Over-awesomed is the word – Backspace 2011: A ramble with pictures.

Seriously, just got back from the annual Backspace Writers Conference in New York and mentally still don’t feel like I’m quite back yet. In German, we have the word “Reizueberflutung”, basically meaning that there are all these things crashing into your brain at the same time, setting your head reeling to make sense of them. However, this sounds a bit too negative for my taste, so in lieu of a better word to describe my state of mind after those fantastic six days I spent in the City That Never Sleeps, let’s just go with “over-awesomed”.

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In retrospect I’m actually quite astounded by two facts (aside from the relief that both me and Helen both made it to NYC in one piece, in Helen’s case despite volcano ash clouding up the sky over Ireland – yay!), but not only did we manage to meet up at the airport, we alsoa) survived the cab rid to the hotel (which, in crazy NYC traffic isn’t a small feat, I tell you) and

b) navigating the boundless, yet awesome insanity of Manhattan, my phone’s google maps app only got us lost – really lost – once. If your sense of orientation was as shot as mine, you’d count that as a success as well, trust me.

Anyway, let’s talk about the reason we came here: Backspace. And I’m going to bypass the part of the first day that had all of us anxiously clutch our query letters and opening pages, all wide-eyed and nervously-tapping feet under the table, because we’re about to read our manuscripts to agents! and the sheer terrifying amazingness of it all.

Networking – and figuring out pesky technology – over lunch

Nope, instead I’m trying to get my head (and notes in order to talk about all the great things I and my fellow Backspacers learned during this fabulous conference.

If there was one thing everyone talked about in regards to getting your work out there and garnering interest, it was probably platform. Be it via a website, facebook or twitter, platform and getting people interested in your work is pretty much the way to go. Sure, it probably is more important for non-fiction authors, but even for us fiction folk it’s definitely a way to get our foot in the door – if it’s done professionally (which really should be a duh!, honestly).

Meeting with The Night Circus author Erin Morgenstern for dinner

The other fact everyone seemed to talk about is that when querying to seek representation by an agent, the numbers are pretty much against you. Most agents are getting hundreds of queries a week (some 150 to 200 a day) – the bulk of them for material that is either not ready or not even represented by the specific agent, but even if your query is dead-on and really manages to stand out and prompts the agent to request more material, the average agent only takes on about five new clients a year (a lot of them, especially those with established lists, fewer than that). That’s a really daunting prospect if you’re un-agented and pretty much just querying against the slush-pile. Still, what this means is that in order to succeed, your query really needs to stand out – cue: research your agents, adhere to their submission guidelines and check that they actually represent your genre (all that really should be a no-brainer). In the end it’s really all on you to not just write the right query, but also to write the right book, meaning take your time, don’t query material that isn’t ready. Pay attention to voice and plot and take your own spin on established trends (if you’re watching trends).

But all the daunting moments aside, what this conference was really great for was the networking. And not just the networking with agents and editors who were open and accessible for all kinds of questions after workshops and during mixers and cocktail receptions, but just as much as far as networking with great other writers was concerned. Personally, I loved to be able to meet up with tons of new writers (the Science Fiction and Fantasy group turned out to be a super-friendly bunch who mixed very well with people from the Young Adult group) and we got to know each other and our writings, exchange experiences and motivation all over the official conference program and beyond (lunches, dinners and the “let’s go find caffeine” breaks work wonders on that one). Since Backspace is all about writers helping writers, that motto definitely was golden as far as Backspace was concerned and I personally consider myself happy to have found not only new beta-readers who I want to exchange critiques with, but also got to meet up with old friends and make new ones along the way. (In case anyone wonders, the one time we absolutely, totally, irredeemably got lost in the middle of rather shady NYC due to acute i-phone-fail was when we set out to meet Erin Morgenstern, author of the BEA sensation The Night Circus. Fortunately she very graciously forgave us for making her wait and we had a fabulous night over yummy nippy Polynesian food).

Occasionally networking involves drinks and chocolate – or both.
…and delicious cup cakes!

The other high-point as far as learning about the craft aspects of writing is concerned, definitely was Donald Maass’ all-day workshop Writing The Breakout Novel. Now if you know me, you also know I’m not a huge fan of “How To” books on writing, but that’s not what this workshop was. Picture this room full of writers, all armed with pen and paper or laptops and power strips listening to this one guy with the microphone asking them questions. Sounds really simplistic until you realize that you’re one of those writers and that those questions seriously make you think around all kinds of corners as we Germans say. And then something beautiful happens, because there’s all this STUFF! Stuff that’s you’ve never thought about before. Stuff that will make your novel so much better just for being there – and guess what? No, it doesn’t take dozens of pages of added material, but often just fits into a scene that’s been lacking the bit of “wow”-factor you’ve been looking for.

