Category: PNWA 2015

Five Stages of (Self-)Editing (PNWA 2015 Session Round-up)

Every writer has to self-edit, even if it’s only to get your work in shape to send to beta readers and agents. There are many resources out there for what to look for when editing (my latest fave), but very little about how to go about doing so effectively. If you’re looking for the latter, here’s a great process to follow!

The very last session I attended at the PNWA 2015 Conference was Saturday at 4 pm, taught by AC Fuller. At the end, he admitted that he’d expected the session to drag, as I had when I started. (I was on my third cup of tea and had woken up early for three straight days to get to the conference, so I was practically sleeping on my feet.) To the surprise of teacher and students alike, it was one of the most energetic sessions I attended all conference! AC was a great teacher, straight to the point and with enough humor to remind us that he’s been there, too. (Note: You can listen to the whole talk if you want to!)

He started with this great reminder about why the self-editing process is hard:


Then he set out to give us “a process to take our rough draft to the point of showing to agents or hiring a professional editor.” Of course, everyone has their own process, but I definitely plan to try this out, as it seems eminently usable and adaptable.

Foes of Editing

  1. Procrastination.
  2. The Inner Critic.

Why do we procrastinate? To avoid pain. Either we don’t want to admit that our writing is garbage, or we’re writing about something painful – or both! Well, your writing does need help, so you might as well get down to it. Hopefully with a process to follow, editing will seem less painful. For #2, try to redirect your Inner Critic to fix problems instead of making value judgments. Practice makes perfect!

Stages of Editing

  1. Relax until you don’t hate the sight of your manuscript. Go on vacation. Brainstorm another novel. Clean all the rooms in your house that went untouched while you were drafting. Give it at least a week.
  2. Read your manuscript. Actually read the whole thing. Try it in a different format, preferably one that’s hard to edit (print and bind it, or send it to your favorite e-reader). Figure out what you were trying to say (theme, character arc, etc.).
  3. Restructure. This time when you read it, write down every change you want to make (in another notebook or document referencing scenes or chapters, not page numbers). Don’t make any changes yet! These changes can be anything from “Look up whether they had longbows in 1204 AD” to “So-and-so is a lame character and we need to make him cooler.” Then, and this was the big one for me, order and categorize all of those changes, from largest to smallest. No sense polishing the prose in a scene you’re going to delete! Go through the changes, starting with the largest, and fix your manuscript one note at a time. Repeat until you get to the bottom of the list.
  4. Rewrite. Maybe, if your prose is pretty good, you can give it to beta readers before step 4 to double-check your structure. [I do this by sending an outline to beta readers, but I usually write the outline after steps 1-3. 🙂 –Ed.] Return to step 1 until you’re happy with the story.
  5. Refine. These are the miniscule corrections – copyediting and perfecting your prose – that you want to do before showing to editors and agents. Repeat this step until it’s perfect. 😉

I can’t wait to attack my WIP with this process!

Edgy Inspirational Fiction (PNWA 2015 session round-up)

This session was a surprisingly fun and interactive presentation from J.D. DeWitt. I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect, but it ended up being a great advice and encouragement session for Christian authors.

She started with the basics, which was good, because I’m not too familiar with the world of faith-based publishing. Until recently, it was mostly dominated by the Christian Booksellers Association, or CBA, whose extremely strict guidelines governed the content of “Christian fiction” (i.e., what you might find at CBD or Lifeway bookstores). The guidelines include: no mention of sex, drugs, or abuse; Christian characters may not drink, play cards, or gamble; etc. Even poop is off the table! It makes sense, though, if you consider that a Lifeway store has to be able to sell to someone from any denomination, so basically anything that any Christian might find offensive is not allowed. (I’m sure some readers still found ways to get offended, but there you go.) While there is and has been a large market for such clean books, DeWitt wants authors to know that there is a growing market on the edges of the CBA guidelines that is hungry for something a little more authentic.


