This week’s guest blog comes from Sarah Mussi, the award-winning author of five novels for young adults, a teacher and a wonderful speaker and supporter of the Winchester Writers’ Festival. You can meet Sarah for a one-to-one appointment or book a place at her workshop ‘The Top Ten Secrets of Success’ on Sunday 22 June. Her latest novel, RIOT, has just been published by Hodder Children’s Books.
I have some skills now that I am reasonably proud of: my stick-to-it-ness, my readiness to learn and my ability to try and stay positive in the face of difficulties. But I didn’t always have those skills. They were won through the Valley of Rejection Letters and the Cliffs of Needing to Know What To Do Next.
In the year 2000, after many dark valleys, before I knew about The Winchester Writers’ Festival, I was lucky enough to be shortlisted in a BBC worldwide children’s fiction talent competition. Out of the 5000 candidates entered, I was shortlisted into the top six and eventually came joint second in the competition. I didn’t win the publishing deal, but I did win the confidence that I needed to continue to brave disappointment on my long journey. I gained the belief in myself that every writer needs to have to tread the trail ahead.
My experience of the Winchester Writers’ Festival is that it acts in a similar way. It gives us writers the chance to gain much needed confidence and develop our skills, so that we are refreshed and can take heart to continue on the stony path ahead.
At the heart of this are the one-to-one conferences, the place where writers can discuss their work with a sympathetic reader and have the chance to reflect upon their practice. Not only is this fundamental to developing the skill of What To Do Next, but it holds out the possibility of a downhill slope on the long journey. The slope may end in publication, it may end in another dark valley, but it will always end in the certainty of knowing What To Do Next.
For writing is a very daunting and lonely pursuit and we need all the help that we can get as we traverse the mountain range towards our final goal – the peak of our efforts – in the form perhaps of some kind of publication. Like all travellers we need signposts on the way. We need to know which direction to head off in.
Many times I have sat down at my table at the one-to-one appointed place with a manuscript submission in my hand and waited anxiously to share with its author my thoughts. Thoughts that I have deliberated long over and copiously marked up in polite pencil. I am lucky in that before a delegate talks to me, they know I am not an agent or an editor. I know they want to talk to me as a fellow traveller – one who has trod the path a little bit ahead and can share with them those much needed signposts: point out the skills they will need to use, warn them of any cliffs. For the downhill slope I offer is about where you want to get to, what you will need when you arrive, what is working well in your manuscript, and it might be even better if…
And it is very tricky, because through the one-to-one experiences I’ve been able to facilitate, I have learned that ‘good’ writing is a very subjective thing. That while one person ‘loves’ something – for another ‘it doesn’t work’. Many times I’ve listened as delegates have shared conflicting reactions to their writing. Many times I’ve tried to spin the signposts around, make north = south or west = east. But in the end the only direction for a traveller is onward, and for that the qualities of stick-to-it-ness, readiness to learn and trying to stay positive are invaluable. For as Christina Rossetti wrote so many, many years ago ‘Does the road wind up-hill all the way? / Yes, to the very end. / Will the day’s journey take the whole long day? / From morn to night, my friend.’
And on that long journey we need advice, confidence and above all, a map.