Monday, September 29, 2008

Agents, Editors, Conferences, And MORE!

Back in June, I attended the Southern Christian Writers Conference in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Angela Hunt and Gilbert Morris were keynote speakers, and there were a wide variety of workshops taught for all skill levels. The Sloans are to be commended for their efforts each year.

At the conference, I made new friends - one of them is Roland Mann, who also belongs to ACFW. We're both in the same regional zone for the national group so I asked Roland if he would write up his experiences for us for the Zone newsletter I edit each quarter, but we had to cut his article last time due to space constraints. I twisted his arm, virtually?, and he agree to let me post that article, and some more information, here for all you Pixels. Please help give Roland a BIG welcome to Pix-N-Pens!

I appreciate you, my friend!

One Mann’s day

at the

2008 Southern Christian Writer’s Conference

By Roland Mann

But I really want one! An agent that is.

The only regret I have about the 2008 Southern Christian Writer’s Conference this past June is that I was only able to attend on Saturday. But what a day it was.

My morning kicked off with literary agent Bucky Rosenbaum’s session “Finding and working with an agent.” Rosenbaum’s session was probably the most educational of the day for me. He began by defining the three kinds of agents, noting that the great majority are former editors.

They, then, fall into “The Writing Coach” category. Lawyers fall into “The Negotiator” category, and the final category is “The Business Partner” into which Rosenbaum puts himself.

Rosenbaum then went through a list of about a dozen items, telling the audience exactly what it is an agent does. Agents must know the ins and outs of the industry; they must know who’s been hired where and what changes that means for various publishers. They do this so that writers don’t have to and so we may focus on writing. Agents also help writers with Proposal Development and Selling the Idea to the right publisher. If lucky, the agent will aid the author in comparing the offers from the different publishers wanting the work. Then, when that decision is made, they negotiate the terms. Lastly, Rosenbaum was quick to point out that an agent isn’t just the author’s Advocate and Ambassador, but his friend and collaborator.

Agents are generally paid one of two ways: the traditional way which is a straight 15%. Publishers pay the agent, the agent takes his fee, the agent pays the author. The other way is called “split-at-source.” Rosenbaum explained that the publisher will cut two different checks; one for the author, one for the agent.

He then told members in attendance about some of the common mistakes made by writers. What an interesting list it was! They include unsolicited calls and emails; expecting returned calls on unsolicited phone calls (ie., don’t call the agent to ask if they’ve read your proposal yet); annoying packaging (don’t put confetti with your manuscript); no SASEs; form query letters (at least be professional enough to include the agent’s name on your query); spam (take them off your joke list!); registered or certified mail (don’t make them stand in line at the post office to pick up your package!); overnight mail; and a few other interesting tidbits.

It wouldn’t be a far guess to suppose that most of the writers in the audience desire an agent—this writer included. Rosenbaum’s said writers should ask themselves if they really need an agent. His goal was certainly not to dissuade writers from trying to get agents, rather it was to aid writers in finding the right one and understanding beforehand some of what that agent would be doing…something in which everyone in the room—provided they were paying attention—walked away with a better understanding.

Morris spills secrets to creating fictional characters at the 2008 Southern Christian Writer’s Conference

It’s hard to be “in” the Christian Writing industry for long without running across the name Gilbert Morris. Even for longtime writers new to this industry like me, Morris’s name is one of the first that pops up…and frequently. Morris, however, willing shared some of his secrets to attendees at the 2008 Southern Christian Writer’s Conference in Tuscaloosa in June.
Morris told members he believes creating good characters is key to creating good fiction. He suggests “get the characters right, and readers will forgive all else.” He listed six principles to creating good fictional characters.

The first principle is to take advantage of writing aids, but don’t risk your career on them. Writers often get bogged down with too many how-to books and articles, even writers groups. Writers trapped here spend too much time trying to “figure it all out,” when they should do—as Nike suggests: just do it. One of the things I’ve always like to suggest is that writers write, not writers talk about writing.

