Friday, June 28, 2013

Three Reasons to Pack Your Bags and Get Thee to a Writers Conference

by Sophie Perinot

I am a big advocate of attending writers’ conferences.  Being a stay-at-home book mama can make the world shrink to an unbearably small size—with all the depression and obsessing over minutia which that entails.  Packing away the yoga pants, packing up your professional duds and heading out to a conference plunks you right down in the big picture again—reminding you that you are not the only crazy nut writing a book and why you really do love what you do.  Need a little more persuading?  Here are three reasons you should be registered for a writing conference in the next 12 months: 
Conferences have more than pretty locations to recommend them

1) Conferences put the big-C in “C” Community.  It is a massive battery-recharge to realize that you are part of something bigger than yourself.  If you've selected your conference with care it’s like jumping into a pool of warm-fuzzies.  I am recently back from the 5th North American Historical Novel Society Conference.  That means I spent 3 days in the company of 300+ people who love reading and writing historical fiction as much as I do.  Um, I am simply not going to run into that many history-nuts at my local Safeway, or pretty much anywhere else.  Everywhere you turn at a writer’s conference you will find people discussing things that interest you and don’t interest 99% of the people who sit at your dinner table or otherwise know you in “real life.”  You will also find support—for your dreams and your work.  Think getting an email from a reader saying how they connected with your book or a good review from a blogger is great?  Well meeting that blogger and exchanging hugs in the lobby, or having dinner next to someone who tells you they just loved your book takes it to a totally different level.   Oh, and when you go (note, I say when not if), don’t forget to give as good as you get.  Be supportive of others—that’s what community means.

2) Even in a world increasingly dominated by virtual gatherings and social media there is no substitute for in person contact when it comes to networking.  We make a different kind of connection when we look people in the eye and shake their hand; a different kind of investment in them.  Much of what we do as authors on facebook, twitter, etc. is sound-bite driven.  Meeting in person allows long-form discussions and the building of relationships rooted in more than quips.  It can put a special sort of seal on relationships begun in the virtual realm.  Think this doesn't matter?  Think again.  When it is time to look for authors to blurb your next book, or when you receive a blurb request personal contact can make the difference between a yes and a no.  When I get a promotional opportunity (e.g. I am asked to present somewhere) I know that the more authors the bigger the audience draw, and who do I reach out to for those additional panelists—people I consider as friends as well as colleagues.  When you need a critique partner, folks you've met at writers conferences often fill the bill.  Three of my critique partners are authors I met at past HNS Conferences, and at the 2013 Conference I met a flourishing writers group formed at the 2011 event.

3) A good conference packs an educational punch.  The best writers conferences have content appropriate to all ages and stages of the book parent, from those looking to find a midwife (agent) to those juggling the demands of toddler books while gestating the next book baby.  I am not saying you can’t learn about the publishing business, craft, or industry trends in other ways.   I am asserting that you can get more information—often from top industry professionals and household-name authors in your genre—in a shorter period of time.  That’s because a good writers’ conference is focused on bringing attendees the information most useful to them and cramming it into two or three days of panels and speeches.  The conference planners have done a lot of your work for you—vetting panel topics, selecting speakers, filtering out the noise and nonsense and presenting you with the most up-to-date information possible.

Finally, a word about cost.  I know a lot of writers who have yet to attend a conference because conferences represent an expense (often a significant one).  If I were going to add a fourth point to my list it would be this—you are worth it.   A few years ago I heard an industry speaker (yes, at a writers’ conference) say that writers—and female writers in particular oh book-mamas out there—often hesitate to invest in themselves before they are actually earning money with their writing.  His point—writing is a small business and all small businesses have start-up costs.  You have to invest in your professional development to give yourself the best chance of making it in this tough business.

So get thee to a writers’ conference.  It’s going to be a transformative experience.  I promise.

Sophie Perinot (right) networking at a conference with book-bloggers
and fellow Book Pregnant author Nancy Bilyeau (2nd from left)
Sophie Perinot is the author of The Sister Queens(NAL/Penguin, March 2012) a novel of sisterhood set in the 13th century. Her debut was widely well-reviewed and made a number of “best of 2012” lists.  When Sophie is not chauffeuring one of her three kids or lint rolling the hair of one of her three cats she is hard at work on a new novel novel set in 16th century France. 

Monday, June 17, 2013

Run, Baby, Run. Write, Baby, Write.

by Amy Franklin Willis

2013, I completed my first half-marathon.  That’s 13.1 miles.  I am not a runner.

