Festivals and the Family Dog

Last Saturday, I did my first reading/panel discussion at an arts festival. As I understand it from those more experienced in the writerly game, appearances such as this take up a key chunk of a novelist’s life – and from the looks of a very interesting Twitter discussion I happened to see a few days later among some big names in the field, it’s not an area that’s free of controversy. So I thought it’d be worth a quick post recording my own thoughts on it.

The thing I was taking part in was New Writing Day, one of the big draws in the York Festival of Ideas, now in its second year. I was taking part in one of three New Writers panels, which were happening alongside creative writing workshops run by the Faber Academy, and a couple of big-name talks by playwright Richard Bean and writer/academic Marina Warner. On my panel were debut novelists Essie Fox (author of Orion’s Victorian gothic thriller The Somnambulist http://www.essiefox.com/) and Kathleen MacMahon, author of Little Brown’s much-touted love story This Is How It Ends http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/may/10/this-is-how-ends-kathleen-macmahon). I decided I wanted to be there for the whole day. I was eager to soak up the atmosphere, stalk Richard Bean and get him to talk to me (he’s basically my favourite living playwright) and meet my fellow panelists and other new writers Chibundo Onuzo, Noo Sara Wiwa, Katherine Rundell, Adharanand Finn and Oliver Balch.

Observation #1:  I had a cracking time, all in all. It was beautifully planned and expertly organized. I went to a series of readings and discussions that discussed topics as wide-ranging as: the relationship between place and composition; travel writing’s place in Nigerian politics; how your ‘story’ – that is, your personal life – might influence whether an agent takes you on; the difficulties of writing authoritatively about a culture that is not your own; the politics of commissioning plays at the Royal Court and the National Theatre; the rigours of researching fiction; and the relationship between visualization and language. In private, I got to discuss with my fellow writers – warm, witty, scarily intelligent individuals, all of them – a series of slightly more sensitive subjects. Including: what happens when your publisher wants to pitch you a way you don’t like; the wisdom of reading your own reviews; the necessity or fallacy of being on Twitter; the sobering opinion that “You won’t sell any books at these events. Don’t worry, you get used to it.”

Observation #2: I learned a lot. Not only in the aforementioned private discussions, but in my panel itself, which was chaired by academic / biographer / travel writer Geoff Wall and had an eager and informed audience of about 25 people. As alphabetical order governed our arrangement, I read from my book first. I said hello, then rather quickly and anxiously read out a slightly truncated version of Rites‘s first narrative chunk, which I had assumed would be the best bit to share. My fellow panelists did things a bit differently. Essie started with a conversational introduction, explaining which images/objects had inspired her to start writing, before also reading a chunk of her first chapter. Kathleen, as many other writers that day had done, dipped freely in and out of her book, reading a bit about each of the main characters while explaining something about each of them off the cuff.  Both seemed spontaneous, elegant and colloquial, whereas I felt that in comparison my reading was a bit stiff and formal. Both Essie and Kathleen are slightly more seasoned New Writers than I (their books had been out for a little while), and I felt watching them as if I could really learn something here – that as long as writers are doing these events, an element of performance is important, and I’d better get good at it.  It may be that the extract I selected was the best bit (it certainly unashamedly manipulates the listener’s curiosity) but I should at least consider some others, try a few things to see how they work.

One thing I flatter myself I did get right though: Essie, Kathleen and I had done a book swap in advance, with the result that we had actually all read each others’ work and were able to comment directly on what each other were saying and ask questions about what had interested us most. I did feel this gave our panel an added dimension of cross-writer engagement, even affection, compared to the others I saw that day, where the discussion was rather tightly controlled by the Chair. So that is something I’ll be keen to do wherever possible in the future.

Observation #3? It was exhausting. Utterly exhausting.

I was very surprised by that. I mean, I go to these things for fun, as an audience member. This is paradise for a reading/writing geek such as myself – hanging around sipping coffee, talking to big names in the field, pondering their remarks and challenging them with questions, flicking through the lovely books at the lovely bookstand. But no – it was utterly exhausting. So much so that by 5.30pm I had to miss the Marina Warner lecture (and I LOVE HER) to go home and collapse on the sofa for an hour in front of Tonight’s The Night With John Barrowman, just to ensure that I could make the speakers’ dinner later. The next day, I felt utterly knocked out. Drained, hollow, slightly depressed even though I thought it had gone well. This wasn’t like me. I’m a robust individual used to working long days. What was going on?

