Saturday, 30 April 2011

Oxford Literary Festival Part 3: Romantics, Interiors, Meteors - and David Nicholls

Magnolia blossom in front of the University Church of St Mary
After soap-boxing a bit in my last post, this final report from the Oxford Literary Festival is all about fun. In addition to always being on the look-out for information to help my writing students, these events were chosen for my pleasure and interest, starting with Daisy Hay's talk on the Young Romantics, at the Divinity Schools of the Bodleian Library on Sunday 3rd April. It's worth paying for an event at the Divinity Schools just to see the location, with its stone, many-bossed, fan-vaulted ceiling. Daisy's book is about the circle of Romantic poets, with her chief focus on Shelley, so it made a good tie-in with the recent Shelley exhibition at the Bodleian. I have always loved Keats and one day hope to visit the Keats-Shelley Museum on the Piazza di Spagna in Rome - and Keats' grave, with its poignant epitaph: 'Here lies one whose name was writ in water'. The book-signing afterwards was in the Convocation House, which was ironic, as this was where, in 1811, the authorities of the University decided to expel Shelley for atheism.

Jacques in the Festival Book Tent
On Tuesday 5th April, my son and I went to see David Nicholls: I haven't as yet read One Day, but Jacques loves it - and as he's not normally into reading, this is major! David's talk was held in the Marquee at Christ Church and was extremely well-attended. He was a witty speaker with a nice line in self-deprecation. He'd tried to make it as an actor, had gone into screenwriting (he was involved in Cold Feet, adapted Much Ado about Nothing as a modern version starring Billie Piper and wrote the recent adaptation of Tess of the d'Urbervilles), and hit immediate succes with his first novel, Starter for Ten, because it was chosen as a Richard and Judy book club read. One Day, of course, is the big one, having now sold 650,000 copies (so glad he was a likeable man as this sort of success is hard to bear!) and, he claims, was a genuine word of mouth hit, which is the best sort.

He talked of the differences between writing novels and writing screenplays - he's adapted One Day for the screen himself, and is currently adapting Great Expectations - and the main difference is that of calculated design. A screenplay demands the blocking out of scenes and sequences in advance of the writing of those individual speeches. With a novel, you can choose to do that too, of course, or you can opt for a more instinctive 'flying by the seat of your pants' approach. This distinction, appealingly known as the 'planner versus pantser' choice, is something I'll be dealing with in my fictionfire course next Saturday, Essential Story Construction, because I feel it's important to explore which technique works best for you.

David also talked of how there's a difference in terms of autonomy between being a novelist and being a screenwriter. As a novelist, your book, he said, is like your house, which you personally designed, and there it is. A film is where you build the house, then a whole troop of people march in, knock walls through, redesign. It's more 'combative' and he dislikes that aspect, though clearly, as a genial and engaging person, I think he has his ways of holding onto his own designs without too much in the way of overt hostilities breaking out.

In the Festival Marquee
In the book-signing tent afterwards, he signed Jacques' books - I look forward to reading them in the summer when I'm allowed to read for pleasure's sake.

The next day, I attended Lucy Worsley's  If Walls Could Talk: An Intimate History of the Home - the TV series of which is now running. She was intensely perky, with blonde bobbed hair and a Head Girl confidence. She quoted Henry James' opinion that 'We're each of us made up of our house, our furniture, our garments ... these things are all expressive of us.' She had an excellent Powerpoint presentation supporting a range of quirky facts about the past - how we slept, how we bathed (or didn't, because of the fear, in the 16th and 17th centuries, that water penetrating the body would cause illness), how the propensity of Victorian females to pass out was not only because of the corsetry but the lack of oxygen in their houses, as the new-fangled gas-lights sucked it up.

Fan-vaulting at Christ Church
Finally, I tacked on Ted Nields' talk, with the superb title (also the title of his book) Incoming! Or, Why We Should Stop Worrying and Learn to Love the Meteorite. When eventually, we got to hear him, after one of those inordinately long LitFest introductions from an aged enthusiast, he discussed the various mass extinctions which have occurred in the earth's long history, and the fear we have of meteor impacts. His view is that we're not at any particular risk as a species from the Big One hitting us and obliterating us - he contends we're managing to do a fine job of self-extinction through messing up the ecology of the earth, thank you very much. He told us there's no evidence that anybody has ever been killed by a direct meteor strike  and informed us that the chances of dying as a result of being struck by something from space are about the same as that of 'death by firework' - around 1 in 600,000, apparently. Worryingly, these are far better odds than those of winning the Lottery. Them's the breaks.

