The Unicorn Writers’ Conference

Saturday, I attended the Unicorn Writers’ Conference at St. Clements Castle in Portland, Connecticut.

Some of my conference swag.

Some of my conference swag.

It’s the title I would have given to a writers’ conference if I were designing one when I was ten years old (or even more recently; you all saw my Race to the 8th Calendar). The conference color is even purple, which is totally my color. Both signs, perhaps. I found this conference HUGELY valuable, inspirational, and educational.

The Unicorn Writer’s Conference is a day-long event filled with workshops on various parts of the writing and publishing process. Many beginning writers attended, as well as all the professionals giving the workshops. Also in attendance were lots of literary agents.

If you registered and paid for it beforehand, you could have a one-on-one session with a literary agent during the day, who would give you feedback based on the first forty pages of your manuscript. I didn’t have one these sessions, as I am still holding my recently completed manuscript draft rather close to my chest at the moment. I did, however, go to the conference fully prepared with business cards, the prototype version of Wanderlust from from May 2012 (it has current illustrations, even if the text is out of date), and an only slightly-rehearsed 30 second pitch (actually, I have a very well rehearsed five-second pitch. It gets a bit fuzzy after that). And I spent much of the day talking to people about my book.

It was terrifying, of course, to actually introduce myself to John M Cusick, YA writer and literary agent, when I saw him sitting at a table just behind mine during lunch. Still, a chance to talk with people in the industry was one of the reasons I was there, and I didn’t want to leave the conference with any regrets. Mr. Cusick was very kind, and took several minutes to talk to me about my project. He recommended aging my characters down, if possible. I’m aware that my characters are slightly too old for typical YA, and it was good for me (like eating my vegetables) to hear that this might be a serious roadblock to publication. While sitting in my next workshop, I even began wondering if I could write a version of Wanderlust where Vanya and Taniel are 16 and 19, or 15 and 18, rather than 19 and 22. It would be a very different story in many ways. I really enjoy the story and characters I have now, and I believe there is an audience for the story I have written—but I’m not convinced I wouldn’t want to read the one with younger characters. It’s something to think about, anyway, especially as I move forward with the publication process and with getting Wanderlust to the right readers.*

We hear every day about self-published books that do well and get picked up later by big-name publishers. John Cusick, however, advised me to submit to agents before self-publishing. This is because it can be awkward for an agent or publisher to take on a writer if there are already some copies of that writer’s book in existence. Obviously this depends on the situation and the individuals, but he said that agents and editors will often ask for changes and revisions before publishing a book—and if a thousand fans already have a copy of the book without those changes? It might be enough of a hassle that the agent decides to pass on signing the writer after all. This might especially be a concern for me because, if I self-publish, I will be dealing with the entirety of the book design, including illustrations and how they interface with the text. If I get an agent and a traditional publisher, there will be a book designer working with my book. I don’t want any contract for Wanderlust that doesn’t include my illustrations, but it has occurred to me that Wanderlust might really benefit from someone more experienced than I in the ways of fonts and margins and chapter headers. Anyone who thinks that stuff is easy or unimportant has never tried designing a book. Getting it traditionally published might mean a very different visual look than what I would create on my own. Even though I know self-publishing doesn’t mean you can’t go the traditional route later, Cusick’s point made a lot of sense to me. I think you can approach it from either side. You might say, “It can’t hurt to self publish before querying agents.” You could also say, “Yeah, but it can’t hurt to query agents before self-publishing.” I think it depends on your book, on your luck, on which agents you’re submitting to, and on your long-term publication goals. I’m still figuring out which path to follow, but right now I’m leaning towards querying first. It can’t hurt.

