SiWC Workshops – Sharing What I Learned pt 2

The second part will deal with the exciting world of lion taming, and the business of writing. Minus the lion taming. It’s something I wanted to know more about, so I took not one, but three workshops. First up…

Elena Aitken, USA Today best-selling writer and author of over 30!!!! books

Self Publishing – Elena Aitken.

(Elena Aitken is a USA Today Bestselling Author of more than thirty romance and women’s fiction novels. Living a stone’s throw from the Rocky Mountains with her teenager twins and their two cats, Elena escapes into the mountains whenever life allows. She can often be found with her toes in the lake and a glass of wine in her hand, dreaming up her next book and working on her own happily ever after.)

There is a TON to learn about self-pubbing. Like a Fat-Albert ton. Luckily, I had the incredible and super friendly Elena Aitkens who tried to tell us a bit about the process.

She has a ton of information on her site. Please check it out. Elenaaitken.com. But I’ll do a quick overview.

  • Covers are important. Digital decisions are made quickly. Great covers get attention.
  • Use an editor. You’ll not spot your mistakes. It’s worth the money. (God knows this is true for me).
  • Formatting MUST be professional.
  • Set up your publishing like a business. Separate accounts. Know ISBN, taxes, royalties.
  • Connect with readers. Website vital. A newsletter allows for direct connections. FB, Twitter, etc not as reliable. Programs like mailchimp.com can help with the newsletter.
  • Always reply to comments, feedback or shares. We all want to feel special, valued, so make sure your readers feel special and valued.
  • Picking the right keywords on your selling site (like Amazon) is vital. Look up your genre, see what’s selling the best, see what words they use.
  • Know your goals. Make a plan. Connect your brand to that plan. Stick to the plan.
  • There is a lot more on her website, so please check it out. She knows what she’s talking about!

Steena Holmes. NY Times and USA Today best-selling author

Branding: Steena Holmes : In the age of information overload, how do you stand out?

From the massively successful and brilliant, Steena Holmes, who did two workshops on branding, hereand here. I learned that my brand focus has to be on my readers… not on sales. Not on marketing.

Be aware that you are branding yourself now. Are you doing it right?

Me, I’m not. Not even close. Like a drunk swinging at a bouncer who’s already taken 3 steps back.

Her brand, though, is phenomenal. Her website is perfect. It’s definitely worth checking out

What I learned:

  • Create a brand that connects with readers.
  • You brand yourself on all social media, even if you aren’t aware of it.
  • But one thing she said that really struck me, though was, “You are not your reader.”
  • That means, for example, that you might not bug another writer cuz you know how hard it is to find time to write and don’t want to bother them. But a lot of readers LOVE the personal connection they can get with a writer.
  • Your followers, your fans, your fellow writers, want to connect to you. You might think they’d hate to read about your struggles or your cats or how you did your research, but you are not your reader. Find out what they want and provide that for them.
  • Your brand is your promise. If you’re not writing political stuff, don’t blog about political stuff. If you’re writing romance books, don’t blog about gory horror novels.
  • Use newsletters to connect directly with people.
  • Newsletters are story-telling. Not just info or news. Get past your own hangups. Don’t think like a writer, think like a reader.
  • Don’t just write about writing but about life. Write about life in a way that creates or connects to your brand.
  • Brand your newsletter. Like me – Joe Cummings. Writer. Blogger. Stepdad. Historian. Geek.
  • Make links easy to access.
  • Make the signup for your newsletter as simple as possible. On your website, blog, emails.
  • Keep a regular schedule with your newsletter.
  • Keep it simple.
  • If you’re published, promote new books coming as well as your current book. If not published, promote progress and the experience.
  • Never add people to a newsletter without their permission.
  • Read other newsletters and see what works. Be genre specific.

Honestly, both these women were amazing resources. I hope they come back next year.

Links below.

Elena Aitken’s self-publishing links. Absolutely great stuff.

Steena Holmes Branding With Intent. She has a 5 step program that’s easy-peasy to follow and her website really is a must-see.

SiWC Workshops – Sharing What I Learned pt 1

Surrey International Writers’ Conference
#SiWC17

I’ll have to break this into 2 parts. One on writing, one on the business of writing (branding and self-publishing.)

So let’s look at the writing.

Don Maass, the master teacher of all things writerish, taught a workshop on Pacing Beyond Plot.

