Author: Susan Breen

Comfort zones

Earlier this week I was traveling around Monterey with my daughter. She’s a lot of fun, and very energetic, but she firmly believes that I should not get stuck in my comfort zone. She’s always trying to nudge me out of it, whether by pushing me to hike longer than I might have, or encouraging me gently to climb a fence. I’ll catch you mom! (I should note that we were climbing the fence because we realized we were on private land and were trying to get on to public land.) Or even to talk to people that I might otherwise be intimidated by. So, I asked my fellow Miss Demeanors: When was the last time you got out of your comfort zone? This is what they said: Alexia: Last week. I presented three workshops, each ranging from 60-90 minutes, at Sleuthfest 2019. My room was an actual auditorium-style lecture hall–a stage facing semicircular rows of built-in desks. From the stage, I couldn’t even see the faces of anyone sitting in the back row. To my horror, people actually showed up. I was forced to stand in front of an audience and not sound like an idiot or a nervous […]

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New York Pitch Conference

Today was the first day of the NY Pitch Conference. I’ve been a workshop leader there for ten years, and it has a very special place in my heart because that’s where I sold my first novel, The Fiction Class. It was a truly life-changing experience. I’d been wading through the publishing waters for some years, trying to catch a wave. (I’ve just been in Monterey and surfing images are in my mind.) I wrote up a pitch and presented it to the first editor, who kindly informed me that no one would ever publish my book because it was about creative writing and no one cared about that. The next editor was much more pleasant, and seemed genuinely interested in my book. Except that he quit publishing that very day and went to work for his family’s logging company in Canada. The third editor was also kind, but she was not the right editor for my book. Then, on Sunday morning, I went in to meet with the fourth editor, read my pitch and she said, “We’re going to want to publish this book!” Even a decade later I can remember how thrilled I was. So now, when I’m […]

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And more pitch tips!

Last night (or possibly last week–I’m not sure. Still on California time) I spoke to the Central Coast Writers meeting in Pacific Grove. A truly lovely group of people who made me and my daughter feel very welcome. My daughter was there to assist me in my talk, which was about how to use pitches to help you sell your book, but also how to use them to diagnose problems with your novel. I am a self-confessed pitch addict and find them very useful in figuring out if a writing project is worth pursuing. It’s also a great way to figure out if the structure of your novel is working. For example, one of the things you want to include in your pitch is a sense of the conflict that will fuel your story. Ideally that conflict should happen fairly early on. Ideally it should happen around the first chapter. But what if you’re writing your pitch and realize that nothing happens worth writing about until page 218? That can be a sign that your novel is not starting quickly enough. In fact, a gentleman at the meeting who’d just had a book published said that his editor wound up […]

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Pitch tips

The first question I always ask when I’m helping someone write a pitch is: What is interesting about your book? Usually the answer falls into one of four categories: character, plot, setting or voice. Then I have a place to start. A novel that is character-driven is going to have a pitch that is character driven. For example, here’s the start of a pitch for Kim van Alkemade’s best-selling novel, Orphan Number Eight. “In 1919, Rachel Rabinowitz is a vivacious four-year-old living with her family in a crowded tenement on New York City’s Lower East Side. When tragedy strikes, Rachel is separated from her brother Sam and sent to a Jewish orphanage whee Dr. Mildred Solomon is conducting medical research.” This is a novel about a terrible decision Rachel has to make, and the pitch flags that the novel will focus on her character. By contrast, Ben Winters’ pitch for his novel, The Last Policeman, grabs you with his unusual plot (although his characters are also quite compelling): What’s the point in solving murders if we’re all going to die soon, anyway? Detective Hank Palace has faced this question since asteroid 2011GV hovered into view. There’s no chance left. No […]

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The Joys of Pitching

Some months ago I was invited to speak at a writers’ meeting in Monterey, California. I was delighted, for obvious reasons. One of them being that I had been planning a trip with my daughter. On our last mother-daughter adventure we’d gone to Costa Rica, where I almost collapsed after she persuaded me to ride a zip line through the jungle. Monterey seemed much safer. But the other source of my joy was that I would be speaking about pitching. Specifically, “How a Great Pitch Can Save Your Novel (and Help You Sell It).” This is a topic I feel strongly about. I’m a workshop leader at the New York Pitch Conference. I sold my first novel, The Fiction Class, based on a pitch I wrote. And perhaps more importantly, I’ve saved myself a lot of aggravation by writing pitches about novels before I even start to write them. It’s a great way to figure out if something’s there. So I’m hoping this week, both in blogging and life, will be a pitching adventure! How about you? Do you enjoy writing pitches?

