July 30–August 1, I attended the Pacific Northwest Writers Association’s annual conference at the Hilton Conference Center next to the SeaTac airport. I want to give a full report, which will make it long, so I decided to break it up by subject:
- General impressions about the conference
- Session 1 — Organizing a writing group
- Session 2 — The DNA of screenwriting
- Sessions 3 and 4 — Agents forums
- Session 5 — Romance 101
- Session 6 — From novel to script
- Session 7 — Knowing when to seek publication
- Session 8 — Selling in the first 3 pages
- Pitching to a real agent
The good stuff is at the bottom. 😉
General Impressions about the conference
I debated whether this would be better at the top or the bottom of this group of posts, but finally decided it belonged here. The conference was four days long. Each day was broken into time blocks, most of which offered a choice from multiple sessions. Presenters were either local published authors (and members of PNWA) or they were specialist in their field, agents, or editors. Lunches and dinners (some of which required the purchase of an extra ticket) nearly all included a presentation by a bigger name author and an opportunity to get books autographed afterward.
One of the primary reasons to attend a conference like this is the opportunity to meet other writers. I was completely overwhelmed on the first day. I’m really not willingly social, so striking up conversations with complete strangers was hard and awkward. It got a lot easier over the three days I attended though. I met some really nice people, including a couple I hope to keep in touch with. So I’d say that was successful.
The conference was held in the Hilton Conference Center at the Hilton Hotel down near the airport. I was mostly impressed with the center. The staff was phenomenal. It stayed clean; there was always plenty of water; they were always set up and ready to go on time; the bathrooms were always well maintained; and the air conditioning worked well. The continental breakfasts were plentiful and of good quality, with all the necessary accouterments.
I didn’t love the parking. It was easy, and it was a private lot, but it had no in-and-out privilege during the day, which meant I had to eat at the hotel, and that was EXPENSIVE. I got a salad and a side of fries for lunch on Saturday, and the bill was over $30. I also didn’t love the chairs they had in the rooms. They were too low, and my knees hurt. People I’m short with short legs. Normal height and tall people were really suffering. Also there were almost no tables anywhere. That made it hard to eat lunch and pretty much impossible to work on a laptop. The Wi-Fi required a user name and password.
The conference was hosted by the Pacific Northwest Writers Association, and they did an excellent job. Truly. They attracted a terrific panel of agents and editors, and everything was VERY well organized. If there were organizational problems, I didn’t see them — and I commend them for that. They made it very easy to check in, to change appointments, to ask questions, and to pay for parking. And they smiled the whole time too!
There were a variety of sessions offered. They had sessions for fiction, nonfiction, poetry, screenwriting, publishing, and the business side of writing, but my impression was that most of them — if not all of them — were very basic. I couldn’t understand that. Many of the attendees were veteran conference attendees, and I just couldn’t see how they would be interested in search basic information. I honestly felt like I didn’t learn much NEW information in the sessions.
Here would be my recommendations for improvements:
- First, have more hands-on workshops. Limit the size, and require people to sign up ahead of time, but provide an opportunity to apply the tips we’re learning.
- Maximize the opportunity for agents to provide feedback on queries, first pages, and pitches.
- Offer a basic track or have a slew of intro sessions on the first day, but then raise the level of the remaining courses. Beginners WILL benefit — it won’t be too much for them.
- Have more rooms, and offer more choices on the specific tracks. Screenwriting had just two offerings. Poetry one. Graphic novels one, which was canceled.
- PLEASE have tables — tables in the rooms (instead of just chairs) and tables where we can plug in our laptops or eat lunch.
- Have protein options in the breakfast buffet.
Honestly, my impressions are positive. I had a good time, and I will definitely go again next year, if I have the money. I recommend it, and I give PNWA huge kudos for such a well-organized conference.
Session 1 — Organizing a writing group
I occasionally participate in an online critique group, and I’ve toyed with the idea of joining an in-person group in my area. (Problem is distance. The people I really want to form a group with don’t live anywhere near here.) So I wasn’t really expecting to get much out of this session. It turned out to be one of my favorites though.
