MUG Retreat Spring 2013

Zaytoon

Dinner at Zaytoon. From left: me, Anthony, Ari, Andrea. Photo by Cynthia.

At the MUG Santa Barbara Retreat this past weekend, I spent all of Saturday writing away with my writers group. Critiques and writing prompts broke stretches of solo writing. We went out for dinner at 9pm. My favorite part, along with the company and the food, was a little game we played in which we suggested actors who fit each other’s characters. The main contender for my novel’s protagonist was Amanda Seyfried, except with brown hair and eyes.

During the focused writing, we sat together in silence and focused on our own work. The only sound in the room was the tapping of laptop keys. Every now and then someone would break the silence to ask, “how do you spell…” or “what’s another word for…” like that.

Ari and Anthony

In the afternoon we wrote to prompts. Someone would explain the prompt, we would write, and then we’d go around and share. I’ve been so entrenched in revision that writing rough and fast was refreshing. In one prompt we each wrote down a profession on a piece of paper and passed it to the person on our right. We wrote using the beginning, “I have the hands of a…” After five minutes, we were told to begin the second section with: “But I’m not a…” That gave most of us a challenge! My piece of paper said “physicist” so mine was challenging anyway, since I know few, if any, details of that profession (let alone their hands).

We also went over my query and the first five pages of my manuscript. Several of them have read this book in all its iterations, and they stick with me no matter how tired they might be of reading it over and over again! I feel so lucky to have the support of this group of talented, intelligent, and creative people. My writing wouldn’t be the same without them.

At the edge of the pier. Photo by Cynthia.

At the edge of the pier. Photo by Cynthia.

See more details about the MUG Spring Retreat on our blog here!

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Ensembling A Story

Stanford Story Slam

Over the past week and a half, I’ve been participating in the Stanford Story Slam with several members of MUG, my writers’ group. You can check out what we’re working on here. The deadline is in three days, so after a few more edits, we’ll be submitting. Wish us luck!

The challenge is to write a story, collaboratively, of no more than 1,000 words using the prompt: There are over 15,000 bikes used by students, staff, and faculty to get around Stanford campus. Over 300 bikes are stolen each year. Where do they go?

First we brainstormed over email. Each of us came up with at least one idea. We all voted, first for our top two favorites, and then we narrowed it down. We didn’t use my idea for the contest but I entertained myself quite a bit writing it, so I thought I’d share:

**The bicycles are stolen by homeless people. Two sects of homeless people, who meet in two camps on opposite sides of town once each year. One group is an underground ring of vices – the homeless beg enough money to buy drugs and alcohol and trade up with each other. The other group is Shenanigans. They are homeless because they’re free, and they get together to make merry in their own form of cycling circus. There are relay races and wheelie popping tournaments and the Grand Sand Painting, in which cyclists trail swirls of colored sand behind them as they ride, building a collaborative picture. Usually these camps operate independently of each other, but this year… well, here’s the thing. The Cycling Vices are tired of stealing their own bikes, and they think it’d be much easier to just run over to the Shenanigans and steal theirs. Initially all hell breaks loose, especially since the circus crowd easily hops on their bikes and cycles away. But the Shenanigans have heard colored cocaine makes finer detailing than colored sand, so eventually they cut a deal. They give half their bikes to the Vices in exchange for a sturdy supply of coke, which they then dye and go on to use in creating the best Grand “Sand” Painting yet.**

Someone suggested breaking the synopsis into four parts, and we each picked the one we wanted to write. We’re a flexible crew, otherwise that might not have worked! I started writing and ended up with over 300 words – it probably took me twice as long to edit it down as to write it, and I was still slightly over my 250-word mark.

We video chatted twice, once before we started writing and once after we had each made comments on all the sections. We actually went through the story line by line, nitpicking cadence, streamlining themes, and jiggering our word count. Perhaps because we’ve been in a writing group for the past three years, we work really well together.

On that note, I am very much looking forward to my writers’ group Retreat next weekend! We will trade prompts, try out writing exercises, chat about writing, and feed off of each other’s creative energy. I have found a plethora of information on query letters via the internet, and must revise, revise, revise. I’ll pass out my query letter at the Retreat, facedown like they did tests in elementary school, have everyone flip the papers at the same time, and give them a short period to read. Like 30-60 seconds, because I’ve heard agents decide yay/nay in that time. I’ll ask for gut reaction feedback, and then I’ll ask them to take a bit longer to look it over and offer comments. I’m also submitting the first five pages for their perusal. And I’m furiously rewriting the ending, because with a new ending I may have a whole new query letter!

On the Novel Process

I got some great feedback on the finished first draft of my novel (pictured above). I met with a friend of a friend who is a producer, and he said he liked it, to send him the revision and potentially talk about a partnership – he was already “soft pitching” the idea! I’d like it to be a book before it becomes a movie, but I’m not complaining. And I hear having it optioned as a film might not hurt for having it published as a book.
            I attended a class at UCLA Extension called “How to Find and Work with a Literary Agent,” taught by Aimee Liu. Heard some stuff I already knew (perfect spelling, get names right, agents look for reasons to eliminate you, etc.) and learned a few things, too (how to do your homework when searching for agents, the importance of selecting and building a relationship with your agent, the usual percentage breakdown of royalties, what a contract typically looks like, etc.). There was a panel of three literary agents and when I went to speak with one after the class, she told me to send her a query. This was incredibly encouraging, and while I don’t necessarily want my book to be Young Adult, nor have I heard back from her, the process gave me a lot of experience. I found several useful websites, namely agentquery.com, which led to useful example query letters. I drafted and re-drafted my letter, not to mention continual revision of the first chapter.
            Revision is a grueling process. As I began to work on the novel as a whole, I found myself getting lost. My mentor suggested I create an outline, with chapter summaries. That turned into a small project in itself, as I listed characters, wrote out scene chronology, plot summary, and character development for each chapter. It was, of course, incredibly useful in seeing the big picture and understanding where I might need to add/delete.
            I’ve heard that revision is an endless process. Indeed, whenever I “finish” editing a chapter, I already have a list of things I want to change. Then I get feedback from my writers’ groups and have a whole different perspective, with a new set of challenges.

After reading a draft of my first chapter, my former professor told me I might have “literary chick lit” (I inwardly jumped for joy), and recommended I read Election. He likened my protagonist to a character in that book named Tracy. As I read the book I kept saying to myself, “just one more section, just one more” and then I’d finished it. Tom Perrotta has brilliantly hooked one section into the next, simultaneously interweaving several subplots, making it impossible to stop reading. The other thing I loved about this book and would like to do with my own writing, was how true it seemed, the path the characters took and where they ended up. Each character matures, has an arc. It is by no means a happy ending. But it feels complete.
According to my readers, my first draft had an unhappy and incomplete ending, so I have a lot to learn from Election. At the UCLA Extension class on agents, I learned that in the original “Pretty Woman” story, he doesn’t come back. Of course that would never sell. So it was rewritten, and he came back like the night in shining armor upon his limousine chariot, and it became a classic. So many of my readers want a final act, a redemption sequence for the protagonist. I’m not sure yet what I want to do, but as I revise, I’m thinking about it.