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Festival of Writing

A Personal Review

Last weekend I attended Jericho Writers Festival of Writing in York. I was so excited to be attending and spent the weeks prior getting ready; researching the speakers, polishing my submission package and planning the questions I would ask. The greatest source of my excitement (and dread) was the two 1-2-1s I booked, chosen carefully from the list of professionals attending. Here’s where the disappointment started. The day before I travelled to York, I got an email to say my chosen agent was unable to attend. Of course, there’s nothing you can do if someone gets sick, but it dampened my enthusiasm. Putting it aside, I decided the event still held promise and there was plenty for me to learn.

So, how was it? If I’m completely honest, I didn’t come away with much I didn’t know before and couldn’t find out with a few well-worded google searches. Admittedly, I’ve spent a lot of time reading articles, participating in writer’s groups and online courses, and utilising the advice of those who went before. Had I attended the festival a year ago, I might’ve felt differently. I certainly did after the ScotsWrite conference in September 2017. That’s not to say there weren’t a few gems in there. ‘Making Shit Happen’ with Julie Cohen was a blast and explaining plot development through the medium of The Princess Bride absolute genius. I equally enjoyed ‘Advanced Characterisation’ with James Law, and his open, humorous workshopping style had everyone engaged. Kimberley Young’s talk on ‘Commercial Fiction’ got me thinking about USPs and how to market my book. A big thanks to all three.

The ‘Futurecast’ debate asked whether traditional publishing was the right choice for authors. I’ve done my research on both traditional and self-publishing, and I can see pros and cons for each. At the moment, my hope is to go down the traditional publishing route, partly because I worry I don’t have the time to make a success of self-publishing and partly because I like the idea of having the support of a team of people in the know. There are those who want it for validation, and there’s no shame in that either. Time constraints aside, David Gaughran, a man who knows the self-pub world better than almost anyone out there, made me question the wisdom of traditional publishing. He managed to persuade a lot of the audience too. The endless editing and loss of creative control seems exhausting, and it’s a long process, which might end up netting you less money. For those who can get self-pub right, it’s probably worth it. However, I respect the hugely important role agents, editors and publishers play in launching authors’ careers and it’s a decision I’ll need to make when (I won’t say if) I get there.

Let’s get down to the 1-2-1s. For most people this is the icing on the festival cake, the opportunity to have their work critiqued by captive professionals. My first 1-2-1 was definitely the low point of the weekend. I wouldn’t say I liked taking criticism, but I’ve always tried to use it as a learning opportunity and put serious consideration to feedback. In this case, I found it impossible to do – I walked away from the meeting, in a word, baffled. I was told my genre was YA (it’s not), the synopsis was confusing, my book title generic, and omniscient narration not worth pursuing. It’s hard to know where to go when everything is wrong. This confusion was further compounded the next day when my second 1-2-1 said the opposite. They particularly loved my synopsis and it ticked all the boxes of what it was supposed to do. The world would be a boring place if everyone liked the same things, but I didn’t anticipate such polarising opinions. Part of developing as a writer is knowing when to listen and when to disregard. I don’t want to be ‘that person’ – the one who goes on X-Factor, can’t sing a note and argues with Simon Cowell they’re amazing because their mum told them so. It’s something I’m still processing.

No doubt I met some lovely people at the festival; writers who, like myself, are trying to navigate the ever-changing waters of the publishing world. And it’s a tough world. I don’t imagine anyone who’s serious about their writing doesn’t know this, and perhaps it was naive to think I wouldn’t be reminded of the fact multiple times throughout. Self-doubt is a condition synonymous with writing, which my wonderful editor, Emma Mitchell, reminds me often. I still came away from a lot of the sessions feeling like hope was lost. A week on, I’ve had time to reflect and I’m more positive, mostly thanks to the words of encouragement I received from some of those I met. I particularly want to thank Rebecca Horsfall for staying positive and supportive at the gala dinner. In the face of my crushing disappointment, her thoughtful suggestions helped me make the most of Sunday.

Looking back at the experience, I did enjoy aspects of the festival, but I can’t say it was worth the money. For the same cost, I’ve enrolled in a 20-week course at university, at the end of which I’ll be two-thirds of the way towards a degree in creative writing. It doesn’t cover the networking aspect, but I have no doubt it’ll make me a better writer. With any luck, I can let my stories speak for me down the road.

Update – 20/11/18: Jericho Writers has offered me a year’s membership in return for an evaluation of their website and all the resources it has to offer. Obviously, I’ve jumped at the opportunity. Over the next week or so, I’m going to be delving in and seeing what goodies they’ve got for the avid and aspiring writer. Of course, they offer some excellent materials for free, some of which I’ve used already. I’ll post a separate blog with my thoughts soon. In the meantime, have a look for yourself. Just click on the link.

Update: My review of Jericho Writers.

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