AFCC Retreat 2015: Leaving no fingerprints

Hello, friends! Last Friday, I returned from another intense trip to Southeast Asia in which I visited my family in Manila, was one of the mentors at a retreat for writers and illustrators in Bintan Island, Indonesia, and delivered a keynote speech and visited a school in Singapore. Dear reader, I am actually too exhausted to blog. Yet I am fearful that if I don't blog about it, I will forget everything that happened! My mind is awhirl with ideas and my heart is exploding with affection for the fascinating people I met on my travels. To make a start, here's something about the Indonesia leg of the trip - the first AFCC Retreat for Writers and Illustrators, held at Angsana Resorts, Bintan Island, Indonesia. I won't cover my own presentation (on story structure), I might save that for another time.

As an ex journalist, I'm a judicious note taker but it's hard to do it when you're one of the speakers. So I kept cartoon notes instead.

Here's my co-mentor, publisher Sarah Odedina, talking about what writers have to do to get published.

Sarah Odedina: Work on one thing at a time until you are finished.

Sarah gave us tips on how to de-purple our prose. If your writing is calling too much attention to itself then it's not doing the job. It's about the story, not you. 

'If it sounds like writing, rewrite it.' 
Elmore Leonard

Sarah quoted Elmore Leonard: "If it sounds like writing. Rewrite it!'

We talked about that old conundrum: show don't tell.

There has to be a reason why your child reader would want to read your book.  Clue: it's not usually to educate themselves.

In case you can't read my scribble: an adult might read 30 pages before he or she gives up, but a child might read just 30 LINES.

But what do readers really want? Meaning. Yup. Even children want meaning in their lives.

To improve our ear for dialogue, Sarah advised us to eavesdrop on conversations in public places, like buses.

'when I think of a book that enchants me, it's the characters that won me over,' Sarah said. But listening to Sarah talk about characters, their world, and the events that propel them through a story, I had a mini epiphany.

We writers are always talking about plot as if it's a separate thing from character, setting and all the other ingredients of  a story. But they're not. EVERYTHING is plot. Character? Everything about your character furthers the story. Character is plot. Setting? Place is not a random thing, it's the world that characters live in. Hmm. Yeah.

Note: Sarah gave another presentation on the publisher-author relationship - You can read my blog post about it (15 June) over on the Notes from the Slushpile blog.

The Retreat's illustrator mentor was Portuguese illustrator, Catarina Sobral, winner of the 2014 International Award for Illustration at the Bolgona Children's Book Fair.

The book that followed her 2014 win was the toughest, she told us. "Each time I start a book, I go through the painful process of finding something that reflects myself at the moment," she explained. "It is an intimate journey. It was even more painful having won the competition, because I felt that I couldn't fail."

Catarina amazed us all when she declared, "I am not an artist."

Illustration, she said, was "a mental process -- you don't have to be an artist."

I suppose what she means is that Art carries with it some baggage that might not serve a story well. My understanding is that like Elmore Leonard saying 'if it feels like writing, rewrite it!' to Catarina if an illustration calls attention to the art rather than the story, it's not good illustration.

Catarina refuses to be drawn into discussions of style. 'I don't like to call it style. Style has a vocabulary and syntax which is limiting. I would call it an accent.'
"When I am conceiving a book, I must do so in silence." Catarina Sobral

The creation of a book is never ending. "The book does not end when the story ends because the reader continues to create more story," she said. "The book does not end when the book is printed. Then you move into promotion, marketing, exhibition ..."

The book does not end when the story ends because a reader continues to create more story.

I've attended several writing retreats over the years. I think time away, spent in the company of like minded people and attentive professionals, has done more good for my craft (and career) than the hundreds of talks on writing and publishing that I've attended.

Partly it is because of time. Time to talk. Time to think. Time to just stare into space. But mostly retreats have given me an awareness of the world I have chosen to live in by allowing me to spend time in the company of diverse people who share my dream.

I can't think though of any retreat as diverse as this AFCC retreat. Delegates represented so many cultures - we came from Singapore, Indonesia, the Philippines, Macau, India, the United States, England, Hong Kong, Canada and Australia.

As we came to the end of our time together, retreat organiser Andrea Pasion-Flores, who is a lawyer turned author turned literary agent, asked delegates to share their own stories.

'Why do you write? What do you want' she asked.

It was a deceptively simple question and at first it was hard to understand. Did Andrea want some kind of Wikipedia entry? A biography? A summary of one's achievements?

Soon enough the stories came pouring out.

There was frustration, there were tears, there was a lot of hope. But most of all there was a real love for telling stories and burning desire to create stories for children. (I have pasted my little cartoon notes of the delegates' responses below.)

When the session ended, Andrea told us how the evening before, a service person came to her hotel door to ask if she wanted her bed turned down for the night. When she said no, he offered her a fortune cookie. This what the fortune said:

'A diamond is a piece of carbon that stuck to its job.'

Writing is like standing on the edge of a cliff, Andrea told us. It's frightening to commit to something unknown.

I was nodding as she spoke. Because this is my daily battle. Every time I sit down to work on my manuscript, I am beset with self doubt. What if I get it wrong? What if I write something nobody wants? What if, after all that, I turn out to be a lousy writer? What if, what if, what if?

Enough with the what if, Andrea told us. All the worrying you're doing - about markets, about confidence, about craft - that's something else. You know what you want. You want to tell stories. 'When you write in a place where it's scary to go ... I hope this session has helped to push you off the cliff.'

With thanks and love to the retreat attendees who have made my writing world a bigger place.