Friday, April 27, 2012

Getting Ready for a Conference

In the good old days, before I became a writer, getting ready for a conference was easy.  Pack and go.  Not much thought to clothes because all conferences those days were "business dress" and I had my wardrobe of women's dress suits (a few of which I still have.)

Getting ready for a writers conference, even when you're just a participant, is a whole different ballgame.

First, I'm never "just a participant".  I always pitch. After all, why pay the conference fee, if I don't take advantage of chance to meet people face to face.  So that means getting a pitch ready and sweating over a one-line log line.  I've done a few pitches now and I no longer sweat over the pitch. In fact, I've discovered that less is more.  So I usually just put together one short paragraph that highlights the gmc and the thing that makes my story unique. (GMC = goal, motivation and conflict, the core of any novel)

What's really important about the pitch is what makes your story unique.  If you've ever been in a plot workshop and read a bunch of gmc lines, you've discovered that they're pretty much the same.  What catches an agent's or editor's interest is how you're going to take that standard plot line and make it fresh and new for your readers.

Anyway, getting that "right" can take me a week or two, if it's the first time I've pitched a book, less if I've already pitched or queried (I use a modified version of my pitch for my query and vice versa, depending on which I wrote first.)

Then there's the rehearsing.  Or there was.  Now I just read it over a couple of times to make sure it flows and then don't fret it.  By keeping the formal part of the pitch (those cue cards) short, I've left lots of room for questions and answers and the whole pitch flows a lot better.  I've also learned to ask questions about what the editor/agent is really looking for.

This particular conference the prep was a bit more detailed.  One of the editors I'm pitching to wants to see a "one sheet".  This is a single piece of paper that gives your contact details, a brief bio, and the essential facts of the work you're pitching (title, genre, word count, hook, brief summary, gmc).  I'd never done it before, but I did have all the elements already prepared thanks to having already prepared queries and a pitch for my book.

The only trouble is, I'm terrible at formatting.  Not that I can't do it.  I'm a wizard at Word.  Just that I don't have the artist's eye to make the page actually look good.  No worries, I thought (now there's a NZ expression!) I'll just take one of the resume templates MS Word provides and modify that.

Oy!  It took me four hours.  It would have been easier to try to make my own template based on what theirs looked like.

Then there's the issue of clothes.  "Casual but professional" was what the conference coodinators suggested.  Obviously I wasn't the only one who was confused, because that was the announcement topic that generated the most chat.  Anyway, I spent 2 hours this morning trying on clothes, because what works as conference casual in a damp, cold New Zealand winter is obviously not going to work in Arizona at 91 degrees F.

At least the evenings are conference casual, too.  None of this bringing along a second set of formal outfits, as was the rule at RWNZ and RWA national events.  Though I do miss "dressing up."

I still have to pack.

Still, the conference looks exciting and I can't wait.  I'll report on it when I get back.

Monday, April 16, 2012

American Bandstand, Teens and Fifties TV

It’s a law of physics. You know. Like apples falling on Newton’s head. The more I really want something, the more I can count on getting it -- exactly when I don’t want it.

Susie from down the road pulls the elastic from her pony tail and shakes loose her honey blond curls. “Hey, Sophie. I’m going over to Polly’s to watch American Bandstand. Wanna come?”

Her invitation is for me, but her eyes are on my older brother. Like a cowboy in one of those Westerns he watches, Marek hooks his thumbs into the pockets of his chinos and leans against Dad’s wood-paneled station wagon. He’s trying to look cool, but he’s lapping up Susie’s adoration as avidly as our dog licks the trickle of ice cream from a melting cone.

A longing spreads across my chest with a hunger worse than three months of starvation hiding from the Polish Policja. After a year in the US, I still don’t have many friends.

Of course, Susie’s invitation comes at exactly the wrong time. I foolishly spent the morning clothes-pinning playing cards to the fat wheels of my little sister Viola’s red Schwinn bike, which she’s rolling back and forth. The tsking click accelerates like a Geiger counter measuring her worry.

As if I’d forget.

So starts an early version of my YA Exiled in the Sweet Land of Liberty.  In my last blog post I talked about using childhood memories to add texture to a novel.  This week's post is how it looks in action.

First, it's a way to clearly set the time and place -- in this case, a Long Island suburb in the 1950's. 
Dick Clark's TV show American Bandstand, which ran from 1952 to 1989 (!!!) in various versions, was a teen icon.  Top teen pop stars appeared live on the show, singing their latest hits.  The show also introduced the concept of the Top 40, which has survived to today.

The show's original name was Bandstand, which is what it was called in 1956, but since most people knew it asAmerican Bandstand , I used that name.  It ran in the afternoons, and rolling back the rug and dancing along with the music was almost an obsession among teens in the fifties and early sixties.  So when Sophie is invited to watch it with friends, its a way into the "in" crowd at her new school.

