This year’s Autumn Away Day took place on October 15th in Kintbury, Berkshire. We were excited to welcome writers working in almost every genre, some writing their first novel and others with more experience. The day kicked off with caffeine and the first part of author Emma Darwin‘s tutorial on characterisation. She introduced the topic, saying, ‘We’ve all read a certain amount of fiction where there is a lot of action and not much character. Hopefully we’ll learn how to rise above it.’
The first session focussed on POV (‘When you tell your own story, your character affects how you tell it.’) and how to reveal character through action (‘Story has things that happen. Happening happens with verbs.’) Emma explained why slabs of character description don’t often work. ‘Who cares, until it affects the way they operate?’ We then did an exercise, writing a scene in which one character from our POV has to transfer an object to another. The first rule was to embrace the concept of a shitty first draft.
Soon it was time for lunch and we filled up on Moroccan salmon and halloumi couscous, stuffed mushrooms, various quiches and avocado salad. It was great to connect with some writers we hadn’t met before, as well as retreat regulars and a few of our editorial clients, including Jess in her brilliant ‘read more books’ jumper.
With fresh coffees and teas, we headed back for Emma’s final characterisation session. She shared some brilliant tips, e.g., ‘Red looks more red next to green. If you want to bring a character to life, try putting them next to a character who is the opposite.’ Once everyone’s heads were stuffed to the brim with ideas, Emma released the group to find a spot around the house or grounds for some personal writing time. She suggested a few exercises we could try: writing about your protagonist through another character’s POV; creating a dossier for your character (one attendee suggested working out their Myers-Briggs personality type); and imagining your character finds a group of teenagers kicking a dog – what do they do?
Literary agent Joanna Swainson of Hardman and Swainson arrived just as we were tucking into some cake and we enjoyed overhearing a few writers sharing their pitches. Then onto the Q&A session, which included a lot of insights about submissions and how the agency works. Joanna said she receives 20 or 30 submissions a day, but she’ll read the opening of every one. ‘Ultimately, we’re judging the chapters and whether we think we can sell them.’ She told us she likes a ‘professional and brief’ cover letter. ‘We want to get the snapshot of what you’re writing as quickly as possible – who you are, genre, comp titles, and a two to three line pitch. No gimmicks.’ Turning to the synopsis, she said, ‘What I want to see in the synopsis is that there’s a character arc, there’s tension, and it’s going to make me feel anxious.’
There were some really interesting questions from our guests. One writer asked if it’s okay to write about Covid yet, and Joanna suggested it was okay to do so ‘obliquely’ but it would be hard to sell a story about Covid. When quizzed about digital first publishing, Joanna was very enthusiastic. ‘HarperCollins has One More Chapter, a digital first publisher. They offer higher royalties and still do everything else a traditional publisher does. Amazon are great to work with and they really push their own books.’
Thank you to everyone who joined us at the Away Day and to our guests, Emma Darwin and Joanna Swainson. If you’d like to hear about future events, please sign up to our mailing list or bookmark our events page. You also might like to visit Emma Darwin’s blog, This Itch of Writing.
As a postscript, we are delighted to announce that Ana Garcia, who attended the Away Day and pitched her novel to Joanna Swainson, has accepted representation from Joanna. Her historical thriller BLANCA, a female riff on The Godfather, is already out on submission to commissioning editors.