Fear of revision, by guest blogger Julie Wu — and a contest!

After spending so many weeks talking about the ins and outs of book pitching, as wells as devoting a significant portion of yesterday’s post on the soul-satisfying and practical virtues of making friends with other writers, I’ve decided to put my proverbial money where my metaphorical mouth is. The world needs more good examples of conference pitches, and let’s face it, what aspiring writer could not use more Eye-Catching Query Letter Candy (or ECQLC, as we like to call it around here)?

For the first time ever, Author! Author! will be holding a pitching contest. The rules follow below.

As if that weren’t sufficient reason for the masses to rejoice — heck, take a long weekend out of petty cash — I have treat for us all, as a reward for having had the moxie and perseverance to work so diligently through the Pitchingpalooza series. Today, I have the great pleasure of bringing you the kind of guest post I love to share, one that I think will be a true inspiration to writers everywhere.

I am delighted to introduce Author! Author! to Julie Wu, a literary fiction author whose lyrical first book, THE THIRD SON, will be coming out from Algonquin Books in the autumn of 2012, a triumph she talks about in this interesting interview on Book Architecture. If her name sounds familiar to those of you who have been hanging around here at Author! Author! for a while, there’s a good reason: back in April, I rhapsodized about a wonderful essay on rejection and literary success that she had just published. It’s rare that published authors are as forthcoming — or as honest — about the difficulties of getting into print. I highly recommend its perusal.

She’s also, in the interests of full disclosure, the college roommate I mentioned yesterday, the one whose initial book sale made my month. I’ve known Julie since I was 17, when this California girl dragged a 60-pound suitcase up three flights of stairs in Harvard Yard to meet the three East Coasters to whom I had (I assumed) been randomly assigned as a roommate. I had never been to New England before; she was kind enough to fill me in on Massachusetts ways. (The leaves change? Really? Why?) She introduced me to Kraft Macaroni & Cheese, a phenomenon my upbringing had previously neglected to reveal to me; we used to make it in the dead of night before midterms in the electric wok my mother had for some reason decided was absolutely indispensible to dorm life. She also probably saved my life by instructing me on the delicate art of crossing Massachusetts Avenue on foot without being flattened like a pancake.

The local joke at the time was that Cambridge traffic tended to separate Harvard students into two categories: the quick and the dead.

In fact, she was the person who calmed me down when it first occurred to me that brick buildings covered in ivy would not be a particularly safe place to be if the region were hit by the earthquakes my West Coast-trained body had come to expect. (That line was funnier a month ago, when I originally wrote it, by the way. It just goes to show you: a writer can never predict what’s going to seem dated by the time it hits print.)

It became apparent pretty quickly, in short, that it hadn’t been a random assignment; it couldn’t have been. Otherwise, what would be the chances that two of the four residents of Wigglesworth B-32 would both grow up to be authors? Or that a third roommate would have spent the summer before college working as a Millicent at a publishing house then, as now, renowned for literary fiction?

Perhaps I should not have been surprised. At the time, Harvard’s freshman housing questionnaire was significantly longer than the application to get in, and certainly more detailed.

So I had plenty of reasons to rejoice when I learned that Julie had sold her first novel — and frankly, I think readers of interesting literary fiction will be pretty pleased next fall, too. Here’s the publisher’s blurb:

The Third Son, set in the oppressive political and social climate of World War II Taiwan, is about a Taiwanese boy whose only happy childhood memory is of meeting and saving a kind girl in an air raid. When he finds this girl, grown up and at his oldest brother’s side, he fights to claim her, and to prove that he is worthy of her. His journey takes him to 1950′s America and the Space Race, but even across the world he struggles against the bonds of oppression that have followed him.

Sounds fascinating, eh? Sounds, in fact, like precisely the kind of substantive, serious novel aspiring writers are constantly being told at conferences has gone the way of the dodo. I’m really looking forward to Julie’s proving that never-particularly-true truism wrong.

She also, like me, is a great believer in writers helping one another down the long and curvy path to publication. So psst, Boston-area novelists: Julie will be teaching a class on scene structure and revision at Grub Street on September 14. It looks really yummy:

Raising the Titanic: Giving Power to Weak Novel Scenes

Wednesday, September 14th, 6:30-9:30pm, at Grub Street headquarters.

