The Writing Life: Pitching in Person

marketing, writing

Organized Tables, Valencia, Spain, March 2007Now that I’ve moved into traditionally marketing some of my book again, I’ve found that I get much better responses to queries when I give them in person than when I send them by email. This is something new and scary for me. I’ve only verbally pitched agents and editors a grand total of nine times, the last two just on Friday at the Portland Writing Workshop. But this limited experience means I’m also still close to the terror of doing so, because it can be quite terrifying. If you’re also new at this, here’s a quick list of what I’ve discovered learning to do it:

1) Verbal pitches work best when they are NOT the same as a query letter.

This isn’t too surprising, since written words and conversations are totally different. That’s not to say many people don’t just sit down and read their query, and the agent/editor will tolerate that, but that’s also pretty stiff. A personal connection is important when pitching. So when you prepare the pitch ahead of time, pare down the query into something about half. It should still introduce the characters, tension, and stakes of the book, but as concisely as possible. That leaves room for the agent/editor to ask questions after you give the pitch, and you can elaborate on the other aspects of the novel then. You need a prepared pitch, so you don’t blank out on talking about your novel, but ultimately it’s the conversation you want–like telling a friend about your book.

2) Make a copy of your pitch in large print or type and more space to reference. 

It’s amazing how small 12 point font in a solid paragraph looks when sitting there face to face with an agent/editor. I either double space my pitch in 16 point font or hand write it with every other line left blank on the notebook paper. If you’re pretty good at public speaking you might even just have your pitch in the form of bullet points so you can refer to them easily. The idea is, when you’re talking about your book and your brain hits a blank spot, you can just glance down and see where you left off and trigger the rest of it.

3) Practice aloud. Lots. And with other people as well as on your own.

Speaking and reading silently are totally different. You want your pitch to roll off the tongue smoothly. You want to sound polished. You don’t have to memorize it, but if you read it aloud over and over, eventually you should be able to go a couple sentences each time without looking at it, and just glance back down at it for the next bit.

Even better, practice with other people. The other people giving pitches at the event are great people to practice with. Each take a turn pitching. Practice making eye contact and sounding excited about your work (because you are, even if you’re also terrified). Then listen to their feedback and adjust your pitch if you need to. When you listen to theirs, ask questions about their book. What sorts of things does their pitch make you want to know about the book? Hopefully they will ask questions too.

4) Research the agents and editors at the event ahead of them.

Some events require you to pick the people when you register, some events you wait in line to pitch to the people you favor. Either way, you should research all the people you plan to pitch online ahead of time. A piece of paper with a few notes under each one to keep them straight during the event is a good idea.

I’ve found it’s also really handy to have this for ALL the agents/editors at the event, not just the ones you’re planning on pitching to. Sometimes there’s extra spaces for you to get in more pitches. On Friday’s event I could have signed up for some extra sessions, but since I hadn’t planned on it, I couldn’t remember which genres the remaining agents represented and so missed my chance. Sometimes the agent/editor you pitch to explains you’ve classified your genre wrong  and should try other people who represent that genre. This happened to me last summer, but luckily the event had a sheet with all the agents and what the represented in my program.

5) Treat the session as half job interview, half talking to a friend.

Before my first pitch, I was completely terrified, so I kept asking the people ahead of me how theirs went. Everyone kept saying things like, well, they’re just people, friendly people, and I relaxed and had a good time. Right. I wasn’t buying that, until I actually had my pitch session. I found that by the end of it, I totally had relaxed and just related to the agents/editors as people. Everything they’d said was true. It was like talking to a friend about writing… just a bit more formal. Be sure you have your written pitch and a pen/pencil.

Here’s my breakdown of the meeting:

Introduce yourself - Even if you have a name tag, this helps trigger normal social skills and make this a more pleasant interaction.

Tell the person if you’re overly nervous - There’s nothing wrong with saying, this is my first pitch/time doing this or I’m new at this, boy am I nervous. If you’re shaking or something, it’s even better to, first because saying it aloud will help calm your nerves, and second because chances are the agent/editor will say outright, that’s alright, don’t worry, just relax, or some other helpful response. If they’re a jerk about it, then you know they aren’t the right agent/editor for you anyway.

Give your pitch – It’s good to make eye contact. Don’t sweat reading/saying your pitch exactly the way you wrote it, so long as you cover all the points/ideas you meant to. Brief is good, because it allows for the next step.

Expect questions - If you’re pitch has done its job, the agent/editor will want to know more. They’ll ask you about your book or sometimes about you or your goals.  If there’s time, you can also ask any questions of your own you have. If they ask for materials, make sure you write down what (query, pages, synopsis), who (name and email), and how to title it (since many people use filters). Sometimes they’ll give you a business card, but taking a couple quick notes are useful when you’re trying to send the right stuff to the right person later.

