Friday, October 30, 2015

SiWC after-musings

This was the third time I've gone to this conference, and while I shy away from claiming anything is 'the best', I think this is the year I got the most pure enjoyment out of the experience.

My first year, SiWC 2013, was so overwhelming that I don't think I retained a whole heck of a lot... other than the physical notes I took during the workshop and the ongoing friendship with a few local writers I met. So, thank goodness for my reasonably fast typing skills and the self-learned-tendency to talk to people I don't know ;)

I wasn't even going to go to SiWC 2014... for those who remember, I was still mired in mid-divorce-nastiness, and things had come to a pretty awful place. I was feeling exhausted, burned out, and with the stress of everything, had not written in quite a while. The only reason I went is because I won a free basic pass to the conference the previous year (serendipitous?) so I went in thinking it would be a good distraction. Yep, that was the height of my expectations. A good distraction.

...and I had an amazing time. I talked to way more people than I had the previous year (not so overwhelming when things are a little bit familiar), and I repeated my habit of finding the emptiest table in the dining room, sitting down, and starting a conversation with whoever was there. I also took a Master Class on story structure, with the absolutely delightful Eileen Cook, which has shaped the way I write in more ways than I can possibly explain.

I left the conference feeling like new energy had been breathed into one corner of my life, and it was enough to make me chase down some excellent help on the story I was completely frustrated with, TRoRS. I had sent out a very small batch of test queries, and the agents who read the full all came back with the same piece of feedback:

"This was a really hard decision for me, I love this story, but something's off with the tension that I can't quite put my finger on."

As a dyslexic writer, this confirmed the deeply ingrained, ever-present fear that there's (always) something wrong with my writing. Essentially, I was so incompetent that not even professionals could figure out what the heck was wrong with my MS.

And you all know I am weirdly optimistic and zen about the whole dyslexic thing, so that tells you something about my state of mind at that point.

Hence my going into the conference expecting a 'good distraction' at best.

The help I chased down several months after the conference was Eileen Cook. I hired her to edit TRoRS and... oh my goodness, it was worth it. Yes, there's a blurb from me on her website, and yes, if the topic of editing a frustrating story comes up in a conversation, her name tumbles out of my mouth soon after.

I wouldn't have met Eileen if I hadn't gone to SiWC 2014, and I probably would have dropped TRoRS into a virtual drawer and moved on. No, I would not have quit writing, never that, but I might have quit querying and stuck to writing for the sheer pleasure of it.

SiWC 2015 was a much different experience. A large part of it was just being more comfortable in a (now) familiar place, pulling out my inner-extrovert and talking to pretty much anyone I sat down next to.

Like the previous years, I tried to sit at tables where I didn't know anyone* (though I did end up at the same table near the bar for several dinners - the 'wine-fairy' visited, as it did last year - and will again next year), joined people hanging out on couches, and struck up conversations with those sitting beside me or standing in line.

I was... absolutely blown away and humbled by the number of people who remembered me from the previous year... one highlight being, as I sat in the lobby, someone walked by with a group of friends, noticed me, stopped dead and asked, "How terrible was it watching the Super Bowl last year?"

And the reason this was so surprising is that I wasn't wearing my fluorescent yellow Brasil ball cap (so bright it is visually offensive) like I did last year. People remembered me, not my (inappropriate?) choice of headwear.

(maybe it's the blonde fro that people remember? ...I try, people, but it does its own thing when it's this long...)

If I have any regrets about this conference, it's that I'm still reasonably new to twitter and have not gotten into the habit of exchanging info. I think it was only on the final night that it occurred to me (and, to be honest, was actually brought up by someone else at my table), so I wasn't able to build/maintain that point of connection with as many people as I would have liked to. Smarter people than me came armed with business cards... so maybe I will be better prepared next year.

...and things to look forward to at SiWC 2016?

Obviously, top of the list, is catching up with everyone I already have met, and talking to new people I haven't. This may include the three people who have now dubbed me: 'Damn Boobs' as my name tag kept getting caught/turned around and no one could ever read it. And we were in the bar. Which somehow made the whole thing funnier.

My volunteer-stint as an early-morning airport shuttle on Sunday & Monday morning went really well... and a few of those I dropped off claimed they will ask for me again next year ;)

(it IS the car, people... not my winning personality)

And that would be really fun, to shuttle people around again. So I will probably volunteer for that early-morning shift that no one else ever wants. I love driving, it's rarely ever a hardship. Though I was pretty sleepy during the Sunday workshops...

