The Rule of Three, Part IV

My foray into teaching at the ETBU writers’ conference led to another opportunity to teach at a local conference. A lady who took my class at ETBU asked me if I’d be willing to teach the same material at a one-day conference last July. Of course I said yes, especially since I was going to be paid enough to cover my gas money to a conference I really wanted to attend later that month.

I had never heard of the East Texas Writers Guild nor of their conference before being asked to speak. What a pleasant surprise this experience was! The Guild is a class act and one of their members was in touch with me frequently in the months leading up to the conference. I was allowed to bring a “helper” and was treated like a celebrity. (At least it felt that way to me.)

I enjoyed the conference so much that this year I went back as an attendee. Again, it was so well organized and they had all the bases covered, including goody bags for everyone and a well-stocked buffet table and plenty of soft drinks and coffee (not that I can have either of those things!).

The conference is very affordable and is only one day. For me it’s less than an hour’s drive away, so I’m sure I will go to this one a third time, and maybe more. If you are new to writing conferences, this is a great one for getting your feet wet. No high pressure.

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The Rule of Three, Part III

Three years ago, it struck me that maybe I should stop going only to Christian conferences. In fact, when I first started writing I had never intended to go to Christian conferences at all! But I did because that’s what everyone said to do. Then I saw an ad somewhere for the DFW Writers Conference, and found that it was much more affordable than ACFW, and also always conveniently close! And it was early enough that I could get a great discount too.

I was nervous about going. During my forays to ACFW, I had been told the following things about secular writing conferences:

—Everyone’s always drunk. It’s all about drinking.

—Everyone, including the presenters, uses foul language all the time. It’s wall-to-wall F-words.

—Everyone is super-competitive and not supportive or encouraging at all.

—No one there is going to be interested in any form of Christian fiction or even “clean” fiction.

Still, I wanted to give it a try. That first time, my husband came with me and did some sightseeing in Dallas while I was at the conference.

What a pleasant surprise it was! There was a “cocktail party” in the evening, but that first year I didn’t go to it. The second year I did (they had plenty of soft drinks). I didn’t see anyone even close to being drunk. The drinking was not a big deal at all.

I heard very little offensive language. One of the presenters let a word slip once, and immediately apologized for being unprofessional. The other writers in attendance were likewise circumspect in their language—at least the ones I talked to.

The classes were fantastic, and the presenters were first-rate. This conference had a feature that was so incredibly educational, which they called the “gong show.” During the first part of the conference, aspiring writers anonymously submit their query letters into a basket. It’s totally voluntary. During the gong show, a bunch of agents line up on stage and there are a series of gongs and mallets in front of them. A guy with a wonderful “radio voice” starts reading a query from the pile and each time he gets to the point where one of the agents would stop reading, that agent bongs his gong. At the third gong, the man stops reading and the agents all explain why they lost interest. So helpful! (And often hilarious.)

I wasn’t worried about my fellow attendees being too competitive, because to be honest I couldn’t imagine them being worse than what I had experienced at ACFW—and they weren’t.  Some were chatty, and some were not, but no one was unfriendly. The second year I went to a free workshop the month before the conference and met some people I could hang out with and they were very encouraging.

And unhelpful? I didn’t find that either. The second year I went, I drew a “lot” that gave me a chance to bring a writing problem before a panel of experts. I was struggling with the beginning of one of my stories. Not only did one of the agents on the panel request my proposal, but one of the fellow attendees offered to critique my first 50 pages and she gave me fabulous feedback. So helpful. And she did it out of the kindness of her heart.

Both years I went, I had serious interest from agents in my work, which unfortunately didn’t result in representation, but the reality is that I found more interest here than at any Christian conference I have attended. I love this conference and was sad I couldn’t afford to go this year. I hope I get to go again. I haven’t even got to three yet with this one!

The Rule of Three, Part II

As it turns out, there was a local writing conference held every year at the university where my daughter Lina got her degree (East Texas Baptist University). It was very affordable and within easy commuting distance, so no hotel room or airfare was needed.

