Monday, October 11, 2010

James River Writers Conference

Happy Columbus Day! Or Happy Thanksgiving, if your Canadian!

Last week, I attended the James River Writers Conference, and I'd like to talk about it today on the blog.


Thursday, October 7th
Short Story Workshop

For the first day of the James River Writers Conference, I attended the short story workshop. Clifford Garstang, author of the short story collection In an Uncharted Country, was the guest speaker. His work is very character oriented. Short stories are similar to novels. You must have plot, character, setting, theme or "aboutness," and language. The short story is different than a novel in the fact that it is a close up or a moment in time. There must be conflict; something someone wants and something/someone stands in the character's way.

The thing I took the most from this workshop is "There are no rules." Sorta. If you find something that works, then it works. Plus, I found it interesting to learning the concept of linked short stories to make a collection. I knew of them, but I never gave them much thought about how you can have an entire world, like a novel, but just make short stories about the people in that world.

Friday, October 8th
First Full Day of Conference

The conference is completely awesome! I feel like I'm learning so much, and I hope I can put that learning to practice from now on. I attended several sessions, and I'll talk about each one below.

Pitching an Agent

Pitching an Agent was my first session on Friday. So far, it might be the most important one, since I'd pitch my novel Virtuoso to agent Melissa Sarver from the Elizabeth Kaplan Agency on Saturday at 1:21 PM.

Katharine Sands was the agent who spoke with us. She's a vivacious woman, and I feel like I learned so much from her. She talked about what she terms "pitch craft." There are three important things: getting ready, getting read, and getting readers. She explained the difference between a writer and an author. A writer is the solitary act of writing; whereas being an author is the complete collaboration of the project.

For the pitch, it's important to pitch ONE idea. That's right. Just one. Your pitch needs to answer the question "Why does the world need this book?" Also, there are three important things your pitch needs: setting/place, protagonist/person, and problem/pivot. Ms. Sands mentioned that you shouldn't waste the first paragraph with useless salutations. There are six words that are important to pitches: "love, heart, journey, fortune, dream, and destiny." Those six words comes from agent and author Don Maass (Thanks, Katharine!). You don't have to have all of them in there, but they're important.

And, most of all," Ms. Sands said, "Be a happy hooker." The hook is important to the pitch.

You also should think of your pitch as a movie trailer. Very good advice.

Finding Your Inner Teenager

The second session I went to was "Finding Your Inner Teenager." Erica Orloff, Meg Medina, Lauren Oliver, and Jacqueline Woodson were on the panel. First, they clarified the differences between Young Adult and Middle Grade. Young Adult fiction relies on the moment the character is in. There is some redemptive quality. The character is very internal or about self. In Middle Grade, the fiction focuses on children between ages 9-12. The protagonist is a similar age, and the characters have outward adventures, such as saving the world.

In writing teen fiction, it is important to remember the child you were. You must write for reality instead of an ideal. Everything is very enclosed to the characters.

In general writing, you need to "aim for truth, so beauty will follow," have discipline, and remember "a writer isn't something you become because it is something you are."

Character 101

After lunch, I went to the Character 101 session. The panel included Paul Whitlatch, Clifford Garstang, Michele Young-Stone, and Patty Smith.

Characters must be three-dimensional. Characters need an element of originality, but they must be recognizable. Characters can give a sense of voice and place. We all have the same emotions, even though we have different experiences. A writer must add some empathy in bad characters. Characters need to create conflict and make a scene where life intrudes. Mr. Garstang mentioned the Iago character, or the character that stirs things up.

In order to create three-dimensional characters, it's important to explore their background. Mr. Garstang creates a file and makes biographies of his characters. Michele Young-Stone keeps character blogs, which I thought was such an intriguing idea!

There are a few things to keep in mind about characters. Keep the rule of three when it comes to a character's details. Trust your readers to fill in the details. Also, try not to have names starting with the same letter. It can confuse people. Google your character's name, so you don't create a name of someone famous or infamous without meaning to.

