Monthly Archives: March 2016

Throwback Thursday: Tales of York, Volume One – Slushpile hell to Slushpile heaven

(First published on my old blog, 12th October 2013)

 

Right, after my lazy attempt last night, I feel I should deliver some substance today so here is the next installment in my York FoW13 chronicles.
This seminar was run by the lovely Julia Churchill and Penny Holroyde (both well known agents). It focused on what you can do to make your manuscript stand out of the slush pile, giving you the best chance of being picked up by an agent. As I said in an earlier post, agents are serious book lovers (and don’t have horns) so don’t go in with the attitude that they are your enemy, out to prevent your book from connecting with its audience.

It was extremely interesting and heartening to get the take of two agents on this. They didn’t talk about specific genres – why would they? It’s not their job to write the book. That’s our job! But there are special annoyances to avoid when submitting your manuscript to an agent. I’m going to list what I gleaned from this seminar but I will mention Nicola Morgan at this point. She is a published author and self-styled ‘crabbit old bat’, who writes brilliant, helpful posts on how to get published on her blog. I strongly recommend checking this out before you submit anything, I found her advice really helpful in preparing for York.

Ok then, hints, tips and other gleanings;

– Finish the book! Do not submit your manuscript until it is finished. I heard a lot of agents say this over the course of the weekend. Nothing is more annoying to them than reading the first three chapters of something, loving it, calling up the author asking to see the rest – only to have the author say ‘ oh, but I haven’t written that yet. Can you wait?’ Well yes they might wait and they might still want to see the rest of the manuscript when you’re done but the chances that they are still going to be as excited about it, as they were when they first read it are very slim. If you write non fiction, sample chapters, an outline, synopsis and CV are fine. If it’s fiction then finish it first! Remember, though publishing moves slowly, agents and publishers actually move very fast; they have to in order to be a step ahead of various literary fairs and book lists.

One at a time.   Perhaps you’re massively prolific in your writing or the planets have aligned and filled you with strange energies so you have finished off half a dozen novels that have been lying around in various states of undress for some time. Pick one and submit. The others have to wait their turn. You might be really good and highly marketable but if you bombard an agent with submissions you’re likely to get a no, just so you’ll leave them alone.

Do your homework. Make a list of possible agents, checking into them a bit to see if you think you’d like to work with them. These agents should be people you want to work with and they should handle books in your genre. The ‘pray and spray’ approach to submissions, rarely works. If you send your historical romance to an agent who only deals with  yachting biographies then the answer will be ‘no’ and everyone has wasted time.

Formatting. Most agents have a list of formatting guidelines with their submissions policy. Read them. If you don’t, you are going to appear either lazy, as if you haven’t checked out the agent (which by the way the agent expects) or that you don’t bother to read. None of that is attractive to an agent. Most agents nowadays use Kindles to read submissions. So don’t send PDFs as they are illegible on kindle. Title your files clearly – if an agent has two dozen files on a kindle and eighteen of them are titled ‘sample chapters’, she is going to read the one titled with the books name first. Remember, when the files are loaded onto a kindle, only a certain amount of the title appears in the list. So if you title something ‘sample chapters; [title of your book]’ then the only bit that appears is ‘sample chapters’.

Submitting you MS. Have a great title; they’ve seen a lot of it before. A great title makes them more likely to pick up your book first. In the covering letter, use a reasonable sized one paragraph pitch. Include a bit about yourself. Agents are interested in building careers not just one book, if they are thinking about representing you, you will probably be asked what you’re working on now. Agents don’t really care about previous publishing credits. They don’t need a CV of published short stories. Ultimately they want good debut authors.

Resubmissions and Replies. Yes you might get a rejection. Everyone does at some point. What you never ever ever do under any circumstances, is write a rude reply to the agent. We saw some in the seminar and I felt horrified and embarrassed for the people who sent them. Publishing is actually a fairly small world and they DO all talk to each other. On the other hand if you’ve done significant work on your MS and really feel you’ve improved it (especially if you got a ‘no thanks but think about looking at this’ sort of reply) then it’s encouraged to resubmit to the same agent. Agents usually only leave feedback if they are interested in your book – they are not a critiquing service. So don’t expect some in a reply. And don’t be a pest. Your MS is getting read. They can’t take the chance that a gold nugget is getting swept away in the pile of rocks. Four weeks is about the right time to send a friendly inquiry about your sample chapters. Six weeks, if they’ve asked to see the whole MS.

