Five Things I Learned at Write on the Red Cedar

Its been a week and Im (almost) fully recovered from Write on the Red Cedar, an intensive twelve-hour day of lectures, round tables, networking, and writing workshops. As promised, Im reporting back my top five takeaways, and Ill also let you know whether or not I accomplished the goals I set for myself prior to attending the conference.

First, here are my Top Five Takeaways

1. Genres are Blending

Keynote speaker, Donald Maass, talked at length about the changing characteristics of the books appearing on the New York Times Bestsellers list. No longer are books categorized simply as literary fiction or commercial fiction. The genres, more often than not, are blending together. The most successful writers of commercial fiction all have one thing in commonthey utilize the techniques of literary fiction to write genre fiction. The result: great story-telling meets beautiful writing. He recommended that writers pick a genre as a framework for a story, rather than as list of genre-specific rules to follow. This blending of genres allows writers a new level of freedom that has not been seen in the past.

2. Dont Focus on the Eyes

While listening to Kristina Riggles lecture, entitled How to Make your Characters Walk off the Page, I was struck by her thoughts on physical descriptions. Mainly, that the eye color of your characters doesnt matter. What? Eye color doesnt matter? Oh, man. At that moment, I realized Ive been spending way too much time describing the colors of my characters eyes and not enough on their other mannerisms. She said to give your characters one or two memorable distinctive features, that arent necessarily physical. Kristina Riggle used Jay Gatsby in The Great Gatsby as an example of a character whose physical appearance is barely described throughout the novel. Yet, the reader picks up on the formality and correctness of Jay Gatsby from the description of his posture and the statement that Gatsby had the look of someone who had his hair trimmed every day. Nowhere in the book is there any mention of Gatsbys eye color, hair color, etc.
3. Things Can Always Get Worse

In the writing workshop segment of the conference, Donald Maass asked us to write down  our protagonists main conflict or goal. Then he asked us to think of one way to make the goal matter more. For example, who else would benefit if this goal were achieved? In what new way can character discover that the unfulfilled goal hurts?

Then, he asked us to think of a way to make it more difficult for our protagonist to achieve his or her goal. What is the worst consequence the protagonist can face by not achieving his or her goal?

Then, he asked us to write down a way things can get even worse for our protagonist. How does he or she screw up? What trivial problem can pop up at the most inopportune time? For example, maybe on the day the protagonist is supposed to attend an important meeting with someone who can help him achieve his goal, his car wont start and he misses the meeting.

Then, believe it or not, we were asked to make things even worse for our protagonist! What if the protagonist failed completely? How does the house go down in flames? The readers should be taken on an emotional journey where they fear that all is lost before the protagonist, at last, figures a way out of the mess.

In other words, always raise the stakes.

4. The Importance of Networking

Like many writers, Im an introvert who would rather stab toothpicks in my eyeballs than try to make small talk with a bunch of people who I dont know. That said, there is something encouraging and revitalizing about meeting and connecting with other writers face to face. There are few people who can relate to the emotional roller coaster of writing like other writers. Theyve experienced rejections and occasional successes, theyve thrown first drafts of novels in the garbage, theyre struggling to build author platforms and promote their books, and they take the craft of writing seriously otherwise they would not have spent the money and time to attend a conference.

So much of a conference depends on who is sitting next to you. I totally lucked out in that department, as I had two awesome women writers sitting next to me. One of them was in the process of writing a memoir and is the editor of Grand Traverse Woman magazine. The other just had her writing published in the childrens magazine, Spider. Even though we dont write the same genres, they are two more connections Ive made in the writing world. I traded cards with several other people as well. So, now I have more people to email with writing questions, more people who might help promote my book, and more people to cheer on as they continue on their unique writing journeys!

5. Never Give Up!

One of the speakers told a story of an agent who received 7,000 queries last year. Out of those 7,000 queries, she requested 138 partial manuscripts. Out of those 138 partial manuscripts, she requested 30 full manuscripts. Out of those 30 full manuscripts, she took on seven new clients. Thats one-percent. Lets face it, the numbers are dire. The speaker said, that if a writer believes in his or her work and is interested in signing with an agent, that person should query no less than 100 agents before seeking another alternative. And, more importantly, if writers put in the requisite work, they should believe that they can be a part of that one-percent.

What did I learn from this? I gave up WAY too early on finding an agent for my last novel. I think I only queried twelve agents. Dont get me wrong, I believe my novel ended up with the perfect publisher for that particular book. But, in the future, Ill query at least 100 agents before throwing in the towel.