Another way to get into a character's mind is to learn about how an actor gets into a character's mind. A good book is An Actor Prepares by Stanislavsky. (I may have the name wrong, but I think that's the name of the book and such.)

Setting 101

The panel for Setting 101 included Shawna Christos, Dean King, Lucy Carson, and Susann Cokal.

Setting is very important, but a writer should strive for atmosphere, or the feeling you get from the setting that is evocative. Setting can be locational, temporal, and situational. Setting needs mood and feeling. A writer should look what can be found and use experiences where you find them. A writer needs to approach setting as if a reader doesn't know it. Setting should feel exotic and adventurous to the reader. Even in fantasy and science fiction, the setting should feel true, even if it isn't. All five senses need to be used to establish setting. Also, a writer must learn X, Y, and Z about a world, but please remember not all the details have to be in the novel. Like characters, a writer must trust their readers to fill in the world.

As for setting, it should contribute to the characters' experiences. Everything should be relevant. A writer needs to use concrete words and be very careful about adjectives and adverbs when they describe setting.

Relationships: Writers, Agents, and Editors

The last session of the day on Friday was about writers, agents, and editors. Michele Young-Stone, author of The Handbook for Lightning Strike Survivors, her agent Michelle Brower, and editor at Simon and Schuster's imprint Scribner spoke.

Michele Young-Stone had a great suggestion when writing a novel. Once you finish the first draft, let it sit for thirty days before you go back to it. It's something I've heard before, and she's very correct about it. When you finish a novel, as well, the work isn't done yet. That first draft is really just the beginning to the real work.

In query letters, you shouldn't be too vague. You must translate enthusiasm. As for agents, you need to find the one that isn't promising you the most but the one that's saying the smartest things.

As for editing, the author and editor should be a good fit and want to make the best product possible.

By the way, Michele Young-Stone had on the coolest socks. They had skulls on them. She rocks!

Saturday, October 9th
Last Day of Conference

The wonderfulness of this conference just continued on the last day. I must admit by lunchtime I was a nervous wreck. I had my five-minute agent pitch at 1:21 PM EST. But, more on that below.

First Page Critique

The first page critique is perhaps the best part of the entire conference. Here we hear people's first pages they submitted and three agents tear them apart. The tearing them apart wasn't too terrible, and I found a lot of things the agents said about the first pages, I was thinking too. The three agents were Michelle Brower, Lucy Carson, and Melissa Sarver.

Here are some comments about the first pages and what every author needs to consider for the first page:
Character first before details
Get rid of passive wording; find active wording
If your character is thinking, don't have that character think in complete sentences. People don't do that, I guess.
Don't bombard your readers with too much description
You must have action, character, dialogue
You can write A to C without describing B.
Short sentences pack punch!
Do not have your character wake from a dream. It's so cliché.
Description should be weaved in character and plot.
Attach your readers to people, not setting.
Trust your readers.
Sometimes less is more.
Watch for details that pull your reader out of the story.
Make sure language is evocative.
Don't explain a metaphor too much.
Watch out for abstract references.
Watch out for too many adjectives.
Pay attention to EVERY word.

One key fact I learned, the first page must have NO grammatical errors. An agent will reject you if there is one, even if it is a small comma out of place or a mistyped word.

Also, read first pages in your favorite books to see what grabs you and how the first pages work.

Capturing History

This panel included Jon Kukla, Dean King, Charles J. Shields, and Kirk Ellis.

They mentioned you have fifteen seconds to sell a book. Yes, just fifteen. Wow.

When opening a story, you need to take the reader to the heart of the story.

It's important to know the ending of the novel you're writing, so you can show the trajectory of the characters.

It's important to know when to stop scenes, tell the story of middles, and don't begin with the beginning or end with the end. Writers should write inside out, not outside in.

In writing history, you don't have to impress readers with tons of details. A writer must keep in mind to write what history was, not what it came to be.

Most of all, history was lived in the present, not the past.

