The Cape Cod Writers Center Conference: Saturday, Part Two

This post describes the second part of my Saturday at the Cape Cod Writers Center Conference. You can read the first part here, and find more details about this blog series here.

Double-Duty Dialog: Day Two of Two

Class started a little late due to the late-running keynote luncheon (as mentioned in Saturday, Part One), but we dove right back into learning more about what makes good dialog. Ron powered through various techniques and tips, offering plenty of examples along the way. I couldn’t believe how much material we covered in two days, but I’m glad we did–I learned so much!

Here’s some more dialog tips I picked up:

  • Dialog can help establish the character and rhythm or ground the reader in the story. It can also help show relationships between characters through how they interact.
  • Characters often have an agenda when they speak. They may not consciously know what they want out of a situation, but it’s there.
  • Characters often don’t respond to what was just said; instead, they respond to what is left unsaid or they push their own agenda. Misdirection can be useful as well, such as when a character is trying to hide something.
  • An inability to communicate can be useful–perhaps the characters simply can’t find a common ground or are missing a connection. Someone using jargon instead of explaining it clearly, for example.
  • Leaving things unsaid can often be more powerful than stating things outright.
  • Half-attention, inattention, mishearing, deliberately ignoring… People don’t always listen, either because they’re distracted or too focused on their own agenda. This can be shown through dialog, and can help move the story along.
  • Characters don’t always say what’s on their minds, perhaps because they’re holding something back or out of kindness.
    • Challenge: Push your characters to find those moments where someone might say, “I can’t believe you just said that!” This can help develop the characters and move the story.

 

We actually had homework from Saturday for this class, but didn’t have time to go over it. We did, however, spend some time on an in-class assignment. It was called, “Keep it Secret,” and involved two characters, A and B. A is trying to keep a secret from B; B suspects something, but doesn’t know what. Ron gave us a bonus achievement to add a moment where one character interrupts the other, include a lie, and have something that goes unsaid.

We brainstormed several possible scenarios, so we would all be working on similar ideas. I’ll tell you which scenario I used, but first let me share the result:

Jane looked up as Peter walked in. “You’re home late.” She set the book she had been reading in her lap, one finger marking her page.

“Our meeting ran late.” Peter draped his coat over his chair and sat down with a sigh. “Any dinner left?”

Jane didn’t move. “You told me it would be over at five. It’s nearly eight.”

“It ran late.” Peter rubbed his brow, almost permanently creased these days. The wrinkles refused to smooth. He’d lost more tonight than usual.

“Are they making cutbacks again?” Jane asked.

It was a constant fear, these days. The economy wasn’t what it had been. “I still have my job.” Peter looked out the window, at the rain that had speckled his light blue shirt with dark spots.

“Then why so late, Peter?”

“I’m hungry, Jane.”

She released a sigh and stood, setting her book on the chair. “All right.” Her heels clicked on the hardwood floor as she left the room.

Peter looked at the book she had left behind. The spine read, Planning Your Divorce.

The front door opened and shut.

He closed his eyes, focusing on his aching stomach. It let him ignore for a moment the gaping hole in his wallet. His empty marriage. His hollow heart.

I didn’t manage to work in an interruption, but I did include a lie, something unsaid, and also used misdirection (Peter returning to the topic of dinner, trying to avoid Jane’s inquiries).

The scenario was this: a man gambles away his latest paycheck and must hide it from his wife.

I really loved this class and I wish that it could have been three days! Ron packed in a lot of information, though, and I learned so much.

Changing Trends in Publishing

My final class on Saturday was with Lou Aronica again. Having been in the publishing business for decades, he’s very well-versed in the topic. This was a part-lecture, part-discussion class, perfect for beginning to intermediate students.

I was actually stunned by how much I already knew. A lot of what he spoke about was review for me, but it was an interesting class nonetheless because I had a chance to learn more about the history of publishing from someone who had lived through several decades of it.

What follows is a summation of some of the interesting things I learned in the class; all percentages quoted are approximate.

Historically, book sales were split between hardcovers and paperbacks. Hardcovers tended to receive reviews, rewards, where more likely to be in bookstores, etc. Paperbacks tended to be reprints and genre fiction (westerns, mysteries, and later on, romance, scifi, etc.)

Today, the split is different. Nonfiction is still mostly traditional, except for a few small categories. Fiction, on the other hand, has a significant presence (50+%) of indie authors on the digital side. Print fiction is still mainly traditional publishers. However, digital has become a major part of the fiction market (60% or so).

Traditional publishers are now increasingly focused on books of substance—not high literary quality, but substantial (Patterson for example).

The indie world is kind of all over the place, but heavily populated with product. Indie authors with the greatest opportunity for success seem to publish frequently, as much as 4, 5, 6 times a year, and their audience is one driven by seeing the author show up as often as possible.

