books with Athena

books with Athena

Sunday, September 27, 2009

WRITERS CONFERENCE TIPS

10 Dos and Don’ts

Next weekend, I’ll be attending the Central Coast Writing conference at Cuesta College in San Luis Obispo, CA http://www.communityprograms.net/wc/wcindex.htm. It’s a great little conference, where I always learn something new.

To remind myself, and fellow conference goers--here are some tips to get the most out of a writers conference

DON’T dress to impress. (At one conference I attended, a woman came dressed as a tree. Shedding real leaves. Don’t do this. Also, dressing as one of your characters WILL get you noticed, but not in a good way.) Wear neat but comfortable clothing. The days will be long and intense.

DO wear a distinctive scarf, hat, or jacket every day that will help people remember you.

DON’T pitch your project unless you’re in a specified pitch session. I’ve seen writers pitch to agents through the bathroom stall door. Seriously. Don’t be that person.

DO offer to get an agent a cup of coffee or ask how she’s enjoying the conference. Or ask what books he reads for fun. It will give you great material for your query letter.

DON’T cart around all 800 pages of your magnum opus and try to thrust it upon faculty members.

DO perfect your pitch before hand, so you can tell an agent or editor in three sentences what your book is about. Then ask if you can query. (If you’re querying a novel or memoir, make sure to tell her if it’s complete.) If she says yes, you can put “REQUESTED” on the envelope. A big plus.

DON’T compete for faculty attention like a needy two-year old. The accolades will come when you perfect that book and get into print.

DO bring a notebook, several pens—and if you are attending a hands-on critique session workshop—a first chapter, story, or a few poems. Business cards, if you have them, will help with networking. Also, bring some protein bars and energy drinks and/or water. Your breaks may be too short to grab real food.

DON’T forget to have fun. You’re there to make friends as well as learn. One of the most important aspects of a conference is meeting fellow writers.

DO remember agents and editors are people too. As the late great Miss Snark said “It’s like visiting the reptile house. They're as afraid of you as you are of them. Honest.”

Monday, September 21, 2009

More Kudos for Short Fiction

Just saw this: We all get to vote for the National Book Award!

The public gets to choose the best American work of fiction of the past 60 years from six finalists—four of which are short story collections:

The finalists, announced by the National Book Foundation today are:

"The Stories of John Cheever,"
Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man,"
William Faulkner's "Collected Stories,"
"The Complete Stories" of Flannery O'Connor,
Thomas Pynchon's "Gravity Rainbow"
"The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty."

Starting Monday, through Oct. 21, votes can be cast through the Web site http://www.nbafictionpoll.org. The winner will be announced Nov. 18.

Friday, September 18, 2009

OPRAH PICKS A SHORT STORY COLLECTION

and other reasons to write more short fiction.


The news is out. Oprah’s new book pick is—gulp—A short story collection. According to most agents, story collections are a tough sell (along with chick lit and memoirs) but maybe that’s about to change.

In any case, it’s time for us all to start re-thinking short fiction. I’m beginning to realize I’ve wasted way too much of the past 20 years writing book length-fiction. If I’d been writing more short stories and creative essays, I might have higher profile now, and maybe even a solid career, instead of two out-of-print novels and a drawer full of yellowing manuscripts.

People will tell you there’s no money in short fiction. But—newsflash!—there’s precious little in novel writing either, unless you’re one of a handful of superstars, and/or you’ve been anointed by Ms. Winfrey. Not only has the probability of an unknown writer landing a major book contract sunk below the chances of winning the Big Spin—but even if you score in the publishing lottery, there’s little payoff. A first novel/memoir generally brings in around $5,000 in an advance, and no royalties, according to industry blogger The Rejector (great publishing blog: http://rejecter.blogspot.com )

And yet, most novice writers are working on book length fiction or memoir. I recently visited a critique group where one writer complimented another with the misguided advice not to “waste” her crisp little story on a niche magazine and save it for a novel.

Back in the Jurassic days when I started writing, that wouldn’t have been bad advice. In the 1980s, short fiction had all but disappeared, but novels still flew off the shelves. If aspiring writers were urged to pen short stories, it was only as a warm-up for the serious business of writing books—like piano students practicing scales before the big recital.

So, with my eyes on the big prize, I spent a decade slaving on novels in all the once-popular genres: cozies, historical romances, family sagas—but when I finally got a novel published, it wasn’t between book covers—it was as a serial in a local entertainment weekly. I did the math recently, and the net profit from that serial, paid in regular monthly paychecks, with no agent commission, was higher than from either of my books.

This should have taught me something. Especially about the public’s changing reading habits. Attention spans get shorter and shorter. Committing to a whole novel is a major investment for most readers, not just of money but time. And time is what nobody’s got. We’re all here on the ’Net, reading blogs.

And what about the writer’s time? Since most first (and maybe second and third) novels never see print, that’s a lot of hours/months/years spent filling a file cabinet with moldering treeware.

However, even a newbie has a chance of getting a short piece published somewhere, especially online. You might even get paid.

“But I don’t read short stories!” you say. Me neither. At least I didn’t. I love immersing myself in a big, yummy novel. But I’m reading stories again—making a point of reading new online journals. Ten years ago, I would have had to invest big a chunk of change in subscriptions to literary journals to get a cross-section of the current story market, but these days, great short fiction is available all over the ’Net for free.

