The conference went on, with all of us trying to revise our novel pitches into something that would pique an agent or publisher’s interest. A pitch, for those with an interest in these things, is a short description of your novel, including its setting, major plot points and characters, couched in terms that make it sound both original and exciting, all in the space of 150-200 words if written, or in about two minutes if spoken. If that sounds hard, it is. Oh, and you also have to give “comparables” – books which are similar in style or thrust to yours – as well as a brief description of yourself and your qualifications to write said book. This is called a “platform.”
I found it extremely difficult to write my pitch. I thought I’d written a good novel, with bright, interesting characters and a strong plot, but based on my pitch, Gadfly told me it was nothing special. Expanding on that, he told me my pitch lacked a hook and an original premise. Since I was writing fantasy, I needed something that would make my novel stand out from the crowd. Even thought he hadn’t read Word One of my novel, I knew Gadfly was right, but I couldn’t figure out how to emphasize the novel’s strong points within the strictures of the pitch form. Beyond pointing out the flaws in my pitch, Gadfly wasn’t a lot of help; he had very strong opinions about what would or wouldn’t sell. He hated my main character’s name and told me there were too many characters with the same name (I did some research and couldn’t find one). He was particularly enamored of steampunk and suggested it not only to me but to at least one other fantasy writer in the group. Some of his suggestions bordered on trying to write my book for me, and I could feel myself digging in my heels, which meant I was going nowhere. By midday I was feeling hopeless. Some of my fellow writers were in the same camp, but the majority of them were scribbling away on new pitches – some of them with completely new plots and characters – which we were expected to present that afternoon. In two days we would be pitching our novels to a couple of real agents, so the pressure was on. I wasn’t willing to pitch major rewrites until I knew where I was headed, so I told Gadfly I felt like my legs had been cut out from under me, and to my surprise, he promised to work with me that evening after dinner.
Saratoga and Oz were also unhappy. Saratoga’s solution was to put the novel she’d pitched aside and pitch a different one altogether, but neither Oz nor I had that option. Oz had come a long way to the conference, at considerable expense, and she said she was thinking about chucking it all and going to NYC, just to get some fun out of the trip. After we broke for the day she had a meeting with Gadfly that turned hostile (no surprise). We went to dinner and commiserated. When I got back I talked with Gadfly about my pitch issues. I told him that I understood and agreed with many of his criticisms, but that I couldn’t simply jettison everything I’d written just to come up with something that had a sexy marketing hook, not in two days. I also refused to change my main character’s name, or the setting of the story. He was annoyed, but not excessively so. While he met with two other writers, I sat at the dining room table with a glass of wine and knocked out a pitch that while not brilliant, at least was a little more palatable to Gadfly and still true to the novel I’d written. I even shared my bottle with Gadfly, who seemed to appreciate it.
The next morning I was up early (I hadn’t been sleeping much anyway; few of us had) and as I made my tea, Gadfly came out on the landing above. “Good morning, Miss Stubborn!” he said to me, and I just smiled and said, “That’s me.” The pressure was off for the morning; we had a guest speaker, a respected but not big-name author who was also a teacher, and he fielded our questions about the writing life. He was friendly and comforting and full of wonderful advice, and I felt as if I’d been thrown a life-preserver of sanity in the midst of all our writing turmoil. We broke for lunch, then it was back to the pitches. I presented my revised pitch to general approval, but I felt that while all of us now knew what Gadfly was asking for and were largely able to deliver it, there was still a lot of tension and unhappiness in the room. Things weren’t helped along when we discovered that neither of the two agents we’d be pitching the next day dealt in fiction.
For a change, Gadfly had given us an actual writing exercise to do for the following day, and I was so grateful not to have to work on my pitch any more that ideas were almost spewing out of me. I sat at the dining table with laptop, wine and good music feeding through my earphones, and wrote almost nonstop. Our guest speaker had told us about writing with his computer screen turned off so he didn’t disturb his flow by editing as he went; I didn’t go so far as that, but I did decide to go to bed without the extensive editing that I normally do after I write something. I poured Gadfly a glass of wine and went to bed, and for a change, I actually slept.