As for my other goals, heres how I did:
Goal #1: Pitch my book to agent Katharine Sands without sounding like a mumbling idiot.
Result: I did it! I practiced my pitch tirelessly for the few days leading up to the conference. Thankfully, my agent appointment was in the morning, so I did not have to stress out about it all day. I sat across from her. She stared at me and said nothing, so I recited my pitch. I didnt stumble or forget how to speak. I didnt sweat profusely or turn bright red. The eight minutes went by in the snap of a finger. In the end, it didnt seem as though the agent really connected with my book, but thats okay. My goal wasnt to get a book deal. It was to make my pitch without sounding like a mumbling idiot. Mission accomplished!

Goal #2: Learn three ways to improve my current manuscript

Result: This is a big YES! (See Top Five Takeaways above).

Goal #3: Exchange business cards with at least six people

Result: Did it! Ive already received a couple emails from people I met at the conference. Business cards are crucial to networking. Get them!

Goal #4:  Find a potential online critique partner or critique group

Result: I didnt fully accomplish this one, but I did join a writers Facebook group, appropriately named Finish the Damn Book. Im guessing I can find a critique partner through this group when I need one.

Im going to keep setting goals for myself, whether they are writing (or riding) related. My new goal is to finish the first revision of my thriller novel based on all the information I learned at the conference. Be sure to check back in a couple weeks for my February blog post which will deal with a few of the things that I LOVE the most!

Writing Conference Goals Five Days and Counting . . .

This Saturday Im heading to East Lansing, Michigan to attend the Write on the Red Cedar writing conference. The event promises to be an action-packed, information-filled day highlighting a number of talented speakers and ending in a four-hour intensive writing workshop led by renowned literary agent Donald Maass. In addition to listening to the speakers and participating in the writing workshop, I will also have the opportunity to meet privately with literary agent Katharine Sands of the Sarah Jane Freymann Literary Agency. My meeting with Katharine Sands will be short and to the pointeight minutes long to be exact! In those eight minutes, I will try to remember how to speak and pitch my new novel to her. Ive never pitched a novel to an agent in person before, so this will be uncharted territory for me.

To help prepare myself for the conference, Ive decided to put together a list of (realistic) goals that I hope to accomplish on Saturday.  Here they are, in no particular order:

1.  Pitch my book to Katharine Sands without sounding like a mumbling idiot

The thought of pitching my book to a real, live agent is making me nervous. Ive been practicing my pitch on my husband. Ill get halfway through it, say um a few times and then lose my train of thought. I wrote the pitch down on paper and tried to memorize it, while still sounding natural. Lets just say, theres still lots of room for improvement! Luckily, I have five more days to practice.

2.  Learn three ways to improve my current manuscript

Ill be actively writing and revising my work during the workshop with Donald Maass. Ive only heard great things about his workshops, which are based on his book, Writing the Breakout Novel. Cant wait to see how my manuscript transforms!

3.  Exchange business cards with at least six people

Im confident I can achieve this goal. I just had new business cards printed and shipped to me. They are shiny and new and all of my contact information is up to date. Im excited to pass them around!

4.  Find a potential online critique partner or critique group

I havent had great luck with critique groups that meet in person due to scheduling conflicts, weather cancellations, etc. Id love to meet another writer (or writers) with whom I could exchange work online and help each other meet our writing goals from the comfort of our own homes.

5.  Come home with at least five solid takeaways

I promise to achieve this goal, mostly because Ive already entitled my next blog post The Top Five Things I Learned at Write on the Red Cedar.

Be sure to check back in a couple of weeks to see how I fared with all of my writing conference goals. Until then, happy writing!

Countdown to NaNoWriMo!

Ive been thinking about how to best spend my time while waiting to hear back from agents and publishers regarding my recent submissions of my YA novel. Time ticks by so s-l-o-w-l-y while waiting for responses from these mysterious and slow-moving entities. So instead of staring at the clock and checking my emails fifty times a day, Ive decided to throw myself into a new project. After all, NaNoWriMo starts in less than three weeks and I have a killer story (literally, a story about a killer) in my head. Sadly, my next book contains no horses, but I will have some horse-related news to report very soon. (Fingers crossed!)

Ive signed up for NaNoWriMo, starting November 1st. For those of you who dont know, NaNoWriMo is a challenge to write a novel in thirty days during the month of November. I participated last year and, although I fell short of my goal to write 50,000 words in thirty days, I ended up with the bulk of what eventually turned out to be my YA novel.

This year, Im going into the challenge more prepared. First, Ive been using the templates from Mary Buckham and Dianna Loves BREAK INTO FICTION: 11 STEPS TO BUILDING A STORY THAT SELLS, to familiarize myself with my characters, their motivations, and key twist points in the plot. The worksheets include such subjects as Powerful Characters Template, Powerful Openings Template, and Conflict Template. Each template contains 8-10 questions that force aspiring authors to think about (and write down) major characteristics, motivations, settings, conflict, and internal/external changes that will make up the overall story. For anyone just beginning to think about writing their next commercial fiction novel, this book is a great place to start.