In the digital world, trads are pushing ebook prices as high as possible, whereas indies are trying to sell as cheaply as possible. This leads to a customer divide that is difficult to cross. On one side are consumers who think an ebook priced above $4.99 is robbery; on the other side are consumers who considered anything below $7.99 to be worthless. This has led to a split in pricing, where authors can either not go higher than $4.99 or not go lower than $7.99.

I found this part of the discussion fascinating, as it was something I wasn’t familiar with and something I hadn’t considered before. I know I personally don’t tend to pay more than $4.99 for an ebook. Often, the paperback isn’t much more expensive once you hit $5.99 and up, and I’d prefer to have a physical copy of a book, anyway.

Lou continued the discussion by explaining that authors should have an idea of where they need to go with what they write. Literary tends to be harder to market on the indie side, but many genres can easily be successful as indie.

Traditional and indie publishing range from the major publishing houses to small presses to self-publishing. However, Lou made it clear that authors NEVER pay for a publishing arrangement with a true publisher. If you are asked to pay, it’s a publishing service, NOT a publisher. I think he’s referring to what I know as vanity publishers; something to watch out for if you’re pursuing traditional publishing.

Regardless of whether it is traditionally or independently published, however, the author must play a role in the marketing process. Publishers can do some things, but readers want to hear from the author. Readers care about what the author has to say. A publisher can’t replicate that. This is something I was already aware of, and part of the reason I chose to go indie by starting my own publishing company.

Authors need to work hard to build a social network that really drives sales. Email is still overwhelmingly the best way to sell books. Quantity also makes marketing easier, because there’s always something new available. Acquiring an email list can be difficult, but social media helps with that, and using a lead-in (such as a free book or sample) can be very successful. Most traditional publishers will help with social media through consultations and that sort of thing, but it’s still a time-consuming–but important!–process for the author.

Something that’s changed in recent years is the international side of publishing. Many foreign publishers don’t experience the digital side (Germany’s digital sales are only about 7% of the market), so they didn’t want to hear about breakout ebook authors, trad or indie/self-published. That’s changing now, and there are agents these days who only want to represent authors overseas.

Another thing to note is that format is often key, because customers often depend on the format (ebook, paperback, hardcover). The best marketing in the world can’t sell print books of a successful ebook if the customer isn’t buying in that “space”. There’ve been disastrous examples of this in the past; a million-dollar print-book-only deal that bombed, for example. There are also success stories, such as a Western writer who was originally published in paperback, and whose hardcover versions also did well.

In terms of editorial reviews, Booklist, Library Journal, and Publishers Weekly are the ones that really matter. It isn’t necessary to buy a Kirkus review; it won’t do much for you in terms of marketing.

These days, publishing is a lot riskier. It used to be that a poor performing book would still sell in the thousands; now, it could be as low as 0 sales. There will still be big deals for young authors, because that’s a story in itself and stories sell books. Blockbusters and sure things will continue to happen. However, publishers want guaranteed sales. In fiction, they’re now looking at authors’ platforms. They want to know there’s a selling floor before they take the risk of publishing the book. They also want midpoint authors, people who will keep selling even if it’s not high numbers.

Consumers are still excited about books. However, there is a concern with the rise of indie publishing that an onslaught of unedited works will cause readers to give up or lower their standards… This is something I’ve noticed myself in my own reading, and I agree that it could be an issue. However, I will always be careful to produce well-polished stories for my readers, and I know many other indie authors who feel the same. We can’t change the market alone, but together, we can work to make it better for everyone, author and reader alike.

The great thing about this day and age in publishing is that books never go away anymore. It used to be that after three weeks, books would be moved to the back of the store and then returned to the publisher. Now, some books suddenly find an audience, even after waiting a year or two. It could be due to something the author did, or Amazon’s mysterious algorithms, or something else, but that potential always exists.

Student Prose Reading

The last event of the day was the student prose reading, which ran from about 7:30 PM to 9:30 PM. Students were given six minutes to read an excerpt, after which a few minutes were taken for several mentors (and the audience) to offer brief feedback. I was nervous, as I haven’t read before people very often, but also excited. I also had no idea what I was reading, almost up to the moment I walked to the front of the room, because I’d brought three excerpts.

My friend K convinced me to read the third excerpt I’d picked out, unedited, from the first draft of Within the Ironwood. Given that most of the mentors had recommended students read the opening of the stories, and my excerpt was from later in the story, I was even more nervous as I walked forward. What if people didn’t understand the scene because they didn’t know the characters? I knew it was a first draft and there wasn’t enough description, but was there enough information despite that to bring the story to life? What if they hated it? Should I have chosen a different excerpt or a different story entirely?

I’m not sure if it was the general vibe in the room or my bravado fueled by exhaustion from a long day mixed with nervousness, but I threw myself into the reading and brought a life and vibrancy into it that I’ve never felt before. The 745-word excerpt I’d chosen flew by in an instant, leaving me standing, breathless, in front of a silent room.

