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Today, I’m guest posting on NascentNovelist’s blog about James Scott Bell’s fabulous Writer’s Digest Conference workshop on Conflict and Tension.
So head over to NascentNovelist’s blog and show Martine some blog love. I’ll be popping over there throughout the day to respond to comments and questions.
I’m a follower of her fantastic blog (which you should definitely check out). I thought you’d appreciate her perspective on the panel too.
And now, I turn the blog over to Emmie…
E-Pub vs. Legacy Pub: Barry Eisler’s Bottom Line
If you’re like me — a self-professed lover of traditional publishing — you might not have heard of Barry Eisler before now. If you’re an e-pub guru, you’ve probably at least heard his name.
Mr. Eisler was a keynote speaker at the Writer’s Digest conference. At first glance, he reminded me a little of Bradley Cooper. Take a moment to swoon if you must.
Barry Eisler is an author who has recently transitioned from a successful traditional publishing career to the world of self-publishing. Here’s the reason behind his notoriety: he turned down a $500,000 book deal with St. Martin’s Press in favor of self-publishing his newest book as an e-book. His e-book has been wild and successful, and I think it’s safe to say he has capitalized on his risk.
Before everyone flies into a tizzy of self-publishing, allow me to use Mr. Eisler’s words to deflate you. I apologize in advance for the poof of air rushing out of the sails, but this very successful author had a point to make. First of all, he explained that making a living in the writing business is — to an extent — like a lottery. Sometimes fantastic books hit the shelves only to run their faces into a brick wall — current events, economic downturn, the arrival of a similar book by a better-known author. Any number of great books has struggled to compete with the many distractions of our frenetic little planet. A lot of success is timing, and a lot of it is luck.
Barry (I can call you Barry, right?) has a mantra that I chanted to myself daily even before I saw him speak: Work hard, work hard, work hard, work hard until luck finds you. Writers and dreamers, take heed. It might take a flash of luck, of your query catching the exact right agent the moment she desperately wants your book or of an influential e-book buyer wanting a dystopian romance right as your book pops up in her marketplace. The only way those things will happen is if you keep working, keep sending queries, and keep doing your thing. Work hard until luck finds you.
Now. That little inspiration was fun, but let’s dive into the nitty-gritty, shall we?
Barry loves e-books. Barry loves e-books because they never go out of print. Tangible books are subject to their sales and how profitable it is to keep them on shelves. When I was in high school, I sold a bunch of my Night World books by L.J. Smith at a yardsale. I regretted it even as the money changed hands. A couple years later, I tried to buy them back, only to find that they were A: out of print and B: really expensive used. I still bought them, but I’m a weirdo. Most people won’t go hunting down books that are out-of-print — they look for things that take less work to find.
Traditional publishers lure writers because they have the golden goose in their warehouses. You didn’t hear the honking? Yeah. She’s there. Her name is Distribution. Don’t ask me. I didn’t name her. Sure, you can waltz into a Barnes and Noble with your self-published books and ask politely for them to give you shelf space, but I can almost guarantee you can’t make it to all of their stores — and even if you did, you would be paying a lot of money to do stock them. Traditional publishers have the networks, the salespeople, and — oh yeah — the product. They can print thousands of books and get them onto shelves. Until recently, this was the only way to do it.
What the e-book has changed is that writers who choose to publish that way do not need that golden goose.
Oh, see? Now we hurt her feelings. She’s crying big honking alligator tears.
But seriously — if you choose to e-publish, you have the distribution. You have the assurance that your book will never go out of print. So says Barry, and it’s true. Of course, there is a downside to that. While in traditional publishing, about 93% of books fail (sell less than 1000 copies and go out of print), that number doesn’t really change in e-publishing. You go from being one of a few hundred thousand titles in trad publishing to one of millions of titles in self-publishing. Six of one, half dozen of the other.
Publishing will be built on direct-to-consumer marketing in the future, says Barry. This makes writers powerful players and provides a nice segue into another one of his points: if you write for a living, you are your own CEO.
Say that with me. If you write for a living, you are your own CEO.
Barry meant it purely in the sense of the business of it, but I see another juicy layer there. What does that mean? It means you (you, not Barry, not Random House, and not Kindle or Nook) are responsible for your success.
