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.

spring2

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.

crowd

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.

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