Liking Minds at the Winchester Writers’ Festival

photo by Alex Carter

Photo by Alex Carter

A perk of doing my MA at the University of Winchester is that I had the opportunity to be a student host at this year’s Winchester Writers’ Festival. My duties were to look after two session leaders and in return I got to see the keynote and sit in on my speakers’ sessions, not to mention lunch, with tangerine and coffee pudding. Well, I did mention it, I had to; it was so good!

Beforehand I was terrified. Stupidly so. I thought I ought to prepare an elevator pitch to market myself effectively, even though my novel is less than half written. I forgot that people are human beings. I also forgot that these days I am barely ever intimidated.

The start of the day was wonderful, Sebastian Faulks was everything you want from a keynote. He was very warm, had fascinating anecdotes and said exciting things, like allowing your characters to contradict themselves. Check out @JennySavill1 ‘s #sebastianfaulks tweets for a great summary of his gems.

Jenny Savill from Andrew Nurnberg was my first speaker. She was, of course, lovely and encouraging, talking about there being a potential market for my clumsily explained story (I still haven’t nailed my elevator chatter). My second speaker was Paul Bryers, who had been one of my lecturers so I knew he wouldn’t be scary and it was brilliant to catch up with him. He was in high spirits, having just finished writing a novel the day before!

I don’t want to give away my speaker’s intellectual property because that would be unethical and if you get the chance to hear either of them talk, please do!

So just tiny tasters:

Jenny’s session was ‘Think you’re Ready to Submit to an Agent’. She gave lots of excellent tips on what to do before sending your manuscript off. I’ve made a checklist from what she said. A jewel for me was about starting action as late as possible. Very resonant!

Then lunch. And. That. Pudding.

Paul’s session was ‘Making a Drama Out of a Crisis’, looking at ways in to factually-based historical fiction. It was great to hear his film maker and novelist perspectives and I love that he says the story must come first; truth is flexible.

Both speakers answered all sorts of questions from attendees, honestly and expertly.

In between, I bumped into MA friends at various stages of their dissertations, some more frantic than me and others I’m incredibly jealous of (already editing!). I also saw other friends, some that I hadn’t seen for years, some that are becoming new writing buddies. And met new people. I love new people; they’re so unexplored. All of them with that shared passion; that drive to write.

Thanks to Judith Heneghan for this fantastic opportunity. Next year I’ve promised myself a fully paid-up ticket and I’ll be touting my completed novel. Dear readers, book yourselves on and I’ll see you there!

Kath Whiting
MA Creative & Critical Writing
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Everything is awful but keep going – Guest Post from David Owen

Writer David OwenWhen my first publishing deal was confirmed I was standing in a Sainsbury’s car park that smelled of urine. It didn’t involve champagne and fireworks and slow motion jumping like I had always imagined. I accepted the news, ended the call, and went back inside to help my dad find the cheapest bacon.

Later that day I text my agent to apologise for not seeming pleased. What I really felt was profound relief. After so many months of rejections I was just happy that my preceding years of hard work had finally paid off.

Although there is undoubtedly a great deal of luck involved in getting an agent and a publishing deal, you will never be on the receiving end of that luck without having first worked ludicrously hard. My first novel took me a couple of years to write and was promptly rejected by every agent under the sun. It was rubbish, and they were right to do it. My second novel took something like four years, written alongside two jobs and an MA, went from one book to a trilogy and back again via an ill-advised jaunt into self-publishing, and at the end of it fell on the scrapheap.

But it got me an agent. Baby steps.

So when I heard the news I was relieved, but I knew it was only the beginning. This was just an oversized toe in the door. The book wouldn’t even be out for 18 months. So I went home and got straight back to work on the next book I was already writing.

Since then I’ve finished that second novel (when it comes to chronology I choose to disown my failed, rejected children) and am deep into redrafts of a third. I get up at 6am every morning to write before work, and I follow that with a few hours in the evening.

I have my first publishing deal, but it doesn’t guarantee me any future success. I must make that for myself. Writing is wonderful, but it is also work, and all you can do, wherever you are in your career, is work as hard as you can because you can’t do anything but, so that when it pays off you know you earned it.

