Wednesday, October 24, 2007


Rainbow over Galiano Island

"For me a work of fiction exists only insofar as it affords me what I shall bluntly call aesthetic bliss."
Vladimir Nabokov 1899-1977 "On a Book Entitled 'Lolita'" 1956

Last weekend I had the great pleasure of spending three days at the Surrey International Writer's Conference ( )
(Surrey is a suburb of Vancouver.) This writer's conference has won the reputation of being the best in North America and the largest in the world. People come here from everywhere to attend and there are several of the presenters who have attended year after year.
The last three years I have volunteered in order to be able to afford to spend the whole weekend there. This not only allows me a chance to meet some of the presenters personally but also to sit in on several workshops. All three years I've been given the job of introducing presenters and this is quite an honor. This year I also helped monitor the Blue Pencil Cafe where people bring some of their manuscripts in to be critiqued by the presenters. Besides the writers, there are many agents and editors at the conference and you can make appointments to see them. (15 minutes for the Blue Pencil Cafe, 10 minutes for the editor/agent appointments.)

This year I had the privilege of introducing Anne Perry, an award-winning author of Victorian mysteries from England; Bruce Hale, author of children's books, Calif. ; and Lisa Rector-Maass, editor/writer from N.Y. I also attended some excellent workshops besides these including a panel: History as a Platform for Contemporary Issues, Panel members included Diana Gabaldon, Jack Whyte, Cecilia Holland and Eric Walter (a Canadian historical writer). I also sat in on Capturing the Spirit: The Keys to Writing Biography and Memoir, and an excellent workshop presented by Cecilia Holland on Holistic Historicals: What is the Value of Historical Fiction?

This last workshop I found of particular interest and value and was able to ask a lot of crucial questions that will help me in finishing my novel. During the workshops I also learned a lot of valuable hints to help with the final edits.

I made a lot of notes and thought I'd share some of the highlights with my blog writer friends. I was so inspired and encouraged by these workshops that I came away full of new energy and knowledge that will help me immensely. So perhaps some of the tips I got will help you too!

In Anne Perry's workshop "The Butler Did It: Character Development in Fiction", she gave some tips on drawing out your characters. As yourself what are some of the negative things in a character that you find tedious and boring in a story (such as self-pity, stupidity, someone who is 'perfect', etc) And what are some positive character traits (vulnerability - to a certain extent), fear (is OK if it's real) redemption, etc) If you look at your characters and see what traits they have you can build a stronger character.
She suggested writing out the plot from the antagonist's p.o.v. to find the vulnerability in the antagonist and discover the strength and weakness of your character that will help you understand how they will overcome it. Remember the protagonist must change whle they are on their journey.

Most importantly she said "Go inside yourself. What matters to you? Your main character's strength comes from inside YOU."
Also, give secondary characters a life in your imagination but you don't have to give many details about them.
Every character has to have a life, goals achievements, etc.
And, she says if you are using multiple point of view, to use only up to five characters.

In Lisa Recto-Maass workshop "Deep Down Revision" I got some good tips to help me with my final draft. One thing she mentioned was regarding secondary characters. If you have too many who are not doing enough, whose paths don't cross, or cross only for resolution, characters who have no real purpose to further the plot, either get rid of them of amalgamate some of them into one characters. As yourself: Do they incite a plot line? If so, give them a second plot line. What is their hidden agent? (
Look for secondary motivation in everything they do.)

All the writers talked about the antagonist. What happened in their life to make them into the villain? What could come into their life to change things? What have you taken away from the protagonist to give to another character? Find conflicts: go point by point. How do your plot points connect to keep the story from being disjointed? Have a connected threat. What is your THEME? The theme is your connected thread. What if your characters had to go to a place least expected? You must go there in order to write powerful characters.
FOCUS: #1 protagonist #2 antagonist #3 plot.

In the Historical Fiction panel some interesting questions were raised and each writer on the panel had a chance to answer. As Jack Whyte said, "There is nothing new under the sun. Everything echoes in the past."
Anne Perry said: "Beliefs shift, but things in the core of us are the same. Things spring from human nature, good and evil is always much the same."
Diane Gabaldon said " History is talking about differences in people and times. To be political (politically correct) stuff isn't into the mind set of the time. Don't editorialize!"
Cecilia Holland said: "Get rid of preconceptions to get into the story and be faithful to it. Things that happen now have antecedents in the past.
Eric Walter said: "You are writing fiction and you have to get emotion in."
And three more things. "Be honest. Don't make deliberate distortions of the past. Be honest about the characters. "
"Never give up!"
"Be historically accurate but don't let history overwhelm the story."

