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Issue #129 - May 2006

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The Write Fantastic: What's the Big Idea?

By Juliet E. McKenna

Well, according to the front of our leaflet, what we refer to as our "mission statement", mostly managing to keep a straight face when we do so, goes like this:

The Write Fantastic is an exciting initiative by professional authors aiming to introduce fantasy fiction to readers who have yet to experience the genre. Its mission is also to show those who have stopped reading it, for whatever reason, the breadth and depth which exists today in fantasy writing.

Which we’re very happy with, as far as a paragraph on the front of a leaflet goes. Obviously, there’s a lot more to say.

The project has its roots in a convention. Not an SF&F event, but the annual St Hilda’s Crime and Mystery Conference, held in August 2004. I was talking to Margaret Murphy about the Murder Squad. This is a group of crime writers who have banded together to speak to libraries, literary festivals, reading groups and just about anyone else who’s interested. The objective is to promote crime fiction as a genre and yes, obviously, to raise the profile of their own work as an incidental bonus. Over the last five years, the Murder Squad have been increasingly successful, as libraries, literary festivals etc. have proved far more amenable to a joint approach focusing on wider genre and creative writing themes than to individual mid-list writers pitching what can be misinterpreted as a desperate plea to flog their books. Indeed, the Murder Squad’s success has led to other crime and mystery writers banding together in similar groups, such as the Unusual Suspects.

Because there’s a major issue to be faced here, at least in the UK. The last ten years have seen dramatic changes in the book trade. The same books are promoted, with the same discounts, in every store. Bestsellers thrive, while writers seen as "mid-list", and especially those in genre fiction, suffer. Browsing used to be the route by which such authors picked up new readers. This has simply died, since people popping into a bookshop "for something to read" get no further than the volume discount deals, or the books promoted on TV through the Richard and Judi Book Club (the UK’s answer to Oprah). Authors face a choice between grousing into their beer or looking for alternate ways to contact potential readers to bring them in past the discount tables and the bestseller charts.

This was all very interesting, but what really got my attention was Margaret mentioning that Chaz Brenchley was a Squaddie. As discerning readers will know, Chaz is also a fantasy author and, as it happens, one of my pals. So, at the 2004 FantasyCon, Chaz and I mused in the bar on the possibility of doing something similar in collaboration with other fantasy authors. Stan Nicholls, Ariel (of The Alien Online website) and Anne Gay were asked for their opinions. As authors and/or ex-booksellers, everyone was well aware of the increasingly hostile retail climate. We agreed that action is always better than inaction, and it was obvious that more people were needed. It was decided, with some regret, that such a group needed a clear focus on fantasy rather than including, say, horror or hard SF writers. Also, since we’d be working closely together, we needed to all get on well on a personal level. Fortunately, the SF&F convention circuit has given us all opportunities to meet and sit on panels with a range of other authors. James Barclay, Sarah Ash, Jessica Rydill and Mark Chadbourn were contacted accordingly. All were enthusiastic about the idea.

Mark Chadbourn made a particularly good point in those early discussions, based on his experiences in the music industry. HMV (a major UK record store chain who also happen to own Waterstone’s, Britain’s largest book chain) are often blamed for polarizing that market into one dominated by long-established acts, and by heavily-promoted new bands created by marketing men rather than musicians. How is new talent supposed to get that big break? But the hopeful don’t bin their guitars and give up. They get out on the road and build a reputation by setting up their own gigs. If writers fear that HMV, as owners of Waterstone’s, are leading the book trade down the same ruinous path, let’s take hope from those musicians who are finding ways around it.

One of the first things we agreed is that we’re not setting ourselves up as some exclusive cabal. Depending on where and when we organize gigs, we’re happy to include other local writers, and also to work as part of larger initiatives, such as the Heffer’s autumn SF&F event in Cambridge. There is plenty of scope for events to interest those fantasy readers who don’t feel inclined to go to conventions. Those are people we’re aiming to reach, and others besides. Dedicated SF&F fans are generally keen to read new writers, but those who don’t read the genre are often reluctant to try it. Perhaps they tried it long ago, didn’t like what was on offer, or grew out of it. Teenage experiences with Asimov or with The Lord of the Rings can confer life-long inoculation. But genre literature has broadened, deepened and matured incredibly in recent years. The challenge is letting readers know.

We launched The Write Fantastic with a very successful London evening event in association with the British Fantasy Society in May 2005. A couple of weeks later, we went to Birmingham, to speak to the Birmingham SF Group and also to appear at the Tolkien Weekend at Sarehole Mill. Stan Nicholls made those contacts and also arranged book-signings at Waterstone’s and the late-lamented Andromeda Bookshop. In July Chaz Brenchley organized a couple of days in Newcastle, where we talked to the Literary & Philosophical Society as part of their Tall Ships Week, on whether or not sea stories and fantasy are mutually incompatible. On that same trip, we spoke to Bedlington Library and did an evening event with Ottakar’s in Sunderland. I ran a creative writing course for the Farringdon Arts Festival later in July. Since I was free to come up to Birmingham early on the first day of FantasyCon 2005 in September, Stan organized a two-handed gig for us at Hall Green Library. This is how we work; everyone uses their own contacts to benefit the group as a whole, and we aim to maximize the effect of every visit with as many related activities as we can. We supply the libraries and bookshops we visit with leaflets, posters and bookmarks, and publicize the events in genre circles. Again, all these tasks are shared among the group, to spread the load.

How are we funding this? Chaz Brenchley’s expertise was invaluable here, as he took on the challenge of making an application to the Arts Council England. We drew up a plan for our first six months, set out a budget and made our case in detail. To our delight, they approved us. Our success in getting start-up funding has enabled us to cover travel and accommodation expenses, to print a full-color brochure and to successively mail-shot targeted lists of literary festivals and libraries. We’re producing a booklet with short samples of all our work for distribution at gigs. Once that initial funding is exhausted, we aim to make our on-going program self-financing. Libraries do have reader development funds available, and organizations such as The Society of Authors are making literary festivals increasingly aware of the need to pay authors’ expenses.

How are we doing? So far, it’s been great fun and we’ve been very well received. We’ve had a lot of interest from libraries and a few literary festivals. For the first half of 2006 we’ve organized events in St Helens, Leicester, Derby, Lincoln and Birmingham and more will follow in Sheffield, Nottingham and Cambridge later in the year. We’ve recently taken our first bookings for 2007; a library event in Sevenoaks, Kent, and the Swindon Festival of Art & Literature. Keep an eye on the diary at our web site. If you see we’re doing a gig near you, come along!

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Emerald City - copyright Cheryl Morgan - cheryl@emcit.com
Masthead Art copyright Steven Stahlberg (left) and Gerhard Hoeberth (right)
Additional artwork by Frank Wu & Sue Mason
Designed by Tony Geer
Copyright of individual articles remains with their authors
Editorial assistants: Anne K.G. Murphy & Kevin Standlee