It was so exciting to see my book come out, especially in paperback. It all seemed worthwhile. Those hours staring at a blank screen or at least they felt like hours. Deleting chapters and starting again.
Refused by several agents, I decided to self- publish, though not without trepidation. It contains some sexually explicate scenes – what would my adult children think? Could I even tell my elderly relatives?
I didn’t set out to write a racy novel, though the idea for the book came from a friend who I knew was having an affair. She told me that her lover was now suffering from dementia and the novel was conceived, if not yet born. Originally, the mistress was the main character but the wife, Paula, developed organically and became the primary focus.
My research included joining a web site for women wanting to date younger men. I joined toyboy flirt.com. as if I were Paula, a sixty -year old woman looking for some fun. I much prefer the name of my fictional website. mrsrobinson.com, but the replies were great and some went into the novel, though others were too sexual even for Demented Love and many of the photographs were gross. I had plenty to choose from, as within a week, I had over 500 replies!
I also attended a day centre for dementia sufferers and sought advice from friends whose parents suffer from Alzheimer’s. I did a lot of soul searching about the voice of Jack, who has Alzheimer’s. The book is full of dark humour but I did not want the reader to feel I was mocking Jack but rather laughing with him.
I wrote each chapter from the point of view of a variety of characters, so I set myself the hard task of finding voices for characters as diverse as an eighty- year old dementia sufferer, his gay son, a toy -boy and a young surrogate mother.
I started Demented Love several years ago, when attending a creative writing evening class run by Susan Elliot Wright. I had constructive feedback from other students and from the Sheffield Novelist’s group. I pitched it at the Novel Slam in Off the Shelf and came second. This gave me the confidence to apply for the MA Creative Writing at Sheffield Hallam, where I completed the novel as my final piece.
My blurb describes it as S&M for the M&S brigade and most people find it very funny. I hope though behind the humour it begins to reverse the asexual way older people are generally portrayed and to explore the dynamics of elder abuse in a very different way.
If you want to buy it is on Amazon to download or in paperback
The novel slam was a big success again this year. The decision to change to a larger, more accessible venue, the Adelphi Room at Sheffield’s legendary Crucible Theatre, really paid off, and once again, it was a delight to meet so many writers.
The novel slam can be a nerve-wracking experience for entrants, although that’s not the intention! The idea behind the novel slam is to get used to promoting your work in public (in case you meet a literary agent in a lift, or just to enthuse your friends about the book you’re working so hard on), meet other writers and to get feedback from our expert judges.
One of the entrants, Anna Caig, who also writes for the Sheffield Telegraph, wrote a blog post about her experience in the novel slam, which can also be found on the official Off the Shelf blog: Off the Shelf Official Blog.
Off The Shelf 2016 has been an embarrassment of riches for the literature lovers of Sheffield. I have enjoyed every moment, from Withnail and I director Bruce Robinson talking about his new book on Jack The Ripper, to searching for the truth behind the ‘green man’ with Nina Lyons, to hearing Melissa Benn’s views on women in public life and education.
I must have been carried away by the atmosphere of the festival when I agreed to take part in the Off The Shelf fringe ‘Novel Slam’ event. Essentially, this is the X-Factor for people writing books.
The first round consists of a one minute ‘elevator pitch’ from each entrant to an audience, describing their novel. Then there is an audience vote and half the contestants are eliminated. The remaining ten people read a three minute extract from their novel. Followed by another audience vote whittling ten down to four finalists. These four then read for a further five minutes. And the eventual winner is chosen by a panel of judges.
So, all in all a kind of torture.
I spent a long Saturday afternoon the weekend before the slam up in my bedroom with an egg timer shunning my family, and perfecting (or at least deciding on) a one-minute description of my novel.
This is the book I have been writing on and off for nearly five years: a dark, gruesome tale of murder, myth and the supernatural, the research for which has probably seen me added to several watch lists. How to use naturally occurring plant-based drugs for mind control, anyone? But it has been much more off than on. It is in no way finished or well-edited, and the thought of reading aloud from this far from polished work was nothing short of terrifying.
