Friday, December 2, 2016

Pitch Conferences: How to Meet and Greet with Agents

Many of my students and clients are signing up for spring pitch conferences, where they hope to pitch their book to a few agents.  These "meet and greet" events are currently one of the best ways to get face-to-face with agents, hear them talk about their lists (the books they represent) and preferences, and learn about the publishing industry today.


When you're ready to market your book, and if you've decided you want to get an agent, there are a couple of ways to start.  You first need to research the agents.  There are so many right now.  Each specializes in a certain kind of book.  Just like a realtor shows houses in a certain price range or neighborhood, and knows their clientele in that area, most agents have a "stable" of editors they like to work with.  It takes time to build this stable, so more experienced agents are in more demand.

If you're sending out queries (requests that agents look at your work), you can do it cold, just by picking agents online or from the acknowledgements in books you love.  Agents receive hundreds of queries a week, sometimes.  Cold solicitation is a hard game--your chances of getting a positive response are about 1 for every 75 queries you send, according to a colleague in the business.  That's depressing.

At pitch conferences, you get much closer.  You're in the same room with agents you want to approach.  You get to hear them talk, maybe talk with them, even pitch your idea one-to-one in a pitch session.

You also get exposed to both experienced agents and newer agents.  New agents are trying to build their list, so they are often more willing to consider new writers. 

How Pitch Conferences Work
Most pitch conferences offer a program:  workshops or breakout meetings on different aspects of marketing your writing, plus pitch sessions. 

Pitch sessions are why most writers come.  They are brief but potent.  Each session lasts five to eight minutes, usually (varies by conference).  Some conferences offer each attendee three pitch sessions, some only one session--registration price goes up with more pitch sessions, of course.  You request the agents you want to pitch.  You prepare your pitch and any questions.

How do you decide which agents to request?  Before you register, browse the conference's list of attending agents.  Then go do your homework:  Look up each agent's website, see what they're looking for.  Some agents have great blogs and you can read about what they're seeking.  If their website is more generic (all memoir, all commercial fiction), it helps to read through their list of clients, then go to amazon or another online bookstore and search out these clients' books.  Don't just choose agents because they fit your genre--that's too much of a wild card.  Look for the style of writing they love.  Are any of the books they represented remotely like yours?

Study the first pages for voice or subject matter (you can do this free on amazon.com).  Compare your voice and subject matter. 

The goal is to first eliminate agents who are not a good match for your book.  Be ruthless about this.  You don't want just any agent--you want someone who will fall in love with your story.  The closer you get to matching your book to an agent who loves the same kind of writing as you write, the more successful you'll be.

Once you've chosen your agents, take some notes.  When you pitch them, it's helpful to refer to one or two books they've represented, so they know you've done your homework and have selected them carefully. 

What to Bring to the Pitch Session
Write out a premise (a short, three-minute pitch) for your story.  Work on it!  Read the back-cover copy on published books to get a sense of what a premise should be.  Usually, it's about four to five lines long, or three minutes if read aloud.  Polish it until it's friendly, interesting, tense, upbeat--whatever your story's tone might be.

Practice your pitch a loud.  Do this a lot, until you can say it without notes.   You'll be seated across from the agent, looking at each other.  Eye contact is good; reading from a page isn't as good.  This may well be your next business partner in publishing, so you want to see how the chemistry is, also.  

The agent will often ask questions.  How much have you written, how many words?  Is this your first book (nothing wrong with that--your "debut" novel or memoir or nonfiction)?  Do you have a platform (social media followers, a blog that is connected to your book)?  Again, if you don't, don't sweat it. 

Don't bring your manuscript or even a sample.  Agents usually don't want to lug anything home with them.  All you want from the session is an interest in seeing your query or sample pages after the conference.  They'll give you their business card, if they're interested.  When you get home, you email them with the subject line of "per your request at ________ Pitch Conference" or something like that.  Include what they ask for.         

If they say it's not a good match, thank them for their time.  They know what they can sell, what they can't.  You might ask them what they'd suggest, if anything, revising.  Maybe they'll give you a couple of pointers.  This is valuable! 

Even if you get a no, it's not wasted time; you've learned something.  You've gotten a chance to pitch your book and see how it feels. 

