Why NaNoWriMo may not work for you

If you’re not on social media you might have missed it: it’s NaNoWriMo. Translated, that’s National Novel Writing Month. The idea is that you aim to write a novel in a month – first draft, sure, but a novel. That means writing between 50,000 and 100,000 words. There’s a website where you can register, track your word count, connect with other writers doing the same thing and earn achievement badges. At the end, if you make it, you get a digital trophy! There’s a lot of chat on social media about it, with writers cheering one another on, comparing word counts and commiserating.

The thing that NaNoWriMo is great at is motivating writers. We’re legendary procrastinators, most of us. Having an externally imposed deadline and reward structure plus widespread recognition and social support can be an absolute gift. There is no denying that NaNoWriMo works beautifully for many, many people.

Obviously what I’m building up to here is the fact that it doesn’t work for me.

That doesn’t mean I think it shouldn’t be A Thing. I totally do. It’s a tool, one that produces great results for many people. My problem is that those people NaNoWriMo works for are a particular subset of writers with a particular process, and we do not all fit into that mould.

NaNoWriMo works for:

1. The naturally prolific

If your process is to sit down and write massive word counts for solid blocks of time, then NaNoWriMo is right up your street. It also helps if you’re one of:

2. Those with a splurge-and-edit process

We’re all different in the way we write. Some get first drafts out of their heads onto the page in one giant prolific creative outpouring, then spend a bit more time working that splurge up into something novel-y.

3. The pros

You’ve published six novels already and you know yourself and your writing well. You’ve got your book planned out, you’ve written lots of backstory for all your characters and you’re good to go. Let’s do it.

4. Those with time

Retired? Professional author? Bonanza. You can work every day. Or maybe you’re able & willing to make time: you’re a night owl and you can cope on five hours’ sleep! It’s not forever, it’s only November.

Here’s who NaNoWriMo may not work for.

1. Those with processes which are slower, steadier, or require more downtime.

2. Those who tend to edit and structure as they draft.

3. Writers who have to balance their work with demanding jobs, family care commitments, health problems, or disability.

4. Writers who are feeling their way through their first novels, learning and discovering as they write.

OK, you may say, so what’s the problem? It works for some people and not for others. Most things in this world do. Marmite built a whole marketing campaign out of it.

My problem is that the whole NaNoWriMo thing reinforces the ‘ass-on-the-chair canard’ so excellently pointed up in this article by Electric Lit’s writing advice column. There is this strange idea that writing is the thing you do where you write the words on the page. If you are not doing that then you are not writing, so get in front of that computer/notebook/scroll and quill and bloody well make that novel right now.

This is not true. Stories are built in brains. The words on the page are the transmission medium. Writing is not one of those things that you get done quicker and/or better by working harder at, at least not in so direct a way as plonking yourself down in front of a computer and making yourself do words. You can undoubtedly work hard at it by reading widely, doing human stuff, listening to people, thinking, exercising, avoiding procrastination, building a writing routine which works for you and putting lots of lovely influences into your brain. But this is oblique work. It is subtle. It is not of the ‘get a bigger hammer’ school of writing philosophy.

The ways in which people get stories from their brains onto the page can vary wildly. I strongly recommend The Nervous Writer podcast, where you can hear lots and lots of different professional authors being interviewed about how they work. It’s refreshing and inspiring and it shows you we all write in different ways. Some are ‘burst-of-creativity’ types. Some can only do about 1000 decent words a day. Some splurge then edit. Some find first drafts painfully slow. None of these is wrong. They all produce novels.

Around this time of the year, I guarantee it, I’ll start to see writers (especially new writers like me) metaphorically banging their heads against NaNoWriMo. Blank pages and panic on Twitter, contrasting with tweets from those it works for, announcing they’re already 30,000 words down (achievement badge achievement badge achievement badge!) There’ll be the casualties by the end, people feeling glum because they only managed 35,000 words. The whiff of self-doubt hangs in the air. Other people have done it, so why can’t I? Surely if I was a proper writer, I could just sit down and hammer it out?

