New Post: 17th July 2017. A new Continuing to Write course for post-MA writers!
Too busy to write? It has felt like it, and while we’ve been managing to squeeze in all kinds of scribbling, from short stories to PhD chapters to course designs, we somehow didn’t squeeze in a blog post. Which means there is a lot of news…
Zoe has been in Seoul for a British Council writing project, producing a story while she was there. It’s now being turned into a webtoon by a Korean artist. Webtoons are online-only cartoons or short graphic novels, and in Korea they are an obsession. Everyone reads them, there are thousands to choose from. Suddenly it seems there is a gaping hole in British culture…
Meanwhile, Lily has collecting up piles of wonderful submissions for the Recovery Anthology, which you can read more about here. The deadline to submit some work is 19th July, so it’s not too late. There should be a beautiful, Arts-Council funded book to pore over soon; watch this space!
Together, we’ve have been designing a writing course for the British Library – more on that soon – and planning workshops for groups at St Mungo’s, Mslexia, and Google, amongst others.
We’ve also been making plans for London Lit Lab courses, including, the new, shiny, starting-this-October:
We realised how many writers finishing creative writing MA courses feel the loss of the support network they have built up. Suddenly there are no critical workshops, no deadlines, nobody to care whether you are getting the words down, and making them better.
So, we’ve set up a series of 8 monthly critical sessions to keep writers finishing MAs motivated, while they work towards completing their novel, short story or memoir.
Members will take turns to share work-in-progress ahead of each workshop, which will then be critiqued during the session, with constructive feedback and discussion on any problems or issues raised. We’ll also arrange occasional guest speakers such as agents, writers or editors, to help group members break into the industry.
We have students from Birkbeck, Bath Spa and the Open University signing up, and are looking forward to seeing all those writing projects progress.
We plan to run a parallel group for students based in Bristol/Bath, so if that’s you, and you’re interested, do get in touch.
Post, April 8th: Write and edit a short story in a weekend? Is it possible?
Today is the Saturday of our Write and Edit a Short Story in a Weekend course. So, why aren’t we teaching? You may well ask. All our students are busy writing, so I decided to write a blog post. The sun is shining. There are nine writers in a lofty industrial-style room, some at tables, some on sofas, one on the floor and one on a bar stool. There is that nourishing focused silence you get when creative people come together. There is the sound of tapping, kettle boiling, feet padding across the wood floor, for another biscuit or just to stretch and change direction. The cat sleeps in the sunny spot, takes a break in the shade. She stays close to the writers, as she’s swimming in the luxury of their vibe. The course is so far working. Zoe and I have done very little to make it work. We’ve given our students a few warm-up exercises, we’ve fed them, we’ve been on hand to talk should they need to. We’ve sent them off with their pens and papers and laptops and told them to write, and that is what they are doing. Tomorrow will be the real test.
We had the idea for this weekend course a while back. We both said: I’d like to do a course like that. Write and Edit a Short Story in a Weekend. It has a very satisfying ring to it. You may well leave that weekend with a finished draft, an achievement, with published writers on hand to guide you. Whether or not our writers do have something finished, we hope they will have an almost story in their hands, something that has shape and potential, to return to and refine. We hope they will learn some new skills, and gain in confidence that if they apply themselves they can get things done. This, we think, is why our course appealed to many of them, some more experienced than others. There was talk of prioritising, of carving out time, of attempting to finish something.
We knew of the perfect venue for this course. It needed to be beautiful. Venues should always be beautiful, even if they’re beautiful in an ugly way, if you know what I mean. They need to be interesting, unusual, inspiring in themselves. I’d been to a few parties at the Clapton Laundry and I know its owner Ashlyn Gibson well, as founder of a local designer kids’ shop I used to buy gifts from when my children were young. She’s also an interiors guru. Zoe and I visited her venue, and saw that it was perfect. Beautiful. Big. High-ceilinged. With enough space to lounge, whether on a vintage white leather sofa or turquoise velvet, or sit upright at the kitchen table, or on the floor bathing in sun drenching the skylights, in nooks, or on stools at their very own bar. Add a delicious vegetarian lunch, tea and coffee on demand, plates of biscuits – chocolate and peanut – homemade sesame snaps, and we were laughing.
