I attended the Fiction and Non-Fiction Day as part of the Calderdale Readers' and Writers' Festival yesterday in Hebden Bridge. The event started with James Nash (who was Chair for the day) introducing Michael Stewart and his talk entitled 'Five things I hate about writing.' Michael's biography on the University of Huddersfield website reads:
'Michael Stewart is a multi-award winning writer, born and brought up in Salford, who moved to Yorkshire in 1995 and is now based in Bradford. He has written several full length stage plays, one of which, Karry Owky, was joint winner of the King’s Cross Award for New Writing, as well as securing work in radio and television.
He was the winner of the BBC Alfred Bradley Award in 2003 and his plays have been performed in Bradford, Leeds, Manchester, London, and extensively throughout the country. His BBC Radio 4 play Excluded was shortlisted for the Imison Award 2008. His latest BBC Radio 4 play Castaway was broadcast in February 2010.
He was writer in residence at Theatre in the Mill in Bradford, and is now senior lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Huddersfield, where he is the director of the Huddersfield Literature Festival and the editor of Grist Books. He is also the founding member of Dark and Dirty – an arts initiative funded by the Arts Council, set up to explore the hinterland of narrative art.
His fiction has been published widely in anthologies and magazines, including Route, Leaf Books, Brand Magazine and Aesthetica. His debut novel, King Crow, was published in January 2011 by Bluemoose Books.'
The five things he hated about writing were:
5) WRITERS' RETREATS
He runs Creative Writing Workshops as well as writing himself and believes you can learn to be a better writer but thinks that retreats can be an unrealistic quad nostum. For example, J. K. Rowling wrote in cafe's (most famously Nicholsons) and Anne Frank wrote walled up in an attic, so writing comes from a deep seated need, not your surroundings.
4) THE DISPLACEMENT ACTIVITY INDUSTRY
By this, he means the distractions to writing and the trend of the pseudo writer. He showed examples on the Writers Gifts website of t-shirts, mugs and pens that announce you are a writer.
3) THE CELEBRITY MEMOIR
These are the ones that are written by other authors. Michael gave the example of Katie Price when she was interviewd by Chris Moyles about her book - Chris said that he had really enjoyed the incident of her falling off her bike when she was a little girl and she replied that she had not read up to that part yet because she was only on chapter three! He also feels that these are read by people who don't read anything else.
2) THE INFANTALISATION OF THE ADULT READER
Michael summed this up with a quote from Stewart Lee when asked if he had read the latest Harry Potter, he replied that he hadn't but that he had read the visionary poet William Blake's full works.
1) THE LITERARY ESTABLISHMENT
He started by saying that Geoff Dyer in the Guardian believed that this was a nebulous concept and that the literary establishment does not exist. To his backdrop of a projection of Julian Barnes, Martin Amis and Sebastian Faulks pics (with the alternative title 'NB anyone more successful than me) he gave the example of Mr Barnes' acceptance speech for the Man Booker Prize where Julian thanked the judges for having the wisdom to give him the prize as he felt he had been overlooked before. Michael also wondered at the strange coincidence that Mr Amis always seems to have something controversial to say when he has a book coming out.
This was a very funny and provocative start to the day. Michael said that he is against self-publishing (SP) and thought that Stephen May summed it up well when he said that if the Beatles had done that, they would have sold fifty to their mates and then ended up working in Morrisons. He believes that if you are good enough, you will find a publisher and that if you go down the SP route, you have to be an expert at editing and have a distribution network. Michael thinks that the 3-4 book deal for a new writer does not exist any more and that the sales and marketing directors are the most important people now. He himself has a small publisher and his book is being looked at for translation into Russian and for the screen. When it comes to Amazon, he thinks there are only 3 genres - vampire, erotica and romance and no-one looks on it for new writers or browses.
Talking the Walk workshop
I chose this workshop in the morning with Alison Taft as it dealt with dialogue. She started by acknowledging the attendee who had tweeted her prior to the event and said that 'twitter is the water cooler of writers'' Alison outlined the place of dialogue in the novel, radio play, screenplay and it's context and technicalities.
