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John Mayflower - it's not surprising that most writers go a bit bonkers

Writers are, as a breed, known to be a neurotic bunch. It's not surprising, really. To be a writer one has, apparently, to be sensitive, observant, wise, and good at understanding the motivations of others. But one also has to be self-obsessed, a show-off, pushy, and thick-skinned, so it's not surprising that most writers go a bit bonkers -- they just can't handle the conflict.

Unpublished authors are, of course, the worst (and I include myself in the legion ranks of the unpublished, in case you're wondering.) We're not only neurotic, we're also desperate. "What the world doesn't realise is that I am, in fact, the next Milton," we think to ourselves. "It's so unfair. Nobody knows that here, in a tiny flat in London, dwells the true voice of the generation. Why are people so dense as not to realise this patently obvious fact?"

So really almost the last place any aspiring writer should go is to a writer's festival. It's very hard realising that there are other people in the world who are also the next Milton. "I'm Milton!" "No, I'm Milton!" "I'm Milton and so's my wife!" we shout to anyone who'll listen. The cries of the unheard and, more importantly, the unread, were particularly audible at the 21st Winchester Writer's Festival. But above the noise of the Miltoning was a greater shout. That, of course, was how wicked and evil are the gatekeepers to the City of Authorville: namely, agents and publishers.

The talk amongst the hordes of wannabes was almost exclusively of how people had been screwed by agents and deceived by publishers. Agents came in for some flack, particularly from those who felt that they were producing "literature" as opposed to merely rather vulgar entertainment, but the real venom was reserved for publishers, who really got it in the neck. I attended a lecture by a publisher on the nature of the business -- very interesting it was too -- where people seemed shocked by the fact that publishing is 100% a numbers game and that publishers exist to make a profit for themselves and their shareholders. As part of the lecture, we were all given an exercise: to write down five thoughts about publishers. Out of a room of twenty, only one comment was positive -- not that your man seemed to care. He rather liked it, in fact. However, he also gave very direct and no-holds-barred advice, which was really quite invigorating..

So was it worth going to, this festival of moaning? Well, it was actually. The festival was a fun event. I genuinely received some useful advice and encouragement from published authors; I attended some extremely interesting seminars on the route to the promised land; I even saw P.D. James. I found that talks from agents and publishers were much more useful than talks by authors (at least in terms of learning "how to get your book in print") -- authors can't really explain how they do it -- they just do it. Having said that, Elizabeth Arnold and Tessa Krailing did give me some very useful pointers to make some genuine improvements to my own book.

I also met some of the most determinedly nutty individuals I've ever come across. From Molly (who had struggled for twenty years with an idea for a book about her life as a put-upon-and-at-the-end-of-her tether mum, but who had never managed to get further than writing the title "Cereal Killer" -- seriously -- on a sheet of A4), to Paul (whose two-thousand page comic novel based on corruption and betrayal in an ITN studio was only a third complete) by way of several others (poets, surprisingly, seemingly saner than prose writers) the persons attending were definitely odd. They were, however, united in their belief that the world would be a poorer place without their words.

But surely there are far too many words in the world already? Aren't there are too many books, too many people writing books, too many agents, even too many publishers churning out the most ludicrous junk that nobody wants to read? Isn't it true that trees are dying by the rain-forest load to produce this nonsense, and that thousands of tropical plants, perhaps providing miracle-like disease cures, are being wiped out? Well yes. But so what? Quite frankly I'm much more interested in getting a short story of mine published in a magazine than in some boring old medicine. We owe it to the world to give it our big opinion, and mankind can just go hang. Now, how's that for self-obsessed?

© John Mayflower 2001
whose 1000 page novel about Dolly the Sheep has yet to find a publisher

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