A confluence of factors delayed my Surrey International Writer's Conference round-up, but better late than never, eh?
This year was my fifth(!) SIWC. I always have a great time at this conference, as it blends multiple genres with plenty of writing and publishing-related tracks. Plus, pitch appointments with agents and editors, and sessions with published authors who will critique your work, all-included. I come away refreshed and enthused, in one sense, and completely exhausted in another. But it's a good exhaustion.
This year several keynote speakers impressed, including Ivan Coyote and Robert Dugoni (who co-opted Aragorn's speech in The Return of the King and turned us all into The Writers of Rohan: THIS DAY, WE WRITE!)
Master Class: Next Level Fiction, James Scott Bell
This three-hour class covered a wide range of topics, from craft basics to more detailed tips on refining scenes. I'll only touch on a few here.
Mr. Bell suggests giving yourself a 1-10 rating in each of the following craft areas: plot, structure, characters, scenes, dialogue and voice. Order each from your least proficient to most proficient, then starting with the least proficient, make a resolution that in the next year you will improve each by a factor of 10%.
Plot becomes the record of how a character deals with death, either physical, psychological, or professional. Even comedies usually involve a psychological death of some sort - the characters in a comedy think they are in a tragedy over something trivial.
One way of thinking about story is to use the LOCK system: Lead, Objective, Confrontation, Knock-out Ending. Your Lead can be either positive (a hero with similar values to the community), negative (opposed to the values of the community) or an anti-hero (with their own moral code, who is outside the community and either comes back to it in the end, or stays alienated). Give your Lead an Objective, either to get something (the killer, the answer, a loved one, revenge) or get away from something (escape, the past, the self). A good story has Confrontation (2 dogs & one bone), with a 3-dimensional opposition character, and a Knock-out Ending. From Mickey Spillane: the first chapter of your book should sell your current book. The last chapter of your book sells the next book.
As a writer, don't get too hung up on theme while you're writing. You should, however, be able to articulate your theme once you're done. If you can't, try the following. Take your lead character, and think of them 20 years from now and ask "Why did you have to go through that?". What was the lesson?
In terms of your character arc, not all characters need to change, but if they don't, they should get stronger in what they are. Examples of characters who do the latter are Marge in Fargo, and Kimball in The Fugitive. The character who actually changes in The Fugitive is the Tommy Lee Jones marshall character.
If you've been getting feedback that your story lacks voice, try the following. Read poetry. Read outside your genre. Write page-long sentences (as an exercise, not in your actual book); in these you might find some usable gems. Write for 10 minutes on a single type of description, even if you might only wind up using one line.