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.

Write with emotion

dive-in

Silk’s Post #133 — It has been an emotional year, and not half over yet.

The world has had its punishing cataclysms, some delivered by nature, others by the hand of man. It has had some surprising social victories to celebrate, including progressive decisions by the US Supreme Court, and a demonstration of the awesome power of forgiveness in a Charleston church. Personally, I’ve had some unforgettable, joyful travel adventures and shared some soul-nourishing times with people I’m glad to have in my life. I’ve also lost some dear friends. Three women who I love have lost their longtime partners to cancer.

So, yeah, my feelings have been working overtime.

And that’s the natural response to the highs and lows life throws at you. In fact, despite the pain of sorrow, I think we long to experience emotions. It’s in our DNA. It means we’re alive. Maybe it even keeps us alive. My thesis is that emotions give our journey on earth meaning and significance, perhaps even more than the worldly successes we strive so hard to achieve.

People need to feel. And that’s why I think people read to feel.

While storytelling may be about connecting through narrative with ourselves, with others, with our past and future, with our common humanity, and with the rules of the road in life – as well as being the purest form of entertainment – it has a cardinal rule. And that rule has to do with emotion.

Filmmaker Andrew Stanton (Toy Story), in his fantastic TED Talk, The Clues to a Great Story, in 2012, said storytelling must do one thing above all else:

Make Me Care.

In his excellent book Writing 21st Century Fictionwriting guru Donald Maass puts it another way:

What is it that moves readers’ hearts? What conjures in readers’ imaginations a reality that, for a while, feels more real than their own lives? What glues readers to characters and makes those characters objects of identification: people with whom readers feel intimately involved, about whom they care, and whose outcomes matter greatly? Emotions. When readers feel little or nothing, then a story is just a collection of words. It’s empty.

You’ve heard this all before, haven’t you? As an abstract piece of wisdom, it seems so obvious it scarcely needs to be said. Of course storytelling must evoke emotions. It’s right here in my How To Be A Great Writer 101 notes. Got it. Let’s move on.

Actually, let’s not. Let’s stay right here in the complicated, shape-shifting, constricted, psychedelic, colourless, loud, passionate, confusing, silent, elating, scary, inspiring, tragic, heartwarming, tense, quicksand-filled world of emotional landscapes. Okay, let’s get out the roadmap and see where we are. Oh, right. I forgot. There is no road map.

We know a lot about emotions. Life is full of them. Psychology books dissect and explain them. We all feel them, personally. We can call upon all that knowledge to tell how something feels. Oops … did I say “tell”? Yes, that’s the trap, isn’t it?

So, following the fiction prescription of Show Don’t Tell, we can probably describe the visible clues that convey our character’s feelings. The glistening eyes that speak of sorrow held in check. The muscular tension of anger. The white-knuckled grip of fear. The glowing face of love. That’s better, right? Well, maybe.

But here’s the challenge. Getting across to a reader that a character is experiencing an emotion is not the same as getting the reader to experience an emotion. Far from it.

As Maass says, “Familiar emotions, especially when in neon lights, have little effect on readers.” He cautions against the extremes of “warm” emotional landscapes bestrewn with flowery purple prose, and “cool” emotional landscapes so devoid of overt feelings they’re like deserts of the heart.

So, let’s go back to Stanton’s cardinal rule: Make Me Care. It’s not just about intensity, or even authenticity. It’s about connection.

And that, naturally, leads us to character. If a reader doesn’t care about the character, can’t relate to him and what he’s experiencing, isn’t emotionally engaged in the outcome, all your attempts to write with emotion fail. The words just lie there on the page, dead on arrival.

Of course, you’ve heard all this too. Make your character relatable! Lure the reader into caring about him! Let’s say you’ve zoomed ahead of many writers (hopefully going beyond the simplistic advice of giving your character a flaw, because people are reported to love flaws, so any character with a flaw must be automatically relatable), and you’ve managed to achieve this wonderful state of character grace. Congratulations!

Now when you convey your character’s emotions, the reader should definitely feel something, right? Well, maybe.

What? There’s more to this emotional landscape navigation? Sorry, but the answer is Yes. Hey, if it were easy, everybody could be a bestselling novelist!

For example, there’s cliché avoidance, which applies to emotional stimuli and responses just as it applies to character, language and other elements of fiction. Two-dimensional (aka cardboard) emotions, predictable responses, melodrama – these don’t move readers at a deep level. Maass talks about the power of more nuanced emotions that surprise, that conflict, that intrigue and provoke.

