One day, fifty new writers, and everything they need to know to get published.
WriteNow is an initiative from Penguin Random House, hoping to widen access to this sometimes exclusive-feeling industry to a host of writers from underrepresented backgrounds: BAME, LGBTQ, on a low income, and those with mental and/or physical disabilities. 1700 writers applied. Only 150 have been selected to attend a day of panels and Q&As – in London, Newcastle and Bristol – to kick open a door that they may have been struggling to open.
I hesitated when I was asked to attend. I might be super gay, but I’m also an able cis white woman with a university education; no one microblinks when I’m in the room. But visibility matters, and I’ve learned a thing or two that I thought would be valuable.
I’m so proud and happy to have been involved. Hearing Emma-Jane Smith Barton, one of last year’s WriteNow authors, sharing her experiences highlighted the validity and importance of initiatives like these. Last year Emma was selected as one of 10 writers to receive a year’s mentoring from PRH; she’s getting guidance from a brilliant editor, now has an equally brilliant agent, and she’s already working on her second book. She spoke passionately about why we were there: in short, to tell the stories that aren’t being told.
The day was filled with open, clear, honest information that seems so hard to find when you’re starting out. The opening panel laid out How It All Works, talking us through the process of idea to published book from the perspectives of author, editor, agent and publicist. The authors panel – with Bernadine Evaristo, Kit de Waal, Nadia Shireen, Alan Johnson, Lola Jaye, Joe Earle and me, chaired by PRH CEO Tom Weldon – spoke plainly about fitting writing around real life, keeping the day job, why not to fret about your social media profile, and the value of a network of other writers as well as collaboration with an editor. An agent panel talked us through how to write a great cover letter. And every writer had a one-to-one meeting with a PRH editor, to talk over their submission and give them positive critique to push them forward.
It was great. Really great. I chatted with so many enthused, excited writers who felt lifted up by being told they had legitimacy, by being given permission to keep at it; I remember having just the same feeling when I was first shortlisted for a writing competition. Apparently our author panel was encouragingly down-to-earth. ‘You’re real people, like us!’ someone said to me. Yep.
Being a real person, I want to be honest about a few things that came up over the course of the day.
It’s an admirable goal, to bring people together like this, and not easy to achieve. But a long day of meeting new people, mingling in table groups or over coffee breaks in a loud busy room, isn’t accessible to everyone – especially anyone neurodiverse, with anxiety, unable to comfortably stand for extended periods or to easily see or hear or have others at eye-level. I was so pleased the opening speech acknowledged how challenging the day might be, and encouraged anyone who felt overwhelmed to take a break whenever they needed to – but there was no quiet room set aside, nowhere calm to take that break. There’s more to accessibility than a lift and a loo.
And there’s a larger question here, I think, about the different needs of different underrepresented groups. The initiatives that I feel are currently making a genuine impact on inclusion in the publishing industry – Nikesh Shukla‘s The Good Immigrant Unbound campaign, Mariam Khan‘s forthcoming essay anthology on Muslim women’s experience, the BAME in Publishing group set up by Wei Ming Kam and Sarah Shaffi – these are not one-size-fits-all approaches. The barriers to entry facing one minority group are not the same as those facing another; some feel underrepresented or co-opted even within an umbrella term like BAME or LGBTQ. I completely understand the desire to exclude no one, and the value of acknowledging our intersectionality (many of the day’s attendees were ‘underrepresented’ in multiple ways). But I wonder if putting us all together is the best way to move things forward.
There will be a feedback process; there were adaptations made to this year’s programme on the basis of comments from last year. I spoke with the event organisers near the end, and they know there is work to be done to make WriteNow as great as it could be.
In the meantime, I hope the 50 writers at Bristol remember what an amazing achievement it was to be selected. I know they came away with a huge amount of incredibly valuable knowledge; I’m hopeful those of us inside the industry will have come away having learned a few lessons too. Above all, I’m excited for a future where my bookshelves are filled with their new voices.