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Friday, July 30, 2010

What's the best and/or worst experience you've had at a writers' conference?

I've never had the pleasure to go to one of the big industry conferences like RWA (Romance Writers Association) or SCBWI (Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators), I belong to both of those organizations, but didn't even know about them (or in the case of RWA, why I should join them) until after I was under contract to publish my first book. And since that point, I haven't had the time or money to go. I really hope this changes soon, possibly next year, as I imagine there is a lot to learn and a lot of fun author bonding time to be had. More than anything I kick myself for not joining these fine organizations before I was published because I probably would have known a lot more about the industry and other aspects of writing if I had. So aspiring authors, I highly recommend joining both organizations (if you write stories with even the teeniest bit of romance or if you write for children/teens, if not, there are other orgs out there, I just haven't had personal experience with them.)

I got most of my "writing education" through attending school for writing and I went to more academic writing conferences like AWP (Associated Writing Programs). These were definitely fun, though usually more than half of the panels didn't apply to me because they were about poetry or ummm something super literary that honestly made me feel dumb and like my books were fluff. But one of my coolest conference experiences was being on an AWP panel in 2009 when it was here in Chicago that was about pop culture and literature and (I believe) proved that if you write about superheroes or rock stars or make references to B-movies, your books can be just as interesting and powerful as those uber-literary books (in fact I'd say more interesting, but that's just me.)

I also enjoyed the socializing aspect of these conferences, though um... at 2 out of the three AWP conferences I attended, I enjoyed it too much, and got way too drunk with my literary friends and missed things I wanted to see because I was hungover. But um.... hopefully I've learned that lesson.

But definitely my ultimate conference moment was meeting my agent. This happened at a very small conference that my writing program at Columbia College Chicago puts on annually called Story Week Festival of Writers. It lasts a week and there are readings and panels with authors as well as people in the industry like agents and editors. All of the events are free and open to the public, but the advantage to being a Columbia student is that the teachers handpick some students to meet with the Story Week guests. In the past I'd gotten to meet with author John McNally, who in a half hour session, showed me how to inject humor into my darker stories to make them more accessible and also make the darker sides have more impact. John and I actually went on to become friends and he was the one who later helped me plan that AWP panel on pop culture. Then I'd also gotten to meet with Johnny Temple, publisher of Akashic Books, who also gave me some great feedback and that was pretty much what I thought I was going to get when I was told that I'd be meeting with agent Caren Johnson, who at the time was with Peter Rubie (now she goes by her married name Caren Estesen and runs her own agency Caren Johnson Literary Agency).

Caren read the first chapter of what would become I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone and I entered the office she occupied hesitantly with a notebook at the ready. The first words out of her mouth were, "I loved this. I want it. When can it be done?"

I was two-thirds of the way through the book at that point and seriously having writer's block. But as it was March, I decided a summer would give me enough time, so I told her, "Umm Labor Day?"

The cool thing was that she wanted my friend Katie's book, too, so I had someone to celebrate with. She took the two of us out to lunch and I stepped out of the academic world and started to learn about real writing industry stuff for the first time. I danced around giddily at Story Week's best event, Literary Rock N Roll, where writers read from the stage of Chicago's greatest rock venue, The Metro. (And if I ever get invited to do that event, it might become a top conference memory.) I felt like I was living in a dream world. I knew that this was not how authors generally found agents, so it seemed like a Cinderella story.

Of course, the part of the Cinderella story we never hear is how Cinderella's married life with the prince actually works out and how she adjusts to going from living among the ashes and evil step-sisters to being royalty. I'm sure it wasn't all happily-ever-afters and of course neither was my journey. I did a lot of hard work and revisions for Caren before she decided the manuscript was ready to shop, a little less than a year after I met her, and it was more than two years after I met her that I WANNA BE YOUR JOEY RAMONE actually sold. During that time, Caren changed agencies and opened her own, Caren Johnson Literary Agency, but she always stuck by me and continued to encourage me when it seemed like IWBYJR wasn't going to sell. She believed in the book more than I did at times.

