SiWC 2015: Some Helpful Craft Psychology

Surrey International Writers’ Conference was amazing this year!  I met many wonderful authors and went to many amazing talks on things like the nitty gritty of the publishing side of the biz, and how to not fall into an unending well of depression brought on by improperly setting up the psychology around your writing career.  You know, keepin’ it casual.

It was very refreshing to hear more about the psychology of writing.  I have known for a long time that relying on external sources for motivation and validation is a mistake- so too is expecting to feel like you’ve “made it”.  So then what do?  How act?  Mongo just pawn in game of life!

Well for starters, I am working on building my own network.  I have a writing group, but I need to take charge and make it happen more often.  Building a group of trusted writers takes time and tons of effort, but it seems like a solid way to have a supportive environment in which to practice the craft.

Next I am going to celebrate more things.  It can’t be 15 years of work and then a single day of jubilation at seeing my book on a shelf.  It just can’t be that.  Why did I think that was a good way to go.  *rolls eyes at self*  SO the solution is to focus more on the journey, and celebrating the little steps along the way!

For instance, celebrate getting rejection letters.  They are proof that you submitted!

Celebrate finishing something.  Want to celebrate more often?  Bang out some short stories and treat cho self to something nice.  Reenforce the behaviour you want to cultivate!

I made a list of things for me to celebrate upcoming:

  • Announcing a publisher (SOON I SWEAR TO GOD)
  • Handing in the final draft
  • Getting the proofed MS to review and handing it off
  • Getting the back blurb
  • Getting any cover quotes
  • Submitting my author photo
  • When it goes to print
  • When it comes out

They likely won’t be huge celebrations, maybe just a meal out.  The point is to mark them and continue to support myself by acknowledging my successes.  If I’m only planning on having one big thing to look forward to, then what?  I will be looking to the next thing?  So like, ONE good day a year?  Naw bra.  I want many little things to be happy about.  I want to feel good about this process.

Also I need to get better at waiting for things that I have literally no control over.

In the mean time: more writing!

Good luck to everyone doing NaNoWriMo this year!  Crank out that word count.

Pic + video unrelated.

 

Cheers.

Heidi out.

What Makes Agents Stop Reading (SiWC), and We Have a Winner!

First off, congrats to Phillipa, the winner of my first ever book giveaway!

Thanks to everyone who entered.  I will be doing another one soon, and you’ll have another chance to win then, by commenting here, on Reddit, and my Facebook page.  🙂

And now, more notes from SiWC!  This time I’ll be taking a look at their wonderful “Surrey International Writers’ Conference IDOL”.  Basically, it’s four people skilled in the art of rejecting authors, and one person who reads.  What do they read?

Everyone is invited to submit the first page- ONLY the first page- of their manuscript.  It’s blind and it’s stark and brutal and beautiful; the words have to do the work, there’s no preamble, no explanation, no baggage of any kind to go along with them.

Here are the rules: if one of the four judges raise their hand, the reader keeps reading.  But if a second judge raises their hand, the reading stops, and the judges explain why they stopped it.

If they get to the end with one or zero hands raised, they also talk about it.

It’s absolutely fabulous.  Riveting.  There were some amazing first pages mixed in with the mediocre and the just plain bad.

To give you some context, the judges were:

Michelle Johnson, founding agent of Inklings Lit.

Nephele Tempest, an agent at The Knight Agency.

Patricia Ocampo, an agent at Transatlantic.

Bree Ogden, agent with D4OE Lit.

And the reader was the illustrious Jack Whyte, author of such novels as The Camulod Chronicles, The Knights Templar Trilogy, and The Bravehearts Chronicle, and owner of one of the most magnificent voices I’ve had the pleasure of hearing.  I would have listened to him read a phone book.  But instead, he kept me captivated with stories of every kind, his sonorous Scottish accent lulling me into that wonderful state of “I’m listening, please, never stop.”

So that’s our setup.  Four amazing women in the industry waiting to blind judge the first words, sentences, and, if the writer was lucky, the first paragraphs of as many first pages as they could get through.

Here’s why they stopped readings, peppered with reasons why Jack Whyte made it to the end of a page without the hammer coming down.

