What’s Your Novel About?

By Marilyn Henderson

You have finished your novel and are attending a writers’ conference hoping to get an agent or editor to read your manuscript. You work your way through the crowd with your gaze focused at name-tag level. Suddenly you spot a gold-bordered tag reserved for editors. Heart pounding, you approach and introduce yourself and say you have just finished your novel.

The editor smiles and replies, “What’s your novel about?”

Suddenly the moment of truth is at hand. This woman knows why you’re here. The conference brochure described the reception as the place where writers could meet editors and agents.

Now’s your chance to convince this editor to ask you to send her your manuscript. So how do you answer her question?

Just as she had her question ready, you need to have your answer prepared. If you’re a savvy writer, you began working on your plot statement as soon as you signed up for the conference.

What’s a plot statement?

A plot statement is the hook you need to make your storyline sound like a winner so the editor asks to read the manuscript.

Just as she got right to the point in talking with you, she expects you to get right to the point by telling her what your novel is about. She doesn’t want a long rambling dissertation about the characters, background or details of who does what in the plot. She wants you to capture her interest by making the book sound too exciting to pass up.

Any book she recommends the publisher buy must be one she can convince others in the publishing house will sell. Publishers are in business to make money, and she hopes to find a winner among the writers at this conference.

Like a query letter, your plot statement is a selling tool. It’s time to forget all those great enthusiastic descriptions of your story you envision on the cover of your published novel.

Cover copy is written to entice the reader to buy the book. It tells exciting details of the story to entice the reader to want to read more. A plot statement is written to excite the editor enough to think the story will sell.

The editor at that conference wants to know if the book will sell and make money for the publishing company.

How do you tell what the story is about without telling the story?

Don’t think about the story, think about the original idea that developed into your plot. What about that idea made you decide it could become a novel? What excited you enough to spend months working on it?

The initial spark usually stirs your curiosity or an emotional reaction. You may want to know who, what, when, where or how such a thing might happen. You may wonder what would happen if one of the people involved took a different turn or made a different decision. The idea may have infuriated you, driven you to tears or scared you enough to check the locks on your doors and windows. In other words, it stirred an emotional reaction. Now your plot statement must do that to the editor.

The How-to’s of Plot Statements

A plot statement conveys the main storyline in a way that impacts the editor emotionally so she wants to read the manuscript. You write it after your novel is finished because you don’t know everything that happens until then. You need to look at the story as a whole in order to recognize the most important and emotionally charged highlights of the storyline.

Six Do’s and Don’ts for Writing a Plot Statement

  • Write it in only one sentence
  • Write in the present tense
  • Write in the active voice
  • Don’t give details of the plot
  • Don’t use characters’ names
  • Choose words that evoke an emotional response

The rules are easy, but don’t make the mistake of thinking you can toss off the plot statement for your novel in a few minutes. I have challenged numerous writers to do a plot statement, and none have succeeded quickly. Most needed a considerable amount of time and help. One writer sent an excellent one, along with the admission it had taken him three weeks and fifteen tries.

Once you do one well, it’s easier to repeat your success

One picture is worth a thousand words. The old adage holds true for plot statements. Paint a word picture that makes your listener form his own mental images that cause him to feel angry or sad or nervous.

Examples of this appear every day in our daily newspapers. Can you read an account of a nursing home fire in which four patients died without feeling sad or angry at the people or circumstances that led to the fire? Can you read a story about a child being abducted without heart-felt gratitude that your little boy is safe and sound asleep in his bed?

Our emotional responses to other people’s troubles develop out of our fears and concerns for our own and our family’s safety and well being.

This is true for editors just as it is for you and me. Editors react to the emotional appeal of plot statements.

How Emotion in a Plot Statement Works

Let’s look at a plot statement that worked and why it did. The example is a plot statement for a woman-in-jeopardy suspense novel:

“A recently widowed young mother brings her sick three-year-old home from nursery school during a devastating Southern California storm and discovers they are not alone in the house.”

I had chosen woman-in-jeopardy as the subgenre for the novel because it is one of the biggest sellers in the mystery and suspense field. Most readers and editors of these books are women. For those reasons, I aimed my plot statement at emotions women can relate to and understand.

A recently widowed young mother is a sympathetic, vulnerable heroine. Even if the editor hasn’t experienced those problems personally, she can’t help but feel sadness at this woman’s plight.

Then I add a sick child, something every parent and non-parent can relate to and worry about.