So I didn't just meet an agent that was interested, I met an agent who was truly passionate about my work and really believed in me... and honestly now that I think about it, I don't believe any other conference experience *could* top that, even being invited to be a part of Literary Rock N Roll. I was invited to read at the Harold Washington Library as part of Story Week, which was a huge honor and what made it even better was they had Caren back that year, so she got to attend my event and go to dinner with me, my mom, and my critique partner afterwards. That was another cool moment.

So my conclusion is that conferences are definitely worth it, even the little local ones--maybe especially those, since you never know who you'll meet!

Monday, July 26, 2010

What's the best and/or worst experience you've had at a writers' conference?

I started going to writing conferences long before I was a published author. I arrived at my first one not knowing anyone or what to expect, although I was sure everyone would be much more experienced than I was. Some writers were, but many others were first-timers, too. I was thrilled to have my manuscript critiqued by a “real” editor who wasn’t completely horrified by my writing. But by far the best part of my experience was all the friendly, encouraging people I met.

Since then I’ve tried to attend at least one writing conference a year. I’ve been privileged to meet wonderful children’s authors like Sid Fleishman, Bruce Coville, Jane Yolen, Lin Oliver, and R.A. Nelson. I’ve lunched with agents, editors, art directors, and dozens of writers. And I’ve learned that people who write for children are the friendliest, most supportive, most helpful people I know. We celebrate each other’s successes and commiserate about our setbacks.

Now to answer the question of my best and worst conference experiences. By far, my best experience—although I didn’t realize it at the time—was meeting my fabulous agent, Rosemary Stimola in April 2005. I’d sent in a middle grade manuscript and requested that she be the conference speaker to critique it. She didn’t like it, but she liked some things about my writing and the first page of a work-in-progress called Crowning Glory. Two years later I completed the manuscript and queried her. The result was my first published novel, Fairest of Them All. That conference experience is pretty hard to top!

My worst experience, which was mostly just annoying, was also with an agent who was also supposed to critique Crowning Glory. I’d sent in the required first 10 pages and synopsis long before the conference deadline. During our meeting he commented several times that there was nothing that set my manuscript apart from all the other “beauty queen” stories out there. I bit my tongue until he’d finished and then I asked, “Doesn’t the fact that her hair falls out make it different?” He flipped through the 10 pages I’d sent and said, “I didn’t see that here,” to which I replied, “It’s in the synopsis.” His response, “I never read those.”

There was $35.00 flushed down the john!

That conference experience was my only “bad” one, and it’s been far outweighed by everything I’ve learned and the memorable people I’ve met. When the next conference registration form pops up in my email, there’s a good chance I’ll be signing up.

Monday, July 19, 2010

"What's the best and/or worst experience you've had at a writers' conference?"

I haven't attended a lot of conferences. In fact, I can count them on one hand - 2 "major" industry conferences and maybe 3 minor ones. And I haven't had any badly memorable experiences at any of them. In fact, only good experiences. Probably because I never attended a conference until I was a published author, so I was usually speaking on a panel or signing books. And that's a blast. And nothing I'd ever complain about.

My favorite conference experience: I got to meet, sit next to and talk extensively with Ruppert Holmes, singer of the infamous "Pina Colada" song. The man is brilliant. Hadn't even known he was a writer. He is funny and smart (used to write songs for porn movies and has greatly amusing stories). The thing is, I LOVED that song in sixth grade, owned it and knew every word of the lyrics. It was a watershed moment for me. I went home and called my best friend from sixth grade and told her. She was equally in awe of the greatness I had shared a table with during an autograph session.

I haven't attended a conference in four years. And the one thing I really enjoyed, and sorta miss now that I'm reminded of how long it's been, is hanging out with other authors. Authors are fun and friendly and a great crew to hang out with. And four years is way to long to go without such great company.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

MTV Author Snapshot: Kathy Charles

Hello everybody!

Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Kathy Charles and my debut novel, John Belushi is Dead, will be released on August 24 by MTV Books. John Belushi is Dead (or JBID as I shall forthwith refer to it) is about teenagers living in Los Angeles who are obsessed with dead celebrities. I am so excited to be here, and look forward to getting to know you all through the MTV Authors blog!

I thought for my first post I would just share some of the things in my life that are important to me, so you can get a sense of the type of gal I am. Let us begin! Heeyah!

My favorite book: It's a tie between 'Pet Sematary' by Stephen King and 'Lunar Park' by Bret Easton Ellis.