Thank them - These sessions are timed usually, so this is brief and you may not have time to shake their hand, but nothing ends a pitch session than a big smile and a, “Thank you so much.”


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Five Reasons to Write Fanfiction


stockvault-notebook-and-pen136687Fanfiction, while exceedingly popular, can often get a lot of scorn from authors. I think this is ridiculous. There’s a long history of re-imagining established stories and characters in literature. All the famous Greek playwrights wrote in one sense, fanfiction in that they took well known stories and characters and made them their own, creating new adventures or re-imagining older ones. In fact, I’m willing to go beyond just saying fanfiction is not a problem and people ought to write fanfiction (if they are inclined to).

With one caveat though: Always respect the authors’ copyrights. Don’t steal work and illegally sell stories based on their characters and worlds. Making money off other people’s work is wrong. But when done properly, there’s definitely five great reasons to consider writing fanfiction.

1) Learning Your Craft 

Fanfiction in some ways makes things easier for a beginning writer. It supplies the world building and the characters ready made. Sometimes it even provides plot, big events happening in the mainstream story that you can use in your own re-imagining. When trying to write for the first time, it can be overwhelming to create everything you need on your own. Trying fanfiction allows you to practice writing and gain skill in it with the support of elements you know are solid. I think of it a bit like tracing when learning to draw. Or copying masterpieces in learning to paint. These common exercise are used to educate beginning artists in how to do things right. It helps you learn to pick out elements in your own work that need further development when you compare them to your favorite stories.

Much of my earliest writing was Redwall or Star Wars fanfic. When I look at it, I can see ideas that I added to these worlds that were good strong ideas. Later on I kept some of those concepts and characters that originally came out of fanfiction and developed them further into original stories.

2) Keeping Enough Enthusiasm and Confidence in Your Story 

Another common problem beginning writers struggle with is believing your story is good enough to actually get to the end of it. Often writers will abandon a project because somewhere along the way they lost faith in it as a good idea. This can happen with any story, even fanfiction, but I’ve found that where fanfiction differs is you have the original story that excited you no matter what. You love something about this world or these characters, something about it got you so excited about it, you weren’t done when the story was over. You wanted more. Your brain is giving you more, filling in new ideas about what these characters are doing or how this world is changing. I find it easier to hold onto my confidence in the characters and the world when it’s so obvious popular with many people. This can help the writer stick with the story longer and thus learn more from writing it.

3) Feedback From People Who Care as Much as You

When you’re starting out as a writer, getting feedback on your work is essential. It’s the biggest way you learn and grow as a writer, to hear reader comments about how you can improve. However, as anyone who is a writer knows, it can be pretty difficult to get anyone to read your stuff. Friends and family get tired of you begging them to, and often don’t give good feedback. Joining critique groups is quite helpful, but sometimes you end up in groups where the people critiquing you don’t have the same interests in reading as you do. You might find what you’re critiquing in exchange just as boring back. While you’re all writers, you have different tastes.

With fanfiction you have an immediate community with other fans. These people are just as excited about this particular world and these characters are you are. They’re eager to read it. You’ll find their writing more exciting as well as it features the same things that excite you. On a fanfiction forum you can meat lots of people to share and connect with and to give you thoughts and reactions on your writing. It’s a fantastic way to grow as a writer.

4) Gaining Fans That Carry Over

If you have an active fanfiction community and fans who enjoy your work, sometimes that can carry over to your original work as well. These people know and love your fanfiction. They like your treatment of characters and find your style interesting. It’s also likely that your original work will have lots of the elements of the established worlds you love. I’m not saying copying, but more like they’d be in the same genre. My original books aren’t copies of Redwall or Star Wars anymore, but you can see the influences in things like animal characters, complicated family relationships, a hero on a quest to save his home or country, and other larger themes.

Many of the people read your fanfiction will likely enjoy your original work as well. Several authors have had success publishing original stories after having a large number of fans of their fanfiction work. It helps you to build up a platform from which you will eventually sell your own work.

5) You Can Make Money in Fanfiction 

Now, just to be clear, I mean LEGALLY, not trying to sell stories still under copyright. There’s several ways you can do this. First, some older properties are no longer under copyright. Notably, recently copyrights expired for Sherlock Holmes and Treasure Island. You can now legally write stories with those characters. There’s a lot of great older stuff like Alice in Wonderland or the Jungle Book. Just double check to make sure the property you’re selling actually is public domain before you charge money for it.

Sometimes, when a property is still under copyright, there are ways to get permission. If the owner of the copyright is willing to sell you or the publisher the rights, your story can be published. Peter Pan for example goes through the Children’s Hospital in the UK. Also, some larger publishers regularly put out books in various worlds like Star Trek and Star Wars. Someone has to write those books. If you’re good enough and they like your ideas, it could be you. Recently the Jim Henson Company held a contest to pick which author they’d hire for a Dark Chrystal prequel novel. If you really love the right fanfic universe, you just might be able to write in it. Just do your research about who holds the rights and the best way to legally write for them.

