Monday, 28 June 2010

Post-Winchester Post

Phew! It was, as it always is, a hectic weekend, made all the more exhausting by the humidity and heat. It was definitely the hottest Winchester Writers' Conference I've attended!

On Friday I taught a mini-course on Point of View in a room where, thankfully, the sun didn't strike directly until late afternoon. The group was a delight - faces old and new, all contributing opinions and questions, and writing beautiful and interesting pieces (I'm only sorry we didn't have time for more writing exercises, as there was so much to get through!).

After the opening dinner, I thought I'd get an early night, but ended up waking up at 5 a.m. and not being able to sleep properly after that. If it weren't for the need to get some sleep for the sake of brain-alertness, I wouldn't complain at all. The hall of residence I was in was up above the main campus (those of you who know the University of Winchester will know its steep topography!), which meant a beautiful view across the valley to the wooded ridge beyond, trees all around and a light refreshing breeze. The morning light was just exquisite. Wish I'd remembered to bring my camera.

The plenary speaker on Saturday was Sir Terry Pratchett. There was great anticipation that he would deliver a witty, fun, yet trenchant speech - and we were not disappointed, except by his tendency to drift away from the microphone. The collective will of the members of the audience urged him to stay where his voice could sound out properly, but no-o-o-o-o-o-o

He was introduced as a speaker with a tower of books sold that would measure a mile high - he told us that his mother told stories to him as a child but that he was initially a poor reader, until he read 'The Wind in the Willows' and then never looked back. He associated school 'with being smacked' and left at the age of seventeen, to become a journalist. His path to publication was an easy one and it all seems to have come naturally to him - he applies this philosophy to his books. He devours history books and came out with extraordinary facts (including the hilarious description of a 19th century financier called Preserved Fish! - an orphan adopted by devout religious people who called him Preserved-by-the-Lord because he'd survived a shipwreck). He said 'I write serendipitously. I've never yet plotted a book.' He navigates his way through 'a valley of clouds' and knows that 'there is a story there in the way that a prospector knows that there is oil under the ground.' His focus is on instinct, on the theme or central idea of the book rather than on a rigid outlining of plot. This dilemma - do I plot ahead, do I fly by the seat of my pants - faces all of us as writers. Usually we reach an accommodation between the two extremes (unless we're screenwriters where a rigid plot structure is crucial) - too much freedom can result in flabby, directionless, self-indulgent storytelling - but too much plotting ahead can result in a tale which is airless and overworked, where you're too tied to structures to take a risk or go where the story is leading you.

As with so many good writer-speakers, Terry knew how to manage an audience. His tone and timing were spot on. The audience not only evinced collective will (get back to the microphone, Tel!) but collective concern. Nobody can be unaware of Terry Pratchett's condition - we were braced for any evidence of the encroachment of his dementia and we all drew in our breaths whenever he paused to search for a word. There were moments when that search stretched out slightly longer than was comfortable - but then who of us does not blank out on occasion, when a perfectly familiar name or reference eludes us? It was just that with Sir Terry we were looking for it, expecting it, reading perhaps too much into those moments. It was striking that he gave the whole speech himself, whereas when he gave the Dimbleby lecture on TV he opted for someone else to deliver most of it. Also, to his credit, he did not mention his condition at all. I'm sure he knows how much sympathy and support there is for him. He chose to deliver a speech as a writer to other writers - although its title was a prickly 'Why are You Listening to Me when you Should Be at Home Writing?' (ah, but Terry, you know full well that we writers are Devotees of Displacement, acolytes in the Cult of Procrastination!)

Because I had one-to-one appointments with writers and a lecture to give, the only other talk I managed to attend was Carol Ann Duffy's reading of some of her poetry, both past (from 'The World's Wife') and current, including a very moving poem about the death of her mother, where, as she did in her poem about the soldiers of the First World War, she imagined time reversed. The poem traced events from the moment of her mother's last breath, which sat cooling in her palm 'like an egg', back through hospitalisation, to arrival with wheelchair and so on. Partly because I thought it was an excellent poem, partly because of the recent death through cancer of my aunt in Scotland, partly because of memories of the death of my mother-in-law, also through cancer, I had tears in my eyes.

I gave a lecture on 'Sensory Perceptions' - the power of imagery - at 5 p.m. A gratifyingly large number of people turned out for this, in spite of heat, exhaustion, and quite possibly heat-exhaustion - thank you all of you for being such a great audience!

