Sunday, 10 May 2015

Festivals and the writer

The brochure for the Hay festival came the other day. I enjoyed reading it. I identified about seven events I'd have liked to go to, felt a little nostalgic for the fine food, the green wellies and the deckchairs,  not to  mention  the  books. Perhaps, I thought,  once I've retired I might try to go every year. However, unless I write a bestseller, I probably won't be able to afford it. I can't go this year. I'll be invigilating  exams and marking 112 scripts.
Yes, Hay is fun but I have some serious reservations about it. The main one is that they do not pay their writers.
My experience of Hay
In 2010 we launched a collection of stories about animals, in fact many of them from an animal's point of view, from the festival. We were in the biggest tent, which was almost full, early Friday evening. Richard Adams contributed a story, Virginia McKenna wrote a foreword and was the focal point of the the launch as the book supports Born Free and the book attracted quite bit of media attention at the bothbefore andafter the festival.
We sold exactly 70 books. This is deemed to be a good number. So any argument that a festival might put forward about increased sales for authors isn't all that convincing, even if one allows for unknowns.  We spent a lot in order to be at the festival,  and the book never covered those costs even though we still cherish the experience.
How festivals can pay
Surely anyone who has the organisational skills to bring about a whole festival ought to be able to budget for an author presentation and to cover that author's costs. Even making a profit is acceptable. Might this not even add to the profit already being made by the festival if this is after all about money? Might there be the danger though that this could put the cost up beyond what the public are willing to pay? After all, Hay is relatively cheap. Attending my seven events would not bankrupt me.
Could the publisher throw in a discounted book? They could still make a small profit and they could still pay a pro rata royalty. It would avoid the queue in the bookshop. Itwould be a  guaranteed sale. Win, win, win?
The do it yourself festival
It is possible for an author to organise her own festival appearance at a festival  - particularly at the various fringe events. Buxton and Manchester are good examples. There is a fee to pay, but this is one off and covers all events. The more events you organise, the cheaper this overhead becomes. You can get box office help for a small fee or use something like Eventbrite or Ticket Source. You'll need all of that marketing finesse that you use in promoting you books to get people along so that you cover your costs. At least, however, there would be a chance of getting some payment.
  The truth of the matter
Writers should of course be paid.  They should be paid for their writing. They should be paid for other writerly activities - such as attending  literary festivals. Yes, there is the question of merit. The writer must earn her success. But isn't a festival such as Hay just as much about the writers as the readers and about the sponsors making money?

Friday, 1 May 2015

Newsletter April 2015

The second semester is now drawing to a close. This involves me in giving plenty of formative feedback on students’ writing. In a couple of weeks’ time the assignments will come in and then it will be more summative feedback. However, there’ll still be some suggestions about what to do to improve. Even Level 6 students who are about to graduate will probably carry on writing and we writers continue to develop continuously.
What a day job, eh?  I get to read a lot of stories. All that critiquing and editing enhances my own editing skills. What’s more, they pay me to do it.       

Books and short stories  

Girl in a Smart Uniform continues to burble along. It’s shaping up a little better now though it’s a slow process. I’ve almost finished the second draft. I’m getting to know my characters a bit better. I even quite like them. That’s always useful.  
I’m now working on a second chapter for my non-fiction book proposal. I’m discussing Lemony Snicket and Hans Christian Anderson :- in other words, authors who offer no happy ending at all. Next will come a chapter on war. Then I’ll craft the introduction. At that point it will be ready to send out.
I’ve written two more short stories but I’ve not yet sent those out.  They’re resting in a drawer at the moment. They’ll be on their way soon, though.

Bridge House

We’re currently reading for the next anthology.
Debz and I are meeting up next Saturday and we’ll be discussing how we shall be going forward. Bridge House is here to stay, have no fears. It may change the way it looks, however.   

Creative Café

Don’t forget as well we’re always looking for stories for CafeLit.
I’ve now added some pages of resources for writers to the web site. Do look out for those.

School Visits

I continue to offer free school visits, details below.     
These visits are up to 90 minutes long and are focussed on my books.
In addition, many of us from the university are going out and offering presentations on what is on offer on our programmes. I’ll generally throw in a creative writing exercise.   
I’ll reiterate straight away that authors should be paid for school visits, but these free ones are actually part of the work I do at the university.
I offer readings for 14+ of Veiled Dreams, Scum Bag, Spooking, Fibbin’ Archie and The Peace Child Trilogy (The Prophecy, Babel, The Tower) a short question and answer session and a creative writing exercise for your class. For primary children there are Jason’s Crystal, The Lombardy Grotto and Kiters. Read more about my books here. There are of course also my stories in various anthologies. All other visits are at the rates suggested by the Society of Authors. Schools can mix and match these visits. I do ask that travel expenses are covered.   
I’m offering visits and talks specifically about my The House on Schellberg Street project for a donation towards the project. I’ve devised a whole interactive workshop for this. The book is now out and selling steadily. It would be a real asset for any school teaching the Holocaust at Key Stage 3. Even if a school can’t afford a donation, I’d be happy to run the project.
Here’s some further news about the Schellberg project.
Query for a school visit here.

