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!

 

 

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 International Writer’s Conference – part 1

Joe’s post #115

surrey IWCThe day is finally here. SiWC 2014. I wish I could have attended all the days, but I couldn’t so chose to hit up one day in particular. Friday.

I had a mission.

Learn more about social media. Bug people about social media. Tweet something. Figure out if I actually tweeted something. Read someone else’s tweet. Say tweet 20 times.

Oh and have a bit of fun and learn something new from Don Maass.

My first thoughts of the day were, why did I have to have a crappy cold right now? My second thought was is everyone having as hard a time as me figuring out how writers use social media effectively? I mean, really, none of this should be hard, so is it just my age, my deteriorating brainage or is it really kinda complex?

Well, I had the right people to help me understand it. I’ll talk a bit about them in the next post, cuz, you know, I’m like that. In my novels, I’d call it a hook. Here, it’s just me being a bit of an asshat because I want to give everyone an idea of the SiWC experience.

So, yeah, for the first time in a long time, I wasn’t nervous at all. Nothing to pitch. No agents or editors to see. Just me learning and having some fun.

Having not registered ahead of time, I had to get in line to buy a day pass, a huge extra- large cup of Timmies in my hand. (Double-double, thank you very much). Day-passers are kinda like brussel sprouts at a turkey dinner – I’m not sure anyone really wants them. Case in point, we don’t get dinner.

Sigh.

I do like a good dinner.

IMG_6038[1]I got my high-tech name badge and fancy wrist band and marched off in search of a blue-pencil mentor.

For those who don’t know, the blue pencil meetings are a chance to sit down with someone who’s ‘been there and done that’, and made a living at it. Usually you bring a bit of writing and let them read it so they can help you better understand what’s working and what’s not. Sometimes you leave in tears, sometimes with great insights.

In my case, though, remember, social media focus. So I lucked out and found an opening with, oh, crap, almost gave it away. No, I’ll tell you tomorrow.

After signing up at the blue pencil, I went to listen to the opening keynote speech in the grand ballroom. With minutes to spare before the speech, I took a look at my thick-as-a-yearbook guide. It had a great title, the guide did.

This day we write!IMG_6037[1]

Which I love, but which was probably not exactly accurate for the day. Or the next 3 days. Maybe these 3 days we listen and then, THEN we write. Dammit! (I would have added the dammit for sure.) I’m honestly not sure anyone got a lot of writing done, but the idea still works.

I may put that sign on my dog to remind me what I have to do.

Anyway, if you’ve never been to SiWC, it’s quite the thing to walk into a ballroom filled with writers. The only odder thing might be a room filled with cosplayers or lion-taming tax accountants.

It’s a huge room filled with people, the vast majority women, who have gathered to learn more about writing, to discuss what they are working on, to connect with the writing community, and maybe even pitch a book or two to agents and editors.

Old, young, tall, short, hats, no hats, suits, shorts, t-shirts, glittering black blouses, sandals, high heels, tattoos… man, if you ever wanted to get some great characters for a book, you just have to go into that ballroom, but more than all of that, it’s a room full of people who say, proudly, I’m a writer.

I barely had time to look at the guide once before the event started. Having gone a few times before, one of the highlights in the morning is always Carol Monaghan.  (In the evening, it’s singing with the always Scottishly charming Jack Whyte.)

IMG_6018[1]Carol is just one of those people who lights up a room, someone who never seems to take herself to seriously and always finds something funny to talk about. She was in fine form today and started the conference with a laugh.

Then came the keynote speaker, a veteran agent named Peter Rubie, who was funny in the way only the English can be funny. He noted that the best stories are about people, not plot, that this is (and will always be) a subjective business (saying that some people love caviar, but he hates it, so no matter how great that caviar is, he’s not going to like it at all), and that procrastination and not actually writing can be successful ways of actually writing. Hey, I told you he was English, they think differently, but my takeaway from his speech was this…

He told us to ignore what everyone tells you about writing. Have fun. Write what you love to write.

I loved to hear that because my next project is likely going to be a pure labor of love.

