Surrey Writer’s Con (Epilogue)

Joe’s Post #68

A few final thoughts as I wait for Trick or treaters.

1) Best time to snag extra interviews with agents and editors – Friday. Saturday is as busy as a NY subway in rush hour and there were no spots available. Unless you’re better at stalking people than I was, book your favorite early then leap on any openings on Friday. Get it done fast so you can have fun on the other days (unless you like pitching.)

2) Research your agent and/or editor. Read their blogs, if they have them, (and most do), and look at not only what they say they’re looking for but what they’ve actually worked on or represented.

3) Something an editor said to me, “if you get a mean agent/editor, you don’t want them.”  Hey, you’ll be working with them for a very long time so why would you want to work with a blue-meanie?

4) Coffee is not always your friend. I know it looks like a friend, smells all nice and warm, but I tell you, after 6 cups in 2 hours, you run the risk of looking like you’re jacked up like a meth addict having scored a bucket-full of ‘blue sky’ from Walter White.

5)  Listen. Really listen. Come with an open mind. Come with the thoughts that some people may be farther down the road than you and others, well, not (but even they might have a nifty idea or two.) Come prepared to listen to the little conversations that happen in the cupcake lineup, in the workshop after the presentation (or before), at the lunch tables hosted by the presenters. You’ll be amazed what you pick up.

A few other tidbits, or perhaps some of the stranger things I heard.

“So, I’m like going to build my audience by social media so that by the time my book comes out, everyone will be excited to see it and rush out to buy it.”

“So you haven’t written the book, yet?”

“No, man, no, why would I?”

(Why indeed? I know I would buy a novel someone hadn’t actually written but blogged about a lot. Right? Right?)


“Do you think it’s important to have experienced what you’re writing about?”

Me: “Yes and no.”

“I’m writing a book about being on the inside of a mental institute. I’ve been in them. A lot. I just got out.”

Me: “Then I would say, yes, that would help you sell that book about as much as anything. Oh look, someone I know. Over there. Bye.”

Anyway, tomorrow I begin the “LAST” rewrite of my YA novel, taking into account some of the things I’ve learned. Next week, the queries begin. Again.

And look at a new project.

Dubbed The Secret Project of Secret Awesomeness




Fear, hope and exhilaration

Karalee’s Post #52

Fear, hope, and exhilaration.

This triple combo of words came to me while I was visiting the Kennedy Space Center in Florida last week. I’ve always loved science and jumped at the opportunity to explore the Space Center with my husband (who is definitely a science and computer geek).

Since the U.S. is in-between scheduled projects at the present time, we took the Mega tour that allowed us to go inside the Vehicle Assembly Building and then right out to one of the launch pads where both the Apollo and Space Shuttle vehicles were rocketed skyward.

Vehicle Assembly Building

Vehicle Assembly Building

launch pad at Kennedy Space Center

launch pad at Kennedy Space Center










The scale is immense and the time and effort exerted to put man into space is astounding. 

Rocket Garden at the Kennedy Space Center

Rocket Garden at the Kennedy Space Center

lunar capsule

lunar capsule


When I saw the size of the Apollo Saturn 1B rocket (the only horizontal rocket in the Rocket Garden), and then the size of the lunar capsule sitting near the tip of the Saturn rocket, my mind went through the stages that I feel the astronauts’ probably did too:






I expect that this triple combination of words expresses what most people feel when they take on any task that runs a risk of failure, such as:

  • writing a book
  • entering a competition (first man on the moon, best short story, etc.)
  • learning a difficult task (becoming an astronaut, writing a book, etc.)
  • making a commitment (building a rocket to get man into outer space, writing a book, etc)

Fear comes first. Many people don’t move beyond this, but those that do are willing to push forward because of the hope of succeeding and the exhilaration that follows that success.

For me learning the craft of writing, belonging to a writing group, and writing, writing, and writing some more, are all helping me move from fear to hope. And to tell the truth, I have experienced moments of exhilaration going back and rereading some of my own work. I don’t need to be “published” to have those moments of excitement, but I know it isn’t close to what I will feel the day my efforts all come together in a published book.

It might not be as exhilarating as surviving the blast-off of a rocket and the subsequent safe return to earth, but hey, I’ll risk it.

Happy writing.

On the road, – again!


Paula’s Post #50 – Yeah! My 50th 5writers post!

While the title does, indeed, sound like a tired, shopworn re-tread of an old Willy Nelson song, this week I truly am, ‘On the Road Again‘, revelling in the liberating adventure of starting each day afresh, my husband and best friend at my side, (yes, one and the same) two snoozing puppies on the back seat, a long ribbon of highway stretching out before us.

A really long ribbon of highway.

2500 kilometres is a heck of a road trip. Vancouver to Palm Springs. But who doesn’t love a good road trip?

We left Vancouver last Thursday afternoon with no itinerary other than to spend the first two days enjoying the company of family in my hometown of Portland, Oregon.

No Powells’s City of Books this trip (Mecca to all readers and writers, as you may know if you read my post from my last visit to Portland).


