Futurescapes and Future Plans
Welcome to the other side of the S.A.D. doom spiral! Brought to you by cherry blossoms, sunshine, and daylight savings! I won't lie, this winter was a rough one. I let one too many rejections get to me and I haven't been writing as much as I expected to, even with the goal of focusing only on short stories. I just needed to give my brain a break. And after a bit of hibernation and two weeks in Scotland with a dear friend of mine who enjoys watching me scream like a small child on ghost tours, I'm finally writing again. Or revising anyway. And what better way to jump back into the fray than with a writers' workshop?
Isle of Skye with Ellie. Not pictured: constant gusts of wind nearly blowing us off the path.
Futurescapes Writers' Workshop
Part of writing with the intention of publishing is getting feedback. For me, this typically comes from my beta readers, some of whom I've worked with for years now. But often, workshops can help you really dig in deep with your manuscript to figure out what is or isn't working for your audience.
Futurescapes is one such workshop that had what I was looking for: input from literary agents and a focus on the SFF genre. I also knew some friends who had participated in the workshop previously. This spring, they offered a virtual workshop over the span of four days, where we received feedback for an excerpt from our work, a query letter, and the first page of our manuscripts.
First 3,000 words
3,000 words is not a lot when it comes to a 100,000 word manuscript. In the case of Water in the Blood—the manuscript I workshopped—that first excerpt has to pull a lot of weight in terms of introducing the characters and motivations and building the world of the Ancient Mediterranean + magic. So many of the scenes I love in this book come after those first 3,000 words. But that's where you grab the attention of a reader, and in the case of folks looking to traditionally publish, an agent.
Within our group of 7 writers and a main faculty mentor, we took turns sharing feedback on each others excerpts. I was relieved and grateful when the reaction to those first pages of WitB was overwhelmingly positive (minus one person who didn't like the pirate premise, but I can't do anything about that. It's a pirate book). I got some great suggestions to adjust the pacing to improve character development and plenty to think about, but I was fortunate that our mentor was very constructive in a way that made me want to do the work, rather than wallow in self-doubt.
Overall, the overarching feedback our faculty member drove home is that you use your first pages to introduce your character, their wants and needs, their world, and maybe your inciting incident. In those first pages, you have to convince your reader that your character is worth following as they pursue their goal. It's all a balance. Too much dialogue and you lose clarity in worldbuilding. Too much worldbuilding and exposition and you miss out on developing your characters. To me it feels like a dance of switching between different devices for pulling off everything in a cohesive excerpt. Sometimes even just one sentence can pull a lot of weight, whether it be through internal or external dialogue. The best advice I can give is to make every word in those first pages count. If a sentence isn't contributing to plot, world, or character, kill your darlings.
The Query Letter
I don't know anyone who enjoys writing query letters. If you haven't written one, picture the blurb on the back of a book. Someone has to distill 300-400 pages worth of plot and character development into a couple paragraphs. And if you're a writer, that person is you.
We had a published author mentor us for the query portion of the workshop, and often that can be very helpful since authors typically are very familiar with the query process. Our mentor commiserated with us on the struggle of intersecting good writing with marketability, while also guiding us on deconstructing our query letters. From talking to other workshop members, every faculty member had their own style, but our faculty read our queries aloud and then gave us their overall impression and some line feedback. Again, it was a lot about making every word count. Some of the queries, like mine, were too long and needed to be cut down to 2 paragraphs. Other folks were at the other end of the spectrum. But generally, the goal was to get to a letter with the Book (your manuscript) the Hook (your blurb) and the Cook (your bio).
At this point I've read and heard so much advice for query letters. And I've seen successful letters that ignore all of it. It's hard to pick out any advice that I would pass on myself, but it's similar to advice about beginning excerpts. Make people care about your characters and their world in as few, carefully chosen words as possible (~200).
I always find first page (literally the first 300 words of your book) readings the least helpful. I'm not a reader who throws away a book if I don't get hooked on the first page. As a writer and a reader, I just don't find it to be enough time to build investment in the story. However, the publishing industry is impatient, and it is helpful to know if you would lose your reader before you even begin.
We had an editor as our faculty for this part of the workshop, and again, they read our first page aloud to our group and gave us their gut reaction. Overall, they were very positive for all of us, and the main thing I got out of it was what questions they asked. It's helpful to know if someone is asking questions that you answer later on in the manuscript (Yes! They're catching on to the mystery!), or if they're asking questions you don't want them asking (Oh no! They're confused!). If your reader can get through your first page with curiosity, clarity, and an interest in reading on, you've done your job.
Was the workshop worth it? In my case, I would say yes. I paid the early bird price, so about $300 for four days of intensive workshopping. It was the kick I needed to feel confident about querying WitB again and getting some of my groove back. I got good feedback and attention from all of my faculty and I will stay in touch with a couple of the writers from the workshop.
However, I think it's worth noting that in any workshop, your experience can vary based on the people in your group and your faculty. I had some really great faculty who I would love to work with again. From talking to other participants, this was by no means a universal experience. If you already have good betas who give you constructive feedback, it might not be worth it. Workshops can definitely be hit or miss, like any mentorship program, which is a downside when you're paying hundreds of dollars to participate. I also think you can get more out of an in-person workshop, if only because you're not balancing your day-to-day around logging into Zoom for hours at a time.
Am I glad I did it? Definitely. I can't wait to send WitB into the world again (please don't hurt me world!). Would I recommend it to everyone? I don't know. I would take a good hard look at what feedback you already have and how much you would benefit from feedback from an agent, editor, or author.
Chihiro's Cat Corner
I live in a four-bedroom townhouse and for the past few months, our rental company has struggled to fill some of the rooms. As a result, my roommate and I have been spreading out, which means Chihiro and I have a new, temporary office. When I tell you this cat is living her best life in a sunny window all day long while I toil away to earn the cat food. She also had her first bath after walking through the mess some maintenance workders left behind. Thankfully, I think she's forgiven me.