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How to Converse with a Writer

Writers are tough people, we are used to rejection and stonewalling from editors, agents and the like. We do not take criticism personally because we know it is only a particular submission that is not up to scratch or does not fit the publication, not the writer herself.

But when it comes to conversing one-to-one with strangers outside of the writing industry we become defensive and touchy about our work. This is especially true of the many thousands of us yet to hit the big time. So, non-writers, when you are introduced to Fred, a writer, at a party, please observe the following rules otherwise he may run away screaming:

  1. Do not say to Fred, ‘Have you written anything I will have heard of?’ Unless you are speaking to J.K. Rowling or E.L. James, the answer will be no. If you are speaking to J.K. Rowling or E.L. James, they will have been introduced as such. It’s far better to ask Fred, ‘What type of thing do you write?’
  2.  If Fred says, ‘I write short stories’, do not dismiss that as ‘not proper writing’. The craft of bringing life to character and plot in a very short word count is difficult. Even more so when writing to the guidelines and themes of specific publications or competitions. Show admiration for the fact that Fred knows how to make every word earn its place.
  3. Do not ask Fred how many books he has sold or why you’ve never seen his books on the display tables in Waterstones. Most writers are not big sellers. Think about the millions of books available on Amazon – it’s impossible for us all to be in the top ten. It’s impossible for every book shop to stock us all. Low sales do not equate to a bad book. Low sales may just be symptomatic of a low marketing budget.
  4. If Fred says he is self-published, do not lose interest. In the past, self-publishing may have been tainted by amateurish books, now this has mostly changed for the better. Self-published authors are power houses of industry. They write, they seek constructive criticism of their manuscript, they use professional editors and proof readers, they learn to format a book, they take on the task of publicity and marketing AND they get on with the task of writing the next book. If Fred says he is self-published ask for his card and make a point of ‘looking inside’ his book on Amazon. It might tempt you to buy.
  5. Don’t tell Fred you’ve written a great a book and ask him to read the manuscript and give an opinion on it. Most writers won’t have time. They will either have a ‘day’ job or several writing-related irons in the fire in order to make a living. Writing on its own rarely pays a living wage. Instead say, ‘Fred, I value your opinion. How much would you charge to read my manuscript?’
  6. DO say, ‘Wow! A real life writer. Let me jot down the title of your book. I’ll give it a try. If I like it I’ll write a review and tell my friends.’ Then keep your word – you’ll make a hardworking writer very happy.
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Speaking About Writing

Over the past month I’ve done a few speaking engagements. Audiences have included a reading group, a writing group and a couple of social groups for the over fifties. Speaking at Tamworth Writers

I’ve noted down a few of the things I’ve learned along the way:

  1. If using a microphone hold it close to the lips. If you move your head, move the microphone as well – otherwise your voice will fade out!
  2. If you open the floor to questions at the end and none is immediately forthcoming, jump in with, ‘One question I’m often asked is …..’ and then you can talk about whatever you want.
  3. Forty-five minutes is a long time to talk and a long time to listen. Maintain attention and renew your speaking energy by breaking the speech into modules or topics. Every time you change module you’ll get a new burst of enthusiasm and the slight change of subject will keep the interest of the audience.
  4. If you pose a question or ask for a show of hands, be prepared in case you don’t get the response you’d hoped for. A quick quip up your sleeve can be useful in this situation.
  5. Keep readings from your work short.
  6. Use as few notes as possible.
  7. Project your enthusiasm.
  8. Remember the audience is on your side. They want to enjoy your talk.
  9. Enjoy it!

The picture was taken at Tamworth Writers’ Group by the lovely Debbie Murphy of Missfit Creations.

