Hampshire Writers’ Society 2022-23 Programme

Confirmed speakers – more details on the way

September 13th 2022 – To Be Confirmed

More information soon…

October 11th 2022 – Jenny Saville

More information soon…

November 8th 2022 – Clare Whitfield

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Getting noticed in the Slush Pile

Clare will talk about her journey to getting published. It’s a very difficult industry to break into and she will talk about how she secured a two book deal and agent on submission and the process from contract to publishing a debut novel, and what to expect. 

Clare Whitfield was born in Morden in 1978 (at the bottom of the Northern line) in Greater London. After university she worked at a publishing company before going on to hold various positions in buying and marketing. She now lives in Hampshire with her family. Her debut novel, People of Abandoned Character, won the Goldsboro Glass Bell Award and was also short listed for the HWA Debut Award, and was also published by Head of Zeus. Her second novel, The Gone and the Forgotten, is out June 9th 2022.

Special Guest – Gregory Sayer

December 13th 2022 – Susmita Bhattacharya

More information soon…

January 10th 2023 – Nate Crowley

More information soon…

February 14th 2023 – Yarrow Townsend

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More information soon…

March 14th 2023 – Claire Gradidge

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Claire Gradidge was born and brought up in Romsey. Her career included working as a nurse, a school librarian and an Associate Lecturer in Creative Writing. She has had some short fiction and poetry published in South, Orbis and Vortex.

Her novel, The Unexpected Return of Josephine Fox, a crime fiction set in Romsey in World War II, was selected as the winner of the Richard and Judy Search for a Bestseller Competition in January 2019.

Josephine Fox returned in Treachery at Hursley Park House. In January 1943 Josephine goes undercover to investigate information leaks and espionage at Hursley Park House, where Spitfire modifications are being designed.

April 11th 2023 – Cheryl Butler

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Shakespeare, Travelling Players & The Historic Henry

Looking at the events of 1415, which had a big impact on Hampshire, Shakespeare’s interpretation, and looking at his potential knowledge of the area via the travelling players routes.

Cheryl Butler has a twin passion for history and drama which combine together in her work as a playwright, novelist, and inform her lectures and guided tours. As a contributing editor for the Southampton Records Series she continues to work as a serious scholar whilst working as a cultural manager in the arts and supporting several heritage organisations in a voluntary capacity.

May 9th 2023 – Joanna Barnard

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From Rejection to Auction: Failure and Success in the Writer’s Life

Includes top tips on practical things like working practice and seeking representation / publication.

Joanna Barnard is a published author, workshop leader and writing mentor. After winning the Bath Novel Award in 2014, Joanna’s first two books were published by Penguin Random House, and she subsequently also qualified as a hypnotherapist and psychotherapeutic counsellor, nowadays specialising in bereavement care. Joanna’s two main passions, therapy and words, led to her designing and facilitating a series of workshops in Writing for Wellbeing. She also teaches introductory novel writing skills. Joanna continues to write and is working on her next novel.

June 13th 2023 – Della Galton

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Della Galton is a novelist, short story writer and journalist with over 35 years’ experience. Her writing credits include ten novels, several novellas and over 2000 short stories published in the UK and abroad.  

She is the agony aunt for Writers’ Forum magazine and is a qualified Adult Education tutor. 

Her latest novels, The Bluebell Cliff series, are published by Boldwood Books. Her ‘How to Write’ Books are available from Amazon.  For more information about Della see www.dellagalton.co.uk

HWS Book Fair 14th June from 6.30pm -7.30pm

14th June Book Fair 6.30pm-7.30pm 
In the Foyer of the Stripe Theatre Building Foyer

This is an exciting time when published HWS members, mainstream or self published set our their books to sell. For those members who dream of being published this is your opportunity to come along and find out from the authors about their particular journey. It could be you next time!

Meet some of the authors stalls at the Book Fair 

Anthony Ridgway

Anthony is the winner of the Barbara Large Memorial Award 2019  for his wonderful achievement of being a published author of two children’s books. He is currently working on his third book.  Barbara was his creative writing teacher who spotted his talent and encouraged him to keep on writing.
Books are available as audio books read by David Suchet and his wife, Sheila.
To see a short film about Anthony’s book launch with a reading by David Suchet, follow this link.
Wizzy the Animal Whisperer

Anthony’s first book Wizzy the Animal Whisperer is out now as an audio book read by Sheila and David Suchet.

Wizzy and the Seaside Adventure


B Random

B. Random/ Gill Hollands, our special guest speaker, will have her books available for sale

Tamar Hodes, our main speakerwill have some of her books available for sale at the Book Fair.

Di Castle

Grandma’s Poetry Book is her first poetry collection and is a popular gift for new grandparents.

Should I Wear Floral and other poems on Life, Love and Leaving

Both books can be bought via her website www.dicastle.co.uk and her Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/dicastlewriter/
tweets @dinahcas

Damon L Wakes
Damon L. Wakes holds an MA in Creative and Critical Writing from the University of Winchester, and Ten Little Astronauts—the novella he submitted as the final project for that course—has since been published by Unbound.  He writes everything from humour to horror, and produces a brand new work of flash fiction every day during July each year. Damon also writes interactive fiction and games, and provided the story and dialogue for Game of the Year nominated virtual reality title Craft Keep VR.

Rob Stuart

Rob Stuart is a local author who lives in  Chandler’s Ford.

Rob’s books A Place in the CountryAppearance and Illusion;  and Uther Pendragon will be available on his book stall.

