The Benefits of Literary Festivals

The author’s working life is a solitary one. No one else can translate the data in a writer’s head to the screen or notebook. The task is theirs alone, a one-person job. In the quiet of the office, the shed, or the corner of the dining room table (in my case), the writer has to delve deep into the core of creation, isolating themselves even further from their environment. All in the hope that a seed of narrative will germinate into a riveting story.

Every now and then, it’s important to come out of the shell and discover what’s going on in the real world. Batteries need to re-charge, and tribulations or successes need to be shared with other like-minded creative souls.

There’s no better place for this than at a writing festival. I recently returned from one of the world’s best-known gatherings, the Theakston’s Old Peculiar Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate. Besides the excuse to drink bucket-loads of the sponsor’s beer (or in my case, prosecco) it made me realise that there’s an incredible support group of people out there at all levels of their writing or reading career who simply enjoy getting together from time to time to mingle with those who are passionate about crime fiction.

Harrogate sees authors, readers, bloggers, avid fans, and representatives from the publishing industry gathering in and around the historic Old Swan Hotel. The event offers a pre-festival creative writing day to new authors still honing their narrative. The weekend’s panels with published authors discuss subjects ranging from trends in current crime writing, and what makes a gripping crime novel, to the presentation of ‘new blood,’ debut novelists who have recently stepped onto the first rung of the publishing ladder.

Apart from various publisher parties and author interviews, two unaffiliated events took place over the weekend, which were a complete hoot. On Friday we packed into Hales Bar for the Noir at the Bar event, where a selection of authors read excerpts from their most recent works. The other was a football match between the Northern and Southern writers, when literary eloquence was most certainly set aside, and football demons were revealed by authors who spend most of their year in sedentary writing mode.

Don’t be fooled by what’s behind the premise of a crime novel. Crime writers are some of the nicest people you will meet. We leave all our grime and gore within the pages of our narrative when we put on our posh frocks and don our drinking hats at these events. We are the easiest people to come and talk to. The warmth and buzz at Harrogate was infectious. Literary mana for the soul. There was a lot of laughing, especially at my favourite event (pictured above), comedienne and author Susan Calman interviewing best-selling crime author Val McDermid.

Theakston’s at Harrogate wasn’t my first festival of this kind. In spring I attended CrimeFest in Bristol, and was astounded by the easy-going, approachable, crime-writing community. I can highly recommend attending such an event, wherever you are in your writing career. I have come away buzzing from all the writerly warmth. I have made new friendships, renewed old ones, and have a pile of fantastic giveaway and purchased novels. But most importantly, I am freshly charged with enthusiasm to complete my writing goals for the remainder of the year.

 

 

Reviews that Set Your Book on Fire

As a novelist on the road to publication, I was urged early on to register as a reader and reviewer on sites such as Goodreads. To quote the great tutor, Stephen King: “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time or the tools to write.”  Immersing oneself in another writer’s imagination, and enjoying their crisply written literature helps to boost ones own ideas. It’s also wise to discover what’s popular in today’s market, and get a better perspective of one’s own work against other successful authors in the same genre.

But when authors start begging for reviews, I get a bit squirmy. I’m a reader who shouts about books when they have rocked my world. But I only write five star reviews for books I think are truly brilliant. And although I generally read a book a week, the truly brilliant ones may only fall into my hands once every few months. So when asked to review a book, I’m afraid I might be too honest. And it might not be what the author is longing to hear. If I read something, and think, ‘good premise, great dialogue, loved that character, but overall… meh,’  that’s exactly what I would report in my review.

With a wave of self-published works flooding the market, where reviews might be the prime tool for selling-power, Amazon has started using data from Facebook to arbitrarily disallow certain readers from publishing reviews on its website. A fellow writer was recently genuinely angry that his mum was not allowed to post her review about his book. Of course his mum is going to say that the book is fabulous, whether the book is fabulous or not. But this is not going to help the reader who purchases the book based on that review, and then finds out that actually, the book is, well… meh.

Despite not wanting to trawl through more than a handful of reviews when researching my next read, I also wonder how many of them are genuinely unbiased. An indie author recently posted a celebratory comment on social media saying she had received over 300 reviews on Amazon. Her book had been available to the high street buyer for barely a week. The timing of this celebration told me that 300 people had already read her book, although she didn’t mention how many of these reviews were five stars. Of those 300, I wondered how many had spontaneously reviewed the book after having purchased it only days before, and how many were sent the novel by the author, or were given a freebie by the publisher prior to its release. The latter are likely to give a more genuine unbiased reviews. But do the former reviewers feel obliged to be generous with their stars because they have a giveaway in their hands?

