Oh, wow! What a conference!

Conferences are often the brunt of jokes. You know how it is — the annual conference in Vegas that’s little more than a vacation getaway where attendees take in all the entertainment and casino opportunities, and make it to one conference session just to legitimize the trip’s expense claim.

Not so for most writers’ conferences. Maybe the difference is because writing is very much a solitary pursuit and it takes effort to commit to a weekend of being constantly immersed in a crowd of five-to-six hundred people. We have to be convinced the opportunities to improve skills and mingle with so many people who understand our unique lifestyle are going to be worth the stress of putting our introverted selves ‘out there’.

This particular weekend was definitely worth it!

The Surrey International Writers’ Conference (SiWC) has become known as “the most comprehensive professional development conference of its kind in Canada”, unique in atmosphere and what it provides for writers of every experience level. Its reputation has mushroomed and registration sold out well before this year’s event.

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Sheraton Vancouver Guildford Hotel Ballroom – location for meals, daily keynote addresses, and special events

Last weekend writers, agents, editors, publishers and screenwriters arrived en masse to learn, teach, listen, encourage …. a total of fifty-eight of them were presenting ninety different workshops over the three days (a choice of nine in every time slot), and participating in free pitch sessions and ‘blue pencil’ consultations. Yes, it gets mind-boggling, and we came away with information overload, but inspired beyond belief.

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Fraser Room – location for ‘pitch’ and ‘blue pencil’ sessions and the Saturday evening author book signing event

Those things all contributed to the conference’s many highlights, but it was the less obvious experiences that made it truly unique.

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Robert Dugoni and I at the book signing

  • a special atmosphere of camaraderie and inclusiveness that embraced novice writers and famous authors, newbies and industry professionals
  • evening conversations and mingling over drinks
  • warm smiles and words of encouragement
  • a New York bestselling author remembering my name from a previous year and stepping up for a photo.

 

  • tears over an unexpected award for DD Shari Green, and pride in her well-received first time workshop presentations
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Presentation to Shari Green from the Surrey Board of Trade

 

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    Shari leading one of her workshops
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“Mud, mud, glorious mud!”

  • singing along with Jack Whyte’s infamous annual rendition of the Hippopotamus Song

 

  • disbelief that it could already be the ninth year for Michael Slade’s ‘Shock Theatre’

 

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Oh, those tights!

 

 

 

 

  • k c dyer’s distinctive daily selection of colourful tights

 

 

 

 

 

  • and the sun shining at least intermittently throughout the weekend to showcase the beautiful autumn scenery and the mountains of our west coast venue.
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A bright morning view from our hotel room

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Early evening view — last rays of sun on the mountains

I have so many photos but this sampling gives you a taste of what made the weekend special. It’s always memorable, but every year seems more so than the last. If I were to have any criticism at all, it would be that it’s getting too big, but that’s just the claustrophobia in me fluttering its anxious hands in the air. The writer in me loved it all.

Next year will be the conference’s twenty-fifth anniversary. It’s going to be spectacular! You might want to mark October 20-22, 2017 on your calendar right now.

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Is there a genre for fictional tulips and daffodils?

Tulips don’t grow in my garden. Deer eat them before the buds even develop. I’ve planted dozens upon dozens of daffodils and narcissus because I’m told deer don’t like them. They bloom beautifully the first year, but only a few make it through to the next, and by the third year there are none. I suspect the squirrels are to blame, but I have no proof.

I love the cheery colour of spring bulbs but have to make do with the store-bought variety. There’s no point trying to grow them where they aren’t going to thrive.

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I’m discovering a novel is a little like a garden. If the conditions aren’t right, it can’t develop its full potential. Unfortunately, I’m the one responsible for providing a nurturing environment, and that involves more than fencing out marauders.

I can do extensive research and come up with lots to nourish a budding idea. I can refuse to let the I.E. thwart my attempts, invest time and energy to revise and rewrite, get professional editing and helpful critiques. But transplant that ready-to-blossom story into a less than receptive location and it’s probably going to wither and die.  Or be buried indefinitely in an agent’s slush pile.

