Saturday, 31 October 2009

Real Cardiff Three

Real Cardiff Three, originally uploaded by Pedr Finch.

Coming soon. The launch is on November 26th. Real Cardiff #3 - The Changing City. Seren Books.

What is the difference between a bookseller and a publisher anyway

The novelist Claire Peate moved to Wales from London a few years ago determined to make her mark as a writer. Wales, land of song, a paradise of bards and great authors. A place full of literary welcome, the home of Dylan Thomas, Kate Roberts and Alexander Cordell. Finding out which doors to knock on shouldn’t be that difficult. But it was.

How do you prepare your manuscript? Where should you send it? What is the difference between a bookseller and a publisher? What do agents do? Have we got any in Wales? What does copyright mean? Do you have to do anything to register it? Where can you get fair and informed advice on the work you are producing? How do you win prizes? Who fixes readings? How do you get to work in school? How do you meet other writers? Are there any places offering financial support, information support, hand holding or any other kind of practical help?

Although plenty of advice was available out there nobody had ever bothered to join the dots. Now, after two years of development and the employment of poet and editor Kathryn Gray to do the research and the writing Academi are providing the solution.

A comprhensive guide to How-To-Be-A-Writer has just been launched. The guide is freely accessible from the Academi’s site at Here you can read about what it’s actually like being a writer (difficult but rewarding), ways to get started, how much you might earn, how to get into broadcasting, the difficulties of copyright, who the publishers are, how to apply for financial help (a well read section, that one), how to prepare your book, how to get criticism, how to win prizes. There’s more too. In fact you could spend your whole life here rather than actually writing. My advice is to scribble first and second and only then start to worry about what to do next.

The Guide makes some pretty solid suggestions. The section on self-publishing and networking explains how pushy you’ll need to be. No more retiring to the garret. There’s information on getting connected digitally and the benefits that will bring. There’s also an excellent piece on how it is possible to make a living as a writer just. This goes into detail about how much non-writing you’ll actually have to do.

Claire Peate has had to manage without all this advice. And she’s done well - three novels to date, published by Honno. The Floristry Commission, Big Cats and Kitten Heels and the new one, Headhunters, which mixes archaeology, the church and man chasing in a heady brew. Is Wales a good place to make it as an author? Claire seems to think so.

An earlier version of this post appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail of 31 October, 2009

Saturday, 24 October 2009

Awash - It's All The Future Holds

Here we are in the twenty-first century, awash with opportunity. It’s never been easier for writers to get their stuff out there before the reading public. The great state-sponsored literary journals sail on. Poetry Wales, The New Welsh Review, and Planet arrive regularly on the bookstalls in full-colour, page fat glory. Their upstart rivals, the small mags, produced by enthusiasts, outsiders, wannabes, revolutionaries, and the desperate appear in coffee shops, arts centres and pub back room readings. On the internet web mags are legion. Geographical boundaries no longer exist – the world has become one vast open house for new writing.

Competitions, where the wheat gets sorted from the chaff, or at least it once did, are now so many that almost everyone gets prizes. Poems flicker through the air as text messages. A new school of extremely short novels has been founded by those who use Twitter. On YouTube almost everyone can be found reading something in grainy colour to hand-held video camera. In quick succession I’ve just watched (and heard) R S Thomas reading A Welsh Landscape, Ted Hughes reading from Crow, Sheenagh Pugh, Simon Armitage, Tony Curtis (all three of them, the film star, the Irish poetaster and the genuine Welsh original), Ifor Thomas and Lloyd Robson. This last clip actually featured Lloyd and Lil Wayne rapping about hot stuff which might mean my search hasn’t quite come up with the right guy. But you get the idea..

The problem for the reader in the face of this literary onslaught is deciding what’s worth bothering with and what’s not. Certainly not everything can be worth spending time on. In this welter of words sprawling around in public quality control has certainly slipped. Where once punctuation would be confirmed by a sub-editor and content cut and queried by a concerned publisher today it all gets slapped up. Write it, publish it. Allen Ginsberg once declared that first thoughts were best thoughts. And sometimes they are too. But they were better when they came from Ginsberg himself. Not everyone has an equal talent.