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BBC Radio 4 : Any Questions

Birmingham Literature Festival 2018 is currently underway and one of the first events was an edition of the BBC Radio 4 political panel show, Any Questions. It was broadcast live from Birmingham Repertory Theatre last night (5th October) and repeated again today. I was in the audience for the show (if you listen carefully I’m sure you can pick out my particular clapping!) and, although I’m not a political animal, I thoroughly enjoyed it. BBC Radio 4 Any Questions

When we arrived, the theatre was surrounded by men in high-vis jackets clearing away the security cordons (fences and concrete bollards) that had been put in place for the Conservative Party Conference – the theatre is only a few paces from the International Convention Centre. We were reminded of the conference again by the ‘warm up’ lady, Midlands BBC political journalist Kathryn Stanczyszyn, who did a great job of recapping the week’s main political events and taking us through the clapping warm-up. We did polite clapping, middling clapping and extremely enthusiastic clapping.

On arrival the audience were asked to write down any questions they’d like to ask the panel. Ten questions were chosen and the questioners brought down to sit in the front row. Then the chair, Jonathan Dimbleby and the four members of the panel were brought on to the stage, Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott, President of the Greater Birmingham Chamber of Commerce Saquib Bhatti, MP for Rutland and Melton Sir Alan Duncan and the SNP Health Spokesperson Philippa Whiford. With minutes to go before live broadcast, an audience member posed the warm-up question, “What is your favourite Abba track?” The panel’s answers were used as a sound check. We heard the 8 pm pips, the news headlines and then Jonathan Dimbleby was live on air introducing the panel.

Lively discussion followed on Brexit, Theresa May, austerity and the possibility of cyber rather than physical warfare. As opinions bounced from the panelists, the audience graduated through the three types of clapping and added shouts as well. The final question book-ended the warm-up question, “Theresa May came onto the conference platform to ‘Dancing Queen’. What song would you choose?”

Verdict on the evening: Very interesting and I was amazed at how calm the production team and panel were, given it was a live broadcast. I would’ve been a nervous wreck! If you get the chance, go along (it’s free!) or apply to host the show at a venue near you.

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Live Fiction

Have you ever tried reading aloud to an audience?

Picture by A.A. Abbott

Recently I took part in my first fiction evening. It was organised by thriller writer A. A. Abbott (aka Helen) and held at the Gunmakers’ Arms in Birmingham (worth a visit – it’s a lovely traditional pub). When Helen invited me to take part I was a bit dubious, talking to an audience is one thing but trying to hold their attention for several minutes while reading aloud is another. It’s far easier to build audience rapport when you can make constant eye contact, talk with your hands to make a point and ask rhetorical questions to get the audience thinking. Reading aloud means the audience has to concentrate all the time, if they tune out they lose the thread of the story – it’s essential to keep the audience with you. But I decided to give it a go – the worst that could happen would be seven minutes of boredom for the audience.

On the night Helen was a great compere, introducing us all with enthusiasm, live tweeting photos and making sure it all went smoothly. I chose one of my shorter stories (worried about holding audience interest!) that had been published in The Weekly News and also appears in A Coffee Break Story Collection. I practised it several times at home, getting the hang of looking up at the audience without losing my place. I think it went OK – nobody shuffled, people had their eyes on me when I glanced at the audience and there was clapping at the end. The other seven performers were terrific with great stories and some haiku too.

Would I do it again (if invited!) ? I think so but I’d choose a different kind of story. For me the stories that worked best on the night were those with a very strong central character going through an unusual event/experience and very few minor characters. It’s essential that the audience is immediately interested in the main protagonist and not distracted by other characters. Possibly that’s how all short stories should be written anyway.

If you’re going to be reading aloud in the near future take a look at these Tips for Reading Aloud which Julia Thorley kindly gave earlier this year.

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Armistice 100 Days

Sunday November 11th 2018 marks 100 years since the end of World War 1. There will be many events to mark this important occasion and to thank those who lost their lives for us. These include 10,000 people marching past the Cenotaph in London (ballot applications to be part of the march close 12th August) and mass church bell ringing across the nation.

Poets are also playing their part in the 100 days leading up to the centenary of the Armistice. Every day a 100-word piece of writing, known as a centena, will be published by the Imperial War Museum. In each piece, the first three words are repeated at the end, as the conclusion. Each centena will focus on an individual who lived during the First World War and the impact the war had on that person. The aim is to look at people from every part of society. Katie Childs from the museum told the Sunday Times, “By releasing a centena each day, I hope that we are able to demonstrate the very different experiences of the First World War, and the impact it had on people and places long beyond the Armistice.”

