WWC 2014, Day 2: An hour with Jack Whyte

Jack WhyteJack is simply fabulous. You can read more about him on his web site, camulod.com/aboutjack.


 

When I wrote The Sky Stone, I was called by the Historical Society to speak to a bunch of academics. Do you know what I told them? “Do you think my head buttons up the back?”

Eventually, I was decided to go, and I ended up getting three standing ovations. One of the reasons why? Historians are bound by the historical record. Writers get to speculate. We get to write what the historians wish they could.

That’s the kind of research you have to do, though. You have to be able to speak to a room of historians as though they were your peers.

You can do it all on the internet, but don’t rely on Wikipedia. Because anyone can contribute, occasionally, they do. It’s a place to start, but then go to your public or university library.

Research can obsess you. Answer the questions you need to proceed with your novel but no more.

You have to be able to write with authority.

Look at the art of the time, the architecture, the fashion, the design. Get the whole picture first. Most of it won’t even make it into your novel, but when you get the details right, your fictional world will come alive for the reader.

Q: How did you start?

In college, I was dating a beautiful woman. I called her “the Polish princess.” We made a date to go for a walk together. I read Quo Vadis, while I waited. She was an hour late. It turns out her grandfather was the author. I thought, “Wouldn’t that be neat if this happened to me?”

Everything I write is written to be heard.

I was a great fan of Frank Yerby (Mel’s note: Yes, I totally get the irony of citing Wikipedia in this transcription, but as Jack said, it’s a starting place. You want to find out more, go research.). He wrote magnificent historical fiction.

Read your work aloud. I record it and listen to it while driving. Your errors will become apparent.

Q: What’s a typical writing day for Jack Whyte?

I write from 8 pm to 2 am. The next day, I print and edit the pervious day’s work.

Discipline is the key.

Q: Do you plot?

When I begin writing, I know the ending. Then I look for the start. But I just write. I don’t plot, per se.

I’ve written 9 novels in 37 years.

There’s a bit of snobbery in Canadian Literature. Look at Pierre Burton and Farley Mowat. Commercial success and genre fiction are dirty words.

Q: Have you ever had any legal issues?

Not really. We have a moral obligation not to defame anyone who doesn’t deserve it.

In the end, everything is fiction. Even an historical document, because it was written through the frame of the time its author lived in.


 

Next week: Business planning for creative people.

Tomorrow: Finally ready to write my Series discoveries post and I’ll have a brief update on the week.

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WWC 2014, Day 1: Evening keynotes

Here we are at the end of day 1 (for me–I know others partied into the wee hours). At other conferences and conventions, guest of honour keynotes are generally spread throughout the event, often at or after a meal.

The When Words Collide organizers chose to do something different.

Prior to the literary festival, there were several master classes offered by the keynote speakers, and the night before, they all delivered their presentations at a branch of the public library.

Between the extra days of leave I would have had to sacrifice, the cost of the master classes, and the expense of a longer stay, I had to opt out of the pre-conference program.

On the first night (formally speaking) of WWC, then, all of the keynote speakers were well into conference mode and had an opportunity to work out the bugs.

The keynotes were presented as a panel, with all of the speakers up on the stage, seated at tables.

Randy McCharles offered a few opening words, and then introduced the first of the speakers.

  1. Jacqueline Guest, author of 18 published novels, spoke about her adventures as aJacqueline Guest touring author. She has been all over the world, in the arctic, and had some very interesting tales to share. The old advice to writers is to write what you know. Travelling and experiencing all the world has to offer is a valuable way of gathering experience that can translate into your writing.
  2. Mark Leslie, of Kobo Writing Life, chose the subject of the mark-lesliehistory of story. From our earliest gatherings to share news around a fire, through the oral traditions of Greece and Rome, the invention of the printing press, and the advent of the novel, to today’s proliferation of traditionally published and independently published novels, novellas, short stories, anthologies, and all other manner of written storytelling, Mark spoke eloquently of the purpose and value of story in our lives. He ended his keynote with this: when words collide, magic happens.
  3. Dorothy (DJ) MacIntosh, author of the (in progress) Mesopotamian trilogy, spoke
    DJ McIntosh

    photo by Robert Rafton

    about passion and how to keep that precious flame burning. She related the experiences, hers and those of other renowned authors, with rejection, and various reactions to rejection letters. How can we keep our passion alive amidst the darkness that can assail us?

