My Unworkshop Weekend

I haven’t been incredibly active on my blog as of late, mostly because I’ve been busy. Busy with mom-ing, acting, and costuming at times. Also, I’ve been diving into my editing business, which, I have to say, I love. I love dissecting query letters and manuscripts and seeing what makes them tick.

But! I knew I had to write at least one blog about my time here at the Highlights Foundation Conference Center for an Unworkshop.

To start at the beginning, in March, some of my writer friends were planning a writing retreat for October. The very idea of a writing retreat- a chance to get away from momhood and housework and costumes and vacuuming- was mouthwatering. The problem was, since Baby #2 is due in October (yay!), I knew there was no way I could go with them.

So I began searching. I knew exactly what I wanted: A post-published writers’ conference or retreat, preferably for kidlit writers, that wasn’t about marketing. I needed time to do a drastic revision on my current novel, meet some friendly writers to talk with/commiserate with, and maybe talk a little craft. The problem was: This conference didn’t exist. This is when I found the Unworkshop at the Highlights Foundation Conference Center in the Pocono mountains.

Fast-forward to my time here: First of all, for a city girl who grew up in a small, rural town, coming here was like coming home.

I arrived on a Friday evening, about an hour after dinner was served and found my cabin- Cabin 11- all ready with my name on the door and my heavy-duty tote bag, containing a name tag, instructions, and meal times, on the cozy twin bed. The room has its own coffee pot, complete with coffee and many types of tea. There’s a mini-fridge already stocked with a few cans of soda, an air conditioning unit in the window, and baseboard heating to keep the place warm and snug. It has its own bathroom, with a full tub and shower, and a bookshelf full of Picture, Middle Grade, and Young Adult books. There are sheets and towels, and the beds were already made up with homemade quilts donated by a Highlights Alumnus. As well as a ceiling fan, screened windows, and an overhead light, there are little lamps by each bed, and one perched over a writing chair. This truly is a family place, designed by writers, specifically to accommodate writers!

Hesitantly, I made my way to “The Barn,” where a large, friendly group of writers- all here for an intensive workshop week with a mentor author/editor- encouraged me to step into the kitchen and ask if there was anything to be heated up. I did. The chef soon brought out a plate just heaping with delicious, farm-to-table, local food. He even brought a bowl of cut strawberries and fruit at the end for dessert.

I settled into my cabin, set up my work station, and watched the sunset before planning out my schedule for the next day, as there was no set schedule for me to follow, except for meal times.

In the morning, I had a bright and early delicious breakfast- pancakes, eggs, sausage, local breads and jellies, and homemade granola were among the offerings. The writing group who was here for an “official” workshop welcomed me with open arms, and the CEO of the Highlights Foundation even joined us for a cup of coffee, telling stories and treating us like family. I then went back to my cozy cabin and proceeded to write. I made a calendar of events for my new book- something I’d never attempted at home- and began the tedious work of inserting a new ending into a solid draft. Lunch was homemade soup and Monte Cristo sandwiches with local bread and salad. I then went for a short walk, down by the creek and around the farmhouse. And then came more editing… and a nap. A much longer nap than anticipated. But with a cute bed like this, how could I resist?

Before dinner was a half hour of h’ourderves, complete with red or white wine, local cheese, homemade spreads, veggies, and crackers. The conferencing group once again welcomed me into their group, as well as the other woman who was here on her own for an Unworkshop. I got just the right amount of writer chit-chat: hearing about their projects, processes, and progress, and telling a little of my own.

The Barn is a lovely space- a huge open area for large meetings or meals, a living room-style sitting room with a coffee table for small groups, a kidlit library/dining room for groups under twelve, and a big loft for morning yoga, as well as any writers who want to write in a more public space, or mid-sized group meetings. There is always a table with coffee and tea, little bagged snacks, and even a freezer with ice cream! The patios outside are meant for congregating, with large, round tables and an outdoor refrigerator with drinks.

That evening, I called my son and husband and attempted to dive back into the manuscript, but realized that it needed just a little bit more plotting to figure out every little kink. I sat on my bed with the lamp on and fixed those last few plot points, after making a huge leap and transferring 10,000 words into the cut file.

