Yesterday I went to a writing conference at a fancy hotel near Atlanta, and it was basically the best day ever! (Totally exhausting physically–but amazing in every other way.) I came away with two big impressions: one, although I’ve always wanted to make a living through being an author specifically, I would be happy to work in this industry in any capacity. And two–I have SO MUCH to learn about writing. Anyway, today I’m going to summarize my notes for all you fellow writers! This is going to be long (and probably not very cohesive), so feel free to skim through and just hit the seminars that are most applicable to you. (I also got my first royalty check in the mail Friday, so I’m feeling very much like a #professional #author this weekend.)
Block One: Wordbuilding in Fantasy and Science Fiction (Tips and Traps)
This was probably the session where I learned the most. I don’t technically write fantasy or sci-fi (I write dystopian and historical fiction), but I love reading them, and a lot of the advice was applicable to general writing as well. Here’s some of it.
The golden standard of worldbuilding is this: not a word left out, and not a word left in. Don’t omit anything essential; however, remember that the reader doesn’t need every detail. They need to visualize it, but no info-dumps. You will need to know a lot of things in your head about your world–history, economics, etc. You can even write this out if you want. But don’t use it. Just let it influence your story.
The weirder your world is, the more you need to anchor your reader at the beginning of the scene. Anchor it in time, place, and POV (the reader needs to know whose head you’re in). Provide concrete and sensory details.
If you need to give your readers information about your world–while avoiding info-dumps–a good way to do this is to have a character who’s clueless and needs to be explained to. (Lots of authors use this strategy; think about the first Harry Potter book, or when Lucy first stumbles into Narnia.) Another good vehicle for dispensing information (especially about politics) is to have people argue. (Plus, this is more entertaining!) Try throwing in a curmudgeon or a know-it-all to argue with; people like bickering. That’s why reality TV gets such high ratings. Arguing stems from goals and is a form of conflict. Tension on every page is what sells books, and arguing definitely adds tension.
Filler scenes are where books go to die. The kitchen table scene–where characters are sitting around and discussing either what just happened, or what’s about to happen–drives agents crazy. If possible, cut a scene like this.
In addition to the overarching conflict that’s the core of the novel, every chapter should: resolve current conflict (giving the reader immediate gratification), set up the conflict for the next chapter (making sure the reader keeps going), and hint at the conflict for the chapter after that.
Block Two: Voice and Craft–Tips on How to Write like the Pros
This session was mostly review for me, so I’ll just skim through my notes. Brian Klemes (former Writer’s Digest editor) recommended avoiding prologues whenever possible–especially prologues that happen out of time sequence. When starting your novel, open with conflict–not action. Have the main character face a challenge right away in order to help the readers get to know the character. Conflict drives readers’ emotions.
A “save the cat” moment is when you establish that your character is a good person (think about the firefighter rescuing the little old lady’s cat from the tree). Most books have this in the first 10 pages; think about Katniss volunteering in place of her sister. Alternatively, you could have a “kill the cat” moment.
Tighten your sentences; only use necessary words (not like this song). Keep dialogue short, too–in TV shows, characters never say goodbye when on the phone because it takes up unnecessary time.
Include hooks at the end of your chapter. A hook is different from a cliffhanger–cliffhangers are something big, whereas a hook can be smaller.
Pick up the pace of your novel; every five pages or so, give your MC something unexpected. JK Rowling does this well.
Develop your voice–the personality and style in which you write. This is like how every musician puts their own twist on the Star Spangled Banner. Be aware, though, that sometimes your character may have a different voice than your own.
I went to lunch with some new friends I met in the morning–one girl Lauren (plus her grandmother) whom I didn’t know previously, and another girl, Aleigha, whom I vaguely knew from the Young Writers Workshop Facebook page. We walked to the mall food court and had a great time talking. I also got to meet agent Tessa Emily Hall later in the day. Honestly, the best part of the workshop was interacting with other writers–when I walked in and saw the registration line, it hit me that all of these hundreds of people also wrote stories and also had big ambitions for their stories, and it was so cool.
