‘Round the Nautilus: April 2016

Welcome to the first in a new blog series, ‘Round the Nautilus!

This monthly series is aimed at helping writers-who-are-readers set the spotlight on the most interesting book they read that month.

Note that I didn’t say books they liked best. This series is for books you can’t shut up about, good or bad. That may mean a new favorite novel, but it also may mean a bestseller that was a bit of a letdown. As long as blurbs are respectfully and tastefully written, they are more than welcome.

So without further ado, here is April 2016’s ‘Round the Nautilus:

_______________________________________________________

Astonish Me
By Maggie Shipstead

9780307962904

A novel as sinewy in strength as its ballet dancers’ muscles. Shipstead tells a story of longing with a melancholic echo that rings for days in the heart. As a writer, the story of dashed hope and undying ambition rings painfully true as Shipstead’s protagonist comes to terms with her faults and failures.

—Amy Thomas
@aktommy26

 

 

 

A Thousand Pieces of You
By Claudia Gray
17234658

Gray throws her readers into the plot, expertly supplementing en media res action with enough backstory to keep the reader from wandering. Each character, from the two protagonists down to the smallest sidekick, are so well-rendered that by the end I would have recognized them on the street. Gorgeous world building and sharp pacing: this book is a marvel.

—Shannon Price
@spricewrites

If you are interested in joining ‘Round the Nautilus for May 2016, please send me a DM and I’ll be happy to fill you in on dates and details. All are welcome!

Photo Credits:
Astonish Me
– washingtonpost.com

Thousand Pieces of You – goodreads.com

 

 

 

AWP 2016 Recap

IMG_1739

Last weekend I (and 11,999 of my closest literary friends) went to Los Angeles for the annual Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference, aka AWP.

LA is not my favorite city to say the least – the sky outside the plane’s window got visibly darker as we descended into smog (ick).  Still, the location gave me a chance to wear some outfits that would have given me frostbite at last year in Minneapolis. As for the conference itself: that gave me much, much more.

 

Bookfair

IMG_1758

For AWP 2015, I was part of a group of students representing the Santa Clara Review, Santa Clara University’s literary magazine.

This year, my time was split: I was there first and foremost for myself. As a writer polishing her third MS, my priority was attending panels to help sharpen my skills. Beyond that I wanted to attend talks about trends in publishing, the #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement, and (of course) how to secure representation.

The rest of my time was spent helping represent Counterpoint Press, where I currently work as an intern. It was exciting to see our titles – some of which I’d helped proofread or publicize – all lined up and ready to go.  Working the booth also meant I got to socialize with co-workers out of the office and meet some new ones (looking at you, Dan Smetanka.).

I also got to meet some of Counterpoint’s authors – John Jodzio, Tod Goldberg, and Brett Fletcher Lauer, to name a few. After seeing their names printed on galleys and press releases, it was surreal to shake the writers’ hands and tell them how much I enjoyed their work.

Panels

IMG_1767

Last year’s panels did not blow me away. No matter the subject, panelists had a tendency to talk about themselves…and only themselves. I have a distinct memory of nodding off during a magical realism panel while my friend, already asleep, drooled on my shoulder. Turns out even magical realism can be made dull.

So for AWP16, I hedged my bets- and it worked. I went to twice as many panels and judged them using a very offical smiley face rating system.

The verdict: one frowny face, two “so-so” faces, and five big smiles.

The most instructive panel was title Treating Your Setting Like A Character. The panelists – Elizabeth Briggs, Jessica Love, Kathryn Rose, and Rachel Searles – divided up the sections of how they treat character and offered a stellar mix of personal anecdotes, recommendations for books that use setting intelligently, and useful questions a writer can ask themselves when developing setting. The result? A perfect panel that left me energized and inspired.

A Touch of Kismet

My AWP highlight came on Saturday morning (and pinch me here, because I’m still reeling that this actually happened), the last morning of the conference. While en route to a panel, I shared a taxi with a young woman who turned out to be Erin Harris of Folio Literary Management.

I write YA. She reps YA. We discovered this connection immediately, at which point Erin smiled introduced me to my new favorite word: kismet.

We got to talking, and I pitched her my books. She asked me about my writing background and my internship at Counterpoint. We joked about the strange vastness that is LA. When we parted ways – coincidentally, Erin was on the panel I was attending – I thanked her and promised to send my MS when it was ready.

Note: Thank you, Erin, for your kind words and listening ear. I throughly enjoyed meeting you; look for my query in the coming months!