The character’s dog is hit by a car and dies? Yes, that’s horribly sad, and it’s natural for the character be broken-hearted. But what else does he feel that adds dimension? Anger at the driver who hit his dog, or at himself for letting the dog run out on the road? Remorse and regret if he ran over it himself, in a mindless hurry to get somewhere? Secret relief that his life is simpler without a dog, that he’s now free to take that trip to Kathmandu? Self hatred at feeling this relief? Delayed mourning for his dead mother who gave him the dog when he was a teen? Fresh resentment for his girlfriend, who never liked his dog? What if there’s something about the circumstance that he actually finds funny, and is stricken with intolerable guilt about this taboo response?

It could be a simple case of boy-loses-dog. Or a much more nuanced case of boy’s-karma-runs-over-his-dogma. Sorry, I couldn’t resist a bit of black humour, so to all you dog lovers out there, please don’t send me hate mail.

Although, if you did, it would suggest something important: I Made You Care.

I believe some of the most powerful emotional effects you can achieve in fiction arise from those things that are the hardest to talk about in real life. Things that are threatening, taboo, disturbing, dangerous, fraught with dilemma. Things that are close to the soul, risky to examine. Things that reveal more about our secret selves than we want to share. Not just things we’re afraid of, but things we’re afraid to admit about ourselves. Things never talked about by what another writing guru, James Scott Bell, calls “Happy People in Happy Land.”

And that’s why, as writers, we open our own veins and bleed all over the paper. Everything we reveal about our characters also reveals something about ourselves. Writing with emotion in a way that really touches and engages readers to feel something means writing from the heart.

Or, as some of the greats would put it …

No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. — Robert Frost

It’s all about passion. Heart is what drives us and determines our fate. — Isabel Allende

Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart. — William Wordsworth

You get your readers emotionally involved in your characters by being emotionally involved yourself. Your characters must come alive for you. When you are writing about them, you have to feel all the emotions they are going through – hunger, pain, joy, despair. If you suffer along with them, so will the reader. — Sidney Sheldon

What comes from the heart goes to the heart. — Samuel Taylor Coleridge

I love writing. I love the swirl and swing of words as they tangle with human emotions. — James A. Michener

I want to make you laugh or cry when you read a story … or do both at the same time. I want your heart, in other words. If you want to learn something, go to school. — Stephen King

 

Travel Writing for Novels

And maybe acting isn't even important

And maybe acting isn’t even important

Ok, I had one of those rare clarity moments the other day.

You know the type. You suddenly realize that eating a box of cookies doesn’t help your diet at all. You realize that Hollywood will never celebrate good writers as much as they do handsome actors or beautiful actresses (even though no matter how great an actor is, a bad script makes the movie suck). Or you realize you’ll never be really able to keep up with the derpy sus that has become the new kidspeak.

But in this case, it was making location matter more in my book and tying that into my own travel experiences. Oh, I know, duh, right? It’s almost like I have to learn a lesson a good dozen times before it sinks in. Like just because I have a good camera doesn’t mean I can take good pictures.

So, yeah, there I was, lost in my novel, working on driving the plot forward, staying true to my character, blah, blah, blah, when it suddenly occurred to me that my settings were bland. Vanilla. Boring. Oh, I think my details were ok, you know, kind of all detailie, but the settings themselves, boy could they be kicked up a notch.

What do you see in this picture?

What do you see in this picture?

It’s should be part of the fun of writing a story set in another city. Or country. Or universe. Now, while I’ve not been to Outpost Omega-Epsilon-Wanker, I have been to Holland. And Amsterdam.

So why not use those memories, those pictures, those settings? My fellow writer Helga did this brilliantly in the story she wrote set in Europe during the coldest part of the cold war. My other Fivers have used their life experiences, their travels and adventures to enrich their novels. So why had I forgotten about this?

Truth is, I am a bear with very little brain and too much stuff bothers me. For me to write, I can only keep a few things in mind. If I have to think, oh yeah, add brilliant sensory detail from my travels to this scene and don’t forget to have conflict and, wait, is there movement in the scene and is my character acting in character and… well, it all bungs up like me trying to go the bathroom after I’d eaten three plates of cheese.

Mmmm. Cheese.

I know one of my writing friends, Sheila, has this incredible ability to see it all in her head like a movie. So for her, those setting details come easy. For me, it’s going to have to be enough to know I need to add them on the 2nd draft.

However, for locations, why settle on a meeting on a street when you can set it in the rijksmuseum?  Why have a fight in a bar when you could have it in the flower market? Why have a chase through the alleys, when I have a city full of canals?

