Zombies, Beer, and the Key to Creativity

Cross-posted from Michelle Hazen's Blog

There’s an annoying thing that happens to writers, artists, and other creative types. Namely, that ideas rarely come at convenient times. They don’t like to show up for their appointment at 7:15 am when your freshly-scrubbed hands are poised on your keyboard, your coffee is still warm at your elbow, and your schedule for the day has not yet been hopelessly derailed. No, ideas like to show up just when you’ve laid down to go to sleep, or when you’re in the shower with no way to jot them down, or twenty minutes into a yoga class (far past the time when you could slink off to make a note without girls with OM tattoos giving you the stink eye).

The reason for the terrible timing of epiphanies seems pretty clear, and I’m reminded of it every time I go into my favorite brewery. It’s my favorite because they make a delectable brown ale, a swoonworthy stout, and they print targets on their cans so you can shoot them when you’re done with your beverage (a must for an Idaho microbrewery). But they also have a terribly apt quote at the top of the mirror in their ladies room:

life and beer are very similar - chill for best results.

In other words, relax and the muse shows up.

Which sounds perfectly intuitive, until you remember roughly 600,000 other motivational posters you’ve seen in your life about how hard work is the only path to success.

After all, few people quote the mirrors of pubs in their lifetime achievement award speeches. So which should you be? Working hard to get your book done, or taking a more winding, zen path to finding your muse? Working hard or hardly working?

The answer to the conundrum, I have decided, lies in watching how people kill zombies.

No spoilers for the greatest show on television (because you should all get to enjoy the modern wonder of storytelling prowess that is The Walking Dead) but I happened to notice that the stars of TWD got a lot better at killing zombies in Season 7 than in Season 1. Part of that was because they obtained a lot more machetes (another key to happiness in life, but that’s a topic for another blog post). In Season 1, a single zombie fight would leave them breathless and staggering, trembling and blood-spattered.

But in later seasons, they’d take on an entire herd with a casual swagger and possibly a joke or two.

Why? Because they were using a lot less energy fussing about it.

Instead of being scared of the outcome or tensed against failure, they relaxed and only spent energy on the actual motions required for the task. Which freed them up to be far more effective against the rotting hordes of enemies.

Writing is the same way. The more time you spend checking your email or tweeting about your writer’s block, the less time you have to spend honing your craft. The more emotional energy you spend worrying that you’re a hack and a fraud, the less emotional energy you will have to fill out the highs and lows of your own characters.

So give yourself permission to relax about it. Yes, still sit down to your computer at 7:15 am, but release that iron hold on your own brain and let it meander, the way it does when you’re trying to sleep and instead you’re madly scribbling notes and annoying your significant other by having the light on.

By letting go of what’s not important, you can conserve your energy for what is. And maybe, just maybe, finally get that pesky muse to show up at a more convenient time of day.

How to decide if you're ready to publish: channeling your inner ideal reader

Cross posted from John Robin's Blog

Probably the most common editing clients I work with are romance writers. Romance is a very competitive genre, one that requires several releases per year, preferably monthly, to stay competitive and to maintain a readership.

Romance authors, understandably, crank out a huge number of books and can’t spend too much time on any one book, for fear of getting behind and perhaps losing readership. These authors have to quickly perfect their plotting, writing, and revising skills so that their writing is pretty solid from the first draft. (Side note: if you want an interesting read of just how romance writers do this, check out  The Five Day Novel by Scott King.)

Readers of the romance genre tend to devour books — with some of them reading as much as a book a day. Granted, some of these are shorter books, so it is easier to read one, cover to cover, in a day. Readers therefore demand much higher turnaround of their favorite authors, meaning romance writers have to be more resourceful, but with skill that comes with writing many novels, great romance writers can turn around books quickly and effectively, because they know how to create the most important thing: a love plot that is worth rooting for and relentless conflict that has you reading on in suspense hoping your protagonist and love interest will get together in the end.

Readers of science fiction and fantasy, on the other hand, are much more interested in the nuances of plotting, world-building, and prose.  These readers often, but not always, take more time with their reading than a romance reader does. They aren't in a rush to get through and will often stop to enjoy the view. Due to the nature of these genres, readers want to be immersed in new worlds, filled with fantastic technology and strange beings.  They also prefer their books to be longer, especially in fantasy, so time spent on world-building and added layers of plotting is a must.

Thus, authors of science fiction and fantasy know the risk is much higher that they won't engage their audience if they don't go to the extra lengths their readers expect on every book. Science fiction and fantasy readers tend to be okay with waiting for your next book if they know it’s going to deliver on all the extra layers of amazing storytelling they expect. Even George RR Martin's fans, who have waited now nearly 6 years for the 6th book in his Song of Ice and Fire series, despite some frustration you hear about from fans, know that when the book comes out it's going to be stellar because he's demonstrated with the painstaking time he invests in his work that it translates to a book executed with mastery.

And somewhere in between all that is the broad vista of YA, NA, paranormal fantasy, urban fantasy, action, thriller, adventure, horror, and many of the genres where readers can't get enough of their favorite authors' series and the expectation is at least 1-2 books / year, where there is a lot more interest in plot and payoff and the standards are higher, but not so high that you need to make every book a masterpiece. (If there is anyone in the world capable of writing 1-2 masterpieces per year, please let me know because I'd like to study more of their methods!)

Am I ready to publish?

The main point I'm making above is that knowing if your book is ready to publish requires knowing your audience, and that means knowing your genre well. Usually (rarely not), the genre you will devote most of your time to writing in is also a genre you love to read. How else can you know what's going to excite your readers? (I'm not taking into account the exceptions, such as someone who might write a weight loss book based on their strategy to lose 200 pounds; or a fiction writer who had a profound life experience and turned that into a book that captured the hearts of millions.) When asking yourself if you’re ready to publish, you have to consider what your potential readers will think of your book.

It's important to know that, while editing can give your story an edge and prepare it for publication, it can only go so far if your story is not ready for publication; and only you can address that through strategic revisions, possible reworkings, continued education on craft and storytelling techniques, immersion in fiction to expand your awareness of the standards your readers will have (especially outstanding books in the genre you write in), and most importantly, a willingness to be relentless about finishing what you set out to do. When you submit your work, either to your agent, or to an editing team, your part of the work must be done so that the editing process can work effectively.

