Sunday, September 22, 2013

The craft of writing: What I learned at the Southern California Writers' Conference

First: A thanks and summary.

I thoroughly enjoyed the 11th Annual L.A. session of the Southern California Writers' Conference.  It's a conference that focuses on the craft of writing more than the selling of writing.  That sets it apart from the others.  The size of the conference, with only a couple hundred attendees, makes it an intimate experience wherein you can also make friends and contacts in the business.  I want to thank the staff and everyone in the Read and Critiques who gave me their feedback.

Jean Jenkins, freelance editor, had some great feedback on Chapter 1 of REBORN TO BITE.  Her workshop opened my eyes.  Many thanks to Laura Perkins, Melanie Hooks, Rick Ochocki, Oz Monroe, and the rest who gave great feedback and ideas.

I now have a mental picture of diving in a shark tank when I think of the San Francisco Writers' Conference and the San Diego State University Writers' Conference.  Those are coming up, and I really want to attend SDSU.  SF costs $600 and runs head-to-head against the San Diego edition of the Southern California Writers' Conference, so it's out.  SDSU is only $399.  The question is: will I be ready with Rewrite 7 of REBORN TO BITE in time to try to entice agents?  Do I even want an agent?

And now, for "Lessons Learned":

Janis Thomas's workshop explored the difference between "character driven" stories and "plot driven".  Plot outlines are a lot more important with "plot driven".  She suggested listing character attributes to make each character unique in your mind.  In your "character profile", you should have:

  • 3 strengths
  • 3 weaknesses
  • 3 "windows" into the character's personality (fast/slow, gregarious/agoraphobic, happy/cranky, etc.)
  • 3 quirks (nervous ticks, habits, etc.)
Janis suggests opening a novel with the inciting incident in the first paragraph.  This differs from Drusilla Campbell's advice from NovelCram, which recommended scene setting until the end of chapter 1, which should end on the inciting incident.

Marci Nault, Leslie Lehr, Brett Battles, Elana K. Arnold, and Sheri Fink were all great speakers.  Among the gems from these speeches:
  • Be patient.
  • Writing is a business as much as an art
  • We are challenged to establish a relationship with readers
  • Don't settle for good.  Settle for Excellent.
  • Print on Demand can print a book with errors that you can't catch.  We saw an example of a children's book that had the sinking of the Titanic in the middle of it.
  • Try to produce the very best product you can to rise above the noise.
  • You can't fail until you quit.
  • Savor the writing; don't try to force it to happen.
  • Every author, regardless of whether seeking traditional publication or self-publishing, needs to act like an author/publisher. That means taking an active role in publicity and platform.
  • Find your audience
  • Find your niche
There are Seven Steps of Structure to a story:
  1. Weakness and Need
  2. Desire
  3. Opponent
  4. Plan
  5. Battles
  6. Last Battle
  7. Resolution and self-revelation
I took a page of notes on things to look for when doing a critique from Laura Perkins' & Melanie Hooks' session; but I think I'll post that as a separate blog entry later.  They supplement the list below from the workshop entitled "Best Foot Forward: Polishing to Impress" (Pt 1 and 2)

