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Pitch Wars

They say waiting is the hardest part—at least according to Tom Petty. But I think he’s right.  I submitted my newest manuscript, It’s Raining Men, to four potential mentors for Pitch Wars.  The struggle to get the novel up to snuff was overwhelming.  There were several days when I just shut down—no progress made, despite a hard deadline.  I’m typically motivated by hard deadlines, so this was unlike me—and not in a good way. Overall, I’m a very disciplined writer.  I write every day—holidays, my birthday, my kid’s birthday, vacations.  I write, and I like to write.  But, even though I broke everything down into manageable bites, my brain was not having it. How did I get through it?  Manhandling myself.  And giving myself permission to phone it in for several days.  I made the pitch deadline with, like, four hours to spare, overachiever that I am. Of course, the manuscript itself wasn’t there yet.  Close, but not there.  

Since the pitch for Pitch Wars is the first ten pages, a query, and a synopsis, the hard deadline was only hard for those three items.  After the deadline, I pushed myself to get the entire manuscript finished.  Luckily, I got a big push by my critique group.  My turn just happened to be right at the time submissions were due.  The feedback gave me a major push of inspiration, and I cranked out a fresh climax and spruced up the ending.  It took me about a week to get it ready, and I haven’t looked at it since.  

Me being me, as soon as the novel was truly ready, I was like, “Hey, why hasn’t anyone requested the full manuscript yet?”  And the whole time, I’ve been stalking my four potential mentors on Twitter. Several times a day, I’m checking on any hints of progress.  I submitted late, so it makes sense that my stuff would be at the bottom of the pile.  That’s what I tell myself when I’m feeling optimistic. Unfortunately, there’s another side of myself that thinks the story I thought was brilliant in concept, maybe isn’t as brilliant as I thought.  Or maybe what I did with the concept isn’t good enough. 

Knowing that insecurities and anxiety are normal doesn’t really help. The problem is that people are incapable of seeing themselves objectively—and that goes double for a writer’s work.  Sure, we can have an inkling, and it gets more accurate with experience, but true objectivity is impossible. So, I can’t really pep talk myself logically or kick sand in my metaphorical face. All I can do is keep writing, keep learning, keep improving.  It isn’t easy, but I suppose that’s what makes it worthwhile in the end.  Success won by hard work and tenacity is much more satisfying than luck or even talent.  That’s what I’m telling myself.  

The show must go on.  Still, wish me some luck, will ya?

The Good, the Bad, and the Embarrassing

When I first won the Soon To Be Famous Illinois Author Manuscript contest (try saying that ten times fast), I was jittery with excitement to have the novel edited and a cover designed. It took me two weeks to take my already finished manuscript and make it the best I could. I printed it out and read it out loud, making changes. Then I contacted the contest people. They said in a few weeks they would be ready. 

Fast forward to August (over three months later). When they said they were almost ready, I was not at all excited. Then, suddenly, they were good to go. Even at that point, I wasn’t all that stoked. There was a form to fill out that required work on my part–a synopsis, adjectives to describe my work, things of that nature. The activity was stimulating, and I finished everything needed over the weekend. 

Then I submitted it. 

I expected to wait six to eight weeks, but I was told it would be finished by the end of the month. And it was!  

The cover was finished first. When I got the email, I was sitting at a coffee shop with two of my writing buddies. We were meeting to support one another on pitch preparations. It’s an awful task, so the accountability and dedicated time really helped. I got to show them the cover. 

We all agreed that it was amazing. And, though this will probably sound stupid, I’m going to say it. It was so professional looking! The cover totally looked like something you’d see at a bookstore. It was invigorating. 

Then yesterday, I got my copy editing feedback. By and large, it was very positive, which is always a relief. Pacing was good, characterization good, tone and style good (though some extra words could be deleted, which is always nice), dialogue authentic and in character (score!), and then there was grammar. 

Uh oh. 

Now, my grammar isn’t awful. I know the difference between to, too, and two as well as there, they’re, and their. However, I, apparently, don’t know the difference between convince and persuade (or rather, I use convince when I mean persuade). And I REALLY don’t know when to capitalize and when not to capitalize. I REALLY REALLY don’t know when to hyphenate.  Seriously, the poor editor probably got a headache from all the eye rolling while deleting and adding hyphens when needed–or not needed. The worst, however, was my insistence on the word “like” instead of “as if”. Kind of glad the whole thing was done via email so I didn’t have to look Ray (my editor) in the face as he explained when to use “like” and when “as if.” 

