Writing Magic

This week’s post is by writer extraordinaire Laura Lancaster, Vice President of the Interior Chapter of the Alaska Writers Guild. She is fun, clever, and has excellent taste in apple juice. Behold her wisdom!magic cards

When I was 12 I learned a magic trick from my next-door neighbor. She showed me an ordinary quarter, put both her arms behind her head like a pitcher about to throw a curveball and scrunched up her face. Then she brought her arms forward and showed me her empty hands.

“See, I just pushed that quarter into my neck. In a few seconds, it will land in my mouth. It doesn’t hurt because it’s magic.” Then she reached into her mouth and tossed the quarter in a high arc. It bounced across the floor with a magical metallic ring.

If I ever see you in person, I’ll teach you the trick that turned me, a shy awkward tween into an awkward ham who did goofy magic tricks.

My favorite went like this: I placed the magic baseball cap in front of me on a table. I declared,“I can make three balloon animals in the time it takes most people to make one.”

Then I whisked a rubber glove from my ball cap, blew it up, held it on top of my head and yelled, “chicken.” I held it high and squeezed the fingers, “cow.” Then I let the air out and the glove dangled, limp. I slowed and dropped my voice. “Jelly fish.”

Even though my shows got lots of laughs, I made lots of mistakes. I once had an audience member stand next to me while I did the quarter trick. He looked behind me and learned the secret. Once I had a large audience and my mom told me I had turned away from the microphone and everyone in the back hadn’t heard a word. They applauded out of politeness.

Now I’m a beginning writer. I look back on my career as a teenage magician and I realize I had found my style, or genre, of magic, but I needed more tricks, practice and critique. Writing is no different.

magic levitationMagicians have to master stage presence, precise movement, and misdirection the way writers have to learn plotting, character creation, effective research, world building, precise prose and any number of other skills. If any of those elements are weak, the magic disappears.

Fortunately, if I, as a goofy, awkward teenager could learn magic tricks and face the nerves of performance, I can learn to write fiction.

I’ve learned from books, blogs and magazines, but one of my most helpful tools are writers groups and professional organizations. I even became the Vice President of the Interior Chapter of the Alaska Writers Guild Interior and I’ve found that even if you are not published, there are three reasons to get involved in the writing community.

Practice Makes Better-

Often writers organizations sponsor critique groups. If you are at a place where you can show your work to others, you ought to. Critique groups, whether online or in person, are a great place to start. You may find partners who understand what you want to do and help you do it better. Like magic coaches, they can show you where your patter is flawed, or when they saw the quarter hidden in your sleeve, so to speak.

Guidance In Going Big-

The community talent shows where I did my magic were a place to start, but to get noticed, you have to work a lot harder. Many writers groups sponsor writing classes or conferences and they’ll give you access to big-time writers who teach craft and agents who can advise you about your pitch or query letter. If you are considering hybrid, indie or self-publishing, many authors in professional organizations have done it and are willing to share what they know about publication options, promotion and sales. Magicians never reveal their secrets to the audience, but the most generous reveal their secrets to other magicians and it’s true of the writers you’ll meet at professional organizations.

Encouragement-

Communication is possibly the hardest thing we humans do. We must have a clear idea in our own heads, then convey it to someone else. Miscommunications have caused professional ventures to fail, battles to be lost and families to split. No one gets it right the first time or all the time. How can we persevere long enough to become effective writers?

I’ve found that meeting regularly with writers is my most powerful motivation. When I meet with my critique group and I didn’t make a submission, everyone one reminds me that they want to find out what happens next, and I know it’s not just politeness, they want to help me write better.magic marbles

I have solved many a plot or characterization problem with other writers over coffee, writers I met at Alaska Writers Guild meetings, and I have helped them do the same. The topics speakers bring to monthly meetings and conferences, such as how to submit to an agent, help me, even if I don’t apply the lessons…yet.