One of the masters of setting IMHO

One of the masters of setting IMHO

Dorothy Dunnett was a master of this. She’d set a story in a great location, like Florence, then have that place become a character with a variety of clever details and sensory elements, BUT then she’d make use of the special aspects of the city, having a chase across the red tiled roofs. Not a chase on the streets, on the roofs.

Anyway, I think I’ll have to save the details for the 2nd draft, but the larger locations, boy those can change immediately. It’s not too taxing on my brain to ask myself, self, can I set this in a better location? Can I bring out a unique aspect of that location? Can I make that location active in some way.

Damn, I sound like Don Maass. But that’s not a bad thing. And it’s even kind of fun. Hmmmm… Amsterdam, 1940… I can’t use the Anne Frank house, she’s hasn’t been murdered by the Nazis, yet, so, yeah, what else can I use????

*****

Best show last week – Game of Thrones, best show ever? For all time? Yup.

Book that I’m reading at the moment –  Reading Sean Sommerville’s latest book. The Unforgiven. Man that guy can write.

Pages written on new book  4 weeks now and I have hit my goal of 10 pages a week. I’m finding more time and, more importantly, finding my groove, again. Can I increase this for next week?

Social media update – Derpy sus, people. Derpy sus.

Best thing last week  epic trip to Science World. Oh, I’m sure I’m going to blog about that!

timeWorst thing  I’d like to buy more time, please, Alex. Honestly, there just doesn’t seem to be enough time in the day to get everything done. Luckily, I’m pretty sure I’m the only one that happens to.

 

 

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.

 

Surrey International Writer’s Conference – Don Maass workshop

Joe’s Post #117

IMG_6034Don Maass workshop: “Creating a World Readers Want To Live In”

Is there a workshop ‘reveal’ etiquette?

How much can I reveal without violating the sacred writer/mentor code? Is there even such a thing?

Oh, hell, I dunno. If it were me and I gave good information, I’d say repeat it to anyone who’ll listen and repeat is often.

So here I go.

First off, if you’ve never been to a Don Maass workshop as a writer, you’ve missed out on something amazing. It’s not to diminish in any way the other workshops or presenters at SiWC, but Don (can I call him Don?) is a master of making you think.

How does it do it, the clever bugger?

He sets up an idea, a different way of thinking about as aspect of writing and then rapid fires questions at you like he’s interrogating you at the border about your bag that smells like you got into a fight with a skunk.

This year, I couldn’t hit his master class, but I hear from Silk it was amazing. Emotion trumps everything. I would have loved to be there, but couldn’t make it. However, I could make his ‘Creating A World’ talk.

So, I brought my glue, my coloured pens and fancy paper to draw up landmasses, add rivers and put in dragons somewhere. But that’s not what this was about.

As he put it, that’s location. He wanted us to make worlds people want to live in.

But how, dammit, how do we do that?

First, ask yourself, why do you want to live in another world? What is it about that world that makes you long to be there? Is there depth beyond the description?

In essence, how does a place FEEL? And the way we get to the feel of a place is through our character’s eyes.

Dammit, feelings, again!

He had many suggestions on how to make a world have depth, to get to those feelings, but here are 3…

What do they eat?

What is wonderful about that world?

What is the history, the legends of the world?

But all of this, ALL must be seen through your protagonist’s eyes. How do they experience the world. Go beyond the 5 senses (that we’re all taught to include in our writing) and live in the skin of the protagonist. How do they FEEL about what they see, they hear, they smell, they taste, they touch and how does it affect them?

That creates depth. That creates a world we want to live in.

My brain caught fire as I was peppered with questions like what do they eat at weddings, what’s your protagonist’s favourite food, what does he hate, what does he love, what’s a treat, what has he always wanted but could never have, what’s comfort food, what’s his childhood food, what does he love to drink, what’s breakfast, lunch, a snack, a secret snack, dinner…?

Then, THEN Don throws something at you that can really take your story to the next level. Something like, what does your protagonist hate to eat? Can there be someone in the story who loves it? Can your protagonist come to love that thing at the end of the story?

Brilliant!

Now imagine this going on for 90 min, give or take, and imagine examples and class feedback and lots of nose blowing (Ok, hey, I had a cold!!!).

game of thronesOk, so let’s take this idea for a test drive. Game of Thrones. What about food? Hell, there are cookbooks on the food!

What about how characters experience the world? OMG, every character, all ten thousand of them, experience a place differently. Does Geoffrey, the little psycho, see King’s Landing the same as Tyrion? Does the Hound have the same experience as Arya Stark?

