What’s inside the box?

cropped-ramonagravitar.jpgI hereby declare—since hereby declaring is a popular thing now—that I am all conferenced out.

This temporary condition will certainly  pass, but for the moment, I am unpacked, the suitcase is in the closet, and I have no immediate travel plans.  Give me a week and I’ll be screaming about cabin fever, but for the moment, it feels good to tuck in and enjoy some home time.

But staying home has hazards of its own. Like the rest of the world, every time I walk through the rooms of my house, I think about decluttering. There are still boxes in the basement we have never opened since our move from Pennsylvania 20+ years ago. Part of my fear in opening those boxes is that I will be delighted with whatever forgotten items have been waiting there, and I’ll be adding more instead of embracing less.

Life is full of chancy moments like this, when you don’t know what’s ahead: something you’ll never use, or something you’ll never forget.

A workshop is like an unopened box, I realized this weekend at the Pennwriters Conference.  You have no idea how deeply you’ll connect to the writer presenting or if their shared wisdom will hit you in the right place at the right time. One such moment, when a line is just what  you need to hear today, is a gem.

I came away with three gems from last weekend. The following quotes flew across the room and stuck to me like spaghetti on a wall:

“When the book opens, the villain already has a game plan.” – Gayle Lynds

“The inciting incident is the only scene in your story that can be totally random.” – Hilary Hauck

Wise words, yes? Susan’s advice means to stay on track in planning the action that drives the story. Gayle’s words are a reminder that the villain is always present. Hilary’s quote is an a-ha that the writer is allowed only one freebie from the universe.

Three gems in a single weekend means Pennwriters was a wonderful box to open.

Now, please excuse me. There’s a Mother’s Day hammock in the back yard I need to break in, and I have three takeaways to ponder while I do that. Those boxes in the basement have waited 20  years. Another day won’t hurt them.

Get to Know Louisiana!

Acadian Flag

When my sons were in second grade, their favorite part of the school day was the “Get to Know Me” half hour. At that time, each student got up before the class to talk about himself and share some show and tell about her favorite things. Today’s blog post is a “Get to Know Me” about my home state of Louisiana.

In September, hundreds of crime writers will descend upon the city of New Orleans. If you’ve ever attended a writers’ conference, you’ll know that the venue city can be as much a lure as the gathering of your peers. New Orleans has plenty of lure, and allure, and mysteries in all of its nooks and crannies. Continue reading “Get to Know Louisiana!”

5 Questions About Your Writing

RamonaGravitarConference season will soon begin, and with it the inevitable polite questions at lunch, between workshops, during pitch sessions, and at the bar. Can you answer the following questions with ease?

~ 1. What do you write?

~ 2. What is your current project about?

~ 3. Why did you write this particular story?

~ 4. What published author’s work is like yours?

~ 5. Who is your ideal reader?

These seem like simple questions, but ask #2 to five different writers and you may very well encounter a stumbler, a mumbler, a blowhard, a blank stare, and one articulate response.  Writers write, after all; we’re not necessarily good at giving speeches, even if the speech is a short description of a novel we’ve spent months planning, plotting, and writing.

An articulate response takes practice. So, practice. Imagine yourself during down time at a conference. Visualize the bar or the Saturday night party with a group of hale fellows.  A colleague–a fellow writer, a visiting agent, an editor from the faculty–you met in one of the workshops orders a glass of wine. So do you. You exchange pleasantries (or snark) about the keynote’s dinner address.

And then, because your new colleague friend is polite and this is expected, he asks, “What do you write?”

You answer. “I write _________ (YA, women’s fiction, gritty mysteries, creative nonfiction, middle grade humor).”

“Oh, really? So do I!” New Colleague Friend says. “What’s your current project about?”

And so on. Write out the five questions and five answers. Answer honestly–forget what  you think an agent or editor wants to hear, and write the truth. Think about New Colleague Friend as a friend. After answering all five, read your answers aloud. Do your responses fall trippingly off your tongue? Does this little Q&A sound like a conversation between two like-minded friends?

