Thursday, September 27, 2012

2012 Letters and Lines Fall Conference

I attended our local SCBWI fall conference last weekend, and as always, it was terrific.  Kudos to our wonderful Regional Advisors, Denise Vega and Todd Tuell.  Author Chris Crutcher started it off on Saturday with a humorous and heart wrenching/warming keynote address.  In addition to writing award winning novels, Mr. Crutcher is a mental health therapist, and he left little doubt in my mind, that he was a darn (Chris would use a more expressive adjective here) good one.  It was also apparent that his experiences in working with patients help make his writing come alive.  And his humor made all of us come alive as he read an excerpt from his book, DEADLINE, recounting some hilarious scenes, each spurred by a big brother's question:  "Do you want to do something neat?"

During the conference, I learned more about social networking (Melody Jones), what makes agents/editors take notice of a submission (agent Karen Gencik's session on 101+ reasons for rejection was very well done and informative), how to write Middle Grade that rings true (editor Emily Clement - loved this as this is my niche), and enjoyed hearing editor Molly O'Neill talk specifically about what attracted her in works she took on. 

A special plus at these conferences is the opportunity to sign up for a pitch or critique session with an agent or editor.  I was especially fortunate to receive a critique of my first chapter of MG novel CHANGING TIDES from Karen Grencik.  She is very personable and straight forward when you meet with her.  She also joined our group at the banquet and kept us entertained with her delightful stories and humor.

The social camaraderie with fellow writers is always a big draw for me.  Writing itself is a very individual activity, and conversing with other writers about their struggles and sucesses helps me remember I'm really not alone when I'm writing--I just can't see them.  I can't stress enough the importance for writers and illustrators to attend these conferences.  They provide you with the state of the art news in our profession, the opportunity to meet with agents and editors, and the social contact with people who understand exactly what you're going through and trying to accomplish.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Good Critique Group--Priceless

It's impossible to put a price on a "good" critique group.  I was admitted into my second one about a year and a half ago, and I'm still counting my blessings.  They've taught me so much, from polishing up a sentence to fixing your plot and making your manuscript sing.  My first critique group was comprised of 7 new and mostly inexperienced writers.  This must be where the phrase "the blind leading the blind" came from, because that was us.  We began by restricting one another to submitting no more than 10 pages for review at a time.  Talk about a lesson in futility.  How can you possibly comment on anything you find in 10 pages as it pertains to character development, plotting, or virtually anything that goes into creating an entire manuscript.  But as I said, we were inexperienced.  We did grow some, but one person moved away and others moved on (taking care of children and working in other careers).  My current group ( first formed back in the 80's, and the expertise they've gained over time was immediately evident.  We submit full manuscripts, and create complete, typed reviews to be discussed at a meeting.  We cover everything from writing skills to storytelling to character development.  It's overwhelming to be on the "hot seat," and after my first time, I left in a fog, wondering where I would begin with the overwhelming revisions suggested by various members of the group.  I set the manuscript aside for awhile until I caught my breath, then I dug in.  I adopted a method used by one of the group members.  I went through all twelve typed reviews (there are actually more members in our group, but not everyone reviews every manuscript each time), and made a list of each issue mentioned.  Then I made a check each time one was mentioned again.  Those with the most checks, I knew I had to deal  with.  The others I also considered carefully.  This exercise prepared me for the work which was no small undertaking.  When I finished, though, even I knew my manuscript was far and above what I had submitted to them.  I think it's hard to start a critique group with all new writers.  My recommendation is to have a mix if at all possible.  For new writers wanting to find such a group, I encourage you to become visible.  For example, attend conferences, enter contests, volunteer to help with writers activities.  I'd been interested in joining this group for years.  By the time they invited me in, I'd won several first and second place awards, and had coordinated a writers summer retreat.  I'd come to know many of them through conferences I attended.  This is crucial because any well-established critique group needs to know you're serious and you've put some time into it.  And the time you put into it will be worth it.  While I'm not yet published, I know my manuscripts are much closer.  In fact, just in the past six weeks, I've received three requests for fulls.  A good critique group...priceless!

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Pikes Peak Writers 2012

     The 2012 Pikes Peak Writers Conference celebrated its 20th anniversary with a blockbuster conference.  Incredible workshops, outstanding speakers, and record-breaking attendance made this the best one ever.  The all-day workshop by Donald Maass set the stage, beginning with simple words that mean so much from a writer's standpoint.  What makes a book a breakout novel is telling a great story, and telling it beautifully.  Then he took us through an all-day exercise that forced us to look closely at our protagonists and antagonists and make them real people with real problems, motives, strengths and faults.  Through question after question, we as authors came to see our own characters more clearly.  Some of my answers to his questions came quickly, others didn't come at all right then, and I will certainly revisit them before I call my manuscript finished.  I also loved his discussion on the importance of keeping up the tension in a novel.  I was particularly intrigued by his idea to toss thirty pages of your manuscript into the air, then reassemble them in random order and read each page, making sure there is tension somewhere on the page.  I've gone through the exercise of tossing up pages, but I generally followed it up with walking out the door.  His suggestion made sense to me, though.  Tension makes a book a page-turner.  Without it, the story begins to sag, and so does the reader.  I later had the pleasure of talking with him over breakfast, and hear about the young boy he adopted from Ethiopia.  I can't think of a more selfless deed than to afford a young child the opportunities that Donald and his wife are giving this little boy who is beginning to thrive. 
       On Friday, Linda Rohrbaugh prepared us for success.  She emphasizes that "even a poor plan, properly executed, will work.  It's all in the execution," and that "nothing can change when you're comfortable."  I repeated those words today as I delved into revisions. 
     There were so many wonderful workshops--Carol Berg's tools for revision; Mark Coker's information on e-books and Smashwords, and the agent/editor panels that help us get to know the individual agencies.  Then there were the keynote speeches--some of the best I've ever heard:  Donald Maass, Jeffrey Deaver, Robert Clais, Susan Wiggs, all breakout novelists themselves delivering blockbuster, motivational talks as they toasted the 20th anniversary of Pikes Peak Writers.
     Each year, PPW offers pitch sessions during which attendees can pitch their stories to agents and editors.  While it's a bit nerve-racking, it's an incredible opportunity, and I was fortunate to pitch to Kristin Nelson, whom I've heard speak many times and whose blog, Pub Rants, I follow because it provides many helpful hints pertaining to various areas of writing and publishing.  She deserves much credit for the amazingly successful agency she has created and grown in Denver. 
     I have to say, that a special night for me was Saturday night when I was cheered on by members of my critique group as I received my first place award in the "Childrens" category for my middle grade novel, HOOKED.  All in all, the entire weekend was one I'll always remember.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Changing Tides (and Facing Revisions)

