WOWZA: Writing Conference Wrap-Up

[NOTE: It wasn’t until I was preparing to post this that I realized that today is the last Friday of August. Which means that I should be posting in my Year of Reading Lewis series today, on The Problem of Pain. Whoops. Summer is going by faster than I thought! I’m not quite done the book yet – I thought I had a week longer, drat! Look for that post next week.]

A couple of weeks ago I had the privilege of attending the When Words Collide Festival, held in Calgary, Alberta. As it is just a few hours down the road and as I have family to stay with, it’s a no-brainer for me to attend. Especially for the price – $50! With that you get 3 days of top-notch presentations from best-selling authors and experts in the field of writing and publishing.

Last year, the presenters included Brandon Sanderson (Wheel of Time, Mistbourne) and Jack Whyte (The Camulod Chronicles – my all-time favourite Arthurian saga), and in fact I attended a pre-conference workshop with Jack Whyte in which he gave some critiques on my MS. I also had the opportunity to pitch my novel to a couple of publishers who were attending. That was a great experience, and resulted in one publisher asking to see the MS. It was ultimately rejected by them, but still, it was a real thrill.

This year, I didn’t have as much time to prepare. So I didn’t have any stories ready for the Short Story contest that went along with the conference, and I wasn’t sure I would be pitching my book this year, as the publishers who would be attending  didn’t seem to be a good “fit” for my book. However, I saw that Sally Harding, an agent from one of Canada’s literary agencies (The Cooke Agency) would be taking appointment for pitches so, I thought, why not? Ultimately, my ideal is to get an agent, and here’s an opportunity to do my pitch to an agent with a lot of experience and knowledge. Even if she didn’t want to see my MS, which was likely, I could still learn from the experience and maybe get some pointers from her on pitching or suggestions of others agents who might be interested.

My pitch session was on the Friday, which was great, as I wouldn’t have to stew about it all weekend. I had the chance to sit in a session where she was one of the presenters, on How to Do a Pitch and Query, and it was great to see her “in action”, so to speak, and to see how gracious and kind she was. So it helped with the nerves!

You only have 5 minutes to give your “pitch”, which is basically your book distilled into one sentence. That one sentence should ideally introduce your main character, their goal, and some idea of what opposes them. And it should sound interesting enough for the agent to want to either read the MS or request a query from you. This is not easy, let me tell you. I  worked on mine for hours until I  finally got it to a place where I’m mainly happy with it.*

I didn’t have much hope that my MS would get requested. I mean, let’s put it this way. There are 30 agents in Canada. 30. For all of Canada. Guess how many submissions they get every week? Hundreds! And as she explained in response to a question, her agency took on 6 new clients last year. So, really, the odds are definitely stacked against us poor writers. Sigh.

Anyhow, we had a lovely chat about my book, and she was friendly and warm and engaging. At the end of it all, as we were wrapping up, she told me she wanted to see more, and asked me to send a query in to her agency! You could have knocked me over with a feather!  I mean, these things just don’t happen to little old me. Right? I left in a bit of a daze, let me tell you…. so WOWZA #1!

And the conference was just beginning! Once again this year the organizers had some fantastic authors as the keynote guests. Top among them (in my mind) was Diana Gabaldon, whose Outlander series is one of my favourites. I have recently joined an Outlander fan group – the AB-Ootlanders, to which my two sisters and my niece also belong. I’m not really a “fan girl” kinda gal, but it’s been fun to meet these ladies and engage in discussions about a favourite book and writer with them. Needless to say, a bunch of the AB-Ootlanders showed up at the conference as well, and we all trotted along like happy puppies at DG’s heels, enjoying her readings, keynote speech, and panel appearances throughout the festival. A bunch of us even got to have lunch with her – how cool is that?

Here's my lunch picture, as proof. Yup, that's DG waaay at the end there, on the left.