Finally, here are the Submission Bootcamp Dos and Don’ts;

– ‘I have submitted this to a handful of carefully selected agents but will of course inform you…’ Big don’t. In reality agents know that you can’t submit to them one at a time but highlighting it at the sample chapter stage is foolish. At worst it smacks of trying to force their hand.

– Don’t use silly email addresses; agents want to know they are dealing with someone professional.

– Do drop the names of authors on their lists that you admire. This doesn’t mean saying that you are the next Philip Pullman, but you can say ‘would appeal to fans of Philip Pullman’ about your work. Also showing that you know who an agent represents proves you’ve done your homework about them.

– Don’t include copyright pages. What you’re saying when you do this, is that you don’t expect an agent to act professionally. And of course your MS is copyright protected. The minute you write it and send it (even if you only email it to yourself) it’s under copyright.

– Do re-submit

– Don’t submit unfinished manuscripts.

– Don’t request a receipt on your email. Agents hate this kind of trickery!

– Don’t direct an agent o dropbox, Yousendit, a link or amazon.

– Don’t lie. Ever. They will find out. They are spooky like that.

– Do mention if you’ve met the agent before.

– Do highlight if it’s a resubmission, but this isn’t essential.

– Do submit your next book, even if the first is rejected. They still want to see what you write.

And there you have it. Much of it is business courtesy but these are all important  points. Remember. it’s just as big a deal for the agent to call an author and offer to represent them, as it is for the author to receive that call!

Throwback Thursday:Tales of York, Volume One – Lovers, Buddies and the Tragedy Paper.

(First published on my old blog, 7th October 2013)

The first seminar I attended at York FoW13, was ‘Lovers and Buddies; 7 steps to friendship and romance’, by Jeremy Sheldon. I’d never been to a writing seminar of any kind before. In fact any seminars I usually attend have horrifying medical slide shows attached, so this was not only new and interesting but quite restful as well. The added benefit is that I learned a lot.

I won’t give you a direct transcription of my notes. That would be extremely dull. However I will attempt to sift through them for the bits that struck me most and compare and contrast it with a similar set of guidelines which I used in A-level English, in a critical essay on Shakespeare. Ok, that already sounds dry. I promise this won’t be. The best thing about this seminar, was it’s versatility. As soon as you’ve clocked the main points, you can apply them to any story shape in any medium you like and it still works.

So what do romantic relationships, friendships and tragedies have to do with one another? Surely they are three different scenarios? Well no not really. They follow a very similar pattern of occurrences in roughly the same time frame. It’s really the actions of the characters and the outcomes that make the difference.

The seven steps;

1) The meet-cute (in movie terms). Quite literally the point where the two characters in that relationship dynamic meet. Think Romeo and Juliet dancing at that party or Elizabeth Bennett and Mr Darcy NOT dancing at the ball at Mereton. Or if you want to think friendship how about Murtagh jumping Riggs in the police station before he knew that was his new partner (classic buddy cop) or Luke Skywalker meeting Han Solo in the Mos Eisley bar. (Yes I know they weren’t alone. And yes, Han shot first *sigh*) It doesn’t have to be main characters meeting up either. If a friendship or romance is a sub plot then you would have those character meeting up for the first time. Or at least at a significant time when the relationship is about to change.
Tragedy wise it’s much the same – Luke Skywalker meeting Darth Vader for the first time and fighting him unaware that he is fighting his father. The only family he has left and they’re mortal enemies (ok there’s Leia but they don’t know they’re related yet…) Or Irish folktale CuChullain fighting and killing Conlai only to find out he’s killed his son. (Admittedly in that case, the entire story would be the fight but I’ll get back to that.)

