Chrysalis: Emerging Women Writers

August 6, 2010

Pitching With the Pros

Filed under: Critiques,Technique,Writing — K. @ 9:50 pm

Hi, I’m Kathie and this is my first blog post for Chrysalis. Glad to be here.

This weekend I’m attending my first Willamette Writers Conference. It’s right here in Portland so hard to pass up. I was fortunate to get a tip a couple of months ago (thanks Lisa!) about working as a volunteer and getting in for just the cost of meals. Yeah, I’ll miss a few workshops due to my volunteer assignments, but that’s better than deciding I can’t justify the whole price of admission and not going at all.

Thursday evening was the Open Pitch Practice, free to anyone who showed up. Literature pitches in two big rooms, screenplay pitches over in another area. I sat in on the lit pitches just to see how it all works. I don’t have anything nearly ready to pitch, just barely started, but it sounded like an interesting event and I thought I could pick up some tips from the agents.

The room I was in had three NYC agents on the panel: Paul Levine, Laurie McLean, and Gordon Warnock; and Kristin Sevick, an editor for Tor. Sometimes they all had similar comments on a particular pitch, but each brought their own flavor to the event. Each writer stood up as her name was called and went through the pitch. Then the agents reviewed the pitch itself: what was said, how it was said, what wasn’t said.

Here are my scribbled notes, to keep in mind the next time you find yourself standing around with an agent:

  1. State the title, the genre and word count first off, and say it’s complete. They don’t want to hear that you’re halfway through it or even that you’re making final edits.
  2. Don’t be tentative – have confidence in your work.
  3. Cite similar authors or similar novels.
  4. Don’t give too many details (character names, places, minor subplots) or the agent will get lost.
  5. Have your log line ready. What’s a log line? A simple one sentence summary of your whole novel. One of the agents explained it something like this: Take your synopsis and cut it in half. Take that and cut it in half. Keep doing that until you’re left with one sentence that explains it all. Here’s some info and examples.
  6. Develop various pitches and practice them all. You should have a log line, a 1-minute pitch, a 2-minute pitch and a 3-minute pitch.
  7. You can start with, “It the story of … “
  8. Hit the high points – Act 1, Act 2, Act 3
  9. Don’t read the pitch, and don’t recite from rote. Talk about it. Your pitch should tell about your project but not be a memorized speech.
  10. They know you’re nervous and excited and will excuse most of that, but you need to speak coherently enough so they can follow your plot.
  11. If it’s a memoir, it can’t just be your life story, if you want to sell it. It needs to have overarching themes that everyone can relate to.
  12. Know where your book would fit in the bookstore – where would it be shelved? This was asked repeatedly by one of the agents. “Where would I find your book? Tell me your genre.”
  13. For a first-time author of adult fiction, 80-100k words tops, for reasons of publishing economics. The publisher will want to keep the price point low for a new author. A long manuscript means the publishing would be too expensive and so they will have you cut your MS down a lot.
  14. Be agreeable – the agent is not only considering your work, but also *you.* Does the agent want to work with you?
  15. Don’t query until the work is ready to go – agents only want to see your best stuff, complete and polished.
  16. Tell the agent about your background and any writing/publishing credits you have. Especially if you’re writing a non-fiction book and you have a degree or career in that subject.
  17. If you have to explain your story too much, then it’s not right. Fix it.

Wow, that was a lot of info packed in the two-hour period, and it was really helpful to hear the pitches and then the agents’ responses. The agents were polite and respectful but also to the point, which is the only way to truly give good advice.

So my goal now is to have something to pitch next year. Better get started!


June 1, 2010

Will the Writer Sign Her Real Name?

By Ben Fredricson

I used a pen name on the very first piece I brought to Chrysalis to be critiqued.

“Why are you doing that?” one of the ladies asked.

“I just feel better writing under a pen name,” I said.

“We’ll help you get over that really quick,” she said.

I shrugged.  I hadn’t told her the truth.  No way.  The truth was too full of stars and fireworks.  But folks probably laughed, too,  when a ten-year-old Walt Disney told them he wanted to grow up and build a real fairytale.  Noooo, it was better to keep quiet.

You see, I just knew my words were so magnificent and overwhelming that I’d soon have to wear sunglasses to Fred Meyer because fans would bug me as I pinched peaches and filled my shopping cart with those expensive cocktail crackers and brie.

I wanted a pen name, so I could live my life in anonymity away from the paparazzi that plagued J.K. Rowling and me .

