Going Incognito, a Tuesday Night Talk by novelist, TV Writer and Producer, Neil Arksey

 

Like all of us, Neil Arksey, novelist of mid-grade, YA and now dark adult crime, TV head writer, series producer and screenwriter, is in awe of Barbara Large’s work in founding the Winchester Writers’ Festival and the Hampshire Writers’ Society.

A closet writer for years, Neil, the only Neil of his kind was successful in acting. But after falling asleep whilst leaning on a column at Shakespeare’s Globe in the guise of Brutus, the fault of heavily overpowering pain killers he assures us, only to be awoken by a prod from Cassius, he decided a ‘sitting job,’ was needed. That was when Neil turned to writing.

Short stories were his choice to start with. One such story he sent to his nephew, Tom. On Tom’s advice, Neil submitted it to Random House. Here, he gave us some advice not to take – borrowing a book from his niece’s shelf, he copied the publisher’s address onto an envelope, stuffed the ice-cream stained copy of the story in, along with a post-it note saying: “My nephew liked this, you might too,” and sent it to Random House.

The problem was that Neil had unwittingly stereotyped himself. The view of his publisher was: “We own you and you are a brand.” More stories like Brooksie, Neil’s first novel, was what they wanted. MacB, Neil’s third book which was a slight change was rejected.

At this point he was feeling a little vulnerable. Neil took the advice of a fellow author and sought out a writer’s community. It was at an event held by Penguin, where he’d gone to hear one of his favourite authors, Melvin Burgess, speak, that he networked and found a home for MacB.

‘How hard is it to be a writer?’ Neil asked not just the present members and guests of the Hampshire Writers’ Society, but of himself, when his novel writing still failed to pay the bills.

Taking on writing for TV, Neil became a head writer. After a while he found that his own personal writing had taken a back seat; this was not what he wanted for his career. Teaching came next. A smattering of hours gave him enough to live on and he got back to writing.

Reading tomes of adult crime and using their techniques, Neil produced his much-loved dark adult crime fiction. ‘It took much longer than writing middle grade,’ he admitted. It needed drastically reducing. So, he re-wrote it.

The publishers were less than supportive. After fifteen years as a children’s author they were not keen to remarket him.

‘Do I really want to throw it all away and start again?’ he asked himself. Well, thank goodness the answer was yes.

Neil bandied about and re-hashed a pseudonym, finally settling on: James Brodie. Looking on it as active research for his students, he set about submitting his novel to agents. The role of head writer had given him some much welcomed experience of sitting ‘on the other side of the desk’ where he was used to receiving up to eighty unsolicited scripts a week. Tailoring his synopsis and covering letter to fit each of a list of thirty agents, he made a start in October last year and submitted to one a week.

‘Irritate them,’ he says, ‘you’ve spent so much time working on your novel, if you get even a glimmer of interest, send your work again. Even if you don’t, send it again – what’ve you got to lose?’

The response he got was the same lack-lustre response that many writers receive. It wasn’t until he’d somewhat alarmingly reached number twenty-three that he received some genuine interest.

Determined to play the game, Neil then contacted all those agents who’d requested the full manuscript only to brush him off and told them about the interest he’d had. Suddenly they all wanted him. After a ‘feeding frenzy’ as he called it, he selected an agent.

‘I think,’ he said, ‘We’ll leave it there.’ We wait with baited-breath for the next chapter.

Report by Lisa Nightingale

Snegurochka to Winchester

Dr Judith Heneghan, Creative Writing Senior Lecturer, Programme Leader for the MA Writing for Children and award-winning children’s writer, has returned to the beginning. Her first contemporary fiction for adults, Snegurochka, has been published.

Snegurochka, an English mother’s experiences in newly independent Kiev, is to be published by Salt with a release date of 15 April. Another first for Judith was seeing it for sale on P&G Wells’ stand in the foyer at April’s Hampshire Writers’ Society meeting:’A very special moment for any writer,’ she says.

It was at the Winchester Writers’ Festival that Judith met her editor and publisher. A writer needs to be part of a community, a convergence of like-minded writers, a portal into the world of publishing. Hampshire Writers’ Society is one such community and The Winchester Writers’ festival provides another.

Recently retired as Director of the Winchester Writers’ Festival, Judith intends to concentrate on the activity of actually doing the writing.

Sara Gangai will very capably follow in her footsteps, but before she commenced her talk to us, Sara paid tribute to Barbara Large, founder of both the festival and the Hampshire Writers’ Society. ‘Barbara’s voice, with its feisty nature and inability to say the word “no”,’ Sara said, ‘is a constant in my head, reminding me to be considerate, kind and inclusive to all writers.’ A memorial service for Barbara will be held in the University chapel on the Sparkford Road Campus on the Saturday of the Festival. ‘Barbara’s spirit will be “chuffed” to be there,’ Sara laughed.

The Festival will be held on the weekend beginning 14th June. Enterprising writers will be given the chance to build up a network of writing friends and contacts; ‘People come from all over the world,’ Sara advised us.

Friday sees two panels running along-side each other on both floors of the Stripe.
Let your hair down afterwards at the open mike in the Terrace Lounge right next to the Terrace bar before the knuckle down of Saturday begins.

The day begins with the plenary speaker, award-winning children’s author, Katherine Rundell. Tickets for this event alone can be purchased. The rest of the day is filled with a variety of workshops, tea, cake and an on-tap agony aunt! Seventy or so industry specialists will be in attendance and the opportunity of a fifteen-minute, one-to-one interview with one or two of them will prove invaluable.

