Category Archives: Workshops

What one agent looks for in the first 30 pages…

One of the sessions I attended at the RMFW conference was on the first 30 pages of a manuscript. It was led by Sara Megibow from Nelson Literary Agency. I thought it was very interesting – in addition to being very entertaining. She basically just talked for 2 hours but it was such an engaging presentation. She had four main things NOT to do and one thing TO do – based on the understanding that she represents genre fiction and that she isn’t looking for the exceptions. These were her rules and she said that if you didn’t want to follow those rules that was fine – but she wasn’t the agent for you.

DON’T fight the formula. She says the formula exists for a reason – becasue that’s what sells. It’s what a reader is expecting and so you need to meet that expectation. To find the formula for your genre, she recommended reading books in that genre – how novel!

DON’T hide the inciting incident. She wanted it within the first few pages.

DON’T info dump. Duh.

DON’T hide the genre. She said she wanted to guess the genre within the first few paragraphs. Whew – that seems tough, especially for a genre like urban fantasy where you’re starting in the (mostly) real world. But I guess she meant that you should set a tone early on.

These “don’t”s don’t mention the obvious things like writing correctly and following the submission guidelines. Her point was that these four points are things that will prevent her form having an interest in the project. She then gave lots of examples of books that fulfilled these criteria – and a few that didn’t and why it was OK. Then she answered lots of questions that centered around the idea that the questioner’s project was so awesome that they should be able to defy these rules with impunity.

The only DO rule she had was to have “effortless” writing. This one was a lot harder to quantify, of course, but I know all of us can think of books that match that adjective. How to achieve it is something else, though.

Anyway, that was the jist of it. It was neat hearing an agent talk about her process – and I really enjoyed listening to her. She had a ton of energy. I think that was my last session of the conference and it was a great note on which to end.

I’ll try to make some notes about he other good sessions the next time I take a break from research – don’t you love it when a project works so well you can’t stop working?

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RIP WIP

Whew! I’ve been so busy working since I got back from the conference that I totally forgot to update here – I also missed the first writing challenge for the Platform Builder’s Campaign so I hope any visitors from that will forgive me.

So the RMFW conference was totally awesome. As with all such conferences, some sessions were better than others but I got a ton of inspiration/ideas/confirmations/exposure and I’m feeling re-invigorated and ready to work. But there was one unexpected ramification: I have decided to scrap my current project.

I’ve been working on this project for three years or so. I took two years off in the middle and when I came back to it, I just didn’t love it any more. I still think it’s a cool story and, with some of the plot revisions I’ve been working on over the last several months, I think it could still be a viable project. But I have to admit that my characters are just a touch boring. It’s not that they aren’t three-dimensional… they just aren’t that cool. You know those characters that are vibrant and sexy and you just can’t wait to read more about them? My characters aren’t like that. I really liked them when I first wrote the book but they just haven’t stayed with me like I wanted. So I am going to shelve it and start on the urban fantasy that has been nagging at me for the last month. It’s based on Russian folk lore and I found some serendipitous history that turned my cool idea into a bad-ass world-concept that I just can’t get over. I love it so very, very much. But I have so much research to do…

When I wrote my first book it was based on science and politics that I already had in my head. I went back after the fact and fixed/added in details, of course, but it didn’t stop my writing. My research was primarily after-market. But this project is different. I just don’t know that much about Russia. Or russian-american settlement. Or US Geography. Or Russian geography. Or… I studied russian for four years in college so I know enough to get started with research but I need so much background information before I can start. And it’s a testament to how excited I am that I’ve spend four days doing fairly boring statistical research without getting discouraged or loosing steam. I’ve got a really neat historical context for my family, I’ve got basic character sketches done for everyone, I’ve got a basic premise for my antagonist (she is going to be SO cool!), I’ve got an outline for a modified medieval marriage ceremony, and I just decided on a location for my family estate (dang, that took forever). So I feel like I’ve accomplished a lot, but I have so much more to do!

I promise I’ll write up some reflections on the better sessions I took at the conference (an agent session on the first 30 pages; designing deliberate secondary plots, characters, and villains; publishing research for profit; building a brand/website; and writing a pitch). It’ll help me crystalize my impressions, anyway, but I need to loose my new-idea-high first.

