20 Random Writing Tips from CWC 2015 Presenters

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Author Highlight: Rachel DeWoskin, Karen Abbott, Rebecca Makkai

Attending CWC 2015 was possibly the best decision I’ve ever made in my life, and I thank you so much for reading my recaps! Below are 20 useful-but-random hints and tips I couldn’t fit into my previous posts. They come from all kinds of CWC presenters who work all kinds of genres—but they ring true across the board. Here’s to becoming a better writer!


DO’s of composing a good story:

  • DO Let Your Story Ring True. Don’t be afraid of things like sex, drugs, or murder, even in YA. The fact is that these things exist, and your story may feel false if you don’t include them. –YA Structure Presenters
  • DO Throw Rocks. Take your characters too far, and push them to the limit. Tough odds cause the story to move faster, the main character to change, and the reader to feel more endeared to the character. Just make sure their reactions make sense! –YA Structure Presenters
  • DO Treat Storylines Like Puzzles. Experiment with tying them together. –Karen Abbott

DON’Ts of a composing good story:

  • DON’T  Write to the Marketplace. The fact is, you don’t know what the market is going to love by the time your book is seeking an agent (much less published) . You will almost certainly miss whatever train you were trying to catch. –YA Structure Presenters
  • DON’T Write to an Audience. You can have a general idea of your readership, but if you let your perceived reader change the way your story is written, you might come off as pandering. Let’s be frank here: no human being knows what they themselves truly want, so it’s utterly impossible that you can successfully know – and express – what someone else wants in your writing. –YA Structure Presenters
  • DON’T Make Your Character You. Take care to create people that react differently to stimuli than you would. Otherwise, you run the risk of creating the same character over and over again, or of going too easy on them. –YA Structure Presenters

When obtaining constructive criticism, it will help if you:

  • Get Absentee Feedback. Find out how readers are experiencing your draft when you are not there to answer their questions. –YA Structure Presenters
  • Join a Writing Group with Variety. Various perspectives will help your writing thrive. –Karen Abbott
  • Abbreviate Your Criticizers. In your mind, think of your beta readers as an abbreviation of their criticisms in order to get the most from their feedback. For example, your fellow writing group member Stacey could be the Structural Stickler; look to her when you need structure help. –Rachel DeWoskin, Rebecca Makkai

When pitching a story, remember:

  • Always Compare Your Book to Other Titles. Your pitch or query should contain a comparative-title hook. Don’t leave this out no matter what! It shows your prospective agent how they will pitch your story to a publisher. –Grace Menary-Winefield
  • An Updated Blog is a Plus. Even if you aren’t getting much traffic, it doesn’t hurt to keep up a blog if you are seeking representation.  Also, reading other blogs helps you gain more traffic—and makes you a better author. –Grace Menary-Winefield
  • Highlight the Darkness of Your ADULT  Fantasy or Sci-Fi. If you are pitching these genres, many agents & publishers are looking for darker tones or elements than in their YA counterparts. If your adult book isn’t lighthearted or comedic, make sure its “dark side” shows in your query or pitch. –Grace Menary-Winefield

If you are having trouble writing every day:

  • Write In The Morning. Pick a time for yourself, and stick to it – but if you write for only 15 minutes every morning, you’ll feel less guilty later on if you don’t do more that day. -Karen Abbott, Writing Group presenters
  • Schedule Yourself. “There is no template for this… [people] cobble together beautifully complicated lives.” –Rachel DeWoskin
  • Consider Teaching. There’s a reason so many authors are also teachers—it keeps you in the writing loop. –Rachel DeWoskin, Rebecca Makkai
  • Artist Colonies are Awesome. At retreats or colonies, you work alone all day in your room, escaping from whatever busy life you left behind. Then, you mingle with like-minded people in the evening. This builds a network, but also inspires you to write another day. –Rachel DeWoskin, Rebecca Makkai

If you are writing realistic or historical work:

  • Ask Questions, Amass Material, and Scale Back. This is the writing process of Rachel DeWoskin, and I can say from personally reading her book that it works like a charm.
  • Order a Back Issue Sears Magazine. These are available for any recent historical year. You’ll learn all kinds of stuff when you see what was for sale back then! –Rachel DeWoskin, Rebecca Makkai
  • Research Is Ignition, Not Boredom. You’ll be amazed how fascinating history can be. Don’t fear research—it might be the most fun part of writing the book! –Rachel DeWoskin, Rebecca Makkai

And above all,

WRITE YOUR BEST BOOK.

Marketplace, genre, readership… blah. Just write the best damn book you can, and see where the chips fall when you’re done. Good writing can make up for any perceived deficiencies, so that should be your top priority.

YA Structure Presenters

Meet the Agents: CWC Session VI

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Agent Highlight: Michelle Grajkowski, Danielle Egan-Miller, Elizabeth Evans, Kristyn Keene

This CWC Recap covers the thoughts of the above agents during a moderated panel, so comments varied widely.


How to Find an Agent:

  • Enter Contests. This gets your work out there, especially if it wins!
  • Go to Conferences. Pitch to as many agents as possible, or just chat with them if you see any around. Absolutely do not pester them.
  • Subscribe to Publisher’s Marketplace for ($25/mo). This, and others, cost money, but it’s a valuable resource that shows you who is acquiring what in real time. You can subscribe to one month, make a huge spreadsheet, drop your sub, and then update the sheet again in a half year.
  • Search Facebook & Twitter. Searching “agent” directly, or checking the “suggested” people on agents’ pages, usually turns up a few leads.
  • Check the Acknowledgements of your favorite (or similar) books. You can see who represented those authors!
  • Association Memberships. If you can become a member of the SFWA (for example), there will often be networks of agents you can utilize.
  • AgentQuery.com & Other Free Sites. Often these aren’t well-updated, but they’re a good place to start.

