Things I learned at the Winchester Writers’ Conference 2013

So I’m back from the Winchester Writers’ Conference – and I have so much to tell you!  But instead of getting bogged down in notes like I normally do, I’m going to distill the essence of what I brought away with me into some handy bite-size – or write-size – tips.  So here’s what I learned.

  • Julian Fellowes is a very funny man.
  • Agents, editors and publishers are still actively looking for good writers.
  • It’s about the writer, not the book.
  • Jasper Fforde doesn’t plan his books – hurrah.
  • Barbara Large created the conference 33 years ago and this is her last year at the helm.  What a woman.
  • A very large goodbye card takes two people to carry it.
  • Humorous writing for TV has a number of elements including surprise and rudeness.
  • Fast Show clips are always worth re-watching.
  • Make your book your own, not anybody else’s (Jasper Fforde).
  • Writers love to make up bizarre pseudonyms.
  • Climb into your character’s body and see the world through their eyes and from their height (Ben Illis).
  • St Alphege and St Edburga are actually the same building.
  • You can trip over many times in one day when you’re over-excited.
  • Everyone loves a free mini muffin.
  • Concentrate on one major aspect per draft to stop yourself getting distracted (Ben Ellis).
  • Anyone can be a freelance features writer – just start (Emma Scattergood).
  • Just because you haven’t made it yet doesn’t mean you aren’t going to (Julian Fellowes).

I’m sure you’ll agree there’s some invaluable nuggets of advice in there.  But my favourite was, again, from Julian Fellowes.  When he was working hard trying to make his dream of being a writer come true, he said he never let 24 hours go by without doing something to further his cause, whether it was writing, editing, sending an email or anything that he felt was helping him achieve his dream.  And he kept this up for 10 years.  Think I’ll do the same.

PS  I won the Writing for Children Aged 12+ competition and now have some lovely book tokens to spend.  What a fabulous day.

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On a mission

Tomorrow I am at the Winchester Writers’ Conference and I will be on a mission on your behalf, dear follower.  I will be hunting down hints, tips, opportunities and words of wisdom as I rub shoulders with the literati, and all my discoveries and revelations will be revealed right here!

One of the talks I am attending is from Liz Chase at Working Partners, a fiction packager which puts together children’s book series in-house, with the editors generating the plots and characters and a team of writers fleshing out the narrative.  You can apply to be one of their writers through their site.  It sounds like an interesting opportunity and I will let you know more next week.

Winchester Writers’ Conference 2012 is open for booking!

Perhaps I do go on about the Winchester Writers’ Conference a tad too much, but it is such a fab occasion, and even if you go just for the Saturday (like me) you get 5 workshops, 3 one-to-ones with agents, editors and authors and the chance to mix with other writers and members of the literati itself (this year spearheaded by everyone’s favourite cuddly gardener turned novelist, Alan Titchmarsh and prolific children’s author Michael Coleman).  Long known as the alternative way to bag yourself an agent, Winchester shows no signs of slowing down and with workshops on everything from structure to marketing to the e-revolution there’s always something new to learn.

And the reason I’m posting about this today?  Booking has just opened, so if you are thinking about going and you do want that 15 minutes alone with a top agent, you need to get in quick!

http://www.writersconference.co.uk/index.htm

Redrafting Checklist

As promised, here are my notes on Jude Evans’ seminar ‘Redrafting Your Work’, given at the Winchester Writers’ Conference on 2nd July 2011.  Although it is aimed at children’s writers, I’m sure Jude’s advice would be useful to anybody looking to improve their first draft.

I have also typed the notes up as a tickable checklist, so if you would like to print this off (and tinker with it to suit you) please download as a Word document by clicking on the link below.

DOWNLOAD REDRAFTING CHECKLIST

REDRAFTING YOUR WORK

(notes from Jude Evans’ seminar at Winchester Writers’ Conference 2 July 2011)

Put away your book for 2 weeks!  Now re-read.

FIRST REACTIONS
Does the mood and atmosphere come through strongly?
Are the characters convincing?
Does the writing flow?
What are the best bits?

Read again, this time with your red editing pen!  Be objective and break down the prose to look at it from different angles.

