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10 things I learned at Berwick Literary Festival

Dawn's Festival BlogPosted by Dawn Tindle Sun, October 23, 2016 12:50:44

I spent the weekend blogging at the Berwick Literary Festival. I spoke to other readers, met some fascinating authors and heard some brilliant talks about being a writer.

Looking back on my two-day adventure, there are some key things I will take with me and use to help me develop as a reader and writer.

1. It’s never too late to write

Margaret Skea started in her 30s, Helen MacKinven in her 40s and Richard Yeo in his 50s. You can begin writing whenever you want. But, don’t ignore it – authors spoke candidly about how the fear of not doing it, the potential of having regrets in their old age, drove them to take the plunge.

2. The desire to write is a good start

If you have a desire to write, just write. All of the authors I spoke to said their desire, and enjoyment of their craft, gets them through the challenges of being a writer. It’s not easy, none of the speakers shied away from the often harsh realities of writing for a living, but the love of writing is enough to sustain you.

3. Retreat to write

Several authors spoke about the value to attending writing retreats. Whether it was an organised retreat or a loaned empty cottage (Margaret Skea’s friend allowed her to use her remote cottage before renovations began!), locking yourself away from the world (from mobile phones, wifi and other distractions) was often the only way to get the first major tranche of writing on the page.

4. Routes to publishing vary

None of the writers I listened to had the same route to publication. There were self-publishers, writers who work with independent publishers, those who have books published with various publishers, and those who got traditional book deals. There really are lots of options out there worth exploring.

5. You don’t have to stick to one form

I listened to people who moved between non-fiction and fiction, short stories and novels and they all felt that sticking to one form wasn’t necessary. Short story writing provides fantastic editing skills that you can deploy on your first novel, while writing long-form trains you develop detailed plots, storylines and characters. Each form has merit and it’s worth navigating between them to hone your writing technique.

6. Discipline is needed…but so is kindness.

Sorry but if you’re going to do this, you need to stick to it. Have a daily routine, a weekly word quota or even a few months every year that you can dedicate to writing. With 100,000 words needed to form the first draft of a novel, you must be disciplined to get those words on the page.

However, it’s not easy so don’t be too hard on yourself. Giving yourself permission to write means reducing your other commitments – from washing the dishes to part-time work, something’s got to give if you really want to be a professional writer.

7. Don’t do it for the money

Alistair McCleery’s talk about the worth of a writer was an eye-opening experience. Very few writers earn a living wage from their work so don’t go into this thinking you’ll make millions from your first draft.

There are ways of supplementing incomes through part-time work or awards but your primary motivation has to be the art of writing not the paycheck.

8. Editing is just as important as writing

Every single author I saw talked in detail about the editing process. As Richard Yeo put it, you’ve got to ‘kill your children’ – yup, being utterly brutal with your edit is vital to making your final draft tight.

Margaret Skea cut 70,000 words from one draft while other authors scrapped 5,000-word chunks to make their words flow better with more pace. It’s hard but it’s got to be done.

9. Inspiration is everywhere

LJ Ross was inspired to write her first book Holy Island on the train from Newcastle to Edinburgh, while Helen MacKinven explored memories from her childhood to create the scenes in her first book.

Stories can be formed anywhere and at any time, with writers collecting up nuggets of detail to curate into narratives at a later date. Don’t dismiss anything that stays in your mind – it’ll resurface as a plot feature soon enough.

10. It’s OK to get help

You don’t have to do this all by yourself. The authors I met used creative writing groups, fellow writers, friends and family to test their work, edit their copy and proof their final drafts.

Being critical about your own work is very hard so get an objective view of it before submitting it to publishers or putting it out in the world yourself.

Berwick Literary Festival has been a truly inspiring experience for me. I’ve met so many wonderful people and learned a lot about the publishing world. The most important thing I’ll take with me though is the courage to just get on with it – these writers have no regrets because they did it. Whether you fail or make millions, starting to write is the first step in ensuring you have no regrets about never becoming an author.

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David Starkey: 800 years ago we were more mature

Dawn's Festival BlogPosted by Dawn Tindle Sun, October 23, 2016 08:18:14

Last night, the Guildhall was packed out with people eager to hear from eminent historian, David Starkey.

Dr Starkey was in town to deliver his talk '1216: The Real Magna Carta'. Since his 2015 TV series and book Magna Carta: The Truth Behind the Charter, Starkey has set out his thoughts on the document that sealed the constitutional liberties of England as we know them.