At the end of the day, if all an author wants to do is sell books, once the review has been absorbed by the potential reader, genuine or not, its purpose has worked, the book is sold. But if that book is indeed ‘meh,’ thick skins will have to be developed later on when a reader has been influenced by an over-optimistic review. We all know opinions are subjective. No matter how much a writer and all those around her – the agent, the publisher, her mum – believes in her book, it might not be everyone’s cup of tea.

I realise there will be authors out there who are polarised by my scepticism, and when the time is right, I’ll probably be asking for reviews just like all the other debuts who believe we have a fantastic book out there. Until now, only a handful of friends, beta-readers and a few enthusiastic agents have read the novel. One of them now represents me, which is an incredibly exciting development. But I’m aware that eventually asking for a review from other readers is a bit like playing with fire. It might be an important part of the selling process; sparks are definitely required, but combustion is not necessarily guaranteed.

Celebrate Writing in the Leap Year.

We have this extra day! What shall we do with it? It’s Leap Year! Babies born today will only get to celebrate the true anniversary of their birth once every four years. It’s special. I woke up this morning thinking I should write something extraordinary: A scintillating chapter of my new novel, or a fantastic short story. For most of us it is another regular working day. A writing day. A Monday. In a way, it’s a shame no one gets today off. Such a rare day deserves more celebration than a mundane public or bank holiday.

After having set myself an ambitious writing goal for the 29th of February, I sat down with my cup of tea and stared at the screen. But the fiction didn’t flow miraculously out of my fingers. It simply didn’t happen this morning. Creativity is not something that authors can turn on or off at will. And I do mention the ‘off’ button, because once I’m on a writing roll, not even sleep can keep me from the driving need to spill ideas onto my computer screen.

This morning the main reason the ‘on’ button would not engage after I awoke, is the continued excitement of remembering that I am on a short list for a novel prize. I spend altogether too much time thinking about standing on the podium in St Stephen’s Church in Exeter on the 12th of March. It makes me want to get up and dance.

But even if I don’t take home that coveted award, I am still a winner. Being on the shortlist of six finalists in the Exeter Novel Prize is a dream come true. And it occupies my every waking moment, as I’m sure it does the other five finalists. My memory has transported me back to the words filling my first novel, my first literary baby. This could be the turning point in my writing career. I’m hoping it leads me down the golden road to publication. Someone has enough belief in my work to have placed me on that shortlist. I am naturally hoping that I win first prize, but meanwhile I’m basking in the delicious anticipation.

But I’m also realistic. I know how disappointing it is not to find oneself on the long or shortlist of a prestigious prize. I am aware how every agent rejection chips away at a writer’s self esteem, sowing the seeds of doubt about those preciously coveted words. So I am wholly ready to celebrate every literary success, however small.

You might think it’s premature of me to be celebrating when I have no idea who will lift that winning trophy in Exeter on the 12th of March, but I feel it is my right to rejoice a little now, in the event that the post ceremony anti-climax clouds my sense of achievement. It all started when I wrote a novel. Hey, I wrote a damn novel! As my partner never ceases to point out, that’s a triumph in itself.

My motto for today: Celebrate every little success. Whether it’s the first sentence after deciding to pen your memoir, or seeing someone else absorbed in your published novel on the train, celebrate every accomplished stage of your journey. You are a writer!

 

Christmas Ghosts

We used to think there were ghosts in our house. In the dead of night we regularly heard phantoms moaning, occasionally shouting. Our mother hushed them with her calm throaty whispers and smoothed their anguished brow.

For a brief flicker of an eye in the darkest part of the night, these ghosts had come alive in my father’s mind, as he revisited the brutal task of manning a monstrous fifteen-inch gun on the rolling deck of HMS Resolution in the Second World War. His recall involved the horrors of battle with colleagues falling like flies around him, or eventually sinking with the ship.

My father’s memories, still painful even fifty years after the end of the war, were rarely voiced. Never written. And yet he was a great writer. Throughout the global meanderings of his offspring, he was sparse with the frequency of his correspondence to us. But the treasured words he wrote were thoughtful, made us laugh out loud, bound together by such magic on the page. I wanted to read them over and over wherever I was – on a far-flung Thai beach, on the rooftop of the Himalaya, or deep in the Amazonian jungle.

