Category Archives: conferences

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Reflections on my first writer’s conference

I attended my very first writer’s conference this past weekend: The Writer’s Digest Annual Conference and participated in the Pitch Slam. During the Pitch Slam, writers received 3-4 minutes with an agent—half of that time was meant for their pitch and the other half was allotted for the agent to provide feedback on the pitch and viability of the book. Many of the pitches I heard on Saturday were very well thought out, concise and clear. However, I did also make several observations that I hope aspiring authors reading this will take to heart when attending their next conference.

Unfocused pitches were not nearly as ubiquitous as I would have expected, but there were still some writers who delved into plot specifics way too deeply. Now usually this wouldn’t be so bad, but remember that writers only had 90-120 seconds to pitch their book, and those with meandering, seemingly aimless, pitches often ended up speaking the entire time, which left agents, such as myself, no time to respond. The whole point of a pitch slam is to provide writers with feedback and help them perfect their pitch. That’s not possible if the agent doesn’t get a chance to respond. Instead, the truly standout pitches told me everything I needed to know in a short amount of time: genre, word length, comp titles, and quick character and plot descriptions. And the best of the best also incorporated a nifty tagline to capture my attention. (Click here for more helpful advice how to pitch your book.)

Now my conversations with writers who didn’t take too much time to pitch their book typically went one of two ways. Either I was impressed with their pitch and preparation and we engaged in a short, but lively, discussion, or I mentioned a few areas where he/she could improve. Most took my suggestions into consideration and were very grateful for the advice. After all, that’s what the event is for. Yet, there were some who became defensive, if not downright argumentative. Criticism is never easy to hear, and you absolutely shouldn’t take anything one person says as gospel, but there’s a time and place for lengthy explanations and vehement disagreements. During a 3-minute pitch session isn’t one of them.

Lastly, don’t be so uptight and competitive with your fellow aspiring authors! People line waiting to pitch their book often gave others dirty looks or were so noticeably anxious that I felt a little bad. It’s not the end of the world if someone inadvertently goes over the time limit during their pitch. Remember that another aspect of these conferences is to try and make some connections, so present yourself in an amiable, professional manner. And relax. Agents put their pants on one leg at a time, just like you.

All in all, my first conference was very enjoyable and quite productive. I heard a lot of great pitches, and sample pages from writers I met on Saturday are starting to flood my inbox. I’m looking forward to my next one!

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Whatever Works

During a very energizing few days at the Santa Barbara Writers’ Conference last week, I had the pleasure of spending time with fellow agents as well as a lot of authors—published and yet to be—and I practically O.D.’d on some of the best tacos known to man (El Sitio at 2830 De La Vina St., I’m lookin’ at YOU.)

One of the highlights of my stay was attending a panel of newly-published authors who were eager to talk about the craft of writing. An audience member asked them at  one point what their “process” was. It’s a legitimate question, because it seems to me that no two authors have the same process for writing and, Lord knows, that process is not always a steady one. It can vary depending on a writer’s moods, not to mention demands both personal and professional that always threaten to encroach on writing time. Lida Sideris, author of the mystery thriller Murder and Other Unnatural Disasters, answered, “I don’t have a process. I write by the seat of my pants. No one was more surprised at who the culprit was than me.”  Another panelist, Stephen Vessels, (The Mountain and the Vortex) warned of the danger of procrastination. “THINKING about writing can take an enormous amount of time,” he said. “You can THINK about writing instead of ACTUALLY writing for years.” That would seem to tie in with the mantra that succesful authors urge upon neophytes: Write every day. Sometimes that can mean setting yourself a goal of a certain number of words or pages. If it’s ultimately not usable or requires heavy editing, fine—those are decisions that can be made later.  You can’t edit a blank page.

But there are also successful authors who depend on a germination period before they sit down to write. They may need to take time to develop possibilities and choose among them; to let stories grow in their head before the actual writing begins. They may outline the arc of a plot before actually beginning a novel.

Whatever your process is, it is just that—your process. It’s what works best for you. Would anyone like to chime in and let us know what your particular system is? I’m always eager to hear about that.

