Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Dispatches from the Consult Fest Battle of Wits 2019


Over the course of four days last week at ThrillerFest, I met with 43 writers to discuss their query or pages, sometimes both.

As I was carried away on a stretcher with an IV of bourbon, the ConsultFest volunteers applauded. Whether to laud the effort or encourage the departure, 'twas not quite clear.


So, what did I/they learn?

1. Many writers receive conflicting advice about their writing. Change this/don't change that. Dumb it down/it's perfect as is.

How the hell do you know what to listen to?

Trust your own instincts first. Most of you know when something isn't working.  How to fix something is different  than does this need to be fixed.  How to fix something is where your writer friends are invaluable. Does this need to be fixed, not so much. Every writer thinks their own style is the best way to write. Their style may not be yours, and that's NOT a  bad thing that needs fixing.

2. If you've self-published a book, make sure it looks successful. There's nothing worse than sitting across from a writer and saying "you have five reviews on Amazon, that's an almost instant pass for this next book in the series."

2a. It's VERY hard to get interest for Book 2 in a series if you self published the first one.

3. Understand publishing jargon. A review is not what an agent does with a query. A query is not a synopsis.

4. Understand the requirements of your genre and category. A thriller needs a ticking clock of some kind. Science fiction needs to have things that are not real as a meaningful part of the story.
Romance needs a romance!

5. You need a killer first sentence. 

6. Comps need to be from current books.

7. You should not use anything super-successful as a comp. And you should not be offended when I tell you this. You can't comp your book to JK Rowling until you've sold 1/10th as many books as she has. That's a rule.

8. If you describe female characters by appearance, and male characters by action/achievement, I'm going to call you on it. Count on it.


9. When I tell you the category you're writing in has a hard time finding an audience, I'm not telling you this to hurt your feelings. I don't care about your feelings. I'm telling you this so when your query is met with a vast swath of silence you'll know it's not your writing. It's the category.

10. If you think I'm full of hot air and an idiot, just say thank you and move on. 
"You're full of shit, SharkForBrains" burns bridges. Forever.



Any questions?

27 comments:

Pericula Ludus said...

Do you see why it's so important that you keep repeating yourself on here? Not saying every writerly woodland creature is as thick as an ancient oak, but I feel like I might not be the only one. It takes a very persistent woodpecker to make us understand these things.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

Yes, when I first tried to query stuff, I was a writer confused, without a clue. Even after my first conference. Then I met my Queen. It helped. Thank you again, Janet, for this blog and this amazing community.

AJ Blythe said...

#5...I think my first sentence will kill me before I kill it

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

So, what did I/they learn?

11.

Jennifer Mugrage said...

"Romance needs a romance." Don't tell me ... Someone tried to pitch you an asexual romance?

I agree with Pericula Ludus ... I've been hanging around here for a while, and these tips were still helpful. I think #9 might be what's picking my pocket. Possibly also #5.

Craig F said...

Twice in my life I have had the dubious pleasure of dealing with mules. Once was a trip down the Grand Canyon, the other was to carry stuff into and then back out of a swamp where someone had stashed some old, steel, 55 gallons drums of nasty crap that was too expensive to dispose of properly.

The thing about mules is that you not only have to get their attention, you have to figure out how to keep it. It gets progressive harder to keep their attention, so you have to try harder.

That is what I see here, though I disagree with number 5.

If you put too much effort into that first sentence, the rest of the book will be a let-down, or seem to be a loss-leader scam.

You do need to entice interest with your first sentence, not blow the rest of your work out of the water.

Karen McCoy said...

I also agree with Pericula Ludus. And it's not just the helpful repetition, but also the impeccable timing. You have a way of reaching us writer folk with the perfect information at the exact time we need it. And I will be referencing this when I prepare to pitch at a conference at the end of this month.

kellypea said...

Still in bed at 11:26 am contemplating pain in muscles I didn’t know existed (long day of gardening yesterday) and this list made me want to open my manuscript again. It’s been months, so thank you—especially for item number one.

Adele said...

Can I add to #4? If you're writing a mystery, the mystery must be solved by the person who's trying to solve it.

I have read a couple of cosy mysteries (published in recent years) where the main character has never investigated anything in her life and she wanders around randomly asking questions. Meanwhile the murderer's guilt overcomes him and he confesses. Two separate actions, and such a let-down. This is why I don't often read modern cosies.

Joseph S. said...

I'm confused on number 1

I have had writers give me excellent advice on improving a sentence, paragraph, page, etc.

In the past and sometimes now, when I red other people's work, I offered a suggested re-write where for awkward, confusion, misleading,or overly long sentences or paragraphs. Then I read somewhere that you should tell another writer what doesn't work, but not fix it.

Megan V said...

“’Romance needs a romance.’" Don't tell me ... Someone tried to pitch you an asexual romance?

Jennifer- I had to walk away from my computer at your comment. I see this kind of commentary too often and I really HATE seeing it here. Why?

Well, full disclosure- I am ace. (though I’m not out IRL for my own complicated reasons)

Your comment displays a fundamental misunderstanding of what asexuality is and what role it plays in social interactions.

There’s a difference between being ace and aro (though some people are both and there’s a massive spectrum involved)

And what your comment implies is that a romance cannot exist without sex or sexual attraction. And likewise that romantic love cannot exist without those things. That aces cannot experience it. Period. By that standard we need toss all of the YA romances into the furnace, pretend that MG infatuation doesn’t exist, ignore all the people who physically cannot have sex, and start rating adult romance novels based solely on the number of sex scenes that have been included amongst the pages.

Fortunately, Romance as a genre is not(or should not be) defined by how much sex is on the page. Rather, it’s defined by the blossoming relationship between the protagonist and love interest.

Yes, sometimes that relationship includes sex and sexual attraction. But just as there can be sex and sexual attraction without romance, so too can there be romance and romantic attraction without sex.

There is a difference between sexual attraction and romantic attraction. Many asexual individuals experience romantic attraction. Allosexual people can even experience romantic attraction without experiencing sexual attraction. Because The desire to love and be loved in return is a powerful and heady thing. To spend the rest of your days with someone because they fit you and you fit them. To see someone and feel like that’s the person I want to spend the rest of their life with. And btw even if an ace person doesn’t experience sexual attraction whatsoever they can still participate willingly in the activity for an allosexual partner, out of love for them.

Now I have said my piece. And I’m not going to elaborate further, other than to say, yes, knowing the genre is important. Konowing the standard fare in a genre is also important. But there will be outliers in every genre.

Sorry if I veered too far off course here.


Timothy Lowe said...

So I suppose pitching my current WIP as "the sort of nutso shit that might happen if John Kennedy Toole and Quentin Tarantino went off on a coke binge together" is not a good idea?

*Sigh*

LynnRodz said...

Thank you, Janet, this post comes at a very good time.

Thanks to Megan V, I've learned two new terms today at the reef - allo and aro. I've always considered myself pretty hip to the jive (Yes, I know, I must add more current expressions to my repertoire.) but, alas, I am not.

Lennon Faris said...

"I'm not telling you this to hurt your feelings. I don't care about your feelings." - the Shark taking things to the next level, as usual.

I love posts like this as well. They always help improve my manuscript.

I also did not know that, Megan. Thanks for sharing another way of looking at things.

Craig, I admit I am curious what was in those barrels... sounds like some crime story.

Now, on to the editing.

John Davis Frain said...

Megan V, thank you for such a measured response. You articulated yourself very well. Your comment, along with several from various people yesterday, are reason enough to camp out here.

Janet, I have a question about #7, comps. I've heard similar advice before, that Dennis Lehane shouldn't comp to me (might've been the other way around, sometimes I hear things the way I want to hear them).

If the purpose of a comp is to quickly explain your ms to an agent (and not to show how it will sell), then I'd think the more common and popular the comp, the quicker you'll get to understanding.

Is there another reason agents don't like comps to super-successful authors?

Where There's A Quill said...

Number 6 is my personal hell. I've lived here so long Satan's letting me change the drapes.

Thank you for this list. My rodent butt feels properly kicked.

JanR said...

Thank you for this Janet. I think you say #1 better and better each time. Amen amen to #8. #9 is reassuring.

Megan V, thank you so much for that explanation.

kellypea the muscle pain sucks but the other part is awesome! You go!

AJ Blythe said...

Adele, you mustn't be reading the right cozies!

As a cozy writer I read tonnes of cozies and I've never read one where the killer reveals themselves - although I have read some badly written self-published cozies which may have ended that way (I don't keep reading if I'm not enjoying).

Contemporary setting try Jenn McKinlay, Kate Carlisle, Jana DeLeon, Kate Collins. Contemporary with witches try Amanda M Lee.

Or go to BookEnds Literary Agency and try any of their cozy authors.

And from shark infested waters try Gary Corby (historical, and male protag but ticks cozy otherwise).

KDJames said...

Megan, thank you for that insight. When I read Jennifer's comment, I interpreted it loosely as meaning "a romance lacking romance" and didn't pause to consider the proper definition of asexual. A good example that words (and their meaning) matter a great deal.

