Wednesday, 27 June 2007

Winchester Writers' Conference

I'm revving up to go off to Winchester for the weekend. The Writers' Conference will be on from the 29th at the University of Winchester - it's a pretty massive event, which has been running now for over a quarter a century (therefore started long before the explosion of courses, conferences and festivals we now see). I'll be teaching a day course on plotting (cram everything I know about how to structure a novel into six hours? No problem!) and giving lectures on editing and characterisation on Saturday.

I've been going to this conference for years now - initially as a delegate, not a speaker. I first went when I'd just completed 'The Chase' and had hopes of it. I went because I wanted to make contact with other writers and feel part of a community. Again, that's much easier these days, partly because of the aforesaid popularity of courses and festivals and so on, partly because there are more book groups and writing groups, partly because of the internet - Facebook, publishers' sites, online courses, and blogs like these.

I've made some good friends at the conference - it's like a school reunion every year! I learned a lot when I first came about the power of networking, and I learned what I've come to believe strongly in - that apart from talent and graft, as a writer you need to know how publishing works and you need to learn how to play its game.

The conference is pretty massive and is a bit of a fitness challenge, as the venues are spread across the face of a steep hill overlooking the city (which, by the way, is a wonderful place to visit in itself). You develop the skills of a mountain goat.

It's also totally exhausting - so many people, so many queries, so much hunger for information, for the magic secrets that lead to publishing success! And I'm also the worst person in the world for remembering names ...

So if you're there, and you come up to say hi or ask a question, forgive me if there's a blank, exhausted look on my face and I have trouble remembering my own name, far less anyone else's!

If you do go, swig a lot of caffeine, make the effort to meet people, be prepared to listen to often uncomfortable advice, be positive and professional - and enjoy!

Friday, 22 June 2007

Agent progress

By the way, my agent responded last week - she's delighted with the revisions so now the book goes out to publishers.

I've now taken up the delicate hopeful-writer stance (and you thought Pilates was difficult - try this): feet on the ground while head in the clouds and heart racing - just a little bit. It's a posture I've been perfecting for some years now. Does wonders for the abdominals but is perhaps a bit detrimental to the blood pressure. It's been a while since I've stretched my head quite this high - but hey, it's like riding a bike: it all comes back to you.

Now it's a waiting game. Again.

Saturday, 16 June 2007

Lit Salons and Lattes

First of all, I'm not blogging at present as much as I'd like - blame pressures of work and a son in Year 10 with a load of delayed coursework and imminent exams. Not so much weblog as backlog.

A little item to amuse you - not only is the ubiquitous coffee chain Starbucks promoting selected books these days but now the hair salon chain Toni and Guy is getting in on the act (just when you thought it was safe to read Heat and OK with a clear conscience because there was nothing else available and besides, at the hairdressers you want to give your brain a break). Toni and Guy have teamed up with Penguin - Penguin are keen because of what their general marketing executive, Ruth Spencer, describes as 'The high level of dwell time in salons' (language like this is humbling for the novelist - you just couldn't make it up). She goes on to say, without, it seems, a trace of irony, that 'We are confident this will help us achieve a high level of cut through and impact amongst a key target audience'.

So, look forward to discussing with your hairdresser not only whether you're going somewhere nice at the weekend or for your holidays, but the postmodernist metafictional slant of the latest literary tome popped onto your lap while you're under the drier.

Expect to see more excruciating puns in salon names - joining such stalwarts as A Kut Above and Curl Up and Dye will be Readlocks, Tress of the d'Urbervilles, Perms of Endearment, From Hair to Eternity (wouldn't be surprised if that already exists) ... oh, stop me. Stop me now.

Thursday, 7 June 2007

Motivation and vindication

Here's a quote: 'I never thought of the public at all and publication has never been my principal objective anyway. ... You can't be in it for the money, you can't be in it for the idea you're going to be famous.' Joanne Harris

How you react to the above words should tell you a lot about your nature and motivation as a writer. Why are you doing this? (Your loved ones and best friends may well ask you the same question, with plaintive expressions on their faces). It's a question to trouble the wee small hours, a question to haunt you when you've had another rejection or one of those said loved ones has just cast an eye over your immortal prose with a look of incomprehension on his or her face. 'Very nice, dear,' they may say. Not much of a crumb to snatch at.

At one end of the scale is the image of the writer as the misunderstood genius, the tortured loner, whose profound words and individual voice will only be understood by posterity. At the other end is the cynical hack rolling out what the public wants - and the public gets, as long as the advances are high, the step-deals satisfactory, the ego well massaged.

I for one have always wanted, needed to write. It's a sickness in the blood. But I've always wanted to be read too. The private stuff is for my diary (and even that, one has to say, is written, in a way, for an invisible audience - my future self, who will come across it years down the line and cringe with embarrassment at what I say now, but also smile fondly and nostalgically - or gasp with recognition at a memory that had been buried until reading my own words exhumed it).

