Stopping (and starting)

I went on a writing retreat at the end of April – three days alone in a cottage in Devon. No children, no students, no phone signal. What I did have was a novel I wanted to edit.

Or rather, I’d edited it already, over and over, but I wasn’t finished yet.

One more read-through. Then I’d be done.

The cottage was gorgeous, tiny and tucked away and I set to work immediately. I cut down several paragraphs. I found a typo. I changed someone’s name, then changed it back again. Some excellent advice echoed in my head: don’t stop until it’s ready. Don’t stop until you’re sure. I wasn’t sure.

On my third day I went for a walk to think about my novel. I made for the cliffs, climbing as high as I could. The sun shone. The wind blew.  It felt good.

I ignored this.

I marvelled at this.

And discussed all possible permutations with these (pics of lambs are obligatory in Devon in April).

By the time I’d walked down here

I’d stopped thinking about my novel and started thinking about something less familiar. A new character sitting down at my kitchen table, making himself at home. Where do they come from, these people? They walk in, unannounced…

So I put on my swimming costume and went for a swim. It was freezing (it was April), exhilarating and a little bit terrifying on an empty stretch of beach beneath the cliffs.

As I walked back to the cottage I knew I was done with my novel. It was time to begin something new.

It felt like this.

It also felt like this.

Who knew?


Launch day

Excitement has been building in the Festival office this week…

After months of planning, the new Festival Programme for 2017 launches on Monday 20 February. I hope you’ll take a look and like what you see – we’ve dozens of new speakers, opportunities, treats and surprises, as well as firm Festival favourites and the return of many good friends.

If you’ve not attended before (or even if you have…) you may find the following tips and pointers helpful.


  • Some one-to-one slots book up quickly. However, while we don’t want you to miss out on your first choices, do take your time to read the programme in full and consider all the options.
  • Speakers’ bios give quite a bit of information, but it’s useful to research their websites too.
  • If a speaker says they are ‘not looking for…’ they mean it!
  • If you are ready to pitch in a one-to-one, then make this clear in your cover letter.
  • If you are simply looking for feedback and advice on any aspect of your work-in-progress or the current market, then this is fine too. Editors and agents will be happy to talk to writers who don’t have finished projects, but it is helpful to let them know that this is what you are seeking.
  • When we receive your booking, we will email you with confirmation of your appointments.
  • You don’t need to send the work for review straight away, but we do need to receive it by post by 24 May. We will send you instructions on how to send the work.

All-day courses and workshops

  • These are carefully designed to include a variety of stimulating learning activities, focused writing exercises and opportunities to share your writing with the tutor/others in the group. You will have an hour’s break for a two-course buffet lunch, and there are coffee and tea breaks, too.
  • Friday courses have a maximum 25 participants. Sunday workshops have a maximum of 15 participants.
  • Tutors know that you may have to pop out of your course on Friday afternoon for one-to-one appointments. This is expected.

So sit back with a coffee and enjoy browsing. If you have any questions or queries, don’t hesitate to contact myself or Sara Gangai, events manager, by phone or email.

Finally, please spread the word to all your writing friends!


Christmas stories

I am always looking for story prompts to use with students and for my own writing. An odd doorway, an interesting pair of shoes, a singular expression… all go into the writer’s store cupboard, to be hoarded until I find a use for it.

At Christmas, those prompts are easy to come by, perhaps because the season is a time of nostalgia for some, joy for many and, maybe, regret or loneliness for others. Objects take on meaning with consummate ease. Story is everywhere.

Here are three visual prompts from my Christmas tree.


A bright, shiny robin.


A smiling angel, speeding through the heavens like Superwoman or Buzz Lightyear.

And this one.

unknown decoration

I don’t know what it is. Our tree is loaded with the decorations the children made at school years ago – salt dough snowmen, felt stockings, sparkly cardboard candy canes. They all deny making this one, though. ‘Not mine!’ they declare, year after year.

But I can’t throw it away. This one, of all the decorations, holds a secret, a lost beginning. I think of it as the stranger at the table, whose presence I won’t deny. What is its story?

And then there’s this…


I’ve been passing it as I walk up St James’ Lane past the cemetery to work all week. First, you have to guess what it is. Then, how did it get there? If your imagination, like mine, is sparked by these questions, try writing a piece of flash fiction about it – no more than 500 words. A flash fiction is a story which does much more than its size would suggest. It shows a glimpse which implies a larger story, and every word works its hardest to bring meaning, plot, character and theme alive.

