Warwick University’s Writing Programme (WWP) has been consistently ranked as the best creative writing course in the UK for the past five years. In this article, Ellen Lavelle, one of the 2018 cohort of WWP’s MA students, takes us through the trials and tribulations of publishing a unique anthology of student writing.
I am not a team player. This is probably because a) I am an only child and b) I took AS Theatre studies at school, when I learned that all group projects are doomed to failure, you can’t trust anyone to do anything and that betrayal is an inherent part of human nature. I can trace the solidification of these beliefs to the moment when I discovered that, five minutes before we were supposed to go onstage to give our final performance of A Street of Crocodiles, a cast member had eaten a crucial prop. Apparently, a boy in my class does a good impression of me in this moment, blinking and murmuring ‘you’ve eaten it – you’ve actually EATEN it,’ repeatedly in a dark corner of the rehearsal room.
And so, I never expected the MA in Writing Anthology to work very well. My distrust in people is probably one of the reasons I like writing so much. Everything within the universe of your story, poem, memoir, essay, etc. is down to you. You control every element, at least until you have to get it published. I think it’s a fair assessment to say that most writers exhibit control-freaky behaviour, tend to be perfectionists and can generally be unwilling to compromise. Rounding up twenty-two of us and telling us to create an anthology of our writing as a team, from generating the content to designing the cover and getting it printed, was a pretty ballsy move by the Warwick Writing Programme.
“Becoming a successful writer is no longer just about writing a good book”
But, in this changing landscape for literature, these kinds of skills are becoming increasingly important to writers. Becoming a successful writer is no longer just about writing a good book; it also involves participating in a wider literary culture, editing and reviewing the work of other writers, knowing how to speak to people at events and having an answer ready when Norma from Grimsby sticks up her hand and asks if you think e-books are the work of the devil and are going to destroy reading for everyone, everywhere. Creating the anthology was a great idea; but it was going to be tough. It would involve talking to people that didn’t agree with me and trying not to sound like a power-crazed lunatic. However, I do have the ability to be diplomatic, buried somewhere deep within me, so I reckoned I’d get by okay. As long as I didn’t have to do anything with money.
During the first meeting, back in October, a representative from the previous years’ cohort, Steve, turned up with a big bag of money. Steve is in his fifties and is a responsible human – he has a career and grown-up children, is able to wash his clothes without making everything pink or several sizes too small. I’m twenty-two and recently had to google how much rice is too much rice. But Steve was giving that bag of cash to someone and, because I was the slowest person to avert my eyes and sit on my hands, that person ended up being me.
‘You get a little card-reader,’ Steve said, handing me a folder of paperwork and the bag of cash. ‘To confirm your identity when logging in.’
I went home and tried to log in. Access denied. I realised that the person that had created the account didn’t know how to spell the word they’d set as a password. I logged in.
We had money left to us but we needed to raise more. This was where the creative energy came in. Also useful was the expertise of Annie, who owns her own communications company and has thirty years’ experience in the business world, making connections and money; getting shit done.
Annie enrolled on the MA course in order to give herself time to write the novel she’s been waiting years to complete – an account of the life of Cecily Neville, mother of Edward IV, Richard III and matriarch of the fifteenth-century House of York. Annie could give Cecily a run for her money. Half a meeting in, we were discussing agreements with Costa Coffee, fundraising events, and a ’Friends’ initiative – where people could sign up formally to be supporters.
Katie, another of our MA cohort, had also left a career to return to studying and is an expert at event organisation, having put together several LGBTQ literary festivals and worked on publicity teams for charities. It was her initiative to start up an Eventbrite page, an Anthology Mailchimp account and a profile on the university crowdfunding platform, so that people could donate easily online.
“Within a few months, we had our first fundraiser. Our tutors read, drank wine and Warwick professor, David Vann, conquered the raffle. Meanwhile, I learned that you need more than one Tupperware box to effectively run a drinks stall, a food stall and a tombola.”
