In term time, the atrium of Manchester Metropolitan University’s Geoffrey Manton building is a transit area for students, but today it hosts 138 delegates booked for the National Creative Writing Graduate Fair. At reception I learn that many delegates are local but some have travelled from afar; the South West, the East of England, Scotland. This is no regional event.
Stretching out before me is a grid of 80cm square tables; the pitching ground. I search for coffee and company and overhearing conversations in the Atrium café, I sense some people are nervous about their afternoon pitch appointments, but there are plenty of reassuring voices.
Keynote speaker, Eley Williams, starts her talk and with confidence, humility and humour she entertains us. The seats in the lecture theatre are upholstered in inspirational yellow and slightly more upright than those in my local Cineworld. With some relief, I realise that I’m not the only one with greying hair; the room contains a mix of ages and backgrounds and I melt into the diversity.
An image of Marcel Proust’s writing room is on the screen and the walls are lined with cork tiles installed as sound-proofing. Eley says it’s worth investing in a quiet space for writing, an amount of silence is needed so that new worlds can be created. Another writer’s room is displayed, this time it is Will Self’s. His wall is covered in post-it notes. Mine curl up and drop off after a few days so I wonder what brand he uses. Here the modus operandi is to sit at the desk very early to benefit from the close relationship between writing and dreaming. He stops writing only when he’s achieved his quota.
The talk moves on to networking and Eley says Twitter is a way to ‘find your voice’. She pumps home the message that networking online and in person is extremely important, and here’s why: Kit Caless, writer and co-director of Influx Press, was in the audience at a reading of her work and after the performance the two got talking. It led to a commercial author-publisher relationship, Eley’s first book deal. I believe it is exactly this serendipity that all of us sitting here wish for, but magic moments don’t happen unless you get yourself out there.
To finish her presentation, Eley reads a piece she wrote in honour of the ubiquitous fairy tale opening phrase, ‘Once upon a time…’ The performance demonstrates her lyrical prose style. As she says herself, her work is ‘a study in the misuse of language.’ During question time, Eley explains that her next book is a novel about the fiction included in dictionaries and encyclopaedias. We are all entranced by the notion that these hallowed books occasionally include lies.
Next, a choice of two concurrent panel sessions. ‘Let’s talk about money: Sustaining your career and your life’, is chaired by Alison Boyle of Arts Council England. The panel consists of Clare Fisher, novelist, editor and creative writing teacher, Kit Caless (previously mentioned), and Sian Norris, writer and founder of Bristol Women’s Literature Festival. Kit explains that publishers treat non fiction differently to fiction. With fiction the writer hopes to hook a publisher with a completed manuscript whereas with non fiction you need to pitch your idea. Once commissioned, the writer gets an advance and whatever the amount agreed, you get one third up front so you can write the book, one third when you finish the manuscript, and the last third when it’s published. All this can take a couple of years. Royalties come from sales, which publishers pay twice a year, and the advice is to negotiate the best advance you can get. I also learn that it isn’t compulsory for publishers to sign you up for PLR (Public Lending Rights), which is the legal right that allows authors to receive payment from government to compensate for the free loan of their books by public and other libraries. Nor is it compulsory that they sign you up for ALCS, which collects income for authors whose publications are photocopied, scanned or re-used in digital format. Depending on the publisher, authors may have to sort this out themselves but it’s worth doing, even for such a small income.
Another panel session follows, ‘Beyond the book: Writing and adapting for film, radio and games’. Chaired by author, film-maker and senior lecturer at Manchester Met, Joe Stretch, the panel consists of Steve Ince, writer and games designer, Molly Flatt, author and journalist and Mel Harris, radio producer. The hour is hard hitting. I learn that audio is the thing, it’s the future of books, and all authors should be thinking about what constitutes a book. Yes, the paper versions will still be around and won’t die as a result of the emergence and popularity of Ebooks but even Ebooks can be quickly superseded. Mollie warns us of a shocking fact: Our brains are re-wiring themselves as we adapt to short form presentations and as a consequence our ability to read deeply is diminishing. This means that books will continue to lose audiences to podcasts and other short form writing. Interactive story telling audio formats are already being developed that involve the listener as participant, and games continue to grow in popularity. This is all very interesting and very worrying. I’m aware of technological changes but I tend to bury myself in my study, a room decorated with books. I must think more broadly about format and consider how my work will contribute to literature’s dynamic future.
After the lunch break there are workshops. We had to pick one in advance from the eight on offer. Cathy Rentzenbrink’s workshop on ‘Memoir writing: Tools for excavating the self’ is a small group, less than a dozen. It’s nice to be in more intimate surroundings after the good humoured clamour of this morning. We practice getting words on the page with five minute bursts of writing. Cathy is an inspirational facilitator and, grateful for the relaxation and creativity this session gives me, I leave the room satisfied. Our work was all privately produced, we didn’t have to share. I created a word map, on paper I re-lived the moment I threw a packing box at my husband (now my ex), and I created a guilt list. An awesome ninety minutes.
Now we wait for the pitching appointments. Becca uses a whistle to keep everyone to time; we are organised as if speed-dating. The atrium is full. This is what people come for, the talks are a bonus. I sit with others and chat in an effort to relax. I stand behind a potted palm and wait until my white chair is free. The time is 4.15pm, the whistle blows and I’m sitting in the chair. The chat is a little stilted, it’s like the feeling you get when you view a new property and you know in the first ten seconds whether you’re interested. Whistle blows, the next round takes place and my second meeting is more buoyant. Before I know it, the end of the day has arrived and I’m not disappointed. Talking with the agents has really made me think hard about my book idea and I now know how to improve the concept. I return to the hotel, climb into the duvet with a nice cup of tea, and ruminate.
My thanks to Comma Press for organising the event and particularly Becca Parkinson, Engagement Manager and Zoe Turner, Publicity and Outreach Officer. I’ll be back, and I hope to take advantage of the group discount by organising for my online writing group to meet up at the 2019 event.
By 2018 delegate, Yasmin Chopin