Your weekly writing exercise this week is to write a pitch.  Try it, even if you're not conference bound.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Gratitude Game--Celebrate What's Working in Your Writing Life

These past few weeks, I've experienced an unusual stall-out in my writing.  I couldn't locate any still point inside, or that "necessary boredom" that writer Dorothy Allison says is a prerequisite to writing well.  It was as if my creative heart was too sore to create. 

I knew that writing could actually be the way to come back to myself, get away from the incessant barrage of crises.  But I was hard pressed to find the way in.

Then I remembered a friend's game, something she likes to play when she's down and out.  She calls it the gratitude game.  It's pretty simple:  make a list of what you're grateful for.  Or find a partner and go back and forth, saying one gratitude item each, then another.

I thought, why not try it?  I wanted to get back to my writing!

So I began listing what was working, what was still alive and well in my writing life.  Here's the short list:

1.  I have three fabulous writing partners who exchange work with me.
2.  I've mastered Scrivener enough to not struggle with it--and it makes my writing easier.
3.  My second novel is done--although new feedback will cause some reworking, that's minor.
4.  I have a great space to write in.  Lots of sunshine coming in the windows, now that the sun travels lower in the sky.
5.  Winter is traditionally a great time for me to get a lot of writing done.
6.  I'm reading three great books at the moment, full of juicy images, and plenty of inspiration.
7.  My family supports my writing whole-heartedly. 
8.  I posted a notice on FB that my second novel was almost finished and I got tons of likes and responses, including a few people who pre-reserved it on my amazon page (wow!).
9.  I made a cool collage for one of my elusive characters.
10.  I have two really great ideas for my next books and have begun to pitch them.
11.  I pretty much adore writing.  Even when it sucks.
12.  I think I'm getting steadily better as a writer, which is heartening.

Your weekly writing exercise, in honor of the American holiday of Thanksgiving this week and the good spirit that resides in all of us, is to play the gratitude game with your writing--or your life. 

I hope it'll give you new courage, as it did me. 

Here's a quote by writer Ben Okri, to help you along:  "Stories can conquer fear, you know.  They can make the heart bigger."

Friday, November 18, 2016

Tips for Making Your Characters Vivid Individuals on the Page

A MG (middle-grade fiction) writer in one of my online classes posted a great question this week:  How do I make my characters more distinctly individual?  Different from each other, enough to be vivid individuals on the page?

Developed characters, fictional or real, should be distinct from others in the story.  If they all blur together, it's hard to make them come alive for the reader.  Developed characters have backstory, a history that informs their story decisions.  They have certain quirks, a way of moving, a way of standing or using their hands. 


In early drafts, characters can read eerily similar to us.  We give them our values, our music, our favorite foods or clothing.  Or we make them our ideals, what we'd be if we weren't so flawed. 

That's totally normal.  We look in the mirror as we begin to write.  It's how we get started.

Gradually, we begin to see our characters apart from ourselves.  We're curious about who they might be if they aren't like us.  That's when the characters begin to come alive on the page.  In my online class coming in January, we'll use questionnaires, writing exercises, discussion, and modeling to explore how different they can be, how we can push them further away from what we know and into who they are, uniquely as themselves.

That's when the fun begins!

Once you've begun to see them move, live, and breathe apart from what you can imagine, there's a next stage--and this is what my student was asking about.  How do you make your characters different from each other, not just different from you?

This week's writing exercise offers four steps to find out:

1.  Choose a published book you love.  Make sure it has at least three characters.  Find a scene where at least two of these characters are present, early in the book, preferably, when we are first meeting them. 

2.  Make notes on how the writer describes what each character looks like, how they walk across a room, what they do with their hands, what their voice sounds like.  What has this writer chosen to offer you, the reader, so the character comes across fast and effectively?  Skilled writers can capture a character's uniqueness in one or two lines.   

3.  Now go back to your own book.  Make a chart with three columns.  Write one character's name at the top of each column, so you have a separate column for each of them.  On the left side of the chart write these categories:  Hair, Skin, Clothing, Gestures, Movement, Objects, Voice.     

4.  Fill in the answers for each character for each category.  For instance, your character Joe might have black hair, olive skin, wear jean jackets and boots, talk with his hands, walk slow, carry a penknife, and have a raspy cigarette-smoker's voice.  Compare what you get for each of the characters.  Ask yourself:  are they different enough?  How can you make them more so? 

Friday, November 11, 2016

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back--Getting Your Work Out in the World

It's been an up and down week.  I got news on Monday of a student whose short story was accepted by a very prestigious journal and who'd been nominated for an equally prestigious award.  I also heard from three clients whose books were accepted for publication this month.  Very sweet. 

I also got an email from a student, raw from having pages of his manuscript critiqued by two colleagues at the university where he works.  He was soldiering on but underneath his good questions--how seriously do I take these comments?--I could hear the discouragement.  "It's like that old Bruce Springsteen song," he said.  "One step forward, two steps back."

Another colleague who just sold her manuscript to a very good publisher said she'd gotten feedback from her agent over the summer that depressed her so much, it took weeks to get over it.  Basically, a major rewrite, and she'd already spent years on this novel.  Was it really necessary?  She ate a lot of ice cream and eventually got back to her desk, made a revision list, and dove in.  "Lucky I did," she said, "because I didn't see the problems staring me in the face.  Now that it's going to be published, in this new version, I'm embarrassed I thought it was finished before."

We don't just get to learn the craft of writing a good book, which takes a long time (trust me!).  We also have to learn how to get it out into the world.  And the world isn't automatically a friendly place for many artists. 

This week, I joined a private Facebook group for rejection support.  No kidding.  These exist, and they're actually quite wonderful.  They are made up of mostly published writers who are needing help getting their new writing out into the world.  We post our rejection letters, one after the other.  I'm new to the group so still learning the ropes, but it has a feeling of hope, enthusiasm, and encouragement, despite the downer of a topic.

If you're planning to submit your work, there are skills to gain.  One is to become friendly with rejection. 

I don't think it requires a thick skin, though.  My best writing comes from a place of vulnerability and honesty about what I see and want to write about.  If I cover that over too much, I don't write as well.  So the goal, for me at least, is to view the process as a kind of game instead of a desperate search for acceptance and acknowledgment.  Because publishing can be that, for many writers. And the danger is, when publishing or not is tied to your self-worth as a creative person, you begin to die a little every time someone says no.

Why do that to yourself?

Easy for you to say, you might think.  Yes, I've published a lot.  But each time I send something out, I still have the butterflies.  I still feel the desperation.  The need for someone out there to love it, unconditionally.  I think a lot of published writers do.

I recently came across a method that I'm trying out, along with the Facebook rejection support group:  set a goal for a number of rejections, not a number of acceptances.  If you're shopping for agents, make a long list (maybe 100 to start) of ones you've researched and like, and be willing to (1) not hear back from at least 25 of them, (2) get no from another 50, (3) get comments and some small encouragements from 10, and (4) possibly have 15 who like your query enough to ask for more.  That's about the going average, right now. 

The theory is simple:  it's a numbers game, and the more you submit, the higher your chances on getting that "please send more" response.

You may not be close to sending out query letters, but if you are, here's a great article from the Kenyon Review on this method of accumulating rejections.  It's your weekly writing exercise this week. 

One step forward. 

Friday, November 4, 2016

Nonfiction Book Success--The Challenge of Telling Someone Else's True Story

One of my favorite kinds of emails come from past students in my book-structuring classes whose books are being published.  Three such emails came to my inbox this week, and I wanted to share the story behind one of them in this week's blog.


When I first met journalist Ed Orzechowski in one of my classes, his book project fascinated me.  It wasn't an easy task to write a true story about a patient at the infamous Belchertown institution.  But Ed persevered.  You'll Like It Here, the true story of Donald Vitkus, patient #3394, is being released this month from Levellers Press.  I asked Ed to share some of the process of building a book on someone else's true--and horrific--story. 


Abandoned by his unwed mother during World War II, Donald Vitkus became a ward of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. He was 27 days old.  Six years later as "Patient #3394," he was committed to Belchertown State School, where he was labeled a "moron" with an I.Q. of 41. Like hundreds of other institutions across the country, Belchertown was a de-humanizing environment of barred windows, locked doors, and brutal regimentation.
 
Resistant to authority, Donald refuses mind-numbing medication, smokes contraband cigarettes, joins an escape committee, and learns of the outside world on a black-and-white TV. He later serves in Vietnam, searches for his family, marries, and earns a college degree-all in a lifelong battle to convince others, and himself, that Donald Vitkus is not a moron.  You'll Like It Here is a story of the resiliency of the human spirit.

Interview with author Ed Orzechowski     

What's your background as a writer?
I'm a retired high school English teacher, and moonlighted for several years as a radio news reporter. As a freelancer, I've written many newspaper and magazine pieces, including columns, op-eds, and features.
How did you get interested in this story?
My wife and I are board members of an organization that advocates for individuals with developmental disabilities. My sister-in-law is severely autistic. In 2005 I arranged a book signing at a local community college for the founder of our organization. He had self-published a book about a federal class-action lawsuit he initiated over horrifying conditions at Belchertown State School in western Massachusetts and other institutions. At that signing, a 62-year-old student named Donald Vitkus told me he himself had grown up at Belchertown, and was looking for someone to write his story. That conversation evolved into this book.
How did you begin writing it?  What research did you take on?
Even though this wasn't the story of my own life, I took a couple of memoir writing courses. Our first assignment was to write just one scene, and that's what I did.
Most of the research occurred at my dining room table, interviewing Donald. I recorded our talks (nearly 24 hours in total), transcribed them, and worked from those notes. A major plus was that Donald had acquired detailed records from his years in the institution, many of which are reproduced in the book. I talked to his family, other former residents of the state school, a historian with the Massachusetts Department of Developmental Services, visited libraries and museums, read related books, and, of course, searched the web.
Describe your working relationship with Donald.  How often did you correspond?  What did you talk about?  How much artistic license did you take in creating a readable story?
We met intermittently over a few years. In our initial talks, Donald related incidents that occurred while he was living at Belchertown, many of them painful and disturbing memories, some of them humorous. He told me about his Vietnam service, his work, his education, and his family. He shared everything. It was difficult to establish a time line because his memories were scattered. I pursued whatever piqued my interest, and sometimes he cried. Over the course of these conversations, we became close friends.
The challenge was to reconstruct scenes and dialogue without compromising fact. This is a true story, told in first person from Donald's point of view. For lack of a better term, I call it narrative nonfiction. I made every effort to use Donald's voice, to remain accurate and faithful to his account. In the interest of privacy, I changed a few names. But there are no fabricated incidents because we both wanted to convey what actually happened in this community within a community, and how those eleven years locked away from society affected his entire life.
How long did it take? 
I laugh because the title of those initial courses was "Writing the Nine-Month Memoir." It took me eight years.
What were the steps to complete the book?
The interviewing was fascinating, and the transcribing tedious. At the same time, I needed to learn how to write a book. I had never written anything longer than a few thousand words, and knew nothing about structure, flow, dialogue, story arc, etc. I joined writers' groups, attended dozens of workshops and conferences, and took all three parts of your online class, Your Book Starts Here, through The Loft Literary Center. Your guidance and the feedback from other students were invaluable.
Anything else you'd like to share with readers here?
Two things. First of all, what a privilege it has been to be allowed intimate access inside the life of another human being. Second-now that our book is about to launch-the discovery that there's a lot more work involved in marketing a book after you finally hold a finished copy in your hand.

You're invited to meet Ed and Donald at the book launch on Sunday, November 13, at 4:00 p.m. at the Florence Civic Center, 90 Park Street, Florence MA 01062.  You can purchase the book here.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Dreams--The Delight and Danger of Using Dreams in Your Story

Dreams are a big part of my personal life--I've recorded my dreams since I was in college.  But I use them very sparingly in my writing.  Why? 


Have you ever been with a friend who is telling you about a dream?  On and on it goes, one weird scene after another, incredibly meaningful to the dreamer but hard to make sense of if you weren't there. 

That's why they're not used a lot in published writing.  They are part of the backstory of a character's life, but a wobbly, illogical part of that backstory, which readers rarely can make sense of.

Dreams ARE good to work with in early drafts.  If you ask a character about her dreams, you can get some cool images about her inner life.  I often plug them in as placeholders, markers for me to remember to bring in meaning just here.  I try not to lean on them to reveal meaning in final drafts because they read like a shortcut.  Like a device.

Devices are something a writer employs with certain purpose, to get a certain effect.  Used skillfully, devices are amazing tools.  But if the reader discerns the magician behind the magic of a device, it ceases to be magical and interesting. 

If you love dreams (like I do) and want to use them in your fiction or memoir, here are some things to watch out for:

1.  Since dreams read as shortcuts to meaning, they can feel to the reader as if the author is standing on the sidelines, telling us "This is what her angst is all about" or "Here's why he has to be a hero right now."  Ask yourself, Why do I need this shortcut?  Why not show the meaning through developed scene?  Granted, more work involved, but the payoff in tension and reader engagement is worth it.

2.  If you use dreams as placeholders, a kind of mental note that you intend to show meaning but can't think of how at the moment, be sure to add a clear note to your revision checklist to scan for all dreams.  Most writers don't realize how often they use them!  Plan to rework the majority into scene. 

3.  In some genres of fiction, and in some memoir, dreams can denote a bizarre parallel to reality--alternated states.  Or prophetic dreams can be useful for foreshadowing.  But again, watch out for overuse.  These stand out, and too many make your reader stand back and disengage.

Your weekly writing exercise is to check out this great article about the top ten uses of dreams in literature.  Note the kind of book cited.  If yours is similar, and you're eager to use a dream here and there, study how the author did it.  What transitions are used between the dream and the present-time story?  How long is the dream excerpt?  

Friday, October 21, 2016

Using Poetry Even If You're Not a Poet--What Poems Do for the Creative Brain

I'm only a marginal poet.  I've had one poem published and written maybe ten others, kept in a drawer.  But I love reading poetry.  It does something weird and wonderful to my brain.

In honor of Bob Dylan receiving the Nobel Prize for "having created new poetic expressions," I wanted to share this poetry experience and an exercise for this week. 
Recently a poet friend moved.  I visited her and took home two bags full of poetry books.   Collections from some of my favorite poets but also books on why we write and read poetry.  I'd just sent in my novel and was waiting for agent feedback so I felt kind of dry--desert-like, actually.  I wanted to get moving on the next book, all set up in Scrivener and waiting for me.  But I needed a little inspiration.

Rainy day, perfect for poetry, I thought.  I settled down with tea and the stack of books. 

Midway through the first volume, I had to get up and get a pen and paper.  Ideas for my own writing were flooding in--vastly different from the poems I was browsing but somehow inspired by them.  A small description of evening by Jane Kenyon made me remember evenings my character might have lived through, complete with the way the late summer light slanted into a room.   Stanley Kunitz urged me to look for the constellation of images that follow every writer, and I began to think of this for my characters too.  What images followed them around in their lives?

Your weekly writing exercise is to grab a poetry book and spend twenty minutes immersing yourself.  You may not like the poems--or any poetry, for that matter.  But the rhythm of poems may unlock something beautiful in your brain.

If you'd like to do this right now, click on these links:

30 great poems everyone should read

Friday, October 14, 2016

Paragraph and Line Lengths--How They Affect Your Story's Pacing


I never paid much attention to paragraph or sentence lengths.  I just wrote, felt satisfied if I got the story down.  Then, in the late eighties, I got a job as a editor at a publishing company in the Midwest. 

As an editor, I noticed that I had a visual reaction to a person's writing:  how it looked on the page, how dense or light.  How much white space or how much text.  Even before I began to read, I had a sense of whether I would be engaged, just by how the text looked.

Friday, October 7, 2016

Kid Lit! Writing for Different Young Readers--Who Is Your Best Audience?

Many writers want to write for kids.  They raised their own children on books, maybe thought I can tell a good story, too!  Or they love to illustrate for kids and want to fashion a story around their illustration.  I get lots of questions about kid lit, what ages to gear a particular story to, how to sell your children's, middle-grade, or young adult book these days.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Jennifer Egan on the Dream State of Writing


This week's writing exercise is simply a link to a fabulous article, an interview in Brainpickings with the Pulitzer-winning author, Jennifer Egan (A Visit from the Goon Squad), about the weird and wonderful place we go when we write.  Check it out here.   You may relate!