Monday, June 15, 2015

Newcastle Writing Conference 2015

Just over a week ago, I attended the Newcastle Writing Conference 2015. Organised by New Writing North and hosted by Northumbria University, it was a thoroughly informative and inspiring event - one I have thinking about ever since.

The day kicked off with a storming key notes address from YA author Meg Rosoff, which was a great ice-breaker for the conference, mainly because Meg is such an entertaining speaker. She brought a lot of laughter to the lecture hall as she told us exactly why she hated her former profession of advertising (it involved instant tea granules), her habit of getting fired from almost every job she’s ever had, and how her first novel – a pony book – was rejected for containing too much sex.

The talk concluded with Meg urging us to think of our brains as colanders: almost everything slips through, but once in a while something especially memorable or interesting gets stuck. When writing, she advised us to consider the contents of our own individual colanders: ‘None of it is the same as anyone else’s,’ she said, ‘and that is your strength and your weapon.

After a panel event about social media, we split off into breakout sessions. I had chosen How to Pitch Your Work with Steve Chambers, mainly because the idea of talking about my novel-to-be terrifies me. In fact, what I really liked about Steve was that he didn’t deny that pitching was an unpleasant business, though as he reminded us, ‘You don’t really have a choice.

A few pieces of advice from that session that really stood out for me:

  • Build your pitch around the main character – people are interested in people.
  • Pitch it like you’re talking to a mate at the pub.
  •  It isn’t about the novel’s themes or issues - or why you’re writing it - it’s about telling the story.
  • Focus on what is unique about your story. 
  •  Not everyone will like your ideas, and that’s okay.
  •  Don’t lose confidence, and keep pitching – you will improve.

I also found that Steve, who is the Programme Leader of the Creative Writing MA at Northumbria University, had a lot of writing wisdom to share, not all of it related to pitching. In fact, my notes are full of his offhand little gems, one of my favourites being, ‘You can’t help the kind of writer you are, because who you are keeps coming out of your work, in your voice.’

In the afternoon, I opted to attend Meet the Agent with Jo Unwin. Much like my attitude to pitching, I find the prospect of one day attempting to find an agent rather intimidating - they are, after all, the gatekeepers of the publishing world. Fortunately, Jo turned out to be very friendly, eager to explain what her job entailed, and full of advice on how to approach an agent. Of course, a lot of information about submitting work can be found online – and it varies from agent to agent – but I thought I’d record just a few of Jo’s many wonderful tips below:

  • The biggest agents in the business might not have space for new authors, but it’s a good idea to approach their assistants, who will be looking to expand their client list.
  • Mention a personal connection to the agent if you have one. This might be meeting them in person, but could just as easily be watching them talk at events on YouTube etc.
  •  Have a good sense of the book you’ve written. Pitch the nugget of your story in your covering letter – and be specific, so it’s memorable. ‘Don’t tell me it’s about innocence and loss,’ Jo advised. ‘Tell me it’s about a mother whose daughter was lost at sea.’
  •  Your covering letter should be serious, demonstrating that you’re a ‘career writer’ – i.e. someone who has been writing for a long time and is committed to a future in the profession. 

The conference concluded with a fantastic panel event called What’s Hot and What’s Not with Jo Unwin, Francesca Main (Picador), Rachael Kerr (Unbound) and Anna James (The Bookseller). It was great to hear about these women’s respective roles in the publishing industry and their current projects, not to mention the many, many book recommendations they had (my bank balance is about to take a serious hit).

As for the question posed by the name of the panel, although the speakers could identify current themes in publishing (nature writing is ‘having a moment’, women’s voices are popular) they cautioned us against chasing trends, because tastes inevitably will have changed by the time a book has been written and published. Instead, we were simply urged to write the best, most important book we could.

I found this point - which had been repeated one way or another throughout the conference - oddly reassuring. Obviously, writing a high-quality novel is no easy task, but given that the rapidly-evolving publishing industry can sometimes seem like a confusing sort of place, it’s a clear objective – something to get on with. 

In fact, Meg Rosoff summed it up nicely right at the beginning of the day, when she related what her agent had once said to her: ‘Forget about being a good girl and doing it the right way, and [write a book] as fiercely as you can.

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