Monday, November 23, 2009

Meaty Monday: SiWC 2009; Terry Brooks, Bob Mayer

On Oct 23-25, 2009, I attended The Surrey International Writers Conference, which is one of the best conferences in North America for improving your writing skills and learning about the publishing industry. The conference is extremely well-run, focuses on craft, and includes (for free!) one ten-minute agent/editor pitch and one ten-minute author/editor "Blue Pencil" clinic.

I'm going to summarize the useful information from my workshop notes here on the blog, but I'm going to have to break it up over several weeks' worth of Meaty Mondays, because there's LOTS to cover.

These summaries will be in point form, because my notes aren't much more than that, plus doodles.
This week:

Terry Brooks - Let There Be Light
Bob Mayer - The Warrior Writer

Before I begin, let me first warn that I didn't get as much out of these two talks as I would have liked because I had to leave for a pitch appointment in the middle of Mr. Brooks' talk and Mr. Mayer talked so fast I couldn't even keep notes, or I would have missed too much.

Hence, I'm combining the two in one post, and I'm only going to list the points I think most interesting, rather than trying to reproduce the content of the talk as I have been in prior weeks.

Terry Brooks - Let There Be Light
Mr. Brooks' workshop was mostly an outline of how he builds a book, but he started by stressing that every writer is different and has to find what works best for them.
This is an idea. It might be something that pisses him off, or some idea he wants to explore, or a 'What if...?' question.

His next question is whether the spark is big enough to build a book out of, and whether it's a good-enough idea. The latter he determines just by seeing whether he can get it out of his head. If he isn't still thinking about it a day later, then he figures it isn't worth keeping.

The next thing he comes up with are the elements of the story:

Plot - He decides how many story threads he wants to include

Character - He decides on the POV and on the character's voice

Setting - He decides both on the world and on the mood for the book.

Note if the world is unfamiliar to the reader, as often happens in fantasy, then the setting becomes a character, i.e. it must be properly introduced to the reader.

Mr. Brooks started outlining after a run-in with an editor who was not afraid to insist he rewrite hundreds of pages. Mr. Brooks would write one paragraph per chapter and make a list of things he thought needed to come out, at some point, about the characters.

He doesn't outline anymore. He has found in the past ten years that this doesn't work well for him anymore. Now, he will get a grip on the first few chapters and figure out his ending, but everything in between he comes up with as he writes.

Method of Writing
He polishes every scene and chapter completely before he moves on. He is very linear. He is also quite paranoid about finishing things, since Sword of Shannara was the first of many books he had tried to write that he actually finished. He notes you can't build a career if you can't finish your books.

Unlike the rest of the planet, Mr. Brooks pronounces it 'SHAN-ar-ah', not 'sha-NAR-ah'.

However, since he believes that the story that bloomed inside the reader's head is the only one that should be important to the reader, he isn't bothered that other people pronounce it 'sha-NAR-ah'.

(JJ's Aside: J. K. Rowling pronounces her villain's name 'Voldemor...', i.e. with a silent 't', like a French speaker would pronounce it. Like Mr. Brooks, however, she doesn't mind that the English-speaking world has decided to call him 'Voldemort'.)

General Advice
Don't give everything away. The reader wants to engage with the story, imagine the backstory, and picture the characters. Furthermore, the experience of reading the book will be more personal to them if you give them blanks to fill in. (JJ's Note: Yeah! That's what I say!)

Bring big stories down to a personal level. If you're writing about the end of the world, yes, that involves everyone, but focus on what it does to, e.g., one family.

Every character is crippled in some way, and vulnerable characters are more compelling than super-people.

Bob Mayer - The Warrior Writer
Again, this one is incomplete. Most of what you'll read is my understanding of what Mr. Mayer said, rather than an accurate summary of his words. For the complete story, consider picking up his book, Who Dares Wins. I plan to soon.
When someone says something about your writing, and it makes you angry, pay attention to that because it means they just hit a nerve. They just said something you know is true, but which you desperately don't want to have to admit is true.

In other words, they just shone a light into your blindspot. This is incredibly valuable! Your blindspots are by definition the things you can't see. Next time it happens, turn off your anger and listen hard. You're learning something you really need to learn.

Most of what people do in their lives is habit. If you're not at the place you want to be, either in life or in your career, then you must change. You must break habits. All change brings discomfort, and that can cause fear.

When you sit down at your computer and check your email or blogs before you start writing, you're letting your fear get in the way of your writing.

Fear is often a person's primary need, in the sense they will make a priority of avoiding or ending fear. However, you can't grow a writing career without experiencing fear, so you must acknowledge it and PLAN for it.

Define what you're really afraid of. (Failure? Success? Rejection? Revealing yourself? Criticism? Not being good enough?) Then, factor your fear--and the conquering of your fear--into your plans. Every day, do one thing you dislike but need to do. Action is the only way to grow courage. The more you move into your courage zone, the greater your comfort zone will be.

'Lean' into your fear. Write not just what you know, but what you're afraid to know. Living in fear is ultimately worse than confronting it.

Grit is more important than intelligence or talent when it comes to being a success. 'Grit' is ability, plus zeal, plus the capacity for hard work.

You must cultivate a growth mindset rather than a fixed mindset. You need to be willing to learn and to admit you are wrong. (JJ's Note: In the panel on genre fiction, Mr. Mayer noted that 95% of people refuse to change when they are confronted with their weaknesses. They will rearrange the same errors in their manuscript but not fix the problem.)

Set goals, and put a time lock for achieving them. Examples:

I want to be published in two years.

I want to have a New York Times bestseller in five years.

I want my book in my hands in six months.

Next, decide what you need to do to get to your goals. Write down a plan, and include time lock for achieving your goals.

I want to be published in two years.
--finish book in three months
--find an agent within three months of that
--always return rewrites to editor within two weeks of receiving editorial letter

I want to have a New York Times bestseller in five years.
--go to library this weekend and check out five bestsellers from the past two years
--read them all within one week, analyse what made them bestsellers
--repeat this for the next five weeks
--over the next year, write a book capable of being a bestseller

I want my book in my hands in six months.
--this week, research self-publishers for the best deal
--place order by end of month

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

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