Saturday, 30 April 2011

Is that a Kindle in your pocket? by Susanne O'Leary

I grew up in a house full of books. Reading to me was as important as eating. Whenever I found myself in the city centre, I would, after having satisfied my clothes shopping addiction, always look for the nearest bookshop, where I would be happy to spend an hour or more browsing, touching books, reading blurbs, admiring covers, flicking through the pages. It was a physical, visual pleasure as much as an intellectual one. Buying a book was the culmination of my book shopping pleasure and opening a new book was like embarking on a new and exciting journey. I thought it would always be like this.

The advent of the electronic reading devices was something I scoffed at. It would never affect me. As both a writer and an avid reader, I felt that an e-book device was somehow debasing the sacred art of writing and reading. Like reading comics rather than books. Cheap, nasty, common. The fast food of reading. The instant coffee of literature. Or something like that. I turned my nose up at it, thinking I would never stoop so low. How wrong I was!

I saw an e-book reader on display at the airport about three years ago. It was a Sony and I glanced at it without much thought but finding the print of the ‘pages’ quite alluring and the way they turned electronically intriguing. But I quickly turned away and walked past it into the bookshop. It was on my mind though. For a while.

Two years later, I was slowly coming to terms with the huge change in the publishing industry. Getting published was becoming a bit like trying to squeeze a lemon through a keyhole; interesting, time consuming but nearly impossible. My lemons were too big for the keyhole in any case. Someone suggested e-book publishing. I said no and then went home and thought. For a while. A long time. A month. Looked up a few writer’s sites on the Internet. Saw what other writers were doing. Heard about Smashwords. Looked them up. Thought; ‘hmm… okay…’

Then I did it. I e-published one of my books. First on Smashwords, then on Amazon Kindle. I felt that I was indulging in some kind of guilty pleasure, like sneak eating cold pizza in the dark. Didn’t tell anyone, thinking this would never take off and how many people have these awful devices anyway? Wrong again. As I was blindly surfing on the web, trying to ‘market’ my book, having no clue how to go about it, I stumbled into one of the forums and suddenly found myself among tens of thousands of Kindle owners. It was like opening a window in a quiet room and suddenly finding a huge crowd outside, cheering and shouting (and even throwing rotten eggs sometimes). The sales started to trickle in and I published more books, abandoning the moral high ground and mingling with the crowd, finally accepting, embracing and becoming part of the e-book revolution.

As a writer, I was happy. My books sold well and received mainly good reviews. But as a reader, I was still in real-book mode. I would always love books and would never either call them DTB’s (Dead Tree Books) or stoop so low as to read anything on a… Kindle. Oops, wrong again!

I had to buy one, I was told. I had to see how my books looked in an e-reader. It was a good tool for proofreading, a fellow writer told me. An expensive tool, I thought, but okay, I probably should. My Kindle arrived about two months ago. I loaded it up, bought a book just to ‘see’. The rest is history. The Kindle is a wonderful reading device. The text on the screen is soft and restful to the eye, the Kindle itself is light and easy to fit into a handbag, I can load it up with literally hundreds of books and bring them with me on holiday without adding to the weight of my luggage. I can read in bed without disturbing a sleeping spouse, courtesy of the light in the cover. And I can read all the wonderful, reasonably priced indie books that are now available. I have to finally admit it; the e-book reader is a magic device for bookworms like me.

My name is Susanne and I’m a Kind-aholic. (I still love books, though)

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Need an agent? We've got TWO!

Words with JAM - An Agent's Eye View

Hear it from the horse's mouth.

Every issue, the best agents in the business will give us the view from the other side. Not only do you get insights, tips and expert advice, but YOUR questions will be answered personally.

We spoil you, we really do.

Andrew Lownie, founder of the Andrew Lownie Literary Agency, joins Words with JAM to give writers the inside track. Author, journalist and celebrated agent specialising in non-fiction, Andrew understands the problems facing writers in the current shifting climate.

