Thursday, 11 July 2013

Guest Blog - Writer Events Q&A with Susi Holliday

Last week a writing friend of mine Susi Holliday, succeeded in obtaining one of the two Holy Grail’s of writing – landing an agent! It is fabulous news and very well deserved. But I celebrated in part too, because it meant that I finally knew someone ‘on the inside’ and someone whose writing I really enjoy and admire.

All of us had lots of questions about how it came about, and Susi graciously satisfied all our questions with a wonderful blog post about it, which you can read here.

After reading Susi’s blog post it got me thinking about writing events such as conferences, book fairs, author events and writing groups. Having never attended one myself (well other than a Stephen King book signing back in 2006), I was curious about what to expect and what you ‘do’ at them. I decided I needed Susi’s ‘Writer Life Story’ and, on her suggestion, turned it into a Q&A Blog post for everyone to enjoy. So here you go.

What was your first writing event? (writing group, writers conference, book fair etc.)

The first thing I went to was a creative writing evening class at St Francis Xavier College in Balham in 2007/8. In 2006, I’d started writing for the first time since school (while on a train from Beijing to Moscow – a story in itself!) That was also when I read Stephen King’s On Writing and decided it was time to pick up the pen. The night class was a way to get me focused and re-learn the things I’d forgotten about writing a story – structure, dialogue, etc. It was the first time I’d read anything out loud for years, and I got some great feedback – and that really spurred me on.

After that, I did a one-day writing course in Oxford. The course itself was pretty useless – I think I was okay with the basics by then (as I’d also spent a lot of time researching the publishing industry online – how much things have changed in recent years – and they’re changing still) and the people in the class were at so many different levels that it just didn’t work for me. I did get an idea for a story though, when the train broke down at Didcot Parkway and I had to share a cab with three strangers.

The most significant thing for me was attending the Harrogate International Crime Writing Festival in 2009. By then I had written 25k of my first novel and I signed-up for the ‘Creative Thursday’ session. That was when I knew I was going to keep writing.

Since then I’ve been to the Guildford Book Festival, Harrogate (again) and just recently, the Winchester Writers’ Conference.

Did you go alone? 

To the night class, Oxford, Guildford and Winchester – Yes. To Harrogate – the first time, my mum came with me (we are both fans of the same kind of books) and the second time I took my husband. We’re going again later this month.

Going alone is daunting, especially when you are inherently shy. People are very friendly though. Ultimately you are meeting up with a like-minded crowd. Be brave.

When you went did you go with a specific plan in mind, or focus? Did you structure the day, or did you just go and see?

Talking specifically about the conferences:

Harrogate – I bought a full weekend pass which allows you access to all the panels and events. I went to as many as I could, but not all. It’s too exhausting to sit there that long! I picked the things that interested me most.

Winchester - I only went for one-day, and again, it was planned out; a short course on writing suspense, then three one-to-one sessions which had to be pre-booked (as you need to send the readers examples of your work for them to critique). I went entirely for the one-to-ones. They were invaluable.

Can you go to a Writers conference without a specific focus? Can you just go and look?

Yes, you can. But most of them are very busy and booked up. If you don’t book events in advance you’ll really only be wandering around looking at books (and mingling!) At Winchester there were a few ad hoc events, things in the foyer etc. They don’t exist in Harrogate. But in Harrogate it’s all about socialising with other writers on the lawn and realising how little you actually know in the late night quiz.

What did you gain from it personally?

From Harrogate – I met dozens of writers, readers, publishers, reviewers. The networking aspect led to me being invited to submit a short story to a charity anthology and write reviews for a well known crime writing site. If it wasn’t for the friendships I’ve formed, the inspiration and support they’ve given me – I think I’d have given up long before now. Crime writers are a great bunch, but I’m pretty sure there are great networks for other writers too!

From Winchester – as I mentioned before, the one-to-ones were what it was all about for me. Getting positive feedback from an editor, and agent and an author gave me the confidence that indirectly led to me getting signed by my agent.

Have you ever gone on a writing retreat? If so, what are your thoughts/experiences?

No I haven’t, but it’s something I’d consider in the future, especially now that I am working harder than ever. From what I’ve heard, they are great for making you just sit down and write – and an opportunity to discuss any issues you have with other writers over tea and cakes.

How did you get involved in National Flash Fiction Day? Were you invited, or did you offer?

Again, networking. Twitter and Facebook this time though. I saw the tweet about the first National Flash Fiction Day by chance. I had recently done one of Anna Meade’s flash competitions and enjoyed the experience, so I contacted Anna and asked if she’d liked to co-run a competition with me. By doing that, I was listed on the NFFD website. Then they put out a call for people interested in helping with another of their projects, and I volunteered. I was chosen along with five others to commission the entries to the Flashflood Journal (I came up with the name, by the way!).

For someone starting out, or wanting to go to one and not being sure, what advice would you give?

Just go! There are so many of them now. Writing Magazine is a great source of info – they have listings for all of the conferences, large and small. They happen throughout the year so you should be able to find one to suit. If you’re serious about your writing and you have the time and money to invest, then find one most suitable for you and where you are with your writing, and take the plunge.

Oh, and take a VERY big bag. You will come back with dozens of books!

Thank you Susi for your detailed responses.

I have also decided to serialise this Q&A, to capture even more input from authors who attend conferences, so there will be another guest post coming soon!


  1. This is great, Always wondered about events so it was nice to read about someones experience. Planning on Harrogate next year not sure of anything else :)

    Look forward to more Q&A's

  2. Great and informative post. I have never had the money to go to any of the writer's conferences here in the UK, but someday, I hope to be able to.
    ~Becky Fyfe

  3. It's always good to hear how other writers work, and what's on offer out there. Great Q&A!

  4. I was hoping to attend the Winchester writing festival back in June after finding out about it late last year but boy!! The cost!!! Even in that time, I just didn't have the funds but I would so dearly love to attend one. Sounds well worth it.Great post chicks. xxx

  5. I also can not afford them, and with living in Holland, it makes it doubly expensive if I want to go to anything in the UK. I thought I would at least gather information and 'be ready' should I ever be able to.