Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Surrey International Writers' Conference - Notes Posted

I posted my notes from the 2008 Surrey International Writers' Conference over on the Compuserve board. If you want to see them, navigate to the message here. You don't need to be a member to read, only to reply to a message.

One of the things that often happens at conferences is that speakers recommend various books, websites, blogs...that sort of thing. Below is a list of websites of interest to writers, recommended by Surrey presenters, in no particular order:
A blog where Janet Reid reviews queries and makes recommendations. She’s got a huge backlog, so don’t expect to see yours anytime soon, but a great place to scroll through and see what works and what doesn’t.
Social networking site that centers around updating and commenting on each other’s status.
Don Maass’s seminars

Zoomii books
A virtual bookstore for Amazon books. Displays the books on bookshelves, categorized by genre and bestsellers. Click through to purchase through Amazon.

Sarah Lovett
Articles about the writing process.
Video footage of great speakers talking about a variety of topic. There is a series on Master Storytellers. Recommended by Vicki Pettersson.
Rob Sawyer’s website. Look down sidebar for section on “How To Write” for his writing columns.
Author book promotion service.
Blog about book marketing

I'll post the short list of book recommendations from this year in the next day or so. Enjoy!

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Surrey International Writers' Conference - Day Four

Ahhh...I've had my afternoon nap and now feel ready to face the rest of the day at the Surrey International Writers' Conference.

Reflect on This: At our forum party last night I was talking to Rachel Vater, agent extraordinaire. I asked her how many new clients she takes on each year. The answer, 8-10. 8-10 clients ONLY in a year. So, if a typical agent is getting 500 - 1,000 queries a month, 6,000 - 12,000 queries a year, and out of that hoard, they are only signing 8-10 new clients, imagine the chances of any ONE agent selecting your query, and then manuscript out of their pile. This just highlights that not only does your novel need to be well written, and you need to develop a really wonderful query letter, but that you need to really persevere when querying agents. In order to be selected by a particular agent, you need to be in their top 10 picks of the entire year. But if not this agent, then another. It may just be that they have their picks for the year.

Maybe this doesn't come as a revelation for anyone else, but for me it really highlighted just how competitive this business is.

How was the forum party? Wonderful, as always. Thank you to Kathy Chung and everyone else who helped organize the event. Diana Gabaldon read a selection from a story she and her son, Sam, are working on for an anthology. If the snippet is any indication, Sam's writing is as entertaining as his mother's and the anthology will be well worth buying. Michael Slade also read from his current book, Crucified. This is his take on a DaVinci Code style book, with puzzles and locked rooms. I loved hearing about his research, particularly on crucifixion. I won't describe it here. Let's just say Michael is a bit of a gory writer. Not my thing, but he is a riveting oral story teller and I always enjoy listening to him talk.

So, what did I learn today?

Donald Maass - Fear in Fiction:
This morning I went to Don Maass's Fear in Fiction session. Don's classes are wonderful because, no matter what his topic, he always makes you come up with new ideas to make your book stronger. Perhaps he ought to switch to weekly podcasts. Although his emphasis was on thriller and horror books - books that make you stay up all night with the lights on out of fear, the focus was really on creating believable villains. The thing that makes villains scary is that they are able to accomplish what we might otherwise consider unbelievable. Think your local shopping mall is safe from terrorists? Now, write a villain that eliminates all those improbabilities and makes the attack believable. THAT is what creates fear in fiction.

As always, Don offered an exercise. These are always more effective when your sitting in a room and have nothing else to do but sit there and think about his questions (he leaves VERY LARGE empty periods of time for you to think about what he's just asked). Even if you don't have an immediate answer, after about 5 or 10 minutes of sitting there thinking about his questions, something always comes (testament to the power of boring your muse into action). So, the exercise today is to answer the questions: What is the most unlikely or improbably event in your story? Why wouldn't this happen in the real world? What makes this event unbelievable? Now, ask yourself this another 20 times.

Once you have your list of 20 reasons why the event wouldn't happen, or your antagonist couldn't or wouldn't do what he did, start finding explanations or strategies to get around these obstacles.

