#amlearning and #amsharing

The bathtub at Lighthouse Writers Workshop, otherwise known as my favorite place in the world.  I have not yet figured out how to take a bath in this old clawfoot tub, but I did manage to decorate it with a fluffy towel and a bar of Writer’s Block soap.
The past few months have been slow from a writing perspective, but huge from a learning perspective.  I had my eight week apocalyptic fiction class followed by a two week LitFest: both hosted by Lighthouse Writers Workshop where I am a member.  In one of my workshops, my instructor, Rachel Weaver, gave me words to salve my guilt for not writing much lately when she suggested we think of the writing process as seasonal:  imagining, writing, editing, learning, and (someday) publishing.  If all you do is sit down and write, write, write you actually will never publish anything.  There are other seasons.  So here on the solstice of my learning season I wanted to share with you readers some of the most thought provoking lessons of the past 12 weeks.

Finding Scriptures

Jennifer Haigh taught me to find my writing scriptures.  These are works that address one of the challenges you, as a writer, have with a particular work.  Maybe you’ve never written in first person before and your story is in first person.  Find a book that reflects your desired point of view and really break it down to understand how the author accomplished what you want to do.  Learn from them and let their accomplishment teach you how you can do the same.  You aren’t copying, they are your guideposts.  That said, don’t use paralyzing books as scriptures – you know, the ones that are so good that you want to quit writing and go read under a bridge.

Wowing Agents

The Nelson Agency sat for an hour and showed a room of writers how agents read the slush pile.  Each attendee was invited to bring 1-2 pages from a work and the agents would evaluate manuscripts live.  The two agents, Joanna MacKenzie and Kristen Nelson, were brutally honest in their evaluations.  In the twenty five(ish) manuscripts they reviewed only one would have even received a second look.  Was it mine, you ask?  No.  Because I learned a hard lesson this day.  I only provided one copy of my manuscript, while the instructions distinctly said two copies.  Only one copy equals no evaluation.  As writers we are told again and again to follow submission instructions to a tee, and I’m normally very careful, but this day I was in a rush so I messed up.  Next time, when it really counts, I’ll do better.  However I learned from other’s works as well:

  • For your first novel you really only have 1-2 paragraphs to grab the agent’s attention so do not:
    • Spend the whole opening in narrative or telling
    • Jump into backstory
    • Change point of view
    • Create unnecessary confusion with the reader
    • Tell the reader how they should be feeling
    • Have the character not do anything
  • Do:
    • Create an emotional response
    • Create something interesting
    • Create tension
    • Make the readers want to learn more
    • Have a strong voice
    • Anchor your character in place and time
    • Put your reader with the characters.  Remove the distance.

For those of you who despise the idea of writing to a “formula” for an agent, Rachel Weaver put things into perspective.  She said that you only have two paragraphs to get your first agent, so do everything you can to make your debut novel as readable as possible.  Then have faith in yourself that once you have an established readership you’ll be able to be more creative.

Random other tidbits

  • Sometimes you don’t need to edit.  You need to rewrite.  That involves putting your manuscript aside and actually retyping from scratch the scenes you wrote the first time, or making a new scene, or combining several scenes into one.  Not everything can be fixed by moving words around on a screen  – Vicki Lidner
  • You have to earn emotional scenes in your work, otherwise you risk sounding sappy, trite, or melodramatic, which will make a reader put down an otherwise amazing work.  Make sure the reader is invested in the character before you create scenes of happiness, love, nostalgia, or sentimentality.  Never forget that tension, even in these sentimental scenes, adds power so layer happiness and sadness together.  – Alexander Lumans
  • When editing, there is an arc where your writing becomes better, then just different, then worse.  Stop when you are in the different stage.  – Rachel Weaver
  • If you write something and it just sucks, don’t stop.  Call that section a “placeholder” and go back and fix it later.   Also know that early dialogue is always a placeholder. –  Rachel Weaver
  • Introduce your characters the way you would introduce yourself.  Don’t provide pages of backstory and details the first time you write a character or risk him/her being the person no one wants to talk to or read about.  – Rachel Weaver
  • What is the difference between showing and telling?  Envision this.  You are standing outside of a house where an amazing party is going on.  A man approaches and says, “Wow, there is a great party inside.  There is a world renowned DJ and all these famous people are joyously dancing to his mixes.  The food is the best thing anyone has ever eaten and it is paired with delicious drinks.  Everyone there is having the best time of their lives.”  That is telling.  Showing happens when you get to go to the party.  Let your readers go to the party.  – Rachel Weaver

Now, with all that newfound knowledge I #amwriting and I #amediting, and I’m doing both in a way that feels more productive and inspired.  The seasons are changing in Afthead-land.

20 thoughts on “#amlearning and #amsharing

    1. It’s amazing how a single misstep means no agent for you. It reminds me of reviewing resumes and how quickly I’ll reject a candidate for not having a cover letter or a misspelling. How else could they ever get through the volume of queries they receive. That said, it does make the concept of rejection a little less painful. It’s definitely not personal.

