Wednesday, October 31, 2007


Jaye's Blahg recently led me to read this article (and for the record, I have not once caught that girl twirling counter-clockwise; I even did some math to try to get my left-brain ascendant, but still she twirls clockwise.) This got me thinking about the experience of reading.

According to the list of left-brain/right-brain attributes given in the article, the act of reading--of studying shapes and comprehending them to be letters, words and sentences--is a left-brain activity. However, turning those words into a vividly imagined landscape, figuring out the unspoken emotional subtext of the characters, spotting symbolism and even just enjoying the story all appear to be right-brain activities.

I find this utterly fascinating! It seems like a fiction writer's goal is to get the reader's right-brain as deeply engaged in the act of reading as possible.

If you watch the videos in the aforementioned article, there's a really trippy performance by a man who had his corpus callosum (the communication pathway between the two hemispheres of the brain) severed to treat his epilepsy. The man focuses on a dot in the middle of a computer screen while the experimenter causes two images or two words to be flashed on the screen, one on either side of the dot. The man's right-brain picks up on the word or image on the left-hand side of the screen (seen by the left eye; the brain's hemispheres are wired to the opposite side of the body for some reason) and his left-brain picks up on the word or image on the right-hand side (seen by the right eye.)

When the man is asked what he saw, he claims to have seen the image his right eye (and thus left-brain, responsible for speech) saw. However, his left hand (connected to the right-brain) will draw a picture of what his left eye saw. The right-brain apparently can't spell out the word, but if the left eye saw a picture of the word "pan", then the right-brain will draw a pan.

Interestingly, both the right- and left-brains seem able to comprehend either a word or a picture, which tends to give lie to the list of right-brain/left-brain attributes in the article. The right-brain apparently can read, because the man's right-brain demonstrably did so in the video. So when you read fiction, and are vividly imagining the world depicted, which hemisphere of your brain is actually comprehending the words?

I'm sure the answer is that both sides are involved to a degree, but I really wonder if an MRI would show a different pattern of activity depending on whether a person is reading a novel or a scientific article. Would one hemisphere be noticeably more stimulated than the other, depending on the content of the reading? (Someone has probably done this study, but I'm too lazy to exercise my Google-fu right now. Maybe tomorrow; I'll let y'all know if I find anything.)

The other thing I wonder is whether a person whose corpus callosum has been severed can enjoy a novel normally. What if--and this is a nifty idea--what if the right-brain enjoys the novel but the person doesn't consciously know it? They might read an exciting passage, and feel their mood change, but honestly not be able to comprehend why it happened based on the words they just read. Analytically (i.e. according to the left-brain), one passage might seem no more or less exciting than any other, even while the right-brain is bouncing around with excitement because Big Tex just found out Lily-Mae had his baby fifteen years ago and never told him.

And here I am being frantically analytical myself and that dancer is still spinning clock-wise. My right-brain iz teh roxxorrz, apparently.

Understanding exactly what's happening in the brain when a person's imagination is fully engaged in a story could be extremely useful to writers. It might illuminate why certain techniques work better than others for hooking the reader's interest, and it might give us more diabolical tools in our quest to turn the reader into our page-turning zombie love-slave.

BRAINS!!! BRAAAAAINS!!! *droooool* LET ME HAVE YOUR BRAAAAAAIN!! (Both halves of it, please.)

(PS - Happy Hallowe'en!)

(PPS - Ooh! I just thought of something else:

When a child learns to read, they put together the sounds associated with certain letters and then try to figure out what spoken word--which they already know--is created by that collection of sounds.

When they get good at reading, however, they begin to recognise the word by its shape. That is to say, to the child's brain, it isn't a word anymore--it's a picture.

Maybe that's how the right-brain is able to read words (as demonstrated in the video). Perhaps it can attribute the same meaning to both a collection of lines depicting a drawing of a pan and a collection of lines depicting the written word "pan".

Again, I come back to wondering which half of your brain does the reading when you're in the middle of a novel that has completely slurped you into its imaginative landscape.)

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Surrey International Writers' Conference: Day 3

Last day at the conference! It was a compressed schedule, which started early, had two shorter workshops in the morning and none in the afternoon.

