Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Time Management for Writers

Just got back from Conestoga. Woohoo! Nothing like a convention or conference to get you fired up! I suppose I could write on any number of topics discussed at the writers’ track, but I think I’ll focus on the one I struggle with the most. Time management!

They made an excellent point that if you’re not getting paid for your writing or you don’t write every day, you can’t really call yourself a writer. You need one or the other, preferably both. If you write once a week, don’t get anything for it, and call yourself a writer, that’s like doing your own laundry once a week and calling yourself a launderer (not that that’s a real word to begin with, but it’ll pass).

You may think you don’t have time, but I’ve known women with three kids, a job, and working on their PHD who still found time to write. Just thirty minutes a day adds up to a lot over time. You don’t need access to a computer or anything fancier than a pencil and paper for the majority of the time. You can write in little five minute increments as you wait in lines. You can think about what you’re going to write during that annoying commute home, or better, actually write it down if you have the luxury of having access to public transit. That’s right, I call it a luxury! Just think of what you could do with that time if you didn’t actually have to pay attention to the road!

If you can, it’s best to set aside a special time of day (or night) so you get into a routine. When’s your most intellectually effective time? Know your rhythms, when you’re energized. Mine’s 9:00-11:00 at night. That’s when I do my best writing. If you can schedule your day in such as way as to do your boring, menial tasks when you’re most tired (grocery shopping, dishes, eating, etc), and doing your writing when you feel most alive, you’ll find yourself to be more productive. Of course many of us have jobs and responsibilities we can’t rearrange, in which case you have to find “stolen moments” to write, but the routine of it is the most important thing.

In addition to my regular writing, I set aside one day a week to do what I call “marketing and business.” I use that day to write query letters, research magazines, publishers, and agents I want to submit to, edit my manuscripts to fit their specific guidelines (thus I keep several versions of all my stories) and write my blog. That day is usually Saturday and I make my goal 1-3 submissions, depending on the length and complexity of the submission. (One time I spent three Saturdays preparing a manuscript for a specific editor. They required three different synopses, a chapter outline, a picture, a biography, and some really crazy formatting. I’ve since decided such hoops aren’t worth it.)

This should be a duh, but you’d be surprised how many people forget it. When you’ve set aside some writing time for yourself, turn off the doorbell and your cell phone, lock your door and shut out all distracters. You are not a terrible parent if for that one hour you tell your children not to bother you unless they’re bleeding. Disable the video games and your thunderbird email client or whatever else causes you to get random messages. Sometimes I turn off the internet all together to keep me from the temptation of looking “just one thing up” and getting carried away.

Goals are very important, and not just time goals. I say 1,000 words a day is good for those who are serious and can devote two or more hours a day, but it’s not a good model for working mothers, full-time working students, poets, or people with 60 hour a week jobs they can’t quit. In the end, you have to push yourself, but be realistic and set a goal you can consistently keep.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

writing opportunities

OK, computer’s still broken so I’m stealing…I’m mean borrowing my Alma Mater’s computer resources. Anyway, lots of folks have been asking me this week “how did you get an agent? How do you get published? I’m new and have no idea what I’m doing! Been there. (Still there, in many, many ways.) So, I’ve compiled a list of practical resources for the beginning, middle, and advanced writer. Some of them, especially towards the end, are local to my area, Oklahoma, but they may give you some ideas of like resources in your own area. So here, in a nut shell, is all my practical, concrete knowledge! (Note: it’s less than two pages. I wouldn’t mind people adding to it!)

Your best friend for meeting publishers and agents is writers’ and fan conferences, especially if you can get one-on-one consultations! Otherwise you’re just a random sheet of paper sitting on their desk that they have to deal with. A lot of local universities and colleges have them; that’s how I met my agent, at a University of Tulsa "agent summit," a guy who does both literature and film, mostly Christian stuff but he does all kinds, including sci-fi and fantasy. His name is Terry Porter, but I wouldn’t feel right giving out his info without his permission. But Google your state/town/local university/library for those local opportunities to network/get sales!

