Monday, April 12, 2010

The York Festival of Writing

I’m not sure where to begin. The weekend was fabulous on so many levels.

I went to York at a bit of a cross roads. I’ll own up to the fact that I am a perfectionist and that this is quite frankly a pain in the back side. I have been told by many that I stress too much or think too much about the writing. I have been told by some that I am ready. I have smiled and said no, but they thought I was fussing. This weekend reconfirmed what I knew in my gut. I write well and to a publishable level, but that isn’t good enough anymore and it’s not what I want. Yes, I want to be published and I really want people to read my stories – the later really drives me. But I want to do it right and well and I don’t want to do it too soon. As the wonderful Katie Fforde confirmed you only get one shot at your debut.

My gut has been saying that I have a few more notches to climb and this weekend did two things or maybe even three. The one-to-one chats with the agents confirmed my feeling that my writing is good but they can see these is more there. One was most delightful and helpful – really thinking hard about the work and how to lift it – I am grateful. It is a joy to have someone study your work – to think about it hard and give you their thoughts even if they are not what you want to hear. Everything I heard I knew already which some may say was a waste of an opportunity, but it wasn’t for me as I hadn’t trusted me instinct. I needed to hear it from the pros who were kind enough to give me their time. So with the validation I needed I can now dig deep to lift (if that makes any sense) my writing the next two or three levels. Maybe the dig deep means mining my heart for the emotion and the dark underused recesses of my brain for the craft that has been lost since university. Don’t know but I do know I have a clearer picture than I have ever had of what type of writer I am and what I want to produce.

Now off of the quite so internal thinking to hard core tangible learning. The workshops i attended were superb – and touched and ignited so many things. I’ll give a brief summary of some of them:-

First up was Jeremy Sheldon’s – A Sense of Place. I will confess to some apprehension that I had chosen the wrong thing. If anything all of my book are dripping location. Cornwall is tangible on the page. Boy I am so glad that I went to this. Jeremy is a brilliant teacher and what he did was beautifully demonstrate what description can do for you.

He began with a quote from the Great Gatsby – a description of the Manhattan skyline. He asked us what the character was feeling – it was clear yet not a single internal emotional thought had been uttered. He then quoted Henry Miller (don’t remember the book) and it was a description of the same bit of skyline yet the emotion conveyed was completely different.

His task for us was to describe a journey in third person without using any words to tell the character’s emotional state.

So I wrote a scene from Pilgrimage where Pru is leaving Dubai –

Her sunglasses fogged with her first step outside. The taxi was there but between the film of moisture on her glasses and the textured wind of the shamal it was just a sand coloured shape in front of her.

Pru handed the driver her bag. Only one bag and that was a first. She forced the door open against the wind. The air con in the taxi did nothing to disguise the unwashed odour of the driver or maybe now that her glasses had cleared her sense of smell had returned with her vision.

She ferreted inside her Birkin checking for her passport and boarding pass. Finding them she pushed the bag onto the seat beside her. She looked out the window and let her hand cover her nose. The palm trees that lined the road had soft edges today unlike yesterday when they had been crisp against the cloudless blue sky.

Yesterday on the train back I looked the opening paragraph of A Cornish House

The car coughed, lurched and died. Maddie’s fingers clenched the wheel. The trailer’s momentum nudged it further along the dark lane. The moonlit sky silhouetted the twisted trees. Their tortured shapes rose from the hedges, forming a tunnel, which seemed to enclose the car.

It doesn't need the sentence in italics because the description says it much better. You know her state of mind. I need to trust my descriptive passages and enjoy them.

The next session was also with him and this was Show Not Tell. Again brilliant. For an exercise we had to take a noun like passion and say – passion tastes like or sounds like or smells like. The woman who read out her responses said passion smells like sulphur and my nose instantly reacted. Jeremy said this is what you want – you want to evoke a reaction and better yet a physical one in your reader.

Moving quickly along to the afternoon – Julie Cohen gave a character workshop. Now I couldn’t stay for the whole session because of a one-to-one, but recently I have been doubting that I am a writer - well I am. If you can create a character out of two letters and a number with the flip of a coin then you are a writer at heart. I love Julie but at the moment she is not my favourite person as I now have a fully fledged character with yellow eyes who is a conductor waiting for her story to be told......she is the type who I know will not now leave me alone.

Sunday provided me with tools to deal with many characters and how to look for the right hero. My head was bursting with ideas.

