I spent the weekend blogging at the Berwick Literary Festival. I spoke to other readers, met some fascinating authors and heard some brilliant talks about being a writer.
Looking back on my two-day adventure, there are some key things I will take with me and use to help me develop as a reader and writer.
The 10 things I learned at Berwick Literary Festival were:
1. It’s never too late to write
Margaret Skea started in her 30s, Helen MacKinven in her 40s and Richard Yeo in his 50s. You can begin writing whenever you want. But, don’t ignore it – authors spoke candidly about how the fear of not doing it, the potential of having regrets in their old age, drove them to take the plunge.
2. The desire to write is a good start
If you have a desire to write, just write. All of the authors I spoke to said their desire, and enjoyment of their craft, gets them through the challenges of being a writer. It’s not easy, none of the speakers shied away from the often harsh realities of writing for a living, but the love of writing is enough to sustain you.
3. Retreat to write
Several authors spoke about the value to attending writing retreats. Whether it was an organised retreat or a loaned empty cottage (Margaret Skea’s friend allowed her to use her remote cottage before renovations began!), locking yourself away from the world (from mobile phones, wifi and other distractions) was often the only way to get the first major tranche of writing on the page.
4. Routes to publishing vary
None of the writers I listened to had the same route to publication. There were self-publishers, writers who work with independent publishers, those who have books published with various publishers, and those who got traditional book deals. There really are lots of options out there worth exploring.
5. You don’t have to stick to one form
I listened to people who moved between non-fiction and fiction, short stories and novels and they all felt that sticking to one form wasn’t necessary. Short story writing provides fantastic editing skills that you can deploy on your first novel, while writing long-form trains you develop detailed plots, storylines and characters. Each form has merit and it’s worth navigating between them to hone your writing technique.
6. Discipline is needed…but so is kindness.
Sorry but if you’re going to do this, you need to stick to it. Have a daily routine, a weekly word quota or even a few months every year that you can dedicate to writing. With 100,000 words needed to form the first draft of a novel, you must be disciplined to get those words on the page.
However, it’s not easy so don’t be too hard on yourself. Giving yourself permission to write means reducing your other commitments – from washing the dishes to part-time work, something’s got to give if you really want to be a professional writer.
7. Don’t do it for the money
Alistair McCleery’s talk about the worth of a writer was an eye-opening experience. Very few writers earn a living wage from their work so don’t go into this thinking you’ll make millions from your first draft.
There are ways of supplementing incomes through part-time work or awards but your primary motivation has to be the art of writing not the paycheck.
8. Editing is just as important as writing
Every single author I saw talked in detail about the editing process. As Richard Yeo put it, you’ve got to ‘kill your children’ – yup, being utterly brutal with your edit is vital to making your final draft tight.
Margaret Skea cut 70,000 words from one draft while other authors scrapped 5,000-word chunks to make their words flow better with more pace. It’s hard but it’s got to be done.
9. Inspiration is everywhere
LJ Ross was inspired to write her first book Holy Island on the train from Newcastle to Edinburgh, while Helen MacKinven explored memories from her childhood to create the scenes in her first book.
Stories can be formed anywhere and at any time, with writers collecting up nuggets of detail to curate into narratives at a later date. Don’t dismiss anything that stays in your mind – it’ll resurface as a plot feature soon enough.
10. It’s OK to get help
You don’t have to do this all by yourself. The authors I met used creative writing groups, fellow writers, friends and family to test their work, edit their copy and proof their final drafts.
Being critical about your own work is very hard so get an objective view of it before submitting it to publishers or putting it out in the world yourself.
Berwick Literary Festival has been a truly inspiring experience for me. I’ve met so many wonderful people and learned a lot about the publishing world. The most important thing I’ll take with me though is the courage to just get on with it – these writers have no regrets because they did it. Whether you fail or make millions, starting to write is the first step in ensuring you have no regrets about never becoming an author.
Oh, and a few other things I learned:
- Berwick is beautiful – visit if you get the chance
- The Anchorage is a fantastic B&B – stay there when you visit Berwick
- The Corner House serves amazing coffee – go there in the winter when the fire is on