Headhunters, micro-tension and aliens up the protag’s nose …

This was going to be the mother of all blog posts about the Surrey International Writers Conference that I attended last week, but I decided to break it up into a series of blog posts.

Once again the conference rocked in its awesomeness. It is truly one of the best conferences in North America!

If you haven’t heard of the SiWC, in Surrey, British Columbia, Canada then you’re more of a Sasquatch writer than I am. I attended workshops presented by some of the top authors, editors and agents the world over. Each participant had a blue pencil session with an author, as well as an agent/editor meeting. As a participant with a book published I was invited to participate in the book fair.

For those of you who did not attend, I thought I’d write about some of the highlights for me, and some of the learning’s I took away from a writing POV.

The highlight for me was when they announced the publication of my debut novel Dead Frog on the Porch as a Surrey success story (in front of 500 people). Surrey was instrumental in my quest to find my publisher Gumboot Books. Last year they announced the contract at Surrey and now a year later the book is published!

Another highlight was seeing my writer friends again. Believe it or not, I have writer friends in Calgary who I only manage to see once a year at Surrey, and I met a lot of new writers from Calgary. I also hung out with my writer friend from New York who you know as Jocosa of the Earrings. She was a rock star at Surrey this year and was invited to submit to one of North America’s top agents.

I had a really good blue pencil session with Richard Scrimger. He writes these awesome books for kids where the protag has an alien from Jupiter living in his nose (who knew!?).

Here are some of the mots justes (translated from French that means super awesome dead on advice) from the conference workshops.

The first Master Class was with Michael Slade. Michael Slade is a pseudonym of Vancouver criminal lawyer Jay Clarke and his daughter Rebecca Clarke. He is a bestselling author of mystery/triller novels.

Plot is not an idea. Move an idea into plot. A story requires two separate ideas that come into collision or conflict. His advice was to take the worst thing that happened to you in life and figure out the neurosis that came out of it. Use that to drive your story. For him it was headhunters. Turns out he saw an image of a headhunter on a magazine when he was young and shortly after, his father was killed in a plane crash. He developed an irrational fear of headhunters and the store where the magazine was sold. He channeled that fear into the novel Headhunter. If the image above freaks you out, check out the kids goofing on headhunters.

Other bits of info:

Flash backs interrupt the story and the tension. The three elements of suspense are: fear, hope, and a tight time limit. And finally, for those writers inclined to Sasquatch themselves, get out and live your story, the world is writing your story for you.

The Master Class with Donald Maass was awesome as usual. It was called Writing the Irresistible Novel. Donald has a new book out called The Fire in Fiction: passion, Purpose and Techniques to make your novel great.

Donald took us through a guided process where we rewrote scenes from a work in progress. He said that most manuscripts he sees as an agent don’t commit themselves to the characters and the story. He said resistance is a signpost you must push past as you are writing toward an irresistible novel. As writers, he said, we must go toward the resistance and go toward what makes us uncomfortable in the character and plot to write the irresistible novel. The character needs to feel what they feel all the time. He said the character has to be alive and fully committed to the moment each and every moment.

Donald Maass came up with the concept of having ‘conflict on every page’ (yes, he’s that guy) well now he’s come up with ‘micro-tension’ (and will hereafter be known as the micro-tension guy). There are three levels on which a novel needs to work at all times: plot, scenes and line-by-line tension (aka micro-tension). Micro-tension makes us uncertain about what happens next. Micro-tension is the simmering tension, the expectation of change, the friction between friends, internal tension, and conflicting emotions. Action does not automatically create tension. Tension comes through emotions.

Next post: Do I have enough story in my story?


StoryForce said…
Hi Jan,

thank you for your post on the Surrey
conference. It sounds like it was great and I love the little tidbits you shared.

Carol J. Garvin said…
Yay, Surrey! I was only there one day this year (Friday) as I was helping to staff the Federation of BC Writers table. But I've been a delate since 2004 and totally agree that it's the absolute best! I'm glad you had such a beneficial weekend there.
Anonymous said…
Thanks for sharing these bits about the conference -- I didn't get to go this year, so I'm living vicariously through the blog posts of those who DID get to go. ;)
annerallen said…
Thanks for sharing this fantastic advice. Microtension. OK, I'll go comb my WIP for it.
Thanks! I was looking forward to reading about the conference and you delivered. Like the details and the links.
gabe said…
Wonderful post. I wanted to go (but my debut book wasn't ready) - next year I will. Sounds like such a great event.
Thanks for sharing and congrats on your Dead Frog!

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