Signing up for as many Blue Pencil sessions** I can get into, as usual.

Also, the wine-fairy will be visiting the table closest to the bar... (just sayin...)

Honestly, so many good things happened at the conference this year that I could go on for ages, but that would convey very little of the fun/laid-back atmosphere of the SiWC, and the kind & generous volunteers who keep it running smoothly.

As with every year so far, I'm glad I went, and am looking forward to next year.

* Even though I would define myself as an introvert, I am generally quick to start conversations with other/new people. I like asking questions and hearing about the good things in other people's lives because you pass on your mood - good or bad. Comes back to one of my rules of life: always smile first. So, for example, even though I went into SiWC 2014 feeling very tired and discouraged, I was not going to pass that on. Instead, I was going to focus on the good energy of other people and what was going right for them.

** The Blue Pencil sessions are handled by writers and editors who volunteer their time to read your first couple of pages and make comments. Everyone seems to fight over the extra Pitch*** sessions (where you can pitch an agent or editor), but I really like signing up for more Blue Pencil slots, not just only from those who write/read YA, but from a range of writing backgrounds. It's always so interesting to see how different the comments are.

*** Last year I didn't go to a Pitch session, I gave away my time slot to someone else. This year I did use my slot, but I didn't sign up for any others. I used it, not to pitch, but to ask for a professional's opinion on a certain question I had, which was incredibly helpful, and I got an interesting book recommendation out of it that I am going to read very soon.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

SiWC 2015 Workshop #5 Writing YA Fiction Panel

Writing YA Fiction
Moderator: kc Dyer (writer)
Carrie Mac (writer), Kat Brzozowski (editor), Eileen Cook (writer)

KCD: Kat, what’s hot in the acquisitions world?

KB: Contemp YA is still hot, one coming out in January about a girl de-virgining the boys of her school called ‘Firsts’, so Contemps with a romance & strong voice are still really working.

KCD: If you were going to define the difference between NA and YA?

KB: I think it started out as one thing, but transitioned into more romance for 18-25ers.

EC: A YA novel spans a lot of different things, easier to say what it isn’t. It’s not an after-school special. Usually a teen dealing with issues. MG is how you fit into the world, YA is how you’re going to stand out in the world. That’s how I approach that.

CM: Generally the protagonist are going to be a little older than your readers, and there tend to be more gatekeepers tog et through, due to content, etc.

KCD: MG is generally bought by parents, but YA is bought by the teens, can you comment on that?

KB: I think often it’s editors/etc trying to guess what teens want to read versus what the actual teens want to read. Like we may be sick of seeing vampires, but teens are still eating them up.

KCD: Have you ever changed what’s in your book because parents might be buying the books?

CM: My books have lots of stuff in them, sex, drugs, language, then it gets to the editor/publisher, and based on the audience they are targeting, they start softening and taking them out. So, I try not be be offended, wanting those f-bombs and sex where they are, but I think regardless how I wrote it, every sex scene (for example) has been edited down to ‘fade-to-black’. Even my book on teenage prostitution.

EC: Also, different publishers have different personalities where one would be fine with sex and language, and another one wouldn’t be okay at all. I don’t change what I’m writing, and there is a big range of what’s out there. 

KB: I will say that adding swearing and sex if it’s appropriate for the story is great, but cleaner books also sell great. Don’t throw it in just to make it edgier. 

Audience question: I want to backtrack a bit, Kat, is urban fantasy coming back, I’ve seen witches come in recently.

KB: I think in fantasy, magical realism is starting to come up, and stuff like fairy-tale retellings, and witches are just cool.

EC: Witches are also really strong female characters.

KCD: I’d like to ask you about reading. How important to you is reading in your genre, what have you read lately that’s exciting, do you read while writing?

EC: If you aren’t reading YA, don’t write it. I read really widely, and I’d encourage you do do it as a study. Take index cards and for every chapter, who’s in there, what’s the point of it, what subplots are there, etc and colour coded them afterwards to see how/why it was written the way it was. The difference is learning to read critically. When I’m writing, I tend to read outside the genre. Right now I’m reading a lot of non-fiction.