Hold it, Emmie. You and Barry said that making a living writing is like a lottery.
It is. When you own your success, when you take that responsibility for your own progress and sales and brand, it’s like buying a brontosaurus’s share of tickets in that lottery. If you work a piddling amount and hem and haw and splutter about, you’re only buying a ticket a day. Sure, you might hit jackpot and win big, but you know what’s true about people that happens to? They’re broke again next year.
When you own your success, you stockpile enough tickets to win not just next month or next year, but the months and years afterward. And that, my friends, is what it means to be a career writer.
How do you own your success? How do you take that responsibility? Barry has an answer for you, via me.
First of all, understand that readers love to read — and they still buy books. If you keep that in mind, you will keep writing. The readers are waiting. Don’t keep them waiting forever.
Here are three things that you need to do to take responsibility for your career as a writer, no matter which avenue of publishing you trundle down:
1. Editing. Oh, dear gawd and kittens, I cannot stress this one enough. I downloaded a sample chapter of an e-book I saw advertised a couple weeks ago. Within a page, I’d banged my head on my keyboard twice and cringed enough to make a kicked puppy feel brave. Edit your work. If you don’t know what a comma splice is, find out. If you don’t know what a dangling modifier is, find out. If you suck at editing, hire someone. This is your duty to your readers: don’t suck. Please, for the love of the grammar gods, don’t suck.
2. Proof-reading. This goes hand-in-hand with editing. Beyond grammar, your writing should pop, zing, and other comic book words. I’m guilty of this one too. If you haven’t figured this out yet, I tend toward verbosity. Don’t worry; I belong to a support group.
3. Packaging. You don’t want your self-published book to look like your five-year-old drew the cover with crayons and then snotted on it. Professional is key, and for newbie writers it’s not easy. This is an arena where the legacy publishers still have a leg up on the indies — they have the artists, the graphic designers, and the polish to make books look awesome. Have you been in a Barnes and Noble lately? I went to one a month ago and about peed my pants at how much covers have evolved in the past couple years.
The bottom line? From Barry to you: write great fiction. Make it pop, make it shine, and people will want it, no matter how you publish it. And because of e-books, you now have choices.
Emmie studied history and languages in college — at least on the surface. Woven into stories of World War II Poland and trying to wrap her tongue around tongue-mutilating consonants, she discovered a world within our own. A world of magic where trees can come alive and humans aren’t at the top of the food chain.
Armed with pen and paper, she set out to coax that world from the ether and commit it to ink. It’s there she found her home in a land of urban fantasy. Reality filtered through a supernatural lens — that is the magic.
Emmie lives outside D.C. and wishes she had a cat to laugh at and a dog to chase the cat. She lives with her husband and some intrepid raccoons who weren’t quite invited.
Emmie is currently working on the third novel of an adult urban fantasy trilogy and seeking representation.
Emmie’s Blog: http://emmiemears.com/
Emmie’s Twitter: @emmiemears
Jeff Gerke’s panel on The First Fifty Pages was an intimate look into the mind of an editor. I was so impressed I bought his book,The First Fifty Pages, at the Writer’s Digest Conference and had him sign it.
He has a unique perspective being that he is a multi-published author and is now an editor at his own publishing house.
He explained that the first fifty pages have to:
*Engage the reader
*Introduce the hero
*Introduce the main character
*Establish context for story (establish the normal before violating the normal) Note: this is something others may disagree over.
*Reveal story world
*Set tone for book
*Present the stakes
*Start the time bomb (build reader anticipation about the terrible thing that will happen)
*Start the hero’s inner journey
*Inciting incident must happen
*Set up Act 2
*Set up circularity (something you will refer back to at end to give rear feeling of completeness.)
Wow. That’s an impressive to-do list for the first fifty pages.
He then moved on to discussing what goes on inside the editor’s mind. There are a couple chapters in his book on this too.
The key points I took away were:
1) The agent culls the best manuscripts to submit to acquisitions editor.
2) Editors are given the work of acquisitions but no time to do it. They read your submission over lunch or at home.
3) Editors have to consider marketability because sales mean the editors publishing house does well and editor keeps his job.
