Dialogue Tags and Filter Words

(From a lecture originally delivered to students in Southern New Hampshire University’s online MFA program)

99190 WUOT Dialogue Logo V2.0

I love talking about dialogue tags and filter words. The concept is simple and making a quick change to our approach to these two things can vastly improve the quality of our writing. When I revise, I set aside one read-through just for finding, considering, and fixing dialogue tags and filter words. It’s the only thing I look at during that run-through, and often, fixing dialogue tags and filter words does so much toward the overall flow and style of the work.

Dialogue Tags

First, let’s talk about dialogue tags. As pretty much every craft book will tell you, the simplest dialogue tags are the best: I said, he said, she said. Even more importantly, across every panel of agents I’ve ever attended or interviews with agents I’ve read, the use of overly embellished dialogue tags is a core place where an agent will find a reason to say no thanks, not this one. We want to avoid those robust, meaty tags like: he squacked, she screeched, I spat, etc. We might think these kinds of dialogue tags are good, that they’re performing a showing-over-telling function, but in truth, dialogue tags like the examples above call attention to themselves rather than the dialogue they’re attempting to describe. And also, those dialogue tags call attention to themselves for what the dialogue itself is not doing – that is, if someone squacks, or bellows, or snaps, or exclaims, it should be apparent within the dialogue itself or delivered via some other more natural means.

Example: “Don’t take that tone with me,” she snapped, setting the plates on the counter.

Better: “Don’t take that tone with me.” She slammed the plates on the counter and heard one somewhere in the middle give way, the crack of mishandled porcelain, the splintering of her life.

In the example above, I removed the dialogue tag entirely and allowed the dialogue to stand on its own, the emotion then underscored by the action that follows it.

This leads me to my next point, which is that as much as is possible, do away with dialogue tags entirely. For the most part, readers can follow along with the dialogue, especially if you intersperse it with actions that then remind readers of who said what. This relates to the idea of using punctuation and organization to your benefit – whatever occurs in a paragraph together, whether dialogue or action or a combination, is being said or performed by one person. A new paragraph indicates a new speaker/performer. In writing, we have a term for when we break dialogue with small actions – beats. Using beats allows you to slow the pace of the dialogue, in addition to indicating who was just speaking. They allow a pause in the speaking, which then offers your readers and your characters a moment to reflect on what has just been said. Likewise, dialogue tags can themselves be used to break up speech, thus creating emphasis on various phrases:

  • “Consider my perspective here. I mean, this looks like a rotten deal to me,” he said. (speech followed by tag. All ideas presented up front and in quick succession)
  • “Consider my perspective here,” he said. “I mean, this looks like a rotten deal to me.” (speech broken by dialogue tag. Emphasis on perspective)
  • “Consider my perspective here,” he said, sliding the contract back over the table. “I mean, this looks like a rotten deal to me.” (speech broken by dialogue tag including action to lengthen the speech. This moment just grew longer. Emphasis on perspective, with the action to reflect his disdain for the contract.)
  • “Consider my perspective here.” He slid the contract back over the table in one deft push. “I mean, this looks like a rotten deal to me.” (speech with no dialogue tag and only action. Same effect as above)

Consider Hemingway’s “Hills like White Elephants” again. This story relies entirely on setting and dialogue to convey emotion. There’s not a single dialogue tag other than “he said” or “she said” and those are minimally used. Take a look at this excerpt:

“Then what will we do afterward?” [said by Jig]

“We’ll be fine afterward. Just like we were before.” [said by the American]

“What makes you think so?”

“That’s the only thing that bothers us. It’s the only thing that’s made us unhappy.”

The girl looked at the bead curtain, put her hand out and took hold of two of the strings of beads.

“And you think then we’ll be all right and be happy.”

“I know we will. You don’t have to be afraid. I’ve known lots of people that have done it.”

“So have I,” said the girl. “And afterward they were all so happy.”

So the beat occurs when the girl looks at the bead curtain. The American has just said it’s the only thing that’s made us unhappy, and Jig looks away. She’s considering this. This pause is Hemingway telling us perhaps this isn’t the only thing making them unhappy. Then, look at the sentence after she looks at the bead curtain (hint: symbolism – a divider). Because her dialogue leading up to this moment has been a series of questions, we read this one as a question too, and yet it isn’t actually a question. It’s a statement. Hemingway flips the expected punctuation mark for a period and though we read it as a question, we hit the end of that sentence and realize she’s making a statement of fact. Now, I’ve included the final two sections because I want you to look at Jig’s dialogue there: “And afterward they were all so happy.” What’s her tone there? Is she serious? No, she’s being sarcastic. She’s letting him know she’s not buying it. That it isn’t going to be that easy. Did Hemingway write “said the girl sarcastically” or “sneered the girl”? Nope. Because he trusted in the power of that dialogue to convey what he wanted to convey. And he succeeds.

Read this story thoroughly and pay attention to the use of dialogue tags. Where does Hemingway use them? Where does he do away with them?

Neutral_density_filter_demonstration

Filter Words

Filter words are indicators of feeling or thought which put an additional layer (or filter) between the reader and the actual sensation or thought being conveyed. Rather than presenting the situation mimetically, these phrases filter the experience through the narrator or focal character’s perspective. Filter words are: felt/touched, saw, heard, smelled, tasted, or thought, etc. Take a look at the following example:

He saw the V of geese passing across the sky. He heard them honk, a father directing his children and imagined him to be saying something like, “don’t make me turn this formation around.” He felt the cool, crispness of an October morning through the thin flannel of his sleeve. He heard a shot ring out, cracking the morning stillness. Oh heavens, he thought, surely it isn’t hunting season already. And then he heard the scream, as loud as any shotgun blast, the morning good and truly ripped.

The first problem with this paragraph is that the sentences are simple and follow the same pattern – i.e. there is no variation in sentence structure (syntax). Worse, readers are not actually seeing the v of geese nor hearing them honk, nor feeling the cool air. Readers are observing the character see, hear, and feel those things. Compare:

Geese flew overhead in their V formation. The one leading them began to honk incessantly, a father scolding his children not to make him turn that formation around. The cool, crispness of the October morning seeped through the flannel of his shirt, goosebumping his skin. And then a shot rang out, cracking the morning calm. Oh heavens, surely it wasn’t hunting season already. And then followed the scream, as loud as any shotgun blast, the morning good and truly ripped.

How is the experience of this paragraph different than the one above? In what ways do you feel that you yourself as the reader are more engaged in this scene, seeing it firsthand? Now, as the above indicates, we’re in close third point of view. We are delivered direct thought in the line that begins “Oh heavens.” This is the character’s actual thought, and because we are in close third, we don’t need it to be filtered, but we do need to change “isn’t” into “wasn’t” in order to keep with the narrative voice rather than direct thought.

This principle around filtering applies to first person narration as well. Compare: I held the baby up to my ear and felt for her breath on my cheek, but there was none. I placed my ear closer to her chest, listening, but heard nothing. And I felt along her jawline, palpating that tender skin, feeling, feeling. And then I felt it – a pulse. -à I held the baby up to my ear, praying for breath on my skin. Nothing. I lifted her, my ear to her chest, listening. Nothing. My fingers palpated the tender skin under her jawline, but nothing. And then there it was, soft and thready, but there. A pulse.