As well as advice on what to do, what definitely not to do and how the market looks from his standpoint, Andrew will answer WwJ readers directly. For lots more perceptive analysis and experienced opinion, read his website:

And especially for our June YA/Children’s literature issue, Julia Churchill of Greenhouse Literary Agency, will give us her perspective on writing for young people. Julia founded her reputation as a talent-spotter and deal-maker at the Darley Anderson Agency, developing their prestigious children’s books list.

Since joining Greenhouse in 2009, Julia’s ceaseless enthusiasm for the treasure hunt of the submissions pile is undiminished and she can often be found in the cafes of West London, working through a pile of manuscripts. She regularly attends British writers’ events and is on the lookout for both new and established authors with storytelling magic. Check out the Greenhouse site for some excellent top tips and wise words in the FAQ section:

If you have an agent question, send it to

Friday, 22 April 2011

The Large Middle, by Dan Holloway

Publishing has been democratised by the web; Amanda Hocking and John Locke have shown that the indie author can not only go it alone and find the market that had been closed to them under the old, legacy publishing model, they can get a publisher that way too.

OK, so you’ve probably figured that has more to do with the old jargon-busting favourite, BS bingo (see John Scalzi’s hilarious version thereof than it does with a serious article on publishing, but this kind of muddle-headedness is peddled out so often that we really do need, as writers, to be reminded as often as possible exactly what *has* changed. And what hasn’t.

Back in 2009 I wrote an article making the case that the digital revolution changed absolutely nothing about the literary canon ( It was simply a new way of delivering the same content. I believe I also said nothing new had happened in culture since Duchamp lifted a urinal from the local bogs and bunged it in a gallery. That’s still true. Though I’m open to being told Duchamp was a bit derivative after all.

Why does that matter? We’re not trying to do something new and trailblazing. We’re just trying to make a living – or a portion thereof – doing what we love, right? Maybe. But some of us are also in this culture game to make a mark, to push a boundary, to end up being talked about in 100 years’ time (though I’ve written many times recently I think if and when something new happens it will be thanks to someone totally untrained). The point is, to listen to people you’d think that anyone with broadband was part of a revolution. A revolution of content.

And the one thing I want to get across in this piece is that the former of those statements is true, but the latter isn’t.

Many of the people I most admire were among the first to test the water with ebooks, and among the first to find testing that water could make a sizeable splash (see, with metaphorical talents like that why don’t I have Amanda’s sales figures?). One of my heroes is Ali Cooper, author of The Girl on the Swing ( and the just-released Cave ( She’s an incredibly talented writer, but she has also worked both hard and smart to show that there is a genuine place in the new landscape for those who write fantastic literary fiction. In 2010 she was a trail-blazer and her success has carried on into 2011.

But Ali’s success, and that of the likes of Marion Stein and other literary Kindle pioneers, has been somewhat overtaken in news and sales terms by the likes of Amanda Hocking, Stephen Leather, and John Locke.

But I don’t think Ali is going to fade without trace. I think her story gives us the following key points.

1. There are two reasons why literary midlisters were Kindle pioneers – they have a natural inclination to the new, and they of all groups they had the strongest disaffection with the old industry. So they were the first to head for the new frontier.

2. Readers are still readers, so what is being read remains the same. Genre fiction will always have the biggest readership so long as we have the same readers. Maybe when reading migrates to phones the demographic will change. E-readers haven’t done that. So why would we expect the charts, genre-wise, to look different.

3. E-books mean that the kind of books that paperback publishers just don’t have the money to take on, market and make viable have a home once again, and can make the kind of very respectable living that midlist print authors once made.

4. In other words, what *is* revolutionary is not the content that e-books deliver, but there is a quiet revolution in that delivery. And the gainers have not, as early adopters once claimed, been the long tail so much as the large middle.

So, if you write genre fiction, wayhay! If you write great literary midlist fiction, the streets of Kindle aren’t paved with the gold you once heard about. But they might be coated with enough coppers to make you, in time, a decent at-least-partial living.