Perhaps it was something to do with switching roles all day – with rushing from one thing to another with barely a minute in between, being audience member, fellow writer, audience member, fellow writer, WRITER, fellow writer. With constantly having to have an insightful comment at the ready (without being able to say “It’s not my area”, the saviour of the conference delegate, because generalist writing is everyone’s area, isn’t it?). With constantly being anxious about whether people will turn up to your panel. Not to mention having to constantly be apologetic (“I can’t buy your book today… my stipend doesn’t come through until Friday…”) Whichever of the above, I thought it notable – and probably proof that this exhaustion is not unusual –  that I was the only New Writer there in attendance all day. Everyone else either went home after their session or arrived at lunchtime for the afternoon panels. Like I said, more seasoned: clearly they have figured this out already.

With this in mind, I was interested to see the novelist Linda Grant conducting a discussion on Twitter about writers who don’t get paid for events. Now, let me get one thing straight: this is NOT a complaint or even a gesture towards one about not being paid for this particular panel. To the contrary, as a brand new, green-as-grass writer I felt it was a privilege to take part, and in true student style was utterly delighted with the lovely dinner and refreshments I received into the bargain. But, because of this sense of exhaustion that surprised me so much, I was very interested in what more established writers (who must have done hundreds of these things) have to say about the fact that they are often still expected, following Orange Prize and Booker nominations and goodness knows what else, to do what is unquestionably a very hard day’s work for free.

Linda Grant (Orange Prize-winner, Booker-shortlisted) kicked the conversation off  with the following series of tweets: “How many of my fellow writers here willing to do events for no fee? I just drew a permanent line under this practise. Apart from bookshops which are active in selling books on my behalf.” Several fellow writers immediately jumped in to support her decision – Val McDermid (bestselling crime writer, almost 30 books under her belt) replied, “Am in complete agreement with you. I’m sure audiences have no idea we’re often the ones not being paid…. I often donate my fee back to the festival. But that’s my choice. The labourer is worthy of her hire. Writers need to eat too.” She later drew a clearer line between what she considered ‘work’ for a writer and what she didn’t: “If you’re a professional writer, you shd be writing. Or thinking. Not taking 2 days out 4 unpaid gig… Even if the readers are lovely and make you feel good and the cake is delicious. This is our job.” Other respondents worried about the self-fulfilling prophecy element of working for free: Laura Marcus (journalist and broadcaster) opined, ” If you work for free, that’s the exact value placed on your work”. The mysterious @LitBonfire (novelist and poet apparently… I have no idea who they are but their heavyweight follower list indicates someone quite interesting) stated bluntly, “No fee, no me” and pointed out drily, “It’s strange how often the people who want you to do things for nothing are themselves on salary.” Leo Benedictus (new-ish author of The Afterparty), on the other hand, was pro-pro bono, with an interesting free market twist: “I do some events for free, because I value the practice, and I enjoy it. When the demand for me rises, I’ll restrict supply….We need readers more than they need us. Until we’re Hilary Mantel, it is a great compliment to be given their time.” Grant challenged him: “Do you think the Stones are told, There’s no fee but it will be good exposure for you?” He retorted, “The Stones don’t need exposure, and multitudes will pay to watch them. When these apply to me, my policy will change.” One of Grant’s last tweets on the subject made me laugh, but also flagged up poignantly how dismissively people in the writing field are treated even at the top of their game: “Was asked to travel to Manchester for no fee or travel expenses. Offered bed on sofa shared with ‘our friendly family dog’… I am terrifed of animals.”

 This exchange interested me so much because it seemed to tap into the heart of the question of what a writer is in Britain today (unfortunately I can’t quote all the tweets). What is their relationship to their readers, publishers, potential readers and the organizers of literary events? What are their rights? What are their obligations? Are they performers as well as producers of text? Do they have a right to complain about the small, sad amounts of money they (sometimes) make from their incredibly hard work? Or should they accept that being able to write and publish and have anyone read your work is a luxury and a privilege, and they should do it for free? What are the knock-on effects of this? Would we rather have writers stand up for their rights to be treated as professionals and an impoverished cultural landscape (because I’m under no illusions that the organizers of literary events are rolling in cash themselves), or else have superb writers consigned to the sofa with the family dog?
I confess I haven’t made up my mind about all this yet in any definitive fashion. Rather like Benedictus (though without such a determined supply/demand framework) I hazily view established writers as a class apart from newbies like myself. While I’m grateful for any opportunity for ‘exposure’, it rather shocks me that they are expected to operate under the same conditions even after a lifetime of professional success. As several participants in the Twitter conversation pointed out, the vast majority of professionals would laugh in your face if you asked them to give you a service for free “for the exposure”. What makes writers so different?
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Stuck In The Middle: 10 tips for writing a novel in 2 weeks

