The Life-Changing Festival of Writing a Guest Blog from Roz Watkins

Roz attended the 2015 Festival of Writing.

Roz Watkins Head Shot

Whilst walking our dog in the Peak District, I found myself wondering what it would be like to discover a corpse. This, together with a long-suppressed desire to kill off some of my ex-colleagues, led to me starting my first book, The Devil’s Dice, in which a patent attorney is found poisoned in a cave.

About eighteen months later, I was idling around on the Writers’ Workshop website, having been lured there by Harry Bingham’s books. I saw there was a thing called The Festival of Writing, and I was tempted. I thought I’d go for a day. I couldn’t do the whole thing due to complex dog-care issues, but I’d get a one-to-one with a book doctor and an agent. That had to be a good idea.

A couple of weeks later, my partner handed in his notice at work, in a fit of justified (or so he claims) moral outrage. My first thought was not, How are we going to survive? But, You can look after the dog while I go to York. It was decided – I’d go for the full weekend. What joy to immerse myself in writing for three days, and meet other similarly afflicted individuals.

At the festival, the first hint that I could be having a psychotic episode was when my book doctor, Claire McGowan, said she really liked my first chapter and would pass it to her agent, Diana Beaumont. This was very exciting, but I calmed myself down, stuck on my one-and-only dress, and headed to the posh Saturday night dinner.

I was happily guzzling wine and marvelling at how other writers scrubbed up when the winners of the first chapter competition were announced. As far as I was concerned, I hadn’t been short-listed, so I spilt my drink down the one-and-only dress when my name was read out as runner up. I hadn’t received the email about the short-list! What a night. I’m afraid I went a bit nuts on the dance floor and my friend was forced to pretend she didn’t know me. It was the first time in my life I actually had to pinch myself.

Three months later I decided my book was finished (it wasn’t) and sent it to Diana. She offered representation very quickly. It was clear she really “got” the book and she made some great suggestions over the phone. I accepted there and then. (I know you’re not supposed to do that, and I did have some other interest, but I knew she was the right agent for me.) Things then happened pretty fast. Diana helped me edit – and I still can’t quite forget the instruction to “ratchet up the drama, tension, emotions, suspense, fear and spooky elements another 20%”, shortly before we were due to submit.

I knew being on submission would be stressful, and could take a while, so I vowed not to think about it and to get on with the next book. (Yeah, right.) It helped that we had a few days in Venice, so I was in a Venetian piazza when I received the life-changing phone call. We’d had a pre-emptive offer from a German publisher (via a scout). Diana quoted a day-job-quitting amount of money, and said, “I think we can get more”. She proceeded to do that while my partner and I celebrated with a prosecco by the Grande Canal.

A few days later we had an approach about a TV option. (I made the mistake of checking my emails when waiting at road works. Don’t do it – when I have to drive off, I nearly crashed the car.) By this time I really did think I was on the Truman Show or that I’d been abducted by aliens who were experimenting with my brain.

A couple of weeks later we agreed a three book deal for the UK with HQ, a new HarperCollins imprint.
This astonishing period culminated in a trip to the HarperCollins summer party (where it was great to see Joanna Cannon, who’d been a judge of the first chapter competition and had been very supportive) and a shortlisting for the Debut Dagger.

So, assuming I’m not dreaming or being experimented on, have I got any clue how this happened?

I’m not deluded enough to think there wasn’t a huge chunk of luck involved. But in case it helps anyone, this is what I did:

Gave up the challenging day job and earned money doing something dull.

I know not everyone can do this, and I was very fortunate. I ran holiday cottages, so I spent a lot of time cleaning toilets. It’s hard NOT to plot murders while you’re doing this.

I couldn’t have written the book while I was still a patent attorney. However, my ex-colleagues did provide a rich vein to tap when I was creating corpses and murder suspects.

Gave up housework.

This was obviously a huge sacrifice, but you have to suffer for your art. I remember asking myself whether in five years’ time I’d prefer to be a published author or to be confident I’d always had a clean house. (Well, clean-ish – with a dog, three cats and a horse, this was never going to be my thing.) I ignored the most likely outcome, which was being an unpublished writer and also having contracted a notifiable disease.

Read Craft books

I quickly realised that although I’d read a lot of books, I had no clue how to write a publishable one. I’d have loved to do an MA or similar, but time and money didn’t allow. So I devoured craft books. Everything I could get my hands on for not very much cash. Kindle Unlimited has a huge number of books for writers, and every book I read had something to feed into the ongoing draft. Screen-writing books were great on structure, Donald Mass was wonderful on tension, Harry Bingham’s book was a brilliant all-rounder, and there were too many others to name. I also read recent crime debuts and tried to work out what they’d done.

Sought feedback

• A local publisher gave me useful and very encouraging feedback for not much money at all.
• I put my first page on the Flogging the Quill website. (I also read approximately five hundred first pages on there, and analysed why I liked them or didn’t.)
• My first page then won me a critique of my first ten thousand words in a Writing Magazine competition.
• I swapped critiques with friends I met on local writing courses, and a friend and I set up a writing group.
• I put my entire novel on Scribophile.

If I hadn’t got an agent pretty quickly, I would have shut my eyes, fished out the credit card, and paid for a critique from The Writers’ Workshop.

Most critically of all, I went to the Festival of Writing!


I recommend it to all my writer friends. You can’t beat the amazing content, wonderful organisation (I love the military precision of those one-to-ones), support and encouragement. Everyone should go!

Roz’s debut novel, The Devil’s Dice, will be published by HQ (HarperCollins) in 2018.
Roz was previously a partner in a firm of patent attorneys, and is also a qualified hypnotherapist and animal trainer, which provides plenty of scope for planning creative murders. She lives in the Peak District with her partner, their dog, a fat horse, and three extremely demanding cats. You can follow her on Twitter @RozWatkins

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