First Ten Pages…Critiqued!

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My experiences at the Writing Workshop of Chicago (see posts here and here) were invaluable. Perhaps one of my favorites was having my first ten pages critiqued by Lori Rader-Day, author of The Black Hour, Little Pretty Things, The Day I Died, and Under a Dark Sky. It’s a struggle for creatives to share their work, but how will we ever get better (or published) if we don’t? I’ve had my first ten critiqued before and made so many changes as a result that I couldn’t even say they’re the same first ten pages. I consider this a good thing.

So what did Ms. Rader-Day, Anthony Award and Mary Higgins Clark Award nominee, have to say about my first ten?  Here are a few snippets with her comments in bold.

SNIPPET ONE  

A marvelous yet grotesque sight greeted them. This museum didn’t play: from three-story tornadoes to a full-size German u-boat, it was a place of learning and discovery for children and adults alike, and it was enormous–one of the biggest in the world. The DNA and the Devil in the White City display alone was 3700 square feet in an octagonal space. Intended to be a supplement to the genetics exhibit (famous for its chicken hatchery), ten foot tall DNA helices stood on either side of the exhibit’s entrance, but the first thing visitors saw was H.H. Holmes’ now-familiar face gazing out from the wall furthest from the entrance–a full two-stories tall, eyes leering with the effect of watching a patron no matter where they stood. Along the bright white walls were educational explanations and hands-on activities relating to the collecting and extracting of DNA, and what genetic markers were and how they helped identify bodies and clear suspects. One infographic proclaimed, “Your genome is an instruction manual for how you grow throughout life…You get half your DNA from your father, and half from your mother…Did H.H. Holmes pass on a serial killing genome?” A replica of Holmes’ concrete-encased double-grave was at the center of it all.  (LORI: IS THIS A REAL EXHIBIT? THE QUESTIONS SEEM SO…CONTRIVED.)

Most of the police concentrated their attention along one of the side walls, titled “Identifying Murder Victims…and Their Murderers.” Davis nudged Adele and pointed at the signage.

“Fitting,” he said.

As they moved forward, a large, antique-looking steamer trunk at the foot of the display came into view, and in it was a body. At first glance, considering the macabre nature of the rest of the exhibit, it almost looked like it belonged–except it was freshly dead. Two police officers stood nearby, their profiles reminiscent of Laurel and Hardy.

“Hey, Chapman.” Davis nodded in the direction of Laurel, then Hardy. “Avery.” (LORI: NOT REALLY FITTING WITH THE TONE OF YOUR BOOK, IS IT? DESCRIBE THEM INSTEAD.)

“Dunleavy! How’s life?” Chapman smiled cheerfully.

“Better than this poor soul’s.” Davis craned his neck at the crime scene, as he pulled on latex gloves. Another infographic explained that DNA could have been collected from one of Holmes’ trunks to help identify both the victim and the killer if only the technology had been available–or if they still had one of the trunks because of trace DNA. (AWKWARD PHRASING. MAKES IT SEEM LIKE THE TRUNK WOULD STILL BE ON HAND BECAUSE OF TRACE DNA, NOT THAT THE TRACE DNA WOULD BE USEFUL WITH THE NEW TECH OR IF THEY STILL HAD ONE OF THE TRUNKS…)

 

SNIPPET TWO

“Any guesses on the time of death?”

“Not ’til the M.E. gets here, but we know there was no body in the trunk as of 6am this morning,” Avery pointed out.

“Oh?” Davis replied, walking around the trunk. “How do you know that?”

Avery tossed his head across the room. (LORI: READ THAT SENTENCE AGAIN. DOESN’T IT SOUND LIKE HE’S THROWING A HEAD ACROSS THE ROOM?)

“The brunette over there. Says she was the last one in here–at least before the body arrived. That guy–” Avery nodded in the opposite direction. “He checked in on things at 8am and 8:45am, but only to make sure the lights were on. He couldn’t say if there was a body there or not.”

 

TAKE-AWAY

Ms. Rader-Day also provided me with other comments, like how the transition from my opening scene to the museum scene was jarring because the opener feels historical and it seemed as if I were jumping time. But she also said this: 

“I’ve marked a few moments where I was taken out of the story for some reason or another, but my silence during most of the pages is actually good news for you. I didn’t see a lot of amateur hour stuff that I would normally have to comment on—I was just reading a story, and getting lost in it.”

And there it is. Some pretty obvious mistakes which are slightly embarrassing (my students will love the head-tossing example), but some promising feedback that is a perfect example of why sharing is necessary to move forward: we need to see the good, the bad, and the ugly, and for creative types, we really need to be reminded to see the good. If you have an opportunity to take in a writing conference, do it. You won’t regret it!

 

Why You Should Attend a Writing Conference–part two

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Last week, after my experience at the Writing Workshop of Chicago, I gave you three reasons for attending a writing conference. Today, I’ll give you three more!

