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Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Pitching: A Newbie Guide

The American Christian Fiction Writers' annual conference will begin on Friday, and advice is swirling around on the internet as writers--published and aspiring, ascend, descend or otherwise arrive in Indianapolis, with one-sheets, business cards, synopses, and full proposals in hand. Waving enough paper to decimate a small rain forest, we're hoping to catch the eye of an agent or an editor, or in our wildest dreams, both, as we hope to pitch our completed novels.

And we're open to advice, we really are. And advice we're getting. And from some very good, well-meaning, and noteworthy people. The only problem is, the advice is often contradictory.

In the last few weeks I've learned that a pitch sheet and a one-sheet (with or without hyphens) are two different things, except for when they are the same thing. They should be colorful and creative, but business-like with a minimum of color and graphics. Huh?

Business cards should be professional, but attention-getting, with all your contact information, but not too much personal information. ???

And an elevator pitch should be 14 words, and last 30-60 seconds, and not sound like a tag line. Hmmm... Only... if... I... talk... very... very... slowly...

And I've been told to bring chocolate--and no gifts of any kind.

Some agents and editors want to know about the theme, some don't. Some want to know about marketing, some don't. And don't even get me started about the synopses.

What is a writer to do?

Take a deep breath, people.

I'm by no means a conference veteran. I've only been to a couple conferences before this one. But I know running around at the last minute like Chicken Little is going to be counter-productive. It's time to take a step back and look at the big picture.

What are you trying to do when you pitch?

Get someone interested in your book.

How can you best do that?


Be excited about what you have written--and use some method to convey that excitement and what the novel is about. Here are some guidelines from me, a newbie.

The one-sheet (or pitch sheet). As best I can tell, the one-sheet is a creature belonging to Christian fiction alone. The idea behind it is to have something to catch the agent/editor's eye, give them something to remember you by, and perhaps help you get through the pitch if you sit down and suddenly go brain dead. There is no unwritten law of the universe that says you have to have one, or that governs the font, amount of text, or contents--whatever you think will best help you sell the book. But for the most part,proponents of a one-sheet suggest it be clear, professional looking, with font and graphics that draw attention to your story without distracting an agent from your pitch.

The business card. Again,there is no rule saying you even have to have one. But if you want a quick way of sharing contact information with people you meet, why not? And if your picture is on it, even better--they might remember your face. If you want them to remember your face. As far as not wanting personal information on it--hey, if you want people to be able to contact you, I'd put it down. Only be careful of who you hand it to--the fellow writer? the agent? the editor? These people are unlikely to stalk you. The panhandler in front of the hotel, not so much.

As far as an elevator pitch? These had me so keyed up, I was thinking about using the stairs. But basically, an elevator pitch is telling about your story. I played around with several versions, but instead of launching into a canned spiel, I hope to be able to simple tell as much of the story as I can in the time allotted and only as long as I hope to hold the person's attention. The purpose of an elevator pitch is to attract interest--not to be like some dreaded door-to-door salesman or customer support rep from India reading from a script. Bait. Connect. Don't drone. And don't stalk. Agents and editors need private time and potty breaks like everybody else--these are not times to pitch.

Sample pages and synopses? Have them on hand. Tell the person you're pitching to you have them on hand.

But relax. Like a query, the default answer is still no. And most books simply will not sell, no matter how perfect your pitch or one-sheet. So pray up and give it your best shot. But get everything you can out of the conference. Learn. Connect. Network. Make friends. You might as well enjoy yourself--because here's where that vacation money went.

But breathe.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Primadonnitis

There's a nasty disease going around. The CDC has released no information, but I can tell you all about it, because I've had it more than once. And no matter how many times I catch it, I seem to develop no immunity.

Primadonnitis often attacks writers, especially unpublished ones. The symptoms include a grimace and/or scowl while reading, rolling of the eyes, tension headaches, emotional outbursts, and in severe cases, book throwing.

Dormant primadonnitis can be triggered by a number of factors. Spelling and grammar errors in published work are common triggers. Bouts of primadonnitis are also often preceded by prologues, passive voice, blatant POV violations, wordiness, weak verbs, and excessive use of adjectives and adverbs.

Triggers may also vary by genre. Mystery writers are known to suffer violent attacks when they encounter mistakes in police procedure or evidence collection. Historical writers display symptoms when they encounter anachronisms.

There is no known cure for primadonnitis. Some researchers liken primadonnitis to growing pains, and claim it is a normal part of learning how to read like a writer. Symptoms may diminish in time when writers make their own mistakes, and discover that books don't appear out of thin air, but are written by real people with feelings.

