Sledge-Lit 2018

Those of you who have been following me for years may know that this blog (and my Twitter feed) was originally inspired by several seminars I went on at Winchester Writing Festival 2013. I even wrote a blog post about it, which I’m linking to even if I’m now pretty embarrassed by everything I wrote in the first few years of this blog’s life.

Well, 65 months (and a lot of words) later and I’ve finally made my second writing convention. This one was almost entirely different: Derby’s Sledge-Lit. It was a one-day event and was a lot, lot smaller that Winchester. Smaller is no bad thing. Smaller is more intimate. Sledge-Lit (Edge-Lit’s winter cousin) is also a genre convention, a gathering for followers of science-fiction, fantasy and horror.

Sledge-Lit

So, without further ado, here’s my thoughts on the event. There may also be advice, though I promise nothing.

  • It’s great. Okay, this is definitely not advice, but I had a great time and am already planning my trip to Edge-Lit in the summer
  • Plan ahead. I made a big mistake in not properly scoping out the programme beforehand. I hadn’t realised all the information was available ahead of the day – which I guess shows my naivety – and this meant that I was immediately confronted by hard choices. The sign-ups for various workshops had to be completed straight through the door and I panicked and signed up for pretty much everything. This was not necessarily a mistake, but…
  • I found some workshops a bit basic
  • However, the workshops are still worth doing, if only to have a better chance of chatting with new people. Lectures, panels and talks aren’t so connective
  • I didn’t have the best morning because I failed to make the most of this, mostly because…
  • I’m a bit shy. I mean, you might not believe this because I work hard to appear outgoing. But come lunchtime I’m feeling all down because I’d not learnt much and because I was sitting alone whilst all around me everyone else (it seems) was having fun with friends
  • It follows that if you can find someone to drag along, do. It makes everything easier
  • HOWEVER I didn’t meet anyone – not a single person – who wasn’t happy to talk and wasn’t really nice. The people are what makes an event a success. If you are one of those lucky people who can talk to strangers as if you’ve known them all your life you’ll have an absolute blast
  • I was lucky because I had an ‘in’. I’m a Twitter-friend of Rod Duncan – we’ve met once previously in person – and I got chatting to him after a panel he was chairing. I managed inveigle myself into the company of himself and his colleagues Siobhan Logan and Penny Reeve. I had a great time chatting with them. Almost like I was a real human being
  • Remember a lot of people will want to talk to your hero. Talk don’t stalk
  • Sarah Pinsborough hosted the sweariest raffle in the history of conventions. Or swearing. Or raffles

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At this point I will step out of list mode momentarily because I’m kind of doing this chronologically and here I left the convention to go and check into my room. I’d booked an AirBnB near the station, about ten minutes’ walk away.

All my ‘friends’ had left. I’d eaten only a sausage roll and a slice of tiffin all days. I was seriously contemplating calling it a moderately-successful night (the chat with Rod and Penny was lovely; the only negative was sitting with Dave Hutchinson in absolute silence for ten minutes because I could think of not a single thing to say to him. I mean, I’d love to read his books – they’re on my mental TBR-shelf – but you can hardly start a conversation with ‘hey, I haven’t got round to you yet; what’s it all about, then?’ can you?), getting a curry and having an early bed.

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I checked in then strolled back to the venue just because it was a nice night and just on the off-chance that someone might approach me to chat. I got a beer and sat on my own; there were maybe a dozen people from the convention still hanging around.

After a drink and maybe another twenty minutes’ silence I finally found a way to sneak into a conversation. And so back to bullet-points:

  • Be patient. Don’t be in a rush to do things
  • Eat more regularly than I did
  • Be prepared to spend a little money. I know, this isn’t easy for everyone. But try and treat yourself to at least one drink – it doesn’t have to be alcoholic; no-one will judge you. Buy books. Enter the raffle. Come ready to have fun and hang your worries on the shelf for a little while
  • You will meet interesting people if you stick around long enough
  • There is no better place to network than the bar/pub…
  • …to which we thence repaired
  • …and it was at this point that the business cards I’d prepared in a last-minute panic came in most handy. See, I’d expected to be handing them out to indie publishers and lost-looking writers and all that. I did give out the odd couple like that, but I found them most useful in the bar afterwards. For although I’d managed to send the printers the draft without my blog or Twitter-handle on it, they proved really useful in getting my name across. We’d chat a bit, do introductions, and I’d whip it out – so to speak – so next morning they’d be able to link to me
  • Don’t stay longer than you feel comfortable. Don’t make yourself ill; if crowds aren’t your thing, don’t feel like you have to drag yourself to the dirty club. You’re not going to make a good impression if you’re asleep on your feet. Most publishers don’t take too kindly to being vomited on
  • Follow up on any contacts you’ve made. If you’ve got an email address just send a quick hello. I’m chronically shy and fearful of this sort of thing; social media makes it all so much easier. Connect on Twitter or Facebook or whatever the cool kids are on nowadays
  • It’s all about making friends. And girls just wanna have fun

And that’s it. I reckon I spent approximately £130 on the entrance fee, accommodation, train-fares, books, and sustenance. Was it worth it? Financially, probably not; maybe some of the people I met will offer me work in the future. I can’t count on that.