The presenter was Leslie Adkins, and she’s really good. She knows her stuff, had excellent handouts, and was a very engaging, effective presenter. A+! I’ll probably hang on to her handouts, in fact, something I’m not planning to do with the rest of them. I’m not going to reproduce her handouts here, but I can hit the highlights.
First and foremost, you have to have clears goals. You need to define what YOU want from a group, and then you need to ensure that the group you find meets those goals. If it doesn’t, don’t join. It’s not unusual for a group’s goals — or your personal goals — to change over time. If your group stops working for you, leave! And if a group ever, ever, ever makes you feel bad — if you end up crying — it’s a deal breaker. LEAVE.
Writers groups are there to provide feedback and help. They are not there to validate you.
If you’re organizing a writing group or even joining one, things to keep in mind include:
- Makeup and number of the group. Number relates to how much time individuals will get for their work to be critiqued.
- Logistics such as where to meet, when to meet, how often to meet, and ho long to meet.
- Consider the number of pages to be discussed at each meeting, how much time an individual will get, and whether pages will be read aloud. (The importance of having your pages read aloud was emphasized in a number of sessions.)
- Is there a leader? How are administrative details handled? How are new members added and what happens if the group wants someone to leave?
- Know specifically what will happen when you meet.
Session 2 — The DNA of screenwriting
This was the first of two screenwriting sessions offered at the conference. The presenter was a guy named Ted Russell Neff. He is a big proponent of a program called Writer’s Bootcamp, and he used to teach full course on Robert KcKee’s book Story. I am convinced that Story is the best book on writing ever written, so that won points with me. I haven’t attended Writer’s Bootcamp, but it sounds interesting.
He gave a pretty good presentation, though it was largely regurgitated elements from bootcamp and Story. That kind of bugged me. I wanted to hear HIS thoughts, not Robert McKee’s.
Some of the interesting things he talked about:
- Genre. Only four genres (which have lots and lots of sub-genres) are currently selling in Hollywood: action, comedy, horror, and thriller. Drama is a the kiss of death. I would love for this not to be true since I write dramas, but all I have to do is look at the screen. Animation, sci-fi, and other expensive genres are selling but only from established writers. No one in Hollywood is putting that kind of budget money down on a complete unknown!
- Unique premise. No notes on this, sorry. It’s probably pretty self-explanatory though.
- Research. You have to be accurate. Research feeds creativity, and creativity inspires research. Viewers want to learn something new. No matter where you set your film or what unique aspect you have in it, include a little information the view wouldn’t have already known so it will feel fresh.
- Scene breakdown. Scripts from newcomers should be between 95 and 105 pages, and there is a very strict formula for when certain events have to happen. A movie should contain 40-60 scenes, with more (shorter, faster) scenes toward the end than in the beginning.
- Unique voice. How do you see the world differently?
- Conflict, complication, and complexity. Conflict can be internal, external, or personal. Complication is conflict on two levels at the same time. Complexity is conflict on all three levels at the same time. He discussed the concept of the “gap,” which is a disparity between what the audience expects and what happens. It’s important to give the audience what it wants but not in the way they expect it.
- “Premature imagination.” Too many writers write their screenplays before they know their story well enough. Unlike novels, this is a field where you need to do a lot of planning on the front end.
- Read screenplays. Best way to learn to write a screenplay is to read examples of good ones. Start with the screenplays that won Oscars for Best Screenplay!
- Dynamic character. You have a protagonist and an antagonist. A dynamic character is a third character who comes in and adds to the complexity. They are a catalyst.
- Law of diminishing returns. The more we experience something, the less effect it has. This is why the next explosion has to be bigger, and the next bigger still.
- A good movie could be watched with the sound off, and it would still be clear. A good TV show would make sense if you couldn’t see the set. TV is radio with pictures.
Sessions 3 and 4 — Agents forums
In the first session, only four agents were present — Rita Rosenkranz, Meg Ruley, Paul Fedorko, and Matthew Mahoney. There was a moderator who asked them questions about the querying and submission processes, and then there was question and answer time.