Don's other advice: Make your monsters human. Villains who are so evil that they seem to be caricatures of evilness are not scary - they are unbelievable. Make them human - give them human wants, desires, opinions, daily activities and they seem more real and, ultimately, scarier.

Show and Tell, by Robert Sawyer
I attended this workshop not because "show, don't tell" is a new concept, but because the description included a promised discussion of when telling can be used effectively. Mr. Sawyer provided many good examples (an entire handout) of converting "telling" into "showing". Always good to get new ideas. Here is a short list (without discussion) of when telling can be effective:

  • Very brief instances of conveying backstory
  • Bridge over boring, no tension activities (a drive to the airport). Transitions.
  • Descriptions to provide information the reader needs to know, now. For example, if we need to know the room has a fire-escape because we'll need it soon, then include it. Otherwise, there is no need to include it in a description of the room. Readers will provide their own details. Writer's don't need to stage the scenery.
  • Move tension along in quicker scenes with a fast pace (showing takes longer than telling)
  • Briefly set the scene

How do you convey important information - for example in a legal thriller, or medical thriller, or historical? You have an interesting character telling another character who needs to know! WHEN THEY NEED TO KNOW IT. (Where is that fire escape? It's right there! Now go!)

That's all for now. I'll post some interesting links provided by presenters, as well as book recommendations from presenters next week. In the meantime, stop reading blogs and go write!

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Surrey International Writers' Conference - Day Three

Wow! I can't believe how fast this conference is flying. Only a half-day left and that's it. :(

While attending the sessions at Surrey International Writers' Conference is informative, probably the best part of the conference is talking with other writers, discussing what we're all writing, and reflecting on our own writing.

I started the morning with a session called The 90-minute Novel, by Sarah Lovett. I was only able to stay for about 45 minutes because I had my blue pencil, so I missed the guts of the presentation. Probably the most significant point Ms. Lovett made in the earlier portion of the session was that your MC should have a credo. Something they believe in absolutely. Something that defines them. What is your protagonist's credo?

Vicki Pettersson presented her famous from last year talk on "Get Over Yourself and Get Writing". One of the highlights (for me) of the conference, Vicki gives one a kick in the butt and makes you believe that you, too, can finish a novel, become a published novelist. I have pages and pages of notes from Vicki, but probably the most significant of what she said includes (1) set daily, weekly, monthly goals and then do whatever you have to do to make them happen. Life is not an excuse. This may be a word goal or a edit page goal, or whatever works for you. (2) Chart your progress. It doesn't have to be anything fancy. She uses and accounting notebook. (3) Beware of psuedo-writing activities (blogging, forum activity, attending conferences, reading about writing). The only thing that is really writing is WRITING! Vicki made a number of suggestions on what to try to keep yourself moving. The biggest point here was do what works for you, and have a box of tools you can fall back on when you get stuck.

The last session I attended was SIWC Idol. If you haven't heard about this, workshop participants can elect to turn in the first few pages of their manuscript (or you can just listen). The wonderful Jack Whyte read the pages (and who wouldn't love anything Jack read). This year 6 agents listened, and raised their hands at the point where they would stop reading if this was a submission (generally within the first 3 paragraphs). The strongest messages: Absolutely DO NOT start your story with someone waking up. Start with action and tension/conflict. Keep description to an absolute minimum.

Tonight is the Compuserve Forum Members party at Surrey and I expect it to be a late night. Two more sessions tomorrow and then....the Surrey International Writers' Conference is over for another year. Take care!

Friday, October 24, 2008

Surrey International Writers' Conference - Day Two

You are getting very sleepy....very sleepy...

Well, at least I am. It was a big, full day at the Surrey International Writers' Conference.

By all reports, the best session of the day was Donald Maass's Designing Venomous Villains. Unfortunately, I did not choose this class. Major boo's on me. I always regret skipping one of Don's sessions. He has a talent for really making your think about your own work. But I sometimes think "Oh, I've heard that person talk before. I should try someone new." Next year, I'll remember to stick with the tried and true.

