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The Muse Online Conference 2009
I've mentioned this conference on and off over the last couple of years, but this may be my first official conference report. Though I'm not one to hang about in my robe and bunny slippers, Muse Online is unique in that it is 100% online with the interactions occurring round the clock in a combination of forums and chats. This year, a new aspect was added: pitching to both agents and editors. The feedback so far is overwhelmingly positive and it looks like more agents and publishers will participate next year.

So enough with the generals. Here is my Muse Online experience:

I have been offering a writing techniques class since 2007, my second year, so the whole Muse Online experience began for me back in June when I put my class materials together. I was not alone in the focus though, because the year-round, related listserv was buzzing with people trying to confirm their memberships and eager to see what this year's conference would offer.

I reviewed the folks offering pitch slots and identified one agent who accepted works like my novel. From that moment on, there was all the normal panic associated with an in-person pitch, only slightly lessened by the realization that this would be typing not speech, so I'd be unlikely to dissolve into stutters or lose my voice. And if my hands shook, I could always edit before I pushed send.

I did put together a pitch, edited it again and again, got crits, edited again, and finally polished the pitch before I submitted it to Lea, who evaluated all pitches to make sure the work was a good match, a pre-screening to ensure this aspect a greater chance at success. I also attended two pre-conference workshops on in-person/online pitches to prepare.

A week before the conference, the presenters were allowed into the forum and I put up my welcome thread in the board reserved for my Non-Verbal Communications workshop. I already had a list of names and emails for both my forum class and the related chat that would have been intimidating if I didn't know how many people, myself included, tended to over schedule. Since my workshops involve a feedback component, the number of active members can affect my participation in the rest of the conference, but at the same time, the more the merrier, because overall, Muse Online attendees tend to be supportive and encouraging of their fellows' efforts.

Late Sunday, I posted the introduction to my class and went to bed.

When the alarm rang on Monday morning, I wandered in, armed with my conference agenda which I had already beefed up with direct links to the specific forums, and notes about whether I'd downloaded the related documentation and read it. I first went to my workshop and responded to the enterprising folks for whom the sun had risen long ago, and then to each of the workshops I had signed up for.

My first mistake. I had carefully converted the Eastern times into Pacific and recorded when the chats would be (the only time-dependent aspects), but had confused 12pm with 12am in my rush to get ready. So I missed my first chat, luckily one that was a recap of the pre-conference pitch preparations.

Despite that rocky start, though, I managed to keep up with my own class and read the material in the ones I'd signed up for. The very first day I had to mock up a website in a class on marketing yourself online and put together a scene with specific dialogue requirements on top of the reading. I also had the opportunity to ask questions based on the various readings, one I took where necessary.

I managed to keep up with the readings and some of the assignments for the first two days, but on my pitch day, I could focus on nothing else as much as I tried. I answered questions and gave feedback in my class by sheer force of will, but the rest, I thought, could wait a day.

The pitch itself went not at all as planned. My first shake occurred when the agent said, "Hello." A simple thing, but I had step by step directions that said hop in the room and paste your pitch because time is short. I stalled for a moment, but since there had been some confusion about rooms and the moderators were clearing out stray people, the delay before I said, "Hello" back went largely unnoticed. Still, remember that panic?

Then I pasted the first line of my pitch and paused to give the agent a moment to read, as counseled in the staging area where the moderators gave a blow by blow account of the pitches to help prepare those waiting. I was second, so I hadn't seen many of the tips, but I incorporated what I could.

I was preparing to paste the second line when she asked about genre. That's in the last line of my pitch, but easy enough to bring up. Then she follows with another question: length, and another question. Suddenly, I have lost the security blanket of my carefully polished pitch and am winging it.

Here's the thing though. She couldn't see my shaking hands, and I learned that rather than drone on about the ten thousand details and complexities that made up my novel, I was surprisingly coherent and clear. Ultimately, she told me to send in a partial, so despite losing my footing, I'd managed to do just what I'd intended, intrigue her about the story.

So, my first experience with an "in-person" pitch? It was positive, fun in a scary kind of way, and a confidence builder simply because I didn't lose focus or run on.

Not too surprising, I rode that high for the rest of the day while I tried to catch up with my classes.

Then came the limits of an online conference. The next day was swallowed whole by a programming issue on a site I support. Eight hours later, exhausted, I struggled to catch up with my classes and failed. However, I did manage a trial run for my chat with my two marvelous moderators who helped me transform a wild and crazy concept into a functional chat game.

Friday morning, I ran my non-verbal charades game in chat (with the help of three moderators, actually). Everyone had fun and learned things all at once. It was so popular that when our time expired, the game continued back in the forum and has been borrowed by a couple attendees for their own writing groups.

