Creative, Manchester

“An invaluable experience”: Comma Press and Manchester Metropolitan Host National Creative Writing Graduate Fair

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By Grace Atkinson


Manchester-based independent publisher Comma Press joined Manchester Metropolitan for the fourth annual National Creative Writing Graduate Fair.

The event is dedicated to up-and-coming writers in the North of England, providing an opportunity to pitch to agencies and publishers, to hear a keynote speech from a standout author, and to attend discussion panels and workshops involving some of the leading individuals in the publishing industry, as well as award-winning authors.

James Draper from Manchester Metropolitan University spoke to aAh! before the event, outlining the events goal in bringing opportunity to the North: “The majority of the publishing industry is London-based, so most of the key contacts, the agencies, the publishing houses are based there. This means that it’s easy for people who are based in the South to get to, but more difficult for those based around the country. It can be very expensive for writers based outside of London to travel down and have access to that network of entries into the publishing world.

“Therefore, In partnership with Comma Press on the National Creative Writing Industry Day, we bring all of those London-based publishing representatives to the North so that people outside of London have easier access to them. That’s the key message of today: opening up accessibility to the publishing industry for people based beyond London.”

Comma Press Publicity and Outreach Officer Zoe Turner, added: “It gives writers a chance in the North that they wouldn’t get otherwise. Agents benefit from this as well because they’re so used to being pitched to by people from London, so it gives them an opportunity to branch out, and it helps the writers here to break down that wall that’s in the way a lot of the time.

“Coming to events like this helps writers connect to other writers; it lets them see people that are on the same journey that they are. They’re listening to panels from writers who have literally gone through the same steps that they are about to, and I think it makes it all seem possible for them.”

The event kicked off with a keynote speech from award-winning author Eley Williams. Williams is a lecturer at Royal Holloway University of London and fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. Her book of short stories Attrib and Other Stories was published by Influx Press in 2017. Chosen by Ali Smith as one of the best debut works of fiction, it has since won The James Tait Black Prize 2018 and The Republic of Consciousness Prize 2018.

“I wish I had gone to more events like this, as a creative writing graduate,” began Williams, “where you got to see some of the gears, nuts and bolts, oil slicks and machinations that go on in the book industry. I very much started my MA in creative writing not even knowing what I wanted to write.”

Williams delved into her own experiences of trying to make a name for herself as a writer, of networking with publishers and other writers and making friends with fellow writers such as Liz Berry and Declan Ryan during her time as a student, while maintaining the importance events like the National Creative Writing Graduate Fair had in overcoming some of these boundaries.

“Knowing that I always wanted to write was not quite the same as knowing what it all meant, and didn’t mean that I had any idea of what was involved in getting an agent, in courting publishers, how to pitch. I had a lack of confidence, and I feel like organisations such as Comma Press putting on events like today are meant to help you, they are meant to inspire you.”

Behind her, Williams flicked through slides of the offices and studios of renowned writers, from Proust, to Will Self, to Virginia Woolf, each room giving insight into some of their practices and rituals. Proust’s office featured specially made cork tiles to lock out sound, and Self has a map of London over his window, ironically covering an actual view of London.

“What I want to encourage you to do is consider when you’re writing how much are you closing yourself in […] Sometimes that hierarchy or valuing of silence and isolation does mean you have a certain isolation of self. And I want to say how important conferences like this are as a way to meet your peers, to meet people who are treating well these worlds you really value.”

Williams’ first published work was a ‘chapbook’ of just a few pages called Sketch, published by one-man publisher Annex.

“This was the first time I saw my work commissioned and then in print. It’s a small thing, but that completely changed how I considered myself and how I considered my relationship with writing […] it can be throwaway, it can be cheap and it can be the most important thing in the world.”

Quoting writer and philosopher Susan Sontag, Williams advised the audience to ‘pay attention’ and to ‘stay eager’, not just through the attentiveness you put into your writing but in seeing opportunities before they pass you by.

“You are multiform beings of many many talents and if you feel like one of your projects is too stodgy or you’ve been working on it for ten years and it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, that doesn’t mean it’s useless; that doesn’t mean that it should be ‘the’ project that is going to make your name or define you as a writer. Try other things; try writing short stories if you only ever write novels, try librettos if you only write short stories.

