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June 7, 2010

A couple of weeks ago, I attended the Backspace Writers Conference in New York City—an experience that rewarded me, and about 90 other writers, with a deeper understanding of both the profession and craft of writing. Organized by the founders of the Backspace online writers’ community, the conference is renowned for the quality of its participating publishing professionals, including authors, agents, editors and publicists. Together, they provide the attendees with a feast of knowledge, encouragement and inspiration, liberally seasoned with cautionary advice and constructive criticism.

Herewith, a little taste:

In her workshop “Say Goodbye to the Slush Pile”, literary agent, Kristin Nelson** addressed the ever-daunting query letter. Among her tips:

– never be casual in a query, always be professional

– it’s OK to send a revamped query for the same project at a later date

– state the genre clearly

– a good title can make a difference

– the pitch paragraph should never consist of more than ten sentences

The “pitch paragraph” is the section of the query that should describe what the book is about. The challenge is to create a compelling pitch in those prescribed ten sentences. Ideally, they should read much like the blurb you would find on the inside flap of a book’s dust jacket. Kristin acknowledged the impossibility of condensing an entire book into a few paragraphs, and then gave us the solution: examine the first 30 pages of the manuscript, find the plot catalyst that illustrates the bigger conflict, then describe it.

Four deceptively innocent-looking women—Rachel Kramer Bussel, J.E. Taylor, M.J. (Marlys) Pearson and Randy Susan Meyers—who boldly go (at least in their books) where I have never yet dared, presented their secrets to “Writing from the Edge: Sin, Sex, and Similar Taboos”. I was particularly titillated by the fact that Marlys, who has a husband and children, writes gay historical romances. With my tendency to shy away from writing anything explicitly sexual, it was helpful to hear Randy recommend sex scenes as an opportunity to discover something new about your characters.

While the ladies dealt with the nitty-gritty, it was left up to a man to cover the romantic side of human relationships. In “Writing the Love Story/subplot”, screenwriting professor Richard Krevolin demonstrated the ways in which the vital elements of a movie love story can be transported to novels, among them:

– emotional response

– extraordinary love

– the grand gesture

– destiny fulfilled

– setting/time/beauty

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know that YA is THE current hot genre, possibly because just as many adults as teenagers are reading it. Even though I write women’s fiction, some of my characters progress through childhood and the teen years, and I found the often-hilarious conversation between A.S. King, Barb Ferrer and Randy Susan Meyers about “Writing the Authentic Young Adult Voice” extremely valuable.

The Keynote address provided even more enlightenment. Neil S. Nyren is the Senior Vice President, Publisher and Editor in Chief of G.P. Putnam’s Sons. He spoke candidly and reassuringly on “Myths and Truths about Publishing”, stating his industry is not in crisis and that it’s still possible for authors who are not big celebrities to be published. According to Neil*, one of publishing’s great secrets is that no one can predict what people will buy. That mystery is the key to the fact that publishers continue to take a gamble on first-time authors and 82 debut novels will be published next Spring.

Eileen Kennedy-Moore’s Master Class on “Preventing and Overcoming Writer’s Block” was full of practical and inspirational tips for getting the creative juices flowing. They included a couple I’d never thought of: start writing before you feel ready and turn the computer screen to black so that you can’t see what you writing.

For many attendees, the highlight of the conference was a Master Class given by literary agent and author Donald Maass. This condensed version of a longer workshop he teaches to writers around the country, based on his best-selling manual “Writing the Breakout Novel”, generated much excitement. There was electricity in the air as everyone scribbled away, using Donald’s** prompts to add conflict and drama to their work. His mantra: create simmering tension on every page and make sure the characters are transformed, even in small ways, in every scene.

If your appetite for writerly nourishment has been whetted and you’d like more information on the Backspace Writers Conference, please go here.

*We’re on a first-name basis because I sneakily inserted myself into a seat at his table at the conference cocktail party.

**We’re actually not on a first-name basis —I didn’t get a chance to meet either Kristin or Donald in person—but they seem like lovely people and I’m sure, if I ever do, they’ll want to be my friend.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Marielena permalink
    June 7, 2010 7:34 AM

    What wonderful gems of writing advice, Sharen! Thanks so much for sharing them and your experience at Backspace. Maybe next year I’ll attend and I can get some clarity — and inspiration — for my creative writing!;-)

  2. June 7, 2010 9:48 AM

    Great post Sharen.

    I loved that it was a man the one talking about romance. Maybe there is still hope for the world.

    Carmen Ferreiro-Esteban
    Author of Two Moon Princess

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