Archive for October, 2009

SiWC 2009

Well, Surrey’s over for another year, and thanks to a husband kind enough to turn off my alarm this morning and handle the getting-child-to-school routine alone, I’m not quite as physically and mentally exhausted as I expected to be today. Don’t get me wrong; I’m still far from functioning normally, as the quality of this post will no doubt reveal, but at least I feel like driving to the grocery store isn’t actually too risky an activity for my current capacity. Good thing, too, since the cupboards are bare.

I don’t know if it’s even possible to convey what a whole weekend at the Surrey conference is like in one post, but I’ll give it a shot.

This was a really different year for me at SiWC. As the incoming conference coordinator for 2010, I was in a unique position. I was at once shadowing kc dyer (coordinator extraordinaire), getting a sense of things from her perspective, meeting presenters, spending time with the board and so on while still being an attendee, sitting in on workshops, having meals with friends I see once a year, sitting in the bar, and all else that comes from being on that side of the registration table. It was an interesting challenge to find the balance between both roles, but I enjoyed it.

I arrived at the hotel late Wednesday morning, having picked up my good friend Pam from the airport en route. The Sheraton’s quiet on the Wednesday before the conference. Only a few people have checked in, and the hub of activity seemed to be mostly in the coordinator’s room, where we helped tend to some last-minute details including one that involved cardboard, chocolate, and ribbon. Any task involving chocolate is okay by me. A little time in the lounge that evening with karen, Pam, Michael Slade and later Jack Whyte, and Wednesday was over already. Never do days go by quite as quickly as they do in Surrey, and the rest of time continued in the same appallingly speedy fashion.

The rest of the weekend went by in a blur of friends, workshops, board meetings, meals, keynote speeches, comfortable lounge chairs, and altogether too little sleep. But even in the midst of the busyness, there were moments where things seemed to slow down long enough for me to realize I was seeing or hearing or doing something pretty special in that instant, and those are the moments I’ll remember long after this year’s conference blends and blurs with those gone by and those still to come. Some of them are simply ‘you had to be there’ things that I’ll take out, look at, remember, and enjoy before tucking them away again for awhile, flashes and moments that wouldn’t mean anything to anyone else. But some of them weren’t just mine, or, if they were, still speak to the general experience of camaraderie and magic that is at the heart of Surrey. Here are some of those:

– seeing my friend Pam arrive at baggage claim at YVR and come toward me with a giant smile, arms spread wide, echoing my own excitement that Surrey time had come again;

– watching Mike Carson’s face when he found out he’d received an honourable mention in the storyteller’s category of the SiWC writing contest and had won the non-fiction category. Both had been kept as a surprise, with the help of his wife, until the announcement of the winners, and he had no idea until his name was called;

– listening to moving and stirring keynotes. I’ve never heard an Anne Perry speech I didn’t love, for example, that didn’t move me to write and to embrace joy, sorrow, and fear to make my fiction the best I can make it, and this year was no exception. It was a great year for keynotes all around;

– picking up tidbits from presenters including Jeff Arch, author of Sleepless in Seattle, who echoed beautifully what most presenters seemed to feel about why they write what they write: “Strip away all the details and it’s an idea that wouldn’t let go of me;”

– sitting in the ballroom for Michael Slade’s Shock Theatre, in which his version of War of the Worlds came alive through the vocal skills of an all-star cast that included Slade, kc dyer, Diana Gabaldon, Anne Perry, and Jack Whyte, the keyboard prowess of an amazing high-school student called Althea, and the pumpkin-smashing power of Sam Sykes;

– getting a little dressed up for Saturday dinner, a rarity in a mostly casual life;

– hearing the standard smattering of applause for a door prize winner swell when the attendees noticed the guy who won was a mountie in red serge;

– watching at least two writers get the sort of thrilling feedback they’d normally only dream of hearing and seeing them moved and changed by it;

– enjoying the conversation of like-minded people for hours on end in the lounge, the ballroom, and at a small private party a few of us arrange every year;

– joining in on the chorus of Saturday night’s traditional rendition of “Mud, Glorious Mud”, led by the inimitable Jack Whyte;

– goofing around with old friends and new;

– celebrating successes, including one friend’s three-book deal in five countries since last year’s conference;

– being introduced to all sorts of new people, presenters and attendees alike, and having conversations with random strangers in the elevators.

There are more, of course. I could go on listing little details for pages, but those are the first ones that came to mind when I started jotting them down. Like every year, I came away eager to write, reminded of the universality of storytelling and its importance and of the need for each of us to nurture that thing, whatever it is, that feeds our souls and isn’t for anyone else but us. (My friend Laura Bradbury addressed the latter brilliantly the other day in her post about her jardin secret at grapejournal.blogspot.com. We all need one.) And I came away this year excited about the future, about the big job I’m taking on and eager to get going with it.

