Thursday, 29 April 2010

fictionfire and May Morning in Oxford

Now I did warn you, a couple of posts ago, that I would nag (just a little). I'm looking forward to meeting the people who've signed up for Saturday's fictionfire course on Character Building - and I'm praying that the weather is going to hold, not just because Trinity College will look gorgeous in the sunlight, but also because it'll be May morning here in Oxford the celebration of which is a typically daft but lovely Oxford tradition. Early in the morning, a choir will sing a hymn to the dawn at the top of Magdalen College's tower. Below them, masses of people will gather, though they probably won't hear a thing as the choir's high voices are cast into the wind. There will be townspeople, students, Morris dancers, Green Men, girls in ballgowns and men in tuxes from all-night shindigs. Cafes and pubs will be open. The police will close off Magdalen Bridge to stop people jumping off it (there have been serious injuries in the past because the water below isn't deep enough, really). It'll feel like they're shooting an episode of 'Lewis' - you'll look around for the shifty academic, the eccentric bookshop owner, the tormented student, blundering through the crowds with a look of stricken guilt. Somewhere on the towpath by the quiet green river, far from the braying crowds, the body waits ...

Sorry. Got carried away. I remember one year (in the days when I levered myself out of bed at 5 a.m. to attend such shenanigans!), my college served coffee and croissants, strawberries and champagne for early breakfast - by 9 a.m. I was well and truly pissed, which was all to the good in the end. I had to move lodgings that day - I rocked on home, threw things in boxes, was blithe beyond belief - the most relaxed moving-house day I've ever had (until the hangover kicked in at around 3 in the afternoon).

Anyway - you can still join us on Saturday if you like - but get in touch quickly! And two weeks after that, there's Essential Editing. Here's a photo of Trinity to be getting on with: the room I'll be teaching in is on the first floor - it's the jutting out oriel window between the red creeper and the green.

Thursday, 22 April 2010

Dreams and DIY publishing

You'll notice, regular readers of mine, that I've been fiddling about with my colour scheme - as if I've nothing better to do! Queen of Displacement Activity, remember! I'm not sure I like what I've done so may revert to the template - let me know what you think.

The good news today is that my fictionfire communications problems are, I think, solved. Site support was there, to a degree, but responses came at the speed of a snail. You can always deluge me with messages at to test it out!

You know how there are certain phases in your year when you know you just cannot afford to let your guard down and relax (apart from fiddling with blog colour-schemes, that is!) - that's where I am now. I'm juggling nagging of A level son and A level students, doing a large amount of editing and report-writing, and getting ready for the May fictionfire courses. I look out at the sunshine and hope this weather holds so that my students can enjoy an Oxford college at its absolute best. Trinity has a gorgeous garden with long open lawns and will be well worth strolling around.

I looked out the window yesterday to see a funny white streak in the sky - oh, a vapour-trail! Planes flying once more, but the London Book Fair was seriously affected by the inability of cohorts of foreign agents and editors to attend. The advantage may have been that some proposals for books got more of a chance to shine, being not so swamped by the volume of meetings and deals there would normally be. I am crossing my fingers really really hard for a couple of friends whose agents intended promoting their books there.

A couple of weeks ago I read an article by Cosmo Landesman about the writer Stephen Benatar, who is about to break through to a wider readership after thirty years in the literary desert. He's a resourceful, bloody-but-unbowed chap, who accosts people, asking them if they would 'care to look' at his book, hand-selling it on an individual basis. Landesman succumbs to what he first thinks is a 'pity purchase' but then realises that Benatar who 'is not one of the deluded; he is one of the talented' - and the world is waking up to that, with a British edition of one of his books, 'Wish her Safe at Home' coming out. Why has Benatar single-mindedly gone on printing and selling his books in the face of indiffference? Not because he wants to be famous: 'he wants to be read.' 'All over Britain there are Benatars - hopeful men and women who, despite critical indifference and commercial failure, keep writing novels.' Landesman recites the gloomy statistics with which we are all familiar: the near-impossibility of being published, of earning a living, of maintaining a toehold in the literary world. He tells us of eleven novels Benatar tried to gain mainstream publishing for, to be rejected by the well-worn phrase, 'Not one for us.' We hear how Benatar married, had children, taught English to survive, eventually was selected from the slush pile in 1982- only to see that temporary success wither away - and still he kept on writing. He got John Carey, a prestigious name, to write a foreword to a reisssue of 'Wish Her Safe at Home'. No publisher would touch it. So he set up his own imprint and went on to sell 4,000 copies himself. He uses charm, a polite relentlessness, a direct engagement with potential customers who feel they've had personal attention: it works. Finally, by chance, he pushed (or rather ushered - 'pushed' is too pushy a word) a copy of 'Wish Her Safe at Home' into the hands of  a man who happened to be an editor with The New York Review of Books, who loved it. Now he's getting attention, his now-ex wife says 'I admit there were times when I thought he was wasting his time. He had the talent but not the luck. And now he's been vindicated.'

