Writing West Midlands Comes to Shrewsbury!

I don’t know what it is at the moment but I have the urge to go out, meet other writers and learn from other writers and so I have been looking out for opportunities to do this. One of these opportunities was the Writing West Midlands networking event, which I had heard about on the Wrekin Writers’ Facebook Page, which I attended in Shrewsbury on Saturday.

I think my interest was sparked because writing can be a lonely occupation and as the event was actually in Shropshire and not Birmingham I felt it would be a good idea to attend it. The more of these events we as writers support the more likely these events, and others, are to be held locally.

There were around 30 writers of all genres there. Most were unpublished, what the group call emerging, but there were others there who had been published. We had two speakers: one, David Calcutt, a playwright, poet and children’s writer, the other, Lisa Blower, a short story writer and novelist. Their aim was to tell the group about their own particular journey to becoming a published writer and offer up any advice they thought would help.

Incidentally, I happened to bump into one of my old secondary school English teachers at the venue. He was a volunteer guide at the museum and he was very interested to hear that one of his ex-pupils was now a writer.

David, an ex-teacher had managed to forge a career out of writing over the past 30 years. He reported having no particular qualifications in writing and got started through sheer bloody mindedness and perseverance. He did admit to having a few contacts in the youth theatre arena but got a break when he was asked if he could adapt a novel for a play. He was a little economic with the truth regarding his past experience in doing this – ie, he had none, but he was still given the gig and he hasn’t looked back since!

What struck me about him was his honesty and humour about the often rocky process of becoming a published writer. He admitted that it hadn’t all been plain sailing for him. There, was, in fact, he said, with a wry smile some ‘pretty scary moments’ with bills to pay and not a lot of money coming in.

His main advice, which was something I have taken to heart, is that writers need to seek out opportunities to make money from their writing. They won’t automatically come to you. Also to be flexible and realistic about the type of writing you want to do. He spoke of there being, in his writing world, the public and the private writing. The public writing was the work he sent out to publishers and editors – writing he was actively seeking a public arena for, something he would be paid for. The private writing was his pet projects that he had an obsession for but would probably never see the light of day; things he worked on for his own pleasure (and sanity!)

Another thing he said was get used to saying yes. He had never intended to adapt novels into plays but that was the opportunity that presented itself to him and so, despite his lack of knowledge and experience in that area, he took it on. I can relate to that because when I took on writing military history for Pen and Sword Books, I had no experience whatsoever of writing military history, but three books with them down the line and another being researched and written now, I can only say that had I not had the right attitude and instead passed Pen and Sword by, I wouldn’t have had the publishing opportunity I have had. Like David I saw the opportunity, took it and reaped the benefits.

Lisa Blower took a different route to David but her publishing credentials are no less impressive. She took an MA and then a PhD IN Creative Writing. She teaches creative writing and prior to this was an event planner and also worked for commercial radio. She says she took a long time to admit that she should probably be a writer but she said she took her time to find her own particular voice/style, what she refers to as her ‘groove’. Lisa didn’t really take her writing seriously until she won the Guardian Short Story Competition in 2009. This secured her an agent, however, and this is a warning to us all, when the agent asked her what else she had written and what she had on the go at that moment, Lisa was ashamed to say that she had nothing! The result being a very embarrassed writer and a perplexed and unhappy agent.

She eventually did finish writing a novel but twice it got picked up by a publisher and dropped before making it into publication. The problem being the editors couldn’t get it past the great gate keepers marketing. This happened despite her and the editor’s best efforts. She’d worked so hard on rewriting and reshaping it but, seemingly, all to no avail. This process went on for 18 months until it was picked up by another publisher and is due to be published soon.

From her experiences, her main advice was to practise, practise, practise your writing skills, always have something to show an editor or agent; you never know when one will come your way. She also said be visible on social media and don’t be shy about networking. She agreed with David, extolling the virtues of creating opportunities for yourself.

I found all of this to be good advice but it was the word of warning that David gave that stuck with me the most. He said getting into paid work with your writing wasn’t easy these days. This is because there are more writers out there chasing fewer paid writing opportunities. He said if you want to be a successful, paid writer, you have to accept that unless you are one of the lucky few such as JK Rowling and EL James, both multi-millionaires, or a ‘celebrity’ writing a book, you are not going to make lots of money from your writing. You’ll be lucky to scrape by and will almost certainly have to have another source of income. He said that when he gave up teaching to become a full-time writer he had to accept that he had made a choice and that the lifestyle he had a teacher, financially, he couldn’t have as a writer. He had to take a significant cut in pay and readjust to living within his means. He also had (still has!) a hugely supportive wife which helped.

So there you are. It was an event well worth attending and I will be looking out for more events run by them and other organisations in the future. The next event I’m hoping to attend is their writing conference on Saturday July 16th in Birmingham. I’m hoping some Wrekin Writers will take the plunge, recognise the opportunity, and join me. You never know where it might lead.

Julie Phillips

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