But I had a great time. I met a lot of fun, interesting people that I otherwise would have missed. And yes, there are other ways of having fun and other ways of meeting people (and yes, the crowd was overwhelmingly white). I don’t want you to leave this post with the impression that you must go to Sledge-Lit, or any of the other conventions that are sprinkled through the calendar. There are other ways to do it.

But I had a great time. I’m already starting to plan my trip to Edge-Lit 2019.

Edge-Lit

I submit

Before we begin, take another look at the tag-line up on the top left. ‘Unpublished author’. ‘S what it says. So to be giving advice on how to submit to a publisher or agent may seem a little presumptuous.

But I’ve been trying, and I’ve been reading books, and I’ve been speaking to people – and several bodies have been asking me for full manuscripts recently, so I reckon I’m doing something right. And, since so many sources offer different advice, I thought it might be helpful to give my tuppeneth and see if we can’t thrash something out between us. Just to get things clear from the start, this is based heavily on talks by from David Headley, Adrian Magson, Madeleine Milburn and Daniel Clay at Winchester Writers’ Conference 2013, as well as books like the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook (also 2013) and miscellaneous others. I’d also recommend Daniel Clay’s static blog for another perspective: http://danielclaysblog.blogspot.co.uk/.

Submission systems are changing. Just a few years ago, the chances of anybody accepting material through any channel but the post – with self-addressed envelope, immediately doubling postage-costs – were practically non-existent. Publishers weren’t the earliest adopters of modern technology, but once they got the bit between their teeth there was no stopping them. Now most (but not nearly all) publishers/agents take email submissions. And a growing minority now have dedicated web-forms and won’t accept any other method. So with all this diversity, can any one page give advice appropriate for all?

Well, no matter how you get your work to right people, the fundamentals remain the same. Most houses are looking for one, two or three things: a covering letter; a synopsis; and a sample of your writing. Usually the sample is three chapters or 10,000 words, but this varies greatly (and I’ll say this again because it’s so important); it’s crucial that you read the guidelines carefully for each different submission.

The synopsis is the least important part of what I think of as the standard submission package. I know it’s one of the hardest things to get right, but really it’s there as backup for the (probably junior) member of staff who’s reading your work. If they like your covering letter and sample they’ll want to check that the story looks promising: that you haven’t gone crazy and finished with God (or aliens, or great wizards – all the same, really) suddenly appearing to magically punish the wrongdoer and endow your hero/heroine. Unless that’s what your book’s been about all the way through. Consistency, people!

So I won’t say anything more about the synopsis right now. Nor will I waste time discussing your sample writing: just make sure it’s double-spaced (but check the guidelines, just in case) and in a standard font, has page numbers and a header with your name and the title of the book. And is good, obviously.

That leaves us with the covering letter. And it’s time to consider what an agent/publisher is looking for when s/he wearily flicks to the next file on their e-book reader. They want:

  • Great writing
  • To be able to sell your work
  • To be able to work with you
  • To know that you can help them to sell your book

Essentially we’re talking about a business letter here. A job application. This isn’t the place to demonstrate your flair with gimmicks or examples of what a ‘free-spirit’ you are. That comes in your sample. They want to know they can work with you. They want you to be respectful, to include all the info they’ve asked for and to make a short case for your work.

Agent Madeleine Milburn suggested that covering letters should take the following form (not verbatim):

  • Dear… (personal name if possible)
  • I’m currently seeking representation/a publisher for…
  • Type of novel – genre, word-count, YA/adult etc; the ‘story’ in as near to one sentence as you can get. Your fifteen word elevator pitch
  • Why you’re approaching this particular agent
  • A bit about you: your writing ‘qualifications’. Any blogs/social media sites you’re a part of. But don’t use the ones where you’re acting like a – well, as the Americans would say, ‘like a drunken frat boy’. Keep them to yourself, thank you very much. Filthy child.
  • Thanks etc

Oh, and please, please, please – don’t forget your contact details. Even if you’re emailing. Just – just don’t. Also don’t let it go over a page in length – and that can be awkward, what with the wotnots of letter-writing; address, yours faithfully etc.

An example:

 Address

Email and tel. nos

 Date

Dear Mr Publishgasm

I am currently seeking a publisher for my novel, The Rabbits of Satan. Set in 15th century Nuremberg, it is a cross between historical fiction and horror, and is aimed at an adult audience. It follows the attempts of young warrener Jurgen to foil a plot against the master the Prince – a plot that involves carnivorous rabbits, buxom wenches and dark, dark magic – and a trail that leads to the very heart of Bavarian politics.

The novel is my eleventh and is complete at 86,000 words. It’s intended as the first in a trilogy. Please find attached the opening chapters as requested on your website. It would be wonderful to work with Publishgasm as I see you as very much as the leader in 15th century Bavarian books and feel we would be a natural fit.

