Winchester Writers’ Festival – Summing Up and Random Thoughts

Food (not so) Glorious Food

The festival included all breakfasts and lunches. The breakfast choice was excellent and tasty. It did what it needed to do – set everyone up for a busy day. The lunches were okay. Quiches and salads. Unimaginative but adequate.

And so to the grandly described “opening dinner”.

The previous conference I had been to (not at Winchester), had made every effort to make this event a special occasion, a true welcome to the attendees, round tables had encouraged conversation, there was decent linen and cutlery, there was a seating plan to ensure that every table had new writers, experienced writers, agents or editors and other speakers at the conference, giving everyone the opportunity to swap small talk in a relaxed and convivial atmosphere whilst enjoying tasty food.

Cutlery by Masaaki Komori courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons licensed by CC BY-SA 2.0

The evening meal at Winchester was a disappointment both in terms of the food and the set up. Fish that had been kept hot too long was barely edible with hard and tasteless batter. I had a friend who jokingly would rate professional courses in her day job by the standard of the lunch they would provide. I would give Winchester a B- and that was generous.

The tables were set up in exactly the same way as they had been at breakfast and lunch so you could only really talk to the people sitting next to you or opposite you. There was no seating plan, it was cafeteria style, get served and find a seat. Whilst I occasionally saw the flash of a blue badge – which differentiated the speakers and organisers from the writerly hordes, they appeared to settle themselves in their own separate enclaves. It had a feeling of them and us. Although to be fair there weren’t many of them there. Clearly, they had all gone into town instead. We wished we had too.

Summing Up

Leaving the disappointing food to one side, the conference was a worthwhile investment in my writing life. The chance to be amongst other writers is always a reliable way to refill the well of creativity. I will never be a conference junkie but attending an event every handful of years is a good way to reboot, you realise how far you have come and how far you still have left to go and above all you feel rejuvenated, buoyed up by all the fresh, young writers around you who have yet to experience the hard knocks of this writing life and still burn with the passion you had once and still have on the good days.

Inspire by Roberta Romero courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons licensed by CC BY-ND 2.0

Random Thoughts

Small people with large bags.

Willowy women in floaty dresses.

Hot men in cool shirts.

Ancient buildings with calming gardens.

Burning heat and impromptu fans made of flapping conference notes.

Ferns and Hostas, a cool oasis.

Classy shops with homeless people sleeping in the doorways

Humble houses with large price tags.

Writers of all shapes and sizes

Agents who all looked the same

A keynote speaker that touched hearts as well as minds

Winchester Writers’ Festival: fun, tiring, hot, frustrating and inspiring.

The end.

white lies
White Lies by Ellie Holmes



Winchester Writers’ Festival – Four Courses in One Day

So here I was – four courses in one day. Polishing your Manuscript; The Language of Crime; Whodunnit – How it’s Done and finally Reaching your Readers but before I talk about them, a word about the previous evening.

The Beauty of Small Presses

My friends and I went to the Meet the Editors Panel. It was an interesting discussion marred only by poor acoustics. It highlighted the incredible work small, independent presses do. There are so many passionate people in this field of endeavour and of the ones represented on the panel most did not draw a wage from their businesses.

They obviously had a skewed view but it chimed with my own experience. At a large publishing house you run the risk of being a product, at a small press, you are a writer. It’s a very important distinction. There are some quality presses out there, some very niche, some with wider appeal. Many started their businesses in the wake of the crash and we are now blessed with a proliferation of companies giving writers more choice than ever. I would urge you not to close your minds to small presses.

Heart by Nghiem Vo courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons licensed by CC BY 2.0

While the previous day’s intensive, day-long course was immersive, today the four courses were each an hour long, providing no more than a whistle stop tour through the highlights of the subjects they were covering.

Press Releases

In a last minute change, I decided to swap Polishing your Manuscript for Publicising your Book with author and journalist Maria McCarthy. The key points to take from the talk were (a) ask for a copy of your press release for your files so that you can update it and use it again in the future (b) if you are asked to appear on TV think very carefully about what you are going to wear – stay away from patterns or anything that shows tan lines. Stick to bold, primary colours. Maria then talked us through what makes a great press release including the importance of the 5 Ws – Who, What, When, Where and Why.