I write epic fantasy. I’ve been working on my novel, A Thousand Roads, for a few years now. I’ve had a few beta readers who have gone through earlier drafts of the book. I've even hired editors to work on some drafts (including my present one). The draft I'm finishing is hanging together pretty good and there's lots of improvements; in fact, I would be so bold as to say the book is moving into the territory of being very good. But I am also an avid reader of the epic fantasy genre and I know what I'm striving for in this book. I am a fan of exactly the "species" of books my book is striving to be like, and when I work on this book I know what I want this book to be, and this means the potential I'm aiming for is nowhere near tapped yet and I have a long way to go. I'm not discouraged at all because I understand, this being the genre I'm in love with, it just goes with the turf. It's part of the process, and many epic fantasy writers will fail (either through continued rejections, or indifferent readers should they self-publish) because they compromise the I need to get published instinct for I want to do this right.

But that's my set of criterion. You as a writer most likely know your genre, and as a reader and fan of your genre, you know what it is you want in your book. You also know your process and methods that help you create that book, and it's important to trust those instincts.

The important takeaway above all is that the process of channeling your inner ideal reader is a sure criterion for helping you understand if the book you're trying to complete is actually done or not, provided you belong in that group. Why is this? Because if you are a fan of a specific subgroup of book types that have sold well, then you are one of a large group of people who have read those books and want more. You are writing your book because you are creating more for that group of readers, and you, being one of them, know exactly what you'd want in a book, were you to pick it up off the shelves and read it.

The power of channeling your inner ideal reader

Are you ready to publish? Simply ask yourself if the novel you're about to send out into the world is the kind of novel you, as your own reader, would want to read. Is there anything lacking? Are you left wanting? Address that, and ask this same question, and repeat until there is nothing to do. Depending on your genre, this might be a quick process, spending an extra few days with your  manuscript and booking those days off work; it might be years' long and seventeen drafts which will later win you a Hugo award (you deserve it if you stick it out that long).

Either way, know your reader, and write for your readers, because you are also that reader, and you know when your work is ready.

*MEMBER SPOTLIGHT* with Lisa Manterfield

 Lisa Manterfield Interview

Joined Author Accelerator on 01/2016

Book Title: A STRANGE COMPANION

Genre: Women’s Fiction

 Book Coach: Sarahlyn Bruck

Interview:

1.)  Describe your book in one (or maybe two) killer sentences.

When a grieving young woman starts to believe her dead boyfriend has been reincarnated in the body of her adopted niece, she must challenge everything she believes about love, loss, and life after death.

2.)  What was your process for drafting and revising A Strange Companion?

I rewrote this story so many times that the earlier drafts wouldn’t even be recognizable as the same book. I would write, revise, polish, submit, get rejected, give up, and work on something else. But there was something about this story that made me come back to it over and over.

At the beginning of 2016, I signed up for Story Genius to work on another new project, but something clicked with that process and I started thinking about A Strange Companion again. It had been under my bed for about two years at that point, but I dusted it off and set about revising it once again. I had a crazy idea to publish it on my website as a serial novel, thinking I could use it as a marketing tool to introduce potential readers to my fiction.

I worked with Sarahlyn through Author Accelerator, submitting ten pages to her every week, then editing, polishing and posting them on my website. When I began getting really positive feedback from readers, I knew I had to publish it as a complete novel. I hired an independent editor (as I’d run out of people who’d never read a version of the book before) and did two more rounds of revisions before publishing.

3.)  What was the timeframe for completing this book?

Honestly, I originally had the idea more than 15 years ago. I tried to write it as a screenplay first, and then wrote an early version of the novel, which was a horrible mess. I wrote the first draft of this version about seven or eight years ago, but would abandon it for months and even years at a time. I wrote three other books while I trying to get this one to where I knew it needed to be. Once I became really clear on what the book was about and started working with Sarahlyn on revising, it took about nine months from my first Author Accelerator submission to publication. 

4.)  What did it feel like to get to “the end” and how did you celebrate?

Dazed. These characters have been in my life for so long, I think I suffered a little empty nest syndrome when I realized they were no longer under my control. I usually celebrate a finished draft by going to a little hole-in-wall burger place near my house. I get a messy barbecue chicken burger and sweet potato fries and eat them in a park overlooking the ocean. I’ve had a lot of celebrations for this book over the years, so when it was finally finished, I didn’t know what to do.

5.)  Did you encounter any surprises or important learning experiences when publishing this book?

I joke that this is the story I used to learn how to write, so the whole experience was a giant lesson. But two big things really stand out. One is that a cool premise isn’t enough to carry a book. For so many of those drafts I didn’t know what the story was really about. When I finally figured out that I was writing, not about reincarnation, or soulmates, or life after death, but about grief and what it means to let go of a loved one and dare to love again, it all clicked into place.

The other big lesson was trusting my own process and my gut instinct about whether I’d truly written the best book possible. I’m glad I didn’t publish earlier versions of the book, because they weren’t ready. When this book came out I really felt that there was nothing else I could do for it and it was ready to find its own way in the world.

6.)  What do you feel you did right in any part of your process?

Not giving up on a book I really believed in, but also knowing when I’d reached the limits of my talent and needed the help of a professional to take me to the next level. It took Jennie, Sarahlyn, and two other independent editors to accomplish that.

7.)  What do you wish you had done differently?

Surprisingly, not much. I wouldn’t recommend this circuitous process to anyone and I don’t want to take such a messy route to a finished book ever again, but I learned something at every step of the process. In fact, I probably learned more from every draft that didn’t work than I could have ever learned from a class. I think the reason Story Genius had such a profound impact on me was that I’d already learned all the ways to break a story and Story Genius just knitted together what I already knew from experience, but didn’t know how to apply. 

8.)  What’s one piece of advice you would tell a writer who feels like she’s never going to finish?

Everyone’s path is different. It’s not helpful to compare your process to others’. At some point you do need to commit to your book and put a stake in the ground that says, “This is the story I want to tell and this is what this story is really about.” Then, go for it.

