Clare Writers’ Festival: Update 2

My last post covered the start of my adventures at the Clare Writers’ Festival, including the Saturday morning sessions on “Creating Memorable Scenes and Characters” and “Family History.”
Lunch consisted of sandwiches and a variety of fresh fruit, which was unfortunate since I’ve recently cut gluten (mostly) out of my diet. However, I signed up to the festival (listing no dietary requirements) well before I made the change, so it didn’t seem right to complain. And actually, the sandwiches were freshly made and quite nice. I did walk down to the bakery to supplement lunch with a “real” coffee, though (yes, I’m a coffee snob, and proud of it!).

Session 3: Publish or Bust – panel discussion

Authors Astrid Cooper, Trisha Stringer and Karly Lane talked about their publishing experiences in both traditional and self-publishing, and answered questions from people. There wasn’t a great deal there that I hadn’t already read online or figured out myself, but it was really good to hear confirmation of some things or to hear advice from people who have been there. Here are a few gems of wisdom I wrote down, hopefully in a more organised fashion than I had in my notes:

1. How do authors get noticed? (applies to both trad and indie)

1) Have an online presence

Having an online presence goes a long way to being noticed and to finding a traditional publisher. Apparently publishers do trawl the interwebs looking for new talent! So it’s worthwhile having a Facebook page, a Twitter account, a blog, a website, a Wattpad account etc etc, and it’s also worth proofreading what you put on those sites and being careful with your public image on these! We all know (some by bitter experience) that nothing on the internet is private. Actually, as an aside, I know employers and people on audition panels for musicals who google the names of applicants to see what pops up (and having a very private, secure Facebook profile is a plus to them, by the way). The bottom line is that everything you put on the internet is potentially an “audition” for a publisher. Scary thought, isn’t it?

Astrid Cooper mentioned that she spends two hours every day on promotion stuff, and I’ve heard other authors say similar. One thing that stands out to me over and over again is how self-motivated and organised writers have to be, as they usually work from home and don’t have specific office hours. I might come back to that in a later post. As a teacher and a former homeschooler, I know all about self-motivation!

2) Enter competitions

This is a good way of improving your skills and challenging yourself. Some competitions offer feedback as a prize, or you get published in a magazine. And publishers also look at these things. I think the challenge here is to not spend all your time working on competition entries, otherwise you’ll never get your novel finished (assuming that’s what you do). I personally haven’t really entered any competitions yet, as I struggle to have time to even work on my novel and update my blog! But I believe I will eventually. It’s just not a priority for me right now.

2. Self-publishing platforms (I didn’t write down the original question, but it had something to do with this)

The panel seemed to have their doubts about the effectiveness of putting your book up on Amazon, mainly because it’s an extremely crowded marketplace (have a quick look and you’ll soon see what I mean). I guess the fact that you can put anything up there for free has something to do with that. I’m personally not so quick to discount Amazon though. True, I wouldn’t just toss my book into the swirling vortex that is Amazon and wait to become famous, but I think a lot of people (myself included) go there first when looking for someone. And, of course, the Kindle market is huge. I think that it is good to have your work on Amazon (and other places), but find genre-specific avenues of advertising.

3. Traditional publishers

All of the members of the panel agreed that it is a good idea to approach publishers who specifically focus on your genre. In my notes I wrote “DO RESEARCH” (with underlines and an asterisk), which seems like common sense to me, but apparently it’s not to everyone. They stressed two things:

1) research what the publisher is looking for. In other words, don’t just google a heap of publishers and send them your manuscript without even checking that they publish your genre. It is a waste of time and it’s lazy, and it won’t look good. And if the publishing world is as small and well-connected as the musical theatre world (and I suspect that it is), all these publishers talk to each other. And if that’s the case, you don’t want to get a reputation as a lazy application writer who doesn’t bother to do their research before contacting a publisher.

2) research the publisher’s reputation and exactly what they offer. Sadly, there are quite a few scam publishers out there, who will take your money and give you a poor quality product (this actually applies to indie publishing sites as well). But the good news is that with a little online research you can find reviews that point out these fake publishers, and there are also websites dedicated to naming them. In other words, don’t take them at face value. A few minutes of research could potentially save you thousands of dollars and a heap of embarrassment.