I am turning forty next year, and I wonder if this could be my mid-life crisis in action. Turns out that putting myself out there to be judged by a room full of strangers is quite the adrenaline rush. Some people buy a Ferrari; some people sleep with their secretary; some people go bungee jumping. I prove to myself that I’m still alive and kicking by taking part in a novel slam.
On the day of the slam, my butterflies began well before breakfast. By mid-afternoon I was feeling sick.
I met my friend, who was also competing, for a gin and tonic beforehand in the vain hope that this would give me courage. By this point I could no longer feel my hands. The only other time in my life I remember feeling that anxious was on my wedding day.
The slam was held in the Adelphi Room, which is part of Sheffield’s beautiful Crucible Theatre. This is a glass fronted room below the huge Crucible sign whose contents is visible across the whole of Tudor Square below. We could not have been more exposed. As I stood up to read my synopsis, I was so flustered I nearly stumbled backwards through the glass window.
My recollections of the experience itself are something of a blur. There was some fabulous writing from my fellow-competitors that I could in no way fully appreciate due to my anxiety. When I was voted through to the second round I accidentally gave myself a whoop I was so pleased.
I’m sad to confess that I didn’t make the final four. But was reassured by the fact that these writers were stunning. It was only at this point that I could really relax and appreciate the quality of the writing showcased at the event.
The feedback I received from the judges was all spot on, and genuinely helpful for me to take away and use to improve the book. And I met some great fellow Sheffield-based aspiring, as well as actual real-life, novelists. More than anything, it felt wonderful to be immersed in that world where we’re all in the same boat; where everyone in the room gets that writing is the best thing ever, and there is no better way to spend your time.
So, while I didn’t come out of the experience covered in glory, neither was I humiliated. It was a fantastic evening, and despite the lack of feeling in my limbs I loved every (perfectly-timed) minute.
I hope that all the entrants have now recovered from their trauma and are now working on their novels. Many thanks to everyone who attended the event and made it a success.
Congratulations to the winners. I hope you enjoy your prizes!
The Sheffield Novelists writing group is open to all writers who are serious about writing a novel. Contact us for details.
At the Louder than Words music writing festival in Manchester, Sheffield Novel Slam organiser Anne Grange caught up with the Novel Slam’s 2015 winner Olivia Piekarski about her experience.
I heard about the novel slam though my writing group, Manchester Women Writers, which is an amazing mixed-ability group of writers who meet weekly at Manchester Central library. Susan Solazzi, who runs the group, found out about the slam. I thought it sounded amazing. I need to find an agent at this stage of my career, and the chance of a guaranteed read-through of my manuscript by Joanna Swainson seemed too good an opportunity to pass up. I rang up and booked a place in the Novel Slam.
My novel The Guest List is my first piece of fiction that I’m pleased with. I’m nearing the end of my first complete draft. I’ve gained confidence as a fiction writer since The Big Midweek, the music memoir I co-wrote with Steve Hanley, ex-bassist of the legendary and notorious band the Fall was released. After all, it had a guaranteed audience of at least 5,000 fanatical Fall fans. Our independant publishers Route don’t insist on working with agents, unlike the larger publishing houses, so I had by-passed that stage during The Big Midweek process.
I almost didn’t make it. The train was delayed, and I was sending frantic text messages to the organiser, Anne. Steve and I piled into a taxi at Sheffield railway station, and told the taxi driver to put his foot down. We reached Bank Street in about five minutes, but didn’t know where Bank Street Arts was and sped past it. Luckily, I caught sight of the A-board outside as we were speeding past and stopped our driver just in time. I arrived just as the first writer was doing his pitch, and we sat down at the back, massively relieved.
Reading the guidelines for the Novel Slam, I was impressed with the format. It was a clean slate that enabled all the writers to compete on an equal footing. The pitching round meant that you had to sell the book to the audience in one minute. I spent hours developing a decent synopsis that fitted into the time limit – something that would be perfect for the blurb at the back of a dust jacket. There were lots of good pitches though – I think that Iain Broome, the compere, was a bit disappointed that he didn’t have much opportunity to blow his horn at people who had run over the allotted time!