Uther Pendragon 410 AD. Rome withdraws the legions from Britain to try and protect the Empire from the inroads of the Barbarians. Uther Pendragon is the last prince of the Belgae, left to defend his lands from the inroads of the invaders. Tutored by Merlin, he is trust into manhood by the tumultuous times into which he is born. Betrayed by his allies he is forced to flee to the Roman province of Brittany where he is recruited by the Roman warlord Aetius. He becomes a player in the drama of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in the West; a lover of the Empress Dowager; the father of the Once and Future king Arthur and friend of Attila.

Maggie Farran, Catherine Griffin & Sally Howard
Three writing friends who collaborated on a new project in lockdown, culminating with publication of Winchester Actually. 

Winchester Actually

Join a magical tour of Winchester

Unravel the intrigue of the great train robbery. Witness the thrills and spills of rioting through the streets. Wonder at sacrifices made to save the cathedral and defend the city. Enjoy gentler tales of romance and motherhood set in and around Winchester.

J.M Carr

Janette Carr is a children’s writer from Southampton. Writing older middle-grade stories, she is best known for her novel The Wonder Girls.  Set in London in 1936, the Wonder Girls are a group of girls hiding from the paramilitary Blackshirts.  Her latest book, The Wonder Girls Resist is set in Southampton in 1937 against the backdrop of immigration stemming from the Spanish Civil War. Like its predecessor The Wonder Girls Resist has a political stance, exploring a time when the country was on the brink of war.

Mark Eyles
Hampshire Writers’ Society committee member Mark Eyles has published his first book – Icefall Cities: Deadly First Contact at the Edge of a Galactic Empire.

After working in the games industry, writing for comics (2000AD & Sonic the Comic) and spending time as an academic running videogame courses, Mark finally settled down to writing books at the start of 2019. His writing draws on his love of science fiction, creating a slightly quirky, but grim and gritty story set on a colony world where everything’s gone nightmarishly wrong.

Icefall Cities is available as an ebook, self-published on Amazon. Mark is busily editing the sequel ready for release later this year.

Beth O’Leary: Writing With Heart

Report by Sarah Noon

At the time of speaking, Beth O’Leary’s latest book “The No-Show” is number 5 on the Times Best Seller list.

She admits that her 18-year-old self would not have read any of her books and would definitely have scoffed at the idea of romantic fiction.  However, she says, there is no shame in the genre of Romantic Fiction – something that “people devour and read and enjoy”, and she wishes she’d realised that earlier on in her career. Originally inspired by Sophie Kinsella, she was the writer of the first romance fiction book that Beth read.

She reads us the opening pages of “The No-Show.” It is well received by the listeners, who smile and chuckle as the story unravels.

Beth has always been a writer. She explains that she has been inventing stories since she was a child.  She says she feels “out of sorts” when she’s not writing. She recalls sending her first query letter when she was 17.  She had her first agent by the time she was 25, when she pitched The Flat Share. She points out  that whilst this is quite young, she had been working hard on her writing for 8 years. The Flat Share has been a huge success and is now being made into a TV series.

She remembers the outfit she wore for her first meeting with her agent, and how it felt to hear someone talking about her characters “as if they mattered”. She said that although the continual bombardment of “no’s” can be a bit soul destroying, she reminds us that it only takes one “yes” and then you have an agent and someone “…fighting your corner with you.”

On the subject of agents, Beth advises us to consider what we want from a relationship with an agent. She remembers getting off the phone following that first call from her agent, telling her then boyfriend, and both laying down on the floor and listening to the playlist that she listened to whilst she was writing The Flat Share on the train on her way to work (noise cancelling headphones are the best thing she ever bought).  She tells us that she still writes in short bursts even now. Whilst she was “over the moon,” she was also “afraid and vulnerable” (“…you’re putting your work out there”).

She points out that “…it’s your heart on that page.” The idea that you can’t please everyone is a painful truth for Beth who says she wants to do exactly that, when she is writing something to be enjoyed by everyone.  She goes on to advise us not to read reviews! 

She was plagued by self-doubt when writing her second novel The Switch about “connection & community.” In the novel, a grandmother and granddaughter swap places for a month.  Beth felt the pressure of people who loved The Flat Share.  She was plagued by “… tricky second album” comments and the weight of expectation following the success of her debut.

Beth had struggled to write The Switch and had to make several structural changes during the process.  It was not always a happy experience for her as she wrote it.  However, she tells us about the value of her author friends, which are a great support in what can be “… a lonely job”.  This struggle though, Beth believes, has not impacted on the joy of the book for the reader.  She urges us to remember that readers cannot sense that the writer is unhappy. Over time, Beth has come to love this book as much as her others.

The third novel, The Road Trip, was easier for Beth,  as by this point, she “… felt like a writer.”  She’d had the idea for the novel for years, and she says, it was “brewing” for a long time. She was inspired by a stay in Provence – the setting for her story and explores the ideas of a separated couple having to be in a confined space for a considerable time.

Now that her writing career had taken off, she remembers how at one point in April 2020, she was working on 4 books at the same time – promoting, editing, writing etc. This led her to looking at how she approached the planning for her novels.

This was especially the case for book number 4, The No-Show.  As this is an ensemble book, Beth has had to be very organised. She talks about her world of many spreadsheets and how they can be the antithesis of creativity.  However, through the development of The No-Show, she felt the book was not working despite being 70000 words into it.  She then had an idea that “… hit her like a bolt of electricity…”  (she won’t tell us what this is for the benefit of those of us who are yet to read it.) She then changed the spreadsheet – making it prettier! Beth says that one can’t underestimate the impact of a new colour and font!

Beth talks about her novel openings and how they are often the weakest part of her stories when she begins the process, choosing instead to spend time setting up the characters etc.  She reminds us how important it is to begin a story at the point of something exciting or important happening.  This, Beth says, is how she likes to introduce the characters.

