Try This: Never Give Up

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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.

Don’t Panic

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These words, famously, were written on the cover of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, from the novel by Douglas Adams, but they are equally applicable to someone about to attend a writer’s conference.

This week, I’m frantically trying to prepare for the Big Sur on Cape Cod Writer’s Conference. This is very different from the Grub Street Muse & the Marketplace conference I attended a couple weeks ago. BSCC includes intensive workshops with faculty (authors, agents, editors), pitch time, revision time, panels… so it’s more of a “writing” conference than an “inspirational” conference.

To prepare, I’m working on a new logline, revised query letter, and two first chapter revisions (my story is told by alternate narrators). So, there’s a lot of pre-conference work involved if I’m to get the most out of it. Like everyone who attends a workshop like this, I want everything to be perfect.

Except it won’t.

I keep telling myself this, to avoid the panic that would otherwise set in at how much I still have to do.

Anyone attending any workshop where there will be critique involved, from fellow writers and publishing professionals, has to take a deep breath and realize: It’s all right. I’m here to learn how I can make my work better, not how amazing it already is. Notice I said it. Not “I.” One of the most difficult things we can do as writers is to step back from our own work and see it as a thing apart from us. Once the red-hot fire of initial creation is over, we need to be able to look at it as a surgeon looks at a patient: What needs to be done to make this better? I imagine I’ll have lots to mull over, and also I will be inspired to jump in and start slicing and rearranging and rewriting, ready to take it to the next level. And this is a novel I thought was done. It’s taken me a while to realize it maybe isn’t, and to be okay with that, even to get excited about its potential.

What pieces do you have that you consider “done” but haven’t garnered much interest from the marketplace? Have you received any new feedback that might help you reconsider? Can you think of a way to increase the “wow” factor?

Try This: Voice Workshop

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I’ve been following Brenda Drake’s blog, which recently has featured Voice Workshops with Pitch Wars mentors. If you’re unfamiliar with her, she runs the #pitchmad Twitter pitch contests and Pitch Wars, where agents and editors mentor promising writers. If you haven’t checked out her site, I highly recommend it: http://www.brenda-drake.com/

The Voice workshops (currently the most recent entries on her blog) are professional critiques of writers’ first pages, and are very instructive of what an agent or editor looks for. Read the series, and then look at the first page of your own manuscript. What do you see that could be changed to make it stronger?

Friday Favorite: Writer’s Conferences Roundup

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I’d like to conclude our theme of Writer’s Conferences by providing some places to hunt for the conference of your dreams.

Of course, if you write for a specific genre, you will want to attend one specific to that genre, such as:

Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Workshop
Thrillerfest
Romance Writers of America
Crimebake (sponsored by Mystery Writers of America)
SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (other ones specifically for children’s writers include the Oregon Coast Children’s Book Writers Workshop and the Andrea Brown Agency Big Sur Writing Workshops)
And so on. If there’s a professional association or conference for your genre, you’ll want to join it, for networking, news, and professional development. Of course, many writer’s conferences include sessions for different ages and genres, but it’s good to check).

Rather than give an exhaustive list of conferences, I’ll link you to places that have compiled exhaustive lists themselves:
Shaw Guideshttp://writing.shawguides.com/ – Searchable by date and location
Poets & Writershttp://www.pw.org/conferences_and_residencies – Also has a link to a discussion of conferences on their Speakeasy Forum
AWP (Association of Writers & Writing Programs): https://www.awpwriter.org/wcc/overview – Has not only a directory, but section on “Hallmarks of a successful writer’s conference.”

Yes, it’s a bewildering array or possibilities. That’s why it pays to do your research, to plan ahead, and to get organized so you get the most out of any conference you choose.

What conferences are your favorites? Let us know in the comments!

Getting the Most Out of a Writer’s Conference

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action plan

Now that you’ve found the right conference for you, how do you maximize your time there? Part of it is your preparation.

Read all available information on the schedule, and the presenters, especially, of course, ones you might be pitching to.

