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At the Summer SCBWI conference, I attended Sara Shepard’s workshop on Issues Writing Girls. One of the most interesting points she raised had to deal with dating your books. And not in the going out for coffee sense. But rather by making too many allusions to brands like Abercrombie or J. Crew or Iphone.
This was one of those lesson she learned from writing Pretty Little Liars. The first book has lots of brands and labels that help establish who the characters are.
She said it’s very tempting to drop a modern reference, but that what is hot in 2012 may not be in 2013, 2014, 0r 2015 when the book is published. She suggested finding other ways to define characters without using those references.
She also cautioned against the use of slang like “frenemy” and using music to define a character. Both define, but date quickly.
Ruta Sepetys’s Keynote address was my favorite key note of the entire conference. She is a fantastic speaker. Every word/sentence she spoke built on her central premise. She moved me to tears with her honesty.
Her talk “You Can’t Break the Broken: Writing Emotional Truth” is why I go to conferences.
Her debut novel, Shades of Gray, is the story of a Lithuanian girl sent to Siberia during Stalin’s regime in Lithuania. The novel explores what it takes to bear the unbearable.
It’s next on my to read list.
Ruta grew up in America, knowing her father and his parents fled Lithuania under Stalin because Stalin forced everyone he deemed “anti-soviets” in Lithuania (including all writers, teachers, librarians, landowners, musicians, military) to go to Siberia.
Her dad grew up in a refugee camp before they came to the U.S. That was all she really knew of her story.
Until she went back to Lithuania and found out that 12 of her relatives were taken in place of her father’s family. 11 of them died in Siberia.
She decided to tell the emotional truth of what happened to the people of Lithuania under Stalin. She fictionalized it so she could speak for the people who never spoke of what happened to them.
When she decided to write the truth, she had to decide how much she was willing to pay and give of herself–her emotional self. She explained that you have to be willing to turn yourself inside out and expose your deepest deepest feelings.
She encouraged us to “write the novel only you can write.” She reminded us that for the things we feel “there is a reader out there who feels it too.”
Karen Cushman spoke to us about the importance of courting surprises in our writing. One of her best tips is “Don’t fear surprise, welcome it.” Sometimes we have no idea why something comes unbidden. But it’s okay to stray from our outline. She advised that we “ask the questions we don’t know the answers to.”
What I appreciated about her talk was that she made a point of saying that we “are not channeling someone” nor is there “a muse at work.” We as writers do it unwittingly. Sometimes we leave clues in our own writing about what will happen. We just have to look for them. We prepare ourselves for the surprises.
Jay Asher is one of my favorite workshop teachers at the entire conference. He conveyed so much useful knowledge while constantly engaging the audience. If you get the chance to hear him speak, GO!
He really made us think about how to inject suspense into any type of book. One of the key takeaways was the importance of ANTICIPATION. The reader is waiting for something to happen, something that is supposed to happen, and eventually it has to happen to satisfy the reader.
He mentioned how with Twilight the back cover created anticipation about the vampire discovery. The first 10 pages of the book are all about the weather and setting, but it makes it the perfect place for a vampire, which the reader know to anticipate because of the back cover.
In terms of how to inject suspense at the end of a chapter, he advised that writers can: cut the action early, hint at the story to come, or have multiple narrators so the chapter end is a bit of a story cliffhanger.
My favorite quote? “It’s our fault, but their problem when a reader is up all night reading our book.”
This week, I thought I share some highlights from the workshops I attended at the 41 st Annual SCBWI Summer Conference in LA.
Jordan Brown spoke to us about his list including what, how and why he publishes. Lately, I’ve come to appreciate his advice about how great writers are great readers. They are aware of what is out in the market. My dear friend and writing buddy Katrina Bender is forever introducing me to new books and I love that about her.
He described the editor’s job as being to: look at the page and figure out what is in the author’s head and try to get it onto the page better. As I’ve been working on feedback from an agent, I can see what he meant. This agent is helping me get to the heart of my story and tell it better.
Krista Marino gave an insightful workshop filled with terrific tips on “The Importance of Firsts: First Line, First Page, and First 5 Pages.” One of the key points in her talk was the importance of not leading the reader astray or boring them in any of those firsts.
She touched on some elements that can make a first line intriguing: having an inherent question, introducing a main character, giving a sense of setting, and voice. Those will all tug the reader into the story.
A couple things she advised against doing in the first five pages included: introducing too many characters, including flashbacks, POV jumps. I think these were “don’ts” because they can confuse the reader and/or disorient them.