  • “Christian fiction” follows the CBA guidelines and readers expect God to be at the center of the romance and the restoration in the plot
  • “inspirational fiction” or “inspi” would be sweet, feel-good, faith- and family-oriented, but not necessarily specifically Christian as defined above
  • “sweet romance” or “clean reads” doesn’t mention God but would be otherwise safe for readers of the above
  • new genre “transformational fiction” deals with tough issues, may be gritty or edgy, and invites the reader to journey with the character through (duh) transformation, with restoration still expected at the end
  • “gritty” means some level of violence
  • “edgy” means some level of sensuality

The main question on the table was whether “gritty” or “edgy” had a place in faith-based fiction. A poll of readers and published authors shows that indeed there is a strong market for it, but that the market is currently being served mostly by self-published writers. Large publishers want the large distribution power of the CBA, and thus are limited to their guidelines. Secular publishers don’t know how large the underserved market might be and don’t want to publish anything risky. Research shows that Christian fiction readers read more books than the average reader in the US, and that they are running out of titles that hold their interest. (If you have a faith-based thriller, DeWitt wants to talk to you!! 🙂 ) The downside of self-publishing is that anyone can label their stuff with any of the above tags, so it’s up to readers and reviewers to help people.

DeWitt’s takeaway: write for this market if it appeals to you as a writer. There are readers out there, and when the big publishers “discover” that, you want to be there already. 🙂

MG or YA? How do you know? (PNWA 2015 session round-up)

Saturday morning, the last main day of the conference, was the earliest start time of all—8 am! Attendance at all the first sessions was pretty light, but we had a great time at the “Elements of Young Adult and Middle Grade,” a panel discussion with two authors (Janet Lee Carey and Brian Mercer) and two agents (Roseanne Wells and Shannon Hassan). After we woke up a bit, anyway. 🙂

We started off with the very basic question: okay, how do you differentiate Middle Grade from Young Adult, both of which used to be lumped together with “children’s”? The answer has a lot of nuance, but also some pretty basic differences.

Middle Grade Young Adult
Length of book 30-50K words 50-70K words (speculative fiction on the longer end; an established series writes its own rules)
Age of reader 8-12 years 13-18
Age of main character (readers tend to “read up”) 10-13 14-18
Life stage Lots of time at school, still “ruled by adults,” highly involved with family of origin Especially with older characters, getting ready to leave home, dealing with authority, open to romance and sex
Main character arc (not the only one, obviously) Mostly external, sense of going out into the world and righting a wrong Mostly internal, finding an identity, purpose and place in the world

Then we talked about one of the sticky questions: what’s acceptable for sex in YA? The older the main character, the fewer restrictions; there are huge differences between 14- and 18-year-olds, both as readers and as characters. Some publishing houses have specific guidelines, and agents often defer to them. You can make a book feel intense without being explicit (e.g., Speak). MG books are much more sensitive to language, violence and sex because parents are still the main gatekeepers of what their kids read.

Finally we talked about voice, and how it can’t be “taught” but you can pick up an ear by listening to kids and reading popular books. First person is obviously very popular in YA, but if it’s bogging down your narrative, don’t be afraid to do something else. Always do what’s best for your story.

Treat Your Book Like a Startup (PNWA session round-up)

Friday morning at the conference was comprised mainly of the agent and editor sessions in the main ballrooms. Even though their names and bios were published in the session booklet, it was still insightful to hear them talk about what they were looking for and answer questions. Unlike my first conference in 2010, we were able to get through all of them and still have time for questions. 🙂

The first true sessions, then, were at lunchtime, but even these were “sponsored” sessions—meant to be informative, but given by one of the conference’s sponsors. Now, I have no problem with conference sponsorships, but I was wary of the value of such sessions. However, I’m pleased to say that I actually enjoyed this one, which was sponsored by BookCountry.

The BookCountry rep began by asking the audience to name products that began as startups, and we got the familiar ones like Twitter and Uber. She defined a startup as a business that can test the waters of its market with a small investment and change based on feedback. (For example, Twitter was originally a podcasting platform.) These strategies allow startups to morph into better fitting a marketplace they might not have originally targeted or thought was open to them, and allows them to slowly build up a positive buzz instead of blowing all their marketing money on a campaign that doesn’t create a splash. (Or worse, that creates a splash but dies out due to an inferior product.)