“Stay eager to remember that you are a writer and you have a voice, a vision and a way of seeing the world that nobody else has, and only you can communicate that, so do communicate that. Stay eager to do that for the sake of your talent and for the sake of us, the reader who needs to hear from you.”

Williams finished her speech with a reading from a new short story, which navigated, through childhood, beginnings and familiarity, while circling the trademark headline of any fable: Once Upon A Time. This short but dense and conversational piece was a push to write and create like a child, releasing all fears and inhibition.

The afternoon then split into two sets of two panels, featuring some of the publishing industry’s most prestigious names.

‘Let’s Talk About Money: Sustaining Your Career and Your Life’ was a panel hosted by the Art Council’s Alison Boyle, who was joined by novelist and editor Clare Fisher, and writer and founder of Bristol Women’s Literature Festival, Sian Norris.

The panel revolved around making a living through a career in writing, and circled topics such as residencies, funding from outside organisations such as the Arts Council, and the pros and cons of self-publishing.

Norris herself started out self-publishing, and told the panel some of the positives and negatives that come with it, saying: “I used to make zines that I sold in the local zine shop in Bristol and I would sit there cutting up bits of paper and bending over the photocopier and tying things with string and delivering them to this shop, and whether people would buy it didn’t matter so much, it was more the fact that I had a project to work on and it motivated me to write. And then my zine became a blog, which became a feminist blog, which then turned to me becoming a journalist. So there was this real value in self publishing in that way.”

For Norris, there is, however, a real advantage to the editing process that outside publishers can bring: “I really valued having access to some mainstream publishing aspects by working with my agent, because her ideas feed in and challenge you in a way that is very difficult to do on your own […] So I think self-publishing has a place and I think it’s great to inspire you to get writing and make projects happen, but I think the relationship you have with an agent or editor can really transform your writing.”

Kit Caless, who found and published keynote speaker Eley Williams’ work, highlighted the issues with self-publishing from a publisher’s argument: “The problem for me is distribution and marketing and if you’re self-publishing an eBook, that’s fine for distribution, but if you’re going to a printers and getting it printed it’s incredibly difficult to get it into book shops, which is a really big hindrance for self-publishing.’

“The publisher does a lot of marketing on your behalf for your book and to find that audience for you, so I think when people do self-publish they don’t realise that 90% of publishing is actually marketing your work, and that’s where having done something already comes in because if a publisher takes you on they’re going to want to do a print version of the book.”

The panel then turned to outside funding, and Clare Fisher encouraged new writers to look to the Art Council to help with their projects: “If you want to do a project, if you want to do a residency or create something, it really is worth applying to the Arts Council. It’s not an easy form,” she laughed, “but it’s a really valuable revenue for writers and I wish I had known about it ten, fifteen years ago, because it really does help with getting your foot on the ladder.’

“I think having a residency and a grant actually changed my entire perspective on my career. It made me feel like I was finally a writer as opposed to someone who did writing alongside everything else.”

This was followed by “How To Get Noticed As A Writer: Standing Out To Publishers”, a panel hosted by novelist and Lecturer in Creative Writing at Manchester Met Sarah Butler, joined by Sara Hunt from Saraband, author Helen Taylor and agent at MBA, Julia Silk.

“If we don’t take it, it doesn’t always mean it’s not good,” Hunt said, explaining the selection process of a publishing house. “It’s a sort of complicated thing. There are a lot of really good books out there and it’s really difficult to make it stand out, but things that we look for are always original.’

“[Originality] is particularly important for independent publishers, because we survive on getting good reviews and having good standing with book shops and so on, and books having something different about them rather than them being part of a genre helps with that.

“Something that really does matter is that what we get is quite polished, that someone has really practised and put some effort into that craft of what it is you’re doing so that it’s not littered with mistakes – if it doesn’t look like even you have read it properly, then why should I?”

Julia Silk highlighted that a career in writing is a constant work in progress, saying: “Every stage that you go through, from finishing the first draft, to getting an agent, to getting a publisher, to getting your first book deal, everything is not an end, it’s a beginning.”

