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

 

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.

 

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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Inside a Prison Book Club

I’ve had some interesting invitations in my short time as an author – I’ve shared my children’s stories in school assembly halls, I’ve read my poetry at Women’s Institute meetings and I’ve spoken about my writing experiences at my local Workers’ Education Association. But a few months ago, a very unusual invitation appeared in my inbox which made me do a double take.

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The email was from Neil Barclay, who introduced himself as the librarian at HMP Thameside London and invited me to discuss my novel, ‘Not Thomas’, with their book club. At first I skimmed over the ‘HMP’, not registering its meaning. Then I did that double take. Yes, I had definitely seen the letters H, M & P and, of course, I knew exactly what they stood for – Her Majesty’s Prison.

The invitation had come completely out of the blue and it took me a moment to process that a prison would even have a book club. Then I saw Neil had included a link to the Prison Reading Groups’ website, a charity that provides books to prisoners, and it was obvious from that what an important role these clubs have. The PRG encourages reading for pleasure so that long hours spent alone can be put to good use – reading fiction is, after all, a walk in someone else’s shoes and a different perspective on the world.

Education Consultant Ruth Perry, who volunteers at the prison library, had come across my novel via a book blog. Yet again I had a reason to be thankful for those wonderful book bloggers who do a marvellous job of promoting new books from small publishers. Ruth read ‘Not Thomas’ and suggested to Neil that he might invite me to speak about it.

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With Ruth Perry who led the book club session

I was delighted Ruth had spotted my novel and extremely pleased to know that it was being read in prison. The novel is about Tomos, a neglected five-year-old boy, and I suspected that it might resonate with some of the men there. Neglect is the most common reason for a child to be taken into care, and many people in prison have been brought up in the care system. A sad childhood is not unusual among prisoners.

I eagerly accepted Neil’s invitation, curious to know what the readers at Thameside would make of my novel and keen to see the innovative library. Neil has won the prestigious Butler Trust Award for his work there and is greatly appreciated by the members of the library. In 2016 a journalist for The Guardian visited and reported on the positive effects of the power of books and it makes for very interesting reading.

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In front of the wall of titles of previous visitors, with the beautiful flowers I was given

Neil certainly succeeds in getting a wide range of guests to visit the library. Actors Sir Ian McKellen and David Morrissey have held recent events there, and authors Paula Hawkins of ‘Girl on the Train’ fame, and Val McDermid have also visited. Crime writer, Martina Cole, is a regular visitor, holding creative writing workshops at the library. I felt I was following in the footsteps of very illustrious people.

The whole morning – from meeting the book club members, as well as Neil, Ruth and Laura (an immigration lawyer who’d come along for the morning) to receiving the thoughtful and often moving feedback from the men in the group – was a thoroughly enjoyable experience. Some of the comments the group made were very sad, especially from readers who could identify first hand with little Tomos. Some of the men said they’d cried as they read it – and I was impressed by their open approach in such a ‘manly’ environment.

After the book group session, Neil, Ruth and Laura took me on a short tour of part of the prison. A member of the library team kindly allowed me into his cell so I could see what living in that small space was like. It certainly made me realise the importance of the work Neil and his volunteers do there. Whether convicted of a crime or not, everyone needs a chance to relax and switch off from their environment. Reading in prison gives the men a way to do that, and it gives them a legitimate escape from their sometimes difficult surroundings.

My tour included a brightly decorated room furnished with soft toys where the men can record videos of themselves reading from picture books. It’s a wonderful project provided by the charity Storybook Dads, and it means that children don’t miss out on a bedtime story from their father while he’s away from them. Recording those videos is often an emotional experience for the men but a very worthwhile one. Neil explained that most prisons have now introduced the Storybook Dads scheme although sadly there are still some where it’s not available.

When I accepted Neil’s invitation I never imagined that spending a morning in prison would be an uplifting experience, but that’s exactly what it was. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

So a very big thank you to Ruth Perry and Neil Barclay for offering me such a wonderful opportunity, but most importantly a massive thank you to the men of HMP Thameside Book Club for reading ‘Not Thomas’ – I will never forget your sometimes sad but very kind words.

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Momentos of my visit

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 & Narberth Book Fair

For ‘Not Thomas’ readers who aren’t familiar with the Welsh language, today’s Welsh words for Wednesday come from page 81 and they’re spoken by Saint, or Dewi, as Ree prefers to calls him.

First is cariad which means ‘love’ and is a general term of endearment. Dewi says to Ree: “Nip to Spar, cariad.” Ree doesn’t like Dewi, so she’s not exactly won over by his use of cariad, but the £20 note he’s waving does get her attention.

Later on Dewi, or Saint, says to Tomos, who’s hiding behind the big black chair: “Dere ‘ma, bach.” 