And coincidentally, Rachelle Gardner's most recent blog post discusses a method that should help primadonnitis sufferers: A Monkey Could Have Written That.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Romance with your Murder?


As an acne-covered teenager, I squealed with delight at the scene on television. Nancy Drew, frightened at the sight of a bat in her room (in Transylvania, I believe) rushed out, clad only in her nightgown, into the waiting arms of Frank Hardy.

Yes! Forget Ned. Forget the Bayport/River Heights commuting time. Forget the fact that Nancy was not a damsel in distress, but a strong detective in her own right. Forget the fact that these were completely fictional characters, and there must have been some other plot elements going on in that episode. They belonged TOGETHER!!!!

(Forgive the caps and exclamation points--still channeling my inner teen.)

There's nothing like a good murder to stir up those amorous feelings, or at least that seems to be the case in the mystery/suspense genre. I moved from Frank and Nancy to Remington and Laura, Lee and Amanda, Booth and Bones, Monk and Natalie (still upset that didn't turn into something), and Chuck and Sara. I also loved the married couples--Hart to Hart, and the standard that inspires so many: Nick and Nora.

Cozy series also play the romance card, often with a relationship budding over several books. Donna Andrews' Meg Lanslow met her paramour in the first in her bird series, and is working on twins now. Laurie King somehow drew me into a romance between a semi-retired Sherlock Holmes and his 15-year-old apprentice (although she was not fifteen at the time), although I really wished she had drawn that out a bit longer. (Yes, tease me, then make me suffer.)

While the genre of romantic suspense blends equal parts romance and suspense--both requiring an intense emotional expression and an emotionally satisfying ending, a romantic cozy often moves more slowly, similar to the 'will they ever get together' dynamics of the television boy-girl detective team. A recent, but highly unscientific poll on the Absolute Write message board seems to support that, with the majority of respondents saying they liked romance in their mystery, especially when it was not overdone. But there are other, more humorous interpretations.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Contest Thoughts

For those who may not have heard the news, this week I was thrilled to learn I was a finalist in the ACFW Genesis contest, in the mystery/suspense/thriller category.

For me, this was a turning point. I think for every aspiring writer, there comes a point where you question "the dream." Is this a pipe dream I'm pursuing--a pie-in-the-sky daydream with little hope of realization? Or is becoming an author an attainable goal? Is my writing a hobby that I dabble with, or a vocation to pursue whole-heartedly?

And that has been a tough question for me to answer.

Now, it's not that I have been treating my writing like a casual hobby--like the embroidered tablecloth my family has been working on for four generations, which will probably never be finished. I've studied and researched, and analyzed. I've joined critique groups. I've attended conferences and entered contests. I've written and re-written, and re-written again. I've embraced the criticism (eventually), deferred any praise. But my focus has been on craft, on doggedly developing my writing. And while I have spent time learning about the business of publishing and how it works, I've not spent much time looking up to see what's on the horizon.

I've not taken the time to dream.

Well, now the dream I've been afraid to dream is one step closer. Not that I'm there yet--I still have many milestones yet to cross. I'm still unagented. And I've only just begun querying my first completed novel. But the difference is that I now dare to believe that I will someday be published. Maybe this novel, maybe not, but somewhere along the line, I believe I can come up with the right project to capture the attention of an agent, then an editor (or vice versa) and achieve the dream of being a published author.

But until then, as Solomon said, "A dream comes through a multitude of business." So back to work.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Filtering and Point of View



I love this old Larson cartoon. Here is a guy expending a lot of energy lecturing his dog--and by the time the dog hears it, it is only "blah, blah, blah, Ginger."

But it got me thinking--which can be a dangerous thing--that we all filter the world. Two people never see or hear the same thing. Eyewitness accounts are notoriously unreliable. We see and hear only part of what is going on, and that is filtered through our experiences, expectations, and even our prejudices. No two people perceive the same reality, and that can lead to conflict. Conflict in real life is not so hot; conflict in fiction is golden.

And the filter of the POV character should come across in the narration and description. One of the best examples that I've seen in mystery was from Wilkie Collins The Moonstone. Collins told the story of a missing gem through three first-person narrators, each having a very different POV which created a slant on their story. The first was an old rambling servant, loyal to a fault. He could see no possibility of wrong in the family. The second narrator was a distant relative, a religious zealot. She did see wrong in the family, and set out to convert them. The third was a young man who was in love with the daughter. With each narrator, you got a different view of the major characters, depending on the particular filter.

I know that you believe you understand what you think I said, but I’m not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.