I do not possess the classic “runner’s body”—i.e. all hard, pointy edges of lean muscle and solid compactness.  At forty-one, I am round, curvy, soft, fleshiness.

In college I was on the rowing team.  But that was twenty years and three children ago.  Over the past decade I ran short distances to forestall the middle-age gut intent on wrapping itself around my waist.

As 2012 drew to a close, an ad for the Bay Area women’s running store See Jane Run’s half-marathon featuring Champagne and chocolate caught my attention.  Champagne and chocolate are among my top all-time combinations, above Laverne & Shirley re-runs and below “beach cottage.”

When my eldest daughter expressed interest in doing the marathon together, I committed, entranced by visions of us crossing the finish line simultaneously, cue Chariots of Fire theme music.  Those visions evaporated in to the mist—discarded next to my fantasies of a perfectly clean and organized home and a bottomless well of maternal patience--when our training runs proved that my fourteen year old ran at a slightly faster pace.  In short, she left me in the dust.

For the first half mile, I maintained contact with Georgia, her slender, classic runner’s shape always just ahead in the distance.  But then her muscles would warm and her pace would quicken and my muscles would warm and my pace would stay the same and I would have to content myself with a shouted, “Make sure your cell phone is on!”

Two months before the race, we got serious and tackled a nine-miler around Lake Chabot and then a relentlessly boring, unmarked 11.5 mile trail along the Hayward Shoreline—for the first four miles I told myself it was the Cornish coast of England and I was running towards my thatched roof cottage but my rational self caught on quickly and said, that is the San Francisco Bay, Amy, and you are running this trail so you can run the race and not embarrass yourself.

We logged over one hundred and fifty training miles.  And during those interminable stretches of aloneness and unpluggedness—running at Lake Chabot offered preening wild turkeys, a great egret surveying the water, and a brush rabbit huddled alongside the trail that distracted me enough not to require pulsing digital beats in my ears—I recognized the singular truth of running.

The only way to fail was to stop.

To cease putting one foot in front of the other.

And, in fact, the only way to rest the burning, fatigued muscles was to run faster, to reach the end more quickly.

Before 2013, I had never run distances longer than three miles but this business of just slogging through, quarter mile after quarter mile, struck me as very similar to writing novels.

Novels are the marathon of the writing world.  People, generally short story writers, argue that other types are more difficult and I think this is complete and utter nonsense.  Sustaining a coherent and interesting fictional story over the course of eighty-thousand some odd words is a uniquely challenging endeavor not meant for the meek.  It takes days, weeks, months, and more often than not, years to get a novel done.

You begin with an idea—a character who intrigues you, a situation that puzzles you, a setting you want to memorialize within a story.  The writer has no guarantee she will finish.  No assurance the idea can grow and stretch and bear the weight of three hundred pages without collapsing in to the ash of might-have-been stories.  One never knows what obstacles narrative will present us.   A character who does not perform as the plot requires.  A structure that is impossibly complex.  An unsatisfying resolution.  

In the beginning, the writer can also not anticipate what the outside world will throw at her.  She may be diagnosed with a life-threatening disease.  She may divorce her spouse.  She may lose her job.  She may temporarily take leave of her senses.  Her children may experience physical or mental crises.

Each one diverts her from the writing.  From the story.  From finishing.

On race day, the weather report predicted record highs for parts of the Bay Area and, most troubling, no cloud cover. Georgia and I trained in low 70s temperatures with abundant cooling fog.   The See Jane Run course was set on the quasi-island of Alameda, a small city attached to Oakland by drawbridges and fragile stretches of land, and thus typically prone to breezes off the San Francisco Bay and the Oakland Estuary.

As I hit the first mile and a half of the race, three truths emerged:  in my nervousness, I neglected to put sun screen on either myself or Georgia; the sun appeared intent on burning stubbornly hot and bright for the first half of the course; and lastly, the race was going to be much more difficult than I imagined.

Novel writing is a grind.  The only way to complete one is to make the pages pile up.  I force myself through this by using daily and weekly word count goals.  Printing the pages and seeing their vertical height grow is the only way I know to push forward through the story.  It’s the structure I impose on a task that feels all too loose and magic-like, subject to the idle winds of procrastination and despair.

The middle is the worst part.  In the race, miles six through eleven felt like twenty.  I was beginning to tire—hamstrings pulling ever tighter; multiple water blisters forming on my right foot, disappointment that the course wound through bland office parks and covered acres of steaming blacktop, the sun leaving a swath of my right arm blazing.

Mile thirteen nowhere in sight.

