The literary world on a string: Reviewing ‘When Words Collide’

August 14, 2011

When Words Collide August 12 – 14 2011

‘When Words Collide’ aimed to provide an informal platform for writers and readers to meet and mingle. The festival did this successfully. It brought together a stellar collection of unique literary voices to Calgary. Romance, fan fiction, science fiction, speculative fiction, script writing and many other genres were fully represented at this convention.  

In truth Calgary has never been considered a literary hub.  Many (including myself) deliberately set out to travel to city centers renown for established literary circles like Toronto, prompting many to wonder what can nurture a prairie author. The realistic answer is those who strive to write typically look outside the Prairies for help, mentors and above all hope that such a thing could be duplicated in their own hometowns.

‘When Words Collide’ provides an informal, and unfortunately temporary, broad spectrum presentation of a unique community. In the span of a single day delegates have the opportunity to attend lectures on thirty five different subjects. Unfortunately, this delegate had to narrow down their interests to a maximum of seven hour long lectures. Seeing as the conference went for three days, the avid attendee could gorge their interests on an average of twenty one separate events.   

A massive thank you to those who had the vision and passion to make this festival a success. Also to those who patiently answered questions with a smile. The following is a brief description of four one hour long sessions that were presented at the conference.

 Sunday August 14, 2011

12:00pm How to Write a Good Pitch and Query

Rule number one when discussing query submissions; do not mention online publications. Doing so will cause an involuntary hush as the question is raised ‘What is your opinion of online self publication’ after which the panelists will offer to discuss ‘the issue’ afterwards over a large cup of tea. Or a beer for the more adventurous libertine.

During this session a series of words were used that I vaguely remember from my misadventures reading random ‘how to publish’ books in the University library. Useful tools of the literary trade were the hot topic of the hour: the pitch, the query, the literary resume, unsolicited submissions, solicited submissions, mass unsolicited submission techniques. There are three separate basic queries to create, one for short story, one for novels and one for the magazine/non-fiction submissions.

 All of which, in a digital world, become outdated when the method of publication is self governed. But for any author wanting credibility and a paycheck, these tools are invaluable.  Thus began a duality of discussion that would surface yet again; the question of reconciling new media publication with the established print media-for-profit mentality.

1:00pm Writing for the Magazine Market

‘Writing for the Magazine Market’ attempted a brief and casual glimpse into the rough and tumble world of magazine publishing. The intrepid panelists Barb Galler-Smith and Diane Walton guided us into a discussion about what opportunities existed and how to take advantage of them.

The discussion inevitably turned to the transitioning of many hard copy magazines to digital copy. The good news; publications can cut costs and thereby survive to publish yet another day. The bad news: uncharted intellectual copyright territory and the four dollar per submission pay day returns from the Pulp Fiction days of the 1920’s.

Again, this session was about opportunity. The opportunity for visibility is there. The opportunity for professionalism still very much remains with the physical copy.  The interesting side note: print copy has an ally in digital copy. It provides an inter-textual self reference that prompts the reader to not only buy an online subscription, but also moves magazine sales at the local store. Mainly to compensate when the internet connection fails or the battery wears down on their favorite e-reading device.

Again, the main idea is opportunity; and opportunities are there.

2:00pm Fan Fiction- How Does it Fit?

Fan Fiction- quite possibly the most misunderstood form of story-telling out there in the Ethernet. Both a joy and a curse to many literary minded devotees, the session opened up an earnest discussion of the pros and cons of the fan fiction Universe.

I call it a universe because fan fiction is a world, many worlds, into and of themselves. They have their own language to communicate about and to each other. There a specific unwritten rules governing this art form. Instead of peer to peer editing, many authors have ‘a beta’. Instead of a genre, fan fiction has created ‘fandoms’ with specific voices attributed to the talented work of successful sci-fi  concepts like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Supernatural and Highlander to name a few.

The eloquent explanation offered by our intrepid panelists was this: mass hits like Harry Potter created a generation of readers as well as a generation of writers. The advent of imagination, the social impulse of human beings to communicate, the impulse to create a story, and by extension the ability to dream is a defining characteristic of human beings.  Fan Fiction is simply the active manifestation of an audience.

As a result it exists online and in the hearts and minds of a devoted few.

3:00pm: Writing for the Screen

The stellar line up for this panel is a triumph for the festival.  Diverse enough to provoke interesting, if heated, debate. This was a to the point arena with professionals talking as frankly as they can about a profession.

While the basics were covered like logline, synopsis, treatment, script, 3-act structure, marketing, the true bonus was a description of the process. The brutal honesty that a script is a part of a collaborative process, and once sold creative control is gone.  At one point a delegate asked ‘Is there joy in writing a script?’ to which the panel replied no, the joy is in seeing the final production, if that even occurs.

 A novel is a medium unto itself, where bye a script is a tool written for a specific medium. The differences between the two are extensive. Novelists are usually able to transition to screen writing, conversely screen writers rarely transition into the realm of the novel. A few main points to take a way: screen writing is industry dependent; you move to the network of artists who create film or TV. Screenwriting is immensely difficult to get into (to be ‘roomed’ as one panelists described) but highly lucrative if successful. The pressure to produce within industry specific, somewhat migraine inducing restrictions dictated by actor contracts, writers guilds and director creative control is immense.  A script can be purchased and green lit but never aired.  

Is there a sense of joy in script writing? No, but there is an opportunity for a professional career as a writer, which makes all the difference to some.

4:00pm How to Give Author Readings

You know you are in the presence of authors when a t-shirt with the slogan ‘Careful or you’ll end up in my next novel’ is prominently, if not proudly worn. You also know the group by a misguided sense of humility as the seventh and last person enters the room to a collective ‘Awesome, We got one more!’.

The term ‘Author Readings’ is a grave misnomer in my opinion. Sure an author presents their work; but a successful ‘reading’ is anything but a reading. Performance based presentations of the written word are an opportunity to promote your work. As the panel suggests you must take ownership of your work and present it with an air of enthusiasm to your audience. The notion of passivity is completely abandoned.

A few pointers for the intrepid performance piece:

Avoid at all costs: being dismissive, rude, speaking in monotones.

Always: drink water, connect with your audience and be prepared.

Above all DO NOT PANIC and.. slow. Down. And. Use. Punctuation.

A few links for those interested:

Alexandra Writers’ Centre

Writer’s Guild of Alberta

Alberta Romance Writers’ Association (ARWA)

Mystery Writers’ Ink (MWI)

OnSpec: The Canadian Magazine of the Fantastic

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68 Responses to The literary world on a string: Reviewing ‘When Words Collide’

  1. As one of the organizers of When Words Collide I would like to thank the writer of this pleasing article. It is indeed our hope that When Words Collide will be an annual opportunity for readers and writers in Western Canada to network. Information regarding When Words Collide 2012 will begin appearing on our website in September.

  2. nrwarren says:

    Thank You Randy, I am definitely looking forward to next year. See you then!

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