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  1. This is a really helpful post even for those who have self-published and are thinking of traditional publishing. I’m taking much of this advice and storing it for that day. But we must keep in mind that somewhere out there is an agent who is looking for the book we’ve written and if it isn’t accepted the first time, then maybe the tenth?

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    1. Thanks Clare. The experience actually made me feel better about future agent rejection, because the process is so arbitrary. What will keep one person reading will not keep another person reading, so as a writer you cannot take the process too personally. That said, you self publishers are an inspiration. I can’t fathom the idea of not only writing my book, but producing it as well. To me the idea of agent rejections sounds less scary that what you’ve been going through!

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      1. If you find a good publisher (specializing in helping self-published authors) who will guide you through the process, it is not so bad and a great learning experience. My problem lies in the editing because I am obsessive compulsive in this area. I continue to correct and rewrite even when the book is completed. It drives anyone who is around me (Charley) mad. And my poor publisher finally has to tell me, “Enough!” If I could just hire an editor and leave this part in her/his hands, I could avoid much gnashing of teeth, etc. But I just have to do everything myself. I’m even learning to format, so my publisher will be thrown to the wayside, eventually. Now I just have to find a printing company that will let me in for a few hours to run the proofs.
        Definitely write that book, Johanna! It is something you must do. ✍🏻 Clare

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        1. Thankfully my weakness is grammar, punctuation, and spelling, so I know I must have a copy-editor in my life, which forces me to relinquish control. I did love the teacher who explained the editing process as making it better, followed by making it different, followed by making it worse. Just stay out of that last area. Now off to go visit your blog and see how your book release went!

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          1. Johanna, I’m sitting here this morning finally getting to read the latest blog messages and found your cheery note. I will be writing that post today and then editing to make it better, different or worse, as the case may be. But it will get done and posted a week late. Life continues to interrupt the process. We’re going up to the Berkshires this weekend to read from A Berkshire Tale with children. My poor ZuZu Series lately has taken a back seat to murder and mayhem. I need to juggle two series, two separate places and two genres now. I’m planning on releasing the mysteries in the spring each year and the children’s books in early fall. We’ll see how that plan goes! So, I must disappoint you for another day or so until I can get the post written and edited and put in some of the pictures of the launch a friend has thoughtfully just emailed. (I was signing for two and a half hours and not able to take any photos.) Thanks for your comments and it has spurred me on to get back into the fray. Have a lovely weekend. Clare

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            1. Ah! I love that I’m not late to the party debrief. Hopefully your hand has recovered from all that signing! Your plan sounds ambitious and remarkable, and I can’t wait to see you put it in action.

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  2. Fine post to bookmark! Thank you for bringing up your instructor’s wisdom regarding the seasonal aspect of writing, and then sharing what you’ve gleaned in your #amlearning phase. I think I’m going through a quiet, watching, listening, feeling, writing-less phase and it’s easy to feel insecure about not producing any work right now.

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    1. Leslie, I also appreciated being given permission to not write. The past few months have been filled with growth, but I couldn’t get over the guilt that I wasn’t working-on-my-book or editing-my-story. But now that I’ve grown my skills writing and editing aren’t a chore, because I’m enjoying exercising my new skills. So enjoy your quiet watchful phase, and you might be surprised what takes hold and starts to germinate.

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    1. I know I’m not supposed to tell, but I’m reading my novel and will find entire passages of dialogue where my characters are explaining “the party.” What?!?! That’s still telling, dumb Johanna. I’m glad you like the metaphor too. (You know me, I love a good metaphor!)

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  3. As someone who has never had formal education on creative writing, I find posts like this so helpful. I love the description of the “seasons.” I think we both know I am stuck perpetually in the “imagining” season and the early “writing” season. I also truly appreciate you sharing what you learned about agents and other writing tips. “Show, don’t tell” is difficult for many writers and I know I can use lots of help with that! Excellent post.

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    1. Oh Amie. I am such a painful novice at all this stuff, and I find that so difficult. In most areas in my life I feel vaguely competent, but this writing and publishing thing is just a constant realization that I have no idea what I’m doing. If there wasn’t the imagining season I am afraid I would only have the giving up season. Just you wait. I’ve got another post coming about how I #amlearning, but this time it’s the hard way. Keep dreaming! Writing is a marathon, not a sprint. Hug!

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      1. Thank you! I feel very competent in my chosen field of science. And while I love writing, I feel quite the opposite of competent. A novice, indeed. But I love to learn and I will keep at it. Thanks for your encouragement and sharing your knowledge.

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  4. Ann Brennan

    The workshop sounds so cool! a lot of pressure for those two paragraphs. But I remember my first technical writing class and it was not much different. One exercise was for the class to read and critique our single topic sentence for the papers were going to write. For some reason, no one seemed to be fascinated by what I thought I had to say about cellulosic biomass!!!

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    1. Ann, it reminded me of reviewing resumes. I can imagine them with a pile of manuscripts, like the pile of applicants we’d get for jobs, and just tossing out anything to get to a manageable pile worth reading. It really makes me understand that there is a lot of work between my first draft that’s done and an agent, but now I understand more why the work is important.

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  5. Pingback: Rejection Therapy via Twitter – Afthead

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