Pitch It!

So tomorrow is the day I’ve been preparing for most of this year–the Willamette Writers’ Conference begins! While I’m looking forward to the sessions and meeting with other writers, this year’s focus for me is the pitching.

There are three agents and one editor at the conference who deal with sci-fi, so I’ll be presenting my fresh and clean, nifty smelling novel to all four of them. This is an entirely new experience for me; I’ve sent stories and queries out a few times in the past with material I now realize wasn’t really there, but I’ve never pitched in person before.

I’ve done a lot of reading on different agent blogs, and gotten plenty of good advice. One of the biggest themes is keeping it somewhat casual and conversational. If you’re just going to show up and read a scripted synopsis, why are you doing it in person?

The carefully crafted script was where I started off, branching from a hook I wrote for Miss Snark’s crapometer last year. It was a decent place to begin for me, since it helped me to really nail down the flow and what elements were at the core of the story. But when I came to actually giving the “pitch” verbally to my wife, Amber, it fell utterly flat. It was almost painful to see how all those beautiful words I’d agonized over just didn’t work when they came out of my mouth.

Amber’s suggestion was to take that and turn it into a set of bullet points. It wasn’t too hard to carve it down to a first draft of those essentials since I’d been thinking about this for quite a while already. Then I ran off that and just talked. I won’t claim that it was an immediate success–it’s taken a week worth of practice, revising the bullets, reordering, pitching to people who haven’t read the story to find any incomprehensible gaps. But now I’m actually feeling pretty good. At first, everyone I pitched to had lots of things to suggest. The last few, though, that’s been trailing off.

Nerves will play a big part when it comes down to the actual event, but I’m as ready as I know how to be. Bring it on!

jasonrclark.net site is live!

Just a quick note to announce that my full website, jasonrclark.net is finally up and running. Apart from this blog, it includes some of my travel writing that I’ve made available on the web, links to my favorite writing resources, current reading, links to my favorite technical blogs, and my brewing blog, The Nervous Brewers.

Check it out and let me know what you think!

Rewriting with George R. R. Martin

George R. R. Martin keeps a blog (although he calls it Not a Blog since he doesn’t update it too frequently), and it’s a great place to hear news and general goings-on from one of my favorite authors. It gives a whole new level of personal connection to an author, even just reading a few postings every so often from them.

He doesn’t, however, spend a lot of time talking about writing. He gives plenty of updates about his progress on the latest Song of Ice and Fire book, but entries about the craft itself are rarer.

Today was an exception to that, though. In talking about a prologue that he’s been working on literally for years, he digs into just how hard the process is:

This, by the way, is the quandary that every writer faces on every book. When is a chapter really done? When is it good enough? We all walk tightropes there. On one side are those who just pound out first drafts, publish them, and move on to the next book. On the other side is poor souls like the character from THE PLAGUE, endlessly revising one sentence over and over in search of some illusory perfection. The best work, I believe, comes from those who stay up the tightrope, leaning this way and that, but never falling off to either side. That’s what I try to do… and yes, that’s one big reason why the books take so long.

To hear one of my favorite authors, whose work has consistently amazed and enthralled me, talk about how difficult the task of writing a book is gives me hope. Thanks George!

Agent blogs

In recent years the internet has become a huge source of information for new writers. I remember back in high school, (now more than ten years ago, yikes!), dreaming of publication. My only sources to learn about the industry were books in the library. I spent countless hours pouring over the Writer’s Market, tagging prospective publishers, and re-reading the query letter samples in the front of the book.

Things have changed for the better, and one of the biggest advances is the advent of blogging. Now some agents are coming online, writing about the things they see every day in their jobs, answering questions, and generally providing an insight into the world of publication that I could never have gotten before. I’ve been reading a number of agent blogs in preparation for selling my novel, and here’s the list. It’s a great place to start if you want to get a feel for what the real publishing world is really like.

  • Miss Snark (retired) — This is where it all started for me. Unfortunately, Miss Snark has retired at this point (boohoo!), but the Snarkives are a massively informative collection of Q&A. She also ran several of what she calls “Crapometers” where she took submissions from the internet at large. I participated in the last one, and although the critique was sharp (Snark is the operative word in the title after all), it was a huge help in seeing how an agent might view my query.
  • Nathan Bransford — Nathan’s blog has a great, light humor tone, and some really sharp insights into common pitfalls in query letters, what makes great writing, and what’s going on the publishing industry at large. His posts on publishing news have taught me more about the nuts and bolts of the business than I would have thought possible. He also is a big proponent of e-queries and represents some sci-fi, so I’m doubly fascinated.
  • LIT SOUP — Excellent agenting advice from Jenny Rappaport, along with plenty of glimpses of what a day in the life of an agent is like. She’s going to be at the Willamette Writer’s Conference, which is really exciting.
  • The Rejector — Another anonymous blog in the vein of Miss Snark, The Rejector is an agent’s assistant who posts pointedly about the issues that she sees in the slush. She’s also a writer herself, so she knows first-hand the pain and delusions of those outside of the agenting world. Lots of good reminders on etiquette and practical querying.
  • Agent in the Middle — Lori Perkins dishes out industry news, and lots about the process of being an agent.
  • Pub Rants — Agent Kristin gives insight into the world of queries, writers, and publishing. Also an inspiration for her regular, near-daily blogging schedule!

By no means are those all the blogs that are out there (I’ve got to have time for writing after all!) What writing-related resources have you found most useful?

Done! (again, sort of)

Last week was a major milestone in my writing–I’ve finished what at this point appears to be the last major revision on my novel before I start pitching it. There’s another polish on the way in the next month before the Willamette Writer’s Conference, but the main thrust of that is catching typos from the larger edit.

It’s such a great feeling hitting this type of completion point. There’s a sense of relief at getting there, since often in the midst of the work it feels like the end will never quite arrive. Along with that comes a touch of melancholy. The time when this book is new for me is coming toward its end. That’s premature–it’ll likely still be big on my mind and thoughts for at least the next two years, if not more–but it does bring me to considering working on other things.

Life’s gone a bit crazy, so it’s not a bad time for having finished either. It’s been useful to take a couple weeks where to let things sit and focus outside the writing life.

Next step is coming up with the synopsis, and then that’ll be the basis for a verbal pitch. Nerve-wracking and thrilling all at the same time!

Writing Journal

A week or two ago, my friend Nate had an excellent writing suggestion. We were talking over the perennial “How do you write consistently?” question, which has many answers from “Just do it you slacker,” to “I don’t, I wait on my muse.”

Anyway, although I’ve been on a good kick lately, I’m always looking for ways to get more consistent. What Nate mentioned was a writing journal. Now this is not a journal where you blather about your genius, writing reams of deathless prose about your work. Writing too much in the journal would kind of defeat the point of getting stuff done.

The writing journal is intended to help you record 1) what you did, and most importantly 2) what and when you’re going to write next. That second part has been the most interesting and helpful part. When I finish a writing session, the last thing I do before cracking open that bottle of homebrew is to set a date and time when I’ll write next.

I’ve been using a simple format, four or five lines at most:

5/19 (Saturday) 1 hr, evening
Plan: Edit through end of chapter with Nicolae. Get Kyle to his next destination.
Result: Finished up through Kyle’s full chapter. Stopped on pg. 169.

Actually putting a plan down on paper makes it easier to do for me when the time comes around. I’ve still missed a couple sessions, and that gets written into the journal too, but primarily it keeps me thinking about what’s next, and that’s always a good thing.

On the editing trail

I realized earlier this week that I hadn’t posted to the blog in quite a while. There’s been a couple good reasons for that–took a trip to Anguilla in the beautiful British West Indies (which I plan to write about in the near future), and the bulk of my free time has been pouring into my latest editing pass on the novel.

Last post, I had just begun re-reading the book. I was pretty pleased with the outcome. On the one hand, it’s improved a lot–I’ve rooted out many of the large structural issues, there weren’t a lot of the drifting sections, the story flows along like I want it to. There’s plenty left to tighten, beef up, and otherwise improve before it’s ready for prime time, but it’s fulfilling to see how much progress I’ve made.

Anguilla was a huge boon for the writing too. Every day, I spent a couple hours of the morning with pages on the porch overlooking the water. Aside from being massively relaxing, I also got lots done, and I’ve carried that momentum into my return. Since I’ve been back, with only a few exceptions for family visits and critique group, I’ve edited a chapter a day. I’m not really working much faster than I used to, but I’m getting better at consistently putting in the time.

