Monday, 19 September 2011

'The Idea of Marmalade' by Anthony Gillam and The Pow-Wow Litfest

On Wednesday 7 September it was Tony's turn to play host. The biscuits were of the usual excellent quality.

Clive, SVA's latest recruit, announced that he has landed a column in the Worcester News on an initial 5-month trial. The title? 'Old Grumpy'. We congratulated him. A column in a local paper! Sadly, however, he won't be paid for it. Once a month he must find something to complain about and write about it. 'Not difficult,' he said. 'I do a lot of cycling and the resentment just builds up.'
'Doesn't it just,' I replied.

Rob and Tony will be talking about their writing at Bewdley Library during the festival fringe - Tony on Wednesday 26 October and Rob on Thursday 27. Naturally they expect the audience to be packed with literary agents and publishers. Linda and I will try to squeeze in if there is any room left.

Tony (right) and Rob at The Author's Fayre

Having resubmitted his proposal of a book about the role of creativity in mental health to a publisher (after they lost the original), Tony told us that the idea, aimed at mental-health nurses and professionals, has had a mixed reception and it remains in limbo. Better news from Rob: after writing to the New Statesman every anniversary of 9/11 criticising their reporting of those terrible events, his letter is finally to be published on the tenth anniversary. If you don't at first succeed...

At length we got down to business. Tony read out his latest short story, entitled The Idea of Marmalade, about a week in the life of an unemployed graduate. Tony makes a habit of focusing on random, every-day trivia in his sort stories, giving each event significance. The story begins with the graduate's inability to like the taste of marmalade - although she likes the idea of it. Tony went on to describe her novelty socks, each pair a different colour that was supposed to represent the wearer's mood. Annie strongly objected to the matching of the colours to the mood. 'How can "orange" be "tired"?' she objected. The story takes the reader through each day of the week, each with a different pair of novelty socks. The events were well described with Tony's usual expert command of grammar, dialogue and punctuation, but we noted his tendency to repeat the same word a little too often in the same paragraph. The story ends with a dream, in which the graduate relives the experiences of the week, but in the surreal, chaotic way characteristic of dreams.

On Saturday 17 September we drove up to Moseley to attend the 2011 Pow-Wow LitFest. The event was held under canvas behind the Prince of Wales pub on the Alcester Road.  We arrived a little late because of the volume of traffic on its way into Birmingham, so we missed about 20 minutes of the first event, the interview with Catheryn Kilgarriff from Marion Boyars Publishers. She spoke mainly about the working relationship between author and publisher, and the need for the writer to create a profile or a brand. Self-promotion is about building relationships by visiting literary festivals, and using a website or a blog to create a persona. Her description of the submission she received from Hong Ying as 'commercial dynamite' prompted a member of the audience to ask what constituted 'commercial dynamite'. The reply was that it was historically correct, the right length, cogent and had a love interest.

The second event was an interview with three budding novelists based in Birmingham: Anna Lawrence Pietroni, Charlie Hill and Andrew Killeen, the organiser of the event. All were disarmingly modest, self-deprecating even, and spoke eloquently and with humour about the business of writing books. Although it became clear that each author had a very different method of writing, they were all passionate about it, using every spare minute possible to work at their craft. I was struck how often all of them expressed my own feelings about writing - that it is a craft and, like all crafts, you get better with practice. If you can't imagine not writing, keep writing! Practice until you are good! Anna's confession that it had taken her 5 years to write her debut novel, Ruby's Spoon, made me feel better about the time it is taking me to write Karl Marx and Careful Driving (5 years and counting) - 'Books aren't written; they are rewritten,' she said. Nothing is wasted in the creative process. Charlie stated that he wrote because 'he was rubbish at everything else' and didn't want to do 'a proper job'. His statement that ideas gestate even when you aren't at the computer struck a chord - some of my best ideas have come to me while out running in the Wyre Forest and listening to Bach on the I-pod. Andy stated that being rejected by publishers or agents doesn't make you a failure; it makes you a writer. Being talented is never enough, but neither is hard work. You need to work hard and have a core of talent upon which to draw. My conclusion was that above all you need to be passionate about writing.

Sarah Ballard, a literary agent working for United Agents had the slot at 3.30pm. United Agents were formed 3.5 years ago by agents formerly working for the Peters, Fraser & Dunlop agency. She spoke about the role of an agent. At United Agents each agent works with their own list of clients, reading their work, working with them to improve it, maintaining contacts within the publishing industry, overseeing the publishing contracts, getting blurb and jacket right, checking stock levels and publicity - all the stuff that most authors neither want to do nor have time to do. She stated that her favourite part was the reading and editing of submissions. What makes her take a book on is the language. There comes a point, usually 30 or 40 pages in, when she decides that she has no reason to turn down the manuscript. Such manuscripts are so good that she feels the need to read extracts out loud to her husband. She summarised her most frequent reasons to refuse a manuscript as basic mistakes in spelling and grammar; self-consciousness, the feeling that the writing isn't confident and lacks smoothness, and that the writer hasn't yet found his or her own voice. If she is unable to decide how a book should be published, which publisher would want to take it on and what the jacket would look like, she will reject the manuscript.  Her advice was to become a member of a writing group to iron out grammatical mistakes; to keep writing but to be critical about one's work; and to be sure that you actually want an agent and you want to get your work published. She was gloomy about the prospects for new writers - apparently it has never been harder as publishers want to publish fewer and bigger books. Non fiction is particularly difficult to sell to publishers now - they are interested only in important, urgent books written by people with excellent credentials. Hmm.... does Karl Marx and Careful Driving fit into any of these categories? When a literary agent accepted 'Why Don't You Fly?' I was convinced that my writing career had been launched, but he submitted the manuscript to 13 publishers without success before giving up.
 Sarah claimed that it was perfectly acceptable these days to send work to 5 or 6 agents at once, but it was advisable to admit to having done so in the covering letters and to promise to let agents know of any positive responses from others. An agent has to share the author's vision and be prepared to fight for it; sometimes the agent - author relationship doesn't work. Sarah advised us to use agents who are members of the Agent's Association because it guarantees certain minimal standards of behaviour.

There followed a debate about the future of publishing between four representatives of three publishers: Luke Brown (Tindal St Press), Dan Holloway (8 Cuts Gallery Press) and Sarah Taylor and Jeremy Thompson (both representing Matador Books). Tindal St Press are a small publisher of literary fiction with authors based all over the country. They have only four employees and pick up writers often without agents.8 Cuts Gallery Press is a publisher of the unorthodox and the unfashionable, with the emphasis of working with the author at live events; and like Pen Press, Matador offers authors a way into mainstream publishing by producing their books - presumably at a price. I was impressed by the amount of support Matador appear to offer their authors in marketing and selling the books. Perhaps the lines between self-publishing and mainstream publishing are blurring. The general consensus was that big publishers are taking on fewer books, the emphasis being on less books and larger quantities, leaving more room in the market for niche publishers. Editors are more conservative about what manuscripts they are prepared to take on. The landscape of the High Street is changing: Borders and Books Etc have gone, and Waterstones are struggling. Few writers are able to make a living from their craft, and we have to write because we want to write. We live in uncertain times, with e-books coming onto the market and nobody sure what effect they will have on printed books.

This was in effect the end of our evening at the Lit Fest. We went out for a pub meal, and by the time we came back, all the seats were taken and we were unable to hear anything from our position next to the bar at the back. The afternoon had been enjoyable and very informative, and I'm looking forward to attending the 2012 Pow-Wow Litfest.

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