Archive for the ‘Conferences’ Category

Craft for a Conference: Part 5, The Art of Being Memorable

June 30th, 2015 | Conferences, Proposals, The Writing Craft, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

brick green no smile b:wWelcome to what will probably be the conclusion of my “Craft for a Conference” series (unless someone asks a question about an aspect of conference materials that I haven’t addressed already). Through my last four posts on conference craft, I repeated one mantra: that the purpose of any material you take to a conference (including spoken pitches) should be to gain the interest of the person you’re talking to as quickly as possible and to make yourself stand out from the crowd (in a positive way) as much as you can. When I meet with authors at conferences, the thing I see missing from pitches/conference materials more than anything else is that memorability factor– I read a lot of good hooks, some nice one-sheets, but at the end of a day where I’ve taken 20 appointments plus heard pitches at lunch and dinner, I’m often hard-pressed to recall ONE story idea without looking at my notes.

Now, obviously, there’s an element of information fatigue at play there; even a great, memorable story can get lost in the annals of memory if I heard ten forgettable pitches after it, and that’s what my notes are for. But when I read those notes, I want to go, “OH yeah, this one!” because I recognize the unique elements that stood out for me when you pitched it. I want you to have made it easy for me to remember it by pulling out everything that is most unique and most characteristic of that story in your one-sheet or your pitch. The fact that this doesn’t happen more often tells me not that authors aren’t writing memorable stories, but that they don’t always know how to make themselves/their pitches or materials memorable, that they don’t know what elements of their book stand out from the crowd and how to highlight those.

With that in mind, here are some places to start in your quest to make your book or story stand out at a conference (or in a query letter):

  • Identify what makes it unique. What are the elements of your book that are unusual or fresh? What do you bring to your cookbook/memoir/mystery novel/romantic suspense that I haven’t seen in others? One way to identify these unique elements of your book is to ask your beta readers what stood out to them/what elements of the book they found most interesting or exciting. Though readers tend to read within the confines of certain genres, they still appreciate and are drawn to novelty within those genres– that’s why people read more than one of the same type of novel, after all. Do romance readers really want to read the same story over and over? Well, yes, in the sense that they want boy to meet girl, boy and girl to overcome problems, and boy and girl to live happily ever after, but the unique details of each basic romance story are often what determine which novel a romance reader will pick up next– if a reader has a choice between nine romance novels in which a nanny falls in love with the widowed father of one child and one in which a nanny falls in love with the widowed father of eleven children, they’ll probably pick up the one that’s a little more unexpected, a little more surprising, a little less familiar.

    That doesn’t mean that you have to change the story you have written: if you wrote a nanny-falls-in-love-with-father-of-one story, figure out what DOES set it apart from those other eight, and highlight those elements in your pitch and conference materials. Does it have a unique/unusual setting? “Katie Nana isn’t sure how she ended up providing childcare on an archeological dig in Egypt.” Memorable. Does one of the major characters have an interesting/unusual vocation or workplace? “Katie’s mom, a former soap opera star, spends her weekends reminiscing to Katie about her glory days and spends her weekdays gambling away Katie’s inheritance.” What about some quirk or characteristic on the part of a major character that adds color to the story? “Katie Nana’s photographic memory makes her a great lawyer but a lousy girlfriend– who wants to be in a relationship with a woman who can always conclusively prove that she’s right?,” or “Katie’s best friend Valerie, who’s always claimed to be psychic, says that Katie and Clint are destined to be together, but it’s going to take a lot more than that to convince Katie.” Mine your manuscript for pieces that stand out or that you feel add color– a talent or hobby of the protagonist, an unusual pairing, etc. If you’re having trouble determining what parts of your story are unique, take a look at what else is out there in your genre– the more you read in your genre, the more you’ll pick up on what elements stand out.

  •  Make modified or combined comparisons. One of the best ways you can communicate a lot about your story to me in very few words as well as making it memorable is to make a comparison to something I likely already am familiar with. “It’s like ________ plus ___________,” (“It’s like Pride and Prejudice plus vampires”) or “It’s like ________ meets ___________,” (“It’s like Robinson Crusoe meets The Bachelor”) or “It’s like ___________ in _________” (a different setting– “It’s like Romeo and Juliet in outer space”) or “It’s _________ if ________ were different” (“It’s Bruce Wayne’s story if his parents had never been killed and he’d never become Batman)– etc. Hang your story on a story or franchise that is already in my memory and then tweak it so I remember your part, too, not just the big name. Obviously, you’ll still need to do a little more explaining– “It’s like Robinson Crusoe meets The Bachelor; a sailor is shipwrecked on an island and lives there alone for years until a second shipwreck brings five sheltered New York debutantes on their way to tour Europe to his island.” Beware unrealistic comparisons– don’t drag in a hugely successful franchise just because you think that makes your project sound more salable. It mostly just makes you sound naive. Make sure a comparison is actually justified and that it actually helps describe your book before say that your book is “like Harry Potter meets Lord of the Rings,” which doesn’t really tell me anything and makes you sound a bit like a raging egomaniac (and is an excellent example of being memorable for the wrong reasons).
  • Tell me the twist. Think about some of your favorite books or movies with surprise endings or twists to them– chances are, those twists would be some of the first things that came to mind if you were telling a friend how great such-and-such was. No one left “The Sixth Sense” and told their friends that they should go see it because “the single mom storyline was very touching and honest.” The word-of-mouth on that movie was, “YOU WON’T BELIEVE THE TWIST AT THE END!!!” If you’re hoping to make a lasting impression on an agent or an editor and your book has a great twist, a great “wow” moment, tell them about it. I’m not going to remember your cryptic, “There’s a surprise at the end,” I’m going to remember, “My main character is actually dead the whole time!” or “The narrator is actually the murderer!” Tell me right away that cool thing about your story that I would remember vividly after I’d read it, because it will also help me to remember it before I’ve read it.