In Cecilia Holland's workshop on historical writing, I was totally entranced. I felt an immediate connection with this writer who says she has been writing historical since she was twelve (same as me!). I asked a lot of questions which were very helpful. One was a problem I have with events (historical) that occur perhaps a year or so apart. She suggested that you can condense some time lines (and leave out dates). She also said "Don't layer in and give a history lesson. Give a sense of the values of the time."
In a question regarding historical fiction vs fantasy: "Fantasy has fantasy elements in it -- seeing the future, visions, premonitions, people doing unusual things like spitting fire"
There is also Alternative history such as: "What if the South won the Civil War?"
Using nicknames is OK. Play on words OK. For minor characters if there's names the same and you can't change or shorten, drop them.

After I got home from the conference on Sunday, my mind full of knowledge and completely inspired, I decided to email Cecilia Holland to thank her for sharing her expertise. And I was thrilled to get an immediate response thanking me and telling me to contact her if I needed 'cheering on." I was also completely surprised when Lisa Rector-Maass came over to thank me for my introduction. We talked, she asked about what I write, she said she does historicals and handed me her card. "Send it to me when you're done," she said. Wow! I was totally thrilled. Believe me, this conference is the best thing a writer could do for them self. My head is still spinning with all that I took in. And I am more encouraged and inspired than ever!

Now...back to work on my novel!

"This is a work of history in fictional form -- that is, in personal perspective, which is the only kind of history that exists." Joyce Carol Oates 1938 - Author's Note 1969.

West Coast sunset over the islands.
Posted by Picasa


Sam said...

That sounds like an amazing conference! Ann Perry is one of my favorite authors!
Good advice seemed to flow from everyone. Thank you for sharing it!!

Meghan said...

[[One was a problem I have with events (historical) that occur perhaps a year or so apart. She suggested that you can condense some time lines (and leave out dates). She also said "Don't layer in and give a history lesson. Give a sense of the values of the time."]]

I also have the same problem. I'm not sure what she meant by "give a sense of the values of the time"?

At any rate, I LOVE the pictures and it sounds like it was a really awesome conference!

Wynn Bexton said...

Megumi, I think the comment of 'don't give a sense of the values of the time' may have been in reference to forget about political correctness of today and today's morals and keep true to the morality and values of the period you are writing about.
People nowadays are so stupidly paranoid about being politically correct and you can't hang that on the past. For instance, it makes me crazy hearing Alexander being tagged as 'gay' when in fact bisexuality was all part of the custom in those ancient days and was not considered anything out of the norm unless it was with children under 12 years of age which was a big no-no.

Wynn Bexton said...

Sam: I thought Anne Perry was amazing, a truly dignified and professional woman. I knew about her back-story but didn't connect it with her at the time I was introducing her (for which I'm glad). She's an amazing person and has achieved so much considering the unfortunate events of her youth.

Adrian Swift said...

Wow! What an awesome conference! Sounds like you had a wonderful time, and also got to pick up on some excellent advice. The meaty variety, not fluff. How wonderful!

Thanks for sharing some of the insights. It was very stimulating and even exciting to read your posting, and imagine what it must have been like to attend! Wish I could have been there but that's a long ways away for me!

You have encouraged me however to keep an eye out for other such conferences in the coming months. I know there are several I could attend if I keep track of the dates.

Again, thanks for sharing. You must be so PUMPED right now! I am, just from your posting!

Good luck with your writing!

Anonymous said...

What a wonderful conference. I discovered Cecilia Holland's novels in high school and she's one of my favorite historical writers. I would love to be in one of her workshops! d:

Anonymous said...

I took a writing class from Ms. Holland about 20 years ago and never forgot it. She's a force of nature. Pat

Wynn Bexton said...

Thanks for reminding me that I should drop her a line. She said to email if I needed cheering on, which I do at the moment.