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the Writer’s Union

Here’s a brief report from the panels I attended today at Writer’s Union of Canada AGM – which, this year, is located ten minutes from my home and just across the street from the Y – so after the morning panel, I dashed across the street for a quick runfit class, before dashing back for more discussion. Great choice of venue, guys.

First panel, “Vision/Revision” – on the editing process, and on whether writers need to hire an editor before submitting a manuscript – the answer, mostly, is YES. Which is great for freelance editors, of whom I am one, and the articulate and fiercely intelligent Barbara Berson, who was on the panel, is one of the foremost. Her job, she said, is to help writers take the manuscript to the next level, and to help them ascertain what they really want the book to say. (Or, as we say all the time in class, “What is this piece really about?”)
The best editors, was the conclusion, don’t tell you specifically how to fix your manuscript, they tell you what doesn’t work – voice, characterization, pacing – and help you figure out how to proceed, how to make it better. “I write at least ten drafts before I let anyone see it,” said novelist Genni Gunn. (Genni, incidentally, was in my poetry class in the UBC writing program when I was very pregnant with the child who just turned 30. Sigh.)
“You only get one shot at that clean read,” said Catherine Bush. “So make sure your manuscript is in the best possible shape before you give it to an editor.”
And then people told horror stories about editors, including one who made a writer change his manuscript from the first to the third person, ruining the book, and an editor whose changes were so invasive that the author had to take the manuscript back to the publisher and begin the editing process all over again.
It’s a complex relationship, was the conclusion. But in the end, it’s your book, it will have your name on it. Listen carefully to all critiques, but don’t accept changes with which you fundamentally disagree.
After lunch, two workshops: “The Realities of Book Publishing,” which was so crowded, many were standing at the back or sitting on the floor, and for the next one as well, “The Writer as Promoter, Or, Who has time to write?” Both were dealing with the new realities of the social media – Facebook, Twitter, blogs, podcasts, – and how writers can help promote their books without losing themselves in the process. Anne Collins, legendary editor, spoke movingly about writers’ need “to access the deepest, most quiet part of themselves, in order to produce something of value.” And how difficult that is when they are being ordered to Twitter.
Russell Smith, on the second panel, concurred. He was particularly acerbic about writers having to think of their art as a product; of “wasting the few brain cells you have left” on blogging and Facebook when you should be writing.
But, said Terry Fallis and Cathy Buchanan, you have to get your book out to readers so you can write the next one.
Artists shouldn’t think of their audience, said Smith. They should be writing for their ideal reader – themselves.
There’s nothing wrong with connecting with your readers so they’ll tell their friends about you and buy your next book, said the others. Cathy Buchanan Twitters daily, writes a regular newsletter which she emails to hundreds of addresses, has formed a “fiction writers co-op” who cross-promote their books, and Skypes book clubs. A publicist for Random House told us that 17 million Canadians use Facebook, a higher density than any other country in the world. Why not try to plug into that vast network?
Russell spoke with eloquence: “It’s still unseemly to be a braggart. I don’t want to receive your achievement updates,” he said, and “If you think of your audience as a market,” he said, “a market must be pleased.”
“I only have a certain number of words in me a day,” he said. “If I spend two hours on a blog, I’m done.”
“Ah,” said the publicist. “That’s where Twitter comes in.”
I think Smith was outgunned by the more pragmatic members of the panel. “I only know about your novel,” an audience member told him, “through your column in the ‘Globe.'”
In the breaks, I met a writer from Vancouver who writes about the film business and a writer from Guelph who writes about modernist literature and whose book is about T. S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf. I was chatting to her by the books table, where we placed our books for sale, when someone picked up “Finding the Jewish Shakespeare” and bought it! Thrilling. I signed it for her. Perhaps it helped, marketing-wise, that I dropped the price from $25 to $20 as a special promotional deal. And then, I rushed home to blog to you. Am I not up to date?
No, I learned today.
I must learn to Twitter. The next frontier.
Oh yes. And to finish the @#$# book.



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