The beautiful thing about Surrey is that if you find yourself in a session you don't really like, you can just move to a different session! People are coming and going all the time (to attend blue pencil and agent/editor appointments), so this shifting of locations can be done with some grace, although when half the attendees leave a half-hour into a presentation, the presenter may want to reconsider their syllabus.

The first session I attended was Bob Mayer's "Plot: The Events of Your Story". Bob Mayer is perhaps most famous for his collaborative writing with Jennifer Crusie (Don't Look Down, and Agnes and the Hit Man), but has an extensive list of books he's published under his penname Robert Doherty. I recently read "Lost Girls", one of his recent books, and thought it was great.

Anyway, I was disappointed that the class this year was identical (to the best of my memory) to a class on plotting he gave two years ago. There was too much material. He talks too fast. And it was difficult to really get anything out of it. However, he did remind me of The Conflict Box concept, which both he and Jenny Crusie talked about a few years ago, and I think also covered in their one year writing class online. The basic concept is that every scene must have conflict between a scene protagonist and a scene antagonist (may not be the overall story antagonist. For example, this could be the best friend!). The protagnoist and antagonist should have competing goals.

Bob used an example from Lost Girls to illustrate this concept. The protagonist's goal is to discover the kidnapper. The conflict is that the kidnapping continues. The antagonists goal is revenge. His conflict is that someone is trying to stop him.

The protagonists and antagonists goals should work against each other.

Try this on a scene or two. If the scene protagonist and antagonist's goals don't conflict, there may not be enough tension in your scene. I know I have some better examples of this at home. If anyone's interested, I can post them when I get back.

My second session was Dialogue by John Lescroart. Unfortunately, the bulk of this session was structured around audience questions and answers, which tend toward the more basic sorts of questions, so I left after about 1/2 hour and moved to a basic blogging 101 (too basic for me). THIS was the session I should have gone to see Donald Maass. The best tip on writing dialogue was "Skip right to the point." Don't waste a lot of time with "Hello, how are you" and the like.

If you're here on my blog, you likely know everything Darren Barefoot had to say in Blogging 101. However, he seemed a good a knowledgable speaker. Wish I had time tomorrow to attend his blogging and social networking talk tomorrow!

Third up was Characters in Action, by C.C. Humphreys. Lovely British accent! The major point of his talk was that characters have objectives and obstacles (see conflict box above - goal and conflict). This seems to be my theme for the day. Mr. Humphreys uses an acronym to demonstrate his principals: COMOCA - Characters, Objectives, Meeting, Obstacles, Creates, Action. He also mentioned "The Rule of Three" - obstacle, failure, obstacle, failure, obstacle, success. Don't make life too easy for your characters. And finally, he said "get in late and get out early." Try to cut out as much set up and closure as you can in your scenes. Get right to the point (where the scene really starts), and finish immediately when the conflict for that scene is resolved.

It's all about the conflict.

Sessions were followed by dinner, followed by a night owl session led by Michael Slade and a re-enactment of an Old Time Radio Show! Michael slade is a storyteller extraordinaire, and accompanied by a cast including Anne Perry, Diana Gabaldon, Jack Whyte, kc Dyer, and others, they re-enacted two famous radio plays. Very fun!

Too tired for the bar tonight. Last night in the bar we were joined by Rachel Vader (agent), and a crowd of members from the Compuserve Writer's Forum. Surrey is such a great place to meet people, talk about writing, and just absorb the atmosphere. Can't wait for tomorrow!

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Surrey International Writers' Conference - Day One

It's day -1 at the Surrey International Writers' Conference. The regular conference does not start until tomorrow (I still have 10 minutes until tommorrow!), but today was Master's Classes. Since I come so far, I always try to attend both Master Class sessions. This year, I chose Janet Reid's Query Roulette and Don Maass's The Tornado Effect. Both good picks this year!

A Master's Class is 3 hours long (as opposesd to the 90 minute sessions on Friday and Saturday, and 75 minutes (if I remember right) on Sunday.

