Tag Archives: Midwest Writers Workshop

Lemons, fig cake and setting

When life sends you lemons (and figs) via the U.S. Postal Service, make lemonade and fig cake. Okay, so life didn’t really send the lemons and figs. My parents sent them. They sent them all the way from their home in California where lemon and fig trees produce so quickly they can’t eat or use the fruit fast enough. I’ve enjoyed the gifted bounty. I have made delicious fresh-squeezed lemonade and an out of this world fig cake that I found a recipe for at a blog called Lemons and Anchovies. With a name like that the recipes have to be good. This one was probably the best thing I’ve baked from scratch ever.

None of this has anything to do with the Midwest Writers Workshop, except to say that my time there was a nice gift in what has turned out to be a stressful, quickly dissolving summer. As I mentioned in my previous post, I learned so much. I think today’s nugget will focus on what I learned in D.E. (Dan) Johnson’s workshop classes. I attended two. For those who don’t know Dan, he writes historical mysteries set in Detroit in the early 20th century. I have not read his books. I intend to even though I’m not one to really read mystery. I’m compelled by the glimpse I had of his writing and by his writing knowledge. He knows his stuff.

Fig Cake made with figs from my mom and dad’s backyard in California.

His workshop on setting was an elaboration on the writing mantra “show, don’t tell.” That description doesn’t really do it justice, because he dove deeply into what that really means and how that really works to bring a narrative to life. I think the most valuable piece of advice I walked away with was his technique for making sure he’s using enough of every sense. He goes through his manuscripts with five different highlighters each representing one of the five senses. This gives him a visual diagram of how often he’s using these to bring out setting. I haven’t tried it yet, but it has made me much more aware of where I’m using all the senses in my work.

So, now that I am thinking of the senses, time to go let the golden, soft fig cake melt in my mouth, so I can taste the hints of sweet cream, olive oil and butter as the smell of baked fig wafts about my head. I won’t forget to wash it down with the sweet and tangy fresh lemonade.

The Literary Fiction Query/Pitch

The bag I got from the Midwest Writers Workshop.

I’m tired. I’m tired because I spent the last three days at the Midwest Writer’s Workshop, an intensive conference for writers held at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana. I don’t want to nap before I offer this little post, mostly because when I started on my query journey I found a lot of information on writing queries, but the queries were always focused mystery, or YA paranormal, or romance, or sci fi or other genres. That’s all fine and good, but I don’t write any of that. I don’t want to write any of that. It’s not that I think I am better than that in any way. I don’t think that at all. It’s just that I write what I like reading. I like reading literary fiction. I like great images. I like great characters. This post is about sharing the nuggets of wisdom I found at MWW that really hit at the heart of how to condense the essence of a literary story into a three line pitch. I figure if I was struggling with this there must be other.

First, I must say that while I can write a good compelling piece of prose filled with details and images that bring a scene to life. Give me a cover letter or a query and I’m lost. Suddenly all the faculties that allow me to bring you into fictional scene and linger there for a while slip out the window and my queries and cover letters sound, well, extremely stiff. I knew all this going into my pitch. I also knew that while it was easier to find good examples of how to whittle adventure novels or mysteries or other genre novels into little pitches that popped, I was having a difficult time finding examples or explanations of how to wrangle multiple themes, plots, character quirks into three lines without losing the essence of the story and the voice. Honestly, my queries sounded more like “and then this happens and then this happens and then this happens” kinds of things. My voice was nonexistent in my pitches and queries.

From minute one of the Part II of the conference it seemed the focus was on what makes a good pitch. I absorbed so much information, it’s way too much to try put in this little post. I’ll probably write more on it in the weeks to come, but for now I thought I’d relay the information I received from one of the agents, not the one I pitched. Still, she accepts literary fiction and had a lot of good information to offer on breaking into literary fiction during a brief buttonhole session I attended.

I sat at the table with other attendees, most who I gathered did not write literary fiction because of the questions they asked, the first being, “What is literary fiction?” It was good to hear her define it. She said it was fiction that was more about character development than plot. It is has more layers, more subplots and themes that run through the narrative. I did know that. Of course I know that. I write that. Still, it was valuable to hear from an agent’s perspective. It also opened the door for me to ask the burning question, “So then, when one writes literary fiction with all these layers and subplots and such, how does one contain that in a short query or pitch without losing the essence of the story?”

The agent advised focusing on the key characters and said that if she really is compelled by a character she will want to read more.

I took that piece of advice and all the little tidbits of information I gathered from workshops, panels and practicing my pitch with peers and somehow, after 20 or so revisions, got to where I could find the essence of my main character and her struggles and the story. Essential I focused on what she wants, what’s standing in her way, what is the catalyst that makes her push through what’s standing in her way, and what she finds when she pushes through. That is essentially the whittled down version of what Writer’s Digest editor Chuck Sambuchino offered in his conference opening remarks on how to craft a good pitch.

It all worked. I came away with a successful pitch after reworking early drafts that I knew were duds. I could feel it inside me. I could feel it in the blank stares of some of my peers who I shared the earlier pitches with, but I knew I hit the sweet spot with the final version. I knew I captured the essence of my story and the essence of my voice. That was the key. Now, I have to get back to work. I have a manuscript to send off.