Learning Writing Tips from the Experts at London Book Fair
London Book Fair is the UK’s biggest event for anyone associated with the world of writing books and publishing. This was my second visit and it was every bit as inspiring, hectic, fascinating and overwhelming as I remember. London Book Fair is not just about agents chasing that six -figure publishing deal for their debut authors, though this clearly motivates the Penguin Random House‘s and Harper Collinses of this world.
As a budding author, you can merely wander past their monolithic stands and gape in wonder – entry through their portals is by invitation only and a rare thing, considering that book deals can only be struck between agents and publishers.
Or you can head upstairs to Author HQ and absorb words of wisdom from those who have succeeded in making a career out of writing. That’s where I spent most of my time, coming away with a notebook brimful of advice, tips and anecdotes from the experts.
Peter Owen Jones on his new book Everest England
For me, the highlight of London Book Fair this March was the last minute scheduling of Peter Owen Jones to speak about his new book Everest England, which is published on May 2nd 2019.
You may know him for various BBC programmes such as How to Live a Simple Life, which describes his efforts to turn away from consumerism, and Around the World in 80 Faiths, documenting his travels and encounters with different religions. He is also an Anglian parish priest and an extremely unorthodox one at that. Appearance-wise, he’s more New Age hippy than priest and arrived to give his talk with his walking staff, dressed in a “uniform” of jeans, cowboy boots, denim shirt and mustard yellow waistcoat.
He began by strutting his stuff down the aisle (well, he would, wouldn’t he?), saying that the last time he’d been inside Olympia was as a young man employed as a security guard. By the time he’d settled down in his seat, the audience knew it was in for a treat.
Owen Jones’s talk was preachy, provocative, and boy was it interesting! He refused to give straight answers to the interviewer’s questions and set the agenda by meandering off down paths only he wanted to go down.
Unsurprisingly, Owen Jones doesn’t follow any kind of routine when writing. “Life is chaotic as a parish priest. If I want to write, I have to extricate myself from where I live and go somewhere where the routine of life isn’t in my head,” he said. “It’s the only way to write well. To find that place is to go to that land and think about what each and every word means. It’s a beautiful place for writers to be, but also incredibly hard to find.
“I can’t just get up at 6 and begin writing. I’ll do a thousand things before I pick up my fucking pen. I have to get up that mountain and into that space and once I’m there it’s the most beautiful place to be,” he said, leaving us in no doubt as to the real meaning behind the title of his book “Everest England”.
But he had harsh words for anyone struggling to find an agent or publisher for their work. “If your book is good, someone will take you on. If you’re not getting any response, you should burn it and start again.” (Tell that to J.K. Rowling who was a struggling writer before eventually finding a publisher prepared to take on Harry Potter!)
More encouragingly, he said that each and every one of us has the greatest story within us and that it is ours alone. “You have a unique story and when you write in your voice you enter a vein of authenticity. The reader will sense you are telling the truth.”
When researching for Everest England he bought maps and planned out where he was going, but very quickly went off piste. Each day, he’d take down a page of notes and that’s all he did.
It was only when he returned home that the real journey of writing began. “It was a real privilege to have time to sit and write it. The writing was more exciting than the walking, he said.
“And when it’s done, it WILL have changed you.
“This book wrote me,” he said, not once, but twice. “Let it feed you.”
Finding the perfect editor
Owen Jones has worked with editors with whom he didn’t always see eye to eye, because they didn’t understand where he was coming from. That changed with Everest and he now has a more honest relationship with his current editor.
“You need someone to say – that sentence doesn’t work, or – you can do better. As long as that person understands where you’re going.” The process helped Owen Jones to become bolder and braver in his writing. In his opinion, Everest England is his best book yet.
I got the impression that Owen Jones has finally found his own unique voice in writing after struggling to find it, but never giving up.
He put it so succinctly when he said: “You should be a different person because your writing will take you to places you can never have imagined going.”
I intend to hold onto that thought as I’m writing my next novel.