Five fabulous lessons from the Festival of Writing


One of the things I love about being a writer is escaping into other worlds. Usually, these are fictional, but last weekend I journeyed to one of my favourite places – the wonderful writing world – when I attended the Festival of Writing in York.

It’s the third time I’ve attended – I blogged a few years ago about just how much writers can get out of writing festivals here – but this time was extra special. After six years of writing fiction, many knock backs and rejections, I was shortlisted for two competitions at the festival. One for Best Opening Chapter and another for a 500-word extract, which meant I’d have to read my writing out to an audience for the first time in my life at an event called ‘Friday Night Live’. Scary.

I didn’t win but getting so far in the competition as well as receiving many encouraging comments from the judges and all the lovely writers who came up to me afterwards, gave me an incredible boost.

The festival weekend passed in a whirlwind of workshops, forums and conversations. There was so much to learn and so many people to meet. By the end, my brain felt like a marshmallow. Fortunately, I took lots of notes and have spent the last few evenings going through them all, covering my desk in Post-Its, as I planned out how to take my novel forward.

Five writing lessons really stood out for me.

All five could transform the experience your writing creates for readers.

What you start with is the book you’re writing – Shelley Harris

Figure out where your story truly gets going by considering where the initial moment of disruption is. Figure out the key point at which your protagonist’s life is first disrupted, what happens because of that and go from there.

The start of a novel is a promise to readers of what’s to come – this may sound really simple but this was my biggest lesson of the entire festival. Misdirection can create suspense but be mindful to set expectations correctly. Make it clear what sort of story you’re writing, what the genre is and set the tone for the book. When Shelley said this, I realised I was starting off in one genre and slipping into another. Having had such a good reaction to my opening when I read it out live at the event, I decided to do a major rewrite to ensure the whole novel is as suspenseful as it begins. It’ll be hard work but worth it.

For advice on starting and structuring your story well, Shelley highly recommended checking out Pixar’s Rules of Storytelling by Emma Coats which have been transformed into a cool graphic here.

More important than ‘show don’t tell’ is to ‘story tell’ – Andrew Wille 

“Show don’t tell” is often preached at writers and is often misinterpreted to mean don’t ‘tell’ at all. The result can be manuscripts overloaded with sensory details or symbolism. Many writers have lost touch with the type of storytelling that once enthralled them as a reader. Scenes need a good balance between summary and action to optimise pace and keep readers engaged.

Andrew called for more good, old fashioned storytelling with stories brought to life by voice.

He’s published a handy round-up of his time at the festival, with a summary of key tips, links to articles, resources and recommended reading here. Do check out his blog. It’s a goldmine of writing wisdom.

Voice is fundamental – Debi Alper

Voice is how authors communicate with readers. It makes stories unique. It’s what agents seek. It’s crucial.

Allow yourself to do enough free writing for your voice to come out. Don’t worry if the first ten minutes or so feel a bit stilted. Keep going. It’ll start flowing. Don’t be self-conscious and don’t stop yourself to find the perfect word during your first draft. You can craft perfect prose when you come back to edit.

Key to voice is getting to grips with psychic distance and point of view which is a concept John Gardner explored in his book The Art of Fiction. You’ll find a handy article by Emma Darwin summarising what psychic distance is and how to use it among her brilliant toolkit for writers here.

When you’ve finished writing, reading it aloud is important. Your ear can pick up most issues related to voice. It’ll tell you if your writing voice sounds natural, whether the rhythm is working, whether it flows.

Secondary characters are your protagonist’s world – Deborah Install

Your protagonist is unlikely to be alone but surrounded by a cast of sidekicks and other secondary characters. Possibly human, possibly not. Check out Deborah’s amazing robot here, for example.

Even secondary characters should have motivations of their own and they should want to get something out of the relationship with the protagonist or the other way around.

Think, in particular, about how they contribute to the protagonist’s journey. Make sure they’re there for a reason.

Your cast is your protagonist’s world so make sure you make your side kicks and secondary characters the best they can be. Spend time developing them. Make them shine like a brand new robot.

Make s**t happen – Julie Cohen (Yes, those were her words)

You’ve started your story, you’ve found your voice and you have a cast of characters alive in your imagination. Now you have to make stuff happen. Remember, you’re writing a forward story not a back story. If you’re more fascinated by the backstory then maybe that is your story and you should be working on that story instead. Whichever it is, concentrate on getting your story going and feed backstory in discreetly as you go.

Some questions to ask yourself to be clear on what you need to make happen are: What experience do you want your readers to have? What is your protagonist’s problem (both internal and external)? What goal does he/she need to achieve? What’s at stake? How will your protagonist be different at the end compared to the beginning? What events will make these changes happen and how? What are the events in which people are actually doing stuff instead of chatting over coffee, for example? What will change everything? What absolutely huge thing can happen at the climax that will have your readers sitting at the edges of their seats? What is the ending? How do you want your readers to feel at the end?

And, a bonus lesson…

Writing is even better when accompanied by coffee, biscuits, cake and a community of other writers. All were in abundance at the festival. So, if you fancy a rush of caffeine, sugar and writing inspiration, I highly recommend getting to the Festival of Writing in York next year. Details will pop up here when the date is announced.

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    By: Loretta Milan

    Loretta Milan is the founder of Literary Lightbox. She works as a professional writer and also has a novel in construction. She is a graduate of the Faber Academy and Curtis Brown Creative’s three-month novel writing programme. Her writing is fuelled by too much tea.

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