This is not to say you can never use those words, but you want to do so infrequently and mindfully. The key thing to remember is that whether you’re working in first person or close third, readers know that whatever information they’re being given is that which the character sees, feels, hears, smells, tastes, touches, or thinks. It’s understood. If you’re working in third person omniscient and move between different characters’ interior landscape within the same chapter, then using these kinds of filters can act as your transition point. For instance, if we’ve just been in a male perspective and then we get, “She thought about what he’d said and decided he was full of it,” then the phrase “she thought” is our transition point. You can do it with any sensation as the trigger point that we’re changing perspectives, but once you’ve indicated that transition, it’s back to avoiding them entirely.

Here are some additional resources to aid in your study of dialogue tags and filter words:

 Autocrit on Dialogue Tag Syndrome

Writer’s Digest Keys to Realistic Dialogue

Filter Words that Weaken Fiction

Filter Words on Pub(lishing)Crawl

 

Willamette Writers’ Meeting Recap – December 5th

Fonda Lee event - Discover Your Next Story Idea

(Image courtesy of Willamette Writers)

The first week of December, we met with Fonda Lee to discuss how to discover great story ideas. Besides being an engaging, friendly speaker, Fonda has a success story most of us drool over. She began her publishing journey at our very own Willamette Writers’ Conference in 2013. Over the past 4 years, she’s published 3 books and is under contract for 3 more. Clearly, this is a writer with no problems finding ideas for her stories.

Fonda started off sharing the things she’d wish she’d known before she was published. Here are her truths:

  • Truth #1: Good writing doesn’t sell books. Great ideas sell books. The idea gets you in the door and the writing seals the deal.
    • I’ve spent time in the bookstore plucking books off the shelves and opening to a random section. I’ve been surprised at just how much mediocre writing is out there, and yet these books continue to come out because it’s not really about the writing – it’s about the story.
  • Truth #2: There are 2 common beliefs held by writers.
    • #1 Optimistic Artist: I need an original idea no one has every done before.
    • #2 Cynical Commercialist: Copy an idea that’s been successful.
      • As Austin Kleon says, “Steal like an artist.” (TED talk provided in the link)
    • So we ask ourselves: do agents and editors want what’s new and original or what’s proven and done. And the catch is, they want both: a unique take on a familiar subject. (disclaimer, I may have gotten this truth wrong as my notes have annoyingly omitted “Truth #2” in my notebook. I think the words walked off the page of their own accord. I’ve seen it happen.)
  • Truth #3: Creative ideas come from making connections between seemingly unrelated events.
    • Here, Fonda invoked the old adage we’re all familiar with: write what you know. But, Fonda said, take it to the next level – draw connections between all the things you know. (There’s an exercise for this in a little bit)
  • Truth #4: The originality of a story does not come from its ideas but from its creator.

So if we combine these four truths together. We get Fonda’s advice for building all of this into one framework: connect, combine, steal, remix, mash-up, and transform. Here, we see how both the optimistic artist and the cynical commercialist can find common ground.

Exercise for Generating Ideas:

One of the best things I love about attending our WW meetings is that we (usually) get some hands-on ideas for how to implement the concepts discussed in the talk. Fonda’s idea really hit home for me and an idea – that is, a feasible, doable idea – came out of the scant 10 minutes we spent on this exercise. The exercise: Take a sheet of paper and make three columns. At the top of the first, write: Things I’ve experienced. At the top of the middle, write: Things I Know About. At the top of the third, write: Things I’m passionate about. To give you an example from my list, I wrote about some of the things I’ve experienced due to our family’s infertility. In the second, I wrote about all the different historical eras I like to study – Ancient Rome, Medieval Europe, Tudor England, Regency England, etc. And in the final one, I listed my passions, one of which is knitting.

Then, explore your lists and see what your connections are. Pull something from each category and see how it mashes up. What did I come up with? “An infertile woman discovers the ability to knit portals through time.” I’m not sure what else would happen in this story, but I imagine that she might fall back through time, be mistaken for a midwife (or a witch), and use her knowledge to both help the women she encounters and find healing for herself. Again, it’s just a seed, but it’s not half bad, if I do say so myself.

Give it a try. I think you’ll surprise yourself.

Fonda then gave us some Practical Advice:

  • Keep an Idea File – a story seed farm
  • Cultivate a habit of noticing connections
    • explore what you’re seeing in different contexts
  • Read, watch, and consume art widely
    • Anyone notice how popular cross-genre fiction is??
  • More experiences = more creative fodder
    • This reminds me of something Portland-based author Vanessa Veselka said in a workshop once, which was that writers must give themselves permission to NOT write. She said, take a few weeks and go DO something. Fonda also shared that she is not an everyday writer and doesn’t believe that a strict regimen is right for her and may not be right for everyone. But you can bet that if she’s not writing, she’s doing something that will fuel her writing later.
  • Let ideas rise to the top over time
    • Let those good ideas percolate. As we’ve probably all experienced, the flush and flurry of a new idea can send us racing for our keyboard or notepad, but then we burn out on them after just a couple chapters. In my own experience, I had an idea for a Jane Austen time travel something like 5 or 6 years ago. I kept a notebook just for that particular idea and would jot things down as they came to me over 3 years – scenes, dialogue, and plot points. When I sat down to write that draft (in a Literary Arts workshop with Emily Chenoweth on writing a novel in 8 weeks), my fingers were practically vibrating with the muse. And I did it – I wrote something like 60,000 words in 8 weeks. It was a very rough draft, but it was a draft and I was able to bang it out because I had let it sit. I’m now at work on my next novel, which also came into being as a short story some 5 years ago and which I’ve been percolating for that time.
  • Dig deep, be vulnerable, be personal
  • Know when to be alone and when to collaborate
  • Deliver on the execution – while good writing won’t sell the book, bad writing could certainly be the reason an agent or editor gives it a pass.
  • Don’t imitate. Transform.

Q/A with Fonda Lee:

Q: Did you have a large social media platform that influenced publishers?

A: No, and it’s not necessary. There’s an expectation you have to have some presence. But it has little bearing on getting published. For the average author, it does not have a bearing.

Q: To what extend do tricks of the trade (a la Writers’ Digest, etc) work?

A: There is a difference between a writing workout/conditioning and actual writing. It is separate from the work itself. Don’t rely on tricks of the trade to get to a finished book.

Q: How do you develop characters?

A: Sometimes, it’s character first (Zeroboxer), plot first (Exo), or world first (Jade City). What is the spark of that idea? Then gather material around it. Ask yourself: “who would be really poorly equipped to deal with this problem?” Or “What would be the worst thing that could happen to this character?”

Q: How much world building has to be done? Every detail?

A: Identify the core of the story and the character. Which components of the world need to be developed? In Zeroboxer, it was a story about an athlete at its core. World building has to center on his experience – all the other stuff didn’t have to be as detailed. If your world feels credible, readers will extrapolate.

Q: What do you do when you’re finished with one book and haven’t started another? Do you have a writing routine?

A: I don’t believe in writing every day, but I do something creative every day. I have a parallel process. At any one time, I’m drafting the new book, revising the previous one, and ruminating on the next one. I also spend about 2-4 months of research before starting a new book for things that will go into the world.

 

 

Dialogue Tags and Filter Words

(From a lecture delivered to students in the Southern New Hampshire University online MFA program)

Image result for character dialogue

I love talking about dialogue tags and filter words. The concept is simple and making a quick change to our approach to these two things can vastly improve the quality of our writing. When I revise, I set aside one read-through just for finding, considering, and fixing dialogue tags and filter words. It’s the only thing I look at during that run-through, and often, fixing dialogue tags and filter words does so much toward the overall flow and style of the work.

