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Archives for August, 2009

Warning: Rookie backstory mistake shown to cause rejection letters.

Rejection letters happen to everybody. And it’s easy to feel helpless, especially when the rejections keep coming even after you do everything you can to ensure that your manuscript doesn’t suck. But there’s no need to flounder around in hopeless despair. Today I’m going to help you avoid one rookie mistake that could be the source of your rejection letters.

By “ensuring that your manuscript doesn’t suck,” I simply mean that you have applied the fundamentals of writing and story craft: You can string a sentence together, your premise has emotional appeal, inherent conflict, and rising stakes, and you’ve created interesting characters and put them into challenging situations.

Assuming you’ve done all that, the problem comes with how you show your characters to the reader. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen a writer sabotage an otherwise interesting and engaging novel by including a whole lot of backstory about their characters. When this happens, I can just feel that prospective agent putting the manuscript into the “no thanks” pile. Frankly big, indigestible lumps of backstory make me want to put the manuscript down too.

Here’s the thing: you may well have spent hours figuring out your characters’ histories in endless detail. You’ve done it so that you can understand what makes these people tick, what their emotional baggage is, and how they’ll respond in any situation. Good. That’s how you keep them realistic and believable.

But that doesn’t mean you need to put it in the book.

If you’ve been writing novels for any length of time, you’ve probably heard that advice already. Long passages of backstory interrupt the action. They kill the pacing. They bring the story to a dead stop. That’s totally true. And that’s one reason your manuscript will land in the “no thanks” pile.

Unfortunately, backstory is a double-whammy: Backstory creates a second, deeper problem that has nothing to do with pacing and momentum.

When a literary agent picks up your submission, they’re just like you and me: they want to get involved with the story. They want to be engrossed. Captivated. But even novels that execute on all the fundamentals of writing and story craft can fail to captivate an agent because of backstory.

It goes like this. A key technique for keeping readers engaged, interested, and turning pages is to raise questions (again, advice you’ve probably heard already if you’ve been writing novels for any length of time). If something you write makes the reader wonder something about your story, they’ll keep reading to find the answer.

Just about the strongest form of question you can raise—the most compelling type of hook you can employ—are questions about your characters. What happened to them when they were eleven that they won’t talk about even at age forty? Why do they take a seven mile detour on their way to work every day? Why do they insist on leaving their shoes untied? Whatever the question is, if you’ve raised it in the right way, readers will be really curious to learn the answer. Usually, because the answer has to do with whatever deep-seated emotional issues the character is grappling with. That’s powerful stuff. Readers love those kinds of mysteries.

And don’t forget, agents are just readers who have the power to help you get published. So keep them interested by raising questions about your characters.

With that in mind, the problem with backstory should be obvious: Backstory answers all the questions, often before the reader even thinks to ask them. Backstory destroys the mystery. Backstory leaves them with nothing left to wonder about your characters.

Remember, it’s the characters who drive the plot, not the other way around. When you include a lot of backstory, you give away more than half the game right there; readers—agents—may still be mildly curious to know what’s going to happen, but if they’re not curious about the characters as well then there’s very little reason for them to care. Five pages into the novel and the story may as well be over.

As a writer, you must exercise an extraordinary amount of restraint and caution in what you tell readers about your characters, especially early in the book. I’ll go as far as to say that if you include more than a paragraph of backstory about anybody in the first 5,000 words of your novel, you should cut it. The more you control your impulse to explain everything about your characters, the more you deepen the mystery, captivate your readers, and engross them in your story.

You must create and preserve your characters’ secrets. You must do this to keep readers curious. You must do this so that later, at the right moment, when the reader’s anticipation has been built up as high as you can push it, you can finally solve the mystery.

This is another reason why beginnings, those first few scenes and chapters of a novel, are so hard to write. It can be a challenge to find the delicate balance between saying something about your characters, but not too much. Yet you must do it, and creating mystery is a great guideline for how: Whatever you say in those critical opening pages, make sure it creates mystery rather than destroys it.

Don’t make a rookie mistake. Cut the backstory, unless you like those form rejection letters.

Addendum: I just finished reading Rebecca Stead’s Newberry-award winning book When You Reach Me. It is a textbook example of creating and preserving mystery by eliminating backstory. And a hell of a good book as well.