There was a good contingent from the RNA there – Katie Fforde who opened the festival with a stirring calls to write and keep writing. She gave us the ten tips to guaranteed publication and I believe she is right. I mentioned Julie but there was also Adele Geras, Sue Moorcroft, Veronica Henry and one of the organizers Kate Allen. There were six if not a few more aspiring members too. As always we were the first to the bar. Also knowing less people at the conference I could spend more time with those I did know - bliss.

The festival was brilliant for all the industry people who were brave enough to be there. I queue jumped at the bar for agent Peter Buckman, discussed Andrew Lownie’s newsletter with him, lusted after Jane Johnson's beautiful coat (and found a parallel live of sorts – she lives half time in Morocco and Cornwall), led wonderful Jane Judd astray plying her with white wine, had breakfast with a lovely editor who rejected me beautifully a while ago and then planned a handbag trip to Dubai with her, and had dinner with the gorgeous Barry Cunningham and thanked him for publishing JK Rowling for the hours of pleasure he had helped bring to me and my kids....I could go on....

They were all so generous with time and their thoughts. I watched them tactfully handle the full manuscripts shoved under their noses at breakfast or past rejections letters revisited. They kept the smile on their faces. As RJ Ellory summed it up at the close – they are passionate about books and it is why they do it. Writers are passionate about writing and that’s why we do it. Passion is the only reason to be in the business even if to some it smells like supher.


HelenMHunt said...

It sounds like it was a great event. Glad you are so enthused by it.

Debs said...

I'm so envious. The weekend sounds so worthwhile and I'm glad you gleaned so much from it.

SpiralSkies said...

Wow, your enthusiasm and sparkle after this practically leaps off the screen, I'm sooo jealous. I especially love that it helped you trust your writing instinct. Sounds utterly fabulous.

The English Writer said...

I love York, what a beautiful and inspiring city to attend a writing festival, though from what you say, your head must be spinning with all the things you should/shouldn't be doing with regards to your writing. It's brilliant to attend these kinds of things - to get feedback and to just get all over inspired, however, stay true to you and what you write, because that's where the passion is, not whether an agent/publisher tells you it's good enough, after all, sometimes I can't help but feel they are just the people with the money to back you. Good luck - your work sounds great so far.
Ps. Cornwall is an incredibly beautiful county - it has inspired me to write for over 20 years!

Julie Cohen said...

You most certainly are a writer! I'm sorry about the yellow-eyed conductor though. :-)

You must absolutely trust your instincts—and great excerpts by the way, which really transport me to a place and an emotion. I wish I'd been able to be at those two workshops.

SueG said...

I've read so much about this conference now, it really sounds as if I missed something special. Maybe next time. But I do get very shy about these things. I don't know if I would have been able to chat up an agent in the bar. It's great that you were able to!

Cathy said...

The conference sounds fabulous and so many people seem to have got so much from it.

Flowerpot said...

Sounds fabulous Liz and glad it was so worthwhile.

Anonymous said...

I don't live too far away from York, about 2 and a half hours max, it sounds like a wonderful festival to attend and very useful too.

CJ xx

liz fenwick said...

Helen, Debs, Spiral- can't recommend the festival highly enough as i wasn't the only one who came away rejuvenated.

English Writer - Cornwall is such an inspiration and I will stay true - promise.

Thanks Julie and I may forgive you :-) If you have a chance to catch Jeremy then do...

SueG people find it hard to believe that I am actually shy but over the years I have realized many others are too - and I have learned with these events that the agents and eds who attend are scared so a friendly person who chats to them (not pitches) is a relief and usually their natural curiosity emerges and they ask you what you write :-)

Cathy,Flowerpot and Crystal J - simply brilliant


Lizzie said...


Just found your blog via the RNA blog.

So glad you found York an inspiration – I'll think about going next year. I'm off to Winchester at the end of June for workshops and one-to-ones and will do my best to make the most of the experience – it was at the conference two years ago that two agents and a novelist told me I could write.

Like SueG, I can feel quite shy at these events, but I'll remember your advice and talk to as many people as I can.

Good luck with your writing.

liz fenwick said...

Lizzie - enjoy Winchester and embrace the time being with other like minded people. We have to remind ourselves to enjoy the journey :-)


cs harris said...

Actually, you can always take a pseudonym and become a born-again virgin author with a brand new "debut". Happens all the time!

Debi said...

Lovely post. I think everyone benefited from the weekend one way or another and the bit re needing your own instincts to be confirmed is evidence that the benefit can be no less vital just cos it's subtle.