A rare excursion off the Island to attend this excellent 3-day event. The small-ish city of Winchester is knee-deep in history, the sun shone and hundreds of writers gathered at the University up on the hill. It was my second year so by now I was starting to know the ropes.

Outside the set timetable one of the great benefits of the weekend is being surrounded by people, young and old, talking along the same lines, the same esoteric language, phrases and acronyms that writers pick up along the way. It is commonplace to just sit down in the sun with a coffee and strike up a chat with a complete stranger – something that in the real world might seem a bit weird. So, a potted resume of the weekend.

Everyone signs up for one of a dozen or so ‘Masters’ Courses’. I chose ‘Mystery, Myth and Magic’. And while the day was interesting enough I was left wondering if indeed I’d taken a great deal of value from it.

In the evening there was an ‘open mic’ opportunity to read one’s own work and listen to others. I chose instead to head down the hill into town. Winchester has a number of bars which suit me well. Supreme among them is The Hyde Tavern. Low beams, higgledy-piggley furniture, no TV or music and a selection of Real Ale (craft beer) to die for. Each evening there is something going on – Spanish classes, book clubs, art appreciation etc. Long may it survive.

The busiest day with a lot of one-day-only people attending. It all starts with a keynote speech in the auditorium. This year it was given by the author Joanne Harris MBE. Very relaxed, thumbs in jeans waistband, she talked without notes and gave a nice talk.

She spoke about the first book she ever borrowed from her local library at age 6, a collection of Viking stories, a book she borrowed time and again. Many years later she had a young daughter of her own and thought that she, too, might love this book. But alas, the library was no more. However she tracked the title down on Amazon and sent away for it. It duly arrived. She was astonished to find it was the exact same copy that she used to read, complete with library stamps.

Delegates have a choice of a number of 1-hour talks or seminars throughout the day. These are always of interest and of course you attend those that are of particular interest.

There is also a full programme in the evening including a dinner, but again I preferred to head down the hill.

Winchester Uni 3

A very good workshop on character building took us to mid-afternoon. Everyone enjoyed the practical exercises which had been sadly lacking on Friday. One which was both useful, and occasionally hilarious, was writing about two objects chosen at random from slips in a hat. Some people have amazing imaginations!

For many delegates these 15-minute sessions with industry experts are why they attend the Festival. Every year there are people that land book deals, a rare thing. I had five sessions lined up of which I stupidly missed one. I had sent in advance extracts and a synopsis of my m/s A West Cork Mystery. Of the four experts I saw one was plum just not interested and two gave constructive feedback on the extracts I had sent.

It was only the feared rottweiler among the experts that gave me really good pointers as to why and where my m/s is presently lacking. Basically it is too short and needs an extensive rework if it is to have a chance of being traditionally published.

Loved it, though maybe a little less than last year. The venue is perfect, accommodation is fine. The timetable is packed and there is a great buzz. Ages range considerably but one innovation has been to give scholarships to 15 or so youngsters who certainly freshen things up.

In between classes there are plenty of industry-related stalls to browse, free coffee all day and agony aunts available if it all becomes too much. Student volunteers were everywhere this year so people got less lost in the maze of buildings.

Really, any writer ought to get to one of these festivals at least once a year to freshen up their thinking, and Winchester must certainly be among the best there is.