He’s got an amazing book out on The Emotional Craft of Fiction and, of course, Writing the Breakout Novel and I would highly recommend buying them, taking them out of the library or borrowing them from a friend (and never returning it).

Don Maass, master teacher of the writerly arts. #SiWC17

Mr. Maass wanted us to move away from pacing as simply plotting, to pacing as an emotional journey of our characters and their character arcs.

That growth, that movement, that change is compelling. Like a good car chase, it moves the plot forward and engages the reader.

I don’t know why, but that really struck me.

As he went through a ton of exercises, I thought, damn, I did that in Yager’s War. And that. And I totally nailed that one, too. But there were scenes (if I am totally honest with myself), where I realized, you know what, I didn’t nail it.

For me, it was the slower scenes. Where the character gets from point A to B. Now I could skip those but I used them to add character conflict and some interaction with the locations (since I firmly believe in making the location a character as well). But what if I kicked that up a notch and thought a LOT harder on how my character develops in that scene? Wouldn’t that make it better?

I think so.

So whenever a scene has low tension, I’mma gonna look at it again and see if I can create MORE emotional movement.

Should be fun.

**********

Robert Dugoni

Robert Dugoni. – Another great teacher, workshopper, and highly entertaining writer. His workshop –  The First 3 Pages. (I didn’t get a chance to take his editing one, but if someone did, could they please send me their notes.)

From RD, I learned just why those first pages are important.

Let’s face it, agents and editors are SUPER busy people, so they are looking for a reason to put that manuscript down and catch up on an episode of Stranger Things. So it has to be tight, it has to be completely mistake-free and the best writing you can do.

Making it our best work increases the chance of someone reading it.

So he asked us, does the first sentence hook the reader? Do you establish what type of book it is quickly? (A romance, mystery, SF etc). Do you engage our senses, quickly? Do you have action in the 1st 3 pages? Movement? Dialogue? Do you have someone important come on stage? Have you taken us into your world? Have you engaged us? Hooked us?

It’s a lot to do, but basically the idea is to make it amazing.

But the biggest thing I got out of the workshop was something I have to learn in life.

Just because I can, doesn’t mean I should.

Just because I can climb up the side of a ruined castle to reach the top, doesn’t mean I should. Just because I can start a novel with dialogue like Nelson DeVille did, doesn’t mean I should. Be aware that, as new writers, we simply have to be the best.

So if you’ve heard over and over again that you should never start a story with dialogue and you counter, hey, Ah, Bobberino, like, Stephen King did that in Firestarter, then ask yourself, first, are you Stephen King? Then ask yourself, should you have dialogue in the opening if you know a whole butt-load of agents and editors might reject it right there? Then ask yourself, if you still want to do it, why did the great writer’s do it, cuz they sure as hell had a reason why.

There are no rules in writing except the ones that work.

But you have to make it work.

**********

Michael Slade – check out his books and tell me they don’t give you the shivers

From the great storyteller, Michael Slade, I heard three things I need to remember.

  • For authentic characters or scenes, look to your own life. Remember the smells, the sounds, the way time played out. Go deep. Especially when you need to create chilling fiction, use what scares you.
  • A hero is only as good as the villain. Make the villain epic and you’ll force your hero to be epic as well. But give that villain something human. Hitler’s dog. Lector’s culture. Joker’s humor.
  • The more we like your character, the more we’ll worry when they’re in danger.

There was so, so much more that these fine presenters taught, so if you attend the conference next year, please check them out.

If you like what I’m writing about, take a look at my About a Stepdad Blog. Sorry for the double posts if you’re following both, I’ll be fixing that with my new website.

Don Maass teaser video

Robert Dugoni teaser video on writing.

Robert Dugoni in Writer’s Digest.

Michael Slade website, which is scary and cool.

Surrey International Writers’ Conference 2017

Post #183

Writer’s Tears. I have filled bottles.

(First of all, my apologies if you read this already on About a Stepdad. There’s a good reason for the dual post or at least a good excuse. See below.)

Being an unpublished writer can be frustrating. It’s one of the few jobs where you won’t get a pat on the back. There are no annual reviews. No bonuses. No Christmas Parties.

It’s tough to stay motivated. Harder to stay positive.

But going to the Surrey International Writers’ Conference gave me the chance to re-energize, to refocus, to learn to be a better writer, and even attend a staff party.

Plus, I would get a chance to pitch my novel to an agent or editor. Face-to-face. No interns in the way, no 150 emails before yours. Just you and an agent.

