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cards, the prototype version of Wanderlust from from May 2012 (it has current illustrations, even if the text is out of date), and an only slightly-rehearsed 30 second pitch (actually, I have a very well rehearsed five-second pitch.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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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

Writing, and How to Call the Storm

I keep reading it over and over, and I can’t quite believe the paragraph I wrote a few hours ago. It makes me shiver with excitement; it makes me shake with disbelief. This wasn’t supposed to happen, not here (Taniel! Why are you saying that?). Suddenly the story is blowing up here, in Chapter 4, in a way I never meant to happen. It’s scary, but it makes sense and it’s raw and it’s beautiful and it hurts, and it deals with that bit of mythology I just realized I’d neglected and  it adds more of that achey, real-life kind of pain just when I was worrying that the story didn’t have enough. In short, this was one of those magical writing moments. This was a crash of thunder, a spark of golden light, when my shaking hands were merely the vehicle for the story’s transferral to my screen. When a character had thoughts that deeply surprised me, thoughts I never meant for him to have. We all write for moments like these.

But I’m not here to brag.

Because this lightning strike? This flash of genius? I think I know how I got it, and I want to share. In fact, I think I’ve known this before, but it’s the sort of thing we forget, rather like the intro to a crazy dream. You’re gonna remember that bit right before you wake up, when you’re rallying the peasants with their pitchforks because you are the Queen of Jupiter and it’s time to take back the planet, but you’ve already forgotten how you got there, because it was so much less exciting. I mean, do you remember the last time you had to write an essay? How you hemmed and hawed and worked on your notecards and watched an entire season of How I Met Your Mother and did some research and thought about how cool your argument was, and didn’t really start writing the thing until 2 AM the night before it was due? How you’d been sitting there feeling uninspired and typing some occasional drivel for hours before that inspiration really struck? Well, here’s what I’m proposing, and I think it’s something we all know, despite how hard we try to forget: Those hours add up to something. Those hours of plugging away, of fixing a sentence here, a line there, when it feels like we’re barely working—these are what make the lighting possible. Today, for instance, I got a late start. I spent a really long time tightening a few paragraphs, I jumbled some things in that sort of worked but I knew I’d have to fix later, I grumbled at the inarticulateness of my notes and clumsily found some work-arounds for the sentences I’d been too lazy to fix before. I sat and grumbled and worked for one hour, for two hours, when it would have been easy to quit for the day, or to not even start in the first place. Yet I sat there, with my manuscript up on my computer and open on the table beside me. I put in my time. And then, right before dinner, when I should have been closing the computer and setting the table…

Lightning struck.

But only because I’d earned it.

 

 

More Breadcrumbs: A Review

I found most of this review in my drafts, and thought it was too good not to post. It’s been almost two months since I actually read the book, though, which I first mentioned in this post.

Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu

When you read books as a writer, there are some books that are very encouraging because you think, hey, I could do that. And then there are books that just make you want to cry because how could I ever write a thing so bright? You know you have some grasp of prose and rhythm, a certain understanding of words that allowed you to get this far, but could you possibly write a thing where nearly every sentence is the kind that pierces and burns?

These are the thoughts I had while reading Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu. At least three sentences per page are absolute gems, or daggers. In Breadcrumbs Ursu references many favorite books for young people that the main character, Hazel, has read. Usually these sorts of references in a book make me cringe, because the book has not earned the right to talk about its betters. I feel that Breadcrumbs actually earned those references. While reading this book, I thought about reading it aloud. I thought about reading it to my children (after reading them Tolkien and Narnia and Wrinkle in Time and Potter and all those things it references).

The thing with Breadcrumbs is it’s exceptionally literary. It has all those connecty-bits, all those symbolism-things, all those deep-truthisms about childhood and growing up. It has… breadcrumbs of all the above, little pieces, interwoven thoughout everything.

In the interest of a fair review, I checked out some amazon.com reviews (if I ever get to be a famous writer, I am going to obsess over my reviews. I already read reviews of books I adore and get all angry at the bad ones). It has many many positive reviews… and a few really bad ones. The bad reviews’ main complaint seems to be that Hazel herself, and all the characters, aren’t very likable. Okay. Honestly? The words were so goddamn pretty all the time that I wasn’t thinking too much about Hazel and whether I liked her. The reviewers complain that she is self-centered, but isn’t everyone at that age? Isn’t everyone, ever? And I did like Hazel. I like Hazel in the narrative voice, loved it every time the narration switched to second person to portray her thoughts. I do think the most beautiful thing here  is the way Anne Ursu handles words, but for me that beauty extends generously, and is more than large enough to fill the main character and cover her thoughts and words.

