So, at long last, here’s what happened on Sunday. In the morning I went to a very informative talk entitled “Getting Published: Four Things Nobody Tells You”, given by Tony Booth. Tony is a Guernsey-based writer with a number of non-fiction books to his name and a refreshing, no-nonsense approach to the business of getting published. The focus of his talk centred on the submission package you send to prospective publishers and/or agents – the bundle of cover letter, synopsis, and sample chapters.
This is one area of the process that I find fascinating and terrifying in equal measure. I’ve read a lot of books, websites and heard different people talking about what publishers “really want”, and the overall impression I’ve been left with is that nobody really knows. Tony’s guidelines made a lot of sense, though. His core message – that, above all else, publishing is a business and your job as a writer looking to get a book deal is to give the agent/editor all the information they need to make an effective business decision – may seem slightly cynical to those more interested in literature as an art form. But as an unknown author approaching a publisher, your chances of being offered a contract are slim, if for no other reason than sheer weight of numbers (Tony quoted a submission to acceptance ratio of 5000:1 for UK publishers), so it makes sense to do everything you can to make the editor’s life easier. If the cover letter is concise and conveys all the information he or she needs to decide whether it’s their type of book, they’re more likely to read the synopsis. If that shows you know how to structure a story, control plot and character development, they’re more likely to read the sample chapters. After that, you’re on your own, but at least you’ve got that far; you've got your metaphorical foot in the door. It was an interesting talk, and some of the details Tony included about his own working methods gave a real insight into his approach to the craft – the thing that stuck in my mind most of all was his admission that he employed narrative techniques used in 1980s rock videos to shape the structure of some of his chapters. Just goes to show, inspiration can come from anywhere.
After lunch, zero hour arrived and it was my turn to contribute something to the festival rather than just sitting back and soaking it up. I arranged my stack of books, checked and double-checked my notes, ran through my timings once again, and waited nervously for my class to arrive.
... And what an enthusiastic and talented bunch they turned out to be! And friendly, and patient (I lost track of my timings within about 30 seconds of starting, and the start of the workshop veered wildly off-course as I realised I’d forgotten to introduce myself before starting to talk about short fiction). Having never led a workshop before, I was uncertain whether I’d done enough to get the creative juices flowing by the time I handed out my ‘ice-breaker’ exercise sheet. It was a short characterisation exercise, and although I think a couple of people didn’t quite get what I was trying to achieve with it, it seemed to do the job and get people thinking about character – and it got the pens moving if nothing else.
I’d structured the rest of the class with the idea that I’d talk for a while about short fiction and the essential elements of a short story, as well as some flash-specific tips on how to pare the word count down to an absolute minimum, then let people write for 25 minutes, then talk a little about editing, then give everyone another 25 minutes to either edit what they’d already written or tackle a new story if they preferred. At the end there was time for people to share what they’d written with the rest of the class. Knowing that it can be tough to write under pressure I’d also prepared a series of prompt cards to give a gentle nudge to anybody who needed it.
On the whole, it seemed to work pretty well, with a fascinating range of subjects and styles in evidence. We had dark stories, light stories, a couple of tales of canine revenge, a madcap tour of Russia in a mobile museum, and one man’s desperate search for green food colouring. I was impressed by the quality of the writing and the fact that so many of the class were able to produce finished work within the workshop’s limited timeslot. For those who didn’t manage that, or who didn’t feel comfortable reading their work out; don’t worry, it’s extremely difficult to write stuff “on demand”, and it can be intimidating to share your work with a room full of strangers. All I can say is stick with it; it gets easier with practise.
I really enjoyed the workshop – once the nerves had settled down – and one of the best aspects was meeting a whole new bunch of people passionate about the written word. I must say a quick hello to a couple of people with an online presence. Firstly, Martine Ellis, a newcomer to short fiction and curator of the iMake blog. She’s been kind enough to give the workshop a very favourable mention on her blog, even though I caught her unawares with my demands for short stories to be written there and then. Also, I had the privilege to meet Ric Carter, a very skilled writer with a real flair for quirky and imaginative flash fiction. I urge you to check out his website – he wrote Grand Gestures during the workshop, and I think it’s great. Ric also made a grand gesture himself, presenting me with a copy of The Second Beestung International, one of his beautifully handmade mini-books. I didn’t get a chance to take a proper look at it at the time, for which I apologise (the library was closing, so I was hurriedly packing everything away) – but now I’ve had a proper butcher’s, it’s a fantastic thing and a brilliant couple of stories. Thanks again, Ric, I’m honoured.
Also deserving a special mention is Ed Jewell, the Customer Services Librarian, who couldn’t have done more to make me feel more welcome and supported, despite my diva-esque demands to have the desks laid out half a dozen different ways before deciding on the correct one (which was, as you’d expect, the way we’d set them out at the beginning). Thanks again, Ed!