These days, you can even self-publish in a few established worlds. Amazon has purchased the right to sell fanfiction in several worlds through kindle publishing. These copyright holders receive a percentage of your story’s income. It’s worth checking out their list of allowed worlds to write in to see if any of them are worlds you enjoy. While it’s a limited list, it ranges from something as literary as Kurt Vonnegut’s novels to as pop culture as GI Joe. Each world has rules though that have to be followed before you can publish a story with it, so make sure your fanfiction follows the unique guidelines. Hopefully more copyright holders will be interested in joining the program in the future.

Now if only they got the rights to Redwall… and I might just return the field of fanfiction.

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Exploring the Willamette Valley: Cascades Gateway Park

Willamette Valley

Cascades 6I’m a bit embarrassed to admit it, but ever since Nanowrimo my daily walk has disappeared. Talk about unhealthy! I’ve kept up on Tai Chi class twice a week but that’s not the same sort of exercise, even if it’s good for me. The trouble with winter in Oregon is it’s cold, rainy, and dark, and mostly makes me want to curl up on the couch with hot chocolate or tea, not go out walking. I’ve been unable to talk myself into my usual route at Minto-Brown Island, and so to get myself finally moving, I went this morning to Cascades Gateway Park instead. It has the virtue of being just down the road from my husband’s work, so it’s right there when dropping him off.

That’s about Cascades Gateway’s only virtue unless you count it having a fancy name. The park is a slice of marsh right next to the freeway that probably isn’t usable for anything else. It has a small river (for Oregon) and a pond. The picnic area is nice enough, if you want to listen to the freeway right next to you with only a concrete barrier between you and it. The park isn’t really set up for walking either, the only thing it’s really set up for is fishing. And it must either actually be a great place to fish or its the only place around here to fish, because even at 9 am on a cold foggy January morning there was half a dozen people out there fishing along the pond and more people showing up. When I’ve walked during the summer there’s a ton of people fishing.Cascades 2

The trails, if you can call them that, are either a few going off from the picnic area into the swampy bushes that dead end at various fishing spots along the river, or you can circle the lake. Neither are ideal. The ones at the picnic area are overgrown, so you’ll get wet bushes in your face and mud all over your shoes in the winter and spider webs and mosquito in the summer. That and you’ll have to double back after it dead ends. Usually I opt for the lake.

It’s a short circuit, twenty minutes if you take it slow, but despite being muddy, the lake itself is nice enough. It’s at least a slice of nature instead of walking right next to cars on a sidewalk. The trail is well defined in some places with even a little foot bridge, but then in others completely disappears, like when the park turns into a disc golf course. You just have to pick your way across it until the trail picks up again at the other end. There’s also a section where you either have to walk through the gravel parking lot or across some grass that belongs to all the ducks and geese, which is sort of a toss up which is better.

Cascades 4Despite all that, it’s not a bad walk. I’m making it sound terrible, but it really isn’t. The fresh air and the trees are nice. Right now flocks of Canadian geese are wintering there, which are sort of interesting to see up close, and the fishermen are always very friendly. The convenience of talking myself into getting there means I actually did it. The fog this morning made the park look almost magical, adding some mystery and making the freeway barrier less noticeable (although the noise of the cars was still quite loud). Still, I found some nice shots of nature if I was careful about how I took them.

And best of all, I got an incredible view of this big guy. I’ve never seen a heron so close before. That was enough to cheer me up and get my morning off to a great start. Maybe tomorrow I’ll actually manage to get myself to Minto or Waterfront for a more vigorous (and drier) walk.

Cascades 1


The Writing Life: Novel Critique Challenges


This weekend I attended Darcy Patterson’s Novel Retreat held in my area through SCBWI. Revision and critique groups are something I’m rather intimately familiar with but I wanted to try a new format for looking at a particular book that was stuck. I’d put it through an online group twice, but still hadn’t been able to articulate what it needed. The retreat was focused on whole book critiques, done by a focus group who had read each other’s whole novel all at once. I was successfully able to figure out what the book needed this way, which has made me ponder why my online group has worked so well for some projects but not for this one. I think the answer is in that there’s two basic ways to critique a novel: a chapter at a time and the whole book at once. Each process has different advantages and disadvantages.

old-books-stackedA Whole Book at Once

Ideally, a novel should be taken in as a whole. It is a complete artwork and so when getting feedback it’s invaluable to get it on the whole book. When a critiquer reads a whole book they can comment on key things like plot, pacing, character arc, setting, tension, and message from a place of understanding the whole story.

However there are several downsides. Critiquing such a large work is a strain on the reader, which means unless you pay someone to do it, often people who offer either don’t get to it, or give a very brief reaction. It’s rare someone will have the time and energy to give line by line suggestion in an entire novel unless you pay them to. So, other than a few typos, it’s rather unfair to ask someone to offer editorial comments on that scale. Still, even asking just for general reactions, I’ve found sometimes the critiquer has only a brief reaction of a few things they liked and disliked. While that is helpful, it doesn’t really dig into the novel to help dissect what it needs.

