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A word in your ear

The York Festival of Writing 2011 #FOW11

This year's York Festival of Writing is two months away, on 25th-27th March, and I'll be there, along with dozens of other authors, plus agents, workshop leaders, publishers, editors and several hundred writers at varying stages of their aspiration. I'm leading a workshop on The Writer's Voices as well as a mini-course with my companion-in-crime, Debi Alper, on Finding Your Voice. I'm also doing Book Doctor slots, though they're filling up fast, I see. Last year was huge fun, in a head-spinning sort of way, and afterwards I blogged about it all in Ducks, Dreams and Cross-channel Ferries. But what about the expectations of it before the event?

For some it's the chance to hear writers they admire talk, or to get to grips with particular aspects of writing - point-of-view, internet marketing, thrillers, establishing character - in the company of an expert. The chance to have coffee with a book trade professional or buy them a drink is the lure for others, and many want to meet other writers in the same boat as themselves. Writing is a painfully isolated business at the best of times, and oh! the joy of meeting others who know exactly what you're talking about, how it feels, and who might even have a good idea about how to get your Chapter Ten out of the doldrums. There's a bookstall throughout the festival, with all the authors' books on sale, so a signed copy is a nice souvenir, too.

And for many, of course, the glittering prize would be to be Taken On By An Agent or even A Publisher. It's very understandable: York is all about getting your work publishable. But what would be a shame - a folly, though an understandable one - would be to pin all your hopes, and all your reasons for coming to York, on that one outcome. Yes, some will reach it. No, not everyone will. In my Twelve Tools (Not Rules) of Writing, I said that you should never write something purely to achieve an external goal, and I'd suggest that it's true too of spending money on your writing: that you should never do it purely in the hope of buying a leg-up to get over the wall into the book trade.

It's like going to enormous lengths of clothes, makeup and travelling to get to a party you don't want to go to, purely in the hope of meeting the love of your life. Chances are - loves of lives being thin on the ground - that you won't. And if that's all you're thinking about, you may not see or hear the lovely, gay man who might become a really important friend; the nice, clever woman who might offer you a job; the children who make you laugh; their step-mother who runs the PTA and books your theatre group for their AGM... As I was talking about in Several rabbits at once, networking only works if you know who you are (why you're there in that sense) but don't have too fixed an idea of what you want.

Of course what the workshops and talks and mini-courses offer is more pin-downable, and one huge reason for coming to York is to find help to become a better writer. You could find some of that elsewhere, but there's a fizzing chemistry when there's so much being offered by so many different people all in one place - and it is all in one place - which seems to double the effect. There's all the talking and meeting and gossipping over food, coffee, drink (lots of drink...), during the strolls to and from the rooms, on the train. There's the sense that we're all part of a community of people who think that writing matters, whether you've just written your first short story or are hammering away at a novel you hope will get you onto a MA or into The Bookseller.

And when you're gazing at two top agents talking to each other, or hearing what this editor's looking for or that publisher thinks will be the Next Big Thing, or watching a bookseller scuttling in from a star author's event and unpacking a box of books, and perhaps you're feeling daunted, just remember: it all starts with us and what we do, and none of those people would have a job if we didn't exist. And nor would York, because it exists for us.