Tuesday, October 21, 2008

James River Writers Conference

This was my first James River Writers Conference October 10 to 11, 2008. I went with the idea that I would learn about the business of writing, meet some new writers, and if I had a meeting with an agent, well, that would be a plus.

  • First, the plus. I met with Barbara Clark of a new agency, Barbara Clark Literary Agency. She has recently made the transition from editor (at such large publishing houses as Doubleday, Viking Studio Books, and Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

    She said she was looking for clients. Well, I am looking for an agent, so I did my best. My appointment was her third from the last on the second day, a timing I prefer when I have to make a sales pitch. "Always go last if you can," my business mentor Chan Preston says. You'll leave a lasting impression! I pitched my women's fiction, Unintended Consequences, about a woman who comes out of retirement to take care of two generations in a dysfunctional family. Ms. Clark asked me to send her a query letter and the first 80 pages of my novel. I have done so.

  • Next, what I learned about marketing. After all, this is all about selling me and my ideas in fictional form. I have nearly 30 years experience in sales, marketing and public relations, so much of what the agents and editors talked about was what I do naturally.

    To help once an editor buys your manuscript, draw up a formal marketing plan. Get to know your local indie and big box book stores. The indies are great because they hand-sell books. The big box stores are important because you need to sweet talk them into giving you, a new writer, precious shelf space. It's a lot of smoozing and getting to know people who can help sell your books. But you all know that already. I asked if my backgound in marketing would be a detriment. One agent said he'd kill to have a client like me. Since I would rather live, I didn't pursue him!

  • Moving to tips from the sessions on how to write. Nothing really new here. One editor said you had to be prepared to "kill your darlings." The phrase, sentence, paragraph, etc. that you like the best is most likely the one that has to be chopped out. Don't make the mistake of substituting dialogue for character. Dialogue is a window into your character's pysche. And for heaven's sake, lose the adverbs like "he said, menacingly." Rewrite the dialogue to be menacing. In her session on writing mysteries, Diane Mott Davidson reminded her packed room of Somerset Maughan's famous statement that "nothing bad can happen to a writer. It's all material."

  • Research played a central theme in many sessions. From David Baldacci to David L. Robbins to Adriana Trigiani, everyone stressed research. Learn something about what you want to write about. Do it youself, if you can. If you want to write about hair styling, talk with stylists and work in a salon. You don't have to style hair, but you can learn from observing and listening.

  • The only session that was disappointing was on the literary novel. Three panelists tried to define it. They lost me with "it's like porn. I know it when I see it." I expected better.

    Would I go again? Yes. Did I find the investment in time and the cost of the conference worth it? Again yes. I recommend the conference to any writer, whether just starting out, changing genres, or seeking to broaden horizons as a published author.

    Wednesday, October 8, 2008

    NPR and Me

    I had been working on an essay about voting, spin, not believing what candidates say, and checking facts when one of my colleagues at Valley Writers suggested I send it in to our local NPR station, WVTF. At first, I was sceptical, but the more I thought about it, I decided I didn't have much to lose. After all, nothing ventured, nothing sprained.

    The long and short of it is that I recorded the essay below, Listen Carefully, on Friday, Oct. 3. It aired on Monday, Oct. 6, the last day for voters to register in Virginia. To access the recorded essay, please go to WVTF.

    I believe in the power of words, written, spoken, and thought. I believe that freedom of speech is inviolate. I believe words can be helpful or harmful, supportive or hurtful, constructive or destructive. I believe my beloved grandmother was wrong when she said “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never harm me,” because sometimes words can be ugly, demeaning, and misleading.

    Words bind communities together and the same words spoken derogatorily tear communities apart. I believe as a crafter of words I have an awesome responsibility to know the difference.

    We receive much of our information today intangibly – on television and on the radio. Less often, we receive it in written format, reading yesterday’s news printed on a dead tree with ink that stains our hands, but leaves little impact on our minds.

    A few decades ago we began receiving dumbed-down messages -- news stories became shorter, language became simplistic, reporting became entertainment. The “sound bite” has done more to damage our understanding than anything else. We rarely if ever hear the entire message.

    It is difficult if not impossible to reach an informed decision from a sound bite. It is too easy to skew a message in less than fifteen seconds.

    A dozen lake friends have met regularly this election season. We watched the early debates, the main convention speeches, and the most recent Presidential debate. We represent both major parties; several remain uncommitted. And we have been watching the political ads more closely this year than in elections past. I am horrified at the misrepresentations and outright lies fed to us as truth.

    Last weekend, this group argued loudly after the final credits of the first Presidential debate faded from the screen. I was stunned at the number of my friends who still believed lies that had been debunked months earlier: the Obama Muslim hoax, the Palin “thanks but no thanks” misrepresentation, and McCain distancing himself from President Bush.

    Suddenly, we became fixated on a political ad, a black and white picture of a bearded Tom Perriello, darkened and distorted with striations across his face. Each point the voice-over narrator made was accompanied by a crack like a gunshot. No mention was made of the fact that the photo was taken when Mr. Perriello was in Darfur working with refugees. And then came the tag line: “I’m Virgil Goode and I approved this message.”

    The argument stopped. It didn’t matter whether we supported Mr. Goode or Mr. Perriello. We gaped in shock. We wondered if voters would check the facts or believe the fear factor clearly implied with this spot.

    As sentient beings we have the onus to review and think carefully about the messages fed to us like so much mush. We have the responsibility to sound off, make our voices heard, and combat disinformation.

    The Constitution provides us the right to freedom of speech. It does not provide us with the right to lie, misrepresent, or spin. It is up to us to listen carefully, check facts, and repeat what has been verified as truth.

    I urge all of us to question the information we receive. When we embrace the truth, we can work as a group to regain the high ground we once held in the world. If we succumb to negativism and believe the lies, we belong in the mud. To prevent that from happening, I urge all citizens once again to exercise a sacred privilege and vote.

    This I believe.

    Update: On Oct. 9 I learned that this essay is being used in a Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University class on news reporting as an example of what everyone reporter should consider before putting fingers to keyboard. Thank you, Bill Loftus.