CM: I read everything, and I always have read YA, except when I was a teenager. What I read now is, I’m a library shopper, so I pick up the ones on the front shelf for YA ‘fast reads’, where you have to have it back in 1 week max. “I’m Home” is one I just read recently that’s really good, and that’s actually how I found my agent I read a book, looked in the back. “Everything Feels Like the Movies” is a really interesting book. Either it’s really disgusting, or really important. I also read a lot of MG, because there’s o much that’s so good out there right now. “The Thing about Jellyfish” is excellent, “Walk Two Moons” as well.

KCD: Let’s talk about research.

EC: I do a lot, foe example, the last book I worked on was in Italy, so, darn, I had to go and eat gelato so I would know which flavour would be my character’s favourite. I wrote a book about adoption and spend 5 months online on adoption boards asking questions, and I was really gratified to have so many teens share their experiences.

KCD: Carrie, can we talk about your ex-day job as a paramedic in terms of research.

CM: Oh, for sure, like there wa sa real case where a man lost an ear in an accident and they regrew it, so researched all this magical stem cell stuff that I can’t even articulate it properly, and took a course on Neuroscience & Theology about what might happen to the soul if you can regrow a human body up to three times.

KCD: Can we talk about issue books that are out there to say,”don’t do drugs!”

KB: Yeah, I think adults and “romancing…. in the city of light”, great voice is depressed, but light 

EC: I think you need to give readers credit, no, “ as you know Jill, your life isn’t going well since you started doing drugs.” If you remember when you were a teen, you hated when people talked down to you, so remember that and treat them with respect.

CM: I think you can break them into different boxes, the foster-kid book, the alcoholics parent book, the drugs book, but you don’t have to bring it all together and tie it into a neat knot. I think the publishers want to have a glimmer of hope, so the ending is more satisfactory than ‘happy’.

KB: Giving the reader credit, that goes beyond just issue books, it’s true with everything. Let the reader full in the blanks and tell less history/etc.

CM: “Resist the urge to explain.” They never explain in movies.

KCD: Reading aloud is just an important way to tell if you are front-loading your story with pre-story information instead of starting where the story begins. The SiWC Idol panel has been really interesting because the quality keeps getting better every year. Way less characters standing in front of mirrors describing themselves or waking from a dream, or starting in a dream. When you hear other people’s work real aloud, you can hear, which is so important to read their own work aloud.

EC: Pick a scene with dialogue. Write down what the character is trying to communicate, and then rewrite the scene so that ti’s obvious that’s what they are wanting to say, but without saying it.

CM: I record everything I write three times and play it back through my headphones and I guarantee, you can hear where it’s smooth and where the blips are. I highly recommend doing this.

KCD: That’s where I catch when I use the same word three times in the same paragraph, where my dialogue is inauthentic, etc.

Audience question: How long is a YA novel usual?

KB: 60-80,000 is about the average.

CM: 75-100,000 for mine, but I expect by the time it’s published to get pared back to around 85. I write for Orca publishing which are 16-18,000 for reluctant readers.

EC: And I think you have not know yourself as a writer, some write short where they have to go back and flesh it in, or you write long and then pare it back.

KCD: There are story lengths from fairly short to long, so write your story how it needs to be written and figure it out later. Kat, how often does something show up on your desk and it needs work, or they’re not sure where it belongs.

KB: Now, agents to so much more development work, so we now expect books to show up that’s almost there. I find it easier to edit structure, like plot, rather than prose.

CM: I had the privilege for my last book to go to auction, so more than one publisher interested in buying the novel, so I spoke to 6 big imprints and had amazing conversations with my agents and an editor from each imprint and they all came with comments of what they wanted to do with the book, and I was surprised how varied the responses were.

KB: yes, I think it’s really valuable to get different eyes and different opinions and then choose which works best for you. It’s good for the author to work, but also push back if there’s something you’ve put in there for a reason.

EC: I always tell people, if someone gives a comment that you stop and and immediately get your back up, that it’s important to ask why they are offering that opinion.

KB: I always say if they want something changed, they have to have a reason. I don’t care if your neighbour doesn’t like the cover of your book, no, that’s not a good reason. To say you don’t like it and not have reasons to back it up isn’t good. You have to be your own advocate.

CM: Editors/etc know how to get the books off the shelf, that’s their job, so you do have to trust in the process.

KCD: Let’s talk about how to get your books ‘found’. In Canada, you don’t need to have an agent to submit, while in USA it’s normal, often required.

KCD: My first 4 books were published without an agent, because our market is 1/10 the size of the USA market, we can’t sustain more than a few agents.