The first centena was published on Sunday 5th August and was written by Angus Grundy from the perspective of Leopold Lojka. Lojka was driving the car carrying Archduke Franz Ferdinand when he was assassinated. Ferdinand’s murder led to the First World War. The second centena is by Therese Kieran and is about a Belgian embroider who spent the War in Ireland. I find today’s centena by Miranda Dickinson particularly moving. It’s about a bride married during her new husband’s 48 hour leave from the army. He returns to the front line and she goes to pose for a wedding photograph alone.

Follow the daily publication of the centenas on the First World War Centenary Website. You are also encouraged to write your own centena and share it on social media.

These pieces of writing are a fitting memorial to those who lived through such turbulent times and perhaps they’ll inspire some of us to get creative before November 11th 2018.

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Orion on Tour

UK publishing is London-centric – the majority of our big publishers and agents are in the capital. This year Orion Books attacked that problem by going on tour and taking publishing to other parts of the country. At the beginning of July they were in Birmingham and I went along to see what they were doing.

Orion Books on Tour

My book swag!

The event was held in a smallish function room in the Cosy Club. It was busy, noisy and (given our current heatwave) very hot! There were complimentary drinks and nibbles plus a table heaving with brand new books. The latter were free for the taking, as many as we wanted – guess who was glad they had a fold up shopping bag to hand!

I talked to Orion publishing, editing and marketing staff. I renewed my acquaintance with historical fiction author Joanna Courtney I said hello to the presenters of the Brum Radio Book Show and chatted to book bloggers, readers and the manager of a Waterstones’ branch.

It was definitely worth going and not just for the books! I learned that some books published by a company as big as Orion have a zero marketing budget but that social media, used in the right way and with the right contacts, can work wonders. I learned that book bloggers are really nice people with a genuine passion for books but are often drowning under the number of review requests they get! I learned that authors with big book deals still get anxious about their writing ability and crave company during the long days of being a full time writer.

Finally, I noticed there were far more women than men in the room – does that mean more women than men love books?

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Association of Speakers’ Clubs 2018 Speech Competition

At the end of April I was in York for the ASC’s 2018 Conference and National Competition Finals. 2018 ASC National Speech Competition

I’ve never attended before and was only there this year because, to my surprise and shock, I won my way through the Club, Area and District rounds of the speech competition. When I entered the Club competition last November, I didn’t anticipate that five months later I’d be representing the Midlands in competition against seven other contestants from all parts of the UK. My anxiety levels were sky high and further increased by having to use a clip-on microphone for the first time and face my biggest ever audience.

But what has this got to do with writing?
I needed a subject for my speech. It had to be something I could talk about enthusiastically, something most people would have an interest in and something I could structure logically into a speech.
So I ‘taught’ the audience how to write a romantic novel (how many people have you heard say – ‘I could/would like to write a novel?’).
I only had eight minutes to speak so it was a quick and dirty ‘lesson’ based on the following points:

  • Choosing a genre
  • Choosing a setting
  • Naming characters
  • Obstacle to the love affair
  • Event that brings the couple back together

To drive each point home I concocted a romantic ‘novel’ about Tony and Janet falling in love and having a date at the hotel where the conference was being held. I concluded by revealing the absolute peanuts that most authors get as financial reward and asked the audience the question, ‘Is it worth it?’

I didn’t win and wasn’t placed in the top three. I was up against some fantastic speakers. The winner was a sixteen-year-old girl who was extremely confident and gave an excellent performance, talking about the scourge of selfie-taking complete with props of a mobile phone and selfie stick. However, we all received a lovely paperweight as a souvenir of the occasion.

Later at the event, I was talking to a lady and she told me how members of her party had been having fun in the bar dreaming up their own spoof romance based on my speech. I was delighted to hear this – it meant people had listened to me and had absorbed and remembered what I’d said. And isn’t that what public speaking is all about?

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