I will say that I had a group critique session that went really well – I got a lot out of critiquing the other five projects and listening to the editor who was running the session, but I got very few criticisms. There was only one small suggestion from the editor and, while two people in the group had criticisms, everyone else disagreed with them. So that was nice! Even though I’ve decided to shelve that project, it’s reassuring to have such positive feedback. It means that my writing, itself, is on the right track. I also had a pitch with a New York agent (who was the most adorable person) and, while she did agree to look at my first two chapters, she seemed far more excited about my russian project. I just need to get a move on with writing it! She actually told me I was a tease for telling her such a great idea without having a book for her to read! So, a good weekend for my ego. And I feel so good to have finally admitted that I don’t want to finish the thriller. I’ve been fighting with myself for months – thinking that I just didn’t want to do the re-write because it was hard or it wasn’t as exciting as a shiny new project… but I feel really good about switching projects. It’s better for me and, conveniently, it’s better for the market right now. And much as I love the process of writing, I also want to sell a book. Shocking, right?.

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My synopsis was only a small train wreck

The second night of my synopsis/query class was last night and our homework was to bring a synopsis. In preparation for my critique session at the conference in September, I tried to make mine a page. I didn’t quite make it, but I was only over by 4 lines and I figured that was fine for a first draft. As per last week’s discussion, I tried to avoid the outline format and focus instead on the character arc and major events.

It got a pretty good response, especially considering that I’d written it the night before and then hadn’t looked at it again or had anyone else read it. But there were definitely some good criticisms, mostly to do with clarifying the brief mention of my background context and making my protagonist seem stronger. I also need to add in what happens at the end. In the interests of space I left that kind of vague but that was a deliberate omission on my part – not that I intend to leave it out in the final draft. I just ran out of room and figured I’d cut some chaff after the critique and then work the ending in later.

The thing I found the most interesting is listening to what people actually got form the synopsis. For example, I clarified something in discussion and one person said she hadn’t gotten that impression at all. My first impulse was to point to a sentence that pretty much said verbatim what I had just explained. How was she confused when it was right there? However, clearly there was something unclear about how I phrased that sentence or she wouldn’t have been confused, right? So, it was a good reminder that I can get a little in love with long, complex sentences and that can muddle my meaning. I do it when I speak, too, but it’s easier to catch and fix in writing. I just need to be aware of it. Hence, the third-person critique.

Conclusion: I really need to get a critique partner.

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Don’t wanna…

… write a synopsis. Which is, of course, the reason I’m taking a workshop on writing synopses. So that I have to do it. By Monday night.

I wrote a synopsis when I went to the Southern California Writer’s Conference a few years ago but, when I pulled it up and re-read it, it was super boring. I mean, the story sounds interesting (I’m biased, of course), but the style is just pedantic. It’s really more of an outline than a synopsis. There’s no voice, there’s no tag-line, there’s no eye-catching hook… dull reading. It’s less interesting than some of the curriculum I’ve written.  Clearly I need to re-do it and since I need to have it for my workshop on Monday night, I’d better get to it. But I really don’t want to. I’d rather watch TV. Or surf the internet and read writing blogs. Or change diapers – no seriously. I really don’t want to write a synopsis.

And I can’t keep fro thinking about other projects. I have two more ideas for novels and I’m really excited about both of them. One is historical fiction set in 14th century England and the other is paranormal (possibly YA?). Thinking about them is way more interesting than writing a synopsis. Or re-writing my WiP. It makes me think of the following, which reminds us that new projects are, according to Ernessa T Carter, “big ol’ sluts”… (it’s the third video in the roll, I think).

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Conferences

I have been planning to attend the Southwest California Writer’s Conference at the end of September but yesterday I found one I think I like better – the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writer’s Conference. I’m really torn about it because the RMFW one is an awkward date for me but after careful deliberation I decided to do that one instead. Here’s the breakdown:

SCWC Pros: 

– The Advanced Submissions: you can send the first pages of your manuscript and your query letter in advance to the agent/editor/writer of your choice and they will evaluate it and you get 15 minutes to spend with them discussing. Each session is an extra $50. I did this two years ago when I went and it was definitely helpful.

