Clare Writers’ Festival: update 1

I’ve lost a whole weekend of precious sleep-ins, my neck aches, the RSI in my wrist has flared up, and I’ve eaten more gluten in two days than I have in the past two months combined (and you don’t want any further detail on that point, trust me…). And it has been the best weekend ever!
I was at the Clare Writers’ Festival (or The Write Week, as they call it). I’d never been to any writers’ workshops or even a book club before, so this was a new and initially daunting experience for me. Why daunting? I wasn’t leading any workshops. I wasn’t trying to sell a book. I was simply attending, there to learn from professionals. But when my husband dropped me off at the town hall on Saturday morning, my mind was buzzing. Will there be hundreds of people? I don’t like big crowds. Will they all be published writers with mountains more experience than little old me? Will they look down on me, an inexperienced, wannabe fantasy writer with a head full of dreams?
Of course, I shouldn’t have worried. There were perhaps 60 or 70 people at the opening session (but I’m terrible at guessing group size numbers, so that could be completely wrong), and everyone was super friendly. There was a vast range of experience levels, from traditionally published, self published, to not yet published (like myself), to toying with the idea of writing a book, to avid readers with no interest in writing their own book. I fell right into the middle of that crowd, a place where I was supremely comfortable.
At this point, I’d like to say that if you write anything at all, you MUST go to one of these things! Nothing is more inspiring than to be surrounded by other people just like you, who constantly think of new book ideas and who live, breathe and speak books, writing and publishing 24/7. I can’t believe it’s taken me so long to go to a writers’ workshop or masterclass.
I would like to take you to each of the sessions I attended and share some of the gems of knowledge I gained, as well as some pretty amusing things that happened.

Saturday 9:15am – Keynote Address

The festival technically started last weekend and had been going all week, but the biggest events were happening this weekend, so this was a welcome by the organisers, followed by a keynote address by author Fiona McIntosh. She gave us insight into how she shifted her career path from marketing to writing, and told it in such an engaging and hilarious way that I am not at all surprised that her very first effort to write a novel was picked up by a publisher. She was quite inspiring with her boundless energy and irrepressible optimism, but at the same time she seems to be one of those people who immediately succeeds at everything they do. I’m sure that’s not quite the case, but she didn’t seem to suffer the many rejection letters that most authors go through, so I had some difficulty relating to her. However, she was entertaining, and it was a great and positive way to start the day.

Oh, and we were given a goody bag full of bookmarks, notepaper, Mentos, a pen, a bottle of water and three novels; two were Mills and Boon romances and the third was a historical romance. Those that know me know I’m not at all interested in romance, and I was a little disappointed that there wasn’t a variety of genres in there. Oh well. If anyone likes to read romance and wants some free books…

Saturday 10:15-11:30am – Workshop with Astrid Cooper: “The Passionate Pen: Creating Memorable Scenes and Characters”

The moment I stepped into the room for this session and saw the covers of Astrid’s books and the poster on the wall, I was filled with dread. Incredibly buff firemen (shirtless), naked couples embracing (with strategically placed shadows, or arms, or sheets): she writes erotic fiction. Will this entire session be about describing “throbbing members”?? Thankfully, no. While a few of Astrid’s examples came from her own work, ultimately the session was exactly what the title said it was. Actually, this turned out to be my favourite session on Saturday.

She started by talking about “passion” (naturally). But not bedroom passion. She was talking about being a passionate writer, about knowing your characters well and relating to them. Passion (or “Fire In The Belly” as she referred to it a few times) will shine through in your writing. If you are passionate about your characters and your writing, the reader will be too.

Often people make the mistake of waiting to write until they feel passionate about it. But if you wait, you might never sit down and write a single word! “Cultivate the habit and the passion will come,” Astrid said. In other words, write regularly. Get into the habit of writing every day (or whatever suits your timetable) for a certain amount of time, and soon it’ll be natural. Also, write about topics you feel passionate about (whether that topic is throbbing members and sexy firemen, social justice, or learning to be true to yourself).

The first of several practical activities was entitled “WHAT IF…?” Astrid wrote a name on the board: Alistair Hallington-Smythe. “Just by looking at the name, what is this character like?” The answers were fairly typical: rich, British, old money, Oxford educated, well-dressed, business man, etc. But then we were encouraged to push the boundaries. “What if…he was a lawyer?” Well, that was no stretch; I think someone had said that anyway. “What if…he wore stockings and suspenders under his court clothes?” Uh, ok. So he’s a transvestite? Sure, why not? “What if…he’s actually a serial killer and he wears the stockings of his victims as trophies?” Now we’re getting interesting.

