Sunday, October 21, 2012

My First Conference as a Presenter

Just got home from presenting at the Florida Writers Association Annual Conference. I was honored to give two presentations--one on writing query letters and the other with my agent, Amy Boggs, on the agent/client relationship.

Overall, it was a wonderful experience. Despite some opening-five-minutes nerves, the presentations went well and the feedback we received was extremely positive. The conference organizers were very attentive and friendly, and everything went off without any hitches.

However, just a few words of friendly advice:

1. If a conference offers pitch sessions for an additional fee, don't pitch an agent while she or he is trying to eat a meal unless the agent specifically asks you about your book. Agents get hungry and want to eat, too.

2. Don't push pages, CD's, or full manuscripts on an agent at a pitch session. Have those materials in your bag in case the agent ASKS for them, but don't offer unless they are requested. Agents don't want to carry manuscripts on airplanes or try to fit them in their luggage.

3. Don't ask an agent to read your pages and offer feedback in a ten-minute pitch session. You are forcing an agent to rush through your work and you're putting him or her on the spot, which no one likes. You want the agent to take time with your materials.

4. Don't open a conversation with a writer by criticizing her presentation, her agent, or her work. If feedback is requested, that's fine, but otherwise, the old saying applies. "If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all."

5. Be aware of personal space. Don't back someone into a corner. Leave at least a couple of feet between you and the person to whom you are speaking. Don't hang on to someone's hand throughout your conversation. I may have more issues with physical contact from people I don't know than the average person, but I don't think anyone would feel comfortable in these situations.

Yes, all these things happened, some to me, some to others I observed. No, they did not dampen my enthusiasm for the experience. And in the cases that directly involved me, I responded politely and professionally. But not everyone would. If you're a writer looking to make those vital networking connections, go about it in a positive, intelligent way.

Many, many attendees approached me and my agent at appropriate times, at cocktail receptions, during snack breaks when everyone was mingling, and between sessions when we weren't hurrying to get somewhere, or after the final session of the day.

Many asked first if this was a good time to chat, which we appreciated. Many opened with a compliment on one of our presentations, making sure it was honest and heartfelt. Many expressed appreciation for our time. Many asked if they could join a conversation before jumping in. These were all wonderful ways to network.

Overall, I had a fantastic time at the conference, and I do hope I'm invited back to present again. Many thanks to the FWA organizers for the opportunity.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Fanfiction--A Good Jumping Off Point

One mistake I think a lot of new writers make is trying to take on too much too soon. They outline sweeping stories with multiple sub-plots, huge casts of characters, deep, meaningful themes. They choreograph complex fight scenes and build complicated worlds. And all these things are fabulous.

If you're up to it.

The fact of the matter is, most beginning writers aren't up to it.

The book of your heart may have one or more of the above components, but if you don't have a few finished, simpler novels written and under your belt, you may not be ready to write that heartfelt book. It might not be a bad idea to put that one on the back burner. Try something with two or three characters, one storyline, set in present day, requiring little research. Baby steps. Makes sense.

I wrote three novels before the fourth one landed my first agent. And yes, that fourth novel had multiple points of view, a complex dual plot alternating between the main character's past and present, and some complex world building. It was the book of my heart, the character I wanted to focus on. Could I have written it better if I'd had a few more practices beforehand? Absolutely.

I knew going into it that even with three previously completed manuscripts, I might not have the chops to pull off what I wanted to accomplish. So, I fell back on something that gave me a ready-made foundation: fanfiction.

For those unfamiliar with the concept, fanfiction is playing in someone else's world, or with someone else's characters. It takes one or more items out of the writing equation. You don't have to build the world if it's already built. You just have to add a new story. You don't have to establish as much characterization if everyone already knows the characters. And often you don't find yourself over-characterizing because YOU already know the characters.

Writers can use this medium as a practice ground. And there's some fantastic fanfiction out there. I've read great Xena stories on fan sites. The science fiction/fantasy/superhero shows and comics are frequent subjects of fanfiction. Many established novel series have fanfiction short stories written about them. And posting the work online can earn a new writer some valuable feedback.

Now, some might view fanfiction as plagiarism, but I would hope most would find it flattering. If it were me, if I had something published that people wanted to write fanfiction about, I'd like to believe I'd be flattered so long as they weren't making a profit from the work or trying to pass it off as something I'd created.

So anyway, I used fanfiction to help me work through some characterization issues in the book of my heart (and one more since). I won't admit here which worlds I played in, and I'd challenge anyone who doesn't know me personally to figure that out since I made dramatic changes, but I had previously established people in my head. I definitely used the medium, and I highly recommend it for beginning writers. Because the cool thing is, once I'd done it a few times, building my own characters came that much more easily to me.

