Despite feeling awful due to a rather nasty infection, I attended the October meet-up of Hampshire Writers’ Society at Winchester university last night. Once more, I am really please I pushed past the pain and illness to attend – I’ve mentioned the society and recommended the meetings before, but I really have to stress that it’s worth anyone in or around the area to attend the meetings. Why? Simply because of the quality and range of speakers that Barbara and the committee bring in.
The monthly competitions are useful and rarely more than 500-600 pages, this time a 300 word flash. There is a chance to speak with other writers/attendees beforehand (I struggle with networking, I have to admit, having lost a lot of inter-personal confidence over the last eight years) and the speakers’ books are often on sale, sometimes with discounts. Very often the presenters hang around afterwards, too, happy to chat with the attendees (probably because we’re all writers or aspiring writers and want to get tips).
This time I was lucky to bump into the author of a dozen fantasy novels, headline speaker, James Barclay (that link’s Amazon: this is his own website) before the meeting as well. I thought I recognised him as someone I’d seen recently, mentioned something (thankfully flattering) about the books and was surprised and a little embarrassed when he replied ‘Thanks – I wrote them’.
You know the phrase ‘realisation dawned’? It may be overused but it really is how it felt when I realised where I’d seen his face before.
I have to confess I monopolised him for 20-25 minutes whilst we waited in a queue which was great – sorry if you felt interrogated, James! However, whilst I confessed that writing fantasy was something I was uncomfortable with, it ended up being interested drawing lessons from fantasy on just how far you can write away from normality before a book becomes unreadable. He stressed then, as during his talk, that focussing on the cohesion and credibility of the world and action was absolutely key.
James’ talk was wide ranging, briefly covering the essentials of world-building (geography, politics, economics and religion) as well as the essence of magic systems. In general, the rule is ‘know it all; reveal only what you absolutely have to’ as well as the infamous ‘don’t be sidetracked by research’ and he pointed out that fantasy worlds are a particularly strong excuse for procrastination. Magic systems should have weaknesses otherwise, logically, magicians would rule the world and stories would quickly be destroyed by scenes such as ‘the magician teleported everyone out of the trap and destroyed the enemies using a super-fireball’. James mentioned battle scenes, too, a lot of the content of which is mentioned in his blog, and also discussed the essence of dialogue and the inherent risks of fantasy dialogue. Apparently, talks with publishers, agents and David Gemmell revealed that very often too much monologue-ing and info-dumping takes place in artificial dialogue, information which might be better explained in a different fashion.
Great, useful stuff and my hand ached from taking notes.
That’s not all: the supporting, surprise speaker was just as good. Whilst James focussed on content and research, Mike Byrne (author of the acclaimed ‘Lottery Boy‘) focussed primarily on the metaprocess, and by that I mean a lot of stuff that surrounds the production of a book, not the process of writing itself. He talked of experiences as agent-show days, which weren’t good, of an agent who suddenly stopped talking to him and his switch to another agent who was helpful, believed in him and who even turned down some publishing offers or suggestions to keep his book at the YA age range at which it was aimed. Given that Lottery Boy is extraordinarily successful and is being translated, that shows a lot of faith. His opinion is that if you have gained the ears of one agent, then even if things go wrong, you are good enough to gain the ears of another, so keep going.
More technically interesting, though, was the comments about voice. Whilst a good writing standard is vital, the most important aspect of getting the attention of publisher is a solid and well-maintained voice. Apparently, all too many novels have a great first three chapters – obviously polished in writing groups, etc, but the voice in which they start is not maintained and they quickly deteriorate. Publishers and editors can work with and like a particular voice; plots and character issues can be fixed – and are often changed in the edits anyway – but a voice is far more difficult to alter, change or maintain.
That voice is so key is something previously mentioned in an ICCW day at BCU. This talk stressed that it is something really worth working on.