Been there, done that, what's next?

Last Saturday, for the first time, I appeared in public as a writer. Another milestone now behind me. Some people are attracted to such events like butterflies to bright flowers. I’m more like a unicorn; I’d rather not be seen. However, remaining anonymous is a luxury no 21st century writer can afford. In the Forbes’ article, Five Lessons For Authors and Self-Publishers, Neil Gaiman tells writers that you have to get out there, you have to be a part of your community, and you have to be the signal, not the noise.  

Word count: 600                                                        Reading time: 1-2 minutes

I accepted the invitation to join the panel because I knew I needed to. In days before the event, I reminded myself of Eleanor Roosevelt’s words: Do one thing every day that scares you.  It’s not like I’m naturally timid and desperately in need of that advice. I’ve travelled to Europe alone, I’ve moved across Canada by myself, I’ve moved across the Pacific. Twice. I’ve camped in the Outback and scuba dived in the icy waters of the Pacific Northwest. But none of those were as daunting as public speaking.

I prepared myself as best I could. I read aloud, into a voice recorder, and forced myself to listen to it. I asked the moderator if I needed to bring notes on any subject but she said no, it would just be informal questions and answers. I sang at the top of my lungs on my way to the library where the festival was held. This seemed to strengthen my vocal chords or at least clear the cobwebs. I couldn’t be more ready, or so I thought.

Then there was a moment of horror when the moderator asked us all to speak, for three to five minutes, on our journey to publication. If you’ve followed this blog, you know I’m not yet published. I have a contract to publish. I do not yet have a book in my hand but the organizers considered that an important point in the road and thus I was included. As the junior panel member, it was natural that I’d be first off the mark. But I hadn’t brought notes.

Being first meant I didn’t have the benefit of gathering my thoughts as others spoke. So I took the microphone (another first) and winged it. I tried to speak slowly, not my usual geyser rush of words. I made eye contact with members of the audience. The session went on for an hour and a half. I seem to remember being on my feet a fair bit of it. I wonder what I said. I really can’t remember.

As Robert Brockway states in the blog, Writing is the easy part, the burden of promotion and marketing now falls squarely on the writer’s shoulders. The North Shore Writers’ Festival was my first chance to test the waters of getting known, of a little self-promotion.

When it was all over, I realized I’d learned a lot:

  • People who attend writers’ festivals are incredibly supportive.
  • When a speaker makes eye contact with an audience member, and she nods in agreement, it’s incredibly helpful. It lets the speaker know she is understood.
  • People who go up to a speaker after a talk and say something like, “that was really interesting” make the speaker’s day.
  • I will be a better audience member from now on.

Have you ventured into some peripheral realm of writing that you dreaded, only to discover it wasn’t nearly as bad as you expected? Or was it even worse? Where have your greatest joys and biggest disappointments been?

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Photo by: Raksit

Did you slip a stitch?

Mistakes are part of the dues one pays for a full life. Sophia Loren.  

Word count: 501       Reading time: 1-2 mins.

On April 20th I’ll be part of a panel at the North Shore Writers’ Festival discussing the road to publication and beyond. Apparently the most frequently asked question at last year's festival was, “How can I get published?”

To be honest, in an effort to get published, it’s easy to make mistakes. If I were to admit every error of mine in this process, I’d have to break my 600-word limit for this blog. So I’ll start with the things I’ve done right so far, the shorter list by far: 

  • I started writing for the simple love of writing. I really didn’t care where the stories went or who liked them. I wrote for fun.
  • Eventually I wanted outside validation so I submitted to local writing competitions and gradually gathered some publication credits and prizes.
  • After six or seven years as an autodidact, I took a writing course and discovered how little I actually knew about what I was doing. Formal study was a turning point; it helped me understand what does and doesn’t work. It also underscored how important meaningful feedback is.
  • I learned to be a ruthless self-editor, silence my ego, and accept that my novels need multiple revisions.  

Everything I’ve learned has made me want to learn more so I’ve also listened to, read the blogs and followed the tweets of publishing professionals. I want to learn not just from my own mistakes – everyone does that – but from other people’s as well.

So here are some of the missteps emerging writers make:

  • Submitting work too soon. 
  • Submitting work that is poorly edited.
  • Using the shotgun approach – sending work to the wrong agent or publisher.
  • Sending a poorly constructed query letter
  • Not knowing your market. (i.e. What are the comparable books in this genre? What is a standard word count? - see Chuck Sambuchino's blog on the latter point.)

As to the actual work: at the Agent Idol session at the Surrey International Writers’ Conference in 2008 and again in 2010, agents were asked what they didn’t like to find in their slush piles. The top answers were:

  • Books that begin with prologues (I didn’t understand this well until I read Writing Irresistible Kidlit by Mary Kole, pp 43-45. Her book isn’t just about kidlit!)
  • Books that begin with someone looking out the window
  • Books that begin with dream sequences

If you’ve made any of these mistakes, it only proves you’re trying. Only those who are asleep make no mistakes (Ingvar Kamprad). If you really want to avoid common errors and you have a free half hour or so, read JM Tohline’s blog The Biggest Mistakes Writers Make When Querying Agents. You could save yourself some embarrassment.

What mistakes have you made in your efforts to get published so far? Have you failed to immerse yourself in practice and study so that your writing continually improves? Have you rushed to query a manuscript before it was ready?  

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Photo from Wikimedia Commons by rmkoske