2) Dislike/ Attraction – there is a strong feeling between the two characters. Aside from Romeo and Juliet, all the examples I’ve listed above started out disliking each other. That’s possibly because I find that dynamic of overcoming pre-conceptions and learning to like someone or even fall in love with them, endlessly fascinating. Either way, they can’t be indifferent to each other, or they won’t progress to step three.

3) Complications – the reasons that a pair of characters can’t be together or can’t be friends (or in tragedy sense, can’t overcome their burgeoning mutual enmity.) Darcy is far too proud to consider Elizabeth and therefore doesn’t see her clearly. Elizabeth is thoroughly put off Darcy firstly by his bad behavior and later by the tales Mr Wickham spins her. They can’t be together because they create barriers. In addition there are also barriers of class, money and social convention to overcome. Those sort of barriers are only beaten by a pair of characters if they are pulling together, which Darcy and Elizabeth aren’t. On top of this, they are continually thrown into each others company. If they hadn’t been, it’s possible that one unpleasant encounter at a dance at Mereton might have been the whole story.

4) Increased purpose for being – whether they initially were attracted or disliked each other, the presence of the other, causes an increased will for life in a character. The very thing that attracts Darcy is the way Elizabeth laughs him off, managing to deliver some impertinent remarks in such a way that they don’t give offence but make him stop and think. From a tragical POV, take Harry Potter and Lord Voldemort. They are on a collision course from day one. Both are directly in the way of what the other wants and both want the other out of the way. There is an increased sense of purpose in both characters. Neither can rest until the other is dead. It’s not given to everyone to have one great enemy, anymore than it is to have one great love. In both cases it brings out the best and worst in a character. (I’ll admit that Harry Potter isn’t exactly a tragedy but I’m trying to choose random tragical elements.)

5) Alignment – the characters fall in to line with the discovery that they want the same thing. However, how they achieve this is still up for debate; they are not aligned in their opinions. In simplest terms Darcy discovers that he wishes to marry for love, a belief that Elizabeth has held already. They are not agreed on who is to marry whom! Harry and Voldemort are in one accord that one of them must die, neither of them agree which of them it should be – unsurprisingly. In a friendship perspective, Murtagh and Riggs are working together to solve the case, but neither agree on the others methods. It’s about prolonging conflict. Sometimes a big conflict, sometimes something small that can blow up completely, making the whole relationship look un-salvageable.

6) Crisis – This would be the point where that difference of opinion causes a moment where everything looks like it’s going wrong and can’t be saved. This is the darkest moment, the lowest point on the character journey. For example Jane Eyre discovers on her wedding day that Mr Rochester the groom, has a wife still living, shut up in the attic. In despair she runs away and nearly dies of exposure (which still seems a bit daft to me but I’m willing to forgive much as I love the book and I admire anyone who really sticks to their principles.) At that point there is no way for them to be together. This is usually where there is a huge argument in the friend plot line – all the things that annoy them about each other come out in the most hurtful way possible. In the tragedy sense the climax is the worst becoming worse. Think Romeo killing Tibault, after Tibault kills Mercutio under Romeo’s arm. Then think the message to Romeo getting delayed by a plague blockade but word of Juliet’s death reaching him, followed by Romeo drinking poison moments before Juliet wakes up.

7) Resolution and Surrender – this is the ‘I’ve got you’ moment. Reconciliation between lovers. They acknowledged their flaws and learnt from them. Elizabeth realises that she should have given Darcy more of a chance and not formed her opinion based on a second hand report. Darcy having had time to think over Elizabeth’s telling off, realises that he’s not behaved well and sets out to do better, proving to her that he’s worth a second chance. Harry faces death and comes through, wiser and now unafraid. Voldemort still fears death so much that he cannot comprehend anything but defying it. Harry, having recognised his flaws and reversed them triumphs, whereas Voldemort destroys himself. Or for tragical purposes, Juliet recognises that everything has gone wrong and comes to the same conclusion as Romeo; that she doesn’t want to live on without him. The characters are aligned still even if they don’t have a happy ending. Murtagh has gained a new appreciation for his seemingly dull life from his friendship with Riggs. Riggs has someone to care about and who cares about him and now wants to live, he’s overcome his death wish.