Dialogue Tags

First, let’s talk about dialogue tags. As pretty much every craft book will tell you, the simplest dialogue tags are the best: I said, he said, she said. Even more importantly, across every panel of agents I’ve ever attended or interviews with agents I’ve read, the use of overly embellished dialogue tags is a core place where an agent will find a reason to say no thanks, not this one. We want to avoid those robust, meaty tags like: he squacked, she screeched, I spat, etc. We might think these kinds of dialogue tags are good, that they’re performing a showing-over-telling function, but in truth, dialogue tags like the examples above call attention to themselves rather than the dialogue they’re attempting to describe. And also, those dialogue tags call attention to themselves for what the dialogue itself is not doing – that is, if someone squacks, or bellows, or snaps, or exclaims, it should be apparent within the dialogue itself or delivered via some other more natural means.

Example: “Don’t take that tone with me,” she snapped, setting the plates on the counter.

Better: “Don’t take that tone with me.” She slammed the plates on the counter and heard one somewhere in the middle give way, the crack of mishandled porcelain, the splintering of her life.

In the example above, I removed the dialogue tag entirely and allowed the dialogue to stand on its own, the emotion then underscored by the action that follows it.

This leads me to my next point, which is that as much as is possible, do away with dialogue tags entirely. For the most part, readers can follow along with the dialogue, especially if you intersperse it with actions that then remind readers of who said what. This relates to the idea of using punctuation and organization to your benefit – whatever occurs in a paragraph together, whether dialogue or action or a combination, is being said or performed by one person. A new paragraph indicates a new speaker/performer. In writing, we have a term for when we break dialogue with small actions – beats. Using beats allows you to slow the pace of the dialogue, in addition to indicating who was just speaking. They allow a pause in the speaking, which then offers your readers and your characters a moment to reflect on what has just been said. Likewise, dialogue tags can themselves be used to break up speech, thus creating emphasis on various phrases:

  • “Consider my perspective here. I mean, this looks like a rotten deal to me,” he said. (speech followed by tag. All ideas presented up front and in quick succession)
  • “Consider my perspective here,” he said. “I mean, this looks like a rotten deal to me.” (speech broken by dialogue tag. Emphasis on perspective)
  • “Consider my perspective here,” he said, sliding the contract back over the table. “I mean, this looks like a rotten deal to me.” (speech broken by dialogue tag including action to lengthen the speech. This moment just grew longer. Emphasis on perspective, with the action to reflect his disdain for the contract.)
  • “Consider my perspective here.” He slid the contract back over the table in one deft push. “I mean, this looks like a rotten deal to me.” (speech with no dialogue tag and only action. Same effect as above)

Consider Hemingway’s “Hills like White Elephants” again. This story relies entirely on setting and dialogue to convey emotion. There’s not a single dialogue tag other than “he said” or “she said” and those are minimally used. Take a look at this excerpt:

“Then what will we do afterward?” [said by Jig]

“We’ll be fine afterward. Just like we were before.” [said by the American]

“What makes you think so?”

“That’s the only thing that bothers us. It’s the only thing that’s made us unhappy.”

The girl looked at the bead curtain, put her hand out and took hold of two of the strings of beads.

“And you think then we’ll be all right and be happy.”

“I know we will. You don’t have to be afraid. I’ve known lots of people that have done it.”

“So have I,” said the girl. “And afterward they were all so happy.”

So the beat occurs when the girl looks at the bead curtain. The American has just said it’s the only thing that’s made us unhappy, and Jig looks away. She’s considering this. This pause is Hemingway telling us perhaps this isn’t the only thing making them unhappy. Then, look at the sentence after she looks at the bead curtain (hint: symbolism – a divider). Because her dialogue leading up to this moment has been a series of questions, we read this one as a question too, and yet it isn’t actually a question. It’s a statement. Hemingway flips the expected punctuation mark for a period and though we read it as a question, we hit the end of that sentence and realize she’s making a statement of fact. Now, I’ve included the final two sections because I want you to look at Jig’s dialogue there: “And afterward they were all so happy.” What’s her tone there? Is she serious? No, she’s being sarcastic. She’s letting him know she’s not buying it. That it isn’t going to be that easy. Did Hemingway write “said the girl sarcastically” or “sneered the girl”? Nope. Because he trusted in the power of that dialogue to convey what he wanted to convey. And he succeeds.

Read this story thoroughly and pay attention to the use of dialogue tags. Where does Hemingway use them? Where does he do away with them?

Image result for filter images

Filter Words

Filter words are indicators of feeling or thought which put an additional layer (or filter) between the reader and the actual sensation or thought being conveyed. Rather than presenting the situation mimetically, these phrases filter the experience through the narrator or focal character’s perspective. Filter words are: felt/touched, saw, heard, smelled, tasted, or thought, etc. Take a look at the following example:

He saw the V of geese passing across the sky. He heard them honk, a father directing his children and imagined him to be saying something like, “don’t make me turn this formation around.” He felt the cool, crispness of an October morning through the thin flannel of his sleeve. He heard a shot ring out, cracking the morning stillness. Oh heavens, he thought, surely it isn’t hunting season already. And then he heard the scream, as loud as any shotgun blast, the morning good and truly ripped.

The first problem with this paragraph is that the sentences are simple and follow the same pattern – i.e. there is no variation in sentence structure (syntax). Worse, readers are not actually seeing the v of geese nor hearing them honk, nor feeling the cool air. Readers are observing the character see, hear, and feel those things. Compare:

Geese flew overhead in their V formation. The one leading them began to honk incessantly, a father scolding his children not to make him turn that formation around. The cool, crispness of the October morning seeped through the flannel of his shirt, goosebumping his skin. And then a shot rang out, cracking the morning calm. Oh heavens, surely it wasn’t hunting season already. And then followed the scream, as loud as any shotgun blast, the morning good and truly ripped.

How is the experience of this paragraph different than the one above? In what ways do you feel that you yourself as the reader are more engaged in this scene, seeing it firsthand? Now, as the above indicates, we’re in close third point of view. We are delivered direct thought in the line that begins “Oh heavens.” This is the character’s actual thought, and because we are in close third, we don’t need it to be filtered, but we do need to change “isn’t” into “wasn’t” in order to keep with the narrative voice rather than direct thought.

This principle around filtering applies to first person narration as well. Compare: I held the baby up to my ear and felt for her breath on my cheek, but there was none. I placed my ear closer to her chest, listening, but heard nothing. And I felt along her jawline, palpating that tender skin, feeling, feeling. And then I felt it – a pulse. –à I held the baby up to my ear, praying for breath on my skin. Nothing. I lifted her, my ear to her chest, listening. Nothing. My fingers palpated the tender skin under her jawline, but nothing. And then there it was, soft and thready, but there. A pulse.

This is not to say you can never use those words, but you want to do so infrequently and mindfully. The key thing to remember is that whether you’re working in first person or close third, readers know that whatever information they’re being given is that which the character sees, feels, hears, smells, tastes, touches, or thinks. It’s understood. If you’re working in third person omniscient and move between different characters’ interior landscape within the same chapter, then using these kinds of filters can act as your transition point. For instance, if we’ve just been in a male perspective and then we get, “She thought about what he’d said and decided he was full of it,” then the phrase “she thought” is our transition point. You can do it with any sensation as the trigger point that we’re changing perspectives, but once you’ve indicated that transition, it’s back to avoiding them entirely.

