Monday, May 25, 2009

Christi Phillips: The Process of Writing

The following is a write up of the talk that Christi Phillips gave to the Redwood Writers Club in February as it previously appeared on our website.

The rain produced a steady drumbeat, acting as a call for Redwood Writers and their guests to go to our monthly meeting. And appear they did, en masse, arriving at Star Restaurant on Sunday, March 1st, 2009 around 3:00 pm. More than 60 members and guests enjoyed a reading by Kate Farrell, won some door prizes, and then settled in for a reading and interactive Q&A with Christi Phillips.

Christi Phillips worked for four years in a major literary agency in the 1990s before coming to California where she held a variety of jobs in order to research and write her historical novel, The Rossetti Letter. As a result, she touched on “the writing process, research, the special requirements of historical fiction, what it takes to be a working novelist, and all aspects of the publishing business.”

She began the afternoon by reading an excerpt from her next work, The Devlin Diary, due out in May 2009. (It is now on sale!) The piece was well received by the audience who was the first group to publicly enjoy this advance taste. After that, Phillips talked about her background and the belief that New York City was the place to be as a writer. She learned “writing a novel requires a lot of different writing skills.” From these early beginnings, Phillips worked in one of the top literary agencies in New York providing her with insight into the publishing world.

The subsequent question and answer session led to a number of insights valued by her rapt audience:

“I’m a self-taught writer.” Phillips stopped short of saying not to spend too much time studying the craft of writing. She emphasized that writers write to hone their craft.

“Every book on the craft of writing has 1 or 2 helpful hints. Its up to you to put it all together.” Phillips suggested the book by author Jerry Cleaver, Immediate Fiction: A Complete Writing Course (2002), as a good reference for writers.

“The biggest mistake an author makes is having a main character who is passive.” Similar to the advice given in the recent Redwood Writer Revision Workshops, Phillips insists the main character must act or change in some way. The protagonist must have a great desire for something. For example, the desire has to be more than, “I want to be loved.” That is too general. To have a story, the main character must “want to be loved by X.” Obstacles must block the desire and the character must stretch and grow as he or she seeks to attain their goal.

“Write a book you would want to read.”

“Avoid archaic words and sentence structure.” She insists the book must be easy to read.

“You absolutely need an agent.” She also claimed that editors-turned-agents do not edit. An agent sells books and gets you your money. That is their job and it is all they should do to be effective [1]. For those looking for an agent, Phillips suggested Jeff Herman’s, Guide to Book Publishers, Editors, & Literary Agents 2009…” This work is currently in its 19th edition as it is published every year.

“Every writer has their own process.” Phillips outlined the key steps to producing a novel:

1.Complete the research
2. Develop ideas for character and plot as you research
3. Sketch out scenes and the overall scope of the book
a. Always write ideas down for scenes, in any order, as the ideas come
b. Use index cards as an aid to place and order the scenes as the book develops
4. Use pen and paper to avoid self-editing too soon. Then type the written word into the computer.

“Writing is organic. The story emerges.”

“Read out loud.” This is a good strategy in order to hear how the story sounds and reads.

“Be in a critique group.”

“You need feedback from others in your genre.”

“Not everyone is a good judge.” Phillips implored Redwood Writers authors to own their work and only use the feedback received that makes sense to them.

“Query letters must be professional,” she noted, “because bad query letters are remembered,” something the hopeful writer does not want. Philips suggested reading the flaps of hard cover books as a way to get good at telling your story concisely. Of course, don’t give away the whole story. You want the agent to ask for your manuscript. Be sure to write your queries in a way to hook them. The objective is to have a compelling letter that gets the agent to request your book. All this, and it should be kept to one page as well.

“I don’t blog to attract a fan base. I put all of my creative energy into writing.”

“Understand where your book fits in.” Be sure to identify and market to the genre you are writing for.

“I am biased for east coast agents.” Phillips rationale is based on the proximity of editors, agents, and publishers. Publishing is still comprised of a small group and the networking in New York is an important aspect in getting your book published.

“A good west coast agent is Amy Rennert.”

“Be sure to read Pat Walsh’s humorous book, 78 Reasons Why Your Book Won’t Get Published and 14 Reasons Why it Just Might. Phillips suggested Redwood Writers could separate themselves from the pack of writers wanting to be published by taking Walsh’s advice to heart.

Submitted by R.K. Koslowsky with edits by Persia Woolley and Linda McCabe


[1] This is an important point for authors who want to get published. There are many more agents in the marketplace than there used to be. Many former editors at publishing houses have now become literary agents. That does not mean that they will edit their clients' manuscripts. They might help a little, but that would depend on the agent and their interest. However, they simply do not have the time to edit manuscripts before submitting to publishers. It is up to the writer to submit as clean a copy as possible.

[2] An audio recording of the event, with permission from Christi Phillips and courtesy of Linda McCabe, can be found here. Hopefully this will work, since it is the first time we have attempted to do a podcast.

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