Winchester Report

This being my third year attending the Winchester Writers’ Conference, I headed there with far more confidence this year, having a better idea what to expect. I packed all my gear in a ruck sack I could wear on my back, knowing that would make it easier to negotiate the dozens of steps around the campus. Knowing that one drives around for half an hour looking for a car parking space, I gave myself extra time between arriving at campus and turning up at the desk to collect my room key. Knowing that the closets in the dorm rooms which are allocated as accommodation are devoid of coat hangers, I brought some of my own, so I could hang up my clothes neatly instead of stuffing everything into drawers.

Thus, having arrived on Friday afternoon and secured my car, negotiated the steps, found my dorm room (which for some reason is always on the top floor, no matter what time I arrive) and unpacked my stuff, I went off for my first one-to-one of the weekend, with the first of two editors to whom I had sent the first few pages of my horror novel. She was of the opinion that as this novel has a 14-year-old protagonist, it is not classified as horror but Young Adult, which is a completely separate genre and one which she doesn’t deal with so she felt unable to offer much advice.

Somewhat deflated, therefore, I went to kill some time before dinnner, sitting on the steps opposite The Stripe (the usual spot for people to hang out between activities, if it isn’t raining) and got chatting to a few other delegates. Everyone is always very friendly, keen to share their jubilance and disappointments.

After dinner, I had an evening workshop entitled “How to Make Your Novel Shine in the Slush Pile”, led by writer and agent Lucie Whitehouse. We discussed attention-grabbing titles and openings, and those feeling brave enough were invited to read out their first pages. I read the first page of the crime novel to the group. It went down quite well, but I also received a few helpful suggestions on how I might improve it.

The Friday workshops finished at 10:30pm. There was a ‘midnight read’ going on later, but knowing that I would have an early start the following day, I decided to be sensible and retire to bed at that point.

Saturday’s programme started with a plenary address by children’s author Michael Morpurgo. I haven’t read any of his work, but he was a most entertaining speaker. The programme of talks began after that – first up for me was a talk entitled “Criminal Way with Words” by crime writer Peter James.

Next up, “The Life and Times of a Paperback Writer” by Catherine King. I’m not familiar with her books, but I picked the talk because it sounded interesting (I am, after all, aiming to be a commercial paperback writer myself). Ms King has a rather interesting philosophy on the business of writing. Very simply, she treats it as a business. As a former scientist and business manager, once she decided her career was to be writing, she wanted to make money at it. So she started writing historical sagas, because she wanted to write books that are sold in Tesco’s. I admire her pragmatism, but I’m not sure I could approach writing with the same kind of attitude. Still, it works for her, and the talk was interesting.

All the sessions are held in various buildings around the campus, and as you pick a programme tailored to you, you end up wandering around the campus looking lost, like a new student on the first day of the semester. Being a bit anally retentive, I do myself a timetable ahead of time, listing what sessions I’m attending and when, and where they are being held. Armed with this and the campus map I can usually find my way around. The fact that I’ve been a few times now is also of help, because I’m now becoming familiar with the different buildings.

After a buffet lunch – where I met a few more fellow writers – my afternoon began with “What’s in a Monster”, a session led by lecturer and medievalist Carolin Esser. Unfortunately I had to miss some of this, to make my second ‘one-to-one’ appointment, with a crime writer. She was quite complimentary about my crime novel on the whole, but had suggestions on what I could do to make the manuscript better and increase its chances of publication. Some of her suggestions were similar to those put forward at the Friday evening workshop by other people, so they are probably worth noting.

My mood somewhat improved from the previous afternoon, I then headed to my next session, entitled “How to Plan a Murder”, where we were divided into groups of four, presented with a ‘dead body’ and scenario, and told to work out motive, method of murder, and suspects. This session was headed by crime writers Lesley Horton (who was herself discovered at Winchester some years ago) and Linda Regan. Our group was really getting into the spirit of things. Having decided upon the murderer and the motive, we were involved in a long discussion about techique, including how much blood would be appropriate. Sadly I had to miss the end of the session for my third one-to-one, with the second horror editor. Clearly a fan of the genre she had positive things to say about the novel, and the horror genre as a whole, which she feels is a hot topic at the moment. However, she felt that the first couple of pages of my manuscript were weak, and from an editor’s point of view it’s crucial to develop an attention-grabbing beginning. Mine needs some improvement, it seemed.

On the whole, though, I was feeling encouraged when I headed for my final session of the day, “The X Factor in Novel Writing” led by Debby Holt.

The day ended with a drinks reception and awards ceremony before dinner. Most people attend the awards ceremony but as I hadn’t entered any of the competitions this year I didn’t. Hence, as I stood outside the lecture hall waiting for the ceremony to finish, I found myself standing next to an agent who had recently rejected my crime novel. In spite of this (I don’t hold grudges) she was a nice lady, and we had a friendly chat as we drank our wine and waited for the ceremony to end and dinner to begin.

Our upbeat after-dinner speaker was a young woman from South London who has had her second book published inside of a year. Her name was Lola Jaye, and her message was simple: “Don’t give up. If it can happen to me, it can happen to you”.

Thus lots of positive vibes were coming my way as I retired that night, fortified by a very nice meal and a couple of glasses of wine.

Sunday morning we carried on with the “Slush Pile” workshop, looking at synopses and cover letters. Funny things, synopses. All writers struggle with them, you have to have one to submit with your work, and yet it seems very few agents read them. And once you have an agent, no one ever bothers with your synopsis again. But I did learn a lot of useful things about cover letters (including possibly where I’ve been going wrong with mine).

The conference finished with lunch, and I said goodbye to all the people I’d met and enjoyed spending time with, before hitting the road.

I arrived home feeling thoroughly exhausted, and in a bit of a dilemma. There’s no doubt I picked up a lot of useful advice. But it seems that the two novels I thought were finished are not actually finished at all. They could both use another polish. The fact that they both continue to collect rejections has convinced me of the validity of doing another edit on both.

The question is, which one do I work on first? Crime or horror?

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