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.

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Hay Festival Portrait- Wendy White by Paul Musso

 

Building a Novel – Scene by Scene

I have a weird way of writing

I know – oh, how I know – it would be most sensible to start at the beginning of a story and work my way through until I reach the end, but have I ever managed that? I haven’t – although, believe me, I’ve often tried.

My problem is I’m a sucker for scenes, and I always want to write the big ones first. That means my first draft is essentially the whole plot, but told through the main episodes – no linking bits, no descriptions, none of the expected ‘niceties’. Of course, those elements are added in – eventually – but I tend to think of them as extras. And I’m not a ‘descriptive’ kind of writer, which is why I tend to leave descriptions until the story proper is done. It’s one of the challenges of writing that I don’t find enjoyable.

But there are other challenges I really love

One of my favourites is retrospectively adding in hints about where the plot is going. As I’m happily writing the main scenes, I also make a list of ideas to add in further down the line, and later I’ll take great pleasure inserting these passages and watching them gradually tie the scenes together. As I tick them one by one off my long list, I always have a wonderful sense of satisfaction.

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Page one of my ‘To Add In’ list

Julia Green, author and Professor of Writing for Young People at Bath Spa University, came to speak to Hay Writers at Work this year, and I was so pleased when she suggested that it was a good idea to think of fiction in terms of scenes –  events that are happening, rather than have happened – and that each scene should move the story along.

It made me feel that maybe my weird way of working wasn’t quite so weird after all

Whether you take the straight forward route when you write, or if you write randomly like I do, I hope your writing is exactly where you want it to be. Fingers crossed, we’ll all get to the end of the story we want to tell one way or another!

Thanks for reading.

Love,

Sara x

Sara’s debut novel ‘Not Thomas’ – a story of child 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 REALLY Know a Writer

A few months ago, along with 19 other writers from Wales, I took part in the Hay Festival Writers at Work programme*

All 20 of us – here’s the full list – spent 12 hours a day together, over 11 days, in the ‘tent’ designated for our workshops, in the canteen and, most evenings, in the pub.

We chatted over meals and during coffee breaks. We discussed where we were from and the sort of things we wrote. We shared our nervousness and excitement about being part of Writers at Work and discussed the masterclasses we’d been to and the amazing insights we’d been given into the way internationally renowned authors work.

A few days into the programme I thought I was getting to know my fellow writers pretty well

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Hay Festival Writers at Work 2018

And then we hosted the first of a series of events about Writers at Work. This was a chance to read our own work at Hay to an audience made up of the public – and each other.

It was a complete eye-opener

After the first few people had read their poetry or prose, it began to dawn on me that even after all the time spent socialising over lunches and coffees, only now was I being given the opportunity to really know them – to see their creativity and to understand what actually made them tick. And I realised that you can never truly know a creative person until you experience what they create.

Each writer came into their own as they took to the podium to showcase their work. They were in their element and it was remarkable to witness. There was such a breadth of fantastic writing on show, rich in diversity and totally inspiring. We had several sessions like this, and after each one I felt I knew my fellow writers so very much better.

So how do you really get to know a writer? Get to know their work. It’s the window into their personality, their soul and creativity.

Thanks for reading!

Sara x 

*Hay Writers at Work is a professional development course for writers from Wales. It’s the brain-child of Hay Festival’s Peter Florence, is funded by the Welsh Arts Council and run by Literature Wales. Author and educator Tiffany Murray is the programme co-ordinator.

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Sara’s debut novel ‘Not Thomas’ – a story of child 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.

 

The Nocturnal Writer: When too much imagination is a bad thing…

I’m naturally a nocturnal writer…

That’s not to say I sit at my computer writing every night – that would be too disruptive for my family – no, what I mean is this: I do my best work after midnight, and I often write whole paragraphs in my head at half past three in the morning. Believe me, it’s not the most convenient way to work.

I know I’m not alone in this affliction. When Frances Hardinge, the Costa Prize-winning YA adult author, came to speak to us at Writers at Work as part of Hay Festival this year, she told us she’d be totally nocturnal if only that lifestyle would fit in with society.

A few of us nodded our agreement. Some of us had already had this discussion – how if we didn’t need to be mindful of our families and others keeping office hours, our days and nights could be reversed, and how much more productive we would be, how much more our natural creative selves.

