Winchester Writers’ Festival 2015 Writeup

Last weekend wasn’t my first time at the Winchester Writers’ Festival, but thanks to a scholarship from the University of Winchester, it was the first year I managed to attend the entire event. That really made quite a difference, since the full range of day courses, talks and workshops offered far more variety than I could have got from any individual day. It was particularly useful to be able to get advice on both writing and publishing. Here’s how the weekend went:

Friday:

Each day of the festival starts (if you get up early enough!) with coffee and an opportunity to chat to other delegates. For the first two days, this was also an opportunity to wander around the Book Fair. I was really keen to make the absolute most of the weekend, though most people didn’t turn up until a little later.

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Unless stated otherwise, these photos were taken by an actual photographer, rather than me.

Being there at quieter times was pretty handy, because when it got busy (such as immediately after Sebastian Faulks’ keynote speech) it actually got a little difficult to move about the place. I got talking to Matador (on the far left) who were kind enough to spread the word on Twitter.

I can’t be sure I’ll always be able to pay for a ticket to the festival (the university have helped me out with that both times so far, which makes a huge difference) but I’m determined to at least turn up to the Book Fair any year when I possibly can. There are just so many great people there, including Hampshire Writers’ Society, who organised the other book fair where I was able to set up earlier in the month.

I didn’t remember to get a photo of the HWS stand, but handily Matador did. Twitter is a wonderful thing.

My books were also on display at this fair, as part of P&G Wells’ big book table. It’s funny to think that I was at this event for the first time only a year ago!

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Though most of the writing and publishing advice at the festival comes from the official activities and one-to-ones, the self-publishing advice table run by the Alliance of Independent Authors was also a real goldmine of information. I’ll likely be tweaking the cover of Face of Glass based on their advice. Even before the festival, I got a lot of help from their Commissioning Editor, Debbie Young, who came to talk at Winchester University as part of the MA course and later gave me a phenomenal amount of feedback on this very website. I’m still trying to make use of it all.

The main event on Friday was a one-day course, and I’d booked myself onto Beat the Slushpile, given by Sallyanne Sweeney of Mulcahy Associates.

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One of the benefits of this sort of event is that the person who’s telling you what literary agents are looking for is a literary agent and knows what she’s looking for. You can’t guarantee that every agent or agency will want exactly the same thing, but you know that what works well when submitting to one won’t be a terrible idea when submitting to any of the others. Surprisingly, a huge part of what makes an effective query letter is being able to summarise your book in a really succinct (“25 words” and “elevator pitch” get thrown around a lot), totally compelling way. This has also come up on the course—particularly with regard to pitching scripts—but this day at the festival really hammered home just how important those one or two sentences can be.

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Another big part of the Friday at the festival was the one-to-one meetings with authors and agents. I was particularly keen to speak to Ian Drury, of Shiel Land Associates, because I’d chosen him for a one-to-one last year and he really helped me out with a novel I’d been having trouble with. It had got to the point that I knew I’d have to make some pretty big changes to improve the story (almost certainly rewriting the entire thing), and he helped me pin down what those changes should be. I went into this year’s one-to-one with a new first chapter and synopsis, and was pleased to hear that it’s looking much better! I’ll definitely be pushing on with the new version of the novel, and I’ll be sure to make Sheil Land the first agency I submit it to. Ian Drury invited me to send it when I’ve got 100,000 words, so just 97,500 more (and then a ton of editing) to go, I suppose.

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The Friday evening events, like the book fair, were open to the general public. If you ever get the chance to turn up even just for those, I’d really recommend it. The photo above is from an agent panel which gave the audience an opportunity to ask any question they wanted. I missed quite a chunk because I stayed on after an author talk to get a book signed by Ali Sparkes, and her illustrator, Nina Lazarski.

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The Man in the Water is self-published, and to a really high standard. The cover is wonderful (you might notice from the image on the right that the title is embossed) and each chapter is illustrated. That in itself would make it worth getting hold of a copy, but there’s even more to the book. The story features the real-life Maguire family, who placed the winning bid at a fundraising auction for Friends of PICU (the Paediatric Intensive Care Unit at Southampton General Hospital). All the profit from the book goes to that charity. On top of that, Ali Sparkes’ talk was hugely funny. Other people picked up on this too.

