I Suck: Missed My Chance to Help

September 11, 2010 at 11:38 am (Life) ()

I was in the grocery store checkout line yesterday, all caught up in my own work deadlines and tasks on my to-do list.

I remember feeling mildly annoyed that the lady in front of me put her handful of items on the back of the conveyor belt so I couldn’t start loading all my stuff out of my basket. All she had were two loaves of bread, six small cans of tuna, a gallon of milk, a large tub of yogurt and two cartons of fruit drink. With the exception of the two Tropicana cartons, everything else she had was generic brand.

Replaying it in my head, I noted that the lady was having trouble with her credit/debit card. I didn’t pay much attention. Sometimes cards or readers get finicky.

I recall that the lady tried multiple times, and at least once the checker tried it as well. But I wasn’t paying much attention. I was now hauling all my necessities (milk, eggs, meat, lettuce and tomatoes, broccoli) and frivolities (a new blouse, a plastic bin to keep the catfood in) onto the conveyor belt.

It wasn’t until I looked up that I saw the lady was leaving, pushing her empty cart with her little boy toward the ATM.

Okay, I thought, she must have been using a credit card that didn’t work and would just get some cash from the ATM instead.

The checker called over a manager who closed out the lady’s purchase, and then the checker began to pack up the few small bags of the lady’s purchase into a separate basket. That’s when I noticed that on the shelf next to the cash register were a gallon of milk, a tub of generic yogurt and a carton of Tropicana fruit drink, removed from the lady’s final purchases. The remaining few items sat in the basket waiting for her to come back. But she never did.

My heart sank so deep, I can’t describe it, except to say that as I write this I ache all over again. My eyes frantically searched for the lady with the little boy in her empty basket. Toward the ATM. Toward the doors. All around the checkout stands. But I couldn’t find her anywhere.

My heart broke for that lady, trying to feed her family on two loaves of generic bread, a gallon of milk, some generic tuna and yogurt and two cartons of fruit drink for her baby…and I felt so awful that I had been too self-absorbed to notice her struggle. I could so easily have helped her out. I’m not well off, by any means, but I could have given her $20 that would have paid for everything in her cart and I would never have missed it.

As I finished checking out, I wanted to tell the cashier that I would pay for the lady’s groceries, but I was too late. The lady was gone.

If I had been paying more attention, had put the pieces together (a few basic foods, generic labels, card doesn’t work, items being removed and the card run again), I could have done something to make that lady’s day a tiny bit easier.

Instead, I walked out of that store with my basket full of stuff, tears in my eyes, furious with myself, wondering what that lady was going to do to feed her family.  Wondering how I, and others like me, could help families like that…even if we can only give $20 to pay for a few generic basics.

What bothered me most was that the same thing could happen again and I’m not sure I’d notice soon enough to make a difference. I hope this incident has raised my awareness and that I will be nosier about what’s going on around me in the future.  I am trying to program my brain to tune in better and to be prepared to ask sooner.

To the lady with the little boy: I am so sorry I failed to help you. To the Universe: If you will put me in the path of this lady and others like her, I promise to help them next time. And to everybody like me:  Don’t be like me. Pay attention and be ready to step in when you get the chance.

And on this important anniversary, I want to say to all those who have helped others and to all those who have given their time…and their lives…in the service of this country…thank you from the bottom on my heart.


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“Never Discuss Religion or Politics”: That’s How We Got Into this Mess

September 11, 2010 at 10:34 am (Life, Politics, Uncategorized)

I know people have warned since caveman days of the dangers of discussing religion and politics in polite society.  And many of us have heeded that warning, speaking only to like-minded people about the views we share.

But maybe our caution in discussing our views with those closest to us (including those with differing opinions) is precisely what has gotten us into the mess we’re in today. Maybe if we were less afraid and more open to friendly and respectful debate with those we care about, we’d be less isolated in our fortesses of red and blue and would instead mingle together, a vast array of shades of purple. We’d find out we’re a lot closer together in our views than we ever dreamed.

The founding fathers knew that stewing in a soup of your own ideas was a dangerous and lousy way to make progress as a nation.  So they created a system of government that virtually guarantees (when the Constitutional checks and balances are allowed to work) that all sides of an issue must be considered and represented in any decision made by the government.

But alas, that system is broken. And that’s why I have become political in my “old age.”  So at the risk offending some of those I dearly love and respect, I am taking this time to express the views that drive my political decisions.  I am not trying to change anyone’s opinions, I am merely sticking my neck out in hopes of breaking that “us vs. them” mentality…in hopes of helping to show others that my concerns are a lot like theirs and that I respect them even when their views differ from mine.

