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Feeding my brain at Berwick Literary Festival

Creative WritingPosted by Barbara Sat, October 22, 2016 19:05:48

Anyone who knows me is aware that I have several jobs at the moment and so finding the time to take a breath and think about books and writing has fallen, sadly, to the bottom of my ‘must’ list.

So it was wonderful to be forced into it – in the friendliest of ways – this weekend. Berwick Literary Festival in my home town is in its third year and I’ve been lucky enough to be part of it since its inception.

On Friday, I held a short story writing class. (I’ve been chewing over the term ‘masterclass’. It feels like a male term to me. Someone kindly told me that my masterclass ‘was indeed masterly’, which was a lovely compliment, but it did feel as if I was being complimented in a male-ish way, rather like being told I’m a good man. Am I wrong, anyone? And is there a gender-neutral way of saying ‘masterclass’?)

Anyway, the short story ‘expert tutorial’ – for want of a better phrase – attracted a very talented group of twelve aspiring writers, who – I hope – all went home with a good head start on a new story and some advice on how to structure and to complete it. Teaching writing is always an inspiring thing to do.

But Saturday was my day for enjoying other authors’ work. It was fascinating to be in conversation with the journalist and non-fiction writer Andrew Hankinson, hearing how he came to write the compelling You Could Do Something Wonderful With Your Life [You Are Raoul Moat].

We discussed why he was drawn to this tragic story and the ethical considerations in using the reams of material collected after Moat’s death. It’s a gripping read – even if we all know the end of the story – and a deep insight into the mind of a man who’s just committed murder. If you want to know what could drive someone to that, then this is the book that examines it.

I went straight from there to hear Shelley Day in conversation with former Tyne Tees political editor Gerry Foley, who has the kind of resonant voice and Irish accent I could listen to all day. I knew a little about Shelley’s novel, The Confession of Stella Moon, in its making, but Gerry’s insightful questions and the author’s open and generous answers were truly enriching.

It reminded me why festivals like this are so important. As an author, connecting with readers is vital. As a reader, hearing the processes and the creative practice behind the writing of a novel gives extra depth and meaning to the act of reading.

I feel as if, for an afternoon, I stepped off the treadmill and fed my brain. Remind me to do this more often, won’t you?

PS
Thanks to Shelley for sending me this pic of my books in the local bookstore window! Always nice to see!




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What happens next?

Creative WritingPosted by Barbara Sat, August 27, 2016 18:03:12
What happens after you sign a publishing contract?

I've been with three different publishers now and in every case, the process was the same.

Shy, introverted writer types, listen up: once you have signed the contract, the first thing publishers want to talk about is ...publicity.

Yes. That. Not the plan for editing, or indeed anything directly connected to how you write. But how the book's going to be marketed.

Every publisher I've worked with has sent me a very prompt form to fill in, asking for information like: my author bio, with any points of interest. What are my local news outlets? Who do I know who could help publicise my book? Would I undertake a blog tour? Which bloggers do I know? Would I object if they give out my number to the media and am I prepared to do interviews? And please would I send a pic?

I spent some time working through this form yesterday, with the input of my agent this time (a luxury I haven't had before). As a former journalist, this really doesn't daunt me and I am happy to be involved in this part of the process. But I am very aware that there are some writers who find this terrifying. To you, I can only say sorry, because you will need to get over yourself.

There are others who just think that somehow, the publisher should take care of all of this for you, without you having to worry your artistic little brain about it. Only... even if they do a lot of marketing, they'll still need information to work with, as they can't know all about you by osmosis. And actually - isn't it better to have a level of control and input into how you and your work are publicised?

Please don't say the words 'Elena Ferrante' at this point, unless you want me to put my head in my hands. Just as JK Rowling is the exception when it comes to author earnings, so Ferrante is the exception when it comes to being widely read without having any kind of public profile. The rest of us lesser mortals will not get away with this anonymity (and actually, as a journalist, I find it deeply annoying and up-your-own-a**e to expect it). Even if you think it's a wonderful approach, Ferrante's trick is only interesting once and now it's been done.