Dan Holloway writes in many genres. He is the author of the acclaimed midlist novel Songs from the Other Side of the Wall (; the Oxford-based thriller The Company of Fellows ( which has spent 5 weeks in the Amazon top 100 thrillers chart; the postmodern novel The Man Who Painted Agnieszka’s Shoes (, all royalties from which are being donated  to the Tsunami Relief Fund; and the collection of transgressive poetry and prose from his prize-winning live shows (life:) razorblades included ( This summer he will be touring festivals and fringes with the spoken word show The New Libertines (

Friday, 15 April 2011

Booked Up: Author Q&A with Danny Gillan

Booked Up: Author Q&A with Danny Gillan: "After a bit of a break I'm happy to bring you a new Friday Author interview. Paraphrasing Danny, as a youth his main ambition was to fi..."

Sunday, 10 April 2011

Keep-Fit for Writers:

Work those muscles with Anne Stormont

I have been asked to contribute the first item in a new ‘Words with Jam’ feature, which will offer writers, at all stages of their writing careers, some writing exercises and prompts.

Writing exercises serve several purposes. They can be done as a warm-up session for writers wanting to ‘get in the zone’ for developing their work-in-progress. They can be done to provide variety to the writing experience, or to take a writer out of their comfort zone. Sometimes they serve as useful prompts when an author has got a bit stuck, or to kick start a sluggish imagination. Exercises can be set up to provide a training regime in a particular genre or in different ways to approach writing. They can also prove to be valuable sources of inspiration for longer, fully developed pieces of work.

But most of all, writing exercises ensure that a writer, who may be very busy with ‘real’ life demands, does at least some sort of training almost every day. They keep the writing muscle healthy – short jogs and sprints that prepare you for the marathon that is a short story collection, a book of poems or a novel.

And as with gym or jogging time, it’s a good idea to diary in a time when you do a burst of writing exercise – first thing in the morning, or in your lunch hour, on the train… It doesn’t matter as long as you make that appointment with your personal muse.

You may want to buy a new notebook and pen for your exercises or you may prefer a word processor. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that you write.

I would recommend giving yourself a set time – ten minutes or twenty – again whatever suits you - and try to write continuously for that time. Also don’t edit or censor – really go with the flow.

I thought I’d start us all off with some short exercises which are suitable for beginners, but may well be useful to folks who are further along the writing career path.

‘I Remember’
Lots of little memories or one big one, or your earliest one. A chance for some sensory exploration here.

‘The Place I Love the Most in the World’
Honeymoon island, mountain top, your bed, childhood home…Be as detailed and vivid as you can.

‘My Biggest Challenge’ 
Explore your feelings of – fear, gratitude, grief, disbelief, anger, achievement…

‘Night Sky’
Recall an experience of a starry night, of how you felt in relation to the universe.

‘Steal a Sentence’ 
Open any book you have to hand. Pick a page number and write down the first complete sentence from that page. Now develop a story from that sentence. (Taking the first line of a poem works well too).

Good luck with your workouts. And remember be direct and write from the heart.

(I’d like to acknowledge Natalie Goldman’s book Writing down the Bones which has often come to my aid when I’ve needed an authorly workout. Some of the above ideas are adapted from her suggestions).

Writers’ Manuals Distilled : Dwight V. Swain

by Jill Marsh

Each issue, WwJ reads one of the many manuals aimed at the aspiring writer. Reducing it to its essence, we’ll pass on wise advice, tips and tricks, and inspiration. Here we look at the first part of Dwight V. Swain’s Techniques of the Selling Writer.

(Gender pronouns as in original).


A writer’s job is to bring forth a feeling from the reader. Find the feeling first, and urge to tell. Then fend off all the voices – inhibition, self-censorship, restraint. Look at rules as signposts from previous travellers, not fences. Dependence on mechanics results in something limp and inert – feeling is at the centre of every story.
Be subjective, depend on your own view of the world and when you have your raw, honest version, then you can begin the refining, the winnowing, the edit.
Separate creation and critique – they stifle each other. Be willing to be very, very bad. Those ready to make mistakes move forward.
Feeling tells us what to say, techniques gives the tools with which to say it. But each person goes about it differently. There’s no one answer to any writing question.


