Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Inspired by fifteen women at a workshop

I was very pleased with myself today - I might almost say proud of myself. I spent six hours cheek-by-jowl with fifteen other women and my bona fides were never once challenged. I call that some achievement!

I was attending an Appledore Book Festival event. The one-day Workshop on Women's Commercial Fiction lead by Veronica Henry, the scriptwriter and author. From 10.30am to 4.30pm, with a break for lunch at the Church Hall where there was a kind of restaurant, and most of us could sit together. So I, Lucy Melford, no more than a fairly prolific blogger thus far, had to face not only one successful author (Veronica) but several other authors. Women who had written cookery books and police fiction and now wanted to try their hand at a bestseller aimed at women, a book that the likes of Tesco might have on display and aim to sell by the thousand. Or perhaps something rather deeper. I would say that half the women present had had something published, or had at least brought their creation to the original draft stage. The rest had tried writing in some form or other. My own motive was a wish to extend my writing skills to books that might be marketable. I wanted to do more than simply churn out blog posts for the rest of my life.

Veronica proved to be a witty and entertaining teacher. We commenced by discussing the best approaches to writing a book that women would buy and enjoy. The financial expectation if you could get a publisher interested, including pitfalls where contracts were concerned. The importance of making early contact with a suitable agent that you could get on with. The importance of treating it all as a business, committing proper time and effort to it, and setting realistic word-production targets - because if a publisher took you on, a book each year might be looked for. How you should expect three years to pass before publication, occupied by getting to the first draft inside the first six months, then the eventual delivery of the finished book one year prior to launch. How you should not be discouraged by the meagreness (or outright lack) of royalty income after publication. About cover designs, and how the demands of the eventual retailer will dictate what the book looks like. (Fortunately there is currently a move away from the traditional pink and fluffy chic lit appearance towards something darker and more photographic, that suggests moods and strong emotions, and 'something to get your teeth into') How, three months before publication, the selling machine gets going, driven by the publisher, and how you will be expected to cooperate, taking every opportunity arranged for you - or by yourself - to promote your forthcoming book, such as interviews for women's magazines, perhaps (if fortunate) a Sunday paper review, or (if extraordinarily lucky) the chance to talk about it on a popular morning or afternoon TV chat show. And the ever-present problems of keeping family and other distractions under some kind of control.

Then Veronica took us through the techniques for 'building up a book', dealing with the timescale the book covered (a weekend, a month, or what); whether the action would proceed in a linear fashion, or include flashbacks, or even begin at the end and then explain how the protagonists got where they were; whether to write in the third person, or the first, or as some 'omniscient being' would see the action; whether to keep things simple and use a straightforward past tense, or try the present tense; what style to adopt - will the tone be light or dark, whether to use humour, sexy incidents, or 'bad' language for effect or realism, or whether to narrate the action through devices such as the letters, emails, or diary entries written by the characters - but above all aiming for consistency; and the unwisdom of copying someone else's style. After this she analysed how she constructed her recent book 'The Long Weekend' - the setting (a seaside hotel); the story (the main plot and the subplots, and how these were found by constant observation of real incidents); the characters and what to call them, what they are like and why we the readers will care about what happens to them; the pressures they will be subject to; how they will change. Never forgetting that this, and the other books we were talking about, were in the realm of romantic fiction, and that the reader will want to see an intriguing set of characters, a kick-start event, complications, a crisis, and finally a satisfying resolution.

Veronica gave us ten questions to ask ourselves about the characters and what they do or suffer, which need to be addessed in order to make the book compelling. And then ten 'top tips' about the nuts and bolts of starting and finishing the book, and giving it a title. Finally, she discussed finding an agent.

There wasn't time to put pen to paper in some creatiive effort - although just in case I had resurrected big-businessmen Ralph and Derek, and best friend Sue, from my dreams (see the post about that), grafting on a new character, Greg, my former husband in the story. I had converted the dream into the beginnings of a plot about a 40 year old childless woman of untapped resources named Brenda (i.e.myself as the first-person narrator) who recovers from Greg's desertion and the subsequent divorce to live a settled and independent life. But Sue's association with Ralph drags Brenda into a whirlpool of never-before-experienced emotion, as she finds herself pursued relentlessly by both Ralph and Derek, neither of whom she wants. The story gets tangled and dark before the clouds clear, all concerned learning a lesson about life, and discovering something surprising about themselves. I haven't yet decided whether anyone will die or suffer some grievous misfortune. I might keep it light and playful. Or I might not. We shall see. One thing: Brenda will emerge from this maelstrom stronger and more confident. As indeed I did from today's workshop. I thanked Veronica for giving me inspiration. This has set something in motion.

1 comment:

  1. Think I'll be sticking to writing poems and songs. I did aspire to becoming an author of books and I have made tentative steps at writing but it just isn't there for me. I think Lucy, that if you consider writing something you could excel at then go for it, you don't know what you can achieve unless you try. I wish you the best should you give it a go. One of the main difficulties I have is that I don't really like fiction so writing fiction would be twice as hard for me.

    Shirley Anne x

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Lucy Melford