Writing Goals I: Filling the Toolbox

artists toolbox

Typical toolbox: Palette, brushes…and somewhere in the background, annoying husband

The other day my wife and I were on a long walk and we started talking about a class she’s scheduled to take next month. It’s a week-long painting workshop in which she’ll be working on the same large painting for five full days. This will be somewhat new territory for her, as she doesn’t usually paint in large format like that. This is part of the plan: it’s time to add that skill to her artistic toolbox.

The reason we were discussing it is she had just asked me, earlier in the day, for my opinion on which subject she should paint – the instructor had emailed her several photographs and, prior to the class, she was supposed to email back and let the instructor know which one she planned to tackle.

We had looked at them together and narrowed down the list. On the walk, we were discussing the merits of each of the potentials. I could tell she had a clear favorite.

“Why that one?” I asked her.

“It has the best light,” she said. Good.

“I like the spark of red in the window,” she said. Good.

“It has the most variety,” she said. Good.

“I think it would be the easiest one to sell afterward,” she said. Wait.

“Is that your goal?” I asked. “To create one painting to sell? Or are you trying to learn the skills to paint a hundred paintings? Does how that particular one comes out matter that much at all?”

And of course she said it was the skills she was focused on, that the idea of being able to possibly also sell the painting she created was just a potential bonus in her book. Icing on the cake.

I know her well enough that I already knew this was the case. I was just asking to make a point, to make sure she went into the class with the proper mindset.

In related news, yes, I’m a pain in the ass. Fully. Aware.

But really, her focus – anyone’s focus in a class or workshop-type setting, in my opinion – should be on filling her toolbox with the skills necessary to do one hundred great large paintings. A thousand.

In his book On Writing, Stephen King talks about writers having toolboxes. It’s a great concept, but a lot of times I see writers meandering away from the toolbox mindset and toward the tangible-result mindset. They go to a conference or workshop or retreat with a pointed result in mind – finishing one book, one story, getting an agent or a publisher – and often consider it a failure if they don’t achieve that result.

A good friend runs a local writing conference with lots of activities. What’s interesting is that he finds it much easier to fill the ones that have the potential for that pointed, tangible result associated with them (like Agent Pitch sessions – direct result: getting an agent, of course) than the ones that don’t have as clear of a direct result.

Case in point: the Query Letter critique. It’s much harder for writers to pinpoint the direct result of this activity – since you don’t get to select the agent / editor you end up meeting with, writers don’t see it as a clear gate to signing with an agent. And I’m coming to the conference to sign with an agent, so what good is it, right?

Here’s the thing, though. All the activities at the conference are great and educational in one way or another, but the Query Letter critique is actually the one that fills the toolbox most clearly. It should be the FIRST activity to fill up, not the LAST.

You get your query – a letter you might use to later query one hundred agents – critiqued by experts. Rather than focusing on a pitch session that lets you talk to one agent (who may or may not even be a fit for your work, by the way), the query critique session potentially adds a polished letter to your toolbox. A letter, again, that you can use over and over again to query dozens upon dozens of agents. At least one of whom is far more likely to be a fit for your work.

I see this also in critique groups, which typically allow you to bring five to ten pages, which you either read aloud during or share prior to the meeting. Most writers try to use these groups to get critique on their entire novel in sequence. But if your book is 300 pages long, five pages at a time means it will take sixty meetings to get through it all. That’s almost THREE YEARS if your group meets twice a month!

This is simply not how I view these groups. I love critique groups, but I’m not there to run through my entire novel five pages at a time.

I’m there to fill my toolbox.

If I’m working on adding humor to my project, or the relationship between two characters, or how the antagonist is portrayed, whatever, I bring a section that is representative of that thing, get my critique, then add the reactions I hear to my toolbox. I then apply what I learned (I USE THAT NEW TOOL!) to the entire book on my own. This means I often share my book out of order, skip chapters, switch from one book to the next, then to a short story I want reaction on, and so on.

I am definitely in the minority on that front. In fact I think my approach downright annoys people sometimes. But I don’t really care.

Have I mentioned the related news? Yes, I’m a pain in the ass. Fully. Aware.

