The Southeast chapter of Mystery Writers of America (SEMWA), the Triad chapter of Sisters in Crime (Murder We Write), and the Writers' Group of the Triad united efforts to sponsor a free, one-day writers' workshop Saturday 18 October at the Greensboro Central Library in Greensboro, NC. I drove over to catch up with what other authors were doing, meet authors and writers with whom I've corresponded in email, and listen to the excellent presenters.
Beth Sheffield, who heads up the readers' advisory service for the library, kicked off the day with guidelines for published authors on preparing a discussion guide for book clubs and reader groups. Her handout listed generic samples of book discussion questions and the building blocks for good questions. She suggested that authors also provide an information packet for facilitators; it differs from the list of discussion questions in the following ways:
- Accessed primarily by discussion group facilitators
- Cross-references page numbers from the novel with discussion questions on the list
- Notes the author's perspective on plot twists and characters
Last fall, I'd developed discussion questions for Paper Woman based on Read 'Em Their Writes: A Handbook for Mystery and Crime Fiction Book Discussions, by Gary Warren Niebuhr. Soon as events slow down a bit for me, I'll create a similar list for The Blacksmith's Daughter and Camp Follower, create facilitator guides for all three books, and post these resources on my author web site.
Karen McCullough, president of SEMWA, based examples in her session about how to plot a novel on the five-act story structure. She analyzed the structures of The DaVinci Code and "Star Wars" to demonstrate the rising action, crisis, and easing of tension in each act. Her handout on tried-and-true plotting structures included the Mythic Structure (aka the Hero's Journey).
After lunch, NY Times best-selling author John Hart, who won the Edgar award, shared his route to publication and answered questions from the audience about writing. John has two "trunk" manuscripts, written while he had a day job. (In other words, stuff he refuses to sell because of its lack of quality.) When he decided to go full-time at writing, he'd been employed as an attorney. He'd noticed the improvement curve between the two unpublished manuscripts, and at the same time, he couldn't stomach the thought of legally representing a guilty child molester. Here's some of the wisdom he shared:
- Before the agent, editor, or publisher sees you, they see your words upon the page. That's why excellent writing, passion, perseverance, and faith impress them more than a "sexy" package.
- A mistake commonly made by beginning writers is querying top agents. These agents are way too busy with their seven-digit-advance clients to bother with queries from first-time authors. Instead, query agents from halfway down the letterhead of established agencies. They'll be hungry.
- If an agent wants your material, s/he'll usually jump on it within a day or so. If the agent has had your material for more than three months without responding, they likely don't want it.
- Publishers maintain/pay attention to their stables. A first-time author is a necessary evil that warrants a little PR on the debut novel, but after that, the author is left to sink or swim. A small percentage of first-timers will pay off down the road, and that's the main reason why publishers sign contracts with them.
- Find a publisher with a marketing budget. It takes a hefty dollar commitment from a big publisher to boost an author on top, on the "front table" of Barnes & Noble. This means an author has to pursue every opportunity to get noticed individually by the publisher, to ensure that the publisher's extra commitment will happen. John "stalked" a top author until he got a cover blurb from him. That boldness caught his publisher's eye and elevated him from a one-page ad to a two-page ad in the catalog his publisher sent to booksellers in advance of book releases.
My observation on John's strategies: I found his level of self-promotion, assertion, and initiative typical of how men navigate their careers in Corporate America. Most women are uncomfortable pursuing careers with such determination. In particular, women authors retreat from most marketing challenges.
Agatha-award winner Chris Roerden, shown here on the left with sister Guppy Teresa Fannin, spoke from a professional editor's point of view on voice, craft, and the secret to getting published. Tips she offered: make endings unexpected, leave backstory out of the first chapter, rewrite junk (filler) phrases such as "took a breath" and "shook his head" to make them fresh, and don't hesitate to use understatement or overstatement appropriately. The attitudes of the protagonist and the author are great determinants of the elusive "voice." Junk phrases often smother voice.