4. Confirmation that you’re moving in the right direction

I think for most writers, certainly for me, the doubts creep in continuously. Am I good enough? Is anyone going to like this? What the hell was I thinking? Last year, I participated in PitMad on Twitter and had someone tell me they thought my idea had promise and was marketable. That was enough to propel me to continue. At the Writing Workshop of Chicago, I was able to pitch my concept in person to small press publisher, Emily Clark Victorson of Allium Press. She too said that it was intriguing and asked for my first three chapters. Hearing this not once, but twice, made me feel like I was on the right track. I had a good, marketable idea. The next question would be could I write the story? Remember, I’m an English teacher. I had better have a good command of the English language, grammar, and punctuation–but these things do not a story make.

Last fall, after my PitMad experience, I participated in a writing bootcamp for my first ten pages. The agent and writer I worked with, Paula Munier, showed me that my manuscript was far from perfect, but she did tell me what my strengths were as well as where I’d need to improve. At the Chicago workshop, I submitted my revised ten pages to Lori Rader-Day, author of four mysteries (including Little Pretty Things, which I loved!). My hard work at revisions paid off, as she was very complimentary–but rest assured, I still have a page of revisions to tackle based on her comments.

Aside from the huge boost in my ego and confidence, these experiences confirmed that yes, I could write the story. I could also take revisions and make improvements. Every day that the doubts creep in, I can come back to this and remember that no, it’s not all a pointless waste of time. I’m headed in the right direction–and that provides the impetus for me to continue pursuing this path to publication.

5. Suggestions that you may have never thought of

Chatting with other writers gave us all the opportunity to share our works-in-progress. That resulted in lots of questions–some of which we could answer; some, not so much. Those unanswered questions revealed plot holes, character development needs, and, for some, world-building issues.

Both Paula Munier and Emily Clark Victorson asked if I’d considered making my protagonist a female. You know what they say–if more than one person makes a suggestion, there may be something to it. So I asked Ms. Rader-Day her thoughts, and she asked me it would improve the plot, the conflict, if I changed the gender. In other words, would it make more sense?

Now THAT gave me pause because…well, the answer was yes. Most of H.H. Holmes’ victims were female. Wouldn’t it create more tension to have a female bring down his illustrious descendant?

6. Did I mention networking?

Last week I pointed out that the writers, agents, editors, and publishers you meet may not necessarily become your mentor, agent, editor, or publisher, but you never know who may be the one to open that door for you. And while this was just a one-day workshop, I feel as though I left with the start of some excellent connections. I am already a member of Sisters in Crime and Mystery Writers of America, and both of these groups were represented at the conference. Ms. Rader-Day encouraged me to come to the fall meetings to get to know others, and Ms. Victorson suggested the same–commenting that they are some of the nicest people around. (Ironic, isn’t it, that the nice people are the ones killing off characters?) If you’ve been researching this industry as I did for some time before I took the plunge, I’m sure you’ve noticed the theme that surrounds getting published: it’s about getting your name out there and making connections. If that scares you to near-death, that’s ok. Find a class, or a one-day workshop, near you. Join a group and hang around on the edges until you’re more comfortable–I’m a complete stalker of the Mystery Writers of America’s social media, but I rarely comment. I’m still too in awe of the company! The point is–get out there and do something. Get outside of your comfort zone. The only way you know is if you try.

 

Sign up for my mailing list HERE to receive a snippet of my current project: The Devil Inside Me. I’d love to hear your comments!

 

 

Why You Should Attend a Writing Workshop–part one

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If you’ve never attending a writing workshop, my first piece of advice is this: DO IT.

So many writers tend to be introverts, and the thought of spending hours alongside total strangers is enough to say, “nah, I’d rather claw my eyes out doing edits.” My experience this past weekend at the Writing Workshop of Chicago was phenomenal, and in addition to the benefits I experienced (Partial manuscript request! Positive feedback from a published author!), I kept thinking about all the reasons why writers should participate in a workshop.

1. Networking with peers

Talking and commiserating with other writers pumps up your motivation and ambition. Don’t believe me? Try it. If, like me, your friend circle does not contain many writers, it’s hard to vent about how you just can’t get that one scene right, or how you feel like you’ll never be done with editing, or how you feel guilty that you’ve only written 300 words in as many days. At a workshop, you are surrounded by like-minded people suffering through the same perils and insecurities. They remind us that we aren’t alone–and that we most certainly are not the only ones wondering if we’ll die on the spot of our first live pitch. While not everyone you meet will be the making of a writing group or even beta readers, it’s still nice to have people who can remind you that you are not crazy. Or, if you are, you’re not alone.

