Writing conferences summon the muse

By Amy Brown

Where we find inspiration as authors is the theme this month at The Author Lab. In the past six months I’ve found a huge source of inspiration in attending three writing conferences with a fourth coming up in Stockholm in April. There is strength in numbers, meeting other writers and getting the advice of agents, editors and other industry experts to get better at craft and to navigate the challenges of getting published.

These conferences are golden networking opportunities to find not only a community of writers who understand the same struggle, but also to find those valuable industry contacts. Each conference has not only provided me with essential information on publishing, both self-publishing and traditional but also insight into becoming a better writer. No matter how long you’ve been writing and working at your craft, there is more to be learned. I found myself at many sessions scribbling ideas in my notebook for the current manuscript I was working on. There is nothing like being surrounded by dozens, hundreds, even thousands of creative souls to get your own juices flowing. Here are some highlights of the conferences that have helped summon my muse:

SWF Ellie
Novelist Elinor Lipman is one of the main reasons I’m excited to attend the Stockholm Writers Festival next month.


October 2017: Through the annual Florida Writers Association conference in Orlando, FL, I’ve been able to form a community of writers where I live in Florida. This conference brings together published authors sharing craft tips, agents offering pitch opportunities and insights into the publishing world, and the camaraderie of a diverse community of writers. The FWA sponsors two annual competitions: a contest to write a 1,200-word themed piece for their annual collection (where my work has been published in the past two years) and the Royal Palm Literary Competition (where my unpublished middle grade novel won First Place in 2016). I’ve also served as judge for the RPLA. The organization’s motto is “writers helping writers” and I’ve enjoyed giving back for all I’ve received in recognition and publishing and pitch opportunities.

January 2018: The annual conference of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) Regional chapter in Florida, /held in Miami in January was a smaller conference but attracted some top agents and editors (what New York agent isn’t enticed by the prospect of Miami in January?) I liked its small size for the opportunity to easily fall into conversation with other writers and I literally on the spot made an elevator pitch at an elevator, to an agent, when she asked what I was working on. “Send me the full manuscript,” she said, handing me her card. These are the kinds of magic moments that can happen at a conference. (I’d like to report she snapped me up as a client and the book has been sold, but alas, it’s not that fairytale ending). The inspiration came in the form of talks by brilliant children’s authors like Sara Pennypacker whose latest book Pax is a National Book Award Longlist recipient. She generously shared with us the “Top Ten Things I Learned From Being a Children’s Writer,” including “Creation is a river. We create the river; the river will take us and we will take others with us.”

March 2018: The Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP),  is the biggest writer’s conference in North America. The 2018 event, attended by 7,000 people, was being held in nearby Tampa, FL so I grabbed the opportunity to find out what this event was all about. AWP is a huge convention with dozens of events led by prominent authors, editors and academics. There are panels, readings, workshops and networking opportunities.  It was amazing how accessible famous authors were and how generous they were with their time. Some authors sat on panels and would answer questions both during and after the event. Others writers could be approached after their readings and most were happy to chat as well as sign their books. Man Book Prize winning author of Lincoln in the Bardo, keynote speaker, George Saunders, deserves a special mention for his wonderful talk and for his kindness in making everyone feel welcome and included.

AWP is all about networking, so if a friend of a friend knows someone who knows an agent, AWP is a great place to be introduced. There are also many informal and accidental opportunities to speak with agents. This is the place to literally try your elevator pitch in the elevator or while waiting in line at the concession stand.

As for finding a publisher, editors from some of the big New York publishing houses were in attendance, but they almost never speak with a writer directly. However, many small independent publishers, generally all looking for adult fiction, had tables at the book fair and were quite open to queries and submissions. My writer friend walked away with a number of good names in her pocket to contact if that New York agent doesn’t call.

AWP is a whirlwind. There were approximately twenty different events scheduled at one hour and fifteen-minute intervals from nine in the morning until ten o’clock at night. Thousands of writers scrambled between the Tampa Convention Center and the Marriott Waterfront Hotel to find the rooms they wanted. If they weren’t fast enough, they’d find themselves sitting on the floor or standing at the back of popular panels and events. There wasn’t even a break for meals. There were so many choices that whatever you did, you missed two other things you wanted to attend. Writers with enough stamina went on to the evening reception where they enjoyed a live band and free wine or read at the late night open mic.