Selected tips from Jean Jenkins, freelance editor:
  • Stick to the word limit range for your genre- plus or minus 3,000 words
  • 3 words you can remove from your narrative: just, very, that.
  • make words work.  "beautiful" doesn't add anything, because it's subjective.
  • Limit yourself to one exclamation point per manuscript.
  • Don't bother using a semicolon.  If a sentence has multiple independent clauses, use a period.
  • Agents and editors like to see definitive action: not "going to", "getting ready to", "almost", etc.
  • "Stood up" vs. "Stood", "Sat down" vs. "sat": The direction is obvious, so you can drop the "up" and "down"
  • "Okay", not "OK" or "O.K."
  • Opening your book:  Page one should tell you (1) who the main character is, (2) what they want, (3) the reason for telling the story.  Avoid excess wordy descriptions.  Show character's attitude (this is reiterated by Robert Gregory Browne in his workshop).  Active verbs.
  • Do a character profile to prevent inconsistencies (I also do an "equipment sheet" to track what they're carrying/wearing, but that's just me)
  • Agents want characters that are sympathetic
  • Action needs to move forward, tension needs to move up.  Flashbacks stop action, losing forward momentum
  • Prologues: Agents and Editors hate them.  Some/many readers might skip them.
  • Write to seventh grade reading level. 
  • Don't say things twice
  • Reduce multiple descriptive words to one most-correct descriptive word
  • Show only what's important
  • "in fact", "however", or "actually" in the narrative indicates "author intrusion". This should be avoided. 
  • Patterns in writing can lull readers to sleep.  e.g.: repeating sentence structure/size, starting everything with "He", using passive structures ("he was standing" or other "-ing" vs. "he stood")
  • A story is not a story without tension.  This comes with action and interaction.
  • When in one character's "hard viewpoint", no need to say "he thought", since POV is clear and it's obvious it was his thought.  Also, italics are not needed for thoughts in this case.
  • Don't use ellipses ... much.  Never in narrative.
  • m-dash ( -- ) for dialog interruptions
  • n-dash ( - ) not used except as hyphen
  • hyphenate compound modifiers
  • Pronouns: Old school said repeat character name 3x per page.  Modern, once per 2 pages (assuming one character in scene).  Avoid repeating starting sentences with "he" or "she".
  • Limit slang and dialect to a couple of minor characters.
  • "rolled her eyes", "threw up his hands" - cliche phrases that are ambiguous in a literal sense and should be avoided
  • Avoid using "it"
  • Avoid using "would" and "could"
Jean also listed out the "Most Egregious Openings" for a story:
  • Showing an unnamed character
  • Main Character has amnesia.  This has been done too often, and is a cliche.
  • Main Character waking up after a dream/ dream sequence.  See above
  • Single person scene: nobody for the main character to work against.
  • No mood and setting

Workshop: "Creating Characters that jump off the page" by Robert Gregory Browne 

The concept that had the most impact for me out of this workshop is that there are four things you really need in a character:
  1. An identifiable Attitude
  2. Emotion
  3. A goal - what drives the character
  4. Action - attitude in motion

More on the "Giving Feedback" session next time.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Fae In The City, Ch. 18

Sharon stared at her Fae father, Eddie, and his mother. The little man next to them had introduced Eddie's mother as Morgana, Queen of Elphame. The Queen of the Fae is my grandmother? Sharon tried to mentally process the shock of learning her heritage included royalty.

"You've proven your loyalty to me, son. Now leave this place and come home so we can wed you to a proper bride," the Queen said.

"I have a wife, mother; you know that," Eddie said. "You also know I have no intention of leaving here without her."

"Perhaps if I banished the sylph and her offspring," the Queen said, raising a hand toward Caroline.

Sharon's heart raced. Banished? Her mother was a sylph? What did that mean?

Eddie moved to block the Queen's gesture toward his wife. "I know what you're doing. Sharon is of age, and must choose without your interference."

"Eddie, darling boy. I merely want to end this phase in your life and put it behind us," the Queen said, lowering her hand. "The Court is watching and a scandal could tip the scales this time. Come home. Wed a proper woman and give the Court something to cheer."

"My Queen," Eddie said, bowing. "I cannot do as you suggest. I love my wife and have much to teach my daughter. I have faith you'll weather the scandal if it comes to that."

Morgana's eyes swept the group. She raised her chin. "We'll talk again soon, my son. I'm sure you'll see the wisdom of my position in time. Just make sure that you decide before more damage is done."

With that, the Queen turned and sliced the air with her hand. A shimmering strand opened like a curtain, exposing a glowing blue-green tunnel. The Queen and the little man with her stepped into it, and the opening in the air disappeared.

Sharon stared at the place where they had vanished.

Her father stepped in front of her and put his hands on her arms, lifting her up to her feet. "Welcome to the family, Sharon. That was your dear Grandmother."

Sharon blinked.

Caroline stood and wiped the dirt off her knee. "And you see now why we couldn't come fetch you."

