Moonlight & Magnolia’s Keynote Speech: Master Your Voice

By Allison Brennan

 

Below is the speech I actually gave (mostly) to the George Romance Writers last Saturday night. I did go off on a couple or four tangents telling stories that popped into my head, but I did actually give the whole speech with some minor changes I’d written on my hard copy. I was definitely surprised I stuck to it!

First, can I just say that if you write in any genre of romance and live within a couple hundred miles of Atlanta, that this conference is one of the best? The chapter is amazing, gracious, and full of Southern hospitality. While I presented my own workshop on Friday afternoon, as well as the keynote speech, I also sat in on an incredible workshop put on by Michael Hauge, a screenwriter and story consultant. And while everything he said I knew, either from Vogler or our own Alex, the way he said it and the examples he gave had me looking at my stories from a slightly different angle.

For example, Michael talked about the tools for creating a subconscious connection to our hero. I’m not going to go into his workshop in detail, because no one would understand my notes, but when he said we must create empathy with our hero–we have to know where they start–so that when something bad happens the reader is already emotional invested in the hero. 

I had a problem in my current WIP because while I had Lucy Kincaid prove she was competent and smart and yada yada, I hadn’t created empathy for her character for new readers. This is book two, and I just made the assumption that everyone would have already read book one. So the key emotional turning point happened far later in the book than it should have, and I gave no reason for the reader to be invested until that point.

Ironically, in my very first draft that I showed no one, I had the big emotional turning point in chapter one, but felt that it was a poor place to start the story because I couldn’t assume that readers would understand that the news Lucy receives is truly devastating for her.

So, when Michael talked about empathy, then talked about showing your hero as powerful (one of the “subconscious connections”), he used the example of a surgeon saving a child’s life . We’re introduced to someone we know can get the job done, and therefore are willing to follow her on her journey, already invested in her because of her skill and dedication.

Suddenly, I knew exactly what was wrong with Act One. In my first draft, I’d subconsciously known that I had to give Lucy the bad news early. But I convinced myself Chapter One was too early (and it was) and kept pushing it back and back until my semi-final draft had it at Chapter Sixteen. By that point, it slowed the plot and didn’t really create the empathy that it should have. 

I emailed my editor from the workshop and told her what I wanted to do–and she completely agreed. Now, this pivotal emotional turning point is in Chapter Three–after Lucy proves she’s skilled and capable, she gets devastating news. Sure, this means a little more of revisions that I had hoped, but it’s working so much better.

While nothing Michael Hauge said was a huge revelation, looking at something familiar from a different angle will completely change your perception and understanding. For me, it was about Act One–which is always the hardest part of my book to write.  

This whole experience reminded me to trust my instincts and stop second guessing myself. I should get it tattooed to the back of my hand.

 

Speech to the Georgia Romance Writers

Moonlight & Magnolias Conference

October 2, 2010

 

I have a confession to make.

Okay, it’s not much of a confession—it’s not like I’ve kept it a big secret. I don’t plot. I don’t outline. I barely write a synopsis. In fact, I only write the bare minimum required for only two reasons: when it results in a check (some contracts pay part on proposal) or when I have to get something to the copy department so they can, you know, write the back cover copy.

Plotting is like speaking.  I don’t plot, I don’t write speeches. Because writing the speech is like planning what I’m going to say days—or weeks—before I say it. What’s the fun in that? And it’s written—the written word doesn’t always translate well to the spoken word. If you doubt me, go buy my audiobooks. I listened to one chapter of SUDDEN DEATH and scared myself—and realized maybe the audio book deal wasn’t the best idea on the planet.

As Stephen King said, “I don’t think my books would’ve been as successful as they are if the readers didn’t think they were in the hands of a true crazy person. When I start a story, I don’t know where it’s going.”

I get that.

When I was first asked to give a keynote, I didn’t think twice about saying yes. I love giving workshops and I like talking (after all, I was voted “Most Likely to Succeed” and “Most Talkative” in school.) I didn’t think about writing the damn speech. But other people—people I adore and love and who mean well—thought I was insane.

“What do you mean you’re going to wing it? You can’t wing it,” said my friend Roxanne St. Claire. “You have to write the speech. Edit the speech. Rehearse the speech. Give the speech six hundred times to your dog until you know it by heart, but still print it out in twenty-four point font double spaced and put it in front of you in case you forget.”

I laughed. But she was serious.

Then Margie Lawson—you all know Margie Lawson, the woman who helped make the guy who invented highlighters a billionaire?—told me that not only did I have to write the speech, I needed a theme.

Theme? What theme? I don’t do themes.

Of course you do, she informed me.

No I don’t, I insisted.

She then told me that all my books had themes and I stared at her like she’d grown horns and she laughed at me (again) and wouldn’t tell me what the themes of my books were after I informed her I had no themes.