Want to meet us?

June 23rd, 2015 | Conferences, Uncategorized | 0 Comments

I’m frequently asked where people can meet us and talk books, so if you’re traveling and want to chat sometime, look us up.

Amanda Luedeke is speaking at the Realm Makers Conference, July 7 & 8 in St Louis. For people who like science fiction and fantasy, this is a popular conference to attend. It’s held on the campus of the University of Missouri, and this year’s keynote is our good buddy Robert Liparulo.

Chip MacGregor will be at the 60th annual Pacific Northwest Writers Conference in Seattle July 16-19. We’re meeting at the SeaTac Hilton, and this year’s conference offers a a robust line up of workshops to benefit writers at all levels, from specific instruction on elements of craft to sessions on the business of writing for those writers ready to publish.  A sampling of topics range from crafting a memorable villain to developing an author platform and Writing Groupmarketing your book. (You can find the full schedule here.) There’s also a long list of agents and editors coming, plus keynotes from authors like Andre Dubus III, J.A. Jance, Nancy Kress, Elizabeth Boyle, and Kevin O’Brien.

He will also be speaking at the Willamette Writers Conference, August 7 to 9 in Portland, Oregon. One of the great writing conferences on the left coast, you’ll find a long list of agents and editors, a very strong list of workshops to attend, and one of the most creative schedules of any conference. Chip even gets to moderate a panel with New York Times bestsellers Jennifer Lauck, Philip Margolin, April Henry, Laurie Notaro, and Daniel H. Wilson.

If you write for the CBA market, we’ll go right from there to the Oregon Christian Writers Conference, August 10 to 13, also in Portland. Several CBA-focused editors and agents will be there, as well as teaching sessions with such bestselling authors as Susan May Warren, Jane Kirkpatrick, Leslie Gould, Jim Rubart, and Snowflake-creator Randy Ingermanson. It’s a beautiful setting, at the Red Lion Jantzen Beach, which is right on the Columbia River. Last year the writers ran into the cast of “Portlandia,” who was doing some shooting on the site!

And, as always, we’ll be back at ACFW, coming up September 17 to 20 in Dallas — more on that later.

Craft for a Conference: Part 4, The “Why?” of a Writing Sample

June 17th, 2015 | Conferences, Proposals, The Writing Craft, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

brick green no smile b:wWelcome back to my series on crafting effective pieces for use at a conference. Today, I’m discussing the value of bringing a writing sample with you to a conference and how to make sure it represents you effectively.

Like I said the first week of the series, there isn’t one hard-and-fast rule as to what you should bring to your editor and agent meetings at a conference. Some editors are happy to glance through a full proposal, some agents love to see a one-sheet on your project, and some people don’t want to look at anything on paper, preferring to hear you talk about your project and ask you questions instead. NONE of us wants to leave with a big stack of papers, and word is starting to get around that it’s increasingly difficult to get us to leave with any printed materials you bring us, so the practice of authors carrying around their sample chapters or first 50 pages or, heaven forbid, their full manuscript, has become much less common at conferences.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad fewer authors are trying to send me home with ten extra pounds of paper, but I have been disappointed, on many occasions, when meeting with an author who’s done a good job of hooking me with their story or concept through their one-sheet or pitch, to ask if the author has a writing sample with him and be met with a blank, slightly panicked stare and the stammered apology, “I– I didn’t know– I’ve heard you don’t want– I don’t have–” by which they mean, “No, I don’t have a writing sample, either because I didn’t expect to get this far, or because I’ve been told not to bring a big stack of paper to a meeting like this, or because I thought you would only be interested in hearing about my platform, and now I’m having a heart attack because you’re asking for something and I don’t have it and how could I blow my big chance like that, please excuse me while I go jump off a cliff.” The lesson here is that, while some editors will never ask to see a writing sample in a 15-minute meeting at a conference, some will, and you want to be equipped with a dynamite writing sample in case that happens.

There are several advantages to having a writing sample with you at a conference. As an agent, there are several scenarios in which I’ll ask to see the writing. First, I’m trying to determine whether or not I’ll be able to sell your project, so obviously, the quality of the writing is a factor there– I can’t sell a great story if it’s terribly written. Having a writing sample to show me right away adds to the impression I’m forming of you: when I get home after the conference and look over my notes from the meeting, they say “great idea, solid writing” instead of just “great idea, dot dot dot question mark,” and you have a better chance of standing out from the crowd in my memory and in the flood of material coming in after a conference.