My favorite movies: Mulholland Drive, Annie Hall, An American Werewolf in London, L.A. Story.

My favorite dead celebrities: John Belushi (of course!), Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, James Dean.

My favorite music: Neil Young, Frank Black, Modest Mouse, Nick Cave, Tom Waits, Arcade Fire, The Doors, Marilyn Manson, Yeah Yeah Yeahs.
If I could have lived during any period in any place it would have been: Laurel Canyon in the 1970s, right in the heart of the music scene. Joni Mitchell and Neil Young would have been my neighbors.

Starsign: Libra.

My day job: I work in the film industry as a sound post production supervisor. This means I coordinate the final sound mix for a movie before it goes to print. It's a pretty stressful job but it's also very creative, and I get to meet lots of interesting people.

Weird stuff I'm into: I'm a big true crime buff and I'm interested in serial killers, cults and the paranormal. Yes, I'm weird. I know.

Why I write: Because it's fun! I'm a big fan of popular culture and am really interested in how it affects our lives and shapes who we are. Music and movies have had such an enormous impact on the person I am, and I'm interested in exploring this relationship between people and pop culture in my writing.

My writing habits: I write after I get home from work and on the weekends, but only after I've walked my very demanding little pug dog. When I'm working on a first draft I write 1000 words a day on weekdays, 2000 words a day on weekends.

So there you have it! Me in a nutshell. I can't wait to start blogging with all the other wonderful MTV authors, and if you'd like to know even more about me you can check out my
website where I also blog about the weird and wonderful stuff I'm into. Until next time, adios!

What's the best and/or worst experience you've had at a writers' conference?"

I am a huge fan of writers' conferences and attend at least two every year. One of the main reasons I go is to get to hang out with author buddies and meet new ones too. There is something in the air at comnferences because I am always super charged to write when I leave them.

I've never had any really bad experiences at a conference, thankfully. I've heard editors tell stories about how writers follow them into the bathrooms, even trying to slide their manuscripts under the stalls. I've certainly seen some interesting "characters" breeze through conferences. You know the ones who wake up in the morning and decide to write a book and have it published the next day! Not surprisingly, these people do not usually come back the next year. They're probably off to try a new hobby like brain surgery or rocket science. But I must say that most everyone I meet from writers to editors to agents at conferences are so helpful and sweet.

The best thing that has come out of conferences for me is buliding relationships with other authors, editors and agents. Publishing is really a small world and you will run into people again and again! Plus, I have picked up a lot of great writing tips and strategies from other presenters.

I taught my first SCBWI YA workshop this past June (see pic above of me) with my Flux editor Brian Farrey and it was such a great experience. Not only do we have a lot of talented writers in South Florida, but it was also wonderful to work alongside my editor and actually meet him in person. I hope to lead a lot more conference workshops in the future because I really enjoy sharing what I have learned over the years. As writers we spend a lot of time, well, writing and it is really nice to get out of the house and socialize with people that have the same interests! So what are you waiting for? Go, get out there, and sign up for a local writers' conference in your area. You'll thank me:).

Friday, July 16, 2010

The DIY Writer's Retreat

Sunday afternoon, I'll be driving a couple of hours northwest to a cabin in a state park with my mom and a friend. Vacation? Well, for my mom it is. She will be bird watching and hiking and catching up on her reading. For me and my friend/critique partner Jenny, it will be a writer's retreat.

I've applied for artist's residencies in the past and never gotten in (of course this was pre-publication so maybe now my resume would hold a little more weight). I was incredibly disappointed at first, but then I realized I could do it myself. All I needed was

1. A location away from civilization. Preferably without reliable internet access.
2. A few creative people to go with me to share inspiration, cooking duties, and a bottle of wine at the end of the night.

In the summer of 2005, I had to finish my first novel because I'd met my agent at a conference at my school and she'd loved the first chapter and I told her I'd have it to her by Labor Day. I was still in grad school at the time and had three other good friends who were very serious about their writing and willing split the cost of renting a place to write for a week. I wanted to go somewhere in Southern Wisconsin since that is where I WANNA BE YOUR JOEY RAMONE is set. We found this place in Mineral Point, Wisconsin:

We went for five days (or maybe it was six?) and spent all day writing, then one of us cooked a vegan friendly meal (my friends are so awesome and accommodating of my dietary choices), and we built a fire and drank a ton of wine. Probably too much wine. This is all of the wine the four of us drank in a week. Mind you, we were grad students:

Despite all the wine-drinking, it was very productive and I hoped to be able to do it again.

