Writers’ Weekend Winchester - literary festival goes online

Sara Gangai has organised this years Writers Weekend

Sara Gangai has organised this years Writers Weekend - Credit: Archant

A new writing festival is going virtual for its first event to inspire and support first-time authors

Eoin Colfer is one of the keynote speakers this year (c) Mary Browne

Eoin Colfer is one of the keynote speakers this year (c) Mary Browne - Credit: Mary Browne

When Sara Gangai put together plans for the first Writers’ Weekend Winchester, she had no idea that the coronavirus lockdown would throw everything askew.

But in planning the follow-up to the hugely successful Winchester Writers’ Festival, which ended in 2019 after 39 years, she added a virtual element which is now paying dividends.

“There’s so much video conferencing going on nowadays,” she told Hampshire Life before the lockdown fell. “We had feedback in the past from people who would have loved to have come, but it was too far away, or they couldn’t afford it. By putting elements on a website people can purchase a video or a virtual package for an inexpensive price.”

Fast forward three months and the entirety of Writers’ Weekend Winchester has gone virtual – from streamed talks to workshops, as well as the exclusive 15-minute one-to-one sessions allowing writers to speak directly to literary agents and publishers.

“We wanted to ensure the writing community can still access the extraordinary range of content the Writers’ Weekend offers,” says Sara announcing the new format. “While the technology is easy-to-use we will hold training sessions ahead of the event and provide support to anyone who needs help to set up their computer, tablet or smartphone. We want everyone to enjoy what will be an amazing weekend.”

The Writers’ Weekend’s forerunner, Winchester Writers’ Festival, was founded by Barbara Large, who died last year. Sara estimates more than 100 visitors had their books published as a result of the festival over the past 39 years – including returning speakers Claire Fuller, whose 2015 debut Our Endless Numbered Days won the Desmond Elliot Prize in 2015, and former director Judith Heneghan whose latest novel Snegurochka was published last year.

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“We don’t always hear about some of the people being published,” admits Sara, who worked on the Writers’ Festival for eight years as event manager and was the director of the final event last year.

“Literary agents and publishers consider this to be the festival to go to – they had been contacting me saying they wanted to come.”

The change in name, and date to July, has arisen after the University of Winchester decided to cease their involvement in the event, although pre-lockdown they had offered the use of university buildings for workshops and speeches. “It meant we got more freedom,” says Sara, who decided to move the festival to July to make it more accessible for accommodation.

She also moved the main event to the weekend and doubled the number of keynote speakers to two. Both are still giving speeches: Artemis Fowl creator Eoin Colfer on Saturday and on Sunday Lissa Evans, the bestselling author of Their Finest Hour and a Half, which was recently filmed as Their Finest. The programme features a further 65 talks, including readings from Jasper Fforde, author of Thursday Next books, Nick Barlay and Kate Bradley.

“I went out to our speakers to ensure that they’d be comfortable delivering talks, workshops and one-to-ones in a video-conference format,” says Sara. “Many had already been using virtual communication technology, such as Zoom. With the advancements in video-conference software we’re lucky to be able to provide an interactive and exciting programme to a wider audience in the comfort of their home.”

The festival will now feature 19 one-hour talks on the craft of writing, 18 two-hour workshops and more than 800 one-to-one appointments with literary agents and editors who are keen to see writing submissions. It’s this element which Sara believes gives the festival its edge over other literary events.

“It’s easier to get published today because you can self-publish,” says Sara. “But people tend to write something they think is commercially viable when it’s not necessarily so. We are really trying to stress the importance of having work professionally edited – learning all the tricks, finding out how things really work by giving the option to approach agents on the spot.

“Over the weekend we will be offering up to five one-to-one spots with literary agents and publishers. No other writing festival offers this. Most of the time writers will send submissions to agents and might never hear anything at all. Here they will upload submissions ahead of time so the agent can read it and make notes ahead of their 15-minute meeting. And agents like to sit face-to-face with people – they can tell so much by the writer’s body language, what they say and how they present their work.”

As for the future Sara is hoping the Writers’ Weekend format is something which could be sold to other cities to increase its reach. “We have had people come from Scotland and Ireland before – it would be great to go into their areas. Our main focus is to help people get from inspiration to publication.”

The physical Writers’ Festival did see visitors coming from as far afield as Dubai, Barbados, across Europe, the US and Hong Kong to network in Hampshire. With a virtual Writers’ Weekend that reach could go even further.

The first virtual Writers’ Weekend Winchester is running from 9 to 12 July. Find out more at writersweekend.uk