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
Cutlery by Masaaki Komori courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons licensed by CC BY-SA 2.0 https://flic.kr/p/6vruZ9 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/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
Inspire by Roberta Romero courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons licensed by CC BY-ND 2.0 https://flic.kr/p/p2VH5f https://creativecommons.org/licenses/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 http://Author.to/EllieHolmes

 

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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
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 https://flic.kr/p/XVT7zA https://creativecommons.org/licenses/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 https://flic.kr/p/S7w8UL https://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/

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 http://Author.to/EllieHolmes

Surprise, Surprise!

surprise
Surprise by Pedro courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons licensed by CC BY 2.0 https://flic.kr/p/3fdbnf https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

A few weeks ago I was asked to write a couple of articles to help promote my new novel. I was daunted by the prospect but keen to give it a go nevertheless. I sat down to write and came up with five articles in total. I was amazed. And then I realised I had my blog to thank.

For eighteen months now I have been blogging at least once a week. It was only when I needed to write those articles I realised how many transferrable skills blogging had given me. I could write to deadlines. I could write focussing on a chosen topic. I could write to a set length. I could structure an article with a beginning, middle and end. I could write headlines. All skills I learnt from blogging.

Don’t hold yourself back by thinking you cannot do something. Jump in and have a go.

jump in
Jump In by Lies Vercamere courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons licensed by CC BY 2.0 https://flic.kr/p/pWBECj https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

As writers in the digital age we have a lot of transferrable skills – some we may not even recognise. Experimenting with different types of writing can lead to wonderful new opportunities but it also makes us better writers.

white lies
White Lies by Ellie Holmes http://Author.to/EllieHolmes
the-flower-seller-cover-small
The Flower Seller by Ellie Holmes http://Author.to/EllieHolmes

 

Inspirational Essex

Poor Essex, woefully misunderstood, maligned by those who have never visited, routinely laughed at and made fun of. If it was a character in a novel it would have you rooting for it from the first page, the underdog who would fight off its naysayers and emerge to capture the hearts of all, the hero of the piece by the end of the book.

Anyone familiar with TOWIE could be forgiven for thinking that Essex is nothing more than tanning salons, nail bars and nightclubs full of loud, image-obsessed people. We have our fair share of the latter and Essex people are often loud and proud but that is not the whole story and as a writer, I’d like to tell you why.

Look beyond what you think you know and you will find an Essex that has so much more to offer – ancient market towns, beautiful villages, rolling countryside and lovely beaches. It is the perfect mix of town and country.

Dutch Quarter Colchester
Dutch Quarter Colchester by Ben Sutherland courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons licensed by CC BY 2.0 https://flic.kr/p/apA7Ks https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

Is it any wonder then that I use my home county as a source of inspiration for my books including The Flower Seller and White Lies? Both of these books are based in and around the fictitious market town of Abbeyleigh, the inspiration for which came from Colchester (Britain’s oldest recorded town) with a nice dash of Saffron Walden thrown in.

Colchester Castle
Colchester Castle by Giborn_134 courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons licensed by CC BY-ND 2.0 https://flic.kr/p/of5w5c https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/

I love the fact that in Essex, you can be in the centre of a vibrant, urban environment enjoying all the mod cons of modern life one moment and in the next you can be in the heart of the countryside. It really does have the best of both worlds. And for those who think any form of ‘culcha’ stops with the tube line, there is a vibrant music and arts scene to enjoy. For a writer, that contrast between worlds brings with it an endless source of ideas.

Royon
Roydon by Richardghawley courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons CC BY-ND 2.0 https://flic.kr/p/661HpS https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/

Essex is also blessed with a varied and interesting coastline. The genteel, almost Edwardian, feel of Frinton on Sea, gives way to the Kiss-Me-Quick culture of piers, rides and slot machines at Clacton and Southend. While West Mersea is a hub for the sailing fraternity and the oyster fisheries.

west Merseajpg
West Mersea by John Fielding courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons CC BY 2.0 https://flic.kr/p/wxmrhr https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

I love nothing better than taking my dog Willow for long walks along the county’s beaches, mulling over my plots while Willow frolics on the sand and I pause to watch the kite surfers.

But it is not only the landscape of the county that inspires me, the people do too. Down to earth, hard-working and funny, Essex people take no nonsense from anyone and if someone asks for their opinion they’ll give it to them straight, no messing. We may have a predilection for bling and Prosecco but there are worst vices to have.