Four small press publishers interested in fantasy and sci-fi and currently taking submissions (last I checked) are Zumaya Publications (only YA) Yard Dog press, Double Dragon, and Hawk Publishing (no YA). They don’t require and agent.

The best locally sold writing reference, according to NightWriters and OWFI (I’ll get into them later), is WRITER’S MARKET. It comes out every September and you can get it almost anywhere in town. It features over 8,000 book, magazine, script, and poetry editors and agents to buy your writing. You have to get the latest one because it becomes totally obsolete in six months. For a more fluid, long-lasting reference, you can subscribe to www.writersmarket.com.

The International L. Ron Hubbard’s Writers of the Future Contest is how a lot of sci-fi and fantasy writers are getting started these days. If you win (hard, but doable, with thousands of entries each quarter) they really promote your work and send you to a week-long conference with dozens of agents and editors present. I snagged the interest of a publisher by simply stating that the story I was sending made honorable mention in this contest. They knew it must be good and asked me for me to send it right away. They have four quarters per year. Google it. By the way, the books they publish always include some very helpful advice on writing.
A really prestigious sci-fi/fantasy writers group is Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America- commonly called SFWA. In order to join you to have sold three short stories to the “qualifying professional markets,” sold a novel to a professional market, or had a professional produced full length script in a fantasy or sci-fi genre. For more info and to access their resources, go to http://www.sfwa.org/.

Fangs, Fur, and Fey is an online community for Urban fantasy/paranormal authors. They’re great for networking, critiquing, talking about upcoming events, etc. The Absolute Write is another great online magazine/blog for all writers.

Three agents that have two very helpful blogs talking about the industry are Nathan Bransford. He actually goes step by step with what he (and other agents, probably) want in a query letter and includes those from people he’s taken on. Miss Snark and Kristin Nelson do that too. Target specific agents and make sure you do it their way.

The Hawk Writing workshop in Tulsa, OK is coming up pretty fast, June 6-7, 2009. There will be publishers and agents there. The seminar, different from the two day workshop, is a week long intensive writing experience that lasts from June 8-12. For more info and to register go to http://www.hawkpub.com/.

Conestoga is a sci-fi and fantasy conference for fans, gamers, and writers that happens every year in Tulsa, OK. It’s coming up this weekend, April 24th-26th. You can register and get more info at http://sftulsa.org There are tons of these all over the world, including armadillo con in the United States southwest, one in Liverpool, and even one at Harvard. Once you’ve actually sold your book, don’t pass up local Renaissance Fairs and other cultural festivals as opportunities to do book signings. These are also great places for networking, believe it or not.

Fellowship of Christian Writers (FCW) is an international Christian Writers group that offers speakers, workshops, a critique group, mentoring, and various other resources. You can find them online at meets in Tulsa at http://www.fellowshipofchristianwriters.org/. Or, if you just happen to live near Tulsa, OK, they meet at Kirk of the Hills Presbyterian Church 4102 E. 61st the second Tuesday of every month at 7:00pm.

The best market guide that I’ve found for Christian writers is Sally Stuart’s Christian Writers’ Market.

There are all kinds of local writers clubs out there. If you live near a town of two hundred or more people, they probably have one. Mine is Tulsa Nightwriters, a club for all writers, fiction, non-fiction and technical, professional and just beginning. Nightwriters brings in speakers every month to talk about their writing, how they got published, how to market a book, etc. (You can visit several times for free.) They also sponsor various workshops and contests free to members several times a year. They meet the third Tuesday of every month at 7:00pm at the Martin Regional Library: 2601 S. Garnett Rd. 74129. Dues are only like $10 a year or something, $20 to be in OWFI, that is Oklahoma Writers Federation Incorporated. (Nightwriters is a chapter of OWFI.)