However, my wife, aka the-Prettiest-Girl-in-the-World, will attest to the fact that I wasn’t super excited about going this year. I moped and grumped and shuffled around like a 10-year-old being forced to eat vegetables while doing homework.

But once I got there, the energy, the workshops, and the enthusiasm of the people there turned me around.

I listened to experts, I pitched my heart out, I even got a case of chatty-Joe and talked to other writers.

Of the three people I pitched Yager’s War to, all three were interested and wanted to see more of it. All were so nice and very understanding at my Joe-ish way of pitching things.

One even took the time to ask me about me and hey, we all know there’s nothing I love better than talking about me. When did you realize you wanted to be a writer? What was your first book? What are you reading now? Where do you see yourself in 10 years? Why did you move to Vancouver? Why are you crying?

Honestly, I learned so much, had a great time, and came away ready to charge the dragon again, my cape singed and tattered, my armor dented, but my sword sharp and my moral restored.

So what’s in the future?

First, I’ll pass along some super valuable information and links in my next blog. Man, I tell you, all the workshops I took were solid gold and I hope to pass along a small fraction of what I learned.

Second, I realized I’m unable to hold down two blogs, so I will merge my two lives into one and create something amazing. Like spaghetti and meatballs becoming the greatest meal of all time.

Third, I need a new website. I’ll post more on that next week, but it’s a daunting task so I’ve enlisted a very creative, very knowledgeable person to help me out. I’m super excited about this one.

Forth, I’m going to create a newsletter. It’s an odd and very difficult thing for me to do, but it should mean that I can connect to people directly. No more signing up for WordPress. No more having to log into the FB to find me, (cuz I know that’s why everyone logs in.) All my blogs will be sent directly to you with an electronic hug.

Lastly, I’ll definitely be asking for help. Help with the novel – like recipes, pictures, and thoughts. I’ll need help with making sure I put my best printed-foot forward – like everyone taking a hard look at my query or at what would make you buy a novel.  I’ll need help with step-daddying, and look forward to everyone’s helpful suggestions.

Surrey International Writers’ Conference
#SiWC17

See, this is what happens when you get inspired at SIWC#17.

You create a lot of work for yourself.

 

Success @ Surrey International Writers’ Conference

real-life-schoolOddly enough, I am more comfortable talking about my failures. I mean, hey, failures make for better stories, while successes, well, who wants to read about a hero who just succeeds? But sometimes we writers forget to celebrate our wins. So, please, indulge me…

With all my pitching done, that left Saturday to actually learn something, maybe even have some fun. And there was one workshop I didn’t want to miss. SiWC Idol.

It’s where authors submit their first page for the amazing Jack Whyte to read, then a panel of agents raise their hand the moment they would reject it. The goal was to have the entire page read, the agents not stopping the reading at all, but eager to find out what happens next.

simon-cowelSure, one year it was bad, with agents going all Simon Cowell on everyone, and even some of the good stuff was getting slaughtered in the name of making people laugh. I suspect a lot of people complained and rightly so. It’s hard to have your stuff read out. It takes courage to submit that one page, and for those agents to savage the writing and writer, well, it was just wrong.

But it never happened again, and so I was pretty excited to submit my 1 page. I thought it was decent enough, perhaps even good, so I thought, hey, roll the dice. One of the agents I had pitched to would be there and if I managed to get read, and she liked it, it might cement that idea that my book has a real chance.

However, if my writing failed, if I’d convinced myself it was better than it really was, then the reverse would be true. She’d leave thinking, my goodness he was handsome and charming and had a good idea for a book, but couldn’t write to save his life (and my book would die an ugly death in the slush pile.)

So, a lot at stake.

And all of it depended on a good bit of luck as well. See, there are about 200 people who show up for this event, and it takes 5-10 min to go through the first page and give feedback, so that’s about 20 or so pages that can be read.

I crossed my fingers.

The first ones that were pulled out and read, were hit and miss. A few good ones, but mostly they needed work. However, the agents were very respectful and even helpful, offering some greats suggestions on how to make it better.

Then Jack Whyte pulled out a submission from my writer’s group. And when he read it, he read the chapter title. It started off with a date and a place, instead of just saying chapter 1.

But the agents hated that, and before we’d gone not far past the chapter title, they’d rejected it!

On the title of a chapter!

Now I went into a panic.

That’s exactly how MY submission started.

If jack Whyte read my chapter titles, then I would be done. All my hopes of making a good impression dashed.

