Monday, February 13, 2012

Get Writing 2012

This Saturday (11th February) was Get Writing 2012, organised by the Verulam Writers Circle and held at the University of Hertfordshire in Hatfield.  This is the third year I’ve attended the event, and I’d definitely say it was the best yet.  Everything seemed to run smoothly (to appearances, at least, whatever frantic efforts were happening behind the scenes).  The speakers were varied and entertaining and the workshops – at least the two I attended – were excellent.

We began in a large lecture theatre with a panel on Non-fiction in the Modern Marketplace which, as might be expected, was a varied group, with Adrian Magson (a wide range of articles, besides his crime fiction), David Lindo (the “Urban Birder”), and Mike French (editor of The View From Here literary magazine).  The fourth member was meant to be Marc Alpin, founder of the Fantasy Faction website – I was looking forward to seeing him, as I’ve only ever “met” him online, but unfortunately he’d been forced to cancel.  VWC’s Nick Cook stood in, though, and made an excellent substitute.  The discussions were lively and informative, and the most interesting piece of advice I came away with was that an article should tell a story and be structured very much like a story.

Many of the workshops and seminars that made up the rest of the morning were so tempting I wished I had Hermione’s time-turner from the Harry Potter books, so I could fit in more than the two I had time for.  I settled for Weird and Wonderful, given by Jonathan Pinnock (author of Mrs Darcy Vs the Aliens, which I brought and got autographed, complete with tentacle) in which we explored using random prompts to produce a surprising range of very left-field stories – my second attempt was written from the POV of a frozen loch.

The second was given by MD Lachlan/Mark Barrowcliffe, who writes fantasy and contemporary fiction under his two names.  In this, we brainstormed the plot of a novel in an hour – starting, interestingly, in the sewers.  As more of a “seat of the pants” writer than a plotter, it was fascinating to see the structure unfold so quickly, and realise what a difference there is between laying down a basic plot and getting hung up on details.

A buffet lunch was provided, as part of the price, with plenty of opportunity to socialise with other attendees and speakers – there was no artificial division or standoffishness.  After lunch, we had pitch sessions with a range of agents and editors: three and five minute pitches, as well as, for the first time, ten-minute “Facetime” sessions throughout the day.  I pitched to agent David Headley, whose relaxed manner and to-the-point questions made him very easy to pitch to.  He took my synopsis and sample chapters – which is a long way from an acceptance, of course, but I’m keeping all fingers and toes crossed.

For those who weren’t pitching, novelist Sarah Duncan was giving a talk called Mind the Gap.  I was pleased that, since I had my pitch session early, I was able to make it for a good deal of this, which had some excellent advice on handling plots and characters.

Following the judging and presentation of prizes for the Get Writing Short Story Competition, Barry Cunningham gave the keynote speech, with questions and answers.  Besides a varied career, mostly in children’s fiction, that has ranged from dressing up as a giant puffin, to working with Roald Dahl, to running Chicken House Publishing, Barry will be eternally remembered as the editor for Bloomsbury who accepted a first novel called Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, when everyone else in London had turned it down.  His talk was highly entertaining, and he gave some informative answers to questions, including his thoughts about self-publishing and the difficulty for good self-published ebooks to “break through the noise”.  Apparently, he puts his insight that kids were going to love the boy wizard down to his time as the above-mentioned puffin.

The last two sessions were both excellent panels, the first on The publishing arc, from writer to publisher, the various phases being represented by urban fantasy author Suzanne McLeod, literary agent Jane Judd, Lee Harris, editor at Angry Robot, and Donna Condon, senior fiction editor at Piatkus.  The second, Ask the agents and editors, had David Headley, Barry Cunningham and Donna Condon, along with Philippa Pride, who among many other achievements is Stephen King’s British editor and Michael Rowley, SFF editor at Ebury.

Both sessions prompted many fascinating questions, well answered.  A recurring concern was with the impact of ebooks on the publishing scene, and it was encouraging to see these editors and agents mainly optimistic.  There seems no doubt that epublishing is going to change the face of the publishing and reading process, though perhaps not quite as completely as some of its prophets are suggesting.  One very interesting suggestion was that epublishing, which many of the large houses are taking very seriously, might actually enable them to take more risks with new authors, since publishing work as an ebook first would be relatively cheap, compared with a print-run.  Perhaps the future isn’t with self-publishing.

And that was the end, except for the most important part of the day – retiring to the student bar, to talk and meet people.  I’ve been focusing on the formal programme, but Get Writing is at least as much about personal interactions.  I met and talked to numerous writers, all of whom had interesting insights, and even met a potential new member for my local writers’ group.

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed both of the other Get Writings I’ve attended, but this one surpassed them both.  Every session flew past and was over far too soon, and everything seemed smoother and easier than before.  Every single speaker – at least, those I was present for – was interesting and well worth listening to.

Complaints?  Well, they could have ordered up better weather – I almost froze getting there in the morning.  I trust they’ll have a word with the powers that be for next year.  That’s about it.

I’m already looking forward to Get Writing 2013.


  1. That sounds like a wonderful well spent day. My fingers and toes are crossed for you as well.

  2. I think you were a couple of places in front and to the right of me in the 3 minute pitch scrum. What an amazing day! Though I have never been so cold in my life, and coming from 'up north', that's quite a statement...

    This was a useful and very good value festival, and I'd heartily recommend it to everyone :)