The first full day of the conference began with breakfast at 8:30. Breakfast at the conference was “catered” by the local chain supermarket, meaning that Gadfly would order it in advance and then go pick it up. I found this was also the case for lunch. Since my room was in the conference’s main building, I was usually around to help set the meals up, and unfortunately, usually around to clean up afterwards. Gadfly worked alone and as nearly as I could tell, rarely washed a dish. Some of the other writers helped out on occasion, but as the week wore on I found myself spending the morning washing the previous day’s dishes and cleaning up the kitchen in preparation for the day ahead. Gadfly always thanked me, but I really wished that some kind of provision had been made for housekeeping instead of leaving the chores to chance (and the writer with the least tolerance for a dirty kitchen).
Texas was still in an unsettled mood as the writers gathered for our first session. She had talked to Gadfly a little bit and was willing to give the conference another shot. However, as the session began it was more of the same unpleasantness: each writer would pitch their novel and Gadfly, with varying degrees of hostility, would rip it to shreds. Of the thirteen writers, four were men and once again, it seemed to me that Gadfly went easier on them, or at least toned down the sneering and sighing and eye-rolling. Gadfly seemed particularly intolerant of the “women’s fiction” genre, and as three writers had novels in this vein (including Texas), it made for some uncomfortable moments. In addition, Gadfly would rarely let a writer get more than a few words into a pitch before interrupting and peppering the writer with questions.
I could see Texas getting angrier and angrier. She was actually sitting with her back to Gadfly, so I could watch her face. We were meeting in the common area of the main building – a small space for fourteen, including laptops and other paraphernalia, and since there were not enough chairs some people stood or plopped on the floor. After the session had gone on for a couple of hours one of the women begged for a smoke break and Gadfly grudging granted it (later on Gadfly refused to allow general breaks, and we were brusquely informed that if we needed a break, to “just take it”). A couple of the other writers went back to their own buildings and returned with more chairs, and I found myself wondering why Gadfly hadn’t arranged sufficient seating. I’d gotten one of my bed pillows to cushion the back of my own chair; I was sitting at the dining table, and the chairs were not conducive to hours of sitting and sitting.
When we broke for lunch, many of the writers looked a little shell-shocked. Little clumps would gather to murmur, and I started hearing Gadfly’s credentials questioned, usually with “Did you read Gadfly’s book?” as the opening gambit (I had struggled to finish it, and over the course of the conference, discovered that the vast majority of the writers had given up on it midway through). Texas told me she was pretty sure she was going to leave that evening; that the conference was not at all what she expected and that she could not tolerate more of Gadfly’s hectoring.
After lunch we reconvened, and any hopes I’d harbored about being excused from a repeat performance of the previous night’s cudgeling were in vain. I had to give my pitch again and suffer through the same criticisms, this time in front of everyone. I was able to shrug it off (been there, done that), but by the time a gentle, grandmotherly mystery writer was trying to make her pitch over Gadfly’s interruptions and interjections of disdain, many of us were wincing and muttering protests, and it was clear Texas was at the end of her patience. I had realized earlier that Gadfly would not accept any disagreement; I’d gently challenged Gadfly’s statement that the Harry Potter books were written in multiple third-person narrative voice (it’s third person limited – we only get Harry’s point of view), but rather than admit a potential mistake, Gadfly got hostile. I tried to keep the discussion light and bet Gadfly $20 that I was right, but it was clear that I’d stepped over the line.
Texas, however, wasn’t in a mood to pull punches. She was on her feet and facing Gadfly for the first time that day, and the verbal fray began. There was no winner; Gadfly met Texas’ cold anger with a snotty hauteur of his own while the rest of us squirmed and Grandma protested that she didn’t need defending. Fortunately the day was just about over and we were all on our own for dinner. As we adjourned, I had a quiet conversation with Texas, who told me she was packed and would be headed home as soon as everyone had gone. She told me she thought maybe writing wasn’t for her, and that made me cry. I told her that I supported her decision to leave, but that she could not, could NOT let Gadfly kill her writing. I gave her a hug goodbye and went to change clothes; when I came back Gadfly was the only one in the common area and he asked me how Texas was doing. I said, “she’s leaving,” and Gadfly made noises of disappointment. “Oh, come on,” I said. “You must have known that was going to happen.” Then I got up and left.