This conference was short—just a day and a half, but it had some great classes. I broke my rule of three and attended four times, the last time as an instructor. I taught their first and only speculative fiction class. This conference had a kind of scattershot approach, with classes on everything from writing devotionals to screenplays. I always walked away with something new and helpful. My final time at this conference, I took a class on poetry that fed my soul and got me writing poems again, and for that I am still grateful.

I also won a couple of writing contests put on by this conference, which is a nice thing to have on one’s resume.

The appointments available were not really of interest to me, but that was okay. I went to learn and rub shoulders with other writers and enjoyed it immensely. After the fourth time I went, the conference was discontinued, much to my dismay, because otherwise I would have continued going. It was an unbeatable value.

The Rule of Three, Part I

Eight years ago, I made what was for me a momentous decision. I had been told, over and over, that the road to publication lay through writers’ conferences. I had two “finished” novels and I badly wanted to be published, so I saved up all year and that September I went to my first writers’ conference: ACFW (American Christian Fiction Writers). ACFW is huge—the biggest Christian writers’ conference in the country. This is kind of like deciding you want to learn to swim and somehow getting into the Olympics.

It was (and is) very expensive. In fact, I probably wouldn’t have gone at all if I had realized at first that the conference fees did not include lodging at the fancy hotel. (I really was that clueless). By the time I paid the registration fees, paid for a hotel room, and bought my plane ticket to Denver, I was out close to $1000, which was a real hardship for us at the time or any time since.

I was so excited about going. I had talked it over with my husband and had told him I would plan on going to that conference a maximum of three times. If I didn’t feel I was benefiting from it by then, and if I hadn’t snagged an agent or editor, I would stop going.

That first time, though, I went in with very high hopes—not necessarily that I’d find an agent or editor, but that I’d make a bunch of new friends. Writer friends. I packed tea making supplies and my two favorite china mugs, so I could share tea with my new friends. I had been part of a “newbie” email group for a few weeks, and one other lady in the group had offered to meet up with me shortly after I arrived in Denver. I couldn’t wait.

I met up with my new acquaintance, and I could almost see her thoughts. She saw I was fat, and also old (compared to her) and she lost interest instantly. She never spoke to me again.

It turned out that was a portent of things to come. All the fabulous friends I was supposed to make already had friends and didn’t want more. As an introvert, I put forth massive amounts of effort to talk to people and get them to tell me about themselves. I was summarily brushed off over and over and over. If there was an agent or editor at the table, everyone focused on sucking up to him/her and I had no hope of even having a “hello” returned.

To make matters worse, my appointments went very, very badly, especially one with the YA editor who told me that I had not written a YA book and that in fact my story was unpublishable. “There is no market for this book!” she said in her perky little voice. That phrase reverberated through my head for weeks afterward.

The classes were excellent, and I learned a great many things that I needed to know. I learned them while feeling utterly rejected and lonely, but I did learn. Many, many tears were shed during that conference.

I did finally end up making one new friend—on the shuttle ride to the airport, but the reality was that weekend was one of the most emotionally devastating experiences of my life. When my husband asked if I’d had a good time, I had to say no. However, I was not sorry I went. An experience does not have to be enjoyable in order to be valuable, and that conference was very valuable. I learned many things about writing and publishing that it was crucial for me to know.

So, I went to ACFW two more times. By then I was much more experienced and I had an actual friend to room with and I kind of got included in her friend circle enough that I didn’t feel so much like an outcast. But during my third ACFW conference, I realized that three times was enough for me. Despite my efforts to fit in, these weren’t “my” people. Most of them were romance writers. Those of us who write speculative fiction were on the fringe, and it was difficult to find an agent or editor who would even be interested in my stories.

If you write mainstream Christian fiction or romances, you would probably love ACFW. After three tries, I realized it was not a good fit for me. It’s not as if that’s the only writing conference around, though . . .

Late to the Party

When I look back on this summer in years to come, I believe I will think of it as the Summer of Hunger & Harry Potter. I have been fasting so much since the end of April that hunger has colored the whole summer for me, and will continue to do so. But, the benefits for my health have been considerable, so I don’t necessarily mean this as a complaint.

One way I have resisted the strong desire to eat is by reading through the entire Harry Potter book series. By random happenstance, I finished reading the last book on the 20th anniversary of the day the first book came out.