The rest of Friday and Saturday, I rallied and managed to catch up on the reading if not the assignments in all but two classes, as well as keeping up in mine, and on Sunday I finished off everything but one class that was largely lecture so I can still read and benefit from it.

This conference has all the rush, adrenaline, learning, and overwhelm of the in-person conferences I've been to with a firm writing focus and none of the hotel and commute costs. I recommend it to everyone, only do try your best to set the week aside, because you won't have time for much else.

My conference take-aways were many, but here are some of the top ones:

1) The biggie was that I learned I can pitch Shadows of the Sun effectively.
2) I learned some online promotion techniques that should serve me well, and already I've improved my website with this page: http://margaretfisk.mmfcf.com/forreaders-chc.php
3) I learned how to improve my bio. I haven't implemented the change yet on my website, but it's in the works.
4) I now know just where Demon Rules falls in the MG/YA market and how to put that in my query letter.
5) And I picked up a handful of writing techniques that will be fun to try.

That's not to mention the chance to chat with writers I wouldn't normally have encountered, the joy that comes in seeing people grasp concepts not because it's easy but because they've worked their tails off, and the creative energy that comes over me despite the post-convention drain, an energy that has sparked progress on two separate editing projects as well as a handful of deadlines.

Some people say you get what you pay for. If you truly believe that, then let me recommend you plunk down a donation at the end of next year's conference, because whatever you pay, this one is worth it.
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This is not something I ever thought I would say, but in this specific case, I think Shadows of the Sun should have been a fantasy :).

 

Let me tell you the story of a young protagonist whose only desire was to see the big, broad world and meet everyone in it.

 

She started as nothing more than an intrusive dream, a little monkey-like person poling a raft through a tangled jungle.

 

But that wasn't enough for her. She couldn't be satisfied by something as little as a presence in one tiny mind. No, she wanted it all.

 

Persistence won out and this young protagonist wiggled her way into a short story, sure this would be enough to soothe her heart. And for a good number of years, it was enough.

 

Only as time passed, the story grew too small to fit her ambition, too tiny to speak to the complexities she knew she had in her. She wanted...a novel!

 

And sure enough, she had the will to make a way, forcing herself back into that tiny mind, making a space, refusing to be forgotten until...a novel was born.

 

But that wasn't the end of her trials; no, it seemed more like a beginning. From there she had to wait half written as the author when wandering off to play with...of all things...the very same protagonist whom Kyrnie had originally convinced to share the stage way back when both accepted their limits in a short story world.

 

Her patience paid off though, and her story reached its full, necessary body.

 

But no one was reading it!

 

Again, she sat on her author's shoulder, poking and prodding until edits happened. Oh the agony. What she'd thought as a beautiful telling, rather than being praised, was ripped and torn and reformed. She went through numerous critique cycles, her beginning chapters thrown away time and time again. Then came a professional critique, and even the opportunity to star as an example in several writing classes.

 

With each iteration, once she recovered from the struggle, she grew stronger, more polished, and more refined. Until...

 

The day came when the author felt she had grown enough, improved enough, to take on the ultimate challenge, to scale the very last wall before being sent out all over the world.

 

And she was ready.

 

Yep, definitely a farm girl to dragon tamer story :).

 

And in case you missed the point that was hidden beneath the fantasy, Shadows of the Sun is, at this very moment, winging its way into the hands of the first ever agent to look upon its pages. If all that training and refining worked, she should be up to the challenge.

 

Thank you to all the secondary characters in her story who help the heroine learn, stretch, and grow into what she has now become :).

 


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As you might have noticed, I've gotten a little sidetracked what with this being November and with NaNo and everything, but that does not mean I plan to leave Shadows to gather dust. My goal this month is to write and polish the submission package to prepare for a December start.

So this week I had as my goal to write a synopsis. Imagine my delight to discover (unremembered) that I had already completed not one but several synopses for Shadows of the Sun earlier this year in both my Forward Motion synopsis class and the OWW synopsis focus.

Only trouble is that none of them sounded any good.

So yesterday, after a despairing look at what I had, I went and wrote a brand new one using my latest draft of the novel in which the overarching theme/plot is much clearer from the start. I still have to polish it, and compare to the other drafts to confirm this is, in fact, better, but it's progress.

I didn't like the query blurb either, so I guess that's next on the chopping block :p. If all goes well, though, I'll have a submission package ready to go out just when agents shut down for the holidays. That, however, is not a problem for me. I'd be happy to wait a bit on the responses because I have other things to get polished and out the door still this year.

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After an incredibly long haul, I have reached the end of the road with Shadows of the Sun. Or rather, I've reached the turn where the book can take off on its own.