And then, I actually got a few lines published in the Oregonian.  It was a thrill to see my words in print for the first time. But…No one believed it was me. “That’s not your name,” one of the critique peers said.

“But it is me.  I used a pen name,” I tried to convince her.  She just looked at me as though I was off my meds.

So…should you use a pen name?

Well, if your name is  a real tongue-twister, you may want to try on a different moniker.

Or if you think it gives you better branding: Try Marketta Twain

Or if you’re published under hot & heavy  romance pulp and want to submit to children’s or Christian magazines, then you might consider a different name.

I soon learned the hard way that I wouldn’t have to worry about throngs of fans digging through my trash to find discarded drafts of my latest novel. I also learned how hard it was to build a portfolio of clips around my name if I kept changing it.

Okay, you can stop laughing now. There’s nothing wrong with using a pen name. Just make it clear to your editor which is your pen name and which is your real name.  I asked one of my editors if I could publish a newspaper article  under a pen.   I simply wanted some clips under that name in case I ever wanted to use it.   I had to have it approved by the managing editor and then it threw the payroll lady for a loop.  NOTE:  You may also have to explain to your bank why you’re trying to cash checks with your alias. You’re laughing again, aren’t you?

So go ahead.  Be Brit Goodwitch or Brandi Golucky, there are lots of reasons to pick a pen name…but I can assure you that fear of fame isn’t one of them.


Barb   a.k.a.  Angelina Jolly

June 11, 2009

Sweating the Details Before You Get to An Agent.

Filed under: Critiques,Technique,Writing — Barb @ 10:26 am
Tags: , , ,

For Anagram Bookshop in Prague (by Kaspen)

For Anagram Bookshop in Prague (by Kaspen)

When I first started presenting my work for critiques, I slapped it on paper any way I could. Through the years, I’ve noticed the better writers seem to take great pains not only in their words, but also in their presentation for informal discussion.

Even for a critique group their documents are  double-spaced, formatted with 1 inch margins, and have appropriate head space above the chapters.  Of course, their headers contain page numbers, but the name of the novel and writer  is also ever present. In other words,  each week’ these writers present a reading in  ready-for-publication style.

When I asked why, they smiled and said it was easier to  do it right in the first place, rather than try to catch every formatting detail later.

Noah Lukeman, a literary agent who has read thousands of manuscripts, gives great advice about details in his slim but weighty book, The First Five Pages. He notes that agents draw conclusion about entire manuscripts from the presentation of the first 1500 words.  Inattention to detail:

“may signal carelessness, sloppiness, ignorance or defiance of the industry’s standards; that the writer doesn’t care enough to do the minimum amount of research to make a manuscript industry presentable. Often when a writer’s presentation is careless, his writing is too.”

Critique groups tend to be informal gatherings. We often print on the backside of used copies, in order to save trees and paper.  However, it’s worth kicking ourselves a couple of times to make sure the formatting on the front side is complete. It will allows our fellow readers to concentrate solely on the words and story line.

Now…if I’ll just follow this advice every week, I’ll get more than the  first 5 pages whipped into shape.

May 13, 2009

E-Book Aversion

Filed under: Critiques,Writing — Barb @ 10:05 pm

All the experts say that it’s the future. We’ll be downloading our e-books onto our reading devices.  Kindle is probably one of the better known handheld devices. You download your reading material onto your reader, then off you go.

They do have their benefits. You can load 1500 books on them—perfect for travel and easing backpack strain.

They are thin and feel great.

If you run into a word you don’t know, an in-line dictionary will give you the immediate definition.

You can bookmark, and yes it even shows the graphics (though not well-according to reviews).

There’s net connectivity in the U.S.

What bothers me is that the e-books on Kindle are not transferable.  You can’t lend the book out without handing over your device.  If you delete the e-book to make room for more books in the memory. It is gone.

This means: No sharing among friends. No reading and re-reading years later. Books are meant to be a one-time use.

Yes, it’s bothersome, but the folks that predict the future say this won’t bother a young generation. They are used to disposable products, and have little emotional problem with buying something each time they want to use it.

It’s great for publishers. Maybe it will generate more income for writers.

But what kind of throw-away mentality are we fostering?

Besides, there’s just something about perusing book stores or libraries and lounging in the aisle, reading  and sampling books to your heart’s dreams.

Dead -tree media will fade away. It”s the future of publishing.  So the experts say.