Firstly, you select – who, when, why, where, when, how.
Next you arrange – cause to effect, or effect back to cause? In chronological order or via flashbacks or a frame?
Then you describe – bring images, sounds, tastes, scents and feelings to life with vivid use of words. To achieve vivid use of words, your two key tools are nouns and verbs. Nouns should be specific, concrete and definite, while verbs must be active. The verb ‘to be’ is weak because it’s static. Cut ‘to be’ forms every chance you can, and avoid the past perfect ‘had been, hadn’t done’ wherever possible. Active description can sidestep adverbs and be sparing with adjectives. Making a comparison to another image (metaphor or similie) is an excellent device for achieving vividness.
Your choice of words depends on denotation (actual meaning) and connotation (implied associations). Thus a horse, depending on what you want to imply, can be a steed, filly, nag, pony, stallion or neddy.         
Language problems often fall into six categories:
1)    Sentence structure becomes monotonous. Strive for variety but refrain from stylistic acrobatics which detract from the story.
2)    Subject and verb become separated. Keep a connection between the key elements of actor and action. Interrupting with a string of modifications or explanations is overweighting one sentence. If extra information is vital, give it a sentence of its own.
3)    Adverbs are improperly placed. Put them at the beginning or the end.
4)    Repetition of words or phrases. This is a product of careless copy-reading. If you want repetition for effect, do it three times. Twice looks like an error, more is hammering the point.
5)    Correct grammar as fetish. Sometimes rules should be broken for the right effect. Do it for the right reasons but stay within the rules most of the time.
6)    Meaning is unclear. If a reader has to read a sentence twice to understand what is happening, you’re in trouble.


Decide what’s good and bad. An event happens and the reader must know from the circumstances what effect that will have on the characters. Give the reader a compass, allowing them to interpret events via feelings. Stories are subjective and readers make judgements on the characters’ actions. These judgements are precisely what excites interest and keeps them reading.
Story world: for the reader, it’s subjective, it’s sensory, and it’s new. You have to make it real by filling it with recognisable description and comparison interpreted subjectively by your Focal Character (FC).
Story = change ... your FC moves from one state to the other. Something shifts and by the end, so has the character’s state of mind. All events must be relevant and contribute to that moment.
= cause & effect ... the fact that one thing leads to another, that there’s a reason for everything gives the reader a sense of security, a feeling that he understands.
= motivation and reaction. A motivating stimulus occurs, a factor outside your focal character, and causes a reaction from within. These motivation-reaction (MR) units are what carry your story forward.
Emotional reactions need to be presented sequentially. Thus, an MR unit goes like this: feeling into action into speech. This pattern of emotion represents an increase of control for the character. Feeling is impulse, action is choice and speech a considered step. One of the stages, if obvious, can be left out on the page. But it’s there in the reader’s mind.
The motivating stimulus must be pertinent to your story, significant to your character and provoke movement. The reaction retains the same three elements but must also conform to the character, appearing reasonable (for him). You, the writer, decide what effect you hope to achieve from such a reaction – what does it say about your FC?
Writing an MR unit
Write a sentence without your character, followed by a sentence about your character. You can expand either or both to include two or three sentences, but keep stimulus and reaction clearly separated. External stimulus – character reaction – external world’s response – character reaction and we begin to build the chain of interaction.


