Tag Archives: Surrey International Writers’ Conference

Writing (about) Place: How to wrestle “cosmos from chaos”

In this post, we are happy to introduce a new Restless Writer, Sharon Will, a communications professional and writer in southern Ontario. Sharon gathers some of her best tidbits from her two young sons, whose musings she captures in her Question Impossible blog. Sharon joins the other Restless Writers—Lori Dyan, Beckie Jas, and me, Maria McDonald—in talking about place.

Toronto CityscapeWhen I was at the Surrey International Writers’ Conference back in 2010, I had the pleasure of hearing Tim Wynne-Jones speak about “A Sense of Place.”

Wynne-Jones is a master of the writerly sound-byte. Among his gems that day: “Setting is not separate from plot or character.” “Don’t treat a setting generically—treat it as only you can describe it.” And my favourite: “Art is an attempt to wrestle cosmos from chaos.”

The main lesson I took from that lecture was that setting is never neutral. Setting is always a function of the person viewing it.

Place is an inextricable piece of the books I love. How could you read Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence without hearing the sound of bumblebees floating drunkenly amongst the lavender bushes? Or Cory Doctorow’s Makers without smelling the carbonite and IHOP permeating post-New Economy America? Or J.G. Ballard’s The High-Rise without wanting to barricade your doors against the menacing tribes emerging from the elevators?

“I love John Sandford‘s books, which all take place in Minnesota, often in the dead of winter,” said Lori when I asked her about the expression of place in her favourite books. “Sandford does an amazing job bringing the setting into the story almost as a character. The barren, gloomy landscape is a perfect complement to the creepy twists and turns of the plot.”

“I have always loved A Sand County Almanac, a 1949 non-fiction book by American ecologist, forester, and environmentalist Aldo Leopold,” said Beckie. “He creates an incredible sense of place with his writings of the natural world that take readers on a journey from the mountains and the prairies to the deserts and the coastlines. He creates an awareness of land as a living community to be loved and respected. He helps us see, hear, feel, and experience the land as it moves and breathes; Leopold calls this ‘the dark laboratory of the soul.'”

According to Sharon, “A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving is one of the first times I remember reading about a place that I knew (Toronto) in a piece of fiction. I also love Carol Shields’ novel Unless, which brings the streets and landmarks of Toronto to life.”

In my own work-in-progress, place and time intersect inMontreal in the 1990s. Montreal is close (ish) and I try to visit as often as I can. Luckily, I have my own memories as a McGill student to dig into. Reviewing newspaper archives, reading books by local writers, listening to music of the time and looking into popular culture—all that will help me immerse myself in place, and be able to see it through my characters’ eyes.

Sharon has an idea for a future project that would be set, in part, in Kingston. “In terms of research, for me it’s all about sticking with what you know. Having lived there during university, Kingston is a place that is close to my heart—I’m always keen to get back as much as I can (three times this past year). I’m really sensory in the way I file items to memory, smells, sounds, colours, etc. so taking in a city in person is ideal.”

But sometimes that in-person visit isn’t in the cards. For Lori, “My main character flees her suburban soccer-mom existence to have a mid-life crisis in a Malibu-type setting.” To get the flavour of California, Lori spent a lot of time on YouTube and Google to capture the West Coast sense of space. “You wouldn’t believe the people who’ve videotaped themselves driving the PCH from LA toMalibu. I wish I could’ve been there in person. Next time!”

“Place figures prominently in my middle-grade novel,” said Beckie. “Place was the inspiration for the story. The setting is based in my childhood memories of growing up in the country and moving to the suburbs. My book is currently on submission with editors, and the feedback from my agent is to ‘beef up the setting.'”

So how does one “beef up setting”? For Beckie, it means reading other books that capture similar settings. For Lori, it means consuming endless issues of InStyle and People. For Sharon, it could mean exploratory writing that helps pin down her own memories of life in Kingston.

For me, it means experiencing or imaging place with the curiosity of a tourist, the understanding of a resident, and the heart of a story-teller—and always keeping in mind how my characters would interact with the world around them.

What makes place resonate with you in the books you read—and how do you draw place into your own writing?


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Filed under Diablogue

Ask an Author. Answer a Dream.

It’s Friday and I need your help.