Then in 2007, when I was halfway through writing BALLADS OF SUBURBIA, a former professor of mine told me about a writer's retreat he'd created in a house in St. Andrews, New Brunswick, Canada. Right by the sea! And he invited my friend/critique partner Katie and me to spend 10 days there for free! All we had to do was pay airfare! So I asked my parents for money for my birthday and Katie and I flew to New Hampshire and then drove north. We stayed in the house with two other guys, writers from other colleges, and another guy who wrote and also watched over the house for my prof.

This was by far my most productive writer's retreat. I got up early in the morning and bundled up (it was late November) to walk down to the sea:

Then I did some pilates, showered, ate breakfast and sat down to write.... usually for 10 to 12 hours with lunch and dinner breaks. (Katie and I usually cooked together. We'd lived together before and had a good cooking rapport.) Then I collapsed on the couch with my fellow writers to watch TV (House or Degrassi) or a movie. I think we only went out drinking once. I finished half of BALLADS and did a revision on it in those 10 days.

Last year, I was struggling to get a novel started, so I asked my friend/critique partner Jenny if she wanted to go somewhere to write for 5 days. This time another professor volunteered to let us use her summer home near Iowa. Jenny and I wrote by day, then one of us made dinner, then we did a mini-writer's workshop and settled down for a glass of wine and watched Veronica Mars. I also read a ton that week. It wasn't as productive writing wise as I had been in the past because I was struggling to start something--actually an early, very different version of what I'll be working on this year.

This year, my mom was grumbling about how she hadn't taken a real vacation at years (she has spent her time off doing things around the house) and she'd love to go to a state park or Michigan or Wisconsin. So I ran the idea past her of going to a cabin with Jenny and me, explaining that we'd be writing during the day, but we'd cook a meal at night and could have some wine and watch movies or tv shows. Mom loved the idea. And knowing that our financial situations aren't as good as hers, she agreed to foot half the bill! (In return, Jenny and I are doing most of the cooking.) So we found a nice cabin near a state park with a full kitchen, a TV (not that we really needed that, we can watch DVDs on our laptops), and probably way more cushy amenities than we actually need.

My plan is to work on my "bartender book." I've recently posted two teasers from it on my blog here and here. I am 130 pages into it and hoping to finish it by September so my agent can get it out to the world before she goes on maternity leave. It might be quite a stretch because I'm a much slower writer than I'd like to be, but my agent and I have decided that I really need to write and try to sell full manuscripts rather than partials (and my anxieties over that and that process of coming to that decision is detailed here.), but I'm really in the zone with this book, so I'm hoping my natural binge habits will emerge on this trip and it will be quite productive.

I've also got some excellent meals planned thanks to the new cookbook that my hubby got me for my birthday. I picked up a couple bottles of wine from Trader Joe's. And Mom got me seasons three and four of the Gilmore Girls for my birthday, specifically so we'd have them to watch on this trip. (The Gilmore Girls has been a huge inspiration for the bartender book because of the quirky mother/daughter relationship.) I've also got a stack of books to sort through to bring with me for nightly reading. (Among the top contenders: Tell Me A Secret by Holly Cupala, the latest in Jeri Smith-Ready's WVMP series, the latest in Alyson Noel's Immortals series, and possibly The Lightning Thief since I haven't read that series yet, but I think I might need more contemporary women's or commercial fiction if anyone has suggestions since those are the categories that my agent says my new book falls into.) Mom is also adding board and card games to the mix this time--she has a fine collection of them, mostly word related so they should be good for the muse.

I am beyond psyched for this trip and while I am planning to apply for a fabulous looking writer's residency in Washington next year (because I always am looking for an excuse to visit Washington), I am happy with my DIY retreats.

Fellow writers, what kind of retreats have you done or would you like to do?

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Synopsis + Bio = Torture!

