Fresh from the Festival of Writing – a newbie’s experience

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I mentioned on Twitter that I was heading home from my first Festival of Writing and, quick as a flash, Sam asked if I’d write a piece on it.

Since we’re all short of time, here’s the top line: if you want skills, encouragement, connections, inspiration, new writer friends or your writing backside kicked, then put the Festival of Writing in your diary for 2020. I loved it.

For the uninitiated, it’s an intensive Friday/Saturday/Sunday at the University of York, organised ‘by writers for writers’ (the perfect byline of the organisers, Jericho Writers). Everything that happens is about the writer’s world: the crafts of writing, editing and rewriting; how to pitch to agents, for those who want to be traditionally published; how to self-publish; how to make money as a writer; and how to be resilient in the face of inevitable rejection.

About 400 writers gather for practical workshops, talks, panel discussions, keynotes, updates on the industry and one-to-one sessions with agents and book doctors. It cost me £476 (early-bird pricing) for the full weekend, which included all the main sessions, a single-bed room in a hall of residence, all meals and a special three-hour mini course on the Friday.

The events and the accommodation are in three buildings only a few minutes’ walk from each other and accessible for those with mobility challenges. I saw several people who relied on a wheelchair or a guide dog. There was also a quiet space for anyone who felt overwhelmed. It was the 10th year of the festival and it showed. It was all very thoughtfully and efficiently organised.

When you arrive, it’s just like being a fresher, so much so that there was a freshers drinks on the Friday evening. Remember being one, those of you who went to uni? You don’t seem to know a soul (though I did eventually spot a couple of people I knew); everyone looks more confident, accomplished and cleverer than you; you wonder if the first people you talk to will cleave to you thereafter when you’d rather they didn’t; the bar is twenty people deep; and the volume of noise rises as the alcohol does its magic social-glue work.

The advice is ‘talk to everyone’. The suggested opener is ‘what do you write?’ and everyone uses it because you then find your tribe – your genre. Mystery, suspense, crime, thriller, romance, women’s fiction, fantasy, historical, sci-fi and speculative writers were legion. Literary fiction writers seemed to be in a minority. Then we were told in one session that the average sales figure for a book of a literary fiction is 234. Have you missed off the noughts, we chorused? No: 234 units. Blimey.

Some people were up drinking and chatting to 3am and had I not been staying off campus (in an Airbnb with my husband, who came to revisit old haunts as he grew up in York), then I would have been one of them. According to the fabulous James Law (see below), late night sessions are the route to lifelong writerly friendships. I have no doubt that he’s right - by Sunday, there were solid groups going about together, which were almost certainly born in the bar. But I still had great chats with dozens of other writers and you definitely don’t have to be a drinker or late-nighter to make friends.

Friday night supper is informal with a ‘first 500 words’ competition (really fun) and Saturday night (which I missed so as not to entirely desert husband) is a gala dinner with a first-chapter competition.

The sessions were generally excellent. The speakers/tutors were confident, very knowledgeable and in a couple of cases, really funny. James Law deserves a special mention on that front; people flocked to his sessions because he’s such fun. Julie Cohen delivered gold-star practical techniques. Rebecca Horsfall’s prose workshop was a revelation. Debi Alper was, of course, brilliant. There was only session that didn’t hit the mark. The speaker was a real expert and it would have been compelling in another setting, but it didn’t deliver on what that audience was expecting (and that was the view from several people, not just me). We were there to be told about techniques and to be given tips and advice but what we got was a philosophical discussion, albeit with audience participation. But it didn’t dent my enthusiasm for the festival as a whole.

The agent 1-2-1s, as they style them, are the terror moments of the weekend. They are ten minutes long and you are warned, ‘don’t be late’ as their schedules are always fully booked and if you miss your slot, that’s it. You’d be mad to be late – these are ten minutes with the potential to transform a writer’s future. The way it works is that you advance-book two agent sessions and then you submit a pitch letter + synopsis + the first 3,000 words several weeks ahead. Then on the day, it’s a lot like speed dating. You wait your turn, watching the animated conversations taking place. When they blow the whistle (yep, literally), you sit down and can then see, upside down, the comments sheet the agent has filled in about your work, to remind them what feedback to give. Then you concentrate on every word they utter.

My two 1-2-1 experiences were a complete contrast.

The first session was with a children’s book agent, with an idea only written to 3,000 words especially for the festival. It was an experiment and it was a complete fail - the agent’s opening gambit was ‘this concept isn’t going to work’. She justified it really convincingly. I was grateful to her though, as she saved me months of pointless writing, but still, I did feel fed up. 

The second session was the next day, for my historical novel which is half written. The original agent I was booked with pulled out of the festival, and the replacement agent didn’t rep hist fic, as they say, but she was game and my only option at that point. I figured that she would know about plot, writing, title, despite the genre, and whaddya know, she praised all three (and they don’t b******t you, so this really meant a lot). That gave me a high for the rest of the day. Best of all, she gave me specific, actionable advice on my cover letter, which she felt was the way she could add the most value. I will forever have a soft spot for her.

It is possible to land an agent at the festival - Joanna Cannon left the 2014 FoW with seven offers of representation for The Trouble with Goats and Sheep. I didn’t hear of that happening this year during the festival, but a lucky few leave with full MS requests.

The agents, publishers and book doctors who are at the festival in relatives droves are there to help writers and most seemed happy to answer questions and give advice. Writers just have to be brave enough to go up to them. I left not really knowing whether it was acceptable to pitch a wandering agent outside the 1-2-1s. Some of them did 40 ten-minute sessions, so may have given short shrift to eager off-schedule approaches, and who could blame them…though I’m sure they would have been very polite. 

I came home with a notebook stuffed with notes on everything from great techniques and names of people I met to recommended books. Best of all, I had really good chats with loads of writers – they really are the warmest, friendliest sorts.

Do message me on Twitter if you have any specific questions about the festival. Always happy to help.

@janstannard