Bawdy Storytelling–Scandalous!

Dixie De La Tour and the storytellers at Bawdy Storytelling are absolutely amazing.

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Dixie De La Tour gets tips about human fox hunting from Mistress Liliane Hunt

I’m a little late to the game on storytelling as an art form. I’ve been to Porchlight a few times and found the experience to be very uneven. I was sometimes moved but other times felt like a priest trapped in a confessional, counting the minutes until I could dole out the Hail Marys and get out of there.

Bawdy Storytelling is completely different. Though these are also real people, often on stage for the first time, Dixie’s coaching means every story grabs us immediately and leaves us sated.

When my friend invited me to this event, I was skeptical. Sexual adventure? Was this going to be one long 1-900 call? Oh no. This is your best friend telling you the most amazing story EVER. Yes, an R- or X-rated story but so funny and so true and so horrifying you hang on every word.

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Author Nichi Hodgson describing…um…well…there was a guy and there were scissors.

I struggle for hours to find the right word for a short story, and these people are up on stage–no notes–telling beautifully crafted, captivating tales. Thank you Dixie and thank you storytellers: You are my heroes.

Too much good stuff

Day Three, San Francisco Writer’s Conference

Yep, at this point, I’m out of catchy titles and clever preambles. I dragged myself out of bed, dressed, and ran to catch the bus. If only conferences could be every other day for a week so there was time to assimilate!

I’m happy to report that the lone science fiction panel was in a bigger room this year and very well attended. I didn’t quite understand the title, “SCIENCE FICTION: THE PROMISE OF THE FUTURE?” and I still don’t.

Panelists included Gabrielle Harbowy, Ross E. Lockhart, Ransom Stephens, and moderator Laurie McLean. Ross Lockhart gave the quote of the day. “Fantasy is literature of the impossible, science fiction is the literature of improbable.”

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R.L. Stine gave a funny, self-deprecating keynote during lunch. His humility, given his success, was appreciated. Funniest story? A parade at Disneyland in honor of him and his books…he rides in a convertible and is greeted by fans cheering…”MICKEY!!!” He said, next time, no mouse in the same car!

Next, we meet the fiction agents. I’m including the photo, below, mainly because I can’t believe I attended several sessions in this room (the Peacock Room) before I noticed THE GIANT PEACOCK. Kudos to whichever speakers so bewitched me!

fiction agents

Advice from the agents was, as usual, contradictory. Understood. When do 10 smart people ever agree on anything? As a not-quite-published author, one point jumped out at me. Don’t apologize if you haven’t been published. They do sign unpublished authors. Own it. Write good stories. Move on.

Day Four

I’m not sure what to say about terrible sessions, so I’ll say nothing. Fuzzy unicorns and rainbows from 10:00-10:45. Next, a great session on critique groups.

Finally, the last session of the day with Martha Alderson, author of The Plot Whisperer. I saw her last year and loved her. She has such clear, actionable insights on how to improve plots. Just what I need right now. I’ve been hacking away at dead branches in Six and I’ll be able to do more of that thanks to her great advice.

I’ve spent four days hearing people insist, “You have to hook me in the first page,” “The first sentence has to be great,” as if nothing else in the book mattered.

Thank you Martha Alderson for providing perspective and the perfect finale to this conference:

“Beginnings hook readers, endings create fans.”

A False Spring

San Francisco Writer’s Conference, Day Two.

One of my favorite books is Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, and one of my favorite stories in the book is “A False Spring.” I’ve retyped the first paragraph so many times, I can’t believe I haven’t saved the file.

When spring came, even the false spring, there were no problems except where to be happiest. The only thing that could spoil a day was people and if you could keep from making engagements, each day had no limits. People were always the limiters of happiness except for the very few that were as good as spring itself.

San Francisco’s false spring always happens in February and though I know this, I’m always surprised. The flowering plum trees (people mistake them for cherry trees but they are not) are ugly sticks one day, covered in pink blossoms the next.

