It’s been a busy few days in writing land. Yesterday was the annual CANSCAIP Packaging Your Imagination Conference. The day before that, I had the opportunity to drive one of the PYI speakers (Arthur Slade) to a couple of library presentations. And I should probably draw attention to my author interview on the Teens Read Too website, which just went up.

Interview

First the interview: you can find it here. It includes such fascinating trivia as my childhood ambition to be a tightrope walker, my favourite books of 2010, and the fact that I’m a clumsy skier. Also the ten words my younger brother would use to describe me. Don’t worry. I warned him that this was for public viewing, so he kept it clean.

Arthur Slade

So Friday, I had the wonderful opportunity to spend the day with Arthur Slade, author of Dust and Megiddo’s Shadow and The Hunchback Assignments and at least a dozen other books. I was excited about this. I planned for it. I looked up his work and managed to read Tribes and part of Dust ahead of time (it was a reading time fail because I wanted to get through more, but trust me, the books are excellent. Great voice in Tribes, and absolutely beautiful writing in Dust). I went to Google Maps and created a route plan for each part of the day, then made PDFs and loaded them onto my iPad, maps and all. I spent Thursday night at my cousin’s place in the city, to avoid the morning tangle on the 401.

And then I got to the hotel and spent about ten minutes driving around the block, looking for the passenger pick-up/drop-off zone. Oops. I guess planning only takes you so far.

Anyhow, it turns out that in addition to being a great writer, Arthur Slade is also really friendly. He’s a self-declared Mac geek, so we had that in common. I enjoyed watching him talk to the kids — he has a fancy AV show to go along with his talk, including book trailers and the whole bit. I haven’t gotten there yet, but maybe someday.

For me, the best part was hearing about the seeds that were the beginnings of his stories and seeing how they grew. If you haven’t read his work yet, it’s well worth a read.

Final bit of Art Slade trivia: he writes on a treadmill, slowly walking in place at his desk. You can see a picture of it here. It reminds me of something I read in high school, in a biography of Victor Hugo (I think). He wrote standing up because he wanted his blood to flow to his head, not to his rear. Loosely translated. Anyhow, the idea of writing and walking at the same time sounds pretty good to me. Hmm. Wonder if I can fit a treadmill in here.

Packaging Your Imagination Conference

Now onto the Packaging Your Imagination Conference. As always, it took place in Victoria College at U of T. I guess I’ve been attending the conference and taking courses for enough years that there are as many familiar faces there now as unfamiliar ones. I love catching up with writing friends and meeting new ones.

It’s always tough, choosing which speakers to see. I went with Barbara Berson, Arthur Slade and Norah McClintock. And, of course, keynote speaker Marthe Jocelyn.

Some of my favourite points:

From Barbara: Give thought to what is different about your book. You should be able to say what your book is about in no more than two sentences. (I suspect that “it’s about a little boy and an alien” isn’t exactly the pitch I need for my current wip. Gotta work on that.) And most importantly, if you want to be published, make friends with rejection.

Stay original. The story needs to feel real — it’s fiction, but it needs to be grounded in Truth. Capital T.

It’s not a bad thing, having ideas for a series. The first book should stand alone, but if you have ideas about what might follow, that can be worth mentioning. Sadly, right now I don’t have any series-type ideas. Maybe someday.

Be productive. Know how to tell a great story. And have some marketing savvy, but don’t get lost in the publicity side. It really does come down to the writing.

From Art: Ground your reader. The more realistic the character and emotions in the story, the more you can get away with as far as a fantasy or sci-fi element goes. You need to know the world of the story intimately, to be convincing. If that’s real, and the characters feel real, the story will feel real.

For historical research, reading things published at the time you’re writing about (not just about the time you’re writing about) will help you get the voice right. Newspapers and local writers are great resources.

You have to “prime the brain”, or get the reader ready to accept the fantasy element in your story. This might be done through language choice, or through the introduction of smaller fantasy or hard-to-explain elements until you are ready for the “big reveal”.

Sometimes, talking about real-life things that seem fantastical can help make the made-up stuff easier to swallow. (There was a story about howler monkeys. Trust me, you don’t want to know.)

It’s okay if the reader figures out what’s going on before the characters do, so long as the characters aren’t being obviously dense about the whole thing. (“Gee, my new neighbour Vlad is awfully pale. Funny how I never seem to see him during daylight hours. And what’s with all the bats and coffins?”)

In your description, leave room for the reader’s imagination to do some of the work.

From Norah: When writing a mystery, you need to write two stories. The first is the story of what actually happened–who did it, why they did it, the timeline and so on. The second, the story you’re actually intending to write, is the story of solving the crime.

An unusual setting or “world” for the crime can help keep things fresh. Draw on your own experience. If you know a lot about international guppy racing, well, that probably hasn’t been used before as a setting for a murder mystery.

The sleuth must be the kind of kid who cares about what happened, for some reason. Probably because they have a stake in it. They also have to be tenacious, so they’re the sort of person who’s likely to see the mystery through and want to get to the bottom of things.

Look at the victim’s life (if it’s a murder mystery) to find other suspects and red herrings. Who would have had motive, method and opportunity? Try to give each of your suspects at least two out of the three.

You do need to research the police side of things, to find out what they’d be doing and what they’d know and when. On the plus side, real-world forensics (as opposed to those on television) take a long time to process. And kids have access to information on the schoolyard and in the neighbourhood that adults don’t know about.

When writing a mystery for kids, keep in mind that a young person’s world is full of firsts. If they’re involved in an extreme situation (crime, murder), the emotion around that might be heightened by lack of experience. It may be their first experience with someone dying, or first experience with the police. What does that feel like?

At the end, the mystery part of the story must hold together. The clues have to have been there. The red herrings must be valid, and the solution has to make sense.

From Marthe: For a writer, lies are “as important a tool as an eraser.” And a writer’s world is full of possibility. And finally, echoing something that Art said, stories depend on the imagination of the reader, as well as the writer.

It was a great conference. Energizing. This morning, I woke up and went straight to my (non-treadmill-affixed) desk this morning and worked through revisions on two chapters before breakfast, and I think that’s because I went to bed with writing on the brain.

And now… back to work.

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