Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Readers and Passion (what I learnt from Tenby Book Fair) by Juliet Greenwood

This year I finally made it to the Tenby Book Fair, organised by fellow Honno author, Judith Barrow. As it was a first, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but it turned out to be a completely inspiring weekend in many ways, and one that will stay with me for a long time.

Tenby itself was colourful and relaxed, with long beaches and dramatic coastline, while from the window of my B&B I looked right out over Caldey Island. It was such a whirl of a weekend, it was impossible to go and explore very much, apart from wandering through the narrow streets within the medieval walls of the town, so one lesson was to make sure I go back to find out more and do plenty of exploring. I’m planning already!

Evening in Tenby
Overlooking Caldey Island
The Book Fair itself, on the first day of the Tenby Arts Festival, was busy from start to finish. There were around fifteen authors, so it was a delight to catch up with old friends and meet many new. In many ways it felt like an extension of the Novelistas, a chance to exchange ideas and experiences, and to support each other. Authors are wonderfully supportive of each other, and the buzz in the room was energising and inspiring.

With fellow Honno authors:
Hilary Shepherd, Judith Barrow, Thorne Moore (right)
and my wonderful editor, Janet Thomas (centre)

At the same time there was a chance to talk face-to-face with readers, which I also loved. Sometimes, beavering away for months on end on a book and a subject that fills you with passion, you have to ask yourself is this just me? Am I fooling myself? Is this simply a self-indulgence? Is anyone ever going to read this dratted tome that has taken over a year of my life? Especially when bombarded with advice on what the agents and major publishers are looking for, and what sells. So it was a great adrenalin rush, and I wanted to cheer several times that day, as my chats about Eden’s Garden and We That are Left flowed naturally into the suffragists and the suffragettes, and the long struggle for women to have a legal existence, a right to control their own lives, earn money and follow a profession. The subject which happens to be the background to my next novel with Honno Press, and which is out next year.

Talking to the women and men who passed my stall made me fall back in love with the new book all over again. Bashing away at a novel takes so long, it’s easy to lose sight of why you thought it was a good idea in the first place. Talking to readers reminded me of the initial spark for the story, and that I was so cross the long history of the suffrage movement, and the women who fought peacefully for decades to improve the lives of women and children, has (like so much of women’s history) been pushed aside and forgotten, and overshadowed by the final, brief, violence of the suffragettes. Talking to readers helped me regain my energy, and my confidence that yes, it is a subject women find fascinating, and still resonates today.

My stall, set up and ready!
I’m glad I made it to the Tenby Book Fair this year. I discovered a new part of the country, and it fired me up to keep on getting out from behind my desk and meet more readers. So thank you, wonderful readers, for reminding me of the reasons to write from the heart, rather than what I think someone somewhere just might be looking for – and probably isn’t anymore anyhow.

Talking to readers and fellow writers helped restore my confidence in myself, and where I am going. And I’m already looking forward to next year in Tenby – this time proudly holding a new brand new book, hot off the press, in my hands, all ready for plenty more passionate conversations!

Tenby in the morning

Monday, 21 September 2015

What Do Libraries Mean To You? by Sophie Claire

They've been in the news recently, mostly relating to closures or reduced funding, and this got me thinking – how important are libraries? Are they still relevant in the internet age when so many schools and homes are equipped with computers, and when Wikipedia has all but replaced the encyclopedia? And when money is tight, should they still be a priority for public funding?

Libraries have been a feature of my life at every stage, and I’m lucky enough to have studied in some of the most beautiful and historic libraries in the world. At Oxford University I was spoilt for choice between the famous university buildings such as The Bodleian, the faculty library (my favourite) or our college library which was open all night (and we made good use of this, sometimes working through the night to finish an essay on time). 
The Radcliffe Camera, Oxford
But it was as a child that the library had the most impact on me. My parents, like most people, were careful with money, and there wasn't much spare for books unless I was lucky enough to receive a gift voucher for my birthday or Christmas. So, for a voracious reader like me, the library was essential. It gave me the chance to experiment and explore different authors and genres: fairy tales and adventure stories, pink hardback romance novels, horrors (that phase didn’t last long), thrillers (that one lasted all through my teens), to name but a few.

Without my local library, I wouldn’t have had the varied grounding that later funnelled me towards the realisation that the books I enjoyed the most were all romantic in essence. I wouldn’t have developed a love of words, the feeling that there was a whole other world between the pages of a novel in which ideas could be explored, other cultures brought to life, and in which I could lose myself. 

"If you do not value libraries then you do not value information or culture or wisdom." Neil Gaiman

I learned so much from libraries, and not just in the non-fiction section. Fiction too teaches us – about bygone events, about different people’s perspectives and predicaments, about humanity. What better way to learn empathy than to put yourself in the shoes of a character for 400 pages?