Finally, Beth explains that the genre she writes in gives her that fizz and she asks us to consider what gives us that “fizzy feeling”. There is no doubt that anyone who picks up one of Beth’s books will indeed feel the fizz…

Louise Morrish – Special Guest 10th May 2022

Report by Sarah Noon

Louise Morrish Writes about forgotten women in history, using them as inspiration for her stories.

Her writing journey began when she entered her unpublished novel “Operation Moonlight” for a Penguin competition in 2018 (before the world had heard of COVID).  “The Coffin Club”, as it was titled at the time, was inspired by her late gran.  Louise had also read about an elderly lady who wanted to be the oldest lady in the country and had the idea of killing anyone who was older than her in order for this to happen.  Louise says she didn’t tell anyone she’d entered the competition as she did not want anyone to know she’d “failed yet again.”  However, in 2018, she received a phone call from Penguin, telling her she’d won.  It was then that she felt able to tell her family.

It was winning this competition that spring-boarded her writing career.  Louise explains to us that her first page was drafted and re-drafted several times.  She says that it was the potential of the book, rather than a liking of the whole book which “… piqued their interest,”. However, as a result of winning the award, Louise secured an agent.  She admits this was “terrifying,” having her work placed under such scrutiny (her editor worked with authors such as Lisa Jewell and Anthony Horowitz).

Through working with Penguin, the title of the book changed to “Operation Moonlight” and, at their advice, the focus became more about the protagonist’s covert work in the Second World War as an SOE (Special Operations Executive) agent, rather than her mission to kill people so she could become the oldest person in Britain. When the book was picked up, Louise explains, many older people were dying of COVID, so it was “not the right time.”  Also, by Betty (the protagonist) murdering others, it would be hard to make her likeable.

Louise then shows us a short film entitled “School for Danger” (Imperial War Museum)

 School For Danger (1943) – YouTube

As part of her research, Louise “endured” her own parachute jump in order to “feel what it was like.” She says, “It was awful…” but needed to understand how it felt to jump out of a plane.  The only way she could do this was to experience it herself.  She remains adamant that she will never do this again!

Louise explains that before she won the competition, she had no idea how many people were involved in the publishing of a book.  She mentions the editors, agents, marketing executives, legal people, proofreaders … the list goes on.

She finishes her talk with a comparison between writers and SOE’s agent and the skills that they need (“courage, tenacity, focus …).

Louise has previously written two novels which have “… yet to see the light of day,” but there is hope for the future.  She is working on a novel which is set in the First World War.  She’s also hoping to sign a second contract soon with Penguin but declines to talk about this as she “… doesn’t want to jinx it.”  However, we wish Louise much luck with this.

Operation Moonlight will be published on 21st July 2022 and is Louise Morrish’s debut novel which won the 2019 Penguin Random House First Novel Competition in partnership with the Daily Mail.

Matthew Harffy

What are the secrets to writing a successful historical fiction series?

Report by Sarah Noon

Matthew Harffy is best known for his historical series The Bernicia Chronicles which are set in the 7th century. There are currently 8 of these and the 9th is due out in December.  This evening he takes us through the whole process of researching and writing historical fiction.

Matthew begins by talking us through the books he has written:  as well as The Bernicia Chronicles, he has written the Wolf of Wessex (set in the Viking period) and another series – A Time For Swords and A Night of Flames.

He then goes on to explain how he got into publishing; asking us to bear in mind that the industry has changed significantly over the last 10 years. For Matthew, it all started in 2001, when he was watching a documentary about Bamburgh Castle in Northumberland. The story behind the castle inspired him to write his first book, The Servant’s Sword. The development of the book required much research. Over a period of three years, Matthew studied the history and background, maps and documents and, he says, realised that his idea was more of a series than a stand-alone novel. He then speaks about having “the wind taken out of [his] sails,” when soon after, Bernard Cornwall brought out The Last Kingdom – a book very similar to The Servant’s Sword.  As a result, he stopped writing. Over the next few years, he “lived his life” and talks about his family, holidays, going to the Olympics, playing in a band… but, he says, “I wasn’t writing.” He says that although he would think about the book and his writing from time to time, he wasn’t really doing anything about it.

His writing journey then continued in 2012.  Matthew recalls that he was travelling to a campsite in his car and listening to a radio documentary about E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey, and how this was selling incredibly well via eBooks on Amazon.  Matthew says that due to his job, he had the skills to do this with The Servant’s Sword and that “…maybe I should consider that as an option.”  He describes sitting on his own outside his tent that evening, listening to the sounds of the wind, and the fire etc. thinking about his book.  He realised that he was hearing the same sounds as his characters in his book would have heard over 6000 years ago.  “The people are the same, the world is the same. I need to write this book.” He says that he considered that many books have similar themes and settings so shouldn’t be put off by the fact that Bernard Cornwall had already written something similar. 

Following this moment of realisation, Matthew went home and wrote the book.  It took him seven months and was about 100,000 words.  He found an agent by going through the channels that many of us are familiar with (one-to-ones at writers’ festivals, email pitches etc).  He eventually found an agent who took on his manuscript.  However, despite working hard on Matthew’s behalf, “…every publisher in Britain rejected [it],”  which, says Matthew, leaves you feeling “ … pretty much like you’re rubbish.”

However, Matthew explains that whilst all this was going on, he had caught “the writing bug” and had written a sequel … leaving him with two unpublished books. Feeling that he perhaps wasn’t going to get any further along the traditional publishing route, Matthew reveals that this was when he began to consider self-publishing (something, he informs us, that agents don’t like as they don’t get any money!).