Then you might decide to enter your story in our Flash Fiction competition when our ten writing competitions open in mid-January.

Merry Christmas!


Trying to get published? Expect the unexpected

Helen FieldsHelen Fields met her agent, Caroline Hardman, through The Winchester Writers’ Festival. Perfect Remains, her first novel in a new crime series, will be published by Avon (HarperCollins) in January 2017.

Getting published is the same as everything in life. There’s no set path. Here’s how I thought it had happened for me… and then didn’t… and then actually did.

I spent thirteen years working as a criminal and family law barrister, but the birth of our third child made continuing too much of a sacrifice.  Since then I’d filled in as a producer in my husband’s media company but I’d always known I wanted to write, so I took some time out (courtesy of my very understanding husband) and gave it a go.

A few months later I self-published my first cross-over fantasy book.  I didn’t bother advertising it or sending it to agents. At that stage I was still testing myself.  Another six months passed and I’d written a sequel. That was when I attended the Winchester Writers’ Festival for the first time.  I met some wonderful people, learned a lot, and realised I was more serious about writing than I’d admitted to myself. Invited to read out a sample of my writing, I was advised (to my relief and delight) to find an agent.

At that point I decided to challenge myself by changing genres.  The result was historical fiction, although very dark and crime oriented, with a female protagonist who also happened to be a serial killer.  I wrote, edited, rewrote, then squashed my fear of rejection and sent it out to agents.  The response was good.  I had several agents asking for the full manuscript very quickly.  I was due to meet with Caroline Hardman from Hardman & Swainson at the next Winchester Writers’ Festival so she read it in advance, we met, and I signed with her immediately. It’s the dream, right? Write manuscript, get agent, open champagne etc etc.  Keep reading…

Soon my precious manuscript was winging its way to the inboxes of commissioning editors.  I received incredibly positive comments about my writing, the Edwardian London setting, the characters – you name it.  But I was a debut author and I’d done something problematic. I’d crossed genres, creating something like historical grip lit. I hadn’t put myself on an easy-to-market shelf. My lead female character was complex, edgy and I’d thrown together the suffragettes, gambling halls and a woman addicted to killing. This book is still sitting on my desktop.  All the positive feedback I could have wanted and still no publishing deal.

By then, I was already outlining another story set in a World War II hospital in Malta, but I needed research time.  Writing, though, had become an essential part of my day, so whilst researching that, I began writing a modern day detective series set in Scotland, drawing on my experience of criminals and the police, forensics and a country I adore.  And suddenly there it was, the elusive book deal.  The Avon imprint of HarperCollins asked for three books and I’m in the process of writing the third. The first, Perfect Remains, comes out on January 26, 2017.   I loved getting into the head of a psychopath who, I very much hope, gets deeply under readers’ skin (not to mention the amateur dentistry)…Helen Fields covers

The dream, finally, became a reality.  I work with a talented, funny, supportive publishing team and I’m loving it. The dramatisation rights have already been sold.  The second book in the series, Perfect Prey, is in the process of cover design and line edit.  I’m plotting where my Scottish detective characters go from here and mulling over a screenplay idea.

My advice to you, is to write with a nod to what is commercial if you want to give yourself the best chance of getting published.  Be easy to work with.  Bend.  Accept advice.  Be grateful when people offer words of wisdom, even if they’re not the ones you wanted to hear. Be prepared to edit until you can’t stand to look at your manuscript any longer. And as I said, don’t expect it to happen the way you expected it to happen. The ride will be all the more exciting for the surprises.



Luck, perseverance and dandelion fairies…

Rebecca Tinnelly 1This month’s blog comes from Festival attendee Rebecca Tinnelly.

I am pretty lucky, certainly in writing terms. I have an agent (which still makes me grin like a fool whenever I write it) and I’m currently planning my second novel whilst my agent (queue grin) edits the first. Not bad, eh?

But, would I be in this position without the Winchester Writers’ Festival? Probably not.

Let me explain.