The point here was to think outside the box. DON’T SETTLE FOR THE OBVIOUS. And yes, that may seem kind of, well, obvious, but if you don’t consciously make yourself move away from the obvious, you’ll end up with boring, predictable characters that the reader’s won’t be interested in (and you will probably tire of them quite quickly as well).

Next Astrid talked to us about using all five senses when describing a scene or an action. Obviously if you used all of them all the time it would be too much, but how often have I as a writer focused only on what I can see, and forgotten about what I hear, smell, taste, and feel? We had a few exercised to do here. First, she gave us a photo of a setting (see the pic to the left) and asked us to write down what we saw/heard/felt/tasted/smelled about the place. Some people wrote a full on description, but I just did dot points. The thing I loved about this activity is that the picture immediately put you into the scene, and there were certain things about the image that conjured up certain things and prompted the imagination. I imagined that there was a water fountain just out of view, and I could hear the trickle of water and smell the humid, musty scent of water that needs changing. I think this is something I will use in my writing from now on: find pictures of a place similar to a scene in my book and use the picture to prompt my description of the place.

We were also given a boring paragraph that we were asked to rewrite using the senses. I’d like to post the boring paragraph so you can have a go at rewriting it as well, but it’s Astrid’s intellectual property, so I probably shouldn’t. Instead, I will post my own boring paragraph below for you to rewrite. If you like, post your rewrite in the comments! I’d love to read them. And for the record, it’s surprisingly difficult to write a bad paragraph.


“Melina, are you all right?”

Melina opened her eyes and coughed. Ronan helped her to a sitting position and she looked around. The alleyway was empty except for the rats, and the smoke that hung in the air. How much of the town was on fire? She got to her feet, wiping her filthy hands on her breeches. They needed to get out of there, before the fires spread.


Finally, we were given this picture:

meeting on turret stairs

The topic for this activity was “Emotional Triggers.” What are the emotions in this picture? Write about it. This is what I wrote:

“My dear, you’ve come to me.” His voice was low and sinister. He blocked her path, a snake ready to strike.

“Please, milord,” she squeaked. She eyes the gap between his body and the corridor. Could she escape him? She lifted her skirts and ran, the blue velvet whispering with every move. He laughed. The harsh sound echoed off the equally rough stone. He grabbed her arm, and she cried out as her shoulder wrenched in its socket. The cold mail sheathing his arms scratched her delicate skin. She turned away, hot tears pricking her eyes, trying not to inhale the horrid stench of stale sweat and ale that reminded her of the last time he took her against her will. And the countless times before that.

I looked at the picture and saw a lady trying to escape a man with lust in his heart. Afterwards Astrid revealed that the picture is actually called “Meeting On The Turret Stairs.” The two people are forbidden lovers, and the knight is about to be taken to the gallows to be hung, while the lady is going upstairs to be walled into a tower for the rest of her life. It’s quite beautiful, but I enjoyed writing my own take on the picture. Want to write your own back story for this picture? Post it in the comments!

Saturday 11:45am-1:00pm – Workshop with Gerald Lally: “Family History”

I need to say at the start of this section that there were two sessions running simultaneously for most of Saturday, and you chose which you wanted to attend. The options in this time slot were “Family History” or “In Conversation with an Australian Rural Romance Author.” My aforementioned aversion to romance novels drew me to the family history workshop. I wasn’t sure what this would include, but I hoped there would be something that I would be able to apply to my writing.

Sadly, this was not the case. Gerald Lally had never run a workshop before, so it perhaps wasn’t as engaging as it could have been, with no practical activities, but merely a group discussion of sorts about researching and compiling one’s family history, and Gerald’s own experience with getting copies of the book printed. If I had been researching my own family history and was genuinely interested in the topic, I probably would have found it quite interesting. But I’m not. Gerald mentioned at one point that his family originated in Limerick, Ireland. So, to keep myself entertained, I wrote a limerick about dear old Gerald:

There once was a man named Lally

Who forever would dilly and dally

He liked family stuff

Was a history buff

And he published a book: Oodelally!

Clearly, finding decent rhymes for a name like “Lally” were beyond my mental capacity at this point. I remember wishing that his initials were O.D. so that his name could actually be “O.D. Lally.” Sorry, Gerald. Nothing against you, but I clearly chose the wrong session here. Please forgive my flippancy.

Up Next: Panel Discussion on Indie Publishing, Fantasy Workshop, and The Beginning of My Gluten Overdose