I really enjoyed the experience, and the constructive feedback (from several mentors and the general audience) was exactly what I expected it to be: work on your enunciation/volume (for my speaking) and include more description (for my writing). They also added that I did a wonderful job slipping into the characters; the differences in voice between the narration and Branwen’s and the other characters’ dialogues were clear and compelling.

As I was standing at a podium, facing the audience, and reading from a printout, I didn’t have a chance to watch the mentors/audience. However, K was watching the mentors as I read, and she said that they looked “crestfallen” as I read the excerpt (it’s the death scene of Branwen’s father). It was clear that the scene had moved them, and that made me really happy, because that was what the scene was meant to do.

For those curious, this is the excerpt I read. Again, this is unedited, so definitely not the final version of this scene. It could be constituted as a spoiler, I suppose, but anyone familiar with Snow White (which this is a retelling of), knows the father is probably going to die.

Adelaide shook Branwen awake in the middle of the night. “Forgive me for intruding in your room,” the healer whispered. “But you should come. Now.”

The urgency in Adelaide’s voice sent ice running through the princess’s veins as she hurried after the woman. There was no need to ask. Something was wrong with Father.

They arrived in his room, which was dimly lit by lanterns. He lay, wrapped in the shadows of his bed canopy, struggling for breath. Air whistled in and out of his lungs, a sharp sound that sliced into Branwen’s heart.

“You have to help him,” she begged Adelaide and the other healers present. “Please do something.”

Her voice grew loud enough to catch the attention of her father.

“Clarinda, is that you?” he whispered, stretching out a hand.

Branwen wrapped it in her own, fighting back tears of grief and rage. “No, Father, it’s me. Branwen.”

His other hand reached up to stroke her hair, which was a dusty gray color—she’d refused Mella’s attempts to convince her to dye it. The last thing she wanted was to look more like her stepmother.

“Clarinda, take care of my Branwen, please. She’s all I have left of her mother… I loved her so much… Branwen is the light to my heart and soul…” His voice faded to unintelligible mumbles.

Tears slipped down Branwen’s cheek. “Father, don’t go. It’s me! I’m here.”

His eyes refused to focus on her. “Take care of her,” he whispered again. A cough rattled in his chest, followed by a second, weaker, one. Then silence. A silence so deep and dark that the lights in the room seemed to dim.

A sharp sound pierced the silence. Branwen’s throat ached. She wanted to scream too. No, she was screaming, screaming so loud it might wake the entire castle.

Several guards came running in, but they stopped when they saw that those in the room stood with bowed heads and arms clasped across their chests. Branwen watched the other guards echo the salute, bidding their king farewell.

The healers followed suit, all save Adelaide, who stepped up to the bed and reached to close the king’s eyes.

Branwen knocked the woman’s hand away. “No.”

Adelaide’s eyes were deep pools of sympathy, and she bowed her head as the princess pressed her father’s eyelids closed. Already his body felt unnaturally cold, the life gone from it. At some point, she had stopped screaming, but the scream continued in her head, pure agony pouring from her soul. She collapsed on the blankets, sobbing.

When she finally lifted her head, something caught her eye. A small brown ceramic tea cup, resting on the nightstand. “What is that doing there?”

Adelaide frowned. “Princess?”

Branwen pointed a shaking finger at the cup. “What is that doing there?

Adelaide frowned. “It’s tea.”

“Did you give that to him?”

The healer hesitated. “I-I don’t recall, Princess. Perhaps he had it brought—”

“No!” Branwen swept the cup from the nightstand with a shout. “I told you not to let him have anything you hadn’t checked. I told you!” Her voice rose in a shriek, and the healer shrank back from her.

“He hasn’t, your highness,” Adelaide insisted. “I never saw him take a sip from that cup. I’m not even sure how it got there. Please, Princess, you’re distraught—”

“Leave me alone!” Branwen pushed the woman away and ran from the room. Sobs pressed against her throat as she fled, nearly colliding with Clarinda.

The woman wore a plain black dress and dark makeup around her eyes. Her lips were dusted pale pink. She looked like a woman ready to mourn.

“You did this!” Branwen spat at the woman. “This is all your fault.”

“I don’t know what you mean—” Clarinda protested, but that crow-like glint was in her eye again. “Perhaps you better rest in your room, Branwen. I can handle things from here.”

Branwen tensed. There was something about the woman’s tone that sat uneasily with her, or was she just imagining it? She didn’t know. Everything was happening too fast, and it felt like she was being dragged down into a deep abyss from which there was no escape. She wanted to scream and flail and cry and plead.

Somehow, she knew that was what the woman wanted. “You won’t get away with this.” Branwen fled down the halls toward her tower, tears clustering in her eyelashes until she could barely see.

 

That wraps up Saturday! Sunday will be one more post, completing this four-post series on the CCWC Conference.