Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Missouri Writers Guild's "Just Write" Conference

I have a ton of stories from the conference this weekend but I'll do everyone a favor and keep this entry just to writing and Threadcaster.

I wanted to start with a retraction. Before the conference I wrote a huge entry about applying backstory, now I know better. I learned so much about craft and process at this conference! First lesson came in the first session At the Agents and Editor's panel, someone asked "Why do you all hate prologues" and the answer was this - they don't as long as they serve a purpose other than A, Lazy Backstory or B, Lazy Worldbuilding. I realized my prologue was both so out it goes into the Graveyard.

-oh and as an aside. Since I'm a big fan of revising I wanted to share a little method. Soemtimes it's easier to retract if you don't delete. I have a Threadcaster_Graveyard.doc I keep open. When I have large chunks of prose to eliminate, I write a title and where it came from, then cut/paste it into the Graveyard in case I need something from it later. It lessens the blow.

Back to the con - after the panel came the Nightcaps. I had a pitch the next day with two Agents, Kristine Makani of Blank Slate Press (A local small press) and Kathleen Ortiz who is interested in YA, but I was on the waiting list for Kristin Nelson so I joined her small group. All I wanted was to talk and be memorable, considering I wouldn't be pitching. As it ends up she's extremely nice and very down-to-earth.  A lot of people were treating her like she was made of gold and if they touched her hem magic would happen - but she was very sincere and human. We talked and asked questions - afterward I shook her hand and asked for a business card. I even invited her to the StLouis Writers' Guild's open mic starting down the hall. She declined of course.

At open mic I read a scrap of Threadcaster hoping to hand out promo cards. What happened instead was a cringeworthy trip through a sequence that desperately needed a rewrite. I decided earlier to bring it to Kristin's "Agent Reads the Slushpile", but now I had some serious work to do. I ran home to gas my prologue and rewrite my first two pages, removing as much pointless info-dump worldbuilding backstory as I could. The goal was to get Cat, the Brushcasters, and Peter all on the first page. It worked (although Pete was just a name-drop) and I saved and closed the thing at 2am.

I slept in the next morning and missed the first session. I also missed a call from the conference coordinator telling me Kristin had an opening for me! Sweet! But now the question was; do I put Threadcaster on the slush pile before I pitch her? What if she hates it and shuts me down? I decided to do it anyway - I went through the trouble of changing it up last night, might as well. Plus I know the story is great and the only reason she'd shut it down would be late night spelling and phrasing errors.

I went to the workshop. There were easy over thirty people in there and she only had time to get to eight entries (after all the disclaimer and paper rustling). The workshop consisted of an assistant reading the entries aloud and Kristin stopping her to share her thoughts on things that bothered her then tell her to continue or pick another. It was a window into her mind when she reads the slush pile in her office - rejecting 90% of what she sees there. I found her comments extremely helpful. It was great to hear the kind of things she likes and didn't like. I'll give you some notes
-1, Be mindful of your character and their relationship to the prose. We identify with character - if they are in trouble, don't concern yourself with describing small details in the setting. We care about what they care about and they care about the gun in their face not the flowers blooming ironically nearby.
-2, The same point with age. Even if your narration is not first person it should be appropriate for the age of your protagonist. If your protagonist is young, then they'll see the world in a distinctly polarized way. If your narration feels too adult it creates a disconnect between the reader and the character, therefore drawing us away from the people we're supposed to identify with.
-3, Show not tell. The way you phrase the action can convey emotion. If a woman sees the man she dated in highschool sitting with a hot blonde and a toddler we already know there's some kind of jealousy going on simply because of how the characters were described, we don't need the next line to tell us she's jealous.
-4, It takes one line to generate a clever turn of phrase. Be concise, tighten and activate your verbs. You can make the same point and not slow the story.

I didn't expect mine to be chosen; it was still web formatted at 12pt font with no title, totally pass-overable. At the five minute warning she pulled one last draft and read the opening line; "Cat sat on the front porch of her parents' house weaving a web of string within the cage of her hands". EEEK! The moment of truth! She stopped first thing and spoke to the crowd "I just wanted to say that that's a great image."

DoubleEeek. At that point I didn't care what else she said, I was keeping that phrase forever. She read most the first page (Didn't get to Peter), expressing concerns about my sense of space and world - all of which are valid. She stopped at the first sign of "Tell not show", when I put a phrase in specifically for the audience not the characters. Worldbuilding needs to happen as we watch the story and should not detract from it. Of course this is the lesson I learned yesterday so I totally and wholly agree. I'm going to have to rewrite a LOT.

Straight from there it was to pitches. Kristy was really into my story - like she really liked it and asked questions and things. I was feeling good, then she turned around and pitched her press to me as well. I consider it a win.  Immediately following was my pitch with Kristin. She was like "Hey!" and I was like "Hey!" and we talked about how it felt like we were friends after all the times we ran into each other. She asked me about my story and I'm like "You know something already! It was the last one on the slush pile!" and she's like "About Cat and the Calligraphers?" and I'm like "Yeah!" and she's like "You're going to revise it aren't you?" and I'm like "Good Lord Yes."

I told her a little more about it and she's like "Here's my card. I want you to go home and take your time revising it... don't rush it... and when you're ready query me, tell me we talked and I'd be happy to see your first thirty pages." to which I about exploded.

So Kristin Nelson is interested enough to read more on my story after a pitch and a half a page. I consider that an acceptance. I wish the thing was done so I could give it to her right now while it's fresh in her mind, but even if it was I've learned so much in the last 24 hours I'd want to revise it anyway. Anyway that's pretty awesome. A great day for Threadcaster, that's for sure!

My pitch with Kathleen was much later. She told me the age of my protagonist was a problem and I needed to make her younger if I wanted to appeal to the YA audience. I was resistant at first - I already  youngened her once, and I wanted to make a point of having a character that WASNT 17 because it seems like all the characters out there are 17. Not to mention i'd have to change Peter's age too, and then change the expiration date on Curses to keep him on the cusp, but in the end I decided it made sense. Cat was behaving a little young for 21 in a world without any higher education, and although it's weird to youngen Peter more, having the death cap at 20 helps encourage the idea that Curses have to live their lives in a wink when most of us consider them still children. So it's now canon - Cat is 18, Peter's freshly 19, and Curses die within their 20th year.

As for the rest of the conference, I made some new friends, I grew closer with old friends, I laughed and talked and told stories and heard stories - it was a wonderful experience and immeasurably beneficial. From now on Threadcaster is an actual job. I want to get it peer edited and to Kristin's desk before this time next year so she doesn't forget all about me, so if you'll excuse me, I've got a lot of writing to do.


  1. That's so amazing how strings were pulled for you!! Wow doors are really opening for Threadcaster and I'm so excited for you to finish up and publish this thing! <3 Go Jame!

  2. Oh me too! It's amazing how all the little things - how not having a pitch made me seek Kristin out, how editing at the last minute led to a good slush pile, then all culminating in a successful pitch - I can't help but be thankful for how it worked out. Even if Kristin doesn't pick me up, this one event has turned Threadcaster from a hobby to a job, and thanks to that I'll make sure it's done this year without question.

  3. Wow, that all sounds AMAZING! Rock on for you Jame!

    Where the heck to you live; I'm moving over there and we have have writing parties. XD

    ~*~ Rad

  4. Live in Missouri... dead center of the USA. You're welcome any time ^^