I also want to know whether I connect with your voice as a writer– whether the way you tell your story resonates with me, whether I think I could champion you and your work to a publisher. There have been several times that I’ve met with an author at a conference and been pitched an idea that was only so-so in terms of uniqueness or saleability, but because I loved their writing/voice so much when skimming the writing sample, I’ve requested to see more/talked more with that author after the conference. I made the decision to stay in contact with those authors on the strength of their writing more than on the strength of that one idea/project.

It’s also a possibility that I’ve asked all the questions I need to about your story or your platform and already know your project isn’t going to be a good fit for me, but there’s still 7 minutes left of our meeting– in that scenario, seeing your writing can give me something constructive and concrete to offer you in terms of feedback/suggestions, so that I don’t send you away completely empty-handed. Obviously, this isn’t the ideal result of a meeting with an editor or an agent, but if you have 15 minutes with an industry professional, by all means you should be ready to take full, blatant advantage of having that opportunity to pick their brain/get their feedback on your writing, and having a writing sample with you in this situation could mean the difference between leaving disappointed 8 minutes early, and leaving still-disappointed but with some constructive pointers or specific encouragement– something with takeaway value– because they had the chance to take a look at your writing and give you their initial thoughts/suggestions.

So, you’re going to bring a writing sample to your next conference, “just in case.” What should it look like? Remember (also from the first post in this series) that the purpose of anything you bring to a conference is to get the attention/interest of an agent or editor as quickly as possible and to make yourself stand out from the crowd as much as you can. With that in mind, here are some things to consider when polishing and selecting a writing sample to take to a conference or include in your proposal.

  • Proofread within an inch of your life. This is where a misused word or a poorly-placed comma has the power to break you. We’re using these pages as a representative sample of your command of the English language in print, and we don’t have to find too many errors or typos to conclude that your writing isn’t ready for publication yet.
  • Demonstrate your storytelling ability. Stories are told in action and dialogue. Writing samples that start out with a bunch of descriptive, biographical backstory don’t show us that you can effectively draw the reader in to the current action/conflict, and doesn’t demonstrate your ability to bring your characters to life and make them speak and interact naturally with their environment. This is a big reason to avoid beginning your writing sample with a prologue or a scene-setting chapter– even if this is where you believe your book starts, it’s not necessarily the most effective place to start your writing sample. Show us how quickly you can immerse the reader in your story.
  • Make sure your writing voice is in evidence. Figure out what makes your writing sound like you, and then make sure the sample you’ve picked is full of whatever combination of things comprise your voice– beautiful imagery, conversational tone, dry humor, clever wit, larger-than-life characters, evocative description, raw style, etc. I want a writing sample to excite me and to stand out from the start, so don’t wait until four or five chapters in to really hit your stride/find your voice– I might not make it that far. Show me right away what makes you stand out.

Remember (also from the first post on this series) that the purpose of anything you take to a conference is to catch the interest of the reader and stand out/make a positive impression they’ll remember. Your writing sample is no exception; don’t miss out on an opportunity to give someone more reasons to remember you and your book!

 

Craft for a Conference: Part 3, Common Synopsis Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

June 9th, 2015 | Conferences, Proposals, The Writing Craft | 2 Comments

brick green no smile b:wContinuing my series on crafting effective pieces for use at a conference, I’m talking more today about the synopsis and how to make sure it’s doing its job for your proposal. We’ll look briefly at format and then look at ways to avoid several common synopsis mistakes.

Synopsis format 

A synopsis is similar to a proposal in that there isn’t one “correct” way to format it. While there are elements that every synopsis should have in common, rarely are you going to be “disqualified” from consideration just because your synopsis isn’t formatted exactly the way that agent or editor prefers. That said, there are still a few fairly standard conventions you should be aware of:

-Synopses are often single-spaced. This may seem strange, since your sample chapters/manuscript should be double-spaced, but remember, an agent or editor is reading your synopsis to get a complete picture of your story from beginning to end– having all the info contained to a single page (as you should 9 times out of 10 be able to do for any book shorter than 100,000 words– see more below) helps us think of the book as a whole because we literally “see” it all in the same place.

-Names are often written in all-caps the first time they appear in a synopsis. Again, this is a way for the reader to visually track when a new player enters the story, and tells them to pay attention, they need to know who this person is.

–Synopses are always written in third-person present tense. Tense discrepancies in a synopsis (such as switching back and forth from past to present) interrupt our experience of the story.

