Jericho Writers Review

publishing, reviews, writing

Disclaimer: I was given a free year’s trial in return for publishing a frank and honest review on this site.

I first came across Jericho Writers when searching for information on agents. For a number of years I’ve been tinkering with a sci-fi novel, and this recently reached a point where I had a draft I could send out on submission – which is why I first came across JW’s Agentmatch. You have to be a member to access this, but there are free trials available, and so I signed up. At some later point, I noticed that they were also offering a free year’s membership in return for an honest review – and so here we are!

There are various sites that provide lists of agents, but Jericho Writers’ Agentmatch is by far the most comprehensive and easy to use – you can search by genre, country (UK or US), the agent’s experience, who they represent, and a host of other handy criteria. There are however some minor downsides: there are some typos and formatting issues (lots of the text looks like it’s been cut and pasted from agent websites, etc); some of the information is out of date (I’m still listed under my old agent, for example), and as a consequence, I wonder how meticulously and frequently it’s updated (a huge task, really, but then this is a paid service). Ideally, it would be nice to combine this with something like Querytracker, where writers can get slightly more feedback on agent response times, the feedback they provide, etc (Querytracker is free, although there are agents on Agentmatch which I can’t find on Querytracker). Overall, however, it’s a very handy feature.

Another feature I’ve found useful is the forum (‘Townhouse’). It’s not a busy place – nothing compared with AbsoluteWrite, for example – but responses do come eventually, and they tend to be thoughtful and helpful, often provided by other would-be authors, professionals or JW employees.

A lovely feature of JW is the Cinema, which is a collection of videos of varying length that focus on different aspects of writing and publishing: the Feature videos, between 30 and 60 minutes long, contain interviews with leading agents, publishers, writers and other literary professionals; Spapshots focuses on a range of specific topics (cutting ties with an agent, writing unlikeable characters), and tend to be less than 10 mins; and then there are a few longer, in-depth interviews with various professionals working at the publisher Orion (which are fascinating). Although there aren’t a great number of videos in the Cinema (though more are being added), they are all high quality (in terms of sound, audio and general production values) and well worth working through.

Aside from this, JW members receive access to various instructional videos. These range from Masterclasses with professionals (dealing with diverse topics), Conversations (live events – such as agents going through their slushpile, or plot doctor livestreaming), to the more structured Video Courses, which help writers acquire the necessary tools of the trade, or handhold through the steps towards publication (or self-publication – which there’s lots of good information on). Many of these are fascinating and insightful, and in the few months I’ve had access, they have yet to exhaust my interest.

In addition to this, there are a similarly diverse range of text-based resources (in the Library), signposts to various JW public events, and a selection of personally tutored online writing courses (the latter are not free, but members are eligible for a discount). Among the other paid services are editing, manuscript assessment and copy-editing, which, judging by the roll call of industry professionals, is something that might be well worth paying for (for those who can afford it).

I’m sure there are other features that I haven’t mentioned here – there is a lot on there which I’ve yet to work through – and I doubt anyone who signs up will be disappointed by what they get. In terms of the site’s credentials, its driving force seems to be Harry Bingham, a successful author in both traditional and self-publishing terms, and someone who can speak authoritatively about all aspects of a professional writer’s life. The site also seems to be well connected and regarded (judging by the people that submit to interviews, etc) and any prospective member should have no qualms about the legitimacy of the enterprise.

Is it worth signing up? Membership options range from £30 a month, or a discounted annual fee of £195. The former option would allow a person focused on submission to get the most from some of the site’s most useful features (Agentmatch, agent submission preparation) for a month or two, and would I think be money well-spent. The latter option would perhaps appeal to someone more dedicated to working on aspects of their craft over a longer period. That said, both options are competing with the deluge of free information that is available elsewhere, and while signing up would take the legwork (and guesswork) out of assembling information useful to a writer, it certainly can’t be said that comparable and equally useful material does not exist in a free form.

One final observation would be that, whilst its scope is broad – all genres of children’s and adult fiction and non-fiction are considered, even screenwriting – the primary focus of the site is on the commercial aspects of writing: producing saleable manuscripts, finding an agent, getting published, etc. This is fine; publishing is, after all, a business, and most aspiring writers want to earn a living, which is probably what will draw them to the site. And of course, many of the considerations and techniques discussed here are applicable to both commercial and literary writing. Occasionally, however, in advice relating to plot and character, and other technical aspects of writing, I do feel that this is skewed slightly by this commercial focus, whereas more literary aspirations are sometimes humorously disparaged (in a tongue-in-cheek way) – such as the fact that Robert Musil’s literary doorstop, The Man Without Qualities, was never finished, is more often bought than read, and its author died in penurious despair (ha ha). All of which does make me wonder slightly whether advice that focuses chiefly on getting published, on considerations of what the market wants or what agents are looking for – as sound and well-informed as this is – is for every type of writer. I also worry that its ultimate effect may be to narrow the market itself, and the type of books that are considered worthy of being published – or in fact written. But this is a minor gripe. Jericho Writers is a valuable resource, professionally put together, a reasonably priced investment for the seriously committed, and well worth checking out.