I went to dinner with the remaining two “chick lit” writers, whom I’ll call Saratoga and Oz. I liked them both immediately; Oz was scrappy and determined and Saratoga was a wellspring of information. We had a nice waiter and the food was good, and my spirits were somewhat restored by the time we got back. But I found the bedroom across the hall from mine empty. The rumpled bedding and a single towel draped across the doorknob were the only evidence that the room had ever been occupied. Texas was gone.
(I begin this blog post with a parenthetical caveat: because I came away from my writers’ conference with mixed feelings, I’m not going to give you its name or location or any particulars. I’ve found that conferences in general and this one in particular seem to polarize people, and I’d rather this blog didn’t become a battleground, particularly as I allow anonymous comments. If you really want to know details, you can ask me for them privately.)
My big Christmas gift this year was that my husband John paid the steep fee (which included five nights’ accommodations as well as breakfast and lunch) for the writers’ conference I’d chosen to attend. I’d already applied and been accepted, but the moment that the fee was paid, I started getting anxious. Not butterflies-in-the-stomach anxious, but hard-knot-in-the-throat, can’t-sleep-at-night, what-have-I-done anxious. In other words, I panicked. The main thrust of this particular conference was on getting the book published, and I just didn’t know if I was at that place yet.
The conference required a LOT of pre-event homework, too. I had four books to read, three of which were written by dead white guys and the fourth by the person running the conference. Hmm. I read them all; liked two and hated two, and I’ll let you guess into which camp the only living writer’s book fell. There was also a workbook, which I only skimmed. There were some writing assignments as well. Some of them were quite useful, but I still can’t figure out what others were supposed to accomplish, as they were never addressed in the actual conference. Still, I felt that I was working toward a goal, and all this hoop-jumping was going to get me to that goal in time.
The day of the conference’s start finally arrived, so with one suitcase for clothing and another for laptop, books, papers and other writing accoutrement, I kissed my husband and was off on my Great Adventure. It was a pretty day for a drive and I got there early, but I wasn’t the earliest: of the thirteen writers attending the conference, at least two had beaten me there. The upside of getting there first was that we got first dibs on accommodations. Each writer had a private room but had to share a bathroom with up to three other writers; I could deal with that but was disappointed to find that the tiny bedrooms contained a bed, a dresser, a lamp and nothing else; i.e. no desk or other work surface. That meant any writing would have to be accomplished crouched on our beds, or in the common areas. As you can imagine, I wasn’t too thrilled.
The downside of arriving early was that the three of us got the full attention of the individual running the conference, whom I shall call Gadfly. In my pre-conference research, I’d found a blog in which a previous conference attendee had stated that Gadfly’s M.O. was be very hard on people at first, so I was ready for that. What I wasn’t ready for was the level of scorn.
After hearing us briefly describe our novels (in writer/publisher parlance, this is called “the pitch”), Gadfly told us, not mincing words, that what we’d written was nothing special and that no publisher would ever buy it. To have come to this conclusion without having read a word of what we’d written seemed to me the height of arrogance, but I was able to control myself even though I was seething inside. The other two writers had different reactions: one, a young man who was writing a science fiction novel, seemed philosophical about his dressing down (I must mention that Gadfly was not as hard on him). The other writer, a woman whom I’ll call Texas, had written a semi-autobiographical piece of some length. She was clearly upset by Gadfly’s harshness, and for his part, Gadfly seemed to enjoy her distress and slammed her even harder when she protested.
The other writers were arriving during all this, and eventually we headed off to dinner together. I tried to shake off the unpleasantness and get to know the other writers – all white, many middle-aged, all of us earnestly hoping to get something positive out of the week-long conference. Most of us chattered away but Texas was still stunned and alternated between staring into space and going out to smoke. When we got back to our digs, she told me she wanted to leave, and I urged her to stick with it, at least for another day. Since we had an early start to our day, most of us went to bed fairly early, but I tossed and turned all night, wondering what in the world the next day would bring.
