Spent the weekend in beautiful (not really) Surrey BC at the wonderful (really!) Surrey International Writers' Conference. A great idea, this conference -- reminds me of the Humber Summer Workshop. It links the emergent writing community (that is, wannabes) with potentially helpful mentors (me, among others - stop laughing) and also with a large number of agents and publishers. Aspiring writers sign up for pitch sessions with agents, where they have five minutes to sell their book. One guy I talked to met his agent there two years ago, and is now signing contracts worth five times more than mine. I was seriously impressed (envious).
The toughest part of the weekend for me was what they call blue pencil sessions. You sign up for these too. You go to a large ballroom with your manuscript clutched in your trembling hands. For fifteen minutes you sit opposite your selected mentor (there are tables dotted about the ballroom) who reads some of the mansucript and gives you literary advice. The bell rings, and you move to make way for the next trembling-handed writer. It's a stressful as speed-dating, which it resembles. Stressful for you, listening to home truths about your work. And superstressful for your mentor. Yikes!! I tell you, it's hard to come up with truly insightful commentary, quarter hour after quarter hour. I kept saying to myself: Find One Thing to say that will help this person. Don't be flip or funny (Have you considered a career in chartered accountancy); don't be cruel (your main character could play in a TV ad as The Least Interesting Man In The World). Be of use.
Fortunately, all the manuscripts I saw were brilliant (you never know who is going to read your blog), so my advice wasn't necessary. Usually it was a case of: Good, good, but you might want to think about doing this or that. Now get back to work.
Maybe I'll take my own advice now.