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As much as I wanted to go to the writer’s conference, I also wanted to loll around in the park and let pink petals fall on me.

Practicality prevailed and I headed to the Mark Hopkins.

Session 1: HOT PLOTS: Persuading Your Readers to Turn the Page, featured panelists
Robert Dugoni, The Conviction and literary agent Mandy Hubbard, You Wish

The bits that I found most interesting:

  • We are entertainers–our characters need to entertain.
  • Flashbacks and excessive detail stalls story
  • What is the personal and public stake if the character fails?
  • Only need as much detail as the character needs in that moment.
  • Back story on a need to know basis, if you need it to understand what is happening now, when the character is interacting with it.
  • Famous people get away with things we can’t, so don’t model yourself after them.
  • Resist the urge to explain.
  • Leave a question at the end of the chapter–force readers to turn the page to find out what happens next.
  • We need to know about a character, but we don’t need to know it all NOW. (This comment from author Anne Perry, in the audience)
  • Don’t have details about characters that are not instrumental to the story.
  • Get your character moving, put them in peril. We love to see characters tortured. : )
  • We want to see conflict. Obstacles. They don’t have to be huge obstacles.
  • Obstacles reveal character.

Session 2 was on dialogue, and the panel featured Meg Waite Clayton, Tanya Egan Gibson, and Meredith Maran.

dialogue
My takeaways (the panelists did not agree on all these points):

  • You can tell which character is speaking without attribution if dialogue is well-written.
  • The way people speak to other people reveals the relationship between them.
  • At first you can’t know how your characters speak, you’ll have to go back and retrofit it.
  • Much real life dialogue would be bad dialogue in a book.
  • Have your characters react to what is around them to show emotion vs. saying it all in dialogue.
  • Tension between what is being thought and what is being said. Slight differences.
  • There are more subtle ways to show emotion than having people talk to each other/tell each other.
  • Look around at the toys you’ve created in your environment and let your character play with one of them and see what they do with it.

Lunch followed…thank god. I was starving! I was lucky enough to end up at a table with author Ransom Stephens, who I only belatedly realized (when I get home and read my own, old blog entries) was a speaker at a Litquake event I attended. He very graciously allowed me to pick his brain and lunch turned out to be one of the best sessions of the day!

Anne Perry was the keynote speaker. She was a bit too far removed from me–culturally, financially, professionally, religiously–for me to get much from the talk.

After lunch I got to meet with an editor for 15 minutes. I brought two versions of the first page of Six and had the editor choose the better version. She picked the one I preferred.

Afterwards I went outside to get some sun and Anne Perry was there, waiting for a ride to Union Square. We chatted about the weather (strange both here in California and in Scotland) and the fact that she used to live in San Francisco.

Next was the Bella Andre keynote, “How I sold 1.5 million E-books.” Lemme say, I found it a little strange that the sessions on the craft of writing were not as well attended at this “make money” session.

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Ms. Andre is a rare creature. Stanford grad, accounting major, member of a band, romance reader/writer…her path to success is not one that can easily be recreated.
The final panel, Meet the Fiction Editors, was a rehash of what I’d been hearing all day. Write a great book. Got it.

Then, finally, cheese! The reception this year was really nice. Tons of food and the band wasn’t so loud we couldn’t talk.

reception

I reconnected with some women I’d met during the day and an off-duty agent joined us at our table. I suspected she wasn’t so much “hanging” out as “hiding” out. The tall tables were just the right height to hide her badge. None of us wanted to pitch to her and that suited her just fine!

I’ll admit, when I left the agent and editor panel Thursday, I was a tad annoyed. Part of me wanted to jump up from the table, shake my fist and yell, “Excuse me for cluttering your inbox with my blood, sweat and tears!”

