New York Pitch Conference–Fall 2019

Sep 26, 2019 by

New York Pitch Conference–Fall 2019

From Sept 19-22, last Thursday to Sunday now, I took part in the New York Pitch Conference, the creation of mastermind Michael Neff. As luck would have it, too, I found myself in Group B, with many fellow writers–most of them focusing on sci-fi and fantasy–and all of us under the tutorship of the sometimes critical, sometimes nostalgic, sometimes hysterical, but always knowledgable, caring, and in particular, focused on what is going to sell in the publishing industry and what will not.

The conference itself was well organized, with three groups separated into three rooms. One group was led by Paula Munier and focused on writing mysteries. Susan Breen led Group A and focused on memoir and women’s fiction.

We only gathered together once to hear a presentation from the funny and strategic thinker, Amy Collins. She presented a plan, Becoming a Successful Author, that is eye-opening about the demands on every author in this modern market of publishing. And we were thinking getting an agent was difficult.

Acquisition editors from some of the major publishing houses were brought in beginning on the 20th after Michael Neff guided each of us in sharpening our pitches on the 19th. The sharpening continued after each pitch based on the feedback received from each editor. By the time we were pitching on Sunday, our pitches were well-honed. Based on interests of the editors, some received requests for more, others did not. We all returned home with the need to do more revising. (That is nothing to be upset about. Revising is about 99 percent of writing a book. It is not at all like they portray in the movies where one sits down at a typewriter or computer and you see them starting and then finishing and it’s ready for publication.)

The Voodoo Hill Explorer Club Pitch

“Kirk Egerton is resentful when he sneaks from his house in the middle of an Upper Michigan blizzard because five of his friends are missing. They all live on an air force base where bombers are armed with nuclear weapons and sit on alert ready for the call to attack the Soviet Union in December 1977, whether it is snowing or not. But while Kirk knows the others should be at the tree house they built during the summer months that year, no one knows a Russian spy has captured the five when they found his hut while trying to get home in the storm.”

The Voodoo Hill Explorer Club Pitch Improvements

We made some important decisions about my present project. It’s something of a square peg. The industry prefers round holes. But at the suggestion of Brendan Deneen, we are now using the comp of the movie The Goonies to pitch my book.

But that’s not all.

I’m now saying the book is “a mixture of the movie The Goonies and a modern-day Tom Sawyer living in an atmosphere of the 1970s.”

At Brendan’s suggestion and with the reinforcement of the responses that followed from others, I’m now also including some of the “cool stuff” that happens in the meat of the book.

“To build the fort one of the guys overcame what he thought were the threat of killer bees. Another swears he sees Bigfoot when he steps away from their camp the first night they spend the night out in the woods. As four trained Scouts, they fail to notice until it’s too late that they’ve sat down in poison ivy. Rather than risking treatment at the base hospital, one of them persuades the rest that using skunk oil will relieve the itch. This leads to them building a trap and….

“For initiation one walks alone at night through a cemetery, that is a former Indian burial ground. Another climbs the base water tower at 10 p.m. and play Reveille after Taps. For the final initiation, they all climb into a cave behind the tall rock face in the Little Laughing White Fish Falls lagoon and the entry collapses.”

The Closing Questions

“At the end, Kirk must rescue the others from the top of the rock face, known as the Devil’s Ledge, by climbing the face of the rock. The spy intends to force the five off the top and let them plunge to their deaths. Kirk engages the spy with a combat knife when the Russian has a pistol. Is he able to rescue the others and keep them from getting killed? How have the events of the year affected Kirk and shaped him for this one moment that will matter the rest of his life?”

I ask some good closing questions. They are designed to get an agent to ask for more, not to give away the whole story.

What I Learned

I’ve been to a number of writing conferences and spent three years in the Southern Methodist University Writer’s Path Program. There is some variance in how to do a few things, but the rules for how to pitch, what New York editors and agents are looking for, those things are pretty much set in stone. There is some fluctuation, but not much. There are so many queries sent to agents each week, their screeners, and the agents themselves are looking for the slightest anything they can find to say no to passing on your book.