So those are the seven steps. You can look at almost any film or book and identify them quite easily. There are exceptions in the sense of a defeat being joyful. The English Patient for example. In the romance sense, love becomes a choice rather than a need or obligation. Two characters enter into it willing to be emotionally vulnerable with each other. They shed the emotional armor they’re carrying. Love in itself is a kind of surrender.

So, other things to look out for;

Hubris or fatal flaw – the one thing in a character’s make up that prevents them from achieving their goal.

Magnitude – at some point a decision will be made, the consequences of which overshadow the rest of the story. The story becomes about dealing with those consequences.

Recognition and reversal – a character must recognise and reverse or mitigate his fatal flaw in order to achieve his goal. Or if it’s a tragedy must not recognise it, or recognise it too late. Think King Lear, realising and admitting that he was wrong about youngest daughter, Cordelia, just before they are all executed.

These are the ingredients of all really good, enduring character relationship plot lines. I had come across some of them before but it was an eye opener to take them and apply them to more modern film and literature. I haven’t incorporated the entire seminar but I think this is enough of the gist. It’s definitely helped make my decisions regarding character reactions much more conscious and deliberate.

Tales of York, Volume one: A Distinct lack of Brimstone

(First published on my old blog, 4th October 2013)

From the title, I’m sure you can guess I’m continuing my York memoirs 😉 In this instance I want to talk about agents.