I went to two workshops I hadn't intended on going to. The first was "Query Letters That Work", presented by agents Mich@el B0urret, S0rche F@irbank, Eliz@beth Ly0n, Nephe|e Tempe$t and Cr!cket Freem@n. It was quite good, although I didn't learn much I didn't already know.

Things I heard there:

If you want to submit to The Knight Agency, note that when one agent rejects you, that should be considered a rejection for the whole agency. Nephe|e Tempe$t also said she likes queries personalized enough she can tell you did actually research her a little, and which that are short and read like the backflap copy of a book. 2-3 paragraphs is all she wants to see; Mich@el B0urret (not with the same agency) agreed with that.

Rules of thumb for multiple MANUSCRIPT submissions (as distinct from multiple QUERY submissions):

1) Yes, send your manuscript or partial to more than one agent at a time, BUT...

2) Let the agent know if the manuscript is already being read by other agents. (They did not say explicitly whether to inform agents retroactively that you've sent the manuscript to a new agent, but my sense would be that it's a good idea. The point is for the agents to know they have competition, so they can hurry if it's a manuscript they're pretty sure they want.)

3) Always let agents know if you get an offer from another agent. EITHER you want to tell them you've accepted the offer (so they don't waste their time reading your manuscript after it's too late) OR you want to tell them you have an offer, but are still interested in working with them, and then ask them to give you an answer one way or the other by a certain deadline (give them a few days to a week).

4) Resist giving exclusives on partials, since an agent with a partial still needs to read the full before they offer you representation anyway.

5) ALWAYS set a time limit on an exclusive (about two weeks is good).

6) If you can't give an agent (who wants one) an exclusive, because the material is already out with someone else, explain that fact to the agent and ask if they would like to see your material anyway. They often will.


The second workshop I went to was "Three Types of Tension" by D0nald M@@ss. It was easily the best workshop I went to at the conference and made me wish I'd gone to his other workshop as well. The session offered a practical "how to do it" look at adding tension.

Things I learned:

"Micro-tension" is writing that attempts to have tension in just about every sentence. The idea is to write so that the reader can't keep themselves from reading the next line, because the last line left them wanting to know more.

Mr. M@@ss noted there are three main types of writing in a novel:
1) Dialogue
2) Action
3) Exposition (shows what the character is thinking or feeling)

Adding tension to dialogue:
Increase the tension between the characters who are talking. They should challenge each other, argue, disagree, try to convince one another, etc. There should always be some question in the reader's mind as to who is going to come out the "winner" of the conversation.

For example, THIS:
A: "Why would anyone attack us?"
B: "Because we're rich."
A: "I suppose you're right."

could become:
A: "No one is going to attack us."
B: "As if you would know. We're rich, and that's enough."
A: "It's never happened before."

Another way to make dialogue tense is to have subtext. The characters say one thing, but the reader can tell those characters have more complicated feelings and thoughts lurking beneath the surface.

For example, "I love you" could be the text--the spoken dialogue--but the subtext might be "I'm terrified of losing you", or "Why are you so damned needy?", or "I'm tired of mimicking the affection we've lost."

Another thing to keep in mind is that while you can never have too much tension in a story, you do need to vary the pattern of it. Otherwise, the reader gets used to it and it stops having impact.

Adding tension to action:
You want the tension to come from within the characters, not from outside of them. That means adding emotions and thoughts to the action (rather than more blood and flying glass). However, Mr. M@@ss noted it is more effective to concentrate on the less obvious emotions and events because that sets your writing apart from a thousand other writers' work.

People are hyper-aware in moments of crisis and will notice odd things. By focusing on less obvious events in the action, you not only mimic that effect, you also create a scene for the reader that is distinct from similar scenes they've read in other books.

Moments of revelation often accompany a moment of crisis (e.g. your spouse walks out forever and your first thought is, "What a relief. I've hated him for years.") Again, you can mimic this effect and set your work apart from others' by including--not the most obvious emotional reaction--but the second, third or fourth most obvious reaction. Furthermore, the reader will be most effectively hooked by an emotion they didn't expect the POV character to feel at a moment like that.