OWFI sponsors the largest writers’ conference in Oklahoma once a year featuring speakers, editors, and agents from all over the United States. This year it takes place on May 1-2. You can look up the specifics on owfi.org. It’s a great way to network. There is no deadline on registration, but it’s cheaper if you register before March, which, alas, has passed. They also have a writing contest with some nice cash prizes that has a category in just about everything you can think of. I won second place for best young adult novel two years ago, which got me a one-on-one consultation with a publisher who almost published one of my novels. The deadline for the contest every year is January 31st.

And don’t forget about local critique groups! Cross Roads Writers’ Critique Group meets at New Haven United Methodist church (5603 S. New Haven Ave. on 56th between Harvard and Yale) every Monday night from 6:00-9:00. You can come when you can and leave when you have to. They like you to bring up to ten pages of your work, which they read aloud, and then everyone takes turns critiquing it. They also help with query letters, synopsis, etc. They’re completely free and some of them are professionals. Why pay an editor?

Libraries are your best friend, both in resources and contests. The Tulsa City County Library has an adult creative writing contest every year. Submissions are due January 31st. Winners get cash prizes and sometimes get to speak at the library and on local radio. Several of my plays have placed and one was picked up by Heller Theater for production the following summer, so it’s a useful contact. Check out the rules at http://www.tulsalibrary.org./

Did I mention that community colleges and local newspapers often have creative writing contests too? Local is a great place to get started, and get some money! I won first place in the Tulsa Community College short story contest, mostly, I think, because there were so few entries!

For freelance writing jobs, craigslist (http://www.craigslist.org/about/sites) is your friend!

And there you have it. Questions, comments? Feel free to ask!

Monday, April 13, 2009

I have the best news in the whole world! I have an agent! Remember the agent summit I mentioned last week? I met him there! He read my work, I had breakfast with him the next morning and he signed me on! He’s sending the contract today. He’s a perfect fit; a literary and film agent (did I mention I’m a film maker too?) and he handles all the genres I write in; YA, fantasy, and Christian (the last being his and my primary focus). He also wants to help me get funding for my next documentary, which I hope to shoot in Africa. He has connections all over the world, including Japan, where I’m going in July to spend a year teaching! Wohooo!!!!! I think I’m going to jump out of my skin!

So, I think this week’s post should be about just that: Agents. What they do and what they don’t do. First, the positive side:

Many big publishing houses today are not open to unagented manuscripts. The Big Three, Five, Seven, or whatever the number is now. Random House, Simon and Shuster, Harper Collins, Penguin Putnam, Double Day, etc. If you don’t have representation, your manuscript won’t even make it out of the slush pile, if it isn’t immediately thrown in the trash. Agents are sort of the “gate keepers.” Publishers trust them to sort through the good, the bad, and the “this writer deserves to be shot!”

Agents can help you get a better contract. Let’s face it, most of us aren’t lawyers. We don’t know what half of those words mean, let alone in the context of a gargantuan document that seems altogether too complicated for a simple transaction. Publishers aren’t out to get the author, but they don’t want to pay you any more than they have to. Agents can help raise your advance, your royalties, secure a series deal, work out the details for audio, e-books, translation, movie contracts, tie-ins, reprints, and all the other stuff that just makes my head spin.

They can serve as a sounding board and a guide of where to focus your energies. If you have three new ideas for various projects, they can tell you what’ll work and what won’t. Bottom line: Agents know the market. That’s their job.

Just as important to understanding agents is realizing what they DON’T do. Here’s a few:

Agents typically don’t edit your manuscript. There are some exceptions, but typically these go into the category of “such-and-such character is weak: fix him” or “chapter five isn’t working for me. See what you can do.” If such nebulous comments are not good enough for you, join a critique group or pay a professional editor. But don’t expect your agent to fix your stuff. They really have to be in love with your work to even give general feedback. Most of them won’t take on your manuscript unless they think it’s really polished and professional.