Starkey believes the original charter was "Sir Humphrey-ised" by a royal commission into the version with which we are familiar.

He had the audience enraptured for his one-long seminar, with an equal amount head-nodding agreement and roaring laughter punctuating the chapters of his talk. Starkey is a lively and entertaining speaker - by his own admission he's a stand-up historian - and his cutting wit and sharp observations seemed to go down well with the Berwick audience.

One thing Starkey was extremely good at is relating the event of the Magna Carta to the political climate we find ourselves in today.

He made stinging comparisons between the players in the writing of the Magna Carta and the Brexiteers and politicians left to tidy up in their wake. David Cameron (if the audience can still remember him, Starkey asked), Theresa May, Nicola Sturgeon, Ed Milliband, Jeremy Corbyn and Boris Johnson were roasted by the historian - who lamented the fact they are yet to concede that "removing one's rival" is the core of politics. "There is a ludicrous solipsism of modern democracy", Starkey said. "Politics is not nice."

Brexit, like the events leading to the production of the original Magna Carta, was radical, revolutionary and rebellious. But have we learned anything in years since the Great Charter of the Liberties was created?

Not much, according to Starkey.

He argued the ruling personalities 800 years ago were more mature than the band of Brexiteers and closet Remainers we have now. They made deals. They reinvented. They saved England. He ended with a hope that we are able to do the same in the next 20 years.

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Writing tips from LJ Ross

Dawn's Festival BlogPosted by Dawn Tindle Sat, October 22, 2016 17:19:31

LJ Ross - or Louise - as we know her, was in Berwick today to talk about the importance of place in writing.

She has written four novels - Holy Island, Sycamore Gap, Heavenfield and Angel - that have distinctive North East landscapes as their settings. But how does she build those landscapes into her writing, and what does she do to turn scenery into a storyline?


Louise is from Northumberland so knows the landscapes of her books well. But, that didn't stop her from exploring Holy Island, trekking along Sycamore gap or visiting the Angel of the North before, and during, her writing. Having a feel for a place, knowing its nooks and crannies, is key to producing authentic scenery.


Scenery is certainly about the physicality of a place but it should also be a sensory experience. What does it smell like? Is it windy, raining or calm? What is the temperature? All of the senses should be explored when setting up a scene so the reader gets a holistic sense of what it would feel like to be there.


Describing a scene at dawn is totally different to writing about it at dusk. The landscape changes, the shadows fall at different angles and the tone of a place changes with every hour of disappearing light. Making those distinctions is vitally important to ensuring a place remains authentically portrayed, particularly if it features heavily throughout the course of the narrative.


Scene setting is a fun part of writing but don't get carried away. If your reader gets bored or is unwilling to trudge through pages and pages of descriptive scenery they won't make it to the end of the novel. Be succinct not self-indulgent.

Make it count

Scenery should facilitate a story and add to the tone, mood and atmosphere of storytelling. However, it's not a protagonist and it shouldn't overwhelm the narrative.

Louise was very clear in her believe that readers only care about scenery when they see it through the eyes of the character. It's more important to understand how the landscape affects the character's behaviour, mood, actions or circumstances than it is to share every intricate detail of it with the reader.

This excellent session really demonstrated how landscape can inspire great storytelling, and the ways in which scenery can be used to enhance a narrative.

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A life of privilege, power, politics and passion

Jackie's Festival BlogPosted by Jackie Kaines Sat, October 22, 2016 17:18:41

As any decent creative writing teacher will tell you, conflict is at the heart of storytelling, and it’s the contradictions within a character that make them believable. Mike Fraser’s talk, based on his meticulously researched study: ‘Sir Charles Trevelyan of Wallington: Northumberland’s Upper-Class Socialist MP’ (A Blue Button Publication), was the story of a man full of contradictions and plagued by conflict from his youth to his death.

Trevelyan was never quite good enough for his father who considered him ‘reasonable’ rather than ‘clever’; he fell out over politics with his brother, George, an eminent historian; served in three Governments in the build up to two wars – once as a Liberal MP in 1909, and twice as a Labour MP in 1922 and 1929; and betrayed his loyal wife by having a long-standing affair during the later years of his life.

