Archive | January, 2009

A Bit More On Writing Conferences

I enjoyed reading through all the comments today by my loyal blog readers about their experiences at writing conferences. Kim’s tale of going to a writing conference in a small town in the middle of Australia was fascinating. You just never know when you’re going to meet somebody you’ll “click” with and gain a friend, a mentor, a writing buddy, or whatever.

Sean asked whether it’s worth going to a conference if you’re not yet writing at a good enough level. This is a good question, and deserves a sane and balanced answer from a sane and balanced person. When I find someone like that, I’ll see if they can give an answer. In the meantime, here’s mine:

There are several good reasons to go to a writing conference:

  1. To learn more about the publishing industry
  2. To learn more about the craft of writing
  3. To meet other writers and make friends to help you along the journey
  4. To get your work critiqued by an industry professional (editor, agent, or writer, but writers are often the best for this because they will critique your work, rather than just tell you whether it’s of interest to them as a business opportunity)
  5. To see editors and agents and learn that they are just regular people whom you can approach
  6. To begin building relationships with editors and agents
  7. To make appointments with agents who might be willing to represent you
  8. To make appointments with editors who might be interested in buying your work

For novice writers, #1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 are the most appropriate sorts of goals. For intermediate writers, #1 through 6 are quite appropriate. For advanced writers with a book that is ready to sell, #1 through 8 are all appropriate.

The problem comes when you try to jump the gun and go straight to #8 as a novice. This doesn’t work, any more than jumping straight to calculus as a high-school freshman. If you’re a freshman, work on algebra or geometry first, then move up to trignometry, then go to calculus. It’ll be a smooth and easy journey (if you have the talent for math) and the only disadvantage is that it takes a few years. But if you try to go straight to calculus, then it’ll take forever.

I actually began going to small conferences in 1989, 7 years before my first adventure to Mount Hermon. So I spent about 7 years going to a small regional conference in San Diego, which was a fine conference and radically moved me along the path toward success. But after a few years of that, I needed to move up to a bigger conference with more editors and agents. I never abandoned the San Diego conference, which was an excellent regional one-day conference which was inexpensive and always was well-run. I kept going to it along with the Mount Hermon conference.

But the fact is that a large conference is really necessary when you get to the stage where you’re ready to sell a book. Selling is a numbers game. The odds of selling to any given editor is small. You improve your odds by talking to more editors. You get those at a large conference. At a small conference, you often get excellent instruction in a nice and intimate setting and you get a great chance to build friendships.

So there is no one best strategy to choosing a conference that works for every writer. Many writers prefer to get their feet wet first at a small regional conference and then move up to a larger conference. Others jump right into a huge conference. A lot depends on your goals and expectations going into the conference, and on how well you know your own level as a writer.

This reminds me, I highly recommend Meredith Efken’s e-book on writing conferences, the Writer’s Conference Survival Guide, which is conveniently available here on my web site at an outrageously low cost. Meredith is my own freelance editor (she’s worked on all my books since RETRIBUTION) and is currently on the home stretch of writing the first draft of her own novel #4.

One last thing, Mary DeMuth posted a comment yesterday with a link to a YouTube video she made on “23 Reasons You Should Go To Mount Hermon.” It’s pretty good, and while I have never taken time from the conference to go to the beach or go swimming, the other 21 reasons are all part of my experience. (And I have been to the beach near Mount Hermon many times, because my high school was right on the beach of the Monterey Bay.)

Some Thoughts on Writing Conferences

I’m thinking about writing conferences today. This is a good time of the year for it, since there are a ton of great conferences coming up in the spring.

Let me tell you a story about why I believe so strongly in writing conferences.

Back in 1996, I was feeling pretty frustrated with the whole cursed writing game. I had been writing fiction at that time for eight years. I thought I was writing pretty well.

But I hadn’t sold a thing. Not one blasted word. Hadn’t even had a nibble. I had an agent, but he hadn’t sold anything for me.

I decided something had to change. Since I couldn’t change what the publishers or my agent were doing, I decided to change what I was doing.

I decided to go to the biggest writing conference in my niche market. I decided I was just going to spend the money and see what happened. I decided I was going to keep going every year until I sold a novel or until I died. I figured I still had about 50 years of life expectancy, and there was no way the publishers could hold out on me for 50 years.

