So, what do I do with my football-free weekends in the summer? I tend to have most weekends May and June booked up by Easter as I take the opportunity to fit in things that simply aren’t possible during the football season, owing to football taking priority. This was especially important this summer, as those rare free Saturdays during the season will likely be non-existent during 2019/20, what with my commitments with both Chasetown and Blackpool. This weekend I had my writer hat on and was booked onto the National Writers’ Conference at the Bramall Music Building at University of Birmingham.
My alarm went off at 7am to the tune of Gold by Spandau Ballet. That was Chasetown’s anthem during the 2017/18 season and it was belted out in the dressing room after every win en route to the play-offs. But what with wins far scarcer during the last campaign, that tune has become a little less rousing. I must change this. I selected my shower artist of choice (it’s usually Buckcherry and it was today) and bounced out of bed to get ready for the day.
I skipped down the road to the bus stop and was soon aboard the bus to Birmingham. I was determined to be productive on this journey so I took out my Kindle and got stuck into the new Peter James (Dead At First Sight). Reading has become work for me now and I can’t just read a book for pleasure any more; I’m always critiquing or looking for ideas. Hence it takes me far longer to read a book than it used to (I have been known to rattle through a Peter James in a day but those days are behind me now!).
As the bus approached Birmingham I realised I hadn’t a clue where I was going once I got there, so I consulted Google Maps and was advised to get the 61 or 63 towards Frankley from Moor Street Interchange (conveniently also where my bus stopped). I stood in the blazing sunshine as I waited a few minutes for my connecting bus and was soon on my merry way to Edgbaston.
I had been to Edgbaston a couple of times previously – once to the Midlands Arts Centre for an open air cinema showing of Psycho; and once to collect sunbears during The Big Sleuth, a city-wide trail of fibreglass bears all decorated by different artists. This fascination with art trails began in 2007 in Ventspils, where there was little else to do other than find the cows that remained from the International Cow Parade (an art trail held in three cities across the world each year). Today I was heading to the Bramall Music Building at the University of Birmingham. I had been here before to photograph a bear and was pleased to revisit the imposing clock tower on campus. As I approached where the conference venue was situated on the map, my ears pricked up and I followed the sound of the general hubbub, which led me to my destination.
After confirming I wasn’t one of today’s speakers, I collected my lanyard and a bag full of literature and was sent to another desk to register for my selected breakout sessions (there was a choice of three sessions for each timeslot). I opted for How Publishing Works, Social Media for Writers and Getting Your Work Heard. I then proceeded to get my bearings, locating the refreshments (tea and coffee only), water cooler, toilets and the rooms where the various sessions would be held. That done, I settled down in a seat in the Elgar Concert Hall.
After introductions it was time for the first keynote speaker, Mandy Ross, a children’s writer, who provided the first snippets of information to go in my writer’s notebook today. She alluded to the Children’s Writers and Artists Yearbook, which I didn’t know was a thing, but I will now be sure to purchase as a good reference point for contacts (my next project will be a children’s story).
It was now time for my first selected session of the day: How Publishing Works. This was an interesting session, where I learned about agents and also the different routes to publishing and the benefits of these (e.g. self publishing, small publishers and major publishers). It seems they each have their own place, depending on the type of work you want published and its marketability.
Ahead of the session on Social Media for Writers, delegates were advised that, if they had an orange sticker on their lanyard, they were registered on the in-demand limited-space Speed Pitching session. I was surprised to see an orange sticker on my lanyard, as my event ticket had indicated that all the spaces had gone, hence I hadn’t properly prepared my pitch. Was it even appropriate to pitch, with my novel unfinished? Those of us selected for the speed pitching were advised to push ourselves to the front of the queue for lunch so we could be finished in time for the session, which was during the last half hour of the lunch break. Panicking slightly now, I wasn’t sure whether I would attend the session or not. Granted, it was a unique opportunity, but I was woefully underprepared, so what would be my chances of success?
Meanwhile I had to concentrate on the Social Media for Writers session. This was interesting, with a particularly engaging panellist in Leena Normington, a YouTuber with 60,000 subscribers. What did I learn? Amongst many other things, I should be on Goodreads; you can produce email lists for specific content; and Hootsuite is useful for scheduling tweets.
I joined the lunch queue without pushing in (one is far too English for that sort of thing) but was soon accosted by the woman who was running the speed pitching (and had seen the orange sticker on my lanyard) and she pushed me towards the front of the queue. I did try to protest that I wasn’t prepared for the speed pitching but she said ‘oh you’ll be fine’ so I guess that was that decision made!
We had been warned that lunch today was vegan but, having enjoyed some excellent vegan food on my recent holiday in Rhodes, I was perfectly ok with this (unlike my new friend Jacquie, who I sat next to all day, who complained that vegan food always left her feeling hungry again two hours later). Frankly I could have eaten a horse (although obvs this wasn’t on the menu today) as I had forgotten to have breakfast this morning and also hadn’t had any tea last night after a big lunch. I therefore had no hesitation in piling my plate with tofu (just don’t), rice, potatoes and veg. It actually made a refreshing change from the usual buffet fayre of chicken legs and sausage rolls. Plate suitably wolfed down, I made my way up to The Dome for speed pitching. I had glanced at my notes over lunch and found I wasn’t really as underprepared as I had thought. I do need to get this fine-tuned though.
I was relieved to find that the session was in fact a whistle-stop workshop on how to speed pitch (as opposed to actually pitching). I was partnered up with a French girl and we had to do a number of exercises in our pairs: talking for two minutes uninterrupted about ourselves (without mentioning our writing), talking for two minutes uninterrupted about a particular writing project and then, after a brief talk on how to structure a pitch, a final two minutes summarising our work before going into finer detail: heading (summary), sub-heading (genre, target market, context) detail (the bigger picture). We were also advised to have an end goal to finish the pitch (‘Can I send it to you?’ ‘Is this something that you would be interested in?’) to bring the pitch to a close. This was a useful session and made me realise that I am confident and passionate when talking about myself and, in particular, my work, so speed pitching will not present a problem to me in the future (provided I am prepared!).
Now it was time for the final session of the day: Getting Your Work Heard. There was some overlap here with the social media session, but I still picked up many useful tips.
The final keynote speaker, working class writing champion Kit de Waal, provided food for thought as to the definition of working class. Like me, she does not live a working class lifestyle but still considers herself working class because of her background. After the closing comments – by which time I was tired after a long day concentrating – it was time to hand in my lanyard and head homeward.
In summary, the National Writers’ Conference is a useful day out for a writer and I would recommend it. It is a good opportunity to meet other writers and pick up tips on how to progress, no matter what stage of your writing career you are at. My writer’s notebook was filled with notes by the end of the day, which is a sign of a productive day. Now I need to get cracking on with that novel of mine…