Portobello Book Festival: From Ideas to Page

10 10 2011

A Day at the Portobello Book FestivalIn the Sunday morning event at Portobello Library, a small group of writers from all across the literary spectrum with various levels of experience, gathered to listen to the advice and musings of three members at different stages of the publishing cycle.

The panel consisted of Marianne Paget, a local author, most recently involved in the City of Literature’s Story Shop. Allan Guthrie, a well known crime writer, shortlisted for the CWA Debut Dagger and winner of the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Novel Of The Year in 2007. He also acts as a literary agent with Jenny Brown Associates. And finally, Francis Bickmore, editorial director of Canongate Books in Edinburgh.

Each panelist came armed with advice and tips for writers, new and experienced, on how one might make that elusive breakthrough, whether it’s an agent that’s needed or a publisher, self-publishing advice, the advantages and disadvantages of being published traditionally, what editors and agents look for in a writer, and bags of other tips.

Paget, complete with handouts on organisations that can help budding new writers, talked through her experiences to date and the path she has followed to achieve her successes so far.

Guthrie’s five minutes consisted of the five vital questions all writers should ask themselves to ascertain whether they “need a publisher or an agent”, or if a career in self-publishing might suit more. The questions were designed to give positive answers, providing the author answered them honestly. They’re hard-hitting, but in the hard world of publishing, the answers this writer came up with were very revealing indeed.

The final “five minute slot” (it went on much longer) came from Francis Bickmore, the newly promoted editorial director of the internationally respected Canongate Books. His advice also revolved around a series of points that all writers should take strong heed of.

His views were remarkably enlightening, particularly on the importance of having great blurbs as opposed to synopses, that a writer should “write what you don’t know” as opposed to the general understanding that a writer should write what they do.

He continued with a series of brilliant points to consider, such as: “submissions should be properly researched, not the actual book”, that the author should “be the artist and the gallery agent” and should “find his or her community”. He also said it was vital to “give out but don’t give up”, and perhaps the most memorable piece of advice to a man in my position: “hair shines with brushing”.

The Q&A session could have gone on much longer, but one thing that stuck out was the reality of the publishing industry today in the form of a very simple statistic. On why publishers like Canongate spread their bets through different genres, and through the publication of high profile celebrities like Katie Price, it comes down to simple survival and the 85/15 rule.

When you understand that “85% of a publisher’s money comes from 15% of their books,” you start to see why the publishing industry as a whole is so risk averse.

Kudos to the organisers of this event and the whole of the Portobello Book Festival. Hopefully next year I’ll get to spend more time there as it has a vibe and energy all of its own.

The Edinburgh Literary Salon

28 09 2011

A Night at the Edinburgh Literary Salon

The Literary Salon is a monthly event run by Edinburgh City of Literature. Held on the last Tuesday of each month (apart from August), it aims to bring together writer, poets, agents, publishers, bloggers, bookshop owners and all other kinds of bookie people under the one roof to socialize in an informal manner.

And guess what? It works.

Held in Edinburgh’s centrally located Wash Bar, last night’s gathering was my first. The theme of the evening was that of graphic novels but it varies each month and there is no restriction on what anyone can talk about.

The first person I spotted on walking through the door into a packed pub, was Darwin in Scotland author JF Derry. He was in conversation with Ian Rankin and two graphic novel authors. I said hello to everyone but graphic novels aren’t really my thing so I struggled to get into it.

I spoke to Ian Rankin for a bit, sharing a couple of jokes, and discussing Twitter and the intricacies of posting URLs to it, then got talking to a lady about a myriad of topics including social media, books, the book festival and writing. It was only when I write out my name sticker we were all supposed to have on, that we realized who each other were—we’ve been swapping tweets for a while—it was @lillylyle!

The topic of how small the literary and artistic communities are in Edinburgh came up all over the place as I met a few other people in the same vein. Ali Bowden, the Director of the Edinburgh UNESCO City of Literature Trust, came over and said hi. She knew my name and thought we’d previously met but I was pretty sure we hadn’t. I think she maybe recognised me from my book festival blogging exploits but we got interrupted so I never managed to finish the conversation to find out.

