Sunday, 22 September 2013

Anatomy of a Writers Conference - York's Festival of Writing 2013

A week ago I was in York at the end of the three-day Festival of Writing 2013. About once a year I try to attend one such event. I used to attend the Paris Writers Workshop, as that is where I live, and have also attended the Geneva Writers Conference, but I have 'converted' to the York one. I found Paris and Geneva best for initially finding out about writing and how it works, and then 'honing the craft' (though a Parisian writing colleague, Janet Skeslien Charles found an agent and multiple contract offers and ended up in the bestsellers list, all through Geneva's conference). But once you have a polished manuscript, York's annual FOW event seems to me to be the place to go, due to the higher density of agents and publishers present. You don't just meet the industry, you rub shoulders with them, eat and drink with them, and find out who they are and what they are looking for.

While York University's campus isn't the easiest to get to, especially in Friday afternoon traffic (I drove from Shakespeare's Warwick up North to York in 3 hours when it should have been two), it is beautiful, the campus itself full of small lakes and Canadian geese amongst other birds. But I spent most of my time inside in auditoriums and classrooms, sleeping at night in student accommodation much nicer than I remember from when I was at university. But you don't come here to admire the views or sleep. You've poured sweat and tears and keystrokes into a novel for five years, had no luck getting an agent or finding a publisher, and want to find one ('want' doesn't cover it). You've also heard that you can make millions by self-publishing yourself, and want to find out if it's true (it's true for about one in a million authors, by the way). After all, your Mum and friends (and hopefully your readers/writing group) all love your novel and say it's the best thing they've ever read, so why do you keep getting rejection slips?

FOW2013 got off to a flying start with mini-workshops on everything from how to write children's books to the do's and don'ts of self-publishing. I managed to make it to the last hour of the latter, where David Gaughran (excellent, his blog is here) talked authoritatively and entertainingly (see why we writers hate adverbs?) about this new burgeoning sub-industry. His book on self-publishing is available on Amazon, or for free download in PDF here.

The first main evening (Friday evening) was a dinner and an annual event I took part in four years ago called Literary Night Live, where five or six young and not-so-young hopefuls stand up and read out 500 words of their opening chapter, and are critiqued by three industry professionals and then evaluated via 'clapometer' by the audience. It is entertaining if you are watching it and nerve-wracking if you are up on stage reading. Often the winner ends up with an agent as well as a bottle of champagne. Over dinner I met with screenwriter Jeremy Sheldon who also lectures at FOW, to find out they were shooting his latest film that weekend, and all of us on the table got swept up in his enthusiasm; he was living his dream.

The next morning got off to a flying start with Adele Parks talking about her meteoric success as a 2.5 million plus books sold author. Reassuringly she talked about how she secretly wrote for more than a decade, including one novel that no one is ever going to see, before being 'discovered'. Her secret, aside from the blood sweat and tears, and being in the right place at the tight time? She was fed up of reading (at the time) about young single girls going out and having fun. She was married, and said to herself, 'so, is that it, now I'm married, no sex with anyone new, ever again?' She wrote about adultery, and she did it well, and cleaned up. She admitted that these days, because the market is saturated with such books, if she was a 'newbie' she'd probably get rejected by agents and publishers.

I attended various lectures throughout the weekend, on writing character, what an agent is looking for in a query letter and synopsis (and some hilarious examples of bad query letters), and I met Scifi writer Gary Gibson who I've been 'talking to' online for some years (and got him to sign one of his latest books after a short discussion on time travel and advanced physics), and made some new writer friends. I also sold some of my books as I had them with me and people got interested (or maybe just carried away, LOL).

And then there were the famous/infamous 'one-to-ones'. These are ten minute slots, whose timing is religiously observed, where you get to talk to an agent/publisher/book doctor about your work. It is a fascinating process, because time speeds up uncontrollably once you sit down, as you try to stop yourself from babbling incoherently faced with someone who could help you 'make it', and try to listen to what they say and read the subtext underneath. You are allowed two of these 'ten minute wonders', and I met with Broo Doherty and Andrew Wille, both of whom are agents.