4. Copyright and ISBN numbers

This is pretty important. If you don’t copyright your work, anyone could steal it and you’ll have no way to press charges against them. And that would be very sad 😦 (note the sad face for added effect. The words “very sad” simply weren’t enough here. And yeah, as a writer I should use words to convey it, such as saying that it would be “as devastating as having your grandmother’s canary eaten by your beloved pet cat, which is then run over by your new car driven by your boyfriend, who then accidentally crashes it into a tree, writing it off and landing himself in the ICU,” but that’s probably going over the top, don’t you think?). I didn’t get much more info on copyrighting except that Amazon’s CreateSpace will do it for free. Many places also give you a free ISBN number, which you need in order to sell your book (I know that both Amazon and Smashwords will give you one for free). You also need a separate ISBN for an ebook and a print book of the same title. There’s a great book called “Australian Writers’ Marketplace” that gives you all the info you need about it. It’s big and expensive, but you can probably find it in a library easily enough.

5. Setting the price

This is more for indie publishing, as I think traditional publishers generally have their own set price. One good thing about indie publishing is you can change the price whenever you feel like it (within the parameters of whatever platform you’re using), and have your own “sales” and so on. I like the idea of having a sale! People will buy things that are on sale that they might not normally buy. There’s something magical about the word “sale.” Just think of that hideous dress or pair of shoes that don’t quite fit right, but you bought it because it had the magic word attached to it. OK, maybe that wasn’t the best analogy, because you want people to actually like your book. Perhaps its more like that top you bought for $5 on clearance and now it’s your most favourite item of clothing ever, and you can’t help but tell everyone about it. But that’s enough clothing analogies…

Basically, if there are two books for sale, and you haven’t heard of the author of either of them, which one do you buy? The one that’s cheaper, of course. I think the best thing to do is look at what other books in your genre and a similar length to yours are selling for and use that as a guide. It’s a fine line between setting the price too high and selling yourself short. When my book comes out I’m planning to experiment a little bit and see how price makes a difference. I think I’ll start with $2.99 and go from there. It’s about average for books on Smashwords of roughly the length of mine, and to sell in iBooks it has to end in .99 for some reason. I’d like to hear from someone who has had some experience here. Post a comment below 🙂

6. Print On Demand (or POD, if you want people to think you’re talking about a Christian metal band)

Print On Demand is a pretty cool idea, and it avoids the issue of ending up with a spare room full of unsold books. Print On Demand is where people order a book, the printer prints it and sends it directly to them. There were a few that were spoken about by the panel:

Griffin Press. They’re Australian based, which is a big plus in my books, as I always try to support local businesses when I can. They format for you and you only pay for what you buy. You can also do really small print runs, which helps to avoid the unsold-books-in-spare-room scenario. Other than that I don’t know a lot about them, but you can check out their website at the link above.

Lulu. I briefly mentioned Lulu in an earlier post, and since then I’ve heard a lot of mixed reviews about the company. Some people I know have used it and thought it was great and really easy to use, and others have said the exact opposite. One of the panel members said they found the POD feature of Lulu to be quite poor quality and a bit pricey. I am going to avoid Lulu based purely on the fact that the reviews are mixed. In my mind, mixed reviews mean one of two things: the quality is inconsistent, or people have different standards when it comes to quality. Either way, that’s not great.

 

Session 4: Fantasy Workshop with Sean Williams

This was a pretty awesome session. Not because we went away with lots of knowledge or the secrets to writing a best selling fantasy novel. We didn’t. In fact, I didn’t really write down anything that will help me be a better writer. What we decided to do was have a group brainstorm for the plot of a Young Adult fantasy novel. We talked about the idea of “extrusion” (where someone from the real world goes to another world), which is a pretty common theme in YA and teen fantasy, and also about the definition of “speculative fiction” (pretty much anything that isn’t real, ie. fantasy, sci-fi, paranormal, etc). But after that, we discussed a crazy plot idea involving twins separated at birth (Sean’s just a little bit obsessed with the idea of twins), which then turned into a conspiracy theory involving a parallel universe and babies being stolen from our world, which then turned into something called “Changeling Dragons,” set in China during the one-child policy. Who knows, maybe I’ll write this great novel after I’m finished with The Secret Of The Sword series…

Dinner and “On The Couch”

Over dinner time they had a sausage sizzle and book fair set up in the park next to the town hall. I took a few business cards and free bookmarks, including one from Dean Mayes, who has written a fascinating sounding book called Gifts of Peramangk. Go and check out his website and his book. I didn’t have the cash to buy it at the time, but it’s definitely on my list!

The “On The Couch” session in the evening was a great Q&A session with all the guest speakers, and included various nibbles and desserts and local wine. It was pretty interesting, but due to the distraction of food and wine I didn’t really write much. The only thing I did write down was one thing PD Martin said about avoiding writer’s block, which I think is great advice. I’ve actually started doing it, and it works!

“Never stop at the end of a chapter: stop in the middle of a scene that you’re passionate about, so that next time you can sit down and be excited straight away about writing.”