Usually if you exchange a novel with another author, the process is more reliable since the person is also awaiting your feedback. What made the novel retreat stand out was that everyone had three other people who had read their book, which meant the whole small group could debate each novel in detail, answering specific exercise questions posed by Darcy. This was extremely effective because when one person was unsure why they felt a certain way, either the question or other member’s ideas would help spark them to find words for why this or that part was something they felt worked or didn’t.

workChapter by Chapter

While the experience was intense and awesome, it did take a large chunk of time reading the three other novels and thinking about what I thought before the retreat. Then, it was an intense weekend that I had to set aside for the process. Unfortunately, not only do critiquers not usually have that much time to put aside to help me, I don’t usually have that much time to devote to the process. This is where chapter by chapter critique groups come.

Usually there’s a set meeting schedule where everyone comes together and critiques either a single chapter, or in some groups a set amount of words. The most common schedules are once a week, every other week, or once a month. Everyone comments on the chapter, whether aloud (in a real life group), or in email/forums, on an online group. While this make some overall things harder to see, it gives more time to individual scenes and chapters, allowing for more in depth comments, and also help with sentences, grammar, description, or other specific writing problems.

Both processes are very helpful, and I think this weekend’s retreat underscored to me that ideally a book should be critiqued both ways. When one doesn’t help me find the problem, it makes sense to try something different, until I do. Hopefully, this next draft will be a definitive one!


Sylvania: New Arrivals Start Up Businesses


Sylvania 1Last fall Sylvania opened up it’s boarders to allow a wave of new arrivals, fresh from Korea. Two families arrived, the Kangaroos and the Hamsters, and one young kitten by herself. Most of Sylvania was thrilled by the new additions, particularly Ms. Cat who was excited to meet her young niece for the first time. “I’ve got a picnic planned first thing for the two of us,” she told the Sylvanian Times. “Even better, the park has a brand new children’s bathroom, also from Korea.”

“It’s about time our park had new facilities,” Mayor Oak Raccoon said. “These are state of the art, clean and safe especially for our children.”

Other members of Sylvania were less enthusiastic. “Couldn’t we have gone with a local company for the park restroom? We need to be investing in local business,” said Mr. Duck.

Most of the town gathered though to greet the new residents. “I just want to welcome everyone and show them what a great community we are,” said Mr. Chocolate Rabbit. “My children are eager to make new friends, and so are the adults.”

“I think diversity enriches our community,” said Mrs. Elephant. “I’m eager to learn some new recipes from both the Hamsters and the Kangaroos.

Not everyone however felt the size of the celebration was warranted. “I don’t see what the big deal is,” complained Mrs. Brown Bear. “We were all made in China. Who cares what country we were purchased in? I think this encourages prejudice under the false label of diversity.”

Hop for Pizza

Sylvania 3Despite just arriving, the Kangaroos are wasting no time in opening up a new business in Sylvania–the Hope for Pizza restaurant. It might seem a strange choice but the Kangroos are happy to explain. “While you don’t necessarily think pizza when you think Korea, let me assure you there’s plenty of pizza in Korea,” Mr. Kangaroo said. “My teacher was an Italian rabbit, so I know pizza inside and out, but over the years pizza has become a truly international cuisine.” Mr. Kangarooo suggests trying their special sweet potato pizza. “It’s a great Korean specialty that I think could really catch on here in Sylvania.”

“In Korea, pizza is always served with pickles,” Mrs. Kangaroo added. “I’d challenge people here to try it. It’s far more delicious than the raw tomato slices people serve it with here.” The Kangaroos still offer such Sylvanian classics as pepperoni, cheese, and Canadian bacon pizza, along with extra tomato for those who still like them.

No Paw Left Behind

Sylvania 2The Hamsters, the other newcomers, have also arrived with their very own new business–a shoe shop. The small store is currently right next door to Hop for Pizza, with both families going in on housing to get started, but everyone is hopeful that the new year will soon see them expanding. “Looking around, I see a lot of bare paws in Sylvania,” said Mrs. Hamster. “I think our shoes will be greatly appreciated. We have a wide range of styles currently stocked with my husband working away on yet more great footwear.”

Many residence, like Mrs. Badger are enthusiastic. “My daughter and I have both wanted shoes for ages,” she said. “And my husband will be pleased to finally have work boots.”

Her son, Wintergreen Badger however had other ides. “Who needs shoes? I’d rather have pizza.”

Either way, both new businesses will brighten Sylvania’s future.


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From the Dreaded One’s Desk: The Dusty Lair

From the Dreaded One's Desk

ardythava3“Your evilness?” The Productivity Head Minion poked its head into the Dreaded Lair. Cob-webs hung low from the ceiling and dust was everywhere. Papers, dirty clothing and dishes, leftover Christmas decorations, and snack wrappings littered the floor. The desk was piled so high with junk even the window behind it was obscured.