Some people have said that writing cannot be taught, but most people would not say that about stage magic. Natural performers still need to learn skills through professional guidance. Natural storytellers have weaknesses that they must recognize and overcome. Every writer has been there. Keep working. Learn from those around you. Professional writers organizations can put those people around you. So when you watch David Copperfield perform an illusion or read Dicken’s David Copperfield, remember, you too can make your writing magical.

Laura Lancaster is a foodie, sci-fi aficionado and fortune cookie baker. She has been the Vice President in charge of the Interior Chapter of the Alaska Writers Guild for the last four years. She is writing sci-fi novels and short stories. Find her on social media: Twitter: Phoenix40below Facebook: @Phoenixseries and blog: lalancaster.com

To find out more about the Interior Chapter of the Alaska Writers Guild email awginterior@gmail.com or go to www.alaskawritersguild.com/interior-chapter

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First Impressions with Nicole Resciniti

NResciniti“It only takes a sip,” Ms. Resciniti told us. One needn’t drink an entire carton to realize the milk has soured, and readers treat books the same way. It doesn’t matter if the second page, or the second chapter, or the second novel, is magnificent; agents and editors won’t wait around to see, and neither will readers. This is why first impressions are so vital. They make the difference between ‘slush’ and ‘sold’.

Nicole Resciniti is a literary agent with the Seymour Agency. Like all agents, Ms. Resciniti sees a lot of wheat and a lot of chaff come through her inbox every day. Literary agents are so busy, and have so much material to get through, that a first impression is usually the only impression a query will get to give. Ms. Resciniti highlighted three parts of a submission packet as being key to a good first impression: a high concept hook, back cover copy, and first pages.

A high concept hook is only one or two lines, but carries a punch. Also known as a one-liner or a log line, your hook is what first grabs the reader’s attention. (High concept, a term which I have spent an unreasonable amount of time trying to define via Google searches, is what Ms. Resciniti calls “the familiar idea with a twist” and “a concept easily visualized.”) The hook usually goes something like this: “[Character + descriptor] wants [goal] because [motivation], but [conflict] and [possible consequences].” Pretty catchy, huh? It sounds better when you fill in the blanks. Try it out with your own story!

The back cover copy is two to three paragraphs that encapsulate the heart of the story. The goal, motivation, and conflict create the vehicle for the characters that propels them through the story, and should be front and center in your back cover copy. (Side note: Ms. Resciniti recommends that you have each of these three things for your main character, second main, and antagonist. All of them might not show up directly in the back cover copy, but they should in the story overall. Know what your characters want, dangle it in front of them, and then rip it away.)

Ms. Resciniti recommends a six-pronged attack in hooking readers within those first few pages.

Begin with a bang. Open with action, with characters in motion. Be visual. Avoid clichés, info dumps, background, coincidence, set up, and an excess of characters.

Establish the mood. Convey an immediate tone. Keep in mind your audience and the expectations of your genre, and respect- or subvert- the conventions.

Evoke instant emotion. Immediately establish an emotional attachment between the reader and the character. Make your character inspire emotions in your reader- admiration, pity, envy, kinship, sympathy. It’s not enough to have a passive character that we follow through the story. The characters should be active, making choices, growing and changing, and it should all happen in a way that the reader can feel.

Convey conflict. Conflict is the core of emotion. Present problems on the page quickly, and structure characters so that they are at odds with one another. Create problems that are based on the characters and their weaknesses. And for every problem that is solved, create two more.

Create visceral reactions in the reader. Incorporate humor/danger/tension to make your readers laugh, cry, and tremble right along with your characters. Never state an emotion or action- show it, and make the reader feel it too.

 Make a “what happens next” moment. Don’t immediately tie problems up neatly for the characters. Evoke curiosity. This goes hand in hand with conveying constant conflict.

A book on a shelf has about thirty seconds to sell itself: cover, title, back cover copy, and pages. Agents and editors are themselves readers, just of earlier forms of the book. You don’t need to impress them with a gorgeous cover, but you do need to grab their attention with your submission materials, and never let go.