David’s debut novel Panther is released today. For more about David: check out his Twitter feed or his website:

Litmus Launch and why Writers are like Hummingbirds

Book Cover
As well as promoting our book, the Litmus launch is a celebration of the end of the taught component of our MAs in Creative & Critical Writing and Writing for Children at the University of Winchester. It is the end of a very intense creative experience. A time for goodbyes and good lucks and thank yous. Of course, there will be graduation but that won’t be until next October, or even 2017 for some part-time students, so the 12 May will be our last communal hurrah.

I’m really looking forward to reading Litmus 2015; it promises to be an eclectic mix from a talented group of writers. People have worked really hard on this project; promoting, editing, organising and galvanising.

The hummingbird cover is beautiful and appropriate. Hummingbirds are relentless, tireless and always seeking nectar. We’ve learnt on our final module, in order to be successful, to find agents or to self-publish, writers have to be tireless and resilient. And of course, we are always hunting for ideas; our own creative nectar.

As well as students and their significant others; tutors, expert speakers, guest bloggers and agents will be attending. Many of us will read excerpts, which is not at all terrifying  with an audience like that! There will be refreshments and merriment, and I’ve heard there may even be cake.

So, 10 days to go and we will be going with a bang!

Kath Whiting
MA Creative & Critical Writing

If you are an agent, editor, blogger or journalist who somehow slipped off our invitation list and would like to come to Winchester for cake, readings, and your own copy of Litmus 2015, please let us know.  You can comment below, tweet your interest on @litmus2015 or email

Writing and Breathing – Guest Post from Robin Mukherjee

Robin MukherjeeThe sweetness of adversity is noticeable, sometimes, only in retrospect. I was in my early twenties, a law career abandoned, my prospects vague, employment meagre and resources negligible. Old associates from university were landing gainful positions in legal practices, finance companies, even seats in parliament. I was taking time out to think, working in an old people’s home because I felt I’d never actually done anything useful; in those days I liked to see things in primary colours.

As a younger child I had suffered terrible asthma. This meant long nights contemplating the meaning of existence and the elusive nature of breath. In those dark, insomniac interludes I discovered writing, not as an activity, but as a way of being. In imagination I could jump and laugh and play while the other form, the physical lump, hunched over the desk inert and incapable. I never went anywhere without my inhaler. And, after a while, I never went anywhere without a pen and paper. The asthma passed, thankfully. The urge to write has not.

So that’s the impulse, carved into my soul as hungry as the need to breathe. What amuses me, looking back, is that I never quite made the equation between writing and earning. I wrote and wrote; all kinds of things, scraps, notes, short stories, poetry, the beginnings of novels, one of which I rewrote as a television script. One day my brother came to visit. I was out, but my girlfriend (now wife) was in. They dug up that script and sent it to the BBC. A few weeks later I was astonished to get a letter. Why the hell would the BBC be writing to me? They said they weren’t sure about the script, but were interested in the passion behind it. I went to see them, was assigned a mentor (who remains a great friend), received guidance, was encouraged to write for theatre, was mercilessly criticised and generously praised. Eventually one of my stage plays led to a radio commission, to an agent, to my first television gig.

I have been busy ever since. I am busy now. I even teach a little, while writing, and am constantly amazed to see that same passion, purpose and crazy leap of faith reflected back at me from a roomful of young faces. The routes into professional writing are clearer these days, with myriad courses across the country at every level of education, but faith, passion and craziness are still the price of admission. The most accomplished writer remains threaded to his younger self: the long nights, urgent needs, quiet thoughts and private dreams that shape the mind and heart.

That I wrote for love over reward might seem quaintly noble but it was merely realistic at the time. Perhaps you can’t tell a story you haven’t lived, nor understand your story until you’ve told it. Still, I do exhort my students not to be shy about getting their work out there (lights under bushels and all that). And I wonder sometimes – not without a little chill – what would have happened if I’d been in, that day, when my brother called.