4) A contracted and published book may only have 1 person in publishing house who read the entire manuscript.
He talked about the four ways to begin a novel:
1) Prologues(e.g., Mulan movie)
2) Hero action (e.g., Indiana Jones)
3) In Media Res (e.g., One Day) this is where you start in the middle and flash back to past, telling story up to the point you started at and usually further forward.
4) Frame device (e.g., The Notebook)
Method 1&2 are the most popular ways to open a novel.
The key thing about a prologue is that it must be used properly to open the book.and it’s important to remember agents have a strong dislike of prologues.
The reason prologues have such a bad wrap is because many new writers use them incorrectly. He said prologues are bad if they are full of backstory and can be consider an info dump.
He also offered a 4 hour bootcamp session, which I unfortunately hadn’t signed up for. I figured my mind would be mush by then. It kinda was.
Though the powerful and captivating speaker, Chris Baty, gave a rousing closing remarks that energized me for my Central Park walk with Emmie.
The Writer’s Digest Conference had many mind stretching, craft expanding panels. I wish I could blog about each one, but I’d rather select three to share. And the awesome Emmie Mears has graciously agreed to Guest post about a panel as well.
That should satiate your conference interests without inundating you with info.
I loved Donald Maass’s panel on Writing The 21st Century Novel.
Brimming with brilliant insight.
He talked about how commercial fiction dominated the New York Times Bestsellers list in the 1970s and 1980s, but in the 1990s things began to change. Fantasy and literary fiction began to take a place on that venerable list.
He believes now in the 21st century there is another shift occurring.
Curious, he started to research these changes. He found there was a decrease in straight genre fiction and an increase in cross genre fiction.
In fact, cross genre books were selling better than straight genre fiction. These hybrids were fiction that read like literary fiction but were genre fiction.
He came to this conclusion: In the 21st century, the genre concept will slowly die and go away. It will be replaced with high impact fiction, which marries great story telling with beautiful writing.
This means that commercial and literary writers each have something to learn from each other. The story must meld the two types so that it effects the reader and reaches people in a powerful way.
Mr. Maass then led us through an exercise to help make our stories more high impact. He has a book coming out to help writers do this at home too. I’ll definitely be purchasing it.
His main point with these exercises was to engage the reader emotionally. I have to admit it worked. I made three revisions to my finished manuscript this weekend because of his workshop. And they all improved the readers emotional experience.
One prompt he posed to the audience was: Write down the hardest thing your protagonist has to do in the course of the story. Now work out why the character has sworn never to do or do it again.
He wants writers to construct powerful protagonists, 3-D secondary characters, and make the book plot driven but beautifully written.
He has several workshops this year that are worth attending.
Thanks WDC for a killer first day workshop panel!
The Writer’s Digest Pitch Slam is a can’t be missed opportunity to get your work to agents.
On Saturday morning, I had moths chewing through the wool of my stomach. Serious nerves. Anticipation nerves.
So I lined up early. 50 minutes early. I was third in line for the central Park East room.
Three hours to the pitch slam, but the agents were alphabetically split up into 4 separate rooms.
This presents a problem because all my agents are ranked according to fit for my book, but agent choice 1,2,3 are in 3 separate rooms, which forces me to break order and hit whoever was on my list in that room for expediency.
I lined up to go into Central Park East. Met two lovely writers ahead of me. Luckily, we were each targeting a different agent, so no blood shed over our first pitch.
As soon as Chuck Sambuchino gave us the okay we raced to our first choice.
I’ll be honest, I was nervous but I was excited to finally pitch this book.
I had written my pitch a month ago so I went through it pretty well. The agent didn’t like the paranormal element and said to query her.
Instead of debating or arguing, I accepted her response with a polite okay and thanks.
I moved on to my next agent. People were still pouring into the room. I was number 9 in line. Ugh. 24 minutes until I got to pitch.
The other writers were awesome. We chatted and joked our way up to the front.
This agent said strong pitch but not for me.
For some bizarre reason this isn’t ruffling my feathers. I anticipated this book would be a hard sell because it’s a mixed genre book.
I check out another agent in that room but her line is 10 long and I don’t want to miss out on other agents.