In terms of market The Rabbits of Satan can be compared with works by authors such as [two or three authors who have recently broken through so that the agent/publisher knows where they’d sit on the shelf].

I am currently employed at the Nuremberg Experience, Staffordshire, and previously worked as a warrener. I have a blog [give the address]. I’m committed to my craft and am determined to make my career in the field.

I am very grateful for your consideration and your time, and would be delighted to send you the full manuscript in either hard or electronic form, as you desire. I look forwards to hearing from you.

Yours, with thanks

Etcetera

Any questions?

Work what I done

It occurs to me that I’ve never actually gone through and explained what I’ve written over the years. This is something I shall now attempt. Please bear in mind that some names may be changed to protect the innocent… should anyone ever be interested in publishing any of them.

The Ballad of Lady Grace

My first ‘modern era’ work (which means not including my childish attempts at writing pre-degree, my film script or dissertations etc), this is really two novellas stuck together. The story revolves around the idea of what to do when everyone abandons you; when you have nobody to turn to but the person who already hates you. Paul becomes a social pariah after being accused of viewing child pornography, and in his desperation goes to Valerie for help. The story revolves around their relationship, twinned with the police investigation into them and their young associate Twinkle. The investigation, led by DI Vaas with DS Cook, has led to the novel being labelled as crime. I don’t agree with that. In my mind it’s a hymn to music. Paul and Valerie are musicians in the story, and it draws heavily from my life as a drummer/vocalist in various pub bands. Lady Grace was the first work I submitted for publication and it was, for some time, under consideration by Legend Press. Eventually the commissioning editor I’d been in contact with left, and the new incumbent was quick to jettison the piece.

Tell No Lies

This is a bit of an oddity. Not only was the story based on a dream (featuring comedian Jeremy Hardy, I seem to remember) but it was a piece of fan fiction. It was about Baldi, a crime-solving Fransciscan priest and lecturer in semiotics in a Dublin university. Originally a BBC Radio 4 show, I listened to it repeatedly on BBC Radio 7, as was. I loved (and still do) the gentleness of the main character, the way he’s torn between his religious calling and the wider world, especially in his feelings towards his link to the Garda, Inspector Mahon. Anyway, I wrote a first draft based around these characters, then gave up on it. This was partly in despair about it ever being used in any way (it would have to be either officially licensed, rewritten completely or converting into a radio script) and partly because of more general despair. It’s unlikely I’ll ever go back to it as is, but in my mind there are various nice bits of writing therein, so it may yet return – albeit in a cannibalised, bastardised form.

Chivalry

We’re getting more serious here. Chivalry is the work I always though of as my masterpiece – not in an arrogant sense but it the original, mediaeval sense: the piece a craftsman would present to his guild to demonstrate that he deserved the honour of being called a professional. Chivalry is a big, heavy thing, currently weighing in at 144,000 words. I worked on it solidly for about four years before moving on to something new. And I think, for the most part, it still stands up. It needs another good run-through – I reckon I can cut it down by around 5,000 words without losing anything. And the dialogue needs a thorough clean and polish. Or perhaps a grubby and a sandpaper. The story is about a game that starts a war. Set partly in a computer simulation of the 12th century Crusader kingdoms and partly in modern-day Bradford, it follows a group of gamers who inadvertently cause global chaos by hacking a power grid to force their rivals offline. Told through the eyes of mentally fragile Michael, diffident lost girl Madelaine and Yassir, a potential Islamic insurgent, Chivalry is not science-fiction. Promise.

Night Shift

The first in my ‘Company’ series (I remind you that names might change), this is, even if I do say so myself, a damn good book. It’s set in Antarctica in the near future and this one I can’t deny is science-fiction. It’s also murder mystery and psychological thriller. Anders Nordvelt is the new security chief at Australis, a mining base deep in the wilderness of Antarctica. He’s already struggling to find his place in a closed community when a saboteur strikes, isolating the crew. As the new man, Anders immediately becomes suspect – and when the saboteur turns to murder it becomes imperative that Anders finds the killer… This is the work I took to Winchester Writers’ Conference for professional evaluation, and is the story I’m currently pushing.

Australis

Sequel to Night Shift, this novel follows the development of the Australis mining base as it becomes a city. I don’t want to say too much about this – in part for fear of giving Night Shift secrets away and in part because it’s still a work in progress. The story’s complete and the editing is well and truly underway, but there are still issues that need fixing. There’s a spark missing: something that the previous novel has that this is, at the moment, not there. I am actively mulling. The title of this will almost certainly change. One of the comments I got at Winchester suggested that Australis isn’t a particularly good/original name for a base, so obviously if I change that then the title of this won’t make any sense.

New Gods

The third in the ‘Company’ series, I’m only a few pages through this and the plot isn’t shining fully-formed ahead of me. I’ll talk more about it, I’m sure, as we develop.

And that’s my writing CV. At the moment I’m working on New Gods, plus trying to fix Australis. In the meantime I’m sending out submissions to publishers and agents, trying to get a deal for Night Shift. Fingers crossed, and more writerly ramblings next week.

TTFN, boys and girls.

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
  • Winchester University 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…