I would like to see a government in place that works harder to find compromises acceptable to those of us on both sides of an issue, than it does trying to please the big lobbyists. I think most everyone I know and care about would second that motion.

I wonder what else I, and others, might learn from an open discussion about politics.

In one such rare discussion I had recently, I learned that our country is NOT a democracy…it is a republic.  (No, apparently I am not smarter than a 5th grader.) What that means is that we are not governed by the people, we are governed by elected representatives of the people. That’s why the popular vote doesn’t count in presidential elections. We cannot vote directly for proposed bills or laws, we can only vote for Congressmen and -women whom we HOPE will vote the way we want them to. It may be more efficient than asking millions of individual citizens to become informed about and vote for every piece of legislation proposed, but it takes away some of our power. That makes it even more important to know who we are electing to represent us.

Anyway, here are my views… (fair warning, this promises to be long).


Rather than talk about the symptoms, I want to back up and consider the causes of the mess in Washington (and at the state level as well).  And they can be summed up in one word: LOBBYING.

I am so fed up with Big Money running our goverment and controlling almost every aspect of our lives that I could scream!

Who on earth (besides the Fat Cats themselves) thinks good goverment comes from allowing those with the most money to have the most influence? That is horribly wrong, but in a world where money equals influence, everybody has to play by those rules or they have no voice, no leverage…they can’t even get in the game.

Let me say first that I have no axe to grind in general with people who have money, whether inherited or earned through business. Many share their wealth with those less fortunate and should be commended for their generosity. But even those who spend selfishly, extravagantly do not offend me. It’s their money.  They only offend me when their indulgences take away from or harm others in the process. Energy vampires, for example, who use their wealth to justify wastefulness in their vehicles and homes–they offend me.

But the bottom line is that wealth and prosperity are part of The American Dream, and every citizen is free to pursue that dream.

What makes me furious is the use of wealth to buy Congress. To buy the FDA. To buy the White House.

The pharmaceutical industry has our government and us in a stranglehold, ruining our health and draining our wallets. There are 2 Big Pharma lobbyists for every member of Congress. This means that there are twice as many Big Pharma lobbyists than members of Congress, and their full-time jobs are to write legislation (yes, they WRITE many of the bills introduced to Congress) for those members of Congress and to influence those members of Congress to vote for or against legislation according to the drug companies’ preferences. This is just one industry.

I’ll stop there for now, since this draft has languished in my drafts folder since 2008. I am working on a whole website about the issues of politics and unity in this country. But for now, the thoughts in this post are enough to generate some discussion.

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How Soon to Introduce Key Story Elements

June 30, 2008 at 3:03 pm (Writing) (, , , )

There are a lot of different opinions on the subject of how and when to introduce the protagonist, antagonist and the story Problem, but it seems that many of the darts cluster around the same spot no matter which source you consult.

In the 3-act structure of a play or screenplay, the first act serves to show the audience what the protagonist’s normal life is like and to identify his/her goal (which the rest of the story will try to keep him/her from achieving).

The plot point at the end of Act 1 is that moment or event that spins the protagonist’s head around and sends him/her off on a whole new tangent. It is the “inciting incident,” or the first “disaster” in the first scene.

But how soon do you have to get to that head-spinning point? How soon do you have to introduce your protagonist, antagonist and The Problem?

Many action stories open smack in the middle of a disaster, seemingly bypassing the whole first act. But even in those, you’ll typically find that the opening disaster IS the character’s normal life, where he/she is in the business of fighting crime, fires, disease or facing other challenges on a regular basis. The inciting incident, then, has to be something even more disastrous, more personal, an event that has the power to spin even Mr./Ms. Macho’s head around and set them off on a new course.

Bob Mayer, a terrific presenter and published author of dozens of books under a number of names, suggests that the reader must meet the protagonist and antagonist and discover the Story Problem by the end of the second chapter or second scene. That seems reasonable to me.

However, in my newest novel, the antagonist won’t appear onstage until the last third of the book. So how do I introduce him/it within the first two scenes? The answer, Mayer says, is to use surrogates. 

Here’s how it works: Your story has a force that is opposing your protagonist in his/her quest. (By the way, the antagonist doesn’t have to be evil, it only has to have goals that oppose the protagonist’s goals, and it needs a passion to reach those goals that is equal to the protagonist’s own passion.) The antagonist’s job is to throw “rocks” at the protagonist to thwart his/her efforts. So the surrogate can be some other person/entity that throws rocks at the protagonist until the antagonist arrives onstage.