Compiling a list of agents and going from A to Z in a dedicated submission process is like throwing a handful of flower bulbs into the air and hoping they’ll land in a fertile growing medium and survive. There are websites like Chuck Sambuchino‘s that provide listings of what agents are currently looking for, others that demystify the many different genres, and still others that explain how to classify our novels and/or understand why it’s important to know where they fit so we send them only to those agents who read our genre.

One thing I’ve learned over the past fifteen years of writing novels and studying the publishing industry is that we can do everything right and still not meet with success. Perhaps it’s time to change tactics.

I’m thinking of planting crocuses for next spring. Oh, wait…there was a flash of fur in the garden. I wonder if squirrels like crocus bulbs.

Squirrel

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Tulips

By A. E. Stallings

The tulips make me want to paint,
Something about the way they drop
Their petals on the tabletop
And do not wilt so much as faint,
Something about their burnt-out hearts,
Something about their pallid stems
Wearing decay like diadems,
Parading finishes like starts,
Something about the way they twist
As if to catch the last applause,
And drink the moment through long straws,
And how, tomorrow, they’ll be missed.
The way they’re somehow getting clearer,
The tulips make me want to see
The tulips make the other me
(The backwards one who’s in the mirror,
The one who can’t tell left from right),
Glance now over the wrong shoulder
To watch them get a little older
And give themselves up to the light.

Source: Poetry (June 2009)

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Conference Aftermath…

Every event has a highlight. For the Surrey International Writers’ Conference, it has to be after the Saturday evening’s theme banquet, when author Jack Whyte offers up his annual rendition of ‘The Hippopotamus Song’. This year’s performance was especially poignant because many of us know we almost lost Jack last year following his November 30, 2012 surgery to remove a portion of his left lung.

Last Saturday night he sang with every bit of his usual gusto. I won’t soon forget it. Here’s a taste:

Memories are highlights to savour long after the event is over, and I have so many…

Lots of memories:

Meeting new friends,
reuniting with old friends from previous years’ conferences, and
celebrating their achievements

Sharing a special weekend of  mother/daughter camaraderie

Attending eight excellent workshops (out of a choice of 72),
listening to six sensational keynote speakers,
being brave and bold through two agent and editor interviews,
and an oh-so helpful Blue Pencil consultation with Hallie Ephron

Author Hallie Ephron

Author Hallie Ephron

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Being reminded,
“There are people out there
who need the stories only YOU can write…
Your voice matters.”

(Jim Hines)
and yes, Jim, we do have Internet here in Canada!

Author Jim Hines

Author Jim Hines

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Lots of smiles:

A young women, barefoot and wearing scanty pajamas,
creeping out of the elevator in the hotel lobby
“I locked myself out of my room”
(No, of course I didn’t have my camera handy!)

The heartbeat at Michael Slade’s Friday night ‘Shock Theatre’…
“Ba-boom! ba-boom! ba-boom!”
and Robert Dugoni with a pumpkin over his head!

Gravatar???”
and exchanging great lunchtime conversation with
Seth Jaret

Borrowing extra wine glasses from the bartender

“You gotta be bad. You gotta be bold. You gotta be wiser…”*
(the finale to Bruce Hale‘s keynote speech Sunday)

There are umpteen more memories lurking in remote crevices of my overfilled brain, but it’s time to take myself to bed and begin the post-conference decompressing.

How do you extricate the gems after a condensed period of ‘information overload’?

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*You Gotta Be (Des’ree)

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The Frustration of Misunderstanding

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To be misunderstood can be the writer’s punishment
for having disturbed the reader’s peace.
The greater the disturbance, the greater the possibility of misunderstanding.

Anatole Broyard

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I read agents’ blogs for several reasons. One is to learn as much as I can about the publishing industry. Another is to learn what separates one agent from another as an author’s representative. I’m naïve enough to believe I’m eventually going to find the agent that God has in mind for me – that one person who believes in my work and wants to help me refine it, then be an advocate for it with publishing houses.