The Red Telephone

I’m working on Kathy Dunn’s The Demon Magician. This has a fast-paced plot and some delightful characters.
There will be a new call for submissions shortly.  

Thursday, 23 April 2015

Pursued by characters

I read a blog post recently about how characters can come alive and take on a life of their own. They do not follow the paths that we have neatly devised for them. They make up their own minds.

A life beyond the story

Our characters are with us only for a limited time. They have a life before they joined our story and they will continue to live after we’ve finished telling it – unless we’ve killed them off! They have an off-stage life. This is true whether we’re writing a novel, a short story or a piece of flash fiction. We need to take as much care as with them regardless of how long they stay with us.

Friday, 10 April 2015

The first person immediate: creating an ideal voice for a young adult novel

It dawned on me as I was teaching my second year Writing Novels for Young People group.  I’ve noticed that a first person narrative works well for young adults, especially when it is in the present tense, even though in other contexts I argue that a third person close narrative  allows us to experience the growth with a character. The first person narrator has already had the growth.

Sunday, 22 March 2015

For the love of grammar

The Grammar School

Yes, I went to a grammar school. It raised my expectations considerably and now I realise what an incredibly apt name it had. We had six lessons of English a week in our first year. There were two lessons on English literature, one on composition and three on grammar. In addition we learnt Latin and French through the Grammar Grind method. We thoroughly deconstructed language.

Grammar as a tool

The analysis is interesting and understanding how language works is very useful. I recognise a run-on sentence when I see one, though it is difficult to explain to someone who doesn’t have the terminology.
I also really understand what my computer means when it says “fragment – consider revising”. It’s telling me I’ve produced a piece of writing that does not contain a finite verb.
What’s a finite verb? A verb that has a defined tense, voice, person and mood. Pardon? A verb that is working, if you prefer.

What grammar does

Grammar is the backbone of the language. It shows who is doing what to whom. Without grammar what does this string of words mean: broken chair window caretaker mend. There are several possibilities. Grammar sorts it out.

No hard and fast rules

Surprisingly there are not except in those languages where there is some sort of authority looking after it. How grammar works differs from language to language. In the end it is about clarity. Interestingly, English is allowed to be fluid and evolve. It has no authority insisting on certain qualities. The OED advises us about words and Fowler about how we string them together.  Both, however, bow to usage.
Many people still frown on split infinitives but we now tend to boldly split them. And many frown upon sentences starting with “and” or “but” yet sometimes it can be quite effective. We were always admonished for using “different to” – it should be different from – but this is being more widely accepted now. 

The misunderstood imperfect tense

This is what prompted me to write this article. We are beginning to lose the sense of difference between “He was sitting.” and “He sat.” The former is imperfect, the latter preterit (though often used in an imperfect sense). He was sitting when the next action came along. He sat there may be over a protracted amount of time but the action is over and done with. “He used to sit” or “he would sit” imply a habit, all three conveyed in many other languages by what we call the imperfect tense. The action is not yet over. It is “imperfect”.

Knowing when to break the rules

This depends a little on knowing what the rules are in the first place. Then it’s important to ask the question “Is my change really effective?” It often has less impact than you might think. A copy-editor will pick this up. If they’ve used “track changes” to edit it may be worth hiding those changes and only putting them back on when you think any passage has lost its impact and even then consider whether  you can still keep the impact but keep to the rules and just rephrase.       
If we all understand what the writer means, what does it matter, we might ask.
Well, firstly, American publishers expect correct grammar. We all want our work published both sides of the Atlantic, don’t we?   
Secondly, grammar brings clarity and we want our texts to be as clear as possible. As English is a widespread first language, though its usage differs considerably form continent to continent, and the first foreign language for many people, we need as much clarity as possible.
Worth getting to know grammar, then?    

Sunday, 1 March 2015

Newsletter 2015

Well we’re well into the new semester now at the University of Salford. The students are now into a routine and are sharing their work quite freely. They learn from each other. Often they’ll learn even more by looking at others’ work than they do by just looking at their own.
I’m busy preparing new lectures and updating ones I’ve delivered before. It’s great when the students come to the seminars having read the suggested material. It makes for some really interesting discussions.     
I am just about keeping up with my writing though I don’t manage my two hours / 2000 words every day. I look forward to when I retire when I shall be up to four hours a day and 3000 words. So, not really retirement but yet another career change, actually.  
I shall miss that interaction with my students, however.   

Thursday, 26 February 2015

The worst first draft ever

I recently finished the first draft of my latest novel. It was puzzlingly short. It was running at 49,000 words – just about long enough for a young adult novel but certainly much shorter than the other two in the cycle. The first one is published and started out at about 100,000 words but was edited back to 95,000 words. The second, as yet unpublished, is also about 100,000 words.
Normally a second draft will only involve putting a few extra bits and pieces. This time I’m putting in eight new chapters. I’m changing from a third person narrative to a first person. I’m bringing in a second point of view character and in fact he commands the opening chapters.