CM: I have fired 2 Canadian agents because they did f-all. Then I published a few without an agent. Now I have an American agent. There are about 3 in Canada, they’re all in cahoots with each other, so I went to the USA to get to a publishing agency that took itself seriously. We don’t have the people to sustain a robust publishing market.

KB: It’s really hard to negotiate a book contract without an agent because there’s all the language rights, movie rights, etc and what are you going to do as one person? Fly to every country and try to sell them on your own, or to movie production companies?

CM: In Canada, since it is such a small industry, the contracts are pretty much boilerplate.

SC: Also, the advances in Canada is really low, 

KCD: My first book which was published in Canada in 2001, my advance was $700, paid in three instalments. So understand what we’re talking about when we compare USa to Canada.

EC: I did a little more homework and targeted a USA agent, but my first advance was $10,000.

CM: My first book was $8,000, my trilogy was $25,000 each, but that was just before the economy slipped and all the e-book stuff happened. After then, my next book was $20,000.

EC: Also, my publisher wanted world rights, and my agent said no, and later, my agent made me another $70,000 selling those separately around the world.

CM: I’d like to say, I like those small advances because they pay out quickly and you keep getting a royalty cheque over and over and over.

KB: I think there is a lot of pressure to get that big advance, so if you sell a book for 1 million dollars, that might be the only book you make because it’s really hard to make money on top of that. If you get a smaller advance, it’s easier for a publisher to make money on your book and is more likely to buy another. You don’t get a royalty cheque until you’ve sold enough to ‘earn out’ your advance.

CM: Be cautious about tiny advances because that means they have no commitment and will not market your books.

Audience question: is there a niche for YA non-fiction?

KB: I think it’s tough, I would love it to have a moment, but if it’s good story, write it.

CM: MG is much more open to non-fiction books because teens think they know everything.

KCD: If you could give one piece of advice for these writers, what would you give?

CM I have a binder at home with 250 rejection letters. Don’t take them personally, don’t contact the people who reject you.

EC: Someone told me, you’re already not published, so the worst thing that will happen is you’re still not be published. You can live through a ‘no’ and if you keep trying, 

KB: Follow up with every editor, agent, etc you met up with. Engage everyone in conversation, we all know each other, and be kind. Be proactive. By pushy. If someone says, ‘not for me’, ask, well, is there someone else in your house who would be interested?

SiWC 2015 Workshop #4 Complex Conflicts

Complex Conflicts
Sam Sykes

Trying to find the difference between a story that people read and forget, and a story that sticks with someone.

Conflicts aren’t plot, they are a test of our investment in the character/story

What does  conflict have to accomplish?

Lighter conflicts are simply a goal of getting from A-B

A complex conflict goes over several points, A-B-C, etc, switchbacking, etc

With a complex conflict, it doesn’t resolve until the story is done and that’s why a reader ends the story still thinking about it, because of the level of investment.

Not wha happens when we lose, but what happens when we win what is going to change when everything’s said and done?

Nerdy analogy: LotR. One important thing was it didn’t end happily. Frodo couldn’t go back to the shire and resume his life. What he had been through reshaped him in such a way he couldn’t return to that safe, simple life.

In a complex conflict, on one really gets a happy ending. A satisfying ending, yes, but not happy because you can’t go back to the status quo. It would feel like cheating to the audience if nothing really changed.

You can’t be allergic to making your characters hurt, to making things messy.

There is a big difference between a happy ending and a satisfying ending.

The reader will forget a happy ending, they won’t forget a satisfying ending.

Plots need to be resolved, they don’t have to be neatly and perfectly wrapped up.

How do we build investment in characters?


Story must end with their arcs resolved.

We watch them grow/solve problems, and we prefer it to be painful. That builds investment.

ex. character Mark from ‘The Martian’. In the first few pages, he gets left behind on Mars. So, right from the beginning, he’s stuck in a crappy situation. The default human condition is to be unsatisfied. We always want more/new/etc. He dies because he gives up everything for his ambition, to feel alive again (he’s dying of cancer)

You can’t get too interested in the idea of a character simply reacting. We like them to suffer, but we prefer them to suffer from their own hand, those who makes mistakes trying to forge their own destiny. They can’t simply be reacting because that’s predictable. A character making their own choices can often get themselves into even more trouble.