Second, Im utilizing some exercises I learned at VCFA Day in Ann Arbor to really get to know my characters before I start writing. During the conference, speaker Coe Booth reiterated several times that character is the beginning, middle, and end of a successful story.  Here are some questions she suggested answering when creating believable characters:

1. What is the characters earliest memory?

2. Does the character have any irrational fears?

3. What is the characters biggest fear? How does that drive him/her?

4. What sadness does the character carry with him/her?

5. Where are YOU, the author, in this story? The author needs to look within herself to incorporate emotion and feeling into her writing. For example, this is what anger does to my body: _________.

6. What were the three biggest defining moments in this characters life?

Remember, all of this information does not need to appear in the book. These are exercises meant to help the author get to know his/her characters better and to know how they would react in different situations.

Finally, Im developing my To Read list  to include books similar to the one Im writing, as well as books on craft. The next book on my list is Donald Maas THE BREAKOUT NOVELIST: CRAFT AND STRATEGIES FOR CAREER FICTION WRITERS. I recently signed up to attend to the Write On the Red Cedar winter writing retreat in Lansing, MI on January 16-17, where veteran agent Donald Mass will conduct one of his highly sought-after writing seminars. I cant believe Im going! Woo-hoo! Im sure Ill have plenty of material for my blog on January 18th.

Check back on November 1st when Ill be kicking off my NaNoWriMo and updating my progress on  my blog as I go.

Are you participating in the NaNoWriMo challenge? What are you doing to prepare?

Back to School, Back to Writing!

After a very eventful summer, my highly-energetic five and seven year old kids are back in schoolKindergarten and second grade (Sigh!)so now I have plenty of time to focus on my writing. No excuses! Its not that I didnt spend time on writing over the summer, but I didnt have the large chunks of undisturbed time that I craved. (See the part about my highly-energetic kids.)

In June, I sent my YA manuscript off for a professional critique by Kelly Hashaway. It was money well-spent! She gave me so many great ideas, insights, and areas to cut/expand. Lets just say, after receiving her critique I had my work cut out for me. Using her comments as a road map, I spent every minute of my (very limited) free time revising my manuscript. The revision process took two solid months. After giving my manuscript to several friends and relatives to read and making a few more changes based on their comments and suggestions, I believe I have the closest thing to a polished manuscript that I can write.

Heres a sneak peek.

Title: Trail of Secrets

The Query Meat:

“It’s scary because it’s true.” Brynlei warms her hands inside the sleeves of her sweatshirt as she listens to the ghost story around the bonfire. The glossy pages of the Foxwoode Riding Academy brochure hadn’t mentioned anything about the girl who vanished on a trail ride four years earlier. But while the other girls laugh over the story of the dead girl who haunts Foxwoode, Brynlei begins to notice signs that the girl—or her ghost—may be lurking in the shadows. Brynlei’s quest to reveal the truth interferes with her plan to keep her head down and win Foxwoode’s coveted “Top Rider” award. Someone soon discovers Brynlei’s search for answers and will go to any length to stop her. When Brynlei finally uncovers the facts surrounding the missing girl’s disappearance, she realizes the world is not as black and white as she once believed. Now she must choose whether to protect a valuable secret or save a life.

So, there it is. Now what do I do? Ive started researching agents and publishers that would be good matches for my book. Ive written a hook, identified several comparable titles, and written both a short and long synopsis of my book. Ive drafted query letters and begun the process of sending them out. To be completely honest, Ive already received a few rejections. But thats part of the deal, right? Now its time to grow some thick skin, buckle down, and focus on finding the perfect home for my book. I know it will be a big project involving waiting, never hearing back, and rejections. I only need one YES, and thats what Im working for.

Are you refocusing on your writing this fall? Are you in the process of submitting your manuscript? Tell me about it. Lets cheer each other on!

Hone your Craft through Reading

In the midst of snowiest, coldest winter in Michigans history, Ive been hard at work, furiously attempting to complete the first draft of my first YA novel (working title, Foxwoode).  More than once, while Ive been trapped inside my snow-covered house frantically typing away on my computer, images of Stephen Kings, Misery, have crept into my brain.  But, thankfully, there is no crazy woman holding me hostage in a snowy cabin forcing me to write the next great American novel.  I dont have any fans to speak of.  The pressure to complete my first novel is coming completely from within me.

Im happy to report my thriller/mystery, which is set at a summer riding academy in Northern Michigan, is making progress.  I just passed the 35,000 word mark and Im nearing my first draft end goal of approximately 50,000 words.  Ive learned so much about the writing process, just by writing.  Its been inspiring to see the characters personalities and previously unimagined story lines develop before my eyes.  But, not surprisingly, doubts and questions have also developed as I write.  For example, how much adult content is appropriate in a YA novel?  How dark is too dark?  (My mind easily slips into dark places see Misery reference above).  Is my writing horrible?  What is the best way to begin a new chapter?  To signal the close of a chapter? And for that matter, how long should the chapters be?