The second session included all of the agents — roughly 20 of them — in a panel, again, led my a moderators. In this one, he asked a prepared question and had two of the agents answer it, then asked the next question. This session also had a Q&A period at the end.
I read a LOT of agent blogs, and so there wasn’t much discussed in these forums that I hadn’t heard before. That means I have little in the way of notes. Sorry. Honestly, if you’re interested in publishing a novel, you should be reading every agent blog you can find. That’s the best way to both learn the basics and find out what’s happening in publishing right now.
My skimpy notes consist primarily of a few tips for query letters, but there are a few other tips in there as well:
- One agent wants to have a “big picture” intro — title, word count, genre, and a one sentence description of what the story is about — followed by the “little picture, paragraph or two describing the book.
- Query letters should be less than one page in length. They have three parts: about the book (one paragraph), more detailed description of the book (1-2 paragraphs), and info about you (one paragraph).
- The query letter should be more about the book itself than about you and why you wrote the book.
- If you’ve been previously published, mention that.
- If you book is similar to books by a certain author or similar to a book the agent reps, mention that. Do NOT say “My book is better than” a book or author.
- What are agents immediately attracted to? A strong voice that compels them to read the pages.
- Agents want you to communicate your enthusiasm. What were you so excited about that it compelled you to write a whole novel about it?
- Novels need to have memorable characters. When people think about their favorite books, they don’t remember events — they remember characters.
- If you query an agent you met at a conference, mention that in the query letter. It grabs their attention.
- They also recommend targeting agents by finding books that are similar to yours and then reading the Acknowledgment pages to find out who the author’s agent is. Then mention that in the query letter. Again, it grabs their attention.
After these sessions, there was an editors forum. I skipped that to work on my pitch, because I’m far, far away from submitting to an editor and what they’re buying now simply won’t be what they’re buying then.
Session 5 — Romance 101
This was a fun session, even though I don’t write romance. The presenters were Deborah Schneider and Kate Austin — and they were delightful. Particularly Kate. She’s a hoot! We laughed uproariously throughout this session. Did you know 52% of ALL books sold are romances? WOW!
They started with definitions of lots of genres and sub-genres, including some not in the romance world. This was basic, but surprisingly helpful and enjoyable.
Then they focused more on the romance world. If you’re interested in writing romances, you need to read the type of romance you want to write, and you must LOVE it. If you don’t love it, aren’t passionate about it, the publishers will know it, and you won’t get published.
If you’re getting started, head to Harlequin. They publish some huge percentage of the romance books — something like 70%. (90%?) They have lots of different lines, and you need to know which ones are right for you. Many of their lines sell bigger outside of the US than in the US. Asia and the Middle East buy millions of romances and erotica.
The Harlequin Web site is a terrific resource for new romance writers. There is a supportive forum and lots of very clear guidelines. They also said the company works frequently with new writers — who don’t need to be agented — and that their contract terms are very fair. They also recommended that you read the Romantic Times and subscribe to their online newsletter.
Session 6 — From novel to script
I wrote my novel-in-progress as a screenplay before I began to novelize it — the opposite of what this session was about — but I thought I’d find the session interesting anyway. The presenter couldn’t get the projector to work with her Mac, and she didn’t have handouts, so I’m going entirely from memory here!
The session was pretty basic. She told people what software to us (Final Draft) to write a screenplay, recommended a source for contact information (Creative Hollywood Directory), and recommended that people enter contests, particularly the Nicholl Fellowship.
She emphasized that it’s a lot easier to get a novel published and then sell it as a screenplay than to sell the screenplay on its own, if you’re not already part of the Hollywood scene. I’d heard that advice before from industry insiders, and I have no doubt it’s true. That disappointed a lot of the attendees, though, whom I think saw screenwriting as an easier path than getting a novel published.
One interesting thing that came up is that if you do not publish the novel and do sell the screenplay, you lose the rights to the story. You cannot publish that novel later (without permission), even if they don’t make the movie. Publish FIRST — even self-publish — if you want to own the story.