In writing, the middle is where I lose my mind and my faith.  It’s the point in the story where everything gets complicated and is not at all like you thought it might be and the ending you originally had in mind is now, clearly, not going to work.  The writer may say to herself, What have I done?

And this is the dangerous part.  The part where she is most likely to give up.  To stop because it has become too hard.

At the start of the race, I found a pacer—a person who carries a sign with the miles per hour pace she promises to keep and who functions as your beacon in the midst of five thousand running bodies trying to throw off your pace.  I thought, yes, this is a pace quicker than my usual but surely I can do it.  And won’t it be better to run with this group connected to her?

I couldn't keep up.  My race pace ended up two minutes slower than my normal training pace.  Why?  No idea.  The heat?  Concern about failing to finish?

Around mile seven I settled in to a pace far behind the last of the pace ladies.  It was just me and a small Wonder Woman doll tucked in to my belt for inspiration.  It was the speed I could manage.

When I hit mile eleven, I rejoiced.  I knew I could finish the last two miles.  The course curved next to the bay and nearby home owners held hoses over their yards to give runners a cooling mist.  A young girl of seven pointed a hose at me and I ran through it grinning, my arms thrown open wide.  People held up signs of encouragement as we passed—“U Hella Inspire Me”--and the clang of cowbells rang out.  A man in his forties and his teenage son gave me a high-five, yelling, “Finish strong.  You’re almost there.”

A novel requires fortitude.  And when one passes through the valley of the shadow of the middle, if you can keep going, keep putting one word after another, the end will rise up before you.

If you are lucky enough to have people cheering you as your near it, all the better.  If not, you cheer yourself.  You see the end coming.  You write it.  You collapse.  You celebrate.

Fifty feet from the finish line I caught sight of my six and ten year old daughters and my seventy year old mother.  The long wait finally over, they hooted.  They hollered.  They jumped up and down.  In that moment, the six stinging blisters and the tight hamstrings disappeared from my consciousness, making room for joy.

And then I saw my wife and my oldest.  Georgia had arrived fifteen minutes earlier.  The “I Ran for Chocolate” medal already around her neck.


Amy Franklin-Willis's debut novel The Lost Saints of Tennessee is out in paperback now.  She is writing more and running less this summer.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

So How's the Book Coming? or Why You Shouldn't Talk to Non-Publishing People About Publishing

by Mindy McGinnis

Those of us interested in publishing have heard it - publishing is slow. And you can hear it, believe, and know it - but until you've actually experienced it, you can't quite respect the amazing molasses flow that it truly is. I've written before about why it takes so long for a book to make it publication, so that's not what this post is about. Instead, this concerns how to talk to people outside of the publishing bubble about... publishing.

Quick answer: you just don't.

Seriously. Do you think someone actually wants to hear about how long it took you to go from first draft to final edit? Does your neighbor really care how long your edit letter was? Does your mom want to hear about the sex scene that just had to go? Um, probably not.

So, for example - I signed the contract for NOT A DROP TO DRINK two years ago. Yes, two years ago (hint, it's still not out). At that point in time it was in fact, a finished book. It wasn't polished and edited. It hadn't gone through first pass pages or copyediting. But it was a book with a beginning, a middle and an end - and that was two years ago.

It's been through some experiences since then, lots of little morphs and changes. Some commas sliding away, some periods slipping in. A few cut scenes that weren't necessary in the first place, some combined dialogue and shaved tags. Essentially at its core, it's still the same book it was two years ago. It's just shinier and better.

So - fast forward to... oh let's say any day of the week last month when a very nice, sincere, random person (no, this isn't directed at anyone, it's happened about 2,000 times) says, "Hey! How's the book coming?"

The honest answer - It's already came and went. The book is finished. It existed in its entirety two years ago. It's existed in it's final stage for nearly six months. It stopped "coming" and has in fact receded to a far point in my head where I have to go fact-check occasionally when talking about it to people, because I've written two other books since I worked on it last.

But I can't expect people outside of publishing to understand that. Just like an eye doctor can't expect me to understand how my glasses help me see, and why I absolutely cannot get my head around how a cell phone works, even though I'm sure there are people out there whose job it is to understand that.

Likewise, it's not the average person's job to understand that the book about to come out in a few months isn't something you're still working on. So, when people ask me "How's the book coming?" I smile and say, "Great!"

Mindy McGinnis is a YA author and librarian. Her debut, NOT A DROP TO DRINK, is a post-apocalyptic survival tale set in a world where freshwater is almost non-existent, available from Katherine Tegen / Harper Collins September 24, 2013. She blogs at Writer, Writer Pants on Fire and contributes to the group blogs Book PregnantFriday the ThirteenersFrom the Write AngleThe Class of 2k13The Lucky 13s & The League of Extraordinary Writers. You can also find her on TwitterTumblr & Facebook.