I've always wanted to be published and one of the greatest thrills of my life was, on publication day, to see the window of Bloomsbury's offices in Soho filled with copies of The Chase. My book. My book. To go into bookshops and see it there. My book.

Along with that, there's the desire to earn money. It's an honest desire. Many writers dream of the literary income that will free them from everything else. Money isn't yachts and diamonds. Money is time. Time is freedom. Freedom equates to creativity.

When I started teaching creative writing I automatically believed that would-be writers would welcome advice not only on writing but on editing their manuscripts and submitting them. I felt it was important to give my students a clear idea of how the world of publishing worked - even if this meant shattering a few illusions. Writers need to know the commercial realities - and with every passing year this is more and more true. Back then, I often encountered a kind of sniffiness about what I was doing, as if it was somehow infra dig to take the commercial approach, to avoid the kind of preciousness that dismisses the need to be published as if it's the route to selling your literary soul.

How ironic then, to find that increasingly, as creative writing courses flourish up and down the land, that many of them now focus strongly on the editing and submission aspects. Vindicated!

Here's another quote: 'All bestsellers are honest books written according to a writer's obsession.' Robert Harris

Find yours. Write about it. Sell it. Sell it to readers. Make contact.

Friday, 1 June 2007

Snark is Dark

Whaddya know - I link to two blogs and one, Jacqui Lofthouse's is temporarily dark, with good reason because Jacqui is working to finish her new novel to a deadline: good luck with that, Jacqui. Her site is still well worth a look, of course. The other blog, featuring the wonderfully acerbic New York wit of Miss Snark, literary agent, is now permanently dark. As Miss S would say, Dear dog in heaven. It looks she was a victim of her own success and the blog was taking over her life. However, I will maintain the link because it's still a blog worth visiting, with a huge archive and links to other blogging agents. (Sounds like an insult - 'You dirty blogging agent you!') So, do pay a visit and scroll down from the cutesy farewell picture of her dog, Killer Yapp: you'll find lots of vicious fun and information.

Read it before you see it

Computer grief goes on - I can log on to this blog from an Apple Mac but not from my laptop, which is very galling as it's more convenient for me. Initially, everything was fine - then a couple of weeks ago the laptop refused to let me past, flagging up a privacy report. When I try to circumvent the problem by asking it to 'allow' my log in, I just go round and round the houses and nothing happens - it's still listed as restricted. Aarggh! `If anyone has any advice, I'd welcome it.

In the news this week: first, you remember that I drew attention to the horrors (in my opinion, my ever-so-'umble opinion Mr Copperfield) of the Dickens theme park in Chatham. Now I read in The Times ( about the Harry Potter park to be built by Warner Brothers and Universal studios in Orlando (where else?) 'The film-makers believe that they can recreate the dream of every child reader, and probably a few million adults too, who have imagined themselves flying in a game of Quidditch or walking into Hogwarts School ...' Do you lie awake at night, wishing you were astride a Nimbus 2000?

We are promised 'fully immersive' experiences to recreate the magic of Rowling's imagination with illusions like computerised figures that appear and disappear - and the vice-president of Unversal Creative Studios is quoted as saying 'This will allow people to have an experience unlike one they have been able to imagine before. What we're creating is an entire world. A place where magic happens.' Forgive me, but I thought that had already been achieved, by means of the relatively inexpensive mode of the er, actual, books.

I am at present reading Philip Pullman's 'Northern Lights' to my boys because I want them to know the story before the film (annoyingly called 'The Golden Compass') comes out and sets their visions in stone. It's too late with regard to 'The Lord of the Rings' - if they ever get round to reading it, the landscape and characters have been pre-envisioned for them. Although I think Peter Jackson did a damn fine job, it's sad to think that millions of viewers are missing out on what, for me, is one of the marvellous aspects of writing - that the writer presents powerful images which the reader then responds to in their own individual way. My children are part of a generation where it's all done for them: scene, gesture, background music. I think Viggo Mortenson is a brilliant Aragorn - but before he came along I had a vision of Aragorn myself and the two co-exist in my brain, like hearing two different piano players interpret a famous sonata. It's interesting that the publishers of the Narnia stories used the line 'Read it before you see it' before the film of 'The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe' came out.

Maybe I'm wrong: Barry Meyer, chairman of Warner Bros, claims 'Over the years, we have received thousands of letters from fans wishing they could visit Hogwarts and the wonderful locations described in each of J.K. Rowling's beloved stories.' But for me, all that's needed is an armchair, no interruptions, a glorious book to lose myself in and an active and responsive imagination - my reaction to the words on the page is the interactivity that satisfies me. I don't need some jobbing actor dressed up as Fagin or a wander through 'snow-covered Hogsmeade village'.

Then again, if I do publiish my children's book and anyone wants to come along and buy the film rights ...!