How to stand out at the Festival of Writing

The Festival of Writing is designed to help writers meet literary agents: in lucky circumstances, an agent will be wowed, sign you on, and that’s the dream we want to help co-create. Writers have already met their literary agents as a direct result of the Festival of Writing in the past.

These writers’ good luck, though, is often the result of their thorough work, much writing and rewriting.

All boils down to careful planning.

Self-edit your novel

Authors gather at the Festival of Writing 2017.

The Festival of Writing is the sort of event you can’t help but plan for, if you’re really going to make the most of your ticket. (It’s as well to keep up with Festival news and alerts.) Not just preparing your one-to-one agent letters and excerpts on time, either. The other thing to do is enter Festival competitions to show, not tell, everyone what a talented writer you are.

Networking is integral to success at the Festival, but it’s only going to help if you’ve already made sure first your writing is as perfect as you can ever make it. To stand a chance of showing every agent how well you write, you should enter at least one competition. Every year, writers booking a place may enter three, and these too are networking tools, because shortlisted names and excerpts are read out, bringing names and manuscripts to the attention of all agents in the room.

Read up on 2017’s ‘movers and shakers’, with checklists on perfecting your own submissions, because it’s never too early to write and plan ahead.

Competition round-up (with tips to impress agents)

Friday Night Live

How it works: You’ll send us 500 words to read aloud on Friday night for the audience’s consideration. Joanna Cannon and Tor Udall are authors who’ve won Friday Night Live, now published by HarperCollins (Joanna) and Bloomsbury (Tor). Shortlisted writers are invited to read work aloud, and the Festival audience decides collectively who’ll win out. (That includes agents who’ll be listening to your work.)


  • Read aloud (before you submit) to a family member who can give gentle, honest feedback. Gauge how you sound, as you could wind up reading to a room of hundreds. How is your prose, your delivery? Speaking words aloud can often shed light on clunky sentence structure.
  • Read and reread, just as you would if submitting to an agent in writing. If speaking aloud has brought up awkward phrasing, amend, and read again because in York, you’ll want to shine out. Give your prose the best chance.
  • If you’re shortlisted to read, remember to 1) project and 2) slow down. It’s so easy to rush when nervous. Even if you don’t win, you’re still reading aloud to a room of agents, who may approach you after. All you need is to breathe, then speak clearly and slowly, one word at a time – and remember that every writer is rooting for you (everyone is in the same boat, hoping to get published, like you), and every agent is listening, waiting.

Flawless prose and impeccable delivery are needed to convince your writing audience on this.

Friday Night Live 2017 was won by Sophie Snell for The Pear Drum.

Congratulations also to 2017’s shortlisted writers: Abigail Johnson, Kate Horstead, Frances McGovern, Loretta Milan, Paul Sharp, and Joy Watkins.

Congratulations, Sophie. What first made you want to write?

I have always loved stories, and words, how to paint a picture and evoke sentiment with words fascinates me, it’s a bit of an addiction. And there are so many stories out there to be told – snippets in the news, families at war, fairy tales – I work as a traditional oral storyteller and telling a story is for me irresistible.

What are you currently reading?

I have just finished The Marsh King’s Daughter by Karen Dionne – brilliant book, a dark tale of a killer’s daughter, torn between nature and nurture, with a bit of Hans Christian Anderson running through the whole thing – right up my street!

Has there been interest from agents or publishers since the Festival of Writing?

I had just secured an agent before the Festival, it was tremendously exciting. Then after the Friday Night Live win, more agents and a publisher approached me. Several publishers have now indicated a desire to read the manuscript, including two I met at the Festival of Writing itself. I’m full of nerves now – will my book hold up to closer inspection?

We’re sure it will. What are you working on next?

Festival of Writing

Judges share praise with shortlisted writers.

I have a couple of ideas brooding away – one of them is about a half-abandoned village just down the road from our old farmhouse in Derbyshire, a real-life incident and another gothic-style local folk tale. With the growing chill of autumn and the lane outside our house already littered with dead leaves, I’m getting in the mood for another delicious foray into first draft writing – the best bit of writing is coming up with the ideas.

Best Opening Chapter

How it works: You send us your opening chapter (up to 3,000 words), then we pass on to a literary agent to pick the winner. Again, all agents present at the Gala dinner are listening as writers take to the stage.