It’s definitely a way to get a writer’s adrenalin fired up! I packed a lunch and pushed myself all day and night to pack in as much as I could, even those evening readings. I popped into the dance party with the open bar one night. As thousands of MFA students let off steam dancing (and imbibing) wildly, I made mental notes of a party scene in a future novel and took myself to bed to dream up new stories.

April 2018: From April 13-15 I will be attending the more intimate kind of conference I like best, the Stockholm Writers Festival,  the Swedish capital’s first-ever writers’ conference in English. It was the brainchild of my friend Catherine Petterson, as she shares in this recent article, and the Stockholm Writers Group that I helped found many years ago. Realizing that there were many writers working in English in Sweden and Scandinavia, and elsewhere in Europe, Catherine thought the time was ripe to have a festival in Sweden, where there is a high degree of English fluency. Through persistence, luck and charm, Catherine and team have put together a fantastic three days of immersion in craft and opportunities to pitch to top agents, under the theme of “find your path to published.” I understand it’s not too late to book a ticket, although there are only a handful left. Haven’t you always wanted to visit Stockholm? And if that wasn’t enough allure, the keynote speaker is the exceptional New York Times acclaimed novelist Elinor Lipman. I’m looking forward to a stimulating few days in Stockholm next month.







Inspiration’s Long Fuse

By Lu Anne Stewart

These past few weeks, The Author Lab has been taking a look at the subject of inspiration: where do writers get their ideas?  As my colleagues Allie Burns and Foday Mannah have related in their posts, inspiration can happen gradually as we collect life experiences and quirky bits of knowledge that trigger the idea for a story or novel. I’d like to pick up on that thread and say that in my own experience, inspiration can have a very long fuse, burning quietly over decades until it bursts into a fully formed idea.

My inspiration for Digging, the novel I’ve just finished writing, traces back to the late 1970s when I began my career as a reporter for a small daily newspaper in New England.  It was an exhilarating job, covering everything from the daily police blotter to a toxic waste dump discovered on a rural pig farm. I worked with a team of tenacious young reporters, all of us committed to getting the facts right, uncovering wrongdoing and holding the powers-that-be accountable.

I hadn’t started writing fiction at that point, but I began thinking that a small-town newsroom would make a great setting for a novel someday. The trouble was, I couldn’t come up with a strong idea for what this novel would be about. What kind of story could my reporter-protagonist uncover that would keep a reader interested over 300-plus pages?

Over the next couple of decades I started to write some short stories and a first (still unpublished!) novel about a mother-daughter relationship. The idea of a journalism novel remained stubbornly embedded in some remote corner of my mind. Its overall theme and plot still eluded me, but the fuse continued to burn.

Finally, around the 2013-14 timeframe, a variety of trends and developments related to journalism began to coalesce in my mind.  Polls showed the news media sinking to lower and lower levels of public esteem. Reporters and news outlets were derided by some as the “drive-by media.” The emergence of social media was taking its toll on “old-fashioned” print journalism, which experienced significant reporter layoffs and often, reduced resources for investigative reporting.

I found these trends disheartening. This was not the journalism I knew. I came of age at a time when journalists were heroes. The Pentagon Papers. Watergate. In my journalism training in college and throughout seven years as a working journalist, I never met a colleague who was biased or motivated by anything other than uncovering important facts that the public had a right to know.

And suddenly, there was my inspiration. My slow-burning novel would, at its core, be about idealism. It would be about the essence of journalism as a noble calling. About the importance of a free press in a democracy. And I would tell that story through the very narrow lens of one idealistic reporter in the late 1970s who sets out for a small town to begin her career as a newspaper reporter. She would discover a web of corruption in that town that tests her commitment to stay true to those high ideals.

Over the next three years spent writing this book, the news was a constant source of inspiration to keep me going. We witnessed the rise of Trump and relentless attacks on the freedom of the press. Solid, well-sourced reporting was routinely dismissed as “fake news.” The troubling notion emerged that there can be “alternative facts.”

Now, as I finish up some final edits and focus on getting this book out into the world, I hope it will give readers a glimpse into the inner motivations of a working journalist and, perhaps, if my wildest dreams come true, change some hearts and minds about the importance of a free press.

On Inspiration – by Foday Mannah

The question as to where writers get inspiration from  naturally differs depending on individual circumstances; suffice to say that real life usually significantly impacts what’s produced creatively.

