A couple of years ago I heard about this fantastic place in Bristol called Novel Nights where readers and writers came together and spoke about their love of books. It sounded right up my street and I really wanted to go. But even stronger than my love of books was my antagonist force of not being able to face a room full of people I didn’t know, especially on my own, so I put the idea to one side in the hope that one day I would be in a place where I would be able to overcome my flakiness and go along. I continued working on my writing, alongside my literature degree with the OU (Open University) – something I could do from the comfort and isolation of my writing room. Little did I know that, through the OU, my life was about to change and my dream of going to Novel Nights was about to become real.
I’d already completed the OU’s Creative Writing module (A215). This gives an excellent grounding in the basic elements of fiction writing such as characterisation, dialogue, setting, plot and structure etc, but in 2017 I signed up for the final year course: Advanced Creative Writing (A363). A363 not only builds on the elements of A215 it also includes scriptwriting – something that terrified me at first but I actually loved it. But what I loved most about the module was the people that I met along the way. As I mentioned earlier, A363 is an advanced course and is generally taken by those who are serious about developing a career as a writer. Whilst the OU online forums were pretty rubbish, our A363 Facebook group thrived and it wasn’t long before some of us had become good friends. After the module finished, we set up a cabin for the July NaNoMo, and later our own Facebook group: Blanc Page. The name is very apt as when we meet up we do tend to drink more Prosecco and cocktails than write. In fact, come to think of it, we don’t really do any writing at all – oops – hick! (This photo was taken at our last get-together).
One of the first literary events we went to was the 2018 Bristol Festival of Literature, and it was here that I first met Grace, the founder and co-host of Novel Nights. Grace was such a lovely person and promised me that everyone at Novel Nights was really friendly, and if I went along then I would be made to feel welcome. Going to the literary festival had been a big thing for me. I’d never caught a train on my own before but the Blanc Page girls held my hand through this traumatic event, meeting me at Temple Meads and generally calming me down at having done such an adventurous thing! (I live in Bristol so it was about a 12-minute journey). So when I spoke to Grace, all of a sudden going along to Novel Nights seemed like something I might be able to do afterall. My friends and I all agreed that we came away from the literary festival feeling just that little bit closer to becoming real writers and despite drinking bottled water and not Prosecco, we left the day completely fizzing. The next chapter in the adventures of the Blanc Page girls was to be Novel Nights. And I for one couldn’t wait!
The first Novel Nights we went to was in January 2019. Located in the heart of Clifton, just off Park Street, Berkeley Square is steeped in Bristolian history and culture, and arriving just before half-past seven on that January evening it was easy to visualise the setting when it was first built at the end of the 18th century: a foggy night with black carriages setting-down well-to-do ladies and gentlemen outside their imposing terraced houses. The pavements really are something else; the curbs must be a least a foot high – but I bet those horse-drawn carriages would have been quite a jump down for an 18th-century lady in a posh frock! It felt a little like I was walking into a scene from an 18th-century novel like Sherlock Holmes; in fact, number 24 was used in the filming of The House of Eliot. The Novel Nights venue is located at number 15, and it took us a while to work out that we needed to make our way down an external staircase to what looked like a secret members club. It was all very intriguing, and extremely exciting.
Inside, Grace was at the door, greeting people and ticking names off the guest-list. I was expecting to be asked what my name was but instead Grace greeted me with ‘Hello Callie, how lovely to see you here.’ Although this was no doubt just a small thing to Grace, I can’t tell you how this made me feel. I couldn’t believe she remembered my name. I’d arrived feeling super anxious but due to Grace’s natural ability to make her guests feel welcome, I’d only just walked through the door and I’d already been made to feel a part of things. I’m not easily impressed, but less than two minutes at my first Novel Nights, and I was in awe of the place.
