The Writers’ Conference

The Sillitoe Trail App explores themes from Saturday Night and Sunday Morning

On Saturday I chaired a panel at the Writers’ Conference called Working as a Writer in the Digital Age and was joined by Wayne Burrows, Farhana Shaikh and Rakesh Parmar. Digital technology offers many ways to make interactive and immersive narratives that are becoming ever more sophisticated and consequently writers are becoming increasingly experimental with their stories. Ease of publication, be it through a wordpress site or social media, means that writers now have platforms to showcase their work as well as immediate access to the mythical global audience. It’s all terribly exciting and meritocratic…and a little daunting.

Digital is a broad all-encompassing term that would require 45 years, let alone 45 minutes, to fully do it justice. But I think it’s worth summarising one key point that was raised on the day: You’re never too late to embrace digital technology because it’s constantly changing. There is no beginning middle or end. What is more important is experimenting with different platforms until you find what works for you in much the same way as you experiment with different writing styles and techniques until you find your own voice.

As promised, here is a brief outline of some of the websites that were mentioned during our discussion.

Digital doesn’t have to be funky, exciting or complex. It’s more important that it’s functional. Wayne Burrows talked about how a simple wordpress site acts as a holding space to pull all of his work together. As a practising artist (under the pseudonym of Robert Holcombe) a lot of his work is performed and exhibited live. The website acts as a portfolio of his work, enabling uploads of images and recordings of talks. Facebook is also an important part of this process as he has created a fake profile page of his pseudonym and now people are starting to believe Holcombe is actually real…  

If you’re looking at experimenting with narrative and want to try a multiplatform approach as I did with the Sillitoe Trail and currently with Dawn of the Unread then have a look at transmedia storytelling or The Literary Platform. By combining different media you offer the reader unique experiences and have to think very clearly about what you’re trying to achieve. For example, I have created Twitter accounts for some of the featured writers in Dawn of the Unread so that I can tweet passages of their books. I see this as a form of literary criticism as you are reducing a book to its core essence. Adding images to tweets also creates another layer of meaning, such as with these accounts Slavomir Rawicz and Mary Howitt. Offering a novel through this medium may in turn draw attention to the main Dawn of the Unread website, where readers can go deeper into the text.

Both of my recent projects have been funded by Arts Council England but to get this funding I have had to find a lot of support-in-kind. To be clear, I am not a techie and do not know how to write code. I am an editor who turns to industry experts such as Think Amigo to visualise my ideas. If you are unsuccessful with funding, don’t give up. Universities are another option who can provide work for free in exchange for work placements.

Writers' Conference digital panel.

Farhana Shaikh is the founder of The Asian Writer and enthused how the internet enables like-minded people or those with niche interests to come together such as through Leicester Writes. The major issue of the digital age is not so much creating content but sifting through the deluge of information and finding quality writing. She recommended Rebel Mouse as a very simple way of aggregating content feeds from elsewhere or Connect Curate for collaborations with other organisations. Crowd Sourcing is useful for funding projects and has helped imprints such as Unbound books. Kickstarter epitomises this new form of micro-funding but be realistic about your goals before starting. If you have a digital story and are looking for somewhere to submit it then she suggested the New Media Writing Prize  or digital only presses such as Shortfire.

Peer to peer review/writer community sites: 



Writers’ Workshop

I write read and rate

Useful websites for submitting work  

Sabotage Reviews – review small presses and online reviews/publications/magazines

Write Out Loud – Mainly poetry but also details fiction submissions

Duotrope – An incredible database that enables you to manage submissions to magazines as well as find the best magazine for your story/genre.


Salt’s Modern Dreams

The Friday Project


Radio Daze

The Midlands, in case you were wondering...

Author Robert Shore contacted me through LeftLion a year ago about a book he was writing about the Midlands. His central argument is that the Midlands is a forgotten region and all cultural arguments position people as either belonging to the north or south. He was after a local phrase to capture this and I suggested Neither Use Nor Ornament, though he eventually went with Bang in the Middle. I was really intrigued by his book as it was much needed and so I explained, or rather confessed, how the last ten years or so of my life had been dedicated to promoting Nottingham culture and history from creating The Sillitoe Trail to my current project Dawn of the Unread.

A few months ago he got back in contact to tell me the book would be coming out in April (there is a review in the next LeftLion) and that after five years of trying, he’d managed to persuade BBC Radio 3 to commission a series of essays on the Midlands. He asked if I’d be interested in writing one.

I mention this as an important tip to aspiring writers. Most commissions come through people you know. This isn’t nepotism. It’s serendipity. I write for free for LeftLion but through this I get to meet lots of people within the industry. The digested read: You create your own fate.

I pitched various ideas to Robert and we eventually settled on ‘Whatever You Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not’: Arthur Seaton and Nottingham’s Rebellious Individualists. It’s the first time I’ve written for proper radio and had to quickly familiarise myself with the grammar, such as repeating various facts as the listener can tune in at any point. Then there was the usual caution of the BBC, such as recording two versions of a Sillitoe quote (with and without ‘bastard’) as well as explaining who Brian Clough was, just in case someone living in Malaysia was unaware of the footballing genius.

Alan Sillitoe, author of Nottingham's defining book Saturday Night and Sunday Morning

It was challenging to write as I needed to talk about Nottingham in the context of the Midlands, due to this being the theme of the collection of essays, while also exploring specific literary history and rebellion in Nottingham. As we have this in abundance I was spoilt for choice, which is some ways made it even more difficult. In the end I took Arthur Seaton as the main narrative thread and interweaved relevant points around him.

The word count for a 15 minute essay is about 2,200 words. Any more and you can’t get in the natural pauses and emphasis. I recorded this in London and had Robert, a sound engineer and the controller for Radio 3 in my earphones offering advice. One piece that was really useful was smile when reading relevant passages as it helps to change the tempo and rhythm of your voice.

I hate my voice and laughed when the controller politely asked if I’d ‘ham up’ the Nottingham accent when doing quotes. Our dialect is notoriously difficult to capture, just look at Russell Crow as Hood and Albert Finney’s Manc Arthur Seaton accent. And did he mean north or south of the Trent? Also, how could I ham up an accent when I’ve lived in Leeds, Manchester, Cambridge and have weird inflections from each? But it was more enjoyable than I thought it would be thanks to some professional guidance. Hopefully I won’t sound too much of a numpty and Al Needham, the master of local vernacular, won’t give me a hard time. 

The essays come out around the 24 April. The four contributors are Geoff Dyer, Henry Hitchings, James Walker and Katherine JakewaysBBC Radio 3 The Essay website

Preview in the Guardian

Interview with producer Robert Shore