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

 

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.

 

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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Recommended Reads of 2017 – Thank You Anne Williams!

A huge thank you & diolch yn fawr to book blogger Anne Williams of Being Anne for including ‘Not Thomas’ in her list of recommended reads for damppebbles #R3COMM3ND3D2017. Here’s the link for the blog post.

And in a happy coincidence, ‘Not Thomas’ is on special offer on Kindle at the moment – just 99p.

Thank you to Emma of damppebbles for featuring Anne’s choices. Emma and Anne each have a wonderful book blog – definitely worth following if you don’t already:

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Being Anne   

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

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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#MusicTherapyThursday #InspiralCarpets #Thisishowitfeels

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Another song from my Not Thomas playlist today and a blast from the past: ‘This is How it Feels’ by Inspiral Carpets. The video is certainly of its time, but I love the song and it’s rarely heard on the radio these days.

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.

#WelshWordWednesday #nosdacariad

Today’s Welsh word, for ‘Not Thomas’ readers unfamiliar with the language, is in fact three words: Nos da, cariad.

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On page 355 of ‘Not Thomas’, Tomos is thinking about his new foster mother, Tess, and how she says ‘Nos da, cariad’ when she puts him to bed. I’m sure, given the context, the meaning is pretty easy to work out.

Nos = night; da = good; cariad = love.

As it happens, there’s a David Gray song with exactly the right title.

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.

#NotThomas #BookSigning Events

I’ll be taking Tomos along to bookshop & library events in the months before Christmas

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Here are the details of all my Not Thomas book signings

If you’re in the area, come along & say hello

Waterstones Carmarthen

Friday 3rd November

11 – 3 p.m.

Llanelli Library

Saturday 4th November

11 – 1 p.m.

Waterstones Swansea

Saturday 18th November

12 – 2 p.m.

WHSmith Cwmbran

Saturday 25th November

11 – 3 p.m.

WHSmith Llanelli

Saturday 2nd December

12 – 4 p.m.

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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#WelshWordWednesday #NotThomas

Today’s Welsh word, for readers of Not Thomas unfamiliar with the language, is again not a word at all, but the name of a special day – Dydd Gwyl Dewi (sorry, I can find a w with a ‘to‘ for gwyl on WordPress – anyone know where it is!?).

welsh dragon

On page 154 of Not Thomas, Miss is comforting Tomos. He thinks he might not be going to the zoo after all, because he doesn’t have his permission slip. On the wall of the school hall is a collage of a red dragon that Tomos helped make. It’s marking Dydd Gwyl Dewi otherwise known as St David’s Day and celebrated on March  1st.

But I’m guessing everyone already knew that.

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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Not Thomas Not the Booker Not to be…

So it’s over

The Guardian’s Not the Booker Prize drew to a close this morning with a very happy outcome for one of the authors on the shortlist.

Dark Chapter by Winnie M Li is Not the Booker winner 2017

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Huge congratulations to Winnie. Her book is moving and brave and a worthy winner. The public vote was a closely fought battle, with Winnie’s novel achieving 130 votes, 24 ahead of Harriet Paige’s Man with a Seagull on his Head.

The public vote wasn’t the end of it, though. The judges’ verdict came next, chaired by Sam Jordison, head judge (think Len Goodman or Shirley Ballas) and organiser of the Not the Booker prize for the last 9 years.

The judges’ comments were really interesting, and listening to and watching them live online as each book was reviewed was a rather surreal experience.

And there was a little surprise for me.

One of the judges – book blogger and avid reader, Jackie Law – made some lovely comments about Not Thomas, saying it was her second choice behind Man with a Seagull on his Head. She called Not T poignant, never mawkish and a very engaging story which raised important issues without preaching. I’m very grateful to Jackie for her positive remarks.

Next the judges’ points were awarded. Yvain Poncet, along with Jackie, voted for Man with a Seagull, while third judge, Hannah Macdonald, gave her vote to Dark Chapter which, when added to the public vote, made this novel the winner.

Sam commented that Dark Chapter was ‘possibly controversial but that’s what winners are meant to be.’ He decided not to use his casting vote, saying: ‘We can feel that we made a strong choice.’

And that was the Guardian’s Not the Booker Prize done and dusted for another year

IMG_20171012_193740997Not the Booker shortlisted authors at the Big Green Bookshop, Wood Green, London, from left to right: Rowena Macdonald, Harriet Paige – chair, Sam Jordison – Winnie M Li & me

 

I feel as if I’ve woken up from a very strange dream. This prize contest began back in July and seems to have dominated the last two and a half months of my writing life. It’s been a completely bizarre episode but one, as I’ve said many times since the summer, I wouldn’t have missed for the world.

So what have I learned from my Not the Booker experience?

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Well…

#1 Sometimes opportunities come along that are too good to waste and you have to be brave and just throw yourself at them – even if, like me, you’re not terribly brave at all.

#2 Public voting is a mixed blessing – some people don’t mind you letting them know they can vote for your book if they wish, while some people do.

But…

#3 The vast majority of people are helpful, kind and supportive.

#4 Social media is a godsend – but you knew that already, it’s just me that needed convincing.

#5 Social media is not a godsend when you’re on it for eight hours or more, seven days in a row.

And finally…

#6 Being shortlisted, when you’ve not got a snowball’s chance in hell of going any further (I’m thinking judges’ voting here) is almost as good as winning – I am just so grateful I had a place on that shortlist.

As I was dropping off to sleep last night, I began wondering what advice I’d give anyone who finds their book nominated for the NTB next year

I’d say go for it 100%, obviously, but what else? What tips would I share?

And then I started thinking of a whole new blog post, one titled ‘So you’ve been nominated for the Not the Booker Prize 2018…’

But I think I’ll put that on hold until next year, by which time the last few months will be a happy, distant memory and I won’t remember a single tip to share.

Thank you for reading and keeping me company on this often weird and wonderful experience. And to everyone who voted for Not Thomas and cheered me on – I am so grateful. You are all magnificent!

Diolch o galon,

Sara x

P.S. I’m planning on starting what I hope will become my new novel soon, and so my next series of blog posts will have some writing tips about points to remember when beginning a fresh WiP. I need reminding – I began writing Not T back in 2001!

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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