So, that's it for another year - as I said at the start, I'd have liked to have attended more events than I did but time and money prevented.

Next week, I'm delighted to announce an interview with Mark Edwards and Louise Voss, who've published their thriller Killing Cupid, on the Kindle - we'll be talking about why they did it and how they did it - and whether they'd do it again!

And here's a crucial reminder that BOOKING CLOSES midday Friday 6th May for my fictionfire course Essential Story Construction, which takes place a week today. Booking for Creating Narrative Perspective and Voice will close midday Friday 20th May and the course runs Saturday 21st May. Full details of the course and how to make your booking are on my website Do join us!

Saturday, 23 April 2011

Oxford Literary Festival Part 2: Publishing Futures

I'm following up my last blogpost with a review of the other events I attended at the recent Oxford Literary Festival, starting with a panel discussion at Corpus Christi called 'Publishing Futures'. I went along to this because I was interested in what people at the ink-face had to say about the current state of publishing and in particular the debate about e-publishing and self-publishing in relation to traditional print publishing. The panel included Marcus du Sautoy, who revels in the title of Charles Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science, and Cathy Galvin, Deputy Editor of The Sunday Times Magazine. It was due to include Victoria Barnsley, Chief Executive of Harper Collins - and she was my main reason for attending. Ironic, then, that she wasn't there: she'd been 'called away to New York' urgently. Hmn.

Corpus Christi College
The agent Felicity Bryan took her place: her agency here in Oxford has a very good reputation, and represents a number of significant authors - non-fiction, fiction, children's writers. In her introductory talk, she described how publishers have been having sessions with agents where they explain their vision and their plans with regard to e-publishing - and most importantly, the issue of digital rights. I felt she'd been both open and proactive in terms of seeing the possibilities for her clients - she'd been selling apps for people like the science writer Marcus Chown, for instance. Indeed, his app on the solar system is on its way to becoming a book - so the digital highway can be a two-way street. She described how publishers are very keen that writers should make themselves appealing on the internet. Cathy Galvin was interesting but I have to say that everything she said seemed to lead to the notion that we should all be signing up for the Sunday Times online, and particularly on iPad. Hmn again. She said that News International is not a print company but a media company nowadays - and referring back to Felicity's opinions, it seems to me that we writers, whether represented or not, whether traditionally published or not, need to see ourselves as little media furnaces, generating heat and light whenever we can. We need to write, to promote, to interact through social media, we need to see the possibilities of new forms and new markets and be open to them. 'Only connect,' E. M. Forster famously said - never was this more true.

Marcus du Sautoy was the most entertaining person on the panel - you know, the sort of speaker you would like to invite to dinner if only to continue the friendly, bantering, fascinating dialogue. He feels that e-books haven't really fulfilled their potential yet: he'd like to see publishers becoming even more adventurous with them. He feels that authors haven't really grasped the opportunities yet either.

At the end, there were questions from the floor. My hand shot up at every available opportunity - but I was not heeded, alas. All the more galling, isn't it, when you want to ask something and somebody else has been picked and either drones their way through a self-evident observation, or stymies the speaker with a question which is utterly barking-mad (and it always happens, doesn't it?)

What did I want to ask? Well, first the question of royalties on e-books. Currently publishers offer pretty low rates - and if you publish yourself to Kindle, for example, you can take a much larger proportion of the profit. So, given that you're being asked to network, to promote yourself, to involve yourself to a huge degree in the success of your work, what is it that publishers currently offer us that's so good? If Victoria Barnsley had been there I would have loved to have heard a reply. Also, given how incredibly long the process of approaching agents and publishers and then getting your book out to the public can be, many self-publishers are opting for the DIY route simply to speed things up. Self-publishing still carries the aura of desperation about it, let's not beat about the bush - but not nearly so much as before. Yes, people self-publish because they can't get agents/publishers to take them on, but there are now so many other reasons, and debate about this issue is hot, hot, hot. Self-publishing offers control over your work and its presentation, the possiblity of direct profit from your work, the chance to create for yourself your own loyal readership, and all without having to grow grey hairs while you wait! I wanted to ask, given the recent famous examples of people like Amanda Hocking, where writers get their work out there, establish their readership and then opt for traditional publishing deals, what the panel - and in particular Felicity Bryan - felt about a writer who approached them after self-publishing. I did speak to her afterwards and she was friendly but I didn't feel very much the wiser.