The agent/author relationship strikes me as being much like a marriage. There’s need of good communication, mutual understanding and appreciation, trust and commitment, and the willingness to apologize when necessary.

Until this past weekend I don’t think I’ve ever come across an agent who said, “I messed up royally,” but those are the exact words of Books & Such agent Rachelle Gardner, along with “I completely miscommunicated.” Personally, I didn’t think she messed up at all, but her blog post entitled “Will My Publisher Let Me Self-Publish Too?” in which she attempted “to explain the publishers’ concerns in this new age of hybrid authors who are both traditionally- and self-published,” set off an explosion among her readers. Several of them misunderstood her stance and took offence.

Such an outcry! But rather than show frustration with those who clearly missed her point, with her usual grace Rachelle accepted the blame for miscommunicating and took the time to respond to several commenters and write a second post* to clarify her words and correct the misunderstanding. What a wonderful example of Christian humility and patience!

Human nature often makes us want to defend our choices, to justify and argue. It’s not easy to take criticism, or to say, “I’m sorry. Let me try and get it right this time” when you weren’t wrong in the first place. In an industry that’s all about words, communication and relationships, Rachelle Gardner has demonstrated the qualities that set her apart as an extraordinary agent and author advocate.

What’s the one most important characteristic you would hope to find in an agent representing you and your work?

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Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating
than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

A tender answer turns away rage,
 but a prickly reply spikes anger.

Proverbs 15:1 (The Voice)
 ~

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* EXCERPT:

“On Monday I wrote a post in which I attempted to explain the publishers’ concerns in this new age of hybrid authors who are both traditionally- and self-published. But I messed up royally.

“In my effort to illuminate the publisher’s perspective on things, I inadvertently came across as completely defending the publishers’ viewpoints, and somehow being on the side of “Big Pub” (as some commenters put it) rather than being an advocate for authors. That was my mistake. I badly miscommunicated, and I regret it because it led to so much misunderstanding.” (Rachelle Gardner)

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More Conference Thoughts and an Inadequate Thank You

I’ve been reflecting on the people involved with the Surrey Conference. So many people! They all had an impact on how I experienced the conference and yet many of them I didn’t directly encounter. For every visible contribution there were at least ten more from behind the scenes, and every one was important to the success of the whole. I’m thankful for all of them. This conference is always the highlight of my writing year.

From its small beginnings, instigated in 1993 by Ed Griffin, the conference has mushroomed in both numbers and impact. It has a reputation for drawing people well known throughout the writing community. The 1994 conference featured the late best-selling author Maeve Binchey as a keynote speaker. Since then, author Jack Whyte has been coming for nineteen years; Diana Gabaldon for eighteen. Anne Perry arrives annually from England. Michael Slade and Robert J. Sawyer have become regulars. Top NY agent and author Donald Maass figured this was his sixteenth or seventeenth year. Why do they keep returning? Why do so many others — authors, agents, editors, publishers and screenwriters — willingly join the panel of over sixty presenters every year?

Yes, they probably enjoy the camaraderie, and perhaps they benefit in ways beyond selling additional books, but I suspect it’s more about the giving back. One thing I’m learning in my journey is that every successful writer was once a newbie, and those memories prod many of them to reach out a helping hand and an understanding heart to those who are still en route.

Donald Maass

Not one of them keeps the ‘secrets of their success’ to themselves. They’re always more than generous about sharing their wisdom and experience. Donald Maass was wrung out with the last of a cold when he arrived at the hotel, but he still gave us a dynamic three-and-a-half hour workshop Thursday evening, and then offered to carry on the conversation over his meal and a glass of wine in the lounge afterwards. (That last bite of burger must have been very cold, Don!)

Jack Whyte

Jack Whyte didn’t disappoint with his memorable annual rendition of the Hippopotamus Song, “Mud, Mud, Glorious Mud” on Saturday evening, despite lapsing into total laryngitis afterwards. When he had no voice for his final workshop Sunday morning, he didn’t just send his regrets… he brought them to us in person. (Sure hope he’s feeling okay now.)

