Sunday morning keynote: Jane Porter

NaNoWriMo progress

Sorry I haven’t been blogging as promised, but NaNoWriMo has taken over my life (!) In a totally good way though 😉

I’m happy to say that while I had an outline to follow, serendipity struck and in a departure from the plan, I’ve taken my YA fantasy up a notch into high concept territory.  It’s an epic win.

I knew that I’d be going away November 4-6, so I tried frontloading my first days to prepare. Here’s the word count so far:

  • November 1 – 2161 words
  • November 2 – 2284 words
  • November 3 – 2325 words
  • November 4 – 0 words
  • November 5 – 2122 words
  • November 6 – 0 words
  • November 7 – 1877 words
  • November 8 – 2168 words
  • November 9 – 2190 words

I’m just a titch ahead of the game at 15127 words.  I’m on chapter 6 of 14.  Working title: Figments.

Back to our regularly scheduled programming

October 27, 2013

Jane began her keynote with a humorous anecdote about dinner the previous evening where the topic of discussion at the table was the prevalence of dino-porn (if you don’t believe it, Google it—here’s a link to get you going, pun intended – http://www.cracked.com/quick-fixes/10-real-book-covers-from-dinosaur-on-human-sex-novels/ ).

Only at Surrey.

Jane took comfort in the thought. She could always reinvent herself if her career tanked.

Jane wrote her first story at the age of five, made her first story book in elementary school, wrote her first romance in high school, and received her first rejection in 1984.

Eventually, she got a non-form rejection letter including a long list of errors. Her response? I can fix all that!

Among her works in progress was a 900 k word medieval epic in which the heroine murdered her husband to be free.

In January 2000, fourteen rejections and fifteen years later, Jane sold her first book.

Since then, she’s published 44 novels and written 46.

She confessed to feeling like a fraud as part of the Bestseller Banter panel. She was afraid for years that her career would be taken away from her.

She found that real estate was a suitable metaphor for publishing. You work for years on your novel, your dream. It’s a part of your life, and someone comes along and puts a dollar value on it. Sometimes the assigned value doesn’t reflect the true worth of the work.

Jane Porter’s Five Keys to Survival as a Writer

  1. Craft. You’ve got to work out your creative muscles. It’s the best way to protect yourself. Be excellent.
  2. Get real. Check your attitude at the door. You can choose how to respond.
  3. Goal-setting. Look where you want to go. Ride the channels and use the energy of the currents.
  4. Perseverance. Face your fears.
  5. Don’t react. Don’t follow the trends. Categories are changing.
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Saturday night keynote: Jim C. Hines

I’d encountered Jim C. Hines before, on the pages of John Scalzi’s and Chuck Wendig’s blogs.  I was curious about his penchant for cross dressing and why he would write a book about a libromancer.

So, of course, I was eager to find out more about the man.  His Saturday night keynote did not disappoint.  Several people I spoke to reported tearing up not once, but several times during the address.

Did I?  I’ll never tell 😉

As I mentioned, I do not have an eidetic memory.  I couldn’t give you the blow by blow of the speech and truth be told, I was listening to and enjoying it rather than taking notes.  Mea culpa.

Fortunately, I don’t have to. Jim has posted the text and links to a three-part recording of the keynote on his blog: http://www.jimchines.com/2013/10/my-keynote-from-siwc2013/

The essence of Jim’s keynote was that stories matterOur stories matter.  There is a reason we are called to this crazy life of writing.

One anecdote was about a teacher who had a young man in one of her classes.  He refused to read.

She wrote to Jim that she put a copy of his book Goblin Quest on her desk and left it there

Goblin Quest

Goblin Quest

in plain sight.  The student asked about it one day and the teacher said that he probably wouldn’t like it.  The student picked it up and not only read that one, but asked for and read the rest of the books in the series.

