Monthly Archives: August 2015

Genre Lessons: Westerns

Cowboy.

Image by Flickr user Satria Nugraha

I belong to a librarian book club that reads a different genre every month to improve our reader’s advisory skills. The idea is to get us better-acquainted with the types of books we may not normally read. In addition to improving my recommendations, I’m also studying these books from a writer’s perspective. Just because I don’t write a certain genre doesn’t mean I can’t learn from those who do. If you want to see other posts in this series, check out the “genre lessons” tag.

This month we’re reading westerns. I chose two books for this month’s meeting, one that I loved, and one that just wasn’t for me. The latter was by a famous award-winning author, which just goes to show you how subjective this business is. The story takes place in a small Texas town, and was contemporary at the time it was written. And it shows — social attitudes, language, and hazing rituals that were perfectly normal fifty years ago had me cringing today. That said, the language was gorgeous on a sentence level, and this kept me from abandoning the book when the characters’ prejudices and behavior (and the lack of consequences associated with these) bothered me, and when the plot seemed to meander.

The other book I read was a YA historical fiction that came out this year, but takes place in the mid-1800s. Because of the time period, there were some less-than-tasteful descriptions of minorities, but the minority characters were portrayed as individuals, and prejudices were handled with far more sensitivity.

The main lessons I learned from these books:

1. Don’t be afraid to be gritty, if that’s how your characters would describe things. One of these books took readers deep into the minds of horny teenaged boys, which worked well for the story. However, it felt a bit strange coming through the filter of a third person omniscient narrator. I would have preferred such intimate thoughts to be in first person; the distance of third made me feel like I was walking in on something I shouldn’t, something the characters wouldn’t have wanted me to see.

2. If your story is set in a time or place where racial slurs are used, it’s okay to have your characters use that language, as long as you do it with sensitivity, and understand that some readers will be offended. I recommend limiting offensive terms to dialog, and if there’s a way to show that the character(s) described by those terms are unique, accomplished individuals, even better. First and foremost, though, you have to stay true to your story and your characters. Don’t shy away from language, but don’t use it extensively, and never use it for shock value. If you can find another way to convey social attitudes without using those slurs, do it. And no matter what, write with sensitivity. I recommend you also ask a few readers who belong to the minority group(s) you may offend to look at your work during the revision process.

3. People — and characters — are complex, and can have contradicting beliefs. One of the books I read featured a Chinese-American character whose beliefs were influenced by both her Chinese father’s culture and the Christian culture that surrounded her. Your characters should never be stereotypical tropes. They’ve all had unique upbringings, unique experiences, unique trials and triumphs. Make sure that shows in their attitudes, beliefs, and actions.

So, those are my main takeaways from reading westerns. What would you add to this list? And what western would you recommend I read to get a better feel for the genre?

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Getting the most out of contests and conferences

Professional networking.

Image by flickr user Ghozt Tramp

By the time you read this, I’ll have submitted my pitch and first chapter for Pitch Wars, a contest hosted by the fabulous Brenda Drake in which selected applicants are paired with mentors to polish their manuscripts and pitches, and then agents read the pitches and request anything that catches their eye. It’s a wonderful opportunity for mentees to learn from people who have been in their shoes, for mentors and mentees to connect with other writers, and for agents to find great books. But I’m going to echo some things I keep hearing from the mentors and past participants: first, being a Pitch Wars mentee will not guarantee that you’ll get an agent right away, nor will not being chosen for the contest mean you’ll never get an agent with that manuscript; and second, the agent round is the least important part of the contest. Pitch Wars is all about making connections and learning from each other. And you don’t have to be a mentee to benefit from the contest. Follow along on Twitter (#PitchWars), cheer the contestants on, and soak up all the advice the participants offer in their tweets and on their blogs. Join in the conversation, and you may just meet your next CP, or your next best friend (or both!).

I view conferences in a similar light. There are usually opportunities to pitch to agents, but I think the greatest value lies in making connections and learning from your fellow conference-goers — both faculty and attendees. If you go to a conference with the single goal of getting an agent, you’ll be disappointed if the agent(s) you pitch to don’t request your work, and you’ll miss out on a lot of opportunities to grow as a writer. I’ve mentioned this before, but I met all of my CPs (and some of my best friends) at Midwest Writers Workshop. That conference is where I first began looking at writing as a career, and where I was introduced to the business side of writing. I’ve pitched to agents there the past three years, but I actually got more out of spending time with them informally at meals and in the hotel lobby. Why? Because we got to know each other. We got to talk about the industry and books without the awkwardness of my pitch hovering between us. And I learned which agents I might enjoy working with, because I got a sense of their personalities and communication styles. Anyone I can discuss zombie apocalypses, the NFL, and the yin and yang of gay YA with is someone I’d be comfortable talking about my work and my career with. (And remember, you don’t want to just get an agent; you want to get the right agent for you. Your agent will be your business partner, so you want to make sure you’ll get along well.)

