books with Athena

books with Athena

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Getting Energized at a Writers’ Conference

Writers Conferences aren’t for everybody. They can be expensive and exhausting—and are sometimes havens for dream-smashers and know-it-all bullies. Valerie Geary wrote a great post on the Dark Side of Writers Conferences last August that’s a must-read.

One solution she suggests is choosing a small, regional conference. Smaller conferences are more relaxed, usually take only a weekend, and are budget-friendly—especially if you can find one close to home so you don’t have hotel expenses.

This is why I love California’s Central Coast Writers Conference . It only lasts a day and a half, has about 300 participants, and costs about $150—less if you register early. Plus it’s the friendliest Writers’ Conference on the West Coast, according to Westways magazine.

At last weekend’s conference I got to take small, relaxed classes attended by writers who ranged from newbies to NYT bestselling author Jay Asher (Thirteen Reasons Why) and agent Nathan Bransford (also author of Jacob Wonderbar and the Cosmic Space Kapow.)

Together, we participated in discussions and soaked up the wisdom of the diverse faculty. I especially loved a class I took outside my own genre—a children’s fiction workshop given by Kathleen Duey , award-winning author of over 70 children’s books and an honest, funny, and intelligent teacher. (One of Ms. Duey’s tips for writing MG boys fiction: farts. MG boys love farts.)

Of course, meeting Nathan Bransford was the highlight for me, since his blog is the center of my corner of the blogosphere. In his keynote speech, his (hilarious) query workshop and casual chats, he turned out to be the same smart, classy guy he is on his blog. And he’s full of positive energy and hope for new writers.

Hope.

Really? In this nasty world of evaporating markets and shrinking advances? In a world where other agents are now telling writers—without irony—to take Hollywood heiress/reality TV star Tori Spelling as our role model

Yup. Nathan offers hope. He says that, although the publishing industry is in an era of rapid—sometimes terrifying—change, things are shifting in favor of writers. Kindle and its many cousins are shaking up the old paradigm of a few big publishing houses controlling the marketplace.

And what’s going to take its place?

Self-Publishing.

That’s right. (Michelle Davidson Argyle, who just self-published her novella  Cinders , you are allowed to crow here.)  Publishing yourself is no longer taboo. In fact Nathan says it’s no longer a no-no to mention a self-published book when you query him. He says he’ll be representing self-publishers himself.  Self-pubbed writers will still do better with agents, he says, but agents will perform different functions.

He also cut us a little slack for spending so much time out here in Cyberia, instead of working on our writing. He calls the time we spend reading publishing blogs “productive procrastination.”

His #1 tip for getting an agent’s attention with your query? Personalize.

And the best way to get personal with an agent (politely of course) is to read agency websites, blogs, and interviews. So maybe you don’t have to feel so guilty you’ve been surfing the Interwebz for the past two hours instead of facing those rewrites.

Another person at the conference who inspired me was Jay Asher—a humble and generous-spirited man with a phenomenal success story. He went from being a nobody like the rest of us—with nothing but rejection slips to show for 12 years of writing—to the top of the N.Y.Times bestseller list: six months from successful query to stardom. And this wasn’t in the dear, dead days of the last millennium when multitudes of indie bookstore clerks lovingly hand-sold works of art into bestsellerdom.

It was two years ago.

He didn’t have a huge platform. He didn’t take Tori Spelling or Paris Hilton as his role models. He didn’t brand himself. (That’s gotta hurt, right?) All he had was a blog with two other children’s book writers—mostly to commiserate over rejection letters—and a MySpace page. Plus, of course, a phenomenally good book

It still happens.

So whether you want to stick to the traditional route like Jay, or hook your wagon to the self-publishing comet that Nathan sees coming, there’s hope. I’m still not sure which way I want to go, and I think I’ll want an agent either way, this time around—but I’m feeling a whole lot better about my options.

Attending a writers’ conference isn’t so much about trying to land an agent or sell your work. It’s about meeting people, keeping up with the industry, and getting energized.

The Central Coast Writers Conference sure did that for me.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

12 Dos and Don'ts for Introducing your Protagonist

I've been dealing with an evil computer virus which first attacked my desktop and now seems to have killed my laptop dead. They're both old machines, so it may be better to replace them than try to fix them, but now I'm worried my back-up drives may be infected too. This is not a nice thing. But I seem to have the desktop kind of working for now.

For the last two days I've been at the Central Coast Writers conference, having a fantastic time, hanging out with my idol, MR.. NATHAN BRANSFORD (yes, he really is that smart and classy. A snappy dresser, too.) I also got to meet some of my followers in person. Hi there, 1st Daughter! I'll write more about the conference later when I have a reliable computer.

