I like to think I’m a particularly common personality type for an author. I’m shy, I’m introverted, social situations make my palms sweaty and the idea of public speaking gives me heart palpitations. I turned to books because it felt like a safe place to me. Somewhere I could hide and explore these wild, amazing worlds without any human judgement. And my experience in meeting fellow writers is that most of us pretty much follow this form. We don’t like putting ourselves out there. It’s pretty much written into our DNA. So when someone says we need to do just that, I die a little inside. For years, I’ve put off going to writing festivals. The idea of standing in a group of people and having to a) expose myself and b) expose my books and my writing gives me nightmares. The word networking breaks me out into sweats. I mean, what does that word even mean? How do you just start a relationship out of nothing? Why on Earth would anyone else care about what I have to say? These are questions that have haunted me and held me back for years.
But one of my resolutions this year was to get my first book ready for publication, and part of that includes preparing my platform as a writer and that involves networking (she cringes internally – I’ll be writing a post in the next few days with some tips on how to network in person for those who are cripplingly shy like me). So for the first time in my life, I went to my local literary festival. And wow, what a revelation. I had such a positive experience, I really wanted to share it with my fellow writers and see if I can convince a few more people out of the shadows. So here’s…
Right from the moment I arrived, I knew I’d made the right choice in attending. I got so much out of the day. I’d met and had a full conversation with Joanne Harris (eek), got some really great, personalised promotion advice from a published author and advertising expert, met fellow writers in my local area and accidentally managed to pitch my book to a woman I didn’t realise was an agent. And that was all before nine o clock. Here are just some of the things I got out (and you can get out) of attending a writing event.
The What and The Where
Frankly, depending on where you live, some of the biggest challenge can actually be finding an event to attend in the first place. In this case, our American cousins have the advantage over us Brits (unless you happen to live in London) because there is just generally much more going on State side in relation to writing events. You guys have the amazing (bucket listed) National Book Festival run by the Library of Congress and then most states have their own individual festivals. In the UK it’s a bit more hit and miss. Like I say, there is a lot of events in London but they can be very pricey and they seem to miss the “struggling” part of “struggling artist”. The event you should try to get to if you can is the Edinburgh International Book Festival and I believe events like the Oxford Literary Festival are also great events to get involved in. If you are in a university town, look at the university as they often run events, as well as local libraries and keep an eye on local newspapers as that is where you’ll see them advertised. Most places now run some kind of writing event annually, it is just a case of finding it.
I live on the Isle of Man so I literally only have one event a year that I can go to without travelling. It’s called Manx Litfest. This is the first time I attended (it’s been running four years now). By the nature of the jurisdiction, it’s quite a small event (the writer’s day had 50 attendees) but that’s part of what made it great. Like I say, they drew some really interesting speakers (Joanne Harris, did I mention?) and because we were a small group you really got to mix and talk to everyone without getting lost in a crowd. So don’t be put off by small, local events. Just because they are small does not mean you won’t get amazing feedback out of them.
It’s odd. As a writer, you’d think I’d love talking about my books. I don’t. I hate it. I am not a natural self promoter. I cringe when someone asks me what it’s about, or how I got into writing, or any of the usual ream of questions. Funnily enough, and it was probably a little naive now in hindsight, I didn’t really expect my book to come up during the event. I expected to be talking about other people’s work. But of course they are interested in what you are doing. At first, it was sweaty palms and stammering through a “It’s a…. gothic… erm… fantasy… there are… erm… characters” but as people engaged with my ideas, the nerves went away and I really got into it. It was great to talk through my ideas and get people’s reaction. There is no better feeling that when someone is pumped up about your idea and really (at least seem) to want to read it. It gives you faith in your own story. And, even if you don’t mean it that way, it is great exposure. It is people talking about you as a writer, and your book and maybe even a few new hits on your blog. But it’s got to be quid-pro-quo. I took a lot of contacts from the day and I’ll be doing the same for them. I’m really looking forward to being a beta reader for a few, checking out their blogs and generally helping raise their profile just as they will mine.