It’s important that the surrogate presents obstacles along a path that’s relevant to the antagonist’s goals. You could have somebody throwing rocks at the protagonist for reasons completely unrelated to the antagonist and his/her goals, but that’s not a surrogate for your antagonist, it’s just another element of conflict.

In the case of my new book (still in the planning stages), the bad guys will be called terrorists for lack of a clearer identity. But in the first third of the book, the protagonist doesn’t even know who her foes are, only that there may be a plot afoot that will cause a great disaster virtually in her back yard.

Her first surrogate antagonist, then, is the man who predicts this disaster and sets her off to look for clues that his prediction might be valid.

But the main surrogate is the plant manager who prevents her from continuing her unofficial investigation to uncover the plot and revealing the antagonists that might cause this predicted disaster. The plant manager, in fact, serves as the antagonist-surrogate for most of the book. Only in the last third, possibly even later, will the protagonist find out who the real antagonists are and what their goal is. By then she will have already begun to develop a plan to stop the disaster without knowing precisely who the attackers are.

So it would seem that Mayer’s rule can actually work for a book like mine.  Maybe you can use the technique as well.

For more information on Bob Mayer and his books and workshops for writers, go to www.bobmayer.org.

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Budgeting Time for a Book Project: Dreams vs. Goals

June 23, 2008 at 12:17 pm (Uncategorized, Writing) (, , , )

I know that it takes a major investment of time to produce a book worth publishing. And up until last year, I’d looked at my objective like a little savings account where I squirreled away and forgot a few dollars here and there until…surprise!…I’d accumulated a substantial sum. I didn’t think about the long view, how many years it would take to get to my goal. I just kept writing, one chapter at a time, and I lived in the present, enjoying the journey, looking forward to the satisfied surprise at the end.

But as I grew older and the years started to move faster, I became more pressed by the quantity of time available (in each year, and in my lifetime) for lengthy projects like books. Last year, for the first time I mapped out my whole year’s budget, because I had two book projects I wanted to complete. I knew if I didn’t allocate enough time every week, every month, I wouldn’t be aware of the time pressure, wouldn’t hear the tick of the clock, and I wouldn’t meet my goals.

I set out with the plan to write a non-fiction business book, transcribe and revise my grandfather’s hand-written autobiography, and, if time allowed, start on the first book of a new novel series. My sights were set on completing at least two books, and possibly half of another, all while managing my client projects. (I am a business writer and consultant.)

I tried to be realistic, with a goal of only 22 pages per week for the business book. Since I knew I could write 10 pages a day (on a good day), this was do-able, taking up, at most, three days a week on average, some weeks more, some less, depending on client work and my clarity of thought at the moment.

And the plan worked, at least in principle.  I completed the business book within the budgeted three months.

But then I had to write the proposal. I hadn’t budgeted nearly enough for that time. I had to conduct a lot of research on the competition, and had to gather, crunch and illustrate statistics to support my premise.

First. I wrote the full proposal, complete with graphs and artwork, a professional cover and interior layout. 

But then I found proposal guidelines for a specific publishing house I was targeting. I was meeting with one of its editors at a writers’ conference that October, so I had to create a subset of the full proposal for her, adding new bits and pieces that weren’t in the full proposal (then later adding those bits and pieces to the full proposal).

And then there were revisions to the proposal recommended by my agents to help them pitch it to other editors. These were all beneficial changes. But I’d allocated two weeks for the proposal; it took nearly six instead.

In the meantime, every other week, I revised a chapter of my 2nd technothriller to take to my writers’ group meeting. I hadn’t budgeted for that at all. Sometimes I could do the revisions in a half day or less, but other times it took a whole day because the changes were structural, not cosmetic.  The book had already made the rounds of editors and been rejected in its earlier, much fatter, incarnation, and my group believed it only needed some streamlining to make it ready for another try. Still, this effort ate yet another couple of days each month that I hadn’t accounted for in my budget.

And then, as they say about the best laid plans, my husband got sick and was diagnosed with colon cancer. The writing plan fell off the map and my entire life revolved around researching his disease and how to beat it…even after the doctor told us to take him home to die. Now, nine months later, he’s in remission, doing great, and taking a vacation from chemo.

And now I’m back where I was at the beginning of 2007, trying to decide how to budget my time for big writing projects. Only it’s worse now. I have too many projects I want to do. But this time I know enough to budget for the other parts of writing a book that don’t involve writing a book.

Writing this entry today has actually helped me manage this planning task so I don’t make myself crazy. I am hereby allowing myself the rest of 2008 to evaluate the various projects, to do some research, stick my toes in the water and get a sense of which projects make the most sense to pursue next year. If I get some clear direction before then, great, I can start sooner. If not, no pressure. 

