Getting into the festival spirit – Anne Corlett

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By Anne Corlett

In recent years, a huge market has grown up around creative writing. Gone are the days when writers were entirely solitary creatures, plugging away on their battered old typewriters in lonely garrets. Now we have courses, forums, meetup groups, and all sorts of other ways of connecting with fellow writers, and with agents and publishing professionals.♥

Writing has become a much more social activity, and, while some people might find that it’s nothing but a distraction from the real business of words on the page, if you’re someone who needs regular human contact and feedback, there are many different options out there.

The creative writing industry does have its critics. Some writers see it as a business that exploits people’s hopes and dreams. The rise of the creative writing MA has been particularly controversial, with several high-profile articles written, both defending and deriding the concept.

Alongside writing courses, festivals are enjoying a steady rise in popularity. General interest literary festivals are programming more writing-related events, but there are also festivals aimed specifically at writers.

The two main UK events are the York Festival of Writing, hosted by the Writers’ Workshop literacy consultancy, and the Winchester Writers’ Festival, run by the University of Winchester. These are huge events, bringing together writers, agents, editors and industry experts, with diverse programs of panels, competitions and pitching sessions.

Whatever your view on the creative writing industry, these festivals are great opportunities for writers. They attract good-quality speakers, and they’re popular with agents who are actively building their lists. Agents aren’t exactly short of people sending them work, after all. If they’re willing to travel to a festival, it’s because they know they’ll attract good-quality submissions as a result. New writers often feel that agents are just looking for a reason to reject their work. The truth is that agents want to find authors whose work they can sell. If you have a good manuscript and a polished, targeted submission letter, chances are that you will get there by the traditional route.


That’s the problem. The publishing industry is notoriously slow. Your brilliant, world-changing submission could sit in a slush-pile for months, during which time you decide to burn your laptop and take up something more relaxing.

Swimming with tiger sharks perhaps.

The advantage of writing festivals is that they offer opportunities for one-to-one sessions with agents who are absolutely guaranteed to have read your work. There’s also the chance to meet with so-called ‘book doctors’ – people working in the industry who can offer advice on whether your work is ready for submission and, if not, how to get it ready. This kind of feedback can save writers months of wasted time.

But it’s not just about the dedicated one-to-one slots. When you attend a writing festival, you can pick up vital bits and pieces of information. An agent on a panel may disclose that they’re looking for young adult novels with quirky female protagonists, or that their colleague has a particular interest in sci-fi dealing with complex gender issues. You might get chatting to an agent who isn’t currently open to submissions, but who likes the sound of your idea and says they’d be interested in seeing it in a few months’ time.

When you go to a festival, there’s often a high-profile success story, with a writer meeting their dream agent and receiving multiple offers of publication within days. It’s easy to feel that if you’re not that person, you’ve wasted your time and money. But many contacts bear fruit after the festival. If you were talking to an agent who said ‘That sounds interesting. Send it over to me when it’s ready,’ don’t go home and let writer’s doubt creep in. Don’t think ‘Oh, she was just being polite. If I send it, she’ll think I’m pestering her. And she probably won’t remember me anyway.’

If an agent tells you to send them your manuscript, SEND THEM YOUR MANUSCRIPT.

Sorry for the block capitals, but it’s worth saying and saying loudly.

The massive advantage of events like the York and Winchester festivals isn’t that attendance magically gives you a better chance of being published, but that it can take your work to the top of the slushpile, thus cutting a lot of the soul-destroying waiting time. If an agent is about to start wading through a vast pile of submissions, and an email arrives with a friendly reminder about a conversation at a recent festival, it might be just enough for them to think ‘Oh yes, I remember that writer. Pink hair and an interesting twist on the boy-loses-girl theme. Let’s see what this is about.’

I’m not for one minute suggesting that you can’t get published without attending a festival, or committing to an MA course. But if you have a genuinely good manuscript, and you’re ready to start submitting, a festival may just provide a valuable opportunity to shortcut some of the tangled and frustrating struggle on the road to publication.

Also, there’s usually wine. Sometimes embarrassing dancing.

Festivals are great opportunities, but they’re also fun. Don’t underestimate the value of letting your hair down with a whole load of like-minded people, before you creep back into your dusty garret and close the door.

Anne Corlett is originally from the north-east, but sort of slid down the map and now lives near Bath with her partner and three young sons. She is a criminal lawyer by profession, but now works primarily as a writer. Her short fiction and non-fiction has featured in various magazines and anthologies. She recently completed an MA in Creative Writing at Bath Spa, and her first novel, The Space Between the Stars, was published by Pan Macmillan in the UK on 1 June and by Berkley in the US on 13 June.

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