Tuesday 20 March 2018

Pitch Perfect - My Day at the Write By the Beach Conference

On Saturday, I attended the Write By the Beach Conference, run by The Beach Hut Writing Academy. It's the third year I've been to this event, with writing chum, Tracy Fells, and I've enjoyed each one, so I thought I'd give you a little taster of what the day was like.

Rather than have us wait around on cold station platforms (as snow had been forecast) my lovely husband offered us a door to door taxi service. How could we refuse! After picking up writer, Liz Eeles, we were chauffeured to the Friends Meeting House in Brighton, where the conference was to be held. Arriving early (and worried there might not be any coffee served until the break) we popped into the nearby Lanes Coffee House, conveniently situated opposite, for a quick cup.

It was the first year the conference had been held in the Friend's Meeting House but, with its high ceilings and spacious meeting room, it proved to be a good choice. The previous two conferences had been held in a lovely townhouse on the Hove seafront, but it had been rather a squeeze to fit everyone in. This venue fitted the bill perfectly.

The lovely Kate Harrison and Laura Wilkinson were our hosts for the day and they did a brilliant job, welcoming people and making sure everything ran smoothly. After saying a quick hello to fellow RNA writing friends, Merryn Allingham, Deirdre Palmer and Sue Griffin, we took our seats for our first speaker. It was Julie Cohen and her talk was Plotting With Post-it Notes. Although I've heard Julie speak on this subject before, she is so engaging that I didn't care and was soon sticking Post-Its into my book with the best of them! It was billed as a fun, interactive workshop and it certainly was. 

The next session I went to was run by Kate Harrison and it was called Pitch Clinic: 7 steps to make your book irresistible. Well, making my book irresistible is pretty important to me at the moment, as I'm at the agent subbing stage, so I was hanging on to Kate's every word! Thankfully, by the end of the session, I realised that I'd already done most of the things Kate had recommended. Just as well, seeing as my submission was already with one of the agents I was seeing later that afternoon.

After a coffee, it was back to the meeting room for a panel talk, where agents from Janklow and Nesbit, Conville and Walsh, DHH Literary Agency, The Bent Agency and David Higham Associates were going to be telling us what was needed to catch their eye with a standout submission. It was really interesting to get an insight into the workings of the different agencies: how many clients they took on through events like this one and how many from the slush pile; what they didn't want to see in a covering letter and what the next trend might be - 'uplit' apparently. 

It was then time for lunch (a delicious Indian buffet) and a chance to have a chat with other writers (although I have to admit my appetite had rather left me as I knew my agent pitch was coming up).

But, before the pitch session, I had another talk to go to. This time, it was Erin Kelly talking about the history of the psychological thriller. For me, it was the highlight of the conference as it was relevant to my writing. In Erin's view, Jane Eyre was the first psychological thriller - she may well be right.

As my pitch session was in the middle of the next talk (a choice of either Erinna Mettler's 'Short Stories' or Bridget Whelan's 'Memoirs') I took time out to calm my nerves and look at the book table. I then joined the others outside the room where the pitches were taking place. Strict timekeeping was kept by the ringing of a bell, reminding me of parents' evening, and you could almost feel the nervous energy from those waiting.

Thankfully, the agent I'd chosen to see was absolutely lovely and soon put me at my ease. She'd made notes on things she wanted to discuss about the three chapters and gave me a couple of pointers. Then she told me how much she'd liked what she'd read and asked if I'd send her the rest. I couldn't have been happier. It was also a relief to be told that my covering letter had hit the mark.

Having done my pitch, I could now relax and enjoy the tea break where drinks were accompanied by a choice of the most delicious tray bake cakes I've seen (or tasted). What a treat. The final session was an author panel talk about different types of publishing then, before we knew it, the day had ended and we were on our way home, tired but buzzing from all the information we'd absorbed. 

I really hope the Write By the Beach conference returns next year. If it does, I will definitely be there.

Tuesday 13 March 2018

Another Bugbear - the semi-colon

I had no idea just how popular my post on commas would be last week! If you missed it and would like to have a look you can find it here.

In your comments here on my blog, on Twitter and on Facebook, several of you mentioned that the incorrect use of the semi-colon (or semicolon) was something that irritated you. For me, it's not so much the incorrect use of the semi-colon but the use of a comma when a semi-colon should be used.

If you're confused by these fiddly punctuation marks, you're in good company. Most people find them the trickiest to master. My year six class certainly did and, if they moved on to secondary school with an understanding of them, I'd give myself a little pat on the back.

"Just put one in your SATS writing task," I'd beg. "The marker of your paper will think you're a genius!"

