Summer Reading

janav Writing Leave a Comment

In the era of blogs and binge-watching tv shows and addictive online games, even writers can be distracted from one of their most important pursuits: reading. It’s easy to forget that we can learn a tremendous amount from simply immersing ourselves in other peoples’ words.

There’s reading as a writer, which involves careful analysis of craft elements to see what works and how we might apply it to our own writing. But there’s also the task of absorbing story and language, keeping up with what others are writing in our genre, or actually (gasp) reading for enjoyment.

After binge-buying books at recent conferences and independent bookstores, I have a gorgeous feast of summer reading ahead of me. Some of the titles on my to-read list are:

The Last Chinese Chef – Nicole Mones
The Raven Boys – Maggie Stiefvater
Z, a Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald – Therese Anne Fowler
The Little Paris Bookshop – Nina George
The Queen of the Night – Alexander Chee

Brown Girl Dreaming – Jacqueline Woodson
H is for Hawk – Helen McDonald
Beijing Bastard – Val Wang
All the Single Ladies – Rebecca Traister
The Conde Nast Traveler Book of Unforgettable Journeys – Klara Glowczewska, ed.

There are more books piled up on my bookshelves, tables, and floors, but this will do for a start. I’m sure I’ll add more as the summer goes on.

What are you reading? Are you reading a little, every day? If not, try to make it a habit to fill the well regularly, and see if it makes a difference in your connection to your own writing.

Critique Groups 101

janav Resources, Writing Leave a Comment

32133502 - business men team office meeting concept top view people on table vector illustrationI’m excited because this weekend my MFA alumni critique group is meeting. We’ve been getting together for five years now, with slightly different configurations of people. The one thing we have in common is that we’ve been through Lesley University’s MFA program in creative writing. We didn’t all graduate at the same time, or in the same genre, and some of us have branched out to other genres over the years. We meet about three times per year, in someone’s house, for a day-long workshopping extravaganza.

Writers write in isolation, and often work for years before gaining any audience for their work. Writing is a craft, and it takes time to develop. A good critique group can offer wonderful support and a sense of community, which can keep you going when self-doubt sets in and you start thinking you’d rather binge watch say, every episode of every series of (your favorite guilty pleasure) ever written.

I clarify a good critique group because there are many bad ones. And some aren’t necessarily bad, just not right for you. It’s important to try out groups until you get the right fit. There are many ways to organize a critique group, but there are a few things I’ve learned over the years that I think contribute to a successful experience:

1. Keep it small – I think 4-6 people is ideal, but it may also depend on how often the group meets. Does everyone present work at every meeting? Or do people rotate?

2. Try to have writers in the group who are at similar levels, and have similar goals. Are they beginners? Have some experience? Are they serious writers who aim to publish? If you are a beginner in a group of very experienced writers, you may get discouraged. Or, if you are more advanced than the other writers, you may not get as much out of it.

3. Decide on a schedule – Monthly? A few times per year? Simply having a schedule, and knowing that you’re expected to produce work at those times, can do wonders for your productivity.

4. Rotate leadership – a group may be started by one person, but groups that stay together often have members take turns hosting, or managing the meetings. That way people are invested in it, and no one feels like they’re doing all the work to keep the group going.

5. Read in advance, if possible – some groups read at the meeting, but I think it’s better to circulate the work in advance, so that people have a chance to read and think about the comments they want to make. Ideally the discussion sparks more comments, but being familiar with the work helps deepen the discussion and makes it more helpful for the author.

6. Say what works as well as what doesn’t. Authors are sometimes the least able to see their work clearly. They may have the urge to fix something that really is working, or be blind to something that confuses everyone in the group. Both kinds of comments are helpful, as long as they are specific.

7. The author is quiet during the discussion – this can be hard, but think of it this way: you won’t be there to stand over the shoulder of your readers, explaining what you really meant. Listen to what the members of the group are saying. They may disagree, but if the majority makes a particular point, it’s probably worth looking at. You can ask clarifying questions at the end of the discussion.