So we had the idea. We had the venue. We were beginning to get interest. About three bookings came in on one day alone. We had lunch organised. The lesson plan mapped out: Saturday would be a writing day, Sunday a day of teaching editing skills. There would be delicious snacks. The sun would shine. People would smile… We would smile. Okay. What next? Just sit tight and watch the clock until the day came? As if time were such a luxury!
As the days drew nearer we realised we couldn’t ask our students to undertake attempting to write a short story in a day without doing it ourselves. So we set ourselves the #shortstoryinaday challenge. One Tuesday we decided to simultaneously write a short story. Zoe from South London, me from Hackney. We linked hands across the Thames by coming together on social media to discuss how it was going. We began writing at 9am, and stopped for lunch. By this time, I’d finished a very rough draft and typed it up, and Zoe was hoping to finish hers by three when she was due to catch a train. We then shared them with each other. However rough, they both had a distinctive shape, characters, a bit of conflict, a narration and a subtext. They were both grappling with deeper themes and ideas, which were beginning to emerge. I tend to sketch out a story in broad strokes knowing that I will return to it again to fill in the gaps, and doing it this way forces me to find its shape, which makes the editing part much easier. it also illuminates themes along the way. It’s only once you have the words before you that you really know what you want to write about. This afternoon we will give both our stories to our students for them to rip apart in tomorrow’s editing session. You learn to give up your ego in this game. We’ll let you know how tomorrow goes! Until then.
Post, (March 26th 2017): Lily and Zoe attempt to write a short story in a day
As if we didn’t have enough going on in our lives right now, Zoe Gilbert and I decided to set ourselves a challenge. We’d attempt to write a short story in a day. What? You might say? Really? Is it possible? We don’t know.
This coming Tuesday we’re going to find out.
We’re not just doing it because we like to flog ourselves. We’re running a weekend course at the beginning of April, which will be asking the very same thing of our students. So, being the conscientious teacher types that we are, we thought we’d better try it out first.
This is how it goes:
8.50am: pens at the ready.
9am: we’ll meet on Twitter and do a countdown. 5, 4, 3, 2, 1.
9.05am: Start writing.
9.09am: one of us might feel a bit itchy, and wonder: why do I keep writing the same word over and over?
9.12am: one of us will give in to a biscuit.
9.13am: the words will flow.
We’ll stop for lunch.
By 3pm we’ll have a story.
What we’re hoping is that we’ll encounter some problems, because that way we’ll have a better idea of how our students will find the exercise. Not everyone will take to it in the same way. Some writers work best with no planning, others will want to sketch out an outline. Some might just freeze and sit there grinning.
No doubt, Zoe and I will experience this differently and will produce work that will reflect our individual strengths and weaknesses. And there’ll be plenty for us to discuss together and with the group. The worst part, though, is that we’ve promised we won’t touch what we’ve written – we won’t add to it, or trim it or edit it – but we’ll give it to our students to edit it for us. This will be their chance to tell us where our prose sings and where it flops.
Watch this space.
Find us on Twitter on Tuesday 28th March: @londonlitlab
There’s still time to book an early bird ticket on our Write and Edit a Story in a Weekend course: http://www.londonlitlab.co.uk/?page_id=343
Post (February 27th 2017): a Q&A with Helen Lewis of The Author School – London Lit Lab’s new partners!
What are you most proud of when it comes to The Author School?
We started The Author School because we want to help authors, and to show them that they don’t have to take just one path and settle for whatever happens to them and their book. The more informed you are about options available to you, the better decisions you can make. We want to ensure people don’t spend over the odds, or waste their money, talent or time. In different ways, we’ve helped every author who has been part of The Author School and I’m very, very proud of that.
What do you hope The Author School will be like in five years?
We hope The Author School will be well known across the UK and beyond. We want it to be a globally recognised ‘safe place’ for authors to come and connect with other authors, industry experts and to get trusted and practical advice bespoke to their needs.
Which question are you most regularly asked when you meet an author and they find out what you do?
How do I get an agent/publisher/book deal.
What else do you work on besides The Author School?
