Tuesday, October 21, 2008

James River Writers Conference

This was my first James River Writers Conference October 10 to 11, 2008. I went with the idea that I would learn about the business of writing, meet some new writers, and if I had a meeting with an agent, well, that would be a plus.

  • First, the plus. I met with Barbara Clark of a new agency, Barbara Clark Literary Agency. She has recently made the transition from editor (at such large publishing houses as Doubleday, Viking Studio Books, and Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

    She said she was looking for clients. Well, I am looking for an agent, so I did my best. My appointment was her third from the last on the second day, a timing I prefer when I have to make a sales pitch. "Always go last if you can," my business mentor Chan Preston says. You'll leave a lasting impression! I pitched my women's fiction, Unintended Consequences, about a woman who comes out of retirement to take care of two generations in a dysfunctional family. Ms. Clark asked me to send her a query letter and the first 80 pages of my novel. I have done so.

  • Next, what I learned about marketing. After all, this is all about selling me and my ideas in fictional form. I have nearly 30 years experience in sales, marketing and public relations, so much of what the agents and editors talked about was what I do naturally.

    To help once an editor buys your manuscript, draw up a formal marketing plan. Get to know your local indie and big box book stores. The indies are great because they hand-sell books. The big box stores are important because you need to sweet talk them into giving you, a new writer, precious shelf space. It's a lot of smoozing and getting to know people who can help sell your books. But you all know that already. I asked if my backgound in marketing would be a detriment. One agent said he'd kill to have a client like me. Since I would rather live, I didn't pursue him!

  • Moving to tips from the sessions on how to write. Nothing really new here. One editor said you had to be prepared to "kill your darlings." The phrase, sentence, paragraph, etc. that you like the best is most likely the one that has to be chopped out. Don't make the mistake of substituting dialogue for character. Dialogue is a window into your character's pysche. And for heaven's sake, lose the adverbs like "he said, menacingly." Rewrite the dialogue to be menacing. In her session on writing mysteries, Diane Mott Davidson reminded her packed room of Somerset Maughan's famous statement that "nothing bad can happen to a writer. It's all material."

  • Research played a central theme in many sessions. From David Baldacci to David L. Robbins to Adriana Trigiani, everyone stressed research. Learn something about what you want to write about. Do it youself, if you can. If you want to write about hair styling, talk with stylists and work in a salon. You don't have to style hair, but you can learn from observing and listening.

  • The only session that was disappointing was on the literary novel. Three panelists tried to define it. They lost me with "it's like porn. I know it when I see it." I expected better.

    Would I go again? Yes. Did I find the investment in time and the cost of the conference worth it? Again yes. I recommend the conference to any writer, whether just starting out, changing genres, or seeking to broaden horizons as a published author.

    Wednesday, October 8, 2008

    NPR and Me

    I had been working on an essay about voting, spin, not believing what candidates say, and checking facts when one of my colleagues at Valley Writers suggested I send it in to our local NPR station, WVTF. At first, I was sceptical, but the more I thought about it, I decided I didn't have much to lose. After all, nothing ventured, nothing sprained.

    The long and short of it is that I recorded the essay below, Listen Carefully, on Friday, Oct. 3. It aired on Monday, Oct. 6, the last day for voters to register in Virginia. To access the recorded essay, please go to WVTF.

    I believe in the power of words, written, spoken, and thought. I believe that freedom of speech is inviolate. I believe words can be helpful or harmful, supportive or hurtful, constructive or destructive. I believe my beloved grandmother was wrong when she said “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never harm me,” because sometimes words can be ugly, demeaning, and misleading.

    Words bind communities together and the same words spoken derogatorily tear communities apart. I believe as a crafter of words I have an awesome responsibility to know the difference.

    We receive much of our information today intangibly – on television and on the radio. Less often, we receive it in written format, reading yesterday’s news printed on a dead tree with ink that stains our hands, but leaves little impact on our minds.

    A few decades ago we began receiving dumbed-down messages -- news stories became shorter, language became simplistic, reporting became entertainment. The “sound bite” has done more to damage our understanding than anything else. We rarely if ever hear the entire message.

    It is difficult if not impossible to reach an informed decision from a sound bite. It is too easy to skew a message in less than fifteen seconds.

    A dozen lake friends have met regularly this election season. We watched the early debates, the main convention speeches, and the most recent Presidential debate. We represent both major parties; several remain uncommitted. And we have been watching the political ads more closely this year than in elections past. I am horrified at the misrepresentations and outright lies fed to us as truth.

    Last weekend, this group argued loudly after the final credits of the first Presidential debate faded from the screen. I was stunned at the number of my friends who still believed lies that had been debunked months earlier: the Obama Muslim hoax, the Palin “thanks but no thanks” misrepresentation, and McCain distancing himself from President Bush.

    Suddenly, we became fixated on a political ad, a black and white picture of a bearded Tom Perriello, darkened and distorted with striations across his face. Each point the voice-over narrator made was accompanied by a crack like a gunshot. No mention was made of the fact that the photo was taken when Mr. Perriello was in Darfur working with refugees. And then came the tag line: “I’m Virgil Goode and I approved this message.”

    The argument stopped. It didn’t matter whether we supported Mr. Goode or Mr. Perriello. We gaped in shock. We wondered if voters would check the facts or believe the fear factor clearly implied with this spot.

    As sentient beings we have the onus to review and think carefully about the messages fed to us like so much mush. We have the responsibility to sound off, make our voices heard, and combat disinformation.

    The Constitution provides us the right to freedom of speech. It does not provide us with the right to lie, misrepresent, or spin. It is up to us to listen carefully, check facts, and repeat what has been verified as truth.