I know some of you are shocked. Some of you are shocked that I have only just now read these books for the first time. Some of you are shocked that I was willing to read them at all.

First of all, why did I wait so long? After all, these books are blockbuster bestsellers in the very genre that I hope to break into myself. Professionally, I need to be familiar with them, but there are two reasons I waited. First, I had zero interest in reading any of the books until I was sure the whole series was finished. I do not like waiting years for a new book to come out, because by the time it does, I feel obligated to reread all the preceding books so they will be fresh in my mind. I don’t have enough years left in me to keep doing this over and over. Now I won’t start a series unless I know for sure it is complete.

Secondly, when these books came out, I was immersed in a conservative homeschool culture that made it very difficult to admit that one might be interested in any fiction that was not overtly Christian. Even C.S. Lewis was questioned in some quarters. The general opinion seemed to be that letting your kids read Harry Potter was tantamount to buying them a one-way ticket to hell.

Cowardly as it might sound, I needed to have friends and belong to a support group, so I toed the line. I read enough about the books to know that I would probably not mind my kids reading them, but I was not willing to face the social ostracism that would certainly follow. I’m sure I damaged my reputation by allowing my kids to read both Tolkien and Lewis, but I was still accepted in the group.

The obvious follow-up question then is, why read them now? What has changed? Several things have changed. First of all, the book series has been finished, so I could read through all seven books one after the other. Secondly, as I already mentioned, this series is the most successful young adult fantasy series of all time, and since I also write young adult fantasy, it really is imperative for me to be familiar with them—and to know why they remain so popular.

Thirdly, I am no longer accepted in any homeschool group, so I don’t really care if they judge me for reading these books! I have reached the point where I figure that my remaining life is much too short to spend it trying to gain the approval of people whose opinions I don’t necessarily agree with in the first place. The homeschool scene is no longer a place where I feel I belong, despite the fact that I have three years left in my teaching career.

So, having done the deed, having read the books, what do I think? Here are my thoughts, in no particular order:

*I love the world building, the scope and depth of it. It is very well thought out, very detailed, very imaginative, very beguiling.

*I love the seven-year story arc, one book for each year of Harry’s schooling, with each successive book getting darker and the stakes getting higher. J.K. Rowling clearly had all the major plot elements planned well in advance. (Unlike me, for instance.)

*I was surprised by the huge role that racism plays in the series. Not black/white, obviously, but wizard/muggle. None of my friends who are fans of the books had mentioned this to me, so it caught me off guard. The villains are all racists.

*I was likewise surprised by the author’s apparent antipathy toward government. The Ministry of Magic is portrayed as worse than incompetent and becomes a body of institutionalized evil and racism. It kind of makes me wonder what Rowling thinks about her own government!

*I was disappointed in her portrayal of teen romance. It is very G-rated, which I love, but it also seems almost devoid of emotion. To me, teen relationships are all about the intense emotions, and I don’t feel she did a good job of depicting that.

*I love her focus on loyalty in friendships. Since I myself value loyalty very highly, this is not surprising, but I love how the relationships continue and deepen from book to book, and how willing Harry’s friends are to come to his aid even at considerable risk to their own safety.

*I don’t think the “witchcraft” depicted in the book can be taken seriously by any educated person in a Westernized civilization. I certainly don’t think it would threaten anyone’s Christian beliefs. It’s a fantasy, and I think most people totally get that. However, I would not recommend this series to someone who grew up in a third-world society where real witchcraft is a pervasive and dangerous part of the culture.

*During the years I abstained from reading this series, I read plenty of articles about how horrifying and satanic it was. I also read several articles that basically said these books are the most Christian thing written since the Bible and therefore it is fine to be obsessed with them. While they certainly do have themes of loyalty, sacrifice, and redemption, I wouldn’t go so far as to claim they are in any way “Christian.” That also does not bother me.

*At first I was bothered by how the kids in the story use magic frivolously to “hex” and “jinx” each other, especially since sometimes the results caused distress or embarrassment. However, I had to admit that this is very normal teenage behavior. In real life, kids can’t jinx each other, but they sure do play practical jokes and say things that are just as damaging and humiliating as any jinx in Harry Potter.