Scene and sequel. A scene is a unit of conflict, lived through by character and reader. A sequel is a unit of transition to link two scenes. A scene should follow a pattern: goal, conflict, disaster. The reader must understand the goal, which needs to be specific, and aware of the forces of opposition, which generates conflict. Within the conflict, you can add more challenges & complexities, upping the stakes and increasing the challenge. Finally, a curveball arrives, throwing your character into a situation where he faces a choice. This is your hook – what will he do now?
Scene-writing Dos ...
Do establish time, place, circumstance and viewpoint at the start – confusion infuriates readers. Even if the FC isn’t in this scene, it must have a focal character to orient the reader.
Do establish scene goal quickly. It must be specific and achievable within the time frame.
Do ensure strong, unified forces of antagonism for power and clarity.
Do build to a curtain line. The disaster may not be actually disastrous, but it raises the question - what’s next?
... and Don’ts
Don’t write too small. It’s hard to develop a meaningful scene in under a thousand words.
Don’t go into flashback. Scenes need forward movement in the present. Flashbacks at moments of conflict are unrealistic, straining the reader’s patience.
Don’t summarise. Let the reader live every moment of the tension.
A sequel’s function is to translate the previous disaster into a new goal, to telescope reality and to control tempo. Sequels show the FC’s reaction and new direction, based on logic. This takes longer and may lack movement, so summary is essential. In terms of tempo, this is the valley after the peak, a breathing space. Sequel’s structure is reaction, dilemma, decision.        These may involve incidents and interactions, but no conflict. Skip the emotionally non-pertinent, use the symbolic fragment to indicate state of mind, create an impressionistic montage to convey the essence. You are dealing with feeling; with thought.
The problem of proportion involves how much time you devote to each segment. Use the emotional clock. The more tense the situation, the more time you give it. When a character experiences tension, provoked by an external stimulus, he is faced with a choice as to how to act. This where you need detail. In such scenes, facts and mechanics should be summarised.
Scene/sequel balance: if it’s boring, build the scenes. If it’s improbable, build the sequels.


A story is not a thing, it’s something you do to a reader. A reader reads because it creates a pleasurable sense of tension, one the writer controls, manipulates and eventually releases. The reader’s empathy with the characters satisfies a need. A plot is a plan of action for manipulating tension. The start creates it, the middles intensifies it and the end climaxes and resolves it. The end must feel right to the reader – character influences outcome, man masters fate.
Put your character in danger. Demonstrate if he deserves to win or lose. Fit the story’s outcome to his behaviour and provide poetic justice. The reader lives the story with the FC, shares the tests and convinces himself he would act on principle.


