Doing a ‘talk’ about writing and books

In the past month I’ve done a number of ‘speaking engagements’ with local organisations about my books, both the content and the writing and publishing process. Being a self-published author I welcome and need such opportunities to promote my books directly, as the ‘normal’ channels of commercial publishing are closed to me, although authors who do have a ‘normal’ publisher tell me that they too have to arrange most of their own promotion. I really enjoy talking about my writing work and people tell me I do it well. I’ve been trying to work out what I do that seems to be appreciated.

It took me a while to realise that all I’ve learned about ‘presenting’ as a teacher over the past thirty years can be transferred into this new part of my life. I’ve been designing and running workshops and giving talks of various lengths to various size of audience for long enough to know what works. So here are some of the things I try to do:

1. Think about your audience ahead of time. Find out who they are, what brings them together, what they’re likely to be interested in and expect. That’s not to say that you always aim to do what they expect, but it helps to know what the ‘rules’ are if you want to challenge them. For example, if some of the people in your audience are pretty knowledgeable about your topic already, ask for their questions not at the end but before you start, and then adjust your talk to respond to these questions if you can.

2. If you feel you must use an audio-visual aid like Powerpoint, do so with care and as little as possible. ‘Death by Powerpoint’ is a well-known phenomenon in all forms of public speaking and many people are heartily relieved to be able to look at the speaker and not the screen, and sit in light not in the semi-darkness often required for good definition on your slides. Slides work much better for non-verbal visual images, so leave the words to be spoken not read.

3. Outline briefly what you’re proposing to talk about, and check whether that will suit people. That would be a good time to take a specific ‘requests’: ‘is there anything within that outline that you particularly want me to talk about?’ Listening is so much easier if you have an idea what you’re listening for, and have had the chance to shape it. I’m always surprised how much people appreciate the opportunity to be involved in this way, even if they choose not to take it.

4. Be aware of the time limit you’re working to and stick to it. People have lives to lead and to go on too long puts them in the awkward position of not wanting to tell you to shut up and sit down, even though they need you to do so. If there are essential things to add and your time is up then stop, say that your time is up, and give people the option to move on, leave or ask you to continue for a few more minutes. Here again, giving them the choice is respectful and appreciated.

5. Try not to use notes and never, ever, read from a prepared ‘lecture’. If it’s an academic lecture, or very specific and detailed, you might need the information to hand to ensure that it’s correct, but the kind of talks I’ve been doing to readers’ groups and women’s organisations don’t need that level of attributable precision. It should sound more like a conversation, even if it is pretty one-sided. If you’re reading you can’t be looking at the people you’re talking to and picking up the cues and clues they give you. It’s about respect too: the people are as important as your words. They invited you and don’t want to sit looking at the top of your head or -worse still – your half-turned back as you read off a screen.

6. All this assumes that you really know your stuff, but if you’re talking about a book you’ve written yourself you have been immersed in it for months and know all there is to know about it. The more you talk about it, the more the words flow. Practice, practice, practice: if you need to practice at home with just the cat to talk to, then do it.

7. If you want to read passages from your books, the choice of what to read is too hard – I think- to do on the spot and needs to be thought about ahead of time. You can use extracts to illustrate a specific point as you make it, about using accents in dialogue for example, or writing about weather, or introducing a new character through ‘show don’t tell.’ Plot spoilers are out, of course, and in a good book there might be quite a few extracts that fall within that category and have to be avoided. Some extracts might have particular relevance with or resonance for a particular audience: in my local fiction people love to hear mention of a place or event that they recognise. Once you’ve decided on a short list of extracts, mark them up carefully so you can find them fast, and don’t attempt to read them all, making your final choice according to the people you’re talking to, the circumstances, and what you decide at the time would be most suitable. Two or three extracts, of a few paragraphs each, no more, will be enough. Here again, practice reading them ahead of time. Even though you wrote the words yourself, speaking them out loud for an audience is an art form in itself. Too fast or too slow and your listeners tune out. And leave them wanting more, finishing on a upturn or something unresolved. You would like them to read more for themselves, and you’re providing just an appetiser not the main meal.

8. There’s much more to say hereabout respecting and entertaining your audience, but this is probably enough for now. It’s a blog post not an essay after all. One last thing: you need to be positive toward the people you’re talking to, thank them for the invitation, and for their attention when you’re done. Talking about my books is a privilege for me, and a delight. And, incidentally, I’ve sold more books directly in this way in the past month than I have in the past year on Amazon.


Explicit violence in crime fiction: is it necessary?

Interesting piece in the Telegraph this week about the apparent increase in explicit violence in crime fiction. I read a fair sprinkling of the genre, and know that I have learned my limits in what I choose to read, and to watch. Reading words leaves less of an imprint on my brain than seeing and hearing images on a screen: and it’s easier to skip pages than it is to block both sight and sound. I skipped many pages in the Stig Larsson trilogy, although by the third book I was skipping to avoid badly edited tedium, wondering if it had in fact been edited at all.