I am going to try something new on the blog, and not just because @restlessmaria’s new favourite word is “diablogue.” But because we, Restless Writers, made a lovely new friend at the Surrey International Writers’ Conference and she has oodles of intelligence to share with writers. And well, I/we want to know everything when it comes to getting published—in this lifetime.

I am talking about YA author Denise Jaden (LOSING FAITH) and she will be visiting our blog next week to answer YOUR QUESTIONS. I am prepping my must-answer-list for Denise and would love to include your questions in the interview.

But first, a quick introduction to Denise Jaden by way of 6 random factoids:

  • She is a professional Polynesian dancer
  • She once was a mushroom farmer
  • She is one tough cookie and can kick your ass
  • She just passed the 43k mark on her NaNo novel
  • She brought the biggest bottle of wine to our Hotel Tweet-up
  • Her debut novel, Losing Faith has been named a Best Book of 2010!

So, if you are living in the world of query mayhem and manuscript submission (like me), and you have burning questions on how to get published—post your question in “comments” and check back to the blog next week for a response.

 Stay tuned!



Filed under Diablogue, Getting published, Success stories

Table 28 reeks of awesome

The Surrey International Writers’ Conference was a hit!

The conference was a three-day bootcamp full of inspiration and motivation from the finest. Unfortunately, I came home with the flu, and I am still attempting to emerge from the post-conference fog. The flu, I should kick in a few days, no doubt. But the new friends, I hope to have for a long long time!

Thanks for the fun ladies! Here’s a little snapshot from Table 28 at the #SiWC2010 Friday night dinner. Yes, we reek of awesome.



Filed under Author events, Inspiration

Countdown to SiWC

Surrey, here we come!It’s less than a month until the Surrey International Writers’ Conference (SiWC). Here’s what I’m doing to prepare:

Logistics: This is all the stuff that makes it all feel real—booking a hotel room, buying plane tickets, figuring out how the heck to get from YVR to Surrey without breaking the bank or getting lost in the public transit puzzle.

Reading: I love it that my favourite pastime can also be considered pre-conference research. I’m booked into a Blue Pen Café session with Canadian author Tim Wynne-Jones, so I am reading his latest, “The Uninvited,” and two of his Rex Zero books. Ian from A Different Drummer Books will be ordering me a few other Wynne-Jones titles, just in case.

Writing: For my session with Wynne-Jones, I have to decide which piece I’d like critique on. Should I pick one of the short stories I currently have under way? A chapter from my novel-in-progress? Or do I write something brand-new to put under the microscope? Decisions, decisions…

Learning: And more decisions! Which workshops do I want to sign up for? Are there specific authors I want to hear from (Graphic Novels with Diana Gabaldon)? Or is there a particular topic that is relevant to something I’m working on right now (Creating Characters that Jump off the Page with James Scott Bell)? Or something else that piques my interest (like Steampunk Spotlight with Arthur Slade)?

Connecting: Most of all, I’m gearing up to meet other writers, especially those who I’ve met virtually via Twitter and the Restless Writers’ blog.

Are any of our blog visitors heading out to SiWC? Are any of you SiWC veterans with tips for us newbies?



Filed under Author events, Motivation

Can I get a HELL YEAH for September?

Along with the rest of the world, I am attempting to get back in the groove with work, life, and my writing. Work and life are judiciously in check; however the writing has been somewhat sporadic, even lethargic. But that’s all about to change.

We, Restless Writers, begin our regular meeting schedule once again next week (Squeee!). This means dates and deadlines—and of course, a little vino. It also means GOAL-SETTING. September is the perfect time to put the goods on the table, so-to-speak. And I’m not talkin’ butter tarts here (although, I’m sure that will happen too); I’m talking about realistic and achievable goals. You know the kind. The SMART ones. With details. And dates.

One of the most important things writers can do is set clear, explicit goals about what they want to accomplish. Most of us have a bunch of vague goals, like the “one day” kind (as in, “one day, I’m going to write a novel), and then there’s the “some day” kind (as in, some day, I’m going to finish my book and find an agent). Make that day, today. Don’t be a chug-meister. Set a clear goal and get ‘er done.

