Passion, a Twix and Cereal Boxes: writing non-fiction with Gill Hoffs – 1 November 2017

As a writer, I’m a bit of an over-thinker, a bit OCD, a bit careful. Maybe I’m alone in this. But I suspect (and hope!) I am not.
So, what a veritable breath of fresh air was Gill Hoffs, speaker on writing non-fiction at our meeting of Wednesday 1 November. Gill brought energy, passion, wisdom, honesty and… er… torn up cereal boxes … to a talk that inspired and encouraged writing about what interests us, and writing with feeling.
Gill has now written three books (since 2014, might I add) on the subject of shipwrecks. But she didn’t start off writing about shipwrecks. Had never even considered it, actually. She was a novelist. And then one day she was visiting a museum, and one of the exhibits she came across was a list of the names of those who had perished in a maritime calamity. That the list included the names of young children made her want to hold on tightly to her own very young son. She didn’t particularly like her new knowledge, but once in her head, the knowledge just itched to be scratched.
Three non-fiction books later (and with a novel – a maritime thriller – seeking a publisher), Gill spoke of the passion that fuels her writing. Along with a generous handful of curiosity, more than a smidgen of stamina, and the odd Twix bar, it’s what makes her a writer. And such a prolific one too. To gasps from the audience (and not a little uncomfortable shuffling, certainly from my corner), Gill revealed that she ‘binge-writes’, producing the first draft of a book in as little as six weeks (that’s 5,000 words a day, she said), while her son is at school. Work out the maths, she said, with devastating pragmatism, and take it from there. How many hours? How many days? How many words? Make it do-able and relax into it.
As well as inspiration, Gill taught us how to approach non-fiction. It’s a very different beast from fiction, and requires different handling. While you get fiction out there after it is written, non-fiction requires to be pitched as an idea, an outline perhaps. In pitching, there are questions you need to ask: Why you? Why this? Why here? Why now? Why would anyone read this? Who are they, these readers? And when you get a publisher, ‘Be known as professional, fast and calm.’
Gill will be adjudicating our non-fiction competition (deadline 22 November), with a theme of ‘Local industry.’ She’s looking for well-researched, factual, professionally presented articles about something that is local to you (however you choose to interpret that), written from a place of passion that tumbles the words onto the page. Be powered by feeling when you are writing (the time to be clinical is when you are editing). ‘Seduce me with your words,’ she said, ‘so that I cannot say no.’
Oh, and the cereal boxes? Gill finds good notebooks a bit scary; she’s afraid to write in them in case it’s not good. Cut-up cereal boxes, on the other hand, are the breakfast of this writing champion. Me, I love a beautiful notebook. But how many empty ones do I have? I think I need to loosen up a bit. Passion over perfection!

Alison Craig

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