Please note- the first pages spanned every genre and tone, and going into the specifics of what they contained would not add to this; the reasons for stopping reading are universal.  I hope my notes are enough to give you an overall sense of why agents put work down in the first few sentences.  And as usual, this is a mix of the agents’ words and my own interpretations and additions.

x= complete stop, 1/2= one hand up, but made it to the end, and ✓= no hands raised.

x  too much happening- what is going on, we the reader cannot make heads or tales.

x  too boring, there’s no hook.

x  who is talking?  And why do we care about them?  (Not identifying your narrator or having a clear main character was a much-repeated reason to get the agents to stop the reading).

✓  pacing was great, and there was a good balance between setting and character.

✓  the voice was clear and captivating, there was an excellent balance of setting, character, all aspects; drew us in.

x  too much description, going nowhere.

x  there’s more to a story than beautiful imagery.  Wonderful writing, but flowery descriptions are not what draws people into the beginning of a story.

x  to local- super specific small town setting was a turnoff (so we need to set our stories in Anytown, USA?  Dang.).

1/2  (one hand raised, this first page barely squeaked past)  not much happening, nothing at stake, no conflict.  No reason to put it down, but also no reason to keep going either.

x  too much exposition- thinking about thinking, telling not showing, no action, the age of the narrator is inconsistent (the voice was inconsistent, giving the reader mixed impressions of the narrator), what is the conflict, and there were 2 typos ._.

x  cliché and lame, plus the implausibility of a 14 year old being in handcuffs, AND being able to pick them.

1/2  we’re lost; it’s interesting, but *what* is going on.  Confusing your reader is not the same as hooking them.

x  waking up (don’t start your story with your character waking up.)  (Seriously, don’t.)

1/2  good description but confusing- who is the protagonist, who is the narrator; beautiful, but what is the story?  Sometimes it’s useful to flip the first chapter, putting the end at the beginning, to draw the reader into the story (the setup comes after drawing them in).  Telling not showing…

1/2  all backstory and repetitive writing.  Varying sentence structure was great and switching up what the sentence is about (switching between character, description etc).  Cliché opening line was a turnoff.

x  descriptions galore, choppy, unrealistic depiction of emotion, unrealistic reactions.

x   waking up (don’t start your story with your character waking up) (seriously, don’t).

x  word usage- “lovers” and other sex specific words (this was an agent preference).  Trying to be clever- the writer getting in the way of the tone (see my previous post on how the author intrudes on the story).  The description doesn’t match the tone and content; huge disconnect between content and the voice.

x  a lot of telling, no showing

x  description of how someone travelled- who cares, and now we’re in another location.  We don’t need to know what airline they flew.  Rule of thumb for backstory: a little at the beginning, some in the middle, none at the end.

1/2  saying the same thing in several ways, get on with it.  Beautiful sentences, but telling not showing.  Whose story is it.

1/2  great voice but too many adjectives, cliché and poor word choice.

SO!  That is the list of commentary I took down as the judges meted out their sentences on those authors lucky enough to have their first pages drawn for the reading (it was random, and no, mine was not one of the lucky to be eviscerated evaluated, which is a shame, because none of the others started off the way mine did, and it would have been lovely to hear what they thought!).

Hope others find this helpful.  I surely did, and it I was glad to have had the opportunity to hear this raw and unfiltered look into what gets an agent hooked enough to want more.

Several of those writers whose work made it to the end were asked to approach the agents afterwards.  One of them was Russel, a young man whose story of a jester on stage absolutely captivated the room.  When Jack Whyte looked up at his audience and found us spellbound, and we realized there was no more to the story, there was an audible reaction from the crowd.  We wanted more.  And so did two of the agents.  I went up to Russel afterwards and offered my congratulations; he hadn’t finished the manuscript, but he had talent enough to hold a room full of his peers.

What an opportunity!  This is one event at SiWC that I will attend every time.

Cheers.

Heidi out.

P.S. It’s the last day of Aaron’s (well funded) Kickstarter campaign for a superior Spirograph!  Check it out and join the fun!

MATHEMATICAL!

SiWC Post 1: Power Editing with Robert Dugoni, and a Book Giveaway!

This past weekend was mega busy, and oh so fun.  I volunteered at the Surrey International Writers’ Conference, and worked my butt off for them.  In exchange, I got to pseudo-attend the conference.

