In his essay “Why Soldiers Won’t Talk,” John Steinbeck surmises that one reason a soldier can return to battle despite the traumas of war, and a woman can bear more than one child despite the ravages of labor and delivery, is simply because neither can
remember what the experience was like, rendering both incapable of experiencing the fear that might prevent them from entering into a similar experience again. “Perhaps,” he writes, “all experience which is beyond bearing is that way–the system provides the shield and removes the memory.” I think there is some validity to Steinbeck’s hypothesis. I see it evidenced in my own life, in at least two areas. The first is my husband’s willingness–eagerness, even–to engage in DIY home projects over and over again, despite the stress and anxiety they inevitably cause him. Not long after completing one painful project, he starts to get antsy for another–to the extent that we just purchased a second home, in part to help satisfy his craving for projects (and he is now completely embroiled in the pangs of a plethora of home projects). The second is my own experience with writing conferences, my favorite and the most accessible one to me being the James River Writers Annual Conference. I look forward to this three-day event with an enthusiasm approaching that of a young child’s at Christmas. But some years, I leave feeling defeated and discouraged: There are so many writers out there with so many stellar ideas, and we are all in competition for an agent, a publisher, a paycheck. I look around at the sheer number of writers in attendance at the conference and think: How can I possibly stand a chance against so many competitors? Frankly, it’s deflating.
We come together as a community of writers to support each other, encourage each other, help each other. We have not gathered in the spirit of competition; we have gathered in the spirit of community.
But at Friday’s pre-conference Master Class, “How to Hook an Agent–From the Query Letter Through the Opening Pages,” literary agent Michael Carr said something that helped me realize at least one reason (there are many) I look forward to the conference every year: “It’s important to get motivation from events like this.” He went on to explain that so much of a writer’s work is done in isolation. And when we finish a piece we are really proud of, we send it off–most of the time only to face rejection after rejection. And yes, of course, that is a very defeating experience. But at a writing conference, we crawl out of our writing caves and come together. We are among people who take us seriously as writers. We convene as a community of writers to support each other, encourage each other, help each other. We have not gathered in the spirit of competition; we have gathered in the spirit of community. And it is in that spirit of the writer’s community that I share with you just a handful of highlights and takeaways from this weekend’s James River Writers Annual Conference.
For reference and in an effort to give credit where credit is due, here is a list of the sessions I attended:
- How to Hook an Agent–From the Query Letter Through the Opening Pages with Michael Carr
- Writing Smarter, Faster, and to Market: Game-Changing Tips for Indie Authors (and Writers who Want to Up Their Game NOW!) with Natasha Sass
- How a New York Editor Finds and Develops Writers with Carrie Feron and Erica Orloff
- Voice Lessons: Creating Characters Whose Voices You Can Inhabit with Mary Burton, James Scott, Padma Venkatraman, and Kristi Tuck Austin
- First Pages with Linda Camacho, Moe Ferrara, Eric Smith, and Bill Blume
- What’s Your Story? with Bert Ashe, Phaedra Hise, Jason Tesauro, and Annette Marquis
- This Agent’s Life with Linda Camacho, Michael Carr, Katie Kotchman, Christopher Rhodes, and M. M. Finck
- Lunch & Learn Table Discussion, “Pitch Perfect” with Erica Orloff
- Pacing: Keeping the Pages Turning with Brad Parks, Heather Weidner, Kristina Wright, and Leila Gaskin
- One-on-One with an Agent
Be sure to vary your sentence structure. Reusing the same sentence structure can pull the reader out of your narrative, or, as Michael Carr explains it, can “wake him up from the fictive dream.” Two structures that Carr says are frequently overused, particularly by amateur writers are: 1) “Doing this, she did this” or 2) its inverse: “She did this, doing this.”
So much of a writer’s work is done in isolation. And when we finish a piece we are really proud of, we send it off–most of the time only to face rejection after rejection. And yes, of course, that is a very defeating experience. But at a writing conference, we crawl out of our writing caves and come together.