9.) You chose to self-publish A Strange Companion. Why?

After ten years, I realized that being a writing professional, i.e. making a living around writing, was what I wanted to do when I grew up. That meant taking control of my career and making it happen, instead of hoping it would happen someday. Once I decided to publish the story in its entirety as a serial novel, I knew it was unlikely to get a traditional deal, so I committed fully to self-publishing. I put together a fairly ambitious plan to get this book, and my next one, out within a few months of one another to maximize my marketing efforts. It’s a bit of an experiment, but at least I feel as if I’m being proactive.

10.) How will you market the books?

I’ve committed to a year-long plan, so it’s more of a slow burn than a launch day blast. I’m starting with early adopters and influencers, which in this case means asking book bloggers to read, review, and recommend it (hopefully) to their followers. The idea is to keep casting the net wider and wider, until I reach that sweet outer circle of readers who want to read what everyone else is reading. I’ll let you know if it works!

Sarahlyn Bruck writes women’s fiction and is currently querying the novel, Designer You, and working on a new book. When she isn't writing, Sarah teaches writing and literature full-time at a local community college. She also coaches writers at Author Accelerator, where she's been for two years and counting. Sarah lives in Philadelphia with her husband, tween daughter, and cockapoo.

ABOUT LISA:

Lisa Manterfield is the award-winning author of I’m Taking My Eggs and Going Home: How One Woman Dared to Say No to Motherhood. Her work has appeared in The Saturday Evening Post, Los Angeles Times, and Psychology Today. Originally from northern England, she now lives in Southern California with her husband and over-indulged cat. A Strange Companion is her first novel. Learn more at LisaManterfield.com.

ABOUT SARAH:

Sarahlyn Bruck writes women’s fiction and is currently querying the novel, Designer You, and working on a new book. When she isn't writing, Sarah teaches writing and literature full-time at a local community college. She also coaches writers at Author Accelerator, where she's been for two years and counting. Sarah lives in Philadelphia with her husband, tween daughter, and cockapoo.

Tropes, Neurology and Pop Music

Cross-Posted from Michelle Hazen's Blog.

Today, I’m writing about neurology because I’m a NERD! And I’m writing about tropes because I just got back from a romance novel conference (RT16 FTW!) where cowboys and Navy SEALS were roaming the hallways and gracing the covers of the books stacked on the tables. On one of my nights off, I hit an erm…adult entertainment show involving dancing and oh my! Turns out cowboys and Navy SEALS and firefighters were all over the stage there, too. This got me thinking about tropes.

What’s a trope?

A lot of people think a trope=stereotype, and that’s not true.

A trope is something universal that always appeals. A Cinderella story. A daring rescue. A wounded but tough hero healed by love. These are things that have been appearing in stories since they were told by the light of a campfire flickering on the cave walls.

Tropes also include person types as well as story types: the athlete, the meek heroine who finds her strength, the firefighter.

Where does neurology come in? Well, first you have to understand how the brain communicates. It’s basically like a forest with a lot of pathways beaten into it that converge and split apart again. Our neural pathways MAKE our brain.

Now, humans like novelty. We all know that. The people who made the Ashley Madison website (Match.com for marital affairs) know that. The men who buy a doctor’s coat to role-play with their wives know that. The people who lease a new car every year know that.

We also like the familiar. The smell of our mother’s kitchen. The Princess Bride movie, played for the thousandth time. That one MOVE that only your husband knows that works every time. More importantly, brains know how to process the familiar, and so you avoid confusion and anxiety.

What tropes know is that if you take something familiar, and give it a novel twist, that’s the best of both worlds. In terms of brain chemistry, we’re taking those familiar paths and forging new ones in between. We’re not bushwhacking through the wilderness the whole way, making an entirely new trail. No, we’re taking advantage of the reward circuits that are tied to familiarity by using the paths that are already there, and we are taking advantage of the reward circuits that like novelty by taking thrilling new shortcuts in between the established paths.

Pop songs know this, which is why every song is made up of verses (new) that return to the refrain (familiar).

What does this mean for writers (and readers)?

It means you want to take a familiar trope and twist it in a new way. Take somebody’s catnip (Spec Ops warriors!) and give it a personality. Make it a real person, and then give it a twist (Spec Ops warriors who are also all members of a band and working out of a tattoo parlor where they specialize in covering scars for burn victims).

If you’d like to read more about how to do that, author Katie Golding has a brilliant post on twisting tropes here.

Here’s a great example of my point in a single picture:

one-to-take-book-cover-200x300.jpg

Hopefully Tia Louise won’t mind me using her book cover, because I saw it in a Facebook ad and loved it. Why did I love it? Because it takes the cowboy (a trope I love!) and makes it REAL. One look at this image and you can tell that guy is a real person with a story. He’s strong, and he’s got ranch roots, but at some point he went urban enough to get those tattoos, and he’s got a look on his face like a few things in life haven’t turned out the way he planned. I want to have a conversation with him.

Now, what if the book cover had something I’d never seen before on it?

monster.jpg

In that case, it might grab my eye, but I might not have as immediate or as positive of a reaction, because my brain doesn’t know how to PROCESS that. That’s why, in books, it’s best to start with something universal and find a way to make it new, not try to reinvent the wheel so it looks something like this:

9 Ways to Ruin a Writing Conference

Cross Posted from Jennie's Blog

I just came back from four days at the San Francisco Writer’s Conference, where I played a number of different roles: authoraccelrator.com was an event sponsor; I taught a featured course and participated in two panels; and I did 1:1 consultations with about 60 writers throughout the conference.  Like all writing conferences, this was an event filled with so much energy and so many opportunities for writers – and while I met a great many fabulously well prepared and well-intentioned writers, I was struck at the way others writers squandered their opportunity by making easy-to-avoid mistakes.

Here are 9 common ways writers squander writing conference opportunities – and what you can do to make sure you don’t follow suit.

1. You think you’re going to get “the answers.”

At several of the presentations I gave, writers expressed dismay (and even outrage) at the fact that they were hearing different advice from different experts. Some experts said a synopsis should be 500 words, others said 750. Some experts said a query letter should be personalized, others said not to bother. Some experts said you should finish a rough draft before you stop to edit, others said to stop to edit at regular interviews as you write forward. “What are the right answers?” the writers demanded.