May 7, 2009

Women Writing without Claws

Filed under: Critiques,Motivations,Sisterhood,Writing — Barb @ 3:54 pm
Tags: ,


In honor of Mother’s Day, I wanted to post about the sisterhood found among friends.

I’ve seldom thought of my mother as a girl with friends.

I cubbyholed her as “Mother,” until she had a stroke and our roles switched. It was at that point I wondered about her dreams.  Did she go to dances and giggle with her friends about boys? What did she tell her friends that she felt on her wedding day? Was it the support of her friends that allowed her to endure the hard life she had?

I asked her about the  hopes of her heart, but I discovered that her disappointments and secret yearnings were only shared with friends; with me she took the steady philosophy of “Mother”, and said,  “There’s responsibilities to do…so you do it.”

That’s when I realized that often it’s our friends that contribute to the untold stories within our lives. Perhaps we should celebrate “Friend Day” right after Mother’s day?

Perhaps that’s the beauty of an all-woman critique group? In addition to writers, we’ve become friends, helping mid-wife the words of our stories  and holding the chapters of each others’ lives.

April 8, 2009

Writing That Jumps off the Page

Of course, we’ve all heard “Show don’t tell” so many times our eyes have begun to goggle. So we use “devices.”

Anagram Bookshop in Prague, by Kaspen.

Anagram Bookshop in Prague, by Kaspen.I wish I could tell you that I've use all these devices with ultimate skill, Which of the following devices do you love to use in your writing to keep your reader riveted?

I’ve probably messed up every one of these techniques at some point in a manuscript. When I’ve overdone the mood,   some honest person in the critique group will write a note in the margin: This seems a bit melodramatic.

They write: Needs more punch”, when I’ve  marginalized the device. Thank heavens for good critique groups. Hopefully, you can learn something from my mistakes.

Thrusters.  I believe that most readers try to figure out what’s going to happen before it happens.  These tiny bits of the puzzle lure them to the next page to collect more information. JK Rowling’s books are riddled with them:

“Harry looked up and saw his own shock reflected in Ron’s and Hermione’s faces. The scars on the back of his right hand seemed to be tingling again.”

Perfect. We need to keep reading to discover the evil that’s making Harry’s hand give an alarm. But I tend to tell the reader a bit too much–just to make myself clear, you know? Often, if I go to the end of one of my chapters and lop off a couple of paragraphs, I’ll find I have a great thruster.

And then there are  Cliffhangers. This device makes me crazy. The last time I used it, I had a guy running across a field naked in sub-zero weather. I went to another scene…and another…and another. The next time the readers saw the naked guy, he was clothed, sitting in a bar, having a beer. I assumed that the reader would intuit that the guy didn’t freeze his begonias off since he was now languishing in a bar.  Oh, they figured it out all right, and they were irritated that I didn’t show them. NOPE. I learned that if you start something that causes tension, you better finish it in front of the reader.

I’ve laid Traps and botched them because everyone knew. I’ve learned it works so much better if the reader knows about a possible trip-up, but the protagonist is about to blindly stumble into it. I wanted to show how cleaver my hero was at avoiding traps; but I got double bang for my words by showing how the protagonist was clever at getting OUT of traps (Think about it. If James Bond never fell for any tricks, he’d just be drinking martinis and using corny lines on women.)

I love the Ticking Clock technique. (Never mind that I once wrote a scene where the hero had to battle a group of savages before he could save a boy hanging from a cliff. I got so carried away with the fight scene that no one believed the kid could have held on that long. ) (P.S. It was a good fight scene…okay….it was too long). I think of it as the Jack Bauer Syndrome: Jack saves the entire world every hour…it seems impossible.

Perhaps you’re a fan of Imagery to make your writing leap off the page. I went through several stages in learning this technique.

  • Color: She sipped green tea from a pink china cup while curled up on blue fluffy comforter. (Thank goodness that phase didn’t last past the first edit.)
  • Metaphors or similes: Done well, these are artforms. Done poorly, they make the reader cringe. “It rained hard, like BBs dropping from the sky.  (GAAK…take cover from the BBs and the poor comparison.)

That’s the great thing about critique groups. We don’t have to make every mistake. We can learn from others, and hopefully save ourselves some edits. I’ve learned other things, but…now it’s your turn.

What’s your favorite technique to make words jump off the page?

April 1, 2009

Writing: It’s All About ME. ME. ME.

Thanks to I Haz A Cheeseburger

Thanks to I Haz A Cheeseburger

If You’re Not Writing, Why Do you Come to Chrysalis?

