• Burhana Islam

Day 2: The Writer's Weekend Workshop


The Department Store, Brixton.

Last week, I put together my top five take-aways from Day 1 of Sarah Odedina’s Writer’s Weekend Workshop. The link to the original post on both the speakers’ advice and my own reflections are here if you’d like a quick browse.

Day 1 consisted of the following:

Author Patrice Lawrence: Finding Your Voice

Independent Publishing: OWNITLDN, Crystal Mahey-Morgan

Agent Advice: Julia Churchill from A.M. Heath

Author Malorie Blackman: The Importance of Plotting

Contracts: Nikki Griffiths

Sarah Odedina: Setting

Independent Publishing: Knights Of, Amiée Felone and David Stevens


And Day 2:

Author Sara Grant: Presenting Yourself and Your Writing

Editor and Freelance Journalist Sarah Shaffi: Mythbusting, Social Media and the Author

Sarah Odedina: Character

PRH Editor: Carmen McCullough on Acquisitions and Working with Authors/ WriteNow

Sarah Odedina: Dialogue

The Bookseller’s Perspective: Georgia Hanratty

Editor and Author Ele Fountain: The Art of Self-Editing


Sara Grant inspired, wrote and edited almost 100 children’s books. She teaches Writing for Children at Goldsmiths University and co-created SCBWI’s Undiscovered Voices anthology, which promotes unagented and unpublished children’s writers.


Presenting Yourself and Your Writing


I don’t even know where to start with Sara. I have six pages worth of notes and every single bullet point was a gem in its own right. As such, I’ve decided to choose the points that I’ve not stumbled across before.


  1. Three questions you should always consider when writing your story are:

  • What is at the heart of the novel?

  • Why am I compelled to tell this story?

  • Why am I the only one who can write this?

You should always know the answers to these questions. For me, they’ll be my motivation, my guidance and my reason for seeing those long and laborious hours through to its end.


2. Find characters you love. Deconstruct them. Why do you love them? What can you learn from your favourite characters? How can you apply what you've learnt to your own?

3. Prologues: if you find yourself asking ‘Should I include the prologue in the limited word count when submitting to an agent?’, then the prologue is probably unnecessary and is most likely not worth including in your story- note to self.

4. The Pitch: ‘Great ideas should be uniquely familiar and promise conflict.’ or something along those lines - Karl Iglesia.

Sara mentioned four types of condensed pitches:

a) X is Y until Z

whereby X = character

Y = circumstance

Z = inciting incident (a moment that changes the character’s life)

For example: ‘Harry is just an ordinary boy until a stranger tells him he’s a wizard.’

b) The Movie Pitch: X meets Y

For example: Pride and Prejudice meets Zombies


c) The ‘For’ Pitch

For example: Charlie’s Angels for teens


d) The Problem

‘A world where everyone can hear your thoughts’


Test and play with your pitches and see which one works best.


Just on the back of that- The Query Letter should include:

  • Title

  • Word count

  • Genre

  • Age range

  • Hook

  • A paragraph summary of the book

  • Why that particular agent?

  • Relevant experience (a line or two)

  • I hope you like my book

5. Download the Undiscovered Voices anthology and read the editor’s comments on the extracts. How does yours compare in relation to that?


Sarah Shaffi, a freelance books journalist, editor-at-large for Little Tiger Group, reviewer for Stylist, co-founder of BAME in Publishing, books editor for PHOENIX and was previously online editor and producer for The Bookseller.

  1. Encourage people to review on Amazon. There’s something about the algorithms or something that will push it up higher in the recommendations section.

  2. Ignore mean reviews- don’t even engage in that conversation. Just don’t. Spend that energy writing your new book instead of responding.

  3. Social media is a useful tool, but anything that takes away from writing isn’t good for you. Know discipline, know your limits and know that social media isn’t the be-all and end-all of it.

  4. Find one platform you’re good at and stick to it. Don’t try and have an Instagram, Twitter and a Facebook author page.

  5. Be authentic. Having two Twitter profiles in particular, one personal and one private, isn’t really convincing. Instagram, fair enough- one for family snaps and the other commercial, but Twitter doesn’t lend itself well to that.

Sarah Odedina on Character

  1. Characters need:

  • History

  • Family

  • Traits

  • People they care for

  • People who care about them

  • Emotional conflict

  • Situations of conflict and their response to making right choices

2. Questions to consider:

  • How can the character overcome their situation?

  • How can the character master the given environment?

  • What is it that can go wrong and how do they respond?

3. We can be so desperate for people to like our characters that we make them perfect, but characters ought to be rounded and irrational. They’re a reflection of human nature and sometimes throwing in their ‘warts’ and all gives them more humanity; in the end, we love them more for it.

4. Characters need an antagonist. Interesting point: the setting can be the antagonist too. Think Carroll's ‘Alice in Wonderland’.

5. Consider a character’s reactions or motivations because it says a lot about them.

For example: There’s been a fight at school and they’re at the heart of it.

Are they:

  • proud they’ve stood up for what they believe in?

  • concerned more about the blemish on their perfect record?


Carmen McCullough, Penguin Random House editor, on Acquisitions, Working with Authors and WriteNow


Being on the WriteNow scheme itself, I’m going to use this time to plug the programme since Carmen’s a mentor and did discuss it at some length. Entries for writers have now closed, but illustrators for children’s picture books have until July 23rd. The programme seems to be growing annually for the time being so even if you’ve missed out this year, know you can start something, hone your ideas and have something substantial ready for the next cohort. That’s kind of the path I took anyway.