Here’s my lunch picture, as proof. Yup, that’s DG waaay at the end there, on the left. The other ladies are some of the AB-Ootlander group…all dizzy with excitement and trying to act cool and collected….   🙂

Other writers of note at the conference included Brandon Mull, YA author of the Fablehaven series, who charmed us all with his humour and enthusiasm; David B. Coe, whose historical fantasy Thieftakers series intrigues me quite a bit; Daniel Abraham who writes a whole bunch of fantasy and sci-fi and, as James S.A. Corey, is writing and producing The Expanse TV show; Faith/Gwen Hunter who writes urban paranormal fantasy and thrillers, and C.J. Carmichael, who writes romance and mystery. Phew, what a line up! They were all interesting and engaging presenters – do check out the links and their books, I’m sure you will find something you like.

One of the funnest part of the Festival is the Live Action Slush. This is where an expert panel, consisting of publishers, editors, and usually one (or more) of the featured guests, gives feedback on a one-page reading of a manuscript submitted by audience members. The way it works is that a reader begins the MS, and, wherever the panelist would have stopped reading, they put up their hand. The reader stops once three of the four panelists have their hands up. Then the panel discusses why they put up their hand when they did or, if they did not put up their hand, why not.  Even with just one page of a MS, it’s very rare for the reader to get to the end of the page without at least one person putting up their hand.

I saw that DG would be on the panel for the Historical Live Action Slush, so, I frantically dug around in my files for something I could submit. I mean, to have Herself hear and comment on my work? Come on, a no-brainer! I found a short story that would fit and, with some fear and trembling, submitted it to the reader and sat down to wait. You submit anonymously, so that makes it easier, but still….a room full of people and the experts are listening, and judging…it’s kinda like American Idol for writers!

Well….to my shock and delight, the reader made it through my first page with nary a one of the panel lifting a hand, and they all gave complimentary words about it, including DG Herself! WOWZA number 2! 

Here we are after the Live Action Slush. Thrilled and happy? Yes I am!

Here we are after the Live Action Slush. Thrilled and happy? Yes I am!

But there were more delights to come. Right after the Historical Live Action Slush was the one for Urban Fantasy, and I had something to submit to that as well. This time David B. Coe and Sally Harding, along with a couple of editors, were on the panel. Did you catch that? The agent I had pitched to and who had asked me to send a query was now going to hear my work. What if they all hated it? Or what if they all loved it and SHE hated it? I mean, talk about pressure! I slunk down low in my seat as they began….the saving grace was that if they all hated it, or if she did, I was under no obligation to reveal myself as the author.

Surprise, surprise, all the hands stayed down and the reader made it to the end of the page! And again, complimentary words from all. WOWZA #3! 

Needless to say I had a fantastic time, enjoyed myself thoroughly, floated home on a cloud of joy, and am busy making my query as perfect as I can to send out to Ms. Harding.

I’ll keep you posted. No matter what happens, it has been a fantastic experience and I’m really glad I went. And I am signed up for WWC next year already!

*In case you are interested, here it is: “My book is about a young man who is desperate to get home after suddenly being thrust into Dark Ages Britain, but he is thwarted at every turn by a powerful Fey King, who sees the unexpected Traveller as a tool to be exploited in order to keep his crown.” Hmm. I’m still not really happy with “suddenly thrust”, it’s a bit awkward, same with “in order to keep his crown.” But for now, it will do.

Featured image: Jump for Joy, by Kreg Steppe, on Flickr

Aidan of Lindisfarne, Part 2

For Part 1, see here. 

Something had to be done about the Northumbrian mission, but what? Corman had failed, and furthermore, had pretty much written off the Angles as not worth their time due to their uncouth and barbarous nature.

There was likely some heated discussion on the matter, but Aidan’s advice was what stood out. “Brother,” he said to Corman, “it seems to me you were too hard on your ignorant hearers. You should have followed the practice of the Apostles, and given them the milk of simpler teaching, and gradually nourished them with the word of God until they were capable of greater perfection and able to follow the loftier precepts of Christ.” 