Wisdom from the Wise
You never stop improving as a writer. Every day you are just one turn better than the previous. You learn skills all the time, some consciously, some unconsciously. So listening to people in the industry is essential. We had four main speakers; a professional editor (Andy Miller – if you ever get the chance to hear him speak, go. He is hilarious and incredibly knowledgeable – definitely going to check out his book); a world renowned best-selling author (Joanne Harris – no introduction required); a local published author who still has a day job; and a published author whose day job is in advertising so he spoke on book promotion. All four were fascinating for different reasons. I took away so much from their presentations. Hearing how Andy took seven years to write his current book because he struggled with block and how to present his story rung so familiar to me and I found myself nodding along with a “thank God, I’m not the only one”. Listening to how Joanne first got published (If you don’t know the story behind Chocolat, look it up. It’s hilarious. Poor Mr Fry), was eye-opening and reminded me that even the greats struggle. Listening to local talent is always inspiring. Hearing how they’ve gone about things. What local opportunities they have used to help them along. And shocking horror stories of publishing nightmares. When someone describes one of their publishing contracts as “soul destroying” it makes you consider things. And of course, the promotion talk was invaluable. Aside from being a brilliant speaker, he really taught me things about product placement and having a strategy and just how I can get my writing to people.
I walked away from the event with half a dozen numbers and contact details. I’ve really struggled finding fellow writers where I live so this was like Christmas for me. I am really excited to get in contact and start setting writing days. It is true that writing is a solo sport but it is always great to get to know other competitors. Nothing gets me so fired up and passionate as being around people who are as passionate about writing as I am. I went into the event with a mind to really put myself out there so I braved shoving my hand in the air and asking questions. Mostly around Indie vs Traditional publishing (again, a post will be coming soon on my findings… not what I expected) and I found people coming up to me in the breaks, asking advice but also offering. One of the published authors in attendance gave me an amazing list of contacts of people he suggested I talk to who would be able to help me if I wanted to explore the Indie route. The advertising expert gave me some really useful pointers on self promotion and I got a lot of business cards of people I am now going to look up and push open those doors that I didn’t even know existed a day ago.
This deserves its own category. I made a conscious decision not to pitch my book at this event. I felt that I just wasn’t ready yet and having done a little research into the agent, I wasn’t sure my kind of fiction would be what she would be looking for. Selling/getting my book signed, was not my purpose for attending so I did not go in with that mindset. So imagine my surprise where there I am, drinking coffee and munching on my custard cream, chatting to this really engaging woman sat beside me and I ask her why she’s attending and she goes “oh I’m the agent”. I nearly died. My response was literally “Oh. Oh.” illustrating my great eloquence. Not. But she was so friendly before I knew it, she had me talking about my book (a book I had had no intention of talking about). I think the only reason I didn’t go into complete meltdown was because I was honestly not thinking about getting the book signed so I just spoke about it as one lover of books to another. Consequentially I was rather startled when she said that once it was ready, she’d really like to read it and to send it to her.
I loved chatting to her. It was very surreal to be talking to an industry professional about fan fiction and our general mutual loathing of Twilight. In the ten minutes we talked, she taught me a lot of things I’d never had the chance to ask before. Do agents edit their clients work? (Yes.) What do you look for in a cover letter (Start with the blurb). What things turn you off a submission (Sparkling vampires). That kind of exposure, particularly when you live in the middle of nowhere (aka anywhere that isn’t London) like me is amazing. Of everything that happened during the day, talking to her was my highlight. I was literally shaking as I walked away and I cringe inside when I playback the way I presented my book which could have been somewhat smoother but it is an experience I would never trade in.
Sounds obvious but these are events are fun. It is an excuse to let your crazy writer out of the wardrobe. It is a day where no one blinks at a twenty minute debate on the Oxford Comma and where people actually get your Stephanie Meyer jokes. It was great to be around people who understand when you say your characters are refusing to behave and empathise your struggle rather than look at you confused with a “well just write them different”. Sharing stories of the weirdest places we’ve caught ourselves talking aloud to our characters. It was brilliant. It reminded why I do any of this. I love writing. But more than that, I love sharing stories. I love the community. I love being able to touch other people with my words. I think it is a phenomenal thing we can do as a race. Yesterday I got to share my love of writing and there is no better feeling.
I think, as with most things, you get out of these events what you put into them. I threw myself in. I forced myself to start conversations with strangers. I didn’t choose the table in the corner but the ones in the middle of the room, in the middle of the conversation. If I had a question, I asked it. And I got so much out of it, I literally cannot wait for the next one.