So I signed up for the Big Enchilada in my niche (which happens to be Christian publishing. If I was writing for another niche, I’d have chosen the Big Enchilada in that niche).

I signed up for the Mount Hermon Christian Writing Conference in the spring of 1996. Mount Hermon has long been the best conference in Christian publishing (plus I heard they had great food, which is always important).

I flew up to San Jose that year, got on the shuttle van, and immediately found myself immersed in a world of other writers. And I knew I was home.

That was one of the best weekends of my life. I had been to writing conferences before, but never with so many big-shot editors and never with so many opportunities to get my work in front of their eyes.

But the best thing that happened to me that weekend had nothing to do with impressing any editors.

The best thing that happened to me was meeting John Olson. John is a Ph.D. biochemist and I’m a Ph.D. physicist. We both had a similar vision of what we wanted to do with our fiction. We were both weird. The nerd-herding instinct runs deep. We became instant friends.

We kept in touch over the following year, and spurred each other on to get some real writing done. That was the year I began work on a novel I called “Avatar.” I sent the first chapter to John and he gave it two thumbs up.

The following year, in 1997, John and I went back to Mount Hermon loaded for bear. We both came with several proposals and submitted them to editors who we just knew would love them. John got quite a bit of interest in his work, especially from a big-shot editor who was quite sure he wanted to buy John’s idea for a young-adult novel.

I spent the conference in John’s shadow, wondering if I’d ever find anyone interested in my work. None of the editors showed much interest in “Avatar.” So I submitted it for a critique to a professional writer, Lauraine Snelling. At the end of the conference, I ran into her and her first words were, “YOU’RE Randy Ingermanson? Wow! Your manuscript is good!” I only wished some editor would say that, but those words gave me the confidence I needed that someday, I was gonna break in. After the conference, John’s big-shot editor lost interest in his book. We commiserated together, and then vowed to do better next time.

The following year, 1998, John and I went to Mount Hermon with high hopes. I had both a nonfiction proposal (for a book analyzing the alleged “Bible code”) and a fiction proposal (for “Avatar.”) I attended a major track on writing nonfiction, taught by David and Heather Kopp.

Once again, I was in John’s shadow for most of the conference. He had brought along a proposal for a vampire novel and submitted it to editor Steve Laube, who returned it with the words, “I wouldn’t touch this with a sixty foot pole.” John instantly became famous as “the vampire novel guy” and he was sure he’d blown his chances of ever getting published. But I told him that this was brilliant publicity. His notoriety would be gold someday.

One of the editors, Karen Ball, heard about John’s novel and got very excited. She met with John and told him she loved his story. She couldn’t buy it, but she loved it. And John won an award as “Most Promising New Writer.”

My novel proposal didn’t get much action, but my nonfiction proposal did. I came away from the conference with a fistful of business cards of editors who wanted me to send them the proposal. And my nonfiction teacher, Dave Kopp, liked my proposal so much, he asked me for permission to photocopy it for his entire class. And after the conference, he offered to show it around to a few people he knew. (This is something you should NEVER ask faculty to do; but if they offer, then you should definitely take them up on it.)

John and I left Mount Hermon after the 1998 conference wondering if it was ever going to happen. We were close, but neither of us had won that pesky cigar yet. What was wrong with us?

As it turned out, the only thing wrong with us was that we should have started sooner. It just takes time to break in to the industry.

In the year that followed, I sold my nonfiction book to WaterBrook Press (thanks to a good word from Dave Kopp). And I sold “Avatar” to Harvest House (to an editor who turned down the nonfiction book but liked my writing).

When John and I returned the following year, I was working on TWO contracts, one for a nonfiction book and one for a novel. In the meantime, John had come up with an absolutely killer idea for a novel about some astronauts on the way to Mars who survive an explosion but are left with only enough oxygen for one of them to survive to the Red Planet. Just before the conference, John asked me if I wanted to coauthor the book with him. Who wouldn’t? I said yes, and we spent the conference brainstorming.

On the last night of the conference, we pitched the idea to the perfect editor for the project, Steve Laube. (Mr. Sixty Foot Pole from the previous year.) Steve hadn’t forgotten John’s vampire book, but he didn’t care. (We had to assure him no vampires would go to Mars.) Steve told us to send him a great proposal and he’d see what he could do. And I even won an award at the conference, “Writer of the Year.”

