Sunday, February 25, 2007

Spilling Literary Blood

I overheard a portion of a conversation last week between two writers. One was admitting her hesitancy of killing off characters. She just couldn't find the heart to do the deed.

My ears perked up at that and I immediately inserted myself into the conversation.

I have no problem killing off characters. Whether they be unnamed disposable characters like soldiers or named characters that are central to the plot.

I kill 'em off, and do I it with relish.

To me when I'm doing my detailed plotline I'm continually asking myself questions about what choices or character fates would be the most dramatic. I want my readers to experience through my story a full range of emotions and includes feeling revulsion at the horrors of war as well as overwhelming sorrow when Life is unfair and a character dies a premature death.

That's what I like in drama: bold dramatic bangs, cliff hangers and cathartic cries.

In the source material that I'm using to write my legends of Charlemagne epic, there are literally thousands of characters. Not all are named characters, but it was a medieval soap opera with a myriad of plot threads being spun by the two poets, (Boiardo and later Ariosto.) Most of the plot threads eventually came together and you began to see the immense tapestry they wove over the multiple decades it took to write. However, some character arcs were not dealt with in what I consider to be a satisfying manner. They simply trailed off without having their thread tied off or cut off. It wasn't something that bothered me whilst I was reading, because the grandeur of both Orlando Innamorato and Orlando Furioso does not really allow you to reflect on things that are omitted.

It is only when you have read the entire magnum opus and go back to analyze the individual parts would you recognize that there were some aspects that were not as dramatically satisfying as they could have been.

Maybe I'm just spoiled as a reader and a lover of drama. I want everything to be neatly tied off whenever possible. I believe in the idea of Chekhov's gun that if you introduce a plot element like a loaded rifle that it must be fired, otherwise don't bring that prop onstage.

My favorite stand alone novel is Aztec by Gary Jennings. I remember being in awe when I saw what had appeared to be an offhanded remark in the narrative come back into play hundreds of pages later. It is over a thousand pages and there was nothing superfluous in that book.

To me that is my standard to which I calibrate my writing against. I of course, do not measure up but it is my goal.

Therefore, in my version of the legends of Charlemagne, whenever a character is going to no longer be necessary to the plot I sit back and decide how best to tie off their story.

A lot of times that means death.

However, I try to think of how to kill them off in a different manner than other character deaths because I do not wish to be repetitive. So they must die a different style of death, and hopefully in a manner that befits them and their ultimately tragic character arc. There are characters who I will be killing off in the future and I'm looking forward to writing those scenes. Because I'll be able to sink my teeth into them.

It's interesting because one of the members in my critique group had commented that she found my descriptions of some of the battle scenes as being too disturbing, too visceral, too graphic. One scene she had particular problem with did not show any deaths, but instead it was a nasty horrible king who spoke about how to introduce disease into a castle under siege. It included a discussion of dismemberment, decay of corpses and of using catapults to hurl the crude biological weapon amongst their enemies.

They did that kind of thing back then. Her revulsion was actually what I was trying to elicit with that passage.

I shook my head and reminded her that my story takes place in the middle of a war and this was during the medieval period. How did one soldier kill another? By sword, by lance, by battle axe. They either were slashed, stabbed, bludgeoned or possibly burned to death. It's not pretty. Modern warfare isn't pretty either, but the concept of biological weapons isn't a recent invention. It goes back for millenia.

On the other hand, I do have heads sailing through the air because killing by decapitation is quick and decisive. Sometimes I just want to kill a character and move on.

I'm a pacifist in real life, but as an author I am cruel and heartless and I will kill off characters without hesitation.

Does anyone have a problem with that? Or do you find killing off a character makes you so queasy you just can't bring yourself to do pull the metaphorical trigger?

Just wondering...


Tuesday, February 20, 2007

San Francisco Writers Conference

I volunteered at the San Francisco Writers Conference this year. Kate Farrell, Tyler Stanley, Pat Tyler, as well as Marlene Cullen and Ransom Stephens were all volunteers as well. I felt proud to be in such company, and know were all a part of the Sonoma County writing community.

This was the fourth annual San Francisco Writers Conference and it was sold out. Three hundred and fifty writers of varying levels of experience came from thirty one states and Canada.