Here are some upcoming writing conferences in the Connecticut/New York area:
This year, they’re hosting 11 editors and agents who will hear your pitches in all categories, YA, Historical, Contemporary, Paranormal Romance and other genres too like Sci Fi and Horror. If you’re a fiction writer, you don’t want to miss this once a year opportunity.
Register by going to www.ctrwa.org and clicking on the Fiction Fest tab.
The price is pretty reasonable for members of CTRWA / CORW / CoLoNY Member $ 79.00 and $ 99.00 for non-members. And I’ll be there too!
The impressive schedule of events includes panels of Edgar nominated authors discussing YA mysteries, the reality of the writing life, and how to write a novel. The day ends with a cocktail party with agents ( you must sign up for this in advance).
The cost is $90 for MWA members and $125 for non-members.
In addition, MWA has scheduled a book signing for April 26th, a happy hour for April 25th, and the Edgar banquet on April 28th.
I’m planning to make a week of it in the city.
Backspace Conference: May 26-28th in New York, NY. Targeted at all aspiring authors.
This is a phenomenal conference for stepping into the publishing world. You get to meet agents, who give you feedback on your query letter and first two pages. Top notch panels including topics on the craft of writing, social networking, what agents want from authors, and how to write a query letter.
I have attended this twice and my abilities grew exponentially because of the informative panels, the agent interaction, networking with published authors, and bonding with other unpublished authors. This conference is a definite stepping stone to publication.
Attendees can choose to attend 1-3 days of the conference. Day 3 is a not-to-be-missed all day workshop with Donald Maass. Pricing ranges from $150-700. I won’t be here this time, but will be attending the November Backspace conference.
There are loads of other conferences out there. Many are listed in The Writer and Writer’s Digest magazine. These are three that I found very useful in the spring. You can also search my blog under the tag “conferences” for more info on conferences I attended.
In the summer, Killer Nashville is a favorite. But I’ll be in Asia then.
The second workshop I attended at Crimebake on Friday night was called Techniques for Using Humor in Mystery and our speaker was Toni L.P. Kelner. Humor tends to seep into my writing, so I knew this was a must-attend workshop.
She started by talking about the different ways humor can be incorporated into a mystery:
- Crazy capers
Mysteries can be funny throughout or simply have a smart aleck character. There can be humorous moments to allow the reader to catch their breath. It also makes it easier to ratchet up the suspense. When building tension you can use humor before inserting a clue so that you are hiding information in plain sight.
There can also be humor in the setting. Keep in mind that everything in the story should be doing something. Don’t insert humor unless it performs a function for the story. Humor must pull double duty such as exposition or catching your breath between tense scenes.
Humor can be risky because no one loves the same humor. You also run the risk of losing a reader. There is no margin of error for humor. Your book can be a moderate thriller, a tepid romance, or sorta sci-fi. If you miss the mark with humor, it fails.
It is important to realize that humor differs by age, background, culture, etc. Things will not translate. Be aware that humor can hurt people’s feelings.
Revision is key–If I had longer, I’d have made it shorter. Remember to whittle down your humor. If it’s not moving the action, cut the humor.
Keep in mind there is a time and place for humor, but it slows down the pacing. And some moments cannot be funny,
Humor can be very visual and hard to do in a story–like when the Three Stooges throw pies in people’s faces.
Structure matters with humor. Don’t tell the funny line first.
Topical humor can be a roadblock–try for age trying to get to.
In her mysteries, Toni found that the more specific she got, the more universal it got. She didn’t set out to write funny, she just based things off of the people in her life and readers found it very funny.
Timing is essential with humor.
Note: This week my wordcount is not moving. I am doing another serious revision of my first book for a contest including new chapter breaks. So second book is on the back burner until next week when I get this contest submission in.
I’m hitting the road Friday morning with M from my CTRWA group. M and I met at the first meeting and discovered we live in the same town about 2 miles away from each other. M had already signed up for Crimebake as had I. She graciously offered to carpool. So 10AM Friday we set out!
Crimebake, or New England Crimebake 2010, is sponsored by Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime. Charlaine Harris, one of my favorite writers is going to be the guest of honor. That alone was reason to buy my ticket. But it keeps getting better. Agent pitches, published authors critiquing your first chapter, a vampire ball, classes on craft, amazing panels. Need I say more? Check out this schedule.
One of my Backspace buddies, Nora, is also attending. I can’t wait to catch up with her.
Are any of you going to Crimebake? What are you most looking forward to? If not, what conference are you looking forward to or do you have great memories of?
BTW, wordcount hit 60,532! That 18K in 3+weeks!
