I went to my first every writing conference at the weekend – Newcastle Writing Conference, arranged by New Writing North at Northumbria University. I jumped at the chance to go because the lineup was just brilliant – the speakers included Meg Rosoff! As it turned out, family worries made the day get off to a shaky start but getting regular text updates reassured me enough to settle down and enjoy the day.
I was tweeting a good bit – with the hashtag #NclWritingConf, if you’re interested – until disaster in the afternoon. My phone battery ran right down. I had stern words with it; I said “Look, I need to tweet this, it’s fabulous and I want to share these nuggets of wisdom”. I cajoled and begged and promised to give it a long lie down in a dark room at the end of the day, but my phone refused to co-operate and the battery died. With my last tweet I pledged to blog, so here I am. Luckily I scribbled loads of notes, so I don’t have to rely on my scatty memory.
Keynote address – Meg Rosoff. I’ll be honest, I have had a MAD few weeks so in between booking and turning up, I’d sort of forgotten the details. I got in on Saturday morning, scanned through the lineup and choked on my coffee – getting to hear Meg Rosoff talk was a massive treat and a real privilege. Her first bit of advice (after a not-entirely-tongue-in-cheek recommendation to throw the computer away to avoid distraction, very apt bearing in mind the digital focus to the day!) was to not be in a hurry. I’d say that I was fairly middle of the road in terms of the age range attending, being in my mid-30s, so I imagine that advice hit home with many, many people. We do have a tendency to think that “if I’m not a bestseller by the time I’m 16 I’m a complete failure” (or is that just me?!) and it was HUGELY reassuring to hear that Meg didn’t start writing creatively until she was in her mid-40s. Her story resonated very much with me, and in some parts it could have been my story (for example, being a precocious reader as a child and thinking it just isn’t worth writing if I can’t write like [insert idolised author here]). Other gems of advice from Meg included the fact that there’s never just one story to anything, and this (paraphrased from notes!):
Think of your brain as a colander. Everything that happens to you goes in the colander and 99% of it goes through. Every once in a while something will stick. For example, if people are in a train carriage going through scenery, every single person will take something different from the scenery; some people won’t even see the scenery because they’ll be looking around, or at their phone. The thing you notice from the scenery, the thing that sticks in the colander, none of it is the same as anyone else’s and that is your strength and your weapon.
It’s not who you know, or whether you “know” plot, it’s about what you have to say that no-one else can. She used the example of her first (failed) submission to an agent, to show that it helped her find out how her brain worked and the kind of things that ‘stuck in her colander’ (the pony book with too much sex. You had to be there.). Meg said you have to write for who you are – although she tried to write a pony book, she has quite a dark brain and that was what she had to write – the rest, as they say, is history.
Another brilliant piece of advice comes from her asking her first agent how to write YA, and this is what she relayed to us: forget about the audience and the rules. “Write the fiercest book you can write and I’ll find someone to read it” was the advice of the agent. Forget the rules and write fiercely – I love this. I don’t think I’ve heard ‘write fiercely’ before and there is something very liberating, very energetic and motivating, about the idea of writing fiercely.
Meg’s keynote address had the absolutely perfect effect of firing us all up for the first panel: How to Stand Out In A Digital Age. The panel was Ben Willis from Transworld, book vlogger Sanne Vliegenthart, author Nikesh Shukla (whose video Meatspace is great fun, highly recommended) and book blogger Simon Savidge. The panel had a variety of approaches to the brave new world of social media but consistently the message is “Be Yourself”. As Ben pointed out, there are loads of different platforms, with twitter, Facebook, GoodReads, YouTube, Instagram, Pinterest, etc – find the space you’re comfortable with and do it well. I’ve had a fairly extensive break from twitter and blogging, both of which I enjoy, and this talk really gave me some motivation to re-engage and enjoy these platforms which I like and IMHO I do well.
Authenticity really came across as an important point. Simon recommended, for book reviews, to put some emotion behind them and show how the book connects with you. As I’ve done a few reviews here in the past this was something I’d like to take on board and do better. Nikesh advised using social media as both a user or content absorber as well as having something to promote yourself – use it as if you had NOTHING to promote! He also recommended simplicity – his Meatspace video he described as “A simple idea that revelled in its own stupidity!” If you can write your idea on the back of a fag packet, it’s worth considering.
Sanne brought a new perspective – vlogging. I’d never heard of BookTube and now I’ve gone and subscribed to a bunch of BookTube channels. She mentioned lots of formats and themes: bookshelf tours, tags, book hauls. I may have to unsubscribe if I’m being consumed with avarice for all of these wonderful new books. Sanne said she basically wanted to join in the community and started making videos. The importance of community was underlined heavily – basically, people want to engage and be part of a conversation and digital media are offering a whole new world of ways in which to do that.
That brings me to the end of Part One – seriously, this event was far too packed for just one post!