If nothing else, it makes a great practice exercise, whether you share the work with anyone or not.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

NEWSFLESH series by Mira Grant

It's been awhile since I wrote a book review post. To be honest, I'd gotten tired of writing them. Though I only post my honest opinions, it felt like I was saying the same things over and over again. So it was going to take an extraordinary book (in this case, an extraordinary entire series) to get me to write another one.

Every once in a very long while, I read a book that makes me wonder why I write. A book that is so brilliant, so compelling, so suspenseful, so emotionally moving, that I know I can never possibly compose something as good. And every book I read immediately thereafter is unsatisfying by comparison.

Every once in a very long while, I read a book or series that, when I finish it, I am deeply saddened by the fact that there will be no more. That those characters have completed the story arc the author set out for them, lived their lives on the books' pages, and vanished into whatever ether discontinued characters disappear into. I miss them like lost friends. I want to know more, and yet I don't want anything to detract from the perfect story in which they appeared, and so I am torn.

And every once in an extremely long while, an author will create characters that make me want to cry or cheer for them. Or both.

The NEWSFLESH series by Mira Grant accomplished all these things.

For readers, it is a compelling page turner, a non-stop suspense thriller, an emotional roller coaster.  I have set times in my day which I devote to reading, and I don't deviate from those times. If I do, nothing else gets done. These books made me drop everything on my to-do list and just read. Every time I'd think, "Just one more page. What could possibly happen in one more page?" and something would happen, something emotionally charged or terrifying or surprising, and I'd have to continue reading.

And then there were the characters. I'm a hard sell when it comes to characters. I rarely cry at movies. I rarely cry in real life. It takes a lot to move me with words on a page. This series nearly moved me to tears on numerous occasions. And when I wasn't on the verge of crying, I was cheering the characters on with each thing they accomplished. I wanted to hug the two main characters. I wanted to laugh with them and fight at their sides. I hurt when they hurt.

For writers, it's a lesson in creating suspense, in putting that "tension on every page" so many speak of. With every accomplishment, the characters faced a new challenge. Every word served a purpose.

And I can think of no better example of characterization. The relationships between the characters, both major and minor, are built from page one. By the time we left them, our two main protagonists could do no wrong. We loved them that much. And they did plenty of questionable things. Didn't matter. The author made us love them for who they were, made us accept them on their terms, no matter what.

Lastly, I'd like to compliment the incredible world building. Mira Grant created a post apocalyptic Earth so real that I found myself analyzing every building I entered for possible escape routes and items to be used as weapons against the zombies, should an outbreak occur. Of course, I live in Florida. Readers of the series will know I'd better be prepared. :-)

P.S. I'd love to discuss the specific scenes that moved me, but I didn't want to give spoilers. If anyone wants to share their favorite scenes, put them in the comments, and we can talk about them there. :-)

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Lucky Seven

A Twitter pal of mine recently tagged me in a blog game called "The Lucky Seven Challenge." Normally I don't participate in these things, but since I haven't blogged in awhile, I decided this gave me a good excuse. So, here's how it works:

1. Go to page 77 of your WIP or latest book.
2. Count down seven lines.
3. Copy the 7 sentences that follow and post them.
4. Tag 7 other authors.

I'll do the first three, anyway, since the seven sentences serve as a rather nice teaser for my current work in progress, HARSH REALITY.

Could it all have been some sort of hallucination? I blinked and shook my head, snapping myself out of my daze, and lit the lamp. The glow spread outward, revealing the disturbed pile of black ash to my right, from where I'd come. From--at least by my best calculation--right where I'd awakened.
No, it couldn't be.
Something else had burned there. It couldn't have been me.

And you all will just have to wait to get more than that. But I'm pleased to say that HARSH REALITY is almost complete. I've got about two more weeks' worth of work to put into it, and it's done.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Green-Eyed Monster

I am a competitive person, no doubt about it. My husband is the same, and in our particular case, this is a good thing. We drive one another toward success. If one is achieving more in the writing career, then the other fights to catch up and surpass. In my opinion, this is good. This is healthy. We compete to better ourselves, and we celebrate our accomplishments. Will I be jealous if his book sells first? Sure. Of course. But I'll be thrilled for him, too. And I'm certain he feels the same. It's not really jealousy of him so much as disappointment for me, I suspect.

Because we aren't REALLY competing with each other. We're competing to see which of us can obtain our own new personal best faster. And each individual's personal best is different.