I had several assigned tasks, but it was the impromptu interactions with attendees that I enjoyed the most. There were times when I felt like a roving ambassador, giving directions, answering questions and engaging people in conversation when people were waiting. I felt that my experience and knowledge gleaned from going to other conferences and being a CWC member bore fruit. I networked with writers, extolled the virtues of belonging to the nation’s oldest professional writers club and told them various places to find information they sought. I had printed up 20 business cards, but should have made more as I ran out before the conference was over giving them out to writers.

The conference had forty workshop sessions to attend and opportunities to talk with agents and editors. Part of the conference dealt with creating the perfect pitch. There was a morning session devoted to this subject as well as an after hours session where people were invited to practice their pitch and compete against one another. This led to a debate as to whether the ideal pitch should be 25 words or 25 seconds. I had not attended that competition, and I’m glad I hadn’t. That’s way too much pressure to put on people.

Yes, a pitch is important, but it is not the be-all-and-end-all of how to interest someone in your writing. I understand that by describing your project succinctly it might become the description an agent uses with an editor, which might later be used by the editor to sell the idea to the acquisitions team, then in a further incarnation it might wind up being used on a back cover to tempt the book buyer. So, while a pitch is important I don’t think you need to sweat the exact number of words nor the exact number of seconds it takes to say it. Egads, talk about performance anxiety.

I had read several agent blogs in the last few weeks discussing their viewpoint on the “speed date” sessions. Agents generally cringe at the mere thought of these events because they are bombarded by nervous writers desperate to make a good impression in less than three minutes. As if an entire life’s work and self-worth could be boiled down and encapsulated into three stress-filled minutes. Of course it can’t, and therein lies the rub.

The nervousness over meeting with agents and editors seemed pervasive and I did my part to try and alleviate some of the stress. I told people that they would be better served to relax, smile and show your human side first before launching into a spring loaded pitch that you’ve been obsessing over. Because not only are agents interested in your writing project, but they’re also interested in knowing whether or not you’ll be a client from hell. Being nervous or tetchy if you didn’t get your exact full three minutes will not play in your favor.

So I tried to be as relaxed as possible. Two of the three agents I met at the Speed Date session I had met several times over the weekend in my volunteer capacity, so when I sat down at their table I was a familiar friendly face. I exchanged some pleasantries before giving my pitch.

The third agent I had not met before. I had researched the different agents the weekend prior to the conference and saw a mention on her agency’s website that she liked damp castles. That description was not in the conference blurb about her, nor did she say anything about it when she introduced herself. So I started my time with her by saying that I was approaching her because of her stated fondness for damp castles.

Then I gave her my pitch.

As it turned out, I received three requests for partials. Three for three. That’s a lot better than my batting average at previous conferences.

By Sunday afternoon, I said goodbye to many of the writers that I had met and talked with over the weekend. They all said they felt it was worth their time, expense and travel to come to the conference. They were grateful for the advice and encouragement that they had gotten along the way.

And that, made me feel good.


Anyone who was interested but unable to attend the conference – you can listen to the various workshops either by CD or MP3 file. Each session was recorded and available on That website also has recordings from other writers conferences as well.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Michael Shurtleff died at age 86

I am saddened to read in the New York Times that Michael Shurtleff died January 28th at his home in Los Angeles.

Shurtleff had been the casting director for such Broadway shows as Chicago, Pippin, Becket, Gypsy, The Odd Couple, Jesus Christ Superstar and for the movies The Sound of Music, Jesus Christ Superstar and The Graduate.

His eye for talent led to casting Barbara Streisand at age eighteen in her first Broadway musical.

He also wrote one of my favorite books of all time is Audition: Everything an Actor Needs to Know to Get the Part. It has been instrumental in my writing over the years as I look at his wisdom to remind me what I as a writer need to put into my story.

His 12 guideposts show a richness, complexity and variety of human emotion that should be a part of every character and every scene.

There are so many pearls of wisdom in his book including the reason why alcohol is used in plays (or novels or movies). Here are two snippets from his book:

"There is only one reason why anyone drinks in a play: to release inhibitions, to be able to say and do things he was normally afraid to do, too repressed to do, too considerate or cowardly to say, too polite or fearful to risk. Have a few drinks and all this can come pouring out, once the blocks are down and the dam has broken.

