Sunday, 22 May 2011

Don't Forget Your Wellies by Dan Holloway

It’s festival time, season of indeterminate noodles, oxygen bars and trenchfoot. Now I’ve got nothing against such gatherings. I’ve been to my fair share (even written about one particularly muddy one). But what I’m talking about is decidedly more, er, indoors.

This coming week sees the start of Hay Festival (where mud is decidedly on the cards), which is the spiritual home of all things bookish. So what better time to talk about why it’s a really good idea for writers to make it a resolution to go to at least one event at one festival this year. Of course, the fact that I have a words and music show, The New Libertines, that will be performed at Stoke Newington Literary Festival on June 4th and Oxfringe on June 13th is by the by.

OK, before I start, in the light of the piece I’ve written alongside Cat for this month’s Words With Jam about the event NOT The Oxford Literary Festival, I should come clean. There are lots of things about literary festivals I’m not keen on. The big ones especially. The line-ups are pretty much all the same – whoever’s got a new book or a new TV series out does a talk about it, some of them even in conversation with Melvyn Bragg. They sign copies and move on to the next one. Local authors and experimental writing rarely get a look in. And they are corporate beyond belief with their impromptu Blackwell’s store and their official festival whisky.

But the fact remains that every writer should go to a big festival at least once, even if it’s just for one event. Though if you can afford it, I would recommend going for the day, because the milling around between events and soaking up the atmosphere is not only invigorating (and good for celeb-spotting) but an important part of starting to breathe the air, feeling what it’s like to be a writer (taking a cue from Rebecca’s excellent piece a few days ago). Which is reason one.

The second reason is similar – depending on your viewpoint you will get to see either what the future might hold or what might be expected of you. This is especially important if you fall into the latter camp – if you see the publicity side of things as a real drawback of wanting to be a writer. Find an author you really like. Go and listen to them speak. Analyse how you feel – excited, interested, a little nervous in a good way at seeing them in the flesh (yes, quite possibly cold and wet and wondering when you can have a hot cup of Bovril but we’ll forget that for the moment). Then store that away in your memory banks, and remind yourself that when it’s you up there, that’s exactly how your audience will be feeling – it’s the first part of seeing audiences not as something intimidating but as a really exciting friend.

Third, even if they’re going on to say the same thing ten more times in ten more places, this is still plain and simple a great chance to see one of your heroes. I run Not The Oxford Literary Festival, a counterculture gathering during the Oxford literary Festival set up directly in opposition to its overpriced facelessness. But last year I still went along to see Patti Smith read from Just Kids, got her to sign the book, got goosebumps from being that close to one of my greatest idols.

Fourth, if and when you feel less overwhelmed by the surroundings and less like oh-my-golly-I’m-only-little-me (which may be after you’ve been to a few events, after a few glasses of Official Festival Whisky, or the moment you pitch up at the car park if you’re a shameless self-publicist), festivals are great places to meet people. I don’t just mean people who might give you a contract – yes, the literary world is full of tales of writers who met their agent at a festival bar, and yes about 5% of these may be true and not just the hazy recollections of heavy duty beer goggles, but there are far more tales of agents running for cover and telling their friends never to have anything to do with that pushy little oik over there. I mean people who love what you love. And, of course, in this day and age, people you know off twitter. It’s a place for starting and cementing friendships.

Fifth and finally for now, try to go to a smaller, less well-known festival. A local one is great because you can meet the bookstore owners you may very soon be asking to stock your self-published book, you can get to be part of the local literary community, you may even get asked to speak next year. The programmes can also be more diverse. You can get to find whole new seams of literature you never knew were there, see people doing things in ways you’d never thought of. They can be truly inspirational. I’m particularly looking forward to Stoke Newington this year. After our show I’m hightailing it across Church Street to see one of my student crushes, Louise Wener from Sleeper, and the whole weekend has an Edgar Alan Poe-ish feel to it, which will make for a marvellous atmosphere.

So, dust off your metaphorical wellies, start googling and browsing programmes, and make this the summer you head to your first festival. And see you all in Stokey!

Dan Holloway is the author of Oxford based thriller The Company of Fellows, the novels Songs from the Other Side of the Wall and The Man Who Painted Agnieszka’s Shoes, and the collection (life:) razorblades included. He is happiest behind a microphone and will be appearing at festivals and fringes across the UK this summer.

