NFA Column: The National Creative Writing Industry Day

The National Creative Writing Industry Day (NCWID), which this month celebrated its fifth year, is the largest conference of its kind that takes place in the North of England. The event is run by Comma Press in partnership with The Writing School at Manchester Metropolitan University, and on the 1st November 2019, it helped 160 new writers aspiring to publication to gain an insight into the publishing industry from its experts, and hone the skills needed to enter it.

The conference is opened every year with a keynote speech by a breakthrough author ­ a writer at the beginning of their career as a published writer: someone who has reached the point our attendees are reaching for, but aren’t too far along to have forgotten what a struggle that reach could be, or to be so renowned that aspiring writers might find them harder to relate to. This year, that author was Sharlene Teo, whose debut novel ‘Ponti’ was published by Picador in 2018.

Sharlene spoke honestly and accessibly from the perspective of an anxious writer (not an uncommon phenomenon), about how to manage what she called “compare and despair”, the process of becoming overwhelmed with other authors’ success stories, and the pressures of what society and the industry might be expecting you to write in order to be published. She was an advocate for broadening your reading habits and staying playful with those of your writing, journaling and working to attainable goals to help alleviate any self-imposed stress. Many delegates felt inspired by Sharlene’s openness on the mental factors that come into play when pursuing a writing career, and her shift in focus to the joys of creation and exploration that can be found at the beginning of the journey. And what better way to begin a day dedicated to the livelihoods of creative writers?

The morning continued with four panel discussions, covering general topics of discussion like ‘How the Publisher Works With You’, with editors from across the industry outlining the writer/editor relationship, and ‘Writing in the Face of Doubt’, with writers discussing what can cause self-doubt relating to your work and how to utilise it. The other two panels explored more specific areas of publishing such as how to navigate the start of your career as a poet in ‘I’m a Poet, Take Me Seriously’, and ‘The Future of Representation in Children’s and YA Literature’ which continued a conversation currently accelerating in the industry about diversity and inclusivity of characters in the books that our children are reading, with a publisher, an agent and an illustrator specialising in representing the under-represented.

As this event’s organiser, a specific goal I was aiming for this year was to diversify the range of speakers and professionals partaking in the NCWID. Some may argue that in such a predominately white industry, it can be difficult to achieve such a thing, but I didn’t want to fall back on this excuse and merely reach out to the most obvious people at hand. Actually, with resources such as Speaking Volumes’ ‘Breaking New Ground’, a catalogue of 100 writers and illustrators of colour demonstrating the names already in the industry, and just a tiny bit more digging into Twitter’s archive of the UK’s publishing community, this was easily attainable. By ensuring this representation, I wanted to demonstrate to a wider audience of new writers that this industry is available to them, despite how different it may sometimes seem.

The main draw for a lot of our attendees is the chance to pitch 1-to-1 with two literary agents who represent the genre they write in, which, as well as being a golden opportunity for so many aspiring writers to get their work under the nose of someone who might give it a chance, can also be an incredibly nerve-wracking experience. At the NCWID, we and the agents who generously give their time on the day, work to make this environment feel as relaxed as possible, as well as providing resources to help the writers prepare ahead of their pitches. It’ss wonderful to hear from writers on the day for whom these meetings have gone particularly well, perhaps with a request for a follow-up or to see a final manuscript, or even just through the agents providing thorough advice and their professional opinion of a work-in-progress. After attending their meetings, delegates of this year’s conference said that “I feel really inspired to keep writing and finish my first book.” and “I don’t think I could have gleamed so much, so easily and enjoyably anywhere else!”

As well as the pitching sessions in the afternoon, the conference also offers eight workshops led by writers and industry professionals for the delegates to choose from. This year, the selection varied from ‘Feminist, Queer and Own Voices Fantasy’ with author Kirsty Logan, and ‘How to Drive Short Stories with Setting and Place’, to ‘Know Your Rights as an Author’ with the Society of Authors, and ‘Be Your Own Marketer and Publicist’ with Unbound. These were designed to offer either a chance to learn new writing skills or hone your existing ones in a particular genre or form, or to gain some practical insight for moving forward in your writing career.

To run an event like this in Manchester means that the doors to the publishing world, often perceived as high and heavy, are opened for Northern writers. To open those doors for Northern writers, also opens those doors to more writers who are working class: to those who can’t afford to live or take regular trips to London where still the large majority of publishers and agencies exist, and to those who have stories to tell which are set outside of a privileged life in the capital. This year, writers, agencies, publishers and our partner Manchester Metropolitan University made it possible for over twenty places at the NCWID to be sponsored, allowing over twenty low-income writers to attend the event free of charge.

The National Creative Writing Industry Day is an annual event and will return to Manchester in November 2020, so if you’re a writer in the north aspiring to publication, keep your ear to the ground. Sign up to The Comma Press Newsletter here to be the first to know.

Zoe Turner is the author of this text and is the Publicity and Outreach Officer at Comma Press