Try it, I dare you. You’ll find that you can’t wait to get back to it, and you’ll get in “the zone” more quickly. Speaking of which, I last left my main character fighting for her life, so I better go and make sure she survives.

Happy writing!

Clare Writers’ Festival: update 1

I’ve lost a whole weekend of precious sleep-ins, my neck aches, the RSI in my wrist has flared up, and I’ve eaten more gluten in two days than I have in the past two months combined (and you don’t want any further detail on that point, trust me…). And it has been the best weekend ever!
I was at the Clare Writers’ Festival (or The Write Week, as they call it). I’d never been to any writers’ workshops or even a book club before, so this was a new and initially daunting experience for me. Why daunting? I wasn’t leading any workshops. I wasn’t trying to sell a book. I was simply attending, there to learn from professionals. But when my husband dropped me off at the town hall on Saturday morning, my mind was buzzing. Will there be hundreds of people? I don’t like big crowds. Will they all be published writers with mountains more experience than little old me? Will they look down on me, an inexperienced, wannabe fantasy writer with a head full of dreams?
Of course, I shouldn’t have worried. There were perhaps 60 or 70 people at the opening session (but I’m terrible at guessing group size numbers, so that could be completely wrong), and everyone was super friendly. There was a vast range of experience levels, from traditionally published, self published, to not yet published (like myself), to toying with the idea of writing a book, to avid readers with no interest in writing their own book. I fell right into the middle of that crowd, a place where I was supremely comfortable.
At this point, I’d like to say that if you write anything at all, you MUST go to one of these things! Nothing is more inspiring than to be surrounded by other people just like you, who constantly think of new book ideas and who live, breathe and speak books, writing and publishing 24/7. I can’t believe it’s taken me so long to go to a writers’ workshop or masterclass.
I would like to take you to each of the sessions I attended and share some of the gems of knowledge I gained, as well as some pretty amusing things that happened.

Saturday 9:15am – Keynote Address

The festival technically started last weekend and had been going all week, but the biggest events were happening this weekend, so this was a welcome by the organisers, followed by a keynote address by author Fiona McIntosh. She gave us insight into how she shifted her career path from marketing to writing, and told it in such an engaging and hilarious way that I am not at all surprised that her very first effort to write a novel was picked up by a publisher. She was quite inspiring with her boundless energy and irrepressible optimism, but at the same time she seems to be one of those people who immediately succeeds at everything they do. I’m sure that’s not quite the case, but she didn’t seem to suffer the many rejection letters that most authors go through, so I had some difficulty relating to her. However, she was entertaining, and it was a great and positive way to start the day.

Oh, and we were given a goody bag full of bookmarks, notepaper, Mentos, a pen, a bottle of water and three novels; two were Mills and Boon romances and the third was a historical romance. Those that know me know I’m not at all interested in romance, and I was a little disappointed that there wasn’t a variety of genres in there. Oh well. If anyone likes to read romance and wants some free books…

Saturday 10:15-11:30am – Workshop with Astrid Cooper: “The Passionate Pen: Creating Memorable Scenes and Characters”

The moment I stepped into the room for this session and saw the covers of Astrid’s books and the poster on the wall, I was filled with dread. Incredibly buff firemen (shirtless), naked couples embracing (with strategically placed shadows, or arms, or sheets): she writes erotic fiction. Will this entire session be about describing “throbbing members”?? Thankfully, no. While a few of Astrid’s examples came from her own work, ultimately the session was exactly what the title said it was. Actually, this turned out to be my favourite session on Saturday.

She started by talking about “passion” (naturally). But not bedroom passion. She was talking about being a passionate writer, about knowing your characters well and relating to them. Passion (or “Fire In The Belly” as she referred to it a few times) will shine through in your writing. If you are passionate about your characters and your writing, the reader will be too.

Often people make the mistake of waiting to write until they feel passionate about it. But if you wait, you might never sit down and write a single word! “Cultivate the habit and the passion will come,” Astrid said. In other words, write regularly. Get into the habit of writing every day (or whatever suits your timetable) for a certain amount of time, and soon it’ll be natural. Also, write about topics you feel passionate about (whether that topic is throbbing members and sexy firemen, social justice, or learning to be true to yourself).

The first of several practical activities was entitled “WHAT IF…?” Astrid wrote a name on the board: Alistair Hallington-Smythe. “Just by looking at the name, what is this character like?” The answers were fairly typical: rich, British, old money, Oxford educated, well-dressed, business man, etc. But then we were encouraged to push the boundaries. “What if…he was a lawyer?” Well, that was no stretch; I think someone had said that anyway. “What if…he wore stockings and suspenders under his court clothes?” Uh, ok. So he’s a transvestite? Sure, why not? “What if…he’s actually a serial killer and he wears the stockings of his victims as trophies?” Now we’re getting interesting.