7422080John Cusick is an agent at the Greenhouse Literary Agency and the author of the YA novel Girl Parts. He also has a wordpress blog (http://johnmcusick.wordpress.com/). I highly recommend his March 4 post on the relationship between writing and work. Also, Girl Parts. I started reading the amazon preview today and I’m totally hooked. It’s dark, near-future, clean, scary, beautifully written, and very enticing. That’s what I got from the first few pages, anyway, and I’d like to read the whole thing very soon. Also, there is a FREE kindle short story set in the same world called Abandon Changes. I’m going to read it as soon as I finish this blog post.

I may get a lot of blog posts out of this conference, because talking with John Cusick was only ten minutes of a very full day. I have so many new things I’m thinking about that I hadn’t even begun to consider before. The Unicorn Writers’ Conference was right where I needed to be this weekend for my development as a writer and a professional, and I look forward to sharing some more of my insights with you in the days ahead.

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*Also, some of the reasons I’d prefer not to down-age is that Vanya is a very young 19-year-old, and the story doesn’t deal with any adult concerns like job, family, bills, etc. beyond the initial setup of Taniel’s “Lost my job, life is ruined!” sad-face in the beginning seven paragraphs of the novel. My point of view, given the above, is this: “These are young adults that teens will relate to, so there’s no problem with the current ages.” I’m aware that the flip argument is: “If they’re not really doing adult things and he acts younger than he is, why wouldn’t you just make them younger?” Ultimately, it’s a matter of figuring out where that line is between sticking to your artistic integrity and obstinately refusing to follow practical advice. Right now I think I’m on the side of artistic integrity, but if it’s something I keep hearing over and over again, especially from people who have read some of the book, I’ll have to consider changing my opinion.

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Wanderlust: One Goal Reached

I did it. I tied up all the loose ends I am currently aware of, connected all the connecty-bits, and did the best I could do (or at least the best I could do right now) with those sentences that just weren’t hanging together. I hesitate to say I “finished,” because I know I am so far from finished—but about an hour ago, I attached the manuscript of my novel to an email, and I clicked send. It went out to a few close friends, all colleagues from Northern Michigan. The inner circle, if you will. I might let a few other people read it at this stage; certainly my mom.

It’s a weird feeling, knowing that this thing I’ve obsessed over for so long is about to reach an audience of more than me. It’s a relief, and it’s scary, and I feel very accomplished in a drained, completely exhausted kind of way. I think I will go to bed early tonight. I hope to actually begin on the name-doodles for the contest winners tomorrow; I confess this week I was still in marathon mode and pushing to get all the way done with the writing, which left the prizes at low priority. This week, I’ll give them more of my focus. Also, sorry for only posting once last week and for dropping some ongoing conversations in the comments section. It’s been busy around here, and when I haven’t been focusing on life (including some significant food and lifestyle changes) I’ve been fairly single-minded about the writing, and crossing things off my list. And since the connections I’ve made through this blog have provided me with so much support and encouragement for my writing over the past months, I just wanted to drop a line here and say, I did it. I reached the next marker on the road. I completed one goal. I accomplished something big, and I’m a little closer to a finished book. The next step, for me, is to get serious about making the rest of the Wanderlust illustrations.

-G

I Don’t Have a Kindle, But Here Are Some Books to Check Out If You Do

At one point this weekend, my brother, my mother, and I all sat on the couch reading. My brother had a sci-fi novel on his kindle. My mother had just downloaded a free book for her ipad mini. I held a real nice trade paperback copy of Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge. I don’t own any sort of e-reader. Over the years I’ve watched even my most bookish friends acquire kindles. They usually receive it as a gift, but then find that they actually enjoy the device, or at least find it useful in certain circumstances. I’m not actively agin’ em; I recognize that they can be very useful for travel, or for getting a book right away, or for carrying lots of books with you at once. I even read most of Game of Thrones on my brother’s kindle while visiting him this spring, and nothing about the e-reader impeded my enjoyment of the text. And yet… I am against e-readers. I love books too much. I love their shapes and sizes and smells. I love how they feel in my hand, and how they look on my shelf. I love their covers, I love every nuance of their interior design. Every font choice and every margin size is meaningful, and all these aspects are lost in a digital conversion.

