The Writer’s Toolkit 2015 @writingwestmids

A fascinating event yesterday: ‘The Writers’ Toolkit 2015′, organised by Writing West Midlands (WWM) and hosted in the beautiful Bramall music building at the University of Birmingham. I met old acquaintances and made new ones, feeling an energising sense of being part of a community of writers.

Jo Bell, poet and Canal Laureate – she lives on a narrowboat – spoke about her collective poetry project, ‘52‘, the need to ‘lose the last three lines’  – someone brought their notebook to a workshop and said they had torn a strip off the bottom – and the benefits of giving and receiving objective critique. “The only person who will like your work without reservation is your mum, and even then…”

I went to a workshop with writer William Gallagher, publisher Nadia Kingsley and Emma Boniwell from WWM about blogging – watch this space and see if it improves! William’s book ‘The Blank Screen: Blogging’ may help – and the advice was to post something no less often than every three weeks. Snippets of research connected with, but not duplicating, one’s WIP, may be the thing.

A workshop about small presses with Jo Bell, Nadia Kingsley and Simon Thirsk highlighted for me how much work publishers have to do. Design, printing, warehousing, distribution, representation in bookstores. Managing the whole time-line. An argument against self publishing: it will not get one’s books into Waterstone’s. Either way, the writer has to build the public profile of the book with talks, book signings, media interviews and social media.

‘Working with libraries and archives’, with Jefny Ashcroft, Joel Stickley and Roz Goddard highlighted the key role of libraries as egalitarian and accessible cultural spaces where arts events  – lit fests, workshops, writers in residence – bring readers closer to books: “Libraries are the lifeblood of literature”. Jefny spoke passionately about the excitement of archives and how they can give the writer access to something which has not previously been written about, offering the chance of writing something unique and original. Archivists can be tremendously helpful to the researcher who contacts the archive in advance of visiting and can offer appointments to help the researcher find what they seek. The point was made in discussion about the nationwide threats to our libraries and archives as a result of austerity, highlighted here in Birmingham with the severe cuts to our library services. They need support and they need people to go in and use them.

‘Speed pitching’, run by Olivia Chapman from WWM, was a fun and challenging session. The audience were divided into pairs and we had two minutes in turn to pitch our novels to one another. Then we regrouped and tried again. Trying frantically to remember to include genre, theme, setting, key characters and plot twists, and why anyone could possibly want to read it, in front of a complete stranger, was a challenging exercise! One writer gave me a wonderful description of her Gothic, supernatural mystery set in a remote mansion in rural Shropshire. I could almost see the dark old house under moonlight. Then her two minutes was up. ‘Oh damn, I forgot the taxidermist!’ she said. We looked at each other and burst out laughing. I really want to read this book!!

Finally, renowned literary agent Carole Blake, of Blake Friedmann, spoke about what the industry wants from writers: good stories, help with marketing, and a professional approach. Her book ‘From Pitch to Publication’ is a longstanding reference read for aspiring writers. I’ve heard agents speak about the view from their side before, and they always seem to have horror stories about crazy authors. Carole’s cautionary tale was of a writer who sent her a submission packaged up in a wastepaper basket with a letter saying ‘I might as well save you the trouble.’ She liked the submission, but left it on her desk overnight in the wastepaper basket. By the following morning the cleaner had taken it away. She never tracked the writer down…

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