Thanks to Amanda for her delightful post yesterday. I'm sure we can all relate at some level. And (which seems normal for me), Publisher's Weekly was updating its website, so it's quite possible you weren't able to get over to Barbara Vey's Blog. Such is life. I updated it when I got the new URL, but if you missed it, it's here.
Before I move on with another workshop recap, I decided I'd share an email I got from an agent I met at a conference. She'd told me to send 3 chapters, which I did. This was her response:
Thanks so much for offering me the chance to consider your material. Unfortunately, your project doesn't seem right for me. Since it's crucial that you find an agent who will represent you to the best of his or her ability, I'm afraid that I'm going to have to step aside rather than ask to represent your manuscript.
That's fairly standard—at least among the rejection letters I've received (and there have been a lot of them). But she went on to explain more about why she decided to pass.
You have a great imagination - I love the premise - and you're a good writer, but I'm sad to say that I just wasn't passionate enough about this to ask to see more. I wish I could offer constructive suggestions, but I thought the dialogue was fine, the characters well-crafted, and the plot well-conceived. I think it's the kind of thing that really is subjective - why some people adore the book on the top of the NYTimes bestseller list, and others don't.
Anyone getting into this business has to know it's subjective. Not only do you have to write a good book, but it has to resonate with the right people at the right time. With a response like this, it's impossible to 'fix' the manuscript—because it doesn't seem to be broken. It's a matter of moving on.
And now to Pikes Peak.
Kelley Armstrong was Saturday's luncheon speaker, and she discussed the "Rules" and "Guidelines" of writing. She urged everyone to use what works for them. If a rule doesn't work, don't follow it. But she also told everyone to learn more about yourself as a writer before deciding what rules to follow.
Later that day, I attended her workshop on building suspense. Suspense, she said, arises from conflict—both internal and external. The author should be giving questions to the reader, to keep them wondering how they'll be answered.
Her advice was to keep track of what questions you've raised, and then to look at how long it took to give the reader the answer. Questions should be answered all through the manuscript, not as soon as you ask them, or at the very end.
She told us not to tell the reader anything more than they need to know. Telling saps the suspense.
She also reiterated some of the basics—raise the stakes; add obstacles; use the ticking clock. Sentence structure can also increase the suspense level—both short, choppy sentences and long, run-on sentences.
She had us work on an exercise based on the following plot premise: A character hears a noise outside, opens the window and sees a man in her yard. How would we make it suspenseful? By holding off on the reveals.
Suggestions included getting inside the character's head, using the senses to give a sense of dread. The bottom line—don't have her go straight to the window. Make the reader wait. Add those obstacles, which could be anything from a window that wouldn't open easily. Make it harder for her to see the man. Have her wonder if she actually heard something, and where the sound actually came from.
And the flip side of this workshop was Tim Dorsey's "Funny is as Funny Does." Here, I had the advantage, because I've lived in Florida and understand—and have seen firsthand—some of the quirks of the local residents. Dorsey said he's not afraid of running out of ideas—all he has to do is read the paper. In fact, his readers send him articles. He got 50 copies of a brief article about two people who were caught about to have sex in a Dumpster—by two other people already in the Dumpster.
Dorsey often carries a clipboard for taking notes. He's always writing and observing. He was once standing in line at the bank, and the manager asked him to take a seat. Dorsey replied he was happy where he was. Again, the manager asked him to sit. Dorsey continued to write. Finally, the manage explained that Dorsey was standing under the security cameras and it looked very much like he was casing the place.
He finds that real life is often "too true to be good." His background as a reporter has left him with many contacts both in politics and journalism. When he gets reviews about his "madcap new comedy", his friends will write and say, "I see you've written another documentary."
He says sometimes he'll write something he thinks is over the top, only to have it show up in real life. He says that can be one of the pitfalls of the delay between writing and publication. For example, his protagonist, Serge, was writing a long, involved letter of "suggestions" to Sarah Palin. He closed the letter by saying, "Don't worry about remembering all of this—you can write it on your hand." Well, he had to cut that bit even though he'd written it long before it showed up in the news.
As I write this, I'm preparing to go down to Woodland Park. Barbara O'Neal (Samuel) is speaking at the library, and I'm looking forward to hearing what she has to say. And to getting a library card!