Motivations change, but at the heart of every character is an unshakable moral core. There are aspects that do not change. Sometimes in a good way, sometimes to their own detriment. But this unchanging core is what keeps the story going/moving. If the character has two conflicting cores, they must eventually come into conflict and one of them must break. Like Walter, he valued honour, and his family. He chose the honour core and the family core breaks because he could have gone home to his family, not give up everything to figure out what was wrong and die.

Like, in the Simpsons, Homer loves Marge. No matter what, he wants her to be happy in the end.

There’s a sweet spot where you’re almost yelling at the book/tv, ‘don’t move, don’t do that, you’re fine.”

A coincidence that gets your character into trouble is fine, a coincidence that gets your character our of trouble is cheating. (One of Pixar’s Rules of Storytelling)

Start with an unfavourable situation, but the character should be taking proactive steps to solving it in the long term.

Have to relate to the protagonist emotionally, where with a villain, we need to relate to them emotionally OR intellectually. We can go along with a dumb hero, but not a dumb villain. We need to understand the protagonist through their love, hope, desire.

Also, the protagonist must pay a price to win. Something has to change.


Like characters playing off each other while also trying to get ahead of each other.

What happens if we win? The villain tells us what price is paid for the victory. People are killed/sacrificed for the hero to win.

A villain we sympathize with, or understand, makes for a deeper conflict because on some level , if we understand his motives and what he stands to lost if the hero win, we’re partially pulling for him as well.

Said earlier must relate to the villain either emotionally or intellectually:

(emotional) For example, a man blows up a hospital, but later we learn he blew it up out of vengeance because the hospital turned away his health coverage, and so his own son died. So, even though he did an evil thing, if he’s taken down, we are neglecting a grieving father gaining closure.


(intellectual) An evil tyrant who is dictator for life, completely brutal, and needs to be stopped. But, if the hero stops him, the warlords will rise up, maybe a civil war occurs, and even more people will die/etc.

Villains can’t be reactive. They are usually the instigator. Proactive.

By relating to the villain, our investment is deeper because we will be sad when he loses.

They also need to grow, their priorities need to shift, and that will also increase our investment. A lesson is learned, they adapt and change to the next challenge. That is being proactive.

Less Conventional Conflicts:

What happens with a protagonist where there isn’t an antagonist to exact the price? Then the protagonist myst tear it out of themselves. (Walter from ‘The Martian’ dying, giving up everything, to feel alive/etc)

A lot of great stories about about this kind of conflict, like, a parent who is beating their children, the children often don’t want to consider their parents villains because, ‘yknow, still their parents.

Real life story, a serial killer in the USA turned out to be a well adjusted family man, and how did his daughter feel about this? He did awful things, but was a great father to her.

Emotional reliability is even more important if there’s no actual antagonist so we feel there is no other way, we need to see their logic/etc perfectly, we need to understand them.

No more ‘shoulds’, these are ‘musts’ because there’s not an antagonist driving the story. The protagonist is having to pull double-duty.

This can be destructive, like Walter dying, or constructive, them overcoming their inner demons/etc.

Korean movie, remade into an American movie called ‘Old Boy’ about a man in Seol who is kidnapped off the street and locked in a cell that looks like a hotel room for 15 years. One day, the door opens and he gets a message that says, “I’m the guy who held you captive. I have a pacemaker attached to my heart, in 5 days I’ll be dead, so you have that long to find me.”

So, the man goes out looking for answers and discovered the jailor was a wealthy industrialist he knew from school. Unfortunately, the main falls in love with a woman, even though the jailor says, ‘you don’t want to do this’, the man doesn’t listen. It turns out the woman was the man’s own daughter, brainwashed by the villain because the man discovered the jailor (in school) having an incestuous relationship with his own sister, and told the principle on him/shamed his family, so this has been a long-game play for revenge.

SiWC 2015 Workshop #3 Funny Business Panel

Just a small word before I post my panel notes, yes, I'm pretty darn good at typing fast and keeping up with people talking, but in a panel, often people start talking one after another and it's a little harder to keep up. SOOOOO for my panel notes, the wording will be less exact and sometimes more of a summary/condensed version of what some people said... simply because there is limit to how quickly a dyslexic writer can type and still have it come out readable ;)

Okay, with that out of the way:

Funny Business Panel
Moderator: Eileen Cook
Terry Fallis, Jasper Fforde, Sam Sykes, Liza Palmer

EC: Do you think people the humourless writing more seriously.

LP: Absolutely, I think people think humour is pedestrian. Humour can cut through usual walls  and get people to listen to something they might not.

