Tuesday, September 29, 2009

10 Commandments of the Southern California Writers’ Conference

My head is spinning like an out-of-control top, processing information gleaned at this past weekend’s Southern California Writers’ Conference in Irvine. Along with a few hundred other writers, editors, agents and publishers, I spent 2½ days in workshops, critique sessions and discussions on the craft of writing and the business of publishing.

For those unable to make it to the Crowne Plaza this year, here are my top takeaways—10 commandments for writers from top industry experts:

1. Thou shalt establish an online presence.
In a world now connected by social media, authors can’t afford to be offline. For promoting your book, creating and widening your audience and establishing intimacy with readers, an active presence on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and other social and professional networking sites is essential.

Take it a step farther by communicating your message or platform through a utube.com interview. Have a friend interview you about your book or a topic that relates to it and post a link to it on several sites.

Websites especially good for writers, authors and people who love books include goodreads.com, shelfari.com and librarythings.com. Personally, I’m a FB addict, don’t understand Twitter and have a minimal presence on LinkedIn. Wherever you stand, remember the more times you appear on the Web, the better—if you’re serious about establishing an online presence. So integrate channels and post, post, post.

2. Thou shalt blog.
This is such an important part of #1 above, I’ve made it a separate commandment. A blog is like a phone number today; it’s a way to build and maintain a following and establish an interactive dialogue. In an age when authors are responsible for the bulk of their own marketing, blogging is a mechanism through which we can provide information to readers while building credibility and allegiance with an audience. Effectively done, it can even be a money-maker.

Consider “blog touring”—making guest appearances and posting video interviews on popular blogs, with the other blogger’s permission, of course. It can also be used to advocate other writers and their works.

If you don’t want to commit the time to maintain your own blog, join a group with like-minded authors; check out possibilities on yahoogroups.com and meetup.com. Whatever you post, make your content so valuable to readers, they will be grateful they get it for no fee other than a small time investment. Cross-pollinate by posting links to your blog on numerous sites.

3. Thou shalt master the art of query letters and synopses.
These are our primary selling tools, a necessary bridge from writing to publication. In queries, be confident, never cocky or boastful. Let your credentials speak for themselves. Single-space, with double spaces between paragraphs. Keep queries to one page. Include intro hook, book summary, author’s credentials and offer to send chapters or entire book. Get ideas from book jackets and flaps; editors know how to reel in readers. Find the right editors/agents from acknowledgement pages in similar books.

Single space short synopses (1–3 pages), with double spaces between paragraphs. End with author qualifications, target audience, marketing plan. Learn more from Maralys Wills’ Dam the Rejections, Full Speed Ahead.

4. Thou shalt write what you know…or what you want to know more about.
It’s logical you’re better equipped to write about a subject you’re familiar with or passionately curious about than about something that bores you. And nearly everyone knows something about one topic or another in a meaningful way. If you parent an autistic child, use your experience to deepen your writing. If you’re fascinated by the lifecycle of hummingbirds or the sex life of dogs, let your interest inspire your research and writing. If you’ve battled lung cancer or suffered other adversity and triumphed over it, use your experience to inform fiction or nonfiction.

5. Thou shalt get off Writers’ Island.
When we write, we sit on a deserted island. We do our job better when we get out of solitude to communicate with other writers, industry professionals and our audience. Good places to start include absolutewriter.com (a writers’ forum) and Writer Beware (the public face of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America’s Committee on Writing Scams) at www.sfwa.org/for-authors/writer-beware/.

Other ways to get off the island include reading industry publications, e.g. Publishers Marketplace and Publishers Weekly, entering contests, and attending writers’ conferences and meetings of local groups. For those in Orange County, CA, the OC chapter of the Southern California Writers Association (ocwriter.com) meets on the 3rd Saturday of every month in Fountain Valley. In L.A., there’s The Greater Los Angeles Writers Society (http://www.glaws.org/).

6. Thou shalt offer up back-story in small doses.
All characters come with baggage; back-story fills in the details, provides motivation and tells readers what’s driving each one. We’re writing about what happens because of back-story.

Be careful to break back-story up, like air in a balloon that you let out slowly, a little at a time. When writing it, ask yourself: why is this paragraph here? Does it further plot and/or character development? Have I used a transitional sentence to create a bridge from and back to the main action? Does it come from the point of view of the character who has the most to lose?

One trick for keeping back-story to a minimum is to inject description into the narrative, e.g., “He was driving a new, 1967 Mustang convertible” tells readers your plot begins in the year your character purchased his new car.

Back-story can be incorporated into characters’ memories and recollection flashbacks. If more is essential, consider an info-dump in the form of a brief (no more than 3-page) prologue.

Fluff is the evil cousin of back-story. While it can be used to set a scene, be careful not to let it overtake your narrative.

7. Thou shalt use dialogue to move your exposition forward.
Use comedy, sex, romance and anger in dialogue to smuggle in exposition that moves your story forward. Make your characters interesting as they talk and use speech to further your plot. Don’t try to capture an accent with misspelled words; simply state that your character has one.

8. Thou shalt show, not tell.
This is the mantra of good storytelling, but it can’t be repeated enough. If your character has a volatile temper, it’s more effective to demonstrate it through action and dialogue than to merely state a personality trait. Same goes if a character is meek, needy, shy, money-grubbing or psychopathic. The most effective descriptions come through actions and dialogue, not narrative words.

9. Thou shalt keep your story linear.
Editors don’t like flashbacks, dream sequences and openings starring a child-version of a central character. Use recollections—short recalled tidbits—to convey something that happened earlier, but does not further your plot.

10. Thou shalt write from the heart.
This is so obvious, it hardly needs to be a commandment. Yet many writers miss the boat by not digging deep enough into the recesses of their own hearts. Complications arise from not paying enough attention to emotional logic, not knowing your characters and being clueless about what sets you apart from other writers. When you figure out who you are and what makes your characters tick, you’ll be better equipped to find your voice and write from the heart.