And who knows the number of people who’ve sat down and hammered first drafts out and then torn their hair out over them for a year before throwing them in the bin. There is no way to fuck a story like writing it without getting it (at least kind of, basically) straight in your head first. NaNoWriMo doesn’t tell us whether that first draft was any good, or how long it took to edit, or whether it was ever published. It just gives you a trophy for bunging 70k words one after the other.

I suppose I’m writing this for anyone who’s feeling a bit despairing: maybe staring at an empty notebook, wondering where everyone else gets the words from, and thinking that they’re not a writer after all. It’s so temptingly simple, so in line with our Protestant-work-ethic culture, to think that working harder will produce better results. If you can’t do it, then (oh God) maybe you’re just a dilettante or a hobbyist. More words per day = a more pro writer. And it looks that way too, when NaNoWriMo is so directly competitive and everyone’s talking about it (and you hear the most from those who succeed, because, y’know, social media).

But if it’s not working for you, all it means is it’s not working for you. You’re better off writing your own draft, in your own time. It’ll all be over in a month, and you’ll be saving yourself a lot of heartache by continuing to do your writing, in your way, and knowing it’s OK. And in the meantime, try to ignore Twitter.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Stop that writing and wash the bin please

I’m writing this at the kitchen table. Ordinarily I’d be writing it on the sofa, because the stove is in the sitting room and it’s snug and warm in there, but Waybuloo is on. If you don’t know Waybuloo then count yourself lucky. It’s a yoga-themed children’s programme featuring wide-eyed elf things that talk a horribly twee toddler-speak (‘Noktok want strawberries for all the cheebies!’) and periodically urge viewing children to adopt the tree pose. The whole hellish concoction is overlain with that ghastly ‘relaxation’ music they pipe into spa treatment rooms. My daughter, who’s two, is entranced by it, and if she’s entranced it at least means I can write this. She’s not supposed to be here, you see. She’s supposed to be at nursery.

We are a family of four, though the fourth member is still internal at 21 weeks gestation. My husband works full time. We have nursery care for our daughter two days a week: Monday and Tuesday. On Wednesday she often visits her grandparents. I take care of her on Thursday and Friday. Theoretically that means I have two good work days in a week (bearing in mind that I need to use some of that childcare time to do all the other crap that needs doing in the week: cleaning, batch cooking, taking the car to the mechanic, taking delivery of and stacking logs, going to the post office, going to my midwife appointments, picking up prescriptions, waiting in for the BT guy, going to the hairdresser (sadly infrequent), packing away clothes that my daughter no longer fits and washing new ones, dealing with the endless supply of laundry, mending broken bits of the house like the loo doorknob that’s always coming off its spindle, painting walls, raking leaves, picking up milk and bread and juice and whatever else we forgot to stock up on on Saturday).

Two good work days. Those break down into two mornings of novel writing, as mornings are my best and most productive time, with a walk in the afternoon followed by some editing at the end of the day, when I can insert all those changes that occurred to me while I was walking around. Once I’ve done my blank-page writing, the real coalface stuff, I’ll sort out writing admin: seeing if anywhere I like the look of has opened submissions recently, querying existing submissions if it’s been aaaages, maybe reviewing short stories I’ve not sold yet and seeing if there are any enticing open markets that fit with the theme and word length, editing stories into the right format to submission, writing the accompanying blurb.  I’ll probably do some laundry too, and unload the dishwasher, maybe put the bin out, hoover, and do something crazy like changing the hand towels or washing out the food recycling bin. That’s just the way I roll.

