Tuesday, 20 September 2016

York 2016

I had mixed feelings about York this time. For a start, my driving buddy wasn't going this time, so it was a bit different having to lug a case full of books onto the train.

I'd also done a lot of the workshops in previous years and wondered whether there'd be enough new stuff to keep me inspired. That said, there's no harm in going to subjects you have covered before with a different speaker, because you might just pick up a different way of thinking about or approaching the same topic.

And I wasn't doing any 1-2-1's, something I was worried might seem a bit arrogant. A kind of 'I'm published now, so I don't need them' approach, rather than an 'I don't have anything I can show you!' wail of despair (which is actually the reality).

But I went. The best bit has to be that I met so many cloudies again - and others that I'd never met before in real life - and we all sat talking about writing. In my fifth festival, I also found I was also more confident about talking to agents and book doctors and speakers without fearing they'd cut me dead. Maybe they were getting to recognise me, too?

So to the nitty gritty, the learning, the 'what I got out of it'...

Friday afternoon I sat in Brian Keaney's mini course on the golden rules of children's literature. A lot of it I knew already, but what stuck with me was Brian's insistence that you have to address a child you know when telling your story (your own or someone else's), or reconnect with your inner child, something he went into in more depth in a later session about the role of insight in children's literature. I came away wondering what I do - is it my inner child that writes my stories, or do I have a particular child in mind when I write?

We also touched on the issue of 'cross-over' books which appeal to both children and adults. Brian was of the opinion that a lot of adults who read children's fiction are looking for something with a good story that isn't depressing, something I found particularly interesting as StarMark has been read by more adults than children at this point in time. And as I'm a sucker for a happy(ish) ending myself, perhaps I'm unknowingly writing what a lot of adults - as well as children - are craving?

He also observed that often, children are powerless in their world. Stories have to reflect that powerlessness in order to inform and colour the decisions made by the child to shape the story you're telling on their behalf. And remember; children are human beings too.

There were excellent keynote speakers this year. C.L.Taylor, (Home for Christmas, The Missing, The Lie) and Jo Cannon (The Trouble with Goats and Sheep, whose talk I mostly missed because we had to get an earlier taxi to avoid the traffic delays caused by SkyRide York!) both proved that the unthinkable CAN happen if you want to be a bestselling author, but the road is often long and fraught with brutal edits and personal difficulties which mean the overnight success takes years to achieve.

Have to say that although I love hearing different authors' writing journeys, they always tend to be really big names at the Festival. I know that's bound to be a draw, but just once, it'd be great to hear from someone with - I was going to say less success, but of course that's completely wrong! From someone with less of a 'Big 5' approach to the business, because I am certain that most of the audience at York will probably end up as self-pubbed or small press pubbed authors rather than those who are discovered and experience a meteoric rise to fame. It would be no less inspiring to hear of other writing journeys and non-bestseller successes in publication... but perhaps that wouldn't be enough of a draw for the punters.

Julie Cohen's First 100 Words session was a blast! Not only were we given hints and tips on how to grab our reader in the opening few sentences, we were also given the opportunity to send in our first 100 words for Julie's opinion. She gave feedback on 26 previously unread submissions, rattling off first impressions at breakneck speed. Mine was one of them - number 13, but I'm not superstitious. Here's the piece I sent and what I jotted down of Julie's comments:

“All out! All out for Kartalma, if you please!”
            Zanni groaned and stretched. “Why’s he yelling, when there’s only two of us?”
            “I daresay he doesn’t get the chance to do it very often. Few people come this far so he’s making the most of it.” Pa pushed his glasses up his nose and shot a glance at Zanni. “At least it’s not dark yet.”
            Zanni was glad of it; too many of their travelling days had ended with night drawing in and the inside of the carriage being plunged into the kind of darkness which had brought the fear flooding back.

Great - fear of dark there. No backstory and keep backstory shrunk. Keeps us reading on. Where is it happening? Where is Kartalma? More sense of place.

I took notes on all 26 pieces and there were lots of positives as well as points for improvement. Interesting that some of the ones Julie loved, I was a bit 'meh' about - but that just reinforces the subjective nature of the written word and what appeals to different readers.

Thriller Plotting Techniques with Daren King was a strange session. There was lots of really useful tips in it, proving that Daren knew his stuff. But unfortunately he was a very nervous speaker which made it hard to listen to him until he'd begun to relax about half way through the allotted time. Daren introduced many 'concepts' which could be applied to a story to essentially increase the tension in a variety of ways, and I found myself jotting little notes about CKD (my current WIP) as he spoke, because I could see how something I'd already written into the novel's outline could be used to greater effect. There were also some useful definitions of bribery vs extortion (paying someone as opposed to forcing someone) and mystery and suspense (a question mark over the past or present, as opposed to a question mark hanging over the future) that I will be making much use of.