With the practical skills that Matthew has already spoken of, he tells us that he edited his work, got others to read it, designed a cover on some free software, contacted other writers who read his manuscript and allowed him to use their quotes on the covers – and he self-published. Matthew explains that once he had his book on Amazon and had sold several thousand copies and had lots of reviews “…then the publishers are a bit more interested.”

This lead to him being taken on by Head of Zeus publishing.  Their way of working meant that they published the e-book first, then print-on-demand, then getting the book into shops as the final stage. He explains how difficult this decision was to make, as Head of Zeus was not offering any advance and Matthew had already self-published, but signed up with the hope that it would bring him other benefits such as foreign language rights etc.  Whilst Matthew is now very happy with the way things have gone, he says that after taking a significant pay cut, there was a moment when he was “… bricking it.”

So, how did he write that first book?

Matthew urges us to consider the difference between an amateur and professional writer. Is it simply a writer who makes some money out of their work? He quotes Richard Back “A professional is an amateur who didn’t quit.” and reminds us that he did, in fact, quit for a time.  He also quotes Jodi Picoult who says “You can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.”  Matthew reminds us that if you don’t write, you’ve got nothing to make better. He says the most important thing is to “… finish your manuscript.” Whether one chooses to self-publish or publish traditionally, it needs to be finished first.

Matthew sets targets.  He tells us that “Microsoft Word is horrible” when writing a long manuscript.  He discovered Scrivener. This writing programme allows him to set targets. Whilst working full-time, he set himself the target of 3000 words per week. Much of this time was whilst waiting to pick his children up (he says that when you’re a parent of young children, much of your time is “…just waiting for your kids to do stuff,”). So, Matthew used that time productively by writing.

He then went down to part-time. He set himself the target of 5000 words per week.  Now that Matthew is full-time, he writes 2000 words a day between Monday and Friday.  He advises us “Don’t get bogged down in research,” when writing.  He explains that if he needs to research something specific, he will highlight the section and then go back and research once he has completed his first draft.

Matthew talks through the process of his structural edits, line-by-line edits, copy edits, proofreading etc, all leading to a published book. But how does he start?  After writing twelve books, he is well placed to tell us…

For Matthew, “…every story starts with the history.” He makes clear that although his stories are fictional, he starts with a dramatic real event. He may also add a “…what if?” After he has the ideas for his story, he says that he then spends a few weeks researching the history and location, considering how the story will work.

So what, asks Matthew, keeps people coming back? He explains that it’s not the plot, it’s not the history, it is, he says, the characters. “Characters sell books.”  He goes on to tell us that the character needs flaws. Another tip he gives us is that we should “…leave every chapter with an unanswered question,” thus ensuring your novel is a page-turner.   Returning to the fundamental issue of characters, Matthew discusses how in order to make the ones in his 7th Century stories accessible to his readers, he tries to make them “… a little less 7th century,” making him more relatable and emotional to a modern-day readership.

Having been very generous with his time and advice, Matthew ends his fascinating and in-depth talk with his mantra:

“Story over history, authenticity over accuracy.”

Rob Stuart

Rob Stuart – Historical fiction

Report by Sarah Noon

Best known for his novel “A Place in the County,” a book which features incest, sexual jealousy, exploitation, feudalism (mostly taking place in Hampshire!), Rob has produced 3 works of fiction.  He has had an academic career and now divides his time between travelling and writing.  He specifically explores the idea of the significance of historical facts in relation to particular places.

He introduces the talk by telling us that it will be interactive and that  “… we are going to be doing most  of the work,” and asks us to consider “inspiration:” what is it and where does it come from? He invites us to move the furniture around and discuss with each other where we get our ideas from.  Several lively discussions follow.  Ideas include “life experiences,” something that Rob tells us is “very valid.”  He reminds us of the adage “Write about what you know.”

Rob Stuart’s novels

However, he then goes on to point out that people who have written crime novels, are not necessarily writing what they know “… unless” he says, “you’re Fred West.”  (Rob proceeds to put a grisly quote from a murder novel on the screen).  Several people in the room have written crime stories, but as he points out, no one in the room has actually murdered anyone (as far as we know).

Rob then goes on to talk about where his own inspiration comes from.  He tells us that he was an academic English teacher at the School for Oriental and African Studies. His boss presented him with the opportunity to travel to Libya to tutor Colonel Gadhafi’s son (at this point, a member of the audiences tell him that “…we weren’t expecting that!”). He explains that although this did not actually come to fruition due to delays in visas and other administrative issues, his second book, Appearance and Illusion, is all about a female academic who travels to tutor the son of a dictator in Asia – Rob’s missed opportunity becoming the inspiration for the story.

The inspiration for his second book comes from Rob and his wife driving around Hampshire and Wiltshire with some Dutch friends.  They started to play a game called “If this village name was a person, what kind of person would it be?”  He presents us with some local on the board placenames (e.g., Sherborne St John) and invites us to play along. Rob demonstrates how place names have inspired him in his work, with names such as Farleigh Wallop (a military man) and Stratfield Turgis (a publican).

Rob’s talk was lively and humorous and gave us all something to think about in terms of using what is around us as inspiration for our writing.

Veronica Cossanteli

From Water Babies to The Wimpy Kid
The evolution of children’s books and the perils of adaptation: writing with ghosts at your shoulder

Veronica Cossanteli report:  8th March 2022 by Sarah Noon

Veronica is talking to us this evening about the evolution of children’s books and the joy and the pitfalls of adaptations. 

Veronica began writing in her teens “… as a distraction from homesickness.” when she was in boarding school.  She grew up with classics, with lots of Victorian classics on her shelf at home. She was in her forties when she “…finally got her act together,” and enrolled at writing school, joining SCWBI at the same time. SCWBI accepted one of Veronica’s manuscripts for their “Undiscovered Voices” anthology. She later met with Barry Cunningham from Chicken House as part of the Winchester Writers Conference (something she says she was very nervous about).  She presented him with her latest work for feedback, the meeting was successful, and Chicken House published her book!

