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How You Too Can Build a Literary Festival

[1]Being a writer can be hell on the ego.

Hours of sweating over a story, hours of researching markets for your story, hours of composing cover letters and queries…and that’s just for the chance to be rejected by some gatekeeper.

It’s easy to forget the thrill of sharing a story directly with a reader.

That’s why I organize an annual virtual literary festival, StoryFest, for the people who participate in StoryADay May. And, in this post, I’m going to explain why I do it, how I do it and why you might want to do something similar for your community of writer-friends.

While my wish for all writers is to be generously compensated for their artistic efforts, I’ve come to realize that sometimes it’s just as important to experience that thrill of being read. Hearing feedback from readers (especially readers who aren’t related to us) reminded us of the power of story.

It’s not all about editors and character arcs and raising the stakes.

Telling stories is about connecting with another mind, creating emotions in another heart, sharing this human experience in a deep way.

No better feeling than when someone GETS me Even just one person. Makes a huge difference.

-Margos, Infinity [2]

So, What is a Virtual Literary Festival?

It’s one weekend when stories, nominated by writers and readers in the community, take over the front page of my website.

Everyone who is showcasing a story in the ‘festival’ tells their friends and invites them to come and check out all the stories.

What’s The Point?

In my case, I want to celebrate the extraordinary effort of the writers in my community, who labor to produce a story a day for a month. They need a sort of ‘recital’ at the end, as a reward.

But don’t we all deserve that kind of celebration from time to time?

By mounting a literary festival online, I allow my writers to share their work far and wide, without anyone having to travel or worry about the weather, or commit to a whole afternoon of literary events.

The best part about a virtual literary festival is the shared audience:

Each writer in the festival brings potential new readers to every other writer. We each increase our reader base by supporting each other.

Moreover, we get to share our work with each other and with readers. It’s incredibly thrilling to know your story is being read by people who are strangers!

And it is not just a thrill, it’s useful to experience that. It helps us remember that we are writing for readers, not simply trying to please an editor with their own business needs and personal preferences.

Focusing on delighting the reader can be reinvigorating to a writer who has become too caught up in the business side of things.

And, from the reader’s point of view, being part of a limited-time event is exciting! The deadline gives them a reason to check out your stories NOW, while the virtual literary festival is happening, and not to simply add it to a To Be Read list.

How To Run Your Own Virtual Literary Festival

You probably have a bunch of writer friends (from the Writer Unboxed community or elsewhere). If you like the idea of pooling your resources and putting your stories out there, here are some tips for staging your own virtual literary festival.

The Basics

Pick a weekend that works for most people in the group. Try to avoid major holidays. Give yourself a few weeks to get everything set up, but don’t give yourself so long that you become an overwhelmed-perfectionist and stall out.

Set a firm date, and start promoting it before you’ve got all the work done. (I know how we writers love deadlines!)

You can have website where you can host a page dedicated to the virtual literary festival. Or you could simply use a social media account and share links from it.

Pick A Theme

You don’t actually have to pick a theme, it just makes it easier for readers to figure out if they’ll be interested.

In my case, the theme is very loose: stories we wrote during StoryADay May. It’s intriguing enough that some readers will come just to see what that’s all about.

But if you love Sci-Fi, or Romance or “Non-binary Characters Having Adventures in 17th Century Patagonia”, and you know other writers who write in that genre too, make that your theme!

Lengths

In my experience, people don’t like to read long pieces online. And if each story/excerpt is 5,000 words long, there is less likelihood of visitors reading more than one.

Since your literary festival is, in part, about sharing your audiences, consider making the stories flash fiction or shorter excerpts of longer works.

Backlinks

Encourage your writers to link back to the home page (or hashtag) for your virtual literary festival, and to other stories in festival that they enjoyed.

All of this helps increase the search engine rating for their site and all the sites they are linking to. This becomes important when agents and editors ask about the dreaded word ‘platform’!

I really enjoy being able to share something I have so recently written, as opposed to the time frame with published stories (I have a story coming out in January 2020 that I wrote in early 2018). I shared a kind of quirky/weird story written in the second person which I really loved, but I think would have been more difficult to place elsewhere. (I also appreciate the increased traffic on my website!)

-Monique Cuillerier, A Small Rover [3]

Art & Design

It helps to have a logo, hashtag and tagline for your virtual literary festival, to create a coherent brand and help readers know they’re in the right place. But don’t go crazy.

It’s relatively easy to find an artist on sites like Fiverr, to whip up a pleasing, inexpensive logo.

Encourage all your writers to use the branding on their social media and websites.

Home Page Design

Again, I recommend ease over complexity.

This year we had a fancy rotating carousel of images linking to stories but I am very comfortable with website building tools. Also, I’ve been doing this since 2010 and have a lot of the other details figured out, giving me time to play with design.

In the past, my virtual literary festival page has been as simple as a list of links to stories. And that worked.

