Skip to Content

Masterclass fiction - LBF 2006


A special report from the 2006 Masterclasses at the London Book Fair

In four packed sessions at the London Book Fair, the Daily Mail Masterclasses provided excellent coaching for aspiring writers. Our second report deals with writing fiction.


The two fiction Masterclasses at the London Books Fair each drew enthusiastic audiences of 400. Introduced by Kate Pullinger, the first of these had three top authors, each of whom had something quite different to offer.

Joanna Trollope had some extremely useful specific insights into her own writing. She said that she couldn’t ‘start a novel without a situation’. On setting targets she said: ‘I do set myself so many words a week… a few thousand… I allow myself a year to write a book, which doesn’t include research’. Trollope told the Masterclass that she writes longhand on the right-hand page, using the left-hand side blank for notes. Every few days she re-reads what she has written and tinkers with it.

Trollope felt it was important to note details and said she used to keep a journal with her all the time and ‘use it as a creative scrapbook’ ‘to train me to look in a three-dimensional way and to think about what things like clothes, mannerisms and expressions meant’. To understand your characters the writer needs to ‘stand behind them’. She said that ‘the essence of getting a character to work is always to see that character’s point of view’.

But ‘the structure of a book is of incredible importance’ and knowing how the novel will end from the beginning ‘enables the plot and characters to develop in an organic way’. The essence of the writer’s craft, ‘a kind of arrangement of your patchwork’ comes‘by instinct and practice’.

Asked what was the best thing about being a writer, Joanna said: ‘the best is the readers’ and added ‘I have the best readers in the world, they are so loyal’.

Sara Paretsky gave a highly personal and quite inspiring account of her own writer’s journey, from Nancy Drew to Jane Eyre and finally to creating her character Kate Brannigan. Hers was a typical upbringing for a girl in Kansas in the 50s, with very low expectations of what she might achieve: ‘I never had a sense of destiny about my words… the whole world belonged to men… I just couldn’t imagine writing outside the home or that my words might speak to other people’.

Now, with 13 novels and considerable success under her belt, she said: ‘I see the world in terms of the stories of people around me, especially those powerless and voiceless in the wider world’. She felt that it was her role to say things that the people with power don’t want said. ‘I can only write about people and events that engage me at a heartfelt level’. It is important ‘to write the emotional truth that you know’ but‘to write well you also need to be able to laugh at yourself’. And, in a real vindication of the writer’s role: ‘What can be a greater magic than this, the words on the page that draw us in’.

Paretsky stressed the importance of self-editing. She said that the first half of a novel was the hardest part to write, but ‘my favourite thing about writing is rewriting, thinking is what I find the hardest thing to do’. But she emphasised detachment: ‘You can’t be so in love with what you have to say and how you’re doing that you don’t know when it’s wrong.’

Margaret Atwood gave an entertaining and delightfully ironic talk about the writer’s life, with wonderful asides, such as: ‘there’s nothing that rivets the British more than cannibalism’. She said: ‘I write when I can… aeroplanes are quite good, because no-one can phone you… You are always stealing time’. As a distinguished poet as well as a fiction writer, she said that she thought for different types of writing ‘different parts of your brain are involved.’ Writing novels is closer to the everyday, conversational part.

Atwood quoted Edgar Allen Poe: ‘Mystery stories must be written backwards’ but then said: ‘I think I know the end of my novels’ but they never turn out how she expects. Two questions run through her mind when she is writing: ‘What is the relationship of what you are doing to everything else out there?’ and ‘What would my relatives think about it?’ The writer’s life was plagued by interruptions: ‘people do have a way of assuming that if you’re at home you’re not doing anything’. When you’re away from home ‘you’re not encumbered by all the things that take up your daily life’.

Atwood was particularly interesting on the subject of readers. ‘Any act of reading involves participation on the part of the reader…you are providing the lighting, the sets and the music’. And finally, do write in whatever genre you want to: ‘My feeling is, do whatever you like, then worry afterwards about what you’re going to do with it.’

Chris HolifieldManaging director of WritersServices; spent working life in publishing,employed by everything from global corporations to start-ups; track record includes: editorial director of Sphere Books, publishing director of The Bodley Head, publishing director for start-up of upmarket book club, The Softback Preview, editorial director of Britain’s biggest book club group, BCA, and, most recently, deputy MD and publisher of Cassell & Co. She is also currently the Director of the Poetry Book Society; During all of this time aware of problems faced by writers, as publishing changed from idiosyncratic cottage industry, 'occupation for gentlemen', into corporate business of today. Writers encountered increasing difficulty in getting books edited or published. Authors create the books which are the raw material for the whole business. She believes it is time to bring them back to centre stage.

Masterclass 2006 Screenwriting

Masterclass 2006 Writing for children

Services for fiction

Factsheet on Useful techniques for the novelist