The celebratory dinner that evening was great fun. The conference is all about networking and friendship, about learning new things and making new contacts. Every year there is disappointment, every year there is success. People meet people who know people. People meet agents. Agents take people on. And yes, on occasion, eventually publishers take people on!

It was wonderful, as it always is, to meet up with old friends like Sally Spedding and Mike Greenhough, with newer friends like Adrienne Dines and Crysse Morrison, to meet new faces and see students I've taught previously - so hello and thanks to Denise, to Janina (keep belting them out girl!), to Susie, to Paul and Mary, to Ali Hale and Carole Westron, to Teri Terry (good luck with the Greenhouse Agency!) and to everybody else I met and chatted with and who added their names to my website mailing list.

What next? Well, I let myself have the day off yesterday. I need to update my website now and get ready for the summer school I teach in a couple of weeks' time. If any of you were at Winchester and have special memories or anecdotes, do add a comment!

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Announcing October fictionfire courses

When you work in education, your year doesn't run from January to January: your mental picture of it is from August/September through to the summer, with particular stress points set into it. May/June, in spite of being such a fabulous time of year, is associated in my mind with exam stress, all the more so during the past few years because my sons have been involved in A levels and GCSEs (year one). I immediately segue into going to Winchester to teach at the Writers' Conference, so this week I'm really busy putting my material together for that. If you're going to be there, do come up and say 'Hi' if you see me!
I teach a summer school in July, and then, bliss, oh bliss, holiday time!

However, looking ahead to the next academic year, I'm delighted to tell you about the fictionfire day courses I'll be running on the 2nd and 16th October. They'll be at Trinity College once more - this has proved to be a delightful location.

My first course will be 'Making Memorable Scenes' and the second 'Shape Up and Make Your Pitch'. Here are brief descriptions of each:

Making Memorable Scenes

If you are interested in aspects of plot and story-structure, this day course will guide you towards making the scenes you write work as powerfully as possible to engage and hold your reader's attention. We'll look at published examples, deconstructing them to see how their internal dynamics made them effective - and we'll practise writing our own scenes. We'll cover areas such as pace, tension, creating mood, setting location, using dialogue and placing scenes in your story's overall structure. Getting the individual scenes right will help you grow in confidence as a writer.

Shape Up and Make Your Pitch

You've completed your writing project - congratulations! Now you want to get it 'out there' to a readership. This day course is designed to help you meet the challenge of making your pitch. So that your submission is as polished as possible, practical exercises will guide you through crucial self-editing techniques and show you how best to present your manuscript. We'll explore how to write an effective query letter and synopsis, to make the agent or editor hungry to see more. The marketplace is crowded: here's how to make yourself stand out.

Booking is now available over on my website: you can pay by Paypal or print off the booking form and send a cheque. Each course runs from 9.40 a.m. to 5.00 p.m. and costs £95, including two servings of tea, coffee and biscuits during the day and a useful course pack to take away with you.

I hope you can join us!

Saturday, 5 June 2010

A Catty Comment on the Biography Market

On the rights pages of The Bookseller this week, the announcement of another major celebrity autobiography acquisition. 'Who could it be?' you ask. 'Who's left, given that we're now on the second volume of autobiographies by such stellar scribblers (dictators?) as Peter Kay, Russell Brand and Chris Evans?'

Well, Ebury Press has acquired the story of Aleksandr Orlov, that's who.


The answer is, quite simply, 'Simples!' Aleksandr Orlov is the meerkat in the TV adverts for Compare the Market.

I'll give you a moment to absorb that.

Apparently Orlov has 750,000 followers on Facebook (do people have nothing better to do with their time?). Senior editor Andrew Goodfellow says 'Aleksandr's moment is now and he's a dark horse for the autumn.' (But wait, I though he was a meerkat!) Curiouser and curiouser. 'The team here just love him and believe we can make A Simples Life a second Christmas number one in a row for Ebury Publishing. ... the British public have been clamouring to hear his story.'

OK, Andrew, if you say so.

All of which is hugely encouraging to those of us who are flesh and blood examples of homo sapiens, trying to write stories and memoirs and sell them, via publishers who are clearly sensible, feet-on-the-ground, rational channels existing to facilitate communication between author and public.

It'll be the twiddly-moustached opera-singer from Go Compare next. You mark my words.