  • “Because I’m thinking about writing.”
  • “I enjoy the creative company of writers.”
  • “My parole officer says it would be good for me.” Okay maybe this one isn’t true (but it I’d like to read this memoir, wouldn’t you?)

Truth is…

there are more reasons to attend a great critique group, than simply getting input about your writing. Educational articles are emphatic in  underlining that the real benefit of attending a critique group is the learning/sharing process.

From poets, to essayest, to autobiographies to fiction, each writer carries a different voice, style and perspective.

True. True.

But let me tell you a little secret that I’ve discovered while doing some personal mining during this Lenten Season.  I’ve discovered that the thing that lights my fire  is: opportunities for ME! ME! ME!!

Each person exposes me to different research. Cultures. Lifestyles. The latest slang.

I’m learning something every second I’m sitting with all of you.

And here’s another confession. While you’re reading your piece, I’m over there, snagging your great lines, making notes about how you painted a character so I like them at their very first appearance. I’m studying you’re dialogue and wondering if I can work in “tags” like you do.

I’m borrowing your ideas so I can dissect them and stitch them back together like a Coraline doll. Do I feel guilty about that? NOPE!

I listened to an in-depth interview between John Mellencamp and Terry Gross last night on FRESH AIR (NPR).  He laughed at a question about the encyclopedia of songs he’d written. “I only have 4 songs,” he said. “I just write ’em different ways.”

And that’s why I come to Chrysalis. So you can teach me a new song.

Nancilee said it best in one of her comments about receiving/giving critiques.

“I firmly believe that in the end the words are mine, they may be influenced by your comments, but ultimately they were birthed by the author’s experience.

“So, now that I am stronger in who I am and what I want my words to express, I say, critique to the best of your experience. And I will write to the best of my “imagination and feeling.”

The hope is together we have co-created something moving, tender and alive with the humor,joy, sorrow and grief that life throws our way day in and day out.”

Yeah…that’s what I’m talkin’ about.

Why Do You Come To Chrysalis???

March 25, 2009

Keep Your Damn Hands off My Plot

Filed under: Critiques,Sisterhood,Writing — Barb @ 5:02 pm
Tags: , , ,
Thanks Ihasa Dog

Thanks Ihasa Dog

We have to thank the Wonderful Roxie for today’s headlines.  For those of you who weren’t there, let me tell you that it all came about because Alice ended Chapter 1 of her new novel Lost today. She left us off-balance, wondering what was going to happen next. (Which is exactly how she planned for the reader to feel.)

When you’re sitting around a table of creative writers, ideas start popping up. We listed our  guesses and it unraveled into  suggestion for how we wanted to see the story unfold.

Which gets us to the Roxie’s statement. She’s right. It’s not our story. It’s not our plot. And it is frustrating for the writer.

Now I feel embarrassed blogging about this because I’m a big plot sinner. Countless times I’ve written, “Feel free to kill this character” in the margin of someone’s manuscript because I really disliked a character. They had done a great job creating that disgust for me.  Lest you think I’m unkind, I’ve also suggested adding characters, preferably ones that are like the characters in my novel.

You see a trend here? We all have a style, a voice, a way of twisting the plot. We are attracted to writing that is similar to our own.  And often (unaware), we suggest what fits with our plot ideas, but not that of the author.

Pat L. summed it up very welll. When we read a book, we’re guessing ahead of where the story will go. But when we’re sitting with the writer, we have the chance to tell her where we want it to go.    Oooooh it’s such an overwhelming temptation. It’s so hard to pass up.

Hopefully the writer will smile, knowing that she has us hooked. She will continue to reel us in  (anyway she wants.) In the meantime, we need to keep our damn hands off of her plot.

March 19, 2009

Rough and Ready Critiques

Filed under: Critiques,Writing — Barb @ 12:34 am
Tags: , , ,
Thanks to I has a Dog

Thanks to I has a Dog

! Wow!

What an interesting discussion we had today at Chrysalis about giving a critique.  I’ll see if I can’t incite as much ranting with this week’s topic:

How to Receive information Without Throttling Someone.

Okay, this is Soooooo  simple. Books about critique groups: How to Survive a Critique Group; How to Start a Critique Group, etc. Give different advice about most topics, but the one thing that almost all “experts” agree on is:

After you finish reading and while others are commenting on your words, then it’s your turn to SHUT UP.