For example, THIS:
Kyle stabbed Hanna in the heart. Blood spurted out of the wound and poured down her front. Kyle laughed in glee and stabbed her again.

could become:
Kyle stabbed Hanna in the heart. Her pupils dilated so sharply her blue eyes turned black. Embarrassment heated Kyle's face and he stabbed her again.

In particular, tension comes from contradictions, conflicting emotions, and emotions that puzzle the reader (without seeming utterly unbelievable, of course.)

Mr. M@@ss suggested the following as a way to reinvent your action scenes:

1) If the action was a film, consider which five or six "freeze-frame" images you could take from that film that would convey all the important elements of the action to another person.

2) For each freeze-frame, pick one non-obvious thing to notice in the scene.

3) For each freeze-frame, pick one non-obvious thought or emotion the POV character would have.

4) Rewrite the scene using just those non-obvious elements.

Adding tension to exposition:
To create tension, you want ideas in conflict and emotions at war within the POV character. They should not be chewing over what they already know or situations that already exist. It is unresolved emotions that keep the reader tense (and thus reading on to find out what happens next.)

For example, THIS:
Angela looked at her mother's now-delicate form. She couldn't believe the powerful woman of her memories could be reduced to such a wraith. Angela wished she could give back the strength her mother had once given to her.

could become:
Angela looked at her mother's now-delicate form. She couldn't believe the powerful woman of her memories could be reduced to such a wraith. Angela wished she could give back the strength her mother had once given to her, but she also ached for the woman to finally be dead.


So now SiWC is over. It was worth it, and I did learn valuable things (I even got up the nerve to walk up to agents and just chat.) I do feel invigorated and excited about the new knowledge, but I also feel solidly despondent. (Ooh, conflicting emotions... Does that make you want to read further down the page?)

I suppose this is natural. The point when you're most likely to feel crappy about your writing is the moment just after you've taken a step forward in your craft. As soon as you comprehend something new, you recognize a bunch of new flaws in your previous writing and hey-ho! The depression sets in.

No need for sympathy, however. I will bounce back from this shortly. :-)

(PS - Is post-conference funk normal? Has anyone else gotten this? Please tell me about your experiences.)

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Surrey International Writers' Conference: Day 2

Today was my "Goblin meets the publishing industry" day. I did go to a presentation in the morning, but I had to leave early for my "Blue Pencil Cafe" session (where a published author comments on your first three manuscript pages.) I went back to that presentation, but I don't feel like I got much from it, so I'll skip giving a detailed description.

The Blue Pencil Cafe session with Pe+er M0rew00d went very well. I'm second-guessing it because of what happened in my agent pitch later, but at the time, I was very pleased (PS - Mr. M0rew00d is a reallyreallyreally nice man; I'm looking forward to his presentation tomorrow.) The first comment he made was that he wanted to know what happened next in the story, and the second was that there was nothing in the pages he could poke holes in. I was delighted to hear both things, of course.

After lunch, I attended "SiWC Idol". This is where a panel of five agents (J@net Re!d, Kri$tin Nel$on, R@chel V@ter, Jen0yne Ad@ms and Cr!cket Pech$tein-Freem@n) listened while a presenter (Author J@ck Why+e and his wonderful Scottish accent) read the opening pages of the audience's manuscripts. The agents stopped him at the point when they would have stopped reading. Then they explained why.

They didn't get to my pages, which is both a disappointment and a relief, because the agent panel didn't even make it through the first page of most of the entries. It was great to hear the agents' reasons for why they were passing, however, as those were quite specific and well-justified. There were a few moments when the agents had conflicting opinions, but surprisingly few, given they all rep different genres.

The really cool part was that one author had their pages literally pounced on by J@net Re!d (she dragged them out of J@ck Why+e's hand) and was asked to come talk to J@net after the presentation. Two more authors also had either one or two agents perk up and ask to see more.

I skipped going to a final presentation, since I would have had to leave early for my agent pitch with R@chel V@ter anyway, and I was nervous. The session went well enough, although I wouldn't call it a success. Ms. V@ter was very nice and gave me specific comments about what was and wasn't working for her.

