NWC 2019: Building your web

Newcastle Writing Conference was back! After being held at Northumbria University since 2013, it took over Live Theatre by the iconic Newcastle Quayside. With the event at a bigger space, it was also jam-packed with amazing guest speakers and attendees.

This year’s event was my first. I wanted to go as soon as I’d seen it in the New Writing North newsletter – I mean being in a room full of eclectic writers is near enough heaven without dying right? But I had a problem; my shifts at my part-time job were on Saturdays. It took a while to determine whether I’d be able to get the day off, and my delay in snapping up tickets had resulted in them being sold out. I was disappointed, to say the least.

Then a few weeks before the event, I was once again scrolling through my emails and I came across one from the lovely Sophie at NWN, asking whether I’d want to come along to the event to write a blog for the journal. I’d genuinely believed for a second that Sophie was my fairy godmother (minus the pumpkins and rats obviously).

As I got to the venue on Saturday morning I assumed the role of a fly-on-the-wall agent like Jason Bourne. Walking into the nearly full auditorium, I quickly grabbed a seat at the back and pulled out my phone. I sent a tweet about the event, responded to messages and had a quick scroll through Instagram. Once I’d exhausted my socially avoidant options, I turned to the person next to me and started chatting. It turned out to be Glenda Young, writer of a weekly magazine soap opera and author of several books. We talked about regional writing, fiction based in history and love for writing in general.

It wasn’t long before the widespread chatter retreated to a hush as Claire Malcolm, NWN’s Chief Executive, took to the stage. Claire welcomed all the attendees to the event and delivered an address full of what to expect alongside pearls of wisdom. She touched on the impact that NWN has in promoting writers from the North, particularly working-class writers. The piece of advice that stood out for me most was about building networks, cultivating a solid web of fellow writers around oneself. The fertile ground for doing that was the conference, where I hoped I’d get do some networking myself.

Networking can sound very business-y, very ‘oh look at how much I’ve done’ but it doesn’t have to be that way. It can be daunting to network, but it isn’t the devil that it’s made out to be. Networking, scratch that, we’re going to use ‘socialising with writers’ as a euphemistic replacement instead. So, socialising with writers is about making connections with people that are already interested in very similar things to you. Go to a conference that has anything to with writing, and you already have your conversation filled with discussions about favourite books, writing styles and a bit of shameless self-promotion (wink, wink).

The importance of socialising with writers was also hammered by the keynote speaker, Tony ‘Longfella’ Walsh. If you haven’t heard of him already, just a note that despite his nickname he’s not actually a wrestler. Tony is in fact a marvellous poet, well known for his heart-warming poem in response to the tragic Manchester bombing in 2017. And he lives up to his nickname; we shared a lift on the way to the green room during the event and he towered over me with his 6’5″ frame.

As he was delivering his poetry, Tony recounted his story of going to his first poetry event when he was 39. The first one was nerve-wracking, scary, he was fearful of the unknown. Sharing his writing was daunting, presenting writing to others is to be exposed. But once there he was surprised to find a diverse range of people there. People from all different backgrounds sharing their stories, vulnerabilities and thoughts was a bonding experience.

Tony also emphasised the importance of emotional honesty in our writing. The point of writing should be to make people feel something; whether that’s happiness, sadness, outrage, excitement, hope, despair. Great writing elicits a reaction, and honesty carries that feeling. Writing that isn’t frank or real tends to be panned because they don’t make people feel. He ended with an anecdote of having cried 45 mins before the event sitting in his car, feeling vulnerable, anxious. The honesty was searing. The set ended with rapturous applause deserving of a rock star.

The breakouts were plenty, and I headed to one about peer support networks. Building a strong and supportive writing community is about encouraging and sustaining each other in writing pursuits. Writing support has many forms. When we have knockbacks in motivation, it helps to have others to pull us back up again. When we are struggling for inspiration, it helps to have others to gives us a spark. It is said that writing is the most humane endeavour, to write is to understand, it is to appreciate people, their motivations and their vulnerabilities. By building relationships and meeting new people we gain a wider understanding of the world. To have a career in writing, one must be able to do more than have the talent and execute it. If it takes a village to raise a kid, it takes a writing community to help a literary child to come together.

At lunch, I thought it was a perfect opportunity to talk to all the agents and publishers that were in the building and put the networking advice into practice. Access to the writer’s green room gave me the perks of having exclusive access to the guests at the event. Not having done it before, I was admittedly nervous, but with having nothing to lose, I went ahead and made connections with some fantastic people in the publishing industry bonding over sandwiches, literary favourites and frustration of under-representation in stories.

With the day coming to a close, we were treated to interviews with two up-and-coming authors. I appreciate author interviews so much. They light a fire under my bum to be proactive in my writing. First was Sara Collins, author of The Confessions of Frannie Langston. The book is a nineteenth-century historical thriller involving the trial of a former slave who’s accused of murdering her employers. In writing this book, Collins said she was inspired by the gothic romance novels she loved reading like Jane Eyre, but questioned why a woman of African descent couldn’t be the protagonist of one.

The second was Stacey Halls, author of The Familiars. The Familiars is a historical drama novel based on the Pendle Hill witch trials. Many of the characters, including the female protagonist Fleetwood Shuttleworth, were real people who actually lived at Gawthorpe Hall in Lancashire. As Stacey obviously wasn’t alive during the period it was set and without the history-recording convenience of Twitter, the novel took intense research to find out how life was then. Spending her time at the library looking through account records. It was astounding to see how little women were represented in history.

The common theme that came from the discussion was that both stories represented women in eras where society didn’t make women protagonists of their own stories. The idea of witches borne from the idea that it was an outrage that women could have any sort of substantial power is a concept that rings true today. The world is a better place to be a woman now, but there is still space to travel. We will overcome this by building networks of empowerment between the genders, and above that between race, culture, ethnic origin and class background.

There was a clear theme to the day of building our networks and understanding with others. Writing can be a solitary endeavour; it helps to have people around for inspiration, encouragement and accountability. It’s a journey to becoming the best writers we know we can be. The day started for me with a near non-existent network, but I’m building my web, slowly but surely.