August 28, 2009 16:41 UTC

Tags: character, backstory, mystery, curiosity, openings

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Why Jane Smokes: What every writer ought to know about habits

We are, all of us, creatures of habit. Our characters should be too. In this article I’m going to expose a technique used by successful writers to create distinctive, lively characters readers can really believe in.

Take a couple of minutes and make a list of your own habits. No need to write it down or anything, just contemplate your habits, both good and bad. Consider personal habits like biting your nails, smoking, or jogging two miles a day; speech patterns like saying “you know” three times in every sentence or beginning all your sentences with “well,” or “so"; habits of dress and grooming like never leaving the house without a tie or without first washing your face; driving habits like speeding, tailgating, or relentlessly coming to a full and complete stop at every stop sign.

I’ve got at least 10 habits that pop readily to mind. And no, I’m not going to tell you what they all are (although starting sentences with “and,” “but,” and “so” is one).

Now do the same for people you know. Your husband or wife, a friend, a co-worker. Do those people have habits that are quintessentially theirs? Ones that define them almost to the point of caricature? I find it hard to imagine the people I know without their habits. My perception of them is strongly colored by their habits, and surely their perceptions of me are similarly colored by mine.

Although we may not think of them in this way, habits are a great tool for showing character in real life. So why not use them in your fiction as well? There are three reasons why you should.

First, habits create believability. You’ve probably heard the general advice to add evocative details to your writing: Weird, idiosyncratic tidbits that seem to come out of nowhere. Habits do the same for our characters, but they do it across the whole span of the book, not just in a given scene. That is, you can’t just show a character nervously biting his nails once and have it be effective. You must show it often enough to cement that in the reader’s image of the character.

A word of caution: take care in choosing what habits to give your characters. Some habits are so strongly associated with underlying psychologies that they have become tired cliches. Try to find habits that are a little more distinctive, yet don’t destroy the underlying motive of believability. You want to find a comfortable space between what is banal and what is downright strange.

Second, habits "show, don’t tell". On the surface, habits can create colorful, believable characters. But you should strive to go deeper by using the habit as a representation of something meaningful about a character. For example, you could have a character who smokes. She’s not a chain smoker, not a true addict, but rather someone who has come to use cigarettes as a form of avoidance. When forced to confront a difficult or uncomfortable situation, she lights up. On the surface, she’s telling herself “I just need to steady my nerves,” but really it’s just a way to avoid dealing with something difficult, if only for a few minutes. If this is how you portray the habit, then it gives you a convenient shorthand for referring to that entire aspect of the character’s psychology through showing, rather than telling. Telling would be this:

Jane paused before knocking on Sean’s door. She knew she had to break up with him, but dreaded the inevitable scene. She decided to put it off for a few minutes by lighting up a cigarette.

Yeah, that makes me yawn too. Showing would be this:

Jane stood before the door to Sean’s apartment. She raised her hand to knock, but then reached into her purse for a Virginia Slim. She took a long drag, and blew the smoke out into the night air. God damn, she thought, why are men so difficult?

With a little effort most underlying psychological motivations can be connected with an appropriate habit, and usually to great effect.

Third, habits set up dramatic reversals. When a habit is a core part of how we perceive a character, we are strongly affected to see the character violate the habit. Violating the habit is powerful because it is a reversal: you’ve led the reader to expect one thing, but have then given them something different. That is, when we’ve seen Jane light up when under stress seven times before, you can really grab our attention in an eighth scene by showing Jane not lighting up.

But you can’t just do it as a meaningless surprise. After all, if she violates the habit, we’re going to wonder why. If you have properly used the habit as shorthand for Jane’s deeper avoidance issues, then the answer is obvious: When we see her not light up we immediately know that she has grown as a character. She has reached a point where, at least in one instance, she doesn’t want to avoid a difficult situation. She’s ready to face it head-on. The reversal is itself powerful, but it is also dramatic because it clearly shows Jane’s grit and determination. And all you have to do is make her put the cigarette down, unlit.