She didn't have any particular arguments with the writing, although she wanted more sense of place at the very beginning. The main problem was that she was really struggling to wrap her head around the plot. I sincerely hope some of that was due to her being tired after a day's worth of pitches (it was four o'clock), but I'll have to look hard at my query and first pages again. It was a bit distressing to watch her flipping back and forth between the query and the pages with a frown on her face. She didn't say anything particularly negative, but that's a clear sign something is wrong.

And after that, I went home to curl up in bed, read a book, and suck a chocolate bar or three. Tomorrow's presentations look very interesting, so I'm sure I'll be my chipper self again by then.

Oh! And one incredibly cool and random thing happened to me this morning. A complete stranger looked at my name tag and then said she was pleased to meet me--she "knew" me from from comments I've made on J@net Re!d and other agents' blogs. Isn't that wild? Hi, Brenda! *waves* You totally made my day, just by saying hello. :-)

Friday, October 19, 2007

Surrey International Writers Conference: Day 1

I'm back from the first day of the SiWC! I should mention that I registered for the scumby-cheapskate deal, which includes all the conference and none of the meals. This actually has turned out to be a bit of a disappointment, since the organizers do things to encourage networking at the meals, and I feel left out now. *pouts* As a result of me being a scumby-cheapskate, all you're going to hear about is the talks.

All agents, editors and writers mentioned herewith shall have their names altered by the in$erti0n 0f 0dd $ymb0l$, in order to prevent this entry showing up on a Google search of the person's name. I do this only because, despite not having anything particularly negative to say about anyone, I am going to just give my blunt opinions here. Too tired for tact tonight!

SiWc: Day 1

There's about 800 delegates and the mood is lively. The organizers and volunteers are perfect stars; they're all sweethearts and the conference seems faultlessly well-organized.

My "Blue Pencil Cafe" interview and agent pitch session are both scheduled for tomorrow. (Thank Viggo! I was so relieved they weren't today.) During the Blue Pencil Cafe, a published writer reviews the first three pages of your manuscript and comments on it. The agent pitch session is exactly what you think.

My Blue Pencil writer will be Pe+er M0rew00d, and my agent will be R@chel V@ter. Squeal! Both of these were my first choices, so I feel I've hit the jackpot. I'm also probably off the hook for doing a pitch; I've already got a query letter sitting in R@chel's slush pile, so I'll likely just chat with her about her agency, her tastes, the publishing industry, etc.; i.e. this will be my opportunity to network, rather than pitch.


There are only three presentation slots scheduled per day. My first one was with Jo@n J0hns0n, entitled "Writing the Unputdownable Novel". Jo@n was very entertaining, but I learned less from her than I would have liked. However, I did still learn a lot, and I consider it to be valuable information. She writes the kind of convoluted soap opera plots that make me laugh, but damn, she is good at making the pages explode with conflict. She seems to constantly be shoving her characters into situations where you can't see how they'll resolve the issue (e.g. woman 1 is in love with man 1, who is married to woman 2, who murdered woman 1's husband.)

Jo@n outlined eight things that can be used to keep the reader engaged (things that "hook") and suggested they be used heavily at the beginnings and ends of chapters. These things are:
1) Asking a question for which the reader wants to know the answer
2) Creating a crisis/threat/unsolvable problem
3) Anticipating a confrontation or clash between characters
4) Riveting action or compelling (unusual) behaviour
5) Anticipating what will happen when someone learns a secret (Jo@n says readers will happily plough through 400 pages just to see what happens when the hero finds out about the heroine's pregnancy.)
6) Setting up a contest, competition or bargain to be met
7) Forecasting a disaster that will occur unless...
8) Setting a deadline for a decision or some action (an ultimatum)


The second presentation (held after me and my fellow scumby-cheapskates ate our sandwiches in the hall) was with Bru(e H@le and entitled "Seven Secrets of Creating Suspense". It covered a lot of the same ground as Jo@n's talk, but contained a lot more useful information. It was also often hilarious; Bru(e is a very entertaining fellow.

