On 4th September I packed my suitcase, said goodbye to hubby and my seven-year-old for the weekend, and headed up the motorway to York to attend the Writers’ Workshop Festival of Writing. I felt excited and full of anticipation – I’d never been to anything like this before and didn’t have a clue what to expect. My schedule included lots of writing workshops and a one-to-one with an agent, and the package included accommodation and all my meals 🙂 I’d already checked out the website for York University and was reassured to find there were not one but two Costa Coffee concessions on site – I’d be in safe hands.

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Even though I hadn’t booked into any Friday mini-courses I still arrived early so I could soak up the atmosphere of the university, which I had been assured was beautiful and picturesque. It didn’t disappoint, although I was dismayed to find that the Costa concession had shut already – and was only open on weekdays outside of term-time! Yes, I am an addict, but the thought of the whole weekend without a decent coffee left me a little frazzled …

Things soon improved over drinks and dinner on Friday night, where I chatted to a lovely lady and compared notes on what we were writing and what we expected to get from the weekend. The entertainment on the first night was ‘Friday Night Live’ – eight finalists of a competition got to read out loud the first 500 words of their WIP and received live feedback from a panel of agents, editors and authors. This was incredibly humbling – the writers were such a talented bunch, and each and every one of them deserved a publishing deal in my opinion.

It was around about this time that word of the one-to-one set up began to reach me and I began to feel a little anxious. Apparently the set up was similar to speed dating, with the 10 minute rule strictly adhered to by the organisers; the next batch of hopefuls were ordered to stand when their time came, and then to  go over and physically remove the person in ‘their’ seat if necessary. I was half glad that someone else would be ensuring I got my full 10 minutes, and half terrified of the formality of the situation. But my one-to-one wasn’t until Saturday, so I didn’t have to worry too much yet 🙂

I slept well in my student accommodation – en suite room with a desk and a wardrobe and a comfy, if slightly lumpy, mattress. The guys from Writers’ Workshop couldn’t do enough for the festival goers, and the food was lovely, the rooms bright and airy, the tea and biscuits at break times plentiful. In the main I thought the experts hosting the workshops were very professional and knowledgeable. I attended a workshop ‘The Arc and the Impetus’ with agent Nelle Andrew and learnt a lot about structure and plotting – some of it stuff I had heard before but it never hurts to be reminded in a fresh and interesting way. What’s fascinating is that there is stuff we all know, but weaving it into our own work is sometimes elusive. My favourite session by far was the keynote speech with authors Nicci Gerard and Sean French, who make up ‘Nicci French’. They were funny, engaging, and totally inspiring. It was worth going to the event just to see them, in fact!

nicci french

At around half four on Saturday afternoon I headed over to Central Hall for my 16:50 one-to-one with agent Clare Wallace. I had sent the first chapter of my MA novel, This Beautiful World, for Clare to read a couple of weeks before, and I was interested to find out what she thought of it. However, by this time I was feeling a little jaded. The term ‘cattle market’ had been bandied around a few times, and it was sobering to realise that each and every one of the 400+ people at the conference all wanted exactly the same thing: representation by an agent and a publishing deal. Realistically, how many of them were going to leave that weekend with their dream fulfilled? 1%? Less? I’m not sure, but I do know that the event is promoted as a way of making contacts, as well as honing the writing craft, and that getting that coveted representation isn’t the be-all and end-all. And yet …

Gorgeous, retro Central Hall
Gorgeous, retro Central Hall

My session went well. Clare was lovely and enthusiastic, she liked my writing and had some very helpful suggestions for how I could make my first chapter stronger. She was interested in reading some more. Not everyone came away with the opportunity to send more of their work to an agent or publisher, so in those terms I did well. I do feel that I was ‘shopping’ the wrong novel – This Beautiful World, as I’ve said before, is a tricky one. It’s literary fiction, it’s very different to my other books, it’s perhaps not very commercial. And does it really represent me as a writer and self-publisher? Maybe I should have taken a different route and tried to get representation for the Flora Lively series, say, which I feel has a lot of mileage for large print and other subsidiary rights. Maybe I should have just gone in there and said ‘This is me, this is what I’ve done, do you want a piece of it?’ 🙂 But it’s not my style to be so bold.

All-in-all the weekend was a success for me, primarily because it opened my eyes and made me realise a lot of stuff about myself. I was not among my tribe in York – I didn’t meet any other self-publishing authors; everyone I spoke to had either just finished or nearly finished their first book. I’ve just finished my seventh. I was there to learn from the workshops – all professions need CPD, and it’s important to keep on improving – but many of the workshops were aimed at a different stage of writer, it’s true. The networking aspect didn’t work so well for me, but maybe I’m just to shy to maximise on it. The organisers were amazing, and I would recommend this weekend to any writer, particularly those starting out on their journey. For me, it was a chance to reflect on the duality of my situation, and the ways in which this duality is keeping me stuck. Half of me wants an agent, a publisher, the whole ‘traditional’ route to readers, not least of all because after self-publishing for three years now I know what hard work it is and it would be nice to be able to hand some of that over! But also for credibility. Which is, I suppose, why I did the Masters in the first place. But the other half of me is fiercely proud of what I’ve achieved as a self-publishing author (5 books published, hundreds of 5 star reviews, over 30,000 books sold, plus nearly 300,000 books in the hands of readers to date), and wonders why I would want to give up any control, or a share in the profits. Indeed, when I look at the royalties I bring in, I am aware that I’d make only a fraction of that if I was traditionally published. Unless millions more people found and bought my books, of course …

In short, I realised I need to commit. Either to getting an agent – in which case I should be sending out queries weekly, not attending one event a year – or to being truly successful as a self-published author. There is more I could be doing, and would be doing, if I wasn’t taking courses and writing literary novels and generally chasing a dream. I don’t have the answer yet, but at least I do have the right question. And asking the right questions is half the battle, don’t you think?

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