I attended two sessions by C.M.Taylor on Character is Destiny. By which, I mean I didn't do the same one twice - there was a part one and two! Part 1 looked at the golden triangle used by screenwriters to boost the emotional power of plot which I'd taken two years ago. (You can read about it by clicking here) and also introduced the Transformational Arc by Dara Marks. The latter is a device which produces a variation on a character arc within the four act structure, and I have to say I struggle to understand all the different phases. Well, I don't - I can understand them when I see the arc in front of me, but - and this is the pain in the bum bit - I don't know how to apply it to my own writing!

In part 2, Craig looked at how theme could be used to determine a character's destiny in combination with the golden triangle and transformational arc. Basically, when you have the theme of your novel, you can design characters to reflect the theme, oppose the theme, be ambivalent to the theme, or even be the neg of neg, ie someone who thinks they have solved the problem but in fact has not. (Deluded with respect to the theme, maybe?) The more fatuous the theme, the better this works because the more variations on the theme you can introduce. (It's also something I'd heard before in a session with Julie Cohen) Craig gave a great worked example based on a piece he'd been commissioned to write based on the barred list in a London pub.

Mind you, since having come home and tried to tackle the outline of CKD in this way, I got completely disillusioned and despairing because although I can see the events in my novel, I'm not sure whether they are the resistance or exhaustion phase, what my inciting incident is, how I push my character to breaking point...etc etc. I looked on the web to see if I could find anything to help, and surprisingly found a few articles on why the three act structure can actually stifle your creativity and you should focus on the natural story structure instead.

I like that idea a lot more, so I'll work with what I've got whilst sticking to a general intro, build-up, hi point, oh s**t moment, climax and resolution. It's vague enough for this mainly-pantsing writer!

Last of all, I attended Jeremy Sheldon's Endings and How to Climax in any Genre. (I like Jeremy - we shared a table for Sunday breakfast when I was running some ideas past Brian Keaney - and he really knows his stuff when it comes to screenwriting and how you can apply screenwriting tricks to the written word.)

This session came about because often, we focus on grabbing a reader at the start of our book - but do we apply the same effort to giving them a satisfactory ending? Compelling climaxes are decisive (no going back, time running out) substantive (present a risk to self or others) and spiritual (can be moral, psychological or emotional). They require that the protagonist makes a previously impossible choice to gain a slim chance at achieving the impossible. Put simply, the choicemaking has to be the most difficult it can be at this point of the novel. Make your protagonist work for every inch of gained ground until the situation is resolved...or not.

And there you have it. The only other things to report back on are the gala dinner (I wore a tiara thought there isn't much photographic evidence of that fact. Check out Debi Alper's blog for lots of pics of the FoW2016 - I'm in there somewhere), which didn't have dancing this year (boo!) but had lovely food and very good company as always; the futurecast session, where the issue of ebook pricing was hotly discussed though we all agreed to disagree and be polite while we were doing it; several cloudies had full MS requests and there was some very good news on the agent front for another; and last, but not least, I sold 10 of the 14 copies of StarMark I'd taken with me.

Not bad, eh?

Roll on FoW 2017...


  1. Fascinating stuff, Squidge. I was particularly struck by your comment about having more confidence, which made me think that it is possible to be successful in this writing malarkey.
    I would be interested in your notes on the 100 words - I missed most of them as I was in a 1-to-1. I wonder if mine was in there, somewhere?
    As it is very expensive, I am having to weigh up the pros and cons of going again, especially as I would like to go on a writing retreat and they don't come cheap, either!
    One of the best parts of the FOW for me was meeting people. I was totally knackered by Sunday evening but raring to go on my re-write.

    1. I'll see if I can list the readings from the 100 words session on the cloud, Lizzie - I gave them descriptions, so I'm not certain you'd be able to tell which was which, but willing to give it a go!
      I've wondered about a writing retreat too - it costs about the same amount, and might actually be better for me at the stage I'm at? Not sure... York is also more convenient to get to for me than some of the retreats I've seen, which are mainly down south.
      Glad York got you all fired up - and it was super to meet you!

  2. Great blog, Katherine, I particularly enjoyed your take on, Brian Keaney's mini course. I must be doing something right because when I write my children's stories I have the benefit of my experience working with Primary School Children, so hook up to their psych. One of the main benefits were the times I took classes in cooking/baking which was always a blast because they were at their most relaxed and that's were the humour came in. x

  3. Oh, also meant to say, what I wrote above is why I have a particular child in mind when I write through knowing each one of the kids as an individual, which has been a great help.