Monday, 27 March 2017

Writing East Midlands Conference 2017

A bare blue sky, a carpet of daffodils and bright sunshine greeted visitors to this year's WEM conference. It took place in the beautiful Portland Building in Nottingham University's campus on Saturday 25th March 2017. Writing East Midlands is a charitable, not-for-profit organisation that promotes and supports writing and reading both locally and further afield. It runs programmes that help to improve writers' work, brings the writing community together, improves their skills and provides opportunities for professional writers to be paid for their work. This one-day conference gave local writers access to leading professionals from the industry. There were fifteen events, debates, workshops and seminars that ranged from The Role of the Writer in Times of Change, A Hero's Journey, Pitching to an Agent, Writing the Personal and many more. Later in this post I've written in more detail about the classes I attended.

The conference was hosted by journalist and East Midlands Today broadcaster, Geeta Pendse. She gave a warm welcome talk and introduced the lovely Alison Moore who was the keynote speaker of the day.
Geeta Pendse

Alison Moore's first novel, The Lighthouse, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Awards (New Writer of the Year), winning the McKitterick Prize. Alison gave a warm and personal talk about her road to success which included rejections and insecurities before entering competitions and slowly climbing the ladder of achievement.
Alison Moore

The first slot I attended was Writing for the Commercial Romance Market. The panel included, writer Judith Allnatt, who I've met several times before, Caroline Bell Foster and Tracy Bloom. Tracy defined romantic fiction as two people who love each other but there are barriers. She also said that there didn't have to be a happy ending which bought gasps of horror from the audience! She gave examples of successful romantic novels such as One Day and Me Before You that didn't include happy endings. We were asked to consider if our protagonist had earned her/his happy ending. Characters should evolve but be real, like Bridget Jones. Your reader wants to feel as if they are friends with your protagonist, making them care how your character's story unfolds.

Now to the important bit of a romantic novel - the hero! Caroline said that we should make our hero into someone we would be attracted to. I'm sure we all do this anyway, as it makes writing about him/her so much easier. We want to fall in love with our heroes and unlike the real world, we want thousands of other people to fall in love with them too!

A good tip was to write about what we'd like to read. It was also suggested that a protagonist should write a letter to the author in her/his own 'voice,' saying what they want, their likes and dislikes, their fears etc. From this letter, your main character's personality should arise.
Tracy Bloom, Caroline Bell Foster, Judith Allnatt

The second slot was entitled, The Role of the Writer in Times of Change. The panel were Nikesh Shukla, Kerry Young, Femi Oyebode and Henderson Mullin. Femi spoke about emotional truth and words being everything. Kerry said she didn't believe that writers had a role, but that we should write about what we care about: our passions, our values and messages we want to convey. She believes that writers do have a responsibility though. We should educate, amuse, challenge, entertain, encourage questions etc. Kerry gave an example about how times change and writers must change with them. The Archers began as a farmers' educational programme following rationing during wartime. It's evolved over time to become something very different.

Decades ago, Lady Chatterley's Lover was in court.

Today, Fifty Shades of Grey is in Asda!

Nikesh believes that the role of a writer is to answer questions that trouble people. We are social commentators. (I like that idea) He gave a passionate talk about the danger of accepting the single story. A story will be different seen by different eyes. Writers shouldn't be labelled as gay writers, black writers, Asian writers, white middle-class writers. I agree with him whole-heartedly and believe that we all come under the same banner - storytellers and communicators.

Nikesh Shukla, Kerry Young, Femi Oyebode, Henderson Mullin

Before lunch I spent twenty minutes talking with literary agent, Nelle Andrew from PFD agency, about one of my books. As well as discussing my writing, we included the wider topic of the publishing industry, fictional characters mixing with real world events and first chapter do's and don'ts, (to be included in another blog post).

We all had an hour for a networking lunch so I caught up with writers from Nottingham Writers' Studio, learned more about Mslexia from Debbie Taylor and chatted to the delightful Caroline Bell Foster. It was great to see Five Leaves Bookshop with a table full of diverse and exciting books which made it difficult to buy just one! After a walk in the glorious sunshine to take a few photographs, it was time for the afternoon sessions to begin.

