Up to this year, the one-day writing event that is ‘Get Writing’ took place in Hitchin, Hertfordshire in April, but this year moved to Watford’s West Herts College and was last Saturday, 26th September. Here’s how I found the event. Please forgive the ‘reportage’ feel but many of the events were panels so there was lots of back and forth. Anyway, I hope you enjoy…
The day started with an introduction by one of the Verulam Writing Group’s member, Ian, who explained the plan for the day, and the rooms where the separate events were taking place. It was the first time Get Writing (GW) was held at Watford’s West Herts College so it was new to me as it was for everyone else, although the programme for the day was very similar to previous years.
A few of us stayed in the main hall for the agent panel where the panelists (Francesca Best, Lisa Eveleigh, Lucy Malagoni) were introduced then talked about the genres and the authors they handle. Only Lisa welcomes unsolicited manuscripts. Francesca and Lucy only take submissions via agents which is where being able to pitch to them at an event like this is such a fantastic opportunity.
The first conversation was about cross genres and they discussed where The Time Traveller’s Wife fitted, with them saying that it was romance, sci-fi, paranormal etc. A member of the audience then asked how far away they were from their comfort zone. They either cover more than one or pass to a colleague.
Q: How does a writer approach an agent?
A: Go to the agent’s website and follow the guidelines. This was reiterated by the moderator and Chair of the VWG, Dave. Lisa said how annoying it was to receive non-genres, first drafts etc. when her guidelines are very specific.
Q: Francesca and Lucy were asked whether they only work with certain agents.
A: They said that it would be foolish of them to limit when the market is changing so often. Lisa added that as well as their own submissions, publishing agents also get asked to read some of their colleagues’ submissions where they want second opinions. Francesca then talked about the other people in the organisation including marketing department and how commissioning meetings can make or break the progress of a book.
Q: One member of the audience (a chap called Peter) said how difficult the process was to get published (his popular science book is coming out next year with an independent press).
A: Lisa said that she doesn’t have the expertise in that area but congratulated him for his perseverence.
Q: Are there more opportunities with digital firsts (where the digital version is published first or only) than with mixed format publishers?
A: There are authors who would love to see their book in paperback but the reality is that the emphasis with some publishers is on eBooks.
Q: I then raised the topic of authors writing different genres and pennames.
A: They all recommended sticking with mainstream genres and one name.
The panel’s advice was to persevere. Regardless of who rejects you, keep going. Don’t send out a first draft. Lucy’s never written a novel and admires those who have and doesn’t think she could. She agreed to keep going and read a lot. Join a writing group, get group feedback etc.
Q: Lucy was then asked whether she has people who keep submitting to you with different things each time.
A: She wasn’t aware of anyone and said she may not remember unless they stood out.
Q: Are books touted as being the next JK Rowling etc.?
A: Lucy said that some books are promoted like that but more for the benefit of the reader as they will like similar books to those they have read already.
Q: A lady in the audience is writing a business model book and asked whether an agent would be interested.
A: Lisa said she doesn’t cover business books and that most agents wouldn’t. She recommended the author go straight to business publishers.
Q: What do you think about post-graduate courses?
A: Lisa wants more non-fiction and memoir at the University of East Anglia (UEA) and doing an MA.
After a break, I went back into the performance theatre for the Crime panel with M R Hall, William Ryan, Claire McGowan, and Helen Giltrow. After being introduced by VWC member Ian, the authors, starting with M R (Matthew) Hall, talked about their working methods.
Matthew said that he can’t understand authors who don’t plan, or say they don’t plan. He is a meticulous planner but then he has a TV script background so he has to plan for that in advance. Claire that she doesn’t plan. She gets an idea but pretends that she doesn’t do it. She writes the first 30,000 to 40,000 words longhand which she said is secret from everyone, almost herself. Not knowing what happens thereafter excites her and she enjoys it so much.
William admits to being a pantser but is now writing something other than crime and although he did some planning, the novel ended up being quite different to the plan so he clearly is a planner.
Helen is also a planner but says there is more flexibility with a thriller. She can plan but says when she does she plans rubbish, just a plan, not a book. She likes being surprised when she writes freely. The characters don’t take over for her, or at least they don’t go off in directions she doesn’t expect, which surprised me because mine do.
Matthew has been told by his agent / publisher that the latest novel’s (a non-crime historical set in which does have some crime in it) synopsis didn’t reflect the book he ended up writing. Claire said she keeps her synopsis vague so she doesn’t have to stick exactly to a story that could go elsewhere.
Q: A lady in the audience said that she has written a book where a friend reading it felt she gave the plot in the first chapter by having the end then going back to how they had come to that (one character goes from rags to riches, another from riches to rags).
A: William mentioned William Holden’s Sunset Boulevard where there was a reveal but then the rest of the story lead to that point. Helen recommended you give more of a hint at the ending without giving the ending away, or better still imply a reveal but then deliver a punchier plot.
Q: Heard that you need a body in the first five pages.
A: William said that you don’t need a body but you have to grip the reader in any way, pulling in the reader, giving them clues etc. so they think, “Oh I wonder what that’s all about.” Claire agreed and said that you need a sinister tone with a growing tension.
Helen said it was the sense of foreboding. If you can get them to turn the page to find out what happens next. By refusing to give the reader something it’s a different way of keeping the reader gripped. No book should have too much backstory.
Matthew said new writers should be conventional (or cautious about going too off piste) if they’re submitting to an agent or publisher until you’re more established and can take risks (perhaps why I have received the feedback I have on my comic crime).
Claire concluded there could be evidence of a body (blood or signs of a struggle) or no body. Because of the Kindle, authors have less time to grip.