Here are some additional resources to aid in your study of dialogue tags and filter words:

 Autocrit on Dialogue Tag Syndrome

Writer’s Digest Keys to Realistic Dialogue

Filter Words that Weaken Fiction

Filter Words on Pub(lishing)Crawl

 

Willamette Writers’ Meeting Recap – November 7th

After a busy summer and a transition into a new fall school schedule, it was so wonderful to be back in community with all of you at the Old Church on November 7th. It was also a full and vibrant meeting, with many thanks to the efforts of Kate Ristau and others who promoted our meeting and our speaker.

Normally, I have striven to get my recaps out to you within a few days’ time. This time, I found myself coming away from our meeting feeling challenged and a little frustrated, so I took some time to really parse through what those challenges were about and how I might best serve you, dear readers.

First, William Kenower is an excellent motivational speaker. He offers writers real enthusiasm for finding the joy in writing, and he eschews the idea that writers must be tortured artists, slaving over their art, splitting their souls, and constantly deprecating their own work or process. Instead, Kenower focuses on the joys that come from good days of writing, which he describes as: the words are flowing and writing becomes an act of transcribing what we’re observing as though we are flies on the wall in the world which we ourselves have created. It’s an addicting, mesmerizing, joyful, and invigorating experience. Sadly, for some writers (many? Most??) it’s not a consistent one. This is where that whole tortured-artist shtick rears its ugly head, and we have a bad day of writing: the words refuse to come, we stare at the page and wonder why we ever thought this was a good idea in the first place, and everything we even dare to put down feels stilted, stiff, and just plain wrong. That’s a bad day of writing, and for many writers, it happens too often.

So what I enjoyed about Kenower’s presentation was the way he describes these days and then offers some suggestions for why we have them. His #1 point here is that the writing becomes arduous when we allow the voice of the critic to intrude into our creative space. Most particularly, Kenower says we halt the flow when we allow this question in: “I wonder what other people will think of this?” He then said, “this question stands between every writer and their productivity and happiness.”

What I want to do first is to share a few more of Kenower’s motivational one-liners, because many of them are worth printing out and tacking up wherever you look when you need to remember why you do this:

  • Understand the questions you should be asking:
    • What do I want to say
    • How do I say it
  • Success [i.e. publication] can’t be your goal; you do it because you’re interested.
  • A book is an opportunity to have a conversation.
  • Writing requires us to indulge our curiosity.
  • Readers don’t care what happens in a novel. They care about how it makes them feel.
  • Writing is simple at its core. We complicate it. We complicate it with questions like, “do I have what it takes” and “what will someone else think of this?”
  • Confidence as an artist is an expression of your inherent awareness of equality.
  • Writers start a story; readers end it.
  • Writers aren’t trying to answer a question; writers are asking them.

Ok, those are the key things that Kenower offered as lenses through which we can see ourselves and our craft. I find them helpful in the sense that they remind me of the core truths about what we’re doing and why.

Now for the challenges. As I’ve rested and ruminated, I’ve narrowed the challenges down to two core areas. First, it is my opinion that Kenower’s general stance – that writing should be effortless and we are “truly” writing when the right words fall into place one after the other – probably only really relates to that 1% of writers for whom writing comes just that easily and naturally. There’s also a certain level of irony, you have to admit, that Kenower mentioned he’s never taken a class or read a craft book and yet he was in Portland to teach a workshop while slinging his own craft book. Clearly, there’s a lot of value in that, and I don’t mean to imply he doesn’t also value classes and books, but there’s a danger to this idea that we should only bother writing if the words are flowing, the voice of the critic is silenced, and, as he said himself, “the right story takes no effort. The right word, the right scene, the right character falls into place – effortless.” Well, my friends, if that’s how it works for you, I am overjoyed to hear it. If that’s not how it works for you, hang in there, I have a few ideas.

And this is my second challenge with this presentation. While Kenower said quite a bit that I agree with, he didn’t offer nuts and bolts ideas on what to do to get to that effortless place, or how to silence the voice after it has already intruded. I sense this is what you learn in his workshop, which I’m sure was amazing and inspiring because he is simply the kind of speaker and teacher who amazes and inspires.

So this is where I’m going to pick up that baton and offer my own thoughts about how we create good writing days and what we can do to turn those bad writing days into good ones (and yes, it is absolutely possible!).

~ Writing Through the Bad until You Get to the Good

I have to say it: I reject the idea that the only “good” writing is that which is effortless. If we all waited around until only effortless writing happened…, well, pull up a chair and I’ll make us a couple gallons of tea. A Good Writing Day doesn’t only happen when the words place themselves in the “right” order right away, and I unequivocally believe that if you hold onto that ideal, you’re going to have even more bad days than you already do. We can push through and make it a good writing day, and this is part of the work it takes to be a good writer. If the words aren’t coming, just keep placing them one in front of the other. Tell the voice of the critic to shove off and remind both of you that where real writing happens is during revision. So yeah, I put words down knowing they’re wrong, but I remind myself that what I’ve just written is completely alterable. Nothing is written on stone here. Additionally, what I’ve discovered is that if I force myself to sit at my chair and keep putting one word after another, then eventually (and usually within 500-700 words, so we’re not talking a lifetime here), the “right” words will come. All of a sudden, the character will take a turn down an alley, or get in a car, or pick up the phone – things I didn’t plan for or realize were about to happen – but once it does, I’m off and rolling. The character has finally taken up space once more to do the things he or she wants to do, and I can become the transcribing observer. Most of my writing days look like this, and they can be just as joyful and satisfying as the effortless ones. In fact, I would say more so, because I also have the satisfaction of knowing that I persevered, I allowed resilience to rule over despair, and I proved to myself once again that I really can do the work I feel called to do.

  • Tip: Find a way of indicating to yourself that you want to revisit a word or passage for future revision. I like to put “thes.”for thesaurus after a word I want to find a synonym for. I put [rework] at the end of paragraphs that need some serious reframing. The point is – I put words on the page, and revision is where I’m going to shape them up. The key thing? I’m not waiting to get it right; I mark where it needs work and I move on.

 

Writerly Activities Other Than Writing

Let’s face it, those days when the words simply refuse to come are going to happen. I don’t recommend you always force yourself through it because you may end up so distraught, you do something drastic. I’ve tossed a number of novel and short story seedlings because I reached a point when I was so disgusted with them, I threw them out! There’s a point when we have to walk away and console ourselves that the words/the muse will come back another day. And we have to remember that being a writer is not just about writing. There’s a whole slew of other things we can do to maintain the core of our writerly being.

 

~ Read a Craft Book

One of the things I found particularly difficult to digest was when Kenower said that while taking classes and reading craft books can be helpful, you should just write because by writing and writing and writing, you learn to be a writer. Again, I reject this was a capital “R.” Again, this is advice that is applicable to the 1% of writers who are going to write a good story no matter what, for whom their hands become the mouth of the muse. It’s not a good strategy for the rest of us. The problem: you’re writing in a vacuum; you’re writing for an audience of one; you are, essentially, journaling. The result: you end up perpetuating really bad writing habits, and as anyone who has ever tried to kick a habit knows, they are nefarious, niggling, and self-excusing little things. Someone who is not taking classes or reading craft books is going to spend many years writing unpublishable material because that individual is never going to realize that adverbs are anathema (you know, except for in this blog), that stories can’t and shouldn’t be told solely through exposition, that world-building cannot look like a list of the magical or nuanced elements of a fantastical setting, and so on. These are things you learn from craft books and from other writers, even from a writing group if not a workshop or class, but which is very difficult to learn on your own. So there’s my stance on that.

