Having come away from Crimefest this year and last inspired and excited, and the same from the Festival of Writing in York last year, I’ve been reflecting on why these events can have such an impact and what one can gain from going to them. To some extent the way in which you benefit will depend on whether you are an author, an aspiring author, a book blogger and reviewer or a reader (although many of us are a combination of these).
There will be people there just like you
This might sound daft but actually it’s true, and rather nice. If you’ve written your first novel and are wondering about your next move, there will be people in the same position. If you’re an avid reader or write a blog, the same for you. A lot of published authors go along to contribute to panels and workshops, and also to hook up with their buddies and peers.
Something which made things easier for me when I went to my first event, Crimefest 2013, was that I’d previously been chatting to people on Twitter who were going and so I wasn’t introducing myself ‘cold’ to all new people. That said, at these events people are in ‘social mode’ and, to a large extent, ‘networking mode’. I found everyone at Bristol and York to be very friendly and helpful. But why is it of benefit to meet people who are in the same boat as you? As we know, writing is a lonely business and getting to know others who are trying to achieve what you are can be supportive and instructive. As readers become bloggers and often writers, boundaries blur and everyone chats in the bar, at the tea and coffee tables, in the bookshop and even in the loo (although maybe that’s women more than men!). People tell you about events, services, and individuals who might be able to help you, and you get to chat a bit about your book or blog or favourite authors.
The panels, workshops, keynote speeches and interviews
It might be teacher-speak but I see this as the ‘curriculum proper’. These are the formal events which you can attend. Some festivals charge per event and some are all in as part of your ticket price. At others, the majority of events are included but special, super-duper sessions are extra. Generally the programme has been carefully planned by the organisers to appeal and/or meet needs. That said, people can want different things: one person might want to see author panels and interviews, and another may be more interested in workshop type sessions on writing and publishing.
What’s fabulous about Crimefest – if crime is your thang – is that everything is about the (ever-expanding) genre of crime fiction. What’s lovely about York is that you get to meet people who read, write and work in other genres too. At Crimefest this year I attended a staggering twenty panel events and wrote 42 sides of notes. Okay, I’m a bit student-y but I can honestly say that I learnt masses from every one of those sessions, things which have helped me with my own writing since I came back. An example of this is the debut author panel feature at Crimefest. To see, and hear last month from twenty people whose debut novels have just been published was fascinating but also hugely instructive. They are all walking, talking, living, breathing examples of what publishers have put their money behind 12-18 months ago.
In terms of the overall messages I take away from these events, and the feelings I’m left with, I would summarise them as: what I am experiencing is completely normal for someone who’s writing a novel; all these authors have done what I’m trying to do so I can do it too; I need to bear x, y and z in mind when I am writing my book; and, best of all: oh-my-goodness-writing-a-novel-is-hard-but-also-just-the-bestest-thing-in-the-world.
Being able to listen and talk to published authors
When you learn to play tennis, coaches often say that it’s helpful to play with someone whose game is a bit better than yours. It’s Vygotsky’s ‘Zone of Proximal Development’. I would imagine that this applies to things like chess also. I find nothing inspires me more than listening to people who’ve done what I am trying to do. It is so interesting to hear about why they decided to write what, how they did it, and what their ‘journey to publication’ was like. At most events you can ask questions. At The Festival of Writing in York they have specialist genre panels with a combination of agents, editors and authors, and these are a place to ask questions. I hadn’t realised at York that this was the procedure, and it is worth having questions to ask at these panels so that you a) get what you need and b) so that the person who wants to ask about THEIR novel EIGHT times can only do so six times.
Don’t forget the bar
To some extent this will overlap with some of what I’ve said above. For those who aren’t into loads of drinking – I was recovering from shingles this year at Crimefest and by 7pm was monosyllabic and dribbling, and sadly not up to much drinking – this might seem daunting or just plain unappealing, but you don’t have to drink. However, I have this notion that it’s where the ‘hidden curriculum’ takes place so it’s worth popping in. It is where people let their hair down and chat about all the normal things that people chat about, including books and writing. And it’s a good place to say ‘hi’ to people: whose books you love; whose panels you’ve been to; with whom you’ve tweeted. It doesn’t mean that you can expect to spend the whole night talking to your favourite author, but, hey, you knew that, right? It’s also a great place to meet up with your own peers and chew the fat. This year at Crimefest I re-met lots of folk who I met for the first time last year.
Pitch the agent or get feedback on your MS
At both Crimefest and The Festival of Writing there are opportunities to pitch your novel to agents. I think that Crimefest has changed it now so that you pitch a panel rather than an individual (I’ve never done it there) which sounds scarily like Dragon’s Den. At York this is a big part of the weekend, with a large pool of publishing professionals to choose from, including agents, book doctors and editors. Your ticket includes two one-to-one sessions – you choose who you want and it’s worth researching this carefully and booking early – although you can pay for extra sessions. These meetings are different from submitting to an agent via the slushpile, in as much as you are being judged on a shorter piece of your novel (3k-ish rather than 10k via an agency), and on a briefer blurb/synopsis and cover letter. This does have implications, but the York one-to-ones can be a great way to ease yourself into the world of submissions and professional feedback. If you’re going to pitch an agent at one of these events, it’s worth making sure that your full MS is good to go should the agent say they’d like to see the whole thing. I pitched two agents at York last year and found it to be a really useful and enjoyable exercise on a number of levels. But these are serious feedback sessions so you do need to prepared for an honest assessment of what you’ve submitted. If this doesn’t go well, it can be demotivating and upsetting. Although it might sound a bit sado-masochistic, that, too, is probably a useful thing to get used to.
Most festivals run competitions, and the prizes can be definitely worth having, for example, a free ticket for the following year with accommodation. They are usually on things like the best: opening sentence; first chapter; a piece of flash fiction; 500 words; short story.
I do have a bit of an ‘I have to go to everything’ obsession but it is worthwhile bearing in mind that these events are exhausting. Sometimes there are no proper breaks for lunch, so you’re unlikely to be eating three ‘normal’ meals. Rooms are hot and stuffy – or over air-conditioned and freezing – so you will need water, snacks and, possibly, Nurofen. Did I mention comfy shoes? Those too. Having been on a number of retreats where the day is scheduled from 6am to 10pm for days if not weeks, I’ve learnt that I can’t go to everything and still be alive by day three. Also that an afternoon nap is a truly glorious thing. I recommend going through the programme before the event starts and deciding what you really want to see, then build in breaks. Otherwise you will get home and not be able to move for a week afterwards. Hopefully it will have been worth it though!
This year, for the first time, I am going to Harrogate for the crime writing festival in July. I am interested to see what I will get from that and how it will compare to the other writing festivals I’ve been to. I have a feeling that it’s much bigger … but I will get to see JK Rowling in her Richard Galbraith persona, which I’m very much looking forward to. I will also see some of the people who didn’t go to Crimefest this year. And in a couple of weeks I will be going to the London Short Story Festival which will be a different experience altogether. Woah! And my head’s still buzzing from Bristol.
Vicky Newham © 2014