Neff said he’s even seen screeners even highlighting lines of queries in email in boxes and randomly highlighting them and then hitting delete just so they could get to a manageable number of queries to read in a week. Not fair, no, but there is nothing can be done about it, and one will never know if that brought a pass or if they read your pitch and did not like it.

The proverbial “they” say there is a difference between a writer who got published and one who did not. The one who got published ignored the umpteen rejections and kept querying.

One of my mentors once told me that until I got into the 130-rejections range I really had not tried to query anyway. I’m almost half way there and I have to tell you, my pitch has changed considerably, my book has been revised about five times since then, and the writing is much stronger.

The New York Pitch Conference

I recommend this conference to well-seasoned writers who have a book that’s in its fourth or fifth draft. If you take a first draft or second draft to pitch, you’re only setting yourself up for disappointment. While your idea may be exciting to the editors and coaches you’ll work with, your book will not be ready for the scrutiny that will follow and in a couple of years their passions will likely have moved on to something else. Writing a book takes time. A novel does. Remember the Ernest Hemingway quote, “The first draft of anything is shit.”

I shared my first draft of Voodoo Hill with my family and a few friends. I’m embarrassed now that I did. I wish I could sneak into their homes and get them all back and burn them, but most likely they’ve all thrown them out already anyhow. That is what should have happened to that copy. The next year when I made a 10-CD audio recording of the next draft, ugh, I shudder to the think about it.

This latest draft I feel is pretty sound, but I felt the same way about the others and I know they weren’t ready for human consumption either.

Go slow. Be deliberate. Let your words simmer. Finish a revision and then put the book away and forget about it for a month or two. Maybe even six months. Then come back to it. The words will still be there. So will the publishing industry. And the trends will change. Maybe square holes will be the thing soon. I sure as hell hope so….

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Three Rejection Letters – Finding an Agent 

Jun 22, 2018 by

Three Rejection Letters – Finding an Agent

Yesterday I received three rejection letters for my novel, The Voodoo Hill Explorer Club. One of them I took pretty hard. I’d pitched the agent at the recent DFWCon in early June and had really hoped she’d rep me. 

In her rejection letter, she said, “This story has all the elements I love—an interesting premise and a well-built world. The writing is solid with a nice voice. A dynamic, interesting protagonist.” She concluded by saying she didn’t feel the love she needed to sell the story. 

The two others were more to the point. 

Voodoo and Explorer.

The intersection of Voodoo Avenue and Explorer Street, KI Sawyer AFB, Michigan.

“I’m afraid this doesn’t seem like the right project for me, but I’m sure other agents will feel differently.” 

“Unfortunately, I’m afraid I’m not the right agent for this project. I wish you much luck in getting THE VOODOO HILL EXPLORER CLUB published.”

I still have several queries out and there are other agents who have asked for pages, so all is not lost. 

I am early in the query process. Just a few months in, and in that time, my query has improved. 

Because of what the first agent I mentioned taught me at DFWCon, my query letter is now a mere NINE sentences. It’s tighter, to the point. It targets what is important to the structure of the story and I don’t get into the subplots and things that might confuse a slush-pile gatekeeper in New York deciding whether to read more or not. Since DFWCon I’ve also gone through the book and cut 10,000 words. If it was not about four boys in the woods building a treehouse near a Russian spy, it went. Period. My inciting incident is in the first 25 pages. Boom. 

I learned these important things from the agent who said my story has the elements she loves. 

For that I am grateful and a thank you letter, I send them typed on my 1948 Royal Quiet De Luxe typewriter, will say that. She’s like that high school English teacher we all had. The one who was the hardest on us. In the end, the one who taught us the most, and not just about literature but life itself. 