My critique group reviewed my new middle grade novel a couple of weeks ago. I was thrilled to get good reviews. Of course, this doesn't mean it's ready to send out. I have lots of work to do! I've been with The Wild Writers ( for a year now, so there were no surprises as I sat on the hot seat. These folks are incredible, and they don't mince words, and they don't let me get away with sloppy writing or cutting corners. Some of the biggies I'm facing are: delay the second major turning point; the middle sags - give the protagonist a larger purpose and make her more active; revise the ending. Then, of course, there are smaller suggestions that only mean reconstructing and/or rearranging whole chapters. But hard as it is to face the major revisions, I know the group is right, and I've made the plunge. Getting started was hard, but I'm already feeling good about the changes, and each morning, I look forward to working on it.

I'd played around with titles for the book, and after some group discussion, one title was suggested that everyone liked and that fit the story well. I've titled the book "Changing Tides." I hope to have the next draft completed before the Pikes Peak Writers Conference in April where I plan to pitch it to an agent. Keeping my fingers crossed for good tides!

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Finishing the First Draft

I'm excited and a little let down. Finishing the first draft of a novel always leaves me with an incredible sense of accomplishment mixed with a sadness because I won't be putting my characters into any new quandries that they need to figure their way out of, or challenging them with roadblocks they must overcome to reach their goals. I just finished my middle grade novel, THE EX-CON AND THE SEA, about a twelve-year-old girl, Missy, whose poor school performance leaves her at the bottom of the sixth grade, and whose mother has been sentenced to three months in an alcohol treatment center for causing an accident resulting in injury. The only person her mother could find to watch over Missy and her six-year-old brother, Hayden, is their estranged fisherman father who has been out of prison for only a year and who has no experience raising children. It's hard enough to suddenly be living with a father she barely remembers, but the task is magnified for Missy as she tries to carve out a temporary existance for her and her brother in a small fishing community, struggle with her low self-esteem, study for her pending test, and manage her growing anger over her mother's drinking.

As the title suggests, there are some ties to Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea, though the story itself is quite different. I loved writing it, and the let down comes when you have to say goodbye to your children's adventures, and finally write the words, THE END. But it's really not the end, because now I'm ready to delve into revisions, and submitting it to my critique group, and more revisions, and submitting it to agents, and hopefully more revisions before submitting to publishers, and hopefully more revisions after that. So silly as it sounds, I'm praying for lots of rounds of revisions before I finally say goodbye to Missy and Hayden.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Hopping on the E-train

The e-buzz about e-books has everyone in the writing world scrambling to understand it and its implications for the future of writing and publishing. Our critique group is no exception, and we've been having a number of discussions about where the e-book train is heading. I'm finding it both exciting and daunting as I try to wrap my mind about what it all means. For example, what role do agents and publishers play in this evolving e-book market? How does it effect book reviews? Will the move to e-books effect the quality of books available to readers? Will "e-sales" become the index for labeling novels as "satisfactory" or "good" or "excellent"? Along with many fellow readers, I resisted the move away from the traditional hardcover books which for years has been synonymous with rainy days and crackling fires, but the e-book movement is gaining momentum, and I finally broke down and bought my Kindle. While my heart still fights for the old way of doing business, I'm glad that our group is taking the initiative to stay abreast of the e-book whirlwind and evaluate the impications for us as writers. Change often comes like a speeding locomotive, and if you don't hop on, you'll be waving goodbye from the tracks.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Humor and Pain

We had an interesting discussion at my critique group meeting today. It centered around the co-existence of humor and pain in novels. A book that immediately came to mind was one I'd recently read called Mockingbird, by Kathryn Erskine, about a child with Asperger's syndrome who had recently lost a beloved brother. The author does a magnificent job of getting into this little girl's head to tell the story, adeptly showing the confused thoughts associated with the disease, and the painful insults she endures from classmates while trying to comprehend the tremendous void in her heart. Even with such a heavy topic, Ms. Erskine has woven in amazing humor that made me laugh out loud. Done well, such humor intensifies the love and sympathy the reader feels for the protagonist as she plays out the painful elements of her life. In real life, pain and humor often go hand-in-hand. We can probably all remember sad and/or tragic times when something humorous happens that makes us smile, maybe even laugh, and we think, how can I possible laugh at a time like this. Maybe it's what keeps us from crashing. The trick in writing is to make the humor real and spontaneous, not contrived.