So, as a new writer, be ready for this: the post-contract marketing proforma. Have some thoughts to help your publisher along. Get a photo you are reasonably happy with. And be prepared to help muster up some interest. These days, publicity is part of the writer's role, along with the production of the content, so please don't berate your publisher. After all, they're trying to sell your books, not ruin your life. And actually - if you allow it - this part of the process can be great fun.

Trust me. I'm a journalist. And I've been there before.










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It never gets old

Creative WritingPosted by Barbara Fri, August 12, 2016 18:25:35
BREAKING RADIO SILENCE... sort of!

As I intimated in my last post, there are things going on here but I haven't been at liberty to announce them in public.

And me a journalist - I know! Can you imagine how hard this has been for me, a blabbermouth by profession?

Anyway - things are almost there and today, I am delighted to say, I put pen to paper on a new publishing contract.



The sharp-eyed among you will see that the title of the new book is The Misper. For anyone who hasn't heard this expression, it's police-speak for a missing person.

This is the work that's taken the huge amount of editing and inspired a series of very grumpy posts about how much I hate this part of the writing process. But what I also know is that it's all worth it, if in the end, it makes the manuscript good enough to be accepted by a publisher.

One of the many myths about writing is that it flows out of the creative brain and lands perfectly formed on the page. Not so. There are a million famous quotes by established authors on this subject.

You can't get more explicit than Hemingway's "The first draft of anything is shit."

Perhaps equally famous is Stephen King's "“Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”

And Colette, from 1964: "“Put down everything that comes into your head and then you're a writer. But an author is one who can judge his [sic] own stuff's worth, without pity, and destroy most of it."

Not all writers can bear the process of editing to please a publisher. But while I don't enjoy the process, the rewards outweigh the pain for me.

Two or three friends have asked, as this is my fifth commercial publishing contract, whether it feels any less exciting this time around. The answer is no: it still feels fantastic and I can't wait to go through all the best bits again, from the first proof copy to seeing the cover to holding the first printed books in my hand. And getting responses from readers, which is genuinely uplifting. All that stuff never gets old, I promise.

More to come very soon on The Misper, I promise. I am off to celebrate. And if you are an aspiring writer and you're gnashing your teeth, then listen up: I'm no one special, but I am persistent. And this is not a zero sum game. If it can happen for me, it can happen for you. Keep writing.








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Radio silence

Creative WritingPosted by Barbara Sat, July 23, 2016 16:31:47
I know, I have been really quiet on this blog for a while. There's a good reason, honestly. I am inching towards signing a new publishing contract, but it's all taking longer than expected and I can't really say anything until it's all formalised.
Sorry!
But I promise that things are going on behind the scenes... and I will post my news here as soon as possible.
Thanks for the patience - bear with.

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Writing to Deadlines

Creative WritingPosted by Barbara Mon, June 13, 2016 13:46:58
Here's a post that went up today (13th June) on the Author Allsorts site:

There’s a famous joke, isn’t there, where someone claims they ‘love to watch deadlines flying past’. Now for me, that’s just not funny. It always makes me purse my lips in disapproval.


Perhaps I am in the minority, but I truly love a deadline. More than that: I can’t work sensibly without one. I think it comes from my initial training as a journalist, first in print and then for the BBC. Deadlines arrived several times a day: copy and audio/video clips were needed for the hourly news bulletins and longer items were required for the ‘appointment’ news programmes that are now falling out of fashion, such as the early evening news or the breakfast slots.

When I studied for my Creative Writing PhD, my supervisor told me I was the only student that had never missed a deadline. (She also called me a ‘fossil’ for taking notes in shorthand, but we’ll gloss over that). And when I moved into teaching, I was horrified to find the casual way that deadlines were treated – forgotten, altered and roundly ignored.

For me (and my army of controlling demons), a deadline is the only way to get things done. Without a cut-off point, my writing can take a phenomenal amount of time and will always be put to the bottom of the to-do list. Give me a deadline, though, and no matter how huge the task, I will meet it. It’s a matter of personal pride.

When I got my first publishing deal (for an adult crime novel), the contract said that the publisher would have first refusal on anything I wrote in the following twelve months. I chose to read that as ‘they will accept your next novel, as long as you write it in the next year’. It gave me enough of a psychological deadline to ensure I got through a first draft in less than six months.


