Podcast: Why Go to Writing Conferences?

Podcast the Second! Tune in as I hassle folks about why they go to writing conferences, including Brooke Hartman, Conference Chairperson for the Alaska Writers Guild, and Patricia Nelson of the Marsal Lyon Literary Agency.

https://www.podbean.com/media/player/pn7de-691a6f?from=yiiadmin

Thanks to all the podcast’s participants: Brooke Hartman, Patricia Nelson, a handful of modest writers, and singer/songwriter Becky Beistline, who voice acted Patricia Nelson’s quote for me in exchange for chocolate chip cookies.  Thanks also for the patience and support of my husband.  Sorry I kept you up so late to complain about technology.

Still looking for a little more conference guidance?  Check out these links:

How to Make the Most of Any Writing Conference | Writer’s Digest

Attending a Writers’ Conference? Here’s How to Prepare | The Write Life

Why Attend a Writer’s Conference | The Steve Laube Literary Agency

And a video from the Book Doctors!

Also, you can snag Brooke and I’s full interview here, stutters, ums, and all.

https://www.podbean.com/media/player/5dxcw-691a7e?from=yiiadmin

Podcast music credit:  “and your Love”
Exzel Music Publishing (freemusicpublicdomain.com)
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0
http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/

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Conference Lessons: Age Categories

readingIt’s pretty easy to tell what your age category is.  So imagine my embarrassment when, at this year’s AWG Writers Conference, I was mid-pitch and the lady stopped me to ask, “Wait- what did you say your age category is?”

“Young Adult.”

“But… how old is your main character?”

“Twenty-two.”

Her brow furrowed in concern.  “Hm.”

Twenty-two-year-olds aren’t young adults?  Apparently not!  My pitch quickly turned into a brief run-down of the upper age categories in the hunt for mine.  Then the pitch continued, and she was very gracious and asked for a partial, even though I’m clearly an idiot.

So to spare you similar mortification, let’s talk age categories!  This is a really important aspect of your book and your pitch.  In fact, pitches often start with this information right up front.  (I’m querying a MG urban fantasy about… Ochre Skies is a YA historical romance about… etc. You get the idea.)   So let’s take a look at some of the common features in each of the main age categories.

Target Audience Age Main Character Age Typical Content Word Count (varies by genre)
Board Books 0-3 Varies Simple, familiar kinds of stories of everyday life, or concept books (colors, numbers, vocabulary, etc). 0-300
Picture Books 3-8 Varies Revolving around a single character that embodies a child’s viewpoint. Can be mirrors of child’s world, or windows into how others live. 0-1000
Early Reader 5-8 6-10 Simple sentences and words. Story mainly told through action and dialog, with setting left mostly to pictures. 200-2000
Chapter Books 6-10 9-12 More complex stories and structures, and typically run in a series.  Pictures are not relied on to tell any part of the story. 10k-12k
Middle Grade 8-12 10-13 Focus on friends, family, and immediate world. Little introspection and not super dark.  Little to no pictures. 20k-55k
Young Adult 12 and up 14-18 Focus on finding place in world beyond family and friends. Profanity, violence and sexuality acceptable for older target audience. 55k-75k
Adult 18 and up 25+ Varies by genre. Profanity, violence, and sexuality acceptable. 75k-110k

As you can see from these age divisions, children tend to “read up” by about two or three years; a twelve year old tends to read about middle teens, a seven-year-old would likely read a book with a plucky pubescent protagonist, etc.  Another defining feature is the content- is there swearing? sex? violence?  Any of these features can bump a book up in category.

You may notice that I didn’t put New Adult on the chart.  This is because we were told at the conference in no uncertain terms multiple times by literary agents that this is no longer a thing, that it was a blip on the screen that quickly turned into subcategory smutty romance, and we can move on now.  Which is a little disappointing for me, because I feel like, age- and point-of-life-wise, that NA would have been perfect for my books.  (I ranted about this before years ago in Writing an Utterly Unsexy New Adult.)

As far as overarching adult themes go, there’s very little written about it, at least that I could find.  (It’s actually really hard to find anything about the adult age category  right now because it’s so drowned in all the bazillion articles about young adult or even new adult. *whines*)  But it seems to largely come down to the genre.  Each genre will have its own specific themes and goals that are expected within that classification.  If I handed you a mystery, you could probably guess what it’s about.  Likewise for a rom-com or a thriller or a western.  Speculative fiction (sci-fi, fantasy, alt history, etc) can vary quite a bit thematically, though.  (Seriously, though trying to research this age category was like expecting to see a forest and instead finding yourself on the lip of the Grand Canyon.  This might merit a more specific tons-o’-research blog post later.)  So, while other age categories seem to have broad themes found throughout genres, adult literature seems to be more of a mixed bag.  (For reals- I’m gonna research this more, this is driving me crazy.)