Before Fairest of Them All was published, I was one writer among thousands hoping to catch an editor’s attention. I revised my stories eight or nine times and proofread each one meticulously because I knew editors expected polished manuscripts. I studied formatting guidelines and followed them to the letter. My margins were exact, my headers and page numbers were placed just so. A slave to every single detail, I spent countless hours creating a manuscript that was a work of art.

Flushed with success and a little woozy from switching the font size from 11 to 12 and back again 50 or so times, I grabbed my trusty market guide and turned to the first publisher on my list. Looking for contemporary young adult fiction from 50,000-70,000 words. Couldn’t be more perfect! Query with synopsis and brief author bio. How hard can that be?

A dozen or so synopses later, I can answer that question. Writing a synopsis is like painting a mural on the wings of a hornet. You have to make the most of a very small space, and there’s no room for error. All that’s required is condensing your 300-page novel into a page, a paragraph, or—my personal favorite—a single sentence. Remember to describe the main characters, setting, and plot while capturing the voice of your story. And don’t be too wordy.

Coming up with a brief bio is equally difficult. What does “brief” mean? 100 words? 200? More? Should I include my education, publishing experience, interests, significant other, pets, blood type, and/or favorite shade of nail polish? When I Googled to find some examples, I got 25,000,000 hits on author bios. Just terrific.

It’s embarrassing that I can write a 50,000-word novel but can’t come up with a coherent summary of it. Two months ago my agent asked me for a one-sentence synopsis of my upcoming book, A&L Do Summer. After ten pathetic attempts I finally wrote something she didn’t have to change--too much. I can only imagine how much hair she pulled out as she read and politely rejected each one.

That’s my sad story. Does anyone else have synopsis/bio phobia? It would really help to know I’m not alone.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Vacation, all I ever wanted...

Summer vacation is in full swing-- around here, it's mostly meant no alarms, no homework, just basically taking it easy. I suppose this either makes me the world's best mom or the world's worst mom, depending on who you're asking. My kids, so far, think it's great, because there are no demands on their time. I think it's great because there are no demands on my time. I'm sure there are super moms out there who think it's terrible, since I don't have every moment of their summer planned to the nth degree. But I'm sort of a purist that way-- I happen to think summer's about being a kid. Which isn't to say we're not doing anything. We're in a new, glorious part of the country, with lots to explore, lots of different festivals and events to go to, and best of all, weather that doesn't leave you feeling damp, gross, and thinking you're breathing through a warm, wet washcloth. We're also taking advantage of the type of city we live in, with both kids going to a computer/software camp in August. Gotta love living in a cradle of technology.

There's also a family vacation on tap in a few weeks in the form of a cruise. My in-laws will be celebrating their fiftieth wedding anniversary in November, but they decided to celebrate early, to take advantage of summer vacation with my kids, so they're taking all of us on an Alaskan cruise. (Also taking advantage of our convenient location as a cruise ship port.) Frankly, I'm beyond excited for this vacation. The husband and I went on an Alaskan cruise for our honeymoon-- in fact, it's when we first fell in love with this part of the country and decided that we'd one day live here-- and the cruise will coincide with our eighteenth wedding anniversary. (Who let us get married that young? I mean, really?)

The cruise itself ought to be interesting. I mean, it's a family vacation and the dynamics, as in all families, can be... interesting. I keep coming back to two thoughts: one, lots of potential material and two: big, freakin' boat. If things get too crazy, I see a lot of spa time in my future.

It'll be good to be relaxed, too, since on my return, I'll be attending my first Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators conference in Los Angeles and I'm absolutely freaking. out. I haven't missed RWA in over six years and I'll be the new kid on the block and I won't know anyone and... and...

Yeah, I'm a big chicken.

So, now that we're into July, any summer plans for you guys?

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

See the World

I've been receiving a lot of emails from readers around the world lately, from Ireland to Spain to Brazil. And that's very cool. And makes me feel very boring here in a suburb of Boston.

I also just finished reading a book about a girl who travels to China in the second half of the story, and I really enjoyed it. Which made me realize that I always love books about exotic places, places I'd like to go. But I also love stories that take place at home, in a 'normal' location.

