Winchester Writers’ Festival

Winchester Writers’ Festival June 2019

I judge the quality of any training session, lecture or meeting by the number of doodles I have in the margin of my notebook by the end of it. We will call this the doodles per hour quotient for the remainder of this piece (golf scoring, low is better). I also judge the quality of any journey by the number of floofy animals seen or interacted with on said journey. I didn’t see any on the way to the 2019 Winchester Writers’ festival, so they should really improve that next year.

Friday 14JUN2019: First day of the festival

You can tell they’re writers. Honestly.

I have never been to the Winchester Writers’ festival before. I safely assume it will be terrifying as that sets a nice low expectation. I’ve never been to Winchester university before either. It looks so nice, so close together and with trees and wild-flowers. I have some time to walk around and sit on the steps with coffee before the all day lecture and watch people. You shouldn’t be able to identify writers visually, but the people clumping and talking and moving look like writers. They’re carrying coffee and heavy bags.. Also watching the trellises of flowers flowing down the side of the building. I can hear a songbird in there.

This is the sort of situation where one would be encouraged to ‘network’ for ones career. Unless it involves cat5 cable I am very bad at networking (this is a lie, I am also bad at that sort of networking). In a conversation with a stranger my approximate opening line might be: “Hello I am also a writer and human being. Writing is easier with hands and eyes.”. The net benefit to my writing career would be, at best, neutral.

Squiggle-eye cow-bird: He is both prophet and prophecy

Through the first half of the Friday lecture doodles-per-hour hovers at a solid one point five. Learning about agents and editors and why some people still address letters to the wrong person. It’s good solid functional stuff, how does US sales work, what is an acquisitions meeting and how does it work, how to find out if the agent you’re talking to is honest or would willingly sell your kidneys for beer money.

Perhaps I shouldn’t but I far prefer stuff like this to the abstract and, perhaps, more artistic talks. It makes me feel like there’s a set of rules, a machine, and if those rules are followed and you understand the machine, then you can succeed. This is of course a lie, but it’s a comforting one, and not unhelpful. Even if it doesn’t guarantee success, there’s great value in understanding the system.

So many times over the weekend I hear the words “It’s a numbers game”, or words to that effect. At lunches, in the corridors, overheard from other people talking while I look for nearby animals, “It’s a number’s game”, over and over. As if it’s all random. There is randomness to it, but then there’s randomness to poker. Just accepting the randomness doesn’t feel likely to help when there are things that can help you win.

The lecture did not include any floofy animals though. Do people not have dogs here? No dogs to make friends with? This is very disappointing.

My own one-to-ones go unexpectedly. I have them back to back and luckily there is a big door nearby to run outside and breath fresh air and the smell of flowers between meetings. Much feedback, many positive things. I recorded them on my phone so later I can pore over them inch by inch like a crazy person write them up calmly and peacefully. Someone wants the full manuscript. Unfortunately this means I will have to send the full manuscript and then he will read the full manuscript which is not terrifying at all.

Doodles-per-hour measures are suspended for the remainder of the day as it would not be a fair measure in this state.

Now, what if we (and I realise this is a crazy plan), what if we panicked?

Friday 15JUN2019: Second day of the festival

Driving to Winchester along smaller roads. A car fairly close in front of me, I don’t remember its colour. An early morning bird, maybe a sparrow, darting from the hedgerow across the street in front of that car. I don’t know why it tried to dodge down instead of up. An instant heartbeat and the little cloud of black feathers flows out from under the wheel, over my windscreen like spray and then its gone. Why didn’t he stop? Why didn’t he stop?

Given yesterday and the fact that I saw a bird f***ing die on the way here I’m not in the best of moods. On edge would be an inaccurate description. Today the whole world is built of edges.

I did not investigate. I am very suspicious but also very lazy.

I wait in the courtyard, drinking the coffee which is so ubiquitous I wonder why they bother with the ID cards. I hear songbirds again from the trellises, but they sound suspiciously familiar. Do they just have speakers up there? That would be very concrete soul-less of them.

The keynote address begins. It starts with four separate people standing up, introducing the next person along and sitting down again, like a civility relay race. DPH ratio is rising.

The actual keynote starts. The speaker is younger, more successful, funnier and has led a more interesting life than me. Also her picture on the front of the festival booklet stares out of the page creepily, like she is thinking of killing you in a really clever way.

