Sunday, February 26, 2017


Normally my Fridays are spent in my office grading papers, doing course prep, meeting with students, and doing other generic academic grunt work.

But this week I took a day off--from academic work, at least.

As I mentioned in last week's post, I signed up for the Alabama Writing Workshop. The meeting was Friday, so I rescheduled my office hours and, instead of spending the day on campus, I spent it at a hotel in Birmingham, schmoozing with other writers and meeting industry professionals.

I'm a nervous person in general. My anxiety brain never stops coming up with potential scenarios for disaster--which can be great for writing, but is considerably less great when it comes to trying to make a good first impression. I spent a pretty significant portion of the day reminding myself that the goal was to learn more and if that was all I accomplished that would be a victory. I also spent a pretty significant portion of the day reminding myself that I had to do things like breathe and blink and maybe drink some water. My hands shook when I met new people. I tripped over my words and stuttered.

It was awesome.

As someone who's spent the better part of fifteen years trying to make something of my ambitions to write professionally and to get my stories out into the world, I went in with a solid body of background knowledge. I knew about some of the resources mention (I've actually plugged some of them in different blog posts--I'll go back through and make a full list to post soon). I had done a fair bit of the recommended prep work. But even at that, hearing the professionals name check the resources I've been using was encouraging. I frequently feel--and I imagine other writers in positions similar to mine also feel--like I'm treading water. Now, though, I've got a sense that I'm at least treading the right water.

The seminars were led by agents and editors. They dealt with topic ranging from seeking out representation for work, improving writing, making use of social media, and what happens after a book deal is signed. It was a ton of information, and I took pages of notes (and, thankfully, the speakers provided outlines and resources for their talks, so I should be able to review and find what I inevitably missed). And those were just the talks.

The session that met right after lunch was, to me, one of the most informative. It wasn't so much a talk as it was a review. Attendees were told they could bring copies of their first page (sans names, of course) and the panel of agents would read through them--or parts of them--and give critiques. Essentially, the panel members would indicate when a page lost them, when they'd stop reading. My page didn't get read (and I'm actually glad it didn't since this panel was before my scheduled pitching time), but the issues that were pointed out in the pages that were read gave me some insight into how to improve mine.

It was a fantastic insight into how quickly some of these decisions can get made--how vital a strong first page is. It was also an opportunity to learn where the mileage varied for the specific agents on the panel. When they found something that didn't work, they said why. Sometimes it was an issue with the structure, but sometimes it was more subjective. And when panel members disagreed, they said so and explained why.

To me, though, valuable as all of the sessions were, the best part was meeting in-person for a one-on-one session with an agent.

The one-on-one was an addition to the conference--an extra event with an extra fee, and each instance of the fee got one sit-down with one agent. This was another instance where my background research came in handy--adjunct pay isn't great, so I only had enough funds to sit down with one agent. I reviewed the list, checked their websites and MSWL and Publisher's Marketplace (and availability--I registered last minute, so some slots were sold out). The sit-down was a ten-minute conversation, an opportunity to do a quick elevator pitch of the project and to ask and answer questions.

I spent the whole day nervous, but this is where the butterflies got out of hand. I managed--I made it through my pitch without too much word vomit. My hands (and voice) shook the whole time, but not so much that I couldn't be understood. I lost the thread of what I was saying for a second, but I got back on track, and the conversation didn't seem to suffer for it. The agent that I spoke with really did more than politeness demanded to ease my nerves (seriously, she was the nicest person I talked to through the conference--which made pitching that much more pleasant).

I didn't walk away with an offer of representation or a full manuscript request--I didn't expect to. But I did get an invitation to send a sample of Project 2016. And, after my pitch, she asked about other projects related to Project 2016 (some of the things I said in my pitch, she said, suggested that there were more stories)--which she asked for brief pitches for in my submission packet. There are never any guarantees--she liked the idea of the story, but it's still totally possible that my writing style won't be what she's looking for or that the draft flat-out isn't strong enough. But I am so glad--so glad--that I took the chance to talk to her face to face about the project.