It’s time to spend some quality time with words. Be an active practitioner of your craft. Commit to improving your art. According to Dustin Wax, an author’s relationship with a work in progress is a lot like your relationship with your significant other. You have to work at it every day, and nurture it, and accept its quirks and even failures. And if you lack real commitment, sooner or later, one or the other of you will flake out.

Sure, you gotta start small. Have some fun with it. But don’t expect the unexpected or worse, confuse your goals and expectations (and end up disappointed). Planning and patience are crucial to your success. Some brilliant advice from Write for Your Life, Iain Broome: Aim high. Expect nothing.

My September Writing Goals:

  • Attend (schmooze) Surrey International Writers’ Conference, Oct 22-24.
  • Polish my LITTLE EARTHLINGS non-fiction proposal, craft query, & send the baby out by Sept 30.
  • Send 3-5 queries to agents (per week) for my MG novel: BILLIE BOOTS, til Dec 31.
  • Give my YA novel (LIGHTS) some lovin’ — review outline, write 1 chapter per week, beginning Oct 15.
  • Select 2 Screenplay Competitions for my family drama: FROM NEBULA TO HERE.
  • Ressurect thriller project (or at least determine its future!) 

 I am WRITER. See me WRITE!



Filed under Group meetings, Motivation

Author visits at Burlington Public Library this fall

Stack of Library BooksAlthough I nearly had a heart attack when I saw the first red leaves on the drive back from the cottage last weekend, there’s actually a lot for the Restless Writers and our local reading/writing pals to look forward to this fall (besides our trip to the Surrey International Writers Conference, October 22-24). And we don’t have to go any farther than our local library.

Burlington Public Library (BPL) hosts visits from noted Canadian authors each month—and they’re free! You do have to pre-register, since seats go fast. To register, call 905-639-3611 ext. 134. All visits take place from 7-9pm in Centennial Hall, Central Library. (Notes: Dates are subject to change, so keep an eye on the BPL website for updates.)

Here’s the BPL fall line-up:

As part of the Engaging Authors series, offered by BPL and A Different Drummer Books, Doug Sanders, author of Arrival City: The Final Migration and Our Next World, will be speaking on Tuesday, September 28. Tickets are $10, and can be purchased at the library or the bookstore. Limited tickets are available at the door.


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Filed under Author events

Making the most out of a writing conference: Five tips

The Restless Writers are planning to attend at least part of the Surrey International Writers’ Conference (SiWC) in October. This highly respected conference is a whirlwind mix of workshops, keynote speakers, master classes, trade shows and editor/agent appointments, plus a Blue Pencil Café where writers can connect directly with speakers.

The speaker line-up is exciting—Anne Perry, Jack Whyte, Diana Gabaldon, kc dyer, Tim Wynne-Jones—plus there’s a whole host of editors and agents from the literary and film industries, all hoping to sign some great new talent.

I’ve just been through two jam-packed conferences (the Indexing Society of Canada annual conference in Montreal and the Canadian Public Relations Society annual conference in Regina), and I’ve picked up a few tricks to make the most out of any conference experience:

  1. Rest up…you’re going to need it: Most conferences pack heaps of activities into two or three days. So take your vitamins, boys and girls, and get a lot of sleep beforehand.
  2. Have a learning strategy: Decide what you want to achieve at this conference. If your current WIP is an agent-ready non-fiction proposal, focus on maximizing your time in those one-on-one appointments. If you’re still in the first-draft stage, plan to check out “Creating Memorable Characters” or “Worldbuilding.”
  3. Reach out at the networking events: Even if you’re not the schmoozing type, take a deep breath (and some mints) and start talking to other conference attendees. You might find yourself befriending an editor who works with the agent you’ve been trying to snag, or a picture-book writer who knows some phenomenal illustrators. One serendipitous meeting might be the best thing that happens to you.
  4. Be inspired: You’ve just heard Robert McCammon talk about perfecting dialogue and you’ve had a breakthrough on a key scene. Go ahead—skip lunch to spend some quality time with your laptop. This is why you’ve used valuable vacation days to attend this conference. Get writing!
  5. Review and reflect: You’ve just had three days of intensive workshops, stimulating conversations and the odd epiphany. Don’t let it go to waste. Take some tips from 8-bit Holly, and act on what you’re learned.

If any of our readers have tips for making the most out of our experience at SiWC, we’d love to hear them!


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Filed under Author events, Writing resources