*I love that even the good characters are not perfect. No one’s a saint. They all have their foibles and they all do things they probably regret later. That’s how it should be, especially if they learn from their misdeeds.

*Rowling commits many of the modern “sins” of writing. She uses an unnecessary number of adverbs, indulges in head-hopping, tells instead of shows, and lets the action lag at times. At writers’ conferences, they make it sound like all of these sins are unpardonable, and if you commit them, you will never get published and no one will ever read your books. However, the reality is that you can get away with the most egregious writing transgressions as long as you have an engaging story, and since Rowling delivers on the story, all is forgiven.

So, now I can finally “get” all the Harry Potter references I’ve been hearing for years. I know my Hogwarts “house”—Ravenclaw. I didn’t take any tests to determine my patronus, because I already know what mine would be: a cape buffalo.

Happy Birthday, Harry.

 

 

 

Manuscript Mother’s Day?

Thanks to Grace Bridges for this little exercise:

ALL ABOUT YOUR LITERARY CHILD!

1) What’s the first line? “On that life-changing day, Sitara and I combed each other’s hair, tried on dozens of outfits, and practiced walking with books on our heads.”

2) Is it your first finished book? No. 6th novel and 7th book.

3) When did you write it? Started November 2015, finished January 2017.

4) Did you plan it out or wing it? I always knew where things were going to end up, but I winged it most of the way.

5) How long did it take to write? About 7 weeks.

6)Binge-written or slow and steady? Written in 2 binges: November 2015, and January 2017.

7) Where did you write it? Sitting in my little alcove in my wingback chair with my laptop on my lap.

8) What program/device did you use? My HP laptop and Scrivener.

9) What was your worst distraction? Real life responsibilities.

10) What did you snack on? Mostly nuts. And many mugs of tea.

11) What did you do when it wanted to drive you crazy? Read back over the bits I liked.

12) How many edits did it go through. Currently going through the first edit.

13) Did you get it published? In my dreams. It’s not ready yet.

14) What’s on the cover/what would you like on the cover? Good question. I’m pretty sure it’s going to involve polar bears and a huge black hawk.

15) What is the genre? YA Fantasy

16) What did you name it? Sohalie’s Search

 

Looking Back; Looking Forward

Sorry for my lengthy silence—I have been somewhat overwhelmed with health issues and with revising my first novel manuscript, which is what prompted today’s post.

I have now completed six full-length novels (and one memoir). Along the way I have attended over a dozen writers’ conferences and learned a great deal about writing and publishing. Soon after my first writers’ conference, back in 2009, I gave up on trying to sell my first novel and focused on revising my second one and writing more. Although I felt that first book had a very compelling story, I was told that there would be no market for it because it doesn’t fit into any of the pigeon holes (specific genres) that publishers use to sell books.

At the end of January this year, flush with my success in finishing my sixth novel, I had the bright idea of pulling out that first manuscript to see what kind of revisions it might need after lying neglected for eight years.

The experience was both dismaying and encouraging. You see, when I was working on that book and trying to pitch it, people kept giving me advice about how to improve my writing and I thought I was already doing all those things. It was so frustrating. Despite my English degree, I didn’t know enough to know how to make things better.

This time, as I read through, it was as though the scales had fallen from my eyes. I found that I often slipped into omniscient POV, which is mostly frowned on these days. There were hundreds of unnecessary dialog tags and adverbs. The story, I was relieved to see, is still a powerful one (at least in my humble opinion), but it was not ready for the big leagues back in 2009.

I will no doubt go through it several more times using my “triple sifter” approach, but I don’t think I’ll be pitching it any time soon. It is indeed hard to categorize, and my vague plan is to be famous first and then self-publish this book once I already have legions of adoring fans.

So that was the looking back part. The huge benefit for me was the realization that I have indeed improved as a writer in the last eight years, which means that looking forward, I might have a real chance at finally finding an agent and a publisher.

What I’m trying to say is that relentless self-education does pay off. I’ve learned from writers’ conferences, books, and from my wonderful critique partners. I had three short stories published last year and this year I hope to do better. I now feel somewhat confident that I finally have the skills to pull it off.