Common synopsis mistakes and how to avoid them

I mentioned last week the mistake of being too vague in your synopsis (writing that “tragedy strikes,” rather than “Helen dies of the fever”), but here are a few more repeat offenders from the “synopses I have known” archives:
Too long. Synopses should be comprised of two things: people, and the stuff that happens to them. The vast majority of 80,000 word books can be synopsized on ONE single-spaced page. If your book is truly non-stop action and your plot truly has dozens of twists, you may need more than one page, but we can usually meet your main players and follow the plot from beginning to end in a single page. Common culprits in a synopsis that goes longer than this are description and commentary– this is not the place to elaborate on the characters we meet or to provide extensive insight into their psychology. “JANE EYRE, a sensitive, solemn child whose parents died of typhus when she was very young, has lived all her life in the shadows of her AUNT REED’s house, starved for affection and greedy for books. Her widowed aunt resents the way Jane’s uncle seemed to love her more than he loved his own children and has hated and abused her since his death.” This is all true, but in a synopsis for “Jane Eyre,” all we NEED is “JANE EYRE, an orphan, has lived with her cruel AUNT REED since her parents’ death.” No extra adjectives, no explanation of why Aunt Reed has it out for Jane– just introduce important characters and lay out the plot of the book logically and clearly.
Too confusing. A common method for creating your synopsis is to write a brief summary of each scene in your book, in order. While this is a good place to start, it often results in a synopsis that switches back and forth from different points of view too often, includes an excess of information about minor characters or subplots, or include scenes which require more explanation than belongs a synopsis. Your synopsis doesn’t have to follow the exact structure of your book– consolidate three or four scenes of one storyline that, in the book, appear spaced out in between other scenes into a single summarizing paragraph in your synopsis. This makes for a more readable and more streamlined synopsis. For example, if your book goes back and forth between a man trapped on a desert island and the woman he’s supposed to marry in a month, summarize a week in her life in one paragraph and then a week in his in another, rather than summarizing each character’s individual days in 12 paragraphs alternating between events in the man’s life and events in the woman’s. The same applies for your subplots– provide occasional summary updates rather than trying to track each subplot parallel to the main story all the way through the synopsis.
Too aimless. Like I said, a synopsis should speak to your ability to tell a whole story, and part of that ability includes demonstrating how the events of the plot are moving the story along to the climax. A common side-effect of writing strictly in action is that the events of the plot can start to read like a list of stand-alone, unrelated snippets. Though you want to be careful not to add too much length to a synopsis with too much commentary/framing, it is okay to use a little of your space to identify the growing tension and point the reader toward the coming climax. For example: “Jane and Mr. Rochester discuss Adele and Jane learns that Mr. Rochester had a French mistress years ago. Jane learns from Mrs. Fairfax that Mr. Rochester is supposed to be courting BLANCHE INGRAM. Mr. Rochester leaves Thornfield to spend some time at a house party where Blanche is also a guest.” This list of events is fairly directionless, and I can’t tell from reading it what the point is of all these revelations– they’re just a series of facts to me, and therefore not very engaging. Without taking up too much more space, I can hint at the significance of these events and give the reader a better sense of what to expect from the story and the direction it’s headed and create some interest in finding out more. “Jane and Mr. Rochester discuss Adele and Jane learns that Mr. Rochester had a French mistress years ago. Mr. Rochester then leaves Thornfield to attend a house party where BLANCHE INGRAM is also a guest. Mrs. Fairfax confides in Jane that Blanche and Mr. Rochester are popularly supposed to be courting, and Jane is reminded of the contrast between herself and the worldly women Mr. Rochester seems to prefer.” I don’t have to delve into tons of detail about Jane’s feelings or spell anything out, but now the reader’s radar is tuned to pick up on further evidence that Jane loves Mr. Rochester and has some anticipation about where the story is heading.

Come back next week when I’ll be talking about how to choose and polish a writing sample for a conference. Thanks for reading!

 

Craft for a Conference: Part 2, A Synopsis that Tells, Not Teases

June 3rd, 2015 | Conferences, Proposals, Quick Tips, The Writing Craft | 3 Comments

brick green no smile b:wThis week, I’m continuing my series on how to best channel your craft in your conference materials by talking about your novel’s synopsis. A synopsis is an important part of any proposal– sometimes an agent or editor will read it at the conference when taking a look at your proposal, other times they won’t see it until you send them the requested sample chapters or full manuscript, but whenever they get around to looking at it, they’ll be expecting certain things from the synopsis, and if yours doesn’t deliver, you risk frustrating or confusing that important reader. Remember, agents and editors are looking for reasons to say “no” to a  project– not in a jerky, we-can’t-wait-to-stomp-on-your-dreams kind of way (well, not most of us…), but in a realistic, we-hear-pitches-all-the-time-and-have-trained-ourselves-to-listen-for-certain-dealbreakers-so-as-not-to-waste-our-or-an-author’s-time-by-pursuing-a-project-that-doesn’t-fit-our-guidelines/preferences/areas-of-interest kind of way. A synopsis that doesn’t do what it’s supposed to creates a potential place for us to say “no,” so make sure you understand the function of a synopsis in a proposal and how to make sure it provides what an agent or editor is looking for in a synopsis.

What is the purpose of a synopsis? When an agent or editor looks at a synopsis, they’re looking to get a feel for the WHOLE book, beginning to end. If they’re reading the synopsis, you’ve most likely already “hooked” them with a dynamite paragraph or pitch giving the main idea of the story– “some particular big thing or big problem happens to a main character or two in a particular setting and hijinks ensue as colorful secondary character’s arc or additional subplot unfolds in tandem with the main character’s journey to learning something.” This hook paragraph has given them the basic premise, a hint of your voice, and a feel for the most unique elements of the book, but now they want to find out more. Sometimes, they’ll read the synopsis first; sometimes, they’ll want to look at the writing first, but either way, before an agent or editor commit to reading a manuscript in its entirety, they usually want to find out where it’s going and what’s going to happen.

