York Festival of Writing 2013: Mini-Course, Workshops, And Panel


Here are some links and notes arising from the mini-course and workshops I led at the Festival of Writing at the weekend.



Carolyn Forche, ‘The Colonel’ – listen first, then read. Where is the FIRE?!

I used ‘I Remember’ in this mini-course, and it is also a starting point for a Friday Writing Experiment elsewhere on my site. I love this exercise for many reasons, and most of all for how it fosters a natural and easy (instinctive) voice within the writing. All credit to Joe Brainard and his own ‘I Remember’, now in its own very handsome UK edition.

If you’re curious about the tarot images that first inspired me, some pictures of the Rider-Waite deck are linked here. I suggest you look at the Aces of each of the suits/elements – Wands/Fire, Cups/Water, Swords/Air, and Pentacles/Earth – and if you want to go further maybe take a look at Queens, Kings, Knights, and Pages. I love these traditional images. Maybe you can think about ways in which they embody purpose, emotion, thinking, and the material world in powerful, symbolic ways. Maybe the pictures can even give you some ideas about how to use their respective elements in your writing.

One day I hope to write and publish a book on The Four Elements of Writing …



You can find some examples of good cover letters at Mediabistro’s GalleyCat: ‘Successful Query Letters For Literary Agents’ (fiction) and ‘Agent Query Letters That Actually Worked For Nonfiction’. They are American, so be forgiving, and imaginative in how you need to adapt.

I can’t remember if they were mentioned at the panel, but do consider the resources and events of genre organisations such as the British Science Fiction Association, the British Fantasy Society, and the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America. AboutSF has a ton of resources too.

Oh, and sorry if I sounded snippy about the idea of magical realism. I LOVE MAGICAL REALISM, and even write stuff that could fit in that vein sometimes. But this article touches on some of the issues of how it can be more problematic as a working definition for writers than it is as a literary term used by scholars. My biggest issue with magical realism: thinking about it can make the writing too intellectualised, or overthought. (But then overthinking can be a problem when world creation takes over many sf and fantasy stories.)



Okay, I was a bit overambitious with this one, and I apologise for that. It was supposed to be half about what happens during editorial processes at a publisher, and half made up of tips on editing for writers, but I only really covered the first half.

The one thing I really want to emphasise: if you are self-publishing, please build these editorial stages into your workflow:

* structural editing (mostly: matters of shaping the content)
* copyediting (mostly: improving the text word by word and line by line)
* proofreading (quality control: eyeballing of the text in its final format)

I really believe in self-publishing. Really really really do. But there are too many editorially substandard self-published works out there. Yours must not be one of them.

And if you are aiming for someone else to publish you, you can probably (within reason) let their copyeditor worry about your hyphenation patterns and punctuation. We don’t want such anxieties to stifle your creativity. Just be sure your slip is not showing in such a way that you look sloppy or unprofessional.


* The University of Oxford Style Guide (more academic, of course, but covers many of the basics)
* George Orwell, ‘Politics and the English Language’ (the full version)
* The Subversive Copy Editor blog (so you know who we fret over, so you shouldn’t)
* Philip Pullman on novels in the present tense (okay, never say never, but really really think through the limits of the present tense)
* In case you really care (and want to come into the Light): That vs Which
* David Gaughran, Let’s Get Digital (okay, he was teaching at York last weekend too, but if you are self-publishing and did not attend his classes you should probably take a look at his books – they are excellent)
* Some coverage of the Joan Collins trial:

Stephanie has a miscarriage and tells a doctor or nurse not to tell anyone, while she goes about trying to adopt a baby. In the meantime, she pretends for eight months to be pregnant. When the husband of her best friend sees her without her pregnancy disguise, she murders him. Then she runs to the forest to give birth to her imaginary child. Or something like that.

An editor should be able to help …



Last week I was cursing myself. What on earth did I sign up for this for six months ago? I’ve not covered this in an hour-long session before, and I don’t have all that grammatical jargon at my fingertips, because I wasn’t taught it either; I’ve had to mug up on it during my years of teaching, and it still doesn’t always come to me instinctively. Or to think about it sideways: my instinct tells me to go ahead and edit a sentence, but I don’t always know why, and as a teacher I need to know why, and I also need to be able to translate all that bloody jargon into something other writers can understand. I mean, come on – even the grammarians can’t agree whether there are eight, or nine, or seven parts of speech …

But I was pleased with how this workshop turned out. You were a great group of patient people (thanks to those who donated sentences!), and I covered the main points I wanted to make even if much of the rest was left to the handouts. Just remember that grammar and syntax are mostly not rules but a working system.

And try to use parts of speech in their best possible ways through remembering that aphorism ‘Opinion is the death of thinking’, and considering how nouns and verbs form their functions there.

Some resources:

* An old and out-of-copyright edition of William Strunk’s The Elements of Style, before E.B. White was involved
* Constance Hale, Sin and Syntax – recommended if you want an accessible introduction to grammar
* Ursula Le Guin, Steering The Craft – in fact, this is perhaps the most accessible guide of all, and includes chapters on: punctuation; sentence length and complex syntax; adjective and adverb; and subject pronoun and verb (you might need to order online)

A snap of that chart of hyphenation patterns from the Chicago Manual of Style is shown above. It’s taken from the 13th edition. They changed some of their own rules for the 16th edition, eek!



I remember forgetting to mention various things at various points during the weekend. I remember that I’ve since forgotten what they were. Oh dear. I’ll remember some other time.

Something I forgot to add when I first posted this was a link to the Erotic Readers & Writers Association for someone I met during a book doctor one-to-one. In general, know thy genre: the conventions used in the writing, the conventions offline and on- where you get to hang out and network (and maybe eventually get published).

