Writing

Write or Die-Valuable Tips to Keep Your Writing Alive

The home of Victor Villaseñor, So. California
The home of Victor Villaseñor, So. California

Write or die.

This is the message my October writing life sent me. To that end, I went on a writing retreat with my group, WOmen Who Write (WoWW), attended SCWBI’s Writer’s Day, enrolled in an online University of Iowa workshop (free), and attended the Los Angeles Writer’s Digest Conference.

I’m a little tired from all this, but I have to tell you about our writing retreat in Carlsbad, California and share some writing tips.

We, eight women, arrived at Casa Villaseñor by way of Airbnb, never expecting to meet the esteemed writer Victor Villasenor, author, and owner of the home. After producing nine novels, 65 short stories and close to 300 rejections, he sold his first novel, Macho!, which the Los Angeles Times compared to the best of John Steinbeck.

Rain of Gold became a national best-seller and translated into seven languages. Another of his books was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. I mention this about the author because his body of work evidences his persistence as a writer, the write or die philosophy.

We were surprised to find Mr. Villasenor on the grounds of the home. He was in another house (his casita) because he was finishing up a new novel. I can’t tell you what it’s about but I can say his joy of finishing the work was shared with all of us.

Through conversation, I picked up some valuable writing tips and I’m sharing these with you:

Every sentence needs to do one of the following:

  1. Scare the brain

  2. Touch the heart

  3. Inspire the soul

“Writing is about the moment, you are nowhere else, you are totally there…cause the person to live the moment with you.”-Victor Villaseñor

A few of us made a mad dash for our writing projects and examined our first pages. Sure enough, there was plenty of revision to work on.

The local chapter of Society of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrator’s (SCWBI) put on a “Writer’s Day,” at the Cal Lutheran University campus.

I attended a panel composed of literary agents and editors which I enjoyed. This is what they look for when they decide to read the first page of a Middle Grade or Young Adult work:

  1. Is the language child or teen-focused?
  2. Are there too many characters?
  3. Do I know whose story this is?
  4. Is the writer guilty of violating R.U.E? ( Resist the Urge to Explain)
  5. Where are we in the scene?
  6. Can I get a sense of the protagonist?
  7. Is the description embedded in action and dialogue?
  8. Do the details further the story?

If your first 250 words make it pass those eight questions the agent may read on to the next page. I venture to guess these tips apply to most fiction.

The esteemed University of Iowa, Writing Workshops has a free online course titled “Storied Women.” You can get a lot of writing bang for no bucks if you take this course. Although the course started Oct. 21, 2016, it doesn’t close until next month. You can still view the video’s and notes on voice, identity, point of view, plot, and structure.

 

Closer to home was the Writer’s Digest 2016 Writers Conference in downtown Los Angeles. I chose to drive into LA rather than stay at the storied Westin Bonaventure.

Friday traffic was crazy with the rain and the morning commute. The skyscrapers blended into the bleak sky, dark jackets and umbrellas scurried on the sidewalks.

On Saturday morning, the downtown was eerily quiet. No rain, no rushing, no noise.

The Westin Bonaventure-Los Angeles, downtown.
The Westin Bonaventure-Los Angeles, downtown.

I have to say, Writer’s Digest gives good workshops at a reasonable price. Jane Smiley, Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction, presented last night. Alas, no photo of Ms. Smiley, but you can see some interesting photos of the Halloween Party (which I didn’t attend) on Twitter. Look under #WDNWC16. I do love the “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” and “Writer’s Block” costumes.

My favorite workshop was “Openings That Sell,” presented by literary agent and editor, Paula Munier.

“This is why I keep reading,” she began. Your first pages must have:

1-Strong voice

2-The level of craft is high

3-The character makes me feel something: there is an emotional impact in the first scene

4-Something happens (aka you have an inciting incident, a call to adventure)

5-A unique story or a story with a unique twist.

6-There’s a market for this story. 

7-The writer has gained my confidence and the page passes “the ahh test.” They provide a certain kind of experience.

8-It’s clear what kind of story is being told by the language.

9-The prose is clear, clean, and concise. Opt for clarity all the time.

10-Free of grammatical errors.

A great story is life, with the dull parts taken out-Alfred Hitchcock

Larry Brooks presented “The Most Important Moment in your Story.” There was a lot of material in this workshop about concept, premise, and the dramatic arc. He has a website, StoryFix.com, where you can visit and read all the good stuff he has for writers.

I hope you found some tips in this post to use or share.

Keep calm and write on.

Revision, Writers

Rejection and Persistence-The Writing Life

Rejection and Writing-Ray Bradbury

I saved this Ray Bradbury quote. Not because I plan to wallpaper a room with rejection slips but to remind myself that my list of rejection e-mails for two of my manuscripts amounts to maybe a quarter of a wall.

Rejection emails don’t phase me too much anymore. With a click of a button, they slide right into my “Queries” folder unless the lit agent wrote something more than a form letter. I jot down whatever suggestions they offered and send good thoughts to those agents for taking a minute to say something constructive.

And then I take a deep breath, put my big girl panties on and get back to work.

Now that doesn’t mean I don’t pay attention to constructive criticism, I’d be an idiot not to take someone’s suggestions and toss them around, see if they fit and give it a try.

This is also the time when I remind myself that I’ve lived through worse than an email rejection letter and got through it, survived and thrived.

A rejection letter is a little nudge, sometimes a kick, to remind me that I am doing the work. I’m sending out query letters.

I love to put words together. Many times I found that I have to learn how to put those words together in a better way.

I remind myself that although I’ve been rejected, I must be doing something right if I also receive requests for more pages, writing fellowships, and selected to be mentored in an Association of Writing Professionals (AWP) program.

All of those good things have been interspersed with the not so great. As I write this, my little email slider dings and I see another rejection letter came in my mailbox. I’ll share with you:

Thanks so much for your query. I’m really grateful that you chose to submit to me, but I’m sorry to say I’m not connecting enough with this project. I hope you will try me again with future work if you don’t find representation for this.

Young women in prison do not connect with a lot of people especially when I write about young women who are from ‘subgroups,’ ‘subcultures,’ et al. (the immigrant, the addicted, the gang banger, the sexually abused).

I remind myself that someone out there will connect with that story. I just have to get through the ‘gatekeepers.’

I remind myself and ask you to remind yourself, that persistence is a quality to hold onto if you want to become a writer and author.

On writing-Jennifer Weiner
On writing-Jennifer Weiner 

Only persistence keeps me going, walking, trudging through the revisions and rejections.

And now, back to work.

Writing, writing conferences, writing tips

Lessons Learned at the WD Conference

 

Two words for the Writer’s Digest Novel Conference in L.A: Worth It!

A couple of weeks of craft workshops jammed into two and a half days may be overwhelming, but there was lots of value for $249.

Twenty plus pages of facts, thoughts, post-its to self, and business cards fill my note book so this will be a two parter.

I’ll start at the beginning and give some highlights. All of the speakers have websites and resources you can find through the links I’ve listed.

Keynote quote speaker Jonathan Maberry spoke on importance of being a good literary citizen,

“don’t be a jackass,”

“any completed first draft is a win even if it’s bad because you completed it.” 

1. An Intro to Structure That Empowers Plotters and Pantsers Alike and Your Story on Steroids- Larry Brooks, Storyfix.com gave us slam dunk specifics. There are too many notes to give here, but go to his site for the free downloads. A gem for me was:

“Know the difference between concept and premise. Develop these before writing the story.”

Believe me, I’m a pantser, now in recovery, and this tip helps tremendously:

“Concept: the dramatic landscape of story that is conceptual; the stage, or arena. No character names needed. Write this in two or three sentences.

Premise: the protagonist has to have a conflict to surmount, a quest. Define your story core.”

2-Your First 50 Pages – Jeff Gerke. This author/editor is the Jim Carrey of the writing world who talked about how neuroscience relates to storytelling.

“In publishing everything is decided on your first 50 pages-if even that.”

Writing has to cause the reader to identify with someone/something in the story. Make the protagonist vulnerable or have some kind of need. Engage the readers mind with action, intrigue, curiosity. The brain is looking for danger, surprise, something new, so start with that in the beginning.

Martha Alderson, Plot Whisperer with her graph
Martha Alderson, Plot Whisperer with her graph

3. Martha Alderson, the Plot Whisper. She uses a plot graph to show you how to correspond your novel with the beginning, middle, and end of a plot.

There are four types of scenes: suspense, dialogue, crisis, and twister.

Catch her detailed mini-workshops on YouTube where she shows you how to plot a novel or screenplay.

Every scene should have a setting…goal…sensory details…forward movement…opposition.. and emotion.

There is a difference between the crisis and the climax of a novel:

Crisis-the antagonist wins, protagonist loses. Climax-protagonist wins and learns everything in the middle.

4. Ask the Agent Panel. A list of pet peeves and suggestions:

Misspelled names…using the words ‘fiction novel,’ bad grammar, writers who don’t read the submission rules,…pitching at inappropriate times. 

As if on cue, when the Q & A period began, a woman pitched her book, “Anyone interested in….” Ugh, it wasn’t pretty.

Search for agents by using Query Tracker, Twitters #MSWL (manuscript wish list), or go to the bookstore, look for books in your genre and on the last page under acknowledgements, the agents name is usually listed. I use Poet and Writers agent listing.

One of the agents said she was looking for a YA set in prison. It was like the heavens opened up when I heard this statement. I had to make myself stop wiggling in my seat and wait for a time when I could tell her I had such a novel. During Q & A I said I had the novel she wanted,  she said send it to me.

Then  I asked a question: whether more emphasis was placed  on the query or the first 10 pages. Two out of three agents said the first pages.

I need 50 pages to know if a book is good, but only 1 to know it’s not.”

 

I hope you found something useful for your writing life. Investigate the presenters sites. Plan to attend a conference on writing craft. Invest in your writing.

If you have a specific question that I may provide information for, please ask me in the comment section.

 

 

Encouragement, Strong Women, Writing

Agent: What I Wish Writer’s Knew

"Used with permission from Debbie Ridpath Ohi at Inkygirl.com."
“Used with permission from Debbie Ridpath Ohi at Inkygirl.com.”

After a short birthday break in beautiful San Diego, California, I’m back to my writer’s world, feeling a little down.

Like many writers one gets discouraged after a couple of years or five. I’m most happy when I’m writing stories, following the character on a journey, ending up in places I hadn’t intended. I have to confess that I like revision too. At least I’m still with my characters, in the story.

Right now I’m in the close to blah place: sending out queries, reading rejection letters and submitting poetry and short pieces to small journals.

What perks me up is blogging. I can write, post, maybe a few readers or fellow writers like the subject, and I feel a connection to the comments. Someone hears me, someone is talking with me. It feels like community. This helps motivate me to keep on keeping on.

Today, I want to continue with what I learned at the A Room of Her Own (AROHO) writer’s retreat last month.

Agents. Ack! FInding one is like searching for the Holy Grail. They don’t drop out of the sky or come knocking at your door. A writer hopes their query letter grabs and holds them until they finish reading the darn letter, jot down your name, and call you. It could happen. Or not.

Truth is Literary Agents are working people. They have to make a living. If they take a gamble on a writer, the odds better be in their favor.

I’ve noticed that in the last three years, conferences invite Agents and writers to participate in an Agent/Writer speed dating event. The writer has 90 seconds to 3 minutes to make their pitch before the bell rings and the writer moves on. Nerve-wracking, mind boggling, exhausting (but that’s just my opinion).

Speed dating. Gettyimages.com

Here’s what this agent participant had to say about Speed-dating for Agents.

For those of you who don’t chose to pay and involve yourself with the speed dating scene (at least for now), here’s some advice and wisdom from an agent I had the pleasure to hear speak at AROHO 2013.

Joy Harris established the  Harris Literary Agency. She is most interested in literary fiction and narrative non-fiction. Her interest is in working directly with writers to help guide their careers, negotiate on their behalf, and protect their work. At the AROHO retreat she presented a short workshop on

“What I Wish Writer’s Knew.”

  1. “Who is going to read my book.” Writers should have a good idea of their audience. Tip: “Everyone,” is not the answer. Think age range, educational level, personal or professional,  and interests. Communicate this to an agent.
  2.  Your MS has to excite the agent, right away from that first sentence of the first paragraph. Editors and Agents have less time and the pile of manuscripts (MS) is higher.
  3. Find avenues to get your shorter works published. Research journals and small presses. Get your work out there. (I subscribe to Poets and Writers magazine and they have an online search for writing contests and journals).
  4. Approach an Agent Appropriately. Find out which agents represent books in your genre. Read the submission rules and follow them. Keep your query letter short-one page. Be prepared to make your pitch short and sweet. (Rachelle Gardner has a fill in the blank pitch).
  5. Short stories and memoirs are not selling as well as before, but are much easier to publish if the short stories/memoir is your second or third book.
  6. Self-publishing and E-Book publishing are difficult. Be prepared to be the agent, writer, publisher and marketer.
  7. Publishers want writers with a platform whether it is celebrity, social media, or professional connections.
  8. Publishers want writers to have publishing credits: work in journals, magazines, awards, contest winners or honorable mentions.
  9. Contracts: Don’t sign a contract that ties you to an agent for “…all future works.” It should have a 30 day notice of termination.

Bottom line is there is no easy road to publishing, but we can prepare ourselves with up-to-date maps, rest stops, and visits along the way to make the cross country journey a little easier.

Inner strength, patience, humor, and community helps. So does coffee, dark chocolate and good wine.