8. Keep the tone respectful and supportive – anyone who doesn’t do this needs to be asked to leave. Yes, writers need a thick skin, but a critique group should be a place of support, not vicious criticism.

9. Be generous – share resources and information. If you find a great craft book, or an exercise that will be helpful, or know of an agent that is looking for something similar to what someone in the group has written – share it!

10. Have fun! – The focus should be on the work, but leave time at the beginning and/or the end for chat, for food, for trying out a new writing exercise, etc. You’re building relationships. Anyone who seems to only be there for what they get out of it, and is not serious about giving critique as well as receiving, is a bad fit.

Do you have other ideas for what makes a good critique group? If so, let me know!

The Writer’s Life List

janav Creativity, Productivity, Writing Leave a Comment

Chris Guillebeau’s post on How to Write a Life List, plus his recent book The Happiness of Pursuit, on creating meaningful quests for your life, got me thinking about how these ideas might apply to writers and other creative people.

Some people find writing whole-life lists daunting. Others find that what they write at one time in their life no longer applies ten or twenty years later (that has certainly been my experience). I like to brainstorm a list and choose one or two things to focus on for the year. That gives me a manageable time frame to work with, as well as a deadline. One of these is always related to writing.

It can be great to think about the all-time experiences you want to have, and to work toward more than one goal at a time. But I believe there’s a meaningful way to break it down so that you actually take action on your goals:

Step One: Is writing on your Life List? You may laugh at this one, but it’s important. If you write a Life List of, say, the top ten goals you want to accomplish before you die, is “Writing a book” on it? If it’s not in the top ten, where is it? Was it a goal you held as a teen? In your 20s? Is it still a major goal that haunts you? Or is it something you feel you “should” do? This is important! If it’s no longer a goal that motivates you to spend years of your life writing the book, and then dealing with the publishing process (if you want to publish), then you need to take a long hard look at whether that goal still serves your growth as a person. The most important thing we can take away from this exercise is that our time on Earth is finite. We only have so many days to accomplish all our goals. If there is one that no longer resonates for you, have the courage to drop it and find ones that do. You will thank yourself in the end for not stubbornly pursuing something that contributed no meaning or sense of fulfillment to your life, just because you thought it was cool at age twenty.

Step Two: What is the specific goal? Is it to write a book? Publish it? For it to be on best-seller lists? To publish a poem in a major literary magazine? To win a Pulitzer prize? In other words, what constitutes the ultimate success for you? You can (and should) dream big with this one. You may think, “I’ll be happy just to publish a book,” but what do you really want? Be specific!

Step Three: What can you do toward that goal this year? Yes, 365 days from now, what do you intend to accomplish? If it’s to write a book, can you complete a draft? Do you have to do a ton of research first? Is the research done, and you’re just sitting around, waiting for inspiration to actually start writing? A year is a long time – and a short one. Think about what seems doable at this point, but still a stretch. If it’s too easy, you won’t feel motivated, and you’ll just put it off. If it’s too far-fetched, you’ll be too intimidated to start.

Step Four: Break it down. Research for three months, then writing a draft for nine? Writing a poem a week for a year? Again, this will depend on the project you take on. You may want to establish a 6-month goal, so you can assess halfway progress. Or even quarterly goals.

Step Five: Break it down further. What are your goals for this month? This week? Today? This is where the proverbial rubber hits the road. The goal is no longer some vague thing in the future, but it involves taking action right here, right now. Start a journal for this. State your monthly, weekly, and daily goals. Assess your progress.

Note: this can be the part that “creatives” hate. “I need to be free to follow the muse!” they say. Great, if that works for you. But if you want to accomplish a goal, you can’t just follow your whims, and work only when you feel like it. As soon as it gets challenging, you’ll stop. You’ll succumb to self-doubt. Many creative people resist structure and organization, fearing it will kill the very creativity they seek to inspire, but the reality is, committing to goals and staying true to the schedule can help inspire your best work. Knowing that you have to show up tells your brain you’re ready to make the commitment, and surprisingly, your Muse will get the message.

