Monday, November 22, 2010

Genre Rules

Writers create out of our own experience--frequently.  So it stands to reason that even books within the same genre are not going to be cookie cutter perfect--they're not going to follow the same rules.  And yet it was clear to me after my recent seminar experience that some agents will reject books that don't fit genre norms.

For instance, one group of agents reading my query and opening pages commented that in young adult, the parents have to go.  That really struck me.  In my books, while the parents aren't central, they are definitely part of the story, because they are part of my main character's struggle.  So much of young adulthood--which in the publishing world encompasses readers of high school age--is comprised of the coming to terms with parents that the idea of their absence is really absurd.  And it's not hard to find examples of YA lit that include parents or parental figures as central characters.

I don't really think that the majority of agents would reject a truly intriguing story simply on the basis of breaking these so-called genre rules, but for some, it might give them pause.  On the other hand, most of the agents were intrigued with the idea of a new twist on any genre.  So it basically comes down to walking a fine line between being wrong and being groundbreaking.

What do you think?  As a writer, what genre rules do you see, and do you view them as unbreakable?  As a reader, would you not pick up a book because it had some differences from other books in the same genre?

Writing Seminar Wrap Up

I'm a week out from my first writing seminar, and I've had time to digest and think.  Time for a little wrap up!

Some of the most positive things I brought out were connections with other writers. Listening to people share their stories, some of which have been years in the writing, creates a certain intimacy.  We found a common ground.  I've been in touch with a few since the end of the conference, and it's been interesting to hear what they took away from Backspace.

As I wrote before, so much information was conflicting that it's hard to say what solid facts I gleaned.  Even the agents themselves admitted that much.  It was definitely clear that the world of publishing is in flux, and agents are reluctant to take too much risk on new writers.  One agent intimated that they're selling far less these days than they did five years ago.

It was definitely a bit of a wake up call to many writers.  Non-published authors tend to see the journey in steps:
1.  Write the book. 
2.  Query agents. 
3.  Get an agent. 
4. Get a publisher. 
5.  See book in bookstore with adoring fans buying up every copy. . . 

We're not altogether wrong, but some writers don't understand that the leap between steps three and four is nearly as big as the leap between steps one and two.  In other words, some of us are only looking as far as getting an agent, when we need to realize that the process of publishing can be much more involved.

And the 'bad' news is that there really isn't anything we can do to up the odds.  Of course good writing is paramount, but sometimes even good writers don't get published. We can edit and polish and follow all the rules, but if our story doesn't fit the genre, or if that genre isn't selling, or a hundred other 'ifs'. . .well, that can keep a good book out of the bookstores.

It wasn't all doom and gloom.  There were some really positive stories of authors who are about to launch their books, and some agents were very encouraging.  It's possible.  It's just a lot harder than some writers expected.

Next post:  What are the genre rules and can they be broken?

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Backspace Day Two

After the relief of the workshops on the first day and the amazing information from the panel discussions, I was excited about the second day.  My same group of writers was staying together for day two with different agents, and we had made some good tentative connections.

I found one of the very few flaws in this format for the seminar:  on day one, everyone received critiques and advice on their query letters and opening pages.  Those attendees who lived locally were able to go home, make revisions and reprint them.  Those of us staying at the hotel faced more obstacles in doing that.  I was able to make the changes to the query letter since they were minimal, and I could simply read the changed letter aloud, but there was neither time nor resource to re-do the first two pages.  So at our workshops on the second day, some of the writers were reading completely revised material, and some of us were reading our original submissions.

Two of the agents we had met the day before were also part of our day two workshops, but on this day they were reviewing opposite material (for instance, if they had heard our query letters on the first day, on the second they heard our opening pages, and vice verse).  It was interesting to hear their take on how our work meshed.  Did the opening pages live up to the promise of a good query letter?  Or did our queries eloquently capture the story introduced in those first two pages?

It was also interesting to hear the sometimes-opposite advice given on our material.  Some of the writers who had done revisions were exasperated when their newly-amped worked was criticized--for being the opposite of what they had presented the day before! 

I think the most overwhelming lesson I learned from the entire seminar was that it's all subjective.  We heard stories about authors signed who had sent in abysmal queries.  We heard agents say that they choose which queries they will read strictly by the title, and others who said titles meant nothing.

