Conferences-Part Three

Okay, so we’ve talked about how to pick a writer’s conference, and how to prepare for a conference. Now it’s time to talk about what to do AT THE CONFERENCE.

1) Be prepared.

By that, I mean, have your pen and notebook ready. There will be things you want to write down for later. Trust me.

Also, have your first chapter with you. Don’t leave it in your hotel room. If the elevator stops working, and you’re stuck in it with your dream agent or editor, wouldn’t you just die if you didn’t have pages and they wanted to see them? See my last conference post about your conference bag.

If you switch business cards with someone, it is a good idea to jot a quick note on the back to remind yourself of how you know that person. Two weeks from now are you going to remember the guy you spoke to in the Starbucks line on Tuesday versus the guy you spoke to in the Starbucks line on Thursday? I won’t. Make a note of the conversation, or if they talked about their project, or if you talked about the NFL. That’s more likely to spark your memory later.

2) Understand you will likely ingest an obscene amount of caffeine and be working on sleep debt.

(see last post about taking Tums or similar)

Writers at a conference tend to forget that they are no longer the 18 year old dynamo that they were when they began college. They run as if they were still eighteen. It will catch up to you. It’s okay to go take a nap when you get a chance, especially if you know you will need it to keep up with the evening activities of the conference.

Be prepared for long days. I have a tendency to run at full speed for eighteen to twenty hours straight when I’m at a conference. I do hit a wall. When I do, I hit it pretty hard. I have to remind myself to take breaks, at least to have downtime for the brain to reboot. Know your limits, especially if you have health concerns.

3) Ears open and mouth shut, within reason.

If you’re new to the writing thing, you are there to learn. It’s okay to ask questions, it’s why you are there. It is not okay to pontificate for an entire panel on what you think is wrong with publishing today. You could tick off the very people you are at the conference to meet and network with, which means that your money spent to attend has just been flushed down the drain.

For example; it’s okay to ask an agents/editors panel what they’re looking for. It’s okay to ask agents where they see the market going. It’s okay to ask about vampire fiction and the marketplace. It’s okay to ask for query advice. It’s okay to ask about specific writing questions, like prologues and first chapters and story arcs. It’s okay to ask forensics experts about bullet holes in mailboxes at a mystery conference panel. It’s okay to ask questions at a panel on fairy tales about whether the Grimm Brothers or Charles Perrault discovered Cinderella first. It’s okay to ask about the evolution of cozy mysteries, or to ask about the lines between different subgenres in fantasy or science fiction. It’s okay to ask about romances without a Happily Ever After ending (not usual, by the way). It’s okay to talk about whether J.R.R. Tolkien would have gotten published today. It’s okay to ask about queries and submissions and synopsis, and craft and dialogue and POV and voice and style and adverbs and word count and all those other things we have to learn about writing a novel if we’re serious about getting published.

It’s not okay to take the entire panel’s time to argue with them about why your book will knock their socks off. (sign up for a pitch session if you want them to hear your pitch; the right time is NOT during a panel, because you are sending the message to the rest of the conference, who paid the same money you did, that you are worth more then the rest of them. You are taking up their time to learn from the panelists. And, quite possibly, making yourself look like a jerk in front of the panelists…something you’d generally want to avoid.)

It’s not okay to argue with editors and agents as to Courier vs. Times New Roman for twenty minutes during an submissions panel. (I’ve seen this happen. I wanted to walk out. I could see the frustration on the faces of the panelists…they couldn’t walk out. I stayed, and asked some questions of my own, hoping to get off the formatting questions and back into the what-should-I-know-if-I’m-querying-you kind of stuff that I go to those panels to learn. It didn’t work, because the questions veered right back into an argument about whether it was right to use one space or two between sentences. At that point, I left, out of frustration.) Look, it’s not about who’s right and who’s wrong on the grammar rules or the perfect format…it’s about what that agent/editor/publisher wants. If someone wanted my submission in 16-pt. Wingdings, you’d better believe I’d submit it that way (that is, if I could get past the appearance of insanity that such a submission guideline raises). I’ll say that it is okay to ask courteously during downtime, without interrupting another conversation, as to why they prefer one thing or another. I’ll bet you that the answer is ‘Because it’s easier for me to read and/or organize that way.’ And that’s really what it’s about.

