DFWCon will be my fifteenth writers’ conference. In my heart, I still feel like a newbie. In my head, I know that’s nonsense. And I have learned some things along the way.
Two years ago, I penned a blog post called Finding Your Tribe. In it, I argued that conferences are about finding your tribe. That’s still true. There’s nothing more important than finding or rejoining your tribe at a writers’ conference. But there is also some business to be done.
For many first-time con-goers, the conference is about “The Pitch.” That perfectly wonderful opportunity to go all Gollum over their novel.
They fret about which agent to pick. They fret about over what clothes to wear. But most of all, they fret about making fools of themselves.
I’m here to tell you to relax.
Because if you’re like me, you will absolutely make a fool of yourself. The pitch will be so bad the agent will burst out laughing and then check her watch and then ask if you’d like to do it again because there’s still plenty of time. And that’s when you’ll realize…
It’s just a pitch.
It’s not a life-or-death situation. It’s not a make-or-break moment in your writing career. It’s merely one opportunity to tell one agent about your work with only two potential outcomes. The agent will either ask you to submit something. Or they won’t.
They won’t punch you or scream at you or call you a fool if the pitch is bad (though I have had an agent come close to that last one). They won’t applaud you, sign you, or give you a book deal if it’s good. The agent will either ask you to submit something. Or they won’t.
And here’s something else to remember, you have no control over whether your novel resonates with an agent. Many perfectly well-written novels never see the light of day for this simple reason. You can’t control it. But you can control pitching and querying more agents and, more importantly, writing more books. Persistence is the only way to increase the likelihood that your work will resonate with somebody.
Don’t get me wrong, every pitch is an opportunity and shouldn’t be wasted. You should prepare. You should practice. You should be sure you hit all the key notes required to be successful. But then you should pitch again. And again. And again. And you should write another book. And another. And another.
And as for that first one, it’s just a pitch. So don’t sweat it.
And if you do, then commiserate over it with your tribe.
-- Brian Tracey, DFWWW Director and Member since 2012
A few months ago I was talking to my friend about my lack of progress on my current project:
“I SHOULD HAVE A PROCESS BY NOW, BROOKE! WHY DON’T I HAVE A PROCESS?”
You see, I’d just read a book on writing that addressed how to write fast and regularly. It all sounded so easy, but when I tried it, I stopped after only two days. This is most likely due to my general lack of follow-up. Seriously, it’s a minor miracle I ever completed one manuscript, let alone five. But, this borrowed process I was testing out didn’t click. So, I went back to my higgly-piggly way of writing when inspired (which means I spent most of my time procrastinating).
Turns out, that’s an even worse process than borrowing someone else’s. Which is why I’m going to lay out, right here, what my actual, real-deal process is. And hopefully it will help you figure out yours.
First, what is process? Is it the way you create a book, or the way you get it down on paper? I think those are two different things. Let me explain.
Creating a book starts with an idea, a character, a plot, a setting, and everything spirals out from there. With Sawbones, it was the setting. With Stillwater, it was the character of Ellie Martin. With my current project, it was the plot. (You see why I say I have no process?) Inspiration comes when it comes, with little regard to what I want, or what is the easiest way for me to create a story (FYI, it’s with character). During the creation phase there’s a lot of reading, thinking, sitting around and staring into the distance, note taking. Regardless of the genesis of the story, it never clicks until I get a handle on the characters, and who they are. Once I have that, everything else falls into place.
Now, to get the story down on paper. Am I a plotter or pantser? Morning writer or evening writer? Daily word goals or time goals?
I winged my way through the first five books, with a good idea of main plot points, but nothing at all like an actual outline or plan, though I had a clear idea how each ended, as I do with my current project. When writing BLOOD OATH, I sat in front of the computer every morning and said, “What happens next? Let’s have them get caught in a thunderstorm on the plains with nowhere to hide! And Laura gets separated from the group! And, almost dies! There’s a fire!”
I’m not making that up for this article by the way. Read all about it May 23! (shameless plug)
My current project started with a plot, and an outline! I’m not surprised that it’s been tough going; I hate being told what to do, even by my well-intentioned plotting past self. My early struggles stemmed from my lack of character understanding. Once I had that, and had decided on “how” to tell the story (POV, etc), the words started to flow.
