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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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I’m in Like Flint

I’ve just been reading Becky Lerner’s The Forest for the Trees: An Editor’s Advice to Writers. At least in the first few chapters, Lerner, a poet-turned-editor-turned-agent (and I gather still all of these things), offers advice at one end of a continuum I’ve noticed. Hers is what I would call a “soft” book for writers: strong on inspiration, on the emotional landscape of writing, on how you’ll know if you’re really meant to write and how to persevere through the cold winter of a writer’s disenchantment. At the other end of the continuum: books like Michael Larson’s book on non-fiction proposals, which I downloaded for help writing my proposal for Survive College Writing (a future bestseller currently interred in a massive data dump of all the things I want to say to the students I saw struggle so hard). Larson is in the “how-to” school; this is what you do and this is what it should look like, down to how long paragraphs should be. Quit yer belly-achin’ and just get going. What’s so damn hard?

In the middle I’d place Susan Rabiner’s Thinking Like Your Editor: How to Write Great Serious Nonfiction and Get It Published. This claims to be a how-to, but there’s a good amount of inspiration here–for example, she maintains that if you’re passionate about your topic, your heart will beat through your prose. But there’s also some of that hard-headed get-on-with=it spirit: All the passion in the world won’t help if you don’t do these X or Y Most Important Things.

Reading Lerner, I find myself thinking about the many conferences I’ve attended over the years. Lerner tells ms, forget about writing the next X or Y; forget about “Marley and Me meets ET.” Write what you’re obsessive about, what haunts you. Write the book that’s your book. Thus far, the implication is that if anything is going to sell and hit, that’s the book that will.

The real question is, where’s that line between “what we’ve seen before” and “we don’t know what the heck it is”? Lerner will presumably tell me if I’ve just gone too far, according to one of the Amazon reviews. I will await the event.

If I were in the inspiration queue–I’m not exactly; I know I’ll always write–I would find some solace in sentences like these from Lerner:

“It takes a certain kind of person to understand and cope with rejection as an appraisal instead of a judgment.” (See this post for another take on criticism of our work.)

“[T]he degree of one’s perseverance is the best predictor of success.”

I value information about what’s not working more than ever, and God knows, I persevere.

 

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Update from 1/27!

I’ve revised to add some new more information about Gail Strickland’s book, Night of Pan. Check out her site. I hope she will visit soon for a blog interview about bringing her book to publication.

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Writers’ Conference VII: Post-Coda

I promised to report on the fates of my colleagues at the conference I attended a few years ago.

I obviously don’t know all their stories. Emails began to circulate, friendly requests for updates. Not everyone responded. I did not.

Now that I’m contemplating creating (from scratch) a “platform” for the non-fiction book I’m working on (tentatively titled Survive College Writing: What No One Will Tell You about Your First-Year Writing Class), I realize that not becoming part of that somewhat nostalgic network was a missed opportunity. At the time, it seemed clear to me that my job had hustled any real involvement in my personal projects right off the stage. So I withdrew, sat silent, packed away the emotional energy I wanted to invest in writing in hopes it would ferment in its dark corner. I think it has. I get up ready to write every day.

So with regard to the fate of my colleagues at the conference, all I have to go on is that flurry of emails. About ten people took part.

Of those few, up to the last email I received, only one had found a commercial publisher for the book she pitched at the conference. Gail Strickland found a small press (Curiosity Quills Press) that publishes the kind of book she has written and offers her the kind of support she hoped for. Her book, a YA historical fantasy titled Night of Pan can be pre-ordered through her Web site. I’m hoping Gail will give a blog interview about her experiences taking her book through from idea to promotion; if so, I’ll post the date.

The most impressive of the several self-publishing stories is that of one of the attendees who perfected his pitch (not about zombies) and scored a review from Publishers Weekly Select. John J. Kelley’s The Fallen Snow is worth a look–and I especially admire the attention his hard work at promotion has garnered. He’s gotten wonderful reviews! With his permission, I’ve posted his very informative account of the PW Select process here.

Another attendee ended up self-publishing a cookbook based on her expertise at gardening and raising bees. At last account she was still at work on her fiction.

