Helen Dennis at Hampshire Writers’ Society

All those present at the society’s March gathering welcomed the much-anticipated news of the improvement in Barbara Large’s health as her treatment continues. Here is a facsimile of the letter that she sent along to the meeting and which Dr Gary Farnell read out on her behalf:

‘I will be thinking about you all tonight and wishing that I could be with you to welcome all of our wonderful speakers.
My next appointment with the consultant is this Thursday at Winchester Hospital when she will give the results of the recent blood tests. Fingers crossed that the myeloma count will reduce from 5, with the goal of reaching 0 soon.
Please tell our HWS writers that I am busy writing a book titled Scrumptious Recipes Shared with a Pampered Patient, a 70-page easy-to-read guide to help patients and their families cope with illness. It may be printed in time for the book fair at the June HWS meeting.
I miss you all and hope to catch up soon.


Spontaneous cheers echoed through the auditorium when Gary finished which simply underscores both the regard in which Barbara is held and the extent everyone is rooting for her speedy return.

Now onto the business at hand. Commonly, the society’s monthly meetings offer members and guests the advantage of listening to the wisdom of a Special Guest and a Keynote Speaker, however this month the society introduced a special 3-for-2 offer! Which is perhaps an indelicate way of describing the three wonderful speakers that offered great insights into writing for children, dealing with the publishing industry and all-importantly getting published.


Special Guest: Helen Dennis

As we hear so often, Helen Dennis’ nascent writing ambition was also first nurtured at her local library during regular childhood trips accompanied by her mother. It was at the library that Helen first decided that she would become a writer, an ambition that started to take shape when her parents converted an outside loo into a writing den! At the ripe old age of eleven, Helen began work on her first novel, which she described as The Hobbit set in outer space! Helen’s teacher offered her that all-important ingredient of encouragement and when the book was complete it was duly sent off to a publisher.  Helen remains astonished that no-one offered her a publishing deal – a little more time would have to pass for that to happen.

Helen Dennis March 2018

It was as a result of attending the Wiltshire Writers’ Conference and meeting agents that finally set Helen firmly on her journey of realising her long-held ambition of becoming a published writer. At the conference, she met with Beverly Birch, herself a former speaker at the society’s meetings, who really liked the manuscript sample that Helen had provided.  Beverly Birch subsequently asked to ‘see the whole thing’, which proved a little problematic given that the rest of the book resided only in note form or simply in Helen’s head! But Helen had smelled the possibility of success. Undeterred by the task that lay ahead she set forth on a marathon undertaking to fulfil Beverly Birch’s requirement that all the books in the series should be written before any publication could begin. This resulted in four years constant work to get to the point of publication which finally happened in 2012. That comprises a potted and very much abbreviated history of Helen’s writing journey, the rest of her talk focused on the specifics that should help all writers. Using the two mnemonics BELIEF and PLAN, Helen demonstrated some of the things that we should all bear in mind.


  1. Think BIG, but when writing for children always think from a child’s point of view.
  2. Be EXCITED, especially when explaining plot twists or moving the narrative on – have the characters moving during dialogue avoid them being physically static.
  3. LISTEN to the advice of trusted sources even when they say things that you don’t want to hear.
  4. INVEST, especially in time to do the writing and getting to know your readership.
  5. ENGAGE by speaking to readers, especially the younger readers, find them and talk to them.
  6. FINISH and then edit so that the story becomes as fine-tuned as it possibly can be.


  1. PURPOSE. Make sure you are always clear about the point of every scene. Try to show your characters changing emotionally from the beginning to the end of each scene. This is what readers will be captured by.
  2. LIST all the different possibilities for showing a scene and try at least ten of them before settling on the final one.
  3. ADVANCE the story and the characters.  They are always underscored by change.
  4. Keeps endless NOTES and always use them to help in the editing process.

Helen proved to be a very authoritative speaker whose knowledge and understanding are born of real experience of what it means to become a writer and how to engage successfully with the publishing industry.

First Keynote Speaker: Justin Strain

Justin Strain March 2018Continuing with the evening’s theme of Writing for Children, Justin began his talk with an extract from his immensely popular Kitty Hawkins adventures.  The reading seemed to come to an end all too soon, itself a testament to both his reading skill and the quality of the section of narrative that he shared. Justin also provided a resume of the plot and explained that after much deliberation he chose the self-publishing route for his work using Create Space as his chosen platform. His output comprises historical mystery adventures and The Secret of the Scarlet Ribbon is the first book in his Kitty Hawkins series.

Portsmouth is Justin’s hometown and has provided the setting for his novels thus far. Again public libraries (Justin’s mother worked as a librarian in a number of Portsmouth’s libraries, and also in Hampshire County Council’s schools) played an important part in his development of a love of literature. He grew up in a house full of books, and from an early age was entranced by them, this set his love of adventure and mystery writing off.

Second Keynote Speaker: Anne Wan

Anne’s interest in writing began in 2012 but really got underway with self-published picture books of which she has written 27 as well as a range of poetry and some adult short stories. In October 2016, Anne published Secrets of the Snow Globe – Vanishing Voices, her first chapter book which was aimed at 7-9-year-olds. In 2017 she launched the second book in the series, Shooting Star.

Anne Wan March 2018

Anne similarly had a wealth of practical knowledge regarding the best ways to network and promote self-published work citing launches, book events, school library visits and liaising with local shops and Christmas fayres as all important for increasing sales and expanding a writer’s profile. She recommends joining the Society for Children’s Authors, and Writer’s and Illustrators (or the relevant societies depending on genre) and she explained the value of having an effective support network of writing friends and critical readers to call on. Anne also encouraged writers to attend writers’ conferences as well as engaging with different social media platforms including Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

All photos courtesy of Alex Carter, Lexica Films

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