4) Do not get drunk and stupid.

Okay, part of going to conferences is to hang out with and make new writer friends and professional contacts. I have yet to go to a conference that there wasn’t some place where people congregated during their downtime to do exactly that. Nine times out of ten, it’s the hotel bar.

I’m not going to tell you not to have a drink or two. If you’re like me, you go to conferences during your vacation time. It’s okay to relax and have a glass of wine and socialize with friends you don’t see on a regular basis. It’s fun. And part of going to conferences is having fun with writers and meeting people who understand the insanity of getting up at 5 am to add another 500 words to your book before you go to work, writing on the subway, writing on your lunch hour or during the baby’s nap or while the kids are in school, and making notes on an idea when you’re stopped at a stoplight. This kind of commiseration and socialization is rare. Enjoy it.

You’re also there to network. Meet new people. I’ve met wonderful friends at conferences that I still keep in touch with over Twitter and Facebook and this blog. I’ve met editors and agents and published authors and publicists and journalists and booksellers. It’s opened up a world of new people who share my obsession with books and writing. And it helps you make professional contacts down the road. At least three beta readers of mine are friends I have met at conferences.

HOWEVER, puking on someone’s shoes does not look professional. Stripping off your shirt and pole dancing for your dream editor will get their attention, but not in the way that you really want. Cornering them in the bar and being drunk and loud and demanding only convinces them that you are not a good business contact to make. This is not the impression you want to leave. Know your limit. Stick to your limit. Err on the side of sobriety.

5) Budget considerations and organization.

I mentioned earlier, in another blog post, that you should have a budget for the conference. Now, I’m not saying to be a Scrooge while you’re there. I’m saying that you should make an effort to stay close to your budget. Don’t max out your credit card just to be cool at a conference.

When I go, I figure up my conference costs, my travel costs, my hotel costs, and then I budget what I would spend per day at a conference for food and drinks and books and other stuff. I keep each day’s receipts together, so that I can see if I’ve blown it or not. My general consensus is that going $20 over is not a big deal. Going $50 or $100 over my budget for the whole conference is going to sting a bit, but I can make it work. Much more than that and I will be living on mac-and-cheese and ramen noodles for a month. I’m not a huge fan of either, having spent 4 years in college and 3 years in law school living like a broke college student. I ate my share of these things at that time, I don’t want to do it now. At the end of every day at a conference, I look at my receipts to see where I’m at. Maybe I’ll skip Starbucks in the morning, or go somewhere cheaper for lunch the next day to get back on track. Or I’ll realize that I’ve got a few extra bucks to work with that I might be able to spend in the conference bookstore the next day.

I don’t want a nasty surprise when I get home and have to pay bills. I’m here to network and have fun and to learn. I do not want to regret going. I don’t want you to regret it, either.

(Here’s another tidbit…if you get to the end of the conference and have money left, you might score some major deals at the bookstore from a bookseller who doesn’t want to cart everything back out of there.)

6) If you have a chance to do something healthy once or twice while you’re there, it’s a good idea.

Take the opportunity to order a salad for lunch. Make sure you’re drinking plenty of water (some conference centers have really dry air; lack of sleep and a few drinks the night before only make this worse.) Step outside for a breath of fresh air. Go hit the exercise room to stretch out your legs on a StairMaster since you’ll be sitting a lot while you’re there.

Doing something like this helps you get through the conference and back to work on Monday morning without feeling like you’re a zombie.

If that doesn’t convince you; I do actually know someone who met their agent in the hotel pool while unwinding the night before a conference started. Agents and editors have to do things like this to keep sane during conferences, too.



What She Said…

Mary Robinette Kowal has posted this video on her website.

Yes, Virginia, people really do say these things. Especially at their first conference. And yes, those of us who’ve done the homework to know better (published or not) do get a similar response when we try to respond rationally to these statements.

It’s funny and scary at the same time.


I’ve said it before. I’ll say it again.

Patience is only a virtue when I don’t have to wait for it.

So I’ve finally got my GRIMM book on paper beginning to end.

I’ve been editing and critiqueing and workshopping this thing for a while; I’ve probably edited and revised the first 70K of an approximately 90K book.

