Monday, 15 September 2014

Anatomy of a Writers Festival - York 2014

I'm just back from the York Writers Festival run by Harry and his team (esp. Laura and Nikki) from Writers Workshop. First, as usual it was fun. I arrived a bit late at York University's stunning, lake-side campus, but in time for dinner, and immediately met up with script-writers Jeremy Sheldon and Craig Taylor, about to film a horror movie about writers on a retreat (can't wait!), as well as the self-publishing aficionado (let's get digital) David Gaughran. Together with some 350 attendees we watched one of the Festival's noteworthy events, called Friday Night Live, where six or seven people stand up and read their work aloud and then are evaluated by a panel of critics and then the audience. For once, though it was close, critics and audience agreed. But all six contestees were very good writers, and impressive speakers (I did this five years ago, and it's nerve-wracking). The event is a great ice-breaker, and the bar stayed open late...

The next day got off to an inspiring start with Antonia Hodgson, editor and author (seen here signing a book for a fan), who talked about her new novel, but also about letting your mind run free in order to give is creative space. This resonated with me since I do a lot of my writing at 4am when the mind is lucid, my internal editor is asleep, and no one is emailing me! She also said that Facebook and Twitter are junk food for the brain - hurrah! Also, she stated that having a social media presence was not necessary, just do what you're comfortable with. It's the writing that's important. She talked about her own writing journey and her first book, a labour of love that had to be written but never got published, and stated that writing was either through love or compulsion, and a little insanity wasn't necessarily a problem (okay, I may be misquoting...). At the end she summed up for me the importance of writing conferences, that writing can be a lonely process, and it is good to be with other writers, but also to meet agents, editors and publishers and see that they are human, and care passionately about good writing.

For those writers who've not been to this annual festival (this was its fifth year), it is a little different to others that I've been to (e.g. Paris & Geneva), in that there are many agents and editors from big publishing houses present, and you get to meet them and, if you want to, pitch your work to them, or simply ask them questions or have a chat.

I attended a number of workshops/lectures over the course of the weekend, and three that stick out for me were Julia Cohen, Juliet Mushens and Emma Darwin.

Julia's lecture on character had terrific structure, and she got us doing some written character exercises. I applied them to the protagonist in my latest novel-in-progress, and the first three were a walk in the park, but the next two were not, and I realised I had to go back and do some more work on her character and how it interacts with the plot. Here's an insight into some of the questions she put to us:
  • What is this character’s best quality?
  • What is the character’s worst fault?
  • How do the quality and the fault connect?
  • An amazing character is when the best and the worst are the same thing (for me an example is from the TV series House, about an antagonistic but brilliant doctor).
  • What if in order to solve the protagonist's problem they have to give up what is good about them?

Juliet Mushens is a top agent and went through the nuts and bolts of what an agent should do for you. Although it is hard enough to get an agent, she explained that it doesn't guarantee publication, and went through the entire process from pitching to agents to agents pitching to publishers, to the acquisition stage where the publishing house decides if there is a commercial business case for the novel, to publishers bidding for a novel, to working with editors and the front cover, to royalties and how they work, and to dealing with post-launch issues and problems. I wish I'd seen this about ten years ago, it would have made things a lot clearer!

One thing she pointed out, and I hope I have the figures correct, is that of 100 submissions of 3 chapters plus synopsis, she probably askes to see one full manuscript. Of 100 full manuscripts, she probably selects one to represent. She said that often the three chapters looked really promising and polished, but the full manuscripts were not of the same writing standard, so this is a lesson to all of us writers.
I attended Emma Darwin's lecture as it focused on the mid-section of a novel. She quoted someone as saying that every novel is composed of a beginning, an end, and a muddle, and this resonates with a lot of writers (and agents and editors, I'm sure). To resolve this, she talked about a five-act structure, in which the three middle acts were a way of breaking down the middle to make it work better. I wasn't totally convinced but in the last 15 minutes she put up a set of questions that I thought were really useful, and I'm going to work on them for my novel-in-progress. Luckily the one I'm editing to get out by Xmas already seemed to comply. Here are some of the questions, and you can find more information on her writing website.

1.      What’s the internal instability – the lack – in the main character? What has to change?

2.      How are you going to make the promise that these characters are worth it, that this book is worth reading? That it will deliver? Potent opening, first page or two. Doesn’t have to be the inciting event or the start of the plot.

3.      What is the inciting incident that’s strong enough to get them acting, given who they are? What need is the character trying to fill? What emotionally will get in the way?

4.      How does that lead to the first Turning Point? What does committing themselves mean emotionally?

5.      How are you going to keep things moving and interesting through Act Two? Is there enough that they have to tackle, to keep them developing? How does their lack cause conflict – from inside or outside or both?

6.      What is the mid-point? What’s the big internal change – where their real need, the need to mend their lack, begins to show? How are you going to raise the stakes?

7.      The crisis is the point where they could revert (or give up?)

8.      The second Turning Point is where they choose not to revert. The lack is healed, and with that new strength they reach the climax and win.

Of course one of the main reasons people go to this festival is the ability to pitch direct to an agent, and this event is called 'one-to-ones', where prior to the conference you select 2-3 agents (or editors or book doctors), send them your first chapter and a cover letter, and then you get 10 minutes (the organisers are famously strict on the 10 minutes, and if you're late, too bad) to talk to them and get their feedback.
I already have a small publisher for my Scifi series, but I'm now writing a thriller, and so wanted to get feedback on it as it is a new genre for me, so I had three one-to-ones with Hellie Ogden, Sophie Orme and James Wills, the first and last are agents, whereas Sophie is an editor with Pan Macmillam. Sophie loved it, albeit with a few specific comments, the agents were a little more demanding, in particular with the female protagonist, which resonated with what I found out in Julia's and Emma's workshops. So, promising, but more work. What is interesting is that while reading is a subjective experience, here two completely independent agents basically gave me the same advice on its strengths and main weakness. It not only gave me confidence to continue, but also confidence in the whole industry that it is not random and driven by whim and preference; the professionals in it know what they are doing, and know their business.
The event is also very social, and I made some new contacts, and it is good to meet and talk to other writers, whether inside your genre or not, and share stories about writing and fitting it in with the rest of your lives. I think this is essential, at least in the early and mid-stages. While anyone can write, as Antonia said on day 1, only writers do write, whether through love of writing or because they feel compelled to write, and only writers understand this, because like our protagonists, it is both our 'lack' and our strength.
Last, my favourite quote from the conference, from Emma's session:

Story is the journey you make, plot is the route you take.


© Barry Kirwan |
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