With the main character hitting these two emotional buttons, I add a setting that hits another one: “a devastating Southern California storm.” Newspapers and television have brought the horror of flooded homes and collapsing hillsides in California into living rooms across the nation. We shudder at the thought of the unpredictable destruction and losses or give earnest thanks that we don’t live in an area where they occur.

And finally I hint at the menace to come: she discovers they are not alone in the house. An unknown person invading her home plays on the fears of every woman.

Every story element included in the plot statement is an emotional trigger. Together, they create a dark mood of danger and suspense. And more important, they make the editor curious about how the story will evolve and work out.

I admit I didn’t come up with the plot statement on the first try. I didn’t count how many bad starts I had or how many refinements I made once I had a passable draft, but it took me several days to reach this one. The early ones suffered from my trying to tell too much, especially about the intruder. Eventually I realized that the less I told about him, the more sinister he became, and the more “fear” he roused.

The descriptive words in the statement also were chosen for the effect they helped produce. A “recently widowed young mother” has a “sick” child. The storm is “devastating.” These add to the dark mood that enhances a suspense novel.

This statement tells the basic storyline without any details of the action or characters. At the same time, it pushes three emotional buttons for the editor:

  • Compassion (widowed mother and sick child)
  • Worry (the storm)
  • Terror (the intruder in house)

The editor knows these emotional triggers sell books, so she may be willing to read the manuscript to see if the story delivers on its promise. The plot statement did what it was supposed to do.

If you have finished your novel, start working on your plot statement now so you’ll be ready when that editor or agent you meet says, “What’s your novel about?”

Writers’ Conferences: Are They All They Should Be?

By Jessica McCurdy-Crooks

What is a Writers’ Conference?

This is a gathering of writers, whether amateur or professional, discussing a particular subject or general information about writing, selling a novel, articles or even poetry or fiction readings. There are as many different types of writers’ conferences as there are different types of writers, such as Christian Writers’ Conference, fiction writers’ conferences, conferences for people who write for children — you get the picture. Whether or not they are useful depends on a number of factors. Perceptions and expectations are the deciding factor as to whether or not they are worthwhile. If you attend a conference expecting to sell your novel or get a major contract, then be prepared for some disappointment. Very few attendees at conferences end up selling a story.

Who attends These Conferences?

Attendees vary, from beginners to seasoned, many-time published writers. This coming together of people from such widely different writing backgrounds and experiences can add to the benefits to be derived from attending such a gathering.

Writers’ conference attendees fall into two main groups: students and teachers. Sometimes the lines between both can become blurred. A fellow writer noted that apart from teachers, students fall into three distinct groups, namely:

  • Professionals who are seeking further networking opportunities
  • Serious writers who have not yet been published
  • Those who want to ‘feel’ like writers

Preparation

What to Wear?

Dress codes vary as widely as these conferences do. For some semi-formal is fine; for most, however, the safe bet is “casual business.” Writer Del Stone is most comfortable in khaki slacks and a polo shirt; I find that a nice shirt and jeans normally go over well. There are dinners that might require that one be dressy, while at meetings something more casual can be worn. Workshops, on the other hand, allow for flexibility in dressing.

Some conferences will provide information on what to bring and wear, so it is a wise move to get brochures on the conferences you plan on attending.

What to Expect

Do keep your expectations realistic — don’t expect to come away as an award-winning writer. Your skill level as a writer will also impact on your experiences at a writers’ conference, especially if it is your first such foray. Marie Stone, a freelance writer from Oregon, noted that as a student, she “missed a lot because [she] was too busy being star-struck.” This happens to many first-timers, and even professionals are not above being dazzled by being in the same location as their heroes. However, try to remain focused on what is happening. How else will you learn?

Expect to work if you intend to get the most from attending. Work, work, work is the order of the day. Be prepared for this by taking along note pads, pencils, pens and other implements that you think you may need. Also, do not shy away from critique sessions — the feedback can help make your career.

Value / Networking Opportunities

The assertion that your expectations are the prime factor in determining “value received” is reiterated again and again by fellow writers, and even by speakers at such conferences. One professional writer, who also speaks at writers’ conferences, noted that “value for money” in terms of writers’ conferences is to some extent dependent on the attendee’s skill level as a writer, and his or her willingness to participate in class discussions.

Other factors that will impact on what you take away with you from these gatherings include:

  • The opportunities that exist for networking with other writers, publishers, editors
  • How “good” the presenters are
  • How keen the students are, as this will make for interesting interactions in critique sessions, etc.

If you will be incurring major expenses, try to find people who have attended this particular conference before and get feedback from them. This can save you from disappointment and feeling that you have been cheated.