And, of course, nothing is etched in stone because the Universe can throw in its own twists at any moment. But the important thing is to know where you want to go and what it takes to get there, even if you get knocked off course for a while. 

A dear friend once said to me: “I have dreams; YOU have GOALS.” That’s what this budgeting is all about: not dreaming of writing books and having a successful publishing career, but setting concrete and realistic goals to make the dreams come true.

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Novel Structure Secrets – Part 1: How to Lay an Egg

June 13, 2008 at 12:27 pm (Writing) (, , , , , )

With a few exceptions, most of us start writing novels armed with little more than high-school or college English skills, a certain amount of novel-reading experience, and something we think is a good story idea.  We know a good book when we read one, but don’t have the first clue about why it draws us in, keeps us engaged and invested in the protagonist’s quest from beginning to end, and leaves us feeling satisfied. 

As my dad used to say, “I’m not a chicken and I can’t lay an egg, but I can tell a good one from a bad one.” That’s where most of us start our writing careers: trying to lay an egg–preferably one that doesn’t stink.

Here’s where the first secret of novel structure can advance your work from amateur grade to apprentice-professional grade in one huge leap, virtually overnight. It is a technique as simple and obvious as lifting your eyelids in order to see, and yet it is not widely known.

It is known simply as “scene and sequel,” for the two main cycles of a story’s engine: action and reaction.

Developed and taught by the late, great Dwight V. Swain at the University of Oklahoma, the scene and sequel technique works like the steps of a dance: one, two, three…four, five six…repeat. 

This article will briefly introduce the concept for you, while other resources, listed at the end, will flesh out the concepts further. However, I guarantee that even this bare-bones overview will help you tune up your stories significantly.


We all know that novels, even those seemingly quiet stories about relationships or inner conflict, are composed of actions and reactions. That’s where it starts. At the 50,000 foot level, SCENE = action and SEQUEL = reaction.

SCENE (action) is made up of 3 parts:
1.  Goal
2.  Conflict
3.  Disaster

SEQUEL (reaction) covers:
4.  Reaction
5.  Dilemma
6.  Decision

Every story follows an up and down pattern–like a mountain range–with your protagonist and his/her a goal at the bottom of each mountain and a “disaster” of some magnitude occurring just over the crest of the mountain.  SCENE is the climb up one side of the mountain. SEQUEL is the tumble down the other side and the dusting off for the next climb.

The goal in SCENE tells us readers what the POV character is trying to achieve and sets us up to feel disappointed, hurt, frustrated, etc., along with him when the obstacles start coming at him.

Remember that you also need an overall STORY goal where each scene goal represents some part of the protagonist’s effort to reach the story goal. Although you can have scenes and SCENE goals from other characters’ points of view, it is your protagonist who carries the STORY goal from beginning to end.

The climb from goal at the bottom to disaster just over the top is all about conflict: those rocks you throw at your character to keep him from reaching his scene and story goals. Conflict consists of obstacles that the character must navigate around, deal with or overcome on his way toward the scene goal. They are bothersome or may even be threatening, but they don’t stop him from climbing that hill.

Disaster is conflict of a higher caliber that in some way stops the character…makes him change his approach, makes him consider giving up…or in some way alters his path to the story goal.

The prisoner who is tunneling his way out of his cell may face conflicts along the escape route–rats in the tunnel, his fellow prisoner wanting to go first or making too much noise–but the conflict that becomes this scene’s disaster may be the collapse of the tunnel just ahead of him. Now, instead of completing the escape today, he has to go back to his cell and hope the guards have not discovered the tunnel’s hole or his dummy on the bunk.

Following a disaster, the character reacts instinctively. Reaction is the first part of SEQUEL. Reaction can be obvious and dramatic, or subtle or even denied.  But once you put us inside a character’s head, you have to make us feel what he feels, even if the fear or rage or other emotion only briefly bubbles up before the character deliberately cuts it off . 

After reaction comes dilemma in which the character considers his options. In some stories, the character may go though an elaborate external discussion or internal consideration of the choices before him regarding what to do next. In other stories, especially action stories, the options are weighed at a subconscious level and the character may not even experience a debate at all, but instead will jump directly to decision.

Decision is the last step in SEQUEL and is the end of the scene-sequel cycle. The decision at the end of SEQUEL becomes the new goal in the next SCENE.

That’s it.  You are now and chicken and you know how to lay an egg

Actually, there’s a lot more to it–a lot more involved in making the egg not stink–but this gives you a general sense of how the technique works. I find that it comes in handy especially when I’m revising. I use it as a diagnostic tool when a section of a book seems a little flat or doesn’t feel quite right. However, I’m starting a new novel and am attempting to plan its scenes more deliberately than I have in any of my previous three novels. So I’ll let you know how it goes.

For pdf’s of handouts I’ve used to teach scene and sequel, email me at writebook2(at)gmail(dot)com. And check back here periodically for new entries. I plan to post valuable tips and revelations from my agents from time to time as well, so if you have questions you want answered, please feel free to email them to me at writebook2(at)gmail(dot)com.

And to read what the master has said, check out the books, Techniques of the Selling Writer and Creating Characters by Dwight V. Swain.

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How to Break into Publishing after Self-publishing

June 3, 2008 at 1:23 pm (Writing) (, , )

This is a quick followup to the previous post on the stigma of self-publishing.

With the big houses in New York primarily focused on the big-profit books and authors, those who have previously self-published may be better off getting into them through the back door.

How do you do that? 

First, make yourself famous, to some degree or another.  (I hear you laughing.) There are lots of great websites, blogs and newsletters with tips on developing your “platform” and expanding your reach or your audience base (i.e., your book’s ready-made potential buyers). This takes time, but is do-able with well focused efforts.

Second, aim lower, push farther: Sell your books to smaller, boutique publishers to break into “legitimate” publishing, then promote the hell out of those books to prove you can make money for your publisher.

Now, consider one more thing: If you can make money and develop a good, solid readership with a small publisher, why switch to one of The Big Houses at all? 

As I’ve learned in hiring creative agencies to develop marketing campaigns for my client/employer companies: bigger isn’t necessarily better. With a small agency, your account gets the attention of the best people on the team…because that’s all there is. On the other hand, with a big agency, you may be paying for the most creative and successful people in the industry, but finding only the less brilliant players assigned to your account and projects…unless, of course, your company represents a huge potential income to the agency.

Big publishers may have the most money, but you may get less support for your book from them than from a small publisher that really wants and needs your book to succeed.

Remember that small publishers may be just as concerned about picking up your self-published books for the same reasons the big houses will be. But they may be more impressed by your promotional efforts and sales of your previous books and more willing to give your next book a chance. Once they’ve published the first book and made a little money, they may be more interested in buying and re-publishing your self-pubbed books under their own imprints to leverage and enhance whatever momentum your previous books have created.

Small publishers want to make money, just like big publishers…just like authors. But they operate on a smaller scale: smaller advances, smaller print runs, smaller risks, smaller profits. Being a little closer to the ground, they can afford to take risks because the fall won’t kill them if things don’t work out.  Your previous efforts in self-publishing and promotion can show them that you are a safer risk than the next author. 


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The Stigma of Self-publishing: Publishers Prefer Virgins

May 30, 2008 at 3:34 pm (Writing) (, , , )

Self-publishing offers a number of benefits. For openers, like old-fashioned vanity publishing, it satisfies the ego and (ideally) produces a finished product you and your mom can be proud of. 

But beyond ego, it offers you the opportunity to bypass the antiquated and burdensome traditional publishing process. It gets your product directly into your markets. And it lets you control how production and marketing funds will be spent and how profits will be reinvested.

I’ll leave the virtues (and seamy downsides) of self-publishing to another blog entry. Today I want to talk specifically about authors who do everything right in self-publishing, but still lose out when it comes to finding traditional publishers for their work.

Here’s the scenario: Author Bob Jones has written and self-published three highly competent novels. First he ran them through his exceptional critique group and made relevant structural and presentation changes. Next he hired a professional editor to do a final review and clean-up. He engaged a graphic designer to create high-quality covers and interior layout, and fronted his own money to have a quantity of the books printed.  He sent out copies to all the right reviewers, hired a publicist to plan promotional activities, did book-signings, radio interviews and served on panels or otherwise participated in appropriate genre and publishing-industry events.  He secured distribution agreements with major booksellers, and created a professional Website with book sales capabilities. He sold over 1,000 copies of each book within the first two years and developed a fan base that increased over time. And finally, he submitted his books to various respected competitions (in many cases competing against traditionally published works) and won several awards.

But, despite the quality of his products and his history of objective praise and independent sales, Bob could not get an agent to represent him or an editor to buy his books.  Why?  There are two big reasons:

1.  Publishers prefer to sacrifice virgins.

This is what my agent told me. She said they don’t want to pick up a book that has already been, well, around the block a few times. They have a hard time getting excited about a “new” product that isn’t exactly new to the marketplace.

Bob’s 1,000-copy book sales were just enough to take away that “new-book smell” and make the product a little less desirable. And with such stiff competition for publishing dollars, even a little tarnish can spoil your chances.

2. Perhaps more significant, publishers don’t want a self-published book because part of their market–and their potential sales–has already been used up.

Especially with first books, publishers are taking a financial risk, hoping that the book won’t lose too much money. They are betting that your subsequent books will break even or make a profit as your audience base develops. If they would ordinarily have expected to lose $5,000 on your first book and you’ve already sold 1,000 copies they would have sold, then they may actually lose $10,000 on that first book instead.

There’s an exception to these rules, though, and that is the self-published book that “takes off” through word-of-mouth. Books that have a magical energy of their own, that find their audiences easily without really trying, will get publishers’ attention. Think: Chicken Soup for the Soul. If a traditional publishing house can catch one of these books early on the rise, it can push the wave still higher and cash in on the work already done by both the book and its author.

So how do you get past the self-publishing stigma? There are no easy answers, unfortunately. Like everything in publishing, you are still at the mercy of luck, mood, circumstances and trends.

However, if you have self-published one or more books and earned rave reviews and respectable sales, then you can use that record to enhance the desirability of your NEXT book.

When you approach agents and editors, offer them a virgin to sacrifice. Give them an unpublished manuscript that has all the same wonderful virtues as the virgins you’ve sacrificed yourself. And then enhance the new book’s desirability by showing evidence of the benefits your previous virgins have delivered (awards, reviews, sales, fan base, promotional opportunities/invitations).

An author who is willing and able to promote his book is certainly an asset to a publisher, though self-promotion has become a virtual requirement in today’s market. But proving and quantifying your ability to sell books may give you a leg up with the next book.

As a final note: self-publishing doesn’t have to be the end of the line for a given book, even a modest seller. One friend, a member of my critique group, self-published his first novel and sold a respectable number of books on his own. He, like many others, could not get a “real” publisher to pick it up. However, he displayed his book (for a fee) at the Frankfurt Book Fair in Germany and found a foreign publisher who offered him a contract.  This, in turn, led a U.S. publisher to do the same in the States.

Backwards, perhaps, but whatever works…

CAVEAT: The purpose of this blog is to share ideas, knowledge and advice on a regular basis. Entries may contain errors of all types.

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Winning Secrets from a Writing Contest Judge

May 28, 2008 at 3:39 pm (Writing) ()

For any of you who have entered writing contests, whether as part of a conference or separately, you know it can be just one more “black hole” in this business where we often fail to win the prize, but never know why. 

The lack of constructive feedback is arguably the most maddening aspect of publishing. Too often we end up guessing what we did wrong and “throwing the baby out with the bath water” in our attempts to please the mysterious and silent gods.  

If you’re lucky, your contest judge will take the time to make notes in the margins of your submission or write up a summary of observations that can help you improve your skills. As an author, I’ve learned a lot from just a few meaningful comments. As a contest judge, I’ve even had exemplary writers thank me for my feedback because it confirmed the authors’ own instincts and, in some cases, suggested other publishing opportunities they might pursue.

In judging, I have observed certain patterns and have identified three distinct author categories, based on their submissions:

Freshmen: Those who have something to say but have not studied the craft or business of writing to any extent.

Freshmen make a lot of basic mechanical errors: wrong fonts/sizes, margins, indentations and text spacing; missing or inappropriate headers, failure to drop down several spaces before starting each chapter, etc.

It is next to impossible for a freshman to win a contest among more accomplished or experienced writers. (You HAVE to master the basics if you want to play.)

Juniors: Those who have made a serious effort to learn about the craft and who have developed a great many skills.

Juniors have learned to format a manuscript, craft a compelling article or story with well defined characters, and refine their presentation to appeal to readers. If they are not among the contest winners, it is because their submissions were not quite as polished as others’ were.

They typically make a few spelling or punctuation errors, breaking rules the average writer may not even be aware of, such as:

  • The period or comma goes inside end-quotation marks, (e.g., James said, “I prefer mine shaken, not stirred.”)
  • The long dash (or “em-dash” written as two hyphens) is used to set off what is essentially a parenthetical phrase. But where the parentheses tend to downplay the importance of the information between its marks, the em-dash actually increases the reader’s attention to the information. Technically, the em-dash should not be separated from the words before and after it. However, graphic designers and typographers often will use an em-dash or the shorter en-dash (a little longer than a regular hyphen) with a space before and after it. Whichever style you choose, be consistent.
  • Verb tense should be consistent. Many writers stumble on tenses when characters in the present must refer to events that occurred in the past.

In terms of the stories they are conveying, juniors may also fail to:

  • Stay in only one character’s point of view for the entire scene.
  • Make the reader feel the experience of the POV character, as if living inside his/her skin.
  • Provide a unifying theme that lets the reader know up-front what the goal is and why it matters. Then pay off and wrap up that theme at the end (especially if the submission is a self-contained work, such as an article or short story).
  • In non-fiction as well as fiction, put tension, conflict or hooks of some kind on every page to keep the reader wondering what’s next, what’s going to happen.
  • Set the reader’s expectations with a memorable opening. And craft a memorable ending for your submission (even if it is only an excerpt from a larger work).

Valedictorian Seniors: Those whose work is highly accomplished in every way and who may only need to tweak their material to appeal to specific audiences/markets.

This is where judging becomes painful. When you hear a judge say he/she had a hard time deciding on a winner, this may actually be the truth. V-seniors offer submissions that are not only competent but entertaining/engaging and/or highly beneficial to the readers.

As a judge, you hope that, in the end, one submission will resonate more, or will have some special magic that sets it apart from the other, equally “perfect” pieces. But what do you do when three or four equally competent submissions all possess their own kind of magic? What do you do when each of the four is absolutely perfect for its own class, but you can award only one first prize?

At this point, the judge may end up drawing straws or selecting the winner based on some arbitrary virtue. 

What you can learn from this is that your skills may be enough to get your submission into the top three to five. But beyond presenting a perfectly crafted piece, it becomes a matter of magic, resonance and, sometimes, just plain luck.

Remember, too, that a somewhat flawed piece with incredible magic can trump even several “perfect” pieces. But it’s awfully hard to do. Judges feel compelled to reward authors who have perfected their craft. And in most cases, the submissions that are closest to being mechanically and structurally perfect will rise to the top. It’s best not to depend on magic alone.

However, if you intend to deliver one of those technically perfect submissions and want to do everything possible to rise above them all, then think about how you can make your submission (a) more memorable to the judge and (b) more appealing to a wide range of readers.

Both elements are important. I have ranked an exceptional piece one step below another–even though it was truly memorable, made me laugh and at the same time touched me–simply because its subject addressed a relatively small audience, of which I happened to be a member. The first submission appealed to me, personally, far more than the winning submission, but the winner addressed a much broader audience with comparable skill.

You may prefer to write about a more personal subject, even if it means you may lose out to a submission with broader appeal. But if you have choices and are determined to do everything possible to win the contest, you may want to pick a subject that is likely to appeal to a wide range of readers including the judges.

CAVEAT: These blog entries are primarily about sharing ideas and information on a regular basis. They may contain errors in formatting, grammar or spelling.

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Best way to find an agent

May 24, 2008 at 11:45 am (Writing) (, )

Some may argue that querying allows you to fish for agents in a larger pond…and the point is valid. If you have one or more knock-out books that create instant addiction in the reader from page one, you may, indeed, do better querying (assuming you can also create a knock-out query). Not only can you cast a wide net in querying, you can go after the agent you think is perfect for you, at least on paper (assuming such agents are taking on new clients).

However, most writers trying to break into the business are not in a position to choose agents, except by targeting their queries. Rarely do we have agents fighting over us. More often, we feel as if we are playing roulette, hoping we’ll be lucky enough to land in any agent’s slot. And the agent we’ve “won” may or may not be right for us.

That’s where writers’ conferences can help. Not only can you meet agents at conferences and pitch your books, you can sit in on their workshops to learn more about their personalities, their preferences and their hot buttons. An agent who looks good on paper may express a complete dislike of certain styles or subjects that are integral to your work. That would effectively eliminate that agent from your list of choices.

On the other hand, while certain agents’ personalities may clash with yours, you should not cross an agent off your list for personality alone. Some very good agents may come across as extremely abrasive or, at the other end of the spectrum, may seem shy until you get to know them.

Perhaps more important, conferences give you the opportunity to impress the agent with your personailty, your enthusiasm, your marketability.  At a conference, you have the chance to make your book rise above the noise in an agent’s mind by: (a) showing the agent you are a client he/she would enjoy working with, (b) revealing glimpses of your public poise, professionalism and your ability to promote the book, and (c) exuding excitement about your work that will (ideally) “infect” the agent.

At that point, you are no longer just another faceless author sending a query, you are an author with a personality and a certain kind of energy that makes you memorable.

Conferences help you get an agent in another way – though the opportunities have diminished over the years. Occasionally, editors still attend conferences, and you may have the chance to attend their workshops and pitch your work to them as well as to agents. If you find an editor who is interested in seeing your manuscript, you have done a part of the agent’s job and may find it easier to get an agent to represent you, whether during the conference or afterwards.

