Festival of Writing 2012

On the morning before I left home for the Festival of Writing 2012, I spent a feverish hour printing my manuscript. After I had reloaded with paper the printer several times, replaced one of the ink cartridges and had a fight with the binding machine (it won), I sat back and admired my handiwork. This fine piece of work, this product of my honest labour was sure to find favour with the experts. wasn’t it?

Four hours later, sitting in workshop on self-editing run by Debi Alper, the truth dawned. It was crap. I had made virtually all the classic beginner’s mistakes that our great leader had outlined.

Phew thought I, a narrow escape, imagine if I’d tried to foist my bilge on the experts? At least poor Shelley Harris and Sam Mills only had to read through the first 3000 words, for the purpose of giving feedback in my one-to-ones. Huge waste of paper though.

So here, in case I forget and am tempted to make the same mistake twice, assuming of course that I am not so incompetent that I don’t realise I’m doing it again, are the key things I learnt (in list form, I like a list):
1. First Draft
The first draft should actually be known as the zero draft because it will be rubbish. Julia Crouch called it shit, but I’m far too polite to say shit.
2. Backstory
Yes all very interesting to read that your main character once snipped the front section of her hair off so it looked like action man’s, pretended it had burnt off in the gas oven and has had a phobia of hairdressers ever since (hold on a minute that was me) but is it necessary for the reader to know all this right now? No? Cut it then. The section that is. And just weave bits in now and again.
3. Working on your novel isn’t just about the manuscript
What did I call Joe’s girlfriend? What car does the architect have? What colour eyes does the evil property developer have? (steely grey I bet) Emma Darwin showed me a way (actually several ways) of keeping track of the details, the plot and other useful bits and bobs to make sure the story keeps moving forward.
4. Head hopping
No not the nits that circulate round my daughter’s class because someone obviously can’t be bothered to treat their offspring. Not only do I now know what this is, I know how to sort out the interaction between my main characters without the reader getting dizzy.
5. If you don’t succeed write another book
Lots of writers have manuscripts that only make it as far as their bottom drawer. And all writers toy with the idea of giving up. Even Jojo Moyes thought about giving up and becoming a mounted* policewoman, she told us.
6. Show don’t tell
Well not all the time anyway. A writer should be able to convey mood with good use of language to let the reader work things out for herself. e.g. She bit her lip nervously
7. He turned round and said, then she turned round and said
Not all lines of dialogue need a speech tag. Emma Darwin suggests every fifth line should do the trick. Said is invisible, but joked, teased, retorted, acknowledged are not, so use sparingly
8. One day the prince married the princess. The end.
Gary Gibson advocates starting the novel as close to the end as possible. Actually, I think I might have done alright on this one. Yay.
9. Kick ’em when they’re down
Be as mean as you can to your main characters, make them truly miserable, said Gary Gibson. Claire McGowan agreed. Best sellers have conflict and tension on every page.
10. Self publishing is still the poor relation
With a 0.1% chance of a new author getting an agent, no wonder more and more people are doing it for themselves. Scary thought though and I know I have definitely downloaded some dross. Good to know that there are companies like Matador out there, who can be a sort of halfway house for new writers to help them get to market.
11. Always sit next to interesting people at dinner
I will definitely aim to do this again next year. On the first night I sat next to Anne C who had been selected to read 500 words of her manuscript, which added a certain frisson to the atmosphere. Very exciting. I definitely enjoyed her story the most. On the second night I sat next to Wendy Loveday. You never guess what! She writes romantic comedy. We had a hilarious incident when someone offered her a bottle of wine and she jokingly asked him if he’d put rohypnol in it. He misheard the question and she misheard the answer, leaving the rest of us in stitches. Her book about a peripatetic something or other in a school will be hilarious and I can’t wait to read it.

Festival of Writing 2013 is already in my diary….

* My sister’s ex boyfriend wanted to be a Mountie, he thought it was a policeman that worked in the mountains. Bless.

Cathy Bramley
By Cathy Bramley

Cathy is the author of the best-selling romantic comedies Ivy Lane, Appleby farm, Conditional Love, Wickham Hall and The Plumberry School of Comfort Food. She lives in a Nottinghamshire village with her family and Pearl, the Cockerpoo. Her recent career as a full-time writer of light-hearted romantic fiction has come as somewhat of a lovely surprise after spending eighteen years running her own marketing agency. However, she has always been an avid reader, hiding her book under the duvet and reading by torchlight. Luckily her husband has now bought her a Kindle with a light, so that’s the end of all that palaver.

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