So I head into the next room, Central Park West.
I get in line for an agent I think is a great fit. Six people in front of me which means 18 minutes waiting. I strike up a conversation with Kim, the lady in the line next to me. We make the best of the wait, cheering each other on.
This agent and I click. We are laughing at my pitch together. She seems to really enjoy the story. She requests the partial. I start to get up and she invites me to stay and chat since my 3 minutes aren’t up yet. I manage to make her laugh a bit more.
The other agent I wanted to hit in that room has a long line so I decide to circle back. I race out of the room, road runner down the stairs and gallop to the other set of rooms.
I have several targets in Empire West. The top pick has a long line but I figure I have time. The line flies by with the help of a Jessica from CT. We exchange cards.
This agent also likes my pitch and requests the partial.
I jet across the room to an agent who tells me telepaths aren’t for her. Mind you I flubbed my pitch and got tongue tied but i did manage to recover. But valid point. With a polite Thanks, I head for my next target.
This Agent has a long line. Like 9 people. Ugh. But I’m good on time. So I get in it.
When I pitch her she makes eye contact the whole time. I don’t drop my gaze to my notes. Thank God I memorized it!
She says it’s not for her, but then gives me two referrals to agents who would like it. That was so unbelievably kind and above the call of duty.
Only bad call I made all day was sucking on sour candies to keep my mouth from drying out. I stuck the candy in my cheek like a chipmuck to talk and it dissolved between my gum and cheek. This kinda burned that area of my mouth. I alternated sides so both ache. Next conference I’ll stick to mints.
I hit my next agent. Her line is only 4 people. Still good on time, so I wait.
She requests a partial too.
Now it’s a race down the hall back to Central Park rooms to try and snag my next agent. There is a huge line 10 people for the agent in CPE I wanted. That will eat up most of my time left. Shoot. So I check the agent I want in CPW.
Her line is shorter so I go in for her. She is absolutely lovely and asks a few questions even after she requests the partial.
I’m grinning from ear to ear. But when i return to CPE, the agent line i wanted now has a last pitch sign given out. This means the person with that sign is the last pitch. Darn.
Like a New Yorker at rush hour, I speed walk and dodge people trying to get back to the Empire rooms. In Empire East, the agents I want all have writers holding last pitch signs. So I skedaddle into Empire West. I find two agents that don’t have big lines. So I jump in line and pitch one. Get my sixth request!
I have ten minutes left. One agent has no line, but I already have a cold query partial out to her agency. Darn. I scan the room. Everyone has last pitch cards. I race next door. Same situation. I fly down the hall. Same situation. The ones without lines don’t take my genre or already rejected me via cold query. Ugh.
So I stop at 9 pitches with 9 minutes left to go.
I’m helium balloon bouncing on the ceiling. Adrenaline is pumping. Mind is firing on all levels.
I go upstairs, get my stuff and head back to A’s apartment.
Out of 9 pitches, I got 6 requests and one referral. That’s more than I dreamed possible.
Thank you to Writer’s Digest for making this possible.
Also a huge shout out to Emmie Mears who is a delight to hang out with in NY and an awesome fellow blogger. So glad we got to meet and actually have a couple meals together.
I’m at the Writer’s Digest Conference in NYC today! I’ll be tweeting about it this weekend @Kourhei and blogging about my favorite panels next week.
I’m super excited to be here again. Last year, I learned so much, met some cool people, garnered several requests for my YA manuscript and learned how to breathe while pitching.
Hoping this year’s event further improves my craft and that I get requests on my adult manuscript.
Here’s what the conference schedule looks like.
If you have any questions about the conference, please comment below and I’m happy to share anything I learned. Even stuff like what to wear, how to strike up a conversation with a stranger, when to approach a writer you love for an autograph or who the best speakers were.
Sunday at the Writer’s Digest Conference, James Scott Bell gave another riveting presentation on learning how to love revision.
His argument is that if you know what you are doing and have enough tools to do it, revision can be fun and creative. After hearing him speak, I’m a believer. I purchased his book on Revision and Self-Editing.
He takes a systematic approach to revision (in a similar way to his approach to plotting). Much like war, strategy is an important part of winning the battle with revisions.