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Writing during the holidays

Guess what? The holidays are a tricky time to keep writing. There are parties, families, family parties, work deadlines, crowds, presents. Snow. Holiday euphoria or holiday depression. School vacation days. And blog post deadlines (which I missed. Which is why this is a day late and in the wrong font and missing two Miss Demeanors.) So I asked my fellow Miss Demeanors how they kept their writing schedule going during the holidays. Did they put themselves on hiatus or did they keep going? This is what they said:    Michele:   One of the unfortunate things about practicing family law is dealing with how conflict within families escalates during the holidays. Who gets the kids for Christmas? How can I buy gifts if I’m not being paid support? It goes on and on, and frankly has dampened my holiday spirits over the years. One of the ways I have coped with this is to continue to write and crawl into the fictional world I control and that insulates me from the reality of human misery.    Sleep? I’ve been an insomniac since I was a child. Fortunately, some of my best ideas come in the middle of the night.    And that’s my Bah Humbug, […]

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Advice from Ursula Le Guin

Last night in my Gotham Writing class we discussed Ursula Le Guin’s writing advice, and, as you can imagine, she had a lot of good advice. One of the things she said that struck me was that the idea that a story has a beginning, a middle, and an end is a typically European idea because it puts emphasis on the end–“on where the story goes, what you get to.”    She suggested that it might also be helpful to think of a story as a house to be explored.  “You want the entrance to be attractive, you want the front door to be invitingly open, showing a glimpse of what’s inside. Once you’re lured your reader inside, you may direct her in a definite route right through the house and the events happening in it to the back door. Or you may just provide the rooms and halls and staircases and events, and let the reader find her own way around–let her live there for a while. Or you may conduct her smllingly up to the attic and show her the yellow wallpaper and lock her in. Or you may show her views of undreamed of landscapes through the windows, charmed magic […]

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Novel Draft

This semester I’m teaching a brand-new class for Gotham Writers, titled Novel Draft 2. (As you might imagine, it follows Novel Draft 1.) This is a class designed for people who are embarking on the novel journey. Some have ideas, some have 200 pages of manuscript. Most are in that first-draft stage, which is to say they are feeling their way and are looking for inspiration and guidance. As opposed to my usual screaming and yelling. Not!  The syllabus of the class is especially fun because each week we examine a different writer and discuss excerpts from his or her book and then do writing exercises based on what we’ve discussed. So, for example, last week we studied Ernest J. Gaines and focused on his novel, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. Gaines is a master of voice, so one of the exercises we did was to “write a brief passage from your novel from the first person point of view of a character whose point of view is never used.” I’m always floored by the things people come up with, myself include. There’s something so inspiring about sitting with a bunch of writers and writing. Which writers inspire you?

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Passion

Every morning I go out for a walk in the woods with my dogs. A couple of months ago, I began taking pictures of some of the things I saw in the woods and posting them on Facebook. One a day. I must have posted 20 pictures of fungi. But mainly I post pictures of trees. I had no particular reason for doing this, beyond the fact that I truly love looking at trees. What has surprised me though is how many people have responded to this passion of mine.    People I barely know will come up to me and say, “Oh I saw that tree picture of yours.” Strangers (and friends) send me pictures of trees, or poems about trees, or books about trees.  What has surprised me is that this passion of mine has found a home with so many other people. Turns out a lot of people love trees, but it’s something I wouldn’t have discovered if not exploring my own passion This is something I think about with writing. I do believe that when you put something you care about on the page, people respond to it. That’s what I want, anyway. To write something that connects with […]

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The Third Draft

I’ve been working on my third Maggie Dove book for more than a year. The first draft flowed out of me in a Nanowrimo eruption–more than 50,000 words in a month. The second draft took longer. I had to read through all those words and figure out what the plot was, which did not become clear to me until about word 17,000. Then I had to figure out who the characters were and what they wanted. You would think this would be a simple matter since my protagonist stays the same from book to book, but Maggie Dove is evolving (as am I) and I needed to think about how to reflect that. Then, of course, there are all the murder details, and those take a certain amount of cogitation. Drowning versus falling off a cliff versus getting hit on the head with an ax. I have to choose the right thing to go with the murderer, and oh, about halfway through I decided that the killer was going to be someone else entirely. I surprised myself, and hopefully will surprise the reader, but that meant I had to go back and think some more about what I’d plotted out. By the […]

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