  1. WriteNow’s a mentoring scheme that offers marginalised writers a chance to have a more accessible route to the publishing industry. No, this does not mean that you’re a charity case and you’re filling an organisation’s diversity quota. I was genuinely surprised by the amount of people there who said they didn’t know how to fill in the ‘How do you fit the criteria?’ section because they were proud of their heritage and didn’t want anybody feeling sorry for them. Trust me, as a Muslim woman in this day and age, I’m sick of people feeling sorry for me too (on a side note by the way, I don’t need saving- despite the story the media always seem to try and spin). For me personally, schemes like this work to counteract white privilege and I, for one, will take advantage of every opportunity that’s handed to me. FYI- have a look at the eligibility section. WriteNow isn’t just for BAME writers.

  2. The scheme offers a bespoke mentoring package with an editor suited to your manuscript. This entails six 121s (three in person and three over the phone), giving feedback on your work. I got three A4 sides of top-line feedback after a first draft, focusing structurally, thematically, considering character arc and plot. The following meetings, in time, will discuss my planning, revisions, redrafting and line-by-line edits. Despite being seven months into the scheme, I’m still in the early stages because I’m making some really hefty revisions right now. My world is a lot richer and I see the value in it - even if the whole process is giving me a headache. I do love the story it’s becoming though. My mentor and I have also made an agreement that we’ll see the scheme through organically rather than look towards the one-year time limit.

  3. What I didn’t expect was the fact that I also got to be a part of such an amazing team of writers. We have a Whatsapp mentee group that we use to keep in touch with each other. We use it for the ups and downs and the likes. We celebrate together and commiserate together- but the important thing is that we do it all together, which is God-sent because the road to writing a novel is long and winding and sometimes you’re not even sure where you’re going. We’ve got a Twitter group too with the original cohort, who are a year ahead of us in the scheme. I once had a meltdown on there- just by chance. The support I got back got me back on track. I guess I just I needed to be reminded of the light at the end after all.

  4. By the time I finish, hopefully I’ll have a book that Penguin get first right of refusal over. In the long-term, their intention is to publish your novel. As always though, it’s worth noting that there are few guarantees in this life, but either way, I’ll have a polished novel with a better chance than ever of finding a home for it.

  5. Something to bear in mind is that until WriteNow 2016- I got rejected in the first year by the way- I’d never actually written anything (except something for my Literature degree, which I don’t really count anyway) and I’d never taken writing seriously. Being a published author was something that was outside of my realm of possibility because I’d subconsciously resigned to the idea that things like don’t happen to people like me. But somehow here I am, two years later, on this bizarre rabbit hole of a journey, writing something that I’ve poured my heart and soul into. I have a character that I wholeheartedly love. I mean it- I actually think I grieved with him. That’s either really narcissistic of me or it’s a reflection of the fact that he is a product of the injustice that is happening around the world and people like Hassan exist. I know they do. I know them and I want other people to have some insight into the life they’ve lived and the hope they have because, to me, there’s a beauty it in that you can’t really articulate just like that. I guess I hope I can see it through with some justice.

Okay, back to it:


Sarah Odedina on Dialogue

  1. Basic rules:

  • Keep it brief

  • No small talk

  • Don’t info. dump

  • Avoid repetition

  • It has to move the story forward

2. Dialogue helps you honour the relationship established in your novel. If you think about this more, it’ll naturally make more sense. It’s such a powerful tip. I see dialogue through a different lens now.

3. Thought point: How do you use dialogue to exercise power?

4. Old-school top tip: Show-not-tell. Remember to use body language here.

5. Be consistent in a character’s voice.


Georgia Hanratty on The Bookseller’s Perspective

  1. If your book is suitable for them, introduce yourself to your local bookshops. They are your allies.

  2. Know the etiquette:

  • Avoid weekends and lunchtimes

  • Don’t interrupt

  • Don’t hassle

3. Offer to sign stock and don’t be offended if they don’t have any in either. There may be plenty of plausible reasons for that.

4. Go to book events and see what makes them successful.

5. Keep the bookshop informed of your successes too.


Ele Fountain, editor at Pushkin Press, responsible for launching and nurturing the careers of Angie Sage, Philip Reeve, Sarah Crossan and the likes, as well as the author of Boy 87.


The Art of Self-Editing


N.B. I legitimately could have listened to her all day.


There was so much to this so I’ve decided to focus on life post-draft one.

  1. Let someone else read your manuscript and know that you don’t have to act on every piece of advice given to you.

  2. Set the work aside for at least six weeks (say what?!). Time = Distance and distance is necessary.

  3. Read the manuscript after six weeks and on the first reading, resist the temptation to edit. Just read through it, making quick notes.

  4. Then re-read again and again. Start big and then zoom in slowly.

  • Did you find any plot holes?

  • Did you leave anything dangling?

  • Has everything been tied up?

  • Are there any parts that feel slow?

  • Are periods of action/ tension and rest balanced?

  • Would the chapters work in a separate order?

  • Can you put two chapters together?

  • Is there something you’re missing?

5. Ultimately, trust your instincts.


That’s everything for now, I think. I guess I better get back to that draft.

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