There are, of course, exceptions to the generalities presented in my pretty, pretty chart.  For example, Neil Gaiman’s fabulous The Ocean at the End of the Lane, which has a seven-year-old boy as the main character, but is definitely not a children’s book.  If you think you might be one of these exceptions, remember that content and target audience usually trump character ages, and then check, and double check, and ask around for second (and third and fourth) opinions before you start flaunting your exceptionality.

So!  I’m sure you all know exactly what age category you’re writing in now so you can present a pitch that doesn’t make someone interrupt you to tell you gently that you’re an ignoramus.  In case you’re not totally sure (because this is a super basic chart about broad generalities), there are a few links at the bottom of this post with more details.  Good luck, and happy writing!

More resources:

Categories by audience age http://www.dummies.com/education/language-arts/getting-published/age-levels-for-childrens-books/

Categories by ages, pages, and content http://www.right-writing.com/genres.html

Standard wordcounts by genre and age category http://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/guide-to-literary-agents/word-count-for-novels-and-childrens-books-the-definitive-post

Writing Events!

I wanted to recap on a couple writing events I participated in earlier this year, but they were both small enough that they didn’t quite merit a full length post.  So rather than taking the time to expound meaningfully on each one and really dig into it, I’ve decided to be lazy and crowbar them together!  (Plus this is my last full week before we take off for our three-month-long roadtrip through the Lower 48.  Oy, so much to dooooo.)

Panel Poster

 

SCBWI Panel

Earlier this year, I helped to organize an author panel and workshop in Fairbanks Alaska, riding on the coattails of the statewide librarian’s conference taking place that same week.  The panel featured Carole Estby Dagg, author of The Year We Were Famous and Sweet Home Alaska, and local authors Cindy Aillaud, Lynn Lovegreen, Jen Funk Weber, and Marie Osburn Reid.

The turnout was pretty small, so we all managed to wedge in around a few large conference tables, and it was all very snug and casual.  The panel was more of a round robin, with the authors- or anyone else present with writing or publishing experience- sharing tips and advice.

Here I’ve picked out the best advice for you!  (Ain’t I sweet?)  Common core, at least in Alaskan school districts, has upped the need for informational stories for children, so there is a high demand for fic-informational (also known as faction).  National SCBWI conferences are awesome, and check out savvyauthors.com for even more networking opportunities.  SCBWI itself is very helpful for non-agented writers, but agents can get a much better deal than an unrepped writer can.  Take your time, and write what you love.

Following the panel, I ate too much candy and then Carole Estby Dagg presented about the stages of writing, from selecting an audience through writing and editing, and on to publication and marketing.  She approached the topic through the lens of her own work as a writer of historical fiction.

While I love a gal who plugs research so heavily (because research! I love it!), I think the most relevant thing that I pulled out of her presentation was the Shrunken Manuscript technique.

Shrink your manuscript to the tiniest print you can read.  Cut out all the open spaces: paragraphs, section breaks, everything, until it’s crammed onto as few pages as possible.  Then get three highlighters.  Everything with high emotion, highlight in red (or whatever).  Everything with high conflict, highlight in blue.  Every major plot point, highlight in green.  Then lay your whole manuscript out.  No matter how much you love them, any spots without color need to be either cut out or amped up.

 

AWG Reading

Just a few days after the SCBWI stuff, I attended an AWG meeting.  It was actually one of the meetings I usually skip- a chance to read some of your own work and get feedback.  But I had a short story competition coming up and I wanted a test audience for the piece I was planning to submit.  So why not?

I’d never done a critique group thing like this before, so I wasn’t sure what exactly to expect.  I managed to position myself in the seating circle so that I went dead last, which afforded me the perfect opportunity to chicken out, or for the meeting to run out of time, or all kinds of exciting possibilities.

None of which materialized.

I took my turn in the hotseat and read a short story I’d been prepping for a writing competition.  Historically, I have always been a terrible reader when it comes to my own works.  I stumble on words, read too fast, too quiet.  I get nervous.  But I knew this going in, so I had read it through several times out loud.  I find it’s harder to suck at reading when you memorize the piece instead. 😛  So the reading didn’t go as terribly as I’d been anticipating.