Veronica Cossanteli

For those of us who are yet to familiarise ourselves with The Marvellous Land of Snergs, it is a children’s book written by E.A. Wyke-Smith in 1927.  The book inspired Tolkien to write The Hobbit (The Snergs were “prototype Hobbits”)and J.K. Rowling famously has a copy of it.

Veronica was approached by Chicken House, asking if she would be prepared to rewrite and adapt it. As exciting as the story is, Veronica says it was very much a book “… of its time.”  When Veronica first read the book, she says, she liked Wyke-Smith’s “… quirky sense of humour,” but there were areas of the book that needed reworking in order to update it for today’s young audiences.   This, however, was harder than she thought!  She sent the first draft to Chicken House who Veronica says sent it back with a resounding “could do better.” She soon realised that very much more than a “tweak” was required – it needed completely deconstructing and rewriting.

Veronica explains that the original book had countless characters, but because they were not hers, it was hard to get inside their heads and understand their motivations and back stories. The two children in the book had quite a bleak backstory (although the other characters did not), but they came across as very unscathed in spite of this – demonstrating, she says, a big difference between “then and now” with children’s literature. Veronica clarifies that in the literature of the time, children were often controlled by the adults (Roald Dahl is the one credited with giving the child protagonist the independence and capability to fight their own adventures).  Children were written in a way described by Veronica as very two-dimensional. She explains that they were either very angelic, or incredibly naughty – often meeting a grisly end (she gives the example of Pinocchio who is hanged at the end of the original story). Modern children like a “protagonist with attitude.” 

Veronica talks about how she needed to update her characters (the original Flora would “bat her eyes at knights”).  A king became an ostrich-riding queen for balance (she says has no idea where ostrich comes from!). The Jester got turned into a frog because it annoyed her so much (she thinks that it was Wyke-Smith’s favourite character)! She considered making the narrative from the point of view of the Snergs, but Chicken House wanted to have the children at the centre of the story.  Chicken House were also set on keeping the title the same.

Many stories have been re-written over the years, so what were the specific challenges with this, relatively unknown story?  Veronica points out that if there are a lot of different versions of a story, then a writer has more freedom to adapt it – such as Grimms Fairy Tales. She talks about how many of these have been heavily sanitised – especially for an American market. This is very different than adapting the work of one author (and his relations!). 

On the subject of Wyke-Smith’s relations, Veronica says she received mostly positive feedback, although a few things she had to change (“beware of surviving relatives!” she says).   Chicken House contacted the family and investigated the legal position, but as the original book was out of copyright, this was a matter of courtesy rather than legality.

When asked if she would do something like this again, she reflects that it was a good creative exercise and has developed her as a writer. She says it has enabled her to identify mistakes she makes as a writer. She often asks herself what Wyke-Smith would have been critical of.  She considers it an honour to have been asked to do it but is aware of the huge responsibility that goes with it.

Veronica hopes that Mr Wyke-Smith and Tolkien would approve! 

Report by Sarah Noon

Amy Sparkes: Stand out from the Slush Pile

Amy Sparkes Report: 8th March 2022 by Sarah Noon

Amy is a novelist and journalist who has written over 20 children’s books, from picture books to middle grade chapter books. She also works closely with publishing companies. She began writing in 2009, with picture books. She went on to writing junior fiction and her most recent books are middle grade. “I am working my way up!” she says. In addition to this, she writes scripts and articles for magazines. She also has 6 children – 5 of whom she home schools! Despite all of this, she still has time to do author visits!  She is fortunate she says, that through her work, she is able to read many manuscripts – hundreds of stories every year.

Amy Sparkes

Amy considers that there are four things that are “… even more important than plot.” These are concept, character, voice and energy.

  1. Concept

Many stories that Amy reads, have ideas that have occurred many times before.  She gives the example of the Tooth Fairy.  Whilst there is no reason why this can’t be incorporated within a story, she feels that writers need to “step outside of the safe idea.”  She gives the analogy of a rainbow, and how a writer will often “go with the violet” – their first idea, when what writers should be doing is focusing on farthest (“red”).  Writers should be challenging themselves to move away from their first idea.  She suggests changing something within the original concept (for example, the setting or time period).  Amy is asked whether she thinks there are certain age groups where certain topics are predictable and whether new writers should we steer away from those. She suggests we consider what can be done to make the topic different. For example, if the story is about a lost dog, could it be on another planet?

2)  Character

Amy explains that she is always looking for characters who stand out because they’re not generic – not safe or predictable.  She gives the example of the “feisty female” or STEM female. She asks writers to consider these things:

  • Why are we going to remember this character?  
  • Why have the characters we read when we were young stayed with  us?
  • What was different or quirky about them?

She goes on to say that we should try to give characters something different or interesting.  This is vital, she says, because when someone has read one hundred stories that day, writers  need to consider what is going to make their character different? Is it the best version of itself it can be? She reminds us that we have to be honest with ourselves as writers and make sure we’ve pushed our ideas and characters as far as we can. Amy gives the example of a child protagonist frequently being twelve.  She suggests giving the character three adjectives and ensuring that at least one of those adjectives is clear in each page.

Amy also talks about distinct character voices.  Eric in The House of Magic for example only speaks two words of one syllable at a time (there is no way that his voice can be confused with any other character!).