Drafts of many novels contain scenes that sink the book. They are flat, meandering, tangential, or just plain boring. Attempts to spruce up the prose or dialogue may not fix such scenes because they lack crucial structural elements. Don’t waste time rearranging deck chairs! In this seminar you will bring a troublesome scene from your novel and we will discuss not only how to give your scene internal propulsion, but also how to nail your scene to the novel’s central story arc and drive it forward. Land, ho!

I’m a huge fan of seminars where writer work on their own early drafts, rather than composing fresh material in class. Oh, the latter can be very useful, especially when a writer is first starting out, but few of us were actually born knowing the internal mechanics of a scene, anymore than we toddled into kindergarten already familiar with the strictures of standard format.

Okay, so I did,. Perhaps that’s why the Harvard Housing Office saw fit to make me Julie’s freshman roommate.

My point, should you care to know it, is that out of the literally thousands of classes out there aimed at aspiring writers, relatively few seem to be focused upon the all-important art of revision. I find that strange, not only as an editor, but as a writer: no one’s first drafts are perfect. There’s a monumental difference between writing that matches the image in the writer’s head and writing that successfully transmits that image to the reader.

Wow, that would be a fabulous segue into Julie’s guest blog; I should have planned it that way. (See what I mean about how first drafts are not necessarily perfect the moment they fall off one’s fingertips?) But I promised you a contest, and a contest you shall have.

In the fine tradition of the Author! Author! Awards for Expressive Excellence (and as part of my ongoing quest to provide good writers with much-needed ECQLC), I am proud to announce:

Author! Author! Perfect Pitch Competition of 2011

In order to celebrate the end of Pitchingpalooza and encourage the practical application of the skills learned and polished there, Author! Author! is calling upon its talented readers to enter pitches for their books into healthy competition. Winners will not only receive fabulous prizes (see below), but will have their pitches, the first page of their manuscripts, and an author photo featured in a post here at Author! Author! for all the world to see and admire.

Sound good? Wait, it gets better. To make the experience more interesting for onlookers, pitchers may present their fabulous premises in three distinct categories:

Category I: The keynote or Hollywood hook, a one-sentence teaser for your book

Category II: The elevator speech, a 100-word or less presentation of your book’s premise and central conflict

Category III: The formal 2-minute pitch, a 250-word introduction of your protagonist, the central conflict, and what’s at stake in your story OR the problem that your nonfiction book addresses

All entries must be submitted via e-mail to contest@annemini(dot)com by Friday, September 30, at midnight in your time zone. Late entries will not be considered.

Entrants may enter more than one category. Please submit each entry in a separate e-mail, in accordance with the rules below.

The grand prize winner in each category will receive a half-hour Mini Consult on his or her query, synopsis, and first 10 pages, as well as having the winning entry, the first page, and an author photo posted on Author! Author! Runners-up will see their entries, first pages, and photos posted and critiqued as well, as vivid examples of how good a pitch can be when it is done right.

Because winners will also be awarded life-long bragging rights and coveted ECQLC , the judges reserve the right to award as many (or as few) prizes as the quality of the entry pool warrants. Awards are purely up to the discretion of the judging panel.

Those are the general rules. Here are the specific steps required to win. Do read them all carefully, as I am anticipating vigorous competition.

1. Polish your pitch to a high gloss and save it as a Word document.
Only .doc entries in Word will be accepted — not TextEdit, PDF, or any other formats, please. Please title the Word file with either your name or the title of your book, not just as contest entry. (The last time I ran a contest like this, I received 37 with that file name.)

2. Make sure that the entry is properly formatted.
All entries must be in standard format for book manuscripts. No exceptions, I’m afraid. If it is not double-spaced, in 12-point type, and featuring a slug line with your name and the book’s title at the top of the page, the judges will not consider it.

3. On a separate page of the same Word document, write the book’s title, the book category, and a BRIEF (
In other words, what is fresh about your book? (Hint: this question will be significantly easier to answer if you mention what your book category of choice is.) Please be as specific as you can about what is new and different about your book. Vague claims of being the best novel since WAR AND PEACE probably won’t impress the judges.

4. On the same page, include your contact information.
Name, address, and e-mail address will suffice. You want us to be able to let you know if you have won, don’t you?

5. Make sure to mention which category you are entering.
Again, the three possibilities are: the keynote or Hollywood hook, the elevator speech, and the formal 2-minute pitch.