I can't believe how big tv was back then, as big as it is now.  By the mid 1950's most homes had a black and white tv and kids talked about the shows and the plots like they do today.  American Bandstand came on around 4 or 4:30 -- scheduled to catch the teen audience -- and kids rushed home to catch it on tv. 

Color started coming in in the early 1960's, but people made attempts to colorize their tv screens before that.  I remember being really excited about one product and bugging my partents to buy a thick sheet of clear plastic that stuck to your screen through static electricity and promised to add color to the program.  When light hit the plastic, some kind of coating on it would add hues of mostly red and green to the image.  But the color came from the coated spots on the plastic, not from the image on the screen, so there was no coordination between the real color of an object and what you saw.  You can imagine my disappointment at a green face or a red glass of milk.  Needless to say, that fad didn't last long.

Rolling back the rug was another feature of the fifties.  Back in those days, wall to wall carpeting was a luxury that only the rich could afford. Most people had homes with wooden floors (linoleum in the kitchen).  Area rugs covered the center of the room.  When exposed, the wooden planking made a great dance floor.

My parents (and many families) had two sets of rugs -- gray wool ones for winter, and gray straw mats for summer.  The rugs were fairly large and covered most of the floor, leaving about two feet around the edge of the room.  It was a big annual project to shift furniture and change rugs.  I can't remember where the kept the set that wasn't being used.  Changing rugs made them last longer, though.  My parents, when they built a retirement home out on eastern Long Island in the late 60's, actually brought the wool rugs, still in great condition, with them.  By that time the rugs were 20 years old.

To be continued next week...

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Write What You Know – Using Your Childhood to Shape a Story

One of the things I loved about crafting Exiled in the Sweet Land of Liberty is that it’s set in a fictionalized version of my hometown. Dumbarton is Huntington, New York.

I’d discovered long ago when I wrote “The Last Gift”, the one-act play that was eventually produced by the Canadian Broadcasting Company, that my background is a rich source of material with which to texture a story. My grandmother’s American Foursquare home in Ozone Park, Queens, was the model for the home that my heroine reminiscences about, complete with the slanting row of stained glass windows that followed the stairs up to the second floor.

The central motif of Exiled is “the Castle”, where the major tragedy of my heroine’s life occurs. In real life, the Castle was the old Ferguson Castle overlooking Huntington Harbor. It belonged to Mrs. Juliana Armour Ferguson, the heiress to the Armour Meat fortune. By the time I was a child growing up in Huntington in the 1950’s, the estate had been long abandoned and taken over by the Township for taxes. “No Trespassing” signs hung along its poison-ivy covered walls, but they were no deterrent to a kid determined to explore its grounds.

Details count and that’s where one’s background becomes a gold mine. For me it’s things like the poison ivy, the signs, the gatekeeper’s house and the “tunnel” through the wall. Plus the quiet magic of a summer day on Huntington Harbor, with boats bobbing at their moorings, the swish of waves along the shore, the pounding of hammers at Knutson's Boatyard, and the sound of a radio from the deck of one of the boats moored in the crowded harbor.

There was a legend among us kids that there had been a terrible tragedy in the castle. After I’d done a lot of research, I discovered we had the Ferguson Castle confused with the Boldt Castle in at the outlet of Lake Ontario into the St. Lawrence River. But our mistaken rumor was enough to inspire what happens in Exiled. I promise a separate blog on Ferguson Castle, because the truth is even more fantastic than the stories we made up about it.

Dumbarton Combined High School is another major setting in my novel. The building itself was inspired by what is currently Huntington Township’s town hall. The town hall has been through several iterations and has been the site of various schools since early in Huntington’s history. The first school on that site, which overlooks the village green, was the Huntington Academy, built in 1794. It was replaced by Huntington High School, also known as the Union School in 1857.

What is now the Town Hall Annex was actually a separate school constructed next door and known as “Main Street School”. Built in 1898, it is the oldest part of the structure and originally housed kindergarten through 8th grade students. By the time I was a student there, it was the home of the school cafeteria (downstairs) and the math department (upstairs).
By 1910, the Union School building had grown too small for the needs of the growing farm community and had been replaced by a much larger “Union School/Huntington High School”, which was renamed the RL Simpson High School in 1950, after one of the township’s outstanding educators. By 1958 the school had again become too small for the area’s needs and a modern new high school was built about a mile away.

In the meantime, the township had outgrown its junior high and the old RL Simpson High School structure was renovated to become RL Simpson Junior High. It was linked to the old “Main Street School” – now called “the Annex” -- by a covered passageway, known as “the Portico”.