I went to a masterclass, panels, and talks, and met some amazing people.  I’m going to do several posts on SiWC, because trying to fit it all in to a single post would be madness.  Just like trying to fit a whole year’s worth of writerly-networking and craft-discussion into a single weekend.

So!  Before I give out my notes from the Power Editing Masterclass, do go check out Robert Dugoni.  He was an excellent speaker, and in addition to giving me some things to think about, he managed to sell me on checking out his books.  (You can also have your chance to check out his books, courtesy of me!  Check out my note at the end of this post about winning his book!)

Onwards!

Please note that this is a mix of Robert Dugoni’s talk and my own opinions.  I made bare-bones notes, enough to trigger thought processes in my own mind, so what you’re about to read is a mishmash of his teachings and my experiences.  It ended up being more about story structure than editing, but it’s all relevant.

Also note that these are notes from a masterclass– this is not day 1 writing.  I’m not going to explain some of these terms.  You can look them up!  🙂  It’s still pretty approachable.

My brain had a little trouble right off the get go.  He mentioned that he’d done 14 drafts of one of his novels.  FOURTEEN DRAFTS.  This was one of those wonderful (read: terrifying) moments when I wondered “Am I doing it wrong?”

I knew some writers (myself not among them) wrote many drafts.  But FOURTEEN!  I tend to write one novel, re-write certain sections of it, and edit the crap out of it.  But I also outline beforehand… People that write a lot of drafts tend to be pantsers (they write by the seat of their pants, without much outlining).  If you plan it out, you know where it’s going, and thus don’t need to rewrite the darn thing so many times.

Once I got over that little factoid, I got right into:

Where the author intrudes on the story.

1) Opinion

Inserting your opinion into the work will bring the reader out of it.  Your opinion can come in the form of narrative judgement or even in the opinions of your characters.  This is difficult, because characters need to have opinions; convincing the reader that it makes sense in the context of the character is imperative if they’re to believe that it’s not yours.

2) Info Dumps

Insert information into conversations, naturally, so it’s not just unrelated information.  Sure it’s great to do your research, but you’ve got to get it into the story in a way that doesn’t jar the reader out and scream “LOOK AT ALL THE RESEARCH I DID”.

3) Biographies

No one introduces themselves and gives their life story.  Give characters information over time, naturally.  And don’t give information on characters that don’t matter or that we’ll never see again.

4) Flashbacks

Flashbacks are tricky.  Chronology works well to help story structure, and when you mess with it, things are bound to get ugly.

Basically, get your info across through your dialogue.

Appeal to core motivations: fear, love, wrath, envy, lust, greed- if it’s a deadly sin, you can use it.  People will identify with your character motivation if it’s universal.

High stakes: make the story personal to your character.

At the climax (the failure of the quest, followed by the triumph), remind the reader: what is at stake?

What is the physical journey?

What is their motivation?

What is the public stake?

What happens in the world, for other people, as a result of the quest?

What is the personal stake?

What happens to our character, personally, as a result of the quest?

But I’m way ahead of myself.  Let’s talk about

The Beginning.  

Do 5 things in the beginning.

1) Set the tone.

The reader should get a good feel for how the rest of the book is going to go.  What kind of story are you telling?  Is it funny?  Grave?  Who is telling it?  Let them know what they’re in for within the first few pages.

2) Introduce the protagonist.

Who’s quest is this?  Who are we rooting for?  We need to know this right off the bat.

3) Create empathy for your characters.

We want to identify with characters.  As writers, we need to give our audience reasons to like our protagonist, to want to go on a journey with them.

4) Hook the reader.

Get ’em invested.  You need to communicate that this story is worth their time, and you do that by hooking them with the most exciting, most pertinent part of the story.  Why are you telling this particular one?  Why should the reader care?  Get them interested.

5) The first sentence poses a question, and early on, a story worthy quest is set up.

The following five questions can be used to describe any story.

Who?

What?

Where?

But when…

What stands in the way of their goal?

Let’s try it out.

Alan Grant is a palaeontologist who is invited to Isla Neblar to vet a new dinosaur theme park.  But when the attractions break free from their enclosures, he must help the others on the island traverse the facility and escape from the once extinct predators.

Who? Alan Grant. What is he?  A palaeontologist.  “But when”? Got it.  And of course, the dinosaurs are in the way of his escape.  Easy!  You can boil down any movie or book into these five points and get the basics of the story across.  It’s what makes or breaks elevator pitches as well.