How can one contemplate a visit to Powell’s when a starry-eyed three-year old has her sights set on the ‘Punkin Patch’?

Some moments in life are too precious to miss.

Imagine the bristly feel of a pumpkin stem, rough as boar’s bristles against the palm of your hand. For me, the mere sensation of that itchy stem is enough to dredge up a wealth of childhood memories: wood smoke and burning leaves, pumpkin carving with my Dad, my Mom roasting pumpkin seeds in the oven and sewing cat tails and bunny rabbit ears on tatty old leotards, recycling them into the sort of odd, pre-Walmart version of Halloween costumes we had as kids. The only kind we ever knew.

At the farm, the colours of fall are all around us: orange and yellow and brown and that strange shade of green that shows up as fine dots against the dark orange backdrop of a pumpkin’s skin. I’m reminded of my primary school days in Portland and the colours of a grade school art project. You remember. The kind where your first grade teacher tells you to bring fallen leaves to school and then, near the end of the day, when you’re feeling all squirmy and watching the clock, she brings out the Elmer’s glue and lets you glue the leaves onto construction paper and sign your name at the bottom and call it art.


No wonder I never learned to draw.

But that’s the thing about road trips. They help you remember things. Long ago forgotten things. And they help you think. About family. About friends. About what’s really important in life.

And as vivid as these half-remembered childhood memories of Halloween seem, once out in the pumpkin patch itself, this jumble of images suddenly dissolves away, over-powered by a flood of crazy emotions, inexorably entwined with an unseen future, with every hope and dream a grandparent can harbour for a  grand-daughter as I watch my little grand-daughter trip over a pumpkin root and go sprawling in the mud. I stop breathing. But she jumps up and dashes off to visit the Vietnamese pot-bellied piglets and I take a deep breath and follow.

When we leave Portland, I’m only happy because I know this time it is just a couple of weeks before we will see her again. Happy that she won’t have time to grow another inch. Happy that we’ve planned a visit to the San Diego Zoo in mid-November and it is already marked on the calendar.

So by Saturday morning, all too quickly we’re on the road again, whizzing down I-5 in a ghostly fog, perfect for the “haunting season”, our truck is surrounded by a convoy of Duck fans, their cars decked out in green and gold, replete with little yellow ‘duck feet’ stamped all over the sides.

We stop at a Starbucks south of Portland to ‘fuel up’. The place is jammed with fans. The U of O faithful are showing the colours, most middle-aged and older couples heading south to Eugene for the big game against UCLA. My husband is fascinated and wants to discuss this odd phenomenon of tribalism and, after a while, I too am left reflecting on ‘wants’ and ‘needs’. On tribalism and the need to ‘belong’.  As Joe recently reminded us, another essential tool in every writers’ toolkit, – the need to understand the very real need to feel part of the group. To fit in.

Go ducks

Everything about this road trip has me thinking about writing. Story ideas… human emotions… backstory, setting, mood, theme, story arc.

Maybe Joe’s posts from the Surrey conference having something to do with it, but I find I can’t help thinking about all my 5writers colleagues and all the hard work they’ve done this year. I’m following Joe’s blog posts on my iPhone, cheering on his success with his agent interviews at the Surrey conference, biting my lip when I read of his worries about his pitch.

Come on Joe! I so want you to nail this!

We cut over to the coast at Corvallis and by the time we descend the hill above Newport and catch the first glimpse of rugged Oregon coastline, my mind is in full writers’ mode. Observant, engaged, thinking up stories….

Like those amazing offshore rock formations – mysterious… majestic… treacherous.


What was it like to be a young sailor with the early explorers? Fog, crashing surf, soul killing cold, monstrous sea creatures, mist shrouded forests… a landscape that must have looked like nothing from back home. Is that boy frightened? Excited? Did he sign onto this voyage or was he the victim of a press-gang? Is he running from something… or running to something? Is he excited to make land, or dreading what they might find there? Mesmerized by the stories of ‘savages’ and wild beasts? Spellbound by the fantastical tails spun by old salts…

But a writer’s mind is never at rest and before I know it the boy on the sailing ship is forgotten.


Sorry, but I’ve already moved on and am thinking about a different scared kid. The one a couple of hundred years later, holed up in the claustrophobic, cramped interior of a Japanese submarine, cruising the depths of the Pacific. Is he frightened? What of? Drowning? Death? Shame? Or maybe something as mundane as mere boredom? How long has it been since the sub’s support ship refueled and re-provisioned them? What do they have left to eat and drink? A bit of fetid water? Mealy rice and dried fish?  I doubt they had sushi, so what did they eat? Did they all get along, or did the crew bicker and fight like school girls when tempers wore thin, or brood and plot revenge over slights, real and imagined?

So, thinking about Japanese submarines, of course I had to look it up. Did you know that according to The Oregon History Project, on the night of June 21, 1942, a Japanese submarine fired seventeen shells at Fort Stevens, near Astoria. Most of the shells missed and landed in a swamp at the edge of the fort. Some exploded on the beach or buried themselves in the sand, but Fort Stevens has the distinction of being the only military installation in the continental United States to be fired on since the War of 1812.

