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Leaving the Promised Land

Tulip beds outside the National Museum of Wales
Tulip beds outside the National Museum of Wales

I didn’t know when I set out yesterday that my second outing to The Promised Land was to be my last. For Poetry on Tap, at any rate. (As far as I know, they’re continuing to operate as a pub and there will, therefore, continue to be beer and other beverages on tap.) Poetry on Tap, the monthly event which only started back in November 2009, is now so successful and well-attended that it needs to move from its starter home to a bigger pad. As of May, the event’s new venue will be Old Orleans in Church Street, Cardiff.

So what is Poetry on Tap? Well, it was founded by the dynamic duo of Mab Jones and Ivy Alvarez, who are tireless in their promotion of poetry and spoken word events in Cardiff and the surrounding area. It’s an afternoon programme showcasing two guest poets (Sunday’s poets were Jackie Cornwall and David Woolley) reading or performing a selection of their work, followed by an Open Mic section, and then a second session from the guest poets. It works incredibly well and the two afternoons which I’ve attended so far have been both interesting, stimulating and a great way of sampling (for me) new poetry and poets. I haven’t braved taking part in the Open Mic yet but I admire anyone who has and does and again, it’s an opportunity to listen to poetry and poets that you might not be familiar with. If you’re interested in taking part in the Open Mic, you need to get to the venue early and sign up (places are limited and fill up fast). The organisers run a lucky dip for those not ‘lucky’ enough to make it onto the running order. This ensures that one poet is picked out of the hat to take part in the Open Mic and there’s an element of anticipation for both those waiting for their name to be chosen and the rest of us in the audience wondering who’ll be up. I think this is such a great idea and adds a little extra frisson to the afternoon’s proceedings. Of course, I might think differently were my name ever to be in that hat and I was the one waiting to see if I had to go up and read or not. I’ll keep you posted on that one!

Thanks to the vagaries of Cardiff’s meter parking, I had to disappear before the winners of the Open Mic were announced but I was thrilled to later find out that Susie Wild (whose poetry so impressed me at the Seren/Poetry Wales event back in February) and Leeum Johnson had both won. I’d heard Leeum’s poetry before at the first Poetry on Tap I’d attended and, rather fittingly seeing as how Poetry on Tap was held on Valentine’s Day, had loved it. He didn’t win on that occasion, so I’m very pleased that he came out on top this time around.

I’m already looking forward to seeing Poetry on Tap in its new home in a month’s time when the guest poets will be Mike Jenkins and Thaer Al-Shayei. And who knows, I might even be closer to venturing up to that Open Mic?

Poetry on Tap is Cardiff’s freshest monthly poetry and spoken word series, co-curated by Ivy Alvarez and Mab Jones. It provides a showcase for electric experimentation and lively risk-taking through poetry, with exciting and uncommon pairings between poets and spoken word artists. To find out more, check out Poetry on Tap’s blog or join its Facebook page.

LBF Masterclasses Part 2 – 17th April 2010

The second (afternoon) session of the London Book Fair Masterclasses was How to Write for Screen: Film & TV. Again, it was a panel discussion, this time chaired by Julian Friedmann (Agent, Blake Friedmann) with Paul Ashton (Producer, BBC Writersroom), Craig Batty (Author & Senior Lecturer in Screenwriting, Bournemouth University) and David Nicholls (Screenwriter) on the panel.

Having met up with a Twitter pal, Brigid Coady, after the morning session, I decided to live-tweet the afternoon session, rather than jot down notes as I’d done for the morning session. (Brigid had live-tweeted the morning’s How to Get Published session using the #LBF10 hashtag.)

This is a collection of my tweets from the afternoon session, Sadly, I can’t type on my iTouch as quickly as I would like so some of these have been amended to help them make a bit more sense. Anyway, here are the highlights as I saw them:

