When Stormzy takes to the stage in the county I grew up in, I will be curled on my sofa, recovering from another week of being in school and bemoaning the start of the internal exam season. Long ago I had resigned myself to the fact that festivals were now out of my reach.
Not without applying such creative licence to a description of hayfever, that my school would ask (even beg) me to take my disease-riddled self elsewhere.
Namely to the South West, where I could answer the question on everyone’s mind: how is Miley Cyrus going to bring her wrecking ball through customs?
Given all of this, you can imagine my delight when a friend I had made on an Arvon course last year mentioned the Winchester Writers’ Festival.
Finding the writer’s fest
Now, to give you some context, I am a new writer. Or a recovering non-writer.
I dreamed of being an author when I was a teenager, and somewhere between turning into an adult and discovering that ‘being an adult’ felt a lot like being a teenager still, I stopped writing.
Cut forward ten years, and I am still finding my ink-legs.
So, I had no idea what Winchester Writers’ Festival was — or that it even existed — until my friend announced that she had ‘taken the leap’ and was going to a magical place where there were ‘three days of courses and four one-to-ones with potential agents and publishers’.
She was looking for some of us to proofread her submission. Two days later, I had invited myself along for the Saturday and Sunday too.
Thankfully, she didn’t seem too put out by this — which was good, as she had been the one to tell me that it wasn’t just for people with finished manuscripts.
As I was going for two days, I was able to book two Saturday one-to-one appointments, with the option to pay for a third if I was interested. I had only written 13,000 words at this point, however, so I decided to stick to the two.
Because I had signed up over a month in advance, I got to send my submission so that they would both have a chance to read it before meeting me.
– Rebecca Ngakane
Picking my expert
After an inordinate length of time reading the festival booklet, identifying every agent who was looking for YA novels — and there were lots — I had made my selection: one author who was offering feedback on your first 1,000 words and one literary agent whose bio and Twitter account (yep, I really did get into my research) sounded fun.
In order to make sure she didn’t think I was wasting her time, I was really clear in my cover letter that I was merely testing the waters and would welcome any feedback on the quality of my cover letter, synopsis and first chapter.
Because I had signed up over a month in advance, I got to send my submission so that they would both have a chance to read it before meeting me — although you can choose to bring it along with you on the day.
Naturally, because it’s me, I almost missed the last post on the final day you were allowed to send it, but the very kind postman not only waited for me to grab the envelope out of my crowded bag but also advised me on exactly how many stamps I needed to add on, so all was good.
(I should probably have gotten his name — thanks, Mr. Mystery Postman).
The Festival takes place at Winchester University, so it took only an hour to get to from London, and I booked into the accommodation on Friday night, so that I could pretend to get a lie-in.
And then I don’t think I slept until Sunday night.
Not because we were all party animals – sorry to disappoint, there was no clubbing, although the student bar remained lively each night — but because the festival is to writers what a mirror maze is to children: fun, terrifying and full of chances to view things at new angles.
The MC correctly identified that whilst there may never be a completely safe space to bare your soul and read from your own work for 4 minutes, this was most definitely a ‘safer’ place than most.
– Rebecca Ngakane
Taking the plunge
It all started on Friday with a YA agent panel, which — if I’m going to be completely honest here — was more like a general agent panel.
The YA aspect was mentioned very little, but I left with a really solid idea of what agents do, what they are looking for (because there are common themes: plot, character and voice) and how to get noticed.
Then it was time for open-mic night, with a hilarious MC who – correctly – identified that whilst there may never be a completely safe space to bare your soul and read from your own work for 4 minutes, this was most definitely a ‘safer’ place than most.
On my first night, I was transported from worlds with dinosaur poo battles to inter-space where singing competitions were deemed suitable punishments for the most severe of crimes, with a brief spoken word section from someone who had travelled from Australia for the occasion!
I ditched my Saturday lie-in to sign up for an open-mic slot the next morning. I didn’t need to; they hadn’t actually put out the list when I arrived – a clear indication that I was too early.
But I got to pick the slot of my choice, so that and a fabulous full English breakfast made it worth it. I resolved to sleep properly on Saturday night instead.
We all left Katherine Rundell’s talk inspired, amused by the folly of others in the face of our new wisdom and fangirling hard.
– Rebecca Ngakane
Wonderful workshops and talks
Saturday at the festival was a day of talks, beginning with the keynote speech by Katherine Rundell: ‘Why You Should Read Children’s Books, Even Though You Are So Old and Wise’. One day I will be as funny, wise, engaging and well-informed as she is. Unfortunately, I’ll probably be 80 at that point. She’s only 32. I had life envy.
We all left inspired, amused by the folly of others in the face of our new wisdom and fan-girling hard. It was a great way to start off the day and the line for book signings bordered on ridiculous.
The rest of the day was dedicated to your choice of four workshops (out of sixteen options). The facilitators are fully aware that you are going to be dipping in and out of sessions to go to one-to-ones, so it was all quite relaxed.
To give you an idea of the range on offer, I did one session on embracing the weird in YA fiction, one on creating spaces and places and another on serial killers.