Step Six: Accountability. How will you stay accountable? If you want to keep your goal private, that’s okay, but be aware that it’s sometimes easy to let things slide when no one else is watching. If you’re good at staying on track and motivating yourself, great. If not, how can you establish an accountability plan? Who will you share your goal with? Will there be rewards for meeting your goal? Or consequences if you don’t? If you don’t have a community of people, or a coach, to help keep you working toward your goal, is a great way to set a goal publicly, set the stakes and consequences, and gain a community that will help you achieve your goal. Don’t get me wrong, a good writing group and/or writing coach will give you a personalized experience you can’t get online, but setting up any form of real accountability is great. Donating $100 automatically to a group you hate (political, social, any cause you really abhor) every time you don’t meet a goal can be surprisingly effective.

Step Seven: Reward yourself! Give yourself a mini-reward every time you accomplish a milestone goal, and a Big Fat Wonderful Reward when you accomplish your year goal, and a Dream Reward when you accomplish your Ultimate Goal. Take the time to bask in your accomplishments and feel pride in them.

Ready to start? Go to Step One and figure out what your writing goal is, and where it is on your Life List. Brainstorm. Mind-map. Dream Big. Writing, or any creative work, is not a “selfish” goal. Through your art, of whatever form, you communicate what it means to you to be alive on this planet. Other people will connect with that, and with you, and your lives will be bigger, and better, for it. Remember:

“Your playing small does not serve the world.”
– from Return to Love, Marianne Williamson

Try This: A Sense of Place

janav Creativity, Try This, Writing Leave a Comment

I attended a week-long conference in Denver last week (hence the lack of posts). I’ve been there a couple of times now, and don’t really hblue_bearave a total feel for the place, but to be fair when I’m there I’m not in explorer mode – I’m working, or hanging out with a good friend. What I have seen, I like. The parks, the restaurants, the laid-back feel, the sense of space around the city, and the snow-capped mountains in the distance… it has a very different vibe from the northeast, where I live.

Unless you travel frequently, it’s rare to go somewhere new, to take yourself completely out of your familiar haunts and routines. But it can be a jolt, and awakening: hey, this is new! Fertile ground for the imagination.

If you can, go somewhere you haven’t been before. It doesn’t have to be a distant city or country, and it doesn’t have to be for a week. It can be a nearby town you’ve just never been to for whatever reason. Jot down your impressions. Sketch them with words or images. Write down ten things you noticed, and then make a short story or poem out of them.

My Denver list: Industrial loft, clean lines and concrete floors, spacious and light; elk and bison on the menu; cowboy boots; dogs, dogs, dogs – all on the leash!; trains – new lines extending outward in all directions, train to the airport at the end, de-coupling cars clashing and thudding in the night; cinnamon croissant as good as France; bad coffee; the 16th St. Mall shuttle and the friendly gap-toothed man who asked if I needed him to “mess somebody up”; parks – neat paths, volleyball, acro-yoga; the dim threat of rain nearly every day, that almost never fell.

There could be so much more, but those are a few of my Denver experiences and impressions. Take a trip, even outside your door – sometimes being a “stranger in your own town” can be just as illuminating. What do you notice when you’re paying attention?

*For those who are wondering, the image above is the Blue Bear who, for whatever reason, is voyeuristically peering inside the Colorado Convention Center. It’s like, two stories high. Whimsical and fun and very unique!

Friday Favorite: Literary Agent Databases

janav Friday Favorites, Resources, Writing Leave a Comment

So how the heck do you find an agent anyway? It can be daunting to figure out, among all the hundreds (thousands?) of agents out there, who would be a good fit for your book.

One way to do this is to look at books you’ve enjoyed, and see if the agent is listed in the acknowledgments in the back of the book. But for many, that might not be the best way to get to know who’s acquiring what types of manuscripts now. Similarly, print books go out of date so quickly, they are useful only in the broadest sense.

There are several online databases that can help you begin your search. They are generally searchable by keywords and genre, as well as advanced search terms. On several of them, there are also links to tons of resources on writing, publishing, community, networking, agents, e-publishing, etc. There are links to the agents’ websites, and it’s always best to go there directly to check if they are still with that agency, what they’re currently looking for, and if they’re accepting queries.

Association of Authors’ Representatives: –
The Literary Agents Database at Poets and Writers –*
The Guide to Literary Agents blog at Writer’s –

These are just a few of the resources out there, but they are a good place to start.

Obviously, you have to do a lot of research to dig down and really see what and who they agent has represented and how they work. If you’re a new author, you may want to look for newer agents who are actively building their lists, and are therefore more open. One red flag: if they ask for any money, for anything outside of a signed contract in which they agree to represent you and take a standard 15% cut, drop them.
It can be tempting to not do your homework thoroughly and just blind query a bunch of agents and hope something sticks. Don’t skip this stage! It will tell you a lot about the business, and who the big and influential players are, and what’s getting published. Every writer with aspirations to publish has to understand the marketplace and how it works, and if you’re looking to go the traditional publishing route, it starts with finding the right agent for you.

Joining the Pitch Party

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Today we’ll continue on with the idea of pitching your project on Twitter. In an era when it can take weeks or months to hear back from agents or editors you’ve queried, Twitter pitch parties are an excellent way to reach publishing professionals who have an interest in the type of work you write, and get instant feedback on whether they’d like a full query from you.

Important: make sure your project is done! It must be as polished as you can make it, so if an agent or editor favorites your pitch, you can send them what they are asking for, with the completed manuscript available if that’s what they want. Don’t bother pitching something you’re not ready to query agents on anyway!

A pitch party is a specific day when agents and editors interested in a particular type of manuscript are invited to review 140-character pitches made with a particular hashtag, e.g. #pitchmad. If they like your pitch, they will favorite it. That’s your invitation to submit to them, according to their preferences. Before submitting, make sure you go to their website to get the instructions for how they like to receive submissions. They may also tweet instructions specific to the pitch party. To find the party, put the search term with the hashtag in the search form – e.g. #pbpitch. You can usually make your pitch several times during the day. It might help to switch it up a bit, and see what version gets the most favorites.

The general rules of writing a Twitter pitch are the same as for a logline:

• Who the Protagonist is
• What Protagonist wants
• What will happen if s/he doesn’t get it

Be general in terms of giving names; you don’t want to confuse the agents and editors. But be specific about the desires and stakes – don’t be coy or vague. You want to make the pitch pop with what makes your story stand out. You may also need to save a few characters to specify the genre, e.g. #YA.

It should go without saying that you should spend time crafting your pitch before the day of the pitch party. Don’t wing it! If you have writer friends, think about critiquing each other’s pitches. They may see things you don’t, or have questions about something that may seem obvious to you.

Numerous pitch parties exist throughout the year, but if you’re ready to pitch a project now, #pitchmad is coming up on June 9. An excellent post from Brenda Drake on preparing your pitch, with examples, is here:

If you’re not ready to pitch, don’t worry! You can start researching what pitch parties exist for the types of things you write, and prepare for the future. As I’ve mentioned before, creating a logline or pitch can be an excellent way to keep an in-progress story on track, and keeping up with the pitch parties that exist can help inspire you as well as help you hone yours. Even if you’re not pitching at a particular party, you can learn a lot by following the pitches throughout the day, and see what ones grab your attention, and which get the most favorites from agents and editors.

If you do decide to pitch, good luck! In future posts, we’ll go over what makes an excellent query letter, as well as the dreaded synopsis and how to write ones of different lengths. This way, you’ll be prepared once agents and editors start favoriting your tweets!

Try This: Never Give Up

janav Try This, Writing Leave a Comment

I got an email recently from a fellow MFA grad who was ecstatic that she finally got an agent after sending out over 300 queries over the past three years. No, that’s not an extra zero.

It’s easy to be tempted to give up after ten, twenty, thirty… or 100 rejections. It’s discouraging. Depressing. Why am I doing this? Am I really good enough? Am I just fooling myself? Maybe I should just self-publish… (and maybe you should, but there are pros and cons to that).

I’ve been there myself, trust me. I’ve been fortunate never to get any really mean responses. Sometimes they are just a “no, thank you.” Often they are thoughtful, with the person taking the time to let me know how I might improve my work. It’s always scary to open those emails, because you never know what someone will say. And even if it’s an encouraging rejection… it’s still a rejection.

My advice is:
Have a long list of agents you want to submit to. Do your research on this. It takes time, but don’t rush it. It’s not going to be a perfect process, but the more work you do up front, the more you can personalize the query, and the more likely it will be looked at favorably.
Have a tracking system. Make sure you have the agent’s name, the agency, their email, the type of query they want (query + 5 pages? Query only? Query + 10 pages + short synopsis? Follow the instructions on the agency’s website).
Note the date sent, and how long they anticipate for a response. In most cases, it will say, “If you don’t hear from us in x weeks, assume we’re not interested.”
When/if you get a response, note it down. If you get more than just a “no,” note what they said that made it not a good fit.
If you actually get an invitation to resubmit, or submit something else at a later date, note that too, with a big asterisk. This is a relationship you can cultivate.
If you exhaust that list, keep adding to it. Think of it not as failure, but as “one step closer to acceptance.” Be proud of all the hard work you’re doing to put your writing out there.

And most of all, don’t give up!

Friday Favorites: Noah Lukeman

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Since we’ve been talking about pitching and beginnings this week, I want to point out a few books by the inestimable Noah Lukeman. He’s a literary agent, and his books are the next best thing to sitting in a room with an agent giving you the scoop.

First, How to Write a Great Query Letter. Just what it says. And it’s free!

Another freebie: How to Land (and Keep) a Literary Agent.

For those struggling with the opening of their novel: The First Five Pages will help you figure out exactly what to do to start your story off right. In fact, i need to go re-read this now…

The Plot Thickens: 8 Ways to Bring Fiction to Life focuses on character development – often the most elusive thing for a writer to grasp. For a story to leap off the page, the reader has to identify with and care about the characters, but it is easier said than done. This book gives great, succinct advice.

He also has A Dash of Style: The Art and Mastery of Punctuation for those who struggle with using punctuation effectively. It really is given less than its due, because learning effective punctuation can liven up your prose and make you a more effective communicator, no matter what you write.

Check them out, and let me know what you think!

Finding Your Perfect Pitch

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perfect pitch “Wow, I think that’s the best, most concise pitch I’ve ever heard,”

one of the faculty said to me at the recent Big Sur on Cape Cod Writer’s Workshop. I was pleased because I’d worked hard on it. A little less pleased when I realized it probably would no longer work for the story given the revisions I have in mind after the workshop!

But that’s okay. Your “elevator pitch” or “logline” – basically, a one-sentence summary of your project – is not just important when you’re talking with editors and agents. It’s also an incredibly useful tool to help define your project from the beginning, and keep you focused as you write. Every time you have to make a decision about a character or an action, thinking about how it fits the logline (or doesn’t) can help you stay on track. One writer at the workshop told me she writes hers on a big piece of paper and sticks it to the wall above her desk, where she can clearly see it and keep it in mind. Once you’re done with the book and ready to query, your logline can be fleshed out to use in your query letter.

But how do you create a one-sentence pitch? If you ask most writers what their story is about, they fumble around for a bit, and start to tell you everything about it – every character, and setting, and what happens, and then what complicates that… if you’ve tried this, and noticed your audience’s eyes glazing over, you know what I mean. At the end, they have no better idea than when you started.

You need a precise, neat way of hooking people in and getting them excited to hear the details. To do this, you need three ingredients:

1. Who is the protagonist? Don’t bother giving a name, or an age. The main question here is: Who propels the action in your story?
2. Desire: What does the protagonist want?
3. Stakes: What is at stake if s/he doesn’t achieve his/her goal?

Examples: A man whose wife has disappeared needs to solve her murder before he goes to jail for it. (Gone Girl)

A girl spirited away to a magical land must steal a wicked witch’s broomstick before she will be allowed to return home. (The Wizard of Oz)

A child soldier caught in a civil war must learn to trust people and reclaim his humanity before he loses his life to drugs or violence. (A Long Way Gone)

These are only a few, and they are rough examples, but you can see what I mean: protagonist, what they need, and how their lives will be affected if they don’t get it.

And although I’ve been pitching for a while, and teaching pitching and querying, I’ve not found a better book on the subject of the logline than Sell Your Story in a Single Sentence, by Lane Shefter Bishop. Get the book and you’ll see dozens of examples, in every genre, with lots of opportunities to practice.

Even if you don’t go to conferences or workshops, you can still pitch via Twitter. More and more agents and editors can be found there, with “pitch parties” specifically devoted to pitching. Check out #pitchmad, #DVpit, #PitchWars, #WFpitch etc. There’s a little more to crafting your perfect Twitter pitch, which we’ll go into next time. But creating your logline is a great start.

So now try it yourself! Take a project you’re working on, or a book you’re reading, or a movie you’ve seen, and work on making a dynamic pitch for it. The more you practice, the easier it gets.

Big Sur on Cape Cod Workshop Review

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No post yesterday since I’m still trying to absorb the experience of the Big Sur on Cape Cod Children’s Writer’s Workshop I attended this weekend. For those who don’t know it, it’s sponsored by the Andrea Brown literary agency, and takes place a couple times per year, usually in Big Sur, CA (hence the name). This was the first time on the East Coast, so I couldn’t resist.

The workshop is unique in that the faculty is a mixture of published authors, editors, and agents from the Andrea Brown agency. Each participant has two faculty over the course of the weekend, and with 4-5 people per group. There are only about 60 people total, so it’s easy to meet people over meals or in general conversation.

The first workshop took place right after the introductions – and since the faculty I was supposed to work with couldn’t attend due to illness, my first faculty was Andrea Brown herself. A woman who’s been in the business for 35 years, and runs the most successful agency for children’s authors? Not intimidating at all…

And she wasn’t. Her comments were incisive, and thoughtful. Honest but not brutal. She treated everyone’s work seriously and gave us great advice not just from the writing but also the business perspective.

I was paired with the wonderful Tara Sullivan as faculty for my second critique group. As an author, she focused on the craft issues of our manuscripts. It’s challenging in this setting because the writer reads the five pages or so from their piece, and the group has to immediately comment on it (unlike an MFA program workshop, where you get the pages in advance and have time to re-read and make notes). Therefore the critique tends to be more general than you get with more time and more pages to review, but Tara had wonderful warmth and enthusiasm as well as insightful comments to make.

There’s a lot of flexibility in what you bring to the four workshop opportunities (two with each faculty). I brought three different openings to my novel, with the fourth as a revision of one of them. I went in wanting to get more clarity on the direction this manuscript should take, and I found that, even though it wasn’t what I expected!

There were also editor and agent panels, where they discussed trends and answered questions from their respective sides of the business. One of the strengths of the workshop was having professional writers as well as people on the business end as faculty. Because like it or not, writers need to take the marketplace into consideration if they want to publish their work.

The participants were a mix of levels of writing and workshopping experience, but they were clearly serious about their work since they spent the time and money to be there. And of course, one advantage of attending a workshop like this is the entrée factor – the ability to submit to the editors of houses who don’t usually accept unsolicited submissions, as well as the “top of the pile” access to Andrea Brown agents (with, of course, no guarantee they’ll take you on).

There were opportunities to meet so many people that I’m sure critique groups will form from it – and for those who lack community and regular critique of their work, this might well be one of the most valuable parts of the workshop.

And of course, the main lesson from all this is that any work you intend to submit to agents or editors has to be as perfect as you can get it. Don’t waste your time or theirs on anything less. If someone gives you valuable feedback, take it and learn from it. Keep making it better. If it takes a day or two to absorb all the info, that’s fine – take the time you need. Then make a plan, and get back to work.