Now for a little story: when I graduated university back in the nineties, I was employed for six months as a high school teacher of English. Rather ironically, teaching in Sierra Leone was a profession often treated with derision and disrespect; something you settled for until something more lucrative came along. Salaries were patchy and light whilst new teachers often received nothing for their first few months of employment. Indeed the school bursar often declared that new teachers could not be paid because “the computer had not come with our names!” Now you must remember that at this time, an understanding  of the capabilities of computers  was limited, and as such this excuse for non-payment of salaries to new teachers was accepted with resigned grace. In essence the Ministry of Education and indeed the school authorities could not be blamed if the computer failed to come with our names! Which formed the basis of a short story that I once wrote – a teacher who quits after “the computer did not come with her name,” to find a questionable form of employment as a means of providing for her disabled husband and twin daughters.

In fact my time as a teacher in the home country provided further rich pickings for another piece I am in the process of drafting. The narrative addresses the relative nature of poverty and deprivation and how this affects characters. Back in Sierra Leone, only TWO members of the teaching staff had cars – the headteacher, a deceptively avuncular fellow who lost his job whilst I was there, and a Physics teacher who had studied in America and as such considered his talents wasted as a mere high school teacher.

On migrating to Scotland in the late nineties, I took up employment for a temp agency which involved working as a waiter or labourer or waiter depending on the circumstances. Imagine my surprise therefore when after a mere month in the country, a pastry chef offered me his banger of a car for free? The car was a typical jalopy which had an amicable relationship with rust; however I was over the moon and could not understand how one person could give a whole car to another person for free. This forms the foundation for a short story, the climax of which involves the car being stolen by yobs before being wrecked and abandoned in a gratuitous act of vandalism.

Living away from home also means that I draw massive inspiration from social media, especially Facebook. The sheer volume of experiences and circumstances faced by people on a daily basis is fertile ground for creative writing. Themes that have been worth exploring recently include political intolerance, religious conflict, gender inequality, natural disasters, epidemics etc. Facebook is akin to a giant plenary session where burning issues are discussed with passion and engagement. Another advantage of social media is it times simply provides a forum for reminiscing on shared experiences from the past. A recent thread for instance saw me asking people to list superstitions and beliefs from the home country and the end product was a poem that simply listed some of my favourites: washing your face with coconut water grants you intelligence; if a millipede walks across your palm you’ll be blessed with lovely handwriting; you should not look into a mirror during a funeral procession as you’ll see a reflection of the deceased etc.

The writer’s mind typically always wanders and you often find yourself thinking about scenarios worth exploring in fiction: with so much political violence and ethnic conflict in parts of Africa, how about a dystopian society within which all political parties are banned and Western education is no longer the determining factor to holding political office? Perhaps in this story, all schools are closed down with education the exclusive responsibility of chiefs and the elders of different ethnic groups as was the case in the pre-colonial era.

Inspiration is at times a mere chunk or titbit of human existence that develops into something much more far-reaching and significant. A task whilst studying at Falmouth University asked us to experiment with an “unreliable narrator.” My take on this task was simply a boy who does not tell the truth. This then developed into a boy who pretends to be a child soldier as a means of gaining access to the care and comfort afforded to child combatants as a means of rehabilitating them. The ramifications of this lie then ends up driving the rest of the plot.

And so it continues. Thanks for reading and happy writing! 😊




Where do you get inspiration for writing?

Over the next month or so our writing collective will be opening up the discussion on sources of inspiration for our writing. It’s common for us writers to be asked where we derive our ideas, but I don’t find the question easy to answer because I tend to accumulate inspiration from all over, like a magpie hoards shiny objects.

Some of my earlier contemporary stories drew on my life experiences. The untimely death of a college friend, the adjustment to moving away from my hometown and career struggles have all inspired stories of which I’m very much a part. One piece of writing, developed during a stressful time in my life, makes me cringe a little as it was so autobiographical that it wasn’t really a story at all, but a way of helping me work through a difficult time. I was too close to the situation at the time to realise that, even so the writing of it helped me to process and accept what was happening to me, but I do wish I hadn’t shared it quite so freely!