Congrats to followers Sherry Heber, Susan Tuttle, and Paul Fahey for cleaning up at the Conference awards. And I mean cleaning up: Sherry won ALL THREE of the poetry awards!. Woo-hoo you guys! Judy Salamacha and Cathe Olsen--thanks for making the event a fantastic experience. Last year, the C. C. Conference was named by Westways Magazine the friendliest writers conference in the West, and Judy is keeping up that tradition.

But what with battling viruses and having too much fun for the last two days, I don't have a new post for today. In fact, I feel amazingly lucky that I've got onto my blog at all. So I'm going to give you an oldie but goodie.

The wonderful Sierra Godfrey mentioned this post in her round up of round-ups last week as one of her favorite posts ever, so I figured it would be a good one to post again.

One note of caution: these are rules for the final draft. When you’re first diving into a novel, you’re not introducing your characters to a reader; you’re introducing them to yourself. All kinds of information about your MC will come up, like she eats cold pizza for breakfast, grew up next to an adult book store, and feels a deep hatred for Smurfs. This stuff will spill out in your first chapters. Let it. That’s the fun part. But be aware you’ll want to cut most of the information or move it to another part of the book when you edit.

When you’re doing that editing, here are some dos and don’ts:

DON’T start with a Robinson Crusoe opening. That’s when your character is alone and musing. Robinson Crusoe is boring until Friday shows up. So don’t snoozify the reader with a character driving alone in the car, sitting on an airplane, waking up and going to work, or looking in the mirror.

DO open with the protagonist in a scene with other characters—showing how he interacts with the world. Two or three is ideal: not too many or the reader will be overwhelmed.

DON’T give a lot of physical description, especially of the "police report" variety. All we know about Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice is that she has “fine eyes.” We don’t have to be told the color of Sam Spade’s hair, or Inspector Morse’s weight. The reader’s imagination fills in the blanks.

DO give us some physical markers that indicate personality. Unusual characteristics like Nero Wolfe’s size, Hercule Poirot’s mustache, and Miss Marple’s age show who these characters are and make them memorable.

DON’T plunge into action before introducing the characters. The introductions can be minimal, but they have to make us feel connected enough to these people to care. Example: If you hear some stranger got hit by a car—it’s sad, but you don’t have much curiosity about it. If you hear your next door neighbor’s mom got hit by a car, you want to know when, where, how badly she’s injured, etc.

DO give your MC strong emotions we can identify with in the opening scene. We don’t have to identify with the situation, but with the emotion: the fury he feels because his roommate keeps watching that DVD of the Smurfs, the desperate hunger from not eating anybody’s brains for weeks, or mortification because he has a run in his panty hose.

DON’T start with a POV character about to be killed or otherwise eliminated from the storyline. The reader will feel his time and sympathy have been wasted getting to know somebody irrelevant.

DO introduce the MC as close to page one as possible.

DON’T start with dialogue. Readers want to know who’s speaking before they’ll pay much attention to what they say. It’s just like real life: if strangers are shouting in the hallway, it’s noise. If you recognize the shouters as your boss and the hooker from 12B—you’re all ears.

DO let us know where we are and who’s speaking in couple of sentences before you let them start blabbering.

DON’T start with a prologue. They annoy readers and infuriate agents. (Yes, I know there are arguments on both sides, but they work against you most of the time.

DO dribble in your MC’s backstory in thoughts, conversations and mini-flashbacks--AFTER you’ve got us hooked by your MC and her story.

Yes, I know: lots of superb books break all these rules. But established writers can do an awful lot of fun stuff the rest of us can’t get away with. And it helps to know what the rules are before we go whacking at them with blunt instruments.


If there are any glaring typos or snafus here, do let me know. I admit to being seriously impaired today. Fighting viruses makes my eyeballs hurt. I suppose it's from the tears...alas. I loved this computer!

Sunday, September 12, 2010

The #1 Talent You Need to be a Good Writer

The brilliant columnist/philosopher/literary outlaw Michael Ventura famously said the most important talent required of a writer is the ability to work alone. In his 1993 Sun article, The Talent of the Room , Ventura wrote,

“Writing is something you do alone in a room. It’s the most important thing to remember if you want to be a writer….Unless you have that, your other talents are worthless.”

But it occurred to me recently that writers no longer have to be as isolated as we were when Ventura wrote those words eighteen years ago. With the click of a mouse, we can communicate with fellow scriveners all over the world. One of the ways technology has altered our universe is that we can now emerge from a session with the muse, pop onto the Internet and tweet, blog, email or whatever and be part of a community.

