I’m very happy to say I’ve just been selected to feature in Litro Online’s #StorySunday slot. You can find my story ‘The Thief’ available there for the week starting 21st May.
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:
- 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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:
- 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:
- Find a venue
- Choose a format, and a USP if you can
- Run event
I’m delighted to say that my story An Acquisition will be appearing in the 6th issue of Shooter Literary Magazine, themed ‘Bad Girls’.
Just the other day, a fellow writer referred to me on their blog as ‘formidable’. I was delighted. And surprised. You see, I don’t think of myself as formidable. I set up the live lit night Flashers’ Club, but I’m running it by trial and error. I have had moderate success in finding publication for my short fiction, but I have only published three stories. I’ve won a competition, but it was a local competition. Though I was very pleased to win it, I wasn’t competing with the world. I entered the Bridport Prize and not only didn’t get longlisted, I didn’t even get the standard rejection e-mail. I’ve been rejected by Stinging Fly, Litro, Lighthouse and Shooter, and I’m pretty sure I’m about to get rejected by Unthology. I’m writing a novel, but it’s a daily slog and I have no idea whether it’s any good or not – or, rather, I veer between thinking it’s killer and thinking it’s dross.
That’s not to say I deserve sympathy. That’s the life of a writer. I’m quite proud to have been rejected by all those mags, in a badge-of-honour kind of way, and some of the rejection letters were even encouraging ones. Bonus. And there is a quiet voice underneath all the wobbling which says that the novel isn’t awful, but there is a chance it’s not good enough. While I don’t think of myself as formidable, I don’t think I’m useless either.
I’m not sure if this wavering confidence – or, perhaps, this honesty about wavering confidence – is something which is stronger in women writers. Women are socially moulded to take up less space, to be less forthright, less self-confident. Many of us still find self-promotion difficult, because we’re worried that confident words from a woman’s mouth are seen as abrasive or egotistical. Plus there’s the old, boring, but worth-restating fact that the majority of our most-lauded modern authors are white American men. They possess a particular voice, one which is bombastic and complex and artful and brutal. It is a voice which I enjoy, but it is not my voice, and nor is it the only way to write a great novel. Muriel Spark, one of my most beloved writers, does not sound like this, and it’s something I have to remind myself of. It is easy for writers to believe that we do not measure up because our voices are not brutal but subtle, not bombastic but playful.
Though women may be more susceptible to the inner critic, it’s a disease of all writers. In the business of promoting Flashers’ Club I had a conversation with a young writer who wanted to help promote the event. He read widely, he wrote, but he’d only shared his work with a handful of people close to him. He was nervous of reading to an audience. I felt his uncertainty, his fear that maybe his writing was just not good enough. I recognised it because it was my own. It was my own four years ago, and it’s still mine now – just in a different form. I know the fear that in exposing your precious work to the world’s arc-lamps, all its flaws will show.
I gave him some advice. I told him that the fear itself meant he probably wasn’t a terrible writer (most irremediable writers suffer from the Dunning-Krueger Effect), and that the best way to give himself confidence was to get his work out there amongst that of his peers. I told him that by only reading the most brilliant of brilliant writers, he was comparing his startpoint to someone else’s endpoint.
Then I got home, and started to wonder if I had been a dick. After all, who am I to give advice? I’ve had three short stories published. Three. I messaged him to apologise. ‘Honestly, it’s fine,’ he wrote back, ‘it’s always nice when someone offers some wise words.’
Wisdom. I’m not sure I have it; not across my whole life, certainly. But perhaps I have a little bit of it, in places. Perhaps I have a little wisdom for the writers around me right now, at the same stage or just that bit earlier on their writing journey. The thing is, the me from four years ago thought that being published was an impossible dream. Being published meant you had made it. I would have thought someone like me was formidable. I would have wanted to know how you did it, just as I, now, want to know from those just that bit further on that me how they did it. And I know now that they, too, will be sitting there thinking, ‘Jesus, I don’t know,’ or they’ll qualify their advice, because they don’t feel like they’ve ‘made it’ either. None of us do. Not even the most brilliant of the brilliant. There is no ‘making it’. No endpoint at which we are fully trained, incapable or learning more; at which we do not want or need to develop our art.
The view from up here, from this ledge a few feet up the infinite mountain, is this: writing is work. It involves reading, and submitting, and experiencing, and reading, and experimenting, and setbacks, and learning, and reading, and editing, and slogging, and probably some more reading (the importance of reading what you write might need another blog post). It starts as something hoarded close to the chest, something gloated over and feared for, and after that there’s a choice: keep it close and never know, or knock it into shape and send it out into the world. Then the real work starts, and the real rewards. You get knocked back. You retrench. You read. The writing grows, your mind grows. Like physical training, you need to do the thing over and over and over and over to get stronger, to develop flexibility and stamina. Your work gets better. My work has got better. And the wonderful thing about doing this is the world opening out ahead of you. It is the realisation that your ability to write is only 10% innate, and the remaining 90% is what you make it. Everyone else is just the same. No-one is born a brilliant writer. Everyone else is working for it too. You do not have to be frightened to put your work out there, because you know now that its rejection will not be a judgement on whether you can or cannot write, it is a reflection of the stage you’re at in learning your craft (or a reflection that you sent it to the wrong journal, or the wrong publisher, or your work’s wonderful but not saleable, or a reader really hates stories about divorce, or you went over the word count, or you used single-spaced Comic Sans and they threw it in the bin).
Without this exposure, this apprenticeship, my writing would have forever been a point rather than a line. I might have written, but my self-doubt would have been stronger, because I had no reference points – my own, or others’. The critic and the egotist would have loomed large, squabbling unchecked in my brain. They’re still there, but nowadays if they’re annoying me I can batter them with evidence.
