Reblog: The Introvert’s Guide to Writing Conferences

Hey, look at that, it’s November! If you follow me on Twitter, you’ve maybe seen a bit of my drama surrounding NaNo this year. (Will she? Won’t she??) I really want to do NaNo- I love it and I’ve done every session every year since the birth of my first child. I’m kind of a NaNo junkie. But this November, through a series of unfortunate events (or just numerous time consuming events, really) has become incredibly busy, to the point that I don’t know if NaNo is even possible without dropping the ball on things at work or at home. (And I don’t mean just not doing the laundry. I mean like making meals for my children, getting them to school on time, not getting arrested for neglect sorts of things.)

But! Because I am a junkie and don’t know when to say no, I’ve decided to give it one week. The last few days have been… not promising, honestly, and it’s only going to get worse starting today. If I get to the end of week one and find that it’s really not working out, I am allowing myself to quit with minimal guilt. (I mean, this is me so there will definitely be guilt, but I will do my best to minimize it.)

And so it’s reblog time! I found this post by Kerrie Flanagan (via Writer’s Digest) to be helpful while getting myself ready for my conference a couple months ago, so maybe you will too! I’ll let you know how I’m doing with NaNo next week and, until then, happy writing!

 

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You did it! You signed up for a writing conference, and now the event is right around the corner. Slight panic sets in as you realize there will lots of people, you might not know anyone and you’d rather walk through fiery hot coals than network with strangers. If you relate to any of these statements, then I’ll go out on a limb and say you are an introvert. The good news is, so are a majority of other writers at the conference and there are strategies you can use that will allow you to enjoy the event and make some great connections.

Set Intentions

A few weeks before the conference, think about what you hope to get from the event. If you are still fairly new to writing or this is your first conference, you may want to take a broad approach, something that gives you a good overview about writing and publishing.

If you have been to writing conferences before or you have certain goals for your writing, consider a more laser-focused approach. Do you want to focus on the craft of writing? The business side of publishing? Building a platform? Finding an agent? Whatever the focus, make your plan with that in mind. Look over the schedule and choose sessions, workshops and other extras (critiques, one-on-one consults, pitch sessions…) based on your goals.

Be Professional

Ready to read some more? Hop on over to Writer’s Digest for the full article!

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Conference Lessons: Pitching Agents

lunch-chatHello, internet friends! I hope you’re having a lovely fall. Mine is so far suuuuuper busy. It’s like the closer we get to winter, the more frantic I get. I’m the white rabbit running around with a pocket watch shouting, “I’m late! I’m late!” Seriously, everywhere I look is DEADLINES ABOUNDING and I’m going a little crazy.

But I have managed to cross one big thing off my list: the annual AWG Fall Conference! *blows party horn* For those of you who haven’t heard my spiel yet, the Alaska Writers Guild puts on an annual conference (in conjunction with the Alaska chapters of SCBWI and RWA) which is small and a little quirky and all around delightful. It’s low key and friendly and I just love these folks.

For one of the breakout sessions, an agents was slated for a pitch session, but it was unclear whether the session was supposed to be about pitching or an opportunity for pitching. And since there were like ten of us in there, the agent posed it to us which one we would rather (although in the end there was really time for a bit of both).

What came out during the very casual Q&A was very comforting to me. Like many writers, I am an introvert. Socialization takes a lot of energy, even when I enjoy it. I get nervous around strangers, particularly around adults. Pitching terrifies me.

Don’t get me wrong. I do all the things I’m supposed to. I have a succinct elevator pitch for every book I’ve ever written. I come prepared to conferences with my pitches printed out and in hand. But Heaven help me, I can’t ever remember them. As soon as the big moment arrives, I can’t even remember what genres I write, let alone my cleverly honed pitches for specific books. Assuming I don’t lose my nerve completely, I either rattle off something completely unprepared or read what I had worked out earlier. I always figured cold pitching was just something I’d never be able to do, something I’d just have to learn to work around in my career as a writer.

But I’ve since learned that that might not be the end of the world I was led to believe it was.

Some agents expect you to be able to cold pitch on the spot in any given situation, at any given moment, like a first responder ready and waiting to save lives. (First responders: you are boss. Carry on.) But a lot of agents don’t. In fact, a lot of agents would rather you didn’t.

So what’s the best way to approach an agent? Like a human!

Be friendly. Don’t just run up out of the blue and drop a pitch in their lap. Strike up a conversation first. Chat about something besides your book for a minute. And if it feels right, maybe ask them about their manuscript wishlist and then pitch. But don’t forget that they’re a person before they’re an agent.

The agent we were talking to confessed that she actually hates unsolicited pitches, especially if they show up without warning. She told us about being pitched in lunch lines, in bathrooms, and outside her hotel room, and it was clear that just remembering them made her uncomfortable. This isn’t true for some agents. Some agents probably really prefer just getting down to business. But for a lot of them, pouncing tactics is a big turn off. They’d rather have a chat and then you can just ask if you can query later after the event is over.

