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.


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.


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


Conference Lessons: Character Creation


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:


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!

Conference Lessons: Rookie Submission Mistakes

facepalmDuring last fall’s writers conference with the Alaska Writers Guild, one of our illustrious presenters was literary agent Patricia Nelson of the Marsal Lyon Literary Agency.  One of her presentations was the very informative Eight Rookie Submission Mistakes and How to Avoid Them, and I’m happy to share the gist of it with you.

So here they all, all of writers’ favorite ways to ruin their own submission packets!

#1- Wrong Age Category

Know your age category!  If you’re not sure, there are lots of resources on the internet to figure it out, including my handy dandy chart from the post a couple months ago, Conference Lessons: Age Categories, but the two age groupings that Ms. Nelson highlighted in particular were YA and adult, which apparently get blurred a lot.

#2- Wrong Genre

Think about where your project would shelve in a bookstore.  What titles would it sit between?  If you’re not sure, think about another author writes like you (your comp titles, anyone?) and look up how they classify their books.  It’s not enough to say that your manuscript defies categorization; odds are it doesn’t.  (Still not sure? If you write speculative fiction, Ms. Nelson suggests Connor Goldsmith’s sci-fi/fantasy breakdown on Fuse Literary’s website as a good place to start.)

#3- Wrong Agent

Do your research and only query the agents that are a good fit for the project.  A few (free!) resources for finding the right agent include: agent websites; AgentQuery; QueryTracker; and Literary Rambles (but always be sure to double check aggregated information against the agents’ websites, since it can sometimes be dated).

#4- Wrong Comp Titles

Don’t pick books that are too old, too famous, or in a different genre.  When looking for comp titles, try to find similar (to prove demand) but different (to show there’s still market space) titles that were published in the last 3-5 years, and did well, but not made-into-a-movie well.  Ms. Nelson goes so far as to say that it’s better to leave out comp titles altogether than to use the wrong ones.

#5- Query Not about Book

The story should take up the bulk of the query, with only a small portion devoted to the bio.  (The bio is more important for nonfiction, but even then, unless you’re Oprah, focus on what the book is about.)  Bio only matters so long as it pertains to this book (so don’t put in your day job, your hobbies, your fifteen cats, etc., unless it’s applicable), and if you want some kind of agent personalization (I’m querying you because…), keep it to just one non-creepy sentence.

#6- First Page Clichés

Dream scene, character waking up, character being chased, a long time ago moment: none of that.  If it’s been done a thousand times, find a new way, or at least a new tweak on the cliché.

#7- First Chapter Info Dump

This is a similar issue to the above.  When agents see clichés, they stop caring.  When agents see background information, they stop caring.  The moment the agent no longer cares is the moment they stop reading, so make sure that your first pages are endlessly engaging.  Ms. Nelson recommends highlighting every moment of backstory and asking yourself, ‘Is this necessary?’

#8- Unprofessional Communication

Think of your query as a cover letter for a job application.  In communicating with literary professionals, and being one yourself, keep these things in mind:

  • Be friendly! Agents are humans too.
  • Be prompt with responses.
  • Be patient, and be polite when checking in.
  • Don’t complain about querying.
  • Notify all agents immediately if you get an offer.


A final piece of submission advice? Ms. Nelson suggests sending queries out in batches to fifteen agents at a time.  After two months with no takers, tweak your submission materials and send out another fifteen. She suggests one hundred to one hundred fifty rejections before moving on to a new project.  So if you’re anything like me, you’ve got a long way to go.  Don’t give up too early!

Happy writing!

Think you might like to query Ms. Nelson? She’s currently looking for adult, YA and MG.  Look on her agent page for details and good luck!

The Pros and Cons of Big and Small Writing Conferences

Our guest this week is Brittany Maresh, a fellow word monkey trapped in the icebox.  (Woot! Alaska!)  I met Brittany at a writer’s conference and have been internet stalking her pals with her ever since. *coughs*  Plus, she knows more about conferences than anyone I’ve ever met.  Brittany is a total geek with amazing hair, cranks out embarrassingly fantastic wordcounts during NaNo, and teaches archery. Archery!  Not convinced of her super-coolness yet?  Read on…

conferenceWith the vast array of writing conferences that exist in the U.S., picking which one is the right one can seem like a Herculean task. There are so many factors in picking the one that is right for you. Today, we’re going to look at big versus small conferences – the pros and the cons of each.