She discussed craft as well. First, writers have to identify the soul of their story — the main story they will tell in their screenplay. It may be — will likely be — only a portion of the novel. Screenplays from new writers have a limited number of pages and it’s not a lot of space for complex stories and lots of subplots.
She also discussed what information to include in the screenplay itself. Screenplays are a MUCH different animal from a novel. In a novel you include thoughts and concrete descriptions and dialogue tags and character actions because the “end user” will be reading your text. The “end user” won’t be reading your screenplay, though. They’ll be watching a movie. Your screenplay needs to give enough for the director and actor to work with, but no more. You cannot direct for the director or act for the actor. Your screenplay is just a… set of guidelines, of suggestions… that many other people will use to build a final product that is a joint venture. It’s not even a blueprint, because every person who touches it will modify it and add bits of themselves.
Session 7 — Knowing when to seek publication
Of the sessions I’m telling you about, this was my least favorite. I found the presented to be disorganized. To be fair, though, I talked to another attendee, and she raved about — it was one of her favorites. So I guess it comes down to personal preferences.
The presenter was agent Elizabeth Wales, the only Seattle-based agent attending the conference. (Most were from NYC.) Based on what she said in this session, I bet she reps primarily literary fiction, and she steers away from books that are too sweet. She hated Bridges from Madison County, for example. She definitely would not be the right agent for me — which is good to know!
Although it wasn’t my favorite session, there was definitely good information shared. She discussed the percentage of books from her clients that an agent will be able to sell. She said it’s generally about 75%. If an agent claims to sell 100% of the books he takes on, she says it’s for one of two reasons:
- He may have a full list and only be selling books from established authors.
- He is taking absolutely no chances.
At the other end of the spectrum, if an agent is selling 50% or fewer of the books he takes on, then there’s something wonky. It may be that he doesn’t have enough contacts in the publishing industry.
She said there are four stages of writing: gestation, creation, revision, and out into the world. No one can help a writer with the first two stages. Very often problems result because the writer didn’t know enough about his story — gestation — before he moved into creation — or even into revision.
She spoke a lot about revision and how to be certain your prose was the best it could be. She talked about Elmore Leonard’s Rules for Writers and quoted someone who said “If I read it, and it still sounds like writing, I write it again.” My favorite advice was to write until changing or removing even one word would change the meaning.
Her agency has test readers read the books, and then they give them a questionnaire. They want to know if the book held their interest, where their interest lagged, and how it emotionally affected them. She said that some readers clearly just don’t “get” the book — and that’s okay. They tend to disregard that feedback because that isn’t the audience for the book. No book will be for everyone!
Session 8 — Selling in the first 3 pages
This session was led by two agents, Rita Rosenkranz and Meg Ruley. They decided to change it a little and rather than looking at the first two or three pages, they concentrated solely on page one. People who attended this session had the option of submitting — anonymously — the first page of their novel. They got a HUGE stack, and I was so worried that mine wouldn’t get pulled out. Turns out mine was the first one read.
The agents took turns reading a first page. After they read it aloud, they would both critique it and explain why they would or wouldn’t continue reading. (Actually, they said in real life it was rare that they wouldn’t read past the first page unless it was just glaringly clear that the work wasn’t for them. However, they might read only the first few pages. A story has to hook them from the very beginning. If it doesn’t — or if it loses their interest at any point during the story, they WILL stop reading and reject.
Mine was the first one chosen… and they loved it!! It was one of only two that they both loved unequivocally, and mine was mentioned repeatedly, both by the agents and by people in the audience. I was floating on air!! It’s so nice to get that kind of validation.
Here’s the first page of my novel:
Thwap, thwap, thwap. Lucas’s footsteps pounded a staccato rhythm along the trail: you’re late, you’re late, you’re late. “I’m going as fast as I can,” he muttered, but he pushed his legs faster, hurdling fallen branches and zigzagging through close-packed trees. When the scrub cedar opened up to overgrown pasture, he twisted around and jogged backwards a few steps. “River! Here, boy!”