There were yet more sessions about how to find agents, submit to agents, self-publish etc. I was just in it for the writing, not the part about getting published (yet), so I went for the writing-focused sessions that day.
My meeting with Jasper Fforde involved pulling my 1,000 words apart to see all of its weak spots, and then he helped me to stitch it back together.
– Rebecca Ngakane
Meeting my expert author
Despite only having written maybe 30% of my novel, making myself ineligible for any actual publishing deal, I felt the nerves kick in by lunch.
I don’t think there’s a writer out there who can honestly say they don’t care about feedback and this was my first shot at being judged by a complete stranger.
That sounds odd. I am on the year-long Faber Work In Progress course with a whole bunch of strangers, and we all critique each others’ work. However, it’s pretty hard to throw out all constraints of politeness when you don’t want to destroy someone’s confidence.
Each month, our feedback becomes a bit pickier and we can trust that it all comes from a good place, but it wasn’t immediate. I understood that this Festival Feedback, from Actual Professionals, would likely get right to the heart of the matter.
And I was right. The first meeting I had, with Jasper Fforde, involved pulling my 1,000 words apart to see all of its weak spots. Then he helped me to stitch it back together and he took the time to make sure that I understood exactly why we were doing what we were doing.
Our meeting was 15 minutes long, but he didn’t have anyone booked in after me and he didn’t even mention taking a break as our time ran over.
If I ever get published, Jasper Fforde is getting a shout-out. I left feeling empowered and as if he was invested in making me as good as I could be. During the book raffle at dinner, I won a signed copy of Fforde’s new novel. It felt like fate.
I did, however, almost miss the start of my second appointment because we were talking. Top tip: set an alarm on your phone!
The agent was concerned that some of my choices were so mainstream that they didn’t quite convey a love of that genre. The series that she had never heard of, however, got her attention.
– Rebecca Ngakane
Pitching my novel
I entered my first ever agent meeting ever-so-slightly flustered and that wasn’t the best combination, until I met her. Yep, her. I’m going to offer some anonymity, so I can share her wisdom without any possible chance of misquoting her:
Honesty is the best policy
When she asked why I hadn’t mentioned a particular character motivation in my synopsis, I admitted that I hadn’t actually come up with that until another Faber Academy participant had asked about it too.
This unlocked an entire side to my character that I hadn’t known before. I think showing that I was responsive to feedback was a good thing.
Prove your salt with a cover letter
Think of it as a grammar test, and check, check and check again before submitting. 70-80% of it should be about your novel, but don’t write four paragraphs about your novel. That’s ‘too much’.
If you’re going to identify what book(s) your novel would fit in with, make sure some of those are modern releases. She was concerned that some of my choices were so mainstream that they didn’t quite convey a love of that genre.
The series that she had never heard of, however, got her attention.
Synopsis and structure work together
Mine had too many ideas. One and a half single-spaced pages drew a definite comment that I needed to simplify things because ideas were getting lost in the mess.
Getting the chance to verbally clarify points, add things and pull out the overall message of the novel was invaluable.
I will have to get better doing that in writing when I am ready to seek representation because the chance to pitch my novel one-on-one isn’t going to come across that often!
Chapters reveal your voice
Reading between her polite comments, she was curious after my cover letter, not sure about me by the end of my synopsis but (because she’s a professional) she read my chapter in order to give me feedback on this.
That, in combination with my verbal clarification of my synopsis, led to her asking me to submit the full manuscript when I completed it.
Every stranger who found me afterwards to praise what I had done became an instant friend – possible family-status going to the person who not only praised me but told me what bits to cut out too.
– Rebecca Ngakane
Reflections on writer’s fest
I told you I was in an adult mirror maze, right? It took a while to stop spinning after that.
Which is probably why my flatmate and I missed the memo that it was a sit-down dinner on Saturday and turned up just as everyone was finishing their main. Oops.
The director of the whole thing, Sara Gangai, who I cannot praise enough for organising the whole event, convinced the kitchen staff to rustle up two spare dinners from under some magician’s hat.
After dinner was Open Mic Part 2. The picture books reigned supreme. Somehow, hearing a rhyming book without the images puts it firmly in the ‘For Adults’ category and our howls of support were loud and possibly aided by alcohol.
My own reading, where I decided to go straight for the part where a man murders a twelve-year-old (in an attempt to save the world), did not have the same hilarious tone to it.
But every stranger who found me afterwards to praise what I had done became an instant friend (possibly family status going to the person who not only praised me but told me what bits to cut out too).
Back to reality
I feel like a full description of Sunday is almost unnecessary at this point. The all-day workshops were full of the same: enthusiastic instructors, delightful & supportive participants, tons of opportunities to write and share, a delicious lunch (kicking the butt of Saturday’s lunch – sorry Saturday) and people enthusiastically gathering contact details, usually crowded around the biscuit table.
I had found another Tribe. I didn’t want to go home.
Although I needed to. I’d rashly proclaimed to a real-life agent that I was going to finish my novel by the end of the year. But there are worse reasons to lose sleep. For the Winchester Writers’ Festival, it was definitely worth it.