Tweets, Beasts and Writing Treats (The story of the Sunderland Creative Writing Festival 2018)

One month, nine venues, eighteen events and nearly five hundred attendees, I think it’s fair to say that the Sunderland Creative Writing Festival has been a bit of a success.

I’m not sure when Iain Rowan first asked me if I wanted to be involved, it was probably in a dream or something.

I’d run a workshop in the previous festival in 2016 and not only was I asked if I’d like to run another one, I was also given the opportunity to be a bit more hands on with the organisation of the event.

I jumped at the chance and even during the couple of touch and go moments we had, I haven’t regretted it for a minute.

Being the organised type, I own a calendar, sometimes I even write stuff in it. Using this marvel of modern technology I’ve been able to check back to when our first official festival meeting was. It was January 3rd, only three months ago but it seems like a lifetime away.

Iain had already done all the heavy lifting; he’d gained funding via Arts Council England and had put together a programme of workshops, talks and events that would appeal to writers of all persuasions, skills and peculiarities.

All I had to do was get people to turn up.

We already had a website, Twitter and Facebook account and apart from uncoupling ourselves from the Literature Festival that we ran with in 2016, we were almost ready to go.

We also had a meeting with the brilliant Hannah Matterson and Kristian Foreman. I’m not going to make this blog into an Oscar acceptance speech but their knowledge, experience and enthusiasm was invaluable. They’d worked on the last festival and were central to the city of culture bid so they highlighted a number of things we needed to do and things to look out for.

We set a date for tickets going live, and apart from one event (more on that later) we had dates, authors, speakers and venues sorted. I updated the website, got Eventbrite ready to go with the tickets and began work on the social media side of things.

We had a lot of interest but despite the goodwill and the fact that we’d made all of the events free, there was always the worry that maybe we’d overestimated the demand. We’d made a deliberate decision not to spend money on leafleting and to rely on word of mouth and social media along with a couple adverts and a press release. Maybe there weren’t as many aspiring writers in the region as we thought.

We went on the radio, we hammered social media, spoke to as many people as we could then on Sunday February 11th we went live with the tickets at 7pm. There was some logic behind choosing that time but I can’t remember what it was. Whatever the reason, it worked.

We’d hoped to shift a few in the first week and do a push on the earlier events as they drew closer. What we hadn’t expected was people sat at their laptops at exactly 7pm waiting for the tickets to go live and booking them straight away but that’s what happened.

I think we had our first sold out event in 24 hours (Lisa Burns is still wearing her sell out crown) and before the week was out, eight of the eighteen events were full.

After a fortnight, Iain told me that if we stopped making tickets available at that point, we’d exceeded what we set out to do. But we pushed on, I even made some photo montages on Photoshop. Anybody who is aware of the history of my Photoshop skills will know why this could have ended in disaster.

With tickets still flying out of the door, it was nearly March and we were ready for our first event.

Then the snow came.

THE BEAST FROM THE EAST

The media called it The Beast From The East. We called it something with a few more swear words.

The country had come to a standstill and Sunderland was no exception. It was with a very heavy heart and even heavier snow that we decided to postpone the first event on Thursday 1st March and we prayed for an upturn in the weather.

I took advantage of the conditions and went around taking photos of our venues in the snow.

Our next event was on the Saturday and following a chat with Gez Casey, who was running the workshop, and a review of weather forecasts and public transport we decided to go ahead barring blizzard conditions.

It turned out to be the right decision and whilst a couple of people couldn’t make it (I got to stand in and take one of the spots) our festival was up and running. There was loads of energy, plenty of ideas and a great deal of enthusiasm. This was to be the theme for the rest of the month.

The next couple of workshops, Building Character and Writing Audio Drama, went well and up next was one of the big ones, Noir at the Bar.  Not only did we have a number of authors from all over the region booked to read from their books, I was also going to read from Idle Threats, not something I’d done previously.

It was going to be our biggest event so far and then we heard we were going to have a special guest; Darren Henley, Chief Executive of Arts Council England. We were spending his money and he was popping in for an hour. No pressure then.

We needn’t have worried. It was a great night, Darren enjoyed it and even Tweeted about it the next day. An added bonus was that I only swore twice during my reading.

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There were a couple more workshops before the one everyone had been waiting for, my Editing workshop. (I may have used some creative writing in that last sentence.)

There was a little bit pressure for me to deliver a good session as I have access to the feedback surveys and nobody wants to read bad stuff about themselves. It went well with an enthusiastic group and I even got them to do my reverse engineered Smiths lyrics exercise.

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I mentioned earlier that one event wasn’t quite sorted when we put the tickets live and that was one of biggest, Writing Young Adult Fiction. We’d tried various venues and they were all fully booked and then we approached Harry Collinson, owner of  The Looking Glass. He was happy to help but the only problem we had was that when we spoke to him, it hadn’t opened.

It was a risk but we were all confident that there was plenty of time; that was until the Beast From The East came and set back their opening date.

Once again, everything fell into place and we needn’t have worried. Harry and his team pulled out all the stops to open for us and the session couldn’t have gone better. You have no idea how relieved we were. The snow had returned and at one point Iain was running around the streets trying to round up lost attendees but it turned out to be one of our best received events.

After that it was pretty much plain sailing. Once the chairs (and the comedians) turned up for our final event, Writing Comedy, at Independent we could almost relax.

The comedians were great, we had some laughs, and then it was over.

Me and Iain shook hands, breathed a sigh of relief and allowed ourselves to reflect slightly on a job well done.

We aim to be back bigger and better in October 2019 but until then, here’s a couple of things of note.

Along with the numbers I mentioned at the beginning of the blog, we had over 600 emails and our Tweets had nearly 160,000 impressions.

Flipchart paper is very expensive, I had no idea.

I have drunk stupid amounts of coffee but it’s probably a good thing that I’m off the booze at the moment.

If you feel like you should have been involved, emailing in CAPITAL LETTERS and using numerous exclamation marks probably isn’t the way to convince us that you don’t spend your days scribbling on the walls in green ink.

It’s been a fantastic month and I’m proud of what we’ve achieved but it couldn’t happen without a number of people pulling together to make it work. The authors, poets, comedians and workshop leaders provided fantastic content.

Sunderland has some fantastic venues and they all went out of their way to make us welcome and saved us from some sleepless nights.

Everyone who has supported us with advice and spreading the word via social media made a huge difference.

Every single person who turned up and participated made it worthwhile, the positive feedback makes us very happy.

Most of all, and I know he hates the praise, it couldn’t have happened without Iain. He didn’t sit waiting for the council or someone else to do it. He didn’t spend his time on social media twisting that nobody was organising a festival. He got off his arse and made it happen. We need more people like him.

Thanks for being involved, see you next year.


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