But here’s what else I’ve found about maintaining a constant flow of craft books: They Inspire Me! – oh boy do they ever! When I read craft books, all sorts of ideas pop to mind, whether it’s revising something I’ve written or generating new content. I’ll read another writer’s ideas about how to work with this or that literary device, and I’ll have an aha! moment about how I can fix a section that was giving me trouble. An idea inspired from a craft book can lead me to that place of effortless writing. And of course, I’m also honing in on the things I can do to make my own writing stand out above the rest because ultimately, I do want to publish – not because I crave that kind of success – but because I am a storyteller, and I want to offer my own community of readers the same joys that I have and continue to garner from those whom I read.

~ Keep a Book or List of Writing Prompts

While you may have wanted to sit down and write on this one particular project, it may be the case that it’s just not going to happen on this one day. That doesn’t mean you can’t still write. Pull out a writing prompt and just let yourself play with words. Even if it isn’t with your current project, you’re still practicing the art of words-on-the-page, and that will naturally inform your writing in positive ways. Here’s one I offered to my writer’s group, and while it had nothing to do with anything any of us were writing on, a couple members said it unlocked some ideas:

  • A woman (or your character of choice) digging in her gardenuncovers a sealed, ancient box. (From The Writer’s Book of Matches: 1,001 Prompts to Ignite Your Fiction)

There are a number of websites that offer daily writing prompts, as well, so you don’t have to go buy a book. You can find them in places such as Poets & Writers.

~ Read

One of the best things you can do as a writer is to read. If you’re stuck with the project you’re working on, read within the same genre or work that is tonally-similar to your own project. Just recently, I picked up Elizabeth Strout’s Anything is Possible, a collection of stories, and only because I happen to love her writing. All of a sudden, I put her book down, went to my desk, and wrote 2,000 words on a story I’d started years ago. The tone of Strout’s stories and the everydayness of her characters clicked something over in my mind, even though the story I’m working on has magical realism elements to it and is otherwise not related at all to the story I was reading at the time. Reading works that exemplify what you yourself are trying to do is a wonderful way to stay motivated. In addition, you will naturally build your own craft by reading and closely focusing on what makes that writing so compelling. For help with that, you might like Francince Prose’s craft book Reading like a Writer or Mike Bunn’s article “How to Read like a Writer.”

~ Write a Blog

This idea harkens back to the one offered by Tex Thompson at her appearance in the summer, where she also offered that we find our audience by writing about the things we love, because those things likely make a fairly large appearance in our writing. I write this blog because I enjoy writing about writing, and I feel that this is something I can offer the community. I also love Jane Austen, and I have a blog idea brewing for that as well. What do you love? What are you thinking about or researching when you’re not writing? Think about how you can use your writer’s platform as a place to generate more writing content. Again, you’re writing à you’re practicing the skills. Right here, I’ve written 2,000+ words, and it has felt joyful, and that is a very good day for me. (And I’ve also been thinking the whole time about you, dear reader, and what I want to offer you and why).

~ Find an Inspiring Activity

And this final idea is where I diverge from writing-focused activities. Sometimes, what you need is to clear your head. Identify an activity that has also been inspiring for you in the past. For me, it’s walking. I often set a goal when I go for a walk, something like, “write down 3 scene ideas before you get back.” And while I tell myself I’m not allowed to return home until I have those ideas, I usually find that within a couple blocks, I’ve written my 3 scene ideas and a couple more follow after. Right in that moment, I’ve fed my writing practice for the next few days or even a week. Another time, I spoke out loud an entire scene, saying it over and over again, revising it, until I got home and wrote it down. Not only that scene, but about 1,000 more words. What can you do? And remember it has to be an activity that occupies your body but not your mind. Exercising in general is good (plus it’s just good for you, so win-win!), weeding or gardening, knitting, taking a shower or bath, etc.

 

So here’s where I want to end: while we’re all striving for those perfect, effortless days of writing, don’t let that be your only goal. Don’t let it become the perfect nexus into which you believe you must fall before you can write. Because if you do, you may find it a very long time before you hit another good day. I believe that the myth of effortless writing can be just as damaging to your productivity as worrying about what other people are thinking. And I’ll offer this as well, part of what makes a good day of writing good for me is realizing that not only have I fallen completely into the world, but that I’ve created a world which will be fun and engaging for my readers. There is a place where we can feel joyful and inspired by thinking about our readers, but I do agree that when we allow it to come from a critical place, a place of judgement and censor, that is not productive.

I want to end by saying that while I don’t agree with some of Kenower’s points, I also only got the opportunity to spend 45 minutes with him. Had I not already made plans with my wife to get away while the in-laws kept our 5-year old from burning down the house, I would have immediately signed up for his Fearless Writing Workshop held at TaborSpace. While we didn’t necessarily get nuts-and-bolts advice for turning bad writing days to good at our meeting, I have every confidence that William Kenower offers them in his book and his workshop. If anyone who took the class or has read his book would like to add those suggestions, feel free to do so in the comments section. I hope these ideas from my own writing practice unlock some additional strategies for you. Because really, we’re all a family in this crazy thing we’re doing together, and why not share around some of the things we do to turn our bad days into good?

Willamette Writers Meeting with Tex Thompson – June 6th

    The June 6th Willamette Writers meeting was a wonderful time to be in community with one of my very favorite presenters from last year’s conference, Tex Thompson. Tex is a one-woman community, as paradoxical as that phrase might sound. From the moment she stepped on stage, she had the audience riveted, chuckling along to her witty humor and self-deprecating jokes. If anything rang true about that presentation, it was that Tex is someone you want on your side, and fortunately, she already is.

The presentation focused on how writers can promote and market themselves, a topic that has become more and more important as the entire publishing landscape shifts into an entirely different geography (think west of I-5 after “the big one,” that’s what’s going on here). From start to finish, writers have to be more aware than ever about what it is they’re writing, who it appeals to, why, and how this work can get to that audience. Teams of marketing agents no longer do all the work to promote your book; more and more often, the writer must take ownership of these aspects of publishing.

Tex did not tramp the same old tropes normally tossed around at seminars like these – i.e. develop your presence on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest. Rather, Tex gave the audience a formula for understanding our work in relation to the other passions of our lives, providing exercises that reinforce just how pervasive our passions are. And pervasive is a good thing because if you’re a fan of Firefly – like Tex is and as I am and as many others in that room and thousands more in this city and hundreds of thousands more are across this country (and that’s a vast understatement), then you already have your “in”. You have your way to relate what you’ve created, which may have some Firefly-esque themes, to others who would want to read it.

She also provided us a few nuts and bolts of what we can do in regards to self-promotion that doesn’t follow what you’ve heard already. Take your passions and write about them. Create a blog. Submit a magazine article. Write a review and post it on Goodreads (you were going to read that book anyway, right? Why not write a review about it and maybe get a few followers?). Some other ideas took me by surprise: organize an event. Sponsor a contest or fellowship. Create a group around what you’re passionate for. You get the idea – self-promotion does not have to be all about me, this book, me, this story, me…while your listener begins to stare off into space, eyes glazing as she mentally calculates just how far she can get away from you and how fast. Self-promotion can be all about doing the things you love, sharing them in a variety of ways, and building community with and for people who are your built-in audience.

