Friday, April 17, 2009

Meet the Authors - John Hill - Get over Yourself and Start Writing

Vicki Pettersson was supposed to speak last night at the Clark County Library, for the writing presentation "Get Over Yourself and Start Writing." I arrived a few minutes late, and was surprised to see a middle aged, pleasant looking gentleman, rather than a svelte former showgirl.

Vicki Petterson was ill. She was too ill to try, and she has a major deadline looming for the fifth book in her Zodiac paranormal romance series, so she couldn't even reschedule. Instead, she arranged for a friend, who's also a writer, to cover for her.

"Friend" she says. "Also a writer" she says. HOLY COW!!! says I. Her "friend" is John Hill.

OK, go ahead and say it. Who?

John Hill, who mentioned a few times that he had been a Hollywood screenwriter "in the old days when it was easier", from the mid 1970s to the late 1990s. John Hill who was the writer/supervising producer for the amazing TV show "Quantum Leap." John Hill, who wrote the screenplay for "Quigley Down Under." John Hill who won an Emmy as the writer/producer for "LA Law"... THAT John Hill.

Perhaps he mentioned those few facts at the very start of the presentation. If so, I'm rather glad I missed it, as it would have interefered with my appreciation of his excellent writing presentation. (I'm not normally starstruck. But, WOW!!)

For the next hour, Hill gave us an amazing presentation about the nuts and bolts of buckling down and getting writing.

Hill had four main topics: Motivation, Story, Structure, and Physical System for producing your novel.

In Motivation, Hill suggested:
  • Make your writing a priority, and work hard at it
  • Do It - don't just talk about it
  • Have the desire and the committment to produce your novel
  • Set and keep your writing deadlines.
  • Set an easily identifiable ending date for your writing, like a major holiday
  • STEAL the time from your life to write
  • Break the writing down into managable subunits. So if you're writing a 360 page novel, write one page a day, every day. (Hill gives you a day off for Christmas, Thanksgiving, your birthday, the birth of your your first child, and your husband's bypass operation.)
Motivation is hard to maintain. Your friends and family will probably start out being supportive, but that will all stop when your writing interferes with what they want. ("Honey, my parents are getting remarried today. What do you mean you still have 200 words to write this morning?") Hill strongly recommends fighting for the respect, space and time to write. And is not above recommending bribery to achieve that end.

In Story, Hill explains that it's really important to know exactly what you're writing. His short definition of fiction is: A person with a problem.

The novelist's job is to know that person, and know the problem. Hill recommends creating a really wonderful, likable, sympathetic character, then proceed to make that character's life a living misery. A good novelist will know how to use the problem to define the misery, and use the misery to lead the character to the solution and resolution of her problem. Your novel will be about the most important event in your character's life.

Knowing the story also means knowing the commercial characteristics of your writing. Hill says there are generally four types of fiction novel - the "Bestseller/Blockbuster" (usually written by an established and very popular author), Genre Fiction (mystery, horror, fantasy, western), Mainstream Fiction - "just a good story", like Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistlestop Cafe, and Literary Fiction - "writing for the ages." This includes experimental and alternative fiction. It's important to know what type of fiction you're writing, and know the characteristics of that type of fiction. Also, know who your readers will be. Who reads that type of fiction? Write to your market.

Structure basically comes down to Plot Outline. Some authors believe strongly in outlines. Others don't. Hill calls them respectively the Plotters and the Pantsers ("Writing by the Seat of their Pants") Plot outlines vary in amount of detail from none (ie, pantsing), to outlines with minute levels of detail. (Just write the whole darned novel down, before you write it.) Knowing how you will write is important. Are you a plotter? Or a pantser?

Finally, Hill gave us his Physical System for Starting a Novel. He told us about the three ring binder, with eight tabbed sections, and lots of blank paper. Use the tabs. Use the paper. Write the Novel. Voila - you're done!

Summing it up, Hill says the true art of the novel is Getting It Done.

Hill did a great Q&A session:

The enemy of writing is perfectionism. Rewriting is good - heck it's vital. But too much rewriting, too much revision, just bogs the author down, and the novel never gets done. Get the darned thing DONE! Know what you've written. KEEP GOING!

Self publishing is not a good idea (Hill's opinion.) It's a great way to end up with cases and cases of books in your garage. Self publishing is great for a few types of writing, such as a family memoir or a group's recipe collection. You'll never get your money back from self-publishing.

You can't get a publisher before you write your novel. Impossible.

Here's how you get a literary agent:
  1. Write an amazing novel. The best novel is one that looks irresistable in a one paragraph description, which is what your agent will be giving prospective publishers. Your paragraph should sound like "Wow, THAT's a plot!" In fact, write the paragraph first. Then write the novel.
  2. Write an amazing query letter. (Read Writer's Market to find out about Query Letters.)
  3. Go to the library and find other books similar to yours. (You remember about Story? You should know what you're writing, and who else writes like that...) Read the dedications. Authors often thank their agents in the dedication. Hey, Presto! - a list of agents that specialize in your writing area.
  4. Send your query letter to the list of agents. Stick with agents in New York City. (Agents in Iowa may be wonderful human beings, but it's a rough commute if they want to just have coffee with a publisher, and schmooze about upcoming talent...)
90% of novels are about one main character. Occasionally there's an equally weighted couple - eg Romeo & Juliet or Butch & Sundance. Usually it's one main character.

Title first? Or Novel first? Don't worry about the title. Get yourself a real grabber of a title. When you get a publisher, they'll probably change the title. But a grabbing title is like an amazing descriptive paragraph. It'll get their attention and get your story bought.

John Hill gave an entertaining and informative presentation. His delivery was liberally mixed with anecdotes from his life and career. It was most impressive that no matter how far he rambled from his original point, he always found his way back and continued. It was an easy present to hear. I hope he comes back to the library again, often!

John Hill moved to Las Vegas from Hollywood. He's a writing instructor at UNLV, and a member of the Las Vegas Writers Group. He's also a "Writing Mentor for Hire". He'll mentor you for a year as you write your novel or screenplay (for a not inconsiderable fee, but it's very worth it!)

His phone number is 702-622-8251. His email address is:
hillwithit(assume an "at" symbol)

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