Thursday, 5 March 2015

World Book Day 2015

What is World Book Day for? Why do we need it? What difference does it make to promote the idea of books in a world throbbing with electronic communication? Are paper books really better than Kindles and e-readers?

These are just some of the questions I was asked by the 19 radio journalists I spoke to today.The idea was to promote the work of the Open University (where I work as a creative writing lecturer) and alert people to the fact that reading breeds writing, and writers need to read. (A concept that doesn't convince some creative writing students, though in my experience the more talented the student, the happier they are to read Other People's Books.)

So here are some edited highlights from today:

World Book Day celebrates books - and reminds people that they exist. It's aimed at children,and was set up by UNESCO eighteen years ago, but it's just as vital for adults to lose themselves in a good book. (And the expression 'lose yourself' is telling - total immersion in someone else's story to the exclusion of everything else is an experience no one should miss.)

 But there is so much to distract us in our 24/7 world, and reading demands more of us than slumping in front of the TV. (Unless you are watching Wolf Hall, of which more later.) So it's sometimes a matter of delayed gratification, or staged gratification - effort is needed to get a return.

Children are more likely to develop the reading habit - and keep it for life - if the adults in their house are readers too.

It's not just a case of reading Dickens or some fat tome - though personally I love Dickens - but finding a book that suits your mood and your interests. Crime, romance, historical fiction, non-fiction - there is so much to choose from. And you can learn, yes, but book are also there to entertain.

And are paper books better than e-readers and Kindles? No, but they are special. There is something about reading a tactile book, being able to smell the pages and sit with it propped in front of you in a cafe, or fill it with post it notes, or (shock horror) write (in pencil) in the margins, that connects you with millions of readers over hundreds of years.

Finally - we live in an age of wonders and horrors, but I am still not sure we have achieved anything more astonishing than being able to communicate an imaginary world to someone else by making marks on paper.

Thursday, 19 February 2015

Career tips for writers

If you want to make it as a writer, you need to forget about getting rich
quick, being the new J K Rowling (or E L James, put the fluffy handcuffs
away), winning the Man Booker or being on Desert Island Discs. The
surest way to succeed is to set achievable goals, work towards them every 
day and start right now. 

Here are my top ten smart moves for writers who want to get published
and stay published: 

1.   Write as well as you can  - and aim to get better. Develop your  'practice' as a writer and write at least 500 words a day. 

2.   Be proactive and network, both online and face to face.

3.   Keep up to date with new developments in literary agencies  and publishing houses. Get free emails from The Bookseller

4.   Set up your own blog and author page on Facebook, and set  up Twitter  and Tumblr accounts.

5.   Go to conferences and festivals and find out what is going  on Example: The Winchester Writers' Festival is particularly  useful for new writers.

6.   Read your work out at open mic events and at festivals.

7.   Enter short story completions, first novel awards etc. Submit   work to the literary press, both online and in paper format.

8.   Find a day job that is compatible with writing, not too horrible and which you can use as a source of material.

9.   Learn to manage your time and energy effectively.

10. Enjoy your writing  – you are an artist!

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Dealing with rejection

I have been rejected many, many times in my career as a writer - it's all part of the territory. (I know that's a cliche, but that is sort of my point.) And there never comes a stage when you are immune to it. Two years ago I couldn't even get agents to read my third novel, even though my first two novels had been published by Penguin Books. 

I can't say it gets easier, but the longer I go on, the more confidence I have in the fact that my writing is worth something, and that I know what I am doing. Each rejection is a learning experience, and as you go on you take from each knock back what you need. My very first agent told me my very first book draft - 100 pages of a novel - wasn't up to scratch. (It wasn't, and my next effort, though also unfinished, was a considerable improvement.) 
Photo courtesy of Steve Baker
Creative Comms 

Rejections I have had since have taught me about publishing. It's a business, and a pretty challenging one at that. Publishers want books they can sell. They aren't sure how to get hold of these. The books that sold well last year must have got something right, so they would like you to write a book similar to one of those. (But not too similar - a touch of originality is allowed.) They are in the business of trying to second guess what cannot be second guessed, the whims and fads of readers. If I was a publisher, I would probably ask for the same thing. 

I used to value my writing only on the basis of what other people thought of it. I didn't really know what I thought of it myself, and was fuelled by desperate hysteria. But the harder you work, the more you assert your own value, your own set of judgements. Some agents and professionals will give you advice that is gold dust. Some will give you advice that is worthless. Be prepared to rewrite and revise work that needs it. Be prepared to defend the artistic integrity of work that doesn't.

Monday, 16 February 2015

Boyhood - the imaginary truth

I'm interested in the way that storytelling in film relates to storytelling in fiction - and was blown away by the of intensity of  Boyhood. It exploits the cinematic medium brilliantly - film can't get inside people's heads as fiction can, but it can do things that fiction can't. Showing the passing of time over more than a decade was utterly compelling.  