The experience of reading Jim’s books changed this young man’s life.  Not bad for a series which features a protagonist with a nose-picking injury 🙂

Jim also wrote a short story for an anthology of humorous fantasy.  Oddly enough, he chose the topic of cancer, but after reading the story, an audience member approached Jim and told him that her father was dying of the same cancer.

She asked for a copy of the story, took it to her father, and the two of them laughed until they cried.  It was cathartic and comforting.

Our stories matter.

Take heart and keep writing.  Your stories matter too.

Bestseller Banter Panel

First, a wee note: I have embarked on my first NaNoWriMo, and because I had to finish a couple of writing tasks before the end of October, I haven’t been able to blog daily and complete my report of the fabulous Surrey International Writers’ Conference.

I have, so far, managed to make my NaNo quota though (joy!).

And I’m trying to finish up some outstanding critiquing.

So I will post today and tomorrow, but then I will be going on a brief trip to visit a friend for a few days.  I will resume the bloggage after that.  Once I’ve caught up with the SiWC reporting, however, I’m returning to my usual one or two posts on the weekend gig.

_____________________________________________________________________

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)

The bestseller banter panel was moderated by Chris (CC) Humphreys and was composed of:  Michael Slade, Diana Gabaldon, Jane Porter, and Susanna Kearsley

Q: What was your first book on the bestseller list?

SK: The Winter Sea made the New York Times bestseller list as an ebook.

JP: Lifetime made a movie of my book Flirting with Forty.

DG: I was away on a book tour for three weeks for Voyager. My husband told me when he picked me up at the airport.  I was too tired to react.  More recently Starz is making an Outlander series.  This is the fourth time Outlander has been optioned.  When the deal was struck, I was sworn to secrecy, but I was attending BEA at the time and word got out.  I ended up telling everyone.

MS: My first novel became a bestseller because of my rep got me up at 3 am to speak

Susanna Kearsley Photo by Ashleigh Bonang

Susanna Kearsley
Photo by Ashleigh Bonang

with the book distributors.  That week, Stephen King’s The Shining hit the shelves as well.  The distributors looked at both books and decided to give top billing to the man who came out to talk to them.  That’s how my book beat out Stephen King’s to become number one in Vancouver.

Q: What pressures did you experience after your books had such great success?

SK: I didn’t feel any pressure from others, but I had something I’d never had to deal with before: deadlines.  It didn’t affect my writing.  I placed pressure on myself, however, to prove that I could get on the bestseller list again. Firebird was on the NYT mass market paperback list.

JP: Producers wanted to make movies of more of my books, but they wanted Flirting with Forty again, and I was writing something else.  I had to get out of a bad deal.  Marketing took over.  They kept asking for changes.

DG: Fans clamour for the next book in the series all the time, but I don’t let it bother me.  My sole duty is to the book.

MS: My first book was written while I was still very busy as a criminal lawyer.  Headhunter was successful and I did feel the pressure to write something at least as good.  I decided to write a thriller set in the rock ‘n’ roll world.  My rep got us tickets to Alice Cooper and he really liked Headhunter.  He invited me to send him my next novel.  I did and he wrote back: I don’t know if this will help.  “This book was terrifying.  I couldn’t put it down.” – Alice Cooper.  That endorsement sold the second book.

Q: Does the thrill remain?

DG: Absolutely.  I get a little thrill every time someone responds positively to my daily lines on Facebook.

CCH: Good reviews become reassuring friends in times of torment.

SK: Every time I finish a manuscript, I print it out and drop it on the table.  There’s something satisfying about the “thump.”  When the finished product arrives, there’s nothing like the smell of a new book.

JP: There were times when I was afraid everything I’d worked for would be taken away from me.  I was a single mother.  I feared being poor.

MS: It used to be that you had a 1 in 20,000 chance of success in publishing.  You never know when you’re going to make it big, or how.

SK: Persistence is the key. Download Headley’s “Anything” and listen to it repeatedly. Flaubert said, “Talent is a long patience…”  You have to think about the long game.