Kathy Chung

k.c. dyer

From morning’s first light to the latest hours of the night, conference coordinator Kathy Chung, her sidekick kc dyer, and their fellow Board and Committee members were everywhere, sometimes white with exhaustion, but still smiling and making sure everyone was having a good conference experience. I don’t know how they did it all, but I know why. Because they believe in the goal that has been the conference mandate for all twenty years: “To inspire, educate and motivate aspiring and experienced writers alike.”

I know I came away inspired, educated and motivated thanks to their dedication and efforts, and that of all the others who were there working for my benefit. It was another awesome conference weekend, and a simple ‘thank you’ hardly seems adequate.

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[There are a couple flashes of static in this video, but for those who’d like to hear Jack sing it, here’s my 2007 YouTube version of his “Glorious Mud”.]

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When sunsets and stories are “too quiet”

This past week I’ve been on a ‘sunset-photo-collecting spree. Every evening the sky has flamed with streaks of gold and orange, apricot, pink and purple, and occasionally even red. It’s been glorious!

(A click will enlarge photos for an improved view.)

I wasn’t seeking impressive photo compositions, just shots of the sky, but in the city it isn’t easy to find a location with an uninterrupted view of the heavenly display. My choice of picture-taking locations are pretty tame compared to my son-in-law’s innovativeness. Some shots turned out uninteresting, despite the colours… a little too “quiet”. Then I came across literary agent Carly Watters’ recent blog post about stories being too quiet and was intrigued with the comparison — even good writing can produce uninteresting results. As Carly puts it, “It can be very well written but it might fall into the ‘forgettable’ category.” What makes a novel stand out? Or, conversely, what causes it to be forgettable? Check out Carly’s post here, and then evaluate your current work. Will it stand out as an extraordinary read, or just an ordinary one?

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(Carly Watters is an Associate Agent at the P.S. Literary Agency.)

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Are we poisoning our chances for publication?

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Common snowberry, or Symphoricarpos albus, is a deciduous shrub in the honeysuckle family. It grows wild on shady hillsides and woodland areas but its attractive clusters of white berries have also made it a popular ornamental shrub in many gardens.

It grows in wild abundance on our family’s Okanagan property and provides winter food for quail and pheasant. In other areas it’s also browsed by deer, bighorn sheep and bear.

On a recent visit I admired the shrub and came home to research its name. Despite its innocuous appearance, I found one source (Wikipedia) that said snowberries are considered poisonous to humans. “The berries contain the isoquinoline alkaloid chelidonine, as well as other alkaloids. Ingesting the berries causes mild symptoms of vomiting, dizziness, and slight sedation in children.”

We have a lot of wild berries in BC, many of which are edible, but some are known to be poisonous while others are of doubtful edibility or are just plain unpalatable. Around our property each spring we have bushes that bear small red berries that I think are huckleberries. In fact, I’m pretty sure that’s what they are… but not sure enough to eat them. I’m going to take a sample to our local nursery next spring and get a knowledgeable opinion.

In this case I think I’m smart to admit I don’t know what I don’t know. When in doubt, be cautious. Go do some research. That’s not a bad philosophy in writing, too. Barging headlong into unfamiliar situations without first doing adequate research can often cause irreparable damage.

A couple years ago agent Rachelle Gardner posted a “Friday Rant” about people who fall into her inbox looking for an agent. They pitch work that she doesn’t rep; they’ve clearly made no effort to read guidelines or learn about the querying process; they “aren’t taking the time to approach publishing seriously.” In their ignorance they alienate agents and effectively kill any chance of having their work considered.

That’s not very smart if their goal is publication.

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When tackling something new in life or writing, how do you determine the proper approach? Do you prefer to jump in first and ask questions later? And here’s another question: Do you think it’s unfair to be penalized for ignorance?

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What happens at SiWC….

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What happens in Surrey doesn’t necessarily stay in Surrey! If this video by Kimberly (@kimmydon) doesn’t convince you the Surrey International Writers’ Conference is THE place to be, nothing will. Where else would you see uber-agent Donald Maass literally stripping the [auctioned] shirt off the back of uber-author Robert Dugoni?