6. Attach the Word document you’ve created to an e-mail.
Please include PERFECT PITCH ENTRY in the subject line, and mention the category you’re entering in the body of the e-mail. (It makes it easier to process the entries.) Make sure to say who you are, too, so we don’t get entries mixed up.

It’s also a nice touch to say something pleasant (like “Happy Labor Day, Anne!”) in the e-mail itself. I just mention.

7. E-mail the whole shebang to anneminicontest@gmail(dot)com by Friday, September 30, at midnight in your time zone.
Do I need to explain that the (dot) should be rendered as a period when you are typing the address? Nah, probably not.

Those are the rules! I am hoping to see a broad array of wonderful stories — and some great examples from which those brand-new to pitching can learn.

Of course, to benefit fully from winning this contest — or from giving a good pitch at a conference, for that matter — you will need to whip your manuscript into fabulous shape. Many a great premise has been lost to posterity for lack of necessary revision.

It’s easy to lose faith in mid-revision, though — and even easier to reject the notion of revision at all. Because we’ve all felt the insidious pull of both, I am delighted to present Julie Wu’s words of inspiration to revisers everywhere.

You might want to bookmark this post, for re-reading when your revision energies start to ebb. Just so you know, though, I’m not the roommate mentioned in the piece; I couldn’t throw a pot to save my life. Which, too, probably came up on the housing application.

Take it away, Julie!

My roommate once made a clay pot in art school. Threw it on the wheel, drew up its walls between the tips of her fingers, fired it, glazed it. When she and her classmates held up their finished pots, gleaming and beautiful, the instructor led the students to a pit and ordered them to throw down their pots. The point was, he said, not to become attached to a particular piece of work. You can always make more.

Some students cried. My roommate was traumatized, still bitter about the experience years later when she told me about it.

Hearing her story made my stomach twist. I had written a few short stories, and they were my precious babies, conjured up as I sat cross-legged in the dark in an apartment overlooking the Hudson River. My stories were praised in student workshops, but their strengths were no more robust or reproducible than the street lights’ glinting on the water’s surface. Even after the literary magazine rejections came in, I revised only a sentence here or there, hoping that would be enough.

Because I was afraid that if I revised more, I would ruin what was good and never get it back again. I was one of those art students, crying and clutching my pot at the edge of the pit.

Here’s the thing: that instructor was right. It has taken me ten years to understand that. Make one beautiful pot–maybe you were lucky. Make another from the ground up, and another, still more beautiful, and you are an artist. It takes practice, study, the making and smashing of many pots beautiful, average, and ugly, to really know that clay, to know exactly how to push your hands into it to get what you want.

It took me ten years to understand, because it took me ten years to write my first novel. I revised it countless times—a little when it first didn’t sell, then more and more. Eventually, I changed its structure, its point of view, its tone, its style. With each revision I received comments and started over, page one. Each time, I learned more, until I could revise without fear. And it was then that I sold the book.

In writing we have a safety net: the computer. Open a new file and you have smashed your pot and kept a picture of it at the same time. How to proceed at that point is a study in humility, in open-mindedness, in self examination. It’s remembering all the advice you read about in the craft books—that you must have an interesting protagonist, a need, lots of conflict—and admitting you need to take that advice yourself. It’s hearing all the feedback from your readers—that the protagonist is unsympathetic, that nothing happens, that what happens is implausible—and admitting that they are true. It’s realizing that there’s power in depth, and that depth is a function of your narrative arc. It’s an equation of equal parts emotion and mechanics, and it’s fueled by that elusive beast, imagination.

After so many years, book one is done. I’m thinking about book two. I’ve got clay in my hands again, but I feel different now. Because I’m not afraid. Because I know now I can make a pretty good pot. And because if it doesn’t turn out well, I don’t have to cry. I can throw it into the pit, and make something better.

Julie Wu‘s novel, The Third Son, won a short-listing in the 2009 William Faulkner-William Wisdom Novel-in-Progress Competition and will be published by Algonquin Books in Fall, 2012. Her short fiction has won honorable mention in the 2010 Lorian Hemingway Short Story Contest and has been published in Columbia Magazine. Also a physician, she has published a personal essay in The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). She earned a B.A. in Literature from Harvard and spent a year studying opera performance at Indiana University in Bloomington, many lifetimes ago.

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