What we really need is a period of restraint. But egos being what they are I doubt that will ever happen. How would it be if writers began to put some of their works in the drawer for a while? Leave them a little to fester. Revisit a few months later and check if they still read as well as you imagined they did at the time of their creation.

Publishers could also help. They could perhaps produce just a few fewer titles annually and spend the money instead on internal quality control. Re-introduce copy editors. Check spellings, grammar and punctuation. Use the metaphoric blue pencil to cut more regularly. It’s a dream. But the world’s turning too fast now. It’ll never happen.

Monday, 19 October 2009

Choosing will be the end of us all

Have you noticed the lists of new titles on the media’s book pages getting longer? Mrs Thatcher once declared that the British public should have choice. And choice we today certainly have. Thirty flavours of ice cream rather than two. Dozens of versions of each new car. Five hundred and forty-two TV channels and new novels by the absolute shed load.

In Wales this revolution in print is on the verge of drowning us. Gone are the days when getting into print really meant something and the imprimatur of publishers shone in the philistine wilderness. Today publishers outnumber pubs and certainly are more numerous than plumbers and milkmen.

But all is not quite as it may seem. Some publishers turn out to be one man bands, some are amateur shambles, a few are charlatans, and a small number hang on as the traditional culture-supporting article. But many, the majority even, are the outcome of an exponential rise in the availability of print-on-demand. Log onto the website, upload your novel (or memoir, or set of poems or cookbook), add a cover, press the button. Key in your credit card details and a couple of dozen decently printed and well-bound copies will arrive at your house by mail. You are a published author and for not much more outlay that carpeting and decorating a room either. You can do this as an individual or use the technology to set yourself up as a new independent publisher. Small runs of things that interest you are now perfectly economical to do. You’ll have a hard time getting them into bookstores but, hey, this is the digital age. Sell by internet. Everyone else does. Use Facebook and Twitter to publicise what you are doing and then fulfil the orders via Amazon. And if you’d prefer to have your hand held more closely then quite a number of one-time traditional printers are offering similar services over the counter.

Wuggles Publishing in Clydach has used the technology to bring out Chris Thomas’s perfectly respectable More Tales of Pelican Square. This is an amusing, well written helping of nostalgia and non pc whimsy from the housing estates of the Swansea valley. Richard F Jones’s Dancing With The Devil is the story of a financial consultant and womaniser busy evading tax on Majorca. His publishing operation is called Authorhouse. Paul D E Mitchell’s Lever – the Second Book Of The Path Transcendent series (“contains strong language, graphic violence and adult themes” runs the warning on the back cover) is set in Pontybrenin where mining has been replaced by the Church of the All-Seeing Eye. That comes directly from the author in Cardiff. Jean Gill’s memoir, How Blue is My Valley (Lulu), compares Provence with Wales with entertaining results.

An earlier version of this post appeared at The Insider in the Western Mail of 17th October, 2009

Take your pick. The choice is yours.

Saturday, 10 October 2009

Keeping Posterity Under Control

Bill Gates suggested once that in the future everything we do will be recorded. Every movement we make, every sentence we write, every word we say. Posterity will be huge. Not that it is all that small today. How much of the Welsh past have we managed to keep?

There are just about any number of recordings of great sporting moments , naturally. There are also reels of royal visit. The Prince and the Queen at Cardiff, Caernarfon, Newport, Aberystwyth, Caerphilly, Harlech, Conwy, the seafront at Barry. Anywhere where there’s a castle. Shots of royal arrivals, flags waving, bouquets being presented. The sun shining. We are also okay for historic film of the Gorsedd standing in fields and for recordings of speeches made by Welsh politicians. Usually when they have things to say – which is most times – or when they die. Nye Bevan in full socialist flight. Lloyd George in his horse drawn casket leaving Tŷ Newydd.