In theory, following this routine I can knock out about 3,000 words of new material a week, plus editing what I’ve got and sorting out the regular plot/character snarl-ups that first drafts create. 3,000 words a week is what I need to do, minimum, if I am going to get Novel Draft 1 finished before the new baby arrives. I can also chip away at my collection of unpublished stories: sending them to beta readers, applying changes, finding new markets and submitting to them, hopefully finding the stories a home and moving them from the ‘Finished’ to ‘Finished and Published’ file on my hard drive. I can keep the house clean, organised and habitable, plan and cook family meals, and enjoy one on one time with my daughter for the last two days of the week, taking her to playgroup and the park and generally feeling pretty content with my work-life balance.

Here’s how that worked out in practice for the last three weeks.

Week 1: Ill Monday and Tuesday with cold contracted from my daughter which stopped me from sleeping, meaning I was able to write new material on Monday but had to resort to editing and admin on Tuesday because your brain cannot do blank-page writing on broken sleep and a 6a.m. wakeup. I can’t even caffeinate, because I’m 5 months pregnant. 1,200 new words written. 1,800 down on weekly target.

Week 2: Clock change. Daughter up at 5 a.m. on Monday because toddlers don’t know or care about pointless daylight savings rules dating from a hundred-year-old war, and why should they? Rose to discover there was no mains water supply to the house. A break in a major pipe meant that our whole neighbourhood, including nursery, had no water. No childcare all day. Managed 1,500 words Tuesday and a further 800 on Weds. 700 down on weekly target, 2,500 down overall.

Week 3 (this week): Out at writing event on Sunday night, got to bed at midnight. Woken at 5:30 by toddler. Brain wrecked on 5.5 hours sleep, able to do some new writing but again reverted to editing after a while. Nursery rang at 5 to say my daughter had been sick, meaning she needed an immediate collection and was subject to a 48 hour exclusion because she had a vomiting illness. No childcare Tuesday. 900 words written. 2,100 down on weekly target, 4,600 down overall. 4,600 is a week and a half’s work. A week and a half lost, out of three.

This is what it is really like being a writer and a mother of small children. The buck stops with you. Your time is, officially, the least important of everyone’s. Your novel, when it comes to the crunch, is less important than washing out the bins, because the bins need emptying right now and your novel is a thing of potential, built on faith, a thing which may at some point be recognised as worth doing but right now earns you no money, no allowances, no reward of any kind. Certainly no respect. Let’s face it, it’s very unlikely to get published. Obviously if we all obeyed that dire warning then no novel would ever be written because the stats are the same for all of us starting out. But as far as the world is concerned you’re on the wrong side of the odds, because you’re just another frumpy mum in leggings pushing a pram in the rain, and everyone knows real writers are crazy clever eccentric men who stay up late being whisky-drinking tortured artistes and look like they have important things to say and also never have scrambled egg on their clothes.

There is no wage, no contract, no sick pay. There is no leverage. If the choice is between your working day and your partner’s, your partner’s will win. The mortgage needs paying. Food needs buying. Someone has to stay at home on a rainy day with a sick toddler and endure 8 hours of Waybuloo, coat refusal, floor cleaning and tantrums over the wrong colour cup.

That’s not to say that this is wrong, or illogical. It is inarguable. There’s no way round it. The mortgage does need paying. Your novel is not, yet, White Teeth. It could be a total pile of horseshit. You are going to have to finish it, against these odds, around being a mother, before you have any chance of your work being recognised as valid. And these odds come on top of all the standard writers’ difficulties: imposter syndrome, self-doubt and the tricky internal voice that Anne Lamott memorably labelled Radio KFKD. When you are a female, unwaged writer with small children, the world repeatedly and forcibly informs you that you are an imposter. What time you have is bought with your partner’s generosity and support, and your family’s. It’s a luxury. It’s the first thing to go when the going gets tough. It takes a loooong time to write a book and you will seem to achieve nothing, in return for this generosity, for at least a year. You feel simultaneously guilty that you have any time at all (you’re just indulging yourself at your husband’s expense!), guilty that you’ve put your kids in nursery to pursue a fantasy (poor kids!), overworked (because you’ll know other mums with an equal amount of childcare who quite sensibly don’t shoehorn two days of work into it and, consequently, have highlights, weekends away and clothes that fit), and frustrated by having the little time that you so desperately need constantly snatched away from you. You have all the pressures of a job, but nothing to show for it. And you still have to do the cleaning. And yet this is the best state of affairs that could exist for you right now. It’s the dream.