Crime Readers are the crack cocaine users of books

Then it was on to the Language of Crime with author Helen Fields. This was an interesting talk with a standout handout – possibly the best one of the whole weekend. Helen talked about the modern crime novel which has snappy dialogue and is short on description. She described readers of crime as the crack cocaine users of books. As writers in the genre, you have to keep giving them their highs or risk them seeking them elsewhere. Readers are there for the thrill of the ride. We forget that at our peril.

Rollercoaster fun
Rollercoaster Fun by David Flood courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons licensed by CC BY 2.0

Next was Whodunnit and How’s It’s Done with Linda Bennett the Director and Commissioning Editor at Salt Publishing. I must have been flagging at the halfway point on a very hot day as I have very little recollection of the hour I spent in Linda’s company. My fault, I am sure, not hers.

Social Media Know How

Finally, it was on to Reaching your Readers with author M G Leonard. Wow it was hot in that room. It was late afternoon on one of the hottest days of the year and the room was packed. We were all wilting and frantically fanning ourselves just to get some air. For anyone to hold the attention of the people in that room in those conditions is testament to the force of nature that was M G Leonard. What a wonderful bundle of energy she was. Darting to and fro, looking, annoyingly, as cool as a cucumber, whilst flashing up a wonderful bullet point presentation on the screen behind her.

Social media keyboard
Social Media Keyboard by Animated Heaven courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons licensed by Public Domain

The talk was packed full of useful stuff, funny and engaging. She also rivalled Helen Fields for the best handout of the conference although it came later by email. Her key points were that online is: a crowded marketplace, a shop window, a creative playground, a community hub, WORK, TIME CONSUMING and UNPAID [her capitals]. Her recommendations were: work out what presence you need to generate work or sell your product, figure out your strengths and use corresponding platforms, what are your criteria for success, track analytics where you can, review your presence online regularly. IS THE TIME YOU SPEND ONLINE WORTHWHILE? [my capitals].

It was a busy, tiring and informative day. With so much to take in, the beauty of the handouts came into their own. Nuggets of wise information and advice I will return to again and again as an aide memoire for the future. I would highly recommend attending talks by Helen Fields and M G Leonard, in particular, if you ever get the chance.

white lies
White Lies by Ellie Holmes

Winchester Writers’ Festival 2017 – Agent One-to-Ones – Part Two

In my earlier blog which you can read below I spoke about the lead up to the Winchester Writers’ Festival one-to-ones. Each meeting was fifteen minutes long. Fifteen. Positively ages if you are waiting for something, gone in the blink of an eye if you are enjoying something. It’s a funny old thing, time.

The one-to-ones on the first day were held for some reason only known to the organisers in a large, windowless room. At least I think it was windowless, perhaps very heavy drapes were pulled. It was so gloomy in there it was depressing. It reminded me of battery farming. I truly pitied the poor agents who had to sit in there for hours on end. I think I would have gone out of my mind. What a perfectly awful and depressing setting. I’m guessing the person or committee who chose it didn’t have to sit in it.

Dark room
Room with chairs by Glasseyes View courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons licensed by CC BY-SA 2.0 – Winchester wasn’t quite as bad as this but you get the idea

The one-to-ones on the second day were held in a different building, the waiting area was large and airy, the room we met in had windows (yay!) and whether it was my imagination or just the cohort of agents who attended that day, the atmosphere seemed lighter, happier and more energised.

I was struck, once more, by how young most of these women were – and they were predominantly women. Terrifyingly glam with faultless make-up, great hair, classy clothes and fabulous shoes, I couldn’t help wonder if somewhere in the country is an agent school, like an old fashioned finishing school, where they go to ‘get the look’. I was also struck, in a far less positive way, by the dearth of ethnicity.

Having met many editors at trad publishers I know this demographic is mirrored there too. This article is not about to turn into a rant about gatekeepers but when the people in charge of directing a large chunk of the industry are all cut from similar cloth is it any wonder that we have so many books that look and read the same, cookie cutter style? Heyho, a topic for another blog methinks.

Cookie cutter
Escher Cookie Cutters – The Sequel by Fdecomite courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons licensed by CC BY 2.0

Tales of meetings were swapped amongst the writers in corridors and classrooms, in the loos and at breakfast, lunch and dinner, like war stories. Those who had done well were congratulated, those who had faired less positively were consoled. Comments were picked over, endlessly analysed and debated. Facial expressions dissected and bad experiences, even if collected third or fourth hand, were recounted and passed along.

I heard examples of unprofessional conduct from some agents ranging from bored expressions and lack of interest to monosyllabic conversation and general apathy.

