Monday, 10 September 2012

York. So good they named it, well once, actually. But still good!

It is 7am and I am up, dressed and at my computer.  I am very, very far from being pleased about this as Thomas and Ben are both snoozing away happily (despite a minor blip at 5.30am when Ben stuck both legs through the bars of his cot and was apparently entirely unable to think of any plan of action that might resolve this situation) and I am knackered and would much rather be taking advantage of a rare, post-6am sleep opportunity.

Unfortunately, I got home from the York Festival of Writing at 10.30pm last night and my brain is still in the “all hands on deck” mode that it has been in for the last three days.  And it’s not an organised, focussed “all hands on deck” situation – it’s a “run about screaming and waving arms while ignoring all instructions to walk in the corridors and not return to cabins for personal possessions” mode, with a bit of “ignore carefully practiced drills and fail to implement a sensible lifeboat policy” thrown in for good measure.

So Ben went back to sleep at 5.30am and I didn’t.  I am sitting at my desk eating slightly stale Cornish wafers (state of emergency declared in fridge due to HWSNBN also being away this weekend and no grocery shopping being done) and trying to impose order in my brain.  It’s not working terribly well – some previously filled and launched lifeboats have decided to come back and circle the ship while shouting conflicting and unhelpful advice to those still on deck.  Someone just fell overboard and is splashing and complaining loudly.

So.  The Festival of Writing.  I’m not quite sure where to start.  Even though I’m pretty sure Debi Alper devoted a reasonable amount of time at her self-editing workshop to explaining that the right place to start is the point at which the story actually begins, without the need to squeeze a vast amount of back story onto page two.  It apparently rather spoils the tension if, while fleeing from the explosion on page one that wipes out ninety percent of the population, the protagonist stops to explain, at some length, the difficult and “explosive” (wink, wink, nudge, nudge, METAPHOR ALERT!) relationship he had with his late grandmother, a survivor of the blitz who used chess as a method of discipline in her home on a small Scottish island.

Just to digress slightly – there appears to be a very small deer eating my tomatoes.  It took me bloody ages to grow those four tomatoes.  I had plans for them and some thieving little bugger comes along and does the “oh look at me, I’m all cute and fluffy, nomnomnom in my little fat deer face” routine. Unbelievable.

See what I mean about the complete disintegration of order and discipline in my brain? 

So, back to the festival…

There are now three of them.  One of them has a courgette.

Okay.  I’m going to try this one more time.  It is now 11.15am and I am slightly traumatised by sharing an eye-test appointment with a certain 3 year-old, who annoyingly has better uncorrected vision than my contact-lensed eyesight.  Once again, the festival…..

Rather surprisingly I actually managed to get there on time.  In defiance of all the dire predictions, I did not miss my train, although the morning was planned with military precision to allow for a pre-school drop-off, a nursery drop-off, a kids’ overnight bag drop-off and a drive to the station.  I even had time to get a pancake from the van outside, although I did drop it on the station concourse, right at the feet of an immaculately turned-out lady who looked at me as if I was a maggot.  Particularly when I shovelled it back in to its case, muttered “3-second rule” and legged it.

The journey was interesting.  I was sharing a table with an elderly lady and someone who turned out to be @TheWritingDes who was also on her way to the festival.  Unfortunately, our fourth tablemate was the noisiest woman ever to grace a quiet carriage.  And it wasn’t even deliberate.  She was just really, really noisy.  There was loud music emanating from her headphones until the guard pointed out it was the quiet carriage.  Her friend then got on and she bounced up and down excitedly on her seat, leaning through the gap to talk, and eat chips with really smelly sauce on.  She also couldn’t find the card she had booked her tickets on so had to have lengthy exchanges with the ticket inspector.  When she got off, the whole carriage heaved an audible sigh of relief.  Before remembering it was the quiet carriage and stopping the noisy huffing, obviously.

We got there eventually and it was straight into Debi Alper’s brilliant self-editing workshop.  I have done A Lot of editing.  I thought I had done all the editing that could possibly be done.  Courtesy of Debi, I now think there might be more editing coming my way…

I was shortlisted for the novel extract competition at dinner that evening and I had wound myself into a state of mild frenzy by the time my name was called.  Particularly since the previous two finalists were brilliant and I was imagining a horrible, drawn-out silence after I finished reading, eventually broken by a sympathetic scatter of half-hearted applause.

Fortunately, that didn’t happen.  A good deal of the thanks for that goes to my table, and the big group of members of the Word Cloud writing forum who were sitting behind us.  As an occasional Word Cloud-er, they graciously took me to their metaphorical bosoms (actually I think a couple of them might have clutched me to their actual bosoms a little later on) and gave me a big, much-appreciated cheer.  No-one appeared to notice the fact that my legs were actually shaking and, by some miracle, I managed to subdue the nervous tics I mentioned in my last post and not stand on one leg, sway gently from side to side, or blink like a drugged-up rabbit in some particularly strobe-y headlights.  In short, I got through it.