Tex provided a road-map to the logline we can shoot out to an agent, and not surprisingly, it follows very closely the formula DongWon Song shared in his seminar a few months back: “My work will appeal to fans of X, written in the style of Y.” Also key, make sure your book comps come from within the past 5 years because agents or publishers want to know that you know what’s going on outside the little “word cave” you otherwise hole yourself up in.

The seminar wasn’t all fun and games, though, which is to say that it was all fun, but Tex doesn’t shy away from the harsh realities of this life we’ve committed ourselves to. She just piles enough humor on top to make them palatable. Did you know that 80% of published books are considered financial failures? That most books don’t even earn back the advances given to authors? I didn’t. But Tex said this, and I put a star by it in my notebook, “Success can’t be guaranteed. Let it be a byproduct of living a life you’re proud of.”

While you may never schmooze your way to the best-seller list or find yourself giving an interview to Terri Gross or accepting a Pulitzer, you can still do what you love, love doing it for as long as it’s good, and perhaps a little bit of success will find you along the way.

Now for the best part – Tex will be at our very own Willamette Writers’ Conference and I can already tell you I’ll be there, front and center, and I may even bust out my cowboy boots for fun.

Willamette Writers – April 4 Recap: Why Your Characters Do What They Do by Jessica Morrell

On Tuesday evening, Willamette Writers hosted author and editor Jessica Morrell. Having seen Jessica present at the 2016 Willamette Writers Conference: Willamette Writers’ Conference – Day 1, I can tell you she is an amazing presenter who provides an absolute wealth of information in a speck of time. She is truly a gift to the writing community and an exemplar of what I believe it means to be a good literary citizen. To decide for yourself, just check out her blog here and see how much information she shares with writers about craft, the writing life, publishing and more: Jessica Morrell

Now, if you have taken a workshop with Jessica, then you know that her presentations are bursting with information, so much so that were I to attempt to note it all down in the scant hour we had with her, I would be dealing with a hand cramp of epic proportions! So.

What I will present are the highlights from her presentation, along with a slide of some of the questions we should all be asking about our characters to ensure that each character in our novel (yup, I said “each”) has a believable and intrinsic set of motivations and goals.

First, all characters must have a reason for being in your story. They must perform some duty to the narrative arc. Jessica shared that she so often comes across characters in her clients’ novels that seem to be running around rather aimlessly, where they either don’t have goals at all, their goals are “goofy,” or the stakes of the story don’t match the goals.

Jessica made a key point that nearly all the answers of why characters do what they do links back to structure. For more on structure, take a look at Willamette Writers’ Conference – Day 2 and Willamette Writers’ Conference – Day 3 to read what Larry Brooks and Eric Witchey both have to say about structure and its importance in our novels – also amazing literary citizens.

Here are Jessica’s Motivation Basics. Motivations must:

  • be easy to understand; not easy to achieve
  • be shown in actions and move the story forward
  • become more complex and personal as story progresses
  • showcase the protagonist’s core traits
  • reveal the protagonist’s fears
  • exact a cost as the story progresses – your protagonist must always sacrifice something
  • create a catharsis at the climax

We also have Levels of Motivation:

  • Primary
  • Secondary
  • External – tangible, visible, fuels story, creates action
  • Internal
  • Personal
  • Public

As we see with the above, each motivation must have two sides, the side that is shown to the world of the story – i.e. the other characters – and the side that is available to the protagonist and reader alone. Clearly, quite a bit of tension can exist in the space between a protagonist’s apparent external motivators and his/her internal motivators actually are. Imagine this like a tight wire stretching between the two, your main character balancing as he/she walks back and forth. Whole novels have been built on the tension between what a character says they want, and what they actually want.

Now, here’s the slide with the questions you should be asking yourself about your characters’ motivations:

slideshow

This covers some of the key points from Jessica’s very full presentation. And while there was quite a bit of information covered, it all boils down to this one thing: motivations – they are a must for your story to have any lift. Without a clear motivation and goal, readers don’t know what or who to root for, and if we don’t know what’s at stake, then there’s nothing at stake for us in reading it.

Again, please visit Jessica’s website through the link above. It is well worth a visit on a regular basis and she also intends to post more of the material from her Willamette Writers lecture on her site in the coming weeks.

Onwards, Writers!

Willamette Writers’ Meeting – Feb.7th: Leading a Literary Life with Kevin Sampsell and Monica Drake

This month’s meeting touches on a subject close to my own heart – leading a literary life. And it’s very important cousin – being a good literary citizen. Being a good literary citizen is all about supporting other writers, buying their books, going to their readings, and cheering on the successes of each of our counterparts while working toward our own literary goals.

The evening began with readings from both authors. Monica Drake read from a non-fiction work-in-progress, and Kevin Sampsell read his short short “Gloves” from his short story collection.

Next, Kevin led a discussion with Monica regarding the literary life. Both authors agreed that good writers must do these four things: Read – A LOT; Be around other writers; Go to Readings; and Participate in a literary community. Interestingly, another key aspect of being a writer is having plenty of things in your life that have nothing at all to do with writing. See Lorrie Moore’s story “How to be a Writer”for more. As Monica explained, her life was full of all kinds of random jobs – animal behavior intern at the zoo, art gallery employee, office worker, clown (which directly influenced her novel Clown Girl) and more. Because of this rich range of job experiences, she can pull various details that lend her characters believability and authenticity. This mirrors advice I once received from Portland author Vanessa Veselka, who said every writer must give him or herself permission to not write – i.e. to do other things that build the experiences that inform our writing. For instance, Vanessa once took off some number of months to work on a fishing boat in Alaska. She’s also a Kung Fu badass. She gives herself permission to take weeks and months away from the page to do the things that interest and intrigue her. And of course, that time ends up generating rich work.

As regards education, each author had very different experiences, with Monica completing a more traditional graduate program through University of Arizona, while Kevin said he taught himself to write through reading. Monica also got her start with Tom Spanbauer’s class, now titled Dangerous Writing. In general, writing workshops can be key to keeping a writer motivated, staying connected to a literary community, and finding support in that community. To that end, here are some additional links to workshops here in Portland that I have been part of and can highly recommend:

Willamette Writers’ Workshops

Literary Arts Writing Classes

The Attic

Tin House Summer Writers’ Workshop

In addition, community colleges around Portland offer a range of writing classes that are economical and a great opportunity for developing work. My current writing group came out of a Literary Arts class and I have been in other writing groups formed after Attic workshops and PCC community ed workshops.

Now, let’s cover the Q & A portion:

Q: Monica, how did you complete and assemble your story collection The Folly of Loving Life?

A: The stories were written over 20 years, created intermittently while Monica wrote Clown Girl and The Stud Book. The publishers of her two novels as well as her agent dismissed the idea of a collection out of hand, but Kevin once said, “hey, do you have a short story collection?” At that point, Monica explained that she took all her short stories and laid them out on the dining room table. She looked for cohesive elements and themes, and once identified, pulled out the stories that didn’t seem to connect with that linking element. She felt drawn toward connecting and linking her story collection with a narrative arc, something she said isn’t always necessary for story collections to be successful, but which she felt was important for this particular collection. Once she had her core set of stories, she then developed a few additional stories that further enhanced and linked the stories, making revisions to previous work to also improve the linking between them. She explained that it took somewhere around 1-2 years from when Kevin first suggested a collection to when it came out in print.