Pitch, pitch, pitch!

I’ve had pitching on the brain recently in all Its forms. On the baseball side, my son Henry has been obsessed with the fact that the Yankees’ closer Aroldis Chapman can throw over 100 MPH. And I’m dreading the fact that I have to pitch Saturday morning for my son’s little league team, having been a terrible pitcher all my life. Overhand, underhand, I just can’t seem to get the ball consistently over the plate…

But MUCH more relevantly, I ran a workshop at the SCBWI Northern California conference a couple of weeks ago on querying and pitching, and I found the results fascinating. After walking the attendees through the elements of a basic query letter, I asked them to take five minutes to put together an elevator pitch for their work. Immediately, hands went up to remind me that SCBWI does NOT allow unsolicited pitching at their conferences. To which I countered that writing a pitch is an important exercise for writers, because it helps to summarize one’s work and identify the key selling point of a story—plus, if anyone ever asks you what your book is about (which never happens, right?), you’ll have a clear answer ready to go.

So, once I convinced them it was a worthwhile exercise, I shared with them Thrillerfest’s “What if… so what?” method, which I highly recommend as a starting point. Basically, you want a pitch that’s 25 words or less that describes your book as a “what if” question so that it makes the listener respond with a “so what” question, i.e., so what happens next? And I shared a few kid-specific “What if” pitches that I thought would get most listeners to ask “so what?”:

  • What if a cat with a silly hat causes mayhem trying to entertain two kids on a rainy day?—Dr. Seuss, 19 words
  • What if an orphan discovers he’s a wizard and is sent to a secret school for witchcraft?—JK Rowling, 17 words
  • What if a naughty boy sails away to where the wild things are?—Maurice Sendak, 13 words
  • What if a teenager risks her soul to love a vampire boyfriend?—Stephanie Meyer, 12 words

After their five minutes were up, we went around the room sharing what they came up with, and I have to say, I was absolutely blown away—virtually every pitch made the books sound intriguing and well-developed. And for those that didn’t quite get it, they were able to revise on the spot and come up with something more effective.

Now, whether their manuscripts live up to their pitches is another question. But I will say that the queries I’ve received since the conference that lead with their pitches have certainly gotten my attention. So if I may, I highly recommend checking out the Thrillerfest formula and working out a pitch that sings—even if you never use it in public!

And if I can make a final pitch to you, wish me luck pitching on Saturday. Regrettably, I’m going to need it…

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Scholars going trade

I’ve been running between conferences—there have been three this month (I’m still not sure how I managed to schedule that) and remiss in posting.   I have, however, been talking myself hoarse, so I thought I might repurpose some of the material I’ve been presenting–in my newly gravelly voice–here on the blog.

Last week I had the good fortune to head down to Emory University, where the campus was in full and spectacular bloom, and I had the opportunity to meet with faculty in various stages of the book-writing process.  Some were at work on scholarly  monographs aimed primarily at an audience of their peers–the tenure book, the promotion book, etc–but others were at a point in their careers with the ability, freedom or inclination to reach out to a broader audience of smart but non-expert readers.  And that’s where I came in–explaining the role of a literary agent, discussing the market, and dispensing some advice for scholars interested in writing for a general or “trade” readership.

I used the elements of a  nonfiction proposal as the scaffold for my talk. I feel like the proposal is a good lens for understanding what publishers are looking for, and as difficult as good proposals are to write (weird hybrids that they are: part argument for the book, part blueprint, part marketing document), each discrete piece has a purpose.   The presentation, given in conjunction with Eric Schwartz, Editorial Director  of Columbia University Press, is reported on in detail here, but I’ll mention a few points that crop up again and again, and not just with clients with many initials behind their names.