I chose to go to Independent Presses: How Could They Work For You? for the third slot. On the panel were Teika Bellamy, (Mother's Milk Books) Debby Taylor (Mslexia) and Anne Holloway (Big White Shed). Teika shared her story about her independent press and how it benefits writers. She works very closely with her writers and happily dedicates a lot of time to creating a wonderful book with them. Anne explained how she had received very favourable comments and reviews about her writing but found it so difficult to secure traditional publishing. What better way than to create your own press...and that's what she did. I say huge congratulations to both of you.

The common thread that ran throughout the discussion was that the independent publisher generally has more time to dedicate to their writers. They have the freedom to publish diverse, exciting authors, whereas traditional publishers tend to specialise in certain genres. It was reassuring to hear that editors scrutinise work before publishing it, just as traditional publishers would do. They want each book to be the very best it can be. Here comes the caution - don't be tempted to go with vanity publishers. They ask you for money up front and the quality can be quite poor.
Debbie spoke about the diversity of Mslexia Magazine and the wonderful opportunities that can be found between the pages for its 24,000 readers. (Note: Their novel competition is now open!) Debbie has also worked with Fran├žoise Harvey to create a wealth of information about independent publishes called, mslexia, Indie Presses 2016/17. It's a thoroughly researched book containing information on more than 400 independent literary presses in the UK and the Republic of Ireland.

Teika Bellamy, Anne Holloway, Debbie Taylor

Following a coffee break, my final choice of the day was Pitching To An Agent. Alex Davis chaired the panel, who included, Oli Munson, Julia Kingsford, Davinia Andrew-Lynch and Nelle Andrew. Questions were welcomed from the audience and I've included some here.

Question: Must a writer's manuscript be professionally critiqued before submitting to an agent?
Oli: If you have the resources, it's a good idea but if not, don't worry. Ask several people to read it first as a different eye picks up mistakes that have been over looked.

Question: What do you want to receive in a submission?
Oli: Every agent has a different criteria but the norm is a covering letter, a synopsis and three chapters.
Julia: Research your agents. Look at their list of clients and think whether your book will fit. Research which genres each agents request.

Question: What would you like someone to call you as in a covering letter?
*sniggers from the audience*
Nelle: By her name! Although she isn't too impressed when she receives letters beginning with, Dear Neil! Spell it correctly.

Question: How much do you like to get involved with changes in a book?
Oli: He would have a conversation with the writer first. He's aware that he's the editor and not the author. His suggestions don't have to be acted on every time.

Question: After agent representation, how important is public speaking at events?
Davinia: If an author is particularly uncomfortable with public speaking, she would personally find another way around the situation. Public speaking and reading helps to increase your public profile, but no one is forced into doing it.

Question: If a writer enjoys creating work in different genres, can they submit a range of work?
Oli: Submit your strongest work and submit that.
Nelle: Specialise in one particular genre to make it stronger, but enjoy working in as many as you wish.
Julia: If it's good, she'll look at it. She represents someone who writes fiction and non-fiction.

Question: Do you read every manuscript and do you prefer email or hard copies?
Davinia: No and email.
Nelle: No. If you can't write a letter, you can't write a manuscript. Email.
Oli: No, but always the letter. If his taste in fiction is different to the submission, he won't read on. Email.
Julia: She dives in and reads the first page before the covering letter. If it's good, she'll read the letter. Email.

After several more questions, the panel gave a final word on pitching. Here are some bullet points.
* Make it the best it can be.
* No typos.
* Be confident - but not arrogant.
* Have an assured and clear sense of voice.
* Don't be too personal.
* Don't use gimmicks to present your work. *puts clown outfit back in the cupboard*
* Don't use bribery. *puts chocolates back in the cupboard*

A covering letter should show how serious a writer is about writing. How have they developed their writing? What is the essence of their book? Do they have a clarity of vision? Mention some like-minded authors and what books are similar to yours? Who is your market? Why are you different and original?

