Sunday, October 28, 2018

A Week in Writing #218 - Report from the Front - Writers Digest Novel Writing Conference 2018

Well, as the title indicates, I attended the Writer's Digest Novel Writing Conference 2018, along with Paul, this past weekend in Pasadena, Californa. As whenever I go to a convention, I try to summarize my experience here.

Going to this convention was a little like going to San Diego Comic-Con, in that you leave feeling excited about the future. Writing is what I want to do and I've just been immersed in a two and a half day celebration and learning session. The feeling is that if I can just keep with it, I, too, will eventually be published, not rich but published. There is a great emphasis on the fact that one does not necessarily lead to the other. But I'm not picky, one step at a time.

It's not to say that all the advice on getting to step one is consistent or equal. I attended several "so you want to get published" types of programs and the advice was sometimes complementary and sometimes contradictory. Case in point, mainstream publishing. Agent Barbara Poelle, whom I saw on two panels, made the point that if a book goes out of print, you can ask for the publishing rights back. This was 180 degrees different than advice from April Eberhardt, who, as part of her pitch for Hybrid publishing, said that mainstream publishers want the rights for the length of copyright and will not ever give them back.

And there is also the issue of self-publishing, which again Poelle said would keep you from getting the book published by a mainstream publisher and later, Danny Manus, during his panel Everybody Says My Book Should be a Movie, said if you self-publish and it doesn't sell, mainstream publishers will be okay if you change the title and submit it to them.

In both these instances, I would tend to believe Poelle, though I'm not trying to call anyone out on this.

Friday began with a really good panel called FightWrite led by Carla Hoch. Really interesting. An overview of what you need to know before writing fight scenes, Battles and Brawls. I won't go into everything she said, though I did think it would be a good panel for Comic-Con since there are several panels there already devoted to writing. She's also a weapons expert and that would also do well there. She also has a blog I would recommend,

Fearless Marketing lead by William Kenower was a sort of last-minute replacement when another presenter became ill that morning. Not really about how to market but more about how, as a writer, you need to bring your love of writing to that side of the business. More of an inspirational session than down in the trenches on marketing.

The Query Letter Panel featured four agents: Barbara Poelle, Laurie McLean, Holly Root and Taylor Haggerty reacting to previously submitted query letters read by Writer's Digest editor Tyler Moss. As he read, each agent would raise their hand when they would stop reading the query.  A couple of takeaways: each agent is different in what they will react to. They are humans after all.

Good Comps are important to some agents but not so much to others. I didn't get the sense that if you didn't have a good comp, they would stop reading the query. They are more to give them an idea about what to expect. It is more if the subject or genre isn't something they represent that will stop them from reading. Again results will vary by agent.

Also, when comparing your book to another be sure to make the comps current (less than two years) but not a phenomenon, like J.K. Rowling or George R.R. Martin. Also, unless you already know comps, don't research online but ask a librarian for comparable titles.

The important elements are the Hook, the Book, and the Cook. Tell them about the hook or a logline that will grab their attention, as well as genre, word count, comps. Give them a couple of paragraphs summarizing the story (the Book) and tell them something about yourself (the Cook).

Don't follow up, unless the agent has asked for pages from you. Usually, there will be information about responses on the agent/agency website. Read those first before submitting as they all have different requirements.

Writing Sex Scenes with Rachael Herron, Sophie Littlefield, and Adrienne Bell was next. Their point was that sex scenes are usually really emotional acts that will be significant later. Sex is not an accidental act. Each genre will have it's own conventions and expectations.

There are two types of sex scenes, Closed door, and open door, which I think are sort of self-explanatory. I tend to write closed door but there are apparently audiences for open door and they can go from "flower" and "staff" to "pussy" and "cock".

Simply put sex should mean something to the story and if the characters aren't well developed the sex won't work. Also, you should use protection when your characters are having sex. At least mention it once.

Rape is not sex, it is a crime scene.

The final panel on Friday was A Recipe for Disaster: 4 High Stakes Elements Every Character Needs, led by Jordan Rosenfeld.

Tension is what keeps the reader reading.

1) Danger can be broken down into 4 types:

Intentional Danger - brought on by the antagonist
Accidental Danger - an accident
Natural Danger - Hurricane, earthquake, etc.
Supernatural Danger

You can be in physical danger and emotional danger.

2) Conflict - an act of an opposing force. Opposing goals, wills, plans, etc.