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She’s definitely mastered the art of the amusing PowerPoint presentation. (Dim, blurry photo my own.)

After the author talks and agents’ panel came the Open Mic. I’d actually really been looking forward to it, but because there was so much going on in the morning, I forgot to put my name down until the last minute. Still, it was another chance to read in front of an audience. Having realised that it’s fairly easy to memorise flash fiction, I’m really trying to work on that. I went with The Trouble with Tybalt, figuring that Shakespeare-based humour would probably go down well in a roomfull of writers.

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The MC for the open mic was Simon Hall, who kept readers to the time limit under penalty of duck whistle. Still, I think the highlight of that event was the very last person to read: they had a picture book about trying to get a spider out of a room, and all the funny places it ends up instead. Unfortunately, I didn’t get the author’s name and I’m not sure it’s onine to link to. Hopefully it’ll turn up in bookshops before too long!

Saturday:

Saturday also started with coffee and a wander around the Book Fair, though it seemed quite a bit quieter than the day before: possibly because the Open Mic didn’t finish until nearly midnight! By this point, the writing competition shortlists had been posted up on a noticeboard, and that came with a pleasant surprise:

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Every year, entrants are required to submit their work under a unique pseudonym. This year, I picked “David Lake.” Spotting it on that board was a real double-take moment: I’ve entered every year since (I think) 2010 and by this point was mostly in it for the adjudicators’ feedback. So that was a real boost right at the beginning of the day.

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The Keynote Speaker for this year was Sebastian Faulks, whose speech made for really interesting listening despite the late night and the early start (considering how much time you spend sitting down, it’s a surprisingly demanding weekend). The main thing that stuck out was some advice he gave that I’ve never heard before:

Try writing a main character of the opposite gender, in a different country, in a different time.

If you’re looking for a challenge, or just a bit of a prompt, that could well be it. I don’t know about other people, but thinking back I feel as though I’ve often done two of these things at once, but I can’t recall ever managing all three. Weirdly, the huge change I decided to make to the novel I took to Ian Drury was to write in a female protagonist in a different place and time, so even if I wasn’t curious to see what comes of Faulks’ advice, I’d be working on it anyway.

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The book signing afterwards was extremely popular.

The main event on Saturday was a series of four talks, but since there was such a huge variety on offer, and the ones I went to were such a small cross-section of the whole thing, there’s really no point going into them in too much detail. For each talk I went to, I had to pass up seven others. It’s easily possible to book a day focused entirely on submitting to agents and publishers, or on promoting books and using social media, or on writing itself, so what anyone gets out of the talks is really down to which ones they choose.

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Last year, the Saturday talks were the only bit of the event I had a ticket for, and having now done all three days I think that was a good move under the circumstances. The talks offer the best chance to hear from a wide variety of people, while the Friday classes and the Sunday workshops are run entirely by one person and focused entirely on one thing. All three days were extremely informative, but the Saturday definitely seems to have the most going on.

Both Friday and Saturday at the festival get you two one-to-one meetings, and since I was able to attend both this year, I was able to go to four altogether. I gather that lots of delegates have one finished novel that they’re more or less pitching to the agents they meet, but since I didn’t have a finished manuscript this year, I ended up taking in four different (mostly unfinished) pieces to get feedback on the writing and advice on how to go about publishing it.

Based on a meeting with Carole Burns (who’s great with short stories and also gave a very informative talk on editing them), I’ll most likely start submitting individual Alterworld stories to magazines, as well as working towards a complete anthology. I’m also considering making Jeanne, from Echoes, a recurring character. My other Saturday one-to-one was with John Wordsworth of Zeno Agency (who also gave a talk on fantasy pitfalls: “So There’s This Dark Lord…”). I took in Inhuman Resources, which went down well, though he did say that it’s unusual enough that it might be a struggle to get it published traditionally. Still, it is worth a try and I’ve been invited to submit it when it’s finished. Back when I started in 2012, Inhuman Resources was only ever going to be an experiment in self-publishing, so the idea of trying to get it in the hands of a traditional publisher is quite a shift.

Paul Dodgson reading at the University.

Paul Dodgson reading at the University.

Saturday evening’s events included an open forum with Jane Wenham-Jones (the Agony Aunt for Writing Magazine), and a reading by Paul Dodgson, which unfortunately was happening at the same time so I only caught the very end of it. There’s always a lot going on at the festival and it’s often tough to decide what to go to.