Actors tend to use drinking negatively. It’s important to find the positive: allow drinking to heighten the emotional needs, to free you to express deeply-buried feelings. Not to escape from relationship, but to pursue it. Not to become vague and fuzzy about the world and whoever is in it with you, but to seek confrontation, to fight for what you want in ways normally denied you. Not to withdraw from your scene partner, but to seek in a richer, more needful way, warmth, camaraderie, love."

Ahh, that's why I love his book and I turn to it as my reference book of choice. I wrote my second post on this blog about my veneration of Shurtleff. If anyone hasn't read it and is interested in reading more, you can check it out here.

If you haven't read his book, do yourself a favor and pick up a copy. Buy it from a store or check it out from your library.

I am sorry that Michael Shurtleff died, but I am happy that he lived because the world benefited from his talent.

Thank you for everything Michael. You will be missed.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Writers Conferences - Why Should Anyone Go to Them?

Recently I've seen a couple agents blogs mention writers conferences and discuss from their perspectives whether or not it is worth their time attending. Most of them are already swamped with query letters, and so they are not waiting around feeling forlorn hoping for potential clients to contact them.

They have also said that it is doubtful that they will actually find new clients by meeting writers at a writers conference. The one area they felt that was worthwhile was in educating writers about the business of publishing.

With the idea that many agents or editors from publishing houses do not expect that they will actually meet writers that they'll develop a long term working relationship with, why should writers spend hundreds of dollars to attend writers conferences?

Because you'll learn about the business in ways that you simply can't from reading books, blogs or websites.

Because going to conferences will help you to meet others who share your same passion for the written word.

I belong to a writers club and so I meet with other writers at least once a month and can talk with others who share my obsession about writing. However, by going to writers conferences I meet writers from geographically distant areas and have developed friendships with them.

The first writers conference I attended was about fifteen years ago when I was still in my twenties and I wasn't sure exactly kind of writing I wanted to pursue. I had taken a course in screenwriting before moving to California, but I had gotten bitten by the political activism bug. I started spending more of my creative energy writing essays on political issues than thinking up screenplays. At the time I went to my first conference I had the credit of having had one op-ed published in the Los Angeles Times. It was beginner's luck where my first submission was accepted, but none of my follow up submissions were.

I contemplated working as a free lance writer on political topics I cared passionately about. So I attended sessions geared for free lance writing, but also others that piqued my interest. I also heard speeches from the keynote speakers which were informative and inspirational.

At the time, I felt embarrassed to be there as if I didn't belong because I had only one real credit to my name. I didn't realize that it was precisely because I was so new that attending a writers conference was the best thing for me. If nothing else, I realized from the sheer number of attendees that I was not alone and that I had colleagues who weren't superhuman individuals, they were just normal people.

I have since then attended six other writers conferences and at least three book festivals. Talking with other writers always inspires me, because I learn from other people. I also share with them my knowledge gleaned over the years.

Just the other day I was talking with Tom Kendrick who was a guest speaker for my writers club last December and we were discussing literary blogs. He is in the process of adapting his book Bluewater Goldrush into a screenplay and wanted to know if there were any blogs about screenwriting. I didn't know of any offhand, but the next day as I was looking for something else, I found an area on the wonderful Absolute Write Website for screenwriters. I sent Tom the link and he followed up. Within an hour he was corresponding with a successful screenwriter and learning a lot.

Sometimes I envision myself as a spider who is sending out silken strands in many directions and then joining them together. You never know when a piece of information that you hear will come in handy, and that is another benefit from writers conferences. You hear stories from industry professionals and you can hopefully use that information to help you avoid making similar mistakes that others made before.

You can also meet agents. Some of the settings to meet agents are stressful ordeals because they involve time limited "pitch sessions." It's like trying to convey to someone the essence of your book project in the time it would take to ride in an elevator.

