We knew our September event was going to be popular: with the nights drawing in and a chill in the air, it's the perfect month to curl up with a book, and the back-to-school mentality means there is no better time to get you going on your first novel.
For readers and writers alike, our cosy room at Effra Social in Brixton was the only place to be.
We also had yet another line up of exceptional authors: Joy Rhoades, Hayley Barker, Lydia Ruffles, Emma Flint and Felicia Yap.
What we couldn’t have predicted was that it would be standing room only; that our authors would impart more writing knowledge and advice than you can shake a biro at and that not all of our attendees would be of the two-legged variety…
Here are just some of the things we learned at The Riff Raff September meet up.
1. The hard work is in the editing
This gem came from our first author of the night, Joy Rhoades, who’s novel The Woolgrower’s Companion, is set in 1945 Australia and has the feeling of an epic.
The editing is often more intense with historical fiction: with the storyline in place, fastidious research is required to ensure the book is accurate. “Academics are really helpful for this,” said Joy, adding that the ones she contacted fell into two camps: either they didn’t reply or they went above and beyond to help her craft her narrative.
This led on to a discussion of authenticity. “Do you write a book that’s inauthentic or a book that’s authentic but likely to raise hackles?” asked Joy.
We are big fans of the hackle-raising variety here at Riff Raff HQ.
2. You can judge a book by its cover
Show Stopper – the debut work from Hayley Barker, the second author in our line up – has to have one of the most beautiful covers we have ever seen.
We are happy to report that Hayley’s book is just as good inside. Set in a dystopian circus, Show Stopper is aimed at a YA audience but as adults we were able to draw frightening parallels between its dark, fictional society and our own.
Hayley gave a stunning reading and went on to talk eloquently and candidly about her writing and publishing process. “I didn’t have a plan apart from the end scene,” she said. “I sat down and wrote then polished and polished and polished.”
3. Present tense adds pace
Aspiring writers are often stymied by which tense to choose; for Hayley, present worked best. “The book is fast paced and full of action. My characters are prisoners; they aren’t given time or space to be reflective.”
And as a book with such strong messages about societal inequality, Hayley advised that writers should not to be didactic but let their characters and story do the talking.
Hayley is the epitome of a determined writer: like most authors she faced rejection but she persevered, took on feedback and put in the hard graft required to get to publication.
4. Don’t start writing until you’re ready
Our third author, the brilliant and very funny Lydia Ruffles, had the audience enraptured as she read from her debut, The Taste of Blue Light.
Perhaps more than any of the other authors on the bill, Lydia’s own story is peppered throughout her fictional prose. Lydia wrote her book as she battled a neurological condition and her heroine, Lux, is afflicted by similar, if not identical, symptoms.
“Wait until you’re ready. You have to dig quite deep,” she cautioned of incorporating personal experience into her book.
5. Give unpopular characters puppies
Is it important to like your characters, we asked Lydia? Her response was clear: you don’t have to like them, but you do have to understand them.
With Lux, Lydia was deliberately trying to challenge ideas of privilege and entitlement. That means Lux displays these traits and is fallible; some readers will find her unsympathetic as a result but all readers will consider her a fully rounded, credible person. Fully-fledged characters? They are any writer’s Holy Grail but can you soften unpopular characters up? “Yeah, give them a puppy,” deadpanned Lydia, which had our audience hooting.
6. Want to get published? Stop treating writing like a hobby
With three alumni of the Faber Academy on our bill (Emma, Felicia and Lydia are all graduates) as well as two authors who grafted their way to the top, this advice could have come from any of our authors; as it was, it came from Emma Flint, author of the spectacular Little Deaths.
Emma recounted the time time a tutor on a renowned writing course told her she was a writer. I admit: I shed a tear. For Emma, it was the turning point that made her go pro but her advice remains: treat yourself like a writer or you won’t get anywhere.
7. Keep going
If we have said it once we have said it a kerjilion times but this one piece of advice may be the most important of all.
“I wrote a book when I was 10,” Emma told us. “Then I wrote a book when I was 20 about being in your twenties and feeling lost – it should never see the light of day. It took me 30 years to get published.”
We have a pretty good feeling that Little Deaths is only the beginning for Emma Flint.
8. Location dictates direction
Our final author for the night was Felicia Yap, who’s fictional debut Yesterday has dazzled readers and critics with its high brow concept: how do you solve a murder when you can only remember yesterday?
For Felicia, it’s all about where you write. The idea for her novel came to her en route to a tango lesson with her real-life partner, Alex – the twists and turns of her plot emerged as they were twisting and turning on the floor.
She then told us about how her writing style changes depending on where in the world she is. “In Germany, I was really efficient and wrote in a very structured way,” she said. “Then in Italy…” – a pause as our audience hooted with laughter – “in Italy, things got wild, especially after a glass of wine…”
Just as we were coming to an end, Felicia added: “Inspiration is the alchemic response to something unfamiliar.” It was a phrase that resonated around the room as much for its beauty as its power and brought a fantastic night to a fantastic close.
9. Everyone is welcome at The Riff Raff
We were delighted to welcome our first canine attendee!
Inspired? Join us for The Riff Raff writers' meet up on October 12 for a Halloween spook-tacular. Buy tickets here (if you dare...)