I don’t imagine Corman took that very well, but the rest of the clergymen who were there to determine what they were going to do about this mission gone so very wrong seized upon Aidan’s words. As Bede says,

“At this the faces and the eyes of all who were at the conference turned toward [Aidan] and they paid close attention to all he said and they realized that here was a fit person to be made a Bishop and sent to instruct the ignorant and unbelieving, since he was particularly endowed with the grace of discretion, the mother of all virtues. They therefore consecrated him as bishop and sent him to preach. Time would show that Aidan was not only remarkable for his discretion but for other virtues as well.”

So just like the hapless person who speaks up at a committee meeting and finds himself with a job, Aidan is promptly bustled off to Northumbria to fix the problems Corman’s harsh approach had caused. There is no indiction that Aidan knew Oswald before this, but chances are he might have met the princeling on any trips to Iona he might have made in the previous years. But thrown together in the mutual building of kingdoms– one physical, one spiritual– Aidan and Oswald soon became fast friends and good partners.

They determined that Lindisfarne would be a good place for a monastery, just far enough away to keep it separate from the king’s influence but close enough to allow for close cooperation. And cooperate they did. As Aidan did not know the local Anglish language, Oswald accompanied Aidan on his early missionary journeys as a translator, for Oswald’s exile at Dal Riata had given him fluency in the Irish tongue. This also would have the benefit of Oswald being able to reconnect with his people after so long away, and to introduce himself as king. A king who practiced the faith that Aidan preached, which would have gone a long way to persuade the people to convert.

This was the lay of the land in Britain at the time of Aidan.

This was the lay of the land in Britain at the time of Aidan. Lindisfarne and Bamburgh are on the north-east coast, in Bernicia.

It was all very satisfactory, and both Oswald and Aidan made great gains. Oswald’s kingdom flourished, and he eventually became bretwalda, or High King, of most of northern Britain (some say all of Britain, but I think that’s stretching it a bit far). It was all good until ten years later when Oswald was killed by Penda of Mercia, the pagan king who, in one stroke of his sword, changed the Northumbrian landscape forever.

Suddenly Oswald’s kingdom was up for grabs, and the most likely candidate was his half-brother, Oswy, who immediately was crowned king in Bernicia, the northern half of the kingdom Oswald had united. But in the south, in Deira, they were not so enamoured with Oswy as king, as he didn’t have the same credentials as Oswald. The two brothers had different mothers, and as Oswald’s claim to the Derian throne came through his mother, Oswy didn’t quite cut the mustard in the eyes of the Deirian thegns. So Oswy would have to place a cousin, Oswine, who did have the right pedigree, on the Deirian throne as sub-king, for now, until he could prove himself in the eyes of his southern nobles.

And Aidan? Well, it seems like he had a closer relationship with Oswine than Oswy. Bede praises Oswine as being more devout, and perhaps that was the case. Or maybe there was a personality conflict, or a conflict that came from the time Oswy was in exile in Dal Riata. All of these have been speculated upon by more knowledgable people than me. But suffice it to say, it seems that, although for all outward appearances Aidan and Oswy continued to work together, things were not quite as cosy between Bamburgh and Lindisfarne under Oswy’s rule as they were under Oswald.

And then something really bad happened that severed the ties between them completely, it seems….but I won’t go into that, not yet, anyway.

Hmm. A new king on the throne, who has to rebuild the kingdom his brother had won and prove himself in the eyes of his people. An upstart king on his border who has just gained a lot of credibility in his own kingdom by killing the most powerful king in Britain, and who is eager to press home his advantage on the newly weakened and divided Northumbria. And a charismatic and beloved Bishop, who has to walk a delicate diplomatic line between two kings, cousins who are jockeying for power.

Sound like a good setting for a novel? Me too! So that’s where my book, Wilding, the first book in my Traveller’s Path trilogy, opens. But somehow the Fey snuck in, as they are wont to do, so add to that some unrest in the Fey kingdoms, an ignorant Traveller from our own time who suddenly finds himself lost in this dangerous time and place, and another one whose grief and ambition have driven him to some dark places into the mix, and presto! A trilogy is born.