3)  Voice

Voice is something that Amy is very passionate about (“It’s what makes you, you as a writer”).  She says the voice is what  “… makes me sit up in my chair.” Amy explains that having confidence in your voice is what “… makes your writing sparkle.”  If you’re writing something that you care about, then the voice will come through. She talks about “head” stories and “heart” stories.  The “heart” ones are the ones that you feel passionate about and have to share. These tend to be the ones when the writer’s voice is often stronger. Here, the writer will be more invested in the story and energised with regards to developing editing their work.

Sibling relationships is something that Amy is very interested in.  As a result, this is often a theme in her books.  The voice comes through clearly because she cares about the theme.  This is what she asks writers to consider when they are developing their ideas.  Amy is a firm believer in “dream time” – time away from paper and pen or computer.  Writers need that processing time and time to consider the point of our writing. What do we want to say? Why do we want to say it?  Amy believes that if we do this, these stories will “… be the ones that will sparkle and shine the most.”

4)  Energy

When sending work to an agent,  Amy admits that receiving the feedback “it’s a little bit quiet” is the things she dreads the most.  It means the work doesn’t have that energy behind it.  She says that one way of acquiring that energy is to go back to thinking about the voice and that connection again.  She explains that energy can be a “quiet” energy – it doesn’t have to be a “loud” energy.  She asks us to consider, what is the tone of the story? What are the key phrases? She gives the example of a bedtime story, which will be gentle, but needs to carry the reader along.  We  need to think about the words that are used and their rhythm etc. If it is a funny story, consider, is there a laugh on every page? Are the laughs getting bigger and louder every time? “You have to get readers feeling the sense of story and sense of progression.” She talks about keeping the pace going in order to build up to the end point or climax.

With older readers, she says, we are thinking about injecting each chapter with energy and to think about what makes our reader want to read on.  She urges us to look at how we start and finish each chapter and to consider a hook, or the middle of a scene.  She suggests “playing” with the reader, remining us that “kids love language.” Humour can encourage a child to read on.

Amy is asked how important it is to cram energy and voice into the synopses of a story.  Her reply is that “You have to feel like the life has been sucked out of the story!”  The first two or three chapters will enable the reader to feel the energy.  The cover letter will allow you to be much more you.

She is also asked to clarify the difference between energy and pace.  She answers that energy is about identifying what moments need more energy in relation to feelings and emotion – what do I want the reader to feel?  “Pace,”  she says “…is what keeps the reader coming along with you.”

Amy concludes her talk explaining that when she is writing, “… draft one is with my heart, draft two is with my head.” She says, the heart is the fun bit, and the head is more analytical – looking at energy and voice etc. She adds that this is where the reader has to be really honest with themselves.  She ends with some very clear advice for us all: “Always start with the heart!”

Report by Sarah Noon

James Chew – Senior Writer at Fairbetter Games

Report by Sarah Noon

James Chew: Talk:  A Brief Introduction to Writing Interactive Fiction

James works for Fairbetter Games, a small company which was based in London pre-pandemic.  The company specialises in games set in a “shared universe” of an alternative gothic London Victorian underworld. Their first game was Fallen London – a game based on texts and static image, where the player navigates around the landscape.  The company has since branched out with several other games based on text-based stories, where the player makes choices in order to make their way around the world in which the game is set. Fairbetter Games also creates visual novels which James describes as “… quite text heavy and quite dialogue based.”

James Chew

So, what does James do? Well, surprisingly, very little coding is involved, despite what we may assume – although there is a requirement to know some coding and programming that the company uses, enabling the writer to keep track of all the narrative elements in the game, such as quests and dialogue. Descriptions of props etc are often written by hand, and require “… evocative, punchy prose to make those items seem attractive.”

One of the main roles in games writing, is the narrative designer.  This involves the writing of large cinematic scenes (James gives the example of Call of Duty) as well as considering what order a player may find clues in mystery games, and what the effects of this order might be. One of the most important things when writing for gaming is to remember that the writer is writing for the player and to consider “What is the writer experiencing at any given moment?”

James goes on to explain some terms which are specific to games writing (verbs, gameplay, variables etc) as well as what a game actually is – genres include RPG, simulation, strategy, indie, platformer and shooter games.  There is a massive arc of commercialism within the game industry, from what are known as the AAA games (Call of Duty, Assassin’s Creed etc – large commercial games) to the other end of the spectrum, which feature indie games such as the ones that James works on. However, they all have things in common, such as entertainment as their primary goal.  But the games are also aiming to get an emotional response from the player in order to keep them immersed and engaged. James explains that “…all games are designed with the player in mind from the outset.”  It’s all about offering an experience outside of normal life.

There are different types of protagonists in games: a defined protagonist, invisible protagonist, co-authored protagonist, player-defined protagonist. The type of protagonist has a direct effect on the game in terms of how they react and the roles the player is assigned.

The art of writing a good game, James explains, relies on the consideration of what the writer wants to make, who the player is and what that player can do.  A game will be tested many times in order to ensure that a one-hour gaming session, for example, provides the player with many options in order to remain engaged.

One example of a narrative-rich genre is role-play. This genre gives the player an opportunity to create a character. Some games allow more choice than others. There is an element of choice and consequence in these types of games. This should lead to the gamer replaying the game numerous times, as they discover things led by the choices they make.  Another example of narrative-rich gaming is immersive fiction – having its origins in Dungeons and Dragons, and books where the reader skips to different pages according to the reader’s preferred options. These types of games mean that James’ job gives him a lot of narrative freedom and his work involves a lot of “pure writing” as opposed to programming.

Like many other writers, James says that he feels it is important to be able to draw upon one’s own experiences, and for those interested in game writing, he believes that it is important to have experience outside of gaming in order to achieve that (James’ background is Medieval studies – and a knowledge of history has certainly helped with world-building).

