By Jacqueline Grima
Graduates and students gathered at Manchester Metropolitan University for the third National Creative Writing Graduate Fair on Friday.
The event, hosted by Comma Press and the Manchester Writing School and supported by Arts Council England, gave aspiring writers the opportunity to meet professionals from the publishing industry as well as to pitch their own ideas and works-in-progress.
The day began with a keynote speech by writer and University of Birmingham Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing Luke Kennard. Luke talked about his own path to publication, telling guests about the challenges he encountered along the way. He said, “I wanted to talk personally about the frustrations involved in writing.”
Luke had a number of day jobs before becoming published and encountered many obstacles in his writing career. Persevering with his writing and regularly taking part in open mic events, he eventually went on to be published by independent press Salt and to become the youngest poet shortlisted for the Forward Poetry Prize. Talking about the writing process, he said, “You are going to have to write full-length pieces that don’t work…you have to be brutal with yourself and admit when something isn’t working. At the same time, you have to be patient with yourself and tell yourself, this will come eventually.”
After his talk, Luke told Humanity Hallows why events like the Creative Writing Graduate Fair are so important for aspiring writers: “Having the opportunity to meet professionals from the industry is vital for writers so that they can gain experience and also gain the confidence to send their work out. Seminars and writing workshops are really useful for generating writing and for finding ideas that are right for you.”
After the keynote speech, guests were invited to attend a series of seminars hosted by established members of the writing and publishing industries. In one session, chaired by Manchester Met lecturer Martin Kratz, writers SJ Bradley and Adam Lowe talked about the difficulties of living and working as a writer. SJ explained how she earns most of her income from jobs associated with writing, such as teaching and directing a literary festival. She said, “I don’t have a big book deal where I got a huge advance. Most of my income comes from other sources.” She explained that this sometimes leads to difficulties in making time for writing, adding, “Think about your writing time as work.”
The panel also talked about the frustrating presumption that writers shouldn’t be paid for their time. As Martin Kratz said, “This is an industry where you are constantly expected to do things for free.”
In Meeting the Shapeshifters, writers Sai Murray, Irenosen Okojie and Anjum Malik talked about the benefits of being inspired by other forms and activities. Anjum, who is currently working on a drama inspired by a recipe book, said, “When you’re writing intensely, it’s like mowing a lawn. If you over-mow it, the next day there will be no grass left to mow. It’s nice to go out and do something completely different, watch TV, go to the gym, and that lets the grass grow.”
Talking about experimenting with form, Irenosen said, “You have to play around and see what you enjoy and which forms inject energy into your work. If it doesn’t work in one way, try another form.”
In another session, founder of Influx Press Kit Caless, short story writer Michelle Green and Bookouture’s Associate Publisher Kathryn Taussig talked about the benefits of digital publishing.
Kit is the co-creator of #LossLit, an online magazine and Twitter project that invites contributors to post tweet-length stories about loss. He said, “It’s a space for people to test out ideas and writing and get feedback. It’s a positive way of putting your work on social media without fearing judgement.”
Michelle Green is involved in creating a digital map of Hayling Island, the setting for her collection of short stories. She said, “As soon as a map is printed it’s out of date…with digital, we can look at places in real time.”
Kathryn became involved in digital publishing after starting her career with a traditional publisher. She said, “Over time, I got a little bit disillusioned with that model. There were authors that were amazing writers who were getting one shot and, if it didn’t work, that was the end. Digital publishing was a chance to rebrand those authors and give them another shot.”
In Working with Agents and Editors, Freelance Editor Tilda Johnson, Editorial Director of Quercus Books and Manchester Met BA English graduate Emily Yau and Literary Agent Charlie Campbell talked about the difference between agents and editors and the potential experience of working with each on a manuscript. Emily said, “It’s important to have an editor who sees the book in the same way you do. It’s always the author’s book at the end of the day.”
Tilda added, “I like to ask a lot of questions and help the writer see what’s not working. The ideal relationship is when the author says they’re going to solve a problem in their own way.”
In the afternoon, guests had the opportunity to pitch their work to a number of established agents and publishers. Professionals in attendance included Carrie Plitt from Felicity Bryan Associates, Lucy Morris from Curtis Brown and Kerry Glencorse from Susannah Lea Associates. In between pitches, attendees were able to attend workshops hosted by established members of the industry. Sessions included Saying Goodbye to Stage-Fright with Afshan D’Souza-Lodhi, Writing Crime Fiction with Jacob Ross, Writing the Perfect Synopsis with Mslexia’s Debbie Taylor and Publishing 101 with founder and Editorial Manager of Comma Press Ra Page.
Speaking to Humanity Hallows about his reasons for bringing the Graduate Fair to Manchester Met, Ra said, “There are a huge number of people now graduating from MAs that have a creative writing element and this is one of the only industries that doesn’t seem to have an industry day that enables writers to meet and make connections with professionals.
“Manchester Met is the perfect location for this event as, not only does it have a very strong writing school, but it also is very integrated with the city and its residents and that’s really important. As Manchester has just been named as the UNESCO City of Literature, what better place is there to hold this event?”
Other workshops on offer included a Book Publicity Masterclass with Bookollective, Historical Fiction with Manchester Met Senior Lecturer Livi Michael, Editing advice with Kavita Bhanot and Exploring the Short Story with Tania Hershman.
Guests seemed to have fully enjoyed the event, many taking to Twitter to express how much they gained from the fair:
Inspiring, educational and I even enjoyed pitching! Thanks to everyone at the #NCWGradfair
— Georgia Davies (@jawjard) November 3, 2017
— kate f (@ekaterina_fawl) November 4, 2017
Manchester Writing School Manager James Draper said, “This is a fantastic collaboration between the Writing School and Comma Press that creates synergies between writers and the literary and publishing world.”