JP: Support is so important.  My ex never understood.  My current partner is a surfer and he feels the same way about the ocean as I do about writing.

DG: I have a fan club, the Ladies of Lallybrock, and they like to get together and have a fabulous time.

Q: Are there any downsides?

SK: I had a stalker.

JP: I received creepy letters from convicts.

Q: Do any of you have to content with JK Rowling’s issue?  She has so many people trying to hand her novels and scripts based on Harry Potter that she has someone who collects them all for her.

DG: I always tell people, sorry, I have an agreement with my publisher.

Q: Do you have a pen name picked out?

SK: No.

JP: Lauren Lyles

DG: No.

MS: Michael Slade is a pen name.  When I was trying to come up with it, I was thinking Declerque.  My wife said, very sensibly, no, you want a name with Biblical significance.  Michael.  Slade gives you some hard-boiled cred.  And so I became Michael Slade.  My wife created Michael Slade, and she knows copyright law.

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.

Query letters that work with Adrienne Kerr

Adrienne_KerrAdrienne Kerr is the senior editor for commercial fiction at Penguin Canada.  She’s worked in various book-oriented occupations for seventeen years (gosh, she must have started as a kid).

Adrienne ran the session alone and we had a fabulous time.

Here are my notes:

  • Everyone has to hustle.
  • Harness your enthusiasm.
  • Craft your query as carefully as you craft your novel.
  • Find out what your target agent or editor has sold or acquired recently.

Research

  • Writers have the power.  Act like it.
  • Start with your bookshelves.  Pick out your favourite books.  Look at the acknowledgements.  Authors always thank their agents and editors.
  • Next, go to your library or bookstore and do the same thing.
  • Then go on line.  Look at the agencies.  Look at the submission guidelines.  Anything less than 100% compliance is a waste of everyone’s time.
  • Be open to the process; be delightful to work with.
  • Editors are hidden.  They’re not on-line.  Traditionally, they don’t take unsolicited submissions.  Now, they’re taking a more active role in ferreting out new talent.
  • Check out Publishers’ Marketplace.  Search through 14 years worth of deals.  Each entry has a logline attached.

Loglines – you need one

  • What if – so what formula
    25 words or less.  Convey major conflict.
    Answers so what.
  • Hollywood style
    It’s X meets Y.
    Mash-up of famous books and/or movies.
  • Save the Cat method
    A sentence or two, ironic, compelling, genre/audience-targeted, killer title.
  • Blurb-based
    Who/what the hero wants and why.
    Focus on conflict.
  • Comps must be realistic.  Consider the sales numbers and the social media imprint.
  • Indicate your job only if pertinent (e.g. a lawyer who writes legal thrillers).
  • Agents will use your query/logline/synopsis to sell.
  • Editors will use your query/logline/synopsis for marketing.
  • You will use it when someone asks what your book is about.

The rest of the session was spent critiquing loglines and queries volunteered from the attendees.  I was still working on mine and didn’t speak up, but there were some pretty interesting projects pitched and some effective improvements were crowd-sourced.

I will be finishing off my SiWC posts one per day.

Until tomorrow, mes amis!

Saturday morning keynote: Susin Nielsen

YA novelist and Governor General’s Award-winning writer Susin Nielsen shared her journey to authorhood.

It’s an equation: 1/3 talent, 1/3 hard work, and 1/3 luck.

She showed use her first diary, and even read to us some of her early entries: “If I become famous, I may want to keep a diary.”

She aspired to be Harriet the Spy and her first diary lasted for all of 8 days.  Susin was in 7th drade.

There were always books in the house.  She was an off-beat kid.  It was a while before she realized that elaborate imaginary games were not where her classmates were at.

She didn’t have a lot of friends.

Her first book was The Smallest Snippet in Snippeton.  She showed it to us 🙂

She submitted poems to Seventeen magazine and received the response: “Nicely written, but much too depressing for us.”  Susin read us one of the poems: “Suicide.”  It was a little maudlin.

