April 22, 2011

Regional SCBWI Conference, Part 4

Last section of notes! 

Carol Lynch Williams was kind enough to share some pearls of wisdom with us.  She started by having everyone write down a goal.  You're not a writer unless you're writing, right?

She spoke of "conference syndrome" -- only having the first few pages of a manuscript highly polished, but every page needs to be your best and connect emotionally to the reader.  She started to say that if you use a swear word, it needs a reason to be on the page, then backtracked.  _Any_ word you use needs to have a reason to be on the page.  Good writing is in the details, so utilize the five sense and avoid cliche words and phrases. 

She also talked about plot structure in a way I hadn't thought about.  A book opens with something to grab the reader, introduces the characters, and presents the problem.  Somewhere not long thereafter, there's a "point of no return" -- something that happens where things can never go back.  Right before the climax, there's another point of no return. 

I translated this all to Lord of the Rings, my native language.  Everything up to the Council of Elrond introduces the characters, the problem, and gives me a reason to care.  Previous to this point, Frodo planned to return home and enjoying the comforts of the Shire.  The Council is a game changer.  He can't go back, not if he wants the Shire to continue existing.  Frodo and friends gear up for the long haul.

At the end (and I think many times along the way), there's another point of no return.  Frodo, Sam, and Smeagol are deep in Mordor without a way to turn back.  Argorn and the rest of the good guys start a battle to draw Sauron's eye and give the little guys half a chance.  It's a tense moment in the book.  Everyone can't just gather in Minas Tirith, enjoy some tea and crumpets, and hope Sauron disappears on his own.  They're fully invested.  The "So What" factor I talked about in part three of these notes if scorching hot.

True, I did end up humming _Phantom of the Opera_ in my head, but this was another cool way to look at stakes and plot.

April 20, 2011

Regional SCBWI Conference, Part 3

Jennifer Rofe's talk on the "So What" factor spun me around and left me dizzy.  It's not just a great tool for ensuring that your book has interesting conflict, but it describes what the elusive perfect query should look like.

Jennifer taught us a simple game.  Lay out the plot points in a book, and keep going until you can't ask "so what?" anymore.  She used a variety of great books as examples, but I thought instead of reiterating hers, I'd do this with The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins.  If you haven't read them...you should run to your nearest bookstore/library (jogging is acceptable if it's very far).  Using the "So what?" game...

*When Kat's sister is drafted into the Hunger Games -- a deadly reality show enforced by the Capitol to keep its districts in check -- Kat volunteers to take her place.  (So what?)

*There are twenty-three other players (So what?)

*To win and leave with her life, she'll have to kill all twenty-three -- other drafted teenagers just like her (Ouch!)

Mortal danger itself really a hook.  Fictional characters always seem to be in danger of their lives, and the main character rarely dies.  The "so what" is the cost of survival: for Kat to live, twenty-three others must die.  It's not twenty-three random people, it's twenty-three teenagers who, for the most part, are going through the same agony she is.  She'll almost certainly have to kill some of them.  Even if she lives...would she be the same person?  The Hunger Games is brimming with other cool stuff (like Peeta), but "cool" isn't the same as "gut-wrenching moment when I have to read this."

That's my big take-away from the conference: the "so what" factor is the gem that I must include in my query, so an agent can't help but turn the page.

April 19, 2011

Regional SCBWI Conference, Part 2

Onward with the notes!

I had the opportunity to listen to Jennifer Rofe of Andrea Brown Literary Agency.  This was possibly my favorite part of the conference.  I've been sending out query letters lately, and seeing an agent be a real person instead of The-Sender-of-Rejection-Letters was heartening.  In fact, I think it would be hard to sit in a room with Jennifer Rofe and not feel a little better about life, the universe, and everything -- she's energetic, enthusiastic, and made me wish I had a book that matched her interests so she could champion it.

Eight Things an Agent Does:
1. Agents take on clients (hopefully for the long haul)
2. Some agents edit clients' work
3. Agents know and track the current market.
4. Agents submit manuscript (using their market knowledge).  Jennifer noted that doing this in rounds is best -- if you have twenty editors, maybe send to just five to start.  They may not take the book, but may have editorial comments.  Edit, then submit to the next five, etc.
5. Agents sell and negotiate books.  I loved Jen's approach to this.  She told a story of a book she sold in three hours, and the story of another book she believed in and wouldn't give up on.  After four years, she sold it.  Amazing.
6. Agents advise clients about career choices.
7. Your agent is your advocate: if you have a problem with your editor, the agent can deal with it, leaving your relationship with your editor clean.
8. Agents also do bookkeeping -- handle royalty statements, send you your tax forms, etc.