I haven’t updated for a while, but trust me, I’ve got a good excuse. I’ve just been buffeted through the busiest but also perhaps the most amazing week of my life. I’ve been in York, Birmingham, Leamington Spa, Istanbul and back to York again over the space of five days.  I’ve seen, by my last count, almost a hundred friends from a dozen different cities and three different time zones.  I’ve had both my first book launch, and my first review in a national newspaper. I’m thus utterly knackered, and have hardly had a moment to pause and reflect on events since the whole whirlwind began. Today is the first day I’ve had fully to myself; the visiting friends have all departed from York, the holiday washing is folded and the spare bedding put back in the cupboard, and the gorgeous presents have been picked up from Waterstones. The cumulative hangover has finally receded. I am once again curled up on my sofa in my flat , getting my affairs in order and able to turn my attention to this blog. Rites is well and truly launched.

I’m not going to say much about the launch itself, because my friends are probably sick to death of the subject and hopefully there’ll be a brief video available soon which will give a much better flavour of the thing for anyone who missed it. Suffice to say it was the most bizarre, overwhelming and almost painfully proud evening of my life. My cheeks are still a bit achey from smiling so much and so widely; I have memories that will last a lifetime; and I have learned – a most valuable lesson – that I am not remotely photogenic when reading aloud. I apparently have a very animated face.

Neither am I going to say much about the first national review of Rites, which appeared in the Sunday Express the day after the launch. Not that I’m not sickeningly proud (and if you want to see why, head over to the ‘Press and Reviews of Rites‘ section). It’s just that I reckon at the moment it would sound a lot like unadulterated (not to mention prescient) smugitude, and I think I could get a much beefier, more interesting post once out of the idea of reviews once I’ve had a few more, of varying timbre (should I be so lucky).

Instead, I thought I might write a bit about being Stuck in the Middle. The middle of a book, that is. Because for my speech at the launch  I spoke a bit about the beginning of the book, much as I outlined it in a previous post here, but I had to stop at the same bit of the writing process as before, and that reminded me of my earlier promise, to come back to what you do when you’ve written those first striking / gripping / explosive few chapters. What do you do when the novelty wears off? When you find that you’re finished setting the scene and you have to actually make something happen? Something that will actually sustain the reader’s interest? How do you come up with the events, and how do you pattern them so that they have the right kind of narrative arc, a kind that feels good to you and hopefully also to the reader? And how the dirty devil do you keep yourself motivated to keep writing, to keep getting them down on paper, when you’re so brain-sick of the whole thing that the very sight of your embryonic masterpiece makes you want to projectile vomit grey matter out through your nostrils? (trust me, this is a Thing. If you’ve never had a feeling of deep loathing for your own work, I’m not sure you’re really a writer).

Well, these are all big questions, and I don’t think I can answer them comprehensively.  After all, I’ve only done it once. But if it helps, I can not only tell you what the Middle felt like for me, that one time. I can show you what it looked like.

The circumstances under which I wrote the middle to Rites were, well, unusual. After I’d sent off the start of the novel for the competition Route were running, I wiped my brow with relief and took a break from writing it. Quite a long break. Okay, a very long break. Weeks. Months. If ‘m honest, I assumed I was’t going to get anywhere, and I forgot about it. Then one day I got a phone call – I think I was on a train – and I heard the news that I was on the shortlist of five. And they wanted the rest of the novel.

Hmm.

I said I’d send it to them in two weeks. Then I went home and sat in the flat by myself, very quietly, for a little while, and wondered what the hell I was going to do. Eventually I just decided that I’d have to write the rest in two weeks.