In fairness, it was hot in that soul-destroying room on the first day but still if you have put yourself up to take part and meet with however many wannabes you should be prepared to at least be professional and put your game face on even if you are bored to tears by most of them. Remember a lot of miles had been travelled and a lot of money spent to sit there in front of them. Boundless enthusiasm throughout the day would have been impossible for anyone, common courtesy should not have been.

One particularly mindboggling comment delivered to a friend of mine was ‘You cannot write about something you haven’t personally experienced’. What?! I have three murders in my current work in progress.

Question mark2
Business Way by Sebastian Vital courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons licensed by CC BY 2.0

How did I get on? I won’t name the agents I met with but the two on the first day were wonderfully friendly, warm and engaging on a personal level and complimentary about my work. Ultimately, neither were interested in taking things forward and that was cool. So much of writing is subjective. Our conversations were polite but a little stilted and finished before their allotted time.

Stand out comments for me were ‘What are you even doing here?’, ‘You should keep doing what you are doing, you’ll make more money indie publishing’ and ‘How does someone so glamorous write something so dark?’. I was heartened by the candour of the first and the kindness of the second (remember it was dark in that room!).

On the second day, in a far more suitable room, I met with two more agents. The first had clearly engaged with my writing style, fired questions at me ten to the dozen and our conversation zipped along with no awkward silences to the extent that we started nudging into the next meeting. A business card was handed over, a request to see the whole manuscript delivered. I left feeling energised from the encounter.

The second meeting was, unbelievably, even more positive. This particular agent had also clearly read the work I had submitted in forensic detail, her conversation was littered with the names of my characters and various plot points. On the desk in front of her, my covering letter was covered in handwritten comments, arrows, lines, stars and double underlining. Normally an expert at reading upside down I sadly could not decipher the unfamiliar handwriting. This conversation, too, went beyond its allotted time. It felt as though I was chatting with an old friend. How strange when we had only just met and in such artificial circumstances. A second business card was produced, another exhortation to send the whole manuscript when I had finished my edits.

Perhaps it is possible to find an agent at the writing equivalent of speed dating. I’ll let you know how it goes.

white lies
White Lies by Ellie Holmes

Winchester Writers’ Festival 2017 – Agent One-to-Ones – Part One

What a strange and unnatural device the agent/editor one-to-one concept is. Speed dating for writers. I wonder whether agents love them or hate them? I guess, as with normal speed dating, should you be lucky enough to ‘find the one’ you love them, if you have to spend hours chatting to people you really would rather not, then you’ll be less enamoured.

Speed dating
Dunedin Internship Speed Dating by Samuel Mann courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons licensed by CC BY 2.0

Winchester offered the chance to have four such meetings of fifteen minutes in length because I had booked the Thursday-Saturday package. There was a large list of agents, editors, writers, tutors and other book related luminaries to choose from. At the time of booking a little biography is available on each person and of course there is the tool of social media to find out more.

I had two one-to-ones lined up each day. I was interested to see what their approach would be to a predominantly indie author. A month before we had been called upon to submit a covering letter, a synopsis and a sample from our latest work – either one chapter, two or three depending on the personal preference of each agent.

I was going into it with open eyes, hoping, if possible to secure representation for my diversion into crime writing having made great strides in building myself a platform as an indie romantic/women’s fiction novelist already. I perhaps had less riding on it than most. If it didn’t work and nobody bit (in the nicest sense) I could always indie publish – a process I am now at ease with.

You are asked to gather five minutes before your scheduled appointment in the corridor outside the room in which the meetings happen. You register and, name duly checked off the list, you take a seat.

All crowded together, sitting in a narrow corridor, it is amazing how you pick up on the tension of others and it feeds into your own emotions.   I was reminded of stories of crowd hysteria. I now have a better understanding of how those instances can occur. Through emotional osmosis almost, I began to feel nervous. I hadn’t felt this way since I last took an exam and I guess that is what it is like – an examination of your writing and a potential job interview all rolled up into one. That is a lot of tension to carry.

See the Tension by Aart van Bezooijen courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons licensed by CC BY-SA 2.0

Being a stationery junkie, I was in my element. There were a huge array of folders, notebooks, bags and plastic wallets on display. Pens were fiddled with nervously, clicking on and off, papers rustled. There was a lot of avoiding of eye contact, quick smiles and fidgeting. A few random attempts at conversation quickly dwindled away. Everyone practised the art of silently rehearsing their elevator pitches. Overriding everything was the babble of so many conversations, which on occasion lifted to a deafening roar, going on in a confined space just over our shoulders.