The three-minute reading from the start of the novel was the most important and most difficult part of the Novel Slam to get right. I knew I needed to hook people in from the first page – that was all I got to read, and if you were browsing books in a bookshop, that’s all you’d read too, when deciding whether to buy a book. Three minutes was just the right amount of time to keep the audience interested. I was elated when people were laughing and clapping in the right places, even though it made my hands shake with nerves! It was a good experience, but a little terrifying. Getting a positive audience reaction to your work stops you from feeling like a nutter, sitting at your laptop and laughing away to yourself.
I was blown away by the standard of everyone’s writing. All the competitors were serious writers – competing for serious prizes, such as a read-through by the Literary Consultancy, and creative coaching.The feedback from the judges’ panel was very well thought-out, and gave all the writers something to work on to improve their work.
In the break, people came up to me to say that they loved the opening of my novel, which was great. Being an author is very isolating. It’s not like being in a band, where you get immediate feedback from your colleagues and from the audience. The Novel Slam is a beautiful way of testing authors’ writing.
When I found out I’d got into the final, the feeling was amazing, and when I won, I was completely overwhelmed. Then I ran back off to catch the last train, feeling like I’d got away with a total hit and run, Manchester style.
Writing a book is a massive undertaking, and the chances of actually making money from it are very slim. Truly dedicated writers have no choice. They have to go on. It’s an all-consuming passion, even though it’s important to live a “real” life at the same time. Writing is a condition, and only becomes a viable job for very few. The entire profession should be stamped with a mental health warning but if you really can’t help yourself perseverance and patience are key.
I’m now working hard on finishing the first full draft of The Guest List, but I’m buoyed up by the experience of the Novel Slam.
Thank you, Sheffield!
Note from Anne: I was waiting for a tram home after the Novel Slam when I found lots of panicky text messages from Olivia on my phone about her train being delayed. While she was texting, I was busy taking the ticket money for the event, and was too busy to check my phone. I was so glad she’d made it! It was a great opportunity to congratulate Olivia. Her novel is set in the mid-nineties, against the backdrop of Oasis’ rise to fame. My writing is also closely intertwined with music, and we started chatting. This led to an invitation to me working on Across the Tracks, the book of the Louder than Words festival for Route Online publishing, and I grabbed the opportunity with both hands. I had a fantastic time, met lovely people, including some music legends, and now my work will be in print too. As a writer, chat, network, ask questions; be cheeky. It might just get you somewhere!
The annual Off the Shelf Novel Slam has become something of a Sheffield tradition over the last few years, with fiction writers getting brave and pitching and reading out their work in front of a live audience. The aim of the event is to give new fiction writers an audience, and a chance to showcase their work, just like poets would do in a poetry slam. Writing novels can be a lonely business!
The novel slam takes place on Tuesday 27th October at 7.30pm at Bank Street Arts, in Sheffield city centre. Tickets cost £5 /£3 concessions on the door, and refreshments are available. If you don’t want to compete, just turn up, enjoy it, and vote for the best books.
The first round is a 1 minute pitch of your novel. You will be timed! You have exactly one minute to convince the audience that your novel is a must-read. You don’t need to explain your entire plot, you just need to prepare the blurb that will make readers pick your book off the shelves and take it straight to the till in the bookshop.
The audience will vote for their favourites, and after a short break, the ten people through to the next round will have 3 minutes to read a compelling extract from their novel. Most people pick the start of the first chapter, but some writers have had success with extracts from the middle of their books.
The panel of published writers will give feedback to the contestants and there will be a break while the audience vote again, and the judges pick the four winning novelists.
The winners will each read a slightly longer extract from their novels, and the judges will give more detailed feedback.
Although the competitive format of the Novel Slam may seem a little daunting, it’s just for fun really, and a great chance to meet other writers.
Tip: practise makes perfect, so carefully craft your pitch, test it out in front of your family and friends, use a timer when you’re rehearsing, and edit your extracts to read so they’re engaging, attention-grabbing and intriguing.
This is the blog for the Sheffield Novelists Writing Group. We are a friendly group of people writing novels – at various stages and levels, and everyone who is writing a novel is very welcome to join us!
We meet monthly at Bank Street Arts in Sheffield City Centre, usually on the last Monday of the month at 7.30pm, but during the summer months and December, dates may change, so please contact us at: firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
This blog is a work in progress, so please bear with us, but it will evolve and develop over the next few months.