Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Master's Program overview

I spent last week in Pennsylvania at Seton Hill University's Residency for their MFA in Writing Popular Fiction. It was the third out of five for me. (I am the last of the MA program. Most will have six residencies for the MFA.) It is a jam packed week of writing courses, critiques and meetings with published authors who are mentors/advisers and an afternoon with a guest speaker. This time the guest speaker was David Morrell author, best known for First Blood (Rambo) and his newest book Shimmer.
I got to see old friends and make new. It was great to meet my blogger friend Anita Miller, although I didn't get much time with her as it was constant go, go, go for me. (Anita blogged about her experience, too, so click on over and see the program through her eyes as well.)
On Tuesday night there was a welcome reception and introductions. Then Weds, we opened by discussing the general reading book, Ain't She Sweet by Susan Elizabeth Phillips. The program asks us to read a book in a different genre every residency so that we can get a good feel for all genre fiction. My first residency we read YA, my second it was Science Fiction, this time Romance and for January's residency it will be Horror. This allows the student to understand the conventions, similarities, and difference in genre. That afternoon was spent discussing readings in the genre of choice for your thesis. In my case, mystery, the book was a classic whodunit by Margery Allingham. That evening was spent with our mentor/adviser discussing our thesis.
Thursday for me was a morning of three student presentations- as part of the program you learn teaching techniques and must give a workshop and then are given hints and helps on how to perfect your speaking style. The workshops were very interesting and I'll speak on them in another blog. The afternoon was spent in a module about clues and red herrings in mystery stories- fabulous, then more mentor meetings in the evening.
Friday was student critique workshops in the morning and the afternoon module was finding plot ideas and twists in news stories-great! (another blog) That evening was a wine social and book signings by alums of the program.
Saturday we were all starting to drag a bit-the days run 9 am to 9 pm. More student critiques followed by the afternoon with the guest speaker who talked about where the book business began and where it is going. Also about finding your light in your writing and more. That evening was another hour by the guest speaker then a books signing and reception.
Sunday morning for me was a wonderful module on World Building in YA followed by more student critiques in the afternoon-my ten page scene was the very last one. Even though everyone was on their last leg, I got some really solid comments. The day ended with a 4 pm good bye reception. Then it was off to the Pittsburgh airport, where my flight was delayed due to bad weather. I finally arrived home at 12:30 a.m. with an armful of information and an exhausted brain. But it was all very much worth it. Cheers~

Monday, June 21, 2010

New design and blog award

Last week the lovely Sia Mckye awarded this blog the Meat and Potatoes blog award. It tells you that the blog content is more than fluff but offers some solid information. Sia passed this award to five bloggers and I in turn am to do the same.

"This prestigious award goes to a particular group of wise and experienced bloggers who have proven themselves over the course of time, trials, and tribulations.
If you're looking to follow someone’s guidance for writing, publishing, promotion, and thought provoking articles, then I suggest you look at this group:

1) Marilyn Brant's warm and witty outlook on publishing and great marketing advice at Brant Flakes.
2) The absolute fabulous and right on multi-published authors over at Boxing the Octopus.
3) The tongue-in-cheek Joel Stickley at How to Write Well Badly.
4) Homey romantic fun at author Linda Kage's Blog Page.
5) Amazing over caffeinated author Talli Rolland from across the pond.
If you get a chance pop in and say hi to these bloggers- follow them and you won't be sorry you did.

In other news I've updated both my blog design and my website for the summer. Pop on over to www.nancyjparra.com and let me know what you think. Cheers~

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Villians and heros

Recently I sat in a workshop and the exercise was to write an opening paragraph for a scene or novel. When we were done, we were to read it to our neighbor and discuss what kind of opening it was and why it worked or didn't work. I wrote the scene from my hero's point of view. When I read it to my neighbor, they loved it and thought he was an awesome villain. Hmmm, perhaps I had gone a bit too far on the bad-ass attitude. I didn't explain to them that this was my hero. The workshop went on, but I've thought long and hard on that moment.
Across genre's some of the best heroes have been villains and some of the best villains have been heroes.
What romance reader doesn't like a little bit of bad in their hero. Why? Because if he did everything the nice way there would be no tension. Without tension there is no conflict, no jazz, no thrill and no sex appeal.
What mystery reader doesn't like to pit their hero against the worst possible villain? Again, tension is built in when the worst possible-or alpha- villain is pitted against your protagonist. Who will win? Can you defeat someone smarter than you? What about someone crazier, or lacking moral direction, a loose cannon if you will?
Think of Heath Ledger's portrayal of the Joker in Batman. He didn't care about anything but chaos. Or Dexter- the serial killer who goes after serial killers.
As a writer we want to create characters that cause tension and excitement in our reader. A page turner is when the reader can't tell who is going to win in the end-even though they are within the "safe" confines of genre-where the detective brings the bad guy to justice and the hero and heroine have happy endings. If you can write a scene or story where the hero is pitted against a villain of equal or greater intelligence you've created a page turner that your reader will want to return to again and again.
Keep in mind that alpha villains don't have to be powerful men or wicked women. They can be as awful as a small girl with no remorse or empathy- think about the character of Briony in Atonement. The creepiest part of that whole story is that even though she had ruined lives there was no recognition of why it was wrong and no remorse.
So, who is your favorite villain in a book or movie and why? Who is your favorite hero and why? Do they have anything in common?

