Skip to Content

PEN Masterclasses

Help for writers

A special report from the Masterclasses at the London Book Fair, March 2003

In three packed sessions at the London Book Fair, the PENSupported by eminent writers, this is the English branch of International Pen, which has centres in nearly 100 countries. It fights for freedom of expression and against political censorship. It campaigns for writers harassed, imprisoned and sometimes murdered for their views. Mail Masterclasses provided superb coaching for aspiring writers.

How to write for children

A predominantly female audience of all ages signed up for the session on children's writing. Children's Laureate Anne Fine and Tony Bradman, author of over 150 books for children, provided an excellent tutorial on writing for children. Bradman said it helped to have a dysfunctional childhood, which he thought left open a conduit to childhood. Obsessive reading and TV watching were important, but you also need drive and ambition, the ability to learn and develop, good self-critical and editorial skills, a thick skin, resilience, self-belief, persistence and courage. He quoted Terry Pratchett: 'only you can save mankind - if not you, who else?' Above all, he said it was important to have something to say and that 'long-term creative success is about managing your talent.'

Both writers agreed on the international role of UK children's publishing. Around 10,000 new children's books are published in the UK every year, more than in any other country, even including the US, which has a much bigger market.

Anne Fine also stressed the importance of being well-organised in submitting your manuscript: 'be business-like about sending it out.' She pointed out that children's writers addressed three audiences: themselves, children and the adult gatekeepers (parents, teachers and librarians), who have a key role in deciding what children will have available to read.

A useful specific tip she produced to help get your book written is to estimate the number of pages of whatever you're writing, then make a little chart so that you can tick off or colour in a square each day. Fine emphasised the importance of pleasing yourself, quoting Muriel Spark: 'write a book as if no-one you know will ever read it.' She advised authors to 'avoid processed adult reflections' and to concentrate instead on producing something children can identify with.

Both authors mentioned the pressures placed on editors to take a purely commercial view and the difficulty they have with taking on anything other than potentially bestselling new writers.

All in all, this was a truly inspirational session, which also delivered a great deal of good practical advice. The authors I spoke to had enjoyed it and felt that it had really helped them develop their own children's writing.

How to write memoirs and biographies

This session had equally excellent tutors, with Blake Morrison, author of And When Did You Last See Your Father, on memoirs and distinguished biographer Victoria Glendinning on biography. Writers attending it were rather more mixed in their views, with quite a strong feeling that they would rather have heard more from the speakers and had less time devoted to questions.

Morrison offered some interesting insights: 'I don't think this is a bad thing to do, to write for yourself to start with.' But he didn't feel that fictionalising your work was a good thing, as 'the reader must know you are telling the truth.' Answering the difficult question of whether anyone else will find your narrative interesting, he emphasised the fascination of 'ordinary lives'. His own mother, instead of being one of 6 children as he had been told, actually turned out to have been the nineteenth of 20 children in a huge family and to have a fascinating secret background.

His specific suggestions were:

  • Read your work aloud to check it.
  • Create time for yourself for writing, perhaps a special time each day.
  • Find a reader or group or readers you can trust to provide feedback.
  • Rewrite, rewrite, rewrite. You need to rework until you discover what the story is.

Both authors helped to clarify a certain amount of anxiety concerning the copyright situation on letters. The letters as physical objects belong to the recipient, but the copyright is retained by their author.

Victoria Glendinning said that where you're standing as a biographer is very important.

Chair of the session Andrew Lownie, whose agency specialises in biography, said that agents want authors to submit a 20 page synopsis with one page per chapter, one page each on your credentials, the sources, the market, competing/comparable books and a selection of pictures. He thought it important to be clear about what you are doing, as the merging of fiction and non-fiction is difficult to sell.

How to Write for TV

In a very focused session which held the aspiring scriptwriters in the audience enthralled, novelist and scriptwriter Deborah Moggach and the immensely successful scriptwriter Andrew Davies took their audience through specific scenes from their own work. Moggach described using an existing novel as the basis for a script as 'rejigging the furniture in a house rather than rebuilding the house'. She suggested that you should watch lots of TV and read scripts to learn how to write them. You need to vary the tone and rhythm of scenes. Above all, be ruthless with your own work, as other people will be.

Andrew Davies, who is sometimes controversial because of the amount of sex he introduces into his adaptations of the classics, said 'if the audience is imagining a scene and you don't give it to them, they'll be disappointed.' His modus operandi is to read the book or listen to a complete tape 'for fun' first of all. Then he focuses on the 'spine' of the story, working out what he thinks about the book. Using the scene in Pride and Prejudice in which Darcy writes a long letter to Elizabeth Bennet, he showed how his script had used a mixture of flashback and voice-over to get over Darcy's 'back story' - what had happened before the action of the novel started. Praising Jane Austen, he said that she wrote such wonderful scenes that in dealing with parts of the novel he was 'getting paid quite a lot for copy-typing'.

Our Children's Editorial Services and Scriptwriting Assessment Service provide professional assistance for writers specialising in these areas.

English PEN: