Winchester Writers’ Conference, 2011, Part Two: Plot and Other Tips


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…

Thanks for commenting! I read all comments, and reply to as many as I can. Please keep the discussion constructive and friendly. Thank you!

10 thoughts on “Winchester Writers’ Conference, 2011, Part Two: Plot and Other Tips

    • Yay! I’ve gone through dry spells of no fiction writing, but I’ve always come back to it eventually. Hope you will too, when the time is right!

  1. Thanks for posting this two part series. I recently subscribed to your blog, and already I find it quite entertaining and useful.
    Here’s to you goal of speaking at the next conference. ^^

    • Thanks Prime! I’m definitely gonna get in touch with the Winchester organiser for next year. I’ve also submitted a BlogWorld proposal, but I know they’ve had LOOOOADS in … so fingers crossed on that. 🙂

  2. I know I’ve already emailed you an answer, but I want to to comment on here and say you really should try speaking next year, like all the people before me, I’m sure you will do awesomely! Thank you so much for having this blog and writing about writing!

    • And thank you for reading! 🙂

      I will indeed give speaking a go… and hey, I might even try doing a bit more audio content (i.e. any!) online, too…

  3. Yes, you are more than qualified to be a speaker Ali– enjoy! I have to respond to the “plenty of dialogue” advice cited by the editor who spoke. As an editor and writing mentor (years of experience) and fiction reader (decades), I realized a while ago that excessive dialogue, say over 50% of the average page based on quick page flip through book, usually means the book won’t engage me enough to read it all. Of course there are authors who can use a ton of dialogue and still reel me in, but I find fiction with a high proportion of dialogue often is weak. Anyone else feel this way?

    • Thanks Andrea!

      Interesting points about dialogue. I think it can get overused in certain genres (perhaps thrillers?) to try to create pace that’s maybe not quite warranted. Personally, though, I like a fairly high percentage of dialogue — so long as it’s well-written. Badly done dialogue really grates.

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