. A brain massage that's pleasurable and makes you smarter.

  • Switch off. A really good book is pure escapism.
  • Portable. Books can be taken virtually anywhere.
  • Sociable. Books can provoke interesting discussion, and sometimes they can even help break the ice in social situations.




  • Antisocial. Ok, so a particularly absorbing read can sometimes cause withdrawal from human contact.
  • Binge reading. The reason your personal hygiene has lapsed and your eyes look like roadmaps.
  • Regret. Finishing a book when:

           - you felt you ought to, but wished you didn't.

           - you wished it would never end but of course it had to.


Our books list is growing! We have some great reads forthcoming, including some for when the weather is colder. More here


Our short story contest, LONDON EAST END has attracted a good deal of attention. If your entry is complete, well done and best of luck. If your entry is incomplete, remember to submit your story to accompany your webform. These are being sorted daily to make sure everything is going to the right place. If you haven't yet entered and this is the first you've heard of it, find out more here. Entries close 30 Aug, 2014.

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Believable Book Characters

Posted by @Publishing_talk on March 29, 2014 at 1:45 PM Comments comments (2)

One subject we're not taught at school is emotional intelligence. Strange really. We are, after all, the sum of our thoughts and emotions. We are what we think we are and to a large extent we're also driven by our feelings. We just don't really talk about them much. They're personal, right? A bit taboo even. We humans are more alike than we sometimes care to admit. We laugh when we're happy or amused, sometimes even when we're nervous. We cry when we're wounded or upset, even joyful. We all bleed... friend or foe, we're still hardwired with similar needs: sustenance, security, belonging, recognition, love and happiness.

Truthful writing delivers a sense of validation and it illuminates our unspoken thoughts, needs and feelings -- however irrational and embarrassing they may be at times. And when it comes to writing authentic book characters, keep in mind that even though they're fictional, they should still be three-dimensional and believable, just like you and me.


Balance is important. Avoid laboured and repetitive descriptions, or having characters devoid of, well, character. Trying to shock for the sake of it can also be a turn-off. By taking time to build the right foundations, you'll be better able to colour your characters in with well-placed portrayals throughout your story, that will keep readers hooked. Here are five essential pointers to keep in mind when it comes to building believable book characters.


1.  Physical: it can really help finding a picture of somebody to base your character's appearance on, because it's a handy reference point as your story progresses. Also consider how each character moves, speaks and dresses, their height, build, age and so on. Make sure you think all of these things through well in advance because you don't want a character having blue eyes in one chapter and then green in another. Continuity is vital. 

2.  Background: we all have one of those and your characters should, too. What is their relationship status and how do they feel about it? They may  talk to their mum every day, or they might be trying to forget an unhappy childhood. Their kids could be driving them crazy, yet at work they're the picture of success. Perhaps they're the life and soul of a party, but will be heading home to soggy pasta and a lonely TV dinner later on. Where appropriate, use contrast to add colour. Like us, a character's background will have a bearing on their personality and how they react to things.  

3.  Personality: their likes and dislikes, foibles, traits, values and disposition. Flaws add colour, too. You might have a character who loves their pet cat above all else and would save it from a burning building ahead of a human life. Or, perhaps they're always sucking up to the boss. Maybe they're fabulously wealthy but they prefer leching off the goodwill of others and the state. How will you explain such things? As Chekhov famously said: Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.  

4.  Make tough choices: when getting to know somebody new, have you ever found yourself saying, 'Me too!?'  It can be gratifying, even unsettling making a connection and realising you have something in common. Characters that are well written actually offer insights into our own natures -- good or bad -- and for that reason they become memorable, gripping even. Consider humanity; we as a people are capable of great heroism and yet conversely such cruelty -- then there is all manner of grey in-between. As a writer, you must from time to time be prepared to make some hard decisions for your characters, even life and death ones. Obviously don't do anything purely for the sake of it, make sure it fits with your plot and story

5.  Be real: there may be little traces of you in all of your characters, or perhaps there is one particular character who is a lot like you in some respect. That’s quite normal. After all, we write about what we know and imagine. Don't flinch from the truth, we want to hear your real voice. As Hemingway said: Write hard and clear about what hurts. There's something pleasing about authentic writing and believable book characters. They provide readers with insights that resonate and observations that thrill. Honest writing sometimes hurts, but it is rewarding. 

Put your best foot forward,




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Why We Love Editing

Posted by @Publishing_talk on March 18, 2014 at 8:20 AM Comments comments (0)

No matter how good a writer you are, you'll still need a good editor. We require that would-be authors submit clean, well edited manuscripts. The reason for this is we don't really like scruffy, unloved work because it doesn't show off its envisaged potential. To help you out, here are a few basic do's and don'ts to consider when it comes to the editing process.



Never rely on a spell checker to do your editing for you. The fact is, if you want a tight, professional and appealing book, it will need to be professionally edited. You’ve spent many long, lonely hours producing a manuscript and there's a strong possibility that you can no longer see the words (perfectly normal). You can see the ideas and their meanings, but not every word that is (or isn't) on the page. Things such as plot errors and inconsistencies in style now seem invisible. An editor will spot those, it’s what they’re paid to do.


Unless qualified, family and friends cannot and should not replace the job of an editor. Undoubtedly, the more eyes reading through your manuscript the better -- so long as you're rewarded with unvarnished feedback. The last thing you need is a loved one telling you that your manuscript is wonderful, when in fact it still needs plenty of graft to bring it up to snuff. What an editor will do is approach your work with an unbiased and professional eye for detail, and help make it shine.



There are different editing tasks needing consideration as a book goes through the publishing process, each requiring a very particular skill-set. Do make sure that you seek the most appropriate type of editor for your manuscript.

Developmental editors work with authors to craft the manuscript, paying attention to structure and argument in non-fiction. In fiction, it's the plot and characters they'll look out for.

Line or substantive editors focus on the manuscript overall, but usually don’t work quite as closely with the author and aren’t expected to edit as deeply. These and developmental editors are sometimes lumped together as substantive editing.

Copy editors concentrate on copy and language. They'll make the style of your manuscript clean and consistent.

Proof readers are usually the last people who look at a book before it goes off to be published. They’re keeping an eye out for misspellings or errors in style, punctuation, grammar and formatting. 


When you're going through the editing process, keep in mind that those marks editors make on your manuscript aren't criticism. Their priority is to create the best book possible from your manuscript so you'll need to trust their professional judgment. No two editors work in exactly the same way and did you know that they also need fresh eyes? There comes a point where they too can become blind to the details.

Most editors love books and care about their job. You're writing a book because you have something important you want to say and an editor is your partner in this, helping you to say exactly what you intended in the most affecting and effective way possible. That's why it's important to love what editing does for your work and you'll be rewarded for taking the time and effort to do this.


Further reading here:

If you have any questions or comments, please leave them below. Thanks for reading and as always, put your best foot forward.



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