If you read my earlier York post, you’ll know that I was very nervous about going due to my ineptitude at talking about my writing. Since I’d booked two one-to-one sessions with agents to find out how marketable my book is, I was definitely jittery about the whole thing.
In my naivity, I booked both ten minute sessions back to back. A bit of description for anyone who hasn’t tried this; there are small tables with two chairs facing each other across them, set up slightly like a prison visiting area as seen on many TV shows. There are lots of these little capsules of literary intrigue within a single open room. There are also lots of one-to-ones taking place at the same time.
Timing is strict. You have ten minutes from the buzzer; a one minute warning at nine minutes; then you have to clear off when the buzzer sounds again. It is insane, manic speed dating with far more riding on it than the conventional kind. You’ve already picked who you’ll see and you want them to be invested in your work.
To backtrack a bit, six weeks in advance, you send 3000 words of your manuscript, a synopsis and a covering letter. The agent (or publisher or book doctor) will read this and make notes prior to the event.
Scary stuff, huh?
On how many other occasions are you asked to pitch straight in, talking about something really personal and close to your heart and make a connection?
Of course the aim isn’t necessarily to acquire an agent that day – though some do ask to see the full manuscript. The aim is to make a connection as a basis for future contact and to find out if what you write is marketable. If so, what do you need to improve.
So, first proper day at York, 10.30am Saturday morning, with my courage grasped tight in both sweat-slick hands and my heart, lungs and stomach clinging to each other in my throat, I went to meet the Kraken.
This is a very unfair description but that is what it feels like. Happily for me, both of my appointed agents were lovely. It was incredibly hard to pitch my book, despite all the preparation I had done. I had one horrible moment with the first agent, where I opened my mouth and nothing came out. She had asked me what my book was about. I sat there for thirty endless seconds thinking ‘I can’t remember!’ Then my brain clunked into gear and my ongoing love for the story took over. She even said my pitch was good!
Both agents said that they thought my idea was highly marketable and would appeal to a wide readership. They then preceded to explain what I needed to work on. All in all it wasn’t that bad at all. I’d caught a glimmer of interest.
It’s incredibly heartening as well as useful to have feedback from an agent. They do know what will sell after all. I would say that if you are not good with taking critique or feedback you won’t get so much out if it. These are professional book lovers who know the market. If they tell you that you’re over writing, you probably are! As with all criticism though, it should be divided in to ‘accept’, ‘adapt’ or ‘reject’ categories. Agents have preferences too and aren’t right about everything. ( though I have to say they were bang on the money about me and what I needed to do.)
Curiously light headed and seriously high on adrenaline I toddled off to a seminar and let it all sink in.
It was weird. All those agents and not a whiff of brimstone. Could it be that they were book lovers plus ten? I’m a rabid reader (I’d say avid but it just isn’t strong enough) but I’d never pushed myself into the arena of trying to make literature appear (unless you count writing.) for a moment I had a glimmer of what being an agent must be like. If you love books, it must seem like being Indiana Jones in a slush pile; the greatest treasure hunt ever. Exciting but I don’t believe I could ever do it. Just that mad speed dating once a year must take it out of you. All those hopeful authors, most of home you will have bad or indifferent news for…emotionally exhausting in the extreme. Add to that the fact that some writers can be so precious about their work that they only want to hear ‘Yes’. So it might be close to good but they don’t want to hear about improving it. That’s go to be maddening too.
I was to find out later in the day that some writers send unpleasant even abusive emails when their work is rejected. I read some of them in a seminar I went to that afternoon (personal details removed of course). My jaw hit the desk. Who in their right mind thought sending these was going to make an agent reconsider? I won’t repeat them but rude was an understatement.
And in case anyone wasn’t clear, nasty letters to an agent are a big no-no. And they do remember you. Also, all agents talk. It’s a small world, publishing. I’m just saying…
At the gala dinner that evening, fortified with half a glass of champagne, I screwed up my courage again and went to speak to another agent casually.
I did not do this to pitch my book. I had no intention of bringing it up at all. I wanted to have a chat as Id followed this person on twitter for a while and thought they were witty and clever. I’m not saying that I hadn’t considered submitting to them. I had. But my purpose was to scope them out in person. I was beginning to get an inkling of how important an agent you like and get on with is.
Which is what we talked about among other things. (For the record either I hid my nerves better than I thought or this person was just too lovely to comment on it. My hands were shaking.) It was a good chat. Even though the third thing U said was ” turns out agents don’t have horns!” Luckily this person had a sense of humour and got where I was coming from.
What I learned;
-Agents don’t have horns.
-They’re in it for the long haul. It’s not a case if them representing one book, they are looking to represent your developing career.
– An agent will turn down a perfectly sellable book if they don’t feel excited about it. This is not a reflection on the writing. It’s a case of them not feeling passionate enough about it to want to take it on. Isn’t that a good thing? If someone takes me on, I want to know they’re as excited about the journey as me.
– Agents are book lovers with market knowledge and contacts. It may seem like they have the power of life and death over an author’s career but actually that power never leaves a writer’s hands. We’re the ones who have to write good books after all.
– Agents are happy to see resubmissions of the same book if work has been done in it, especially if they left feedback when they rejected it the first time.
– Agents aren’t trying to be a barrier to your writing career. They need books to sell. In effect they need us as much as we need them.
– Agents do not care if you have previous writing credits or not. They want debut authors, they want careers they can help grow from the ground up. As one agent said, we’re always looking for the next JK Rowling or Dan Brown.
– an agent is usually being kind if they tell you something is unsellable. As horrible as that is to hear, it’s crueler to encourage false hope and have everyone waste time.
-Agents are human too. They don’t always get it right. If you believe in your book stick with it.
– Agents absolutely hate the idea of the one that got away. They do read your submissions. As professionals they may only need to read two paragraphs before they know that it’s not up to scratch or not for them. Take on the chin and move on.
All that from one 10min conversation. Worth screwing up my courage for methinks!
Perhaps I was lucky. I have heard other people say that they had a less positive or even negative experience with their one-to-ones. Since I wasn’t there I can’t comment. All I can say is that all the agents I met, were lovely, intelligent, discerning people who love books.
I’m feeling better about submitting my novel now. And I no longer expect to see horns 😉

Throwback Thursday: Harnessing Demons

(First published on my blog, 3rd October 2013)

I’m bouncing this post off of a conversation I had at York. A man I met on the first night was telling me about his crime novel. Naturally I won’t divulge details – for one thing that would be unspeakably rude. For another who wants to be pre-spoilified before it gets published? It might do yet.

