There were two reasons I booked onto SCBWI’s Fantasy Writing for Young Readers workshop. Firstly, because the internationally award-winning author, Robert Paul Weston was leading it and secondly, because of the name of the location: The Theodore Bullfrog, in London. Possibly the most fantasy-appropriate name for a pub I’ve come across – sounds like a swash-buckling pirate or a devilish smuggler…
Marketed as a ‘Fantasy Writing’ workshop, I was hoping to come away with a few tricks of the trade, but what Weston offered up was nothing short of a lowdown on EVERYTHING you need to know about writing a bestselling MG/YA fantasy novel. Admin note to SCBWI: amend the workshop title to Fantasy Writing for Young Readers with Robert Paul Weston – comes with complete lowdown on writing bestsellers. BOOM. Weston was approachable and instructive (not to mention ridiculously talented), and after his Fairytale Machine ice-breaker (think telepathic streets and trees that can fly), we looked at the ingredients of a captivating fantasy world: what makes it plausible, how to avoid info dumps, ways to make the world feel original… And Weston introduced us to two words that have already transformed the new series I’m planning: WHAT IF. ‘The what if spreads through your whole world. Check out Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights – what if a person’s soul is represented by an animal… The book hinges on this idea and even the first line of Chapter One punches that what if home: ‘Lyra and her daemon moved through the darkening Hall, taking care to keep to one side, out of sight of the kitchen.’
From settings we explored the ‘9 traits of sympathetic characters’ – possibly the most instructive 9-step powerpoint slide I’ve seen (I reckon Weston could sell it on ebay for a few thousand…) and the ingredients of a compelling first person narrator: ‘There’s not much point having a first person narrator unless they speak in an interesting way. Take Moira Young’s Blood Red Road – the narrative voice is compelling and it works.’
We tackled the art of ‘being funny’ with Weston succinctly revealing that ‘funniness is about unpredicted endings, right from sentence level to scene level’, and looked at the concepts of conflict and suspense. Conflict: I want something. Suspense: will you get it? The finale saw us working on structure – the ebbs and flows of action and happy versus tragic endings – with every point backed up by an example from a fantasy novel. My ‘To Buy’ book list is now as tall as Hogwarts… It was an invaluable workshop (enhanced by the fact that the pub served amaaaaazing pizza at lunch) and if Gandalf is the wisest fantasy character out there, then Weston is one of the wisest creative writing tutors I’ve come across. I’m very pleased to be standing (not literally, because that would be weird) on the shoulders of fantasy giants like him.