Newcastle Writing Conference 2015 – Part Two

In case you’re wondering what I’m talking about, have a peek at Part One here. If you read that already, help yourself to a biscuit as a reward for coming back for more of my musings.

So, dear readers, I have just been fired up by the keynote, and informed about building a digital presence by the first panel. We had a break, in which Meg Rosoff signed books, and I caught up on my family troubles before resolutely silencing my phone and deciding to mingle. This was followed by the first breakout session – my chosen session was on how to edit because, frankly, I don’t need to be told more and newer creative ways to spend time on the internet, what I need is some discipline and work advice! The session was led by Fiona Shaw, a novelist and lecturer from Northumbria University, and it was both nerve-wracking and motivating.

Fiona’s advice was very thorough, despite only having an hour, and peppered with quotes on the process from notable writers – the most notable of course being Snoopy. The first important piece of advice was to defamiliarize yourself with your work, which is of course very difficult when you yourself have done it so we brainstormed ways of doing this such as reading aloud, changing the format (eg printing it out, putting onto Kindle), and “Most useful of all: put it away for as long as you can. Months would be best!” Fiona also gave advice on finding a reader who isn’t a) yourself, b) over-nice and c) over-critical. I’ll take names of volunteers if anyone would like to do this; you can form an orderly queue, and no pushing at the back, please.

Getting down to the nitty-gritty of actually editing, Fiona advised looking at the big stuff first – structure, redundant characters (I particularly like the idea of ‘walk-on parts’, I suspect I have a few characters that exist just to fulfill a single role that I can probably cut), missing or redundant chapters. Look out for ‘stage directions’ – descriptions that add nothing. Fiona observed that these can be vital for a writer trying to visualize the scene as they write but once they’ve done their job they need to be cut.

Cutting is key – murdering darlings left, right and centre. Look out for adverbs and adjectives – use them but make them work. Fiona also mentioned a list of most-used words to look out for and potentially cut.

Finally, the exercise – cutting our words ruthlessly and weighing every one, following the advice of Ursula LeGuin: “Forced to weigh your words, you find out which are the styrofoam and which are the heavy gold.” This really resonated with me and it’s lurking in the back of my mind, ready to be used as a maxim when I bite the bullet and begin editing my current three first draft novels. Anyway, back to the session. I had been asked, on signing up for this session, to bring along two copies of an extract of my work, double spaced. Yes, we had to edit each other’s work (cue dramatic chords). We tried to apply all of the advice Fiona had just given on the poor stranger who happened to be sitting next to us before handing the work back and receiving our own. Before looking over the changes suggested by our ‘editor’, we had to do the same thing on the second copy of our work, then compare the two sets of revisions.

This was really interesting, and actually I was far more ruthless with my own work than the very kind guy sitting next to me. It really opens your eyes though, to see the changes a stranger would make, and to see whether you would make those same changes, forcing you to really think about why you have put something a certain way and how necessary a particular phrase is.

Lunch followed, a packed lunch supplied by the organisers. You went along the counter picking up various components then search for a seat, feeling remarkably like the first day of school. Most people sat alone, casting surreptitious glances around. There are only two likely thought processes going on here: either “I’m supposed to be mingling. Why am I not mingling? They seem nice, maybe I could go sit with them? Or can I make myself look friendly enough for someone to sit down? [apply friendly face with encouraging yet not creepy smile]” OR “Oh god, please don’t sit next to me, I just want to have a think about the conference so far/my WIP/why I couldn’t get the sandwich I wanted. And my head is far too busy to think of clever and witty things to say. [head down, stare intently into paper lunch bag]” Luckily I had already made a friend and she and I and another friendly fella had lunch together chatting about life, the universe and everything writing-related.

After lunch was the second breakout session – this was the real gold dust, the thing I had zoned in on when booking my place. This was a Meet the Agent session, with Jo Unwin, in dialogue with a lady from New Writing North. Jo was incredibly nice and encouraging, and gave us several pieces of good advice. She looks for stuff that is “a bit warm, a bit funny, but with real heart”. She says that agents are looking for work very excitedly, very passionately, but they have a very short time in which to sit down and read submissions, so it really needs to stand out – for example, she will get 30-40 submissions to read in a couple of hours. For this reason (among others), Jo advised researching the agents you are going to submit to carefully to make sure it’s someone likely to be interested in what you write. Google the agency/agent and check out their recent work; have a sense of the kind of book you’ve written and if it chimes with any of their recent signings then it could be a good place to start. She also says that while some agents might be very very busy with long lists, it’s worth checking out their assistants who will be looking to build their own list. Golden tip!

Jo also warned that different agents want different things, so you need to target each submission carefully and give them what they ask for. She also said it’s important to make sure it’s as ready as it can be before sending it, so that if an agent likes what they see you don’t lose that sense of momentum: “very often, if things go well, they go well fast“.

We had the chance to ask questions, and Jo was unfailingly patient and tried to answer all of our questions as well as she could. She also allowed a few brave souls (yes, me included) to approach her after the session; there was an exceptionally brave girl who did a pitch (and was encouraged to submit her manuscript), a lady who tried to give Jo her manuscript to read on the train (pretty sure this would be a no-go for most agents – you could end up with fifty manuscripts to haul around with you!) and me, asking if Jo usually found herself inundated with submissions after doing an event like this and if so, would it be better to wait. Jo said that no, send the work when it’s ready to send – which after this weekend I’m rather more keenly aware that it isn’t…yet.

The final session was another panel event, on what’s hot and what’s not. This featured Jo, Francesca Main from Picador, Anna James from The Bookseller and Rachael Kerr from Unbound (a crowd-funding publisher, exciting!). This was also the point at which my phone ran out of battery so I couldn’t live-tweet. Sob.

A fairly universal opinion was that knowing what’s hot and what’s not is not necessarily that helpful. As Jo pointed out, both now and in her previous session, by the time a book reaches the shelves it’s been through an agent, reworked, gone through the publisher and the whole process could be a couple of years, so basing your writing on what’s hot now means you’re out of date already. She said “be aware of the world around you, not just the publishing world” which I personally think is very sound advice. In a similar vein, Rachael said that publishing is a notoriously copycat industry and successes can be driven by readers rather than predicted by publishers, giving an example of the ‘nice books about nature’ type that are popular now.

Following on from this, Francesca said that “Readers are hot!” She is driven by what she thinks readers want and looks at popular trends more in terms of marketing a book the editor loved instead of ‘hot’. She also said “plot is hot”, which was echoed by Anna who said that “what’s always hot is a good book and a strong voice”. Anna’s enthusiasm for a good book and a strong voice shone this afternoon, and I genuinely couldn’t keep up with the books she was excited about coming out!

Suggestions to help writers were to get peer reviews, for example from Jottify, or the Writers Workshop. There was also general consensus that true stories based on real people were popular; Francesca advised finding something “at once very universal and very specific” for example an event that is specific to one person but draws in bigger universal themes such as grief.

The panel closed with everyone saying the things they were looking forward to this year (too many again to keep up with!) and the day closed there.

Judging by the swells of chatter and noise as people left the venue, I’d say pretty much everyone found the day just as interesting, motivating and downright exciting as I did. It’s now a week and half since the conference and people are still talking about it on twitter with the hashtag #NclWritingConf, and blogging about it (*cough*). Not only did we get to hear from and talk to some incredibly knowledgeable and passionate people in the world of books, but we have gone back to our notepads and computers and we’re looking at our work just a little bit differently, with maybe fresher eyes or new resolutions.

Roll on 2016’s conference.

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