My advice: It doesn’t matter when you write, or what your daily writing goals are, only that you write daily and have goals. Do what works for you, however imperfect or wheels off it may sound to the disciplined writers who love to humblebrag about their daily schedule of early rising, writing, mid-morning walk, writing, power nap, writing, all of which leads to their typical 5000-word day. When it comes down to it, the reader doesn’t care how the sausage is made, only that it is, and that it’s delicious.
Melissa Lenhardt is the author the Jack McBride mystery series, as well as the Laura Elliston historical fiction series. Her debut mystery, STILLWATER, was a finalist for the 2014 Whidbey Writers’ MFA Alumni Emerging Writers Contest, and SAWBONES, her historical fiction debut, was hailed as a "thoroughly original, smart and satisfying hybrid, perhaps a new subgenre: the feminist Western" by Lone Star Literary Life. A lifelong Texan, she lives in the Dallas area with her husband and two sons. Her latest book, SAWBONES is now available in paperback. Her next novel, BLOOD OATH will be available on May 23, 2017 (as shamelessly alluded to earlier).
Sing Street is about a 14-year old boy named Conor Lalor, who overcomes his parents’ disintegrating marriage, the family’s worsening financial situation and the two bullies terrorizing him at his new school to start a band—with the all-important goal of impressing a girl.
The movie is reminiscent of the 1991 Irish movie, The Commitments. But whereas The Commitments were a band of late teens/early twenties musicians playing soul music in the tradition of 1960s African-American recording artists, Sing Street is a band of young teen-aged boys writing and recording “happy-sad” songs, in the tradition of the 1980s New Wave music.
Conor and his song-writing partner, Eamon easily pass as young twins of Paul McCartney and John Lennon and Conor's quest for young love is wonderfully done. But it’s Conor’s brother, Brendan who steals the show. It’s Brendan’s who sets us straight.
Brendan is a classic mentor archetype, coaching Connor to do what he wants to do and become what he wants to become. His mentorship resonated with Conor. It resonated with me, too.
After hearing the first recording of Sing Street’s music, Brendan yanks the tape from its spool and stomps on the cassette. “That was bad, bad music,” he says. “And there’s nothing as bad in this world as bad music…That was a novelty act…It’s all about the girl, isn’t it? And you’re going to use someone else’s art to get her? Are you kidding?”
Conor’s attempt at a defense fails. “We’re just starting. We need to learn how to play.”
“Did the Sex Pistols know how to play? You don't need to know how to play. Who are you, Steely Dan? You need to learn how NOT to play, Conor. That's the trick. That's rock and roll. And THAT takes practice…Rock and roll is a risk. You risk being ridiculed.”
There are other sources for this type of “encouragement" in the music world. In a “get off my lawn!” kind of way, former Eagles’ guitarist, Joe Walsh put it like this:
“All these kids (today) are a legend in their parents’ garage but they can’t play in front of people. You gotta play live in front of people and at first, you’re awful. And you stink…and that’s why kids are afraid to do it. (They’re afraid to fall on their face). But you bring that up. You don’t really get better. You just bring awful up. So you’re not that awful.”
Isn’t it the same with writing?
Sure, we don’t want to stink. We don’t want to be ridiculed. For some reason, though, at first some of us don’t appreciate that writing is a craft. That it’s something to be learned and nurtured. Instead, most of us sit down, write that first draft of our first novel – our “masterpiece” – and then we sit back and wonder when the royalty checks will start rolling in.
As one thriller author once put it to me: “Authors are the only artists who’d think that their first painting should hang in the Louvre.”
The truth is, it’s very likely that when we start out we’re not that good. In fact if you’re like me, you probably made some bad, bad writing. And it isn’t until we get out of our “parents’ garage,” until we take that rock and roll risk and let people hear our work—people who understand the craft of writing—that we can bring awful up. That we can learn how NOT to write.
