Next month, Steve McHugh will be talking at the Hampshire Writers’s Society. We wanted to find out a little more about his writing process…
Q. When you first began writing were you aware that you were writing a particular genre and what that genre was?
I’ve always been someone who liked to write stories, and judging from my interests, I knew that I’d be writing in the fantasy or sci-fi genres. When I was 25, when my eldest daughter was born, I decided to get serious about writing and from there I started to work on what turned into an urban fantasy story.
That was when I knew I wanted to work in the genre before moving on to a different one, and I wrote Crimes Against Magic.
Q. Was Hellequinn your first foray into mixing our own up-to-date world with that of fantasy?
Hellequin was the second. The first was never good enough to be published, but it gave me the ideas that would eventually become Hellequin.
Q. Were you then able to find out the ‘dos’ and ‘don’t’ of that genre, for example, a limit on description or a taboo on a setting or type and style of character and what about dialogue, is the genre picky about dialect? For a long time, I was put off high fantasy as I was under the impression that it was way too olde English for a contemporary reader like me.
The good thing about urban fantasy is that it’s such a broad genre, you can really make it your own by adding or removing things you need. The most important restrictions are the ones you set yourself during your world-building. So long as you are consistent with the world you want to create, even if you’re using the real world as a backdrop, there aren’t many dos and don’t.
I’d say don’t let your book go too long, certainly not epic fantasy size, and try to make sure that whatever you do is more character based and not just about the fantastical world around them, but that’s probably the same for all genres.
With the setting, you need to have at least part of the book in the real world, but it doesn’t all need to be here, and I’ve not had any problems with dialect or lengthy descriptions, but then I don’t describe everything in detail anyway, so maybe that’s just me.
Q. Did you find sticking within the genre’s guidelines restrictive at all? Can you give me any tips for appeasing my mind-set to deal with such restrictions?
I find my restrictions quite easy to deal with. You really just need to decide on what you want your story to be. You want an urban fantasy with lots of romance? Go nuts. Or the same, but with a sci-fi edge? That’s okay too. There’s no hard and fast rule. You just need to ensure that whatever you decide is adhered to. You can’t add new fantastical elements that go against what you’ve already stated was part of your world building.
Q. Or, did you do your own thing, in which case, please tell me how you got passed the publisher’s requirement and their somewhat strict gatekeepers.
I self-published my first book, so I didn’t have a lot of gatekeepers to keep happy, but my publisher contacted me after about a year and asked if I’d like to work with them. Since then, I’ve had no issues with making sure I write a book they’re happy with.
So long as you write the book you want to write, you can always worry about what publishers and agents want after. You’ll need to be mindful of what is and isn’t being published currently, but getting the story down first is more important.
Q. How long, in your eyes (and I suppose the genre’s) does a novel of this genre have to be? Agents ask for the first three chapters or 10 to 50 pages, perhaps we should take this as a clue to the length of a chapter.
My books range from 110k in Crimes, to 146k in Scorched Shadows. Each chapter is between 10-15 pages long, on average. For me, that’s perfect as I think people like to be able to read a chapter or two and not feel like they have to put in a long time to do so.
Anything over probably 160k is too long, and anything under 80k is probably too short. If you aim for that 100k spot, and you go either side by a few, you’ll be fine.
A perfect fit to be our September adjudicator was Anne Gibson, literary therapist to residential homes for the elderly. Our first competition in the 2017/18 season was to ‘Write about an elderly person performing one item from their bucket list’.
“I’d like to say what an enjoyable experience judging these entries has been, all of them varied and entertaining, and on a subject close to my heart as I regularly spend time as a volunteer visiting two care homes, and I am involved with the Alzheimer’s Society.
“What was I looking for? First and foremost, the entries needed to fulfil the brief. A few of them, though very good, did not in my humble opinion really do this. So I would urge all entrants to this sort of competition to first READ THE BRIEF!
“After that, it was about authenticity, inventiveness, and a good command of language. And a little twist at the end of the tale is the icing on the cake. It is SO nice when a word or a phrase makes you sit up and think “YESSS”! And even within such short entries there were moments when that happened. Lovely also to be made to laugh out loud, which did happen for me with several of the entries. With so few words allowed, it’s also very clever if the writer can make the title count.
“Picking out the 5 entries below was one thing, but much harder was having to place those 5 in ascending order.”
1st Place: Rosie Sutcliffe – A Drop in the Ocean
2nd Place: Rosie Travers – Taking the Plunge
3rd Place: Gill Hollands – To Fly
Highly Commended: John Quinn – That Wasn’t on the Bucket List!