If you haven’t figured out by now, I like to look these things up.

The miles slip by. As we pas each tiny town, I make up new stories. Wondering about who grew up in this town? Who stayed? Who left? And why?

By day’s end Saturday, we pull up in Gold Beach at the mouth of the Rogue River. The beach not really that golden, the town not really far enough south, but comfortable enough for the night and, hey – the Gold Beach Inn welcomes dogs! Finding a place to stay with TWO dogs not always that easy

By Sunday morning, we cross the border into California and wind through the majestic Redwood Forest, (which I hate to admit, mostly looks like a lot of British Columbia), but still a mystical experience, especially if you can’t get up to British Columbia.

And if you like twisty roads, this is the place for you.  I recommend the one linking Hwy 101 at Leggett with Westport over on Hwy 1, the latter the true ‘coast road’ in Northern California. Drive that twisty roadway  -average speed 15 miles an hour, -and you’ll soon understand why the Mendocino coast is a veritable haven of unspoiled beauty.

No one can get there!

But this trip we were in no rush and since neither of us has driven down that particular stretch of Hwy 1 before, we decide to make this detour and are rewarded with stunning ocean vistas, a sumptuous ‘room with a view’ and twin rocking chairs on the porch at Sunday night’s stopping point, the gorgeous ‘Little River Inn‘ on the outskirts of Mendocino, California. 

Little River Inn Rockers

Ah, I admit it.

I’m shallow.

I love my petty little luxuries.

We haul the dogs and half our luggage into the room. I read through the entire leather-bound hotel guide and discover the same family have owned the place since the 1850’s. ‘Cool’, I think.

And that the Inn has been in continuous operations since 1939, now run by the founder’s descendants. ‘Cool’. Right away, I think up more stories and find myself imagining who might have stayed here in the past? How did it survive?

Because inquiring minds want to know, I’ve soon researched everything I can find about the Inn and the town of Mendocino, aka ‘Mendo’. Did you know they filmed ‘Murder She Wrote‘ in Mendocino. And that they’ve just announced they’re reviving the series?

I love a good cozy.

Sometimes, I think that is my true genre and I should just face it and concentrate on writing a delicious culinary cozy with dozens of improbable plot twists.

If nothing else, the research should prove reward in and of itself.

If I were writing a cozy, right here is the part where I’d describe the delicious gourmet meal we ordered from the Little River Inn’s room service, but in true ‘I-can-not-tell-a-lie-fashion’ I admit we were starving. We ordered cheeseburgers and fries and watched the World Series on TV.

Oh the shame of it all.

Maybe I better come back and explore more of the menu?

Monday morning we pack up the dogs and luggage and leave Mendocino. More twisty bits, hugging Hwy 1 south. I want to stop at the coastal cemeteries we pass and take time to read the headstones, all in pursuit of more story fodder, but something inside me is screaming…. quit wasting time… you’ve got to keep moving.

So we do.

At the tiny town of Jenner, just above Bodega Bay in Sonoma County, we cut inland towards Interstate 5  but get caught for hours on something called ‘The Old Bohemian Highway‘.

More twisty bits. Scenic, but slow going.

Time to think up more stories.

But now that we’ve finally made the decision to hit the interstate, I’m anxious to make time.

When we do reach the freeway, I-5 seems incredibly monotonous, our little truck bookended between big rigs, buffeted by the force of their draft. We’re stuck in the middle like marshmallows, sandwiched in a ‘Smores.

I consult the map and TripAdvisor, but the only oasis of tranquility I can find for a half way decent waypoint between San Francisco and LA, is the Harris Ranch Inn, located near the truck stop in Coalinga, north of Bakersfield.

Truck stop? Seriously?

Not promising, I know.

But my mouth falls open in surprise as I gaze at this enormous pink complex, part restaurant, part Inn, part working farm, part agro-tourism attraction. All I can say is a night in the ‘Jockey Club‘ bar and I feel revived, I’ve come away with dozens more story inspirations.

This morning, road weary and anxious to arrive at our destination we stop at Starbucks (again) and I wonder why I ever sold my shares in that company. By high, sell low.

I mean, really, how did they manage to get me so hooked?

Now, I think I’ve actually become addicted to their oatmeal of all things.


I’m wondering what they sprinkle in it as we head up the Tejon Pass towards Los Angeles. Is that the secret? Have they infused Starbucks Coffee, Starbucks Oatmeal, Starbucks Blueberry Scones with some sort of GMO secret ingredient that leads to addiction?

I think I’m on to something, but before we reach the summit at Tejon Pass our GPS  ‘hijacks’ us and detours us onto some crazy route through the Angeles mountains, north of LA.

More twisty narrow roadways where the deer and the antelope play. And rattlesnakes. And tumbleweeds. More story ideas.

And of course I can’t help thinking about Joe.

Hey Joe, no kidding! We drove through Desert Rain’s territory today, traversing the entire depressing expanse of the City of ‘Palmdale’ before we found the freeway south towards Palm Springs and hightailed it out of there.

