Saturday, April 17, 2010

York Wrapped Up

The previous posts have the feel of a headlong dash through last weekend in York at the Festival of Writing.  No links, no photos and - let's not mince words here - not a lot of style.  It's tempting to go back and edit the posts but that would be cheating.  As an experiment in live blogging, they're the product of the weekend and a valid reflection of it.

Now that I have the benefit of hindsight, I've decided to go back and fill in some of the gaps.  Actually, who am I kidding?  It's also because I'm finding it hard to move on.  I still have people I need to get back to with feedback but that doesn't excuse my new found tendency to squat on WordCloud checking for new posts every few minutes.  It's like when you've been at some iconic rock concert or a life-changing political event.  Years later, you still exchange conspiratorial glances with those who shared the experience, knowing that from such events lives are changed.

'York 2010.  We were there ...'

So - back to filling in those gaps.

Entering the zone

I was in the zone before I even left the train.  A woman sitting across the aisle from me leaned over and asked if I was Debi Alper.  Whisks recognised me from my avatar on WordCloud.  As hers is a cupcake (though a particularly attractive cupcake) she would have been a lot harder to pick out in a crowd.  For both of us, it felt like a positive and sociable start to the weekend.

Red dots

Everyone was issued with a small badge with their name on.  Those of us who had a specific role as authors, agents, editors, publishers or organisers, had little red dots on our badges.  As someone pointed out to me, it was like the stickers placed on artworks sold at an exhibition.
'I'm Debi.  Buy me.'

Queens of the red dots, Adele Geras and Emma Darwin

Self-editing mini course

Emma Darwin and I had to cram our usual 7 hour workshop into 4 hours (including a tea break).  With such a large group, it was impossible to give individual feedback on participants' own writing, but a combination of exercises and lots of Q&A meant that the course was still interactive.

Authonomy Live

I am filled with admiration for those brave writers who took part in this event on Friday evening.  It would be enough of a challenge to read aloud to a panel of experts and an assembled throng of approx 400.  How much more so when the words you are reading are your own?  The judges felt unable to agree on a shortlist of 3, so 4 people were put to the public vote which was overwhelmingly in favour of Shelley Harris's beautiful reading.  (Shelley got my vote for her gentle and touching excerpt set during the Silver Jubilee in 1977.)

There was an instant buzz around Shelley - a spontaneous indication that this is her time.  While she was still trying to take in her award, agents approached her from every angle, asking to see the rest of her book.  At the last count, I  believe 7 had expressed an interest.  From such stuff, dreams are made.  Will Shelley be the first to be signed up by an agent as a direct result of the Festival? Though I'm willing to bet she won't be the only one ...

Shelley Harris, winner of Authonomy Live
Those one-to-ones

It's inevitable that some people were happier with the feedback they got in their ten minute slot with agents than others.  The feeling I got was that most people were realistic about the book trade and the chances of their book being published.  They were equally realistic about the financial reality and if they weren't, there was an inexhaustible supply of authors telling them how it was virtually impossible to make a living out of writing, even for those considered highly successful.

For every person who was disappointed by the agent's response, there were several more who found the feedback very useful.  Many of the agents made useful suggestions about the sort of thing a particular writer would seem to be best suited to, providing plenty of food for thought.

Although each of the 10 minute slots flashed past, I felt in my Book Doctor sessions that I was able to make fundamental and (hopefully) useful suggestions for everyone.  Many of the authors sought me out afterwards so that we could continue our discussions.  I was really impressed with the overall standard of writing and it was very gratifying to know that I was able to give practical advice that would take their work to another level.

There were times when I felt more like a therapist than an editor.  There was a clear trend for people to be self-deprecating and over humble (usually the most talented writers!).  I suspect this reticence was a way of pre-empting rejection and possible failure.  Yet, I saw some seriously good writing and intriguing concepts as well as a clear urge to tell stories.  It's almost as though people need permission to write by being told they're not wasting their time.  As if creating worlds of our own and peopling them with a cast formed from our own imaginations could ever be a waste ...

 Literary Death Match

My chance to be Cheryl Cole (or possibly Louis Walsh) came on Saturday night when I was part of the judging panel for the brave participants of the Death Match. Some threw themselves into the performance, using props and costumes, while others preferred to let their words do the talking.  With an equal split between published and unpublished authors, the panel decided to even out the obvious advantage in order to encourage those who are (as yet) unpublished.

Who'da thunk it could be so hard?  Consensus was hard to reach.  The ones that engendered the strongest feelings split us down the middle.  Not a bad thing for the authors concerned - better to be either loved or hated than to evoke a unanimous mild response. Do you hear me, Mr Marmite?

In the best X Factor tradition, the audience ruled supreme and demanded Adele Geras should be added to our shortlist.  Adele's piece was so overwhelmingly fabulous we had felt it would be obvious to everyone there that she was in a class of her own and, as she needs the validation less than the aspiring authors, we hadn't included her.  Nevertheless, she won the audience vote and in a warm and generous gesture, presented her bottle of champagne to Mary Flood, for her moving and powerful story of an eviction based on real events.