What about history, legend? Do they all not live in a world where every city, every family (even the trees), have history?

You bet!

Now, is there a novel that you love, a world that you would like to visit? Does it go beyond description of places? Do you experience the place? Food? History? What’s wonderful about the world?

That’s the kind of world you want to create, right?

I gotta tell you, I went home wanting to write. Needing to write. To get that world out of my head and onto the page. To make my world another character.

Don Maass lit my brain on fire.

And how cool is that?

 

 

 

10 best things I learned at Surrey International Writers’ Conference

Surrey International Writers' Conference banquet

Surrey International Writers’ Conference banquet

Silk’s Post #106 — I’m still coming down from a three-day weekend up in the cloud where writers live. Sometimes that cloud is a lonely place. Sometimes it rains for weeks. Sometimes thunder and lightning make you want to crawl under your desk.

But at the Surrey International Writers’ Conference – #siwc2014 or #siwc14 – the sun is always shining when hundreds of writers and their gurus come out to play for three days every year. It rocks!

Bar time with Trish, Karalee, Silk, Joe and Chris

Bar time with Trish, Karalee, Silk, Joe and Chris

While I’ve been recovering (okay, the late nights in the bar and various social gatherings did have something to do with that), Joe has already done two excellent posts on his SIWC experience, and he only came for a day. I better get with the program.

This was my eighth SIWC. So here are a couple of fair questions:

  1. How come I keep going back – haven’t I been-there-done-that?
  2. How come I don’t have a book published by now?

First answer: I keep going back because every year I learn new stuff I need to know, and because it recharges my writing batteries, and because I’ve come to know and love the citizens of SIWC, and because it’s one of the best writers’ conferences in the world (even the big-dog presenters from New York say this).

Second answer: I don’t have a book published yet because I’m still a learner and I haven’t yet achieved a polished manuscript that’s ready to put in front of an agent or publisher. When I embarked on this second career after I wound up my design/advertising agency, I came to the party with 35 years of writing experience. I thought I’d be churning out a novel a year in no time. HAH! I must have missed the Steep Learning Curve Ahead sign when I turned onto that road. Oh, alright alright, my questionable post-retirement work habits and tendency toward procrastination does factor into it too.

That’s why I love the SIWC log line: This Day We Write! This came from a conference keynote a couple of years ago by bestselling author Robert Dugoni, who graciously let SIWC adopt it as their own. It’s the perfect rallying cry in this nebulous writers’ cloud we all live in, tucked away by ourselves most of the year, but connected to each other in a kind of virtual community.

This year at SIWC I attended one 3-hour Master Class, 4 keynotes, 3 panels, 5 workshops, 3 luncheons, 2 banquets, 1 agent pitch, 1 blue-pencil session, 1 theatrical presentation, 1 cocktail party, 1 book fair, and a late night book launch. Plus bar time.

Seriously, I really did need a day to recover.

I also took rather voluminous notes, and will share some of this rich trove in more detail in future posts, but today I want to give you my 10 top take-aways – some new things I learned, some things I thought I knew but now finally understand, and some things that just resonated with me.

1. Emotional impact trumps everything else in fiction. Story, setting, premise, characters, action, plot, voice, style, and subject are all important ingredients – but the real magic only happens if you can cause the reader to experience a powerful emotion. (Thanks to Don Maass for this insight from his Master Class “The Emotional Craft of Fiction.”)

2. To avoid obvious and clichéd emotional reactions in characters, evoke rather than report. We’ve all heard “show, don’t tell”. This is a kind of corollary. Make big emotions – the ones with a lot of gravity – like dark stars that affect everything around them without being overtly visible. (Inspiration by Don Maass, weird planetary analogy by me.)

3. A writer’s number one platform on the Internet is his/her own website. It’s the one thing in cyberspace that’s totally in your control, where you own the space and content. Think of it as the centre of your own online community. Use whatever social media and other channels you are comfortable with – and have time to keep up – to steer people to your website. (This point was driven home repeatedly by multiple social media experts, including two of the best: Sean Cranbury and Sarah Wendell.)

4. The most powerful social media tool a writer can use is (wait for it) … email. There are 3 times more email accounts than Twitter and Facebook combined. 92 per cent of adults use email, and 61 per cent of them use it every day. Email is 6 times more likely to get a click-through (to your website or blog) than a tweet, and 40 times more likely to generate new clients/relationships. (Thanks to Sarah Wendell for doing the math).