The fight must be in your own mind, to prevent these challenges from invalidating you and your work, to keep the flame of it alive even when your writing time is invaded over and over and over again. To carry on believing in your book when there is no evidence – not a jot – that it is any good. When even you often think it may not be. To carry on defending your work time, scrabbling it back where you can; to carry on taking yourself seriously as a writer.  You must back yourself.

If you are lucky, as I am, you will have a few people backing you too. But sometimes it will feel like it’s just you.

Repeat after me:

I am a writer.

I am a writer.

I am a writer.

And start again tomorrow.

 

 

 

 

Writing the Apocalypse

Last week I spent quite a lot of time wondering whether you could get petrol out of petrol station tanks without using electricity. Also, how long it would take foxes to move into Asda if Asda was deserted and the power was down, and how many months a small group of people could live off the dry goods contained within one supermarket, and how far one woman could carry a dead body cross-country.

Post-apocalyptic fiction is a new genre to me, and it’s tricky. Short fiction, especially modern short fiction, is full of shorthand. It’s impressionist. From the swift daubs that you lay down on the page, the reader’s brain lifts a whole person, a whole world. It mirrors the neural work of reading itself, in which the brain reads the word rather than the individual letters. The olny iprmotent tihng is taht the frsit and lsat ltteer is in the rghit pclae.

Shorthand is much easier when most things are given. It is tricky to use it when the world in which your story takes place is our world turned upside down. The structure, the social and cultural order which surrounds and supports your characters, is no longer given. The physical environment which encloses them is alien. There’s a balance to be struck between explaining nothing and leaving your reader asking where your characters are and how they can possibly be alive, and dogmatically laying down the technicalities of every part of your world in a way that’s tedious and overwhelming. The aim is to illuminate the new world so that it’s exciting and real, but without giving it centre stage over your characters. The process is one of deciding which questions to answer.

The added difficulty is that as a writer, you’re excited by your new world too. You want to gambol off to obscure corners of it, exploring them and then metaphorically peeing on them to mark your territory.  ‘Ooh,’ you think, ‘they’re living on a farm and they’re cooking stuff, and obviously they can’t use gas because the apocalypse, so I’d better specify that this is a wood-burning stove and also, hang on, that the farm is surrounded by trees and they cut those down to use for fuel.’ You have to curb those instincts, because no-one cares how your characters are cooking potatoes. On the flip side, a little bit of exploration can come up with really interesting directions for your story to go in.

I found that this P-A story, my first, took a lot more head-processing and drafting than my work set in the present world. It had to be written piecemeal and then returned to my brain for further processing. It was in my brain that most of the technical questions were asked and answered, questions like ‘If you took spice seeds out of a cook shop packet and sowed them, would they be viable?’ and ‘Do zombies tidy up after themselves?’ With the world built in my head, it was then possible to factor back down to the shorthand which told the reader what they really needed to know and left the rest to their imagination.

I could have spent a novel in my new world, but I spent 4000 words there. There are unanswered questions. There are an awful lot of unanswered questions. But these are questions that intrigue, rather than annoy. They are not questions which I can’t answer or would have to have ridiculous answers for the story to work.

Part of achieving this involved leaving huge chunks of the world completely alone. A small amount of elaboration breeds three times as many questions and actually makes the world feel less real, more fake, than the world that was only hinted at. Obsessive detailing would have undermined the story by highlighting my presence on the page: hi, it’s me, I think you’re wondering how that little bit there works and look I’ve worked it out right here, kthxbai! The scenery becomes cloth and paint, the characters become marionettes in silly costumes. I’m exposed, the little wizened person behind the Wizard of Oz mask.