Block Three: “Writers Got Talent”–A One Page Critique Fest
I slipped into this session at the last minute (literally) just because my friends were going–I didn’t submit the first page of my novel. But here are a bunch of random notes from the half-dozen agents that critiqued the first pages of several writers’ novels:
You only have a few seconds to grab agents. Don’t begin with lots of description or exposition–no one cares. We should know who your character is within the first paragraph. Never start off with someone dreaming or waking up. Be careful with the shape of the text (basically just how the words look on the page); again, avoid long info-dump paragraphs, and never include backstory at the beginning. Everything is about spacing out backstory. Agents like to see dialogue pretty soon on the page–have a good balance of narration, action, and dialogue. Make sure to establish your genre (history? No pop culture references. Fantasy? Add in fantasy elements on the first page). Avoid purple prose (lots of adjectives–a form of telling). If you make your reader be invested in something, follow through. And finally, never start an MG/YA book with a description of hair or clothes.
Block Four: How to Revise and Self-Edit Your Manuscript
Gather up feedback from betas, agents, and editors before jumping in. If you don’t agree with feedback but you’ve heard it more than once, think about it.
Character should be different, but consistent. They shouldn’t speak like the narrator–each one should be recognizable by the structure of their speech.
Really keep track of your days and times and make sure they flow, because people will nail you on that. And don’t let plot threads drop–even if it’s as small as mentioning that the characters started working a jigsaw puzzle, then they need to be shown finishing it at some point.
Do a search and kill all overused/weak words (really, very, pretty). Otherwise, you’re instantly marked as a newbie.
If people are saying they didn’t connect with your characters, think about POV. 3rd person is too far from the action and doesn’t cause connection; consider making it closer.
Some books call for a prologue, even though most people hate them. The person in the prologue should be the MC–or at least, the prologue should connect well to the rest of the story.
Rather than making an outline before you begin, try just making a list of things that need to happen at some point in the story. This might work for you if you float in-between being a plotter and a pantser (like me).
Commercial fiction–you see a movie in your head. It’s a page-turner. Literary fiction–beautiful words. The characters meander through. It doesn’t necessarily end well, but people love those beautiful words. Upmarket fiction–has a literary feel and a big hook. Something different. Girl on the Train, for example. It doesn’t translate to movies well. Mainstream fiction–not genre-driven. Appeals to a wide audience. If you’re not sure where your book fits, think about store bookshelves and how many words are in front of “fiction.”
Having a pro editor take a look at your manuscript before querying agents is a good idea. They’re typically $2-$4 a page. Never pay $10/page.
Block Five: 25 Questions You Need Answered Before you Seek an Agent or Self-Publish
Things that stuck out to me:
You don’t NEED an agent. Some publishers accept unaccented queries. However, you’ll have to handle the business stuff, and you may not have as many connections as an agent would.
If an agent charges you money to represent you, run.
#1 reason agents reject writers–writers query agents who don’t represent what they’re writing. Do your homework. Try the annual book “The Guide to Literary Agents.”
Query letters have four parts. Intro–the basics; book title/word count. Pitch–abbreviated version of your story (MC, their life, inciting incident, subplots, climax, and DON’T reveal the ending). Qualifications/credentials–don’t mention small awards, only big ones. Finally, end with why you picked that agent, or mention what books are comparable to yours. If an agent requests a synopsis, send 1-2 pages covering the plot points, challenges, and the ending.
Always keep 5 query letters in circulation. If there’s a point where you want to give up, query 20 more agents after that. For novels, 80-100 queries is a good benchmark.
When pitching agents, be helpful, kind, and make yourself visible/make friends before beginning the business stuff.
Always stay excited about writing. Enjoy every step in the process.
Wow! That was a lot. Which seminar would you have most liked to attend? Have you ever been to a writing conference? Did you learn anything from my messy notes? Did you/do you want to indie publish or go traditional?