Malcolm Gladwell writes about the 10,000 hour rule.  About that time, she was about the 200 hour range.

She went to Ryerson, got a job in food services for Degrassi, wrote a spec script, which eventually became 16 episodes of the long-running Canadian series.

When Word Nerd was published in 2006, her agent was incredibly helpful.

Susin Nielsen in Lorette, Manitoba

Susin Nielsen in Lorette, Manitoba (Photo credit: Tundra Books)

The bottom line: if you’re a writer, write.  Hone your craft.

Friday evening keynote: Zsuzsi Gartner

Last year, Zsuzsi decided to conduct a radical experiment.  She went off-line, not only withdrawing from social media, but also online banking, her cell phone, texting, and even her computer.

Here’s what she shared with us.

Being a writer, social media can be addictive.  “I’ll check email just one more time” becomes a three hour odyssey down the rabbit hole.  When she realized she was enslaved to email, Zsuzsi decided to do something about it.

So, no email, no texting, no computer, no debit, no nothing.  This took a while to set up.

In the process, she found a few things that promised to help with the project.  The “suicide” app kills your online ID.  Digital Detox blocks your access.  Camp Grounded is an adult summer camp where your tech toys are confiscated upon arrival.

Zsuzsi went through withdrawal.  She started reading a lot more though.  She read Henry James’s short stories, and Portrait of a Lady.  There was clarity in the pure experience of reading.

The Shallows: what the internet is doing to our brains Nicholas Carr

Cover of "The Shallows: What the Internet...

Cover via Amazon

 

Are we sacrificing our ability to read and think deeply?

Maryanne WolfThe Science of the Reading Brain

Is Google Making Us Stupid? (article in The Atlantic, 2008)  – Nicholas Carr.  Maybe not stupid, but lazy.

As a project, she redacted everything in her latest book that she sourced on Google.  Many pages had a quarter or more of the text blacked out.

She tried doing “real” research.  In a library.  With books, articles, and inter-library loan.  She has concerns about kids relying too heavily on Wikipedia and plagiarism in class.

English: An IBM Selectric typewriter, model 71...

English: An IBM Selectric typewriter, model 713 (Selectric I with 11″ writing line), circa 1970. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Zsuzsi started using an old IBM Selectric typewriter.  It forces her to think before typing. Nietzsche used a bizarre-looking typewriter and claimed it helped him write better.  “Go online and take a look at it,” she said, and of course, the irony was lost on none of us 😉  Once again ironic, the typewriter was considered the lap top of its time …

Our writing equipment informs our thoughts.  The medium has affected the prose.

Hemingway wrote description in long hand and dialogue on the typewriter.  Annie Proulx and Michael Ondaatje both write long hand.

The Russians are apparently using typewriters to create and send secret messages because there is no electronic footprint.

This experiment helped Zsuzsi engage more deeply with the world.

Behind the curtain: How mainstream publishing works

This was a fun panel with an author, an agent, and two editors.  They took us through the publication process at each stage, author, agent, and editor explaining how their part of the puzzle looks.  Then they fielded questions.

I’ve attended panels before that featured all publishers, or all editors, or all agents.  While informative, how everything dove-tailed was missing.  Occasionally, panelists might say that they couldn’t comment or speculate on what others in the process might do or experience.

‘Twas excellent.

The behind the curtain panelists

The behind the curtain panelists

Panelists: Emily Ohanjanians, editor with Mira Books, the commercial fiction imprint of Harlequin; Eileen Cook, author of YA novels with Simon & Schuster and HarperCollins; Rachel Coyne, agent with Fine Print Literary; Sara Sargent, associate editor with HarperCollins’s children’s imprint, Balzer & Bray.

EC: We’ll start with the author’s search for an agent.  First you have to understand what an agent does.  Most are busy with their current authors and are not actively looking for new authors.  Do your research to find the best fit.  Newer agents will be more available.  Ultimately, it comes down to personal taste.  One agent may not like your voice or style, but another might love it.