I established my food and drink PR business (www.foodanddrinktowers.com) in 2006, which evolved into Literally PR in 2012, working in the books, food, drinks, business and entrepreneur sectors. The literary arm of LitPR is now the biggest. I’ve worked with more than 200 authors from self-published debut writers to best-selling traditionally published authors. There’s now a team of us offering services from book launch campaigns to school tours, blog tours to profile building, social media advice to managing full digital campaigns.
What sort of courses do you offer at The Author School?
Every year we run a full-day course the day before London Book Fair and again in September. This is a great, intensive, information-packed day for authors at all stages of their career – you walk out with so much more knowledge than you could ever imagine, new author friends, lots of contacts… some people have walked out having pitched to leading literary agents, with interest in a book to film deal and even went on to sign a publishing deal! The day provides information on self-publishing and traditional publishing and everything in between, marketing, editing, cover design, author platform, branding, and so much more.
We offer evening workshops in London once a month on different themes (a bargain!) and a growing selection of online courses.
Finally, we have a range of services such as ‘Recommended Read’ (to help market your book) and the Digital Audit (to help you build your online platform).
Who is The Author School for?
Whether you’re yet to put pen to paper, or you’ve got myriad books to your name, we can help. The creative element of being an author does not end when you finish writing your book. The more authors realise this, the stronger their books and the more successful their careers will be.
To book a place on the next Author School course, on 13th March, with a 10% discount, click on this link and use the unique promo code LBF17AUTHOR. The course will include advice on editing from Wendy Yorke, marketing/PR/author platform tips from Helen Lewis, tips on how to bag a literary agent and get Harry Potter’s cover designer from Abiola Bello, and an insight into the evolving options of publishing, self-publishing and digital publishing etc from experts at Bloomsbury, Bookotoure and I AM Self Publishing.
Post (January 11th 2017): Tweet prompt competition!
In autumn 2016 we asked Twitter writers to create opening lines in response to our picture prompts. This provided weeks and weeks of entertainment, and some tough decision-making when it came to picking a favourite. The tweets we received were funny, subversive, intriguing, and ominous. The best ones were those that made us think we want to read on!
A few Twitter writers really got into the flow with these, so special thanks to Lettice Hooyah, Ellie Lock, Tamim Sadikali, Paul Jefferson Woods, Josephine Martin, Sarah (@Madam Pratolungo), Craig Beadle and Kirkdale Books for your contributions.
Our favourite, after much deliberation, was one that was both dark and funny, managed to include characterisation and promised quite a story, just in one tweet:
@letticehooyah: “O’Malley handed Jones the photo: a boy in a cardboard aeroplane outfit. Jones cocked an eyebrow. “THIS is our serial killer?”
Our collection of responses is quite a feast, so we’ve picked a few of the best, be they silly, poetic or sinister. Some of the pictures that prompted them are above – see if you can match them. Enjoy:
@Jamesy_sooz: “The field was fallow, but the reverend sang psalms to scatter the birds. Scarecrows, he said, were the devil’s own creature.”
@ellielockx: “Angela’s morning commute on the underground was the same every day. Until it wasn’t.”
@MadamPratolungo: “My Pa said he wasn’t going to be left holding no baby. So he tied a label around my neck and handed me to the mailman.”
@riddickolous: The quiet man I passed daily, now stood in fresh field conducting crows: instructing them into inky tornado above his head.
@letticehooyah: The crows rose as one; a black, clattering, croaking swarm; and headed south. Thomas turned to his wife, but she had vanished
@writingsett: ‘From postbag to President, it’s been an interesting life; perhaps that’s understated as I have died three times…so far.’
@hillsnspills: there was something about the way Augusta threw herself into morning sabre practice, that alerted Miranda to the trouble ahead
@HarriSpringbett: My new life birthed in a nest of flame and a flurry of white feather. Heaven, I thought. But then I smelt the scorching swan.
@CathBarton1: The crow pretender sat quietly as his master curtseyed to the Queen; both knew they had nothing to lose now.
@saxpep: Villiers decided Audrey would be first.
@DangerDaniels: Never underestimate the need for privacy when you’re about to torture someone.