Finished First Draft, and 50,000 Words

That’s right, today is HUGE. I have finished the first draft of Wanderlust, all the way to end. I just wrote up the epilogue a little while ago. I’m exhausted, and I’ve been ignoring other work and responsibilities all week, but I have a first draft of my novel, and right now it clocks in at 53,000 words.[!!!!!!]

There’s still a long way to go. Parts of that draft (most of Chapter 11) are barely legible, the barest threads of putting what happens in the scene onto the page. There are things I’ve referenced in the late chapters that I haven’t actually written into the earlier chapters yet. There are a few places where I’ve begun adding a scene or a story and haven’t quite finished it up yet. In short, this draft is a mess. But hey, it has an ending. And hey, I know where it’s going. It’s time to tighten everything up now, and I’m so excited to start.

A few addendums: I know, according to NaNo or whatever, that 50,000 words is a minimum requirement for a novel (though it’s acceptable for YA books to be 40,000). I used to think I was writing a 30,000 word novella, though, so for me, and for Wanderlust, 50,000 words is huge

Also, Celeste DeWolfe mentioned me over at her blog today; go read the post and check out her blog!

And one more thing: I’ve picked up quite a few followers over the past few weeks, and I want to thank you for reading, and for supporting me and my work. I appreciate it so very much.

Cheers!

Why I’m Choosing to Self-Publish

Today, in her blog that I recently started following, Ayesha Schroeder published a post entitled, Why I’m Pursuing Traditional Publishing. Check it out! She’s thought through her options, she knows what she’s talking about, and she’s making the best decision for her. As you may know, I’m planning to self-publish my novel Wanderlust: A Song For Ireland. This post is about why, right now, I think self-publishing is the best option for me.

I do, ultimately, dream of being a mainstream author, with an agent and an editor and a well-known publisher behind me. By choosing to self-publish, I don’t think I am eschewing the option of traditional publishing. There are many stories about books, from Eragon to Fifty Shades of Greythat began as self-published efforts, did well, and were later picked up by traditional publishers. With Wanderlust, there are a few particular considerations that make me think self-publishing is a good idea.

I want to write Young Adult fiction, and I have advertised Wanderlust as, “A good read for teens and adults.” I created the characters when I was a teenager, and I think a teen audience will find them appealing. I know I did. I found them so enchanting that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about them, even years later. The problem is that the characters’ ages are 19 and 22. This makes them college age, not high school age, and I worry that, to a literary agent, this will make them out-of-bounds as protagonists in a teen novel. Even worse, the novel does not feature a strong female protagonist. It has a few female characters, and some pretty badass ones at that, but most of the book focuses on the adventures and friendship of two young men, and it’s not even a romance. (Not making it a romance is helpful in marketing to some demographics, while making it a romance would be helpful for others. It doesn’t matter either way—I made this choice based on the characters themselves, not any financial or other considerations.) In a YA literature climate where Twilight and Hunger Games are the best sellers, I worry that agents are looking for those female protagonists, especially from a female author, and won’t consider that the teen girls reading Twilight and Hunger Games will want to read a book about boys— even though boys are the reason they read some of the aforementioned bestsellers, especially Twilight. (Aside: If we want to get into some of my deeper insecurities about the book I am writing, I sometimes worry that it will be seen as pandering to a fangirl audience. Fans and the internet turn any male same-sex relationship into a romance, and the nature of the connection between Vanya and Taniel will give them so much fodder to do so. I can’t change who my characters are, and who they are to each other; while I will be flattered by any attention from fangirls they receive, I can only hope that the depth of their characters and the quality of my work will allow my writing to be seen for its literary merits as well.)