Sunday forms a writing workshop, ‘a chance to put into practise everything that you learned on the Saturday,’ Sara tells us.

Tickets are selling fast. The community created by the Festival will be abuzz with writers. It really is a must just to be around so many friendly faces. Please do come along – it will be wonderful to meet you.

Report by Lisa Nightingale

Christine Hamill

‘Time’s running out,’ was Christine Hamill’s thought when she was twenty-five, ‘better get that book written.’

In her mid-forties she was diagnosed as having breast cancer. Amid torrents of tears, she thought, ‘time really is running out.’ and “B is for Breast Cancer: From anxiety to recovery and everything in between – a beginner’s guide”, was written during treatment.

Christine wanted to convey the irony of many of the situations that arose from her diagnosis and treatment, filling the book with humour. Her retort to those who, horrified said, you can’t do that was: ‘Well, I’m the one with breast cancer.’ Still, you’d have to be a raving lunatic not to take breast cancer seriously, she says. It is funny though, the way a fully clothed doctor will expect you, while semi-naked and having your breast handled, to hold an intelligent conversation.

“B is for Breast Cancer” is an A-Z of everything you might experience whilst being treated for breast cancer. D being for diagnosis, Christine read us a very comical excerpt. C is for crying, which she admits she did so much that a nurse told her “she was taking the cancer diagnosis badly.” !!  

Book two, “The Best Medicine” is not biographical, although it does mirror the situation that Christine and her ten-year old son found themselves in. From the point of view of the boy at the heart of the story, “The Best Medicine” tells how he feels that Mum is getting too much attention when he is dealing with such ‘big’ school issues as bullying and girlfriends – or lack of them! Christine read an excerpt where, Philip conducts a bare bottom poetry appreciation.

Each book took six months to write, but both took a while to get published. Originally “B is for Breast Cancer” was published on the internet which led to its being voted Ireland’s book of the year. Christine then put it in a drawer.

The Best Medicine went the same way winning awards such as the Lollies and the Haringey Children’s Book Prize. But it was turned down by so many publishers that the agent sent it back. Undeterred, Christine knew it had to be good and took it to a small, independent publisher who took it on. “The Best Medicine” has since been published in more than six countries including the US and Canada, won further awards and rave reviews from best selling authors and comedians.

Report by Lisa Nightingale

Judy Waite Creative Curiosity

Judy Waite, award-winning writer of over fifty Children’s and Young Adult fiction titles, began her talk to the Hampshire Writers’ Society with a tribute to Barbara Large, who was our friend, founder, inspiration and a great ally within the publishing world.

It was at the Winchester Writers’ Conference that Judy, a novice, found not only access to specialist workshops, but also the confidence to take Barbara’s advice: “Keep writing.”

It was a crazy time, Judy says, as she was working as well as writing. Time, she agrees, is one of the writer’s great enemies. Once published, she enrolled on an MA in Creative Writing. A bit back to front; but she still felt unsure when talking about how to write.

Judy was not just here to talk to the Society though. She treated us, the gathered members and guests, to an interactive exercise, introducing an envelope, sheet of spare paper, pencil and candle for each of us.

“If you’re trying to get a child to write a story,” she told us, “don’t get them to tell you it first – they’ll think, job done!”

Encompassing a wide age range, Judy has written for four-year olds, “Mouse Look Out”, and fourteen-year olds, “Game Girls”. She writes trade fiction, research and rigour books which are usually aimed at older boys. Educational books, like “Jamboree Storytime Level B: I wish I Had a Monster”, are mostly for schools and are commissioned, but still publishers of these are always pleased to hear from authentic authors.

Judy also writes High Low books, like “The Street”, a collection of short books aimed at older children who have difficulty reading – perhaps English is not their first language or they are dogged by dyslexia.

‘Where do you get your ideas from?” is the most common question that Judy is asked. Ideas are all around us, she says, suggesting that we use the pen in front of us – imagine that pen full of optimism, wonder and energy to write ethical, positive works, in the wrong hands. Or the pencil on the desk – what is its one true desire; could it be, to be a crayon?

“So that’s how your mind works,” a student commented. That started Judy thinking that of course, all writers may indulge in creativity, but not in the same way. We write from the heart, she enthuses, not the head. It is neither easy nor natural to write with your head saying, I write like this, because this is what the publishers of my chosen genre require.

Judy’s teaching was a resounding success, but at the time, she felt as though she was “standing on the top of a hill on a windy day, throwing her ideas into the air”. This was when Wordtamer was born. Judy was commissioned to put all her ideas into a book.

Her teaching takes the form of: de familiarisation, character connection, free-writing (the Freudian method of helping shell-shocked soldiers to cope with what is going on in their heads), the silent zone and visualisation. These all were incorporated into the continuing interactive exercise.

The most interesting of Judy’s methods is Active Research – she once had a character who spent some time in prison “…so I decided I’d better get arrested.” she said. This, after having auditioned for a position in a boy band and visiting Cardboard City, London. Judy is not our only author who indulges in active research – remember Karen Hamilton’s Characters on the Couch, Penny Ingham’s archaeology?

“When I’m asked to write a story, my mind goes blank,” one of her reluctant writers said. Five weeks later, that same child wanted to be a writer, because thanks to Judy Waite, he was no longer “blank in the mind.”

Report by Lisa Nightingale