Monthly Archives: April 2010

News flash from the day job!

I just got a copy of my latest nonfiction book, Buying a Home: The Missing Manual, which is on its way to bookstores now. Nice cover, huh? Even though there’s no flaming sword.


What does a novelist and former English professor know about buying real estate, you might wonder. Good question! My husband and I are also real estate investors specializing in residential properties. Since we’re both self-employed, we realized a number of years back that we’d need to figure out our own retirement plan. We decided on real estate, and we’ve bought numerous properties that we rent out to tenants. So we’re both very well versed in what it takes to find and evaluate a home, get a good mortgage, and close the deal.

This was a fun book to write, and it offers a lot of practical advice to potential homebuyers. Here’s what had to say about it: “This is one of the best buyer’s markets in quite some time. It’s tempting to buy a house right now. But before you rush off to buy, it might be a good idea to read this great book, Buying a Home: The Missing Manual, by Nancy Conner.” You can read the full review here.

I write all my nonfiction books as Nancy Conner, by the way, for one simple reason: That was my name when I started writing nonfiction. But it’s also nice to keep the fiction and nonfiction sides of my career separate.



Earlier this week I got a present from Kathy, my best friend from way back in high school, and her daughter Maria. It’s a t-shirt that says Be careful! Or you will end up in my novel!

If you’ve read Deadtown, you know that Vicky has a niece named Maria. Coincidence? Not really. A few years back, I was visiting Kathy and another high school friend. We sat on the deck at Kathy’s house and watched the kids run around the back yard. Kathy’s daughter Maria was terrific with the younger kids, and everyone had a good time.

Later, when I was writing the first scene that shows Vicky with her niece and nephews, the image that came to mind was Maria and the boys in Kathy’s back yard. So I went with that image. As Vicky’s niece grew in my mind, she became someone who was smart, maybe a little shy, patient with her brothers, and close to her family—a lot like my impressions of the real-life Maria. And she looked like the real-life Maria, too. So I called her Maria, because that was the easiest way for me to hold her image in my mind as I crafted the story.

As I wrote and revised, Deadtown‘s Maria and the real world’s Maria diverged, of course. Vicky’s niece stayed eleven, while the real Maria has grown into a sophisticated teenager. And of course Vicky’s niece developed her own personality as I got to know her better. While I wouldn’t say that I actually “put” Maria in my novel, she definitely served as the inspiration for a character in that book.

So if I look at you funny, it’s probably not that I’m sizing you up as a potential character. In fact, I’m probably not even seeing you but am deep in my own mindscape, watching a scene unfold. Probably. But on the other hand, inspiration comes from everywhere, right?

RavenCon Recap 3: More on Writing

From left to right: Catherine Asaro, Rachel Caine, Laurel Anne Hill, Valerie Griswold-Ford, & Chris Flick in a panel on vampires

I was involved in two other events related to writing: a panel about the business side of writing and a workshop that focused on the craft side.

To Agent or Not to Agent? focused on the question stated in its title. The panel consisted of an agent (Michael Kabongo), two agented authors (Leona Wisoker and me), and one published but unagented author (Jim Stratton). The consensus seemed to be that, although you probably don’t need an agent to sell your book to a publisher that accepts unagented submissions, agents more than earn their 15% by providing these services:

Editorial feedback before a manuscript goes out on submission. Many authors take a manuscript through several drafts with their agent before the agent submits it to publishers. Leona also noted that it can mean a lot to a writer simply to find someone who believes in a project after rounds of rejection and indifference.

Contract negotiations and expertise. My agent negotiated a slightly higher advance and better terms than came with my initial offer, and she also knew which subrights to hang on to. Even though I’ve published several nonfiction books, she knew what to look for in a fiction contract that I wouldn’t.

Subrights. A lot of aspiring authors don’t look beyond The Prize of getting an offer of publication. But what about foreign/translation rights, audio rights, film/TV rights? I wouldn’t have a clue how to go about looking for buyers for those rights, myself, but my agent does.

An eye to the future. An agent is beneficial here in two senses: offering help in planning an author’s career and keeping abreast of changes in the publishing world, which seem to be happening almost daily right now. Michael talked about ebook rights and how the dust is far from settled in that issue.

