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


The Student Writers’ Toolkit

James Urquhart, Wes Brown, Mez Packer and me at Worcester University

This Saturday I visited Worcester to give a panel talk at the Student Writers’ Toolkit. I armed myself with a copy of Robert Shore’s Bang in the Middle, which attempts to define a character of the Midlands and asks a very pertinent question: Why has this region received such poor attention in the press when so much has happened here? It’s certainly having an effect on me because as the train moved towards New Street I didn’t moan about the Brummie accent and instead admired the incredible architecture that greets you, even that big shiny metal blob that wraps itself around a building and looks like the Gods have squeezed out a long strip of silver toothpaste.

The conference was organised by Jonathan Davidson of Writing West Midlands, a literature development agency. Don’t worry, Nottingham has its own version in Writing East Midlands which is run by Henderson Mullin and can be found opposite St Mary’s Church on Stoney Street.

My panel talk was about Writing Online and was chaired by James Urquhart of Arts Council England. The theme was: Writers were some of the earliest adopters of digital technology through personal computers and most writing is at least initially generated on a digital platform. And over recent years writers have responded ever more imaginatively to writing online. Log-on: discuss!

In many ways it was because of James Urquhart that I was asked to be on the panel. It was he who both made me aware of, and encouraged me to go for, The Space commission which materialised into The Sillitoe Trail and shaped my current fascination with digital storytelling. James is the Literature Relationship Manager at the AC and is based in Nottingham. Another reason to celebrate the Midlands.

I guess the thing I love about digital storytelling is the way it enables you to take multiple narrative threads into a story and offer a more complex layered understanding of a text. This approach is becoming increasingly important as users (once upon a time we called them readers) want to access content in shapes and forms that suit them. In many ways this has meant that an editor is becoming more of a curator, thinking about the ways in which different audiences will access smaller chunks of information.

My fellow panelists were Wes Brown and Mez Packer. Wes discussed the importance of digital legacy and how aspiring writers need to think less in terms of quantity and more in terms of quality. Those old blog posts that are either littered with typos or worst of all, drunken rants, will come back to haunt you if you don’t have a good tidy up. (Note to self: delete drunken rants about publishers letting you down and wanky agents who make you feel like a bunny boiler when you dare to ask them why they keep ignoring your emails).

Mez is the author of two books (Among Thieves and The Game is Altered ) published by one of my favourite presses, Tindal Street Press. As a senior lecturer in interactive media she was able to offer some pragmatic advice on how to use social media to create meaningful interactions with characters and how she put together interactive scripts for her transmedia storytelling experiment Reliable Witness, which was commissioned for the Birmingham Book Festival.

Some of the audience expressed fears about online plagiarism, but I really wouldn’t worry. First off, that great line that somebody has just stolen, well, you probably pinched it from an overheard conversation on the bus. It’s called Karma. Secondly, you have evidence that it’s your work the minute it’s uploaded and recorded, so if someone is stupid or lazy enough to steal it, they’ll get found out…but only if you’re successful. So take plagiarism as a benchmark of success and when you get a call informing you of intellectual theft, your career is heading in the right direction.

Another question concerned blog etiquette. There isn’t a perfect formula for this but my simple rules would be: Catchy title or one which show up on searches, no more than 500 words, be flexible where necessary (my excuse for writing this 900 word blog for those who are bored enough to be counting) use a strong photo/video at the top, be completely focused on one topic e.g. only write about your pet cat if your blog is called ‘stories about my pet cat’, check your spelling (which inevitably means there’s typos in this post. It’s the law to make a typo when you mention typos), link to other related blogs at the end of your post – to draw in like-minded readers, and finally, write regularly. My blogs at Dawn of the Unread are published every Monday. They are less frequent here because this website is just a general reference place.

Finally, a confession. Something I didn’t mention in my talk that I perhaps should have. I have done every job under the sun in order to be able to write. I am now in the fortunate position of being in a decently paid position which means that when I concentrate on projects in the evening I don’t have to worry about the bills. It’s because of this I was able to spend 9 months (unpaid) preparing for Dawn of the Unread. Writers thinking of embarking on complex digital projects that require much planning may not have the luxury of a full time job to pay the bills and so it’s probably best to build up a few regular contracts that will pay for bread and water before committing so many hours preparing a project that has no guarantee of getting funding. But the good news is even if it doesn’t come off, once you’ve fully thought it through and you’re gagging to get it started, you’ll find a way. And the answer isn’t always to do with money


Mez Packer’s website

Wes Brown’s website

Writing West Midlands’ website

Writing East Midlands’ website

Download chapters from Dawn of the Unread