I shut my eyes, and now wished for my submission not to be taken.

More submissions were read. Time began to run out until only 10 minutes remained. Some total asshat submitted 2 and both of them got read. How unfair for the rest of the people. There was only 1 submission allowed. Only 1.

But that left only a few minutes for those last submissions.

And then Jack Whyte began to read mine.

He didn’t read the title.

Thank God.

He read the opening sentence. Then the opening paragraph. Then the rest. With him reading it, with his incredible voice and Shakespearean delivery, he made it sound amazing. Not a single agent stopped him from reading.

And when he was done, they were all so very nice and complementary, especially the agent I’d pitched to who said she knew who the author was and got me to stand up. Then she gave me a thumbs up.

Everyone seemed to love it and it was the best moment that I’d ever had at SiWC. That moment of validation. That feeling that maybe I have a chance at publication. That thumbs up.

But that’s the conference for you.

Ups and downs.

But this time.

On this day.

Totally up.

*****

And here’s Jack Whyte reading from his novel to give you an idea of how well he can speak!

 

 

SiWC – The Best of Times (Plus more cool links!)

Ah, that Budda guy, he knew what he was talking about.

Ah, that Budda guy, he knew what he was talking about.

Ever have one of those days that just goes right?

I don’t often get them.

I usually get the type of day where you have to get a boy to an early morning hockey practice and set your alarm for 5pm instead of 5am practice, then, already late, you hit every red light on the way, then forgot some vital piece of hockey gear like the jock, then you have to race back, but find you didn’t fill up the car and HAVE to get gas or you’re not making it home, then you find your credit card is maxed and you only have nickels and dimes to pay for gas, but you put in $1.35 anyway and race off only to return to a completely empty room because the team has been relocated to another dressing room and you have to go room to room carrying a jock and asking, has anyone seen ma boi?

No?

Well, try it sometime.

But it wasn’t one of those days at the Surrey International Writers’ Conference. Everything went my way. I managed to get an additional agent appointment early in the day and still had one tucked away for the afternoon. So, after my success with the first agent, the incredibly nice Elizabeth Winick Rubinstein, President and senior agent at McIntosh & Otis, I saw another opening.

A great read from a great author, Michael Slade

A great read from a great author, Michael Slade

Not with an agent, but with a writer who has always given me great advice. The great storyteller Michael Slade.

So I booked a moment with him, a ten-minute session called a blue pencil (where an author looks at your work, gives you criticism, then you go home and cry a lot). But I wanted his opinion on the opening of my book, especially since I had plans to submit it for a public reading on Saturday and didn’t want to be that guy who gets his stuff read and has agents rolling their eyes and shaking their heads and wondering why they make the effort to come out.

However, Mr. Slade loved the writing and went through the first chapter step-by-step remarking on all the things I’d done right. He only had one suggestion, but that one was bang on (and as soon as I left, I made that change right away.) But as much fun as that was, (and it was FUN), he didn’t have any appointments afterward so we talked about war and fathers and writing and all sorts of things.

For about over an hour!

Like we were long, lost friends.

They had to kick us out for lunch, but it was so incredible to have that time with someone who’s farther down the road than me as a writer and such a great storyteller.

Then it was back to work. I needed to find another agent at lunch, the best writing coach I’ve seen and perennial favorite at SiWC, Don Maass, but by the time I arrived, the whole ballroom was filled to capacity and I couldn’t spot him. So I ate my lunch, chatted with my writer’s group, chatted with people in line, chatted with a few of the people seated at our table, then when lunch ended, I began my search again.

Luckily, someone had nabbed him before he could leave!

Again, I felt so nervous as I approached him. I trembled like an 11-year-old girl about to meet Scott Helman (look him up, I had to!).

It’s that fight or flight thing. I really wanted to run and hide in my basement, snuggle under a blanket and read my books in the pool of lamplight, but I had put on my big boy pants and needed to do big boys things.

I marched over and sat beside him. Like an awkward orangutan fidgeting with everything he could get his hands on, I waited until he had finished talking to others, then with only minutes left before he had to rush off to a workshop or scheduled interviews, I threw my pitch at him with all the skill of someone just clubbed in the head with a baseball bat.

But he liked it. He wanted to see the entire manuscript. Entire. Manuscript!

Win!

The editor I saw after that, while challenging me on if my story was a mystery or thriller, wanted to see 50 pages after I was done sweating and mumbling.

Win!