Five Minutes with an Agent

After lunch, I prepared to speak with Melissa Sarver, agent for the Elizabeth Kaplan Literary Agency. It was one of the scariest things I had to do, even though Ms. Sarver isn't scary at all. She's very nice, and I enjoyed speaking with her. She's my first New York agent I've ever spoken to.

I pitched Virtuoso, my YA Paranormal novel. First things first, Ms. Sarver loved the title, which is important, although the title that gets on books is usually up to the publisher instead of the author.

Then, I went into my pitch, telling her what Virtuoso is about.

First, she told me I had to be very careful about this pitch. The first part I said was almost exactly like this other YA book titled If I Stay, which is about a cellist who is in a car accident and a coma, her family is dead, and she has to decide if she should stay or go. It sounds like a fascinating book, but you could imagine my horror and embarrassment to find out there was already a novel similar to mine.

Yet, the beginning of our novels might sound similar, mine diverges greatly. The second part of my pitch had her sit up, and I saw her eyes widen. I could almost hear her thinking, "Now, this might really work. This is different." Or, at least, that's the impression I got. She liked the concepts in the novel.

She cautioned me to lower Derek's age to keep the novel as YA, since it's on the border between upper YA fiction and adult fiction.

Then, she said when I was ready to submit the novel to send her an email, reminding her where we met, and to send along the first few chapters on my manuscript.

*blinks* That's right, folks. It's my first partial request.

*does happy dance for a moment*

But, the real work has begun. My novel needs a massive redo. I have research I need to do. And, I'm getting ready to write my NaNoWriMo novel in November. *sighs* Yes, it means I can't go back to Virtuoso until December at the earliest.

I realized something important when talking with Melissa Sarver. Being an author is what I want to do. If it means I have to write the novel again and do many revisions, then it's the way it has to be. I could do the rewrites I was previously doing and have the novel accepted by a small publisher, but I want to make the best product. I want to have a novel worthy of an agent and publisher. It'll be a lot of work, but no one ever said writing was easy.


This panel consisted of Michelle Brower, Jeff VanderMeer, Bill Blume, and Zachary Steele.

The writer must build the world. The more the writer knows, then the easier the story flows. The world needs to be accessible to readers and the description should serve the story.

They warned about using fantasy clichés, such as the orphaned child. It is almost important to use twists to open this new world.

Interview with Charles J. Shields

For the final session on Saturday, Dean King interviewed Charles J. Shields. Mr. Shields writes biographies, and he is currently working on his first YA novel while also writing a biography on Kurt Vonnegut.

For the writer, there are some key points I got out of the interview:
You must be willing to be revised.
You must be willing to take criticism.
Become a literary detective.
Read slowly.
Read critically.
High moments deserve a scene; whereas others might deserve just a summary.

Overall, the conference was a HUGE success. I can't wait until the one next year. I just wish I knew some of this stuff before I began writing. If you ever get a chance to go to a writers conference, go. You won't regret it.


Lisa Rusczyk said...

Wow, Cherie, sounds like you had a good time and learned a lot. Thanks for the complete run-down, and congrats on the agent interest. That's awesome!

Cherie Reich said...

It was awesome! I highly recommend going to one. *grins*

Anonymous said...

Hello Cherie,
Thank you for mentioning my class on your blog,,,one thing it is important for me to say: the six words you list here are actually a quote from agent and author Don Maass. He has written several terrific books for writers, and I was lucky enough to interview him for Making the Perfect Pitch....Best, Katharine

Cherie Reich said...

Thank you, Katharine! I updated the post to say where those six words came from. With all that great information, it was hard to write it all down at the time. I think I'm still trying to process all I learned at the conference. *grins* Thanks again!

Aubrie said...

Wow, so much information here to remember! I'm glad you had a good time and good luck on the partial!!!

Cherie Reich said...

Thanks, Aubrie! And, yeah, I'm still trying to remember all the information I received. put it into practice. *grins*