Seminar etiquette: York Festival of Writing 2013

Last weekend I went to the Festival of Writing in York, run by the Writers’ Workshop. This is not a Festival Blog (you can read much more erudite and thoughtful pieces by Isabel Costello, Susan Murray, Andrew Wille, Debi Alper, Eleanor Hutchinson, among loads of others).

No, amid all the buzz, writing advice and unflattering pictures, I found myself on the horns of a dilemma. Or was it between a rock and a hard place? I don’t know, to be frank: this wasn’t the Cliché Seminar. It was one discussing the differences (if any) between plot and character, run by the rather dapper and charismatic Jeremy Sheldon.

There I was, on the back row because I had to ninja into the room when it was already almost full because Jeremy is a popular speaker. He knows how to work powerpoint effectively, with all the whizzbang animations that actually help you to absorb his words rather than stabbing you in the eye with flying bullet points.

BUMiYrLCQAIlkzh.jpg-largeAnyway, on the back row, there were two people to my left who were perhaps less enraptured by Mr Sheldon, who was by then using an eight-foot-long pole with a ball on the end to point out something at the top of the projection screen. Jane Ide took a picture of it.

Jeremy was explaining the non-linear storytelling of The English Patient, and at that time (on Sunday morning after the Gala Dinner) my concentration needed all the help it could get. These two on my left started whispering. Then one of them, who was blessed with a baritone voice of such richness it carried effortlessly around the room, moved from whisper to Soft Voice. Baritones can’t do Soft Voice. They just can’t. It’s something to do with the tummy. Or the moustache. Or something.

One after another person on the row in front turned round to deliver classic looks of outrage and disgust at the interruptions – all in absolute silence, of course. The British eyebrow earns its keep in such situations.

When the volume was considerably louder in my left ear than Jeremy’s more interesting analysis at the front, I broke. Leaning forward, I glared at the offending rumbler and hissed “Please! Shh!”

Translated, this was the seminar-equivalent of turning the air blue. The effect was instantaneous. Indeed, it was so effective they left the room before Jeremy had finished. I felt quietly proud of my revolution, and of course spent the rest of the day desperately avoiding The Rumbler so I wouldn’t have to apologise for telling him off. He coincidentally failed to intercept me to apologise for his rudeness, so we’re quits.

So: what did I get out of York? High shh-ing adrenaline levels. A worry that my novel is niche and currently unsellable. A realisation that I really don’t photograph well. Lots of hugs. Brilliant writing advice. An inability to take things seriously, but I think I had that already.