Bitch.

I didn’t need to write a speech—I’d simply jot down some bullet points and all would be good.

But between two little demons–Rocki on one shoulder and Margie on the other (where was my angel, dammit?) I began to panic. On the plane, I wrote a speech on my laptop.

I hated it. I can’t even remember what I wrote, but I revised the so-called speech all weekend until Sunday morning when I had to give it and realized it sounded like crap, and it wasn’t in a conversational order, and I didn’t put down half the stuff I wanted to talk about and it was, ahem, kind of short I realized after beginning, so I winged it, but kept referring to his miserable excuse for a written speech and kept losing my train of thought.

After that dismal failure, I said never again. I would never agree to speak to another group EVER.

 

The second time I agreed to give a keynote, I wrote a speech much like this one—in fact, the opening is pretty much the same. But at one point about three or four pages in, I went off on a tangent . . . and never did give that speech.

(In hindsight, I could have recycled it, because I didn’t really give it, right? Damn. Why didn’t I think of that earlier before I stressed about writing this speech?)

See, I have a speech! I figured, writing a speech wasn’t really plotting, because it’s not fiction. It’s like having a conversation with a couple hundred friends, right?

But I still needed a theme. Margie told me I needed a theme. What is a damn theme, anyway? I write to entertain people, not to educate them.

Well, I have one! And I didn’t even have to come up with it. The fabulous and gracious organizers of this conference did it for me. It’s your theme. Master Your Story, Master Your Destiny.

Of course, I then had to ponder what that actually means. Going backwards, isn’t destiny something like fate? Are we talking about controlling fate? Or sort of an H.G. Wells kind of time travel where if we didn’t do something right five years ago we can travel back in time and fix it?

I wish. I’d go back twenty-five years and not quit soccer because if I didn’t quit soccer, I’d still be in good shape.

I can pretend, anyway.

Or I’d go back fifteen years and start seriously writing earlier. Or five years ago tell myself that no matter how much I know about the business, I don’t know ten times as much and never will.

Ignorance is sometimes bliss.

On December 28th, my fifteenth book will be released on the five-year anniversary of my debut novel. When I realized this, I was stunned, because I still feel like a debut author. I still feel like I know nothing about this business, until I talk to someone who knows less. J

There is one certain truth that you can take to the bank. Well, you might not get any money for it, but it’s the one constant truth in publishing.

You control nothing—nothing—in this business except for your book. Your story. What you put on the page. That is yours. Even if you accept editor revisions or critique partner advice or your husband’s insistence that you name every hero after him (ahem), it is your book with your name and your blood, sweat, and tears on each and every page.

Think about that. Your Story.

It’s all you control.

You don’t control marketing, advertising, reviews, or covers. You can’t substantively affect whether Walmart orders a hundred thousand copies or ten thousand copies or no copies of your book. You have no say if your publisher fires your editor or your editor changes houses.

Sometimes, you have some control over some parts of some books. But you’ll never know when or why or how much.

You control one thing. The story.

The theme “Master Your Story” might on the surface seem like a positive affirmation you chant at night to keep you motivated, but there is a deeper truth to it that few writers really understand.

You can’t be anyone but YOU.

 

If you imitate, you’ll be a pale imitation. If you innovate, you’ll rise to the top. (Someone other than me said something like this, but I honestly can’t remember who.)

 

Oh, but what about the market? I hear your worried minds ponder. What about Facebook? Twitter? Publicists? The high concept? The logline? The pitch?

 

Forget the market.

 

The market is constantly changing. Yes, you need to consider the market but only after you write the damn book. Because what’s hot now may not be hot two years from now. Or it might be hotter. Or publishers will be so over-inventoried that they buy your trending up vampire-werewolf historical time travel, but it won’t be out for three years and in three years just where will the market be?

 

If you don’t have a book, you have nothing to market.

 

Write your book with passion. Be bold. Be unique. Write in your voice, and make it the strongest voice you can.

 

When you’re done, when you have mastered your story, then you can look at the market. The question you should ask is:

 

How can I position this story to fit into the market the day I pitch it?

 

Sure, you might need to revise the book a bit, but it’s still your book.

 

Good stories can find a home. Sometimes it takes awhile. But one thing writers sometimes forget is that once you sell, you now have Expectations. With a capital E.

 

You have Expectations from your editor and publisher and agent. You have reader Expectations. You have your own Expectations. If you sell a story you’re not passionate about just to sell a book (though I would argue that it will be a harder sell if you haven’t put your heart into it,) you may be wed to that genre for years. It is hard to write something completely different without getting a pen name, and then that means building two careers.

 

It can be done. It has been done. But it makes your life difficult and even more complicated.

 

Soooooo much easier to love what you write.