Q: What are the advantages of publishing with the Big 5?

A: Money. Monica explained that in her experience with Hawthorne Books and Kevin’s press Future Tense Books, small presses do as good of a job with editing, cover art, etc. – i.e. all the smaller steps of publishing a book – as the large publishers. She said, “ultimately, you’re going to make your money in different ways,” but that each writer has to decide what “success” means to him or her. Thus, you should determine where to submit based on what your desired outcomes are. For more help finding local, small presses, take a look at Literary Arts’ Guide to Small Presses and Magazines. You can find some helpful information about the 10 biggest small presses here: Lit Reactor’s 10 Portland Press Powerhouses.

Q: How much of what you write is what you’ve lived versus researched?

A: Both authors expressed that the majority of what they write comes from personal experience. Kevin said he will do plenty of research into topics that he’s passionate about, such as collage art, and when it’s a topic you love, it’s not as hard to do the research. As mentioned before, Monica’s research has largely been her own life and experiences. As we’ve all experienced, a fair amount of fiction writing is speculation, but those speculations are still drawn from what we believe we might think or feel in a given situation, even if we haven’t directly experienced it. Here, I’ll insert my own two cents based on the novel I’m currently trying to find an agent for, which is mainly set in Bath, UK in 1804 and heavily involves the life of Jane Austen. Because I was already a rabid Jane Austen fan, I didn’t need to do much research, and the research I did have to do was just more of the kind of reading I do for fun. This goes back to that adage: write what you know. (Yes, yes, there’s plenty in that other camp that say write what you don’t know, but you can find their blogs and read them later ) And I would suggest that writers choose topics that they are already drawn to. That is, don’t write a novel set during the Napoleonic Wars because you think it’s a cool idea. Write a novel set during the Napoleonic Wars because you also happen to be a nerd for the Napoleonic Era outside of your life as a writer. Otherwise, you’re just slogging through research that you otherwise couldn’t give two figs about.

Q: What are your thoughts on publishing online while attempting to find other publishers?

(Here, I think the questioner was asking if we should self-publish our books, such as through kindle or Nook, while also looking for a traditional publisher. If this is the case, then what I’ve discovered in my own research is: DON’T DO IT! At least not if you ever want to see your book in print. Many book publishers won’t come near a book that has already been published online. And yes, there’s those outliers who were discovered through self-published books and then given a huge book deal, but we’re talking lottery chances here. For more on this, read my post below as Dong Won Song addressed this very question. As regards short fiction, poetry, and essays –  the same applies. My experience is that when a journal asked for previously unpublished work, this includes your blog or website; they want work that has never appeared anywhere before.)

A: Publishing online is the way to go these days. Ten to fifteen years ago, there was a stigma around online publishing, as if it weren’t as legitimate as print publications. Both Monica and Kevin expressed that this stigma is largely done away with since online publications get much more traffic and can be much more easily shared than their print counterparts. Online publications are especially key for poets, short story writers, and essayists/creative non-fiction writers to get their name established. They tend to be more open to new voices than print publishers, as well. Monica suggested Long Reads as a journal that accepts longer form works, which often have a hard time finding a home online. For more on both online and print publishers, see my posts: Resources for Writers: Print and Online Literary Journal Databases

Q: What is your process for getting in the creative mood?

A: Monica shared that because she’s balancing so many responsibilities between parenting, teaching, and writing, she often stores quite a bit of material in her head and when she has a moment to write it down, she’ll do that. She also expressed that having a deadline, such as the Willamette Writers’ meeting that very night, can be key to getting the writing going. In fact, the piece she read for us was written that day for this particular meeting. Most writers agree that deadlines can be key to productivity, and this is another reason why being part of a critique group or signing up for a workshop can generate work.

Kevin also expressed that he has no set schedule. He balances two full-time jobs between his work at Powell’s and his press, and is also a collage artist, so he doesn’t always have a lot of time for writing. However, on his days off, he’ll set aside 2-8 hours to dedicate to his writing. Kevin also shared that he’s a very careful writer and will spend a long time thinking about the words before putting them on the page. The benefits are that the words tend to come out just as he wants them, with little revision necessary. He also expressed that his novel came out very quickly – written in about 2 years. He said that snippets and pieces would come to him and he’d bang out 1-2 pages in the 10 minutes before bed, accumulating a novel through that process.

Q: What advice would you give to those who want to seek work in the world of publishing?

A: Kevin fielded this question as a publisher, saying that there are many tracks to entering publishing. One could do the traditional thing and move to New York and work one’s way up from reading slush, but that success could be found in other avenues. For instance, in his work at Powell’s, he’s seen people start as cashiers, get promoted over a section, become the buyer for that section, and then move into the role of buyer for a large publisher. Great experience can be had working in bookstores, small presses, and magazines. Finally, he said, you could always start your own press. Future Tense Books began as Kevin’s endeavor to see his own work in print, and then writers would come to him and say, “can you help me get my book out?” This then led to being a publisher now listed on Lit Reactor’s site as the first small press publisher of note in Portland.

This concludes our evening with Monica and Kevin. Many thanks to these writers for sharing their experiences and wisdom. If anyone feels I’ve captured something incorrectly or missed a key detail, please add it to the comments section.

 

 

Take the Plunge! Publishing Short Fiction in Online Literary Journals – class begins Jan. 21

Saturdays, January 21 – February 25

10 am – 11:50 am

Interested in publishing but nervous to take the next step? This class will explore a range of literary online journals. We will review submission guidelines, investigate the aesthetics of particular journals, format digital submissions, and write cover letters. Students will exit this course with the knowledge, resources, and confidence to submit for online publication.

PCC Sylvania

12000 SW 49th Ave, Portland, OR 97219

TCB 208

REGISTER AT: http://www.pcc.edu/community/

TUITION: $79               REGISTRATION CODE: 16993

Willamette Writers- January 3rd Recap

  Willamette Writers launched their 2017 year with an excellent presentation and Q&A session with local agent DongWon Song, who agents for Howard Morhaim Literary Agency. DongWon also participates in the publishing graduate program at PSU and is a frequent speaker/agent at the Willamette Writers’ Conference in August. More about him can be found at http://www.dongwonsong.com/, including his literary interests and submission guidelines.

(Photo provided by Willamette Writers)

Now for the good stuff. I’m going to recap the key ideas from DongWon’s discussion, as well as a few key take-aways and strategies for going forward. This session was specifically geared toward the process of getting an agent, and as DongWon explained, this all starts with the pitch. To give us some perspective, he explained that the pitch you make to an agent becomes the pitch an agent takes to an editor and which an editor takes to the publishing team and on to the sales team and ultimately – most importantly – the pitch you give to the reader on the jacket copy, the hook that gets them to buy and commit to your book. DongWon shared that some of his best pitches have indeed become the jacket copy for the books he’s sold.

In my recent experience (as I am actively sending my book out to publishers), I can tell you that the majority of Submissions Guidelines even say things like, “Give us a 1 paragraph synopsis of your book. Imagine this is the jacket copy for your novel.” I also recommend starting a project by writing the potential jacket copy because if we can capture the core characters, key conflicts, and critical plot moments, we also have a compass during the drafting phase of our novel. I started my last project by writing the jacket copy first (as an exercise in a workshop through Literary Arts, to give fair credit), and I found myself returning to that jacket copy when I felt I was getting off track.