Highly Commeded: Louise Morrish – The End
1st Place: A Drop in the Ocean by Rosie Sutcliffe
Anne Gibson: A vivid bit of writing, told in the first person. Without taking the reader away from a sense of really being “present” at the scene, the writer packed a surprising amount of heft into this short passage. No twist, no laughs, but very well imagined.
People have told me that at my age I should slow down, relax, enjoy an easy retirement, tend my garden and watch the world go by.
To these people I say, “I’m an octogenarian, I don’t have much time left on this earth, so I need to speed up not slow down and squeeze as much excitement out of each moment as possible.”
That is how I came to be off the coast of Mafia Island, Tanzania, in a RIB, rigid inflatable boat that means apparently. The RIB was hitting the choppy waves in a series of short, violent spanks that reverberated through my aged frame, causing me to wonder if I had indeed over-reached my capabilities this time.
I was making unsuccessful attempts to focus on the horizon when the skipper shouted and pointed ahead, slowing the boat to gently undulate towards a huge shadow beneath the waves.
The creature was massive, moving with a quiet grace and elegance alongside us now as I fumbled with snorkel, mask and fins and unceremoniously plopped into the water.
I was too exhilarated to feel fear, too awestruck to do anything other than take in the sheer magnificence of this beautiful creature. Zebra stripes decorated with leopard spots and sleek, sinuous lines, gliding past me with slow, powerful precision. The whale shark, largest fish in our oceans. Great gaping maw in broad head, with followers of fishes trailing in its wake, immensely strong, yet gentle and unthreatening, I, felt humbled and ashamed to be human.
It was just a few minutes before with slow, graceful swipes of it’s massive tail the creature powered away into the murk, leaving me small and insignificant, full of wonder.
At eighty my bucket list grows longer the more I tick off.
2nd Place: Taking the Plunge by Rosie Travers
Anne Gibson:I liked this very much. Told with a light touch and promising to be a conventional treatment of the brief in a conventional setting, but the last few lines revealed both a tragedy that had haunted the main character for most of her life, and a squaring up to this tragedy. I found it moving, tender but leavened with a touches of dry humour.
Grace hadn’t even heard of a bucket list until Bill had shown them his brother’s photographs.
‘Bunging jumping in New Zealand,’ he said. ‘What do you think? Something to cross off the list, eh?’
Grace wasn’t sure what to think at all.
‘What’s the one thing you’ve always wanted to do?’ Bill said, as he shuffled around the community lounge of Sunflower House, proudly regaling his brother’s exploits to anyone wide-awake enough to listen. ‘Nobody should die having regrets about things they haven’t done.’
Grace didn’t want to think about dying, but she had plenty of regrets, although missing out on the opportunity to dangle mid-air at the end of a long rope was not one of them.
Molly Atkins wanted to go to Disneyland, but she’d never get the medical insurance; Bob Davis wanted to ride a Harley Davidson, difficult with only one leg.
‘Gracie? What about you?’
Silence. She wasn’t going to tell them the one thing she regretted not doing the most. Like the others, she’d left it too late.
But that was the whole point of a bucket list wasn’t it? To reach the Pearly Gates and look St Peter in the eye and declare je regrette rien. It wasn’t too late. When she was re-united with Steven, when she could pinch his chubby cheeks, ruffle his halo of blonde hair, and admire his ethereal wings, she could tell him that if it ever happened again, that awful day on the beach, this time she could save him.
Taking the plunge, at her age. They’d call her daft. She didn’t even have a costume.
‘So Gracie,’ said Annie, her carer, ‘you want to go shopping?’
‘Yes please,’ Grace replied. ‘And then can we go to the leisure centre? I want to book a swimming lesson.’
3rd Place: To Fly by Gill Hollands
Anne Gibson: This totally fulfilled the brief. I liked the sense of affinity between the elderly woman and the young man, and the grandmother’s exhilaration was beautifully conveyed. There was some very nice writing in this short passage. “My face pleated, flapping in the wind like my suit” was particularly nice.
Birdsong swirled in the thin air above the canopy. I caught silver glints through the misty cloud far below.
‘Oh!’ A hand caught my arm, making me jump. Gazing down from the rickety platform, I was closer to God than I’d ever been in 86 years.
‘You sure about this Nan? You can change your mind, you know.’ My grandson’s puppy dog eyes looked bigger than ever. He couldn’t feel my thundering euphoria.
