A weekend in the Cotswolds with sixteen writers and an array of laptops, notebooks and manuscripts proved to be as stimulating and entertaining as we remembered. This was the 10th annual outing of LeicesterWriters' Club and the beautiful honey-stone farm-house of MiddleStanley by now feels like a home from home. Except we are entirely removed from loved ones and all domestic distractions. Creativity, fuelled by huge quantities of food and chat, is the order of the day. It's pleasing to see more of our writers with deadlines looming, making use of the weekend as a retreat to hit word targets and slog through the edits an agent is asking for. But workshops were equally popular and my job was to organise a weekend programme that addressed a range of genres, industry issues and wish-list items to engage all our writers.
First up, as requested', was a session on Writing Time. The questions addressed were 'How do you find that precious time?' and 'How do you use it creatively?' So a chance to peek into the writing spaces and habits of other people – a literary version of poking round other people's houses. Some of our writers do this as the day-job and like to write in 'chunks' through the day. But many are juggling around shift patterns, school-runs and family commitments so resourcefulness and a determination to 'make a date with your writing every day' is key. As you might expect, setting targets such as word counts or completing a chapter draft proved helpful; likewise reviewing your last writing session or planning the next one. Having the opportunity to read a passage (up to 2000 words or 2 poems) at club can provide the push. One writer takes 25 minutes of his 2 hour morning slot to assemble all his research resources and writing apps and is constantly cross-referencing and updating his 'character files' etc. Research and how far it weaves in and out of the creative writing time was much discussed. Poets found this was even more key because that one telling detail could not only transform the poem but alter metre and sound patterns too. So Google is only ever a button away …
And thus practical considerations of time-management shaded into issues around the nature of creativity (the topic of several sessions last year too). It turns out that our 'best writing time' was not always mornings (close to dream-time and the back-brain). Some writers wrote most creatively from 10pm into the early hours – even when an alarm was primed for the 'day-job'. But editing time was different from writing time as was planning time. Writers who work in different genres found different rhythms required for poetry or prose and nobody could keep their head simultaneously in writing and alternate forms like painting. Music helped some whilst others needed silence. I find only silence works with poetry as I have to hear the words and beats so clearly. Some find their writing mojo profoundly affected by the seasons or monthly cycles and have learned to harness that rather than be limited by it. Many of our writers nest in a study or shed or 'man-cave' whilst others are impelled to go out, completely away from domestic routine, to write in cafés or on trains. And word-targets aside, not-writing has to be valued too. Time spent day-dreaming, googling, planning, 'faffing about', is not (as sceptical partners might suppose) wasted time – but an essential part of the alchemy that is crafting words onto a blank screen and puffing life into them.
And lest those partners and families suspect our Middle Stanley weekend was all about the eating, drinking and being merry (of which there was plenty) I can tell you we packed in another five workshops and writing homework across the two days. After that fascinating glimpse into the diverse writing habits of our cohort, we worked through a few nuts-and-bolts sessions on Creating Suspense in Fiction and How and Where to Submit Poetry. Our second day was themed around the business end of writing. My introduction to the day noted 'there is a world of difference between producing a piece of writing and being a writer.' Out of the solitude and safety of the study, there are many challenges facing a writer in bringing a book to market and building a career around it. That is why I put together sessions on 'My Big Book Plan', 'Routes into Publication' and 'Networking for Writers'. The first session featured 'homework', a detailed plan that identified the unique selling point (USP) of a book/project, its audience and genre, the 'author-story' to accompany it and ideas for marketing both on-line and face-2-face. Even at an early stage, considering the key concept of the book, can help in focusing a sprawling storyline and as the possibility of publication approaches, a writer can begin to explore the audience and pitch the book will need.
In 'Routes into Publication', three of our writers, MargaretPenfold, Marianne Whiting and GwynethWilliams generously shared their experiences. With the help of their presentations, we discussed the array of options facing today's authors: work with an agent to pitch to editors in publishing houses, seek out an independent publisher or go the self-publishing route with an appropriate press. It became clear that whichever path to publication you ended up on, thorough research and sampling was necessary and that the relationship is very much a two-way one. Authors spoke of 'interviewing' potential publishers/ agents as much as seeking their backing. Finding an industry figure who could deliver the editing, marketing or promotion your book needs is vital and that first lunch or telephone call might be something of a 'first-date' for both parties to sense whether they can work well together. All three authors had found literary conferences helpful in meeting potential publishers/agents – either genre-based organisations or a book-fair like States of Independence. And once you've agreed on that contract to deliver a book together, then 'the hard work really begins.'
The final session of Sunday afternoon proved to be the most lively, not least because we pitched our authors into a role-play. First LindsayWaller-Wilkinson and I discussed the relative benefits of social media that can be seen as eating up too much of writers' precious creative time. Authors are wary of giving up hours reading what somebody had for tea or being one of those Facebook faces who pop up and say 'Buy My book please!' Instead we explored how Facebook and Twitter can be tools to interact with a wider community of professionals within the industry. Very much as the writing community of the Leicester Writers' Club allows us to share information, inspire each other, mentor new writers, offer suggestions and even introductions to agents and editors, so social media can build these vital relationships at all stages of a writers' career. The key to this is seeing our interventions as symbiotic – we need to be genuinely engaged with the creative work of others and with supporting their success too. That has always underpinned the manuscript evenings of LWC and the same etiquette applies to blogging and tweeting in a professional context.
And then the roleplay. In pairs, one of us played an agent/editor at a literary event who asks the inevitable question: 'So what do you write?' You have 30 seconds to sum up your work in an interesting way – no cringing allowed – and present yourself naturally, confidently, as a practising writer. Not as easy as it sounds. I can remember crumbling and mumbling the first time a published author asked me that question at a book-launch. But this can be the moment we find that special person whose attention our book needs – or who knows somebody who would be interested in it. Hopefully a little bit of forethought can help, as Lindsey found when she bumped into an agent and discussed a planned novel. Being a writer is one of those activities that can seem invisible or like play-acting – until you take the industry and yourself seriously.
But not too seriously. This weekend contained much laughter - and a shared pleasure in our peculiar passion. And have I mentioned the food? As we filed round the long dining-table, we felt like honoured guests at a Masterchef final – extraordinary and exotic banquets unfolded from our chefs Lindsay and Andrew on successive nights. Our thanks also go to Gwyneth and Liz as our stalwart organisers who make the magic happen with so little fuss year on year. Roll on 2015!