Posts Tagged ‘ La Jolla Writers Conference ’

What Agents Want, a conversation with Kevan Lyon

Many writers have heard the advice that going to a writers conference is how you meet agents, and it’s true. With literary agent, Kevan Lyon, I had more than just the opportunity to network, I got to engage in a lively discussion in a room full of unpublished writers. So, what do agents want?

“Remember that agents write query letters too,” Ms. Lyon begins. She discusses her own approach to crafting a query letter that sells the work, advising a three-sentence limit for telling the agent what happens in your story and a three to four paragraph limit for the whole letter.

“Give me an action description, high-concept of what your book is about–captivate me,” she says, and then shares a few of her pet peeves:

  • Query each agent only once.
  • Don’t make multiple submissions obvious.
  • Put the word query in your email submission’s subject line.
  • No typos!
  • Don’t tell the agent which publisher she should sell to–that’s her job.
  • Your story should have no background tangents in the first 150 pages.
  • There should be no single spacing in your manuscript.

And just as she reminds writers that agents have to write query letters too, she assures us that agents really do hope to love what we send them.


Why Bad Things Happen To Good Book Ideas, a workshop with Dale Fetherling

Dale is an author, editor, teacher, and a great workshop facilitator. This workshop focused on the art of crafting a winning nonfiction book proposal. He began with two tough questions for anyone with a book idea:

  • Is the idea viable?
  • Are you the person to write it?

These are the questions on a publisher’s mind when she reads your proposal. So the author’s job is to get the publisher or editor to answer these questions with a resounding Yes! YES!

Dale begins with the creation of a solid hook. A few hook-writing approaches he suggests you employ:

  • nifty anecdote
  • bold statement
  • first person statement
  • compelling statistics

And then he talks about placing that hook right up front, in the first page of your proposal. In fact, the first page of your proposal, or any query letter, ought to have a series of three engaging hooks:

  • subject hook
  • book hook
  • author hook

Dale also offers a fantastic handout, The Anatomy of a Book Proposal. Here are the basics:

First third, 5-15 pages

  • overview: your compelling, detailed case for the subject, the book, and the author
  • market: why will this book sell well?
  • promotion: what are you going to do to help the publisher sell your book?
  • competing titles: up to six published titles that compete with your project
  • author credentials: why are you the right person to write this book?

Middle third, 10-25 pages

  • chapter outline

Final third, 20-40 pages

  • sample chapter

Dale reviews each of these projects in detail, but most compelling are his suggestions about the competing titles list and the market section. These sections typically overwhelm writers, no matter how enthused we are about our ideas.

An author needs to get very clear on exactly who will buy the book, Dale says. And exactly how are you and the publisher going to reach those readers? The research into competing titles can shed light on this question. Go to a big bookstore, and to Amazon, and to the library, and begin to compile a list. You’ll want to pare it down to no more than six titles eventually, but start out looking for books that relate to yours in these ways:

  • What is the classic work on this subject?
  • What major publishing successes exist on this topic?
  • What has been published recently on this topic?

Finally, Dale’s compiled a fascinating list of ten major reasons book proposals are rejected. Check out Dale Fetherling’s site. If you write to him, he might just share his list with you.

Whispering To Kids, Deborah Halverson shares her secrets

Mother of triplets, former kids books editor, and award-winning author Deborah Halverson knows how to write for kids. She kicks off her workshop with a very important and unique fact about kid lit: you are writing for two audiences. You knew that, right? You’ve got to entertain the kids and the adults who are reading to the kids. And, she points out, you have fewer words at your disposal to tell the same kind of story novelists tell.

So what secret weapons does Deborah suggest for the aspiring kid lit writer? First she shares the elements all stories employ:

  • point of view
  • sentence structure and paragraphing
  • balance of dialogue and narrative
  • tone

Then she expands that list to a few kid lit-specific tricks:

  • the page turn
  • juxtaposition of text and art
  • length limit
  • the read aloud factor

Wow! Kid lit writers really do have all the fun! The narrative voice for a picture book, Deborah says, should have big personality. Here are a few types of narrative voice styles to play with:

  • formal
  • playful
  • regional
  • colloquial
  • poetic
  • rhythmical

Bu speaking of rhythm and rhyme, Deborah has some strong opinions. “Rhyming is so hard to do right,” she warns. “New writers of picture books should avoid rhyme. Instead, create rhythm. Include alliteration and sounds of words that work together.” She emphasizes the importance of the sound of your words. “Never accept a word that does the job. Find the word that’s fun to say, that makes your face do funny things. You have very few words. Make each one count.”

There Is No Magical Formula, one-muse gal, Eileen Goudge

Another New York Times bestselling author, Eileen Goudge, delivered a keynote at the conference, and since I was enjoying a meal, I didn’t take a lot of notes. But I did find her story engaging and her words wise. She speaks of writing like someone who truly lives a writer’s life. Here are a few choice quotations to inspire you:

You can court many muses, but marry only one.

It’s not a hobby; it’s not a part-time job.

It’s about finding time to do all the other things that get in the way of my writing.

There is no magic formula. There is only hard work and the willingness to take criticism.

How To Write Dialogue, the wisdom of Mike Sirota

I always attend the La Jolla Writers Conference with my dad, and he encouraged me sit in on Mike Sirota‘s dialogue-writing workshop for good reason. Sirota offers a wealth of information on the subject. Here are the highlights:

Read Writing Dialogue, by Tom Chiarella.

Dialogue is one of the places where you lose the reader. Usually, after the opening hook, it’s the next big “risk point.” And what should dialogue do?