So, even if you don’t get picked for a contest, or the agent you thought would be perfect for you doesn’t request your full manuscript on the spot, you can still get a lot out of contests and conferences. Make as many meaningful connections as you can, and be open to learning from everyone you meet, no matter where they are in their careers.

What advice do you have for contest entrants and conference attendees?

Tips for writing unlikeable characters

Captain Jack Sparrow

Image from Wikimedia Commons.

At the Midwest Writers Workshop, ​I attended a session on how to write unlikeable characters without driving your readers away. This is tough to do, especially when you consider that different readers have different measures of what makes a character unlikeable, as well as different levels of unlikeable behavior that they’ll tolerate. For me, in order to enjoy a book with an unlikeable protagonist, that character has to be relatable. I have to understand and be able to empathize with this person. Or, at the very least, I have to be invested in the story and the way the narrator is telling it.

So, how do we do this?

1. Save the cat. Make the character do something kind (but still in-character!) in an early scene, and readers will be more likely stick with that character through later unsavory behaviors.

2. Give the character someone s/he loves. Readers will tolerate a lot more nastiness from someone who is fiercely protective of a friend or family member.

3. Allow the character’s bad traits to help him/her. A seasoned shoplifter may be able to put those skills to use when trying to sneak into or out of the villain’s lair.

4. Show off the character’s flaws with humor. Readers will put up with a lot more if you can make them laugh at the same time.

5. Exaggerate bad traits to a love-to-hate level. I’m sure we can all think of characters who are so awful they fit this description.

6. Give the reader someone to hate more. A carjacker doesn’t seem so bad when s/he’s chasing a serial killer.

7. Make the writing compelling. If the writing is good enough, readers will stick with the story for that.

8. Give the character a change to change or grow. This isn’t necessary, and won’t work for all stories, but sometimes the pirate who sets out to steal the city’s treasure may wind up saving the city and returning the gold later.

9. Make the character self-aware. Let your character own his/her dark qualities, recognize that they’re dark, but not care because xyz pushed him/her to that point.

Those are my tips and takeaways from the workshop. Is there anything you’d add to this list? What makes you stick with an unlikeable character?

I can do that

Snake.

Janet’s speech included an anecdote from her pre-agenting days when she had to hold a live snake.

Midwest Writers Workshop was a little over a week ago now, and I’m still recovering. Staying up half the night with writers, editors, and agents is awesome, but not conducive to my physical health. This past week I kept telling myself I’d go to bed early, but then I’d wind up revising a synopsis or formatting a manuscript and suddenly it was after midnight… Anyway, I think I’m finally (mostly) caught up on sleep now.

The conference had a lot of great panels and sessions, which I’ll talk about in the coming weeks, but for me the best advice came from Janet Reid’s keynote speech at the closing banquet. (Brief aside: getting a query critique from The Shark herself was beyond awesome. And she’s just as cool in person as she is on her blog.) Janet talked about some of the successful writers she’s worked with over the years, and the common thread between them: when faced with a challenge, they all responded with some version of, “I can do that.”

As writers, we don’t always like to make changes. Sometimes a critique partner will suggest something that will require a complete re-write of a third or a half or even all of a manuscript. And sometimes that suggested change isn’t right for your book. But often, we don’t want to change anything because it means more work, more adjustments to characters or plot points, more cutting scenes and crafting new ones. And yes, revising will be hard. It might not all be fun. But your work will be stronger for it, and you’ll emerge a better writer.

Another conference attendee discussed a time when an editor asked her to make a significant change to her book’s narration. Both she and her agent felt this would severely detract from the story, but she went ahead and submitted sample chapters with the proposed change. The original narrator stayed (and I’m sure all her readers are grateful!), but the fact that this writer was willing to consider adjusting speaks volumes. It shows she’s someone who will seriously consider criticism, and who’s able to work on a deadline. And the work she put into those sample chapters wasn’t wasted — it let her see her story in a new light, hone her craft, and learn that she’d chosen the right narration for the story.

Saying, “I can do that,” doesn’t just apply to writing. I think if you want to succeed in any career, you have to be willing to make — or at least consider making — adjustments. I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve been given last-minute tasks at the library. Write a press release for tomorrow’s paper? Teach an off-site computer class because the regular instructor was sick? Proofread an early literacy publication three, four, five times? With budget cuts and department consolidations, I find myself constantly taking on new roles at the library. I could stumble through them, or I could see them as opportunities to learn new skills. If I have to cut a program, maybe I can reach that program’s audience with a book display or blog post.

Whatever your situation, change can be scary. Huge edits can hurt — and on deadline, they can really stress you out. Know your limits, but don’t be afraid to embrace the possibilities. Take a deep breath. You can do this.