A Year of Reading Lewis: The Screwtape Letters

“The best way to drive out the devil, if he will not yield to texts of Scripture, is to jeer and flout him, for he cannot bear scorn.” – Martin Luther (the opening quote of The Screwtape Letters). 

The Screwtape Letters was originally written as a weekly series in the Anglican periodical, The Guardian, between May and November of 1941. It was compiled into a book and published in 1942.

As the title suggests, the book is a series of letters, written by a Senior Devil, Screwtape, to his hapless nephew and Junior Tempter, Wormwood. Wormwood has been given charge of a man (known only as “the Patient”) and Screwtape writes Wormwood with advice as how best to tempt the man and ensure his damnation. The book presents only Screwtape’s letters, the reader understands Wormwood’s replies and questions from what Screwtape writes.

Definitely not how Lewis pictured Screwtape. One of the most famous quotes of the book is, “There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them.”

Definitely not how Lewis pictured Screwtape. One of the most famous quotes of the book is, “There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them.”

That is, in a nutshell, what the book is about, but, oh, what a book this is. That short summary does it no justice. Like with so many of Lewis’ books, I finished it with  awe at his skill and with a heart full of things to ponder. This is a satirical book, and is certainly very funny at times. Through Screwtape, we see the devils in all their horrid, austere, and selfish greed. Everything is turned upside down in this world. God is called the Enemy, and Hell is portrayed as a huge bureaucracy, with the devils in descending (ascending) levels of importance, culminating in “Our Father Below.” Screwtape is in turn condescending, imperious, demanding, and servile towards his nephew. In one particularly funny passage, his fury at Wormwood’s bungling causes him to inadvertently turn into a giant centipede, and the rest of that letter is finished as a dictation to another devil-scribe, as Screwtape is no longer able to write himself. Hah.

These articles were originally written during WWII, and that conflict appears tangentially as a background to Wormwood’s work in tempting the Patient. There isn’t much “story” here, although in the letters we see the Patient’s first steps into faith, his participation in some war-time duties, his involvement with a group of friends whom Screwtape calls “thoroughly reliable people; steady, consistent scoffers and worldlings who without any spectacular crimes are progressing quietly and comfortably towards our Father’s house”, and his relationship with a deeply spiritual woman (“not only a Christian but such a Christian–a vile, sneaking, simpering, demure, monosyllabic, mouse-like, watery, insignificant, virginal, bread-and-butter miss. The little brute.”).

But the “story” isn’t really the point. The book is basically a treatise on Christian living, in its upside-down, wryly funny way. In fact, the broad strokes of the Patient’s life allows us to see ourselves in his shoes, as I am sure Lewis intended. The Patient is basically Everyman, and as such we learn a lot from the advice Screwtape gives his nephew on temptation.

Lewis tackles many topics in this book, including:

  • the use of propaganda in turning the Patient from the truth – “Jargon, not argument, is your best ally in keeping him from the Church.”
  • how the Patient’s “idea” of the Church can undermine his faith when he sees the reality of the ordinary people who actually ARE the Church, with all their weaknesses and foibles (“Provided that any of those neighbours [at church] sing out of tune, or have boots that squeak, or double chins, or odd clothes, the patient will quite easily believe that their religion must therefore be somehow ridiculous.”)
  • how day-to-day relationships are the real battleground of faith (“Keep in close touch with our colleague Glubnose who is in charge of the mother, and build up between you in that house a good settled habit of mutual annoyance; daily pinpricks.”)
  • prayer (“In avoiding this situation – the real nakedness of the soul in prayer – you will be helped by the fact that the humans themselves do not desire it as much as they suppose.”)
  • the up and down nature of faith (“He [God] wants them to learn to walk and must therefore take away His hand; and if only the will to walk is really there He is pleased even with their stumbles.”)
  • how anxiety over the future can undermine faith (“[God] wants men to be concerned with what they do; our business is to keep them thinking about what will happen to them.”)
  • the different causes of laughter – Joy, Fun, the Joke Proper, and Flippancy, and why each should be either avoided or cultivated in the quest to guide the Patient to Hell. Flippancy is the best, for “It is a thousand miles away from joy; it deadens, instead of sharpening, the intellect; and it excites no affection between those who practice it.”