It's the most promising lead that I've got so far, and even if it doesn't work out, I know where the strengths and weaknesses of my pitch are better now than ever before. I've got new tools to use as I keep working.

I won't be able to do many of these conferences--again, adjunct pay leaves a lot to be desired--but if I have the chance to go to another, I think I will. If you've been working on a project and are considering a conference, I hope you go. Worst case scenario, you still win--you still come out with more than you had when you went in.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Writers' Conference

This week, I took a big step in furthering my writing career.

I signed up for my first writers' conference.

I've been to conventions before, of course, places where indie authors host panels on different aspects of writing and publishing (self-publishing and small press publishing, usually) and sell their wares.

These experiences have certainly been valuable, but more often than not, the people I've met at conventions are in the same place I am. They've been writing for years. They've sold a few pieces to presses of various sizes, usually on the smaller end of the spectrum. They aren't agented, usually--in fact, I think I've only met one author with an agent at a convention. I've made some good connections at these events, and they're how I first heard of my two current publishers.

But as far as making the transition from being an indie author selling to small presses to deals with larger publishers that won't review a submission from an unagented author, conventions haven't given me what I need.

I've written in the past about my attempts to get an agent so far, where my struggles and successes have been and what I've learned from the process. I've been largely self-educating through this process. I look up articles on how to pitch, I dig through lists of agents trying to find ones who represent my genre and who sound like they might be on the same wavelength as I am. I peruse Manuscript Wish List and I keep up with the Writer's Digest blog looking for new ideas of people to query and tips on refining my pitches.

I've been doing what I can, but what I really want, what I think I need, is guidance. A chance to talk with the people on the other end--to the agents and editors I'm trying to get my work in front of. I want a chance to hear what they themselves have to say and to ask questions, maybe even to sit one-on-one and talk about my pitch, specifically.

There are meetings all over the country that offer opportunities like this--writers' conferences (conferences, not conventions--one's focused more on the craft where the other is a little more sales and entertainment oriented) and writers' workshops hosted by agents and editors that offer panels on querying and critiques and short sit-downs with agents.

But these events tend to end up where there are communities to support them--which tends to translate to larger cities or places that tend to draw a lot of tourists and conventions (and so tend to have better infrastructure for dealing with the influx of people). Which is fine.

Unless you can't afford to travel and live in places that aren't exactly hot spots for convention hosting. Most of these meetings have been out of my price range and too far out of town for me to reasonably make the trip.

So I was pretty excited when the Alabama Writers Workshop was announced. It's close enough to me that I can get to it and, because it's a slightly smaller meeting, it's price tag isn't as big. And it happened to coincide with a pay increase (also a workload increase, but that's another story).

I signed up. I paid my registration fee. I dropped the extra money to get a one-on-one with one of the agents that will be there. Now I've got a little less than a week to iron out my verbal pitch, print copies of my first page for review, do more background research on the agent I'm meeting, and figure out what specific questions I'm going to focus on finding answers to.

I'm not anticipating that I'll walk out of the convention next week with a manuscript request (though wouldn't that be awesome?). But I hope I'll at least leave with a better sense of where I am and what work I need to do to get my project out into the world at the level that I want. I don't know what exactly the experience will bring, but I'm looking forward to it.

And I imagine I'll tell you all about it next week.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

The Who and the What

There are a million concerns that come up when I'm writing a story--pacing, development, wording, and on and on. But there are two that come first, two concerns that are the crux of the process.

Character and plot. Or, the who and the what.

Who is my story about? What happens in the story? These are the first two questions I have to find answers to when I start work on a new project. And they seem obvious. I can't tell a story unless I know whose story I'm telling. And if I don't know what happens, then I just have characters hanging around with no particular aim.

These are basic, bare-bones questions. The should be simple.

But I have a hard time answering both. I can come up with characters that live and breathe. Or I can come up with a fully-articulated plot. But I run into problems when I try to do both.

With Evin, the plot came first. I had the story worked out from beginning to end. I knew all the moving pieces of what would happen. But the characters were vague--ideas more than living participants for the story. They sounded the same. None of them had specific motivations beyond "do what the plot requires we do." I didn't have moments where I wondered what the point of a particular chapter was. I knew what beats had to be hit, what set pieces there had to be in each segment. I knew what scenes I needed.

