Category Archives: Writers’ conferences

A Small Riff on “Infinite Revision” (I’m an Expert!)

cresock deserted peer sea

I’ve been deep in revisions of two major Works-in-Progress, with a resultant and perhaps regrettable absence from the blogosphere. The process has led me to think about the pros and cons of “infinite revision”—the impulse to come back to a supposedly polished manuscript again and again and again (and again. . . . ad infinitum).

The impetus for these revisions is twofold: first, responses from my valuable beta readers; and second, experiences at two recent “pitch” events, both of which I recommend: the one-day WritingDayWorkshop held in Louisville in April and the Midwest Writers Workshop “Agent Fest,” a Friday-Saturday affair in May at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana.

The fact is, every time I attend a conference to pitch or get feedback from agents and editors (REAL agents and editors, mind you), I come home thinking that before I can respond to invitations to send materials, I really need to revise the darn book again!

Which of course means that my pages are sitting here, going nowhere, instead of in an agent’s inbox.

It seems worth asking whether the gains from the process of re-re-revising in response to these conference experiences are worth the inevitable delay. Surely there should come a point when I hit “save” for the last time and say “Enough!”

Well . . . yes. But. . . .

Two major eye-openers from this pitch-conference process have driven my compulsive rewriting, leading me to propose that maybe, just maybe, I’m not wasting my time.

“First-Page Reads”

First, both conferences included a “first-page read,” a feature that seems to be gaining popularity. In the “first-page read,” if you haven’t experienced one, conference attendees turn in, anonymously of course, the first page of their book. During the session, a moderator reads randomly selected submissions aloud.

At WDW, agents had copies to read along, a modification of the original format that I think made it easier for them to hone their responses in a rapid-fire, somewhat artificial setting. Agents raised hands or voices when they “would quit reading.” As one agent at MWW pointed out, ordinarily agents would have already glanced at the query, so they might be more tolerant of less than perfect submissions than when hearing a page cold (especially late in the evening after a long day). Even with those caveats, seeing how a panel of agents responded to my first page has, each time, been one of the most valuable conference experiences I can report.

“The Three-Minute Pitch”

Second, there is nothing like having to explain your book fast to a potentially skeptical listener to make you home in on that perennially vital question: what is this book about?

Think you know the main conflict, what’s at stake, how the main character changes, and why readers should care? Give yourself the three-minute test.

To meet the format requirements at MWW, I honed my pitches to ninety seconds. By the time I applied advice from my writing groups, they took barely a minute. And they both worked.

Things I Learned from Writing Conferences (This Time)

From the first-page read, I’ve distilled a “rule” much more important, it seems, than common prohibitions like “Avoid adverbs” or “Use strong verbs.”

Most obvious to everyone but slow-witted overachievers like me: BE CLEAR. Those agents wanted to be able to locate themselves in space and time in the company of a recognizable character. They wanted to be able to figure out, duh, what’s going on. And all this, of course, with only the tiniest touch of backstory. A hard lesson for those with unquenchable literary aspirations. Turns out all that energy devoted to haunting and mysterious hooks and complex, original metaphors would have been better spent on who, what, why, and where.

From the three-minute-pitch process, I’ve learned something else I sort of already knew but kept resisting: even the most complex plots, with the most tortured and nuanced characters, must have a throughline.

This rule is not in the least simple. It points to a tenet of structure as old as storytelling but one easy to overlook. Even if you are creating convoluted characters who wander all over their own emotions and tangle with fifty secondary characters and subplots, the book has to be about somebody who wants something and will pay in spades if he or she doesn’t get it.

That’s the throughline. Finding it is like that old story about chipping away parts of the marble that aren’t the statue. At some point, what your character wants, why she can’t get it, and what will happen if she doesn’t has to emerge from all the stuff that only supports your story, however important all that other stuff will ultimately turn out to be. The extras won’t work if they have nothing to hook onto.

Bottom Line: Sorry, You’re Not Stephen King or Salman Rushdie or Margaret Atwood or Any of Those Wonderful Folks

It’s tempting to think that our writing is so special, our creativity so rich, that any agent or editor who opens our file will be so entranced that clarity and throughlines are simply beside the point.

