The Festival of Writing in York, run by the Writer's Workshop, was an eye-opener in more ways than one.
350 (or thereabouts) writers at varying stages of their careers, from those whose work was still inside their heads, to successful self-published authors, to big name best sellers, it encompassed the whole range.
Having decided that as we were going all that way we might just as well do the mini-course on Friday afternoon, Liz and I set out on Thursday evening to beat the M25 and M1, staying overnight in a motel at Milton Keynes. Or should that be Newport Pagnell - and that's another story.
A leisurely start in the morning saw us arrive in comfortable time to get our bearings at York University and dump our stuff in the student rooms we'd been allocated prior to the start of our course. Everyone was cheerful and helpful and the sun was shining :)
So, Friday's mini-course was 4 hours of interactive talks and questions entitled 'Let's Get Digital'. Talli Roland and David Gaughran couldn't have been more open and helpful. We covered pretty much all the important points about why and how to self-publish digitally, and just in case we forget anything, they've now emailed us the notes as well.
Friday Night Live, supper and readings, had a distinctly literary flavour. Not quite my cup of tea, but interesting none the less.
The weekend proper started with a keynote address by best selling author JoJo Moyes. She talked plainly about the downs and ups, and ups and downs of becoming and being a full time author, and in the end I bought one of her books after she commented that it was 'set in the archaic world of dressage'. As I am one of those 'archaic dressage riders' in my professional life, I was too intrigued not to, and at the signing it turned out that JoJo was taught to ride by someone I know well. Small world, innit?
So, to workshops: such a huge range to choose from! First up on my agenda was 'Getting Published': advice and scary statistics. Next, came a Genre Panel - Science Fiction and Fantasy for me, of course. Interesting hearing where things are trending.
After that I'd booked onto 'Building an Author Platform', but we were free to swap and I felt I'd covered enough of that recently, so I went to a 'Meet the Agents' panel. This one didn't have anyone covering my genre in particular, but confirmed for me what agents do and don't like, and that in the end it really depends on connecting with one who just loves your work.
Lunch followed, probably not the best meal of the day but hey, breakfast was great, and anyway, I was getting nervous by this time: my first 1-to-1 with an agent! This took place during the second keynote address of the day - a panel of agents and publishers discussing the publishing scene in general. I approached the little table where my chosen agent sat with trepidation, but her smiling face and 'this is such fun!' (my writing, not the meeting) comment put me instantly at ease. To cut a longish story short, she loved the concept, thought it had everything in it that publishers are looking for in Urban Fantasy in the UK just now, and please send it to her to look at - Wheee!
The third workshop of the day for me was about NaNoRiMo (National Novel Writing Month), and irritatingly the bit I wanted to hear (about the techniques employed) I missed, having to come out for my second 1-to-1. Hm. Not so wonderful this time. Here, I learned a very clear lesson in why punctuation is important: his bio said - amongst other genres - YA, Science Fiction and Fantasy. Oops. It should have read: YA Science Fiction and Fantasy. He doesn't cover adult stuff, so a total waste of both our times. Pity he didn't say anything about it when the work was sent to him a couple of weeks earlier. My only consolation is that he also thought my writing was competent.
Saturday evening's Gala Dinner was a fab opportunity to dress up, and lovely to hear the start of the winning entry in the Opening Chapter contest (even if Liz didn't win, she did at least get short listed) which began 'Today I killed a Unicorn...' And I totally disagree with the panel - I loved the title: Mythicide.
Sunday began with a discussion about the ebook revolution - real debating stuff here, with self-publisher v traditional agents.
More workshops followed: Reimagining SFF with Lee Harris of Angry Robot books was fantastic and funny - amazing how many sub-genres we could find between us, and even a new one to which Lee claimed ownership: Retro Geek Punk!
I swapped again after lunch, from my scheduled SF masterclass to the Self Publishing seminar, clarifying how self-publishing in the modern era differs from vanity publishing and detailing the modular units that authors can purchase from Matador, the self-publishing wing of Troubador: as much or as little as you want, the ultimate in bespoke self-publishing.
