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Sunday, March 28, 2010

What got me to my first writers’ conference

I went to my first writers' conference last month. To normal people, that may not sound momentous; after all, anyone serious about making it's going to attend one before they get too far along in this masochistic so-called lifestyle we call Writing.

But I was one of Bob Webb's best 8th grade English students ever. I never got less than a B in the subject and even tested out of college English after only three years of it in high school. I rarely failed at anything I really put my mind to, so I wrote and began pitching my novel using only my obvious gift (for those just joining us, Sarcasm and I go way back) and "common sense" for guidance.

After six years of writing and two years of sending queries I'm now too embarrassed to detail, I'd gone partway down so many paths I thought led to publication, I was hopelessly lost in the woods. It was time to ask for help. So, last fall, I registered for Algonkian's San Francisco Write and Pitch conference.

Unexpectedly, "things" began changing immediately, months before the conference—all of them internal. Registering for it had been my Step One: I'd admitted I had a problem. I was going nowhere.

I'd been reticent to Reading about Writing. I've lived a very blessed life by following my gifts, and had long been convinced that having a gift for something and having that thing come easily were one and the same—that, if someone's really meant for something, their time's always best spent just doing it.

But success is an alloy of Talent, Training, and Trial. Yes, we've already discussed my formidable Talent (ad nauseum), and yes, I exposed myself to all the Training a prodigy like me really needed (the Cliff's Notes on Getting Published for Dummies), so all that seemed to remain was to make the Publishing World aware they could, for a price, tap into my wellspring of Genius.

Like an Ebay auctioneer hawking a Messianic image in a slice of cinnamon toast, I was wildly overestimating either my product's intrinsic value and/or the effectiveness of my marketing strategy, if not both, and nothing was going to change before I did.

So, with months to go before the conference, I cut snippets from my novel, query letter(s) and synopsis to complete the "strongly suggested" evaluation of my project and tried to be patient awaiting the response. I'd submitted my writing to two other such "evaluations" before: one was for acceptance to another Algonkian conference in New York, called the Pitch and Shop, and the other to query service Writers' Relief. Both had accepted me without reservation (which so stroked my paranoid streak that I chickened out each time), so I was expecting a largely "encouraging" response to this deep analysis of my product.

While I waited, I immersed myself in reading blogs, sites, magazines, and books about Writing, or, more accurately, getting Writing published, with particular emphasis on platform construction. I went on Absolute Write daily for months, put up a website and this blog and later began my highly worthwhile experience with Twitter. I began to understand that the greatest writer in the world would remain obscure until and unless he learned how to get his Word out the right way.

My queries weren't queries but trite, amateurish, gimmicky short synopses that weren't even all that short. My project was a "genre-bending, thrilling saga" that I clearly felt deserved its own little corner at Borders (right beside the "New Adult" section, perhaps). Worst of all, I'd written a frightening monster of a novel just this side of Stephen King's It, and mine apparently had a voracious appetite for form rejections.

At some point over "The Winter I Read Instead," I finally made peace with the idea that my 166,000-word novel-that-ate-New York would never be published, even if any of the red herrings I'd dreamt up to "make a name for myself first" with something simpler, something easier, something smaller, something non-fiction, or something self-published, ever bore fruit. It may have even been the day I helped Jane Friedman get her luggage back from England. I think "hearing" her polite shock at my project's size is what snapped me out of it.

I had to cut it down to size if I wanted ever to share it with the world.

I'd start as soon as Algonkian got back to me with my evaluation. I'd be in training for my day job for all of January anyway, and my right brain would be in stasis.


  1. Heartening to read that you finally surrendered to the reality that talent is raw, it must be brought to culinary perfection by a chef. Training (Education) without talent produces "hacks," but talent without training produces frustrated performers/artists/do-ers of all kinds. Good for you.

  2. :) I love reading this story from its beginnings. Fascinating to see where I popped into view. Look forward to seeing more from you on the blog.


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