Let me sum up what I’m trying to say with a bit of advice: when you’re heading to a writing conference or class, a retreat or critique group, a workshop, I suggest trying to think less about that particular direct result you’re hoping for – these five pages to critique (which MUST be the NEXT five pages in your book), that one agent I MUST convince to sign me, this one book that MUST be completed during this retreat, and try to focus a whole lot more on your TOOLBOX.

How does what you’re about to do fill it with more tools you can use over and over again? To query fifty agents. To write a dozen books. To fix your entire novel, rather than just this lone five-page sample.

Over the past year or two, as I’ve continued to traverse the ups and downs of the publishing industry, I’ve been thinking a lot about writing goals. First and foremost my own, which it’s probably fair to say I’ve transformed quite significantly, but also other writers. It can’t be helped: we writers are all bobbing up and down in own own rafts along this strange river filled with dangerous, unpredictable rapids. We’re on our own, but we’re right next to each other, too. We see it when some other writer’s raft gets flipped over by unexpected rocks. And we can’t help but wonder, from afar, what happened to cause it.

More and more, as I see those overturned rafts, those writers sputtering for air, I’ve been noticing a cause-and-effect relationship between these accidents and writing goals.

This post is the result of some of those ruminations – hopefully the first in a series on Writing Goals.

Stay tuned for Writing Goals II: Don’t Quit That Day Job.

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Registration for the Atlanta Writers Conference is open. And it’s awesome.

atlantawritersclubLiterary agent Janet Reid recently ranted that Pitch sessions are the spawn of Satan.

She’s right. Pitch sessions at writers conferences – wherein a writer sits across from an agent or editor for some pre-determined period of time and tries to succinctly describe their project in an effort to obtain representation (or at least, get the agent to read the damn thing) – are awful, nerve-racking meetings that turn otherwise rational people into quivering piles of…well, something unmentionable.

It can be a terrible thing to witness. And a worse thing to actually participate in.

And yet, I met my own wonderful agent at a conference. The Atlanta Writers Conference, to be specific. Yes, I pitched my project to her in one of those very pitch sessions. And, eventually, a few weeks later after reading my work, she offered me representation.

This isn’t, however, why The Atlanta Writers Conference is awesome. The reason it’s awesome is because it comes so close to Ms. Reid’s proposal for what a writers conference should offer.

Here’s the solution:

Stop pitching.
Start helping.

I’ll sit in a room for 14 hours straight if you feed, water and burp me periodically.  I’ll meet with every writer at the conference who has a query letter. I’ll read the query and I’ll offer suggestions for improving it. I’ll read the revisions. I’ll help every author there as much as I can. And I’ll be GLAD to do it.

And here’s the best part: when I read the query, I’m essentially getting the same information a writer should be giving me in a pitch.

Writers might still be nervous, but if all they have to do is hand an agent a query, and take notes on what she says, and ask questions, I guarantee there will be less vomit involved.

– Janet Reid, Pitch sessions are the spawn of Satan

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Pitch (you are not Robert De Niro)

Robert De Niro

Robert De Niro

The other day I watched an interview on CBS ‘ morning show with Robert De Niro. As everyone knows, Mr. De Niro is one of the preeminent actors of our time. His talent is unquestioned. He’s pure genius on the screen.

But…and I’m sorry, Bobby…this was one of the worst interviews I’d ever seen. De Niro appeared surprised by every question. Seemed to search for an answer each time, often failing to find one that sounded coherent. He looked like a rookie to me.

Just before the interview, they showed Mr. De Niro waiting to be brought forward to talk to Charlie Rose and company.

Was he pacing back and forth, memorizing the things he needed to make sure he conveyed about the Tribeca Film Festival (what he was invited to speak on)? No.

Was he flipping through note cards, reminding himself of the salient points that needed to be made? No.

Was he staring into space, running through in his mind all the really central plot points he needed to make sure to describe? No.

He was sitting there, reading a newspaper, with not a care in the world as to what was ahead.

Because he’s Robert &*%$ Deniro. And he doesn’t give a shit. Nothing that happened in the next five minutes was going to change the fact that he’s an acting legend. That he was in Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Godfather, Deer Hunter.

Note to self: Haven’t seen Silver Linings Playbook yet. Rectify. Is it rentable yet? I digress….

In about two weeks, I’m going to be meeting with several literary agents, trying to pitch my latest novel. This can be a nerve-racking experience, especially for a natural introvert. We don’t talk about ourselves much. Certainly we don’t tend to brag or self-promote.