– Read & Critique Workshops: they have structured R&C sessions that are arbitrated and you go and read the first 10 pages or so of your thing and get feedback. And you listen to the other people do the same thing. They have them during the day but also at night so there are lots of opportunities to get feedback and listen to other writers. I didn’t do this last time because, after meeting with the two agents I realized that I needed to re-work my first 10 pages. Also, I am not a night person and I wanted to take other classes during the daytime sessions. Also, I’m a wimp and I was scared to read my story out loud for people. Lame, I know.

– Timing: it’s a far more convenient weekend.

SCWC Cons:

– It costs more.

– It’s geared towards all writing so there will be fewer sessions directed at fiction writing. And the full schedule isn’t available yet, either.

– I don’t know who any of the quest speakers are. I’m sure they are all lovely people and gifted, successful writers, but still.

RMFW Pros:

– It’s just for fiction writers, so every session is geared towards some aspect of fiction writing and publishing. And as I went through  the schedule of sessions I will be hard pressed to narrow it down. And they have several genre specific classes that are applicable not just to my current project, but to the next two ideas I plan to work on.

– The keynote speaker is Bernard Cornwell. He is, like, a total hero of mine. When I started thinking about my next project, I decided that I could actually make a platform for historical fiction thanks to my hobby. And when I think of historical fiction I think of Bernard Cornwell. He writes so vividly and with such wonderful detail. And I want to be just like him when I grow up.

– They also have a Read & Critique session, but it’s with an actual agent. It’s like the SCWC R&Q session combined with the Advanced Submission. You pick the agent you want and send them your stuff and they critique it with you and 7 other writers during a 3 hour session. I was a little unsure of this when I first read it as it’s a group setting and the other one is one-on-one, but the more I thought about it the more I liked it. It will force me to do a group critique (which I need to do) and I’ll get to listen to the other people’s writing and critiques, too. And it costs less.

– They are having a neat group short story critique in the bar one night. A bunch of the agents/presenters will be there and I guess they’ll read a published short story and everyone in attendance will discuss it over drinks. How fun does that sound? I love literary analysis and what an education – to see how an agent or editor evaluates a story!

RMFW Cons:

– It’s a weekend that I already had plans. Important plans that involved my whole family. So I’ll be missing a family visit and my husband won’t get to participate in something he’s been really looking forward to for months.

 

So the balance is in favor of the RMFW conference. Luckily my husband is really supportive of my writing and is trying his best not to be disappointed at missing his thing. I’m really, really excited. I paid my money today and I just have to make my hotel and travel arrangements!

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Workshop – Synopses and Query Letters

I attended the first of four sessions of a workshop on synopses and query letters last night. I enjoyed it, although an unfortunately timed case of indigestion kept me form focusing as much as I would have liked. We talked about the structure and purpose of synopses and had time at the end to look at two – an unfinished synopsis from one of the instructirs for her new novel and one from a class participant. Next week we have to write and bring our own for critique.

I knew that was part of the deal with the workshop but I’m really nervous about getting critiqued. Obviously I need to get over it if I want to publish my novel, but it’s scary to think of eight strangers telling you (to your face) how your writing stinks. And of course it stinks – that’s the whole point of a workshop. If I knew how to write a great synopsis I wouldn’t be taking the class! I read through the synopsis I wrote two years ago for a conference and it’s… well, it’s informative. It’s also choppy, dry, and long. In effect, it’s an outline of the story. I think my novel has good voice but in reading my synopsis, you can tell that my default writing style is academic.

But I got some good ideas about how to fix it last night and now I just need to find time to work on it before next week’s class. One of the best suggestions was to create a “tag line” for the novel – a one or two sentence blurb to answer the question, “what’s the book about?” To do that, I need to actually figure out what the book IS about. Is is about scientific discovery? Is it about the persecution of science by culture? Is it about the potential abuses of government in time of crisis? Is it a love story? Is it a coming of age story where our heroine finds untapped resources of strength and personal character? Yes. It is. So how do I boil that down into one or two sentences? I need to identify the strongest and most important theme and focus on that in the synopsis. I’m glad I have a whole week…

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Reflection on a Writing Seminar

I’ve been so busy with camping and cleaning and family visits, I’ve been neglecting my writing. But even though I haven’t been working, I HAVE been thinking. I signed up for a 4-week workshop on writing synopses and query letters. I also found 2 discussion panels at the local library. The one I really wanted to go to is about historical fiction but I realized that it’s when I’m in Phoenix at the end of the month for the alumni concert. I’m really dissapointed about missing that one as I could have signed up for a workshop on the same topic (instead of the synopses/query letter one). In the end I still think the synopses/Q.L. workshop will be of more immediate use – after all, I’d like to get started trying to publish my existing novel before I start on my next one! And honestly, if there’s one thing I know how to do, it’s research.