Not a pretty one, but a win never-the-less.

Anne Frank - Who cannot be moved by her story?

Same thing happened when I pitched at the end of the day to Irene Goodman, who was so very kind and understanding at my complete inability to form complete sentences at that point.

She loved my story’s connection to the holocaust and we shared our moving experiences from when we visited Anne Frank’s house or the holocaust memorial museums.

Another win!

I went home exhausted and so excited.

But an even bigger win was to come. Not a sale, cuz those things don’t happen at conferences, but something I’ll remember forever. In a good way.

******

More links!

Writer – Michael Slade (check out his books here!)

Agent – Don Maass (His new book on writing, The Emotional Craft of Fiction is coming out in January, Here. But he has some amazing writing books already out.)

Agent – Elizabeth Winick Rubinstein

Agent – Irene Goodman (a great article hereIf You Want to Be a Writer, Be a Writer)

 

 

 

 

 

SiWC – Pain and Pitching Novels (With Links)

Some things need a plan

Some things need a plan

As with any great endeavor in life, (a marriage proposal, a writer’s conference, a popcorn lineup at the movie theater), it’s best to have a plan.

My plan for Friday was simple but very stressful. I had to see and pitch to 3 agents and 1 editor.

As luck would have it, I thought there were 4 people there who might, just might, be interested in my historical novel. But the Surrey International Writers’ Conference only allows you to book 1 appointment. To see other people, you need to get in a line and see if there’s an opening or find a way to bump into them at a workshop they are running (or find the table they’re sitting at for lunch/dinner.)

Being me, and being Canadian, the latter choices are particularly hard. I hate bugging people. I know that sounds totally not like me given that I bug my friends constantly, but really I hate bugging strangers. I hate sitting down and interrupting their meal to say, hey, hi, please put down the spaghetti, I need you to listen to me talk about my novel. Badly.

But at some points in your life, you have to nut up. You have to find a way to push through the nerves and get the job done. Or, as the great philosopher Will Ferrel said, put on your big boy pants.

So, even before the first keynote speech of the morning ended, I had to get up and stumble out of the hall to go stand in line for another appointment. If I could get one, it would make my life a lot better since I wouldn’t have to pitch to anyone while they were in a toilet stall.

The stars aligned and I got myself one right off the bat. 10:20. Nervously, I waited, rehearsing what I would say or at least the points I hoped to highlight. Much like the speech I did at my wedding, I had to semi-wing-it. I have no ability to actually memorize anything, as best exemplified by my ability to sing the wrong lyrics to pretty much every song, nor am I good at pitching just off the cuff. So I hybrid rehearse.

Open with what the story is about. Mention character for the love of God. Look the person in the eye. Do not scratch my balls no matter how itchy they become. Talk about why I love this story. Remember to breathe. Talk slowly. Enunciate my words. Tell them about why it matters to my hero, Kurt Yager, that he find his sister. Mention the time crunch and the stakes if he doesn’t find her. Breathe.

But no matter how much I prepared, the moment I went over to talk to the agent, my heart pounded so quickly that if someone had pricked me with a needle, I would have shot blood 100 feet out like a fire hydrant releasing water. I honestly thought about running outside to get some fresh air, but it was too late.

I reached the table where the agent sat and held out my hand. God, was it sweaty? Would I remember my name? Would I be able to talk at all?

She shook my hand as I introduced myself and sat down.

And I began with a shaking voice.

By the end of my pitch, my entire body was soaked with sweat, but she seemed interested in the story. Genuinely interested. She asked to see 50 pages, said she loved the premise, the characters, the setting.

I nearly jumped out of my seat and hugged her.

But instead, I thanked her for her kind words, promised to get her those 50 pages as soon as I could, and left with her card.

Success! At least as much as I could hope for at this point in the writing process.

1 down, 3 to go.

I wasn’t sure my nerves could take it.

*******

Here is a link to an article from Writer’s Digest on Pitching.

Here is a link to pitching from the Writing World.

Here is a link from SFU.

Here is a link from The Professor.

Lots of good stuff! Please check out the links.

 

 

 

Surrey International Writers’ Conference 2016 – Do or Die

One of the great minds of our time

One of the great minds of our time

What’s the definition of insanity, again? Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result?

Yeah, that’s it. Einstein, right? Or Bieber? I can’t remember. Some great mind, anyway.

So, let’s be clear, going to the Surrey International Writers’ Conference was an act of insanity for me.