Story elements: character, situation, objective, opponent, disaster. Write two sentences – one statement which establishes character, situation and objective. One closed question which nails opponent and disaster.
When humans start growing to twelve-foot high, John Storm wants to find out why.
But can he defeat traitors in high places who would kill him and fake an extra-terrestrial plot?
Get started: use desire, danger and decision. Start with a change – a character in an existing situation is affected by an event, triggering consequences. Begin just before, just as or just after this change, whichever serves your story best. But answer the three reader questions: Where am I? What’s up? Whose skin am I in?
Introduce your FC via some act that characterises him through action. Don’t labour backstory; the past hold no suspense. The end of the beginning comes when the FC has committed to action, to answering the story question. Will he? Can he? The reader must care.
Develop the middle: don’t stand still. Every unit must build, focused on the story question, taking the FC from frying pan to fire, adding complications and constantly changing. Provide respite in sequels and begin to snip off loose ends as you build to climax.
Climax: set up the situation where the FC faces the ultimate dilemma. Make him act on his irrevocable choice and reward/punish him for his decision. Box him in, make principles preclude the easy option, the alternative must spell disaster but the goal remains vital to the FC. Use a gimmick – an object or phenomenon which exerts a powerful emotional pull on the FC. Register this early in the story – the talisman, thunderstorm, sound of a sitar – and bring it back at the climax, tipping him in the desired direction.
Resolution: after the climax, the FC suffers a moment of anguish – did he do the right thing? Reverse the situation with an unexpected development; the obvious won’t do. Give him his reward. The satisfying ending is not the same as the happy one. His original desire may have changed completely, but an emotional need is met. What was behind the FC’s original goal is what you need to fulfil/deny, depending on whether your ending is positive/negative. Tie up any loose ends and indicate the characters have a future.
Give a character direction through two elements: lack and compensation. The goal addresses the former and motivates him to the latter – which will put him in control. Thus characters must have history (most of which will never make it onto the pages). From this history emerges a character who fights or flees from the challenges of life. These habitual reactions and behavioural patterns must be shown so the reader draws his own conclusions. Readers identify with characters not just because they share their world view or they want to be like them, but because the contradictions within a character interests them.
Villains deserve as much attention as heroes – he is the personification of threat. If the danger is too weak, so is the story. The motivation of the villain must be just as strong as that of the hero to provide true conflict.
Preparation, Planning, Production
Prepare: Focused free association gives you ideas to get excited about, but that’s only one way an idea might arrive. Don’t censor your thinking – a good idea emerges from a host of bad ones. Attempting a superior product at this stage is futile.
Make lists whenever you need an idea for a setting, a character, an incident or a title. Even when you think you’ve got it, write a half dozen more. Always search for the unanticipated.
Research the facts you need and use the information you already have. Know enough to make it authentic, but don’t drown yourself in unnecessary background.
Plan: Don’t plan too rigidly; it denies you the pleasure and privilege of following the impulse and inspiration of the moment. All you need for story outline is a focal character, a situation in which he is involved, the objective he seeks, and opponent and a potential climactic disaster. Back to the story question, basically. Then you fill out, stage by stage, the details that lead you from the original state of affairs to that of the end.
Production: Work regular hours, set up a quota and have a place to work. Remove the critic and allow the creator to write. Once you have a draft, then begins the process of editing.
Revision deals with structural changes. Ask yourself three questions.
Does the story go in a straight line? (Is the story question clear and established early? Is every incident relevant and the development logical? Does the climax answer the story question through the hero’s act and does the resolution tie up loose ends?)
Does the story build through scenes and sequels?
Does the reader care what happens to your hero?
Polishing deals with language. Here you check your prose for clarity, eradicating clutter, maintaining consistency, ensuring sequencing is logical, increasing impact of word choice and sentence construction, and lastly, watching out for your own personal idiosyncrasies.
Every writer finds his own route, but the tips above should save you some heartache and the world some wasted trees.

Theory into Practice – Swain: One WwJ contributor explains what worked for her

Sheila Bugler is an Irish crime writer living and working in London.

I was introduced to Swain through a book written by one of his former students, Jack M Bickham. Like his mentor, Bickham was an American author who taught creative writing and wrote his own ‘how to write’ book – Writing and Selling Your Novel.

At the time I read Bickham’s book, I was trying to write my first novel. I had never done a creative writing course or given any thought to the techniques of creative writing. In fact, the very idea filled me with horror. Writing, after all, is a creative business, right?

Well, yes and no. In between writing pages of drivel, I would pick up Bickham’s book and flick through it. There were two chapters, in particular, that I kept going back to. One on character - Characters Make a Difference - and one which Bickham described as ‘the single most important’ in his book, Scene and Sequel. The techniques outlined in both chapters were attributed to Swain, and once I’d absorbed them, my writing changed forever.

After reading Bickham, I got my own copy of Swain’s Techniques of the Selling Writer. Some of it was immensely helpful. Other aspects I more or less ignored because they didn’t resonate with me. I didn’t, for example, ‘get’ all that business about motivation-reaction (MR) units, and his advice on language didn’t interest me particularly. However, other things made such sense that I started to apply them to my own writing with almost religious fervour.

So what changed? First of all, I took Swain’s advice on separating creation and critique. I put my inner critic to one side and got on with the business of writing, doing my best to keep feeling at the centre of everything I wrote. If I couldn’t feel it, then it wasn’t worth writing.