Janet Reid's class was outstanding. There were 18 registered participants, and we all had to submit query letters in advance. She went through each query letter in detail, on an overhead, pointing out what worked and what didn't. We then spent the last hour trying to fix what we'd written. I think if she'd rated them best to worst, mine might have been on the bottom. She probably spent the shortest time of all on it, and had neither anything outstandingly wonderful or horribly awful to say. It was uncommentable. Ah well... I did learn a lot anyway.

Janet had 6 tips for "A Good Query Letter"
(1) Short - 1 page is best. 2 pages is okay, but probably means there's something you could cut out. 250 words maximum.
(2) Readable (lot of white space. Spaces between paragraphs)
(3) Don't forget to include your contact information
(4) Tells, in 5 sentences, what the book is about (no more than 50 words)
(5) Include the word count (not the page count)
(6) Surprise the agent in a good way

For #4, the exercise we did was to write 5 sentences (no more than 50 words). Introduce the main character and setting (if necessary). Explain the problem and the choice(s) the main character must make - what's at stake. (PERIOD)

No set up. No backstory.

It's harder than it seems!

Donald Maass - the Tornado Effect
Donald's workshops are always one huge, 3 hour, brainstorming session. You come out with a whole fresh perspective on your story, your writing, or a particular scene or character. Whatever it is, he really makes you think!

The Tornado Effect focuses on how to make one scene really shine. It's difficult to summarize his 3-hour sessions in a few paragraphs here. Don mostly asks open ended questions that set your brain on fire. But at one point, he summarized The Tornado Effect as a way to make a scene more dramatic by having the scene event impact more than one character. Whatever it is that is happening, show how or why it's important to multiple characters, and how each of those characters is changed in some way at the end of the scene. As a way to get to this, re-write the scene from several different points of view.

Well, it's officially "tomorrow" (12:01 am), and time for my head to hit the pillow. It was a great day! I'll post some about Surrey social life tomorrow, along with anything interesting I pick up at the workshops!

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Surrey - Sitting in an Airport Terminal

Somehow, not quite the same ring as "the railway station". Or maybe I'm showing my age. Anyone else remember that song - "Sitting in the railway station, got a ticket for my destination, oh..." Who sang that anyway?

Somehow I ended up with a four hour layover in Salt Lake City. Well, I know how. I originally had an earlier departing flight, that allowed me to connect earlier in Salt Lake and arrive in Vancouver around noon, instead of 4:00. It was the old bait-and-switch. Almost as soon as I booked my flight, I got a notice of flight changes which meant I wouldn't make my connection and so here I sit.

On the upside, my first flight was upgraded to first class, my first time. On the downside, I had an annoying "roommate" in first class (and what else can you call the space in first class, having spent my life riding with the peasants in couch). She obviously decided that extra space required sprawl - like the suburbs surrounding a major city. No less than 7 magazines drapped out of the seat pocket in front of her, bottled water, power bars, packs of tissues, an assortment of medications, etc... littered the arm rests between us, her leg brace (which I can feel some sympathy for) lay on the floor between our two seats, and her backpack squeezed under the seat in front of me! (Those "under seat" spaces in first class being taken up by motors to control seat positions - including leg rests! - leaving too little space for my full-size backpack.) But this meant that every time she needed something from her backpack (what more could she need?), she had to climb over me. Then she went to sleep, leaving me no escape without climbing over her legs (and the leg brace) because the drapping magazines blocked the little existing space between footrest and seat back.

Not feeling sorry for me? Okay. First class was nice.

So, I'm sitting here with my 4-hour layover, and remembering a Muse Exercise we did in April over on the Compuserve Books and Writer's forum, here. The exercise was to find someplace different to write - someplace you do not normally write. Write by hand (no laptops). Observe your surroundings for 5 minutes. Write stream of conscious for 10 minutes - focusing on sensory observations (sights, smells, sounds, emotions). Then review your writing, looking for tidbits of excellent description. Use those gems and write a scene .

I'm obviously not in the mood to be creative. My observations this time were lackluster. But then, with four hours to spare, I should be working on my novel and here I am blogging!

So, as a warm-up to Surrey, want to try it? Go someplace different to write. It doesn't have to be an airport! Your living room. Outside (in the nice fall weather might be nice). A coffee shop. On a bench at the park. Just someplace different. What do you see? Smell? Hear? Write about it. Did it feel different from your normal writing sessions? Did you come up with anything good?