After the 1999 conference, John and I realized that we had turned the corner. There were still years of struggle ahead of us, but we were on our way.

That was eleven years ago. My book on the alleged “Bible code” was published and did well. My time-travel novel “Avatar” was published under the title “Transgression” and won me a major award. The following year, Steve Laube published our Mars novel “Oxygen” and we won a major award for it. John and I wound up writing two books together, and several others independently. I was invited to teach at Mount Hermon, and a few years later, John was too. John’s vampire novel eventually got published (by editor Karen Ball, who liked it from the very beginning, and who switched employers twice before she finally found a publisher willing to let her buy it–from John’s agent, Steve Laube. Yes, really, Steve “Sixty Foot Pole” Laube.)

This coming year will be my 14th time at Mount Hermon, and my 7th time teaching. I’ll be doing a mentoring track in fiction. John will be teaching a major track for teens. And we’ll be rooming together again, so there will be Geek Humor Alert out for the weekend. (Google “Shaving Babbitt” for a horrific example of what can go terribly wrong when geeks are allowed out of their cages.)

I’m convinced that every year gets better. There are more editors, more agents, more talented writers, more fun.

Looking back, it seems almost absurd to remember how much I sweated going to the first conference. I was scared to death of meeting people, talking to big-shot editors, and possibly looking foolish. I worried about spending so much money.

Yes, it was a big chunk of change. But Mount Hermon turned me from a wannabe writer into a gonnabe. And it was the place where I’ve become friends with hundreds of writers and dozens of editors and agents.

Sometimes I ask myself what would have happened if I hadn’t decided to start going to Mount Hermon. I don’t even want to think about that. That’s an alternate universe that I don’t want to visit.

A writing conference is not a magic carpet to publishing stardom. A writing conference is a place you go to learn the business, and then to do business. I believe a conference is the best possible place to do both of those.

That’s why I consider conferences almost essential for writers. I know a few authors who sold their first book without ever attending a conference. But most of my author friends broke in the same way I did–by going to conferences, year after year.

Is this your year to go to a conference? Now is a good time to think about it. Now, when you have the whole year ahead of you.

If you’re going to a conference this year leave a comment to tell us all which one you’re going to and why. I’d love to hear about it.

Star Wars–One Paragraph Summary Winner

Last week, I challenged my loyal blog readers to do a one-paragraph summary of Star Wars. Several of you took up the challenge (this is hard!) and posted summaries.

In my opinion, the best summary was posted by Ben:

A young farm boy, who dreams of adventure, lives in a galaxy torn by rebellion and war. He is pushed into the conflict after his aunt and uncle are killed by the Empire for the droids he possesses. After joining a smuggler for cheap transportation, the boy and his mentor are captured by the Empire on their way to rescue a princess and, in the ensuing struggle, the mentor sacrifices himself. The boy and the smuggler save the princess and think they have escaped, only to learn the Empire has followed them to the Rebel base, intending to destroy the planet. Aided by his companions and the last lesson of his fallen mentor, the boy must exploit the hidden weakness of the Empire’s destructive weapon to preserve the Rebellion.

Randy sez: One thing I should have mentioned is that in a one-paragraph summary, you have enough space to use the names of the characters. In your one-sentence summary, you generally don’t have that luxury, but when you expand to a full paragraph, you have room for maybe 3 or 4 character names.

Let’s analyze Ben’s paragraph for the component parts:

Sentence 1 (The story setup): Ben gives us the primary character, “A young farm boy, who dreams of adventure.” He also gives the setting, “a galaxy torn by rebellion and war.” I’d say he scores well on both counts. This is a good solid setup.

Sentence 2 (The first disaster): Ben nails this one, “his aunt and uncle are killed by the Empire”. He also shows how this disaster leads to the first major turning point in the story, “He is pushed into the conflict.” The purpose of the first disaster is to commit the lead character irrevocably to the story. Up until Luke finds his aunt and uncle dead, he can back out of the story. But once he finds Beru and Owen dead, he knows that HE’S DEAD TOO unless he fights back. So he’s committed; he joins forces with Obi-wan Kenobi, knowing that he can never back out.

