A Special Report On The Harriette Austin Writer’s Conference

July 2, 1997
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"If you want to get published, study the market and see who publishes what you like.

–Sara Ann Freed

Senior Editor, Warner Books

A Special Report on The Harriette Austin Writer's Conference

By Donny Seagraves, Authorlink! Georgia Correspondent

ATHENS, GA/JULY 97–More than 400 writers, editors and agents gathered at the University of Georgia's Center for Continuing Education in late July for the 4th annual Harriette Austin Writer's Conference, sponsored by Quick Brown Fox Publishers, Inc. and the Georgia Center. Many participants were from Georgia, but some traveled from as far away as Toronto, California, Oregon and Illinois to gain valuable insights from a line up of well-known publishing experts.

The event, which mainly focuses on mystery and romance genres, offered 25 different educational, information-packed sessions. Two new categories covered this year were: Writing for Children and Writing for Magazines and Periodicals. A special feature of the conference was presentations by forensic experts, including Forensic Anthropologist Clyde Snow.

Dr. Charles Connor, Coordinator of Distance Education at the University of Georgia and a founder and coordinator of the conference, said that 180 manuscripts were submitted by participants for evaluation by agents, editors and writers. Of those, Connor said an unofficial count indicates that at least three authors had their manuscripts picked up by editors or agents, and many others were asked to send additional samples or their entire manuscripts for evaluation.

Here are highlights of some sessions at the conference:

 

Keynote Address: Lawrence Block

Lawrence Block, author of more than forty published novels, almost all in the area of crime fiction, told conference participants that writing isn't teachable, you learn by doing. "Anybody who has read half a dozen writer's magazines and owns a copy of WRITER'S MARKET has all the data he or she needs to begin writing," said Block, creator of the popular series characters Matthew Scudder and Bernie Rhodenbarr.

On the subject of writer's block, Block noted that "If a carpenter doesn't show up for work in the morning, no one says he has carpenter's block." Writer's exercises are one effective way to deal with the inability to write, said Block. "Every other artist practices his art," he explained. "Artists warm up by doing sketches. Musicians do scales. Writer's should practice too, by writing freely for 10 minutes on any topic, just to get the writing muscle primed and working."

 

Sara Ann Freed, Executive editor of Mysterious Press and senior editor for Warner Books

In her session, "The Over-riding Importance of Character and Voice — Keys to Catching the Editor's Eyes," Sara Ann Freed said that the state of publishing today includes shorter and tighter lists. "We are publishing fewer books better," said Freed, who edits books by authors Marcia Muller, Margaret Maron, and Peter Lovesey, among others.

Mysterious Press publishes about 36 books a year, said Freed. Each book needs a 16-month lead time from finished manuscript to publication. Authors, especially with their first books, must take publicity and promotion into their own hands, Freed emphasized.

Freed told conference participants that "the thing that makes a book work is memorable prose plus strong, likable characters. Here are several tips from Freed on creating characters:

Describe your characters in physical terms. Put the reader under the character's skin. Use a character's genes and early childhood. What is the character's history? Birth order? Is she bright or dyslexic? Overweight or thin? Who are the character's friends and associates? Is your character a giver or a taker in relationships? What kinds of addictions and habits does your character have? Is she a clothes horse? Does she smoke cigars? Or hide candy bars in her desk until they rot? What are the character's goals and outlooks? Does he believe in the goodness or the badness of the world? By the end of the book, we should know the character's philosophy.

Freed advised her audience to "think about who will read your book." Women buy 70-80% of all fiction and women are drawn to novels with strong characters," she noted. "Women like to know why people did what they did. When we talk about a book we like, we talk about characters."

The publishing market is welcoming more new writers than ever, said Freed. "If you want to get published, study the market and see who publishes what you like. And if you are writing fiction, you really should try to get an agent. Many publishing houses no longer consider unagented material."

 

Joan Brandt – Literary Agent

"The most important aspect of a writer's conference is networking with other writers," said Joan Brandt in her session, "Why An Agent?" She urged aspiring writers to find a support group. "That's the best thing you can do for yourself as a writer," said Brandt. "Because a writer's group will tell you things about your writing that your husbands and wives and friends will never tell you."

