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Lessons Learned from the Gollancz Festival for Writers

On Sunday, 18th of October, prolific SFF publisher Gollancz held the Gollancz Festival for Writers, as a sort of addendum to the already sold-out Gollancz Festival 2015. It had a smaller line-up of authors compared to the main festival itself, and focused solely on writing (obviously). I was gutted that the main festival sold out so it was a pleasant surprise when this was announced, and I snapped up tickets immediately.

Gollancz Festival (logo)

The main line-up consisted of Ben Aaronovitch, Joe Abercrombie, Joanne Harris and Joe Hill. Out of these four, I’d only read Abercrombie, and I’ve also seen him at events twice before (including Fantasy-Faction’s own Grim Gathering). Joe is one of my favourite writers and also a joy to see speak, so I was already thrilled to be going, but also seeing three other authors I’ve not seen before was a massive bonus.

The authors were interviewed by their editors, and focused on one subject in particular. First up was Joanne Harris, talking about self-discipline as a writer. Something Joanne said that was echoed by the rest of the authors throughout the day was about reining in your own ego when it comes to writing. You have to be sure you’re writing something that isn’t just there because it sounds pretty or makes you feel clever. If it does nothing to serve the story, then cut it.

Another interesting thing Joanne talked about was having a separate space to write, as she has her shed. It’s something I’ve discovered myself when I try to write. Getting away from the distractions of home such as TV, video games, and even other-halves, is really helpful. I like to sit in a café, and have found that this helps immeasurably. I can focus on the writing alone, with a massive mug of coffee and a Two Steps from Hell playlist to help me along.

Joanne had one small piece of advice that I’d never heard before: when editing something, try changing the font. It makes it look fresh and you could catch things that you may not have seen before.

The best advice she had was for ‘aspiring’ writers: drop the word ‘aspiring’. If you write, you’re a writer. Calling yourself an aspiring writer just makes it sound like an ambition rather than something you actually do.

Then we had a panel of four newi(ish) writers affectionately called the class of 2015, discussing their experiences, with agent John Berlyne. The panel was made up of Tom Toner, Bradley Beaulieu, Aliette de Bodard and Alex Lamb.

John Berlyne, Tom Toner, Bradley Beaulieu, Aliette de Bodard, and Alex Lamb

I think the first thing you hear about starting out as a writer is just how difficult and infrequent it is to be successful. Hearing these four authors speak gave me a better insight in to just how tricky and frustrating it can be. Bradley Beaulieu said his former self would be jealous of where he is now, but that it still feels precarious, like he is on stilts. He would know, seeing as he was previously published by Night Shade Books in the US, which folded after a lot of mismanagement.

The main take-away from this discussion was one we’re all familiar with: it’s going to be difficult, but you simply cannot give up. These four authors are living proof that striving towards your goal despite the bumps in the road can lead to success.

Some other great pieces of advice that cropped up:

– It’s good to consider the market when you’re coming up with a book, but your heart needs to be in everything you write.

– Self-publishing can be successful for some, but it is a lot of hard work on top of writing. You are effectively becoming a publisher as well as a writer. (As John Berlyne put it, why have a dog and bark yourself?)

We then had publishing director Gillian Redfearn speak to Lord Grimdark himself, Joe Abercrombie, about writing characters with agency. Anyone who has read Joe’s stuff knows that characters are one of his strengths. Joe said as much himself, when he said that characters are the heart of the stories. Without well-written, rounded characters, you can have the best plot in the world and no one will be able to engage with it. On the other hand, you can have a story of a character that does nothing but sit and stare at a wall, and if they are well drawn, it will be interesting.

Joe Abercrombie and Gillian Redfearn

Joe spoke about how he tries to give his POV characters distinct voices, and not just literally through their speech, but in the way he writes their chapters. This is something that I noticed about his writing myself (particularly in the Dogman chapters of The First Law trilogy), and it’s probably my favourite thing about his writing. Unlike some authors, Joe doesn’t put the name of the POV character at the start of each of their chapters, but you can tell straight away which character the chapter belongs to through the language that gets used. It’s such a fantastic way of giving your character a distinct personality and makes them feel real.

Joe’s sense of humour shone throughout the whole talk, and particularly when the subject of semicolons came up. Gillian Redfearn said that she remembers during an editorial discussion, Joe once commented that none of his characters knew what a semicolon was, and so they didn’t appear in the writing. Joe followed this up by saying if you ever see a semicolon in one of his books, it’s been put there by someone else.

The best tip that Joe gave was to be as honest as possible with your writing. The example he gave was of a metaphor: ‘the sea looked like a sheet of beaten metal’. That might sound nice, but is it true? Does the sea look like that? You have to extend that honesty in to every facet of your writing, especially your characters. Would your character do or say that thing? You need to know and understand your characters.

After Joe, Ben Aaronovitch talked about worldbuilding. It’s an interesting topic for someone who writes books based mostly in London, but Ben said that his version of London may not match up with anyone else’s – ‘all cities are imagined, everyone has a different version in their heads’.