  • Imagine an agent opening your document as an email attachment. Imagine they have been looking at hundreds of submissions that week alone. Remind yourself nothing but your best will engage attention.
  • If your book contains a prologue, skip it and send the first chapter instead – unless you’re confident the prologue’s gripping enough to open the action.
  • Be critical with yourself. Agents can’t have your assurances that the action will pick up in Chapter 10. It must grip now.

Many incredible book openings are sent each year, so this is a very tough competition to win.

Best Opening Chapter 2017 was won by Ruby Speechley for Bye Bye Baby.

Congratulations also to 2017’s shortlisted writers: Neema Shah, Mary-Anne Farah-Staff, Sue Cunningham, Jane Walker, Martin Wickham, Paul Sharp, Rebeka Shaid, Katherine Wade, and Loretta Milan.

Congratulations, Ruby. What first made you want to write?

I’ve been writing stories ever since I first picked up a pencil. I think it was my dad who first encouraged me to come up with my own stories. He helped me think about all the possible ‘what ifs’ beyond the obvious.

What are you currently reading?

I’m currently reading a proof copy of Fiona Mitchell’s debut, The Maid’s Room. It’s an extraordinary story about two Filipina maids struggling to survive their desperate lives as domestic workers in modern-day Singapore. It’s out 16 November 2017.

Has there been interest from agents or publishers since the Festival of Writing?

I’ve had quite a bit of interest from agents and publishers since the Festival (and a couple before). Eight or nine in total now, I think. It’s very exciting!

What are you working on next?

I’m concentrating on final edits before this novel has a last read-through from an editor. I only started it on 1 January this year, so it’s been quite quick. (I took about ten years to write my first two novels!) Once I send it out to agents, I might go back to the novel I abandoned to write this one.

Pitch Perfect

How it works: A strong ‘elevator pitch’ is essential to catch the notice of an agent: a strong, convincing and intriguing concept you can ‘sell’ in less than 150 words. That’s what wins Pitch Perfect and once again, agents are present, listening.


  • Your pitch should be 3 or 4 sentences (a total of 150 words).
  • It should be an intriguing taster, not the whole plot – try to leave out any extraneous information.
  • Imagine that your pitch is the back cover of your book. What would it say? How would you make someone excited to read the first page?
  • The more specific, the better: tell us the protagonist(s) of the story, where they are, and the central narrative drive.

A perfect pitch must be a grabbing, easily-communicated, concise description of what your story is about.

Pitch Perfect 2017 was won by Ayesha Braganza for Make Me Beautiful.

Congratulations, Ayesha. What first made you want to write?

As the decades slipped by, it became impossible not to write!

What are you currently reading?

An eclectic mix: Wuthering Heights, seeking inspiration about how to inject passion into the teenage protagonists in my own book; enjoying the delightfully wry The Summer Book by Tove Jansson; and looking forward to reading The Smell of Other People’s Houses by Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock.

Has there been interest from agents or publishers since the Festival of Writing?

I’ve had requests for my full manuscript so am busy burnishing my prose ahead of submission (with some reconstructive surgery, too).

What are you working on next?

A creative schools project: ‘book taster tours’ where children get to interactively sample contemporary and classic reads through workshops. The Festival of Writing has also prompted me to start a blog, where I’ll be sharing more on things so far!

What writers can expect for 2018

Literary agent Q and A

Carrie Plitt, agent and judge of Pitch Perfect 2017, takes questions.

Congratulations to Sophie, Ruby and Ayesha – do keep up with their writing journeys via their websites (above, and with Sophie on Facebook), and watch this bookcase-space.

Good things really do come to those who wait and plan, and it’s never too early to start planning next year’s Festival of Writing.

Early bird bookings for the Festival of Writing typically open each spring, and it’s not just an early discount you take advantage of. You’ll also get early pick of agents, so that’s important if you’re making a career investment for yourself.

Preparing means finding agents early, writing (and rewriting) one-to-one and competition entries early.

Treat the Festival of Writing as a vocational networking event, because agents are looking for writers to create working relationships with. It pays to be professional: to plan, to prepare, as winning and shortlisted writers always do.

Be sure to follow us on social media for blog updates and future tips, and remain subscribed to emails for 2018 Festival alerts. Meanwhile, you can find all the agents you need to write to through Agent Hunter, with some helpful letter and synopsis advice, too.

Happy writing!

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The Writers' Workshop is the world's leading consultancy for first time writers.
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