It’s a conference where you can learn new stuff, meet new people and pitch your projects to attending agents or editors. I’ve been going on and off for about 10 years, and the result has always been the same. I go to workshops, listen hard, try to learn a bit, then go home and try to make my writing better.

Don Maass, one of the best writing teachers I've ever seen.

Don Maass, one of the best writing teachers I’ve ever met.

That’s all good. Sometimes, especially with the Don Maass workshops, I learn a ton and it makes my writing a WHOLE lot better. He just has a way of making me think about how I can make any story better, deeper, more entertaining.

But sometimes, I don’t get as much. Sometimes it’s just stuff I already know.

As for the ‘meeting new people’ part, well, let’s just say I’m far more comfortable sitting in the basement in a dark room and writing alone, than having to talk with people. It’s the secret side of my nature. The extreme introvert. If you want to see what it’s like when I make conversation, I have a video for you.

This is me going to talk to someone. Only I’m less cool.

However, the big fail for me has always been the pitching part. I stress for days over what to say, how to say it, then, when I actually sit in front of someone, my nerves get the best of me.

The conversations often go like this…

“So, I have this book I’ve written, no, wait, I mean novel, cuz a book could be, like, you know, hahaha, a non-fiction thingee or anything, so uhm, yeah, I have this novel and it’s completed and it’s about this guy who does something and must solve some problems and then, at the end, it’s all resolved except for the parts that aren’t resolved. And it’s science-fiction. Did I mention that?”

Bring on the full body sweat.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that not a lot of agents or editors are interested in my stories. More surprising is that I’ve sometimes been escorted out by security or had the agent/editor look quietly away while I weep uncontrollably.

Ok, it’s not that bad, but last time I ate a lot of rejections, and that stung. I thought I had a pretty good story, a pretty good pitch and, yet, yeah, zip. Nada. Not even a pity send-me-ten-pages requests.

So why go back if that’s all going to happen, again?

Why?

Because there is always that hope that this time will be different. Maybe one day, I’ll pitch the right story to the right agent/editor at the right time.

See?

Insane.

But what happened this year was not something I expected at all.

 

To go or not to go

Joe’s Post #153 —

headerThat is the question.

I’m talking about the Surrey Writer’s Conference. Oct 23rd -24th.

It’s a toss-up this year. Pros and cons.

So I did what I do when I can’t decide.

I make a list. And drink. Here’s the list.

the authors

My best writing buddies, The Five

Top 6 Reasons to Go

  1. I could pitch 2 books to an editor who’s interested in my genre.
  2. There are 3 agents there I could take to about my books.
  3. 9/10 times I get inspired.
  4. The food’s pretty good.
  5. I love to learn and there’s always something to learn.
  6. My best writing buddies are there.

 

Top 5 Reasons Not To Go

  1. don maassDon Maass is NOT there. See #3. He is my biggest inspirer.
  2. No Chuck Wendig, so that means I won’t spend 2 hours laughing my ass off and I do love to laugh my ass off.
  3. It costs a lot of money at a time that I don’t have that money.
  4. Most of the agents showing up don’t want to look at the books I write, or I’ve pitched to them and they’ve rejected my brilliant stories.
  5. I can’t find a full day of things I want to do. There’s a bit Friday and Saturday, but that’s a huge cost for basically 2 half days.
  6. My best writing buddies will not be there. Joe sad.

I tell ya, it’s a tough call. Not that there aren’t some great people there, not that there aren’t a few good workshops, and it’s always amazingly well organized, but this year, I may choose not to go. The weight of the list is clearly on the No side, but then there’s #1 on the Go side.

Is it worth it?

Thoughts?

 

Keep your promise to your readers

Helga’s Post # 106: During our recent downsizing from house to condo I was forced to part with a multitude of boxes containing heaps of notes and articles about writing. I lovingly and dutifully collected this treasure trove over years at writing workshops and conferences. I had even hoarded term papers from writing classes of my university years.

A painful process, judging what to keep and what to shred. Most of it went to the shredder. I did not want some dumpster diver getting his hands on my early manuscripts, basic though as they were.

I still recall some of my creative writing classes at Simon Fraser University, and the first year I attended the Surrey International Writers’ Conference. Like a dry sponge I absorbed every word of dispensed advice! I made copious notes of everything my professors and workshop leaders offered. More importantly, I believed every word from my classes and conference workshops. Passionately.