Please don’t misunderstand me here: this is not the ideal way to write a novel. Good writing benefits from lots of time, revision and loving perfectionism – indeed, that’s exactly what the first draft of Rites received once I started working with Route a few months later (that’s another story). But for focusing the mind, for that first draft, for the actual creation of something tangible and coherent out of a vacuum of nothingness, I do think that nothing works quite like blind panic and an unforgiving deadline. I give you, therefore,

Coulombeau’s Top Ten Tips To A Middle In Two Weeks

1. Budget your time. Yep. Budget it. Just like you budget money.

This was one point where my training as a student of literature came in handy. Or rather, a professional essay writer. Essays train you, you see, to do this, to meet a deadline. This process started off just the same as that of writing an essay. I needed forty thousand words (not including the 10,000 I’d already written) in 14 days. I worked it out at four 10,000 word chunks. 4,000 words a day for two days, and then on the third day I could stop at 2,000, and spend the rest of the day editing my 10,000 word chunk. Then start again the next morning. That would give me the requisite number in 12 days, leaving a 2-day safety buffer zone for overall editing. ‘Perfect’.

2. Equip yourself. Plan.

I am a great believer in the visuals of essay / novel planning. See Exhibit A above. I got hold of paper, coloured pens, pins and post-its. I drew a timeline for the novel, divided it into four sections. I dredged up all the notes I’d scribbled down for themes, scenes, dialogue, suggestive ideas that I’d thought in the past I might like to fit into the narrative, and I started to write them in on the timeline, roughly where I thought I’d like them to occur. If I wasn’t really sure then I put the idea on a post-it and moved it around in different places, trying different things out. I also noted problems as they arose, and stuck them around the edges of the timeline, so I wouldn’t forget a crucial plot tangle or inconsistency and be buggered at the end, so that my mind would always be sort of working away at them. When I had got the first half planned out to my satisfaction – the second looked and still looks rather bare – I stuck it on the cork board above my desk.

Oh, and coffee. You’ll need lots and lots of coffee.

3. Use people #1

Every novel needs research. The delicate subject matter of Rites meant that it needed research – accurate research – perhaps more than most. I figured out that, at the very least, I needed to speak to a doctor, a lawyer familiar with out-of-date sexual offences legislation, and a police officer. I also needed to speak to somebody who was very familiar with Class A drugs. So I sent some emails off  to friends who worked in these fields, or have these experiences, or who might know someone who did, and begged for a phone conversation. They were unbelievably helpful. (Incidentally, other bizarre research experiences involved asking male friends about the gory specifics of their teenage sexual awakening, and reading a Roman Catholic Missal cover to cover).

4. Use People #2

Asking people to read your work in progress is horrible. It’s like asking someone to comment on your looks when you’ve just crawled out of bed with a hangover; you haven’t prepared yourself, you haven’t made it the best it can be, IT’S NOT READY. Tough, when you’re on a tight schedule. You need people to tell you exactly how and why you look terrible – that your hair needs washing, where your smudged mascara is, how to pluck those eyebrows. Because – here’s the thing – YOU DON’T HAVE A MIRROR.

Bearing this in mind, I asked four friends – four very wonderful, very generous friends with totally different taste from one another in fiction – to read my draft and send me comments, to a ludicrously tight schedule. Ten thousand words every two-and-a-half-days with a  twelve-hour turnaround. They did it, every time. They buoyed me up with encouragement and suggestions. Because of them, I sent in a more controlled, thoughtful, consistent, polished text in the end. They have my eternal gratitude.

5. Write.

Simply that. Look at your plan, look at the first event on it. Think, “How do I want to present this? Who’s narrating it? Where does it happen? What kind of tone?” Once a reasonably solid idea has come into your head – prod it a few times to see – write it down. GO. Keep writing. When you’re done, look at the next event on your plan. Do the same. Write for as long as you can. Do not read over what you’ve written, or you will crumple and die.

6. Become a split personality

The best how-to book I have ever read about the craft of creative writing was first published in 1934 by a woman called Dorothea Brande. It’s called ‘Becoming A Writer’, and is seen as something of a cult classic by many in the fiction field. It’s worthy of a blog post by itself, but for now I’ll just paraphrase the best piece of advice from it, the piece that got me through those insane two weeks:

“Most of the methods of training the conscious side of the writer – the craftsman and the critic in him – are actually hostile to the good of the unconscious, the artist’s side; and the converse of this proposition is likewise true. But it is possible to train both sides of the character to work in harmony, and the first step in that education is to consider that you must teach yourself not as though you were one person, but two.”