Julia, Oli, Nelle, Davinia

"There is a certain amount of luck involved. A best seller is not destined to be a best seller. It's about the right people, the right time and the right place."

Nikesh Shukla gave the farewell keynote speech and storyteller, Shonaleigh, shared an extraordinary story that she'd created during the day.


Huge thanks to Writing East Midlands for another wonderfully inspiring conference - and as someone said on the day,


Friday, 24 February 2017

The Art Of A One Sentence Pitch

Yes, there's an art to the one sentence pitch and it's something I don't find easy. Writing a synopsis is difficult but I prefer it to the one-liner. With a synopsis, I can pick the most important developments from each chapter and condense them into one or two pages. (See how easy I made that sound?) But why do writers need a single sentence pitch and how do we encapsulate a whole book into a single sentence?

If a friend, stranger, agent, publisher or nosey neighbour asks you what your book is about, you need to explain clearly while engaging your enquirer and keeping them interested (and awake). We must endeavour to pick out the highlights of our novel so that whoever we're speaking to wants to buy or represent our hard work.

I've discovered that there are three basic elements to a good one sentence pitch.

- The opening conflict
- The obstacle
- The quest

The opening conflict is the hook, the first step that leads to a quest. The obstacle is a situation/s that prevents your protagonist from overcoming their difficulty. It could be a person, an illness, a lack of courage, a lack of money etc. The quest can be a physical or spiritual journey, but it describes how your story and most importantly, your protagonist, develops between the plot's beginning and ending.

The resulting basic pitch is: When OPENING CONFLICT happens to CHARACTER(s), they OVERCOME CONFLICT to COMPLETE QUEST. There are lots different ways of structuring these basic elements, but each should be included. The important thing to remember is that a good one sentence pitch is a description of the plot, not the theme.

The danger of describing the theme in your one sentence pitch, instead of the actual plot, is that it will sound generic. The pitch for Eat Pray Love, is not A recently divorced woman seeks love and happiness. That sounds like many romantic books on our shelves. A more accurate pitch would be, A recently divorced woman flies to Italy for pleasure, India for spirituality, and Bali for balance, but discovers love instead. Because that's what actually happens.

If your final sentence isn't already half a page long by now, try to add some details that will give a sense of the character of your novel; is it humorous, tense, sad, etc. This will help to give your sentence individuality.

There! Easy! *swallows hard and scratches head*

Good luck...and please wish me luck too!

Tuesday, 31 January 2017

A Review of The Tobacconist by Robert Seethaler

I must mention that the delightful front cover of this book is what first attracted me. The white-washed buildings and terracotta rooftops of a hillside town reminded me of a wonderful visit to atmospheric Prague.

Robert Seethaler’s, The Tobacconist, is a coming of age story about seventeen year old Franz Huchel. It’s 1937 in pre-war Austria and Franz leaves his mother on the calm shores of the Attersee for an apprenticeship with a Viennese tobacconist. People are wearing swastikas on their clothing and there are Nazis on the Ringstrasse. However, Franz soon settles into a monotonous routine with the one-legged tobacconist, Otto Trsnyek. Before long, he falls in love with a Bohemian showgirl called Anezka, whose erratic behaviour leaves him excited, exhausted and eventually, heartbroken. Who better to befriend than an ageing professor who’s a regular customer to the shop - Sigmund Freud. As fanciful as this sounds, Robert Seethaler creates an engaging and credible friendship between the two and as a reader, I quickly accepted this incongruous camaraderie. Suffering from homesickness and heartache and in exchange for a couple of good cigars, Franz receives regular, informal therapy sessions from the father of psychoanalysis, even as the Anschluss* is declared and war looms.

If I were to highlight something that didn’t ring true, it would be that Franz appears to be strangely unaware of what’s happening to the Jews under Nazi rule, or at least oddly detached from it. He is made to read newspapers every day from cover to cover as part of his apprenticeship, so I imagine he would be up to date with all wartime developments.