We’ll start with the plus-side of a large conference:

As you can imagine, large conferences are a lot of hustle and bustle, business cards and handshakes, and searching for the right panel room.  With so much going on, you have to approach a large conference with a plan. The schedule is posted ahead of time, so you can pick panels and figure out which ones you need to show up early for to guarantee a seat, plot out quiet room time, and figure out which nights you need to head to your room a little early to slip into your formal wear for the fancier receptions, or into your mask for the masquerade.

With so many panels and opportunities, it’s very unlikely that you’ll have much down-time with nothing going on and nobody new to interface with. There’s always another panel to attend, late-night reading, open write time, or open-mic. There are workshops, sponsored room parties, and a seemingly-endless sea of new people to meet, and typically at least once chance to get all dressed up in formalwear.

You’ll find a panel on every subject you can imagine – from YA to picture books, beginner writing skills to advanced-level marketing.  Pitch-sessions and workshops come in all genre-ranges and experience levels, from junior agents just starting to fill their list to the top agents from the top agencies in the U.S. If you’re a writer, there’s something for you – something new, and someone new to talk to about it.

On the social side, there’s never a short supply of other writers to sit down and discuss the craft with, and if you’re brave, there’s always a lost writer or two looking for a friendly face. Be brave – talking to the lost writers is a great way to meet a new critique partner, or future best-seller.

And now to the pros of attending a small conference:

If hustle-and-bustle is the name of the game for the larger conferences, intimacy is the word for smaller conferences.  They might not have as much going on, but there is more room for adapting to the audience they’ve got, rather than the audience they expected. This is a place where you can ask a question and get an answer, not hope that you get a chance to ask.

Workshop and pitching at a smaller conference becomes much more personal – after all, when there are only 40 or 50 people in attendance, and four presenters, they start to see a lot of the same faces, and get a sense of who you are, what you’re about, and what they’d like to recommend you read or work on.  There are more chances to have an in-depth conversation with the professionals, and a lot better odds that you’ll make a few solid friends – people who go to the same panels, have the same genre interests, and will be great contacts to have later down the road.  Though you won’t meet as many writers, you’ll spend more time with the ones you do. This can lead to stronger, longer-lasting friendships and an easier networking experience.

You might only pitch two or three times, at a smaller conference, but you’ll be pitching to someone you’ve had a chance to talk to, gotten a chance to know, with a pitch you’ve had a chance to refine one-on-one with a professional.  You’ll get honest feedback, and with a bigger time slot, you’ll more memorable if you end up submitting to them in the future.

While there are less people to pitch to, there are often more chances to get help with a tricky synopsis, a crumbling query letter, or feedback on your first five pages. There are often group outings, with a chance to really get to know the guests that are invited along. Trips to book stores, or a museum, or the funky buffet down the road.  And beyond the cost for yourself – your meal, your train ticket into town, and so on – there is rarely an extra fee.

As to the cons of a large conference:

Big conferences are big opportunity – but you’re just one of hundreds of writers, and there is always someone who is more poised, more polished, and with better-sounding premise. It can be a little disheartening, and people can be a little more cut-throat about talking to the pros.  You have less of a chance to be an individual, and less of a chance to get to know the pros that are in attendance. While there is always something happening, it can be hard to prioritize, and you always feel like you’re missing out on something. With the panel levels varying widely – from beginner to pro – you never really know what you’re going to get when you sit down at the start of it.  There’s also a tendency to nickel-and-dime experiences. Paid meal-with-the-pros, keynotes, and pitch sessions add to the cost, as do mixers and formal events.

Big conferences are intimidating, and with the focused, eye-on-the-prize population a lot of them have, they can also be extremely discouraging and make a new writer feel like they’re so far behind, they’ll never catch up.

And the smaller conferences:

Small conferences are cozy. Intimate. And sometimes a little cliquey.  The people who have attended for years all know each other and most of the new people came in through one of the old. They already critique for one another, have in-jokes, and read each other’s works.  Breaking in and making friends can be a struggle, but once you’re in, you’re in for life.

There can be a lot less to do, and everything hinges on the presenters that are in attendance. If they’re no good at panels, there will be very few good panels. If they’re terrible with feedback, you won’t get much professional feedback. If none of the three or four pros in attendance do your genre, there isn’t another professional that will.