So what is a semi-colon?

Basically, it's a type of pause - longer than a comma but not as long as a full stop.

There are two reasons why you would use a semi-colon.


This is the simplest use of the semi-colon. Usually, you'd use a comma to separate items in a list but what if the list is more complicated? More descriptive? This is when you'd use semi-colons.


(simple list) In my bag is a pen, comb, a receipt and a purse.

(more detailed list) In my bag is a red pen with a missing lid; a comb with no teeth; a receipt for a coffee and a beaded purse with no money in it.

Easy peasy!


This is a little harder to explain but bear with me. Many writers make the mistake of using a comma to join two complete sentences. DON'T! This is the dreaded comma splice and, if I see you use it, I will shout SPLICE at you very loudly (something I made my year six children do if they identified one in a list of sentences I'd written on the board).

Look at these two sentences.

The boy pushed open the window.
He climbed in.

We could write them as two separate sentences using full stops.

The boy pushed open the window. He climbed in.

There's nothing wrong with this but, if you look closely, you'll notice that the two sentences are closely linked. The first is about the window being opened and the second is about the boy climbing through it. Because of this, it would be more powerful to link the sentences together with a semi-colon.

The boy pushed open the window; he climbed in. (note: no capital letter is used after the semi-colon.)

So, to recap. They must be two complete sentences and they must be linked by theme or topic to each other if a semi-colon is to be used.

What you MUSTN'T do (sorry to shout again) is use a comma! A comma can only join a sentence with a part of a sentence. If you try to join two complete sentences with a comma, it is a comma splice... arggg! Stand outside my door!

To finish, which one of these sentences is correct?

a) Bonnie is a bad dog; she likes to chase other dogs.

b) My cat is very old, he sleeps most of the day.

c) My husband is good at fixing things; if they're broken.

d) I can hear  traffic outside my window; I'm going to the cinema.

P.S If you say b I might never speak to you again!

The semi-colon is, sadly I feel, going out of fashion. do you ever use it?

Tuesday 6 March 2018

A Bee in My Bonnet - about commas

Once upon a time, I was an English teacher in a primary school but I expect you already know that. It was a subject I loved and I hope I taught the children well. 

Although it was a private school, we followed the National Curriculum and I like to think that, by the time they left in year 6, most of the kids had a pretty good grasp of the fundamentals of reading and writing.

Some of the elements I had to teach amuse me now. I remember how, in the Key Stage 1 SATS writing tasks, extra marks could be gained by using three adjectives in a row or a plethora of adverbs. Things they would have to unlearn if any went on to become authors! Oh, well.

Somewhat surprisingly, it was punctuation that I really loved teaching in the English lessons. I taught every year group and it was rewarding to know that the child who was about to leave the school in Year 6, knowing how to use a semi-colon, was the same one I'd taught to use a full stop in Year 2.

There was something I had a real bee in my bonnet about though. COMMAS.

A little while ago, I met an old pupil of mine. She was now sixteen but told me she still had my voice in her head whenever she did any writing. I asked her why and she told me it was because to teach sentences with two parts, I used to write a sentence on the board and read it out saying the word comma when I came to the symbol

When evening came, the moon started to rise.
When evening came comma the moon started to rise.

After reading it, I would then get the children to make up their own sentences and say them in the same way. 

She then said, "Do you remember that lesson called, Cut it Out?"

I did. It was to help them to learn how to use two commas to separate a piece of information in the middle of a sentence. I'd write sentences on the board and then get the kids to shout, "Cut it out!" if the sentence made sense without the part enclosed by the commas. If it did, the sentence was properly punctuated.

This is a sentence that would have the children saying the magic words: 

I left the house and, realising I was late, took the short cut. 

If you cut out 'realising I was late', the sentence still makes sense. Which is why I've been surprised to read sentences punctuated like the one below in novels: 

I left the house, and realising I was late, took the short cut. If you cut out 'and realising I was late', the sentence does not make sense.

It was happening so frequently (in traditionally published novels) that I was beginning to doubt myself. How happy I was then to turn to the 'On Writing' column in the March edition of Writing Magazine and find that writing tutor, Tony Rossiter, had covered this exact subject. With relief, I read the paragraph where he explains that it must always be possible to remove the information between two commas without damaging the sentence. He then uses an example just like mine. Phew - thanks Tony, for saving my sanity.

He also mentions the use of two sentences joined together with a comma instead of a semi-colon - the dreaded comma splice.

It might be better not to get me started on that one!

Do you have any bees in your bonnet about punctuation?