Festival of Writing – advice for newbies

Last weekend I went to the Festival of Writing in York. The festival is a wonderful weekend of writing seminars, discussion panels, social events and networking with writers and industry peeps. You also get to have one-on-ones with literary agents and publishers! It was fab – I’m in the process of putting together a post with some of the things I learned.

Will I go again? Almost certainly. But if you’ve never been before and are thinking about going next year, here are a few things I wish I’d known beforehand. If you’re a confident type who who finds social events effortless, most of these might be a bit ‘well, dur!’ but for the slightly angsty introverts – read on!

writing together

Book early.

Two one-on-ones are included with the price of your ticket – this is a great opportunity to have your work professionally assessed and to receive feedback directly. However, you chose who you want to have these sessions with when you book your ticket and as each agent/publisher/book doctor only has a certain number of slots, they can fill up fast! I booked in mid-July and couldn’t get any slots with relevant agents which felt like a missed opportunity. I think bookings open in April so jump in early!

Don’t go for too many days (or too few).

The festival lasts three days but you can pick and chose which days to attend. Some people do the whole weekend  – Friday lunchtime to Sunday teatime –  others (like I did) do Saturday and Sunday while lots just pop in for the day. It’s held at the University of York and accommodation is on-site so it’s very easy to stay over.

BUT when you’re booking I’d say it’s a good idea to think how much new information you can take in and how tiring you find networking. Many writers are introverts (I know I am!) which, although doesn’t make us unfriendly (AT ALL) or stop us from networking like badassess, can mean that after a whole day of seminars, conversations with new people and putting ourselves out there we can feel exhausted. Honestly, by the end of Saturday (which ended with a gala dinner, awards ceremony and dancing into the night for those who fancied it) I was worn out and ready to go home. I still enjoyed the Sunday but I know I didn’t get as much out of it as I could have, because I really just needed to step away and process it all. So before you excitedly book a whole weekend because there’s so much interesting stuff going on, its worth considering this.

HOWEVER, if you love new situations, meeting new people and lots of information and insights into the publishing world then book the whole weekend – you’ll get SO much out of it!

Don’t over-think when choosing which seminars/workshops to book – you can always change your mind at the festival.

One of the reasons I booked late is that part of the process of buying your ticket involves choosing which seminars you’d like to attend. There are so many good ones and when I first looked down the list and read the descriptions I just couldn’t make up my mind and completely stalled! When I was at the festival though, I found that there was a lot of flexibility surrounding which sessions people attended – many people went to different seminars from the ones they had chosen when booking and I got the impression that as long as there was space in the room, that was fine. So book what appeals to you and don’t worry if you change your mind later!

Yes, one-on-ones clash with other sessions… but that’s ok.

I noticed when I was booking that all the one-on-one slots were at the same time as various seminars. Does this mean you have to miss a whole hour of seminar for the sake of a ten minute meeting? No, you’re fine to go in and out of seminars. But isn’t it rude to get up and leave mid-session? No, everyone does it, it’s one of those unavoidable things. Everyone understands. It’s a bit of a pain when you’re really enjoying the session you’re in (as I was) but don’t let it put you off booking one-to-ones – I think they’re always worth it.

Wear what you like – even to the gala dinner.

It seems so shallow to discuss clothes doesn’t it? I mean, we’re writers – we shouldn’t worry about such things. Oh, but I did! Especially when I realised the dress-code for the gala dinner suggested cocktail dresses! I’m a pretty casual sort of a person and wear a dress about once a year (if that) so the idea of dressing up in a frock and heels, for an event I was attending on my own, made me anxious. The festival guide does say ‘no one will be turned away for looking too scruffy’ though and I’d say concentrate on this bit if you’re not a dressing-up type. A lot of people do look glam but I saw enough casual footwear to put me at ease. I wore nice trousers, a floaty top and a sparkly necklace and fitted in fine. There was one guy dressed as a vampire too, so clearly anything goes.