"I'd like to say she has a good side, but I think you just saw it," Eddie said. He gave Sharon a hug and stood back. "I'll go check on our soon-to-be-free human." With a a quick nod to his wife, Eddie walked back into the cottage.

Sharon turned to Caroline. "So you're a sylph? What is that?"

Caroline smiled. "We are creatures of the air. You inherited much of that from me. Your wings, your shape. We have much to discuss, daughter."

Sharon's heart flipped at the affection in the Fae woman's voice. "So Eddie is a prince? Shouldn't he be 'Edward' then?"

Caroline laughed. "We chose names to blend in. I promise to tell you more if you tell me all about California, and your life there."

Caroline strolled toward the cottage, and the girls followed at their leisurely pace.

"What happens now?" Sharon asked. After the words had left her mouth, she realized she was deferring to Caroline like a child would to a parent. She cursed the fact that it seemed so right.

"I presume you'll want to take us to California and reunite Diana with her parents."

"You want to go too?" Sharon asked.

"I wouldn't miss it for the world," Caroline replied, her warm smile putting Sharon at ease. "Besides, we must orchestrate her assimilation properly; and for that you'll need our guidance."

They found themselves standing at the front door to the cottage.

"Would you like to rest and join us for supper before the return journey?"

"No fairy food," Heather said, her hand on Sharon's arm to remind her of their previous discussion. "I'd rather not starve to death."

Caroline rolled her eyes. "I abhor when literature imbues figurative prose as literal. The legends skewed a few writings and blew everything out of proportion."

"What are you saying?" Heather asked.

"If I recall the legend, it says: Once you've had fairy food, human food will never again sate you. Mundane food will turn to dust in your mouth, right?" Caroline said.

"Exactly," Heather said.

"Poppycock," Caroline laughed. "We just make the best food you'll ever taste. Everything else will seem like dust in your mouth by comparison. Besides, Diana will be cooking, so fret not."

Caroline held the door open, and the girls walked in. Sharon watched Heather and followed, taking care stepping over the threshold into a real, honest-to-goodness fairy cottage. Sharon sensed that they would be safe here, and let her appreciation for the wonder of it all seep into her mind.

The interior of the cottage looked nothing like what the outside promised, in dimension or style. The interior reminded Sharon of a palace: the grand entry foyer blazing with the light from a brazier the size of her bed at home, surmounting a waterfall fountain; marble columns and balustrades on the sweeping staircases to either side of the foyer; a checkerboard of black and white marble tiles on the floor; and a moving fresco of clouds and butterflies on the ceiling. Doors led to the right and left at the bases of the stairs, and a set of double doors stood open at the far side of the foyer. At the top of the stairs, Sharon could see three more doors set back from the gallery railing.

Diana smiled down at them from the top of the stairs. "So what do you think? Not bad for a prison, eh?"

Sharon couldn't reply. She was too busy looking at the room to the right, which looked like pictures she had seen of the hall of mirrors in the Palace of Versailles.

"Just like your place back home, isn't it?" Heather said with a snarky tone.

Sharon nodded, her mind in complete overload.

"My human family lives in a palace?" Diana asked, excitement dancing in her eyes.

Sharon shook her head, trying to get a grip. "No, they have a nice mansion, but it's not a palace."

"Well, I'm sure I'll love it," Diana said with a sigh.

"The dining room is this way," Caroline called to them from the door opposite the hall of mirrors.

Sharon and Heather followed Caroline into room with wood-paneled walls reaching to an arched ceiling twenty feet above them. Large chandeliers lit the room, which looked as wide as it was tall, and at least fifty feet deep. A long wooden table spanned the center of the room, with a dozen chairs on each side. Five place settings had been set up at the far end. A very small man stood in nineteenth century servant's livery by the table, his head barely clearing the level of the tabletop. He bowed as they approached.

"Thank you, Roland," Caroline said, taking a seat at the head of the table. The diminutive servant pushed in each of their chairs with white-gloved hands before disappearing through a doorway.

"Who was that?" Sharon asked.

"Our house Brownie, Roland. He's an amazing chef."