13: The Writer’s Conference

On March 3rd I attended my first Writer’s Conference. I booked my tickets way in advance, it must have been October, as last year they sold out really quick and I missed an opportunity to go.

It’s held at Nottingham Trent University and organised by the Writing East Midlands team. On the day there were 16 lectures to choose from, spread over 4 slots. There were 2 keynote speakers (the first was supposed to be Pat Barker but unfortunately she cancelled last minute due to the weather). Instead Richard House , a Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing took the baton and discussed his works. The Kills was longlisted for The Man Booker Prize in 2013. It was interesting to hear about a number of his works that merge the traditional novel and digital media. House stated that he was working on a two part novel that was bridged by a podcast with 7 episodes.

Lecture 1 – Demystifying the Publishing Process

I think this was my favourite lecture of the day (and looking at a number of other blogs it seems to be everyones favourite of the day). It was a discussion between Crystal Mahey-Morgan (pictured left – founder of OWNIT!) and Jonathan Emmett (pictured right – children’s writer) chaired by Martin Reed (centre – society of authors) .

They engaged in a fascinating discussion about the current publishing landscape, the publishing industry today and how they get themselves noticed. Jonathan published his first children’s book in 1999 and has written over 60 books so he has more than enough personal experience with publishers and agents. He described some of the lack lustre efforts displayed by some bigger publishers who didn’t seem to go the extra mile for their clients in terms of marketing/PR whilst some of the medium and smaller publishers worked more in collaboration and devised new and innovative ways to get their clients out there, Crystal organised a sell out event of 1300 tickets at a venue in Hackney, London for a debut novelist last year.

Crystal is the founder of OWNIT! “a storytelling lifestyle brand, telling stories across books, music, fashion and film“. She has worked for Penguin Random House and Fraser and Dunlop (PFD). She was also critical of the bigger publishers and talked about how her company worked in partnership with their clients rather than exploiting them. Everything was a collaboration right down to the 50/50 split of profits, which must be far more than some of the deals that Jonathan has signed which can be as little as 4p a book. She impressed upon us the importance of reading contracts (I studied contract law at Uni so I’m always wary). “These words are your IP” she expressed passionately “its your content”. She said that some debut novelists didn’t even care about the contracts, they just wanted their first book published. It sounded like she had to force these people into a room, sit them down and explain the importance of what they were signing. What I took from this is that you really have to own your work, to treat it with respect and not let yourself be exploited just because it’s your first book or maybe you feel you just have to do what the agents/publishes say. The Society of Authors also talked about some of the exploitative practices of the publishing industry including Special Sales (a new term to me) and how they were trying to tackle it. Jonathan said he turned down a special sale deal last year where he would have only got 1.8p a book – he stated that from a library loan he would get 4p. They want to try and bring the minimum price per book up to at least that of a loan as people that own a book aren’t then going to go out and loan it too. Otherwise “it’s a race to the bottom” Martin stated.

Jonathan also talked about social media – that little chestnut that now engulfs our lives – and promotion. He commented that it was not unrealistic to spend 50% of your time writing but also 50% on promoting yourself whether by checking emails, on social media or prepping for events. It’s not exactly the romantic life many of us beginner writers dream of. But that’s the grim reality – you have to sell yourself these days and find new or innovative ways to do it.

Though I came away from the talk mildly disheartened about the pros and cons of the publishing aspect of the writing process, including some exploitative practices and the harsh realities of trying to make it as a professional writer I also felt more aware of these challenges, how to overcome them and what steps I can take to avoid any pitfalls.

Lecture 2 – Novellas: finding a fit in the shifting landscape of publishing

Lecture 2 ran by Nicola Monaghan was all about the power of the novella. She discussed some stories that you might not have even realised were novellas (Animal Farm, Of Mice and Men, The Stranger) and how they can be a useful tool to get yourself noticed or generate interest for an upcoming novel release. For instance you could write a novella as a prequel to your novel and give it away for free. You can release novellas digitally yourself and cut out the agents or publishers altogether.

