Just back from three days at the Surrey International Writers Conference. Three days of sessions on the craft and business of writing, as well as keynote speakers (Cory Doctorow! Chuck Wendig! Laura Bradbury! Others!) and a whole lot of networking. I listened to Don Maass describe how to write settings that readers will want to live in. Robert Wiersema gave his ideas on how to make readers cry and drove his point home by bringing his audience to tears. Chuck Wendig made his case for how to develop kick ass characters (we ended up outlining a story about a missing child whose parents opt to cope with the tragedy by CLONING the child). David Corbett steamrollered my brain with his rapid-fire erudition and thoughts on how writers can use various types of moral argument to develop plot and character. Larry Brooks and I had a wonderful chat about story structure and character (my notes from his book Story Engineering live on my office wall). Peter Rubie discussed voice and how you can make yours better (hint: practice the right things). By Sunday my brain was ready to hesplode.
The last session I attended was Liza Palmer’s “Your Voice, Your Career.” I expected another class full of tips, and there were plenty of those (including creating a Pinterest page for your characters!) but, for me, much of what made the session work was just Liza herself. She stood in front of her audience, laughing, digressing, talking a mile a minute, sometimes forgetting her place but then getting on with things anyway. None of the hiccups mattered.
(Plus a bonus writing pump up!)
Remember that time when you were a kid, perhaps seven or eight, and you had a killer idea for a story? It may have been loosely based on The Six Million Dollar Man or Wonder Woman or The Facts of Life (unlikely), but it was such an awesome concept that you HAD to get it down. You rushed to find your favourite, least-chewed pencil and some good paper and began writing your epic. You were on fire! The words flowed like cracked fire hydrant and soon you had your epic: the amazing story of THIS THING THAT HAPPENED! followed by THIS OTHER THING THAT HAPPENED! to this really, really, really cool hero and his super duper funny friends. It was such an awesome great tale, so scary or funny or sad or brave.
Oddly enough, though, when it came time to read your masterpiece to mom or your friends it didn’t quite come across. You read louder, with more enthusiasm, and perhaps a few explanations but it was like trying to resuscitate a fish. With your mouth. Somehow, what had washed up on the page was not half as glorious as the rumble and flash between your ears. What was wrong? you wondered. Why was your awesome story so boring? More monsters perhaps?
If your experience was anything like mine, you probably swore off storytelling for a while, or at least kept your efforts hidden. I’m just not good at telling stories, I told myself. And I continued to believe that for a very long time, even though my English teachers gave me top marks. I still had fun daydreamy ideas floating through my head, but it was frustrating because I had no way to share them. (Robot monkeys from Jupiter, people!!) Eventually, though, I realized that being able to write well is not a gift you’re born with, like blue eyes or an ability to curl your tongue. Writing is more like juggling, a skill that can be learned, but only through practice.
One of the first bits of advice any writing student is likely to hear is: SHOW, don’t TELL. In other words, don’t tell me it was a rainy day. I can’t really see that. Instead, show me the boiling puddles, the buses splashing pedestrians, the squeaky wipers on frenzied full. Make me feel the cold water in my boots, the heavy wet jeans sticking to my legs, the difficulty walking, etc. Showing engages the senses and lets readers experience a story. It’s the difference between telling you that this cup of tea is hot and pouring it in your lap.
“Don’t say the old lady screamed. Bring her on and let her scream.”
– Mark Twain