Around 80 of us listened, transfixed, as Mike explored the twists and turns of the career of this controversial Northumberland politician. It was a masterclass in how to piece together the very essence of someone who could all too easily be consigned to a lifeless couple of lines in a history book.

Mike gave us the story of a man who kicked over the traces of his privileged upbringing to assert his social conscience, even when it isolated him from his family and fellow politicians. This upper-class socialist was seldom out of conflict with party leaders such as Ramsay MacDonald, but was championed by his Newcastle constituents as ‘wor Charlie’.

He was a man who demonstrated time and again that he was ‘no friend of the system which by pure chance makes me rich and a thousand others poor’. He opened his family pile (since about 1777), Wallington, to local people for free and finally left it to the National Trust. Having said that, he negotiated a deal whereby he and his long-suffering wife, Molly, and their children were able to live in it ‘as long as they wish to do so’.

Trevelyan’s daughter Kitty perhaps summed up his contradictory nature best, saying: ‘He was an aristocrat of mind and heart and blood, yet he was a Socialist by conviction; he was a born dictator…yet he believed in democracy’.

The icing on the cake of Mike’s talk was the fact that Trevelyan’s granddaughter, Sue Handoll, who contributed to Mike’s research, was in the audience. Sue rounded off proceedings by explaining that any discussion of politics had been completely forbidden at home. She also regaled us with personal stories, such as the time her grandparents summoned her and her little brother – aged about 14 and 11 – to Wallington just after the Second World War. The party traipsed through the grounds to a mound of leaves with Trevelyan ‘carrying a fork and a ladder’. Digging revealed a hidden ice house. Sue and her brother were sent down the ladder into the chilly depths. There they discovered an Aladdin’s Cave of silver. Trevelyan and Molly had buried it at the beginning of the war, knowing that Charles was on Hitler’s ‘death list’.

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Margaret Skea: 3,000 words was my comfort zone

Dawn's Festival BlogPosted by Dawn Tindle Sat, October 22, 2016 15:06:38

Margaret Skea gave a brilliant talk today on writing short stories - and how short-form writers need not fear the novel.

"Short stories are my first love", Margaret pronounced at the opening of her talk. I've heard this a lot from various authors and it always sounds somewhat confessional, like they're sharing a dark secret. It's as if preferring the short story over its bigger, brasher brother, the novel, is unusual, if not wrong.

It's certainly not and Margaret's session reaffirmed the significance of this little literary delight.

Dust Blowing

Margaret was in town to launch her new collection of short stories, Dust Blowing. The 12 stories span place and time to present tales of love, loss, family and relationships.

It was fascinating to hear now the collection came together and how Margaret approached the curation of her short stories. Eight of the 12 tales have already won prizes, and have been in the author's back catalogue for some time.

Her selection method was unique: she stuck the names of each story in a hat and pulled them out to determine the order in which they would appear. Whether it was fate or just good luck, the collection hangs together coherently and presents an intriguing body of work.

Between two forms

Margaret has written both short- and long-form and candidly discussed how she manages to navigate between the two.

Because she started as a short-form writer, her comfort zone was securely at 3,000 words. That was where she was safe and that was the boundary within which she could create characters, worlds and narratives. The idea of writing a novel of 100,000 words was daunting, enough to put her off tackling long-form writing for several years.

Then came an epiphany. A friend pointed out that a 100,000-word novel is merely 30 short stories strung together. You don't have to create new characters, settings or plot each time, simply nudge the narrative along with each one. Simple, right?

This approach was revolutionary for Margaret and she has crafted her novels episodically in this way ever since.

Short story lessons

Writing short stories taught Margaret some valuable skills that she has applied to her long-form writing. The two most important are:

· Tight writing: the word count of a short story demands brevity and hones editing techniques that can be applied to novel writing. Keeping words focused and sentences tight is key to producing writing with pace, focus and style.

· Ruthlessness: Every word should count and producing short-form writing is an excellent way of practising the ruthlessness required to get the first draft of a novel into something that works.

I left the session as a card-carrying member of the short story fan club and with a new appreciation for writers who manage to stick to the word limit.

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How to start writing

Dawn's Festival BlogPosted by Dawn Tindle Sat, October 22, 2016 13:47:23

Richard Yeo's session this morning provided some essential tips for those of us who want to write but don't know where to start.

By working through four simple questions - why, when, what and how? - Richard offered a useful structure for getting your ideas on paper.