“Where it’s going,” or the way the plot develops from beginning to end, lets us glimpse your ability to construct a story arc that makes sense, that builds, and that resolves in a way that feels earned. The synopsis is the first impression we get of your storytelling ability. Your writing might be great in those first few chapters, but your ability to tell a story really can’t be proved until we’ve heard the whole story, so it’s to your advantage to tell the whole story in the synopsis. A common mistake I see in synopses created for use at a conference is when authors try to maintain suspense/keep plot twists a secret in the synopsis– this is not the place to perpetuate your aura of mystery. You know what we do when you essentially say (with a vague or teasing or nonspecific synopsis) that we’ll have to read the book if we want to find out what happens? We say, “Okey doke, thanks anyway, here’s your proposal back.” When we’re looking at your materials at a conference, we have time to read MAYBE 5 or 10 pages of your writing. While this can give us a good feel for your voice and let us know whether or not you can put a sentence together, it doesn’t tell us whether you can tell a story— whether you know how to keep the action moving, raise the stakes, develop the relationships, surprise the reader with twists or interesting developments, and tie up all the loose ends. Without knowing where the story is going, we can’t say very well whether we want to follow it there, so fill in all the blanks when writing the synopsis. Spoil the surprises.
“What’s going to happen” differs from “where it’s going” in that, while the latter refers to the overall direction and end resolution of the story arc, “what’s going to happen” refers to the specific events/scenes of a book. Agents and editors are (hopefully) going to be very familiar with the rules for the genre your book belongs to, and before they spend time reading a full manuscript, they want to make sure that you’re playing by those rules. If you pitched romantic suspense and your hook paragraph promises romantic suspense, they’re going to be looking for the “suspense” parts in your synopsis– where are the scenes of danger, the chases, the close calls, the scary parts, the climax? If you pitched Christian romance, they’re going to be checking to make sure your characters’ behavior is appropriate for those publishers’ publishing guidelines. If they personally are not interested in or not accepting certain elements/plot devices, such as teen pregnancy or cancer stories or widower-with-kids-falls-in-love-with-the-nanny stories, it’s better for you both that they are told about these elements in the synopsis as it can save you both from wasting another month waiting for them to run across them halfway into the manuscript. So, again, be specific in the synopsis about the action/events that take place in your book, especially those that really identify your book as belonging to the genre you’ve labeled it as. Be familiar with the characteristics/expectations of the genre you’re writing and make sure that your story’s “credentials” for belonging to that genre show up in the synopsis so the agent or editor doesn’t have any reason to question whether or not the project fits where you say it does.

Next week, I’ll be talking a little about synopsis formatting, as well as discussing common synopsis mistakes and how to avoid them. If you have any other synopsis questions you’d like me to address, let me know in the comments. Thanks for reading!

Craft for a Conference: Part 1, Where to Look for Your Hook

May 27th, 2015 | Conferences, Resources for Writing, The Writing Craft | 1 Comment

brick green no smile b:wWelcome back to Erin’s Tuesday blog on craft! After a few weeks off to accommodate back-to-back conferences on my part and an extremely important Bad Poetry Contest, I’m back to blogging and, inspired by my experiences at the aforementioned conferences, am starting a new series on the aspects of your craft you especially need to hone before taking your work to a conference. To kick things off, we’re talking today about finding the “hook” in your project so as to be better prepared to get an agent or an editor interested in seeing more.

You’ll hear a lot of different advice about what pieces and parts you should take to a writer’s conference– one-sheets, proposals, writing samples, your “elevator pitch,” etc.– and there’s really not one right answer as to what’s appropriate. Some agents want to see your one-sheet, others are only interested in the writing; some editors want to see the full proposal, while still others only want to talk about your platform. Whatever you decide to take to a conference, either on paper or as a prepared spoken pitch, the purpose of it should be 1) to gain the interest/curiosity of an agent or editor as quickly as possible and 2) stand out (in a positive way) from the crowd as much as possible. The “hook” of your project isn’t some elusive, magical tagline that you have to get exactly right or else you’re doomed– don’t get distracted by the jargon. When someone says they’re “hooked” on a book or tv show, they mean that they feel compelled to find out more/keep watching that story, so the trick with conference pitches or materials is to highlight all the most compelling/memorable elements of your project in order to gain an editor or agent’s interest to this extent. Hooks are going to be pretty short, sometimes one or two sentences, sometimes a short paragraph, but focus on keeping it tight and purposeful rather than on keeping it to an arbitrary word count or sentence limit. As long as it’s interesting from beginning to end and they can read it or you can speak it in a minute or so, it’s not too long. With that in mind, let’s look at some of the most common mistakes I see people make in their conference materials/pitches.