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Designer Labels by Rebecca Woodhead

You are wearing a label, whether you know it or not, and everyone can see it. What label did you pick? Unpublished Writer? Writer-To-Be? Did you even choose your own, or did you just accept one that someone else handed out? Maybe it no longer fits, but you wear it anyway, because it’s familiar, it doesn’t make you stand out from your peers, and nobody is offended by it. It is safe. The idea of throwing aside a worn out old label and designing your own may be a little fear-inducing, but what if you gave it a go?

For a long while, ‘Author’ seemed out of my emotional price range. Even ‘writer’ stretched the wallet a bit. I wanted to give myself the aroma of that label though, the scent of future success, so I took the word that seemed furthest from my budget – ‘Author’ – and formatted it into an off-the-peg arrangement that I could wear: ‘Author-In-Waiting’.

If you cannot afford a Gucci outfit, you can still own a little of their magic. You can buy their perfume. For a long time before the reality arrives, you can smell of the dream. The same is true of writing dreams. One day, I put aside my ‘Author-In-Waiting’ ensemble and picked up the expensive designer bottle, labelled ‘Writer’. Something changed. Other people started to take me more seriously, because I started to take myself more seriously. Instead of passively waiting for success to come to me, I wore my label and made it happen.

Once you wear a label, your subconscious battles away to make the outside and inside versions of you match. That happens whether or not the label is positive. If you continually label yourself as something ‘in waiting’, you are always waiting. If your label is ‘unpublished’, guess what? You will stay that way. The scary thing about choosing your own label is that it is a public declaration of intent. Once you have done it, you can never go back.

Oscar Wilde said: ‘I find it harder and harder every day to live up to my blue china.’ Wilde’s blue china was an outward symbol of the Aesthetic Movement. For you, the symbol of being a published author might be a physical book. Label yourself, and grab a symbol of that. Call yourself an author, then get your book printed – even if you print only one copy. Put it in a place where you cannot avoid looking at it. Make it your blue china, and work every day to live up to it.

Rebecca Woodhead

Labels are a major theme in my debut novel, Palaces & Calluses, which is available for Kindle, iPad, iPhone, Sony Reader, Nook, Kindle for PC, and in PDF format.

Rebecca Woodhead is an author from the Cotswolds. Her debut novel, Palaces & Calluses, is available from in a variety of formats. She writes for Writing Magazine and Groupon, has appeared in books about Twitter in both the USA and UK, and is one of the 'Top 100 Most Powerful Women on Twitter' in the world, according to Twitter Grader. Her blog is

Thursday, 12 May 2011


Just a quick post to apologise to anyone who has submitted a short story or article proposal recently. Lots of people seem quite keen for inclusion recently (I wonder why?), but it means we're fairly behind with reading and replying. We promise to get back to you all shortly.


Wednesday, 11 May 2011

African Adventures

A long time ago, I promised that if I heard that any of the books I released into the wild with Bookcrossing had an exciting adventure, then I would let you know.
Well, it appears that the very first book I ever released did go on quite a journey.
Back in February 2010, I left a copy of Ian McEwan’s Atonement in Café Africa. Café Africa is a really cool coffee shop in Amersham that was set up as a not-for-profit venture supporting charities locally and in Africa, so it seemed like exactly the sort of place to send my first book on its way. But it was only quite recently that I found out just how right I was.
The book was picked up by Katie, who works at Café Africa when she is home from university. As it happened, Katie was spending April-September 2010 in Tanzania, working as a teacher in central Dodoma and helping with a child sponsorship program, trying to reach out to the poorest families in the village and helping to fund their children into full time education. And she decided to take my book with her.
Part way through her stay, having read the book, she was having a bit of R&R in Dar es Salaam when she met a German woman who was travelling on to Zanzibar the next day and wanted a book to read on the beach. So now we know the book went from Amersham to Dar es Salaam to Zanzibar.
Unfortunately, the woman who took the book to Zanzibar never journalled it, so we have no idea what happened to it next. But Atonement certainly had a good start on its travels!
What’s more, Katie is travelling back to Tanzania this summer and has promised to take another book with her. So watch this space.