SS: Unsung talent, the people who think they’re funny are often the least funny. think it’s largely unconscious, we defuse horrible situations by making a joke about it, defusing it, but it’s how we get most of our information.

JF: Comedy has vital importance, but underplayed.Novels about the human ondition/etc are so dry, but humans are innately funny. Humour lets us be part of the group, what’s fundamental for humans. Comedy is very hard to make work. Like dissecting a frog to figure out how it works, the frog doesn’t survive.

TF:Comedy is certainly under appreciated. Can be a very powerful tool when handled well. It gives us a new way in to discuss issues we’re tired of talking about, tired of taking seriously, but it can do more.

EC: Do you set out to write a book and touch on a specific point?

TF: Certainly, my first few books I wanted to make a point about democracy, and my latest is about gender equality and feminism. Sure, you can enjoy it as a funny story, but I’md feel more fulfilled if you thought about the issues I wanted to touch on.

EC: Do you ever worry about being offensive, taking something too far? Is there something you won’t go to?

SS: A ratio. If it’s more funny than offensive, I’ll go with it. A lot of offensive jokes are extremely lazy, the don’t really add anything or rely on stereotypes. Like, calling someone gay and laughing about it. I don’t worry about it too much because if you stretch, you can find anything offensive. But I’d by lying if I said I wasn’t worried about reaction. Often tweet something, and then delete it when I realize it isn’t as funny as I originally thought it was.

JF: I don’t see a point in it, my books are meant to be light, so I try to stick to things everyone finds funny like making fun of government, etc.

EC: Liza, do you think it’s more difficult for a woman to be funny, or are there different things that is or is not funny because you’re female. Is woman’s humour viewed differently?

LP: First of all, everyone knows women aren’t funny. Often I’ll say something funny, a man repeats it, and suddenly everyone laughs. If a man does exactly the same thing, he gets in the New Yorker, them women doesn’t (ex. the Taylor Swift album/cover album thing).

TF: I thought Liza made a very good point, I was nodding in agreement through her response. The most important point she made is that women in any field suffer the same barriers in terms of success/acceptance/etc.

EC: If someone doesn’t feel they are funny, what advice you would give them if they wanted to add more humour in their writing?

JF: how can you make yourself more funny? I don’t know, it’s impossible to quantify, but to make those connections, how you take different connections and make a new one out of it, like with other aspects of writing, it’s playing with those connections until it works.

LP: I guess, don’t make the mistake of thinking, if one line is funny, 5 lines will be 5x as funny… no. You have to learn how to thread the humour through the story is taking out what you think is funny ad letting the humour seep through the words themselves. When I’m trying to be the most funny, I tend to be the least funny.

EC: Had the experience at a reading, was reading a funny section, and no one laughed, then a line I didn’t think was funny, everyone laughed.

TF: With different audiences, had laughs in all different places in the same section of writing.

SS: The people who call themselves funny, are generally the ones who aren’t funny. If you tell a joke and have to explain why it’s funny, you’ve failed, not the listeners.

EC: I’d like you to explain a bit about what you write, so the audience can have a little bit of context.

LP: I love dysfunctional families, so contemporary.

SS: Fantasy about working stiffs who are adventurers.

JF: The sort of comedy I do is, I take reality and I move it 5 degrees. So, like I wrote a police report about Goldilocks & the 3 Bears. For example, first of all, why were momma and poppa bear sleeping in different beds? Marital disfunction? That’s what I like, when you take something rigid and you shake it, move it, and ask those questions…

TF: I write fish out of water stories, the character least likely to arrive in a situation and let it play out. For example, a 60-something Scot mechanical engineer who is elected into the House of Commons.

Audience question: trend these days that self-deprecating humour is always funny. Have you had the experience of trying to use it and humiliated yourself instead?

LP: I think people like, ‘its so me’, or ‘I’m like that’ relatable humour, so making yourself look more human/vulnerable is a way to connect. Especially a moment where someone thought they were alone in something, it helps bond and erases shame when you can laugh about it.

EC: Sometimes self-deprecating humour isn’t funny if you’re too hard on yourself. If you’re hating on yourself, that’s not funny - you’re making others uncomfortable. Or fishing for compliments.

SS: Especially on social media it’s hard to balance that because if you make a joke, there’s a ton of people out there who are ready and happy to humiliate you.

JF: But on the other end of things, if you aren’t risking anything you’re never going to get to the place where you get something really funny. You have to push the barriers.

