Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Pikes Peak Writers Conference 5

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!


Terry Spear said...

Great post, Terry! You're so right. It's totally subjective. What one shrugs at, another will love. :)

P.L. Parker said...

I think I may have gotten that rejection e-mail a time or two . . . seems so familiar. LOL. Same goes for reviewers. What is one reviewer's 5 is another's 1. Go figure. Good insight here.

Mason Canyon said...

It's that difference that keeps the books interesting and the readers wanting more.

Thoughts in Progress

Lou Belcher said...

Yes, subjective. Artists, too, sometimes don't understand. I've often heard them complain when they don't win Best of Show for a juried exhibition. It's just one person's opinion. Sometimes they judge has great insight to offer. But, we must always keep the "rejection" part of it in perspective.

Nightingale said...

Thanks for sharing this. I received a rejection that said, "just didn't get into your writing," and I was devastated. Still, as you said, move on.

Debra St. John said...

Ah, writing an reading is so subjextive isn't it? It's part of what makes the business so tough.

Good luck with yoiur agent scouting. I'm sure you'll find one that's perfect for you and your work! Don't give up.

Unknown said...

Terry et al....over the years, I have piled up enough rejection letters to paper a three bedroom home with them, and you would not believe some of the crazy stuff I have gotten was for an historical novel about the home-grown terrorist attack at Harpers Ferry, VA brought on by John Brown from his daughter's point of view, right? The letter back for this fifty page proposal was ADDRESSED to Dear Mr. Brown....routine typical turn down but it was turning down a guy dead for what a hundred fifty years. Have also had some like this oen you display here -- all these wonderful remarks but bottom line NO THANKS. Then there was the one that said, "This is just the kind of crap we would never publish!"
Best, Rob

Terry Odell said...

Terry, I think you'll have to be Terry#3 -- there's already another Terry S who comments here! Thanks for commiserating.

PL-Glad my sharing helped you. I have to agree with the agent--there are a LOT of best sellers that leave me cold.

Mason - totally agree--of course I wish more of MY books were out there to give folks a chance!

Lou - there's no way to quantify the subjective, is there?

Nightingale--have some chocolate, a bubble bath, and yeah, move on.

Debra - thanks. I think we write because we HAVE to, so giving up isn't an option.

Terry Odell said...

Rob- I've had some doozies as well. And I actually brought them all with me when we moved. (And they're also good proof to the IRS that you can take all those business writing deductions even if you're not making money)

Franny Armstrong-ParaNovelGirl said...

I agree with you, having had many rejections in my day. The second rejection you listed is excellent and you can squeeze a lot from it. That doesn't mean to say you can't find another agent who is interested, it just means that that particular person was looking for something they didn't find in the manuscript.

The best thing to do: NEVER SURRENDER! NEVER GIVE UP!
You'll do well and remember: send the agent a thank you because that way they'll remember you if you submit again. Courtesy goes a long way in this business.
Franny Armstrong-ParaNovelGirl

Carol Kilgore said...

Great post. Enjoy the library run.

Terry Odell said...

Franny - very true - somewhere in the haystack is that golden needle.

Carol - the library is really great. Will be going back--the 'get a card' desk was closed when the program was over.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Terry,

Like Rob, I could wallpaper my home with rejections if I wanted to. Some were impersonal, some were very specific. Bottom line: the work was rejected. We just move on from there. I'm convinced persistence equals success in the long run. And rejection builds character; it keeps us humble.

The advice regarding not giving away too much too soon in a novel is excellent. I agree that no matter what type of book you're writing, it's best to provide some mystery to encourage your readers to keep turning those pages.

Terry Odell said...

Jacqueline, maybe we should have a 'share the good and bad rejection letter' day.

Turning pages is the #1 goal of any writer, I think.

Mary Ricksen said...

Ah rejection, it's what makes out books even better!
But it hurts. I'm for the sympathy for each other day too!

Unknown said...

TERRY--I think I have this one in my files.Yes, it sounds very familiar. It's a difficult decision whether to re-write for an editor (agent) or not. My believe, after having a few years of submitting under my belt, if the editor doesn't love/like it as it is,she won't when I finish rewriting to her specifications. I know editing takes patience to work through each odd POV or passive writing, or even a line or paragraph here and there, but to "begin the story here," and "delete the entire middle," etc. just isn't worth it time-wise, as a general rule. Even though this has happened with me, too, I have found other publishers who were looking for just that kind of ms. Subjective--oh, yeah. And we all read and write with that perspective, too. Thanks for shharing our rejection letter--that was brave of you!! Celia

Terry Odell said...

Mary - nobody like being told their baby isn't good enough, but it comes with the territory.

Celia - knowing what to accept and what to ignore is part of the learning process. We don't have to do what agents suggest, but we do have to consider whether following suggestions might make our work stronger.

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

I think you're smart to move on. I have a friend who just stays stuck in sort of a rut because she can't move past one particular manuscript...and she could have written several others by now and probably sold one. It's hard, but maybe you can re-purpose the one you have later.

Mystery Writing is Murder

Terry Stonecrop said...

Terry#2 here. Thanks again for the conference updates. Good stuff!

I'm not an expert, yet, :) on rejection letters but that one sounded like a good one. She took the time to write one rather than a form. She told you it was well done, just not to her taste, so I would consider it a compliment.

Susan Macatee said...

Rejections really are subjective, Terry, as well as reviews and contest judges.
Not much you can do about it, but hope you luck out and get someone who loves your writing and story.

April Ash said...

Geez...subjective is right. Not only do you have to find an editor who "gets" your writing, now they ask you to find an agent...would that have made a difference with this editor?
Lots to ponder.

Terry Odell said...

Elizabeth - I'm not giving up on the manuscript just yet, but I am writing another one.

Terry #2 - Yes, I agree. (Although it's also possible that paragraph is a boilerplate for "nice" rejections!)

Susan - totally agree.

April - that was an agent, not an editor.

Jemi Fraser said...

Wow - sounds like such a wonderful conference! You're so lucky.

Sorry about the rejection letter. It's kind of a combination of good news and bad news. I'm sure it means it's just a matter of time for you.

Terry Odell said...

Jemi - they hold the conference every year. You can come next time!

Autumn Jordon said...

Great recap, Terri. I appreciate you posting these notes.

On the rejection, do you think agents have a writing rejections 101 class? Lol. Seriously though, and this is just my opinion, it's what the second paragraph that tells you where you stand. I think you're on your way to representation.

Also, Rob cracked me up.

Maryannwrites said...

Terry, I just recently received a similar turn-down letter from an agent. She said I am "a delightful writer" but she had to pass because she is not taking on any more memoirs. It is heartening to have such a positive response, but disheartening because we have to go through the query process again and wait for the response.

Terry Odell said...

Autumn, while I understand how many queries agents get -- easily over a hundred a week -- it's still disheartening to get those brusque rejections. Anything personalized is good.

Maryann--I agree. Patience and Persistence are top of the job description.

Stacey Joy Netzel said...

So true about how subjective this business can be. And great info on the conference--thanks so much for sharing!

Terry Odell said...

Stacy - I'm always happy to share. I glom onto other tidbits from other authors, so why keep what I learn to myself?