What is a Writers Conference?
A Writers Conference is a professional gathering of people involved in the publishing industry. Attendees run the range from writers, illustrators, editors, agents, publishers and techie people.
A year ago, in preparation for the Pennwriters conference, I did a post called Conferences–What to Bring, What to Leave Behind. That was a cheerleadery post meant to encourage writers not to be shy or commit faux pas. The advice remains relevant and true, as cheerleading is one of my specialties.
Today’s post will focus specifically on three conference-related opportunities: Pitches, Read & Critiques, and The Bar.
1 ~ How to Prepare for a Pitch:
A pitch is a short private session between a writer and an assigned editor or agent. A pitch is the author’s chance to sell his story. That’s the official version, the one that will make you crazy, keep you up at night, and make your palms sweat like it’s your first date/arrest/ prostate exam/time in the confessional. If you set the weight of your writing world on five minutes with another human being you believe holds the key to the universe, you’re going to be stressed out. I got stressed out just writing that sentence.
So look at it this way: A pitch is a conversation. You’re going to meet with someone and talk about your story. You love your story, right? You are thrilled to find someone who’ll listen to you discuss your story, right? Take that into your pitch. It’s a conversation.
If you are still nervous about what to talk about in your conversation, consider these three questions:
What are you writing? Why are you writing this story? Who do you think would buy this book?
Think about honest answers to these questions and prepare to chat about them for a few minutes. That’s all you have to do.
If it comforts you to have a memorized log line for your story, try this formula:
Name of story is a word count + genre about a main character who must Story Question before consequences if Story Question is not solved.
2 ~ How to Prepare for a Read & Critique
A Read & Critique is (usually) a round robin type session where a short piece of work is read aloud and verbally critiqued on the spot. Sometimes the feedback comes only from the editor/agent/combo assigned to the sessions. Sometimes other writers in the group chime in.
The best way to prepare for an R&Q session is, first, understand the critiquer is working with no advance look at your work and no time to be diplomatic in response. As a veteran of R&Q, I can tell you it’s difficult to process on the spot, especially work that is delivered orally when you’re accustomed to writing on the page. It feels very Johnny-on-the-spot. Cut the critiquers some slack if a nuance or two is missed.
Second, understand that feedback is subjective–but it’s intended to be an aid and make your work stronger. This translates to Don’t Argue. Don’t Argue doesn’t mean you have to agree with every comment, but defending your work defeats the purpose. Allowing for individual reading levels and styles, if you have to explain what’s on the page to every person in the group, it means what’s on the page isn’t explaining itself.
Third, to prepare for an R&Q session, follow the guidelines. If you are to turn in two pages, don’t turn in one, or three. Read it aloud yourself. If it sounds boring or convoluted to you, the author, guess what? It will sound dull or confusing to the critiquer. Select an opening or vivid scene that best reflects your work and that works in an oral setting. Don’t choose a piece from the middle of a story that includes a lot of pronouns–how can the critiquer know who “he” or “she” is if we haven’t yet met the characters?
Many R&Q sessions are done anonymously. If you have a positive reaction from the agent/editor, by all means seek out that person with a followup email after the conference, to express your appreciation for the helpful comments. Even if that person doesn’t accept work in your genre and you don’t see yourself working with them, it’s good to hear from this end that the session did some good. Likewise, if you have a constructive criticism about the session, I would listen to it–in an email after the conference, not button holed in the bathroom or while I’m attempting to enjoy my down time. Which leads me to….
3 ~ How to Work the Conference Bar
The Bar may not be the bar-bar, it may be the Hospitality Room, the meet-n-greet area, the foyer, or the actual bar. It’s the place where attendees gather between or after workshops.
Making contacts with editors, agents and publishers at a conference is fabulous. But on a day-to-day, practical level, it’s the contacts with your colleagues and fellow writers that will serve you best. Publishing is a small little world. We are like-minded individuals with similar goals and interests, even if we cross genres. The bar is the place to make friends. Contacts and networking aside, ask people who are repeat attendees at a conference and I’ll bet the majority will offer this as the primary reason for attending year after year: To see writer friends.
Sidle up to the bar, the bench, the pool or pull up a piece of carpet wherever your colleagues are gathering and jump in. Make some writer friends.
Tomorrow’s Topic: How to Stop Stalling
“Use stronger verbs rather than modifiers. People say don’t use …LY words, but they don’t explain why. The real task is using a more descriptive verb.”
What is a verb?
A verb is a word that shows action, being or doing.
Verbs drive the narrative of a story; verbs control pace, determine tension, reveal secrets. It is a hefty job, so selecting a strong verb to perform the sentence’s task is not a willy-nilly undertaking.