  • Julian Friedmann (JF) opened the Screenwriting Masterclass quoting from & recommending Steven Bochco’s book Death by Hollywood
  • JF said there was no significant increase in high quality scripts being seen by agents. Still a need for in-house training by outfits such as BBC Academy
  • We’ve lost 600 – 700 hours drama programming over the years. A lot of successful writers working today are untrained academically.
  • Far more radio plays so possibly these are a better route into industry than writing for TV, although you should also consider stage plays, novels, blogs & social networking, internships
  • If you want to write scripts you should be reading them rather than how-to books – read 2-4 a week and you’ll absorb them and what works or doesn’t about them
  • David Nicholls (DN) started writing a sitcom at BBC & then edited a screenplay which was made into his first feature. Worked as script editor for ITV
  • DN then got job writing for Cold Feet when it was doing well with 11 million viewers. He wrote Rescue Me off the back of that but found writing for TV brutal, disheartening work
  • Most TV dramas fail so it is vital to do other work in order to stay sane – theatre, radio & film + adaptations. Mix it all up
  • Now Craig Batty is up. Went into scriptwriting for the glamour & name in lights! 😉
  • CB wrote for himself, went to Uni and studied for an MA, then wrote for Neighbours while on work experience while studying, came back to Britain and got PT work lecturing, then wrote articles on writing before doing his PHD
  • JF said that one writer he knows turns her script over to writing class to critique. Panel said that script editors/commissioning editors/producers/agents all want to give input on your manuscript. Let them but remember that it is your script and you make the final decision on what advice you take on board.
  • Whether writing a novel or script, editing and revision doesn’t happen often enough or for long enough You need to seek out constructive criticism of your work-in-progress.
  • Present yourself as someone who looks for criticism in order to improve as a writer but also try and understand why the changes are being asked for. Ask questions of those offering you their critique.
  • Writers – make your intention clear. What did you set out to say/achieve? Makes it easier for agent to pitch your idea or script/screenplay if both you and they are clear and agreed upon this.
  • Questions from the floor: what about the use of consultancies? Can be useful and constructive but check their credentials first, especially if they’re online. Who’ve they worked with? Why are you going to them? What’s your purpose in seeking them out? It has to be for more than a pat on the back and to be told that you’re a good writer.
  • Feedback from other writers through online or face-to-face writing groups might be better than going to a consultancy. Check out blogs (e.g. Lucy Hay’s) to see what those offering crits have already done/said & do your research
  • Consider going on a script factory course which will teach you to properly read scripts. Until you can do this, it’s arguable whether or not you’ll be able to write them properly.
  • Look for someone who will read your script and come back with 3 big questions that get to the heart of your script rather than go through every tiny detail of the script or attempt to re-write their own version of it
  • Reading scripts hones your gut instinct about what makes a script work so that you can then implement this in your own work.
  • David Nicholls: remember that a great screenplay is nothing more than a set of instructions set out well.
  • Should we start writing for corporate films? Try and secure any gig that you can get – you’ll be able to demonstrate that you can work professionally to deadlines
  • How concerned should we be about writing for the Market? Read the Trades like Screen International, get a website, a blog, tweet, Facebook page, sign up to and subscribe to Twelve Point
  • This is a great time for writers to be out there networking and inform themselves about the market – you can’t afford to be self-indulgent and stay indoors in a bubble writing
  • Getting to know your market is not the same as second-guessing what is needed, what will sell. What is always wanted is great writing. Quality writing. Irrespective of what is trending if only because there will be something else trending by the time you’ve written and pitched and sold what it is that you’re writing.
  • Projects which have worked best have been ones that I have passionate about and were of personal interest or of a personal nature to me. – David Nicholls
  • The panel then discussed the pros and cons of social networking for writers – it was generally agreed to be and seen as a good way of marketing oneself and one’s product and also as a good source of industry news/gossip
  • There are no trends as such but it is always useful to look at which independent producers are getting access to the BBC, for example. However, saying that, children’s programming and low budget films are good at the moment and always looking for new talent.
  • The UK Film Council, EU Media Agency, and the Regional Screen Agency in your area all offer financial help and/or information and support to writers

As with the morning session, the key message from this afternoon session was that the industry is always on the look-out for new talent and quality writing, with the emphasis very much on quality. It is not enough simply to write and dash off an idea or a script and send it off. It needs to be polished and only sent off when it is the best that you can possibly make it. Then, there is a chance that you, too, will make it.

Part 1: My write-up of the morning Masterclass session, How to Get Published, is here.

LBF Masterclasses Part 1 – 17th April 2010

I rarely start my days at 5am. In fact, I’m much more likely to be finishing them at that time. However, for my second trip to the London Book Fair Masterclasses (the first was in 2006) I decided to make the effort, get up at Stupid o’clock (that’s 5am to you) and sleep on the Megabus from Cardiff – if need be all the way down to London. (Apologies to my fellow passengers if I snored and/or dribbled but, let’s face it, you probably did as well. We all slept on the way down to London.)