Closing Thoughts

IMG_1750My experiences at AWP15 and AWP16 were radically different. I’ve grown as a person and a writer since Minneapolis, and it showed. This year I knew to bring business cards, ask better questions, and to take advantage of each aspect of the conference. In short, this year I felt like I belonged.

Attending a conference like AWP isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. My sleep schedule went out the window. My eating schedule went freely with it.

But in the end, I wouldn’t change a thing. Not the three days of living off coffee and free chocolate. Not the tired feet, or the dent in my bank account, or eating concessions on the bookfair floor (see left).

None of that matters because of the people I did it all with. I reconnected with former college professors, talked to alumni, and met dozens of publishing professionals who are just as in love with writing as I am. I learned about myself as a person, as a writer, and as a part of the writing community – all in the span of four days.

So thank you, AWP, for another staggeringly amazing time. As I said to my friends when we left the bookfair on Saturday evening: “Next year in Washington”.

-SP

Pain & Process

It is a truth universally acknowledged that writing is damn hard.

Okay, so I’m paraphrasing.

Many a well-meaning friend and family member equate writing to sitting at home in your pajamas all day.

“You looked relaxed,” they tell me.

Admittedly, I do look relaxed – but rest assured, I am not.

“There is no agony  like bearing an untold story inside you.” That is a real, non-paraphrased quote from Zora Neale Hurston. I first saw it in a Oprah magazine. I ripped out the page and tacked that sucker to my wall. I’m looking at it now.

Agony is a strong word and a fitting one. Whether in a first draft or fifth, writing is physically painful process. For me, it feels like an ache at the center of my chest. That ache goes away when I type a new scene, strengthen a line of dialogue, or delete a chunk of text in favor of a better one.

Writing is also emotionally painful. Of course it is! Writing means putting your mind, ideas, and (yes) heart onto a page for other people to read. WITH THEIR EYES. I mean, who does that?

Writers, that’s who.

As of right now, December 14, 2015, my most painful writing experience has been creating the draft I am working on now. The 75+ rejections I’ve received to date pale in comparison to the agony of this particular story untold.

Does this mean this manuscript, when finished, will be my best? I don’t know. Does it guarantee it’ll be published? Of course not.

But Hurston didn’t say “book unread” or “manuscript unpublished”. She said “story.” And that’s just it – this story which I love has been in my head, tossing and turning for years, is finally getting it out. Any way you slice it, creating this draft is a personal endeavor – but one that I don’t mind grappling with.

Why? Because I’m a writer. Pain – emotional, physically, or otherwise – is part of the game. And I love, love, love it. Even when I hate it, I love it. 

Writers will tell you their work is hard. Believe them. They  will tell you they love what they do. Believe that, too.
-S.P.

 

Great British (Writing) Show

The_Great_British_Bake_Off_title
Source: Wikipedia

 

Like much of the world, I am hooked on The Great British Bake Off. It’s a refreshingly civil competition, and one that champions creativity, consistency, and dedication to the craft.

With each episode I watch, I spot and more more parallels between the writing/publishing process and baking. Grab a crumpet and a spot of tea, and let’s compare:

1.) Waiting is the hardest part.

At some point in each episode, the contestants do, in fact, have to wait for their creations bake. Some wring their hands on their aprons. Others pace around the famed tent. In one episode, a contestant looked at the camera and said, “I hate the waiting. I absolutely hate it.”

If you take a look at my recent Tweets, you’ll see how much I sympathize with this statement. Querying is a waiting game. No amount of refreshing your inbox will make agents respond any faster, just as no amount of staring into the oven will make that plaited loaf rise any sooner than it’s ready.

2.) The judges are allowed to be particular.

It’s sometimes hard to watch Paul and Mary (GBBO’s pair of judges) point out flaws in a contestant’s creation. They nit pick each bite and are almost ruthless in that regard.

Still, it’s important to realize that they’re allowed to be picky. They know the craft and understand just how a croissant should flake, whether the dough was kneaded correctly, or whether the flavors “work” or not.

Agents are the same way. They know the trends and what can sell. They know what succeeds in a sample and what doesn’t. Often they have to reject work that is perfectly fine, because perfectly fine isn’t good enough.

Agents are looking for nothing short of a showstopper.

3.) Writing needs a good bake throughout.