‘I’ve wanted this all my life! It’s what I came all this way for.’ I grinned, mopping my forehead with a soggy tissue. ‘We’ve practised, haven’t we? Easy peasy!’
‘Well, if you’re sure…’ Sighing, he helped my stiff old legs into the suit, fastening the zips. ‘Wish I’d never told you my hobby.’
‘I’m glad you did. We have an affinity, you and I.’ I caught sight of an eagle circling below. ‘Look!’
‘Ready?’ He nodded, grinning, a flush of excitement on his cheekbones. ‘Let’s chase him!’
I stared over the edge, heart thumping, my legs suddenly quaking. I clamped my teeth together, pulling down the goggles.
Ben tipped us over the edge with a whoop. My heart stopped. I plummeted, breathless. My face pleated, flapping in the wind, like the suit. I recalled the wind chamber. Keep straight, spread out, relax. I dug deep.
The eagle’s cry rang above the roar of the wind. It was just below us, soaring effortless. As we began to glide, it came alongside, curious. I looked into its golden eyes, connected in my soul.
As the world spun and grew around us, my eagle followed until the parachutes snapped open, wrenching us upward. Then, we were thistledown, floating among spectacular views.
Bumping to land, the parachute shrouded me. Lying in the long grass laughing, I cried.
Highly Commended: That Wasn’t on the Bucket List! By John Quinn
Anne Gibson: An elderly widow fulfils a bucket list wish by going on a luxury cruise and in the process finds herself fulfilling a wish she never knew she had. This had a subtle twist, and was both tender and original.
Julie half-woke in her ‘deluxe balcony cabin with shared butler’ on the Queen Mary 2 and, in that lovely, unsettling space somewhere between sleep and consciousness, couldn’t quite recall the events that had brought her there.
Yes, she was sure she was on the liner, crossing the Atlantic, three days out of Southampton. And yes, she had booked the cruise to New York, finally fulfilling a promise she had made to herself as a teenager, oh-so long ago.
It was tragic that it took the death of husband Alan to make it happen: he ‘wouldn’t be seen dead’ on a luxury liner full of ‘know-it-alls in their long frocks.’
She remembered the council’s pay-out for ‘death in service’ being very generous. And then feeling desperate that it took such an event to achieve her longed for, suppressed ambition: a life free from a man who had grown both boring and boorish.
She recalled the excitement of her adventure being replaced by the feeling of isolation once on board. How, in the restaurant, each beautifully presented dish was accompanied by intimidation from waiters and couples on her top table. How the only people who bothered to speak to her – no one made the effort to listen – were those showing-off their success or worldliness.
And last night, when she’d been brave enough to have a post-dinner cocktail alone in the bar, that nice lady, a divorcee wasn’t she, starting a conversation. Helen, that’s her name, also alone on the voyage.
Now, with the sun squinting around the blinds, more memories returned: God, how many different cocktails did we try; the barman politely asking us to quieten down so passengers could hear the quiz!
Julie didn’t jump when she felt Helen’s gentle touch on her shoulder or heard ‘Wake up, sleepy head.’
Highly Commended: The End by Louise Morrish
Anne Gibson:Humorous, original and very nicely told. I loved the sentence “The story of her long life was written on her body.” It genuinely made me laugh out loud at The End with a twist that was both funny, thought-provoking, tender and ultimately a little melancholy. To tick all those boxes is clever writing.
‘You’ll probably bruise,’ the young man said, his gently worried expression at odds with the vicious looking studs and spikes that pierced his face.
‘I’m a tough old boot,’ Maud replied. Besides, she thought, who would see her bruised behind? Only the undertaker, when the time came.
‘What made you want a tattoo now?’ the man asked, snapping on latex gloves.
‘Why not?’ Maud smiled. The story of her long life was written on her body, in all the wrinkles, grey hairs and stiff joints. The two short words she wanted inked on her buttocks were a last laugh.
‘Tattoos are on lots of people’s bucket lists,’ the man said, opening a packet of enormous needles. ‘You’re sure about this?’
Maud nodded. ‘Is mine the strangest request you’ve had?’
‘I’ve been asked to ink things you wouldn’t believe,’ the man muttered.
Oh, I think I would, Maud thought, as the man helped her lie down on the table. She had experienced more in her ninety-nine years than this boy would ever know.
True, she had never learned to swim, or ride a bike, or drive a car. But that hadn’t stopped her from living life to the full.
She felt the cold press of an antiseptic wipe on one cheek. ‘Now this might hurt…’ the man said, as the needle whirred.