He should have written about his ghosts. I believe it would have been a helpful catharsis. Many literary masters tell their budding protégés they should write something about which they know nothing, to build from an empty cache of knowledge through the process of research, and allow their creativity to flourish with fresh learning. But the art of writing words can also be a form of therapy. Writing about something you know, even if no one else is ever going to read it, can help put confusing memories into perspective or identify ambiguous emotions. Get them out in the open. Address them like an adversary. Embrace them. Endorse them. Dismiss them. Perhaps exorcise some ghosts.

As I remember Dad on Christmas day, an unexplainable melancholy sets in with shared memories of departed loved ones. If you haven’t lost someone close to you, you may still know what I am talking about when I say there is something about the over-exuberance of yuletide festivities that we can never quite pinpoint. Perhaps it’s about our lost youth, or recollection of childhood fantasies that can never be repeated. They conjure a lugubrious longing.

It could be time to pick up your pen and write.

When the mighty battle ship HMS Resolution finally went down, the fifteen-inch gun my father was in charge of as an officer was salvaged and mounted on another ship – HMS Roberts. It would continue the task of producing war ghosts on either side of the line until the end of the war.

Outside the Imperial War Museum in London sits a pair of guns, one of them from HMS Resolution. I wonder if this is the same gun my father once managed. As I took photos of my two young sons some years ago, dwarfed beneath its mighty barrel, I thought I saw one of those ghosts, hiding beneath the now stationary turret. I used to hear Dad recounting toned down adventures of things he had seen in the war to my two toddlers, and wished he would write his words down so we would not forget. And perhaps to help him forget.

It is a decade since we lost Dad. For what it’s worth, I wish I had more of his words to cherish. The letters he wrote to me are lost on the trails of my adventures leading me through the formative years of young adulthood. Eventually, though, the memories too will fade. They should all be immortalised in words, lest we forget.

Write about the things we know.

My one wish, I would like to write the future and have it come true: Peace, health and happiness to all mankind.

 

 

 

 

Satisfy your Creative Passion

Last month I was thrilled to have one of my short stories read out on BBC radio. “The Summer of ‘76” is set in my teen years in the mid-seventies. The story is a work of fiction, but evokes memories of people and places in my adolescence. It has made me reflect on the birth of my creativity, even through those formative years, and the compulsion I have always had to write.

In a steep-gabled Hertfordshire schoolhouse complete with bell tower and huge gothic windows, I opened my first exercise book at the age of six, accompanying the Spelling Bee on my desk. As I lifted the open blank page to my face, I no longer heard the monstrous radiator ticking loudly at my side emitting the smell of hot chalk dust. Instead I heard my own inward breath, inhaling the weirdly intoxicating caustic scent that started my love affair with paper. I ran my hand across the blank lined page, porcelain under my fingers. The harsh whisper of the pencil leaving its graphite trails of careful cursive was a lullaby to my ears. I wanted to fill the pages with words.

At the age of eleven I won a poetry competition, and was published in the local newspaper. It is only now that I am impressed by the importance of that achievement in the currently challenging climate of finding a publisher for my novels. There were moments of inspiration in my teenage years when the ranting in my diaries led to a series of love-struck poems. But once out of college with a business communications diploma, I used my words in a more professional capacity. The urge to create fiction simmered on the back burner.

After studying journalism and creative writing as a mature student at an American University, I filled endless journals with experiences of my world travels. Later came a point in my life when I wielded my brushes more than my pens. Oh and we mustn’t forget the years of motherhood, when my body not only expelled two bouncing boys, but also my capacity to create prose, for a few years at least.

But now it seems the older I get, the further back I can remember. I have come full circle, acting on the urge, and have produced two novels so far. Every day is like opening that exercise book for the first time. It eclipses all other personal or family needs, except maybe the fundamental necessity for breath. The compulsion to write is once again stronger than cake or chocolate.

Get into Character and Read Aloud

If you’re a writer, you probably spend many hours isolated in your shed or at the working end of your dining room table, alone with your literary thoughts.

Some writers believe their creativity is enhanced with a little background music. But most of us prefer to work in complete silence. Even the buzzing of a bee against the windowpane can frustratingly distract from the narrative in your mind. No matter how much those touch-typing lessons in college did you many favours, thoughts tumble from your mind too fast for your fingers dashing across the keyboard. And then that buzzy bee starts: zip, zip, zip… And for a moment, there ends the inspiration.

