Join my Mailing List for Free Books!

Monday, October 25, 2010

#SIWC2010 Notes - 3

This is my third and final set of notes from the Surrey International Writer's Conference. All my other notes I took by hand, and don't have time to transcribe at the moment. But I must say, these are some of the best notes from the conference anyway.

I don't recall what this workshop was called, but it was by the fabulous James Scott Bell and basically outlined his revision process. If you're looking for a good book on craft, specifically on plot and structure, James Scott Bell is your guy. He has a real gift in teaching this area, and I know he has at least a couple of books out on craft.

Here are a few interesting points from his workshop:

Push limits in your first draft.
Revise previous days pages and then move forward.
At the 25k mark, check – are all the elements in the plot engine working? Are all those things solid, because need to be ready to push on for rest of novel.

First Read Through:
First – cool off. Put it away, don’t think about it for at least two weeks.
Print out a hard copy.
Intention is to come back to it as a reader.
He prepares a cover for his book. He wants it to be like a real reading experience.
He has fun – gives himself a blurb on the cover - LOL.
Read like a reader – resist the inclination of stopping to take notes – minimal notes.
James uses 4 main symbols:
Check mark – story is dragging
Parenthesis – incomprehensible sentences
Circle – when stuff needs to be expanded. (fill in the circle)
? – why did I write that? Why is this character doing that? Whatever questions arise.

Systematic Revision Process:
Does the story make sense?
Do the characters act like real people? Would someone really act like that?
Consciously look at story from every character’s POV and get them to make the best decisions that they can for them. Every character must have an agenda.
Are the stakes high enough?
Can the problem have a higher reach?
Does the main character jump off the page?  Needs to be different when they first appear. Plots have all been done, but characters haven't.
Ray Bradbury likes to give every character an obsession.
No wimps! We want active characters.
Use the voice journal – write as fast as you can, trying to get the subconscious mind going.
Inner conflict is one of the great keys. No one should be absolutely sure about what they’re doing.
Hitchcock’s Axiom – a great story is life with the dull parts taken out.
Where is there no conflict, tension, or worry in the characters. Every scene needs to have that feeling.
Is there enough of a worry factor?
At what point could an editor put my book aside and decide not to come back to it? Consider cutting that part.
Raymond Chandler’s advice – bring in a guy with a gun.

Write a summary – 2000-3000 words about your story, not of what it is, but of what it could be.
Do this more than once. Keep working on it over a couple of weeks or more. Keep making the premise and structure stronger.
Change what you need in order to make the story more compelling. Next draft gets done according to the new summary.

Major areas to watch for;
Weak opposition – does you opposition have the power to kill your lead? Crush your lead’s professional pursuits? Crush your lead’s spirit? Opposition needs to be stronger than your lead character.
Slow openings – happy people in happy land. Need some kind of disturbance or ripple. That’s when your story begins.
Too much backstory – you think the reader needs to understand. But readers will wait a long time to understand as long as the disturbance is engaging. Pepper in a little bit of backstory to help bond the reader with the main character. Koontz and King do this well.
Don’t open with weather and dreams.
Characters alone with their feelings. Need to see characters interacting, something happening. (ex. A woman’s husband has just left. Don’t care because we don’t know her. Even if it's just her being served divorce paper’s, at least it’s interaction so we can feel more for her.) Need to see a character doing something and talking. Dialogue helps us know the character quicker. This also forces you to write a more active scene.
So much dialogue is not done well, so show early on that you can do it well.

Chapter 2 switcheroo. Start with second chapter instead, because that’s often where things kick in a bit more. Withhold info from chapter one and pepper it in.
Start deeper. Can you start your scene further in? Check this with every scene.
Action scene – viewpoint character has an agenda and is being opposed. Action or reaction?
What each character wants in every scene, and how are they being opposed? At least one character in every scene must have this.
If the character’s not worried about something, the reader won’t be either.
Action/ Emotion mirror – impending doom – lots of emotion there.
Dialogue – fastest way to improve a manuscript. A compression or extension of action. If characters are saying something, it’s because they want something or are resisting something. Flows from one character to another without extra explanation. Cut boring dialogue. Need tension always.
Great dialogue begins with orchestration – are they all different so there’s potential for conflict? Do they all sound different?
3 acts – 1 memorable line of dialogue in each to elevate it for the reader.
Write out a vanilla line and then play with it.
Use silence and action responses, not always dialogue.

End of revision process – what is a possible theme? – how to find – imagine character 20 years later. Why did they have to go through the story – ask them. What would character say. Have the character make an argument about that very lesson early in the story.
Wizard of Oz – says to Toto she wants to get away from home. Ends with no place like home.
Polish – concentrate on scene openings and endings. Sometimes you can turn around the descriptive passages at beginning – move description later.
Chapter endings – try cutting last paragraph, see if it works. Don’t write scenes to their full logical completion.
Compress dialogue. Final pass through dialogue, cut entire lines, words within, put in silences. Gives a real sense of tightening.
Dial up or down 25% - try to overwrite emotion, you can always bring it down later.

See, amazing, right? The more I learn, the more I realize I need to learn. I hope you got something out of this, and if so, I'd love to hear what you find most interesting/enlightening here.

I'll be back tomorrow with Teen Author Tuesday, and then later in the week with some NaNo Prep Tips!


  1. This was a fantastic workshop! I love his suggestion for finding your theme (the 20 yrs later idea). I'm definitely going to pick up one or two of his books on craft (they sold out at the conference). Tomorrow I'm going to post a few of my notes from his master class, which was awesome. :)

  2. This is fantastic! There's a lot of info I'm going to have to really think about--so much, I hardly know where to start.

    What do you think he meant by "push the limits" in your first draft? Meaning, don't censor yourself, but let the story be what it wants to be?

    Or ... ??? I'd love to know what you think.

    Thanks for posting this!

  3. I'm glad you're all getting something out of this! I sure did!

    Ali - what I got out of "pushing the limits in a first draft" is to make everything bigger/stronger/more dramatic. Make your characters angrier - irate even. Make one of them throw something or break something or kill someone, rather than just yelling. Try things and see how far you can go. You can always scale it back later. I'm interested to try this!

  4. Denise, this is great. I just came off four days' intensive work with an editor/writing teacher on the revision of my manuscript The Beechwood flute, and this is a lot of what we talked about - more emotion, less internal thought and more interaction, ending scenes with a bang, etc.