Friday, June 22, 2007

day of mayhem

Well, that is what they called it. "A Day of Mayhem for Readers and Writers". In practice, it was just what you would expect of a literary workshop in the Greater Victoria Public Library, in semi-genteel Victoria BC (former slogan: More British than Britain!)
I arrived early, because it was free and one couldn't reserve a spot. Biked down in the grey morning with a little spitting rain, and locked the bike up in the atrium. Earlier than I'd expected to be, and the doors were still locked. A half-dozen people hovered near the double doors, the sort of sight that reminds me of Romero zombie movies and causes me to keep a cautious distance away. In case.
Lurking behind the concrete planters, I placed mental bets on which of them were also there for the workshop and which just wanted in to the library. I was right in a little over half, which makes me not psychic.
After I'd read a chapter of King Hereafter, by Dorothy Dunnett (and decided that I'd have to treat the political background the way I treat landscape description in John Buchan, by trusting that it all made sense to the author and would work out as needed for the plot without me fussing about it), a whisper went through the courtyard that the workshop could be reached through a side door. And so it proved, though we were warned not to use the bathrooms until the library was officially open.
The meeting room had one wall all of windows, showing the atrium. Fortunately nothing terribly distracting happened out there during the day, and later arrivals had an easy time finding the right room, since they had to walk past it outside, and could see the attentive audience.
I sat between two older ladies (yes, older than me, though I'm not sure the one on my right was very much older) who had been in the same writing group. We talked about writing groups, and they compared the various groups they've been in. I recommended Absolute Write as the best resource I knew for checking out publishers and agents as well as general advice.

First talk was on plotting. Stan Evans is a stocky bald man, very English, of the sort that seems to be constructed entirely of some sort of india-rubber, perhaps the kind they make Pink Pearl erasers from. I could imagine him staunch at any outpost of Empire. Unexpectedly, he writes a Salish detective, Silas Seaweed. His view is that plot is everything. Decide on your plot and work it out before starting. Violent crime tests and proves the sleuth, and he required 'at least one death by criminal action'. Absolute authenticity was required in the setting (his stories are checked over by Salish readers and by anthropologists, as well as heavily researched before writing). He also recommended deciding ahead of time whether to have a continuing detective, and whether you are writing detective or mystery-thriller, because the rules are different.
Bob Scott looked more creased and saggy than he might have, because of being next to Stan Evans, like a comfortable baggy pair of trousers beside an ironed and brushed uniform. He told how he'd started writing. After a diagnosis of cancer, and being told to take it easy, he decided to enter NaNoWriMo, and finished a mystery novel in that month. A while later he took it out of the drawer and decided to revise it. He met an editor for Avalon Books at a conference, and sold the book. He described himself as a linear writer. He started with the opening scene, which he saw clearly, and worked the story and backstory out as he wrote.
Kay Stewart co-wrote with her partner, Chris Bullock. She found that co-writing required that they plot and outline beforehand, though the outline changed as they wrote. The first book took twelve years to complete.
Things said in the panel discussion: introduce complications, clues and red herrings to keep from reaching the ending too quickly. Pacing is an aspect of plot. Introduce new complications to keep things moving. Always ask yourself: how can I make this situation worse? Subplots flesh out characters and introduce complications, but beware of them sucking energy from the main plotline.
Names dropped: Anne Perry plots with sticky notes over a wall in her office, and was ecstatic to discover (at the Surrey Writers Conference) that N America has multi-coloured stickies, so that she could have different colours for specific characters and subplots. Marilyn Bowering says that every scene has a shift in the balance of power. Scott Meredith says to end every chapter with a hook.

Second talk, on Evil. Roy Innes, thin, greying and intense, stoops a bit forward as if scenting a trail. Holds to the Morality Play theory of crime fiction, the satisfaction fo seeing vice punished and virtue rewarded. Distinguished between the detective novel, where the emphasis is on the puzzle solving, and the thriller, where the emphasis is on the threat to the protagonist. The hero is the confronter of evil. Evil defined as 'pleasure from doing harm'. While the hero may not be pure, he cannot be too impure without losing reader sympathy.
Chris Bullock leans back in his chair and speaks calmly. He's a Jungian, and quoted Scott Peck with 'sin is militant ignorance'. Described evil as both something within people, and as a separate force with its own existence. What is the nature of the investigator? The killer may be invisible because the investigator shares (and denies) aspects of himself that he shares with the killer.
Linda Richards, arrived late and perhaps because of that somewhat distrait. Untidy black hair, comes across as ditzy granola-head, but that may be persona, it's hard to say. She doesn't believe in evil as an absolute. Anyone is capable of either evil or saintly behaviour. Allow your villains to be human and complex. Arendt's line about banality of evil quoted. Villains don't think they're villains--ask yourself what story your villain would tell about him/herself.
Things said in panel discussion: What must you connect to in yourself to write an evil character? Does it do you harm, or does the resolution of the mystery resolve the issues raised? Evil must be motivated, must have a goal that is worth what the person does to achieve it.

