Friday, July 27, 2012

Writer Idol at the West Cork Literary Festival

Writer Idol at the West Cork Literary Festival
By Sue Leonard.
A version of this appeared on

The West Cork Literary Festival, held each July in Bantry has always been innovative. And this year proved no exception. Ireland’s first ever Writer Idol took place on Tuesday, 10th July, and was a resounding success.

But how does it work? Take a panel. Get wannabe writers to pre-submit the first page of a novel. Get someone to read the entries out, anonymously, and when a panel member hears a writing blunder, they raise a hand. If a second hand goes up, the reading stops. (Think Graham Norton’s red chair.) Then the panel critique the work.

Acclaimed writer Anita Shreve suggested the idea. She’s taken part in Writer Idols in Boston, and said they were fun. Denyse Woods, Director of the Festival enthusiastically adopted it, and it caught the public’s imagination.

Shreve was on the panel; and was joined by Ireland’s super agent Marianne Gunn O’Connor and Publishing Director, Suzanne Baboneau. The writer and actress Kate Thompson had the task of reading the entries. Before she began, Anita explained to an expectant, if nervous audience, that this was, essentially, a game. But with a serious edge. Obviously.

“You only have a page in which to grab a reader in a bookshop,” she said. “At best a page and a half. You need excellent writing; and you must have either a very strong voice or the start of an amazing plot.”

There was a huge variation of styles and genres. Some raised laughs, others some interest. One broke so many rules, that all three hands were raised within ten seconds. Only two were read until the end, so passing the test. They gained applause. None, though received an on the spot publishing deal, something the writers has surely secretly hoped for.

There were some problems. over 35 entries were read out, in a random order, but there wasn’t time to read them all. This caused disappointment to the audience. The judges were disappointed too. They’d expected a higher standard.

There was little original writing. Some pieces started well, but lost momentum within a paragraph or two. But the panel gave out some wonderful advice, and everyone present said they’d gained a lot of insight and help.

So what were people doing wrong?

The Don’ts

• Don’t give too much background detail. You need to move things on.
• Don’t descend into cliché; never use, designer stubble, smooth skin, cold sweat, beating hearts.
• NEVER start with a character waking up in the morning.
• Don’t introduce too many characters; this caused confusion.

The Do’s.
• Always write for yourself; don’t write what you think will sell.
• To shine you must have an original voice. You have to be different.
• Be yourself. Be confident.
• Rewrite. Read your work aloud. And read the first page of books you love.
• You MUST hook the reader. Maybe use a prologue.

© Sue Leonard 2012.

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