TF: Particularly with humour since our senses of humour are so variable/diverse as compared to suspense, horror, etc. Maybe only 1/3 are going to get the humour in something.

SS: That’s right, and you need to write to target for that 1/3. I heard somewhere f you’re writing for everyone, you’re writing for no one. Like, some of the huge best sellers are nowhere now, but the small print cult books are being reprinted over and over again.

Audience question: Do you start off with a funny premise and write into that, or take a serious thing and look for a twist?

TF: There are the throw away funny lines that pop up, and there are the slow-burn funny that take a while to deliver but last so much longer. Like, in a book I’m writing, the character is terrified of dogs, and he’s in Spain for the running of the bulls and everyone is running from that, while in another alley, he’s running from there chihuahuas.

JF: I think I start out serious and look for the humorous angle. Going back to the 1/3, when they get it, they really get it. That’s who you’re wiring for, those who get it the whole way.

SS: Like the in-jokes between friends, you can bust one out years later and everyone still kills themselves laughing.

LP: I come up with a premise and tend to think people are funny inside of it. Those are the points where I think humour is the most help, when you’re in the hospital waiting for someone to die. It’s a way to process things like death/etc, it’s a way of acknowledging your humanity and weather the grief.

EC: I don’t set out to write a funny book, but characters can be amusing within the story.

Audience question: Is there a best POV for writing humour?

JP: I don’t think it matters. If it’s funny, it’s funny. Like, the one joke in the movie ‘Blood Diamond’ where there’s this old guy in this mass dark/destroyed village and Leo DEcaprio show sup and the old guy says, “Good job, but we didn’t have any oil.” It’s laugh-out-loud since it’s such a dark movie.

EC: I think, as a writing, there’s a POV that’s easier for you to write from, so it’s easier to be funny.

LP: And there are places where I read my own work and find the places where I can tell I was trying to be funny rather than let the characters be funny. It’s the author’s tone infringing in the story. Whenever we try to write TO something everything feels clunky ‘cause we’re trying too hard.

Audience question: Have heard comedians/writers who say they had dark childhoods that drove them to become funny.

JF: I think it’s more that they want the applause, they want the approval, not necessarily that a dark background makes you funny. Which may be why some of them come to terrible ends, because the applause isn’t enough for them anymore, but I’m not a psychologist.

EC: If we did a show of hands, we wouldn’t find anyone in this room who didn’t have a dark history, parents died, divorced, etc. I don’t think we’re any more messed up, it’s just how we chose to deal with our disfunction is by laughing. One way to survive is to be funny and to seek out other people or media, books, etc that is funny. Which is why Jon Stewart is so funny because he gives a way to look at the dark, scary world and laugh.

Audience question: I absolutely love Seinfeld, and generation-wise, I’m wondering if this influences you and you find it funny.

SS: We have that for our generation: “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”.

EC: has there been any humorous writer/comedian/etc that has inspired you?

TF: I’m a huge John Irving fan. I particularly like how he juxtaposes humour and pathos and dumb them up next to each other to give the reader a broader emotional bandwidth.

EC: What advice would you give someone to wants to write novels similar to how you write.

TF: Less is more is good advice, like Liza said. Cut it back.

JF: Look for the absurd. Humans had many bizarre habits that we don’t know why we do things. When you come across something you find funny, stop and think about it. You might get some good insights.

SS: Trust your instincts. If you believe it’s funny, your audience will also think it’s funny if you deliver it in the same form that you would find it funny.

LP: For me it’s about authentic specificity. If you can pinpoint what’s specifically funny about something without relying on generic/etc

SiWC 2015 Workshop #2 Action Scenes

Action Scenes
Sam Sykes

Action scenes do include fight scenes, but is not the extent. Other kinds of action sequences: Where the priorities shift, a woman in a  hospital sees a doctor come in and tenses up. An argument. A court when a verdict is coming in. The act of receiving information.  Even playing chess - something that the characters care about, mundane things that for the characters are life & death.

Philosophical underpinnings of what will make an action scene compelling:

  1. Action is a conversation

Batman’s fight scenes are arguments where the villains and Batman argue their points… with fists.
Characterization,history, personality, etc aren’t suspended during action sequences. It’s not the events of the sequence that makes it’s compelling, it’s our investment in the characters.
So don’t suspense characterization, because readers will lose empathy.
Compare prequel Star Wars movies with the old ones, we are invested in Luke when he’s hacking away at Darth Vader, but in the prequels, all the fancy fighting/animation, we don’t care at all about any of them because there’s no real relationship between them.
This characterizations should be amplified. Action is where the core of the character comes out.