Setting: Lou Allin, small, tough and weathered, like a piece of driftwood, which is odd, because until recently she lived in Sudbury, not on a coast. All her stories have been set in Sudbury, but she can't take the winters anymore and now she's writing a story set up-island, where she lives. Read an excerpt from one of her books (Memories are Murder? I'm not sure) where the heroine encounters a beaver trapper while walking her dog. It probably read well on the page, but while she read it out loud, she added so many comments and explanations about what is shown or hinted at by this or that detail that I had difficulty picking the story out from the glosses.
David Russell, sleek, with smooth blond hair, a high-school teacher who set his story in a high-school. Practiced speaker (to be expected) with small jokes scattered through, enough to raise a smile without distracting from the topic. Read an excerpt from Deadly Lessons, a scene in the classroom with an inattentive student. Easier to see the virtues in that piece because they weren't being waved at.
Bob Scott, filling in for the absent Chudley. Read the opening of Advertising Murder, the discovery of a body in a highrise office. The story was originally set in Victoria, but his editor asked him to change it to Vancouver, for better recognition. (This amuses, because in films, it's Vancouver that stands in for other cities.) Since he'd relied heavily on his own familiarity with Victoria, and had never lived in Vancouver, this was an alarming development, but he did the revisions.
Said in panel discussion: landscape defines character. Setting can be a character. A school or office in the good part of town will have a different atmosphere than one in a low-income area. Juxtaposition, putting a graveyard across from a school sets up themes and forebodings. Being physically in the setting is useful for the evocation of details, texture, smells. Research, learn the geology, flora and fauna, what animal tracks you might see, etc. Keep the local colour and detail in check, enough to visualise but not so much it will distract (readers will differ on the right amount). Local colour and accurate names and mapping will make the book popular with local people (free dinners possible at restaurants).

What sells? Editor Lynne van Luven, possibly the most businesslike-looking person present, short styled hair and suit-jacket (business casual? not that I'd know) described the process for NeWest press, a slushpile and panel of readers. First reading was of 2-3 chapters, submissions divided into regrets (the really impossible ones) and potential (anything not really awful). Next round was reading by group of 3, required 2 of the 3 liking it. What they looked for:
1) good writing, not ornate but simple clear style
2) a new angle, but not too cute, an inventive but credible detective
3) credible mystery.
Frances Thorsen, Chronicles of Crime bookshop, also in a suit jacket, but wearing it in a more rumpled and professorial way, thick black hair and a narrow face. Local bookseller working closely with local authors. Victoria is a tourist town, often visitors will come in asking for a mystery with a local setting, for combination souvenir and vacation reading. She recommended that new writers try to have a personal relationship with local bookshops, being available for signings and readings, be willing to work with bookseller. It helps if the bookseller likes the story, finds the setting and characters enjoyable and evocative.
James Hawkins, grey hair and beard, would actually be a good character actor for a tv detective series (BBC most likely), gives the impression of much stored energy and determination. He's described as a consumat salesman, criss-crossing Canada signing and reading at every bookstore he can reach. Often sells 80 or more books at a signing (since the average number is supposed to be 5, this is darned impressive). Anecdotes of setting up signing table for best traffic, being helpful to staff, attracting passers-by.
He reminds writers that they are small businesses and should take advantage of that. Revenue Canada recognises the difficulty of making it as a writer, since they allow authors to declare a loss for 7 years, and other businesses only 3 years. Selling to the publisher is only the first step, next writers must sell to the public. Mystery writers need a new book coming out each year, to keep their names current.
Discussion of covers and their effect on sales, that small presses may consult with authors on cover art, that display space, posters, shelf space etc. are all paid for by publishers, their investment in the books (so writers must invest as well, was the moral, I think). Writers need to learn about the media, about opportunities for radio interviews, especially locally (major media coverage also bought by big publishers), don't expect any radio hosts to have read the book, other than Joanna Roberts at All Points West.
Of note: Dundurn Group pays an advance of $250 Canadian (no, that's all the zeros, there are no more). That's based on an expected 500 sales. Selling 3000 in Canada makes you a bestseller.

At the lunchbreak there was an opportunity to have a page of your work critiqued by one of the writers present. Oddly, I don't think more than 5 or 6 people took advantage of this, and yet the audience (varied, but about 50 present) must have been largely composed of hopeful writers. Since I do have the first chapter of a historical mystery (written for the Debut Dagger contest) handy, I printed out the first 2 pages (because it's double-spaced in SMF, and there's no point giving anyone a page that isn't the first page) and brought that in. I figured if 2 pages was pushing it, the person could always just read one.
I got David Russell, and very nice he was. I apologised for the black line running down the page, since I hadn't had time to fire up the good printer. He read both pages, and turned the second page over looking for more, with a faint noise of surprise that there wasn't.
Good things: good turn of phrase, dialogue rang true, evocation of setting, encouraged not to let myself be pressured into watering down my prose.
Things to fix: the wider setting, like what part of Italy, needs to be established by the second page, and it's okay to drop in terms like 'painter of Florence' to satisfy that curiosity. Also, the murder or mystery needs to come in pretty quickly.

During lunch and afterwards the authors had books out for sale and signing, but I'd spent my money on lunch, so was unable to buy anything then. No, wait, I had $5 left, and James Hawkins sold me one of his for that price, because the first hit is free. I chatted with him briefly, and got the impression that his major motivation for the frenzied selling is that he enjoys it. He wants his books to be read, he wants to affect his readers, he believes in his books. And more power to him, but I'd rather be writing, myself.

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