15. Winchester – a worship of writers

Who knew that the collective noun for a group of writers was a worship? I just looked it up. I might have hoped the noun to be “an eloquence of writers”, but that is reserved for lawyers, and lions have already bagged “a pride”.

So there we were on Saturday, a worship of writers at the Winchester Writers’ Festival. Under an overcast sky, the campus of Winchester University was thronged with writers, eager, hopeful, or stoic, each according to their own experience and temperament. Interestingly, there was a preponderance of women, including one striking blonde Amazon with rippling biceps. I’ll come back to an interesting gender issue later on. Old friends met up with cries of “who are you with now”, making me acutely aware I hadn’t yet been signed by anybody. Perhaps my two one-to-one meetings with an agent and a publisher would rectify that.

We streamed from building to building and from room to room, assessing each other with cautious insouciance, wary of encountering a “shrivel of critics”. Three of us from my writing group had a chance encounter, before the event even started, with one of the “shrivel”. She was a volunteer with the event, who, uninvited, joined our table in the coffee room and demanded to hear our elevator pitches and quizzed us about whether we were truly writing from our own experience. She showed no interest at all in what we’d actually written, in her desire to impress us with her own wisdom. “It’s just my opinion”, she wailed as we extricated ourselves. ‘”I’m just an amateur.” Indeed. Her ruthless and undeviating advocacy of the rules of writing spoke eloquently to this point.

Undaunted, my first stop was a dash to the noticeboard in the main conference centre, to see if either of my two entries to the short story competition had been short-listed. They hadn’t, though in act of nominative determinism, I was ticked to note that one D S Writer had made it through.

During the day I went to four workshops. I’ll just give you one take-away point from each of them. An agent said that she took on only two or three new clients a year. A publisher said that, though they won’t admit it, agents and publishers are looking for a reason to instantly bin the submissions they receive, because they can’t possibly read all of them. A novelist said that to find your own “voice”, you have to unlearn the rules of written English you learned at school (I don’t agree with this one). A maker of historical docudramas said that you can get away with imposing a story structure on the known facts, by exploring the drama of well-chosen characters.

I also had one-to-one meetings with an agent and publisher. The good news for me was that they both liked my writing. The publisher really liked it. And that was validating. From my slough of despond about A Prize of Sovereigns at the beginning of the year, I really believe in my book again. But neither of them offered to sign me, though both made really useful suggestions about other agents I should approach. The really interesting thing, though, was the gender issue I referred to at the beginning.

The agent was a man, the second male agent I’ve talked to about the book. And both of them said the same thing. They said it was neither history, because it’s not a true historical record, nor fantasy because there are no fantasy elements. I pitch the book as historical fantasy, because, though It draws on a lot of historical research, I’ve made what George R R Martin calls a “historical mash-up”. I’ve shortened time scales, and, in some cases, put events into a different order or into different places. Many of the major characters are real as well, though I’ve picked and mixed elements of different historical figures to create my characters. History for me, is a rich toolbox of fascinating events, great stories and strong characters. But I do this in the service of fiction, and use what I find in the box to drive the story. Because of this, I’ve set the book in a fictional location, though readers of history quickly recognize it as England and France during the Hundred Years War. I’m not so much interested in writing about the Hundred Years War as I am in exploring why rulers make the decisions they do, and what effect those decisions have on those they rule. So both guys have said this choice is a commercial problem and have urged me to make it straighter history or straighter fantasy.

The publisher was a woman, and had no such problem. For her, it would sell across both the historical fiction and the fantasy genres. Three female agents and a female literary consultant have also been of the same opinion.

Now, you can’t draw any meaningful conclusions about gender differences from a sample of two men and five women, but it’s intriguing nonetheless. My wife says it’s because men can’t multi-task.

Take a look at the book by clicking the link to it on this page (the first seven chapters are published now) and tell me what you think?

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2 thoughts on “15. Winchester – a worship of writers

  1. You’re so right. Finding the correct genre box for fiction isn’t always easy, especially when we choose to cross the boundaries of convention. Perhaps your work would fit into the catgory Alternative History.

    As for the ‘shrivel’ I fear that description of her is too kind by far. She was rude beyond belief. If we wrote about her in fiction, we may well be criticised for creating a characture.

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  2. It’s a case of reality being stranger than fiction could ever be.

    I think the alternative history category is reserved for “what if” stories. You know, what if the Spanish Armada had succeeded? What if the US and the UK had fought each other at the beginning of the twentieth century etc. At least that’s how it makes sense to me.

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