I’m not advising anybody to ditch that magnum opus—just saying it makes sense to put an equal amount of energy into shorter pieces. Instead of putting every idea that illuminates your brain into your novel, give it a spin as a short story first. (It helps to remember short stories are much better suited to screen adaptation than novels—and movies are where the actual money is.)

Then go to work researching journals—online and off—that publish pieces like yours. WritersMarket http://www.writersmarket.com/ has a comprehensive database. I got an update from them recently with news of four literary magazines that pay up to $40 a page—more than double the Rejector’s figure for a 300 page novel. My favorite source for paying market info is the tireless Hope C. Clark at Funds for Writers http://www.fundsforwriters.com/ . Her great newsletters are free. (Hope—thanks for all your fantastic advice!) Another great free source for worldwide markets is at Freelance Writing Organization-International http://www.fwointl.com .

Plus, short stories keep their value. Most journals only buy first rights, so you can publish them again. If, like me, you can’t kick your book-writing habit, try writing a series of short stories about characters you can work into a novel later. Polish up a few, send them off, enter a few contests, and you might even end up with some cash.

And “award-winning writer” has a nicer sound than “unpublished novelist,” doesn’t it?

Friday, September 11, 2009

Lemonade Stand Award Nominee!


I'm honored to have been nominated (twice!) for the Lemonade Stand Award. Both nominators have fantastic blogs. Check out Writing Roller Coasters http://writingrollercoasters.blogspot.com/ and The Chronicles of Emily Cross, link on the blogroll to the left.

I'll nominate some of my favorite blogs later. I think I've finally uploaded the Lemonade stand! A triumph for a cybermoron like me.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

MEMOIR WRITING: SOME DOS AND DON’TS

They say we all have a book inside us—our own life story. The urge to put that story on paper is the most common reason people start writing. Adult education programs and senior centers everywhere offer courses in “writing your own life.” Memoir is the most popular genre at any writers conference.

Unfortunately, it’s the hardest to write well—and the least likely to be published.

Agent Kristin Nelson says she’s seen so many bad memoirs that she cringes when she meets a memoirist a writer’s conference. Author J. A. Konrath offers the simple advice: “Unless you're one of the Rolling Stones, don't write anything autobiographical.” Miss Snark pronounced, “every editor and agent I know HATES memoir pitches…I'd rather shave the cat.”

But memoirs like Angela’s Ashes, The Glass House, and I Feel Bad About my Neck make the bestseller lists. Readers are hungry for “true” stories: look how angrily they react to people like James Frey who pass off fiction as memoir.

So don’t toss that masterpiece-in-progress. But hone your craft—brilliant wordsmithing and/or stand-up-worthy comedy skills help a bunch—and follow some basic dos and don’ts:

DON'T write an autobiography: An autobiography is a list of events: “I was born in (year) in (place) and I did (this) and (that.) Mr. Konrath is right—unless you’re Keith Richards, nobody cares. (Except your family. Don’t let me discourage you from self-publishing a chronicle of your life as a gift to your descendants.)

DON'T confuse memoir with psychotherapy: Writing a book about a traumatic personal event may be cathartic for the writer, but there’s a reason shrinks charge big bucks to listen to this stuff. Put the raw material in a journal to mine later for fiction, poetry, and personal essays.

DON'T expect a big audience for medical journaling: If you or a loved one has a horrific disease, chronicling your experiences can be invaluable to those suffering similar trials. To the general public—not so much. Reach your audience through online forums, blogs, and magazine or newspaper articles.

DON'T be married to the book format. Beginning writers often make the mistake of jumping into a book-length opus. It’s smarter and easier to start with short pieces—what a writer/editor friend calls “memoiric essays.” Nostalgia, “Boomer” and senior-oriented magazines are great markets for tales of life in the old days, and niche journals focusing on hobbies, pets, disablities, veterans, etc. are always looking for submissions. Many of them pay: check Writer’s Market or our FWOI database.

DO tell a page-turning story. A book-length memoir is read and marketed as a novel. It needs a novel’s narrative drive. That means tension and conflict and one main story arc to drive the action. Most memoirs fail from lack of focus. Choose one storyline, like: “Orphan kids save the family farm during the Depression,” or “A cross-dressing teen survives high school in the 1950s.”

DO be selective in scene choices. Just because “it’s what really happened” doesn’t make an event interesting. Your happy memories of that idyllic Sunday school picnic in vanished small-town America will leave your reader comatose unless the church caught fire, or the bully who’d been harassing you lost his pants.

DO consider limiting the story to an area where your experience is significant and unique. If you gave birth in the mud at Woodstock, dated Elvis, or helped decipher the Enigma code, make that the focus of your book. I knew a musician who worked with of some of the great legends of American music. His memoir of those jazzy days was gripping, but because it was buried in his “happy ever after” life story, he never found a publisher.

DO look at regional publishers. A national publisher may not be interested in stories of the vanished ranch life of old California, but a local publisher who has outlets at tourist sites and historical landmarks may be actively looking for them. Another plus: you don’t need an agent to approach most regional publishers.

DO finish the book before you query. Memoirs are bought and sold like novels, so query with a synopsis, not a book proposal, and have the book polished, edited and good to go before you contact a publisher or agent.

Remember that a memoirist, like a novelist, is essentially an entertainer. Always keep your reader in mind. Never fabricate, but only tell what’s unique, exciting and relevant to your premise, and you’ll avoid the cringe-making amateurishness agents and editors fear