Lessons learned from attending a writers' festival
Fresh from the Winchester Writers’ Festival, Faber Academy course alumna, Stephanie Rouse, shares the lessons she learned, including how to approach busy literary agents.
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In June, I attended my first ever writerly event, the Winchester Writers’ Festival. It was one of those rare weekends that left me exhausted but energised.
I arrived on Thursday afternoon excited at the prospect of meeting other cohorts from my Faber Academy group but also conscious of the investment I had made to be there. This was a financial investment but the next 72 hours was to be the longest uninterrupted period of time I have ever devoted to the writer in me.
The festival organisers invited everyone to meet for drinks at a local pub. Identifiable by our red ‘Winchester Writers’ Festival’ lanyards, people introduced themselves to one another and the conversation flowed as easily as the wine.
On Friday and Saturday, there were a plethora of short workshops on offer from agents, editors, publishers, screenwriters, playwrights, poets and novelists. Also expert panel discussions with plenty of opportunity to ask questions of editors, agents and publishers. Sunday was devoted to in-depth masterclasses on a variety of topics.
I learned what turns agents on (and off), what makes a good (and bad) pitch and how to write a sizzling synopsis.
I had a specific goal to get a better understanding of the machinations of the literary world so I focused on workshops such as ‘The Agent’s Eye View’, ‘The Submission Letter’ and ‘How to Write a Synopsis’. I glimpsed things from the agent’s side of the desk. Much of their work is with their existing portfolio of authors: coaching, nurturing, encouraging, sometimes even counselling, them. Then there is the job of selling work to publishers, negotiating a myriad of rights across borders and media. All that and they need to be able to raise their heads from the grindstone to look for new talent. That’s the window of opportunity when us writers have to seize our moment, to engage them and make ourselves heard above the noise.
I laughed along with everyone else at submission letters where the author proclaimed himself ‘the next Lee Childs’ but misspelt the agent’s name. I cringed on behalf of the hapless soul who said ‘I know your submission guidelines say to send the first chapter but it doesn’t really get going until chapter 3 so here’s the first five.’ I learned what turns agents on (and off), what makes a good (and bad) pitch and how to write a sizzling synopsis. I have a leather-bound notebook (specially procured for the event), crammed with scribbles of wisdom which I am still absorbing.
In breaks between workshops or panel sessions there were book shops and exhibitors stands to visit and animated conversations to be had with fellow festival attendees over ubiquitous coffee and cake. At meal times we exchanged views on the workshops, heard about triumphs and disappointments and, later, we shared life lessons in the bar.
The agents were not nearly as scary as I imagined they might be: they were forthright and professional, constructive and helpful.
I took the opportunity to meet one-to-one with agents to discuss my work. I had researched them independently (rather than simply referring to the festival programme), and agonised over my final choice. Not one agent asked for the same thing in the submission but I stuck to the prescribed lengths and formats and wrote personalised covering letters to each of them. I was very glad I did because every agent said the first thing they read is the covering letter and look to see if the submitted work meets the guidelines. If you get that wrong they may not even bother looking at the rest!
In my letters I had been explicit that my novel is a work in progress so I was not ready to pitch but was looking for feedback. The agents were not nearly as scary as I imagined they might be: they were forthright and professional, constructive and helpful. They are business people with a job to do, they know what they like in both literary and personal spheres and the chemistry between them and their authors is paramount. It was a tremendously valuable experience and gave me plenty to think about.
Lemn Sissay, MBE, poet, broadcaster and champion of care leavers was the keynote speaker at the event. He made us laugh and cry with his intelligence and insight, humour and humility. He reminded us that writing, while a solitary occupation, is also a team sport. I looked around me at fellow Faber Academy would-be novelists, published and wannabe authors of literary fictions, childrens’ picture books and everything in between, memoirists, non fiction writers, teachers, agents, publishers, editors and critics and saw what he meant. We all have a role to play in this community of people who love language, respect and value the power of words and writing. Us writers, scribbling in our notebooks, agonising over the precise word which will make the sentence sing, are only the start of it.