But once the story has spewed onto your page, it’s time to edit. All those instincts that had you dashing your story out at a zillion miles an hour must now be reined in. You slow down to read every paragraph ten times, ruthlessly slashing adverbs, checking syntax, and cropping phrases until they shine.

The one thing that will help you hone your narrative is to read your work out loud. Crikey, you think, I hate the sound of anything while I’m working, how am I going to stand the sound of my own voice? It gets me every time. The clearing of the throat belies my inner actor’s nervousness. I might have a dialogue going on between four people, and in addition I try to make them sound in character. I haven’t done this since I read bedtime stories to the kids every night. But my toddlers have now grown. The room is empty. I have no audience. Hilarious. I hope no one’s listening.

In the silence of my dining-come-writing room, all forms of social media on mute, the fridge in the distance a vague white noise, I still cannot get over the fact that my voice sounds like a Disney character. I laugh at myself. But I know it works, so I persevere. If a conversation trips me up as I speak, I realise my protagonist wouldn’t have said it that way. What’s going on in my head isn’t necessarily what the reader hears or sees in theirs. You think Why do I need to do this? My narrative is perfect.

Well here’s the thing, it isn’t. Not yet. There are often little errors that sneak into the text, connectors that slip past the eyes, allowing the brain to absorb only the important words. Proof-readers spend years perfecting the skill of seeing every single word on a page. As you rapidly scan your prose, you will undoubtedly skip the little blighters.

Unless you read everything out loud.

Every. Word. Will. Register.

Honestly.

Go ahead. Read aloud.

The world is your stage, and your story deserves a star performance.

Exercise the Writer's Mind

My last blog talked about the dreaded phenomenon of Writer’s Block, and last week’s article in The Woolf told of the advantages of displacement on a writer’s retreat with the intention of triggering creativity. Basically, getting writers out of their comfort zone.

When I’m not flexing my fingers on the keyboard, you’ll often find me in my kayak, on my bike, running forest trails, or cross-country skiing, depending on the season. All these activities not only keep me fit, they also exercise my mind.

An increased heart rate sends oxygen to the hard working muscles of my body, the most important of which is my brain. Okay, I know the brain isn’t really a muscle, but using specific functions certainly makes it stronger, and for that it benefits from oxygen-rich blood. In addition, endorphins give me a euphoric feel-good attitude – nature’s happy drug. You might think as a crime writer this may be counter-intuitive, especially if I intend to write a particularly dark narrative. But if I didn’t have the energy, I would be struggling to find my creative mojo in the first place, whatever the genre.

As I get older, I have cut back on competing in marathons and triathlons as my body protests with aches and pains. But I still enjoy a gentle sport regime. My fingers and wrists suffer a fair amount of daily abuse in their workout on the keyboard. Away from the computer, the alternative positioning of my wrists on a kayak paddle, handlebars of a bike or ski poles helps me to partially alleviate the effects of repetitive strain injury.

Aside from the obvious benefits of exercise, if the words won’t come, my sport of choice means it’s impossible for me to have access to my keyboard, pen and paper, or voice notes. In our uncanny universe of probable outcomes (Murphy’s or Sod’s, take your pick), ideas come unbidden when I don’t have the means to record them. If my short-term memory doesn’t fail me like my aching joints, I dash off these new words or scenes as soon as I come through the door, before they dissolve from the pre-frontal cortex of my brain.

So don’t despair, get up, get out, change your air, take the dog, look out rather than in, and the words will find release. 

Take a walk around your writer’s block.

The Myth of Writer's Block

Of course it can exist in a physical form, something that prevents you from actually writing, perhaps caused by a repetitive strain injury or broken fingers. The term is commonly used to express a feeling of panic or anxiety when you sit at your keyboard or with a pen in your hand, and don't have a clue what to write. A bit like an actor on stage forgetting his lines. It's a mental thing. But hey, you CAN still write.

Your Writer's Block is caused by idea that today you have to write a chapter of your novel, or a verse of your poem, or the conclusion of your short story, or something completely new and meaningful. You've made an appointment with yourself and have fixed your mind on completing this task. But the fact is, the creative mind can't be tied down to these time constraints. It's true that you should write something every day, but it doesn't have to be the thing that you had scheduled at the end of your writing day yesterday. Learn to be more flexible.

So you don't have broken bones, or RSI, you've been for your run, or a cycle, or done some yoga, or had a sleep, and you're sitting back at your desk. Panicking.

