I regularly attend the Winchester Writers’ Festival, which was originally the Winchester Writing Conference started by Barbara Large, MBE.
I am glad to say I will be interviewing Barbara soon. Her help and encouragement to so many writers over the years, including me, has been phenomenal and much appreciated.
So why do I go to conferences such as this?
To learn from the specific courses I’ve chosen.
To listen to guest speakers. One of my favourite authors is Terry Pratchett and I had the joy of hearing him give the Plenary Speech at Winchester a few years back.
To get in contact with other writers.
Writing is a one person job (usually) at a desk so to get together with others who know the joys and frustrations of it is so encouraging.
Best of all you can make friends too and the advent of social media and email makes it much easier to stay in touch long after the conference has finished. And they will know of competitions and other opportunities to showcase work you may not have known about. I’ve entered at least one competition due to that.
To sometimes try out a writing topic I had not considered before.
One course I went to at Swanwick this year was about developing stories from characters in song lyrics. This was not an avenue I had ever considered but the course was a lot of fun and very enlightening. Sometimes capturing the mood of a song is enough to trigger a story.
From the songs selected for this course, I chose Space Oddity by the much missed David Bowie and used the tragic mood of this to draft a short story during this course. I hope to write this up and edit it at a later date. But this course was a great trigger.
So what to look for in a good conference?
The warmth of its welcome, especially for new delegates.
One thing I loved about Swanwick was their system of badges. Newbies such as myself this year were given white badges, those on their second year and upwards wore yellow ones. Welcome receptions were put on white badge holders and on the first night’s dinner we had a table where us newbies could get together and talk over a wonderful meal. This broke the ice so quickly. I found that once you get in conversation like that, it sets the tone for the rest of the week.
At Winchester (where I usually attend one of the three days of the Festival, sometimes two), they have people stationed around the campus so there is always someone to ask for directions to which room you’re meant to get to for the next talk and so on.
They also have “Agony Aunts” you can consult over writing problems you’re facing. One thing I love about writing conferences in general is it is not too difficult to get conversation going (which is the quickest way I know of getting “into” the conference and so getting the most out of it). All you do is ask someone their name and what they write and away you go! Once they’ve told you, they usually then ask you and before you know it the topic goes on to publishing successes or otherwise, the hassles of getting an agent and so on.
The variety of talks. There should be plenty of choice so there is something for short story writers, novelists, non-fiction writers and so on. Winchester and Swanwick do really well here.
Experienced speakers with a good track record. Speaks for itself really and again Winchester and Swanwick attract some great speakers.
Seeing new talks each year being added to the programme, at least some of which take in new developments in the publishing world. For example, in the last five years there have been many more courses on self publishing, being an independent author and so on.
A chance to try something new to you.
I remember when I first went to a writing conference the very thought of having to do any kind of writing exercise threw me. The thought of having to read my work out was even more terrifying!
But writing exercises spark ideas, nobody expects you to come out with a perfect work all in one go (for the very good reason nobody does!), and reading out loud means you can literally hear what works and what doesn’t in this very rough piece of work you produced all of fifteen minutes ago. (You don’t usually get more time than that. Indeed it is often less. The time factor helps you focus!).
A good conference will give plenty of opportunities for the delegates to ask questions in the various talks they go to (and indeed positively encourage such questions).
I was encouraged that Swanwick positively sought feedback while we were there (they were particularly keen to ensure the “white badgers” were getting along all right) and also after we’d gone home again. They made it easy to give feedback by providing forms that we dropped off in the main reception area before we left.
Naturally a good conference will have an easy to navigate website with plenty of information about what they offer. There are usually testimonials too. Both Swanwick and Winchester run their own competitions with prizes and indeed in the case of the former it is possible to win a free place there. So you could book, pay up, win the competition and get your money back and still go! And in both cases having a win or a shortlist in their competitions makes an excellent entry to go on your writing CV.
I was very impressed that after Swanwick ended this year, delegates could download from their website all teaching materials for all courses for this year. I loved this as there were several courses I would have liked to have done but had to focus on one which was simply unmissable (character psychology, which was one of the best courses I have ever attended).
By downloading the material from the other courses, I’ve had a good taste of what the other courses would have been like and if these are offered again another year, it will make my task easier working out what the second most unmissable course was so I can attend that. I thought this idea was simply brilliant and it would be lovely if other conferences did the same.
Generally you can only get course notes from the course you booked. All courses I’ve been on have been generous on handouts (and these are useful for web links, emails and other useful contacts as well as reminding you of the salient points of the talk).
So whichever writing conference you go to, I hope you have fun, make new writing friends and learn a great deal. Your own writing will prosper from all three of those things!
Read blog posts by Allison Symes published on Chandler’s Ford Today.
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