"Books help us understand who we are and how we are to behave." Anne Lamott (Bird by Bird)

My local library has changed dramatically in recent times. It runs sessions for babies and toddlers, it has a soft play area with sofas where parents read to their children, a book group, a craft group, a writing group. It has computers and machines which clock my books in and out, meaning I don’t have as much reason to chat to the librarians any more – which is a shame. On the other hand, it’s easier to renew my books online.
John Rylands Library, Manchester
But some things haven’t changed. Remember the smell as you walked in, of dusty books and polished wood? The sacred hush of dozens of people working or reading in silence? The weight of a book in your hands as you read the blurb and decided if it was worth a try or not. As a child I used to find it hard to whittle the choice down to ten books, the maximum allowed on a ticket. I would carry those books home like treasure, impatient to start devouring them. And then three weeks later I'd go back for more.
Now, as I walk into a library and run my gaze over the shelves, I still get the same breathless feeling of excitement. So many books to read, so little time!

How about you? Do you use a library? What does it mean to you?


Friday, 4 September 2015

Q is for Quality. Or Quantity? by Annie Burrows

On the first Friday of every month, Novelista Annie Burrows has been sharing a very personal view of what it is like to be a writer.  And is dealing with themes in alphabetical order.  This month, she's reached Q which she says is for Quality.  Or Quantity?

Firstly, apologies to anyone who came looking for a blog post from me in August.  I took a month off blogging here, and went to the RWA conference in New York.
Which actually rather neatly leads me into this article.  Because one of the workshops I really wanted to attend was intriguingly called "Writing a novel in 30 days - tips tricks and cautions."  In 30 days?  I'd be thrilled if I could produce a book in less than 6 months.  Lots of other writers seem to be able to do it.  So why can't I?

One of the ladies giving the workshop opened by saying the fastest she had ever written a novel was 7 days.  When challenged as to its length, she told us it was 95,000 words.  There were gasps all round.  The second lady on the panel claimed 75,000 words in 3 weeks, and the third 60,000 in 6 weeks.  And they were all from start to submission.  They weren't talking about first drafts!

However, one thing they all agreed on was that they do good first drafts, which don't need much re-writing. They didn't do a lot of plotting either, as they considered it a waste of time.  In short, they all just sat down and wrote.

By this time I was feeling very inadequate.  My first drafts are generally a total mess and need going over several times before I feel confident about sending them off to my editor.  I can sit down and write a story in 4/5 weeks, but it isn't fit for human consumption!  My revisions take ages and ages.  And ages.

I was starting to wonder if I'm being too pernickety.  Perhaps I should just bash out a draft and send it off...
But no.  I can't do it.  I can't let anyone see my work until I'm sure it's of a certain standard.  And my first drafts definitely aren't.

However, as the workshop progressed, and people started asking how exactly these three women managed to write so fast, and still have a life, it became apparent that actually, they didn't.  Have much of a life outside writing, when they were going at that pace, that is.  One started writing from 8am until 5 pm when she became an empty-nester.  One had a husband who worked in a high profile job which meant he wasn't home until 11 pm.  And all three admitted that their health suffered.  And that they have had to cut back a lot.

Their conclusion was that you have to write the best book you can and don't beat yourself up if it isn't done quickly.  In other words, go for Quality, not Quantity.  I'd been getting worked up over all the advice I keep reading lately, that I need to bring out books really frequently to keep readers coming back.  But they're not going to come back if my book isn't any good, are they, no matter how quickly I manage to get it out there?

I came away from that workshop with the feeling that it isn't just quality of writing that's important, either, but quality of life.
If I lived alone, and needed to fill up my hours with something, then maybe I too could write from 8 in the morning until 11 at night, and produce 4 books a year  I could be proud of instead of 2.

But I have a husband, two grown up children, and a borrowed dog to take into consideration.  And elderly parents who live at the far end of the country. And I don't want to turn into a heap of blancmange racked through with aching bones from sitting hunched over my computer all day and into the night.  I want to get outside with the borrowed dog and go for walks to keep myself relatively healthy.  Keep my house the sort of place my husband will look forward to coming home to every night, and for my kids to want to visit from their far-flung homes.

I want quality of life, as well as feeling I've written books I can be proud of.

So it looks as though I'm doomed to only ever turning out 2 books a year - 2 books I can get excited about, that is.

So bang goes my chances of making a ton of money!

This year Annie has produced just 2 books.  A mistress for Major Bartlett, which is available on Amazon,   

 ...and The Captains' Christmas bride which is out in December, but can be pre-ordered here:

She is hoping to produce 2 more books in 2016.