I also thought much more about the purpose of everything I wrote. Before beginning a piece of writing, I would categorise it as scene or sequel, and then further break it down into its component parts. So, at the top of each chapter I would make notes that looked like this:


GOAL – Clodagh wants Stone to believe she had nothing to do with Dave’s murder.
CONFLICT – Stone is determined to charge Clodagh with murder.
DISASTER – Stone reveals that Clodagh’s mobile phone was found beside Dave’s body.
I would do the same for the next section, typically sequence, which I’d break down into – EMOTION, QUANDRY, DECISION and ACTION.
Sounds mad? Possibly. But it worked. At some point, I dropped the habit and don’t do it these days, but that’s probably because the approach is second nature to me now and I don’t need to. The important thing is that when I started out and was learning the tools of my trade, Swain’s approach gave me a focus and a framework which I needed. Without it, I’m sure everything I wrote would have been about as interesting as a bus timetable.

As well as Techniques of the Selling Writer, Swain wrote a book called Creating Characters: How to Build Story People. I haven’t read this but in Bickham’s views on character rely heavily on Swain. One thing that really stood out was Swain’s advice on exaggeration. Actual, real-life people translated to paper as literally as possible does not make for good reading, according to Swain/Bickham. Throw caution to the wind and create wildly exaggerated characters just to see what will happen. I tried this. It was fun. Such great fun that I continue to do it in my writing. It doesn’t always work and sometimes I get it very wrong indeed. But other times, running with my imagination in this way produces surprising results.

Beyond the Bookstore: widening your audience

by Dan Holloway

So maybe by now you’ve not only been in to your local bookstore to ask them if they’ll stock your book, but also enquired about a reading, arranged it, rounded up way more suspects than is usual for such things, delivered segments of your masterpiece, and are either:

Absolutely buzzing and desperate to do the whole thing all over again.  Or
Shell-shocked, traumatised, and reaching for your phone to call a lawyer to pursue the idiot who suggested the whole idea in the first place.

Well, as the idiot in question, I will simply point out that, in a technical and legal sense, it’s not my fault. It’s not, it’s not, it’s not!

Let’s assume that anyone still with me wants to know “Where now?” Well, where you go next will, of course, depend a lot on your book. You may not want to take your account of reed-gathering in 16th century Norfolk to a poetry slam; and you might want to avoid performing your urban masterpiece 69 Swearwords for Skateboarders to your local history society. On the other hand…well, you get my drift. So almost certainly not all of these will be relevant to you (unless your Booker-in-waiting is along the lines of Vampire Erotica for Reed-gathering Skateboarders), but I hope some, or even many, will.

Let’s start with those reed-gathering skateboarders…

Clubs and societies

If your book has a particular slant or subject, and you’ve written it with that slant because it fascinates you, then the chances are you will already be involved in some local societies that reflect that interest, or at least know about them. Clubs and societies regularly hold talks, show and tells, and presentations, and are particularly good places for you to approach because there is no question of cold-calling or hard-selling. You have written a book on a subject that interests their members. You want them and they want you!

You may have to be flexible in what you are prepared to do – but that’s the key to all marketing. You may be asked to give a talk as well as a reading, or to discuss a particular aspect of your book. This is actually a fantastic opportunity. One of the most frustrating things about being a writer is doing vast amounts of research that readability and good editing demand you leave on the cutting room floor – this is your chance to show off what you’ve learned.

There are all sorts of places you can go to find out about local groups who would be interested in you giving a talk/reading. I’m sure Kat will back me up in saying the very best is the local library. The Council website, local newspaper, and museum as well. And don’t forget, unless your book really does have a specifically local angle, there’s no reason to stick to groups in your area. If your talk goes well, ask to be put in touch with similar groups elsewhere.

Open Mic

At the other end of the spectrum, increasingly popular these days are open mic nights. These are evenings when anyone and everyone can pitch up and perform. Once the preserve of teenage guitar bands, increasingly general open mic nights are welcoming the spoken word, and more and more events are popping up devoted to the spoken word. A quick trawl through Oxford’s listings site, Daily Information, regularly reveals 3 or 4 such nights in any one week, and some, like Catweazle Club and Hammer and Tongue, are so successful they’ve spread beyond their original venue. Giving a good performance at a leading night like Hammer and Tongue is not only a great feather in your cap, but can open lots of doors.

