Tuesday, June 9, 2015

California Crime Writers Conference: Day 1 (morning)

This weekend I attended my first California Crime Writers Conference in Culver City. The conference takes place every other year in the Los Angeles area.

Among the many things I learned today is that compared to other conferences I've attended, CCWC is a pretty small, almost intimate event. The entire thing was very contained and uncrowded. The conference was sold out, so it wasn't a lack of interest. In fact, I really appreciated that the place wasn't a mob scene.

Panels were divided up into four categories: craft, industry, forensics and marketing. Today I had three craft and one forensics.

"The F Word: Addressing Fear and Other Plagues of the Writing Life"
Dennis Palumbo (moderator), Tyler Dilts, D.J. Adamson, Terry Shames, Terri Nolan

Palumbo is a licensed psychotherapist whose clients primarily see him for creative issues. He has previously worked as a screenwriter in TV and features. Adamson (Glendale College) and Dilts (CSU Long Beach) both teach writing.

All authors were surprisingly open about their issues with anxiety, procrastination and other issues that interfere with the writing process. Dilts told us that the day he got the email confirming his appearance on this particular panel, he'd had a really bad writing morning combined with a wave of paranoia and wondered, "How did they know?"

More Dilts: At this point he's been writing for twenty years, feels like he should have it down by now. This was a sentiment I would hear from a number of successful and prolific authors in other panels. He also felt that for years he wrote due to a "need for rejection" to validate his already low self-esteem. After a couple of successful novels he had to readjust his mindset.

Adamson: Spent years wanting to write, blamed everyone else for her failure to do so, when she had the ability all along. Finally asked herself, "If not now, when?" (I would hear that two more times from successful authors before the day was over). She was plagued by a negative inner voice and still has to tell herself to "shut up and get up". Eventually she realized that she was treating writing like a hobby. It's a job. You have to show up and do the work, just as you would at your place of employment. She believes that fear of failure drives procrastination, so she had to learn to write without expectations. Seeing her in person, you would never think she had any of these issues.

Shames on the subject of "new project anxiety":  Her first two novels wrote themselves once she dug down to what she described as "the core", which for her was Texas. However, now that she's done with her Texas series, she has to inhabit her characters. She also said that not writing makes her grumpy - for her it's play time as well as work time.

Nolan stated that, "Anxiety frames my life." She also indicated that she creates detailed bios of her characters before beginning her books.

On the subject of deadlines:

Dilts: Love/hate relationship. Loves having them because it exerts a pressure that is useful and beneficial.  Hates having to ask for extensions.

Adamson: Needs them. Feels she's successful through the "anxiety of deadline". Her previous real life day job was extremely competitive and not meeting deadlines could mean losing high-profile clients, so her mindset is that missing deadlines is not acceptable.

Palumbo shared that when he embarked for Hollywood, his grandmother had sent him off with, "Try not to do anything that will bring disgrace to the family," then asked the panel how their families had reacted to them deciding to become writers.

Dilts: He'd spent ten years as an actor, so his family was actually pretty happy when he told them he was going to pursue an MFA in English.

Adamson: It was always a goal and eventually her husband and kids embraced it.

Shames: Was always a writer, even when she worked full-time. Eventually her husband suggested she quit her job and write full-time.

Palumbo's advice: develop a benign relationship with the writing process. Don't beat yourself up if you're not living up to your ideal. And in response to the ever-popular "pantser or plotter" question: embrace your writing process, whether it's tightly plotted or seat of your pants.

"The F Word Panel" L to R: Terri Nolan, Tyler Dilts,
D.J. Adamson, Terry Shames, Dennis Palumbo

"Thrills and Chills"
Diana Gould (moderator), Laurie Stevens, D.P. Lyle, Craig Faustus Buck, Paul D. Marks

It was standing room only for this panel. I ended up sitting on a ledge on the side of the room.

Gould asked the panel what elements a suspense thriller must have and how you achieve them.

Stevens: Has to be a page turner.

Marks: Cliffhanger at the end of all (or at least most) chapters. And they can be subtle, not necessarily a life hanging in the balance. They can be obstacles that get tougher as the story goes along.

Buck: Pace is important, and it should increase as the book goes on. Ramp it up. Surprise is a key element.

Lyle: Each scene needs to prompt the question, "What happens next?" And these questions need to be answered eventually. Dr. Lyle drew a big laugh with orders not to end a chapter with, "And she had no idea what would happen next!"

The panel on their protagonists:

Stevens: Her protagonist is psychologically damaged due to childhood trauma. He uses his own issues as impetus to keep going. She feels this helps make him relatable to readers because everyone has problems.

Buck: His protagonist has fallen from grace, from cop to trashy tabloid crime reporter. He's trying to write himself back to being a hero. But he also pointed out that in noir, the protagonist is doomed, he just doesn't know it yet.

Gould: "How much of yourself do you put into your characters?"

Marks: Depends. Feels there's a little of us in everything we write.

Buck: Tries to disguise it because he doesn't want to be too revelatory. (During the Q&A someone asked about the difference between revelatory vs. confessional and Gould responded, "Fiction vs. memoir.")

Lyle: All writing is autobiographical, even if the author doesn't know it. He also has a theory that there are two kinds of guys in the world: Those who have played football and those that haven't (at any level). Because you learn so much about so many aspects of battle on that field. That goes into all his characters.

Gould: "What is it about L.A. and noir?"

Buck: Believes film noir was born here because of the rise of the Nazi party in Germany. Hollywood brought in refugee filmmakers from Europe and once here, they made grim films influenced by what they'd left behind.

Stevens: L.A. makes a good character.

Buck: Broken dreams.

From the Q&A: When using true life stories/events, how much do you need to disguise?

Buck (his novel, White Heat, features a murder based on Rebecca Schaeffer and takes place during the Rodney King riots): Have to change enough to make it even more dynamic and flow better.

Lyle: Can use the story as a springboard. Don't be tied to the factual story.

The inevitable question of process came up, of course.

Lyle: His "outline" consists of a list of plot points, one sentence each. Each plot point becomes a scene. When he has about fifty points, he knows it works. He's not married to it and will make changes as he goes along. He also made the comment that if you don't use Scrivener, "You're out of your mind." Might need to check that out.

Buck: He's a "pantser". Described it as "inefficient, but fun". Said he is constantly rewriting. After he completes his draft he will makes passes for anything he's concerned about.

Marks: Followed Buck's comments by saying he was taught not to rewrite as you go along. Also, he writes his first draft in screenwriting format because it's fast. I found this extremely interesting and think I'm going to give it a try. This might actually work for me.

During the introductions, Gould mentioned Dr. Lyle's "generosity of expertise". Dr. Lyle has served as technical advisor to a number of TV shows including House, Law & Order, CSI: Miami, and Cold Case, plus he is the award-winning author of a number of fiction and non-fiction books. And when he's not doing all that, he manages to fit in his other career as a long-time cardiologist. I was the beneficiary of Dr. Lyle's generosity of expertise a few years ago when I was writing a CSI:NY spec script and wasn't sure if my method of dispatching a victim would work in real life. That story is here: In gory praise of Dr. Lyle.

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