Were you at Surrey? What did you take away from it?

Next year’s conference is October 22-24, 2010, with master classes on the 21st. Mark your calendars!

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My husband’s on his way back from NYC tonight following five intense days in a Jay Maisel photography workshop. He’s feeling that strange combination of exhaustion and exhilaration, sadness and joy that comes from a really good immersive experience. I recognise the symptoms: it’s the same feeling I come home from Surrey with every year.

What I realized reading his blog about his time there, though, is that the post-immersion haze he’s experiencing isn’t the only similarity between his photography workshop and my writers conference. The mechanics of photography and writing may be different, but the awareness – of self and of craft – that elevates your work in either medium from the everyday to something special are the same. And ultimately, the same things apply to life itself. Not sure what I mean? Here are a few of the ideas that were reinforced for him this week, taken from his blog:

1. If there’s a nervous feeling about the quality of any picture, it’s probably warranted.

2. Who cares how much effort it was to take a shot if it’s bad?

3. “If you’re not your severest critic, you’re your own worst enemy.” Jay Maisel

4. “What’s all this shit in the corners? You’re responsible for every square millimeter of your frame!” Jay Maisel

5. I’m learning to let go, and to truly have fun, and take the chance to either succeed gloriously or fail gloriously.

Take the photography context away, and every single one of those applies to writing, to cooking and housekeeping and parenting and to doing whatever job it is you do in life, don’t you think? I do.

They’re all part of my writing life, that’s for sure. If my gut tells me something’s wrong in a scene, something’s almost certainly wrong. I’ve had to kill more of my darlings than I care to remember, scenes I loved or even whole chapters, because of number 2 on the list. And so on. You get the idea.

Number 5…. phew. That’s a biggie. It’s what we should all strive for in work and in life, but it’s bloody difficult to do, risking failure for the chance of success, let alone having fun while we do it. But if we can manage to let go and take the chance, we’re in for a hell of an interesting ride. And isn’t that the point?

photo credit: Martin Chung, NYC, October 2009

photo credit: Martin Chung, NYC, October 2009

photo credit: Martin Chung, NYC, October 2009

photo credit: Martin Chung, NYC, October 2009

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Surrey Excitement

Fall is in the air, complete with blowing leaves and weather that shifts from rain to brilliiant sunshine and back again several times a day. For me, the autumn air means one thing: Surrey. Exactly one week from when I’m writing this, at 9:00 on Thursday evening, I’ll be ensconsed in one of my favourite places: among writing friends in a comfortable chair in the lounge at the SiWC.

I attended a meeting at the hotel this afternoon. It was the first time I’d been there since last year’s conference, and even driving into the parking lot gave me a thrill of anticipation, the same as the one I get every year when I drive up for the conference itself.

The Surrey International Writers Conference is a highlight of my year every year. Where else can you get fabulous professional development, hang out with writer friends, watch a live performance of a radio play with a cast that includes no fewer than four bestselling authors and possibly a few little green men, and ride in hotel elevators that have a reputation for interesting encounters? Amazing stuff, and I haven’t even mentioned the swashbuckling sexy Englishman, the singing Scot, the storytelling lawyer… I could go on, but you get the idea.

I’m especially looking forward to this year. It’s my last as an attendee for now, because I’m taking on the job of conference coordinator as soon as this year’s conference wraps up. I intend to enjoy every moment.

The registration numbers are strong this year, already ahead of last year, so if you’re thinking about attending, don’t wait too long! A sellout is a definite possibility. And if you’re a writer, you should be thinking about attending. You definitely won’t be sorry!

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Four of the women I know from the Compuserve Books and Writers Forum have started a joint blog called All The World’s Our Page. It’s joint venture across continents: two of the contributors are Australian, the other two American. Four like-minded people coming together from totally different parts of the world appeals to me, so I’ve added them to my reader.

Their initial posts explore the question of why each of them writes, and reading their answers got me thinking about my own. It’s not something I think about very often, because writing is just what I do. I can’t imagine not doing it, can’t fathom ignoring the stories that bubble up in my head or missing out on the rush that comes with putting together a sentence that feels just right.

I’ve always written, in one form or another. I can’t remember a time when it wasn’t part of who I am, though it’s been channelled in different ways at different times in my life. When I was nine or ten, I won ribbons for poetry. Around that time, I got hooked on Anne of Green Gables and its sequels, and dreamed of writing that well. Anne’s vividness inspired me, as my love for those books still does. When I was a teenager, I penned really awful romantic short stories. As an adult, my writing energies went into teaching others to put coherent sentences together in my role as a high school English teacher. The stories still brewed in my mind, though I did little more than play with them here and there.