Most of the time I prefer my books and films to infer, and avoid excessive violence. Against children the mere inference of violence is too much for me: I even have to avoid  some of the NSPCC ads on TV. Violence and cruelty against adults, female and male, are difficult, and even more troubling is the trend towards female victims, where the violence tips over into sadism that makes the reader complicit. Not good. I have no doubt violent scenes in books sell copies – why else would there be such a plethora in these times when sales seem to count more than anything else? I want to sell copies, of course I do, but not if it means writing something I really wouldn’t want to read myself.

One of the beauties of self-publishing is that the author can be under no external pressure as they make choices about content, style and everything else. Instinctively, and without any evidence, I picture the editor of a publishing house whispering in the author’s ear how a bit more explicit sex or violence would catch more readers’ attention, and probably media attention too, cajoling and tempting the writer to go against their own better judgement. Maybe that’s just my ‘don’t even think about trying to push me around’ mindset. Maybe it would never be like that, but for me it’s hypothetical anyway. My editor Charlotte is a fine professional and an old friend who knows there would be little point in pushing me to do anything I wasn’t happy about.

My interest in writing crime fiction for the next book, number four, remains strong, and I’m gradually resolving some of these issues in my head. There are bound to be bad and violent people and actions, or there would be no crime in the crime fiction. But I want to make both content and style more subtle if I can, without sacrificing the grip of the story. I just hope crime fiction readers who pick up a book of mine aren’t so jaded that they lose interest unless the details are laid out, full and frontal and covered in gore.

The highs and lows of the ‘literary lunch’

It was my first time. I bought a frock, a summery scarf to set it off, and matching shoes with high heels. My partner came with me. We were both nervous. It was a beautiful day.

OK, that’s the basic background. I’d like to share some details of this new experience without in any way sounding critical, impressed or disappointed, descriptive and without judgement as I’ve nothing to judge it against except my own expectations which were few and low. Reading over what follows, I don’t think this aim has been achieved, but I did try.

It was indeed a beautiful day, and the venue was impressive too, a posh hotel by the lakeside, with large and impeccable rooms and open doors onto the terrace. We weren’t sure which door to enter, but managed to find where the free glasses of prosecco were waiting, bubbles rising lazily. There was no-one there to check us off, explain what would happen, or introduce us to anyone else. The ostensible purpose of this first ‘reception’ was for those who had submitted books to meet the judges, but who were the judges, and where were they? I recognised one of the three, but he remained throughout with people he obviously knew. The second judge, who I already knew, wasn’t there and the third I didn’t know at all. We did not meet the judges. Instead we met someone I had seen recently at a library reading. She was with her husband and they too were also confused about what we were actually doing there, but at least it was someone to talk to.

I did my best to circulate rather than just sit and wait, but huddles of people seemed to be well-established and hard to penetrate, so I gave up. More guests arrived. Still no sign of an introduction or a welcome to the event, or the judges.

It was as if we’d wandered into a strange wedding. Eventually we were summoned by the hotel staff to the adjacent marquee for lunch. On the way we passed the bookstall and I was able to say hello to the ladies from my book distributors. They seemed pleased to see me. My three books gleamed on the table, side by side: they seemed pleased to see me too.

And so to lunch at the strangers’ wedding, and very pleasant it was. Beyond the raised canvas walls of the marquee the lake sparkled and yachts glided past. None of us at the table had been shortlisted, but we’d all come anyway, just to be there and see what happens. We chatted about nothing much, like you do.

It was after lunch when the speeches and awards began that I wondered once again about how some books are chosen over others. My educational specialty is assessment and it raised questions in my head about criteria, weighting, transparency, and so on, none of which were probably applicable. No clear criteria were ever offered, but there was mention of the importance of appeal to a wide audience, followed immediately by praise for the most esoteric book on the list that retailed at £45. There was only one category for fiction among the five for other genres, and I listened with particular care to the deliberations shared by the judges about their choice. No guidance was offered. The winner was a commercially-published crime/thriller/suspenseful piece set in the Lake District. I can’t remember whether it was before or after the author had accepted her award that the speaker asked us to consider whether her novel was really ‘literature’. Some debate at that point would have been interesting and welcome, but it didn’t happen.

At the end of the presentations all the important guests, judges, sponsors and  those whose books had made the various shortlists were invited outside to meet the press and have interminable photos taken. Inside the half empty marquee the rest of us sat through an endless raffle, for which the prizes were copies of our own books, sitting on a table like puppies at the dogs’ home, yearning to be chosen and taken home. It was almost more than I could bear. The only person I wanted to speak to, and had come a long way to find, was outside with the important people. It was four o’clock. I’d had enough. I picked up my summery scarf and we headed out into the glorious afternoon.


Bad things can happen in good places

After finishing the trilogy based on the life of feisty but difficult Jessie Whelan, ‘Between the Mountains and the Sea’, I’ve been thinking about the next book, or possibly the next series, having realised the commercial advantages of a series when each book encourages sales of the others. I’d like to set the series in a location dear to my heart, the west coast of Cumbria, and move towards crime fiction. It’s a well-worn genre, and difficult to do anything entirely new, but that doesn’t bother me: the range is so diverse, and the variables so many that my goal of something suspenseful and fresh will be achievable if I try really hard and use what I’ve learned so far.