Maud’s eyes closed at the first stab of pain. Her mind opened, memories tumbling free.
She had survived the Spanish flu epidemic, pneumonia and breast cancer; given birth to twin boys, in an air raid shelter, in the middle of a war; travelled the world, by plane, train, ship, even once by hot air balloon.
She had seen governments rise and fall; witnessed people make the same mistakes, over and again.
Now the story of her life was drawing to a close.
She was so tired.
Soon it would be time to close the book and sleep.
You’d be forgiven for comparing the early life of prize-winning author and Guardian columnist, Erwin James, to that of Dickens’ Oliver, but there was nothing to sing about. Or Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre; there was definitely no romance. Found guilty of stealing sweets at just ten, he became a victim of a neglectful, remorseless society and was thrown in a children’s home
The reality of the fictional world that we writers choose to live in never ceases to amaze us; the truth behind the life of spies, the ferocity of competition between athletes, the harshness of war and the brutality of children’s homes in 1960’s Yorkshire where Erwin James lived. Despite the inadequacy of the carers, James’ life of petty crime was overturned by small kindnesses..
James had only a basic education. At that time educational investigations had proven that 74 % of adult male prisoners had a reading age of less than that of an eight year old child. For Erwin James, being a writer was far from his own expectations.
Sessions with the Prison Psychiatrist persuaded him to enlist in part time education. He completed a degree in History Degree, along with an interest in writing Fifteen years into his life sentence, rehabilitation gave him the opportunity to write for The Guardian..
‘I am a writer.’ he told the Prison Governor, Monster Mansion, HM Prison Wakefield.
‘Better get another hobby!’ was the reply.
So, where do you go from there? Returning to his cell after that short but damning conversation, he stared despondently at the wall.
‘Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent …..’ Part of a speech made my Calvin Coolidge, the thirty- third President of the United States. James had copied these lines though ‘I had to look up “omnipotent” though,’ he admits.
He escalated his cause, petitioned the Home Secretary and eventually was allowed to accept the offer from The Guardian. His deadlines, perhaps didn’t pose the same restraints that they do for many columnists, nor the motivation or inspiration. ‘ Life is what happens on the outside; surely?’
‘…we just aren’t sure how rehabilitated the prison service wants the prisoners to be…’ the Governor commented.
For four years, James wrote and submitted his weekly column.
‘You know you’re a writer when you want your readers to see and feel what it is that you see, ’he said.
Instrumental in the setting up of reading/writing groups within the prison, James made the decision to be what he is, a writer. His psychiatrist believed that he could be a writer.
‘I never expected to ‘live’ again.’ he said, ‘Thank you for this opportunity.’
‘You don’t need to know someone in the industry, in order to get published,’ award- winning author, Claire Fuller is keen to tell writers.
Claire is not at all bashful about having begun her writing career, aged 40, or how her first book, Our Endless Numbered Days was chosen from the ‘slush pile’ or that she was 48 before she was published.
She recalls that she was sitting in the back seat of a small car surrounded by cheese and bulging bin bags of wedding feast dregs, when she took the call from her agent with the news that Penguin had won the publishers’ auction for Our Endless Numbered Days . This debut novel was published in the UK and was sold to a further twelve countries. It was awarded the Desmond Elliott Prize for debut fiction 2015 and long-listed for the Dublin Literary Award.
Claire directed a marketing company for a number of years though she had gained a degree in sculpture from the Winchester School of Art. While she was developing a succession of projects, she realised that she needed to extend her knowledge. She chose creative writing.
Although she had not written fiction since leaving school, aged 16, she submitted a short story into the Hampshire Cultural Trust Short Story Slam. Eighteen months later her submission won a competition and she was rewarded with the princely sum of £9.50! ‘Entering competitions is an excellent way to become recognised as an emerging writer’.
Fascinated by the story of Robin Van Helsum, a Dutch boy, who claimed to have lived in a German forest for five years, she wrote scenes of a young girl living in a forest, which she incorporated into her dissertation for her MA in Creative Writing at the University of Winchester.
Claire readily admits to being someone who needs guidance and discipline. During the academic year’s summer break, she feared that her motivation would lapse. She loves the freedom writing brings to indulge in description and launched into a self- imposed project, turning the forest scenes into a book. She took part in live research and ‘watched an awful lot of Ray Mears programmes.’
She submitted a synopsis of 140 characters to #PitMad. The ‘likes’ that she received from agents motivated her further and she finished and revised the book. To find an agent, she submitted to a variety of agents and received the usual rejection letters.
