(Sky)Lark Ascending – My Festival of Writing Experience 2012

Published by: Skylark on 7th Oct 2012 | View all blogs by Skylark

It's taken me a while to gather my thoughts post-York Festival. A lot happened, I went home overloaded and overwhelmed and then was catapulted straight back into Real Life which kind of took over for a bit. So, this is a round-up of how the weekend worked for me. It's a bit long. Ok, it's very long. About 2400 words. (Just saying incase you want to go and make a cup of tea before reading).


I’ve only been driving for ten minutes and now I’m sitting in a tailback on the Woodhead Pass, drumming my thumbs on the steering wheel in time to Brahms Academic Overture and trying not to get impatient. I’ve missed the Holmfirth turning so the only option now is to sit...and crawl...and sit...and crawl...craning my neck round the cars in front. Roadworks? An accident? Or just Friday afternoon freedom seekers?

The Overture finishes and the violin concerto begins. And it’s still sit... crawl... sit... crawl...  I measure my progress in tenths of a mile, ticking by on the odometer. Three miles in, I get confirmation of roadworks another mile ahead. A walker could keep pace me, the speed I’m going at.

Finally, well into the concerto, I’m on the other side and I’m flying over the summit as the violin soars to ethereal heights and I’m filled with a certainty: this is now; this is me; this weekend is mine!

The feeling lasts all through the first afternoon and evening. The Festival is buzzing with the promise of success and it’s impossible not to be carried by the warmth and friendship and support of Word Cloud friends old and new. Putting faces to nicknames and sharing hugs with people I’ve never met before but I’ve known for ages: Squidge and Barb and AlanP and Mac and Tenacity and Jock and Torrs and Flick and Sirtanic and Stephy and Autumn and Vanessa and...and...and...

‘Best hugs’ are reserved for John ‘Onceupon’ and Debi. I’m a writer but sometimes a hug says more than words. And I wouldn’t be where I am without them.

 Saturday morning: I wake far too early for a child-free weekend. Tangled in my covers in a bed that’s too narrow, too lumpy and too hot, it takes me a moment to realise that I’ve not time-warped back to my student hall days. I’m in York, at The Festival. And I didn’t come here for a comfortable bed. My stomach flutters. Things will happen today and those things will determine what I do next.

The festival kicks off officially with Jojo Moyes delivering an inspiring and motivating keynote speech; eloquently delivered with no notes. I identify with her struggle to fit writing around kids and work and life. I do some calculations in my head to figure out if I can do her 6am rise each morning to squeeze in that extra hour of writing while still getting enough sleep to function as a normal human being. It’s worth a try.

Q&As: John asks if she shares her writing or co-edits with another writer. No, she writes alone and she edits alone; writing is a lonely occupation. But I wouldn’t be where I am without sharing and co-editing and I’ve yet to complain that I find writing lonely. Every writer works differently...

Debi’s Psychic Distance workshop is next. This is a refresher for me and I get from it exactly what I was hoping for. The confidence that I can do it from a single point of view and the challenge of applying it, without ‘head-hopping’, to multiple points of view. I have something to work on. I leave the workshop ignited.

I also feel like I’ve drunk ten espressos but that’s not Debi’s fault. It’s the Genre Panel next and the first opportunity to say ‘hi’ to an agent who has had my MS sitting on her desk for the last couple of weeks. An agent who I met five years ago, who has read my work several times since then and who has always had nice things to say but never yet uttered those magic words: I would like to offer you representation.

We meet just before the start of the panel and she recognises me (or maybe I just miss her glancing at my name badge) and she’s pleased to see me. And then the panel begins and I have no idea what’s being said because ‘my’ agent has just told a room of people what sort of writing she’s hoping to find and it’s what I think I write and I have to spend the rest of the panel resisting the urge to jump up and down yelling ‘pick me! pick me!’

Having no idea what’s being said becomes a bit of theme for the rest of my day. I struggle to keep up with conversation over lunch as my first 1:1 looms. I come away from my first 1:1, an agent, with the knowledge that she’s happy to read my full MS but absolutely no idea why. I make a note to re-read her helpful feedback notes later when I’m a little less dazed. Then I sit in the main hall listening to a panel discussion. I’m sure it’s very interesting but I can’t keep up because I’m clock-watching for the end of the session when I’ll find out if I’ve won the Best Opening Chapter competition.

Finally, FINALLY, the session ends and the competition winner is announced. It’s not me. But that’s ok. I’ve never been shortlisted for a competition before so my bubble remains intact.

Straight back down to the 1:1 sessions and this time it’s a publisher. She’s not an editor for my genre. I panic. I’m sure I made my choices very carefully. I wince, kick myself internally for being a stupid idiot and... and then I realise she is saying Good Things. She is telling me that she loved it. She is telling me that her colleague, who does edit my genre, may also love it. She is telling me to submit it on her recommendation and...I have no idea what else she is saying to me, though I have a vague understanding that it is more Good Things. The bell goes, my time is up. I’m not even sure if I remember to say ‘thank you’ as I stumble out of the room, across the bridge and straight in to Claire McGowan’s ‘Creating Tension’ workshop.

