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Writing for a new world…

And so Writers’ Toolkit 2010 comes to a close, as writers straggle into the auditorium clutching cups of tea and an expectant hush descends.  Jonathan Davidson introduces writer Graham Joyce to give a talk mysteriously titled “The Writer’s Smoking Jacket.” Soon, all becomes clear.

Graham holds a book up.  “Look,” he says, “it’s a Tardis.  Bigger on the inside than the outside, it is a portal allowing you to travel far and wide.”  A book is the most astonishing piece of technology ever, due to its simplicity.  “But,” says Graham, “they made a better Tardis.”  And so he sweeps us into a passionate argument for the Digital Age and how, rather than be a spectre of fear for modern writers, it will ultimately be saved by story.

Just as during the Bronze Age, when ancient man carried on with stone, so people will read on paper in this advent of e-readers.  An iron sword wasn’t necessarily better than a bronze age, but iron technology unlocked the ability for everyone to have iron, not only wealthy men.  Iron was more accessible than bronze, just as paper was more accessible than papyrus.  “The Digital Age is here,” says Graham, “and writers either face it or fossilize.”

If publishers are all doom and gloom about changes in their workplace, Graham offers 9 surefire ways for writers to survive and thrive, principally through employing diversity in their workplace to have a sustainable career that cannot be shaken by trends.  The idea is to look at “micro-streams of work” for a writer to make her living, and each writer should aim for a presence in 3 or 4 of the following areas:

  • The “old school” advance.  It is the prime income source for a writer, but cannot be counted on. Advances have been shrinking across the board over the last few years. However, new kinds of writing, particularly the young adult market, have grown beyond all expectation.  Rather than making advances, writers may be looking toward retaining a higher percentage of the royalty per sale, particularly in e-book downloads.
  • Teaching:  As publishing becomes more accessible, more people will want to publish their work.  Experienced writers can share craft and best practice with aspiring writers to supplement their income, while helping writers to polish their work, wherever it is.
  • Spoken Word: Graham cites the successful Book Slam model – “hip, lively, absolutely not high-brow.”  Find new ways to share your work.  Why not in performance?  And if you don’t live near London’s Book Slam, start your own.
  • Lectures and Talks:  Many writers offer talks and lectures in schools; if you’re particularly entertaining you can work the after-dinner and lunch speaking circuit.  People find writers interesting.  Turn up in the proverbial smoking jacket worn by the “successful writer” and perpetuate the myth that writers are interesting.
  • Non-fiction writing:  a writer’s fictional techniques are very portable talents.  All the skills that make your fiction effective can be employed in non-fiction and creative non-fiction for other avenues.
  • Screen development:  getting a film or play actually produced is hard, but getting it developed is easier.  Too often the projects in development are weak in narrative and have been put together by people who are really directors or producers.  Put your projects in front of people.  The option you get will be low, but try to get fee to write a draft or two, even if it never gets made.  Graham told us that options kept “the wolf from the door on many a lean year.”
  • On-line drama:  develop, write and produce your own on-line show.  He references Kate Modern, a young adult series that achieved 66 million hits in a year through Bebo. All those teenagers are still hungry for narrative and they will find it when it is offered through social networking.
  • Games writing:  Software development has made graphics exceptional on computers, but the games are identical as developers copy successful games.  Narrative is crucial, if only to keep gamers playing, to see what happens next.  Graham mentioned his experiences working on Doom 4 and his particular interest in adding emotional content, to make experiences that will make players laugh, cry or just emote, rather than shoot or shop.  Again, the link to social networking is key.

“Diversify,” Graham says, “not just to make money but so that ‘they’ can’t break your writer’s heart.”  Throughout the auditorium, heads began to nod.  “It doesn’t’ matter how long you’ve been writing, rejection still pierces the heart.  It embeds in the psyche like a poison dart and it makes you want to give up, it can make you ill.  Why hand over your beating heart to any one person? You must protect yourself – with the medicine of optimism,” because any single rejection won’t mean an end to your career or your ability to write.

His final words sought to leave us with hope for the publishing industry and for our own spirit of independence.  Follow your own road and aim to get publishers to join you on it.  But if they do not, publish on your own; the Internet allows you to create and maintain an on-line presence and to communicate with readers on your own terms.  “We will continue to need editors and agents, supporters and champions for advice and to help us be better writers.  We’re pretty poor at managing the business end of things,” he says.  “As writers we walk our road as a creative individual.  We take nothing from the earth. We take everything from the sky – that’s the meaning of inspiration.”

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