In the morning was another lovely breakfast- steel cut oats with assorted fruit toppings, eggs, and bacon- and the writing group’s mentor graciously invited me to stay for their week’s wrap-up. I sat quietly as their mentor dispensed wisdom like it was candy, and the writers recapped what they’d learned from their week of one-on-one meetings with her and each other. It was definitely a blessing of an extra experience that I neither anticipated nor dreamed of.

 

After that, the majority of the writing group left, while a couple people stayed on to do an Unworkshop of their own. I spent all morning writing about 3,000 words of the new ending, and came to lunch ready to chat. Once again, the CEO of Highlights came for coffee, and this time we visited about Westfield (the small town in SONG OF SUMMER, where he happens to have roots!). Then back to my cabin for a (shorter) nap, and to work through the new climax of the book.

The climax of the book was done just in time for dinner, where I got to eat with two ladies who were also Unworkshopping (one from the day before’s group, and one who had just arrived), as well as meet the new conference group, here to learn about writing Jewish children’s books.

After my last delicious dinner (roasted vegetables, chicken, homemade bread, with local maple walnut ice cream for dessert- for anyone who’s interested), I returned to my cabin and yawned my way until 10 p.m. to finish the brand new ending.

And here I am this morning! Reading about other people’s experience here at the Highlights Foundation Conference Center Unworkshop got me through some really stressful times, so I hope to pass the gift on to others! The staff is accommodating (even taking people to and from the airport), the facilities are gorgeous (many individual cabins as well as an eight-room lodge, complete with a meeting room), the food is truly to die for (obviously- half this blog was about the food!), the location is breath-taking and creativity-inspiring, and I can’t wait to come back! In two years. When the new baby’s old enough to be left. *sigh* Ah well, I’ll be counting the days.

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Surviving the Agent Battle- Pennwriters Conference

One of the best seminars I went to at the Pennwriters Conference was with Suzie Townsend of New Leaf Literary. It was called “Surviving the Agent Battle.” Here are a few of my notes!

1) You want an agent who does the book you write- not just the “best” agent out there. You want one who is looking for you, so don’t concern yourself with querying somebody who doesn’t handle your material!

2) Look for a full-service agency- either choose one that handles film rights and sub rights in house, or one that has connections to other agents who handle those things. You need an agent with connections!

3) You don’t need an agent in New York City, but you do need one who goes to NYC often. Again, it’s all about connections, and that’s where the editors are.

4) Query things:
*Have a complete, finished manuscript before you start querying.
*It should be about 250 words.
*Start with your main character and conflict.
*Your bio should explain the relevant things about you.

5) Make an agent list. Send ten queries out. If they’re rejected, there’s something wrong with your query letter! Fix it and send out another ten. Ideally, you want 75% of your queries to result in requested pages. (this blew my mind a little)

6) If you get multiple offers, tell the other agents they have a week to respond. Any less than this time and the agents think you really want to go with the first agent who has your material. Any more than this and they think that you really don’t want to to go with the first agent.

7) Ask agents a lot of questions before signing with them. Here are a few: Who handles your sub rights? Do you enjoy editing? Do you have editorial suggestions? What is your vision for my book? What is your plan to market it? Do you have editors in mind? Why? How long with you work with me? How many rounds will you make before quitting? What will you do if the book doesn’t sell?

8) About timelines: Give a partial six to eight weeks, then follow up with a polite e-mail.

9) The industry standard commission is 15%. Sub rights is 20%.. International is an extra 20%.

10) Suzie’s dream client is…
Communicative
Productive (writes great books)
Never complains
Has great expectations about his/her books.
Willing to push books ahead.
Professional (you don’t treat your agent like a therapist)
-Take a step back before talking about the problem.
-Everybody (editors, agents, publishers) wants you to be happy.
-Let the agent be the bad guy for you- don’t talk to the publisher yourself.

11) Breaking up with an agent:
First, have a conversation with them to see what they’re doing for you.
– You don’t always know what they’re doing. Sometimes they’re working really hard behind the scenes.
It’s better NOT to have an agent than to have one that’s bad.
Send a break-up letter stating the reason you’re parting ways.

And there you have it! Insight from Suzie Townsend herself.

PS- I just wrote another article for Brocouncil. Check it out! 

Pennwriters Success!

I had a wonderful time at the Pennwriters conference.