  4. Brandon Sanderson, author of—oh, I’ll just say it—a shit load of bestselling fantasy novels including the
    Photo by Nazrilof

    Photo by Nazrilof

    posthumous conclusion of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, addressed the problem of telling a compelling lie. He started with a grade school experience in which he realized that the story of Columbus and his discovery of the new world was all propaganda. In short, it was a lie, but it’s a lie that has been perpetuated over the years by quality storytelling. You could say that’s when the seed of his desire to become a professional liar was planted. He spoke of Sturgeon’s Law: that ninety percent of everything is crap. He wanted to test that hypothesis and started with Roger Ebert’s movie review site, which revealed between sixty and seventy percent good movies (two thumbs up). He then went to Rotten Tomatoes, a review site contributed to by the movie-going public. He found roughly the same results. There were exceptions, of course. He found one reviewer who didn’t like Return of the King, for example. Reviews are one of the most power tools in any author’s service. Word of mouth is what really translates into sales and a groundswell of support. The bad reviews can be damaging in all kinds of ways. We have to be able to distinguish between someone expressing a personal opinion, e.g. I didn’t like this book, and someone who’s going for the hurt, e.g. this is crap. They are two completely different judgements.

  5. Jack Whyte. I’d seen him last year at the Surrey International Writers’ Conference jack-whyteand knew the power of his presence, but, when Jack took the stage, I put my pen down and sat back. I knew I was about to be entertained. Jack basically extemporized (or, he made is sound like he was), drawing in elements of each of the previous speakers, adding colour with a touch of personal humour, and wrapping up the evening in style.

Next week: We enter day 2 with the Blending Science Fiction and Fantasy Panel.

Caturday Quickie: Calgary, I am in you

I’ve been waiting to say that for a long time. I’m such a nerd.

To be brief:

Thursday afternoon, Phil and I went to see Guardians of the Galaxy. I may have to post a Mel’s Movie Madness about it. For the future. I enjoyed it thoroughly, however.

Yesterday (Friday), I got up at the ungodly hour of 4 am so I could get out to the airport by 5-ish and catch my 5:55 am flight.

All went well, caught my connection, watched the second Hunger Games en route, and arrived at 10:18 am, on the dot, in Calgary.

My friend, Sharon, offered to pick me up and we went out to lunch before I checked in at the Carriage House Inn and started my marathon of sessions.

I attended 5 of those yesterday, plus the keynote speakers in the evening. I also met, in person, several people I’d only known to this point virtually: Angela Ackerman, Diane Walton, Tim Reynolds, and I reconnected with some fellow writers and publishers: Mark Leslie, Ron Hore, Swati Chavda, and Avery Olive.

I had dinner and lovely conversation with Nina Munteanu, and met a few other writers and editors hanging around outside the hotel. I also saw the wonderful Jack Whyte again, and met Brandon Sanderson in the flesh. Brandon was my fangirl moment of When Words Collide so far.

I’ll be in sessions from 10 am to 6 pm today, and then there is the mass autograph session this evening.

It has been a jam-packed conference so far, but I’m having a blast. Prepare for much bloggage coming out of this 🙂

Also got to see the 2014 In Places Between anthology chapbook. The readings and judging take place tomorrow morning. Will let you know (of course) how “On the Ferry” fares.

I think this may be my only post this weekend, just because WWC is proving to be a very fast-paced event.

In the meantime, I shall wish much you all much Writerly Goodness.

Caturday Quickies

It’s a wrap!

There is so much more to the Surrey International Writers’ Conference (SiWC) than I wrote about.

Yes, there were a tonne (that’s metric, eh?) of sessions that I couldn’t get to, everything from self-publishing, to social media and platform maintenance, from screenwriting to non-fiction sessions, and marketing sessions.

And yes, I may have mentioned things like the blue pencil and pitch sessions with the agents. Those keen on these could sign up for multiple sessions.

There was a professional photographer there to take head shots as well.

Where would I fit it all in?

But I didn’t mention the Master classes that preceded the conference. They required an extra fee, but I hear they were well worth it.

I didn’t mention Michael Slade’s Theatre of the Macabre, in which Anne Perry, Jack Whyte, Diana Gabaldon, and KC Dyer did a dramatic reading of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-tale Heart,” replete with music and sound effects.

I didn’t mention the book fair, author signing, or writing group get-together.

I didn’t mention the excellent food served at the lunches and dinners.

I didn’t mention the annual tradition of Jack Whyte singing the Hippopotamus Song.

Really, this is a conference you need to put on your writer’s bucket list.

We’re all time travellers

Since British Columbia is three hours behind the Eastern Time zone, I thought I would experience jet lag. I did, but not until I returned.

While I was in Surrey, I typically stayed up late to check on social media and do a bit of transcription of the notes I’d taken during the day. Although I stayed up until about 11 pm (2 am, my time) I woke up every morning around 5 am. Again, I used the time to prepare for the day and get in a little transcription.

When I flew back, I did so by the “red-eye” flight. It departed Vancouver at 10:30 pm. I tried to sleep on the way back, but I should have spent some money on one of those neck cushions. I woke up every hour or so and attempted to ease the pain in my neck and find a more comfortable position to sleep in.