That’s it. It’s simple, yes? Just read and nod.  You can ask a question if you don’t understand what the critiquer is trying to say, but mostly you nod and thank folks for their perspectives.

Here’s why. It doesn’t really matter if someone thinks your beginning paragraph should be moved to the 3rd page.  Or your main character should wear a pork-pie hat instead of a Bowler. Or if the reader prefers that you use the word “faded” instead of “rolled out of sight”.  they are telling you what they would like to see, or perhaps giving you a clue into something that is taking they away from the action or confusing them.  It doesn’t mean that they are right and your’re wrong.  Ultimately, you, the writer, have the final say in how it will appear on paper.  So why argue?

Sounds simple.

So I ask myself:  Why do I want to defend what I’ve written if I disagree with critique?  Why say anything unless I’m trying to clarify what I hear someone saying about my writing.

It’s taken a while, but I’m finally learning that many of the suggestions that I’ve rejected, have at least a skosh of merit after I smooth my hackles and let some time pass.

One time I was gardening and thinking about someone’s storyline. I realized that my suggestions wouldn’t work. (They were actually STOOOPID). I wished I could edit my critique. I called the person to apologize. “Don’t worry,” she said. I ignored them.

Bravo!  It’s your story to write.

March 12, 2009

How To Give a Critique Without Using the Word “Stupid.”

Filed under: Critiques,Writing — Barb @ 1:34 am
Tags: ,

Well this may seem like a no-brainer. Surely anyone can meet, read other writers’ work and avoid saying things like:  “Nobody is this stupid. I don’t believe any character would do that.”

There are stupid actions, but not stupid writers

However there are a ga-billion  ways to communicate something is “Stupid” without using the word.  And it’s one of the reasons that writers never return to a group.

Subtle Ways We Say “That’s Stupid”

  • The covert (or not-so-covert) eye roll.
  • The mumbling criticism to the person sitting beside you instead of the writer.
  • And my personal favorite is the headshake accompanied by, “I’m not sure where to start.”

Eric Witchey, a Eugene Writer,  shared the story of a person in his critique group who passed judgement on his short story by saying: “I liked the title.” and that’s all he would he would say.

Step 1. Ask what type of information is wanted by the writer.

Does the writer plan on publishing? Are they looking for help on what would make the book salable? Or is it a personal essay that only family and friends will see and the writer simply wants help in finding misspellings and error?

I keep a quote on my desk that reminds me:

We write for 2 reasons: a)the approval of others; b)for the sake of writing itself. “

(I think it was Faulkner who said it, but I was too lazy to write that down).

For a long time I was smug in the thought that I wrote because I had earth-shaking truths to share, and to hell with approval.  It was a disappointing blow when I discovered that like a puppy dog, I enjoyed receiving pats on the head for my writing.  I’d lied to myself.  I also write for approval (in addition to my profound truths). I think most folks do. So when someone hands out a manuscript and says: “Rip this baby apart.” I don’t think they really mean it.

It actually is their “baby.” They gave birth to the words. And it might be okay to say,” That’s an ugly-lookin’ dog, ” but you can never say, “That’s an ugly-lookin’ baby.”

Respect their words.

Step 2: What Can You Say?

I’ve listed the comments that make me growl when I sit down to do edits. I admit I roll my eyes at these types of comments.  They make me nutty because they don’t help at all.

“Tighten this up.” If I knew how to write it any tighter, I would have.  It would be more helpful if as a critiquer, you marked the words that you think are excessive. (At least mark a paragraph if there’s too many of them.) And keep in mind a writer’s style and voice may be different than yours.

“Cut the adjectives or description” What???? Are you saying that the dialogue should take place in a blank room? No? Then which descriptors did you think were too much?

“Too many adjectives and adverbs.” How many are too many, Mr. Hemingway? Could you give me an example by marking them?

“Seems slow” Okay that’s really helpful. I understand this is how you felt as you read it, now please take it one step further and tell me what slowed it down for you: info-dump; dialogue; too many taglines; irrelevant sidestory, lack of character conflict????

And my least favorite critique comment is: “I know you can do better than this.”  What the &%$($#???? If I could have written any better, I would have done it.

I’m sure you can add more, but I find the most helpful comments are the most specific ones.

And let me add that I’ve committed everyone of these egregious sins that I’ve complained about.  Hopefully, I remembered to sign the critique so you when you sat down to do edits, you knew who to call “Stupid.”

Next week we’ll look at how to receive a critique without using the word, “Stupid.”

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