How do you respark your creativity after a long break? I'm hoping this weekend will do it for me!

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Getting Ready for Surrey International Writers' Conference 08

So, exactly what does it take to leave one's family for 6 days? Well, if you're my husband, you pack your suitcase, give everyone a kiss, and off you go. (Okay, perhaps that is simplifying things. I'm sure there are things at work he must take care of too. )

I leave for Surrey International Writer's Conference in 5 days (if you count today. It's only a little past noon, so I guess that's fair).

  1. Complete assignments for new job. I'm now working 10-20 hours a week (depending on demand) from home. It's a great job so far, working for a former boss, doing health care insurance claim data analysis. The people are nice, very flexible, and extremely appreciative of everything I've done so far. But I'm home to take care of sick kids, etc... which there seems to be a lot of lately. Given 4 days of kids home sick this week, I'm behind by about 3 hours and need to make that up this weekend, plus work 6 hours Monday and Tuesday.

  2. Laundry. There's always laundry. I've already started 3 loads this morning. By my count, I've got 4 left.

  3. Grocery Shopping: I tried to pull out of the kids what they'd be willing to help cook this week. My daughter - cheesy hamburger (like sloppy joes with cheese wiz, served on a bun with tator tots on the side. I know, no self-respecting mother would ever serve this. It's one of those holdovers from my own childhood. ) My son - breakfast for dinner.

  4. Leave instructions for cooking meals (see above) and those Dear Husband agreed to cook. Heaven forbid anyone pay attention when I'm here, or open a cookbook!

  5. Speaking of instructions, I'll need to write out everything about who needs to be where and when. Not that it's any different from any other week, but, you know.

  6. Pack. Yeah! I've bought new outfits for Surrey. I don't know why I always feel the need to do this, but there's nothing to make one feel good and confident but something new and pretty to wear. I looked last night at a new blouse I bought and didn't notice until the tags were gone that it's dry clean only. Sigh. But it's pretty, so I'm keeping it! I also got a hair cut and color. Hair is too dark (didn't I say "my natural but currently faded strawberry? It's pretty much auburn.) And too short. Guess that's what I get for my moment of vanity.

  7. Write?! I have that editor blue pencil appointment (with Lisa Rector-Maass). I plan to take the piece I wrote while in Colorado with Tricia. My beginning. I periodically love it and hate it. I know it needs more polish. I'm not sure that's going to happen before Surrey. I was going to cancel the appointment, but Tricia (thank you) reminded me the purpose of the blue pencil appointment is to get feedback and advice, not to present something perfect, so...

  8. Finish bookmarks. I did these a few years ago to pass out at the conference and it was fun! ere are two of my favorites from this year:

  9. Load Kodak software on my laptop. Laptop! Hurray! Dear Husband won a laptop in his company raffle to give away some of the old laptops they were replacing. So, it's not state-of-the-art or anything, but it is a laptop! I'm hoping to post pictures of Surrey along with my blog updates (again, all depending on web access from the hotel).

I'm sure I'll think of more, but actually, it doesn't look quite so overwhelming, now that I've written it all down. Anyway, hope to talk to you next week from Surrey!

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Surrey International Writers' Conference

At this time next week, I'll be residing in Surrey (near Vancouver), BC, Canada - visiting with old friends and getting ready for the Surrey International Writers' Conference.

Thursday is Master Class day, and I'm attending two. Query Roulette - by Janet Reid, and The Tornado Effect, by Donald Maass. (Why is it whenever you leave one of Donald's classes, you feel like you've been run over by a tournado?!)

Anyway, in my new, new commitment to get back to posting regularly on my blog, I plan to post every day from Surrey (assuming my internet connection works!). So, stop back and check in for my tip of the day, and a report on the sessions attended and the fun goings on.

And to all my friends from year's past who won't be attending the conference this year (you know who you are...Tricia, Stephanie, Catherine, Linda, and anyone else I'm missing), you'll be missed -- LOOSERS!