Why I’m looking forward to the Festival of Writing 2018
By Rebecca Horsfall
Is this your first year attending the Festival of Writing 2018? Have no fear, you are definitely not alone. One of our speakers and fantastic Jericho editors Rebecca Horsfall is also embarking on her first festival experience and below she tells us what she is looking forward to in York and gives us a taster of what is to come in her talks over the weekend.
When I hear other writers discussing their experiences at the Festival of Writing there’s always a palpable buzz to the conversation. They talk about the amazing atmosphere and specific workshops that really caught their imagination or helped them. I’ve never been to a writers’ festival. When I started writing in earnest, about twenty-five years ago, they didn’t exist – or if they did I’d certainly never heard of them.
In those days I think writing was an intensely isolating experience for pretty much everyone – we struggled away on our own in a dark dungeon of doubt and confusion: there was no Internet community and no accessible professional editorial help. If I had been able to attend an event like the Festival of Writing I’d have been so excited, just to be able to be with other writers and drink in so much learning and stimulation all at one event (not to mention the time it would probably have knocked off the slow grind of learning to write alone).
So, earlier this year, when the team at Jericho Writers asked me to suggest some workshops to run at this September’s Festival I absolutely leapt at the chance.
As I pondered what subjects, ideally, I’d like to workshop at the Festival, I realised what I really wanted to do was explore some of the less tangible aspects of novel-writing: the important but subtle questions of the role of inspiration in our writing, of our struggle as artists, our tussle with our own psyches – areas I rarely have time to discuss with the novelists I work with as a tutor and editor. It’s so exciting finally to be taking part in an event where there is time to delve into the twilight zone of what we are actually doing when we write a novel – what the creative process actually is.
And, as well as being exciting, it’s scary. I’d be much more in my comfort zone leading classes and workshops on the technical aspects I’ve been teaching for years. In the grey area of creativity and inspiration there are no definitive right answers. All I can bring is my experience and what I’ve learned from others’ experiences. But scary as it is, the opportunity to explore this mysterious and crucial side to our work as novelists is way too good to pass up.
For a mini-course for the Friday, the obvious choice of topic was Character Creation. Inspiration in novel-writing is so much about breathing life into our characters and getting them walking and talking – first in our heads and then on the page. This process is perhaps the biggest mystery of fiction-writing.
In just about every type of fiction the success of a novel depends on how vividly and intelligently we can envision and animate our characters. When they’re alive inside us they’ll come to life on the page – they take over and we feel like we’re just there to referee and try and keep some order. This is the writing experience we’re all looking for: where we’re completely in the zone. And – even better – when the characters are calling the shots the plot tends to have a way of looking after itself. Okay, if you’re writing crime or adventure fiction you’ll need to thrash out the twists and turns of your plot in advance, but having done that groundwork it’s when living, breathing characters seize hold of your plot and run with it that your novel shifts from being a functioning one to being a really gripping one.
So how do we achieve this writing Nirvana? We know when we hit it: we start hearing the characters’ voices in our heads. We find we can eavesdrop on their conversations. All we have to do is edit their dialogue for dramatic relevance and structure it. On a good day, this process happens of its own accord. On a trickier day we have to create the conditions that are going to summon our characters forth from wherever they’re hiding and get them walking and talking.
Some teaching manuals and guides for novelists encourage us to make lists of every habit and personality trait for our characters, right down to the kind of toothpaste they use and what they’ve got on their iPod, as a way of getting to know them so they’ll become real for us. Others advise planning every stage of the character’s arc in detail. But, while these techniques might work for some writers, I find more often that they get in the way of the instinctual process of letting characters evolve from our unconscious store of life experience. At worst, they can kill a character stone dead. We all know a novel can’t be created by intellect alone. At the same time, it doesn’t work to leave the job of character-creation solely to inspiration, not when we need variety and balance in the characters of our novel, and we’ve got a plot to navigate. So we need to identify key personality markers and turning points in our characters’ journeys in order to give our unconscious creative instinct a solid frame on which to flesh out someone who feels real to us.
I’m really excited about the opportunity to spend several hours working intensively with authors exploring what we need to know about a character, and what we don’t – the key points – in order to create the best possible conditions for our characters to develop a life of their own and feel real to us.
