Writer’s Note: This morning I did get up at 6:00 to write my post on yesterday’s conference sessions. But I didn’t finish writing/editing before I had to get ready for the first of today’s sessions, which started at 9:00. Then the day turned out to be nonstop, without a single break except for the half hour we had to eat our box lunches. I stepped outside for a quick moment to take the promised pictures of the snow, but the snow had already stopped falling, and all of the streets had been salted. So there wasn’t anything pretty to capture. And this afternoon I decided to pitch my nonfiction book after all in the three-hour Pitch Slam. I’ll give you the details when I post about today’s stuff. Needless to say, I was really exhausted when I returned to my room shortly before 5:00. But I want to finish yesterday for you. Then I’ll grab a little dinner. Once I’m ready for bed, I’ll work on the post about today, which I can hopefully publish before tomorrow starts. 🙂
Early Saturday, January 21, 2012
Good morning! Weather update: Although the sun isn’t up yet (6:00 a.m. as I start writing here), the view from my 27th floor window at the midtown Sheraton is magical. The snow is falling, and the streets below are definitely white. TV weather-casters are all acting like kids. For the past several years, by January 21 in this part of the world, people have been grumbling about the snow, and local towns have typically been running low (or out) of their snow plowing funds. But this year, we’re having our first storm, other than the Halloween weird show. So almost everyone who speaks is excited. This being Saturday helps with the light-hearted reaction! I’m anxious to talk with a lot of people at the conference. There are 600-700 of us in attendance (lower than last year), and we learned from one of the organizers last night that the world is represented–several places in Europe, South America, and 40-some of the United States, including Hawaii and Alaska. (I feel fortunate that I only had to drive across the river, which took a mere 20 minutes yesterday!) I’ll take pictures of the snow outside during our breaks this morning and will upload them for you later.
Well … enough of the weather report. Here are my notes from the sessions yesterday afternoon. I’ll be abbreviating and using incomplete sentences in the interest of time, and I’m not going to focus on putting things in bold. So please forgive the imperfections.
My Choice of the Options in Session #1. Writing About Yourself in the Digital Age–A.J. Jacobs, Author (and contestant on Who Wants to be a Millionaire?)
Jacobs has written three books that I’d never heard of but that I will now bring into my Kindle–The Year of Living Biblically, a NY Times bestselling humorous memoir about what happens when someone tries to follow every rule in the bible, and The Know-It-All, one man’s quest to learn everything in the world by reading the encyclopedia from A-Z. Jacobs referenced both books at the beginning of his talk as a basis for how to write about yourself if no one knows who you are and/or if you think no one cares who you are.
Lessons he learned about how to make people care about who you are and what you have to say:
- Be expansive. Write about the world, your surroundings, “the setting and the characters” you encounter, in addition to yourself. Create vivid pictures for the reader and give them added value rather than just the rudiments of what you originally outlined.
- Be compassionate and mindful of others when you’re writing about them in the context of your own story. Remember that once something is up on the Internet, it’s there forever. Maintain a “generosity of spirit,” and don’t use real names. He gave an example of his using a college classmate’s real name in one of his early books while telling a story that painted her as elite and self-indulgent. When he recently ran into that classmate at a reunion, she cornered him and said that his comments are the first thing that comes up when her name is Googled. So, be honest with your story, but be sensitive enough to use fictitious names.
- Don’t tell every single detail. Memoirs can get bogged down (and thus make readers not care) when the level of detail and the number of story layers is excessive. The importance of omission is as critical as that of inclusion, and what you leave out can be as significant as what you tell.
- Be totally honest. Readers appreciate (and thus fully engage) when writers have the courage to fully open the kimono. Letting the reader in on sensitive issues/events adds to your authenticity as a writer and is a risk worth taking.
- Recognize and accept the fact that our job as writers no longer just includes writing. Whether we like it or not, being a writer has become an entrepreneurial business. We need to establish a brand/presence for ourselves, and we need to embrace the marketing elements as part of the creative process. For example, when his book about the bible came out, he wrote several articles for publication that drew from the bible as part of his promotion. One article for Glamour magazine was on sex and love, and another was for an MTV publication on music and dancing, both articles citing biblical passages. Whenever possible, he makes his promotional responsibilities part of his creative endeavors.
- He views Twitter as a “creativity booster.” He didn’t tell us how he approached this, and the Q&A session didn’t afford enough time for me to ask him. He did reference a book, however–The Future of the Book, by Sam Harris. If I see him walking around this weekend, I’ll get more detail because I’m also trying to improve my Twitter activities. If I don’t see him, I’ll send him an email.
Suggestions for “getting noticed”:
- When querying, make the first line of your letter/email the hook/lead.
- Meet the people you’re targeting in person whenever possible. Don’t become a stalker, but be persistent. Tenacity can actually work (over time). And use compliments liberally (but authentically). Being a “KA” can also be very effective.
- When writing a memoir, anyone can make him or herself fascinating and vulnerable with vivid language and great storytelling. You don’t have to be “famous or important” in order to make readers care about you and your book.
Creatively, Jacobs believes that this is the most exciting time to be a writer. Financially, not so much. Writers need to keep their fingers in every medium possible–blogs, Twitter, Facebook, and anything else you can manage. Self-promotion is a necessity. We just need to learn how to put ourselves “out there” in a manner that makes readers care about us.