Held in the waiting area, ready to be called to our respective fates, I was reminded that writers come in all shapes and sizes, all ages and nationalities too. Some looked like a wardrobe had fallen on them – I could only hope their work was better put together than they were, some were dressed to the nines and looked like they were going to a wedding or a funeral – which, to continue the speed dating analogy, I guess they were. Some looked so young I hoped their mum or dad was close by to offer support if their dreams were crushed.

There was, apparently, an agony aunt on hand to assist those whose egos were subjected to a nasty dose of reality.

All too much
All too much by Kelsey Graeter courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons licensed by CC BY-ND 2.0

I gathered later from discussion with one of the tutors that the agony aunt had been introduced because in previous years a large number of would be writers had emerged from their one-to-ones sobbing into their manuscripts and everyone had felt that “something needed to be done”. I wondered if the more ‘direct’ agents had been whittled out and not invited back. In some ways I hoped not, the school of hard knocks teaches us far more than polite but ultimately hollow comments can ever do.

I was therefore in two minds as to whether this was a good idea. Being criticised comes with the territory of being a writer. You simply have to toughen up because no one, be they Shakespeare or Austen, Tolstoy or humble old you and me, is universally loved. It struck me a little of the nanny culture that decrees that every child in school should win a prize. We are all special snowflakes, I grant you, but we can’t all hack it as professional writers.

Snowflakes by James Mann courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons licensed by CC BY 2.0

In the waiting area, it was our turn to walk into the lion’s den. Wardrobe woman tripped and nearly fell, leaving her looking ever so slightly more disheveled than she had been before which was saying something, the young girl next to me looked petrified as if a firing squad was waiting for us inside and behind me I could hear a chorus of nervous coughs as throats were cleared.

Find out how I got on next time.

white lies
White Lies by Ellie Holmes


Winchester Writers’ Festival 2017 – Creating Credible Characters

I slept surprisingly well and I never sleep well away from home, perhaps the wine from the previous night helped! I woke early to a magnificent sunrise over the rolling Hampshire hills.

Winchester sunrise – Ellie Holmes

The town of Winchester is very smart and clearly well heeled. A quick glance in the estate agents’ windows the night before had revealed a modest Victorian terrace on the market for £650k, practically London prices. I assume many people commute to London from Winchester to work but, as with so many places, it must be almost impossible for the locals who do not work in London to get on the property ladder. I guess that’s a whole other blog, however.

The first full day of the festival had offered a range of one day courses to choose from. I plumped for Creating Credible Characters run by an author called Adrienne Dines.

Adrienne Dines Author
Adrienne Dines Author

The workshop had a large number of attendees so it was clearly a popular choice. Our base for the day was a light, airy but hot classroom.   We were blessed with a mini heatwave during this particular weekend and at times it did make concentration difficult and bottles of water essential.

Adrienne Dines was a powerhouse. Her energy and enthusiasm for her subject shone through and amazingly her dynamism did not flag throughout the entire day, carrying us all along on her cheery and knowledgeable wave.

Creating Credible Characters
Winchester Writers’ Festival 2017 – Creating Credible Characters Delegates’ copy

There were many highlights to the class not least Adrienne herself moving around the classroom like a whirling Dervish. Here are some of the notes that I jotted down.

Heroes are noble; villains are self-serving.

Main characters must need something and that need must get worse as the story continues.

To add a time limit adds tension to any story line.

Conflict between love and loyalty is a great conflict driver for a story.

Each scene should either be cutting the string of the plot or tying the string (magnificently demonstrated by Adrienne, a volunteer, a ball of string, scissors, a table leg and the class making up an ad hoc story).

Adrienne Dines 2
Adrienne Dines demonstrating ‘string theory’ with a volunteer

Emotionally there needs to be voyage and return.

Characters are either stayers or changers.

Put stayers in a situation where they have to change.

Stayers change the world around them. Changers are changed by the world.

A writer knows their characters from the inside out. A reader learns about those characters from the outside in.

This for me was the standout piece of advice. Obvious, isn’t it? But how many of us lose sight of that when we are struggling with our work in progress.

Along the way we zipped through emotional arcs, Maslow’s Hierachy of Needs, relationships, characters’ roles, viewpoint and dialogue amongst others.