She went on to explain some of her own practices as a part of MBA literary agency, saying: “When I pitch I try and make something where the editor doesn’t have to think too much about how they’re going to sell it to their teams. I want to give them as much detail as I can so it can be incorporated a great blurb and form some good comparisons.”

Helen Taylor, author of The Backstreets of Purgatory with Unbound Press and previous delegate of the National Creative Writing Fair, said: “One thing that I think is really important is working out what your measure of success is going to be.’

“If I go back to three years ago, I didn’t have any sort of deal. All that I wanted was to have my book in bookshops. What I wrote it for is so that my book will one day touch some people as others have touched me, so I’ve achieved what I set out to do.”

aAh! spoke to Taylor to ask about her journey from attendee to the National Creative Writing Graduate Fair 2015 to a published author.

“Three years ago I came here as a delegate, to the first one, and it was through this that I met three agents who took my work, and Rachael Kerr from Unbound. I had never heard of Unbound, or even understood the idea of crowd funding or disruptive publishing, and I pitched to all of them and it was through this fair that I got my publishing gig.”

“That’s why I wanted to come back, because it was such a valuable experience for me. I live in France so I don’t get the opportunity to meet many people from the industry, and the chance of being able to pitch to three or four people is just invaluable.”

Author and Lecturer in Creative Writing at Manchester Met Livi Michael, was then joined by authors Courttia Newland, Cathy Rentzenbrink and lecturer Andrew Hurley for the panel discussion “The Story Behind the Story: How We Use Experiences to Fuel Writing”, where autobiographical writing, memoir and the truth behind fiction were discussed.

“I’m sort of endlessly fascinated with the story behind the story,” started Rentzenbrink, author of The Last Act of Love. “I always have been. I’m interested in books but I’m also interested in how the journey or process of experience turned into something that is written down on the page. My current working theory is that all writing is autobiographical at source, even if it doesn’t look like it is.”

Although author of Devil’s Day (2017) Andrew Hurley agreed, he pointed out the key differences between autobiography and fiction. He said, “I think that the thing to bear in mind when you’re writing is that you are writing fiction, and the business of writing fiction is to translate those experiences you have in life and make them work in the story, and so I think your considerations then are about plot and character and creating tension and drama and resolution. They’re all things that have to come together to make good fiction.”

Courttia Newland, who wrote The Scholar in 1997 and was shortlisted for the 2007 Crime Writers’ Association Dagger in the Library Award, said he sees a skill in combining fiction with autobiography: “If you’ve had a really interesting life then maybe there is a way you can weave it in, and I’m really interested in how people can do that. Like Rupert Thompson’s This Party’s Got to Stop – okay, it’s a memoir, but also he writes it like a novelist writes a memoir, there’s a novelist’s edge to it.”

Finally, Joe Stretch, author and Lecturer at Manchester Met, was joined by games designer and writer Steve Ince, author and  journalist Molly Flatt, and radio producer Mel Harris, for “Beyond the Book: Writing and Adapting for Film, Radio and Games”.

“There’s a big debate in the publishing industry,” began Flatt, author of The Charmed Life of Alex Moore, “about where you draw the line and what a book is.” The panel went on the explore the many different routes a writer can choose to go down.

Flatt went on to describe her move from writing as a digital journalist to a novelist, saying: “You have to practice that muscle. When I started writing my book ten years ago, one of the reasons I finally said to myself ‘Look, you are going to do this thing you have always wanted to do’ was because I could feel that my brain needed it.

“As a digital journalist and as someone who was consuming and writing for those platforms, I could feel a different quality in my brain. […] So the process of forcing my brain into this bigger, architectural sustained story was really good for me. […] I think that’s going to be an interesting battleground; about the profoundly different ways of using your brain.”

As a game designer, Steve Ince laid out the crucial differences between writing for games and writing a novel: “One of the things that I find is that a set novel is very good at feeding the story and the world into your head so that you can visualise it. At the same time it’s not interactive in the same way games are, you’re not in control, those same words appear on the page (with a novel) no matter how much you visualise it in your head.