5. The 3 most important things that build your social media currency are: generosity, consistency and authenticity. Joe already mentioned this, but it’s so important that it can’t be said too many times. Social media are, first and foremost, about relationships and sharing – not marketing opportunities. Don’t be the person who only reaches out to others when you want something from them. Do more giving than receiving. If you support and share with people 90 per cent of the time, you get to talk about yourself 10 per cent of the time. What a surprise … cyber life is just like real life! (This theme was universally emphasized by experts Sarah Wendell, Sean Cranbury and Chuck Wendig in their “Social Media Smackdown” panel).

6. Characters drive story. Characters need to have agency. Active characters push the plot around, they don’t just get pushed around by the plot. Every character has to have a problem (a want) to be solved (fulfilled). In the gulf between the character’s problem and its solution is the story, which must wind its way from the problem to the solution through a minefield of complications. (While these principles have been repeated by many, in many different ways, Chuck Wendig in his “Kick-Ass Characters” workshop, brought terrific clarity and insight to these essential concepts).

7. To create tension, the writer has to walk a tightrope between withholding and revealing information to the reader. Tension occupies the space between what the writer allows the reader to know, and what the writer allows the character to know. The reader always needs to be slightly ahead of the character, which stimulates worry … but not so far ahead that the character seems slow-witted. (A great panel of suspense writers, Hallie Ephron, Robert Wiersema and Chevy Stevens illuminated this dark corner of writing in their discussion, “Tension: More Than the Edge of Your Seat”).

8. Planting questions makes readers turn pages. While this seems like the simplest and most obvious piece of advice in the writing world, it is a deliberate technique that’s hard to remember when you’re in the flow of writing, and easy to make too obvious when you strew questions around retroactively. The compelling need to know “what happens next” is the most delicious form of tension for the reader. (Another trick of the trade from the “Tension” panel).

9. Dialogue should only consist of things that need to be said, or are inherently interesting. Another seemingly obvious principle that gets wantonly violated by throwing all sorts of debris into dialogue such as backstory, pointless conversation meant to mimic “real life” and other content the author didn’t know what else to do with. (Thanks to Outlander author, Diana Gabaldon – the mistress of dialogue – for this reminder).

The one and only Jack Whyte

The one and only Jack Whyte

10. Read aloud. SIWC’s favourite Scottish icon, author Jack Whyte, is probably the best reader I’ve ever heard. With his rich baritone and dramatic flair, he can make the telephone book sound like gorgeous literature. Listening to him read the finely-crafted opening of his new book, The Guardian, at a special pre-release book launch on Saturday night, I was reminded of another excellent piece of advice that I’ve often received and always forget to do. Read your book to yourself out loud, especially key passages or dialogue that needs to be “just right” to the reader’s ear. It’s amazing how every awkward turn of phrase, bit of unnatural dialogue, misplaced word and run-on sentence will suddenly become obvious.

To wind this post up, I want to share the best word I heard at the conference, and its context:

Avoid online douchebaggery.

Surrey Writers’ Conference

Surrey International Writer’s Contest

surrey IWCAnyone going?

I’m still making up my mind. Last year, I had a lot of ups and downs, but the ultimate result was a complete failure to interest anyone in my book. Worse, some of the agents never even got back to me, which I find increasingly odd in an age where indie publishing is becoming (or has become) acceptable and profitable.

sean ranHowever, let’s take a look at this year. There’s a good social media presence, and some very accomplished people, which could be very interesting for us 5/5/5. There’s even a masterclass on owning your online space by Sean Cranbury. I like owning my space and Mr. Cranbury knows his stuff.

diana G

Diana never put her arms around me, but then I’m not a highlander

Diana Gabaldon will be back, as will Jack Whyte, and frankly, they’re both worth the price of admission, both great speakers, great story tellers. I have a secret crush on Diana so whenever I get near her I go back in time and become 9 years old, again, blushing and mumbling and looking at my feet. I think I said to her last year, as I stood beside her in the food line up, “Errr, uhm, book, you, that thing, you know, ack, character, highlander, urm, erp, ah, oh look there’s a muffin.”

There’s a pretty good selection, as always, of workshops, and one of my favourites, Hallie Ephron is giving a keynote speech. She written one of my writing bibles, “Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel: How to Knock ‘Em Dead with Style,” and she’s amazingly approachable.

Same with Don Maass. I often learn more in one of his two hour workshops, than I could learn in a year at college. He’s also written one of my other bibles, “Writing the Breakout Novel,” and while I haven’t written one yet, there’s still good advice in there. Totally good advice.

I guess it’s up to every individual (and their finances) to determine if this year is worth attending.

