Monthly Archives: May 2012

First Revisions: Shaping the Mound of Clay

You finished your first draft. Hurray! You’ve set it aside for a period of time to gain distance and perspective. It’s time to dive back in for that first round of revisions. Not so fast.

Getting those initial revisions right is crucial to your success. How well you do may make the difference between a publishable manuscript and a deeply flawed work.

Picture that first draft as a mound of clay. There is a shape to it, but it needs definition. Maybe it’s a pyramid, but you picture a house surrounded by a picket fence, or a high-tech spaceship. The first revision is your best opportunity to shape the manuscript as you work toward the final draft.

You may have the urge to plunge in and start re-writing scenes, reinventing characters, and adding new dimensions to the story. That’s only natural, but first you should put on your reader’s glasses and go through the entire draft. Make notes in the margin or use the Comment feature of your software program. Circle typos and grammatical mistakes, but don’t get hung up on grammar or spelling. Focus on the big three: story, character, theme.

Some helpful questions as you read through your draft are:

  • What is the story really about?
  • What does the main character want, fear? What is the main character’s goal? Is it clear to the reader?
  • What is standing in the main character’s way of achieving the goal?
  • Is the central conflict evident to the reader?
  • Is there enough tension and uncertainty?
  • Does the main character engage the reader?
  • Why should the reader care?
  • Is the story plausible (note I didn’t write ‘believable’)?
  • Are there any scenes that can be cut?
  • Is there a theme? Is it apparent to the reader? How well-developed is the theme?

Don’t make any revisions until you’ve read the entire first draft. Then go back and read your notes or comments. A couple of things should become clear: where the holes in the story exist and where the theme needs to be embellished.

James Scott Bell, in his book, Plot & Structure, urged writers to get through the reading of the first draft as quickly as possible. “Do not get bogged down in details at this point,” he wrote. “What you want is the big picture, the overall impression. You can take very brief notes if you wish, but try not to slow down for any considerable period.

“You should work from the big issues down through the small ones,” he wrote.

When I reviewed the first draft of my novel, Small Change, I discovered I had started the story in the wrong place. It wasn’t a simple fix, either. I made the agonizing decision to eliminate the first four chapters, which, among other benefits, trimmed down an unwieldy manuscript.

Once you’ve reviewed your notes and comments, it’s time to go to work. Take on the big changes first, as Bell advised. Fix the story. This will involve changes to the characters. Pay attention to the way the story flows as you work. Mold that piece of clay.

The second draft is where you discover your story, hone it, strengthen your characters, shore up the weak spots, trim the fat. In most instances, you won’t have your final draft, but you’ll be a lot closer.

How do you tackle that first revision? Do you dive right in or read the manuscript?

 

 

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Book Review: “Secret Graces,” by Kathryn Magendie

Secret Graces is the second book in a trilogy by Kathryn Magendie that features the unforgettable voice of Virginia Kate Carey. As in the first book, Tender Graces, the story alternates between the present, when Virginia Kate returns to the West Virginia mountains upon the death of her mother, and her turbulent journey from adolescence to womanhood in her current home in Louisiana.

When Tender Graces ended, Virginia Kate was an adolescent struggling with the need to bond with her biological mother, who sent her away, and the warmth of her second family, anchored by saintly step-mother, Rebekha. As Secret Graces begins, Virginia Kate is a university student pursued by Dylan, who is smitten and courts her with dogged determination. Virginia Kate is hopelessly conflicted about Dylan and Magendie deftly describes her state of mind, drawing on setting and other elements to underscore her emotions.

She stood under an oak tree when Dylan spotted her for the first time. As she looked back from the perspective of a middle-aged woman, she reflects, “I remember that girl. That girl had been afraid all her life. That girl had tried to pretend she wasn’t afraid. And she gained and she lost and she knew she never had what she thought was hers, because she never fully gave of herself.”

Later, young Virginia Kate senses her step-mother wants to know about Dylan. “I knew Rebekha wanted me to talk to her about Dylan, but those feelings were easier to keep stuffed down where they were safe. If I talked about him, words would be released into the air, faster and faster until I’d be sucked asunder by a tornado, mad-whirled, scattering feelings and actions willy nilly.” And so Virginia Kate remained ambivalent, frustrating Dylan as his longing for her becomes more intense.

Despite serious misgivings, Virginia Kate convinced herself she and Dylan could have a happy life together. “He would make me love him back and I would be a part of someone, a half to a whole. I would make my own home with my own children…I’d never again be see-through or worry about lonely again.” But her fears proved well-founded.

The story ends on a hopeful note, setting the stage for the final act of this trilogy.

