Dear Readers, what do you want …

… to be told when you go to a talk given by an author?

I can hear you!! And I agree – this sounds a fairly silly question. But let me explain why I’m asking.

Last week, I went to an extremely interesting talk held in Abingdon Library. It had been arranged by Abingdon Writers with the help of Mostly Books. The author, Ali Shaw, was speaking about his two books, The Girl with Glass Feet and The Man who Rained, to an audience that included a large number of readers, as opposed to an audience of solely writers.

The entrance to Abingdon Library, courtesy of Abingdon Library

I realised the significance of the strong reader element when Ali, a literary writer, stated that there was no such thing as genre. As soon as he’d said that, I’d expected hands to fly up and his remark to be challenged by those keen to assert that genre certainly existed in commercial fiction. But not a hand was raised. All around me, people continued to listen with interest.

It hit me at that moment that readers didn’t care about the ins and outs of the publishing industry, about genre and literary definitions – they cared about the finished book, and that was what they wanted to hear about.

Over the past seven years, I’ve been to so many workshops, author talks, writing groups, that I’d rather lost sight of the fact that there were people who wanted to be transported into the world of the fiction, and left there in peace.

My novel, The Road Back, falls into the category of commercial historical fiction. It is, therefore, a very different sort of book from Ali’s, whose works are lyrical, modern-day fables, and any talk I give will ineviably be different from Ali’s so I can’t look to his structure for guidance.

I’ve just seen the programme for the Historical Novel Society Conference 2012, which is to be held at the end of September at the University of Westminster, London, and it looks as though I shall be giving a talk/workshop there. It is important to me that I get it right, and this reminder about remembering the composition of your audience when preparing a talk couldn’t have come at a better time.

So, Dear Readers ( and Dear Writers, too), perhaps you would help me. When you go to hear a talk given by an author, what sort of things do you like to be told?

  • Cara Cooper:

    Hi Personally, as a writer I like to hear about someone’s process of writing. How do they come up with the finished article. What are their methods of creating people and incidents out of thin air. Tips for things I can do myself to clear blockages or get new ideas. Or perhaps where an idea for a book has come from and how it was developed. Either that or perhaps their path to publication – an old chestnut but still interesting. BUT if I’m going as a reader, I’m interested in the person, interested in the author and what drove them to write a particular book that I’ve enjoyed, the background to the book, and the background to them, what makes them tick. After all, reading is a connection between author and reading and I guess I would go to a talk in the hope of strengthening the connection.

  • Cara Cooper:

    Ooops, sorry that last sentence should have been ‘reading is a connection between author and READER’ – when will I learn to review my comments before posting them!?

    • Liz:

      I’ve copied that and saved it, Cara. It’s very helpful. Thank you very much for taking the time and trouble to comment.

  • Fabulous and I love to hear about a writer’s inspiration and especially what they enjoy reading. I find this interesting because the talks I chose are those where I enjoy a particular writer’s work. I thus am interested in their reading tastes. I am not interested in the publication history. That is such a trodden path that we tend to hear the same old over and over. I want something new and exciting and personal like reading tastes.

  • Mandie:

    Your post is interesting Cara. As a reader, I am interested in the aspects you are interested in as both writer and reader. The path to publication is something that holds an element of interest if it is raised as a question from a delegate during an ‘any questions’ section of a talk.

    • Liz:

      How interesting that you, a reader, share the same interests as writers, Mandie. I had thought it might be otherwise. Many thanks for your comment.

  • I went to some great talks at the Oxford Lit Fest and my favourites were Ian Rankin and William Boyd. They both talked about where they got their inspiration from, how they did their research and the process of writing. William Boyd was particularly interesting because he sometimes takes TWO years to plan a novel! But more generally I enjoy talks where the writers are enthusiastic and engaging. And funnily enough, often the very best bits are during the Q&A session. Good luck with your talk, Liz!

    • Liz:

      Many thanks for your comment, Emma – it was really helpful. Am so glad that at this stage I had such a wake-up call, if that’s the correct term.

  • I saw Michael Morpurgo talk at The Winchester Conference in 2010 (I think, may have been 2009!). He was so charismatic and witty. He talked about his childhood and when he first became interested in reading-how his mother influenced him because she was an actress and she used to read to him using different voices. His favourite book was Treasure Island. He talked about his life before writing as a teacher-the children in his class weren’t listening when he read books to them so he made up his own stories-then they did listen to him. The headmistress overhead him telling one of these stories one day and she happened to know a publisher and it went from there. He also talked about the work he’s done to help inner-city children by setting up working farms for them to visit. He grew up in the inner-city himself.
    Following on from our chat on Twitter this morning-I think writers can be divided into published and unpublished when it comes to what they want to hear at a talk -as I’m unpublished I’m interested to know how a writer became published. As a reader, I’m interested in the story behind the book (like your first post on the choc lit blog)-that was fascinating and it makes the reader want to read the book too. I also find it interesting to know what a writer did before writing-and whether their career has influenced the way they write or what they write about. Phew-sorry for going on….!

    • Liz:

      That was soooo interesting, Anita. I’m very glad that you didn’t edit it down. I had completely forgotten the family aspect, apart from The Road Back being inspired by my uncle’s album. But my mother was an actress, and we started reading Shakespeare aloud in my family when I was 8. My mother and I (enthusiastic participants) took the best parts; my sister and father (reluctant participants) took third gradener, fourth servant, etc.

      Thank you, Anita, for taking the time and the trouble to comment so fully.

  • Carol Lovekin:

    The process – always the process. Both as writer & reader I am fascinated by way a story comes together.

    In addition, as a reader, I like to hear about a writer’s book choices; anecdotes about their life. We readers want to get to know & like our authors!

    As a writer, I’m slightly put off by the question, ‘What is your book about?’ & always delighted to be asked, why I write. (The frivolous answer is because I can’t paint or play the piano.) The serious ones are always those that are most intriguing to me in other writers.

    I find Ali Shaw’s claim that there is no such thing as genre interesting. I do feel we are too hung up on the notion of genre. Some books (mine included) are difficult to place.

    Thank you for the post – that’s another thing we readers like in our authors – a good blog! I look forward to reading ‘The Road Back.’ When I read the blurb I was momentarily reminded of ‘The Wonder House’ by Justine Hardy.

    • Liz:

      I was extremely interested in your comment, Carol. Thank you for making it.

      Re Ali’s remark about genre, I think that that may well be true of literary fiction, but from all that I’ve been hearing for these past seven years, it is – regrettably – not true of commercial fiction.

      I’ve just looked up ‘The Wonder House’ on Amazon as I’ve never come across it, and I shall most definitely be reading it. It sounds a very interesting novel.

      Another book set in Kashmir, which actually begins in Ladakh, the background for half of my novel, is ‘The Kashmir Shawl’ by Rosie Thomas, a highly talented author. She’s travelled extensively in this area (and in many others) and her love of, and familiarity with, the region jump out of every page.

      Good luck with placing your novel.

  • Hi Liz – I found your website and blog – and they are fabulous! I’m so looking forward to reading The Road Back. Is that your cover on your website? I’ve LOVED all the Choc-lit covers.

    The topic of this post is of particular interest to me in that, mid-June, I too have been asked to give an author talk to readers in Tetbury, Glos. So, I am also making a note of the answers given to your question. Keep bloggin’ Liz. I’ve just added your blog to my blog list.

    Are you attending the RNA Conferfence this year…?

    Janice xx

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