I’ve never been invited to a crime writing festival as a panellist before – or any writing festival – and so when I received an invitation to this year’s “Morecambe and Vice” I was pleased, flattered and – let’s be honest here – a little apprehensive. I’ve been to conferences before in a professional capacity and found them hard work – very clannish with little cliques gathering in the corners dying to demonstrate their superior knowledge and experience. My overall experience has been one of loneliness and being rather out of my depth. But I need not have worried. “Bring me Sunshine!” was the overarching theme of this year’s M&V and it did just that.
The organisers pride themselves on being open, welcoming, inclusive and quirky and they certainly delivered this year. Morecambe has had a bit of a bleak time recently with a lot of bad press and they wanted to show the town in a more positive light. Holding the event at the stunning Midland Hotel was a good start. Built in the 1930s in a style known as “Streamline Moderne”, it may be familiar to you from several episodes of the TV drama “Poirot”. The inside, I can assure you, is as palatial as the beautiful exterior and for a past student of modern architecture it was a delight.
Somehow Tom and Ben, the organisers, had tracked down three dyslexic crime writers – myself, Fleur Hitchcock and Jane Elson and we appeared on stage together to talk about how the hell you can be a successful writer if you are dyslexic. We all had different strategies and strengths and it was a wonderful experience to talk about this and share our stories to such a welcoming and receptive crowd. I know I picked up some tips and I hope others did too. We were aided by the skillful guiding hand of Ashley Dyer who kept us moving and the discussion open with her questions and comments. The hour flew past, so much so Ben had to come in and stop us so the next panel could get ready!
From the fascinating Polari Salon on Friday evening to the amazing Professor Dame Sue Black’s closing keynote talk there was something for everyone. The whole atmosphere was relaxed and friendly with performers, writers and audiences mingling throughout the weekend. Sunshine? Not much outside apart from a few hours on Saturday when we dashed out to look around and take the obligatory “selfie” with Eric Morecambe’s statue but inside it was bright, warm and welcoming. Yes – well done and thank you Morecambe and Vice. You did “Bring me Sunshine” in abundance.
I can’t wait to see what they have planned for next year!
I was watching Matt Haig on the television this morning and was impressed by his openness and how much good sense he spoke. I also wondered how on earth he’s managed to write so much and so well, considering his struggles with depression. The popular stereotypes of the writer seem to be either a rich dilettante declaiming aloud whilst a nervous and wispy secretary follows them around taking down every precious word or, more commonly, a tortured genius wrestling with self doubt, drinking heavily and somehow wresting great works from the edge of the abyss. Of course, it’s much more mundane than that. Writing is long hours sitting alone, sometimes with ideas bubbling away excitedly but more often inching towards a daily, then weekly target. It is flirting with repetitive strain injury and running up and down the stairs to see exactly what the damn dogs are barking at. And then losing the perfect phrase you had in your head – for ever.
Writing is a lot of hope, even more waiting and an ocean of disappointment. It is knowing you’ve written something good but no-one will so much as glance at it. It’s a lot of standing around with a fixed smile hoping someone will come to the table and look at your book. There are radio talks that seem to pass unheeded and readings fraught with terror in case no-one comes. Writing, my friend, is not for the faint-hearted.
So why do we do it? Well, there is the thrill of seeing your name on a book – a real, honest-to-goodness commercially published book. There are the people who email or (occasionally) stop you in the street and comment favourably on what you’ve written. And there are the moments where after hours of work suddenly the whole thing comes together in a single seamless whole – plot, story, character and setting combined to tell a tale.
But there are a lot of setbacks in writing. A whole lot of nos. I’ve had a rough few months. A whole heap of confusion, the problems everyone gets whether they’re a writer or not. Things I was hoping for didn’t turn out as I expected. One or two were big disappointments. Sometimes it feels very hard, getting up only to be knocked down again but – well, if I didn’t do this I don’t know what I’d do. Perhaps it’s the same with Matt Haig. Perhaps that’s what keeps all writers scribbling away against the odds.
We’ve got nowhere else to go.
The more I do this – job? thing? – the more I realize I had no idea what I was doing when I first sat down to write “Death of the Elver Man” in 2010. I had just completed my MA at Teesside University and was inspired and excited by the experience. Above all I wanted to write. Anything – stories, novels, an opera, screenplays… Not poetry though. No, definitely not that. To be quite honest you would probably have to taser me to get me to write poetry. And only an audience tasered into unconsciousness could possibly bear to listen to it.
Everything else had me smiling over my keyboard and I started off along the path, writing, searching for a publisher, entering competitions – and so began the slippery slope.