Having made my Festival booking during an offer period, I then had a third 1-to-1 for which I'd chosen to see a book doctor. Although Julie Cohen doesn't write in my genre, her observations on my first chapter were really helpful - I thought I'd edited it fairly well until she waded in there - and I may take up her suggestion of starting the whole story at a slightly different point. A great example of how good writing is just that - good writing - no matter what genre you work in.
And so to my last workshop: Gratuitous Sex and Violence. With a few questions, Harry (Bingham) had just revealed that the majority of us were interested in sex (hm, how else to put that...), when the poor lady sitting next to me turned a delicate shade of puce, jumped to her feet and announced: "I'm in the wrong room!" She fled the scene, trailed by our probably less-than-kind but impossible to control laughter.
To wrap the whole weekend up in the finest style, Stuart MacBride gave a hilarious and rousing account of his journey to authordom, finishing with us all on our feet joining in his NLP affirmations of: I do, I do and I can!
And I certainly do, and I do, and I'm going to!
Debby (AKA Deborah Jay)
I had started out to write about one person for this blog, and now I find I need to write about another one too – I am referring, of course, to our friend Harry Harrison who died last week on August the fifteenth. There is not much for me to say about Harry that has not already been much more ably put by other writers among the Science Fiction fraternity, except to add that I won’t ever forget the first time I met him. There I was thinking “Blimey, here I am actually talking to the progenitor of ‘Soylent Green’!”, and yet Harry seemed genuinely surprised that I should know that he had started off as an artist rather than a writer (he studied at Hunter College New York in the 1940’s and went on to run a studio selling illustrations to comics and SF magazines). Harry was drily ambivalent towards ‘Soylent Green’ (1973), the film taken from his (1966) ’Make Room! Make Room!’ On occasion Harry was known to remark that the film “at times bore a faint resemblance to the book.” Harry will be much missed.
But Harry didn’t expect people to know about the artwork. People don’t value illustration as they do writing. They don’t seem to be able to cope with the notion that someone could be an artist as well as a writer. I have met this particularly with the work of Mervyn Peake (best known for his ‘Titus Groan’ trilogy). As well as a writer Peake was a consummate book illustrator and painter – a Royal Academician. He was also a mean poet. Knowing my interest in Peake, people sometimes say to me “But he was primarily a writer, wasn’t he?” - as though that must somehow be superior, not equally probable or possible, and that art is something that you collect for its value not to get intellectual enjoyment from, like a book.
You may see I have an axe to grind here.
And that takes me on to my second much-mourned hero, the art critic Robert Hughes, who died on the sixth of August.
For much of my salaried life I have worked as a teacher of Art and Art History and as a designer for museums. In this context, with their totally joyless way of reducing art to a mere commodity, Art Historians have been the bane of my life – so why should I mourn an Art Historian?
I shall never forget the very real shock of the final programme of Robert Hughes 1980’s eight part TV series “The Shock of the New”. I had watched and recorded them out of duty to my A level students. It had been a totally straight, well-informed series on modern art – just what they needed. Then the final part. Hughes faced us. “You may wonder,” he said, “why none of any of this is any good. I will tell you where all the good artists are!” Turning, he walked up a massive flight of steps to a great war memorial, name after name. “There you are, they all died!” Then he proceeded to lam into the 20th century Art establishment in the way that it has always richly deserved – actually saying why some stuff is good and most of it is not, when usually an art history book will simply give you details of the established artists’ lives and works and leave it at that.
Oh man after my own heart! The times I have fantasized about placing a bedspread depicting Edmund Dulac’s beautiful illustration to “The King’s New Clothes” on Tracy Emin’s stupid bed!
Robert Hughes could be merciless. I think one of my favourite of his quotes is “What strip mining is to nature, the Art market has become to culture.” But how did he get away with it?
Like Harry, Robert Hughes started as an artist. It seems his becoming an Art Historian was completely accidental. An Australian, and of the same vintage as Clive James and Germaine Greer, Robert Hughes trained at Sydney University and then started work, aged 20, as a cartoonist for the Sydney Observer. On the sudden sacking of its art critic Hughes was told “to fill” in and simply never looked back. He was such a brilliantly acerbic writer that he could not be tidied away. I am very sorry he has been silenced at last. He is a great loss to real artists.
So those who write in a field that is not considered respectable by the literary establishment (which only read works from the Hampstead–to-Primrose-Hill scribblers’ corridor and feels our work is not therefore worthy of serious review) can surely sympathize at the loss.