Then came the second year of the Surrey International Writers’ conference, and the third, and more after that. They turned out to be still interesting, but much of the information was by now repetitive, and quite a lot of it contradictory. The most obvious that most of us are familiar with: Always outline. You can’t ever finish a novel without. Never outline. It will stifle your writing. Each camp has its devoted disciples.

Gradually, I sifted through all the learning from my early writing years and applied what sounded most practical for my style. Not only ‘applied’, but relied on it. But here’s the rub: I got increasingly stuck trying to squeeze the multitude of ‘rules’ into my writing. I tried to use them all. I spent more time trying to write to the ‘rules’ than letting my story flow. After a while I felt like getting buried in an avalanche.

Until I realized that it wouldn’t work for me. Time to change tactics. To find a better way.

I am not suggesting that new writers should disregard writing rules. Every writer needs some rules. But the key is to be selective. Just as some writers absolutely have to outline, it would stifle the writing process for others. We need to apply the rules that suit our individual style and preference. Cherry-picking, rather than one-size-fits-all.

Nonetheless, some cardinal rules apply that have stood the test of all writing styles. Take those related to starting your story. Mountains of books have been written about the pivotal ‘First Chapter’. If it doesn’t start right, nobody will read your novel. Those rules are ironclad. Ignore them at your peril.

Some of the cardinal rules that have been most useful for me are also the most basic. They continue to serve me well. Here they are, in a nutshell:

Start your story with an action scene. That applies to all genres from romance novels to thrillers. Start with the ‘real’ tension and conflict. Don’t start with the main characters reflecting on life, thinking about their current or past situation, or contemplating doing something.

First chapters are a bit like speed dating. A reader knows within a few minutes if they will be interested enough in your story to continue. They might hold a really good book in their hands, but your story has to grab them or they’ll drop it and never buy another book you wrote.

Avoid backstory on your first pages at the fear of torture. Don’t spoon feed your reader with detailed explanation. Let them guess – less is more. Use dialogue instead of narrative. And by all means, use conflict. Ideally the main conflict of your story should be clear at the end of the chapter.

In my early attempts at writing I made the mistake of introducing my protagonist in a way to ‘force’ my readers to like him/her. I did this either by ‘telling’ a heroic quality early on, or by giving her/him some kind of flaw, counting on the reader’s empathy. Reading through my first manuscripts I notice how hard I tried to have my readers ‘like’ my main character in the first few pages with all kinds of backstory, when instead, I should have focused on an action scene to keep my readers turning those crucial first pages.

Consider this: Your first chapter is a promise to the reader. It tells them what kind of story they can expect to get. Without going into details, or worse, backstory, the reader should know the main conflict of the book and have some sense of the main character’s personality.

headhunters

Headhunters: How did we get from this…

Keeping the promise to your reader is of utmost importance. We can all think of a book or movie that broke that promise, and we feel cheated at having wasted our time. For example, I watched ‘Headhunters’ on Netflix the other day, a movie based on Jo Nesbo’s book by the same name.

I was intrigued the way it started: Stylish Scandinavian setting and actors, beautiful house and art exhibits, great theme (high-end art thefts to support a lavish lifestyle), all the right things. Our protagonist gets in trouble, finds his wife cheating him, etc. But then the theme gets derailed and confused.

.... to this ?

…. to this ?

Suddenly I find myself watching a horror movie, with some disgusting scenes including when he has to hide inside the dump hole of an outhouse. All the way, deep down, and then we are forced to watch him emerge in glorious detail. And on it goes for most of the film. So where’s the theme? Suddenly the lavish lifestyle is gone, and all we get is blood and disgusting other stuff. To me, this is a good example of a broken promise. If the film had started differently, fine, I knew what to expect. But that way I felt kind of cheated. As an aside, book reviews praise this standalone work by Nesbo. I assume the filmmakers used his theme as a platform for the gory version.

After all the lectures and conferences I’ve attended over the years, the first and most useful rule then, is this: If you’re writing a murder mystery, don’t start your first chapter like chick-lit. Or vice versa. Set the tone and stick to it.

Once you got your first chapter down and you haven’t lost your reader, things will get easier. And more fun.

(Until you get to the sagging middle)

My big, fat, emotional SIWC lesson

tragedy-comedy

Silk’s Post #107 — We all know it in our guts. From our first children’s fairy tale on, we know what’s at the heart of a good story. It’s that simple but powerful thing that keeps us spellbound:

Feelings.