William said you can start a chapter with description but it has to have a purpose and has to grip. His first novel is violent and the character had an unusual reason why he would be doing it. Agents want to know that you can write and that you have a strong story to tell. He says he rewrote the first chapter sixty or seventy times.
They then talked about chapter endings and Helen said that her editor chopped off some of her final sentences, saying that she (Helen) had added extra sentences when they weren’t needed. She then asked the panel whether the hardest part of a novel is the middle and how they write their middles.
William suggested that Matthew was the expert of middles. Matthew said it depends on what kind of story you are writing. Mysteries and crime you are exploring your characters (sometimes unexpected things).
William said you are trying to uncover bit by bit and said some novels have revealed too much in too short a time. Create pressure, send the main character in different directions.
Claire said that she has seven people die in her latest novel so she had plenty of content.
Matthew said that thrillers are written on a deadline where they’re stopping something terrible happening so it heightens the pace which with a cat and mouse plot is easier to keep going.
William said crime novels tend to have an ordinary person under pressure trying to solve the crime.
Q: Helen asked her other panellists whether they know where their characters are going throughout their series.
William, who doesn’t plan, but he writes historical fiction
Q: A member of the audience asked the panel whether they feel they are genre writers.
William said that genre fiction has rules within their own genres e.g. no bombs in a romance etc. So writers need to know their genre and (sort of) stick to it, with elements of other genres. (Bond has romance elements after all).
Q: I asked the panel what they thought of crime novels from the criminal point of view rather than a detective etc.
A: Helen said she writes from the criminal’s point of view.
Matthew mentioned Braking Bad and the Sopranos. I mentioned Dexter.
Williams said they have to have redeeming features. He’s reading The Hitman’s Guide to Housekeeping.
Q: How to get a science script published?
A: Both members of the panel said that they only work with fiction.
Q: What is the main difference between writing a script and writing a novel?
A: Jeff said that there are limitations for writing TV and film script because it has to be feasibly portrayed and they always have a budget.
Peter added that you can do anything you like for radio because the setting can be anywhere. Another limitation with TV and radio is the amount of settings and actors the budget and timings will allow.
Peter then talked about the process once you’ve sold your story. You go through a scene-by-scene synopsis. Generally there are four or five drafts before it’s complete. It should work if the writer is good at dialogue.
Jeff said you get more help because you have a script editor and others when involved in collaborative ventures. A writer should think of themselves as part of a team. Some teams meets once a month (Eastenders and Emmerdale). Some soaps will have one new story of the day but with other threads going on.
Peter said a writer has no control over where the story is going once everyone else is involved but it’s very much a collaborative effort.
Jeff said new writers to TV shouldn’t write for Eastenders, Holby City etc. because they should have their own voice. Peter said you could write for Doctors as it consumes writers. In order to write one, the best way is through the Shadow Scheme but not through writing for Doctors but by submitting their own dramatic script and some from the scheme get commissioned to write for Doctors.
Q: Jeff works on several TV series simultaneously and was asked how he keeps track of all the characters.
A: He said he gets bored easily. Peter said if he listens to the Archers he knows who has written the piece within a few lines.
They both said that some great novelists can’t write script so if you write prose, you may not be able to write script.
Q: If an actor said, “Oh but the character wouldn’t do that,” would they get the script changed?
A: Jeff wrote Phil Mitchell ironing but the actor playing him said “Phil don’t iron” so Jeff changed it.
Peter added that he loves it when an actor approaches him because it means that they are invested in it.
The discussion then turned to the minor characters (someone mentioned Tracey and Ron in Eastenders).
Q: How does the rule for good writing and writing a script format marry?
A: Peter said it is in the storytelling. If there are established characters, they need to stay within that character unless there’s a valid reason why they are doing something out of character. Re. the story of the day – it shouldn’t be obvious as a story of the day as its lead by a regular character, He told us about an episode of Doctors where a down syndrome teenagers mother and sole carer became seriously ill and it was how the existing doctors would deal with that storyline.
Debbie suggested to go whichever route suits you e.g. marketing etc. One of the other attendees has turned a poem into a novel. She does inspirational talks etc. and was very vocal about herself and her writing, and Debbie said that not all writers are confident about marketing themselves. She suggested you think about…
– What would people find fascinating about you?
– Marketing should start at home e.g. local events, library talks etc.
– Is your book the best it can be? You’ve put your heart and soul into it.
I then had to go to the agent pitching and was due to come back within a few minutes but I got the chance to speak to a publisher’s editor so I took it. They were very complimentary about my novel (a comic crime) but said that it was too niche a subject, although the agent did take my cover (query) letter, synopsis and extract to read so hopefully I’ll hear with feedback. I have other novels that I’m thinking of self-publishing so I may consider doing the same with that. We shall see. I may well submit it to other agents once I’ve heard back from the one I saw.
When I returned to the marketing talk, Deborah was asking for questions and I asked if she could sum up the last half an hour in a sentence (an impossible ask). She laughed and said that an author should have an active online presence (which I have) and wound up the session.
The final event of the day was the announcement of the Get Writing Cup for the winners of the short story competition, after a discussion about why people entered and why anyone attending didn’t enter, and what writers look for in a competition.
It sounded like they hadn’t had very many entries but there are many competitions on so more… er, competition! A £50 top prize isn’t much for a £6 fee (for example the H.E. Bates comp offers £500 for the same fee!) but the Get Writing competition is only open to those attending and there weren’t as many people attending this year (or at least it seemed to me) so that won’t have helped.
All in all, as I expected it to be having been to every single Get Writing going, a lovely day. For the first time, I was joined by friend, Joy (also one of my editing clients) who had never been to a writing event before and by all accounts had a wonderful time.
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