That’s the benefit of an excellent critique group, like the DFW Writers Workshop and solid stable of beta readers. They’re the ones who help transform our writing, often through tough love. And if we’re smart, we forego our egos and take our medicine. Then we take the risk again.
Even after all of that, it’s not over. Once our writing isn’t awful and we put it out there for the world to read, people will then judge the quality of our stories, the value of our opinions and everything else about what we’ve written. Some people will still ridicule us. Some people will still think we stink.
But that’s rock and roll.
So take the risk.
Brian Tracey, DFWWW Member since 2012; Board member since 2015.
On September 22, over 2000 nonprofits in the North Texas area will join forces to raise both funds and awareness for their organizations. This year we are excited to announce that DFWWW will be participating for the very first time. As an organization, we're growing faster than ever and expanding our programming in exciting ways, and we need your help to fulfill our mission and reach new goals.
You may be wondering: "Why donate to the DFW Writers Workshop?"
Our answer: "Booklovers will go hungry without us."
See, our mission is to help and encourage North Texas writers of all genres and experience levels to produce professional quality writing suitable for publication. We like to see books made, stories told, poems printed, and we do this by offering year-round programming and networking opportunities for authors.
The core of the DFW Writers Workshop experience is our weekly read & critique sessions, and we've been doing it since 1977. We invite you to come visit any time to catch a slice of a story in the making.
Since our humble beginnings, we've grown. Nowadays, we also host the largest writer's conference in Texas, DFW Writers Conference. We attract authors from all over the world by bringing in literary agents, editors, keynote speakers and best-selling authors to teach. Many an author has found representation at DFWCon, and many a book has been born as a result.
But that's not all. We also host an annual, free DFW Teen Writers Workshop, to jump-start teens on their writing journey. We have a monthly Writer's Bloc program, giving attendees "conference-like" classes at no cost. And next year, we're kicking off our new Residency Program, giving an author the ability to focus completely on his work for two whole weeks without interuption. The experience will culminate with attendance to our 10th Anniversary DFWCon.
So now you're probably thinking: “I'm a booklover or love someone who is, so I must donate! But why should I donate on this particular day? Can't I part with my hard-earned cash any old day?”
Another excellent question.
Our answer: "Your money is welcome any day, of course, but it's worth more on September 22nd."
North Texas Giving Day is put on by the good folks over at the Communities Foundation of Texas. They organize this amazing day and also raise a separate stash of bonus funds that is later divided among the participating nonprofits. Like us! In other words, the more money you give on this day, the more extra money they give us in turn. They also offer an array of cash prizes throughout the day.
The question that’s probably on your mind now is, “Well gosh, how can I help?”
Another excellent question. You're on a roll.
First and foremost, we'd love your generous donation. Donations must be made online on September 22. Donations anywhere from $25-50,000 are acceptable. If you can’t donate yourself, nudge your booklover friends and family, rich acquaintances, that guy who owes you a favor for slightly dubious reasons, anyone. We don’t discriminate. You can also help by promoting this event on social media. Aside from raising awareness, it also can land us with one of the coveted cash prizes for most retweets, so keep an eye on our feed that morning.
Festivities have been planned all over the area for the 22nd; stay tuned to our website and social media channels for info on where you can find us!
If nothing else, NTGD it’s a great way to learn about some of the amazing work that’s done by organizations right here where we live, so head over to the North Texas Giving Day website and check out some of the other participating nonprofits.
Ben Marshall is the Secretary of the DFW Writers' Workshop. He has been a member since 2014.
Writer’s block is a lot of things. For some people it’s an excuse not to write. But sitting in front of the computer with a mind as blank as the page…that’s the real deal.
There are legitimate reasons you may be struggling to write. Some are logistical—kids, day jobs, school, all of the above. Some are psychological—fear, self-doubt, self-criticism (do you see a theme here?), and even stress and depression. This doesn't even account for actual problems in your scene or plot that are making roadblocks. These are genuine issues, and “just suck it up and write” is not always the best advice.
So, I polled some of the members of the DFW Writers Workshop with the question, “What do you do when your mind goes blank while you’re staring at the blank screen?” and got some great, practical advice on ways to address the underlying problems of this mythical thing call “writer’s block.”