    I urge all of us to question the information we receive. When we embrace the truth, we can work as a group to regain the high ground we once held in the world. If we succumb to negativism and believe the lies, we belong in the mud. To prevent that from happening, I urge all citizens once again to exercise a sacred privilege and vote.

    This I believe.

    Update: On Oct. 9 I learned that this essay is being used in a Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University class on news reporting as an example of what everyone reporter should consider before putting fingers to keyboard. Thank you, Bill Loftus.

    Monday, September 29, 2008

    A Published Essay

    It seemed as if I would never find an editor who would publish anything I wrote. Then along came Lake Life, a publication of the Smith Mountain Eagle. Lake Life is a semi-annual glossy dedicated to promoting life at the most beautiful lake in Virginia -- if not in the world. The essay is called "Settlin' In -- At Smith Mountain Lake."

    Two years ago, November 2006, my husband, Terry Naylor, and I moved into our dream house at the lake. We had prepared for the move for years. First we found the right lot in 1999. We knew we were going to build a log home, so we interviewed several builders before finding one who would build the house we wanted, not the house he wanted. Finally we broke ground in 2000. By May 2001, the house was ready, but we weren’t. After all, we had jobs and lives in northern Virginia, so this became our weekend place.

    The more time we spent here, however, the more we knew we wouldn’t be satisfied being weekenders. We wanted to be year-rounders. We debated when we would move, ultimately deciding that 2006 was it.

    We made our lists, checked them twice and slowly weeded things we no longer needed from our formal Colonial. After we put it on the market, Terry quit his part time job at Home Depot and returned to full-time retirement from IBM. He spent most weekends supervising constructing the garage and finishing the basement. I made weekly trips down Route 29 in a car so full I couldn’t see out of the windows. Nothing rode for free, except our cat in her “condo.”

    Then one day we were ready. The movers came, the final items were donated, and we said farewell to a great group of neighbors.

    We unpacked and decorated for the holidays, even lucking out and selling our house “up north” on New Year’s Eve. Suddenly we faced with the ultimate challenge for everyone who moves: making new friends.

    We used my cousin Aleta as a positive example. Ten years ago she left Southern California for Alaska where she knew exactly no one. Now ten years later she can’t go anywhere in Anchorage without meeting friends. We wanted to be like her.

    I read the calendar section of the Eagle religiously, looking for activities. I’m not a crafter, so all activities like quilting and pottery were out. Because I love to read, book clubs looked interesting, but not interesting enough. Besides, I am driven to write even more than to read.

    One day I saw a calendar entry for Lake Writers. I’ve been writing, and not publishing, fiction for years. I’d already had a couple of bad episodes with other writers’ groups, but I picked up the phone and called Jim Morrison who encouraged me to come to a meeting. I knew I’d found a home. I liked the people, the way they interacted and their supportive criticism of people’s efforts. I was inspired to keep fingers on keyboard and crank out pages.

    I soon learned that around the lake when you join one group, you’ll soon be introduced to others with overlapping members. Again, Jim Morrison suggested I call SMAC, because it was looking for a press relations director. With a professional background in marketing, among other things in my overly crowded resume, it seemed like a logical fit, except I didn’t know what SMAC was. Don Fink, another Lake Writer, explained what SMAC does and handed me a membership form.

    After meeting with the president, I liked what I heard and agreed to do PR. I met a great group of dedicated and passionate people who were deeply involved in all types of arts and at least one who ties to Lake Writers. I started running into them in shops and other places. Hmm, I began to feel more like I belong here.

    Terry is a motorcyclist and enjoys long distance touring. He stopped one warm winter day in early 2007 for coffee at a local gas station. When he came out, a man was parked beside him, waiting. They introduced themselves, actually discovered they knew people in common back in New York, and exchanged numbers. Daily rides grew into road trips to motorcycle races. They’ve gone to the Mid-Ohio races two years in a row and are already planning for next year’s trip.

    While I was busy raising my hand to volunteer, Terry joined the board of our local owner’s association, which led to ALAC meetings, which led to him becoming very concerned about the relicensing debate. Soon he will join me on the SMAC board.

    Several months later, Jim Morrison mentioned a media relations opportunity for SMLA. By now, I’d been here long enough to know what that acronym meant and what the group did. I had another conversation with another president, attended a board meeting and was hooked. This time I would be writing articles about water quality, weeds, fertilizer and sewage removal for the Eagle. I had no idea how challenging it would be to make poop, um, fertilizer, and weeds, not weed, interesting.

    Now, nearing the end of two years in residence full-time, Terry and I kept our promises to meet people and get involved. I made my husband a promise: if opportunity in the form of a call or e-mail from Jim Morrison arrives, I won’t answer.

    I have to credit Jim with being a catalyst for where I am today at the lake. It’s all your fault, Jim. Thanks.

    Wednesday, September 24, 2008

    Introducing Me

    Born in Washington, DC, I was raised in Southern California where I ran wild with coyotes in the hills above Malibu. Although I protested the war in Vietnam, burned my bra for feminism, and am a social liberal but a fiscal conservative, I ultimately realized I had to earn a living. After spending way too many years in college, in the process earning an undergraduate degree and three graduate degrees, I entered the military-industrial complex after an academic career as a student and teacher. I count myself a survivor of the corporate brainwashing, because I still have the ability to think. Not outside the box or any other cliche, but creatively and objectively. Married for nearly twenty-five years to the same man, I am a writer, a thinker, the mother of three grown stepchildren, companion and friend. I find time to work with young women, mentoring them to succeed in the workplace without losing their identity, write fiction, play golf, sail, hike and read. I write on ecological issues for two local newspapers and frequently publish essays in regional magazines. I love riding behind my husband on his motorcycle. You'll have to decide for yourself if and where I have a tattoo.