@TamimSadikali: A phalanx of trees locked arms, preserving us as if in amber; outside of space, time, and the cold November rain:
@mrfumblethumbs: She smiled demurely, then ripped off his face to reveal his true form.
@CraigJBeadle: Life wasn’t the same since the explosion in the glue factory, but they tried to get by.
@ellielockx: For fifty years, Mr and Mrs Trant had booked into the same hotel room, and waited until the appointed time.
@lsherloc: Have you ever told a lie so big that you started to believe it yourself?
@BlakesleeJustin: There once was a man who had too many hats. Some spiffy, some sporty, and some fluffy as cats.
@ellielockx: Everyone knew Ruby was a charmer – not many people knew she was a witch.
A huge thanks again to everyone who joined in, and have a very creative 2017!
Post (Friday, 11th November 2016): A year at London Lit Lab
Time to look back… and see how busy we have been!
A year in the life of London Lit Lab turns out to be a very full one indeed, though mostly full of pleasures and nice surprises.
We planned to teach two evening courses – one for beginners, and one for those developing their writing – but we ended up adding a one-day intensive course for beginners, too. With a class of all ages, trepidation was soon left behind, and the day involved a lot of learning and sharing of ideas, but also a lot of laughter. Who would have thought seven hours of writing exercises could be so energising.
We were invited to Bath Spa University to give the Screenwriting MA students a creative boost at the launch of their course. By the time we left, many of them had ideas for films they intended to make – we can’t wait to see them.
We were inspired by responses to our Twitter writing prompts – even when we asked for a whole story in a tweet! It was a delight to meet our prompt comp winners on our courses, and we’re a bit addicted to mini-stories now… look out for more picture prompts on Twitter for a chance to win a free place on a course.
We returned to teach more workshops to staff at Google again, and then again… it never ceases to amaze us, what creative minds come up with in a session straight after a working day. But who wouldn’t be inspired by a writing workshop in a meeting room named after a Harry Potter character?
We’ve pored over stories and novels for writers who have used our critiquing and mentoring services, and had the satisfaction of helping others improve their work and start submitting for publication. Watch this space for success stories…
Amidst all this, we’ve both got on with our Creative Writing PhDs, and had pieces of our own work published – Lily in Granta, Zoe in the National Flash Fiction Day Anthology and Comma’s Thought X: Fiction and Hypotheticals.
Lily has been teaching creative writing to recovering addicts at a recovery centre in Hackney, and then offering her time to St Joseph’s Hospice up the road, and we’ve taken part in the Grrrl Con crowdfunder, helping our friends at For Books’ Sake make their fantastic 2017 event happen.
We’ve even found time to give readings and presentations, too: Lily at the NAWE conference, Zoe at Kingston University.
Best of all, we’ve eaten a LOT of delicious almond cake from Leila’s shop – good for the creative brain, surely – and we’ve enjoyed teaching as a twosome on our courses so much that we’ve decided to keep doing it as much as possible, learning from each other as well as from our students.
We’ve met so many new and dedicated writers, who have filled us with enthusiasm for what we do. We’re looking forward to doing it all again, and more in 2017. Thanks to everyone who has inspired us!
Post (Monday, 17th October 2016): Notes from an agent
Last Thursday we were lucky enough to be visited by an agent, Sandra Sawicka, from Marjacq www.marjacq.com
Here’s what she had to say.
- As an agency, we might be sent 5-6,000 submissions per year, and from this we would sign only two to five authors each. There are four of us in the agency.
- We start by reading the first three chapters, and if we like it we ask for the whole manuscript. It might take me between a month and three months to read a submission. If I love it, I’ll arrange to meet the author, and might suggest an edit. It is important at this stage to gauge whether you and the author share the same vision. Do I ever give up on a manuscript after just the first paragraph? Yes, if the grammar is bad.
- I like speculative fiction, something with an edge of the supernatural, and stories that I can learn from. I also represent books in translation.
- If the fit is right we will sign the agreement: as an agency we take 15% commission for domestic, and 20% for foreign.
- It can then take between two weeks and a year before it’s ready to be sent out to editors.
- When the manuscript is ready, I write a pitch and send this with a list of editors to my author. This is a chance for the author to edit me.