We also investigated whether every character in our stories was “earning their keep” – did they have a purpose? We talked about the need to know our characters, including information we might not actually use in the book but as a helpful exercise in us learning about the characters we were creating – What do they value? How do they dress? When they are nervous how do they act?

There was also an interesting and engaging section on other more minor characters and putting them into subheadings – sidekick, understudy/lieutenant, confidante, romance, mirror, walk on/walk off and chorus. One character could have several of these roles in the course of a book or possibly only one. It was fun to take an existing piece of work and think about where my particular characters fitted into those subheadings.

Altogether, it was a draining but simultaneously exhilarating day. Adrienne’s energy drove the course along at a good pace which meant we packed a lot in. A lot of Adrienne’s suggestions were things I already instinctively do but a different spin on something familiar is always helpful and to someone starting out this course would have been invaluable. It would certainly have saved me a whole lot of work if Adrienne had been around at the start of my writing career.

Adrienne was excellent and if you ever get the chance to go to one of her courses or talks, take it. You won’t be disappointed.


white lies
White Lies by Ellie Holmes


Winchester Writers’ Festival 2017 – Arrival and The Town of Winchester

So, after a hectic week at work it was time to regroup and get ready for a weekend away with two of my writing buddies from the Frinton Writers’ Group, Deborah and Lesley.

Winchester Writers' Festival 2017
Winchester Writers’ Festival writers’ pack – copyright Ellie Holmes

Individually we had been to a couple of other writing festivals but never to Winchester before. Its reputation preceded it and so it had a lot to live up to. Over the coming series of blogs you will be able to discover whether it delivered on that promise.

Today, I am concentrating on our journey, arrival and the town of Winchester itself as well as the nature of writing festivals. I am not a festival junkie. There are those who choose to go to as many as possible or the same one each year. Whilst I am sure the festival organisers love writers like that, I do not believe it particularly assists someone’s writing career to go to so many. Better to be choosy and strategic in which ones you go to and when.

My last writing conference was way back in 2005. I went to it hoping to learn new things about the craft of writing, make new writing friends and, if I was lucky, further my career. I was extremely fortunate. I made several good writing friends, many of whom I am still in contact with today. It also led to me signing a contract with my first agent a few months later.

This time around I was hoping to learn new things or maybe approach old techniques in a new way, enjoying spending time with my writing buddies and, if I was lucky, further my career by finding a new agent.

High aspirations I know but these get togethers are expensive and if you do not have a structured businesslike approach to what you want to get out of them you could find yourself out of pocket to the tune of several hundreds of pounds and not much to show for it.

Our journey down was well planned and uneventful although the journey for me was a little like the British TV show ‘Who Do You Think You Are’ where people trace their ancestry, as I travelled through the tube stop closest to where my Dad was born and later on the station closest to where my Mum was born. The only downside was having to stand between Waterloo and Winchester – who knew the train was going to be so busy mid-afternoon?

The student accommodation in a block on the campus was basic but not as basic as some I have stayed in and for a short stay it had everything you could need. The kitchen, shared between us and the floor below, was well appointed and surprisingly large.

For our first night, my friends and I decided to walk into town. We ate a lovely, light summer meal at Côte and enjoyed a bottle of house wine. We then went for a stroll. With its large range of varied and interesting shops – L.K. Bennett, Phase Eight and Hobbs to name but a few plus the attractions of the Cathedral and the Great Hall, we all agreed it would be a great place to spend a long weekend enjoying the shopping and the sightseeing. There are lots of little winding streets filled with more shops, restaurants and cafes. You would certainly not run out of choices if you wished to dine out here.

Winchester Cathedral
Winchester Cathedral by Peter Broster courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons licensed by CC BY 2.0

As we were walking back, we stumbled upon a performance by a choir. The door of the small church had been left ajar due to the heat and the uplifting sound of the voices was spilling out into the evening air, enticing us inside. We lingered in the doorway and enjoyed the performance for a few minutes before returning to our base for the weekend.

I have never been to this particular writing festival before. My impressions from the first day was that it was well organised, the people friendly and there was a varied and interesting itinerary of courses. It would, I hoped, be a time to refill the well of creativity and, hopefully, be inspired.

I will let you know how it went in my next few blogs.

If you would like to share your own thoughts about writing festivals, I would love to hear them so feel free to comment below on any positive or negative experiences you have had.

white lies
White Lies by Ellie Holmes