After much cracking of underbrush and one loud crash, a black head popped out from under a low branch. Ears perked and tongue lolling, the dog paused just a moment before launching himself into the field. Lucas shook his head and shifted into an all-out sprint. The retriever appeared and loped beside him for a few strides, weaving through thatches of Johnson grass beaten nearly flat by late-season storms and winter cold, then shifted into a gallop and disappeared into thicker weeds. When Lucas reached the far side of the field, the dog had his head buried in a rabbit warren near a fork in the trail.
The boy bent over and sucked in deep breaths of cold air. “Show-off,” he grumbled. “If I could run that fast, we’d be there by now.” River sniffed the air, then plopped his butt on the ground and scratched his ear.
Pitching to a real agent
After the session on selling in the first three pages, I attended one more session, but I’m not going to name it or tell you about it because it was deadly boring. I spent most of that time practicing my pitch.
Each conference fee entitles the attendee to a one-on-one pitch meeting with an agent. A pitch is a verbal query. For novels and nonfiction books, pitches are pretty much done only at conferences. Almost never (if ever) would an agent sign a client as the result of a verbal pitch. The agent needs to read the manuscript — the whole manuscript. The best a writer can hope for is for the agent to request pages, which is exactly the same thing a writer hopes for when they query an agent via e-mail or snail mail.
Agents probably request pages from a higher percentage of “pitchers” than from those who query, if only because it’s easier to say no when you’re not face-to-face, but that doesn’t mean you’re any more likely to be taken on as a client. There are examples of writers who have ultimately gotten their agent after their pages are requested at a verbal pitch, but it’s really no more common than those who got their agent after querying.
My novel is clearly nowhere near ready for submission, but I decided to pitch since it was included in the conference fee. I picked agent Matthew Mahoney because he repped “literary/commercial fiction” which is how I classified my story — mainstream, the sort that’s filed in the general fiction area of a bookstore — and because he likes southern novels like mine.
A pitch is similar to what you’d put in a query letter. It has to be short — maybe 30 seconds? — and the job is to make the agent want to read the pages. The pitch meeting is kept very strictly to 10 minutes, so you have just enough time to break the ice, pitch, and answer a few questions. Here’s the pitch I gave. (By the way, the title keeps changing. I can’t settle on one I like.)
PROMISES I MUST KEEP, a novel for the mainstream fiction market, is a story of hope and healing in which three generations of an estranged family come together to fulfill a father’s last promise to his son.
Nearly 20 years after running away, Charm Freeman returns home after his younger brother, Jake, is killed in a car accident and gets drawn into his 10-year-old nephew’s plan to save his crumbling family. Moments before he died, Jake told his son that when the dog they are training wins the local field trial, their problems will be over. After Jake’s death, the boy clings to those words as a light in the darkness.
Though logic tells them that winning a field trial can’t bring back Jake or resolve even part of their financial problems, Charm and the boy embark on a journey to turn an injured retriever into a champion. To pull it off, they’ll need to unify their estranged family, coax a reluctant chicken trainer out of retirement, and convince the entire town to help them, and they’ll come to realize that sometimes dreams come true in ways you never expect.
Okay, yeah, that last line seriously sucked. I learned two REALLY valuable things from talking to him.
First, because my story can be classified as a “dog story,” I’m going to have to find an agent who loves dogs. Matthew isn’t a dog person, and he said the story wouldn’t be for him because of that element. I understood this, because, for example, I’m not a sports person. I thought the movie “Rudy” was supremely boring because of the football element — couldn’t get past the sports to the meat of the story.
Second, he taught me the term “upmarket.” Upmarket is the category between commercial (genre) fiction and literary fiction. He needed to know that in order to know how to sell my story. He told me it would be really helpful for me to be able to say what other books it would be shelved with — similar books — so he could better target a publisher.
He took the time to read a bit of the manuscript and said it was excellently written, which was nice. I could see, though, that he didn’t have the PASSION for it I would want from my agent.
So I guess, in summary, I got validation of my writing skill from “gatekeepers,” and I learned some things I need to do to sell the book when I’m ready to submit. I’d say that was a successful conference!