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:

“Plot the conflict.” – Susan Meier

“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”