A Day with Hay Writers at Work 2019

This year, I completed my professional development course with Writers at Work

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Most of the Writers at Work 2019 (I missed the photo call!) with  course administrators  Carys & Gweni and course leader Tiffany Murray – photo by Marsha Arnold

Writers at Work is a wonderful opportunity for writers born or living in Wales and it’s the brain-child of Hay Festival’s director, Peter Florence. It runs for the whole 11 days of the festival, is fully funded by the Arts Council of Wales and is led by the brilliant Hay Fellow, Dr Tiffany Murray.

I thought I’d share a typical day for those interested in what goes on in the Writers at Work tent. I say ‘a typical day’ but really there’s no such thing on the course – every day is unique. But I hope to give a flavour of what someone can expect if they’re accepted onto the programme, and maybe encourage writers to apply if haven’t thought of it before (see below for details).

So, a typical day at Hay Writers at Work…

I’m going to choose Tuesday 28 May 2019 – Day 6 – as my example. It has a good variety of speakers and besides, it was most definitely one of my favourite days on the programme this year.

The day begins with a Round Table Seminar from 10 until 11.30am

These seminars are held in small groups which have been allocated by Tiffany before the festival begins. There are usually 20 people on the programme (here’s the register for 2019), so there are four or five groups who share work and receive feedback. We meet anywhere there’s table space – in the W@W tent (if you’re lucky enough to get there first) in the green room (if it’s not too busy that day), in a café or at our accommodation. These feedback sessions are really useful and many groups stay in touch after the festival finishes. There’s now a growing network of W@W support groups around Wales.

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My notebooks crammed with notes taken at each session

Next it’s Translation…

This workshop by translator-extraordinaire, Daniel Hahn, is a real eye-opener. Last year we discussed how to translate a passage of Welsh prose into English, which was really interesting for Welsh-speakers and non-Welsh-speakers alike. But actually, you don’t need to understand the language being translated, as Daniel demonstrated this year when he brought along a Portuguese picture book for us to help translate. It’s the techniques of translation that are fascinating, whether you keep to the exact meaning of each word or use some flair. A really enjoyable, fun workshop.

That takes us to 2pm and time to squeeze in a bite to eat at the staff canteen

From 2.30 to 3.30pm, Cathryn Summerhayes – who recently won Agent of the Year and works at Curtis Brown – speaks to us about how to find an agent and what to expect from literary agency representation. She also asks us all to tell her what we’re currently working on. The year before she asked us to pitch our new ideas for novels to her, and it’s always possible that she might pick up on someone’s work. Cathryn is originally from Cardiff and is on the board of Literature Wales. She’s very keen to get Welsh voices across the border.

Half an hour break –  just enough time to make a quick drink in our tent and grab some biscuits

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Earlier in the week, former children’s laureate Malorie Blackman had visited the Writers at Work tent – here with Tiffany Murray (photo by Marsha Arnold)

The next session is a visit from Michelle Paver who writes fiction for children and adults. She tells us about her route to publication – she’d worked in law but had always wanted to write – and then she invites questions from us. It’s always interesting to hear the range of questions W@W ask. You can tell the authors enjoy talking about the process of writing – it makes a change from talking endlessly about their current publication, which is usually something they wrote a couple of years ago.

That takes us up to just past 5pm and time for a quick loo break – hopefully the queues won’t be too long…

We get a message from course leader Tiffany that our next speaker is on his way, so please can we make our way back to the W@W tent as quickly as possible. American singer and songwriter, Ezra Furman, is sharing his poetry with us next. He also sings us a very beautiful new song of his he says will probably never be recorded. He’s a very inspirational creative person and although the session is a complete change from most of our programme, it’s extremely successful. Some of us come away from it more than just a little in awe of Ezra.

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Ezra Furman singing a new song of his for Writers at Work

It’s 7 o’clock – back to the staff canteen for dinner

Next we’re off to the Starlight Stage where Michelle Paver has her main event. We’ve been given complimentary tickets for this, and we normally have these for any authors who come to speak to us. Everyone has to develop a stage persona, I suppose, and it’s very interesting to see how authors are on stage, compared to how they are in person when they speak to us in our small tent – another part of our learning curve as writers.

And the last item on our programme for the day…

It’s Ezra Furman’s main event where he sings with his band, The Visions. It’s a fantastic hour and a half – I won’t forget it in a hurry. (I blogged about the experience on the Hay International Writers Blog.)

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Ezra Furman and The Visions on the Oxford Moot Stage, Hay Festival

It’s 11 o’clock, time to head back to my accommodation

It’s been  a full day of new experiences and it’ll take months to fully process what I’ve learned, but I’ve taken pages and pages of notes. I make a quick phone call home when I get in and then I’m off to bed. Wednesday will be Industry Day where publishers, agents and the British Council Wales will come to speak to us in our little tent. There’ll be more author events on the main stages and to round off the day, a Literature Wales reception.

Better get some sleep!

Thanks for reading,

Sara x

P.S. I promised details of how to apply for Hay Writers at Work 2020, always assuming there’ll be funding for this amazing scheme to continue. Literature Wales will have a call-out for applications from writers born or living in Wales around Feb/March 2020. It asks for your writer’s CV, an extract of your WIP and reasons why the scheme would benefit you. Sign up for their newsletter on their blog page and you won’t miss the call-out.