Goof test: flip to a random action sequence and get a new reader tell you everything they can figure out just from reading the sequence - backstory, motivation, etc. If they can figure out why the character are doing what they did, you’ve written a good action sequence.

Motives and relationship should be apparent. All stories are tales of relationships and how we become invested in them. That’s where the action scene pays off, it’s not a resolution of conflict, it’s a heightening of conflict. How we feel after is important.

A character fighting 10 thugs in a bar versus fighting an estranged father, both will have completely different backstory/motive/etc

We need time to appreciate/get to know characters before we will care if they lose/die/etc. We don’t care about ‘thug-on-the-left-#2’.

2) No one walks away

The point of a fight scene to break up or resolve conflict, which is a mistake. Something has to change, no one should walk away from conflict unscathed, which increases the conflict. If someone gets injured, that injury must do something. It shouldn’t just be a way to show them be vulnerable, so readers will relate to the character, but that doesn’t work. A wound should influence the next fight, characters shouldn’t just walk it off.

Just as it’s not a point to suspect characterization, it should be used to end characterization.

Have the emotion or plot change due to the fight scene.

Like the Star Wars scene where Luke hallucinates killing DV, and the helmet falls off and its his own face. Luke knows that, by killing DV, he’ll kinda become him. Which changes the way Luke approaches his next move/etc.

After every action sequence the stakes need to change. You can lower them, but only briefly. The payoff is when things resolve at the end of the story (not necessarily at the end of the book), so you want to keep building the stakes, increasing how invested the reader is in the characters.

Action is not a reprieve from plot. 

3) Language shapes investment

The idea behind this is, we can manipulate the audiences focus, get them to look where we want them to, direct their investment. This is more structural rather than the first two which were more philosophical.

Style can change. Like, “The Martian” starts out in our nay entries, hal way through there’s an equipment failure, the author jumped back to a clinical/dry history of when the part was manufactured and leads you all the way back to the moment where it fails and you see the character fly off into space. That dryness lures you into a false sense of security, they you’re thrown back into the emotional investment of how he is going to survive. This also adds the benefit of now making it seems like an annoying connivence, cheating to get the character into trouble.

Pixar rule of storytelling: Coincidence getting a character into trouble is fine, coincidence getting them out of trouble is cheating.

Something he does is change something to immediately grab the reader’s attention. So, changing from lengthy prose to short, tense sentences. One draws the eye to details (lure into a false sense of security, to get more characterization) juxtaposed with short/actiony sentences to describe details.

Good tip: any scene with emotional intensity is best conveyed through minimal details allowing the audience to fill in whatever is appropriate for them.

The scariest thing in the world is a closed door with a faint scratching. As soon as the door opens, it’s less scary when you see what’s in.

Describing reactions is often a great way to play this, like in Disney movies, you never see the villain dying, you see the hero flinch/etc. It’s more powerful than actually seeing him die, seeing the body. Like the lightning flash in Tarzan when you see the body hanging there after seeing the vine snap.

What you choose to show influences what information the reader gets, the impressions they form about character motivations/history/etc. What is the first thing a paramedic sees on the scene of an accident vs a child, vs a mother, etc. Language reveals characterization which in turn informs what happens as a consequence.

Creativity isn’t a single muscle, it’s a muscle-group. Should devour all media as learning from one type of media (film/books/tv/comics) will inform the other.

Balancing action within a story, there’s a reason comedy & tragedy pair well because the laugh makes the next tragedy hit harder, and the tragedy makes us more desperate for the next joke.

Action is where our investment of the character is put to the test. Will they be okay? And when we’re satisfied/happy, then it’s tested again later.

If you don’t have those breathers, you get action fatigue. Readers need that bit of a break. They need a reason to care, to become invested.

In fantasy, using magic, the character’s values should be evident. Harry Potter, for example, uses it when desperate, to protect. Hermione uses it expertly because her motivation/etc is to learn, to push. She’s not upset when she screws up the potion and turns into  cat, she’s upset because she couldn’t make the spell work - that she failed.

Things to remember:

Guys fight to fight, girls fight to kill. Guys are about looking strong/tight/etc. Flashy moves/posturing/etc.  Girls who go to self defence classes learn to maim - go for the eyes, throat, etc.

In a disaster, most people run.