Day two of the conference has some great panels, but my favorite had to be Jeffery Deaver’s presentation on how he writes thrillers. What I thought was really great was how much he stressed that this is only his method of writing a thriller. Others have their ways and the writing process is very subjective. His process is as follows:
1) Always remember that writing commercial fiction is a business. P&G employees do not wake up and say that they aren’t inspired so create a product. You are under contract and legally obligated to create a book , so meet your deadlines.
2) Have a business plan–what kind of book are you creating? You have to create a product that people want to read otherwise it won’t have buyers.
3) Need an idea of what the product will look like. People read books to get to the end. Deaver likes to write novels over a short timeframe–2-3 days with a recurring series of deadlines making the reader ask what next.
4) Start fleshing out the idea–e.g., since there are 206 bones in the human body, write a book with 206 chapters each after the name of the bone. Keep chapters very short. 206 murders will occur in a hospital and a bone will be hidden in the room where the murder occurred. Note: Don’t write the book yet. If you don’t have an idea of how it ends and how everything fits together, it’s not a good idea to start writing. Deaver outlines his books, making a diagram for the novel. While outlining, he also conducts in depth research and choreographs the ending. As he works on the outline, the book keeps evolving. But as he gets further along realizes there is no surprise ending. Uh-oh. He realizes he’s working on a book that shouldn’t be written. The outline showed him that it was a bad story.
So he scraps it and starts over. Luckily he’s got enough time to come up with a new product, draft a new outline, and write the book.
When he finishes the book, he rewrites a lot (40-50 times) before other people can the draft. Then he will turn it over to focus group for feedback. Then he has freelancers edit it—using 2-3 copy editors to go through for continuity, phrasing mistakes, etc. Then it will be handed into his editor. Then he’ll do a book tour. Then the process starts all over again.
I’m heading off on vacation for 2 weeks. I’ll try to blog more about the conference when I get back in September because day 3 had some truly awesome panels. In the meantime, I’ll post pics from my adventures.
I flew down to Nashville, TN with OL on Thursday morning. We flew on American Eagle. Won’t make that mistake again. We had an overweight situation where 8 people were required to relinquish their seats and take a later flight. Then we finally board and two more people are required to get off the plane due to the overweight situation. It was ridiculous. Luckily, we were allowed to remain on the flight. Unlike Continental, no food was served on the flight. These tickets cost $300 each and my one checked bag cost another 25$. Highway robbery in my opinion. The one bright spot was the Nashville airport–so clean and calm, especially after LGA in New York.
We did a little sightseeing in the afternoon hitting the Cocoa Tree for truffles (which we snacked on everyday as a treat) and driving by the Opry on the highway since it was closed for restoration. We headed out to Franklin, TN to check in to the hotel where the Killer Nashville Conference was being held. A lovely Marriott with super friendly staff. We hung out at the hotel, enjoying the saline pool and spa. Gearing up for the first day of the conference.
On day one, I got a query critique with Cari Foulk who was super helpful and a great person to talk to. She liked my story and my writing–which was awesome to hear. She even requested the full manuscript. I’m still giddy over that. She explained what wasn’t working in my query letter and provided insight into what was missing and how it needed to be articulated. I highly recommend paying for extras at conferences like the query critique. It’s a great opportunity to get one-on-one feedback.
While I spoke to Cari, OL attended the Lee Lofland panel on how CSI gets it wrong. Some highlights included:
- Don’t use TV shows for research. TV shows are created to entertain, not to mirror reality because what cops really do every minute of the day is not not exciting enough.
- Don’t use another writer’s book as research, he may have gotten his info from TV.
- Research things because every governmental and law enforcement agency does things differently and laws vary across city, county, state and federal levels.
- A chief of police is not the same thing a sheriff.
- He mentioned that Jeffrey Deaver is an example of an author who gets it right–he spends months researching his books. However, he does not give the reader information overload.
- As an example, he mentioned that cops always tell suspects not to leave town, but they have no legal authority to say that. A judge must sign a court order for it to have any weight.
- Also, when a medical examiner says, “From the size of the wound, I’d say…”–It’s not true. They cannot tell the caliber from the gun hole.
- In a drowning, the body floats after 3 days dead
- No family member is allowed in autopsy room alone and usually ID dead from photograph
- crime scene detectives cannot track footprints in asphalt in a big city
- Pulling weapons in public is too dangerous to bystanders
- FBI and local police usually don’t work same cases
- Crime scene investigators are not police, even though act like it on TV
- Civilians do not have weapons, don’t attend autopsies, do process crime scene, do investigate evidence, and do testify in court
- Southland is an example of a show with good details such as cop having junk in pockets or raising gun up to shoot.
For more information on police procedures, check out Lee’s amazing blog at http://www.leelofland.com/wordpress/
If you want to hear more of highlights from the Killer Nashville conference, I’ll be posting about it all week.