I fully acknowledge that there are literary geniuses for whom this is true. But two hard facts I’ve come to accept more and more: we first have to get our files into that agent’s inbox, and a clearly stated throughline is our best chance of slipping them in there. That throughline, which a three-minute pitch forced me to write, is also one of the best ways I’ve found to figure out where my book goes off track and w

Second, you are almost certainly not the genius who can transcend clarity once your first page is up for scrutiny by people who might actually pay you for the rest. Your genius—okay, my genius—will remain undiscovered if an agent or editor chooses “Move to Trash” before finishing that first page.

Quick Caveat before You Infinitely Revise

Choose your conferences carefully. It’s fun and often inspiring to attend lectures on how to do this or that in your story (“Make Your Characters Dynamic!” “Build Conflict!”). And it’s nice to chat with a “real author” who has agreed to critique your work

But conferences aren’t cheap. You can get “how-to” in spades online. And authors, bless us, don’t come to the chat thinking, “Would a publisher be willing to PAY FOR this book?”

With infinite revisions already behind me, I’ve found that someone who comes to my work with that question looming—who has made me do the work to answer it—is the only one who can definitively tell me whether I should revise again.

Okay, so when do you decide, “I’m never revising again”?

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Filed under Finding agents, Learning to write, literary fiction, looking for editors, Myths and Truths, novels, Plot Development, Publishing, Works in progress, Writers' conferences

Is It Worth Your Time to Pitch Your Book?

Book in dramatic sunset landscapeOver at Indies Unlimited not too long ago, I ran across this comment from multi-award-winning author @MJBowersock:

[A]nyone who has not already been published, who is not a name that people recognize and that will draw sales, will not win a publishing contract with a traditional publisher. It’s like winning the lottery. It could happen, but the chances are, it won’t.

That’s not quite the kiss of death to our dreams of one day breaking into the publishing big time (the big houses call themselves “legacy” publishers now, Bowersock says). But it’s close.

Books as stairs to publishing success

So my question is, what about all those conferences that bring in rafts of agents and editors who claim to be starving for new talent (like you and me)? Are they scamming us? Do they consider a day at a conference listening to pitches some sort of paid vacation?

If Bowersock is right, I guess so. And our chances of coming away from a conference with real hopes for a contract are nil. Conferences aren’t cheap. Pitching is scary. Why go through such an ordeal?

Here’s one answer: because there are benefits from pitching to actual editors and agents that you can’t get any other way.

I’m not suggesting that any writer invest thousands of dollars in conferences. But I am arguing that a judicious choice of conference at the right moment in your process can be worth at least as much as what you’re paying for that cover or that expert to format your text—

—Because pitching gives you several kinds of feedback you won’t get from any other source.

Publishing success is like a sunny day

You know what you get from query letters: “Sorry, we’re not the right agency for this book.”

What about your writing group? I consider writing groups essential. But the members of your writing group read as friends and colleagues. They don’t read as business people, charged with making money out of your book.

And therein lies all the difference. They hope to make money off of you!

I’m not plugging for any conference, but I’ve been to quite a few, and I’m sharing my experience. I’ve learned things from pitch sessions that no one else ever told me. I’ll do it again.

If you do decide to pitch, be sure to make your investment count:

  • Be ready. Don’t rush to a pitch session with an unspellchecked draft while you’re still trying to figure out whether your main character’s hair is black or red. Exhaust your writing groups and beta readers first.
  • Review the faculty to make sure you can pitch to people who work with your genre. Make sure they work for good agencies and aren’t just somebody’s Facebook friend.
  • Get one-on-one critiques as well as pitches. If at all possible, pay extra to have the right person at the conference read a query letter or a first page and meet with you so you can ask follow-up questions. Pay for “pitch practice” if you possibly can.

Your words fall into your book!

Here are the kinds of questions you can get answered even if there’s scant hope of a contract. They’re the questions you would pay an editor to answer, and Lord knows good editors aren’t cheap.

Do I know what my book is about?

You can muse all day with your writers’ group about your story question, your main character’s goals, why she can’t achieve them, how her journey ends, and so on.

In a pitch session, you have five minutes to lay it out. Five minutes with a steely eyed editor daring you to make him buy it. Get tongue-tied with that agent smiling ever-so-sweetly at you?

Then you haven’t figured it out.

