Thursday, 15 September 2016

Novel London - a rare opportunity for novelists

The literary scene is rich with opportunities for poets and short story writers to read or perform their work in front of a live audience. Less common is the chance to hear anyone other than major established authors read from their novels.

This was the hole that Safeena Chaudhry sought to fill when she set up Novel London, a unique opportunity for newly publishing and unpublished novelists to read their opening chapter to an intimate audience in bookshops and other venues in central London.

Readings are also videoed and uploaded on the Novel London website - a valuable tool for promotion in this social-multi-media age.

Novel London takes place on the first Friday of every month. I attended my first one at Waterstones Covent Garden last February, when the theme was Love – though not necessarily the conventional hearts and flowers love associated with Valentine’s Day.

Since then I have talked to Chaudhry about why she set up Novel London.

“I like to capture moments and create narratives through writing, photography and video. There’s something about documenting that can transport us. Sometimes, we forget what we have achieved, who we once were, and some moments in time, captured digitally, can provide us with evidence. Reading in public is an act of courage and having a record of it can remind us of a moment that I hope the novelists will treasure.

When I completed my debut novel, Companions of Clay, I was very lucky to have a book launch at Foyles on the Southbank. The staff – Emelie, Celise, Frazier and Shane – were so generous and helpful, it gifted me an extraordinary day of my life. I didn’t get a recording of the event and all I have are my memories.

I had applied to the Arts Council for funding and been unsuccessful twice (more since), but I decided to go ahead anyway: I knew novelists, I had a venue (I’d hired the Big Green Bookshop) and I had recording and editing skills. I also knew a fantastic coach, Norma Cohen from Vital Sparks, who helped me immensely when I read at Foyles and she has worked with some of the novelists before their performances.

Since then, Charlie and David from Covent Garden in Waterstones have really championed Novel London and I could not have done it without their help. What began as a book reading event in my local bookshop came right to the heart of London and their support has been amazing. Novel London also takes place in different venues, independent bookshops (such as Travelling Through and the Big Green Bookshop). I’ve also met some talented, generous and amazing people on the Indie Author scene from the London Book Fair, ALLI and Meetup, some of whom have given valuable feedback and encouragement

Novel London for me is a platform for novelists and the novels that we might not otherwise have a chance to be aware of. It’s showcased yet-to-be published, independently published and traditionally published novelists. It’s a place of discovery and diversity. I want more people to go into bookshops and buy books and I also want them to connect with novelists in person and online. I want the guests to be inspired by the writing. Some novelists have written one novel and others have written half a dozen. Either way, sometimes we need to see the results of what happens when people just.keep.going."

ALLi member and literary novelist, Jane Davis, took the plunge in May to read from her novel My Counterfeit Self. She talks here about one of the bonuses of taking part in a Novel London evening – the services of professional voice coach, Norma Cohen.

“Tackling the escalators in an underground station while carrying a laptop bag and a suitcase full of books in rush hour is not recommended under ordinary circumstance. But ordinary circumstances these were not. On one of the hottest evenings of the year to date, I left my day-job behind and wove my way through London’s city commuters, to take part in Novel London’s Contemporary Fiction evening.

When I arrived at Waterstones, Covent Garden, Norma was putting Young Adult author Fiona Linday through her paces. Fiona was clearly at ease. She explained to me later how, working with children, she knows exactly what is required to keep a tricky audience engaged. In my book, my main character Lucy, a bohemian poet activist, expresses her concerns about precisely that:

‘Lucy had only ever imagined that single misfit she wanted to reach out to. The sheaf of poems trembled in her hand as she realised she had only small things – her voice, her words – to stop the audience wandering off to the bar.’

Norma encouraged us to engage with every member of the audience – and since the audience would be sitting in a semicircle this meant moving about and making eye contact. She was very encouraging. When it came to my turn, she suggested places where I should pause to give the words time to sink in, and words where greater inflection was required. In fact, she wanted me to start the chapter with a shout!

As it progressed, the practice session became interactive. Norma had us read lines from our first chapters in turn, giving the opportunity to compare delivery techniques and making us match rather than compete with one another. Finally, before the audience arrived, she put us through some relaxation exercises – to which I added a glass of white wine, for good measure.

Whilst I didn’t remember every suggestion, I did notice a marked difference in my delivery, and focusing on the audience, I was barely aware of the camera I had been so worried about. I didn’t even notice there was a second!”

If you have completed your novel, please feel free to send in the opening chapter, biography, and blurb to

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