Scottish Association of Writers Conference 2015

It’s fine to be indie and judging a book by its cover…

Seizing the Day and Getting Our Work Out There seemed to me to be the main themes of the above conference held on 27th to 29th March 2015. It was also the year that conference finally and fully embraced going indie as a legitimate and positive choice as a route to publication.

As writers, most of us can also be expert procrastinators. We allow self doubt, the rejection and criticism of others, the difficulties of getting published traditionally, the effort required to self-publish, the muse being away on leave, the dust on the shelves, the ironing in the pile, the worms in the dog – anything – to get in the way of just getting on with the job. We get distracted. We get discouraged. We get lonely. But writers groups, clubs and conferences – online and in the real world – can be a great antidote to the writing blues. There we find we’re not alone and, hey, we’re not weird after all, no, it’s just that we’re writers.

Although I live on the Isle of Skye, I am a member of the Edinburgh Writers’ Club (EWC). Yes, this is probably taking the club’s definition of ‘country’ member to its limits, but it’s such a good, friendly club with access to annual competitions, informative and inspirational speakers, and general writing support, that I was reluctant to give up my membership when I left the city many years ago. One of the advantages of belonging to such a club is that it’s affiliated to the Scottish Association of Writers (SAW) and therefore my membership of the EWC entitles me to attend the annual SAW conference weekend.

This year’s conference took place last weekend in Glasgow, and I made the long trek south to be a part of it.

It was definitely worth the effort. I caught up with old friends and made some new ones, I was inspired, encouraged, and I learned such a lot.

The keynote speaker was Alexandra Sokoloff,  an award-winning  thriller author and Hollywood screenwriter. Her talk was both inspirational and motivational. She has no truck with doubt, fear or procrastination when it comes to pursuing a career as a writer. Her determination and self-belief have been hard won, as has her success, and she urged all of us to believe in ourselves as writers and to ‘just do it’. She ended her speech with the following Goethe quote – Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it. Begin it now. This is a quote I’ve had above my own writing desk for years.

During the weekend, Alexandra also delivered two very informative workshops on story structure and pace. She talked about the three-act-drama format and about how the hooking process used in films and in television drama can and should be used when writing stories. She’s written a book on the subject if you’re interested to know more.

There were workshops on several topics including  writing non-fiction, writing for children, writing drama, writing dialogue and writing for women’s magazines. All of them included advice and information sharing on getting our work published. All of them embraced both traditional and self-publishing and in the case of non-fiction all of the workshop participants were encouraged to find their markets, no matter how niche and were also advised on where to look.

One of the workshops I attended dealt specifically with getting published. It was delivered by Allan Guthrie. Allan is a literary agent at Jenny Brown Associates in Edinburgh, the biggest literary agency in the UK outside of London. He is also an editor and an award-winning author of crime fiction. And as well as all that he’s a co-founder of publishing company, Blasted Heath. He began by acknowledging how publishing has changed in the last decade and he also pointed out how self-publishing has evolved and how the quality of books produced in this way has improved.

He then went on, in an excellent workshop, to point out why having an agent is a good thing if you’re going to be traditionally published.  He offered advice on how to get an agent and gave us copies of both good and bad query letters. He also gave us a ‘skeleton hook’ – that is a brief (less than 75 words) agent-slanted blurb containing all the essential information about your book.

It was refreshing and reassuring to hear that he, and in his opinion, other agents are open to taking on previously self-published authors. Although he did say that the first thing a prospective agent will do will be to do an online search of the author’s profile with a particular interest in level of sales.

Of course not  all self-published authors want an agent or to be traditionally published. But for those who do, and for those who are hybrid, it was good to see how the conference in general, and the guest professionals in particular, now accept the indie route as legitimate and of an acceptable standard.

Also on that note, this was the first year that there was a competition for self-published novelists included along with the other dozen or so annual conference competitions. I entered my own novel, Displacement  and I’m proud to say I was runner-up. Yeah! First prize went to Dundee International Award winner, Chris Longmuir. The adjudicator of this competition was Michael Malone.