Enter the competitions.

There were five this year – Best Opening Chapter, Children’s Book Star, Perfect Pitch, Superb Blurb and (for the brave) Friday Night Live – which, if you make the shortlist, involves reading an excerpt of your book out to everyone on Friday night. They’re only open to festival attendees and it’s a chance to get your work read by the agents and publishers who will be at the festival.

Network as much or little as you want.

There are lots of coffee breaks, meals and times to hang out in the bar. This is great – you can mingle with other writers and maybe (if you’re brave enough) approach agents or publishers for a casual chat (go on, they’re a lovely bunch!)

BUT don’t feel you have to. The second morning I wasn’t in a chatting mood so during the coffee break I wandered off in the sunshine for a walk around the lake (yes there’s a lake! With ducks and canada geese – lovely). On my stroll I noticed plenty of other people doing the same, or sitting at picnic tables/on benches etc. writing notes, tweeting or staring into the middle distance.

So, do what works for you. This may seem like obvious advice, but if you’re a bit of a conformist like me you might worry about what the ‘done thing’ is. Plus you might feel you should be maximising every opportunity the festival gives you. Well yes. But no. Don’t pressure yourself.

Writers are lovely and not remotely intimidating.

I arrived at the conference slightly late (my sat nav had been intent on showing me the delights of every back road in the York area) and blundered into the keynote speech. I’ve been to keynote speeches at business conferences in the past and they were rather flashy affairs. This felt laid back. Nicci Gerrard and Sean French were on the stage talking about the process of writing novels together (they write crime fiction under the pseudonym of Nicci French) and the audience were asking questions. I looked around the room and saw a whole mix of people – men and women of all ages, various nationalities and with a wide range of sartorial styles. And all of them passionate about writing and reading and books. These are my people I thought.

Go there next year. Attend #FOW16. Meet your people.

Linking with #WhatImWriting which Chrissie is hosting this week (click the badge below and you’ll travel there by magic).

16 thoughts on “Festival of Writing – advice for newbies

  1. Antonia

    Those tips are spot on – I went for my first time this year and could have done with knowing all that in advance! It was a great weekend, I did end up feeling like my brain was too full, but like you I met great people and got really helpful feedback. I’ll be booking for next year!

    1. Maddy Post author

      It was fantastic Sara – I wish you lived closer too (though admittedly because I’d love to have a big chat over a cuppa with you!). x

  2. Emily Organ

    It sounds like you had a great weekend, like you I’m an introvert and quickly feel my energy sapped at these events. But it’s good there’s no pressure to constantly network and the venue sounds brilliant. I’ve read one of Nicci French’s books because I was intrigued by the writing partnership. How do they manage that without completely falling out? Impressive. And writers are lovely people aren’t they? : )

    1. Maddy Post author

      It was really interesting to hear them both talk Emily – apparently they write separate bits and then pass what they’ve just written onto the other one to edit and they’re not precious about it so they can change as much as they like. It really was a fab conference. x

  3. Sophie Lovett

    Sounds like a brilliant event! Maybe we should go as a #whatimwriting contingent next year… There is certainly a lot to be said for the benefits of surrounding yourself with writers, even if just for 48 hours – the real world can be so damned distracting!! xx

  4. Iona@redpeffer

    This sounds really interesting and some excellent advice in here too. I’m also an introvert and find my energy sapping after events like these. I can manage a day (when I’m feeling good) and that’s about it. It’s actually really reassuring to read this and other’s comments because I always felt i was slightly inadequate finding it all so overwhelming-it’s good to know that for introverts it’s actually quite normal. I would like to go to a writing event although finances tend to dictate these days as much as my confidence levels. Thanks for sharing all of this xx

  5. Rachael

    It sounds like you had a good time, and thanks for writing this – I’ve no idea if I’ll go next year, I’ll need to review my situation in the New Year but the advice is really useful! :)


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