The Art of ScreenplaysRobin Mukherjee has written extensively for television, radio, film and theatre. His most recent television feature was nominated for a BAFTA. His film ‘Lore’ won numerous international awards and was Australia’s official entry to the oscars. He has recently been appointed as a lecturer in scriptwriting at Bath Spa University and is currently completing the MA Creative and Critical Writing at the University of Winchester. Present projects include a feature film adaptation of Paul Scott’s Booker Prize winning novel ‘Staying On’, and contributions to Series 2 of ‘Hetty Feather’ for CBBC.

Robin’s book, The Art of Screenplays: A Writers Guide was published last year. This is a working handbook for writers with stories to tell. Addressing the key issues of creativity and craft, its aim is to connect with our natural understanding of story, to demystify the screenwriter’s art, and to enable fresh, original and authentic writing.


Weird Tales – Guest Post from Marcus Sedgwick

Novelist Marcus SedgwickQuestion One: How do you get an agent? That’s certainly in the top ten questions you get asked as a published writer, and it’s a fair one at that – most people trying to get a book published have heard that it’s impossible to get a book published without one, and only almost impossible with one. I exaggerate, but not much.

Question Two: How should you react when someone tells you something utterly unbelievable? That’s not a question I have ever been asked, but I have at times wished I knew the answer. There was the time someone told me in all seriousness that the wall of their bedroom became a swirling portal to somewhere else. There was the time someone told me they once teleported across a room. And the time someone told me they fell out of a tree but were caught by the Green Man. Yes. Ahem.

I’ll answer Question One first. In my case, I did what you’re supposed to do, namely contact likely-looking agents listed in the Artist and Writer’s Yearbook (this was the 1653 edition, obviously) and write to them all, and then I happily waited for a few weeks while not one of them replied to me. However, finally, one day I found a promotional copy of a book in the stockroom of the bookshop I worked in, and by chance it had an agent’s address label on it. Not being one of the people I had contacted so far, I wrote to her. She suggested I send her something. She liked it, and suggested we arrange a meeting to see if we would be able to work together.

Back to Question Two: well, this is one you’re going to have to work out for yourself, as I tell you a strange but yes, of course, true story about something odd that once happened to me. When I was still a skinny student, around 21 years old, I was idling away a hot summer morning in my student pad, when I suddenly noticed writing on my leg. I should specify that I was wearing shorts, and that the writing was not writing that I had put there. It was not in ink, but was, sort of, embossed in my skin. It was somewhat sideways, but it was very clearly a date, and the date was March 6. No year was specified, but for the next 5 or 6 years I assumed that I had been presented with the date of my death, and with each March 7th that rolled along, I would breathe a sigh of relief. As the years went by I finally began to wonder if perhaps it would be something good that happened on March 6th, and eventually, we come to March 6th 1998, when I met my soon-to-be agent for the first time; a date which my soon-to-be agent had chosen, not I. Cynics among you will suggest that something eventually had to happen on a date I had been looking out for. In fact, cynics among you will assert that I was off my face back in 1990, but I am a clean living gentleman and I assure you I was not. So how then should you react when someone tells you something utterly unbelievable? Who knows? If I were you, I’d make an excuse to leave and shuffle away. Yes. Ahem.

If there’s anyone left, I’ll just add one more thing; which is this: even more important than finding the right agent, with or without supernatural help, I would suggest, is that you write the right book. What’s the right book? Well, it’s the one that you most want to tell, even if you think people might look at it and shuffle off sideways muttering ahem to themselves. Copy what other people are doing at your peril. Write something truly original and every publisher in London will have your hand off at the elbow. Believe that, and it just might happen.

MS March 2015

Marcus Sedgwick is the author of many YA novels and has also written his first novel for adults A Love Like Blood and released a novella, Killing the Dead, for World Book Day. Marcus has won the Blue Peter Book Award, the Booktrust Teenage Prize and the Printz Award.  In addition he has received numerous nominations, including the Carnegie Medal, the Edgar Allan Poe Award and the Guardian Children’s Fiction prize.