Agents typically don’t deal with publicity. Publishers do a bare minimum. The majority is up to YOU! If you don’t know how to promote your work, then it won’t sell. It’s that simple. That doesn’t mean agents won’t give you advice, but publicity is just not their thing.

Agents don’t guarantee a sale. Just because you have an agent doesn’t mean you’ve sold the book. But an important note: Only get an agent who works on commission. 15% is industry standard. Then they have to earn their keep. Never get an agent who expects reading fees or any other kind of fee. My agent is a member of the WGA, or Writers’ Guild of America, which means he has to adhere to a code of ethics. Association of Author’s Representatives is another good one. You can go on websites like Predators and Editors (http://www.anotherealm.com/prededitors/pubagent.htm) to find out who’s reputable and who’s not.

Well, I think that about covers that! Any questions, feel free to post!

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Greetings! My apologies for being a little late in this entry; my computer broke last week and I have just now procured access to another. But did my technical difficulties prevent me from writing? No, sir/ma’am! Not only did I write short scenes in a notebook I keep handy at all times, but I took the opportunity to perform some much-needed research on my latest novel. That brings us to this week’s topic, research!

My current project is a young adult book set during America’s First Great Awakening (1738-1742.) While fictional, it incorporates many of the famous people and events of the day, including Jonathan Edwards and his infamous sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” (This sermon is often taken out of context, by the way, from the rest of his writings, which tend to be pastoral and encouraging.) “My project’s nothing like that,” you may say. “My story’s a romance novel set in the here and now.” I don’t care what story you’re writing, every writer must do some kind of research. This may come from personal experience, being a careful observer of people (the best way to create believable characters) or reading you simply do for fun. (We tend to write best what we love to read.) But nobody can write well while living in a box, totally unexposed to anything outside themselves. There are many different ways to go about research and I will hitherto outline some of those that I and my fellow writer friends have found useful in the past, depending on the project.

Book research: The most obvious, and one in which every writer must partake. One of the first steps I take before even writing a word of a new novel is to find out what other books are out there that are similar to my idea and read them. What’s been done before? What works/what doesn’t? What angle hasn’t been tackled yet? Some people think this dilutes your idea, makes it less “authentic,” but do you think Michelangelo became a great sculpture by simply hacking away at a bare rock? He studied the work of other great sculptors and set about making something that had never been created before, yet he knew was likely to be widely popular. Abraham Lincoln, though not well educated, read everything he could get his hands on, and learned to write such great speeches from the plays of William Shakespeare. You should be familiar with the genre you write in and your audience. (We’ll get more into audience and market research in a later entry.) And of course, many kinds of fiction works including science fiction, fantasy, historical and mystery, lend themselves to certain amounts of specific research into popular science, folklore, weapons/armor, investigative/courtroom procedure, etc. If you’re writing a historical novel or a book set in a foreign country, you should not only read other novels about that time and place, but books from those settings to get a sense of how people spoke, behaved, etc in their own words. One resource people often overlook is university Special Collections archives, if you’re lucky enough to live near one that’s open to the public. (I actually used to work in one.) You can find all kinds of original copies of old manuscripts, letters, author notes, original handwriting, anything you might need to know for your project. Check to see if there’s a particular university that specializes in what you need to know. The college I graduated from, the University of Tulsa, is internationally known for its James Joyce archives, so you can bet we get lots of scholars from around the world who are interested in that man, his books, his times, Ireland, etc. Science fiction writers often come to scour the R.A. Lafferty archive. Nonfiction of course requires even more of this kind of research, but as I’ve never written a nonfiction book I don’t feel I can proficiently speak on this subject. By the way, one of the things most writers don’t realize is that they can itemize any book or movie purchase on their tax deductions as “research” because every book you read or movie you see is improving your “story sense.”

