Yesterday I attended the Festival of Writing in York for the second year in a row. Last year I went for two days, I had a fabulous time and left with a head bursting with so many thoughts and ideas I could barely walk in a straight line. This year I decided one day would be enough and just went along for the Sunday. Once again it was amazing and I kind of wished I could have stayed for longer!
What was so great about it? Well…
- It’s a festival all about the craft of writing and publishing. The days are packed with lectures and seminars on a wide range of subjects in these areas. Many of these are interactive too, with opportunities to practice your own writing. The sessions are lead by industry professionals (agents, authors, publishers etc.) and there are always opportunities to ask questions so you get a real insight into the world of publishing. Even just going for one day, I learned masses.
- Lots of literary agents and publishers attend the festival alongside writers at various stages in their careers. You all get to mingle during coffee breaks and mealtimes, and, if you stay for the evening, in the bar as well. Everyone’s really friendly so it’s a great opportunity to make connections, whether you’re a networking pro and schmooze with all the publishers or simply find some likeminded fellow writers to hang out with. (In case you’re wondering, I fall into the second category).
- It takes place at the University of York campus which is set in buildings and walkways around (and across) a lake. There’s a fountain, willow trees and gliding ducks so it’s all rather lovely. Within the buildings, of course, there are lots of people and a huge buzz, but step outside the doors and peace descends. This strikes me as the perfect setting for a writing conference – activity and stimulation within arm’s reach of peace and tranquility.
- Everywhere you go at the festival, people are talking about writing and ideas and stories and literature. You sit down next to strangers and find yourself talking books in seconds… where else can you go where the standard conversation opener is “What genre do you write?”. Being around these sorts of people, and part of these types of conversations made me, just, happy.
- Having said that, making conversation constantly isn’t a requirement. I’ve been to business conferences where networking is absolutely the name of the game and you feel like you have to be on point all the time and ‘working the room’. Exhausting. This lovely festival isn’t like that at all. I mean obviously you want to get the most out of it and chat to different people but I didn’t feel pressured to. Everywhere you go there are people sitting on their own quietly reading or writing… or putting pictures of the lake on instagram (I *may* have been one of those). It’s as introvert-friendly a conference as you can get.
- You hear the inspirational stories of successful authors. I absolutely loved the keynote speech by Joanna Cannon at the end of this year’s festival. Jo wrote her debut novel, The Trouble with Goats and Sheep, hunched over the steering wheel in the car park outside the hospital where she worked as a psychiatrist. She attended the Festival of Writing two years ago because some Twitter friends recommended it, read out an extract of her novel as part of Friday Night Live (where writers read to an audience on the festival’s opening night) and won. Within forty-eight hours she’d had offers of representation from seven agents. Her novel was published by Harper Collins in January this year and for its launch party, to reflect the colour of the book’s cover, the entire Harper Collins Building was lit up blue! From car park scribblings to lighting up the London skyline in a matter of months – I mean, wow. Her personal story proves that it’s worth taking risks in life, to dare to be your true self (a goat not a sheep) and that the familiar internal narrative “things like that don’t happen to people like me.” simply isn’t true. Needless to say, I’ve bought her book.
- A final major bonus of the festival (at least the final one I’ll mention in this post) is that, with the price of the ticket come two one-on-one’s with agents, publishers or book doctors. You pick suitable people in advance (there are plenty to chose from), submit an extract of your manuscript (or in my case, two entire picture book manuscripts) to them in advance and then, on the day get to chat with them about your work. It’s an opportunity for really useful, genuine feedback, and to connect with industry professionals in a way you wouldn’t ordinarily be able to. Agents receive scores of manuscripts to consider every day so to move to the front of the queue in this way is invaluable.
Personally, I came away with some new writing contacts (having met some lovely fellow writers) a stash of useful industry insights (the rise of independent presses over the last few years is really impressive!) and a notebook full of writing tips and ideas. I also got a huge confidence boost from my one-on-one’s which were with agents and both really positive. They liked my manuscripts, said I could write well and advised me to keep at it and just submit, submit submit. One agent said “keep writing and keep sending me your work.” which I was hugely chuffed by and will certainly follow through on.
As you can probably tell, I thoroughly recommend the Festival of Writing and I certainly hope to attend it again in the future – maybe I’ll see you there?