But the human element was missing.

I did something around 5 drafts of Evin before it got to where it is now. There was a lot that was improved on between the first draft and the published draft. The voices are more specific. The motivations are somewhat clearer. But when I look at the book, I'm not satisfied.

With Project 2016, the situation was largely opposite. The characters came first, a team of them with specific backgrounds and desires and voices. I knew who these people were, and I knew them completely--and almost immediately. Not just how to make them sound different on the page, but what made them tick. Why would this person say these words? Why is this one the one that has to take the risk or do the task? Why does this one react so strongly to a particular situation? I could drop these characters into almost any scenario and know how they would interpret it. These characters aren't vague--they live and breathe.

But I was never completely sure what to do with them.

Evin's plot never changed during the process. The journey, the goal--I knew what they were from the beginning.

With Project 2016, I came up with a potential conflict and explored. I got a skeletal plot. I let it sit for years before coming back and refining it--fleshing out the conflict and figuring out some scenes that the characters' personalities would dictate. And then it wasn't enough.

I want people to connect with these characters--and to get that to happen, I figured out that the plot couldn't start where I thought it did. And that it might need to continue after I thought it would end.

I can't speak to which process is the better one for me in the long run. I personally feel more connected to Project 2016 than to Evin, but that could just be because it's the current project. Or I could be happier with it because I've learned new tools and tricks since I did the work on Evin, and it might have less to do with the process than with the level of experience. All I do know is that I have to get to a point where the what and the who are both fully formed. I can't rely solely on an interesting plot or solely on complete characters to compel a reader to stick with me.

For my readers who are writers, where do you start with a new project? What parts come first? How do you make sure you're giving each piece the best you can offer?

Monday, February 6, 2017

That Point

I don't know how it is for other people, but with everything I write, I hit that point. If you do, too, then I don't have to explain what that point is.

If you don't, then let me first say that I am incredibly envious of you.

When I start work on a project, I'm excited and energetic. I've never started a story that I didn't love--because, to me, if you don't love it why bother writing it in the first place? And the first part of the process is an enthusiastic flurry of activity. I'm outlining, researching, taking notes. I start pounding out a draft at an impressive pace, especially compared to what I normally end up falling to later on in the work.

I'm able to keep this up for a while. The first third of a draft, usually--the first half if I'm lucky. In the beginning, it's like being in love. I'm never more excited than when I'm writing the first chapters of a new novel or the first pages of a short story.

But somewhere along the way, it always sours.

There comes a point--that point--in every piece that I work on where I hate every bit of it. I look at my work and see nothing worth liking. The characters are flat. The setting is blank. The plot has holes big enough to drive a truck through. Every sentence feels clunky and aimless. I can't make myself care about what happens to the characters or how the plot resolves--and if I can't make myself care, how can I expect anyone else to?

It's never fun to get to this place with my work. This is part of why I let finished drafts sit for a while before I go back and revise. By the time I finish a draft, I typically hate it. I'm not able to revise it without wanting to more or less burn the thing to the ground and start all over. I have to leave it alone for a while so that I can come at it with a clearer eyes. (The work is never as bad as I think it is. It's usually not as good, either.)

I'm just starting a new project--the pitch I mentioned a few posts ago that got picked up for publication--so I'm pretty far from that point right now, but my writing partner seems like she might be there now.

I used to think that I was the only one that got to that point. That other writers knew their work's value all along--that a good writer always felt like their writing was good.

In hindsight, that's a pretty ridiculous thing to believe. Creating anything is a trial-and-error process, and a perfectionist is never satisfied. But it's easy to forget that, to compare your draft with someone else's final product.

I think that's really what that point is. You can't see how you're going to get you imperfect, lumpy mess to become a smooth, beautiful narrative. I think that's why it's important to take a step back sometimes, to get fresh eyes on the work. Your own perspective is always going to be skewed--a can't-see-the-forest-for-the-trees kind of thing. It's hard to keep going when you hit that point. But it's a normal part of the process--and, like I said, the work is never as bad as we tend to think.