RC: I receive 150 to 300 queries per week.  It’s impossible to respond individually.  When I started, that was my intention, but it just can’t be done.  Agents get rejected too, by editors.  There’s a certain disappointment when another agent snags an author from you, especially one that receives an award or does really well.  After I’ve agreed to take on an author, we have a one on one call to discuss next steps.  There is a two page author agreement.  It’s not a contract per se.  Standard percentage is 15% for domestic sales and 20% for foreign, TV, film, and other rights.  Most houses have one agent who is dedicated to subsidiary rights.  Once an author has signed on, the editing begins.  This could mean several rounds, back and forth.  Then the agent will submit to her first round editors.  Usually these are people the agent has an established relationship with.  Sometimes, if several editors are interested, an auction takes place.

SS: At HarperCollins, there are several meetings, one with the acquisitions team during which a profit/loss statement is generated.  The agent is advised of the proposed deal, and negotiation begins.  At the acquisition meeting, everyone sees the property.

EO: It’s the same at Mira, the meeting with the editorial director is followed by the acquisition board meeting, the agent is informed of the proposed deal, and negotiation follows.

Q: Once the book is sold, what happens?

RC: I would make recommendations to the author based on what they hope to achieve.  Usually there is a year between the deal and the publication date, so there is time to implement an author web site or blog, develop social media following, or begin on the next book.  The contract can take anywhere from two weeks to nine months to hammer out.  An advance might be $10,000.  Royalties could be 10%.  First you earn back your advance, then you begin to receive regular cheques.

Q: How does the editor work with the writer on further revisions?

EO: When the launch date is decided upon, it might be a year, or a year and a half, we work backwards, get our endorsements in place, schedule substantial, line, and copy edits, proofing, typesetting, cover art, blurbs, back cover copy, determine the meta data for online sale.

Q: So what happens when you write an editorial letter for the writer, and the writer refuses to budge?

SS: Usually I’ll read and mark up the copy, then prepare a three to ten page editorial letter for the author.  The author will usually sit with it for a few days, then I’ll meet with the author by phone and the author will indicate what they are willing to do and what they are not.  The biggest issue that comes up is characters that are not received as the author intended.  The next is the market: similar books may have tanked for specific reasons that have nothing to do with the quality of the writing.

EC: We work together to reach a solution.  e.g. I hate the character!  My character is brilliant!  How do I show it?

RC: The biggest asset a writer can have is the willingness to be edited.  I like to meet annually with my authors to find out what their plans are for the coming year.

Q: Describe your ideal author.

EO: An insecure author can become overwhelming.  20 emails a day can be draining.  An author coming out of another house might cause me to do some research.  Were there reasons for this?

EC: You have to own your neuroses as an author.  You must be open to communicate.

Q: If your author had to choose between a Canadian and American publisher, which would you recommend?

EC: Commission can be less with a Canadian publisher.  Most American publishers will include Canadian distribution.  The deal is for North American rights, not Canadian or American.  Canada is not considered a foreign market.  Really, your agent is a match-maker, trying to find the best possible home.  It used to be that agents had to be in New York, now they can be anywhere.

RC: There is a right agent and a right publisher for every author/project.

Q: What about e-rights?

SS: They are considered subsidiary rights.

Q: How often do you have to meet in person?

RC: Never if you don’t want to or can’t afford it.

Q: What is your education/experience?

SS: Placement with Disney/Hyperion, BA in English, then an MA in Journalism.

RC: Writer’s Digest Books, Donald Maass Agency, Forward Literary, then Fine Print Literary.

EO: BA in English literature/linguistics, job in finance, but I always wanted to be an editor.  I started working for magazines, then got on with Harlequin, took some courses from EAC and Ryerson in editing, and at every stage, working up through the ranks.