The answer is that there are no right answers – and if you go to a writing conference to try to find them, you will be disappointed. If you troll the Internet looking for the right answers, you will also come up short.

Writing a book is a very complicated process, and publishing a book is a very complicated process, and all of it is an art, not a science. I suggest that what you look for at a writing conference – and in the online writing universe – are two things:

  • a path forward that resonates with your goals and your style
  • and should you need a guide, an expert whose advice you trust.

2. You think you already know all the answers

Worse than looking for the “right answer” are the writers who believe they already know everything. I was baffled on several occasions when people had the chance to ask me for 1:1 advice and their response was to argue with what I suggested or to defend what they had already written (which had already been proven not to be working for them). If you think you know everything – and you don’t really want to hear otherwise – don’t go to a writing conference.  Also don’t go to a writing workshop, don’t take an online course, and don’t seek out a coach or an editor or an agent.

Writing is a solitary endeavor to be sure, but at many key points, it also becomes a collaborative endeavor, as well. Learning how your work hits your reader, and listening to their feedback, and adjusting the work accordingly, are skills that will serve you throughout your career.

If you truly think you know it all, and you don’t want to take anyone’s advice on anything, stay home.

3. You forget that reality that writing is a business

Publishers make their living by acquiring books they believe they can sell to the reading public. Agents make their living by selecting writers whose books they believe they can sell to publishers. Freelance editors and book coaches make their living by helping writers bring their work up to a commercially viable level so that readers will love it. No one is doing this work just because it’s fun. It’s totally fun – no question – but at the end of the day, publishing professionals are in the business of helping people write books that will sell.

It’s a business – and yet I was shocked at how unprofessional some writers were. They were pushy and demanding, and in a few instances, actually rude and obnoxious. Many of these people felt they didn’t have to follow the rules the conference had set up, or the rules of our profession, or the rules of polite society. I suppose they thought they were above all that – but none of us is above all that.

It’s fine to be persistent – but imagine that everyone you interact with at a writing conference might one day be a customer or an investor or a business partner or a mentor, and behave accordingly.

I had one writer tell me that he didn’t think the advice I had just given to an audience of 75 people was valid and then asked if I could give him feedback on his book pitch right then and there – which was an odd way to ask for a favor. When I politely explained that I couldn’t because I had 8 minutes to get to another room for another presentation, the writer stood in my way, shoved the written pitch at me and said, “Take it and you can email me what you think.”

Wow. Really?

I actually looked at the pitch later out of curiosity for what kind of person would do such a thing – and I was not surprised that the pitch didn’t hang together. It didn’t follow any of the clearly defined rules for pitching, didn’t deliver what a pitch needs to deliver, and was unfocused and poorly written. Of course I didn’t take the time to reach out and tell the writer this – but I feel certain that the universe will let him know in the way that the universe so often does. He will be rejected time and time again – and along the way will probably complain about how mean and unhelpful experts at writing conferences are.

Most people who are trying to get their work into the world are doing it as a side gig. You have other jobs and other responsibilities. I get that. Your writing is an “extra-curricular” activity today, but treat it as if it will be a profession tomorrow – and your odds of having that actually come to pass will increase exponentially.

4. You pitch before you are ready

Don’t plan to pitch at a writing conference unless you are ready to pitch. I know some writers believe that a conference is a good opportunity to “try out their pitch” on experts and agents, or to “just see what might happen,” or to “get a sense of whether their idea is any good” – but this is a waste of everyone’s time.

Agents and editors do not take on good ideas or nice writers or promising concepts. They take on ideas that have been awesomely executed and are ready to go out into the world. Yes, of course, they might help a writer take their project over the finish line, but you have to actually be steps away from the finish line, not back at the starting gate, or just rounding the first bend.

What does it mean to be ready to pitch?

  • You have a finished, polished manuscript that is ready for agents to evaluate. It doesn’t have to be ready to send tomorrow, but should be close enough that you can feel confident sending it within a few months. You should, in other words, be in the final stages of your final edit or poised to get feedback that will get it there.
  • You know your genre, your audience, your word count and your title. In other words, you understand the marketplace and how your book might fit into it.
  • You know what your story is about – what it’s REALLY about. For fiction, this is NOT just the plot. For non-fiction, this is NOT just whatever your area of expertise is. You need to know why anyone would care about your story and you need to be able to articulate that.
  • You know what you are looking for in an agent. You know what agents do, how they work, what they need from you, and you have done your homework on these agents in particular.

I’m all for practicing your pitch – but do so with your writer friends, your roommates, your colleagues, or your workshop buddies. If the conference offers the chance to hone your pitch before you give it, by all means take advantage of that. But wait to pitch until you are ready to pitch.

5. You ignore the other writers.

The writers who get the most out of writing conferences are the ones who pal up with other writers. They sit and have coffee with them, they share their woes and their words, they go out to dinner and help each other strategize. The people who only focus on getting “face time” with the experts and agents miss half the fun – and half the power of a conference. You could find a critique partner, a writing group, a mentor, a mentee, or just a friend who gets your particular obsession with words and story.

6. You compare yourself to other writers and come out feeling “less than.”

It’s easy to look at other writers and think they have made in the shade – especially when everyone is gathered together in a room to pitch to agents and some writers are getting showered with attention and you’re not. It’s easy to feel that those writers are the popular ones getting all the party invitations and you are the outcast no one wants to invite to the ball.

Luck and timing play a role in publishing success to be sure and it may well be that at this conference, luck and timing are not going your way. Instead of comparing yourself, think instead about one thing you can do to improve your craft, or improve your connection to your audience, or improve your odds of success. Think of one thing you can take away to make you a better writer – and forget the comparisons.

Remember that everyone is on the path to becoming the writer they are going to become, including you. You have no idea how many setbacks other writers have faced, how hard they have worked at their craft, or what else they have going on in their lives that might make them poised for success on the day of the conference. Similarly, you have no idea if you will find success today or tomorrow or next year or in ten years.

