Monday, 21 July 2008

Welcome Returns

Last week was taken up with teaching a summer school course in novel writing for the university's Dept of Continuing Education. I've been doing this for some years now and in a paradoxical way enjoy the sheer intensity of it, whizzing through everything from ideas and motivation through to how best to promote your work - all in a week! I don't know who's more shell-shocked by the end of it, me or my class - but we have a laugh and I get to meet some very interesting people. I live and breathe it for a week and collapse exhausted on Friday night - and on Saturday there's the accumulation of dishes to wash and the ever-present laundry mountain to 'ground' me again!

Our family holiday is imminent so if I go silent again - I will be back. I want to mention in the meantime two happy returns to the blog and site links I have in the boxes to the right. The first is Tess Gerritsen, who back in the spring rather dramatically announced she was going dark because she'd been the subject of a vicious online campaign against her. I wasn't the only one to think this was a real shame as I really enjoy her blog both for its disarming honesty and for its insight into the life - and stresses - of a highly successful writer. I kept checking sporadically and sure enough, a few weeks ago, she started up again. You just can't shut us writers up!

The second revival is that of my friend Jacqui Lofthouse, at her site and blog - Jacqui has been quiet for months now because she has been concentrating on finishing her fourth novel - but is now continuing her literary consultancy with new consultants. She is also launching her new business, Essential Artist, which involves coaching for 'creative development of individuals and organisations'. So if you need help either with checking the quality of your manuscript or with motivation and confidence building as a creative artist, check out Jacqui's site and download her ebook - Write 30,000 Words in 30 Days. Good luck with all of this, Jacqui, and with the revisions and sending out of your new novel!

Now, I face Packing Hell - bad enough choosing clothes for myself and the boys - but one of the worst aspects is picking the good reads to take. Not so intellectual that my brain goes into meltdown under the hot sun, not so light that they're read at a sitting and I'm left staring into space for thirteen of the fourteen days (what's that you say? Write your own? Nah - I'm off duty). What I need are reasonably chunky light-but-rich affairs that will fill the laze-by-the-pool time and maybe trigger a thought or two ... no, no, I told you - I'm OFF DUTY! I will not think of themes, tropes, leitmotifs, intertextuality ...

If you're off on holiday yourself, have a great time, and happy reading. Here are some titles I'll definitely be packing - Joseph O'Connor 'Redemption Falls'(he wrote the brilliant 'Star of the Sea'; C. J. Sanson 'Sovereign' (third in the Matthew Shardlake Tudor mysteries); Anne Donovan 'Being Emily' (she wrote the wonderful 'Buddha Da'). And then there's ... oh, and there's ...

Friday, 11 July 2008

Booker and Age-Ranging Revisited

A couple of days ago I spent the afternoon teaching a very impressive group of writers who'd just finished their Creative Writing Diploma course at the university and - not having been put off in the least - had set up their own summer school (pity summer didn't decide to come along). At one point we were looking at the difference between Booker prize-winning novels and commercial novels - and yesterday, blow me if there wasn't an article by Vincent Dowd discussing that very thing on - the entertainment section. Martin Goff, longtime organiser of the award, said a Booker gives 'people information and feeling about something they knew very little about indeed'. So does a Haynes manual or a Lonely Planet guide, surely. There's got to be more. Tracy Chevalier explains that it's not what you say but the way that you say it: 'the working definition of literary fiction is fiction that is not just concerned with story, but with how it's told as well ... When you read a book like Atonement - a very popular literary fiction - its form follows its function. The story is a compelling one, but how it's told is also essential to the story itself. Those two things come together and make the book more than it would be if it was just a plot.' So now you know.

Ironically, however powerful Atonement was, it didn't win the Booker and therefore couldn't make it onto the 'Best of Booker' shortlist, where, as I've discussed before (see my 12th May post), a selection of six previous winners of the prize was made by a small panel and then opened to the public vote. Many of us feel the exercise would have been far more valid if all the titles of the past 40 Bookers had been available for the public to vote for. As expected, Salman Rushdie's 'Midnight's Children' was announced yesterday as the winner. You can't help wondering if people voted for it because it was the only one on the list they'd heard of. Sadly - and predictably - my own favourite, 'The Siege of Krishnapur' didn't win. I haven't as yet checked out where it came in the voting. As I said before, do check it out: it's a wonderful book.