This is a story of commitment and determination, of incredible resilience in the face of knock-backs. But more than any of that, it's a story of faith. Stephen Benatar believes and has always believed in the worth of what he writes. It's a quiet, prolonged self-belief, quite detached, it seems, from the influence of the opinions of others. He does not care about the success of other writers. He does not care about being 'recognised in the streets.' He does it because he has something to say and he wants people to hear it: he does not want to go into that good night where all are silenced without a fight: 'My greatest fear is that my life's work will just vanish.'

This is a story about modern publishing, about self-publishing and marketing, about happenstance and fate. It's about how writers want to leave their footprints in the sand. It tells us it's never too late, if we are true to the contract with ourselves. As Landesman says at the end of the article, 'don't let your dream die. One day it might just come true.'

Let's all hang onto that thought.

Friday, 16 April 2010

fictionfire communication glitch

Just over two weeks to go to my fictionfire course, Character Building, on the 1st of May. If you're interested, do please check out the details on my site and make your booking!

Ironic, then, that I'm being driven mad by failures in delivery by my website email service when I reply to enquiries. It's not always happening, so it's hard to know just how many people haven't heard from me, which is so galling! If you contact me at please be assured, I do reply. Please check your spam/junk filter in case that's the problem and add and to your safe list. If you haven't heard from me within a day do please get in touch again - and you can ring me on 07827 455723.

Monday, 5 April 2010

Winchester Calling!

The programme for this year's Writers' Conference at the University of Winchester has now been posted online. This year, incredibly, will be the 30th year of the conference, and it has been organised from the start by Barbara Large who deserves all credit for such a herculean task! She's genuinely passionate about helping new writers and very good at arm-twisting (with extreme charm!) writers, editors and agents into appearing at the conference to dispense invaluable advice. It's not just a conference about advice on how to write, though - it's about opportunities. Here you get the chance to hear what's hot, what publishers are looking for, how best to pitch to them - and you get the chance to pitch direct at the One-to-One appointments, where, in a crowded and noisy room, you get fifteen minutes with a writer, an editor or an agent, to make your mark. So no stress involved, then! Less formally, you get the chance to network at the lunches and dinners, at the bar, in the queue for coffee, while strolling around the Book Fair. You never know who you'll meet, you never know what will come of it. There are quite a number of writers who are published as a result of meeting someone at the Conference.

If you do plan to come, don't wait for the printed conference programme, which tends to be slow to arrive: get online now and start booking, especially for the One-to-Ones which are so popular, they book up very quickly.

I've been teaching at the conference now for over a decade. This year I'll be teaching a mini-course on Friday 25th, 'The Right Perspective and the Telling Voice', and on Saturday 26th I'll be giving a lecture on 'Sensory Perceptions', looking at how you can use imagery and detail to give texture and depth to your writing. I'm always delighted to meet old friends there - and to meet any of my blog readers or fictionfire clients! By the way, I hope that you're popping across to fictionfire often to read my Quote of the Week section under Writing Inspiration. To be honest, I'm not quite managing a literary quote every week, but I'm proud of how this section is shaping up. I don't just give you a quotation; I write a little mini-essay - a riff about what that quote means to me or how it can help you. I'm hoping it provides you with the mixture of inspiration and practical guidance which is my aim with fictionfire as a whole. Enjoy!