The point here was to think outside the box. DON’T SETTLE FOR THE OBVIOUS. And yes, that may seem kind of, well, obvious, but if you don’t consciously make yourself move away from the obvious, you’ll end up with boring, predictable characters that the reader’s won’t be interested in (and you will probably tire of them quite quickly as well).

Next Astrid talked to us about using all five senses when describing a scene or an action. Obviously if you used all of them all the time it would be too much, but how often have I as a writer focused only on what I can see, and forgotten about what I hear, smell, taste, and feel? We had a few exercised to do here. First, she gave us a photo of a setting (see the pic to the left) and asked us to write down what we saw/heard/felt/tasted/smelled about the place. Some people wrote a full on description, but I just did dot points. The thing I loved about this activity is that the picture immediately put you into the scene, and there were certain things about the image that conjured up certain things and prompted the imagination. I imagined that there was a water fountain just out of view, and I could hear the trickle of water and smell the humid, musty scent of water that needs changing. I think this is something I will use in my writing from now on: find pictures of a place similar to a scene in my book and use the picture to prompt my description of the place.

We were also given a boring paragraph that we were asked to rewrite using the senses. I’d like to post the boring paragraph so you can have a go at rewriting it as well, but it’s Astrid’s intellectual property, so I probably shouldn’t. Instead, I will post my own boring paragraph below for you to rewrite. If you like, post your rewrite in the comments! I’d love to read them. And for the record, it’s surprisingly difficult to write a bad paragraph.

***

“Melina, are you all right?”

Melina opened her eyes and coughed. Ronan helped her to a sitting position and she looked around. The alleyway was empty except for the rats, and the smoke that hung in the air. How much of the town was on fire? She got to her feet, wiping her filthy hands on her breeches. They needed to get out of there, before the fires spread.

***

Finally, we were given this picture:

meeting on turret stairs

The topic for this activity was “Emotional Triggers.” What are the emotions in this picture? Write about it. This is what I wrote:

“My dear, you’ve come to me.” His voice was low and sinister. He blocked her path, a snake ready to strike.

“Please, milord,” she squeaked. She eyes the gap between his body and the corridor. Could she escape him? She lifted her skirts and ran, the blue velvet whispering with every move. He laughed. The harsh sound echoed off the equally rough stone. He grabbed her arm, and she cried out as her shoulder wrenched in its socket. The cold mail sheathing his arms scratched her delicate skin. She turned away, hot tears pricking her eyes, trying not to inhale the horrid stench of stale sweat and ale that reminded her of the last time he took her against her will. And the countless times before that.

I looked at the picture and saw a lady trying to escape a man with lust in his heart. Afterwards Astrid revealed that the picture is actually called “Meeting On The Turret Stairs.” The two people are forbidden lovers, and the knight is about to be taken to the gallows to be hung, while the lady is going upstairs to be walled into a tower for the rest of her life. It’s quite beautiful, but I enjoyed writing my own take on the picture. Want to write your own back story for this picture? Post it in the comments!

Saturday 11:45am-1:00pm – Workshop with Gerald Lally: “Family History”

I need to say at the start of this section that there were two sessions running simultaneously for most of Saturday, and you chose which you wanted to attend. The options in this time slot were “Family History” or “In Conversation with an Australian Rural Romance Author.” My aforementioned aversion to romance novels drew me to the family history workshop. I wasn’t sure what this would include, but I hoped there would be something that I would be able to apply to my writing.

Sadly, this was not the case. Gerald Lally had never run a workshop before, so it perhaps wasn’t as engaging as it could have been, with no practical activities, but merely a group discussion of sorts about researching and compiling one’s family history, and Gerald’s own experience with getting copies of the book printed. If I had been researching my own family history and was genuinely interested in the topic, I probably would have found it quite interesting. But I’m not. Gerald mentioned at one point that his family originated in Limerick, Ireland. So, to keep myself entertained, I wrote a limerick about dear old Gerald:

There once was a man named Lally

Who forever would dilly and dally

He liked family stuff

Was a history buff

And he published a book: Oodelally!

Clearly, finding decent rhymes for a name like “Lally” were beyond my mental capacity at this point. I remember wishing that his initials were O.D. so that his name could actually be “O.D. Lally.” Sorry, Gerald. Nothing against you, but I clearly chose the wrong session here. Please forgive my flippancy.

Up Next: Panel Discussion on Indie Publishing, Fantasy Workshop, and The Beginning of My Gluten Overdose