There is much more, I took those topics from the first quarter of the book. I hope some of the quotes  wet your whistle for reading all of it.

As I finished the book I was struck by a couple of things. One, I was once again amazed by how Lewis can write so perceptively about the Christian faith. This whole area of temptation can be difficult to write about – the  idea of writing some kind of treatise on what a temptation is and what it isn’t, and how to avoid or resist a temptation, makes me cringe.  You risk coming across as some kind of spiritual know-it-all, high up on a mountaintop above all the other ordinary people. What kind of credibility does any of us have in writing about how to successfully resist temptation?  Basically, you would be writing about failure. And who wants to write about that?

But by putting the topic into the mouth of the devil who is doing the tempting, Lewis manages to write about temptation in a deeply meaningful way, providing us with much rich spiritual contemplation as he does so. It’s a brilliant idea, executed with skill.

Secondly, as I thought about it, it seems to me that these essays would have been very hard to write. To write in the point of view of a devil would have been a nasty exercise all in itself, even if it is meant to be satirical. But there’s an even greater difficulty to overcome. The reason why these letters are so startling and thought-provoking is that they strike so very close to home. Lewis is speaking from personal experience here as he describes the various temptations; we know that because we recognize ourself so easily in the Patient. This willingness of Lewis to explore his own nature and bring up to the light what he found is essential for any good work of art – and it’s so hard to do.

Lewis himself swore he would not do another Screwtape letter once he finished, and he kept to that until 1959, when he published an article in The Saturday Evening Post, “Screwtape Proposes a Toast,” which is a treatise on trends in public education. Shades of The Abolition of Man, perhaps? I’m not sure, I didn’t get a chance to re-read it this time, but I will do so this year and review that essay in another post.

In the meantime, as much as I would like to ponder the truths found in The Screwtape Letters a little longer, I’m off to begin the next book in my series. This month I am tackling The Problem of Pain, another one of Lewis’ most popular books. I hope to have it done by the end of August, so I can keep to my schedule of posting an installment of this series at the end of each month.

I leave you with a final quote to ponder, in which Screwtape advises Wormwood of the advisability of a long life for his Patient. It comes towards the end of the book, and it is a perfect example of how the book can be chilling, humourous, and thought-provoking, all at once:

“How valuable time is to us may be gauged by the fact that the Enemy allows us so little of it. The majority of the human race dies in infancy; of the survivors, a good many die in youth. It is obvious that to Him human birth is important chiefly as the qualification for human death, and death solely as the gate to that other kind of life. We are allowed to work only on a selected minority of the race, for what humans call a ‘normal life’ is the exception. Apparently He wants some–but only a very few–of the human animals with which He is peopling Heaven to have had the experience of resisting us through an earthly life of sixty or seventy years. Well, there is our opportunity. The smaller it is, the better we must use it. Whatever you do, keep your patient as safe as you possibly can.”


 For more reading on Lewis and Screwtape, check out this interesting post on the inspiration for Screwtape, found over at the Pilgrim in Narnia’s blog:

A Difficult Generosity: A reblog

I’ve been away, watching the wild waves pound the shore and spending lovely alone time with my hubby as we explored magnificent Vancouver Island. I’m back now, but sadly behind on my posting schedule for this blog. And obviously I hadn’t organized myself enough to have two posts written to cover the Fridays I was gone a-holidaying. Hmm. Maybe that organized person will be me, someday.  In the meantime, I thought I would share with you a post I read recently, by the talented Sarah Clarkson. It encapsulates so well my own thoughts about writing that I thought I would let her speak for me today, as she says it so much better than I could.  Enjoy…and I’ll be back with my own gift of words on Friday as I bring you my thoughts on The Screwtape Letters, one of my Year of Reading Lewis posts.

Enjoy, and leave a comment if you like!