So, on Tuesday night I attended the other library-sponsored discussion. It was about (gasp) writing romance novels. Now, as many of you know, I am the last person who would EVER write a romance novel. The very idea is so laughable! But I figured that writing is writing and since all of them write “historical” romances, I found some useful cross-over genre information in addition to general writing.

There were three authors who formed the panel and, while one of them was annoying and I will dismiss her entirely from my reflection, the other two were quite insightful.  The librarian had some pre-established questions for them, then she asked them to make a closing statement and then the audience could ask questions. There was some basic discussion of writing, but below are the discussion points that I found especially valuable.

One question involved the writing process. Interestingly, both authors described opposite systems. One wrote from beginning to end with only a vague idea of where the story was going. The other had a more specific plan and then she wrote scenes as they came to her. Once she had some scenes done, she put them in what called an “accordion file flow chart”. This really struck me as it is similar to the way I write but it addresses one major logistic issue I noticed. I wrote cut scenes as they came to me (often as dreams) and I put them in one Word document. Then I highlighted the beginning and end of the scene. As I wrote, I tried to go back and fill in between scenes, writing the transition content that seemed appropriate and adjusting existing scenes as needed if the story evolved in a different direction or needed some additional detail somewhere. This worked in theory, but I had a hard time finding where scenes needed to go after a while. The idea of printing the scenes out as I write them and then making a physical organizing structure is appealing, although wasteful, as I think it would be easier to find where things go. I will certainly keep this in mind when I start on another manuscript.

Another question involved having a “quota” – basically how did the authors force themselves to write. One had a page number quota per day but the other said that she just made sure she wrote something every day. What I liked about that answer was that she described how she kept her laptop plugged in by her bed and every morning, before she got up, she would write. That way she knew that she’d accomplished something every day, even if her day got away form her. She clearly doesn’t have little kids! Also, she said that she writes every night before going to bed, but that she avoids writing that is overly thoughtful – like dialogue or actual scenes. She focuses on writing descriptions or connective material that isn’t as mentally demanding. I liked this idea for two reasons. First. I like the thought of book-ending the day with writing, especially right now when post-children’s-bedtime is the only free time I really have. But if I do anything too mentally active right before bed I get terrible insomnia – I just can’t stop my brain from continuing to work. Working on the computer also contributes to sleeplessness. But, writing a description or scene setting would be perfect because it’s short and can be written out by hand and also, it will let me sleep with the scene in mind and this might let me create deliberate dreams in which I solve plot issues (this often happened as I wrote the last book).

The unfortunate part of the discussion was the reminder that writers rarely make a living by writing. It makes me sad as I can’t hold out the hope that I’m going to magically be part of the 5% or less of writers who are solvent at their craft. I’m still going to try it, but one must be reasonable. The writer who’s ideas I related to the most (Celeste Bradley) said that she actually makes a good living, but that she does it by tailoring her writing and story concepts to the market. I don’t have any particular issues with this but I am certainly NOT going to start writing porn just to make money. I read one of her books this weekend and damn, she writes porn. I must admit that it made me consider her advice a little differently…

The major benefit of attending this seminar was not the craft advice, it was simply spending time around writers. It was super motivating and it made me want to work. Not that I ran right home and did a bunch of work or anything. Stupid children. And even stupider art commissions. And dinner. And vacuuming. I continue to ruminate, though. I need to head back to the coffee shop this week, I think. It feels frivolous, but I got so much more work done the couple of times I did that than at any other time in the last few months! And I have my 4-week workshop to look forward to! But if I’m going to seriously start working on my synopsis and query letter, I probably need to finish the re-write on the actual novel so I have a product for someone to query!

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