Honestly, I like that course better, and not just because I can’t remember my own pitches worth beans. If I’m to interact with humans, I really prefer unscripted, inconsequential chitchat. It puts me at ease and it’s nice to know that it puts the agent at ease too. Plus, I feel like I’m much cleverer on the page than in person, so being able to send in a polished query instead of having smelly garbage pouring out of my mouth is just better for everyone.

And it seems to work! The two agents I chatted with both told me I should query them after I got home. So, one conference off the to-do list, and two submissions on.

Happy writing!

Getting Publication Ready with Jane Friedman

Jane-Friedman-1First off, this woman looks eerily like my sister-in-law. I had to get that off my chest. It’s like future Annie has come back to the past to tell me about books.

Second, Jane Friedman is a publishing beast. Co-founder of the Hot Sheet, former editor of Writer’s Digest, Ms. Friedman has a bio that makes me want to curl up under a blankie and weep at all the majesty. She managed to pack one metric tonne of information into the three hour class. There’s no way I’m going to be able to fit it all into a single blog post, so I’m only going to talk this week about just getting your book ready for publication. I will come back to address the other topics- the five categories of publishing and how to go about them- in more detail in later posts, so fear not. Start looking for those toward the beginning of next year, maaaybe a little sooner if I get an unexpected hole in my schedule.

But if that’s too long a wait, I came across this class, How to Publish Your Book, with Jane Friedman, while perusing a catalog for The Great Courses. It looks like it might cover some of the same information, and is massively on sale until 26 October. You know, if you’re the impatient type.

However! being the impatient type is not the best way to be when hoping to publish a book. Slow down, cowboy! Let’s talk about the steps you must go through to successfully get your book ready for publication, whether that’s traditional, indie, or somewhere in between.

The first step is to make sure that your book is its best possible self. This includes drafting, self-editing, beta editing, rewriting, maybe even professional editing, the works. This is a very long process, and it can be hard to tell when you’re really done here. The yardstick I’ve been using is that I am a) stupidly proud of the work, and b) feel like my eyeballs are going to fall out of my head every time I open the file again. It’s a strange balance. But after your manuscript is the absolute prettiest it can be, then you can turn your mind to preparing for publication, and that means market research.

The earliest parts of research can be done from within the comfortable confines of your very own story- you have to know what you’re selling. Know whether you’ve written fiction or nonfiction, know what your intended age group is, and know your category.  For fiction, have you written mainstream, literary, or genre? For nonfiction, is the MS narrative, prescriptive, or inspirational? Each of these groupings will point toward a different target audience and, if you’re traditionally publishing, a different submission target.

Be aware of the different age categories and try not to straddle them. (I am so bad about straddling age categories, ugggggh.) Also, never claim that your project is “hard to categorize”. Nobody likes that and it doesn’t give potential readers any information. Instead, say that it’s “multi-genre” or has “crossover appeal” and mention just two specific categories.

Once you have your book all neatly categorized, do some market research. Your goal here is to understand the commercial viability of a project, which is important whether you plan to enlist the help of traditional publishers or to go it alone. But just for general reference, I’m going to list some of the positive and negative signs a publisher will look for when deciding whether a book is marketable or not.

Positive Signs (do this stuff) Negative Signs (avoid this stuff)
  • Uses standard lengths (wordcount)
  • Written in a commercial genre
  • Author has a solid platform (for nonfiction)
  • Wordcounts that are way outside of norms (<50k, >120k, etc)
  • Tough sell categories (cookbooks, picture books, travel books, short story complication, etc)
  • Memoirs without a high concept or publicity angle

If you find that your book has some of those negative signs, maybe give it a closer squint before moving past this point. (Huge books by unknown authors are a hard sell, no matter which publication route you choose. Most cookbooks are sold by celebrity chefs. Keep these things in mind when figuring out your own market viability.)

For traditional publishing, this is where you start getting your submission packet ready, which probably includes something like a query, sample pages, and a synopsis; know ahead of time whether you want to query agents or publishing houses directly, because you’re not supposed to do both at the same time, and follow submission guidelines exactly. Novels and memoirs must be finished, edited, and polished before beginning the submission process. For nonfiction, write the book proposal first, including a business plan; since publishers don’t have the finished materials, you have to convince them that this book will sell.

If you’re going the indie route, you don’t need a proposal or query, but you still need a lot of the bits and pieces that would go into them, including a business plan, sales copy, and a finely polished project. In addition, you’ll also need to work out your book design, including formatting, cover design, blurbs, etc. If you’re not a professional [editor/book designer/artist/etc], pay for one like any other book publisher would.

When putting together back cover blurbs/pitches, business plans, and author bios, feel free to pick the brains of your friends, family, and neighbors on the bus to work. This stuff is hard to write, but having extra eyes on it can help you pick out the pieces that aren’t clear, or that sound strange, or whatever the problem may be. Just as you wouldn’t try to publish a work that hadn’t been beta read and closely edited, don’t try to do that with this stuff either. These things make up the sales pitch of your book, whether you’re addressing it to agents, editors, or readers. Give it the same care that you have given the rest of your book.

After you have all these scores of little duckies in a row, it’s time to get your rhinoceros-thick skin on. You’re ready to step into the publishing ring! Good luck!