• I talk out the story with actual human beings. I don’t actually need or want their input, I just need a friendly face to nod while I think out loud.
• There are two kinds of writer’s block—the lazy kind and the creative kind. For the lazy kind, there’s no solution but to stop making excuses and get to work. With the creative kind, I’ll talk a break from it and do something else for a while, or talk about the story with someone.
• I take a shower. Something about the white noise, I guess, but I get great ideas in the shower. Also, I think it’s helpful to go back and read something I wrote before and remind myself while I love to write in the first place.
An editorial interjection here: I think this is a really good point. Frustration and self-doubt is a vicious cycle, and when you’re slogging through the endless middle of your manuscript, it is important rediscover the joy of it, whether it’s by reading old stuff you wrote that you love, or indulging in a day of writing something no one will every see but you.
• I go for a walk. Change the scenery and clear my head.
• I write to soundtracks, and I have one for each project, so I’ll put the music on and get into the soundtrack zone. I like movie soundtracks. Anything with lyrics is distracting.
• I also go for a walk—outside. The treadmill doesn’t work. Got to get out of the house.
• (In response to the above) I like to stay at my computer so I’m ready for when I hit the zone, and I can get typing right away.
• I also write to soundtracks, and I once I get the right one picked out for the book, I just play it on repeat. Eventually I can put it on and it’s like a conditioned response—boom, in the zone.
This was interesting to me: everyone I polled was quick to answer, and knew what worked for them, but some people were much more analytical than others.
• I go back to my reference and planning material. I tend to plan out the whole book, but improvise at the scene level. If I’m stuck in a scene, I realize I may need to plan or analyze the next step a little more before I go on.
• I write the first sentence of the next chapter. Knowing it needs to set up the scene and immediately draw the reader in, I make myself do that much before I can stop. Usually by the time I’ve put the work in to make it a good first sentence, I’m warmed up and just keep going.
• I start by typing the question “What do I want to get out of the scene?” and then type the answer—what needs to happen, what mood I want to set, how I want the reader to feel at the end of the scene, want do I want to accomplish. Like someone said, once I’ve started typing and thinking, I’ve gotten into it and can keep going. I hit return a couple of times and go right into writing the scene.
• I do something similar. I write “I am having trouble with…” and write out where I’m getting stuck. It makes it into a problem to be solved, and within a couple of paragraphs, I can see the solution. Also, I have to do it by hand. I associate the computer screen with editing, and so I feel more creative when writing by hand. And writing in pencil signals to me that I can erase anything that I don’t like and I’m free to make mistakes, and the words just start to flow.
This pencil thing made my night, just knowing that someone else has this irrational fear of doing it “wrong.” (Like I’m not going to rewrite the scene five times anyway.)
To all these great tips, I want to add this: when you’re stuck, cut yourself some slack. Sometimes what you need to "break a block" is a Murder She Wrote marathon on the Movies and Mysteries Channel. The scene will still need writing tomorrow.
It’s important not to judge yourself by anyone else’s standards. Everyone writes differently. Some people plot, some people freewheel. Some write fast, some write slow. Some write everyday, some write in blocks on the weekends. Some write through blocks, some analyze through them, some clear the decks and come back fresh. Remember there are reasons for being stuck, and there are excuses for being stuck. The difference lies in whether we keep trying things until we’re unstuck, or let the excuse become the only story we tell.
(Special thanks to Jenny Martin, Sally Hamilton, Kristin Breckenridge, A. Lee Martinez, Sasha Lenaburg, Charles Breckenridge, Daryle McGinnis, LeAnn Robinson, and Alan Crowley for their input.)
Rosemary Clement is a lifetime member of the DFW Writers' Workshop. Her current obsessions change frequently, but this never does: She loves coffee, dogs, history, Jane Austen, archaeology, fantasy novels, comic books, Gilbert and Sullivan, BBC America, Star Wars, books with kissing and movies with lots of explosions.
She lives in Texas but her dream is to move to a cottage. Or maybe a castle. It doesn’t have to be fancy, as long as it has wi-fi.