His seven points are:
1) Character: Characters stick in the reader's mind longer than the intricacies of the plot do, so craft their personalities with care. Also, use your characters' personalities to increase the suspense level. One way to do this is to give the character a secret. Secrets have a way of worming their way out, and readers stick with the story to find out what is being hinted at.
(Also, when deciding what details of your character's personality to include in the book, choose those things that affect the narrative drive. Ask yourself:
- What will move this person?
- What will limit their action?
Those are the elements you must include. Everything else is gravy and may be omitted.)
2) Set the hook: Things that will catch and draw a reader in include:
- Humour
- Surprise
- Plunging midstream into the action
- Posing a question
- Foreshadowing
To hook someone, give them just enough information so that they have questions, but not enough information for them to get the answers.
A good writer should hook the reader again and again, particularly at chapter endings.
3) Up the "Uh-oh" factor: Add more danger, of any sort, provided that the danger is something the character cares about. (e.g. A shy person might be required to make a public speech. A ballerina might have her kneecaps whacked by crowbar.)
4) Thicken the plot: Complications (roadblocks) create suspense. So do unexpected twists where the plot goes off in a different direction (foreshadow these as necessary.)
5) Merrily misdirect: Jokes and twists in the plot both depend on misdirection. You create an expectation, and then, instead of fulfilling it, you turn it on its head.
6) Conceal and Reveal: Just give the audience enough information so they realize there is a secret, then reveal it slowly. The point is to build anticipation.
7) Take a Tip From Sinatra: Do It Your Way There is more than one way to accomplish suspense; do what works for you.


The third presentation I saw was "Agent Q & A", featuring Nephe!e Tempe$t, E!aine Spen(er (both from the Kn!ght Agency), Kri$tin Ne!$on and J@net R3id (from the F!neprint agency).

Oh, yes; before I continue, I was given a solemn task to perform at this conference and I have.

Dwight? I swear on the head of my CD-Rom drive (not having a child to swear upon the head of) that J@net R3id is NOT J3nny B3nt. J3nny is blonde; J@net is brunette. J@net wears glasses; J3nny does not appear to. The facial shape is different, the body shape is different. Sorry, fella; I think you have to kill that particular conspiracy theory. Ms. R3id is very funny, however. For the record, she totally could be Miss Snark (as has been rumoured); she seems warm-hearted and passionate, and she offered to read sample pages at the agent pitch sessions so long as the writers bringing them understood she would be utterly ruthless in critiquing them.

The agents covered a lot of topics and seemed to enjoy each other's company a great deal. I didn't learn a lot that I didn't already know, but I was amused. One thing they did cover that I found eye-opening was how to give a verbal pitch (such as everyone at the conference is being given the opportunity to deliver). Nephe!e noted that the greatest pitch in the world counts for nothing compared to the words on the page, and that at the end of the conference, she'll remember almost nothing about the books pitched to her. Thus, she suggested that if you're given 10 minutes to pitch to an agent, plan on pitching for 2 minutes. Spend the rest of the time asking good questions and developing a rapport with the agent. For her, the pitch tells her whether she would like working with you.

J@net suggested the three questions you should ask an agent to make sure they aren't a scammer or incompetent. The third one was the one I hadn't thought about.
1) What have you sold?
2) How long have you been in publishing and what did you do?
3) Where do you think my manuscript would sell?

If the answer to the third question is too vague, it tells you that the agent doesn't know what they're doing. If they say "Random House" instead of one of the sixty-odd imprints of Random House, head for the hills.

One other thing that struck me in this session is that Kri$tin Nel$on's fuzzy-wuzzy blog persona is a little misleading. I think she really is a truly nice woman, but she's also quite aggressive about her business. She was very open about the fact that, given she only sells about 10 books a year, she wants all those books to be six-figure deals. She won't take a book on just because she loves it; she described herself as "quite mercenary" in that regard.

She also noted her blog is not there for the benefit of writers; it's a business tool for her to promote her clients. She provides good advice to writers as the content, but the reason the blog exists is so she can post book covers and create buzz for her authors.

It's a perfectly reasonable rationale, but I was surprised nevertheless.


I am tired, yet buzzed, and I want to prepare more for my session with R@chel, so I'll wrap this up. There will be another update tomorrow! In the meanwhile, feel free to ask me to clarify anything here that didn't make sense (entirely likely, given how my brain feels), or to discuss the ideas of the presenters.