The format of most open mic nights is that you turn up a little bit before they start, put your name down on a list, and get assigned a slot to do your thing. As most of them tend to be regular events, it’s a very good idea to go along to the previous staging to get a feel for things, see how it runs, say hello to everyone (really important – the more contacts you get the better, of course, but most of all it’s common courtesy not just to pitch up and then never be heard of again), and possibly most of all get a feel for whether your material is appropriate. You’ll also need to check what the deal is with selling your book. Each night will have its own policies and arrangements.

It’s always important to make your performance sing (not literally – well, not necessarily literally), but some nights, especially those advertised as slams, are competitive, and when that’s the case, your performance will be as important as your material.

The best place to find out about local open mic nights is a listings site if you have one. If not then Google will help. Another great site is Poetry Kapow (not just poetry), who list events across the whole of the south east of England.

Literary nights

Literary nights can fill any part of the spectrum between a local history society and a poetry slam. Slightly more formal than an open mic session in that they tend to have an official line-up, you will need to approach organisers in advance. Because of the broad spectrum, you can find out about literary nights in your area anywhere from bookstores to Time Out.  And for the same reason, it is essential to go along in advance to see what the atmosphere and material is like.


One stage on from clubs and societies is the world of conferences. These can take many forms. Often they will be large get-togethers for all the local interest groups in the country (if you go to speak to such a group, ask them if there is an AGM or conference), and if you’ve already spoken to one of the local groups, that’s a great way to introduce yourself to the organisers.

Often overlooked are academic conferences. These aren’t – well, not always; well, sometimes they aren’t – the stuffy black tie and tweed affairs of esotericism you might imagine (don’t worry, some are, so if that’s your market despair not!). They often, especially as the government’s research agenda for higher education increasingly demands engagement with society as a whole and not just within the academic community, welcome presenters whose interest is in the same field as the conference theme, but who approach it from a creative angle (the awful buzzword is “practice-based”). So, for example, I was in clover a couple of years ago, 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, when a lot was going on to mark the event. The novel I had just written, Songs from the Other Side of the Wall, centred on a teenage girl born just as the Wall came down, and her struggle to find her identity in the rapidly changing world taking shape in its former lee. I Google-d conferences on the topic and ended up making some fantastic friends (and connections – it was as a result of going along that I ended up having a piece published in the really fantastic XCP street notes) when I went to talk at the conference “Ghosts of the Past” at the University of East London.

Conferences are super places for authors, and I would – your subject area pending of course – recommend them above any other place to go and read. There are two reasons for that. First, especially with academic conferences, you are reaching out to an audience that is both interested in what you do, and new to you. And, which is incredibly useful, drawn from far and wide. Second, there will often be space in the registration area for you to make a display with copies of your book. And during breaks you can sit there, grabbing, er, politely talking to passers-by, and selling and signing.

There are plenty of other places you can approach. If you write for children, then schools are an obvious choice, and libraries are always worth speaking to. Less likely venues include art galleries, independent music stores, and cafes. If you live near a university, you could see if they hold a ball – these regularly have spoken acts, and will often even pay basic expenses.

What I have found most helpful of all in Oxford has been getting to know other people in the arts – the opportunities to do performances with others from across the arts are rife. We have several wonderful groups in Oxford, from networking groups of people within the local arts community to galleries and arts collectives who regularly host shows and are always looking for people in other fields to make their shows stand out.

Bullet points

Find out if your reading is being recorded and uploaded to YouTube. If so, make sure you get the link sent to you so you can embed the film on your blog, e-mail, or just send a link next time you are asking to do a reading. If not, see if you can find someone who’d be prepared to record for you, and start your own YouTube channel.

Do as much reconnaissance as possible in advance. It’s polite, but it will also help you to network, and to make sure you read your work in the most appropriate setting.

As in so many things, the local library is your best friend – a mine of information as well as a possible venue!

Find out if there is an arts group near you that you can join, and get to know other people in the area who might be interested in working with you.