Some genres celebrate the spectrum of feelings overtly – romance and horror spring to mind first – but there is no fiction of any kind that does not intentionally tug at the reader’s emotions.

Simply, stories are about – and for – people, and people have feelings. (Okay, some stories are about other anthropomorphized beings from bunny rabbits to ogres to space aliens, but as far as I’m concerned they’re all stand-ins for people). A story without emotional power is a story without a heart. You might get some people to read it, but you probably won’t get anybody to love it.

“Wow, I never really thought about putting emotion into my story on purpose,” said nobody who’s ever tried to write a book.

I mean, isn’t all this obvious? Well, yes, it is. So obvious that it’s awfully easy to assume we know what the hell we’re doing when it comes to writing about emotions. When our characters are sad, they burst into tears. When they’re scared, they burst into a dead run. When they’re joyful, they burst into song.  And so on. So to speak.

Writing one-oh-one. Got it.

But did I really “get it”? Don Maass’s excellent Master Class at the 2014 Surrey International Writers’ Conference, “The Emotional Art of Fiction”, showed me that there’s nothing obvious about emotional writing.

The class began on familiar ground. Lack of genuine emotion in writing leaves readers unengaged, Don said. Check, I said. Knew that. Readers want to go through a powerful emotional experience, Don told us. Yup, I said. Powerful emotional experience. No surprises there. Characters create emotions. If you put it that way, yeah, sure.

And that’s when the submarine started to descend, Captain Maass at the controls. Through a series of participatory exercises, we dived ever deeper into the ocean of human emotions and examined the subtle perspectives, signals and tropes that bring feelings alive on the page. Don’s teaching method is simple and effective. He asks probing questions about our work-in-progress and makes his students write out their answers.

The questions began with the obvious, like: What is the point of change at which my protagonist embarks on a new path – a path that is inevitable and unstoppable until the resolution. Okay, I got that one and managed to scribble it out in the minute or two allowed. Why does my protagonist care about this? was another softball. No problem.

But as we descended into the darker depths of the emotion ocean, to places less illuminated, the questions got harder to answer. What will this change do to reward my protagonist? was followed by What does he fear about it? – and then Could it make him a pariah because he cares about this?

Whoa. A pariah? There’s a question I had not asked myself. But as I thought about it … gee, well, yeah. Damn right. He could definitely become a pariah to a certain segment of the citizenry in the local story world, which, unfortunately for him, happens to be a very well-armed segment.

And there it was. A whole new emotional dimension.

I was so focused on the obvious emotional content – like my protagonist’s doomed attraction to the wrongest woman in the world for him, and the fact that he’s pursuing a professional challenge under tremendous scrutiny and time pressure – that I didn’t even think about the paranoia he should be experiencing because he’s likely pissing off a whole bunch of potentially hostile townsfolk.

By focusing on the obvious – the big and somewhat clichéd feelings – I’d missed a whole secondary layer of emotion. The townsfolk in question are not central to the story, but they’re part of the story world (and did I mention most of them are strapped?). Now I can up the emotional stakes by having my protagonist looking over his shoulder.

This example is just an appetizer. We discussed emotional demarcation points through the story structure, inner and outer journeys and how emotional perspectives shift along the way, and the kind of telling secondary emotions that hint obliquely at bigger hidden feelings. We discussed the revealing emotional dance between characters who have very different feelings about the same thing. And we learned some techniques for infusing characters with emotion by evoking, rather than reporting, what they’re feeling.

We also navigated the emotional pathways of great storytelling. Did Captain Don say this directly, or did the discussion just stimulate my own synapses so I could put it together for myself? I honestly don’t know, but here’s my take-away:

The characters won’t feel what the writer doesn’t feel. And the reader won’t feel what the characters don’t feel. Those are the links in the experiential chain. There’s no shortcut to eliciting deep feelings from the reader. You can’t just tell them how to feel. And you can’t make them feel by just telling them what the characters feel.

My big, fat, emotional conference lesson is that the storyteller’s job is to transmit an authentic, direct emotional experience to the reader – an experience that’s seated in the heart and the limbic brain. The trick is we have to do this using only the indirect tools and craft of language – logical tools that live in the cortex.

I left Don Maass’s Master Class with a new perspective:

  1. There’s nothing obvious about emotion in writing. It’s as complicated as people are.
  2. Emotional payoff for the reader trumps everything else.
  3. It’s about creating an experience, not delivering information.

These are deep waters. Don’t be satisfied just paddling around on the surface.