Part of the freshness I want would be in the location, a neglected part of the country which has wonderful potential – beautiful, complex, layered, with the inwardness that stems from geographical isolation. It’s also where I live, and that could be the source of dilemmas to come. There can’t be a crime story without bad things happening, caused by people behaving badly. They may not be evil people, but they do evil things, for whatever reasons. I will be setting these evil matters within a community that I’m part of and that I’m very fond of. Do I have the ‘detachment’ that may be necessary, and will I care if what I write upsets those who would rather not have the region’s dirty linen, even the fictional dirty linen, exposed in public?

Hasn’t this been a problem all along?  In the three stories so far, bad things have happened, and so far my neighbours are still speaking to me. But the bad things so far have all been external, an explosion in a pit, a fire in a nuclear reactor, neither of them caused by the wanton action of bad people. Blame, if we wish to allocate it, could be placed at the door of a process of cutting corners, or even human error, or the impact of political haste or a flu epidemic, not stemming from from deliberate acts by malevolent individuals.

If it’s crime fiction there will have to be a crime, and probably a series of crimes, and the criminals will probably be local. Not every baddie could be an ‘offcomer’ newly arrived from the distant iniquitous dens of London or even Leeds. Of course some of the evil-doers will be local: even a cursory scan of the local papers reveals plenty of evidence of local wrong-doing, and occasional acts of startling ferocity such as the recent multiple killings by a deranged taxi driver, Cumbria born and bred, who shot his victims both deliberately and then randomly before turning the gun on himself.

What I will need to do is use all the geographical details of my chosen setting but find the crime details elsewhere, to avoid crossing the line between crime fiction and ‘true crime’. As with most local fiction, authenticity will derive from the details of place and time, not from the characters, who remain fictional. The exception to this rule I made myself in ‘Fallout’ – part 3 of the trilogy – in placing known people from the Windscale nuclear plant in 1957 into the story as part of the backdrop. I took legal advice about doing so and was assured that it was acceptable, so long as nothing any of these people were given to do or say was at odds with the known facts, or in any way detrimental to their characters or reputation. It would be a different matter if any of these ‘known’ characters had been given criminal things to do.

In the first part of the trilogy I grappled with these choices, and decided to anonymise the village where most of the action takes place, which was loosely based on the village where I live. I changed its name and tweaked the neighbouring locations too, although more distant locations were left alone, visible on the map and in life. All the characters were fictional, although one – the vicar at the time – did possess some of the characteristics of the actual vicar at the time when the story was set. Even so, some of my neighbours were convinced that some of the characters in the story were real people. ‘You got so-and-so off to a tee,’ someone said to me, although ‘so-and-so’ was entirely a product of my imagination and – as far as I knew – bore no resemblance to any real person, living or dead. When I protested, my neighbour smiled, putting a finger to the side of the nose in the time-honoured gesture of ‘You can’t fool me’.

So, known setting and unknown characters and events will be required to make this work without doing insult or injury to my home turf. That decision helps. For a start I won’t have to spend many hours combing through back numbers of the North-West Evening Mail or the Westmorland Gazette and can let my dark imagination roam a little more freely. Now I have to get on with it.


Bumps in the confidence road

Things seem to have gone a bit flat, and I’m feeling that way too. The third book is out, on schedule, in the shops and on Kindle. Now what? I’m schlepping round the libraries and WIs in Cumbria, talking about ‘Fallout’  and how and why I wrote it the way I did. I’m defending my decision to tackle the nuclear issue, and all that follows from that. I’m explaining why I left the ending of this last part of the trilogy somewhat ambivalent, which I did, after worrying for weeks about the final chapter. I get little shreds of feedback: a second hand comment that the book was fine but the nuclear stuff was too technical and boring, followed by another that the scenes set in the Windscale plant are riveting. Different strokes for different folks obviously and you can’t hope to please everyone, but it’s unsettling nonetheless. Today an email arrives saying that there are words missing in the Kindle version, and down I go again into the slough of despond, even before I’ve checked it myself and fixed the problem, if there is one.

I suppose it’s down to my inexperience as a writer. For the last twenty years or so in my other ‘work’ in education I’ve been more certain of myself, the skills I have developed seem clearer and the feedback more immediate. None of that seems to happen in the writing business, or at least not in the self-published writing business. I don’t have the luxury of a publishing team or an agent reassuring me about what’s happening, and that the decisions I/we made about the plot and the cover and and everything else were the right ones. I’m plagued by intermittent doubt, and yearn for someone who understands books to tell me that I’ve done a good job with this trilogy, not just as a testament to life on the Cumbrian coast in the twentieth century but for the writing itself.

Next week I’m going to the lunch to celebrate the Lakeland Book of the Year for 2014. I haven’t made the shortlist in the one category that might apply, but I want to be there, just to be around people who are into books and publishing and this wonderful place where we live. I’ve even bought a dress, and may, possibly, have the confidence to wear it. Maybe that will cheer me up.