We also talked about the importance about finding not just “an agent,” but an agent who’s compatible with you: who likes your work, whose goals for  developing your career match yours, who has a compatible personality and communication style. A good fit can make a huge difference in building a productive working relationship with your agent.

The writing workshop, Breathing Life into Your Writing,  was conducted by Laurel Anne Hill (she’s  in the middle of the panel in the photo at the top of this post). For the first hour, Laurel gave a presentation packed with writing tips, illustrated with examples from fantasy stories and novels. For the second hour, participants worked on putting some of those tips to work in their writing. Each participant read their work for feedback from the panel: besides Laurel, panelists were Allen Wold, Barbara Friend Ish, and me.

Here are some of Laurel’s writing tips:

Stay in the viewpoint character’s point of view. He/she’s called the viewpoint character for a reason, right? If you tend to write a lot of tags such as “she thought” or “he noticed” in the first draft, cut those as you revise. Don’t try to pack in more viewpoint characters than the length of your story can support. (A short story might have one or at most two viewpoint characters, but a novel can handle more.)

Pay attention to dialogue. Dialogue needs to sound realistic while doing its job of conveying necessary information. Real-life dialogue (small talk, throat clearing) doesn’t sound right in fiction. Avoid “by the way, Bob” info dumps, as in “By the way, Bob, as I’m sure you remember, World War III has taken a devastating toll on this area. Let me explain…” In other words, don’t fall into the trap of having characters tell each other things they already know.

Avoid talking heads. While you don’t want to add a dialogue tag to every line of dialogue (especially dialogue tags cluttered with -ly adverbs, she said disparagingly), neither do you want to strip dialogue of the signals that help readers follow who’s speaking when. A good strategy is to layer in characters’ reactions to what’s being said and the viewpoint character’s thoughts about it.

Use all five senses. This makes the story world rich and multilayered.

The story arc needs both forward momentum and breathing space. I think pacing is one of the trickiest parts of writing a novel, so this point is important. (I feel a future post coming on…)

After Laurel’s presentation, workshop participants could apply these principles to a work in progress, or they could choose a photograph and use it as a writing prompt. They wrote for 15 minutes and then read what they’d written out loud for feedback from the panel.

Brave folks. Maybe I just don’t play well with others, but personally, I hate sharing that sort of quick writing exercise.  Not only did everyone agree to read their work out loud, the first drafts they’d produced in those 15 minutes were mind-blowingly good. Not all polished up and ready for publication, but alive and energetic and more than capable of pulling the reader in. I was really impressed—and also glad that the panelists didn’t have to do the same exercise to give examples. I don’t write that well that fast!

We finished with a discussion of how it’s important to know writing “rules” NOT to apply them rigidly to your writing, but to understand their effect so that you also know when to break them. There are times, for example, when an adverb or passive voice is effective—but unless you know why such things can vitiate your writing, you’ll never know when they can enhance it.

So that’s my RavenCon recap. It was a great time, and I hope to go back. (No way I’m missing the zombie makeup workshop next time!) I’ll end with a picture of me during my signing. (Thanks to Ciera and Rachel for taking the photo!) Several people stopped by during the hour, so I had some really fun chats and didn’t just sit there looking all lonesome. 🙂

Buy my book!

I’m at Book Chick City Today

Book Chick City runs a fascinating series called “Where Stories Are Made,” in which writers share photos of their work spaces and talk about their writing process. Past authors include Carrie Vaughn, Ilona Andrews, and Anton Strout, to name just a few.

Today it’s my turn. For a peek into my home office and how I write, please stop by Where Stories Are Made.

When You’re Married to a Novelist . . .

Actual conversation on the way home from the coffee shop last night (warning: starts off sappy):

Me: Love you, Honey.

Husband: You’re the best!

Me: I’m the luckiest; you’re the best. [Pause] TERRIFYING!!! That’s the word I wanted!

Husband: ?!?!? [Pause] Oh, you’re still thinking about that back cover copy, aren’t you?


RavenCon Recap 2: Writers’ Processes

Rachel Caine being interviewed by Kelly Lockhart

I was involved in several sessions related to writing: two panels and a workshop.  Because I was a panelist, I didn’t take notes, so these are my scattered recollections.