Character is so central to the working of inspiration in novel-writing that I’m also doing a workshop on fixing problem characters on the Sunday of the Festival. Many of the new authors I work with experience difficulties getting their main protagonist to come to life and hold their own as a strong driving force of the novel. It’s surprising how often I see manuscripts where the main protagonist is the least vivid and real-feeling of all the characters. Or sometimes it’s a minor character that won’t show up.
What’s usually going on when this happens is that we are identifying too closely with our character without realising it. It’s our unconscious at work again. Naturally we identify with our characters; they grow out of us: our minds and imaginations: our deepest experiences. But the problem is that most of us authors are rather private people; we aren’t too good at being seen. So our secret avatar on the page tends to hide from us, so as not to be too exposed. Consequently, we often end up with a character who is passive or shadowy, or whose personality flits around instead of becoming firmly developed.
Luckily there are tips and techniques we can use to overcome this character malaise, and I’m looking forward to having a whole hour’s workshop to really get into the detail of how we can resuscitate our reluctant characters.
My second workshop is going to be about the pains and insecurities of being a writer and, specifically, about the hell of writer’s block.
I’ve heard lots of writers categorically declare there’s no such thing as writer’s block. That’s total cobblers. It’s like saying, “I’ve never had a migraine therefore they don’t exist.” Of course writer’s block exists. Sometimes it lasts a day, sometimes a week, sometimes a decade. It isn’t laziness. It isn’t cowardice. It’s a block: imagination shut-down. I wish I could smile serenely at all you other writers over the top of my writer’s-block-free fifteen-book-high stack of published novels and say, “Don’t worry, my dears, it doesn’t really exist.” But unfortunately it does. And, trust me, I know all about it.
After my first novel was bought by Random House I experienced a long period of crippling writer’s block. I was lucky enough to secure a big two-book deal, but instead of finding myself bursting with confidence and creativity I found myself with a contract (two contracts – my USA contract was also for two books) and total creative lock-down. I had a year to produce the next quarter-million-word epic and absolutely nothing was happening.
Writer’s block before publishing one’s first novel is miserable. Writer’s block after publishing one’s first novel is both miserable and humiliating.
It’s sort of obvious what happened: too much attention I wasn’t used to; the pressure of following up what was, if I say so myself, a terrific first novel; all my weird family stuff kicking in – the usual suspects. Perhaps the biggest factor was that I was desperate to write a good novel; I had lost touch with the time when I was blissfully happy writing a totally crappy first draft.
Determined to beat the block, I set about tackling it head on. I read every book on the subject (not much help), I had intense therapy (limited help), I meditated, I trained as an arts psychotherapist. I joined groups, walked the streets of foreign cities alone, read philosophy, attempted every writing exercise known to mankind. I made myself an expert on writer’s block and, eventually, I got past it. I’m lucky that my agent and publisher were both incredibly supportive.
My writer’s block was severe. Some people have it only occasionally. But I think the mechanism is always the same, and it’s always terrifying. I wish I had been able to find expert help to have got past it sooner. But, if nothing else, my long journey gave me insight into how to tackle it and I’m looking forward very much to the workshop, to hearing other writers’ experiences and sharing ideas about how to nip block in the bud before it takes hold, and how to stay as happy and confident as possible in the hugely challenging journey of becoming and being a novelist.
So that’s my plan for the Festival, along with one-to-one sessions with writers (which I love doing), and attending as many talks, discussions and panels as I can squeeze in. I can’t wait.
If there’s anything in this blog post you’d like to talk over, track me down at the Festival and we can grab a coffee and chat about it. I’d enjoy that.
See you there.
Rebecca Horsfall is a bestselling novelist, script doctor and creative writing tutor and lecturer. She has been an editor and coach for more than a decade, working with over 150 different novelists in genres including character-driven fiction, romance, literary fiction, historical, political, detective and fantasy. Her book Dancing on Thorns appeared in The Independent hardback bestsellers list June 2005 after being chosen national book clubs’ pick of the month.
Don’t miss Rebecca’s fantastic workshops over the weekend at The Festival of Writing including her Friday Mini-course ‘Intensive Character Workshop’, her Sunday workshop in Session 4. Find out more about the other events we have in the programme and how you can grab your tickets here.
Rebecca is also one of our incredible industry professionals available to review your manuscript. Get detailed feedback on what the problems are and how to address them in order to produce a final perfect draft. Find out how you can take your writing to the next level here.