They say there’s a novel in all of us… so far I’ve found a dozen short stories and a handful of poems, but I’m working on it. With that in mind, I took a trip to my old haunt Manchester Metropolitan University for the inaugural National Creative Writing Graduate Fair, to get some writing advice and inspiration from the experts (luckily they let us not-recent-grads in too!).
Designed to inspire and educate students, graduates and new writers alike, #NCWGradFair is a collaboration between Comma Press and Manchester Writing School. The sell-out event featured a butterfly-rousing line up of authors and publishing professionals from both commercial and independent fields, including locals Comma Press and Dead Ink alongside national brands like Penguin Random House.
In the morning, myself and other writers from across the UK were treated to a series of engaging talks and Q&As, whilst the afternoon offered a rare opportunity to meet with literary agents and publishers for the chance to pitch work, make connections and peep behind the curtain of commissioning.
If you're an aspiring writer be sure to sign up for next year's event... And if you can’t wait that long, here are ten tips I picked up on the day.
- Everyone needs an editor
Good writers seek out strong editorial feedback and don’t shy away from constructive criticism. You know that saying “can’t see the wood for the trees”? Don’t be too precious when faced with good advice that is going to make your story shine as brightly as it possibly can.
- “It takes bloody-mindedness” (Adam Foulds, novelist and poet)
The truth is, it can take many years and a pile of rejection letters big enough to balance your table leg on (twice) before you get that first deal. If you’ve had honest feedback and reason to believe you have something good, then perseverance, self-belief and even more perseverance will become your best allies.
- Don’t give up the day job
Chances are, unless you become an international bestselling author overnight, you’ll need to keep working alongside writing. If you’re serious about putting pen to paper, consider what type of job is going to work best for you. You might want to do a job that takes up little of your mental energy, so you can pour it all into your stories. On the other hand, you might find a role in teaching, journalism or scriptwriting (the modern day patrons of literature) keeps you stocked up with creative spark.
- Make time to write
Whether it’s taking a year out, working part time or burning the midnight oil, it’s absolutely essential to create time to write and stick to it. Otherwise you might find yourself a few years older, a few hairs shorter and only a few paragraphs in.
- Make space to write
Of course, it’s not just about finding the time; it’s also about finding the right environment to flex your creative muscles in. We’re not all lucky enough to have our own mini studios at the bottom of the garden, but you can create your writing gym elsewhere. Your local library, perhaps, or a quiet café (Manchester folk, try Chapter One). Or, with a little support from your family/flatmates, a room in your house that you can turn into your sanctuary for just an hour or two each day.
- “Trust in the adventurousness of you reader” (Rachael Kerr, Editor-at-Large, Unbound)
It’s no secret that large commercial publishers can play it a bit “safe” when it comes to new titles. But that doesn’t mean that audiences want to. Out there, there are millions of interesting, individual, wonderful bookworms all looking for something new and exciting. Why not try exploring more disruptive publishers and platforms to discover and connect with your readers.
- To self-publish or not to self-publish?
If you’re struggling to land an agent there are lots of alternative routes to publishing. You could submit to specialist writing magazines like Mslexia or Synaesthesia, or connect with independent presses like those mentioned above. You could also try self-publishing platforms like MacGuffin or crowdfunded publishers like Unbound. It really is an exciting time to be writing with so many tools at your fingertips. The important thing is to do your research, understand your own expectations and find the right path for you.
- Let it go
A great piece of practical and honest advice came from debut novelist Sarah Jasmon, who said, and I’m paraphrasing, “If you have to shelve it, shelve it. Move on, it can liberating.” Of course you don’t want to give up too soon, but equally holding on to a single project (one that no one seems to want) could be just what’s stopping you from that next, perhaps greater, piece of work.
- Make friends
It has been said that us writers are a solitary lot, and perhaps it’s true. That makes it all the more important to build a good network around you. Join a writing group, go to events, get active online, read and promote one another. It can be really rewarding to feel a sense of community and support. What’s more, when you’re active on social media or out there in the real world, you can start to build rapport with your readers and meet new ones along the way.
- “Enjoy the delirium the writing bug imparts!”
Wise words from keynote speaker, novelist Adam Foulds.
Comma Press has another event coming up soon, this time celebrating the short story with the University of Huddersfield. Check out Short Story Day here.
And look out for my follow up piece “Advice for contacting agents”.