Monday, June 10, 2013

The Road to Publication Is A Long & Bumpy One

by Erin Cashman

I gained a lot of weight with my first pregnancy. So much that I closed my eyes during weigh-ins at the doctor’s office. I didn’t want to know the numbers on the scale. After I had my third child, I started dieting and exercising, and after many months of limiting my chocolate and ice cream intake (torture!), enduring aerobic classes, power walks, etc., I finally lost most of the weight. Many people asked me how I did it. Surely I knew some secret. A half a grapefruit before meals? Eating anything I wanted but stopping at 4? Eating only purple food? No one wanted to hear the truth. Lately several people have asked me about how I became published. But, like my weight loss, what they really want to know is what’s the secret. These writers (and I used to be one of them) have written a book, queried countless agents and editors, and still have no publishing deal. There must be a secret they don’t know about. Well, I’m here to tell you that there isn’t. The road to publication is a long one, filled with pot holes, detours, and road blocks.

My debut novel, The Exceptionals, was published last year. It was my third finished novel. It took eight long years from the date I started writing my first novel until my third one was published. And six years of writing, revising and editing two different manuscripts, querying agents and submitting partial and fulls until The Exceptionals sold. I asked the writers here at Book Pregnant what their experiences were. Most of us have written at least one other (often several other!) book that never was published. So, like me, our “debut” novel is really our third, fourth, fifth . . . you get the idea. Several BPers (as we call ourselves) found an agent, but the agent couldn’t sell that manuscript. One author worked on writing and revising her book for seventeen (yes, seventeen!) years. Two different agents tried to sell her manuscript but were unable. Finally she sold it herself. Another worked on her novel for eleven years, and she had two different agents and two different editors. In fact, many of the authors in this blog have had more than one agent. As Lydia Netzer, author of Shine, Shine, Shine told me: “Shine was not my first book, or even my second or third, that I got through a FIRST draft of, however it was the first book I got to a FINAL draft of.”  One writer told me that the reason he thinks his debut novel (not his first finished manuscript) sold was that he had thirty years of rejection behind him, to learn from.

And that’s the key. To learn from the rejections. Maybe the novel needs more revising, maybe the plot is too convoluted, maybe the characters aren’t compelling enough. Take a long, hard look at your book and try to find areas for improvement. Why do I tell you all this? To depress you? No. Exactly the opposite. There is no trick. There is no a secret that we published authors know that you don’t. If you hope to be published one day, work tirelessly on your manuscript. Revise and edit, and then revise and edit again. Join a critique group or find a critique partner if you can, a fresh set of eyes (not a friend, or a family member, but another writer!) can make a huge difference. Sometimes I know the story I’m writing so well that it’s hard for me to see the problems with it. Read everything you can get your hands on. Devour books. It will help you “know” if something doesn’t ring true or is stale or cliché. And most importantly, don’t give up.  We didn’t!
Erin Cashman is a YA author. Her debut fantasy novel, THE EXCEPTIONALS, was published by Holiday House in 2012 and named a Bank Street College of Education Best Book of the Year. You can find her at the group blogs The Enchanted Inkpot, BookPregnant Blog, and on Twitter, Facebook, and her Website

Monday, June 3, 2013

Why BEA Is Like High School--And That's Not a Completely Bad Thing

By Nancy Bilyeau

I went to a high school in suburban Michigan with a student body of greater population than some towns. We were three to a locker, packed tight in classrooms. It was hard not to feel lost in that sprawling, shining building, especially if, like me, you had zero interest in sports and the other pursuits of the popular crowd.
            Years later and half a country away, BookExpo America (BEA), by its own definition "the largest publishing event in North America," brings back a little of that feeling.
But before I explain why, it’s important to make an attempt to explain what BEA is. And what it isn’t. Each year, for four days at the end of May or beginning of June, a major city hosts the largest book trade fair in the country. It’s been New York City's Jacob J. Javits Convention Center since 2009, a logical place for such a huge undertaking. The only other time I’ve been to Javits Center is for Comic Con, but it’s always got something going, from national dog and auto shows to volleyball tournaments.
When you make your way to the extreme west side of Manhattan and walk in the big doors of Javits to be part of BEA, it looks like this:

