Melanie Spiller and Coloratura Consulting

Escapades in Early Music, Writing, and Editing

Archive for June 2011

Stage Fright

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I don’t get stage fright. After all, one way or another, I’ve been on a stage since I was four years old—ballet, playing the flute, ballroom dance, a brief theater period in college, teaching in a classroom and privately, and of course singing. But when I went to that historical novelists’ conference, lo and behold, I got a little stage fright.

It was standing outside the room where everyone pitched their books to agents and publishers that did it. I was fine, didn’t expect much, thought of it as a way to suck information out of people more than a way to get into print. I got to the room in plenty of time, signed in, and then lurked, listening to the others talk about their books, their pitches, or the weather. Suddenly, my stomach lurched up into my throat. Apparently, it showed on my face, as the nice woman signing us all in came over to me and asked if I was okay.


Here’s the thing. I’ve been around plenty of people who get stage fright. You can feel it, almost smell it on them, a kind of quivery stomach, heart in throat extravaganza of sweating palms and loose bowels. But *I* don’t get it. Nope. If you’re prepared, even if you make mistakes, you will recover. Heck, as I always say after singing a solo, “no one was killed.” You just can’t take it so seriously.

But I did. I seriously did.

I pulled myself out of it quickly enough, though. Here’s the tale.

The night before, there was a reception, and we all stood around pitching our books to one another while we sipped adult beverages. This nice young man, a graphic novelist specializing in the Trojan horse era, asked me what it was that I thought would go wrong. I realized that I couldn’t explain. So then he said to me—and here’s the really clever part—give me your bad pitch.

So I did. I slumped my shoulders. I pinched my voice up into my nose. I whined on academically about the driest aspects of my book. I pretended that I was proud of how LONG the book is. I used long words and foreign words to make myself seem smarter. I checked my teeth repeatedly for savory morsels.

Those were all the things I didn’t want to do. So then, he said—knowing I was ready now—give me your good pitch. And I did. I was funny, engaging, and told my story with light in my eyes. I could feel myself just flat out enjoying that I’d come up with this idea and seen it through. I mentioned my second-draft trimming efforts and my plans for the next book.

Ta da!

So there I was, getting nervous in the line to present to important dignitaries, and I just ran that little exercise again. I got all the ickies out before I went in to see someone who could decide whether or not I really did have a good idea.

You know, this works, or so I’m told, for proper stage fright as well. I’ve read that if your hands are all sweaty and your heart is pounding away like it’s a conga drum, you try to make your palms sweatier and your heart beat harder by just willing it so. Apparently, that makes these unpleasant fight-or-flight instincts quiet right on down.

You’ll have to let me know though. Even though I’d only known about the solo for four days (someone had to bail at the last minute), I got away with it at this weekend’s concert extravaganza without a peep of stage fright. After all, no one was killed.

Written by Melanie Spiller

June 29, 2011 at 7:37 am

Posted in Thoughts, Writing

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A Writing Conference

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I spent last weekend at the Historical Novelists Society’s three-day conference in San Diego. Wow.

I could really just stop there, it was that good. Oh, the hotel was humorously hokey (they had fabulous chandeliers hanging from stained ceiling tiles that were polka-dotted with dirty air conditioning vents) and noisy (less than a mile from the airport, across the street from where the military hosts its helicopter fleet, and half a block from the Amtrak trains, who have not been discouraged from honking merrily for most of a mile all through the night), and the food was, um, institutional but plentiful. But the conference itself! Wow!

The first night was a reception with a cash bar. The good news about the cash bar is that no one got conspicuously drunk. The bad news was that it got seriously loud and it was impossible to be heard without screaming. But it was such a hoot! People practiced pitching their books, talked about getting published, and were generally hilarious, friendly, and informative. I even got feedback for my pitch, which was worth the attendance fee in itself.

Then we went in to dinner. This was buffet style, but very well organized. They had a buffet line down both sides of the hall and the wait staff came to tell each table when it was their turn, so there wasn’t a dreadful line, and even though my table’s turn was late in the serving, the trays had all been replenished and everything was fresh. There were speeches during the meal welcoming us and telling us what the weekend held.

After dinner, we were treated to published writers reading their fight scenes. I was surprised that they were not all written by men and that they weren’t full of death and destruction. It was interesting. I’ve never thought about writing anything more violent than a disagreement, so it gave me pause.

On Saturday, the conference offered panel discussions, mini-lectures, blue-line feedback on work, and the opportunity to pitch to agents and publishing houses. I made my first pitch that day. This was quite an interesting experience. People signed up for certain agents and editors in advance. I was lucky enough to be granted three pitch sessions. The organizers assigned each of us a ten minute session. Pretty much everyone turned up early for their sessions.

