Sunday, 16 September 2012

York and Writing

Last Friday I travelled to York to attend the Writers' Workshop Festival of Writing. It was thanks to a brief conversation I'd had with Nicola Morgan, the childrens author, at the SAW Writing conference in March, that I found out about this event. The Festival offers a fantastic range of workshops/panels and talks led by leading publishers, agents and established authors but probably the real selling point for me was the fact you could submit the first part of your book and synopsis to two agents (or book doctors) and then get to meet with them for 10 minutes to disuss your work. Kind of daunting...but such a worthwhile, valuable (and, for me, encouraging!) experience.

After a train journey of sub zero temperatures and screaming kids invading my 'quiet zone' coach I was relieved to step out into the sunshine of York. Fifteen minutes later I arrived at York University Campus, feeling a little nervous but excited at the prospect of what lay ahead. Once I had figured out how to enter my building (I really hope no one was watching my ten attempts at using the key card to open the door!) I setttled into my room and read the comments on the board beside my bed penned by past students: Epic Fail, Fail to prepare...prepare to fail, Bad times, Fun Times. I was hoping for the latter...

Any nerves I'd had about being there alone soon disappeared as I got chatting to people (from all over the world) who were also there for the first time, alone. I was amazed that people had travelled from as far as Australia, France and Canada and soon realised that I was in the company of really serious writers (I mean serious about their craft, not that they were lacking in humour!). It's always great at these types of events to talk to like minded people and spend a whole weekend particpating in creative workshops and soaking up valuable advice (more than once I had that 'ting' moment of, of course, that's what I need to do...)

As I know a lot of writers read this I thought it may be helpful to try and summarise some insightful, helpful information I gleaned from people in the industry.

From the Agents: (my focus was on children's/YA so most of this is taken from those panel discussions):
* Younger children may be more receptive to Series Fiction
* Don't mention in your cover letter that the age group you're targeting has loved your book (it's the agents' judgement that matters)
* There's a surge in popularity for 'Safe', old fashioned types of children's stories
* Publishers are becoming more risk averse as Sales people are always focused on the next big money spinner
* Big message coming across that they don't care about your web presence (blogs, twittering etc). It's the manuscript that lands on their desk they pay attention to
* For 9+ fiction they like a maximum of 80,000 words and for picutre books a max of 500 words (this is all related to translations. They want to be able to sell your book to various countries and English tends to be the 'shortest' language!)
* In your cover letter they like to see that you're serious about your writing
* Why get an Agent? They can talk money for you. They also ensure you maintain a good relationship which your editor as they deal with the rubbish business stuff (and it came across just how much they really know their stuff and the industry!)
* Most encouraged the practice of sending out your manuscript to more than one agent at a time as they understand the long wait we endure...
* If one Agent in a company rejects your manuscript then don't send it to another Agent in the same company
* A lot will work with you on edits before submitting to Publishers (I think this is a good thing)
* After my one to one meetings I realised the importance of choosing the right agent. (i.e. you will want to work with someone who is on your wavelength, and 'gets' your book and characters!)

From all in the Industry:
* Changes to Waterstones Buying and Stock Turn Around policies has had a big impact on fiction (they tend not to bulk buy fiction now which makes it harder for publishers to sell books)

From Authors:
* JoJo Moyes opened the Festival on Saturday morning with a very inspiring and honest account of her road to publication. A big message that came across was that she was grateful for any 'failures' along the way as they just encouraged her to write better and on one occasion 'freed' her writing, allowing her to tackle a more controversial subject.

* Julie Cohen delivered a fantastic workshop on the importance of Pace. 'Nothing should be wasted - each scene should have two or more purposes'. It was full of simple statements such as this and reminders about the importance of conflict which really clicked with me.

I attended other valuable workshops about creativity and going deep into your characters emotions (A good point was made; that sometimes we tend to stick in the safe 'middle ground', not going deep enough).

An overall message I took away with me: you need to work hard at your writing to make it the absolute best it can be (and then an agent/editor/copy editor etc. will come along and make you write and re-write again until it is even MORE perfect!).
And persevere. So many authors seemed to have one thing in common; they didn't give up.

