Happy to return to the Push to Publish conference after a 3 year absence. If you’ve never heard of Push to Publish and you’re a Philadelphia-area writer, remind me to follow you around with one of the Game of Thrones Shame Bells next time I see you. Push to Publish is a single day conference (with some add-ons) run by the incredible folks at Philadelphia Stories. Lena Van does it much better justice then I can over at the PWC blog.
The conference manages to squeeze a whole lot of learning into a very short period time, and it’s difficult to try to pick just five favorites from such a jam-packed event, but I’ll give it a try after the break.
The Ladies. Ah man, I’m getting myself in trouble here, aren’t I? I’m really not trying to sound like a leering, open-shirted, gaudy gold chain-wearing, I-bet-if-I-reflect-this pinky-ring-just-right-she’ll-be-into-me sort of douche.
…but the truth is (and with all due respect to the talented and knowledgeable gentlemen at the conference) the gender of the feminine-sort really ruled the roost this year. And it all starts with Philadelphia Stories Co-founders (and two of my oldest write-life friends) Carla Spataro and Christine Weiser, who were everywhere making sure everything – including an expanded agent and editor pitch session – moved according to plan (or at least as close to plan as possible!). I also had the chance to converse with agent Sarah Yake, from the Frances Collin agency, took some classes with super-smart Anna Kashina and my literary lady-crush, Kelly Simmons, and I finally met The Grandmothers, Joyce Eisenberg and Ellen Scolnic, who wrote Stuff Every Grandmother Should Know, the sister….or I guess spouse….book to my own.
Character Counts. Kelly Simmons pulled together an excellent, abridged version of the three-day course she taught at the Philadelphia Writers’ Conference a few years back. Kelly taught that character carries plot, and if your struggling to move your plot along, you’ll often find the answer in your character’s qualities. She gave us a checklist of traits to help build characters your readers can root for, including:
- Desire (your character should want something)
- Spunk (or moxie, or courage, your character has to have an attitude that it can be done)
- Resilience (Spunk’s big brother, your character gets up whenever she gets knocked down)
- Foolishness (giving flaws adds dimension)
- Wounds (these could be physical or psychic, and ultimately drive your character)
- Misbeliefs (your character should believe something that ultimately isn’t true)
We also veered onto the topic of queries and query letters (my personal nightmare). Kelly is an expert of the query, and offered some great insight on how to begin and how to connect in a single page.
Build Your World. Anna Kashina is another former PWC workshop teacher whose class I had to miss back in 2016, so was glad she presented the compressed version this year at P2P. Anna, whose life-journey from Russia to the Department of Biomedical Science is a fascinating story unto itself, is the author of an extensive array of award winning fantasy. She provided some key points about how to get your fantasy world up to snuff, including:
- Draw a map. It doesn’t have to be extensive, and can be done with no artistry whatsoever, but should have cover key elements. Those elements include geography (hills, mountains, rivers), your major cities or country names, and define some of the relationships of your world (for example, the ramifications of a town along a river).
- Define Social Hierarchy. What kind of government do you have. Who are the “haves” and “have-nots.” And what is the level of tech, is this a medieval world, a future one, an alternate reality?
- Define key cultural elements. What does the housing look like? what tools and weapons do they use? What are the economics of your world.
- Deities and Beliefs. What do they worship? What are their superstitions? Most folks believe in something, even agnostics, and those beliefs can define your society.
- Consider Language. You don’t need to go full Tolkein and create entire languages yourself, but what are the common phrases and aphorisms that might define your world. Is there certain slang words that are used? Most importantly, what are the curse words and swears?
Anna also gave us a quick assignment and asked us to provide answers to the following questions.
- Your character opens her eyes, what are the first three things she sees?
- She steps outside, what are the five things she experiences
- What does she eat?
Here was my responses (from one of the many novel starts sitting in the Trapper Keeper):
- The interconnected roots of the ceiling, a centipede winding it’s way around those roots, dusty daylight streaming in from the doorway.
- After stepping outside she smells smoke from the battle outside the walls, smells seasoning from the sees cooking fires, huddles of grim-faced soldiers who turn towards her expectedly when she appears, hears someone crying from somewhere in the distance, and sees the other houses grown into the trees of this village.
- She eats one of the bracket fungi that is the main food source for this vegetarian society.
Anna complimented the detail, but reminded us that sometimes less is more and that sometimes you need to spoon-feed your readers. She also commented that my character would not necessarily noticed the houses, simply because they would be part of her every-day life. Rather, if I wanted to show the houses, there should be something different from her perspective, perhaps one burning or destroyed, that would call it out to her.
Anna also shared a wonderful and creative marketing idea: recipe cards for food eaten in her world.
Personal Inspiration. Keynote Speaker Dan Chaon gave an excellent speech to kick off the conference. His heartfelt introduction of the Marguerite McGlinn Fiction contest winner Lauren Green drove home the point that we writers are truly chameleons. The general theme of his talk was how we take bits of the world around us – observations, inner voices, memories – and turn them into art through some arcane alchemy. He shared how a scene is his first novel, You Remind me of Me, (one in which a grandfather convinces his grandson that a train parked out back includes a left behind circus elephant) is based on a real event in his life, and how those events we hold onto, become so polished and worn, they become fiction, but a fiction more real than the truth. It got me thinking of Big Fish, and my father, whose stories were epic pearls built around the finest grains of truth, and who is probably most responsible for me becoming a writer.
More Query Advice. The closing panel of agents was informative as always. They talked about a number of topics, including things to avoid when querying, most notably, get their name right (duh), and don’t do the mass mail, ‘bcc’ thing. What they do recommend is to be yourself, to give a compelling reason why they should read your work, and to not be afraid to mention you met them at a conference. They also recommended an excellent flow chart put together by David R. Slayton that walks you through exactly when your query letter is ready for submission. Definitely worth checking out, and read some more of his posts while you’re there. It’s quite good!