 Mary Flood, winner of the Literary Death Match

Workshops and keynote addresses

In advance, I had pictured myself gatecrashing some of the workshops and thought my biggest problem was going to be choosing which to attend.  In the event, I was so busy giving feedback on people's writing that I never had the chance to go to any of them.   Luckily, in the spirit of generosity that underpinned the whole Festival, the organisers have made much of the workshop material (and the keynote addresses) available on the website.  See here

Busy authors at the POV workshop
A Literary Bubble

With no tv, radio or newspapers and every conversation seemingly lit-related, we were cocooned from the outside world with no idea what was happening 'out there'.  Who knew that the entire Polish ruling elite had been wiped out in an air crash?  We were all too busy, totally immersed in Word World.  The only real criticism I've heard so far about the whole weekend is that there was simply too much to fit in.

And there's the rub.  I think that for many people, the opportunity to have direct face-to-face feedback from an agent was the initial hook.  But no one in their right mind would pay that kind of money for a 10 minute session.  So useful though that feedback was for most people, it was only a small part of an entire weekend devoted to the craft of writing and the business side of publishing.

The range of workshops ensured every angle was covered.
The keynote addresses were inspiring and entertaining.
The evening events were fun and informal.
But I think for most people the best part of all was simply being there and mixing with other writers at all different stages of their writing careers.  There was no hierarchy or obvious cliques.  Though some people knew each other in advance (stand up, WordClouders) at any stage you could find a mix of professionals and aspiring authors chatting, laughing and exchanging words.

So what did everyone have in common, given the diversity of backgrounds represented?
Well, obviously everyone there could afford the fee, but apart from that we all share a passion for words and the amazing things we can do with them, a love of storytelling and an endless fascination with other people.

An event like this changes lives, some in a more subtle way than others, but all positive.
Almost everyone will have received some useful and specific advice relating to their writing.
Most will come away inspired to write and uplifted.
Many have caught the eye of an agent and been asked to submit more of their work.
Some may end up signing a contract with an agent.
And some may even achieve their dream of seeing their words in print.

Will it happen again?  What do you think?

The incredible energetic and creative team behind this year's festival are already looking ahead.  You can register interest for 2011 now here.  The full website has been left up here.  Huge thanks to the awesome Harry Bingham and Tommy Kristofferson from the Writers' Workshop, Kate Allan (who somehow managed to juggle incredible professional organisational skills with the needs of a new baby) and Jeremy Guy.

 The indomitable Harry Bingham

Meanwhile, the next best thing to actually being there is to join the community on WordCloud.  It's free to register and there's a whole world of useful info, chat and supportive exchanges.  Check out the host of different groups - or start a new one yourself.  Write on walls, join conversations, look up specific info, browse the blog and (my favourite part) the forums.

I Get the Last Word

Thanks to Avis Hickman-Gibb, I now have a new designation.  I was explaining why I thought Emma and I are such a good team.  Emma is mega qualified to MA level and scatters her talk with learned literary references, whereas my writing evolved from a more organic approach.  It was only later that I was able to analyse and deconstruct what I had created from instinct.

'Ah,' said Avis, 'You're a street writer.'
Yep.  That's me.  A street writing woman.


adele said...

Thanks Debi, for your excellent account of the York weekend. It was tremendous fun, wasn't it? I am very grateful for all the good things you've said about me! And that photo, as photos of me go, isn't bad either!
It was lovely to meet you too. Am now going over to see what's on the website. Thanks so much!

Debi said...

Hi Adele, Meeting you was one of the high points in a weekend of highs. Just remembered I need to upload my notes to the site. Thanks for the reminder.

Queenie said...

Wow. Just... wow.

Avis HG said...

Hi Debi

So glad I've re-classified you. You are - after all - in a class of your own!

I join with all the others in saying - a tremendously educational event. It certainly taught me a lesson!!

No, no! I jest.

It was very enjoyable, stimulating and exhausting. Thanks all involved in the planning and execution.

Sonja Lewis said...

Hey Debi,

What an excellent account of the weekend. Thanks for visiting my blog, so sorry I didn't meet you. I don't think I did.

Yes, it was worth it, feeling like a tweeny again, insecure, etc... but part of writing, eh? Best

Unknown said...

Street writer - love it, Alper!

trying to write ... said...

How fun I wish I could have been there. I wanted to let you know that you touched on something that I often (more often than not) struggle with. I've spoken about it here:

Thanks for the encouragement to press on.

Unknown said...

Bet you're trying to catch up to yourself now - it sounds bloody brilliant, Debi - more of these accounts; more of these escapades - you do them so well!

Whisks said...

Yo Debi, So glad I spotted you on the train and summoned the courage to ask if you were who you looked like. I enjoyed our chat, and it also gave my York weekend that extra pizazz as it started a little bit earlier than I'd anticipated; twas non-stop fun therafter.
Great blogs - you captured the spirit of the Fest.

Debi said...

It was great meeting so many new people and establishing connections that I'm sure will endure long after the (volcanic) dust has settled.

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