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Monday, May 5, 2014

LDStorymakers Highlights: Learning from the Pros

First off, small announcement. I'm moving my Facebook Page to a Facebook Profile. So if you "like" my page, please make this less difficult for me by "following" or "friending" this profile. I'll eventually be deleting my page.

A week or so ago, I attended a writing conference called LDStorymakers, and I'm sharing some of what I learned by request. For those that don't know, a writing conference usually lasts a few days and provides attendees with the opportunity to learn from professional writers, editors, and literary agents. Some conferences, like LDStorymakers, also offer critiques from professionals and pitch sessions to agents. Every conference is a great opportunity to meet, befriend, and network with other writers.

This year, I was particularly excited to take classes from the author of Ender's Game, Orson Scott Card, and the author of Wheel of Time and Mistborn, Brandon Sanderson--both bestselling professionals.  

Here are the highlights of my experience.

Slush Pile Simulation

The first class I chose to go to was a slush pile simulation with literary agents and editors. "Slush pile" is jargon for "submission pile." People call it a "slush" pile because there is so much slush and junk in it. Here, the pros listened to an attendee's first page and, just like on some reality t.v. show, raised their hands when they would have decided to reject the manuscript. When all four judges had their hands up, the reader stopped reading, and each pro explained why they would reject the manuscript. Do they really reject a manuscript based on one page? Yes. My first page didn't get read, but it was interesting to hear why they rejected certain novels.

First Chapter Contest

Every year LDStorymakers holds a first chapter contest. I entered, and although I didn't win, I at least got feedback from five judges.  Unfortunately, some of the feedback was completely contradictory. Here are some short examples:

Judge D: "I thought [your protagonist] was a great character because he was humble, yet strong in the face of all his conflicts. He's powerful, but has an overwhelming need to help others, and that pull of opposition is very intriguing.
Judge B: "I don't know enough about [your protagonist's] personality, his goals, or the conflict to care enough to keep reading. . . .Why should I care about him?"

Judge D: "There is a lot at stake."
Judge B: "I'm not really sure what's at stake here."

Judge B: "I thought the beginning was interesting. . . .I think it was a good start, so yes, it did pull me in."
Judge A: "Not a great hook."

Since the judges are anonymous, I couldn't refer to their credentials to see how experienced they were, who they were, or if they were in my novel's audience, so I couldn't gauge who to listen to. Obviously someone who doesn't read or like YA fantasy is going to have a different opinion than someone who does. So I ended up confused. I sought out advice on the chapter from other pros I trusted and it sounds like I just need to tweak my first chapter a bit, but overall, it's in a good place.

If nothing else, the feedback opened my eyes to how two people could read the exact same story and have completely different opinions to it. It's true, you can't please everyone.

Yummy lunch served at the conference

Tools for the Agent Hunt

This class focused on the realities of working with an agent and taught how to improve your odds of getting one. It was taught by super-agent Daniel Lazar. Lazar started by warning that if an agent ever says he wants to take money from you, run in the other direction--it's probably a scam. Agents make money off your book, not your bank account. He suggested going to PublishersMarketplace.com to search for an agent, and he rebutted the myth that you have to "know" someone to get an agent. A great query letter trumps referrals. He broke down a good and bad query letter for us, and emphasized how important it is to be specific in your pitch.

On a mind-blowing side note, Daniel Lazar gets 300-500 query letters per week and only takes on 5-10 books a year!

Beyond Fancy Clothes and Funny Foods: Developing Your Novel's Culture

My sister-in-law, Shallee McArthur, taught this class--and she nailed it. She talked all about creating and/or utilizing culture in your novel, how cultures develop, how to use culture to add conflict, and how to use culture to immerse readers into your world. She talked about rituals, heroes, and symbols. I've never had someone lay out something so complicated to clearly.

And the Last Shall Be First: Secondary Characters

We've all heard so much about writing great main characters, so I was psyched to go to a class that focused on creating great secondary characters. The biggest point this class made was that secondary characters shouldn't simply exist for the sake of the main character. You've probably seen it before--the love interest that is only there to kiss the protagonist, the mentor that's only there to give your main character special skills. Secondary characters need to be their own people, to have lives and motives outside of the main character. Too often secondary characters are there only as vehicles for the main character, and the only parts that are developed are those traits that serve the main character. Strong secondary characters can make a novel feel authentic.

Crafting Character Arcs (Brandon Sanderson)

Brandon Sanderson teaching us cool stuff.
This was probably my favorite class. Brandon said a lot of things I needed to hear from a professional. He's intelligent and a great teachers. He said that characterization should have these three categories:
  • Proactive
    • How proactive is your character? 
    • Readers are attracted to characters that move the plot
    • Think about what you character wants, what is her passion?
  • Likeability
    • How much is the character like me (the reader)?
    • Either the character needs to be "like me" or someone the reader admires
    • Tricks to making a character likable: put them in pain, make them funny, make another character like your character, show them doing something nice for someone.
  • Competence
    • Make your character really good at something, give them a talent.
Brandon says you each of these categories are like dials that you can raise and lower. He said that villains are usually low in "likeability" but high in "proactivity and competence." Katniss Everdeen is low in "proactivity" but high in "likeability and competence." Sherlock in the BBC show is high in "competence and proactivity," but low in "likeability." If all three categories are "low," your dealing with an anti-hero. 

Your character's arc (character's growth) over the course of the story is your character strengthening whichever he is weak in, through the course of the story. So, if you watch Sherlock, Sherlock is growing in his "likeability" as the series progresses and he learns to care about others.

Brandon also talked about character flaws and handicaps. A "handicap" is a trait the character has to work and deal with but can't solve or change, like being blind, while a "flaw" is a weakness your character can overcome, like being too prideful. But if you character only focuses on her flaws and handicaps, she becomes annoying. 

And he noted that if we try to follow every writing "rule," our story would be boring. It's okay to break rules, as long as we are conscious of it and have control over it.

Orson Scott Card? 

I went to two events where Orson Scott Card was teaching, and I haven't talked about them, because, frankly, I'm not sure what to say. My first impression of him was that he was crazy. He was our keynote speaker, and he came unprepared and rambled about things that had nothing to do with writing. I hesitate to post this, but he himself said publicly he had come to the conference unprepared. 

The second day of the conference, he seemed a lot more focused. He had a class where we brainstormed a story, and he was totally awesome, kind, and polite at the book signing. He said he'd stay as late as he needed to to sign everyone's books. I was excited to get Ender's Game signed. Which leads me to my next topic--I'll be giving away a signed copy of Ender's Game on my blog! Watch for my posts for a chance to win.

Orson Scott Card


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