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Aubergine - a podcast

At the beginning of April, I visited the 'Not the Oxford Literary Festival'. You can read all about it in the June edition of Words with Jam. But I went not least because I was hoping to persuade the very talented performance poets and story tellers there to do some podcasts for us.

Well, here is the first of those. Helen Smith is the author of Alison Wonderland, Being Light and The Miracle Inspector. In this podcast, she tells her very funny story, 'Aubergine', in which something very strange is happening to Claire. Could it be connected to her age? Or the face she's a woman? Or is she experiencing more than a general feeling of malaise.

Helen's blog can be found at

You can listen to the podcast at, or you can find us on itunes. And don't forget all our other podcasts are still available to listen to.

Saturday, 7 May 2011

How to Make the Most of Online Writing Forums

by Nick Daws

I'm a great believer in writing forums. That's why I started my own.

Well, sort of. I run the forum myWritersCircle in partnership with my publishers, The WCCL Network (who actually own it). I'm also a regular visitor to several other writing forums, including those at Absolute Write and WriteLink.

In my experience, people are sometimes put off forums - also known as message boards - by the belief that they are too technical, unfriendly, or even elitist. And to be fair, some forums are not places for the faint-hearted, with certain individuals waiting to leap down the throat of any newcomer who strays outside the forum's myriad rules.

MyWritersCircle isn't like that, I hope (and believe). We have built up a reputation as the web's friendliest writing forum, reflected in the fact that we now have a total world-wide membership of over 34,000. We have guidelines, of course, to help everything run smoothly, but we aim to keep rules to a minimum and apply them with sensitivity. I must also pay tribute to my team of volunteer moderators, who do a great job of keeping things upbeat and constructive when - as occasionally happens on any forum - negativity threatens to erupt.

There are many good reasons for joining a writing forum. Here are just a few of the potential benefits you can expect to enjoy...

  • get feedback on your writing
  • ask (and answer) questions about writing
  • request help with your research
  • find collaborators or interviewees
  • discover new writers' markets
  • recruit beta readers for your book or novel
  • publicize yourself and your books (within whatever limits are prescribed by the forum)
  • in many cases (including MWC) enter writing challenges and contests, some with prizes
  • or just shoot the breeze with your fellow authors

For all these reasons, forums can be of great value to writers - and most (including MWC) are free to join. In my experience, however, many people don't use them to their full potential. So here are my top ten tips for writers who are new to writing forums, to help you get the most from them...

1. Spend a little while getting to know the forum before you start posting. Read a range of posts to gauge the level and see if you would feel comfortable there or not.

2. Read, especially, any etiquette guidelines that are provided - those for myWritersCircle can be viewed here. This will help you avoid inadvertently getting off on the wrong foot.

3. Most forums have a board for new members to introduce themselves, and this should be where you make your first post. On myWritersCircle we call it the Welcome Board. Introduce yourself here, and tell other members a bit about your writing interests and experiences.

4. Getting feedback on your writing can be one of the main benefits of joining a forum. Before you post any of your own work, however, it's a good idea to read and comment on a few contributions from other members. Not only is this a simple courtesy, it will help you think about how best to present your own work when the time comes.

5. Don't be too thin-skinned. Some forum members can be quite forthright in their criticisms (although personal abuse should not be expected or tolerated). Remember that, while praise is always nice, it is only through criticism of our work that we learn to improve.

6. Be careful about advertising. Forum members (and owners) can get very touchy about this. New members who join solely to pimp their wares are likely to get short shrift from other members. On myWritersCircle we allow members to advertise writing-related products and services in their signature text (a small message that appears below any message they post) and once only on the forum itself. Posts promoting non-writing-related items are likely to be viewed as spam and summarily deleted.

7. Be nice to the moderators. On most forums (including myWritersCircle) moderators are regular members who have volunteered in a public-spirited way to help keep things running smoothly. They have certain extra powers, e.g. the ability to delete or edit any post. If you need help or advice, the mods will be happy to provide it. Equally, if any members are causing disruption on the forum, they will take action to warn or, if necessary, ban them.

8. Remember that forums rely on give and take. If you want feedback on your writing, you will be more likely to get it if you also take the time to read and comment on other people's (see also item 4, above).

9. Forums aren't just for getting feedback, though. If you have a writing-related question, they can be great places for getting them answered by other members. Questions can cover anything from the use of grammar and punctuation to the effects of different poisons!

