Write Stuff – Advice c/o Cambridge Wordfest

As promised, here is a follow-up post relaying the excellent advice for aspiring authors provided at Getting Published Today, a Wordfest event that took place on Saturday.
Those passing on their tips were:
Nicola Morgan – an award-winning author of 90 books and giver of crabbit advice to aspiring writers everywhere. Nicola runs a consultancy service and writes a fantastic blog, Help! I Need a Publisher!, which is stuffed full of information for writers. For details of the book of the blog click here. I’ve got it and highly recommend it.
Rebecca Swift – a former editor at Virago, and now Director of Arts Council-funded TLC (The Literary Consultancy). TLC provides manuscript feedback (I’ve used it and would recommend the service) as well as mentoring (I haven’t used this but I sat next to someone at the event who had. She told me she found the programme supportive, thorough and very good for keeping up motivation. It’s mainly done online, but there is an industry day where you can make contacts in person).
Jill Dawson, a highly acclaimed writer of both fiction and poetry, and director of Gold Dust, a mentoring scheme for writers. (I haven’t got personal experience of this one, but there are plenty of testimonials on the website. Gold Dust involves face-to-face meetings, as opposed TLC’s online approach, and JD explained that not all applicants are accepted – it is a competitive process.
Getting Published Today
It was interesting to hear the different viewpoints of the panellists on what it takes to be a success. I hope I’ve summed up their views fairly; I certainly found it fascinating to listen to them.
Nicola Morgan pointed out that writing doesn’t necessarily have to be ‘good’ to get taken on, it has to be ‘right’. If it happens to be right for the market then it can be downright awful but still be snapped up. NM recommended reading this article by Danuta Kean, which is sobering.
NM was clearly in no personal doubt about the value of great writing (and her own work is highly acclaimed). She didn’t want writers to abandon their artistic dreams, but to proceed with a very clear, businesslike eye on the whole process, and to recognise what’s driving the industry right now.
She pointed out that any publisher has to believe they can sell enough copies to make the book/author they’re taking on financially viable, and ‘enough’ now, is more than it used to be. Books are heavily discounted and, with prices falling, revenue per unit is getting smaller.
She encouraged writers to recognise that we are where we are, rather than getting hung up on what can’t be changed. She said there are still publishers out there who will publish adventurously, but it’s up to individuals to go out and search for them. Realistically, in these straightened times they do often opt to go with the most obviously commercial books.
RS commented on the same issue, but did say she felt most good writers should be able to find a story or theme on which to hook their gifts to make them consumable (which she acknowledged was a horrible word!)
JD still felt that, ultimately, good writing would win the day. 

Instant Success
No, I’m afraid this isn’t some kind of miracle method to have it, but the fundamental need to achieve it!
NM pointed out that authors can no longer afford to have low-selling books, leading up to a breakthrough novel. You have to succeed with your first offering, or you’re unlikely to get taken on to write a second. This is particularly scary when you consider that Ian Rankin’s first novel was published in 1986, but it wasn’t until 1997 that Black and Blue, the book considered to be his breakthrough novel, was published. Six years after he’d won the Chandler-Fullbright prize. I hate the fact that, in today’s publishing climate, we might miss out on someone as good as Ian Rankin.
 
Craft – Some Key Advice
JD reckoned that most good writing is re-writing. She herself undertakes many serious drafts (not just editing and tweaking) and relishes doing a full 90K word re-write.
NM said it was crucial be expert in the type of book you want to write.
JD added that reading is as good a grounding in writing as any. She said all writers should hold books dear and view literature as their favourite art form.
Pitching
NM said you must be able to sum up your work in a paragraph – but a sentence, say 25 words – is better. And be specific. Don’t use your sentence to convey come sort of abstract, philosophical theme. Instead, give a concrete set up that will spark interest and lodge itself in the reader’s head. And make sure you can show what marks your work as different from the competition.
In response to a question about ‘Pitch to an Agent’ slots at literature festivals, RS said they should be treated as a bit of fun – otherwise they can simply be too intimidating to contemplate. However, she did say they were worth doing, if for nothing else than because they get you used to pushing yourself forward, which is essential in today’s marketplace.
All the panellists noted that when submitting to agents/publishers you should check individual websites for specific requirements and follow them to the letter.
As for the dreaded synopsis they always ask for, NM’s book, Write a Great Synopsis, is devoted to helping writers overcome that hurdle. JD said it’s essential to get to grips with writing one, and if you are published you’ll be required to produce umpteen potted versions of your story for all sorts of people involved in promoting you.
Digital Self-Publishing
RS advised writers to prepare very carefully before going ahead. She acknowledged that, with the advent of e-publishing, it is tempting to get a novel uploaded in that first flush of post-completion excitement. However, she urged writers to get their novels ‘well sound-checked’ first.
RS said TLC will be running a conference 8/9 June called Writing in a Digital Age, which will cover topics such as how to self-publish in a way that will improve your chances with a mainstream publisher, and will explore the effect that digital self-publishing is having on the industry. Might it one day become a standard test bed that publishers consider before taking a new author on? NM will also be speaking at the conference.
And Finally
The chair of the event, writer Jo Browning-Wroe, asked each of the panellists to give one final piece of advice and here’s what they said:
RS – meditate. And be prepared to let go of what you’re trying to do for a time if you need to. If it’s important, it’ll come back.
JD – tell your own story, the only way you know how.
NM – write from the heart, but engage your head! (And visit the Help! I Need a Publisher! blog post here for more useful information.)
I’m really grateful to Wordfest and all the panellists for providing such an interesting event.
If you’ve been to similar talks, or have any advice from your own personal experience, do please chip in and leave a comment!
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2 thoughts on “Write Stuff – Advice c/o Cambridge Wordfest

  1. I definitely agree about showing some restraint with self-publishing. I finished Gunshot Glitter on December 30th 2010. I wrote 'The End' and was VERY chuffed with myself, but I knew it needed work and after some ups and downs with deciding how to publish it, only now is that beautiful behemoth seeing light of day! Glad I waited until it was ready : )

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