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Finally, Workshop Notes (long)

Four days have passed since we wrapped up the critique of the last novel at the 3-day workshop in Oregon, and I think I'm finally starting to "unpack" all the knowledge and ideas I encountered there. I'm predicting another week or two to get my brain around all the feedback I got for my own novel, but I wanted to talk about all the great information I learned about novel-writing and the process of selling novels.

Non-writers may want to skim or go read the latest Dilbert cartoon elsewhere... :)

Probably the most important thing I learned, something that was repeated over and over again all weekend, was that most novels written by newish writers start out WAY too slowly or in the wrong place altogether. And those novels lack a compelling VOICE. My novel was guilty on both counts: starting slowly, and missing a voice that sucked the reader in.

But thanks to the great input from workshop leader Dean Wesley Smith and the excellent notes from editor and author Laura Anne Gilman, as well as the feedback from my fellow writers, I know what to do. It seems obvious to me now, as I can just look at the openings to ALL the novels I've written so far and see how lacking they are -- they tell too much instead of pulling the reader in and letting the reader experience the events. Everything must be filtered through that main character's point of view -- sensory details, mood, setting, other characters.

And that voice has to be active. I relied too much on passive voice and a passive main character. One really cool concept that we talked about was that a writer has "mind control" over the reader -- once we have the reader hooked (thanks to a strong voice and an engaging plot) we can do anything to the reader, and they'll follow along. What power! But you have to hook them in fast. Put the main character in a setting and in a situation right away -- give the reader facts and sensory details to ground them in the story, and then do the wild and crazy shit. They'll follow along once they've put their trust in you as a story teller.

And that's the key -- telling a good story. Sometimes I have to get out of my own way and just let the story flow -- everyone who'd read my entire novel said that the last 100-150 pages just flew by as they read them. Those 100-150 pages, if you remember, were the pages I wrote in a white heat, in about 2 weeks' time, most of it over a 3-day weekend of 8-hour writing days. Interesting, eh? That fact certainly says a lot about writing fast and not losing focus.

Some other really good, easy-to-use bits of advice about voice include not using "he thought" or "she thought" when it's your main point of view character thinking -- just show the thought (the "he thought" is immediately distancing). Also distancing is the use of LONG paragraphs ("Learn to use the RETURN key!" Dean advised me, over and over again, at volume); break up the long paragraphs especially when the action is moving quickly (let the content dictate the form of the prose). And even just using the pronoun "he" instead of "George" or whatever your protagonist's name is -- just use the name once, and use "he" or "she" after that, unless there's confusion about the antecedent. Overusing a character's name is also -- you guessed it -- distancing. Invite the reader into your novel -- don't push them out. I did a lot of pushing-out in my first draft. Doh!

We also talked a lot about novel proposals -- most of us couldn't write an effective one. Turns out, that's what's hurting us, as more and more editors and agents are looking to the proposal as a sales tool for the novel, and if you can write a proposal that reads like the novel in miniature, one that tells the story without being a boring list of "this happened, then this happened," you'll have a much easier time selling your book. Get excited about your own book and have that excitement show through in your proposal, and the editor or agent will get excited as well.

I plan on going back and rewriting all my novel proposals. I also plan on rereading all my novels and fixing up the openings for sure, and maybe restructuring them to get them to flow better and not start out so damn slow. I'll probably do the SF novel first, then the urban fantasy, then the paranormal romance, and then when I'm really hitting my stride, dive into the major rework of the baseball novel.

The plan is to get all this work done before mister Drew makes his appearance in December. Then I plan on taking it easy and enjoying the little guy.

Though I do have this idea for a mystery series chracter, set in... Well, I'll tell more about that as the time gets closer. Right now I plan on reading a whole lot more. I'm enjoying the hell out of the first book in the "Dresden Files" series, Storm Front, by Jim Butcher -- great writing, an engaging protagonist, and some great situations and secondary characters. I'm learning a lot. These mixed-genre mysteries are very, very cool.

And that's what I did for my weekend. Whew. I'm ready for another weekend, this time with NOTHING to do but chill out with Elizabeth and take it easy. Later!

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