Finding an agent is like asking a pretty girl to dance in middle school. You know so little about her. You’re nervous. You think you know how to dance. You’re worried about your blemishes, if your hair is straight, pants and shirt are fashionable, if she will say “yes.” Whether she will fall in love with you just the same. The odds seem so remote and extreme. On one hand, it seems like the best thing to do is sit on the bleachers and watch the cooler kids dance. But at the same time, you know you can dance. You’ve been watching yourself in the mirror for weeks, months, years. And you’ve gotten better and better and better. It’s time to be under the disco ball at center court with a pretty girl.

I am a good writer and I have a solid book and I will get published. I know I will. 

I didn’t meet my match yesterday, but there is always today. There is always tomorrow. And I have more books to write. I have two other books already written needing revision.

What I learned yesterday is that I am looking for LOVE. I want to hear a reply that says, “I LOVE YOUR BOOK.” Hedging, doubt, all of that, won’t do. I very much respect and enjoyed the agent who wrote me. I will keep her as a friend. But there wasn’t a spark. There are others to dance with. There must be love or the result will not be good in the end.

And thank goodness, I have other writer friends I have talked with overnight who are in the same boat, beating on against the current….

My current query/pitch: 

THE VOODOO HILL EXPLORER CLUB

In 1977, four teen boys, led by KIRK CARSON, build a tree house near the secret hideaway of a Russian spy. The historical commercial fiction work is 88,000 words.

Kirk is fighting his own Cold War among friends, a bully, and himself. He tries to type “I’m trying to change my life,” but instead his typewriter clacks out, “I’m trying to change my lie.” He wishes he could use white out on the whole year.

How Kirk handles the ultimate test of a December blizzard in Upper Michigan and the Russian spy who has been trying to scare them all out of the woods means life or death for his friends.

THE VOODOO HILL EXPLORER CLUB is a nostalgic reminder of an America where kids played outside until their mothers signaled a summer’s day’s end by turning on the porch light.

I have written in journalism and public relations, and for governors and school superintendents for more than 30 years. Since 2014, I’ve been part of Southern Methodist University’s Writer’s Path program. 

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Finding Water

Aug 28, 2017 by

Finding Water

I’m in Week Seven of Julia Cameron’s book, Finding Water.

Julia Cameron’s Finding Water.

This makes 19-straight weeks of following in her teachings, coupled with an equally invigorating study of my NIV Bible. Today I’m on the last pages of a second $0.50 college rule Walmart notebook. In fact, Chandler, my daughter, about fell over last week when I showed her the two-foot high stack of them in my closet.  Every three weeks now, I fill a notebook with handwritten Morning Pages. It’s the best form of prayer and therapy I’ve encountered in almost 52 years.

Friday

Friday was a crummy day and if it weren’t for my growing faith in God–thanks to Julia Cameron’s teachings, my daily study, and the confidence I’ve been building because of my Morning Pages, my weekly artist’s dates, and daily walks, (ones that have been trimmed the past month for medical reasons and the oppressive Texas heat) I’d probably be on a balcony somewhere ready and willing to jump.

Transportation issues presented themselves. Issues with a video project popped up. Issues with my ex reared their ugly head. Another video and web project presented issues. And worst of all, the book project with SMU, the one I’ve worked so hard on since 2014, well, I was not one of the 14 selected to go to New York in November.

And That’s Okay

All off it. It’s okay. At some point, mechanics will figure out what’s wrong with my car. There are always difficulties when you shoot a video project. You work them one or two at a time. They get solved and then you fix the next two or three that come along until the project is complete. Website and video editing problems you deal with. You use your creativity and you fix.

The Writer’s Path at SMU

I am grateful for what I’ve learned through the Writer’s Path at SMU. I would not trade the experience for anything. It’s honed my writing. The past year and a half I’ve been wigged out on opioids.

I am happy for the 14 authors selected. Julia Cameron teaches us in Finding Water to celebrate the accomplishment of other artists. They worked hard. I’ve worked hard, too. And now I’m free to follow my own path.