Or…does saying the lines you wrote make you feel like a robot? Are your answers to these simple questions hard to write out, or overly long, because you don’t have a clear idea of what your project is about, why you wrote it, and what published works are similar to it? Have you never given your ideal reader a thought because who cares about readers, you write to please yourself and only yourself? Are you a stumbler, a mumbler, a blank starer, or a blowhard?

If you answer yes to any of the above, stay out of the bar until  you can articulate easy answers to these five easy questions. All it takes is practice. So, practice.

Addendum: In the coming weeks, I’ll be teaching two online workshops that address how to articulate what you are writing, why you are writing it, and who would enjoy reading it. The first, in  March, is a one week course that will be fast and furious. It is sponsored by the Pittsburgh Chapter of Sisters in Crime, but is open to the public. The second, in April, is two weeks long, and more in depth, and open to members of Sisters in Crime Guppy Chapter.

For information on Submission Preparation: Everything You Need For That Perfect Pitch!, go to the Mary Roberts Rinehart Pittsburgh Chapter of Sisters in Crime website.

A 7-Question Quiz Before Pitching

RamonaGravitarConference season begins soon, which means writers are polishing their pitches and embracing the art of articulating their story concepts. Five minutes—-or perhaps  two—may be all the time you have to convince an agent or editor that your manuscript is worth a look.

To prepare, and not waste time, a lot of writers memorize lines that include word count, genre, title, and hook, because you want to look professional and polished. The danger in the memorized lines is sounding like a robot. And what if the nightmare happens and you choke?

As I have posted about before, I find the 2-minute pitch concept a bit cattle-callish, but it is an opportunity and it’s popular, so I will shelve my reservations and try to be helpful:

A pitch session does not have to be you on one side and an agent/editor on the other, with only memorized lines between you. Reciting pre-packaged lines will make you sound phony, like a telemarketer working from a script that includes all possible scenarios. You don’t want to sound like a machine. You want to be knowledgeable and passionate about the story you have written. However, you don’t want to fumble and sound unsure, or be too sure and sound pompous.

How do you talk about your book without sounding like a salesman, a nervous nelly, or a bore? You treat the pitch like a conversation. Be relaxed (okay, maybe slightly anxious). Be there to TALK. Don’t be the guy who spouts a bunch of buzz words and catch phrases you think the editor/agent will want to hear. Be the guy who is sharing an accurate assessment of your story.

You may have heard the statement that, the more complex the lie, the harder it is to remember. That’s why telling the truth is the easy. You don’t have to think about buzz words or what someone wants to hear. You only have to tell the truth.

Try approaching your pitch with these two concepts in mind:  You are there to talk about your novel. You will tell the truth.

That does not mean you can’t prepare.  Here are two tips and five questions:

  1. The agent/editor will need to know the particulars of your story. Become comfortable with the basics, but don’t sound like a trained monkey. Come up with an engaging sentence that is true: “My book is a contemporary thriller called BAD SALE. It’s set in Nebraska and is about a farmer—-a good guy—who is tricked by a childhood friend into buying bomb making supplies at the hardware store.”
  2. Notice there is no word count in this statement. If the agent/editor wants to know word count, he’ll ask. You’ll answer. Because you know the word count, right? Look at this sentence: “My contemporary thriller BAD SALE is a 95,000 word contemporary thriller set in Nebraska about an honest farmer who is tricked by a childhood friend into buying bomb-making supplies at the hardware store.” <<That’s not a bad log line, but is it conversational? No.  Be conversational. Start by describing your novel as a thriller, tell where it’s set, and give the basic plot premise. When the agent/editor wants to know word count (and he will!) he will ask the question. Answer it:  “It’s 95,000 words.”

This is how conversation works. Someone introduces an interesting topic. If the listener wants to know more, she will ask a question.