*One of her clients said that if you can't ask your boss for a raise, you need an agent.  (This was a lightbulb moment for me: I will need an agent)

Interviewing Agents:
Take time to interview an agent before you sign with them.  Some authors are happy to just have any agent, but if they sell a book for you, there's always a connection there.  Don't be afraid to turn an offer down.  Put aside excitement to think it through.  Look at their work style: will it work for you?  Do you have similar thoughts about the manuscript -- both with revisions and where to submit it? (Though the agents may not say everything; Jen noted that some authors will take all the labored-over comments and run with them)  She highly reccomended getting even just a one-month subscription to Publishers Marketplace to research prospective agents (many sales are listed here, though not all).

Before Approaching an Agent:
*Do your research
*Have a polished manuscript, critiqued by someone other than friends/family
*Write a query letter.  Jen said she only needs three paragraphs:
      1.Introduce the work and explain why you're submitting to her.
      2. Very brief synopsis, including the hook (or the "So What?" factor -- which will be in Part 3 of these posts).  Jen noted that she's yet to buy a book where this is written in the character's voice.
      3. Pertinent biographical information: any writing credits or memberships to organizations like SCWBI.

Lastly, Jennifer did talk about things she's looking for, but I found a great interview with her (click here) that covers it very nicely.  The only thing I didn't see that Jennifer talked about was the importance of being silling to market yourself and being active in your writing community.  There are scads of agents and authors on Twitter having conversations about writing, and it's easy to be a part of that.

April 16, 2011

Regional SCBWI Conference, Part 1

I attended my region's SCBWI (Society of Children Book Writers and Illustrators) Conference.  There were great speakers, a great lunch, and a morning and afternoon snack.  I am now stuffed and smarter.  Here are some of my favorite tidbits, but a caveat: these are just from my notes, not direct quotes -- and I did focus on the YA side of things.

Author Judy Cox spoke about the power stories have to make a connection with readers.  Stories are about people making choices.  When we write, we should ask ourselves what the story is really about and cut everything else out. 

Lori Benton, the VP for Scholastic's trade publishing, said writing is a muscles that needs exercise.  Get critiques, read writing aloud (especially picture books), and revise -- shave down to the bone.  Inspiration can come from anywhere.

Do your submission research: find who published books like your and books you like and submit there.  To get a book published, you need an editor to champion it at the acquisitions meeting.  Since so much of the marketing falls on the author today, even pre-published authors should have blogs and be active members of their writing community.  Local librarians and booksellers can often connect you to others in your area.

An eye-opener to me was the tidbit that picture book sales are tied heavily to the school curriculum.  Writing age-appropriate books that mesh with the curriculum for that age group is a huge plus.  She recommended a book called Yardsticks to help authors gauge if they're writing age-appropriate material.  State curricula are often available online.

Part 2 of notes, coming soon...

April 1, 2011

The Type of Author...

I've been thinking about this post on The Type of Author I Want to Be, on Deborah Burns' blog.  It made me think about my blog.  I like having a blog -- even if it took me a good hour to figure out how to put that clickable side-banner up.  When I comment on other blogs, having it link back here makes me feel like I'm a real person, part of the discussion, except...

...I don't really discuss.  I link to things here, but what can I add?  There are lots of talented people with more credentials than me writing about writing.  If you've missed them, The Other Side of the Desk and Writing Excuses are my two favorites.

But Deborah made me think.  I follow a number of people on Twitter, but I've never written a single tweet.  Maybe I'd just be talking to myself, but Deborah's post made me feel like I should be talking to myself more articulately.

What can I articulate, though, that isn't being said?

I'm primarily a stay-at-home mom.  I plot while I change diapers, read stories, and sing "Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes."  Being a mom keeps teaching me about writing (and not just the part where both need patience).  I recently blogged about how watching the same movie over and over with my toddler really let me pick apart the scene structure and how the conflict, goals, and stakes were developed.  I also often think about how cultures percieve the world as I watch my baby work on language development.

Maybe that's the linguist in me -- I find it fascinating that my youngest calls his brother's pillow "my pillow" because that's what his brother calls it.  We have all these words for frame of reference -- my, yours, hers, Mom's, Megan's -- that can all denote the same thing.  How do babies learn this complicated system?  Take it one step further, and...how can I use this to develop an alien culture, or an interesting fantasy culture that uses frame of reference differently?

I'm going to keep posting links to cool stuff, and updating news when I have it, but at least twice a month, I'm going to add something from myself -- how changing diapers reminds me to use all the senses in description.  How a babbling baby makes me brainstorm alien societies.  I don't usually write stories about mothers, but being a full-time mom keeps teaching me about writing, patience, and what's important.