My Day at the National Writers’ Conference

Yesterday, I attended the National Writers’ Conference in the Bramall Music Building at the University of Birmingham held by Writing West Midlands. Having never been to a literary event before, I was somewhat apprehensive and wasn’t sure what to expect. At the registration desk, I had to choose which talks I would like to attend. The talks I picked were, ‘Sustaining a Creative Career’, ‘Becoming a Reviewer’ and ‘DIY and Independent Publishing’. Happy with my choices, I headed upstairs to where the complimentary tea and coffee was on offer. At first glance, it appeared as though everyone knew each other, as many a conversation was being had. On reflection, some delegates had attended together but most people greeted each other warmly, happy in the knowledge that they were in the same gang. This writer’s gang. It had taken me a few weeks to actually purchase the ticket to this event because I had felt like a bit of a fraud. Me, a writer? That title is for those with their name on the front of a book or in a magazine, isn’t it?

Taking my coffee, I started to wander, smiling at people as they walked past and feeling a little bit, well…strange. But standing against a table looking equally out of place, were a young man by the name of James and a lovely young woman called Wendy. I walked over and James introduced himself. The conversation flowed as we talked about what sort of things we wrote and I mentioned my fraudulent feelings and James agreed that most people in there probably felt like that. Feeling a bit more like I belonged in the gang, the three of us headed into the concert hall for the key note address. By now, our gang of three had become a quartet, as a lovely lady by the name of Joyce had joined us. Jonathan Davidson, Chief Executive from Writing West Midlands had this task and talked about belonging in this special and wonderful writing community  and how support from one and another was the key to a life in the arts.

Following Jonathan Davidson, was children’s author and illustrator Shoo Rayner, author of the The Ginger Ninja books and many more. Shoo spoke a lot about independent publishing and how that had worked for him. His illustration books now have a huge following on You Tube, where he posts regular ‘how- to’ videos for illustrating. He also discussed the issue of authors earnings and how little they make when sold through traditional publishers. Having been in the industry many years, it was fascinating hearing him talk so frankly.

Feeling buoyed along, I headed off to my first talk, ‘Sustaining a Creative Career’. Sitting in the back row, my favourite spot, I did hear the man in front of me murmur, ‘It would be nice to have a career to sustain first!’ Yes, that would be nice! The panel introduced themselves and began to tell us about how they got into the industry. It became clear that they had all had numerous flings down different avenues in the arts and one job seemed to lead to something different. One of the key things they all said was, ‘Don’t say no to anything’. This seemed a little bizarre really but their point was, you might be quite good at it, so give it a go! It seemed to work for them in their forays into different areas.

Inspired, I hurried off for the second talk of the day, ‘Becoming a Reviewer’. The panel was made up of a poetry reviewer, a crime book reviewer and a literary critic for the broadsheets. These titles don’t really do them all justice, as their resume’s were extremely impressive. I had never thought about reviewing books before but after listening to the panel give a brief rundown of their life and career, my interest was piqued. The lovely Canadian lady who reviewed crime books, actually does it for free on her own website. As her following and name grew, she was approached by a publisher to do some freelance work and she is now head of PR and social media for Bookouture, the digital publishers. Again, their journeys had taken them on paths they perhaps wouldn’t have first chosen but have now lead them to careers they love.

Time for lunch and Wendy, James, Joyce and I got into the massive queue for quiche, tofu and salad. Heading outside to get away from the stifling humidity, we sat in a shady spot on the grass outside the music hall. Parts of the campus had been taken over by huge marquees ready for graduation and I had a little flutter inside me thinking about my graduation next year. Enjoying the fresh air, we swapped writing stories and both Wendy and James admitted to writing and finishing a novel. Wendy was scared to send it anywhere and James was trying his best to get his novel noticed. Everyone of us has this lack of confidence in our own ability and self- belief. It was nice to know though that it wasn’t just me and being part of the writing community is a way of feeling like you’re not on your own out there. The lovely Joyce, who has recently become a grandmother, announced over lunch that she writes erotica! How fantastic!

Our third and final talk of the day was ‘DIY and Independent Publishing’. This time, the panel was made up of a chap who had founded his own press, a lady who self publishes her own novels and another lady who is the editor-at-large of Unbound, the crowd-funding publishers. All had very different experiences and stories to tell, most of which came from the freedom to have control over your own work, in contrast to that of a traditional publishing route.

As the day drew to a close, the final key note address came from Jo Bell, a well- known poet, more recently made famous for her poetry in the Nationwide TV adverts. Her speech was funny and heartwarming. She pointed out similar phrases I had heard throughout the day about saying yes and having a go, but also about saying no when you need to. She also talked about saying please and thank you when asking for jobs and to put yourself out there; asking can I review something, or please can I take part in that festival, putting your writing forward and the obvious thank yous for those giving you a break. These were her words of wisdom. Simple words but the honest truth of the matter, still.

The day over, I took my goody bag and walked back to the car. I thought about all the great pieces of advice and stories I had heard throughout the day. I was already part of the gang, I had been before I arrived, I just didn’t know it. Just because I’m not published or had my name in a magazine, I’m still a writer because I’m impelled to do so, whether it’s this blog post or a short story I’m trying to get finished. Just because I think they’re not very good, doesn’t mean I should stop, it means I should keep going. Being part of this ‘gang’, this writing community who make you feel that you belong and are always there to support and guide you through this sometimes murky but ultimately pleasure seeking world of writing, is part of what makes us who we are.

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