The Writer's Weekend Workshop
Updated: Jul 13, 2018
Over the weekend, I had the honour of attending The Writer’s Weekend Workshop at the heart of the cultural hub that is Brixton. Hosted by Sarah Odedina, a veteran in the industry known for publishing five Carnegie Award winning authors, as well as working with likes of J.K. Rowling, Neil Gaiman, Louis Sachar and more, this was a two day intensive programme designed to give expert advice from the YA genre’s elite. I’ve learnt a lot over the past few days about both the world of books and, on a side note, myself. I’ve managed to meet so many people whose aim just seemed to be to help others succeed and, in this day and age, something like that really needs to be appreciated. As such, this post is an attempt to coherently compile 40 pages worth of notes from the event itself. For ease, I’ve outlined a little insight below and, for simplicity too, I’ve put together my top five tips taken away from each:
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
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
Sarah Odedina: Dialogue
The Bookseller’s Perspective: Georgia Hanratty
Editor and Author Ele Fountain: The Art of Self-Editing
Patrice Lawrence Indigo Donut and Orangeboy (Winner of Children’s Waterstone’s Book Prize for Older Fiction, Winner of the Bookseller YA Book Prize 2017, Shortlisted for the Costa Children’s Book Award)
Finding Your Voice
Drop fear and write otherwise you’ll be your own barrier and that’s the hardest thing to overcome.
Eavesdrop excessively- Patrice mentioned a time when she was on a London bus listening to a conversation between two young boys, one full of bravado about a fight and the other listening intently. When she turned around, she realised that the voices were coming from those she least expected, one being a lad who barely reached 5ft. He couldn’t have possibly been capable of doing the things he said. Surely not, right? The idea is that the world we live in is full of stories. The exercise was about listening out for them, imagining where they originated from and seeing that journey through to its end.
Take inspiration from your family’s voices. Look to the experiences of those nearest and dearest to you. Their voices are authentic, worth emulating and will seem genuine when crafted in the right spaces. I mean, what’s literature supposed to be if not a reflection of the world we know and love, right?
Listen to people’s stories. There’s always something there.
Know the significance of place: visit them, take pictures, create moodboards and see them through the eyes of your protagonist.
Crystal Mahey-Morgan founder of OWNITLDN, an independent publisher (Mama Can’t Raise No Man by Robin Travis, No Place To Call Home by J.J. Bola, Moments of Significance: A Memoir by MC Angel)
On Independent Publishing
Let me start by telling you that Crystal is such an inspiring woman. She’s got a wealth of experience behind her from being Marketing Manager for the Raindance Film Festival at the age of 19, switching to Literary Assistant at Peter, Fraser and Dunlop, then joining Random House/ PRH before launching her own company. She had the whole floor in awe of her vision. She knows exactly what she’s doing and she really is bringing storytelling back to its roots.
OWNITLDN is an indie publisher that thinks outside the box and refuses to accept the assertion it’s BAME-led. It’s a storytelling lifestyle brand and Crystal’s aim is to bring books back to the heart of its people.
She does the above by making reading a part of the entertainment industry again, standing it alongside music, comedy, poetry and the likes. I was genuinely excited listening to her. I loved the idea of J.J. Bola’s book launch- the fact that it was at Dalston Roof Park rather than a bookshop, the fact that it brought together people from the community and the fact that Anthony Anaxagorou and MC Angel were also guest speakers. I actually watched a video clip of the event afterwards and, honestly, that’s how you take reading to its roots again. Storytelling originated orally and was passed down from people to place. She’s working to bring that back, and I, for one, am not the only one who believes it’s actually working. In a day and age that sometimes seems too xenophobic and conservative, this how you do what stories have demanded us to do for generations- this is how we take a walk in the lives of those unfamiliar to us and realise that we have more in common than we’d even known before.
Okay- vision aside- the practical elements of this: the company doesn’t offer a traditional advance, rather a 50:50 split of net profits. It’s worth bearing in mind that Robyn Travis’ book launch was a ticketed event, filling Hackney Empire with over 600 in the audience. This was a debut and that’s how you do it. Crystal was right when she said that if you want to see the future of publishing, look to its fringes. That’s where it’s happening and others will follow suit.
OWNITLDN don’t really want to publish more than six books a year. Their aim is to support the lifetime of a writer and promote their works long after publication too. They want to be focused and fluid.
They’re also not really interested in prizes. They instead focus on bringing books to those who haven’t discovered that they’re readers yet. I really liked that idea. A lot of people use the phrase ‘reluctant readers’, but, actually, there was more truth to what she said.
Julia Churchill from A.M. Heath, representing the likes of Sarah Crossan, Joan Aiken, Pip Jones, Holly Webb and more.
On the Role of an Agent
Writing is so subjective so it’s all about getting your work to the right person’s desk. Agents already have established relationships with editors and will know who to target manuscripts to, depending on taste rather than sending out blanket submissions.