Sometimes we think of POV as simply 1st, 2nd, or 3rd person, limited or omniscient, but it is so much more than that. Does one character love rural life, while the other adores the city? You might end up with a Green Acres scenario, where two people living in the same place see radically different things. One sees dirt as a symbol of living independently, returning to a simpler life. While the other sees it as--dirt.

The description of the physical environment is often dependent on the filter used by the POV character. And sometimes by his or her mood.

Is there a beautiful sunset? Or is night rapidly approaching?

Are children playing gleefully nearby? Or are snotty-nosed brats breaking his concentration?

Are pure white snowflakes gently falling? Or are the frigid streets treacherous and lined with slush?


Is the proverbial cup half empty or half full--and is that a good or bad thing?

David Swift, director and writer of the Disney film Pollyanna, placed this phrase on her locket: "When you look for the bad in mankind, expecting to find it, you surely will." (fictionally attributed to Abraham Lincoln) That film contrasted the jaded filters of adults with the youthful, idealistic and 'glad' POV of Pollyanna, creating continual conflict by the differences.

Time to dust off that WIP, jump deep into the POV character's head, and try to see the world through his eyes... and see if we can't generate a little conflict because of the differences.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Writing Help...from Dr. Phil?



I'd gone to bed last night thinking about a character I'm developing for a new WIP. So far, I knew a few details of Ami's life, her career, her appearance, and her turbulent marital status. But her personality was just not coming to life. At three in the morning, during a period of wakefulness, I suddenly realized that she was a huge Dr. Phil fan, and her perception of life and relationships was filtered through his television teaching.

And I hardly ever disobey these middle-of-the-night revelations when my fictional characters come to life and speak to me through my semi-consciousness.

Except when it gets weird. And this was not.

So this morning I hit the internet to find when Dr. Phil was on in my area, and found his web site. I'd picked up a few choice multi-syllable phrases for my character to bring up at key periods, but while looking over Dr. Phil's advice for finding 'your authentic self,' I came to think that maybe some of this material might also be good for discovering the 'authentic self' of my fictional characters. Just ask the same questions and, instead of plumbing the depths of my own soul, make up answers instead.

For example:
Decide which of your key external events has turned out to be the most toxic experience of your life. This will be either one of your 10 defining moments, seven critical choices or five pivotal people. Then write a short description of the target event. When you're done, read it over to make sure you are being honest in your account. from drphil.com

So what is Ami's most toxic moment--the one event that affected her most negatively? I have a feeling it's actually an event that occurred just before the novel begins, the souring of her marriage.

But what are her defining moments, the things that made Ami who she is?

What critical, life-changing decisions has she made through the years?

And what people have changed her life he most?

What great things to think about to get a handle on who our main characters really are! While not all of these things will make it into the novel as back story, they certainly will help forge her personality.

So I have my homework for the day. Hmmm...

Friday, April 2, 2010

Egg-Spectation

Yes, the Easter egg mania seems to have gotten to me too, at least from the title. (My apologies for that.)

I was thinking a little about reader expectations as I watched Bones last night. Dr. Sweets rode on the subway next to a young man who received a text message telling him he'd just won his long battle with cancer. He bubbled over, exciting Dr. Sweets, a stranger to him, with the good news. The young man fantasized of all he planned to do with his new-found life. He was overjoyed. Dr. Sweets was overjoyed. People at home watching were overjoyed. I turned to my husband. "He will be dead within minutes." And sure enough.

All his expectations were dashed, along with his cranium. Sad, huh? Why would they do that to the viewer?

The writers certainly could have composed the scene so we knew less about the man, thus shielding us a little from the pain of his death. The plot would have moved on just as well. But...

Something special happens when you take a character, get the reader (or viewer) rooting for him, and then dash his hopes into smithereens. You make the reader care more deeply about what happens. You pull him in. Now this doesn't always involve killing someone--except maybe in Bones.

But say you have a bride, a young woman deeply in love, fulfilling her fondest wish as she walks down the aisle. Leave her at the altar.

Or shipwreck survivors waiting on a deserted island. On the horizon is a boat. Sink it.

That woman on an important date? Find new ways to embarrass her.

Or that crop that is in the fields. The one that will pay for Laura'a new shoes and get the family out of debt. Add a swarm of locusts.

Build expectations. Dash them. Rinse. Repeat.

Figure out the best thing that could happen to the character. Hang it just out of reach. Determine the worst thing that could happen to a character at any given moment. Make it so.

Yes, I think we need to give the characters moments of happiness in between, allow those moments to let the reader have a breath of fresh air--give them hope that all will be well. Add some humor, some heartwarming moments. But don't let them stay there too long.