(I end this post with yet another parenthetical, this time about anonymous posters. If you post a comment and you’re not registered with Blogger, you’ll be posting as Anonymous. If several people post as Anonymous and we get into a dialogue, things rapidly become confusing. If you want to comment and don’t want to register with Blogger, then at least sign your comment – your real name, particularly if we know each other, would be nice – but if you’d like to stay anonymous, a pseudonym will do.)
I mentioned in yesterday’s blog that I had been doing some creative writing – wasn’t that coy of me? Actually, I’ve written most of my life, but I’ve always kept the creative stuff to myself. It’s an anomaly – as an actress, most of my life is an open book, but the idea of letting anyone read what I’ve written is oddly unsettling. Nah, let me be more honest than that: it’s terrifying.
Years and years ago, I wrote a book. It was a BIG book. I wrote it mostly alone – only showed bits and pieces to my family, didn’t belong to any writers’ groups where I could read it aloud, never took it to an editor – and once it was done, I packaged it up and sent it to the publishing house that specialized in the book’s genre. The publisher kept it for a year and finally sent it back to me, with a nice note pointing out the flaws and expressing an interest in seeing it again in a revised form. I was over the moon. I sat down and whacked it out again – this was back in the day of typewriters and white-out, so you can imagine the sheer volume of paper I was going through – and when I thought I’d done what the publisher wanted, I sent it out again. More promptly this time, the publisher shot it back to me, with a less encouraging note: I hadn’t really incorporated what they’d asked for, and it was still TOO LONG, and good luck placing it with another publisher.
I wasn’t heartbroken, but I was stymied. I didn’t know how to make it shorter and I didn’t really understand why it didn’t work for them. I boxed the up manuscript up and put it away, along with all the copious notes and research that accompanied it. And I got on with my life.
But I never really put the the story away. I never really stopped writing it. In quiet moments I’d find myself wondering what would happen if Character 1 did this? What if Character 2 went there? What if Character 3 disappeared entirely? Sometimes I’d actually write little dribbles and drabbles – God alone knows what became of them. But then personal computers came along, and with them a new kind of freedom: freedom from typewriter ribbons and white-out and the reams and reams of paper. One could edit right there on the screen. One could shift paragraphs or even whole chapters around with a click of a key. One could actually write stuff and keep it, with no file folders or ring binders or the incrimating evidence of crumpled wads of paper. Oh, and the Internet! When the Internet came along, I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. Now if I needed to know something (such as the Icelandic word for fish – don ‘t ask), I could look it up right then and there. I continued to write my dribbles and drabbles, but I felt what I was writing had some honest-to-goodness veracity at last.
And I’d gotten older, a LOT older, and maybe I’d gotten some veracity at last, too, or at least a thicker hide. (You don’t spend twenty-something years in show business without getting used to the idea that no matter what you do, someone is always going to think you suck.) So during a recent between-shows lull, I got the manuscript out and forced myself to read it through. A lot of it made me wince – it was so stately and earnest – but the germ of a good story was still there. So I started to write again. I’ve spent almost a year rewriting the book.
I was still writing in a vacuum of my own creation – I mentioned the book to some trusted friends, but didn’t let them read any of it. I joined a couple of online writers’ groups and read their posts assiduously, but contributed nothing of my own. God bless my husband; he is as private a person as I am (mostly) public, and he left me alone while I wrote, not asking for explanations or evidence or even results.
But one can’t write in a vacuum forever – I mean, the cycle isn’t complete until the writer finds a reader, is it? The thought of having someone read my book still made me all sweaty and anxious, and I knew I had to get over it. I’d already floated one scene of a play I’d written past a group of playwrights – a play I wasn’t deeply invested in, a play that could be the sacrificial lamb on the altar of my fear – and wonder of wonders, while the playwrights hadn’t been exactly thrilled with it, they hadn’t been cruel, either. And I had survived.
So I did more reading, more research, but this time on the nuts and bolts of publishing. And I discovered things had changed, and changed drastically, since the day some thirty years ago that I’d flung my manuscript over the transom into a publisher’s lap. One of the books I read recommended attending a writers’ conference, so I researched those. I narrowed my options down and chose one.
And that conference will be the topic of my next post. Stay tuned.