I first attended Winchester (as the cool kids call it) in 2015, shy, nervous and still recovering from the confidence-eradicating curse of post-natal depression and PTSD. But I was here, I had done it, written that book I always said I would write, carrying aloft the manuscript of my first novel. This was going to be it. I was going to find an agent who saw my potential and everyone was going to fall in love with this wonderful book I had written…

Queue the biggest shock of my life. Because nobody signed me, nobody even asked to read the entire manuscript and I learned that the publishing industry is damn hard to crack.

But what I got instead was so, so much better. I wasn’t given luck; I was given the foundations of a career. I discovered the groundings of good writing, teachers who were enthusiastic and wanted me to succeed, I made great friends and I learnt so much about the industry as a whole that my prospects sky rocketed.

I met Simon Hall, the teacher who became my mentor who thus became a good friend. I can’t recommend his writing course enough; it changed my perception of writing, gave me the confidence and the tools to write to my best ability. He’s still my first port of call on all writing problems and, if there are any places left on his course, do grab one with both hands. Just don’t panic too much if he throws chairs against the wall or breathes on your neck whilst your eyes are closed.

I digress.

This year I returned to Winchester for the second time. Same book, completely rewritten (for the twelfth time) and I possessed not just confidence but a sense of reality. I kept an open mind. I came to learn, to seek advice on improving my craft, I accepted any criticism offered with open arms, only wincing very slightly when it was negative. And guess what? It paid off. In bucket loads.

The woman who could barely leave her house three years before stood up before a crowd of people and read her own work (That’s me.)

Rebecca Tinnelly 2

Largely helped by Kate Firth’s incredible performance workshop and Simon Hall egging me on to get up there and bloody well do it. (And if you’re planning on reading at the open mic – do! I recommend memorising as much of your piece as possible, it really does help you connect with your audience.)

I didn’t technically find my agent at Winchester, but I definitely found her because of Winchester. After the festival I rewrote the manuscript again and sent it off to a select few of the agents I had wanted to see at the festival but hadn’t been matched with for one-to-one appointments.

Four agents asked to see the book.

The next day I caught one of those dandelion fairies, the kind that you hold in the palm of your hand and make a wish. I wished for Kate Burke.

Was it the dandelion fairy? Or was it, perhaps, the vast amount of knowledge and experience I gained from Winchester that helped me out? Because guess what… Kate Burke at Diane Banks Associates signed me up. And I haven’t stopped grinning since, because she is awesome.

As, of course, is the Winchester Writer’s Festival.

Rebecca Tinnelly is most interested in writing about the darker side of society and family life, no doubt fuelled by the stories she was told by her stepmother, a consultant pathologist. After seven years in sales and marketing, most recently selling coffins, she waved goodbye to the office and now spends her time writing psychological suspense and, when not writing, bakes the odd cake or two.


Twitter: @rebeccatinnelly


The rhythms of writing

This month’s guest post comes from writer and journalist Simon Hall. Simon has had seven novels published, as well as short stories, a play and even a pantomime. Simon also teaches writing, including at the Winchester Writers Festival, and mentors authors towards publication.

How many times have you been told you need to know your characters, plot and settings intimately to write about them convincingly?

But what about knowing yourself?

To be a successful writer you have to understand the writing rhythms within you, and find a way to build them into your life.

We’ve all heard about the divide between morning and evening people, larks and owls. And that’s a useful place to start.

When I first decided to start writing, around ten years ago, I had to change my life. I’ve always known I was a morning person and I needed to capitalise on that. It’s when my mind is fresh, clear and amenable to sparking with creativity.

I used to go to bed around 10.30, then get up (grumpily) with the alarm.

No longer. Now I’m usually in bed around nine, waking up soon after five, and quickly writing away.

And do you know what surprised me? Despite many initial misgivings, getting up at that time doesn’t feel like a chore. Because I wake with a mind full of ideas and enthusiasm, and can’t wait to get them all down on paper.

For me it’s worked wonderfully, and now I couldn’t imagine life any other way.

But your writing rhythm isn’t as straightforward as simply when you’re at the most creative.

Mind and body work best in tandem, and that takes managing.

As a writer, you can tire your brain with little physical effort. So here’s my next writing rhythms trick, to prod the sacred pairing back into synch.

I know I can only write for around three hours at a stretch before my mind is too jaded to produce anything I’d ever want anyone to see.

So about 8.30, I take myself out for a run.

I’m lucky in that I live on the river in Exeter, meaning a wonderful route is within easy reach.