As with the first book, Virginia Kate’s authentic voice engages the reader right away. She is at times funny, vulnerable, perceptive, and unsure of her instincts. In other words, she embodies the imperfections and hope in each of us.

 

 

 

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The Role of an Agent

At a recent conference, an author and an agent presented a case study about how they met at a writer’s conference, signed an agreement and the agent then shepherded the writer through the publication process. At one point, the writer made an offhand comment advising authors not to expect much in terms of marketing support from their publisher.

The comment set off an audience member, who began questioning the agent. He wanted to know why she didn’t help with marketing. Wasn’t that her job? The questioner became increasingly belligerent as the agent tried calmly to explain that marketing is not the agent’s job. I felt bad for the agent, though she handled the questions in a professional manner without getting ruffled.

The exchange reflected false perceptions some unpublished writers may harbor about the role of an agent. The agent explained her role was to advocate for the author. She championed the author’s work by contacting publishers and pitching the author’s manuscript. She negotiated the contract with the publisher and pushed for the most favorable terms for the author.

In this case, the author’s editor left the publishing house in the middle of the project and it stalled. The agent used her knowledge to locate the person at the publishing house who had the authority to assign a new editor and got the project back on track.

So what is the role of an agent? Here’s a simplified version:

  • Represent the writer.
  • Shop the writer’s manuscript to editors at publishing houses.
  • Secure and negotiate a contract with a publisher on behalf of the writer
  • Track the publication process with the writer
  • Troubleshoot any problems that arise
  • Negotiate subsidiary rights to the writer’s work.

Many agents will offer strategic advice to the writer. Some will sit down with the writer at the outset of the relationship and discuss the author’s long-term goals and then work to help the author achieve these goals.

For a more detailed description of what agents do, read this blog post by former agent and author Nathan Bransford.

Another great resource is literary agent Rachelle Gardner’s blog. Rachelle blogs daily about agenting, writing, and publishing, and never fails to give mature, sensible advice.

In this super-competitive field, where publishing contracts are hard to come by, a lot of frustrated writers vent their fury at agents. I don’t doubt there are rude agents, just as there are bad apples in every profession. I have to say I have had nothing but positive experiences with agents, and this is coming from a writer who has been rejected every time. Agents know good writing. They know writing that sells. They appreciate writers who take the time to read their submission guidelines, submit appropriate work and take the time to write a decent query letter.

I’ve had one-on-one interviews with agents. One resulted in a submission. Though it was rejected, the agent gave me some advice on the opening chapter that resulted in revisions that saved the manuscript. I thanked her when I saw her the next year at the same conference.

It’s easy to blame an agent for a writer’s lack of success. They’re the gatekeepers. Do they make mistakes? Do they reject bestsellers? Sure they do, but we all make mistakes. I’ve got a couple of manuscripts somewhere that I hope never see the light of day.

Some critics say agents are tied too closely to the publishing industry and are quick to defend everything publishers do. That’s valid, but it’s a little like saying lawyers are tied too closely to the court system. That’s their bread-and-butter.

At the same writer’s conference, I had the good fortune at lunch to sit next to a New York-based agent. I had nothing to pitch, so I was relaxed and we had a nice chat about writing, publishing and the changes in the industry.

Let’s remember agents have a job to do and play an important role in the publishing process.

What are your experiences with agents?

 

 

 

 

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Writers’ Group Publishes Short Story Collection

Writers’ groups help their members turn their stories into work that is publishable, or at least passable. The writers’ group to which I belong took that a step further—we published a collection of our members’ short stories. The book, available at www.amazon.com, is called, 13 Stories from the West Hartford Fiction Writers’ Group 2012.

The short story collection was the brainchild of Lida Boynick, who had heard about a local poetry group that had published an anthology. She raised the idea at our group’s monthly meeting and all of us enthusiastically received it. Why not? We had a trove of great material from which to select the best stories. We thought we could crank it out in a matter of months. How wrong we were.

Participants in a project that involves multiple writers should think about:

  • Leadership. The old saw, “when everybody is in charge, nobody is in charge” applies to group projects like this. We appointed Lida to lead our effort. She was the right choice as she handled her duties with tact and aplomb.
  • Organization. Key decisions must be made. How many stories to include? Which stories? What are the criteria? We put together a small subcommittee that drafted a set of criteria and circulated it to the group at large. We meet regularly and assigned various tasks to group members.
  • Quality Control. We insisted every story must have gone through the workshop process at a monthly meeting. We made one exception for an accomplished writer in the group who had been unable to attend meetings due to a scheduling conflict. We agreed her story had to go through the same process as the rest: assignment to an editor on the committee. Every story was reviewed by a committee member and sent to the author with changes.
  • Book Structure. Where would we place the stories? The stories covered a number of genres and we had to come up with the right mix of story length, genre, etc.