Michael is both an author of several crime thrillers and a sales rep for a major publisher. His job as a book rep involves him going round bookshops and getting the store buyers to give shelf space to the books produced by his employer. In his adjudication speech he emphasised the importance of the book cover for getting a book into bookshops. He advised a matte finish, saying that for booksellers gloss equals amateur, and the same goes for not using cheap, white paper. He said how bookshop buyers will often neither look at the blurb nor the inside of the book, but will make a judgement based purely on the cover. Food for thought there.

I’ve only provided a snapshot view of the SAW conference here. It was an amazing and worthwhile experience – even more amazing when you realise what a lot of work the SAW council must have put in to organise it and make it all go so smoothly. The council members are all volunteers fitting in SAW work around day jobs and otherwise busy lives. It’s obvious when they speak that it’s a labour of love, but labour it is and the results were awesome.

Thanks to President, Marc Sherland, and all the council members, to the workshop deliverers and speakers, to the lovely staff of the Westerwood Hotel in Cumbernauld – and of course to my fellow delegates – for making the 2015 SAW conference such a worthwhile experience.

Oh, and a PS –  I was also highly commended in the conference Book Review Competition for my review of crime thriller Cold Pressed by JJ Marsh. I’ll post the review here on the blog very soon.

Competition Win

Last Friday I was invited to read  out my competition winning entry at the end-of-term assembly at the school where I teach. It was about twins, Fergus and Fiona, and some dinosaurs. I was delighted when the 200 or so children (aged 3 to 12) all sat very still and quiet as I read, and then they burst into applause at the end. Quite a buzz!

Competitions are very good discipline for aspiring writers. You have a deadline and a specific brief – very good for focussing the mind. Some judges also provide feedback which is a very useful bonus.

The journey to publication

It’s a tale of highs and lows, of determination in the face of self doubt, of the hardest work I’ve ever done. But it’s been worth every ounce of effort. To anyone who wants to write but is terrified at the prospect I say – just do it.  How to fit it in alongside a demanding job? Give up all the non-essentials of life – watching TV was the main time-waster in my life. And I have to say that although I doubted myself, all the important people in my life never had any doubts and offered that other essential ingredient – encouragement. So surround yourself with positive souls who care about you – and take advantage of them shamelessly.

Writing has been a lifelong hobby for me. As a child I wrote stories and plays to entertain myself, my four wee sisters and my friends. As a teenager I kept a diary and this strand of my writing evolved in my student and adult years into keeping travel journals whenever I was abroad. I’m particularly proud of the writing I did recording my travels in the Middle East, Australia and South Africa.

Throughout my adult life, writing has continued to be very important to me. It is a creative outlet and has also proved to be therapeutic during challenging times. I cannot imagine my life without it.

 It was around ten years ago that I decided to make the move from amateur to professional writer and so began a long apprenticeship. The decision to take my writing was made following my diagnosis with ovarian cancer. The deal I did with myself was that if I got through it – then no more procrastinating.

 So in 2000 I attended an Arvon Foundation residential writing course at Moniack Mhor. The course tutor was Ali Smith and the seeds for Change of Life were sown while on this course. It began life as a short story that Smith said had the makings of a novel.

Between 2000 and 2004 I wrote several short stories, joined the Edinburgh Writers Club and attended more writing courses.

In 2004,  following the cancer all-clear, husband’s redundancy, relocation from Edinburgh  to the Highlands and during a subsequent year off from full-time employment, I found time to develop Change of Life (the ideas and characters for the book had never quite gone away and were now clamouring for attention).

 During 2006 and 2007 the first draft of Change of Life was completed.

 Then in 2008 I joined the Romantic Novelists’ Association (RNA) New Writers’ Scheme (NWS). I submitted the full manuscript of the book and received very useful and constructive feedback. This led to a major rewrite.  Then I joined, a peer review website, funded by the Arts Council. This led to further rewrites and revisions.

 And finally, in 2009, I engaged a professional editor to polish the manuscript. Entered Change of Life in the Edinburgh Writers’ Club Novel competition, judged by novelist, David Wishart, and WON FIRST PRIZE.

Also in 2009, I submitted the newly edited version of the entire novel to the RNA NWS. It was judged as one of six – out of 250, to be of publishable standard. ‘Change of Life’ was published in December.