When I finally got home, after an early morning layover in Toronto, the connector to Sudbury, and a hectic shuttle ride back to town, it was about 10:30 in the morning.

Needless to say, I spent a good portion of that day in bed 😉

I thought about time zones and jet lag again the following weekend when Daylight Saving Time ended. I’ve described the time change as self-imposed jet-lag, and I’ve never agreed with the continued practice. While it’s not so bad in the fall, it’s murder in the spring when we lose an hour again.

Really, though we can’t leap forward or back, we’re all time travellers. We all travel through time as we wake, work, eat, and sleep our way through life.

It was a philosophical moment 😛

Thanks for following my reportage of the conference, and I will be getting back to my regularly scheduled ramblings forthwith.

Bits and pieces: Diana Gabaldon and Jack Whyte

The thing about conferences like SiWC is that you always have a lot of choice. I’ve been blogging the sessions I attended, but at every time slot on every day, there were about ten different sessions I could have gone to. I had to be selective.

Not only that, but everything else you decide to do, such as blue pencil sessions, pitch sessions, or photo sessions, cuts into the time that you could be soaking in the wisdom of authors, agents, and editors.

On Sunday, Oct. 27, I had my blue pencil and pitch sessions back to back in the morning, which meant that I’d have to miss most of Diana Gabaldon’s session on keeping the reader turning pages. After that, I did book a photo shoot with the photographer, which meant that I’d be late for Jack Whyte’s session of rejuvenating your writing.

So what follows is incomplete and necessarily short, but there are still a few great pieces of information to pass along.

Diana Gabaldon: How to make them turn the page

Picture of the author Diana Gabaldon during a ...

Picture of the author Diana Gabaldon during a book signing held in Fergus, Ontario (during the Scottish Festival) on August 11, 2007. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When I arrived, Diana was discussing the technique of establishing a series of questions on the page. This was a technique that Diana says she noticed only in retrospect.

The idea is to ask a question at the beginning of a scene, and then build tension through delayed gratification by revealing information in bits and pieces.

She demonstrated by reading a passage from her next book in the Outlander series, In My Own Heart’s Blood. Lord John Grey confesses to Jamie that he’s slept with his wife. The rest of the scene, revealed primarily through action and dialogue answers the big question: will Jamie kill John? by first subverting expectations (Jamie reacts very calmly) and then plays on dramatic irony. When the revelation does arrive for Jamie, he does react as the reader, and John, expect him to, but then the scene ends. We have to read on to find out if John will survive the conversation.

With regard to backstory, Diana says dole it out sparingly. Tell the reader exactly what they need to know, when they need to know it.

It’s a matter of pacing, which is something every writer learns over time.

She was asked if she outlines, and Diana said she never has.

Finally, build on details to reveal character and plot. Use three senses to engage the reader.

Jack Whyte: Rejuvenate your fiction

When I entered, Jack was talking about the goblin.

The goblin is this little voice inside that says, “this isn’t right,” or “your could write this better.” Listen to the goblin.  He’s almost always right.

The search for the right word can drive you mad.

There’s an exercise in Strunk and White’s Elements of Style to rewrite the following quote from Thomas Paine: These are the times that try men’s souls.  Regardless what you do, it’s never the same, nor will it have the same impact.

Comprise means embrace. Nothing can be comprised of.  It’s one of the most misused words in the English language.

Rejuvenating your writing means rejuvenating yourself.

Prune adjectives, adverbs, and tic phrases, not blindly, but selectively.  Ask yourself if it improves your sentence. If yes, keep it, if no, get rid of it.

Communication is the goal of every writer.

When you write dialogue, if you do it well, you shouldn’t need tags. The reader should know who’s speaking and be able to keep track.

Don’t write accents. Use a word or expression, explain it once. That will be enough.

Recommended books: The Art of Fiction – John Gardner; On Writer’s Block – Victoria Nelson

Every writer should read them.

The subconscious mind is an excellent BS detector. Your mind is trying to tell you you’re on the wrong track. That’s the goblin.

Also, because you’ll be spending the better part of your life in it, get a good chair. Get a damn good chair.

SiWC idol 2013

The idea behind this session (the sixth annual, I believe) is for Jack Whyte to read the first page of anonymously submitted stories in his mellifluous accent and sonorous voice.  A panel of four agents: Michelle Johnson, Patricia Ocampo, Nephele Tempest, and Bree Ogden listen until they hear a reason to stop.  At that point, the agent raises her hand.  If two or more agents raise their hands, the reading stops, and the agents explain why.

I am not possessed of an eidetic memory and so I must beg off repeating verbatim the content of the stories or their critiques except to say that the first two were brilliant and made it through the full reading.  On several occasions, including the first two, agents asked for partials on the basis of the reading alone.

What I will do is to share what the agents liked and disliked.  I made fairly detailed notes on that.

