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.

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