Like the first principle, Morris’s second can often bog writers down. There are two pitfalls to research: not enough and too much. Too much, obviously, can have a writer doing research for years and years. Writers should reach a point and stop the research and start writing. On the other hand, writers that do too little research will have that failing reflected in their writing.
The third principle is don’t trust your plot to carry your character. Morris creates all his characters before beginning his novels. He creates their backgrounds, their family and even their physical attributes. A good character can carry a bad story, but a bad character won’t make it in a good story. Morris is pretty adamant about this.

Raise the dead is what Morris gives as the fourth principle. He’s pretty blunt when he says material is either alive…or it’s dead. If it’s dead—raise it!

The fifth principle is to soak up the methods of the masters of characterization. Morris tells us that we love some books because of the characterization. Pick out those books and put those characters under a microscope and study them. Figure out why we love or hate certain characters the way we do. What techniques do the masters use that we could use in our own works. Simply, study the best.

Lastly, Morris tells us to work on the “wounded hero” motif. It’s hard to be interested in perfect characters. Readers like characters with flaws, some obstacle to overcome. A few wounds for writers to consider are: physical wounds, spiritual wounds, emotional wounds and social wounds. Certainly the list isn’t all inclusive, but it’s a start.

I’d be willing to bet that just about every writer in the room that day ran home and created a detailed character the way Morris suggested we do so. When one of the most prolific writers suggests we do something, it’s worth giving it a try.

Writers Retreat to the Barn
By Roland Mann

Piggott, Arkansas, population a couple hundred shy of four-thousand, isn’t the first place you’d think of when thinking of writers or writing retreats. However, this past June, ten writers “retreated” to the Hemingway Pfeiffer Museum and Education Center in the northeast corner of Arkansas for a week of…well, writing.

The museum is the site of Pauline Pfeiffer, the once wife of famous author Ernest Hemingway. Included as part of the museum site is the barn and loft where Hemingway wrote portions of A Farwell To Arms. Writers who attend the retreat are allowed to escape to the barn and write there. I was fortunate enough to serve as one of the mentors/coaches for the group. I viewed it as my job to help those writers make the best of their time there, and to try to help illuminate something about their work they might not have seen before.

So what exactly is this retreat? It is just that, a retreat. It is not a workshop. This particular retreat lasted Monday to Friday, from 9 a.m. until 3 p.m. Lunch was provided by the Museum staff, who catered to every need of the writers. Yes, the writers were pampered, but it was so they could focus on writing and not where they would eat lunch!

Each morning began with a writing prompt, something to get the writing muscles moving. Then, depending on the activity, after thirty minutes to an hour, the writers broke off to do whatever it is they wanted to do—assumedly, write. The mentors were there for one-on-one meetings with the writers, but only if it was something they wanted. As it happens, I spent one-on-one time with about three of the writers for at least an hour; about thirty minutes with three others.
What sorts of things did I do? I talked about description and dialogue; I talked about characterization and story flow. I became a critiquer for them, helping them to see things they may have missed. As writers, we get so intimate with what we’ve written that we often miss things or just know something is there because we’ve thought it in our heads…yet we’ve forgotten to put it on paper.

After a short lunch on the grounds, writers continued to write until around 2 p.m. when the group met for a time of sharing. Each writer took a turn and read something they’d written that day while the others offered up comments and suggestions immediately following. The creative energy in that room likely could have powered the entire town for a while. It was very inspiring.
While not my first time in a teaching capacity, it was the first time I’d been a mentor at a “retreat.” The experience was incredibly creative and motivating. Each writer fed off the creative energy of the other, causing all to take their work up a notch—not in a competitive way, but in an inspirational way. Not only was it exciting for me as the mentor, but the writer in me was incredibly inspired to write!

So, you guessed what’s coming next. Yes, I heartily recommend writers who can, find a writer’s retreat and attend it. Again, I’m not talking about a workshop, but a real retreat that lets you get away worry-free for a while and concentrate on writing. Those interested in the Hemingway retreat can take a peek here or email Deanna Dismukes. Tell her Roland sent ya!

Roland Mann is a former writer and editor of comic books, having written almost 100 comics and edited three times that many. He holds a BS in Creative Writing and a MA in English and has taught English at the college level. Recently saved, Roland is working on novel #3 and trying to sell #’s 1 and 2. He lives with his family in Oxford, Mississippi, and invites you to come visit him on his blog, where he posts regularly.

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