To find out more about Marcus and his work, head to

The Hardest Part – Guest Post from Marni Bates

Marni BatesMy road to publication is rather unusual. I was hired to write my autobiography my freshman year of college and by my nineteenth birthday it was on the New York Public Library’s Stuff for the Teen Age 2010 list. I wrote a YA book over the summer, pitched to literary agents, and had representation before I returned to school. That book sold in a three book deal to KensingtonTeen, which was expanded into a five book deal. It sounds like it all came together so easily for me, which is accurate in some ways and incredibly misleading in others.

The hardest part of the publishing process isn’t finding a literary agent. It isn’t getting an offer from a publishing house. It isn’t desperately trying to promote your work without selling your soul.

The hardest part attacks you at 2am when you wonder what the hell you are doing. When you tell yourself that you’re crazy. Who will really give a shit about what you have to say? Who the hell do you think you are? What makes you such a sparkly little unicorn?

When you have an inbox full of rejections and you feel like crap and anything seems better than handing over your heart for other people to examine, critique and reject.

That is the hardest part.

This job demands faith, not in some nebulous benevolent force in the universe, but in yourself. In your vision. In your story. It requires you to ignore the pile of we liked it, we just didn’t love it rejections and confront the blank page once again. To say, maybe not this book, but some book. Maybe not this story, but the next one. 

To write through the numbness and the pain, to ignore the spectre of smug faces who insist that they always knew it was a pipe dream. That you should have become an accountant instead. That you don’t have what it takes.

That’s when you need to text a friend. Take a walk. Drink some coffee. Look at a piece of art. Listen to a song that belongs on your No Shits Are Given playlist.

That’s when you remind yourself of the Wayne Gretzky quote, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take” and get back in the fight. You send out your query letter to another agent. You write another sentence. You edit another page.

You take another shot.

Awkwardly Ever AfterMarni Bates began her writing career at the age of 19 with her autobiography, Marni, for HCI’s Louder Than Words series. Marni was also selected for the New York Public Library Stuff for the Teen Age 2010 List. Her debut fiction novel, Awkward, has been translated into French, Portuguese, Spanish and Hungarian and has also been optioned by Disney Channel as a made-for-TV movie. She has four other novels with KensingtonTeen; Decked with Holly, Invisible, Notable, and Awkwardly Ever After. For more information, please visit or the Marni Bates Author Facebook page. You can also follow @MarniBates on Twitter for the latest news.​

Roma Tearne: 2015 Winchester Reading Series

Roma TearneWe were delighted to welcome Roma Tearne to the Winchester Reading Series at the University of Winchester, on 24 March. Roma is a Sri Lankan born novelist, artist and filmmaker who left the island in the 1960s at the start of the civil war and now lives in Oxford.

This huge personality gripped our attention from the moment she began to speak. She quickly built up a relationship with us, as she does so cleverly in her novels, sharing her ideas and explaining how she weaves her stories around them. She kept us enthralled for over an hour as she drew us into her life as a writer.

I managed to read Mosquito, her debut novel, before the evening. This remarkable book captures the tragedy and violence of civil war and its terrible effect on the characters who experience it. But it is not only a story about war; it deals with love and loss as the relationship between the protagonists is torn apart. There are no speculative assumptions about characters in this book. These are felt experiences. I found the sharing of them profoundly moving. However, it is through the poetry of her writing that the strong sense of Sri Lanka is best portrayed. Her pen and her artist’s brush combine, as she recreates its vibrant colours and rhythms, to allow our senses to feast on them.

Roma has her feet firmly planted on the ground. Although she delighted us with her anecdotes about presenting her work around the world and getting published, she emphasised the difficulties too. Refusing to be dictated to and pigeonholed by publishers, she has had to fight her way to preserve her identity and become the writer she wants to be. She made it very plain to us that success is not easy in this profession and we must be prepared to fight very hard for it.

The Last PierI would like to recommend Roma’s latest novel, The Last Pier, to be launched in April. It is set against the Second World War. I am thoroughly enjoying it.

Ann Radley