Sunday, 22 September 2013

Anatomy of a Writers Conference - York's Festival of Writing 2013

A week ago I was in York at the end of the three-day Festival of Writing 2013. About once a year I try to attend one such event. I used to attend the Paris Writers Workshop, as that is where I live, and have also attended the Geneva Writers Conference, but I have 'converted' to the York one. I found Paris and Geneva best for initially finding out about writing and how it works, and then 'honing the craft' (though a Parisian writing colleague, Janet Skeslien Charles found an agent and multiple contract offers and ended up in the bestsellers list, all through Geneva's conference). But once you have a polished manuscript, York's annual FOW event seems to me to be the place to go, due to the higher density of agents and publishers present. You don't just meet the industry, you rub shoulders with them, eat and drink with them, and find out who they are and what they are looking for.

While York University's campus isn't the easiest to get to, especially in Friday afternoon traffic (I drove from Shakespeare's Warwick up North to York in 3 hours when it should have been two), it is beautiful, the campus itself full of small lakes and Canadian geese amongst other birds. But I spent most of my time inside in auditoriums and classrooms, sleeping at night in student accommodation much nicer than I remember from when I was at university. But you don't come here to admire the views or sleep. You've poured sweat and tears and keystrokes into a novel for five years, had no luck getting an agent or finding a publisher, and want to find one ('want' doesn't cover it). You've also heard that you can make millions by self-publishing yourself, and want to find out if it's true (it's true for about one in a million authors, by the way). After all, your Mum and friends (and hopefully your readers/writing group) all love your novel and say it's the best thing they've ever read, so why do you keep getting rejection slips?

FOW2013 got off to a flying start with mini-workshops on everything from how to write children's books to the do's and don'ts of self-publishing. I managed to make it to the last hour of the latter, where David Gaughran (excellent, his blog is here) talked authoritatively and entertainingly (see why we writers hate adverbs?) about this new burgeoning sub-industry. His book on self-publishing is available on Amazon, or for free download in PDF here.

The first main evening (Friday evening) was a dinner and an annual event I took part in four years ago called Literary Night Live, where five or six young and not-so-young hopefuls stand up and read out 500 words of their opening chapter, and are critiqued by three industry professionals and then evaluated via 'clapometer' by the audience. It is entertaining if you are watching it and nerve-wracking if you are up on stage reading. Often the winner ends up with an agent as well as a bottle of champagne. Over dinner I met with screenwriter Jeremy Sheldon who also lectures at FOW, to find out they were shooting his latest film that weekend, and all of us on the table got swept up in his enthusiasm; he was living his dream.

The next morning got off to a flying start with Adele Parks talking about her meteoric success as a 2.5 million plus books sold author. Reassuringly she talked about how she secretly wrote for more than a decade, including one novel that no one is ever going to see, before being 'discovered'. Her secret, aside from the blood sweat and tears, and being in the right place at the tight time? She was fed up of reading (at the time) about young single girls going out and having fun. She was married, and said to herself, 'so, is that it, now I'm married, no sex with anyone new, ever again?' She wrote about adultery, and she did it well, and cleaned up. She admitted that these days, because the market is saturated with such books, if she was a 'newbie' she'd probably get rejected by agents and publishers.

I attended various lectures throughout the weekend, on writing character, what an agent is looking for in a query letter and synopsis (and some hilarious examples of bad query letters), and I met Scifi writer Gary Gibson who I've been 'talking to' online for some years (and got him to sign one of his latest books after a short discussion on time travel and advanced physics), and made some new writer friends. I also sold some of my books as I had them with me and people got interested (or maybe just carried away, LOL).

And then there were the famous/infamous 'one-to-ones'. These are ten minute slots, whose timing is religiously observed, where you get to talk to an agent/publisher/book doctor about your work. It is a fascinating process, because time speeds up uncontrollably once you sit down, as you try to stop yourself from babbling incoherently faced with someone who could help you 'make it', and try to listen to what they say and read the subtext underneath. You are allowed two of these 'ten minute wonders', and I met with Broo Doherty and Andrew Wille, both of whom are agents.