The decision to stop dabbling and get serious about writing came suddenly. The morning of my 30th birthday, my husband woke me up to come and see the news. Planes had just flown into the World Trade Centre and North America was in shock. For me, the double whammy of a milestone birthday and that violent reminder that life is short was the push I needed to put my butt in a chair and write. Every day. I joined the forum immediately after that and began learning about the craft. And I wrote. I wrote while my child slept, while her dad took her out to have fun without me, and whenever I could carve out a few minutes.

Since then, I’ve written an ‘under the bed’ book that probably will never see the light of day, completed a manuscript that’s had good feedback but hasn’t found a home yet, and am about a third of the way into my new MS, a story that’s a big challenge to write but is really exciting, too. I keep writing every day, even if some days it’s not working and in the end all I write is an email to a friend. So really, I suppose the short answer to the subject of this post, if I need one other than “Because I can’t not write” is “Because of LM Montgomery and Al-Qaeda.” Bet you’ve never seen those two in the same sentence before. 🙂

LM Montgomery's writing desk at the site of her home in Cavendish, PEI

LM Montgomery's writing desk at the site of her home in Cavendish, PEI

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Like most as-yet unpublished writers I know, I daydream from time to time about seeing my books on the shelves of my local bookstore. I suppose it’s a dream that motivates me on those days when the words don’t come easily, just like the dream of that new book smell I anticipate when the first copies of my published book arrive in the mail. (I’m not the only one who likes the smell of books, am I? It’s one of my favourites.)

Until I get to enjoy seeing my own books in print, I’m lucky enough to enjoy the experience vicariously through the books of some of my friends and acquaintances. Like any good writer friend, I dutifully check to make sure they’re on the shelves and talk them up to the bookstore staff at the slightest opportunity. It works, too. Bookstore staff are often book lovers, and they’re as much on the lookout for great new titles to read and to recommend as the rest of us who have towering, ever-growing TBR piles are.

Looking for a great book? Why not try one of these authors?

A Walk Through a Window

A Walk Through a Window

Book 3; book 1 is Kendra Kandlestar and the Box of Whispers

Book 3; book 1 is Kendra Kandlestar and the Box of Whispers

Book 4; Book 1 is The Scent of Shadows

Book 4; Book 1 is The Scent of Shadows

Order in Chaos, book 3 in the Templar Trilogy

Order in Chaos, book 3 in the Templar Trilogy

An Echo in the Bone, book 7 in the Outlander series

An Echo in the Bone, book 7 in the Outlander series

kc dyer writes terrific middle grade and teen fiction; Lee Edward Fodi is a favourite of my nine-year-old and her friends; Vicki Pettersson’s gritty urban fantasy takes us to a different Vegas than we see on the strip; Jack Whyte and Diana Gabaldon, both great friends of the SiWC, both have new books out in their current series: Diana’s is book 7 in the Outlander series, and Jack’s ties up the Templar Trilogy in style. (Apologies that kc’s name is up by Diana’s book; it’s a blip I can’t seem to get rid of, no matter how many paragraph breaks I put in the text. But in case you missed it, it’s she who writes the terrific middle grade and teen fiction. :))


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It’s Thanksgiving here today, north of the 49th parallel. We don’t have much of a Thanksgiving tradition in our family. My mum came to Canada from Scotland, and she never picked up up the Canadian Thanksgiving tradition. The only time we ever really observed it as a family was when I was away at university, because it was a good excuse for my mum to make a special meal for my friends and me to come home to. Since then, we’ve occasionally shared Thanksgiving with our best friends, which is always lovely, but it’s not unusual for the holiday to be a non-event for us, the way it is this year.

My parents and my in-laws are both away this weekend, and my husband left last night for a workshop in NYC, so it’s just me and Isabelle, and I couldn’t see doing the whole turkey thing for just the two of us, especially since she doesn’t really like turkey. But even without a Thanksgiving celebration, I can’t help but think about what I’m thankful for. It’s in the air, I guess.

The list is long and I won’t bore you with it all here. But the thing that’s really on my mind right now above all the rest is that I have a great kid. I’m really enjoying this age, but more than that, I’m enjoying Isabelle herself. Today, the two of us drove out about half an hour to wander in a local antiques mall. It’s not her favourite thing to do, but she went, without complaining, because I wanted to. From there, we went clothes shopping for awhile. She’s fun to shop with because she has a sense of humour about it, like being more than willing to try on the most god-awful pair of pants that wouldn’t have been out of place in my 1970s childhood, purely for my entertainment.

She was patient and interested and interesting, and every bit as unable to walk past the bookstore we encountered as I was. And when we’d finished shopping, we went out for dinner, just the two of us. We ate and talked and smiled together at the over-the-top earnestness of our waiter. Not once did I have to actively parent her; she knows how to behave herself in a restaurant. So instead, I just got to enjoy her company.