Richard was very clear on why anyone should write. It's not for money, it's not for fame and it's not for reward. It's because you enjoy it and have something to say.

Despite its romantic reputation, writing can be a tortuous pastime. It takes commitment, dedication and, very often, sheer stubbornness to do it.

Don't take the investment needed lightly, and make sure your enjoyment of it is enough to sustain you through the challenging times that will inevitably come.


There is no such thing at the perfect time to start writing. Richard had a career in the navy, as a gardener and in cleaning services before he became a professional writer at the age of 58. He believes the life experience he had by that age enhanced his work but he thinks you're never too young to start - provided you have something to say and an interesting way to say it.

His gardening work has defined his writing life. As he is busy in the spring and summer in potting sheds, he spends the winter writing. In fact, he writes from 1 November to 31 March every year and very often produces a novel within that time. He has a daily routine of writing around 1,500 to 2,000 words between 9am and 12pm to ensure he can produce around 85,000 words at the end of his authorial hibernation.

While many of us do not have the luxury of a winter to write or the discipline to stick to a daily quota, it's important to dedicate time to your craft in order to get your words on a page.


Knowing you want to write is one thing: knowing what you want to write about is completely different.

In order to find your voice or to hone your writing skills, Richard suggested tinkering with other things before embarking on your own epic project. Writing a biography or journal, submitting pieces to magazines, taking part in competitions or dabbling in non-fiction are all ways of (re)igniting creativity and getting into the habit of writing regularly.


So, you know you want to write, you have an idea, you've cleared your diary. Now what?

Starting to write is the most difficult part of this whole process. Those first few words, sentences, even chapters, can be extremely intimidating - but don't let them put you off.

Richard suggested a couple of ways of getting started:

· Creative writing groups: whether it's a formal group or just a group of like-minded writers, sharing your work can help to keep you focused.

· How-to guides: Richard recommended Stephen King's On Writing as the manual that helped him most when starting out.

· Give yourself permission to write: the dishes can wait, so can the hoovering. If you're going to do this then you can't do everything else as well.

· Hide away: find a place where you won't be disturbed and stay there until you've got some words down.

· Stick at it for 20 minutes: the first 20 minutes of writing will be rambling and incoherent for most writers but work through it - the sensible stuff will come.

So, what are you waiting for? Stop procrastinating and start penning.

Just remember to be kind to yourself, give yourself the space and time to write, and be clear what you want to say. The rest will follow.

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What are authors worth?

Dawn's Festival BlogPosted by Dawn Tindle Fri, October 21, 2016 17:39:04

Alistair McCleery is Director of the Scottish Centre for the Book at Napier University in Edinburgh. He knows his stuff when it comes to the book industry and joined the Berwick Literary Festival to talk about the worth of writers - on a social, cultural and financial level.

Getting paid

Alistair started his session by sharing some statistics about the average earnings of professional writers. It was pretty startling stuff.

Did you know that an average author will earn just £11,000 per year? Or that they are likely to receive around £6,000 in income from their latest title? Not much is it, really?

The top 5% of professional authors earn 42.3% of all income earned by writers, with the bottom 50% taking just 7% of the earnings. That's a huge disparity and one that means the wealth goes to those who already have it and little remains for those who need it most.

In Alistair's words: "There is no even distribution - there are a few writers who earn a lot and a lot of writers who earn very little".

With payment advances from publishers becoming smaller and restrictions on benefits to top up writing income, it is increasingly difficult for authors to earn a living solely through writing. Alistair explained that in 2005 40% of writers earned an income from writing alone; that dropped dramatically to 11.5% by 2013. In that same year, 17% of writers didn't earn an income from writing at all.

The five Ps

So how do writers survive if they're not able to live off their craft? Alistair outlined the five Ps of funding life as a writer:

1. Part-time writing: most writers supplement their creative writing with paid commissions from websites, newspapers and other publications.

2. Partner: many writers have supportive spouses who take the burden of financial responsibility. (He shared a great anecdote about Edinburgh authors marrying GPs in order to fund their writing lives.)

3. Pension: the profile of UK authors is decidedly grey as many writers have to wait until their pensions mature before they can write full time.

4. Private incomes: some writers are lucky enough to have inheritance or trust funds that sustain their lives while they write.

5. Patronage: state schemes, grants and awards give some lucky writers the funds to complete their works.

Is self-publishing the answer?