PLOT
Draw out a diagram/timeline of your plot and look at the narrative pace, the highs and the lows.
Is your plot watertight and logical?

OPENING
Does it compel the reader to continue?  What is the hook?
What can the reader identify with?
What makes it special?
Is it immediate?  Will the reader feel dropped in to the scene?
Use economy – don’t weigh down with explanation.

ENDING
Will it make the reader remember the book?
Does it make the reader feel the way you planned, eg inspired/shocked?
Use economy – don’t weigh down with tying up loose ends.
Does the resolution work?
Imagine a scene as a film – have you described enough to make it real?  If not consider adding movement or detail to bring it to life.

UNIQUE SELLING POINT
Research your market – look in Amazon, bookshops and libraries.
What are people talking about online, eg forums, mumsnet?
What is your strength?
Will your book sit well in publishers’ lists?  (If not, is it special enough to make it even though it’s different?)

WHAT IS YOUR BOOK ABOUT
Can you capture it in a few sentences?
Why would a child want to read it?
Is the message clear?

CHARACTERS
Are they memorable, individual and real?
Do they have quirks, attitude, humour?
Is their dialogue natural, eg own turns of phrase?
Do they behave true to character, not as slaves to the plot?

DESCRIPTION
Imagine a scene as a film – have you described enough to make it real?
Is the reader experiencing events as vividly as possible?
Is the description a high point, or dry and flat?
Are you showing, not telling?

STYLE/AUTHOR VOICE
Is it suitable for your audience?
Is it consistent?
Does it communicate what you planned?  (NB  Don’t worry about this when you are in the flow of writing – think about style and tone afterwards.)

PACE
Have you leapt straight into the story?  Are the hooks early enough?
Is there enough action or intensity?

SETTING/CONTEXT
Do you make clear the time of day/year?
…the country or place you are in?
…the place in history?
Is the world believable and real?
Are you drip feeding or doing an information dump?

AUDIENCE
Is it suitable for the age group in its
…length
…structure
…tone
…topic
…interest level
…reading level?
What makes it appeal?
Have you immersed yourself in their culture?

READ
Are you reading and analysing the work of others in your field?

CUTTING
Cut out anything that doesn’t contribute to the plot.
Are any characters or scenes taking the reader down a cul-de-sac?

BE OBJECTIVE
Read it aloud.
Discuss the plot with someone.  Can you describe it clearly?
Write yourself an editor’s review letter.
Write a synopsis – it acts as a mirror to your plot.
Get feedback on the synopsis from a friend – does it appeal?
Write a blurb.

Put the manuscript aside for 2 weeks.

Repeat until your book is the best it can be!

Notes from Winchester Writers’ Conference 2010 – The Importance of Character by Debby Holt

I was lucky enough to attend a workshop on The Importance of Character, taught by novelist Debby Holt, at the Winchester Writers’ Conference on Saturday 26 June 2010.  Debby Holt is the author of five novels published by Pocket Books, and she met her agent Teresa Chris at the Conference.  I found Debby to be a very bubbly, enthusiastic tutor and there was a lot of laughter during the session!

I thought I’d share some of the notes I took, and I hope it reflects the workshop accurately.  This is the session where I took the most notes; as the day wore on I found I wrote less and less as I got more exhausted – it’s a very packed day!