2. Networking with professionals

In addition to workshop sessions being led by agents, publishers, editors, and published authors, the opportunity to converse with those people throughout the day–whether through pitch sessions, query critiques, manuscript critiques, or hanging out at the water cooler–is beyond valuable. In just this one-day workshop, I could discover directly from the professionals what they are looking for in a memoir, how to write a non-fiction proposal and a fiction query, why social media matters, what to look for in an agent, and what to watch out for in the realm of publishing. The most illuminating session I attended was one called “Writers Got Talent.” As the first pages of various novels were read aloud (anonymously), a panel of judges raised their hand to indicate when they would stop reading–in other words, when that manuscript just headed to the rejection pile. Once three hands were raised, the reading ended, and the judges explained why they would have stopped reading. It didn’t matter what genre these first pages were from–the advice was all about writing, period. And good writing is good writing no matter the genre.

Just like with the writers you meet, the professionals may not necessarily become your mentor, agent, editor, or publisher, but you never know who may be the one to open that door for you. More on this aspect later.

3. Total immersion in Writingland

So many writers have day jobs. Most writers have day jobs. If you’re like me, being able to focus on my writing for one entire day is next to impossible. This workshop was from 9am to 5pm on a Saturday. I was able to immerse myself for one. whole. day. No, I wasn’t writing, but I was learning about it, and that counts to me. I was fortunate enough to be able to make a weekend of it–I took the train up on Friday and didn’t come home until Sunday. That gave me Friday night and Saturday night to work on my novel, plus the train ride there and back to read and write. That’s even more than next to impossible, and I treasured the time I had available. Did it cost money? Yes. I’ve discussed before how investing in my writing and myself was an important step in taking this writing gig seriously, and as I’ve progressed, I’ve allowed myself a little more–because I’ve been getting positive feedback on my work. In other words, I don’t feel like I’m just tossing my hard-earned money out the tenth floor window of the hotel.

Want more reasons? Check out next week’s blog post!

Sign up for my mailing list HERE to receive a snippet of my current project: The Devil Inside Me. I’d love to hear your comments!

Writing Queries and Pitching Agents

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I finally finished the rough draft and one round of edits for The Devil Inside Me and have begun a never-ending second round of edits. This should be cause for celebration, but I’m holding off until I get the second round done. In the meantime, I’m beginning to prepare for what follows: querying agents. Eek!

I’m getting a jumpstart at this weekend’s Chicago Writing Workshop where I’ll be querying two agents for feedback. I have my query letter written that has been edited by a close friend/former English teacher/librarian as well as Chuck Sambuchino. I apologize to both of these wonderful human beings for being the first two people to have to look at it. Much more solid now, though I’m looking forward to hear what two other professionals will have to suggest.

Lauren Sapala and Jane Friedman seem to always know just what I need to hear at any given moment, and this week was no different. I know my query isn’t perfect, but my brain has moved on to being nervous about pitching it at the Chicago workshop. Jane’s recent post, entitled “The Power of Silence in a Pitch Situation,” addressed that in such a timely fashion that I’m beginning to get freaked out by her and Lauren’s psychic abilities. My favorite one-liner: “Get the other person talking and asking questions.” She then links to another article she wrote for Publisher’s Weekly regarding the power of silence in networking situations in general.

If you’re in query/pitching mode, I highly recommend reading that. Also, here are some of the resources I’ve found useful in writing my query. Have any resources or suggestions to share? Leave them in the comments!

Query Shark

Reedsy

Writer’s Digest

Andrea Somberg on Manuscript Wish List

Jane Friedman–includes other resources

Chicago Writing Workshop

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It’s not too late! There are still open spots for you to sign up and attend the Chicago Writing Workshop that’s happening on Saturday, June 23. If you’re looking for a conference that won’t break the bank (especially if you’re near Chi-town and don’t need a hotel), check this one out. Likewise, if the thought of spending two or more days with a bunch of strangers is terrifying, this is a one-day 9-5 workshop. You can do lunch all by yourself if you so desire.

Bonus: It’s held at the architecturally beautiful Congress Plaza hotel, which also happens to feature prominently (read: murder scene!) in my novel, The Devil Inside Me.

Registration is just $169. I thought that a fair price for what’s offered. Literary agents, editors, and authors deliver most of the workshop sessions. And for each of the five breakout blocks, there are three sessions to choose from. Some are applicable to everyone, such as “Pursuing a Small Press Publisher,” and some are geared to specific genres: “How to Write a Nonfiction Book Proposal,” “How to Write and Pitch Awesome Science Fiction and Fantasy,” “How to Get Your Young Adult and Middle Grade Novels Published,” “Tell Me True: Tips on Writing Memoir and Essay.”

I’m particularly looking forward to the “Query Letter Comprehensive” session since that is the next step on my list after these edits that seemingly never end.

For reasonable add-on fees, you can also pitch agents and editors of all genres ($29 per). Several are sold out of time slots, but to give you an idea of the caliber we’re talking about, here’s just a few on the list: Emily Clark Victorson, Marcy Posner, Tracy Brennan, Abby Saul…

Sound like a decent deal? I thought so. I’ll let you know how it went afterward–and if you’re attending, I’d love to meet!