Thursday, August 28, 2014

Lessons Learned from WriteOnCon 2014 - part 1

WriteOnCon 2014 is officially in the books and I thought I'd summarize a few things I'm taking away from it. This isn't really anything new, and it applies to life in general as much as this particular online conference, so even if you have no idea what WriteOnCon is, these ideas still hold. (But if you write kidlit, you should definitely check it out next year!)

WriteOnCon consists of two major parts (though it had more in the past). First, and opening up a week ahead of the conference dates, are the critique forums, where attendees post their work - a query, the first 250 words, and the first 5 pages. Everyone critiques each other and if you get your stuff up there early it gives you the chance to make edits from the feedback so you're ready for the ninjas. Ninja agents are the other big draw to the forums - industry professionals troll the boards and make comments or even request submissions based on your work. There's a list of agents attending, but you don't know exactly who is commenting unless they private message you. And not everyone gets ninja comments - they pick and choose who and how they want to interact.

The other aspect of the conference are the 'live' events that happen over two days - the actual conference dates. Mostly this consists of twitter pitch sessions with an agent or editor, but they also had a couple of Q&A sessions with industry folks. Both the twitter pitches and questions are moderated and chosen at random, so there's no guarantee your stuff will show up. But you can follow along in real time and read the feedback from the pros for those who get selected.

My twitter pitch never saw the light of day, so I'm going to start off with what I learned from the forums - which really is general advice for critiquing and interacting with other writers.

Be positive!

This is actually a hard one for me - I'm used to critiques that focus on what needs to be improved and can come off as rather harsh. But everyone needs encouragement, especially when you are dealing with what amounts to a bunch of strangers. Not only is it nice to be nice, but people are more willing to critique your work if you've given them a positive critique. WriteOnCon is very good at being a place of support and positivity.

Be Honest

Positivity is not the same as flattery - you should speak up when something doesn't work for you or you see something in another's work that you consider a problem. A good critique is always going to point out things that can be improved. But take some extra time to say what you liked and what they are doing well. Then make suggestions for HOW to improve things - don't just say it sucks.

Be Specific

This is where I feel WriteOnCon can often miss. A lot of the feedback I see is very general - more voice, watch your punctuation. Even if someone wants to improve, they may not know how to do it. I try really hard to point out specific examples of things I think are wrong and then make concrete suggestions of how to improve it. I tell people where I think they should include a more personal expression, or highlight phrases that don't work for me. I don't expect everyone to just take my advice and make every change the way I suggest, but I think it's much easier for them to see exactly what I'm saying and deal with it however they want.

Be Selective

Ignoring advice is an important part of taking critique. Not everyone is right, especially a bunch of strangers of unknown experience and background. Heck, I've even seen agents give contradictory feedback to a person. How do you know who to listen to? For me, I always start with patterns. If lots of people are saying the same thing, then they're probably right. Second, I read the writing of the person who critiques me - if I like their writing then following their advice is likely to help me improve (though not always). But at the end of the day, I'm my own writer. I get to decide what I want my writing to be. The important thing is to understand the suggestions you've been given before you dismiss them.

Be Patient

Another pattern that I noticed this year was in the rate of revisions. Those that made quick revisions, and did it repeatedly, often after a single comment from a single person, normally wasted a lot of time. They would fix one thing but not another; they would change one line and not realize it screwed up the next line; they would spin themselves in circles changing things to please people and end up with a garbled mess. More than once someone would respond to my feedback on their fourth revision by saying that they had done what I suggested in version 2. The format of WriteOnCon, and the deadline to fix things before the agents show up, lend itself to rushing people. But that often creates more work and a worse result. Take in the feedback, wait for multiple eyes on your work, let it digest a bit, then incorporate what you think is best. This is a marathon, not a sprint; pace yourselves accordingly.


Overall, I had a very positive experience with WriteOnCon this year. I got some excellent feedback and feel I was able to incorporate it into both my query and my first chapter in a way that improved my work. I only got the briefest of feedback from a ninja agent - they thought my premise was interesting but I could cut a little voice out of the query (the feedback was definitely split on that point since several folks loved the lines the agent said to cut :), but in the end I came out stronger than when I entered. That's what you want out of any experience.

I also put together my first twitter pitch, even though it wasn't chosen for any of the live events. Now I have that in my pocket and next time I'll talk more about what I got out of those twitter sessions.

Friday, August 22, 2014

WriteOnCon: Fun, Feedback, & Ninjas!

Hey all, I'm busy over at WritOnCon and wanted to make sure everyone's heard about it - and hopefully heading over there as well. It's a fun online conference for writers of kidlit (basically from picture books through New Adult, with the all-important Young Adult in there). The official conference dates for 2014 are Aug. 26 & 27, but the truth is the fun has already started.

The main feature of WriteOnCon is the Forum. In addition to places for general discussions and contact-making, there are specific sub-forums for people to post their queries and samples of their work. Everyone gives each other feedback, which is always nice, but the best part is when the ninjas show up. Ninja agents, that is - undercover agents who read through the queries, offer critiques and perhaps even request a manuscript or two. The chance to get feedback from industry professionals (and it's an impressive list) is invaluable. I have my query, first 250 words, and first five pages from SYNTHESIS up there. It's already helped me tweak things a little and I'm hoping for some ninja attention this year.