Exploiting habits is a powerful technique for confronting the challenge of creating distinctive, believable characters. But don’t feel like you have to plan these things out ahead of time. Often it is easiest simply to write until you find yourself stuck, asking “how can I show Jane’s determination and growth?” At that point, you can invent a habit for her to break. You must, of course, go back to earlier scenes and add the habit back in, but that’s ok. The power of a well-chosen habit to show character is entirely worth the effort.

August 24, 2009 23:11 UTC

Tags: character, habits, smokes, believability, drama, reversals, distinctive, shorthand, show don't tell

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Getting the bones right

I’m going to take another little departure from character development tips today to address a question I hope every writer is asking themselves: When is the right time to involve an editor in the creation of your novel?

This question actually came up at the PNWA conference a couple of weeks ago, during the Q&A session I was in with one of the conference’s other book doctors. An audience member asked if she should wait to find a good editor until her manuscript was finished, or until she had done her own edit pass on it first, or what.

My answer to her was “As soon as possible. Now would be good. Let me give you my card.” Because seriously, the earlier I get to see the story the more I can help.

This never happens, but ideally writers would contact me as soon as they get a solid idea for a premise. They’d e-mail me and say “I’ve got this idea for a book. It’s a paranormal mystery with comedy and romance themes, sort of I Dream of Jeannie meets X-Files. What do you think?”

Ok, so I just made that up. But we’d kick the idea around and I’d help them build their initial premise into something stronger, something with what literary agent Donald Maass calls “gut appeal". I’d help shape that premise into something that has the potential to be a really interesting book, by eliminating elements that might distract from the core concept, ensuring that the premise has appropriate levels of conflict and stakes built right into it, and helping the author find the right focus for the story.

That never happens, but it sure would be nice. I think forlornly about all the books I’ve seen that were trying to be too many things, to fit into too many genres. Books which had a surplus of subplots but didn’t pick any of them to be the main plot. I think about all the time those writers spent banging their heads against problems they could sense, but didn’t know how to fix because the problems were deeply structural in nature. They’d have been easy to fix at the premise stage, but they often imply a major re-write to fix once the first draft is done.

This next thing never happens either: After I helped a writer get their premise squared away, they would go off and build it out into a whole plot, which they would describe in a nice, detailed outline. Ideally, they’d break the whole thing down into chapters and scene-by-scene sequences within each chapter. They’d send me that and then I’d make sure the plot actually works.

This is the time for eliminating sub-plots that don’t add enough to the main story, collapsing redundant minor characters into single, less-minor characters (if not cutting them entirely), finding the story’s themes, ensuring that they’re touched upon at appropriate times, and identifying ideas that don’t quite rise to the level of themes but could if strengthened. This is the time to look at the story’s overall pacing, to make sure it’s fast and slow at appropriate moments, to make sure the story provides drama everywhere, that the stakes are both plausible yet rising, and (for those thriller authors especially) to ensure that the sense of tension mounts with each passing scene.

Get all that done, and you’ll know the bones of the story are right. You’ll know the story’s skeleton has the appropriate number and placement of arms, legs, and heads. Only when you know you haven’t conceived of some sort of seven-armed, legless, three-headed mutant Cerberus of a story—and only then—would the writer sit down to write that first draft.

But, alas, that never happens. Writers get an idea, half-formed as all initial ideas are, and they start straight in on chapter one, scene one. To take Stephen King’s metaphor, their initial kernel of an idea is nothing more than a fragment of bone sticking up through dry, rocky ground. They rarely take the time to discover the actual fossil buried beneath. They start writing before they really understand what it is they’ve found.

Every writer has their own process, and I know I’m bound to spark some ire in writers who love the joy of jumping into that first page to discover the story through the writing process. They’ll argue that planning everything out ahead of time like that eliminates the possibility of having those spontaneous moments of inspiration, when suddenly you realize how great it would be if the main character’s paranormal love interest turned out not to be paranormal after all, but merely possessed by the spirit of the person whose murder is the crux of the story’s central mystery. Or whatever.

I understand that concern. Discovery through writing really is fun, and that’s hard to give up. All I can say is that from my own personal experience this concern is unfounded. I plan the crap out of my novels before I write them, mostly as a paranoid defense against writer’s block: I can’t get blocked if I always know what scene comes next. But I have yet to write a novel that didn’t end up deviating from my plan, sometimes in large ways and sometimes in small, when those flashes of inspiration hit me.

You can, after all, only do so much thinking ahead of time. You can anticipate and avoid the big problems—and I argue that you should. But you can’t anticipate every little nuance of the story. As you write it, you’ll see possibilities in your outline that weren’t evident before. But guess what? Because you already understand your story on a deep, structural level, you’ll know immediately whether that brainstorm is a helpful idea or a dud. You’ll be able to see, right away, how that idea fits in with the structure you’ve outlined. You’ll know where to add that great plot twist, what character’s mouth to send that critical clue out of, or whatever it might happen to be.

Yeah, the jump-in-and-write strategy works for some writers. To paraphrase one of my personal heroes Elizabeth Lyon, it even “occasionally results in a manuscript that is worth improving.” But for most of us, jump-in-and-write is nothing but a recipe for spending a lot of time on a story that’s going to end up with fatal flaws. Yes, it’s good practice for our surface-writing craft, but why not spend some time beforehand working on deep structure first? Before you jump in, figure out how deep the pool is.

It’s easy to fix writing that’s rough on the surface but solid underneath. I can totally help with that. But if you send me a story with deep structural flaws—those seven armed, three headed beasts—no amount of surface editing in the world is going to fix them. I’ll still happily find and show you those structural flaws, so jump in and write if you want to. By all means take advantage of inspiration. Strike while the iron is hot and all that. But jump in with the understanding that ninety-five times out of a hundred, you’re setting yourself up for a mountain of re-writing later just to get the bones right. Mere editing won’t do it.

If you’re cool with that, I won’t stop you. Otherwise, do yourself a big favor and get some skilled eyes onto your premise and outline before you write that first draft.

August 13, 2009 20:09 UTC

Tags: bones, story structure, deep structure, PNWA, premise, Donald Maass, outline, themes, pacing, drama, rising stakes, rising tension, Stephen King, fossil, inspiration, Elizabeth Lyon, writer's block

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The five stages of grief

There’s nothing worse than a book where the characters simply don’t act like real people. I’m not talking about action books where ninja-like characters with finely honed skills fly from building-top to building-top as casually as if they were stepping out to pick up the morning paper. What I’m talking about are books where the characters do not act in emotionally credible ways.

We’ve all seen this. The classic example (which is one reason why I titled this article “The Five Stages of Grief") is when a one character dies and a surviving character fails to grieve appropriately. Obviously, the level of grief that is appropriate will vary depending on the relationship the writer has created between those two characters. But all too often writers simply omit entirely any kind of natural and expected emotional response.

Emotional credibility is key to creating believable characters.

It’s not just about grief, although grief is an obvious and dramatic case. You have to do this everywhere. In every situation in your whole novel, your characters must display credible emotional responses, or the whole book is going to fall flat.

Most of us are familiar with the psychological concept of “The Five Stages of Grief.” It is a pattern, a predictable sequence, of emotional responses that normal human beings go through when confronted with tragedy. The other reason I titled this article “The Five Stages of Grief” (and yes, I’m going to repeat that phrase a lot, because you need to learn it) is because those stages are a road map for producing emotional credibility in your scenes, and thus, creating believable characters.

So what are the Five Stages of Grief? Whole books have been written to answer that question, but briefly:

  1. Denial: Simple, literal disbelief that the tragedy, whatever it is, is real. Denial is disbelief even in the face of hard evidence. Nobody wants to have a tragedy happen to them or to a loved one, so the immediate emotional response is simply to deny it. This isn’t rational, but it’s what normal human beings do.

  2. Anger: After getting past denial, once a person confronts the ugly fact that the tragedy is real, comes anger. Simple ire and rage that this tragedy should have happened at all, or often, that it has happened to them personally.

  3. Bargaining: Once the anger passes, bargaining is the natural inclination to try to strike a deal with whatever authority figure is relevant to the tragedy, be it God, a physician, a policeman, an insurance adjuster, whoever. After anger, people will try to negotiate their way out of the tragedy in one way or another. This, I must add, should almost always prove to be a futile exercise.

  4. Depression: Denial didn’t work; the tragedy didn’t go away by ignoring it. Anger didn’t work; the tragedy can’t be scared off. Bargaining was a flop; what’s done is done. With all strategies for un-doing the tragedy exhausted, the natural response is to be sad about it. This can range from being mildly bummed out to full-blown clinical depression, but this is what comes next.

  5. Acceptance: Finally, when all is said and done, a person moves to acceptance. The person comes to a place where they may not be happy about the tragedy, but they’ve accepted the immutable reality of it and have decided to move on with their lives. This is when the person starts to act again, to really live again, by making the best of their situation.

That’s your road map. Whenever your characters are faced with tragedy, we’d better see them exhibit those emotional responses, or we’re going to have an awfully hard time believing in them as real people.

I wish this psychological road map wasn’t labeled with the word “grief,” because that implies that the road map only applies when characters face truly dire, truly tragic situations. Although I’ve used the word “tragedy” in the above descriptions, the truth is that the five stages apply to all kinds of tragedies, large or small. Although this model of emotional response originated through studies of people faced with terminal illness and other truly life-changing situations, where serious grief is in play, the road map applies everwhere.

As writers, we need to learn to generalize this framework. Call it “The Five Stages of Misfortune” if it helps, but understand that this model applies at all scales. On a grand scale, you could write a five-book epic about a character learning to come to terms with a true tragedy, devoting a whole book to that person’s processing of each stage. On a small scale, the whole five-stage drama can flash by in a couple of paragraphs, for calamities that are much less consequential to the character’s life.

Depending on the situation, you have a lot of leeway with the five stages. The stages don’t always come strictly one after the other. They often overlap. Sometimes you can skip a stage. But by and large, we should see hints of all five as the ripples that spread from each misfortune you subject your characters to.

Let’s take a quick example of how, even in a very short scene or very brief moment from a story, you can convey all five stages. Watch how it lends emotional credibility to the scene, and how you find yourself empathizing with the character. Let us set this scene in a Chicago tenement house, in the early years of the 20th century, in a small, dark, drafty, and dirty apartment on the fourth floor. In this scene, a young husband nervously awaits the birth of his first child, pacing outside the bedroom where the midwife is practicing her craft.

“Gregor!” the midwife yelled from the bedroom. “I need towels. Clean ones!”

“Yes, alright,” Gregor called back. He rushed down the apartment’s narrow hallway to the linen cupboard. He flung open the doors. There were no towels.

No, we can’t be out of towels now! He shoved aside rags and bars of soap, peering into dark corners, finding nothing.

“Damn and blast,” Gregor swore under his breath. He dashed to the apartment’s small bathroom. Perhaps there were some in the laundry basket that had yet to be put away. Please, God, let there be some. Pulling a wrinkled work shirt out of the basket, he held it quickly to his nose. It stank of sweat and of the slaughterhouse. He threw the shirt back; if there were any towels buried under his dirty laundry, they were far from clean.

“Gregor!” the midwife called again.

“I’m looking!” he shouted back. If my child dies for want of a towel— Gregor shoved the thought aside and dashed out again towards the front door. He was across the hall in an instant, pounding furiously on the neighbors’ door. “Anna, Peter, I need towels!”

It’s not a long scene, but we see all five stages. Note, too, that the tragedy is very simple: no towels. It’s very minor on the grand scheme of things, but it still demands a credible emotional response from the character, because for him the stakes are high. As far as he knows, his child’s life may depend on his ability to provide clean towels. If less was at stake—say, if the baby had already been born and the midwife only wanted towels so she could clean up the mess—Gregor’s reactions would be commensurately smaller.

Gregor’s short bit of inner monologue after opening the linen cupboard reflects denial, that brief feeling of “What? How can we be out of towels now, of all times?” He mutters a brief curse, betraying his anger and frustration at the situation. He thinks of an alternative, one he knows to be a long shot and bargains with God to let there be clean towels in the laundry basket. Of course, there aren’t. All his immediate strategies for making this no-towels tragedy go away have failed, pushing him into a moment of depression as he briefly contemplates what’s at stake, implying to himself and to the reader how sad the situation might turn out to be. But there’s no time to dwell on what might happen. No, Gregor must act. In noveling terms, he must drive the scene. He accepts the situation, and makes the best of it by banging on the neighbors’ door for help.

As you write, and especially as you edit, I want you to consider the dramatic moments in your story. Consider the times when you let something bad—be it big or small—happen to your characters, and ask yourself whether you have shown credible emotional responses in every case.

Remember, every story moves forward through characters overcoming obstacles, and on some level every obstacle is an instance of something bad happening to the character. Every single one is an opportunity to show your characters’ personalities, by giving them appropriate five-stage emotional responses to those obstacles.

August 07, 2009 22:07 UTC

Tags: character, emotion, emotionally credible, believability, grief, misfortune, denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance, towels

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PNWA Day 3: There's something about Mary

For me, day 3 of the annual PNWA Summer Writers Conference was much like day two: back-to-back (times eleven) sessions with the writers whose works I was critiquing.

I got the day off to kind of a poor start by being late for the first appointment. Oops! What can I say; 8:00 AM is darned early to start, and yesterday the first one was at 8:20. I didn’t think to check my schedule for a different start time today. My bad. The scheduled client was really nice about it, though, and was happy to reschedule her consultation during one of my slotted breaks.

Like yesterday, I got to meet and talk with a bunch of interesting people who I would otherwise never have had the chance to interact with. But all morning, I was looking forward to one consultation in particular. This mystery writer, I knew only by the name Mary and by her writing. I couldn’t wait to meet her because her 25 page submission was, hands down, the flat-out best piece of writing I’ve seen outside of print in ... you know what? I can’t think of an unpublished piece of writing I’ve encountered that was better. Not one, and I’ve seen quite a bit. Mary wins.

The thing about Mary is that her writing has got voice. That elusive quality that sets great writers apart from the crowd. It’s the thing that, like former Attorney General Edwin Meese said about pornography, “I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it.” Mary reached into her subconscious, found a heartbreakingly poignant character named Lil with an incredible life story, and channeled Lil straight onto the page. I have never seen such a strong voice in an unpublished writer before in my life.

So when Mary’s time slot rolled around, in walked someone I’d never have expected: the sweetest little old lady you ever met. I didn’t ask how old she was. It didn’t matter. She sat down, an anxious look on her face. I told her how much I had been looking forward to meeting her. She softened a bit. I told her how I felt about her writing. How beautiful and wonderful it was. She smiled. Her anxiety melted away. She wiped a tear from under one eye.

Writers invest so much of themselves in their writing. Eyes may be the windows to everyone else’s soul, but ink is the window into a writer’s soul. Mary’s soul is there in her writing for all to see. When she sat down at my table, all I could see in her eyes was how much of herself she felt was riding on my opinion.

I’m not quite sure how I feel about that. I am so pleased that I was able to replace her nervousness with validation, send her off with the confidence in her ability that she so richly deserves. But I’ve seen the same look on other faces, too, that same desperate hope for validation, from writers for whom my honest assessment of their work cannot be so glowing. I feel obligated to tell them the truth about their writing as I see it, but at the same time I struggle to do so in a way that encourages them forward. I know that if I deliver the feedback in the wrong way, they’ll leave crushed and never write again. That’s not the goal. I don’t think I want that kind of power over people. I just want to help them.

I hope my feedback helped Mary. And I hope I get to read the rest of her book and work whatever iota of magic I can on it. The economy is hard for all of us lately, and especially on sweet little old ladies with home decorating businesses who can’t find clients right now. Mary told me she can’t pay me. I told her I didn’t care. I’ll work on her book for free if I have to. I just want to read the end of it, and for a little while bask in the glow of amazing writing that I, lucky stiff that I am, have gotten to see before anyone else. I hope she lets me.

August 02, 2009 05:14 UTC

Tags: PNWA, conference, book doctor, feedback, confidence, voice, power, validation

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PNWA Day Two: I met the airline safety card guy

Day two of the annual PNWA Summer Writers Conference. I probably did more talking in one single day than I have done in years, and it’ll be a miracle if my voice holds up for tomorrow, but I survived.