I've always had an idea for a sequel to PLAN B where Vanessa and Reed head to Europe for the summer where he's filming a movie. Thing is, even though I've been to Europe a few times, to really write about it well I think I'd need to spend a lot of time there. When I wrote LOCAL GIRLS and RICH BOYS I spent a ton of time on Martha's Vineyard with a notebook and pencil taking notes. I think it's so important to get the details right. I seriously doubt research via the Internet could substitute for the sounds and colors of being there in person to actually feel what it's like.

One of the emails I received recently from a girl in Europe asked in Martha's Vineyard was a real place. That made me even more concerned that I get the surroundings right in my books. If someone is experiencing a place for the first time through my book, I sure want them to feel like they're right there!

What about you? If you write, do you have to experience it yourself to get it right? Or can you imagine what it's like? Do you like reading about places you haven't been to? If you've been somewhere and read about it, have you ever been disappointed when an author got it totally wrong?

Thursday, July 1, 2010

How do you deal with rejection?

You'd think that after dealing with more than a year's worth of rejection for my first novel, I WANNA BE YOUR JOEY RAMONE, before it finally got picked up by MTV Books that I would have this handling rejection thing down pat.

Not so much. I'm an emotional Cancer girl. I'm a volatile creative type. I still suffer from really low self-esteem at times. Rejection, bad reviews, and the general instabilities of being a writer (not having any control about how many copies of your book are printed, how it is promoted, and whether you will ever make something resembling a living off of it) always send me into a horrible tail-spin. I can't tell you how many times I've considered throwing my pen (or laptop, I guess) down and quitting because clearly I am Not Good Enough.

But the thing is I can't quit. There is always a story that needs telling. While I was trying to figure out an alternate career path and berating myself for spending so many years and so much money on not one but two degrees in Creative Writing while IWBYJR wasn't selling, I was also writing BALLADS OF SUBURBIA. Because I couldn't NOT write it.

So I guess that is when I developed my two prong approach to coping with rejection:

1. Freak out.

2. Write my way through it.

More often than not, I am doing both at the same time.

I freak out in different ways to different people. My agent gets the emails where I try to figure things out. My critique partners and writer friends get the emails that are part plans-of-action, part rants about the unfairness of it all. My husband and mother get the full-on nervous breakdowns.

And then I piece together the plans that I make with agent and critique partners, as well as the writerly sympathy, advice and anecdotes from critique partners and writer friends and the plain old cheerleading and nurturing I get from husband and mom and I go back to work.

I was lucky after IWBYJR sold. I got a teeny bit of respite in that BALLADS OF SUBURBIA sold before IWBYJR even came out. For about a year there I was floating on cloud nine. Then IWBYJR got some bad reviews (don't get me wrong, it got lots of good ones, but I really focused on the bad ones for awhile), the print run for BALLADS got cut, and at the beginning of this year, my third book got it's first rejection. I only freaked out a little bit with that one because I already had an idea for tweaking it and selling it as a women's fiction book rather than a YA and I had this brilliant idea for another YA that I was already writing.

Then the partial for that YA went out on submission and started piling up rejections. When my dream editor said no to it. I lost it. Worst nervous breakdown yet. But somehow, I got up the next morning and continued work on my revamped women's fiction project.

The rejections kept coming and I kept writing. I took what I could from them to strengthen my writing in general and I will steel myself and look at them again for more specific pointers in the coming weeks. Once the women's fiction project goes out, I will turn back to that YA project. The partial has been rejected by 11 editors, but most of them requested to see the full if if I write it. So I'll will. Because I have to. Because it will keep me strong while the women's fiction project inevitably picks up some rejections. Because both are stories I need to tell.

I will cry. I will write angry emails and emails questioning my abilities as a writer. I will write brainstorming emails. I will eat too many salty things on one day and too many sweet things the next. I will do kickboxing workout DVDs to work through the aggression (and the over-consumption of salty and sweet things). I will probably drink too much on at least one day and keep my husband up all night as I alternate between rage at the unfairness of it all and depression that is nearly as bad as it was in my teenage years. The next morning, I will be hungover and sulk on the couch watching bad TV.

But ultimately I will drink lots of tea and sit down at my computer. I will get lost in the story and hanging out with the characters that I love. I will continue to write because I have to, because their story needs to be told, because despite my often pessimistic, volatile Cancer artist girl personality, I believe that an editor will see that too.