Internet Research: Don’t down play this. I’ve found a lot of useful scholarly articles online about everything from the Gross Domestic Product of 1738 to archives of Pennsylvania newspapers. A bit of advice I’ve found useful: it doesn’t hurt for the life-long writer to enroll in a single hour at a community college every semester just to have access to their immense stores of scholarly databases and journals such as JSTOR, EBSCOhost, online periodicals, etc. It would cost a lot of money to subscribe to all of these independently. (Free library and gym privileges and the never-ending student discounts at local restaurants and entertainments are other bonuses.) And, I confess to using wikipedia/wikianswers if I need to find out something simple like the prevalence of glass windows in middleclass colonial households. Why spend hours scouring journals for a tiny tidbit of information?

Hands on Research: My personal favorite! In Treasure Traitor, my main character had a special relationship with a carrion-eater bird named Acha. Even though the story took place on another planet, I wanted the bird to seem real, so I spent a lot of time at the zoo observing various carrion-eaters (ravens, crows, buzzards, etc) and incorporating their behavior into my book. I went to bird shows, hawking festivals, and even got to go behind the scenes to watch the keepers train their birds. (All you need to do is tell people “I’m a writer,” and they’ll bend over backwards to show you whatever you want to know.) Again, these are events you can itemize on your taxes as “research,” even the gas it takes you to get there. A friend of mine who wrote detective novels actually became a private investigator. (That was back in the ’60’s; I don’t think it’s so easy nowadays, but visiting a police station or actually not avoiding jury duty couldn’t hurt.)

Ask the expert: I typically interview at a least one person for every full-length project I undertake. I actually had an internship working for a movie producer doing “research” for a racecar movie in which the research consisted entirely of interviewing racecar drivers. That was a lot of fun, and I got college credit for it, plus a really cool digital recorder I still use today. Which brings me to another good point: Doing research for other people can pay. I almost got a paid job doing it for a museum film producer, but I had exams on several of the meeting dates. Anyway, while writing my Treasure Traitor book, I interviewed a lot of bird enthusiasts, many of whom were simply my friends. I wanted to make sure Acha was someone they could love and relate to, as they would one of their own birds.

Well, I think that about covers it. There are a lot of useful research guides out there if you need more advice. Today we live in the “information age” and there’s no end to what you can learn in your own home! Which reminds me of my final piece of advice: research is great, but know when to quit and actually start writing. Personally, I enjoy both but often get frustrated with just one or the other, so I spend only a few weeks at most researching to begin with, then continue researching as I write. From day to day what I research influences what I write and what I write influences what I research. For example, for my latest book I stumbled upon the fact that Benjamin Franklin was living in Philadelphia for the short time my main character resided there, so I couldn’t resist staging an encounter between the two of them. On the opposite end of things, I knew I really wanted my character to meet the Reverend Jonathan Edwards in person and stay with him for a short while, so I’ve read a number of books about his family life, which have in turn opened up a lot of possibilities. (A small note on structure: I typically outline my books very carefully in advance but allow for certain scenes to simply pop up as they will, then decide what to do with them when the book is finished. This keeps me focused but still having fun and allows the work to evolve naturally. I’ll talk more about structure in a later entry.)

Enough of that! I am very excited about the upcoming agent summit at the University of Tulsa today! I have my query letters ready and am prepared to pitch! Besides that, the reviews from the Amazon Breakthrough novel award are available for my novel Treasure Traitor! Here’s one that I really liked: “This is a pretty good narrative. It doesn't weigh the reader down with tedious descriptions of an alien world, but introduces these ideas in a fairly natural way. Once I came to know Rena and Strong Beak (or Acha) as a team, I had a very clear and compelling impression of them. So much so that I was ready to follow them through the rest of the novel. That's a tribute to the strength of the work.” Pretty neat, huh? It didn’t win the contest, but after encouragement like that, I’m confident it’ll be published in no time!