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Metronome Sessions

The Writers' Toolkit

29 November 09 words: James Walker
The conference aimed to fill the writers' toolkit with everything they need- agents, publishers, funding and sarnies...
The conference offered numerous cures for writers' block and other literary ailments

I don’t really understand the concept of writers’ block because I’ve never really had a problem coming up with new ideas, characters or plots for my stories. Instead what has blocked my path to success has been finding an agent or publisher to read the damn things. It was with this in mind that I headed off to Birmingham for the Writers’ Toolkit, a conference geared towards providing writers with all the necessary tools to turn a ‘hobby’ into a profession.

The day was split into four 45 minute sessions, two in the morning and two in the afternoon with an hour’s lunch in between to either scoff down as many sandwiches as possible or network your sweet little ass off until everyone in the building knew your name or had a copy of your card and latest manuscript. I took the Knut Hamsun approach and headed for the sandwiches. The mind is already full but the guts need fuel. Invariably, conversation was struck up and cards exchanged with whoever was closest in proximity and it was all done very politely and coyly, as is the writers’ way.

Four sessions was just about right for the day as it wasn’t too long and wasn’t too short. My only criticism is that when each session finished you only had ten minutes to get to the next one. On paper this is completely adequate but in reality, those ten minutes are when you loiter around and pester the said speakers with questions you were unable to get across during the talk. I’d suggest twenty minutes for a future event or else you risk the possibility of being immediately herded onto the next event and feeling slightly frustrated. 

 Alan Mahar (right) of Tindal Street Press at Birmingham Arts Festival

Testament to the event is that you really wanted extra time with the speakers, so I guess my criticism is a veiled compliment. It is not often that you get the opportunity to talk directly with publishers such as Tindal Street’s Alan Mahar, which for many I spoke to, was justification in itself to pay the £29 entrance fee (bursaries and concessions were available). The key note speakers were also perfect for the target audience. These were Mary Cutler, writer and scriptwriter of The Archers who was able to give a professional insight into a career in writing and Antonia Byatt, Director of Literature Strategy, Art Council England, who perhaps more than anyone, held the answers to a lot of people’s dreams.   

The sessions were expertly planned, offering a choice of four options for each one. To ensure you didn’t miss out on the most popular themes (agents, publishers), some sessions ran twice which was great foresight. The self-explanatory sessions were; Performing your writing, Understanding Publishing, De-Mystifying the Digital for Writers, Business Sense for Writers, Working with the BBC, Writing with Communities, Writer Training in Higher Education, Social Networking for Writers, Agents and Contracts, Promoting Poetry, Editing, Pitching Ideas, Continuing Professional Development for Writers, Writing With and for Young People.

I wasn’t particularly enamoured with the choice of venue (South Birmingham College) as I felt like I was back at school rather than at conference (which sounds so much more opulent!) but it ‘did the job’, was in a great location, and there were a lot of helpers on hand to point people in the right direction. Aesthetics aside, content was what really mattered and in this organiser Jonathan Davidson excelled. My main two highlights, other than meeting Alan Maher, were chatting with Alex Pryce who’s the brains behind PoetCasting – a kind of ‘taste before you buy’ approach to poetry whereby you can hear live recordings of performers before deciding whether to fork out a couple of quid to see them and Sophie Hannah, a former poet turned crime novelist whose dark sarcastic wit was refreshingly welcome. 

Leicester based Alex Pryce, the brains behind PoetCasting

Overall, all guests were approachable and helpful – some going way beyond the call of duty and offering to read opening chapters of manuscripts if emailed to them. But most of all they helped to dispel the myth that writing is the repository of a particular class of person, an intellectual elite. It’s not. Writing is simply a means of coping with the madness of life and finding an alternative means of making sense of it all. Consequently, every demographic was here – both in attendance and on the panel. 

If you missed this event, fear not. March 2010 sees the Writing Industries Conference (WIC) in the East Midlands. If they are able to pull off an event half as good as this one then we’re all in for a treat but they may wish to bear the following in mind: Sessions should entail completely different talks rather than being bunched together around a specific theme or genre. This way people with a clear career path (say poets, writers, educational workers etc) are able to ensure that they get to select the specific talk they require from each session.The website can be used to upload recorded sessions (whether filmed or podcast) so that missed sessions can be watched at a later date. Similarly, a précis or key outcomes from each session could be written up, thereby enabling all visitors to take full benefit of the conference as a whole. 

James Walker's website
Birmingham Book Festival's website 

To hear an interview with Jonathan Davidson about the conference and another project he is working on, please see our WriteLion3# podcast. This will be online over the forthcoming week.



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