This is the setting for Dumbarton Combined High. Originally, I described the school as a junior high, with a much-younger Sophie as part of the 9th grade class and her little sister Viola starting 7th grade there. When I changed Sophie’s age to make her much older, I needed a school that allowed me to have the two girls on the same campus. A critique partner mentioned that she had attended a “combined high” housing grades 7 through 12. The two-building structure of RL Simpson Junior High was perfect. I could put the high school kids in the “big” building and the junior high kids in the “Annex.” Dumbarton Combined High was born.

The metal lockers jutting into the hall, the desks set in pairs in each classroom and the seat outside the guidance counselor’s office are exactly as I remember them, but I had to make up the Vice Principal’s office. I was never quite bad enough to merit a trip there.

The current Huntington High, which I attended in the mid-1960’s, much expanded, still serves Huntington’s students. At one time it boasted the largest auditorium on Long Island, seating about 3000. I remember particularly the huge overhanging balcony that shaded the seats below (and was a source of a major "scandal" that got all the honor students in serious trouble), the knobby upholstery, and the two, long sloping aisles that seemed to take forever to get down. I’ve “transported” this auditorium to Dumbarton Combined High, where, in a smaller version, it serves as the setting for some of the novel’s most crucial turning points.

But there are smaller details, as well. A return visit to Huntington reminded me of the cemetery and the old library (now part of the Historical Society museum), where Sophie snubs Joseph.

It wasn’t until I started writing that I remember clothes-pinning playing cards to the spokes of bike wheels to make a clicking sound as you rode, shaping“poppers” out of fallen maple seeds and how cherry Coke really was made. These are the details that make Exiled come alive.

What are the rich memories of your own childhood? I encourage you to explore your past. There you’ll find more texture for your scene than you can ever possibly use.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Chasing the Elusive Chapter One

As soon as I put Chapter One of Exiled in the Sweet Land of Liberty up on my critique loop, I knew I had trouble. So I listened to my critique partners’ suggestions, took on-line workshops on building character emotion (not to mention all the other workshops I’ve taken over the years on “the beginning of your book”), rewrote, tried other places to start the chapter, cut a huge section of the book. By the time I had finished all my rewrites and polishes (with the whole book) and gotten the thumbs-up from my critique partners and teen beta readers, who loved it, I figured I had a winner.


The five or so agents I queried loved the premise, but returned my partials with comments like “I can’t seem to connect with the characters.”

Arrgh! What does that mean?

OK. There’s a lot of stuff out there about how to hook your reader. They include:
  • Start in the middle of the action
  • Show an ordinary guy in an extraordinary situation or an extraordinary protagonist in some way that shows the human/ordinary side of their personality
  • Cut the first three chapters, which are probably back-story anyway
  • Write an intriguing first sentence
  • Show, not tell
  • Work the scene-setting details into the action. Don’t waste paragraphs setting the scene
  • Set up the conflict immediately
  • Set up the characters’ goals by the end of the chapter
  • Start with the event that throws the character into the problem he/she must solve
Yeah, right. So I did all that.

It actually took something Bob Meyers said at his workshop at the RWNZ conference to make me realize what’s been missing. You have to do something to make the reader CARE about your protagonist and whether he/she actually achieves his/her goal.

So I did some more rewrites, went back to square one, took my first chapter to my husband and asked him to read it.

Now Phil’s my alpha reader (if there is such a thing.) He gets every first draft. He’s no literary critic – though he’s learned a lot over the years from hearing me talk about what I’m learning – but he’s great at connecting with the emotion of a story.

So after he read my newest version and he made some comments about what I’d done to change it (see, he has been learning), I asked him whether he cared about my protagonist.

Long silence. Finally, “No.” And he told me why.

A) She was a follower, not a leader. Things happened to her and she let them without taking her own action.
B) He wasn’t convinced she really cared about Viola, but she spends the book protecting her.

Phil summed it up with, “I figure she deserves whatever she gets.”


I thought about it a lot. Protagonists don’t have to be the leader of the pack, but they do have to drive the action. Even the character running from pursuers still has a mystery to solve, something that will get the hounds off her heels.

More important is how much Sophie, my protagonist, cared about what was happening. As Robin Perini, quoting author Laura DeVries, put it in her article in the March 2012 issue of Romance Writers Report: “How much a character cares about his/her goals is in direct proportion to how much the reader will care.”

BINGO. I had to show Sophie’s caring, and that was a whole new ballgame.

So I rewrote my beginning (again), this time going back to what I’d had way back last August, but adding the details that show how much her siblings and family matter to Sophie. And gave it to Phil again, trying very hard not to hover over him as he read.

He closed the file on my computer and said, “I almost cried at the end of this version of your chapter one. I really felt Sophie’s loss.”

“Do you care?”

“Yes, very much.”

Which is exactly want I wanted.

A few more rewrites to succeeding chapters to pull them in line with Chapter One and I’m ready to pitch again. Just in time for the Desert Dreams conference. Wish me luck.