There will be more events on the actual conference dates, include twitter pitches and some live sessions with the agents. But even if you can't make those dates, even if you don't get any ninja lovin', it's still a great place to meet some incredibly talented writers and make good connections. And best of all: It's totally FREE! You're welcome to donate to help cover the costs of running the site, but there's no pressure to do so. How awesome is that?

Hope to see folks over there - I'm BBBurke (not too hard to figure out :)

Friday, August 15, 2014

The Birthplace of Harry Potter

I recently returned from a vacation in Scotland which included a couple days sight-seeing in Edinburgh. I spent my junior year of college at the University, and it was fun to visit old haunts and reacquaint myself with beautiful city. It's the capital of Scotland, founded in the twelfth century, with the castle and many buildings on the Royal Mile dating from the sixteenth century. It's role in the history of Scotland, and its present importance to the country on the verge of independence, cannot be over-stated. It's also where J.K. Rowling wrote Harry Potter.

Specifically, she wrote the first book mostly at the Elephant House, a little coffee shop just down from the castle. That fact is now displayed quite prominently on the shop's front window. Quite a number of places mention their connection to Harry Potter, and we frequently saw tour groups being lead by someone in a wizard's robes. These groups mingled with the regular tours at places like St. Giles Cathedral and Greyfriar's Kirk, but the guides didn't point out the nation-changing weddings or historical characters (like Deacon Brodie, the inspiration for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde), instead they pointed to tombstones bearing names that matched fictional characters in the Potter series, or places J.K. was believed to have visited or gained inspiration from. It made me reflect a little on how a children's book will fit into the history texts of the future.

I have to admit, I still don't understand why Harry Potter was/is such a phenomenon. I read the first book years ago and stopped there because it didn't appeal to me. After my visit to Edinburgh I picked up the rest of the series and am working through them - got a long way on the flight back home. I do think it's a good middle-grade book, and the stories are well-crafted, but it seems too simple, too generic and stereotypical, with rather ordinary prose, to be held up as a classic of our times (though I have no doubt it will be considered so if only because of its unprecedented popularity).

Now, I'm not trying to bash anyone who likes the books. I have no problem with adults reading children's literature. Everyone can enjoy whatever they want and I think that Harry Potter expanded the world of readers and has done great things for books in general. It's just the analysis of what makes one book so successful while others languish in obscurity that's so hard to figure out - probably impossible, but worth the effort to learn what I can and bring it to my own writing.

Greyfriars Kirkyard
For instance, Harry is a rather undeserving hero in many ways. He was born to greatness - didn't do anything to earn it. He's got powerful magic right from the first book, even though he doesn't seem to work that hard in school. He's a natural flier, winning Quidditch matches right off the bat. He constantly breaks rules and does careless things that put himself and his friends (and the whole world) in danger. But at the end of the day he shows some moral fortitude and saves the day, so all is well. I see how this appeals to a twelve-year-old, but don't us adults know a little better?

And the rest of the characters are equally thin, especially the bad guys. Could the Dursleys be any more terrible people? Could Malfoy be any more generic of a bully? Why do Ron and Hermione reset to the same personality after each book, showing little growth or change from what happened last year? And why are all the adults so clueless? Even Dumbledore, who, at the end of every book, seems to have known what was happening all along, never figures out all the stupid things the kids are doing that could end in serious harm. Wizards are so clever but they can't figure out how a telephone works or how many stamps to put on an envelope. And how come the best wizarding school in the land has teachers that are totally incompetent or just plain awful human beings when it comes to interacting with students? It's all funny and silly but even as a child I would have been annoyed with the lack of depth and cut and dried good vs. evil message. Magic beans and silly candy only take you so far.

Heriot School (Hogwarts?)
So what is it that broadened the appeal of these books and swept up the world their rush to greatness? What is it that J.K. buried behind simple words and cookie-cutter characters that brings out such passion and inspires tours in a city with so much more to offer? I don't have a definite answer to that, but I think it's how she tapped into several fundamental story concepts that we all know and love. The orphan child whose real parents did love him; the mystery of who is the bad guy and how'd they do it in each book; the dream of an ordinary person who can save the day, not through hard work but just by being himself and so very special; and above all a world of magic that is full of wondrous things, even if they make no sense. A great mix of things to hook different people in different ways.

I do understand many of the elements that lead to the success of Harry Potter, but I ultimately think that success at that level comes from somewhere else. It's random, a cultural phenomenon that has no complete explanation and certainly no repeatable path to follow. Nothing deserves such success, and it certainly isn't earned, but in this day and age there are far worse things that rise to the top in various media. Harry Potter isn't for me, but it's a good book (or several). J.K. seems as good as person as any, and better than many, to be rewarded by the capriciousness of fate. I'll keep writing what appeals to me and hope it merits at least a little success.