After the talk, Frances signed my copy of her latest novel, ‘A Skinfull of Shadows’ – to real-life me, Wendy.

She asked me about being a natural nocturnal like her – she’d obviously noticed my nodding. I briefly mentioned how, as a child, I had swapped night for day for almost a whole year, and how blissful it had been.

I didn’t have time to tell her the complete story: that I was absent from junior school for months with an infection after an operation to remove my tonsils, and that when I was sent off to bed at night I’d write and read until dawn and then sleep until lunchtime. It suited me brilliantly.

I’d had trouble sleeping from a very young age, so I was delighted with my new routine. I was getting far more sleep than I normally did and, despite the infection, I was starting to feel better than I ever had before. But, of course, my parents were terribly worried by my new and weird sleeping habit. When my mum mentioned it to the doctor, he told her not to worry – my health was clearly improving and he predicted my sleeping pattern would too, once I was back at school.

It didn’t

The light would go out at 9 o’clock and I’d lie awake for hours, writing stories in my head. I say ‘writing’ rather than ‘making up stories’ because that’s what I did – I wrote passages in my mind, word for word, with actual punctuation and paragraph breaks. And after a night of busily ‘writing’, I still, of course, had to get up for school in the morning.

After a few months, my parents were worried by how tired I looked and I was taken back to the doctor. When I admitted what I did when I couldn’t sleep, the doctor diagnosed ‘too much imagination’. He didn’t have a cure for that.

And I’m still not cured

All my life I’ve written huge amounts in my head when I should be sleeping. I wrote paragraph after paragraph of ‘Not Thomas’ that way. I used to worry I’d forget it all, and sometimes I’d get up to scribble down passages in the half-light of dawn. But recently I’ve become more relaxed about the process. If it’s good enough to type up the next day, it’ll stay in my head. If not, I’ll have forgotten it by morning. It was encouraging to hear Roddy Doyle, another speaker at Hay Writers at Work, tell us he took the same approach.

We nocturnal writers may be a peculiar lot, but I’m certain of one thing – nocturnal or not, as a writer you can never have too much imagination.

Thanks for reading!

Sara x

P.S. Do you write best at night? And do you wish, like me, you could live your life nocturnally? Let me know what you think.

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Sara’s debut novel ‘Not Thomas’ – a story of child 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.

Eleanor Oliphant and Not Thomas on Shortlist for Waverton Good Read Award 2018

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The winner of the Waverton Good Read Award for debut novels published in 2017 will be announced later this month, and I’m delighted that my own novel, ‘Not Thomas’, is on the shortlist.

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I’m even more delighted (if that’s possible) that also on the shortlist is one of my favourite novels of the year, ‘Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine’ by Gail Honeyman. It won the Costa First Novel Award, and Book of the Year at the British Book Awards, so it’s no surprise that the film rights were snapped up – and by Reese Witherspoon, no less.

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Also on the shortlist is ‘A Boy Made of Blocks’ by Guardian journalist Keith Stuart, which is about a couple going through a difficult time in their relationship. They have a child with autism who loves playing Minecraft. It’s a very moving read and was selected for the Richard and Judy Book Club.

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The other two debut titles on the list are ‘Montpelier Parade’ by Irish writer Karl Geary, a short novel set in Dublin and written in the second person, and ‘The Pinocchio Brief’ by Abi Silver, which is a riveting courtroom drama with a difference. I hadn’t read either book before they appeared on the shortlist but I have now and I really enjoyed them both.

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Only one novel can win, of course, and the winner will be chosen by the residents of Waverton in Cheshire on Tuesday, 26th June. But having ‘Not Thomas’ rub shoulders with such illustrious company on the shortlist is winning enough for me, no matter which title takes home the award.

Sara’s debut novel ‘Not Thomas’ – a story of child 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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My Experience of Hay Writers @ Work 2018

 It’s been a week now since I returned home from Hay Writers at Work, a professional development scheme for writers from Wales funded by the Arts Council of Wales and the brainchild of Hay Festival’s own Peter Florence.

I came across the call-out for applicants for the scheme in the Literature Wales’ newsletter back in March and decided to apply (under my real name, Wendy White). I was absolutely delighted when I found out a few weeks later that my application had been successful.

