London Writers Awards writer 2019-20 Ruth Goldsmith shares seven insightful things she’s learnt on the London Writers Awards programme to date, including shedding light on the importance of staying confident in your vision for your writing, the role of self-care in creating, how community building can make your words sparkle and much, much more…
“On 21 September 2019, I was one of 30 writers who gathered in Deptford for the launch of the Spread the Word London Writers Awards programme 2019/20. It felt like the first day at school – a mixture of nerves and excitement, new notebooks at the ready. In the three months since, having been plunged into a series of masterclasses and feedback groups and time spent talking to other writers, I’ve made new friends and learnt lots. Here, I’m sharing seven things that have particularly resonated with me.
On the launch day, artist wellbeing practitioner Lou Platt spoke to us about the importance of taking care of ourselves and avoiding the trap of the ‘tortured artist’ narrative. Personally, I *know* that I am pretty useless at the desk unless I am fed, hydrated, not (too) hungover and have maybe moved my limbs, seen daylight and breathed some fresh air within the last 24 hours. Lou’s session served as an excellent reminder right from the programme’s outset that wellbeing – both physical and mental – is essential for creativity to thrive.
Not quite as dystopian as it sounds. Writer Jarred McGinnis’ masterclass on beginnings looked at how your words must grab the reader’s attention – but he also made me reflect on what’s happening at this moment. Jarred offered us the idea of writing as “hacking another person’s brain.” He suggested that the opening of whatever you are working on needs to force the reader to “settle down, take off their thoughts, and put on yours instead”. It made me reflect again on that sense of disappearing into a good piece of writing and the importance of being drawn in to a cohesive narrative and not jarred out of the story by any false notes.
In her masterclass on characterisation, children’s author Helen Donohoe suggested becoming a psychotherapist to your characters to understand how and why they behave the way they do, and what motivates them to make the choices they make. If therapy isn’t a helpful frame for you, there are loads of other ways to approach it – character questionnaires, for example, really help you think about the lives your characters have led up to the moment they appear in your story. The iceberg principle applies here though; you should know more than your reader ever will about your characters’ backstory.
Tending to the engine
Few genres rely on tight plotting more than crime fiction, so it was great to hear from novelist Abir Mukherjee for his masterclass on plot. I really benefited from a dissection of the differences between plot (the engine of your story; what drives it forward), structure (your plot plus timing; what happens when) and theme (your message or overarching idea). Abir’s masterclass also reminded me to look at the rhythm of my work – a mix of major and minor, loud and quiet, fast-paced and reflective scenes and sections are necessary to keep the reader engaged but not exhausted.
At the #AskTheFictionEditors evening, jointly hosted by Hachette’s THRIVE network and Spread the Word, five editors spoke about their work and their relationships with authors. Two particularly encouraging things stayed with me: Mary-Anne Harrington of Tinder Press said she prefers a back and forth with her authors, rather than meek acceptance of all her edits; and Emad Akhtar, publisher at Orion Books, recommended that debut authors should have the confidence to share their vision for their work and how it’s marketed. Emad argued it’s much better to enter into those discussions with a publisher early on, to avoid finding your work pigeonholed or marketed in ways you are unhappy about.
Blurb it up, baby
Felicity Trew, an agent at Caroline Sheldon Literary Associates, gave us a masterclass in building a strong submission package. Her insights into the role of the blurb through the publication process were very revealing. One teeny weeny little paragraph has to travel from your agent out to publishers and reel one of them in. It then has to perform the same task at the publisher’s editorial committee, their sales committee, with the sales director and individual sales staff, who take it out to dangle it in front of the book buyers at the chains, the indie bookshops and Amazon. Right at the end of that journey, the blurb is what must hook your reader as they stand in the bookshop deciding what to read next. So it had better be good.
Strength in numbers
I’ve been in writing groups and done short courses before, but this is the first time I’ve taken part in a bigger programme. The whole cohort meets regularly for our masterclasses, and my small group of six meets fortnightly for feedback sessions. The Spread the Word team make sure to check in with everyone frequently too. Being part of a supportive writing community means celebrating each other’s successes, sharing advice when things aren’t going well, sudden access to a whole load of brilliant book recommendations, and hanging out with interesting, bookish types who always get what you talk about when you talk about writing. And that feels very precious indeed.
Thank you to all the writers and industry professionals who have supported the London Writers Awards programme so far, by leading masterclasses, arranging events or giving one to one feedback. And of course a massive thank you to the whole team at Spread the Word for everything you do to make this programme happen. Can’t wait for what this year has to offer!”
Ruth is a London Writers Awards writer 2019-2020 in the literary fiction group. She writes fiction as a way of understanding the world and her place in it. Her short fiction has been longlisted for the Primadonna Prize (2019), won a place in the City of Stories anthology (2017) and been featured as a lead on Visual Verse: An Anthology of Art and Words (2015). She will be using the opportunities offered by the London Writers Awards programme to work on her first novel, ‘Misconceptions’. Ruth lives in Walthamstow with her family, one small black cat and hundreds of books. When she’s not busy reading or making up stories, Ruth writes for clients in the charity and social sectors.
Published 16 January 2020