“Most Dreaded One!” yelled the minion, picking its way through the room.

“Go away, I’m busy,” snarled the Dreaded Author from behind her book. Her feet were propped up against the windowsil and she was just in the exciting part of the novel she’d gotten for Christmas.

“But your dreadfulness! You’ve neglected not only the lair this time but your work as well. Do you realize it’s been thirty six days since you last wrote anything new?”

The Dreaded Author glared, purposely not notifying the minion that a dirty candy wrapper had gotten stuck to its leg. “I’ve been productive! My goal last month was to edit! In fact, just two days ago I was at my writer’s group to read ten freshly edited pages!”

“Freshly as in you stayed up the night before and they were full of typos which embarrassed you horribly,” the minion said. “You’ve lost your muse!”

“It’s somewhere in here,” said the Dreaded Author. “Under all the junk.”

“Exactly! Lost! It’s time to get productive! Clean this up, find the muse, and get cracking.” The minion puffed up its chest. “We’ve decided it’s high time you stopped lazing around and got going again.”

The Dreaded Author growled and hurled the book at the minion. It ducked. The book hit a pile of boxes which fell down with a crash sending a cloud of dust into the air. Only then did the Dreaded One realize she’d lost not only her place, but probably the book as well. “Look what you’ve made me do!” She got to her feet, flexing her claws.

“And your awfulness, the worst of it is, it has be six months since you last did any marketing.” The Productivity Minion shook a claw at the Dreaded One. “Shame on you!”

“I was busy!” roared the Dreaded Author, incensed. “I was camping with friends in August! Visiting Korea in September! Writing a brand new novel in November! Christmas obligations in December! All perfectly good excuses!”

“And during October?” The minion smirked.

“Something very important, I’m sure.” The Dreaded One swiped at the minion, but it dodged and she knocked over a teapot spilling moldy water across the floor. Snarling, the Dreaded One jumped back only to land a sticky candy wrapper and knock over a pile of papers with her elbow sending them across the floor. “I can’t work in this mess! And I certainly can’t market in this mess!” she roared.

“So which is easier? Dishes or a blog post?” the Productivity Minion asked with a wicked grin.

“Eating you for dinner is what I’d call easier!” The Dreaded One attacked again, furious that the minion had a good point. Getting mold out of a teapot or packing away the Halloween decorations from last year were all considerably more bother than a simple blog post. Unfortunately the junk was too thick to get anywhere near the little minion. It raced across the room and out the door before the Dreaded Author could even begin to untangle herself from the mess.

“Bother those minions, they’re useless anyway,” she growled sulkily. At least the last pile to fall over revealed the book she’d been reading earlier. Wiping the tea slime off on a stray sweatshirt, the Dreaded One settled back down to read. Productivity could just wait a little longer.

“You missed October,” said the

Your lair isn’t just messy, it’s covered in dust. Your lair has been neglected while you’ve been off gallivanting around!”

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Exploring the Willamette Valley: Covered Bridges near McKenzie Bridge


Parvin bridgeSo I’ve had a really busy couple of last weeks… I went to the PNWA writer’s conference two weekends ago, but I’m still letting the experience filter through my brain mentally and so will be writing on it belatedly. Instead, I needed a perfect way to unwind, and so when my father suggested we go on a drive to find some covered bridges just southeast of Eugene, Oregon, I jumped on it.Unity bridge

People who haven’t gone looking for covered bridges mostly don’t understand why it’s so much fun. I know I didn’t before my father first talked me into it. But once I tried it, I was hooked. There’s several fun aspects of it. First, you have to find the bridges. While there’s directions online, those are only so good, and so there’s always a bit of a question as to if you’ll be able to find the bridge, if the bridge is still there even. In that respect, it’s rather like a treasure hunt, usually traveling around beautiful Oregon countryside and farms.

Then, a covered bridge itself is really quite lovely to visit. Usually it’s over a quiet and rather charming river, with lots of plants, flowers, farm houses, and other pastoral scenery. The bridge itself can frame very lovely views of slices of countryside or river, and so it’s rather like going to an interesting park. Also, some of them have interesting histories, which is what my father enjoys. He likes to read up on the bridges, when and how they were built, Oregon history surrounding them, and get several photos of each bridge.

Lowell bridgeEugene is definitely the right area of Oregon for covered bridges. While it took a bit longer to arrive in the area, once we got there all the bridges were close together. The first one we visited, Parvin Bridge, was off on a quiet back road and quite charming. Since it was still in use, we took care to watch for traffic, but there wasn’t any, so we got to fully explore the bridge at our leisure.