Lewes sees its fair share of people with torches on the high street but the Olympic crowd was not like a Bonfire one. There were not as many of them, they weren’t letting off fireworks and they weren’t drinking. But they appeared to be enjoying themselves.
Representatives from Coke and Samsung worked the throngs that spilled off the pavements into the streets, handing out little bottles of beverage and flat packages that looked a bit like pocket size Kleenex packs while teenage kids in orange hi vis vests and eartalkers tried to herd the spectators back onto the pavement. The flat packages yielded a plastic straw and something that looked like a plastic hankie, but when you inserted the straw into the hankie and blew it elongated into a baton with the word SAMSUNG in large letters on one side and the same word, in smaller letters on the other side along with the Olympic logo. Private vendors sold inflated plastic Olympic torches for £2 each and the local council gave out plastic Union Jacks for free. Even the newly opened Vision Express across the street got in on the act handing out some very nice lens cloths and tasty sweets. I chatted with friends and then Polly (long time friend and singing teacher), who lives just 100 yards from where we were standing showed up with a bowl of brownies fresh from her oven. Clusters of police walked past from time to time. Police stood among the crowds. Police cars and vans passed. Official vans and buses passed.
Suddenly there was a blare of sirens accompanied by flashing blue lights and half a dozen motorcycle police pulled up in front of us including the first female police motorcycle rider I have seen, the ends of two slender pigtails peeking out from under her helmet. And behind them, a convoy was climbing the hill.
First came the Samsung truck. The side facing us was projecting what was probably a real time view of the event from somewhere else in Lewes but it was past before I could figure it out. Next came the Coke truck. It was open topped and open middle as well and was full of attractive young people dancing. The Lloyds TSB truck came next. It was just a truck but, like all of them, a big one. A police car and more motorcycles followed.
It all went quiet and we went back to talking. I renewed an appointment for a singing lesson. Sophie (freelance cook and chef extraordinaire) told us how she had survived two weeks of cooking for a party of American tourists. We made plans to see each other again before going on holidays.
Another truck came up the hill and as it passed I could see a camera crew in the open back, focused on something downhill from them. A moment later a kid trotted by with a torch in his hand, surrounded by half a dozen security types in brown running outfits. Motocycles followed.
The crowd dispersed quickly. Polly said, “I’m glad I saw that with my own eyes so I can tell people how crap it was.”
It was oh so tempting to start submitting the story as-is. It was good enough, surely. But that would have been a rookie error. You don't send a story to a publisher unless it is perfect. Or at least as perfect as you personally are capable of making it. You only end up kicking yourself later for not having gone that extra mile. Either because the editor turns it down, or it's there in print but you know you could have done better.
The story wasn't ready. I knew it wasn't ready. I had to set it aside until I had time to come back to it.
Today I finally had the time and the motivation to pick it up again. I wrote one new scene for it, which was absolutely needed, and otherwise added a few sentences here and there to clarify points as necessary. This final draft is not massively different from the previous version, but it is better. And I believe it is the best I can do. Now I can send it to a publisher.
It is a common error for new writers to submit stories too early. To settle for something that isn't sufficiently polished. That isn't sufficiently professional. Either because they don't know any better or they're just too impatient. The inevitable result is rejection by the publishers. Don't do that. It is very satisfying to know that a story is the best it can be. And then see it published.
Time to write, that is.
Frustrating, but I know I'm not the only one. For me, silly season at work is in full swing, and I know for others that work and/or life can get in the way at times.
I've read any number of posts (and perhaps that's another problem: too much time looking at other people's stuff) about the necessity of prioritising, and good time management. Trouble is, sometimes there just aren't any more hours (or even minutes) available to be managed.
However, even while unable to physically find the time to put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard), I still find I'm plotting, and jotting notes, and thinking about ways to get my characters out of the holes they've dug for themselves. So when I eventually DO find time to 'get back to it', I shall be writing so fast I shall have to watch out for friction burns to the tips of my fingers.
Whatever else happens, however much gets in my way, ultimately I am a WRITER. I can't not be; it's not something I just do, it's something I AM.
So, having taken out a few minutes to post this (late) entry to our Writer's Group journal, I'm away back to work related issues.