In which I go to ChipLitFest and think about The Fear

This weekend was the annual ChipLitFest which is the popular name for Chipping Norton Literary Festival, and not a litfest that mainly focuses on chips. Although chips are great. Someone should do that. Books and chips. Mmmm… lovely.

Sorry. What was I saying? Oh yes. ChipLitFest is a really fun festival to go along to – it seems to hit the balance between events for writers and events for readers really nicely, and it always seems to have a very friendly buzzy atmosphere. I went to three events this year – Pitch the Agent with Carole Blake, The Richard & Judy Book Club, unsurprisingly with Richard, and indeed also Judy, and The Art of the Rewrite with Julie Cohen and her many many post it notes.

All three events were interesting and well presented. Julie Cohen did interviewer duty for Richard and Judy and did a really good job of getting a pair of professional interviewers to sit back and answer the questions. Julie’s session on rewriting was also excellent, even though she could clearly have waxed lyrical on the wonders of prettily coloured stationery for much longer than the measly hour she was allowed. And listening to Carole Blake’s considered responses to five very different novels was fascinating. It also demonstrated how subjective books and reading ultimately are. The one novel where Carole Blake questioned the storyline – where a young woman disguises herself as a man to enlist in WW1 – was the one that I thought sounded awesome. Assuming the piece was well-written and structured I’d be championing that book without hesitation if I was a literary agent. Unfortunately for the author I’m not. Sorry.

The other attraction of events like ChipLitFest is the social element. This was the first year that I’ve gone along on my lonesome, but fortunately there were a lot of RNA and local writer chums around to hang out with which was lovely. One topic that came up a lot in the social chat, and during the formal sessions, and which I hear about a lot from writing students, was the issue of who sees your work before you submit or publish it. My answer is generally pretty simple – nobody. Occasionally I’ll put one or two chapters in front of a workshop session or critique group, and occasionally I’ll ask a specific person a specific question about a short passage or story idea, but essentially no one reads my drafts. I don’t use beta readers anymore – although I did have one for my very first book, and I would consider it if I was making a substantial shift in terms of genre or writing style. I don’t have a critique partner. My friends and family don’t read my drafts.

When I tell people that, it’s often mistaken for a sign of Great Confidence, which is definitely isn’t. I don’t think I’ve met a writer who possesses Great Confidence in their work. We have moments of feeling like a piece might be slightly less rubbish than we feared, and moments where a short section flows from our typing fingers with such grace and ease that we momentarily think it might be sort of nearly acceptable, but that’s pretty much as good as it gets. The reason nobody reads my drafts is because my belief in those drafts is delicate and tenuous – one poorly-worded or ill thought out critique comment can break that tenuous belief.

I also think that if you seek too many opinions on a piece you can end up editing out your own voice, your own unique take on the world. You can lose that elusive thing that made the story a story that only you could tell. That doesn’t mean that no one else looks at my books until they’re published. I write for Choc Lit, and everything they publish goes through a Tasting Panel of readers before it’s accepted. My novels and novella are then read by my editor, who pulls together the feedback from the tasting panel (so I don’t see that feedback in its ‘raw’ form) along with her own thoughts, into a revision report that I use to guide me through one, two, three, or more rounds of edits until we get to a book that we’re both happy with. If I was with an agent, then they’d read my work pre-publication, probably pre-submission to publisher, as well and possibly suggest revisions too.

Editors and agents though, I would hope, are reading from the point of view of ‘How can we bring out the best of this author’s voice, or the best of this story/character idea?’ If you’re looking for a critique partner or beta reader, I would suggest that you need to find someone with that same outlook. That doesn’t mean that they’re going to be universally positive, but criticisms need to be constructive. And never forget that it’s your book, not theirs. The person who needs to believe in it ultimately is you. Years ago I went to a talk by Miranda Dickinson, who gave out postcards and stickers with motivational sayings for writers on them. At the time I remember rolling my eyes in a cynical Northern girl sort of way, but I still kept the sticker that says ‘Be your novel’s biggest fan.’ It may be cheesey but it’s also absolutely necessary. Don’t put on rose-tinted glasses so you’re unable to see and fix your novel’s flaws, but be wary of anything that makes your belief in your story falter. That belief can be delicate, and is absolutely precious. Hold onto it, and be wary of anyone who makes that belief falter or crack.

And here endeth the lesson.

Don’t forget that if you want an awesome weekend to focus on your own writing – including some positive constructive belief-building critique – then Janet Gover and I are offering just that this October. Details here

In which I think about ChipLitFest and this very blog

So, lovely blog readists, I have had a delightful weekend. Simply delightful. The sun was out. The cake was chocolately. The wine was pink and sparkling, and there was a literary festival to attend. Really, what more could a prematurely middle-aged and unapologetically middle-class girl ask for?

Saturday was spent at Chipping Norton Literary Festival, stroking lovely books and eating excellent cake. We even managed to squeeze in a couple of talks. Both were aimed at writers, one discussing why writers still need agents, even given the self-publishing boom, and the other looking at social media for writers.

To be 100% honest it was really the agent talk that I was most interested in. The Social Media session was something I’d booked because it fit in well with the other things we were doing and I thought it might be mildly time-passingly interesting, but actually, that was the session that provided the most food for thought. Liz Fenwick, who led the session, is a fellow RNA member and a published novelist. She talked, interestingly and with great humour, about a whole host of social media platforms – twitter, facebook, pinterest, goodreads etc.

She also talked about blogs, and what we, as writers, should and (perhaps) shouldn’t talk about on our blogs, tweets and facebook pages. She suggested, quite rightly I suspect, that talking about religion and politics risks alienating at least some potential readers. Now, as the observant amongst you may have noticed, I do, on occasion, get a tiny bit political on this blog. I, it has to be acknowledged, Have Views. Now I try to ensure that those views are reasonably measured and researched, but I’m not entirely above having a little rant about Michael Gove either.

Now lots of you won’t find that off-putting at all, and I, of course, think all the views expressed here are entirely normal and  rational and right-thinking. So how could anyone find them off-putting? But then, if I found a writer who regularly blogged very right wing or reactionary material, I would probably find that somewhat tiresome myself. Generally, we are all much less prone to consider a person ranty and over-the-top if we tend to agree with what they’re saying.

So I guess the question is, what is the point of this blog? Is it just a place for me to write what I like in the hope that you might be interested, or should I be viewing it more definitely as part of my writerly brand? When I started the blog I said it would “be filled with whatever thoughts pop into my brain. My only commitment to you is that I will endeavour, whereever possible, to think only interesting thoughts.” The idea was that this would be a little corner of the internet where I could write things about stuff that seemed interesting or worth mentioning and that possibly there would be people (I was thinking anywhere up to about eight of you) who would find some of those things interesting too.

But I also want to be a published novelist. I have a full novel manuscript out under consideration with a publisher as I type. When that publisher (or any other in the future) googles me I want them to find someone who doesn’t look like a potential liability. So do I need to put a pin in the bigger rantier opinions and create a blogland more in keeping with the wannabe professional writer image I’m trying to project? Or is a bit of opinion welcome? Would losing it make for a duller blog or is it better when I don’t rant anyway? I have no conclusion today, so please, tell me what you think…