The second bridge, Lowell, surprised us by being on a lake more than a river. A dam upriver had changed the flow of the water and so the bridge was more on a dock attached to the main road’s modern bridge.Lowell bridge 2 It is also a much larger covered bridge and historical exhibits are housed inside of it with lots of interesting information. On the downside, it has a pigeon problem, which makes much of the floor of the once lovely bridge covered in bird poop and lots of annoying birds flying around inside it.

However, not only was it still an interesting bridge despite the birds, but it had a very handy map of all covered bridges in the area. Looking at the pictures, my mother and I saw a distinctive red bridge we instantly fell in love with and wanted to see, one that was not on the tour my dad had constructed from research online. Since it was only 20 mi out of the way, we decided to go see it.

Office bridgeOffice Bridge was well worth the detour. It has a covered pedestrian walkway built into the side of the covered bridge that makes it quite unusual. According to the signs, it is also the longest covered bridge in Oregon. The bridge itself can be driven across but leads only to a parking lot and park, with a number of hiking and biking trails leading off from it. There was also a cute cafe and lodge across the street from the bridge that looks like it’d be a great place to stay.

We went looking for Pengra Bridge and found Unity Bridge first, since our directions didn’t quite work out. Unity is currently under construction, replacing the roof, and on a bit busier of a street, but I still got a really nice view from the bridge in between traffic.Pengra bridge

Eventually after several wrong turns and extra exploration, we found Pengra as well, which was on another quiet road and worth the hunt. Overall, I had a fantastic time and would like to see more of the covered bridges another time.

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Camp is here!


2014-Participant-Vertical-BannerI love to go camping. Something I will have to wait until I get my car back from repairs to do. Siiiigh. But until then, I can go to Camp Nanwrimo! This summer version of Nanowrimo (the main event is in November) is a lot more relaxed. Writers can pick their word count goal, if they’re writing a novel, script, short stories, revising, etc. Any writing project is acceptable. And while I’m super busy with both writing Much Ado About Villains and proofreading Dragon Boy for the Pacific Northwest Writers’s Association conference Sea-tac, I just couldn’t resist getting myself together to make a goal for July’s camp.

Good thing I’m not really going camping until August! I won’t have time.

I debates setting a new goal for Much Ado like I did in April, but I need a break from my intensive schedule and some mental room to work on Dragon Boy and the conference, so I decided I’d finish one of my other novels that was unfinished. I’m attending a workshop next January (no one can complain I don’t plan ahead at this rate) where I’ll be in a small group going over a chosen novel and so I picked one that was unfinished but I really cared about for the workshop called Mortal Friends. I need to send a full draft in to my group partners by the end of November, so now’s the perfect time to squeeze it in. I’m pretty excited to finish this book, as it’s one that’s special to me. Here’s the blurb:

Conrad (Con for short) the goblin is forced to join the Horde to help his impoverished mother keep her house and his sister out of an early and disgusting marriage. Life in the Hoard stinks, he’s bossed around by the other goblins, the food’s no good, and the heroes just cut through them no matter how hard they fight or try and defend themselves.

His brother Swindle watches his back though, and gets Con a nicer position—guarding a captive princess. The Princess Irene is slated to marry the goblin prince in a plan to bring the Golden Lands under the Horde’s control.  Bored with guard duty, Con first reassures her, then teaches her how to sword fight, accidently becoming friends. As the wedding draws near, Con can’t stand the thought of watching it happen, but can he help her escape without being a traitor to his people?

I’ve kept my goal at 50k, the length I hope the book will end up at, because before finishing it I want to go over what I’m keeping and revise it. I’m hoping for a whole draft by the end of the month so I can get back to villains.

Now, to everyone else doing camp this month, let’s get writing!


The Black Cauldron Revisited – A Reflection on a Childhood Critique


the-black-cauldron-still-3This weekend, marooned at home for my car being in the shop, I decided to watch The Black Cauldron, a Disney film mostly swept under the rug for being a huge flop in the theaters. I hadn’t seen it since it came out in the theaters, at a double feature with ET actually. I’m going to guess in that case it’d been out a bit, so I was probably about eight years old at the time. One reason I wanted to see it again was because mostly all I remember was my outrage at a couple of deviations from the book and wondered what I’d think as an adult, now that I no longer find it a sin to deviate a movie from a book.

It was Gurgi, the furry creature that befriends Taran, that originally had captured my imagination when my mother read me The Book of Three. My child self was deeply incensed to see that instead of a furry man-sized creature, a sort of neatherthal-like creature or perhaps a bit like bigfoot, movie Gurgi was basically an ewok. Now, as a child, naturally I loved ewoks, but that didn’t change the fact that Gurgi wasn’t supposed to be an ewok. He was supposed to be big!