I plan to hit my critique group for the last 20K, edit with their notes to the end, and then go back and make a pass through the entire thing.

I’ve lined up beta readers to start hitting this thing after the holidays. And I will seriously consider their comments, probably in the final editing pass.

My point? Even though I’m feeling awesome at getting it to that point, it is by no means ready to send out. I have some concerns, myself, about the ending, so I would want to discuss it with my writer buddies before sending it out professionally. (I’ll say here that I have concerns with the pacing of the ending and some of the specific staging. I’m wondering if I’m overthinking it, or if I really did miss something in the end. Which is why I want comments on it first.)

It’s tempting to go ahead and send it out. It’s hard to wait, especially since my writer groups take big breaks at the holidays, so the wait is even longer.

I’m going to wait.

Instead, I’m working on the next project, doing research for a plot idea for something after that, and researching submissions. Which means reading blogs, following twitter, and putting together query materials, even though I’m saving them in a separate folder for use down the road.

Self-Imposed Deadlines

For those of us out there who are not yet published…(and I prefer pre-published, rather than aspiring, because I look at it as something that will eventually happen rather than something that might happen, it’s that whole self-actualization thing)…setting a self-imposed deadline can be counterproductive.

You are not losing money if you miss your self-imposed deadline unless you are under contract. Pre-published authors are generally those without a contract yet.

You do not yet know how much time you have to get something done, and you do not yet know how much work it will take before something is truly ready for submission. You might think that you’ll be ready by a specific time, but having not yet finished something that generates professional publication interest, you do not yet know what your end point will be.

In other words, you don’t yet know what it takes to get there. You cannot yet set yourself a deadline of finishing if you don’t know what it takes to finish. And it’s not worth stressing yourself out when you have other obligations, such as the day job, the home, the family, the pets, and other day-to-day things that take up your time.

That’s why it’s not a deadline if you’re not under contract. It’s a GOAL.

I can say that my goal is to be finished with this draft of my novel by next weekend. Obviously, I’d love it to be earlier, but I’d like that much done before Thanksgiving Week.

I can, knowing the critique schedule for my writer’s groups, set a goal for having the remainder of it critiqued and those pages edited. I can say approximately how long those edits will take me based on how long editing critique pages from this group has taken me throughout this novel.

I know that once I have the rest of the critiques done, that I will have to go over the entire thing from front to back and make sure that everything matches up, and front end changes are made, grammar mistakes caught, and otherwise make sure the thing is as tight as I can. I’ve done this kind of work before, on a different novel. This one is going together better than that one, but I could always be surprised.

I’m lucky enough to have a list of people who have volunteered to do some beta reading. My GOAL is to have them the whole thing by the first of the year if I can. And then I’ll have to consider any comments or critiques I get from them.

Putting all of those things together, I can set myself a GOAL of querying by the end of March 2011. I’d love to get there faster. Who wouldn’t? But this gives me a timeline to work toward. And, should something in my life blow up in my face, I know, at this point, that I can set aside my novel long enough to deal with what’s right in front of me rather than stress myself out.

If I was under contract, I would have a set deadline. And I would be stressing myself out to get there. Why? Because a professional reputation is at stake. Income is at stake. And my work and career would be at stake. Those are different stakes than I’m under at the moment.

Why the difference? Because when I hit submissions with this novel, I want it to be as good as it can be. I have the freedom and the time to make sure I’ve dotted all the i’s and crossed all the t’s. I’d be asking someone to take a chance on me, and I want them to know what I can do. Despite what Dennis Lehane calls the “Ticking Clock Syndrome” with regard to pre-published authors, there is no rush to get something out there.

I’m not saying that I don’t feel the need, or the desire to get something out there immediately. We all do; we’re human. We see friends and acquaintances reaching their goals and dreams faster than we are. We’re not getting any younger.

But putting something out there before it’s ready does not get us across the finish line faster…in fact, it might actually delay it. And I’d rather take the time up front than have to wait longer on the back end.

So I don’t call it a deadline. I call it a goal. What are yours?


Holiday Gifts for Writers

The silly season is rapidly approaching. If you’re like me, you try to start doing a little bit of Christmas shopping as early as possible, to spread the cost out rather than do the last minute huge expense panic.