Since then, though, the deadlines for my writing have not been fixed. As a result, I have no fewer than four partially-completed novels on the go. No matter how well-intentioned I am and how much I love writing, I am easily bored and I do flit from project to project, without a strict completion date. My own personal deadlines, usually, are not compelling enough for me to stick to them. They need to be externally-set and they need to have some sort of penalty built in: so a deadline set by a writing buddy, for example, would not be ‘real’ enough.

I have managed to complete a YA novel, because I (rather accidentally) attracted the interest of an agent and his deadlines were ‘real’ ones, in the twisted responses of my mind. I would meet them, rather than lose his representation. So what I need is someone to be on my back, with deadlines that feel authentic. Can anyone help? Is there, perchance, an app for that?



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Noir at the Bar

Creative WritingPosted by Barbara Mon, May 16, 2016 21:35:47
It's not often I allow a guest onto my blog! But this is experienced blogger and talented writer Vic Watson and I am delighted to give her the chance to talk about the upcoming Noir at the Bar event in Newcastle!

Noir at the Bar comes to Newcastle on 1st June and although I am new to hosting, the concept has been knocking around for about eight years. Having started in Philadelphia in 2008, the N@tB model spread across the US like a noir-y virus but I for one, am more than happy to catch it!

Noir at the Bar, ultimately, is about collecting readers and writers of crime fiction in all of its guises, putting them together in a bar and letting them mingle. Depending on which Noir at the Bar you visit, the set-up can vary. The Newcastle event, the first one in the north east of England, will feature a host of authors – both new and established – reading snippets of their work for the audience’s delectation. There’s no requirement to be published in order to read at N@tB. Similarly guests can read anything so, even if they have a book published, they can read from their Work in Progress if they wish. We’re a pretty easy going bunch.


In keeping with the spirit of the event, we hope that we’ll create a community of writers and readers. Writing doesn’t tend to be a particularly social aspect, but I’ve found, through visiting weekend courses like Crime and Publishment and events like Newcastle Noir, that writers actually relish socialising, especially with people who appreciate their work! We want to provide an opportunity for readers and writers to talk to one another as well as listen to some cracking work.

There’ll also be the opportunity for writers who aren’t on the bill to enter the wildcard round. One lucky reader’s name will be drawn at random and they will close the evening with their reading. How cool is that?

When picking the line-up for our initial foray into N@tB, I asked writers I’m familiar with from the region as well as inviting Tess Makovesky and Graham Smith, who appeared at Noir at the Bar Carlisle in March, to pass on the torch. Graham and Jay Stringer – who’s been responsible for the Glasgow incarnation of N@tB – were instrumental in helping me get the Newcastle chapter set up so here’s a shout out to them.

I also invited the Queen of Newcastle Noir, Jacky Collins, to co-host with me and I’m so thrilled to have her as my ‘partner-in-crime’.

The response we’ve received from people thus far has been incredible and just goes to show that there is a thriving community of readers and writers of noir in the north east. I think many of us have been out there on our own, thinking we were the only ones when, in fact, we just needed someone to get us together. We’ve been so popular that we’re already booking guests for Noir at the Bar NE #2.

Noir at the Bar is happening on Wednesday, June 1st at the Town Wall pub (Pink Lane, Newcastle). It starts at 7pm but space is limited so get there early to ensure you don’t miss out!



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Editing 2: This Time it's Personal

Creative WritingPosted by Barbara Mon, May 02, 2016 12:54:58
You may remember that I posted, a few weeks ago, of my utter joy at having finished the edits for my YA novel (working title, Halloween). At last, my least favourite part of writing was over and I could move on to the task that brings me most joy - writing something brand new.

Those edits were suggested by my very good and perceptive agent, who has had some really useful insights into the novel and where it needed to improve.

Once he had this revised version, he was able to submit it to publishers in the YA genre. It's a nerve-wracking process however it's handled, but I have to say that it's easier if an agent does this for you. He handled all the painstaking submission process. He also has the authority and the contacts to push a little if things go quiet, which is something unagented authors are rarely in a position to do.

