The Festival of Writing 2018 – and How All Was Not Lost
By Sophie Beal
This letter is for you, poring over the Jericho resources, searching for wisdom on those ultimate questions: how can I know the Festival won’t be a waste of time and money? And what if, instead of an agent, I get conclusive proof I’m delusional?
These are the things you’ll want to know up front.
- You don’t make any of the competition shortlists.
- You have a very depressing 1-2-1.
- That dream, where agents and publishers stalk you? It doesn’t happen.
You’re now wondering if you should cut your losses, stay in Bournemouth and save the petrol. Keep reading.
Sometimes, people meet their agent in the coffee queue. This is unlikely in your case. Either, you’ll be too scared to strike up conversation, or not be scared enough and say something really stupid.
So there you are. Four hundred and sixty pounds down, no chance of representation and surrounded by three hundred odd people all after roughly the same thing. It’s going to be murder, right? That’s what you’re thinking.
That first 1-2-1 is not the agent’s fault. She’s lovely, but doesn’t think you’re the next Tolstoy. “I’m getting caught up in the medical red tape,” she says. She has no idea of the time you’ve spent trying to make sure that didn’t happen. You sit there and listen.
You write notes. You return to your session. Then you go back to your room and grieve. After all, unless something magic happens, this is probably the end of the line for your novel. After eleven years.
If you could fit this into the hour and a half before dinner, it would be an ideal time and place. It’s quiet. There are no children asking you for snacks or arbitration. But you’ve a soul to vomit and mealtime comes all too soon.
You’re not pretty when you cry. People will assume you’re dying of something they don’t want to catch. Or they’ll know the truth – that you’re not as good as you hoped. You drag Rachel, your trusty writing partner, to your room. She gives you a good hug, and supervises you while you rinse your eyes in warm water and make your way towards food.
And there you meet someone else who hasn’t yet had either of their 1-2-1s, but is thoroughly fed up with the submission process. You share your own tale of woe. And the lady on the other side shares hers. And you say things to each other you would usually reserve for the mirror (or Rachel). Like, “I think I’m good.” Someone buys three gins and tonic and instead of slipping out before Friday Night Live, you surprise yourself by staying up to whinge until eleven thirty (that’s three am in young person time).
You’re still feeling a little fragile the next morning, but all that panic-surfing has paid off. You remember Emma Darwin’s blog. You have your first coherent thoughts:
- You really didn’t think your world through before you wrote your novel. Your main characters are academic anaesthetists. How many non-medics know those exist? And there’s so much more you need to set up alongside the love story, including the ambition and rivalry. World-building in these circumstances is difficult, but it doesn’t necessarily mean the novel is doomed.
- The agent didn’t criticise your prose, your first page, or your characterisation. A lot of your work has paid off.
- Mandy Berriman had a difficult journey to publication. People have told you she’s lovely. You will try to speak to her.
Together with a cooked breakfast, you’ve reason enough to get out of bed.
Penny Holroyde and Allie Spencer sit at your table in the canteen. This is the moment you should try and impress Penny who is after all an agent. But when they ask you about your festival, you end up telling them the truth. It’s the best thing you can do. They are both lovely.
“So many published authors I know, have a novel they love but can’t sell,” says Allie. “It doesn’t mean it’s not any good.” You talk about easy reading for thinkers. She wrote her first romantic comedy about a young barrister, so understands your world-building issues and gives you some pointers. You come away thoroughly inspired.
That is your “all is lost moment” done and dusted.
Having planned plenty of alone time, you don’t miss a thing after that:
Sarah Pinborough may apologise for waffling in her keynote lecture, but has everyone in stitches as she describes life as a published author. And everyone’s crying by the end of Julie Cohen’s session about Pixar story-telling.
At the book club and literary industry panel you’re told genre boundaries are blurring. Pinning your book down as literary or commercial doesn’t matter as much as it did. Finally, someone produces a useful definition of book club fiction. It’s obvious really: “something people want to talk about with their friends.”
You contemplate skiving the Futurecast session. It’s on Sunday morning; you’re tired and already know vampires are out, uplit and psychological thrillers in. But there’s loads more to learn. Afterwards, everyone you speak to is considering self-publishing.
And somewhere in the middle of all that, you have a second 1-2-1. It’s far more relaxed than your first, possibly because you now know the problem. You bring up the world-building issue yourself. She suggests emphasising the love story over the setting from the start. But she says, “You’re clearly a very good writer.” You have time left. You could show her your elevator pitch for novel number two, but you forget and use the minutes up blithering about how much her opinion means to you.
There you are: three competitions, two 1-2-1s and no agent. But you now understand more about how you could fit into the industry. And you’ve found the rest of the people like you in the world. The money isn’t wasted.
On Sunday morning, you listen to Mandy Berriman’s keynote session and her full story of knockbacks, perseverance and eventual success with her second novel.
Over lunch, you tell your fellow writers about your novel number two.
“That one will be so much easier to sell. I can condense the idea down into a few sentences.” You tell them it’s about a couple about to abandon fertility treatment when the woman is raped. She then discovers she is pregnant. She thinks the baby is her husband’s. He thinks she’s delusional and wants an abortion.
Someone says, “I’m wondering what I’d do.” And someone else, “You need to write that.”
Then you remember you’re actually on your second draft. This sets off those pesky dreams again. You see yourself up on the main stage, about to publish your first novel as your second. The editor next to you is saying, “I couldn’t believe she had something so marvellous in her bottom drawer.”
With very best wishes
Sophie came to the Festival of Writing 2018. She did not get an agent, but did get inspired.
Has this inspired you to come along next year? Keep you eye on our events for more.