Each of us was granted eight of the ten minutes. Someone came along and politely informed us when we were at six minutes. It was obvious from the waiting area that the editors and agents were adept at assessing, as some people popped out after only two or three minutes looking dejected, and others popped out looking elated. I’m pretty sure that writers would be dragged physically away if they exceeded their eight minutes. This was a well-oiled and incredibly efficient machine.

People were so nice, too. Not just the agents and the officials who kept us moving along, although they were lovely. The other writers were really nice, too. Everyone was solicitous before and after a pitch, and everyone respected someone pulling aside and not participating in the conversations. There were supportive smiles and knowing nods. And when each of us slunk into a panel discussion session already in progress, everyone understood and was nice about that, too.

The panel discussions were great. In some cases, they talked about certain aspects of writing and publishing, in others, they talked about their processes, and in yet others, they talked about pitfalls and fortuitous happenstance. They were all excellent.

There was a sit-down dinner the second evening for which we had all pre-selected a meal option. I have peculiar dietary needs and the meal they provided wouldn’t do. The wait staff was nice about that and although I was eating my dinner while everyone else was having dessert, they were very helpful and I got the meal I needed. After dinner there was a fashion show, everything from ancient Greece through the middle ages, the Tudors, the Victorian era, the civil war, and the 1940s. The person MCing the parade was hilarious, a sweet grandmotherly type with a rather saucy wit.

After the fashion show, there were readings of sex scenes. These were interesting and fabulous, but I was completely out of steam and toddled off upstairs to sleep before it was over. In the morning, there were more pitches, more sessions, and then a long and sad goodbye.

This was my first writers’ conference and it set a high bar. I chose it partly because of its location (I could visit with my long-lost cousins while in town) and partly for its timing, but mostly, I chose it because it was specific to the genre of my books.

I came away with new friends, new draft readers who specifically enjoy the sort of book that I write, and a LOT of new energy for the revisions and such that will be needed before my successful pitches can go very far. And too, I sort of pitched another idea to my fellow writers, and I’m clearly onto something, so I’ve begun writing that one too.

In the near future, there are other conferences to attend. One is a general genre conference and another is about getting feedback on the writing itself. I’m not sure if the timing or the money will work out for those, but I’ll let you know what happens.

The one thing I’m sure of is that a genre conference is a very good thing indeed. And the HNS has at least one very happy new member.

Written by Melanie Spiller

June 22, 2011 at 12:20 pm

Posted in Writing

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Poking at Things

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I spent a large portion of the weekend trying to write a synopsis of my novel. It’s a funny thing: If it’s someone else’s work, I can be creative and witty—and brief—but if it’s my own work, I can only be academic and dry. This is strange, because the book I’ve written is only a little academic and not at all dry.

It seems obvious now, but one thing I learned both from my non-historically oriented writers’ group and from the historical novel reading I’ve been doing lately, is that the academic stuff won’t sell books to non-academics. So, in a manner of speaking, I’m “dumbing” my book down.

I wanted to show a 12th century German monastery as a stark contrast to modern perceptions of monasteries and the Middle Ages, and to teach about Hildegard von Bingen’s life without writing yet another book  featuring Hildegard as the star. But it turns out that all of that “showing” came out like a bunch of “telling.”

I think the crux of the problem is that much of a nun’s life  is internal, and many revelations came through the thoughts of my narrator nun so that it looks like a lot of expository writing on the page before a single word is read. In my second draft, I’m trying to squish a lot of that. My writers’ group told me (in so many words) that it was daunting, even when their own work employed a similar amount of exposition. So it is either my writing that is daunting (gadzooks!) or this is the nature of writing about something completely unfamiliar to an uncontrolled audience.

I’ve decided, then, that in the interest of getting published, even though this one is the nearest and dearest subject matter that I will likely ever write, I’m dumping a LOT of the internal dialogs. They might move over to the memoir/travel guide to things Hildegardian, and they might end  up as bits of purple type stored in a “bits and pieces” folder on my hard drive.

Also, through the course of writing a synopsis and a summary of the various chapters, I have discovered that I left out one of Hildegard’s miracles, the curing of a blind child. Go figure. Now there’s a big yellow ADD note appended to the opening of the appropriate chapter awaiting revision. How hideous.

I’ve sent my summary/synopsis to three or four friends to solicit “sharpening” ideas, because—you know—I don’t market myself well. And in at least one case, I’ve done a fair amount of poking around in her work, so I’m pretty clear about her quick wit and clever connection-making. But, um, I haven’t heard from any of them (other than a willingness to do it). So now I’m suffering a crisis of confidence in with all the other angst about dumbing down my book.

Even worse, I’ve run out of closets to clean. No really. The hall is done, the walk-in, all the kitchen cupboards, and the bedroom. Even the refrigerator is clean. I suppose I haven’t done the bathroom, but that should take all of five minutes. I’m going to have to <chokes> work on revising my books, I guess.

Written by Melanie Spiller

June 7, 2011 at 3:21 pm

Posted in Writing

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