How do you choose a strong verb for every sentence? By breaking down word choice into three areas of consideration: Task, Precision and Structure
In every sentence, a verb performs a job. To make a good verb choice, think about the task to be performed. Second, choose a verb specific to the task. Finally, construct the sentence in a direct and powerful way so the verb is not impeded in its duty.
- Verb Task – What do characters commonly do in stories? They walk, run, climb, sit, jump, look, think, grab, pull, throw. This list could go on and on. To illustrate, let’s use the verb walk.
Walk is a good example for two reason. First, it’s common and universal. Second, it’s so common and universal, writers try not to use it, sometimes in a good way, sometimes not so good.
Here’s a task: We need to get a man to cross a courtyard to get to a gate, and he can’t walk there.
~ He went across the courtyard to the gate. Really? Visualize this. Tell me what “went” looks like.
~ He moved across the courtyard to the gate. Moved? Like, drifted? Packed up his suitcase so he could live closer to the gate?
~He approached the gate from across the courtyard. Hmm. Approach means to come or go near, but there is nuance to approach, a sense of intention. There must be something special at the gate, if he’s taking the trouble to approach it. So, if he gets to the gate and nothing special is there, the word is misleading.
Which leads to the next consideration:
- Precision – Why do we want him across the courtyard to the gate? What’s going on in the story that, first, requires him to be near the gate and, second, can be heightened by a strong verb?
If there is an emergency near gate, he would run, sprint, hustle, dash, rush, bound.
If there is danger near the gate, he would creep, tread, sneak, tiptoe, steal, skulk, scuttle.
If there is an attractive woman near the gate, he would saunter or swagger, amble or meander, depending on his level of confidence.
There are many choices for the word walk, but not all walks are the same. Consider these homonyms: stroll, march, stride, tread, tramp. Visualize them. Does stroll look like tramp? No. Each verb is a precise way of walking. As such, each verb adds something else to the story. The guy still gets to the gate, but there is subtext to the verb choice that tells more.
One of my favorite illustrative examples of walking is the word lope. Close your eyes and picture a man loping across the courtyard to the gate. Now consider these questions:
~Is the man short or tall?
~Is he young or old?
~Is he healthy or infirm?
~Is he confident or timid?
~Is he worried or relaxed?
~Is there an emergency?
~Is he headed to a specific place or not?
Lope is great because it answers the above questions through implication–aka subtext.
Loping requires long legs, so the man must be tall. Loping requires strength to take long strides, so the man is probably young, healthy and confident. Loping is not slow but it is not hurried, so there is probably no emergency and he’s probably not worried. He may be headed to a particular spot and is walking in a determined fashion to get there, or he may be out for exercise. The last is hard to tell. Lope can only tell so much.
- Structure – A strong sentence construction gives power to all its parts. Write in the active voice. I have devoted two former posts on How To Be–or Not To Be–an Active Writer, part I and part II. Here are simple examples of active versus passive construction.
~ He rushed, instead of He was rushing.
~ He stalked, instead of He was stalking.
~ He plowed ahead, instead of He was plowing ahead.
~ He loped, instead of He was loping.
~ He walked, instead of He was walking.
Decide on the verb’s task. Find the word that best describes that task. Craft an active sentence and voila! You wrote a strong sentence.
To go back to the suggestion above and the comment about …LY words, think of this. If you are tempted to say someone walked quickly, don’t you mean he ran? If you write someone spoke loudly, don’t you mean she yelled? If you write someone cried piteously, don’t you mean they sobbed?
Choose a strong, precise verb and it will do the job on its own.
I dedicate this post to my friend and writing colleague, KB Inglee, who sent the suggestion at the top.
Tomorrow’s Topic: How To Prepare for a Writers Conference
What is a Free Write?
A Free Write is an informal gathering of writers who meet to practice their writing. Free writing can help you discover new story ideas, dissolve writer’s block, or move forward on a work in progress.
Some Free Writes are guided, using prompts and round robin sharing of what was created during the session. Other Free Writers meet in a specified location, fire up their laptops, and work on individual projects in a quiet, supportive atmosphere.
Some writing organizations hold regular Free Write sessions for their members and visitors. One group in my area, the Rehoboth Beach Writers Guild, posts prompts via a Facebook page. Both organized and informal groups hold Free Writes during intense writing times, such as November during NaNoWriMo.
To host an unguided Free Write is simple: select a space (library meeting room, coffee shop), invite people, and show up to write.
A guided Free Write requires a little more work. It needs a plan, a program, and a facilitator.