The story had to feel perfectly natural, as natural and easily accepted as a story set in your home town, today. I hope I have achieved this, and if I have, it’s by seeing the world through my characters’ eyes. They live there, after all. It’s not an ordinary world to them, but it’s totally real. They refer a little to what happened in the past and how they eke out a living, but they’re also preoccupied by love, and clothes, and the future; still human, just under extraordinary circumstances.

 

 

 

 

Cheltenham Writers’ Retreats

A couple of years ago, in severe need of time and space to write, I travelled halfway across the country to Brighton to go to an affordable writers’ retreat run by Writers’ HQ. Writers’ HQ is two writers, Sarah and Jo, who know exactly what it’s like trying to write at the same time as raising a family and paying the bills. Difficult.

At many stages of our lives, writers find that we don’t have enough time to write, or that we feel guilty about carving out the time to write, or that it’s doing our heads in trying to work at home. Sometimes we need to get some time out to pull ourselves out of a rut and kickstart whatever project we’re working on, or sometimes we’re just desperate to get away from it all for a few hours. That’s what writers’ retreats are for.

Personally, before this my idea of a writers’ retreat was the one described in Adrian Mole: The Wilderness Years, in which Adrian flies to Greece and skinny-dips in the Aegean with poets. This is the standard, ‘fancy’ writers’ retreat. They may not involve Greece, but you’ll be looking at a stay in a lovely country house, talks by professional writers, a few days away, and a price tag many of us can’t afford. Plus it’s hard to take that amount of time off if you’ve got children, other care commitments, or a demanding job. That’s where Writers’ HQ comes in. The retreats are affordable (£35 for the day, or £30-ish if you bag a first-timer’s discount code/10%-off flyer) and they’re on one weekend day, 10-4. They are not in country piles, and skinny-dipping is positively frowned upon. There’s just a chance to meet other writers, talk about what you’re doing and what you want to achieve, and then get your head down and get some work done. With plenty of caffeine and food.

I liked the retreat I went on so much that when WHQ announced they’d like to expand the retreats across the southern UK, I was one of the people who put themselves forward to host them. There are five of us, in Cheltenham, Birmingham, Portsmouth, Cambridge and Hastings. We’re all early-career writers, and we’ll all be running one retreat a month for writers in our local areas.

Cheltenham’s retreats will be on the third Saturday of every month, starting in August. If you’re interested in finding out more about retreats here or elsewhere across the country, check out the Writers’ HQ website; or go straight to the Cheltenham booking page here, and get £5 off with the code ‘itsmyfirsttimebegentlewithme’. They’ll be a lot of fun, and I hope you’ll join me.

 

Live lit and disabled access, or: How I learned to check my privilege and start shopping for lecterns

I posted a piece last week about how to start your own live lit night, and now I have an addition to make. An embarrassing addition. It’s about disabled access.

Embarrassing, because I neglected to mention it. I neglected to mention it because I didn’t think about it. I didn’t think about it until I’d hosted three live literature events and noticed that – oh look – some of our readers and audience members are disabled. The reason I didn’t think about it was, of course, because I am not (yet) disabled myself. Hello, able-bodied privilege.

Disabled access is not an addendum. It should have been something I looked at as soon as I began to plan the night. Except that, being clueless, I hadn’t. Clearly I needed to sort this out, and fast. If you are thinking of setting up your own night and are, like me, non-disabled and clueless, please read on and benefit from me being ignorant before you.

I will, naturally, get some things wrong here, so I apologise in advance if I put my foot in it. Corrections and suggestions are more than welcome. Let me know in the comments section.

Some things to consider:

Venue

Luckily, and purely through serendipity, Flashers’ Club is held at a wheelchair-accessible venue. It’s not ideal, as it’s an old building with a narrow front door and a couple of steps. I probably should have twigged this when I tried to get a pram in there once, and had to get help from a waitress. However, there’s a ramp available, and once inside, everything you need is on the level ground floor. The other venue I looked at was the first floor function room of a liftless pub, which would have been useless.

