I was just about to write that yesterday evening, I found myself at the Waterstones in Brighton to witness the launch event of Beach Hut Writers, a new Brighton based authors’ group. But I won’t, because to do so would be to use the lazy, throw-away language that – among other things – the authors giving the talk were trying to educate the audience out of.
I didn’t “find” myself there; I’d booked a ticket some weeks beforehand having found out about it via Facebook from my friend Mark Barrowcliffe (a.k.a. M.D. Lachlan, a.k.a. Mark Alder), who is one of the members, and was one of yesterday’s speakers.
So instead, I’m going to try again, with a first line that incorporates two (count them!) of the pieces of advice given out yesterday. Here goes!
* * * * *
The mood in the Waterstone’s third-floor Costa outlet was dark and ugly, and the dead Slovak lying on the floor with a wine stain on one side of his chest and a bullet hole in the other wasn’t much helping.
It is possible that I might have misunderstood what they were saying.
Hm. Let’s try again.
* * * * *
The title of the event was “The writer’s journey to publication: an evening with Brighton’s bestselling authors”. It had drawn a crowd that was both impressive and depressing: impressive in its size, given that this was a new group in a provincial town; and depressing given that it once again demonstrates just how many people are attempting to break into writing.
(As always, I’m reminded of the fact that while there are no magazines in WH Smiths covering roleplaying, there are two – Writing Magazine and Writers’ Monthly – covering the craft of writing, meaning that as hobbies go, “Wanting to be an Author” is a far more popular and mass-market pastime than “Playing Dungeons & Dragons”).
I’ve been to quite a few of these sorts of things, enough to know that in the end it mainly boils down to: “The odds on getting a book published are very, very small, so you’ll need to work very, very hard to make your book the best it can possibly be; but if you’re prepared and able to do that, you’ll find that your odds of getting published are now actually quite good.”
So there wasn’t much new in what was said for me. But what I can say is that it was probably the best such talk I’ve been to, as it managed to pack pretty much everything I’ve got from five years of such talks into one evening, starting with the classic lesson of “Show, Don’t Tell”, and going right through to handling bad reviews after you get published.
As a totally irrelevant, and frankly self-indulgent aside, when “Show, Don’t Tell” was being explained a line appeared in my brain that is either a pithy way of explaining it, or sick. I’m not sure which. It is:
Don’t tell your readers that a character is a violent misogynist; instead show them, by having him punch his wife in the face.
Probably sick. Oh well. It’s a good job I don’t do one of those blogs where aspiring, and as yet unpublished, authors try to pretend they already are authors by dispensing lots of writing advice. (That wasn’t a joke, by the way – I’m genuinely trying to not do anything like that).
Although the group boasts more than forty members, there were seven of them lined up on the table in front of us, in the manner (as they pointed out), of a police press conference about a missing child. If I was any sort of journalist I’d have thought to have taken a picture of them. But I’m not, and I didn’t. (On the plus side, I think I am a pretty good computer programmer – yeh me!)
According to the blurb I’ve just googled, the seven authors were:
Sarah Rayner, Simon Toyne, M.D. Lachlan, Julia Crouch, Kate Harrison and Emlyn Rees
The three of you who are still reading might at this point have noticed that there are only six names on this list. Well there’s not a lot I can do about it now, because I didn’t take any notes, and I can’t remember the names. Again, I really am quite a good computer programmer.
One of the four women, whose name I’m sorry to say now escapes me, chaired, and the other six panelists then gave a series of talks, each one covering one aspect of the process:
- Writing the manuscript.
- Finding an agent (Simon).
- Getting a publisher to take on the manuscript (Emlyn).
- Dealing with criticism (Mark).
It’s at this juncture that I realise with horror that I can remember which bloke did what subject, but have no idea with the women. I’d like to say that it’s because there were four women and only three men, and one of those three men was a mate of mine, but I fear the answer is more rooted in the latent, but still extreme, sexism in which we are raised and its resulting effects on our thoughts and memories. Personally, I blame society. And the fact that I didn’t take notes1.
But all the six talks were genuinely good: all informative, all entertaining. It was especially heartening to hear several of the participants describe just how much rewriting they’d to do of their novels before they were published. A hybrid composite of what several of them said might be: “I worked on it again and again until it was perfect. Then I managed to get an agent and he/she told me everything that was wrong with it. We broke it down and put it back together again and it was brilliant, much better. Then we got a publisher, and they told us everything that was still wrong with it. So we broke it down again and put it back together. And now it’s so, so much better than it was, and I’m so relieved I didn’t lose faith back then and self-publish what I now realise was a far inferior work.”
But having said that it was largely confirming advice I’ve heard at previous such events, there was one “new” thing which made me pause, think, and ultimately convince me to change tack in one critical area. Several of the participants made mention of “100,000 words”. Now they weren’t stating that as a minimum length of a novel. Instead, they were using it more as a shorthand, as in, “Okay so you’ve bashed out 100,000 words and you think that’s your novel finished, but in fact, you’ve only just started.”
But it got me thinking, because I’m just coming to the end of a reasonably stiff pruning draft of my current work in progress (5th draft, for anyone who’s counting), at the end of which it will have shrunk to around 80,000 words. I collared Mark at the end, and asked him what he thought the minimum length of a piece of general fiction was. His answer was, “80,000 words, but if you’ve got 90, that’s a novel”.
Thing is, when I start submitting again to agents, I want my novel to be the best I can make it. (Although I say that knowing that they’ll help me take it apart and make it even better). I don’t want to go in with a nagging feeling at the back of my mind that it’s a bit lacking in length. I certainly don’t want to put a figure of 80,000 words on my covering letter if that’s a figure that might give them negative thoughts before they’ve even read my first line.
Luckily, I think there’s a natural point in my plot – where obscure Clue A leads them to Man B – where I can seamlessly insert more storyline in. So like the makers of the R101, I’m going to cut it in half and stuff an extra gasbag in.
Here’s hoping that’s not an omen.
1I know that 15 minutes on Google would probably enable me to track everyone down and probably work out who did which bit, but I: a) wrote this on train coming in to work; and am b) posting it in something of a hurry during my lunch break. And I figure it’s probably funnier and more honest to leave it as I wrote it. But I would like to stress that absolutely no offense is intended, and I’m sincerely hoping that none will be caused.