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Lost Connections by Johann Hari

Lost Connections, by Johann Hari
Bloomsbury, 2018
261 pages

Depression and anxiety are now so widespread that it is tempting to see them as by-products of modern society itself, as the necessary price we pay for the techno marvels of our media-saturated, super-connected and fast paced world. Of course, as attested by the melancholia of the ancient Greeks, the demonic possession of medieval times, or the various strains of Freudian psychopathology, the basic mental categories involved are far from new. Some of us, it seems, have always suffered in these ways, and (as a consequence of human nature itself, it is often implied) will no doubt continue to do so.

But if there is something that distinguishes the modern phenomena of depression and anxiety, it is their scope. As Hari points out, around 1 in 5 US adults is currently taking some form of psychiatric medication. More specifically, recent figures suggest that around 13% of the US population now take antidepressants, with the UK not far behind – and the figures are rising. But why is this? Are the inhabitants of modern societies getting more anxious and depressed? Or is there some other reason? And, more importantly, what can we do about it? Lost Connections is Johann Hari’s attempt to answer these questions, which, as a long-term user of antidepressants, he would also seem to be in a good position to ask.

Hari’s account of his experience on antidepressants will no doubt resonate with many fellow sufferers: the initial revelation (depression is merely a chemical imbalance in the brain), the relief (this imbalance can be redressed by medication), followed by the familiar pattern of diminishing returns, as the initial effect is short lived (the initial dose must be increased, then increased again, then swapped for another brand, then that at a higher dose, then switched again for another drug… and so on). But Hari’s book is not a misery memoir; the personal experiences he recounts are not cries for sympathy or a need to share, but each is rather carefully chosen to illustrate key points and to underline his own sincere investment in the answers to the questions he seeks. As such, while it is in one sense a very personal book, it is also a keenly critical investigative journey. So, what does he find?

The biggest and most controversial of Hari’s claims comes at the very beginning: the drugs don’t work. Or rather, they work in the short term, and for a small minority of people. What’s more, as his investigations shockingly reveal, the ‘science’ behind antidepressants’ effectiveness is curiously weak. The notion that depression and anxiety are caused by a chemical imbalance or a lack of serotonin is debunked by a number of respected authorities, one of whom calls it frankly ‘a myth’. More digging reveals that the clinical trials that are meant to confirm the efficacy of antidepressants basically reveal them in most cases to be no more effective than a placebo; and even those cases where there is some effect, this is shown to be tiny. But can this really be the case? Would a tenth of the population be as well or better off on sugar pills? Throughout the book, Hari hedges his assertions and qualifies his findings, encouraging the reader to further investigate these obviously contentious topics (discussed and signposted in the endnotes). However, despite this modesty, it seems to me, Hari’s investigation is very even handed, often playing devil’s advocate to his own and other’s findings. Either way, Hari has done a huge public service in brining this potential scandal to wider public attention.

However, Hari is not content with casting doubt on the efficacy of antidepressant medication, and looks firstly at what – if not brain chemistry – might be causing the current epidemic of depression and anxiety, before going on to suggest some possible solutions. In a nutshell, Hari argues, we are depressed and anxious because the world is depressing and anxiety making. We suffer because we are lonely; we live in isolated pockets, cut off from family and the wider community. Our work life is boring or stressful, and we are denied the meaning and sense of self-worth that a genuine task would provide. Stuck in dead-end jobs, in rigid hierarchies under uncaring bosses, we are denied status and a sense of purpose. We are cut off from the natural world, from the solace and sense of group belonging that evolution has programmed us to seek. As the impersonal machine of modern capitalist society churns on, it also ignores the cries for help that its inhumanity generates, failing to deal with childhood trauma and abuse, bereavement or other common negative experiences simply because the other cogs in the machine don’t have the time or energy to listen. Interestingly, Hari also largely dismisses the genetic causes, arguing that in depression and anxiety genes play at most a triggering role, making some of us merely more likely to develop symptoms under certain circumstances – and which in turn can be addressed best by social or psychological means. In summary, Hari concludes, depression and anxiety are determined by how people treat each other; their cure is therefore to change or redress that – to get a more meaningful job, to reconnect to each other and nature, to expand your sense of self through a sense of community, to give people a sense of security (perhaps through a universal basic income), or to break through the restrictions of the ego (through meditation, even perhaps micro-doses of magic mushrooms!).

For those suffering from anxiety or depression, some of these solutions may seem platitudes which ignore the seriousness of their condition. “Get some fresh air!”, “Go to the gym!”, and other well-meaning if misdirected advice, will be familiar to many sufferers. But Hari is not offering such platitudes. Faced with the reluctant conclusion that the drugs don’t work, his answers are not the bland prescriptions of someone with no empathy, but rather the tentative suggested steps of a fellow sufferer that he himself has begun to take. In this sense, the book’s humility and lack of dogma is one of its key strengths. It does not provide simple, clear cut answers, and the ones it does suggest imply a monumental task – that it is society that needs to change, not just the individual. However, it is an important and inspirational book, one which will hopefully inspire you to seek your own solutions, while providing intelligent and intriguing signposts to where you might possibly find them.

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