First we had to talk to a neighbour and then introduce them to the group and then we started to learn the complexities of dialogue. In a radio play, dialogue is all you have got, so you use it more than in a novel and for the screen, it carries more power. In film, the attention is to visuals (80% to 20% dialogue) and the screenplay marries this. The best way to write a screenplay is to build without dialogue and then sprinkle it in after. In novels, dialogue is used more freely and it is used to advance the plot and dialogue must be edited if it is not moving the story along. It has to be elevated on the page, rather than how it would sound in real life e.g. 'To write well, express yourself like common people, but think like a wise man. Or, think as wise men do, but speak as the common people do' Aristotle.
Using the opening to the film 'Four Weddings and a Funeral' we could see how dialogue plays an important part. The first five minutes of the film has only 62 words, yet we are introduced to three different couples and we learn a lot about them from this. The dialogue is missing all the little bits of social interaction (e.g. hello, how are you?) that you expect to hear, but you know that they are all friends. The dialogue is only used when it develops plot and character, or occasionally as a humour device e.g. 'But it only goes 40 mph' before cranking the mini up to scream down the motorway. The interactions and what they are not saying to each other make the audience work to work things out for themselves and so they feel like they are one step ahead almost. Speeches should be limited to 10/15 seconds of dialogue as more is taken in visually at this time. Viewers take clues to dialogue from visual, so keep your speeches short.
We then had to write the opening of the film as a radio play. We could use sound (i.e. car engine, alarm clock) and we could concentrate on one couple only if we wished. A couple of writers fed back their work and then Alison explained that for radio or screen, constraints such as production costs have to be taken into consideration. Tom Stoppards 'Albert's Bridge' is thought to be the archetypal radio play. Dialogue must develop plot and character and subtext. We then had to write the same opening but as a short story.
Alison then asked the group to get into twos and threes to look at subtext, when what they are saying is not really what they mean. We chose the Tom and Fiona characters (the posh brother and sister who seem to be ignoring each other) and we wrote the scene as a stage play with pure dialogue. This was an extremely hard task that taught us a lot about dialogue.
The golden rules - the suspense sentence, don't let the useless information float to the end. Dialogue should be at the beginning or end, never in the middle and the important information goes in as dialogue. So one drip feeds dialogue, description, then hit us with it in the next dialogue. It should be short, punchy and interrupted. Make it oblique not direct and don't ask and answer a question. Use three sentences max and ensure characters speak in their own voice, but be very careful about writing phonetic accents. Don't underestimate your reader, don't try too hard and give a couple of clues only. Read it out loud and if you catch yourself, take it out! Different dialogue rythms for different characters. No 'he said', 'she said' or wimpering etc. as the words need to work, not how they are saying it. Try to give each character a verbal tic of their own to ground them.
Alison finished with handing out a quote each and asking us to try to bury this in dialogue and then send it to her as homework either by email or twitter, to get some hint of a character i.e. the quote is the essence of them and build character around it.
The Road to publication: Agents, editors, book deals and how to get one
After lunch I attended the above workshop by Sarah Savitt, editor at Faber. Although Faber does not accept unsolicited manuscripts, this was to be a crash course on how to get published in two parts - one: how you can best describe your own work to others (agents, publishers etc), genre, title and two: Routes to markets, approaching agents and exercises. Sarah stressed that the most important thing was to write a good book.
The first exercise was to imagine that your book has just been published and to write a one sentence review quote for that book. We all came up with some big-headed ideals, mine being 'The next big thing in YA fantasy, Thorde takes the Quest to a new level' Philip Pullman and Sarah said it proved we all had what it took to be writers.
We discussed genres as it is important to get the title and genre right. All agents want the next big thing that they didn't realise they wanted until they had it, but creativity and originality are the main things. You have to pick a category and go with it, but really research that market/genre and read it to see what the expectations are.
Sarah's list of genres included Literary Fiction (Orange, Booker etc.), Commercial Fiction (Jodi Picoult, David Nicholls), Chick Lit (though WHSmith have taken this down and lad lit seems to have disappeared), Crime/Thriller, Historical, Romance, Action/Adventure, Horror, Sci-fi, Fantasy, Inspirational and Erotica. She felt that the boundaries are pretty flexible, but you have to be clear about what you are and if you want to be published, it's most important to get an agent as most large companies don't accept unsolicited manuscripts (USM). Harper/Voyager just finished accepting USM and 'Authonomy' on-line means that the top ten are read by a publisher, but this is rare.
