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