- Then I send it out. This is the big wait. It can be anything from two days or two weeks, to a year. Waiting is the most frustrating part. It usually takes between one and three months for editors to get back to us.
- An author’s relationship with his or her editor is possibly even more important. The editor needs to love your book in order to be your champion to the rest of the editorial team, and to those in marketing whose job it is to go out and sell your book. They also need to justify the promotions budget and the cost of putting the book into bookshops and various book promotions.
- In the best scenario a few editors will want the book, and there’ll be an auction. Editors have to bid blindly. It’s like a game of chess, but the agent has all the power.
- The agent’s job is to make sure everyone is happy. They are the mediator. It’s kind of a career management role, rather than just taking on a manuscript and sending it out. We’ll organise readings, and festivals. We’ll manage an author’s public profile.
- The internet has made it easier in some ways to find talent. Publishers and agents regularly check Wattpad (https://www.wattpad.com/), Amazon’s top 100 bestsellers, and might even pick up a writer from a podcast that connects to a good book.
- Genres that people are getting excited about right now are Grip Lit, Domestic Noir and Gothic.
Post (Tuesday 4th October, 2016): Having fun in Higher Education
On Saturday we taught the new Screenwriting MA students at Bath Spa University. We were invited to do an ideas-generating session. Zoe and I took the role of Idea Hunters. We are Idea Hunters, we said (not exactly out loud). How – we asked – do we find ideas? Where are they? Are they there? Are they everywhere?
This morning on the bus an elderly lady attempted to get on, just as two boys pushed past and almost knocked her over. You noticed it, but did you take the time to hold out your arm to guide her to her seat? Did you ask if she was all right? She might have told you about her journey to the bus stop and how the shoes she wears pinch her feet, and this bag she carries feels heavy today. You might have imagined what this journey is like for her: slow, painful, treacherous.
Did you pick up a newspaper this morning, and what did you read? A teenager is arrested after crashing into a crowd of people in Kent. What was his motivation? What came directly before this event, and what came after? What about the next ten years of his life?
We encouraged our students to open their eyes and train their minds, to notice happenings in their day, and let their imagination turn them into character or a story. To engage with empathy, and see the joy in simplicity. To let the world in. We gave them silly games to play, so they could stretch themselves by seeing the potential in the accidental and the oddly mismatched. We had them write to music, give a magic power to an everyday object, build a character from a magazine clipping of a huge beetle on hind legs or a man in tight swimming trunks.
The students were new to the MA and gearing up to spend the next year or two battling with a script, maybe even making a film. A lot of them will have brought ideas to the group already, long percolated and just about ready to boil, but we offered something fresh and different.
So often we stick with what we know we can do, and we do it comfortably, again and again. We don’t stretch ourselves. These kinds of exercises help you step out of the box, and experiment with the ridiculous. Both Zoe and I approach writing from different angles: she creates new worlds, inspired from folklore and fairy tales, whereas I tend to be more rooted in the real, often inspired by personal experience. It’s interesting working together because we tend to compliment each other and bring this variety to our teaching. We both learn a great deal from each other in the process, which is amazing.
Once our students had a handful of wild and wacky ideas, we asked them to sketch out a possible treatment. There were some good ideas generated, just from our morning session, and one student approached me afterwards and said he was thinking of developing his idea into a script.
We’ll leave you with the genius idea hunter that is author and short story writer, Jon McGregor, who has written a book of short stories inspired by writing prompts. This Isn’t The Sort Of Thing That Happens To Someone Like You. Here is his shortest:
Irby in the Marsh
The fire spread quicker than the little bastard was expecting.
Post (July, 2016): How do we begin to write?
While running writing courses for beginners this year, we’ve been reminded of what it felt like for us when we started out writing. What inspired us to write, we’ve asked ourselves? And what kept us at it? Like all writers, we’ve met many challenges along the way. How did we get from there, to here?
An old university friend reminded me recently that I started to write in secret. He knew what I was up to, but was under strict instructions not to tell a soul. I remembered, then, my first derivative attempts at magical realism, written in biro on the lined A4 pads meant for taking lecture notes. I’d forgotten it was a secret, though. What was I scared of?