Lately, though, I do wish I had an e-reader, and for a very specific reason: I want to support self-published authors. While trawling the blogosphere, things pop up that look good. Sometimes you can even get past the first paragraph without choking on the bad writing. When I find a self-published book that feels like a real book, I want to read it. But here’s the issue: the kindle version of the book often costs between 3-5 dollars, while the hard copy, even a paperback, often costs as much as $20. Now, I am in a stage of my life right now where $20 is a lot of money. That’s a whole harp lesson, or nearly another month’s harp rental. It’s a whole 10% of a student loan payment. It’s half of what I owe the dentist for last month. It’s two hours of hard work. Basically, I don’t have $20 to spend on books right now, especially not multiple books. I do have a kindle reader for mac, but I don’t enjoy the experience of reading a book on my laptop. It feels illicit, somehow. If I want to read these self-published books as real books, with the amount of respect I would give to any published author, reading on the computer just doesn’t work for me.

So I wish I had en e-reader. I don’t, and due to afore-mentioned money concerns, I won’t have one anytime soon. Since I’m not purchasing and reading these books, I figured the least I could do is share them with you.

Imminent DangerImminent Danger: And How to Fly Straight Into It by Michelle Proulx

Discovered this via a link at Celeste DeWolfe‘s blog. It’s got a good cover, great reviews, and its first few pages are technically pristine. It’s a sci-fi space romp sort of thing, and it sounds like a lot of fun. (Author’s blog: Michelle Proulx)

 

 

Embers of GadrileneEmbers at Gadrilene by A. D. Trosper

Read a great review, and got curious; I do love a good dragon book. While the first few pages seemed a trifle melodramatic, they were also well-written, and totally hooked me. I want to see where this goes. (Author’s Blog: A.D. Trosper)

 

 

The LetterThe Letter by Kahtia Lontis

There’s actually a story behind this one, and you can read all the details at the author’s blog (http://abovetheseaoffog.com/a-tale-of-two-goats/ ) The author is trying to raise the money to travel overseas to meet her boyfriend. As much as my own experience has completely disenchanted me with the idea of online relationships, I’m still a romantic at heart. I find their story inspiring, I enjoy reading this lady’s blog, and I completely support overseas travel, so I want to help them fulfill their dream.  And, okay, I actually just realized I didn’t have a good excuse not to, and I went and bought the book. So far it is delightfully surreal, although it’s an epub file so I had to download a new program to read it. Also, the paragraphs don’t appear to be properly formatted, which is really too bad… but it’s a short book, and I think I can handle it for a 30 pages. Anyway, check it out—it’s a cool feeling to buy a book and know you’re funding someone’s dream in the process.

That’s it for today. Once again, I want to thank everyone who entered the Race to the 8th Contest. Thanks to last week, I am so close to being done with this stage of revision of Wanderlust. Also, I have not forgotten your prizes; I’ll update you on the status of those later this week.

Happy Tuesday!

-G

Taniel

Sketch of TanielA stylized sketch.

Taniel is one of the main characters from my upcoming novel, Wanderlust. His face is a little too thin here, and he looks slightly elven—no doubt a result of my current Tolkien kick.

I believe I’ve posted the most drawings of Vanya, the blonde one, and spent more time talking about Vanya than Taniel in this space. I did create Vanya first, and he is exceptionally dear to me—but Vanya never worked as a character until he had Taniel. Vanya is a sort of mysterious man-child, a wandering waif with a harp. This works as an archetype, as an idea, but in terms of story he needs someone to engage with. Wanderlust is written in very limited third person, and we see the whole story through the eyes of Taniel. Taniel’s thoughts provide readers with an access point to Vanya, and to the story. He is Vanya’s sine qua none; without him, Vanya could not function as a character and, indeed, Vanya could never embark on the adventure of a lifetime that is chronicled in Wanderlust. They didn’t know it, but before they met each other both Vanya and Taniel were waiting for their lives to begin.

And there, I’ve talked about him all in terms of Vanya again. It’s a little inescapable, as they both exist for each other. Yet who is Taniel?

He is a band manager when the story begins, having turned to the business side of music when he decided early on that he didn’t have what it takes to become a professional musician. He has worked very hard for a very long time, and most of his life centers around work. He doesn’t have very many friends. He is health-conscience, rule-abiding, and something of a scholar. Though prone to panic and quick bursts of anger, he has always felt most comfortable with himself when he has someone else to take care of. He is an orator, a dreamer, and a teller of stories, but he was forced to be practical very early in life, and he needs the influence of Vanya to re-discover his creativity and appreciation for the beauty and magic of the world.

Does that whet your appetite? Knowing this much about Taniel, would you pick up my book and read more?

Rewrites are Wrenching

Rewriting is funny. Kind of like time-travel is funny. Kind of like back when we all had  VCRs (I still have one) you could hit record, and tape a new thing over something you’ve already recorded. That’s the feeling I have right now: I hit record on a new scene and I’m watching it play out, and as it plays out, it’s erasing some things that already occupied that time slot in my narrative. I think the new scene is better, which is why I’m letting it run, but the old stuff wasn’t bad, you know? I’m sad to see it go. The nuts and bolts of the old scene still pretty much get sandwiched in with the new stuff around it, but now everything about the old scene means something else and must be handled differently in light of a whole thing that just upset the emotional equilibrium of the two main characters.

Just so you know, this new scene doesn’t change the direction of the whole plot or anything—it’s just the problem of the week, and I’m working through it. Also, I’m going to share this illustration with you. It’s one of the best ones I’ve done so far; a lot of people said so. Technically it still works and I’m really hoping I can still use it, but due to this re-recording of events its inclusion in the actual book is in jeopardy. This is why you should consider writing your book before you illustrate it.

© Grace Makley, 2012

Let’s Stop Writing Lazy

Yesterday, I posted about how I’d finished Round One of editing (wooh!). The kicker is, I went through the last forty pages in a single day. I was on a roll. And hey, they day wasn’t even over yet! Why not go right to Round Two? I picked up my manuscript, booted up the computer, and got ready to start recording my corrections from the beginning.

And I was immediately confronted with that sentence. That parenthetical, periodical travesty that had made it this far because I couldn’t figure out how to de-convolute it without ruining some, or all, of its effect. Maybe, later on in the book, I could have let it slide…. but it’s in the first paragraph. The first paragraph of an indie novel. I don’t know about you, but I make decisions on self-published books based on that first paragraph. If the author can’t convince me in that space of time that they have a competent control of the english language, I’m out.

So this is where I realized what I’m really up against in Round Two. I’m up against all the things that can’t be solved quickly, and without considerable thought. I hadn’t rewritten the sentence with my red pen; I had only written “still not sure.” Nope, not sure at all. Last night, I closed my computer and slunk off to bed. I thought of that sentence while starting my day this morning, and mulled it over. I asked myself questions like, “What am I trying to achieve with this sentence? Is it more important for it to be periodical, or lyrical? What is another way to convey this information?” Then when I got back to the computer, I finally did the work. I tried out several different things, and crafted a new sentence that has the dramatic effect I want (I hope) without sacrificing prose and readability. I’ve probably spent over an hour on that single sentence—and this is how every little thing is going to be from here on out.

Here’s another example. After she’d read most of the prototype, Lady Higg told me, “Nathaniel sighs a lot.” I said, “Huh, I guess he does.” It’s not really a problem, and it sort of makes sense with his character, and how he’s feeling in the first few pages. To be safe, though, I counted the sighs in red ink. Today, when I realized the “Nathaniel sighed” I’d marked as number one was actually his second sigh in four pages, I had to look a little closer. The line was, “Nathaniel sighed inwardly.” Well, what does that really mean? What is the feeling I’m trying to convey here? Again, I tried a few different things, and finally arrived on, “Nathaniel suppressed a desire to beat his head against the steering wheel.”  I think this provides a much more concrete image, is much more interesting, and conveys more of his frustration and melancholy than the previous, lazy line where he sighs yet again.