 

Be the best YOU. No one has your voice. No one has your stories. If I gave everyone in this room the same one-line premise and told you to write a story, we would have as many different stories—unique in voice and tone and genre and execution—as there are people.

 

I call this discovering your voice. Your voice is unique and amazing. When you write with YOUR voice you have passion and heart in the story, no matter what you’re writing. Don’t be like everyone else. Don’t try to be the next Nora Roberts or the next Stephen King. Be the first you.

 

At my last sit down meeting with my publisher over the summer, someone asked me where did I see my writing going? This was a valid question, as I had just changed agents and that in and of itself was making a statement. I had to think about it, and then was prompted, do you want to be like X author or Y author? And I said no, I want to be Allison Brennan. I know that sounds cheesy, but it’s true. But if I’m going to be pigeon-holed, I want to write the types of stories like Tess Gerritsen’s THE APPRENTICE and Lisa Gardner’s THE PERFECT HUSBAND and THE THIRD VICTIM and Tami Hoag’s A THIN, RED LINE but . . . not exactly. They wanted an answer because they need it for marketing and planning and covers and all that stuff. I get that. Genre is about marketing and reader expectations. They need to know where I fit; or, rather, because this is genre fiction, if I fit the suit.

 

But I don’t want to be the next Tess Gerritsen or the next Lisa Gardner because I will never be as good a Tess or Lisa as they are.

 

That is what I mean about voice. It’s all yours. You need to develop and nurture and grow and protect it with all your heart and soul. 

 

When you do that, mastering your story isn’t far behind.

 

Some people say that you need three things to get published: talent, perseverance, and luck. You only control two of them. Talent—some writers are naturally talented, some have to learn more about the craft and practice, practice, practice.

 

Stephen King said, “While it is impossible to make a great writer out of a good one, it is possible, with lots of hard work, dedication, and timely help, to make a good writer out of a merely competent one.”

 

Perseverance—the hard work and dedication that King speaks of–that’s all you. Whether you have the inner strength to write and learn and submit and be rejected—over and over and over for years–that’s on you. You have to want it bad enough to make sacrifices, to learn from critiques, to not be destroyed by rejection.

 

Then there’s luck. Well, you have no control over that. But you can help luck find you. Go to conferences. Meet people. Enter contests. Submit your manuscripts. But more than anything, keeping writing and keep persevering. The longer you write, the greater the chances your book be on the right desk at the right time.

 

If I can impart any advice, it would be this:

Write. And write some more. No one is so good that they can’t learn. I still take classes, I still edit and revise, I still take editor input, and I hope that I always will. And even now, though I know my voice, I’m comfortable with my voice, I can do better.

Write for yourself first. As Stephen King says, write with the doors closed and edit with the windows open. Or something like that . . . essentially, don’t listen to everyone when you’re writing your rough draft. It needs to be you, all you, warts and all. Then you edit and revise and send it out to your trusted critique partners, you trusted editor or agent or ideal reader. Someone or several someone’s who will give you quality advice based on your voice and not theirs, your vision and not their dreams.

Don’t write to the market. Write with passion in your voice, with your vision, and only then, when it’s done, when it’s you, then look to the market and see where it fits or how you can position it to fit. The market isn’t evil—it’s there because of readers. But it’s changing all the time. And honestly? Good books that transcend the market sell all the time. The passion that comes through when you discover and hone your voice will make your work shine, whether you’re writing what’s currently popular or not.

Anne Lamott said, “We are a species that needs and wants to understand who we are. Sheep lice do not seem to share this longer which is one reason why they write so little.”

Don’t be sheep lice. Go forth and write!

25 thoughts on “Moonlight & Magnolia’s Keynote Speech: Master Your Voice

  1. Allison Brennan

    It was fun, and writing the speech wasn't as bad as I thought it would be because I let myself go off on tangents whenever the mood struck me. And remember, three of those 15 books were written before book one came out!

  2. Debbie

    Congrats on getting that speech down in print! I'd love to hear more about the meeting, how many people were there, what was the purpose(s),what kinds of things get discussed, how did you feel going into it, when you left? I'm getting to that marketing stage with an eye to the query letter. How easy is it for you to sum up your story so that it goes beyond accurate to compelling?

  3. Dudley Forster

    Stands. Applauds! – You beat the beast to death with a lectern. So when do you start on the motivational speech circuit? I have to go now; need to check on my infinite number of sheep lice working on their minuscule word processors. Hmm, now that I have written that, picturing an infinite number of sheep lice is disgusting.

  4. JB LynnJB Lynn

    Sounds like it was a great speech. I'm jealous of everyone who got to hear it.

    I adore Michael Hauge. While, as you pointed out, he may not point out anything "new" his communication style and presentation style reminds us of what we may have "forgotten".

    Okay, so I'm jealous on two counts….

