Writers Coffeehouse: June 2019

Peter Clines ran the Coffeehouse this month (on his birthday weekend no less!). We had a free-form discussion this time, covering everything from good twists in fiction to outlining techniques.

I had to leave early because I wasn’t feeling well, but I’ve captured my notes below.

Thanks again to Peter for running the show, and to Mysterious Galaxy for hosting!

  • at different points in your career, different writing techniques will work for you; that’s ok, it’s normal for your process to change over time
  • second sunday of each month: LA writers coffeehouse in burbank at dark delicacies at noon, then dystopian bookclub that night at last bookstore downtown
  • good twist: needs to make logical sense, should change your perceptions of everything that came before
  • empathy critical to being a writer; that’s why it’s important to go out to talk to people, experience things, to maintain that empathy
  • remember that people (and thus your characters) are different around different groups and in different situations; give your characters a chance to show different sides of their lives (think killer on phone with family while finishing off a hit)
  • expectations are a real constraint; we will let a comedy get away with different things than a drama; and genre (horror, scifi, etc) always comes with expectations
  • one way to get away with blending genres: hang a lantern on it from the get-go; ex: i am not a serial killer, predator, where they broach the topic of monsters early on, and then go into the other genre for a while before coming back to the monsters
  • clive custler’s rule: no chapters longer than 5 pages (potato-chip chapters)
  • stephen king: any word you need to go to a thesaurus for is the wrong word; meaning *not* that only blue collar words are worth using, but that reaching for a word you’re not familiar with is wrong, write in your own vocabulary and it’ll sound more natural
  • transitions: in written fiction, we can’t be as choppy as in tv or movies, where they jump from place to place instantaneously; we need more connective tissue, or it starts to feel episodic

Writers Coffeehouse, May 2019

After missing last month’s, I finally made it back to the Coffeehouse yesterday.

Peter Clines stepped in for Jonathan Maberry to run it this time, with Henry Herz providing some useful counterpoints throughout.

We had more of a free-form discussion than usual, which ranged from “What’s going on with the WGA and their agents?” to “How do I write characters of other backgrounds and ethnicities without stepping into cultural appropriation?”

Many thanks to Clines and Herz for sharing their wisdom while keeping the discussion flowing, and to Mysterious Galaxy for hosting!

My notes:

  • henry: you can pants your story, but don’t pants your career
  • peter: know what you want to get out of it, be honest about what you want, and go for it
  • in tv, producers have more power than directors; directors can change every week, but producers stay and control the story arcs
  • upcoming events:
    • may 11th: san diego writers workshop
    • september: central coast writers conference
    • peter: phoenix comic fest has great writers track, con runs until midnight every night; it’s next weekend, but something to think about for next year
    • early august: scbwi annual conference in LA
    • june 20-22, historical novel society, in maryland, good program
    • mythcon is in san diego this year; run by mythopoetic society
    • new york pitch fest: 4 days in june, pitching to agents and editors in manhattan
  • black hare publishing: soliciting submissions for two anthologies; small press, but looks professional; drabble fiction (200 words)
  • contract reviews? join the author’s guild, they’ll review contracts for members
  • arbitration: wga takes all the people that did drafts of a movie or dialog polishes, etc and decides who gets credit for the movie
  • pierce brown wrote screenplay for red rising specifically to get paid screenwriting credits via wga arbitration; more important to him than the control over the screenplay
  • 95% of the time, when they option your book, they’ll ask if you want to write the screenplay; they’ll throw it in the trash, but they’ll ask anyway, just to stave off any future tantrums
  • watch the balance between plot and story; if the story finishes but the plot keeps going (moonlighting syndrome) it’s going to feel flat and boring
  • peter: when revising, will do a draft just for one character, following their thread all the way through; helps catch inconsistencies in appearance, name, and their story arc (did i do anything with this plot of her conflict with her boss?)
  • k.m. weyland: creating character arcs
  • aeon timeline: interacts with scrivener, can help visualize the timeline of your story
  • henry’s doing picture book writing pt 2 later this month; send first draft to him ahead of time, they’ll critique it in the class; compliment to the first class, but not necessary to have taken it
  • lookup robert smalls, escaped slave

Writers Coffeehouse: Feb 2019

Another great Coffeehouse this month. Jonathan Maberry was out at a conference, so Peter Clines (NYT Bestselling author!) stepped in for hosting duties.

Clines’ style of running the Coffeehouse (he’s been running the one in LA for 4-5 years now) is a little more freeform than Maberry’s, but even without a strong structure, we had a lively, respectful discussion that covered a lot of ground. I even got a couple of my own questions answered, about some things I’ve been struggling with.

I’ve posted my notes below.

Thanks to Clines for hosting, and to Mysterious Galaxy for letting us use their space!