I did not know then what I am beginning to understand now. There is writing, the glorious moments of inspiration (rare), the happy sigh at another page in place (more common) and the astonishment at a whole, completed book (three so far and counting). And then there is being a writer. The latter is necessary as soon as a book is published, especially if you want to garner more readers than your immediate family. There are readings from the book to arrange, signings at local bookshops and perhaps the occasional interview with a local paper. A Twitter account needs constant (or at least regular) feeding along with a web page, especially if it has a blog. Yes, dear reader, this is me being a writer. Even if I am actually, physically writing.
Sometimes you might get lucky and a radio station offers you an interview or even a regular programme. (Thank you Southside Broadcasting and BBC Tees). This is great fun as well as good publicity but it all takes time – time away from writing. And all this without even considering things like arranging publicity material such as bookmarks, responding to queries and emails and preparing accounts for the end of year tax return. Sometimes I’m amazed I ever manage to write anything at all.
Well, over the last six weeks I’ve done two radio broadcasts, three book signings and a talk to a local group. I’m preparing material for a literary festival in Montserrat, am reading submissions for this year’s Impress Prize and have another radio broadcast on Friday. It is all rather interesting and wonderful but when it dies down a bit I’ll be so happy to sit down at my desk, get out my notebooks and start on the next novel. Because what I always wanted to do was write and I am very, very lucky I can do just that.
A rather wonderful thing happened to me last week.
I was walking along the street just enjoying the sunshine when Sheila, who runs our lovely Deli “Real Meals”, ran across the road holding a copy of “The Drowners”. Somewhat breathlessly she insisted I follow her into the shop where a young couple were sitting at the window table. Would I, Sheila asked, sign their book?
Of course – I was happy to sign it and have a chat. They had read “Death of the Elver Man”, borrowing the copy from the library, and decided to buy “The Drowners”, which is now available in town thanks to Jenna and her fabulous little book shop in the square. Now, that is how small communities should work!
We had a talk, the young couple and I, and I found myself musing on this tiny, bat squeak of fame. It is a very positive experience when people stop me in town and comment on the books. Sometimes they ask about the characters, recently there have been some queries about the next book. Soon, I promise. Even sooner if I stop writing this and finish the edits and proofing…
I think it was Alan Bennett who told a story about Vincent Price that has been my guiding light over the last few years. A supermarket in Los Angeles phoned to ask if he would open their new branch. They were very apologetic – he was such a big star and they were a small chain – surely it would be beneath him. Price’s wife, the divine Coral Browne, took the call and drawled, “Of course he will. You know Vinny, darling. He’ll go half-way across the States to open a manhole cover”.
Well, if a group does me the honour of asking me to do a reading or signing or to talk about writing, I’m happy to do it if I possibly can. Vincent Price was a real star and I’m a crime writer from a small town, just starting my journey, but I hear that faint squeak of recognition and I thank everyone who reads the books and takes the time to review them, comes to a reading – or asks me to sign a copy.
It’s okay – I don’t bite. I haven’t even cut up any bodies in real life.
Now, back to the final edits….
This was my second visit to the London Book Fair and I was a bit more focused this time but the whole show is so darn BIG and COLOURFUL and NOISY it is hard to avoid getting swept away by it all. It is a great opportunity to meet people face to face and to explore some of the new ideas and (especially) new technologies that might transform our industry. This is more than just the seemingly inexorable rise of the e-book in all its forms. There are interactive texts, multi-media options, games that are more like stories and stories reading and presented as games.
One particularly interesting area for a writer is the use of electronic communication to meet readers, promote books and share ideas. This is a very exciting time with a lot of new opportunities but it also demands a bit more work on the part of the writer. It’s not enough to simply tweet the equivalent of “buy my book!” twice a day. Actually, that was never enough but leaving that aside, this has great potential but takes a lot of time and effort. Am I writing at the moment? Well, you’re reading this so you tell me…
And the Book Fair? One of the most exciting roller-coaster trips I’ve had in a while. It was great to meet up with the lovely people who run Impress Books and publish the “Alex Hastings” series. Some really interesting talks and ingenious presentations and there was a real buzz of excitement about the place. But nowhere to sit down! Oh, I was so tired half-way down Wednesday. Perhaps the theory is if people are sitting down then they are not visiting the stalls but hey, this is a book fair. People meet and talk, exchange ideas and look at books, covers, handouts – this is part of the delight of a book fair. Maybe next year, in Olympia, there will be a bit more seating and perhaps a quiet area.
Books are exciting but sometimes they are best savoured in a little harbour of calm.