All that remains is a spell-check run and the submission package (no easy feat, but different from editing the whole), and Shadows will be out looking for an agent willing to shepherd it through publication to bookstore shelves.

The final word count is 134,239, so still rounded to 135k despite my efforts. It turned out that, as I'd feared, I had already done pretty much all the big cutting in the previous pass, leaving only bits and pieces here or there unless I want to remove one of the threads that make up the plot, a drastic cut which I will do if necessary, but maybe the story can stand on its own despite the length. I started at 135,740, so cut more than 1000 words anyway.

And the secondary meaning of this success? I can now focus on NaNo with a whole heart and no guilt...of course I have just one day to finalize my outline, which needs a ton of work. I should get to sleep :p.
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And progress progresses, if at a crawl.

The major changes pass is now complete. Good news? Well, the draft stands at 135,700 give or take a few words. That's still a lot higher than I'd hoped for, but a good 4,300 words shorter than I thought it would be. I did take the opportunity to take out a couple of places that weren't crucial that happened to fall in the same chapters as the major changes, so it's not a clear sign that I controlled any additional word count, but still, it makes the next step a little more plausible :).

And just what is the next step?

Well, that would be the culling pass. The plan is to read through the whole novel, looking for any place I can remove 1, 5, or even 200 words. Honestly, at this point I don't expect to find many big cuts, and I doubt that the little cuts will add up to the minimum 10,700 that I'd prefer to cut. Even an 125k, Shadows of the Sun will be running heavy for the industry.

That said, though I'm looking for cuts, at this point I'm not ready to manufacture them without an agent/editor's guidance. This is a complex, layered book, and that's not just me talking but also those who have graciously agreed to read it. I've been aware of this word count issue for some time and have already stripped out some of the additional information in the book that served to make the reader aware of the bigger world but wasn't absolutely crucial to the novel. Any more pieces I find like that will be toast. But I'm not going to trim the elements that strengthen this novel, that make it the anthropological fiction I've always wanted to write, without someone with a heck of a lot more experience than me saying if I cut X bit, I'll get a sale, or an equivalent statement.

The trick here is balance. There are a billion rules that authors try to follow, and as many ways that following those rules can kill the heart of the novel. Shadows has had its fair share of critiques, but in each case, I looked at what the critiquer was saying and worked toward an answer that resonated with the story. When Shadows first went over acceptable word count, I gave a close look to what wasn't necessary, and culled where I could. And as I said above, I'm going through again with that sole purpose.

However, no one is going to buy Shadows because it meets the guidelines perfectly. No one is going to say that this story is the one because of word count, margins, font, or what have you. What will (and yeah, I believe will is the right term) sell Shadows is the depth of the story, the complexity of the conflicts, the characters themselves, and the world and multiple cultures found within. Weakening those strengths to court a word count is working against the story, and against its chances in the big wide world. Let the power of this story capture an agent's heart first, and then the agent and I can dicker over what to cut :). But I'm not going to break what's going for Shadows because I'm afraid of some numbers that I have to put at the top of the page. After all, who's to say I wouldn't end up cutting the one part that would have snagged the agent I'd prefer above all others.
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I've been slowly working my way through the second crit for Shadows and completed that step by the end of last week.  What remained was to do the significant changes run.  I've identified 2 brand new scenes I have to add, 1 scene I have to split into two, 9 scenes that require major changes, and 1 scene I just need to move from one place to another.

The new scenes are the result of having made a significant change that I didn't think through all the way.  I moved a character's introduction earlier to give readers a human to cling to.  That seems to have worked very well.  However, I gave Martha the first scene and made no other changes.  This meant it was 200 pages until she showed up again, leaving these newly introduced readers to wonder what the heck was going on with her :p.  Sigh.  So now, I'm splitting the first scene into two, which spreads her introduction a bit, and adding two more scenes to reveal a little of her issues and keep her in the reader's mind.

The changes are anything from adding more depth to grounding a creature that I mention but never show.

As usual, these changes will have the impact of adding more word count to a book already on the heavy side.  Once I finish this phase so that all the contents are there, I'm going through backwards in the hopes of identifying places I can cut words.  If I cut approximately 25 words per page, I'll get it down into the 120k range, but I doubt I'll be able manage that on a global basis.  Still I'd like to see how close I can get.

And finally, I'll do a proof edit to make sure I didn't break anything new.

After that it's just doing the submission package and sending Shadows out into the world.  The goal is to have the first batch out before the end of the year, but it's more important to be ready than to make an arbitrary deadline.  This year has been a case of life interfering big time, so I'm trying hard to be flexible.

 

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Margaret McGaffey Fisk

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