Sara’s debut novel ‘Not Thomas’ – a story of neglect, love and hope, shown through the eyes of five-year-old Tomos – is published by Honno Press in paperback and as an e-book, and is available to buy direct from the publisher, from Amazon and from bookshops.

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How to Write a Ghost Story – Tips by Bestselling Author, Michelle Paver

I’ve recently completed my second and final year on the Hay Festival’s Writers at Work scheme

It’s a professional development course for writers living in Wales or born here, that runs for the whole eleven days of the literary festival and is fully funded by the Arts Council of Wales.

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Meeting Michelle Paver in the Writers at Work tent

This innovative scheme created by Peter Florence of Hay and led by Dr Tiffany Murray, really is as wonderful as it sounds. On Facebook – as real me Wendy White – I’ve posted about the experience and how to apply to Literature Wales for a place. I’ve also promised to share some of the highlights of the programme here on my blog.

It’s extremely hard to pick out the best bits from the programme

So many wonderful authors, poets, songwriters, columnists and people involved in the business of publishing came to speak to us. But I’ve decided to start with tips for writing a ghost story, as generously shared with us by ghost-story-writerextraordinaire, Michelle Paver.

Her books ‘Dark Materials’, ‘Thin Air’ and ‘Wakenhyrst’ are brilliant examples of classic ghost stories.

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Michelle Paver’s latest ghost story, the novel ‘Wakenhyrst’

I can vouch for how creepy Michelle Paver’s writing is (see below) so she was the perfect person to ask about ghost stories, as far as I was concerned, and she didn’t disappoint. Here’s the advice she gave me and the other 19 members of Writers at Work 2019.

She told us that ghost stories are difficult to write and to get right, but there are ways to make writing them easier

First study the form – read as many ghost stories as possible, the good especially, but the bad will help too. (Michelle P hunts second-hand bookshops for old ones, which she loves the most). 

Analyse what you read in general terms –  why does this story work and that one doesn’t?

Then go deep – take apart the stories that work really well. Where does the first mention of something otherworldly / spookiness / an actual ghost occur? At first it might be just a tiny hint.

Where is the next mention? How does the writer build tension? How subtle, or otherwise, are the references to a ghost?

When you’re ready to start writing, Michelle Paver said, the challenge is to create a story that reads really easily.

A ghost story needs a shape and it has to build. It has a ‘progressive nature’ – she feels that more than just a hint of a ghost at the start can be too much.

The ghost needs to slowly get nearer and nearer as the story gets more and more emotionally intense

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‘Thin Air’ – the perfect title for a ghost story set at high altitude

When the first draft is finished, revise it and check the shape

MP said at this stage she’ll sometimes find passages which she thought were creepy at the time of writing but just don’t work with a second reading. (Good to know the master can get it wrong sometimes too!)

Once the first draft is complete, Michelle Paver goes on a research trip –  until this stage, she said, it’s hard to know what and where to research.

This often throws up more ideas that can be slotted in. For example, for ‘Thin Air’ she went mountaineering and discovered the creepy noises a tent makes in the night, and how confusing outside sounds become when you’re under canvas. She fed all this into the story – to great effect, as I can testify having read it.

And here’s a short list of books / stories recommended by Michelle P to help in studying the ghost story form:

Ghost Stories by MR James especially ‘Oh,Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’ (MP’s all-time favourite)

Ghost Stories by Edith Wharton

‘Alfred Hitchcock Presents Ghost Stories for Young People’ on CD, YouTube and Spotify. MP especially recommends ‘Unearthed’

‘Night Visitors: The Rise and Fall of the English Ghost Story’ Julia Briggs

And for writing generally: ‘The Craft of Novel-writing’ Dianne Doubtfire

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Late evening at Hay Festival when the crowds have gone home

And, as I was saying previously, I can vouch for the effectiveness of Michelle Paver’s writing

One night during Writers at Work, I couldn’t get off to sleep so, rather unwisely, I decided to read a few chapters of ‘Thin Air’.

At half past three in the morning, I realised I needed the loo. I merrily set off towards the bathroom down a long, dark corridor in the 16th century farmhouse I’d been billeted to. Half way down the corridor, I had the strongest sensation someone was following me, just as Stephen in the chapter I’d just read had been followed by a mysterious figure on the mountainside in ‘Thin Air’.

I hadn’t been so spooked since I was a child reading ghost stories under the covers with a torch – and believe me, I’ve been spooked plenty of times as an adult. It was a really creepy, shivers-up-your-spine kind of moment.

I won’t be reading Michelle Paver at night in a 16th century farmhouse again

I hope this helps anyone embarking, like me, on writing a ghost story.

Thanks for reading,

Sara x

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Sara’s debut novel ‘Not Thomas’ – a story of neglect, love and hope, shown through the eyes of five-year-old Tomos – is published by Honno Press in paperback and as an e-book, and is available to buy direct from the publisher, from Amazon and from bookshops.

Hay Festival Portrait- Wendy White
Hay Festival Portrait- Wendy White by Paul Musso