And here is what else I learned:

--Never ever begin your story with someone waking up.
--Each sentence should both move the story forward and provide backstory.  If it can't do both, it must do one or the other.  (Comments on this one??)
--No info dumps
--The first line is paramount.

I'm sure I'll have other thoughts in the next few days, but these are my initial impressions.  Now it's time for me to pack up and leave NYC. . .

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Backspace Day One

I am happy to report that I survived the first two workshops and emerged neither bloody nor bruised. 

Registration began this morning at eight, quite the challenge for a non-morning person like myself.  We gathered for a general session of welcoming remarks and discussion on what agents really want.  And then we dispersed to our various workshops, where we read aloud our query letters and/or opening pages to a room full of fellow writers and agents.

My group was lovely.  I enjoyed the ideas and writing of the other group members, and I learned SO much from the agents.  They were critical without being cruel, and their suggestions were definitely on target.  My query letter was very well-received, with a few ideas to tweak it; as for my opening pages, it was a sort of good news/bad news scenario.  Both the agents really liked the idea and my writing, but suggested that I jump into the action more immediately and try to weave the back story (that made up my first few pages) into that action.  I was actually thrilled with the input and can't wait to put it into practice.  I'm only disappointed that I won't be able to do a re-write and print out new pages for tomorrow, so that the agents who hear the queries and opening pages then can critique my new ones!

All of the agents have been extremely friendly and approachable.  It's been a real boon to be able to put names and faces together.  The only drawback to the entire day has been a confirmation of what I've been thinking all along:  the rules were made to be broken.  What one set of agents told us to do, the other set denied.  Include your word count?  Put the title of the book at the beginning of the query?  Set ages for young adult and middle grade?  It's all a matter of opinion and personal preference, just as I had suspected!

I'm ready for the last two sessions of the day and then the bonus evening session about social media, the web and marketing books.  But already this conference has definitely been worth it.

More to come tomorrow!

NYC and Backspace

Well, folks, here I am in New York City, ready for the conference to begin.  Of course, I'm a little nervous:  I'm about to take my work into a room full of agents and let them flay me live and in person. Can you spell FUN? Oh, well, it's all part of the creative process. . .

Backspace did send out some interesting blog links leading into the conference. Shame I didn't have them a month ago, when I could used those suggestions to make tweaks here and there, but reading them did give me some more insight into where I may be able to improve my first book.

The biggest for-instance is the opening scene.  Originally, my book opened with my main character Tasmyn getting the news from her mom that the family was moving yet-again, seguing into their drive from Wisconsin to Florida.  When I did revisions last spring, I cut that and opened with Tas waking on the first of school.  Now one of these blogs suggests that an opening scene that begins with the character waking up is the kiss of death.  ARGH!!!!! 

The positive is that I already have an idea about how I can change that if it truly doesn't work for anyone.  The negative is that I am setting myself up to hear lots of agents tell me something I may already know but didn't have the opportunity to adjust before I printed 34 copies of the two opening pages. 

I'm resigned to this.  The point is that I haven't even attended one workshop, and already I'm learning!  Pretty cool.

I'm off to prepare for the day and will try to blog another update later this afternoon.  Wish me luck!

Monday, November 8, 2010

NaNoWriMo Update AND NYC T-2

This is a double subject blog--wow.  You know it's a busy week!

NaNoWriMo has been happening for a full week now.  I am happy to report that I am well over 10,000 words, and I am feeling good about what I've written.  It's different from anything I've written before, and it's fun to stretch some new muscles.  I'm not quite on schedule to finish by the end of the month, but close enough to make it happen by writing a little more here and there. 

If you are a writer and you've never tried NaNoWriMo before, I highly recommend it.  Next year I'd like to get more involved in our community encouragement; it just hasn't been possible this month, with children getting engaged, life happening and trips to NYC. . .

. . .which brings us to our next subject.  We're less than two days out from our departure for the Big Apple.  I'm happy to report that 34 copies of the query letters are printed, as our 34 copies of the first two pages of my manuscript.  My bags are mostly packed or ready to be packed. 

Today I received the final schedule from Backspace, so I know the agents I'm going to be meeting at the conference.  It's pretty exciting!

I seriously covet your prayers for all the flights and for the conference itself.  And I'll be keeping in touch as much as I possibly can!