Writing the Novel - A Seminar by Millie Johnson & Victoria Howard

Attending a seminar run by Millie Johnson and Victoria Howard a couple of weeks ago in Barnsley, South Yorkshire was, for me, a chance to indulge in an afternoon meeting favourite authors, like-minded creatures and partake in a little complementary afternoon tea. It became, in short, nothing less than a series of lightbulb moments.

With newly purchased novels and a goody bag of booklets,magazines and a delicately packaged silver bookmark, we were ready to begin.

The afternoon was split in to two sessions; each author giving a talk on their own distinct process of writing, then the methods they employed to achieve publication - in the 'traditional sense' rather than the self publication route.

Millie's seminar: 'Writers Write (Dreamers Procrastinate)' took us through a history of Millie's career from her early days as a copy writer for card companies, a divorce, house-move and years of night time writing sessions as her children slept. She shared with us the reality of writing two or three books before an agent takes you on and the frustrations felt if pursuing publishers fruitlessly. We were warned away from that avenue and told that an agent will get the work for you, find your deal, rates and support your fledgling career. They work very hard for their 15%. It was all starting to sound rather complicated.

"Writing isn't easy or everyone would be doing it. The first 2000 words are a doddle. It's the next 118,000 words which are slightly more difficult."
Stephen King

Millie gave everyone hope as she told us how she worked hard and often through the night while working a day job as well, but with a small plan to write 250 words a day, we could achieve 91,000 words in a year. A novel! Of course that's the first draft, then comes the fun part, the edit.

"It doesn't matter what routine you've got, as long as you've got one."
Millie Johnson

This has been a long standing issue for me, having the time to write, but I had been setting myself the goal of 1000 words a day, then feeling frustrated when the targets weren't reached. Already, a plan was forming to get back in to the habit of writing every day.

"Discipline is a learned behaviour, not a natural one."

Millie took us through examples of her own writing and then a few "How not to's" to illustrate her methods when developing pace, character and tension.

"Keep the pace fast. Every chapter should progress the story and not be mere padding."

We broke for a rather pleasant afternoon tea: cuppa and a scone with all the trimmings and tiny portions of every cream cake imaginable. Thankfully, I was in the company of like-minded individuals and everyone had a few trolly trips to sample the varied delights.
My friend and I met with Jo Robinson who is a journalist with the Sheffield Star and before we knew it we had been interviewed and photographed (much to my horror - but if I make it in to the feature it will be a little welcome publicity for Driftwood & Amethyst!)

I thought Victoria's seminar would be much more about romance fiction. Initially, I squirmed at this after recently being subjected to book one and half of book two of Fifty Shades (I know - I gave up!), but apparently that is erotic fiction. However, while she currently writes romance fiction in the main, she quickly clarified that her seminar would apply to all fiction genres and would also touch on the romantic genre.

Victoria encouraged us all to read, read, read - for fun, for analysis, for awareness of modern and classic writers in your preferred genre.

She was quick to explain that her and Millie plan very differently, write very differently and have trodden different paths to achieve traditional publication. She was keen to point out that there is no one formula to creating a novel - if there was, someone would have developed a computer program which would write the novel for you after your input of name, place, plot etc.

Victoria spoke often about being an observer at all times, taking notes of interesting little moments as each day unfolds - these may come to nothing but the may start a germ of an idea for a later novel.

Victoria outlined her main points as follows:

  • In order to plot, you must have conflict - something bad has to happen.
  • Reveal a twisting plot slowly, with the stakes high and the end always in doubt.
  • Start with a bang - something that will hook your reader in to turning the pages.
  • Build tension, and then offer a few resting moments, then add complication after complication, until all appears to be lost.
  • What arises in one scene should cause something to happen in the next, so that your story flows. Ifit doesn't, then your story becomes episodic. Think of conflict in a scene as the cause and the character's reaction as the effect that the conflict has on her./him.
  • When all seems lost, your main characters should refuse to give in and then launch their final try/attack and emerge triumphant (perhaps?)
  • Satisfy your reader with a solid ending resolving any mystery. 

Victoria went in to much detail about character development, which for me, is where her seminar became particularly useful. Her main points were as follows:
  • character development makes or breaks a novel ( I'm well aware that I've given up on many books when I've not believed in or cared about the characters)
  • Every character should have something personal at stake in the emerging conflict, something that motivates them to achieve their goal
  • Their external goal drives the plot and is usually something obvious to the reader such as seeking revenge or finding a child etc
  • Their internal goal is usually an emotional goal and something every reader could relate to, such as winning respect or approval. This reveals your main characters' weaknesses and vulnerabilities.
  • On that note, every character should have a vulnerability, a moral code (something they would never do) and should evolve through the course of the novel.
  • Names should reflect the character and not jar with it and be appropriate for the time period and style.
Her section on tension was equally as interesting and has informed my more recent writing over the last few weeks.As tension is what 'hooks the reader' we were told, it is of paramount importance that you get the following details right:
  • A time limit 
  • Emotional tension
  • Dialogue written well can cause tension
  • Pace - a well written novel abbs and flows
  • With each crisis point the story speeds up
  • Short choppy sentences with active verbs signal tension while long, meandering sentences imply a leisurely pace.
  • Sexual tension exacerbates tension - what is this relationship?
Victoria's thoughts on developing a setting for a story:
  • changing a location moves on a story and develops pace. 
  • planning the location references is key
  • draw a map if necessary or take photos to keep a real location true or an imagined location realistic.
  • let the setting be explored through the characters' eyes. Show don't tell.

We were taken through examples of character sheets, story planning ideas and were treated to a very generous Q&A session at the end.

Many concerns were raised and answered sensitively, positively yet with a realistic note. We were told that not all writers became novelists, not all writers wanted to publish more than one book, yet some of us, those of us who were prepared to do the 'graft', the hard work necessary and were persistent - with every novel - until taken on by an agent, there would be a place for our books on the shelves of bookshelves everywhere.

Writing is certainly not a soft option,we were told. No fluffy pink stories of publication here.We were warned of the shortfalls, the late nights, the constant re-edits, redrafting and the alarming timescales for publications sometimes. Tempered with the early low incomes to be expected until you have a few published books under your belt and the warning that writing may only ever be your second job, Millie and Victoria pulled no punches. The audience sat in silence as the seminar drew to a close.

"But if that hasn't put you off", Millie Johnson smiled, "you might just make it." 

N.B - A Selection of Bookshelf Musts - (I was on eBay the minute I arrived home from the seminar to purchase On Writing by Stephen King as this one was mentioned throughout)

  • On Writing - Stephen King
  • The 38 Most Common Fiction Mistakes - Jack M Bickham
  • Goal, Motivation, Conflict - Debra Dixon
  • Conflict, Action, Suspense - William Noble 


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