I called out to Lou as we passed.

You can call it ‘programmer error’ if you want, but I stoutly deny the charge.

I’m convinced that snooty English bitch, you know, the one who is always harping on you to ‘turn right soon….‘ was just being spiteful.

Sort of like ‘Hal’ in 2001, A Space Odyssey. Come to think of it, that would make a pretty cool story, too. A magical, wilful GPS Nav system that transports you wherever IT wants you to go. Maybe the system is even tied into something that works like a time machine and hurtles you back in time and… and…

Calm down, Paula.

My stories are getting crazier and I admit it is just possible I’ve been on the road too long. 

We make Palm Springs late in the afternoon. The house looks great and I can’t wait to get settled in and jot down some memories of some of the people, places and things we saw on the road trip down.

I’m just old enough to remember an old black and white television show called ‘The Naked City’. Maybe you’re old enough to remember it too. Depends what kind of Halloween costume you wore as a kid. The show always ended with the line: 

There are a million stories in the Naked City. This has been one of them. 

It’d be a shame not to write some of them down.

Naked City

Surrey Writer’s Con (Act 3 – Success or Not?)

Joe’s Post #67

successWas it a success?

Well, no one said, “OMG, I HAVE to read this novel, send it out right away, no wait, print it up and give it to me now, I’m going to cancel everything else and read it… and get you a cupcake.”

But setting that up as the measure of success is unrealistic. And a bit silly. It’s sort of like me thinking I’m the handsomest, funniest, tallest guy in the bar. I may think that way after 4 shots of tequila, but it’s not reality.

The reality is that I got great feedback on the challenges I will face in submitting this novel. On Friday, I heard this loud and clear and it was depressing. Really shoulder-slumping depressing. But with sober second thought, if I know there’s a problem, I can rework my selling tools to deal with that. I won’t run from the concerns, I’ll tackle them head on and see if I can find a way to make someone believe in this story as much as I do.

So let’s take another look at this.

I managed to pitch 5 agents and editors, I talked to one more in a workshop. All good. However, I missed talking to one agent due to some really bad timing decisions on my part, and a complete inability to stalk someone. I thought I could do a quick pitch as she left the interviewing room but she was nowhere to be found. I thought she might be at the supper but despite walking around with a glass of water and stopping at every table and staring at everyone with a Gomer Pyle expression on my face, I couldn’t see her, even though I found the agents table.

I think I will have to learn how to stalk properly.

Epic fail on the stalking.

But a success (for the most part) on the whole ‘meet important people thing’.

My pitch, though, was off. It failed to connect or at least create something that agents or editors thought was magical (and by that, I mean sellable.) I went with a character-theme heavy pitch but I needed to emphasis an audience and what would make it sell.

My bad. I’ll be far better prepared next time. I already have some ideas.

But epic fail on the pitch part.

However, my ability to haul my sorry ass out of a bad pitch was pretty good. Not REALLY good as my nerves may have log-jammed-up my thoughts and I may spit out words like a mini-gun spits out bullets, but with the exception of one editor, I convinced them there was at least something to look at. Or they took pity on me. Either way is fine.

So, success there.

seanAs well, epic success on the query. That one I got right. After retooling it at 1am. Again, thanks for my buddy Sean (who’s celebrating his latest book, The Guilty, and probably working on a way to get a topless picture of himself in the next fireman’s calendar.)

Epic success, at least for me, on meeting new people as well. It got easier and easier and reminded me that I’m not alone in this quest to get published.

Lastly, my business card rocked! In my darker moments, I think the agents/editors agreedphoto (5) to look at my stuff because they loved my card.

So, all things considered, the conference was very much like my real life, there were moments of hope and moments of despair, there were ups and there were downs – and there were cupcakes. I’m proud that no matter how terrified I was to go and pitch my novel, especially when I began to realize my pitch was massively off, I still went in and did it and did it again and again. I never did overcome my fear but I didn’t let it stop me from doing what must be done.

Score one for the good guys.

I also think I have three of the most important skills a writer needs.

1) Pigheaded stubbornness (stupidity?) to keep doing this no matter the setbacks or math that says my chances are slim.

2) The desire to keep learning, to write better, to find a way around or through obstacles and barriers.

3) And of course, perhaps foolishly, I believe I can write and tell a good story.

I’ll be back again next year.

I hope to see more people there. If you go, make sure to come up to me and say hi. I’ll be the nerdy-looking guy in the business center taping away on my laptop, a cup of coffee and remains of a cupcake nearby.

Surrey Writer’s Con (Act 3 – Or Joe Get’s Schooled in YA)

Joe’s Post #66

IMG_1555[1]So let me give you an insight into a workshop. A Joe’s-eye view.

Writing Captivating YA

By Janet Gurtler

Funny. Charming. YA Writer (That should be on her business card)

The words on the screen are “Write the SHIT out of everything.”

Immediately, I know I’m a gonna love this workshop.

First up, I’m the only guy here. This is one of my hurdles. A guy writing about 16 hear old girls. Wait, hold on, just as the workshop is about to start another guy walks in. He’s wearing a hat. And hipster glasses. Maybe I need a hat and hipster glasses.

I sit and listen to Janet, (yes, I feel I can call her Janet, we’d talked about mistaken identities and hookers for goodness sake) and she stressed – then demonstrated – how important voice was in YA. Well, voice in anything really but here, voice trumps clever writing, perfect grammar and a well chosen font.

And listening to her own words, how Hunger Games opened, how John Green writes, it suddenly occurs to me that I need to do better. Maybe a lot better. Not that I can’t do it, but I will clearly have to kick up my voice.

She talks about how YA deals with teen issues – coming of age, etc. YA lets readers know they are not alone, that their experiences aren’t abnormal, that there are others like them out there. YA deals with FIRSTS, first love, first heartbreaks, first dances, first loss, with bodies changing, with difficult decisions having to be made and with difficult personal issues, real or imagined that they have to encounter every day.

All good stuff.

As she talked, though, I thought more and more about my story, about my character and all sorts of depth came to mind, ways to make them more like teenagers, and less like, well, me. I wrote notes, quick scenes, snatches of dialogue, inspiring me more and more.

I could so make this a better novel.

She ended with 16 ways to build a YA character. Some of them you have probably seen before, but some are brilliant.

1) What does this character want? What do they need to accomplish? (I totally have this in spades, but wait, do I? Do I really? Have I shown this want? Or told the reader about it?)

2) What’s stopping him or her from getting it? (I got this.)

3) What is the character’s most notable physical trait? What do they notiice, what do others notice? (Oh, these are gems! Brilliant questions!)

4) What is this character’s greatest flaw(s)? (I don’t even write a word until I have this down.)

5) What do you know about this character that she will never admit? (oh, holy hell, another gem! This so got me thinking about that dark, shameful secret we all have buried deep within us.)

6) What is your character’s secret wish, but may never ever get? (Also good!)

embarassing7) What is your characters most embarrassing moment? (I never even thought about this one. What would it be and how would it define who they’d become?)

8) What does the character sing in the shower? (neat detail)

9) What is the characters deepest regret? (A subtle but powerful question!)

10)        What is this character deepest fear? (Got that but it’s something I often bug my other writers about until they want to hit me with their Macbooks.)

11)        What is their greatest hope? (see above)

12)        Whom does this character most want to please?!?!?!?! (fucking hell, that’s the best question EVER!)

13)        Why is this character angry (or why not?)

14)        What calms them down? (Wow, this is not something I would have thought about either. Or how do they react to stress?)

15)        List the choices – not circumstance – that led this character to his/her predicament. (Not a question but a GREAT exercise.)

16)        Who depends on this character? (OMG another wow question!)

And one last great piece of advice…


Anyway, after leaving, I knew I needed to do 3 things. So I came up with a plan.

1) I need to make sure I know how a 16 year old girl thinks and speaks. I will place an ad on Craigslist that says, “middle-aged writer wants 16year old girl.” I’m sure that’ll solve the problem.

2) I need to remember that clever writing is not always in the voice or the head of my YA character. I will do better to see the world through their eyes and experiences.

3) I’m going to have to do back and re-read a few books. I read Hunger Games like a reader. I need to look at it again like a writer. Ditto John Green. Or whoever did that Divergence novel.

But a fantastic workshop. I was so pumped to get home and write!

Surrey Writer’s Con (Act 3 – Or Chatty-Joe Returns)

Joe’s Post #65

sleepSaturday night I slept the sleep of the dead. Well, I wasn’t really dead, but I was sure exhausted. Not that Saturday was bad, quite the contrary, but I was no longer running pitches and queries in my head, or reviewing how I could have said something funnier, smarter, more amazing while sitting with the agents/editors. Like most people, at 3am I can usually come up with that perfect thing to say about 8 hours ago. Oh for a time machine.

Anyway, Sunday, I had only fun workshops remaining. One about travel writing, one of my favourite things to do, and one about writing captivating YA fiction.

What could go wrong?

Nothing. I mean, not really. I had a huge headache, somehow I managed to miss breakfast and the opening keynote speech, (writing this blog, actually, and thinking that the whole thing started a bit later than it did…) but nothing serious.

First up, the YA workshop.

But I arrived a bit early and being all Chatty-Joe again, talked to the presenter, Janet Gurtler, and one of the amazing volunteers setting up the projector.

Here’s a quick snapshot of the conversation (and why I must remember how much fun writer’s conferences can be…)

Let’s call this The Hooker Conversation.

Setting: Nearly empty meeting room. Autumn light filtering in through the blinds. I am sitting in a typical conference chair, my laptop on my lap, a timmies at my feet.

We began to talk about mistaken identity.

“I have a good story,” the volunteer said.

I do like good stories, so I said, “Do tell.”

“Everyone thinks I’m someone else,” she says. “But I’m from a small town of 2000 people. I shouldn’t know that many people. But there I was, in calgary, and someone totally comes up to me, stops, looks me up and down, then pauses for a moment before asking, ‘so how much this time?'”


We laugh.

“But that wasn’t the only time,” the volunteer continues, “In my home town, same thing. Someone approaches me and asks how much? Weird, right? I mean, I wasn’t even dressed like a hooker.”

“I dunno,” I said. “If that was happening to me, I’d work on my price point. Like $10,000 or something.”


The volunteer shakes her head.”So, then when I say I’m not one of those girls he scowls, nods and then asks if I want to go for coffee. ”

“Awesome!” I say. “The guy came in thinking he’d have to pay $200 and now’s hoping he can get it for a cup of coffee. This guy’s got great business sense. He’s a keeper.”

We all laugh again.

“I didn’t do coffee with him,” she says. “I knew what he was all about.”

And the conversation shifts to the projector in the room, something none of us seem to know how to work.

IMG_1557But that was so typical of the conversations that I had over the last 3 days, of the cool little social interactions that happened. Except for Friday night (when I was so done, I can’t even remember what table I sat at for supper, what food I ate, what people I slumped beside), I had such a great time connecting with other writers. There might even be a picture of me being social somewhere.

I got to catch up with Craig Shemilt, from Island Blue, the man who managed to print out the Book of Margot in 3 days so it could be ready for her funeral. I feel I owe him a debt I can never quite repay, but it was good to reconnect and great to hear he was newly married and his business was booming.

I also met a few people who had followed the 5 writers and wanted to say hi, (so awesome!), managed a few seconds with my friend, Jenny, (a published writer) who always seems so bubbly and positive that I want to bottle a part of that and save it for the ‘down days’. I hung with my writer friend, Elena, talked with Tricia who I’d met last year at the conference, joked with Erin, and Jody about what not to do to get an agent, commensurated with a woman who got beat up in the ‘Idol’ workshop, looked massively uncomfortable as one guy spent 20 minutes trying to get me to buy his novel, and, very oddly, loved every 2 minute conversation I had with people about the conference or their writing or what they thought of that guy pitching his novel to everyone.

What a difference a day makes in how I perceived things.

Or what a difference a good sleep makes.

Fear of trying?


Silk’s Post #57 – Clap, clap, clap, clap, clap, clap, clap, clap, clap, clap, clap, clap, clap, clap, clap, clap, clap, clap, clap, clap, clap, clap, clap, clap, clap, clap, clap, clap, clap, clap, clap, clap, clap, clap, clap, clap, clap, clap, clap, clap, clap, clap, clap, clap, clap, clap, clap, clap, clap, clap.

That’s for a magnificent performance by fellow 5writer Joe Cummings, our solo star this year at the Surrey International Writers Conference. Joe did two amazing things this past weekend.

First, he whipped off a monster number of highly entertaining blog posts documenting his experiences and learnings at the conference. Nine of them in four days. NINE! Go read ’em. This is a record that is unlikely to be broken. Ever.

Second, he overcame all the terrors every writer harbours, and put himself – his ego, his work, his ideas, his heart and a number of other unnamed body parts – out there to stand or fall at the whim of the marketplace. He pitched a ton of agents. He submitted his query letter for open critique. He tossed his manuscript in to be publicly lauded or savaged at the SIWC Idol. And then he told all in his blog posts. This is a considerable feat, even for an extrovert, which Joe certainly is not.


And now I’m convinced that Joe is truly serious about getting published. At all costs. Because sometimes that’s what it takes. In fact, maybe it’s the rule.

Forget all the Cinderella stories you’ve ever heard (or dreamed of) about some hermit of a writer getting discovered almost by chance and becoming an international bestseller. Oh, yeah, sure, the writer’s nephew stole a few pages of manuscript and sneaked it off to a publisher who fell under the spell of the story and sought out the shy author, advance cheque in hand. Now there’s a lovely piece of fiction.

Nope. The whole marketing ball-of-wax is hard, sometimes discouraging work. For introverted writers with tender hearts it can be excruciating. You think your job is done when you’ve actually completed your first draft? Done your rewrite? And your second, third and fourth rewrites? Written your query letter and your synopsis and your elevator pitch? Well, sorry to be harsh, but you’d be wrong.

The next step in the process is like stepping off a cliff into thin air. It’s putting it all out there. Your book, your self, your dreams. And that’s not even the hardest part.

The hardest part is what happens next … when NOTHING happens. Maybe you get a few echoes back along with the rejections. Some words of encouragement, if you’re lucky. After months, maybe years of work. It’s the possibility of that NOTHING that keeps writers, even great writers, from putting themselves out there.

The risk of losing your belief in yourself as a writer is terrifying. We’ve all felt it. And the more it matters to you, the scarier it is. Talk about a barrier to action! This is our Mount Everest. Our dragon-infested, unexplored ocean.

Those who overcome their doubts and plunge ahead with open eyes are not fearless. They’re brave in spite of their fears. They’re heroes.

Fear of failure can become fear of trying.

For those who can’t abide risk, who are too sensitive to bear disappointment, who aren’t compelled by some inexplicable obsession to express themselves creatively and publicly, discretion is the better part of valour. But for writers with a calling, nothing will do but to take that plunge.

It takes courage. Often it takes a kind of blind self confidence, even in the face of rejection. Some might even call that ‘faith’.

Here are just a few authors you would never have heard of if they hadn’t kept the faith:

John Grisham – whose first novel, A Time to Kill, was rejected by 16 agents and a dozen publishers.

Robert M. Pirsig – who apparently holds a Guinness record for most rejections of an eventual bestseller, with Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance garnering 121 rejections before it was finally published.

ee cummings – who had to self-publish his first book, The Enormous Room, now considered a masterpiece, after rejection by 15 publishers.

Louis L’Amour — who’s reported to have received 200 rejections before getting his first book published.

L. Frank Baum – who collected all his many, many rejections in a journal he titled Record of Failure, before publishing his first book Mother Goose in Prose, followed by a collection of poetry and then The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (after yet more rejections).

Irving Stone – whose biography of Vincent van Gogh, Lust for Life, was rejected 16 times before going on to sell 25 million copies.

Frank Herbert – whose beloved sci fi blockbuster, Dune, suffered 20 rejections.

Margaret Mitchell – who received 38 rejections before getting Gone With the Wind published.

J. K. Rowling – who famously suffered a dozen rejections of her spectacularly successful Harry Potter series, resulting in 12 publishers who are now very, very sorry they were so dumb.

No wonder few topics have been addressed by writers more often or more eloquently than rejection. Some of my favourites …

“First remember George Seither’s rule: ‘We don’t reject writers; we reject pieces of paper with typing on them.’ Then scream a little …”  — Isaac Asimov

“You have to know how to accept rejection and reject acceptance.” — Ray Bradbury

“This manuscript of yours that has just come back from another editor is a precious package. Don’t consider it rejected. Consider that you’ve addressed it ‘to the editor who can appreciate my work’ and it has simply come back stamped ‘Not at this address’. Just keep looking for the right address.” — Barbara Kingsolver

“There is nothing like rejection to make you do an inventory of yourself.” — James Lee Burke

“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” — Samuel Beckett

“I discovered that rejections are not altogether a bad thing. They teach a writer to rely on his own judgment and to say in his heart of hearts, ‘To hell with you.'” — Saul Bellow

Surrey Writer’s Con (to pee or not to pee)

Joe’s Post #64

How do you tell you’re at a great workshop? Well, let me tell you. When you are willing to cripple your prostate to stay.

That’s what the “Idol’ workshop was like. Jack Whyte, looking thin and frail but still belting out the written words in that beautiful baritone timbre of his, the agents listening and judging (quite gently I might add), and me soaking up every little bit of information.

You see, it was like being in their head for a moment. Forget what you read in books or on the internet or scribbled on the bathroom walls, agents are people, they read a different way than we do and while they long to find that next amazing manuscript, they will look for a way to put it down.

So let me give you some of the things I learned.

Beautiful writing doesn’t count for much. There has to be more. And this leads to one of the main themes. That first page, it needs to do more than one thing. There can’t just be observations (hello, Joe, that’s on you) or dialogue or clever descriptions or even just action. They needed that first page to have pacing and introduce the character and start the story and define location and something has to happen and movement and …

Ok, you don’t have to do EVERYTHING on the first page but there has to be more than one thing. The pages they loved wove in movement and action and dialogue while introducing the main character AND location.

Something I need to look at.

They all hated any story that started with someone waking up.

They all loved a story with VOICE.

They always wanted a reason to care.

They never want to see backstory in the first page, unless it’s in and out fast, like more of a hint of the backstory, but the moment you stop to tell us history, bam, they’d put it down.

Something has to happen. An odd thing to have to write but I know it’s easy to have characters thinking or describing or the author is setting the scene or whatever. Ask yourself. What is happening on page 1? Are they waiting? (Mine are!  Do I have enough tension? Movement? Action? Dialogue?).

But as I sat there, holding my bladder, wishing I was 6 again and could just grab my wienie and pinch it, I realized that if that next page wasn’t awesome, I wanted it gone! I didn’t want to waste a burst bladder on someone writing about what a grain silo looks like.

This went back to something I learned in the Oregon Writing Workshops. We had overnight to create an anthology. 80,000 words. It was 11 pm when we were allowed to start and we had to have it ready by 8 am. It meant we had to chose about 20-25 stories.

Being writers, we read the first story all the way through. And a lot of us, the second. It was midnight, now, and we had a stack, I kid you not, as high as Tyrion Lanister. Hundreds of stories. HUNDREDS! How the hell were we going to choose 20-25 stories? Do the math.
At 30 minutes a story, we could read 18 stories.

So we started to look at the first sentence, that first paragraph and if it was good enough, we put that story aside. Nothing personal. No mean intentions, but it could happen that quick.

Same here. It could happen that quick. An agent is dog tired from a long day, wants to look at a few queries and sample chapters. It’s your chance. But if that first page isn’t GREAT, isn’t amazing, doesn’t hold their attention, they will move on. Nothing personal. No mean intentions. It could be lovely writing. It could be the best that you’ve done. But does it ‘wow’? Cuz that is what we need to do.

On the first page!

However, the biggest lesson to learn here: it’s all subjective. Believe it. Two agents hated one of the submissions. Hated it. One asked to see the book. Go figure.

That is the thing that keeps me hoping against all odds. Forget the 200 rejections. Find that one.

Now, time to take a look at that first page again. What? I have three characters in separate rooms thinking? Seriously? How did that happen?

Surrey Writer’s Con (Act 2 – The query gets put up)

Joe’s Post #63

“This is a learning experience.”  “This is a learning experience.” “This is a learning experience.”

I kept telling myself that as I walked into the workshop run by Penguin Senior Editor, Adrienne Kerr entitled, “Queries that Work”. Hey, let’s face it, I needed to know how to do that, I really, really did. But I also kinda wanted someone, somewhere to say that this query worked.

Damn you, ego. Damn you to hell!

So I sat down, pulled out my query and gave it one last read through. I mean, why not? I’d done it up about 1 am last night and even though I checked it again at 8 am this morning, I’m all about getting it right if I can. No mistakes. No missing words. No hanger instead of hangar errors.

Note to self. Do not trust my ability to see anything at 2 am or 8 the next day. Much to my horror, I found not one but two errors.

Yikes! I knew THE ONE THING every book, every website, every agent ever said was NO ERRORS!

Panicking, I raced downstairs to the office nook and figured out how the computer works (which you’d think wouldn’t be that hard, but when it’s five minutes to a workshop, the world seems to put all sorts of stupid barriers in your way, like password not accepted, administrator not recognized or keyboard not detected.

But I found a computer I could log on to, logged on, loaded up skydrive for word (awesome, btw, for stupid people like me who didn’t even bring a flashdrive) and fixed my problem. I quickly printed out a new copy, tore back upstairs and sat back down. At the front.

No being shy-Joe. The workshop description said there would be a critique and dammit, I was going to look someone in the eye when they said I might want to consider choosing a different career, like being a male model or something.

The workshop turned out to be fantastic. I learned so much about the art of the query and even more importantly, some of the key things agents and editors will actually look for. But the key thing for me was to make sure I did my research. I mean, I do, I really do, but it validated my approach. It’s sort of like not having a computer work. First you check if it’s turned on. Then you shout at it. Then you see if it’s just the screen off … but little by little, you figure out what’s not working (then call someone in to fix it.)

So, researching the agent/editor is a GOOD thing. So, something else is failing.

Time to look at the pitch.

She asked if I wanted to read it out. I think I said “urg” and shook my head.

When Ms. Kerr went through it, it sounded awesome in my ears, sort of like how I look in the mirror sometimes and see George Clooney looking back at me (or, on a bad day, I see John Candy).

Anyway, the query sounded awesome and I held my breath, waiting for the hammer to fall.

But instead, she said it was a great query. She loved that I was able to mention Daniel Kella in my professional history, that I knew what she did and who she worked with, that I had a great comparison to best-selling novels without me saying I will be the next JK Rowling. She loved I had an emotional hook and that I hit some key conflicts in the story.

She asked the audience and the feedback was all pretty positive. No, really positive. The only thing the room agreed needed to be changed was one paragraph moved to the first one read.

Oh how my little Joe-heart soared.

I’d nailed it.

The rollercoaster roared upwards.

Surrey Writer’s Con (Act 2 – Day 2: Operation Inspiration)

Joe’s Post #62

Last night, I went home and retooled the query and pitch. It’s not like yesterday was a complete failure, I managed to get 4 of 5 cards from someone saying send out something, but I didn’t want to fool myself either (for a change). The biggest reason I got permission to send stuff was my ability to claw my way out of the very deep hole I’d dug myself into with my pitch.

So, if it ain’t working, fix it. I called my friend Sean and, being the great guy that he is, he didn’t say no, he was just about to go to bed … or no, he was still in his gimp outfit and kinda tied up at the moment. No, he said send out what you got, what you want to change and let’s see what we can do. After a few emails back and forth, an hour later, we had a working draft. It took another hour to fine tune it, but the query is far, far better for it and my pitch, totally redirected. While I loved the idea of the theme of the book, that power corrupts, a pitch based on that didn’t excite anyone. Even when I wasn’t looking like I was about to throw up or twitching uncontrollably.

Armed with a new query, a new outlook, I’m ready for the day. But I’m also going to try and actually have some fun. Oh, I know I said I should do that but doing five pitches yesterday was about as far from fun as it gets for me.

simon cowellHence, Operation Inspiration. There’s one agent I still want to talk to, but the rest of the time I’ll be in workshops. True, they are hard-core ones, (a query workshop where they will read my query and critique it, and the dreaded Writer’s Idol, where the bard Jack Whyte will read out pages from my story for a panel to, well, go all Simon Cowell on it).

The trick will be how I go into those workshops. I want to go in and leave my ego at the door and use it as a learning experience. If they say it sucks, I hope they can say why so I can fix it. The risk I run, especially after yesterday, is that the house of cards that is my belief in me as a writer, will come tumbling down.

But who can go through life without taking a few risks?