First, lead with the story.  Too often I find that authors cannot resist the opportunity to analyze their own project—to immediately let me in on the tropes they’re subverting or the universal themes they’re tackling to explain: What.The.Book.Means.  To which I say: not so fast.  Before we get to the broad brush and the big ideas,  I want to be rooted in the particulars of the tale—true or fictional–the writer is telling. Tell me the story, and start, if you can, with the exciting bits.   Also, that story must be written in lively, lucid prose, scrubbed of the passive voice, double-scrubbed for jargon (including but not limited to: “trope,”  “problematic” used as a noun, “legitimate” as a verb, etc). I let writers know that it’s really okay to use the first person, to deploy some levity in their discussion, and above all, to establish a voice that is uniquely, unapologetically their own.  I’m a firm believer that scholarly integrity and readability are not mutually exclusive.

I love working with academics, experts, scholars—it’s thrilling to be exposed to first-class thinkers, big ideas, and dizzying levels of expertise.  It can take folks a bit of practice to shrug off the conventions of their discipline, but if they can figure out how to deploy their theory lightly and channel deep reservoirs of knowledge into fluid, clear writing, then more often than not, they’ve  got the makings of an extraordinary  book.

 

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Conference Tips

It feels like winter in NYC today so I’m dreaming of summer travel…and I’m excited to have a few writers’ conferences in my summer plans! I will be at Carnegie Books-in-Progress conference in Lexington, KY, and Killer Nashville in, well, Nashville in August! Conferences are wonderful opportunities for writers to learn more about their craft, connect with other writers for support, and meet industry professionals such as yours truly for advice and feedback. If you have a writers’ conference in your area I strongly suggest you consider attending!

But did you ever wonder what we, the agents, get out of it?

Hmmmm. Good question. 

After all, we’re giving up our time – our precious reading time! often our precious weekends! – to travel across the country and mingle with strangers! Well, I can only speak for myself, but I love getting out of NYC to see a different part of the country and meet editors and agents who might be based outside New York or whose paths I haven’t crossed yet. Most of all, though, I love meeting writers who are passionate about their stories and willing to spend their time and money to get better at telling them. As an agent, I’m always hungry for my next amazing project, and a conference offers me a veritable buffet of talent and hard work. Every project might not be to my taste, but I have pretty good odds of finding one or two or ten that I will be dying to sign up. The inspiration refill alone is well-worth a weekend of hotel coffee.

Candid shot of me, post-hotel coffee,
preparing to meet writers and hear pitches!

I always want to make sure, though, that I’m offering something valuable to the attendees who chose to meet me or attend my workshop or panel during their busy conference time! So I found this Tumblr post How to Panel Like a Lit Champ to be very detailed and helpful. I will for sure be bookmarking it to re-read next time I’m preparing for a talk or panel. And the final piece of advice applies to all of us, no matter what part of the industry we’re in, querying writer or autograph signer, editorial assistant or high-powered agent: “It doesn’t matter if you are the most famous or the least famous in the room / on the panel, be nice. Stay classy.”

 

Be nice. Stay classy. 

 

Now I want to hear from you. What do you consider most valuable when you’re attending a panel? Pet peeves or top tips from your conference experiences?  

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Trans 2

I wrote a post a couple of months ago about the fact that transgender books are currently enjoying a big moment, particularly in the Young Adult and Middle Grade spheres.  I’m thinking again about that now, thanks to an encounter I had last weekend. I was in Old Forge, NY in the Adironacks to make an appearance as a speaker at the Ascent writers’ sojourn led by David Hazard. Just prior to the event, Hazard was also leading a workshop for aspiring writers at View, Old Forge’s invaluable regional arts center, and I joined him and some of the participants afterward for a drink. I soon found myself deep in conversation with a diminutive, affable, 50-ish fellow whom I’ll call Bill. Bill was considering the possibility of writing a memoir. It wasn’t until around fifteen minutes into our conversation that he told me that, many years before, he was Belinda.

I’ve always thought I was pretty good at sussing out these things, but Bill had had me completely fooled. I never would have taken him for anything but a guy. The longer we spoke, the more he told me about his life and his transition. There’s quite a story there, and I encouraged him to think seriously about putting it down.