Even worse, (spoilers ahead) it wasn’t Gurgi who sacrificed himself into the cauldron in the book version of The Black Caudron and the boy who did certainly didn’t come back to life. Never mind ET also dies and comes back to life (as common in movies as villains falling to their deaths is), but added onto the size outraged, my child self decided The Black Cauldron movie was terrible and sumerily wrote it off. Any contradictions with this and completely loving E.T. were not noticed.the-black-cauldron-13

Now and then over the years thinking about that double feature, I’d crack up. While still nostalgic about E. T. I also don’t think it’s nearly as good as I thought then, so it wasn’t that big a leap of logic to wonder if The Black Cauldron was better than I remembered. I read a few reviews that explained the reason it bombed in the theater was that it was a bit too graphic for the times, which naturally made it quite tame by modern standards. So, I thought I’d see what the movie was really like from an adult objective point of view.

Apparently my child self was right for the wrong reasons. The Black Cauldron is rather appalling as a Disney movie. If it was the He-man movie or Care Bears (which beat it out in earning in the theater at the time) I wouldn’t have been shocked. The movie is very much an 80s movie with lots of 80s movie flaws. Such as everyone standing around watching when action happens to one character, but lots of movies in the 80s were that way… it wasn’t any stodgier than say The Dark Crystal where the action is just as dorky and the mood just as creepy.

twidh_0720_blackcauldronBut Disney had set such a high prior standard that it took me by surprise this one was so typical of the 80s. It had none of the charm, characterization, or great storytelling of older Disney movies like The Jungle Book or The Sword in the Stone two notable examples with a character in them about Taran’s age (rather than the adults of the classic fairytales).

The scene where Taran meets Gurgi for example has him demand his apple back about five times… which is at least three times too many. The story crawled at some points, and yet the dialog was such those “character scenes” didn’t any character… and then suddenly, inexplicitly, random events would quickly happen without much explanation. This meant the story made about as much logical sense as a Miyazaki movie but without the beautiful art, the whimsy, the lovable characters, or the excuse of being constructed for Japanese audiences. Whoever Disney put for screen writing and storytelling on this one deserved to get fired (and probably did).

There were plenty of charming moments, in fact most of them centered around Gurgi. More of him would have helped the movie. Plus a couple of musical numbers (there were no songs at all in the movie and that was not to its benefit). While the reviews weren’t wrong it was animated violence before it’s time (the villain’s skin is peeled off him at the end as he screeches in death… it’s worth watching here) I found the scene in which one of the characters gets stuck between the witch’s boobs a bit more in startling. Seriously? Who thought that was a good idea in a kid’s movie in the 80s?

horned kingApparently I blanked that one out as a kid.

And why wasn’t I outraged that the Horned King was basically a rip-off of Skelitor? You’d think that’d be as sacrilegious as stealing ewoks, right? But at least I had a far more fun both watching and slashing it to pieces at thirty five than at eight. I just wish someone would make a real movie out of those books because it could have been so good. Disney ought to do a live action movie with the characters, but I’m guessing that’ll never happen since it was such a flop. It’s obvious now that was never the character’s fault, or even ewok Gurgi, ironically my favorite character in the film now after seeing it fresh. More of him might have saved the movie.

All in all a fun way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

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What kind of series is best?


One of the most powerful marketing tools of our time in any form of story telling is the series. Every summer movie 2 or 3 or 4 comes out in some series. Books too, have lately been more and more series. Harry Potter, Twlight, Hunger Games, Game of Thrones. People just can’t get enough of series these days. Readers like knowing what they’re getting and a series promises more of the great story you love.

Yet, how do you write a series? A book is difficult enough, but three books? Four? Six? In my experience, there’s actually several ways to write a series. In considering the various ones I’ve read, here’s some categories to help think about what kind of series is right for you:

One Long Book

LOTR seriesOn one end of the spectrum, there’s a series that is basically one story, one very long story, and so it’s broken into several parts, Lord of the Rings being a good example. Reading just one book, you don’t get a full story arc. The story just stops and the next part picks it up. You have to read the whole thing to find out what happens to Frodo and the Ring, or Aragon and his kingdom.

The advantage of this kind of series is that you have it as a full idea. You know where you are going from the beginning. You have a built in hook that keeps your readers coming back, wanting the resolution of the story. But that can also be a disadvantage. If you get stuck on one book, all your books are in jeopardy because none of them can stand alone. Readers aren’t going to be pleased waiting around for the next installment because nothing is resolved. Or they may wait until all the books are published. Hearing the first two Hunger Games books ended on cliffhangers, I assumed it was this sort of series and didn’t bother to read any of the novels until the series was fully published. Or, if your story isn’t one that really needs this many words to tell it, you end up with too much padding and it will bog it down.

A series that is one long book is a big time commitment for an author. Make sure you have a story that you love enough to work that long on it, and this kind of series may work well for you.


boxcar seriesOn the other end of the series spectrum, in my mind, is an episodic series. In this form, each book is a distinct episode, complete in every way. Rather like a TV sit-com where. As a kid, such series like “The Boxcar Children” or “Encyclopedia Brown” were like this, and adult mystery series are often in this category as well. A non-mystery example would be something like “Hank the Cowdog.” The same main characters show up each book but have a different adventure. In a truly episodic series, the characters don’t change much, if at all between books. You can often read the books out of order and it doesn’t matter too much, since each one is contained.

