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Write On! Features: Writer & Publisher – A Symbiotic Relationship by Lynn Michell

by Lynn Michell

I’ve always written, but I haven’t always been at the helm of a women’s press. Far from it. That happened 18 years ago and by chance. Since that time, I’ve switched smoothly between writing and editing, one informing the other. How can you maul someone else’s prose if you haven’t first mauled your own? For me, writing is a never-ending apprenticeship for editing. And vice versa.

I was in my twenties when I contacted Oliver & Boyd (now Longman) with a proposal for a six-book, illustrated writing scheme for primary schools. It was accepted, and  three cloud-nine years followed: working with a senior editor, collaborating with the design team, and eating expense account lunches in Edinburgh restaurants. Unbeknown to me, this was something of a false dawn because the book world was already changing and the door was only slightly ajar still to newcomers and non-celebs.

Despite switching genres several times, my next six books were also accepted by The Women’s Press, HarperCollins, Pluto Press and Quartet. Then I turned to fiction and the road to publication became rockier. I found homes for my first three novels, but my fourth, the water all around us, brought a confidence-destroying slew of rejections. After putting it in a drawer for a year, as one does, I published it with Linen Press and tried to hold at bay my angst and guilt about vanity publishing. I accept that I am a publisher’s nightmare because I hop between nonfiction and fiction, biography and memoir when, ideally, publishers want the same book reinvented several times in quick succession and as part of a recognisable series because that makes their marketing job so much easier. They want youthful authors with photogenic faces, loads of contacts, and a shouty presence on social media. I can offer none of that.

My first amateur sortie into publishing came out of the blue when 94-year-old Marjorie Wilson joined my writing group in Edinburgh and revealed a rare writing talent. She told us that her turn-of-the-century memoir had been rejected “by every damn publisher in the land,” so I took it on – with no knowledge of the business. I typed the book, designed the cover, asked a friend to enhance Marjorie’s old photographs and found a printer. No POD in those days. Childhoods Hill sold out, was re-printed, and beat Iain Rankin for one week in Blackwell’s best sellers. It is described by The Scotsman as luminous, episodic, sensual—rather like memory itself. I loved working with Marjorie, sitting by her gas fire with her cat Tufty, and suggesting slight alterations to an already poised piece of writing which she read out loud while I made notes. I found our collaboration insightful and rewarding and I realised I had a natural gift for editing. I founded Linen Press on the back of that book, made desperate financial mistakes in the early years, but then found my footing. I’ve never looked back.

I take on books which I recognise in some way. I’d be hard pressed to define exactly what that means, but it’s about feeling at ease inside the pages. Maybe I’m wanting books not unlike those I pick up to read for pleasure. I veer towards lyrical, poetic writing and to stories with multiple levels and strong backdrops where I can dive deep and stay inside. Having said all that, there is a wide range of books on our list from the shocking and intimate The Missing List by Clare Best to the personal-political novel Manual For A Decent Life to the lyrical Sometimes A River Song. I bring to each a different awareness and I mould my editing style so that it shadows the style of the writer.

And what does editing mean? My X-Ray eyes see the scaffolding under a book and know its structural weak spots. It’s tuning in to the ebb and flow of the tension that keeps readers reading, and hearing when it flags. It means adopting someone else’s narrative voice so I can seamlessly reproduce it. It means knowing the characters as intimately as the author does and spotting discrepancies in their behaviour or words she has missed. The thing is, we can be too close to our own writing and that’s when the sentences start to swim. I’m a friendly ghost writer with a fresh pair of eyes who can zoom in on what is imperfect. All those years spent writing and rewriting my own books has left me with a sixth sense for prose. As an author, I have an escape hatch. When I grind to a halt inside my own prose, I can turn with confidence and pleasure to someone else’s. It’s not one or the other, it’s one and the other.

Some Linen Press submissions come in as near perfect pieces, requiring only the lightest touch from me. Jess Richard’s experimental and gorgeously imaginative Birds And Ghosts arrived as a finished work of art brimful with integrity and passion. Jess has a rare sensitivity for how words work. I saw a few places where the pace changed and the tension went floppy, but otherwise there was nothing for me to do. Hema Macherla, on the other hand, writes in a second language. When she came to the UK from a village in India, she spoke no English but with courage and persistence, she mastered her new language by reading children’s books in a library. Hema is a gifted storyteller who can weave tense, complex plots peopled by a cast of hugely sympathetic characters but colloquial English can trip her. My role is almost that of translator as I rework, at a superficial level, her peculiar phrases and odd grammar. But don’t jump to any conclusions. Hema’s three novels have been bought by the French publisher Mercure and she remains the only Linen Press author to have been offered foreign rights. You will know Hema from her feature in these pages:  Every book we sign is unique, as is my approach to editing it.

I feel no tension moving between my roles as writer and publisher. When my own prose won’t behave itself, I dive into someone else’s where I can see the tripping points and can suggest ways of mending them. I am a useful chattering gremlin on the shoulders of fellow writers, but if there is a similar creature on my own back, it remains stubbornly silent.

After 18years running this small indie press, my passion for my work remains unchanged and every new book we sign fills my editing heart with excitement. At Linen Press, the editing process is crucial and central, and consists of a close collaboration, chapter by chapter, line by line, between author and publisher, until a very good book becomes a superb one. Karen Kao, author of The Dancing Girl And The Turtle, describes it as Literary Ping Pong. I experience it more as a dance, a pas de deux for two writers.


Lynn’s 17 books criss-cross genres. They include Write From The Start, a writing scheme for primary schools, Shattered: Life With ME, a book recording the experiences of 30 people with severe Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, the authorised biography of super-realist painter Rosa Branson, Rosa Branson: A Portrait, and four novels. Her debut novel, White Lies, set in Kenya during the Mau Mau uprising, was runner-up twice for the Robert Louis Stevenson award. This was followed by Run, Alice, Run, The Red Beach Hut and the water all around us which is about roots and belonging and in which a young, lost whale speaks quietly and bravely of the damage done to our oceans.

Lynn is the director of Linen Press, the only UK-wide independent women’s press which she founded in Edinburgh 18 years ago. Find out more online:

Lynn moved 18 months ago, after 12 years in southern France, to a remote croft in the Western Isles. She lives in a caravan with views of sea, seals and islands, and looks after brown and black sheep. One day she will move into a timber-built, passive house.

Connect with Lynn on her website:

the water all around us

Connect with Linen on X: @LinenPressBooks and on Facebook: @LinenPressBooks


Issue 20 will be out on 10 April. Find it in libraries and other outlets. In the meantime, you can read issue 19 online here and find previous editions of our magazines here.

You can hear great new ideas, creative work and writing tips on Write On! Audio. Find us on all major podcast platforms, including Apple and Google Podcasts and Spotify. Type Pen to Print into your browser and look for our logo, or find us on


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How can you maul someone else’s prose if you haven’t first mauled your own? Writing is a never-ending apprenticeship for editing. And vice versa.