After I finished my reading, I whipped out my notebook.  The others in the group had lots of excellent questions and suggestions that really helped me zero in on what was working in the story, and what could use a bit more tweaking.  It was great to get some alternative perspectives on the piece, since I’d so thoroughly exhausted my own.  But on top of that, they were all very encouraging, and meaningful encouragement is sometimes had to come by in this line of work.

In the end, though, the critique must have done something right, because the piece took first place in the competition, leading to many a happy squeal.  So maybe consider trying a live critique some time, even if you never have before.

Until next time, happy packing writing!

Don’t Give Up

Winston-Churchill

Never never never

So I’ve been in an awful writing slump lately. Really, it’s kind of a creativity slump in general. Writing and sketching, which I’m usually so desperate to make more time for, have both ticked a few notches down on the totem pole. (On the plus side, my house has been a lot cleaner than usual and I’ve rearranged most of the furniture. So yay?)

I can get into the details later (or maybe not), but the short of it is that my confidence as a writer is perhaps not quite shattered, but pretty darned cracked. And it’s hard to write like that. So I’ve found it more difficult than usual lately to affix butt to chair and get some work done. Luckily, the world keeps spinning even when I’m mired in the vast wastes of the Pity Bogs (sad trombone).

My local chapter of the Alaska Writer’s Guild, being awesome like it is, had rounded up another local author to present at one of our monthly chapter meetings. I opened the email, chin in hand, and there was a picture of the author, Paul Greci (you can find his MG survival adventure here). And I knew the guy. I saw him just about every day when I picked my kid up from school.Greci

I like supporting local authors, and I like supporting teachers, and I already planned to buy the book for my son, so I basically had to go. UGHHHHH. Hubby was happy to kick me out the door (because this is another aspect of my creativity slump- the doldrums often go hand-in-hand with a deep and abiding resentment of anything that forces me to leave the house, no matter how soul-crushingly bored I am), and off I went for a little me time, titled “Paul’s Twisted Path to Publication”.

You know how you go without someone for a really long time and it’s fine, but then you see them again and have this sudden upswelling of throat-clenching emotion? How you don’t realize how much you’ve missed them until you don’t have to anymore? I got this same emotion listening to Mr. Greci’s presentation. It was exactly what I needed to hear, without my realizing what I needed to hear. I just needed someone to tell me, “Rejections suck. But keep going.”

And tell me he did. Paul Greci has been meandering his way through the sticky underbelly of the writing world for a decade. He went through five books, 200 rejections, and two agents before finally publishing his first novel. His clarion call was persistence.

I get moody after every rejection, no matter how pie-in-the-sky the query was. 200 rejections and still plugging along is just staggering. I listened with budding awe as he spoke of disappointments, dead ends, and door after door closed in his face. When asked about how he kept going, he told us about asking himself the very same question I was then asking myself: “Why not me?”

Why not me? What kept me from pushing forward through not even a quarter of the rejections this guy went through? What barred me from writing more, improving my craft, and just letting go of the books that simply weren’t working? What held me back?

Me. I was the only thing holding me back. I crave approval. I want to be liked. I want to charm and delight. A rejection feels like disapproval, dislike, disdain. In my fear of those things, am I willing to surrender my dream?

As I listened, the answer became more and more clear. No. No, I wasn’t ready to give up.

Pierce Brown wrote seven books and was rejected nearly 200 times before successfully publishing Red Rising. Jack London’s pile of rejections eventually reached four feet in height. Stephen King stacked up so many on his wall that the nail wouldn’t support their weight any longer; he drove a spike in the wall and kept going.  I think they would all tell me the same thing that Mr. Greci did.  “Don’t give up.”  He delivered it with a modest shrug, the last line of his presentation, but it struck me like a cricket bat to the ribs.  “Don’t give up.”

So. Pep rallies are grand and all, but what’s the take-away? What’s a girl to do when she comes home pumped and ready to spring into action? If that girl is me, she makes a deadline calendar! Because nothing says action like a calendar! In my experience, the best way to stamp out self-pity is a hearty dose of hard work. So I scrounged up some hard work. All the little artsy tasks I’d been putting off went on the calendar, no flex. The AWG bimonthly contest went on too, and a writing grant application deadline, and some self-imposed deadlines for other projects, both written and drawn. By the time I was done, I had a chore or two for nearly every day for the next five weeks.

It’s an ambitious calendar and I don’t fully expect myself to complete everything. But I do expect myself to keep working to the best of my abilities; the calendar should help with that. And written in bold letters along the top is Mr. Greci’s parting advice:

“Don’t give up.”

Traveling by Coach

AmyGreetings, humans! I just got back from the Alaska Writer’s Guild Fall Conference (and am exhausted out of my mind), but I haven’t gotten all my notes and thoughts together enough to form a coherent blog post. That will come later, I promise. (Spoiler alert: it was awesome!)

