Earlier this year I attended the Harrogate Crime Festival and took part in a two hours intensive workshop on character and plot development presented by MR Hall and William Ryan. I was so impressed I wanted more – and this last weekend more is exactly what I got.
I discovered Mathew and William ran a longer version of their course under the Guardian Masterclass banner – two days instead of two hours – so I signed up. The course was held at the Guardian building just around the corner from King’s Cross station. Sitting on the banks of Regent’s Canal, this is a stunning glass sided building, and just walking inside makes you feel special.
The course is only held with small groups – this time there were 12 of us – and it was a fantastic mix of individuals with a stunning range of experience and skills, from a Scandinavian investigative journalist through a Professor of Neurology, through not one but two psychologists, businessmen, journalists… all of us wannabe crime writers.
Despite being held over two longish days – 10:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. – the course was equally as intense as that first two hour one I attended, because we were all expected to do a lot more thinking and creating.
I’m not going to give a blow by blow account of what we did, because then you might not need to attend this weekend yourself, and if anyone reading this is thinking they have a crime novel or thriller within them I encourage you to sign up and experience it for yourself. What I am going to tell you about are my impressions and what I came away with.
As a writer – and a person – I love to learn new things and explore areas in depth. And especially as a writer I know I have some strengths but also many, many weaknesses. I can write – I have proven this to myself many years ago by publishing four novels – but now I want to be able to write better, and better still. I have been told my writing is good at setting and atmosphere, and I write sympathetic, realistic characters. What I am aware of is a weakness in plotting. In the past I sat (in those days at an old black Royal typewriter) and started at page one and hammered away until I was finished, with no real clue where I was going until I got there. I must have done something right, if only by accident, but I had no idea what it was.
Returning to writing after a long hiatus I knew I wanted to be better, so set out on a journey of discovery and enlightenment. I buy books on craft. I read other writers I admire using a more analytic eye, and I go on courses.
Working on your own may bring some insight, but working with other develops a far deeper level of understanding. And those others you work with challenge your preconceptions. Alone I might push so far and then say, OK, good enough. With eleven others casting a critical but supportive eye over your ideas they do not allow you to say good enough.
Saturday concentrated on explaining the process of writing a crime novel and then we started on character development, with Bill showing us how to build realistic, believable characters that did not conform to the stereotypical protagonist of a crime novel.
We went on to look at the fundamentals of plotting, and spent an uncomfortable (for me) hour acting out dialogue.
As the last session of the day David Headley gave us his thoughts on the work of an agent – something likely of interest to most of us there. Personally I was fascinated and buoyed up by his words, but it appeared on Sunday morning I was in the minority. David told us he receives somewhere around 4,000 submissions a month. That’s 48,000 potential novels a year. And of these he might choose to take on 6. Yes, that’s not a mistake, 6 out of 48,000; which is 1 in 8,000, or 0.0125%.
To most of his audience that was a daunting statistic. To me I heard something different in what he said, which was that the rejection rate is so high because most of those manuscripts break all the rules required of a real novel. And the entire point of the whole weekend was to give us the tools needed to be a part of the tiny percentage that stand a chance of success.
Or maybe I’m just too big-headed to understand when the odds are stacked against me.
By 5 p.m. on Sunday William was standing at a whiteboard putting the final touches to three plots our groups had developed. On another long glass wall Mathew had taped up the character sketches for our protagonists and victims.
Looking at what we managed to develop over such a short period of time was both exciting and inspiring. With a little more work any one of the three plot lines could be turned into a damn good novel. Even better I came away with a toolkit to apply against my current work in progress, and everything I plan for the future.
Sure, I might have come to some of these skills and techniques myself – but how long would it have taken me, and how many mistakes might I have made along the way?
Sometimes writers, or those who aspire to be writers, consider it a singular profession that has to be battled through at a desk, alone. And yes, ultimately, that is where the work gets done, but the great materials, fantastic instruction and wonderful companions of this weekend are going make the job so much easier.
And the main thing I came away with that is going to make me a better writer?
The lesson that writing is a process. Certainly, creativity and originality have a part to play, but if you do not follow the process you will make everything harder for yourself in the long run, and you will never be able to produce enough work to make a living at it, and its unlikely you will ever be accepted by an agent, or published.
So if you want to be a writer and are unsure of your way, you owe it to yourself to check out these masterclasses. You have nothing to lose but months – or years – of lonely struggle.