I met a lot of really great people, took a ton of wonderful workshops, and ate some delicious cake. Oo! And I won two baskets with my paltry six Chinese Auction tickets! I hardly ever win things!

Over the next few weeks, I’ll do a few posts with some of the things I learned from this conference, but for now I’ve got to catch up with other important email things. Just know this: it was a success in every conceivable way.

🙂

All Pennwriters Eve

Tomorrow’s the day!

I have my pages printed out. I have more pages (and entire books) in a special file on my jump drive. I have the most beautiful God-given query ever (check out my updated Yellow Bike page to see the pitch!). I have the most beautiful business cards ever, designed by my talented husband. I have workshop names scratched in my day planner in brown extra-fine Sharpie. I am so ready for this.

After a friend’s recent critique of Bleeder, I’ve decided to take it too! As part of the conference, I get a one-on-one session with an industry professional and I want to pick his or her brain about my beloved acid-blood disease book.

One thing I’m a little concerned about: I have ten minutes to do my pitch for a blind pitch panel.

My reaction to that: TEN MINUTES?! In acting, at a regional cattle call, if you’re singing AND acting, you get 90 seconds. 90 seconds. Most of my audition monologues are about that long. Directors know after about 20 seconds whether they want you or not, just like agents know after the first paragraph of your query if they’re interested. What the heck am I going to do for ten minutes? Tap dance?! I’ve been in plays shorter than that! Any suggestions? It’s the first thing tomorrow morning!

Off to google “How to pitch your book in ten minutes…”

I’ll let you know how the whole thing goes!

Writing/Pennwriters update

Ah!

So many amazing workshops at the Pennwriters conference!

“Synopsis Treasure Map” or “Creating a Book Trailer on a Budget?”

“Your Digital Footprint” or “Using TV Techniques to Write a Killer Novel?”

“Query Quicksand” or a Q and A with Donald Maas?

So many choices!

My amazing husband is creating my Yellow Bike business cards now.

Only about 40 pages left in this major revision. Fine-tuning to come…

Things are starting to roll.

Pennwriters ahoy!

Last year around this time, I registered for the 2012 Backspace Conference in NYC. It was, in a word, awesome. I met the lovely ladies of The Club, got some valuable feedback on my work, made a couple of connections, and made a few mistakes. I think some of those are chronicled here.

Most importantly, though, I learned that the answer is: No. Writers are not huggers. 

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So when Backspace rolled around again this year, I was seriously considering going. For one thing, I work best under a deadline and Yellow Bike needs to be finished! Plus, I had such a great time last year! It was tempting, but there were a couple of things holding me back- the money was one (NYC prices on Pittsburgh barista tips…), timing was another (right before Shakes), and distance was yet another- if my husband were to come with me he would have to use valuable vacation days (baby in September, remember?). Plus, none of my Club ladies are going this year!

What to do?

Enter Writer’s Digest magazine. They featured a conference- the 2013 Pennwriters conference, to be exact, in their Feb/March issue. (I only just saw it because I only just crawled out from my non-writer rock long enough to catch up on such things). The price is Pittsburgh prices, not NYC prices, the timing is the week before Backspace, and the location is a 30-minute drive from my house. Perfect, perfect, perfect.

And that was before I saw that, included in the price is: a 15-minute one-on-one meeting with an industry professional, a pitch session, a read-and-critique of my first three pages, 2 meals, and over 50 seminar and workshop options.

Pennwriters, here I come!

Panel featuring Young Writer Mistakes from the Backspace conference

Here is some awesome writing advice from the Backspace Conference in a panel featuring Jessica Anya Bleu, Keith Cronin, Jael McHenry, and Leora Skulkin-Smith. The panel was actually about creating characters, but my favorite parts were the ones I listed here.

All you young writers out there- take note! Here are some common young writer mistakes:

1) Stereotyping- sometimes young writers have a tendency to comment on the character rather than let them become real.

2) Too much physical stuff up front.- Readers fall in love with the character’s voice, not what they look like!

3) Sometimes new writers broadcast information about themselves- Get rid of your ego!

4) Don’t revenge-write (stick your real enemies in your book as fake enemies). Love all of your characters.

How do you write someone that’s not you?

The same way you write situations you’ve never been in- if you’ve been trapped in an elevator, you can write trapped in a space ship.