It's a funny thing when you talk to agents, I realised. What is funny is not what they say, but what comes out of your own mouth, and how they pick up on it. They are looking for four things. The first is a winning idea, something fresh yet marketable. They will admit that they don't always know it when they see it (e.g. JK Rowlings' Harry Potter was famously rejected by 50 agents before someone decided to take a chance on it). But often they do. Then they want to know if you can write, and if you are going to be professional and easy to work with. These three I already knew. It was the fourth that surprised me.

They are looking for passion. One agent, James Wills, laid it out for us in one of the 'meet the industry' panel sessions; this one was on science fiction and fantasy, but there were plenty of others, e.g. Madeleine Milburn during her excellent lecture, and plenary speaker Jenny Geras of publishing giant Random House. Jenny talked about the snowball effect needed to make a book a runaway success. An agent needs to get very enthused about a book, so they can enthuse the editor of a publishing house, who can in turn enthuse their acquisitions meeting (where a number of book deals, including one of my own, often stall and fail), and then enthuse the marketing team, then the bookstores and finally the customers. I thought of it as a 'Passion Pyramid', with the author at the bottom, the agent just above, etc. There needs to be a lot of passion and conviction at the bottom so the novel can push its way through all those layers before the novel is 'born' into the world and ends up in eager customers' hands. As Jenny put it, such a snowball effect can be easily disturbed by 'hiccups' along the way, so that the runaway success turns into a flop. And as Madeleine confirmed, that means that if you have a choice between agents, pick the one who is most enthusiastic about your book. Another key lesson is not to send material to an agent until it is finished and polished. Some agents commented that they sometimes receive a 'submission package' of three chapters plus synopsis etc., which they get excited about, only then to find that the author 'hasn't quite finished' the novel yet. This delay inevitably creates an anticlimax, and the snowball melts...

This realization about passion wasn't purely academic for me. I was talking to agents and others about my next (fourth) book (Eden's Endgame, for which I already have a publisher - never mind, it's a bit complicated), but everyone I talked to got interested in something else I'd been working on, and had stopped working on: a thriller about espionage and diving. My little pesonal epiphany came during an informal meeting with an agent where I'd been pushing the science fiction one but mentioned the other one in passing, and after some questions, he handed me his card and said, "When you finish the diving one, send it to me." Talk about giving me pause for thought. Even some other writers I met and chatted with more or less said the same thing. The point was that I sounded passionate about it. It's not that I'm not passionate about the Scifi one, but I have a publisher for that one already, and the other one was screaming inside me to be heard. I think other writers experience this as well. Talking to agents can bring out what really matters to you, which might not be what you originally thought. So, I'm now working on two books in parallel...

The evenings were highly sociable, and I quit Saturday night at a respectable 1am, whereas the hardcore stayed up until 4am or later (earlier?), but everyone appeared - some bleary-eyed for sure - the next morning for more inspirational speeches, lectures and workshops.

I came back to Paris having made some new friends, having gained a better understanding of agents and the whole process, including how capricious it can be, and with a clear conviction that I have to dust off that diving novel and get it done, because that agent's card is sitting there waiting...

The icing on the cake? I came back to find the first copy of my latest science fiction book had arrived. I know the industry can be capricious, but if you really want to make it and are prepared to learn from inevitable tough feedback along the way, I really think you can. People say everyone has a novel inside them. Something else I got from the conference is that true writers have more than one novel inside them. But whilst writing itself is a pretty solitary process, getting published is more of a contact sport. You don't go to these conferences to try and wine and dine an agent into submission, that won't work, because they won't take you on if you haven't honed your craft or if you don't have a good idea that will sell. Rather, you go there to find out how it all works, because it is an industry, a business with a process, and you want to target your work and sell it as best you can, because writers want to be read!

So, will I go back to York next year?

Need you ask?

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Eden's Revenge paperback arrives in galaxy...

The paperback has now been produced (this is the first 'proof' copy), which is just as well as a lot of people have been asking me for it. It will be on Amazon shortly, and I plan to do an official 'book launch' in my home town of Camberley (UK) at bookstore Waterstones prior to Xmas.

Last weekend I was at the Writers Workshop Festival in York where some 400 writers, agents and publishers gathered. On Saturday evening I showed the front cover of Eden's Revenge on my I-Phone (kindle app) to a lady sitting next to me. She then proceeded to start reading and wouldn't give the phone back, and would not say anything. Ten minutes and a glass of red wine later she handed it back to me and said "Wow!"