However she did receive an invitation to tea in London from an agent.
‘We sat outdoors at a long table. She bought me the smallest cake in London,’ Claire recalls. But she was so friendly, supportive and genuinely interested in my novel. ‘I knew that she was the agent for me.’
A certain amount of luck is involved in finding the right agent. It is important to work with them, Claire advised. Although it is part of the publisher’s contractual agreement to market writers’ books, they like it when you support them.
Claire observed that when you live with your story for so long, you often don’t recognise overlong narrative scenes. Her editor has asked her to alter the placement of her scenes to improve the pace or to change of words, but they have never asked her to change her story line or her ideas.
Claire enjoys the editing process even more than the writing of the first draft. She is a member of a critiquing group, which she has found invaluable.
Because her publisher has only offered her a one book deal, she has prepared the first draft of her next book while she was waiting for her first book to be printed, in her case, a period of eighteen months.
Swimming Lessons, her second book, was published by Fig Tree/Penguin in hardback and ebook in January 2017, published by Tin House, US, in February 2017, by House of Anansi, Canada and Piper in Germany in March 2017.
Swimming Lessons has received many favourable reviews including The Guardian, who reported that ‘ Swimming Lessons reveals a writer that has all the observational touches that show Fuller to be a serious novelist with an acute awareness of the nuances and patterns of human speech and behaviour.’
Meanwhile Claire she is working on Book 3. Then her submission process begins anew.
It was a great day in London for Wizzy and his author Anthony Ridgway attending the audio-recording of Wizzy the Animal Whisperer, voiced by David and Sheila Suchet
In the children’s story, written by Anthony and illustrated by Suzan Houching, Wizzy and his friends, Dan, James and Sophie, set out to solve a mystery on their farm holiday and end up having an amazing adventure with the help of Wizzy’s special powers.
Actually it was Wizzy’s alter ego who went to London with Anthony, this being a manual wheelchair with electric drive fitted to the large wheels – a bit like an electric bicycle. ‘Alter Ego’ Wizzy allows Anthony to sit a bit lower than in ‘old faithful’ Wizzy and this gives enough headroom for both of them to get into a London Cab.
The railway journeys worked wonderfully. There was help on hand at each railway station to place the ramp (this was organised beforehand by Grethe, Anthony’s mum and main carer) and once on the train we found ourselves guardians of the accessible toilet, it being conveniently situated opposite the space allocated for wheelchairs and bicycles! We also had a good view of the passing countryside…
At Waterloo Station we joined the queue for a cab and with the help of our Cabby manoeuvred Wizzy up the ramp and into the central space of the cab. Wizzy just fitted with a bit of wriggling, and then Grethe and I climbed in and squeezed onto the seats. I must admit, seeing Anthony’s face when Wizzy reached the top of the ramp, I could hear the words he had written in his book –
[Dan] ‘I felt a brief sensation of fear. Was this such a good idea?
[Wizzy] “I will protect you, Dan. Do not worry.”
[Dan] “Nothing gets past you does it?”’
Arriving at the RNIB Talking Books Studios, we found the studio manager, Daryl Chapman, there to greet us, and he guided us down the lift and into the recording suites. David and Sheila Suchet were already in the studio, rehearsing the book script while the sound engineer, Paul Pink, adjusted the sound levels ready for recording.
The ‘large’ recording technician’s booth had just enough room for Anthony (and Wizzy) to get a front stall view and Grethe and I to stand behind Paul. The recording started and we were spellbound…
We had set David and Sheila a challenge, asking them to conjure up different character voices for each of the eight characters.
Anthony’s writing is dialogue driven, logical as his hearing is very acute. This required each character in Wizzy the Animal Whisperer to have his or her own distinct voice.
David took the parts of narrator, Dan, Wizzy, Neil Hayes and the Police officer, and Sheila took the parts of James, Sophie, Mrs Braishfield and Karl – quite a task, especially when changing from one character to another during a quick exchange of words. Of course, David and Sheila were up to it, producing the whole range of voices, and without hesitation – in Wizzy’s words;
“Affirmative. I’ve processed the information. My speeds are the best.”
It was a wonderful day and our thanks go to the railway services, the London cabbies, RNIB Talking Books Studios, and most of all to David and Sheila Suchet.
Without Anthony we couldn’t have done it, and as the children say in the book, “We couldn’t have done it without Wizzy.”