We are at the end of the first page of my notes.  Good job!  Have a silly picture to give your noodle a break.

Ok, let’s get back to it.

1) Senses: appeal to them all to set the scene.  Put your reader there.

2) Goal: ever present.  Each scene is about realizing the goal, or about revealing character.

3) Obstacles: Escalating.  Each one reveals a new character trait; don’t show your character overcoming the same kind of obstacle over and over, challenge them in different ways each time.

4) Conflict.  Always conflict.

5) The final words of a chapter raise a question to keep the story moving, keep the pages turning.

On to The Middle.

The middle= the crossing of the threshold —> the climax.

Here is where we find out

1) Whose story is it?

2) What’s the through line of your characters?

3) How are they to achieve their goal?

4) Who helps them achieve it?

5) Who hinders them?

Which brings us to

The End.  

You must fulfil the promise, the promise you made the reader at the beginning (a story worthy quest, a character they want to follow).

The end must be completely inevitable, but unexpected.

The end must be satisfying.

The end has one more big obstacle.

Let’s talk about twists:

A twist is either an escalation, or a revelation. A twist is inevitable, yet unexpected.

There can be a twist of:

Character (like in the Wizard of Oz, the twist with ‘the wizard’)

Awareness (like in Planet of the Apes, when he realizes where he is)

Complexity (like in The Game, how everything was much more complex than anyone in the story or the audience realized)

Cleverness (like basically all of Sherlock)

Danger- the peril isn’t what we/they thought it was, it’s much, much worse, or different.

In the end, no new forces may be introduced, and no new characters.

When you’ve got all that (you did get all that, right?), then:

Go through scene by scene.  Ask yourself, do you need it?  Does it a) move the story forward or b) reveal character?

Raise a question with the first sentence of every scene.  We spend so much time on our first sentence, our first page; make every start of a scene that important.

If it can be presumed, it can be cut.  You don’t need a whole ton of description for mundane things.  He picked up the cup of water and took a sip.  No!  He took a sip of water.  There’s tons of actions that just don’t matter- cut them.

Readers’ emotions mirror the characters’ emotions.  If the protagonist cares, the reader will care.

Describing clothes: let details be revealed in motion.  Movement/action= active.

Her hair was red, her eyes were green.  No no no!  

Her red curls bounced behind her as she ran into the room; her green eyes darted from the gun on the floor to the knife in Robert’s hand.

And now one of those points that gets made that blows your mind (at least, it blew my mind, particularly because it has effected me and I didn’t realize it):

Secondary characters can be more interesting because main characters are too much like us.  My first novel’s protagonist IS too much like me.  And who did I pick to follow for the second book in that series?  A much more intriguing secondary character.

My notebook has a word that stretches the entire width of the page after that note…

DDDDDAAAAAAAYYYYYYYYYYYYYYUUUUUUUUUUUMMMMMMMMMMMMMMM

Looking at character development: just one step up the ladder is enough.

1) The character cares only about themself.

2) The character cares about 1 other.

3) The character cares about a group.

4) The character cares about a community.

5) The character cares about all.

You can have character growth that doesn’t involve them becoming a saint.  Just one step up in this little hierarchy is enough to show development.

You did it!  You got to the end!  That’s it for that class.  It’s all over the place, I know… Hope you found it useful.  I sure did.

Or if you were more like

then I thank you for stopping by nonetheless.  Sorry for the technical post; I hope other writers find it helpful!

And now dear readers, I offer you a chance to win a book!  The first book in Robert Dugoni’s David Sloane series, The Jury Master, could be yours!  Just leave a comment below, or head to Reddit and comment in this thread in /r/books.  If you do both, I will count you in for two entries!  I will draw one person at random in one week (on Wednesday, November 6th), and I will contact you for your details.  And then you will have the first book in this thrilling series!

I will congratulate the winner in next week’s post.  And if you don’t win this time, I’m planning on doing more of these, so you’ll have more chances with other great books.  🙂

Next up: Surrey International Writers’ Conference Idol: Crushing Hopes and Dreams in front of Hundreds of People for Fun and Profit!  (j/k it was actually really useful, interesting, and fun!).

Thanks for reading.

Heidi out.