Additionally, one can significantly improve his/her collection of writing resources from the many offerings on sale. In the final analysis, though, the true value is your own sense of accomplishment or satisfaction.

The most valuable reward is that of making contacts; these networking opportunities can be just the lead you need to break into a particular market. Do not believe that you only need these contacts with editors and publishers; other writers are just as important as contacts. Many writers have gotten work from being recommended to a publisher from writers they have met at conferences. How to network successfully takes skill and tact. Try to be attentive to what is being said, even if it is not what you want to hear. If you look beyond the words, something useful might be gleaned, or better yet, you can arrange to have further discussions with the speaker. You should leave a conference with e-mail contacts and business cards, but be sure to tell the people that you will be in touch. One last word of advice about networking: be polite — people will remember.

Should you Pitch your Work?

This is the most important question on the mind of most people planning on attending a conference for the first time. The opinions on this vary widely — some writers advise against this, while others emphatically say “yes, yes, yes.” Whether or not to pitch your idea or work will depend on the conference.

Those against feel that opportunities should be used to socialize, so that publishers will be able to associate your face with a name the next time you submit to them. This, they feel, can have a positive effect on the response to your query.

Writer Charles Pekow recommends that while it is possible to pitch one’s work, subtlety should be used. His words of wisdom are to, while socializing, “enquire as to their services, jobs and interests so that you will know if what you have to offer is what they need.”

Some conferences actually have time set aside for this activity, so if it is important to you, select conferences that offer this as part of the package. If in doubt, call to find out. Be prepared; as such, select your best work(s) and write a memo or query to give to the editors/publishers you plan to approach. Having your story/article well thought out will save you wasting both your own time and that of other people. It will also show your professionalism and commitment.

One final word of caution: do not give in to the urge to just approach editors and pitch your work — it can be a major turn-off and presents future obstacles to your landing work with that company. You do not want to build a reputation of being difficult.

Conclusion

Those who get the most from attending writers’ conferences are those individuals who are serious about their craft, and as such are prepared for the conference and know their expectations before attending. One thing is sure– even if you do not get a solid lead to work, the networking opportunities to be resulting from attending are unparalleled.

Jessica McCurdy-Crooks trained as a librarian, but notes that “these days I provide this service only on a part-time basis. I started writing poetry as my first love, but started writing reviews on Jamaican hotels, restaurants, etc. for an online company and found that I actually enjoyed writing.

What’s So Special About A Writers’ Conference?

By Linda Chiara

By nature writers tend to be solitary people. We spend hours alone in front of a computer or in libraries doing research. Oh, sure, sometimes we venture out into the real world and sit in a favorite coffee house sipping on a latte. But rather than truly interacting with others, we find ourselves eavesdropping on our fellow man, straining to hear a good conversation which we hope to be able to use in our work-in-progress novel.

However, more often than not, you’ll find us at home, alone.

By virtue of our profession (and on the plus side) we don’t have to cope with office politics, unless you count the rare situation when we must tread lightly and handle delicately the quirks of an unorthodox editor.

However, on the flip side of the coin, we are not privy to the helpful career news that is frequently discussed while standing around the office water cooler. Nor do we have much contact with other professionals who could help steer us in the right direction, or at least point us to a path that we had not considered before.

That’s where a good writers’ conference comes in. There are at least 1,000 writers’ conferences or seminars offered each year. (Check out http://writing.shawguides.com/ for information). Each and every one of them can provide you with something to help you in your quest to becoming a better, and more productive, writer.

Conferences work the same way for writers as they do for dentists or undertakers. They offer professionals a chance to meet with other professionals to exchange ideas and discuss trends within the industry. Plus they give us a chance to associate with people who share the same interests and who can help us propel our career forward. Attendees and guest speakers of conferences are not only writers; often they are editors, publishers and agents, as well. These professionals speak on panels that cover a particular aspect of writing. Some conferences even offer workshops that can truly motivate a writer. Plus the pros frequently make themselves available to answer specific questions and give writers some tips of the trade. That alone is often worth the price of admission.

And speaking of the cost of admission, there are writers’ conferences to suit almost any budget. Where some conferences can run in the thousands, once you include airfare and travel, there are often local conferences that are significantly less pricey and just as high in quality.

So if cost is an issue, why not attend the least expensive conference you can find to get you started? The first conference I attended was not really a good fit for me, but it was inexpensive and close to home. And yet, I can honestly say that it was worth it, because I made several professional contacts and came out with countless article ideas.

As far as time goes, be aware that conferences can last anywhere from several hours to a week or two. Find one that fits your time schedule.

