T + 802 Writers' Toolkit Part 6 The Writer's Smoking Jacket

For the final plenary session of the day we all filed back into the slightly chilly main auditorium to hear an address from the novelist Graham Joyce entitled The Writer's Smoking Jacket.

The Writer's Smoking Jacket

Graham Joyce began his talk by holding up a paperback book and saying "This is a Tardis. It is bigger on the inside that it is on the outside and it can transport you in time and space." Which is a brilliant metaphor for a book. However, he intoned that in this time of the digital age writers must face up or fossilise . "They have invented a better Tardis".

He then, in a similar vein to how Jim Crace had started the day, explained how he grew up in a mining village near Coventry and after taking himself off to a greek island for twelve months he returned to the UK with a deal for his first novel. Before that he too, like Crace, had a romantic image of a writer as someone who wore a brocade smoking jacket, ate kedgeree for breakfast and smoked cheroots.

The reality he had found was that smoking jackets look ridiculous, cheroots keep going out and kedgeree tastes bloody awful.

As a result of his upbringing he used a lot of industrial metaphors in his writing and so he said he had seen a lot of changes from his twenty years in the "word mines". To understand the effect of these changes on the modern writer Joyce began with a little history lesson. He said the book industry had always been afraid of change. Initially books were hugely expensive hand produced, illuminated manuscripts available only to the rich and powerful. With the Gutenberg printing process this changed and there was an explosion in writing and the dissemination of knowledge.

Then came the rise of the middleman, the publisher. The printer once the be all and end all of books became just the producer of the item itself. The publisher handled the distribution to the market, this in turn gave rise to the marketing department and that led to Katie Price.

However the important thing about writing and books has always been the value of the content not the technology used to produce or distribute it. Amazon say that this Christmas the split between kindle editions and printed books will be 50/50 and that only includes the paid for books not the many free ones that are available, but in ten years time the kindle device will be like the old VHS cassette, the content will have moved on to a new platform.

Whether you write plays, poems or novels, Joyce said, it didn't matter. If you could have success in one medium then you could have success in another. Here he defined success as the capacity to sell work but only for its ability to "buy time for more writing" echoing the phrase used by Helen Cross earlier.

Therefore in this digital age Joyce said it was important for a writer to have a number of micro-streams of income and be active in at least three or four of them all the time. He then went on to list ten such streams.

  • The Tradition Advance : He mentioned this first in a sense to get it out of the way. Once the main way a writer made a living, advances are falling with close to a 25% drop over the last few years. However Young Adult writing was a burgeoning market, partly he felt because a lot of disenfranchised adults were also reading these books. He said he had been motivated to try YA writing after a senior literary figure had been very dismissive when asked if he would ever write for YA. At this point Joyce did a very good impression of said literary figure who had better remain nameless.

  • Digital Publishing : Put your own work out there for paid download. Make the publisher redundant. The publishers' reaction to the digital download was still being worked out. The author's cut of the cover price was about 10% for a hardback and 6% for a paperback, but with 50% of the price of a book going to bookseller, who was cut out by the digital download, what had the industry come up with to offer an author for the ebook rights? 25% How did they get that figure? Especially when Amazon, despite their many faults, claimed to be able to offer a digital author a 70% take.

  • Spoken Word Events : The success of poetry slams was now being followed up by book slams where a paying audience is only too ready to attend an evening of readings and music.

  • Teaching : Writing workshops, course development and direct class teaching were all valuable sources of income for a professional writer. There was an odd approach by many writers to the idea of teaching. Claims are made that it can't or shouldn't be done as it would just turn out writing clones. This idea seemed preposterous to Joyce who drew a direct parallel with the music industry. No one would dream of saying you can't or shouldn't teach music to people. Not everyone wants to be the next Beatles or Oasis but that didn't mean they couldn't enjoy creating their own music and so it should be with writing.
  • Lectures & Speaking Engagements : At this point Graham Joyce turned to Jonathan Davidson, chair of the conference and said "I am being paid for this, aren't I?" Receiving an affirmative nod he explained it was important to practise what he preached. If you are able to speak well publically ( as Joyce certainly could ) then the after dinner circuit could also prove a useful source of income. He recommended wearing a brocade smoking jacket to engagements just to keep the image up.
  • Non-fiction : Many of the skills for writing fiction are very transferable to non-fiction. He himself had ended up writing a memoir about his love of cricket after playing a match for a Writers XI.
  • Screen Development : Though many projects never got as far as the screen, it was much easier to get development project money. Hollywood is rarely short of ideas for films but they are short of narrative.
  • Online Drama : Here the writer can even get involved with the directing and producing or leave that to others but this is a coming medium. The online drama KateModern that "aired" on the social networking site Bebo had received over 66 million hits in the year it ran. Once again it's narrative that is at the core of the success.

  • Games Writing : In the last year the games industry was worth more than films and music added together. The problem was that games were starting to seem more and more similar. What differentiated them now was the story behind the game play. The narrative is what kept players wanting to come back to the game. He had worked on the story for the fourth incarnation of the Doom series of games.
  • Find your own : He had said he had ten streams, in fact he only named nine but challenged the audience, "you are creative people. Go and find your own tenth stream."

In summing up Joyce said the reason to diversify was not just financial it was also so "they can't break your heart." Even for an established writer rejection still hurt, he had known it to actually bring on physical illness in some people. So why "hand your heart to one person." Use the medicine of optimism that comes from knowing you don't have just one outlet.

These streams gave you the chance to maintain your independence. He saw a future where editors and agents were still vital friends on the writers' path. As for publishers well, why join others on their road? Put your shoulder to the wheel on your own path and let them come and help you if they want to.

His final words were that there would always be a place for story. "As writers we take nothing from the Earth. We take everything from the Sky."

This was an excellent end to a really enjoyable day which was neatly bookended by the opening and closing addresses from Jim Crace and Graham Joyce. The consistent messages of the day were the importance of narrative to society and the need for writers to always be on the look out for ways to tell a story.


Having been involved with running a couple of community conferences and events I know how much hard work goes in to setting them up and running them on the day. This was an extremely well run and enjoyable conference that must have taken a lot of work to put on.

There is a well worn image of a swan seeming to glide majestically across a lake whilst under the water two big ugly yellow feet are paddling like mad. So to all the big ugly yellow feet of The Writers' Toolkit 2010, I say "Thank you". ( A back handed compliment if ever there was one).


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