The Society’s April gathering hosted two exceptional women writers, both ideally placed to talk with insight and experience about the very specific nuances and skills involved in the subject of writing for children.
Special Guest: Judith Heneghan
Being the Director of the Winchester Writers’ Festival and a highly regarded and extensively published specialist of children’s literature, Judith Heneghan was ideally placed to open Tuesday’s proceedings. Judith is a Senior Lecturer and also a Programme Leader on the University of Winchester’s Creative Writing provision where she has taught since 2006. To date she has written 50 nonfiction books as well as feature articles, novels and shorter fiction for children. Previously to her role at Winchester, she worked as a commissioning editor of adult nonfiction and a freelance editor of children’s nonfiction.
Judith’s enthusiasm for Winchester’s annual Writers’ Festival was infectious. She explained that its aims for this year were to build on its past successes and to inspire, encourage, educate and to facilitate learning for all the delegates. Networking opportunities for novice and experienced writers attending this year’s festival will be more extensive than ever, as will the list of contributors from the greater writing world. Contributors will include luminaries from some of the best known publishing houses and literary agencies in the country as well as the wonderful author and broadcaster, Lem Sissay. Further information about the planned programme, along with competition and other details can be found here: http://writersfestival.co.uk/
Main Speaker: Beverley Birch
Beverley Birch is a prolific author of critical acclaim having produced in excess of forty books. Her prodigious output includes picture books, novels, biographies and retellings of Shakespeare. Her publications have been translated into more than a dozen languages. They are in the admirable position of being amongst the top ten per cent of books borrowed from UK libraries.
Beverley’s own childhood years were spent in East Africa where the wide open spaces of Kenya afforded the opportunity for formative and adventurous experiences largely free from the interference of adults. She eventually left Africa for England to study for ‘A’ levels before graduating from Cambridge University with a degree in Economics and Sociology. After graduation she started to work as an editor and in 1981 she became a full-time writer.
As would be expected of someone with the breadth and depth of Beverley’s professional literary experience, her talk was packed with insights into what being a writer entails and what writers have to do to produce work of real merit. Of course, ‘merit’ in writing is a subjective quality but Beverley’s appraisal of what it really means was grounded in a plethora of practical and theoretical examples. ‘We need to constantly refresh our understanding of why we need to write’ she told her audience and then explained that this writing should be centred on exploring the underpinning themes of the stories that writers create. All stories, we were told, have specific, fundamental themes that should challenge child readers to see things anew. In doing this, it should enable children to reposition themselves in the light of these new, vicarious experiences. But what are these themes? They are many and varied and over her long career Beverley has seen all of the following underpinning the work that she has been involved in either as a writer herself or as an editor for others; love and friendship, loyalty and betrayal, redemption, loss, maturation, power, obsession and corruption are all on the list.
Beverly was at pains to explain that this was by no means a definitive list but that whichever of these themes was at the heart of a story, they should be rendered in a way that is suitable and accessible for children. The narrative gravity associated with these thematic issues should be apparent to discerning writers as they produce their work and this in itself is indicative of the fact that ‘writing for children’ is not a euphemism for dumbing down the literary responsibilities of the author. If anything, these responsibilities should weigh more heavily on children’s authors than they do on those involved in other aspect of producing good writing. Beverley said that children’s authors should ‘dive inwards in the process of writing and that in doing so they should trust their subconscious to render a story that is both important and transporting for the child’. She concluded by offering some sage advice for those starting out on their publishing journey. Writers should not write in order to seek or support the contemporary ‘hullabaloo’ that seems to be endemic in the contemporary literary scene for ultimately that hullabaloo is ephemeral. Rather, writers should stay true to themselves and produce work that will endure beyond the here and now.
The Society’s March gathering hosted two very successful women authors, both providing realistic insights into the processes and practices of writing professionally. Each in her own way was brilliantly informative and acutely inspirational.
Special Guest: Cathy Woodman
Like many, Cathy was inspired by her early reading experiences but for her that inspiration was carried a little bit further. As a devotee to the wonderful world of James Herriot’s Yorkshire, Cathy determined that she too, would become a veterinary surgeon. After qualifying, rather than treating large farm animals she found herself in the pristine confines of a clinical vet setting ministering to cats, dogs and variety of other small animals. Not content with emulating Herriot’s professional vocation, she had ambitions to emulate his artistic one as well. Cathy acted on her long-held ambition. Her writing talent quickly evolved and she produced her much loved Talyton St George series. the first novel of which became one of the best- selling debuts of 2010.
