Writers Block – Part 5

The final two days of the writers conference went by in alternating rushes and lulls. Our two agents came to chat with us and hear our pitches; one seemed positive about what I’d written and the other bored by it, but as both specialized in non-fiction, hearing what they had to say was an interesting exercise for me, no more. A 50/50 split seemed a fair example of what will probably face me out in the publishing world. Both agents gave solid advice, but what it all boils down to this: if they’re not buying what you’re selling, then you move on. The pitch process is just like auditioning. You may be a bundle of incredible talent, but if you’re a middle-aged white woman who sings alto and the casting folks are looking for a gorgeous young African-American baritone, then you’re not gonna book that gig. You move on. Or better yet, you do your research, find out that they’re not interested in what you have to offer, and you don’t waste your time trying to fit your square peg into their round hole.

For me, the high point of the conference’s last days was finally getting to hear some actual examples of what the other writers could do. Unless we made the time for it ourselves, there was never a point at which we shared portions of our novels with the group. Because the conference was aimed at getting published, it was all about the pitch. I knew that going in, but I really wanted to hear the work of the people I’d gotten to know and like over the past week. Saratoga and I made a private date to read a little of our novels to each other, and I found it extraordinarily helpful – especially because reading the beginning aloud to a human being made me realize how much stronger that beginning needed to be.

I was so pleased with what I’d written for our writing exercise that when the time came to read them aloud, I volunteered to go first. I knew I was going to get dinged for not following the instructions explicitly, but I didn’t care; I wanted Gadfly to stop judging my writing on my pitch alone. What I’d written for the exercise had turned into an actual short story – roughly 1,350 words with an actual beginning, middle and end – and I was tickled to death because I have never considered the short story to be my forte. (As you can tell from my blog posts, I do tend to run on.)

The other writers gave me a hand when I was finished, and I know I must have looked smug. Gadfly seemed startled; he actually complimented me and told me that I should try to get the story published. Then he reverted to form and as anticipated, tried to criticize where I hadn’t followed the instructions. But I didn’t care. I just smiled and said, “I’m sorry I didn’t do it correctly,” and he gave up. All I’d wanted to do was show him that, even though my pitch wasn’t what he thought it should be, I’m not a dummy – I know how to write.

Unfortunately for the other writers, Gadfly made them all mark up their writing assignments to show where they’d followed the instructions and included all the things which were supposed to be included, which I’m sure made it a lot less fun than it had been for me. Still, there was some terrific writing going on. We did another assignment, more of a speed-round thing where we had about 30 minutes to write dialogue, but I didn’t find it challenging – I can write dialogue pretty well, but without developing the characters who speak it, it ended up sounding facile and overly clever. Again, many of the other writers did a great job, but some chose not to do the assignments. I can appreciate that; writing on demand, on a topic not of your own choosing all the while trying to follow fairly persnickety instructions, can be cramping rather than freeing. But what I found intriguing were the absences. More and more, writers would step out of the sessions, not just for a smoke break or to go to the bathroom, but just disappear for fifteen or twenty minutes. A couple of writers didn’t show up at all. One decided to sleep in rather than attend a morning session; another simply went shopping instead of coming back for an afternoon meeting. I could tell that Gadfly was irked, but I wish I’d had their chutzpah; long portions of the final two days of the conference were spent listening to Gadfly pontificate, and it was dull as dishwater.

Over the course of the week, Gadfly had done a lot of self-promoting. He claimed to be an agent but we couldn’t find him listed on querytracker.net or any other listing of agents. We’d been required to buy and read his book prior to the conference, but we never made use of it in our sessions even though the story of getting it published would certainly have served as an object lesson for us. I looked up the publisher and discovered that it was a non-profit rather than a commercial publishing house. That seemed odd as well, particularly as Gadfly shut down any discussion of the new opportunities in independent publishing via Amazon.com – although interestingly enough, our guest author/speaker had told us that he was selling his older titles that way and was making money at it. Gadfly’s constant posturing and attempts at positioning himself as a major player in the literary world rang false, and I wondered if the writers who opted out of the sessions were showing Gadfly that they weren’t buying what he was selling any more.

Wonder of wonders, our final sessions with Gadfly were to be private, one-on-one meetings during which he would actually READ a portion of our novels. The conference was to end early Sunday afternoon; since some writers needed to head home Sunday morning, Gadfly started these final meetings Saturday in the late afternoon, until it was time for dinner. We all went out together to a place of Gadfly’s choosing, and he kindly picked up the bar bill. We were joined by an individual whom I can only call Gadfly’s protege (or perhaps fan); this 60-ish gentleman was an as-yet unpublished writer who had attended FOUR of Gadfly’s conferences. FOUR. It boggled the mind. The gentleman was seated at my end of the table and talked incessantly about his books in progress (of which one was a what-if involving domesticated rhinoceri) to the point that three of us had to excuse ourselves and go outside for a smoke (none of us smoked). At least my meal was good. We got our bills and I paid up and made a visit to the ladies’ room, but when I came out I discovered that there had been an altercation at the far end of the table. Gadfly had mixed it up with yet another writer (yet another female writer). Gadfly was standing off by himself looking wrathful; the female writer (whom I shall call Dauber) had gone to the ladies’ room – I must have just missed her. Eventually she came out, angry and upset, and we headed back.

The writers adjourned to a different location and we had ourselves a little drinking party. After a while Dauber joined us, still a bit shell-shocked, and we proceeded to pick apart and examine the conference. The consensus seemed to be that while Gadfly was clearly a jerk and may not have been everything he purported to be, we’d all gotten useful information out of the conference. Whether we’d be able to recommend it to any other writers remained up in the air.

For my part, I was most grateful to have spent time with this particular group of people: writers who were supportive of each other’s work, every one of them willing to work hard, and not just to be published but to be good – something Gadfly had brushed past in his emphasis on pitching the novel.

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