Schroeder says, “If you’re an incredibly talented writer, editor, artist, graphic designer and print layout specialist you are well equipped for the self-publishing process” (Why I’m Pursuing Traditional Publishing). I don’t know about incredibly talented, but I have a BFA in Illustration and in Wanderlust, the illustrations are almost as important to me as the text. I’ve also spent a LOT of time thinking about how Wanderlust should look, both inside and out. I want this book to be the best thing I can produce, and I want it to look how I want it. I couldn’t stand to see Wanderlust with one of those awful photograph covers that litter the shelves nowadays. This entire book, to me, is my work of art, and at the moment I’m not willing to relinquish any control. I’ll be getting some help with the editing, of course, and I’ll be getting second opinions like mad on every visual issue, but believe I do have the skills and training to produce a book that is, in both the visual and written aspects, a product of professional quality.

I do have some reservations about self-publishing. It’s going to take a lot of work, and I’m looking forward to it, but almost every link or ad I’ve clicked for a self-published project that looks similar to mine has turned out to be poorly designed, terribly written, or both. It’s always encouraging to know you’ve got a leg-up on the competition, but I’m scared that, because of these poor-quality projects, my book will be dismissed out-of-hand. I guess it will all depend on the ability of my book to distinguish itself for its own merits, and my skill in promoting it and making its caliber known. It’s terrifying (isn’t everything?), but I believe in my project. There’s a long way to go before I can release Wanderlust to the world, but when I do, I’m excited to see how far I can get on my own steam, as self-published author. There are many paths to the dream of becoming traditionally published, and I hope self-publishing will turn out to be an important and valuable stepping-stone on mine.

What do you think? Would you buy a self-published book? Have you chosen either self-publishing or traditional publishing over the other? Why is that the best decision for you? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below.

Profanity in Writing (among other things)

Yesterday, I said a lot of my poetry was too personal to share. I stand by that, as it involves other people, but here is a beautiful blog post by an author who shared the most personal thing, the scariest thing. She writes this thing incredibly well, and it is absolutely worth a read—and I suspect this blogger is someone worth following. The Scariest Thing on Chalk the Sun

Another interesting thing about yesterday’s post: it didn’t even occur to me until much, much later that I had posted a poem containing a swear word. The third word of the second line, if you didn’t notice. It is the only word that can go there, and I’m not apologizing. I just find it interesting that it didn’t even occur to me that the word might offend certain audiences. It’s not something I even considered, probably because I know the words to this poem so well that they are a part of myself, and how can a part of myself be offensive?

Profanity in writing, however, is something to consider, especially as an aspiring author of Young Adult Literature. At what age level in books is it appropriate to include characters who swear?

We are, as writers, going for realism. I believe Stephen King said something to the effect of, if your character wouldn’t say “Oh sugar,” then you should write them saying the other thing. Authors writing in a fantasy world have the luxury of making up a swear word or two for their characters to use vigorously. My book is not set solidly in the real world, but the characters come from the real world, so that’s not an option. I’m aiming at the 14 and up crowd, and here’s the solution I’ve reached:

I have one character who swears, and one character who doesn’t. This isn’t an arbitrary decision; it comes directly from the essence of the characters and helps define who they are. The swearing habit actually says a lot about the character. It shows that he is more attached to this world than his friend, and it shows his tendency to fling words at things when he’s angry. When he takes the Lord’s name in vain, it’s even a clue about religious upbringing, though possibly not in the way you’d expect. The swearing is actually a major way that the characters are differentiated from each other in dialogue, especially in those life-or-death type scenes, and I hope this will help the reader get a handle on the characters, and on who is speaking when. So, yes, I let my one character swear freely—but never excessively. He swears when that is what he would say, when that is the only thing he would say, and when the situation warrants it. I never put swears in for the intention of shock value, or to make it seem “edgy.” They are what they are. Would I edit them out if someone who wanted to publish my book asked me to? I honestly don’t know if I would; I think the dialogue would seem artificial without them.

I have completely refrained from using the F-word in my book. I feel the use of that word would cross a major line, one that my guy occasionally saying, “Oh shit,” in a really tricky situation or “dammit” in a moment of emotional duress doesn’t even approach. Would you agree?

I’d love to hear comments on this one, I think it could be a great discussion.

Oh, and I drew this last night (this morning? I couldn’t sleep). Maybe later I will finish it. Did you know Vanya could smile?

Smiling Vanya Sketch

-Grace out