Seeing yourself through someone else’s eyes is always revealing. It gives perspective. I tend to give the inner critic a bit more leash than the inner egotist, because the odds are on her side rather more. And I’ve seen what happens when writers don’t have that critic. Bad, bad things. But maybe the critic deserves a little less scope, because it turns out I’d forgotten how daunting those first steps were. How gruelling this little climb has been, and how lovely the view is when you look out, not up.
Wooooooop! Cheltenham’s newest fiction night is live! Flashers’ Club (I know) will be on the 10th November, 7:30-11:00 at Smokey Joe’s Coffee Bar, Cheltenham. The mic is open to all writers of short fiction. Stories need to be 300-1,000 words long, and can be of any genre.*
Lots and lots of lovely information on the FC website here , and you can also find it on Twitter @flashers_club (not @flashersclub, God knows who holds that handle but they’re currently wondering why people keep writing to them about short fiction). FC is on Facebook /flashersclubcheltenham. We’re also listed on the fab Short Stops site, where you can find information on live lit, litmags and competitions across the country.
The lovely people at The Fiction Desk have given me a number of copies of their short story anthology Various Authors to give out on the 10th, so we’ll be offering one to every reader. Free literature! What more could you want?
All proceeds from Flashers’ Club will go to the charity First Story. Have a look at their website here to find out more about their work.
See you there?
*barring porn, polemics and Quentin Tarantino rip-offs.
I recently wrote a post bemoaning the writer’s long wait for responses. I’m happy to announce that this month I’ve had a few of those responses, and it’s been good news.
Firstly, the new Fiction Desk anthology, Separations, is out on the 19th September. It contains my story Poor Billy, which came an honourable third in TFD’s 2015 Ghost Story Competition. If you haven’t come across The Fiction Desk before then I urge you to get hold of an anthology; if you’re a writer looking for somewhere to submit your work then I urge you to send it to them. TFD has been unfailingly friendly and encouraging to deal with, and I recommend them unreservedly. They are particularly keen on showcasing new writing, and were my first publisher. They are also one of the very, very few places which publishes well-written, intelligent and chilling ghost stories. Go get one!
Secondly, I applied for the Writers’ HQ competition (prize: free access to a year of online writing courses) and was very happy to make the shortlist. I’d have been happier to win it, of course, but you literally can’t win ’em all. Writers’ HQ is a fabulous organisation, from its sweary strapline (‘Stop fucking about and start writing’) to its mission to provide teaching and mentorship to writers low on time and money. I’ve been on one of their retreats and it was great. Another recommendation.
Thirdly, I found out on Friday that I’ve won the Gloucestershire Writers’ Network 2016 prose competition. This means I’ll be reading my story Shoals at (squeee!) the Cheltenham Literature Festival, on Sunday 16th October.
And finally, I’m very excited to say that I have organised an open mic night of new flash fiction, to take place at Smokey Joe’s Café in Cheltenham on the 10th November. More details, plus links and promo and all that stuff, to come very soon . . . .
Writing fiction is not a pursuit which gives immediate rewards. Novel-writing is probably the worst. Even short stories, though, require a hell of a wait before they show results: results which may well be negative. There’s the initial rush of waiting for your beta reader to comment (and many thanks, here, to my beta readers: you are wonderful and I really should buy you presents some time soon), but after that there’s the wasteland. The three months, minimum, that it takes for publishers to respond. The even longer period you may need to wait for the competition longlist. If you’re writing and submitting consistently, then the wait only exists for the first six to eight months, after which there will be a steady flow of feedback. But when you stop and start again, you’re back to the beginning.
I stopped and started again when I had my daughter, now one year old. I started writing again in May, and I will not see any results until October. That’s kind of OK: after all, life’s busy enough with a toddler in the house. You look away for a second, and when you look back it’s July. But it leaves me with nothing to say to people who ask me, ‘How’s the writing going?’ If the person asking is not a writer, the only possible answer to this is:’OK. I wrote some stuff.’ Or, if things are going really badly: ‘I haven’t done anything in ages. No time.’ There is no day-to-day progress. No ready reckoner. No translatable marker for success. Other jobs offer this, even if longer-term goals remain elusive: ‘I went to Edinburgh for a conference.’ ‘We got the accounts finished.’ ‘I’ve prepared my teaching for the next term.’ ‘We’ve got the roof on.’ This is what people want when they ask you how it’s going: a titbit, a soundbite that will give a quick idea of what’s going on. Even ‘I got a rejection letter’ is better than ‘OK. I wrote some stuff.’
It’s a long, dry wait for those answers. Often writers suffer from imposter syndrome anyway, and having nothing to report feeds into that. What you do is intangible, solitary and hard to quantify. You find yourself fantasising about the moment when someone will say: ‘How’s the writing going?’ and you’ll be able to answer ‘I WON A PRIZE.’ Or ‘MY STORY’S BEEN ACCEPTED.’ Or, unlikeliest yet, ‘I’M GETTING PAID.’ An answer that reassures people that your pursuit is not a potential embarrassment to be wary of. An answer, basically, that justifies your lack of a proper job.
One of the best ways to survive the drought is the company of other writers. This is when I wish I lived somewhere else. London would be great, Brighton even better. I need a peer group. I need writer’s retreats. I need open mic poetry nights, and constructive criticism, and people to rave and bitch and laugh with. Twitter is a good proxy, but it’s no substitute. So next week I’ll be heading off to a writer’s retreat run by the wonderful Writers’ HQ (tagline: ‘For badass writers with no time or money’). Not only should I meet people who know exactly what I’m talking about, but I know I’ll come away with fresh ideas and a shitload of stuff to work on. It’s on Sunday, so given that I’ll need to take a Southern train back, I should be back by Tuesday. Wish me luck.