Protagonist vs. Self
Protagonist vs. other characters (antagonist and allies)
Protagonist vs. Nature
Protagonist vs. Supernatural
Protagonist vs. Society (family, culture, religion, etc.)

3) Uncertainty/Suspense - Nobody knows what will happen next, that's why we keep reading. When characters are anxious, so are the readers.

Implausibility is when a character behaves in a way they have not before, surreal, creates uncertainty.

4) Withholding - The act of not giving someone something they want or not in the time they want it. It creates complex feelings within characters.

Things to withhold: approval/respect/esteem/material possessions/romantic union/information, etc.

Goals should be driven by character's backstory and by plot events. A character should have a goal in every scene.

Torture the protagonist. Be mean to him or her.

Eliminate the everyday, mundane dialogue and info dumps.

Have beautiful descriptions.

We stayed for the keynote speaker, Robert Crais. His advice:

Finish what you start - finish your book
Write about what you love - what you want to read
Don't chase trends
Defy the conventional wisdom - trust what you love
Free yourself from the yoke of perfection
There is no one way to write

Saturday started with 10 Best Ways to Market Your Book led by Laurie McLean

Her advice was to:

1) Develop 1 year and 5-year goals, which could be anything from finding an agent to quitting your day job in five years.

2) Know Who You Are
What could your author brand be?

3) Social Media Audit
Google yourself and see if you show up on the first page.

Ways to accomplish this:

Think of Twitter as a cocktail party and Facebook as a family reunion.

Set up an Amazon Profile - You can have one without having a published book. It is an aggregator of your social media

Use Pinterest


One suggestion that came out of this which applies to writing queries. A lot of agents want the first ten pages in the body of the email. One way to do this, rather than cut and paste directly from Word, is to paste the first ten pages into a new document and save as plain text and then paste that into the email.

Next was The Changing Face of Publishing - What all Authors Need to Know with April Eberhardt.

Eberhardt is a writer's advocate as well as an agent. She gave pros and cons for various publishing including Traditional (Big Houses), Small Press, Self-Publishing (DIY), Assisted Self-Publishing, Amazon Publishing, Cooperative Publishing, and Hybrid Publishing.

While she will try traditional publishing, it seemed that the real point was to push Hybrid publishing as a second choice. The biggest pro, according to her, is that you get to keep your rights, but the biggest issue for many writers is the $5000 to $10,000 you'll have to spend out of your own pocket.

The choice is really up to you. What do you want personally? Professionally? If it's to make money, don't quit your day job (this would not be the only time I heard this at the convention).

Finally - Make Revision FUN! with Rachael Herron

She suggested using Nanowrimo to write as many bad words on the page because you need something to revise.

Remember: Not every suggestion will work for you.

Revision is when the magic happens. She considers the first draft to be the zero draft and revision gets it to the first draft.

The first thing is to finish your book. Revising as you go is a bad thing (this harks back to Robert Crais' advice as well.) That is unless that's the way you work and you're completing good works.

97% of writers never finish a book.

Start your revision with the theme. Every choice is made easier if you know the theme. Every scene should serve the theme whether explicitly or implicitly.

Make a sentence outline. For every scene write a brief sentence. Not the time to make line edits (you'll remember what needs to be changed.) Don't spend time fixing things you might not want to keep.

A sentence outline will allow you to read your book in a matter of minutes.

She uses post-its to keep track of changes she wants to make to the story. Then she combines the outline with the post-its.

Look for plot holes. Is there the inciting incident? Are there turning points? The context shifting mid-point? The Dark Moment? The Resolution?

Main characters must be primarily involved in creating/fixing/changing their internal and external plot conflicts.

Ask yourself: Are your characters believable? Individual? Are their goals/motivations/conflicts compelling? Enough to make the reader turn the page?

The sentence outline is your map.

Revisions are hard but only you can do it.

Go through revisions in a linear manner.

Pro Tip #1

Save each day's work with the date in the title and email it to yourself. It's a backup.

Pro Tip #2

Every day read over all post-its before you start working.

Make various passes through the manuscript:
Character Description
Character Voices
Replacing dialogue tags with action beats
Adding emotion and visceral feelings

Last pass:
Make line edits
Now is the time to make the book sing.
These scenes are staying. Make sentence edits.
Time to contract and expand when necessary.

Can't do your own copy edits (grammar) you won't see them.