My Choice for Session #2. Writing the 21st Century Novel–Donald Maass, Literary Agent & Author. (If I’m not mistaken, one of my blogging buddies–Jacqui Murray, www.worddreams.wordpress.com — had the amazing experience of reviewing one of Donald Maass’ books, Writing the Breakout Novel. For the record, I find him absolutely amazing. Pitched to him at a couple of conferences about five years ago, before Separation of Faith came together. And as I said last night’s post, his mission in life appears to involve an authentic passion about helping new writers create great novel. In person, the stuff just sort of oozes out of him. If you ever have a chance to see him in action or to pitch to him, don’t let the opportunity pass!)
Maass began his presentation by explaining the inspiration behind his 21st Century Novel book, which will be published by Writer’s Digest Books later this year. He said that over the past several years, he’s been noticing that a number of literary novels and unspecific genre books have not only been hitting the NY Times Bestseller list but staying there for as long as one or two years. The Art of Racing in the Rain was one example he cited, and that book just happens to be one of the best novels I’ve read in decades, or perhaps ever! Totally turned me into blubbering mush. Maass shared the emotion, which is created by other novels that had been catching his attention. So, he decided to begin doing research on the specific reasons why books like Racing in the Rain hugged the bestseller list for such unbelievable lengths of time when other genre-specific novels far more acclaimed and being developed into movies did not have the same bestseller list staying power. The result of his research turned into Writing the 21st Century Novel, and books like Racing in the Rain became what Maass now calls “high impact fiction.”
Summary of Maass Conclusions:
- There’s a rise in cross-genre fiction.
- Straight genre fiction is declining and is being replaced by “high impact fiction,” which is a hybrid–telling a great story that reaches readers in powerful ways while also using old-fashioned, classically beautiful writing.
He then walked us through several plot and character development exercises, asking us to use/visualize elements of the novels we’re currently writing. He said that his 21st Century Novel book will contain close to 400 of these exercises, and he gave us a good taste of what those would be like. Even though I’m focusing on my nonfiction book right now instead of my third novel, I found his exercises very effective and invigorating. Made me want to get to work on that novel sooner than later. Can’t wait to see what else will be in his book.
Summary of Maass comments as he was putting us through the exercises:
- “High impact fiction” writers are writing from a place of personal experience, revealing things that are “hard and difficult” through the characters.
- Author authenticity reaches through to readers’ hearts.
- Make character emotions big.
- Excite reader imagination and emotion with something different, something not only unexpected but big. If you think the climax of your novel is aready big, jolt the reader by creating something even bigger.
- Create an inner-journey story where true change [in characters] takes many steps. Deepen the character. Think “flawed,” “human,” “brave.”
- Things need to happen in a novel!
- Recommended reading: The Virgin of Small Plains by Nancy Pickard. Author intentionally put the biggest event she could think of in the middle of the novel so she could outdo herself at the end of the book.
- What fiction lovers are willing to pay for in this tough economy is the combination of great stories powerfully told with incredibly beautiful writing.
- The focus on the craft of writing is back! (Yay!)
- Authors are what make a novel great, not any promotion or marketing. (Yay again!)
My Choice for Session #3. Pitch Perfect–Chuck Sambuchino, Agent, and Editor of Guide to Literary Agents (This was a basic/beginner session, especially useful for those who’ve never pitched before. But there weren’t any other choices during this time slot yesterday afternoon. The choices started today, which you’ll be receiving later … 🙂 )
A “pitch” is basically a spoken query letter (or what you find on the back of a book jacket/movie DVD box. (So, this summary can work for you/perhaps help you, if you’re dropping into this blog and just happen to be focusing on querying right now.)
Basic beats of a pitch:
- 3-10 sentences in length
- For fiction (which includes memoir in terms of pitching), do not reveal the ending. Peak the agent’s interest.
- Do everything possible to cut down on confusion. Whether fiction or non, open with a) genre, b) book title, c) word count, d) whether or not the book is complete.
- State your “log line”–Your story described in one single sentence.
- Intro main character(s).
- Intro something interesting/unique about protagonist, or what that character wants.
- What is the inciting incident (the event/issue that propels the story into motion)?
- What happens next?
- Present the stakes (what happens if the character fails).
- What other “wacky” things happen?
- Describe the character arc.
- Present a non-specific wrapup (not revealing the ending, but creating a sense of intrigue).
- Remember that the entire pitch should only be 3-10 sentences in length.
- Start with the same “basic beats of the pitch.”
- What is the book about?
- What are the author credentials?
- Present the author platform. Visibility as an author, including blog, Web site, speaking engagements … What concrete abilities exist right now to sell the book?
Okay, that completes my notes from yesterday’s three main tent sessions. My promise to you is that, before the weekend is over, you’ll also have my notes on the three sessions this morning, the Keynote Address right after lunch, my details about the Pitch Slam this afternoon, and then the three sessions tomorrow morning as well as the Closing Address. The stuff is really interesting and, I believe, of great value to us as we each pursue our literary journeys. So, my notes are extensive, and I don’t want to shortcut the transcription for you.
Since I don’t have any pictures of the snow, I’m closing with a shot of me in my room after I came up from today’s sessions. Have a great night!