What's it like to attend a writers' conference?

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WM checks out the National Creative Writing Industry Day 2019

A writers' day out

I’m clutching my delegate’s bag in the lobby of the Geoffrey Manton Building at Manchester Metropolitan University and there are writers everywhere. It’s the National Creative Writing Industry Day – the biggest creative writing conference in the North of England, set up by MMU and Comma Press to give new and aspiring writers the chance to get an insight into the publishing industry. There are panel events, workshops, pitching sessions… the atmosphere is busy, friendly, and bustling. But what to do? Where to go?

Talking heads

After the keynote speech by author Sharlene Teo, the morning is divided into four panel events, each focussing on a different aspect of the industry. You’re meant to choose two but Writing Magazine is greedy for information and sneaks into all of them. First up, After the Breakthrough: How the Publisher Works With You, offering useful, practical information to a packed lecture theatre about the nitty-gritty of what to expect after your book is accepted for publication. Illumination comes from Emma Herdman, editor at Hodder Fiction, talking about the edits a publisher might want to make to a manuscript: ‘An editor wants to make things work better. I can see if something is there – everything I suggest is to make it a little bit better.’

In the next lecture theatre, there’s an intense discussion about the Future of Representation in Children’s/YA Fiction. ‘You need a richness of representation that’s incidental but not surface,’ stresses Aimée Felone, co-founder of children’s fiction publisher Knights Of. Illustrator Dapo Adeola, who co-created Look Up! With Nathan Bryon, speaks from experience about the importance of creating opportunities for people less represented in publishing. ‘It had good content and good characters who were Black British – it ticked all the boxes, and that’s why people wanted it. So in a way, it was lazy – it wasn’t about nurturing talent. It was reinforcing this narrative that only one person can come through. I got sick and tired of being the one person – all I want to do is draw.’

The next pair of panel discussions are on poetry, chaired by livewire MMU professor of poetry Andrew McMillan, and Writing in the Face of Doubt, chaired by writer and former neuroscientist Rachel Genn. The focus in the poetry discussion is the point at which someone feels they can claim ‘poet’ as an identity. ‘The title of this – I’m a Poet, Take Me Seriously – is what I shouted at my boyfriend when he told me to empty the dishwasher,’ says Andrew McMillan. ‘It’s about not taking yourself seriously, but taking the work seriously.’

The Writing in the Face of Doubt panel is packed: this is an issue that every creative writer has to confront, and the session is fascinating, illuminating – and reassuring. ‘You don’t have to be perfect,’ says panellist Jane Bradley, writer and founder of For Books’ Sake. ‘You just have to be you, in all your messy glory. You only have to tell your own story.’

Industry insights

It’s been an intense morning and there’s more to come. A queue of hungry writers snakes across the atrium to the buffet, past the tables set up for the pitching sessions. Each delegate is matched with two agents/editors for two 15-minute sessions to pitch a work in progress, get feedback and ask questions. And around the atrium there are stalls set up where delegates can drop in and chat to writing and publishing practitioners, including Poor Lass Zine and Manchester-based indie publisher Stinging Fly.

Focus on creativity

Whilst the pitching sessions are in progress, the day’s workshop programme is also in session, with each delegate booking a place on one out of a choice of eight, covering industry insights as well as writing practice. After the intense, industry-based panel discussions, Writing Magazine fancies exploring the ‘creative’ aspect of creative writing and opts for Feminist, Queer and Own Voices Fantasy tutored by Kirsty Logan. It’s a fantastic choice. Kirsty’s playful, inventive ‘if-this-then-what?’-based exercises encourage the participants to imagine and create trope-busting scenarios that allow wildly individual interpretations. ‘Follow your rabbit,’ says Kirsty. ‘Just see where it goes. Allow yourself to be whimsical – play games – be silly.’ The exercises and writing prompts demonstrate how writers can stretch genre boundaries and their own imaginations – and the warm, fun atmosphere turns our workshop into a buzzy community of shared words and ideas.

After the event, was it a day well spent?

Words and ideas about writing came at you from every angle during #NCWD19 – and not just during the panel sessions and workshops, but from conversations struck up in the buffet queue, chats at the stalls, and insights offered by other writers in workshops and discussions.

With so much to do, so many new people to meet, and so many ideas to share in a supportive atmosphere dedicated to encouraging new writers, #NCWID19 not only delivered a wealth of information and ideas geared towards new and emerging writers, but also a sense of a networked community. If any writer is considering booking a place at a writing conference, this day felt like an investment, and for £45 including food, it was great value for money, too. The whole day was a positive experience: focussed, busy, exciting, and inspiring.

 

The ultimate writing weekend away? Start Your Story with James McCreet on 7 and 8 March 2020 offers day-long masterclasses on The Essentials of Novel Writing and Crime Writing.