The Free Reads Scheme is a fantastic initiative run by The Literary Consultancy, funded by Arts Council England and supported by partners across the UK, for talented, low-income writers to get professional feedback on their work. In this blog, TLC’s director, Aki Schilz writes about the incredible impact the scheme has had on writers and the value of getting professional feedback…
“I think at some level I thought ‘that novel is finished and it is ready to send out and I will start the next one’- and I got my TLC manuscript assessment… I remember being utterly devastated when I read it… Of course there were positive things – I would not be a published novelist now if there had not been, but mainly it was about the stuff that was wrong with it. And then a few weeks later you sit down quietly and read it and go ‘Okay, fair enough, very sensible… I went absolutely back to the drawing board and did what they said and took it all onboard.”
‘The above is taken from a transcript of one of a series of anonymised interviews, commissioned by TLC and conducted by Audience Agency, to look into the impact of our core manuscript assessment service. We have been offering manuscript assessment commercially since 1996, and since 2001 on a bursaried basis to low-income and marginalised writers through the ACE-funded Free Reads Scheme. So why have I chosen a statement recording how devastated a writer was to have received feedback, as a way of pointing out how impactful it is? Why not pick out a glowing testimonial: ‘a masterclass’, ‘transformative’, ‘worth every penny’, ‘I would not have secured an agent without TLC’ – all of these are real things our writers have said, and many are thrilled with the feedback given. But there’s something about the quotation above that really resonates with me, that goes right back to our founding principles. We were set up, and still operate, not to promise a golden ticket to a publishing deal (be very wary of anyone trying to sell you one, it’s likely snake oil), but to help writers get a better sense of themselves. To empower them to become better critical editors of their own work, and thereby become better writers.
Along the way, writers who have had editorial intervention from us have gone on, yes, to be published (upwards of 300 so far, in fact), recommended by Oprah, made into films, and selling hundreds of thousands of copies. But they’ve also gone on to publish with brilliant indie presses, and to self-publish, and all sorts else, with just as much satisfaction. They’ve gone on to secure funding for other writing, to enrol on writing MAs having discovered a passion for writing, to re-write work submitted to us, and to write entirely new work. To me, these are all valid and exciting outcomes.
I’ve been thinking a lot about how we define creative success lately (and have written a short blog about this here). I believe there is a real and deep-seated need for advice that cuts through the noise, that saves a writer from longterm heart-ache, by offering them, right here and now, a view on their work that helps them shift their perspective. That helps them understand what needs fixing, and how to fix it. That’s exactly what a TLC manuscript assessment provides, and you can hear directly from writers who have benefited here.
It will always require a leap of faith by the writer to send work in for feedback, and will always feel, at some level, exposing. But it can also be a joyful, liberating thing. It can lead, suddenly, to that ‘light bulb moment’ as described by so many of our writers over the years. Only last week, a writer said to me at an event that without TLC he would never have had the confidence to apply to the writing scheme on which he had just been offered a scholarship. That same writer has just had two stories accepted for publication (I did a little joyful dance when I heard this). He credits TLC with that. We didn’t edit either of those stories, in fact, so this is a kindness not a truth. But the report he received from us gave him the tools and, vitally, the confidence. We took him seriously as a writer. And now, he believes he is one.
This is critical. Being seen. Being heard. Being critically engaged with, in a professional context. For those facing barriers, having had rejections, without access to professional development for reasons of finance, geography, or mental or physical health, or simply having been writing into a void for a long time, this can be fortifying. Even life-changing. It says: I hear you. I am taking you seriously. You can do this.
At TLC, we often joke that the acronym for our company was accidental; really what we dole out is Tough Loving Care. But it is in fact just this – Loving. Recently I read the quotation ‘Listening is a primitive act of love’. There is something about the art of listening, really listening, that is primal. But that kind of true listening, on a deep level, is also the most helpful for a creative practitioner buffeted by capricious trends, an overwhelm of information, and a bafflingly complex publishing infrastructure whose gates seem stubbornly closed to the un-initiated.
We try to strip that back.
It’s about you, and your writing. It’s about understanding why you write and the context into which you are writing. It must always be about this.
On the phone to one of our regional literature partners last week, the project manager and I were looking at submissions for this year’s Free Reads. Some of the writers from our last period (2015-18) had been invited to re-submit. Many declined, on the grounds that they felt they had moved on. They had gone on to secure more funding for themselves, been hired for lecturing gigs, found the confidence to tour their dramatic work, and had, all of them, kept writing. What a fantastic result, I thought. And this is what we will continue to do. For as long as we believe what we do is valuable. The impact is long lasting, and the writing goes on far beyond us. And that is truly priceless.’
We’re currently open for applications from London-based writers for the The Free Reads Scheme 2018-2019 submission period. Find out how to apply here. D/L 30 November.