It’s unusual to find a conference that changes the way I think about my novel and about myself as a writer. This one-day conference, less than a day’s drive away, did just that.
The Workshop featured presentations by Brian Klems, online editor for WritersDigest.com. The basic fee covered four all-group presentations by Klems and a “first-page” critique by four agents of randomly selected submissions. Participants could pay extra for ten-minute pitch sessions with up to six agents and for a personal query-letter critique by Chuck Sambuchino, author of a number of books and blogs on writing as well as humor books.
Klems’s presentations covered a huge amount of nuts-and-bolts information most valuable to writers who had not attended many conferences or mined the web for information on the business of writing. The pitch sessions were well-coordinated; all three of the agents I queried were generous listeners. The published schedule did not build in meals or receptions for the social networking that many writers find rewarding.
So what made this conference so productive? Two things: Sambuchino’s critique of my query and the “first-page” session, at which some 20 or so of the first pages submitted were thrown down and stomped upon.
First: Query-Letter Critique
I didn’t receive Sambuchino’s comments until the Thursday night before the conference, and Friday was hectic, so it was evening before I could settle into my motel room to digest the veritable armada of comments he had supplied. Everyone reading this can probably empathize with my stomach-twisting lurch when I realized that the back-of-the-book blurb I had workshopped over and over with multiple audiences was No Good. Basic questions—what is Michael’s wound, his need? What is at stake? How does this event lead to this one?—still loomed. Sambuchino wanted A LOT more information than any back-of-the-book was going to accommodate.
The feeling of utter inadequacy that settled over me produced a complete rewrite. Was that the right strategy? All I know is that when I sat across from agents and talked from the notes they were glad to let me use, not one broke in with a confused frown to tell me I wasn’t making any sense. (Believe me, this has happened.) There’s no experiment that could tell me whether my response to Sambuchino’s comments made the difference. But I do know that when I revise my query letter, the pitch itself will look a lot more like the one I wrote Friday night than the one I have now.
Lesson learned? First let me talk about
First Page Armageddon
Of the 20 that were pulled from the stack and read aloud, only one would have kept these four agents reading past the first paragraph. Yes, mine got selected, and no, it didn’t fare well.
Disheartening? Absolutely. Only one of the agents regularly said, “I would scroll down to see if things improved.” For the others, one strike and you’re out. Looking for a way to say “yes”? Uh . . . no.
I’ve workshopped my first page with my writing group; I’ve done the beta-reader route with colleagues who are educated readers. No one has ever read my prose as closely and as intently as these four women did. At least not as far as I know, because this is the kind of information you don’t get back from a query: when the agent or editor stopped reading and why. And it’s the most important piece of information you can receive.
Unlike my colleagues and writing group partners, these agents’ jobs depend on spotting the snags on the first page that signal a tough row ahead. After all, that first-impression first page shows what you think good writing is. Learning your ear has been dead wrong is heart-wrenching. If I couldn’t hear those mistakes, how can I hope to hear all the others I’ve made?
But the only thing worse than finding out you made them is not knowing you made them so you keep making them again and again. And the good part, the formative part, of that session is that not only did the agents flag the missteps, they explained them. An agent who won’t even send a rejection email is not about to do that.
It was the seeming triviality of the mistakes that was so helpful. Starting a novel with dialogue, a slight shift of voice between paragraphs, too much detail rather than not enough. . . . But the explanations made sense. Too much dialogue on the first page prevents your reader from locating and forming connections with your characters; too much detail slows your reader’s approach to the actual story; science fiction that starts out big and abstract leaves readers floating untethered in the cosmos. I found myself nodding and wondering, have I done that? Have I done that?
So: lessons learned:
- You can sit in a room and listen for hours to someone exhorting you to “show, don’t tell,” to use active voice, to clarify your setting and your characters’ motives. You can read example after example. But until someone specifically and concretely applies those concepts to your writing, they mean zilch. Until Sambuchino said to me, “You still haven’t told me exactly what Michael needs,” all the instruction in the world didn’t connect. So writers must fight for hands-on feedback on their work.
- And this feedback must come from real agents and editors whose jobs depend on recognizing effective writing. It’s the rare beta reader who is going to think like an agent: “Do I really want to spend the next year of my professional life on this?”
- So writers must vet conferences to make sure they promise an actual agent’s eyes on our work. The first-pages model is one option; the two-pages/two-minutes model I participated in at Backspace a few years back has the advantage that everyone who signed up for a slot got a critique. Paying book doctors to read three chapters has been less effective for me. Conference book doctors get paid just for reading—and for making us happy. They’re not looking for those all-important reasons to say no.
For me personally, I’ve resolved:
- To remember all those mistakes all of us made and apply that knowledge to a revision of my first three chapters before I send them to agents.
- To explore the beta-reader option more thoroughly, to find strong readers and see whether there are areas on which they agree.
- To get back out on the conference trail, looking for the ones where an agent can tell me why he or she says no.
- And above all, to take heart. I have a great premise and strong characters, and repeated work on my synopsis has clarified for me what’s at stake and why. I can write, and I’m disciplined. And I persevere. And above all, I no longer have any deadline. If neither of the two submissions my pitches earned works out, I’ll do what I’ve always done and what earned me five publications: keep learning and honing. I’m not in the least afraid of a complete rewrite if I’m confident about my goal.
And now I value rather than fear readers who are looking for a reason to say no.
2 responses to “3 Lessons, 4 Resolutions from the Indiana Writers’ Workshop, October 24, 2015”
Wow, Chuck Sambuchino looked at your query? What a brave thing you did. And to have those agents look over your first pages… And that’s it isn’t it? If they stop reading, whether it be after one sentence or five, we’ve lost the battle.See this tells me a lot about an author’s stage in their journey: being willing to get the ‘right’ critique. I find those that can do this are so close to their dreams being realised ( I am not at this stage yet) and I think you are probably closer than you think 🙂 I, too, am looking at those integral character motivations. And what they want has to be tied in with what happens to them in the book; it has to be meaningful and relatable.
It’s still always a struggle to put critique in perspective, and I keep getting practice! I have a very honest writers’ group, even if they don’t read like agents. And I’ve had to live with some awful reviews of my published books. But this conference really made me rethink my work. It was tough, but eye-opening. I’m doing some revising before sending off the ms., and realizing that rejection (again) might be based on things I can learn to fix. I like your point about how motivations have to lend meaning to the entire story. Keep me posted!
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