One conference I went to seven years ago had agent and editor round tables, which in retrospect was an incredibly cruel method to perform these agent-author interactions. At each table sat an agent or an editor and writers filled in the rest of the chairs. The agent could have at any one time probably seven pairs of eyes staring at them, while one person nervously tried selling them on their book in about two minutes time. The agent would make a snap decision of "that's not the type of book that I'm currently looking for" or "here's my card, please send me a query letter about your project." Meanwhile the other writers were jockeying for position to be the next to get their turn. As soon as one writer completed their pitch, they'd vacate their seat to find an open seat at another agent's table and wait their turn to repeat the process.

Rinse, pitch, repeat.

It was stressful for me, but I believe it was far more stressful for the agents and editors to have to endure two hours of hungry looking eyes staring at them desperately seeking validation. In retrospect, I feel sorry that they were even put in such a format.

It is far more humane to have only one writer at a time sit at a table talking to an agent. Even if they are bored stiff by the individuals stammering about their Great American Novel, there would only be one pair of eyes at a time staring at them as opposed to multiple sets.

Beth Proudfoot the chair of the East of Eden Writers Conference spoke to my writers club three years ago about what writers can expect from attending writers conferences, and she has a summation of that available online here.

Due to her insistence that writers embrace lines at writers conferences as a means to schmooze, I look at them in a different light. They are a chance to network with people. Be as outgoing as possible and listen more than you speak.

One thing to note there is one line in which you absolutely should not pitch.

It is a Cardinal Sin to pitch in the bathroom line.

Don't do it.

It's tacky, and well, no one wants you to continue telling them about your book when they've closed the door or are standing at the urinal.

Talking about your novel near the shrimp cocktail is one thing - doing it in a bathroom is another.

Just don't. If you feel you must say something to an agent who is standing next to you while you're waiting in line, say "isn't this a great conference?" or "I really liked your talk at the last session." Something light and polite that does not beg for a long conversation, especially when you are liable to be interrupted by the lyrical sound of flushing at any time.

There have been anecdotes of writers handing samples of their work under the stalls to agents. Unless you wish to be the butt of cruel jokes bandied about for years by agents when they gather together at a bar.

That's about all for now. This weekend I'm volunteering for the San Francisco Writers Conference and am looking forward to having a great time.

Look for me if you're attending as well.


For the most humorous take of what attending a writers conference from an agent's perspective, here's what Miss Snark had to say.

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Being in a Community of Writers

I love being around writers. It helps inspire me to continue putting my thoughts down on paper hoping I will say something worthwhile.

This past Sunday we had our monthly meeting of my writers club. That meant our meeting landed on Superbowl Sunday. And the meeting took place during the time the football game was on the air.

Now, that didn't bother me one bit because I'm not a big football fan. However, it is a huge national phenomenon and the national media makes it seem as if you are not doing your American duty unless you gorge yourself with chips, dip and beer while watching a football game and an over-rated half-time show. Oh and you are supposed to watch the commercials!


So I was a little worried we might not have a good turn out for our meeting.

We did.

Just like in January, we were packed to the gills.

We meet in an art gallery and it always makes for an interesting venue because we never know what the place will look like. Some months there are landscape portraits on the walls, sometimes there are nudes. Last month there were scaffolds and drop cloths in the main part of the gallery as artists were doing their installation.

So we were stuffed in the back around tables that normally only hold our refreshments. To put it in a kind way: we were cozy.

This month we were out in the main gallery, but there were standing art pieces which limited the available space to put chairs. We kept having to go get more chairs as late comers arrived.

People turned out to listen to two incredible Iranian born authors who spoke about writing cross culturally. Ari Siletz read a passage of a wedding ceremony that happened at the turn of the 20th century from Shahrnush Parsipur's Touba and the Meaning of Night. He also talked of other authors and how those writings influence how Westerners look at the Iranian culture. He discussed his thoughts about books such as The Kite Runner, Reading Lolita in Tehran, as well as Funny in Farsi. Then he read an excerpt from one of his short stories in The Mullah with No Legs and Other Stories.

I was glad he chose the story "The Dog" because it one of my favorites. It shows the dramatically different cultural attitudes that Americans have versus Iranians in regards to dogs. It is told with a gentle humorous touch that elicits laughter as well as understanding.

Then we had the Q&A session and we were stunned to hear Shahrnush tell us about her recollections of being held as a political prisoner in Iran. In the U.S. we are fortunate to only worry about whether or not we'll have our works published, but not whether or not our books will be banned and we will be thrown in jail.