John found the conference helpful in expanding his options for his work. I am still thinking about what I learned, including what I knew before and how the conference changed what I thought I knew. Even so much later (nearly three years), I still have much to process. I think that will take another post.

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Writers’ Conference Saga: Pre-Coda

My abortive meeting with my assigned editor took place on the penultimate afternoon of the conference. The next morning we were to finish up in a group summary meeting with Our Leader.

For some reason I can’t recall, I was eager to meet with him one more time. I made my way to the conference site before daylight in order to be at the front of the line. Along with a woman with whom I had been friendly, I managed to get a slot at the table as we ate breakfast in a crowded coffee shop. What in the world did I want from him at that point? To salvage something from the ruins of my experience (“Is it time travel? Reincarnation? Oh, wait, he must be already dead!”)? To pitch my other book? Who knows.

I do remember that he rewrote my friend’s pitch, ad hoc, in one breath, and that, were I a fan of such topics, I would have found his version immeasurably better. She still had her meeting ahead of her. So she faced the day armed with his words.

I remember as well talking about my other book, my “Sarah” book. He began excitedly weaving a resolution to the deep personal crisis Sarah faces, one that in my formulation would carry her through three books, each with its own sub-crisis and plot. I said, “That sounds like something to consider for the third book.”

“Oh, no,” he responded. “That’s the first book!”

I have already written the first book. I said, “I write my own books, thanks.”

I don’t recall that he took offense at this. Perhaps he secretly did.

Our final meeting consisted of congratulations for all those (most) who had been invited to submit manuscripts to major New York houses. This fortunate group included my friend, who was now supposed to write the book she had been given. I think he generously pretended that I had been given permission to send along my Sarah book. Then he said something I didn’t expect.

“I worry,” he said, “that you’ll all send in your stuff before it’s ready. Don’t do that. Make sure it’s ready.”

My perhaps ungenerous translation: “My business is running these workshops. I have to be able to say that publications come out of them. Most of you have no manuscripts, just ideas. Most of you have never produced anything like a book-length manuscript. You don’t actually know what you’re getting into. Please, some of you, take the time to write something that won’t waste these editors’ time.”

I find myself thinking about several things, remembering this comment. We were apparently selected to attend, to have the chance to meet with REAL EDITORS, on the basis of a one-page synopsis and a bio. Such application materials gave us the chance to make a preliminary pitch and gave the conference planners a chance to verify that we could actually construct reasonable English prose. But I wonder: is that enough? Are you really ready to write a book if you can sell an idea?

I have learned enough about my writing process to know, that for me, the answer is an emphatic NO. For me, there is nothing so demoralizing as knowing that the book isn’t working but that I must deliver. Write a draft. Share the draft with a conscientious critique group. Yes, it takes more time, with no more guarantees of eventual attention from an agent or publisher than if I had simply mailed off the first chapter and a treatment. But it makes the process rewarding. I can write a book that has a chance of working. Not being a genius, and not having a formula, for me, that is feat enough.

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Paying for It: Story II

Okay, let’s get the rant out of the way so we can move on to practical applications.

Like applying due diligence, perhaps?

It’s embarrassing because my second attempt to purchase good feedback was as much of a foreordained conclusion as the first.

I found this fellow in my search for likely looking conferences and workshops. I don’t actually remember his name. I do have the material he finally sent me (see below), but it supplies only a first name. Perhaps that’s just as well.

The workshop was small, private, held on a major university campus, where I was able to acquire a dorm room. The apparent imprimatur of the university disarmed me. And the workshop itself, me and a couple of other people, working with this genial individual with a bucketful of droppable names, was stimulating, full of good exercises, with some useful discussion of our projects. I was beguiled.

I had two efforts underway. I had decided to rewrite my failed novel. And I had a terrific premise that I had turned into a very rough draft of a screenplay. For $450, this person was to advise me on the screenplay. Then he would partner with me to edit my novel, parts of which I had shared at the workshop. (He did not warn me, as a conference panelist was to do soon thereafter, that revising that novel in hopes some editor would take on a chance on republishing a better version of it was pointless: “If it didn’t sell the first time, why would they think it might sell now?”).

In any case, off he went with my $450.