All fiction writers and fiction film makers are playing a game with truth, imagination and the willingness of readers or audiences to suspend their disbelief.  Here's my article in The Conversation about why Boyhood has more truth in it than 'true stories' like American Sniper and The Imitation Game. 

Sunday, 15 February 2015

Getting on with it

There is an awful lot of advice out there about creative writing. Some useful, some not so useful. Much of it is being offered by people who have never been published - whether that is a bad thing I don't know. Some very good writers have been passed over by Publishing Land and some very poor ones given book deals, loads of publicity and big prizes. (No, I'm  not going to say who I mean here, but if you read widely you will have a few suggestions of your own.)

I've been published, I've been Not Published, I've been in various states of discouragement and general lack of self belief in the 25 years or so since I first got a short story in a magazine. (In fact, it's 28 years - I published a short story called 'Santa at the Beach' in a 'style magazine' called Fairly Serious Monthly in 1987.) I am an Official Veteran. 

Anyway. Some advice from the coal face as I resume work on my fourth novel: Get on with it. However slow the progress, some progress is numberless percentage points more productive than no progress at all. Cue for picture of slow but gradual progress, with nice view.

Image courtesy of  Phil Richard,
Creative Commons 

Not very erudite, and I'm sure Stephen King, Graham Greene,Virginia Woolf, Gertude Stein and various others have put it far more elegantly, but that is my advice. To you, and to myself. (Bearing in mind I haven't even blogged for two months exactly! What the hell is going on? With that in mind I will be posting every week until I go to a writing retreat - of which More Later...)

Monday, 15 December 2014

Brighton Festival Fringe Event

It's early days yet - but I'm just flagging up the fact that I'm delighted to be talking about historical fiction with the award-winning novelist Susanna Jones as part of the Brighton Festival fringe in May 2015. 

Susanna is the author of three contemporary novels: 'The Earthquake Bird'; 'Water Lily' and 'The Missing Person's Guide to Love' and of the historical novel 'When Nights Were Cold', which tells the intriguing and unsettling story of a group of female mountain climbers in the early 20th century. 

So far this is the information that we have:

Historical Fiction Now - writing and publishing panel and workshop. Novelists Susanna Jones and Sally O'Reilly on why they started writing historical fiction and their publishing experiences. Includes panel discussion with publishers and literary agents followed by lucky dip pitching session. Bring a one-page book idea/synopsis for possible feedback.

The venue is The Latest Bar and the time is 7pm on Thursday 21st May. 

Hope to see you there - and more details soon!

Thursday, 4 December 2014

What IS historical fiction?

I've just finished chairing a series of seminars about historical fiction for the Open University. (There's more about this series here.) There were six speakers, all brilliant and all with a different angle on historical writing and the way in which it relates to other forms of fiction - and to different academic disciplines. I'll be posting in more detail about the subjects we discussed in the next few weeks.

It may seem pretty straightforward to come up with a definition for historical fiction - surely we are simply talking about any story that is set more than 50 years ago? But even that is open to debate - Jerome de Groot, one of the seminar speakers, includes Alan Hollinghurst's  'The Line of Beauty' in the genre, whereas the Historical Novel Society insists that the 1980s are too recent. Whatever the cut off point in terms of time, it's also the case that this is a vast compendium of a genre. 

There are infinite possibilities for writers of historical fiction. It includes straightforward generic writing such as Tudor bodice rippers, and experimental writing like Ali Smith's 'How to be Both' which was the winner of this year's Goldsmiths prize for experimental fiction as well as being long
listed for the Booker.

I'm interested in the way in which this genre can be bent and shaped by different writers, and the way that it develops and morphs with time. I'm also interested in getting well away from the idea that this is a cosy or conservative genre, in which writers are playing safe. 

As Hilary Mantel says: ‘A relation of past events brings you up against events and mentalities that, should you choose to describe them, would bring you to the borders of what your readers could bear. The danger you have to negotiate is not the dimpled coyness of the past – it is its obscenity.’

Some stories may be more brutal than others, but the ‘obscenity’ of the past fascinates writers – war, murder, fear, oppression, loss, invasion, imprisonment and bereavement all feature in 21st century historical fiction, as does squalor, both moral and physical. And just as no subject is off limits, neither is any period, or any form of experimentation. Historical fiction is not an escape from the modern world, it can enable us to see contemporary life more clearly.

Like all writers, I am learning all the time, and this seminar series taught me a lot. What I’ve learned in the last couple of months is that the challenges and complexities of writing historical fiction relate to writing set at any time, and to any comprehension of the past, whether recent or remote. Put simply, this is about what can be known, how we can know it, and how that knowledge can be communicated.

Will this make it easier to write my next novel? Probably not. But I am certainly fizzing with ideas not only about the subject matter, but also about ways in which this story can be told.