James ends his talk with a couple of points to remember:

  • Your player is your audience
  • Consequences are friends

James’ talk provided a fascinating insight into the world of game writing and its connections and similarities with more traditional forms of writing and I for one, will certainly be looking at games with a deeper appreciation of the storytellers behind them.

Report by Sarah Noon

Denise Baden – Special Guest

Denise is Professor of Sustainable Practice at the University of Southampton. By her own admission she “… uses the university as a platform to be a bit of an activist on climate change.”  She is a researcher, a writer of musical theatre, screenplays and a novel as well as academic writings.

Denise Baden

She begins by talking about how people understandably shy away from the topics of climate change and other green issues, due to their depressing and bleak message.  In literature, she feels as if these subjects are often “dystopian and doom-laden.”  She also adds that characters in films and literature that represent green causes are often “…really annoying.” With this in mind, in 2018 Denise set up a series of writing competitions “Green Stories,” the aim of which is to promote green solutions.  Since then, it has snowballed.  People have offered their services to judge and get involved in other ways. There have now been 13 competitions, including plays, flash fiction and short stories. These have included a variety of topics challenging the idea of consumption and fast fashion etc. She talks about the idea of including positive role models in stories;  the teenage girl who goes to a fashion-swap rather than clothes-shopping, characters who eat in green restaurants etc.

Denise discusses how many young people have high anxiety about climate change but often feel powerless to do anything. However, she says, we all need to take responsibility.  Characters need to reflect that – as opposed to characters in things such as Sex and the City and Emily in Paris, where eco-issues are simply not part of their world.  Her novel, Habitat Man, which Denise describes as her “lockdown project” was written with the aim of offering solutions and exploring what we can all do on a day-to-day basis, rather than a large-scale adventure to a rainforest or Antarctica. She says, “If you can’t find the book you want you have to write it yourself.”

Her starting point was to write four short stories with a green theme.  Two had a catastrophic ending and two were solution focused. These stories were circulated to a couple of hundred people for feedback.  She found that the solution-focused stories were more inspiring for the readers, encouraging them to be more positive and proactive.  The dystopian-type stories tended to be met with feelings of disempowerment and hopelessness. She explains that whilst people who like a dystopian story may enjoy the more bleak and hopeless narratives, these are unlikely to appeal to the masses – and Denise’s aim was to reach as many people as possible.

Denise’s role as a lecturer of Business Ethics as well as her other academic positions means that she is well equipped to write about green issues in a variety of forms. Writing for a cause is a very specific skill, about which Denise has frequently delivered presentations.  She explains that readers do not want to be preached at or told what to do.  It requires, she says, “a certain level of skill.” And of course, it is imperative that the writer knows what they are talking about. She gives the example of a character in her book using organic cotton, but researching and discovering that organic cotton  uses twice as much water as cotton (several swimming-pools-worth of water in fact, for a pair of jeans and a t-shirt).  “Double check your facts!” she says.

Habitat Man, as a novel, was conceived when Denise was contacted by a green garden agency, Southampton Transition Network, offering their services advising people on how to make their gardens more environmentally friendly.   A gardener came to visit Denise and during their discussion, admitted that whilst he felt driven to fight climate change, he felt limited as to what he could do as he was just one man.  Initially, Denise felt there was a great tv series in this – one man visiting people’s gardens in order to tackle climate change, but she thought she would write a book first, believing that she was unlikely to get a tv deal!

What was initially going to be a book of short stories developed with the introduction of a dead body which needed burying using green methods.  Denise says, “Before I knew it, I had a proper story arc.”  She describes her book as giving her “… an opportunity to smuggle in lots of green ideas.”

At this point, Denise plays us an extract from the book…

Denise ends her fascinating talk with some final advice for effectively writing for a cause:

  • Show, not tell (make sure the story is not too preachy)
  • Use humour
  • Less is more
  • A court case is a good way of showing both sides (and is also very dramatic!)

Denise’s final comment is to remind us that the reader wants fiction and a good story above all else – something that we all need reminding of from time to time!

Report by Sarah Noon

Reports from 11th January 2022

Report by Sarah Noon

Louisa Scarr’s talk ‘Beginning a Life of Crime’

Louisa Scarr (also known as Louisa De Lange and Sam Holland) has written a series of detective books featuring DS Robin Butler and DC Freya West.  She has been a writer for six years and explains that she has now developed a way of writing which works for her. Before she shared this with us, however, she told us a little about herself:

Louisa gained a degree in Psychology from University of Southampton in 2000.  She says she did this because she “wanted to know what made people tick but needed to do a ‘proper job. ’” A ‘proper job’ for Louisa meant one that required “a suit, heels and a badge.”  So, she joined Siemens as a recruitment officer (“hiring and firing”) – a job enabling her to wear all those things.  She always enjoyed writing  and even worked in a library for a while, but ended up working in the headquarters of B&Q “hiring and firing again.”  However, she was later given a role within B&Q which involved writing for them.  She quit in 2016 and became a freelance writer, finishing the book she was working on.

After lots of hard work, Louisa was eventually picked up by Orion. Her first novel, The Dream Wife, is speculative fiction  – crime with a science fiction twist.  It was a two-book deal, which lead to Ask Me No Questions.  At this point, she says, her agent pointed out that what she was actually writing was a police procedural, about a police officer – DS Kate Monroe.  She then went on to write Nowhere to be Found which she describes as “the easiest and quickest book I’ve ever written.”  Following this, she left Orion and joined Canelo.

Louisa describes herself as “a fast writer”.  She says she can write an 80,000 a book in about three months.  She wanted a publisher that was able to work with her at this fast pace. With Canelo, she explains, she has a deal where she has a book out every six months. 