Each scene of a novel needs tension to hold a reader’s interest. Some ways to introduce tension can include giving the character a goal–and creating a character who actively engages in reaching this goal, as opposed to passively waiting for things to happen to him. Secondly, there must be some opposition regarding the goal. Something must impede the character’s achieving the goal he has set. Another tool in the writer’s belt is dramatic irony. The reader’s experience of knowing more than the characters about which she is reading is a powerful means of creating tension. Finally, be sure to ask yourself if there is enough at stake. What will the consequences be if the character achieves his goal versus if he does not achieve his goal?
The Opening Lines
At least three different experts at the conference exaggerated the importance of starting in the right place, which could be as simple as deleting the first line or first paragraph, or as complicated as rearranging the order in which your chapters appear–as was the case with my novel. Initially, Goodbye For Now opened with Marissa Donnoway working at The Beanery, serving a difficult customer. Several people mentioned that the book started a bit too slowly. In response, I wrote a new scene, one in which two brothers are looking out over Lake Huron. Still too slow. I deleted that scene, and opened the book with the emergency room scene. That didn’t work logistically, and the book currently begins with Scott Wilder’s suicide.
If your published book receives a bad review, it’s not because your book was bad; it’s because the reader expected one thing, but got another.
Keep in mind that when beta readers, critique partners, critique groups, or other readers offer feedback, you are not obligated to take it–but deciding when and if you should follow someone’s advice can be tricky, and sometimes, so can not getting our feelings hurt. I thought Michael Carr’s comments regarding this issue were an insightful reframing of how to look at criticism. He essentially suggested that when someone responds critically to your work, it simply means he woke up from the fictive dream and didn’t “believe you.” It is not personal. It means you might want to revisit that part of your piece and consider how you can strengthen it. Sometimes, a reader might suggest a specific change to improve a piece–a change you disagree with. It’s important to keep in mind that you do not have to act on specific advice, but you would likely be wise to address the issue in some way, even if it is not the way your critic suggested. Carr also advised, “If the feedback resonates with you, address it. If it doesn’t, don’t.” Specific feedback itself might not be worth following, but reexamining each part about which a reader makes suggestions is worthwhile. In my case, the people who told me my book started too slowly only confirmed what I had suspected all along–so I addressed that issue (many times…).
I also appreciated what Natasha Sass of Busstop Press said about feedback: If your published book receives a bad review, it’s not because your book was bad; it’s because the reader expected one thing, but got another. More on this, in the context of tropes, below.
On Writing to Market and Finding Your Audience
Perhaps I should be embarrassed to admit it, but until attending Friday’s Master Class,
“Writing Smarter, Faster, and to Market: Game-Changing Tips for Indie Authors (and Writers who Want to Up Their Game NOW!”, I was unfamiliar with the term “trope.” Now I know a trope is essentially an expected element of a genre or subgenre. Tropes can include point of view, format, character types, themes, settings, plot devices, pacing, etc. In order to engage your audience, your writing has to deliver the promised tropes of your genre. The tricky part is that tropes change over time, so reading within your genre and subgenre can be an important way to keep up with what tropes are currently desirable in your area.
What does your audience want? What do they expect?
A trope is essentially an expected element of a genre or subgenre. Tropes can include point of view, format, character types, themes, settings, plot devices, pacing, etc. In order to engage your audience, your writing has to deliver the promised tropes of your genre.
Two important notions occurred to me as I sat in a session today, the final day of this year’s Annual Conference. The first was that this year was quite possibly my favorite Annual Conference thus far (though they have all been wonderful). The second was that I would likely have never finished my novel, Goodbye For Now, had it not been for the 2014 James River Writers Annual Conference. The idea for my novel was born in 2006, when I was studying abroad in Germany–an ocean away from my then-fiance (now, husband). I began actually writing the novel in 2010 (I think) in a black-and-white Composition book. After a few weeks, I got busy and just stopped writing. I even lost the Composition book. Four years later, at a Master Class that was part of the 2014 Annual Conference, I read aloud the synopsis I composed in the workshop that day. The response I got from the instructor and my fellow attendees was so supportive, I came home and dug through my attic space until I found the Composition book. My desire to write the novel was reinvigorated, but it would likely have remained dormant, safely stored away in my mental attic, had I never attended the conference. Now, two years later, the sixth draft of my novel is complete, and I feel equally excited, motivated, inspired, and encouraged. And I already can’t wait until next year’s conference.