The group reserved the right to reject any story that did not meet a publishable standard. Luckily, there were no close calls.

The 13 stories reflect the diversity of our group. Our authors included a lawyer, a retired truck driver, and a teacher, and covered a wide range of ages and life experiences. The collection spans many genres, including mystery, romance science fiction, and fantasy.

My story was called, Solid Gold. It was a tribute to the golden age of radio in the 1960s, when two rival radio stations (WDRC and WPOP) ruled the airwaves in the Hartford region. It explores themes of reality versus illusion, escapism, and the place of rock and roll in people’s lives.

Read Solid Gold

Check out the short story anthology and leave a review.

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You’ve Finished Your First Draft. Now What?

I finally finished the first draft of my novella, Life of the Party: A Tale of Politics, Rap Music and Social Media. This one took only seven months, but it was a novella.

A writer who finishes a first draft may experience a giddy desire to dive right in and begin revising the manuscript. After all, the writer should keep the momentum going, right? No. Writers must resist this urge. Take a break from your first draft. Walk away. Really. Don’t believe me? Here’s what Stephen King advised in his classic craft book, On Writing:

“How long you let your book rest—sort of like bread dough between kneading—is entirely up to you,” King wrote, “but I think it should be a minimum of six weeks.” The layoff gives the writer distance and perspective.

“With six weeks’ worth of recuperation time, you’ll also be able to see any glaring holes in the plot or character development…It’s amazing how some of these things can elude the writer while he or she is occupied with the daily work of composition.” For King, the most glaring errors have to do with character motivation. For every writer it will be different.

Here’s what James Scott Bell wrote about first drafts in his classic craft book, Plot & Structure: “Your first draft needs a cooling-off period. So forget all about your novel and do something else…All the while, your first draft is cooling in the recesses of your brain, where a lot of good stuff happens, unnoticed.”

When a writer finishes a first draft, it’s a cause for celebration. It’s a milestone. The writer should give himself a round of applause. Have some chocolate or a glass of your favorite beverage. There’s no empirical data to support this, but I would assert that most novice writers never get through the first draft. It’s an achievement.

Here’s what I do after finishing a first draft:

  • Do something nice. Give yourself a reward. Buy a new book or a CD.
  • Work on something completely different for the next four to six weeks. Try a short story. Try something in a different genre. Consult your ideas folder.
  • Read that bestseller you’ve been meaning to check out. Read it again with an attention to how the author told the story.

When the writer comes back to the first draft after an extended break, she will see the work in a new light. The writer will instantly spot all the flaws and the brilliant passages. The writer will see elements of the story that don’t work, scenes that don’t sing, or perhaps characters that don’t come alive. The writer may well discover the story starts in the wrong place. That dramatic scene on page 75 is the real beginning. The stuff that came before is just back story. The writer may see a character she loved when she created her, but after review, this character just gets in the way of the core story.

The good news is that in most cases, a writer will finish the first draft of her next book sooner than the first. Here’s how long it has taken me to finish my first drafts:

First novel: Small Change, 12 months, 126,000 words (final draft was 103,000 words)

Second novel: Color Him Father, 8 months, 117,000 words (still in draft)

Third novel: Bonus Baby (National Novel Writing Month novel), 30 days, 53,000 words (still in draft).

Fourth novel, Life of the Party, 7 months, 56,300 words.

How long does it take you to finish a first draft? Do you gain speed with each novel?

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Reflections on a Writer’s Conference

Another CAPA-U conference is in the books and the daylong event featured a powerful keynote, a thought-provoking agents’ roundtable and a variety of workshops related to craft, publishing and marketing.

CAPA is the Connecticut Authors and Publishers Association. CAPA is made up of aspiring and published book authors, journalists, freelance writers, poets, and playwrights, as well as editors, agents, publishers and other professionals who meet regularly to enhance mutual growth and success.

The 2012 CAPA-U kicked off with a moving keynote by noted Connecticut author, professor, and editor Lary Bloom, who spoke about his struggles to find a way to write about his experiences serving in Vietnam. Bloom was a supply lieutenant in the U.S. Army. His childhood friend and Hebrew school classmate, Harmon Polster, was in the Air Force. Polster’s plane was shot down and he was officially MIA until recently when his bones were identified. Bloom finally was able to express his experiences through a play, Wild Black Yonder, that premiered at the Katharine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center in Old Saybrook, CT.

The most powerful way to bring the horrors of war to the reader, he said, is to personalize them. This hit Bloom after talking to Polster’s widow. “The story I would tell affected only a few people. But I had to keep reminding myself that it was a worthy enterprise—that the small story stood for a much larger tragedy,” he said.