There are no disabled toilets, which is an issue. The loos are hard to get into for those using sticks, frames or wheelchairs. If you have the option of a nice modern venue with level access and disabled loos, this would be ideal.

Stage access

A raised stage may present problems. Flashers’, and many other live lit nights, just has a mic on a stand in the middle of the room. The seating is in clusters, at tables. There’s plenty of space in the room so the route to the stage is clear from most tables, meaning fewer obstacles for those who are blind, partially-sighted or have mobility issues.

Standing-only venues, or those with long rows of seats and narrow aisles, may exclude people with mobility issues or leave them languishing in crappy seats behind the back row. Plan in advance to make sure there’s seating provision.

Performance

In its initial inception, Flashers’ was just a mic on a stand. The stand is important, allowing people to read standing or seated whilst keeping their hands free. If someone is reading using a Braille terminal, a mic on a stand is essential.

After a conversation with a partially-sighted attendee at the last event, I’ll be adding a lectern with a bright clip-on adjustable light. The lectern I’ve bought for this purpose is actually a music stand: a heavy-duty one, as it shouldn’t be rickety or easy to knock over. They’re much less expensive than lecterns and available via the web on big selling sites.

Bear in mind that people may want guiding or assistance to and from the microphone, and that you may need to take paperwork such as sign-up sheets and e-mail lists out to blind and partially-sighted attendees rather than leaving them at a table.

Listening

Background noise is inevitable at most live lit nights. The bartender will be washing glasses, or the pub downstairs will be playing music. The informal feel is part of what makes live lit nights lively and spontaneous. When it gets annoying is when it interferes with listening, and that can happen very easily if you’re hard of hearing and/or wearing a hearing aid.

Flashers’ has something of a background noise problem. Not a huge one, but enough to cause a bit of grumbling from our hearing audience after some events. Our venue is one half of a coffee bar, the other half of which remains open to walk-in trade. The music in the back half is turned off, but the music in the front is kept on, just quietly. The venue’s take on this is that they need to maintain the atmosphere their normal trade expects, and I get it. The bar and kitchen is also open to the room, so there’s a bit of cutlery clinking and chatting. This means that our hard-of-hearing audience sometimes finds it difficult to hear the speakers.

This problem was the first thing that showed me I needed to do more to make Flashers’ Club more accessible. I was approached after a recent event by a friend of an attendee who wore a hearing aid, to tell me he had found it difficult to hear all the stories. Would it be possible to have hard copies for him to read along? Well yes, of course it would. We now ask all readers to bring a couple of spare hard copies for those who need them. If they’re not provided (and because we’re open mic, people are sometimes unaware of this request), we collect them after the event and distribute them out via the post.

I would love, love, love to have a portable induction loop for Flashers’. Sadly, they are prohibitively expensive for a shoestring-budget live lit night. If you are reading this and you would like to be our anonymous benefactor, go for your life.

Website

Flashers’ now has a section on its website which details how accessible the event is. It tells readers about wheelchair accessibility, toilet provision, access to the stage, the mic/lectern/light setup and the availability on request of hard copy. I hope that this will help any new attendees who want to plan their night, or are wondering whether it will be possible to visit us at all.

I’m in the process of learning about making our website itself more accessible, and it’s fascinating. Updates should be coming soon.

 

OK, that’s it. I wish I had thought of all of this earlier, and I’m aware some of this is pretty basic, but the best I can do now is listen and learn. If you’d like to tell me something I need to know, pop it in the comments below.  And if you’d like to join us next time, our next event is on the 3rd August. Full details on the website.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Guide to Running a Live Lit Night

Yeah, there were probably better titles, but I’ve had four hours’ sleep and I went out to the local jazz festival yesterday and drank too much wine. Also my small daughter is doing that ominous coughing that suggests she’s thinking of waking up from her nap an hour early. This post is going up and it may not be pretty, but I like to think it may be helpful.

