You can read Winchester Writers’ Conference, 2011, Part One: Characters here.

Today, I wanted to share a little more of what I learned at Winchester Writers’ Conference. I was there for two-and-a-bit busy days of lectures and workshops, so I won’t give you everything, just a few key tips…

I’ll kick off with a few pieces of advice that came up again and again:

  • If you want to be a writer, you need to read. And don’t just read, think. What makes a book good – or bad? What grips you – or makes you put it down? Try photocopying passages so you can annotate them.
  • Names tell you a lot about a character. The sound of a name can also convey meaning. Even spelling matters. (If I spelt my name “Allie” or “Ally” you might see me different from “Ali”…)
  • Good characters have powerful ambitions or longings. Their goals need to be acted out on the page – they can’t be purely internal.
  • Prompts – whether written or visual – can help you get started. You might like to put together a collection of photos/images or find some writing exercises to try.
  • The mood of a piece helps determine the meaning. Consider the location it’s set in, and the sorts of words that you use to describe the place and the people.
  • A fast-paced narrative and plenty of dialogue encourage readers to keep turning the pages. (editor John Jenkins pointed out that “readers don’t skip dialogue!”)

Developing Fiction Writing – Workshop with Paul Bavister

First, I’m going to cover some of the tips I picked up in a workshop with Paul Bavister, a poet and a creative writing tutor at The University of Reading and at Birkbeck College, London.

At the Winchester Writers’ Conference, Paul delivered a workshop on Developing Fiction Writing. It covered a range of areas, but I’m going to focus here on two sections: planning and what makes a bad piece of writing.

Planning Your Novel

It’s a good idea to write a plan or synopsis before you start – that way, you can spot potential problems sooner.

The first decision you’ll need to make is about viewpoint; first person (I) or third person (he/she). If you’re going to make unusual structural decisions, like having several first person narrators, do it for a reason.

Don’t try to pack too much in: aim for three main characters, not nine. (We had some discussion in the group about why three is a particular good number and agreed that it gives good possibilities for conflict. A lot of popular stories have three central characters: e.g. Harry, Ron and Hermione.)

There are plenty of different plot types: most stories are either about going away or coming back (in a literal or metaphorical sense).

The group came up with these plot types:

  • The Disaster – some external force interrupts a normal life
  • Boy meets Girl – or someone meets someone
  • Quest / Odyssey
  • Coming of Age – and other rites of passage
  • The Outsider – someone doesn’t fit in; will they conform or be broken/
  • Rags to Riches
  • Good vs Evil
  • Mistaken Identity – the plot of several Shakespeare plays

Of course, you can blend these plots, especially in a novel.

A theme gives shape and purpose to what you’re trying to write; the plot is the illustration of the theme. Themes often emerge during novels and may not be obvious at the start.

Authors have different approaches to planning: some like to create characters and set them loose, rather than working out a detailed plot. It’s best, though, to have some level of planning as part of your creative process.

What Makes a Bad Piece of Writing

As a group, we came up with things that really bug us in what we read. This is a list of what to avoid…

  • Cliches – whether that’s clichéd phrases, or plot points and characters that are hackneyed
  • Authors who get the facts wrong when they could easily get them right
  • An unconvincing world – even fantasy worlds need to be internally consistent
  • Too much information
  • Too much build up without a payoff
  • Endings that are weak – whether that’s because the manuscript was rushed, because there was a weird twist, or because of an overdone metaphor


Next Year, I Want to Speak

I enjoyed Winchester, as usual. But I felt that, despite the high-quality of the sessions, I wasn’t learning all that much.

I guess that, after four years at the conference, plus a creative writing MA, plus extensive feedback from workshop groups … I’ve mastered more than the basics.

So, next year, my goal is to be a speaker at Winchester, not just a delegate. I’ve got a wealth of experience in the online world – blogs, social media, ebooks, ecourses – and this is an area of huge interest to writers, as well as a rather scary prospect for many. I’m hoping to pitch a session or even a short course to help writers to not only demystify the online world, but to get excited about the opportunities it offers.

I’m also looking into doing more speaking generally: I’ve submitted a proposal to BlogWorld LA and will let you know how that goes!

Are you a fiction-writer (or an aspiring one)? Is there any topic that you’d like to see me cover in greater depth here on Aliventures?  Just pop a comment below if so…

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