We went on to have three fundraisers and I learned a lot more. I learned that you need to stop people distracting you while you set up a float, otherwise you’ll forget how much you put in. I learned to never invite untested comedians to perform on open-mic nights because they’ll do long, drawn-out jokes about blind people bumping into things while your blind friend sits next to you, her guide dog panting in the central aisle.
But I also learned that expert bar staff lurk in all kinds of places. Ed, who finished his undergrad at Warwick last year and writes tense, emotional dramas, is also the President of Warwick’s Real Ale society. My lack of Tupperware didn’t stop him making a mint on the drinks stall, bantering with guests, pouring cheap wine into plastic cups like it was rare, exalted champagne. I learned that some people will travel a long way, in crammed cars, stuffy trains, to support their friends or family. They will pay five pounds for a paper plate of Costco buffet food and sit on uncomfortable chairs in windowless rooms, listening to nervous people read out loud from something they’ve worked really hard on. I learned that windowless rooms can be exciting places.
Costanza is Italian, did ballet for sixteen years, and is now writing a novel about Clytemnestra, the queen who, according to Greek myth, killed her husband, Agamemnon. She wears amazing earrings and has friends that are artists.
‘What do you think of this?’ she asked us, holding up her phone. It was an illustration by her friend Gaia, of a collection of abstract, cartoony faces. And then we had our cover.
A few quick-fire observations:
Names are hard. Whatever you do, don’t ask me to name anything. In the end, we went for ‘Manifest’, which is vague enough to encompass all twenty-two featured pieces of writing, but hopefully interesting enough to encourage people to pick up the book. It wasn’t an easy decision. Feathers were ruffled. We voted and when there were signs of dissention, had another vote. There were still murmurings, but you can’t argue with democracy. Even when you want to.
Deadlines: lie to people. Tell them the deadline is at least a week before it really is. Have no shame. You’ll thank me, when people decide to change what they’re submitting, or don’t give feedback in time or give feedback too enthusiastically and brutally, prompting the author of the story to have an existential crisis and consider giving up writing forever.
Sign off from harsh emails that enforce deadlines or chastise bad behavior as ‘the committee’, not as yourself. ‘The Committee’ is a usefully vague entity. Sometimes, they made tough decisions, but they got the job done. And it was important that those tough decisions couldn’t be traced back to a single person. It wasn’t me or Katie, Annie or Vanwy, who sees the good in absolutely everyone, even when the rest of us find it impossible. It wasn’t Costanza or Luke, whose facial expressions never reflect what’s going on around him but what’s going on inside his head, as he breaks away from discussions to jot down lines for his stories in a little green notebook. You couldn’t blame Anna or Miloni, who worked so hard buying food, booking rooms but bore it all smiling. It wasn’t any of us. It was the committee.
People moan and want to have someone to blame, but they’d probably moan no matter what. You have to do the thing. Who made the decision? The Committee. Who’s to blame? The Committee. Who got the book published? The Committee.
But of course, it’s about the journey, not the destination. Our book launch is on 13th June, at Waterstone’s Piccadilly in London. It will be amazing to hold the book in my hands, to meet agents and publishers that could help me get the career I want in writing. It will also be amazing to watch my colleagues, now friends, read the writing I’ve seen them working on. We had our last meeting in the pub and, when it was over and I was walking away, I turned back towards the table. Sometimes, people don’t eat the props. Sometimes, they create props that are better than anything you could do on your own.
A note to any prospective employer: I am in fact a great team player. My only flaws are my extreme modesty and my tendency to underestimate my own abilities. And, just for the record, 75g of rice is the right amount of rice.
About the author of this article
Ellen Lavelle is a postgraduate student on The University of Warwick Writing Programme. An aspiring novelist and screenwriter, she has worked with The Young Journalist Academy since the age of fourteen, writing articles and making short films for their website. She’s currently working on a crime novel, a historical fiction novel and the script for a period drama. She interviews authors for her blog and you can follow her @ellenrlavelle on Twitter.