Then to top the evening off, we had our longtime member Alla Crone read an excerpt from her finished memoir. She was born to a German father and a Russian mother and was raised in Manchuria. It was wonderful to hear different influences over time, geography and culture which remind us of our shared humanity.

One of the nicest things was Ari admitting that he had spoken in front of many groups before, but never writers. I've had several of the guest speakers I've invited mention that same thing. It amazes me that they haven't been asked before, but they found sharing their thoughts about the writing process with others who understand them to be a wonderful experience.

And that is why I enjoy being in a community of writers. It feeds my creative soul.

The only downside was that neither writers brought any books to sell. They would have sold quite a few copies. Ari told me that his publisher is now talking about reprinting his book. They should, because it's great.

Until next time, may your muse be treating you well.


Thursday, February 1, 2007

Here's to Molly Ivins, a Texas Grande Dame

I miss her already.

Molly Ivins died yesterday after a long fight with breast cancer. She was an incredible writer who had her own distinct voice.

Molly Ivins lived, breathed and loved Texas and Texas politics. Molly was a reporter and worked for many years at different papers and even worked for a few years for the New York Times. She readily admitted that she was miserable while working for the Times because they didn't get her humor. She found her columns heavily edited and one turn of phrase she had submitted which was "a beergut that belongs in the Smithsonian" was transformed into "a man with a protuberant abdomen." She was fired by the Times when she used the term "gang-pluck" to describe a community's chicken-killing festival.

She returned to Texas to work for the Dallas Times-Herald and began emerging as the star she was. They gave her free reign to write about what she wanted in the style she wanted. Because she used humor and she wrote about Texas politics, she did rile a few feathers. There was an effort to pressure the Times-Herald to fire her when she made the observation about one legislator that "if his IQ slips any lower, we'll have to water him twice a day." Instead they stuck by her and rented billboards around town with the slogan, "Molly Ivins Can't Say That, Can She?" Later that was the title of her first book which was a collection of her newspaper columns.

She wrote in a manner that allowed people to hear how Texans sound. She chose to write the word "bidness" rather than business because that's how the word sounds when spoken in Texas. She'd write about Texas bidnessmen and politicians in the "Lege" (pronounced like ledge) which was short for the state legislature. You could hear Molly's voice while you were reading her columns and people grew to love her.

Her columns became syndicated and appeared in over 300 newspapers. Molly was unlike most political columnists who people read because they feel they ought to. People read Molly because they loved her.

I remember the first time I had ever heard of Molly was back in 1991 when I was working the afternoon shift and happened to hear a program on my local National Public Radio station. It was one of their pledge drives and they aired a talk by her. I was enchanted by her voice, her manner, her wit and above all her style.

About a week later I was in a book store and was waiting in line to check out with an armload of books when I started looking around. I saw the bookshelf with new releases and saw her book Molly Ivins Can't Say That, Can She? I stepped out of line, grabbed a copy and when I got home I promptly forgot all the titles I had so carefully chosen to purchase and dived into the impulse buy.

I sat in bed reading her columns, howling with laughter and then read passages to my husband. We became Molly Ivins fans and at Christmas I gave copies of her book to both my parents and to my in-laws. They were also won over by her charm.

Here is a small slice of her observations about Texas politics:

"Texas politicians aren't crooks: it's just they tend to have an overdeveloped sense of the extenuatin' circumstance. As they say around the legislature, if you can't drink their whiskey, screw their women, take their money, and vote against 'em anyway, you don't belong in office."

Here is a link to one of her columns called Sometimes You Just Have to Laugh.
That will give you an insight as to how much she loved Texas and how much it showed.

I was fortunate to see her speak twice in person at sold out venues. She was just as witty, charming and personable as one could hope.

I heard Lou Dubose today being interviewed on Pat Thurston's radio program. Lou and Molly co-wrote two books together about George W. Bush. Lou spoke of Molly with fondness and said that she was conversant in French and felt just as comfortable in a salon on the West Bank of Paris as she was in watering holes in East Texas.

She was an incredible woman and will be sorely missed. The world benefited from her wit, wisdom and mighty pen.

Thanks Molly for everything.