1. Too much background info. Just like the beginning of your book, the beginning of your one-sheet or proposal or pitch should not be an info-dump of backstory and detail. That’s all old news– you’re trying to sell me the story of what’s happening now, so why would you make me read three or four sentences about what’s happened in the past and risk losing my attention before I get to the really interesting part/what the story’s actually about? The here-and-now of your story needs to be front and center of your conference pitch. A good rule of thumb to finding your “hook” is to find the place the story actually begins by finishing the sentence: “When ___(something happens)____, ____(so what?)____.” “When” pulls us into the story immediately by fast-forwarding directly to your inciting incident.

For example, if I were writing a “hook” paragraph for Toy Story 3, I could start out by summarizing the events leading up to the third movie: “For 18 years, Andy’s faithful toys have stood by his side, helping him navigate the perils of childhood (such as sleepaway camp and moving to a new house) and sticking with him through adolescence, even as his interest turned to other things. Now, though, the toys face their biggest challenge yet as Andy heads off to college. Will he take them with him? Who will be left behind? Can the toys find a way to help their favorite boy one last time?”

The problem with this description is that the first half of it is telling my reader about a different story without saying a word about the actual events of THIS story. If I start out instead with a “when” statement, I can get right to the inciting incident and tell the reader about the action right away. “When Andy’s toys are mistakenly donated to a maximum-security daycare center…”  BAM, right away we know what kicks off the action in this story.

The “so what,”or second half of a “when” sentence gives the reader (who in this case, remember, is an agent or editor) another important element of a “hook” sentence or paragraph, the stakes. Make them care about the outcome of the plot right away by telling them what the danger is/why the struggles of the characters matter. “When Andy’s toys are mistakenly donated to a maximum-security daycare center they have to overcome feral preschoolers, gangs of evil toys, and childproof doorknobs to get back to Andy.

2. Too vague. The hook is not the time to be coy about what happens in your book. You’re trying to convince someone who already has 20 manuscripts to read to add yours to the queue– they’re going to be more interested in reading yours if you tell them about the twists/surprises/major events right off rather than trying to entice their curiosity with vague language and allusions. Tell me what’s interesting about your book, don’t just hint at it.

Continuing with our Toy Story 3 example, the description could continue: “But Andy is going through a crisis of his own, and when the toys finally find their way back to him, both the toys and the boy they love will have to reevaluate everything they thought they knew about their priorities and the future of their relationship.” Yech. This sounds melodramatic and high-stakes without actually telling me anything about what happens, the result being that I read this sentence mostly as “blah blah blah.” “A crisis of his own,” “everything they thought they knew,” “their priorities;” these are all empty words! They pull me out of the action and events of the story and into nebulous territory where each of these phrases raises a question mark in my head, and not in a good, “oh, I can’t wait to see what happens!” way, but in a, “now there are a bunch of blanks where I’d prefer there to be a clear picture of what this book is about and what makes it memorable” kind of way.

Remember, I don’t know your characters or your story yet, so it’s going to be hard to make me curious about internal conflict or personal struggles– you’re better off telling me about the unique events and actions of your story and letting my interest in those draw me in to the extent that I will read your manuscript and discover the rest for myself. “But even if they make it back, Andy is headed off to college, and only a few toys can go with him, if any. An encounter with a daycare girl with a big imagination causes the toys to consider how much more they have to offer to a child than to the man Andy has become. Together, Andy and the toys have to figure out, when is it the right time to say goodbye?” This description gives me the specifics of the personal crises the characters encounter while still framed in the context of the events of the plot, keeping things concrete and interesting.

3. No hint of voice/uniqueness. Now, “voice” and “uniqueness” don’t necessarily speak to the same quality in a manuscript, but both speak very clearly to how memorable a book is, and since one of the questions I’m asking when I read a hook paragraph or listen to a pitch is what makes this book stand out from the other manuscripts I’m reading in this genre, it’s to your advantage to be memorable/stand out right from the hook paragraph by alluding to what’s going to stand out about your manuscript. If you have a really interesting setting, someplace that hasn’t been seen in a lot of books before or that you think readers will find intriguing, I should hear it mentioned in the hook paragraph. If your main character has a crazy, quirky family that features largely into the subplots, introduce me to a few of the most memorable folks in the hook. If your writing is hilarious, there should be some humor in your hook paragraph. If you have a beautiful literary voice, there should be some artistry evident in your hook. Take stock of your story, make a list of all the most memorable or most unique elements of your story– characters with unusual professions, interesting places/hobbies/situations featured, fun or surprising plot twists– and of what elements you believe best define your voice, and make sure your hook paragraph includes several of these.

In our Toy Story 3 example, my reference to a “maximum-security daycare” gives the reader an immediate picture of the kind of setting we’re dealing with– a kid-friendly takeoff on a prison, fairly unique and, I’m hoping, memorable to whoever’s reading the hook. The list of “feral preschoolers, evil toy gangs, and childproof doorknobs” communicates a sense of “my” (in this case, the filmmakers’) voice by making what’s obviously supposed to be a humorous description of preschool children as “feral” and wryly including “doorknobs” in a list of the dangers facing the toys– this communicates the tone of the film, the tongue-in-cheek nature of the “perils” involved, etc. Finally, my last sentence about “the man Andy has become” and “the right time to say goodbye” lets the reader know that there are some deeper themes to this story even though it’s going to be funny and clever along the way, ensuring that I’m not underselling or overemphasizing any one aspect of the book and causing some editor who wanted funny and fluffy from beginning to end to be disappointed when they encounter deeper content upon reading the manuscript.

