Sunday, 20 October 2013

Stars in my eyes: a review of Words & Women’s first membership event

Two members have written about our first membership event.

Here's a short introduction to the event by Sarah Passingham, followed by Stars In My Eyes, a review by another Sarah  - Sarah Tanburn. Many thanks to both!

Sarah P:
Months ago, Words And Women asked me if I could give a hand with the inaugural members’ event, signing up new members as they came through the door. I was promised cake! I always say yes to cake, but I really didn't need the bribe as I’d have jumped at the chance to help at another event, after the success of the fantastic readings and films in the Forum earlier this year.
A good number of writers had signed up before Saturday, and it was great to see a small crowd of women and curious onlookers waiting for us to open the doors. With free refreshments on the bill, a buzz started immediately. And, looking around, it was clear that this first event had attracted a real patchwork of writers: some beginners, others aspiring and emerging (a description I particularly favour), to the more advanced, published writers. By the time it all kicked off - as so eloquently described by Sarah T below - about 30 members had gathered, mostly from the Norwich area, but one keen member having travelled all the way from Cambridge.
Another first for me, was the venue itself. The Appleyard in Exchange Street, had given over their whole space to Words and Women, with a bright, airy upstairs room just perfect for some very informative and enjoyable talks; I hope we meet there again. And, of course, the cake (homemade by The Appleyard boys) was absolutely delicious!

Sarah T:
Me:  writer new to Norwich, looking for congenial groups and opportunities to learn.
Words and Women Norwich: supports and promotes women writers living and working in the East of England today. 
How excellent is that?  I joined up and reserved Sunday afternoon in my unpacking schedule to go to the first members’ event, held just up the road from home.

I have been to a lot of writers’ groups and events both online and in real life.  They tend to have similar structures and too often you hear the same advice again and again. The joy of Sunday’s event was seeing a whole new level in breadth and professionalism.  Lynne and Bel, the hard-working organisers, had created a varied line-up from five different writing worlds and straightforwardly asked these speakers to give us some ‘dos and dont’s’.  No readings or sales pitches (though books were available if you chose to buy). 

Trezza Azzopardi is a novelist writing literary fiction, Jean Hogg a writer-director making films, Hayley Long a successful writer of books for young adults, Sarah Poulton an experienced journalist and Heidi Williamson an award-winning poet. Lynne Bryan chaired the contributions and questions really well too.

There was loads of good advice on offer. Jean made the fascinating comment that she likes to write the scene and add the dialogue later. This insight from the world of screen writing seemed so strange to me, a prose writer, I asked her to say a little more.  She explained that for her the heart of the story is in behavior, what the character does, not what the character says. The character should be speaking to convey something that cannot be shown through the lens, which maybe the tension between her words and actions. What a wonderful nugget to take away, far beyond the clichĂ© of ‘showing not telling’.

All the speakers encouraged us to be honest in our writing, not to be restricted by genre or marketing speak. Several women asked about this, as the common advice is to be aware of the market and show agents or publishers that you know where your work will sit on the shelves.  Trezza emphasised that this is not to suggest you shouldn’t research agents and make sure you approach people who are interested in your sort of writing. (There is no point in me approaching someone who specialises in romance writing, for instance.) Heidi summed it up by telling us to ‘throw everything you’ve got into everything you write.’

Sarah also talked about research in the very different context of journalism, both of the market for your work and the topic you want to cover. Look at previous editions, she told us, and submit two or three well-thought out ideas rather than ten half-baked proposals. Think laterally and find those offbeat approaches that will be relevant to the readers of that publication.  Remember the differences between writing for the page and online:  writing on the screen needs a stronger emphasis on keywords, shorter pieces and shorter sentences and less figurative prose.

One group-member asked about the value of having specific space for women writers, and whether the speakers thought of themselves as ‘women writers’ or writers who happen to be women. Unsurprisingly most of the speakers described themselves as the second, but also pointed to the rarity of women in certain arenas, for example Heidi’s fascination with science. (She spent two years as writer-in-residence at the Science Museum.  What a great gig.) They also reflected on the way women writers are written about, citing the cattiness aimed at Hilary Mantel. (This week’s extraordinary coverage of Eleanor Catton’s Man Booker win confirms the tendency.) For me, I want the airspace with women committed to honing their craft and finding an audience. I go to plenty of mixed groups, but it was a joy to be in a room with women writers taking themselves and each other seriously.

In two weeks I am going to Heidi’s workshop on winning writing residencies, so that’s another benefit. I really enjoyed the afternoon, a fine introduction to other women writers in the city.  See you at the next one.

Sarah Tanburn is a short story writer and novelist.  Her work has been published in several places including Ether Books, the national short story site, Snapshots of History and she has a contribution in the next edition of [wherever] magazine.

1 comment:

Caroline Gill said...

I enjoyed reading this ... and know that you will get a lot out of Heidi's workshop. I certainly did!