Q&A with Steve Mchugh, Best Selling Urban Fantasy Writer

Interview by Lisa Nightingale

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.

Erwin James at the Hampshire Writers’ Society Tuesday 13th June

Report by Lisa Nightingale

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.’

Claire Fuller at the Hampshire Writers’ Society

Report by Lisa Nightingale

‘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.

Tracy Baines at Hampshire Writers’ Society

Wholly unforeseen events indisposed scheduled guest, Margaret Graham which forced a last minute alteration to the evening’s programme. Stepping in to save the day, The Society welcomed short story writer extraordinaire, Tracy Baines to share her wisdom on how to write short stories and how to get them published.

Sitting alongside Tracy was Ian Thornton of the Princess of Wales’ Royal Regiment, whose story of bravery and fortitude, allied to an unswerving desire to promote the charitable legacy of his late brother, was a privilege to listen to.

Special Guest: Ian Thornton

Captain Ian Thornton, a commissioned infantry officer with the Princess of Wales’ Royal Regiment and patron of the charity Words for Wounded is passionately committed to helping his fellow servicemen wounded in the line of duty to live as full and active lives as possible.

Captain Thornton understands all too well the personal cost of military service, having tragically lost his younger brother, John on active service with the Royal Marines in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. After this terrible event, it fell to Ian to organise some of John’s repatriated belongings. Amongst those precious personal items was John’s diary and Ian quickly realised what an important and unique record it comprised. Ian explained that John had already shared some of the diary’s contents and so knew John would not feel that he was being intruded upon. What Ian read seemed at once funny, poignant and superbly well-written. Indeed, it is a testimony to the quality of the writing that John’s diary now resides in the Imperial War Museum but crucially, before it found its way into public display, it provided an inspirational template for the publication of Helmand: Diaries of a Frontline Soldier. Endorsed by ex-Royal Marine and politician, Lord Paddy Ashdown and with a foreword from Simon Weston, the book comprises the diary entries of Ian and John Thornton alongside those of other serving and ex-military personnel. It provides a glimpse into the frontline experiences of those serving in Afghanistan.

The proceeds from the book support both the John Thornton Young Achievers Foundation and the Royal Marines Foundation and to date have enabled youngsters to become involved in a wide variety of activities that they would otherwise not have had the opportunity to experience.

Main Speaker: Tracy Baines

Growing up in North East Lincolnshire, in the estuarine town of Cleethorpes and with the river Humber an ever-present backdrop, a young Tracy Baines sat fascinated at her grandmother’s side listening to recollections of her family’s history. Not least amongst these were the tales of hardship, bravery and adventure of her grandfather’s time serving as a member of the now legendary wartime Baltic Fleet. Tracy promised that her grandmother’s wistful desire that ‘somebody should write these stories down’ held true.

It was this seed, dormant for years, that eventually began to germinate when Tracy visited her public library and found information on a local writers’ group and decided to become a member. Here she was finally able to find the courage to write of her great uncle’s maritime death. Tracy’s mother word processed the handwritten manuscript and duly sent it off to the Grimsby Evening Telegraph. To Tracy’s astonishment and delight, the story was accepted. Tracy wasn’t to know it but this was to be the first of very many publications.

Buoyed by her initial success Tracy wrote a second story and pitched it to Woman’s Weekly but as is often the case, writing success doesn’t follow a linear pattern. Tracy’s new story was rejected but the letter included an invitation to submit further work. Being inexperienced she didn’t interpret this to be the very near miss that it was and fell into the common but mistaken assumption that her story was without merit.

Tracy talked a little about what it means to be successful. For her, that means defeating personal demons in the shape of self-doubt and freeing herself to be the best writer she can possibly become. Here, Tracy was keen to point out that we all must learn as she did – that a story’s rejection is not proof that it is no good – but rather it is probably just not a good fit for its chosen recipient. Tracy stressed the importance of judging the market and submitting work accordingly.

