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.
Thrilled to hear that you had such a good response to your novel this year, Isabel – let’s hope it leads to representation and of course, publication! The York Festival really is a fabulous experience and I was so sorry to miss it this year. I had a great time last year – so lovely to meet with you and all the other lovely writers.
Well done Isabel – I went the first year and never dared go back, pity I didn’t bump into you – best of luck !
Much the same goes for my second time at the FoW although my impending MA submission deadline meant I had to leave early, before all the fun on Saturday night.
I felt similar about the agent feedback although last year the novel wasn’t completed so I was looking more for validation that I was on the right track.
Second time around also gives you more confidence to ask the agent direct questions and to be prepared for those they might ask you. I had ‘what made you think of writing this novel?’, which was daunting but I was able to talk about structure and narrative arcs and so on. Both agents were very encouraging so, after nervously waiting my turn in the one-to-one queue, I walked out of the room smiling. The novel’s not quite the finished article yet (although the MA deadline means I need to get my finger out) but the experience has made me feel more confident about sending it out when it’s ready — and you’re right in your blog post to say that an invaluable lesson of attending the FoW the first time is that you learn what needs to be done to the novel to make it as good as it can be.
What’s also useful about attending a second time is that you get to know other writers, editors and (even) agents as real people. It must be much easier to write a personal covering letter if you’ve observed an agent in a panel Q&A or been in one of their workshops — and I felt less in awe of these people the second time around. You’re over the ‘this person could get me published’ aura and feeling more proactive about meeting them.
Also attending FoW a second time shows determination and persistence and, what’s probably most difficult for aspiring authors, showing belief in yourself as a writer. And surely these are qualities that all agents are looking for?
Great post, Isabel, and well done on your feedback. Sounds very encouraging. I’ve resisted the FOW so far as I haven’t felt ready for it but who knows, maybe next year?
I came across this post about the FoW just before I attended this year’s event. It was my first one ever (conveniently scheduled for two months after I relocated from Melbourne to London) and so reading your thoughts (plus your post from 2012) really helped me prepare for the weekend. Your piece also inspired me to write my own – though it ended up being more about my anxiety (but in a good way!) about the event rather than the event itself. Thanks for sharing and I really enjoy the Literary Sofa!
Thank you, Nicolette, that’s great to hear and I hope you enjoyed York (I’m hoping to go again next year!) If you haven’t already seen my ‘Seven years to publication…’ post for WW, you can find it on their blog or here in the Writing section. That might also be of interest. Good luck!