Corpus Christi College

Publishing companies will of course say that they can take the burdens of creating the book as tangible product and marketing it off your shoulders. They have clout with booksellers. (Hmn for the third time ... ?) They understand the market in a way that you don't. They have connections.

But I really do think they need to consider, during this bewildering transitional phase, when chain bookstores struggle, when the Little Guy can wield his own megaphone pretty damn effectively, when online sales are directly possible between writer and buyer, where social networking can create a cosy sense of trust and intimacy between creator and consumer, when writers increasingly want two crucial things - Control and Speed - publishers, the big guys anyway, should think about wooing those who deliver the Product. Otherwise, as that choice modern term has it, they run the risk of being 'disintermediated.'

Phew. I think there will have to be a Part 3 to this blog report!

BOOKING CLOSES midday Friday 6th May for my fictionfire course Essential Story Construction on 7th May. All details of this course and Creating Narrative Perspective and Voice on 21st May are to be found on my website 

Thursday, 14 April 2011

Oxford Literary Festival Part 1: Trying on Voices

It's been a mad week (it's a mad time of year) so I'm later than I'd intended in reporting on Oxford's Literary Festival, which ran last week. Before writing this post, I took a look at my earliest report on the festival, back in 2007, the year I set up this blog. The post was called Public Showman, private shaman? Be true to the kind of writer you are. Here's an excerpt from it:
Writers, once elusive, mysterious creatures who retreated from the world to think deep thoughts and emerge with sybilline wisdom every now and again - writers are now unashamed showmen, practising all sorts of huckster-techniques, giving us the well-honed schmooze, the well-turned anecdote (and I've been to enough of these things to have heard the same worn anecdote or witticism trotted out just that once too often). And yes, I know there were always writers-as-performers (Dickens springs to mind immediately) - but the point is that nowadays, published writers are automatically expected to be performing seals too, whether it's congenial to their nature or not; it's part of the pact with the publishing devil, it's part of what a publishing house considers before they take you on: are you marketable?

Well, been nothing's changed, even though over the long-term the festival has transformed itself a great  deal since it began in 1997 at the Oxford Union. Back then it involved only a few events held over a weekend. This year's festival involved around 550 speakers at over 300 events, over the course of eight days. Now, that's big.

Every year there are the famous names, the big draws - this year these included Melvyn Bragg, Princess Anne, David Lodge, Philip Pullman, Kazuo Ishiguro, Colin Dexter, Joanne Harris, Michael Holroyd. There are the  literary big-hitters, the genre masters, the historians, the politicians and polemicists, the poets, the scientists,  the celebrities (Stephanie Powers, anyone?), the cooks, the rising stars, the as-yet little-knowns, the locals. It's an almighty melange of literary competitiveness, genuine mission to communicate, strident commerciality, literary envy and dollops of preening self-satisfaction.

Every year I check the website early on, because the printed programme comes out very late indeed and is the size of a brick. I list every event I want to visit and then start to whittle it down to what I can visit, partly because there are other claims on my time at this time of year, teaching-wise, and partly because of the expense. I'm sorry, I understand that setting up and running a show like this must cost a fortune, but most events now cost £10 a pop - and that pretty soon mounts up to a scary amount (not factoring in the books you buy to get signed in the book marquee afterwards ...) So, I have to restrain myself. I hear the same complaint from others and wish the organisers would take that on board - I really would go to more events if the cost was slightly less.

Oxford is seen as a prosperous city and the festival certainly draws the North Oxford ladies and gents out, and the plum Home Counties accents reverberate in hall and tent. Quite a few of the 'introducers' were of a very Home Counties vintage and one or two were so fond of their own voices their introductions ran the risk of lasting longer than the talk they were introducing!

Magnolia by St Mary the Virgin University Church
Before I discuss the events I attended, one thing was particularly striking for me this year. Oxford. Now, I've lived in this city for the best part of thirty years and I absolutely love it, but every so often I'm jolted into a new appreciation of it - the festival, because we were blessed with wonderful weather, gave me the chance to stroll around, look, and absorb all over again how special a location this is. I played tourist, taking loads of photos, as you can see from this blog-post. It felt like one of those renewal-of-wedding-vows ceremonies. I don't see myself ever being able to divorce myself from this city (though the cottage with a sea-view in Cornwall is still a dream!) - whether Oxford, in all its glory, has any time for me, is quite another thing. Oxford is patrician and lofty, completely and supremely pleased with itself. It always has been and always will be.

