Category Archives: Writers’ Caffeine

Two Cardinal Rules for Conference Attendees

With a major conference coming up in September,these  two cardinal rules for writers’ conference attendees, courtesy of author James Scott Bell seem pertinent:

1. Don’t be dull. Social media has conditioned us to share the most mundane and unappealing aspects of our daily lives; just this week, someone posted a photo of her sweaty underarms to show how nervous she was, another posted in detail about preparing for a colonoscopy, another rejoiced that her newborn’s digestive system was functioning in a spectacularly explosive fashion. Too much dull  information!  When you’re at conference, resist the temptation to bore people with the mundane. Instead, focus on other people  by asking questions such as, “What has been the best thing for you so far?”  “What workshops have you attended?”  “Where are you going for dinner?” “What type of fiction are you writing?”   As Dale Carnegie pointed out, there is nothing people like more than talking about themselves. Draw other people out, and they will think you are charming and brilliant.

People can sometimes come across as dull by the way they dress. This is not to suggest dressing up like Lady Gaga or the late Liberace. But choose colors and professional-looking  styles that enhance your features and body type. And it goes without saying that garments should be neatly pressed. The Columbo look  works only in the movies. Once you are published, you will be expected to visit with booksellers, attend trade shows, speak at conferences. Editors and publishers want you to be a positive representative of your work and of the publishing house. Dressing appropriately for the conference shows them you are ready for your close up as a published author.

2. Don’t be desperate. Of course you are eager to pitch to your dream agent and editor, but temper your eagerness with the knowledge that your future career does not hinge upon this one appointment, this one conference.  Don’t over prepare your pitch to the point that it becomes a robotic recitation. At a national conference a couple of years ago, I was seated at a lunch table  with my editor and six hopefuls all of whom wanted to pitch to her. As time ran out, my editor suggested that a couple of women on my side of the table talk to me about their projects, and I would pass along to her anything that seemed promising.  First up was a woman who was beautifully dressed in a red suit, hair and nails perfectly done. She introduced herself and began her pitch. Three sentences in, her nerves got the best of her and she faltered. “That’s okay,” I told her. “Just talk to me  about your story.” But she started over from the top, robotically reciting the same sentences in the same order as before, a look of desperation in her eyes.

Even though you’ve done your homework and narrowed your appointments to the most likely agents and editors,  not  everyone  will  love your project. But the good news is that, like a parking slot at a crowded mall, you need only one.  So be confident but not arrogant, be excited but not desperate. In my twenty years as a full time author, I’ve learned that timing is everything. A wonderful novel that is rejected at this year’s conference might be next year’s hot property.

Respect the agents and editors attending the conference. Don’t be so desperate that you push your business card or proposal at them in elevators and coffee shops. Most of them are solidly booked at conferences and need that cup of coffee or that brief elevator ride to breathe and relax.

If you’re a conference veteran, what is your best tip for getting the most from a conference? If you’ve yet to attend, what is your most pressing question?

Historicals? Or Costume Novels?

I love history, specifically the history of the American South. My roots go deep into Southern soil, and it’s that lifetime of experiences and stories that are at the heart of my novels. I spend a great deal of time researching my books, down to the names of the newspapers in circulation at the time, the songs that were popular, the types of fabrics used for sewing dresses, the routes people traveled from one point to another.  I’m just back from a trip to the old rice plantations of the South Carolina  Lowcountry for the book I’m writing for publication next year. I read tons of books, journals, and newspapers in an effort to get it right. So it irks me more than a little bit when I read historical novels riddled with careless mistakes. I’m referring not only to mistakes in the historical record, but mistakes in portraying the social mores, attitudes, and behaviors of people in a particular time period.

In inspirational fiction particularly, some writers seem reluctant to show characters and situations as they really were. Let’s face it. Many Southerners were hostile to black people before, during, and after the Civil War. Some were cruel to the point of murder. As were the Union soldiers who decimated the South during the war.  General Sherman especially, stated that his purpose was not just to crush the Southern rebellion, but to wipe the people off the face of the earth. He told one of his aides that the spectacle of women and children lying dead in the streets of Atlanta was “a beautiful thing.”