Instead, try writing random words. Things that pop into your mind. Still can't get that self-imposed deadline out of your head? Then write down things you see around you in the room or out of the window. A string of nouns with no relation to each other apart from the fact they are part of your environment. Take those words you just typed on the screen or wrote on your pad: 'Desk', 'Mug', 'Pen', 'Hobnobs', 'Tree', 'Lawn', 'Dog poo', and write a sentence or two about them. Totally random sentences. Add sensations - sounds, smells, feelings. See? You CAN write!

You won't have what you think is Writer's Block every day, so this exercise may not be repeated for many weeks, by which time the Hobnobs will have been eaten and replaced by a plate of fresh fruit, and the dog poo will have been cleaned from your lawn to be replaced by a carpet of autumn leaves. Next time you think you have Writer's Block, simply write words. Remember, five-a-day is better than none, but I'm sure you'll find you can manage at least a hundred.

Why don't the majority of boys read?

Over the past few days I’ve had the pleasure of watching my great niece spend half her time with a nose in a story. She is not yet seven, and I suspect her reading level surpasses those of my teenage boys. I wouldn’t know for sure. They never open a book.

My sons’ bookshelves are crammed with all manner of literature in two languages, but their steely arms are incapable of lifting the cover of a book. We live in Switzerland and they are completely bilingual in German and English. I appreciate that this is a gift in itself. They are able to converse without thought, switching between two languages at the dinner table as though they have swapped the salt for the pepper.

But my offspring are the prodigy of two avid readers, one of whom is a compulsive writer. What happened to my sons’ love of books? We read to them constantly as babies and toddlers, and the joy at their infantile discovery of a whole new world between the pages of a book lifted our hearts. I taught both children to read English at home before they began reading the more phonetic German at school.

And then as pre-pubescents, the books snapped shut with super glue, never to be opened again. My literary heart began to break.

Where did I go wrong? Sensory overload? As toddlers, the boys loved eating ‘little green forests’ so I fed them broccoli practically every day. By the time they reached puperty, they had eaten so much of the stuff, they couldn’t face another fleurette. But avid readers never lose the passion to open a book. Books aren’t broccoli.

It could be that as the world becomes more verbal, it also becomes more intimidating for the non-communicative male teenager, and the struggle with words on a page are part of the reclusive process. The age of computer games hasn’t helped, but even when screen bans are imposed in our house, those books remain firmly closed.

The advantage for the fairer sex is that the university graduation rate is steadily increasing for women, while the rate for men remains stagnant. I should be proud of this modern girl power. But I want my sons to be the best they can be. And power comes from reading. Books are knowledge. Knowledge is power.

As I delight in the reading skills of my six-year-old great niece, I also wonder whether boys are intimidated by the reading skills of their fellow female schoolmates themselves.

It’s a known fact that girls mature faster on every level, physically and socially. So in a co-educational society (all Swiss schools are co-ed), why shouldn’t girls start school earlier than boys? If they began their academic journey at the age of five, and boys at the age of six, they would be passing through the starting gate of knowledge with the same fundamental skills of communication. And reading shouldn’t become a competition between the sexes.

But it’s too late for my teenagers. Although ten years into their schooling, I believe they are still one year behind the developmental level of their female counterparts. It might take years for such an idea to be implemented, and I do not have the academic qualifications or authority to advocate such a ruling, only the instincts of a mother with a little experience in the school of life.

However, I’d welcome any advice on how to get boys hooked on books.

Shooting for the stars

Armed with a warm blanket and mosquito repellent, I lay in my dew dampened hammock in the wee hours last night watching the spectacular smattering of meteors dashing around the alpine sky, and it occurred to me that this whole business of seeking agent representation involves a bit of luck.

It might be the right time of year to watch the annual Perseid shower, but it’s the wrong time of year to be submitting to agents. With half the literary world on their summer holidays, submissions are mounting up on their virtual doormats in piles so high they could reach the heavens.

I am ever hopeful that one of the lovely agents I have submitted my manuscript to will reach over their virtual hammocks and pluck my novel off the top. If I have done my research correctly, I will at least have narrowed my choice of agents down to those who enjoy reading my literary genre. Crime is the most widely read fiction genre, and under its umbrella are a wide variety of sub-genres. But even if I have that part right, there is always the question of whether someone likes my style, my narrative, or my protagonist’s voice. I love my book, but every reader’s opinion is subjective.

So with every bright streak, on the dying fizz of its ionized particles, I made the biggest wish of all, that one of those lucky people who has picked my submission at the right moment and had the chance to read my manuscript will want to catch a shooting star.