Plan ahead so you know the sessions you especially want to attend. Know your priorities, and mark them so you don’t miss them. There may be some blocks with multiple sessions you’d like to go to, and others that don’t have anything that seems to jump out at you. At many conferences, it’s okay to go to more than one in the same time block (as long as you’re quiet) but at others you’ll be expected to stay for the entire session. Try to pick up handouts, if any, from the sessions you couldn’t attend.

And don’t worry if you need to take a break! If your brain is full, or you’re just tired of sitting in a chair, it’s okay to skip a session and take a walk outside for some fresh air, or peruse the bookstore/exhibit area, or get a cup of coffee… it’s good to get all you can from a conference, but you don’t want to get so frazzled trying to run to everything that you don’t actually learn anything.

You’ll want to take this opportunity to meet people, so say hello! Most people attend conferences on their own, and are happy if someone breaks the ice. There’s always lots to talk about – the speakers, sessions you went to, what you write, books you’ve read recently, etc. – so it’s easy to make small talk. Even if you hate small talk, it’s a lot of fun to “talk shop” with other writers, and you might get some good information. Speak to people at meals, in sessions, and in the exhibitor area. If you’re nervous about this whole “networking” think, set a goal to speak with a certain number of people per day – 5, or 10, or 3, whatever feels doable for you.

If there’s a workshop component, you’ll need to prepare your manuscript carefully, according to whatever instructions are given. If they ask for 10 pages, make it double-spaced, in a 12-point, easy to read font. Number your pages, and also put your name and the working title in the header or footer. It’s rarely necessary to bring a whole copy of your book, unless it’s specifically requested. If you meet with an agent or editor and they do ask for a full manuscript, they will most likely prefer not to haul it with them, but ask you to send it later.

If you’re pitching, don’t just think you can show up and wing it. Some conferences offer “pitch practice” sessions you can take advantage of, to throw your pitch out to someone and get their feedback. But you’ll want to prepare ahead of time what some call your “elevator speech” where you have to distill your project down to one sentence. The formula is simple: Who the protagonist is, What h/she wants, and Why s/she wants it (what are the stakes?). Be specific. Pitching is an art – one which I’ll go over in more depth in a later article.

Think about bringing some simple business cards. You can print them at Kinko’s or online at a site like www.vistaprint.com. This isn’t crucial – many people don’t have them – but they can be useful, especially if you’re a freelancer looking to pitch articles.

Finally, I’ll reiterate what I’ve said before: make a post-conference plan. This might entail making a list of specific agents or editors to query, or organizing your notes and handouts and figuring out how you’re going to apply what you learned in the sessions to a work in progress, or going over notes you received in workshop and making a plan for revision. It’s easy to just throw all your conference materials in a drawer when you get home, but making the most of it includes actually putting what you learned into practice. Without a plan, good intentions can evaporate in the chaos of real life. After all, you want to good energy and motivation from the conference to last as long as possible, right?

(And yes, the image above contains coffee and cookies. Because high-level action planning requires caffeine and sugar. And, increasingly, my glasses.)

Thoughts From the Muse

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This weekend, I attended the Muse and the Marketplace conference, put on by Grub Street, a Boston-area hive for all things literary. I’ve never had the chance to go before (I’m usually at the New England SCBWI conference) so I was interested in checking it out.

I didn’t do any of the Manuscript Mart sessions, where you pitch to an agent or editor. (That could be a whole post in itself.) For this conference, I just focused on the sessions and events. I was impressed by the sessions – both the variety and quality. They were a mix of craft talks and inspirational sessions, with offerings for beginners, intermediate writers, and people who had published books and needed to focus on the business end of things. A few take-aways I had:

Attend a mix of sessions. This keeps things fresh. For example, you might need help on plot, but attending nothing but plot and structure sessions is a recipe for boredom and/or confusion. I attended sessions on character development, cinematic structure, boosting creativity, crossover fiction, pitching, editing, and more.

Grab as many handouts as you can. I went around and picked up ones from the sessions I couldn’t get to – you can never go to all the sessions you’d like to at a conference.

Take a break. It’s important to acknowledge when your brain is full, and you need to take a walk, get a coffee, browse the bookstore and the exhibit area… yes, I bought too many books (from the wonderful indie Porter Square Books), and I also pitched a couple of article ideas that were well-received, so I’m glad I took that time.

Practice, practice. Almost all the sessions had a short lecture followed by (or interspersed with) periods to put what we were learning into practice. I’m not always a fan of writing at a conference, since my mind is usually focused outward, not inward, but getting a taste of the process cemented my learning and made it applicable to my current project. When you go to 4 or more sessions in a day, they can begin to blur together, but I feel like I retained a lot more from the sessions that did this.

Make a post-conference plan. While I was listening to final speeches, I put a plan together of what I was going to work on when I got home, based on things I’d learned at the conference. This is good to do before you leave, if possible, since once you get home it’s easy to shove all the stuff you got at the conference in a folder somewhere and never look at it again. Not that the general inspiration from conference-going isn’t great, but making a plan for implementing the tools and ideas you’ve learned helps you get far more out of it.

The closing “Discover Me!” event seemed geared more toward people with books imminent, but interesting to see what the various fiction and nonfiction writers were doing and the advice experts (bookseller, social media advisor, editor, etc.) gave around gaining an audience and promoting your book. After three days, my attention was waning, and if it didn’t seem immediately relevant I found it hard to pay attention. They did have some awesome cake, though.

How To Choose a Writer’s Conference, Part I

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This weekend, I’m attending the Grub St. Muse & the Marketplace conference in Boston. It will be my first time at this particular conference, and I’m eager to check it out and see what it’s like. I’ll have a full report on Monday.

One of the best ways to gain motivation and inspiration for your work can be to attend a writer’s conference. But with the plethora of conferences out there, how do you determine the best one for you? It can be tempting to just go to the one closest to you, or the one with the biggest “name” faculty, but there are a number of things to consider if you want to make the time and money you spend worthwhile.

First, there are several types of conferences:
Craft conferences, in which you attend seminars or panels on developing aspect of the writer’s craft
Workshops, where you submit work and have it critiqued by faculty and other students
Pitch conferences, where your primary reason for being there is to pitch your work to agents and editors

Some conferences are a combination of two or three types. It’s important to know what is offered at the conference you choose to attend.

Also, you need to know whether it’s a conference geared toward literary writing, or a specific type of writing (poetry, nonfiction, screenplays, writing for children, etc.) or a specific genre (science fiction, mystery, romance, thriller, etc.).

The main question you need to ask is Why do you want to attend? Of course, many writers attend conferences for the sense of community, or to get inspiration, or to network with fellow writers, agents, or editors. But it pays to get specific about your goals in attending, which may depend on where you are in your writing career:

• Do you want to learn more about developing your craft?
• Do you want to get critique on your work in progress?
• Do you want to generate new work?
• Do you want to pitch your project to agents and editors?
• Do you want to get updates on the publishing world and the marketplace?
• Do you want more of a retreat, that involves some writing but also traveling, sightseeing, relaxing, and so on?

Other questions to consider:

• Are you writing for personal reasons, or for publication?
• Are you a relative beginner or a seasoned writer? Some conferences require an application, and some are open; some have different levels of seminars geared toward writers at different stages of their careers. Look at past conference schedules, if possible, to make sure what’s offered is going to be relevant to you.
• The size of the conference – are you happy being in a herd, and attending large panels or seminars? Or do you want a smaller, more personalized experience? Are there opportunities to socialize outside of formal presentations? Are there opportunities to meet with agents and editors outside of formal pitch sessions (these often cost extra)?
• The faculty – are they teachers? Writers? Editors? Agents?
• Where will the conference be held? Close to home? An exotic locale? Online?
• Time commitment – how long is the conference? Is there preparation needed beforehand (i.e. do you have to prepare manuscripts for workshop, or do you have to have a pitch ready)?
• Of course, cost is a factor for most of us. Is there one flat conference fee? Do things like pitching, manuscript critique, or other events cost extra? Are any meals included? If you have to travel to the conference, you’ll have to factor in transportation and accommodation as well.

It pays to be clear on these questions, and to do your homework on the conference that is right for you at this time. I’ll continue with a series of articles on this, because I think being thoughtful about the conferences you attend is important. Next time, I’ll talk about how to get the most out of a conference, even if you’re an introvert who would rather be home reading a book.