Final Thoughts:

Whether you attend a large or a small conference, are a beginner or an expert, the thing that will make the most difference is how much you put yourself out there. Take the opportunities that are presented to you. Submit a first page, a query letter, or sit for a critique.  Talk to the shy writer in the lobby before check-in, and the out-going out-of-towner looking to make new friends. Focus on learning, experiencing, and actively engaging in the experience. And remember, whether you’re at a large or a small conference, you can’t be everywhere at once, so focus on the panels you do make it to, and not the ones you’ve missed.

Can’t get enough of Brittany’s wisdom?  Follow her on twitter!  And while you’re at it, check out these other conference-going Alaskan writers: @SummerHugsBooks @Kate_Dutton @kirstenupnorth @ChristinaSeine @Stataliasbooks @NikkiHyson and @jwintersak

Status and 3D Characters

Information for this blog post came from Steven James’ breakout session, How to Create Three-Dimensional Characters. He’s quirky, fun, and talks with his hands. Go check him out!

StatusA woman is slumped on a couch; a man stands over her, glaring at her with folded arms. Who has higher status?

The woman finally closes her book and looks up at him, clearly annoyed. He puts his hands on his hips and starts complaining about all the ways she’s messed up today. She frowns, unimpressed, and says nothing. Who has higher status now?

The man tells her she needs to shape up or find a new apartment. The woman leaps to her feet, waving her arms and screaming. She flings the book across the room, and the man shakes his head and leaves. Now who has higher status?

There are many different kinds of status. Relational status is a character’s status in personal relationships (family, friends, that one guy from high school biology that you just can’t stand). Positional status is a character’s status in a professional setting, such as her position at work. Situational status is the status of your character against whoever she happens to be interacting with at that moment; if three strangers show up in your living room with knives, chances are pretty good that they have higher situational status.

What makes characters interesting is variable status. Maybe your character was no doubt the snappiest dresser at last Friday’s sock hop, but she then has to go to work Saturday morning for a squeaky-voiced misogynist who makes her stay after hours to clean the floors on hands and knees. But then she goes home and gets the royal treatment because she’s the only one keeping bread on the table since Grandpa retired and Joe got laid off. Varying status in varying situations is what keeps a character interesting. Without these dichotomies and contradictions, characters can feel one dimensional and unrealistic.

“Turning the tables” happens when a character with seemingly low status suddenly claims the higher ground. Say the three guys with knives charge into the living room to find an aging man sitting on his couch eating a bowl of ice cream. The three men seem to have the higher status- they’re in a larger group, they’re armed, they have the element of surprise. But then the man pulls a fully automatic rifle from under the couch and calmly tells them, “Kids, you’ve got about five seconds to get out of my house.” Who has the higher status now?

Control always boosts a character’s status. A character can manifest control internally (keeping her temper in check), externally (stopping the bomb before it blows up the White House), or interpersonally (calming his raging daughter with a few quiet words and a hug). The way a character stands, how long she holds a gaze, how cool she is in a crisis- all these things convey control, or lack thereof.

Let’s go back to the sample characters at the beginning of this post. They actually swap higher status back and forth. In the first segment, the man is using physical presence to attain higher status- the fact that he’s standing over her with folded arms is a very dominant position. But when he’s whining about everything and the woman keeps her silence, unimpressed, she has higher status because she’s clearly the calmer character. But that gets thrown out of the window when she starts ranting and throwing things. Stillness is power. A lack of stillness shows that she can’t even control herself.

The two most important characters you will write in your story are your protagonist and your antagonist. Both of these characters need to have high status, but they can have high status in different ways. For example, antagonists usually have very high positional status (such as Lucas’ Emperor Palpatine or Goodkind’s Darken Rahl) while protagonists often don’t (Luke Skywalker, Richard Cypher). But protagonists usually have high relational status- they’re loved and trusted by their friends- and situational status- people, powers, or tools, show up to aid them in their quest; they also always have the moral high ground. But no matter what kind of high status they have, it’s very important that neither protagonists nor antagonists lower their status through their own actions. If they lower their own status, they come off as weak, stupid, or otherwise unworthy of their counterpart, and the final clash in the climax is less tense as a result.

Protagonists need opportunities to be heroic, to be noble. They need to sacrifice for the good of others. They need to stand up for the oppressed. They need to place the best interests of others ahead of their own.