We’re not so alone in our rooms any more.

But there’s another talent that may be even more important than a capacity for solitude—and that is the ability to get out of our rooms and LISTEN.

Without knowing how to listen attentively, we can only write about ourselves. All our characters will act and sound like us. And readers don’t care much about us. As Margaret Atwood said in Narrative magazine this week : “Nothing interests people so much as themselves.”

All writers may need the talent of the room, but GOOD writers need the talent to shut the *&%! up and listen.

Our technological culture does not listen well. I thought about that last week when a walk in my favorite nature preserve was ruined by some Bozo talking loudly on his cell phone. Talking. Not listening. Hardly even stopping for breath.

I started to wonder if the other person in his conversation was compulsively talking as well, and I was hearing one of two lonely Bozos, both loudly failing to communicate--as is so often the case with real humans.

YA writer Hannah Moskowitz brought this up on Nathan Bransford’s blog last week. She left a comment to his great post on 7 keys to writing good dialogue saying:

“In real life, people don't listen well. They've already formulated most of what they're going to say before they've heard the other person's side of the conversation.”

She’s so right. Most people do a whole lot more talking than listening.

But as writers, we must do the opposite. Otherwise, we’ll create the kind of unbelievable dialogue Nathan warns us against—lines like:

“As you know, Remus, we are twin brothers who were raised by wolves…”

Or characters who say what they’re actually thinking, instead of skirting around the elephants the way real people do:

“Holy batshit, Robin, let’s ditch this Joker and get ourselves a room.”

Or conversations that exist only to show off the writer’s expertise and/or wit:

“While the lady sat on the pouffe and nervously fingered her reticule, Watson said, ‘Hey Sherlock, do you know the one about the platypus who walked into a bar…’”

 Or you’ll fill your character’s mouths with predictable clich├ęs and overused tropes, instead of the wildly unexpected things that pop into real conversations. Like that Bozo in the nature preserve who shouted into his phone,

              “Walt Disney died for your sins, Bro!”

What a gift. I'm sure going to use that in a story.

I think a lot of people become writers because we’re not big talkers. Our early lives may have been dominated by noisier friends or family members. (How many writers are middle children, I wonder?) We write because we want to have our say—to get somebody to listen to US.

But during the process of writing, we come to realize our best stories are mosaics of the voices and stories we have listened to—all those snippets of other people’s lives that have been thrust upon us by the loud and Bozoid. We take the raw material of their non-communications and make it into something that truly communicates.

A good writer offers readers an echo chamber in which they can hear themselves.

In The Sirens of Titan, Kurt Vonnegut invented a life form he called Harmoniums, who could only communicate two messages: “here I am, here I am, here I am,” and  “so glad you are, so glad you are, so glad you are.”

Maybe Earthlings aren’t so different. Noisy Bozos with cellphones are the “here I ams” and writers are the “so glad you ares.” Out of their seemingly pointless noise, we make art that reflects the truth of their own existence.

It is our way of being heard. And our reward for listening.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

I’VE WRITTEN A BOOK—NOW WHAT?

I’ve had a number of people ask me that question in the last few months. There’s tons of info out here in Cyberia, but not everybody knows how to access it. And along with the good info, there’s plenty of bad—especially from predatory vanity publishers and bogus agents. So here are some basics for the newbies around here.

Your book has been critiqued, edited, and polished to a glittering sheen. What do you do next?

1)     Celebrate! Break out the champagne, chocolate, fireworks, old Prince CDs, or whatever puts you in a festive mood. Contact a few people who remember who you are after your time in your writing cave, and toast your accomplishment. 80% of people in the US say they want to write a book. A fraction of a percent actually do. You’re one of them. Woo-hoo!!

2)     Make sure you know your genre. This isn’t always as easy as it sounds, but pick one to three genres as a tool to help agents and publishers know what kind of book they’re dealing with. Make sure you use established categories like “paranormal romantic suspense” not “vampire bunny western.”  Creativity doesn’t work in your favor here. But you are allowed change genres according to who you query. Genre boundaries are oddly flexible these days. Both Charlaine Harris’s “True Blood” vampire books and Lisa Lutz’s dysfunctional-family comedies are categorized as mysteries. Women’s fiction is an umbrella that covers everything from Danielle Steel to Anne Tyler. And anything with a protagonist under 19 can be YA (the most sought-after genre these days.)

