How does a writer go about getting an agent? What type of work currently stands out in the literary landscape? What are editors really looking for?

By Emily Oldfield 

These were just some of the big questions being addressed at The National Creative Writing Graduate Fair 2018 held in Manchester on Friday 2nd November, attracting welcome focus to the North.

The day was hosted by the Manchester Writing School at Manchester Metropolitan University and organised by Manchester-based independent publisher, Comma Press

Aspiring and achieving writers from across the country attended as keen delegates, with this year’s fair packed with content to provide unique insight into the publishing industry and its professionals. This included the opportunity to talk to agents in interactive ‘pitching sessions’, a range of workshops, networking opportunities and, for 2018, a special keynote speech from award-winning short story writer Eley Williams.

The day’s events provided a welcoming platform to put difficult industry questions out into the open. According to Zoe Turner, Publicity and Outreach Officer at Comma Press, 2018’s fair clearly made an impact:

“I feel that The National Creative Writing Graduate Fair 2018 greatly benefited a lot of writers, new and old alike,” reflected Zoe. “Our keynote speaker Eley Williams set the tone for the day perfectly, validating the emotions every emerging writer travels through and emphasising the ones they should harness.

“I was thrilled to have delegates approach me throughout the afternoon telling me how well their pitches to agents had gone, and panellists feeling like they could have gone on talking with their audience for hours more. Everyone there seemed to be buzzing about somebody's new ideas - it was wonderful to witness." 

Following registration, delegates enjoyed a keynote speech from Eley Williams – whose collection of short stories Attrib. And Other Stories (Influx Press) won The James Tait Black Prize 2018 and The Republic of Consciousness Prize 2018.

Williams talked to a packed-out audience about her influences, insecurities and aspirations as a writer in a highly inspiring opening address.

“Independent presses are the backbone of the writing world as they allow risk,” she reflected, before going onto discuss the approaches of other writers including Nabokov, Proust, the importance of testing the 'architecture of our stories' and how writers should ‘stay eager’.

Following the speech, delegates could then pick between a number of intimate panel sessions which featured industry experts in-conversation in front of a live audience. Topics covered included ‘How to Get Noticed as a Writer’ and ‘The Story Behind the Story: Using Experiences to Fuel Writing'.

Among the panellists were members of the Manchester Writing School team: Livi Michael, Joe Stretch, Sarah Butler and Andrew Michael Hurley. Visiting panellists included London-based Julia Silk, a Literary Agent in association with MBA Agents, and Sara Hunt of Saraband books.

Following the panel sessions, a lunch break allowed delegates time to enjoy stalls from booksellers, societies and publishing organisations in the main atrium area, with stands from Mslexia, Blackwells, Writers & Artists and Manchester University Press. During this time, delegates also discovered the contents of their Comma Press tote bags (given on arrival), many with a #FoundFiction story inside.

Networking spaces were also available for delegates to meet and discuss ideas, and there was ongoing filming in a designated area, creating a Digital Content page for the event packed with interviews and tips from the experts: https://ncwgradfair.weebly.com/digital-content.html.

“The Grad Fair was one of the best opportunities I have ever been given. It was such an entertaining day, with lots of advice all from people in the industry, that made me feel a little bit more secure in my career path,” writer Abbi Peace told us.

Following lunch, the much-anticipated pitching sessions began in the main atrium, with writers making the most of 15 minutes with an agent or editor in quick one-to-one table discussions.

“3... 2... 1.... Pitch!” came the call to begin from Manchester Writing School Manager James Draper, bringing an element of enjoyable intensity to the occasion.

Agencies and editors in attendance included members from Canongate, Marjacq Scripts, Madeleine Milburn, LAW Agency and Jonathan Ruppin of the Ruppin Agency, who reflected on the event:

“It's important, particularly outside London, to open up the publishing world to new writers, to give them insight into how it works and what routes to publication might be open to them,” Jonathan told us.

“As an industry, we are still drawn to those already familiar with our world, but if books are to remain a relevant part of our culture, we need to open it up to a wider range of voices. At pitching events, I always try to send away the authors I speak to with an idea of the next step they can take, at whatever stage their writing has reached, something to think about or something to work on.

“I do, of course, come in hope of finding writers to take on, either now or when they've developed their writing further. But it’s also an enlightening experience for me to assess the possibilities and flaws of every project presented to me, to consider what might be viable and what's a commercial dead end.”

While the panel sessions took place in the atrium, a variety of workshops were also underway upstairs including topics like ‘How to edit for success’, ‘The art of the perfect pitch letter’ and a more genre-specific focus on areas such as Memoir, Place and Horror.

According to writer, Lorna Eifflaender, who participated in the fair, it was evident that this was a day which left its attendees transformed:

“I’ve been to the event three years in a row, and it’s done wonders for my confidence when it comes to pitching. I mean, I still hate it - because talking about my WIP is like ripping my soul open and nakedly analysing it - but the agents and editors are always very helpful and supportive.

“The talks and workshops are brilliant too. It’s just wonderful to be around writers talking honestly and passionately about writing and their journeys into it as a career.”

Find out more about the National Creative Writing Graduate Fair at: https://ncwgradfair.weebly.com/, about Comma Press at: https://commapress.co.uk/ and about Creative Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University at: www.mmu.ac.uk/writingschool

Source: https://ncwgradfair.weebly.com/