Lessons from the 2021 BC Writers’ Summit
Images: Federation of BC Writers
I signed up for the 2021 BC Writers’ Summit Online at the last minute—and I’m glad I did. The one-week virtual conference (May 15–21, 2021) was well worth the time and price, even though I wasn't able to attend all the sessions I wanted to.
Kudos to the Federation of BC Writers for organizing the event. Here are a few things I learned from five of my favourite sessions.
Into the Dark Woods
This workshop—focused on retellings and how to use symbolism and archetypes found in fairy tales and myth—was what ultimately convinced me to sign up for the whole conference.
Carina Bissett did not disappoint. I was blown away by the depth of her knowledge not only about history, culture, fairy tales, and myth, but also the modern literary landscape. For every question asked, she knew of recent stories and novels dealing with particular fairy tales and symbolism—all off the top of her head!
The session went over the history of fairy tales, resources, and approaches for retelling/reimagining a tale.
Nuggets from this session:
If you’re retelling a fairy tale, Carina recommends spending two full days (16+ hours!) researching existing retellings in literary magazines and publishers. Search for any keyword related to the fairy tale; keep a running list of what you find.
Learn the history of your fairy tale. Some great resources are:
Folklore and Mythology Electronic Texts by D. L. Ashliman
Myth & Moor by Terri Windling
Scholars have categorized folk tales by plot (the ATU Tale Type Index) and story elements (Thompson Motif Index). You can find these resources and more at the University of Alberta’s Unpacking World Folk-literature site.
There are thousands of versions of Cinderella and the tale can be traced back to China when foot-binding was a cultural practice.
If something upsets you about a fairy tale or myth, that might be a good cue for you to make it your own.
If you’re interested in learning more about Carina’s methods, she offers a free course examining Snow White. Check it out! 🍎
Setting the Stage: World-Building for All Genres
Michelle Barker and David Brown of The Darling Axe
I love world-building. It’s engrossing as a writer and enchanting as a reader—when it’s done well, that is. While world-building is often associated with Tolkienesque epics, this workshop was titled “for all genres” for a reason. Developmental editors Michelle Barker David Brown offered practical advice on setting and storytelling that are helpful for any writer.
Nuggets from this session:
As a writer, you’re creating a fictional dream and the setting lends authenticity.
No matter how great a setting is, it’s still just a backdrop. Your #1 job as a novelist is to tell a story.
Beware “shrunken world syndrome,” where the only people in the world are related to the plot.
Consider what’s impacting small talk in your fictional world.
Don’t make the setting gratuitous. If you can move the story to a totally different setting without affecting the characters and plot (for example, from a jungle to a desert), you might need to deepen your world-building.
Always know where your characters are and use their setting appropriately. For example, what possibilities arise when your scene takes place in a kitchen instead of a different room?
Use world-building details judiciously. Don’t tell readers what they will assume (for example, that there is a fridge in the kitchen).
If you have a topic of expertise you’re exploring in your book (e.g., a particular historical era), consider writing about that topic outside your book to help build your platform.
If you’re interested in learning more about Darling Axe, they offer a free sample edit of up to 5,000 words.
Get Yourself Out There: A Discussion on Marketing and Writing
Even through Zoom, I could sense anxiety in the room during this session. Writers are introverts, aren’t we? What do you mean we have to do all this marketing on top of writing? What if I hate social media?
This info-packed session was indeed a bit overwhelming, especially to marketing neophytes. Not the presenter’s fault—Jason was calm and positive throughout—but the volume of information, as well as some of his personal success stories, could feel intimidating and unattainable.
So that’s why I loved his answer when I asked how much time writers should budget every week to work on marketing. The most important thing to focus on, he said, is your writing. It’s easier to market yourself when your writing is better. But beyond that, he advised us to focus on one or two things a week that will make a difference. Focus on infrastructure, like building a website or setting up social media accounts.
Personally, I think this was one of the most helpful (if daunting) sessions of the week precisely because marketing is outside of most writers’ comfort zone. If Jason’s success is a good model, it’s worth investing the time in building these skills.
Nuggets from this session:
use LinkedIn as a relationship map
access the networking hubs and resources in your community
find a mentor—pick someone who you want to be
Ideally, your website should position you as a writer, generate a list you can communicate with, sell/promote your work, offer your insights, and have a decent user experience.
Run an SEO audit on your website (there are plenty of free options).