After the forum and reading, the competition winners were announced. I didn’t actually place in the end, but I’m seriously chuffed just to have made it into the shortlist: especially for a year I was actually there in person. That’s another thing I never really expected to happen.

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The evening wrapped up with a big festival dinner and one final talk, this time by Matt Dickinson: the first person to film at the summit of Mount Everest and return alive. He shared stories about how he discovered that squatters had ransacked his tent on Everest and about having to pass by the frozen body of a less fortunate climber on his way to the top. Kind of an unusual choice of anecdote for a dinner in retrospect, but really gripping nonetheless.

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Sunday:

Sunday was entirely focused on just one workshop, and much like the talks I can’t say for sure that mine was representative. It was, however, extremely useful. I’d booked myself onto Character Building with Lorna Fergusson, hoping to pick up some new tricks for creating really engaging characters. I feel as though hapless torturer Girth Loinhammer has resonated with readers way more than any of the other characters I’ve written, and I’m keen to see if I can repeat that success in future. This workshop seemed like a good first step towards that.

Part of the workshop involved coming up with a character based on objects they have in their possession. Each writer was randomly assigned three objects, some more unusual than others. Some combinations were also more unusual than others: a character who has a makeup bag and some mints will naturally be quite different to a character who has a makeup bag and a hammer. My character’s three objects were:

  • A pen.
  • A pillbox.
  • A bag of crisps.

My first thought was that the character could be an elderly landscape artist who lives somewhere scenic and so doesn’t have to travel far for inspiration: they’d take their pillbox just in case, but could get by with a snack rather than a whole meal.

Then I figured that was kind of dull, so I went with the character of Chip Baker: industrial spy extraordinaire. He sneaks into snack factories in the guise of a health inspector, then steals their prototype crisps using a trick packet smuggled in as part of his lunch. Naturally he carries a suicide pill in case he’s ever caught.

I can’t be sure that Chip Baker is the kind of character I really want to be working on, but the exercise itself was fascinating and I’d really recommend it. If anyone’s thinking of tackling Sebastian Faulks’ different gender/place/time combo, thinking about objects like this might even be a way to flesh out that character.

Sunday—and the festival as a whole—finished fairly quietly, but I did bump into Jasper Fforde, who was running a workshop of his own.

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The whiteboard suggests that the workshop was pretty interesting: “A man turns into banana. Gothic.”

I’d spoken to him for one of my one-to-one meetings last year, so it was great to be able to say hi and to give him a copy of Bionic Punchline, the back cover of which includes a note he left on the manuscript I sent in for the meeting. I also bumped into Julian Unthank, who judged the Twitter film pitch competition I won a couple of months ago.

Though I’d only submitted that as a throwaway attempt at a funny premise for a film, he recommended actually taking the idea, coming up with an outline and trying to pitch it to someone. So once my dissertation’s wrapped up and handed in, I think that’s what I’ll do. You never know: Internationelf Diplomacy may yet actually be made into a movie.

The End.

Writers' Festival Scholarship Photo

This writeup has ended up much longer than I originally expected, but since the scholarship from the university allowed me to get involved with the whole thing, start to finish, it seemed worth covering the event in the same way.

In the interests of paying things forward, I feel as though I should mention that the scholarship scheme is open to all writers aged 18-25: not just students. If you’re eligible, and you like the sound of what you’ve just read, then the scheme could be your route into doing it for yourself. The university also offers £50 bursaries, which could help with the cost of a ticket even if you can’t get a scholarship.

If anyone reading this does decide to attend the festival next year (or any other year), please do shoot me a message. It would be great to know, and if there’s any way I can possibly make it, I’ll be there myself to say hi.

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5 comments

  1. Kim A Howard

    Reblogged this on Kim A Howard and commented:
    Damon has written a really great write-up of the Winchester Writer’s Festival. I was there as a student host again this year, so only get a restricted view of the activities. Hopefully I will be able to attend next year as a fully-fledged delegate. I’ll have to save up as, unlike Damon, I won’t be able to apply for the scholarship scheme. I’m far too old for that! Thank you for a fabulous insight into the three days, Damon.

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  3. Pingback: Winchester Writers’ Festival Bursaries/Scholarships | Damon L. Wakes
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