Tracy uses realistic goal-setting as a method for maintaining her writing focus. So take down that scrawled note from behind your fridge magnet that reads ‘To Do: Write a 100k word novel. Win the Man Booker Prize’ and swap it for one that is in Tracy’s words ‘an attainable stretch’. For example, her goals might be that she writes a story every week and pitches to 10 magazines; implicit in this is the need to be realistically ambitious. Only after Tracy, with her husband acting as benign task-master, decided that she would cast aside self-limiting doubts was she artistically free to forge her career as a serious short story writer. From then on she finally understood that life as a writer was not just the preserve of a higher species of human but one that was possible for her, too.

Tracy’s inspirational message was that a writer’s life could be had by those prepared to work at their craft, banish self-doubt and persevere when others might give up.

 

Beverley Birch at Hampshire Writers’ Society

Report by Peter Hitchen

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.

Surely this is what great writing is all about.

Adele Parks at Hampshire Writers’ Society

Report by Peter Hitchen

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.

Simon Brett, OBE Speaks to Hampshire Writer’s Society

Report by Peter Hitchen

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.

Your Idea Transferred to Radio

Report by Andy Machin

At their first meeting of 2017 Hampshire Writers’ Society members were treated to the humour and wisdom of two renowned exponents of the art of non-fiction writing and radio documentary production respectively.

Special guest: John Andrews, foreign correspondent and local author The World in Conflict john-andrews-foreign-correspondent

First to the University of Winchester Stripe Theatre stage was John Andrews. John began his career in the 1970s teaching in Libya and the Lebanon but on the advice of ABC News anchor and friend Peter Jennings, he migrated to journalism to follow and report on Middle Eastern and North African politics, including the Arab-Israeli conflict and the strategies of OPEC.

‘Being a foreign correspondent is more fun than being an editor,’ he confesses, ‘because you get to see history being made right in front of you.’

Like many an efficacious person, John attributes a good degree of his success to being in the right place at the right time whilst admitting, ‘I gained access [to news] not only via people I knew but also through the people I worked for.’

As a foreign correspondent John has worked for some of the most widely-respected television and print news organisations in the world including ABC, NBC, the Guardian and the Economist.

John is now using his transferrable journalistic skills to explain events to another audience through his latest book The World in Conflict: Understanding the world’s troublespots, candidly advising non-fiction authors to ‘know your audience and the possible repercussions of [the content of] your writing.’

Main speaker: David Prest, founder and MD of Whistledown Productions

From page to ear

david-prest-md-of-whistledown-productions‘Radio is a fantastic medium to bring new work into nuance post-Brexit,’ pronounces David Prest with a cheeky grin.

David entered mainstream radio broadcasting on joining the BBC staff in the 1980s. He worked on productions for Radio 4 and the World Service and stayed with the corporation until 1997.

In 1998 David founded radio production company Whistledown successfully combining ‘journalistic principles with creative flair,’ and producing documentary/non-fiction content which is ‘exciting and fun,’ and ‘differentiates from the mainstream.’ We assume his mainstream reference is to Auntie Beeb although David freely admits his main market is the corporation placing Whistledown currently as the largest independent speech provider to the BBC, an achievement of which he is rightly proud.

In an illuminating behind-the-scenes resumé of the submission process, David advises jobbing writers that for their non-fiction content to translate readily to radio documentary it should contain the ‘juicy bits only,’ and provide the ‘essential narrative trail.’ The writer should use language which is ‘visceral and grabby.’ David also reminds us that radio lacks the benefit of visuals found in TV production and therefore encourages us to ‘write for the ear,’ to tease and to provide ‘audio pageturners.’

Prior to submission, David advises writers to ask themselves questions such as is the idea new? Is it exciting/interesting/relevant enough? Is it sustainable, perhaps beyond a one-off and into a series? Is it covered elsewhere, perhaps within the series format of another programme? And not least, to decide how best to pitch the idea?