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: Character Creation

character

Sketch by Diane Wu

One of the last sessions I attended at last year’s conference was taught by author Robert Dugoni.  He taught us about crafting characters in his presentation, Playing God: Creating Memorable Characters.

He opened with this idea: “Whatever your character is, make them like everyone else, but a little bit better.”  So characters should be real (and relatable), but also larger than life.  We must believe them and believe in them.  If readers don’t believe the character is able to do the extraordinary things they must do, they won’t care whether your character makes it or not, or just won’t believe it when they do.

While building up an interesting character, think about their strengths, inner conflicts, and weaknesses.

A character’s strengths can be physical (muscles, speed, laser eyes, etc), mental (humor, a knack for lateral thinking, mind reading, etc), or moral (loyalty, a sense of justice, compassion, etc).  As with all  things, there’s room for overlap, so don’t stress categories. (Is resilience mental or moral? Is the ability to perform magic a physical trait or a mental one?  Who cares?)  Whatever you choose, make your characters’ strengths just a little bit stronger than average.  And be sure that these strengths come up throughout the difficulties that your characters encounter.

Consider as well the inner conflicts that plague your character.  These are different from the conflicts that the antagonist or the plot inflict on them, and from the internal conflicts that arise throughout the story.  (This caused a bit of confusion for me during the presentation at first.  I kind of wish he’d used a more dissimilar term, but I figured out what he was talking about eventually.)  Inner conflicts are things like anxiety, addiction, insecurity, low self esteem, a huge ego, phobias, or guilt.

By Mr. Dugoni’s definition, an inner conflict is not the same thing as a weakness.  A weakness is something you can fix, but for whatever reason, you don’t.  Inner conflicts are a part of who you are.  For example, your character may learn some better coping mechanisms for dealing with their depression, without ever being ‘cured’.  Mental illness is an inner conflict.  A refusal to wash the laundry until you’re out of underwear is a weakness.  (I am weak.)

Also, characters must have what Mr. Dugoni called ‘self regard’.  Self regard is recognition of one’s own shortcomings.  Plus, it makes their development more plausible.  A character who doesn’t realize they’re a misogynist isn’t going to change.  If you don’t realize there’s a problem, you can’t fix it.

So now that you have this cool character, how to you show all these traits to the reader without telling?  Mr. Dugoni specified these five ways:

Physical Appearance  A character’s physical appearance changes how they interact with the world.  When learning about this aspect of character, I immediately thought of CM Schofield’s character Tony (who is a tiny fairy in a human world) and Madison Dusome’s character Adrien (who is a skinny, scrappy one-armed orphan).  Both these authors are fantastic at showing their characters’ personalities and strengths through the lens of their physical differences.

How They Dress  People wear what they wear for a reason, and these sorts of details tell us something about them.  So think about how your character might express themselves through dress.  I also like to consider makeup, piercings, tattoos, anything unnatural that a person chooses to add to their body.  Do they wear their uniform even on their days off?  Do they favor Gothic Lolita?  Leather and spikes all week, and an airy dress for church on Sundays?  Think about what they wear, understanding that your readers will be forming ideas about why they wear it.

Physical Behavior  Think also about the way your character carries themselves.  How do they sit, stand, walk, or run?  Stance and cadence can tell us a lot about a character, like the difference between James Bonds’ cool, one-hand-in-pocket smirk and Steve Urkels’ bespectacled, face-scrunching squint.  Whenever your character guffaws, slouches, sneers, or pops a knuckle, it tells readers something.

Dialog  How does your character speak?  What does their diction say about their past and experiences?  Consider word choice, phrases, accent.  Even topic choices can tell us something about characters- for example, think about the Lego Movie and the differences in voice between Batman (gravelly, growly tone and an insistence on trumpeting his own awesomeness) and Unikitty (high, cheerful tone and a refusal to hold an unhappy thought).

Character Insight  Each of us sees the world through a different lens, a lens which is carved and polished by our past experiences.  How does your character view the world?  Who do they vote for?  What do they believe in?  What do they argue about?  What’s worth fighting for?

Use all of these cues to show readers your character, and what’s going on in their head.

So!  Once you have a realistic, believable, and interesting character, toss them into the shark tank of your story.  How does the character change over the course of the events?  Mr. Dugoni talked about change as the different levels a character starts at and finishes at.  I pictured it like this:

CaringLevels

The important thing is that the level your character is on changes over the course of the book.  If your character starts out only caring about themselves, they’d better open up a bit more by the end of the book.  Characters that don’t change levels probably aren’t changing much elsewhere either, and that’s boring and unrealistic.

Of course, characters can change in both directions.  Just as a character can start out only caring about their mom and their cat, and eventually become the hometown hero, a person can also move in a more selfish direction.  But Mr. Dugoni warns that that’s a hard sell.  Most people don’t want to read a story about a caring, generous person who becomes a self-absorbed miser.

Whoever your character may be- a priest, a mobster, the baker from Belle’s hometown- create them in a way that makes them leap off the page (or pounce, or trip, or however they move).  Make them interesting, make them realistic, and make them powerful and flawed and changing.  Your story (and your readers) will thank you.

Happy writing!