I run Cheltenham’s premier (only) live flash fiction night, Flashers’ Club. We’re barely off the ground, with our third event happening tonight. But as we lumber along, flapping our ungainly wings, there’s definite air between us and the dirt. Flashers’ works. I didn’t know that it would. It has been an extremely steep learning curve which has required me to be more mentally agile than should be demanded of someone who’s constantly knackered, and it has been fantastic. And now, feeling like I’ve actually learned a few things about creating a live literature event, I feel the need to share them. Because anyone can do it.

So, you want to run your own live lit night?

Rule 1 (and the only real rule, but I’ll include a few other things I personally have learned): do it. That is all. Do you love the idea? Does it give you that feeling in your chest that you could really actually maybe make this work? Then you can make it work. There is no better way to learn than to throw yourself at the thing headfirst and see what happens. This may be alien to your nature (it is to mine), but still, try it. You might like it. There is nowhere on the web (especially not here, given my state of mind) where someone can tell you exactly how to set up your live lit night. It will grow organically. It will evolve to become just the right thing for your city, your crowd, your genre. Your thing is your thing. Run with it. Having said that, a few tips:

  1. You cannot over-promote a live lit night. Get a WordPress site, if you like confusion (sorry, WordPress, but man), or get any other free webpage/blog that you can. Twitter is your friend. Facebook is a bit shit, but you need that too. I don’t do Instagram, but I guarantee you if I did it would garner us a larger audience. Use all of these channels like you’re trying to wear them out. Promotion is work. It means being confident about your night when you’re not sure anyone – anyone at all – is going to turn up. It means writing chirpy tweets that that sarky person in your head keeps reading back to you in the voice of Reece Witherspoon in Legally Blonde. It means finding new ways, every week – sometimes every day – of saying the same thing without pissing off your followers. ‘Come to my thing!’ ‘Hey, why not come to this thing!’ ‘Are you coming to our thing?’ Annoying yet? Yes, it is. Promotion means getting creative. It also means getting reciprocal. The writing community, the live lit community, is amazingly supportive. You’re going to need to get out there and go to some things, talk to some people, get to know exactly what your local community is. Other live lit events will promote yours to their audience, as will indie publishers, writers’ circles, bookshops, litmags, university writing departments and individual writers. You should do the same back. Apropos of which:
  2. You need to be listed on ShortStops. ShortStops is a literary institution and it is invaluable and FREE. ShortStops also uses WordPress, so if you’re thinking of getting to grips with one blogging platform it should probably be WP. Get on it.
  3. Venue. Lots of places will host events for free. Coffee bars, bakeries, pubs, art spaces, anywhere they have funding or can sell your audience stuff. If they offer a free PA system, bite their hand off. It’s preferable to have no background music/noise, but that might not be possible. It’s going to be a bit rough and ready. Bear in mind that it’s your job to make the venue’s gamble worthwhile. Be good to them. Keep them updated on ticket sales, or Facebook likes, to let them know how many people may turn up. They need to know how many staff to put on. You are doing each other a favour, so good communication and two-way respect is essential. They may not want you to run your first event on a Saturday, because you’re an unknown quantity and they don’t want to lose half their floorspace to an event that may pull in 6 punters. Accept this. If you have an amazing turnout and you desperately want a Saturday, you may be able to negotiate it for the second event.
  4. Format. In some ways all live lit nights are basically the same: some people read some stories, then there’s a break, then some more stories. Then again, there are a thousand decisions to make. How long are the stories? What’s the limit? Is the limit by read time, or word count? Actually, are you featuring just stories, or poetry? What about novel extracts? What about memoir? What about travel writing? Do you accept genre stories? Be clear about this, or people will submit/turn up with something you don’t feature and be upset if told they can’t read. Probably best to specify that you don’t feature porn, polemics or gratuitous violence. People can be very strange.