How do you know if your product is good? Get feedback. Doing so reduces risk, because you understand how your product will be received. Now, what if your product is a book? How do you find objective beta readers who can give you great, specific feedback on your work?

  1. Local writing groups
  2. A developmental editor ($)
  3. Paid writing classes, online or in person ($)
  4. Writing conferences or retreats (probably $)
  5. Writing contests (possibly $)
  6. Online workshops, such as BookCountry

BookCountry sounds similar to CritiqueCircle, both of which are free platforms that allow you to earn “credits” by critiquing others’ work and use the credits to post your own work for review. With any free service, it’s important to know where the money’s coming from so that you can judge whether it’s likely to pollute the quality of the service. In BookCountry’s case, it’s run by Penguin, which appears to be hoping to crowdsource some of its slushpile filtering. While of course Penguin has a profit motive, there’s a lot to be gained and nothing that would obligate you to Penguin (AFAIK), so it seems like a safe place. Either way, the rep’s suggestions were good and her points well-taken.

Andre Dubus III Keynote (PNWA 2015 session round-up)

The Thursday keynote at the 2015 PNWA conference was from Andre Dubus III. Although he was one of the few repeat speakers in the 60-year(!) history of the conference, it so happens that the only other time I attended the conference, in 2010, was his previous appearance. Fortunately he’s an engaging speaker, so I didn’t mind. 🙂

He shared a lot of personal stories about his difficult childhood and how he learned that he wanted to be a writer. From that I took away that you should never say to your child, “Don’t bother coming home if…” just in case the child believes you.

One of the most meaningful moments to me was when he quoted Jean Rhys (author of Wide Sargasso Sea) talking about authors: “We’re all streams into the same ocean. Big or small, we’re part of the same conversation.” (I can’t find the actual quote.)

Making Connections (PNWA 2015 session round-up)

Robert Dugoni, a best-selling author who got his start at PNWA, continues to support the PNWA and its writers. On Thursday afternoon he gave the pre-dinner session. In it, he talked about his personal journey from a family of “compulsive overachievers” through law to being an author. People told him that it took a lot of courage for him to leave his law practice to pursue writing, but, he said, it was really fear of never achieving his dreams that drove him to do it. 🙂

So when he set out to become an author, Robert talked with a friend whose father had left traditional work to become a world-famous photographer. The father gave him two pieces of advice:

  1. Follow your dreams and the money will come. (Follow the money and you’ll lose your dreams.)
  2. Immerse yourself in the community of artists. (Surround yourself with many and many will be available to you.)

In other words, don’t think you’re “not a writer” just because you’re not published. A writer is one who writes, and every published author was first a writer.

The first connection every writer needs is to better understand himself. You need to understand the best story you’ll write (what you’ll write honestly and with passion). He challenged us to find a quote that defines our writing dream and post it somewhere to motivate us.

The second connection you need is the people around you. Not just your fellow authors (future J.K. Rowlings among them), but everyone you meet. Become an observer of people so that your books feel more real and interesting.

Remember that all you control is the writing. Have patience, perseverance, persistence, perspective, and passion while you try to get published, but never give up the writing. (Praying doesn’t hurt, either, if you want another P-word. 😉 )

Finally, he said his idea was so cheesy that his kids told him not to do it, but he wanted to do it anyway. He made us all stand up. (Much shuffling of papers and closing of laptops ensued.) Then he recited a writer’s version of Aragorn’s famous speech [I found it for you below], ending with “Today we write!”