Transform yourself- play the actor and put yourself in their position. You know their backstory, their flaws, their strengths. Just find those things and write from that place.

Don’t be afraid of dark places.

And one of my favorite take-aways ever:

YOU HAVE TO BE WILLING TO PUT DOWN WRONG STUFF IN ORDER TO MAKE IT RIGHT.

And my other favorite:

BE OPEN TO EVERY INTERRUPTION!

“What does that mean, Laura?” you ask.

Let me answer you with the story that one of the writers (Jessica Anya Bleu, maybe?) said: If you’re on a trip to Italy you may have the whole trip planned out. But partway through you get lost in a really cool part of the city and end up dancing in the fountain. Forget your plan and dance in the fountain! It’s the same with your book- you may have the whole thing mapped out, but if your characters decide to stop and dance in the fountain, let them stop and dance in the fountain!

Best advice you ever got…?

Query tips from Backspace

As you may or may not know, I carry approximately 10 multi-colored sharpies with me everywhere. So I take multi-colored notes. I originally had this awesome idea that I would write my Backspace blogs like I write my notes- in shapes and underlines and some huge letters and some all caps and alllllll messy.

But then I thought better of it. That sounds like a nightmare.

So I’m going to give you an adapted version of that- mostly easy-to-read with some interjections from my “real” notes.

Here’s some stuff that I learned about querying! Some of it is from a panel, some of it from the query workshop. For all you non-writer folks out there, a query is a “Hey! Read my awesome book!” letter that authors send to agents in order to get them interested. But I’m not going to tell you how to write one, I’m going to give you a few things I learned on how to tweak the query letter most writers already have.

So here goes…

* Don’t compare yourself to really extra famous people. Like Faulkner and stuff. If you just can’t avoid it (because let’s face it, you could be the next Faulkner), say something like, “This may appeal to the fans of…”

* Put on a marketing hat! You are a writer-marketer machine who believes in your book!

* Don’t tell the agent the state of the marketplace (“You know, YA is reaaalllly popular right now…”) They already know. It’s their job to know.

* Pique their interest- don’t tell the end! Save that for the synopsis.

* “This meets that” can be helpful, but again, don’t do a “Harry Potter meets The Hunger Games.”

* A tagline is awesome. Or a logline. Try to sum all the cool stuff up into one sentence and then stick it at the beginning or the end. (The current version of mine? “A terrorist-created genetic disease has turned 16-year-old Angela Brandt’s blood to acid. Now a government-backed agency has her friends’ names, a sadistic scientist has a grudge, and all Angela has is a weapon she doesn’t fully understand.”)

* The second paragraph is not a summary! “This is the paragraph where you show us how you write.” So it’s important! And did you hear me? It’s not a summary!* More important than genre- Know your audience! Who is going to want to read this?

* Voice is freaking important!

* What is voice? Here are some direct agent-y quotes: “It’s believable, intriguing.” “Someone you want to live with.” “Unique,” “I don’t read it in my own voice anymore.” “It what makes your characters come alive on the page.”

* How do you get voice? “Harness your own uniqueness.” Every human is inherently unique! So write like you and you will have a voice.

 

And the very best query advice I got is this: 

The heart of your query is the STAKES, not the PLOT.  So only give enough plot to get to the heart of the stakes. They don’t want to know the plot! They want to know what’s at risk! They want to know why they should care about this story, not that they should care about this story! You can check out my Bleeder page if you want to see how my query changed after this advice.

The query panels/workshop were amazingly helpful. I feel so much more confident about my new query, now that I know what people are looking for!

Hey writers and fellow Backspacers- what’s the most challenging thing about your own query? What piece of advice broke the whole query mystery wide open?

Tips for First-Time Backspacers

As you all know, the May 2012 NYC Backspace conference was the first writers’ conference I’ve ever attended.

It was awesome! The next few days of blogging will be dedicated to Backspace- some of the notes I took, experiences I had, and people I met.

So first up? Tips for first-timers. Let’s do this!

The Agent/Author Day is totally worth it. The query/two pages workshops were definitely the most helpful things I attended. It was wonderful to get individualized attention and to watch other people get individualized attention.

* Wear comfortable shoes. Yes, they should look cute, but make sure you can walk comfortably in them. It’s the city, after all- no car waiting in the parking lot for you.

