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.)

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