This is something I think many writers fail to recognize. The path to each writer's publication will be different. The achievements obtained along the way will be different. The speed at which goals will be reached will be different. And often this has nothing to do with personal speed. I write fast. The hubby, well, doesn't. But I suspect he produces a more polished project in the end. Regardless, he may very well sell first, even though I have more to sell and have been represented by my agent longer. His market is better. His writing is less "niche". Is this my fault? Well, I suppose I could try writing something hotter in today's market, but that's not where my heart lies, and I doubt I'd do a very good job. So, no, it's not my fault.

So, if he sells first, there will be disappointment for myself, yes, but not jealousy. At least I hope not. Because there's really no need.

We aren't competing AGAINST each other.


If you are GOOD, if you are GOOD ENOUGH, and you DON'T GIVE UP, and you STRIVE TO KEEP GETTING BETTER, you WILL SELL. Eventually. But it's the "eventually" part that many stumble over.

So many writers I talk to seem to think the publishing world is finite. "If so-and-so lands an agent, well, there goes my slot."

Nope, don't think so. Yes, it's true, agents only take on a few (if any) clients a year. But there are a lot of agents out there. And even if your best writerly friend just snagged the agent you've been hoping for, it's not going to stop you if your work is GOOD ENOUGH and WHAT THE AGENT IS LOOKING FOR. Because I don't know any agents who would turn down a fantastic manuscript they think can be sold, even if their client list is full. Okay, maybe they would if your book is too similar to your friend's, but then there are many, many more agents to query. And if you do get turned down, it's because it wasn't good enough, or not what the agent was looking for, NOT because your friend took the last agent client space in the universe.

I've also known other writers who get totally frustrated at conferences because certain writers "hog" all the agents.

Well, I have two views on this.

1. That's how the networking game is played. A good, professional conversation now can mean a partial or full request later. If you're comfortable walking up to strangers in the business (agents/editors), and chatting them up, then you should do it. Don't resent those who are better at it than you. Get better at it yourself. The old saying, "It's not what you know, but who you know," does apply, to some extent in publishing. Though again, I say that it doesn't matter how good a conversationalist you are. It's the writing that will really count.

And that said, I will remind everyone that while I'm not the least bit afraid to chat with agents and editors, I got both my agents through query letters initially and met them later.

2. If you are NOT good at striking up conversations with people you don't know, if you AREN'T outgoing and have tried to improve on this and failed, then choose a different way to make these connections. Again, some people are naturally good at this. Some people can teach themselves, like I did. (I'm extremely shy by nature, but you'd never know it at a conference.) But if this isn't you, then pick another method--Twitter is great for less-threatening contacts, so is posting on agent blogs, and well-written query letters are about as non-threatening in a social sense as you can get while still being very effective. You may not get a free pass to the top of the slush pile like an in-person contact might get you, but GREAT writing WILL attract attention, eventually (and there's that word again).

Just don't get angry with other writers who happen to be more outgoing. You're you. Be you. And let them be them. And don't let the sometimes perceived "unfairness" at conferences get to you, either. A friend of mine was in this situation recently, and she apparently handled it pretty well, but many don't. Will conference organizers introduce their friends to the agents and editors? Of course they will. Will paid editors and book doctors make sure their clients get agent/editor face time? Absolutely. Is this fair? Nope. How do you deal with it? You either play their game and make nice with these "introducers," or you change the rules and go your own route.

Whatever you do, don't resent friends, family members, and acquaintances who are successful, those who get the requests, the agents, the book deals.

Because these are YOUR new contacts! Every success a spouse/friend/acquaintance has is a potential success for you! A new connection. A new introduction to an agent or editor. The books they sell will not be the last books ever sold until the end of time.

So, celebrate EVERYONE'S success as if it were your own, because in the long chain of events that leads to publication, it very well could be. Eventually. (grin)

Friday, November 4, 2011

How to Deliver (and Receive) a Difficult Critique

So, by popular demand, I've decided to tackle this topic. Again, I'm not an expert by any means. And I'll admit, that while I try to present my critiques in a professional manner, I may slip up on my own rules from time to time. But here are some things I feel critters should and shouldn't do, especially when delivering or receiving a particularly harsh critique.

First, the delivery.

1. Watch your word choice. There are some words that come out of critters' mouths that make me cringe every time I hear them. One of them is "bad." "Bad," to me, translates to "unfixable," and that's not something I ever want to say to someone I'm critiquing. Because nothing is irreparable. It might take starting over to fix something, but it can be fixed. Better to say that something "could use work," or "doesn't work for me," or "in my opinion." It is all subjective, and while the entire group might agree that something isn't working, it's still just our collective opinion.

