Clubbing for Writers: Competitions, Conferences and Connections

Photo by Simon Hattinga Verschure on Unsplash 

Listening, Linking and Learning

Writing can be a lonely job.There are times when it can feel as if your only friends are your imaginary ones.

Most of us work alone. There are no colleagues to chat to over coffee or to share lunch breaks with. There’s nobody on hand to help if you hit a problem, to discuss ideas with, or just to offer encouragement when your motivation levels are low.

Or so it can seem.

But it needn’t be this way. Writers do have colleagues – even if they don’t share a physical office space.

And one of the easiest ways to find them is to join a writing club.

Writing Clubs  

I recently attended the 70th anniversary party of the Edinburgh Writers Club. It was a very pleasant evening. There was cake, cut by Ian Rankin (I know! I came over all fangirl and couldn’t string a coherent sentence together when he said hallo), there were glasses of bubbly, but best of all there was the company of other writers.

I joined the Edinburgh Writers Club (EWC) back in 2000 when I lived in the city. It was at the time when I was just beginning to take my writing seriously and being a member of this most welcoming club helped me to get started. Indeed, I got so much out of my membership that even after I moved to the Isle of Skye in 2004, I kept up my membership and attended meetings whenever I could.

I’m still a member today – even after my recent move to the Scottish Borders. And, yes, I’ve joined a local writing group too. So I’m a new member of the Borders Writing Forum (BWF) – another club where I’ve been made very welcome and with lots of new writing opportunities to explore.

The members at both the EWC and the BWF, range from those taking their first tentative steps to those who are successful, published authors, and everything in-between. The meetings include writing activities and guest speakers. The atmosphere is positive and encouraging and I always feel I learn something useful which could help improve my writing.

Competitions

Like many clubs, EWC offers a series of annual competitions. These cover all the genres including poetry, short stories, drama, non-fiction and novels and entering them give writers invaluable opportunities to learn more about the craft and to extend their skills. They provide deadlines – always good for the procrastinating writer. They tempt participants to step out of their comfort zones and try writing genres other than their usual ones. And most valuable of all they give the writers taking part the chance to get constructive feedback from the adjudicators.

Of course there are hundreds of other competitions for writers where no membership of a club is required. They’re available online, in magazines and through large literary organisations. But the advantage of club based competitions is that (other than a modest annual membership fee) they are free to enter and the pool of competitors is relatively small. And very few of these wider competitions offer any useful feedback.

Conferences

Competitions with similar benefits to the club ones stated above are also open to those eligible to attend the annual weekend conference of the Scottish Association of Writers (SAW) held every March. Being a member of an affiliated writing club such as EWC or BWF entitles you to go to the conference. I’ve gone to several of these conferences now and I love them.

Winners (and other placed entrants) of the SAW competitions are announced during the weekend conference, usually by the adjudicator of the particular competition, and in front of all the delegates. This provides a good buzz of anticipation and a healthy rivalry between clubs. Besides the competition announcements, there is lots of other stuff going on. There is always an excellent keynote speaker. There are workshops run by established authors and by agents and publishers on a wide variety of writing related topics. There are opportunities to pitch your work to publishing professionals and there’s even a book shop where you can both sell your own books and buy those written by fellow delegates. And then there are all the networking opportunities over drinks in the bar or at mealtimes.

Connections

But by far the biggest advantage to being a club member, and going to conferences such as the SAW one, is the chance to connect with colleagues. It is wonderful to be with people who not only understand the frustrations of the writing process –  the perils of procrastination, and the periodic absences of inspiration, but who also understand the rewards –  the satisfaction of completing a piece of work, the joy of having your work appreciated by a reader, and the obsessive compulsion to write. Peer group support in any endeavour is useful, but for the solitary writer I reckon it’s priceless.

And although I’m also part of an amazing network of supportive and helpful fellow authors in the virtual, online world, I don’t think you can beat the real world connection with kindred spirits.

Over to you

I’d be interested to hear other writers’ thoughts on the usefulness, or otherwise, of clubs and conferences and the like. Do you value being part of a writing community? Do you connect with other writers, if so how? Please do leave comments below.

Scottish Association of Writers Conference 2015

It’s fine to be indie and judging a book by its cover…

Seizing the Day and Getting Our Work Out There seemed to me to be the main themes of the above conference held on 27th to 29th March 2015. It was also the year that conference finally and fully embraced going indie as a legitimate and positive choice as a route to publication.

As writers, most of us can also be expert procrastinators. We allow self doubt, the rejection and criticism of others, the difficulties of getting published traditionally, the effort required to self-publish, the muse being away on leave, the dust on the shelves, the ironing in the pile, the worms in the dog – anything – to get in the way of just getting on with the job. We get distracted. We get discouraged. We get lonely. But writers groups, clubs and conferences – online and in the real world – can be a great antidote to the writing blues. There we find we’re not alone and, hey, we’re not weird after all, no, it’s just that we’re writers.