John, David Gaughran had an interesting post the other day about finding comps. I confess I haven't read the entire thing yet; it's looooong. I'd be interested to know what you all and/or Janet think about it, as I'm not sure I've heard the concept described quite that way before (as sharing an audience rather than similar voice or writing style).

https://davidgaughran.com/2019/07/11/comp-authors-advertising-marketing-titles/ [deliberately not a clickable link]

I keep going back to the info in the first line of this post: 43 writers in 4 days. My poor introverted brain simply refuses to process this level of trauma.

Janet, you must be thoroughly sick of writers at this point. Thanks for making the time and doing the heavy lifting of not caring AT ALL about our feelings. *snort*

Jennifer Mugrage said...

Gee whiz, I really stepped on a land mine here. Megan, I am sorry. I did not mean to offend, denigrate or even misunderstand you. I am not familiar with all the terms you are using, so now I will have to slink off, red-faced, to Google them and possibly never show my face here again.

Despite not being familiar with the abbreviations, I do understand a little bit about the distinctions between sex, romance, companionship, etc., because I am a human being. Of course I have felt many of the things that you describe in your post.

I don't enjoy explicit sex scenes in books and don't read a lot of romances. I was just wondering how someone pitched Janet a romance without any romance. I guess my mistake was flippantly using a loaded term.

Again, I apologize.

Megan V said...

Jennifer I apologize if I've made you feel unwelcome. I hope I haven't, but if I did, I own responsibility for it. The only thing I can add is please don't slink away and disappear! Not now, not ever!

I've stepped on plenty of landmines myself. It's easy to do when you haven't encountered certain things. And, sometimes it's way too easy to make things personal. I'm afraid things hit a bit close to home for me this time because I've been seeing and hearing a lot of things in the writing community (and world at large) that makes asexuality synonymous with an inability to love. It can be absolutely frustrating at times.

You're not alone in not knowing some of the terms I use. Most of the people in my life would have no clue about half of what I was saying.

I'm going to guess that some of the terms that you (and perhaps other Reef dwellers) may not be familiar with are as follows:

ace: short for asexual, or someone who does not experience sexual attraction.

allosexual: someone who experiences sexual attraction. Allo for short.

*you may see the term grey/gray ace or gray-A: this is someone who falls somewhere in the spectrum between being ace and allo.

a-spec or aspec: meaning the asexual spectrum

aro: short for aromantic, or someone who doesn't experience romantic attraction and who may have no interest in romantic relations.

some aces will identify their romantic orientation in addition to stating that they are asexual.

i.e. heteroromantic asexual, biromantic asexual, homoromantic asexual, aromantic asexual etc.


Please bear in mind that these are quite generic definitions.

That said, there are some FABULOUS books coming out with ace characters.
I've even seen some people claim Katniss from Hunger Games is ace.

I'm looking forward to TECHNICALLY YOU STARTED IT by lana wood johnson, which has a demisexual MC (demisexuality is generally when a person does not experience sexual attraction unless they form a strong emotional connection with someone.)

Jennifer Mugrage said...

Thanks for restoring me, Megan, and for the education.

I definitely wasn't accusing anyone of an inability to love. Love comes in a million forms, and I think we've all experienced a continuum in our own lives.

Technically You Started it is a terrific title.

Janet Reid said...

All y'all make me wriggle with pride.

Fearless Reider said...

I learn something on the reef every day — sometimes several things. Thank you! And Timothy Lowe, I would read that book. Maybe even more importantly, I would BUY that book.

julie.weathers said...

I need to get dressed for babysitting duties, but I shall return. Although uniforms are not requires, clothes are.

julie.weathers said...

1. Many writers receive conflicting advice about their writing. Change this/don't change that. Dumb it down/it's perfect as is.

Yes, dear heavens yes.

I have beta readers looking at Rain Crow now. Each one brings something valuable to the table, but oft times they disagree on what works and what doesn't. In the end you just have to weigh it and go with your gut.

5. You need a killer first sentence.

And apparently something to back it up. It's sort of like all hat and no cattle.

6. Comps need to be from current books.

So I guess GONE WITH THE WIND is right on out then, huh?

7. You should not use anything super-successful as a comp.

So I guess GONE WITH THE WIND is right on out then, huh?

8. If you describe female characters by appearance, and male characters by action/achievement, I'm going to call you on it.

So, I guess leading off with a description of my MC ala Scarlett is right on out then, huh?

9. When I tell you the category you're writing in has a hard time finding an audience, I'm not telling you this to hurt your feelings. I don't care about your feelings

You may be amazed to learn you won't be the first to tell me this. Get in line, Miss Janet, get in line.

MA Hudson said...

Julie - maybe you could comp your novel as, 'such and such (insert contemporary novel) meets Gone with the Wind.'
That way, you're playing by the rules as well as expressing your true opinion...?