Monday, 11 July 2011

Winchester Conference Write-Up: Barry Cunningham, Barbara Large et al

Well, I'm a bit overdue on my annual review of the Writers' Conference at Winchester, because I'm currently engaged in teaching a summer school for Oxford Uni's Dept for Continuing Education. Here we are, though!

As ever, it was a wild and whirling weekend, fast-paced and exhausting (the vertical hill-location doesn't help). I was delighted to meet up with old friends, especially Sally Spedding, Teri Terry, who was basking in the glory of a book deal with Orchard, and Ali Luke, who's already blogged about my course on character at her site aliventures. Thanks for the kind words, Ali!

I taught that mini-course on the Friday, to an absolutely delightful group of people. We had such fun that it didn't seem like work at all! Apart from the new faces, Ali was there, and so were Paul Budd and Mary Durndell, who've been attending my courses for several years. We had a great time talking about our favourite literary characters and examining all the ways you can bring a character to life, from names to clothes, from habits to catchphrases, from coming at character from the outside to focussing on their internal lives.

On Saturday, this year's Plenary Speaker was publisher Barry Cunningham - a great coincidence given I'd met him in London only the week before at the Times/Chicken House Masterclass (see my previous post). It was also appropriate that he should be speaking because the final Harry Potter film has just come out, with the usual three-ringed circus of publicity going on - and Barry was the publisher at Bloomsbury who first signed her, having been sent Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone by her agent Christopher Little. He talked about how J.K. Rowling had been turned down by the world and his wife, and said that 'rejection is part of the process of publishing'. Oh yes. Sadly yes ... (By the way, because I was published by Bloomsbury, I once stood right next to J.K.Rowling at a publisher's party. There you go. My claim to fame. Probably the closest I'll ever come to the megabucks!)

Barry was interested in her but worried about the title including the great big daunting word 'Philosopher'. He invited her to discuss things and although she was extremely nervous, what comes across from Barry's description is her strength: she outlined the plot of the whole 7 book series, and she wanted her hero to grow up during the course of the story, not be locked as most children's series' characters are, into a timeless statis at a certain age. She also refused to change the title. Yay!

What did he do? He told her to get a day job. She wasn't having any. He signed her. The rest, dear readers, is history.

What did he see in her, apart from that single-mindedness and that vision? First of all, a really authentic voice. Then, a story that conveyed the values of friendship and courage. Finally, humour.

He also talked more generally about publishing, about the exciting times ahead: that authors can have a dynamic relationship with their readers through websites and apps, through insights into the process of composition, the alternative endings a book can have. And he feels strongly that kids look to books for their 'anonymous friend' - the friend they can confide in, the friend who shows, by the story they've written, that they still know how it is to be a child, to feel rage and frustration, loneliness, self-questioning, the desire for adventure, the desire to be tested and not found wanting. He said how important it is for children to meet authors and how they rely on 'the still small voice that comes into your head, the author's voice'.

He talked also, very entertainingly, about his early career, where he was in marketing and had to dress up as a Puffin! His first boss, Kay Webb, editor at Puffin, said to him that in a children's book, 'You can get away with one big lie but after that everything has to be true.' I loved that quote: so true that the fictional world you create, whether it's beyond the stars, back in the past or down at the bottom of your garden, must have its own internal consistency, so that your reader, the child you are befriending, can crawl into that world as they would into a den, and feel that it's a special place and that it's their place.

After the Barry Cunningham talk, I had various one-to-one appointments with aspiring writers - and two of them had produced work which I was really impressed by. It won't take much to make them publishable. In the afternoon, I gave my talk, 'Place is Paramount', where I examined the importance of setting in fiction: all the uses you can make of it, all the methods by which you can make it live for the reader. The title of the talk was a phrase Annie Proulx, one of my favourite writers, used in an interview I once saw.

Had a little lie-down after that! On the Saturday evening, it was time for food, drink, speeches and generally making merry. Jane Wenham-Jones bravely battled with a recalcitrant microphone to entertain us with her after-dinner speech and the toastmaster gave us collective heart failure with his over-enthusiastic banging of the gavel. Finally, many thanks were given to Barbara Large, who founded this conference decades ago (this was its 31st year!) and who is unfailingly idealistic in a cynical world and indefatigable when an event of this demands organisational talents of a high order. I've attended the conference both as a delegate and a teacher for so many years now and she is always warm and welcoming: congratulations, Barbara, on another year, and may there be many many more!


Ali Luke said...

Fantastic write-up -- especially of Barry Cunningham's excellent keynote (I failed to take notes on that; too early in the morning...)

Glad the mini-course was fun for you, as well as for those of us attending! And roll on next year... :-)

Lorna F said...

Thanks, Ali!

Anonymous said...

You are embarrassingly naive. You really believed all that twaddle from
Cunningham about meeting Rowling and what he said? Come on! Odd don't you think that he just happened to be made the new children's fiction commissioning editor shortly before her awkward arrival.