The Good

  • A distinctive voice
  • Scene-setting
  • Originality
  • Sensory detail
  • Pacing that accomplishes several things in alternation: dialogue, action, and description used to world-build, offer snippets of back-story, create atmosphere.
  • Raise questions
  • Make the reader want to know what happens next.

The Bad

  • Too much description
  • Not enough action
  • Inauthentic/unrealistic situations, characters, etc.
  • Someone waking up – kiss of death
  • Not identifying the narrator/POV character
  • Too much effort
  • Beautiful writing with nothing behind it
  • Tell us what’s happening – don’t be coy.

The Ugly

Did I submit my first page? Why yes, I did.

Did my first page make it through the reading? Indeed, but one of the agents raised her hand.

The verdict: overwritten.

Truth be told, I felt ill.  Not the end of the world, though.  As we shall soon see.

Next up: The Bestseller Banter panel.

Research panel

This panel was a question and answer session.

Panelists: Anthony Dalton, Jack Whyte, Anne Perry, Diana Gabaldon, Susanna Kearsley

Q: Is it okay to use unusual names? e.g. in a historical novel set in Poland, the names are strangely spelled and not pronounced how a North American audience would be familiar with.

JW: If it’s appropriate to the historical setting, keep them.

DG: Find out how the names are treated in the time and culture you’re writing about.  e.g. Black Brian, or Mac Dubh.  Use nicknames or short forms.

AP: Are they named by profession, by an attribute?

SK: Have an outsider character learn how to pronounce the name.  Readers will remember after.

Q: How do you organize your research?

DG: I’ll have sticky tabs in the books I use for research and refer to them when necessary.

AP: I do much the same.

SK: I get documents from the archives (note: Susanna Kearsley used to be a museum curator) and organize them into binders, probably because I’m the daughter of an engineer.

AP: I find that most of the research I use in a first draft is later redacted.

JW: I recommend Scrivener (about $40).  It’s excellent for organizing your research, though it does fall down a bit in the final formatting of a manuscript.  Simply export to MS Word.

Q: How do you get translations?

SK: Try French translators, call your local university, see if they have a translation department, etc.

AD: French immersion teachers are also a good resource.

DG: Is it critical to the story?

AP: Don’t tell people what they don’t need to know.

Q: What gets questioned?

DG: Once you are immersed in the time period, you know what is likely to have happened.

AP: Research is often borne out.  In some cases, my educated guesses have later turned out to be correct.

SK: Historians can leave holes – they are bound by facts, or the lack of them.  Writers have to fill in the holes.

JW: Historians cannot speculate.

Q: Would it be okay to spell Welsh phonetically?

SK: Have an outsider character to help interpret.

DG: Language consists of three things: accent, dialect, and idiom.  For the Outlander series, they are conducting Gaelic classes.

AP: In practice, though signs might have Gaelic and English, few people actually speak Gaelic anymore.

JW: Rhythm is important.  Cadence.

AD: I researched an ocean crossing and read three accounts by three London travellers.  They were all different in spelling, etc.

Q: How do you pick out the pertinent bits?

SK: History is curated.  People save what they think is beautiful, or what has value to them.  Go back to the contemporary record, if possible.

The Daughter of TimeJosephine Tey.

Q: What if you’re dealing with several different languages?

DG: You bring in a translator.

SK: You use a dictionary, or you bring in an outsider.

JW: Tarzan of the Apes is an excellent interpretation of what it might be like to teach oneself a language.

SK: Another great example is The 13th Warrior.  There is a campfire scene where the camera pans around the Vikings and Antonio Banderas’s character catches a few words each round until suddenly, he understands what they’re saying.

Q: Who is the most interesting person you’ve researched that you haven’t written about?

AP: Torquemada.

SK: John Thomson.  He almost bankrupted Britain in the 1700s.  He told everyone a different story about what happened.

DG: Joseph Brant.

JW: William Paterson.  Founded the Bank of England and a Panamanian colony for the Scottish.  The colony was blockaded and eventually disappeared, though there is a native group who still paint themselves in tartan patterns.

Q: Whose diary would you like to fictionalize?

JW: Casca, the first man to stab Caesar.

AP: Faucher (?) He had albino genes. French Revolution.  The Butcher of Nantes.

DG: Thomas Paine.

SK: Geoffrey Plantagenet.

AD: Sir John Franklin.

Q: How do you find your research?

JW: Get to know the librarian in charge of the humanities section of your local public or university library, and ingratiate yourself shamelessly.

SK: Google Books.

Q: What are your favourite books to read?

SK: Diana Gabaldon and Nevil Shute.

JW: Roger Zelazny.  Really, it depends on how I feel when I get up in the morning.

AP: G. K. Chesterton’s poetry or crime writers like Michael Connelly.

DG: Celtic crime writers like Ian Rankin and Phil Rickman.