There is good news and bad news, as the old joke goes. The good news is that a very respected publisher is showing an interest.

What's the bad news? They want some more editing done before they commit. Wah!

They're right, of course, in their observations and I found myself agreeing with them as I read their feedback. It's all about that rather tricky ending, which followers of this blog may know has been a struggle all along.

This is the first time I have ever worked with an agent and I am grateful too for his very clear-sighted advice on this extra bit of revision.

So here I am again. The dreaded editing, that I thought was all done, has loomed back into my life. Things may go a little quiet for the next week or two as I grapple with the rewrites and mutter my obscenities in private.

Wish me luck and inspiration!



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It's a No - Part 2

Creative WritingPosted by Barbara Sun, April 17, 2016 19:56:15
**NB: This is the second of a two-part blog post that first appeared on the Open College of the Arts website. The posts were inspired by the news that JK Rowling had shared her Robert Galbraith rejection letters. **

In the last blog post on the detested rejection letter/e-mail, I mentioned that the word ‘No’ comes wrapped in all sorts of sweet and sour coatings. Agents and publishers are practised at the art of rejection.

Writers, though, have no training in how to receive the bad news. We promise ourselves we won’t be hurt if someone doesn’t love our work, but deep down, we know it’s a lie.

In the last post, I said that there are different kinds of rejections: the photocopied standard letter or copy-‘n’-pasted e-mail, or the one that explains the reader’s thinking. So here are my suggested responses, whatever kind of ‘no’ you get.


When you first get the rejection, allow yourself to wallow, just for a day or two. Find a friend or partner willing to share a vat of wine or a bucket of ice-cream and listen to you rail about the cruelty of a world that doesn’t recognise your genius.

Then stop. What are the options? Give up? Or try again. (Go for the latter). Now’s the time to look again at that letter/e-mail and eke what you can from it.

If you have a standard rejection, then give yourself a little slap on the wrist. Possibly, you didn’t do your homework and you sent a romance novel to an agent/publisher who specialises in crime, or a vampire-zombie novel to someone whose website says they’re looking for something entirely fresh and surprising. Read about agents and publishers before you submit: there’s a lot of information available on their sites, so you can find out precisely what excites them.

Or, more likely, you didn’t take enough care with the writing. In your eagerness to get your work out there, you didn’t craft well enough and/or you didn’t bother proofreading. Whatever it was, your work didn’t get past the lowly pre-reader, so this is what it tells you: your manuscript is just not ready.

I couldn’t resist a smile when J.K. Rowling revealed that one of the rejections for the Robert Galbraith novel advised her (him?) to take a writing course. That’s exactly what I would have said and I stand by it: her style is pedestrian. That novel sold purely on the name, after it was revealed.

The good news is, if you are on the OCA’s courses, (or any other writing course) then you’ve already committed to improving your writing. You know that feedback you get from your tutors, all of whom are published authors? Listen to it. Apply it. And that will lessen your chances of those standard ‘no’s.

What about the rejections that do contain some feedback? First, be pleased: your manuscript was genuinely paid some attention. That’s more than around 90 per cent of the submissions to that agent/publisher will get. It also means you’re much more likely to find someone else who loves enough to take it on.

But treat with caution. The problem is the element of subjectivity. One agent may love your choice of first person point of view; another will tell you that your story would be better told in the third person. What to look for is a common thread. When two or more agents/ publishers mention the same issue – a problem with voice, for example or a weak ending – then they have certainly hit on what isn’t working with your manuscript. That’s the time to act, if you are serious about being published. Rejection, when it comes with solid advice, is a good thing if it makes you improve.

Rowling says she has kept all of her rejection letters in a box. I have an image of her opening them up every now and then and cackling as she throws another £50 note on the fire.
But should you do the same? It’s a personal choice, but I reckon it’s better for your general well-being if you don’t keep all those ‘no’s. Re-reading them won’t do your self-esteem any good; scoffing at them once you’re published is arrogant. Take any nuggets of useful advice and then send the letters to the recycling pile. And remember, rejected writer, that you’re in the most esteemed of company – just look at who went through this before you.



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