Writers of true historical fiction find ways to portray conditions as they were, not as we wish they were. Regardless of setting, be brave enough to show your characters warts and all. And be sure to get their language right.  Recently I read a novel set in the West in the 1870’s  in which a character laments the lack of “a role model.”  A quick check of my sources on language revealed that this term came into use in the 1970’s as the women’s movement was heating up. A character in the 1870’s would never have used that term. This same novel contained a few other mistakes as well. When I complained to a writer friend, she said, “Historicals that are not well researched are not really historicals, they’re just costume novels.”

Because history is messy and obscure, enigmatic and incomplete, it’s impossible to know every detail, to get every single nuance correct. But writers who intend to produce works of historical fiction owe it to readers to get as much of it right as is humanly possible. Don’t depend on Wikipedia. It’s a good starting place, but dig deeper. Historical societies, museums,and university collections offer a wealth of resources if it’s impossible to visit the setting in person. If you need to bend the facts, stretch a time line, to make the story work, that’s okay; just be sure to tell your readers about it.

Be true to the times, dig for the facts, weed out anachronistic language, and the result will be a wonderful window on the past for readers, not simply a  modern-day story dressed in historical costume.


Five Rules of Great Storytelling

Words of wisdom today from Emma Coats, a storyboard artist at Pixar, the animated movie people. With followup comments from yours truly.

1. Readers admire characters as much or more for trying and failing as for succeeding. This is a storytelling rule I’m using now in my new novel. Failure can often point us in the direction of our true gifts, in the “something better” we might have missed had we succeeded. The heart of the story is in the struggle toward the goal and in what your protagonist learns about himself, others and the world in the process.

2. Write what is interesting to the reader, not what is fun for you to write. I think Ms Coats is correct, up to a point. After all, what is the point of writing stories if readers aren’t interested in what you have to say— but I would hate to write thousands of words every day and not have the process be any fun. My storytelling rule is to choose something that interests you and figure out how to tell a story around it that will interest your readers, too.

3. Theme is often discovered during rewriting. I can’t remember where I first heard the term “discovery draft” but for me the first draft is exactly that. When I begin a novel, I have an idea of theme that I want to explore, but that theme often expands as I work. In writing EVERY PERFECT GIFT I thought I had figured out the theme, but my brilliant line editor saw another facet of theme that I had overlooked, one that added complexity to the story once I refined it during line edits.

4. It’s okay to use coincidence to get your characters into trouble, but using coincidence to get them out is cheating your readers. Much of our everyday lives are made up of coincidence. Standing in line at the movie theater, you run into a friend  you haven’t seen since high school. You discover that you and your next door neighbor share the same birthday. Either of these might turn into a way to make trouble for a character, but getting out of it should be accomplished through wit, courage and intelligence.

5. Look for the most economical way of  conveying the heart of your story. Ernest Hemingway was famously economical in his storytelling. In his day he was widely admired, though more recent critics have not been as kind. The  story of his being challenged  in a bar to write a complete story in six words is widely told. Whether or not it’s true, it’s a beautiful illustration of the power of economy in storytelling. Here is the six word story Hemingway supposedly  wrote:  For Sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.

What do you think of Ms. Coats’ rules?  Have you applied them in your own work?

The Myth of Writer’s Block

“When she got back from taking Cassie to school Fanny knew that she ought to be working on her new wilderness romance. She had promised 30,000 words to her editor by tomorrow and she had written only eleven.”  Jacklyn Moriarty

How do you get over writer’s block? If I had a dime for every time I’ve been asked this question, I could buy that beach house I’ve had my eye on for a while. Usually the question comes from a beginning writer still seeking that first contract. Here’s what I think: except in cases in which an author is suffering from clinical depression, writer’s block is a myth.  Most often writers are stumped (“blocked” )  because of one or  two things:

Inadequate planning. Stories stall when an author has not adequately answered the questions about her protagonists’ goals, motivations, and conflicts. What does your main character need to tell the world? What is the story’s moral premise? Read Stan Williams’ excellent book on moral premise, or check out his blog . Once you understand the core of your story, your writing will  move forward.

Too many distractions. Studies show that every time a person is distracted from a task, it takes 15 minutes to refocus. Turn off your e-mail,  Facebook, Twitter until your work for the day is done. Take a break every hour or so to rest your eyes and get the kinks out of your spine. Pay attention to your health. Get enough sleep. Eat right. Too  much caffeine and too  many refined carbs and sugars can make you sleepy. Although I can’t work  when music is playing, some people find that instrumental music helps them stay focused.

What about  you? How to do you keep the words flowing?