A day trip to Winchester

I went to Winchester on Saturday. Not just for a jolly day out, although by all accounts it’s a lovely old town, but to attend Winchester Writers’ Conference.

For those that don’t know, Winchester is one of the biggest meetings of its type in the UK, and is regularly attended by some of the biggest names in the industry. This year’s Plenary speaker was (Lord) Julian Fellowes, writer of Downton Abbey and the Robert Altman-directed Gosford Park. Also attending was Jasper Fforde, Adrian Magson, Sophie King and many, many others. Industry figures were also there in their multitudes: agents, commissioning editors, publishing consultants… And many of these people were available for private ‘one-to-one’ sessions where they comment on the opening pages of your work.

I’ve never been to one of these things before – it’s all part of my push for professionalism that also led to the creation of this blog. I went just for the one day (it’s five days in total, the meat being on Friday, Saturday and Sunday). For my £185 plus travel I got to attend five lectures – choosing from an impressive fifty-five available – and had three of these one-to-ones. That’s a lot of money for my fiancée and I. So was it worth it?

Well, I thoroughly enjoyed myself and got some genuinely useful advice. The lectures were a little disappointing, but that was mostly because I had to leave three of them after ten minutes (out of 50) to go to my one-to-ones. But these meetings were really, really good, and I’ve returned home with a real sense of ‘right, this is what I need to do now’-ness.

Due to numbers and logistics and whatever else, it’s not always possible to see exactly who you want to out of their impressively large selection. You have to choose seven, give them a priority, and then they’ll assign you three. Due to the last minute nature of my application, I missed out on all the agents and editors. I got three authors instead, and am very happy with the way it turned out.

I saw Steve Lockley, Eden Sharp and Daniel Clay, and I’d like to start by thanking them for their help. The big thing is that they all liked my work. Steve Lockley began my first appointment by saying ‘it’s got legs’, which is always nice to hear as you’re sitting down.

All three of them gave (different) suggestions for improvements which are tangible and straightforward, so I’ll be acting on those in the next few days. And they all gave me suggestions for ways to get into print. Steve suggested a few publishers to contact, Daniel gave good advice on my covering letter, whilst Eden advised going down the indie route, which I think basically means self-publishing.

I’ll have to have write a proper blog on self-publishing sometime. I’m in no way against it; it’s thoroughly disposed of its ‘vanity’ associations and with e-books so easy to set up (apparently) it’s now a real option and not just a last hurrah. That’s for another time, though. At the moment I’m still focussing on traditional publishing, whilst trying to soak up as much of this ‘knowledge’ stuff as humanly possible.

A few random thoughts about the conference:

  • If you’re not Caucasian and over forty, you may feel a little out of place
  • Do not underestimate elderly women
  • WinchesterUniversity is lovely, and a nice walk from the station
  • The ‘Book Fair’ was very disappointing. There were three stalls that sold things and five or so self-publishing companies. I was expecting more
  • Take the time to talk to people. Hang around for the evening networking sessions if you have the time (I didn’t, so I make no promises)
  • Writers generally appear to be happy, friendly people
  • If you’re going, book early
  • Take a stock of business cards. You never know who you might meet and who might take the time to check out your blog/website/twitter feed. Again, I didn’t do this because I’m lazy and feckless
  • Feckless is a wonderful word
  • Twitter: more and more people are advising me to go on twitter. It seems that this is the next ‘must have’ for aspiring authors
  • Julian Fellowes comes across as a very warm and witty individual
  • Why do agents/publishers ask that we put personal names at the head of submission letters, then make it so hard for us to find said names?

Right, that’s all for now. More next week…

On Ideas

No-one’s ever asked me where I get my ideas from. I guess that’s because the people I talk to about writing have tonnes of ideas of their own, so they don’t talk about it much. But it’s always struck me that this question – where do ideas come from? – is wrong. Fundamentally so. Because ideas are all around us. Seriously, if you’ve any sort of enquiring mind you’ll barely be able to walk a hundred paces without being assailed with ideas.

Take that wall you’re strolling casually past. Why was that built? When? Who might live behind it? Oh, that’s a cool-looking alley. I wonder who might lurk down there?

See? Ideas all around us.

I think people who don’t write sometimes have this image of writers (and artists, musicians, actors etc) as people who are somehow different, that we see the world in a different way.  I’ll tell you now we’re not and we don’t. Everyone, everyone, is jam-pack full of ideas, whether it’s how to deal with an annoying colleague or how to improve on some new gizmo that’s just been produced by the engineering department. Ideas are cheap. They’re nothing special. And 99% of them aren’t worth much.

The trick is to have a second idea.

Take your average novel. Think about it. How many ‘ideas’ are in one book? In the crudest terms you’ll have at least three: you’ll have plot, setting and character(s), and each aspect requires a different way of thinking, of inspiration.

This is why I’ve so far been unable to write my great historical novel. I can create convincing characters and I reckon, now I’ve done years-worth of reading, that I can create a setting that has depth and colour. But I’ve yet to come up with a killer plot to bind everything else together.

