‘Once a teacher, always a teacher’: I think that’s true, and being a teacher – however long ago – makes you permanently and irredeemably critical of how information and ideas are presented. Although I’ve not taught school students for many years, I make part of my living still through ‘teaching’ adults, and after twenty years of doing so I have an idea of what works.

So a visit to Crimefest in Bristol last week was a chance to learn about writing crime fiction from a brace of presenters I’d never seen in action before – Matthew Hall (the MR Hall of ‘Coroner’ fame), and William Ryan. It was an afternoon workshop, and something about the blurb made me think it might be useful. From Cumbria to Bristol is a long way, but it turned about to be worth every mile and every pound it cost me. What did they do that I found so helpful?

For a start, they told us right at the start that some aspects – but not all – of successful fiction writing can be taught, not just ‘caught’ or developed through some mystical intuitive process. They were well-organised and positive. The room was small, a screen had to be invented using a tablecloth as nothing else was available, a laptop failed to function and had to be replaced. Clearly they had worked together before and in supporting each other they reassured us that they would do whatever it took to give us a positive professional experience. They had two clear foci – character and plot –  and some slides to support what they told us and asked us to do. All the materials had been circulated well in advance by email. Obviously they had presented this workshop before, but had customised to fit the timings and the size of the group.

I’ve seen this before as an educator, but it was fascinating to see how the passivity of our group during the previous session – about which more later – transformed into engagement given the opportunity to do so. Each one of us was involved in specific tasks that were clearly relevant to the issues of the three act structure, character development and dynamics, and the protocols of crime fiction as a genre. The time was tight, the pace fast, and intense short group activities were interspersed with more anecdotal and expository slices that had me scribbling furiously, not what was being said but insights and ideas that began to tumble around my mind about my own next writing project. I was clearly learning not just listening and it was exhilarating.

Several months ago I had a similar experience at the Winnipeg central library in a workshop presented by Andrew Pyper. He’s a Toronto journalist turned very successful novelist (latest book, ‘The Demonologist’) and used a similar structure and presentation style that engaged and excited his audience. On that occasion too, in just a few hours, I learned so much which has proved very useful since.

Andrew Pyper was a journalist; Matthew and William Ryan had both been barristers in a former life and are now highly successful authors: all three have a passion for words and stories, both spoken and written. The previous session at the Crimefest day in Bristol provided an alternative – much less satisfactory – experience: the contrast sharpened my understanding of what for me is helpful and what is not.

We were faced with a panel of two professional editors and two agents, who were asked quite good questions about their roles and function first by a moderator, and then by us. If I hear another agent tell me that the criterion for choosing a submission is that ‘they fall in love with it’, I think I’m going to scream. They talked about ‘dating’ to describe the relationship between author and agent, and told us that the process of taking the book from manuscript to publication was like ‘giving birth’. I regard myself as an old-fashioned feminist but this excessive ‘feminisation’ was actually deeply unhelpful. What are we as writers to do with such advice? I was also struck by how all four of the panellists cheerfully informed us that they were too busy ‘going to meetings’ during the working day to read the submissions or manuscripts they were supposed to be working on. All the reading was done in the evenings or at the weekends. Not sure how my fellow participants felt about that, but I found it depressing. How could that make any writer feel confident about the professional attention their efforts would receive?

Even more depressing, but perhaps revealing too, was that none of the four had ever actually written anything, or felt they were capable of doing so. These were not writers, or even speakers of words, these four people spent their time responding to other people’s words but not themselves engaged in creating them. Advice to self: if you want help with being a writer, learn from people who write. Further message to self: whatever the current role of the agent is, I think some of them have lost the plot, literally.