Dere means ‘come’; ‘ma is short for yma, which means ‘here’; And bach means ‘small’ but in this phrase it’s a term of endearment and could be translated as ‘little one’.

So “Dere ‘ma, bach” translates as “Come here, little one.

Sounds a bit sinister maybe, but Tomos eventually realises that Saint means well – he’s the friendly face of Welsh drug dealing.

Thanks for reading!

Sara x

P.S. Don’t forget Narberth Book Fair this weekend, Saturday 23rd September at the Queen’s Hall, Narberth in beautiful Pembrokeshire. Lots of local authors, plus free entry, free talks, free children’s entertainment and free workshops (but please book for workshops in advance). All details of the day are on the Narberth Book Fair website.

Hope to see you there!

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 all good bookshops – and on Saturday from Narberth Book Fair!

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Finding that writer’s voice – and losing it again

If, like me, you’ve attended lots of courses on creative writing and read stacks of self-help books on the subject, you’ll be well used to the phrase ‘finding your writer’s voice’. It’s that one thing every writer simply MUST do.

But what’s never clear, when you’re new to writing, is exactly how you do it. A writer’s voice seems something elusive at best, ethereal at worst. It’s enough to stop the faint-hearted at the first hurdle.

I have to admit, it’s taken me a long time to find a comfortable writer’s voice. I set off on this writing trek many years ago, via a creative writing course. And then another. And another. They were wonderful and pretty addictive. They were the ideal place to test out ideas with other people just starting out on their own writing journey too (sorry for using the ‘j’ word there).

Looking back at some of the early pieces I wrote for those courses, I realise that I made finding my writing voice harder than necessary. Instead of simply writing freely, and despite the advice from my excellent tutors, I was often trying to copy a formula.

At one stage, I was quite attracted to writing short stories for women’s magazines. I’d had a couple of poems accepted by one of the popular publications, and the prospect of being paid to write short fiction was very appealing.

Sadly, my attempts at writing uplifting stories were pretty dire. I did send off a couple to the magazine that had accepted my poems, and to some other well-known publications too. But while their replies were politely encouraging – “enjoyable but not quite what we’re looking for” – I didn’t have the know-how to work at improving the stories, and so I soon gave up.

Reading those attempts after many years have passed, I can see plenty of problems with them. An obvious one was that I simply wasn’t writing as ‘me’. I was trying to use a manufactured writing voice, and the stories suffered as a result. Forcing a voice just doesn’t work.

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So how do you find that elusive voice without forcing it? Well, another of the reasons those stories were rejected was because I hadn’t done my research. I’d read a few stories in women’s magazines but I hadn’t read anywhere near enough. It was more than a bit presumptuous to think I could write an acceptable story without immersing myself in the form beforehand. I thought I knew the formula so I could just go ahead and write. Very wrong.

I didn’t have the dedication to read enough short stories to improve my ability to write them. That says to me now that I was barking up the wrong tree all along. I was looking for my writer’s voice in the wrong place. And perhaps I’d have found one, but it wouldn’t have been mine.

When I gave up trying to write those short stories, I discovered I quite enjoyed writing for children. As a teacher and parent, I was reading lots and lots of children’s books anyway, so when I stopped to think about it I already knew the kind of writing I wanted to emulate. Once I started concentrating on children’s stories, my writing voice began to form naturally.

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I started to write stories about children too, and in those stories my central character was a little neglected boy called Tomos. I was much more comfortable writing about him than trying to write uplifting stories for magazines. I had found my topic and, as with my children’s books, the voice came naturally. Finally I understood what it meant to ‘find your writer’s voice’.

Weirdly, though, I couldn’t keep that voice. Very quickly I realised Tomos’s story would have more impact in his own words – and he was a frightened five-year-old who spoke in short sentences and used very simple terms. The moment I’d found my comfortable writer’s voice, I had to get rid of it again. I re-wrote my stories about Tomos and changed them from third to first person – I didn’t mind; I felt I had to keep writing in Tomos’s voice. The stories turned into a novel, and happily I’ll be having my pre-publication book launch for ‘Not Thomas’ this month.

I’m planning my next novel now, with the help of some lovely notebooks.

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Again it has a child as the central character – no surprises there – but this time that child is quite a bit older than five. Just like ‘Not Thomas’, it’ll be written in the first person. So will I be using my own writer’s voice? I guess I’ll just have to start tapping away on the laptop and see.

But it’s just occurred to me that maybe writing in the voice of a child is my writer’s voice.

Are you searching for your writer’s voice, or have you found it? What tips could you give a new writer to help them find theirs?

Thanks for reading – I’m working on finding my ‘blogging voice’ at the moment!

Please leave me a comment if you have the time,

Sara xx

(aka children’s writer, Wendy White!)

Sara’s debut novel ‘Not Thomas’ is published by Honno Press in paperback and on Kindle and is available to pre-order now on Amazon.

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