He has three rules:
- Finish the novel
- Learn the craft
He believes that the act of completing the novel teaches the writer so much. But then the writer must revise in order to learn how to revise.
His rules are:
- Write hot and revise cool (write like a Hawaiian shirt and edit like skinny jeans)
- The first draft should be passionate and dance out of your mind
- So let it out. Push the limits, knowing you can scale back later
- You can revise as you write, but try to keep it to a quick edit of the past day’s work and then moving forward to the next day’s writing
- At the 20K word count, step back and ask:
- Is the main character sympathetic or possesses connectability?
- Are the stakes high enough?
- Is the confrontation element fully justified?
- Take a break from the manuscript. At least 2 weeks-1 month.
- And comes back as a reader. Pretend to pick it up for the first time. Do a first read through with minimal notes. Read like a reader NOT an editor. Get through the entire novel in 1-4 sessions, making minimal marks in the manuscript as you read.
- Checkmarks indicate that the story is dragging
- Parentheses mean the sentence doesn’t work
- Circles in margin for where material needs to be added
- Question marks to denote confusion
- When finished reading, asks if the story makes sense.
- Not just in terms of the plot threads tying up, but do the characters behave as people should act?
- Look at scenes from the viewpoint of each character and have them make the best move for himself because each character has his own agenda
- Any coincidences that help out the plot are removed. Readers want a character to solve a problem with her own ingenuity
- Examine if the stakes are high enough. Looking for death of some sort (physical, professional, emotional). Examine the protagonist’s inner tension in scenes
- Does your main character jump off the page. Readers want characters they haven’t seen before in subtle ways. Readers want a protagonist they can follow through death struggle. Someone they can worry about
In the drafting and editing process, create off-page scenes, playing out how a character will react to certain things. This allows you to get to know your characters and understand their inner workings. To find their emotional depths.
Then outline book with a scene breakdown of what is written to use during editing. Revise the outline multiple times to account for any changes that should be made to the draft after your reading. This outline will be the basis of the second draft.
Work on the outline with the goal of making the story breathe and move. To create an emotional experience for the reader.
Dialogue is the fastest way to improve a manuscript. It is a compression and an extension of action. Keep in mind the agenda of the speaker.
Characters with different agendas = constant friction
Then move onto the polishing
- Scenes openings should be reviewed. Depending on pacing, you may open with action, dialogue, or setting scene
- Make sure opening scene has a hook
- Look at chapter endings–usually a paragraph can be cut to “snip at the tail” and give the story forward momentum
- Compress dialogue
Thank you Mr. Bell for another stellar craft lecture.
James Scott Bell gave an awesome craft presentation on building the perfect plot on Saturday at the Writer’s Digest Conference. He’s an electrifying speaker, who engages the listener with real world examples and walks you through his process for building plot.
The LOCK system
- Lead–main character
- Readers enter the story via the main character–they must bond with him
- Fastest bond is created via vibrancy of plot–jeopardy/trouble
- Don’t open with Happyland, where everything is going well. It bores the reader and turns them off
- Reader needs to know there is something at stake for main character
- Hardship (not of character’s own making)
- Inner conflict
- Think High Noon with Grace Kelly or Rose Matter by Stephen King
- Morality and vulnerability can make a character likeable
- You want the reader to worry about your character
- Readers care about characters that care about other people
- “Pet the dog” or “Save the cat” axiom–the hero is in a vulnerable position and chooses to care for someone weaker than himself
- Think Dirty Harry or the Fugitive
- Then have it lead to further trouble
- “Pet the dog” or “Save the cat” axiom–the hero is in a vulnerable position and chooses to care for someone weaker than himself
- Reader needs to know there is something at stake for main character
- The main character cannot be a wimp
- Objective–main character must have one
- Death at stake
- Physical, professional or psychological
- The objective can be something the main character is trying to get or get away from
- Death at stake
- Justify the opposition character
- Best villain has some sympathy to them. All characters think they are justified
- 2 dogs and 1 bone is a good plot
- Requires a character that is stronger than main character
- Justify the opposition character
- Knockout–the end of the story
- Last chapter sells the next book
- Need a satisfying ending
- Inner and outer aspect to final battle
- Inner=moral–character decide to do the right thing
- Outer=conflict with other characters
- Character gains something at a cost–there is a sacrifice made
- May give up something they believe in
- But after sacrifice there must be some reward
- The ending must: satisfy the reader, not be predictable, answer questions, and leave reader going “Ah”
- There is no one formula to build toward the ending
- When he gets to the end, he will stew (take a walk and mull it over), brew (get a cup of coffee and think about next step), and do (go home and type it up)
The Three Acts
- Readers have a three act story expectation
- Always think about what the objective of the next scene is
- Make sure there is a natural progression.