Louisa Scarr

With the aid of several photographs, Louisa goes onto explain her (now finely tuned) process.  She starts with a whiteboard in her office. Here, she writes down initial thoughts, chapters, plots etc. The second stage is done with index cards (the various POVs) and post-it notes (the clues and evidence) laid out across a wall (she originally did this on the floor but “it didn’t work because of the dog!”). Consequently, this has now evolved into rows of post-it notes across her wall.  She talks about the importance of chapter beginnings and ends to hook the reader and maintain interest. Spreadsheets are used to record details of recurring characters – their features, facts about their lives etc, in order that continuity is maintained.

When writing a police procedural, research and knowledge of the inner workings of the organisations and departments involved have to be portrayed accurately, and as Louisa explains she “has never been in the police force.”  Her experience, she says, “is based on Broadchurch and The Bill.”  However, she has built up a team of experts around her to whom she can go for for advice, clarifications and guidance.  She gives us some examples:  A police officer she met on the school run and his wife (a 999 Control Officer) have been invaluable. Her stepbrother is a consultant anaesthetist who has given her lots of advice when she is describing injuries.

Her sister-in-law is a pharmacist who is able to advise when her stories involve drugs and medication. Her friend is a CSI – specifically a  blood spatter expert.  Other friends include a meteorologist, and her stepsister-in-law is a paramedic.  Louisa’s writing leans towards her experts and she goes on to tell us just how much she values them.

In addition to her group of experts, Louisa’s personal library consists of serial killer books, forensic books, Blackstone’s police manuals and legal books. She also uses Google Scholar to access relevant journals.

Louisa’s commitment to authenticity has seen her wear a crime scene suit (she was given one so she could feel what it is like to wear one) and has even been on a ride-along!

Louisa’s books also maintain their accuracy by the fact that she sets her stories in places that she knows.  She shows us some pictures of scenes and settings she has used.  Many are in Southampton, including the Common, Winnall, B&Q headquarters and Portswood.  She has also used Reading. She has a friend that lives in a village in Devon and used this as home for one of her characters.  She is therefore able to visit the locations, photograph them and describe them accurately.

With regards to her characters, she tells us that she sees them in her head “cinematically” and bases her characters on famous actors and then watches their work via film and TV.

There are a variety of highs and lows when working as a writer.  Louisa lists the highs – the first proof, seeing your publication  in a bookshop for the first time, positive reviews.  She says that there are not many lows.  One of them, though, is dealing with bad reviews (we are introduced to a scathing review by “Marion”).  She says, “you have to be ready for that.”  She cites structural edits  as another low, describing the tackling of these as “the hardest few weeks”.

The final thing Louisa shares with us, is regarding the creation of her upcoming book The Echo Man.  One of the first things she wrote, it was rejected in her early days due to its strong language and violence but will now be sold in about 10 countries.  She has written the book under the gender-neutral pseudonym Sam Holland in order to appeal to a larger demographic.

Louisa ends her talk with a game … about serial killers!  She shows several images of serial killers, and we have to write down who they were.  Interestingly, nobody knows all of them, but one or two have achieved enough notoriety that most of the audience can identifiy them.

An intriguing look into Louisa’s methods and processes – we eagerly await her next book! 

Jan Carr – Special Guest

Jan Carr is a children’s writer from Southampton. Writing older middle-grade stories, she is best known for her novel The Wonder Girls.  Set in London in 1936, the Wonder Girls are a group of girls hiding from the paramilitary Blackshirts.  Her latest book, The Wonder Girls Resist is set in Southampton in 1937 against the backdrop of immigration stemming from the Spanish Civil War. Like its predecessor The Wonder Girls Resist has a political stance, exploring a time when the country was on the brink of war.

Jan Carr

Jan tells us that at school she struggled to read but “loved a good story”.  As a mum, she felt she couldn’t tell a good bedtime story to her children and was envious of those parents who seemed to be able to make up stories on the the spot. She therefore believed that she didn’t have a good imagination.  However, over time she has discovered that the key which enables her to create stories, is simply to “sit at a keyboard and write”.

She confides that her first drafts are a mess, “a bit like throwing clay at chicken wire,” but she says that at least this gives her something to work with. Jan is an independent author,  giving her a higher degree of freedom within her writing.  Whilst her difficulty in getting a publisher initially made her feel “like a failure”, she explains that she is now happy to be an independent writer, with the control that provides her with. 

Jan goes on to talk about her book, Spare, which is also an audiobook.  Many people auditioned to narrate her book.  When she found the person who “had the right voice” for her book, she sold a quilt in order to raise the funds (£450 for narrator to read a 7- hour book). She says she really enjoyed the collaboration within the project – giving her confidence because someone else was committed to reading her book.

She has had previous success with competitions, winning and being shortlisted for prizes.  The first book she wrote created some interest with publishers.  However, Jan was told that the book was good – just not not right for the particular publisher.  This though, gave Jan the confidence to publish independently. She used a credit card in order to get the books published and printed.  She then made herself available to Southampton primary schools, visiting the children, doing workshops with them and selling signed copies of her books.

By the time Covid hit, The Wonder Girls Resist was ready to promote, but as lockdowns loomed, Jan was limited as to how she could do this.  However, she launched a Kickstarter campaign in order to get 1000 copies of her new book printed as well as more copies of her first book.  Kickstart funding, she says, is an emotionally draining time and a little risky.   Nevertheless, in just over a month she had the funding she needed. Now that life is adapting to Covid, Jan is able to school visits again – via her Kickstart sponsorship pages. She gets pupils writing and participating in drama activities. She also includes some craft activities (she explains that she was a teacher in a former life!).

Jan is currently writing the third Wonder Girls book – set in 1938, but she is being secretive about its storyline! We are looking forward to reading The Wonder Girls Resist very soon!

Reports by Sarah Noon