Virginia Moffat came to the Festival of Writing in 2012 – here is her story:
In 2012, I booked myself a place on the York Festival of Writing. As a busy working parent, it can be difficult for me to get away, but I’d decided earlier that year, that the time was right for me to attend. I was half way through the third edit of my novel ‘Echo Hall’ and at a stage when I felt professional feedback would be helpful. The fact that I was a student at York (way back in 1984) was an added bonus; I was very excited to be going back.
The minute I got on the train to York I was filled with good vibes. Not only did I manage to increase my word count by resisting the internet and writing for three solid hours, but as soon as I stepped onto the platform and gazed up at the familiar iron arches on the ceilings I was right back at home. The evening only got better from there. After a lovely nostalgia-filled run around the campus I enjoyed dinner in a relaxed setting where it was easy to meet writers and publishing professionals. After dinner, we were entertained wih readings from the six winners of Literary Live, and the chance to vote on the one we liked the most. Although my favourite didn’t win, the standard was very high and the whole evening was very enjoyable.
I was up early on Saturday for a stroll around some of my favourite haunts, before wandering down to Central Hall for the keynote speech from Jo-Jo Moyes. Last time I was in the building I’d been sitting my finals exams, so it was much more pleasant to be sitting back and listening to her describe her journey into writing. It was a great speech – witty, warm, honest. So much of what she said resonated with me: write the best book you can, write what you have to write, stay with your novel. Much of her experience was laced with failure and disappointment, and yet she could so clearly demonstrate what she had learnt in such a self-deprecating manner, it was terribly heartening. It was totally and utterly inspiring and well worth the entire conference fee just to be there.
The rest of the day was equally brilliant. I met some fabulous authors and then had my first one to one with an agent. Waiting for my slot was a bit stressful as it reminded me of some of the less helpful tutorials on my writing course. But I needn’t have worried. My chosen agent was encouraging, supportive, interested, picked up on some weaknesses I hadn’t seen and gave me some useful pointers. The fact that she liked the premise, she liked the title, and appreciated some of the bits that worked well was more than enough, and I could immediately see a way to improving the material.
Saturday night concluded with an excellent Gala Dinner, more fascinating conversations with a bunch of talented writers whose novels all sounded great and the presentation of the winners of the Opening Chapter Competition and the Greenhouse Literary Agency Funny Awards.
The following day, I had two more 1:1s (which included an extra one for booking early) both of which were as helpful as the first. I left for home invigorated and full of determination to complete my novel. I may not have won any prizes or found myself an agent, but those 1:1s had built my confidence no end. Not one, but three industry professionals liked my work, felt I was a good writer and that the novel had potential. It was enough for me to press on till completion.
Four years on from my trip to York, and ‘Echo Hall’ is well on its way to publication. The book tells the story of three generations of women experiencing love, loss and conflict during times of war. Set against the backdrop of the 1991 Gulf War, World War 2 and World War 1, it asks whether such conflict is inevitable or can we find another way? I began it in 2004 in the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq, and twelve years on, with conflict continuing in Iraq, Syria and Libya, I’m convinced it is more relevant than ever.
Thanks to the feedback from York and a couple more years of editing, in 2015 ‘Echo Hall’ was longlisted for two competitions (The Bridport Prize and the Retreat West Opening Chapter Competition). Even better this year, I was signed by Unbound, the innovative crowdfunding publisher. Unbound is an unusual publisher, in that it is prepared to work with un-agented writers, and offers a 50% royalty share. The only slight drawback is that in order to get to publication, I have to raise the costs. This is not for the fainthearted as it requires a colossal amount of ego, social media interaction and networking to make it happen. I am a debut writer with a small audience, and am finding progress slow.
So if you are thinking of going to York this year, please do take the plunge, it really is worth the trip. But also, be realistic! We would all love to have the dream experience of winning a competition and landing an agent and a book deal. It does happen – in recent years Shelley Harris and Joanna Cannon were both discovered at the Festival – but it won’t for most of us. The real value of going is to have the chance for constructive feedback from industry professionals who know what they are doing. It is an opportunity to learn from writers, publishers and agents about how to improve your craft. Above all, it’s a real joy to meet writers, agents and publishers and talk about what we love about writing and reading. I made many friends at the festival who I am still in contact. Had I stayed at home I would have never met them.
York happened to me at a stage when I needed some encouragement to keep going with a novel that had been possessing me for a long time. It was critical to my development as a writer and to finding a publisher. I can’t recommend it highly enough and hope the same happens for you.