Getting ready for the Edinburgh International Book Festival

Last year, I spent more time in the book shop than I did at the actual book festival. I can’t remember what happened to keep me away, but this year, I to play it differently. I didn’t hang on the phone and book hundreds of pounds of tickets but am taking a more leisurely approach. The first tickets I booked were not just for me but also a gift to my father-in-law.

My father-in-law and I have bonded over books. We don’t read all the same writers, but we both read quite a lot. After he told me about Benedict Jacka and lent me a book by him he’d enjoyed, I set out to introduce him to more urban fantasy/crime. My first step was to buy him three of Ben Aaronovitch’s Peter Grant books.

I’m a fan of Peter Grant. I took to him, and the people around him, immediately and enjoy spending time in his universe. I’m delighted to say that my father-in-law does too. He’s re-read the books at least once and is looking forward to the next one with some impatience.

He also reads Jim Butcher and we’ve had interesting conversations about the differences between the American way of telling a story and the British way. What makes one set of characters human and endearing and the other occasionally irritating? (We have other series to use for the comparison too: we’re getting erudite on this genre, Jim and I.)

So the tickets I got for the book festival? Ben Aaronovitch talking about writing a series. We’re looking forward to it and I expect we’ll have a grand evening.

What the publisher said: how to get published, from the horse’s mouth

As part of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, Edinburgh City of Literature arranged for writers to meet with industry experts – an agent, a publisher, a creative writing coach, a publicist and an Edinburgh literary expert. We got 15 minutes with our chosen expert on a sunny Sunday morning. My expert was Francis Bickmore, Editorial Director at Canongate Books, a well-known Edinburgh publishing house. Francis is an experienced editor and has worked with Nick Cave, Yann Martell and other big names. I’d sent him a 500 word writing sample, a writer’s CV and questions. I also sent him some background: my questions were about making writing into a career. Here’s what I learned:

  • Write, speak and network. Do what you can to get seen.
  • Apply for everything you can to get the time and space to write and get your name out there.
  • Finish a book before even thinking about contacting agents or publishers.
  • Get an agent.
  • Make friends with other writers, especially established ones writing in your genre. They’ll give you access to publishers and agents.
  • Surround yourself with writers. You’ll need the support.
  • Don’t give up the day-job.

I also asked about the size of their slush-pile and how many new writers they take on. The figures were scary and illustrated how important an agent is. They are the first level of quality control. They are your way in, but also a publisher’s way to filter out a lot of the chaff.

It was an encouraging experience. I know that I’m doing the right things, but have realised that it might take a bit longer to get where I wanted to be than I thought. Never mind. Step the first is to finish my first novel. Bring on September.

The Edinburgh International Book Festival: things to see and do

Last year, I went rather wild at the book festival. This year, I’m taking it easy. I’ve only booked events at the weekend or in the evening and I’m only doing one workshop. But what a workshop.

1-2-1 Writing Clinic

According to the program, the 1-2-1 Writing Clinic on Sunday 19th is for new writers who wants advice from professionals who have been through it all. To help the adviser, we’ll be asked to submit materials in advance. I’ve got 15 minutes with a publisher at 10:15 in the morning. I’ve got 15 minutes with Francis Bickmore, Editorial Director for Canongate Books. I’ve prepared my one-page CV and am choosing between a number of candidates for 500-word writing samples. 15 minutes isn’t long so to get the best out of my time, I’m thinking hard about the questions I want to ask and, of course, writing them down.

People to see

If the weather is good, Charlotte Square is quite a nice place to just hang out. You don’t have to have tickets for things to have a cup of tea, browse the book shop and do a bit of author spotting. (But don’t crowd the author’s yurt. It’s bad form.) The festival programme has all kinds of fun and I’m attending a couple of debates as well as author talks. Here are the events I’m particularly looking forward to:

Things to do

Then there’s Unbound, the free event in the Spiegeltent. They offer all kinds of booky fun in a relaxed atmosphere and for no cost other than what you spend on drink. I’m hoping to go to:

  • Wednesday 15: Magic Words – Illicit Ink at unbound! Fun times with magicians.
  • Friday 17: Literary death-match. I’ve never been to one. It’s time to change that.
  • Friday 24: Swimming and Flying, a talk by Mark Haddon.
  • Monday 27: It will be all write on the night… To close the festival brave souls will finish an audience-lead story on the night. No time for edits here. R. A. Martens and George Anderson are part of the fun.


Acceptance #2

On Saturday, I had a second acceptance. This wasn’t for a paying market, but I’m still very pleased. Martin is, in his short form, finally getting published somewhere. On May 25th, The Wolf at the Door, the short version of Liz & Bob that I read at Illicit Ink last year, will appear on Flashes in the Dark. Flashes in the Dark is a flash fiction site that serves up a daily morsel of horror.

I’m pleased that someone liked my story enough to share it with their readers but I’m also pleased that I found out just in time to add it to my list of publications before submitting a story for Story Shop.