In the meantime, I attended another AWG monthly meeting last week and learned about a writing profession I’d never heard of: writing coach. Since I’d never heard of it, I was eager to figure out the dealio, and even to do a little sniffing around before the presentation.  To do that, I got to hassle our presenter, a local writing coach named Amy Jane Helmericks. (She also published her first book, Lindorm Kingdom, earlier this year. Congrats, Amy!)

So what is a writing coach? What do they do?

To help me figure that out, Amy was kind enough to stage a twenty minute session she might go through with a new client. We emailed beforehand to set it up, and she sent along a list of questions to think about in preparation for our session.

Amy was incredibly fun to work with, and asked super helpful questions. (In fact, her very first question completely stumped me. I’m still working out a good answer.) She raked my story idea over the coals (in the kindest, gentlest way possible) and then turned to my synopsis. I actually had given her three things: a logline, a 100 word pitch, and a half-page synopsis. She talked about what worked in each of them, and what didn’t work, and how each of those things could be tightened up even further. But above all else, she asked questions, questions, questions. And without fail, the questions that I was the worst at answering correlated to the weakest parts in my story.

But Amy never gave specific advice. As precise as her questions were, her advice was very broad. As Amy herself put it in her presentation later that week, “I didn’t tell him what to do… We stir things up and then we hand it over.” If I had a bad answer, she wasn’t going to fix it for me. That was my job. She just pointed out where the work needed to be done.

I have actually had very similar sessions in the past with writer friends of mine, where we pick apart each other’s ideas and tune them up. And I always found them hugely helpful, even vital. I never have good story ideas until I’ve chattered them to death with fellow writers. Amy was able to echo that same feeling of cozy friendliness, but to imbue it with professional quality questions, prompts, and guidance.

As Amy mentioned later in her presentation, what a writing coach does is based on what the writer needs. “It depends on what you want help with,” she said when someone asked at what point to bring in a coach. “I help with organizing ideas, editing, querying…” Likewise, her presentation ran the gamut from finding inspiration to writing and organizing, on through editing and pitching. And she knew her stuff on all those points. It was a great presentation, folding together several posts’ worth of themes and how-to’s, most of which can be found on her website. We even talked about the value of NaNoWriMo and how to prepare yourself for it so you can draft effectively!

In short, it was a great session and presentation. Amy is very thoughtful and thought-provoking, and incredibly generous with her time and expertise. If you’ve found that your writing has stalled, maybe even before you’ve had a good run at it, consider bringing on a writing coach. It could be the jumpstart that you need.

To learn more about Amy and what she does, visit her website at WritingHope.com. Happy writing!

Conference Lessons, Part I: The Five W’s

I’m assuming most of my readers have heard of the Snowflake Method. It’s more like a planning method than an actual writing method, so I don’t know what the pantsters think of it, but I came across it recently and I think there’s some real merit in it.

At the Alaska Writers Guild fall conference, I had a few sessions and a workshop with Lisa Cron, and she had a similar method, but a touch difference. In a lot of ways, it seems much more succinct than the Snowflake Method. She called it the Five W’s, and it probably seems pretty similar to most of us.

Ms Cron suggests that using her planning method, much like the Snowflake Method, will help keep down the necessity for rewrites, make you a more confident writer, and, when you are writing, your story will be more compelling. (Reminder: Lisa Cron wrote the book Wired for Story, which is all about the neurology behind the entertainment we get sucked into. She’s awesome. Her book is awesome. Her presentations are awesome. If you find any of this information useful, I suggest you get the book or go to a session. Plus she’s just fantastically nice.)

So let’s dive right into the hows! Because I’ve got NaNoWriMo coming up and I need to get cracking on my prep work. Without further ado, the Five W’s.

What-if, Who, Why, World-view, When

Got all that? It probably looks pretty familiar. The idea is to take these questions and apply them to your story idea before you start writing it into a book. So tackle this one at a time as you work your way through the bones of your story.

What If- This is the external conflict, the arena of the story. This should always be about what happens when someone’s expectations were not met. It implies that something has gone wrong or will go wrong which causes trouble. Your what if scenario could be: “What if the internet shut down? What if the earth’s magnetic poles switched? What if my parents showed up for a visit a week before expected?” Make it as crazy as you like. Whee!

Who- Who is our protagonist? Whose skin are we wearing as we navigate this problem? Your who could be: “A thirty-five year old man living in his mom’s basement without human interaction for the last decade. A rising-star geophysicist and mother of three. You. A golden-maned shiatsu imported from China.” Whatever. Have fun with it.