On the other hand, antagonists need opportunities to be dastardly. They need to be seen as scary, as wrong, as the kind of person that needs to be taken down. Evil for the sake of evil is boring, so they need motivation and intention that leads them in that direction. As Steven James said about all characters: “Action without intention distances readers- What are they trying to avoid, obtain, or overcome?” Your antagonist’s and your protagonist’s motivation and intention should be clearest to readers, so make sure it’s clearest in your own mind first.

Remember, “realistic characters: are consistent and reasonably predictable; are caricatures, not stereotypes; act only when motivated or caused to do so; and are believable and interesting.” If your characters are lacking in any of these respects, take the time to remedy that! Make sure you understand what motivates your characters, why they make the choices they do, how they move through their world. Understand how their status changes from person to person that they interact with, and use those actions to propel your protagonist to greatness.

 During the class, Steven James shared a beautifully concise list of character actions and behaviors that indicated higher or lower status. I’ll post that Friday, because ‘tis the season.  See you then!

The Call

Today’s cool cool blog post is a throwback to the writer’s conference I attended all those months ago. But I still have more information to share! Next week should be the last of the conference posts, but please let me know if you have anything else in particular you’d like to hear about. Until then, have some more brain-conglomeration from Laurie McLean, Andy Kifer, and Danielle Smith. They’re fantastic!

Once Upon a Time... communication one hundred years ago. An early telephoneThis will happen some day. I will be sitting in my kitchen baking something unnecessarily complicated. My mysteriously sticky flip phone will ring and I’ll wipe my hands on my apron and answer.

It will be a literary agent. A literary agent ready to talk representation.

My heart will implode in my chest, all the blood will drain from my skull, my knees will wobble, and my youngest child will start screaming. By the time I hang up, my baking adventure will be hopelessly ruined.

But all will not be lost, for I have prepared myself for that very moment. In between the screaming child and the destroyed foodstuff, I will run to my desk for this very thing: my list of questions to ask an agent during The Call. (I kid you not. The following exactly sits on my desktop.)

Take a breath. Chit chat. Be yo’ cool self. And then…

Definitely ask:

What was it about my book that made you want to work with me?

Are there any areas in the story that you think need to be reworked? How extensive do you think edits will be?

Are you interested in working with me on only this project, or on all future projects? How long does agency representation last? Is there an agency agreement, and may I read it beforehand?

How frequently do you communicate with clients? What’s your preferred style? (Phone? Email? Smoke signals?)

Maybe ask:

What do you charge for what? (15% of any deals? Subsidiary rights licenses? Out of pocket expenses?)

What happens if you leave the agency (death, disability, retirement, moves on to different agency, etc.)?

As an agent, what do you consider your strong suit? (Pitching, editing, negotiating, etc)

(Okay, not a question) Here are some ideas I have on promotional/marketing plans for this particular project.

What happens if we don’t sell this book?

Don’t ask:

Can you tell me about your list? (Anything about their list of sales and their other clients is probably online. In fact, you should probably have already looked at it when you were doing your research. Asking this will make it look like you didn’t do your homework at all.)

How big is your agency? (Again, this is online and you should already know this before you even sent your query.)

How long have you been in business? (Seriously. Homework. You did it, right?)

Now before you get the call, it’s important to have some idea of what your ideal answers would be. (I didn’t include mine in this list because I didn’t think that would be super helpful to you.) For example, when I ask an agent what her strong suit is, I should have an idea of what kind of agent I’m looking for. A hand holder? A negotiation shark? An editing agent? A business agent who can pitch, pitch, pitch? If I don’t already have a sense of what I’m hoping for, any one of those answers will sound just as good as any other, and I’m not any closer to finding my ideal agent.

Also keep in mind that you don’t have to go over all of these questions. (It’s a hefty list. You probably shouldn’t.) See where the conversation takes you! Have fun, be your charming self. By the end of the conversation, both of you should be happy and confident. And feel free to ask for a week or two to consider the offer, especially if you have other agents you’ve queried that deserve a heads up that an offer’s been made. (Don’t ask for more than three or four weeks, though. Be courteous.)

Still not sure what sorts of things you want to ask agents? Victoria Strauss pulled together an amazing resource on her website called Questions to Ask Your Prospective Literary Agent. She has links to bunches of posts on the subject from authors, agents, and literary companies. If you’d like to give the topic a bit more research, go give it a gander!