But I’d recommend finding somewhere you like to unwind and get some exercise, because while your body is working…

…your mind is recharging itself. I find that give yourself an hour’s exercise, and voila!

Your creativity is rested and refreshed, your body is relaxed, and you can settle back down for some more writing.

And one more matter to mention on the rhythms of writing –

Give yourself a break!

I build in a day every week – usually a Sunday – when I don’t do any actual writing. I’m happy to carry a notepad and jot down any thoughts that come to me.

But I find a day off from actually typing away is powerful in recharging the writing energy. So come Monday morning, when you sit back down at the keyboard, you’re filled with the zest to start work again.

In the perfect rhythm you’ve come to discover about yourself, of course…

Our grateful thanks to Simon for contributing this post.


Your character’s shopping list


This morning I dropped by my local corner shop and bought: a tin of dog food, two first class stamps and a chicken samosa.

The man serving me smiled. ‘Peckish?’ he asked. I hope he was referring to the samosa.

Shopping lists, shopping receipts… the things we mean to buy and the things we end up buying are hugely suggestive. Who doesn’t cast their eye over someone else’s scribbled reminders for ‘carpet stain remover’ and ‘bananas – very ripe’ or a recent favourite, ‘eggs, bathroom unblocker, Pims’, dropped on the zebra crossing in the car park at the Winchester branch of Sainsburys?

It puts me in mind of a wonderful poem written by a writing-group friend recently. If I say it was, essentially, a shopping list, I am doing a disservice to its playfulness, its cadences and rhythms.

I am always on the look-out for interesting writing exercises to inspire attendees who visit the Festival’s Writing Room on Saturday 18th June. So, this year, come and find a shopping list, or a receipt, and create a character based on what you imagine they are doing and thinking as they chew their pencil or wander along the aisles. All the lists and receipts will be ‘found’ and genuine – nothing made up. So if you happen to come across an interesting list or find yourself buying some intriguing items and saving the itemised receipt, do send them to me at Winchester Writers’ Festival, Masters Lodge, University of Winchester, Sparkford Road, Winchester SO22 4NR.

Who knows what a fellow writer’s imagination will make of it!

This year the Writers’ Room will be set up in St Edburga room 303. If you are attending the Festival on Saturday 18th June, do drop by for a quiet place to write or have a go at one of the writing prompts you’ll find there.

Judith Heneghan


The job of the agent and how to submit

Hayes.Josephine.2016Josephine Hayes, Junior Agent at The Blair Partnership, discusses the job of the agent and how to stand out from the crowd with your submission.

I always knew I wanted to work in publishing, having been an avid reader and book-lover my entire life. My dream was to be an editor of riveting commercial adult fiction. After graduating from university with a fairly open-ended history degree and spending a year in the editorial department of a medical journal I got a job as an assistant in a literary agency and have never looked back.

Agents have very varied workloads. On any one day we may be reading and feeding back on a client’s new book idea, writing pitches for books to submit to publishers, negotiating terms of a client’s publishing agreement, checking royalty statements, attending book launches, and thinking about how to maximise client’s IP potential. A key task is to find brilliant new authors. This can be done proactively by researching current trends and interesting potential non-fiction project ideas. It’s very helpful for a non-fiction author to have some authority already, a profile and/or marketability to support a potential book.

A better-known, but more reactive, method is to scour the unsolicited submissions that are sent to the agency daily. Submissions go into what’s endearingly known as the “slush” pile. Making unsolicited submissions to agencies is what authors have most control over and it is well-worth getting your submission spot on in order to make it stand out from the crowd.

Write something every day, even if you don’t really want to. You can always revise it later.

With fiction the writing is the most important aspect – you need to take time to polish and hone your style, and to show the development of the story and the growth of the characters through action and dialogue, rather than simply telling the story.

Be different – as much as it is good to write about what you know, be unique with your subject matter and/or plot to stay ahead of what publishers think they are looking for.

It is useful to take note of the market by looking at bestseller lists to see what is popular. However, readers’ and publishers’ tastes change in the time it takes to publish a book (it can take up to two years between signing a publishing deal and the book being available to buy). Also, too much writing in one area leads to oversaturation of the market. As it is nearly impossible to guess what will be the genre-of-the-moment in 18-24 months, aim not to follow the trends, but break the moulds instead!