A panel, "10 Essentials for Getting and Staying Published that Writers Don't Want to Believe!" wrapped up the day. Karen, John, and Chris hit on the following points, more than ten, many of which I've belabored on discussion lists:
- Editors at publishing houses don't have time to edit and will reject a first-timer's manuscript if it isn't very close to publishable.
- Don't try to write like the next _____ (substitute name of bestseller author). Don't let someone else dictate what you write or steer you into a trend. Trends are elusive and fleeting. You cannot write to trends. Write who you are.
- One of the best ways to find voice is to give your protagonist stakes that are unique and personal, and make the reader care about the resolution of those issues.
- Front-line editors at publishing houses usually won't read past the second paragraph of a submission. Your material has to be better, not just as good, as what's currently selling well.
- The average number of completed "trunk" manuscripts for first-time, published authors is 4.5. You aren't likely to sell your first completed manuscript. First manuscripts aren't very good, and most agents and editors know this. (During my recent talk with Mary Buckham, she mentioned that most first manuscripts are autobiographical and thus unpublishable.)
- Don't admit to agents and editors your number of trunk manuscripts. Don't admit how long it took you to write your submitted manuscript.
- Don't expect to sell the first draft of a manuscript. Rewriting is where you make yourself a genius. When you rewrite, make sure that every scene advances the story.
- To produce a compelling book, focus on creating a gripping plot and set of characters. You don't have to save the world with a contrived, outrageous, superhero ending. Make your plots and characters as realistic as possible so they resonate with your readership.
- The gamble that publishers take with first-timers is that the fan base will grow instead of flat-line. If your sales flat-line, it kills your career. This stagnant fan base is what a writer who self-publishes can most often expect. You're better off without that kind of history. (In other words, if you want a career in writing, resist the impulse to self-publish.)
- Being published two or three times, even with increasing sales, doesn't guarantee your next contract.
- In 1998, the average published author made $7000 per year. That figure hasn't increased appreciably. This isn't a career at which you're likely to get rich. When lightning does strike, a good percentage of it is luck.
- Don't send glitter, photos, food, or other gifts when you query. What you're trying to impart in a query is that you're professional. Gimmicks don't achieve that and, post-9/11, will be discarded.
- For fiction writers, learn how to write the type of book proposal used by nonfiction writers. More agents and editors are requesting these so they can see whether the prospect is marketing savvy and professional.
- When an agent or editor responds to your query with, "This isn't right for us, but send your next manuscript," s/he is not saying that they hate your writing. This is one of the most positive responses you can get. Yet more than 50% of writers don't send that next manuscript because they interpret the statement as negative.
- Expect agents and editors to treat you professionally. Approach your interactions with them professionally. What you write is art, but the publishing industry is a business. Treat it as business, not as art. Get involved, and educate yourself.
Distributed at this event was the first edition of a bibliography of mystery novels, true crime, and related nonfiction written by authors who currently live in North Carolina. The bibliography is "offered for the enjoyment of readers" and "for distribution by NC libraries." Nancy Gotter Gates, Rebecca Floyd, Chris Roerden, and Beth Sheffield compiled and printed the initial draft. An electronic copy of the bibliography is available on Murder We Write's web site.
My Honda provided an unexpected source of humor on this trip. Halfway to Greensboro, the muffler called it quits, so I roared into the parking deck near the library sounding like I'd come straight from the 'hood. When the Skill-Build was over, my Honda bellowed back to Raleigh, surpassed in volume only by two bull pickup trucks brocaded with Bond-o. But ahhh, to pull into my driveway and receive such appreciative grins from my teenaged sons: check out Mom's pimped-out ride! Better than homemade chocolate chip cookies! I had the muffler replaced today. I always suspected that the reserved exterior of my Honda hid a savage growl. Kinda like perimenopausal women.
Next up: A panel and booksigning for an afternoon of Carolina Crimes at the New Hanover County Public Library in Wilmington, NC.