Alistair weighed up the benefits of self-publishing, and whether it is a viable option for writers who want to make an income from their work.

With costs to format a book, design a cover and market the book, the profit the writer takes away from self-publishing can be between £3,000 and £7,000. In Alistair's opinion, there's potential to earn more from self-publishing than being commissioned by a publisher but in reality it rarely works out that way.

What help is available?

It's not all bad news and there are some support options available to writers who want to pursue their dreams in the face of this financial adversity.

Patronage schemes are still one of the key ways to fund work. However, with government cuts to cultural funding the availability of grants and awards is dwindling and, as a result, competition for them is increasing.

Placements are another route. Writers in residence in schools, universities and other institutions support writers for specific periods or in order to produce a specific piece of work. They are sporadic and inconsistent, though, and becoming more difficult to come by as spending on such things is deemed too luxurious in the wake of decreasing cultural budgets.

Thirdly, there are funds from public lending rights. Around £6.5 million is generated per year from PLR payments made by libraries who purchase books to loan to the public. Borrowing trends tend to match buying ones so the share of PLR payments goes to those authors who are already successful. Little remains for those still trying to break through.

What's the answer?

Alistair outlined some interesting approaches to author support from various countries but settled on Ireland's example as the one most likely to offer genuine help.

The Republic of Ireland reduces the tax liability on any earnings from artistic activity. That means creative professionals don't pay tax on the first 50,000 Euros they earn from any artistic endeavours.

This means writers are able to develop their work without having to take part-time employment or borrowing from elsewhere. It also means that support is targeted to those who need it, not those writers who are already earning a hefty wage from their work.

Alistair urged the audience to leave The Maltings and immediately write to their MPs to ask for the same tax concessions for UK writers. Who knows what great works could emerge if we truly valued writing as not just a creative passion but a financial asset, too.

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Jelly babies from Helen MacKinven

Dawn's Festival BlogPosted by Dawn Tindle Fri, October 21, 2016 16:34:29

As a book blogger, I attend quite a number of meet the author events. I've sat in the front row in a Waterstones basement, in the upper tier of a packed theatre and been squashed into a heaving festival tent to listen to the authors I love. But, I've never quite had the experience I did when I met Helen Mackinven earlier today.

Helen was in town to talk to the Berwick Literary Festival about her latest novel Buy, Buy Baby. The venue for her session was St Paul's Church in Spittal, a rather small hall across the river from the bigger venues in Berwick town centre. Around eight people attended - the average for literary events, apparently - and Helen kicked off her talk with an introduction to her journey to authorship.

The way Helen began her session was wonderful.

In honour of the title of her book, Helen had a bowl filled with jelly babies which she handed out to the audience. She served the sugary infants to each and every audience member by hand while asking for their names - which she (impressively - I'm terrible with names!) flawlessly recalled in conversation throughout her session.

This was such a lovely touch and really made us feel part of the event - not just as spectators but as partners in the conversation to come.

Helen took a very personal approach to her presentation, using photographs from her childhood and memories from her youth to outline how she became a writer. She shared candid recollections about very intimate elements of her life, from her relationship with her grandmother to the mistakes she made in her teenage years. All the while, asking the audience if they had embarked on similar adventures and rewarding those who did with another jelly baby.

She gave impressive readings from her first novel Talk of the Toun as well as Buy, Buy Baby and talked in detail about how she found her writing voice. Her writing style is eloquent and delicate, weaving touching stories of lost children and domestic violence with humorous attempts to write online dating profiles. I'll certainly be adding her books to my reading pile.

The last meet the author event I attended was Margaret Atwood in York's Theatre Royal. The contrast with Helen's session was huge. At Atwood's event, I was ushered into a crowded theatre to take my seat amongst strangers in the upper circle where I peered down on the two lonely chairs on the blank expanse of the stage. I listened to the conversation between Atwood and the interviewer but wasn't part of it.

At Helen's session, I was part of a ten-woman conversation in which an author facilitated a discussion between herself and her readers.

Obviously, the two events can't be compared equally - they are two very different formats for two very different authors - but the contrast really made me think.

Seeing authors early in their careers at intimate sessions like this one are priceless. Booklovers should grab the chance to see authors up close while they can - and you should definitely take the time to meet Helen MacKinven when she's next in town. You might get a jelly baby for your efforts.

Buy, Buy Baby is available now from Cranachan Publishing.

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