One more story. Back in April, as graduation and the Senior Show loomed closer, I had to write a Personal Statement to display next to the Wanderlust prototype and illustrations that made up my portion of the Senior Exhibition. The statement had to be approved by my advisor. When I went to see him, I was all like, “BAM, I work at the Writing Center, yo, how’s that for an artist statement?!” Okay, I wasn’t actually like that at all, but the point is I’d seen how bad Artist Statements can get, and I was feeling a little complacent about mine. My advisor said, “Okay. But when you say this, what do you mean? Can you find a way to actually describe that? Can you be more specific?” I may have gone away grumbling, but I knew he was right. It was the same thing I would have asked from anyone at the Writing Center, even though it’s so hard to be specific when you write about abstract things. I worked on my statement, I found a way to say what I meant, I got more specific, and I sent it back to him. He said, “Not bad,” and asked for more. We went back and forth several times after that, and the end result was an artist statement that was so much better than my complacent, and lazy, first effort.

This story’s connection to my current endeavor is pretty clear. In editing Wanderlust, now is the time to demand more from myself, and stop settling for complacency. It’s time to mull things over, to spend a day on a single sentence if necessary, and to stop writing lazy when, with a little work, I have so much more to give.

***

Yesterday and todays’ rapid-fire posts have been all about the nitty-gritty of the writing process. I’ll try to mix it up later this week, but tell me: Are you interested in hearing more about harps and Celtic mythology? Should I post more art? How about book reviews? Would you like to see more nittygritty writing posts in the future?

Editing: Round One Complete

I did it! I read through all 138 pages of my printed manuscript, 52,968 words, and absolutely destroyed them with a red pen. It looks a little like this:

Now, I can begin Round Two, where I’ll integrate all those comments into the computer file. In some places, I’ve actually written out all the changes needed in a scene, and it will be a simple matter of transcribing those notes onto the computer in their proper place. In other places, though, I’ve circled things and squiggled lines and written notes like, “Sloppy!” “Fix this!” and “Clarify!” In these places, Editing Round Two will be a much more involved process, where I’ll have to actually go in and fix all those things. I do plan to fix as much as I can this next time around, and I plan to keep a comprehensive list of anything I skip over. I anticipate that Round Three will entail forcing myself to tackle everything on that list, and then maybe—maybe—I’ll be ready to turn the manuscript over to some outside parties for further advice.

Wanna know what three things I found myself writing in the margins the most during Round One? Here you go:

More DRAMA! This is for moments where something goes down that is fairly important to the story, but, rather than showcasing the event or detail, my prose glosses over it too quickly. One doesn’t want one’s novel to be over-dramatic, of course, but you still want to draw attention to the right things, and use exciting prose to do so.

More Space! Leftenant Weatherby told me the story felt a bit rushed back in May, and I wasn’t certain I believed him; it’s a YA novel, after all. Fast-paced is good! Reading through this time, however, I think I knew what he meant. In my writing, I have a tendency to move on to the next thing without a proper lead-in or introduction, making the action feel stilted and too soon. “More space” means I need to take more physical space on the page to get there, and use description or character interaction to create a more believable illusion of the passage of time.

Tighten! This means the prose is sloppy. It’s mostly good, it mostly says the right things, it’s mostly doing what it needs to, but it needs to be gone over with a fine-toothed comb and tightened up until it sounds professional, and until it shines.

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Thank you, readers, for sticking with me this far. I’m really excited for the next part of the process, and I hope you’ll read along to see how it goes. Oh, and don’t forget to check out the Wanderlust Facebook Page if you haven’t already. I’ve started to post a few extras over there that might not necessarily show up on the blog.

When you’re editing your work, what three things do you have to tell yourself the most?

-G