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That’s me on the left

For me, even being a card-carrying introvert, I have fun talking to the people there. When I’m not sweating like a used car salesmen at a tax audit, I can actually have some fun, talking craft or experiences or even learning a thing or two from the person sitting beside me.

If the other writers decide to go, then I’ll probably tag along for sure. I mean, I’m the only guy in the 5/5/5 so I’m sort of like their pet. Like a bulldog or pet pot-bellied pig.

But everyone, please at least check out the web page. Check out the writers, agents, editors and gurus who attend.

And maybe I’ll see a few of you there.

 

Writerlust

writerlust

Silk’s Post #71 — For a writer, nothing beats the feeling you get when you start on a new story. To riff on Paula’s great post last week, “Serial monogamy”, it’s like the rush of falling in love.

I call it Writerlust.

You’re vibrating inside with the thrill of possibility. Your endorphins kick in. You’re filled with energy and purpose. Ideas bubble up out of nowhere, and bits of dialogue play in your head. The world looks a little brighter. You feel a little smarter, a little cooler, a little more adventuresome, a little more confident. You wake up in the morning excited about spending the day with your hot, new muse. You hit the keyboard before the coffeemaker has even finished gurgling.

doris-dayI’m feeling the love right now. I had a chance to discuss my new book concept with my 5writer colleagues last week, and got a pretty strong thumbs-up. At least that’s how I heard it, because, in the immortal words of Doris Day, “Everybody Loves a Lover.” When you’re in Writerlust, your infatuation is contagious and everything sounds like an endorsement.

But I’ve been hurt before.

I’m no Romantic Advice columnist, but I’ve decided I should give myself a little talking-to. Just, you know, in case things don’t totally work out the way I hope. Just on the off chance that I actually cannot write my amazing new story in a month-long gush of boundless creativity, skimming across the surface of the Saggy Middle Swamp on magical writer’s feet towards an orgasmic climax that no agent or publisher will be able to resist. In one draft.

So … Notes to Self:

Enjoy your euphoria right now. Don’t let anything bring you down to Earth too soon – stuff like preparing your tax returns, or cleaning anything that’s been let go for a couple of years, or trying to fix the first draft mess of your last unpublished book, or making your first attempt at serving a turducken to dinner guests. Remember, euphoria is ephemeral (see how good you’re getting with those esoteric “e” words?).

hotel new hampshireTake this opportunity to become obsessed. You will need to survive the many dangers and deprivations of your writing journey on the fading memory of these fleeting feelings of Writerlust. So right now, while you’re thirsty to write, drink the Kool-Aid and commit yourself totally to the story you’re in love with. Take the sage advice of the madly successful writer John Irving in Hotel New Hampshire: “You’ve got to get obsessed and stay obsessed.”

Inoculate yourself against perfectionism. Okay, right now your book is perfect. That’s because you haven’t written it yet. It’s just a sexy mirage in your head. One morning, when you have 25,000 words on the page, you’ll wake up and look at your darling story and see what’s really lying there beside you in bed: something far less than perfect. It may snore. It may have bad breath. Or missing teeth. It may have packed on the weight in all the wrong places. You may wonder what you were thinking, bringing this thing home with you. But if you’ve inoculated yourself with the anti-perfectionism serum, everything will be okay. You’ll give your story a knowing look – full of love and sympathy – and get back to work, confident that you can get it in shape at rewrite time. A great story always cleans up nice.

Put on your chastity belt. While you’re living with the story you’ve said “I do” to, keep your roving eyes on the straight and narrow. No flirting with other new stories. No tearful calls to your old bookfriend in the middle of the night – the one abandoned in the bottom drawer that’s looking better and better compared to the new story you’re struggling with. No giving-in to aching desire when you read your favourite writer’s newest book and realize it’s better – way better – than the story you’re deeply involved with. Buckle up and be true to your sweetheart.

Remember that you can’t hurry love. Who could forget the sage words Mama said, as immortalized by The Supremes:

can't-hurry-love

You can’t hurry love
No, you just have to wait
She said love don’t come easy
It’s a game of give and take

When you’ve been living with this story that you’re marrying for months and months … and you just can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel … and all your writer friends are already working on their query letters … and there are moths fluttering out of your file of agents who told you to send them a chapter (but not until the book is really, truly finished and it’s the best it can possibly be) … and on bad days you wonder why you ever fell in Writerlust with this story in the first place … well, just sing yourself this song. Don’t try to jump into bed with the first passing agent and allow yourself to suffer from premature evaluation.