Now for more questions you may likely hear from an agent/editor:

  1. What are some other books and authors like yours? A couple of names here, recognizable ones. If there’s an author the agent/editor represents or publishes whose work is like yours, here’s where that goes. TELL THE TRUTH.
  2. Why did you choose my agency/publishing house? This is a legitimate question. Why DID you choose this person to represent you? You must have a reason to think you’d make a good team. Be ready to explain this.  TELL THE TRUTH.
  3. What’s the hook? This gets into telemarketing territory, but you spent a year or more with this novel, so you know it intimately. An agent/editor wants to hear about a setting, a situation, a theme, a special voice, or any number of nebulous factors that would make your story sellable. So, what is it? Only you can answer this. Maybe your hook is that you wrote the book you like to read, and it’s a fun read. Say this with confidence, and I’d buy your book. TELL THE TRUTH.
  4. Why did you write this? If you have expertise, special interest, personal experience or bloodline connect to an aspect of the story, bring it up now. If you don’t, then it’s perfectly fine to say you love cozies, you’ve been reading them since you could read, and you wanted to add to the genre you love. TELL THE TRUTH.
  5. What are you offering an audience? You wrote the story. What do you want to say to the people who read it, through the action, characters, plot, and theme? If the justice system frustrates you and you wrote a story that brings closure to a crime, share that. If you are writing an issue story about failed adoptions because the subject is close to your heart, say that. TELL THE TRUTH.

How do you prepare the above information and turn it into a conversation? Let’s turn the questions into a quiz. Answer the questions below. TELL THE TRUTH. Don’t worry about what you think someone wants to hear. Remember, you’ll have an easier time remember the truth than anything you make up that you think sounds appealing.

Here they are, if you’d like to print and answer:

  1. What are your story’s basics?
  2. What is the word count?
  3. What are some other books and authors similar to yours?
  4. Why did you choose this agency/publisher?
  5. What’s your hook?
  6. Why did you write this?
  7. What are you offering to your audience?

Did you learn anything from this quiz? If so, please share.


4 Post-Conference Tasks

2013logosmall This weekend I had the pleasure of attending and teaching at the Pennwriters annual conference in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. It’s always a joy to head back to Pennsylvania, where I lived for a number of years. Pennwriters is an excellent resource for beginning and experienced writers. The community is generous, savvy, smart and fun.

Now it is post-conference Monday, and my follow up list is calling my  name. What do you do the day (days, week) after a conference?

It’s all about NOTES.


1. Thank you notes: Send a few words to express your gratitude to the organizers and volunteers who made the conference happen. For a big annual conference, you can bet the coordinators donated a year of their lives to ensure the 2-3-4 day event went smoothly. A brief email or written note will show your appreciation for their efforts–and they’ll remember your graciousness.

2. Congratulatory notes: Was there a lifetime achievement award? A writing contest? A volunteer award? Did the luncheon speaker’s message move you? Being feted in front of a big group is great, but it is often a blur. A day or so later, when this person is still in the glow, a “Hey, I think you’re wonderful!” message extends the glow. Do that for someone.

3. Decipher your notes: I taught two workshops and attended 6 or 7 more. My brain is all a-jumble, but I took copious notes. I’ll let them sit a day or two before converting my handwritten scribbles to a file of useful tips and questions. I organizes notes by topic, so for each workshop I attended, I’ll add what I want to remember in files: Short Story Notes; Character Notes; Goal-Setting Notes: Why Donald Maass Thinks We Should Write Good Books Notes. If you have a question about something you jotted down during a workshop, or can’t read your own chicken scratch, try sending a brief email to the instructor to ask for clarification. You might send a note of thanks if the workshop was useful.

4. People notes: I collected a stack of business cards and book marks from the freebie table. I made connections with some lovely people, but am I going to remember what we talked about if I run into this author, agent, editor next year? Will I recall what they’re writing? Probably, but maybe not. On the back of business cards, jot down a reminder: Writes literary short stories…. Is writing a cancer memoir…. Loves Dr. Who!  It’s lovely to be remembered, and no one will ever know if you used an aid to help your memory.

Good manners go a long way in this world, but it’s also good business to be gracious and show your appreciation after a successful event. And the Pennwriters conference was definitely a successful event!




All The Write Stuff blog interview

writestuffIn March, I’ll be an instructor at the Greater Lehigh Valley Writers Group’s annual conference, The Write Stuff.

Conference dates are Thursday-Friday, March 21-22 for pre-conference intensives and events and Friday-Saturday, March 22 and 23 for The Write Stuff conference.

My presentations are Mastering the Art of Self-Editing (pre-conference); a dual workshop on memoir and creative non-fiction called Hard Truths; and a hour-long presentation devoted to Short Stories.

To promote the conference, the GLVWG is presenting a series of interviews on their blog. My interview with Jerry Waxler appears here.

Let’s Talk about Take Aways

The past couple of weeks, folks in my writing world have been on the go, go, go.

I went away to Cape Henlopen State Park for a poetry & prose writers retreat. Mystery writing friends went to a “police academy” for writers, and the city of Cleveland was overrun with crime authors for the Bouchercon conference.  More pals from the great state of Texas met for a weekend and, according to one source, met in a place called the Stagecoach Inn to solve the world’s problem. Oh, and write a bit, too, of course.

Continue reading “Let’s Talk about Take Aways”

How To Prepare for A Writers Conference

What is a Writers Conference?

A Writers Conference is a professional gathering of people involved in the publishing industry. Attendees run the range from writers, illustrators, editors, agents, publishers and techie people.

A year ago, in preparation for the Pennwriters conference, I did a post called Conferences–What to Bring, What to Leave Behind. That was a cheerleadery post meant to encourage writers not to be shy or commit faux pas. The advice remains relevant and true, as cheerleading is one of my specialties.

Today’s post will focus specifically on three conference-related opportunities: Pitches, Read & Critiques, and The Bar.

1 ~ How to Prepare for a Pitch:

A pitch is a short private session between a writer and an assigned editor or agent. A pitch is the author’s chance to sell his story. That’s the official version, the one that will make you crazy, keep you up at night, and make your palms sweat like it’s your first date/arrest/ prostate exam/time in the confessional. If you set the weight of your writing world on five minutes with another human being you believe holds the key to the universe, you’re going to be stressed out. I got stressed out just writing that sentence.

So look at it this way: A pitch is a conversation. You’re going to meet with someone and talk about your story. You love your story, right? You are thrilled to find someone who’ll listen to you discuss your story, right? Take that into your pitch. It’s a conversation.

If you are still nervous about what to talk about in your conversation, consider these three questions:

What are you writing? Why are you writing this story? Who do you think would buy this book?

Think about honest answers to these questions and prepare to chat about them for a few minutes. That’s all you have to do.

If it comforts you to have a memorized log line for your story, try this formula:

Name of story is a word count + genre about a main character who must Story Question before consequences if Story Question is not solved.

2 ~ How to Prepare for a Read & Critique

A Read & Critique is (usually) a round robin type session where a short piece of work is read aloud and verbally critiqued on the spot. Sometimes the feedback comes only from the editor/agent/combo assigned to the sessions. Sometimes other writers in the group chime in.

The best way to prepare for an R&Q session is, first, understand the critiquer is working with no advance look at your work and no time to be diplomatic in response. As a veteran of R&Q, I can tell you it’s difficult to process on the spot, especially work that is delivered orally when you’re accustomed to writing on the page. It feels very Johnny-on-the-spot. Cut the critiquers some slack if a nuance or two is missed.

Second, understand that feedback is subjective–but it’s intended to be an aid and make your work stronger. This translates to Don’t Argue. Don’t Argue doesn’t mean you have to agree with every comment, but defending your work defeats the purpose. Allowing for individual reading levels and styles, if you have to explain what’s on the page to every person in the group, it means what’s on the page isn’t explaining itself.