Many friends are also pitching at this same conference. I offer you, and all others who might go through this pitch process at any conference, one central thought to remember:

You are NOT Robert De Niro.

When you’re sitting oustside the room, waiting for the agent to invite you in, your leg shaking nervously in place, I want you to remember this one fact.

You are NOT Robert De Niro.

What does this mean?

It means you can’t just “wing it.” You can’t forget to anticipate questions and have pre-formed answers for those very queries. You can’t decide preparing is optional.

No, instead you need to treat it like a debate.

That’s right, a debate. The last conference I went to was in November 2012. Right around the time of the presidential elections. If I do say so myself, I did really well. I won two awards, one from each of the agents I pitched, for “Best Pitch.”

I believe this was because I learned a ton from the debates I’d been watching as part of election season. In those debates, it became clear that each candidate came prepared with planned items they needed to say…at some point. Equally, they were aware that they didn’t know ahead of time when “the right time” for imparting the information they hoped to convey would come. They had to bide their time.

It needed to look…natural.

Even thought it totally wasn’t.

No, not at all. It was planned, but didn’t appear planned. This is the secret. You need to have a list of all the things you hope to say, then wait for the appropriate time in the conversation to say them. In this way, it appears as a natural part of the conversation. But it’s not. And if the opportunity doesn’t arise, then you must skip it. Don’t force it in. There’s nothing worse than blurting out some non-sequitur because you’re feeling like time is going to be up before you get the chance to say what you want to say. Go in realizing this will happen. There’s a bunch of important stuff that you may not have a natural time to impart. And that’s OKAY.

This is why you should be rolling through all your memorized, salient points before you walk into the room.

This is why, unlike Bobby D., you need to give a shit.

You are NOT Robert De Niro.

One of De Niro’s responses to a pointed and legitimate question: “I can’t answer that.” Try that in your pitch. I dare you. Good luck.

The interview. I still cringe, just a little.

 

Two Simple Lessons Learned from Pitching at a Writers Conference

Prepare

A few weeks ago, I had the extraordinary opportunity to attend the November edition of the Atlanta Writers Conference . I had a great time, learned a lot and (I hope) made some long-lasting connections with other writers and also the agents in attendance.

Here are two simple lessons I’d like to impart to others who may be getting ready to attend their first conference:

Be Prepared, but not Over-prepared
As several of the sites I link to below will suggest, at the end of the day, whether in a critique or pitch session, you’re having a conversation. A conversation with another human being. (Yes, agents are human, too!)

So while I would never suggest not preparing at all, you need to remember that you’re sitting down for 10 – 15 minutes to talk to another person who cares about books, writing and reading. When you talk to your fellow writers in your critique group or, better yet, your individual critique partner, you don’t spend hours and hours memorizing what you’re going to say, do you?

Okay, let’s back up a moment. You do belong to a critique group, right? You do have a critique partner, don’t you? Because your appearance at your Writers Conference shouldn’t be the first time you have this type of short conversation about your work. It should be something you’ve done many times before.

I highly recommend you join a critique group and look for opportunities to work with an individual critique partner as well. Most likely the same local organization that is running the Writers Conference (here in Atlanta, the Atlanta Writers Club, for example) offers access to critique groups as well. Join!

Back to preparing for the conference, it certainly makes sense to have a short pitch thought out. If it’s very short (a sentence or two), you can even memorize it. Personally, all I did was memorize the bullet points related to my work-in-progress that I didn’t want to forget to cover. I knew that the way I pitched to the agent was going to be slightly different than how I’d ever described my story to anyone else before, because when you don’t memorize the complete paragraph, only the bullets, it comes out differently each time you say it to each different person you say it to.

And I was completely fine with that. Because it was a natural conversation with another person. This is what you need to keep reminding yourself.

Also keep in mind the meetings are short. We had fifteen minutes for our critique sessions and only ten minutes for our pitch sessions. Hopefully, it’s easy for you to have a natural conversation about your work in such a short time. A natural conversation that doesn’t include a long, transparently-memorized, pre-conceived speech.

If not, then once again I’d suggest you discuss your work more often with other writers, or just other people in general (though, for me, writers are more apt to ask the questions that agents would and therefore offer better preparation.) Hopefully, your work is interesting enough to support a ten minute conversation, especially considering the agent you’re pitching to will doubtless have some things to say as well, taking up some of the time.