That’s what I’m going to do on my book, too. I don’t have to worry the next few months how I’m going to pay for a trip to New York in November. Things are tight enough around here as they are. I can now get into the feel of my book now that the opioids are having less of an effect on my brain. I can query to my heart’s desire. My brain is in a different place than it was in late June and throughout July. God wanted it that way. You can read my post from last night to read just how. Again, this is okay. God has me on a different path to getting published.

Even the sermon Sunday spoke to this very topic. With God, nothing is impossible. He has a plan. There was a reason I got hurt. There was a reason it took so long for me to get back on my feet and off the pain meds. There was a reason for all the bad things that happened Friday. I believe that. And most of all, I am okay with it. All of it.

And that’s what puts me further ahead than many.

dc.

 

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Drawing Art for My Novel Writing

Jun 10, 2017 by

Novel Writing With Pictures

I have 51 days left to finish revising my novel writing for The Voodoo Hill Explorer Club and to turn it in to SMU’s The Writer’s Path program.

I have spent time each of the past few days with iPad Pro and Apple Pencil in Adobe Sketch and in Notes drawing out scenes and characters of my book. Why would I devote time to drawing when I’m in a writing medium?

Creative writing is NOT about putting down emotions on the paper. Not expressly. Creative writing IS about drawing word pictures with words. If you aren’t telling a story with word pictures, you’re locked into telling your readers how you or your character feels. And that’s BORING.

So I have been stepping back from the keyboard and spending more time focusing on what I could see if I was in the scene with my characters. Not how I feel, that I mad that Rose dumped Kirk for Billy Banks, or that Billy Banks is a bully, or Billy’s mom is pretty hot. Those things can be told by drawing word pictures that set the scene. How does a character move his/her face? How are they sitting? Are they biting their lip?

Little Laughing Whitefish Falls

The Little Laughing Whitefish Falls, KI Sawyer AFB. Art done by Donny Claxton for The Voodoo Hill Explorer Club.

A crucial piece of the work is Little Laughing Whitefish Falls. The problem is, there is no place outside the back gate of KI Sawyer AFB in 1977. There is a Laughing Whitefish Falls, which is a beautiful place, but there is no Chimney Rock and a lagoon where kids and alike can jump from four levels into the water. The highest height is called The Devil’s Ledge. It’s 55-feet above the water. But it doesn’t exist.

Now Chimney Rock exists. It’s in Lake Martin, Alabama. The Devil’s Ledge doesn’t exist either, but there’s a piece of rock that sits at the top of Half Dome in Yosemite in California that’s called The Devil’s Diving Board.

Blend all that together and you have a whole new fictional place to build some incredibly important scenes around in The Voodoo Hill Explorer Club. I wind up using the lagoon from behind it, under it, down the face it, and from the four levels to jump.

So I decided if I’m going to write about it, I need to SEE what it looks like. The only real way to do that is to blend elements of each place into a piece of art. And this is where the drawing of the Little Laughing Whitefish Falls came from.

You might try doing this, too, in your own writing. It doesn’t have to look like a Norman Rockwell piece of art. It just needs to have enough visual cues in it that will prompt you in your writing, to help you draw better, more convincing word pictures and leave the emotional dumps and figuring out to the imaginations of your readers. They’ll love you for it. They will.

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A Mile Into The Woods

Apr 27, 2017 by

A Mile Into The Woods

I walked a mile into the woods today to be further away from you and closer to me.
Perhaps I succeeded.
But it was time for another view.

I walked a mile into the woods today.

I hear planes in the distance.
The wind rushing over my ears.
The rustle of the leaves.
Feet padding along the trail.
Cars way off in the distance.
Birds.
Cracks and smacks of branches and sticks.

The whisper of the wind across my ear drums.
The pulse of God’s breath moving across my arms.
The bursts of sunlight breaking through the crown of the trees above.
The dancing shadows across the ground.
The to and fro of branches wafting in the wind.
The colors, greens, darker; brown, black, bright green and gray.