2. Also watch for flippancy. This is one that I know I need to work on some myself. It can get easy to forget the feelings of your crit group friends when you've been together for years and joke around all the time. You might have a member who always takes joking well, but he/she had a bad day. Or maybe this was a scene he spent hours on and thought he finally had right, only for you to tear it apart and make a wisecrack about it. Which brings me to number three . . .

3. Make eye contact and watch the recipient's facial expressions. If someone looks like he/she is getting upset, ease off. Remind the person that it's just your opinion and it's not personal. Perhaps apologize for being too flippant.

4. Share the pain. When I catch someone making a mistake that I often make myself, I'll share that. If it's something my agent has pinged me for, I'll share that, too, and also share how much effort and pain it cost me to fix it. Misery loves company, and it's nice to remember we're all on the same path together.

Now, on receiving a difficult crit.

1. Never, ever get defensive. Let the critter have his/her say. I think I do pretty well with this, though I'm sure I slip up from time to time. We all want to jump in and say, "But it's so clear. It says so, right THERE!" But to that critter, it wasn't. Now, maybe the critter missed something. But more likely, it's not clear. And so I follow . . .

2. THE THREE STRIKE RULE! I did not make this up, but I can't remember where I heard it first. I think I picked it up at a writers conference. Regardless, I follow the three strike rule. In other words, if one critter says there's a problem, I'll look at it. If two find the same problem, I'll consider it more carefully. But if three or more critters see the same issue, I can be pretty darn sure there's something wrong.

3. Consider everyone's opinion, regardless of where they are on the path to publication. Not every member of my group has the same amount of experience when it comes to writing and critiquing, and sometimes they know something is wrong but don't know how to pinpoint it. It doesn't matter. Your readers won't all be highly experienced writers, either, but if they are bored or confused, they will put down your book just as fast.

4. Admit mistakes. Very often one of my critters will point out a poorly written line and as soon as he/she starts to read it out loud, I'll want to hide under the table. This is similar to the "don't get defensive" rule, but it creates an even greater atmosphere of congeniality when people come out and say, "Yes, I did write like crap there. Good catch."

5. Last, but I think most important--Thank everyone! Whether you agree with a crit or not, your critters took time and effort away from their own lives, their own writing, to try to help you with yours. They may not know how to phrase things, and maybe they make some of the mistakes I've suggested above, but we all put work into our crits, and some are better at presenting them than others. By all means, you don't have to take everyone's advice, but nod and smile and say you'll think about it and thank them.

And that's it! Sounds easy, right? Not so easy when you've rewritten the same scene six times and that one critter says it still isn't working for him. But really, we're not in competition with each other. We all want to see each other succeed. Heck, if one of us succeeds, he/she may open the door for others to follow.

Happy writing!

Thursday, November 3, 2011

The List

Some people have a "bucket list" of things they want to do/accomplish within their lifetimes, and of course, I have a mental one of those as well. Some of the items on it include getting published, traveling the world, speaking at writing conferences.

But I have a second list, and this one features famous people who've influenced me in some way. I want to meet/interact with these people, even if it's only for a brief time, like a greeting or a handshake, because these people shaped my worldview, gave me pleasure through their entertainment or writing, unconsciously contributed to characters I've created. And I want to thank them.

I created the list back in college. A few names fell off as they passed away or their public personae changed into people I no longer admired. Many got checked off as I met them.

I've always had this uncanny knack for running into or arranging to run into famous people. Starting at age fourteen when I ended up in a restaurant one table away from Michael Jackson, I've bumped into an unusually large number of famous people.

The best is when they turn out to be just as nice as you always imagined they would be. The worst is when they are egotistical, rude, or have hit such heights that they don't even have time to acknowledge their fans.

Anyway, the reason I'm writing this now is that I've only got about four people left on my list (though more will likely be added as time passes). Recently, I got to rub elbows with Sir Patrick Stewart, and I am pleased to announce that he was kind and gracious.

Others who met my expectations or went beyond them include Lucy Lawless, Renee O'Connor, George Takei, Armin Shimerman, Tim Russ, Mark Hamill, Davy Jones, Tanya Huff, Elizabeth Moon, Linnea Sinclair, Ann Aguirre, and several more writers and performers.

I won't list those who treated their fans poorly.

So, four to go. Anyone know where I might run into Sam Neill, Harrison Ford, Anne McCaffrey, or Dick Van Dyke? :-)