Thanks to the likes of Caitlyn Jenner and Laverne Cox, we’re hearing more about what it means to be transgender. And Alex Gino’s justly praised novel George is now giving Middle Graders an idea of what it’s like to be a boy who knows he’s a girl. But the female-to-male transgender process has received less scrutiny. I’m looking forward to a whole new wave of fiction and non-fiction that will help us better understand what it’s like to be a transgender male. And when the major publishers find themselves with a glut of transgender projects, and reach the point where they feel it will only interest a “niche” audience—as they eventually did with gay and lesbian-themed books–I hope trans people will continue to tell their stories through self-publishing. There are some amazing lives out there; they are tales waiting to be told. We still have a lot to learn about this increasingly visible part of our society.

Just Breathe

 

Thrillerfest, the International Thriller Writers’ annual convention, was held earlier this month and, as I’ve done each of the past several years, I participated in its event known as PitchFest. Over the course of two and a half hours, in a kind of agent-author speed-dating setup, I spoke with nearly twenty aspiring thriller writers for an allotted span of ten minutes each.

I heard some good pitches, and asked several writers to send me their manuscripts. I’d gotten lucky at PitchFest two years ago, when I signed up the French Canadian Secret Service member Simon Gervais. He had a crackling idea for a spy thriller—and who better to write it? That manuscript, THE THIN BLACK LINE, was ultimately acquired by Lou Aronica of The Story Plant, and it is now burning up the amazon charts, particularly in its Kindle edition. Since then I am eager to get to PitchFest each July to find out what other promising debut writers I might meet, because—you never know.

But this year I heard something that left me a bit rattled. Sure, there’s a lot of tension behind  the scenes at a make-it-or-break-it event like this, where an author has everything riding on the impression he or she will make, and on whether they have developed and presented the right “elevator pitch.” Many of them have paid dearly to take time off work and to self-finance a trip to New York for the chance to pitch their big project. This was the first time, however, that I heard that some attendees were so nervous just before PitchFest that they were hyperventilating, and that some were even close to the point of passing out! Yikes. If that means we agents have a certain power, I don’t like that kind of power. I don’t want to be a figure who is capable of putting someone into a state of such distress at the prospect of facing my yea or nay.

We’re all in this together. We need each other, and we agents are only as good as the writers we represent. Without our writers, we would have no business; we would not be making a living; and I, for one, would be missing out on the deep and nourishing connection I enjoy with the authors I’m lucky enough to claim as my clients.

So if you are a writer attending a similar conference, trust in your own talent, and know that you’ll be at your best if you can try to adopt a Zen attitude and relax. We agents are there because we are eager to meet you, and because we don’t want to let The Big One slip through our fingers. Together, we can make it work.

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Right Behind You

Yesterday I had an interesting–and rather bracing–exchange with a writer whose work I read, admired, and ultimately, after much time and consideration, decided not to represent. I’d sent her a note that was well-meaning but bland; I wrote that I’d not “fallen in love” with the material, and without the ability to be a wholehearted champion for the work, that I didn’t feel I could represent it. I got a civil but pointed note back, urging me to reconsider–not my decision–but the very pat “didn’t fall in love” phrase that has become the book world’s answer to “it’s not you, it’ s me.” This writer pointed out that it’s patronizing and more or less reviled by authors. I agreed that it is an easy shorthand, the catch-all diagnosis of the publishing business. But perhaps we who work with words have a certain responsibility to be a little less lazy when stringing them together.

Still, turning people talented people down is never easy, and we agents are often wrong. I’m at a writer’s conference now, and every editor and agent here has a tale of the book that got away—or more precisely, the book we failed to see.

Taste is apallingly subjective, and sometimes it’s hard to put a fine point on exactly what drives my reservations. More often than not, it’s a combination of factors; undeveloped storyline, characters with whom I’d rather not pass 350 pages, utter lack of editorial vision for how to place it. Sometimes I read the testaments of lives of people far braver and more extraordinary than I will ever be, but I worry that the telling does not match the tale, or the story is suited to a smaller circle of readers than most publishers would wish to reach.