As a testament to Cathy’s creative drive she changed artistic direction and moved into the genre of Victorian fiction to produce another very popular saga. ‘Have more than one book to pitch’ was her advice when approaching an agent. The rationale being that an agent will see you as being serious about your ambitions. Bringing the potential to sell a series of books to publishers is an effective professional strategy. Cathy’s experience proves that agents and publishers can be very demanding in terms of output. She related how she has been expected to work to tight deadlines to produce a book every six months. Crucially, we were told, in order to enhance the chances of securing an agent, the first goal of any author is to make that first book as good as it can possibly be.
Cathy’s creative output continues prodigiously and she closed her talk with the encouraging thought that hard work would bring success and that being published could become more than a dream. The idea that ‘the writers who work the hardest have the most luck’ became a theme continued by the second author of the evening.
Main Speaker: Adele Parks
Born in Teesside into an extended matriarchal family, Adele Parks found her early domestic experiences to be fertile ground for the germination of her creative fiction. Her childhood was rich and intriguing, full of the opportunity to eavesdrop on the machinations of conflicting and reciprocal familial relationships. With a childhood already full of vicarious adventure, further imaginative excitement was available in her local library, a haunt that became almost a default second home. A chance comment by the librarian that Adele might herself one day aspire to become an author set in motion a pathway into the writers’ world that retrospectively seems to have been pre-ordained.
Reading had become a means of release for the young Adele Parks, an escape into a parallel world. The idea that writers should be the most avid readers was one that Adele was at pains to impress on her listeners. As an English undergraduate, Adele took her own advice and devoured everything on her course reading list. She continues to be an avid reader to this day.
Like so many vulnerable writers in the early part of their development, Adele viewed writing as her own slightly embarrassing secret, but writing was to become so much part of ‘what she was as a person’ it became central to all the important decisions of her life.
Following a very challenging period she reassessed her life-goals and she found that these difficulties actually provided renewed focus for both her creative output and artistic ambition. Her advice was that if writers don’t take themselves seriously then they can hardly expect others to do so and this realisation was the catalyst to submit a speculative ten-word pitch to literary agent, Johnny Geller. ‘Anna Karenina meets Bridget Jones but heroine gets to live’ were the fateful words. To Adele’s astonishment, on the eve of her 30th birthday, she got the news that Geller was interested in reading the rest of her book. Note to self (a la Bridget Jones) finish novel before pitching to agent. Despite working flat out for three weeks, Geller could see that the new material was rushed by comparison. Rather than walking away from the disappointment of rejection, Adele decided to re-double her efforts until the manuscript was in the best possible shape. She reworked the POV into 1st person rather than the original 3rd (what was that she said about working hard and taking yourself seriously?) and resubmitted. The result was that five publishing houses tried to option the manuscript and the rest, as they say, is history.
Despite her prodigious success, having already sold over 30m copies, Adele offered some interesting thoughts on what success actually means. The only time writers fail is if they decide to quit; and that is a very comforting thought indeed.
Whether you write police procedurals, psychological thrillers, classic murder mystery or gritty crime noir, this year’s festival can help you twist the knife.
Friday 16 June
‘How to Thrill and How to Kill’ – a highly practical all-day course with William Ryan, author of the Captain Korolev novels, shortlisted three times for the Irish Crime Novel of the Year. Learn the technical aspects of crime writing, the role of ‘the format’ and how not to underestimate your audience, with plenty of hands-on exercises.
Saturday 17 June
‘Learning the Language of Crime’ with novelist Helen Fields, author of Perfect Remains.
‘Whodunnit: How It’s Done’ with Linda Bennett, commissioning editor for crime fiction at Salt Publishing.
‘How to Get Published in a Global Market’ with literary agent Lorella Belli from LBLA.
‘The Agent’s Eye View’ with literary agent Diana Beaumont from Marjacq.
Then listen as novelist Helen Fields reveals how she drew upon her experience as a criminal barrister to write her thrilling debut novel Perfect Remains during the Saturday Festival Dinner.
Sunday 18 June
‘Tightening the Noose’ – an all-day workshop with novelist and BBC crime correspondent Simon Hall, author of the TV Detective novels. Explore how to use jeopardy and suspense to make your story compelling, and learn how to raise the stakes by creating characters who have everything to win or lose.
PLUS over a dozen agents and editors seeking to acquire debut crime fiction.
Swimming Lessons has now been published in the UK, Canada, US and as an audio book. And I’m delighted that it’s already number nine on the Canadian bestseller list! It was selected by Canadian bookstore chain, Indigo as their book of the month for February, and also as February book club pick for women’s fashion brand TOAST.