And plot – what most people think of as the ‘idea’ – without setting, without an atmosphere to breathe in, is nothing. Unless you’re Franz Kafka, a plot without a world is a waste of time.

The trick, for me at least, is to find the right combination of ideas.

Imagine your head is the Large Hadron Collider. You have an endless circle, an endless flow, and into that you pour Your Idea. There it goes, zooming away… But it’s a solid, solitary thing, out there on its own. So, to give it company, you tip in a whole bucket-worth of fragments, of half-developed concepts and rudimentary characters. What you’re hoping for is that magical moment when two ideas smash into each other and react in strange and wondrous ways; to produce something that is neither addition, nor multiplication, but change. Something new. Something different. Something more than the constituent elements ever could have been on their own.

The Higgs-Boson of ideas.

I said in my first post that Chivalry came out of the question ‘what if a game could start a war?’ This is true, but what really made the idea take off was when I combined it with ‘what if you tried to live by the code of chivalry in the modern world?’

When I was working on Night Shift someone once asked me if I could take it out of Antarctica and set it in a country manor or somesuch. I couldn’t answer. It’s true that the novel shares, deep in its DNA, a common link with Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers (and did so more in its early drafts). But…

But the setting is so integral to my concept of the novel as a whole that to make what might appear to be a superficial change has a profound affect on how one views the work in its entirety. I don’t think I’d be able to write the book in a different setting, now. Not because of the work that’d be needed – work is work, be it minor editings or massive structural revisions – but because that’s not what the book is to me.

It’s also important to remember that ideas change. No collision of thoughts leaves the nucleus unbent. Thus those questions I mentioned above remain unanswered; they’ve been bastardised into grotesque mutants by the initial impact, and then further twisted to fit my needs. I suspect that’s why authors (and musicians) return to the same themes again and again and again.

They’re still trying to answer their questions. They’re still trying to refine their amalgams into perfect shining swords of truth.

They’ll never get there. I’ll never get there. But that’s really, really not the point.

I expect you’re wondering why I’ve called you here…

Hello all. Welcome to my blog.

Let’s be up-front about this. I’m writing this in order to promote myself. I don’t see any point lying.  The fact is that I’m an author, that I have ambitions to be published, and in this day and age, you need to be able to promote yourself.  Hence a blog – the fashionable weapon of choice.

It’s a horrible thing, really; I’m in a position where I have to talk myself up at every opportunity.  That sort of thing doesn’t come easy to me. I am, after all, British – home of reserve, modesty and concealing one’s true feelings. For example: I said above that I’m an author. But I’m not published – does one need to be published before you can call yourself an author? When people (rarely) ask what I do outside work I tell them that I write. Not that I’m a writer, but that I write. And it’s taken me many years to get to that point, to remove the apology from my voice and be confident about it. For there does seem to be some sort of stigma attached to any creative activity done without recompense: it’s still not the sort of thing that leads to drinks being showered upon you in the pub. Not in a good way, at least.

So. Yes. Newly confident writer.

This is all well and good, I hear you cry, but what do you write? And what can I expect to see in this blog? Will it be worth my time and the wear and tear on my mouse-finger?

I write genre-fiction. That’s the broadest answer I can give. More specifically, I write a mix of science-fiction, crime and adventure, emphasising human relationships in pressure situations. It’s also my eternal ambition to write a quality historical novel at some point, probably set in Saxon times.

Slightly less broadly I like the term ‘speculative fiction’ to describe my work. I only came across this concept a few months ago; roughly speaking, it means that the starting-point for the novel is a ‘what if?’ question.

So, for Chivalry (my third novel) the underlying idea was: what if a game could start a war?

For Night Shift (fourth, and the one I’m currently promoting): what is the next step for humanity in an overcrowded and resource-poor world?

Speculative fiction could be taken as simply a new term for science-fiction and fantasy, but I think those terms tend to be straitjackets, especially for new authors. I ran into this wall especially painfully when I was trying to market Chivalry. This is not science-fiction. I am determined on this – digging in and preparing to face enemy fire. But because part of the action is set in a computer-recreation of twelfth-century Syria (and also because it’s over 140,000 words long) it has immediately become labelled as such.  Nonsense, I cry! I don’t think any serious science-fiction publisher would be happy if I sent it to them. Although that hasn’t stopped me trying.

No, it’s speculative fiction all the way for me.

And what’s in it for you? Well, I hereby promise that I’ll do my very best to post an entry a week on this site. I’m hoping to give free samples of my writing – although I’ve no idea what, yet – along with musings on life, love, and the pursuit of liberty. Hopefully this will be typo-free and vaguely interesting. I’ll probably ramble on about life as a writer as well as more everyday concerns. I reckon you’ll get a pretty good idea of myself and my style as the weeks roll by.

Well, that’s probably enough for now: in these days of short attention-spans this is probably all I can get away with. Please, check back next week for another exciting instalment of This Blog.