After spending a few hours with a real agent in human to human conversation, I have a totally different perspective. She works really hard with no promise of ever getting paid for what she does. She (and every agent is different) works with prospective clients to get their work to the point where she feels comfortable signing them. After she signs them, she continues with editorial help and when the work is in good shape she tries hard to sell it. She is motivated…again, no pay for her unless it sells. If the author gets frustrated when things don’t happen fast enough and decides to self publish, she is 100% screwed. She’s spent hours and hours getting their manuscript in shape and she won’t see a dime.

I’m a learn-by-experience kind of person, so I’m grateful for encounters like this. It’s easy to get annoyed at people that you can’t engage in a dialogue. Misunderstanding happens in the space between people, and the stage and internet sometimes create chasms impossible to cross.

Looking for a reason to say “No”

Day one of San Francisco Writer’s conference.

I took a long, deep breath when I left the last panel of the day, “Fiction First-Page-A-Thon,” where writers were given the chance to have the first page of their novel critiqued by a panel of editors and agents.

Actually, it took me the entirety of the walk down from the heights of Nob Hill to the grit of the Tenderloin to sort out how I felt about the experience of watching editors and agents do what they do every day–make snap judgments about a book based on a few hundred words.

I learned a lot, just not what I expected.

View from the Peacock Room at the Mark Hopkins

View from the Peacock Room at the Mark Hopkins hotel

Attendees put the first page of their novel into a pile and the moderator picked random sheets for critique.

I typed notes furiously when the session began, but as time wore on my fingers slowed and eventually I closed my computer and listened incredulously as first pages were rejected at a faster and faster rate. Oh my god, I thought, I’m getting a view behind the curtain into a typical day at the office and I’m not sure I like what I see.

Agents and editors made decisions based on personal taste and contradicted each other and themselves when discussing “good” and “bad” writing.

Yes, of course, we know this. How else to explain A Wrinkle in Time (and countless other books) being rejected 37 times? Despite that, probably because I was at an educational conference, I expected more consensus. Nuggets of wisdom I could take home with me to improve my novel. How naïve am I?

Many rejections were warranted and the errors would be flagged by any English teacher.

Other pages were rejected due to individual agents’ and editors’ pet peeves. “I never take anything that begins with a phone call.” “Don’t have anyone making coffee or cooking.” “I don’t want to be there.” “Too much detail.” “Not enough detail.” “Don’t begin in a classroom. I hated going to school and I don’t want to read about it now.” “Don’t have a character wake up in the first line.” “Don’t have anyone driving or riding in a plane. Start when you get there.” “I’ve seen this too many times.” “Never say ‘heart pounded.’”

Some pages were rejected by half the panel and championed by the other half.

One agent summed up all I was hearing in one depressing assertion. “We are looking for reasons to say no.” She is so “overworked” that being able to quickly say no means she can get through the pile faster. I was taken aback by this. While I’d love to be able to read the first line of my emails and then delete them, I can’t. Granted–I’m talking about clients and editors and agents are dealing with unsolicited emails from non-clients who aren’t paying them, so yeah, I get it. Harsh reality.

Hearing all this negative and contradictory information would definitely push some people to self publish.

While I wouldn’t feel comfortable using anything that I heard in this panel to revise my novel, I got valuable insights into editors’ and agents’ state of mind. I appreciated their candor and insights into the world of publishing.

San Francisco Writer’s Conference, Feb. 14-17

sfwc13

I attended the San Francisco Writer’s Conference last year and really enjoyed it. I vacillated about whether or not to return this year only because I’m supposed to be editing Six. It is taking longer than I’d like and when I’m not working on it I’m never sure if I’m procrastinating or taking time off to refill my creative well.

The sessions last year were great, but what made the biggest impression on me was the sense of community. Normally, my peers are invisible to me, locked away in other houses behind other screens.  To see so many published and almost-published writers together in one place was inspiring. I’d have liked to find more sci-fi writers to hang out with, but short of color-coding the badges by genre (hint hint) I had no way of knowing whether the person I sat next to was writing a memoir (answer: everyone) or a post-apocalypse thriller (one guy).

Overall, though, it was great, so I’m in! Hope to see you there.