My debut novel The Lido Girls was first inspired by my own love of swimming and a nostalgic interest in British seaside resorts in the early twentieth century. But it was a visit to the Osterberg Union Archive that really ignited the story; the archive of this prestigious women’s physical education college keeps a handwritten spreadsheet that indicates what schools or sports teams their students progressed to after graduating, but as soon as the women got married their records stopped. I discovered that because of high unemployment after the war the government introduced a marriage bar, so careers came to an end upon marriage. Although some women resurfaced to work part time, teaching keep fit classes, in the main their careers were marked as deceased, it was over. This fuelled my interest in the social history of women of the time, and I began to read, and my reading took me in many directions, some just interesting but others inspiring and helped me to layer my characters with an understanding of their lives and the challenges women faced in the early twentieth century. Books, particularly stories or biographies written in the interwar years, are invaluable to my research. It’s a cliché, but from the comfort of our sofas we really can travel anywhere and to any time period and walk in the shoes of others.

My second book (due for publication in August 2018) was inspired partly from the research for The Lido Girls, but also from a course I did in horticulture, I really enjoyed the practical sessions, out in the field, digging and planting, the camaraderie with the other students and the friendships made. I could just imagine how liberating that would have felt for women experiencing all of these things for the very first time during World War 1, especially after a life of corsets, afternoon teas and strict social conventions.

A pair of satin evening gloves that belonged to my great aunt became the germ of inspiration for my new project, which will hopefully become my third historical fiction novel. I was intrigued by the gloves when they were uncovered from the attic because my great aunt was the most unlikely person to own evening gloves, but then I learnt that she’d started out as a shop girl for Harrods and then became a buyer for their accessories department. From this detail, I’ve been inspired to develop a protagonist, a secondary main character, a setting, a time period for the story. It’s amazing how quickly these things can grow.

Where do you get your writing inspiration? Do you have to look for ideas, or do they find you?

The Short Story Mix-Tape

By Foday Mannah.

They often say creative writing takes inspiration from true life events. Take for example the story which I read in a Newsweek article under the headline  EBOLA’S SHUNNED HEROES: THE WOMEN BRINGING UP THE BODIES IN SIERRA LEONE. When the epidemic hit the home country a few years ago, a select number of women bucked cultural trends which dictated that women should have no part in such a grim task. These women however reasoned that the dignity of female victims should be respected and as such it was only fitting that fellow women were involved in preparing them for burial.

Which got me thinking. What if one such woman became the protagonist of a short story? In essence the subject matter was worth exploring in fiction; what remained was ensuring that the narrative did justice to the issue. Which got me thinking of how to write a worthy short story.

I’ve often heard that with the short story, a key component is “economy of detail”; the writer has limited space within which to develop plot, setting, characterisation and theme. I’ve also heard that all good short stories should feature “one major event which significantly influences and affects the protagonist.” I’ve also heard that the most important component of any good short story is “the hook” – an effective opening that captivates and engages therefore compelling the reader to stay. Another key consideration is the use of time. Does the short story stretch over a significant period or is the narrative constrained to say for example a single experience in a single day? And then of course, several writers suggest that there must always be an element of conflict in all good short stories.

Which had me thinking that a good strategy would be to “listen” to a mix-tape of my favourite short stories which I have read and taught through the years. Anthony Horowitz’s Monsters subtly explores family conflict over a single Halloween evening before reaching a shocking climax. I definitely recommend Monsters particularly as it represents a masterclass in the development of setting and characterisation alongside plot.

And then there’s also the question of narrative voice – who tells the story? Do I use the first or the third person? Bernard Mac Laverty’s Father and Son is a brilliant example of the effective use of narrative voice as it features both a father and son alternatively narrating segments of the story in short bursts, again building up to a memorable climax. Another strength of Father and Son is the claustrophobic setting which has the protagonists living under one roof whilst remaining riven by demons of their collective pasts.

And there are the stories that deliver a dilemma in the very first line, an example being Chimamanda Adiche’s Sola which explores political oppression in The Gambia and opens with the line “Sola has disappeared.” Or a real favourite with the pupils, Janice Galloway’s Mary Moon and Stars, which opens with “Mary Moon peed the floor first day of school.”

But again do we have to have cold water to the face in the very first line of the story? Valerie Thornton allows the narrative to marinate in her story Sharon, the Ferryman’s Daughter, which dedicates a whole page to presenting Sharon as a sympathetic underdog with circumstances stacked against her before allocating her a boyfriend, a plot point which drives the rest of the story. Malorie Blackman’s Alone Together similarly takes time to establish character before presenting a dilemma in the second part of the story – a disillusioned teenage boy who finds himself in an awkward situation with his best friend’s mother.