It's a funny thing when you talk to agents, I realised. What is funny is not what they say, but what comes out of your own mouth, and how they pick up on it. They are looking for four things. The first is a winning idea, something fresh yet marketable. They will admit that they don't always know it when they see it (e.g. JK Rowlings' Harry Potter was famously rejected by 50 agents before someone decided to take a chance on it). But often they do. Then they want to know if you can write, and if you are going to be professional and easy to work with. These three I already knew. It was the fourth that surprised me.

They are looking for passion. One agent, James Wills, laid it out for us in one of the 'meet the industry' panel sessions; this one was on science fiction and fantasy, but there were plenty of others, e.g. Madeleine Milburn during her excellent lecture, and plenary speaker Jenny Geras of publishing giant Random House. Jenny talked about the snowball effect needed to make a book a runaway success. An agent needs to get very enthused about a book, so they can enthuse the editor of a publishing house, who can in turn enthuse their acquisitions meeting (where a number of book deals, including one of my own, often stall and fail), and then enthuse the marketing team, then the bookstores and finally the customers. I thought of it as a 'Passion Pyramid', with the author at the bottom, the agent just above, etc. There needs to be a lot of passion and conviction at the bottom so the novel can push its way through all those layers before the novel is 'born' into the world and ends up in eager customers' hands. As Jenny put it, such a snowball effect can be easily disturbed by 'hiccups' along the way, so that the runaway success turns into a flop. And as Madeleine confirmed, that means that if you have a choice between agents, pick the one who is most enthusiastic about your book. Another key lesson is not to send material to an agent until it is finished and polished. Some agents commented that they sometimes receive a 'submission package' of three chapters plus synopsis etc., which they get excited about, only then to find that the author 'hasn't quite finished' the novel yet. This delay inevitably creates an anticlimax, and the snowball melts...

This realization about passion wasn't purely academic for me. I was talking to agents and others about my next (fourth) book (Eden's Endgame, for which I already have a publisher - never mind, it's a bit complicated), but everyone I talked to got interested in something else I'd been working on, and had stopped working on: a thriller about espionage and diving. My little pesonal epiphany came during an informal meeting with an agent where I'd been pushing the science fiction one but mentioned the other one in passing, and after some questions, he handed me his card and said, "When you finish the diving one, send it to me." Talk about giving me pause for thought. Even some other writers I met and chatted with more or less said the same thing. The point was that I sounded passionate about it. It's not that I'm not passionate about the Scifi one, but I have a publisher for that one already, and the other one was screaming inside me to be heard. I think other writers experience this as well. Talking to agents can bring out what really matters to you, which might not be what you originally thought. So, I'm now working on two books in parallel...

The evenings were highly sociable, and I quit Saturday night at a respectable 1am, whereas the hardcore stayed up until 4am or later (earlier?), but everyone appeared - some bleary-eyed for sure - the next morning for more inspirational speeches, lectures and workshops.

I came back to Paris having made some new friends, having gained a better understanding of agents and the whole process, including how capricious it can be, and with a clear conviction that I have to dust off that diving novel and get it done, because that agent's card is sitting there waiting...

The icing on the cake? I came back to find the first copy of my latest science fiction book had arrived. I know the industry can be capricious, but if you really want to make it and are prepared to learn from inevitable tough feedback along the way, I really think you can. People say everyone has a novel inside them. Something else I got from the conference is that true writers have more than one novel inside them. But whilst writing itself is a pretty solitary process, getting published is more of a contact sport. You don't go to these conferences to try and wine and dine an agent into submission, that won't work, because they won't take you on if you haven't honed your craft or if you don't have a good idea that will sell. Rather, you go there to find out how it all works, because it is an industry, a business with a process, and you want to target your work and sell it as best you can, because writers want to be read!

So, will I go back to York next year?

Need you ask?

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