BLOG Chris O'Neill

NWR Issue 97

A Day at the Literature Wales Writers’ Fair

The first thing I noticed at the Literature Wales Writers' Fair held at the Gate in Roath, Cardiff, earlier this month, was how young they all were. The body of the audience at LW’s first Writers’ Fair seemed to be
mid-thirties to mid-forties. It was heartening.

The conversations in the lobby on arrival were just as stimulating. One author was writing a novel focused on how English law stays weighted against single mothers; another had most of a young adults’ science fiction tale about Cardiff extra-terrestrials frictioning around a ‘separate-but-equal’ social status in city society. Talking to an author about the book she is developing is like getting a really expert publisher’s blurb.

At the same time, the general lack of awareness of how small-press publishing – especially in Wales – functions, suggested that Literature Wales certainly needs to outreach through more events like these. Most authors I spoke to hadn’t thought about how important reviews are in establishing a book. Several were surprised when I suggested that authors are more likely to make money from teaching creative writing than from booksales, and a few didn’t know about how crucial competition success can
be in building a writer’s reputation. Circulating still is a romantic mythology about the isolated writer crafting a secret masterpiece in splendid isolation. Simply communicating how much of the writer’s craft comprises journeyman activity would be justification enough for however many Writers’
Fairs it takes.

The networking is often the best long term value one takes out of any literary palaver. Quite a few publishers had bookstalls and minders one could talk to. Cultcymru's idea of handing out badged shoulder-bags was probably the cleverest publicity of this meeting. About half the events had Welsh- or
English-language alternatives: Genre Writing competing with Marwolaeth y Siop Lyfrau. The Welsh language events seemed more language- than literature-oriented; but this probably reflects the preoccupations of a bilingual culture.

We opened with An Introduction to E-Publishing and Digital Futures, which purported to be about 'how the publishing sector is evolving'. In fact, with Elwyn Jones from the Welsh Books Council, Claire Houguez of Parthian, and Professor Damian Walford Davies on the podium, this was very much about conventional book-publishing as it still exists. Overall this was no bad thing - electronic publishing was also foregrounded by the afternoon event with Jasper Rees. But apart from a few sentences from Alison John (Yello Brick) about fanfics and other crossover successes (most notably the Fifty Shades series) this was mainly trade chat. We were told that 'publishers provide an element of quality control' and that 'a bookshop is part of the local community'.

Things improved enormously when the first successful writers took the stage. Jasper Fforde began by reminding us that the first step towards success as a novelist is to write well. He then detailed a list of cardinal errors we all recognise and make: undifferentiated characters, unnatural dialogue, overcomplex plots with far too many characters. Some lessons bear repeating, and to make his point he observed how The Da Vinci Code is an extraordinarily poor story which is very well constructed.

Belinda Bauer examined the importance of writing for competition - both to make your writing visible, but also as a way of discovering your strengths. After years as a scriptwriter but with only one production script ([:The Locker Room]), Ms Bauer broke through to the crime fiction market by coming
second in a competition. The book she came second to has yet to appear, while Finders Keepers is now Ms Bauer's third novel. Which shows that competitions you don't win can also be helpful.

The afternoon opened with a session on International Opportunities for Writers. Again this seemed slightly mis-pitched to an audience composed mainly of writers still on the hunt for their first publication. Nia Davies talked about Welsh cultural reciprocation - urging us to bookmark the Wales
Arts International website - but wasn't really able to keep literature exchange from sounding irrelevant to less established writers. Jon Gower talked about his adventures with gang children in Mexico. Joh Gower is always an excellent raconteur, but if he had anything to say of interest to a keen beginner writer, I missed it.

The bilingual 'Art of Self Promotion', I had very much looked forward to. It appeared to be a focused attempt to examine the internet and social media as effective tools for self-promotion. But in spite of questions from the floor, it became clear that none of the three presenters (Jasper Rees, Emma
Meese, Osian Rhys Jones) had much understanding of the copyright issues of prior internet appearance, knew how online literature workshops functioned, or had even given much thought to the new types of publication the internet has made possible (Lulu, YouTube, Wordpress etc). The speakers were briefed for Facebook and Twitter, and since almost half of the audience [despite their relative youth] didn't use either (Jasper Rees asked for a show of hands), there were limited opportunities for interface or interaction.

The writers' fair is certainly a sound idea. This one assembled a lot of talented and motivated writers, and parts of the presentation delivered useful instruction and ideas. It will certainly have raised awareness of Literature Wales' scheme and services. I did wonder, though, why there was no common theme to the presentations (some sessions seemed pitched at start-up writers, some at the book trade, some at academics) and I particularly wondered why there was no tie-in with The Gate itself as a working arts centre (Christina Thatcher runs the relatively high profile Roath Writers Group there but she seemed not to have been involved.)

If there is a follow up event next year, would I attend? I have absolutely no idea but I will keep on writing, meantime.


previous blog: Jon Gower at Gwyl Lyfrau Morlan, Aberystwyth
next blog: Curious Zoo


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