Run by Cornerstone’s Literary Agency, lead by Julie Cohen & Helen Corner
I have just returned from the single-best educational experience of my life. Okay, that sounds like an exaggeration but it’s true. Admittedly I’ve not accomplished something outstanding like completing a Masters degree but as a writer hell-bent on becoming a published author this week has been invaluable. I feel like I’ve been let in on a big secret. And as I’m rubbish at keeping those I want to let you in on the act…
The course took place at Charney Manor (www.charneymanor.demon.co.uk) in deepest, darkest – and it really was gloomy with heavy rain – Oxfordshire. With just enough mobile coverage to keep briefly in touch with the real world, it was the perfect location; quiet, relaxing with homemade, rib sticking meals to comfort everyone for the fast and intensive pace of the course. And if you’re thinking of going on such a course I wouldn’t be put-off by that last comment, I can’t advocate enough what value for money Writing Women’s Commercial Fiction is. Not only did Julie go through all aspects of writing and constructing a novel, both she and Helen were on tap from early in the morning to late evening to pick their brains on anything we wanted to know. Invaluable.
To give you an overview of what I’ve learned here’s a brief summary of the course content:
- Who are you writing, and who are you writing for?
- Style & Voice
- Taking it all in without losing your cool
- The Secret World of Agents & Publishers
When I received my RNA New Writers’ Scheme report earlier this year I was over the moon with the positive comments from my anonymous author. But there was a fair amount of constructive criticism too which I knew would be coming; I knew my manuscript had gaping holes in it – I just didn’t know how to fix them. So when Julie Cohen (@julie_cohen) posted the course on Twitter I knew this was just the sort of thing which could help me solve my problems. And as I, ahem, might have already mentioned once or twice I have learnt soooo much which I can’t condense into a blog post without boring you all senseless… so I’ve pinpointed some of the aspects relevant to me:
- Your first draft is for you – call it cathartic if you like (I certainly see mine is now) – but subsequent revised drafts are for your reader and you need to have them at the forefront of your mind.
- Fiction is better than real life. Your heroine/ hero need to be more credible, motivated and consistent than in real life.
- WHY, oh WHY, oh WHY, oh WHY are your characters behaving this way? What is the internal conflict within them causing their behaviour? And how do your scenes address this behaviour?
- Plot your novel using a three act graph – every story has a beginning, middle and end but you need to figure out the shape of your novel. You need to set up the character’s overall goal or problem, their emotional journey or character arc (for more information see Julie Cohen’s blog http://www.julie-cohen.com/blog/tag/character-arc/). Plotting how they’re going to achieve this through what external conflict happens will propel your character forward. You might not know exactly what’s going to happen or how they’re going to react but you do know what’s at their core – the emotion driving them.
- Show don’t Tell. I thought I was quite good at this but apparently not! I’d dropped a massive 300+ words of back story – an info dump – after just one paragraph in the second chapter. I wanted to create suspense in the scene but all I’d succeeded in doing was turning the reader completely off!
- Pacing your story is key in keeping your reader turning the page. You need to keep at the forefront of your mind who your reader is and what your writing, for example dramatic events need slowing down to create tension – every single detail is important. Which leads me nicely into how to keep your novel a pace with…
- …Post It Notes! This is such a revelation to me – and Julie possibly ought to patent this idea for writers – but in order to plot the structure of her story she uses different colour post-it notes. Using a different colour for each character arc and using one post-it per scene or event (you might break the scene down into segments) you can visualise whether the story is even or whether you’re bunching too much story line up together. I hope you can understand that but please feel free to post a comment if you’re unsure. Here’s a mock of one I started, as you can see there’s lots of pink at the moment – my heroine – and I shall need to vary this in my revisions. To summarise: Repetition = Death of your story.
- KISS – Keep It Simple Stupid. I’d never heard of this before! But as Julie put quite poetically, ‘A novel should be like a beautifully woven carpet – you can see all the threads weaving through. If one thread suddenly stops, you lose it and create a hole’.
The other aspect of this course was to really consider our writing careers and think about how we will go about marketing ourselves once our manuscripts are revised. Helen and Julie lead excellent sessions on writing a concise, entertaining synopsis (again, all comes down to characters arcs and three-act graphs, making those clear to the reader of a synopsis i.e. an agent) and how to most effectively go about approaching agents. We were also exceptionally lucky to have Caroline Hardman from Christopher Little Literary Agency come and speak with us on Tuesday evening. She spoke of so many aspects on the role of an agent – far too much for me to condense here – and I will write a separate blog soon on what I gleaned about the publishing world. What stood out most though is how many submissions agents receive and how little time agents have to peruse them. It really is a case of making sure you’ve highly polished the opening paragraphs of your covering letter, synopsis and first page of your novel because you might be wrestling to the forefront of the slush pile alongside 25 or so other submissions on the day yours is actually read.
I can’t begin to tell you how much the two-and-a-half days spent on Writing Women’s Commercial Fiction has meant to me. I’ve met new writing friends (and really got to know old ones like Sarah Callejo http://sarahcallejo.blogspot.com/ who came over from Spain to attend!), gained an insight into the publishing world and really got to grips with the technical side of how a story should work. Most importantly the whole experience has reaffirmed to me why exactly I began writing in the first place and spurred me on to see this through to the end. To get it right.
Everyone has a story to tell. But it’s really worth knowing how to tell it.