A Free Write plan includes the purpose of the session and how that will be demonstrated. Will the Free Write focus on one area of writing, such as sensory details; story openings; colors; encounters both hostile and friendly? Will there be a theme, with specific prompts from broad categories such as holidays, childhood, marriage?
A Free Write’s program is like a meeting agenda: the order of business and length of each prompt session. For a guided Free Write, the program should include time to write but also time to read aloud if the group includes sharing as part of the experience.
A Free Write facilitator is the person who runs the meeting: she states the rules, offers the prompts, watches the clock, and guides the sharing sessions.
Here’s a sample 2-hour, Free Write program based on a Memorial Day theme:
Arrival and welcome by the Facilitator- 15 minutes, which includes:
…the purpose of the Free Write (to have fun and explore ourselves as writers)
…the theme of the day (Memorial Day)
… the guidelines about the Free Write (prompts will be offered, time given to write, and round robin sharing to follow. Sharing is optional. Anyone who wishes to pass on a particular prompt or share can simply say, “Pass.”)
Prompt #1 : “in the trenches” – 5 minutes to write, 15 minutes to share
Prompt #2: “poppies” – 5 minutes to write, 15 minutes to share
Free writing time: Unguided time for writers to expand on prompts or write on any subject of their choosing – 20 minutes
Prompt #3: “parade” – 2 minutes to write, 10 minutes to share
Prompt #4: “picnic disaster” – 2 minutes to write, 10 minutes to share
Prompt #5: “sacrifice” – 5 minutes to write, 15 minutes to share
Free writing time – whatever time is left over from prompts and sharing
Memorial Day was used as a Free Write theme a year ago, at a local Get Out & Write Free Write. Click here for a sampling of what writers created from the “poppies” prompt.
Free Writes can be a boon to a writer’s creativity as well as an introduction to other writers. Try one!
Tomorrow’s Topic – How To Choose Strong Verbs
Yesterday, we left off with a stranger opening the door to our pretend character party. Strangers can be important in a story—or not. Looking at the function of a stranger is a good way to illustrate the point of this post.
With the exception of a regular cast in a series, each character is a stranger to the reader. It is the author’s job to pull off a stranger’s mask and reveal the interesting and engaging person inside.
The trick is deciding how much to reveal about characters without overloading the reader will unnecessary information. Who gets a name? Who gets a description? Who needs background? Who has tics and habits? Who performs a single function that could, possibly, be performed by someone else?
Overpopulating causes the reader extra work. Every character introduction takes up brain space. Every detail has to be stored. Every name processed. If a writer puts too much of that in the front of the story, it impedes the reader’s ability to make an emotional attachment to the primary character or situation. There’s too much extraneous stuff using up the reader’s brain power.
Think about it. At a party, if you stand before a round table of people who introduce themselves by name, how many of those names do you remember five minutes later?
When too many characters are thrown at a reader, it’s tough to tell which are the important ones, so all of them lose some measure of importance. The bigger the crowd, the harder it is to focus on an individual.
How does an author make judicious choices about a story’s population? Here are some simple questions.
1 ~ What is this character’s function in the story?
2 ~ Can the plot move forward without this person’s involvement?
3 ~ Can someone else perform this function?
4 ~ How much page time or detail does this character require?
If the answer to #3 is yes, and the plot does not hinge on a particular character’s presence, the question becomes, keep or toss?
Any schmuck can open a door. If the schmuck does nothing else, he doesn’t need a name. If the schmuck is going to turn up in the wine cellar with a bottle of chardonnay imbedded in his right temple, maybe he should open the door with a smirk, or a nervous laugh, or call the new guest by the wrong name. In short, if the stranger is going to reappear in the story in a big way, remove some of his mask and start the revelation process. If the schmuck is going to disappear into the crowd, don’t bother describing him.
But what about the people in stories who make small appearances that move a a story along in some small way? Life is full of encounters by people we know by name but are not necessarily important to our lives, but add color and detail. Does the same apply to a story?
Yes, and no. If characters appear for local color, that’s fine. Learning about setting through a unique character certainly works. The lady who mans the counter of the fish market and wears crawfish claw earrings—she should get a name. It’s better if she’s friendly and sees everyone in town, so she probably knows all the dirt.
But the checkout girl who is blah and never engages anyone in chit chat? If all she does is perform a single, uninteresting function, does she need to be more than the checkout girl? Probably not.
Which leads to a problem solving question. If you suspect your story is character heavy, think about combining characters. Can crawfish claw earring lady also run the register at the fish market? One interesting character trumps two flat ones every time.
Last time, I asked a word problem type question about Daniel and the pharmacist. For folks who like mathy things, here’s a simple formula to help control your story population:
Character function + importance + interest = degree of detail.