Corpus Christi College
Christ Church Tom Tower
The festival is centred at Christ Church, the most patrician college of them all. Other events were held at Corpus Christi, in a modern lecture hall, where one wall is the ancient city wall; at Merton, at the Sheldonian Theatre and the Bodleian Library. So even if the speaker is as dull as ditch-water you've got lots to look at.

The first event I attended was a panel discussion involving Philip Pullman, Kate Clanchy (whose book Antigona and Me impressed me so much last year) and poet Patience Agbabi. All are Creative Writing Fellows at Oxford Brookes University and their subject, 'Voice', was of interest to me because I taught a course on this and narrative perspective at Winchester Writers' Conference last year and will be running another as part of my own fictionfire programme on 21st May (course details on the fictionfire website). 

It hardly needs to be said that all three were wise and clever speakers with an edge of humour but a deep understanding of their craft. They drew our attention to the main differentiation when we come to speak of voice: you have the 'voice' of your character or narrator within the text you are creating and you have your own voice as a writer. Patience Agbabi talked of 'trying on a range of voices' - and well she may, for she is engaged in a new version of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. She has also written sonnets in the form of an agony aunt's replies to writers from history, which sounds really interesting. Philip Pullman pointed out that in some narratives, the narrator purports to be quite a detached third person 'voice' but that voice is as much of a constructed character as any of the others within the book.He said his voice is different when he's writing his fairy tales versus the fiction destined for slightly older readers. He claimed that he doesn't think about readers at all when he's writing: 'It's none of their damn business!' - and that he hears the appropriate voice in his 'mind's ear'. Literature, he said, 'belongs in the mouth and the ear as much as it does in the eye.' Kate Clanchy said we opt to choose a particular camera distance: with some works you feel you're right on the character's shoulder whereas in others it's appropriate to be a long way off. Patience said of her characters 'I don't think of them sounding like me. I think of them sounding like themselves.'

Then there is the other kind of 'voice' isn't there: writers are always advised to find their 'own voice' (as if they'd left it under a cushion somewhere) and this is a daunting idea for new writers. The fact is that you only discover your voice through writing and writing regularly. All writers try imitating the writers they admire and all writers despair at times of finding that recognisable voice which will mark them out as unique: we all know how Dickens wrote, how Hemingway wrote, how Martin Amis writes - how can we find our individuality? Through practice, commitment, experimentation, through being open to new techniques, through not being lazy and settling for the predictable.  Through listening to your characters, through playfulness and openness, through time. Through, as Philip said, having the 'silence and secret time' to hear what your true voice is.

And now my voice is going to take a rest: I'll save the rest of this report for my next blog-post!

BOOK NOW for my courses on Essential Story Construction (7th May) and Creating Narrative Perspective and Voice (21st May) - all details and booking form can be found on my website:

Friday, 1 April 2011

Upcoming writing courses

I'm very gratified that my week-long summer school course, Writing your Novel - Creativity and Craft, as part of Oxford University's Department for Continuing Education programme, is already fully booked and has a waiting list. This happens every year, which is wonderful!

It's a good time, therefore, to remind you that I'll be teaching my own fictionfire day courses next month: Writing your Novel - Essential Story Construction on May 7th and Creating Narrative Perspective and Voice on May 21st. If you're interested in enrolling for these, all the details of course content and how to book can be found on my website. I'm delighted that several people who attended previous fictionfire courses have already signed up for these.

I'll also be teaching at the Winchester Writers' Conference at the start of July, held at the University of Winchester. The online programme is now up on the conference site and I do recommend that if anything interests you, you should book promptly. This is a huge, long-established conference and offers not only day courses and lectures but the chance to book one-to-one appointments with writers, agents and editors. There are numerous competitions to enter too, which is a great way to build your writing credentials. I'll be conducting a day long course on Character Building on Friday 1st July and my Saturday lecture will be Place is Paramount - discussing how location and atmosphere can reinforce the power of your writing and make it memorable.

I hope I'll get the chance to meet and talk to you at one of these events!