Writers tend to like their characters and want good things to happen to them. We want to smooth out their lives and allow them some happiness, as if they were real people. And that would be great, but that's not going to make others care about them. We need to save the happy endings for the end.

What are some of the ways you've been drawn in by seeing a character's expectations dashed?

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Clean Mystery? Must be a Fluke

I was thrilled this past weekend to head down to Pittsburgh. Mystery Lovers Bookshop was hosting a talk and signing by one of my favorite authors, Joanne Fluke.



Now this was my first trip to the bookstore, which I'd heard people rave about. The edifice is not all that impressive, and you might get more of a selection of mysteries from a large Barnes and Noble. HOWEVER...it is one of the largest independent mystery bookstores in the country. And they do a phenomenal job of attracting authors for special events--in addition to having well-above-average customer attention and community involvement. Pittsburgh has a treasure in this store, and I hope they appreciate it.



I exhibited unusual self control and only bought three paperbacks and a signed Diane Mott Davidson. And tickets for their Festival of Mystery in May.

On Saturday we headed to the nearby Oakmont Library where the store hosts many of their events. They expected around sixty, and I think they had a few more than expected. Like any cozy mystery crowd, most were women--although there were a few men in attendance. (Mostly accompanying women.) Fluke discussed growing up in Swanville, Minnesota (population 217, give or take), her inspiration for her popular Hannah Swenson mysteries and recipes, and her new book, The Apple Turnover Mystery, released in February 2010.

In the question-and-answer portion, two mothers in the audience expressed their appreciation to Fluke for writing books they felt comfortable passing on to their daughters. I echo this. There is a market for clean books (as evidenced by Fluke's current 11th-placed showing on the New York Times Bestseller List). During a time where many seem to want to 'push the envelope' and get 'edgy,' a strong market exists for a clean cozy, and I hope people are paying attention to the phenomenon. I would love more books like this--books with no strong language and no 'onscreen' sex--even though my daughter is grown.

But off my soapbox. I enjoyed it. It was fun to be able to put a face and voice to the books, and Fluke is down-to-earth and funny. I got my book signed, and hubby and I headed out to lunch in Pittsburgh's strip district (Primanti's and Wholey's Fish Market). And I finished reading my book in the car on the way home. A great weekend road trip!

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Hooked on my Nook.

Well, I obviously haven't been blogging much (more on that later), so what have I been doing?

Well, besides spending countless hours playing mind-numbing games on facebook, I've been reading. And not just paperbacks and hardcovers. Earlier this year, I made the jump to ebooks, when I was given a Nook for Christmas. And the verdict is...

I love it!

Yes, I'm a bit of a bibliophile. I love wandering through bookstores, and the thrill that comes with setting up a brand new bookshelf (not sure where I'd put another one!) I have a hard time parting with a book, even if I know I will never read it again. A friend told me I would miss that with an ereader. Well, not yet. I've found I can joy in my virtual bookshelf just as easily, and it doesn't take up nearly as much room.

So what's good?

I like that I can change the font. I read quite a lot, and I can get eyestrain easily. I've found that with the Nook, when I change my font to the largest setting, I'm bothered by less eyestrain than with a regular book.

I like that my books now have a built-in mp3 player and dictionary (Although the dictionary on the Nook needs work: most words that I need to look up, aren't included in the dictionary either)

I like that when I'm in bed reading and finish a book, I can start--and even shop for and buy--the next book without even getting up. Lazy? Probably.

I like that many of the books I want to read are in ebook format, and often at a considerable savings--especially for hardcovers. (Many classics are free!!) And I like being able to read a book I've been waiting for the day it is released--without having to leave the house. Five o'clock in the morning--with my coffee and in my jammies.

And I like not having to turn pages. I can leave one hand warm under the covers, and switch off. I can even read while wearing gloves, and since I like a cool room for sleeping, that's a nice thing.

What don't I like?

Freezing. It's crashed on me a few times. The last time when I had three pages to go. Frustrating.

Expensive ebooks. So many great books are free, inexpensive, or at least a few dollars cheaper than their printed counterparts. Every now and then, I run into a book that someone has marked at the same price as the hardcover. Not buying those.

Excessive front matter. I like the free samples that let me start reading any book without purchasing. I hate books that have so much front matter: acknowledgments, preface, introductions, grocery lists, constitutional amendments, etc..., that I end up with a one paragraph sample. Now that's just stupid. Am thinking twice before buying those.

I expect some of these things are just hiccups in the process, and will straighten out in time.

But I must say goodnight. I'm going to bed with a good Nook.