Ian Rankin photograph copyright © Scott Hunter
Image: Copyright © Scott Hunter

I saw an old face from my old writing group back in the day: Andrew Stott had popped in and despite not recognising me at first (me!), we caught up with the all the gossip from the old group and what we’ve both been working on since we last met.

I’d taken the time to check out Chris Scott’s online portfolio after this year’s book fest, as he’s one of the official photographers often to be seen scouting around for shots of authors in and around the tents. His work is really good and he does a lot within the literature community in Edinburgh, so when I bumped into him I asked him about some of it. Remarkably, he’s still a student although his work doesn’t reflect it.

JF Derry, who had been working around the room in the other direction to me, came back around and we got another pint in. He introduced me to Peggy Hughes from the Scottish Poetry Library. Peggy is also the person who created the West Port Book Festival, and so you can now expect me to be writing a blog or two from there when it kicks off mid-October.

I finished the night by sharing another pint with Derry. We covered a wide range of topics including, but not restricted to, publishing, writing (where we want both to be with it), the influence of higher status authors on us, parenting and travelling.

By the time I left, my head was buzzing. It was a great night and well worth being there, and I get the feeling that my first experience of the salon was a typical one for many. It attracts, and is supported by, authors and literary people from all levels, but in the salon everyone is equal.

wash barThere is no star-studded autograph hunters or people openly pitching work, just a widening of a social network with a professional theme over a couple of drinks.

Outwith the book festival, some authors can find it a struggle to find ways of interacting with other writers and people in the industry on such a basis, so the literary salon is perfect. I’d recommend any writer wanting to meet other writers and people in the business should get along.

Information on the Literary Salon can be found here:

The City of Literature can be found here: www.cityofliterature.com

Learning the Craft at the Edinburgh Book Festival

15 08 2011
Learning the Craft at the Edinburgh Book Festival
Image: EIBF

The weather held from Saturday, and yesterday we enjoyed a splendid day at the Edinburgh Book Festival. The sun shone for the most part, helping to bring out the crowds and pack out Charlotte Square for a second day.

Not for me, though, as I had booked myself into one of the new day-long creative writing courses: How to Write a Book.

I’ve attended workshops in the past, but over the past couple of years have become disillusioned with the repetitive nature of them, and lack of time available to really get into the meat of the subjects matter. So I was delighted when the book festival programmers announced this series of full-on day courses.

I wasn’t let down.

Caroline Dunford, a journalist, author, psychotherapist, playwright, and occasional voice actor, has been running classes like this for many years. Her experience was telling and her light-hearted and humorous approach had everyone who signed up feeling at ease immediately, with pens out ready to go.

The fact she was suffering from pneumonia and had only been released from hospital on the Saturday, should reveal her character perfectly—bless you, Caroline, for being there for us.

We were guided through two main topics: characterisation in the morning followed by structure in the afternoon. We were given exercises in visualisation and we worked through all sorts of exercises, learning tips and ideas for creating stories and characters. In the afternoon, we worked through deep structure techniques required to build a novel; conflicts, reversals, climaxes, everything a writer needs to know and be good at to make a story work.

I’d gone into the course thinking I might use it to kick start an unfinished novel from years ago, but after our visualisation and idea formation exercises, I came up with an initial story and built from there during the day as we worked through the tasks. As a pleasant result, I now have the formation of an idea for a new novel.

But what I really got out of this course, and what I came away feeling most happy about, was that for many of the novels I have written in the past but have not yet sold, I can see clearly and positively WHY they haven’t sold. I can firmly point to specifics in each book (and I was noting this down during the day) and say exactly what it is that is stopping the books being picked up. Conversely, I can see in the books that I’ve written and but HAVE sold (Hunting Jack and Stella) why it is they work.

Thank you Caroline for giving me this clarity. For any writers reading this who have been asking themselves why a book they’ve written is still unsold, or why they feel a manuscript they are working on doesn’t feel like it’s working, get yourself onto a Caroline Dunford creative writing course, and do it sharpish.