Two caveats here: 1. don’t call it “literary” unless the writing is to-die-for gorgeous (& an MFA helps.) 2. Never use the term “chick lit.” You’ll still find it listed on most query websites, but it’s the kiss of death.

More on all this in my post “Let’s Play What’s my Genre?”

3)     Research and read the latest books in your genre(s) if you haven’t already. It’s important to have an idea of the market. A query letter is more effective if you can offer “comps”—similar titles that are selling (but not blockbusters—that looks like bragging.) Also, the authors of these books may blog or Tweet and you can follow them and get advice. Network. Find out who represents them. Eventually you might even get a recommendation, which is a golden ticket out of the slushpile.     

4)     Write your synopsis, hook, author bio and a basic query letter template. You can find helpful guides in any number of places. Agent Query provides solid basics. Most agents have similar information on their websites. Nathan Bransford’s “ESSENTIALS” list on his blog provides the info in a fun and friendly way, and Janet Reid’s Query Shark blog is a boot camp for query writers. Public Query Slushpile is a great place to get your query critiqued by other writers. There’s not so much on author bios, but I give the basics here

5)     Start a blog or build a website. An inexpensive Web host and a template design is fine. You want a nice, professional picture and a simple bio, with your contact information and something about your book and other publications. Nothing fancy. No bragging. Nothing is sadder than a pretentious website for an unpublished writer. And please! NO MUSIC!! People visit websites in libraries. And at work. Nothing is more annoying than unexpected music blasting from a website. (And it's not expected unless you're a professional musician selling your wares.)

A professional blog will do as well, but Facebook or other social networking sites that require membership won’t. Be Googlable, reachable and professional.

6)     Start researching agents. You can subscribe to WritersMarket.com but up-to-date information is available free at AgentQuery.com  where they provide a searchable database. You can put in your genre and immediately find what agents represent your work. Then check QueryTracker for further information on the agents you’ve chosen and get valuable comments from other queriers. (I also recommend subscribing to QueryTracker’s great newsletter for up-to-the-minute agent updates.) Then start Googling: look for interviews and profiles of agents to fine tune your queries. The wonderful Casey McCormick’s blog is a treasure trove of agent profiles and interviews.

7)     Send out five queries.

8)     Start your next book.

9)     Get rejections. Mourn.

10) Send out five more queries.

11) Get more rejections. Mourn. Fine tune your query.

12) Sent out five more queries.

13) Maybe get a request for a partial! (the first few chapters of your book.) But before you send it, go to the agent’s website and double check guidelines for formatting and sending documents. Most formatting is pretty standard, and they will probably ask you to send it as a Word (.doc or .rtf) attachment. But some agents are quirky and will request something like “no italics” or “number your pages on the bottom of the page.” Do whatever they say, no matter how silly.

14) Get the partial rejected. Maybe with a note. This will say something like “I couldn’t connect with these characters,” or “the protagonist wasn’t strong/sympathetic enough,” or “the plot is too complex/simplistic” or even “this is perfect, but I have no idea where to sell it.” DO NOT take these too seriously or start rewriting your book. They’re mostly just polite words to say, “It didn’t give me screaming orgasms.” Mourn.

15) Get a request for the full manuscript!! Remember to check those guidelines. Some agents still want to see a ms. on paper. If so, put a big rubber band around it—do not bind—and mail it in a flat-rate box from the P.O. with a #10 stamped, self-addressed envelope inside for their reply. NEVER send it in an annoying way that requires a receipt. 

16) Get another partial rejected. And another. Start building calluses on your soul. But—if the rejections start to sound the same—like everybody says the same thing about your unsympathetic, wimpipotamus hero, this is when you might give your ms. another once-over to see if you can figure out how to tweak things without doing serious damage to the book.

17) Get the full rejected. Mourn. You may get some more detailed feedback on this one. Pay attention, but don’t despair. It may not be your book that needs a rewrite. Maybe you’re targeting the wrong agents or pitching your book wrong. Maybe it turns out you’ve written a domestic drama (women’s fiction) not a romance. Try changing your query and hook before you change your book.

18) Finish book #2.

19) Start all over again with #2, but keep sending out #1 until it collects 100-150 rejections.

If you’re luckier than me, you may…

20) Land an agent somewhere along the way here.

21) If you don’t, you may want to consider a small press, regional press or self-publishing. Self-publishing for Kindle has proved  very lucrative, even for new writers, so if you’re good at marketing, this may very well be the way to go. It certainly is the wave of the future. But I’d try the agent route first. They are awfully handy to have on your side.

Just don’t let that book languish in a drawer!