I couldn’t get to the conference this year, but followed the highlights via Twitter and Facebook, and am already looking forward to attending the 2012 conference — its twentieth anniversary year. It’s impossible to contemplate missing this conference two years in a row, though not necessarily because of the fun aspects.

Were you there? Or have you attended other conferences this year? What were the highlights for you?

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Paralyzed by Fear

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The fabric has well-defined folds and wrinkles from being squashed under a stack of tablecloths and placemats. It’s a batik I created somewhere around 1985. I’ve kept it because I enjoyed the experience of making it and love its colours, but it has resided in a drawer hidden under table linens for all these years because I felt it wasn’t good enough to display.

"Moonrise" - Batik by Carol Garvin

 

Early last week agent Rachelle Gardner wrote about not being able to hit ‘send’ when it comes to submitting our writing. “What holds us back?” she wrote. “It’s our fear of failure. As soon as we put it out there, we become open to rejection. What if we did it wrong? What if it’s not good enough? What if someone says it’s horrible? Can I handle that?”

‘Paralyzed by fear’ may be a cliché, but when your finger hovers over the ‘send’ key and, with a mind of its own, refuses to engage, what else do you call it? Reluctance? Nervousness?  Timidity? They’re too tame. It’s fear all right.

I rarely enter writing contests, but in three of the years that I attended the Surrey International Writers’ Conference I submitted entries in the associated contests… and finalled each time. It isn’t a contest that offers feedback so I’ve never known what the judges liked or what they thought was lacking. One might think the obvious next step would be to submit to contests that do offer feedback, but I’ve become familiar with the Surrey Conference. Anywhere else is out of my comfort zone.

In my comment on Rachelle’s post I said, “I think I’ll recognize God’s prodding when it’s time to make the move.” Immediately after leaving her site I clicked over to Ann Voskamp’s blog as my last read of the day, and found this among Ann’s words: “We’re in the God zone when we’re out of our comfort zone….” Now, if that isn’t prodding, I don’t know what is!

“Don’t wait for perfection,” said Rachelle. “You want your work to be as strong as possible, yet you can’t just wait forever, always saying, “I can do better.” At some point, you’ve got to listen to your gut when it tells you, “This thing’s good to go.”

So-o-o-o… this past weekend I polished required submission material to a sheen, and sent my entry off to its first “uncomfortable” destination, a contest with written critiques from multiple judges.

It wasn’t easy. I stared at that ‘send’ key for a long time. But it’s done, and now I’m about to take an iron to the batik. Then I plan to get it framed.

Are there obstacles that prevent you from moving ahead into your desired tomorrows? What will it take to overcome them?

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I Like It. She Doesn’t.

Not long ago I mentioned that I don’t choose books based on reviews. What one reader likes in a story isn’t always what satisfies another. Do you ever wonder why that is? Why one agent passes on a manuscript because it doesn’t ignite a spark, and yet another agent will become a passionate advocate of the same story?

Some years ago I designed a small stained glass piece for a church group in Port Alberni — a fish symbol suspended on the diagonal midway between the indigo of sky and ocean, and the green of land. Deciding on exactly the right colours wasn’t easy. Depending on where it would hang (south-facing window, on a wall, in a dark alcove, etc.), the light would affect the perception of its colours.

A Benedictine monastery near where I live provides a worshipful environment enhanced by the effect of unusual stained glass windows. The chapel is circular, and the colours of the glass gradually change from one window to another around the perimeter. Depending on the time of day and location of the sun, the light infusing the chapel glows with different hues.

It’s only my opinion, but my heart tells me that each individual sees the intensity of colour differently, according to where they stand in a room. Each feels degrees of emotion in relation to their own experiences. Each receives an author’s words into the unique arena of their own preferences.

One person likes our writing. Another doesn’t. It’s nothing personal. Then again, it’s all about personal taste and individual choice. It’s true in stained glass, in all forms of art, so why not in writing?


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