One thing Ben said of creating secondary worlds, is that they should have maps. If you haven’t drawn a map, he said, you haven’t done the work. He wants to know where the sea is! I’d like to know what Joe Abercrombie thought of that comment.

I’d tend to agree with him, although I wouldn’t go so far as to say you haven’t done the work. Maps do add a sense of realism, and helps me immerse myself even further, and to visualize the story better and get a sense of place and distance. It can be a lot of fun to flip back to the map to see just where all the characters are.

While Ben was very funny and interesting, he also had a tendency to go off on a lot of tangents. I’m not sure he actually gave a completely straight answer to any of the questions he was asked, although I don’t think any of us had a problem with that. Those fifteen minutes flew by.

Agent John Berlyne then gave a very succinct and informative talk on what agents do and how to go about getting represented. In essence, the agent is there to represent the rights in the work of the author and to make the most of them. When submitting your work to be represented, you need to follow exactly what the agency asks of you to submit. John’s agency, Zeno Agency, has a very prescriptive list of submission guidelines on their website, and he tends to ignore authors who do not follow this. As for finding an agent, good ways to do this are through the Writers and Artist’s Yearbook, going to conventions, and even looking at an author’s acknowledgements pages. You should also try to be professional about submitting; treat it like a job interview. And most importantly, take your time to make sure that your book is as good as it can be before you submit, and never submit unfinished work.

And the last of the big four authors was Joe Hill. Joe was talking to Gillian Redfearn about reining in your imagination. This might sound like something an author of fantasy and sci-fi should avoid doing, but the message Joe was trying to get across was one of self-restraint when it comes to ideas. ‘Ideas are the easy part,’ he said, ‘executing them well is the hard part.’ Try to focus on one idea at a time. Keep a notebook for your ideas and come back to them. You might see in hindsight them some weren’t so great after all, but a good idea is one that will not go away, and demands to be written. For Joe, this was the case with his book Horns. He originally used a similar idea for an earlier book called The Fear Tree, but he admitted that it didn’t work very well, and it was never published. The idea, however, wouldn’t go away. So Joe eventually reused it for Horns. ‘My horrible mistake was all the books I wrote which didn’t get published. But I learned important things from them’.

Joe Hill and Gillian Redfearn

Joe also threw in his two cents on characters, saying that ‘characters dynamically create plot as they go along’. He talked about how you should really get to know and understand your character. An interesting idea he spoke about was writing something about your character that you’re not necessarily going to put in the book, citing a time when he wrote an entire scene of how a character was going to get a message across to someone who was on the opposite side of a body of water. He spent days writing a fantastic scene on how they would do that, and when he was done he realised that it would make more sense for the character to just get someone else to bring them that message. He cut the scene, but said that he loved writing it as he learned a lot about his character. ‘I have to have a character who I don’t understand. I have to write to work them out’.

To wrap things up, we had Mark Stay talk us through the process of writing a script, to making it into a film, and then turning that in to a tie-in novel. Mark did exactly this with the film Robot Overlords. One thing about writing a film as opposed to writing a book, is that it is a collaborative process. There is very rarely just one person involved. And not only that, but you are restrained by the physical limitations of what you can actually put on screen. Of course, anything they couldn’t put in the film, Mark was able to put in to novel. Mark’s talk was very interesting and insightful, proving just how complex and exhausting it is to write and produce a film.

The festival was, in short, fantastic. The authors all had excellent advice, more than I could hope to fit in to this article. The atmosphere was amazing; the writers and the guys at Gollancz all seemed like one big family, teasing each other and laughing together. It was really nice to behold, and it made me feel like Gollancz genuinely cares for their writers and are also enthusiastic in nurturing us newbies and wannabes.

Gollancz is going to have an open submission period in January (more details of which can be found here), perfect timing for you to polish off your NaNoWriMo drafts! I really hope they hold another festival for writers next year, as being in attendance was really something special.

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4 Comments

  1. Good article – clear and concise. Some great pieces of advice for writers from the authors and agents too. I enjoyed reading it. Thanks Chris

  2. This is a really insightful post. It`s great that you go to these writing festivals. I`ve started writing myself, my first novel is a fantasy novel called The Golden Age Dawns and one of the main characters is from Dublin. I agree wholeheartedly with all the advice in your post. Before I started I went to the local library where a writer was holding writing workshops for free at the weekends. I had always wanted to write a book but not until I met this author did I have the tools to do so. But it`s been fun so far and I`m still working on it, as Stephen King says your story is a diamond buried in the dirt. You have to polish it and polish it until it shines. So hopefully mine will shine!! Keep writing Chris!

  3. Avatar Chris Fagan says:

    Thanks for the kind words guys! Glad you liked the article.

    • No problem Chris! Yes they are good tips, a bit too late though my book is going to be published soon but I`ll use them for the second book!!. I suppose writing a book is a journey, people start learning things that they thought they couldn`t do or wouldn`t like and it turns out to be fun. It`s always great to read new ideas. Keep on blogging Chris!

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