Needless to say it made my day, LOL. Here is what she was reading, for those who haven't seen it yet. It is the first half of the Prologue, called Origins, and concerns a certain young girl called Esma...

1563 AD, the Himalayan Kingdom
No birds ever approached the Fortress of Alessia. This was the first thing Esma noticed when she arrived after her long trek into the barren Tibetan foothills. The second was the architectural precision of the gothic castle, its steep black ramparts, towers and twisting spires rising skywards, as if uprooted from the earth by the stars themselves. Its cruel beauty went beyond anything she’d ever seen. Although it was over four hundred years old, Alessia’s Fortress looked as if it had been built yesterday.
Archers’ slits in its three tall towers stared out over the surrounding land, unblinking eyes daring anyone below to step onto the path to its iron gates. The guide had left a mile earlier, unwilling to proceed further, and in the end had begged her to return with him to the safety of his village. But Esma turned her back on him, as she did on the rest of humanity, and continued alone.
A savage wind scoured her sheepskin coat, leather face-mask and gloves as she walked with a measured gait under anvil-shaped clouds threatening winter’s first snowfall. Atop the towers, red and gold pennants displaying bloodied eagle’s claws whipped and crackled, the emblazoned talons seeming to grasp at the air. Prayer wheels, adapted from na├»ve Buddhist ideology to worship another entity, one altogether more sublime and not of this world, whistled like banshees across the bleak countryside.
Esma had left her family for good this time, after one beating too many, and had not told her bitter mother or sickly brother where she was going. They would not understand, and she no longer cared. For two years Esma had secretly followed the Order of Alessia as an acolyte-in-waiting, after being noticed by a wandering monk visiting her home city, Padua. He made a speech in the central plaza, addressing anyone who would listen, and asked what they all saw when they raised their eyes to the night sky. Most in the lingering crowd talked of God and his marvels. Esma waited till the throng dispersed and approached him on her own; she had often looked up, craving an alternative to the misery she and others endured.
“Our star, the sun, has worlds around it,” she said. “I believe, and I pray, that other worlds are up there too, better ones.” She glanced around to ensure no one else was listening. “With a God less tolerant of human depravity.”
Within a year she had a job working with a scribe, learning to copy and translate theological documents; a cover for her induction into the Alessian Order. Esma had to endure two more years at home, but each time her father’s hand raised above her, she knew that revenge would come, and never once cried out in voice or with tears, which only angered him further. On the night she left, Esma slit his throat with a razor clutched in tremblng hands, where he lay snoring, drunk, in the kitchen. Only then did the tears come, as she watched the life bleed out of his bloated, twitching body. She knew that her mother, despite being regularly beaten herself, would never forgive this act, but after Esma had finally stopped shaking, she left a note for her mother and brother that simply said, “My parting gift.”
On her way to the mountains, she passed through a village where the very same wandering monk who had first inspired her three years earlier had been arrested for heresy. As an outsider sheltering against the winter at a local inn, she was questioned by men in scarlet cloaks, witchfinders. Seeing his battered, tortured body chained in the market place, scorched eye sockets in his listless head, and beholding the faces and shrieking accusations of the local villagers filled with rage and bloodlust, fear seized Esma. When dragged before the monk, she vehemently denied knowing him, adding her voice to those crying out for him to be burned at the stake.
Once released, she fled the village. Huddled in her coat on the hillside that evening, she watched the smoke rise from the pyre, occasionally catching the shrill screams of the monk’s voice that had so entranced her in Padua, and the jeering of the crowd. Afterwards, Esma wandered for five days and nights, not eating, punishing herself for being so weak, vowing it would never happen again. On the months-long journey, she studied hard, always dwelling on the words of Alessia, promising a better life than Esma had known.   
Now she would finally meet the High Priestess herself, or at least glimpse her. As she strode against the wind, up the winding cobbled pathway and endless granite steps, she spied something from the corner of her eye – a blue-black beast, its carapace shining like that of a beetle. It had a strangely shaped head, not quite a rectangle, more like the silhouette of a half-open book. But this creature was the height of two men, and moved so fast it was gone almost before her mind could paint its picture. Esma had heard the rumours. So, it was true, they were here. She quickened her pace.
When the great gate opened, uncreaking and seemingly of its own accord, three men in full-length grey robes faced her, their hands hidden in long sleeves, eyes intense, uncompromising. While the tallest asked questions concerning the Order’s scripture, which Esma had to answer without reflecton or error, the other two walked and stood close behind her. After what felt like half an hour of relentless examination, she faltered, unsure of the answer, and rather than give a wrong one, bowed her head. She heard a blade slipping from its sheath behind her. The man in front paused, his deep blue eyes scrutinizing her. “And what if you are called upon to kill those of your own flesh, Esma, your family?”
She raised her head high as she slowly pulled out the curved knife from her coat pocket, showing him the dried blood on its blade. “I already have.”
The man before her gave the barest of smiles. “I am Brother Tilgar. Welcome, Esma, to the abode of Alessia.”

