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.


KAREN said...

Great post - it's good to hear from someone 'in the know' what's going on in the writing industry, even it isn't quite what we want to hear! 40,000 submissions - wow! If I didn't love writing that fact alone would make me want to throw in the towel :o)

Lorna F said...

Thanks Karen - I do feel it's important to tell it like it is. But remember, that agent had 4,000, not 40,000 submissions! So all is not yet lost! And keep writing - what I've read on your blog is excellent. Don't even think of chucking in that towel!

Patty said...

Hi Lorna,
Nice to hear about Winchester. I debated on whether or not to go this year, but decided to go to a weekend writing conference in US at Skidmore in Saratoga Springs, NY, in June. Your comment, "fellowship, mutual support, sharing of advice and information, a sense of community, a desire to win through against all the odds, " is exactly what I experienced at this conference--more than 400 women participated, and the energy and creativity was fantastic. I took a seminar on how to put together a book proposal--part of the emphasis echoed the summarizing of one's book in a line or two (this seminar suggested having a 30-second speech for agents), and also the angst that goes with trying to get a mainstream publisher. After that seminar I changed my mind about taking other "nuts and bolts" seminars that weekend and focused on helping my creativity. The writing I did in those workshops was more focused and from my heart, and I left the weekend feeling encouraged about my writing and not depressed about the publishing industry.

Thanks for your blog and for encouraging us to write for ourselves!

KAREN said...

Ah. Well at least reading it wrong the first time makes 4000 submissions sound almost manageable!

Lorna F said...

Karen - Yup, a mere 4,000: piece of cake. Go for it girl!

Patty - great to hear from you and to hear that you had a positive experience at Skidmore. I know it's difficult to balance being creative and true to your self as a writer with the hard-nosed practicalities of optimising your chances of publication. I'm about to start my summer school on Saturday - I still remember your story from last year and hope you're making progress with it. Keep in touch!