Writers throughout New England gathered for NH Writers’ Project Writers’ Day 2014, a day of networking and instruction on the Southern New Hampshire University campus. The conference kicked off with B. A. Shapiro sharing her journey prior to her novel, The Art Forger, making it to the New York Times Bestseller List. It was a journey filled with other books written, genres attempted, agents hired and let go, books passed around literary circles and then passed by, and wondering, is it perhaps time to give up.
Then Ms. Shapiro and several other published authors: Elaine Isaak, Toby Ball, and Michelle Hoover (whom I also had the pleasure of bumping into in the parking lot – – sorry Ms. Hoover) led smaller instructional sessions. These authors shared tips for keeping a writer’s dream alive and the words flowing. Here are my favorite tips:
Tips from Toby Ball – Plotting Without Making Yourself Crazy:
- Keep the backstory relevant to the main plot, and unless writing a mystery, get it into the first act.
- Subplots are tricky. They need to enhance main plot; not detract from it.
- If there is one thing that separates dabbling from professional writing it is the willingness to make huge changes. Take a cold eye to your draft and be prepared to cut, or to add what is missing.
- Check out best-selling author outlines at Flavorwire, including J.K. Rowling‘s outline for The Order of the Phoenix, and Norman Mailer’s outline for Harlot’s Ghost.
Tips From Elaine Isaak – Ten Mistakes I Made in my Writing Career so that You Don’t Have To:
- To avoid writing a lousy synopsis, “Imagine telling the plot to a friend as though it is a good movie you have just seen.” Ms. Isaak suggested keeping the synopsis to 3-5 single-spaced pages, third person, and tell the whole story. You want the publisher or agent to help you sell your book and hopefully pay you to write more. To do that, they need to know the story from beginning to end.
- When signing your contract, read it carefully. Sometimes publishers request the first right of refusal for your next book. They mean your “next book”. If your first book is a children’s picture book, and the next an action-thriller, is this really the publisher you want to use? Consider asking them to make a “next book” clause genre-specific.
Tips from B. A. Shapiro – Meet the Keynote:
- When Ms. Shapiro put up her diagram of the Bell curve, mentioned MS Excel, and stated she had a mathematical mind, I figured the probability of her methods working for me were 92.3 %, +/- 2.5%. She was speaking my language.
- Ms. Shapiro shared her multicolored, file card system. Each protagonist gets assigned a color and each colored card represents a key event. Then she lays the cards out on a large table in story quadrants (Act 1, Act 2-part1, Act 2- part 2, Act 3) and moves them around until the order keeps the action moving. Of course there is a lot more to this, so if you have the opportunity to hear Ms. Shapiro speak, take it.
- As a fiction writer, it is important to do your research and keep your eyes open for ideas, but don’t let research bog you down. “Go as far as you are interested and then make the rest up.”
- Avoid “Eye Bumps”, which are tangents that interest the author, but bore the reader.
Tips from Michelle Hoover – Locking in the First Pages:
- Push your protagonist off the see-saw. Your protagonist, needs to take an action, and that action must involve substantial risk. The known is comfortable, so events have to push your protagonist into taking the path toward risk.
- Each protagonist, should have a wounding event, and an inciting event. Ms. Hoover explained that a wounding event is often in the far past, does not have to be revealed, but for the author, it supports the character’s choices. An inciting event, which can be the same event as the wounding event, often occurs before the opening pages, and represents a problem that must be addressed.
- Leave questions open-ended. As the author, you need to know everything about backstory and events leading to inciting incidents, but you do not need to, nor should you, reveal all that you know.
Finally, just one tip from me: Trust yourself. I learned that I do know what my next step needs to be, but because I kept trying to make it on my own, I thought I was headed in the wrong direction. There are as many ways to write a novel as there are published books. If you get stuck, I recommend attending a writers’ workshop or a writers’ night out. Share the problem that has you spinning in the springtime mud. If you can just get unstuck, summer is right around the corner.
I’d love to hear about your favorite writers’ workshops and conferences and how they changed your perspective on writing.