I waited six months.

I emailed him a couple of times, only to be assured my critique was on the way.

We’re used to this from agents. But I had paid.

I finally wrote and asked that he either send my critique or give my money back.

Bad move? I honestly don’t know. It triggered two things. I got my critique. I also got an email, since lost (as an act of psychological self-defense?), that I remember as a bruising, sarcastic excoriation that I would dare to make such an unprofessional, harassing request.

I’ve fished out the critique. Nine pages. Up to about the midpoint of the script, very detailed discussion of problems interspersed with often-specific praise, focusing largely on the nuances of scriptwriting versus writing prose, help I desperately needed as I was a complete beginner at scripts. Rich as well with the kinds of global comments I also desperately needed to hear: What is the story question? It’s hard to know what this character needs or wants. Too many characters playing redundant roles. Some logical missteps, obvious when pointed out. But at midpoint, I’m told, the story veers so far off course that it doesn’t warrant further comment (“organizing deck chairs on the Titanic”). But then: “Tremendous potential. The ending is emotionally arresting and disturbing, the eoncept is unique.” And finally, a cryptic “Well done.”

Of course, now I couldn’t do what I most wanted: arrange a (paid) follow up meeting to nail down my understanding of the technical advice and to talk through how to make the shift of direction in Act II organic and supportive of my larger hope for the story.

I see now that I could have learned from this man. But, struggling under the devastating collapse of relations (by my doing? by his?), I did a further unprofessional thing. I simply set it all aside. I could persuade myself not to trust it. Did his anger at me color his response to the story? Did he really read past page 55? In the end I gave up on the screenplay, turning the premise into a novel. (And rereading that long-ago critique, I am glad for the reminder to ask that crucial question that I’ve heard myself ask others in our writing group: Do we know what this character wants and needs? Now that I’m back to writing, time to double-check, make sure.)

But the more immediate question is whether I could have prevented these two disasters (begging the question, of course, as to whether they really were disasters). The first one, possibly, by not wanting so badly to be misled. The second one, surely. Preditors and Editors existed then; a quick trip to http://pred-ed.com/general.ht?t1 would have given me the basic advice I should have followed, to wit: a) get a written contract specifying what was to be done and when; b) start small and see how it works out.

In short, good advice is worth paying for, but with much greater caution than I exercised.

 

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Paying for It: Story I

For “book doctor” services, I mean.

I apologize for this long post. This story turned out to take a long time to tell. I apologize as well for what may be my most carping posts, as I have disastrous encounters to report. So you may want to wait for a sunnier discussion. On the other hand, yet again, you may find my mistakes instructive—even though they do tend to fall into the category of “what was she thinking?” if I do say so myself.

At least in each case I wasn’t out more money than I could afford at the time. And I did go into each with the attitude that the money was all I really had to lose.

The first episode occurred when King of the Roses was in its pre-agent, pre-St. Martin’s state: stacks of boxes of typed-upon sheets, not quite as imposing as the purported five feet of manuscript that constituted the original draft of Gone with the Wind, but nothing you could tote in a shopping bag, either. I was very young (excuse).

I met this man at the conference my local university regularly hosted (now defunct, sadly—it was a wonderful conference). I don’t recall exactly how we made contact; I must have approached him after his session. I don’t remember exactly how much I paid, but it would have been less than $500. Of him, I can say this: he was conscientious. He did what he said he’d do, in a timely manner. He read the whole book and regularly sent me sections festooned with comments. Recently, in the process of dumping piles upon piles of old rough drafts, I came across the pages he had edited. I set them in the “save even though you know better” stack, to look back at one day. Did anything he told me help me? Possibly. Good advice, in whatever form, is worth reviewing. It’s so hard to come by.

The bait was his assurance that, once we had chiseled the book into shape, he would put me in touch with the New York editors with whom he had professional relationships. Who wouldn’t spend $500 on that?

What rises to the top, probably flushed out by the memories of what finally happened, are not deep, global insights that would eventually make that book publishable; no, they were idiosyncrasies that left me about where I’d started, still wondering whether my ambitious plot (yeah, they’re all ambitious, more’s the pity) was working and what to do if it wasn’t.

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