In honor of that, here is a list of ideas for the writers in your life (WIYL). Or a list of ideas that a writer may forward to you in hopes of receiving something on this list.

1) Gift certificates (GCs) for an office supply store or computer/electronics store.

Let’s face it; computers are expensive (not as much as they used to be, but still not cheap). I’m always amazed at the idea that people buy computers as gifts at Christmas. It’s certainly not in my budget! My mother bought me an iPod one year, and I was floored…I hadn’t expected anything that expensive for Christmas. Find out if the WIYL is drooling over a computer at a specific store, and get them a gift certificate for that store. It doesn’t hurt to check and see if others are doing the same, and make sure they’re getting GCs for the SAME store so that it can all go toward the one big purchase.

Laser printers are also not nearly as expensive as they used to be. I got mine two years ago for about $100.00 on sale; I think prices are now about what I spent without sales. Still, a bit high for some budgets. A GC toward this purchase is also a good idea.

I am also one of those weird people who can geek out at Staples or Office Depot, or any other office supply store. I suspect that a lot of other writers can as well. What expenses might a writer have there? Paper, ink cartridges, mailing supplies, pens, envelopes, flash drives, and external hard drives all cost money. So does a filing system to keep track of submissions. Yes, it’s potentially tax deductible, but it’s not necessarily cheap.

2) Books.

I would very much be shocked if the WIYL does not have a book wish list somewhere. If they do not already have a list of books they like on Goodreads, they may have a wish list on Amazon. If they don’t, encourage them to do so. It makes book buying for them easier for you if you can take their Goodreads list to the bookstore, show the clerk, and ask for a recommendation, or take the Amazon list and buy something from the list.

If you want to get them a book on writing…stay tuned…I’m planning a post down the road where I’ll list writing books I would recommend.

3) Empty notebooks, with cool covers. Even the moleskin ones.

It’s like catnip to writers. Even if they end up not using them, many of us cannot resist them. Find out what the WIYL thinks about them.

4) iTunes GCs or CDs.

I have a tendency to listen to certain bands when I’m working on a piece. On my first (now trunked) novel, I listened to a lot of Celtic rock; Dropkick Murphys, Flogging Molly, a local band called Homeland that I love. On the novel I’m working on now, I’ve listened to a lot of K.T. Tunstall, Pink, Stevie Nicks, and some oldies rock. It does help keep the brain in a specific place. Find out what inspires them, or get them a way to download more of the same to keep them cranking.

5) Cash for conference tuition, travel and expenses.

I ran into a woman at a conference who told me that she attends one specific conference every year. She asks for the tuition for the conference for her Christmas gift from her husband every year. He makes her happy without having to guess what she wants. She comes up with the travel expenses herself, and he makes sure the kids and house are taken care of while she’s gone. She gets what she wants for Christmas; he doesn’t have to guess, and they really like the way it’s set up.

Not a bad idea if you want to go to the same place every year. I tend to bounce around a bit more, so it wouldn’t necessarily work for me. On the other hand, there are a couple of conferences I’d dearly love to go to that are just out of reach every year…whether it’s expensive to fly or the hotel is expensive or the conference tuition is just slightly out of my budget comfort zone. There’s one in particular that I’d love to go to that requires an application; I haven’t applied because if I got in, I’d be worried about covering the cost.

What conference plans does the WIYL have for the next year? Can you contribute? Even a gas card for a full tank of gas for the one they’re driving to is a help!

6) Don’t have money? Unable to afford much? There are still options!

Give them a coupon book of services you can help with through the year.

  • Babysitting for an hour for uninterrupted writing time
  • Coupon for an afternoon of coffee and brainstorming time with you; you can even provide the back porch and the coffee yourself.
  • Housesitting while they go to a conference (this includes picking up mail and newspapers, by the way!)
  • Petsitting while they go to a conference
  • Offer to be a “beta reader”…give them your thoughts and feedback; be prepared to give them an honest read. Being nice does not help them get better, being mean will ruin a friendship. Be willing to give them the good and the bad in a constructive manner. For example, I asked my mother to read my novel. I did not want her to feel like she had to tell me it was wonderful if she thought it sucked. Instead, I asked Mom (a retired teacher) to help seek out grammar mistakes. She’s found two so far that all my writer critique groups and beta readers and my editing have missed. And she’s asked me when she gets to read the rest of it. That’s priceless, because I’m going a little blind on it.
  • Don’t know anything about writing, but know something about computers? Offer a coupon for unspecified “tech support” for when their computer goes boom. It happens. I’ve crashed my own hard drive on this computer three times in the nearly five years I’ve had it, due to finding a virus, finding spyware I couldn’t get rid of otherwise, and reconfiguring my setup when I got the netbook. I’m no where near being a computer expert. I’ve had a couple of times that I’ve had to call friends for advice on a computer related snafu. In my old job, I had people who came to me for computer advice. My friends who have jobs in IT and computer support think that’s funny since I call them for help. I joke that I have enough computer know-how to be dangerous. My point is that if you know that the WIYL is computer knowledge-deficient, or that you have more expertise than they do, this is invaluable support.
  • A coupon to mow their lawn and/or weed their flowerbeds when they’re on deadline, or when the story’s cooking.
  • A coupon for dinner (at your house) to get them to take a break, get dinner, and not have to cook when they’re digging hard at getting it done.
  • Hold a book swap event at your house…where all your friends, including the WIYL, show up with books they would donate or give away, and swap them for free “new” reading material.
  • Find out what music is inspiring them and see if you own something similar. Make a compilation CD for them.

A good friend of mine bought me a calendar a couple of years ago that was filled with writing quotes and inspirations sayings related to writing, and a blank page book that matched it. I loved it. This gift would not work now, because now I keep one calendar with all my work, personal, and writing stuff all in one place, but it was a well-thought out gift with some real consideration behind it. Remember that it’s not about how much you spend; it’s about the thought you put in it.

Writer friends…what have I missed? Can anyone think of other ideas?

Thank a Veteran

Last night was the local bar association annual holiday dinner. While I was there, I learned that not only is today Veteran’s Day, but that yesterday was the Marine Corps’ birthday. At my table were two veterans, one who had served with the Marines and one who had served in the Navy. Hearing the two of them talk just reminded me of how much we have to be thankful for…especially something to consider with Thanksgiving coming up soon.

My father is also a veteran, who served in the Air Force before he and my mother married, and before I was born.

It’s easy, during our everyday lives in this free country of ours, to forget the price that the men and women in our Armed Services pay to keep this country free. When we post a blog entry, or write a novel, or go to church, or go to meetings, or just walk down the street whenever we feel like it, it’s easy to take for granted that we can do all of those things without worry about censorship or religious persecution or illegal assemblies or curfews or travel passes. It’s easy to forget that because we don’t have to apply for passes or permission from the government to do any of these things. We’re safe from other countries imposing these restrictions on us because our armed forces protect us from this threat. They protect our society so that we can take these things for granted.

So, today, while you’re going about your day, take the time to thank a veteran.

And remember those who paid the ultimate price for those intangible freedoms we count on every day.

Ideas versus Story

Writers always have tons and tons of ideas, but ideas aren’t necessarily stories.

I spent most of the evening the other night trading emails with a friend of mine about various writing ideas. Both of us have ideas out the wazoo, but neither one of us really has a story arc thought out for all of them.

In several emails, we discussed a zombie Christmas story, my current novel (THE GRIMM LEGACY), my plans for my next novel, her multitude of ideas for futuristic romance, Judy Garland, romantic suspense, steampunk, my idea for a Victorian supernatural monster hunter, and Caleb Carr’s CREEPY CREEPY CREEPY novel THE ALIENIST. (Which I have to say fascintated me, because I have a degree in Criminal Justice, and there were all these cool historical crime-fighting and forensic things that I had read about in college on the history of law enforcement and corrections.)

Anyway, back to the point; I get weird ideas, and I get them at weird times. I sometimes call myself the Queen of the Weird Mental Connection. Here’s an example.

Several months ago I was walking through an outdoor store with a friend and got very quiet. My friend asked several times if I was okay, and I made some non-committal pre-verbal noise meant to shut them up and reassure them at the same time. We repeated the process several times throughout the store, and when we got in the car to leave, my friend inquired again if I was okay.

I said I was, but that I’d had an idea. My brain had tumbled pretty far down the rabbit hole, exploring the idea (zombie deer hunters), and it took a bit for my brain to file it away.

