I’ve been quiet the last few months, I know, but a series of events, opportunities and catastrophes -- big and small -- all collided and something had to give. No prizes for guessing it was the blog.
Part of my crash into silence has been technical -- an old laptop ran out of steam and a brand new one sent back TWICE for repair. It slammed the brakes on finishing my latest Skillshare class, and other projects, and meant lots of catching up ever since, amid the mayhem of recent life goings-on and whumped right in with the school holidays.
However, today I hope I am back with a bang. I’ve just spent two days in beautiful Charroux (Vienne 86), at the bilingual literary festival, with a selection of writers, authors, and publishing experts, and want to share with you my highlights and takeaways from those workshops and discussions, because you know how much I like to pass on any analysis of technique I can find and any snippets of the long and often troubled voyage into publishing, too.
The headlining appearances for the English speaking audience were Barbara Erskine, Andrew Lownie and -- my favourite of the festival -- Jane Lythell.
The event actually spans three days, but I was only able to attend the last two. It’s a small fest and -- I think -- better because of it. It’s friendly, un-intimidating, plenty to do without being over-taxing. There’s opportunity to chat with fellow writers but also with the speakers and big names in publishing. Everyone mingles with everyone else which is refreshing when the publishing industry to many-a-mortal can often seem elusive and elite. And Charroux itself is so lovely it really is a pleasure to pass the time away.
So, I’m going to start with my favourite speaker of the weekend, psychological thriller writer, Jane Lythell.
Jane has an impressive TV career behind her prior to her career as an author and, as anyone who has reached that kind of success, she cuts a pretty formidable figure in the room. And yet she is such a magnetic character, oozing with warmth and charm. And genuine interest - interest in other people’s thoughts and opinions. She had the audience eating out of her hand in no time at all. If you ever get a chance to hear her speak at an event, I highly recommend going along, because she also has a great sense of fun.
She hosted two talks -- Creating Setting and Suspense, and the other was a split between creating believable characters and if those characters need to be likeable.
Everything Jane talked about, from her writing approach down to her writing routine, aligned itself with my own writing practices and ethos and I found myself nodding along enthusiastically like a little plastic dog on a car back shelf, speeding down a potholed road. She read excerpts from three of her books, The Lie of You, After the Storm and Behind Her Back.
The top points I noted (with some of my own observations added in parentheses to provide context and further insight):
- In The Lie of You, a story about two women office executives, told in alternate first person perspectives, she discussed how she used the descriptions of their different apartments as an expression of each woman’s character (rather than pedestrian details that convey little to the reader other than location). She also talked about how she approached each woman’s speech patterns to further instil a sense of their characters, to differentiate between the two and to authenticate them as real people.
The characteristics of psychological thrillers are:
- A focus on the psychological state of the character (as oppose to straight thrillers focusing mostly on external action tension.)
- The author getting to grips with the difference between a character’s outward psyche - the face they present to the world - and the inward psyche - what they really think/feel. (this is something I teach in my live workshops and is planned as a future Skillshare class).
- Involves an event that tips them over the edge.
- The creation of suspense relies on the reader always knowing just that little bit more than the character (keep the audience one step ahead of the protagonist as oppose to a mystery which always keeps the protagonist one step ahead of the audience).
- A small group in a small setting intensifies emotions. (i.e. micro-tension. For the mistress of this technique, read Girl With a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier.)
For me, one of the most interesting insights Jane shared with us, when questioned on how accurate she made her stories for the purpose of authenticity, was that she feels the most important part of a story must be authentic to the emotional truth of what, where and of whom one is writing about. Two of Jane's novels are set in the cutthroat world of television, so she obviously knows her setting inside out, considering her previous career, but I couldn't agree more. This is a writer, like myself, who approaches the craft from its emotional core and left me feeling as if I’d met a truly kindred writing-spirit.
My second highlight of the event were the talks given by Harriet Springbett, another thoroughly warm and charming character who has just debuted her YA/crossover novel Tree Magic earlier this year. I downloaded this book to my Kindle when it was first released, but I haven’t yet got around to reading it. After hearing Harriet read out excerpts of the novel, which were funny and charming and cheeky in places, it’s now been bumped up the list.
Harriet gave us some fantastic insights into the different types of YA fiction, styles and themes, blended with her naturally bubbly and thoroughly irresistible humour.
It can be a tricky vessel to navigate when either writing for the YA market, or in identifying if your novel would be better suited to a younger audience, or has that crossover appeal into an older one. Many writers get into a muddle about it, and some become outright offended by publishers’ or agents’ requests to rewrite and/or market it as such. But, as Harriet pointed out, more adults read YA than teenagers, so is it time to re-evaluate what writing for teens fully encompasses?
An area of YA I hadn’t really heard defined before this session is what’s deemed as ‘hard reality’. This is the area of YA that deals with drugs and abuse type themes, but Harriet was quick to point out that there needs to be some distance between the issue and the protagonist -- i.e the issue would happen to a secondary character rather than directly to the ‘hero/ine’ of the story. (I should add to this that secondary characters can also be used to show the reader the stakes in much the same way. What happens to a periphery character is actually telling the reader what the protag’s destiny is if they don’t do the thing that propels them into the main story world of the middle.)
