This new challenge of a different format (from novel writing) and a short timeline (2 months) means that I've been stretching my skills and my perspective. At the risk of being 2016-blog-trendy, here's 5 lessons I'm learning from screenwriting.
If you're a writer and you've never been to the Surrey International Writer's Conference, I would recommend it.
Every kind is there, from the successful to the absurd (there was a guy in silver spray-painted hat, coat and boots...), and big names like Diana Gabaldon, Jack Whyte, Robert Dugoni, Eileen Cook, and Jasper Fforde.
There seems to be an enthusiastic misconception about my attending these conferences. "Ash! Did you get a book deal?" Sadly no. I wish it were that simple. Here's some insight into the conference and also the publishing industry.
For those of you who aren't familiar, let me explain: the traditional publishing industry has raised its bar. It's extraordinarily difficult to attract the attention of a major publishing house (eg. Penguin, Harper Collins, etc.) without an agent. It's kind of like selling your house (except in the opposite of Vancouver's market): with a surplus of houses on the market, how can you sell it without an expert?
Answer: writers who want to get traditionally published (vs self-published) are wise to get an agent. However. There is a surplus of aspiring writers. How do you attract an agent? You either query (like cold calling, but via email) your manuscript, or you meet them in person at a conference. If, during this 5-10 min pitch session, they like the sound of your story and get the sense that you're a generally non-crazy person, they'll "request a submission". It's your golden ticket; your VIP pass that puts you ahead of every other writer in the query "slush pile". If the agent likes your writing, they may give an "offer of representation", and if you accept, voila, you have an agent. No, not a book deal, but an expert who can sell it to the publishing houses.
Blue Pencil sessions are 15 minutes with a published author. You give them the first 3 pages of your manuscript, and they give you feedback. Pretty straightforward, and you can direct their attention however you prefer.
Because I'm preparing for submission, I signed up for extra pitch sessions and Blue Pencils: 4 of each.
Here's what I learned.
All opinions are subjective.
I had 4 Blue Pencils, each with major authors...hugely successful writers. They all got the same thing: the first 3 pages of Chapter 1. Guess what? They all had completely different advice.
#1 - "You're a good writer. The story's there, it just needs a little editing. Watch your POV shifts."
#2 - "I didn't get a sense of setting or stakes. I don't know what the main character wants."
#3 - "Why don't you start with her doing something domestic, mundane? Add gossip."
By Saturday evening, my story felt like a soup between recipes: too much of everything and utterly tasteless. I was discouraged, because I really did not have the heart or energy for another significant revision. But then... Sunday's Blue Pencil happened.
#4 - "I see what you mean about wanting to start with action. But Chapter 2 is so powerful. What if you just stole the last few paragraphs from Chapter 1 and opened Chapter 2 with them? Then you have the context of this side story introduced, the heroine's goals, and the friction of her undesirable surroundings."
Perfect. I liked the less-revision option. But that's not why I agreed with it.
In the end, you have to trust your gut. I was getting to the point where I wasn't even sure if I'd recognize the right answer if I heard it. But then I did, and I knew. I hadn't always been sure how to begin my story, but I felt it was close and just needed focusing. Thank you, Eileen Cook!
By the way, if you don't know what your "writer's gut" is, you'll know when you feel it. If you aren't sure if what you're feeling is your writer's gut, then it ain't. It's the unshakeable certainty in what's best for your story (BTW, don't confuse writer's gut with arrogance, or delusion. Those are similar, but more emotional).
I've come so far.
In total, I now have 13 agents who have requested submission. I have also:
- written 96,000 words
- deleted 20,000 words (but kept in a separate doc for nostalgia's sake [yes, I hoard words])
- sent a draft to 46 beta readers (in various stages, and not all of them gave feedback)
- finished 4 drafts.
4 drafts. Cripes. And now I have yet another round of betas reading the latest. So the agents will see #5.
This novel business is absurdly complex. 90,000 decisions. Every word is a decision, since if it isn't there by your deliberate choice, it probably isn't helping your story. Crazy to think about. I've made 96,000 decisions. *pats shoulder*
I still have so much to learn.
Apparently, I write about as well as I present to strangers in a large room. Fairly polished, reasonably well-spoken, but aloof. It takes a few passes to make me write the heart of my characters; admit their vulnerabilities. Perhaps that's a sign of residual writer's self-conscience. Or lack of connection to my own emotions. *note to self: work on self.*
Character-driven stories. Emotionally engaging characters. Tension on every page; a goal for every scene. That's what sucks a reader in from page one.
I estimate that since April 2012 I have written perhaps 2,000 hours, equalling a full year's worth of employment hours. That's only one fifth of the requisite 10,000 hours of mastery. So I've got a long ways to go.
But now, I've got fresh, good, expert advice, new friends, more requests for submission, and revitalized perspective.
Back to work. H.O.K.A.I.C.
(hands on keyboard, arse in chair)
"I can't believe it. That's so dangerous. People fall off there every year. Don't they know it's a mile down?"
That feeling of pure, unfiltered terror—the idea of falling for an entire mile—still echoes faintly in my psyche, every day since I made the decision to quit my job and become a full-time freelance writer.