Your path as a writer is unique to you, and the best thing to do is to keep learning, keep growing, keep working, and keep moving forward.

It probably wouldn’t hurt to celebrate the other writers you meet along the way (reference #5, above.) One of my favorite moments during this conference was when one writer who had bombed in her pitches gave a new writer friend some advice for how to avoid that fate, and then said, “I’ll be sitting right here waiting to hear how it goes for you. Good luck!” It was lovely and supportive and sweet and kind. I have no doubt that some good writing karma will eventually come to her.

7. You step out in your PJs – or worse

During one of my presentations, there was a young woman writer sitting in the front row with a shirt so low cut, it was alarming. I don’t care if she was writing about the history of décolletage or a steamy romance, it was flat out inappropriate. During the Q&A, no one called on her. I think we were all afraid what might have happened if she stood up to take the mic!

Contrast that woman’s appearance with another young woman I met who gave the most fantastic pitch during a practice pitch-a-thon. She nailed the pitch, but when I suggested one way she could make it even better, she nodded, confirmed what I had said, and thanked me for the advice. She was, in other words, acting professionally.

I was betting that she was going to KILL it at the real pitch event on the last day of the conference, which was set up like speed dating. Sure enough, when I saw her after the pitches, she was bouncing off the roof about the positive responses she had received – and of course she looked put together and polished in a great dress that was age-appropriate and professional.

Just because we write in our PJs doesn’t mean you get to go out in your PJs.

8. You don’t seize the opportunities you have earned

I met a writer at this conference who had also been to it the prior year and received 11 agent requests. Over the last 12 months he had acted on none of them.  He was too scared to risk getting it wrong or getting rejected and so he took those requests and just sat on them.  

This is the flip side to being ready to pitch. This is being paranoid.

If you have done good work, and received invitations to send in your work, by all means send it in! Seize the chance! Do your final edit, and send it off!

No one wants to hear no – but as hockey great Wayne Gretzy said, “You miss 100% of the shots you don't take.”

9. You believe that one day can make or break your career

A writing conference is a wonderful opportunity to connect to agents in person but it is not the only opportunity you will ever get. It’s just one moment, one day. There will be other days to shine if this opportunity doesn’t go your way – so there’s no reason to panic.

I had writers coming up to me all weekend who were paralyzed with nervousness about pitching their book to agents, and after the pitch, they were freaking out that they’d blown it, or missed their chance, or failed. If you think your writing career can be made or broken in one day, you have the wrong idea about a writing career. It’s not a one-day thing or even a one-book thing. It’s something that unfolds over years, with many ups and downs, just like any other career. One day is not going to make or break it, and panic will only decrease your odds of success.

Landing an agent at a conference is only one path to writing success. There are many, many others – including the fact that you may decide that an agent and a traditional publishing deal is not the best choice for your book.

Take the long view of your writing career and you’re much more likely to have a long and fruitful one.

Leave Room for the Holy Ghost: Tension in Writing

Cross-Posted from Michelle Hazen's Blog.

My PitchWars mentee said something really smart the other day, in passing. Yeah, I know, I’m supposed to be teaching her things, but if you do it right, it always goes both ways. The thing she said was about always leaving little moments open in her writing like fanfiction prompts. Because “the key to inspiring fanfic writers is leave them wanting more.”

This reminded me of that old saying about “Leave room for the Holy Ghost” at church dances, so the boys and girls don’t get too close to one another. Presumably because boy/girl friction calls up the devil, though in practice we all know that space for the Holy Ghost might as well be magnetized because all it does is make the people on both sides wish really hard that it weren’t there.

Which brings me to fanfiction. Fanfiction is born of dissatisfaction. It is a love child created specifically BY that space between dancers. By that longing for them to close that space, to finally declare their feelings, to KISS ALREADY for the love of puppies. (I won’t even tell you how many thousands of words of fanfic were inspired by the above near-touch dance scene. Several thousand were written by me). That’s why TV shows spawn such great fanfiction. With no end in sight, every romance is a slow burn. Every potential kiss is interrupted to keep the tension up.

Fanfic is frequently about providing that satisfaction, whereas tension is created in original fiction by dissatisfaction. AKA leaving room for the holy ghost. There’s something nice about seeing two characters kiss, yes, but it’s all the more mouthwatering to see their lips hover so close but NOT QUITE THERE!

As a fanfic writer who has since transitioned to original fiction, it’s a constant struggle for me to remember I need to keep conflict and tension high by not allowing reader satisfaction…just yet. My PitchWars mentee’s comment was a perfect reminder to me, because by thinking of writing in near touch moments as a prompt for fanfiction writers to later expound on, it changed my focus.

It helped me to feel positive about not writing what I wanted (KIIIIIIISSSSSS!), it stroked my ego a little (look, maybe someday people will write fanfic of my books! I should be so lucky) and it reminded me to leave room for the Holy Ghost. To leave a gap between their hero and the goal, whether it’s the girl, a magic sword, or their own self-respect. Because leaving that space is what keeps people flipping the pages, hoping for more.

Reading as a writer: how to be inspired, while staying true to your vision

Cross posted from John Robin's Blog

I'll admit that I don't read nearly as much as I wish I could. Since I write all weekend and during the week I’m immersed in editing projects, I often find that my brain wants anything but words by the end of the day. It is for this reason that I always turn down requests to beta read or to read anything that isn't the one thing I am compelled to commit to.

However, I do make a point of reading. In fact, time to read is as fundamental to my day routine as taking a shower or brushing my teeth. While I've experimented with best times to make this happen, at the very least I read for half an hour before I go to sleep, even if it means going to bed half an hour later.

I don’t read fast, though this is by choice. I know of many who can read fast but they admit they don't take everything in. One friend who I know is a fast reader once told me he reads fast and notes where exciting things are so he can come back to them later. I can definitely relate to reading this way -- I do it all the time for non-fiction articles or research (especially online), but not for fiction or books I've chosen to read in their entirety.

When it comes to reading a book for my dedicated reading time, I don't feel I'm adequately experiencing the book unless I'm truly reading it, and that means reading at a speed that allows me to be immersed in every single thing that's happening, live-time.