I hold out my hand and the sun catches it, throwing a shadow across the ground.
But it’s not crisp, it weaves in and out of light.
There, it’s solid.
No, now it’s not.
There are patterns from shoes that have been here before me.
V-shapes, circles, squares.
At deeper depths.
Tire tracks, from bikes.

A broken branch lies a few feet away.
The light above illuminates the top, worn from who knows what.
The rest of the bark is intact.

A tiny yellow flower, no bigger than a diamond clings to nature’s floor, protected by fronds of green petals.

A yellow star of a flower.

It’s a miniature star, yellow, with a darker yellow center.
And it was waiting for me to come along and sit here today, for me alone to capture.
Or maybe, just maybe it’s my metaphorical reflection, a quantum physics of sorts I do not yet comprehend.
But I’m trying.
My eyes are open.
Again.

A bird chirps overhead. Now it’s gone.

Divergent travelers surround me.
Another over-crowded airliner moans eastward overhead.
I hear a truck far off, backing up, backing up, backing up.
Both are in a race.
While I sit here.
Still.
Forgetting to breathe.
Or think about anything but the moment.

The sky above is blue.
The leaves above reflect the white light of the sun—not greenness at all.
While others are shades far darker in the shade.
And then there are the branches where from many feet below I can see the chloroplastered canals of leaf after leaf after leaf.
Like a playground bully, the wind pushes the leaves.
Like me in my inner frights of seeing too many parental fights, they never push back.
So many forces working against them and they continue a dance in the wind as if none of their opposition matters.
These are Spring leaves.
Deep inside I must resemble a crumbling one in Fall.

I see bees buzzing past me.
Clumps of white spores float along in the air.
A blue butterfly.
Then a Monarch.
A bird is somewhere off in the distance.
This snack he’s missing.
I’m glad.
There go two more now, chasing each other into the leaves like lovers in a Hollywood musical.

A water fall of sorts is no more than forty yards from where I sit.
The water rushes.
Like the mass of human drama beyond, it doesn’t relent.
A constant wash of white noise blending in with all the other orchestral parts employed around me.

The wind is blowing the branches above my head making the leaves look like a million pinwheels as they sway two and fro.
A kaleidoscope of light and shadow and mystery.

I want to lie down on the path in front of me.
On my back and flatten against the earth, staring up into the azure blue, and then just close my eyes and take it all in all the more.
But my inner parent voice says that’s not allowed.
Or maybe it’s an echo of an actual parent voice.
Maybe tomorrow.
Maybe tomorrow I’ll bring a blanket or a towel.
Or maybe I should just try it.
Who will know?
Those damned inner parent voices.
What do they really know?

Now a dog behind me somewhere has joined his bit part in the symphony of outdoor sounds I am awash in.
At home, if it were my dog, this would bug me, but in the distance, the sound is different.
Not annoying.
Not troublesome.
Now it’s stopped.
No, it hasn’t.

To my distant right I see one lone purple flower at the seam where the grass is no longer edged and bushes, Mother Nature, takes over.

The pink/purple flower. I took a picture anyway.

Just a lone purple and pinkish dot on the horizon.
And it, too, dances in and out of the bright light overhead.
Maybe I should go take a picture.
Maybe I should let the one in my mind’s eye be enough.
Click.

There goes a wasp.
Keep going.
Arms dropping.
Pincers ready.
I’ve been stung by you and life too many times already.
Keep going.

Maybe it’s time to load up the pack and head back.
Or maybe I should close the computer and open my mind more.
There went a shadow of a plane from overhead, racing on its way.
Why do I want to follow in pursuit?
A yellow butterfly just swooshed off to my left.
It doesn’t need clearance to fly.
No flight plan required.
Without a set destination.
Gate to gate time is of no concern.
Pushback.
Just the will to be.
It’s gone now.
I’ll go now, too.
There is so much more to see.

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The Emotional Craft of Fiction

Mar 9, 2017 by

Donald Maass is a literary editing GOD. There is no better way to say it.