Another follow-up to a previous post, this time on Age-Ranging on children's books (6th June): the petition now has 3,000 signatures, and important children's writers including Philip Pullman have met with publishers' representatives to discuss the issue. Publishers are promising to consult with individual authors before age ranging the backs of books - but there's a real fear that only the authors with clout like Philip Pullman and Anne Fine will have their wishes fully observed. I think, however, that publishers have been taken aback by the petition and the weight of strong feeling this issue has generated. As I said before: it's perfectly OK to age range in bookshops by labelling shelves and sections - but don't put anything permanent on the books themselves.

Tomorrow I start teaching my annual novel-writing summer school for Oxford University's Department of Continuing Education - which will prove to be a very intense week! Last year's group were a total joy.

Monday, 7 July 2008

Post Winchester

Yes, I know it's over a week since I was teaching at the Writers' Conference in Winchester, and I'm sorry for not posting sooner, but I had a deadline to meet last week on another project, so many apologies.

The Conference was the usual mix: it's uplifting to be amongst so many people who are fascinated by the writing process and who have followed or want to follow a writing dream. It's also pretty tiring and full-on - and the site, at the University of Winchester, is physically demanding, built as it is on the side of a hill (those of you who were there will know what I mean!) I thoroughly enjoyed meeting old friends there and catching up with them (and thanks again, Sally Spedding and Mike Greenhough, for love and support), and making new contacts (good to have met you, Jane Bidder aka Sophie King!). Then suddenly, it's all over.

One of the most striking things for me as an old trouper who started going there a number of years ago, before I was published and before I myself started teaching creative writing, is the difference between the naive views I held then and the close-to-cynical outlook I now have. Part of me wants to say to the newbies 'It ain't how you think it is! It ain't easy!' If anything, it's even less easy than it was a decade ago: one of the common messages coming out of the conference this year is how risk-averse mainstream publishing now is. Readers up and down the land complain about the same-old same-old on the 3 for 2 tables in the chain bookstores, - but in a prospective recession and in a publishing climate where the chains and the supermarket wield such economic clout, publishers play safe, and you can't really blame them for that.

I went to a couple of talks by industry professionals, on your behalf my dear readers. Here's what I took away: one agent said he'd had 4,000 submissions last year, and took on 2 writers. Another gets 60-70 sumbissions a week and looks for reasons to reject them. Her assistant vets them first - so many never get as far as being looked at by her personally. She never reads synopses: hates them. She used the word 'bollocks' a lot. Hmn.

Bollocks or not, a lot rides on how you present your work. It turns out your covering letter and how you are able to sum up your work in a sentence or two are pretty crucial. If your book goes as far as the 'acquisitions meeting' at a publishing house, the sales and marketing people, the rights director, the finance director, the publicity director and the M.D. will all have their opinion and the hapless editor who just happens to love your book, sweetie, may well be stymied by the sums. Nothing to do with your deathless prose, everything to do with the market.

So what's the good news? The good news is that people still care enough to write. That writers, far from jumping on the latest bandwagon, still, occasionally, like to create their own bandwagon. That writers, faced with the frustrations of mainstream publishing, turn to self-publishing - and no, they're not all crazed self-deceivers, - and somehow they cling to their enthusiasm in the face of terrible knock-backs. There are many festivals and conferences all over the country these days, and in my darker moments I do think this is over-kill, that not everyone who attends a course or lecture will finish writing a book, that not everyone (not by a long shot) will achieve the publication that they want - but at Winchester although there was the usual writerbleat from all of us, there was still also fellowship, mutual support, sharing of advice and information, a sense of community, a desire to win through against all the odds.

And that's got to be worth a lot. For many writers, after all, the bottom line is the actual writing: the joy and satisfaction of having put the words on the page. They're your words, put down in your own particular way, about what particularly interests - or obsesses - you. Never mind the publishers and the booksellers - you, ultimately, are in charge. Hang on in there. Keep writing.