She talks excitedly, happily, and with humour. Maybe I have misjudged her. She hasn’t killed anyone yet. She talks about people underestimating children’s books, and about her own childhood and journey. I find myself agreeing with it (and not just because people underestimate sci-fi and fantasy as well). Although she did use a metaphor about a person’s inner ‘rat’, implying something nasty and evil. As a proud rat-parent I disapprove. She maintains more enthusiasm and happiness through the lecture, people clap very loudly. It’s nice to hear people talk about what they’re passionate about.

Mr Teeth is friendly and will not eat your skin

And as everyone files out with their books and ubiquitous coffee the day truly begins, off to all of the different lectures of the day. I am off to “Publishing with Amazon”. For the life of me I cannot remember why I picked this.

Fifteen minutes in the DPH counter is is rising. A man is explaining how you format a word document and how to use headers to create navigation points and a table of contents. This is basic word processing. No, no, maybe I’m being too harsh. Perhaps this is really useful to stupid people. Out of the window I can see people walking dogs on the green bit next to the car park. Some of them are floofy, some of them are not, but they are all good dogs.

Now they are talking about how you can get real time stats of how your book is selling. I want to ask if you can attach it to any amazon web service elements like a kinesis stream or lambda to process it and trigger things. I suspect however that this is the wrong audience for this question.

Lunch definitely happened at some point today. There are buffet tables of food, but I was warned of the vegan Nazis that guard the super special table. Only those who pass their tests may sup of the bounty within. The first test is that they ask you if you are vegan. If you take less than ten minutes to answer you have failed. I wouldn’t really mind except that there’s hummus on that table. A man should not be kept from hummus. For a middle class English person I’m pretty sure that counts as torture.

I’m mad that I have eyebrows!

Way too many people sit down on my table. Talking to me, saying things like “How are you enjoying the festival” and “What about those vegan Nazis, eh?” (also “It’s a number’s game.”). I excuse myself and go for a walk. There is a pond here with carp and damselflies and a squirrel! Also I was a little weirded out that I was sitting alone at a table and then like five men and no women all came and sat down one by one, like I had somehow designated it the men’s table. At a festival that’s more than fifty percent women that did seem weird. Somewhere, some-place, I would bet that someone has filled whole scientific journals on the complex sociology of the lunch-room. Whole careers have been made on less.

I am rapidly running out of energy and the last two lectures blur together. They are on similar topics, one on avoiding the slush pile and one on common mistakes. Of the common mistakes there is only one that I have done: Apparently pdfs don’t work well on kindles. Who knew?

Two more one-to-ones. They are very helpful and positive but do not request the manuscript. This is lucky as my head would have exploded which is messy and I would not be around to help them clean up.

Anyone who complains to Keith has no soul

Coming out of the first one though, filing through the university stairwell with other writers making a bee-line for caffeine I pass an office with this sign! There is a dog who lives in the office? Looking through the window I can’t see him, or anyone else. He is probably not there on weekends. What can I do to work in this office? Why doesn’t my office have a dog? I’m sure it would improve my productivity (this is a lie. I would do no work.)

Through all the lectures today I have also written down two more entirely different descriptions for what a synopsis should contain. On the basis of what I have heard this festival, apparently it should definitely contain the ending and also not contain the ending. It should also be like a book blurb, but also is definitely not like a book blurb. Luckily they say the synopsis doesn’t matter too much (but is also extremely important).

Most importantly however on the way out of the final lecture I see it. There is a black Labrador sitting patiently beside it’s owner who is chatting on a bench. I have waited all weekend. I ask to pet it and proceed to pet it.

So many writers, and a lot of good advice. But for a festival dedicated to a vocation so common to introverts it’s all quite overwhelming. The people around still look like writers, maybe this is some sort of primitive tribal instinct to recognise one’s own kind. Honestly though, it’s going to take me a few weeks just to process all of this. It will definitely take a few days to obsessively listen and re-listen to the recordings and write it all down on a big whiteboard with string like a serial killer go over my notes in a sane and not-crazy way. I need a break, and to get back to my rats.

While driving out of the parking lot I see the dog again. It is wearing a yellow jacket and its owner has sunglasses on. I was bothering a service dog and am therefore a jerk. So that is one way to end the weekend I suppose. I drive home very carefully, checking for birds.

Winchester 2019. Never Forget.

This madness provided by Alex Bolsover of Royal Borough Writers

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