Four lessons from When Words Collide

For the fourth year in a row, I came away from When Words Collide feeling fired up and ready to go, so this weeks blog post comes early. A lot of things went right, I met a lot of great people, and I learned a lot. There are a few key lessons I want to remember going forward, so here they are.

1. Nobody has all the answers. 

This is a really key point. Nobody knows everything, and if they think they do, then you probably shouldn’t listen to them. During his two-hour talk on the writing process, Brandon Sanderson shared tips about things he wishes he’d known he started writing. First on the list? “Know when to ignore the person telling you what to do.”

This is a point that Brandon really illustrated well. There is no one true path to anything, no carefully guarded secret that will bring you success. A conference like WWC is all about sharing experiences, and there was a real wealth to draw on. I heard Robert J. Sawyer talk about his 7 netbooks, heard Jodi McIsaac speak about her impressive marketing methods, and enjoyed Hayden Trenholm, Ian Alexander Martin, Adrianne Kerr and Robert Runte’s perspectives on querying. None of them have The Answer, but having heard their opinions, I can decide my own path.

2. It’s hard to put yourself out there. Do it anyway.

No, really. We’re not writers because we’re social butterflies, but to get what you want, you’ve got to talk to people. You’ve got to get out and do it. I spoke with agents, editors, and above all, lots and lots of other writers, and every time I did, I learned something, even if it was just about my fellows.

It’s more than that, though. If you want to be published, eventually, you’re going to need to seek feedback on your work. Try a blue pencil session, or submit to a slush pile panel. This isn’t a thing that came naturally to me, but after pitching for three years in a row, I was only nervous for a few hours leading up to the pitch, instead of spending the weekend terrified of five minutes on the Sunday. You will learn to be more comfortable and to do more, and you don’t have to leap in and do it all at once.

3. Writing and publishing are always changing.

Be prepared for things to change, because they do. The market will change. The tools will change. Change, change. And not just Amazon-Hatchette big-time events. Trends will come and go, too. Last year, everyone I spoke to couldn’t stop telling me about trilogies. Pitch a trilogy, everyone said. This year, I heard in half a dozen places that the market is saturated with trilogies, and that single books are better. Should you let that change what you write? Probably not. Chasing trends means you’ll be left in the dust. But it should affect what you propose, and to who.

Maybe that’s why conferences like this are so important. By next year, things will be different. You can’t follow the day-to-day events, but if you’re writing for a market, you’d better know what’s going on in that market.

4. Don’t stop writing

Here’s a golden rule, one that I heard reiterated a dozen times. Keep writing. Brandon Sanderson told a very enraptured crowd about his writing schedule, in which he rises late in the day, writes, spends time with his family and children, and then writes more once it gets late. Even at a conference, he gets in some words, describing himself not as a fast writer, but as a consistent writer. Robert J. Sawyer has seven netbooks that he keeps in difference places so he always has access to them, so he can always keep writing. Jodi McIsaac’s top marketing tip was to keep writing, because new books sell old books. It’s easy to get caught up in the business and the networking and everything, but at the end of the day, it’s all about the writing.

A final note

My short story Aurel Stonegate received honourable mention in the Robyn Herrington Memorial Short Story Contest, and was published in In Places Between 2014. I was lucky enough to attend the judging panel with the other winning authors, and I want to congratulate them all on their wonderful work. Also, thanks to Calgary’s Imaginative Fiction Writers Association, Calgary Crime Writers, the Alberta Romance Writers’ Association and the Alexandra Writers’ Society for hosting the contest, to the administrators, and to the judges. The end result is wonderful. 

Seven reasons not to write novels, and why we should anyway

Spanish novelist Javier Marias has seven reasons not to write  novels. I highly recommend a read of them, because although they are a bit cynical, I can’t help but detect a bit of cheekiness to them. For brevity’s sake, here they are.

  1. There are too many novels and too many people writing them.
  2. Because anyone, whatever his or her profession, can write a novel, it is an activity that lacks merit and mystery.
  3. Writing a novel won’t make you rich.
  4. The novel is no guarantee of fame.
  5. The novel does not bring immortality, largely because immortality barely exists any more.
  6. Writing novels does not flatter the ego, even momentarily.
  7. Isolation, a fear of the blank page, the vast amount of alcohol a writer consumes, and so on.

Perhaps this is more than seven reasons, and perhaps there’s more than a bit of tongue in cheek there. But this leads Marias to one reason he can see for to write novels. From the article.

“Writing novels allows the novelist to spend much of his time in a fictional world, which is really the only or at least the most bearable place to be. This means that he can live in the realm of what might have been and never was, and therefore in the land of what is still possible, of what will always be about to happen, what has not yet been dismissed as having happened already or because everyone knows it will never happen.”

There’s a bit of temptation to get to up in arms whenever a published writer tells unpublished writers not to write. It smacks a bit of gatekeeping. But Marias is right in that if publication, fame and profit is the goal of writing, then the vast majority of writers will be disappointed. But there are a lot of writers who grind away at our works, odds be damned. Do we hope to defy the trends?

I’ve ruminated in the past about readership as a goal of writing. But I’m not sure that really gets at what this is about. We all write for different reasons, but as tongue in cheek as Marias may be, it’s easy to look at his list and feel a bit discouraged.

So I wrote my own damn list. Why I should write novels. It’s below.

  1. I enjoy the feeling of having written. Sometimes, I even enjoy writing.
  2. For me, writing is a social activity, and I hugely value the friends I’ve met through it, not to mention my fiancé.
  3. Because I’ve got so many stories that need telling.
  4. Taking something that exists only in your brain and making it real and tangible is a real joy.
  5. I love the feeling of knowing someone has enjoyed reading something I’ve written.
  6. Because while I know my writing has improved, I know it can get a lot better, and getting there is exiting.
  7. I’m certain that if I work long enough and hard enough, lots of people will enjoy my novels.

Sometimes, re-affirming why we do what we do is a useful exercise. If you decide to write your own list (and it need not be seven points long) then please share them in the comments below. Happy writing!