This group of posts about Surrey is long overdue.
I bit the bullet and attended the Surrey International Writers Conference after thinking long and hard about it. It’s definitely an investment. So, I made a list of what I hoped to accomplish by attending. First on the list was getting together with the crew from the Compuserve Books and Writers Lit Forum. That’s always a major plus.
Next was the literary battery charging effect. Most conferences send their attendees away with a renewed sense of purpose. Surrey is magical in this respect.
I wanted to get my query in order as I planned on doing some serious querying after the conference.
Of course, any writer wants to attend as many workshops as possible to improve their craft. I believe it was Hemingway who said writing is the craft you never master. Jack Whyte said in one of his workshops he looks back on his first books and cringes. He finds all kinds of things he would have written differently were he writing the same story today.
There were quite a few B&W people in attendance. We regularly filled up 2+ banquet tables, but we invited new friends to sit with us also. It was good to connect with people I knew as well as ones I just knew from the forum.
It took a while to charge my batteries up. I originally wrote this post when I got back from Surrey six weeks ago. I spent the first weeks tired and catching up on sleep, I got an affirmation I needed about my writing and query. So, I’ll start off with the blue pencils.
I had an appointment with C.C. Humphreys for my first blue pencil. I chose him because he writes historicals and is very good at dialogue and action scenes. I had originally planned on doing a scene from THE RAIN CROW where Lorena the MC is confronting a Union captain for the dialogue aspects, but I decided to go with the scene with Baron, the other POV character, and the aftermath of Manassas. I thought it would be good to get his feedback on a post battle scene.
He read the three pages, bracketed some places, put a question mark by two places, and laughed at the last two lines. The laugh was the proper response, but I wasn’t expecting a full out laugh like that.
He asked me about the interaction with the vivandiere. These were women who acted as nurses on the battlefields. In this scene one of the northern vivandieres is left behind by her troops, so she goes around tending to wounded men, trying to get water to them and such.
He gave me some pointers on how to use thoughts and emotions of the POV character to convey information to the reader they might not know. By doing this, a writer can avoid information dumps.
The bracketed areas were places that he particularly liked. He said, “This is gorgeous writing. You have a knack for choosing exactly the right words to convey emotions and setting a scene.”
That restored some faith in my writing. It was a boost I needed especially since I had considered not doing a blue pencil because THE RAIN CROW was still first draft and not polished.
I told him Baron was an aide to Col. JEB Stuart and Baron’s fiancée was a Confederate spy. He replied, “Ah, the Confederate cavalryman.”
“Oh, you know him.”
“Yes, I love the American Civil War. I’d very much like to read this book when it comes out.”
The tip about imparting knowledge via the POV character’s thoughts was invaluable, so I was really glad I did that blue pencil.
For instance I need to explain what a vivandiere is and why a northern woman is still wandering around a battlefield after the northern troops have fled. So, I can have Baron thinking “War is no place for a woman, even an angel of mercy helping the wounded. I can’t take her back to camp where she could gather information about our numbers and position, but I could send her to the nearest field hospital where she might be some help until they could get her home safely.”
That’s rough, but the idea is to use his distaste for women in battle to explain what a vivandiere is and why they were in the middle of the battles.
I decided to see if there was an opening for a second blue pencil. There was, but it was with a non-fiction writer. I took it anyway thinking he might have some technical tips to give me on my query letter or my writing. Rather than disrupt a class by appearing late and then leaving again, I skipped the class. The more I thought about it, the more I thought a non-fiction writer wouldn’t be that much help, so I canceled and asked if they had any more openings. They just had a cancelation for Eileen Cook. I snatched it up. I’d have to wait another 30 minutes. That’s fine.
That was going to make me late for Jack Whyte’s Writing A Series class, but I thought it might be worth it.
I asked Eileen to look at my query first since she was not only a writer, but also an editor. She traced her finger down the middle of it while she read it and didn’t say anything. Then she read it again and said, “This is a good bio.”
I thought, “Wonderful. The only thing I got right is the bio.”
She read it again then said, “I can’t find anything to change. This is a good query. I know who the MC is, what she is, what she wants, what the stakes are, and what’s against her. It leaves me wanting to know what happens. I’d love to read this book and I think agents will, too. Your job is to get this in the hands of the right agent.”
I said I’d been getting requests, but I’m also getting rejections.
“Fifty to one hundred rejections is normal. I read about a hundred books a year. Of that number, I recommend a handful to my friends. You want an agent who is so excited about your book that excitement is infectious when they talk about it. The reason most authors fail is not story or lack of writing skills, it’s lack of persistence. You just need to keep sending this out.”
Since we still had time left, I asked her if she’d look at some pages from THE RAIN CROW. I gave her the funeral scene. She read it and said, “This is lovely writing. I can tell where it is and when it is by your choice of language. You show the sense of community. I know this is in the south without you beating me over the head with a bunch of ‘y’alls’. My only complaint is I want to keep reading and see what happens next. I look forward to reading this book.”
That settled my nerves a bit about RAIN CROW as I had been having some doubts about it. Then I heard Jasper Fforde talking to a writer next to me. “This is lovely writing.”
Oh, boy. They must be saying this to everyone.
Later, a group of us from B&W met up and compared notes. I said I thought the blue pencils were just telling everyone lovely writing and someone else said, “Well, they didn’t tell me that.”
So, I came away feeling good about the query, which was one of the main reasons for going to Surrey. I feel better about RAIN CROW. I know it still needs a lot of work, but I think I’m on the right track.
It’s been six weeks now and the lessons are settling in. I completely froze up when I got back and had a tough time getting my head back in the writing. The stuff I did write didn’t have the soul in it other parts did. I finally figured out it was from fear. What if I couldn’t write the stories I knew RAIN CROW and COWGIRLS WANTED (my other historical) could and should be?
Then I read Ernest Hemingway’s quote on writing again.
I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, “Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now.”–Ernest Hemingway