Writers need agents, Brandt explained, because publishers publish only a limited number of titles a year and competition for those spots is keen. "First time writers don't yet have a following," said Brandt. With an agent, they can, perhaps, get their foot in the door, though, as Brandt pointed out, many writers who get agents still don't get a publishing contract.

Brandt, who established the Joan Brandt Agency in 1990 after working for the Sterling Lord Agency in New York for many years, suggested that aspiring writers try to find a young agent who is in need of clients and might have more time to represent a new writer. "Pick a genre and stick with it," advised Brandt. Writers who write in different genres and categories usually do so under pseudonyms after they are successful.

Another tip from Brandt is to be accurate in query letters to agents. "As an agent, when I read your query letter, if I find a mistake, I don't ask to see your work," she said. By sending a query letter with errors, Brandt feels that writers have shown her that they won't take the time or have the inclination to see themselves as professionals.

Brandt, who receives between 30 and 50 queries a day at her agency in Atlanta, Georgia, prefers a well-written query letter, on letterhead rather than computer paper. She asks that a writer include a 2-3 page synopsis and a letter that tells "who you are and how you came to write your book."

 

Doreen Roberts (a.k.a Kate Kingsbury)

"We all have a dark side — haven't you ever wanted to murder someone?" asked author Kate Kingsbury in her session, "Selling the Mystery Series." Kingsbury, who is the author of eleven Berkeley Prime Crime mysteries and, as Doreen Roberts, seventeen romances for Silhouette, told her audience that "it's fun to plot a murder."

The mystery genre has enjoyed a resurgence of popularity thanks to many talented new writers, said Kingsbury. She advised writers to give their readers "the whole package." "A reader must have a sense of place, a very real feeling of being there when they're reading your book," noted Kingsbury.

Here are some other tips from Kingsbury: Make the setting work for you. Find something that sets your setting apart from everywhere else in the world. When you're trying to break into the mystery genre or any other category of publishing, stick to the tried and true until you're established. Remember that your central character is the most important, but even minor characters need distinctive characteristics. You central character must be well-rounded and have several unique characteristics. An amateur sleuth must have a reason for risking his or her life to solve a murder. And they must have motive, opportunity and alibi. Show the good side of the villain and no one will suspect him of murder.

Kingsbury reminded writers to remember that they are playing a game of wits with the reader. The murder must be discovered in the early pages of a book and each suspect must be introduced early in the book. "The trick is to bury the clues," said Kingsbury. "Distract the reader. Use red herrings, clues that make the reader suspect someone else. Then once the murder is solved, end the book."

 

Author Kathy Hogan Trocheck

"Plotting a book ahead of time pays huge dividends," said mystery author Kathy Hogan Trocheck in her session, "Plotting the Killer Mystery." Trocheck, author of two popular mystery series which feature characters Truman Kicklighter and Callahan Garrity, urged her audience to "figure out the end first. Think of the chain and where the chain will go. Put your viewpoint character in jeopardy."

Trocheck, who likes to feature a striking setting in her novels, suggests that writers first write a synopsis for their book. Then she advises them to ask, "How am I going to paint my sleuth into a corner and then get him out?"

An outline or synopsis done ahead of time will keep a writer out of trouble, said Trocheck. "When your subplots are crawling all over you like kudzu and threatening to take over, you can always return to your outline."

"In real life, criminals have such limited literary flare," said Trocheck. "They usually commit their crimes because they are either stoned or stupid." She suggests that aspiring writers look in the Police Blotter section of their local newspapers for information on real crimes that are committed in their areas. "Then take the facts and "twist" them until you have an interesting plot for a book," said Trocheck.

"Every good mystery starts with the question, 'What if?'" said Trocheck. "Train yourself as a writer to recognize the idea that won't go away — the idea that teases you until you write it down."

Next year's Harriette Austin Writer's Conference will be held July 17-19,1998. Writer's who wish to be added to the mailing list may e-mail Dr. Charles Connor: . Please mention Authorlink! in your request.

Copyright, Authorlink! 1997

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