So,  tomorrow, the whole social media smack down. Wow, did I ever learn some cooooool stuff.

 

 

Cruising Sunny’s turf

Bell Harbor Marina, Seattle (Silk Questo photo)

Bell Harbor Marina, Seattle (Silk Questo photo)

Silk’s Post #95 — Our summer cruise down the Puget Sound to Seattle this year is immersing me in the setting of the book I plan to finish over the next few months. Re-visiting the haunts of my heroine, Sunny Laine, is plunging me back into the story I started in our 5 Writers challenge in 2012, but never finished. After nearly a year in the bottom drawer, Catch and Release (working title) is back on my desktop.

A couple of days ago, we sailed the sinuous length of Whidbey Island’s west shore, past the beaches Sunny loves to stroll, past the bluffs where she goes to watch the sunset, past the community where her crazy family lives, past the bridge where … but let’s not give away too much here.

I do have to keep a few surprises to myself, for now.

Tomorrow we begin a 5-day stay at the Bell Harbor Marina, just three blocks from Seattle’s famous Pike Place Market. It’s about as close to a major city downtown district as a yacht harbour can get. There, I’ll be scouting locations for the book’s scenes. Capitol Hill, where Sunny lives. Washington University, where she studies law. Belltown, where she hunts for … but I’m getting ahead of myself again.

I’m looking forward to soaking up as much of Sunny’s world as I can (without turning our whole summer vacation into a fact-finding mission), knowing I’ll need to come back in late fall when the book’s action takes place. Seattle in late November will be a different world from Seattle in high summer. A much darker world, as befits the plot.

When it comes to writing an authentic setting, there’s nothing quite like being there. (Living there is even better.) When you read James Lee Burke’s New Orleans, or Michael Connelly’s Los Angeles, is there any doubt that the writer has the setting deep in his bones? These living, breathing settings are not simply backgrounds against which action takes place. They are more like characters in the story, with a heartbeat all their own.

Yet fantastic settings have been created by authors who never set foot in the place they’re writing about. Obviously, historical novels are set in places and times that can never be experienced again, except through research and the imagination. Fantasy and sci-fi stories often are set in places that exist only in the mind – worlds that the author literally has to build. I marvel at the skill of writers like Diana Gabaldon and Jack Whyte who transport us to vivid historical settings. I’m in awe of fantasy masters like J.R.R. Tolkien, George R.R. Martin and J.K. Rowling who have imagined worlds so vast and detailed that they take on a life of their own. And even readers who don’t delve deeply into the sci-fi genre are transfixed by greats like Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury, who invented their own cosmos.

I’m starting with a more modest goal: to see and feel real places through the eyes of a made-up character who’s different in age, temperament, background, experience, wants and challenges than myself. That seems like a pretty tall order already.

And then I’ll be looking for some beta readers who really do know the settings intimately. What gaffes might a reader who lives in the actual setting find? Will there be local expressions and shorthand names for local landmarks that I’m blissfully unaware of? Did I get the food right? The weather? The character of the neighbourhoods? Ethnic mix? Local transportation habits? Dress codes? How about longstanding local tensions, or points of pride? It only takes one tone-deaf sentence to reveal to a reader who really knows a place that the writer … doesn’t.

Real “local knowledge” shines through (even if the place is imaginary). When you read a book whose setting rings with authenticity, it’s a transporting experience. You’re there. You can see, hear, smell, taste and feel it.

Now, there’s no shortage of advice for writers on the subject of settings. Plenty of how-to books and articles and workshops. But for me, the most important thing about a great, authentic setting is that it’s not just a place. It’s a whole culture. A world that’s specific and unique, and at the same time full of the diversity that makes the real world … real.

Some writers are terrific researchers. Others are blessed with soaring imaginations. Creating a memorable setting takes both skills in spades. It’s a challenge I’m looking forward to with enthusiasm – and not a little trepidation.

And I’m open to suggestions! How do you research, conceive, imagine and polish your settings?