Seeing that stare glaze over or that smile turn to a frown tells you that it’s time to take a good look at your structure so next time you’ll know what your book is about.

What’s derailing my book?

When was the last time you got a response from a query that said, “Sorry, here’s why we don’t want your book.” [Interject sound of strangled laughter from author]

In contrast, you’re three minutes into your pitch, and Steely Eyes says, “I don’t understand why anyone would do that.” Sweet Smile says, “That sounds like a really unpleasant character.” They both say, “I’m lost.” (Often followed by a specific hint as to where and how the road signs got turned around.)

Yeah, I know, if they’d just read the darn book, they’d get it. But the fact is, you’ve just recited part of the back cover blurb that will make readers buy the darn book, and now you know a few things that can turn readers off.

And you have specific issues beyond just-not-good-enough to consider before your next submission: motivation, characterization, style.

Is my idea the high-concept, totally original, million-dollar gem I think it is?

Agents and editors see hundreds of ideas in your genre. You may well be asked, “How is this different from all the other books I’ve seen recently about crazed werewolves in New Jersey?” That five minutes will tell you whether you know the answer to that.

How does my work stack up with someone who is not my friend?

Really, it all comes down to this one: An agent or editor at a conference does not need to make you feel good.

They don’t need you to be in the mood to give them friendly, constructive advice at the next writing group meeting. They don’t need to keep you happy so you’ll hire them again the next time you need an editor.

They’ll give you your five minutes, but after that, they’ve got twenty other people lined up, one of whom might have THE BOOK they came to the conference to acquire.

So the instant they know your pitch isn’t clicking, they won’t string you along.

Pitching at a conference isn’t the way to learn how to make your structure work or how to make your concept a stand-out. But it’s one sure method of finding out fast how close you are to those goals. The day the frown is accompanied by a business card and a willingness to take a look, you’ll know you’ve finally managed to answer the questions that will sell your book.

Book publishing success

Do you have advice for making the most of pitch sessions? Share!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Kind of Writers’ Conference I’ll Pay For!

What’s not to like about writers’ conferences? They offer terrific opportunities to learn about the craft of writing and the business of publishing from people who know what they’re talking about (as opposed to the neighbor who figures your book can’t be any good since Barnes and Noble didn’t display it on that table right inside the front door).

Of course, there’s the expense. A conference means registration, travel expenses, motels, and sometimes meals (and in my case, board for a rather large dog).

For some, the workshops and lectures and a chance to get autographs on mint copies of presenters’ books may justify those costs.

But if you’re interested in becoming traditionally published, it’s worth stretching your budget for a good conference. A well-chosen conference can give most of us developing writers what no cold query can:

  • A chance to sell ourselves and our work face-to-face, where we can slip a memorable impression into a busy agent’s or editor’s mind.
  • A block of time all our own, instead of the few seconds a hurried intern can spare for that laboriously written letter.
  • A hard-nosed reaction from a publishing professional unfettered by the need to make the writer feel good.

If, like me, those perks are the ones you want from a conference, here are the top five things I look for before I send in my registration form.

1) Location

I don’t want this to come first, but for many of us, it has to. The good news is, you probably don’t have to travel a thousand miles to find a good conference. In the past two years, I’ve attended two within a two-hour drive of my home. Search online, read writing blogs, and network with writers’ groups in your area to get on email lists. Conferences within your range and budget will turn up.

Of course, if you DO travel a thousand miles, make sure it’s someplace fun, since you can deduct the expenses from your taxes if you can show you’re really writing to sell.

2) Pitch sessions*

The right kind of conference for this stage in your writing must offer a chance to meet face-to-face with agents and editors. Most conferences charge a moderate fee for these sessions, but that ten minutes will garner a lot more attention to your work than the dozens of hours you spent honing a query letter that may never get read.

Many conferences offer “pitch practice,” usually also for a fee. Some will allow you to send in a written version of your pitch to be critiqued. Take advantage of these opportunities if possible. With luck, you’ll get voluminous and often painfully honest comments that will propel you into feverish revision the night or morning before your pitch. But that’s the point, isn’t it—to move you to a new level? You’ll get there faster with a push.