10. And finally, if you're looking for writing-related jobs and opportunities, most forums also have a section for this. On myWritersCircle we have a Writers Wanted board. Writers Wanted can also be used if you are looking for a collaborator or someone to interview for an article.

I hope you find the above tips helpful. And if you're now ready to give an online writing forum a try, I'd be delighted to welcome you to myWritersCircle any time soon!

Byline: Nick Daws is a professional freelance writer, editor and writing teacher. Apart from running the myWritersCircle forum, he is the author of over 100 non-fiction books, as well as numerous published articles, short stories, distance learning courses, and so on. His new electronic guide to writing for the Amazon Kindle, titled Kindle Kash, will be published later this month. Check out his blog at and his homepage at for more information!

Friday, 6 May 2011

Launching 22 Britannia Road

On a mezzanine floor above the café at Dance East in Ipswich, in a space that is more used to hosting a small reading group, it’s standing room only. Perched on a bar stool in order to be seen over the heads of the crowd, is Amanda Hodgkinson, there to promote her first novel: 22 Britannia Road.

With her shoulder length blonde hair and yellow cardigan, Amanda looks elegant as a flower. And she answers questions in a calm, warm voice as if she has been doing this all her life. No one in the audience would guess that this is her first major promotional event for her book. But then this is her home crowd. Amanda, though she now lives in France, grew up in these parts.

The very first question brings a revelation: the Britannia Road of her imagination is not the same Britannia Road of Ipswich’s geographic reality. “I always knew I would set my first book here. But moving away from East Anglia turned it into the country of my imagination. That was very freeing. I wasn’t looking over my shoulder all the time thinking, ‘but it’s not really like that.’”

She talks about how she had imagined her move to France. “I would be sitting on the terrace, sipping wine as the words flowed.” The reality was very different. “The house we bought had no floor, no kitchen. It had running water, but not always where you wanted it to run.” Instead of sipping wine on the terrace she was learning to lay floors and fit kitchens.

But she did spend a final, intense year working on 22 Britannia Road. “The last couple of two weeks, I was writing until I just had to lie down and sleep. Then I’d wake up again and write through the night.”

The result is a wonderful, lyrical novel that explores what is means for a small family to have been separated by a war, to have undergone terrible experiences and have secrets from one another – and then to have to pick up the threads of their lives again after the war. The main characters are, like many others in East Anglia, Polish. The father fought with the Polish arm of the RAF; the wife and son are refugees, traced to Red Cross camp after the War.

Amanda reads us two passages: one from the opening of the book, where Sylvana and her son Aurek board the boat that will take them to England, and one where an increasingly frustrated Janusz insists on taking their troubled, almost feral son to the doctor. She reads beautifully, expressively, in a way that is sure to charm audiences.

After the reading, the audience is free to ask questions. She is asked about the research she did, and whether she feels a responsibility to the Polish community for telling their story. She immersed herself in a lot of reading , she tells us. But then she put that aside and let her imagination take hold. “I’m not a man, nor a boy child. And I’m not Polish. But a writer has to be free to imagine these things. That’s our job.”

Has she had any feedback from the Polish community? Not really. Not yet. But then someone from the audience pipes up. A mother and daughter. The mother is Polish. Like Sylvana, she survived the War in extreme poverty. Like Sylvana, she came to Ipswich after the War and settled. They haven’t read the book yet, but from what Amanda has said tonight, yes, that is what it was like. Amanda beams with pleasure and tells them she hopes they will enjoy the book.

Unusually for a first novel, 22 Britannia Road has already been sold around the world. It is being translated into French, German, Romanian... the list goes on. It is already published in both Australia and North America. And Amanda is about to leave on a tour of Indy bookshops in the US. If tonight’s performance is anything to go by, she is going to knock 'em dead.

Monday, 2 May 2011

Think You're Funny? Want Some Money?

The time has come to announce Words With JAM's latest ridiculously generous competition. This time we want you to bring joy to the world, a smile to the lips of men and women everywhere and, most importantly, make us snort coffee from our nostrils.
Yep, this one's all about giggles, grins, chortles and sniggers.
One scene, any format - as many spontaneous laughs as you can create.
It's about time you funny buggers got a look in, we reckon.

Click here for all the juicy details: