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Thoughts from the Willamette Writers Conference: Part Three

Welcome to the next segment of my Willamette Writer’s Conference adventures! In my previous post, I talked about the first day and a half of the Conference, and what I learned about querying, researching for better authenticity in Historical Fiction, and World Building. You should go check it out, if you haven’t already. It was pretty great.

After the World Building class on Friday, I went on to a class called Beyond Book Signings: Making Book Promotion Fun by Kerrie Flanagan. I’m dreading the time when I need to be marketing my book, so I figured I needed to take this class. And actually, it was quite nice. Nothing revolutionary happened, but it was a great class for setting your mind at ease and realizing that marketing is not supposed to be painful. Her best advice, after discussing all the ways that influence people to buy books and all the ways you can reach people to buy your books, was this: pick one that sounds fun to you, and try it. Just one. Don’t worry about the rest. Don’t even think about them. Just do one. Do it the best you can. Because you’re not going to be able to do all of them.

Flanagan also said that the point of marketing was to gain loyalty. And there were 3 keys to gaining loyalty: connection, trust, and relationship. Connection is the start (finding a book on FaceBook, or having a conversation with someone who gets interested to buy you book), and then trust has to do with your readers believing they are going to get what you advertise: whatever drew them to you in the first place. As in, always putting out good quality fantasy. Or autobiography. Or romance. Whatever is your shtick. And relationship, the final one, is about engaging readers and making yourself approachable. Responding when someone says hey on twitter. Replying back to emails. Being connectable.

Her final note of advice about marketing was remembering these three things: Keep it Fun, Make it Memorable, and Build Your Tribe (of loyal readers). Overall it was good stuff, and put me at ease that marketing isn’t going to be complete awfulness.

After classes completed for that day, there was a social gathering dinner eating type event, and my brain felt like it was oozing out of my eyeballs. I could not believe how tired I was after learning and talking all day!

My newfound friend came back after her second pitch, which didn’t go very well. She was pitching a screenplay instead of a manuscript. and apparently film-makers are notorious for being uninterested and not getting back to people even if they request to see pages. Such a strange thing – I wonder why they come to conferences at all?

Anyway, after the dinner there was one last group of classes I decided to stay for. I ended up attending Tips for Terror, Hints for Horror, both because it sounded interesting and because I was curious whether or not my manuscript could be classified as “horror.” It’s an odd genre I don’t understand; I’ve seen books I didn’t think were that gross or psychological that were classified as horror, and vise-versa.

The class overviewed common elements and themes in horror, and then went through a few exercises where we did a mash ups of non-horror with horror to come up with crazy ideas. That was fun. Overall it was good info, but the most important bit was that my manuscript is definitely not horror.

By Friday evening I had a general pitch that I was decently happy with: it covered my complicated world in one sentence, the push of the story in another sentence, and then set up the personality of my characters and the dramatic line at the end. I was pretty happy just relying on general points to go with: I was going to come at my pitch with the attitude of a conversation. That way, I at least would engage and not be monologuing, which is never good. And if I memorized a speech, I’d just end up sounding robotic.

By the second day of the conference it was fun to be able to recognize people I’d seen around. It gave an easy excuse to start a conversation with someone. I ended up eating breakfast with the friend of the producer of The Amazing Race (who I also had met the day before) during the opening ceremony.

She and I both headed to The Pursuit of the True Final Draft by Larry Brooks. Since I’m at that stage in my manuscript, it seemed like a good idea. This class was… equal parts irritation and fascination for me. His personality grated my nerves a little, but he had great information to impart.

Brooks began the class declaring that you can’t write a story without knowing the ending. If you don’t know the ending, you’re not writing foreshadowing or the story itself. I’m not sure I agree completely, but he had a point, depending on what your story is.

The main gist of the class came from the idea that there 12 criteria you must master before your manuscript is complete. These separate into six core competencies (concept, character, theme, structure, scene execution, and writing voice) and six realms of story physics (compelling premise, dramatic tension, optimal pacing, hero empathy, vicarious experience, and narrative strategy).

Brooks went on to say that there were two main reasons a manuscript (or pitch) gets rejected, both because the manuscript isn’t final. The first is that that the story isn’t executed well enough, and the second is that the story idea itself isn’t strong enough. Then he started discussing the difference between concept and premise, which he emphasized were heavily different things. Concept has to do with the main idea of your story, the thing that is new or refreshing, and almost always has nothing to do with the hero. A story set in an alternative history, or on another planet. Or a story about ghosts. The hero can be the conceptual creation (superman, Sherlock Holmes), but most likely are not. The premise is the main, exciting “dramatic thread” that runs through the story: Character A has his life interrupted by X, has to accomplish Y by doing Z, but Character B (or environment, or whatever) stands in the way for PQR reasons.

Beyond that, you have your usual thread of storytelling, with the climax, plateau, etc, etc. Multiple premises can come from one concept (see multiple stories set in the same interesting world, like Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern and numerous other stories set on Pern), which is where you see series popping up and so forth.

Brooks kept emphasizing, over and over, that most people didn’t know the different between concept and premise and didn’t have the distinction in their story (thus, they get rejected by agents and publishers). When he started talking about concept and premise, it took him almost a half an hour to actually define the difference and tell us what he was talking about. I got really excited that I thought I knew what he was talking about, and got irritated that he wasn’t being clear about the definition.

So when Brooks finally got around to defining concept, I raised my hand, and like a complete smart-ass, asked: “Do I get a gold star that I knew what you were talking about before you defined it?” He asked what the concept was, and I gave him the one I had for my story (which happens to be the alternative history/world setting), and he told me I was exactly right.

Which was exactly what I needed to hear before going into my pitch. One, because it was encouraging, and two, because tweeking my pitch just slightly had my concept and premise defined and distinct from each other.

The next class was Own Your Time Like A Boss by Cheri Lasota, most of which I was going to be able to attend before I had to leave for my pitch. Lasota’s class was mostly about applications and software that can aid a writer in saving time while reading, collaborating with other writers, and editing. She talked about applications like Scrivner, Write or Die, Grammarly, PicMonkey, and so forth, which can do very different things to help a writer and author in their career. It was good information overall, and though I did leave about half an hour before it concluded, and she sent her powerpoint slides with links to the applications to anyone who wanted them. So I have that to still go through.

Anyway, so I left early and walked to the pitch room, replaying my pitch one more time in my head. The teacher of the Hints for Horror class was actually seated next to me in the waiting room, so we chatted briefly while I tried to breathe through nerves and make light of my cold and quivering hands. Making light of things always helps. Make fun of yourself. Somehow, it works. At least for me.

Then 11:40 hit, and we all walked into the pitch room.

Aaaand that is where I’m going to leave you until tomorrow’s part, just because I’m evil. Stay tuuuunnnnned. 😉

 


Thoughts from the Willamette Writers Conference: Part Two

Here’s the introductory post!

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The first day (on Thursday) was only a half-day basically consisted of meeting everybody. There were two class-like things you could do, one about succeeding at the Conference and the other about finding the right agent, and then a competition for who had the best Pitch (a pitch, if you don’t know, is talking directly to an agent/publisher, as opposed to the query letter via email or snail mail. It’s even more condensed than a query, if you can believe it).

I went to the success at the Conference basics class, and it was about what I expected it to be. But a pivotal thing happened: somehow, when one of the panelists asked me what my story was about (in reference to a discussion about complicated worlds/settings), somehow what came out of my mouth was: coming of age horror.

Which certainly covers certain elements of my novel (she’s younger, and the story is very dark with some creepy monsters), it didn’t cover the main elements. But it didn’t really matter, because the entire room went:

Ooooooo ~ !

Which was pretty dang encouraging. And put my story in a new light I hadn’t considered from it before. So I began to think of it differently, pondering on all of it’s possibilities. And then people started coming up after the class, asking to hear more about my idea. Which was both very encouraging and helped with forming how I wanted my pitch to sound.

I stayed for the Pitch for the Prize Competition even though I wasn’t going to participate (I didn’t feel my pitch was ready) to make sure I was on the right track about how to pitch. Now. I signed up for a Pitch and I knew it was important, but it didn’t hit me until this point that I was pitching to a publisher who could want my book and possibly sell it. Somewhere halfway through the competition I started not feeling so good.

Fast forward a few hours, and I was home and kinda rather freaking out about my pitch. The sentences for my pitch didn’t work together. I couldn’t say them out loud without stumbling over them. It was too much information. There wasn’t enough information. It didn’t flow right; didn’t sound conversational or easy.

On and on and on.

Which was very frustrating for me, because I knew that if I worried about this pitch the whole weekend, I wouldn’t enjoy the conference as much as I could. Thankfully, my lovely and wonderful partner talked it through with me for a while, and then made me go to sleep. He’s also a writer, with much more technical than me, and talking it through with him always brings clarity.

Somewhere between sleep, the encouragement and help, and repeatedly telling myself that the Conference was for learning and fun and wasn’t going to make or break my career, Saturday morning was much better.

Weird writer self-loathing freak over with!

I met a friend during the opening ceremony (tip: if anyone is ever standing alone, GO UP AND SAY HI. Most people are there trying to work up the nerve to say hi as well. It often starts a conversation that will at least last a class, if not the day or beyond the conference. I feel like 99% of people there are looking to make friends. And 99% of those are introverts and don’t really know how to make a conversation either.) who went with me to the first class I attended: Agents’ Tips for Successful Queries and Proposals.

Jill Marr from Dijikstra Literary Agency and Clair Gerus were there and, after giving an overview of query-making, answered everyone’s questions. It was mostly standard, but in the discussion of writing a great hook, something interesting was posed: your hook could be why you’re querying that person. Ms. Marr said that she’s much more likely to read a query that immediately shows the sender has done research on the agent and the agent’s desires.

Anyway, food for thought.

My next class was Research Strategies and Methods for Writing Historical Fiction taught by Judson Roberts. Roberts writes early Viking Historical Fiction, and walked us through his process on how he goes about writing something like that. He stressed the most important part was to always start with the general and then move to the specific. In other words, start with a overview book about Vikings times, figure out something you’re interested in, and then start delving deeper. The basics were to finds as many original sources of information (exactly like writing a research paper for college) for the time period that you’re interested in writing, because the author will filter and have their own interpretations that are not necessarily correct. Putting your own interpretations on original sources are half the fun, anyway.

So the advice was basically the same for researching characters of the same era. Roberts said to get as much information as you can about particular characters, and that stories from other eras will often have character-pieces about the people you’re writing about. Then the playing with the details can begin: just enough to be fun, but not so much as you’re historically “inaccurate” and loose authenticity.

Roberts also stressed to try to go to the place you’re writing about (if you have the means, of course). There are things that are can seen/heard/smelled that can’t necessarily be understood unless you go there. For example, ruins on cliffs that are never talked about but your characters would see (or that you could incorporate into your story!), what it smells like on this particular street, what the trees look like, etc, etc, etc.

It was all very good info.

Then it was lunch time, and my newfound friend and I drove down to a French bakery she works at. Apparently, she follows the agent she was pitching to on Twitter, and found out that the agent has been looking for the perfect apple turnover. Lone behold, my newfound friend works at a French bakery. Like, a real French bakery.

So we trotted down there and got her thing, and I got a chocolate covered pistachio macaron for FREE. Probably the best thing I’ve eaten EVER. That was AWESOME.

After lunch, I headed to The Wonder of World Building by Karen Azinger while my newfound friend headed to her pitch. We did some practicing and some encouragement and off she went.

World Building was quite neat and informative. It was very structured, and looked at each different aspect of making a world and how important it was to develop from the stand-point of your story. She included in her important aspects to look at: Language (and then Foreign Language), Architecture, Culture, Maps, Religion, Government, Monetary System, and Magic. This is all in the context of Science Fiction and Fantasy, mind you.

Azinger had us all write out diagrams with three columns, and in the first column we wrote down our main characters and our main themes. In the next column, you wrote down the skills the character uses to accomplish his/her goals, or the tools you use as a writer to express the theme you’re depicting. In the third and final column, you wrote down what elements of the list were most important to your story to develop.

Here is a quick (and rudimentary) one that I did:

20150810_172244

As you can see, culture, government, and magic are pretty important elements in how my characters use and perceive the world around them (A quick note about magic: Azinger stressed that the laws surrounding magic were particularly important when developing a magical society. And the laws/limits of magic should be believable and the same for everyone otherwise you lose your reader).

From there, you can separate out the things that are not important to develop. You can add the “flavor” of the things being present in the world, but do not have to explain or highly develop them. In fact, it can become boring to the reader to do so. Language is slightly important to my story due to my MC’s research taking her into old Latin texts, but I can simply add the “flavor” of things by adding a Latin word here and there but keeping the rest in English. Then it feels fully developed without having to learn Latin (or make up a whole new language: see Tolkein). On the other hand, the monetary system and religion are next to not important at all. I can just mention Euros at some point in my story (since this one does take place in Europe), and the readers can fill in the rest. A similar situation for religion.

Making up a religion, by the way, is much more interesting than borrowing from an already present one (if it’s important in your story). You could combine two religions together (like Buddhism and Islam in Frank Herbert’s Dune). And Azinger also mentioned (somewhat jokingly) that all Epic Fantasy since Tolkein has to have a map; it’s practically a requirement to have one in the first pages of the book.

Architecture, by the way, is rather important whether you think about it or not. It often sets mood, character, and description of the scene. It’s something to think about; and also something that probably should have unique characteristics per city or place.

Almost at the end of the class, my newfound friend came back very excited that her pitch went well. The agent requested 30 pages, and a request to see more is the best you can get at one of those! I’m very excited for her and hope there are all good things happening there.

And this, my friends, is where I’m going to stop. Alas, I have two more classes on Friday and Saturday to get through before I’m done. But we’re already over 1,600 words and I’ve much more to get through!

Stay tuned! 😉

The next segment can be found here.


Thoughts from the Willamette Writers Conference: Part One

Well. The Willamette Writer’s Conference was AMAZING. And it wasn’t just the classes, or the pitching to agents and publishers; it was the connection with other writers, the discussions of ideas, and the introverted writer world coming together in a very nourishing environment. I’m still exhausted by constantly learning and talking to people for 12 hours a day for almost three days, but I feel revitalized. Excited. Re-purposed.

It wasn’t like I didn’t understand my purpose as a writer and want to succeed, but there’s nothing like meeting a group of like-minded people. Or feeling like you’re a part of something. Which is funny, coming from such a introverted, self-focused profession.

Anyway, I’d love to share all of what I learned (both from the classes and from the people) in blog posts, so I’m going to! Of course, personal notes and addendums will be added, because that’s rather half the point of going to a conference anyway. Since a single post (even on just what I learned) would probably be a mile long and nobody is going to read that, I’m going to split up the three days into two posts. Then I’ll edit this post and put the links below! Stay tuned!

Part Two!

Part Three!