I spent 11 days at the festival, along with 19 other writers from Wales, being nurtured, nourished and inspired by the amazing programme of workshops and masterclasses wonderful Hay Fellow, Tiffany Murray, organised for us.

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A brief moment in the sunshine away from our Writers at Work tent

In future blogs I’ll be sharing some of the advice I gleaned from the authors, poets, publishers and agents who spoke to us, but today I’m sharing a link to Hay Festival’s blog page, and my own contribution to that. There are also posts on the website by some of the other writers who took part in the scheme, sharing their own viewpoints on our time at Hay.

It was an amazing and extremely beneficial 11 days. I came home exhausted after the packed programme, but truly inspired to take my writing to the next level and very grateful for the whole fantastic literary experience.

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The Hay Writers at Work class of 2018 with program organiser, Tiffany Murray (in sunglasses) Dr Phil George, Chair of the Arts Council Wales (right of photo) and our group organiser, Carys (back left)

But best of all, I’ve expanded my network of writing friends and I know they’ll be a real support to me. I’m looking forward to supporting their new work and cheering them on in the future too.

The Hay Writers at Work scheme can only go ahead with the generous help of the Arts Council of Wales but hopefully, if funding continues, places will be available for more writers from Wales to attend next year’s festival.

I’d advise any writer who’s eligible (that is, who’s from Wales or lives in Wales) to keep a look out for the notice in Literature Wales’ newsletter early in 2019 and just go ahead and apply – it’s an opportunity that’s too good to miss.

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A Hay Festival rose, presented to Eluned Gramich after her book launch at the festival

Sara’s debut novel ‘Not Thomas’ – a story of child 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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Hay Writers at Work 2018

I’m absolutely delighted to be among 20 writers from Wales who are taking part in the Writers at Work project at the Hay Festival this year

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Writers at Work will run for the whole 11 days of the festival and has a fantastic program of workshops and talks, with speakers ranging from authors and poets to publishing industry professionals. I’m especially looking forward to hearing the advice of Roddy Doyle, Frances Hardinge and Ian McEwan.

The object of the scheme, now in its third year, is to aid the professional development of writers from Wales. It’s funded by the Arts Council Wales and led by Hay Fellow, Tiffany Murray.

Meet the 20 writers taking part.

We’ll also have the chance to read from our work at public sessions and to discuss our new writing with members of the group.

I’m hugely grateful to be included in the class of 2018. It’s a fabulous opportunity and the start of the festival – 24th May – can’t come too soon! 

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Sara’s debut novel ‘Not Thomas’ – a story of child 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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Waverton Good Read Award

A huge thank you to the residents of Waverton in Cheshire who have included ‘Not Thomas’ on the longlist of their debut novel award for 2018.

The Waverton Good Read Award is a really brilliant idea for a prize, where a whole village of book lovers become involved in reading and voting for their favourites. The award has been running for 15 years and was first given to Mark Haddon for his novel ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time’.

This year there are some well-known titles among the 24 on the longlist, including Gail Honeyman’s ‘Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine’, Keith Stuart’s ‘A Boy Made of Blocks’ and Graham Norton’s ‘Holding’. Rebecca F John’s wonderful novel ‘The Haunting of Henry Twist’ is included too, which means there are two of us originally from Llanelli on the list.

The shortlisting happens later this month and, of course, with such strong contenders I’d be delighted if ‘Not Thomas’ got through to the second round. But being longlisted by real readers who have no agenda other than enjoying what they read is prize enough for me.

Wouldn’t it be fabulous if there were more prizes like the Waverton Good Read Award?

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Sara’s debut novel ‘Not Thomas’ – a story of child 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.

People They Ain’t No Good

I came across this heartfelt cover of Nick Cave’s ‘People Ain’t No Good’ on the end credits of ‘Damned’ – Jo Brand’s very dark comedy about social workers. I had to add it to the tracklist for my WIP, ‘Emmet and Me’, about children’s homes in Ireland in the 1960s. It’s ideal for creating the right atmosphere to write by.

And ten-year-old Emmet and his friend Claire would definitely agree with the sentiment of the song’s title.

Camille O’Sullivan & ‘People Ain’t No Good’ Live Version  

Sara’s debut novel ‘Not Thomas’ – a story of child 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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