I got to play both sides of the fence today: as conference Book Doctor helping aspiring writers learn how to strengthen their books, and as an aspiring writer myself pitching my books to a couple of literary agents. One of my consultations today was with the guy who claims—with some merit, I would say—to be the most widely distributed illustrator on the planet. He’s the guy who illustrates those fold-out safety cards in the back pocket of every airline seat in the world. You know that iconic drawing of the mother with her oxygen mask already in place, helping her child put on the day-glo yellow mask? He did that, and all the rest of them. He and his wife run a whole company that does that. His art is literally all over the world. His art has probably saved lives. How cool is that?

The Book Doctoring is fun. I have to admit, it’s fun, and not just because you meet people who save lives through technical illustration. There were two consultations I did today that I was worried about, because the material was very weak. But my hat is off to the writers, because they brought absolutely the right attitude to the table: a genuine desire to learn, and the maturity to set their ego aside in order to do that. All nine of the writers I spoke with today were that way, really. It’s hard not to have fun when you get to have nine in-depth conversations about a subject you love all in the same day. In the end, everybody left my table knowing what they need to do to put their books in a publishable state, or if not that, at least to take their writing to the next level.

In a nutshell, that’s is the great part about my job. Being able to do that for people is a very satisfying thing indeed.

In the middle of the day I had a break to go pitch my stuff to some agents. The first person I talked with was David Forrer of Inkwell Management. We had a great talk about the young-adult western adventure novel I wrote in 2007. He also suggested that his agency likes to work with freelance book editors like me, so we traded business cards and that was a nice bonus.

The second person I pitched to was Minju Chang, of Bookstop Literary Agency. I actually pitched to her at last year’s conference, so it was nice to see her again. She’s very friendly, and does a great job of putting nervous writers at ease so we can tell her about our books. She wasn’t so keen on the sci-fi novel I pitched her, but she had good feedback for me.

Like Robert Dugoni says, somewhere on my Quotes Page, all of us can always improve our writing. That goes for book doctors too.

I spent the afternoon in consultations with the rest of the day’s clients, one of whom I have been looking forward to talking with for a couple of weeks, ever since I reviewed her submission. (Stephanie, if you’re reading this, I mean you!) I was doubly impressed to learn it was her first novel. First novels (and especially first drafts of first novels) usually have a lot less going for them than hers did. I hope I get to read the rest of the book someday. (Stephanie, if you’re reading this, use that discount code and hire me!)

The evening finished off with dinner in the big ballroom and a keynote speech by thriller-writer Joseph Finder (that’s with a short-i, not a long-i). He gave what is a semi-stock speech for this kind of conference, the “story of how I made it as a writer” speech. But it was a great speech, because he brought a lot of fresh and very funny angles to it from his personal experiences. That man has led an interesting life.

But for me, the capper to the day came right at the very end. All day, here and there, people have been talking with me in the halls to ask more about how I could help them, and after the speech ended, the desserts had vanished, and the scheduled activities ended for the day, I found myself in yet another such conversation with an eager, first-time writer. In the middle of this, conference organizer and PNWA president Pam Binder came up to me and asked if I could help her out.

She said that one of the book doctor clients, who had been assigned to a different person than me, had received a very short and unsatisfactory consultation, and hadn’t felt like he had gotten his money’s worth. Now remember, these people have paid extra to the conference (not to us, alas!) for these book doctor sessions, and many of them have come from quite a long ways off. I’ve got people on my list from Washington D.C., Florida, all over. This half-hour consultation is a big deal for them, because it represents time, money, a lot of effort, in the hopes of getting something of a road-map for where to take their writing career next; to not get that must have been a huge let-down.

Pam looked at me and asked if I could possibly do anything to help.

I looked at her and said “Of course.” So the person will e-mail their material to me, and I’ll give them a do-over. I’m happy to, because whoever they are, and whether their book is awesome or still needs a lot of work, they deserve their money’s worth.

That was the capper for me because Pam, someone I highly respect in the universe of Seattle writing, looked to me for help. I get a lot of positive feedback from the people I’ve done consultations for here at the conference, and from my paying clients as well, but to get a vote of confidence like that from Pam, well, that really left me smiling as I made my way out of the hotel for the evening.

August 01, 2009 06:21 UTC

Tags: PNWA, conference, book doctor, feedback, confidence, David Forrer, Minju Chang, Joseph Finder, Pam Binder, Robert Dugoni

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