Creative Writing Masterclasses at London Book Fair

The 2005 PEN Creative Writing Masterclasses run in conjunction with London Book Fair and the Daily Mail were a great success, attracting around 700 members of the public ready to take tips from best-selling authors, literary giants and publishing professionals across a range of genres. For reports on individual classes, please read on.

Historical Fiction

Bernard Cornwell and Philippa Gregory

Bernard Cornwell

and Philippa Gregory

Are writers born or made? asked Bernard Cornwell. He is perhaps known by most as the author of the Sharpe books, but has written many others books, among which are The Grail Quest, Stonehenge and The Arthur Trilogy. Together with Philippa Gregory, author of numerous books among which is the bestselling Lacey family trilogy, the pair chaired the packed Historical Fiction Masterclass at the 2005 London Book Fair.

Both Cornwell and Gregory are experienced historical authors, who shared with the audience the knowledge they’ve acquired over many years.

Gregory put it this way: You have to be a fanatical reader to be a good writer. Cornwell agreed. Writing popular fiction is about finding out what makes other popular books work, said Cornwell. It’s also about having an instinct of how to tell a story and how to pace it.

Gregory often uses real historical figures as inspiration for the characters in her books. In The Other Boleyn Girl, the character Mary Boleyn is based on Lady Anne Boleyn’s sister. Anne Boleyn was King Henry VIII’s wife, while Mary was his mistress.

Read history all the time, urged Cornwell. He goes to great lengths himself to make sure his books are factually correct, often travelling to the sites where battles he will describe in his story took place. Gregory creates a timeline and puts it up on the wall to have a visible reference when writing.

It’s important to write historical fiction, asserted Gregory. Some people won’t read history, but if they’re introduced to history this way, they may still become familiar with important historical issues.

A large audience attended the informative and entertaining session with Bernard Cornwell and Philippa Gregory. Our thanks to both of the writers for sharing their know-how of writing historical fiction.

Report by Hadia Tajik


Contemporary Fiction

Graham Swift
Graham Swift

You need a peculiar mixture of arrogance and humility in order to make it as a writer, said Rose Tremain at the Contemporary Fiction Masterclass. Be patient, be fussy and be careful. Novels are big things, they take a long time. Keep at it and don’t rush. Embrace the re-writing.

Distinguished writer Tremain and acclaimed novelist Graham Swift acted as motivators and mentors for the literature-loving audience at the London Book Fair. By challenging each other they unravelled some of the mysteries about writing a novel.

The moment when research seeps in, it becomes your voice, said Tremain. She can spend up to six months mentally working at a plot before she starts writing.

Swift said he sometimes knew how his novels were going to end when he started, and sometimes he didn’t.

He asserted that the act of writing is somewhat similar to yoga and the so-called ‘alert passivity’ state. This is exactly which state I hope to arrive in by the middle of the book, he said. However, getting there often coincides with the voice that appears somewhere midway in the writing process, whispering: ‘I could be doing this better’, leading to insecurity about the writing or plot.

Rose Tremain
Rose Tremain

Swift admits that moving the writings from private to public is a very sensitive matter.

I’m getting used to it, but it is always such a shock when others read what I’ve written.

Tremain has some of the same experience. She underlined the importance of allowing yourself time to recover from the writing and the feedback you get from whomever you let read what you’ve written. Sometimes the feedback can be hard to accept. But then you must think the feedback through and take on board the criticism – and embark on the re-writing.

The session on Contemporary Fiction was presented in conjunction with the Daily Mail Book Club, English PEN and the London Book Fair. Great thanks to the sponsors and both of the authors for such an educating afternoon.

Report by Hadia Tajik

How To Get Published

From John Walsh, The Independent

Tales of the City: Still looking for the happy ending


At the London Book Fair last weekend, I chaired a PEN masterclass on the subject of “how to get published”. You might perhaps imagine the event as a cosy chat with some middle-aged suburban dreamers, stalwarts of the Beckenham Readers’ Group. Not a bit of it. The class was three hours long, and was packed with 260 young and intensely focused writers, some of them taking notes (in those Moleskine jotters allegedly once used by Bruce Chatwin), all deadly serious about their intentions. Usually with such events at book fairs, you have to wheedle people to ask the first question in the Q&A session; here they practically flung themselves onstage to find out what they wanted to know.

Which was, of course, how to get published. Not “how to write a good book”, you’ll notice, but how – once they’ve written something – to get it noticed, read, enthused over. How to get it Out There in the howling marketplace of authorship where fame, riches, prizes and the attentions of the opposite sex can be yours if you simply arrange several thousand words in a certain order.

Publication is the final legitimising of the rampant ego; it tells you that somebody actually does want to listen to you banging on about yourself for 200 pages. What no aspirant writer will accept is that he or she just might not be any good at it. Instead, they fall back on de la Bruyere’s celebrated dictum, “Making a book is a craft, as is making a clock; it takes more than wit to become an author.” For many, the idea of literary art as a step-by-step, painting-by-numbers procedure is a heartening fallacy.

