As I journeyed up the motorway on 14th September, there was little the raised eyebrows of other drivers could do to dampen my excitement as I drummed my steering wheel and sang along to the radio, for I was on my way to an event I’d been looking forward to for some time: the Festival of Writing in York.
After years of tapping away at my laptop with the study door shut, I’ve learned that writing can be lonely. So, it’s always great to get out and spend time with other writers and, as I’ve been through a tough time recently, I thought it would also cheer me up.
After the enjoyment of discussing literary projects with writers from Toronto to Helsinki over some ‘brew’, when I arrived, it was time for the day to commence. I could write a dissertation about everything I learned, but instead, I’d like to share with you my top five lessons…
- Write what’s right for your story. I heard many people say things along the lines of ‘X agent said this but Y contradicted it with that’. The reason for these opposing opinions became clear to me during a workshop about how to open a novel with Chris Wellbelove and Jamie Coleman from Greene & Heaton. As we worked through a number of opening extracts, some from published authors and others submitted by delegates, I began to understand that although there’s best practice, there are no rules and what’s ‘right’ really depends on what works for your novel.
- However, one thing is true for all: writing is a hard slog. With that in mind, a great piece of advice came from Matt Haig who talked about his journey to become and stay published. ‘Write what you’d like to read,’ he said and I think he’s right. Just like you’d only want to go on an epic journey with a friend whose company you enjoy, it’s best to journey through a novel with a story you’re less likely to fall out with by the end.
- An entire workshop by Debi Alper made for a game-changing lesson: psychic distance is a scale. Psychic distance is all about how close the narrator, and therefore the reader, is to a character. Debi likened it to a camera on a film set: if it remains static, it becomes dull and if it jerks from one position to another too suddenly, it induces nausea. So the key is to think of it as a scale on which you need to slide back and forth naturally. Debi stressed that the only way to master psychic distance is to ‘practice, practice, practice’. So, since the Festival, I’ve spent a lot of time doing just that. If you’re interested in reading more about this, there’s a great article about psychic distance by Emma Darwin here.
- When you’re ready to show your work to others, it’s important to remember that feedback is (generally) not an attack, it’s a gift. This is the key thing I learned from getting feedback on my work from agents during the day and, afterwards, wanting to hug a few people who left their sessions with tears brimming in the corners of their eyes or their cheeks red with rage. The truth is that agents don’t hate writers. They’re simply on the hunt for great writing. For this reason, I spent the time listening to what the agents had to say, absorbing the positive points and taking on board suggestions for improvement rather than wasting time justifying my work. Although there were a few differences in opinion, there were also some trends and points that I knew to be true deep down. As a result, I walked away with a clear idea of what I need to do now to make my novel shine. It’s going to take some time though!
- The final, and arguably most important lesson, is that cake is good for writers. This one came to me as writers, agents and publishers alike swarmed to the cake stand after lunch. Writing is a big thing. It’s enjoyable yet it’s an endurance. Do take time out to treat yourself to little rewards along the way. They could just keep you going the whole distance. (Plus it’s a great way to comfort yourself after agent feedback!) One of the best rewards is the companionship of other writers which is why events like the Festival of Writing are brilliant.
My kettle is boiling now and a slice of chocolate fudge cake is crying ‘eat me’ so, before I go, I’d encourage you to watch this space for information about the next Festival of Writing and to find out about The Writers’ Workshop ‘Getting Published Day’ in 2015. (I’m not paid to say this by the way. It’s just I think they run great events!)
You can also enjoy the company of other writers on The Word Cloud here. Maybe I’ll see you there sometime soon?
Until then. Eat cake and be merry.