Wise words to be sure. I will likely forget it all as my life with this new story stretches from days into weeks, and weeks into months … as my Writerlust heat cools and I encounter the tepid ennui of writer’s fatigue, and the cold sweats of writer’s block. So it’s a good thing I wrote it all down. Now I just have to remember take my own advice.

Writing a novel involves a long-term, committed relationship, not a one-night stand. It demands a huge chunk of your life, and there are times when every writer wonders whether it’s really worth the time, effort and angst.

The gurus advise us: Write what you really care about. I’d add: Follow your Writerlust. Make sure you’re all-in with both your head and your heart before you start.

fire-in-fictionThis goes beyond craft and technique. When agent/lecturer Don Maass titled his great 2009 book The Fire in Fictionhe didn’t just mean the fire on the page, he meant the fire inside the writer. I think that only a wild passion for your story at the outset will sustain you through 400 hard-won pages of writing that is capable of captivating a reader.

At least I hope so, because I’m deep in the embrace of a story I love and I’m going for it.

A Grimm tale

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Helga’s Post # 30 — Something odd happened as I read through my manuscript. No, that’s not quite truthful. I  knew it was always there, whenever I sat down to write. In a subliminal sort of way. But now, as I start editing the first draft in anticipation of our group’s retreat, I let it bubble to the surface, unbridled.

It’s about the persona of my protagonist. Not only my protagonist. Any fiction writer’s protagonist. I asked myself whether we are creating characters in our own image. Are we hiding our autobiographies inside our manuscripts?

You bet we do.

I didn’t realize that when I started writing my story, I was unsure what kind of person I wanted to create. I guess I wanted her to be many things, and I endowed her with different traits, depending on whose ‘How-To’ book I was reading at the time. Donald Maass put it aptly in ‘The Fire in Fiction’:

‘Heroes who are nothing but good, noble, unswerving, honest, courageous, and kind to their mothers will make your readers want to gag.’

Duly noted. So I aimed for my protagonist to be heroic, but with flaws. Yet flaws not so serious as to render her a wuss or be fatal.  She should be able to feel deep emotions, without being melodramatic. She should be capable, but not boisterous. She should be unique, without flaunting it.

She should be… she should be… oh bloody hell.

Fine lines, all of them. I made changes to my protagonist time and again, with the result that she ended up being three or more people all in one. She was a total scatterbrain, without focus or conviction. I ended up with a flimsy character. The kind that may prompt the dreaded question, “Why should I care about this person?”

I sort of knew it when I started writing the first draft, but wasn’t ready to confront it.

Common wisdom dictates to ‘just get the story down’ and don’t spend time on details in the first draft. Makes tons of sense, but I believe it cannot extend to character development. This is where most of the groundwork has to be done, before writing the first sentence of Chapter One. The story begins and ends with the characters, and the plot is the excuse to write about them.

So what did I do before I realized the errors of my ways?

I tried to hide her imperfections with clever plot twists. And with lots of secondary characters, to shift the focus away from her. And with planting enough little traps so the reader may not notice just what a nincompoop my protagonist really was.

It backfired of course. I had to reinvent her. Not just with little things like voice, or colour of her eyeshadow, or her preference for men with six-packs rather than six (high) figure bank accounts. This girl had to acquire a moral compass and a steely determination among other things. Her ‘angry outbursts’, her ‘tear-streaked cheeks’, all met their just destiny: the  delete button.

Triage was in order.

I had to get into my character’s head. And she into mine. Pleased to meet you. The real YOU that is. It’s taken a while.

“What made you decide to show the reader that deep down I am really insecure?” She asked me.

Me: “I wanted to make you honest. Before I changed you, I couldn’t tell what made you tick. Not even I, your creator, knew who you were. So now, I can see through you. I can read you like a book, pardon for putting it this way. I can tell how insecure you are by the way you try to hide it. By being cocksure. In your face. Especially to your boss.”

“Interesting. What am I so insecure about?”

Me: “Well, you know, you always feel inadequate when you meet people with status. Especially people who had a higher education. You always want to run with the fast crowd, but you were scared shitless they would figure out you’re an imposter.”

“You mean I wanted to break out of my social class, my background?”

Me: “Yeah, that’s it. You  put your finger on it.”

“Wow. That sounds so Freudian. And it sounds like an image of yourself.”

Me (long pause, clearing throat): “Well, you know, the more I wrote about you, the better I understood you. On one level I really wanted you to break out of your mold, and you did in a way, with your ceaseless ambition. Yet, how shall I put it, you never quite fit in.”

“I know. Because I feel your tether on every page. As soon as I think I’ve been accepted as one of the ‘beautiful’ people, meaning the smart and the powerful, you pull me right back again on that leash of yours. But the really cruel thing you did to me is something different.”