What we have missed out on is literature. Dylan Thomas may well be available in quantity courtesy of the BBC but for most other writers there’s not that much. To be fair technology managed to catch R S Thomas before he went. Sain have issued a three CD set of the poet reading selections from his best. Gillian Clarke, the current National Poet, is well represented in Andrew Motion’s Poetry Archive. And if you are really keen then you should be able to track down videos of interviews with some of the Anglo-Welsh greats (the Glyns, and Gwyns, the Joneses, Thomases and Williams) made in a fit of forward looking by the University of Glamorgan.

But most of the past seems to have just faded from the record. Did anyone record the chest beating encounter between Ned Thomas, Sorley Maclean and R S on stage in Cardiff? Or Ted Hughes live at the Sherman? What about Eugene Ionesco at the Reardon Smith or Margaret Drabble being mobbed at the old Oriel? Harri Webb, John Tripp and Rhydwen Williams debating the use of Welsh as a vehicle for literature. Bob Cobbing in sonic splendour at the Young Farmers Club in Aberaeron. Most of those things have simply been lost. They exist now only in dimming memory.

But the future is bright. Contemporary publishers are keen to exploit our twenty-fist century desire to record absolutely everything. Planet’s brand new web site starts well with the inclusion of a downloadable Raymond Williams lecture. Seren have begun a series of You Tube vids. And at the Academi it is a target to embellish every entry on the Writers of Wales web pages with either a sound or vision sample. Speak softly and away from microphones. If you don’t then, chances are, you’ll be there for posterity.

An earlier version of this post appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail of 10th October, 2009

Saturday, 3 October 2009

Not Plastered Ever

One of the great myths surrounding the late gnarled bard John Tripp is that he drank to excess. No, maybe I should rephrase that. One of the great myths is that he was usually drunk when he did readings. Hardly ever, in my memory. Afterwards, when stray poets, raconteurs and other Tripp aficionados settled for conversation in the back room of the Conway or in the bar of Cardiff docklands’ Big Windsor almost certainly. But never on stage. Tripp understood well that place in which a performer needs to be in order to give a decent performance. Not stone cold, scientifically clean and Baptist sober for sure. But not plastered either.

JT could walk on stage and engage his audience just by looking at them and shuffling his papers. If he happened to have papers at the time, that is. He knew how to mix his programme – something serious next to something racy, a profound slice of Welsh political positioning followed by a touch of nostalgia, a slice of kitchen sink before a devastating funny. Stand still, he told me once. Don’t wander all over the stage. You might fall off. Know what you are going to do before you do it. Check your texts. Look into their eyes.

The eyes bit is quite important. Politicians are experts at this. Check them out. Very few stare at their papers when they deliver their speeches. Instead they engage directly with their audience. Stare straight at them. What the speechmakers are actually doing is fixing their eyes in a sort of roving pattern across the back wall of the hall. Audience members all imagine that they are being spoken to directly. Dark glasses are a complete no no, no matter how pop-star they may make you feel. Tripp wore the same clothes he had happened to put on when he got up that day, as a rule. But wear your suede jacket, Finch, he’d advise me, it gives you style.

What JT had managed to do was to combine literary ability with delivery. People listening to his readings were, dare I use the word, entertained. The biennial Academi-run competition in his name looks for the same qualities. The 2009 John Tripp Award for Spoken Poetry runs this October. There will be heats in Llanhilleth, Pontardawe, The Gate in Cardiff, and Venue Cymru in Llandudno. The final is at the Wharf in Cardiff Bay on Thursday November, 19th.

It costs £6 to enter and forms are available by ringing the Academi on 02920472266 or from the website at If you get through your heat and into the final expect some entertaining competition. First prize is £500. Runners-up were once given packets of tea and bananas but I’m not sure yet about 2009. Watch this space.

An earlier version of this post appeared in the Western Mail of Saturday 26th September, 2009 as The Insider