Monday, 23 September 2013

The Word on the Street Festival

Yesterday, Saskatoon hosted THE WORD ON THE STREET, a local version of the national book and magazine festival that’s become an annual event in several Canadian cities. I think it’s wonderful that my community goes the extra mile to promote literacy and celebrate reading, and in turn gives authors an opportunity to showcase their books.  Around our main branch library, the streets were blocked off to make room for poetry readings, puppet shows, book displays, author lectures and signings. What better way to enjoy a gorgeous fall afternoon?

Part of the festival was a workshop given by Robert J. Sawyer, which I was lucky enough to attend. If you’re not familiar with Mr. Sawyer, he’s a Hugo and Nebula award-winning Canadian science fiction author, who’s written twenty-two novels, including Flashforward and Mindscan. The topic for his talk was: A Thematic Approach to Science Fiction, but I think many of the things he said could be applied to other genres of writing as well, especially those that are issue oriented.

The focus of his lecture was choosing a theme for your novel that will make it stand out. Now, obviously most of what he said applies to commercial fiction, so keep that in mind if you’re reading this. These are a few of the nuggets of wisdom he passed on to those of us hoping to someday be published:

Choose a hot button issue as opposed to those that have been done before. People will rally around a controversial topic, because it creates discussion, and because they are generally more intrigued by such issues than characters and action. In short, that’s what will draw people in and make your book both relevant and memorable.

Write the novel that’s hard to write. In the easy novel, your character will be comfortable with the thematic statement you make. In the hard novel, however, your character will be at odds with the main theme, which creates conflict. He used the example of The Chamber by John Grisham to explain this. Had John Grisham taken the easy route, his book would have been about an innocent convict on death row and the lawyer trying to prevent him from getting the death penalty. Only mildly interesting at best. Instead, Grisham wrote the hard novel, one about a convict that admits he committed a heinous murder, says given the chance he would do it again, and the lawyer who has to defend him despite his guilt. Clearly, that’s the more interesting story due to the moral dilemma it creates in relation to a theme that involves the death penalty.

Present a range of opinions that explore your theme and create a debate within your story. It’s tough to write a novel that people will embrace that only presents one point of view.

Write something fundamentally and profoundly different, or find a twist that provides a new way of exploring well-trodden territory.

What’s marketable is not being able to say something, but having something to say.

These were my favourite points that he made, and I think they sum up the gist of his lecture. It was exciting to see an author whose work I very much enjoy and a valuable experience to hear him share some of what he’s learned during his successful writing journey. I feel like in writing the ms I’m currently querying, I instinctively tried to do what he’s suggested, but listening to him articulate these thoughts gave me a new lens for viewing future story ideas. In all, a workshop well worth attending!


  1. These are great tips! Thanks for sharing. :)

  2. I'm jealous - that looks like so much fun! I should start dropping hints at my library for something like that :)

  3. They didn't have this when we lived in Saskatoon, did they? I would have loved to attend something this kind of festival. To my knowledge, Red Deer doesn't have anything like this. (Big surprise. But we do have mother/daughter belly dancing lessons and Quidditch, so...) I'm glad you got so much out of Robert Sawyer's talk. The stuff you shared from his talk is very interesting and worth remembering for sure! I especially find the second point intriguing. Challenging, sure, but very intriguing and so true. I'm glad you had a good time! :D

  4. Sounds fabulous! Love these tips--theme is always something that comes hard for me. I don't necessarily write with a theme in mind, so it's never been a huge focus, but I love his ideas on branching out and being different from the norm.