Me: “I’m not cruel! Not deliberately anyway.”

“Well, you are. Because by now you’ve moved me so far beyond my poor background, that they’ve closed ranks back there. They don’t want me any more. Calling me a social climber, a traitor to my kin. You’ve placed me squarely in no-man’s land. I’m an outsider. I don’t belong.”

Me: “There’s no denying that. But understand, I’m not writing Grimm’s Fairy Tales. You are never going to ride into the sunset on a white stallion with your handsome prince.”

“Can I at least have sex? It doesn’t have to be on a stallion.”

Me: “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. You already had some in the past, and what good did that do you?”

“But that was back story. Your readers hate that. Let’s do it in real time. Please?”

Me: “Let me think about it. I still have to write The End anyway. Just don’t you ask me what’ll happen to you, okay? Keep in mind though the world is a cruel place. It’s a jungle out there.”

“You’re gonna kill me. Right?”

Me: “Now don’t jump to conclusions. It’s not healthy to harbor such morose thoughts. Think positive. Whatever happens, I will be fair. And I will try my best to avoid a lot of blood and gore. There has to be some, you understand, because we want to sell the book…”

“Please, don’t. Otherwise…”

Me: “You’re threatening me? Listen, sweetheart, all I need to do is stretch my pinkie and push that button in the upper right hand corner of my keyboard. The button that all you characters hate with a vengeance.”

(Laughter): “You won’t. Because you want to sell your damn book, don’t you?”

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Image: Book Cover for ‘Grimm Fairy Tales Volume 12’
(Joe Brusha, Ralph Tedesco)

Animate the monster

Helga’s post # 22 — As the story goes, if you were to eavesdrop at the London Book Fair, the comment you’d most often hear as novels are pitched is, “It’s beautifully written,” followed by:  “of course.”

At least that’s how Donald Maass tells it.

In one of Joe’s previous posts, ‘Book buying’ his point, especially poignant for newbie writers, is this: ‘As new writers, I think we need to remember this. Words matter. Voice matters. Style matters. How a story starts… matters.’

Truer words were never written. Think about it:

If ‘beautifully written’ will someday be said about a novel that you have written, you’d likely think there is no greater compliment, no bigger reward, than your readers saying:

“She (Karalee, Paula, Silk) or He (Joe of course) has got a way with words.”

Conversely, as a buyer of books, if the words don’t captivate me right from the start, no matter how clever the plot, how stylish the cover picture, even the smart title, the book will probably be a flop. I will feel duped as a buyer and reader. The writing sucks.

So then, how do we make our words sing, make them float on the page, make them ‘swirl and swing as they tangle with human emotions’, as James Michener said.

Maybe to do what Anton Chekov had in mind when he said: ‘Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.’

As writers, we need our compass for pointing us in the direction of ‘beautifully written’ vs. the opposite, ‘the writing sucks’. We know instinctively what we need to do. Sometimes it helps to be reminded though. Legions of books are written on the topic, their authors not always in agreement. There are however some common traits.

‘Beautifully written’ is more than description, images, and metaphors, though that’s part of it. More so, a beautifully written novel invokes emotions, ‘moving readers’ hearts, ‘changing their ideas, and even rocking their worlds’.il_570xN.350947546

To quote from Maass again: Beautiful writing is more than pretty prose. It conjures a world that is unique, highly detailed, and brought alive by the characters who dwell there. Beautiful writing also illuminates a story’s social world, its era, the passage of time and the story’s larger meaning. When a novel’s grasp is sure and its ambition is vast, then it is beautifully written.

At the other end of the compass, the ‘writing sucks’ point, there is one writing tool that should be thrown away: description. Most readers skim it. Even if using the five senses, it’s dead weight. Instead, describe a character’s experience, conveying how things look, smell, sound, taste, etc.

For example, it’s not enough to show that a character owns a luxury home and to describe its details. The reader needs to see him in that house when the family gathers for Thanksgiving dinner. We want to know his feelings. Is he conflicted? He loves his wife and he hates her. He feels trapped by her, thrilled by her, disgusted, but unable to leave. It’s his personal world. His feelings are the lightning bolts that ‘animate the monster’ and make it live.’ (Maass)

2336426905_fa1dcb6ef7_oSo much advice, so little time. Perhaps it boils down to this:

‘Write for the right reasons. The ability to write is a gift and should not be abused for cynical purposes. Resist the temptation to imitate what is currently commercially successful. Write what’s in your heart.’ (Thrity Umrigar, The Space Between Us)