Many writers feel awkward or self-conscious when delivering pitches. Too often, writers approach DongWon with, “Oh, I hate talking about my writing” or “I just can’t talk about my book.” As you can imagine, this is a bit of a turn-off. Why? Because if the writer him or herself can’t talk about the book, why should an agent? At this point in the process, the only one who cares about your book is you, and you have to be able to talk about it succinctly and positively. The remedy? Practice, practice, practice. DongWon suggested writers should be constantly pitching their projects to friends, family members, children, dogs and cats. He also recommended pitching other projects – try to convince a friend to read a book you’ve just read or watch a movie you’ve seen. By pitching other things, we practice the art of distilling the core ideas down to a 10 second persuasive pitch. It reminds me of one of the reasons I love being in a writer’s group: critiquing my colleagues’ work is the practice I need to see the flaws and potential in my own. Same goes for pitching others’ work.

What makes for a great pitch? The key thing we need to know is that agents and publishers want to understand the context and have a frame of reference. If we launch into our pitch with something like, “well, see there’s this kid who lives on a farm, and then he….” the agents and publishers are spending all their mental energy trying to place information that feels random. Without context, agents have no idea what you’re talking about, and it becomes very easy to say no. For more about this, do a little research into pattern recognition. A book recommendation was Pattern Recognition by William Gibson, a novel which, though fiction, nonetheless captures the sense of this concept.

DongWon provided an excellent formula for giving our listeners the context they need so they can hear what our story is actually about:

A + B = Awesome.

The A and B in this calculation are comp titles (comparative titles). When we pitch our books, we should have a sense of what other books out there resemble our own. The benefits to doing this are that agents and publishers have a frame of reference and their brains don’t have to parse out every bit of information, but can focus on what makes our book unique to those titles.

An example of this is The Hunger Games. DongWon suggested that someone pitching this book might say it’s Battle Royale (a Japanese book about kids killing kids) meets The Giver (a book about a dystopian futuristic world). The overlap between these ideas is that you have kids killing kids in a dystopian futuristic world. Think Venn Diagram – you’re presenting two ideas, with your novel residing in the overlap. Once the agent has the frame of reference, the writer can then hone in on what specifically makes his or her project unique and compelling.

Now, the other benefit to providing comp titles, is you also give publishers a sense of the market viability of your project. If you can show that two or three similar books sold 50,000 copies, then you have a pretty solid argument for why your book is going to sell 50,000 copies.

The A + B = Awesome portion of your pitch needs to come right up front, along with some context for the genre – “I’ve written a YA novel [genre] in which Battle Royale meets The Giver” [comp titles]. Once you’ve set the context, you then build out how your particular book is unique, and you can do so in one of four ways (or a combination of them):

  1. Plot hook – what about this plot is particularly interesting
  2. Idea – what is the high concept (most common to memoir) – “What if….”
  3. Setting – what about this setting is unique or intriguing – “In a world where….”
  4. Character – who is this character and why will readers engage with him/her (this is the most common type of pitch)

This portion of your pitch should be about 2-3 sentences, with the whole pitch taking around 10 seconds. On a query letter, you have more room to do this, with many agents often asking for 1 page that includes the pitch, synopsis, marketing, and author bio – i.e. what about you makes you the right person to write this novel. If you’re delivering this pitch in person, say at the Willamette Writers’ Conference next August, then you deliver your 10 second pitch and wait to see if you hear the oh-so-longed-for “Interesting, tell me more.” If you get a pass, DongWon suggested using that time to chat and just generally be a friendly person – relationship building that may result in a yes on a future project. After all, agents and publishers are more than vending machines; they are people too. 🙂

Now I want to transition to some of the questions which were asked. A question was raised about self-publishing and how an author goes about getting an agent for a book he/she has already self-published. DongWon expressed it is very difficult to sell a self-published book to a publisher and he generally passes on those projects. The main reason is that even if you can show you’ve sold 500 copies, the publisher will say, “well, that’s 500 books we can’t sell” and it also becomes an indication that perhaps the market for your book is only 500 readers – thus, your successes also become your limitors. DongWon put it this way: self-publishers have to have an entrepreneurial spirit. They have to be the CEO of their books, hiring a team of proofreaders and editors, cover art designers and formatters, and a publisher. They then have to go to conventions and set up a table to handsell their books. If you’ve ever wanted to be a small business owner, he said, then sure, self-publish. If those aren’t your skill sets and you’re not willing to build those skills, then traditional publishing is the best route.

Another question was raised about the author – agent relationship, and the extent to which an author should interview the agent rather than just scream “yes, yes, yes!” into the phone. DongWon shared that when an author asks questions about the process and questions him as an agent, this shows the author is informed and invested, and it reflects well on the author. However, he also warned some agents may be turned off by this, but of utmost importance is making sure that the fit is a good one. Too many careers have been ruined or stagnated, he said, by a poor agent-author relationship, a situation that can be very painful to both parties for a long time.

Another question of note was how a pitch for non-fiction is different from a pitch for fiction. The information above mostly pertains to fiction, however, there is quite a bit of overlap. Of most notable difference is that a non-fiction project (i.e. research heavy) will often be represented and sold based on the proposal and thus the writer doesn’t actually begin to write the book until it has been bought. Memoir operates more like fiction, though, in which you should have the manuscript ready before seeking representation.

Next, a question was raised about an author’s platform and presence. DongWon suggested the best way to show you have a readership and following is to create an email newsletter and get others to subscribe to it. Blogs are out (ahem, except this one, of course). Facebook and Twitter are great, but even if you have thousands of followers, you can’t know which of them you’re actually reaching – and thus, those numbers aren’t that important either. Apparently, publishers look at how many email addresses you have attached to your newsletter, so if you have a New Year’s resolution to build your online presence, do it through a newsletter. (Now, personally, I still think we should develop our online presence in whatever way feels right for us, but to be honest, I don’t write this blog because I think it’s going to do something for my career. I write this blog because I feel it’s my way of being a good literary citizen. I want to share information I’ve obtained and which may help you. Whether that leads to readers or not is kind of beside the point. Oh, hello, soapbox.)

The final question was about when to start querying agents. Don’t start looking for an agent until you have a finished, polished manuscript in hand. As DongWon said, “I don’t care if this book is going to be finished in 3 months. If I want it, I want it now.” It can be difficult to embark on a process without knowing if it’s even viable, but this is the risk we all take as writers. Ultimately, even if a book isn’t picked up by an agent, the practice of writing it becomes the building blocks for the next thing we create and the next and the next.

This wraps up the core ideas expressed in DongWon’s presentation. If anyone else was present and feels I’ve missed something, please add them to the comments section.

Below are some additional resources suggested by DongWon in terms of finding agents, as well as a few links from my own researches.

Poets & Writers Agent Database

Agent Query

Publishers’ Marketplace

Writer Beware – for Science Fiction and Fantasy

Query Shark

Noteworthy Newsletters

Cindy Brown’s Newsletter

Max Gladstone’s Newsletter

 

Resources for Writers: Print and Online Literary Journal Databases

Hello Readers!

As promised, here is an updated list for print and online journals. I managed to transfer my online database into Excel, but I’m still Wording it for the Print journals. I know Excel would be easier, so that’s on the list for the future. For now, though, here are some journals – get out there and Submit!

Online Literary Journals

The Short Story Writer’s Literary Journal Database