Otto is arrested and killed by the Gestapo and then Freud and his family leave Vienna and escape the country. Franz is alone and for a while runs the tobacconist by himself. Eventually he perpetrates an act of rebellion against the state, which seems more personal than political. He seems motivated by a sense of injustice at the circumstances of one particular event rather than by disgust at the brutal system that caused it. In my opinion, if you’re looking for an enjoyable book or deeper understanding of the early years of the 20th century, The Tobacconist is a great read.

* The joining of Austria with Nazi Germany.

Sunday, 29 January 2017

The Story Arc.

Every story must have an arc. It rises to a high point and then slopes back down again. This is a must. A story arc has several headings, all of which must be included.

1. Exposition (Setting the scene.)
This is the every day life in which the story is set. Introduce your main character/s. Where are they? What do they want to achieve? What is stopping them from getting what they want?

2. Conflict (The hook that grabs your readers’ attention.)
Something beyond the control of the protagonist (hero/heroine) is the hook that grabs your readers’ attention. Something must make your story arc rise.

The beginning of your novel matters; every page matters, but you only have so long to interest an agent or reader in the first few pages. It doesn’t matter if, later on, the book is filled with gorgeous prose and heart-stopping suspense. Someone browsing in a bookstore or using the ‘look inside’ feature online, is looking for something to make them take your book to the till. If the beginning isn’t strong enough, if it doesn’t grab your reader’s attention, down the book goes, back on the shelf. (Not that it would have made the shelf, because your agent wouldn’t have allowed it to go out to publishing without a gripping beginning.) It pays to think carefully about the beginning, and spend an outsized amount working on it. The beginning doesn’t have to contain fireworks in order to captivate. But it does have to captivate. It might not be clear what the beginning ought to be until the book is nearly finished, so don’t worry about it right away. Get it written, then go back to figure out where it should begin. An agent will read a few paragraphs, and if they’re not ‘hooked,’ they’ll set your manuscript aside and move on to the next submission.

3. Rising Action (The story grows more exciting, frightening or dangerous for your main character.)
The conflict results in a quest – a long, hard search for something. It can be a person, love, an object or peace of mind. It can be anything you choose. Your protagonist must be given a challenge or conflict that they must overcome, and in doing so, they will become a stronger person. They must resolve whatever problem is put in front of them. If Harry Potter asked one of his teachers to wave a magic wand and sort out all his problems, J. K. Rowling would still be living in a bedsit wondering how to pay her next bill! It was a great success because Harry had to fight every inch of the way through exciting adventures. Give your protagonist an adventure.

4. Surprise or Climax
Your main character needs to make a crucial decision - a critical choice. The choice(s) made by your protagonist need to result in the climax. This is the highest peak of drama in your story and when your book should be ‘unputdownable.’ This is often when we find out exactly who a character is, as real personalities are revealed at moments of high stress. This must be a decision made by your protagonist. Whatever path your hero/heroine chooses it cannot be something that happens by chance. This should bring us to the top of the arc because it makes up most of the middle part of the story. Surprise, or the climax of the story doesn’t mean pleasant events. It means placing the biggest obstacle, complication, conflict or trouble in front of your character, and only they can get themselves out of trouble.
To complicate matters, surprises shouldn’t be too random or too predictable. They need to be unexpected, but believable. Readers like to be surprised and think, ‘I should have seen that coming!’

5. Falling Action.
The reversal should be the outcome of the choice that your protagonist made and it should change the status of your characters – especially your protagonist. Your story’s reversal should be probable. Nothing should happen without a reason.
Changes can’t happen without your main character making them happen.
Your story should unfold leaving your readers feeling satisfied and not short-changed.
Remember that your readers must be on your protagonist’s side, so your main character must be likable.

6. Resolution.
The resolution is a return to calm and satisfaction. Your protagonist should be changed in some way through her own actions; wiser, braver, happier or more confident having achieved something. Your reader puts down your book feeling pleased and a little sad that the story has ended.