I have yet to write this. I may never do so. I needed to process the idea (especially while surrounded by lots of camo pants and ammunition), and figure out if I had a PLOT to go with the idea. I still don’t, even though I keep coming back to a similar idea. It’s not enough. Writing “zombie deer hunters” twenty thousand times is not a novel.

There seems to be some misconception out there that writers need ideas. Believe me when I say that they don’t. Ideas are everywhere. Ideas are a dime a dozen. An idea is generally not enough to write an entire book or even a short story.

Ideas are the fuel that the plot engines run on. You might have a killer idea, but it needs more than that. Once you have your idea, the next question really needs to be about what kind of story you want to tell. And then it’s about the next idea that takes you on the path to tell your story.

An idea is the start. It’s the first step on the journey, but the journey is made up of multiple steps. You don’t finish the journey until you’ve taken more steps.

That’s also why writers gnash their teeth at people who propose to come up with the idea so that the writer  can write the book and split the proceeds. You’re saying you’ll take the first step, and they should take the remaining 9,999 steps and give you 50% of the profit. Um, didn’t we all learn in kindergarten the idea of ‘that’s not fair’? And truthfully, it isn’t, unless the idea-haver is willing to pay the money for the writer to write the book the way they want it. That’s a different kind of writing, and that’s okay. I know people who write on contract for others; people writing a publisher-owned series, people who write media tie-ins (i.e., Star Wars novels, World of Warcraft novels, and more). That’s nothing to be ashamed of, but that’s not the same thing.

On the other hand, it’s okay to share ideas. Ideas are not copyrighted. If I said redneck zombie deer hunters to a group of writing friends, someone would write about a zombie apocolypse wearing camoflauge and plaid flannel, some would write about hunting zombie deer, some would write about the deer taking on the zombies. Some would write about zombies in a trailer park. Those are totally different ideas.

Now, it’s completely okay to call up a writer friend and say, “I had this weird idea. You might want to use it.” It’s okay if they disagree. It’s okay if they agree. An appropriate thank you for the idea, if it is used?

  • A mention in the acknowledgements page, if the book gets published. Or a free, personalized, signed copy of said book to the person with the idea. Even an Advanced Reader Copy (aka ARC).
  • An opportunity for the idea-haver to be a beta-reader. As in, they read it first!
  • The writer taking the friend out for coffee.
  • A small (and I mean $10 or less) gift certificate.
  • Flowers
  • A thank you note.

And that’s up to the writer. Not the idea-haver. And the writer’s not required to do any of the above. They are nice gestures. The idea-haver is entitled to nothing when the writer used the idea and turned it into something bigger. The writer did the work.

Of course, the writer’s response may well be to encourage the idea-haver into writing it themselves. And that’s good, too. The writer and the idea-haver may not think of all the same things, the same PLOT, if you will, so they would end up writing entirely different books.

CAVEAT: There is a difference between sharing an idea, and someone ripping off your story. There have been lawsuits about this kind of thing. It’s unethical. If you write and try to sell a story about Larry Rotter, who goes to school in a castle to learn about magic, who has two best friends, a pet owl, and a wicked scar on his forehead, I would bet that you will hear from attorneys representing J.K. Rowling. And quickly. I said IDEA. Not copyright infringement.

My friend and I talking about steampunk would come up with entirely different ideas. She writes mysteries. I tend toward fantasy and paranormal, which likely has mystery elements. We’d write different futuristic stories. We’d write different mysteries, even if we started with the same core idea.

Just recently, an attorney I know called me with a story of something that happened to him. Personally, I would have been creeped out by the whole thing, and I told him so, but it was a heck of an idea to use in a book. It’s not an entire plot. I don’t know the settings well enough to write his story, but it brings up an interesting idea to use in a story of my own. Don’t know if I’ll ever go there, but it’s interesting. He knew I wrote fiction, and wanted to share it. I’m good with that. I appreciate the story, and the idea. It’ll bounce around in my brain for a while for me to decide what, if anything to do with it.

My point? Share ideas. It’s okay. Understand that the idea will not make you rich and famous. It probably won’t make the writer rich and famous, but even if it did, the most you get is a cup of coffee, a mention in the acknowledgement section, and bragging rights. It takes WAY more work to come up with a complete plot.