  5. Selective or open mic? Selective nights are harder work than open mic nights, because they require you to review submissions, but they’re less seat-of-the-pants than open mic. On open mic nights you never know how many people will turn up, or what they’re going to read. On selective nights you do, and you can give them a proper intro and everything, and you know pretty exactly the run time, and you can cherry-pick the most interesting stuff. However, you are also putting yourself in a position of editorial decision-making, which raises three issues: a) how qualified you feel to make those decisions, especially if it will be just you and not a group of writers, b) the fact that selection places a certain pressure on the night’s stories to be good quality, and c) the fact that the selection of stories will reflect directly upon you or your group. It is a stone-cold fact that not everything submitted to lit events will be great. Not everything I have submitted has been great, as evidenced by the rejection e-mails. If you have an insufficient number of quality, interesting pieces submitted to your selective night, you are going to end up selecting some that you’re not happy with. On the other hand you might get 30 stories for a 10-slot night and happily pick out a bunch of great stuff, and your night will look awesome and you won’t get that oh-shit feeling that I sometimes get when the open mic readers’ list is at 2 and we’re starting in five minutes. Then again open mic nights are glorious for their lack of control, the sheer anarchic surprise of it all, and they are much less work. Up to you.
  6. USP. Do you do badges? Do you give freebies? Do you have guest speakers? Workshops? Quizzes? Little things like this help to mark you out. They are good.
  7. Hustle. Flashers’ Club gives away free litmags to our readers. I hustle litmag publishers for these. In return, I offer as much promo as they like to our audience, via Twitter mainly, retweeting their calls for submissions, competitions and on-sale-now announcements. It’s that reciprocal thing again. They are doing me a huge favour by sending me free litmags, because running a litmag makes running Flashers’ Club look like sandpit play, and I do my best to repay them by getting them more subscribers and more submitters. Other things can be hustled: notebooks, wine, biscuits, other writer-bribery items. Try asking. You have nothing to lose. And always remember to give in return.
  8. Ticket money: yes or no? Flashers’ charges for tickets, because it’s also a charity event. Until recently all proceeds went to charity, but the realisation dawned that We Needed Money. You can run a very good straightforward event on a shoestring and have it be free, but if you want to expand and elaborate it you will need money. £3 is a good ticket price because it’s low enough not to make people think twice. You will be able to charge more for a selective night, or one featuring a special guest. For open mic it’ll need to stay pretty low, because people are taking a chance on the content. If you’re doing tickets and you have more space than you think you’ll sell, I recommend selling on the door. Advance booking sites like Eventbrite are good, but they charge a fee and in my experience the audience for live lit (open mic, at least), doesn’t book way in advance. If you’re unlikely to sell out, do tickets on the door. You’ll need a float, which the venue can often provide. It’s good to be clear about what you do with that money, whether it’s book guest writers (you will need to cover travel at the least; an opportunity to sell books to your audience may do instead of a fee) or print flyers. However, do bear in mind that:
  9. No-one really gives a shit. In the nicest possible way. If people are paying to see your event, it’s because they want to see the event. Don’t get too hung up on changing the way you use ticket money. I got myself in an ethical twist about changing the Flashers’ income from 100% charity donation to partial charity donation, partial running costs. It felt wrong. I canvassed the audience at our second event, asking for feedback. Only one person came to give feedback, which was: It’s fine. No-one else gave a shit. Do what you think’s best, and be transparent about it. It’s nice to run it past the audience if you can.

That’s not really it, but I have to go and wake my daughter up now or she’ll refuse to go to bed later and I won’t make it to my own flash fic night. In conclusion, here is the Flashers’ Club Quick Guide to Starting Your Own Live Lit Night:

  1. Find a venue
  2. Choose a format, and a USP if you can
  3. Promote
  4. Promote
  5. Hustle
  6. Promote
  7. Hustle
  8. Fear
  9. Run event
  10. Enjoy

Bon chance.