Bloom’s stirring keynote was followed by the agents’ roundtable. Of course, the two leading topics were the Department of Justice lawsuit against Apple and the Big Six publishers and the growing impact of Amazon on the publishing industry. The agents were universal in their criticism of the DOJ lawsuit, which they said was based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the agency model and the economics of publishing.They saved their harshest criticism for Amazon, which they described as a company that cares nothing about publishers and authors and is bent on driving publishers out of business by taking a loss on book sales to gain market share.

In response to a question about the changing role of agents, several agents said they are more valuable than ever to authors. Agents are the author’s advocate. They understand the business and are experienced at negotiating the most favorable contracts for their author clients.

In addition to the learning that goes on, a writer’s conference is an opportunity to renew old acquaintances and make new contacts. It was fun to catch up with old friends and find out what they were working on and to meet new people. In fact, one of the sessions featured an agent and author who met at CAPA two years ago and the meeting led to a book deal for the author.

I have to do this more often.

What do you find the most beneficial impact of a writer’s conference?

 

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Get More Out of Writer’s Conferences

I am excited about the upcoming annual CAPA-U Writer’s Conference this Saturday in Harford, CT, sponsored by the Connecticut Authors and Publishers Association (CAPA), a fantastic organization composed of a group of dedicated independent authors and publishers. This is my third CAPA conference and I’ve met agents and talented writers and editors, while expanding my knowledge of the craft and marketing.

Advance planning will help writers get the most out of these conferences. Writers should ask themselves some key questions:

  • Who is the sponsoring organization? Is it a reputable organization? Is the agenda/schedule available? Are the workshop topics appropriate for a writer of your level?
  • What do I want to get out of a writers’ conference? What are my goals?
  • How can I meet other writers and establish connections?
  • Do a have a novel (finished manuscript) to shop? If so what agents do a want to meet? What will I say when I meet them?
  • What workshops should I attend.

So many questions…where to turn for answers?

Here are a few tips for writers to get the most out of conferences:

  • Study the agenda carefully. Choose workshops based on where you are as a writer. If you’ve just published a first novel, workshops on marketing and maximizing social media may be for you.
  • Dress appropriately. Business casual is the norm. Wear comfortable shoes, not sneakers. Don’t walk in wearing a pair of jeans and a rock and roll concert tee-shirt.
  • Get there early, collect your materials, and network. You don’t want to walk into a crowded general session late and slink into a seat in the back of the room.
  • Bring business cards or a marketing piece. Make sure it has your contact information, website or blog address.
  • Select the right agent, if there are opportunities to meet with agents. Review the agent bios and go on their websites. Pay attention to what types of authors and genres they represent.
  • Some conferences allow authors to sell their hard-copy books. Take advantage of this.
  • Select a mix of craft and business workshops. Take a notebook with you and take notes.
  • Network at every opportunity. I found my book editor because she happened to sit down next to me at lunch during a writers’ conference and we got to talking.
  • Be as positive as you can be when you meet with an agent. These meetings can seem like cattle calls. You only have ten minutes or so to make a good impression. Be friendly, tell the agent about yourself and your work and engage the agent in a dialogue. Be interesting and engaging. Smiling helps.
  • Never vent about frustrations you have experienced in getting your work published or represented by an agent.
  • Volunteer to “cover” a session for the sponsoring organization’s newsletter. Volunteer newsletter editors have a thankless job and are always looking for articles. You will make two new friends–the editor and the presenter you write about.
  • Make sure you are familiar with the work of authors you came to see. Check out their websites.
  • Be nice to everybody. Treat the volunteer who gives you your name badge and conference packet with the same respect you show to the author you came to see. A minute of boorish behavior can undo a lifetime of good will.
  • Prepare an elevator speech. Don’t make it long–30 second to a minute on who you are and what your work is about.
  • Take an interest in other people’s work. Actively listen to the other writers you meet. Get their contact information and drop them a line telling them it was nice to meet.
  • Don’t let a lack of interest by an agent ruin your day. Agents must be selective. Your work might not be appropriate for them.
  • Don’t walk around with hurt feelings and a scowl on your face because an agent doesn’t take an interest in your manuscript. It will happen more often than not.
  • Finally, if there is a reception where drinks are served, watch your alcohol intake.

For a low-cost resource with a lot more on attending writer;s conferences check out this book by authors Bob Mayer and Jen Talty.

Writer’s conferences will advance your knowledge of the craft, expand your network of contacts and possibly help you to land an agent. I recommend writers attend at least one writer’s conference a year and more if resources allow.

How do you get the most out of writer’s conferences?

 

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