Festival of Writing 2017: A weekend of words and wisdom - Lucy L. Austin

Festival of Writing 2017: A weekend of words and wisdom

Youve got big dreams? You want to write? Well, writing costs. And right here is where you start paying: in words.

I first stumbled across The Writer’s Workshop (editorial service for writers) when looking for options for manuscript assessments a couple of years ago. Checking out their events section, I read about their innovative Festival of Writing with interest – an exciting, democratic concept which facilitates sought-after face-to-face time with agents, as well as a multitude of workshops to hone and refine your skills as a writer.

I went to 2016 FoW and found it invaluable. I was midway through my novel at the time and wanted to understand what it was all about – assess the landscape, learn how it works – and it was the immersive and frightening experience I wanted it to be. 

The Festival takes place in September. My ambition was that by then, I’d be making the pilgrimage up t’north (I can say that, I’m from Nottingham. *Yes, I know it’s not ‘the north’) with a completed manuscript nestled in the crook of my arm, and a spring in my step. I had indeed completed my novel, but was still wading through the mire of editing. Not as prepped and finalised as I’d have liked, but ho-hum. I also wasn’t shortlisted for the prestigious Friday Night Live or other few prizes (*sobs*), but still, writers like Tor Udall hadn’t either, and the magic nevertheless happened to them.

It’s apt it takes place at the University of York – because my experience was reminiscent of being back at school, or uni. Unknown faces and strangers, nerves rattling like keys on a chain and you’re keen to pal-up with like-minded people so you’re not wandering around like a ‘Billy-no-mates’, but there’s no need to worry. Most people are lovely. You have something in common after all, and there’s so much to learn from other people’s journeys. There are the seasoned seniors, FoW veterans, sharing their experiences and approach, passing on their wisdom; then there are the freshers, bolstering energy levels and spooning out double helpings of enthusiasm with everything (not always subject to lasting the weekend).

Second time round, I had a better idea of who were the insightful and inspiring ‘teachers’ – the irrefutably brilliant Julie Cohen and her post-it-note strategy and no-bullshit approach is an absolute must. She’s the kind of person you want on your team; you’d be hockey sticks at dawn with the other captain over who got to pick her first. This FoW, I caught a workshop with Shelley Harris, who was a charming combination of being rich with advice as well as warm and funny, like drinking creamy hot chocolate. When her talk finished, I was left looking at my cup bereft, wishing I hadn’t drunk it so quickly.

Then there’s the dichotomy and pecking order popularised in US high school films; the ‘us’ and ‘them’, populars and the geeks, or in this case, agents and ambitious writers. Agents move in different circles, pack animals they rarely stray from their own, and I get it. Even the leader of the pride can be pulled down by the storming herd mentality of wildebeests, and they are out of their natural habitat after all. But if your agent exposure is limited to your ten-minute one-to-ones because you don’t feel encouraged to penetrate the ‘cool kids’ crew, it’s a bit of a shame. I’d learnt my lesson first time around though, so determination made me sharpen my elbows (disclaimer: no agents were harmed in my pursuit of representation).

I received positive feedback in my agent one-to-ones, except one, who seemed perpetually baffled and didn’t give the impression they’d read my synopsis (an obvious sitting-at-the-back-of-the-class-flouter). Despite the green-biro-esque ticks that I should be submitting to agents, hearing that it was a bit ‘too Sci-Fi’ for them in particular, was a bit like studying a test and not getting the results you wanted (*felt you deserved*). But then the grasshopper probably still has a few things to learn…

By the afternoon of the last day, I don’t know about anyone else, but I had lost the will to talk anymore. Speaking incessantly about myself, explaining what my book’s about, riffing about my experience at the festival, left me depleted. I would have voluntarily put a dunce’s hat on and sat mute in the corner for the last few hours.

The workshops weren’t quite as useful for me this year, but with a few good agent conversations under my belt and requests for manuscripts, I was content. I think anyone who colours outside the commercial or accessible-fiction lines, might not see as much value from an agent and competition perspective, (I can’t see any literary or fantasy prose scooping the prizes, perhaps that’s just me and happy to be proved wrong). But, if it’s your first exposure to the inner workings of the publishing world, it’s well worth going.

Congratulations to all the winners, especially Friday Night Live champ, Sophie Snell. Her excerpt from her novel, The Pear Drum was exquisitely suspenseful; I’m very much looking forward to its publication.


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