The context was ‘how do you show something convincingly from a killer’s point of view?’ I think this is from  adhering to that old chestnut ‘write what you know’. Or if he was secretly a killer, he was very new to the task and wasn’t sure what he was doing yet. He had a point; how do you write convincingly, creating a fully fleshed three dimensional character, who has experiences and desires that you have never had and probably will never have? It isn’t exactly like you can just chat to a serial killer – might be ill advised to do so!

Well you can read about it. At worst your getting a report third or fourth hand. At best second hand. But he really wasn’t sure where to go from there. I think this is where the childhood game ‘let’s pretend’ comes in. When I played that as a child, I always wanted to be the bad guy. I wonder now if that was a precocious attempt to understand the dark aspects of my own nature? Who knows. It always seemed that the bad guy had a lot more fun and far fewer restrictions. I wasn’t put off by the fact that in children’s games at least, the bad guy always meets a bad end. That was a price of admission I was willing to pay for the freedom to be bad. It might be worth adding at this point that I was a supernaturally well behaved child with highly over developed senses of both guilt and empathy. It doesn’t take a psychologist to add those facts together.

Back to writing antagonists; my reply was simply that we all have these dark little creases in our souls and minds. Grubby places where our less admirable qualities fester and breed. Instead of ignoring them, we should own them and put them to use in a controlled way. In essence when you conquer your demons, don’t slay them. Hitch them up and put them to plough. Make them work for you. A book is one place where you can commit murder many times without actually harming anyone. Make the most of it.

I received a side long look for this piece of advice. No doubt I sounded far too enthusiastic and possibly four sneezes away from a killing spree myself. Which I’m not, obviously. I do stand by what I said. Everyone has some level of darkness inside them. No one is perfect or entirely good (I’ve met three people in my life who came close.) so why not tap into that when you write? Surely it will add a dimension to your ‘bad guys’ that you may not manage without it. Often a character seems unrealistic to me when they are all good or all bad. Good guys should have at least one flaw. And it should totally get in the way and cause them to make mistakes. Surely the reverse is true of bad guys? Shouldn’t they have at leas one redeeming feature? Something to stop them toppling like cardboard cutouts? I think so. Perhaps the people who write best, in the ened, are those who are willing to undergo the pain of knowing themselves. The bad as well as the good.

Dissecting Dragons – the first Guest Episode

I’ve talked about Dissecting Dragons, the speculative fiction podcast that M.E.Vaughan and I produce a bit before. However on Friday the first episode featuring a guest author was released and I feel it’s worth looking at the process in a bit more detail – not least of which because that episode has probably been our most successful one to date.

We’ve had lots of positive feedback about the podcast – people seem to genuinely be enjoying it, which is brilliant. As writers we all know how hard it is to judge your own work, so to have listeners comment or get in touch to say they like it is very encouraging. I will, in future, explain exactly how we are producing a podcast for those who fancy trying their hand at producing their own. (It’s always helpful to look at someone else’s process.)

So, first guest. James Nichol is a children’s author whose first book, The Apprentice Witch, is being published by the ChickenHouse. (To give you some context, he has been working with Barry Cunningham, the editor who discovered J.K.Rowling.) The book sounds utterly enchanting – I’m certainly looking forward to reading it myself when it is released in July 2016.

Dissecting Dragons - Writing, Reading, Loving and sometime Hating, Speculative Fiction.
Dissecting Dragons – Writing, Reading, Loving and sometime Hating, Speculative Fiction.

What made James a great guest was that he took an interest and engaged with the entire topic. And I think what allowed him to do that was that Madeleine and I had set things up so that we fell into a natural rhythm of conversation about that week’s topic. Between the three of us we produced some really interesting content. There was no sense of having to perform, either for James or for either of us. My theory is that it’s that relaxed atmosphere during which three authors discuss books and writing that makes it engaging for listeners.