Prosecco
Raval by James West courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons licensed by CC BY-SA 2.0 https://flic.kr/p/bvFWbe https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

Just as you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, don’t think you know Essex because of what you’ve heard and seen – there is so much more to my home county that is just waiting to be discovered. Why not find out for yourself and pay us a visit?

white lies
White Lies by Ellie Holmes http://Author.to/EllieHolmes

 

the-flower-seller-cover-small
http://Author.to/EllieHolmes

This article first appeared on FemaleFirst.co.uk

http://www.femalefirst.co.uk/books/ellie-holmes-white-lies-1077670.html

 

 

Ten things blogging has taught me

 

 

blogjpg
Blog by Xiaobin Liu courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons licensed by CC BY-SA 2.0

1. To create a schedule that works for you and your audience

Posting regularly is the key to a vibrant and engaging blog but your schedule has to be realistic. Too busy and you will never meet your target, too little and no one will visit.

2.  To respect and meet deadlines

Once you have a deadline, even if it is a self-imposed one, it is hugely satisfying when you meet it and great practice for when someone else is setting deadlines for you in the future.

3.  To come up with interesting headlines

You have created what you hope is an interesting blog but how do you get anyone to take a look? You need to cultivate the art of writing good headlines. They have to neatly sum up what your blog is about but be punchy enough to catch the eye.

4. To pick illustrations that bring interest and colour to your blog

Pictures paint a thousand words…..you can create great copy but without some pictures to break up the text your readers will quickly lose interest. Photos that add life and interest to your piece – quirky, arresting or funny images are best. I use my own photos or Flickr Creative Commons for my blogs. If you are using Flickr Creative Commons always remember to add a credit to the person who took the photo, add the link to the photo on Flickr and acknowledge the licence under which you are allowed to use it, linking to that as well.

camera
Photo by Reynermedia courtesy of Flick Creative Commons licensed by CC BY 2.0 https://flic.kr/p/ifBTMT https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

5. To write to a set length

Blogs can be any length but too short and you will leave readers feeling unsatisfied, too long and readers will not finish the piece. For me the Goldilocks length is around 500-600 words. It’s long enough to get your point across but not so long that you start to ramble.

6. To learn how to structure an article

Articles like stories need a beginning, middle and end. You usher your readers in, explaining what the post will be about, you get to the heart of the issue and then you give them your conclusions and leave them with something to take away.

7. To learn how to promote

Putting your blogs out there is one thing, getting people to read them is something else. Leaning how to promote your blog is key. Pointing people to your blogs via social media and using your own website brings readers who may not have found you otherwise.

hello
Hello by Bob Fox courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons licensed by CC BY 2.0 https://flic.kr/p/oVvMgg https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

8. To learn how to interact with others

When people take the time and trouble to comment on your blog, be sure to check in and thank them or answer any questions they may raise. It’s basic good manners but it also gives you a chance to interact with your readers. I have met (in a virtual sense) some lovely people through blogging and have discovered some wonderful new writers.

9. To learn presentation skills

Make your blog as attractive and user friendly as possible. White writing on a red background or red writing on a black background may look funky but you try reading a long blog like that. Your eyes will tire and you’ll give up however good the writing may be.

10. To play nicely

Okay – I didn’t need to learn this skill but when it comes to blogging, as with all social media, it is a handy thing to remember. Be supportive of other bloggers, encouraging them when they are down, celebrating with them when are up. Liking, commenting on and following other people’s blogs makes you part of a wonderfully supportive network and you never know they might follow you back.

Play nicely
Playing cubs II by Tambako The Jaguar courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons licensed by CC BY-ND 2.0 https://flic.kr/p/nnTzzq https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/
white lies
White Lies by Ellie Holmes http://Author.to/EllieHolmes
the-flower-seller-cover-small
The Flower Seller by Ellie Holmes http://Author.to/EllieHolmes

 

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 https://flic.kr/p/nShyGq https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

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 https://flic.kr/p/kchCPr https://creativecommons.org/licenses/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 https://flic.kr/p/Wo4mSw https://creativecommons.org/licenses/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 http://Author.to/EllieHolmes

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 https://flic.kr/p/de7Coj https://creativecommons.org/licenses/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.

Tension
See the Tension by Aart van Bezooijen courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons licensed by CC BY-SA 2.0 https://flic.kr/p/9WHnL https://creativecommons.org/licenses/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 https://flic.kr/p/dTUzoN https://creativecommons.org/licenses/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
Snowflakes by James Mann courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons licensed by CC BY 2.0 https://flic.kr/p/joih25 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/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 http://Author.to/EllieHolmes