PS - Josephine? You're right; D0nald M@@ss is quite the cutie.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

B-Day Books | And She Pitched Over In a Dead Faint

The majority of my immediate family blasted into town this weekend, which is why work, blog posts, coherent thinking and the laundry are only getting done now. I had a great time, but it's amazing how much loved ones can tucker you out when they set their mind to it.

As a birthday present, my brother left behind two large boxes of books he doesn't want anymore. He did this for me once before and it was one of the best birthday presents I ever got, so I'm delighted the backlog on his shelves has prompted him to do it again. Yay! Books! My nightstand shall be stacked to the rafters with urban fantasy for the next while.

In other news? I'm going to my first writing conference next weekend. Hurrah!

And as part of that conference, I'm going to be meeting with an agent to give a ten minute pitch session.


A pitch. I'm supposed to pitch my book. To an agent. Do I have a pitch ready? NoooOOOooo... Do I know how to create a pitch? NoooOOOooo... Hoh-my-goodness.

Where to begin? Probably the same place I began the synopsis: create a list of the turning points, then add only the important details.

Then practise saying it all without stuttering, which is non-trivial, but still the easy part.

Have any of you done pitches to agents/editors? If so, what advice would you give?

If not, what--if you were the audience for a pitch--would you find most engaging? What would you want to hear about, and what would grab your interest? Conversely, what would make you snooze?

Friday, October 05, 2007

A Boing-No | Muse Under the Microscope

Hurrah! My query letters have arrived in New York!

i.e. I've already gotten an email rejection.

But the reason given was quite acceptable: "not taking new authors in this genre at this time." Yay! My ego lives on to fight again another day! *curtseys gratefully to Speedy Agent*

Although--I do hope that, somewhere in New York, some intrepid person is rummaging the unused SASEs out of literary agents' recycle boxes and steaming the stamps off for resale.

Now: shortly after my last post, I had an idea for another post. A meatier one. An interesting one.

Danged if I can remember what that idea was; I've been trying to recall it all week. So, rather than that presumably-brilliant post, I'm just going to wing it for you, here and now. Brace yourself: you're about to be subjected to the first thing that falls out of my brain.

Inspiration! Yes, what a fabulous idea!

I'm really curious about the science of inspiration. This study by Thrash and Elliot (2004) notes that little work has been done in the field. However, they note some interesting stuff in their paper. For example, they have this breakdown of the components of inspiration:
[I]nspiration has three core characteristics: (a) transcendence, (b) evocation, and (c) motivation (Thrash & Elliot, 2003). Transcendence refers to the fact that inspiration orients one toward something that is better or more important than one’s usual concerns; one sees better possibilities. Evocation refers to the fact that inspiration is evoked and unwilled; one does not feel directly responsible for becoming inspired. Finally, inspiration involves motivation to express or make manifest that which is newly apprehended; given the positive valence of this aim, inspiration is conceptualized as an appetitive motivational state.
So: Inspiration is a great idea coupled with the happy knowledge that you've just had a great idea. Inspiration feels like it came sleeting into your brain from nowhere, and you reallyreallyreally want to act on it or share it with others.

Boy, that all sounds familiar, doesn't it? I think writing your story down and trying to get it published counts as both acting on your inspiration and wanting to share it with others.

I'd love to learn the nitty gritty of what your brain is actually doing during an inspiration, but I suppose it's hard to capture such a moment on an MRI. For one thing, I hear the inside of an MRI machine is pretty dull--which brings me to something else the paper linked to above says:
[I]nspiration tends to occur on the same days as other positive experiences.
I have noticed I come up with more good ideas of my own when I am keeping myself well-stimulated with good art/books/movies/cool facts/groovy science, etc. When I'm being a hermit (which I do enjoy, unfortunately), I'm less creative. Other people's fine works inspire me to create my own. Happy experiences positively affect my writing/artwork.

Isn't it nice to hear you're not really wasting valuable writing time when you go out for a night on the town? You're just priming your creativity-pump!

Does Thrash and Elliot's description of inspiration ring true for you or do you disagree? What do you experience when you have an inspiration, and what do you do after you've had one? Does something need to trigger the inspiration or does it come from nowhere? Is there anything you can do to encourage inspiration in yourself? Please tell me your experience!

Pageloads since 01/01/2009: