10 best things I learned at Surrey International Writers’ Conference

Surrey International Writers' Conference banquet

Surrey International Writers’ Conference banquet

Silk’s Post #106 — I’m still coming down from a three-day weekend up in the cloud where writers live. Sometimes that cloud is a lonely place. Sometimes it rains for weeks. Sometimes thunder and lightning make you want to crawl under your desk.

But at the Surrey International Writers’ Conference – #siwc2014 or #siwc14 – the sun is always shining when hundreds of writers and their gurus come out to play for three days every year. It rocks!

Bar time with Trish, Karalee, Silk, Joe and Chris

Bar time with Trish, Karalee, Silk, Joe and Chris

While I’ve been recovering (okay, the late nights in the bar and various social gatherings did have something to do with that), Joe has already done two excellent posts on his SIWC experience, and he only came for a day. I better get with the program.

This was my eighth SIWC. So here are a couple of fair questions:

  1. How come I keep going back – haven’t I been-there-done-that?
  2. How come I don’t have a book published by now?

First answer: I keep going back because every year I learn new stuff I need to know, and because it recharges my writing batteries, and because I’ve come to know and love the citizens of SIWC, and because it’s one of the best writers’ conferences in the world (even the big-dog presenters from New York say this).

Second answer: I don’t have a book published yet because I’m still a learner and I haven’t yet achieved a polished manuscript that’s ready to put in front of an agent or publisher. When I embarked on this second career after I wound up my design/advertising agency, I came to the party with 35 years of writing experience. I thought I’d be churning out a novel a year in no time. HAH! I must have missed the Steep Learning Curve Ahead sign when I turned onto that road. Oh, alright alright, my questionable post-retirement work habits and tendency toward procrastination does factor into it too.

That’s why I love the SIWC log line: This Day We Write! This came from a conference keynote a couple of years ago by bestselling author Robert Dugoni, who graciously let SIWC adopt it as their own. It’s the perfect rallying cry in this nebulous writers’ cloud we all live in, tucked away by ourselves most of the year, but connected to each other in a kind of virtual community.

This year at SIWC I attended one 3-hour Master Class, 4 keynotes, 3 panels, 5 workshops, 3 luncheons, 2 banquets, 1 agent pitch, 1 blue-pencil session, 1 theatrical presentation, 1 cocktail party, 1 book fair, and a late night book launch. Plus bar time.

Seriously, I really did need a day to recover.

I also took rather voluminous notes, and will share some of this rich trove in more detail in future posts, but today I want to give you my 10 top take-aways – some new things I learned, some things I thought I knew but now finally understand, and some things that just resonated with me.

1. Emotional impact trumps everything else in fiction. Story, setting, premise, characters, action, plot, voice, style, and subject are all important ingredients – but the real magic only happens if you can cause the reader to experience a powerful emotion. (Thanks to Don Maass for this insight from his Master Class “The Emotional Craft of Fiction.”)

2. To avoid obvious and clichéd emotional reactions in characters, evoke rather than report. We’ve all heard “show, don’t tell”. This is a kind of corollary. Make big emotions – the ones with a lot of gravity – like dark stars that affect everything around them without being overtly visible. (Inspiration by Don Maass, weird planetary analogy by me.)

3. A writer’s number one platform on the Internet is his/her own website. It’s the one thing in cyberspace that’s totally in your control, where you own the space and content. Think of it as the centre of your own online community. Use whatever social media and other channels you are comfortable with – and have time to keep up – to steer people to your website. (This point was driven home repeatedly by multiple social media experts, including two of the best: Sean Cranbury and Sarah Wendell.)

4. The most powerful social media tool a writer can use is (wait for it) … email. There are 3 times more email accounts than Twitter and Facebook combined. 92 per cent of adults use email, and 61 per cent of them use it every day. Email is 6 times more likely to get a click-through (to your website or blog) than a tweet, and 40 times more likely to generate new clients/relationships. (Thanks to Sarah Wendell for doing the math).

5. The 3 most important things that build your social media currency are: generosity, consistency and authenticity. Joe already mentioned this, but it’s so important that it can’t be said too many times. Social media are, first and foremost, about relationships and sharing – not marketing opportunities. Don’t be the person who only reaches out to others when you want something from them. Do more giving than receiving. If you support and share with people 90 per cent of the time, you get to talk about yourself 10 per cent of the time. What a surprise … cyber life is just like real life! (This theme was universally emphasized by experts Sarah Wendell, Sean Cranbury and Chuck Wendig in their “Social Media Smackdown” panel).

6. Characters drive story. Characters need to have agency. Active characters push the plot around, they don’t just get pushed around by the plot. Every character has to have a problem (a want) to be solved (fulfilled). In the gulf between the character’s problem and its solution is the story, which must wind its way from the problem to the solution through a minefield of complications. (While these principles have been repeated by many, in many different ways, Chuck Wendig in his “Kick-Ass Characters” workshop, brought terrific clarity and insight to these essential concepts).

7. To create tension, the writer has to walk a tightrope between withholding and revealing information to the reader. Tension occupies the space between what the writer allows the reader to know, and what the writer allows the character to know. The reader always needs to be slightly ahead of the character, which stimulates worry … but not so far ahead that the character seems slow-witted. (A great panel of suspense writers, Hallie Ephron, Robert Wiersema and Chevy Stevens illuminated this dark corner of writing in their discussion, “Tension: More Than the Edge of Your Seat”).

8. Planting questions makes readers turn pages. While this seems like the simplest and most obvious piece of advice in the writing world, it is a deliberate technique that’s hard to remember when you’re in the flow of writing, and easy to make too obvious when you strew questions around retroactively. The compelling need to know “what happens next” is the most delicious form of tension for the reader. (Another trick of the trade from the “Tension” panel).

9. Dialogue should only consist of things that need to be said, or are inherently interesting. Another seemingly obvious principle that gets wantonly violated by throwing all sorts of debris into dialogue such as backstory, pointless conversation meant to mimic “real life” and other content the author didn’t know what else to do with. (Thanks to Outlander author, Diana Gabaldon – the mistress of dialogue – for this reminder).

The one and only Jack Whyte

The one and only Jack Whyte

10. Read aloud. SIWC’s favourite Scottish icon, author Jack Whyte, is probably the best reader I’ve ever heard. With his rich baritone and dramatic flair, he can make the telephone book sound like gorgeous literature. Listening to him read the finely-crafted opening of his new book, The Guardian, at a special pre-release book launch on Saturday night, I was reminded of another excellent piece of advice that I’ve often received and always forget to do. Read your book to yourself out loud, especially key passages or dialogue that needs to be “just right” to the reader’s ear. It’s amazing how every awkward turn of phrase, bit of unnatural dialogue, misplaced word and run-on sentence will suddenly become obvious.

To wind this post up, I want to share the best word I heard at the conference, and its context:

Avoid online douchebaggery.

Surrey International Writers Conference – social media

Joe’s Post #116

Ok, so there’s like twitter and linkedin and tumbler and blogs and youtube and something called vines and snap chat and *head explodes*.

dressupNow, understand that I grew up in a world where we had to actually get up off the sofa to change the channel from Mr. Dressup on the CBC to whatever the heck the other channel was, where our phones were connected to a wall, where computers that now fit in our iphones filled entire buildings, and where we read newspapers to get our news.

So all this new technology and social media is a bit of a challenge, especially for a writer trying to figure out how to expand his online presence.

Fear not! On Friday, I had a lot of this explained to me.

I want to thank Sean Cranbury, Sarah Wendell, Chuck Wendig and KC Dyer for helping demystify it all and make it all seem possible.sarah So let me condense what I learned. First from Sarah Wendell. She said simply, remember this is SOCIAL media. Be social. Be authentic. Be generous. Be consistent.

It’s the generous part I’ve not done a good job at. Being on social media is about connecting and I think I’ve been more about entertaining (even if I failed at it) than connecting. I’ll try to do better.

She also said that writers may have to find their readers in different areas of social media. Joining a FB group that talks about Justin Bieber would be a great place to go if you want to sell a book about the death of an annoying boybrat. Ok, just kidding, it would be a great place to go if you were writing about him, but less so if you were writing and wanting to comment about the state of affairs in Iraq.

See, every form of social media has an audience. Know who that audience is. Within that media, there are groups. Find those groups. But don’t just connect to sell a book. Connect to connect. Connect to be social.

ce9f6e7f0564dc2ff07723effcd89b2c_biggerSean Cranbury said the same thing when I had the great pleasure of chatting with him for 20 minutes.  His advice, give to the community. The writing community. The reading community. The book community. Make a difference in people’s lives.

Be social.

Hard for an introvert to hear. Harder for one to do.

But I’ll try.

Lastly, when the three titans gathered on a panel, we all were given more boat-loads of great advice. Let me share a few of them.

  • Be the best version of yourself online.
  • Don’t ever buy mailing lists, make the connections yourself.
  • Follow, watch and see how great communicators do it. On twitter, try following comedians. They’ve learned how to be funny in 140 characters.
  • Social media should never be an obligation. Do it because you want to do it. If you don’t want to, then hey, don’t do it.
  • Listen.
  •  Promotion is not a dirty word. Sometimes it’s nice to know when you have a book out or what you’re reading. It’s ok. Just don’t do it as your only thing – then it’s just noise.
  • Talk about other people’s books more than your own. Be authentic.
  • On FB you are the commodity. No problem with that, just realize it.

I hope that helps out a bit. All of this is a good place to start. I still have a lot more to learn but somehow it doesn’t seem that scary anymore.

Blogs to check out:

Felicia Day –  http://feliciaday.com/blog (from The Guild). Funny. Honest.

Sarah Wendell – http://smartbitchestrashybooks.com. So much cool stuff here and a great example of a successful blog. She’ll make you lol for real.

Chuck Wendig  – http://terribleminds.com. Love him or hate him, he’ll get you thinking and laughing.

Sean Cranbury – http://seancranbury.com (and a host of other links accessable from his website). A wow site.

Best Twitter recommendations… all the above. Plus John Oliver. Sarah Silverman.

New word of the day. Dickbar (thanks Sean Cranbury). Ok a second one. Doxing. (It’s basically punishing people you disagree with online by publishing their home addresses for everyone to see.)

Some of the best tweets, check out #siwc14 or siwc2014:

Submit your work. You’re already unpublished; the worst that can happen is that you stay that way. quotes

“It tastes like dead Druids.” Scotch, with ”.

Information Doesn’t Want to be Free, ‘s keynote at cc:

Have a great writing week!

Tomorrow I write!

 

 

 

 

Surrey Writers’ Conference

Surrey International Writer’s Contest

surrey IWCAnyone going?

I’m still making up my mind. Last year, I had a lot of ups and downs, but the ultimate result was a complete failure to interest anyone in my book. Worse, some of the agents never even got back to me, which I find increasingly odd in an age where indie publishing is becoming (or has become) acceptable and profitable.

sean ranHowever, let’s take a look at this year. There’s a good social media presence, and some very accomplished people, which could be very interesting for us 5/5/5. There’s even a masterclass on owning your online space by Sean Cranbury. I like owning my space and Mr. Cranbury knows his stuff.

diana G

Diana never put her arms around me, but then I’m not a highlander

Diana Gabaldon will be back, as will Jack Whyte, and frankly, they’re both worth the price of admission, both great speakers, great story tellers. I have a secret crush on Diana so whenever I get near her I go back in time and become 9 years old, again, blushing and mumbling and looking at my feet. I think I said to her last year, as I stood beside her in the food line up, “Errr, uhm, book, you, that thing, you know, ack, character, highlander, urm, erp, ah, oh look there’s a muffin.”

There’s a pretty good selection, as always, of workshops, and one of my favourites, Hallie Ephron is giving a keynote speech. She written one of my writing bibles, “Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel: How to Knock ‘Em Dead with Style,” and she’s amazingly approachable.

Same with Don Maass. I often learn more in one of his two hour workshops, than I could learn in a year at college. He’s also written one of my other bibles, “Writing the Breakout Novel,” and while I haven’t written one yet, there’s still good advice in there. Totally good advice.

I guess it’s up to every individual (and their finances) to determine if this year is worth attending.

IMG_1557

That’s me on the left

For me, even being a card-carrying introvert, I have fun talking to the people there. When I’m not sweating like a used car salesmen at a tax audit, I can actually have some fun, talking craft or experiences or even learning a thing or two from the person sitting beside me.

If the other writers decide to go, then I’ll probably tag along for sure. I mean, I’m the only guy in the 5/5/5 so I’m sort of like their pet. Like a bulldog or pet pot-bellied pig.

But everyone, please at least check out the web page. Check out the writers, agents, editors and gurus who attend.

And maybe I’ll see a few of you there.

 

Transfixed by transmedia

Paula’s Post #6  – If you checked out Silk’s post from yesterday, you’ll already know that the 5writers came away from this year’s Surrey International Writers’ Conference with our collective heads swimming with new ideas.

For me, the highlight of this year’s conference was the emphasis on social media as a necessary tool for writers.

Now I take it as a given that if you are already following this blog, you have more than a passing knowledge of the basics of social media: WordPress, facebook, twitter, Linkedin and perhaps even Pinterest.

Even before the conference I had signed up for all five of these social networking sites, so I was feeling pretty smug. Convinced that I was already social networking savvy. Convinced I was already a ‘modern writer’. A connected writer. A writer ready to take on the world and promote my blogs, my books and myself.

But wait, (as they say in the late night tele-pitches for Ginzou knives and other obscure products) there’s more. Much more. A frightening amount more. Or so we learned from Vancouver’s own social media guru, conference presenter and all around cool guy, Sean Cranbury.

But wait! That’s not all. At this weekend’s conference, we also learned a strange new word:

Transmedia.

As Joe would say: “What the heck?”

Here on WordPress, when I type the word “Transmedia” I ended up with those little dotted red lines underneath. The little dotted red line that mean that you have spelled a word wrong, the little dotted red lines that mean that the WordPress dictionary doesn’t recognized a word that you have used. In other words, in the world of WordPress, the word “Transmedia” doesn’t even exist.

But wait, there’s more.

The word “Transmedia” not only exists, it is, apparently, a word that we as storytellers should know. A word that, dare I say, we must know if we are to survive and flourish in the creative community.

The SIWC conference brochure listed the Transmedia course as:

“Transmedia, Audience Engagement and Franchise-Building: The Future of Storytelling”.

I’ve reproduced the blurb for the workshop directly from the SIWC’s description of the course:

Every area of entertainment media is rapidly evolving and there’s never been a better time to be a content creator. No matter what form your creativity takes, the future of storytelling lies in building a unique world and set of characters and then purposing the stories that spring from them across as many platforms as possible. Taught by a guy who’s truly obsessed with this stuff and working with various IP owners to evolve their content along these lines, this class will explore the core principles of transmedia storytelling and world building, techniques for engaging and motivating an “active” audience, as well as the emerging app space and virtual worlds/mark.

Now I was intrigued! Especially since the ‘taught by a guy’ guy was Luke Ryan, a pretty big name in Hollywood: Executive Vice-President of Disruption Entertainment, ex-studio executive at New Line Cinema, Paramount/MTV Films, and MGM. Another pretty cool guy.

By this time, I’d already attended Mr. Ryan’s very thorough and entertaining course on ‘Writing for Television’, so I knew he was a dynamic and generous speaker. During that presentation, my fingers raced across the keyboard of my Mac, trying to keep up with the deluge of information Mr. Ryan provided on this topic. So I was pretty keen to check out his subsequent offering on Transmedia, whatever the heck that might be.

I cannot possibly, in the limited space allotted to my once a week blog post, even begin to tell you all about Transmedia. What I can tell you is that the future of storytelling, whether you are an author, screenwriter, or film-maker, is now about cross-platform promotion of ideas.

Now I can already hear some ‘rustlings’ in this virtual room we share, rustlings that remind me, (ever so politely of course), that cross-platform marketing already exists. That it has done so for ages, since Star Wars anyway, if not before. Why, what about all those little Star Wars figures that McDonald’s included in their ubiquitous ‘happy meals’? What about all those Star Wars Lego sets?

Why, of course you are right. The Star Wars numbers are not insignificant. A recent article on the 24/7 Wall Street blog pegged the value of the Star Wars franchise at 30 billion and growing. That’s ‘Billion’ with a “B”.

So what’s so new about “Transmedia”?

Well, according to Mr. Ryan, the difference is that the Star Wars franchise ’emerged’ after the release of the film, that these ‘post-release’ products merely capitalized on the success of the film.

According to Mr. Ryan, in today’s brave new world, authors and other ‘creators’ of creative content should begin thinking about “Transmedia” at the very outset of their projects. Should be thinking about how their project could be promoted and distributed on a variety of platforms. How their product will capture the attention of an agent or editor or producer in a world where the competition is stiffer than a James Bond shaken, not stirred, martini.

I don’t have all the answers. But right now, I’m transfixed by the topic of Transmedia, and since attending the SIWC conference, I think all the 5writers are beginning to worry a lot about Transmedia.

Drat!

As if we didn’t have enough to do! Thanks a lot, Luke Ryan!