It’s tough to depopulate a story, but if a character doesn’t add something memorable, strike them from the guest list.
Tomorrow’s topic: Sunday is a day of rest. Monday’s topic will be How To Run a Free Write
What is Overpopulation?
In a story, Overpopulation means there are too many characters; or it can mean too many characters are introduced at one time; or it can mean the prose is cluttered with unnecessary details about throwaway or stock characters.
Entering the world of a new story is like walking into a party. Maybe you are acquainted with the host (protagonist) and his/her spouse (sidekick/love interest) because you been to their home (read about them) before. Maybe they are new to you. For the sake of this post, let’s pretend you’re walking into a book party and you don’t know a soul.
Who greets you at the door and invites you inside? There are four possibilities:
The host ~ At the book party, this would be the protagonist or main character (MC). The MC is your guide through the story. As a guest, you want to get to know your host, so you would notice this person’s speech, clothes and manners; you’d listen attentively to their anecdotes; you’d observe their interaction with other guests.
A greeter ~ At a party-party, this would be a butler, doorman, or a relative assigned to the task; at our book party, this person would be a minor or secondary character who serves a function in the story. The function may be large or small. How much you learn about this person depends on how important their story task.
A stranger ~ A random person who happens to be near the door when you ring the doorbell. In fiction, this would be a throwaway character: a character who performs a single function and leaves the story when that act is done. Do you need to know this person’s personal history if all they’re good for in the story is opening the door? Maybe. Maybe not.
No one ~ There is no host, greeter or random stranger at the door. You walk right in, like an open house, and work the party using your own social skills.
Who does not answer the door at a party? A group of people, each of whom introduces him/herself to you and thus expects you to decipher a jumble of names and descriptions two steps inside the story door.
Have you ever read a story where the first chapter is so overloaded with names and character details, you feel like you’ve walked into a room full of strangers who are all babbling at you at once? This is a form of Overpopulation. Throwing too many characters at the reader just inside the door forces the reader to work extra hard. Why are you making your reader work so hard?
How do you keep from Overpopulating a story? Begin by considering the function of each character and how much the reader needs to learn about him/her/it.
With primary characters, it’s simple. The reader needs to know what this person looks like, what he does with his time each day, and a personal history. The reader needs enough background so there’s logic to why this person acts as he does. In short, we need a full dossier on the important people in the story.
Second, with minor or secondary characters, the reader needs to know enough to maintain story logic or make the plot work. Let’s say the MC’s neighbor is ex-military, which the author points out because the MC is often gone and the neighbor keeps an eye out on her place. Since the neighbor has an ongoing function in the story, let’s award him a name: Daniel. It’s helpful to see that Daniel keeps his high and tight haircut; to learn he goes running every morning; to know he keeps a loaded gun on his premises. It might be necessary to know Daniel suffered from PTSD; that he has screaming nightmares about his war experiences; that’s he’s wary of strangers and can be aggressive. Or, maybe Daniel’s background has given him a don’t-sweat-the-small stuff attitude. However much the author knows about Daniel, if none of this impacts the events of the story or drives the action, do we need to know so much about Daniel? This is the author’s choice, to decide if the guy next door is a nameless neighbor or our pal Daniel.
Third, let’s consider throwaway characters. Throwaway or stock characters are those folks who perform a single function in the story. Let’s take the young officer who delivers the bad news to the MC that the military guy next door has been found dead. If the officer is going to participate beyond this moment, he gets a name and physical description. We don’t need his life history, but it’s easier to remember Corporal Clark than “the officer who informed me of Daniel’s death.” On the flip side, if the pharmacist calls from the drug store to remind the MC her prescription’s been sitting in the basket for three days, and the purpose of that call is to get her out of the house so Daniel can sneak over and booby-trap her basement, do we need to know the name of the pharmacist? This sounds like a word problem from math class, but the answer is no.
Fourth, the stranger at the door.
We’ll talk about him, her, or it, tomorrow. Stay tuned.
Tomorrow’s Topic: How To Avoid Overpopulation, Part 2
What is a World Changer?
A World Changer is a phrase or sentence that alters the reader’s perception of the story world.
When a writer begins a story, he introduces the reader to the world of the story. That world can be today’s reality; it can be a specific, faraway place in the past; it can be today’s world with magical or supernatural elements; it can be the future; it can be a new and fantastical creation; it can be today’s world with an unexpected element.
It is the writer’s duty to reveal the rules of the story world. A World Change happens when a twist or revelation exposes the reader to a specific, unusual aspect of the story world. A shift in what the reader thought they knew about the story world is the result.