These are the questions of story (to see which genre your story fits into best):
Are most books in this genre stand alone or a series?
Age/gender/social positions of the central character?
Where/when is it set? (contemporary is most popular)
Timespan it covers? (historical, sweeping)
How important is the plot? (twists, begin and end in a specific way)
Is the style realistic/speculative/funny?
What's the language like?
It needs to tick all the boxes for that genre.
We then dealt with titles. We each had to tell the person next to us the title of the book we were working on at the moment and they had to guess from the title what the book would be about. I was very pleased because my partner got all the main ingredients of my story just from the title so I now know it is perfect for the genre ('Thorde: The keeper of the trysk' being the title of my YA fantasy with castles, dragons and magic). My partners short story title was Stag Night which we agreed was not specific enough for the complex story that she has written.
Sarah gave the example of a title 'Y' which is the story of a debut novel due out in January about a baby dumped on the doorstep of the local YMCA. Titles have to be evocative and interesting. They should pull in your attention in some way. Also, in the last five years many books have had titles that involve the words 'wife' or 'tiger' and she wonders if it is not just because they are such potent words, but that the average fiction buyer is a 40 something woman. Another example is 'The girl with the dragon tattoo' which was published in many countries, including Sweden, under the original title 'Men who hate women.' The title is considered to be part of the text of your work, so won't be changed unless it is totally unsuitable, but covers are seen as more of an area where publishers have control.
The next section was agents and how to find a literary one. Agents are useful for more than just publishing your book. All the knowledge is held by them on payments, markets etc. and a writer should NEVER pay up front, as agents take a percentage of what you make for the book. Agent/writer relationships are based on good relations and while they might suggest editing changes, they have to have good chemistry. Sarah does not think that writers need to go through Literary Consultants to get an agent as it is quite a steep fee. She suggests finding out who represents the writers you like and approaching them. Check the website as well as the Writers and Artists yearbook and send a polite and professional, typo-free letter in the first instance. Sarah handed out an example of a good covering letter and a 'Keeping Up With Publishing' handout.
In the letter you should write to a specific person (i.e. name the agent) and give the title and genre of your story as well as a bit of the story details (in the second paragraph) and why you have chosen them (a little bit of flattery does not go amiss). Outline the characters a little and a bit of information about you that is relevant (e.g. you attended the Writers' Roadshow, things you've had published/produced) and what made you write this particular story. The shorter the better, no more than half a page to a page.
The working with editors section established what editors are looking for:
2) Great Confident Voice
3) Have good story, hook, plot
4) Compelling, exciting ) I've found someone I can work with
5) Author I can work with ) and want to recommend
Things that can get in the way:
1) No-one else likes it, but the agent does
2) Agent knows no-one else will like it
3) Similar book out at the moment - too alike
4) Author unwilling to make changes they want
5) Wan't them to promote the book etc. and author unwilling to do so (e.g. childrens authors sometimes have to go into schools to promote the book)
When you get a book deal, some editor changes asked for are:
1) Broad brush strokes - change ending, first page, character
2) Opening to be made more arresting, faster paced
3) Deepening a character (e.g. if character has no friends, family, job, motivation)
4) Changing the ending (genre, less ambiguous, more fascinating)
5) Cutting description
6) Getting rid of subplots
7) Changing the title
Sarah explained that authors usually have to cut rather than expand and it is the editors job to flag up any question marks that come up as you are reading it. You will spend at least 6 months with an editor and at least 2 drafts starting with big changes (e.g. why does a character do this? Put in pointers earlier or take it out) and then closer line edits. She also said that if you decide to go the self-publishing route, be aware that you have to do all of it yourself as a publishing house is not just about the advance, but the investment in editing, blurbs, publicity, marketing, distribution etc. If you know your market, great, but nothing in publishing is a get rich quick scheme. Most great books get published in some way, as it is not often that they let them slip through the net.
Both workshops were very interesting and informative and I have learned much that I can take forward and put into my writing or use when I get to the stage when I feel ready to approach an agent/publisher.
The event finished with the Prizegiving for the Calderdale Short Story Competition which Sarah Savitt and Lousie Doughty announced as they were the judges. There were four prizes and extracts were read from the winning stories. Two of the winners had attended the Workshops so it was nice to have met them during the day.