Sentence 3 (The second disaster): Ben again gets it exactly right, “the mentor sacrifices himself.” This is common in heroic stories. The mentor is there for part of the story, but then vanishes, leaving the lead character to swim in deep waters alone. From here on, Luke must fight his battles more and more on his own.

Sentence 4 (The third disaster): Ben gets this critical disaster right again, “Empire has followed them to the Rebel base, intending to destroy the planet.” The purpose of the third disaster is to force the end-game. In Luke’s case, he no longer has a choice about taking the battle to the enemy, because the enemy is taking the battle to him and to all the rebels. The stakes have been raised as high as they can go. After this final battle, if the Rebellion loses, it can’t fight another day because all its leaders will be destroyed.

Sentence 5 (The ending): Ben summarizes the ending here, “the boy must exploit the hidden weakness of the Empire’s destructive weapon to preserve the Rebellion.” This holds back just a little bit. It’s really OK here to tell the ending.

Overall, an excellent job, Ben! That is exactly the way you write a one-paragraph summary.

Here is the summary I wrote down on a piece of paper after my last blog. You’ll notice that it’s very similar to Ben’s, but I am using the names of the characters:

Luke Skywalker meets two mysterious droids who lead him to an old Jedi master, Obi-wan Kenobi. When Obi-wan asks him to help rescue Princess Leia, Luke refuses — until he finds his aunt and uncle murdered by Storm Troopers. Luke and Obi-wan join forces with Han Solo and Chewbacca to rescue the princess — at the cost of the old man’s life. Luke and his friends escape and journey to the rebel planet, where they learn that they have been tracked by the Death Star. In the final battle, Luke uses the Force and some help from his friends to destroy the Death Star.

One thing to note that both Ben and I did in our one-paragraph summaries is that we “back-loaded” the disasters to the very end of Sentences 2, 3, and 4. This maximizes their emotive punch. You will note that in my presentation of the ending, I tell the finale — “destroy the Death Star.” When you summarize your story for an editor or agent, they don’t want you to be coy about the ending. They want to know if it’s a happy ending or a sad ending or something else. They’ll be OK with either kind, but they don’t want you to write a great story that ends with a muddle ending that leaves the reader saying, “Huh?”

OK, whaddaya think? I have no delusions that my one-paragraph summary is perfect. Are there ways to make it better? Remember that small differences matter. As Mark Twain observed, the difference between the good word and the exactly right word is the difference between the lighting bolt and the lightning bug.

If you can see how to improve my one-paragraph summary, post a comment here.

Star Wars–One Paragraph Summary

In my last few blog entries, I challenged my loyal blog readers to write a one-sentence summary of the movie STAR WARS. Many of you responded, and I took some ideas from the best to sharpen my own summary of the movie.

My current favorite one-sentence summary is: “A young farm boy joins a princess in the Rebellion against the Galactic Empire.”

Several of my loyal blog readers have noted that all boys are young, and therefore “young farm boy” is redundant and therefore the sentence should start out, “A farm boy…”

I am going to politely disagree here. “Young” is pulling its own weight here. I have looked at the sentence with and without it, and I think it works better with it. So I’m leaving it in, even if it’s redundant.

But now let’s move on. Perfection is not something we’ll ever achieve. If we’ve got an editor or agent interested in this one-sentence summary, they’ll want to hear more. Not a lot more, but a bit more. My bet is that they’ll want to know the Three-Act Structure for this story. You can learn more about Three-Act Structure in my Fiction 101 and Fiction 201 courses, but I’ll assume you know what this structure is.

I prefer to present the Three Act Structure in a five-sentence summary, as follows:

Act 1: A setup sentence to set the stage, and then a second sentence that tells the first major disaster (which ends Act 1).

Act 2: A sentence that tells the second major disaster (which happens at roughly the midpoint of the second act). Another sentence that tells the third major disaster (which happens at the end of Act 2 and forces the ending.)

Act 3: A final sentence which explains how the story resolves.

There you have it. Three Acts. Five sentences. Three diasters. It’s really not all that complicated.

Now your homework assignment, for those who want to play, is this: Write a one-paragraph summary of STAR WARS. Use five sentences to tell me the setup, the three disasters, and the ending.

I’ll do the same and we’ll compare notes in a day or two.

Post your one-paragraph summary here in a comment.