* Know what you want out of lunch. What I wanted was a quiet place to eat and be able to pick the brains of the other participants. The cafeteria-style restaurant across the street was perfect for that. I saved the cool “New York-y” places for dinner, and I’m glad I did.

* Put your pitch or your photo on your business card. I am notoriously terrible with names and now that I’m home, I have no idea who most of these cards belong to!

* Make your business card stand out.  The best business card advice I got was to make it look like your book. For example, mine is black and white- a grungy inkblot with my name on the front and my pitch on the back. It was the only one of its kind. I have a ton of plain (pastel) business cards with writing and a ton of (pastel) business cards with cute clip art.

* Bring something little to snack on. I don’t know about you, but I get kind of like The Hulk when I’m hungry. I can’t tell you how many times a little bag of granola saved my life! (Backspace did provide coffee and soda throughout the day, and that was awesome!)

* Here’s an important one: As soon as you see an agent you like, talk to him or her! I know this sounds like, “Duh! Of course I will!” but here’s the kicker- you won’t want to. I practiced my pitch up and down, backwards and forwards, to friends and strangers, and I was still scared. And I’m an actor, for crying out loud! If I could change one thing that I did, it would be to talk to more agents.

* Here’s the other kicker: Most of these agents live or work in NYC, so they are not there for the whole conference! They are there for their panel or their workshop and then they go back to work! Face time is the most important time. It is the reason you are spending hundreds of dollars to be there. So don’t ever think, “Oh, I’ll just catch them later.” You won’t. (Found that one out the hard way…)

* I didn’t do 10 Minutes, 10 Pages. At first, I felt left out and sad when all of my friends started leaving the panels or speeches in order to have their very important meetings. Some even had two appointments! They all came back and compared notes and more self-pitying followed. However, as the weekend wore on, people got more and more stressed. One agent told them that they loved the 10 pages, another agent said they hated them. One agent said they loved the premise, another said they didn’t. What I learned from watching my friends is (and I know you’ve heard this) that agents’ tastes vary. I’m glad I didn’t stress myself out in order to learn that.

* Format your entire manuscript correctly before going. You never know when somebody is going to ask for it and you want to have it ready. Oh yeah, and for your query workshop, make sure you put your contact info on your query letter *hits self on head.*

* If there are people from your Agent/Author Day group that attend a different Track, exchange notes! It’s like being in two places at once!

* Last bit of general wisdom: Remember, these people are not your competition- they are bolstering your market. Imagine if JK Rowling had never written Harry Potter… Now after you’re done crying, think about this: the YA market would not be the same without Harry Potter. The number of adults reading YA would be miniscule, and the market could be relatively stagnant. The fact is- good books create readers and readers buy your book.  So don’t freak out if someone’s book could be “better” than yours! Nobody ever reads a good book and says, “Wow! That was great! I never want to read again.”

Good luck, newbie Backspacers! More Backspace blogs will follow.

PS- Fellow Backspacers- feel free to add your own things in the comments!

The Big Apple

I am having a blast here in NYC. I can easily see how people fall in love with it. The original Land of Opportunity- you can practically smell it! (Or maybe you’re actually smelling the person next to you but who am I to say what opportunity smells like?)

The conference has been extremely helpful. I have loved meeting writers from all over the country (actually all over the world!), many of whom are newbies like me.

It’s very different from acting conferences- most people don’t come with a partner or a group, so everybody is kind of forced to talk to each other if they want any friends at all! And the weird sense of competition that surrounds acting conferences seems… diminished. Everybody doesn’t look at everyone like they’re sizing each other up. And for all of you people who read my post posing a certain question about writers… I have seen one hug. But today is the second day of the conference, so there may be a few  more hugs going around! I’ll keep you informed.

And… get this folks… I actually got a chance to read! Like, real books! On the bus on the way here! So you can be looking forward to reviews of My Name Is Mina and Black Heart in just a few days. 🙂

Thank you for your good thoughts and prayers- they are working!

Oh! And thanks to Ru who made an awesome connection for me and Eric, getting us a backstage tour of Spiderman, the musical with one of the actors! It was incredible to see how much goes into a Broadway show! And Paul is really nice. 🙂

Now off to the second day…