Third, to prepare for an R&Q session, follow the guidelines. If you are to turn in two pages, don’t turn in one, or three. Read it aloud yourself. If it sounds boring or convoluted to you, the author, guess what? It will sound dull or confusing to the critiquer. Select an opening or vivid scene that best reflects your work and that works in an oral setting. Don’t choose a piece from the middle of a story that includes a lot of pronouns–how can the critiquer know who “he” or “she” is if we haven’t yet met the characters?

Many R&Q sessions are done anonymously. If you have a positive reaction from the agent/editor, by all means seek out that person with a followup email after the conference, to express your appreciation for the helpful comments. Even if that person doesn’t accept work in your genre and you don’t see yourself working with them, it’s good to hear from this end that the session did some good. Likewise, if you have a constructive criticism about the session, I would listen to it–in an email after the conference, not button holed in the bathroom or while I’m attempting to enjoy my down time. Which leads me to….

3 ~ How to Work the Conference Bar

The Bar may not be the bar-bar, it may be the Hospitality Room, the meet-n-greet area, the foyer, or the actual bar. It’s the place where attendees gather between or after workshops.

Making contacts with editors, agents and publishers at a conference is fabulous. But on a day-to-day, practical level, it’s the contacts with your colleagues and fellow writers that will serve you best. Publishing is a small little world. We are like-minded individuals with similar goals and interests, even if we cross genres. The bar is the place to make friends. Contacts and networking aside, ask people who are repeat attendees at a conference and I’ll bet the majority will offer this as the primary reason for attending year after year: To see writer friends.

Sidle up to the bar, the bench, the pool or pull up a piece of carpet wherever your colleagues are gathering and jump in. Make some writer friends.


Tomorrow’s Topic: How to Stop Stalling

How To Follow Up a Writers Conference

Writers conferences come in many shapes and sizes, but after a good one, a writer walks away with a slew of notes, a bundle of new contacts, and a host of opportunities. Here are five things to do ASAP after a writers conference.

1 ~ Express appreciation: Conferences don’t present themselves and few (if any?) conference chairs are salaried positions. This year’s conference chair donated a hefty portion of his/her life planning, booking, organizing, and troubleshooting an event that involves the care, feeding, and teaching of hundreds of people. A written note, an email, a Facebook post, a tweet, a box of chocolates—the medium doesn’t matter, just send a thumbs up to the folks who brought the whole shebang together. Everyone from the conference chair to the hotel guy who set out the chairs, put on a team effort.

Equally, if you had a legitimate issue, or a helpful suggestion for next year, wait a few days and then send a polite note to the person you believe can take care of it. No need to alert the world, or bother someone over something they can’t control, but if an issue is real, the organizer will want to know.

2 ~ Keep in touch: There are a couple of ways to do this. First, all those business cards you picked up from the freebie table, a workshop, or at lunch? Spread them out on your desk.

If you’d like to continue or develop a meaningful exchange with someone, this is the time to send out a Facebook friend request, to follow on Twitter or any other social media you use. If you want to stay in touch through email, send out a note saying so. A handwritten note by post is also lovely. However you reach out, do it now.

If you shared a fabulous dinner, if someone helped out in a workshop, if you have mutual friends or writing contacts, if you spoke about their writing—jot it down on the back of the card. When you’re done, rubber band them and write the name of the conference and year. If you plan to attend next year, dig out this bundle before the conference and refresh your memory. Reviewing last year’s business cards helps you recall your good time, and people like to know they’ve been remembered. There’s nothing wrong with using a memory aid.

3 ~ Tame the paper collection. You probably have pages of scribbles and handouts. Now that your desk is cleared of business cards, cover it again with notes and handouts.

For handouts, those you took to be polite but won’t ever use? Toss ’em. No one will know. Those you want to keep, put in a file folder, binder or whatever means you use to store craft materials. Please DO NOT make copies and/or post on your blog, hand out to your critique partners, or distribute handouts unless you have permission from the workshop leader. Free distribution of the handouts, without permission, is not okay. If you want to to share with a particular group for a particular reason, send a note to the person who put together the handout. I would always say yes to sharing with a small critique group. For redistribution on a larger scale, I might say yes provided I am given credit and my name remains on the handout.