Poor Claire. I catch the last twenty minutes of her workshop and I have no idea what she’s talking about. My fault, not hers. The willing is there but the brain is doing a dizzy dance somewhere else. She tells me she’ll post her notes online after the Festival. That sounds like a good plan. My brain might be functioning again by then. I go and buy her book ‘The Fall’ to assuage my guilt as I have been told by others that she Creates Tension in it. It’s one way to figure out what I missed.

Afternoon tea: I catch up with Cloudies and other people I’ve made friends with so far. I feel...odd. Not elated like I feel I should be but subdued and a little panic-stricken, as if I’m trying to find my way through dense fog. But enquiries are made about 1:1 sessions and there have been multiple successes and the buzz is contagious. The fog lifts and I bounce in to Julie Cohen’s Character workshop ready to conquer the world.

Julie assures us we will leave the workshop with a fully-formed character developed from nothing but two letters and number and a coin toss. I glance at my letters and my number and then toss my coin. Heads is male, tails is female and if you drop your coin, your character is neither gender, or both genders or gender-free or something. I hastily retrieve my coin from the floor, mutter ‘heads, male’ and hope no one notices. Fellow Cloudie, Sirtanic, stifles a snigger next to me.

Our characters take shape: the letters christen them and the number gives them an age. We are instructed to take them into a room and have them to pick up an object. Now we have to decide how this object is significant to our character. It is my turn to stifle a snigger as Sirtanic struggles to find a deep meaning in prawn canapés.

We decide on our character’s worst fault and best quality and I have an epiphany when I realise that these can be two sides of the same (ahem) coin. I leave the workshop with a brand-new, sparkling tool in my writer’s kit, a fully-formed character demanding his story be told and a little guilt that I cheated on the coin toss.

I am supposed to be having some quiet time before the Gala Dinner but there are too many people to talk to and I can’t drag myself away. I end up with a half hour to shower, change and glam-up.

The dinner is lovely, the company superb and the wine slips down a little too easily. The results of the competition are announced officially and the cheer I get from my Cloudie friends when the shortlisters are named makes my year and I’m back on that Woodhead summit, soaring high, invincible.

I stay up later and later because the company is good and the jokes are funny and the singing is ridiculous. At some point ‘my’ agent comes over and congratulates me on the competition shortlist and we arrange to meet the next day and then she leaves and the party carries on.

Next morning, over breakfast, there are rumours of a party that went on until the small hours, where there was more drinking and jokes and laughing and noise and apparently, at some point, a band of Cloudies thought it would be a good idea to attempt the Mingulay Boat Song in four-part ‘harmony’. I couldn’t possibly comment. I made it to breakfast. There are some other notable absences.

Sunday kicks off with a panel discussion on the e-book revolution. Interesting things are said and I really try to listen but I have another 1:1 shortly and I’m wondering if I imagined arranging that chat last night with ‘my’ agent.

The 1:1 is lukewarm at best but I can’t complain. The irony is that I manage to take notes this time and I can remember everything he’s said to me. He doesn’t seem interested in reading more unless I make some radical changes that I’m not sure I want to make.

I hurry to Emma’s Voice workshop but I’ve missed most of it, which is a shame. I soak up what is left and make a note to check out relevant posts on her blog when I get home.

Harry is next and it’s the Art of the...Pause. Lightbulbs flash. I realise that I am sometimes so careful to make sure my reader ‘gets’ the background of my characters that I forget how much fun it can be to leave my reader dangling over a bunch of question marks. I do a bit of multi-tasking: half of my brain continues to take part in the workshop and the other half rewrites the first chapter of my current WIP, replacing solid fact with hints and teasers.

Lunch is a struggle. The meeting with ‘my’ agent is at 3pm and I can’t taste my food or keep up with the conversations around me. Well-meaning advice is given and lots of support and encouragement but it’s too much and I can’t take it in. I retreat to my room until the next workshop.

It’s Debi again and this time her Prose Laboratory workshop. I’ve been looking forward to this one: Debi, editor extraordinaire, who can read an MS and see with the naked eye blemishes that are invisible to mere mortals. I fill pages and pages of editing tips, knowing there is work to be done on my own editing skills.

The clock is creeping towards 3pm and as the workshop goes on, my handwriting begins to wobble and a mischievous pixie takes up trampolining in my stomach. I have to leave the workshop early and I stand outside the 1:1 room waiting for ‘my’ agent to finish her last session and it hits me that this next ten minutes is probably going to be the most important ten minutes of the entire festival and I’m not sure if my legs work anymore and I definitely need to pee.

Then I’m sitting at the table with her and we chat about my MS and how long it’s been since I first sent it to her (5½ years) and how many revisions of it she’s read (four, including this one) and she says Good Things but not the specific Good Thing I want to hear. I dredge some assertiveness from somewhere and tell her about my 1:1 successes. We agree I should submit to the publisher and we agree that I’ll hold off submitting to the other agent until she’s finished considering my submission. And then she’s gone.