Think of social media as a publishing platform. Identify the channels where you audience is and focus on those.
If nothing else, focus on email and Instagram.
email is the most important channel because everyone uses it
follow Instagram’s own account to learn how to use the platform well
Develop a digital writing sample that shows off your work. People might not read the whole thing, so make sure every page represents you accurately.
Even if you have an agent, don’t wait for them to act—be proactive about seeking out opportunities.
Build your audience from your existing audience—get people who like you to tell other people.
Jason currently works as the head of business development at St. Joseph Communications.
Traditional vs. Indie vs. Hybrid Publishing: What’s Best for Me?
Jennifer Sommersby (pen names: Eliza Gordon, Michelle L. Archer)
This has nothing to do with the content of the workshop, but Jenn Sommersby started by commenting on her updated headshot provided for the workshop, describing her new haircut as “COVID feral.” That set the tone: Jenn was a lively, funny, honest presenter.
The session did what it said on the tin, providing an overview of the traditional, indie, and hybrid publishing with tips on determining which might be the best fit for our writing. See Jenn’s excellent overview of these different publishing types to get insight on some of the material she covered.
Nuggets from this session:
Indie publishing moves more quickly than traditional publishing. However, to be sustainable, indie publishing demands that you write quickly (typically more than one book a year).
As an indie writer, you’ll need to build your team around you (e.g., editor, designer, publicist, lawyer). Hire professionals and vet your team carefully.
What’s effective in online advertising can shift quickly as platforms and operating systems change.
An advance is not free money. You have to earn it back through sales before you start collecting royalties, known as “earning out.” Most authors don’t earn out.
About 6,000 books are added to Amazon every day. How will you make yours stand out?
Thinking of your writing as a pie and consider all the sub-rights (film, audio, graphic novels, video games, etc.) of your story.
The Creative Academy is a helpful resource and online community for writers.
Find a ton more resources about publishing from Jenn on her website, SGA Books.
Jessica Brody, hosted by Jason Maghanoy
Jessica Brody, author of more than seventeen novels and the writing guide Save the Cat! Writes a Novel, opened the summit as the keynote speaker. Sadly I couldn’t tune in to her speech (I heard it was great!), but at least I got to attend the closing fireside chat.
To the perennial writer’s question “Where you do you get your ideas?”, Jessica said she walked through life with an idea filter on. (Love it!) She sees the same things everyone else sees, she explained, but is more prone to ask what-if questions. For example, most people might walk past an abandoned meal at a restaurant—but a writer might wonder who left halfway through their dinner, and why.
A lot of the audience questions focused on process, and Jessica had plenty of tips to share—she clearly has a disciplined, orderly approach to her writing (love that too!).
Nuggets from this session:
She uses Trello (a free tool) to help her plot, write, and revise.
Her revision process for her novels includes several levels. She starts with the big-picture review of the overall plot and character arcs (International Space Station level); then she looks at each scene (airplane level); then finally the page level, focusing on individual words and sentences (ground level).
She uses spreadsheets to create work-back schedules and daily wordcount goals for herself.
She organizes her day into distraction-free work blocks, usually drafting in the morning, revising in the afternoon, with an extra evening work block when required.
To keep moving forward on a manuscript, she will sometimes skip scenes and come back to them later.
Her parting advice? Mindset is a big part of writing. Come up with witty comebacks for your inner critics. 😊
Jessica offers a suite of online courses for writers. Learn more about her Writing Mastery Academy.
By the end of the conference, my brain was melting out my ears—but in a good way. It takes a while to absorb and apply so much information.
One thing I always appreciate about writing conferences is that they remind me to take my writing seriously. Artistic passion is one thing, but the dedication demonstrated by all the presenters was the true inspiration.
The commitment that professional writing demands is daunting—but doable. Because there’s one more lesson you’ll learn from any conference…
…you’re not alone. 💚
Other speakers at the conference included Angie Abdou, Cathy Ace, Gail Anderson-Dargatz, Yvonne Blomer, Cooper Lee Bombardier, Tara Borin, Megan Cole, Joseph Dandurand, Ruth Dyckfehderau, Stella Harvey, Wiley Ho, Tamara Jong, Vicki McLeod, Lorri Neilsen Glenn, Susan Olding, Nisha Patel, Christine Smart, and Betsy Warland, plus live performance from pianist Andrew Sims for the writing sprints held throughout the week. See the full Summit Guide (PDF).