The first session of the day was How to Get Published. Journalist Danuta Keane chaired a panel of Mark Booth (Publisher, Hodder & Stoughton), Carole Blake (Agent, Blake Friedman) and authors Lionel Shriver, Meg Rosoff and Siobhan Curham (who is also Self Publishing Editor for Writers’ Forum magazine). The first heartening news came from Carole Blake when she said that, contrary to popular belief, she wanted to find success stories and every time she approached the slush pile, she hoped there might be gold in it. Everyone on the panel agreed that the term ‘slush pile’ was a dire name and it should be called something else, although no one knew what exactly. However, both Carole and Mark felt that a lot of what was in the slush pile was actually slush and should either never have been sent in or not sent in as early as it had been. Most submissions aren’t worked on nearly enough by their authors, so if you think you’re ready to submit, have a good long look at your manuscript again and ask yourself if that’s the case with yours. Authors have such a small window of opportunity to interest agents and publishers, it’s a shame to throw that away with a rushed or ill-prepared submission.

Mark Booth had prepared some notes on what steps a writer could take to help themselves break out of the slush pile:

  1. When writing be as subjective as you like. However, when writing a submission or trying to self publish, you have to be as objective as possible about your work.
  2. In order to sell your book  you need to make a very good and very quick pitch which then hopefully starts a chain reaction of people reading it and pitching it on until eventually it reaches the bookseller’s rep.
  3. Title of Pitch – make this as memorable, punchy and unusual as possible.
  4. Subtitle or Strapline – for non-fiction, this needs to do the work of telling the story to the reader. For fiction, it conveys the high-concept content of the book as unique and exciting. Alternatively, use the ‘meets’ convention – for example, my book is Jane Austen meets the living dead. (It’s not, that was the example quoted.)
  5. Write a blurb of no more than 400 words and make it the one you dream of reading on your book cover. Your prose should reflect the style of your book and, if your book is funny, it should contain at least one joke that’s actually funny.
  6. Compare your book with similar books or books in the same genre which have been successful in the last four years or so.
  7. Include relevant details about you and your life.

Carole Blake urged us not to overthink the pitch letter or spend months on it because we risk taking our own excitement about the book out of the pitch letter in the process. This excitement is something which needs to be there and would hopefully be magnified by others reading it down the line. She added that the best submission letter she had ever received had been from an author (now on her books), who had written a one-page letter in which he told her that he’d written the book he wanted to read himself and he’d already read everything already published on the area he was writing about. Carole went on to say that traditional publishers were still necessary in this time of blogs and ebooks, otherwise the entire slush pile would be published without editing or vetting.

When the panel started taking questions, one of the first of these was from a member of the audience who was writing a book on Positive Psychology and who felt that the panel were not putting across a positive enough message. Do you ever get the feeling that you’re not at the same event as other people? We all know that it’s not easy getting published, especially if you’re not a celebrity and have no desire to sleep with a footballer, but I’d felt up until this point that the message had been more than positive, especially considering the current state of the economy. I have to hand it to Meg Rosoff for her excellent response. Very succinctly, she said that to get published you have to “Write a f**king great novel!”

Someone else said that she had a novel that she’d submitted to a number of agents all of whom had rejected it as they couldn’t classify it and therefore wouldn’t know how to sell it on. Meg again responded with “Write another one!” When the woman in question said that she was rather attached to the current novel, Meg repeated what she had said and Carole backed her up by saying that the problem would be in trying to sell it on to the whole chain of people involved in getting a book onto your local bookshop shelf. Lionel Shriver added that, in her experience, once you have a successful novel out there, and that means one that sells well not simply one that is critically acclaimed, you are much more likely to be allowed to publish something different and/or difficult to place.

I was surprised by these questions as well as some others which seemed to be questions that could have been answered by a quick search on Google or an agent/publisher’s website or by reading The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook or The Writer’s Handbook or any one of a number of similar books out there. I also came away with the impression that some people had expected to come away with a failsafe 5-point checklist that would help them get published. No such thing exists but you could do a lot worse than start by putting Meg Rosoff’s advice at #1 on that list!

I came away from that first morning session buoyed up the fact that these are exciting times for writers and that things are not all bleak. People – those who write great books – do get published. It is happening. And there are any number of ways in which we can help ourselves to get there. The panel’s suggestions included subscribing to The Bookseller (both online and in print); gleaning information from publishers’ and agents’ websites on submission guidelines and their lists; taking time to get to know your market; making sure that you’re ready to submit and being professional and personal in your approach when you do take that step. Lionel Shriver also made a valid point that a writer who doesn’t read is a hypocrite because you’re not buying and reading what it is you’d not only like to write but that you’d like someone else to buy and read. There are a myriad other ways in which we can help get our presence and potential readership established as well, by having a blog and a website, using Facebook or tweeting. As Twitter is increasingly becoming the place to get news before it is announced anywhere else, it is a great place for a writer to be and an invaluable resource, especially given the potential support network of other writers on there, as well as the great number of people involved in publishing and the book trade, such as The Bookseller and Carole Blake.

Part 2: My write-up of the afternoon Masterclass session, How to Write for Screen, is here.

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