The speakers did their best to sound discouraging. Alexandra Pringle (the Bloomsbury publisher) said that nobody now bothers reading a manuscript submitted through the post (the famous “slush pile” of unread texts) let alone “discovers” a masterpiece once a month. Jonny Geller, the gunslinger agent at Curtis Brown, said people should allow themselves the luxury of discovering they’re not natural writers, and cease to strive. Becky Swift, whose Literary Consultancy offers critiques of their work to collectors of refusal slips, said her strike rate of getting writers into print was two a year. And Clare Morrall, whose fifth novel, Astonishing Splashes of Colour, was turned down by 33 publishers before it crashed onto the 2003 Booker shortlist, told her tragic 20-year story of rejection. Had a chorus of Greek women invaded the Olympia auditorium and wailed for half an hour, they couldn’t have sounded more negative about the chances of getting published in the UK today.

All their warnings went in the audience’s right ears and straight out of their lefts. They couldn’t have cared less. Instead of giving up their literary dreams, they redoubled their cries for information about how to approach publishers. Eventually it came, teased out through a dozen questions. Find out who publishes the books you like. Ring up and find the name of a commissioning editor. Write a letter explaining who you are, why you’ve written the book and what it’s about. Don’t track obsessively through the plot or contents. Be yourself. Don’t plead. Don’t bitch and carp about rejection (like the woman who wrote to Becky Swift, “What have I done to the literary world, that they should shun me like a leopard?”) Enclose the first three chapters, no more. Try to make sure they’re free of coffee stains and the like. Wait for a reply. Repeat ad nauseam.

Yet more questions followed, looking for nuanced refinements on this basic model. How long should the three chapters be? Should they be sent on a CD? (Answer: definitely not.) Should I enclose a photo? Where do I send my short stories? (Answer: don’t bother.)

Then a black-haired woman in the second row asked the killer question. “When,” she enquired, “is the right time to give up?” There was an audible stir in the audience, a hiss of breath as if the speaker had announced her intention to commit suicide. In the frenzy of aspirant authorship, there’s never a moment to admit defeat, nor indeed to go and write a better book – instead there’s the moment to rewrite the letter of introduction, to express a more positive attitude, to acquire a posher Jiffy Bag.

Report courtesy of John Walsh

How to Write Contemporary Poetry

Daisy Goodwin, Fleur Adcock & Sophie Hannah

Daisy Goodwin, Fleur Adcock & Sophie Hannah

Just because I’ve not moved for an hour

and just sat and stared at the view,

not turned a page of the book on my lap

doesn’t mean I’ve been thinking of you.

– by Clive Davidson, Surrey

Even quite pleasant and well-mannered gentlemen like Mr. Clive Davidson from Haslemere in Surrey enjoyed writing cheeky and sarcastic poems during the Poetry Masterclass on Sunday 13th of March.

Davidson was one of around 30 participants at the ‘How to Write Contemporary Poetry’ Masterclass during London Book Fair at the commodious venue of the Olympia conference centre. The well-known poets Fleur Adcock, Christopher Reid and Sophie Hannah shared their experience and expertise with Daisy Goodwin chairing the event.

One of the issues discussed during the day was how to move poetry from the private to the public sphere. How do you turn those personal scribbles or thoughts into poetry accessible to other people than yourself? Adcock emphasised the importance of discussing your writing with others. – Creative writing courses can be a good place to you can find out if you are writing meaningless, mysterious ramble.

Christopher Reid, Daisy Goodwin, Fleur Adcock & Sophie HannahWhen sharing and discussing writings with others, one also gets the opportunity to view one’s poetry from the outside, which can be quite healthy – something Hannah has experienced in the past, when she joined a writing course. I wrote “serious” poems, because I thought that’s what poets do, she said. At one point during the course Hannah had an assignment for which she ended up writing a heavy, stodgy poem about a dead sheep, and several sarcastic ones about her ex-boyfriend. The latter were the poems she was the most satisfied with, but the first was the one she thought was how poetry ‘should be’. It turned out that both her lecturer and the other students preferred the sarcastic ones, and Hannah started thinking it was about time to challenge her deadlocked view of what poetry ‘should be’.

The first hurdle for getting published is writing good poetry. The second is to have a poetic voice or persona with the communicative power to reach the readers, said Hannah. She added that aspiring poets shouldn’t try to write in the style of poets they admire, rather they should try finding their own voice.

Christopher Reid suggested that the participants shouldn’t have a static view of their own voice as poets. All my books have been different attempts to discover new voices. Most young poets are told they should ‘find their voice, and stick to it’. I’ve preferred to do quite the opposite.

The Masterclass participants were challenged to write a haiku or a sarcastic poem for exercise during the break and share them afterwards. They took up the challenge and returned after the break with inspiring, stimulating and clever poems. One of those who felt brave enough to share his poetry was John Parsons from Leeds, who had written a haiku:

 * Tell me honestly

what you think, but remember

I have feelings too

For more participants poems that arose from the session, please click on the following links:

Poems by Heather Harrison

Poems by Kavita Jindal

Poems by Sean O Connor

Masterclasses during the London Book Fair is an annual venture, and you can already register your interest for next year’s classes by sending an e-mail to

Report by Hadia Tajik

Originally posted with the url:

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