Back home to the Surrey briar patch

5 writers members at SIWC 2010 with James Scott Bell and Carolyn Swayze

This weekend, the 5 writers join the hundreds of other aspiring writers – and the generous agents, editors, publishers and bestselling authors who support us – at our favourite annual literary get-together: the Surrey International Writers’ Conference.

Why do we love Surrey? Well, like B’rer Rabbit and the briar patch, we were born and bred here, so our brave critique group members know no fear at SIWC. Not at our blue pencils. Not at our pitches. Not even at SIWC Idol. It’s all part of the learning curve – and besides there’s a very nice bar where we can always drown our sorrows when necessary.

Three of us at SIWC 2009 with writing buddy Jo Cooper

Here at the event that’s been called “the best writers’ conference in North America” by presenters and participants alike, we get to take master classes with the best of the best, like authors Jack Whyte, Hallie Ephron, Michael Slade and Robert Sawyer. We get to pitch top agents like Don Maass, Nephele Tempest, Jill Marr and Dean Cooke. We get to learn from great editors, film industry professionals, social media experts and writers in all genres (far too many to mention here, but it’s a weekend full of awesome talent).

So how did our writing group start? A few years ago, our group’s founder (and now famous bestselling author!), Sean Slater, decided to cherry-pick some likely co-conspirators from among the local writers he met at SIWC to form a critique group. Since that time, there have been a few changes in membership, including Sean’s “graduation” to the big leagues, but the spirit of mutual support is still alive and well.

Sean’s first published crime novel in his Jacob Striker series was The Survivor (2011, Simon & Schuster), which was nominated for the Arthur Ellis Award for Best First Novel. It was translated into multiple languages and has sold like hotcakes in Canada, Great Britain and Europe. His first success was quickly followed by a second Jacob Striker outing, Snakes & Ladders, and Sean now awaits the publication of book number three. Oh, and did we mention that Sean is also a police officer who managed to establish himself front-and-centre on the bookshelves of several countries while holding down one of the world’s toughest jobs?

Sean, you’re our hero.

And fortunately for our group of 5 writers (the ones who have not yet been published), Sean still acts as our informal advisor, provides inspiration, and came up with the kick-ass idea of having us all write brand new novels to a deadline – triggering this 5 Writers 5 Novels 5 Months madness.

Gee, thanks, Sean. We think.

Seriously, though, Sean was right. After a couple of years critiquing each others’ works-in-progress in 30-page monthly increments (and producing several completed first draft novels along the way), the 5 writers needed a shake-up. We all love to write, but we’ll love getting published even better. This game is not for the passive. We needed to kick it up a notch … demand more of ourselves … re-kindle that fire in the belly that makes you uncomfortable, keeps you up at night, pushes you to do more than you ever thought you could. Yessirree. The 5 writers challenge is all that and more.

Paula and Joe with our muse at SIWC 2010

The question is: will we survive it?

(Note that Sean is a very generous guy, and readily shares his experiences with aspiring writers. Visit his website, www.seanslaterbooks.com, not only for the latest on his novels and his soaring career, but also for advice on getting published and other writing challenges.)

But back to SIWC. For those of you who might be reading this blog while attending the conference, we’d love to hear from you. Tap us on the shoulder if you see one of us. Leave a comment on our blog and tell us what you think. And by all means follow us as we slog and blog our way forward to “The End” by our self-imposed deadline of February 5, 2013.

Karalee, Helga, Silk and Paula at SIWC 2010 Idol

And even though the 5 writers are, at this moment, still unpublished wannabes – like many other SIWC attendees – we offer our own advice from our writing group experience. Look around you. Are you seeing some of the same faces at all the workshops you attend? Introduce yourself. You may be talking to a fellow writer who can become a friend, an inspiration, maybe even a member of your future critique group. Having the support of a like-minded, and demanding, group really does help spark the courage needed to take on both creative risks and crazy commitments.

We hope all who attend SIWC 2012 really do take away the courage, inspiration and commitment needed to be a better writer. A published writer. We want to sincerely thank all the organizers, the volunteers, and the mentors who share their knowledge and time with us at this wonderful conference.

Write on!