Tuesday, June 8, 2010


The latest trend in writers marketing is to tell everyone they need an "elevator" pitch. A short (15 words or less) pitch that you could use if you ran into an editor in an elevator. Something to get their attention. I worked hard on this-thought I had a great one for a Women's Fiction novel I wrote.
Here's the pitch:"A convention services manager discovers a family secret that complicates her happy ever after."
And the title: "If the Shoe Fits--sometimes the last thing you need is a fairy godfather."
I was prepared. So I went in for a pitch session with an agent. I gave my well polished pitch. She paused, blinked and said. "Okay, so tell me more."
I drew a complete blank. "Um, well, um." Wait...aren't they supposed to ask more specific questions about the book? "Um, well, okay... it's a Cinderella story--"
She cut me off. "Sorry Cinderella stories are over done. No one will buy it."
I swallowed. "Well, it's really and anti-Cinderella story. You see, the twist is that the Fairy Godfather gums up the works and the girl has to take her own life into her hands if she wants a happy ever after."
Agent frowned. "I don't get it."
"Okay..." My mind scrambled. "You see the heroine hasn't moved on since her mother's death. One day at the worst possible time, she discovers she has a fairy godfather who wants to change her life and give her a happy ever after."
"Cinderella stories are over done," Agent dismissed my pitch.
"No, see, the godfather tries to get the heroine to live the life he wants for her and she must learn to finally stand up for herself and live the life she wants for her."
"But," the agent says, "Why would you not want a fairy godfather?"
I stared at her, knowing I had lost all hope at this point. "This is really tough," I mutter.
"Why don't you tell me about something else you have," the kind agent says.
I didn't have any other elevator pitches ready. I swallowed. "But, this is the best book I've ever written."
"Writers, your time is up. Please finish up and allow the next set of people in." The moderator announced.
I stood, shook the agent's hand and thanked her for seeing me. She handed me her card and said it was nice to meet me.
The point to this little story? You can write a good story. You can follow all the latest "rules" and write a good pitch. But that doesn't mean you'll always be fully prepared for what happens next, especially when the editor/agent doesn't get what you're trying to say. So, my advice, learn about pitches, do your best to write one, then realize that we're all human and even published authors can gum up a good appointment. Give yourself a break. And most important, try, try again. Cheers~

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Writing is a mind game

Sally won four contests and finaled in five. Ben got an awesome agent with his first query. Tom sold the first book he ever wrote and hit the bestseller list. Emily just signed a three book deal with an awesome publisher who can't get enough of her stuff.
Meanwhile wretched writer won a prestigious contest but no one wanted to publish the book. Ambitious author started with a small press certain he'd jump right into something bigger but for some reason he can't break out. Disappointed dabbler entered twenty contests and the judges all hated her work--even though she has been following all "the rules" for ten years and going to writer's meeting regularly.
Let the mind games begin...
Writers are competitive, daring, dramatic people. Otherwise we wouldn't dream of attempting to write and create a story. We are lured by our own sense of success whether that's winning a contest or two, publishing a hard cover book, hitting the best seller list or simply being able to make a living at this madness. Someone once wrote that to be a writer is to be a gambler. We are all working on that next book in hopes of hitting it big. We all need the next "fix" of success.
Reality check #1: you cannot control the market place-not even a little. Not even if you're a marketing guru. Once you write and polish a book you have no further control over it. That means that two people can have the same great idea, have the same amount of talent, write well polished books and one may be a success while another one flounders. It may be something as simple as your name, your agent's name, who gets the book to the agent/editor first or even a tropical storm swamping a warehouse with all your books while the competition's books hit store shelves. (Seriously, floods, train wrecks, it's all happened.)
Reality check #2: Everybody's different. What does this mean? It means you can't compare what happens in your writing journey to what happens in any one else's. So what if all your friends are selling and celebrating victory after victory while you polish and resend and gather rejection letters. You are not a failure. They are not better than you. STOP comparing apples and oranges. You are not your friends. You are not Sally or Joe or even the person you consider your nemesis. Thinking that they are showing you up leads only to madness. You'll find yourself not finishing your work certain you will fail. You find yourself hating to hear their good news even though you like them. You might even try to copy them or figure out what they did to get where they are. Soon, you may be so obsessed that you quit writing all together. You fling books at walls swearing that editors are crazy if they think this dreck is good enough to publish. If you find yourself procrastinating or polishing the same three chapters without finishing the book or chasing trends only to discover it's no longer vampires but zombies, no longer zombies but werewolves, no longer werewolves but mummies and you would rather shove a toothpick in your eye then congratulate your best friend on her latest sale. Stop the madness. Open your window. Stick your head out and shout, "I'm mad as hell and I just can't take it anymore."
Now step away from the computer. Step away from the story. Take a break, get some water, deep breathes, do yoga, stand on your head. Move your computer sideways. Change your perspective. Even take a month away from writing (or more) if needed to gain perspective. Writing is life. Some people are born rich. Some people are born poor. Some people catch every break while others work their fingers to the bone year after year. While it is natural to compare yourself to others, remember this: writing is hard enough without playing mind games. Some say you need a thick skin in this business. I say you need proper perspective. Whatever you do- fight the bitterness with fun. (Bon fire of the rejections letters anyone?) Fight the disappointment with flare (shout "ompah" and do shots of chocolate for every thanks-but-no-thanks) and cherish all your friend's victories as your own (party like it's Dec. 21, 2012.) Dare NOT to compare and celebrate the journey you are on. Play. Live. Enjoy. Life is too short to do anything else. Cheers~