And another recommendation for writers of erotica: Elements of Arousal by Lars Eighner. It’s a how-to book on writing erotica that is a little out of date now, thanks to digital publishing, but it has some of the BEST advice on writing fiction of any type (though the faint-hearted might note he also writes gay erotica, and the braver-hearted might find it is out of print, though look around for second-hand copies and also Google the author too).

Something I can’t forget: As ever, many thanks to the lovely people of the Writers’ Workshop (sorry you couldn’t be there, Harry – but: priorities!). And thanks to everyone else associated, and to everyone who came along and made it such fun. I met some people who now feel like old friends as well as lots of new and fantastic people, both writers and industry professionals.

Beyond that, here are links on the book doctor one-on-ones and where you might want to go next (aka a DIY MA in Creative Writing). And also, here’s a more personal response.

I Remember York (2013)


I remember the Writers’ Workshop Festival of Writing 2013.

I remember it was Friday the 13th.

I remember the quiet carriage.

I remember people crowding on to the train before most of us had got off.

I remember sun, and rain, and going back for an umbrella.

I remember bunting, and a loving balloon. Well, I think it was a balloon.

I remember little chunks of coffee cake. I had one with Saturday’s lunch, but two on Sunday.

I remember using Windows again. It looked different, and improved. I actually felt a little bit jealous.

I remember losing my voice.

I remember a very kind glass of water.

I remember a very nice glass of champagne.

I remember my English teacher Mrs Blakemore used to mark us down if we used the word ‘nice’ in a sentence. Yes, we have to be concrete and specific in our word choices, but sometimes an often-used word is just right.

I remember Harry (in sunglasses), and Beth and Tom (not in sunglasses). Ah!

I remember being called a recovering publisher.

I remember channelling my inner Sharon Osbourne. ‘You go, girl!’ (I wish I’d had the balls actually to say that.)

I remember, the next morning, discovering I’d left the label on the sleeve of my new jacket as I sat on a stage in front of hundreds of people. And they were writers, so they could read, and what they could read was Marks and Spencer Sartorial. (And who knew I’d end up in Marks and Spencer Blue Harbour so soon.)

I remember not remembering if I’d worn these boxer shorts before :/ Sniff, sniff.

I remember my opinion of literary agents rising.

I remember saying that ‘Opinion is the death of thinking’ is a very elegant sentence, illustrating, for any number of good reasons, how to balance noun and verb forms in your writing.

I remember saying how ‘Opinion is the death of thinking’ is an important sentiment for a divided world.

I remember being very opinionated.

I remember saying The Slap is a book that must be read; you must overcome your prejudices against its (apparent) prejudices, because the prejudices are critiquing prejudice, not prejudices in themselves. And if you can’t see that, maybe you should stick to reading the Farrow & Ball colour chart.

I remember telling any number of writers it might be best not to open their novels with that cliché of someone waking (especially from a dream).

I then remember remembering that The Slap opens with someone waking up. But at least its very first page has a fart under the sheets and some very spicy language.

I remember realising I was ranting when I was rattling on about the deficiencies of the learning and teaching of writing in British schools and universities. Oops!

I remember thinking that sometimes people’s written stories only really come to life when they are talking about them (and by that I mean talking conversationally, not delivering some worried-about pitch).

I remember repeating that mantra that you should trust your natural speaking voice. Sometimes those sentences that you speak aloud are the ones that need to go down on the page. ‘I used to work in Jarrow, and my office looked down on the street where Catherine Cookson used to live.’

I remember telling people to write I remembers.

I remember widely recommending Steering the Craft by Ursula Le Guin and Sin and Syntax by Constance Hale.

I remember telling people that their writing is an act of giving to a reader. When do you give, when do you hold back?

I remember needing extra chairs and handouts.

I remember not having time to get to the tightening and brightening exercise. One to finish at home. (No Right Answers, just variations on a theme.)

I remember knowing I must have been snoring, and hoping my neighbours never noticed. Halls of residences have very thin walls.

I remember thinking that York University students must be very thin, because their showerheads are very close to the walls (like, two inches away).

I remember porridge, and prunes.

I remember a robot, mothers, teachers, detectives, an engineer, a creepy neighbour, and an abbot who bangs his fist on the table.

I remember the Weimar Republic, Ireland, Africa, the Lebanon, the 70s, rings, sewers, a tsunami, a prison.

I remember listening with mother, great-grandchildren, dogs, teachers, divorces, a doctor, a New Zealander, the Olympic stadium in Berlin.

I remember Yorkshirewomen, more dogs, four cats and a doctor, a lorry driver, a costume shop, Australians, self-publishers, and a Black Country accent stronger than my own.

I remember even more dogs, and lovely dog-lovers, and an apparently grateful whippet (dogs really can communicate, you know – especially with their eyes).

I remember loving dog-people, and realising they’re probably even stranger than cat-people.

I remember thinking that I love the job of working with writers because you meet so many colourful, sweet, funny, crazy-assed people, and hear so many colourful, sweet, funny, crazy-assed and very moving stories.

I thank all those people for sharing so much.

I remember marking dates in my diary for 2014.


PS I will remember to post links and other info from the workshops later in the week. (Update: I did remember, eventually, but did forget some things I needed to add later. But here are my notes on York as well as notes on the book doctor one-on-ones, and here also is a Friday Writing Experiment from last year introducing variations on the idea of ‘I Remember’. And all credit to Joe Brainard and his own ‘I Remember’, now in its own very handsome UK edition.)