I’ve now maintained a snail’s pace, using pen and stickies, to actively absorb every possible word of three of his books–Writing the Breakout Novel, Writing 21st Century Fiction–and now The Emotional Craft of Fiction.

During the fall, I took the Revision class offered by J. Suzanne Frank, the director of Southern Methodist University’s The Writer’s Path program. The go-to book Suzanne recommended for that phase of writing was Maass’ Writing 21st Century Fiction. What an amazing book it is. But….

Suzanne, whom I refer to as the Jedi Writing Master, didn’t know about this new work Maass published late last fall. Heading into back surgery last week, I had Amazon rush me a copy knowing the value of Maass’ work. Lord have mercy! At one in the morning yesterday I was photographing entire pages of Mr. Maass’ work, the part about the mirror moment–a term I’d only heard Suzanne use up until I found it in Maass’ book–and I decried she should just hand out the simple section on mirror moments where Maass says, “If you haven’t felt this emotion, essentially you don’t have a mirror moment!”

That was one of those sun-ray shining only on you during a dark, dank, cloudy day moments. My mirror moment in my present draft of The Voodoo Hill Explorer Club is heavy, but with the aide of Mr. Maass’ study suggestions it’s about to become a whole lot more intense.

Case in point: Kirk Carson, 14, has worked with his three closest friends all summer to build a the fort of his dreams in the woods off KI Sawyer AFB, (Upper Peninsula of Michigan), in 1977, largely in an effort to forget about his first true love, Rose Maxwell, dumping him for the base bully, Billy Banks, the son of the Wing Commander. While in the woods, the boys are met with a series of triumphs and setbacks, natural, self-inflicted, and mysterious–Lewis Luntz keeps saying it’s the Chippewa Haints who still roam the woods of Hiawatha–but what they don’t know is it’s a Soviet spy hiding out in the woods tracking the number of B-52s armed with nuclear weapons and by being in the woods off base, the boys have encroached on his hideout. The way it turns out, the spy has made it look like the boys will be safer under the leadership of Billy Banks and they vote to remove Kirk, and he feels their act is the ultimate in betrayals.

I have all that in decent shape in my MSS, but what I now need to do is the exercises in Maass’ The Emotional Craft of Fiction, to help my readers feel the utter agony and humiliation Kirk feels as he learns the other three have already made the decision, have invited Billy–and Rose–to their “secret” fort in the woods and everything he has worked for and dreamed of, has been ripped away from him like a scab.

Did I mention that the day before, Kirk was also humiliated by Billy Banks–coaxed into jumping off the Devils Ledge at Chimney Rock, a sixty-five foot plunge to a Little Laughing Whitefish Falls Lagoon liquid enema? Kirk has had two bad days back to back and so now it’s time to do some of the exercises Maass has on page 99–“Is your protagonist lost or seeing a way forward?” “What does it feel like to be suspended, lifted out of time, in a moment of pure being?”–I’m ready to write those answers.

The book is a GREAT read. I’ve had a dustup with some dude on Twitter the past few hours who is all bent up about marked/unmarked linguistics. You see I tried to respectfully convey to Mr. Maass that for me, he over uses the word BOTH when he links two items together with the conjunction AND. In my copy of the book, I simply began marking them out–there are that many. One of my peeves. There’s nothing wrong with the use of the word BOTH, but it becomes a visual stop sign with repeated use and many writers on my Heather Sellers inspired 101 book list do it, too. Other than that, I love Mr. Maass’ insight and his devotion to helping writers like myself learn more about the craft of fiction writing.

This is a very good book. I think, for where I am right now, the most important of the three and it could not have come along for me at a better time. Thank you, Mr. Maass. I’m looking forward to what you do next.

Oh, an by the way, Suzanne said yesterday she was jumping over to Amazon to order her own copy. Here’s the link if you’ve not already followed one of the previous: The Emotional Craft of Fiction

 

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