Last weekend I was lucky enough to attend the SCBWI British Isles annual conference in Winchester. It was the first time I had not attended as a volunteer and I was expecting the grass on the other side to be very green. I didn't have to know what was going on everywhere! I didn't have to worry about sessions running over, people getting lost, speakers not speaking. I could do whatever I wanted, go wherever I wanted, and cultivate an air of blissful ignorance if I so desired. Of course I did all of those things but I did, on occasion, feel just a tiny sense of loss for not being part of the "team". But, above all, it made me appreciate just how much work our fantastic volunteers do, often in the face of adversity! So, yay for the conference team! And a HUGE thank you to them too.
So to the weekend. I met Liz de Jager at Waterloo at a stupidly early time but we finally regained the power of speech and were quite lively by the time we arrived at the campus. Celia Rees's excellent keynote speech set the tone for a weekend of wonder. Her books are really compelling. She manages to transport you into her world with enviable ease. Feeling buoyed up, I excitedly sat in the auditorium for her session with Sarah Odedina of the splendid (oh how I love them) Hot Key Books. And I was not disappointed. For they talked of historical fiction with such love and enthusiasm, I realised that I probably wasn't barking up the wrong tree with my new Victorian thriller. I scribbled down their words of wisdom.
When writing historical fiction, the writer must have a real world for their story, and their characters must show the same emotions and drive as in contemporary fiction - just in an historical setting. So, there should be no sense of remoteness. The writer should re-interpret their research for the reader without overdoing it. Description can take you away from the narrative. And this really stood out (we all need to pin it over our desks): Every author has the right to write the book they want to write. Thank you!
The rest of the day was all panels (of which no room here, but they were brilliantly informative) and book sales and, of course, the awe inspiring Debi Gliori's keynote speech. Oh my goodness, the woman is a genius. She talked about her illustrating life, she told us a story, she almost cried, we almost cried (as one) and we gazed, open-mouthed at her heart-breakingly beautiful illustrations.
Then, of course, we had the party, which was all excellent cake and a huge crowd of amazing SCBWI authors and illustrators, as we celebrated their publications over the past year. We talked and applauded and were proud. There was also the fabulously entertaining Lin Oliver, co-founder of SCBWI, who hosted the party and made us all laugh. She also ran a session earlier in the day on writing humour, which everyone who attended raved about. Oh to be in two, three, four places at once! And I finally, after all these years, met the lovely Vanessa Harbour!
So, Sunday. I loved Sunday. This is the first year the conference team have given a whole day to intensive sessions and every single person I spoke to agreed that this was a fine thing indeed. I was lucky enough to take Sara Grant's 'Finding the Plot' and, boy did we find it! This marvellous woman is not only a great editor and a very fine writer, but she knows everything! AND she won the Crystal Kite award for her excellent novel Dark Parties (buy it!), which she truly deserved. So, back to the session. We all had our novels in various forms, from scraps of ideas either in our heads or on the page (Moleskine in my case), through to finished drafts. First of all we were given a sheet (Sara loves a handout!) which I will use for every novel I will ever write. We had to write down the heart of our story, the premise (I really struggled with this), the controlling idea, the theme, the pitch (in my case - Oliver Twist meets The Godfather!), and then more about the characters - basically the who, what, why, where etc etc. I have to say that single page has absolutely unlocked the key to my story. It was truly a lightbulb moment for me.
After lunch (there was cake), we had another handout, this time with a graph! We mapped out our stories and then talked about suspense, tension and the general structure of the story. We then split into groups (I was dreading this, but it was fantastic) and were each given 15 minutes to talk about our plots, and their problems, and then brainstorm. I was paired with the marvellous Addy Farmer who gave me an idea that has transformed the story and given my protagonist real motivation. So thank you Addy!
As well as telling us what to do and how to do it, Sara talked about her own journey to publication which was truly inspiring. She really is a gem. If you get a chance to go to any of her workshops, then do it!
Buzzing with ideas we then drifted off for the closing remarks and then we all trooped home, heads and hearts full but happy.
And the grass? Actually, it's pretty damned green on both sides! I can't wait for next year.