We spent the second half of the lecture on a writing exercise where we were asked to answer a few questions about a main character, established or a newly created one. I ended up writing about Sunny, a girl living in a hostel in Southern Spain. She went over to learn Spanish (and to avoid joining the corporate world) but so far she’s eaten a lot of tapas, visited all the main sights and can only say “hola”.

The question that seemed to strike a cord with many people was ” where is your main character and why are they there?”. Thinking about why a main character is in a particular location or setting can really make you think more about the main characters motivations, back story and why you have chosen that location. Why that place, what bearing does it have on the story, is it relevant?

Following the second lecture we broke for a networking lunch.

Lecture 3 – Synopsis Surgery

Lecture 3 was supposed to be ran by Oliver Munson a literary agent of AM Heath but he cancelled last minute due to the bad weather. Alex Davies stepped in and did a great job of filling in.

Another fascinating lecture. To be honest I don’t have much experience of writing synopses (probably because I haven’t finished a novel yet) but I learned a heck of a lot about them and their usefulness.

Synopses have to be plain, focus on the key events, told chronologically and like a novel, have a beginning, a middle and an end.

It sounded like Oliver had done a small survey of a few agents and authors in preparation for this lecture. The agents seemed to only read the synopsis if they enjoyed the chapters that came with a novel submission. The synopsis would then tell them exactly what happens in the novel, in particular – how it ends. Why would an agent want to invest in a novel if they don’t know how it ends? Authors seem to hate writing them, one quote “I’d rather write a novel, eat it, then write it again from scratch than write a synopsis” vividly expressed their distaste.

There didn’t seem to be a set formula, it could 300 words or two pages at 1500 – agents may put on their websites what they want in the submission package. It seems completely subjective.

I came away thinking that I need to nail the synopsis. I don’t want them to hang over me like a mountain I feel I can’t climb. They sound like a useful tool that, as a writer, you can use to your advantage. For instance you could write one before you start your novel so you have a clear direction of where you main character is going, how they get there and how it ends. Maybe this will change as you begin writing but then you can write another one. But ultimately the synopsis is the spine of your story. You can add the limbs, the body and the muscles later.

Lecture 4 – Writing Radiation with Dr Daniel Cordle

The last lecture of the day was a workshop with an NTU lecturer Dr Daniel Cordle who is a world leading expert in nuclear culture. We looked over a number of excerpts from various novels that are about the nuclear future or the imagined nuclear past. It was very interesting hearing other participants experiences of this time. One said that during 1984 they were warned not to swim in the lakes of the Lake District or eat the meat of lamb that had been grazing on the grass on the hills. There was a tangible fear of the possibility of nuclear war displayed by some participants who had experienced it in their youth. It’s a period of time I would like to research further. Here are some more memories and photos.

Finally the conference was coming to a close. We had a poem by Nottingham Young Poet Laureate – Georgina Wilding

Malika Booker delivered the final key note speech where she talked of community, discipline and confidence in yourself. How the people and poets around her -from her primary school librarian who let her stack shelves and read books in the library at lunch time to Kwami Dawes who challenged her poetry – had lifted her and she too able to use that to help lift other writers and poets. So much so that she started Malika’s Poetry Kitchen .

A community of writers is an invaluable asset I know all too well. I’ve written a post on my writing group which you can find here (it’s short & sweet and deserving of a longer more in depth post but that can come at a later date).

And that was that. A day filled with learning, meeting other writers, listening, & participating. For now I am still a writer at the very, very beginning. Working on drafts plodding along slowly to completion. My hope for next year is that I have a number of finished works and I’m attending at the beginning of what I hope will be a long and fruitful career. I’ll be interested to attend in 2019 to see how I have changed and developed as a writer and where I will be a year ahead.

I grabbed a load of leaflets that I read through at home and probably will be attending the States of Independence event on Saturday so look out for a post on that.

I had to include this wonderful photo of Cobden Chambers in Nottingham City Centre from the night before. The snow and the light was so beautiful.

Thanks for reading!

Dominique.

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