They take 15%, but their work isn’t just about passing books to editors; they’re focused on the long-term career of an author whether through finding new writing opportunities or evaluating successes and failures in order to get back on track after a dip. On average, they tend to negotiate significantly higher advances for clients than writers without agents too. Their office job is more about working with their existing clients rather than reading new manuscripts, which is usually done out of hours. I guess to some it up, they add value.
Tip for finding the right agent: go through books you feel are similar to yours, skip to the acknowledgements page and see who the author has thanked as their agent.
Tip for querying: send out in small batches. If you get feedback, revise your work and repeat.
Top tip: don’t query too early. You tend to only get one shot with an agent.
Malorie Blackman on Plotting
Know the difference between story and plot. The king died and then the queen died is a story. The king died and then the queen died and saying why is the plot.
Start on a moment of conflict, drama or change and know your character must face obstacles that keep them from their goal.
There’s a difference between what the character thinks they want and what the writer knows they want.
Children’s and YA stories should always have hope.
Strong stories have three sources of antagonism or levels of conflict: inner (fear, anger, broken heart etc.), interpersonal (conflicting desires between people), and environmental (poverty, physical barriers, education etc.)
She also mentioned this story arc, which puts things into perspective.
The Eight Phases of Plot
Status/ Exposition - ‘Once upon a time…’- personally, she didn’t recommend this.
Trigger (something happens that’s out of the ordinary)
The Quest (the protagonist is consequently in search for something)
The Surprise (things don’t go as expected)
Critical Choice (forcing the protagonist to make a difficult decision)
Climax (which has consequences)
Reversal Result (basically a change of status in contrast to the opening)
Resolution (just a polite reminder to include hope in YA)
Malorie, actually everybody, had so much more to say than I’m giving right now- some of which is difficult to articulate and easier just to understand in the moment. I wish I could convey this with some justice, but, my advice, if you ever get the chance to attend a workshop with her, or any of them, do it.
Nikki Griffiths on Contracts
I’m not even into all of this stuff, but this was so interesting.
Your work is automatically copyrighted the moment it’s written down (whether by hand or electronically). Copyright also automatically extends for 70 years after your death.
You have the right to protect your work from derogatory interpretation- i.e. somebody producing a theatrical performance of your work in a defamatory manner.
Keep your copyright- never assign it. Assignment only really happens in cases of non-fiction. Be wary if someone asks you otherwise because you are essentially relinquishing all rights to your work.
Don’t bother quoting song lyrics- it’s so expensive. Just don’t do it. *mentally making notes to edit a scene in the MS*
Register for PLR. I think that’s Public Lending Rights and not Public Library Register as I originally guessed. It’s basically an extra source of income for writers, taking into account each time your book is borrowed from the library.
Sarah Odedina on Setting
Build your world carefully, consider its logic and its natural systems and know that even the most fantastical settings make sense.
Don’t use vivid brushstrokes of description to construct a setting- tiny details are enough.
Know your timeline and draw it out for reference.
Make links between moments of action or tension and moments of rest. Know the whole thing can’t be action and the whole thing can’t be rest. If your narrative is mainly rest, then those moments of tension are heightened and magnified.
Use Google maps’ satellite view. Mate, I never even considered this.
Amiée Felone and David Stevens founders of Knights Of (Knights and Bikes release date: August 2018)
These guys are really pushing for diversity within their company both on the page and behind it and they’ve recently made it onto The Bookseller’s Rising Stars 2018 list.
They have a really innovative submissions process, which is kind of like Instant Messaging and they cater for the 5-15 audience (excluding picture books and YA).
They really are investing in their team, offering their staff to shadow experts in the industry in order to train them up.
They’ve got a #BooksMadeBetter blog where you can contribute and join the conversation.
They’ve just snapped up US poet Jason Reynolds’ verse novel about the pursuit of personal dreams, meaning another verse novelist is making his way to the UK. All good things and I know there’s more to come with these guys.
That’s Day 1 wrapped up. There’s so much more to this, but I really do have a deadline to get back to. I’m hoping to round up Day 2 some point soon. Something I don’t think I’ll ever be able to put into words though is the atmosphere of the experience itself. There is something really beautiful about being surrounded by people who are like-minded, those who are encouraging and those who strongly believe in your cause. The thing with publishing is that it seems like it’s surrounded by ivory towers and castle walls, but schemes like this, schemes like PRH’s WriteNow (closing tonight) and Faber’s FAB Prize are really opening up the industry and making it more accessible. I wish I could tell you how important that is. A part of me wishes I could somehow articulate in a meaningful way why books need to reflect the world we live in and why they need to come from authentic voices too, but the other part of me tells me I shouldn’t have to make people understand in this day and age. I’m sick of running around in circles to be honest- the amount of times I’ve been asked why representation matters is borderline tragic. I’m a firm believer in the idea that words can change the world- some dead, white guy did say after all 'The pen is mightier than the sword', but on this occasion, I’m just glad that there are people out there that have stopped talking about this and have started acting on it instead.