On finding a producer David suggests that the candidate should be ‘genuinely engaged [with the content],’ and ‘respectful of [the writer’s] input.’

Likewise, David advises writers to ask themselves what role they want in the production and what it is they wish to get from the process. Options in this respect may range from the writer being either the presenter, a contributor, a consultant or having a ‘by line’ or a simple credit. The writer may also wish to use the programme to further promote themselves and their work or to go on to co-own the format with the production company.

 

Techniques in Comics and Graphic Novel Writing with Pat Mills

Report by Lisa Nightingale

Comics writing has its own rules and these are different to those of graphic novels, Pat Mills tells us. A graphic novel is more of a creative expression.

Pat admits getting himself into trouble over his firm beliefs that the reason for comics’ demise, especially in the girls’ aged 7 & 8 year olds market, is down to the lack of love and care from their eager-to-move-on young women creators. Snobbery settled into publishing turning it elite. The title of Editor of girls’ comics such as Jinty was seen as a blot on the writer’s CV, nobody wanted these roles and the comics folded. Added to which; sophistication took over, comic cons were held, readers defected to America and the 7/8 year olds’ market was lost. A trend of merging comics raised sales. But this was temporary; the readers had been cheated.

The storytelling formula of Robert McKee was then adopted by mainstream comics publishing. 2000AD took this formula and whittled it down to its bare bones.

  • Key to girls’ story lines is that the heroine must be proactive – a modern day MistyPatMillsCinderella. All sorts of terrible things may happen to her, some of which horrify parents but the market has proven their love for these storylines. In hundreds of years, tastes have not changed. Heroines have become harsh. Or is this how writers are showing their many layers?
  • A cruel or upstaging parent is a taboo! The heroine can be given a wicked uncle, teacher, step parent, but their own mother and father must always be good people.
  • Friendship is the all important element for girls’ storylines.mistyannual1979

Pat learned these lessons the hard way. In the 7/8 year olds market, both girls and boys are bitterly outspoken and Pat has received hate mail for the wrong storyline. A Comic’s storyline deadline may be only weeks ahead of the reader giving the editor the freedom to shout for a failing storyline to be ‘killed.’ Beware though; churning out what works can bring a writer down. Keep the readership at the forefront – the storyline must be wrapped-up properly.

Avoiding the tyranny of the mainstream publishing world; Pat and his wife, Lisa, set up their own publishing imprint. Their list of publishing professionals possess one main difference – they are friendly, helpful and on-line.

It is entirely possible for a mainstream comic to feature an anti-establishment storyline. If mainstream, e.g. Marvel, is your style then traditional routes of submission can work. The trick is to keep the Sci-Fi storyline from becoming simply escapism.

Pat’s advice to writers wanting to break into the comics’ market is to use the indie publishers – assuming of course that you are not up against the economic clock! Study your market. Use the free web comics.

Evidence of a girls’ comics market is provided by the success of Manga. ‘Finding an artist is a whole talk of its own,’ Pat points out.

reademandweepPat Mills’s latest project, Read Em and Weep is in the form of a book consisting of formal prose about Dave Maudlin a ‘Young Foggie’ suspended in the time of Gam Rock’s era of mainstream comics writing. It is not a biography, he tells us. It does, however, feature many of the ironies which have plagued Pat throughout his career.

 

Clare Hey, Commissioning Editor speaks to the Hampshire Writers’ Society

Report by Peter Hitchen

The logos of Simon and Schuster and Orion Publishing Group shone from the huge screen that formed the backdrop for November’s gathering of the Hampshire Writers’ Society.  The auditorium was packed in anticipation of keynote speaker and Commissioning Editor, Clare Hey, one of publishing’s most experienced professionals.