That said, to everyone who gets the chance to attend one of Don Maass’ workshops: definitely go for it or buy his books (there is a work book out for the Writing The Breakout Novel workshop that pretty much encapsulates what the workshop is about and how it is structured). But here is a quick rundown of some things that he mentioned and that personally intrigued me:

– Make your reader care about your protagonist. Ways to fail on an epic scale in this regard and things to avoid are unemotional action openings (sure you want to open with a bang, but we also want to care about your characters), writing protagonists that are “just too damn good” (let’s face it, no one wants to root for the Perfect Guy with the Perfect Life and Perfectly impeccable morals – that’s just boring) – at the same point, don’t make your character too dark, too broody and miserable (please, please, please enough with the emo vampires already). Make your protagonist sympathetic and stand out within the first five pages.

–  Think about ways that turn your protagonist completely on their head: What is the exact opposite of what they want and what they are? Could you fit this into your novel? – As a matter of fact, how can you turn pretty much anything there is about your protagonist, your antagonist, your plot, your stakes onto its head and make it even worse or even reverse it into the opposite in parts. (This was probably my favorite part of the whole workshop: the fact that whatever there is to your story, try and figure out ways to turn this completely around – with the worst possible consequences for your protagonist and everyone else involved. Plot twists, you can haz them!).

– Think about what your story would be like if your antagonist was the hero/heroine of your story. Donald Maass called it the Antagonist’s Outline and what really makes this worth your time is that you want your antagonist to be at least as complex as your protagonist (everyone who has ever read George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series knows this, because let’s face it, his evil/crazy characters rock so much more than the good guys. I mean come on, there’s Tyrion! ;))

– Are there places in your book where your protagonist wants the exact opposite of what he or she is trying to avoid? Where do they want to quit and give up? If you don’t have any of those moments, you better find a place to fit those in.

– And lastly, and probably the thing that got me personally thinking the most was the stress on micro-tension. As in bringing tension on every page and using language that doesn’t just re-hash old cliches or the obvious. Think about the details that you wouldn’t see at first glance, or the ways a character could feel or react that are completely contradictory to how you would expect them to react or feel.

In the end, this workshop really boiled down to three things you want to avoid: no tension, things that make your reader just not care and lastly using familiar old language that merely states the obvious without going into things like secondary emotions. So in short: whatever you can turn upon its head – do it! Mess with your reader expectation. Mess with your story. Mess with your protagonist. Because, and I’m quoting Donald Maass here “Why can we do all this to our characters?” *whispers* “Because they’re not real!”

So yeah, go do that. And take one of those workshops when you get the chance. I promise you won’t regret it.

Okay, so now that this thing here turned into one of the longest blog posts in history (I would like to pretend I didn’t gush a lot at various people, authors, agents and fellow writers at Backspace, but we all know better than that), I’ll take all that post New York euphoria and go write, because there’s all this stuff in my head and it wants to be let out.

Oh and hey, did I mention all the BOOKS! Not only was BEA in town, but we also met tons of amazing authors with great books during Backspace. That and my very apparent lack of self-control when wandering a city full of shelves-to-the-ceiling bookshelves resulted in this:

NYC book booty!

That stack of books probably needs its own zip code. Thanks to everyone who I got to gush at talk to during book signings. And yes, in the end my suit case was actually six pounds overweight, so I had to carry on one of the larger bags – which immediately prompted airport security to do a double-take on the bag in the scanner, because they apparently thought I was hiding a knife in them (turned out to be a very harmless book mark, but whatever. Books are dangerous, don’t you know?). Anyway, this happens if you’re a book nerd with no self-control touring New York with a book seller (who was full of lovely recommendations and much patience for me bouncing all over the place – thank you Helen for holding my hand through this, saving me from almost being hit by a cab and being generally awesome ;)). All these books also totally justifies buying a new bookshelf (which was long over-due anyway). On that note, happy reading and even happier writing!

Anyway, all this has definitely whetted my appetite for more conferences – and more writer meet-ups. If you have any recommendations and/or crazy conference stories of your own, drop me a line.
Cheers,
Alex