In the end, your hook paragraph or “elevator pitch” should be dripping with color and driven by action, without wasted or empty words, and should give an editor or agent enough information to know whether or not this is a story they want to read, as well as help them decide right away whether your story is going to stand out in its genre/the market– why an editor or reader is going to buy THIS cozy mystery or historical romance over THAT one. Give them current action, concrete information, and voice/uniqueness, and they’ll be better equipped to know whether they want to read the rest of your book.

As always, this series will last until I run out of material, so if you have a craft question specifically related to conference materials or preparing your writing for a conference, let me know in the comments and I’ll try to answer it in the next few weeks. Thanks for reading!

Ask the Agent: How long do I have to polish my manuscript after a conference?

May 26th, 2015 | Agents, Conferences | 0 Comments

I’ve had a bunch of questions come in recently, as people get ready for the conference season…

 

I have received a request for pages and a synopsis. However, I have also just went to a conference and had my head crammed full of ideas that I want to apply to my novel.  So, how long do I have to polish before I send my work out?  I don’t want to lose momentum or attention, but I so want to make sure that I have done my absolute best work.Questions Book Cover

If you attend a conference and an agent or editor asks to see more of your proposal, you want to get a polished chunk of your work into their hands as quickly as possible – I’d say within 30 days. Longer than that, and you’re running into the problem of the agent moving on. We see dozens of proposals, and it can be hard to remember one (even one that we liked at a conference meeting) for more than a few weeks. I’ve sometimes had emails that started with the words, “You asked to see this at a conference four years ago, but I’ve been polishing and revising my work…” Um, yeah. As though I’m going to remember that project years later. Or as though the market is the same as it was when we talked four years ago. Look, things change. All of us see a lot of projects. If you want to garner the attention of an agent or editor, have your piece ready, show it to them, then follow up fairly quickly after the meeting.

Can you give me your thoughts in regard to how and when authors should use editors vs. writing coaches/mentors as they progress through their writing project?

A mentor or writing coach is normally a long-term relationship, so that person is with you as you think through your stories, write your pieces, and prepare yourself for a career as a writer. An editor is most often someone you hire to make your completed manuscript as polished as it can be.

I’m curious about something: what makes a novel have movie potential? 

Most novels won’t work as movies because they are more complex, go more in depth, and have much more to share than can be captured on film in two hours. That’s why you rarely see a movie and think, “That was as good as the book.” (And it’s why it is a VERY rare thing for an author to be happy with the movie Hollywood made from her book.) But film companies are always looking for a few things in a novel: a straightforward story that touches emotions and has a lead character everyone wants to root for. They’re generally not looking for a bunch of subplots, or ruminations on the human condition, so much as a well-told tale that can be wrapped up in 90 to 120 minutes, and will keep us watching through to the end.

Do you have a question you’ve always wanted to ask a literary agent? Here’s your chance — send me your question, and I’ll take a crack at an answer. And if you’re interested in questions and answers with agents, you might enjoy my new book — How can I find a literary agent? (and 101 other questions asked by writers)

Ask the Agent: How can I get ready for my conference pitch?

April 27th, 2015 | Conferences, Proposals | 2 Comments

I’ve had leftover questions from our “ask the agent” segment, so I thought I’d do some housecleaning. Always love it when writers send me interesting questions…

How many books does it take to not be considered a new author?

Probably two. By the time you’re releasing your third book, nobody considers you a newbie any more.

If you’re a writer who gets an award or accolade for your work, is it true that these can be used to the writer’s advantage? If so, what can we do to capitalize on the award?

Absolutely. Publishing houses tend to really like award-winners, since it reveals that the work was judged best at whatever contest it was in. So by all means include that in your cover letter, stick the info in your bio or publishing history, and if there is a logo or sticker they give you, put that somewhere in the proposal so it gets noticed. One warning: There are some contests that aren’t really contests… they will give an “award” to everyone who enters, so long as you can pay the entrance fee. These don’t count. Most agents and editors hate scam awards. But most of them love to hear about genuine award-winning writing.

I currently have three titles with a very small publisher. Is there a sense that until an author has a book with a major house, she is always “unproven”? Perhaps on a par with self-published authors? 

Not with me. Some of the best writers in history have remained with small houses. But I think among authors there is more of a pecking order (“You’re with little Coffee House Press? Ah… I’m with Little Brown.”) Listen, don’t buy into the BS. Publishing is hard enough without spending your life comparing the size of your publisher to someone else. My advice? Write what you love and feel called to write, become the best you can at the business side of things, and understand that some authors will be given a chance at a large house while others may always fit best with a smaller house. That’s life.

As an agent, would you prefer an author to have a website and/or illustrations for a novel attached to his/her query? How far should I go? Should I create the page, and start getting the book a name via the internet, even if nothing is published yet? Should I place a few chapters as a sample? 

