WriteCon 2018 was held on 10 November in Zürich, with two workshops this year. One was led jointly by multiple prize-winning Irish author Louise O’Neill and Zürich-based crime writer J.J. Marsh; the other workshop was led by British author, publisher and academic Alison Baverstock.
Here, we share a few snippets from the weekend.
Truths about the Writer’s Life with Alison Baverstock
by Lily C. Fen
I looked at the title again. The Writer’s Path: Realities and strategies for a long view of the writer’s life. These words were what led me to Alison Baverstock’s workshop.
I had switched from a storyteller’s life on stage to one on the page four years ago and knew that my relationship with writing and publishing could stretch on for several decades, if I wanted to take it seriously.
So I spent an entire Saturday with a well-informed publisher, one who had studied the industry, including its stakeholders and processes. Alison had even co-founded MA Publishing at Kingston University in 2006. Her research was extensive, at times involving quantitative and qualitative data from more than 900 writers with whom she had corresponded. Below are my top takeaways from the morning sessions.
Truths about the Modern-Day ‘Writingscape’
Alison’s research revealed that self-publishing today appealed to men and women with full-time jobs. They had post-graduate degrees under their belts and took time to hire an editor to go over their work. Traditional publishers were following the metrics of self-publishing success.
‘Discoverability’ was becoming a problem, however, as more bookshops closed their doors. Limited space meant that they displayed bestsellers rather than fresh, exciting reads, as a way to ensure cash flow.
Paperbacks, despite the demise of many a bookstore, seem to have survived the rise of the Kindle, lending the idea that ownership of a physical copy was desired, particularly by writers who may at first read a work using an electronic reader. Of the writers she spoke with, 71% owned and used one.
Beyond the realm of paperbacks and bookstores was the reality that the writer is now involved in marketing over social media. Alison minced no words when she shared that practically the entire publishing industry (at least, as far as the UK is concerned) is on Twitter. She is one of several writing instructors who say, “Choose one social media platform and do it well.”
Our afternoon sessions provided some insight on the motivations and habits of writers, as well as barriers to creativity. Below are some of the highlights.
The Writer’s Inner Sanctuary
Inspiration finds a writer at his or her desk
Alison commended the fact that several of us wrote various works across the board, saying that the satisfaction of seeing one’s name in print and the practical experience of getting shorter works published were nectar to the writer’s soul.
Contests were also a good way to go in the writer’s life. The act of developing discipline while working towards a deadline was a good way to hone one’s writing skills.
The strange habits of writers
Writers have cleaning rituals before they get started. The writing can improve when the house gets tidier. Hemingway wrote his first drafts longhand and he had desks in various rooms, one for a different kind of writing. Re-drafting and reviews belonged on different tables. Alison urged us to find spaces that awakened the writer in us.
A writer’s childhood
Her study unearthed that many writers had a childhood spent in the company of books. It went without saying that writers developed their craft through reading.
The therapeutic quality of writing
To talk without being interrupted is the gift of writing. Many writers find extreme satisfaction in the act of writing itself. Some consider it to be cathartic, allowing negative experiences to morph into positive and productive points of thought.
Empowered and enriched, I shut my notebook as the day came to a close. I was ready to write.
Lily C. Fen’s Filipino fantasy fiction has appeared in QLRS, Asian Cha, and New Asian Writing. She earned her MA degree in English Studies from the University of the Philippines and co-edited a book entitled Bending without Breaking: Thirteen Women’s Stories of Migration and Resilience. She translated one of Karel Čapek’s beloved children’s stories, O pejskovi a kočičce, into Filipino, entitled Si Aso at Si Pusa. She is working on her first novel.
Creative Ways In with Louise O’Neill
by J.J. Marsh
The objective of the session was to explore ways of looking at themes, storyworld, character, voice, dialogue, sensory writing and overcoming the block. Participants received pre-reading ahead of time and spent much of the day writing. Here’s what we did.
Aim: Warm up. Free writing. Let go of the inner editor.
Exercise: Write for three minutes using the letters of the alphabet. E.g., A baby crow dives edgeways, frantic, greedy, hungry. Indoors, kittens, little mites no one passes quickly. Rub, stroke, tickle under velvet, wishing x-men yoked zealots.
Then work backwards from Z.
Alternative exercise: Listen to some classical music or look at a work of art. Write whatever comes into your head for three minutes.
Aim: Explore thematic concerns from the inside out, using brainstorms and mind maps; distil the central idea.
Read an extract from O’Neill’s The Surface Breaks. Identify theme, highlight key words, note use of language.
Exercise: Write own theme and pass to partner—brainstorm associations. Reduce to essence. Take brainstorm from partner and reduce to one sentence.
What is the opposite of your theme? Example: Keeping them safe from harm/Risking everything.
Aim: Root your story in its time and place, evoking a credible environment and atmosphere. Genre tropes: bend them to fit your concept.
Read extract from Dalila by Jason Donald.
Dust-free brake lights on the cars—different. Lush grass on the side of the dual carriageway—different. Hundreds of orange streetlights—different. Billboard advertising—different. Traffic lights—same. Motorists obeying the traffic lights—different.
Exercise: Identify the Same as/Different to reality in your storyworld. Focus on the Iceberg Principle: reader sees only a fraction of what the author knows. Hint at the depths and encourage questions.
Read an extract from O’Neill’s Only Ever Yours. What’s the same in our world and what’s different? What don’t we know?
Exercise: Your MC just told a lie. Write their daily routine with the reasons why s/he lied.
Now flip that to the eighteenth century/a dystopian future/the opposite of your genre (if you write romance, try horror).
Read extract from O’Neill’s Almost Love.
Aim: Focus on the central protagonist/antagonist. Think about these characters at the beginning and at the end—how have they changed?
Culture ‘onion’: Peel away the layers. Outside—how do they look to outsiders (appearance)? Underneath that—how do they behave (habits)? Inner layer—who do they love/admire (heroes)? What does this tell us about their values—the core of your character?
Take the protagonist’s values and the antagonist’s values—is there any overlap or contradiction? Is that where the true tension lies?
Exercise: Write about a habit your MC has and make the reader love them for it. Do the same for your antagonist and make the reader hate them.
Voice and Sensory Language
Aim: Point of View, exposition through dialogue, language, rhythm, literary devices.
Read extract from O’Neill’s Asking For It.
Exercises: Subtext and Says/Thinks (dialogue versus action). Two characters meet for coffee. A believes B has stolen from him/her. Write a conversation which indicates mistrust without overt accusation.
Sensory language in POV: ‘Die Blinde Kuh’ (the blind cow). You are having dinner in a pitch-black restaurant. All waiting staff are blind. Describe the experience via senses other than sight.
The Sow’s Ear
You can’t make a silk purse without a sow’s ear.
Aim: Silence the inner editor and let your imagination out. Start writing something, anything. Use prompts, starting with the mundane and working towards essence.
Exercise: Kick-start a story via freewriting. Write three questions, such as:
Who’s at the door? What’s s/he carrying? Why won’t s/he ever give up?
Why won’t Jeremy answer the phone? What is he doing instead? Will it help?
Why did Kate run out of the restaurant? Who did she leave at the table? What is her interpretation of loyalty?
Shuffle, pick one and answer all three questions in three minutes.
Now expand to a paragraph tied to character, storyworld, voice, senses and theme.
J.J. Marsh on Twitter: @jjMarsh1
Find out more about Louise and her writing on the Quercus publisher site here.
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