On Query Writing:

  • Include the Hook, Book, & Cook. Hook: tell us what sets it apart. Book: give the specs  and a small summary. Cook: tell us about you. For more in-depth help with this, check out my blog on query writing (written during an internship).
  • Make Comparisons to Non-Huge Works. Don’t compare to Twilight or Harry Potter, for example, because agents have seen these comparisons a billion times.
  • Only Include Writing Stuff in Your Bio. This means your Twitter, blog, or Facebook follower count (if impressive); any local events or writing groups you run or are involved in; any publications or contests wins; and maybe one perky detail.

Once You Have Interest:

  • Be Completely Transparent. Don’t lie or embellish to an agent, before or after you’ve nabbed them. Stay honest, or you will encounter big problems down the road.
  • Make Them Feel Like They Have Competition. If an agent requests a manuscript, let other agents (to whom you have submitted, but not yet heard back from) know about it. If an agent has your manuscript, but hasn’t gotten to it, and another agent requests it – let the first one know. This will light a nice fire under them!
  • Make Sure You Have the Right Match. You want someone you can get along with who will really champion you. Try asking these questions to see if you have the right agent (and editor). Dropping an agent can make it hard to get a new one later on.

To Move From Self-Published to Agented:

  • Don’t Expect a Publisher For Your Current Book. Even if you get an agent, more often than not the agent will represent your next book – not the one you have currently self-published.
  • Your Book Must Be Brand New or Have Sold More Than 15,000 Copies. If it’s brand new, it can be taken off the market and reworked; if it hasn’t sold 15k, no one likes it enough.
  • You Shouldn’t Have Tapped Out a Niche. If your audience niche is very small, and your self-published book seemed to capture all its readers, then there isn’t much room for growth. However, if can be a platform for a future, wider-ranging project.
  • You Can Have an Agent Without a Publisher. They can still help you out, even if all you do is self-publish – especially if you come across any other types of contracts, such as a film options or foreign rights.

Session I Missed: To see this session (and because of a beer-related side-trip involving a bad Uber driver), I had to miss these five sessions:

  • The Writer’s Path to Breaking Into the Film Industry
  • Break Into Newspaper and Magazine Writing
  • To MFA or Not MFA?
  • Breaking Into Live Lit: Conquer Literature’s New Frontier
  • Networking For Writers: Get on the Radar of Agents, Publishers, and Bloggers (Please message me if you have notes from this one! I was so upset to miss it!

If you went to any of those sessions, consider doing a simultaneous or guest blog to correspond with my CWC Recap!

Lessons of Submission: The Martial Arts of Hitting ‘Send’

At summer camp ages ago, I learned Judo, the “martial arts of falling,” as my instructor put it. To oversimplify, in Judo one learns to take people down – so, naturally, one must also learn to hit the ground, because everybody has to lose if they are going to learn.

As a preteen, I was astounded to learn that by hitting the ground with your hand – before your body followed – helped to arrest your momentum and control your collision in a way that kept you from experiencing pain. Falling had always been one of those infallible things to me – unstoppable once instigated, its resolution was one of scrapes and bruises. But all things, it seems, have their art.

Submitting to agents this past week was like learning Judo. I compiled each query painstakingly, tailoring them to the agents I was most excited to work with, throwing in different numbers of pages, and even writing up a bio and synopsis (who knew so many agents wanted synopses? One agent declared that they were evil, to which I agree wholeheartedly). The compilation of each query was the fall before impact, the prelude to failure – because we all know rejections are a thing.

But then, after triple-checking my subject line, the agent’s email, the spacing between my synopsis and bio – all the thoughts raging through my head, “Will this even work? Is this even worth it?” – I hit “Send” as if hitting the ground, and suddenly there is no impact. I have completed the task, and, unharmed, I move onward to the next agent in line.

I’ll just have to have my clicking hand ready for “Archive” once the rejections come rolling in 🙂

And So It Begins (The Failure Parade)

I’m not doing too hot at this blog-writing thing. One post in months. I picture the small unnamed monster from Monster’s Inc. slapping his large partner and crying, “Keep it together, man!” Well, I took a day off work on 5/15 to submit my very first serious queries to a select group of agents. Now I have to get the blog going, start a Twitter, etc.

Of course, I expect only rejections. I was always a little thrilled by the thought of getting rejections, probably because of the mental image of Stephen King as a young man, poking his rejection letters through a railroad spike, affixed to the wall above his desk. I would like to do something similar, but I’ll have less paper this time around – it will probably just be me printing out canned responses, “It’s not right for us, but someone else might feel differently”, carbon imprint be cored.

My father once received a Tibetan prayer flag in the mail, from a nonprofit asking for money. It was a plain white string with colored paper flags glued over it, evenly spaced, different colors but all the same gold design. I’d like to hang my rejections that way, the same words but perhaps I will color them, or have my grandmother paint her lovely whimsical designs on them, and let them flutter above my desk, reminding me that a rejection is still a step in this path I have never walked before.

A success is just a success, a source of pride, a movement forward – but a failure can teach us much more. Better to parade them than fear them. Better to let them flutter than burn.