Do your research.

Read everything out there that is similar to the style you want to write in, the topic you are covering, and the age range you intend to write for. Read bestsellers generally to understand what makes people buy them.

Be open to feedback and suggestions.

 Before sending to an agency, ask someone objective – not a close friend or family member – to read your work and provide honest feedback. Also, ask yourself:

  • Is your book 100% ready? Does it have a clear beginning middle and end?
  • Whose story is it?
  • What is the issue or problem that needs to be overcome?
  • How do the character(s) overcome the issue?

Be selective.

Fully research the agencies you want to approach and make sure they represent your genre of writing. Also:

  • Research exactly who at the agency will be most interested in reading your submission and address it to them
  • Sell yourself as much as the story idea
  • Mention anything that you have had published before
  • Reveal all twists and turns of plot in a one-page synopsis
  • Make the sample of writing you send as strong and engaging as possible.

Be passionate.

The most important thing is to love what you do. When you eventually get that book deal your passion will shine out through your writing, your agent and your publisher.

Josephine Hayes, Junior Agent at The Blair Partnership


Dare to enter!

The Festival’s eleven writing competitions are now open for entries. It’s an exciting time for us in the office, wondering about the magic soon to land in our submissions box.  Every single entry represents the writer’s brave leap, sending new work out into the world to have it read, critiqued and judged.

If I had my way, the act of pressing ‘send’ would trigger a round of applause, along with champagne, flowers and a mini-break to somewhere warm and sunny. However, if the mere thought of submission brings you out in a cold sweat, here are a few nudges…

Hone your craft

Don’t save competitions for the ‘main event’, ie when your novel is finished, or when your screenplay is complete. Many writing competitions involve submitting shorter pieces – a poem, a short story or a themed piece.  They are like writing exercises – they stretch unfamiliar muscles and keep us in training. Use them as an opportunity to practise and hone your writing skills.

Step outside your comfort zone

Never tried flash fiction? How about writing crime?  Could you pitch a TV drama?  Competitions are a great way to experiment and try something new.  Invent. Play. Challenge yourself!

Gain vital feedback

Many (not all) of the Festival competitions offer the opportunity to gain written feedback on every submission. The adjudicators are highly experienced, and their feedback, while one person’s opinion, is considered, constructive, informed and impartial. Learn from it. Write better.  Every writer needs this!

Get noticed

What if you are shortlisted? What if you win? Yikes – now you have something to shout about.  Put it in your query letter or your writing CV.  Add it to your Twitter by-line.  Editors and agents take notice of competition success. Also bear in mind that many of the Festival competition prizes are designed to further your writing, either by providing consultations with agents and editors, or via courses and pitching events.

So go on, dare to leap and enter a competition. Who knows where it will lead you?


For full details of all eleven Festival Writing Competitions, including our brand new ‘Skylark Soaring Stories’ competition for writers of middle grade and YA fiction, sponsored and judged by Skylark Literary, see our Competitions page.

Report on the first Writing Workout

Winchester Writers’ Festival Writing Workout

On 14 November, 30 keen creative writers gathered at the University to flex their writing muscles at a day-long Writing Workout. Six sessions led by experienced tutors allowed participants to exercise their imagination and extend their skills, fuelled by plentiful supplies of coffee and cake. Each 45-minute session focused on a particular aspect such as developing character, investigating setting, creating drama, intensifying language and writing strong dialogue.

Writing Workout 2015

Writing Workout 2015

The day was suitable for beginners as well as more established writers, working in any form or genre. The tutors included University of Winchester lecturers and writers Judith Heneghan, Judy Waite and Dr Julian Stannard, along with guest Shelley Harris, author of Jubilee (shortlisted for the Commonwealth Book Prize, a Radio 4 Book at Bedtime and a Richard and Judy Summer Book Club selection) and the recently published Vigilante.

Shelley Harris

Shelley Harris

Attendees responded to each session with commitment and enthusiasm. As one participant commented, ‘What I learned will be a great help in my writing and already I am looking at how I write in a different and more positive way.’ The Workout was fully booked, and Festival Director Judith Heneghan says ‘We’ll be planning similar days in the future.  It’s wonderful to be able to welcome writers to the University to experience what we do, gain inspiration and access techniques to sustain them through the often isolating experience of crafting new work.’