And how long does a short story have to be especially if the writer is not constrained by a word count which is often the case for writing competitions?  Again, variety abounds in this respect. Alice Walker’s The Flowers although just over a page in length is brilliant in its thematic depth and aptly delivers the grave circumstances faced by a child in the American Deep South. Another brilliant example is Zadie Smith’s Mortal Terror, handed to me by a work colleague a week ago, which features a supernatural entity that preys on women; an apt metaphor for issues in contemporary times and no doubt brilliant to analyse in a critical essay! Then there is another favourite, Alan Spence’s Gypsy which stretches almost to novella proportions in its examination of bigotry and bullying amongst Glasgow school boys.

All of which leaves me to conclude that there is no one specific blueprint to writing a short story. Perhaps it makes sense to just start typing and see how my narrative unfolds. After all there’s always the good old editing process. 




When is it Right to Co-author a Project?

By Alexa Padgett
This question has been on my mind for months. There are a couple of genres I’m interested in pursuing, but I have no current readers in those markets. Plus, everyone is doing it (writing with a partner) and seems to be putting out work faster and with better results—hey, two authors to market one book is synergistic.
But…the idea of writing with another person is daunting. I have my idiosyncrasies; habits in the way I build and craft characters and arcs—as do most other authors. All of which makes finding the right partner even more critical.
How do you do this? Not quite sure just yet. A friend co-wrote a novel with a new writer to help build his career. That was kind of her, and she’s happy with the result, but she felt like it took a lot of mentorship and effort—both emotional and temporal.
A friend of mine found her writing partner at a group she joined a year ago. It’s for science fiction authors—an area of interest she’d long wanted to pursue, though the closest she’s come thus far is a popular fantasy romance series. They met; they clicked; they have a killer story premise that each will write from one of the leading character’s point-of-view.
This second method seems a much better option for a balanced workload. But the key to any of this—just like in finding a trustworthy critique partner—is working with someone you trust and respect. And who trusts and respects you. That should be obvious. I hope it is. Just as I hope its tantamount in your mind when searching for a crit or writing partner. Similar voice, similar styles are nowhere near as important as respect for the story you’re creating and the other person’s capabilities.
My point is this: I’ve had some opportunities to work with other writers. To date, I’ve turned them down because they just weren’t right. Trusting that gut, knowing the importance of finding synergies and mutual satisfaction—that’s the key to this messy creative process. (And, I think, to remaining friends at the end of it.)

My New Title is “Writer”

By Lu Anne Stewart

For much of my adult life, I have dreamed of being a full-time writer. I worked for seven years as a newspaper reporter and editor, then spent many more years in public relations, where I had the chance to write everything from a Harvard Business Review case study to a speech for an NFL player helping to launch a new charity. Interesting, challenging work, but the writing was only one piece of it, and I longed for time to write the growing list of stories rattling around in my brain.

Like so many other writers, I worked on fiction in my “spare” time, rising early to carve out an hour to write before I headed off to my job, writing on weekends, taking vacation days to attend writing workshops. I was encouraged by the dedication of other writers with a day job, like John Grisham, who wrote A Time to Kill while working full-time as a lawyer.

Now, I finally have my chance. I’ve left the workaday world to launch my own adventure as a writer—fiction, freelance writing and some journalistic work, too. I’m looking forward to that first time I meet a new person and, when they ask what I do, I can simply say, “I’m a writer.”

This new season of life reminds me very much of those heady days just after graduating from college, when the future lay ahead like an open door into a secret garden, filled with every possibility imaginable and waiting to be explored. At the same time, I’m keenly aware that I have no more excuses for not writing.

I’m reminded of a friend’s story from his college days. He was telling his English professor how much he loved to write and yearned to be a writer, and the professor looked at him squarely and said, “Oh? What have you written today?”

My friend stuttered, “Well, I haven’t written anything yet today…”

“If you love to write so much, why are you denying yourself that pleasure?” the professor responded.

Fair point. Now that I have this freedom, I am determined to put every available moment to good use. My current project, a novel about an idealistic young reporter in the post-Watergate 1970s, is in the final editing stages and I’m eager to send it out into the world. An idea for the next novel is germinating. I have some short story drafts to go back and polish, and there’s even a completed screenplay for a film about a time in the not-too-distant future when we’ll be able to take a pill to halt the aging process. Maybe it’s time to dust that off, too.

All of these drafts and ideas are starting to look less like failed attempts and more like possibilities waiting to sprout in that secret garden. It’s time to go to work.