I’m sure you know that most books are bought on recommendation, either from an online review or from someone you know. All reviews and recommendations help increase the awareness of a book, and so I’m asking if you’ve read and enjoyed Swimming Lessons to write a short review or recommend it. Whether that’s on Amazon (even if you haven’t bought the book from there you can still leave a review), tweeting about it, posting a picture of you reading it on Facebook, or just telling a friend about it – it all helps spread the word. Thank you! Amazon UKAmazon USAmazon Canada
The Society’s February gathering proved to be an occasion of great contrast, hosting Marian Forkin of The Book Bus charity and Simon Brett OBE, multi-award winning author of serialised crime fiction novels, radio and television producer and script-writer.
Special Guest: Marian Forkin.
Marian explained that the fundamental aim of The Book Bus organisation was to enhance the life chances of children in Third World countries through the provision of books and libraries. These are children who would otherwise be unable to develop their potential. That simple truth was the catalyst for the formation of The Book Bus project in 2006 by founder, Tom Maschler, remembered as the publisher of Penguin, when he saw first-hand the sheer scarcity of books in the remote areas of Zambia that he was visiting.
The charity is now centred in Malawi, a country where only 5% of children receive a secondary education. Marian shared a stark and inspirational example of how books can change lives by explaining how African boy, Kelvin Doe, invented a wind-powered electricity generator so that he would be able to read at home in the evenings. It was Kelvin’s access to a book, helping him realise that simple but life-changing aim, that eventually led him to present at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as a 15-year-old and finally to embark on a PhD in the United States of America.
Marian was keen to show how the ethos of The Book Bus organisation was based on a desire to promote enablement through access to books and thereby foster independence and self-determination. The children accessing the programme have their reading levels monitored and are assessed and measured against standardised attainment targets so that individual progress is a tangible, organisational outcome. The annual cost of running the Malawian programme is a modest £15k and similar projects seek to achieve equally beneficial outcomes across Africa, Asia and South America.
To round off an inspirational and very affecting presentation, Marian shared a video of the wonderful work that The Book Bus organisation is currently undertaking. For more information on this important and far-reaching initiative, please visit: www.thebookbus.org
Keynote Speaker: Simon Brett, OBE
After graduating from university, Simon started a long career in both radio and television, but it is as a prolific writer of crime fiction that he is perhaps most well known. To date he is credited with over 80 crime fiction novels, his work comprising favourite collections including the Charles Paris, Mrs Pargeter, Fethering, and Blotto & Twinks series. Further to these much loved and intricately plotted books, Simon has also written successful non-series novels with his Shock to the System (1984) being produced as a film starring Michael Caine.
In 2014, in recognition of his lifetime achievement, Simon was awarded the Diamond Dagger for Crime Fiction and in 2016 he was invested with an Order of the British Empire. Not bad for someone who started his working life as a Father Christmas in a London Department store!
The longevity and breadth of Simon’s success offers a wealth of practical experience from which he can draw and from this he was able to relate valuable and grounded advice to new and seasoned scribblers alike. Simon alluded to the idea that to choose to be a writer was by definition to choose a life, if not of loneliness, then solitariness. For a large part writers have to be content in their own company while they create the worlds of fiction that their characters inhabit.
From Simon’s work in broadcasting – particularly his work in radio (a medium, he said, that lends itself particularly well to the writer) – he found great inspiration for many of his story ideas and his future writing career. His early adaptation of a Dorothy L Sayers ‘Lord Peter Wimsey’ adventure was the catalyst that launched him into full-time writing. Perhaps it was the levity to be found in Sayers’ prose style that was to become part of the wonderful signature humour that underpins much of Simon’s work. And to this end Simon was keen to explain that writers should not be bound or stifled by the accepted norms of a chosen genre and that taking narrative risk was key to writing with originality while simultaneously avoiding the pitfalls of producing derivative material. He was at pains to highlight the importance of giving characters dramatic moments and that these moments reward the reader as they progress through the story.
As a testament to Simon’s creative intellect, he told the audience that involvement in the process of producing a first draft is where he finds the greatest artistic satisfaction; that while many writers toil over numerous re-drafts that approach wasn’t for him.
Simon’s presentation was packed with humour and anecdotes from his long and illustrious career. The audience was treated to wonderfully informative practitioner’s advice communicated in a riveting and very entertaining raconteur’s after-dinner style.