Stop Press: Publishers are human beings!  But more on that later…

First Speaker:  Joanna Lane

The first of the evening’s speakers was novelist and Hampshire Writers’ Society member, Joanna Lane.  Joanna’s debut non-fiction book, Mother of a Suicide is an incredibly affecting account of trying to understand and come to terms with the terrible tragedy of the suicide of her son, Christopher.

Joanna’s honesty and bravery shone throughout her talk and these two qualities also underpin her incredible book.  It can’t have been easy to stand up and talk to such a large audience about the circumstances that led her to write such a powerful account of such challenging personal circumstances.  Joanna managed with understated dignity and composure and in doing so she was really able to make a connection with her listeners.  She discovered that writing the book was something positive to do as she tried to come to terms with her son’s death and she began to recognise the value of writing as therapy.  It became obvious that Joanna was determined that something positive should come from such awful circumstances.  By raising awareness of the ramifications of serious head trauma during childhood and its potential to cause chronic and debilitating depression in adulthood, Joanna was determined that other parents need not have to go through what she and her family had to face.

Of course, as well as dealing with the acutely personal nature of her task, Joanna also faced the same challenges that all serious novelists face.  She explained in detail how she developed a system of notation and filing in order to keep track of the work’s progress and she had some good advice for those struggling in the midst of their work – taking regular physical exercise and staying active during the writing process helps keep ideas fresh and enhances motivation.

Taking the advice of writing friends, Joanna organised a one-to-one meeting with Bob Cushion of Accent Press at the Winchester Writers’ Festival.  Subsequently she was delighted to be asked to provide a further sample of her work.  There were hiatuses, false starts and the inevitable setbacks and frustrations to negotiate but finally, after super-human determination, Joanna’s book made it into print with an initial run of 3k copies.

Mother of a Suicide: Fighting for the Truth by Joanna Lane.  Accent Press.

mother-of-a-suicide

Second Speaker: Damon L Wakes

A recent graduate of Winchester University’s MA in Creative Writing, Damon gave us all a fascinating insight into the process of crowd funding and how it is establishing itself as a mainstream route into print.  His book, Ten Little Astronauts (the title a delightful play on Agatha Christie’s [1939] work) is set on a decaying spaceship – an environment in itself guaranteed to enhance the tension of any narrative.  A murder mystery set in outer space but who, if anyone will survive?  Damon’s promo video explained that pledges, starting at an entry level of £5, can be made in the usual way via Unbound’s website.

You can view Damon’s video on this link 

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Clare Hey (left) with a HWS member

Keynote Speaker: Clare Hey

Clare started her publishing career 14 years ago with Harper Collins and during that time she has seen many, some might say revolutionary changes.  Digitisation, print on demand, the birth of E-books and self-publishing are just some of the developments that have conspired to change the topography of the publishing world.  Clare, however provided a steadying voice, quick to recognise that one fundamental thing would never change – the need for great writing to be put in the hands of appreciative and discerning readers.  That need she told us, is what a commissioning publisher is there to meet.  Whilst she accepts that subjectivity inevitably plays a part in what any agent will want to read (Clare is not a huge fan of Science Fiction for example) some fundamental elements of pitching are generic across genres and publishing houses.

She advised that authors should write a perfect covering letter.  That means the letter should be concise, it should intrigue and it should make the agent think ‘I simply have no choice but to look at the synopsis and manuscript’.  The letter should achieve the same thing a good back-cover blurb ­– it should make the agent want to read the book.  Clare, similarly to most agents we were told, wants to read a ‘strong story set in a believable world’ therefore the accompanying synopsis should show that the writing has those very qualities.  Finally, if the all-important moment arrives and the agent actually starts to read the manuscript the writing must be flawless, fresh and original.

Clare concluded by providing some examples of writers with whom she has worked successfully over the years and she left her audience with the very encouraging belief that that there will always be room on the shelf for books by writers who are prepared to perfect their craft and write convincing, engaging stories set within exciting and believable worlds.  It’s that simple.

So you see… agents are human after all.