Of course, there were other errors of grammar/style, too. When I was in high school, I took a shorthand class–which sounds like a waste of time, but it enabled me to cuss out bosses right in front of their faces. Just doodling, nothing to see here. Anyway, at that time, the rule was that any number ten or under was written out. Larger numbers were depicted with numerals. This is for business correspondence, so it might still be the rule, but The Chicago Manual of Style says to write out numbers under 100. 

I should have also written out thirties and seventies and such, too. Times. My previous grammatical nemesis, the comma splice, made a few appearances. It’s particularly embarrassing when I’m making errors in areas I actually do know the rules about. 

There was a part of me gleeful at the grammar lesson, but I am equally sure I’ll forget most of it. This is why a professional editor is so important, especially for writers, like me, who intuit grammar. I’m so relieved that when I submit my manuscript, it won’t be perfect, but at least it won’t embarrass me. 

Let the pitching begin!

Next post: My plan is to break down some of the grammar errors I love to employ. Mostly, this is to help drive in my own head the rules so I don’t keep doing it. Prognosis: Fair. 

The Process

I had the pleasure of attending a Janet Burroway lecture this week. It would have been even better if I’d been on time.  For the second time this year, I had a time set in my mind that was a half hour off.  It’s correct in my calendar–both on the fridge and in my phone.  But, my stubborn brain didn’t bother looking it up.  I hope this is the time when I learn a lesson about scheduling.

Anyway, it’s always fascinating to hear about other author’s practices.  It amazes me how many ways there are to write and create.  My favorite quote of the night was, “Know thyself.”  You’ve got to love any kind of Shakespeare reference.  But, beyond that, the concept exactly nails down what I’ve been thinking about lately. 

As human beings, I think it’s natural for us to compare everything.  When I hear someone else’s writing philosophy or practice, I can’t help but hold it up against my own.  People who work like I do give me a nice, comforting feeling–they reinforce my inclinations.  Conversely, when I hear of someone who has every beat plotted before they put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard, I can’t help but wonder if I’m doing it all wrong.  How nice it would be to sit down and just execute what I’ve already worked out. That’s how I want to be! I forget, for a moment (or several moments), that every time I try to outline, my brain gets itchy. 

I had the pleasure of attending a Janet Burroway lecture this week. It would have been even better if I’d been on time. For the second time this year, I had a time set in my mind that was a half hour off. It’s correct in my calendar–both on the fridge and in my phone. But, my stubborn brain didn’t bother looking it up. I hope this is the time when I learn a lesson about scheduling.

Anyway, it’s always fascinating to hear about other author’s practices. It amazes me how many ways there are to write and create. My favorite quote of the night was, “Know thyself.” You’ve got to love any kind of Shakespeare reference. But, beyond that, the concept exactly nails down what I’ve been thinking about lately. 

As human beings, I think it’s natural for us to compare everything. When I hear someone else’s writing philosophy or practice, I can’t help but hold it up against my own. People who work like I do give me a nice, comforting feeling–they reinforce my inclinations. Conversely, when I hear of someone who has every beat plotted before they put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard, I can’t help but wonder if I’m doing it all wrong. How nice it would be to sit down and just execute what I’ve already worked out. That’s how I want to be! I forget, for a moment (or several moments), that every time I try to outline, my brain gets itchy. Why are we sitting here making an outline? Let’s write. 

There are advantages and disadvantages to every method. And what works for me, works for me. Most importantly, it works. Discovering a process is really an exercise in acceptance. And everyone knows that life is so much better when living in acceptance. Now if I could just be the kind of person who confirms times in their calendar.

Why are we sitting here making an outline?  Let’s write. 

There are advantages and disadvantages to every method.  And what works for me, works for me.  Most importantly, it works.  Discovering a process is really an exercise in acceptance.  And everyone knows that life is so much better when living in acceptance. Now if I could just be the kind of person who confirms times in their calendar.

Story and Truth

Research was key in The Color of Trauma.  For one, I really wanted the police part of the story, the part that’s “real”, to be as accurate as possible. Lucky for me, I’ve got a Chicago police source close to home as an alpha reader (first person to read my work).  He was invaluable, because what I think I know about police procedures comes mostly from fiction books, films, and TV.  It turns out, that stuff is often wrong.  I received a lot of “that wouldn’t happen” and “he’d never say that” or “he should ask about…” comments. I was also able to talk to a Sergeant who works in the Detective Division, though not Homicide, specifically. That man was a gold mine.  He dropped lingo everywhere, and I was like a kid who just got a pony for her birthday.  Most of it made it into the book.  

There are also details that few will appreciate, but they’re accurate.  Homicide, in Chicago, is broken up into three areas:  North, South, and Central.  My protagonist works in Area Central, which operates out of Chicago’s second district.  I was able to tour the detective room one night.  It did NOT look anything like I imagined, which was wood desks pushed up against one another for partnered pairs.  Kind of like Cagney and Lacey or maybe Barney Miller.  It was disappointing at first.  Just rows of long tables with computers and phones.  Detectives don’t have their own desks!  Still, I didn’t need them to have desks, so the description of the detective room is accurate to the best of my memory.  I got to see the interview rooms, too.  Tiny!  No desks.  No chairs. No one-way glass.  Not all of them with cameras.  For the book, I took liberties.  I also added a conference room completely from my imagination.  Accuracy was important, but not at the expense of the story.  

In that vein, in Chicago, Homicide operates in pairs of four, for a total of eight officers per team, but I cut it down to six.  I didn’t want that many side characters for readers to have to remember.  They rotate who runs lead on cases, and this I kept in the novel, as well as their schedule.  They rotate days off, 4 on and 2 off. I probably killed an entire tree printing calendars working out the timeline of the story. I marked on days and off days, using a few events in the story as markers. I even found that particular day-off group in the CPD calendar. Authenticity, yo. In total, it probably took me 4-6 hours just to work out the dates.

To keep it as timely as possible for, you know, future generations, I don’t ever specify the year, but, calendar-wise, it takes place in 2019. I first selected 2017, then 2018, before reaching 2019, which worked best because I could stretch the timeline out the longest that way. Because I was editing in early 2019 and the novel takes place in the summer, I had the weird experience of consciously living through the dates in my nov

Research was key in The Color of Trauma. For one, I really wanted the police part of the story, the part that’s “real”, to be as accurate as possible. Lucky for me, I’ve got a Chicago police source close to home as an alpha reader (first person to read my work). He was invaluable, because what I think I know about police procedures comes mostly from fiction books, films, and TV. It turns out, that stuff is often wrong. I received a lot of “that wouldn’t happen” and “he’d never say that” or “he should ask about…” comments. I was also able to talk to a Sergeant who works in the Detective Division, though not Homicide, specifically. That man was a gold mine. He dropped lingo everywhere, and I was like a kid who just got a pony for her birthday. Most of it made it into the book.

There are also details that few will appreciate, but they’re accurate. Homicide, in Chicago, is broken up into three areas: North, South, and Central. My protagonist works in Area Central, which operates out of Chicago’s second district. I was able to tour the detective room one night. It did NOT look anything like I imagined, which was wood desks pushed up against one another for partnered pairs. Kind of like Cagney and Lacey or maybe Barney Miller. It was disappointing at first. Just rows of long tables with computers and phones. Detectives don’t have their own desks! Still, I didn’t need them to have desks, so the description of the detective room is accurate to the best of my memory. I got to see the interview rooms, too. Tiny! No desks. No chairs. No one-way glass. Not all of them with cameras. For the book, I took liberties. I also added a conference room completely from my imagination. Accuracy was important, but not at the expense of the story.

In that vein, in Chicago, Homicide operates in pairs of four, for a total of eight officers per team, but I cut it down to six. I didn’t want that many side characters for readers to have to remember. They rotate who runs lead on cases, and this I kept in the novel, as well as their schedule. They rotate days off, 4 on and 2 off. I probably killed an entire tree printing calendars working out the timeline of the story. I marked on days and off days, using a few events in the story as markers. I even found that particular day-off group in the CPD calendar. Authenticity, yo. In total, it probably took me 4-6 hours just to work out the dates.

To keep it as timely as possible for, you know, future generations, I don’t ever specify the year, but, calendar-wise, it takes place in 2019. I first selected 2017, then 2018, before reaching 2019, which worked best because I could stretch the timeline out the longest that way. Because I was editing in early 2019 and the novel takes place in the summer, I had the weird experience of consciously living through the dates in my novel. I had a moment where I thought, “This is the day my protagonists meet.”  And maybe I took a few moments to imagine my book was real. Of course, I also had the dissatisfaction of having the weather not mirror my narrative. Seriously, Mother Nature?

I’m of the belief that reality and facts bow to the story. Still, it’s important to have as much truth as possible.

Now What?

It’s funny how a writer can think a piece is done, then when the moment comes to submit, she realizes that in no way is it done.  When I submitted my manuscript for the Soon to Be Famous contest, I knew it wasn’t ready, but it was due. Luckily, it was ready enough. 

Since that submission, I sent it to Beta readers for feedback.  As always, many people said they’d read it, but not so many actually did.  I gave everyone a month, then received only one response.  Ouch.  The one I did get back, however, was extremely helpful (thanks, Carolyn!).  I made some changes. 

When I was announced as a finalist, a few people expressed a wish to read it.  So, I obliged, wanting a few more bits of feedback. I got them!  Turns out it’s much easier to get someone to read my work when they ask me. 

I read through the manuscript again.  It had been a while, and with time comes perspective.  I made notes on what I wanted to change, then made those changes.  The feedback I got solidified I was on the right path, for the most part, and assisted me in making more improvements. For the last step, I printed out the entire novel and read it out loud.  Mostly, I did this when I was home alone, but a few times, I went downstairs or, one night, read in the bathtub with the faucet running.  Call me crazy, but though I have no issue reading aloud to a crowd for the purposes of marketing, I have no desire to be overheard just reading my stuff.  My husband had a good laugh.  Whatever.

The novel could potentially never be finished.  I could tinker with that baby indefinitely.  However, I’m ready for it to move to the next stage.  Copy editor!  If I hadn’t won, I’d probably still be dorking around with it, but the prize gave me a nice urgency.  So, I’ve reached out to my “handlers” at RAILS.  I hope to hear this week about the time frame for the copy editing.  Once that’s completed and I’ve made the appropriate adjustments, my novel should be ready to query (pitch) to agents.  It’s pretty exciting.  

Once the copy editor gets hold, there’s nothing I can do to the manuscript until it’s returned to me.  In the meantime, I have the query letter ready and a very, very rough synopsis (play-by-play of the plot).  So, I can spiff up the synopsis, have a short and long version, and take another look at the query and make adjustments there.  I also need to do some research on comparative titles. 

Agents and publishers like to have an idea of where a novel falls within the genres out there.  This is one place where an “original” novel is a bad thing.  Publishing is a business and they want to know that a novel they purchase is going to sell.  If they can’t peg a market, then they don’t buy.  So, I have to peg my market.  It’s a business-y goal that sucks, since I’m not naturally business-y minded. 

I listen to Writing Excuses, which is a great podcast, and they recently had an episode on comp titles which gave me a little hope.  They couched it like a Venn diagram.  The intersection of fans of X and fans of Y.  I just need to figure out the X and the Y.  It maybe doesn’t sound like progress, but it actually is for me.

Hitting benchmarks helps writers keep going in this long, slogging process.  This week, I hit a really big one.  

The Big Win

Back in 2018, I attended a series of Northbrook Writes lectures at the Northbrook Public Library.  Each time, there was a flier on the table about the Soon to be Famous Illinois Author Manuscript Project.  What a great deal–free to enter and the prizes were pretty nice:  line editing, book cover, and an automatic semi-finalist for the 2020 Soon to Be Famous Illinois Author Project contest.  So cool!  And I had a manuscript that I thought could be ready for beta readers by the end of the year. 

Fast forward to New Year’s day 2019.  I’m writing and going through my folders and I find the flier.  Oh shit, it’s due tomorrow!  Seriously. It was the afternoon on January 1, 2019 and it’s due January 2.  No problem.  The story was ready for beta readers, except I wanted to cut to get down under 100K.  The book was at 108K.  Well, I thought, I’ll just submit it as it is. 

I go to the web page to see how to submit.  The manuscripts have to be between 50K and 100K.  Uh oh.  Amazingly, by 2 a.m., I cut over 8K from my novel.  I was brutal.  Does it need to be in there?  No?  Out of there.  Can I cut the scene short?  Maybe.  Do it.  I was merciless (but I saved the document in a separate file so I could go back).  And it made the book sooooo much better.  I never did end up adding any of it back.  

The next day, I needed to put together a few things:  logline, a brief synopsis, and a bio.  But I had it all ready to go noonish on the due date.  I submitted to Mike Hominick and he got right back to me, and the submission went through flawlessly. 

Then I promptly forgot about it.

Fast forward to March 2019.  I get a phone call from Eva Baggili to congratulate and inform me I’m a finalist.  That’s nice.  There’s going to be a ceremony at the Chicago Public Library.  Cool, that’s easy for me to attend.  We’re wrapping up the call when it occurs to me to ask how many finalists there are.  Three.  

That was the moment I realized it was a big deal.  I thought there were going to be a bunch of us.  That’s when I started getting excited, when I realized that I’d really accomplished something.  Just being a finalist was something I could put on query letters (and brag about on my website, but not in a braggy way, but in an I’m-down-to-earth-but-exceptional way). 

I told people.  The support I received just from that was wonderful.  Friends and family congratulated me on Facebook.  The Off Campus Writers’ Workshop (OCWW) people let me announce it in their newsletter (okay, Susan Levi made me announce it).  Other OCWW members congratulated me.  Mike and Kate at the Nortbrook Library greeted me like an old friend at the next Northbrook Writes lecture.  In a completely non-ironic way, I started to feel, well, famous.  I’ve never had the experience of strangers rooting for me.  I highly recommend it, if you can get it.  Suddenly, I had a cheering section for my writing.  And I didn’t have to even win to get that.  

A little before the announcement, Eva emailed me about doing an on-camera interview.  They wanted to do one with all the finalists.  She sent me three possible days and a range of times.  I found one that would work.  Being professionally-minded, I looked up online what to wear to a filmed interview.  All black and all white is a no-no, and no red or green (green screen green).  Well, the black restriction hurt.  Two days beforehand, I went clothes shopping (for those of you who don’t know me, I don’t do that).  I found a thin sweater dress that I thought would work no matter what the Chicagoland weather decided to do.   

I was nervous.  The entire car ride to the Fountaindale library in Bolingbrook, IL, I practiced my elevator pitch again and again.  It started to flow and then it started to almost not make sense.  I was losing the meaning behind the words and I was terrified I’d mix them up.  For a few minutes, I played the radio.  Then I went back to relentlessly babbling my elevator pitch.  In the end it helped, though it wasn’t perfect.  

In the basement of the library, in a little conference room were Nikki Zimmermann, Kate Buckson, and Jeffery Fisher.  They were all as nice as anyone you could ever meet.  The video room was all black with three cameras and two chairs at angles to one another.  It reminded me of Inside the Actor’s Studio, which made the experience all the more exciting.

I was mic’d, took a few deep breaths, and was ready to go.  The pitch went pretty well, so that was good.  Kate was easy to talk to, and that made it so much better.  The whole experience was fun.  What writer doesn’t like talking about their writing?  (Answer:  almost none).  Mid-way through, Kate read some of the feedback, which was all positive and so encouraging.  One even chose me as the winner!  Awesome.  Then she dropped the bomb that I wasn’t there to be interviewed as a finalist, but as the winner. 

I understood what she was saying, but it was as if my body went through a time-delay.  It was so unexpected that I was shocked to near incoherence, which delighted the co-conspirators (I know this because they told me how great it was several times).  I won.  I won.  

They had a plaque for me with my name and my book title, The Color of Trauma,  on it.  I stared at it and believed it and didn’t believe it at the same time.  Many photos were taken (Thank you, Adrianna)–some with plaque and some without.  I hugged everyone several times.  They probably thought I had some kind of condition.  Everyone there was so happy for me, which made it all the sweeter. 

Hollie soon to be famous Illinois Author Award

On the ride back to Chicago, I would, every few minutes say, “I won” out loud, to myself. 

I keep coming back to the elation at so many people cheering for me.  That’s been the best part of the whole experience.  I mean, winning is great, and I’m so excited to see how the line editor improves my work, but it’s the people that really move me.  

There was a pre-conference get-together at Cliff Dwellers on Tuesday, April 16, and I was invited, along with a guest.  I took my husband, which was a good choice as he’s my biggest fan, socially adroit, and good company.  I got to meet Eva in person, see my new friends Jeffery and Nikki, and meet some new people, Anna at RAILS and Mitchell Davis at BiblioBoard.  Once again, everyone was so nice and supportive and excited about my book. 

Even now, I can’t quite wrap my mind around all the support and all the opportunity.  But, I’ll get there.  Of course, when I do, it won’t be as thrilling.  

Right now, I’m focusing on one last read through of the novel.  After that, I’ll go through the manuscript with the tedious and annoying task of word searching to eliminate too many repeats of my favorite words.  My characters tend to lean a lot.  They also like to turn.  And, oh my, how they love to look and gaze, seem and feel.  After that, I’ll be ready for my line editor, I think.  

In the meantime, I have my latest project, a paranormal romantic comedy.  It’s tentatively titled It’s Raining Men, inspired by the song by the same title, but with witches.  Intriguing, right?

A writer’s work is never done, but since it’s a labor of love, I don’t really mind.  At least, not most days.

Thanks to all of you out there, strangers and friends alike, who have supported me.  As I’ve said before, writing really is a solitary task that can’t be done alone.

Humble Beginnings

I found a few old notebooks in my hope chest and cracked one open. The first page has a few sentences in French, the handwriting, presumably mine, far more girly and legible than my current handwriting. Deeper inside, I found several dream journal entries. I almost remember deciding to track my dreams. Really, I should have dated them for posterity. My best guess is this is my fifteen-year-old self’s notebook.

Towards the end of the notebook is where I found the most interesting entry–the beginnings of a short story (or maybe even a novel). The first line isn’t bad:

She ran.

Short, punchy, dramatic. All right, fifteen-year-old Hollie. Maybe I was a prodigy and didn’t even know it!

Aaaand, then the second sentence:

As she trudged along the empty field at top speed, all she could think of was: This can’t be happening!

Oh. Oh, no. Trudged is a good verb, but…top speed? Face palm. And the punctuation? Ugh. And damn, I was excessively wordy even in my adolescence! Next few sentences:

Please God; no! Big clods of dirt split open as her Nike’s hit them in an irregular patterns.

Okay, so I obviously didn’t “get” semi-colons. The dirt clod sentence, though, I’m digging (pun intended), though it needs to be edited to “hit them in irregular patterns” or “hit them in an irregular pattern”–in the very least. Still, it’s a decent image.

I’m not going to go further, not wanting to torture myself or any readers of the blog. Let’s just say it’s not that good. Actually, it’s kind of a romance, but rapey and over-the-top melodramatic. I couldn’t even finish reading it. I’m most grateful it’s on paper–written with a pencil, even. I hate pencils. If pressed, I would have said I’ve always hated pencil. Apparently, I don’t even know myself.

Still, there’s something charming and nostalgic reading my adolescent angst story. I don’t remember writing it, which is disappointing. What I really want to know is if I had been proud of it. Had I re-read it and thought it kicked ass? I hope not. Maybe it’s better I don’t remember. 

I have come a long way, but still have a long way to continue.  Writing, like any skill, can always improve.  I hope to never stop advancing!

Rachel Swearingen lecture – OCWW 2/28/19

Rachel Swearingen – The Magic and Mechanics of Imagery

Rachel was a very charming speaker.  Imagery is something I struggle with more than I think I should.  I was a poet back in the day (way, way back in the day, like high school), and my writing still carries some of the poet in me.  Not in blog form, though.  Please don’t think I’m thinking this is poetic.  

She started the lecture talking about the color wheel of writing.  If I knew how to embed a graphic right here, I’d do it.  For now, I’ll just describe it.  There are six aspects of writing included:  characterization – plot – diction – imagery – theme – point of view (POV).  Imagine them as points on a wheel (kind of like a clock).

Diction includes dialogue, syntax, and rhythm of the written word.   The rest, I hope, are self-explanatory.  

Each aspect of writing contributes and abuts the rest.  Each supports or doesn’t support the rest.  All writers have strengths along a continuum for all of these aspects.  Most have one that they rely on to do the heavy lifting in their work.  Where craft comes in, is how we can manipulate and modulate the wheel.  

Since the lecture focused on imagery, Rachel talked about how writers can find patterns of images in their own work.  Our adorable subconsciouses tend to do much of this work for us.  But once we find the images, once our conscious minds see the pattern, we can enlarge it, adapt it, shape it.  We can break the pattern or expand it, make it more complicated and rich. 

Fun exercise:  You can take a section or body of work and print it out.  Circle all the instances of images.  What do you see?  What themes or objects appear multiple times?  Once you notice, craft what you’ve done to make the images say something on purpose.  

Not sure what to do with the images you’ve found?  No idea how to expand a set of images?

Fun exercise 2:  Take one image (example:  sky).  From that root image, come up with 6-7 images that you associate with that image (example:  clouds, planes, sunsets, birds, stars, mountains).  From each branch, think of an image that you associate with that (example (clouds): angels, storms, tornadoes, flying, cotton, dreams).  And on and on we could go.  In theory, these images will naturally have a link.  Nifty!

Other takeaways:  

You can use images to move in and out of time and for transitions.  

You can steal the structure from a work you admire and apply it to your own. 

We spent some time on some exercises and having Rachel breakdown images in three different works.  My favorite was Stuart Dybek’s short story Pet Milk.  It’s a wonderful story.  Here’s a link, if anyone is interested in reading it.  It’s pretty short:  

https://fuentescw3150b.wordpress.com/readings/pet-milk-by-stuart-dybek/.

Imagery isn’t something I really considered concentrating on, especially in revision.  I might tweak an image or try to find a better one, but I never considered systematically studying and shaping what I’d already written.  It’s something I’ll have to consider in the future. 

Jay Bonansinga lecture – OCWW 2-21-19

Jay Bonansinga was a speaker I saw last year, and he was no less engaging this year.  Jay, for those of you not in the know, writes The Walking Dead books (co-wrote the first four and solo wrote the last four).  The topic was Storytelling Fundamentals for the Digital Era.  I don’t think he really covered that topic, since he didn’t discuss anything digital-related, but I still enjoyed the lecture.

It’s always fascinating to hear about other writer’s processes.  Jay writes five pages a day, five days a week.  If he’s on a roll, he still stops at five pages.  If the words won’t come, he pushes himself to five pages.  At that pace, he can finish a novel in four months.  I assume that’s just the first draft, but I think if a person writes more carefully than, say, I do, then they probably have a lot less revision.  This is a sort of an eating the elephant one bite at a time approach.  Like any time I hear a writer’s process, I think to myself, I should do that.  This time, however, I knew pretty quickly that that particular approach wouldn’t work for me.  And since I have a regular writing practice that works for me, I let it go pretty fast. 

We spent some time on the concept of less is more.  Jay presented to us Hemmingway’s shortest story:  

For sale.  Baby carriage.  Never used. 

Gut punchy, to be sure. 

Then we worked on two sentence stories.  I didn’t write down those examples, but I think I found both on an Internet search (how did I ever live without the Internet??):  

There was a picture in my phone of me sleeping. I live alone.

The grinning face stared at me from the darkness beyond my bedroom window. I live on the 14th floor.

Spooky, right?

Then we broke up into pairs and wrote out own two-sentence stories.  Susan Levi and I paired together.  Susan came up with a brilliant first sentence:

My husband’s sex doll arrived this morning.

No pressure, right?  Then we went through several ideas.  I felt the pressure most, since Susan came up with the first line and there was just the two of us.  Finally, we came up with:

Her vampire smile didn’t appear until evening.

Not bad, but not exactly right.  I know there’s a better verb than “appear” to make the sentence better.  Anyway, Jay signed copies of his novel Sick for those who read their sentences out loud.  My guess is he’s used to presenting in places where people are hesitant to share.  OCWW is not a group like that.  Still, a very gracious gesture and the whole exercise was enlightening and fun–it’s always fascinating to hear what others come up with using the same parameters.  

Found this on Facebook this morning. The coincidences of the Universe are pretty freaky.