Ms. Resciniti’s final advice? “Do not be discouraged. Do not.” Editing is hard, and submitting is hard, and selling is hard. Every step of the process is hard in its own way. But don’t give up because of the difficulty. The difficulty is the very thing that will transform your book from an awful first draft into a beautiful final product in the hands of people who love it. So do not get discouraged in the in-between. You can do this.

Tune in next week for the cliff notes version of Jane Friedman’s three hour intensive, How to Get Your Book Published. We’ll be talking about traditional, indie, and hybrid publishing, and the most important steps to take down each route.

Until then, happy writing!

Query Letter Tips with Paul Lucas

Guys, the conference this year was great.  I got to see old buddies, make new buddies, and learn new stuff about the industry’s past and present. I was awarded a grant, and declared the guild’s Writer of the Year- now doesn’t that sound fancy! I also had a very helpful manuscript review, and then a quick query letter review. Everyone is always so generous with their time at these things!

PLucasThe presenters were also very generous with their knowledge, and so we’ll have three weeks of conference lessons this time around. This week’s post is based on a query letter workshop with literary agent Paul Lucas, who works for Janklow & Newbit Associates.

For context, keep in mind that Mr. Lucas’ work day often looks something like this: 100ish emails- per day!- to writers, editors, colleagues, etc; meeting with editors; on the phone with editors; internal meetings with colleagues; researching to keep abreast of industry news; and going through queries. (He tends to do his manuscript reading after work or on weekends. The guy gets no rest.)

Queries are important. Queries are (usually) how agents find new talent and sign new authors. But agents are super super busy folks, so a query has to really stand out to make any noise in all that daily cacophony.

Here are some basic tips that Mr. Lucas shared on helping your query to make the cut:

Be polite. Don’t be crazy.

A query should have three things: who you are, why you’re writing this agent, and what the book is about. If something in your query is not one of those three things, axe it.

Never mention others who liked the book. (The only exception to this would be an author or editor who will endorse the book with a short blurb.)

Edit, edit, edit. (Side note: I got called out for an intentional fragment sentence, which Mr. Lucas feels is always a bad thing. I made a squinchy face of disagreement, but he’s the pundit, not me. So maybe stare at those stylistic choices long and hard before hitting send.)

Follow agency submission rules. Always. No exceptions. No squinchy face.

Specify age range, genre, and word count.

Keep comp titles within five years of publication. (I’ve heard other agents who suggest no more than two years.) Don’t use megastars or absolute nobodies; look for recent comps that sold 10k-ish.

Be succinct. Queries should never run longer than a single page.

Be specific. Name awards in your bio. Describe why a certain book is a good comp. Tell why you chose this agent to query.

Queries are hard, and way less fun than drafting the next book in that bubblegum space opera you’ve been working on, but they’re vital to getting your work eventually seen and published. Work to make sure that your query is intriguing and reflective of your writing style in each of the three sections Mr. Lucas mentioned: why you’re writing this agent (hook), what the book is about (blurb), and who you are (bio).

Once you think you have a good query, run it past several pairs of eyes before sending it out to literary agents. Workshops are great because you can get instant feedback from several people, but if you don’t have access to a group, send it out to several writer friends for their opinions. When you are ready to submit to agents, do it in batches so that you can incorporate any feedback you might get in order to hone your query down to its best possible form.

Finally, if you are getting feedback on your submission packet, keep sending it out to as many agents as you can find who are good fits. But if you’re only hearing crickets, consider making major alterations or moving on to a new project after fifty ignored queries. Either way, don’t get discouraged. Querying is difficult, but a necessary bump on the road of traditional publishing. Don’t give up on your dream.

Next week, we’ll get into more details for query letters and first pages with Nicole Resciniti of The Seymour Agency. Until then, happy writing!

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/

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.”