Who are all these thousands of people? Publishers, booksellers, agents, librarians, educators, bloggers, reporters.  You wouldn't know that amazon is omnipresent in the book business by walking this floor. Advanced Reader Copies (ARCs) are everywhere. It's all about paper! 
You have, I am sure, noticed that there is one group I haven't included: authors. And that's because it's complicated. BEA is not for us; it is, in many ways, about us. Authors of new work sign everywhere, either ARCs or finished books. There are "author stages" for the big guns, such as Amy Tan being interviewed by the Oprah magazine books editor. An author breakfast featured Chelsea Handler, Ishmael Beah, Doris Kearns Goodwin, and Wally Lamb.
So how do authors get recruited for breakfasts and stages and panels? That's where BEA becomes oblique. This isn't a writer's conference, where you can volunteer to sign or submit an idea for a panel. I live in New York City and can show up at Javits, but it's not that simple.  The publishers arrange some things; the BEA higher-ups schedule other things. I get the feeling that many are called but few are chosen. 
Yes, this is when the high school memory in, when cool-kid parties were going on, but I rarely was given the address. It didn't help that my first time at BEA, I was clueless. In 2011, my publisher, Touchstone, kindly gave me a badge and I wandered the vast, cacophonic floor during a Friday afternoon. It was seven months before my debut novel would be published; I had no ARCs to sign and it seemed the interesting panels had all taken place that morning. At one point, my feet aching, I sat down on the floor with a $10 pretzel and a conference map/brochure, dazed. 
Two years later, it's BEA 2013, and my second novel, The Chalice, has been on sale less than three months. I have something to sign! But where--and how?
I'm not someone who gives other people much advice but I do have one tip to pass on to fellow authors: find a tribe. Back in high school, bored and alienated, I managed to discover like-minded students in the Drama Club and signed up, first painting sets and designing brochures and finally working my way up to performing onstage. I made quite the French maid in a performance of Eugene Ionesco's "The Bald Soprano," if I do say so myself.
Now, as an author, I've discovered the value of joining a different kind of tribe. My books are thrillers set in Tudor England--and so I've joined the Historical Novel Society, International Thriller Writers and Mystery Writers of America. At a meeting of MWA, a new friend, novelist Laura Joh Rowland (the Sano Ichiro mysteries), let me in on the inside scoop on BEA: if your publisher will give you a minimum of 50 books, you can sign them for a half-hour at a booth run by  MWA.
Sure enough, the regular MWA newsletter went out on email early this past spring, issuing a call for members to sign up for slots at BEA. I quickly checked in with the team at Touchstone; I was told yes, they could send over the books; and I emailed a request to MWA. A few weeks later, I had a slot late on Thursday afternoon. I was in!
My official BEA badge arrived in the mail, thanks to my publisher. I confess to a little shiver when I looked at my credentials. I am real.

         Ninety degree heat notwithstanding, I headed for the Javits Center last Thursday. One function BEA performs is a time for everyone to talk about The State of Book Publishing. I'd scanned the blogs and newspaper articles in the days leading up to the expo. Keith Kelly's Media Ink column in the New York Post struck a positive note: "Book Publishers Finally Get a Reason to Party." Among the party schedules and publishing house news releases, Kelly reported that, "Overall net revenue from trade publishing--the name used to describe books aimed at a consumer audience--increased 6.9 percent to $15 billion in 2012." Yes, $15 billion seems reason to pop a few bottles of champagne.
         Javits was just as crowded as I remembered. This time I was struck by the Malcolm Gladwell poster/flag hanging near the entrance. It made Olympic flags look minuscule.  At the MWA booth, administrative director Margery Flax said hello with a big smile. I was to sign from 3:15 to 3:45 with two other authors: Hank Phillippi Ryan (The Other Woman) and Sara J. henry (A Cold and Lonely Place). Namecards were ready; water bottles were in the mini-fridge; our books were neatly stacked. When I remarked on how flawlessly organized the event was, Margery said, "Well, we've been doing this a while."

Best of all, there they were...the people who wanted our signed books. It was, to my delight, an actual line. I would say that 75 percent of those who stood in front of me were librarians. Some of them had read my first novel, The Crown, or had heard of it. Others knew nothing about me but liked the cover and were interested in learning something about my fiction. While signing the title page, I told them my "log line."
The half-hour was up in what seemed like five minutes. Shaking hands with Margery and the MWA volunteers, I left the booth and ventured to the Simon & Schuster area, chatting with my wonderful Touchstone publicist, Jessica Roth, and getting a chance to meet my publisher, Stacy Creamer, face to face.
No, I wasn't the star of BEA, on a level with the Malcolm Gladwells and Amy Tans. But for an hour or so, I felt like the most popular girl at school.