Other takeaways from Jay’s lecture:

Use your fears!  He started writing horror as a way to conquer his own fear–it’s far less scary to be the one doing the frightening!  So, take those phobias, weaknesses, quirks, and fears and develop them into characters and voice and plot. 

The true craft of writing is knowing what to leave out.  This one particularly resonated with me because I tend to overwrite.  

The difference between shock and suspense.  Shock is a scene between two people in a restaurant talking about mundane things, and then a bomb explodes.  Suspense is a scene where we know there is a bomb under the table as two people in a restaurant talk about mundane things.  Kind of cool, right?

The final part of the lecture was a repeat from last year, but definitely good enough for repeating.  He breaks down stories into two parts:  

1)  What if… 

2)  And then…

The “What if” is the opening to the book, Act I, the premise of the story, all the setup until the first plot twist, when the character makes a decision that sets the book on its course of action. This, according to Jay, is usually pretty solid for writers.  If a writer is going to go wrong, it’s usually on the second part. 

The “And then” is what happens after the plot kicks in.  It’s what keeps the reader turning the pages.  If the reader doesn’t turn the page, then the writer has failed. The story isn’t about the premise, but what the characters do with the premise. 

My favorite example of the What if/And then concept was from the movie Witness.  (If you haven’t seen it, you totally should).  The premise, or “What if” of the story is an Amish boy visiting New York City witnesses a murder while in a bathroom stall.  But that’s not what the story is about.  That’s the setup.  The twist (spoiler alert!) is that the killer is a police officer. And then…Harrison Ford’s character knows the boy’s life is in danger and he spirits the boy and his mother out of town to protect them. 

All in all, I really enjoyed the lecture!  Jay also did some great voices while reading his sentences and telling stories.  If you ever get a chance to attend one of his classes, seminars, or lectures, you should go!

Rebecca Makkai lecture – OCWW 2-7-19

Rebecca Makkai is one of my favorite lecturers.  Her seminars are always funny, insightful, and practical.  Yesterday’s lecture was on dialogue.  Dialogue isn’t something I struggle with, but I suspected it would be worth the trip up to Winnetka.  I was right.  

At the beginning of the lecture, she covered real life conversations versus those in written works (fiction, non-fiction, memoir).  A lot of it I already knew, but it was a good reminder.  If novelists wrote dialogue like real people talk, it would be awful…full of repetition, boring details, starts and stops, filler words, and the list goes on.  On the positive side, it might sound more authentic than invented, formal, stilted dialogue. 

The section I found most useful to my own writing was on voice.  Every character, like every person, has their own, unique way of speaking.  Included is a list of some of the factors that make a person’s speech unique:  lexicon (word choice), grammar, completeness of sentences, sentence length, use of euphemisms, repetitiveness, punctuation (think William Shatner or Christopher Walken), ornamentation of speech, ticks (like how some people, uh, like, sometimes have a word or two they use a lot, like), accents (Rebecca warned caution with this one, as it can become distracting), politeness, hesitation/directness, use and frequency of cuss words, clarity level, favorite words, age (related to lexicon).  

For myself, I just write.  It pours out of me, dialogue included.  The list above gave me a lot to think about when I go back in revision.  Frankly, I’m a bit of a lazy writer, but I hope I can make myself take a look at my dialogue and make some conscious adjustments.  

A fun exercise we did was to write a series of one-liners of dialogue with the intention of talking to a private eye’s secretary to get in to see the boss, Mr. Chambers.  Several OCWW members read one of their one-liners and the diversity was humorous and enlightening.  

She also spent a good amount of time on subtext–the meaning behind the dialogue.  Communication extends far beyond what is actually said.  Rebecca reminded us to keep in mind character’s wants and desires, fears and concerns–every character, even the little ones.  Everybody wants something, even in fiction (good fiction).  

The last takeaway, and another of my favorites was the idea of incorporating facial expressions and gestures (in the right amount).  There is a tendency to stick to cliches (frowning, drawn eyebrows, wide eyes, pursed lips–you get the idea).  Rebecca urged us to look beyond those in revision.  She suggested putting something in the character’s hand and seeing what they might do with it.  Those actions can reveal a lot about a character’s inner life without having to spell it out.  Great idea.  

One of the hallmark outcomes of a great lecture is the motivation to dive into writing and put the learned principles into action.  Rebecca Makkai delivered once again!