After making our way to the bar (well, a girl must get her priorities right) we bagged the squishy turquoise sofa along the back wall and sat back, not quite believing we were amongst the company of so many prolific writers. Jane Shemelt was sat in front of us. Like OMG one of my favourite writers ever! The guest talker was Christopher Wakling. As well as being a best-selling novelist, Christopher teaches Creative Writing at a number of prestigious places: Curtis Brown, Faber, and Arvon; we’d already heard Christopher speak at the opening night of the literature festival over at the Naval Volunteer (or the Volly as we Bristolians call it) so knew how funny he was, but I don’t think any of us were really prepared for just how inspirational his advice was too. I’m so glad I took along my writing journal – I soaked up every word he had to say, making pages and pages of notes on the whole drafting process from creating dialogue with conflict and subtext, to plunging characters into tricky situations, to editing and hooking an agent. Of course, this was done in typical Christopher Wakling style where the talk was delivered from the opposing perspective of ‘how not to write’. It was absolutely hilarious and his captivated audience was literally rolling around on the floor for most of it.
There have been lots of Novel Nights in between with talks from bloggers, to advice from top publishers and literary agents. But for me, without a shadow-of-doubt, the highlight of going to Novel Nights was meeting the best-selling psychological thriller writer Jane Corry. I’ve been a fan of Jane’s ever since her first psychological thriller My husband’s Wife, and I’ve been lucky to have been able to receive ARCs (advance review copies) of her last two books The Dead Ex, and I Looked Away. Listening to Jane speak of her writing journey was truly inspirational. As a newbie novelist, I could sit for hours listening to how successful authors spend their working day, and how parts of their own life experiences naturally ends up in their books. Right at the beginning of the creative writing course I did with the OU I was taught about tweaking and twisting what you know to make realistic stories, and listening to Jane really brought home this piece of advice. Just like me, Jane is a grandmother who adores her grandchildren, and with Ellie, the protagonist of her latest novel I Looked Away being a grandmother, it was clear to see how Jane had used the unconditional love she felt for her own grandchildren in Ellie’s character. Jane had loads of other writing tips too. She spoke about how she carries out research, to how her novels have changed since she switched from pantsing to plotting, as well as planning what the big plot twist at the end might be. I’m currently writing my own debut psychological thriller so this has made me go away and really think about what those main plot points will be. To top the evening off, not only did Jane Corry sign my bloggers copy of I Looked Away, she actually asked to have her photo taken with me. Swoons…
The same evening also saw readings from some other brilliant writers: Caroline Mitchell, A A Abott, Liz Hill. All three of them were completely mesmerising as they read out extracts from their novels. In fact, I was so captivated by Caroline’s story I completely forgot to take the photo I’d promised of her stood in front of the microphone! I met Caroline at Bristol University’s Writing Fiction class earlier in the year, and am proud to say she is now also one of the Blanc Page girls.
The atmosphere at Novel Nights is utterly intoxicating from the moment you step inside until the moment you leave, and then it can take quite some time to come down from the high of being in such a wonderful place. I can’t describe how brilliant it is to be in the same room as best-selling authors alongside writers who are at different stages in their writing journey. Like the literary festival, I always come away feeling just that bit closer to being a real writer.
But don’t just take my word for it. Novel Nights has grown from strength to strength this past year with regular events now in Bath, and more planned for Exeter. Novel Nights has also recently received Arts Council funding. The Novel Nights team Grace, Colette, and Charlotte, hope to use this to support the fantastic writing masterclasses they have recently set up as well as to expand into digital projects. The team are looking to establish monthly author-interview podcasts aimed at encouraging and inspiring writers – so no matter where you live Novel Nights can reach out to writers everywhere. I haven’t been lucky enough to go to one of the masterclasses yet but I’ve heard lots of good things about them. You can find out more here: https://www.novelnights.co.uk/masterclasses/
None of this would be possible for me it wasn’t for my Blanc Page girls, who have held my hand and introduced me to the fabulous writing and literary events we are so very lucky to have here on our doorstep in Bristol. So I would like to give a massive shout out to Suzy Fox (the next best-selling romantic novelist – def one to watch out for!); Jennie Foy (script-writer extraordinaire); and Claire O’Connor (amazing author of Floursacks to Petticoats, recently published in the Generations anthology by Write Club OU).
If you would like to come along to Novel Nights you can find out more details at https://www.novelnights.co.uk/. You will be made to feel really welcome and will no doubt become as addicted as I am. I just absolutely love Novel Nights and can’t recommend it highly enough for both readers and writers alike… just anybody who loves books really.
You can see my reviews for Jane Corry here: