Workshop Submission #1

Before I post this first workshop submission, I want to say something about respect and trust. My blog readers are some of the smartest, handsomest, most awesome people on the Internet, obviously. I don’t want to offend their intelligence by stating the obvious, but I will:

Writing is an intensely personal thing that people do. Getting up the courage to send in your work and your writing is a huge struggle for most people. Reading the work of others involves a lot of trust and I take a writer’s willingness to share their work with me very seriously. Sure, sometimes the slush is funny. Sure, sometimes writing needs work. But snark is the lowest common denominator and it helps nobody, so I never resort to it. Not on this blog. Not about a person’s writing skill. Not for me, thanks. Sometimes I’ll use humor or a joke to illustrate a point, but I am never poking fun at a writer or at the writing itself. That’s an important distinction to make.

For this exercise, I specifically asked for writing samples that need work, in the writer’s opinion. I asked for writers who didn’t mind receiving constructive criticism and feedback on the blog. These writers are coming here to get a little tough love and a little workshopping. They are putting themselves out there and saying, “Help, please.”

It is a brave thing to stand in front of people with your writing exposed.

As a result, I am going to be watching comments very carefully. Any needless snark, criticism, or flaming will be removed. There was some disagreement about one of my contest winners last week, and that’s fine. But if someone takes it upon themselves to snark or insult or judge or be oh-so-clever, I will have no qualms about shutting them down. Don’t make these writers regret reaching out to share their work.

Again, I am dead serious about this. I’d hate to police people like they’re preschoolers but the Internet is full of trolls and other unpleasant types. If it turns into a problem, I will turn off comments and participation will be ruined for everyone. We’re here to help each other. We’re all on a journey. Writing is a craft that develops with time. Be humble, generous, and kind with these entries.

And that’s the end of that unpleasant rant!

Here’s my first selection, from Shawna Weeks’ CHASING FOREVER. The writer says:

My main concern is: would you keep reading? I want to know if it is enough to make you turn the page and start the first chapter?

And now for the sample:

***

Preface

Ah, our first problem! Just kidding. Sort of. I think, in a lot of instances, a preface or a prologue is a crutch. It’s the author’s way of showing the reader something gripping in the hopes that the reader will then read through some less exciting backstory or chapters before eventually circling back to the exciting part. It gets the action started right away and then… after a flashy opening… the tension drops to comatose levels in 99% of cases. Ask yourself: are you just using your premise as a trick? A teaser? Try to construct a real beginning without using this technique. Is that harder? Nobody said writing a novel was easy, mind you. But I don’t want to make this an entry about prologues, so I’ll move on.

Glimpses of my life flashed before me as I awaited death. I could hear the sounds of my brother, Matthew and I as we splashed at our favorite swimming hole just the day before the car accident as if it were happening now.

The “life flashing before my eyes” thing is a cliche. I see it a lot. And since we don’t know the character or her brother, the swimming hole memory seems pretty generic, too. Also, swimming holes evoke early childhood to me… not really a great first image for what I’m assuming is an older YA paranormal romance, but that might just be my own connotation or bias about swimmin’ holes.

I saw myself with tears on my cheeks, clinging to my mother’s hand the first day of grade school, begging her to take me back home. I felt that moment when I realized my love for Jaxen was bigger than anything I had ever felt. All of these memories seemed unimportant, yet vital to my existence as I lay bleeding.

By giving us a lot of high emotions, the writer might hope that we, too, will emote and feel these things along with the character. Gripping the mother’s hand is the most specific image here, and wanting to go home is a powerful feeling, especially now. However, then we go back to vague again. We haven’t met Jaxen yet, so he’s meaningless to us. And “bigger than anything I had ever felt” is very vague. There’s a contradiction with “all of these memories seemed unimportant, yet vital to my existence” that’s annoying, because for all the words spent on it, this really does negate itself and end up saying nothing. All of these words — “vital” and “bigger than anything” especially — are vague. What’s “bigger than anything” or “vital” to one person isn’t the same to another. I haven’t learned anything about the character yet, either. She… has a family… and she loves someone. The same could be said about almost anyone.

Sunlight filtered through the web of branches above me, blinding me momentarily. Wind rustled through the trees, blowing the odious scent of the creature across my face and I gagged.

Beginnings should ground the reader in the when and where. I had no idea they were in woods or in daylight, frankly. I want to know why she’s bleeding, but the “creature” mention totally seems to come out of left field. We’re talking about her family at one moment, then there’s a smelly creature. “Sunlight filtered” is also a tranquil image, while “web of branches” and “blinding me” aren’t. “Wind rustled” is tranquil again, but “I gagged” isn’t. That kind of vacillation in the imagery is jarring to read. Finally, “odious scent” seems like a very specific and elevated way of speaking…. not really what a teenager might be thinking or saying, unless they’re using it for comic effect. That strikes me as a bit off in terms of voice.

I shouldn’t have followed Jaxen, but I couldn’t let him go without me. This was definintely not how I would have planned my death, but does anyone really plan for that?

Good interiority on “I shouldn’t have followed Jaxen,” now we finally know what she was doing. Then this slips into implied second person direct address (where you seem to be talking to the reader or “breaking the fourth wall” of the narrative without using the word “you”) and we seem to be pausing for a moment to contemplate the nature of death and dying. Why? Lots of characters do this and it never works. Don’t have your characters sit around musing… especially if they also happen to be bleeding! (Also, it’s “definitely.” Proofreading is very important and typos or spelling errors are almost impossible to catch. I copied and pasted this, so it’s not a typo on my end.)

I didn’t like that look in his black eyes when I found him that morning by the barn. I struggled not to run into his open arms, but the fear on his face held me back. “I love you, Sophie,” Jaxen said and I froze. “I have to go.” That was it. He was gone.

Notice how we haven’t really gotten a clear foothold in the present moment. We have trees, a swimming hole (I know the writer did this to try and give us some backstory and to make the character sympathetic), death, blood, a creature, wind, Jaxon… a lot going on. And before we’re fully grounded in what’s going on in the present moment of her lying there and smelling a creature, we’re swept away to that morning. There’s a barn now? And he’s afraid? This also makes it sound like some time has passed. If he left “this morning” and she followed him… when are we? How long has she been in the woods (if there even are woods?) since then? Etc.

Without a word I let him walk away. I watched until his tall form became nothing but heat waves on the horizon. My heart shattered with each step he took. I wanted to scream, beg him to come back to me…but I let him go.

Writing is such a specific art. If you look at the last sentence of the previous paragraph, it’s “He was gone.” And now, we jump the chronology yet again, to the moment of him walking away… even though the writer already said he was gone (which has a feeling of finality to it). So we’re in the present moment (bleeding), then we go back to that morning (saying goodbye), then we go to him already having disappeared (“He was gone”), to the moment of him leaving (“I let him walk away. I watched his tall form…”). But we do get our most specific image yet: “His tall form became nothing but heat waves on the horizon.” I like that. But I don’t feel her heartache yet because I don’t know these people, either of them.

That’s why prologues don’t work for me most of the time. I’m thrown into the MOST DRAMATIC MOMENT EVER, a MOMENT OF DRAMA AND HIGH EMOTION, between two people who I have no idea about. It really is like watching a foreign-language soap opera 99% of the time… I don’t get what’s going on, who the people are or why they’re all so upset.

***

Does this seem nitpicky? Yes. It is. Extremely nitpicky.

But there are a lot of elements in play here. I’d say my overall assessment is that there’s too much going on. Focus in on ONE moment and really work to connect us to the main character instead of scrambling us around. Once we know her, we can connect her to another person — Jaxon? Her family? — and then center ourselves in some action. I’d try some more linear storytelling, also, and try it without the quick cuts.

Should You Go to A Writers Conference? A List of Pros and Cons

At some point in every aspiring writer’s life, they will ask themselves: should I invest in a writers conference? That’s how you should phrase it, anyway. It is an investment in how to get published: of time, of money, especially if you want manuscript critique from one of the attending faculty. A lot of people report feeling more committed and professional after an event. But is a writers conference right for you? Or right for you right now? Read on!

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Look at these writers conference attendees, meeting peers, learning how to get published, and feeling awesome!

Writers Conference Considerations: Pros and Cons

Here is an easy list of pros and cons of a writing conference, in case you’re on the fence about going to your first or going again. Use this list to keep your writing conference expectations in check (very important).