Some Other Recommendations

[4]
London 2012 Festival, Southbank Centre (Aurelien Guichard)

Presenting The Stories

While you could simply Tweet or post about the various stories on your social media channel of choice (and you should), I find it useful to have home page at my website, where readers can find links to all the stories at once.

This is not as intimidating as it sounds.

Here’s what I do:

  1. I create a page on my WordPress website called StoryFest20XX.
  2. I ask the writers to send me a link to a story that they have posted somewhere online. This could be at their blog, an online publication or even a shared Google document (make sure it is shared, and that the settings are locked down so that readers an only view and not edit the document).

Of these options, I recommend people post on a website (it’s super-simple to set up a quick site on WordPress.com to host your story) because that way each writer can capture comments from readers and invite fans to sign up to their own mailing list. (You do have a mailing list, don’t you?).

Sometimes writers will recommend stories that were shared online during StoryADay May, by other people in our community. This is a lovely way to pay it forward, build community, and boost another writer’s confidence.

I saw more traffic to my site, which was nice… looking at other writer’s stories, that was also fun.”

-Sharon X. Wong, Hell On Earth [5]

Note: I do not vet these stories, except briefly for content I would find problematic to promote. I am not publishing them, or making judgements on them. I am merely providing a showcase.

  1. Creating The ShowcaseOn my site, I create a list of the stories on my new StoryFest20XX page, complete with title, summary, author’s name, link to the story online and, if appropriate, which of our community members recommended the story.

In the past I’ve done this as a simple list or a table on the page. This year I played with having a fancy rotating slider-thingy. It was pretty, but more work and totally not necessary. A list works fine.

  1. Set the new page to be the front page of my site during the dates of the virtual literary festival, and begin promoting it.

I invite all the participating writers to blog, tweet, post to social media about the event and their specific stories. (See below for some advanced strategies on how to get people to actually do this without dying of embarrassment.)

After The Event

After the weekend is over, I revert to the previous front page, but make sure to add a link to the StoryFest20XX page in my site’s navigation. It stays there as an archive. You can see an example here [6]

Planning For The Future

Make it a regular event so that your writers and readers begin to anticipate it.

Mine is annual.

You could do it quarterly, but any more than that and it becomes a huge amount of work and loses some of the ’special’ from its ‘special event’ status.

Why I Don’t Post The Stories On My Site

I do not want to become a publisher or get into questions of rights, or control. If the writer posts the story on their own website, then they are in charge of how long it is available for. If they want to take it down or revise it, I’m not involved.

Sure, it might result in some broken links on my website, but I’d rather have than than be responsible for administering the availability of other people’s intellectual property, later. Instead, I simply link to the story wherever the author tells me it lives.

I make sure the writers understand that they are giving up first serial rights by publishing it online, and that it will be considered ‘previously published’ by other publications.

I also remind them that they are self-publishing and to enjoy the thrill of making their stories available directly to readers!

Advanced Strategies for Promoting The Festival

I strongly recommend providing some sample scripts for your writers when you ask them to send out emails and social media posts about the festival.

It could be as simple as “Need a real break on your coffee break? Why not get off social media and read a story by me or one of my friends? [Link to the festival]”

Even better, come up with a summary or hook for each story in the festival. This can be a bit of work, but if you can do this for the writers it will help immensely. People hate writing about their own stories.

More of your participants will mail and tweet and post about the festival if they don’t have to come up with something that feels like bragging or self-promotion.

In the past I’ve provided mock personal ads for each of the stories. For example,

“Married man seeks discreet female friends for casual fun” Will he get away with it? https://stada.me/toys #storyfest #PlotAsPersonalAd

If you don’t have time to read all the stories before you manage the marketing (and you probably won’t), ask the writers for a summary of the story.

Give them a framework like this:

“A _______(noun) wants to ________, but when________ [happens] they must decide _________”

You can take these summaries and tweak them a bit, then send them back to the writer, or share them with everyone in the festival.

(Promoting other people’s stories is always so much easier than promoting your own!)

Don’t forget to ask witty spouses and children for suggestions for these summaries. In my house it’s often the non-writer who comes up with the best marketing line!

The Rising Tide

Writing can be a solitary act, but the longer I am in this world, the more I realize that ‘words on the page’ is the only part of writing that can be done alone.

One of the wonderful things about literature is that, in spite of what the literary prizes may lead you to believe, it is not a competition.

Readers read faster than any one of us can write.

Pooling our resources, sharing our audiences, and supporting each other through this journey, strengthens each of us, expands our reach, and increases our chances of success.

And quite apart from all those lofty goals: sharing stories with readers is fun. Try it!

If you are thinking about hosting a virtual literary festival, what theme might you choose? What’s holding you back (technologically or philosophically) from hosting your own virtual literary festival?

About Julie Duffy [7]

Julie Duffy [8] is the founder and director of the creativity challenge StoryADay.org where she has blogged about the creative life and short stories since 2010. StoryADay is the host of annual short story writing challenges in May and September, year-round writing prompts, articles and community resources for creative inspiration. She regularly talks at writers’ groups and conferences about creativity and writing.

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