Story Shop is part of the plan. I’m hoping (fingers crossed, wood knocked on, superstitions engaged) that they’ll take my story so I get to read at Edinburgh International Book Festival. It would be the coolest thing ever.

The mostly silent story telling of Shaun Tan

A few years ago I worked off Broughton Street in Edinburgh. My closest decent café was Artisan Roast, which roasts and serves the very best coffee that Edinburgh has to offer. (Too bad I prefer tea.) One day, I found this book there, The Arrival, by Shaun Tan. It was a tale of emigration and immigration, 128 pages long, all illustrations.

It was amazing.

In The Arrival, a man leaves his family to go abroad and start a new life. Eventually, they will join him, but before they can he has to find somewhere to live, a job and learn to understand the new place he’s in. The beautiful pencil drawings show a world similar but also very different from ours. I recognized the emotions and fears of anyone that has to go somewhere new, be it a new school, job or country. Learning the ropes, making friends, finding a place in a new context takes time and courage.

I have since acquired most of Shaun’s back catalog. His illustrations are beautiful and his words, when he uses them, open new worlds and new perspectives.

Shaun Tan spoke about The Arrival and his other works at the Edinburgh International Book Festival last year. He told a story – Eric, a lovely tale inspired by an exchange student – and explained that he writes with a very particular audience in mind. Shaun writes tales that his brother will find acceptable. The story doesn’t have to be simple, but the language must be. This straightforward voice works very well with the other-worldly illustrations.

I’m trying to emulate two aspects of Shaun’s story-telling: the simplicity of his language and the other-worldliness of the world he draws. My writing lacks the lyricism of Shaun’s drawings but I want my stories to take place in a world similar to his. A world very close to ours but different enough that anything can happen. And I try to tell them simply.

Recently, I sent the first story I wrote with the principles of simplicity and other-worldliness in mind to my mother. She really likes it. She likes it so much she thinks I should illustrate it.

Build a world and live in it

Even a short piece of writing  belongs in a world. It might not be this world, but it is a world with laws of  its own. World building is the process of setting that all up in your head. Or  on paper, if that’s how you need to do it. Most of the world you build has to  stay off the pages of your writing. This is important to remember. A book that  trickles in the laws, facts and ideas of the world as you read it is great. One  that explains every aspect of the world as you go through it, isn’t. You’re  reading the book for the story, not to get your head around a new set of  laws.

All about the world (yawn)

I read the (unpublished) book of  an aspiring fantasy author once. In the first 25 pages, the main character and his best friend mounted horses and started travelling. As they travelled, we  found out about the genetic makeup of the people in the land, how they  calculated weights and differences and the comparative value of their money. Nothing really happened, it was all exposition and explanation. It  is really important that the author knows all of that stuff but the reader is seldom interested in it. It’s scaffolding and piping when what we really care about is the wallpaper and furniture.


I love the expression “world-building”. Shaun Tan used it (but did not coin it) at the Book Festival when talking about all the drawings that he does around characters and compositions. He talked about illustration but it applies equally to writing. The world we write about has to make sense, be logical and consistent. I have lots of material that sets up the world but will never make it into a story. When I create a character, they often (but not always) have a detailed back story that won’t make it into the main story.

My need to know is much greater than that of my readers.

Story Shop: a challenge issued and accepted

My friend Helen Jackson was one of the Story Shop performers this year. Story Shop is a free Book Festival event run by UNESCO City of Literature. It gives local talent an opportunity to read their story to an audience. They also get a day pass to the writer’s retreat, the tent where all the authors hang out. (How cool is that?)

Helen had a great day and a good turn out for the reading of her two-part story Drawing the Line. When I quizzed her about it over coffee she issued me with a challenge:

Next year, you do it.

How could I say no? I needed a definate and ambitious goal.

All you have to do to be eligible to submit a story to Story Shop is get something published. Then you need to write a story that the Story Shop editors want to feature. That’s all. Yeah.

Getting started

Step the first is to get published. You don’t have to have a book published (phew) but need to have something in a publication where they have selection criteria. An anthology works, as does printed magazines or other sources where they pay for your work. So, over the next few months I’ll be tidying up and submitting short stories. If I don’t get published by the end of May next year, I won’t be eligible to apply for Story Shop. Must meet that goal.

Wish me luck.

The perfect submission: Nicola Morgan at the EIBF

Today, I attended a workshop on how to write the perfect submission by Nicola Morgan. She wrote the book on submissions (Write to be Published). To date I haven’t bought the book but there’s still time.

The workshop was a quick summary of the main points that you should keep in mind when submitting a proposal to an agent or a publisher. It was quite inspiring. Yes, there’s an aspect of luck in whether you get pubished or not: you need to have the right book and send it to the right publisher at the right time. Do that, and all is good. Unless, of course, your submission letter is so terrible that no one looks at your excerpt, of course.

I learned a lot today and am write a submissin letter for my NaNoWriMo effort for the practice of it. It might help clarify what I wrote.