I left with the feeling of I REALLY WANT THIS! I WANT TO BE A WRITER! So guess what, now I'm away to write...

Sunday, 2 September 2012


A few weeks ago I went on an amazing trip, cruising along the Med, visiting interesting ports in Italy, Croatia and Greece.

I've been thinking about what I could write about the trip to try and capture the experience, so I've come up with a snapshot summary of what has stuck in my head at each port (and on the ship), below::

Venice: Like walking into a film, across ornate bridges, gondolas sweeping past, creepy trees climbing across a midnight blue sky, 'chewing gum' boards strung across fences keeping the streets clean, narrow streets with echoes of ghosts round every corner dressed in capes and masquerade masks, violins playing a haunting melody, luring you deeper into the town where you could easily lose yourself and never return.

Dubrovnik: Like stepping back in time, walking along a wall overlooking rows and rows of houses, a blazing sun piercing blue waters, an overheard conversation reminding me of home (an American girl complaining about the effect Glasgow is having on her sinuses), seeing what looked like Hells Angels bikers sitting in a row on a wall outside an ancient church in the square - like some kind of ironic joke.

Corfu: Blistering heat on walk into town, battered cars lining the street with visors taped to windscreens, small beaches offering an escape to the cool sea, shaded cafe overlooking the sea, a park with an old fashioned bandstand, a modern looking town with crazy looking, laughing mannequins, female beggars pressing their foreheads against pavements in some kind of tortured prayer

Argostoli: Local shops selling oils, wine and spices, fishermen tending their nets, turtles ducking under the boats to eat the small fish, palm trees blowing along the zig zag patterened promenade, a small white church with a staircase winding up to the roof- inside ornate chandeliers, gold and red patterns on the walls and old ladies holding up their hands to their God, swaying and lighting candles, in celebration or in grief?

Santorini: Dazzling white buildings topped with blue, creeping up the steep hillside in a 'cable car', watching poor donkeys carrying fat tourists up break-neck heights, narrow lanes with rows of white clothes and jewellery, a shop keeper enticing me in to taste local fruity wine, sitting in a dazzling white washed cafe overlooking the sea, Greek music playing

Taormina: An hour long drive in a taxi with no air conditioning, driven by a non English speaking, smiley and messy Columbo type - arm permanently hanging out the window who overtakes on the motorway by nearly ramming into the backs of cars; Beautiful little town, art creeping around every corner, paintings and sculptures lining sweeping staircases, hanging flowers, chequered main square, ancient outdoor theatre with breathtaking views over the sea, The Clock tower chimes as we navigate narrow streets and romantic music plays from a shop as we pass a statue of Juliet peering over her baclony

Naples - Capri: Litter and graffiti line the town, escape on a high speed boat to the rich island of Capri, A crowded Fenicular train transports us to the top of the island to winding streets, pretty shops selling local perfume, sit in a shaded cafe where a lizard creeps slowly along the wall

Rome: Crazy busy and hot, beautiful ruins contrast with the modern choas, pizza cooked to perfection, , chased down the street by a man trying to sell me a parasol, another man thrusts a rose in my hand at the spanish steps, crazy beggar at the station trying to direct us to the wrong train

Livorno: Like a poor imitation of Venice, canals flowing through the town centre, an old woman dressed all in white with a painted white face begs for money - touching her tummy trying to fool us into thinking she is 'with child' (miraculous conception), outdoor markets lining the streets with abundant fresh fruit and vegetables (fresher and greener than you'll ever find here), crazy devil-like statue

The ship: late afternoons spent lying on the promenade deck listening to music and reading,running up on deck after dinner to watch the sun set over the sea, peeking out my cabin window at night watching the white froth of the waves crash into the black sea, sampling the best food I've ever tasted, sitting listening to a string quartet play in one of the bars, watching a scuplture of the New York skyline flash pink, green, yellow, purple and red as the song 'New York, New York' played in a bar; sitting in the show room listening to an award winning pianist make his piano 'sing' (his description and I've never heard a piano sound so good). Tempted to stow away (in the dessert cabinet) and never return home...