I grumble and occasionally rail at the rejection letters I receive as well, but is there a way to soften the blow? Many notes I send are form rejections. We try hard to craft one that is professional and respectful, though it is by definition impersonal. It would be impossible to respond to all the mail that we receive. But know that despite all the maladroit notes and form letters, the late responses and the missed chances, most agents really do get it. We get the frustration, the disappointment, we respect your efforts and exist to support them. True, the works in question are not our own, but they are our livelihood, a reflection of our taste, our ideals, and often long collaborative efforts. It would be absurd to imagine that my emotional stake in a book is as great as that of its creator, but we agents are right behind you.

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Stealing Horses at Grub Street

I’m writing on the train home from Boston, where I spent three days at Grub Street’s Muse and the Marketplace conference.  It was a whirlwind of activities, pitch sessions and manuscript critiques. In addition to meeting a host of promising new writers, I was happy to be able to attend a couple of panel discussions.   I sat in on a workshop taught by two of my Boston-based clients, Adam Stumacher (whose short story “Subject, Object ,Verb” was just named a finalist by Narrative Magazine)  and Qais Akbar Omar, whose memoir A Fort Of Nine Towers: An Afghan Family Story, was published by FSG. Together, they tackled the important but thorny marriage of “politics and prose,” looking at how writers can effectively grapple with political themes in their work.  Adam, who teaches writing at Grub Street, and Qais, who has an MFA from BU but is a storyteller of the Afghan tradition (he’s a definite outlier in the MFA versus NYC debate) came at the subject quite differently, but in complementary ways.

Through readings of their own work, as well as selections from writers like Isaac Babel and Anton Chekhov, Stumacher and Omar reminded the audience that the job of the writer is to render accurately, to tell a story without judgement—and to resist the urge to proselytize.  Here’s Chekhov, in a celebrated and often quoted letter:  “When I depict horse thieves, you want me to say that stealing horses is wrong. But surely this has long been known without me saying so. Let the jury condemn them, but it is my job simply to show them as they are.”

Because I am interested in projects that engage global issues, I often get query letters for works of fiction that promise to draw attention to the plight of a worthy and under-represented story.  Much as I may agree with the writer’s impulse, I am invariably suspicious of the means they employ. Too often the political novel features characters that are simply mouthpieces, sock puppets rehearsing the views of their creators, or straw men waiting to be knocked down.  I’m all for the novel (and memoir)  of ideas, but only when it doesn’t  lean so heavily on a theme that the story is lost.  Like most readers, I don’t like being told what to think.  Instead, I want to see the situation clearly and formulate my own emotional and intellectual response.

What authors do you think do this particularly well?

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Real live agents!

Last week I had the pleasure of meeting with students at the University of Tulsa. The screenwriting program organizes this Agents’ Summit biannually to give students, faculty, and interested community members the chance to meet agents  – real live agents! – and learn about the ins and outs of finding representation for your book, screenplay, or theatrical play.

IMG_3261

It’s the most important part of any conference…the COFFEE

Or, as the coordinating professor told me, “Now our students get to see that you aren’t scary!”

He continued, “We want them to take their work seriously and understand its potential. We want them to realize they can apply for internships! We want them to keep writing!”

The visit was a very inspiring experience – the campus was beautiful, downtown Tulsa is full of amazing coffeeshops and interesting museums, and most importantly, the students were so bright, interested, and creative. They asked smart, thoughtful questions, like “What one quality are you looking for most in a query?”* and “How much should I change my book to fit what is popular right now?”**

It was a great reminder that in the daily grind of answering emails, reviewing contracts, and evaluating proposals, I also get to work with gifted writers who love putting stories on paper and sharing them with readers. Even when it’s hard or lonely work, even when they have to be brave enough to share the results of that work with “not scary” agents like me! And it’s exciting to know that there are a bunch of young writers out there getting ready to follow in their footsteps.

What questions have you always wanted to ask a “real live agent”? What keeps you motivated to work on your writing when you get discouraged? 

 

*We all said things on the variety of “Voice!” and “Characters we can’t forget about.” 

**Not at all! It’s important to be familiar with your category and think about where you would find your readers…but it’s also important to write the best book you can write, based on the inspiration that’s driving you. Don’t chase the market – it might be gone by the time you get there, and then you’ll be stuck with a book you aren’t invested in.