In the first panel, about the process of writing, Jim Stratton, Rachel Caine, and I shared our writing processes. I always love hearing from other writers how they work. As you’d expect, everyone had their own take on the process. For example, Rachel said that she can’t start a new book until she’s compiled a custom playlist of at least 10 songs for it. I’m one of those people, on the other hand, who prefers to write in silence. When that’s not possible (I often write in coffee shops), I listen to classical or New Age music, preferably instrumental, because lyrics distract me.

In answer to the “where do you get your ideas?” question, there was consensus that ideas come from anywhere and everywhere—you have to be open to them and willing to ask questions to get a story started in your mind. We talked about how information—maybe a news headline or a snatch of conversation—sinks into the subconscious mind and can pop up again when you need it. Everyone had experienced sudden light-bulb epiphanies while driving or taking a shower or drifting off to sleep. Jim recommended carrying a notebook everywhere to catch these epiphanies, because you never know when or where they’ll happen.

This particular panel was more weighted to plotters than pantsters. Rachel said that as her publication schedule has become tighter—she mentioned that she has a deadline every couple of months now—she’s had to become better at outlining. It’s not always easy and she doesn’t always enjoy it, but it’s a necessary part of being an author. I mentioned that for the nonfiction I write, a detailed outline is important, but I prefer a looser outline for fiction—one that gives me major plot points as goals to write toward but still leaves plenty of room for surprises to crop up during the writing (’cause that’s the fun part!). I also keep a running outline as I write and use it to revisit the original outline from time to time to see if that needs tweaking.

I thought that my mention of nonfiction outlines was a little off topic, but later I talked to someone in the audience who was working on a proposal for a nonfiction how-to book, and we had a great conversation. So I was glad I’d brought it up.

Tomorrow: A panel on agents and a writing workshop.

RavenCon Recap 1: The Future of SF/F

RavenCon 2010, which I attended this past weekend, was the first convention I’ve been to since Deadtown’s release. It was tons of fun. RavenCon has a strong track for writing, and there were some great guests, including Guest of Honor Rachel Caine, fellow Ace/Roc author Kalayna Price, science fiction author Catherine Asaro, Pamela K. Kinney (who also writes as Sapphire Phelan)—and many others.

There were a couple of really good panels about the direction of urban fantasy. The consensus seemed to be that urban fantasy has room to grow in many different directions. Already it’s a blend of genres, with elements of action/adventure, horror, fantasy, romance, mystery . . . These elements combine in different proportions, depending on the writer and the series. That blending allows room for endless inventiveness, which helps keep the genre from getting stale. Rachel Caine said she’d love to read a Western urban fantasy. (If I remember right, Devon Monk is coming out with a steampunk series set in the 19th-century Wild West that sounds like a lot of fun.)

There are also mythologies to explore that are currently underrepresented in urban fantasy. Panelists thought that Middle Eastern and Native American mythologies hold a lot of potential for urban fantasy, although no one wants to see authors cherry-pick the mythology of another culture merely to find something different. That approach fails to convey the richness of the source mythology and shows a lack of respect for the culture that created it. And it doesn’t come across as authentic, which will kill a story.

A related panel asked whether romance was the future of science fiction and fantasy. The discussion ranged widely, from whether romance readers were more likely than SF/F readers to adopt ebook reader technology to whether male readers of these genres enjoy romantic elements, avoid them, or merely tolerate them. Kalayna Price made the point that fantasy, like any kind of fiction, needs to engage the full range of human emotion, and that includes romance. Convincing characters, whatever the genre, must experience emotions that readers can relate to. Romance is increasing in popularity in these genres, but there’s room for all kinds of stories.

The panel for "Romance: The Future of SF/F?" From left to right: Podcaster Terri Vernon (aka Flynnstress), Kalayna Price, and Pamela K. Kinney (who also writes as Sapphire Phelan)

One question that didn’t come up in that panel but I was wondering about later was whether the sex of the main character makes a difference. If a fantasy or science fiction novel has a female protagonist, do you expect stronger romance elements that you do if that protagonist is male? That’s not a rhetorical question; I’d love to hear what readers think.

I’ll be posting more of my impressions of RavenCon throughout the week, along with more photos. Stay tuned!

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