I know there are many books out there dissecting the art of writing a YA novel.  Personally, I have found Mary Koles, Writing Irresistible Kidlit, to be extremely helpful in this area.  But all of the how to books in the world cant answer many of the most basic questions, including Am I on the right track? and What are they looking for?  By they, I mean agents, publishers, and the young adult audience.  Ive found the best way to answer my constantly developing questions is by reading other thriller/mystery young adult novels that have recently been published.  Just by reading similar novels, I can see how other authors were successful in doing what I am trying to accomplish.

In her book, Chapter After Chapter, Heather Sellers recommends reading 100 books from the same genre a writer wishes to write.  Im not sure Im going to make it to 100 before my first draft of Foxwoode is completed, but I am striving to read at least 40-50 comparable novels.  I love Heather Sellers idea of keeping a list of each book Ive read with a sentence or two about the story line.  That way, when it is time to query agents and publishers I can easily refer to the list and mention books that are most similar to mine.

The other day I went to Barnes & Noble and made a list of all of the best-selling teen thriller/mystery books on display.  Just from that one trip, I have about twenty new books to add to my list.  Im currently reading, and thoroughly enjoying, The Face on the Milk Carton, by Caroline B. Cooney.   I love that it is written in third person, just like my novel.  Ive been able to sharpen my technique of writing dialogue and internal thoughts by observing how Ms. Cooney did it successfully.  Next on my list is The Killing Woods, by Lucy Christopher. The cover of the book looks almost exactly how I envision the cover of my future novel to look (except mine will have a misty silhouette of a horse in the woods too).

Now I need your help.  I am searching for some great YA thriller/mysteries that involve horses and have been published in the last 3-5 years.  Any suggestions?  Please share!  Also, Id love to have more friends with me on my YA reading journey. Please be my friend on Goodreads to join me.  Id love to see what youre reading too!

Until next time, happy reading!

Literary Agents are like Horses

Literary agents are like horses.  The horse knows.  He knows if you know.  He also knows if you dont know. Ray Hunt.  I know what youre thinking this is just another excuse for this horse-crazy writer to talk about horses. Well, youre half right. Bear with me while I describe some of my experiences with agents and horses. Then you can be the judge.

About two years ago I began to focus on writing picture book manuscripts. I had so many ideas in my head. I couldnt wait to get them down on paper and send them out to agents. Never mind that I had not yet studied the art of picture book writing. My stories were way too long, I had not taken any writing classes, I did not know the difference between showing and telling, I did not belong to any writing or critique groups, and most of my plots involved a parent swooping in at the last minute to save the day. My query letters were even worse. I asked a lot of rhetorical questions, talked about how much my kids loved my stories, and pretended like I knew what the heck I was doing. Of course, none of the agents who were unlucky enough to receive my early manuscripts were fooled. Im sure they could smell my lack of knowledge and preparation from a mile away.  Even as I improved my writing, gained more knowledge of the industry, and began to build my writers platform, I still wasnt ready to be represented by an agent.  I wanted to be ready, but deep down I knew I wasnt.  No matter how you try to fool them, agents know.

My attempts at trying to fool horses have always led to similar outcomes.  I cant count the number of times Ive cantered a horse toward a scary-looking jump thinking, were not going to make it over this jump.  Sure enough, the horse refuses.  The horse knows.  He knows if youre unsure.  He knows if youre second-guessing.  My first time riding my former lease-horse, Edoras, is another example.  I was nervous.  Really nervous.  I was used to riding a gentle and forgiving lesson horse, not a fiery Chestnut mare who gained speed after every jump.  Ill just fake it til I make it, I thought to myself.  Wrong again.  Edoras dragged me around the ring at an alarming pace for what seemed like an eternity before I could convince her to come to a halt.  Horses, like agents, dont allow you to fake it til you make it.  You need to be prepared.  You have to put in the work. You need to be confident that you know what you are doing.  Only then will you succeed as a writer or a rider.

I am now at the point in my writing where I feel genuinely prepared, knowledgeable, and confident.  Julie Hedlunds blog series, How I Got My Agent, has been extremely helpful in guiding me through this process.  Im active in several writing groups and critique groups, Ive completed picture book writing classes and attended seminars.  Ive revised, revised, and revised.  My search for an agent is officially beginning.  I have three (almost four) completely polished manuscripts ready to send out and many more in the works.  I am doing my research on agents and agencies.  I am drafting short, yet effective, query letters.  I believe I am finally ready.  But I guess the agents themselves will be the judge of that.  After all, they know.