Q: What’s the difference for non-fiction?

EO: It’s based entirely on platform.  Not voice.  Not skill.  Who’s the audience for the book?

RC: Blog-books have been happening recently as well.  Narrative non-fiction works the same as fiction.

EC:  With a novel, you have to have the novel completed before you can query.

RC: With non-fiction, a proposal and platform is often enough.

Q: What should your word count be, and do you talk about series?

SS: Word count isn’t critical.  I’ve never rejected a book on the basis of length.  You should concentrate on one novel per query and treat it as a stand-alone.  It’s important to have a vision, though of how your writing future will look.

RC: We’re not looking so much at the concept, but the creativity of the author.

SS: With children’s literature, you have to be aware of the market.

EC: Not many YA novels are 300,000 words long, but submitting a 20,000 word novel would be too short.

Q: Can an author ever go direct to editor?

EO: If I have the time, I’ll always look.  Why not?  I could find a gem.

Q: When do you know when to stop editing and query?

EC: Write the best book you can.  No matter what you write, you can find an association (RWA, SFWA, etc.). These associations will often offer editing services, or members can serve as critique partners and beta readers.  When you do query, send out five at a time.

Q: Is a rejection a burned bridge?

RC: Not necessarily.  If you revise and resend, there’s a chance that the agent will not remember, but if they do, they are not likely to give you a second chance.  It’s better to try a new project.

Q: How long is it for an editor to respond to an agent?

RC: Between three months to a year sometimes, but the average is three to four weeks.  If there is a closing date or an auction, all interested parties are called.

Q: Do agents want to have input into the author’s platform?

RC: It’s more a matter of making suggestions, showing examples.

SS: In concert with publicity and marketing, publishers may advise.  But if you’re not comfortable on Twitter, you don’t have to use Twitter.

EC: Some agents will advise you with regard to your career in general.  Some agents will never go there.

Q: Have there been books you just couldn’t sell?

RC: Every agent has a book that they felt passionate about, but just couldn’t move.  I make every effort to sell every project, but between 60% and 90% of books signed actually sell.

EC: Hopefully you have more than one book in you.

EO: It’s often the second submission that sells.

RC: Some projects are bought on voice alone.

Q: If you’ve self-published, is it a deal-breaker?

RC: Only if it’s the self-published effort and it’s not sold well.  If it’s a different effort, no problem.

EC: They call us hybrid authors now.

Q: How about posting your work in progress on the internet?

RC: It depends on how much of your novel is out there, and at what stage.  If most of the novel is already “published,” I probably wouldn’t take it.  Do not blog your book.

Q: Can you self-publish one book and e-publish another?  Specifically, the rights on my first novel are reverting to me and I’d like to self-publish.  Meanwhile, I’m in negotiations for my second book.

EC: If your first book is erotica and your second is YA, then they’re not likely to get in each other’s way.

EO: If both books are comparable, you could offer the self-published book at a deep discount.

RC: It would be wise to check with the publisher about to put out your second novel if self-publishing your first is okay.

EO: Be up front with all interested parties.

This brings us to the end of Friday’s sessions.  I’ll have the Friday night and Saturday morning keynotes before moving on to Saturday’s sessions.  We’ll see how far I get tonight.  I’ll be travelling home tomorrow and won’t finish off whatever remains until Tuesday.

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.

The Willing Suspension of Disbelief: Susanna Kearsley

One thing that I must comment upon with a traditional writing conference like SiWC (this is their 21st year) is the frustration of concurrent sessions.  I don’t think there was a time where I didn’t want to attend at least two of the sessions.

This is SO a first world problem, as Chuck Wendig would say.

RT's Giant Book Fair

RT’s Giant Book Fair (Photo credit: rtbookreviews)

So I got over my bad self and made some decisions.  My first one was to attend Susanna Kearsley’s session on writing supernatural aspects of stories convincingly.  Though my stories are all either straight out fantasy or science fiction, it’s always good to have a few more tools in the toolbox.