At this pace, my finish-line for being pitchable in August is looking good. Excellent!

Reading my novel for the first time

My month of rest from the novel is over. The first thing I’m going to do is just sit down and read the thing. It may sound odd–after all, I wrote the book, have edited it multiple times, dream about it at night–but none of that is the same as plain old reading.

A recent critique group meeting drove this home for me. One member sent out a “doorstop” of revised material. In this case it was the first 200 pages of her novel with some significant changes. I picked it up on a weekend, sat down, and read. My pen was at hand, but I didn’t use it much.

It was enlightening to see how much of the flow and construction I had missed going through chapter by chapter. In this case it actually made the book much stronger, which is saying something given how much I enjoyed it a piece at a time. However, there’s a whole class of issues that could exist that wouldn’t show up with at a chapter per week pace.

Sitting down and reading through is also a specific piece of advice that Stephen King gave in On Writing. If you’re a writer, I’d highly recommend that book, regardless what you think of Mr. King’s other work. I listened to the audiobook, and that was even better–the man is an amazing story-teller, both on the page and verbally.

Anyway, he suggested spending some reading time with your book after the initial draft. See how it feels. What do you like? What don’t you like? Did that chapter seem perfect in your head, but slow down when you read it now? Does it build the way you’d like? Did your character’s name change halfway through (only partially joking there)?As the author, you’ll always miss something, but that step back into more of a reader’s perspective is important, and I’ve never done it before.

I’m hoping between the month’s distance and spending the time, I’ll get some insights into how I can tighten up the manuscript. Then, and only then, will I embark on the next deep editing push.

Action!

I’ve been recently confronted with the challenge of creating action scenes in my rewrite. This is excellent since prior drafts suffered from a slow, dragging pace, with the “climactic” ending the only real action the whole time. Now I’m finding half a dozen action scenes in the book, but it has revealed how hard they are to do right.

I’m obviously no expert, but here’s some basics that critique group has highlighted about writing action:

  • Keep it short: The most obvious rule–keep things short. Punchy. Snappy. Never use a big word when a diminutive one will suffice… This rule has been easy enough to internalize, but still takes editing passes to root out the wordiness.
  • Clear players: In several scenes, my main characters are attacked by people the reader has never seen before. Establishing clear identification for those assailants and using it consistently is extremely important. Unless it’s crystal clear or has another purpose, use of synonyms for those additional characters confuses things in a hurry.
  • Clear choreography: Similar to character identity, surroundings should be crystal clear. This doesn’t mean filling out every detail, but it does mean sharp, unique descriptions to ground the reader. Keeping it simple helps. I had a map of one building’s layout to help me choreograph the characters’ movement. When I get done, though, the read shouldn’t need the same thing, whether the picture in their mind is identical to my map or not.

Clear, brief, snappy writing… sounds so simple, but it takes skill to pull it off.

Another tactic I’ve been taking to learn about this is reading (or in many cases re-reading) some action-oriented authors. Right now I’ve got the following on my docket:

What authors stick out in your mind as the peak of solid action writing?

Done! (Well, sort of)

This weekend, after long months of work, I’ve finally completed the rewrite of the second half of my novel. For my process, this includes 1) the handwritten copy, 2) typing the rough draft in and 3) doing a first major editing pass. I’m ready to run the material through critique group, and it’s a wonderful feeling to be so close to them finally reading the end of the novel! Most of the group has read nearly a hundred pages of the original before I started back through again, and they deserve to find out how things finish up.

That’s a lot of why the blog has been silent for quite a while here–basically everything extracurricular has fallen to the wayside. I’ve hardly read more than a chapter in the next book on my reading list. I’ve gotten disciplined about my blog reading, and often let it pile up for days until I hit a writing milestone first.

Additionally, my job moved to a new location which actually has a nice break room with tons of bright, tall windows. Previously, my only retreat on a lunch was, uh, the other part of my desk, and that just didn’t work for me to write. Now I’ve been consistently stepping away to make space for the writing in the middle of the day.

It’s all part of the grand master plan to be ready for the Willamette Writer’s Conference coming in August. One of the big pieces of the conference that I haven’t taken advantage of before was pitching with agents. This year, I should have the manuscript ready to go. It’s time to start selling!

I’m going to try to blog more regularly, talking about some of what I’ve learned through this most recent bout of editing. Should be fun!