She’s right. You basically need, in my experience, to be able to separate the writer part of you from the critic. To write very freely and desperately and craply, without censoring or self-editing at all – which is what I did for 2 1/2 days – and then to become a pedantic, severe editor and Track Change the whole thing – which I did for half a day, before sending it on to my other editors. If you try to do both at once, you’re doomed to failure and will end up huddled in a corner gnashing your teeth and rending your garments in despair.

7. Don’t be afraid to change things.

As I progressed, and my characters began to take on a life of their own, I realized I had been very mistaken about  some of their traits. For example, one character had been bisexual, but I realized halfway through that he simply wasn’t. Another character had a drinking problem, but I realized near the end that she simply didn’t. It was then a question of going back and painstakingly sifting out all references to these errors. But it was a good sign, I think. Just because you wrote something doesn’t mean it’s good, or right.

8. Lean on the Plan to start with, but learn to stand without it.

If you look at Exhibit A above, you’ll see that the final section of the Plan is pretty blank. I found that, whereas I needed the Plan almost like a crutch when I was writing the earlier sections, as my manuscript amassed weight I found myself deviating from it more and more, until eventually I hardly needed it at all. I still jotted the odd thing down, but in general the narrtive now had momentum and I knew where it was going. I preferred to spend my rapidly dwindling time writing than developing a plan I didn’t need.

9. Anticipate the Dark Night Of The Soul

Dorothea Brande, talking about fiction, calls it The Slough Of Despond. The late and great Professor Jane Moody, talking about PhDs, called it The Dark Night Of The Soul. It is that moment when you hit a mental roadblock and gently, soothingly, depression wraps itself around you like the snuggliest of duvets, and a little voice whispers to you that you should just give up. It’s rubbish. What did you think you were trying to do? Save face now. Quit before you embarrass yourself any further.

If I had foolproof advice about how to deal with this, I’d basically be able to save the world. My own strategy was to go on a very long run, have a very long sleep, and go back to writing the next day, stubbornly ignoring the problem that had occasioned my Dark Night. I told myself I’d figure it out subconsciously. I did, in the end.

10. Promise yourself something amazing at the end of it all.

No, not the finished manuscript. That goes without saying. Promise yourself that when you’ve reached target, you can have what you most want (within reason) in the world. My own incentive was a camping trip with friends away to How Stean Gorge. When I hit 50,000 words, I promised myself, I would go somewhere for two days where I couldn’t even see a computer screen if I wanted to, where I wouldn’t even think about books, where I would just eat burned sausages and drink cold beer under a starry sky. I hit 50,000 words about 90 minutes before my lift left.

The ending, of course, hadn’t been written yet. I was saving that for when I came back, because endings are superimportant. But that’s another story.

Coulombeau / Coupland

A very quick post – with apologies to those who have already been subjected to my hysterical boastings all over Twitter and Facebook – to say that today something truly exciting happened. I received a picture-tweet-link-thing showing me a shelf in the York branch of Waterstones full of pristine, gorgeous copies of Rites. It is officially – in this store only, until June 25th – on sale.

For the first time, I don’t really have much to say in this blog post.  It’s been a very strange day. I’ve been trying to do work, failing, grinning like a lunatic, and pulling up again and again the amazing pictures that friends have sent me (thank you Stu, Ruth, Paul and Cat!)

It feels so strange having it out there in the world, just hanging out there nonchalantly on the shelf next to Douglas Coupland. Amazing, of course – I’m so proud that all the months of hard work has resulted in this gorgeous item being available in a shop I’ve always thought of as a kind of brain-temple, looking so great and also – thanks Waterstones! – clearly given such prominence. But then, of course – because I’m a writer, and we are neurotic and miserable – fear follows quickly on the heels of pride, and I pick up my own copy and see an awkward sentence or a tiny plot inconsistency and I think “Oh fucksticks, that’s awful, nobody will take me seriously now,” and have to sit down and drown my innards in apple tea til I calm down. And then – because I’m a writer, and we are self-punishing and never happy – I think, “Well, ok, that’s one down, what about the next one?” and I go back to the tiny but growing manuscript that is becoming my second novel, and I see the mountain that I just climbed, there to climb all over again. Only, no, it’s not the same mountain. This one is bigger. Bigger and more terrifying and populated by banditti of high expectations and chasms of historical inaccuracy. But off I go nonetheless. And then I grin and look at the pictures again, and become distracted, and it all starts over.

Enough now. Off to my friend Cat’s to eat her delicious food. Will post very soon about the second novel, about how to write Middles, and about a great conference in Newcastle.

Til next time!