  • reveal character
  • reveal plot
  • lend emotion
  • lend background and local color

Dialogue shows rather than tells. “Except when it tells,” says Mike with a smirk. And then he goes on to offer some balance percentages. How much of your story should be dialogue versus narrative? Mike suggests 60% narrative and 40% dialogue. Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men offers a classic exmaple of this rule broken in a novel because it is about 80% dialogue. “But it was originally a play,” Mike points out.

Mike packs his workshop with useful dialogue writing tips. Here are a few:

  • Become an eavesdropper. Study how people really talk by paying attention to overheard conversation.
  • Leave out the $20 words. Nobody uses them.
  • Don’t worry about grammar and not-words, such as goin’ or gonna. Write the way you hear the speech.
  • When your character has an accent or dialect difference, don’t try to translate everything he says with phonetic spelling. Instead, choose key words to communicate the sound of the accent. Your reader will get it and fill in the rest.

Mike also discussed how to use dialogue tags, such as he said and she said:

  • Use dialogue tags sparingly.
  • If you’ve created unique characters with unique voices, you will need fewer clarification tags.
  • Switch up placement of tags. “Oh no,” he said. He said, “Oh no!” “Oh,” he said. “No!”
  • Many authors and fiction experts insist that the only proper dialogue tag verb is said, but that doesn’t have to be a hard-and-fast rule. If someone really is replying, use he replied.
  • But adverbs in your dialogue tags are DEATH! Avoid stuff like he said longingly.
  • With no indicator tag, a reader can follow only 3-4 lines of dialogue before she gets lost.
  • Use tags as necessary: Is it obvious who’s speaking? Is it something only she would say? Does it only make sense if he says it?
  • Use narrative to replace dialogue tags. An action by a character adjacent to a quotation indicates that the same character who took action spoke the next line. For example: “Get over here!” Kristy wiggled a finger at him.

Mike also warns against two types of bad dialogue:

Irrellevent Dialogue: stuff nobody would say under the circumstances

Contrived Dialogue: a character tells you a story you need for the narrative to work

Convincing Characters, the mind of Verna Dreisbach

If you are accepted by Dreisbach Literary Management, her website reads, it is because Verna has faith in your abilities as a writer and feels a connection with your goals and aspirations. And that was exactly the sense I got from listening to Verna speak about character development–that she is the sort of literary agent who’s truly devoted to the art of literature. What impressed me most about Verna Dreisbach was the confessed goal of her current writing project. She’s writing a novel-length character study in order to prepare for writing a novel. Now this is someone I want teaching me about character development.

What else does Ms. Dreisbach want the writers she represents to do to develop their characters? Plenty.

ReadThe Art of Fiction, by John Gardner.

And read Aristotle. “The middle section of The Rhetoric of Aristotle is all about human emotion,” she says and passes around her own copy, dog-eared, written-in, and heavily bookmarked. She uses Aristotle to explore an important question: what is the mental state of emotion? Philosophy, she says, is great for understanding human nature, resolution, and motivation. Study what you are writing. The more you put in, the more you get in return.

Yeah, like write 50,000 words of character development before you write a word of the novel in which you plan to have your characters actually doing something. This woman is serious. I loved her.

There’s believable and there’s convincing, she says. And successful fiction is convincing. What’s the difference?

Believable shares a character’s experiences, circumstances, and background. But convincing exposes the character’s emotions, desires, deep beliefs, and transformations. You can create convincing characters if you can go deep. What moves your character? What motivates her? What scares her? The willingness to go to the bare emotions, the personal stuff, is what makes a character work.

Treat character revelation like dating. Let the reader slowly get to know the characters, be seduced into going to dinner. Then maybe we’ll want to spend a weekend, and if the weekend goes well, maybe the reader will want your character to move in.

Do more with description and dialogue. Dialogue tells the reader: pay attention, I’m going to let you see something about this character. Description can be an opportunity to deepen character: what does your character’s appearance tell the reader about her inner beauty?

I’ll tell you about inner beauty. It’s the inner mind of Verna Dreisbach. She’s a writer and a reader, but most of all, she’s a thinker. And I like the way she thinks.

Three-thousand Words a Day, the amazing Jane Green

I enjoyed Jane Green‘s keynote address so much, that I bee-lined to her workshop on emotional honesty in writing. What really impressed me? Well, I’m a sucker for a charmer, and this bestselling queen of chick lit is that. But she also knocked my socks off when somebody asked about her daily writing goals. This woman pumps out 3,000 words a day! WriMos, eat your hearts out!

In her workshop, Jane facilitated several writing exercises. The first one: make a list of all your identities. “For instance,” she explains in her delightful British lilt. “I am a writer, a friend, a teacher, a keynote speaker, and so on. Write down as many as you can identify.”

Most of us came up with at least twenty nouns we could use to describe ourselves.

“Now adjectives,” Jane instructs. “Write down as many as you can think of to describe yourself.” My own lengthy list ranged from creative to sassy to downright bitchy.

And now the big, heavy question about your character development: Do you know each of your characters as well as you know yourself? Well, you should, says Jane. You should be able to list as many identity words, brother, sister, lover, fighter, author, bottle-washer, for your characters as you can for yourself. And it’s the same for adjectives.

Try it. Set a timer–give yourself five minutes to make your lists for yourself and as much time as you need to come up with equally long lists for your characters. It’s not easy, but it’s worthwhile.

Because, according to Jane, you need to know your main character very very well before you write even the first word of her story.

Jane also discusses the art of observing interesting characters all around you. “There is nothing wrong with picking someone who fascinates you and writing about that character.”

She led another exercise on this theme, asking us to think about someone we’d noticed in the past 24 hours.

Try it. Pick somebody on your next bus ride, your next trip to the grocery store. What do you notice about this person? Now write about it. See what kind of character you can develop.

“We remember people,” says Jane. “Not by what they say or do but by how they make us feel.”