PNWA session round-up: the Power Pitch blocks

PNWA switched to the “power pitch” format a few years ago, where you sign up for one or two 90-minute blocks and then can pitch to as many agents as you can get in line for in 4-minute segments. My fellow author Mark, whom I met at the conference, has a post that goes into more detail about what it looks like:

Everything was run very smoothly, and I got to pitch to 6(!) agents and editors in my two blocks. I had honed my pitch down to about three sentences, which meant they had plenty of time to ask me questions. Even though there was an outrageous lot of waiting in line, I felt like the 4 minutes was enough time to make my pitch and get a feel for the personality of the agent. I also appreciated getting to talk to more than 1 or 2 agents, which was the limit under the previous system (where you booked a 10-minute slot with a particular one). The only downside is that it uses up a whole session time slot, so this post represents two sessions

I got one enthusiastic yes and one yes that was almost as excited, plus a few tentative yes-es and one request for my other book that I haven’t finished writing yet. (I could tell she wasn’t as enthused about the project I was pitching, but then she asked, “Do you have another book in mind?” I gave her the quick summary of that one, and she was like, “Ooh, write that and send it to me!”) The enthusiastic yes was also the agent I was most excited about (I’m not naming names because nothing might come of it, but I would be so excited to work with her).

So now I am hard at work revising my manuscript with all the new craft tips I picked up! I warned them I wasn’t going to send it the next week because I’d already learned too much to send it without editing, and none of them was alarmed by that. I have all their business cards on my wall for motivation and inspiration!

Turn Your Dream Into Reality (PNWA 2015 session round-up)

(Second in a series of posts with the highlights of what I learned from the 2015 PNWA conference.)

I expected this session, with Bill Kenower and Ingrid Ricks, to be a step-by-step plan or something prosaic like that. Instead, it was part inspirational memoir, part motivational speech… but not necessarily less practical for all that.

Ingrid shared the story of how she always meant to write her memoir but felt it was irresponsible to give up a high-paying job (that she didn’t really like) to pursue something that might or might not make money. Then one day, her daughters did an imitation of her as an old woman, still saying, “My book! My book!” She realized that although she thought she was doing the right thing for her family by providing money, she was unintentionally teaching her daughters that money was more important than following your dreams.

Bill shared how he quit his long-time, and thus somewhat lucrative, job at a restaurant to pursue being an inspirational speaker. Though he felt totally unprepared for his first speaking gig, he realized as he was doing it that he was just telling stories for them – something he’d been doing his whole life!

I know that I often fall into the trap of believing that my obstacles are physical: time, creativity, knowledge, experience. This session showed me that some of my biggest problems might be mental. Do I really, truly, honestly, down in my soul believe that it’s possible for me to achieve my dream? (In my case, getting a book published.) Your actions reveal what you believe, and my actions were saying “No, I don’t.” Ingrid said she made a list of all the reasons she should and could write her book, then made herself work on the book religiously.

They challenged the authors in the room to create a writing environment you love. Make it so that you look forward to writing. When negative thoughts distract you, recognize that they’re there but decide you’re not going to listen to them. Give yourself permission. Take the leap of faith. Just do it.

Writing Active Setting (PNWA 2015 session round-up)

(I’ll be doing a series of posts with the highlights of what I learned from various sessions at the 2015 PNWA Conference. This is the first!)

The very first session I attended was “Writing Active Setting,” presented by Mary Buckham. She said many writers have one of two issues with setting in their story:

  1. They have none, so the reader is lost; or
  2. They have too much, and it stops the flow of the story.

“Active setting,” then, is using your description of setting to do double or even triple duty—not just to describe time and place, but also to show character, emotion, or backstory; to evoke emotion; or to orient the reader. (I don’t want to steal all her thunder; she has a series of short books that might soon become one longer book about active setting: Know when readers accept having more setting and utilize that (at the beginning of the story, scene or chapter).

Mary has a great, dry sense of humor, and her workshop was packed with great examples. Here are a few:

  • Do you say, “It was dark. She was scared about meeting the vampires,” or “The grapevines along the side of the road hung like dead men on their trellises”? (I might not be remembering the exact words, because in my notes I only jotted down phrases, but I think you get the intent.)
  • Do you say, “They drove as quickly as traffic would allow” or “Blasting north on the 101”? (The latter gives you insight into the driver’s character, orients you in space, and gives you the hint that we’re on a big freeway — even if you’re not from California, you know that something called just “the 101” is probably not a country back road.)
  • Evoke your character’s mood: “bruise-colored clouds trudging” vs. “cotton clouds waltzing”.