  • Debby started by reading us the opening scene from Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel – the author cleverly makes the blackly-painted Thomas Cromwell sympathetic by showing him being attacked by his father and refusing to fight back.  The reader is engaged with him from the start.
  • Read, read, read!  (This was also the advice of Terry Pratchett and I suspect most writers – if it’s not, it should be.)
  • Debby keeps a reading diary and makes a note of what she learns from each book she reads.  She uses this to kick-start her own writing.
  • Empathy – the reader must be able to engage with the character, even if they are horrible.  What draws you to characters in the books you like?  Even villains should have sparkle!
  • Every main character needs flaws – for examples, look at Jane Austen’s heroines.  We don’t like perfect people!  We love losers like Nick Hornby’s main characters.
  • But don’t be afraid of having characters who are really nice.
  • Show, don’t tell.  How can you show character?  You can use their clothes or appearance, their home, eg what’s on the mantlepiece, their speech patterns – dialogue should be distinctive for that person – even their name.
    (NB: My favourite authors for brilliant character names would have to be Dickens, JK Rowling and Derek Landy – the dark underworld tailor in the Skulduggery Pleasant books named Ghastly Bespoke is a favourite!)
  • The five Ws – who, what, why, when and where?  Ground your character in reality or they won’t be believable.  Use a convincing setting.  Interview friends and family about their jobs.  (Debby has run out of jobs for her characters as she has used all her friends and family up!)  For locations, look on estate agents’ websites and do virtual tours.  Your research will be in your head as you are writing even if you don’t use everything you find out.
    (NB: the virtual tours idea is a great one – I did some research on private schools yesterday and was able to get a good look at the type of building I wanted to use by watching a prospective parents’ video.)
  • Be careful if your characters come too easily – they may be someone you know!  This happened to Debby, but luckily, she told us, they were dead so no offense was caused!
  • The non-sequitur or Ulysses factor.  I had never heard of this expression, but apparently the latin translation is ‘it does not follow’ (see wikipedia entry).  Debby explained that novelists like the wonderful Kate Atkinson will have their characters going off on trains of thought that allow the author to fill in some background detail, eg a sudden memory.  We all see things in different ways and characters will pick different things out of a scene that will spark off their own thought processes.
  • The importance of anecdote – this is a good way to reveal information about other characters in short bursts – but make sure they are interesting anecdotes!
  • If a character doesn’t serve the plot in some way, remove them.
  • Ambiguity is good.  Keep the reader guessing.  We are fascinated by people we don’t understand.  And we love to be surprised!
  • Credibility factor – be consistent otherwise the plot won’t work.  If a character is known to be a liar, don’t have her believed at a crucial point.
  • Viewpoint – different viewpoints can be effective as characters will see the same thing in different ways and this will reveal information about them.
  • Where can you get ideas for characters?  Try films, fairytales, other books, adverts, magazines.  Or go and do some exercise and your brain will loosen up and give you some ideas!
  • When you read your work back, do you find your characters interesting?  You should do!

Thank you to Debby for a great workshop.  I have already started using her tips in my writing and I’m sure I will benefit from them.

Adventures in a real bookshop

Surely there can be nothing more enjoyable than walking into a bookshop on a dreary grey day armed with £15 worth of tokens and the assistance of the most enthusiastic sales assistant I think I’ve ever had the pleasure of dealing with?  As I won the tokens for a Writing for Children competition I thought it was only fitting to spend them on some top YA and 8-12 novels, and the shelves were literally bulging with goodies.  (So tightly packed, in fact, that one needs two hands in order to prize a book out from between its bedfellows.)  I’d forgotten how pleasurable it is just to browse, judging a book by its cover alone rather than by price, 5 star reviews or the recommendations of the Amazon robot.

The ToymakerThe first book to catch my eye was The Toymaker by Jeremy de Quidt.  I knew nothing of the title or the author, but the cover features a wonderfully sinister jointed doll pointing to the word ‘Lies’, and the blurb is poetically creepy – “Hold your breath, because the little coachman with the razor sharp knife is coming.”  One to be read in a light, crowded room I think!

LeviathanIt’s always a joy to find a new book by a favourite author, and Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan looks wonderful.  With its steam punk style cover, raised silver title and quote from the Sunday Telegraph – “When a book pursues you into your dreams, you can’t ignore it” – it promises to be an intriguing read.  Westerfeld’s Uglies quartet is an inventive, action packed read and I know he won’t disappoint.

The Faceless OnesAnd for my third choice, it was really time to catch up with the third volume of Derek Landy’s Skulduggery Pleasant series, The Faceless Ones, especially with the fourth book already out in hardback.  Landy combines laughter, horror and action with ease – although what’s happened to the colour-tipped pages?  I prefer the look of my other two volumes with their distinctive orange and green edges.

A gold star for Waterstones, then, for not only giving me a great 3 for 2 deal but also recommending a host of new books for the next time I’m in store.  Chris Priestly, Neil Gaiman’s Graveyard Book and the last Chaos Walking book by Patrick Ness await my next visit.  Perhaps it’s time to give up my murky Amazon Sellers habit for good.