Here are my 5 tips for getting the most out of your writers festival experience.
1. Take time to explore the festival program, dig deep for hidden treasures
These days electronic program listings typically allow you to search by author/speaker, keyword, date or even venue. But searching like this rarely takes you out of your comfort zone.
While festivals are a great way to learn more about your favourite authors, they are just as much about discovering new authors and opening up your mind to new ideas. That is why, for me, you simply cannot go past a hard copy program to pour over, highlight, and just generally see what catches your eye.
Have you been browsing a title but not sure whether it is right for you? Go and listen to the author speak and gain a greater appreciation of that novel before reading it.
Better yet, why not challenge yourself and attend an author panel session whose theme is a genre you are less familiar with?
Also, just because an author may have written a title you do not feel compelled to read, that does not mean you won’t enjoy listening to them speak about their personal journey and writing process.
I once attended a session at the Brisbane Writers Festival where Clare Wright discussed her Stella Prize winning title The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka. This is not a title I would personally choose to read in my leisure time, however I found myself enthralled by Clare’s story, both professional and personal. The research she undertook in writing the book was absolutely fascinating, and her candor and discussions with some very knowledgeable audience members was wonderful to watch. Without ever having read the book in question, that festival session still ranks as one of my favourites.
When considering an event, look not just at the guest(s) but also the interviewer or leader of a panel session. These are the people that can often transform the pedestrian into something truly inspiring/entertaining.
Once you’ve noted down the list of events that have tickled your creative taste buds…
you must come back down to earth for a moment and check for programming clashes and venues. Don’t just assume that all events are being held at the central festival precinct. Festival organizers often stage events in satellite locations such as suburban libraries to make it easier for those without transport to get involved.
If all your events are being held in the main festival precinct, take a moment to ask yourself,
Is 5 minutes really enough time for me to get from one venue to the next amidst festival crowds, without crash tackling anyone?
From past experience, the answer is no, unless consecutive sessions are being held in the same or neighbouring auditorium. These are festivals of the mind, not the Olympics. Even if you do just manage to sit down before the next speaker begins (likely at the back of the room because people typically line up for the best seats), will you be able to hear what is being said over your own heavy breathing?
My strong advice is to pace yourself, and save your energies for the inspiring and creative debates that take place at these festivals.
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2. Book your tickets early
Once you have your final list of events and know whether you need to purchase tickets or book seats for free sessions, do that without delay. Although it may feel like it at times, you really are not the only book lover out there and writers festival tickets often sellout very quickly.
When booking tickets I recommend opting to get your tickets beforehand (or choosing the print ticket option). The line-up at festival box offices can be long, sometimes open to the elements and not needing to allow time to get your tickets on the day can reduce stress levels. As with any tickets you get before an event though, store them in a safe place. When tickets are emailed for printing, I immediately tag those emails as ‘tickets’ so that I can easily find them later.
3. Pack a festival carry bag before leaving home
Make sure you have your full itinerary for the day and venue map, and ideally your tickets in a separate pocket for easy access (I even order my tickets chronologically). If you are someone that likes to collect signatures, make sure you pack your copies of books by authors attending that day. Also pack a notepad and pen (to capture that inspiration) and of course a smartphone for photos and sharing inspiring quotes with your friends on social media.
I also strongly recommend a bottle of water (with tight seal) and non-sticky snacks to boost energy levels between sessions (we don’t want sticky fingers when handling books!). My snacks of choice are Jellybeans and Fruit Tingles.
4. Explore the festival precinct
On the day, allow yourself plenty of time before the first session to do a general reconnaissance of the festival precinct – check out food vendor locations, amenities, venue and author signing table locations, chill-out zones and the festival bookstore – and if necessary get your tickets from box office.
When we attend a festival we each make a contribution to the event itself — just stop for a moment and soak up the inclusive and open-minded festival vibe — and then participate.
Rarely will you be surrounded by so many other unabashed book lovers. Whether it’s in a line-up outside an event or simply browsing in the festival bookstore, strike up a conversation – you might be surprised how many bookish shared experiences you have.
5. Be inspired and share that inspiration
Once you’ve taken your seat inside an event, if you want to take a photo I think it is polite to do so before the speaking begins. Once you’ve done that and turned your phone on silent, I like to remove all distractions and immerse myself in the discussion.
It’s a matter of personal choice of course, but I have found taking copious notes detracted from my enjoyment of the experience. If like me you’d like to be able to quote people accurately afterwards, then mobile voice memo is an unobtrusive way to record discussions for reference later (after checking that’s permitted of course). Then during my breaks between sessions I jot down my key takeaways/ideas in my notepad and share words of wisdom on social media.
Take that festival vibe home with you and share the beauty of the written word with family, friends and colleagues — recommend a book, get yourself a copy of that title that nice lady you were chatting to in line couldn’t speak more highly of, or set about exploring an author’s back catalogue.
And then, support those that bring your local writers festival to life.
That way you can look forward to doing it all again in 12 months time!