Conversation and Cakes

Along with many other writing enthusiasts, I spent the afternoon of Sunday 27th November 2011 at Dimbola Lodge in Freshwater – former home and studio of pioneering photographer, Julia Margaret Cameron. It was here that such eminent literary figures as Alfred Lord Tennyson, Charles Darwin, Lewis Caroll and Virginia Wolfe found inspiration. So, as you can imagine, it proved to be the prefect location for this exciting event.

Organised by local author and fellow ‘Wight Writer’, Jan Toms, it was billed as ‘An Afternoon of Conversation and Cakes’ – an alluring combination for those who spend their creative time in isolation, forgoing food, drink or company, when the capricious muse decides to co-operate. (Even more so, when she doesn’t!)

After a brief introduction by Brian Hinton MBE, poet, musicologist and curator of the Dimbola Musuems, Jan explained that the afternoon would start with a Q + A session, followed by a refreshment break – during which we were exhorted to swell the Trust’s coffers by purchasing drinks and home-made cake, in the amospheric tea room. Books and souvenirs – Christmas gifts perhaps – were also for sale and the afternoon would end with an informal gathering, when we could mingle freely.

The panel of published writers introduced themselves in turn as two novelists; a crime fiction author, a playwright; a freelance ‘jobbing writer’, specialising in travel; a ‘WOMAG’, writing short fiction for the women’s magazine market; a poet and a documentary film-maker/creative writing tutor. But, as Jan pointed out, these ‘labels’ are not prescriptive – she herself began penning historical fiction, moved on to factual historical books and has recently brought out a spoof crime novel, ‘The Accidental Assassin’.

The ‘conversation’ kicked off with Anne Lewington being asked why she had described herself as ‘the last resort’. Amid good natured laughter, she explained that, after many years of treading the conventional route towards publication, she had decided to publish her Renaissance Soap Opera, ‘Immortali’, herself. It has now been taken into the mainstream category of Independenpress, and is currently available on Amazon in both hard copy and e-book formats.

This response set the tone for lively discussion. Initially the picture seemed to be depressing, with M.J. Trow warning us that if – after an obligatory number of rejections – we were lucky enough for our work to catch the eye of an editor, we could expect only a small advance, (if any) and considerably smaller royalties than he had received when starting out – and even those weren’t sufficient for him to retire on! John Goodwin answered a question about how to get your play on radio or television with a comparison of ‘how it used to be’ with ‘how it is’, the latter posing far more difficulties, although the former had never been easy. Mari Nicholson commented that the fees for freelance journalism had also been dramatically reduced, although she shone a ray of hope by telling us that it was possible to sell photographs to accompany an article. You don’t require an expensive camera, or the ability to take perfect shots – a good, clear image of the subject is enough. To a collective sigh of exasperation, Felicity Fair Thompson pointed out that some agents no longer accept unsolicited manuscripts – narrowing the options for new writers even further.

Tess Kimber lightened the mood by telling us that – with hard work and dedication – it is possible to make a living out of writing short stories for women, which can be re-sold to magazines abroad. As with any writing, it’s important to carry out plenty of research and read submission guidelines carefully, to avoid missing the mark. And she advised any budding WOMAG to start their next story as soon as one is sent off, as replies can take a while. She aims to have several pieces ‘out’ at one time and, if one comes back, she regards it as a new marketing opportunity, rather than a failure. When asked where she finds so much inspiration, she mentioned ‘WriteInvite’ – an on-line competition held at five-thirty GMT, every Saturday evening. Contestants choose one of three prompts and have about twenty minutes to write like crazy, submitting before six p.m. There is a prize of fifty pounds and – whether she is shortlisted or not – Tess reworks entries into longer stories, many of which she has subsequently sold. As someone who takes a morning to compose (and edit!) a shopping list, this narrow timeframe terrifies me – maybe I should ‘feel the fear’!

It was poet, Lynn New, who raised the thorny issue of e-books. Her autobiography, ‘The Child Within’, is for sale on Amazon and she was asked whether she would also like it to be available as a digital download. Anne urged her to take up this option, pointing out that, while sales of paperbacks in America fell by 60% last year, those of e-books increased by 160% – absolute proof that this is a burgeoning market. Wendy K. Harris agreed – the fourth book in her Undercliff Series – ‘Trampling Snowdrops’ is exclusively available, in e-format, from Amazon.

In answering Lynn’s query, Anne also pointed out that if your book is self-published, you can list it for as long as you wish, so it has a chance to grow in popularity, rather than being withdrawn if it doesn’t make an immediate profit. And the author receives a large percentage of the cover price, in the form of a monthly cheque, which comes in handy! With the variety of self-publishing packages to choose from nowadays, this route should no longer be dismissed as ‘vanity publishing’. It has many advantages, the most important of which is that the author retains copyright and control.
Some argued that you can’t beat the feel and smell of a book, the rustle of turning pages – and that’s certainly valid. But when a member of the audience pointed out that there are a number of e-readers available, even the cynics had to agree that this format is an exciting additional opportunity – and there’s always the chance that a successfully marketed e-book will get noticed and taken up by a conventional publishing company. Of course, without hard copies to sign and sell, marketing via the internet is best carried out with the aid of social networking sites, like Facebook, Google +, Linked In and Twitter, and by running a blog and/or website. These can be intimidating to the uninitiated, but even conventional contracts are now stipulating that the author engage in new media applications, forcing those dinosaurs among us to evolve or become extinct!

The final comment of the session was from a lady in the audience, who didn’t consider herself a ‘proper’ writer, but had recently submitted an article to The Reader’s Digest. She was thrilled when it was printed this Autumn and she was paid for it. Her message was that it’s possible for anyone to succeed, you just have to have the courage to ‘give it a go.’

The tea-room buzzed with conversation – I heard one regular visitor comment that they had never known it to be so full and full of life. We writers are a chatty lot, when we get together. Must be a side-effect of all those hours of ‘pensive solitude’. After the break we ‘networked’ in smaller groups, catching up with old friends and acquaintances, making new ones, reveling in the company of other writers.

The afternoon was such a success that Jan is considering running a regular writer’s group – possibly in the afternoon. Unfortunately, I would not be able to attend, due to my ‘day job’ – the above comments have convinced me not to give that up just yet! But if that weren’t the case, and if she does, I would love to become one of the new ‘New Writers’ at Dimbola Lodge!

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3 thoughts on “Conversation and Cakes

  1. Thank you so much for this wonderful resume. I was very disappointed when I realised I would be missing this special occasion, so have found your detailed descriptions really helpful. I must have a look at WriteInvite, though I must admit the thought of writing so quickly sounds challenging!

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