Festival of
Writing 2017

We sent an aspiring author to this year's Festival of Writing to mingle with fellow writers and receive tips from the experts

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Writing fiction can be a lonely business. Days, weeks, months, years staring at your laptop, toiling over a novel often with no one to share it with or talk about it to. The Festival of Writing, organised by The Writers’ Workshop, is a rare opportunity to get together with fellow aspiring writers, along with agents, published authors and other industry professionals, for a weekend’s worth of workshops, presentations and the chance to talk about, and get feedback on, work in progress. Taking place at the exhibition centre at the University of York, the festival is one of the largest events of its kind in the country, with over 350 people attending across the three days.

Travelling there on a Friday after work, I share the anxiety that other writers will tell me about when I talk to them that evening. I’m about to walk into a large room full of people I don’t know, but worse than that, I’m about to be around literary agents. I have a vision in my head of drunkenly stumbling across one. They’ll turn and smile and we’ll chat for a while, and then the dreaded question will come: “So what’s your book about?” And as I fumble to explain the complexities of the creation I’ve been toiling over for the last year (I have not got an elevator pitch), I’ll notice their eyes glaze over and the smile fade from their face, until they catch the eye of someone else and make their excuses to leave. Luckily, I manage to avoid such conversations, once I’ve spent a whole weekend thinking about and working on my own novel, I discover huge plot holes that any professional writer would spot a mile off.

Writers aren’t necessarily known for their social skills. During the festival, many of them confess to be much happier mingling with their own fictional creations than hanging out with a group of real people, and as one writer says, the festival can feel a bit like “a bunch of introverts getting together to have a party.” But within minutes of lingering by the bar on that first evening, I’m talking to writers from all corners of the country and beyond, who have all come on their own to the event. There is a woman from London, who has recently given up her city job to write a novel, and who quietly confesses that she never reads books, thus risking immediate expulsion from the event where one of the mantras is if you want to write books, you’ve got to read, read, read. Then there’s a woman who writes a blog about the experiences of caring for her recently disabled husband; a Doctor Who geek writing a young adult novel; and a Canadian living in Paris who is writing a book about a giant octopus. We’re a mixed bunch.

The first evening rounds off with the Friday Night Live, where seven brave writers read 500 words from their novels in front of the audience and a panel of published authors and agents. The feedback they get on stage is hardly X Factor harsh, the mood is very supportive and encouraging, but once all seven have done their readings, the audience gets to decide on the winner.

The clear favourite on the night is Sophie Snell who reads from her novel in progress, The Pear Drum – a psychological thriller about a children’s illustrator. She started writing the book in November and has already secured an agent for it. I catch up with her after her reading and ask what her advice is to writers who long to be in her position? “Come to events like this,” she says, “they are excellent – really good for learning, networking and getting feedback. And enter competitions… it’s not just the winning, it’s good for honing your first few chapters and forming your synopsis. And it’s great for discipline.”

Ah, yes, discipline. Something I have always lacked when it comes to my writing. Indeed, there go the disciplined writers now as Friday night continues around the bar. They head off to bed, some of them probably intending to write, others planning to wake early on Saturday to do the same. And I have a choice, join them and get a good night’s sleep, or have another beer.

The next day, nursing the first of the weekend’s hangovers, I dive into a full-on day of key note speeches and workshops, kicked off by a welcome address by two authors who made it big through publishing ebooks via Amazon: Rachel Abbott and Mark Edwards. They both struggled for years to find publishers for their books, but then uploaded them onto the Kindle platform, and after some good marketing and a bit of luck, saw their sales figures shoot up. Mark Edwards’ tale in particular draws gasps from the audience. He suffered just about every up and down a writer could go through, including a disappointing publishing deal, before he became a massive success on Amazon. Author of psychological thrillers such as The Magpies, he’s now supporting his family from the proceeds of his writing.

Rachel Abbott and Mark Edwards: what do authors do all day?

The discussion around ebooks, self-publishing and more traditional routes to print is one that crops up again and again throughout the weekend. Everyone from small press publishers such as Galley Begger, who produce beautifully made books, literary agents still working with the big publishing houses, and people who have decided to go it alone, either through self-publishing or ebooks, have something to say on the matter. The conclusion is that there is no one way to get your work read by other people. It’s about finding the way that works for you.