I don't press 3x-play when I watch a 1-hour TV show so that I can get through it in 20 minutes, and likewise, I don't rush through reading.

Should every writer read?

For writers, reading is an act of professional development. By reading, we are studying what our contemporaries are doing or what the greats who have gone before us have done. Even if we pick up a particularly bad book, we receive an education in what not to do.

It's also wise to read beyond the genre you write in. While there's great value in studying authors in your genre, being limited to specific genres is a sure way to risk putting blinkers on. For example, though I write epic fantasy and, as you'll see if you study my Goodreads shelf, I've read more fantasy books than any other genre, I read a lot of non-fiction, science fiction, and general fiction. I keep lists of books to help me remember titles I hear of, but when it comes to deciding what to read next, I believe in the power of intuition: in fact, many times I have experienced the phenomenon of how the exact book I need just ends up in my hands at the right time.

There is something meditative to reading. It's not just about professional development, but broadening your mind as a human being. In fact, this is the more important part for storytellers, in my opinion, because while it's great to analyze fiction and fiction techniques for inspiration in your own storytelling, this is just the surface layer of what can be gleaned from being open to the far deeper layers of meaning and inner transformation that reading can bring about for us.

Beware the urge to jump ship (otherwise known as managing your influences)

There is also a real danger to reading if you are a writer, and it's this danger that often is the background excuse for those writers who claim they must not read lest they get influenced. I am no stranger to this one.

In fact, I have a fresh anecdote to share. This last weekend I nearly gave up on A Thousand Roads. This was due in part to reading Stephen King's On Writing and realizing, as I immersed myself in his early life stories, how, after discovering Tolkien at the age of 13 I all but forgot about my previous love for horror stories -- one which goes back to the age of 6 when I'd sneak to my friend's place after school and watch horror movies.

In fact, I had my first story published when I was 11. It was called The Shack, a horror story about a boy whose brother turns into a monster and hunts down his family after a possessed egg from some other dimension takes him captive. I'd submitted it for a school contest and came in second place, which meant I didn't win the 1st place prize of getting published by one of the local presses. However, the principal liked the story so much that, unbeknownst to me at the time, she went home and typed it all up, then had it printed and bound. A few mornings later, we were called into the library and she took out this little book and read it to everyone in place of regular story time, much to my shock (and embarrassment).

I still have this story and, as I read about Stephen King's childhood and found many parallels with my own imaginative early years, I fished out this little book and read it again.

Maybe you can see where I'm going with this. Reconnecting to this abandoned path made me doubt what I'm doing now. When the weekend came and it was time to work on A Thousand Roads I wanted to write something else, saw my plan to stay the course and learn how to finish a book as misguided. Heck, I could use a break, work on something fresh and different.

Without realizing it at the time, my free creative space was being influenced by what I was reading.

You might relate to this as a writer if you've ever gone through this vacillating story idea effect. I don't know about you, but I find this usually happens after I see something I absolutely love where I can just tell the author is brilliant and has found true gold to share. Usually, not long after this experience, a new story idea appears, and it doesn't take long to trace the derivative lines.

How to read and be open without be swayed

There's nothing wrong with being inspired and influenced. The key, in my opinion, is discerning the difference between knee-jerk inspiration and inner inspiration that is as strong -- and slow and inevitable -- as the shifting of tectonic plates.

In the case of A Thousand Roads, the knee-jerk response passed when I relied on the much deeper muscle of my years'-long discipline to come back to the same story and discover it in its pure form. Interestingly, after persevering and having an amazing writing weekend wherein I got more fully invested in the potential of the story, I arrived at the part of King's On Writing where he talked about Carrie and how he'd nearly abandoned that book but his wife's persistence pushed him on to write a story that he was convinced wasn't worth it. He pushed on and learned about the importance of going the extra mile, of going on even when he felt like he was "shoveling shit from a sitting position" (love that line).

Much like what we choose to read, we must choose what to write. If we read 20 books at once and bounce back and forth, our experience of any one book is going to be hampered, and no doubt a book we might have gotten a lot out of we might not even finish. Likewise, if we are fickle in which books we choose to write, we lose the opportunity to bring into realization a story that is our pure, unique vision.

Reading and writing are a symbiosis, provided out mind is rooted in our own vision

I'm learning every time I resist the knee-jerk influencing urge to trust the larger-scale call of the work I'm invested in, the work of my own unique vision.

As I mentioned last week, I saw the Fifty Shades Darker movie this week. What a fantastic movie! I'm not speaking as a critic, but as a storyteller going in and appreciating the unique vision of someone else whose heart and passion shines through in the story. Going into that movie and experiencing some of the brilliantly captured scenes and emotional moments presented me with a dichotomy, but I chose the right path.

The wrong path is to get inspired by what the movie does and then go and immediately try and recreate that in my own fiction. Jumping into such left-brain analysis closes me to truly receiving the lesson of those deeper levels of the story. It's kind of like having a conversation with someone and, instead of listening to them and empathizing, wandering off into thoughts about the plans for the rest of the day.

The right path is much like empathic listening in a conversation, and it made my experience of the movie wondering, and spared me conflict in my storytelling life afterward, because I found myself truly appreciating how one of my contemporaries brought out the gold in her story and how she made her unique vision shine. It inspired me not to copy her, but to listen and learn and appreciate, and try to cultivate that same passion in what is my unique yarn which only I can tell.

*MEMBER INTERVIEW* with Joyce Wacoff

Joyce Wacoff

Introducing Joyce Wacoff!

Joined Story Genius - class of January 2017

Genre: Women’s Fiction

Book Coach: Kemlo Aki

INTERVIEW:

1.) What is the biggest difference between the Story Genius method and how you wrote your previous novels?

My first piece of fiction was a “pantser" production. I didn’t know what I was writing, where it was going or what it was really about. It was fun but it sat around for a couple of years until I decided to do something with it … like give it a character with a name and an intention. It turned into a young-adult fantasy novella. For the next work, I decided I needed more of a “plotter” approach so I pointed my characters in a direction and wrote my way forward. I had just sent it off to a few beta readers when I was introduced to Story Genius. I didn’t really want to start a new book, I just wanted to “polish” the current one. (I hadn’t yet received the feedback that said the story was flat and boring until page 82!) However, the geniuses at Story Genius insisted so I started Book 2 in my series. It only took a week or two to realize how wise they were … and how much I was going to have to go back and rewrite Book 1.

