1: A local writers’ group
I can’t recommend being in a writers’ group highly enough. Mine was made up of people I met on my MA in Creative Writing at Nottingham Trent Uni – six of us who lived in the East Midlands continued meeting up fortnightly to eat pizza, drink wine, and give feedback on each other’s works-in-progress. (I inadvertently put the writing in third place there – it was all business, I swear.) It was so valuable to have regular feedback on chapters from my novel, plus the act of giving feedback to others helped my own writing, too. It made me feel as if I was always writing for a reader (or five, actually), and it even got to the point where I would hear their voices in my head while I was writing, telling me I needed to pick up the pace, or I was stretching plausibility, or to stop using so many adverbs!
I honestly don’t think I would’ve developed my book enough to be able to find an agent or secure a book deal if it hadn’t been for that regular feedback over several years – plus all the support and motivation the group gave me. We're on hiatus at the moment, for various reasons, but I'd love to get the group going again in the future. Writing can be a solitary thing without opportunities to chat about what you're working on (and preferably eat pizza, too).
It’s worth investigating if there are any existing writers’ groups in your area. Often they have websites, or meet at local arts or community venues. It can be daunting to join them at first, but I guarantee they will be welcoming, and worth it!
2: Local writing events
Confession time: I’m obsessed with writing classes, writing events, writing magazines, books about writing. That’s why the organisation Writing East Midlands has been brilliant for me. They run events and offer resources and support to writers in the East Midlands region.
One event in particular was a turning point: their yearly Writers’ Conference. I went to their very first one, and loved it so much I actually felt quite emotional afterwards! Matt Haig was the keynote speaker, and as he was talking I got such a happy sense of sitting in a room full of people who love words and stories, listening to an author talk about what writing means to him. That was wonderful in itself, but a personal highlight of the day was my meeting with the agent Carole Blake, which I managed to get by booking early for the conference and applying for an agent one-to-one. I was able to send a section of my novel and a synopsis in advance, and my legs honestly shook as I walked into the room ready to hear her thoughts. I needn’t have worried: she was beyond lovely. Friendly, reassuring, helpful … but most of all, to my amazement, she loved my extract and encouraged me to send it to her agency once I’d finished the book. That encouragement, plus the advice she gave me on making it better, spurred me on to finish my novel and start submitting it.
3: Local writing competitions
Another confession: I have a thing for entering competitions. I love getting my entry ready, perfecting it as best I can, making sure I’ve met the formatting guidelines, sending it off, anticipating the longlist, the shortlist, the winners’ announcement. (Even better if I happen to be on the long- or shortlist.)
I love local competitions because they tend to be really supportive, well-run by teams of people who are passionate about regional writers, and often have nice awards events to celebrate the winners. Plus, although they are still very competitive and standards are high, the odds of being placed are more in your favour than for huge, high-profile international competitions. There’s a better chance of your entry standing out, yet it’s still a great accolade if you win.
One lovely experience for me was being placed third in the Leicester Writes Short Story Prize, run by independent press Dahlia Publishing. My story was published in their anthology (see picture), I got to read from it at a prize-giving event as part of their writing festival, and I also met some other local writers and kept in touch via social media.
Perhaps I’m lucky in that the East Midlands is a lively and nurturing place for writers, but I suspect that’s true of many regions across the country. Don’t be afraid to get involved – you never know what opportunities might come your way.
This is a bonus post - not on a Tuesday! - in the form of a link to a piece I wrote for the magazine Crime Reads. I re-read Thomas Hardy's wonderful book, Tess of the D'Urbervilles, while I was writing my debut The Downstairs Neighbour, and noticed all the cunning ways in which he builds tension and suspense to almost unbearable levels. Read the piece to find out what I learned from a writer who isn't primarily associated with supense fiction ... but who is undoubtedly a master in disguise.
1. “What is your reader waiting to find out?”
This came from my dissertation supervisor, the novelist David Belbin, during my Master’s in Creative Writing at Nottingham Trent. I remember him advising me to ask this question of every chapter, and I’ve done so ever since. Sometimes readers may be waiting for answers, information or clues; sometimes waiting with bated breath to see what will happen in the scene, or how the character will react to whatever conflict you’ve set up. But they should always be waiting for something, big or small, and invested enough in the story and the characters to be happy to do so. The writer's next crucial task is to not disappoint them once the waiting is over!
2. “Unsettle your reader”
This was a nugget of advice I got from a masterclass in writing suspense fiction, run by the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook and taught by the thriller writer Lucie Whitehouse. I’ve been to lots of workshops on writing, and I always take something away, which might spark an idea or encourage me to up my game. This was one of those: “Unsettle your reader at every opportunity.” I started thinking about each scene in my novel, each description or piece of imagery, and how I could make it more unsettling. This really helped build tension and atmosphere in The Downstairs Neighbour. I also considered it in a wider sense – how you can unsettle your readers by wrongfooting them, i.e. by overturning their assumptions or beliefs about your story or characters.
3. “Raise the stakes”
This one came from my agent, the super-wise Hellie Ogden. She always encourages me to raise the stakes in terms of what my characters have got to lose. I’ve learned how important this is, but also how easy to lose sight of when you’re plotting and layering. Now, when I’m writing about characters with secrets, or maybe suspicions about others, I keep in mind another important question: “How bad will it be for them if their secret is discovered/ if they find out this thing about someone else/ if such-and-such happens?” And the answer, ideally, should be very, very bad!