Ever wondered what a fiction editor at a popular women’s magazine does? Here’s your chance to find out.
I am a member of the Romantic Novelists’ Association. I am also a member of their blogging team. At the end of last year I was invited to launch a new monthly blogging series on the RNA blog interviewing book bloggers and reviewers.
The latest in the series featured my interview with Karen Byrom who is the fiction editor at My Weekly magazine. I am attaching a link below so you can take a look.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
My enormously grateful thanks to the author Ellie Holmes for a copy of White Lies in return for an honest review.
White Lies is published today 27th June 2017 and is available in e-book here.
A WET NIGHT. A CAR CRASH.
THREE LIVES ARE CHANGED FOREVER…
Sam Davenport is a woman who lives her life by the rules. When her husband Neil breaks those rules too many times, Sam is left wondering not only if he is still the man for her but also if it’s time to break a few rules of her own.
Actions, however, have consequences as Sam soon discovers when what starts out as an innocent white lie threatens to send her world spiralling out of control.
White Lies is a warm, engaging read about love, deceit, betrayal and hope.
Hi everyone – I just wanted to share the news that my new novel White Lies is now available for pre-order on Amazon and will be released on Tuesday 27th June.
If you would like to find out more click on the image and there’s an excerpt below to whet your appetites.
White Lies by Ellie Holmes
Sam Davenport thought she’d imagined it: the driving rain, her husband Neil’s shout of surprise, the sickening crunch of metal on metal, the explosion of inflating airbags.
A bad dream. That was all it was. Why, even now, they were on their way back to Meadowview Cottage with its thatched roof dipping low over leaded-glass windows and a welcoming fire burning in the TV room to keep the children and their sitter cosy in their absence.
Yes, it was a bad dream. Soon, they would be home and Neil would take off his clothes in the bedroom while she took off her make-up in the ensuite and together they would dissect the party and their friends.
Except, they wouldn’t. Because she hadn’t imagined it. The Range Rover was skewed at a crazy angle across one of the main roads of the Essex market town of Abbeyleigh and picked out in its headlights was the shape of a motorbike and, a few metres on, the body of its rider.