Why- Why is what’s happening in your What If scenario going to matter to your Who? If you can make it really matter to your protagonist, it will matter to your reader. (Assuming your reader likes and sympathizes with your protagonist. If not… maybe go back to your who make make him/her less odious.)

World View- How does the protagonist see his or her world and how does that change over the course of the story? Knowing your character’s world necessitates knowing the past, sitting in the present, and projecting into the future. We have to be able to get into the protagonist’s head. And one of the things that has to be in the character’s head is the misbelief, the fatal flaw, the whatever you want to call it- something your protagonist is WRONG about, some way that he or she can evolve to be a better person at the end.

When- When does your story start? This should be at the last possible moment, the time when tomorrow becomes today, when the protagonist no longer has a choice and must act. At what point can the protagonist no longer ignore the problem, the ticking clock, and has to deal with it? And finally, how does it end?

If you’ve got all this figured out in advance, you’re ready to pound out that first draft. Personally, I’d probably throw in a plot arc as well, but that’s just me. I’m a plotter. How about you? What else would you add to this prep line-up?

(PS- And those of you in the critiquing mood, I have a query letter that I’m hoping to send off later today. If you wouldn’t mind taking a peek at it and letting me know what you think, I’d be much obliged. As always, thanks for reading!)

Conference Fun, Part III: Hilarity Ensues

(By the way, I know I promised actual applicable lessons this week, but I’m just not done being goofy yet. Friday and Monday, I’ll post conference lessons. After that, we should be getting back to the posts-on-Mondays schedule. And don’t forget to read Friday’s bonus post if you missed it!)

I’m out of big stories, so here follows a series of mini stories, in roughly chronological order. These are just a few things that I thought were funny that didn’t merit a full post.

Agent Poaching with Doug Grad

I was standing in line for lunch with Robert Masello and Doug Grad, chatting about editing or something like that, and this lady walked up. Mid-sentence, she interrupted Mr Grad to start pitching him her book. Didn’t even pretend to be part of the conversation first- just jumped right in. I was flabbergasted. Seriously! People DO that? But he took it like a champ. Apparently, he’s used to this kind of treatment.

Robert Masello (Just Him In General)

Every word out of this man‘s mouth is comic gold. Every. Word. I now want to buy everything he’s ever written. Books on dating? Want ’em. Books on demons? Want ’em. Books on dating demons? Yes, please!

Heavy Hors d’Oeurves

Not refreshments. Not a light dinner. Somewhere in between. I have never seen such a large group of adults giggling so long over something so silly. Who knows exactly what heavy hor d’oeurves are? Apparently not us.

Axis of Awesome Technofail

Now granted: there WAS alcohol at the awards banquet. But really- it took five people, two computers, three control panels, and over than an hour of work to get this video onto the projector and playing sound. And it was shockingly worth it.


WARNING: F-Bomb alert!

Four notes for every hit ever. Twenty-six letters to make every word in the English language. NOW GO WRITE AN AWESOME BOOK.

Marc Cameron and Jackie Ivie

I don’t know if they realized they were being funny, but they were. Marc Cameron is a thriller writer, heavy on the action, light on the sex and swearing. Jackie Ivie is a writer of vampire romance, sometimes involving assassins, sometimes involving (or more often not involving) kilts. They sat next to one another at the author panel. I really wish I could properly describe the mystified horror that was on Mr Cameron’s face half the time Ms Ivie was speaking. Like he couldn’t comprehend the things she was saying.

Food Poisoning for Hippies

I like wholesome, quality food. I didn’t realize this was hazardous to my health. The day after the conference, we had breakfast at IHOP, which, if I understand correctly, sells pancakes ALL DAY LONG. Genius. So I loaded up on greasy hashbrowns and eggs; a slab of flesh coated in carbs and gravy; and glorious, golden flapjacks. It was great. My tummy was a little confused as to what to do with all this cholesterol, but I figured things would be fine. Mary and I started the long drive back and I ate IHOP leftovers for lunch, too. And then McDonald’s for dinner. McDonald’s. I hadn’t had McDonald’s since I was a crazy pregnant woman. By the time I got home to my adoring family, there were rumblings of discontent from down south. By nightfall, things were getting ugly. And by bedtime, I had full blown food poisoning. Seriously, it felt and acted exactly like food poisoning. Nobody warned me that my junk food tolerance could disappear. And so I ended the best weekend of my life kickin’ it with my porcelain pal.

It’s a dangerous business we’re in, my friends. Just be careful out there.