Not over-preparing helps on another front: Questions. Both being able to answer unexpected questions posed to you by the agent, and asking questions of your own to the agent. If you stay light on your feet, then the agent interrupting you with a question you didn’t expect doesn’t “throw you off” by breaking the rhythm of your over-memorized speech. I can almost see some writer holding up one finger and telling the agent across from them that they’ll answer that question later, then getting right back to their memorized ramblings, not even noticing the agent as she rolls her eyes. No, no, no. Please, no.

It’s a conversation, people. If you’re telling a story to a friend, and she interrupts you with a question, you should answer it, not just continue telling your story because – “Wait! – it’s really funny, you need to hear this first.” Nobody wants to have a conversation with that guy. It’s not a pleasant experience, because it’s not a conversation at all, is it? It’s one person talking at the other, not talking with her.

As far as asking questions of your own, let me share an example from my own critique session I believe exemplifies what I am trying to say. Sure, I will admit I walked into my sessions with a few questions in my back pocket, in case the conversation slowed to a crawl. However, I will also tell you I never had the chance to ask any of those pre-prepared questions, because we were (at least I was) enjoying the conversation we were having too much.

Instead, during my critique session, the agent I was speaking with pointed out that a particular flashback section seemed “out of place” where it was in my first chapter. That was interesting to me, because it had been a late addition to the piece I submitted, something I added after deciding to incorporate a particular device into my work. I had decided, after attending another writing class, that anytime my main character gazed into the woods, he would have a flashback to the events of his childhood. This, I thought, established a rule that the reader could get used to.

Now, the agent couldn’t be aware of this device I had decided to employ in my work, but at that moment, I wanted to know: Was it just this particular moment for a flashback that was wrong, or was my use of the device throughout the work a bad idea? Heck, that’s the purpose of getting critiqued, right? To obtain tons of valuable feedback on what you’ve done so far, even if it prompts you to re-work some of your ideas and concepts.

So, on the spur of the moment, I asked her. It wasn’t a question I had “memorized” beforehand, but because I was having a conversation with her (actually, during the critique I was doing the right thing and listening mostly, but on occasion when the opportunity presented itself, I would make a comment or ask a question), I felt at ease asking it, and it made for a nice moment to interact with her amidst her itemized feedback.

The specific answer I received isn’t important – the advice I am trying to dispense here is that, if you are having a comfortable conversation with the agent rather than making a memorized presentation to her, it makes it much easier and more comfortable to be natural, to ask questions you never thought you’d ask, and to get the most value out of your critique and pitch sessions.

All this said, I certainly did prepare for the conference, and below are several links I’d recommend reviewing before your next conference. I used all of these myself.

Realize what’s at stake…and what’s NOT at stake
Your meetings at the conference are important, and a great opportunity. But they don’t make or break your writing career. (Unless of course you do something so crazy that agents start warning each other about you. Don’t do anything like that. Please.)

Back in April, the Atlanta Writers Club had another conference. I didn’t sign up at first for the critique and pitch sessions because I had a scheduling conflict. By the time I realized I no longer had that conflict, the sessions were all full and I’d missed my chance. I still went to the conference, but only attended the general sessions – there was a talk Friday evening and an agent panel in the morning on Saturday.

At the time, I had said (at least to myself), “That’s okay, I convey my ideas better through writing. I am, after all, a writer.” I’d said this partially because I was querying my first work at the time, and having quite a bit of success with my query letter (I’m no longer querying that work – that’s a story for another time.) I thought that I wouldn’t do as well in a one-on-one verbal session with the agents as I was doing with my query letter.

What I didn’t realize at that time was how great the opportunity to sit across from an agent and discuss my work really is. It’s a rare chance to make a connection with an industry professional, get feedback, validation of your concepts, all that.

So, I’d never, ever downplay it, because the opportunity is really great.

At the same time, it is – at the end of the day – only one or two of many hundreds (thousands?) of agents out there. If your critique or pitch doesn’t go well, don’t sweat it. It’s simply a learning experience for next time.

Relax. Have a good time.

But – last piece of advice – don’t have too good a time. Treat it like a job interview. That’s what it is, after all.

Right?