I stagger into the final keynote address of the festival not quite sure whether I’ve said the right things or made the right decisions but mightily relieved that it’s all over.

Stuart MacBride, crime novelist, is witty, motivating and inspiring. He grabs me by the throat and makes me listen to him and I connect with what he says (though this may be because I appear to be one of the only people in the vast hall who understands his reference to Tunnock’s Caramel Wafers or his use of the word ‘clipe’).  His speech has a proper finale and, although it seems ridiculous, we all stand and we all put our hands on our hips and push our chests out and lift our chins to the ceiling and we yell with heart and soul in response to his questions:

‘Who wants to be a published author?’

‘I do!’

‘Who wants to write brilliant books?’

‘I do!’

‘Who can make it happen?’

‘I can!’

 It’s the best end to the best writing Festival in the world. We hug, we say our goodbyes and we disperse. I take John and Tenacity (and, at the very last minute, a certain Scottish crime novelist) to the station, share more hugs and more goodbyes and then I’m driving back down the M1 towards the Woodhead Pass. The road works only stop me briefly this time and my mind is on home and the kids and hoping I make it back in time for a story and cuddle before bedtime.  And then, when I’m home and they’re tucked up in bed and my husband is saying ‘how was it?’ I turn my thoughts to all that has happened and all that might happen next and I know I’m not there yet but, thanks to the Festival, I’m few steps closer.



  • Squidge
    by Squidge 5 years ago
    Skylark - just so!! Another York experience captured...
  • mike
    by mike 5 years ago
    It sounds like some party! It is quite some years ago but i attended some Arvon foundation courses and enjoyed those. I think they might be quite pricey now, though.
  • Gerry
    by Gerry 5 years ago
    Thank you Skylark. I didn't turn up this year but through your narrative I feel almost as if I did. Glad you - or rather 'we' (see how you've got me involved) - had such a good time...

    btw your car must have a nice quiet engine if you can hear the louds'n'softs of classical music properly; Meat Loaf or Oasis tend to get a better hearing in ours...
  • AlanP
    by AlanP 5 years ago
    Lookit. The only way to sing the Mingulay Boat Song is in four parts. It's not like there were choices on offer.
  • Caducean Whisks
    by Caducean Whisks 5 years ago
    Nice, Skylark, vivid. It's a little like being teleported, eh? Everything moves so fast, it takes a while for all of your components to regroup back into one body :)
  • John Taylor
    by John Taylor 5 years ago
    :-) Just reading this brings it all back - and the nerves! By the way, Skylark - that 'wouldn't be where I am' comment - I wouldn't be where I am without you. Many times over, you have given me the confidence to keep on writing when nothing has seemed to be working. I still can't believe JoJo Moyes goes it alone.

    Of course, when we attend award ceremonies for our multi-million selling books, Skylark and I both have the beginning of a long boring acceptance speech - all the many people who have helped us both!
  • Debi
    by Debi 5 years ago
    Wonderful York-flavour, Skylark. I've linked on my blog and will nab at least some of it for the festie book.
  • Skylark
    by Skylark 5 years ago
    Thanks, Squidge!

    Mike, I did Arvon some years ago too and thoroughly enjoyed it - came away inspired and invigorated :-)

    Gerry, I'm really pleased you had such a good time at York ;-) My car's not very quiet so I have a bit of a system of turning the volume up to max in the quiet bit then turning it down a few notches for the loud bits - or sometimes I just leave it at full volume for the loud bits too if I'm in a particularly 'head-banging' mood :-D Mind you, doesn't do much for the speakers.....

    Haha, Alan, I wasn't debating the four-part, rather the 'harmony' that I don't think we quite achieved ;-)

    Thanks, Whisks - took me a long time to regroup!

    John, yes, quite! My list of 'people who have helped me get this far' just keeps getting longer :-)

    Debi - thank you! :-)
  • SecretSpi
    by SecretSpi 5 years ago
    That was a joy to read, Skylark, even for someone who wasn't there and has never been. Hoping you get that special Good News soon!
  • Skylark
    by Skylark 5 years ago
    Thank you, Spi! I hope so too.....still dangling.....
  • Tony
    by Tony 5 years ago
    What a weekend you had! And, as others have said, those of us who weren't there have now had it, too. Excellent account of your ups and downs, fears and triumphs. Thanks, Skylark. Best of luck.
  • Skylark
    by Skylark 5 years ago
    Thanks, Tony :-)
  • Bernie
    by Bernie 5 years ago
    Thank you Skylark- I couldn't go this year but you have givin me a real flavour of the weekend- intense doesn't cover it, does it?
  • sirtanicmills
    by sirtanicmills 5 years ago
    Yep - good memories :) Thanks. We should all do it again next year.
  • Skylark
    by Skylark 5 years ago
    Thanks Bernie - yes, very intense! And Sirtanic, it was a pleasure to meet you in person :-)
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