Writing and Speaking

The Secret Commonwealth, my last stage play. 
Many years ago, when I first started out on this switchback of a writing career, I made the decision to try out all kinds of things to see what suited me best.

Back in the 1970s I wrote poetry and did quite well with it, having a couple of collections published and being invited to do various readings. I also wrote radio drama which was a reasonable way to make a living once you had learned your craft. I wrote original plays but also did dramatisations of classics. And because it was hard to say 'no' to paid work, I also did some writing for schools radio and television, wrote a young adult television series and then wrote a novel (called Shadow of the Stone) to go with the series.

After a while, though, I realised that it wasn't what I wanted to pursue. This isn't any kind of value judgment, incidentally - but we all have our own aptitudes and interests and this wasn't mine. So I moved on, still writing radio drama, but beginning to explore other options in fiction, as well as writing for the stage.

Then it struck me that I was still being asked to talk to writing groups about 'writing for children' even though I hadn't written for children for about a decade. I had to gently and politely suggest that I might be of more use in talking about radio drama, since it was a hungry medium that was willing to engage with beginners and help them to learn a very specific craft.

Cue forward another ten years and I found myself writing less and less for radio, and more for theatre, while - at the same time - starting to spend even more time on fiction, long and short. But by then, I was being asked to speak almost exclusively about radio writing. Since most writers are delighted to be asked to speak about anything, especially when being paid, I carried on doing occasional workshops but tried to point out that my radio knowledge was somewhat out of date, although I still knew quite a bit about writing for the stage. It worried me that I could be giving people the wrong advice, which is often worse than no advice at all. The whole submission and rejection process had changed out of all recognition in the intervening years.

Now, for the past ten or fifteen years, I've concentrated almost wholly on fiction, especially novels, with a some historical non-fiction thrown in for good measure. I divide my time between historical and contemporary fiction. I've had several well reviewed novels published, the last two by the same excellent independent publisher (Saraband) with a third novel due to be published by them later this year and another one in progress even as I write this.

But I'm still sometimes being asked to speak about writing drama. Well, I can do that. But the truth is that I haven't written a stage play for years now. Haven't even tried. It has become incredibly difficult to get any kind of professional production unless you're willing to stage one yourself, with all the time and expense involved. And it strikes me that writing groups would get better value from a working playwright, if that's what they want to know about.

Of course, I'm generally very happy to speak to writing and book groups so this isn't a complaint. It's just that for some years now, I've been working exclusively on fiction. You never say never in this line of work and if somebody, somewhere wanted me to dramatise one of my own novels I'd definitely consider it. I still have those essential skills. But I'm much better value as a speaker if you ask me to talk about historical research for fiction - how much you need to do and when to stop - or the current state of publishing or getting to the end of your novel, or writing convincing dialogue, or using your family history as a source of fiction or 18th century Scotland or Robert  Burns and Jean Armour or using social media or ... well, you get my drift. Any or all of those and more.

Given that many writing groups will be starting their new programmes soon, it's worth thinking about what you want from a visiting writer, and what might be genuinely useful for your members. Sometimes it's our own fault as writers. We move on but forget to 'brand' ourselves in the new way, forget that we need to tell people what we are doing now. Most writers have websites these days or are listed with arts organisations. It's worth checking up on your potential visitor to see what he or she is working on. You're looking for an enthusiastic speaker, somebody to talk about what's obsessing them right now, somebody to communicate not just their skills and their excitement, but also the current state of play in that particular aspect of writing.

A few years ago, I remember hearing a successful television writer delivering a brisk 45 minute talk + question and answer session to a writing group. Afterwards, somebody said to me 'I learned more from that talk than from any book I've ever read on the subject.' She was right. The speaker knew exactly what he was talking about because that's what he was engaged with there and then and it showed.