On Saturday I was lucky enough to attend the Surrey International Writers’ Conference. While I wasn’t quite able to shake my nerves entirely, I had a good time and I learned a lot, considering I was only there for one day of the conference. I’d definitely like to go again in the future.
It’s been a while since I’ve had to do anything quite so intense on my own, and I felt a bit out of practice, so my nerves were definitely all a-quiver. I told myself, “Remember, if I can travel Europe on my own, I can do anything on my own!” and decided to look at the day strictly as a learning experience, so that took off a bit of the pressure. But the fact that I knew I’d be pitching my book at the end of the day meant I was never totally at ease.
The day started off with a keynote speech by Jael Richardson. She’s the author of the memoir The Stone Thrower: A Daughter’s Lesson, a Father’s Life. She is also the Artistic Director of the Festival of Literary Diversity. She was quite humorous and her speech, which focused on living, reading, and writing diversely, was inspiring and hopeful. Her work sounds like it would be very interesting.
Then it was time for the first workshop of the day. I trouped off upstairs and made my way into the Art of Revision, which was led by Robin Stevenson, a children’s and YA writer. Eager to learn, I waited anxiously for the workshop to begin, notebook in hand, eyes darting as the room filled. I found this to be an incredibly helpful workshop and I scribbled away profusely, Robin making some excellent points I wouldn’t have thought of myself, such as reading your story somewhere other than where you wrote it, to change up your perspective, plus lots of other ways to help you look at your story from different eyes.
Another thing brought up from this workshop that I found interesting was that there’s a difference between what the characters need to know and what the readers need to know – and that it’s okay to leave the readers wondering for a bit. This ties in a lot with backstory: how much backstory does the reader actually need? Sometimes, a lot of the backstory you come up with is only needed for you, the writer, to know the character better and to then be able to write them better. Maybe backstory that you found so necessary to write the story in the first place doesn’t actually need to be in the final draft of the story for it to make sense to readers. I think this is going to be very helpful to keep in mind when I go back and revise my novels.
My next workshop was Dialogue, something which I tend to struggle with and is probably my least favourite thing to write. I would have gone to this workshop regardless of who was leading it, but it just so happened that the author leading it was one of the few names I recognized at the conference (that’s the problem when most of the authors you read are dead – you tend to feel a bit out of the loop with contemporary authors). Diana Gabaldon was leading the Dialogue workshop, and while I myself haven’t read any of her work, I know who she is and I know enough to know she’s a pretty big deal and to get to be in a workshop led by her is one of those once-in-a-life-timers. No surprise, the room was jam-packed (I suspect many of the people were there simply to see her and cared less about what she was actually talking about than getting to see her talk) but I managed to snag a good seat: center, third row.
Diana spoke quickly, and it was hard to keep up with her (it seems I have fallen out of practice with fast note taking since leaving university) and my wrist was cramping by the end of the workshop, but I got all the important stuff down and I very much look forward to trying some of it out. She spoke of the six things she believes dialogue should be doing at any given time and gave us ten tips for how to use dialogue. Dialogue should always have a purpose, and if it doesn’t then it doesn’t belong in your book. No character gets to ramble for the sake of rambling, unless, I would guess, it is to show that they are nervous – but that’s the purpose of that particular dialogue; without this purpose, it shouldn’t exist.
I think one of the most helpful things she said, in response to a question by an audience member, was how to distinguish between those who are speaking in a group where that group consists of all the same type of character; for example a group of women chatting. The question was how can you distinguish between who’s talking without always having to use their names, as this gets redundant and ugly to read. Diana said to find something that was unique about each character and establish that early on. Her example was a group of three women: one is pregnant, one has a cat, and the other hates that cat. You can now tag the dialogue with things like, she said, resting her hand against her protruding belly or as she spoke she pushed the cat from her, irritated or she replied, pulling the cat from her friend. From these tags, with the use of the characteristic unique to that particular character, readers will know who is speaking without explicitly being told.
Diana also read out some scenes from her work to show us the ways in which she uses dialogue, including an exert from the book she’s currently working on, the ninth in her Outlander series. It doesn’t matter that I don’t read her, getting to hear an author read their own writing out loud to you is always a treat.
Next was lunch, where you sat randomly and a mystery presenter would be seated at your table. It could be an author, an agent, or an editor. This was the part I was most dreading, my ability to make small talk and network with strangers next to nil. I didn’t overcome anything at that lunch, I’m afraid. The closer my pitch time was approaching, the more nervous and internal I became, so I was content to sit, eat, and listen. You don’t have to be actively involved in the conversation to learn, you know, and sometimes it’s nice to just be present and take it in. I was hoping to remain invisible, and I got out of there pretty quick.
The next workshop time slot I was torn between two workshops. There was a Humour workshop being led by Jasper Fforde, which I’m sure would have been great. Ultimately, however, I decided that with where I was at now in my writing stages (plus the fact that I’m not really a humorous writer), it would be more helpful to me to go to SiWC Idol, which is a panel where you can submit the first page of your manuscript and have the chance at it being read aloud to a group of agents, where each agent would put up their hand at the point when they would stop reading and explain why. This too sent dread through me at the thought of potentially having a terrible reading, but I knew it would be helpful to hear what they had to say, and it was. Jack Whyte was the reader, and frankly he can make anything sound good (seriously, listen to that, isn’t his voice amazing?). My page didn’t end up being read, which I’m more than okay with, as I found many things that I think I now need to fix just based on what I heard from what they had to say on the pages that did get read.
For the last workshop of the day I went to a panel on publishing – traditional publishing and the ways in which it’s changed, led by a group of agents and editors. I didn’t get to hear much of it, as this was the time slot in which I had to slip out to go do my pitch.
And then, at last, it was time for the dreaded pitch session. I wore my cupcake dress in the hopes that this would be what started the conversation, and it totally did. I swear, that is my lucky dress – it got my boyfriend, and my first request from an agent. I was incredibly nervous and it definitely showed, and the entire time I was speaking I thought I was doing horribly because the agent’s face wasn’t betraying anything. But in the end, she gave me her card and told me to send her the first 30 pages or so, which is incredible. Of course, this doesn’t meant anything, she could still decide it’s not right for her, and it’s not like it’s a full request, but it’s a step and way more than I was expecting. So that’s really exciting! Phew! I did it! I survived my first in-person pitch! She also helped me with classifying my novel’s genre, so I think I have a better sense of what I can call it now.
All in all, it was a very successful day. I’m definitely going to take everything I’ve learned and use it to revise my first novel as well as the one I just finished. I’m going to play around with my first novel some more and then I’ll send it to the agent who’s requested it (!) Exciting!