And remember: Not all advice works for everyone.

The next panel was Research Writing What You Don't Know with John Dedakis

He talked about doing what he called Spade Work, i.e. prepping, tapping into your subconscious, interview your characters.

Do some preliminary research but don't get bogged down.

Write the first draft straight through - turning off your internal editor.

Note what you don't know but keep writing. This will help you focus your research.

Your first draft is not the final draft.

Research methods:

Go There!
Have Beta-readers familiar with what you're writing about give you feedback.
Interviews - for writers who are introverts, this may seem like getting out of your comfort zone.

What to Expect When You're Expecting ... A Publishing Career led by Barbara Poelle.

Poelle gives a very breezy take on the steps once you've finished writing your book. It starts with you finishing your book. Then revising and revising again. Then there's the query letter (Hook, Book, Cook).

Thet letter should go out to about 15-30 agents (using their websites for specifics). Use a spreadsheet to keep track of the agents.

Of course, Barbara will be one of them and you'll want her to represent you. She'll ask for pages and you'll nudge her after 7 weeks and then every 2 weeks after that.

When she offers you representation, you're to ask to talk to two clients, to find out 1) what she does well and 2) what she needs to improve.

Then you'll want to know from her how much revision she thinks you need and to set your expectations.

She touched on movie/Tv rights, foreign rights, audio rights, in addition to publishing rights.

Even though you'll want her, she did talk about how new agents might have more bandwidth and be hungrier as they build their lists.

The final panel on Saturday was Everybody Says My Book Should Be a Movie with Danny Manus.

The bottom line is that most don't.

Themes have to be broad and universal. Must appeal to foreign audiences as well, since a bulk of the money comes from overseas.

Characters can't be ordinary people doing ordinary things.

Genre: Most have two. Primary, which sets the rules of the genre - the concept and a secondary one that moves the plot.

He talked a little about adaptations, but the overall feeling was that its an uphill fight.

And, Self-publishing is the mistake. Hollywood will not knock on the door.

The final panel on Sunday morning was Act of Villainy: Breathing Life into Your Antagonist with Phillip Athans.

Every story begins with an act of villainy.

A villain is a character who is actively destructive in some way.

The antagonist is a character in opposition to the protagonist but is not necessarily a villain.

A villain is someone whose motivation we understand but whose methods we find abhorrent.

He ventured the 3M's of a good villain:


There are the obvious motivations:
Pure Evil

Then there is the secret motivation - why the villain thinks he's doing this.

The final motivation is The Hole, or why the villain is really doing what he's doing. What hole in the villain's life or psyche is being filled by the villain? The why not the how. The villain doesn't necessarily understand what or know it in a conscious sense.

To write a convincing villain, you must explore the darkest corners of your own psyche. If you're freaking yourself out, you're probably on to something.

So that sort of sums up what I learned. The big takeaways are to keep writing and don't give up!

As far as my own novel, I did about 100 pages of editing. Attending this conference has given me some ideas that I'm trying to put into motion. I'm trying to go through Broken People (fka A Killer Blog). I've already excised the first two pages and am considering trying to combine the first two to get to the action faster. More on this as I go along.

Still, radio silence from the editor on Familiar Stranger, so nothing to report there.

Worked and finished two reviews for Trophy Unlocked: While the City Sleeps and Follow Me Quietly. As an added bonus, TCM was showing the latter on Saturday night, so I was able to watch it again and add some details that had been missing.

Published the last horror review for October, The Mummy (1959). Now we're closing in on Noirvember, as well as discussing the 900 review milestone, Christmas reviews, and the anniversary review as we're coming up on eight years.

Even though Paul and I were attending the conference we did manage to look new pages from both the artist (pages 5-8 issue 9) and the colorist (pages 17-20 and the cover for issue 8, as well as a holiday surprise for the website. Gave a little feedback but for the most part really good work. Our colorist already turned around the pages, so the artwork for Issue 8 is done.

Speaking of the website, there is a new poll question to answer:  Would you want to be able to make yourself invisible? Would love to see your vote on the website.

And speaking of all things Powers Squared, Paul and I made our 5th A Week in Powers Squared Vlog on YouTube, which we invite you to watch here. It's short and fun, so watch.

Well, that's about it for the week. Next week it's hopefully rewrites, reviews, and more planning on the future of Powers Squared.

If you have any comments or questions, I'd really like to see them.

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