The strength of this sort of series is you can write a fresh story each book. That usually means episodic series can last a lot longer on average than a one book series. People don’t need a long attention span to recall the overall situation because that changes each time as the characters face a fresh problem. The weakness is that the characters don’t tend to grow or change. They are fairly stagnant and after a while might feel repetitive. For those reasons, it’s harder to write deep books or great works of literature with this sort of series.

An Overall Character Arc

HP seriesThis sort of series takes a middle ground between the first two. Each book stands somewhat on its own, with a full independent plot and structure, with climax and resolution, but the series as a whole is following the personal journey of the main character. This culminates in the climax of the final book where themes and characters from earlier points in the series often come together for a final confrontation. Often there is a villain who has shown up in smaller contests in a couple of the earlier books who is the main problem of the final book.

Harry Potter obviously follows this format. We meet Voldemort in book one, but he hardly shows up in book 3, and while he’s behind events in books 5 and 6, other conflicts and delving into the past are more central to those plots. Another great series of this format is “The Song of the Lioness Quartet.” While Duke Rodger is young Alanna’s nemesis of the series as a whole, book 3 for example, is entirely about other challenges the young lady knight is struggling with. In a character arc series, what holds the books together is the development or inner journey of the main hero across a number of plots, not just one… and yet these encounters culminate in a larger climactic end as well.

The advantages as an author is you can have the building pressure of an overall conflict, like in one long book, but without the restriction of sticking to one plot. Your main character can take a year off battling the ultimate evil to find himself traveling with nomads, or exploring some distant area of your world. But as Rowling herself recently admitted over the Ron-Hermione romance, you can also fall into difficulties trying to keep the framework of your larger story while handling your characters developing and changing during all those side plots. If your characters change too much, some of the end you originally had envisioned won’t feel true anymore.

Historical or Generational

redwall booksThis is also a bit between the first two kinds of series, not all one book but also not entirely episodic. However, unlike a character arc bases series, this sort of series is centered around something other than a character. A period of history, a dynasty of kings, a family across six generations. Each book generally does stand as a separate work, with it’s own character arcs, problems, and resolutions, but then the next book is the next chapter of history or the next generation of the family, and their new struggles. Unlike a character arc based series, there often is not a building culmination to some final contest. The point is more to follow a place or people through time and enjoy the many stories involved.

I haven’t read “Game of Thrones” but I understand from my friends who have, that it is more this sort of series. The very successful Redwall series is this sort, following the history of Redwall and Salamandastrom across the ages with different heroes, different villains. Some books a direct sequels, but no hero gets more than two books before we move on to their child, grandchild, or some other young animal upon who the sword of Martin and the office of warrior is bestowed. It generally helps to read the books in this sort of series in order, but they often don’t have to be… nor are they always written in historical order.

Not having an overall building focus to the series can have a lot of advantage as an author in opening up possibilities and new directions. You don’t need to write your books in order in this sort of series either, if suddenly something from an earlier time interests you more. However, like an episodic series, it doesn’t have a clear hook and your readers may like some books considerably better than others or skip around in the series. To balance that, some authors will write several smaller series, two to four books long following one character, all set in a larger country, world, or time period, combining the two together to try to have the best of both.

Companion Books and Looser series forms

Most series tend to follow one of those four forms, but there are a few other creative ways of connecting books, such as writing Companion Books. These usually are several books that tell the same story, but from someone else’s point of view. A recent good example is Ender’s Game and Ender’s Shadow, which both chronicle the same war, but from the point of view of a different character. The events are not exactly the same, since the characters perceive things differently and it’s hard to say which is the “true” view of the events.

Another loose series format is to take a less important character from one book and give them their own story. Each book follows a separate plot of people who all know each other. Romance series often follow this format. We’d be disappointed if the couple we’ve invested so much energy to in book one broke up so they could fall in love with different people in book two. Instead, the hero’s brother, sister, best friend, parent, or ex-boyfriend/girlfriend is the one to next fall in love in the further books. Sometimes these books can overlap in time, sometimes they’re sequential. Perhaps if you have several unconnected books and want to make them into a series, giving them a character, place, object or theme in common can turn them into a looser sort of series. The danger of this sort of series is that readers might not get the elements they love in your original book in the following ones and thus give on the series.

A series is a great tool as an author, so it’s important to consider what sort of series is right for your stories. Writing a straight out sequel can work, but it isn’t the only way. I don’t think there’s one sort of series that works better than any other sort. It’s more about finding what’s right for the stories you have to tell. It’s important to figure out what’s true to the heart of your story, and make a series that actually works, instead of forcing your story into a form that doesn’t.

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