Although I live on the Isle of Skye, I am a member of the Edinburgh Writers’ Club (EWC). Yes, this is probably taking the club’s definition of ‘country’ member to its limits, but it’s such a good, friendly club with access to annual competitions, informative and inspirational speakers, and general writing support, that I was reluctant to give up my membership when I left the city many years ago. One of the advantages of belonging to such a club is that it’s affiliated to the Scottish Association of Writers (SAW) and therefore my membership of the EWC entitles me to attend the annual SAW conference weekend.

This year’s conference took place last weekend in Glasgow, and I made the long trek south to be a part of it.

It was definitely worth the effort. I caught up with old friends and made some new ones, I was inspired, encouraged, and I learned such a lot.

The keynote speaker was Alexandra Sokoloff,  an award-winning  thriller author and Hollywood screenwriter. Her talk was both inspirational and motivational. She has no truck with doubt, fear or procrastination when it comes to pursuing a career as a writer. Her determination and self-belief have been hard won, as has her success, and she urged all of us to believe in ourselves as writers and to ‘just do it’. She ended her speech with the following Goethe quote – Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it. Begin it now. This is a quote I’ve had above my own writing desk for years.

During the weekend, Alexandra also delivered two very informative workshops on story structure and pace. She talked about the three-act-drama format and about how the hooking process used in films and in television drama can and should be used when writing stories. She’s written a book on the subject if you’re interested to know more.

There were workshops on several topics including  writing non-fiction, writing for children, writing drama, writing dialogue and writing for women’s magazines. All of them included advice and information sharing on getting our work published. All of them embraced both traditional and self-publishing and in the case of non-fiction all of the workshop participants were encouraged to find their markets, no matter how niche and were also advised on where to look.

One of the workshops I attended dealt specifically with getting published. It was delivered by Allan Guthrie. Allan is a literary agent at Jenny Brown Associates in Edinburgh, the biggest literary agency in the UK outside of London. He is also an editor and an award-winning author of crime fiction. And as well as all that he’s a co-founder of publishing company, Blasted Heath. He began by acknowledging how publishing has changed in the last decade and he also pointed out how self-publishing has evolved and how the quality of books produced in this way has improved.

He then went on, in an excellent workshop, to point out why having an agent is a good thing if you’re going to be traditionally published.  He offered advice on how to get an agent and gave us copies of both good and bad query letters. He also gave us a ‘skeleton hook’ – that is a brief (less than 75 words) agent-slanted blurb containing all the essential information about your book.

It was refreshing and reassuring to hear that he, and in his opinion, other agents are open to taking on previously self-published authors. Although he did say that the first thing a prospective agent will do will be to do an online search of the author’s profile with a particular interest in level of sales.

Of course not  all self-published authors want an agent or to be traditionally published. But for those who do, and for those who are hybrid, it was good to see how the conference in general, and the guest professionals in particular, now accept the indie route as legitimate and of an acceptable standard.

Also on that note, this was the first year that there was a competition for self-published novelists included along with the other dozen or so annual conference competitions. I entered my own novel, Displacement  and I’m proud to say I was runner-up. Yeah! First prize went to Dundee International Award winner, Chris Longmuir. The adjudicator of this competition was Michael Malone.

Michael is both an author of several crime thrillers and a sales rep for a major publisher. His job as a book rep involves him going round bookshops and getting the store buyers to give shelf space to the books produced by his employer. In his adjudication speech he emphasised the importance of the book cover for getting a book into bookshops. He advised a matte finish, saying that for booksellers gloss equals amateur, and the same goes for not using cheap, white paper. He said how bookshop buyers will often neither look at the blurb nor the inside of the book, but will make a judgement based purely on the cover. Food for thought there.

I’ve only provided a snapshot view of the SAW conference here. It was an amazing and worthwhile experience – even more amazing when you realise what a lot of work the SAW council must have put in to organise it and make it all go so smoothly. The council members are all volunteers fitting in SAW work around day jobs and otherwise busy lives. It’s obvious when they speak that it’s a labour of love, but labour it is and the results were awesome.

Thanks to President, Marc Sherland, and all the council members, to the workshop deliverers and speakers, to the lovely staff of the Westerwood Hotel in Cumbernauld – and of course to my fellow delegates – for making the 2015 SAW conference such a worthwhile experience.

Oh, and a PS –  I was also highly commended in the conference Book Review Competition for my review of crime thriller Cold Pressed by JJ Marsh. I’ll post the review here on the blog very soon.