Here’s an example:
Harvey stopped at the edge of the field and listened for Mama and Pa. After a moment, their voices lifted over the freshly plowed field. Harvey slouched against the fence post. They were arguing, again. He couldn’t stand it anymore. He turned around and ran toward the tree line.
What does this tell you about this story world? Harvey is a child who lives on or near a farm. His parents argue, a lot. This bothers him. Now see what happens in the next line:
Harvey ran over and between the clumps of dirt thrown up by the plow, his quills bouncing as he picked up speed.
Quills? Harvey has quills? Okay, so now we know Harvey is an animal. A porcupine? Hedgehog?
He ran toward the bushes beneath the trees and dove into his favorite dugout to hide. He rolled into a ball and tried not to cry.
Chances are, we’d know from illustrations or cover copy that Harvey is a hedgehog. Without these aids, however, Harvey sounds like any child who gets upset by his parents’ arguments. He just happens to be a hedgehog child. Quills or no quills, his emotions are real.
Now consider this:
After a little while, Harvey unfurled himself and shook off the dirt from his spines. It was almost dark and tonight was The Coronation.
He reminded himself of his duty as prince. No matter how much his parents argued, he had to be present–and presentable–when the responsibility of the kingdom was placed upon him.
Oh. So Harvey is a hedgehog, and a prince, so his parents must be the royal family.
This is a somewhat absurd example but you get the point. With each sentence, we learn a new detail about Harvey that alters what we think we know about the world of this story.
Here’s something different:
Jacqueline walked along the boardwalk, wondering if she should touch up her sunblock. Her shoulders felt tender and hot. She glanced around the crowd, stopping at a handsome blond guy with no shirt leaning against the beach fence. He was licking a chocolate ice cream cone. Slowly. For a moment, Jacqueline swayed, imagining his cool, chocolate flavored tongue licking her hot shoulder.
The voice cried out a micro-second before a woman slammed into Jacqueline’s side. The woman grabbed onto Jacqueline’s arm for balance, and Jacqueline gasped. Violent images shot through her brain—a pipe crashing down from overhead, over and over.
She pulled away, her arm as hot as if she’d stuck it in a bonfire.
“I’m so sorry,” the woman said, but Jacqueline could only nod mutely and wince at the scars running from the woman’s hairline to her temple, where the pipe had come down.
Jacqueline is a woman at the beach on a hot day, made hotter by her quick fantasy about a handsome guy. But the world changes when a strange woman crashes into her and Jacqueline gets hit with a scene from this stranger’s past. Now we’ve learned Jacqueline is an empath, a person able to feel another person’s emotions or experiences through physical contact.
Now, what if their quick encounter had ended this way?
“I’m so sorry,” the woman said, but Jacqueline could only nod mutely and stare at the woman’s head. No scars. No bruises. It hadn’t happened–yet.
Now we know a new rule of the story world: Jacqueline can see the future. This is a character skill Stephen King used so effectively in The Dead Zone.
A final example, to show how a World Change can be used in a contemporary story that doesn’t include quills or special powers. This is from Catering to Nobody, the first in Diane Mott Davidson’s Goldy Schulz mystery series. Book one opens with Goldy in the kitchen. We learn through narrative she has a jerk of an ex-husband, her new catering business is struggling to stay afloat,and she has a best friend who calls to complain–humorously–about this, that and the other. In the world of mystery novels, the response to those three story elements might be, well, who doesn’t? And then comes this line:
I looked down at my right thumb, which still would not bend properly after John Richard had broken it in three places with a hammer.
Ah. This is different. We just learned Goldy was an abused wife. The jerky ex, the struggle to be independent, the reliance on a good friend–all of those details got kicked up a notch with that world changing line.
How do you write an effective World Changer?
1. Weave it into the narrative in an organic fashion. That means show, not tell, in a live scene.
2. Do it boldly. Harvey’s quills bounced as he ran. Don’t over explain, “As a hedgehog, Harvey had quills. They bounced as he ran.” No. Keep it quick and dirty: Harvey’s quills bounced as he ran.
3. Sprinkle changes in to give readers time to process. First we see Jacqueline get hit with the violent images. There is a break as she pulls away and the woman apologizes. Then we learn something new, that Jacqueline sees the past (or the future). That little break gave the reader time to digest one new story element before being tossed another one.
4. Make sure the World Change does its purpose in exposing or refining the unique aspects of the story world and is important to the story. If you are writing a World Change because it’s fun but it doesn’t affect the plot or the character, why are you making me work harder to learn something I don’t need to know? Don’t toy with your readers.
Have you changed your story world today?
Tomorrow’s topic: How to Avoid Overpopulation