Of course it definitely helps that James was interesting, engaging and humble about his achievements. Coupled with a sense of humour that has to be a winning combination for authors. I’ve mentioned before how hard many of us find it to talk about our work. Certainly publishers and editors both have said that they often feel that authors need to feel they’ve ‘been given permission’ to talk about their books. Could it be that a cosy chat via podcast is a way of breaking down this self imposed barrier? I have no firm conclusion on that but it’s definitely exciting times.

I highly recommend you listen to James story (not just because I want you to download the podcast) because it is as close to a ‘fairytale’ dream-come-true story of an author finding his publisher and his niche.

Dissecting Dragons – Episode 4 – Witches, Brooms and Spells with James Nichol

Dissecting Dragons Facebook page

Throwback Thursday: Tales of York: Volume One – Intimate Strangers

(First published on my old blog 2nd October 2013)

I’d hate to give anyone the wrong impression, so I’ll state now that while the title was a pleasing oxymoron for me and apt for this topic, I won’t be covering any erotica today – sorry about that 😉

September 2013 saw the University of York once again hosting the Festival of Writing. I was one part excitement to two parts bundle of nerves. It wasn’t just the thought of meeting agents for the first time ever (that actually deserves a blog of it’s own, so I won’t go into it here) it was the idea of meeting complete strangers and not so complete strangers (people I’d met and befriended via theWord Cloud) and talking about myself.

In a bizarre conjunction of personality traits, I’m quite happy public speaking, talking to strangers doesn’t bother me; I’ve stood in front of classes of 300 adult karate students and taught for 4 hrs with nary a twinge of nerves or the idea that, objecting to my gender, comparative youth and scrawniness, they might reckon me unable to teach them anything and rebel. (In point of fact they never did – I think it helps when you don’t question your own authority, maybe?)  Ask me to stand and talk about anything personal or more specifically anything close to my soul and suddenly all the shyness I thought I’d left behind in childhood crashes down on me. I like to think I’m fairly articulate. Ask me what my book is about and … blank.

Of course when you gather around 400 people together for a writer’s convention, the popular opening line is ‘What do you write?’ In fact that line is pretty much guaranteed to open up a whole vista of new acquaintance. Except that when I was asked that question I got as far as ‘Young Adult Urban Fantasy’ and then got stuck. I know exactly what my book is about. Of course I do. I worked hard on plot and themes and character – all that good stuff. I am just rubbish at selling myself. And consequently, not that good at pitching my book. There is hope however. This appears to be a skill you can learn.

When you think about it though, it’s not so weird to be overcome with shyness talking about your own writing. Aside from the fairly commonly held anxiety that what you write is probably pap that good trees shouldn’t die for, how often would you sit down to dinner or a drink with a stranger and bare your soul? Abruptly you find yourself in deep conversation on the finer points of part of your novel with someone who’s last name you don’t know. Might not ever know. You may not get around to talking about your husbands, wives, girlfriends, boyfriends, kids, pets… All the things that you would have talked to a really close friend about at some point. Usually before you got on to examining the deep seated dreams you’ve nourished in private for years. Because when writers talk shop, they really talk shop. So yes it is a strange intimacy.

Did I get over it? Well I still stumbled over discussing my work if the question came out of the blue at me. But by and large every time I did talk about my book, it got a bit easier. There is the horror movie theory of course; if you’ve seen the same horror film a hundred times it ceases to be scary. I probably did start a gentle process of surface desensitization. But there was so much more to it. For the first time everyone in the room, everyone I could possibly find myself in conversation with, was a book lover. Not necessarily my book, maybe not even my preferred genres. But we were all linked together by a love of the written word and a passion for creating it ourselves. In short, I’d found a niche I belonged in where I didn’t have to fight for space.

To para-phase Yuxin; In the heavens there is room for infinite stars to shine, with out one diminishing anothers brightness.

That was how I came to feel…within three hours of being at the festival. There were definite nervous moments but mostly it was a sense of coming home. The big realisation was that no one in that room was judging my writing as harshly as I was judging it. They all knew how hard it was. They all had the same fragile hopes.

In our daily lives I think we have lost, to some extent, that sense of communion as a group. It was wonderful and strange to discover something I wasn’t even aware I was looking for. It was even more wonderful that it was amongst writers I found it.