The other key element she prescribed when writing YA is to focus more on the plot rather than the language (though Laini Taylor is an example of a YA author who can pull off both) but don’t deliberately dumb it down (an audience never likes to be patronised, and no matter what age they are they will recognise it). Also, make sure the stakes are high (but, I would hope, you, dear authors, are applying that rule to any spectrum of fiction, anyway).
The second of Harriet’s talks was about her road to publication. It took her nine years to get Tree Magic published, many rejections, much self-doubt, and weirdly contrary to that, in a way that only a fellow writer would understand, an unerring belief in herself, her story, characters and fictional world. Yes, she put it in the drawer from time to time and forgot about it, but she always went back to it and tried and tried again. It was also interesting to hear that the book began as an adult story and only after a couple of editors suggesting to her it might be better suited as YA did the novel become so. Food for thought for any of you out there confused about market positioning or wondering why your competent or even beautiful writing isn’t breaking the barrier.
Last, but very interesting insight into the publishing arena: small presses tend to allow a longer shelf life for their books to reach pinnacle sales, unlike the instant-hit factor required to snag an agent, which usually results in a book only having three months to meet the publisher's expectations. (If it isn't a hit, don't expect to see it hang around the bookshops too long; shelf space is precious and there's always someone lining up to pay for their share of the limelight.) This begs the question all would-be novelists to ask themselves: is your book the type to make instant sales the moment it's released or is it likely to fit more with a slow burn/snowball sales approach? Being ruthlessly honest about this could seriously affect your approach to publishing.
A quick summary of the other highlights of the couple of days I was there, though the fact that these guys get a summarised mention is no reflection on the quality of their talks. Everyone who attends a lit fest does so for various reasons -- as author fans and book buffs, as writers looking for tips and tricks, as publishing individuals looking to network, etc. Jane and Harriet were the two talks most in line with my interests as a writer, blogger and editor.
Andrew Lownie - Stalin’s Englishman, The Life of Guy Burgess.
Very approachable chap who gave a thorough and interesting talk on Russia’s English spies during the earlier twentieth century. Pepped up with many-a-joke that can only filter through from deep familiarity of one’s subject -- and brings into question whether Lownie himself is a spy! -- Lownie makes what could have been a dry subject an entertaining and intriguing presentation, even for those new to his subject matter. Andrew’s biography of Guy Burgess is on sale and definitely worth a read for any of you burgeoning espionage writers out there.
Barbara had a lot of fans at the event and hosted her sessions in a way that everyone was able to pose their questions to her. This made a lovely conversational vibe to the whole thing. She talked about castles, medieval history in Wales, ghosts and mysticism and by the end I was thinking: I want to go on holiday to Wales! (Thankfully, I have family recently moved there so it won’t be long until I do.) Interestingly, she shared that in order to blend her more modern day feminist views into what was largely a story set in more heathen, medieval times, she used her modern day characters as vehicles to carry those themes while retaining authenticity in her historical figures. She also shared that one of those early manuscripts was rejected fifty times -!- before it found a publisher.
Barbara’s latest novel Sleeper’s Castle is available in all forms, including audio book.
Lovely lady, and another medieval fiction writer. She talked about her extensive research into her novels which are set between France and -- again -- Wales. This is a lady who knows how to research! Pretty impressive considering how much of the historical knowledge she needed to write her trilogy has been swept away in the river of time. She produced maps of ancient areas she’d researched and talked about the lengths she goes to in order to create a solid sense of the ancient sites of her settings. Very inspirational.
Links to all of Tracy’s titles can be found on her website.
Chuck Grieve - The Serious Business of Writing Humour.
Comedy workshops and talks don’t come around often, so I was eager to attend this session and, having met Chuck before, I know he’s a man worth listening to. Got some great tips on how to handle humour with some hilarious examples of the techniques. In the future, I hope to write a thorough post on writing humorous scenes and stories, so watch this space.
If you would like to know more about the authors at the Charroux festival
that I haven’t mentioned here, check out Harriet’s blog too.
One final take away, though this is not attributed to any one person I spoke to during the festival. There's often talk in the writing community that when choosing an agent you must look for someone with whom you feel you can have a long and lasting relationship, that it's a little like entering into a marriage, so choose wisely. I made a point of putting this opinion to several industry bods, from both the author's side to the publishing side, while I was there, as I don't tend to buy that philosophy. The overwhelming consensus was no, agents are not looking for friends when they decide to take on a new author. They are looking for something that appeals to their tastes, something they think will make enough commercial success to earn its keep within the first few months of hitting the bookshops, with an author who is both professional and pleasant. If a friendship results from that professional relationship then it's always a bonus, but it's not a criteria.
Just so you know...
**Usually, I post on a Sunday, but I didn't want to wait until the end of the week to share this with you. Although I will be back to my blog regularly from now on, for the time being it won't be weekly. If you sign up to my newsletter, I'll keep you posted when new articles are up.**