I know the adolescent years and their potential turmoil are fast approaching, and that might shake up the dynamic between us. But for now, it’s pretty wonderful. There’s nothing quite like hearing your child tell you she loved spending the day with you. And for that, I am very thankful.

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Crossing the line

The nature of my current WIP has me thinking about the nature of morality. However varied people’s moral stances may be, most of us have one, bordered by the lines we believe we would not cross. Some of those lines seem absolute, like the belief, say, that we wouldn’t – couldn’t – kill someone. We take wedding vows believing wholeheartedly that breaking them would be crossing the line. Some areas of the line are a bit more fuzzy: maybe we’ll tell a little white lie to spare someone’s feelings, but “real” lies leap over to the wrong side.

But the thing about the lines we wouldn’t cross is that we always seem to imagine them as lines in the sand. Been to a beach lately? The tide comes in and washes away lines just as well as it does castles, the wind shifts and blows dry sand around, and, sometimes, we smooth over our own efforts with a sand-covered foot and start all over again. Lines are as easily erased as created, in sand and in life.

How many men conscripted to the trenches of WWI – or any other war – would have said they could kill when they were home with their families going to school every day? How many parents ever believed they could shoplift before their children’s hunger pushed them to do it? And how many people grew up, fell in love, and got married believing they’d ever be able to have an affair? That last one is important in my WIP, which is what got me thinking about the changeable nature of certain so-called absolutes in the first place.

It seems to me that the impermanent nature of lines in the sand isn’t necessarily a bad thing. We change, our beliefs in what’s right and wrong shifts, even if only slightly, with changes in our circumstances, age, and wisdom. But it has me wondering: is there anything unchangingly absolute, black-and-white and permanent in us? Is there anything we wouldn’t do, given sufficient motivation? I don’t know. But I do know the questions have given my main character a whole lot to think about. And that makes for a great writing day.

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In honour of my dear friend Pam, whose recent post about her husband’s special mug was one of my favourites on her brilliant blog, below is a picture of my new giant tea mug. I spotted it on the first day of our summer vacation this year, and couldn’t stop thinking about it, so I went back to buy it. I’m not a particular fan of the character pictured on it; it was the message that caught my attention.

Beneath this grumpy exterior beats the heart of a dashing here

Beneath this grumpy exterior beats the heart of a dashing hero

Like most writers, I’m an avid people watcher. I love speculating about what’s really going on with that couple at the airport or that woman scowling into her cell phone at the grocery store. It’s not about judgement, but simple human interest. What’s there under the surface? What’s her story? What’s his? Is it what it appears to be or something completely different? The speculations aren’t personal to the people involved, because I don’t know anything about them, truthfully, but the questions feed my writing, inspire scenes or whole plot points or even spark the birth of a new novel idea. And people are just plain interesting to me.

But of course, the most interesting ones, the ones that have become the most important to me, are the ones who let me see – and let me be – the dashing hero behind the grumpy façade or the goofy friend behind the shy exterior. I’m lucky to have a few of those people in my life, and I’m abundantly grateful for them. Hope you have a few, too.

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Sunday fun

My daughter’s favourite thing to do on weekend mornings is, well, nothing. After a busy week at school, the lure of TV, toys, and time to play makes her tough to drag out of the house sometimes. But it’s a beautiful day today, and I think we were all in the mood to do something. When I asked her what she wanted to do today, expecting to hear the usual pitch for free time, the first thing out of her mouth was “Go bowling?” Not quite what I expected *g*, but it’s something we haven’t done in ages, so what the hell. Off we went to our local bowling alley, where we dutifully donned our rented shoes.

I’m a terrible bowler, but I ignore that reality and just have fun. We cheer for each other, jump up and down when we actually do well, and generally make fools of ourselves for a couple of hours. It was great. And taking the time to do it made it seem much easier to come home and get back to work, somehow.

A nine-year-old's take on the bowling alley

A nine year old's take on the bowling alley

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Shortlist… check

After much discussion and deliberation, we finished the shortlists for the fiction and non-fiction sections of the writing contest at the SiWC, the two categories for which I volunteer as a reader. Now karen, the conference – and contest! – coordinator gets the very pleasant job of notifying the people whose stories have been shortlisted. Congrats to all of them.

Reading for the contest is a fascinating professional development exercise for me every year. There’s nothing quite like reading a mind-numbing number of stories back-to-back to highlight what works and what doesn’t, and the task never fails to motivate my own writing.

What works?

– Consistency. Consistent voice. Consistently good use of language. Consistent verb tense. Consistent mood and tone.

– Plausibility. I don’t care how bizarre the world of your story may be; if you make me believe it’s real, I’ll go with you. (see also: consistency)

– Coming full-circle by creating an ending that works with the flow of the story.

– Meeting the guidelines. Keep your word count within the published upper AND LOWER limits.

There’s $1000 prize for the first place winners of our contest, so it’s well worth putting pen to paper for next year.

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