It’s important to note, that after considering the cost and time element, a writer should try to find a conference that focuses on their genre. There are conferences that include such specialty writing as mystery, children’s, romance, inspirational, humor and horror, just to name a few.

What should you expect to get out of a writers’ conference? Be prepared to walk away with new contacts, new ideas, new markets and quite possibly, new friends.

Here are just a few tips to help you get through your first conference:

  • Wear tailored, casual clothing. Comfortable shoes are a must! You don’t need to dress up in designer duds, but leave the faded jeans and sloppy t-shirts at home.
  • Bring along business cards and writing supplies (although every conference I’ve ever attended has been very generous in supplying notepads, pens, and canvas carry-all bags to its attendees).
  • If you can swing it, go with a fellow writer/friend. For the past two years, I’ve attended a two day conference in New York City that was so jam packed with information, that there wasn’t enough time in the day to get it all in, let alone absorb the content. On my last trip, I coerced my friend Marlene to join me. We split up after breakfast and met for lunch, where we compared the notes we had taken for one another at different panel discussions.

The greatest thing about attending a conference is that they are, above everything else, inspirational. My friend Marlene is a gifted writer. However, she didn’t see herself that way, because her day job is secretarial work. As we rode home on the train after the conference was over, she became very introspective.

Finally, as we were pulling into the station, she said, “Thank you for bringing me. It opened my eyes. I used to think of myself as a secretary who writes. Because of this conference, I now realize I am a writer, who just happens to work as a secretary.”

That’s what a writers’ conference can do for you.

Linda Chiara’s work has been published in Reader’s Digest, The Christian Science Monitor, Woman’s Day, Family Circle, Boys Life, Ladies Home Journal, and Chicken Soup for The Teenage Soul on Love and Friendship. In addition, she writes frequently for parenting magazines around the nation, including Pittsburgh Parent, Western New York Family Magazine, Montana Parent, etc. You can find out more at Linda Chiara’s website.

Delaware Dangerous!

Delaware Dangerous logo art

I’ve been corresponding with Lela Gwenn, an event organizer for a writer’s retreat that allows a writer to experience encounters with fist, blade, or gun, in a controlled and safe environment under the experienced supervision of self-defense and weapons instruction professionals.

I’ve long been a big believer in writers getting our hands dirty, if we’re going to try to write anything that actually resembles real life. If you’re going to be anywhere near Delaware in September of this year, this is your chance to safely experience a great deal of mayhem in a short amount of time.

When I asked for a description of the workshop I could share with all of you, she sent me the following copy:

Delaware Dangerous is a unique concept in Writer’s Retreats. We offer the opportunity to get hands on with all types of weapons and combat– Hand guns, Long guns, Knives and Hand to Hand.

Our team of professional instructors will provide detailed instruction. We have five black-belts on the team, two of whom are former military. Participants will get twelve hours of firearms training, six hours of knife training, and six hours of hand to hand. This isn’t just theoretical or role-playing or demonstration. After receiving appropriate safety training, you will have a gun in your hand.

The weapon work is always serious, but there is plenty of fun to be had. Brewery tours, kayaking, behind the scenes at a tattoo shop, tax free shopping at a huge outlet mall. The Delaware Beaches are beautiful and have something for everyone. Nature, nightlife, gourmet dining and down-home charm.

Delaware Dangerous. Put a little violence in your vacation and a little realism in your writing.

For more information go to www.DelawareDangerous.com or email me directly Lela@DelawareDangerous.com

I know I’ve written in the past about how very integral I think real experience can be to writing authentically. I strongly believe there’s nothing in the world like hands-on experience to help a writer achieve that kind of authenticity.

From the details section of the Delaware Dangerous Website:

Dates:
Sept 9-16 2011

Cost:
$889/ person
discount available for 2 people booking together

Includes:
Professional Instruction
12 hours gun training
6 hours knife training
6 hours hand-to-hand combat

Ammo, use of various firearms, training blades and live blades.

2 Dinners
5 Lunches
Breakfast Daily

Value of the Range Time, Instructor fees, Ammo and Meals- $1350.00

If you are interested in being paired up with a roommate Contact Us and we will try to help.

Group STRICTLY LIMITED to 20 participants for safety reasons.

Here’s the thing: I know it sounds awfully expensive, but for a workshop to do this for under a grand per student? That’s actually a screaming deal. And Lela says that she’ll offer AWers a $50 discount.

So take a look, figure out how you can swing it, take some vacation days, go to Delaware and get sweaty and loud!