Cons: Why You Might Not Want to Go To A Writers Conference

  • Expense: Conferences are expensive. The conference fee (usually between $100 and $500 dollars). Hotel. Airfare. You’re usually looking at about $1,000 bucks if you go to a larger writers conferences outside of your home state. Some conferences, though, do offer scholarships. It’s always a good idea to ask. Smaller conferences and  regional SCBWI days are a good alternative if cost is a huge factor.
  • Intimidation: This might be one of the first times in your life you’ll be meeting real, walking, talking agents and book editors. Some of them may be giving you a manuscript critique. You just want to know how to get published, maybe you’re not ready to be up close and personal. This makes some people more nervous than excited. My advice: try as hard as you can to get used to the idea. We’re the people you want to work with. And we’re just people who love good books. Look! We already have something in common!
  • Other writers and workshops: For some more advanced users, conferences are frustrating because some of the other writers operate on a really basic level. For some complete newbies, the advanced level of other attendees might be really scary. Workshops at conferences are also a mixed bag. One time, I was at a conference where someone raised their hand (totally unrelated to the discussion at hand, mind you) and asked what the difference was between fiction and non-fiction. Color me underwhelmed! It’s best to go into it eager to make new friends and expecting to learn something (but not have your mind blown) from the workshops.
  • Crazy opportunists: Conferences are rife with crazy opportunists, desperate to crack the code of how to get published, or people who hawk their projects to anyone who will listen. These are the people you hear about, sliding their manuscripts under the bathroom stall to a terrified agent. You’d be wise to avoid these folks. If you ARE one of these folks, don’t waste your breath/time/money. These tactics are much more “cautionary tale” than “success story.”
  • Unrealistic expectations: It is very, very rare that you will spot an agent from across the room, leap all over each other like Romeo and Juliet, and ink an agency contract by the end of the weekend. Writers connect with agents and editors all the time, especially in a manuscript critique setting. But don’t expect it to happen. You will most likely get your heart broken if that’s the only reason you’re going. And don’t, whatever you do, show up with 10 copies of your full manuscript, all nice and printed out, and try handing them out. Nobody will take them. It’s ALWAYS best to query after a conference or, if you make a connection with an agent or editor, to send them a follow-up e-mail. I repeat: nobody will take the 300-page brick of paper off your hands right in the middle of the hotel ballroom. Don’t try it.

Now for the good news! There are tons of reasons to go to a writers conference.

Pros: Why You Should Go To A Writers Conference

  • Agents and editors: Most people, people really serious about launching their careers, go to conferences to network. Forming bonds with other writers is great but … at a conference you can meet (and impress) some agents and editors. Saying “I met you at so and so” really does catch my busy eyes when I’m combing the slush.
  • Motivation: A near-guaranteed aftereffect of a writers conference is that you will get new ideas and get really pumped to write them. Don’t take your meanest writing block to a conference and expect it magically fixed, but you’ll be impressed with how motivated you feel.
  • Other writers: Yes, you’ll probably make some friends who also are learning how to get published! Friends are good! Friends on the same journey are better!
  • Manuscript Critique: Writers conference settings are great for getting your first critique or pitch session in with a real, live publishing professional. Yes, they cost money. But the way I figure it, you’re already spending a lot of cash. What’s an extra $50-$100 for a critique? Skip lunch and dinner and opt for sandwiches from the corner store, if you have to. You’ll get to sit down with an agent or editor one-on-one and talk about your work. You might even get a request for more material, if your work is really polished.
  • A change of pace/scenery: Sometimes, a conference is great just because it doesn’t feel like your real life. You feel like you’ve just vacationed in Writerland and that’s a nice way to recharge your batteries.
  • Self-confidence: Every little bit helps, right? Well, after a conference, a lot of people get much more comfortable with the idea of writing, the logistics of becoming more committed to their work. It can work psychological wonders and, if you haven’t figured it out already, writing is a mental and emotional challenge for the ego.

Writers Conference Encouragement

So there you go! Literally! Go, if you feel compelled to.

For kidlit writers, I highly recommend making it out to a national SCBWI writers conference at least once. More info here: SCBWI. I prefer the summer one in LA over the NYC winter conference, though maybe I’m biased because the shorter flight has lured me. Seriously, though, it is the longer-running one and, puzzlingly, seems to attract more New York agents and editors. Manuscript critique opportunities are plentiful. If you can’t make it to one of the national conferences, do go to your regional SCBWI chapter’s events. Some excellent chapters throw amazing conferences, like the Nevada SCBWI chapter run by Ellen Hopkins. Why I like SCBWI events: all the people you meet are into kid’s books. Every single one of them. So you’re not sitting next to a cozy mystery/romance thriller writer at lunch.

With any writers conference, you have to watch the list of participants and speakers like a hawk. Seriously. Do your research. Google everybody. Figure out where in publishing they are. The last thing you want to do is spend all that time and money and show up at a writers conference populated by non-fiction or adult fiction agents and editors. This is not how to get published. Make sure at least a handful of children’s book professionals will be there. The benefit of zeroing in on the kidlit people at an adult conference, though, is that you’ll likely have more face time with them as one of the few children’s writers in attendance.

So no matter which writers conference you choose, take this list to heart and take the plunge. It’s worth it at least once in every writer’s life.

You don’t have to wait for a conference to receive manuscript critique. Hire me as your one-on-one book editor and let’s get you in shape to pitch.