Typically, agents will only pick you up if they believe they can sell your work and make money.  This makes perfect sense: they depend on the commission they make off their clients’ book sales to pay their own bills.

But it’s not about making boatloads of money (though that would be a nice bonus).  If agents feel a passion for your book, they may be willing to find a home for your specialized or highly literary book at a small press, despite the tiny commission.

Most of the time, agents need to understand and enjoy the kind of books you write.  They typically have relationships with editors who buy such books and know what they are looking for.

Occasionally, however, they may represent subjects/styles they are not as familiar with if they think the book is an easy sell (the subject matter is a hot news topic, you have a strong “platform” or notoriety, or an editor you pitched to at a conference or elsewhere has offered you a contract). 

The bottom line is that meeting an agent at a conference gives you extra advantages not available in the cold querying process.


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Writers Conferences for the Terminally Introverted

May 20, 2008 at 9:56 am (Writing) (, )

You may have seen us, or you may be one of us–those painfully shy people who go to writers conferences to learn more about the craft an the business, to pitch our books and stories to agents and editors, to promote the books we have published. Those who wander like ghosts, nearly invisible, among the living and the gregarious, unable to penetrate the membrane into that social clockwork that drives conversation and leads to interesting new connections and beneficial alliances.

Just last month I was such a wraith, a wandering soul, and I hated it. Swore I’d never go to another conference.  I felt profoundly irelevant, insignificant and uninteresting.

In years past, I’ve attended these events with friends, and/or my agent and her entourage. This year, I had to depend on my own shaky social skills. 

Sure, I know how to walk up to people and talk to them. I meet my tablemates at the meals and carry on conversations with one or more of them. I ask questions in workshops and sometimes chat with the presenters afterwards.

In my professional life, I have worked tradeshow booths, served as media spokesperson for my company, conducted training sessions workshops. I’ve been on TV and national radio promoting my one published book and have spoken before many groups on the book’s subject matter.

 But in those situations, I was there because someone invited me or had come to me, someone was already interested in what I had to say.  Conferences are completely different.

First, there are those who have come with groups who coalesce at meals and between sessions to report back and share their recent experiences.  I wouldn’t want to interrupt one of their conversations, except maybe to ask for the salt or to inquire about the terrific session I’d overheard them talking about. And I certainly would not attempt to insert myself into their well established group.

Then there are those unconnected individuals who have been lucky enough or are skilled enough to make a connection with another individual and are now engaged in a conversation. Again, I would not interrupt their conversations, though I might stand nearby hoping they have just met and will expand their attention to include me.

What is especially surprising, though, is to see speakers/presenters wandering disconnected just like me. These are the folks that dozens or even hundreds of us have crammed into a room to hear talk. They are often quite successful, whether as authors, agents or editors, and can draw a crowd of people when they are offering advice and telling stories about the writing/publishing business.

Yet when the throngs are gone, they too seem hard-pressed to assertively create their own connections, to inject themselves into others’ conversations. Like me, they walk deliberately through the halls, up and down floors, out onto the patio or balconies–as if they have some place to go between sessions, a phone call to make, someone to meet, materials to gather from their hotel rooms.

Even when I stop by or pass them in the hall and ask if they have a minute to chat, they seem quite happy to answer my questions, but when I’ve finished drawing conversation out of them, they seem to run out of gas.  I’d considered that they really did have someplace to be, but a short while later, I’d see them wandering or standing around again, talking to no one.

I try not to comandeer their attention and always release them when I’ve gotten my answers by saying I don’t want to hold them up if they need to be somewhere. And off they go. But I wonder if they left because they didn’t want to talk to me anymore, because they needed to do something, or because they just didn’t know how to keep the conversation going.

I wonder if they are like me: more than able to talk for hours about subjects of interest to them with people they know, yet unable to find those areas of common interest with strangers. I wonder if they too have been considered arrogant or aloof when, in fact, they were merely shy.

The upshot of this latest experience is that I think conference organizers should do more to put introverted people like us together and to help stimulate conversation among us. It has to be more than the usual cocktail reception. It has to involve some kind of buddy system maybe using compatibility matching. People wearing a pink dot, for example, write emotionally evocative stories like romances or tales of friendship and familial bonding. Those wearing brown dots write action, thrillers, etc. 

Or maybe we should just wear special ribbons to identify us as the terminally introverted, so the more socially adept can recognize us and draw us into their circles.

You may notice that nothing in this post asks us to get over ourselves, conquer our fears and become more extroverted.  I’ve been working on my shyness for [#!$%@] decades and, well, you see where I am. I still need help.


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