2.) What was the most surprising thing you learned through Story Genius?

How incredibly important regular feedback from a coach is. I read a lot of how to books. I could probably write one. I quickly discovered, however, that knowing something is radically different from being able to do it. I thought I was doing things like showing why the protagonist was doing what she was doing. It wasn’t until a coach gently handed me a feedback sandwich (one nugget of “try again” sandwiched between two slabs of “good job”) every week, that I started to integrate the message on a deeper level and actually saw how to do what was being called for.

3.) What did the Story Genius method allow you to do that your previous method didn’t?

Story Genius “allowed” (forced?) me to dig deeper into the why of what was going on. What in the past made the choice being made right now make sense? It helped me put characters in conflict with each other as I developed subplots for each. And, it allowed me to frame each scene almost like a story within a story, each scene a piece of the developing puzzle.

4.) How did the Story Genius method change how you see story & writing?

I had already decided that neither “pantsing” nor “plotting” fit me exactly. Now I think of the pre-thinking about what the story is as a “framing.” I am creating a framework that will hold the story and each scene will fit within that framework. Before, I agonized going back and forth as to which way the story should go. Now, I have more confidence because I can see the framework.

5.) How did the Story Genius method change how you read novels and watch movies or even how you think about the world around you?

One of my consistent barriers has been internal dialogue, telling the reader what’s going on in the protagonist’s head. Getting ideas out of my head onto the paper felt like I was “telling not showing.” So, I’ve started watching for how other writers handle that.

6.) What did you learn in the Story Genius method that you wish you'd known before?

The power of history. How we get to where we are creates momentum for where we’re going and what choices we will make. Having a clue about where to start a story and then how to weave those moments from the past into the present makes it far more fun to tell the story. It is also a bit like a jigsaw puzzle. I know I want the protagonist to take a totally inappropriate job … what in her past is going to make her not see the obvious pitfall? It’s like reverse engineering psychology … and makes me look at my own decisions and try to find the root causes of them, also.

7.) What piece of advice could you give people who are considering taking the Story Genius Method Course?

Do it now. The process is brilliant, but having a coach give you feedback every week is absolutely golden. I went into this thinking it was crazy to spend so much money. Now, I just wish I had done it sooner.

Thank you SO much, Joyce! We can't wait to read your novel!

How to Turn a Partial MS Request Into A Full

Cross-Posted from Michelle Hazen's blog. 

So, your partial manuscript request just turned into a rejection rather than a full. Don’t worry, I have a plan. First, smash some shit.

Look, I spent ten years in the counseling field, and I’m telling you, there IS no therapeutic modality equal to dressing like a panda and wrecking something loudly breakable (and hopefully cheap and easy to clean up). But once you’re done whacking ice blocks with a sledgehammer, your manuscript will be in exactly the same shape it was when you sent it to that last agent or Pitch Wars mentor. Note: Step away from the matches. AWAY.

What next? Let’s break it down logically.

If an agent requests a partial, it means they like your concept, they like your writing, and you passed all their auto-no red flag warnings. There are a ton of factors that determine whether a query and sample pages will get you a partial manuscript request. But as for what will keep a partial manuscript from turning into a full? There’s really only one.

If they read your partial and don’t want to read more, it’s probably because the story didn’t go anywhere. The conflict did not drive the action forward fast enough for them to keep reading.

This might mean you need to tighten your pacing. Namely, make sure every scene is fully necessary, moving the plot forward, and doing it in as few words as possible. Do you really NEED that scene where your main character plays World of Warcraft and makes a sandwich? I know it’s character development, but maybe you could blend character development into a scene that also moves the plot forward. Kill two birds with one sandwich, that’s what I always say. Which may be why my husband seems so eager to do the cooking lately.

Pacing and conflict are very closely related. Go look at your conflict. Is there enough conflict? (Example: Does your MC want something? What stops them from getting it?) Is that problem introduced early enough? Without a conflict, you don’t have a story. You have people, doing stuff.

Yeah, that gif was boring AF, am I right? Would have been a lot better if a giraffe would have punted that bird, put a foot through his granny’s picnic basket, and spit on the sandwich.

So, more conflict. Faster pacing. Those are the heavy hitters when revising after several rejections on a partial, but there are a few more possibilities.

One: manuscript isn’t evenly edited. Don’t reel them in with your lipstick and miniskirt, and then show up to the second date in sweatpants. I’ve heard agents say for years that writers spend more time polishing their opening chapters than the rest of their book. People. STAHP. A polished opening will get you a partial request but it won’t get you an offer. You don’t just want a second date–you want a ring. Besides, if you don’t have an agent yet, you don’t have a deadline. Take as long as you need to polish your WHOLE book. You are not going to “trick” an agent into signing you with a really great opening and then a sagging middle that you didn’t revise as often as the first chapter.

Two: characterization. I think this is less common, because if your readers connected with your characters enough to get to a partial request, you’ve probably kept up the good work. But if the agent or mentor isn’t any closer to the characters after fifty pages than they were after ten, they will put the book down. So get out your favorite gel pen and make a list. What do we know about the characters after the sample pages the agent/mentor read? What do we know about them by the end of the pages requested in the partial? If the second list is short or nonexistent, you have characterization issues.

Three: synopsis. If the agent/mentor looked at your synopsis, go back and make sure your synopsis contains your conflict, stakes, and ending. Is it a good representation of your book? If this was ALL somebody knew about your book, would it be accurate or would you be scrambling to say, “Wait, but I didn’t tell you the cool twist with the robot-monkey or the part where the MC loses an arm!” The synopsis should not summarize every chapter, but if it doesn’t show what is unique about your book, it might be holding you back.

Take home message: If you’ve been querying for a while and you’ve gotten lots of partial requests but no fulls? Go back and take a look at the pacing and conflict. Then, polish the rest of the book to the same shine as Ch 1. Check your characters. Then, and only then, send more queries.