- Usually the middle act is longer than Act I and Act II
- Act I–Disturbance–something happens and the novel begins
- In Act I, the characters are in an ordinary world and happy to stay there. They don’t want major change
- Between Act I and II there is the first doorway of no return. Something forces the main character into trouble of Act II and the door slams behind them
- Act II is the main part of the story
- Between Act II and Act III, there is a second doorway which enables the main character to get into the final battle/crisis/discovery/major setback
He closed with this important point: Formulas exist for a reason. THEY WORK. He gave this example: You wouldn’t want to make an omelette with a watermelon. To find out more about plotting, check out his book: Plot and Structure.
Donald Maass’ gave a killer presentation at the Writer’s Digest Conference. As useful as the Empire State Building in navigating New York. Definitely improved my craft toolbox.
He talked about how as a reader, we give up on writers who stop writing great fiction. But he believes everyone can write and keep writing books where readers fall in love with the main character from page one and stay around for the next 300 or so pages.
But how do writers make readers care about their main character?
You start with three kinds of protagonists:
- Everyman–ordinary guy/girl but extraordinary stuff happens to him
- He suggested taking a person you consider to be a hero and figuring out what they said or did to become a hero to you
- Focus on the details of that moment (location, time of year, your state of mind, your reaction, etc.)
- Think about what makes that moment come alive for you
- Now find a way to give that quality to your protagonist
- Think of a way for the reader to experience this quality in the first five pages of your manuscript
- Hero/Heroine–may have high-risk job or something special that sets that apart from the rest (the everymen)
- Think about one way that you as a person are human/fallible
- Give that human quality to your protagonist
- Figure out how to have him experience it within first five pages
- Dark protagonist–wounded, down and out, self-hating, the anti-hero
- Think of one thing this character wants to be able to do. It can be something common/ordinary that they cannot do
- Consider how your character would like to be more human
- How can the reader experience the dark protagonist longing for change?
- What represents who they want to be?
- Have it come though in the first five pages
Readers need to see something that shows strength of character in everyman, humanity/fallibility of hero, and possibility of redemption in dark protagonist. This will make the reader connect with the main character.
Key Point: In the first five pages, the reader needs a reason to care about the character for them to continue reading onward
What about the antagonist?
The antagonist is the secret enemy of the protagonist.
- Find five ways for the protagonist and antagonist to be together face-to-face
- Think about the antagonist’s opinion of protagonist–how does he see the protagonist?
- What does he despise and admire about the protagonist?
- How does the antagonist believe the protagonist can help him?
- Figure out 2-3 ways that your antagonist is likeable. This will create nuances of character
- Now show this in the manuscript
- Consider why your antagonist is justified or right in his actions
Key Point: Create a sympathetic antagonist. Have him live by some set of principle/have something altruistic or selfless about him to make him more real to the reader
This will infuse your story with passion and fire.
How to tackle a flat scene in your book
- Figure out what the POV character wants in the scene. What does he feel most strongly in that moment?
- Once you identify the emotion, think about a time in your life you felt that way
- Delve into the details of the period in your life, time of year, people around you, etc.
- What provoked that feeling in you?
- What made the feeling more acute to you?
- What would you change about that moment?
- Now give all that emotion to your POV character in that flat scene
Key Point: Draw on your life experiences to enrich your character and give them depth
If you have a story where most of the conflict is internal to the POV character, create a person who represents part of the POV character’s inner conflict. Now you can dramatize outwardly.
A huge thank you to Mr. Maass for sharing his insight and conducting his session as more of a writing workshop where we actually worked on our manuscripts.