For a NONFICTION book, a website is almost required, since the publisher is going to want to know that you’re already reaching out to your readership. But for a NOVEL, it doesn’t mean much if you have a website when I look at the query. If I were to take it on and land you a contract, you figure it’s going to be at least a year before there are copies of your novel on store shelves. So you’ve got plenty of time to create that website, and your publisher will probably be interested in having a say about how it looks. And no, having illustrations for your novel means nothing to me.

I’m trying to get my proposal ready for the upcoming RWA conference. My problem: Even though I’ve got some great ideas for books and have a new novel ready to pitch, I always panic right before and completely lose confidence and my train of thought. More than once, I’ve embarrassed myself with a rambling answer to an editor’s or agent’s question. I can’t seem to convey my thoughts clearly, when normally I’m very pulled together. How can I get ready for my pitch meeting at a conference? Do you have any advice for those of us who nerve out at key moments?

Sure: Practice. Out loud. Create a script of what you want to say, and get comfortable saying it, out loud, even if you have to lock yourself in your bathroom to rehearse it. (Don’t worry about your family thinking you’re crazy. You are a writer – which means they already think you’re crazy.) Then practice again while watching yourself in the mirror. Then try doing a mock pitch meeting with a writer friend. Don’t read the script to the agent or editor – just practice it enough so you know what you want to say. Many people find it helpful to create an outline of their words, and have that nearby. It keeps them from sounding “canned,” but helps them move forward in a logical progression.

Got a question you’d like to ask an agent? Send it to me at Chip (at) MacGregor Literary (dot) com. 

Thursdays with Amanda: 2015 Conference Schedule for Amanda Luedeke

March 19th, 2015 | Conferences | 0 Comments

Amanda LuedekeAmanda Luedeke is a literary agent with MacGregor Literary. Every Thursday, she posts about growing your author platform. You can follow her on Twitter @amandaluedeke or join her Facebook group to stay current with her wheelings and dealings as an agent. Her author marketing book, The Extroverted Writer, is available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

 

It’s late in the day, so I’ll keep this post short.

I know some people have been asking, so here is my very brief conference schedule for 2015. At the end of last year, I decided to take a break from travel, and so I’ll only be doing a couple of events.

Mount Hermon Christian Writers Conference – March 27-31

Realm Makers – August 7 & 8

Hope to see you at one of those, and if not you can connect with me on Twitter.

After a Conference: Next Steps

March 3rd, 2015 | Career, Conferences, Resources for Writing, The Writing Craft, Uncategorized | 3 Comments

brick green no smile b:wI’ve talked before about the value of a good writer’s conference as a place to connect with mentors/writing partners and as a reward/motivating factor in meeting your writing deadlines. Since I just got back from a writer’s conference, I thought I’d talk about some post-conference steps you can take to make sure you get the most out of your experience, because as fun or as encouraging as writer’s conferences can be, you’re not getting the most out of your time and money if you don’t follow up on the new information and contacts you encountered there. Here are a few ways to maximize your conference experience after you get home.

  • Organize new contact info (before you lose it). Save email addresses and phone numbers, make notes about who was who while you still remember– if you’re keeping business cards, write some reminders on the card, such as “French parenting book” or “talked about Star Trek.” This will help you keep all your new acquaintances straight and give you a talking point to start from if you contact them in the future.
  • Compile new information/feedback. Go through your notes from workshops and meetings, look over the comments on any manuscripts you shared for critique, and highlight or copy the pieces of advice that resonated the most, as well as the pieces you have questions about or didn’t understand. This way, you have all your favorite advice in one place to look over and remind yourself of, and you have the things you need to think more about/ask more questions on in one spot for reference if you want to email the workshop teacher for clarification or decide explore a topic more at a future conference.
  • Compare advice. Between workshops, critique groups, and agent/editor meetings, you can come away from a writing conference with a whole bunch of suggestions for your work, and they’re not always going to agree! Before you can decide which advice to take, you’ll need to compare the different feedback you received. Make a list of each general piece of criticism you received– too many adjectives, voice not strong enough, pacing inconsistent, etc.– and add a check to the list for everything you heard more than once (additional checks for additional times). Don’t forget to track your positive feedback, too– if you receive multiple compliments on your characters or voice, make note of it. Anything you have more than one check mark for is probably worth some consideration, either as an area you need to work on, or as a strong point you want to continue to highlight. Consider also the source– if you were told one thing by a beginning writer in a critique group and another by a longtime editor in your genre, you should usually lend more weight to the opinion of the more experienced critic.
  • Take action. Once you’ve identified some areas for improvement or collected some strategies for improving your writing and writing habits, take specific action steps to work on those areas and implement those strategies. If your dialogue needs work, seek out some novels in your genre with great dialogue. If you got some helpful time management tips, buy a planner and revamp your schedule/goal list. If your characters are two-dimensional, find a writing partner who is great with character development.
  • Follow up with new contacts. If an agent or editor requested materials, send them. don’t wuss out! If you met a new friend who you might want to form a critique partnership with, follow up and feel them out on that possibility. If you took an especially helpful class from a faculty member, send them an email thank you– it’s always nice to hear.

Don’t let your conference experience be limited to the time you’re actually on-site. Review your new info, follow up on new connections, and take some steps to apply what you learned!