I’ve been a fan of Susanna since I took a workshop with her in Port Elgin in 1994 (possibly 1995?).  She’d just won the Catherine Cookson Award for her novel Mariana.

Here are my notes:

The mechanics

  • It starts with character.  You must have a likeable, trustworthy, relatable protagonist.
  • The protagonist can be the character who possesses supernatural skill, or they could be the biggest skeptic in the book.
  • Work on the principle of Ockham’s Razor first.  Stated succinctly, the simplest explanation is often the most correct.  People tend to rationalize the unknown.
  • Transition to deductive reasoning.  Think Sherlock Holmes: after every other possibility has been eliminated, what is left, no matter how unlikely, is the truth.
  • Respect both sides of the argument – believers and skeptics.
  • Time travel – paradox.  If you travel into the past and accidentally kill your grandfather, do you cease to exist?
  • Acknowledge accepted beliefs.
  • Research.  All psychology departments usually have parapsychology sub-departments.
  • Seek verisimilitude.
  • Your protagonist’s acceptance of the supernatural should be a gradual process.
  • You need a supporting character, someone who can help or guide your protagonist.  A true believer, or other expert in the area (professor, priest, exorcist, shaman, etc.)
  • Also, you need someone who is an even bigger skeptic than the protagonist.  As the protagonist proves to her or himself and the other skeptic that the supernatural is the only ‘rational’ explanation, he or she is also proving it to the reader.
  • Be aware of the difference between your characters and normal people.  Think of the bit of Eddie Murphy’s RAW of years ago: in the Amityville Horror, the family hears a voice say ‘get out’ and dismisses it, remaining to be assailed by the evil spirits resident in the house.  Murphy said that if the father in that story was a man of colour, he’d tell his family, “Nice place, sorry we can’t stay.  Pack your things, we’re leaving.”  Of course, there was more swearage involved 😉
  • In the handout – two accounts of a UFO sighting.  One from an air force pilot who went through the deductive reasoning process and eliminated all other reasonable alternatives until he was left with a UFO, the other from a man on LSD.  Which would you believe?  Make your protagonist reliable, unless that’s part of her or his journey, to prove what they saw despite obvious reasons not to.
  • Canadian psychic – George McMullen.  Psychometry.
  • Keep your world real, working by the rules you have established.  Naomi Novik made dragons believable.
  • Be consistent.
  • Don’t over-explain.
  • Be aware of our current level of understanding of the supernatural aspect you use in your novel.
  • Choose one thing.  Too much will overwhelm.
  • Stephen King uses wounded heroes.  They are more sympathetic.
  • No coincidence, contrivance, or anything too convenient.
  • We have been raised on nursery rhymes, fairy tales, myths, and legends – we are taught to accept the existence of magic.
  • Where/when we expect to find magic: isolated places and buildings, the woods, old houses, night time, fog or mist, the sea, transitional places like the shore, twilight, dawn, the witching hour.
  • Play with expectations, or play against them.  Against may be the more powerful technique, but it’s also the more difficult to pull off.
  • Avoid cliché.
  • Be aware of cultural biases.
  • Voice is important.  Communication is the goal of writing.  Aim for the grade eight level reader to reach the widest audience.
  • Genres: magic realism, modern gothic, paranormal, paranormal romance, historical.
  • Donald Maass has predicted that eventually, genre will be irrelevant.  It’s a marketing construct.
  • You can cross genres, but do not transcend them!
  • In historical fiction, there will be other explanations for things than there will be in a contemporary novel.
  • The outsider is a powerful thing.  Use this character to explain, gain perspective, but resist the urge to over-explain.
  • There are resources for research in the hand out:
  • http://www.parapsych.org
  • http://www.rhine.org
  • Also check out the Koestler institute of parapsychology.
  • GoogleBooks is a great resource for historical records.
  • Jstore is where you can obtain information from academic journals online.