Notes:

  • peter clines has the Conn; he’s been running the LA coffeehouse for 4-5 years; subbing for jonathan while he’s at writer’s festival
  • his method: 1st half writing craft, 2nd half publishing side
  • thinks it’s better to not have a social media account than to have one that looks abandoned or run by bots
  • whatever you do, if anything, it’s critical that you be honest and authentic, even when crafting a public persona
  • small trick: switching the font for third or fourth draft can make different things pop out at you, help you find errors
  • libby hawker: making it in historical fiction
  • also: read wolf hall and see how hillary mantel does her description and world-building
  • random nugget from shane black: plot is what happens outside the characters, story is what happens inside the characters
  • clines: used to follow writing guidance slavishly, reading writers digest, doing what it says; has become more skeptical over time, especially as he’s figured out what works for him, and how that differs from what works for others
  • pantsers: can be very helpful to have a timeline, even after first draft; one writer found 12-yr gap in her book (!)
  • tip from mystery writer: even if you’re not going to have a big “gather the characters together so sleuth can layout the clues” scene, write it anyway; it’ll solidify everything in your head so you can confidently write the mystery itself (with dropped clues, red herrings, etc)
  • chapter to chapter: have something driving the characters from scene to scene, either internal or external, so the reader has a reason to move forward; even placement of flashbacks needs to be driven by the story
  • prologues are fine, but make sure they have a payoff within a few chapters, or cut them altogether
  • relevance is key: even if your planning a series, make the nuggets you put in the first book relevant to that book
  • “start with action” can be a trap: if you begin with volume at 11, you’ve got nowhere to go but down
  • recall the punches of humanity and comedy in the midst of horror or action: the terrorist grabbing a candy bar while setting up in die hard, etc
  • don’t discount the freedom you get by not being published yet; enjoy the fact that you have no deadlines and no pressure to finish
  • beta readers: seek out at least one or two people who read mostly outside your genre, to make sure you don’t have too much inside baseball
  • the 50% rule: half of all submissions can be rejected on pg 1: wrong format, wrong genre, etc; following the rules and sending a polished manuscript to the right people can put you ahead of 50% of others
  • one step beyond read it out loud: have someone else read it out loud to you, and see where they stumble or hesitate or pause
  • short story tips: damon knight’s book on writing short fiction
  • one bit: if you have a first-person story, write it in a different pov and see if the main character vanishes; if so, you don’t have a character you just have a viewpoint

Writers’ Coffeehouse, Oct 2017

Another great meeting! Peter Clines graciously agreed to serve as host, prior to his signing at Mysterious Galaxy (you can order his new book here)

We tried out a slightly different format this time, formally splitting the time between writing craft questions (first half) and publishing/sales questions (second half).

Many thanks to Mysterious Galaxy for the venue, and to Peter Clines for running the show!

My notes:

  • Absence of sci-fi thrillers currently, editors starting to mention it
  • Character delineation: how to do it? How much is enough? Too much?
  • Clines: doesn’t like recommending writing books, because writing is so personal and unique from person to person
  • Protagonists need to be: likeable, relateable, and believable
  • 3 easy ways to express character: what they say, what they do, and how others react to them
  • Indy: when intro side character, will give reader info that the main character doesn’t have, to increase tension
  • Plot is what happens outside, story is what happens inside, the character. Every book needs both, the plot to move things along, the story to move us
  • Save the Cat: at start of story, main character needs to do something small and simple that lets audience know they’re the person to root for
  • Things need to go wrong. We all say the wrong thing sometimes, or have plans go awry, and how we react to that shows a lot of character
  • Techniques: one person wrote poems about each of his characters before the book, another wrote backstory for the door her character couldn’t touch, another person puts together portable “murder” boards for her books
  • Potato-chip chapters: point is to make each chapter either small enough or end on tasty beat enough to make reader want to go to the next one
  • Q: have book that is on the edge of ya and adult, how to market it? Have two versions…
    • A: write it the way you want, submit it the way you want, let editor push for the other if they want it, let them worry about marketing it properly once it’s published
  • Q: how to design a book cover?
    • A: hire a book designer, don’t try to do it yourself, if you’re going indy
  • Q: do you really sell books on twitter?
    • A: yes, because people tweet that they just bought the book; though took four years of building audience before the book was published
  • Social media: different posts for different sites, since the audiences are different between them
  • Facebook ads: basically not worth it; check the veritas youtube channel for a good breakdown of how the ads actually perform
  • Q: are they going to ask me about how many followers i have on facebook?
    • A: if you have a lot, that’s great, but they care more about how good the book is than anything else
  • If you hear about a cool gimmick for your query letter, don’t do it; by the time you’ve heard about it, the gimmick’s played out
  • Q: Querying for comics?
    • A: get an artist on board, have the first issue done, and the rest of the arc outlined
  • Q: What about hiring an editor?
    • A: nice if you can afford it, may be a good learning experience at first, but not essential to selling a book (just get it in the best shape you can before sending it out)
  • A lot of hired editors will start out with just fifty pages, critique that, see if you two want to work together, then continue on with story edits, then finally a copyediting pass

 

Ex-Heroes by Peter Clines

Fantastic, pulpy action. I mean, it’s zombies vs superheroes, how could I not read this?

The writing is sharp and moves along at a good clip, with a cinematic feel. Clines’ use of flashbacks lets him bounce back and forth across the zombie apocalypse divide, deepening the characters and the world without slowing the action.

Three things about writing I learned from this one:

  • Even in an ensemble book, focus on no more than half a dozen characters. I couldn’t tell the non-superheroes apart in this one, and gave up trying to keep track of them all. The heroes were all well-fleshed out, but the regular humans were extras, and who watches a movie for the extras?
  • Using flashbacks in short, quick bursts can let you jump in to the interesting part of the story immediately, building and keeping momentum behind the main storyline. Clines could have used the first third of the book to work through each heroes’ timeline before the zombie apocalypse happened, but it would have resulted in a much slower book.
  • Don’t be afraid of writing what you want to write. I’m sure there are plenty of people that would look down on the zombies + superheroes concept, but I’m glad Clines ignored all of them and wrote something this fun and entertaining.