I first attended the Festival of Writing organised by Writers’ Workshop in 2012. If you’d told me then that I’d end up going two years in a row, I would have been surprised, not least that I could spare the money or the time away from home. I would have been frankly appalled to think that I’d be pitching the ‘same’ book a year later. I wouldn’t have believed that I could enjoy it more than that first time.
I’ve been writing for nearly five years now, and the last year has changed everything. Aha, I hear you thinking, I sense there may be some connection between this and the York Festival…
Last September I wrote a post about all the things I enjoyed at York and I distilled the important messages into six points. Today’s piece is more about the York Effect – the lasting benefits – and why I’m so glad I went back. But of course, there can be no blogpost on York without mentioning the buzz of spending a weekend with 400 other people who love reading and writing. It makes for such a positive and inspiring atmosphere. It’s an ideal opportunity to catch up with writer friends who live all over the UK and beyond, and for so many, converting social media friendships into real life ones is an absolute joy – it certainly was for me. We are not alone.
Yes, about that. Writing is a solitary endeavour and there is immense support – both creative and moral – to be had in exchanging critiques, networking and attending events like the Festival. However, it’s also a very necessary reality check – there are a LOT of people out there who all want the same thing. This struck me forcefully last year, and maybe that’s why the main message I came away with was Write the best book you can possibly write. No publisher is looking for an OK book. A successful manuscript has to shine.
One of the reasons the Festival has become so influential in just four years is that Writers’ Workshop has the clout to attract a critical mass of experienced writers, teachers and industry professionals. In fact, many delegates are drawn to York by the chance to meet with agents and editors and get feedback on a one-to-one basis. This, together with the sessions on all aspects of writing and the path to publication, goes a long way to demystifying the whole process and showing new writers how to improve our chances in a very tough market.
Last year, I had two constructive one-to-one sessions with agents who offered genuinely encouraging feedback. But I know excitement when I see it (especially where books are concerned)—and I wasn’t seeing it. Fortunately, I came away from the weekend knowing exactly what I needed to do. This might sound non-sensical, but I left Debi Alper’s fantastic Self-Edit Mini-Course convinced that I needed to get the manuscript professionally edited. I’d done a lot of self-editing already, but couldn’t look at my story with a sufficiently critical eye. I could only think about what was there and not what was missing or wrong with it (quite a lot, as it turned out).
Writing fiction involves many dichotomies. You need to be sensitive when writing and yet have the resilience to endure months or years of hard knocks. I really believe you need to be constantly dissatisfied with your work (well, I am) in order to be motivated to write better and yet – as we were told repeatedly this weekend – it’s vital to believe in yourself as a writer and believe in your story, if only to justify the huge time investment it takes to write it. If you are British and therefore fundamentally prone to self-deprecation, it’s even harder, but it is confidence and positive thinking that leads to better writing, not moping around wishing you were Jonathan Franzen.
I hope this post will be read by writers who find themselves where I was a year ago, or even before that. I know how it feels to think your novel is good enough and have to face the fact that it isn’t. I’ve had difficult moments when I ask myself why, when I used to have a good job, I’m subjecting myself to this when nobody pays me (so far) and nothing is guaranteed. The answer is, I love writing. I do it because I can’t imagine not doing it. Since last year’s Festival I’ve taken the book to pieces and rewritten it from beginning to end because that’s how much I care about it. If that’s how you feel too, keep at it. Get your hands dirty. Stop watching TV. Put in the hours (just don’t keep count) and maybe, just maybe, it’ll be worth it one day.
This year I got a completely different response to the new manuscript and where else would I have had the opportunity to introduce it to lots of agents and editors all in one place? It was the most amazing feeling to hear it described as ‘polished’ and ‘ready to go’.
I wonder what the next year holds…
A very big thank you to all at Writers’ Workshop, the presenters, agents, editors and publishers who made it such a success and to all my friends – old and new – it was lovely to spend time with you.
NOTE: I have no affiliation with Writers’ Workshop.
Still time to enter the Second Blog Anniversary Competition which closes at 4pm UK time on Tuesday 17 September. Name your best read of 2013 for the chance to win a Literary Lunch in London or one of my favourite novels of the year, David Gilbert’s & Sons – not yet available in the UK.