How I made the most of York’s Festival of Writing

Faber Academy alumna Sam Willis recently spent an exhilarating weekend at York’s Festival of Writing. To help potential visitors she describes her trip, and how she made the most of it.

Sam Willis
Sam Willis

Maybe you’ve never heard of it, or perhaps you have but aren’t sure if it’s for you.

The Festival of Writing is a three-day conference organised by the Writers’ Workshop and held at the University of York, and if you’re a writer — aspiring or otherwise — it probably is.

The festival of writing

I found out about this festival through the Faber Academy Writing a Novel online course that I started in January 2016, but unfortunately that year was too early for me to attend.

On completing the course, I had 15,000 words of my novel and much valuable knowledge and feedback in the bank. My own personal target was to finish the novel over the next 12 months.

In April 2017, when the festival bookings opened, I was halfway through my novel. I booked myself in for the full weekend in the hope that it would give me the motivation I needed to finish and edit it over the next four months.

Come September, and in no small part due to the looming deadline, I had completed my first draft.

Because I’d been so busy writing I hadn’t had time to be nervous, but during the days leading up to the festival I repeatedly questioned what on earth I was doing.

Travelling to the other end of the country where I would know absolutely no-one, under the pretentious premise that I was actually a writer?

Even the speakers and tutors had diverse stories to tell about the time and route they took to get published.

– Sam Willis

What I learned

But the festival turned out to be a place full of friendly people, drawn together by their love of words and their desire to be published.

Some were at the very beginning of their journey, some were old hands, others were self-published and others still were published but attempting to change genre.

Even the speakers and tutors had diverse stories to tell about the time and route they took to get published.

In summary, the main things I learnt from the festival are:

  • If you write, you are already a writer. No certification is required.
  • The incredibly slow pace of traditional publishing. The speakers at this Festival (such as Tor Udall) who had a new book out were delegates at the festival four years ago.
  • Publishing is a business all about sales. Agents are essentially salespeople who love reading. Yes, people work in the industry because they are passionate about books, but it all comes down to money. It is possible for a person to get an agent, who in turn finds them a publisher, but that book can still be turned down by the publisher’s acquisitions department despite everyone previously having loved it.
  • Luck and timing. A lot of publishing success is about luck and timing. This also applies to getting an agent. All you can do is make your book as good as possible, do your research thoroughly and combine the hide of a rhinoceros with superhuman perseverance. The odds of succeeding aren’t always in your favour and most authors do not earn vast sums of money, but it is possible to become a full-time writer.

If you write, you are a writer. No certification is required.

– Sam Willis

My top tips to get the most out of the festival

  • Don’t be shy. A lot of writers are introverts, but everyone at the festival has a love of writing in common, so if you make an effort to overcome your self-consciousness you will reap the rewards. Everyone I spoke to, without exception, was chatty and friendly.
  • Go for the full weekend if you can. There are day tickets, which are a good introduction to the event, and if you live near York then this is an option worth looking at, but if, like me, you live hundreds of miles away, then it’s certainly more practical to spend longer there.
  • Stay on campus. If you are on-site you will speak to new people at breakfast, during coffee, at lunch, during workshops and at dinner.
  • Don’t bring friends and family. We all used to have a favourite toy or comforter we dragged around as a child that we clung to in stressful situations, but if you brave the Festival on your own you will be better placed to get the most out of it.

Enter all the competitions. You might not win, but it will force you to work on your opening and pitch.

– Sam Willis

  • You choose the workshops when you book, but unless they have a specific number limit you can change your mind on the day.
  • The one-to-ones are invaluable. Do your research on the agents before selecting them and book early for the best choice of slots. Time-wise, I had all mine close together and it worked for me.
  • Enter all the competitions. You might not win or even get shortlisted, but it will force you to work on your opening and pitch.
  • Don’t expect to sight-see in York. I could see it was a beautiful city from the taxi but you don’t have a free moment so, unless you extend your trip, you won’t get to explore! Maybe next year…

Discover more about the Festival of Writing

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Meet your Guest author

Sam Willis

Sam Willis

Sam Willis is a Faber Academy alumna currently working on the second draft of her first novel Welcome to the Club. She works in academic non-fiction as a copy editor and project manager.

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