“I think this is the distinction with interactivity. It’s not that it doesn’t elicit great emotions within you because all great novels and media should do that, but when you get a control pad or a mouse in your hands and you’re making the decision and making the story move forward, that is really where the interaction comes in.”

Mel Harris, Creative Director at Sparklab Productions, went on to express her excitement for the podcast and radio, saying: “I think it’s a golden age for audio. I think we are living in the most extraordinary times and I think that radio has always been such a poor cousin to television and now it isn’t. Now TV is turning podcast stories into drama. So if you want to write for audio, fiction is more difficult in a way – most podcasts are based on fact. It’s not easy to push the door open, you just have to really work your craft.”

She added: “Put a frame around it, say ‘For the next eight weeks I’m going to listen to a drama a day, but only the first ten minutes’. If the first ten minutes doesn’t hook you and keep you waiting to listen, then don’t, life is too short. But listen and learn and make notes. What’s pulling you in? Is it the voice? Is it something about the character? Is it the sound? Is the story intriguing from the outset? Because, if it is, that’s the kind of writing you need to be doing yourself.”

Once the panels finished, the attendees were given a chance to pitch to a pair comprising an agent and publisher. The foyer of Geoffrey Manton was lined with chairs and desks, and while hopeful writers waited in the sidelines for their turn to present their project to potential interest, others sat down for possibly the most important ten minutes of their writing career.

aAh! spoke to some of the writers, agents and publishers while they waited between pitches. Izi Dewhurst, a creative writing student from York St. John University, explained: “It seemed like an opportunity that would be a shame to miss out on, and obviously the opportunity to, even if nothing comes from it, have a practice at pitching ideas, just gets you that one step ahead in getting an actual career in writing.”

Ian Peek from Manchester Writing School told us he returns to the Creative Writing Fair every year. He explained: “I find it really useful. I think any event where you get to be around other writers and get to have conversations with people in the industry, where you get to ask questions or just hear what they have to say… I think it reminds you what you’re doing it for, rather than just doing it for your own pleasure in the hope that it might get you somewhere; it reminds you what that ‘somewhere’ is.’

“Even the first two years I’ve been, when I didn’t think the novel was ready, I’ve still learnt from that, and I think that’s what made me ready today. I’ve already done the work, I’ve already rehearsed, I’ve already pitched it. So it’s nice coming to events like this and just soak up the atmosphere and just get used to being in that environment so that when somebody does take you on you’re already ready.”

Giles Milburn from Madeleine Milburn literary agency also explained why, as a publisher, it really helps to have a chance to speak to writers in the flesh: “When you’re in your office you just get loads of submissions all by email. It’s quite nice to meet people who can pitch their book to you face to face, and also for people in the very beginning of their writing career who need some advice, it’s quite nice to be able to actually tell them how to go on with the submission process and what to expect from agents and how to pitch their work as powerfully as possible.”

While the pitches were taking place, workshops were held for those either waiting their turn, or who had already done it. These workshops were an opportunity to engage in a creative practice with writers, poets, editors and screenwriters. Naomi Booth gave a workshop on writing horror, where extracts of horror fiction were used to set writing exercises.

Following her panel talk, Cathy Rentzenbrink hosted a workshop on memoir, where the class was taught to “wrestle the octopus” of a life’s story. Poet Naomi Kruger brought in images of famous art, and devised exercises from which participants were invited to write their own ekphrastic poetry, and Courttia Newland used a range of texts and exercises to build character and landscape in place writing.

After her workshop on ‘Editing for Success’, Mahsuda Snaith, author of The Things We Thought We Knew, spoke to aAh! about her own experience of being a part of events such as the Creative Writing Fair: “Because it’s about something I’m passionate about and love doing, I really enjoy and learn a lot from workshops, because you feedback from people. Because I like to be quite interactive, we get to know what people are worried about, what we all are worried about.”

It was a notion that could be felt throughout the day: a sort of sharing of passions, fears and advice, a connection between all people from the writing industry, and an opportunity to pitch your life’s work.


Find out more about the National Creative Writing Graduate Fair at: ncwgradfair.weebly.com, about Comma Press at: commapress.co.uk/ and about Creative Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University at: mmu.ac.uk/writingschool.

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Grace Atkinson

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