I suspect it was fear of failure, and of being mocked by anyone who found my Marquez-lite scribblings, more revealing of my soul, in some ways, than a diary. I remember that fear, which held my writing back for years, preventing it from developing into more than a private indulgence.
I don’t look back on my ‘late start’ as a writer with any regret, but I can see how much private fear combined with lack of encouragement slowed me down. I needed help from others in order to break down barriers, but it took ages for me to recognise this. Why? (a) I didn’t realise I needed help in the first place, and (b) I’m not the type to seek it out.
When I overcame this, it changed things forever. Each time someone told me I could do it, that I should keep writing, that I should call myself a writer, that I should send a story off, it propelled me onwards, while a small voice inside asked, ‘why didn’t I do this before?’ Soon I began actively seeking help all over the place: on courses, at writers’ groups, and finally at university.
And honestly, I don’t know how I would carry on without it now. Perhaps some writers really can go it alone in their garret, but I feel I am continually beginning to write. Each story is new, and presents a learning curve. I take risks, I make mistakes, I get downhearted and lose faith. But classes, talks, critique groups and feedback encourage me to keep going.
The biggest lesson for me is the one I have to keep learning: to let myself write badly, and be prepared to fail, because it will always happen some of the time. Showing imperfect work to others is the only way to get the positive support I need, which will then help me thrive.
If we don’t write because we fear it will be bad, we have nothing from which to build. If we think about writing, and talk about writing, but don’t put pen to paper, then we are not practising and so cannot improve.
The first step needn’t even be to write something. It can simply be to put yourself in a place where writing is encouraged, or even required. Have someone else make you do it. You might write something crap, but whatever comes after will be comparatively brilliant. Or, you might just write something brilliant first time. Now that I have the help I need, I wish I’d asked for it back at the very start. Beginning to write is hard, but it has to be done – just do it with help!
Beginning to Write 2016: what did we all learn?
After twelve hours of classes over six weeks, fuelled by almond cake, flat peaches, and many cups of English Breakfast tea, we’ve learned an awful lot. Here are a few highlights:
Sounds and pictures and random selections of kitchen objects are surprisingly good for generating ideas, as well as helping everyone get to know each other. Characters conjured into being in the very first session stayed with some students throughout the whole six weeks, and a postcard turned into a ravishing poem.
There are new fictional characters all around us – if we steal characteristics from everyone we know. Things get interesting when you get stuck with your character in a lift. It’s almost as if they know more that you do.
Leila’s Café is a fine place indeed when it comes to writing from all five senses, since it’s a setting you really can taste. Describing it made us hungry…
… in which situation an enormous bowl of dark cherries becomes irresistible, except for a certain person with a horror of lurking creepy crawlies.
Eavesdropping is a good shortcut for finding authentic voices, or indeed overhearing great epiphanies. Thanks Lindsay for jotting down, whilst on the bus, ‘I am blindsided by how nice chicken is.’
Story shapes are malleable, and it’s a lot of fun playing God with them. Can we turn a folk tale about a miserable ghost into ‘Cinderella’? Or indeed into Kafka’s ‘Metamorphosis’? Yes we can!
It is difficult to edit bad fiction; it is even more difficult to deliberately write bad fiction, but persevere with both and the results are astounding. And what a relief, to discover how hard it really is to write a bad enough opening line to win the Bulwer-Lytton Prize. This will be our go-to exercise for getting overwriting fear.
Our biggest ambition in teaching our beginners’ course was to help our students discover something new about themselves, and to get them writing. We think it worked, given we couldn’t persuade them to stop writing long enough to take a break mid-session! Here’s what some of them have said about the course:
‘A weekly catalyst for creativity.’
‘Great atmosphere, friendly and inclusive.’
‘Fun, invigorating inspiring.’
‘I have loved every minute.’
Thanks to everyone for contributing great ideas and writing on this course!
So, coming up next:
Our intensive one-day course will condense the Beginning to Write course into six hours on September 3rd – earlybird rate available until end of July.
Our Continuing to write course will begin on Thursday September 1st and run for eight weeks. It will include plenty of critiquing of work in progress, and is booking up fast. Drop us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org if you’d like to reserve a place.