The UKYA Extravaganza and Community

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Last Saturday, I had the immense pleasure of heading down to Birmingham for the first UKYA Extravaganza, alongside thirty plus other authors, a whole host of book bloggers and some wonderful readers. There was a brilliant blog tour in the weeks beforehand (my post is here), the event sold out in hours and the actual day was exhausting but wonderful. A couple of people have written brilliant write ups about the event, so I’m just going to talk a little  about why I think the UKYA community is so important.

Writing can be a lonely business sometimes.

Today, I got home from uni and decided that I was going to go to my room and be a writer and do writer things rather than join my housemate watching daytime TV whilst staring at her dissertation. We were at the point where the heating had been off for four hours, so I wound up preserving body heat in bed whilst watching Supernatural fan videos set to Miley Cyrus songs. I don’t think I even opened a word document. I missed Jerseylicious for nothing.

Yesterday, my let’s-write optimism gave way to reading lots of pretty things I wrote several years ago and moaning to one of my best friends about how I wrote lots of pretty things several years ago and now I only ever write things that are vaguely funny or just plain crap.

This is an ongoing theme.

Sometimes, the words just fall out of your brains and onto screens, and your fingers can’t keep up with your thoughts and you’re inspired and writing and it’s brilliant. Sometimes, you’re just losing a staring competition with a blank word document, or the story won’t go in the right direction, or you read it back to find it’s all insipid and boring.

Writing is hard.

My first stories and novels were all fanfiction posted online. They were also spectacularly bad. I wrote a post Deathly Hallows fic in where Harry re-explained the whole of the last book, a story where Dolores Umbridge became a werewolf that time she was in the forest with all the centaurs (this idea probably had some merit; the execution was lacking) and a trilogy about some Marauder’s Era romance where Sirius unknowingly had twins with the world’s biggest Mary-Sue, and then several people died and one of the twins turned out to be Penelope Clearwater and then she dated Charlie and Percy, or something. I did, thankfully, get a lot better. And people noticed and they told me that they noticed.

We had this brilliant writer-reading community. I had regular reviewers who I got to respond to. Stories that I would check for updates for every day. I had long, rambling chats about writing. Constructive criticism. Bouncing ideas around. People who would listen whilst I whined about how much I wanted to be a writer (here’s looking at you, Hannah). We all competed in NaNoWirMo together, egged each other on, provided feedback on chapter updates.

I still talk to a few of these guys and I still count them amongst my friends, but we don’t talk as much as we used to. I miss it a lot. Now, when my chapter’s not working and there’s nothing in my brain and I’m having another want-to-be-a-writer panic, I just mope or complain to one of my none-writer friends (who are, of course, all fabulous… but it’s hard to explain creative constipation and they must get very bored of listening to me). Occasionally, I’ll get a tweet from a reader who’s read my book. That’s nice (do that more often, please, it’s like a warm hug). I don’t, however, get hundred words long reviews for each chapter full of questions and compliments and criticism, which is basically just like having a conversation with people who care about your characters just like you do. I didn’t feel like I was writing into a void back then.

I miss having the connection.

The UKYA Extravaganza taught me a number of things. First, is that I am not the only author in the world who finds it much harder to write with a fictional editor perching on my shoulder and yelling at me. I am not the only writer who found the one after the debut novel very difficult to write. I am also not the only author who feels like they’re shamming authordom and should probably be kicked out of the club.

I always thought that my writing related neurosis, stemming from the fact that I care so much, might disappear at some point. I’m beginning to suspect that’s just a fact of life. I just love it too much. Maybe we all do. I mean, it is the best job in the world. It’s most of our dreams.

I got tips and advice and wisdom from those who’ve been in this industry longer than I have. Reassurance. A lovely sense of author comradery. The desire to have everyone on speed-text to talk about writing with.

That’s not even starting on how great it was to get to talk to readers properly. I think I’d have liked to kidnap them and keep them talking to me until I had a full and complete understanding of everything they did and did not like, their predictions about what was about to happen after the end, whether they thought about the relationships in the book etc.

Seeing people who are as so excited about books reminds me of why I fell in love with writing in the first place and makes me want to blow my whole student loan on buying every single book that people were discussing, just so I can join in the conversation.

Books and reading and writing isn’t a solitary activity anymore. You finish a book and you can be tweeting the author ten minutes later. It’s different when you’ve got everyone in the same room not restricted to 140 characters, though.

I was chatting to Alexander Gordon Smith for a while and I remember him saying that the problem with getting such a large group of authors together is that, the second we’re out the house and all together, you can’t shut us up. We’ve all been cooped up at our laptops for such a long time that conversation is really quite exciting (and exhausting).

It was a wonderful event and I hope there are many more to come. A huge thank you to Emma Pass and Kerry Drewery for organising such a brilliant day.

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SASH Writing Competition

sashlogoJust over a month ago, I still had that post-exams glow and was fighting against adverse weather conditions to head to York for the SASH homeless writing competition awards ceremony.

SASH is a York based homeless charity who provide emergency Nightstop services and run Supported Lodging projects to stop young people from falling into homeless, and they’re really really great. The writing competition was especially brilliant, because it used writing to raise money and awareness, and how great is that? Themed ‘homelessness’, the competition was judged by award winning Ross Raisin (and a couple of other writers too, but I’ll get to that), and challenged entrants to write a maximum of 3000 words about homelessness. The top 22 entries were published in a beautiful anthology courtesy of Stairwell Books and the winner received an incredible Arvon five day residential writing course.

I got involved with the competition when the dregs of the last academic year were circling the drain, just because it seemed like too good of a fit to pass by. I’m involved with a bit of work with the homeless and vulnerable in Sheffield (and recently wrote about some of that here) and I am, by most definitions, a writer. So, I joined the motley crew of volunteer judges whose job it was to spread the word and whittle down an incredible 120 entries to a shortlist of just 22 (our original aim was 20 – we didn’t quite make it).

There were so many really wonderful entries and such a variety of styles and subjects. We had poems and plays and prose. Authentic, engaging and really touching stories. Some of these stories were written by people who have experienced homelessness first hand. Some, by those whose family and friends have. Some, just by people placing themselves in their shoes.

At the Awards Ceremony, Community Co-ordinator Tina Firthlock said the idea sprung from the fact that everyone has a story. Several times since I’ve started interacting and engaging with the homeless, I’ve been told that the worse thing is the way people avert their eyes as they walk past. I can’t imagine how awful it must be to be systematically ignored, but I know that writing was one of the first times I felt like I had voice or that I could say something that people might listen to. Everyone has a story. Writing has power. I love love love the idea that this competition might have given some individual’s their voice back.

SASH also runs musical and art events to help fundraise and I am deeply enamoured with the idea of using creativity to fundraise and raise awareness. Cake sales and shaking buckets at people are all well and good, but how much more original is it to encourage people to express themselves whilst fundraising?

The Awards Ceremony was a lovely event. I had the chance to talk to some of my fellow volunteer judges again and to some of the contestants.  I was also truly honoured to receive a copy of the wonderful anthology (which is really brilliant, for the record, and you can buy a copy here) and to be mentioned in the acknowledgements. It was a real honour and a privilege to be part of such a wonderful competition and I hope to be helping out again soon.

A huge congratulations to Olivia Gwyne for her wonderful story ‘Heading North’, and to both runners up Alison Hitchcock and Carmel Page. I enjoyed all of the entries immensely and everyone who entered should be proud of taking part.

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