By episode 3 or so, viewers of GBBO pick on the judges’ jargon. One phrase that crops up again and again is a “good bake”, meaning the contestants’ creations must be evenly and thoroughly cooked in order to impress.

Agents, too, need a good bake throughout. You can’t have a piece of writing look crispy and golden on the outside (strong query, good sample) and have it sink towards the middle or be raw at the bottom.

Plot, setting, and characters are the ingredients of writing. Not only must they blend together, but the execution must be flawless as well. Taking the extra time to “prove” your creation with line edits or re-writes will help ensure a good bake throughout. Agents will be hooked by your query and treated to a work that is consistently excellent.

They’ll be stuffing their pockets with your pages and asking for more.
–S.P.

SCBWI North Bay: Finding and Working With an Agent with Molly Ker Hawn, The Bent Agency

A little shy of two months ago, I attended my first official SCBWI event. After brief how-do-I-get-there panic (Outside Lands > anything else happening in SF), the very agent I was aiming to see suggested over Twitter to take the ferry.

Genius.

One train and one ferry ride later, I arrived at Book Passage in Corte Madera. The store alone sent me into full literary-nerd mode – I’d heard of Book Passage for ages, and here I was, in real life! (My awe could also have been caused by severe sleep deprivation – back-to-back early shifts at work tend to mess with my head.)

The talk began right on time. An SCBWI rep thanked the store owner – the famed Elaine Petrocelli – for allowing us to use the space and filled us in about other upcoming events.

After a short introduction, the star of the hour – Molly Ker Hawn of The Bent Agency – got up to speak. At the time, I’d been querying for a year and was very familiar with The Bent Agency. One of their agents had my full MS…and I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I was hoping Ms. Ker Hawn might drop some insider info as to when I may hear back (she didn’t).

Ms. Ker Hawn began with a brief recap of how she got into the industry: after living next door to Jenny Bent at university, the latter repeatedly tried to get her involved in publishing – year later, Bent won.

Ker Hawn, who lives in London, has about twenty-five clients. Her workday starts around 9AM and ends at 11PM. “By the time [my kids] are in bed,” she said jokingly, “New York is still going.”

She keeps going, too. With an average of 150 queries hitting up in her inbox each week, it is no surprise her days are long.

The witty and articulate agent peppered her talk with plenty of wisdom, stressing the importance of the standard word count of your genre and reading your work aloud.

Delving into the subject of queries, Ker Hawn took a moment to explain how comp titles are an excellent tool to catch an agent’s attention – but only when used intelligently. “For God’s sake, don’t say Harry Potter,” Ker Hawn quipped, getting a laugh from everyone, myself included.

Ker Hawn’s event was full of good-hearted laughter. While discussing beta readers, Ker Hawn said, “Never think feedback from someone you feed is legitimate.” Her meaning? Kids (and spouses) are not ideal beta readers, even if they fit the age group you are writing for. You want someone who will offer honest, constructive feedback – not someone who may dance around the truth to spare your feelings.

Next on the docket were agencies and agents – how they may respond to your work, getting The Call, and questions to ask during The Call, etc. Some of the best questions she suggested asking were:

-What is your vision for my book?

-How many clients are you currently working with?

-How often will you be in touch?

“Because you are all sensitive flowers,” Ker Hawn joked, “I try to keep in touch often.” This, of course, varies per agent, so depending on how sensitive of a flower you are, you want an agent willing to work with you at your level. However, Ker Hawn took a moment to emphasize how it’s important to remember that your agent has other clients. “Waiting your turn” is inevitable.

The event ended with a quick Q&A. “How have I been talking for two hours?” Ker Hawn said after she realized the time. Her answers to inquires – like much of her talk – were concise and to the point. (I snuck in one about whether I could query a new MS even though I hadn’t heard back from one agent who’d had the full since January. Her reply? “Oh God, yes. Go for it. Next question.”)

A gracious (and well-deserved) round of applause later, the event wrapped up. I had to make my way home right away, but I noticed Ker Hawn stuck around to talk with writers one-on-one. Given that she had spent two hours talking and was under the weather, I thought it was gracious gesture to stay and very reflective of how passionate she is about helping writers.

With my three pages of notes in tow (remember, I’ve been querying for A WHOLE YEAR and still came away with notes. That’s how much wisdom she fit into two hours), I bid Book Passage goodbye feeling more than a little inspired. Both Ker Hawn and SCBWI lived up to my expectations, and I look forward to attending more Bay Area events down the road.
-S.P.

words and opinions entirely my own