I first saw a mention of the festival in a tweet. ‘Ang on, I thought (as even in thoughts I drop aitches), that sounds a bit sparkling. I then did some research and was swiftly dazzled by the amount of industry professionals signed up to hold one-to-one sessions or present panels and workshops. It was a weekend flooded with literary goodness. I ditched the plans for a holiday; decided last year’s winter wardrobe was perfectly adequate as long as no one inspects hems (and how many hem-fetish weirdoes do we really meet on a day-to-day basis?), and promptly booked.
Friday 13th dawned (thankfully not at Camp Crystal Lake). I’d been awake since 6am alternatively coaxing and threatening my printer to do its job (trust my luck to have a printer with existential issues) and, along with nerves, took with me to the festival my first few chapters, a synopsis, and my pitch.
We shall draw the thin Veil of Calm over what happened at Kings Cross station when I saw most trains were delayed or cancelled, and instead board the train. I don’t think there was a lessoning of the stomach muscles until I got to York. But arrive I did, and felt very brave asking a taxi queue of strangers if anyone else was also travelling to the festival. One girl stepped forward so we shared the cab fare and chatted on the way. I never actually saw her again – the festival is big! – but it was really nice to walk in with someone else.
I had cunningly timed my arrival to
Debi is so lovely. (You will spot a theme here.) She instantly made me feel welcome and, as I entered the lecture hall, I felt completely at home.
Tea and coffee breaks are a great way to start chatting to people. I introduced myself to someone I’d seen in Debi’s course, and knew pretty much straight away that I had found a good buddy. We realised we had our first one-to-one sessions at the same time, so when the course resumed we made a plan to discreetly slope out together and towards the one-to-one building.
The one-to-ones were ten minutes in front of your chosen industry professional – whether literary agent, book doctor, or publisher. (I love the wording ‘book doctor’.) I chose to speak to literary agents. The feedback was insightful, positive, reaffirming, considered, and pretty damn lovely. They liked my book idea and my writing. Whoop! I think I babbled a bit – and handed one agent a business card with a pic that unfortunately makes me look like I write vampire porn - but apart from that they said they'd be interested in a submission. So this makes me think of two things.
- You really need to find an agent who connects with your novel. They need to love it/believe in it in order to sell it.
- It is really obvious when you find someone like that as the questions they ask will reflect their interest.
Of course, we all send submissions to the Great Slush Pile; it's rare to meet an agent first. But ways this can be translated is by researching that your chosen agent represents your genre, and get your manuscript as polished as it can possibly be before submitting.
Saturday dawned with a spill of sun soaking through clouds still damp from the laundry. I swung off to breakfast with my notebook, determined to make the most of the day. And what a day! It started with a keynote address from the author Adele Parks, a lady who is simply brilliant at public speaking. She was warm, confident, funny, succinct – and didn't shy from talking about painful things like family bereavement, which prompted her to start making her author dreams come true.
I was next in literary agent Juliet Pickering’s workshop ‘Honing a one-minute, two-line pitch’, and we did practical exercises as well as trying out how our pitches sounded to a roomful of people. Afterwards someone came up to me to say they thought my idea sounded intriguing, which was lovely to hear.
And this leads me nicely on to the friendliness of the festival. The effect was such that I've found myself smiling at strangers ever since (very odd behaviour for a Londoner). Everyone is willing to chat, every conversation is about writing. I attended a sci-fi / fantasy panel and absolutely loved that one part of it was spent seriously discussing possible outcomes of the next ice-age. The ‘next’, mind you. It was brilliant.
The afternoon was spent in author Julie Cohen’s workshop about characterization (spelling in honour of her nationality). She is a fantastic teacher full of enthusiasm and energy for her subject. We were handed random letters and created a character from them – mine was fifty-year old Unwin Walters, a hit man out to murder his employers (‘Unwin’ means ‘enemy’). I might revisit ol’ Unwin at a later date…
Sunday’s workshops started with a talk about digital story-telling. Speakers Rob Sherman, Lisa Gee, and Tom Abba introduced us to different ways of telling stories, and it was eye-opening, revolutionary, fascinating, and mind-blowing. The workshop was extended for those of us who were practically on the edge of our seat – we were like a little church of true believers, buzzing around the speakers at the end of the talk, fully engaged with ideas.
I then decided to attend another of Julie Cohen’s classes, as she was so brilliant the day before, and was in a packed workshop called ‘Learning story structure from Pixar films’. Again, she was really lovely (that theme again!) and the class was brilliant. I've now ordered some Pixar films… research, I tell you.
This leads me onto the other thing I got from this festival: book and film recommendations based on my writing, my idea, and my genre. This is so fantastic – I'm on a literary journey, and can’t wait to bolster my education, so to speak, with authors such as Jonathan L Howard, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Mark Z. Danielewski, and films such as Hugo, and A Matter of Life and Death.
The final keynote speech was from author Sharon Bolton (SJ Bolton) who, despite a tricky time-slot, shone from the stage with an inspiring, rallying speech full of dry wit and advice for aspiring authors, namely:
- Be talented, hard-working and professional
- Be nice
- Don’t be a twat
And then there was only time for goodbyes and the wet taxi scrum dash to the train station.
Oh, Festival of Writing. How truly lovely you were, exceeding all my expectations. I met some amazing people, who I’ll hopefully stay in touch with (and can’t wait for them to be published so I can read their books), got some fantastic feedback and advice, attended some brilliant workshops, and, perhaps most importantly of all, feel a real confidence in my writing.
Onwards and upwards, my friends.
The Festival of Writing is run by The Writer's Workshop.