I got some very nice comments from a judge before staggering back to my seat and downing an entire glass of wine in one nervous gulp.  The other three contestants were as good as the first two and I was absolutely resigned to coming last.  So it was a massive, massive self-confidence boost when two of the three judges picked my piece as their top choice, and when the audience vote went to a recount, albeit amidst muttered suspicions from the organisers that certain people were voting twice. 

It was won by the lovely Anand Nair with a brilliant extract from a book that I have no doubt we will see on the shelves of Waterstones in a couple of years.

After that it all got a bit surreal as people started coming up and telling me they liked my piece.  And it kept happening.  After a while I started looking round for the You’ve Been Framed team.  People actually liked my writing!  I suspect I was not terribly articulate in response.  I think I said “really?” a lot, in a tone of voice that ranged from the insanely over-excited to the pathetically grateful, by way of the faintly disbelieving.  But it was great.  A really wonderful experience.  Not least because it meant there was always an easy conversation topic – I never had to do the slightly awkward, sidling up to a conversation and trying to find an opener thing.

This got even easier the following day when I woke up with a neck and shoulder that had seized up and finished up having to get a taxi to the nearest pharmacist to demand heavy-duty anti-inflammatories and heat pads.  This meant that as well as “I liked your reading” and “Were you terrified?”, I also reaped the benefit of “What an earth have you done to your neck?”  It turned out that I could probably have avoided the taxi-trip when it became apparent that three people who should probably remain nameless could have opened their own festival chemist, so wide-ranging was their choice of industrial strength painkillers.  For the rest of the day I was furtively offered my choice of a wide selection of exotic sounding pills.  It was like walking alongside the Camden canal.  Except the drugs were legal.  I thought it wise to turn down these kind offers in order to avoid passing out stone-cold in the middle of a workshop.

The heatpads got me mobile again and I attended some great workshops.  Harry Bingham and Kate Lyle-Grant were funny and informative on “how to get published”, while Nicola Morgan told us to keep our blog posts short in her very useful session on building your online presence. 

Clearly that sank in.

The gala dinner on the Saturday night was great fun, although I was rather randomly instructed by a certain agent on our table to write the great British road rage novel, with a protagonist called Judy, a lawyer with a cough.

He wants it by Thursday.

 I am going to assume he was joking.

For the second night running I made it to last orders at the bar, something of a miracle if you have ever come across my unfortunate habit of falling asleep in the middle of pubs and clubs if I try to stay out past ten.

Sunday was very slightly more sedate, with some more really helpful workshops.  Special mention must go to Andrew Wille and his Creativity session, but I also loved the insight into the acquisitions process, via two editors at Ebury, and Sam Mills’ workshop on breaking the rules of writing.

Stuart MacBride’s keynote address was a fantastic, funny, inspiring conclusion to a great three days, and I was sorry to have to leave before the end in order to catch my train.

There are so many other people I should say thank you to that I will certainly forget someone.  Hopefully none of them will read this anyway…..

Charlie Brotherstone and Jim Gill, the judges of the Friday night competition, for giving me their vote and for participating in a rowdy, post-dinner reminiscing session about drunken student days.

Shelley Harris, author of Jubilee, for her very helpful advice.

David Headley and Lisa Everleigh for their feedback in the one-to-one sessions.

Vanessa Wester (who is self-published and will be doing a free download offer next week – look her up on Amazon – shameless plug!) and Phil Rogers for hanging out with me for most of the weekend.

Harry Bingham of the Writers’ Workshop for coming up with an obvious solution to my pharmaceutical needs that had not occurred to me – taxi + pharmacy = happy punter.  And for running the festival obviously!
The HWSNBN family who put up with two small, noisy, smelly people so that I could go and frolic around York.
Everyone else I met.  All of you.  It was brilliant.  The only bad thing about the whole weekend was coming down to earth with a bump at 5.30am this morning.

And the pointed glaring-at that I got from Ben when I got home.  There was a very definite hint of And where exactly do you think YOU’VE been?

You utter cowbag of a mother.



  1. Fabulous post, giving a real flavour of the festival. Thanks for your lovely words. I've linked on my blog (so much easier than writing my own post ;-)) Please say we can use this for the Festie Book ... *puppy eyes*

  2. [gives into puppy eyes] Of course you can! Now do excuse me - the three year-old just sat on the baby whose world is apparently now ending....

  3. Thanks for hanging out with me too :)

    1. I like your list, by the way! I think you have scared Debi Alper!

  4. Awww... Thank you for the mention! When did you find the tie to write this... I have been working really hard today to get the changes made to my book for Thursday, for the free days! It's a lot more work than I thought but I am a woman on a mission!

    Anyway, my weekend would not have anywhere near as good if I had not bumped into you and loads of others... It was so nice to not feel so alone (as a writer) and to have people say nice things... And to have the excuse to chat books, movies, etc... We had fun AND were not even drunk - even though Harry obviously wanted us to!

    Please keep in touch and hopefully we'll get the kids together for a play in the future. I need an excuse to go up to bath, it's my favourite City.

    1. Good luck with the agents BTW... What this space everyone!

      Lots of love
      Vanessa :) xx

    2. Oh it's Thursday, not next week! Will have to tell a friend of mine who is going to download it - she reads loads of that sort of genre.