3) A chance to submit actual pages for critique

You really have one immediate goal as a writer seeking publication: to be read. Maybe once in a while your query letter elicits a request for pages, but the ultimate response, more often than not, will be “We’re not the right agency for this book.” No reasons. No chance to ask for reasons. (Okay, maybe it will be different for you.)

But at a good conference, you can submit part of your work and then meet with your critiquer to follow up on what worked and what didn’t. Good conferences will assign real agents and editors, empowered to ask for more, to this task.

Yes, you’ll pay extra. And no, your readers might not agree in their assessments, leaving you confused and frustrated, just like your critique group at home. But you’ll hear truths that no warm-hearted “supportive” writers’ group friend will ever tell you! Put on your thickest skin and sign up for as many of these critiques as you can.

4) A range of agents and editors

Conferences will publish the credentials of their faculties beforehand. Follow up on agents’ and editors’ web pages. Go to Amazon and read the first pages of books they have handled. Be sure that at least two or more of the people you can pitch or submit to like the kind of thing you write.

5) Opportunities to socialize with the conference faculty

Some of us are really good at button-holing people we hope to impress. I’m terrible at it. Still, I’d like the chance! A good conference will require its faculty to show up for receptions and banquets. Show up yourself, this time in your bravest skin. You may find that the agent who sorta-kinda-seemed-to-like your pages is also a fan of that obscure Korean horror director you adore. When you send your follow-up query letter, he’ll remember that long chat you shared over wine.

You can’t always tell ahead of time whether this criterion will be met. If it isn’t, make a note for the future, and by all means, include your disappointment on your evaluation form.

It Worked for Me!

I met the agents who sold my first books through the conference process, and since my return to writing after a hiatus, I’ve received far more requests for partials from conference pitches than from written queries. And I’m not even very good at the conference process! But conferences provide me with the best chance to see how people who actually make buying decisions react to what I’m doing.

So once you and your writers’ groups have tweaked your manuscript as much as humanly possible and once you think you’ve done what all those books you’ve read say you should, pick a good conference to see what you’ve achieved.

*A “pitch session” doesn’t call for a synopsis or an elevator pitch. It’s a five-to-ten minute talk (usually breathless on my part) whose sole purpose is to tell the agent or editor what your book is about. The conference will specify how long you have. Maybe you’ll have time to throw in the extras from your full query; maybe not. The hook is what counts. Before you plan yours, search online—advice and examples abound. And if pre-conference pitch critiques or on-site practice is offered, sign up.

What about your experience with conferences! Share!

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What To Do When You Sit Down To Pitch Your Novel In-Person

Good practical (and empathetic) advice on pitching from agent Carly Watters! I’ve had good luck recently from listing about eight plot points to keep me on track. No one seems to mind if I use a page of notes. What about you? What techniques do you use to make your pitch sessions work?

Carly Watters, Literary Agent Blog

After attending conferences around North America for the past 6 years I’ve seen an array of pitching techniques. Some good. Some…not so good. I get it. It’s not easy to pitch your book (your creative project that’s been on your mind for months if not years) to someone sittingin front of you, especially when the stakes are so high for you personally.

Agents can sense thedetermination and fear in the room during pitch sessions. It’s honestly palpable and we can feel your energy.

I find pitch sessions draining and galvanizingat thesame time. Having a new project pitched to me every 7-10 minutes is a lot to wrap my head around and sometimes they bleed into one another. And depending on how conference organizers set things up I could be sitting there for up to 2 hours at a time.

When you sit down:

Relax. Then tell me why you’re sitting…

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Correction to 3 Lessons, 4 Resolutions from the Indiana Writers’ Workshop

An earlier version of my post incorrectly stated that Chuck Sambuchino was in charge of this one-day workshop in Indianapolis on Oct. 24. In fact, he was subbing for another volunteer. The workshop was actually coordinated by Jessica Bell, of Writing Day WorkshopsTypewriter publish. I thought folks might appreciate learning about this organization, if they aren’t already familiar with it. It hosts a range of workshops at different locations around the country, and will definitely be on my list of possible conference options.

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3 Lessons, 4 Resolutions from the Indiana Writers’ Workshop, October 24, 2015

Novel!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

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Creative Nonfiction Conference

Check out this conference if you write creative nonfiction of any sort:

Hippocamp15 bannerAugust 7-9, Lancaster, PA.

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