Another common theme to emerge is expectation management. If anyone did arrive at the weekend with the dream that writing would make them a millionaire, or indeed one day pay their mortgage, those hopes were quickly put in check. Of course, there is the odd tale of a writer, such as Mark Edwards, who does make a living out of fiction, but for the most part the message is writing is never going to make you rich (according to recent research by The Bookseller, the average author earns around £12,500 a year.) During a Q&A with a panel of literary agents, their message was even more dire than most: the average literary novel sells around 250 copies. On hearing this, the bloke next to me grabs his coat and says, “I’m off to write something more commercial.”

Away from the key note speeches in the main hall, there are a broad range of workshops available focusing on everything from giving the perfect pitch for your book and using social media to promote yourself, to looking at elements of the craft including sessions which focus on plot and structure, grand openings and creating complex characters. Author Shelley Harris’s first workshop of the weekend on taking risks is particularly powerful. In it she describes how she spent time wandering the streets of her hometown in a wig and cape in order to understand the main character of her book, Vigilante – about a woman having a midlife crisis who decides to become a superhero.

Other workshops include a fascinating examination of the adage “show don’t tell” by Andrew Willie, which basically centres on the idea that the rule should be far more complicated than that; CM Taylor presents a different way of focusing on a novel by looking at theme; and Julie Cohen presents a fun and practical workshop ensuring that “shit happens” in people’s novels having seen “a lot of manuscripts where basically, nothing happens at all.”

For many writers, the key moments of the weekend come from the one-to-one sessions that are available with both “book doctors” and agents. Jon Appleton has worked in publishing for over 20 years, and now works directly with writers while also writing himself (he recently self-published his own novel Ready to Love). He’s here in the capacity of a book doctor, giving one-to-one advice to writers. “Some people just want to know, can I write?” he explains. “And some people want to be given the green light to go ahead and submit their work to agents. It’s quite rare for an author to have a chance to talk about their work to anybody and it’s only through talking about your writing, and saying what you are trying to achieve, that you realise what your book is about. Even in quite polished things, people focus so much on events and characters, that they haven’t actually got to grips with where the heart of the book is.” (I think about my own novel in progress and cringe. What is it about exactly?)

His advice to writers? Have an awareness of the market. “You don’t have to write for the market, but you need to have an awareness of it,” he explains,.“I always ask people, if you can see your book on someone’s reading pile, what else is on there?”

Penny Holroyde from Holroyde Cartey, a relatively new literary agency specialising in children’s and young adult fiction, is here on her fifth visit to the festival. Like the other agents here, she’s on the hunt for new authors. “They are our assets,” she explains. “And that’s how we build our business. People who come to this have already invested a little bit personally in their own career so I guess I think the talent bar might be raised here.”

Agents such as Penny have a special significance at the festival. Talk in the bar is often centred around them: who have they requested full manuscripts from, what feedback did they give, and will anyone try and sit at their table during dinner? Their presence, says Penny, helps to “debunk the myth that we are lofty, snobby, scary… when we are just normal people.” At some literary events, she says, the agents can get a bit mobbed, but here there is the general recognition that they are working hard, reading manuscripts and delivering one-to-ones throughout the weekend, which she enjoys doing. “I’ve often been able to pinpoint with the author what the problem is in their novel, which is really satisfying,” she says. And one of the most common problems she identifies? Plot. And not knowing the market that they are aiming at.

Tor Udall (author of A Thousand Paper Birds) and Deborah Install (A Robot in the Garden) deliver the parting words of the festival. Both echo what we have already heard that week: the key to success lies in years of hard work. “Keep at it,” says Deborah. But it’s Tor Udall’s words that resonate with me as I head away from the festival, still nursing the second hangover of the weekend. During the festival, I’ve spent a lot of time anxiously thinking about where my novel is going and how it will ever get finished (and drinking beer). Tor Udall brings the festival to a close by encouraging everyone to remember to enjoy the actual act of writing fiction. This is what we love to do after all. On the train home, I pick up my pen and take out my notebook. And I start to write.

Find out more about the Festival of Writing and The Writers’ Workshop at

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