At Book Aid International we believe books have the power to change lives. In places where books are scarce, libraries are often the best place to discover the joy of reading. That’s why we work in partnership with libraries in sub-Saharan Africa providing books, resources and training to support an environment in which reading for pleasure, study and lifelong learning can flourish.

We were delighted to join up with Writers & Artists for a second year running to offer aspiring authors a fantastic series of masterclasses with established authors on different aspects of the writing craft. Each of these practical sessions – which focused on key facets of the writing process – expertly guided participants through exercises and techniques that helped hone their manuscripts.

Writers & Artists generously donated 50% of proceeds from each ticket sold to support our work and they raised a fantastic £2,032.50! That’s enough to send over 1,016 books to libraries in Africa!

We were also delighted to have Book Aid International representatives at each event. Here’s what we learned.

Hannah Watson, our Head of Fundraising, attended Sally Green’s masterclass on character development:

Sally’s workshop was focused on really bringing characters to life – constructing “lovable characters you want to spend time with” though she emphasised that ‘lovable’ is subjective, with examples of Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye and Thomas Cromwell in Wolf Hall. She also pointed out “even in a horror story, people aren’t monsters all the time. They have a sense of humour”.

Here are some of Sally’s top tips:

Try not to describe a character flat out early on – introduce them slowly, and get intrigue in early.

Read widely and critically to work out what does and doesn’t work with characterisation – for example, picking up when character voices all ‘sound’ the same.

Introducing a large number of characters very quickly with detailed backstories can be difficult for the reader, though it can sometimes work. Sally gave the example of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo as a book you really had to work on at the beginning for this reason.

In dialogue, “you have to let your characters say what they would say” – you can’t steer them for plot convenience!

When writing, don’t think about making characters interesting – think about making them real.

There are some different methods you can use to dig into a character a bit more including character CVs, mood boards, pictures and music.

You reveal only the tip of the iceberg of your characters in the story, but you need to know the whole iceberg from top to bottom.

Avoid cliché by not thinking of your characters as labels (i.e. ‘The Mother’). Instead, think of them as real people. “Take surprise and pleasure in them and your readers will too”.

Sally’s masterclass was so engaging. She’s such a warm and approachable writer with a very inspiring story.

Alison Tweed, our Director, attended Kerry Hudson’s workshop on voice:

Kerry spoke of how your writing voice involves writing authentically and personally and expressing your uniqueness in your own writing style. She said that she thought she’d been successful precisely because of her memorable ‘voice’, because she wasn’t afraid to break the rules and wasn’t worried about getting it wrong, because she observed life and told it in her own way.

Kerry led the participants through some interesting writing exercises including writing a paragraph inspired by a photo. Some of the participants read out their paragraphs, all of which were pretty good!

Kerry encouraged participants to not lose heart and continue writing - while there are more writers than ever seeking publication she was living proof that it was possible and more books than ever are being published.

This was a really engaging masterclass and Kerry’s dedication to her writing was inspiring.

Gaby Deschamps, our Fundraising Officer, attended Sally Gardner’s masterclass on pace and plot:

Sally started by playing us Beethoven’s 7th Symphony and used it to demonstrate how you can use pace to influence an audience’s experience. The symphony builds up gradually, doesn’t rush and keeps you intrigued. Beethoven is perfectly capable of making the piece go faster but he lets the audience yearn for more. “Every book needs an ache,” Sally said. She also spoke of Eminem’s Stan as a brilliant piece of story-telling. “Great story telling is about giving something but not giving it all away.”

Sally doesn’t plan her books and lets her characters drive the plot – in The Double Shadow she really wanted to kill a character off, but he “wouldn’t go”! She had to readjust the plot because of this.

Sally said that when creating a character, you should start from the feet up – “get the shoes right and everything will work out.” A character’s shoes will have an impact on their image, the way that they walk and the mood that they’re in. She placed images of shoes on each table and we had to write a few sentences as the character who would wear them.

Sally’s masterclass was so rich in content. As James at Writers & Artists put it, she is a ‘tour de force’!

Jenny Hayes, our Communications Executive, attended Claire McGowan’s masterclass on dialogue:

It was fascinating to learn how multifaceted dialogue can be – it can be used to create or show conflict, suspense, illustrate a character from their age and background to their values and personality. You can demonstrate a character’s state of mind and view point through dialogue. It is also a great way to keep the pace moving and it can really bring a story to life.

Claire spoke of how it is important to remember that dialogue is a conversation between two or more characters so it shouldn’t just be two monologues side by side. It should include lots of questions, creating more of an exchange between the characters.

One interesting thing I learned is that your reader doesn’t always have to know everything your characters know, the characters can say things which you haven’t yet explained to the reader. Equally, your reader can know more than a character – and again you can communicate this through dialogue.

We also looked at the mechanics of using dialogue, from ways that dialogue can be presented – rather than continually using ‘he said/she said’, you can attribute speech using action e.g. ‘Don’t be silly,’ Penelope laughed. Tone can be portrayed both through the length of sentences (a short sentence can suggest aggression) but also through other characters’ reactions to what a character says. Punctuation and formatting dialogue is also really important to ensure the readers is able to correctly understand what is being said and the tone in which it is delivered.

Claire’s masterclass was so insightful – I had no idea that dialogue could be used in so many ways and all the things you need to think about when using it. I’m looking forward to spotting some of what Claire taught us about in my future reading.

A big thank you to Writers & Artists, Sally Green, Kerry Hudson, Sally Gardner, Claire McGowan and all who attended the masterclasses.

Jenny Hayes is Communications Executive at Book Aid International. Follow Book Aid International on Twitter and Facebook.