Life in the fortress was hard, its rules strict and unforgiving, but Esma endured it, doing whatever was asked no matter how menial, without question or complaint. Tilgar was stern with her in front of others, gentler when it was just the two of them, as he instructed her in the Order’s ways and in her chosen specialism, the study of written scripture. With his quiet but sharp mind and constant attention to detail, and his patience with her, he became the father figure she had never known.
When she had a spare moment she would approach the narrow windows where the wind howled, and stare out, hoping to catch sight of the beast, but to no avail. Esma told no one what she had seen; in the Order, it was dangerous to know more than one should. She did however catch rare glimpses of Alessia, easily recognised by her mane of flowing red locks as she swept across the inner courtyard from the base of one stone tower to another.
Early one morning, Esma had to fetch a bucket of water for her master, Tilgar, for his morning ablutions. Ice with a dusting of snow covered the surface of the deep well, and she had to lean down precariously and hack at it with her knife, chopping hard. The ice suddenly cracked, and her foot slipped and she lost her balance, tipping forward, arms flailing as she tried to grab onto anything to save her from an icy death. A firm hand seized her ankle and hauled her back from the brink, another yanking her back out of the well’s embrace by the shoulder, turning her around with deft ease and power. Esma landed on the frosted ground, panting, by Alessia’s feet. Aghast at her mistake, she got to her knees in front of the High Priestess of the Order, though she maintained eye contact: in the Order, deference was never blind. “I am sorry for my foolishness, Your Eminence.”
Alessia at first said nothing, the hint of a smile playing across her lips. Her jade eyes fixed on Esma, the smile evaporating. “Once is a mistake, twice is a fault.” Alessia turned and continued in her whirlwind fashion towards the principal tower where the Order’s Council met regularly. Esma watched Alessia go, feeling as if she had just been touched by an Angel of God.
Esma had never been interested in boys, or in the sinful pleasures of the flesh, but she was still young, and that night she found herself unable to sleep, and with a gnawing sense of disgust, she exorcised the bad thoughts in the only way she knew. But it was different this time. Instead of trying to conjure up enthusiasm in her mind’s eye for the handsome young groom other girls fantasized about, Esma imagined Alessia’s beatific face, her slim but strong hands caressing her. In her ecstasy Esma cried out in the female dormitory. But in the morning her shame at this profane, animalistic activity bubbled to the surface like acid on skin. She had been disrespectful to Alessia, and Esma vowed never again to demean herself or another by proxy. She threw all her energy into her work.
Months passed, and Esma progressed in her duties – she could write well, and Tilgar had been teaching her a challenging new script, one with serifs, barbs and jagged points, an aggressive rune alphabet that looked sharp enough to draw blood. But she didn’t just copy, and learning more, Esma began to translate, occasionally finding herself staring at these words and their unfolding concepts like none she had ever heard, even inside the Order. Her ability to fathom meaning behind the alien language didn’t go unnoticed by Tilgar. Esma did not know if this was good or bad news.
One night Tilgar woke her quietly – she had been summoned to a room at the top of the second tower, where the elite lived. Once there, Tilgar ushered her inside and then left, closing the heavy oak door behind him. A flaxen-haired knight in chain-mail armour sat upright in a high-backed wooden chair. Silburn: she had seen him occasionally in the fortress, often with Alessia. He was second-in-command. Silburn rose.
“Come,” he said, walking out to the balcony where flurries of snowflakes swirled, in no rush to reach the ground. She stood a little behind him but he gestured for her to stand at the edge, a knee-high stone wall separating them from a sheer drop into darkness. Silburn’s hand went to the small of Esma’s back. She stiffened. One small shove and she would depart this world.
“Look up, girl, and tell me what you see.”