Also, buy an ice block. They’re cheap, fun to smash, and they melt so you don’t have to clean them up.

Busting the Myth of the Creative Muse: Harnessing the Power of Concrete Milestones

Cross Posted from John Robin's Blog

I live in the very wintry city of Winnipeg, and this winter has been particularly snowy. In the five weeks spanning December and the start of January, this city had five blizzards, accumulating as much snow as typically falls in a year in this city.

And it’s still snowing.

If weather predictions are correct, we are in for a very snowy February, as there is a major winter storm pattern headed our way.

As you might imagine, shoveling the sidewalk and driveway is becoming more and more laborious with each snowfall. While I try to see each jaunt as an opportunity for exercise, I find myself now wondering if this winter will ever end.

Writing is a lot like winter in Winnipeg.

Sometimes a project feels like it will never end. No matter how much you chip away at it, no matter how many hours you set aside to write, that same deep exhaustion settles in and writers (myself included) sit back and contemplate giving up.  Maybe motivation and energy will come to me if I just put it aside for few months.

Imagine if I treated snow shoveling that way.  It would pile higher and higher with every winter storm, until it would become so overwhelming, I’d just give up. Snow would reach knee-height (or higher, given how this winter is going) and I’d do my best to ignore this problem that confronts me every day when I leave my house, until I can no longer open my door.

That’s the risk we run when we put our books aside for lack of motivation, or when we give into the many other pressures that might tell us the great writing idea we really want to be investing our time in just isn't worth our while. The feeling of neglect, that we're really not doing what we should be doing with our life, will only get worse with every passing week.

What about the case of setting aside one project to write something else? That's an entirely different topic (because sometimes it has merit, especially if the project you're working on is something you'd rather not be working on), but for the sake of this argument, let's focus on the project you are truly passionate about, the book(s) you really want to write. Maybe you're not even writing it now and, like the recalcitrant shoveler, you're realizing just how dissatisfied you are by not writing what you're truly passionate about.

Bust the myth of the creative muse: you are your muse, and you call the shots.

Many writers believe they are at the whims of their creativity, often citing their "creative muse" as the source of whether they can write or not. I've been one of those writers myself. There is indeed validity to the fact that certain seasons of life, or certain emotional highs or internal nodes we might hit align just so and bring to the page something special that is not merely the result of mechanical novel-writing. It feels like magic. To this day, I still hold in my mind the memory of my greatest writing experience ever, an all-night adventure fueled by a French Press of coffee and discovering just how deep and alive a story can become. To this day, that is probably one of the richest chapters I've ever written (and was incentive to return to A Thousand Roads because that one chapter in the old manuscript captured just what the manuscript was, and for me, 2 years later, helped me understand what the next steps were).

But I've long since busted the myth of the creative muse. True, there have been many moments where deep intuition and a sort of magic align like constellations and bleed into my work. I can never predict when or how. I can only predict that I will continue to show up and do the work and put in a session, good or bad, trusting that the hard work— like shoveling snow to keep the paths clear— will add up.

I’ve also discovered that creativity can be forced — if I sit down and force myself to write, it gets my creative mind going, and then the creativity flows from my fingertips and onto the computer. It requires the willingness to sit with my manuscript and accept that writing time might require time spent sitting in the chair, leafing around the manuscript, thinking about the story, or reading earlier chapters or related notes I've made on promises I need to fulfill. The act then becomes not throwing words on the page, but creative problem solving. I've learned, by rejecting the myth of the creative muse, that it's possible to be proactive about harnessing creativity, and the key is this:

Knowing what to write next is not about knowing what words to write next, but about asking deep questions about what the story wants from us. The answers inform then become our guide as we write forward, an intuitive counterbalance to hone our sense of if the story is on track or not on track, a bit like rails keeping a train on course.

Concretize your process: define incremental milestones for your project.

Every time it snows, I must go outside and shovel. If I just went outside whenever I wanted, I might discover when I do go out that there are packed layers of ice or uneven patches on the sidewalk that will break my shovel.

Likewise, having a regular discipline for your project, with concrete milestones, is a sure way to turn "I want to write this book and get it published" into a certain plan. This is important, because without developing a discipline that progresses in concrete forward units, you risk descending into relativism: the dreaded novel that you've spent years on, convincing yourself it's just "not right yet", when in fact, most of this time has been spent on lateral growth that hasn't advanced the novel. You're revising and changing, without moving forward so much as moving sideways, like a ship going in whatever direction the wind blows.

I'm not saying you shouldn't spend years on a novel. I'm also not saying those years blowing in many directions didn't add rich and unique layers that will make your book great; nor am I saying that lateral growth is not also a component of forward growth. What I am saying, though, is there's a more efficient way to do it that will take less time, and be more rewarding, if you develop a concrete discipline.

For myself, I've also found it helpful to have accountability. Not only am I a book coach at Author Accelerator, I also use the services myself.  Having a deadline, like needing to go out and shovel snow, for me makes the difference between spinning my perfectionist wheels and making clear-cut writing decisions that advance by one tiny, yet significant milestone my writing goals. It's helped me develop a concrete writing discipline of flipping into writing mode every weekend and putting in whatever time it takes (and that will vary depending on the specific story problems that come up) to deliver 20 pages. The process of doing this has defined for me the importance of committing every weekend to working toward a specific milestone with A Thousand Roads, and after I'm finished the second draft, I will continue to commit every weekend to further iterations through the manuscript, under a revision regime that will soon segue to pre-publication production with the editing team I have on board to help turn this manuscript into a finished book.

You don't have to write every weekend, but the idea is to define your end goal — the complete book in your readers' hands, amazing as you can make it be — then define achievable, incremental milestones that you can meet to get to that point.

And if you're snowed in and want to get back on track, maybe you need to bust out the ice-chipper and a blowtorch. Craig, our outreach manager here at Story Perfect, had a project he’d been putting off for months. I finally gave him a kick in the pants and told him to get it done. He sat down and wrote 16,500 words in one day. Talk about clearing away all the snow with sweat and fire!

Now, with that goal met, he's given himself momentum to take the next teps, and already has given it to his editor who is defining the process to publication so it can land well with readers.