For your notepad covered with advice, tips, what to do and what not to do, quotes, names, books you should read….The longer you wait, the harder it will be to read your sloppy handwriting. Decipher it now.

4 ~ Respond to the professionals: Did you attend a kickass workshop on query writing? Listen to someone teach you how to organize your writing day? Take part in a read & critique? Get inspired by a keynote speech? Send an email expressing what helped or what you enjoyed. Be specific. As a workshop leader, I can tell you it is meaningful and helpful when someone writes and says, I really was intrigued by your tips on how to end a chapter. That tells me, hey, that worked! I need to know that for the future, and I appreciate anyone who takes the trouble to help me.

5 ~ Send requested partials, full manuscripts and so on, if requested  by an agent or editor. If you had a successful pitch session or chatted with an agent who asked to see something from you….well, I probably don’t need to put out a reminder on this one, do I?


Tomorrow’s Topic – How To Use an Ellipsis Versus a Dash

Conferences–What to Bring, What to Leave Behind

How do you get the most out of a writer’s conference? What do you bring, and what do you leave behind? Think about the following the next time you head out to spend a day, or days, with your colleagues.

BRING:  Confidence! Writers from the full spectrum—published to novice—attend conferences but everyone is there to share and learn.  So share! Raise your hand and ask that question. Participate in that activity. Be the brave soul who breaks the ice and the workshop leader will remember you, with gratitude.

LEAVE BEHIND: Shyness. Look around at the folks gathered in the room or auditorium. You all share a bond: A love of reading and the desire to write. What better starting point to find friends and colleagues? These are your people. Smile. Introduce yourself. Interact with your colleagues. No matter what your experience, you belong. Act like it!

BRING: An open mind. Every workshop leader has an individual style. Maybe you don’t normally do character activities or read aloud what you wrote on the spot, but programs are designed to help in a particular way. Participate fully. You may learn something if you try–but you won’t if you don’t.

LEAVE BEHIND: That Guy. Or Gal. You know the One. The One who is obstinate and defensive—and maybe angry—who complains that editors, agents, instructors—all of them, all the time—just “don’t get” their work. The One who takes up an unfair amount of workshop time ranting about the unfairness of it all. It’s a conference, not a therapy session.

BRING: A give-and-take networking plan. Conferences are great places to meet and greet peers, to hear about local or regional events, to search for potential critique groups and to get yourself out there in the literary world.

LEAVE BEHIND: Blatant BSP. If there’s a table or area to set out your promotional materials, great! Take advantage of that. But the folks who hand out their own bookmark or PR materials, unsolicited, to everyone in a workshop? Not cool. The workshop is the leader’s gig.  Mind your manners.  

BRING: Business cards, postcards, flyers, materials that you can share about yourself and your work. Put them out in the public areas or share them, privately, with the instant pals you make at lunch or between sessions.

LEAVE BEHIND: Your full manuscript, which you plan to press on an editor/agent/teacher who can’t say no because you put them on the spot. Don’t do that. Nobody wants you to do that.

BRING:  Fairness. If you enjoyed a session, follow up with a note to the leader. If a workshop didn’t meet your expectations, note that on the comment sheet. If you can articulate exactly why it let you down, in a fair and helpful manner, all the better. Not all workshops are a rousing success. Leaders have off days. It’s okay to express your disappointment. Just try to be constructive about it.

LEAVE BEHIND: Pettiness. If the workshops were boring because you already know it all, and nobody approached you first to talk to you, and everyone left behind your PR materials on the tables of somebody else’s workshop…take a hint. Your conference-going plan needs some work.

Are you attending a conference sometime soon? Been to a great one you wouldn’t miss for the world? Made a friend, learned a lesson? Tell me about it!