Esma’s heart raced. “Stars,” she said, the word barely escaping her lips, her mind trying to ignore the hand that could end her life so easily. A snowflake entered her left eye, ice cold, making her blink rapidly. She was not dressed for outside, and the chill air bit through her woollen dress. She ignored it, tried to focus, unsure what was required of her, or which answer would spare her life. But the Order was not about closing minds; that was why she had joined. She remembered Alessia saving her from a messy, futile death in the well, and cleared her throat. “Stars,” she said again. “But they do not circle us, for we are not the centre of the universe.”
The hand remained firm, a judge deciding her fate. “Continue.” Silburn’s voice was as unfeeling as the stone wall at her sandaled feet.
Esma tried not to shiver. “Somewhere out there is another life, another way, more than us.” She paused, then decided to say it. “I saw one. When I first arrived. Barely a glimpse. But what I saw… impressed me. Such grace and power.” She waited, then continued. “I know they are not gods, yet it seems to me – from what I have read – that they are closer to God than we.” She dared to glance across to see Silburn’s reaction, but his face was as unmoving as the granite walls. Her own face turned downwards, to the oblivion below.
“Have you told anyone else?”
“No,” she said, a shiver breaking through despite her best efforts.
“Not even Tilgar?”
She had hinted several times, asked Tilgar questions that might have given away what she had seen, but Esma didn’t want to get her master into trouble; he had been kind to her. She shook her head. Esma knew that words held deadly power in the Order, especially secrets. Sometimes acolytes disappeared, and no one asked questions afterwards. The line between savant and heretic was of a hair’s breadth. 
“Esma, would you die for the Order?”
The words echoed in her head, like the eddies of snow before her, making her feel giddy. “Yes,” she said, swallowing, guessing she had over-stepped the mark. For the first time in months she visualised her mother, sneering, saying that Esma had always had too much to say, had never accepted her place, and would now pay the price. She would end her life gashed open on the rocks below, leaving carrion birds and insects to pick her bones dry. Esma thought of her sickly brother, Arnault, surely by now taken by the plague ravaging the land. At least he would be sad for her fate. So be it, she and her sibling would comfort each other in whatever came after.
Silburn’s face turned to her. “Then will you die for the Order, Esma?” He removed his hand from the small of her back.
Esma found her hands shaking, her lips quivering. She stared into Silburn’s eyes, but they were pitiless, they had probably seen and dispatched such death that there was no mercy remaining in his soul. Bracing herself, she squeezed her lips together, clenched her fists against the biting pain of cold in her fingers. She lifted one foot on top of the low wall, then pushed up and stood atop the slippery, uneven stone. Her mind, awash with fears and inner cries, suddenly cleared, as if she had broken through its surface ice to clear water underneath. The shaking stopped, and she felt at peace. She wanted to say some last words, and then it came to her, the only two things she cared about. “I do this for Alessia, and for the truth that cannot yet be known or spoken.” Eyes wide open, she sucked in a deep breath, leaned forward and took a step.
Silburn’s large hands snatched the waist-band of her dress and held her in place, Esma’s right foot stretched out over the abyss. “You will indeed die for the Order one day, Esma, but not this night.”
Meeting his eyes, she stepped back down cautiously, the shaking returning with a vengeance, her breathing ragged. A single tear escaped. She brushed it away as if it was snow, and in her mind’s eye her mother was silent for once, while her brother beamed.
To her surprise, Tilgar joined them on the balcony, wearing a look somewhere between shocked admiration and pride as he wrapped a blanket around her trembling frame.
Silburn patted her on the back. “Go with him. From now on you are no longer an acolyte, you are Sister Esma. You will have new chambers, and new duties. Oh, and Tilgar, I know it is late, but give her some ale to warm her, or else she will not sleep.”  
Esma found she needed Tilgar’s arm to steady herself as she walked to the door.

The Eden Paradox - Where we are betrayed...   
"Best science fiction of the year"

Eden's Trial - Where we are judged and sentenced... 
"Amazing ideas I've not heard of in 55 years of reading Scifi"

Eden's Revenge - Where it gets personal...  
"Masterful science fiction"

Eden's Endgame - Where it must all end... [Coming 2014]

© Barry Kirwan |
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