  5. Jill James

    Allison, wish I could have heard your speech in person but reading it your 'voice' shines through. I love the 'don't want to be a new Nora or new Stephen, but just me.' Or something like that. LOL I get so irritated with writers who don't put themselves out there because they aren't as good as Nora, or Stephen, or Allison. Of course you aren't, you are you, the best you there is. Duh!! Why is that so hard for people to understand??

  6. KellyJ

    I was heartsick at having to miss the M&M conference – I wanted to sign up the minute I heard you were giving the keynote. Thank you for sharing it here.

  7. Allison brennan

    Debbie, there are lots of resources out there to help you write a compelling query letter–some are in the archives of Murderati. There's two key points in all good queries:

    1) know your market and pitch to that market. That means you need to know where your book fits in, who it would appeal to, and then craft your "logline" or one/two liner that address who the story is about and what happens to him and what's at stake. Go to either Rob's website or Alex's–they both have great information on how to summarize your book in a compelling way. Michael Hauge used the same basic formula that Rob uses, though it's a little longer.

    2) Write your summary as if it's cover copy–2-3 short paragraphs (usually 7-10 sentencers) that focuses on character and what's at stake. Read 20 cover copies of books that are similar in tone and genre as yours in order to get the rhythm and then write one that fits your story.

    The biggest problem in query letters, IMO, is that the author tries to say too much. They should be one page and pitch one book that's complete (if you're unpublished) and give the following:

    Hook

    Blurb (back cover-like copy)

    Title, genre, word count and who book might appeal to (i.e. in my original query letter I said, "THE COP{YCAT KILLER is a 100,000 word suspense novel with romantic elements that may appeal to the fans of Lisa Gardner, Tami Hoag and Iris Johansen.")

    Brief bio. If you have a professional credit, i.e. you worked in the White House for 20 years and are writing a political thriller, then say it. But most of us don't have any background in what we're writing. So make it brief, though you can mention any previous publications (i.e. short stories, articles, non-fiction) here.

    Again, one page! Hook them, make them intrigued that they want more. Targeting who you query is just as important as the query itself.

  8. Allison brennan

    Thanks Terry πŸ™‚ I appreciate that I didn't fall flat on my face in Washington! I like speaking, at least I don't have huge problems (though I'll admit I get nervous at the very beginning and so having a speech in front of me helps on that count.) I much prefer workshops, however, because I like audience interaction and I like Q&A so I can steer the workshop to what people want to hear.

    BTW, Jill, most of us aspire to be someone else, even if we don't realize it. We have mentors, people we like and admire, etc. It's hard to break out of it because I think it's largely subconscious and no one thinks they really WANT to be another person. I remember a story that I've heard multiple times about Nora Roberts, but anytime you hear something about an icon you have to take it with a grain of salt (though, after hearing her speak several times, it sounds like her!) Basically, she was cornered in an elevator at RWA one year and an unpublished writer said, "I want to be you!" And she responded with something like, "Really? Do you know what that means? Do you think that it's easy?" It's like people think if you have success it's all "easy" from there. If anything, it gets harder. But it's hard to say that to people because they will counter with, "Oh, I wish I had your problems." And roll their eyes. And I want to slap them and explain what my problems really are. But then that would be all over the blogoverse and no one would like me anymore. :/ So I just smile and nod and try to run away so I don't say or do something stupid.

  9. Debbie

    Allison, thanks so much for the advice and info. I honestly didn't expect so much help in your responding comment! I've done lots of online research and have written and rewritten the premise with an eye to making it compelling. I practically have Alex's post memorized and am going to go check out Robs. Thanks again, I mean that. I actually get up early just so I can read Murderati in peace before the kids get up and my responsibilities begin. It's nice starting the morning with adults even if they are in cyber space!

  10. Jill James

    Allison, you reminded me of a story. Don't remember where I heard it. Basically, everyone gathered around and put their problems in a pile. Money problems, bad kids, unfaithful spouses, whatever it was. Then they were told to take any problem they wanted. They all walked away with their own problems again, because they didn't seem like such problems after all.

    I love the Nora stories. She just tells it like it is.

  11. Allison Brennan

    You're sweet, Pari, read it when you need a kick in the butt πŸ™‚ Life does have a way of accelerating just when we think we're going fast enough . . .

    Jill, Nora is amazing. Everyone should listen to her speak, just once, no matter what genre they write.

  12. Nicki Salcedo

    Thank you for sharing your wisdom in Atlanta for the Moonlight & Magnolias Conference. I don't write speeches either, but I do sometimes plot. Usually this is halfway through writing the book. I go back after I've let the story start to form itself. We really appreciated your kindness and support of Georgia Romance Writers. We'll have you back any time your schedule will allow! Wanna come back in 2011? We promise you another conference you'll never forget πŸ™‚ All the best.

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